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

Monday, 28 June 2021

Miskatonic Monday #67: Prisoners' Dilemma

 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.


Publisher: Chaosium, Inc.
Author: Aaron Sinner and Todd Walden

Setting: Soviet Era Russia

Product: One-shot survival horror
What You Get: Fifty-five page, 30.90 MB Full Colour PDF

Elevator Pitch: Soviet Era Survival Horror.
Plot Hook: Some horrors lie outside the Gulag.
Plot Support: Detailed plot, four decent handouts, five maps, three pre-generated Investigators, and a new thing from beyond. 
Production Values: Good.

# Soviet Era Survival Horror
Pre-generated prisoners 
# Environmental survival horror
# Challenging NPCs for the Keeper to roleplay
# Challenging NPCs for the Investigators to interact with
# Scope for conflict between the Investigators
# Short, tightly plotted, one or two session one-shot
# Inspired by real events, the Dyatlov Pass Incident
# Strong plot


# Linear, often heavy-handed plot
Limited scope for player agency
# Challenging NPCs for the Keeper to roleplay
# Challenging NPCs for the Investigators to interact with
# Scope for conflict between the Investigators
# Potential Total Party Kill

# Soviet Era Survival Horror
# Strong, but linear, and often heavy-handed plot
# Scope for conflict between the Investigators
# Nasty one-shot

Sunday, 27 June 2021

Dee's Dirty Half Dozen

England under the reign of Elizabeth Tudor is imperilled from all sides. From the Church of Rome and all of its adherent nations across Europe, as well as those within England who had not renounced their Catholicism and become members of the Church of England. And also from the supernatural and the practitioners of magick who grow stranger and more prevalent as the wall of blind faith that protected the country and the monarchy had been weakened. First, by her father, Henry VIII’s break from Rome, his establishment of the Church of England, and Dissolution of the Monasteries; second, by her sister, Queen Mary’s reestablishment of Catholicism in the country in an attempt to undo her father’s scheming; and third, by the schism in Christianity that would give rise to fanatics upon both sides. The resultant rise in magical and incidences of the supernatural were not seen as being due to a loss of faith, but to a rise in the practice of witchcraft, such that five years after succeeding to the throne, Queen Elizabeth passed an Act Against Conjurations, Enchantments and Witchcrafts, which particular made it a capital offence to employ magick to kill another and a felony to use it to maim or to consort with evil spirits, provoke love, or seek buried treasure. However, at the urging of Francis Walsingham, master of the Queen’s spy network in Europe, and Doctor John Dee, astrologer, alchemist, and companion in words to the Queen, she made an amendment—The Dee Sanction. This permitted the practice of magick in defence of the realm; it permitted those with heretical knowledge to work off their sentence in service to, and in protection of, Her Majesty; and it gave England a first line of defence against magick, its practitioners, and the supernatural. The fate of such agents would remain in the hands of Walsingham and Dee, their punishment abated—at least for the time being, and perhaps, just perhaps, despite what they have seen and what they have done, both in service of the Queen and before it, they might find absolution, they might have their sentences commuted.

This is the set-up for The Dee Sanction, a roleplaying game of ‘Covert Enochian Intelligence’ in which the Player Characters—or Agents of Dee—are drawn into adventures in magick and politics across supernatural Tudor Europe. Designed and published by the creator of The Cthulhu Hack following a successful Kickstarter campaign, it is a stripped back, Old School Renaissance-style (but not actual Old School Renaissance) roleplaying game of Tudor horror, investigation, and magic. The Agents of Dee, the Player Characters, are vulnerable and expendable, amateurs at best only slightly supernatural, criminals marked for death, and thus beneath the contempt of the privileged. They are duty bound to investigate and stop supernatural threats which could kill them, for should they run, they will be hunted and hanged for the criminals they are, and being expendable kept in the dark as to the truth of any situation or even any monster they might face, and ultimately if their efforts to stop the horrors and the supernatural which might threaten the realm fail, they are the ones to blame.

An Agent in The Dee Sanction is first defined by three Resources—Physicall, Intellectuall, and Supernaturall. These are rated by die type—initially a six-sided die for all, but one or more of these can be stepped down a die type in order to increase one or the other two according to the player’s preference. An Agent also has a Back Story which represents crucial steps in their life leading up to and beyond the point they stepped onto the black path that resulted in both their enlightenment and the dark mark on their soul. It also includes an Occupation, which provides a choice of eight Abilities, of which a player selects three; a damning Association and a Focus for enlightenment; and a Favour, a minor, very low key magical, Angelic means of influence that the Agent can bear upon the world. An Agent has Hits—how much harm he can withstand when wavering in face of Threats or Hazards; Unravelling, a further Resource which represents the balance of his humours, which can be upset through fear and exposure to the Unnatural; and lastly, a single Fortune token which allows a reroll. Elements such as the Back Story and Favour are determined randomly, either by rolling dice or drawing cards from a standard deck.

Mistress Conquest works the streets of London at night with a crew disposing of its rubbish. Always wanting to better herself and find a better place for women in general, in the discovery of a strange book— The Voynich Manuscript—she saw an opportunity to learn and perhaps gain knowledge that would help her. Unfortunately, she was able to learn little before the book’s previous owners came for her, but the members of The Octagon Society recognised her ambitions and believed that they could be aligned with their aims to find balance in both mind and spirit as a route to a higher purpose or form. She was able to learn a little before the society was rounded up as part of the enforcement of the Act Against Conjurations, Enchantments and Witchcrafts.

Janet Conquest
Intellectuall d8
Physicall d6
Supernaturall d4

Back Story
Occupation – Scavenger
Abilities – Scavenging, Night-Work, Astrology
Association – The Octagon Society
Focus – The Voynich Manuscript
Favour – Moisten (Stain, Spatter, Damp)

Hits 3
Unravelling d8
Fortune 1

Mechanically, The Dee Sanction has the feel of The Black Hack and Cthulhu Hack, but instead of deploying the standard attributes, uses its Resource mechanics instead. Thus whenever an Agent faces a Challenge, whether a Threat or a Hazard, his player rolls the appropriate Resource die. A roll of three or more and the Agent succeeds. However, if the result is a one or a two, the Challenge Falters and the Agent suffers a Consequence. This does not mean that an Agent has failed, but rather that his progress is slowed or achieved with unforeseen ramifications or a complication. In combat, this is typically not an unforeseen ramification but rather a loss of a Hit, but in other situations an Agent could be Humiliated with a social Challenge or Exhausted after an endurance Challenge. In addition, a Resource can be stepped up to the next higher die type or down to the next lower die type due to environmental factors, preparation, enemy power, and even Abilities. If the die type drops below d4, the Challenge becomes a Call to Fail, and the player has the option for his Agent to step back from the situation or take the Consequence. Combat is handled in a similar fashion, with a Moment representing a few seconds and initiative only failed on Falter. As with The Black Hack, the mechanics are player-facing, so in combat he rolls for his Agent to attack and to defend against attacks. A success on an attack and typically a single Hit is inflicted and a success on a defend, the Agent avoids harm, but suffers it on a Falter. If an Agent is reduced to zero Hits, he is dying and if his player rolls a Falter three times he dies. Otherwise, he is Out of Action and suffers a Consequence of the Game Master’s choice.

The Dee Sanction being a horror roleplaying game has its equivalent of a Sanity mechanic, in its case, the Unravelling. When the uniformity of belief divided and called into question and the Dissolution of the Monasteries scouring England’s symbols of belief, the Unravelling began… Across the country, in dense and trackless forest, along stretches of rambling roads, and within the ruins of broken churches and abbeys, somethings otherworldly snaked into the mortal world, Chaos blossomed in dark places, and there have been many nights when the Wild Hunt rides out. Exposure to unnatural horrors, rampant chaos, or the influence of other worlds is disruptive, traumatic, and unsettling, and when an Agent encounters the inhuman, the abhorrent, and the impossible, his player rolls the Unravelling Resource. Again, rolls of three or more and the Agent has the mental and perhaps moral fortitude to withstand the otherwise horrid effects of the unnatural, whilst a roll of one or two indicates a Falter. Where in other situations, a Falter indicates a success with complications, when facing the otherworldly, a Falter indicates that the Agent has suffered mental, soul scouring complications and one of his Humours has been upset. Not only is the Agent’s Unravelling die stepped down to its next lower step, the Agent suffers an Immediate Effect which lasts for a scene and an Ongoing Consequence which lasts until the Agent has had an overnight rest. Major frights may require the Unravelling die to be stepped down before the roll is made!
For example, Mistress Conquest has been directed to investigate sightings of a pony with blazing eyes in the Queen’s forests to the south. Near the village of Allum Green, she sets out to locate and confirm the truth of the matter. The Game Master says that searching for signs at night is a Challenge and will force her Intellectuall Resource to be stepped down, but Mistress Conquest’s player suggests that her Night-Work Ability would help in the situation. The Game Master agrees and Mistress Conquest’s player rolls her full Intellectuall Resource die. The roll is successful and some hours later, Mistress Conquest comes across the strange beast in the middle of a track. As it turns and snorts at its new watcher, its eyes blaze with fire and Mistress Conquest is taken afrit. The Game Master asks her player to roll her Agent’s Unravelling die. Unfortunately, the result is a Falter and Mistress Conquest must suffer the effects. Her player rolls an eight-sided die for the Immediate Effect and a six-sided die for the Ongoing Consequence. Mistress Conquest’s Black Bile Humour is up and the Immediate Effect is that she is overwhelmed by extreme emotion, her eyes filling with tears, and her body given over to deep sobs. The Ongoing Consequence is that once her tears and sobs have dried up, she is struck Sullen into a resentful silence and despondent, having been scared by the unnatural beast.
Besides their own Abilities and Resources, the Agents have access to a number of tools and devices. One set is narrative in nature, the others not. The narrative tools are six broad influences in Tradecraft—Access, Conspiracy, Kit, Magic, System, and Vigilance. Access represents contacts and associations that the Agents can take advantage of; Conspiracy dealings with anything which questions the status quo and common sense; Kit, the right equipment or ingredient; Magic, knowledge of the Other World; System, the ability to work the country’s bureaucracy; and Vigilance, watchfulness, caution, and curiosity. Each facet of Tradecraft is a shared Resource between the Agents, and just the one is chosen at the beginning of each adventure or mission, representing how the Agents plan to deal with the unexpected or unknown they might encounter as part of their investigations. At the end of the mission, that facet is lost, whether it has been used as part of the Agents’ enquiries or not. Its primary use is to counter the Marks possessed by the enemies, hazards, and other threats that the Agents will encounter. Marks are narrative objectives, representing tasks that the Agents need to fulfil in order to successfully investigate and deal with a threat to the realm, and since only one can be addressed in each adventure, they lend themselves to play over the course of two or more adventures in dealing with a single mission.
For example, the Agents have been tasked with investigating the activities of one Sidney Montague, a student at Oxford who has been taking an interest in particular books at the college and so his tutors have alerted Doctor Dee. Montague’s mother regularly attends court and so has the favour of the Queen, so the Agents have to be careful in how they proceed. The Game Master sets three Marks. One is Conspiracy to determine what the Montague is bringing into his country retreat from the continent; the second is Kit, finding the right device to deal with the Barghest Montague has summoned and is roaming the forest; and the third is System, the Agents needing to obtain a signed and sealed legal writ giving them permission to search the house.
The other tools are magical devices which aid the Agents in their investigations. They each have a Black Seal or amulet which allows them to communicate with Dee from a distance and also eventually, understand other languages and they have access to Stone Houses, a series of refuges and sanctuaries across Europe and the Middle East, that only those wearing the Black Seal may enter. Dee himself has Mercator’s Void, used as part of scrying rituals, and he can send Mister Garland, a supernatural manifestation, either a ghost or even an archangel, to serve as a briefing officer for the Agents and a contact for Dee. Specifically, the designer notes that Mister Garland serves as the equivalent of the character Al from Quantum Leap and the miniature tape recorder from Mission: Impossible, and that is an indicator of the tone of The Dee Sanction. It is an investigative horror roleplaying game set in the Tudor period, but it is not written as a strictly historical roleplaying game. It is intended to be played more as a horror mystery television series set in the Tudor period of an alternate Europe which makes the elements of magick, conspiracies, and so on, are real. And the devices themselves are reskinned anachronisms which facilitate, but break neither the narrative nor the tone of the television series.

For the Game Master there is a listing of the major enemies of the Queen, including the Pope and the Catholic Church, Mary, Queen of Scots, the Fae of the Great Wood, and more, plus a short bestiary—with it being easy to add more from other sources, background information about the Tudor Age and on both Walsingham and Dee, advice on running the game and even on converting adventures and their plots from elsewhere. Notably, it highlights how fragile the Agents are, having only a few Hits and their Unravelling almost a certainty… It also suggests that the Agents and their players keep a journal, both as means to record their progress and suspicions, and perhaps a means of the Game Master to develop further adventures from, and also a way for a replacement Agent to come up to speed quickly in an investigation should one of them die! Rounding out The Dee Sanction is the one-shot, ‘Lost in Translation’. It takes place during the great tour of European courts undertaken by John Dee and Edward Kelley in pursuit of occult knowledge, with the Agents being sent to recover a lost relic whilst they are in Poland. In doing so, they confront the creeping incursion of the unnatural that has come about with the weakening of faith across the continent, and whilst there are political benefits to be gained from a successful outcome, they will not be without their consequences… It feels a little odd to have a scenario in a roleplaying game which focuses on Tudor England set on the continent, especially in the core book. That said, as a one-shot it is fine and it can be adjusted back to England if that is what the Game Master wants, plus it would work later on in a campaign which could go abroad. Despite it being a solid introduction to the setting, it would have been perhaps stronger in storytelling terms to have gone with the pilot for The Dee Sanction television series, that is, the ‘how the Agents got into this mess and this is how they get out of it’ story and explored that aspect of the setting a bit further.

Physically, The Dee Sanction comes as a handy, digest-sized supplement. It is perhaps a little busy in terms of its layout, with a lot of bold text and so it does need a closer read in places than its then obvious simplicity warrants. The artwork has a nicely idiosyncratic feel to it and overall, there is no denying the certain charm to its physical look and feel.

Despite some missed opportunities in the choice of scenario, The Dee Sanction is a fantastical little offering of desperate horror and occult investigative roleplaying in a different age, but one with which we will be familiar from our fascination with the period. It is thus easily accessible in terms of the setting, just as is its horror and its set-up, all eased by simple mechanics that both create interesting Agents and make game play quick.

Saturday, 26 June 2021

The Other OSR: In the Labyrinth

 It is impossible to ignore the influence of Dungeons & Dragons and the effect that its imprint has had on the gaming hobby. It remains the most popular roleplaying game some forty or more years since it was first published, and it is a design and a set-up which for many was their first experience of roleplaying—and one to which they return again and again. This explains the popularity of the Old School Renaissance and the many retroclones—roleplaying games which seek to emulate the mechanics and play style of previous editions Dungeons & Dragons—which that movement has spawned in the last fifteen years. Just as with the Indie Game movement before it began as an amateur endeavour, so did the Old School Renaissance, and just as with the Indie Game movement before it, many of the aspects of the Old School Renaissance are being adopted by mainstream roleplaying publishers who go on to publish retroclones of their own. Dungeon Crawl Classics Role Playing Game, published by Goodman Games is a perfect example of this. Other publishers have been around long enough for them to publish new editions of their games which originally appeared in the first few years of the hobby, whilst still others are taking their new, more contemporary games and mapping them onto the retroclone.

Yet there are other roleplaying games which draw upon the roleplaying games of the 1970s, part of the Old School Renaissance, but which may not necessarily draw directly upon Dungeons & Dragons. Some are new, like Forbidden Lands – Raiders & Rogues in a Cursed World and Classic Fantasy: Dungeoneering Adventures, d100 Style!, but others are almost as old as Dungeons & Dragons. One of these is The Fantasy Trip, published by Metagaming Concepts in 1980. Designed by Steve Jackson, this was a fantasy roleplaying game built around two earlier microgames, also designed by Steve Jackson, MicroGame #3: Melee in 1977 and MicroGame #6: Wizard in 1978. With the closure of Metagaming Concepts in 1983, The Fantasy Trip and its various titles went out of print. Steve Jackson would go on to found Steve Jackson Games and design further titles like Car Wars and Munchkin as well as the detailed, universal roleplaying game, GURPS. Then in December, 2017, Steve Jackson announced that he had got the rights back to The Fantasy Trip and then in April, 2019, following a successful Kickstarter campaign Steve Jackson Games republished The Fantasy Trip. The mascot version of The Fantasy Trip is of course, The Fantasy Trip: Legacy Edition

The Fantasy Trip: Legacy Edition is a big box of things, including the original two microgames. So instead of reviewing the deep box as a whole, it is worth examining the constituent parts of The Fantasy Trip: Legacy Edition one by one, delving ever deeper into its depths bit by bit. The first of these is Melee, quick to set up, quick to play game of man-to-man combat, followed by Wizard, which did exactly the same for sorcerers and other magic-users. The third part of this triumvirate is Death Test, which combined the two original scenarios‘Death Test’ and ‘Death Test 2’—both originally published as MicroQuest 1: Death Test and MicroQuest 1: Death Test 2 in 1980. bringing the trilogy of mini-boxed sets together is The Fantasy Trip: In the Labyrinth. This is not yet another mini-box, but a book which combines their content into one volume and expands upon with further rules, expansions, and options which lift Melee and Wizard up from being combat and magical skirmish games respectively into an actual roleplaying game. What it lacks though is the counters and maps to be found both in Melee and Wizard, but that is not an issue with The Fantasy Trip: Legacy Edition.

The Fantasy Trip: In the Labyrinth is a combination of three books for The Fantasy Trip. The first two are Advanced Melee and Advanced Wizard which provided expanded rules for Melee and Wizard respectively. The third is In the Labyrinth: Game Masters’ Campaign and Adventure Guide, published originally in 1980, which added a role-playing system and a fantasy-world background for the whole of The Fantasy Trip line, as well as introducing a point-buy skill system for the system as whole—rather than just spells in Wizard. The new version of In the Labyrinth collates all of that content into one supplement for The Fantasy Trip Legacy Edition. It includes rules for creating characters, the core mechanics, notes on designing labyrinths, rules for both advanced combat and advanced magic, and it introduces the setting of Cidri, including a lengthy bestiary. All that, that there are two notable aspects to In the Labyrinth. First, the Game Master and her players could just start with In the Labyrinth as their introduction to The Fantasy Trip, instead of Melee and Wizard (and Death Test). That might steepen the learning curve though, and there is something to be said of the experience of trying out the basics of both games prior to coming to In the Labyrinth, though the supplement does serve as the capstone for The Fantasy Trip. Second, In the Labyrinth and The Fantasy Trip look like any other generic fantasy system, but dig down into the mechanics and the setting details, and whilst on one level, it does look fairly generic—and could be run as generic fantasy, it really is quite a bit different.

After introducing and explaining the concept of roleplaying, In the Labyrinth introduces the world of Cidri. This is a large world with an Earth-like gravity and environments, which until a few hundred years ago was the playground of an ancient all-powerful race of dimension travellers called the Mnoren. It was one of many worlds they created before they disappeared, but this has many continents, many of them connected by magical gates, and many peoples imported from the original Earth. Consequently, historical faiths and cultures of Earth can be found on Cidri, so Vikings, Aztecs, Persians, Samurai, and so on, can all be found on the world—somewhere. As can adherents of Christianity, Islam, and Judaism, as well as those faith to gods and goddesses and pantheons unknown on Earth. Notably, whilst there are numerous faiths and religions to be found on Cidri, along with their priests, churches, and temples, the gods themselves do not appear in the world, and it is actually possible for the devout to achieve apotheosis. This mix of the fantastic and the real explains the cover to In the Labyrinth, which shows a wizard, a priest, a Norman knight, and a Roman legionnaire together best by monsters, a mix which otherwise be incongruous. What it also means is that almost any fantasy or historical setting can be dropped into the Cidri, such is the scale and scope of the planet.

In comparison to most fantasy settings, Cidri is relatively technologically advanced, gunpowder being known, but expensive—requiring dragon dung, and gunpowder weapons being unreliable. Despite these technological advances, magic is more prevalent and the Wizards’ Guild holds no little influence and power—far more than the Mechanicians’ Guild. Other guilds include the Thieves’ Guild, the Scholars’ Guild, the Mercenaries’ Guild. Alongside the guilds, In the Labyrinth covers various jobs and occupations which the Player Characters can have when not actually adventuring and so earn an honest (or dishonest depending upon occupation) income. 

A character in In the Labyrinth and thus The Fantasy Trip is defined by three attributes—Strength (ST),  Dexterity (DX), and Intelligence (IQ). Strength covers how many hits a character has, what weapons he can use, how effective he is in hand-to-hand combat, and for a Wizard, how many spells he can cast, each spell having a cost that is paid in Strength points, not only to cast the spell, but also maintain it if necessary. Dexterity covers how easily a Hero or Wizard can hit an opponent, disengage from the enemy, and how quickly he can attack. Intelligence governs the number of spells a Wizard knows, the maximum level of spells he knows—each spell has an IQ rating between eight and sixteen which the Wizard’s Intelligence must match for him to know, and his resistance to illusions and Control spells. With In the Labyrinth, Intelligence is also how many Talents a character knows. Both Heroes and Wizards can learn spells and Talents, but Heroes learn spells with great difficulty, just as Wizards learn Talents with great difficulty. 

In the Labyrinth and The Fantasy Trip is not a Class and Level system, but a Class and Spell or Talent system. It has only has the two Classes—Hero and Wizard. Yet, a Hero need not be the fighter of Melee and a Wizard need not be the classic adventuring wizard a la Dungeons & Dragons, guidelines being included to cover everything from the barbarian, the gadgeteer, and the merchant to the martial wizard, townsman wizard, and the wizardly thief. It is possible to create a priest, which can be a simple cleric or monk, or may actually know a limited number of spells. However, technically such priests would be Wizards with a Talent or two or a Hero who knows a spell or two. 

In the Labyrinth expands upon Wizard to include over one-hundred-and-fifty spells. These all have a minimum IQ rating to understand, from IQ 8 to IQ 20 and a ST cost to cast, and if necessary, to maintain. So they range from the simple Blur at IQ 8, a defensive spell which levies a penalty on DX when attacking the caster and costs 1 ST to cast and maintain to the IQ 20 Word of Command which costs 3 ST and affects those that fail their save for a whole minute. Typical words include ‘Believe’, ‘Come’, and ‘Quiet’, and the Wizard needs to learn the spell for each word. Similarly, it adds a range of Talents, which again have a minimum IQ rating for a character to know, from IQ 7 to IQ 14. These have a purchase cost, so the IQ 7 Talent of Brawling costs a point to purchase, whilst the IQ 14 Talent of Alchemy costs three points. Most grant the simple ability to use something like a knife or do something like diplomacy or undertake a profession such as Engineer or Theologian. Many Talents have prerequisites, so that Unarmed Combat I grants the ability to attack punches and kicks more effectively, and then Unarmed Combat II increases the effectiveness and adds ability to throw opponents or evade them, and so on up to Unarmed Combat V. 

To create a character, a player takes a base character with ST 8, DX 8, and IQ 8, and divides eight points between them with ten being the human average. Dwarves, Elves, Goblins, and Halflings have different starting values. Then, if a Wizard, the player has points equal to his character’s IQ with which to purchase spells, whilst similarly with a Hero, the player has points equal to his character’s IQ with which to purchase Talents. The process is relatively easy, but a random character generator is provided to speed the process up. 

Deodato Patriarca

Human – Hero – Healer
Motivation: Desire for adventure 

Appearance: Average (5)
Bravery: Brave (9)
Friendliness: Friendly (8)
Honesty: Less than truthful (5)
Mood: Shy (4)

Strength 08
Dexterity 12
Intelligence 12
MA 08

Talents: Diplomacy (1), Naturalist (1), Detect Lies (2), Physicker (2), Expert Naturalist (2), Woodsman (1), Courtly Graces (1), Unarmed Combat (1) 

Mechanically, In the Labyrinth and The Fantasy Trip are simple and straightforward. Whether a character undertakes an action, such as striking an opponent with a sword or following some tracks, or needs to make a Save to avoid an unpleasant or difficult situation, such withstanding the effects of a spell or dodging a falling log trap, his player rolls three six-sided dice and attempts to roll under the appropriate attribute. Rolls of three, four, and five indicate degrees of critical success, whilst rolls of sixteen, seventeen, and eighteen, indicate degrees of critical failure. The attribute may be adjusted, whether that is due to wearing armour or environmental conditions, but the main means of adjusting the difficulty of a task is by increasing or reducing the number of dice a player has to roll, and guidelines cover both critical successes and failures with the adjusted number of dice. It is simple and it is quick, and as a logical extension of both Melee and Wizard it presents a relatively easy learning curve.

Where In the Labyrinth and The Fantasy Trip becomes complex is in the advanced rules for both combat and magic. Advanced Combat is designed to cover just about every situation imaginable, starting from the combat order and options such as dodging, charging, disengaging, and casting spells to weapon types, fighting on broken ground, stairs, and in narrow tunnels, ambushes, unarmed combat, gunpowder bombs, taking prisoners, and more… The options are neatly explained and the Advanced Combat rules are backed up with a solid example of combat in play. Magic is treated as comprehensively in Advanced Magic. Thus types of spells—missile and thrown spells, control spells, illusions—including their limitations and even their disbelief by animals, and casting from both books and spells. Both of the latter take more time, but where casting from a scroll can be done in combat, casting from a book cannot. There is a complete guide to casting that most wanted spell, Wish, plus Advanced Magic takes the Wizard away from adventuring and into the laboratory with rules for alchemy, the enchantment of magical items, and more, accompanied by lists of potions and magical items that the Wizard can manufacture, or perhaps when adventuring, discover with his fellow Wizards and Heroes. 

Expanding upon Melee and Wizard, the bestiary for the world of Cidri in In the Labyrinth includes over hundred different entries, from humanoids, intelligent monsters, and ghosts, wights, and revenants to water creatures, plants, and nuisance creatures—the latter amusingly including children! All of the humanoid races are playable, with Orcs being more vicious rather than evil, Goblins being crafty and capable of giving and keeping their word rather than again being evil or nasty, and Gargoyles turn out to be tough and trustworthy, but distrust others because their gallbladders are used by alchemists in various different potions. The only addition to the humanoids on Cidri are the silly, annoying Prootwaddles, whilst the major addition to intelligent races are Octopi, which are capable of walking on land and wielding weapons and shields, but are cowardly, greedy, and dishonest! In the main, the various entries in In the Labyrinth’s bestiary will be familiar from other fantasy roleplaying games, but in many cases, there are little differences which will make adventuring on Cidri a different experience. So Vampires and Werewolves are actually suffering from a disease which they can pass on and can be cured of, and Wights, whilst undead, have a physical form that can attack and be attacked, and further, may not necessarily be evil. In some ways, it is this bestiary which showcases the default setting for The Fantasy Trip the best. 

In addition, In the Labyrinth includes rules and guidelines on creating and stocking labyrinths and on taking the game beyond the confines of such a labyrinth. Along with a few random tables to help stock both locations, these sections are relatively short, almost as if the actual labyrinths are not necessarily the focus despite the title of the supplement. There is a sample labyrinth included though, just a few locations and it is used in the example of combat later in the supplement. That said, the labyrinths do look weird done on hex maps rather than the square maps we are used to after decades of Dungeons & Dragons. Rounding out In the Labyrinth are descriptions of the village of Bendwyn and the Duchy of Dran in Southern Elyntia, both a couple of pages in length. These are very much a starting point for the prospective Game Master to develop, so a little basic, but nevertheless with a few hooks that she can employ. 

Physically, In the Labyrinth looks a little old-fashioned by being black and white throughout, and whilst the artwork varies in quality, some of it is excellent and some of it feels anachronistic in places. Nevertheless, it is a cleanly presented book and it is all very readable. 

Despite originally having been published in 1980, In the Labyrinth feels modern. Part of this is down to the presentation—clean, bright, and tidy, just as you would expect from Steve Jackson Games, but in the main, it is due to it being a point-buy system. In fact, one of the earliest of point-buy systems and probably one of the simplest. That simplicity is where In the Labyrinth shines, providing the means to run a fantasy roleplaying system that the Game Master and her group with a solid starting point upon which to add the advanced rules. The simplicity also provides a flexibility in terms character creation, suggestions being given to create numerous different types of character, but still only using what are effectively, two different Classes. Another reason that In the Labyrinth feels modern is that in its design can be seen the genesis of Steve Jackson Games’ other great roleplaying design—GURPS. So many of the elements of In the Labyrinth would go on to inform or even appear in one of the great generic point-buy roleplaying systems. 

As much as In the Labyrinth effectively explains and showcases the mechanics of The Fantasy Trip, it is less successful at showcasing the world of Cidri. At best the description of the giant multi-continent world of Cidri is an introduction to and explanation of why it is, but at worst, that explanation is bland and uninteresting. The problem here is that Cidri is presented as an every-world, a world that can have every historical setting in it plus fantasy, and whilst that gives the Game Master a lot of scope, it is also intimidating and it really does not give the Game Master a starting point. It should feel fantastic, but despite being fantasy, it does not. A more experienced Game Master will have less of a problem with this and be able to develop more of the setting herself, playing around with the potentially intriguing mix of real world and fantasy cultures rubbing up against each other. 

In the Labyrinth is a great supplement, packing a lot of well-explained and well-presented options into its pages. The result lifts the combat and magic-focused play of Melee and Wizard into a fully rounded The Fantasy Trip roleplaying game.

Friday, 25 June 2021

Monkey Island

In comparison to Tales from the Loop, there is relatively little support for its sequel, Things from the Flood. Both share a setting in Mälaröarna, the islands of Lake Mälaren, east of Stockholm, first in the 1980s and then in 1990s, the site of the Facility for Research in High Energy Physics—or ‘The Loop’—the world’s largest particle accelerator, constructed and run by the government agency, Riksenergi. Both are settings drawn from Simon Stålenhag’s artwork, Tales from the Loop contrasting an almost pastoral idyll against a hi-tech world of the Loop, robots, and skies filled with ‘magnetrine vessels’, freighters and slow liners whose engines repel against the Earth’s magnetic field, an effect only possible in northern latitudes. In Things from the Flood, the pastoral idyll has been spoiled, the lands around the Loop spoiled by a hot, brown liquid bubbling up out of the ground, Riksenergi being shut down and the Loop being sold off, robots suffering from a strange cancer, and the resulting economic crisis would lead to depression, personality changes, divorces, gambling disorders, and more… Where Tales from the Loop is positive in tone and has a fascination with technology, Things from the Flood is darker and has a fear of technology.

Thankfully for fans of Things from the Flood—and other titles from Free League Publishing, there is the Free League Workshop. Much like the DM’s Guild for Dungeons & Dragons, this is a platform for creators to publish and distribute their own original content, which means that they also have a space to showcase their creativity and their inventiveness, to do something different, and perhaps even surprise us. So it is with Shakespeare’s Monkeys.

Shakespeare’s Monkeys is a scenario for Things from the Flood, and whilst it does involve things, it does not involve either floods, Loops, or even Sweden. It is still set in the 1990s though, but Australia, rather than Sweden, and the Teens are still teenagers. It is the first in a series of adventures involving the efforts of the research company, Northstar R&D, led by its founding CEO, Jeremy Longstaff, which wants to bring some of the technological and scientific benefits, in particular, the magic of magnetite, from the Loops in Sweden and Boulder City, Nevada, to the Southern Hemisphere. It is a short, one or two session scenario set in the lakeside town of Jindabyne, a small tourist resort in the Snowy Mountains of New South Wales, Australia.

As the title suggests, the scenario concerns a monkey—or rather a troop of monkeys, or rather it starts with one monkey and then involves a whole lot of them. Perhaps one of the Teen finds out he has a really smart possum breaking into the garden shed for food, but it turns out to be a monkey or the Teens hear about (or encounter) some weird, hippy American asking questions about the new buildings on the island out in the lake or they even hear about monkey sightings round the town. Either way, the Teens will soon encounter a troop of monkeys about town and in particular, one monkey who appears to have been modified with an antenna and ultimately wants to make friends. However, the Teens will not be only ones interested in the monkeys, or rather the one monkey, and when they investigate further, they will discover the presence of the strange American in town and his interest in the buildings on the island on the lake. Ultimately, they will follow the clues out to the island and discover not only what is going on there, but also how it affects the monkey who has befriended them, as well as the other monkeys.

Shakespeare’s Monkeys is the first in a series of adventures for Things from the Flood and a fairly sad one at that. It is short, playable in a session or two, and in general, its well-explained plot is easily adapted to other settings—even back to Mälaröarna or Boulder City! This may be a solution to a problem which the author of the scenario fails to address, and that is its setting. In Things from the Flood—and before that, Tales from the Loop—there is background information on both the Sweden and the USA of the nineties and eighties, but Shakespeare’s Monkeys has none. Just as American culture and Swedish culture are different, so is that of Australia. Whilst there is a map of Jindabyne, there is no background given either. Which leaves the Game Master with a lot of information to research to get the setting right, unless both players and Game Master want to rely upon soap operas for their knowledge of Australia, or given the fact thatShakespeare’s Monkeys involves an intelligent animal, episodes of Skippy the Bush Kangaroo (which manages to feel simultaneously appropriate and inappropriate). Now to some extent, the players and their Game Master will construct some of the elements of the setting of Jindabyne around their characters, that is built into Things from the Flood, but to shift the roleplaying game to somewhere else and not provide this is an oversight.

Another consequence of the lack of background, is that the consequences to the scenario—not the conclusion—is underwritten. Again, the Game Master will need to work out what these are, but again that will be derived from whatever she and her players develop in terms of their setting.

Physically, Shakespeare’s Monkeys is a decently laid out document and follows the format for Things from the Flood. Some of the artwork is decent too, and the maps are nicely done. Ultimately, when coming to run and play Shakespeare’s Monkeys, the issue that both Game Master and players will have address is the fact that it is set in Australia and it does involve an animal, so that may lead to some humour around the table. The issues with the background and lack of it aside, Shakespeare’s Monkeys is a likeable enough scenario that offers the chance to explore the world of Things from the Flood from a different perspective.

Friday Fantasy: Voyage to Ambershine Isle

Isolated by nature and isolated by attitude and elitism, Ambershine Isle is known across the realm of Aashiyana for its illustrious academies and guilds, its power and influence which spreads far and wide—especially when it comes to the arts, and thus for its discerning critics and aesthetes whose opinions and tastes have the capacity to make an artist or a performer into one of the greats or cast him into obscurity. Every three years, Ambershine Isle holds the ‘Festival of Ambitions’, a magnificent gala which attracts the ambitious and the aspiring from across the realm, hoping to be picked from amongst the throngs and be recognised for their skill and their talent. Some are fortunate enough to have had their potential has already been noted by the isle’s academies and guilds and so been offered a magical invitation to Ambershine Isle. Others will have to make their own way there—whether one of the would-be artistes, or simply a merchant or grifter, wanting to take advantage of the ‘Festival of Ambitions’. However, the route to Ambershine Isle is not easy, leading across a series of atolls which only seasonally connect the mainland with the Isle and with the upcoming festival, is jammed with slowing moving carriages and crowds undertaking what is a pilgrimage to the arts, only further impeded by the tortuously complex bureaucracy at the gates to Ambershine Isle. There is another route though—across the Steaming Sea, but it takes a special ship to be able to withstand its corrosive waters and a special crew (or set of passengers) to hold off the dangerous aquatic monsters and pirates to be found in and on those waters. The Dreamer is that ship and those passengers are the Player Characters.

This is the set-up for Voyage to Ambershine Isle, the inaugural scenario for the Aashiyana Campaign setting—Aashiyana being the Urdu word for home—from PanicNot!, a collective of creators based in Mumbai. Designed to be both run using Dungeons & Dragons & Fifth Edition and ‘Systems Agnostic’, both scenario and setting are inspired by inspired by South Asian—and specifically Indian—culture, with Voyage to Ambershine Isle being written for First Level characters and intended to be played in a session or two. Over the course of the adventure’s three acts, the Player Characters will get to know Captain Wannaba and his wife, First Mate Mistress Wannafi, the owners of The Dreamer, meet the passengers, deal with stowaways, face some of the Steaming Sea’s deadly wildlife, and get involved in one or two of the schemes of the passengers aboard the vessel.

Voyage to Ambershine Isle begins slowly, but quickly gets the action going. After an opportunity for the Player Characters and the NPCs to introduce themselves, discuss their future plans, and perhaps pick up a hint or two as the secrets and motives of others, The Dreamer—a converted garbage barge sitting in a mithral hull to withstand the corrosive waters of the Steaming Sea—lurches as its hits something—hard! As the captain and his wife attempt to bring the vessel under control, they call for help, tasks made all the more difficult by a horde of Steamed Crabs which scuttle aboard at the same time. The crustaceans seem particularly drawn to below decks and following in their wake into the cramped corridors and quarters, the Player Characters have opportunities for both combat in the close confines and the discovery or two of secrets belonging to both crew and passengers as they check the various cabins, quarters, and other spaces below deck. Eventually, the Player Characters will discover the cause of The Dreamer lurching—the hull has been pierced and plugged by a Giant Mithral Crab! The Player Characters are free to handle this encounter in any way they like and it is nicely explained, going over the various options and outcomes. This can involve combat or roleplaying, though there is an optimal solution to the situation.

Once the situation below has been sorted, the Game Master has two options, or routes, for the scenario’s third act. ‘Route A’ is the shorter of the two, intended to bring Voyage to Ambershine Isle to close if the playing group is short of time, perhaps if the Game Master is running it as a convention scenario. It is very much a case of ‘wham-bam and we are done’ with little in the way of Player Character input and so is the least satisfying. ‘Route B’ is the longer of the two, and sees the Player Characters involved with a passenger complaint—a theft. The situation is not too difficult to resolve and may benefit from the Player Characters’ investigations below deck earlier in the scenario. Again, the encounter is nicely explained and gives options for the outcome, one of which would be to run the first option, ‘Route A’ as the scenario’s big climax if things go really wrong—really wrong! Once the dust has settled, culprits apprehended, secrets revealed, and perhaps a mighty monster defeated (perhaps), the Player Characters will have arrived on the shores of Ambershine Isle.

In addition to the advice on managing the encounters in the first and second acts, the Game Master is given further support for Voyage to Ambershine Isle with a series of appendices. These provide the stats for all of the NPCs and monsters—motivations for each is given earlier in the text, deck plans for The Dreamer, descriptions of the magic items and loot to found in the adventure, a big set of URLs for links to ‘GM Resources’ to help her run the scenario, and a table of trinkets to be found aboard the ship. The list of Game Master resources is particularly useful if the Game Master has never run a combat or a roleplaying adventure set at sea before, but includes links to general advice also.

Voyage to Ambershine Isle is not badly laid out and it makes good use of its art, as well as sporting the rather fetching painting of a Dutch Ship by Utagawa Yoshitomi. The scenario needs a tighter edit in places, but is otherwise well written and easy to understand.

The main issue with Voyage to Ambershine Isle is its brevity. It is too short to really get a feel of the Aashiyana setting and what makes it different from any other campaign other than it being from a collective of Mumbai-based authors. This is not necessarily to criticise the adventure itself, which though short, is action-packed and has plenty of opportunities for both roleplaying and investigation. Perhaps the best way to showcase the Aashiyana setting would have included some pre-generated Player Characters, each with their own motivations for wanting to go to Ambershine Isle and attend the ‘Festival of Ambitions’. As a short, sea-based adventure, Voyage to Ambershine Isle is pretty good and easily adapted to the setting of the Game Master’s choice, the encounter advice very much helping with that. For example, 50 Fathoms for Savage Worlds would be a suitable setting for it.

As the first scenario from new publisher PanicNot!, Voyage to Ambershine Isle is a short, but exciting combination of roleplaying, investigation, and combat, backed up with solid support for the Game Master. As an introduction to the Aashiyana setting Voyage to Ambershine Isle is underwritten and needs something more to really entice either Game Master or her players.

Monday, 21 June 2021

Miskatonic Monday #66: The Folly of Ponsonby-Wild

 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.


Publisher: Chaosium, Inc.
Author: Iain Ross

Setting: Jazz Age Britain

Product: Hotel Horror Mystery Scenario
What You Get: Forty-two page, 7.98 MB Full Colour PDF

Elevator Pitch: West Country Weirdness.
Plot Hook: A widow in need, a husband’s legacy shrouded...
Plot Support: Plot outline, five decent handouts, five maps, five pre-generated Investigators, and a new servitor of a new Old One. 
Production Values: Decent.

# Part One of a Very British Horror
# Introductory scenario 
# Nicely illustrated with period photographs
# Nice array of curios and details
# Cosy Call of Cthulhu
# Short, tightly plotted, one or two session scenario


# Underwhelming maps
Needs editing
# Anachronisms ahoy
Overwhelming climax for an introductory scenario

# Underwhelming maps
# Needs editing
# Short, tightly plotted, one or two session scenario
# Very Green & Pleasant Land

Sunday, 20 June 2021

2001: Munchkin

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.


Sometimes the choice of game to review is not yours to make. So, it is, once again, with this review. This review came as a surprise and was completely unplanned. But with the sad news of the death of Andrew Hackard at Steve Jackson Games, it seemed timely to review the card game which he was in charge of and would take out into the gaming hobby with versions like Munchkin Warhammer Age of Sigmar, Munchkin Pathfinder, and Munchkin Gloom. Then into the mainstream with editions which date have included Munchkin SpongeBob SquarePants, Munchkin: Disney, Munchkin: Disney Duck Tales, Munchkin Harry Potter, Munchkin Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and Munchkin Shakespeare. Then when Reviews from R’lyeh checked when Munchkin was first published, the year 2001, it was obvious that a twentieth anniversary review was warranted, and when upon finding that the nearest copy to hand had never been opened, an Unboxing in the Nook, was also required. So this review is both a retrospective and an acknowledgement that the hobby has lost another who by all accounts was a good friend and will be much missed.


is many things. It is a fantasy roleplaying game without any roleplaying. It is a fantasy card game which parodies fantasy roleplaying. It is a silly fantasy card game with a clever design. It is a fantasy card game which parodies Dungeons & Dragons. It is a dungeon exploration game without a dungeon. It is a fantasy card game which parodies a particular play style of fantasy roleplaying. It is a fantasy card game which understands its genre. It is a fantasy card game with simple rules, but sophisticated interaction of its cards. It is a fantasy card game whose format has become a template for numerous variations, iterations, licences, and accessories. It is a fantasy card game which won the 2001 Origins Awards for Best Traditional Card Game. Above all, it is a fantasy card game which is not just fun to play, it can be laugh out loud fun to play.

So the first question is, what is a ‘Munchkin’? The most obvious answer is the race of little people from Frank L. Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, enslaved by the Wicked Witch of the East. In roleplaying parlance, a ‘Munchkin’ is the type of roleplayer—typically a roleplayer of Dungeons & Dragons (but it applies to any roleplaying game)—who will always try and maximise his character’s stats, kill anything in his path for the maximum Experience Points possible, find and optimise the best gear and/or magical items possible, and acquire as many Levels as he can, all the while ignoring the roleplaying aspects of the game, his character’s personality, and that of any other Player Character around the table to the detriment of everyone else’s fun. Unless of course, everyone else is also a Munchkin, in which case, all bets are off! Munchkins are not always fun to game with and to an extent this can be true of the Munchkin card game. It can outstay its welcome. However, Munchkin is both fun to play and funny.

So in Munchkin the card game you are attempting to be the most munch-kiny. To out-munchkin your fellow munchkins. To be the munchkin’s munchkin. To win, to be top Munchkin, you need to be the first to acquire Level Ten—and you start at Level One. To go up a Level, you need to kill monsters. Kill a monster, gain a Level. Monsters can be hard though, and you need better treasure and better gear which will improve your ability to kill Monsters. Better treasure and better gear comes from killing monsters. Sometimes you are never going to kill a monster on your own—you are just not enough of a munchkin. So you negotiate with your fellow munchkins for a share of the treasure, and together you might defeat that tough monster—but you gain the Level. Ultimately, when Level Ten is in sight and you have chance of being the uber-munchkin, negotiating and working together is not going to work. It is just you and the monster (and whatever monsters and perils your rival munchkins can throw into your path) and your bestest gear. Never fear though, YOU will get to Level Ten!

First published in 2001, Munchkin from Steve Jackson Games is designed for three to six players, aged twelve and up. It has a playing time of an hour, but games typically last half that time. It consists of two decks of cards—Dungeon cards and Treasure cards. Dungeon cards have a dungeon door on the back whilst Treasure cards have a pile of loot. Chief amongst the Dungeon cards are the monster cards, from the lowly Level 1 Potted Plant and Drooling Slime to the dread Level 20 Squidzilla and the Level 20 Plutonium Dragon. Defeat them and not only are your rewarded with Treasure cards, but also a Level or two, depending on the toughness of the monster. Fail to defeat them and a monster might kill you (it’s okay, you can start again back at Level One), make you lose a Level, or lose an item. Others includes Curses like ‘Curse! Income Tax’ or ‘Curse! Duck of Doom’ which force you to discard items; and Classes, Races, and Genders—Cleric, Thief, Warrior, and Wizard, Dwarf, Elf, and Halfling (Human is the default), and Male and Female. The Classes, Races, and Genders will often determine what gear you can and what magical items and weapons you can wield, and lose the wrong one or have it changed to another, perhaps because of a Curse! and you lose the associated items.

The Treasure cards include single use items like potions, like the ‘Polymorph Potion’, which turns a monster into a parrot which flies away, leaving behind its treasure, and spells, like ‘Magic Missile’ which adds a one-use bonus in combat. Then there are magic items—lots and lots of magic items. These include the ‘Kneepads of Allure’ which force another player to help you, and ‘Boots of Butt-Kicking’ and ‘Chainsaw of Bloody Dismemberment’, both of which add bonuses when you fight monsters. There is a limit to how many items you can carry—one item of footwear, one item of head gear, suit of armour, an item in each hand, or an item in both hands, just as you would in a fantasy roleplaying game. 

Munchkin is quite simple to play. At the start of the game, you and the other players receive four cards, receive two Dungeon cards and two Treasure cards, and equip yourself from them as best you can. On your turn, you ‘Open a Door’ and draw a card from the Dungeon deck. If a monster, you fight it or you run away. If not, the card goes into your hand or is equipped immediately, or if a Curse!, played immediately. If you did not encounter a monster, you can ‘Look for Trouble’ and play one from your hand. Either way, if you defeat the monster, go up a Level, and you can ‘Loot the Room’ and draw cards from the Treasure deck.

To defeat a monster, the total of your Level, plus bonuses from any items equipped and any one-shot items must be greater than that of the monster’s Level. However a rival can play cards which will hinder you and so prevent you from defeating the monster. Then you have two options. One is to run away, but doing so may have consequences depending on the monster faced, as well as losing any opportunity of gaining any treasure. Alternatively, you can ‘Ask for Help’. Essentially, bribe another player into helping you defeat a monster that you cannot defeat on your own, typically with the treasure, or the best of the treasure that you will find when you ‘Loot the Room’. This can become a negotiation and even if another player agrees to help you, it does not stop a rival from throwing in cards to further hinder you.

Play continues like this until a player reaches Level Nine and looks ready to get to Level Ten and win the game. Then all bets are off. Up until this point, players have been hindering each other because they can, because it is funny, because they do not want to see another player gain a hoard of treasure cards, but now… But now, they have to stop the player in the lead from winning. If there is another player in the lead, then give his opponent a potion which will increase its Level, send a Wandering Monster in his way and increase the number he has to fight, Backstab him (if you are a lowdown, sneaky Thief), or curse them with a Curse! card—it is all legal. Expect the same response though, if you are the one in the lead…

However, there are many criticisms levelled at Munchkin. That it is too luck-based, that it is too random, that it is unbalanced, that much of the game play is exception based, that it involves too much ‘take that’ style of play between the players, and that this is exacerbated as a game gets closer and closer to one player attaining Level Ten, and everyone else gangs up on the player about to win. All of those criticisms are true. Yet that does not mean that Munchkin is a terrible game—far from it. Yes, it is luck based in that you are drawing from two large decks—larger once any of the expansions are added—and you might draw a monster you cannot defeat or start off with a hand of cards you cannot use, but then so might the other players or if they have better hands of cards than you, they might have worse hands in another game. So game play can swing this way and that, but part of the play is getting the best out of the cards in your hands and going on to get better cards—or worse, and perhaps winning the game. And even if Munchkin ditches the roleplaying aspect that it draws so much inspiration, there is still a story to be told in those ups and downs, the good fortune and the bad.

Munchkin is also exception based in its game play and many of the cards will run counter to the core rules, but again, that is the point. Those exceptions are where much of the game’s flavour and humour come into play and enforce the many aspects of the genre it is parodying. As to Munchkin being too much a case of too much ‘take that’ in its game play, that is also true, just as it is true that the game play gets more and more back-stabby towards the end of the game and there is a chance that someone will win. And again, this is in the genre and the style of play that the game draws from and parodies. The clue is in the game’s subtitle—Kill the Monsters • Steal the Treasure • Stab Your Buddy.

Ultimately, the answer to the accusation that Munchkin is that too luck-based and too random is that it is not a Eurogame. It is not designed to be balanced or necessarily fair in its game play, and the fact that it is luck based, that it is simple to play, and that it is heavily, heavily thematic, actually makes it a fine example that the antithesis to the classic Eurogame. In other words, Munchkin is classic Ameritrash. Lots of luck, lots of theme, and lost of fun.

However, there are legitimate criticisms that can be levelled at Munchkin. It is designed for players aged ten and up and this leads to a several issues. One is that the artwork on the cards can be suggestive in one or two places, and the second is that jokes may well be lost on younger players because they are unlikely to be as familiar as the type of fantasy and play that Munchkin is parodying. The latter may be ignored at least if younger players are prepared to embrace the silliness and humour of the game, and the former can be addressed by older players or adults pruning the cards in play to ensure that some the more suggestive ones—and they are no worse than that—are removed. Another is that the ‘take that’ backing-stabbing element is not friendly and so not necessarily suited to younger players. Altogether, that may mean that Munchkin is not necessarily family-friendly, but of course, that may depend upon the family and the type of games that its likes to play. Lastly, as simple as the game play is, learning what card works with which other cards, can be a little daunting, especially if the players are not familiar with the genre. This is one of the problems with the exceptionalism built onto the game’s cards, but a play through or two and this should be less of an issue.

Issues aside—and to be fair, they are far from being either major or insurmountable issues—Munchkin is plain, simple silly fun. In fact, it can be laugh out loud round the table fun. This starts with the titles of the cards and the artwork on the cards. For example, on the ‘Magic Missile’ card, instead of whatever dweomer-driven dart the spell normally suggests, the caster is actually holding a rocket-powered missile; that on the ‘Curse! Change Race’ card, the victim’s pointy ears have popped off, as if he was losing his Elfiness; instead the Level 1 monster being a mall rat, it is a ‘Maul Rat’, an actual rat with a maul!; and the Level 16 ‘Wight Brothers’ are not a pair of undead brothers, but a pair of undead mechanic brothers! Game play, the back and forth of the cards can be as equally as funny. After all, it is undeniably funny when you are about to defeat the easily beatable Level 1 ‘Drooling Slime’ and a rival whammies you with the ‘Ancient’ card (illustrated with a bespectacled old dragon) which adds ten levels to the monster and makes it unbeatable.

Then, there are the in-jokes and the references. Munchkin is rife with them, each time taking the joke or the reference and poking fun at them, making us laugh at a memory or a story, and reminding us how silly they are. Whether that is the title of the game itself, Munchkin, or the ‘Gelatinous Octahedron’ or ‘Gazebo’ monsters, or ‘Bribe GM with Food’, ‘Whine at the GM’, and ‘Invoke Obscure Rules’ cards which grant you an extra Level, and which all invoke a certain style of play or occurred in a session of Dungeons & Dragons long ago that you were definitely not playing. Munchkin then is poking fun at us and it is funny.

Physically, Munchkin is well presented. Both rules and cards are easy to read, and the cards are fantastically illustrated by John Kovalic in sepia tones, with many of the characters from his long running Dork Tower comic strip making appearances. It is clear that a great deal of thought has gone into the look of the game and into getting the jokes, in-jokes, and the humour right. Even now, not have played it in a few years, just looking at the cards and their jokes are still funny. However, there is a lot of space in the box, so the owner will need to add dividers or means to stop the cards from sliding around, but that does mean that there is room for expansions! And what expansions there were! In the past twenty years Steve Jackson Games has taken the format of Munchkin and not parodied other genres, from pirates in Munchkin Booty!, vampires in Munchkin Bites!, and Science Fiction in Star Munchkin to facing cosmic horror in Munchkin Cthulhu, superheroes in Super Munchkin, and martial arts in Munchkin Fu—and a whole lot more. There can be no denying the success of the format and its adaptability, and it has remained Steve Jackson Games’ best seller for years.

Munchkin is not a great game and it is not a classic, and yes, ultimately, its humour can outstay its welcome, and if you prefer more balanced play, then it is probably too much of an Ameritrash game for you. It is instead a joke-filled, funny filler of a classic beer and pretzels game, that really can make you and your players laugh out loud round the table when playing it, and how many games can do that? Munchkin makes us laugh at ourselves and our hobby and that is what makes it fun to play.