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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.

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