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

Saturday, 31 July 2021

The FATE of Quiet

FATE of Cthulhu added two elements to Lovecraftian investigative roleplaying—time travel and foreknowledge. Published by Evil Hat Games, the 2020 horror roleplaying game was built around campaign frameworks that cast the Player Characters as survivors in a post-apocalyptic future thirty years into the future, the apocalypse itself involving various aspects and entities of the Mythos. Not only as survivors though, because having entered into a pact with the Old One, Yog-Sothoth, they have unlocked the secret of time travel and come back to the present. They have come back aware of the steps along the way which brought about the apocalypse and they come back ready to fight it. This though is not a fight against the Cthulhu Mythos in general, but rather a single Old One and its cultists, and each thwarting of an Old One is a self-contained campaign in its own right, in which no other element of the Mythos appears.

The five campaigns, or timelines, presented in FATE of Cthulhu in turn have the Investigators facing Cthulhu, Dagon, Shub-Nigggurath, Nyarlathotep, and the King in Yellow. Each consists of five events, the last of which is always the rise of the Old One itself. The events represent the roadmap to that last apocalyptic confrontation, and can each be further broken down into four event catalysts which can be people, places, foes, and things. The significance of these events are represented by a die face, that is either a bank, a ‘–’, or a ‘+’. These start out with two blanks and two ‘–’, the aim of the players and their investigators being to try to prevent their being too many, if any ‘–’ symbols in play and ideally to flip them from ‘–’ to blank and from blank to ‘+’. Ultimately the more ‘+’ there are, the more positive the ripple will be back down the timeline and the more of a chance the investigators have to defeat or prevent the rise of the Old One. Conversely, too many ‘–’ and the known timeline will play out as follows and the less likely the chance the investigators have in stopping the Old One.

Each of the five timelines comes with details of what a time traveller from 2050 would know about it, more detail for the Game Master with a breakdown of the events and their Aspects, Stunts, Mythos creatures, and NPCs. Most of these can serve as useful inspiration for the Game Master as well as the advice given on running FATE of Cthulhu and her creating her own timelines. After all, there are numerous Mythos entities presenting the prospective Game Master ready to create her own timeline with a variety of different aspects, purviews, and even degrees of power, but nevertheless capable of bringing about an apocalypse. However, Evil Hat Games has already begun to do that with its own series of timelines, each again dealing with a different Mythos entity and a different downfall for mankind. The first of these is The Rise of Yig, followed by The Rise of the Basilisk, which although it retained a sense of Cosmic Horror, it definitely moved away from the Cthulhu Mythos. A trend which is continued with the third of the ‘Darkest Timeline’ supplements.

Darkest Timeline: The Rise of the Quiet is even more different than The Rise of the Basilisk. Where The Rise of the Basilisk had some links to the Cthulhu Mythos, The Rise of The Quiet has none, but both share strong Science Fiction elements and the theme of infection via technology. In The Rise of the Basilisk this was memetic in nature, but in The Rise of The Quiet it involves nanotechnology. The time frame for The Rise of The Quiet is shorter, starting in 2032 and leaping back to 2020 for what is a very contemporary-set mini-campaign rather than other the more fulsome campaigns in the ‘Darkest Timeline’ line.

The future of The Rise of The Quiet is one of technological advances and continuing climate change, radical distrust of the news, clashes over limited resources, and expanded space exploration—and then The Quiet. People began reporting incidences of lost time, others seeing the sufferers standing or sitting completely still, as if deep in thought. Then they began to walk whilst in these states, safely moving first to the middle of crowds and then coming together in groups. First in their Quiet state, then socialising out of the Quiet state, no matter their origins or social status. At first mistrusted, the Quiet are then filmed running into burning buildings, strangers into their homes, and soldiers in conflict zones refusing to kill the enemy. In each case willingly offering compassion rather than conflict. The Quiet come to be seen as better examples of humanity, and perhaps a source of hope for its future. Then in late 2030 everyone begins dying from a disease which kills within twenty-four hours and whose cause cannot be determined… That is except for The Quiet. Just what is The Quiet and why is protecting the sufferers from this new disease?

What happened has its origins in 2020 when the Chinese military stole samples of newly developed nanotechnology, and then developed and weaponised them. That newly developed nanotechnology was what became known as The Quiet, which altered its sufferers’ cortexes and infected them with a sense of altruism. Not everyone could survive the infection though… China was not responsible for The Quiet, but it did have a counter—The Loud. This nanotechnology not only helped those infected withstand the effects of The Quiet, but instead of altering their cortex, caused them to undergo physical transformation, including unbreakable nanobot-infused bones, enhanced senses, transforming their skin into a non-Newtonian fluid surface capable of withstanding bullets, and enhancing their ability to micro-mirror nearby humans, evoking feelings of deep friendship and trust in bystanders. However, it is theorised that extended use of the abilities granted by ‘The Loud’ may turn the infected into an unstoppable killing machine.

In addition, time travel has been invented, but only back to one moment in early 2020. The Player Characters will be infected with The Loud, go back in time and if not stop the spread of The Quiet, then at least slow its spread whilst also ensuring that the knowledge necessary to combat it is retained for the future they come from. In other of the Darkest Timelines for FATE of Cthulhu, the Player Characters are being sent back in time to investigate certain events, typically four of them, which lead to the emergence of an Old One. The Rise of The Quiet forgoes that instead, being built around four ‘Swing Points’, nexus points that the Player Characters have the opportunity to alter and send ripples of causality forward into their future. The emphasis is on the alteration of these four ‘Swing Points’ rather than the stopping of them, and what this means is that the outcomes are likely to be conditional rather than absolute—there is no one happy outcome. The Player Characters are almost working towards a median outcome rather than a wholly positive one. They are at best stemming off the effects of The Quiet rather than locating a definitive cure.

As with events in other Darkest Timelines, the four Swing Points in The Rise of The Quiet are described in some detail and come complete with a number of NPCs which are given full write-ups. In turn the Swing Events focus on the origins of The Quiet nano-infection, which involves TED Talk giving techno-guru; the initial exposure of The Quiet, which takes place at an international airport in a spy free-for-all smackdown; a self-help group (or cult, it depends on who you are talking to) which tapped into the possibilities of The Quiet; and finding those believed to be immune to The Quiet, which sees the Player Characters going on the road in the wake of a terrible rock tour. There is a lot going on in each of these, much of which of course, will only become apparent as the Player Characters investigate.

Physically, Darkest Timeline: The Rise of The Quiet is cleanly presented. It is easy to read and the layout is tidy, though it needs an edit in places. The artwork is good also. The Rise of The Quiet does feel as if it is a story treatment, but that is no surprise given who its author is, John Rogers, the creator of the Leverage and The Librarians televisions series.

One issue that the publisher does address is that the fact that Darkest Timeline: The Rise of The Quiet involves both a pandemic and China, but notes that the timeline was written before the Corona virus outbreak and that it is not intended as a commentary upon the current situation in which society finds itself. Whilst China has a role to play in Darkest Timeline: The Rise of The Quiet it is not as the one to blame in the timeline and although the Player Characters are likely to encounter, if not confront, Chinese agents, as part of their efforts to save the future, China’s role in the situation is more nuanced than as simply the bad guy.

Darkest Timeline: The Rise of The Quiet substitutes the usual Old One in FATE of Cthulhu with a nanobot swarm which has infected mankind with a techno-virus. This has several consequences. The timeline involves multiple, all-too human enemies rather than a single alien entity beyond human comprehension and its attendant cultists, each with its own agenda. There is no eldritch and thus no spells involved, or indeed, the corruptive influence of the Mythos. Instead, the Player Characters are corrupted by the influence of The Loud and the alterations it will make to their bodies. All of this difference and there is one thing which Darkest Timeline: The Rise of The Quiet does not address what exactly the roles the Player Characters should take instead those traditional to more standard roleplaying games of Lovecraftian investigative horror.

Darkest Timeline: The Rise of The Quiet is a horror scenario, not a Mythos one, but still a horror scenario nonetheless. It presents as equally an existential threat, but leans heavily into the Science Fiction of the FATE of Cthulhu set-up with the addition of relatively low-level superpowers. In essence it combines elements of Twelve Monkeys with The Terminator, but with the Player Characters as the Terminators. This is played out against a framework which is shorter, more focused, and has a contemporary setting. Again, Darkest Timeline: The Rise of The Quiet showcases how FATE of Cthulhu is capable of doing existential horror without the Mythos and how far its can push its Science Fiction.

Friday, 30 July 2021

Friday Filler: The Fighting Fantasy Co-op IV

Escape the Dark Castle: The Game of Atmospheric Adventure brought the brutality of the Fighting Fantasy solo adventure books of the eighties to co-operative game play for up to four players in which their characters begin imprisoned in a tyrant’s castle and must work together to win their freedom. Published by Themeborne, with its multiple encounters, traps, monsters, objects, and more as well as a different end of game boss every time, Escape the Dark Castle offered a high replay value, especially as a game never lasted longer than thirty minutes. That replay value was enhanced with the release of Escape the Dark Castle: Adventure Pack 1 – Cult of the Death Knight, the game’s first expansion. It added new threats, new potential escapees, and more. 

The replay value of Escape the Dark Castle is further enhanced with the completion of the Escape the Dark Castle: The Legend Grows… Kickstarter campaign. This produced two new expansions, Adventure Pack 2 – Scourge of the Undead Queen and Adventure Pack 3 – Blight of the Plague Lord as well as a big box into which to store them along with the core game. The first of these introduces a whole a new Boss, fifteen new chapters which the escapees must face before they successfully flee the Dark Castle, three new escapees, four new items to find and use in the process, four new ‘item’ cards you do not want to draw (but will anyway) and come into play, and a new mechanic. The new Boss is the Plague Lord, a foul spreader of contagion and sickness who wants more and more to fall victim to his pestilence. Disease has come to the Dark Castle, and left its mark, for instead of encountering the usual dangers on their flight from the depths of the castle, the escapees will find themselves crossing plague pits, gaol cells full of trapped plague victims, plague-ridden rat swarms, mobs bent on preventing the plague from spreading beyond the walls of the Dark Castle—and more. Time and time again, the escapees will be faced with situations in which they may well catch the plague, the disease running its course and reducing their health until ultimately, in a final encounter, they face the Plague Lord himself. To escape the Dark Castle, they must defeat him, but he can increase the effects of the plague upon the already infected and infect those lucky enough to have got this far without being infected! And then, even if they do defeat the Plague Lord, do the escapees really want to flee the Dark Castle knowing that they carry a plague that could kill everyone they love?

As with Adventure Pack 1 – Cult of the Death Knight, and Adventure Pack 2 – Scourge of the Undead Queen, the chapter cards in Adventure Pack 3 – Blight of the Plague Lord are initially designed to be played in order as they come packed, and pretty much out of the box. The new rules can be read through and understood in a few minutes, and a game begun very quickly. After that, this new deck can be replayed by shuffling the fifteen cards in random order and the players having their attempt to escape again. Then, after that, these new cards can be shuffled in with the chapter cards from the Dark Castle: The Game of Atmospheric AdventureAdventure Pack 1 – Cult of the Death Knight, and Adventure Pack 2 – Scourge of the Undead Queen, and the game played as normal.

The new mechanic which Adventure Pack 3 – Blight of the Plague Lord adds to Escape the Dark Castle is that of the Plague. When one of the four ‘Plague’ item cards are drawn or when instructed to on an Chapter card, the player rolls the new ‘Plague’ die. The faces of this die are marked with either two, three, or four splodgy Plague symbols, each indicating the number of Plague points an escapee gains, whether this is from simply being in the same location as Plague-victims, drawing an item riddled with the Plague, or even fighting someone or something infected with the Plague—including fellow escapees! Accrue enough points of Plague and the escapee sickens and weakens, losing Hit Points in the process. There are opportunities to gain some relief from the Plague in the form of an encounter with a Plague Doctor who will cure an escapee of his points of Plague, but in the main, unless an escapee is incredibly lucky and avoids the Plague all together or has all of his points of Plague cured by the Plague Doctor, once caught, the Plague is a downward spiral... In reducing his Hit Points, the Plague does not reduce his combat capabilities. Instead, it reduces his ability to withstand the negative effects of a fight. Consequently, Adventure Pack 3 – Blight of the Plague Lord tends towards, if not fewer fights, but slightly weaker opponents. So there is a certain balancing effect here, but this does not stop escaping the Dark Castle remains a challenge.

As with the previous expansions, Adventure Pack 3 – Blight of the Plague Lord adds three new escapees to play, these are the Butcher, the Fletcher, and the Shepperd, each with their character card and their own die. Each of these escapees are specialists, having maximum scores in their traits, either Cunning, Might, or Wisdom. They are not all that interesting in themselves, although each of their dice are. Some faces of their dice are marked with a ‘Split Double’, consisting of two different trait symbols. These can be applied to two different chapter dice belonging to an enemy, but not to two different enemies. This at least offers some flexibility in terms of a how an encounter might play out.

The new Item cards are divided between the Plague cards and the standard cards. The former force a player to roll the Plague die and increase his escapee’s Plague points. Others include Knapsack which enable an escapee to carry more items, but because some are in a knapsack, are not immediately accessible. The other items, the splintered spear, dented daggers, and frayed net all give an escapee an advantage in combat.

Physically, Adventure Pack 3 – Blight of the Plague Lord is as well produced as the core game. The Chapter, Boss, and Character (or escapee) Cards are large and really easy to read and understand. Each one is illustrated in Black and White, in a style which echoes that of the Fighting Fantasy series and Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay last seen in the nineteen eighties.

At its most basic, Adventure Pack 3 – Blight of the Plague Lord adds a whole new story and more challenges which extends the life of Escape the Dark Castle and means that players will it bring back to the table on a regular basis. It really only adds the one mechanic, ‘Plague’, and then thoroughly injects and infects it into the Chapter cards for the expansion, the result being grim, often grinding battle of survival against something that the escapees cannot see, but can see the effects of. When combined with the artwork, it is horridly thematic, adding to and enforcing the ghastly situation that the escapees find themselves in. However the strong theme and its mechanically deleterious effects upon the escapees is likely to clash with those of the other expansions and actually make their harder to play through because the Plague is constantly reducing an escapee’s chances of survival and there is not necessarily the balance between the effects of the Plague and the loss of Hit Points present in those expansions as there is in Adventure Pack 3 – Blight of the Plague Lord.

Overall, Adventure Pack 3 – Blight of the Plague Lord adds an enjoyably grim and grimey story to Escape the Dark Castle: The Game of Atmospheric Adventure. So strong is its theme though, it is one perhaps best played as a standalone rather than mixed in with the other expansions.

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Thenborne will be at UK Games Expo which will take place between July 30th and August 2nd, 2021 at Birmingham NEC. This is the world’s fourth largest gaming convention and the biggest in the United Kingdom.

Monday, 26 July 2021

Jonstown Jottings #45: Night in the Meadow and other Spirit Encounters

 Much like the Miskatonic Repository for Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition, the Jonstown Compendium is a curated platform for user-made content, but for material set in Greg Stafford’s mythic universe of Glorantha. It enables creators to sell their own original content for RuneQuest: Roleplaying in Glorantha13th Age Glorantha, and HeroQuest Glorantha (Questworlds). This can include original scenarios, background material, cults, mythology, details of NPCs and monsters, and so on, but none of this content should be considered to be ‘canon’, but rather fall under ‘Your Glorantha Will Vary’. This means that there is still scope for the authors to create interesting and useful content that others can bring to their Glorantha-set campaigns.

—oOo—

What is it?

Night in the Meadow and other Spirit Encounters is a trilogy of short encounters themed around herding for use with RuneQuest: Roleplaying in Glorantha.

It is a seventeen page, full colour, 1.98 MB PDF.

The layout is clean, but slightly untidy with artwork which is functional rather than attractive. It definitely needs another edit.

Where is it set?
Night in the Meadow is nominally set in the Blueberry clan of the Cinsina tribe, but can be set anywhere in Dragon Pass where herds of cattle are kept out overnight in the pastures. 

Who do you play?
At least one Herder. In addition, an Assistant Shaman or Priestess will be useful, as will a Hunter or other Player Character with the Tracking skill. A Lhankor Mhy priest or scholar may find some of the background to one of the scenarios to be of interest. In addition, Player Characters with the Passions ‘Hate (Trolls)’ or ‘Hate (Telmori)’ will be challenged by the events of one or more of the encounters.

What do you need?
Night in the Meadow requires RuneQuest: Roleplaying in Glorantha and the Glorantha Bestiary.

What do you get?
Night in the Meadow and other Spirit Encounters presents a series of three encounters on the tribe’s herding pastures over the course of a season or two. Ideally, the encounters should not be run one after another, but as smaller adventures between longer scenarios. Each of the encounters is suited to smaller playing groups and could either be run as flashbacks or as part of campaigns involving Player Characters close to their initiations, for example, Six Seasons in Sartar or Valley of Plenty (although Night in the Meadow would require some adaptation to be run using HeroQuest: Glorantha or QuestWorlds).

The first of the encounters in Night in the Meadow is the eponymous ‘A Night in the Meadow’. The Player Characters and other herders are awoken with a startle and a shout, aware that something has happened, but not quite what. Eventually they will realise that one of the horses is acting oddly and making the rest of the animals skittish. This is a simple enough situation, even charming, which requires a little investigation and a bit of negotiation to solve and gives the Player Characters the opportunity to make good names for themselves.

‘Pieces of Genert’, the second encounter is much, much simpler, and more action-oriented and will probably result in some hunting and some combat. The herds have been harassed by hyenas of late and the Player Characters are called out to track down the pack and drive it off. There may be more to the situation of course, and even if they fail to find the pack’s den, it will return for what it sees as an easy meal. The encounter includes a nice link to Glorantha’s mythology and a lovely piece of treasure to be found as well. If there is an issue, it is the requirement for the Player Characters to require at least standard success results for thirty-six Tracking rolls! This is just too much, and the Game Master should simply reduce this to just six.

In the third and final encounter, ‘Brilliant Hunt’, the Player Characters discover that a calf is missing and after following the tracks, discover that it has been stolen by a band of Trollkin. What the Trollkin are doing out on the pastures is a good question, and the encounter raises even more interesting questions when the Trollkin accidentally discover a set of ruins. There is actually quite a lot going on in this encounter and there are several outcomes and consequences which the Player Characters will have to deal with, including negotiations with Trolls and Dragonewts, joining an ‘alien’ cult, and more. Consequently, the encounter is definitely the most sophisticated of the three.

Any one of these encounters could be played in a single session, perhaps two at the very most. They should require relatively little preparation, but they are too often written in a stream of consciousness fashion rather than informing the Game Master upfront as to what is going on. The various stats and NPC write-ups are generally clear though.

Is it worth your time?
YesNight in the Meadow and other Spirit Encounters presents three enjoyably simple and interesting encounters built around herding that are relatively easy to prepare at short notice.
NoNight in the Meadow and other Spirit Encounters is harder to run if the party does not include a Herder or an Assistant Shaman or Priestess, or both amongst its members and perhaps the playing group is too large for these encounters.
MaybeNight in the Meadow and other Spirit Encounters involves messing about in fields when the Player Characters have better things or less parochial things to do, like preparing for the upcoming Hero Wars, but its encounters might serve as an interlude or two.

Sunday, 25 July 2021

Horror & Hope

We live in The Extant, an isolated bastion of light and creation. It sits in The Nether, a seemingly endless sea of primal chaos whose ectoplasmic forces known as shadow or umbra constantly washes up and crashes down upon The Extant. A veil known as The Curtain protects us, not just from the ebb and flow of the umbra, but also from what lies in the Echos, the distorted, memory-altered reflections of The Extant which sit on the other side of The Curtain, and then beyond that, the Cosmos, dream worlds and nightmares—if not both. Out in the Echoes live ghost-like ephemera, thoughtforms, and further out reside aberrations with alien minds, and then, visages further out, stranger still, mythical even… And oh so many of them want to play in The Extant.

Unfortunately for mankind The Curtain is imperfect, marked with rifts, fissures, and worse that entities from beyond can slip into our world and infect it. They find victims and servants and masters. Things of nightmare lurk in the alleyways, others manipulate and take advantage of our baser natures, whilst covens and cults make dark pacts for power, influence, and worse. Such things might be ghosts, demons, vampires, doppelgängers, the undead, or they might not, but like monsters under the bed or boogeymen in the closet, they are all real. As the strangeness and the monsters emerge into our world and magic grows, there are those who have reacted to this—investigators, mystics, occultists, hunters, and even monsters, seeking to protect the fragility of our existence. Such persons are cast in two lights—Illuminated and Shadowed. The Illuminated are ordinary persons driven to face the supernatural and do something about it—protect others from it, hide it, or even learn more about it, whilst the Shadowed have been changed by it, and may be a bloodsucker, one of the living dead, a host to an inhuman entity, a warlock, or something else. Whatever it is, it is now part of their nature and as much as they work against the incursions of the supernatural, their unnatural nature means that they will never be truly regarded as heroes.

This is the set-up for Sigil & Shadow: A Roleplaying Game of Urban Fantasy and Occult Horror, in which myth, magic, and urban legend crash upon a very modern post-truth world. Not our world exactly, but a parallel one. Published by Osprey GamesSigil & Shadow employs the simple percentile mechanics of the d00Lite System and presents the means to create a range of beings and entities drawn from the horror and urban fantasy genres, a flexible—potentially too flexible—magic system, and solid advice for the Guide—as the Game Master is known, to set up her own campaign typically based on an area she knows or a maps she has adapted.

A Player Character in Sigil & Shadow is defined by his Casting, Background, Oddity, Ability scores, Skill Trainings, special features—including perks and powers, descriptors. Each Casting represents an archetype and an associated Drive, or motivation,. There are eight Castings, four belonging to The Illuminated and four to The Shadowed. The Illuminated have Drives which push them to interact with the supernatural, whilst The Shadowed are driven by their supernatural, often monstrous natures. The four Castings for The Illuminated are the Seeker, the Hunter, the Protector, and the Keeper, whilst the four Castings for The Shadowed are the Afflicted—inheritors of a cursed bloodline, the Devoted—granted power by a patron, the Host—possessed, willingly or unwillingly, by an Inhabitant, and the Ravenous—which is forced to consume a specific thing in gross quantities. An Oddity might be a Birthright, Altered Reality, Raised in a Cult or as an Experiment, and so on, and not every Player Character has one.

A Player Character has four Abilities rated out of one hundred, Strength, Dexterity, Logic, and Willpower. A Background is a Player Character’s occupation, from Activist, Artist, and Athlete to Techie, Thrill-Seeker, and Wealthy, and determines his Lifestyle and gives his player a choice of three Perk, or advantages, to choose from. For example, the Politician has an Upper Class Lifestyle Rating and offers the Perks of Well-to-Do, and either Skill Training in either Social or Education. Perks can add bonuses to a Player Character’s Abilities, advantage on particular skills, and other benefits. There are ten Skills, each rated between levels zero and five. A Player Character with level zero in a skill is trained in it, but adds +10% for each level above that to a maximum of Level Five and +50%.

If a Player Character is trained in Mysticism, then he also gains a Gift, which starts with Sixth Sense, and with further training can unlock Heal, Mesmerise, Psychometry, or more. A Shadowed Player Character will have a Manifestation, a paranormal ability or boon, such as Animal Companion, Blink, Ethereal Form, Heightened Senses, Inhuman Ability, Terrifying, and more. He will also have a Burden, like a Dreadful Feature or Strange Compulsion, and can have more should a player want his character to have more Manifestations.

To create a character, a player selects a Casting, rolls for a Background, and assigns ten Advancements to his Abilities. These begin at 40% each, and each Advancement adds +5%, to a maximum of 70%. Alternatively, an array is provided. He then effectively selects two skills and sets them at Level 1 (+10%). Lastly he writes two descriptors, one positive, one negative, to flesh out the Player Character, chooses some equipment, and determines secondary factors. Throughout, a player has access to his character's pool of five Bones, which can be permanently expended at certain steps during the Player Character creation process to choose an aspect of the character instead of determining it randomly, to gain extra Perks, and Skill Training.

Our sample Player Character is Heath Carlson, an assistant professor of comparative theology who came into an inheritance from his late uncle—a set of papers and journals that dated back to the eighteenth century. They revealed the occult activities and supernatural links of his ancestors and spoke of someone close to the family that aided them in their doings, an older figure only identified as ‘H’. Ultimately Heath returned to his teaching position in the autumn with only hazy memories of what he had done that summer. In the months since, he has suffered more lapses in memory and found himself associating with others he would ordinarily have avoided. There is a voice in his head whispering ideas and suggestions. He has strange new abilities and people are reacting differently to him…

Name: Heath Carlson
Calling: Shadowed (Host)
Drive: Dominion
Oddity: Ancestral Conduit
Rank: 1

Strength: 45% Dexterity: 50%
Logic: 60% Willpower: 55%

Bone Pile: 4
Hit Points: 22
Initiative: 2 Damage Resistance: 0

SKILLS
Arcana (Untrained—Umbra), Combat (Untrained), Education (Theology) Level 1 (+10%), Investigation (Untrained), Larceny (Untrained), Medicine (Untrained), Mysticism Level 1 (+10%), Social (Untrained), Survival (Untrained), Technical (Untrained)

Background: Scholar
Lifestyle: Middle Class (2)


DESCRIPTORS
Insatiably Curious
Gullible

POWERS
Perk: Encyclopedic Mind
Gift: Sixth Sense
Manifestations: Channel (Arcanum), Terrifying
Burden: Misfortune

NOTES
Heath is Timid, but Kind, whereas ‘H’ is Assertive and Cruel.

EQUIPMENT
Investigator Pack, Occultist Pack, Plain Clothes, Midsize car

The character creation process in Sigil & Shadow is not difficult, but it does get involved in places, particularly when creating one of The Shadowed. It specifically asks a player to explain how his character came to embrace the change and how it manifests, but what it does not do is give examples or suggestions. This is intentional, since it frees both players and Guide from necessarily adhering to traditional monsters, such as vampires or werewolves or ghosts or… Now there is nothing to stop both players or Guide from creating versions of The Shadowed which would fit into those archetypes, and certainly, the rules would easily support that. Plus there is an option to add Shadowed Origins which do fit into categories such as Undead, Aberrant, Fey, Eldritch, or Engineered. As much as this openness supports player and Guide inventiveness alike, it also means that Sigil & Shadow lacks off the shelf archetypes that might have eased the creation process.

In terms of its mechanics, Sigil & Shadow uses the d00Lite System and is quite light. To have his character undertake an action, a player rolls percentile dice aiming to roll equal to, or under a Success Value. Typically, a Success Value is equal to an Ability plus a Skill—though untrained skills count as a -20% penalty. A roll of 00 to 05 is always a success, whilst a roll of 95 and more is always a failure. A high roll under the Success Value is considered a better result, especially when comparing rolls, and a roll of doubles under the Success Value is a crucial success, whilst a roll of doubles over the Success Value is a crucial failure. If a Player Character has advantage, his player can rearrange the dice roll for his character’s benefit, but the dice roll is rearranged the other way if the Player Character has disadvantage.

Combat is kept similarly short and simple—and potentially deadly. For a horror game, Sigil & Shadow has no specific systems for handling fear or terror, instead using conditions like Frightened, suffered after a failed Willpower resistance roll when a Player Character is exposed to the unnatural or the supernatural.

In addition, each Player Character has his own personal Bone Pile. The Bones in this pile have a number of uses in Sigil & Shadow. During character creation, they can be used to improve a character, but this permanently expends them and reduces the size of a Player Character’s Bone Pile in play. During play, they are primarily expended to allow rerolls of failed rolls, to gain Advantage on a roll tied into a character’s positive Descriptor, or to negate Disadvantage triggered by his negative Descriptor. A Bone Pile refreshes at the beginning of a new adventure or scenario, but a player can earn Bones for good roleplaying and for his character adhering to his Drive.

The Illuminated have further uses for Bones that The Shadowed do not. The player of one of The Illuminated can expend a Bone to force the Guide to reroll and use the result which benefits the Player Characters; to let another player reroll a failed roll; automatically succeed at a resistance roll; automatically inflict maximum damage on a successful attack; and guarantee that for one round any action taken by the character—or against him, cannot kill him (though injury may ensure…). Essentially, The Illuminated are lucky where The Shadowed are not.

In addition to The Shadowed, ‘Modern Magic’ plays a major role in Sigil & Shadow. It has found a greater place in society, openly discussed and dismissed in equal measure, whether at the coffee shop round the corner or the social network of your choice. Learning is a matter of hard work and effort, more so than just belief, whilst casting requires a catalyst—a physical or symbolic offering tied to a spell’s nature to trigger the spell. For example, a Hydromancy spell might require a splash of water. Spells often require a focus, such as a wand or crystal ball, and are fuelled via an invocation or ritual. However, invocations take time. Alternatively, sorcery is a more immediate form of magic, the caster channelling the forces of arcanum through his body, effectively becoming the catalyst, though this is dangerous because it can backfire and there is a karmic backlash as the power for a spell has to come from somewhere. For example, if a sorcerer douses a fire with a sudden downpour, the fire engine sent to fight the fire might suddenly run out of water. Ultimately, practitioners of sorcery may suffer from Sorcerer’s Stain, a sort of karmic mark that identifies the sorcerer to the victims of his magic.

In play, magic in Sigil & Shadow is intended to be freeform, the player discussing with his Guide the aims of the spell and the Guide setting the Difficulty to apply to the Success Value before rolling. A spell is built from its intended effect, method of delivery, form, and catalyst, and from these the Guide determines whether the spell is Low-, Mid-, or High-Magic. Low-Magic is generally easy, discreet, and quicker to cast, with Mid- and High-Magic growing in complexity, obtrusiveness, and casting time. Magic is broken down into a number of Arcana, each of which is studied separately using the Arcanum skill. The Arcana are divided into the Fundamentals, such as Aero, Aqua, and Umbra, and the Apocrypha, like Musicorum or Techno. Where the Fundamentals cover the traditional Platonic Elements, the Apocrypha are very modern magic—too modern according to some traditionalists. Each Arcana has four aspects and several foci. For example, Aqua’s aspects are water, empathy, illusion, and cleansing, its foci being cups, chalices, bowls, and jars, which covers quite a broad range and gives a Player Character plenty of scope in terms of what he can within an Arcanum.

In addition, Sigil & Shadow can summon and bind entities for arcane aid; place Sigils which capture and hold magic until the seal is broken, whether on an item, a person, or a place; and create relics and artefacts, though most take the form of consumables charged with spell-like effects, rather than permanent items, which are rare. Now whilst Sigil & Shadow is not a roleplaying game of modern magic with lists of spells as such, there is a list of sample spells, three per Arcanum. These do help Guide and player alike get a feel for what spells can look like in Sigil & Shadow, whilst the process is eased with the inclusion of a summary and a cheat-sheet. Both are necessary, because despite its stated aim of spell-casting being easy and freeform, magic in Sigil & Shadow is not quick in play. Magic is a matter of negotiation and discussion between player and Guide, a player setting out what he wants his character to achieve and the Guide setting the terms. This takes time, especially when first learning to play Sigil & Shadow, though this is eased by a Player Character typically only knowing the one Arcanum at the start of play. Nevertheless, the need to negotiate and discuss the desired spell effect breaks the flow of the play, as effectively it has to stop to discuss game mechanics. Which is fine for the Guide and the player of the magic-using Player Character, but not necessarily for the other players sitting round the table. Initially at least, it might be an idea for the Guide and player to work through ideas together before start of play as to what the player might want his character to to use his Arcanum for and develop some modifiers and outcomes that will be easier to adjust in play rather working through them on the spot. At least until both Guide and player are at ease with the system.

For the Guide there is a solid cast of antagonists and entities. These are kept nicely simple, just a few lines, including sample Crpytids like Impish Aberrations and Zombies, whilst Strange Encounters provides more detailed creatures, entities, and things, with write-ups more like that of a Player Character. For example, Cadence appears as a sickly old man with pale skin, yellow teeth, uncomfortable grin, and seemingly dead eyes at dance venues, raves, nightclubs, concerts, and the like, encouraging attendees to dance, dance, and dance… Included are several opinions as to what Cadence might be, which nicely add colour to his description, and then the descriptions of each of the other Strange Encounters. Just eight are detailed, but they feel contemporary and very much suit the modern setting of Sigil & Shadow.

The advice of the Guide covers safety tools, themes, styles, and discussions of what The Illuminated, The Shadowed, and the Cosmology are. The discussions are brief, perhaps too brief, and this is not helped by a lack of a campaign setting or ready-to-play scenario. There is advice for creating, in particular building a campaign around a real-world map and adding descriptors and details, as well as setting up feuding and allied factions, and there is a scenario outline. An appendix provides further suggestions of add to campaign. Overall, the advice is good, but it is underwhelming and ultimately leaves a lot for the Guide to do before being able to bring Sigil & Shadow to the table. This includes learning the magic system as well as setting up a campaign location and writing a scenario.

Physically, Sigil & Shadow is nicely presented as you would expect for a book from Osprey Games. The artwork is excellent, though it does need another edit, and in comparison to other titles from this publisher, it is not as dense, making it an easier, more accessible book to read. It could perhaps have done with some more detailed examples of play and even some sample Player Characters to further enhance that accessibility.

As its title suggests, Sigil & Shadow: A Roleplaying Game of Urban Fantasy and Occult Horror is a much darker take upon the Urban Fantasy genre and provides the means to explore from the angles of protecting against that horror, exploring it, or even embracing it, depending upon what character types the players create and the campaign the Guide wants to create and run. And it is very much a matter of ‘creating’ and running, as the Guide will need to create her campaign or adapt a setting or scenario to run Sigil & Shadow. And this adds to the work of the system, if not the complexity, which despite the simplicity of the mechanics, still leaves Sigil & Shadow with a magic system that equally requires work in play.

Overall, Sigil & Shadow: A Roleplaying Game of Urban Fantasy and Occult Horror is a solid combination of simple rules and conceptual complexities that needs effort upon the part of both players and Guide to set up and run. For the gaming group looking for a toolkit to run a darker, urban fantasy campaign, Sigil & Shadow: A Roleplaying Game of Urban Fantasy and Occult Horror is a solid choice.

Saturday, 24 July 2021

The Other OSR: Warpstar!

Warpstar! is the sister game to Warlock!, and much like Warlock!, it looks like just another Old School Renaissance Retroclone—and it is, but not the sort you might be thinking of. Published by Fire Ruby Designs —previously best known for Golgotha, the Science Fiction retroclone of far future dungeon scavenging in shattered battleships—Warpstar! makes its inspirations known on the back cover blurb which reads, “Warpstar is a rules-light science fiction roleplaying game that aims to emulate the feeling of old-school British tabletop games of wondrous and fantastical adventure in the depths of space.” Now there is a slight disconnect here in that there are no such ‘old-school British tabletop games of wondrous and fantastical adventure in the depths of space.’—or at no such roleplaying game. In the case of Warlock!, the inspiration is Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay and Maelstrom as well as the Fighting Fantasy solo adventure books which began with The Warlock of Firetop Mountain. So what then is Warpstar! inspired by? 

In fact, the original inspirations for both Warlock! and Warpstar! are both miniatures wargames. For Warlock! that inspiration is Warhammer Fantasy Battles, and then the roleplaying game, Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, which would be derived from it. For Warpstar! that inspiration is Warhammer 40,000: Rogue Trader, a miniatures wargame which actually had strong roleplaying elements, but was not a roleplaying game. Indeed, it would be another twenty-one years before the setting of Warhammer 40,000 would receive its own roleplaying game with the release of Dark Heresy in 2008. So the claim that Warpstar! is a rules-light science fiction roleplaying game that aims to emulate the feeling of old-school British tabletop games of wondrous and fantastical adventure in the depths of space.” does feel slightly disingenuous. However, if you instead see Warpstar! as a roleplaying game inspired by a roleplaying game of grim and perilous adventure in the depths of space and the very far future that never was (but which would have been the Science Fiction equivalent of Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay and likely would have been as popular) then Warpstar! feels as if it comes from something material rather than the ineffable. 

As with its fantasy counterpart, Warpstar! is a Career and Skills driven game rather than a Class and Level game. A Player Character has two attributes—Stamina and Luck, but unlike in Warlock!, does not have a Community, such as Human, Halfling, Elf, or Dwarf, which grants societal benefits rather than mechanical ones. Instead, he has a Talent, an innate, biological, or mechanical ability which provides an in-game benefit. For example, Natural Charm or Sleep Anywhere. These can be used to model alien races along with whatever cosmetic aspects that a player decides his character has, but despite this, the setting for Warpstar!, the Chorus of Worlds, does not have any Player Characters races detailed in the core rulebook. He also has thirty-two base skills, ranging from Animal Handler, Appraise, and Astronav to Thrown, Warp Focus, and Zero G, and all of which range in value from one to twenty. To create a character, a player rolls dice for the two attributes, selects a Community, and sets ten skills at a base level of six and another ten at level five. The rest are set at a base level of four. The player then rolls four six-sided dice. These generate the four choices he will have in terms of Basic Career for his character. Once selected, a Career provides four things. First a quintet of skills which can be increased during play whilst the Player Character remains in that Career and a maximum level to which they can be improved, either ten or twelve. For example, the Ganger receives Medicine 10, Sleight-of-Hand 10, Intimidate 12, Small Arms 12, and Thrown 12.  The player divides ten points between these skills up to their maximum given values. Second, it provides a sixth skill, named after the Career itself, the level for this Career skill being the average of the other skills the Career grants. Third, it provides some standard equipment, and fourth it gives a pair of background elements specific to the Player Character’s time in that Career, both of which are generated randomly. For example, a Ganger’s two die rolls would determine what he did to earn him a criminal record and who hunts him. Lastly, a player picks three personality traits for character. 

Name: Gottschalk Einstein
Community: Human
Career: Warp Touched
Past Careers: —

STAMINA: 21 LUCK: 11

TALENT: Sleep Anywhere
 

ADVENTURING SKILLS
Animal Handler 04, Appraise 06, Astronav 06, Athletics 05, Bargain 06, Blades 04, Blunt 04, Brawling 05, Command 04 (10), Diplomacy 05, Disguise 04, Dodge 04, Endurance 05 (10), History 05, Intimidate 04 (12), Language 05, Lie 04, Medicine 05, Navigation 04, Persuasion 10 (12), Pilot 06, Repair 06, Ship Gunner 06, Sleight-of-Hand 04, Small Arms 05, Spot 06, Stealth 04, Streetwise 05, Survival 05, Thrown 04, Warp Focus 12 (12), Zero G 06

CAREER SKILLS
Warp Touched 7

POSSESSIONS
Cloak with mathematical emblems, metal staff affixed with an opening eye, several books on warp theory, pills and tinctures to ease the pounding headaches. 

GLYPHS
Burnout

TRAITS
Charming, Faithful, Unfriendly 

NOTES
Where have you been? – The Fighting Maze of Fellus IV.
Where have you seen? – Beautiful fractal patterns of the Warp? 

Character generation is for the most part straightforward, as is character progression. A Player Character should receive one, two, or three advances per session. Each advance will increase one of a Player Character’s Career skill by one level, up to the maximum allowed by the Career. As a Player Character’s Career skills rise, so will his Stamina, representing him becoming tougher and more experienced. When a Player Character reaches the maximum skill level, he can change Careers—this will cost him a total of five advances. Whilst this grants him access to other skills, it will not increase the cap on the ones he already has. For that, he needs to enter an Advanced Career, such as Assassin, Cult Leader, Duellist, Lawbringer, or Warp Lord. This raises the maximum skill levels to fourteen and sixteen rather than ten and twelve for Basic Careers. There are thirteen Advanced Careers in Warpstar! and twenty-four Basic Careers. In general, a Player Character will be undertaking two or three Basic Careers before entering an Advanced Career—probably ten or fifteen sessions of play or so, before a Player Character is in a position to do that. 

Mechanically, Warpstar! is simple. To undertake an action, a player rolls a twenty-sided die, adds the value for appropriate skill or Career and aims to roll twenty or higher. More difficult tasks may levy a penalty of two or four upon the roll. Opposed rolls are a matter of rolling higher to beat an opponent. Luck is also treated as a skill for purposes of rolling, and rolled when a character finds himself in a dire or perilous situation where the circumstances go in his favour or against him. Combat is equally simple, consisting of opposed attack rolls—melee attacks versus melee attacks and ranged attacks versus the target’s Dodge skill. Damage is rolled on one or two six-sided dice depending upon the weapon, whilst mighty strikes, which inflict double damage, are possible if an attacker rolls three times higher than the defender. Armour reduces damage taken by a random amount. 

Of course, Warpstar! has to take into account Science Fiction weaponry, so there are rules for slug-firing guns, laser weapons, pulse guns, needlers, and more. They each have a code attached, such as ‘S1d6+1P’, which in turn indicates the size of the weapon, the damage, and the type of damage. It looks a little complicated and is at first, but once you get used to it, it is easy enough. Damage is deducted from a defendant’s Stamina. When this is reduced to zero, the defendant suffers a critical hit, necessitating a roll on a Critical Hit table. Warpstar! has four, for slashing, piercing, crushing, and energy damage. Of course, the precedents for Warpstar! had more, and more entries on them, but for a stripped back game like Warpstar!, they are enough—and they are brutal. Damage below a defendant’s Stamina acts as a modifier to the roll on the table, so once dice are rolled on the critical damage tables, combat takes a nasty turn. 

For example, Gottschalk Einstein is aboard a D-Class Charger, the Stolen Dodo, when it is boarded by pirates and he is spotted trying to hide by two pirates—Wilmar and Bruna. Both have clubs and slug pistols (S1d6+1P), and 14 Stamina, a Blunt skill of 3, a Dodge of 4, and a Small Arms skill of 4. The two pirates are under orders not to kill any of the passengers as they can be ransomed off, so raising their slug pistols, they demand that Gottschalk Einstein surrender. The Game Master assigns them an Intimidate skill of 4, and adds four to account for the fact that there are two of them and they are pointing guns at Gottschalk Einstein. His player will simply be adding Gottschalk’s Intimidate to the roll. The Game Master rolls five and adds the eight to get a total of thirteen. Gottschalk’s player rolls fourteen and adds Gottschalk’s Intimidate skill to get a result of seventeen. He is not surrendering any time soon! 

Combat then ensues… Both sides roll Initiative. The Game Master rolls a four and Gottschalk’s player rolls a three. Wilmer will act first, followed by Gottschalk, and then Bruna. The Game Master will roll Wilmar’s Small Arms skill and Gottschalk’s player his Dodge skill. The Game Master rolls three and adds Wilmar’s skill of four to get a result of seven. Gottschalk’s player rolls eight and adds his skill of four to get twelve—Gottschalk has clearly ducked back into hiding. It is his turn though, and Gottschalk’s player will roll his Small Arms skill versus Wilmar’s Dodge. Gottschalk’s player rolls seventeen and adds his skill to get a result of twenty-two! The Game Master rolls just two and adds Wilmar’s Small Arms skill to get a result of just six! This means that Gottschalk’s result is three times more than Wilmar’s and counts as a Mighty Strike. Which means that the damage from Gottschalk’s laser pistol (S1d6+2E) is doubled. Gottschalk’s player rolls a total of eight—maximum damage, which is doubled for an end result of sixteen damage! Fortunately, Wilmar is wearing light armour, so the Game Master rolls a three-sided die and reduces the damage by the result. She rolls one and Wilmar suffers fifteen damage! This reduces his Stamina to minus one and counts as a critical hit. Gottschalk’s player rolls two six-sided dice and adds the one negative Stamina as a bonus to get a result on the ‘Critical — Energy’ table. The result is ten—which is ‘Skin and bone seared, dead.’ Bruna looks around nervously as her colleague has been blasted dead in front of her! 

Being a Science Fiction roleplaying game, Warpstar! has rules for spaceships, but in keeping with the design, the rules are simple. Spaceships travel the Warp and although heavily automated, including having an intelligent computer or Mind aboard, which can perform many functions, the various positions aboard need to be manned to be used effectively, quickly, or at critical moments. For example, the Mind, which will always maintain contact with its crew if it can, can initiate the Warp engine, it takes time. The positions aboard are Pilot, Gunner, Scanners, and Astronavigation. Ships are rated for their Manoeuvrability, Ship Gun (of which a ship only has the one), Anti-Personnel Gun, Scan, and Astronav Computer—all of which provide a bonus or penalty to a Player Character’s skill. Armour and Structure work like Armour and Stamina for Player Characters, but at a ship’s scale, as do weapons, which of course have their own weapon codes. 

Numerous example spaceships are detailed, many of which can be taken by a crew of Player Characters, some only by NPCs, and once they get into spaceship combat, there is a ‘Critical — Ship’ table. Vehicles are given a similar treatment.

Spaceship travel involves travelling through the Warp and some, when exposed to the Warp, learn how to channel it in their mind in certain patterns, known as Glyphs. They are known as ‘Warp Touched’ and considered all but insane, though it is possible for anyone to learn Glyphs through time and concentration. It costs Stamina to cast a Glyph, whether it is successfully cast or not, and if a one is rolled when a character manifests a Glyph, the Warp Touched suffers ‘Warp Bleed’. Their manifestation is not only a failure, that failure is deadly. The effects of which might be minor, such as the caster’s hands catching fire and inflicting Stamina damage, but they might be a warp mutation—for which there are tables—or being swallowed by the Warp! Some thirty-six Glyphs are listed, their effects ranging from the minor to the major, such as ‘Burnout’, which burns out small electronic devices, and ‘Stutter’, which stutters a target out of reality and freezes them in place for several rounds. 

The setting for Warpstar! is drawn in broad strokes. Humanity has spread out across the galaxy from the lost cradle of Earth in a rough sphere of space called the Chorus of Worlds. It is ruled by the Autarch from the world of Jewel, from which he creates and dispenses Cadence, the drug-like material which extends life and enhances the senses. As the only source of Cadence, the Autarch’s power is balanced against the Hegemony, the military might of the Chorus with its deadly Nova Guard star marines, the Merchant Combine, the economic might of the Chorus, and the Warp Consortium, its scientific might. Worlds are ruled by lords and ladies as they see fit, who pay planetary tithes in return for Cadence, whilst the individual worlds are home to billions upon billions. 

In addition to the description of the politics and structure of the Chorus of Worlds, there is a discussion of its currencies and its technologies—robots, weapons, armour, communication, and more. Only an overview is given of its worlds and the Warp, more specific details being given for its various denizens and how to design them. Examples include Anthromorphs—hybrid species based on animal DNA from Old Earth, Fruiting Dead—undead humanoids infected with a soporific fungal spore spread via the Warp, and Kronux—a species with acidic blood which aggressively attempts infect other lifeforms with its DNA! Several creatures from the Warp are listed also, including the Warp Dragon, Warp Entities, and Warp Ticks. 

For the Game Master, there is decent advice about running Warpstar! from handling the rules to establishing the tone of the game and setting. It discusses what the Player Characters do, such as exploring the galaxy, fighting evil, solving mysteries, and generally adventuring—essentially little different to almost any Science Fiction roleplaying game, all the way back to Traveller! The advice highlights the fact that Warpstar! is not a hard Science Fiction setting and its technology should be interesting in terms of its storytelling rather than its mechanical effect. Overall, the advice is decent enough, and like Warlock!, what it comes down to is that Warpstar! is designed to be hackable, and given how light the mechanics are, that is certainly the case. 

Of course, Warpstar! lacks a scenario, much like Warlock! Yet in some ways, Warpstar! has a huge library of adventures to draw from in terms of other Science Fiction adventures, so many of which would be easy to adapt, whether that would be mechanically or storywise. Traveller, for example, being Imperial Science Fiction in tone and feel would be a ready source of adventures, but then so would something like Star Frontiers. Even the publisher’s own Golgotha could serve as inspiration for taking a starship crew of Player Characters far out beyond the borders of the Chorus of Worlds. Plus, the simplicity of Warpstar! makes adapting them easy. 

Warpstar! is a buff little book, starkly laid out and illustrated in a suitably rough style which feels suitably in keeping with the period inspiration. It is very handy and especially combined with the lightness of its mechanics, makes it easy to reference and to run from the book. 

Warpstar! brings the simplicity and tone of Warlock! and its inspirations—Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay and Fighting Fantasy to a Science Fiction setting, a galaxy of grim and perilous in the very far future. It is again lean and fast, often brutal, but again with plenty of scope for the Game Master to easily develop her own content. Overall, Warpstar! is easy to pick up and play, presenting a quick and dirty Science Fiction roleplaying game that will tick many a gamer’s sense of nostalgia.

—oOo—

Fire Ruby Designs will be at UK Games Expo which will take place between July 30th and August 2nd, 2021 at Birmingham NEC. This is the world’s fourth largest gaming convention and the biggest in the United Kingdom.

Friday, 23 July 2021

Friday Fantasy: Dungeon Master’s Little Black Book

SquareHex is best known as the publisher of The Black Hack and the fanzine, Black Pudding, but the publisher also does a wide range of gaming accessories and square and hex pads, the latter for drawing floorplans and area maps, all of which are aimed at the Old School Renaissance and Dungeons & Dragons-style retroclones. The very latest in this line is the Dungeon Master’s Little Black Book. Funded via the Dungeon Master’s Little Black Book 2021 Kickstarter campaign, it comes part of a combo package that provides both content and blank space to be filled in with content, or alternatively, each of the parts is available separately.

The Dungeon Master’s Little Black Book comes in not one, but two versions. Both are a ten-and-a-half by fourteen-and-a-half-centimetre notebook, black and white, share the same format, run to sixteen pages in length, and are filled with tables. Each page a single table, the number of entries ranging in number from eight to thirty. There is even a table with fourteen entries which is drawn on using an ordinary deck of cards, but fans of Dungeon Crawl Classics Role Playing Game will have their own dice to roll on this table, and the likelihood is that they will have a thirty-sided die too. In the Dungeon Master’s Little Black Book 2021, there are table for ‘What’s on the End of the Stick?’, ‘Coins on a Corpse’, ‘Coins in a Coffer’, ‘The Kobolds are Selling’, ‘Potions Side Effects’, ‘The Door Opens But’, ‘The Door's Stuck Because It's’, ‘Hirelings & Henchfolk’, ‘The Magic Mouth Says’, ‘What's in the Pit?’, and more. The including ‘Wrath of the Gods’, ‘What Angered the Gods?’, ‘Deck of Minor Magics’, ‘Wild Animal Reactions’, and ‘The Wheel of Fortune’. Some of the entries are fairly humourous, if not silly, such as ‘A bag of Troll excrement – on fire!’ from the ‘What’s on the End of the Stick?’ or ‘Turkish Delight cut from a Gelatinous Cube’ from the ‘The Kobolds are Selling’ table. Other tables are far more utilitarian, ‘Coins on a Corpse’ for example, listing different amounts of coins, whilst the ‘Hirelings & Henchfolk’ is a list of stats and names—actually starting with ‘Tom, Dick, and Harry’, of most Zero and First Level NPCs.

Two of the tables are different. One is the ‘Deck of Minor Magics’, and the other is ‘The Wheel of Fortune’. The ‘Deck of Minor Magics’ grants minor, but interesting magic, much in the style of the fabled Deck of Many Things, but very much toned down, and requires the player to draw from an ordinary deck of cards. That adds a pleasing physicality to the use of Dungeon Master’s Little Black Book 2021. ‘The Wheel of Fortune’ uses symbols rather than numbers and gives random effects which change a Player Character, his situation, or even hurt him. In fact this feels more random, and definitely more arbitrary than the ‘Deck of Minor Magics’. The result is determined by spinning the actual Wheel of Fortune which accompanies the Dungeon Master’s Little Black Book 2021 and requires some craftwork upon the part of the Dungeon Master to cut out and mount. The use of symbols instead of numbers adds an element of mystery to the Wheel of Fortune and its accompanying table, and obscures the results a little so that the players cannot as easily attempt to spin the wheel to their characters’ benefit.

The other version of the Dungeon Master’s Little Black Book also contains tables. However, all of them are blanks. There are spaces for tables which require the roll of an eight-sided die, a twelve-sided die, a thirty-sided die, and more, but not a single one of the tables in Dungeon Master’s Little Black Book contains any results. The point of this version of the Dungeon Master’s Little Black Book is that it is ready for the Dungeon Master to fill in and design tables of her own.

The largest of the items is the Adventure Design Booklet. This is digest-sized and is again sixteen pages. Like the Dungeon Master’s Little Black Book, it is also blank—or rather it does not have any content. The majority of its pages are lined and double-columned, there is a single page of hexes, and three of squares. The front page though, has a big space for a front cover illustration and a title above, much like the classic Dungeons & Dragons scenarios of years past. So much like the point of the Dungeon Master’s Little Black Book is for the Dungeon Master to fill in and design tables of her own, the point of the Adventure Design Booklet is the Dungeon Master to fill in and design an adventure of her own. For a book that is all but blank, there is something delightfully nostalgic about the Adventure Design Booklet, all just waiting for the Dungeon Master to be inspired and put pen to paper, and in the process create an adventure that is particularly personal to her.

Physically, the Dungeon Master’s Little Black Book 2021 and the Dungeon Master’s Little Black Book are both black and white booklets with sturdy covers. Where the Dungeon Master’s Little Black Book 2021 is done on a glossy paper stock, the Dungeon Master’s Little Black Book and the Adventure Design Booklet not. They are done on a rougher paper stock, which makes for a better writing surface. The Adventure Design Booklet is also done in light grey—guidelines just waiting for firm input from the Game Master.

On one level, the Dungeon Master’s Little Black Book 2021, the Dungeon Master’s Little Black Book, the Adventure Design Booklet, and the Wheel of Fortune are ephemera, even fripperies, not necessary to play whatsoever. Yet they all have their uses and their charm. The Dungeon Master’s Little Black Book 2021 can add a little randomness and colour to play or serve as inspiration for the Dungeon Master, whilst the Dungeon Master’s Little Black Book and the Adventure Design Booklet are blank slates awaiting the Dungeon Master’s inspiration and creative input.

—oOo—

SquareHex will be at UK Games Expo which will take place between July 30th and August 2nd, 2021 at Birmingham NEC. This is the world’s fourth largest gaming convention and the biggest in the United Kingdom.

Friday Fantasy: For the Sound of His Horn

With For the Sound of His Horn, author Adam Gauntlett returns to the horror genre he is best known for with titles such as The Man Downstairs and Hocus Pocus for Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition. This is a scenario set in Barovia, and thus Ravenloft, the preeminent horror setting for Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition. The scenario is designed for a party of Player Characters of First to Third Level and is set in and around a village in Mordent. The author’s experience with other horror roleplaying games is nevertheless on show here, as the emphasis in For the Sound of His Horn is very much on interaction and investigation rather than exploration or combat.

Subtitled ‘A Haunted Hunting Party in Mordent’, 
For the Sound of His Horn takes place in Oaksey, a small village in Mordent, once part of the Huntingtower estate, since long extinct. The village has long been known for its fox hunts, and despite the loss of the local lord a century before, maintains the tradition today, keeping a pack of foxhounds and staging regular hunts. There being no lord, the position of Master of Foxhounds is held by Oaksey’s alderman. Recently, the current alderman, Sanders Murdoch, suffered a near-fatal hunting accident. Some say it was due to a riding accident, others his poor horsemanship, still others put it down to something unnatural, whilst Sanders himself suspects foul play and has vowed to severely punish whoever was responsible for his injuries.

The Player Characters may come to Oaksey for several reasons. They may simply have heard some travelers’ gossip and become intrigued enough to visit, but they might be asked by the Church of Ezra to come to the aid of local priest, they might be occultists who have heard of strange goings on in the village, or they may simply be keen huntsmen and women, come to ride with the village hunt. Their visit and thus 
For the Sound of His Horn is structured around a series of Core and Optional scenes. The Core scenes should provide the initial clues and revelations which point to Optional scenes and yet more clues and revelations—some of which are connected to the scenario’s main plot, others not. Most of these scenes—both Core and Optional—take the form of interviews and interactions with the villagers, meaning that the scenario relies heavily on the Insight, Investigation, and Perception, although there is the possibility of combat either towards or at the climax of the scenario. Ideally, the climax of the scenario should come at or around a festival when true facts of what has been going on in the village for the last century will come to light.

Each of the scenes in 
For the Sound of His Horn, whether Core or Optional, is presented on its own page and everything is clearly laid out. Thus the nature of the scene, skill involved, goal, and then if an NPC, personality, background, maneuvres—that is, the NPC’s actions in the scene, and lastly his disclosures. The latter are his secrets, hidden information, and true motivations, all to be revealed with a combination of good roleplaying and skill rolls. Location descriptions are simpler, listing and explaining their various features, secrets, and potential encounters.

Given that it is written for use with the Ravenloft setting, the scenario makes use of Haunting Effects and Stress, as well as its many secrets. The Haunting Effects can cause Fear, which can lead to a Player Character acquiring Stress, the Hunting Effects being set off by Triggers. Again, these are clearly marked in each of the locations where they occur. In fact, one of the locations has several! The scenario is not without its own potential triggers either. Obviously, it is a horror story and so it does involve strong themes, but those themes do include child cruelty (though this is very much off camera). The stronger issue may be the fact that the scenario involves blood sports, in particular, fox hunting. It includes a description of the activity and a list of its terminology, and the scenario should culminate in a Meet and a fox hunt. The blood sport is so bound up in the events of the scenario that it would be very difficult to run if the Dungeon Master was to try and remove it from the scenario.

Unfortunately, 
For the Sound of His Horn is missing a couple of elements which would make it easier to run. The first is that all of the NPCs lack a physical description and the second is that the scenario does not have any maps. The former is more of an issue than the latter, because it is possible to run the scenario with referring to any maps—having them would make it easier though. Fortunately, both are easily rectified by the Dungeon Master. Thus she can write the descriptions herself—though the author should have supplied them, and she can either draw the maps herself or find suitable ones online, even rights free ones. Another issue is that not all of the scenario’s plots are fully explained until they appear in the individual scenes and locations, so a better overview could have been provided. For the Dungeon Master it might be a good idea to draw a plot diagram and perhaps a relationship diagram as part of her preparation.

Physically, 
For the Sound of His Horn is generally well presented and easy to understand. It is lightly illustrated, mostly with rights free artwork.

In comparison to most scenarios for Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition, the setting for 
For the Sound of His Horn is not so much fantasy as one of late Georgian or Victorian England. This means plenty of source material to draw from in presenting the scenario—especially if the Dungeon Master wants images to illustrate the scenario’s NPCs. It also means that the scenario would be easy to adapt—at least in terms of its plot—to other roleplaying games and their settings, whether that is Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition, Cthulhu by Gaslight, Victoriana, Doctor Who: Adventures in Time and Space – The Roleplaying Game, and so on. Overall, For the Sound of His Horn is a highly enjoyable horror scenario, emphasising interaction and investigation in serving up a punch cup, a fruity slice of hand cake, and a rich melodrama!