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

Monday 31 January 2022

Jonstown Jottings #53: High Rock Hill

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.


What is it?
High Rock Hill is a scenario for use with RuneQuest: Roleplaying in Glorantha.

It is a sixteen page, full colour, 1.17 MB PDF.

It does need an edit and is primarily art free. No maps are provided, but a link is given to one.

Where is it set?
High Rock Hill is set just outside the city of Clearwine in the lands of the Colymar Tribe, but events may take the Player Characters to the city of Wilmskirk. It takes place after the death of Queen Kallyr Starbrow, thus in the year 1626 ST and later.

Who do you play?
Player Characters of all types could play this scenario as it involves a mix of social interaction, investigation, and action. Player Characters with Passions involving the Aldryami will be challenged, whilst an Ernalda Priestess will likely be of use.

What do you need?
High Rock Hill requires RuneQuest: Roleplaying in Glorantha and the RuneQuest: Glorantha Bestiary to play. The RuneQuest Gamemaster Screen Pack may also prove useful.

What do you get?
High Rock Hill is a murder mystery, but not a ‘whodunnit’, even though it begins in the most traditional of fashion with all of the Player Characters at a party. This is a Harvest Celebration at the vineyard on High Rock Hill outside of Clearwine, renowned for the quality of its wines. Whether as guests if they are prominent enough, or accompanying guests if not, their host—who purchased the vineyard only relatively recently—is amiable and the wine lives up to the vineyard’s reputation. However,  the evening is disrupted first by a drunken Storm Bull and then by an attack by members of the Sambari tribe. These are only minor distractions on what is otherwise a pleasant evening.

The Player Characters may choose to investigate the attack further, but whatever they do next, difficulties arise when a fellow guest, a member of the ring advising Queen Leika and an Ernalda Priestess, falls grievously ill and learns that she had been poisoned. Divination determines that the solution lies on High Rock Hill. Returning to the vineyard reveals that events are already afoot and there is more going on than in its grounds than meets the eye.

High Rock Hill is a short, two-session scenario designed for relatively inexperienced Player Characters. Initially it looks like a standard murder mystery, but pleasingly it does not bog play down in a detailed ‘whodunnit’ or burden the players and their characters with a deluge of clues. Instead it weaves its relatively story in and out of events before drawing the Player Characters back to the vineyard for a dénouement with the culprit. Other events from the region’s past will complicate matters though.

High Rock Hill is a detailed and relatively complex scenario, and it does suffer from a handful of problems which mean that it is not as easy to run as it could be. It could be clearer in its plotting and explanation and thus require a little more development. The culprit’s motivations seem extreme, but since they trigger the events of the scenario, that can be forgiven. Lastly, the possible outcomes and consequences to the scenario are underdeveloped and they would have been useful to explore what happens to both the culprit and the vineyard. There are interesting elements here which could have been explored and potentially involved the Player Characters, as well as drawing them further into local events.

Is it worth your time?
YesHigh Rock Hill contains a good mix of social interaction, investigation, and action and should tie the Player Characters into further events and politics in Clearwine.
NoHigh Rock Hill is a serviceable scenario which will need extra effort to adjust to settings other than Clearwine and ‘Your Glorantha May Vary’ when it comes to the motivations of the culprit.
MaybeHigh Rock Hill contains a good mix of social interaction, investigation, and action, but does some further development to fully explore the motivations of the culprit and the consequences of his actions, which are not as fully explored in the scenario as they could be.

Miskatonic Monday #94: What Rough Beast

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: Andy Miller

Setting: Deep South Alabama

Product: Scenario
What You Get: Ninety-two page, 38.65 MB Full Colour PDF

Elevator Pitch: Southern Salem’s Lot
Plot Hook: What sickness causes those in Sanguis to suffer?
Plot Support: Detailed plot, staging advice for the Keeper, eight maps, six elevations and floorplans, six handouts, thirty-two (including a dog and two turtles) NPCs and their associated photographs, and six pre-generated Investigators.
Production Values: Reasonable.

# Non-Mythos Folkloric horror scenario
# Teenage Southern Gothic
# Good staging advice for the Keeper
# Highly detailed scenario
# Horror comes close to home
Strong sense of rural isolation
# Interesting cultural and religious challenges
# Epic several session one-shot

# Non-Mythos Folkloric horror scenario
# Obvious threat
# Requires a slight edit
# Floor plans difficult to use
# Challenging player versus Investigator knowledge 
# Pre-generated Investigators punchy and underskilled 

# Isolated, non-Mythos Folkloric horror one-shot
# Epic several session one-shot
# Different take and setting for a confrontation with a classic monster

Sunday 30 January 2022

Wobot Wars

The Robot Wars is a supplement for Judge Dredd and the Worlds of 2000 AD. It is as different a supplement as there has been for any of the four roleplaying games based on the Judge Dredd comic strip from the pages of 2000 AD, and that is all down to its focus. Traditionally, supplements for Judge Dredd roleplaying game have concentrated on particular aspects of the setting—criminal organisations, crazes, psi-talents, block wars, and more—but The Robot Wars focuses upon the one storyline, examining its episodes or Progs, and their ramifications in detail. This includes the nature, role, and creation of robots in 2000 AD and thus Judge Dredd and the Worlds of 2000 AD, new Careers for Human characters, a complete summary of ‘The Robot Wars’ storyline and guide on how to run it as a campaign, a complete self-contained campaign for non-Judge Player Characters, other campaign concepts, further Case Files, and then personalities and robots of The Robot Wars. This comprehensive examination sets the format for future supplements Judge Dredd and the Worlds of 2000 AD which will go on to explore some of the eminent lawman of the twenty-first century’s most amazing cases!

‘The Robot Wars’ is the first big storyline for Judge Dredd, consisting of nine Progs, running from 2000 AD Progs #9 to #17. It first recounts how robots are sold, showcased, and treated at the Robot of the Year Show before a newly built carpentry robot, Call-Me-Kenneth, runs amok killing people until it is destroyed by Judge Dredd. However, before he could be reprogrammed, he reactivates and calls upon the robots of the city to rise up against their masters. This sparks a war across Mega-City One, the deaths of thousands of Humans and destruction of thousands of Robots, and a civil war between the robots loyal to Call-Me-Kenneth and the robots loyal to Humanity. Many of the robots loyal to Call-Me-Kenneth find that their conditions are no better, and even worse, under his rule. Judge Dredd is able to work with the robot resistance against Call-Me-Kenneth and ultimately defeat the mechanical tyrant.

The Robot Wars opens with a deep examination of the place and role of the robot in the societies of the twenty-first century. ‘We Who Serve’ is a systems agnostic essay which highlights how robots are ubiquitous in Mega-City One, performing all manner of tasks and roles, often to varying degrees of hostility and Robophobia, how they are limited by their programming—in a good way by the Asimov Circuits and the Three Laws of Robotics and a bad way because it means they can be literal and single-minded, their construction, and their various types. The latter includes service robots, heavy labour robots, social robots, professional robots, expert robots, and more. It includes pleasure robots—fewer than you would think, and illegal robots—which can perform criminal tasks doggedly, but not necessarily be able to adapt to changing circumstances once a crime goes wrong, or if actually programmed for crime, decide that Human criminals are not as good and simply take over. An interesting aspect of robot society is that they do have emotions, most of which they suppress when around humans as part of their subservience, but in private they do share them with other robots and they do so as a form of therapy.

The supplement provides options for both Robot characters and Human characters—the ‘Fleshy Ones’, both expanding upon the character design rules in Judge Dredd and the Worlds of 2000 AD. Robot characters start with six intrinsic Exploits (the equivalent of abilities, talents, and flaws) of Asimov Circuits, Automation, Augmented, Deterministic, Electronic Vulnerability, and Mindless. The Robot Careers fall into the same types discussed earlier and it is suggested that to best reflect robot design in the twenty-first century, each Player Character Robot should be relatively specialised. A player has plenty of options when it comes to form and design of his Robot and these will be expanded and developed through Careers such as Administrator, Bounty Hunter, Delivery Robot, Domestic, Host/Hostess, and more. In conjunction with the core rules in Judge Dredd and the Worlds of 2000 AD, what the Game Master is given here is a means to create detailed robot NPCs as well as players to create Robot characters. In the main, Humans are just given new Careers and Exploits which relate to robots in the twenty-first century. Thus, Robo-Tech, Robot Rights Agitator, and Robot Hate Activist, with both of the latter including lists of groups campaigning for and against robot rights respectively. There are lots of roleplaying opportunities in both of these, as there is in the Resurrection Man—named after the body snatchers of the Victorian Era, who specialises in the theft and reprogramming of robots. Rules are also provided for both cybernetics and Robophobia, the latter designed to model the fear and ultimately the hatred of robots. This is primarily intended for use with NPCs, but guidance is included for its use by a Player Character.

A good half of The Robot Wars is dedicated to playing through ‘The Robot Wars’. The first of these is as Judges, sometimes serving alongside Judge Dredd himself and sometimes not. Each of the series’ nine Progs is given a detailed breakdown and guidance on getting the Player Characters involved. They vary in complexity, but each should provide a good session’s worth of play each. This is contrasted by the mini-campaign, ‘Saving Matt Damon Block’ which is set in a high-security block of the same name where the Player Characters are residents who are caught up in the robot rebellion. This is for Civilian, Perp, or Robot Player Characters—or a mixture of all three—and is more of a detailed outline than necessarily a full campaign. It even discusses an alternative campaign in which the Player Characters, probably Robots, actually decide that Call-Me-Kenneth is right and side with the robot rebellion! Of the campaign options in The Robot Wars, this has the greater roleplaying potential and is the more personal, even intimate, and consequently more interesting of the two, even though it is the shorter of the two.

Besides the two campaigns, The Robot Wars also gives advice for running campaigns structured around ‘The Robot Wars’ and it also provides a breakdown of the Cases setting during the same period, that is, from the early Judge Dredd stories from the pages of 2000 AD. There are six of these, and they all include a synopsis, a guide to running the Prog as an adventure with Judge and non-Judge Player Characters, further suggestions for expanding upon the Prog, and descriptions of the settings, locations, villains, and bystanders they involve. These are all very nicely done, gameable summaries which the Game Master can again use to provide a session’s worth of play, if not more. Like the two campaigns earlier in the book, they will all need some development upon the part of the Game Master, but they do include much more than the basic outline. Lastly, the ‘Nuts and Bolts’ chapter is a robotic bestiary giving all the stats of the important robots involved in ‘The Robot Wars’, starting with Walter the Wobot, Call-Me-Kenneth, and the Heavy Metal Kids, which the Game Master will need.

Where The Robot Wars disappoints is that it never takes a moment to step back from the story itself and examine what the story is about. As exciting as the action is in Judge Dredd—and it always is—the character and its setting has always been a satire too, and in ‘The Robot Wars’ the satire is upon racism and slavery, and the treatment and the liberation of slaves. A commentary upon the story and its satire, as well as how to highlight those elements in play, would have been a welcome inclusion in The Robot Wars. The other issue is that The Robot Wars does not always bring the humour of the comic into its pages. There are moments certainly, like the naming of the criminal gangs in the Matt Damon Block in the scenario, ‘Saving Matt Damon Block’, which are genuinely humorous, but it feels as if there should have been more. To be fair, translating the humour of the comic to the supplement was always going to be challenging.

Physically, The Robot Wars is a slim, but nicely presented book. It is an engaging read and it is liberally illustrated with artwork from the ‘The Robot Wars’ story and the other Progs it details in its pages. This is all black and white artwork and it is drawn from the very early issues of 2000 AD so there is certain quaintness to it since it dates from before the character of Judge Dredd evolved into the way he looks today.

The Robot Wars showcases a fantastic approach to turning episodic source material into gameable content. Whilst it does not develop that approach fully in terms of what the source material or Progs, are really about or their satire, it is a good start and hopefully, more of that will come in the future supplements which in turn focus on the some of the epic Judge Dredd storylines which appeared in the early 2000 AD Progs. Nevertheless, The Robot Wars is a great start for Judge Dredd and the Worlds of 2000 AD. It is a good sourcebook on ‘The Robot Wars’ story, for the stories which can be told in and around it, and for creating robot characters in Judge Dredd and the Worlds of 2000 AD (or in fact, any roleplaying game based on Judge Dredd).

Hacking the Ruined Earth

Two thousand years ago the Earth was irrevocably changed by the Great Calamity. An alien planet crashed into our Moon, smashing it apart to rain debris down upon our world. The moon’s rock almost broke our planet apart and almost drove Humanity to extinction, but we survived—though not unscathed. Alien DNA that fell with the collision would change mankind, just as alien matter that fell with the collision would change the world, and out the chaos and the destruction that ensued arose new societies and new tyrants, new flora and fauna never seen before—at least not on this world, and new science and new powers, including one long forgotten (if it had ever existed that is). The world of today is one of astounding super science, of marvellous magic, of fearless, mightily thewed barbarians saving the day, of savage beastmen by their side, of tenacious scavengers scouring the ruins for precious trinkets, of Robots armed with new found free will searching for a purpose, of Death Priest who power their arcane abilities by channelling the dead, of Urchins sneaking around underfoot and unseen, of the raptor-like Vek with their hatred of sorcery, and of the more-than human Sorcerers capable of casting great magics. Many have thrown off the shackles of slavery and oppression, been exiled from their village, survived attacks by raiders, escaped servitude with a Sorcerer, or worse, and have decided to explore the harsh new world, to see what lies beyond the horizon of the Ruined Earth.

This is the setting for Barbarians of the Ruined Earth, a weird post-apocalyptic fantasy setting inspired by Thundarr the Barbarian, He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, Mad Max: Fury Road, and Pirates of Dark Water and best fuelled by a bowl of your favourite cereal in front a television showing the greatest Saturday Morning Cartoons ever. Published by DIY RPG ProductionsBarbarians of the Ruined Earth uses the mechanics of the retroclone, The Black Hack, so is a Class and Level roleplaying game with player-facing mechanics—the latter meaning that the players do all of the dice rolling rather than the Game Master. Consequently, Barbarians of the Ruined Earth will play fast and easy, with the Game Master free to get on with portraying the world that the Player Characters will explore.

A Player Character in Barbarians of the Ruined Earth has the six attributes of traditional retroclones—Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, Intelligence, Wisdom, and Charisma. He also has a Class, which determines the character’s Hit Points, arms, armour, and weapon damage, Special Features, as well as starting equipment, a trinket or two in their possession, and an important Life Event. There are eight Classes, but Barbarians of the Ruined Earth does use ‘Race as Class’ for four of them. Humans can be Barbarians, Death Priests, Scavenger, or Urchins, whilst Beastmen, Robots, Sorcerers, and Vek are all Races in their own right. the Barbarians is a fierce warrior, often battling against the vile oppression of Sorcery, either local heroes or mercenaries, who gains extra attacks, inflict greater damage, deflect attacks against him, give a mighty shout that boosts his confidence, withstand the effects of poison and fear, and always get the best out of his armour—even if it only amounts to nothing more than a loincloth or bikini! The Death Priest can channel the knowledge of the dead, withstand disease and mind-altering effects, has a Guardian Spirit which often protects him, and can cast Miracles, such as Curse, Ethereal Form, Harming Touch, or Spirit Whip. The Scavenger is agile and good at avoiding traps and getting into locked areas, and searching for and repairing technology. The Urchin is a child lurker, small, always an unexpected adversary, but bossy and able to get his way—sometimes, and good at surviving in the environment where he grew up.

The Beastman has animal features—often the features of more than one animal, has claws and is impossibly strong, and often in battle, can turn his thick hide to withstand damage of all kinds, including magic! The Robot has a metal body and is so tough, but needs Robot Repair Kits to effectively heal itself, is immune to diseases, poisons, mind-altering effects, and the like, and can salvage other robots , though the parts can corrupt the Robot. A Robot also has a Model, which can be a Combat, Diplomatic, Medical, or Tracker, each of which has its own Special Features. The Vek—or Raptorfolk—are a collective race fascinated with the Stupendous Science and Ancient Earth technology of the Ruined Earth and a hatred of magic and sorcery due to their enslavement by evil sorcerers. Each Vek is highly intelligent, able to withstand mind-altering effects, can see in allow light, have the thick hide, claws, and leaping ability of being a Dinosaur!, and can always get More Juice out of advanced technology. The Sorcerer, transformed in the womb, often becomes a megalomaniac, but others do serve the good, but all can detect magic, Stupendous Science, and evil, can resist magic, channel arcane power through his Sorcerer’s Staff, and sling spells. Sorcerers have access to ten ‘schools’ of magic, ranging from Arcane and Blight spells to Stupendous Science and Transformation spells, with each school having three spells.

As with other retroclones, a Player Character is created by rolling three six-sided dice for the attributes and selecting a Class. As per The Black Hack, if fifteen or more is rolled for one attribute, then two six-sided dice are rolled for the next one and two added to the total. Alternatively, for a more ‘Saturday Morning Cartoon’ style of game, two six-sided dice are rolled for each attribute and five added to the total. Then the player rolls on the Trinket and Life Event tables for his character’s Class. The process is quick and easy, although not as quick and easy for the Sorcerer Class, as the player has to make more choices and roll on a few more tables.

Eye of the Tiger
Level 1 Beastman (Hulyth)
Strength 16
Dexterity 11
Constitution 13
Intelligence 11
Wisdom 12
Charisma 14
Hit Points: 13
Special Features: Animal Features (claws, see in the dark), Super Strong, Impossibly Strong, Thick Hide
Damage: 1d8 (Weapon)/1d6 (Improvised)
Weapons: Short Bow, Spear
Armour: Cloth Armour (1 RP)
Equipment: Arrows, Rations (d6), Waterskin (d6), bedroll, torches ×6 (d6), healing salve
Interesting Trinket: Flute
Life Event: father was the tribal leader until he and your family were forced into exile

Mechanically, Barbarians of the Ruined Earth is powered by The Black Hack and thus player-facing. A player rolls a Test for his character to attack in combat, but rather than the Game Master roll for an NPC to attack an NPC, the player rolls a Test for his character to avoid the attack. A Test is made directly against the character’s attributes, the player attempting to roll under the value of the attribute. The only time the Game Master rolls is for damage inflicted when a player fails the Test for his character to avoid an attack. Tests can be made with Advantage or Disadvantage, and in combat, a roll of a one is a critical success, whilst a roll of twenty is a fumble. Armour reduces damage and shields can stop attacks, but may sometimes need to be repaired. Weapon damage is determined by Class rather than weapon type. One fun side effect of the weapon damage being determined by Class rather than type is that weapons can take lots of different forms which add flavour and feel rather than mechanical benefit.

The rules also allow for wielding a two-handed weapon or dual wielding, auto-fire (since guns and lazer weapons abound), and fighting mooks, hordes, and powerful opponents. Barbarians of the Ruined Earth uses the Usage Die and event-based Level-advancement as per The Black Hack, but adds a handful of tweaks that help enforce the genre. One is that the Usage Die applies to technology as much as food or torches, so that laz gun can run out of power and that hot rod out of fuel. Another is that Player Characters cannot die, but when reduced to zero Hit Points is taken ‘Out of the Action’ and can recover with a terrible scar or mental injury—the latter due to a heavy blow to the head. One noticeable difference between Barbarians of the Ruined Earth and other post-apocalyptic roleplaying games is that although there are Mutants in Barbarians of the Ruined Earth, they are primarily NPCs or monsters, rather than Player Characters. It is possible for a Player Character to acquire a mutation, but the effecting is mind-shattering—he loses points of Wisdom! Then there are the optional rules for Destiny Points which allow a player to reroll a Test, roll a Test with Advantage, reroll an Out of Action result, and even gain a Second Wind, and recover some Hit Points. Each Player Character has a single Destiny Point per session.

Mechanically then—and even with the minor additions—Barbarians of the Ruined Earth is simple and easy to pick up. Certainly, anyone who has played The Black Hack will have no issue. The game also plays quickly, with the emphasis on the Player Characters doing all of the action and their players rolling for it.

Further flavour and weirdness of the Ruined Earth is presented in first the equipment, where you can find weaponised animals—Acid Squids, Flaming Lizards, Mutant Hamsters with corkscrew teeth flung from a sling or a Slug Shooter which squirts stunning mucous from its eyes until it is dehydrated and dead, anyone?—and rules for vehicles and awesome chassis, such as a Stupendous Science Mobile with spider’s legs so it can climb walls. Then for the Game Master there is an explanation of the state of the Ruined Earth, irrevocably changed by the alien matter that fell to the Earth, strange plants and creatures appearing, native life—including Humanity, mutating and changing, and rifts in time and space being torn open in the fabric of reality, enabling dangers unknown to come explore our future world, whilst allowing the Player Characters to visit the realms on the other side. There are strange technologies to be found too, some wholly new, others seemingly familiar, but with a strange new twist. There is advice on devising both this technology and Stupendous Science devices, as well as how to handle NPC Sorcerers as recurring villains in true comic book style.

The tools for the Game Master are simply table-tastic! They start with a set of tables for generating adventures, followed tables for generating Ruined Earth NPCs, villages (complete with troubles and particular punishments), and then concoctions, books, weird religions, weird mounts, interesting locations , and weird weather. Put this all together and what you have is the means to generate not adventures, but episodes of the Barbarians of the Ruined Earth cartoon, if you will. A lengthy bestiary provides the Game Master with a great range of creatures, threats, and NPCs to put in the way of her players and their characters. They include the almost mundane—at least in comparison to the rest of the Ruined Earth—Aliens, Antmen, Ghosts, Giant Praying Lizards, Killer Clowns, Mummies, Mutants (supported by a table of Mutations earlier in the book), Raiders, Robots, Warlocks, and Zombies, and the bonkers, such as the Alien Vampire Spider Lizard, Animated Trash Man, Car Golem, and Car Serpent. Perhaps the most fun entry is the Tele-path, which has a television screen for a head and can repeat time in Reruns, freeze opponents with Static Existence, bolster allies and minions with Sports Commercials, entrance enemies with Infomercials, blast them with Hypersonic Static, or charm them with projections of Beloved Cartoon Characters! There are some highly entertaining monsters here, all of which are given some fantastic illustrations.

Lastly, the Game Master for Barbarians of the Ruined Earth is given not a scenario, but an area known as ‘The Western Lands’. This is the post-apocalyptic version of Los Angeles and Santa Monica, and is marked with thirteen important locations, from the Nukatomi Plaza, The Last Human Kingdom, and the Ruins of Los Angel to the Village of Route 66, Shopping Mall Fortress of the Witch Grenzel, and the Imperceptible Bluffs of the Winged Mutant People. Nukatomi Plaza, once the headquarters of the Nukatomi Corporation is actually a giant arcology, two hundred storeys high, with every ten storeys an independent block whose head, whether president, queen, gang leader, dictator, or anarcho-syndicalist commune, reports and pays tribute to the head of Nukatomi Plaza, Lightning Jack. Eight sample Blocks are included, all different, but all hating Sorcery, but there is plenty of scope for the Game Master to create more, and plenty of room to develop the lands beyond, which are of course, filled with cultists, monsters, mutants, nomads, raiders, Sorcerers, Stupendous Science, and more!

Physically, Barbarians of the Ruined Earth is nicely presented with effective use of orange and yellow to highlight the text. The writing is engaging, but what really catches the eye is the artwork. It depicts the strangeness and the action of the Ruined Earth in great blasts of gonzo and over-the-top colour that captures the look and feel of Saturday morning cartoons.

Barbarians of the Ruined Earth has a great pick-up-and-play quality that from the moment you start reading, you will want to play it. The roleplaying game combines a simple and easy style with fast-playing mechanics and the author’s clear love of the post apocalypse genre and Saturday morning cartoons. Barbarians of the Ruined Earth comes ready to broadcast some technicolour cartoon action into your brains and get you striding across the ravaged landscape of California, fearlessly defending the good, stalwartly battling vile Sorcerers, and delving into the secrets of the future! Bowls of cereal and pyjamas are definitely not optional.

Saturday 29 January 2022

[Fanzine Focus XXVII] Mörk Borg Cult: Heretic

On the tail of Old School Renaissance has come another movement—the rise of the fanzine. Although the fanzine—a nonprofessional and nonofficial publication produced by fans of a particular cultural phenomenon, got its start in Science Fiction fandom, in the gaming hobby it first started with 
Chess and Diplomacy fanzines before finding fertile ground in the roleplaying hobby in the 1970s. Here these amateurish publications allowed the hobby a public space for two things. First, they were somewhere that the hobby could voice opinions and ideas that lay outside those of a game’s publisher. Second, in the Golden Age of roleplaying when the Dungeon Masters were expected to create their own settings and adventures, they also provided a rough and ready source of support for the game of your choice. Many also served as vehicles for the fanzine editor’s house campaign and thus they showed another Dungeon Master and group played said game. This would often change over time if a fanzine accepted submissions. Initially, fanzines were primarily dedicated to the big three RPGs of the 1970s—Dungeons & DragonsRuneQuest, and Traveller—but fanzines have appeared dedicated to other RPGs since, some of which helped keep a game popular in the face of no official support.

Since 2008 with the publication of Fight On #1, the Old School Renaissance has had its own fanzines. The advantage of the Old School Renaissance is that the various Retroclones draw from the same source and thus one Dungeons & Dragons-style RPG is compatible with another. This means that the contents of one fanzine will compatible with the Retroclone that you already run and play even if not specifically written for it. Labyrinth Lord and Lamentations of the Flame Princess Weird Fantasy Roleplay have proved to be popular choices to base fanzines around, as has Swords & Wizardry. Another retroclone garnering attention via fanzines is Mörk Borg.

Like Mörk Borg Cult: Feretory before it, Mörk Borg Cult: Heretic is a fanzine of a different stripe, both in terms of content and style. It is and it is not a fanzine, but it is for Mörk Borg, the pitch-black pre-apocalyptic fantasy roleplaying game which brings a Nordic death metal sensibility to the Old School Renaissance. The format is that of a fanzine, A5-sized, on matte paper rather than the gloss of the Mörk Borg rulebook, but sharing the same riotous assault of electrically vibrant yellow and pink highlights on swathes of black, abrupt font changes, and metallic embellishments. Essentially, production values higher than that typically found in most fanzines, but influential nevertheless, as seen in the recent Knock! #1 An Adventure Gaming Bric-à-Brac and Knock! #2 An Old School Gaming Bric-à-BracThis is because although the origins of the content in Mörk Borg Cult: Feretory are amateur in origin, they have been curated from submissions to the Mörk Borg Cult, the community content programme for Mörk Borg by the designers of the roleplaying game and collated into a fanzine format. And unlike most fanzines, is available through distribution. It is essentially, a cross between a fanzine with gorgeous production values and a supplement with fanzine sensibilities.

Funded via a successful Kickstarter campaignMörk Borg Cult: Heretic is also longer than most fanzines. Most of its articles are fairly short though and written and presented in a sparse, often bullet-point style which makes their content easy to digest. It can be boiled down to a variegated array of tables, scenarios, and character Classes, and in true Mörk Borg style, Mörk Borg Cult: Heretic does not waste any time in getting down to its trademark doom and gloom with the first of its tables. ‘Seeds of a CVLT’ is the first of four entries in Mörk Borg Cult: Heretic by Mörk Borg co-creator by Pelle Nilsson. Its six tables provide the means for the Game Master to determine a cult’s forbidden name, status, key leadership, headquarters, cult tasks necessary to reach the Shimmering Fields, and what its members hate. For example, The Pipes of the Black Gates continues to thrive today, led by an Unseen Executor who is Loved by All, based amongst the oldest and most obscure Grift temples, where its members give all the silver to the deep well of the underworlds and despise the carers of children… Thus the Game Master has an enemy, a patron, or simply a background element to add to her game with a roll of a few dice.

Johnny Carhat adds the means to indiviualise further Mörk Borg’s standard character Classes with ‘Unheroic Feats’. For example, with ‘Butcher’, the Player Character knows to hack livestock and poultry apart and Humans are no different. In effect, the Player Character can perform rough emergency surgery on an ally who dies—to either render him broken rather than dead or into rations if they still die! There are some thirty-six of them and they can be selected or rolled randomly, and they can be selected to create certain character builds, although there is only the one suggested such build, so the Game Master and his players will need to work what Feat works with what Feat.

The first of two new Classes in Mörk Borg Cult: Heretic is the ‘Sacrilegious Songbird’ by Karl Druid. This is a Bard Class whose voice was all wrack and ruin until he did a deal with the devil and now he has immense charm and been gifted with an accursed instrument like a Hurty Gurdy or a Lute of the Acute Brute. The other is Cameron James’ ‘Shedding Vicar’, a far viler option who believes that armour is for the weak, clothes are a sin, and even his very skin an abhorrent vanity. Consequently, he peels it so that he can walk clean and glistening wet under the night sky. That skin can be used a skin whip, is marked with glyphs of power, and even traded to a higher power for temporary bonuses… One is fouler than the other, but both are in keeping with the tone of Mörk Borg.

Mörk Borg’s other co-creator, Johan Nohr, contributes ‘You Are Cursed’, a set of tables of for creating and inflicting curses on the Player Characters—twenty or so curses, who might be able to help the victim, the cost of that help, and the solution. The cause of any one of these curses is not given, but whether from a witch or the breaking of sorcerer’s wards or the setting off of a trap, the trigger is the easy bit to set up. It the nature of curse itself, which is a bit harder to detail, which is where this article is so useful. Thus this is another adventure or story generator, the results of which can be applied to a Player Character or NPC, and so push them further towards their ill-fated Doom…

With ‘The Merchant’, Johnny Carht describes not just an NPC, but also his wares, which means another table, this time fully illustrated to roll on. Whatever Mikhael the Merchant has for sale, the price is always very personal to the Player Character—quite literally, costing him actual points in terms of stats! His wares, whether a Galgenbeck Deathmask (place on the face of a corpse to discover how it died, but its theft was heretical) in Iveland or a Jar of Troll Piss (spill on the ground to prevent no beast will walk on it, though a territorial troll might) in the Wästland, vary depending upon the region where he is found. There are plenty of temptations here and Mikhael the Merchant could become a recurring NPC, if the Player Characters are willing to pay the price. Ian McClung’s ‘Blackpowder Weapons for the Rich and Foolhardy’ adds firearms as an option to Mörk Borg, but whilst they are deadly, they are very expensive, and they are slow, not to say loud. Whether their advantage of possibly inflicting a lot of damage outweighs their disadvantages will be down to the players and their characters. That is, if the Game Master agrees, for they are very much optional.

Just three monsters are described in Mörk Borg Cult: Heretic. One is Matthew Bottiglieri’s ‘The Bone Bowyer’, a vile fey which sneaks out of the Sarkash and abducts children to fashion their bones into bows and their flesh into blood-dyed cloaks. The obvious use is as a thing to hunt and possibly, rescue missing children from its callous clutches, but the option given as to what a wicked Player Character (or NPC) would have to pay in order to have such a bow as that wielded by the Bone Bowyer. Even if the first target is missed, an arrow fired from the Bone Bow will try to hit another and then another and another until it hits a target—any target! The second is ‘Borg Bitor’, a centipede-grub which feeds on stone, mortar, and wood, with acidic-venom dripping mandibles and the ability to excrete ‘Devil’s Glue’ with which to capture its prey. Worse though is the fact that the females find surrogates for their eggs in nurseries and none are any the wiser the parents are forced to hide the child from the world. The third and last is the ‘Rotten Nurse’ by Pelle Nilsson, a description of those infamous nurses who helped perform terrible experiments in Mikol’s Infirmary and who harshly punished with burial alive after being dunked in acid… When their graves were opened,  their coffins were empty. These creatures will be found in the scenario, ‘Nurse the Rot’, which follows immediately on.

The centre-piece for Mörk Borg Cult: Heretic is Karl Druid’s ‘Graves Left Wanting’. This is a large cemetery crawl, set in Graven-Tosk in Sarkash in the shadow of the Shadow Kimg’s manse, long abandoned, but with bodies still finding their way in even as the living and unliving attempt to claw their way out. Which includes the Player Characters. ‘Graves Left Wanting’ is intended as a one-shot, a campaign-starter, or even a post-campaign starter after a Total Party Kill! The Player Characters awaken in coffins and once free have the bounds of the graveyard to explore and ultimately escape… as you would expect, this is a foul, fetid, wretched place, fog-shrouded and full of the dead, the not-dead, and those in between. This is a great, doom-laden, way to kick off a campaign, or even better restart a campaign. In fact, even if the Player Characters die in Graven-Tosk they can easily wake up again in the grave and attempt to find their way out again, so there is a little bit of Groundhog Day to ‘Graves Left Wanting’…

‘Graves Left Wanting’ is followed by three scenarios, the first of which is Greg Saunders’ ‘Bloat’. This is a short, two-page mini-dungeon, home to a bacchanalian cult of excess and consumption, and as vile and rotten as you would expect. Where ‘Bloat’ is a one-session affair, Christian Sahlén’s ‘Sepulchre of the Swamp Witch’ is longer, but also details a cave complex home to a strange cult. It is said that if certain words are chanted before the witch’s altar of glyph-covered roots, any wish will be fulfilled—even powerful enough to stop the encroaching Doom! Depending on the actions of the Player Characters, fully exploring this cave complex may become an exercise in frustration, but it contains some fun twists which they can take advantage of, and if they can make it to the altar, where they can make their wishes, but this being Mörk Borg, there is a catch… Lastly, at the bequest of one of their aunts, Mother Marathuk, the Player Characters must enter the Chapel Olundan and recover the Staff of Awful Light lest the village of Tünstal sink into darkness. Placed inside rear fold, this is the last entry in Mörk Borg Cult: Heretic and the last and fourth by Pelle Nilsson. The chapel is partially populated by the Borg Bitor and the Rotten Nurse described earlier, and the more the Player Characters explore the more likely they come to their attention. Once that happens, it adds a sense of urgency to the situation as the Player Characters attempt to get away from their clutches and fulfil their aunt’s last request!

Slipped inside the front cover, ‘The Monster Approaches’ is a quick and dirty random monster generator which with a roll of a handful of dice, the Game Master can create something vile and unnerving to throw at her Player Characters—who are of course, just as likely to be almost, if not equally as vile and unnerving. It is quickly followed by Svante Landgraf’s ‘Roads to Damnation: Travel Across a Dying World’ which provides rules and randomness for travelling across the large island which is all that remains of the Dying Lands. It covers distances as well as events on and off the road, but like all tables has only a limited number of entries, so may be exhausted fairly soon. For a roleplaying game like Mörk Borg, which is designed for short campaigns, this is not so much of an issue.

In addition, Mörk Borg Cult: Heretic comes with a minimalistic dungeon crawl which is part-comic/part-poster. Drawn by Łukasz Kowalczuk, ‘The Hero Gauntlet of Hagelsecht’  shows how three brave/foolish adventurers ventured into the depths of the dungeon and did not make it out again. It is fun to see a Mörk Borg dungeon bash done as a cartoon and being accompanied by the monster stats and a mini-map could easily worked up into a mini-adventure inspired by the trio’s fate.

Physically, Mörk Borg Cult: Heretic adheres to the artpunk aesthetic as you would expect for a Mörk Borg supplement. There is a definite contrast between its dark gloomy content—and often its pages—and the bold splashes of colour, even on the matte paper stock. It is well written and the layout., perhaps a little busy in places, is easy to read.

As with any Mörk Borg release Mörk Borg Cult: Heretic can add so much to your fantasy game—especially if it is dark and grim. Its content would work in Warhammer Fantasy RoleplayZweihänder: Grim & PerilousShadow of the Demon Lord, and others—with a little bit of adaptation. As a supplement for Mörk Borg, the fanzine adds more content to make the experience of playing Mörk Borg even grislier, grottier, and grubbier for all concerned, the Game Master, her players, and their characters. ‘Graves Left Wanting’ in particular is a great starting (or restarting) point, but there is so much dark and nasty content in Mörk Borg Cult: Heretic that any Mörk Borg Game Master will want to inflict it on her players.

Blue Collar Sci-Fi One-Shot II

Since 2018, the Mothership Sci-Fi Horror RPG, beginning with the Mothership Sci-Fi Horror RPG – Player’s Survival Guide has proved to be a popular choice when it comes to self-publishing. Numerous authors have written and published scenarios for the roleplaying game, many of them as part of Kickstarter’s ZineQuest, but the publisher of the Mothership Sci-Fi Horror RPG, Tuesday Knight Games has also supported the roleplaying game with scenarios and support of its own. Dead Planet: A violent incursion into the land of the living for the MOTHERSHIP Sci-Fi Horror Roleplaying Game is one such scenario, but Tuesday Knight Games has also published a series of mini- or Pamphlet Modules. The first of these is The Haunting of Ypsilon 14, the second Hideo’s WorldThe world of the title is virtual, a slickware slickworld game world which has become the last refuge of its designer, Hideo Kieslowski, the Hideo. Originally designed as a console called HypnoDD running slickware and a slickworld intended to be both played whilst sleeping and replace the user’s dreams, the project was a failure and despite attempts to salvage it, Hideo retreated into his creation and has remained there in a drug-induced come for a decade. Now, the slickware running the virtual world is deteriorating, degrading, and in danger of destroying it—and taking Hideo’s mind with it. In order to find that mind, the Player Characters will have to plug directly into the interface, and once inside the HypnoDD’s slickworld, move as quickly as they can.

The first thing that strikes the reader about Hideo’s World is the format. It is done as a double-sided tri-fold brochure on pale pink card. In fact, the card is stiff enough for the scenario to stand up right on its own, but open up the folder and the second thing that reader about Hideo’s World is the graphic design. The beginning location, the Plaza, is a virtual menu placed around a Communications Tower takes centre stage in the middle panel. The four options—or doors—on the menu are presented on the left-hand and right-hand panels consists of Settings, Game, Shop, and Home, and each of these has further options, as does the Communications Tower. A separate lists the things that the Player Characters might encounter in Hideo’s World, including Bugs (in the system), and Raiders—hackers, fans of Hideo’s come to see his world one last time, and so on, and Mister Goodnight™, an internal program and moon-headed mascot of PacyGen Pharmaceuticals & Soft Drinks Company which has a love-hate relationship with Hideo... Mister Goodnight™ is the primary NPC in Hideo’s World and ideally the Warden should really go to town in portraying him. On the back of the pamphlet, the Warden is provided with tables of Glitches, Textures, and Adverts with which to colour the world around the Player Characters as they explore and examine its limits.

The scenario begins with the Player Characters arriving in the Plaza and beginning to explore the Options available to them via the four virtual menus. Of the four options, Home is the one that the Player Characters need to access, as it should lead to the short where Hideo’s mind resides. However, a stretch of the Glitch Sea lies between the Plaza and Hideo’s Home. The players and their characters must then work out a way to get over there and explore the tower. It is primarily a puzzle scenario into which the Warden can throw the occasional spanner into the works with an NPC or a strange effect or a Glitch. The latter are important because the more of them there are, the greater the stress caused to the sleeping Hideo, the more likely he is to panic and so cause parts of his Slickworld to collapse around him... This gives Hideo’s World its countdown mechanism, though the players and their characters will initially be unaware of it.

Hideo’s World is different to other scenarios for Mothership Sci-Fi Horror RPG. To begin with, it is a puzzle adventure and then it very much less of a horror scenario than you would normally expect for a roleplaying game which is best known for its Blue Collar Sci-Fi horror one-shots. It is instead a puzzle scenario, not quite in the vein of the text adventures, but certainly giving a nod to them. The scenario is also more of a funhouse adventure with a lot of randomly generated elements for the Warden to pitch at her players. As a consequence, Hideo’s World is simply not as dangerous a scenario as the more obviously horror-based scenarios for Mothership Sci-Fi Horror RPG.

The second thing which strikes you about Hideo’s World is that just like The Haunting of Ypsilon 14 before, the Warden will need to undertake a high degree of preparation in order to run it. The brevity of the format means that none of the NPCs have stats, but they can be provided. The major omission is the lack of motivations or reasons for the Player Characters to get involved, and the difficulty for the Warden in devising any such reason or motivation is compounded by the different nature of the scenario. It is not a traditional Mothership Sci-Fi Horror RPG scenario and so the traditional types of set-up found in Blue Collar Sci-Fi will be challenging to use. Perhaps a family member wants to rescue him or a corporation wants the knowledge that might be hidden in his Sliceworld?

Physically, Hideo’s World is definitely a scenario with physical presence, despite its relative slightness. If the cover illustration is underwhelming, the map-illustration of the Plaza is good and the cross section of the Tower that is Hideo’s Home is serviceable. It is actually a pity that the map-illustration of the Plaza is numbered because unnumbered it could be shown to the players. Lastly, it does need a slight edit in places.

Hideo’s World is a fairly busy scenario with lots of things that can happen to the Player Characters in quite a confined space and not all of them of any consequence. So it requires preparation in terms of what everything does and detailing NPCs and motivations, and so on. Wacky more than weird, hare-brained than horrifying, Hideo’s World is a funhouse puzzle adventure that pushes Mothership Sci-Fi Horror RPG in an unexpected and not as easy to use direction.


An Unboxing in the Nook video of Hideo’s World can be found here.

Friday 28 January 2022

Moorcockian Magic

Pacts and Blades: Moorcockian Fantasy – A Minimalist Sword and Witchcraft RPG for Short Campaigns and Quick Sessions is a Swords & Sorcery roleplaying game—of a sort—inspired by the tales by Michael Moorcock in which the Eternal Champion enters into bargains and agreements with great demons, elementals, and gods and in return receives great power, whether that is the power of the blade or the power of the spell. Written and published by Lucas Rolim, Pacts and Blades: Moorcockian Fantasy effectively takes the interesting ideas of Stormbringer: A Fantasy Role-Playing in the Young Kingdoms, slims them down to their basics and presents them as a set of mechanics which just about work on their own, but really demand a setting of their own, and if necessary, a setting of their own whose combat and magic system Pacts and Blades: Moorcockian Fantasy can easily replace with its own. It is a set of mechanics in which swordsmen follows the Path of the Blade and studies treatises and with weapon masters to increase their skill with a weapon and sorcerers the Path of the Pact, studying tomes and making pacts with spirits, demons, and the like, and so gain access to magics.

From the outset, 
Pacts and Blades: Moorcockian Fantasy is clear that it eschews the standard elements of the roleplaying game—initiative, movement, time, equipment prices, and the like. All of that is down to the Judge—as the Game Master is known in Pacts and Blades: Moorcockian Fantasy—to determine. Instead, its emphasis is upon its simple resolution mechanic and the two Paths, the Path of the Blade and the Path of the Pact. As a consequence, there is a huge narrative element to the roleplaying, not only with the Judge deciding upon how initiative, movement, time, equipment prices, and the like all play out, but also with the players deciding what Path Advancements their characters are going to learn and what their effects are. Which of course, is in addition to the roleplaying possibilities.

A Player Character is simply defined. He has a number of Health Points divided into three types of Wounds—Light Wounds, Moderate Wounds, and Heavy Wounds, and his Path Advancements. A Player Character starts play with a randomly determined number of wounds and one Path Advancement, either in the Path of the Blade or the Path of the Pact.

Esshian of Toorcaas
Path Advancements:
Path of the Pact: The Draft of Durasthakaraṇaya
Light Wounds 1 Moderate Wounds 1 Heavy Wounds 1

Pacts and Blades: Moorcockian Fantasy has a player roll two six-sided dice and attempt to equal or exceed a Reference Value when he wants his character to succeed at a Task. Tasks are divided into four Difficulty tiers each of which has a default Reference Value which is three times the number of the Difficulty tier. The Difficulty tiers and their Reference Values are Easy (six), Average (nine), Hard (twelve), and Impossible (fifteen). The Reference Value can be modified by a Player Character’s Path Advancements and Narrative Advantages—the latter determined by the environment and situation, typically reducing the Reference Value by one for each. This will give the player and his character a new Reference Value to roll against on the given table. The result can either be a Total Success, Partial Success, or Failure, essentially the equivalent of ‘Yes’, ‘Yes, but…’, and ‘No’. For example, in combat, a Partial Success results in the Player Character striking his opponent, but leaves him open to a counter attack, whereas a Total Success would mean pulling a randomly selected Feat in addition to the damage inflicted.

Feats come into play when a player rolls a Total Success using a Path Advancement. For example, in combat using the Path of the Blade, a Feat might grant the Player Character a second action due to his speed or so weaken his opponent that the damage he would inflict on his next attack is reduced. Similarly, when a Player Character adheres to the Path of the Pact and invokes his patron spirit or demon, a Feat might be that the spiritual connection is perfect and the spell is cast with maximum effect or so deep that the Player Character is rendered ethereal! Actual damage in combat is determined by the result on the highest die and be a Light Wound, Moderate Wound, or Severe Wound. When a Player Character or NPC runs out of Severe Wounds, they are dead, but armour adds to the number of wounds that either of them can suffer. As a Player Character gains more Path Advancements and thus more Path Advancements, he will also gain more wounds of all three types.

Path Advancements are gained when it is narratively appropriate and 
Pacts and Blades: Moorcockian Fantasy suggests that it occur two or three times per session. A Path Advancement for the Path of the Blade is by weapon type, for example dagger, broad sword, or darts, reducing the Reference Value by one up to a maximum of three times per weapon type. Like the source material, a Path Advancement for the Path of the Pact is comparatively more complex, and is done per Patron Spirit, again reducing the Reference Value by one up to a maximum of three times per Patron Spirit. Each Patron Spirit has a Domain, for example, Air, Earth, Fire, Water, Protection, Mind, Teleportation, and so on. A Player Character invoking a Spirit Patron effectively casts a spell related to its Domain, but that ‘spell’ or its effects, can only be used once per day. Depending on the Spirit Patron, this might be to inflict or heal damage, grant an enhancement which reduces the Reference Value of another Task, inflict a Curse, and so on. Of the two Paths, there is far more scope for roleplaying with the Path of the Pact.

Pacts and Blades: Moorcockian Fantasy rounds itself off with a selection of monsters and it is here its problems begin. There are just the six monsters, including Goblin, Orc, Spider, and Dragon, all drawn from traditional fantasy and thus uninspiring in comparison to any Moorcockian influenced creations. Only the one, the Orc Shaman, possesses a Pact, that of the Domain of Death with Mortus the Decrepit, and there is no advice on handling that or NPCs in relationship to the Player Characters. Similarly, there is no world building or advice for creating worlds with a Moorcockian fantasy influence, or even discussion of what Moorcockian Fantasy is or what the differences are between it and traditional fantasy. Unless the Judge and her players know that difference because they know the source material, the context of Pacts and Blades: Moorcockian Fantasy is very much going to be a mystery to them.

Another issue is the terminology of having a Difficulty tier and a Reference Value derived from that which is what the player is rolling against. Now the point of the narrative and Pact advantages is to reduce the Reference Value the player is rolling against, but arguably is there any need to have both terms? Would it not be simpler and less confusing to have a Difficulty Value and adjust that with narrative and Pact advantages, rather than what in effect is two differing terms for the same thing?

Pacts and Blades: Moorcockian Fantasy is beautifully laid out in full colour with a well-chosen selection of public domain artwork which give an unsettling and intense baroque feel. Barring the omissions, it is well written.

Although its terminology does complicate what is a straightforward and simple system, the mechanics of 
Pacts and Blades: Moorcockian Fantasy very much lend themselves to roleplaying in the style of the Eternal Champion. After all, the Player Characters are studying with their weapons and they are entering into pacts with otherworldly creatures for great power, and there are great roleplaying opportunities in that, but beyond that system though, Pacts and Blades: Moorcockian Fantasy is far from inspiring in terms of its genre and its influences. It is simply, a set of mechanics awaiting a world or multiverse of worlds and the input of the Judge to really bring it alive, but leaves the Judge very much on her own when it comes to the nature of that multiverse and the inspiration behind Pacts and Blades: Moorcockian Fantasy – A Minimalist Sword and Witchcraft RPG for Short Campaigns and Quick Sessions.


Pacts and Blades: Moorcockian Fantasy – A Minimalist Sword and Witchcraft RPG for Short Campaigns and Quick Sessions is available here in in print and here as a PDF..

Monday 24 January 2022

Jonstown Jottings #52: Underwater Quest

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.


What is it?

GLORANTHA: Underwater Quest is a scenario for use with RuneQuest: Roleplaying in Glorantha.

It is a four page, full colour, 1.45 MB PDF.

The layout is clean and tidy. It is art free, but the cartography is excellent.

Where is it set?

GLORANTHA: Underwater Quest is set in the swampy area area in southern Dragon Pass, near the sea, between the city of Nochet and the ruins of Lylket. Unless the scenario begins en media res, the events which lead into the scenario take place in Sartar. Ideally this should be near the Delecti Marsh.

Who do you play?
Player Characters of all types could play this scenario, but a worshipper or priest of Heler or other Water god might be useful.

What do you need?
GLORANTHA: Underwater Quest requires RuneQuest: Roleplaying in Glorantha and The Gateway Bestiary.

What do you get?
GLORANTHA: Underwater Quest details a partially flooded complex consisting of several rooms, five of which are detailed. Here hidden behind a quadruple-locked door can be found Daliath’s Well of Wisdom, a source of his sacred water. The complex is inhabited by several randomly selected water-themed monsters, including Deep Ones, Kelpies, Shark-Men, and Water-Leapers. Notably, the Deep Ones are at odds with the Shark-Men, but that is the only real dynamic element in the complex.

The reason why the Player Characters are searching for the Well of Daliath is because several undead spies have unmasked at the various tribal courts of Sartar, each magically disguised in a way never seen before. Although they were defeated, they had done untold underhand and disruptive deeds. It is suspected that Delecti, the Necromancer at the heart of the Upland Marsh, is behind these attempts, and the tribes fear his spies may even have gone as far as impersonating kings and chieftains. If someone can find the Well of Daliath and drink its waters, they will gain the wisdom sufficient to be able to identify these spies.

As with other titles from this author, GLORANTHA: Underwater Quest is all about the destination. The background is flexible in terms of timeframe, but is underdeveloped with little explanation as to what the Well of Deliath is, what its waters do, and what Orlanth did within the Well. The complex itself is anything other than interesting and does not offer anything beyond combat challenges. This is not to say that there not an interesting story or scenario in the all too few pages of GLORANTHA: Underwater Quest, but they consist of the backstory and the legend, which of course the author effectively ignores. The nearest the author gets to this is suggesting that GLORANTHA: Underwater Quest be used as a sequel to GLORANTHA: A Trek in the Marsh

GLORANTHA: Underwater Quest is not badly written for what it is, but very much like the earlier GLORANTHA: The search for the Throne of ColymarGLORANTHA: A Trek in the Marsh, and GLORANTHA: The Avengers of Earth Temple, it is underwritten and leaves plenty of development work for the Game Master to do before she brings GLORANTHA: Underwater Quest to the gaming table. Probably more than it warrants, since if the Game Master is going to have to do that development work, she might as well grab the map and start from scratch.

Is it worth your time?
YesGLORANTHA: Underwater Quest contains the germ of an interesting scenario if the Game Master is willing to completely develop the set-up, add the flavour, and the detail, which of course the author failed to do. Then of course, the Game Master can do something about making the dungeon interesting.
NoGLORANTHA: Underwater Quest is a self-contained dungeon bash which the author kindly leaves all of the interesting detail, stats, and flavour to be found in the back story for the Game Master to develop herself. Cheap, cheerless, characterless, and charmless.
MaybeGLORANTHA: Underwater Quest is yet a perfect showcase of how to take an interesting idea, all but ignore it, or at least leave it up to the Game Master to do anything with, and instead write an uninteresting dungeon bash for RuneQuest: Roleplaying in Gloranthaso if the Game Master wanted to know how not to do it, she should start here. 

Sunday 23 January 2022

Pawsome Action!

The Ages of Man have long since passed and the Old Ones are no more. They bequeathed the world and their relics to the ones that they worshipped, rather than the ones that served them. Thus to the Cats rather than the Dogs. Where the Dogs have the one kingdom, that of Pugmire, the cats have six fractious Monarchies, scheming and plotting to outdo each other. The Cats of these Monarchies sent explorers hither and thither, often looking for the Relics left behind by Man, even over the mountains to the north—though none go there today, and once the means to sail the Acid Sea was discovered, over the horizon. Trade would flourish initially between the Monarchies via House Korat and the Kingdom of Pugmire, but differences led to the relationship breaking down and war being declared. The War of Dogs and Cats could not be fought effectively, thus Trillani Persian von Mau convinced the six Monarchies to come together, sign a Treaty of Unification, and become six dynasties governed by a Ruling Council with Trillani elected as Monarch. Thus the Monarchies of Mau was formed. The Kingdom of Pugmire is its greatest rival, but despite the many differences between the two kingdoms and Cats and Dogs, there is peace. The war ended in stalemate, with Waterdog Port, the source of the initial dispute ending up a neutral city. The Monarchies of Mau still faces enemies from without and from within. Badgers raid and plunder, and monsters of all sorts are constant danger, the worst being the demons and the Unseen that threaten the existence of Cats—even impersonating them, whilst the individual Monarchies still attempt to learn each other’s secrets, and the Cult of Labo Tor, consisting of fanatical Rats and Mice—who otherwise live peacefully in the gaps between Cat society—steal the artefacts of Man to study and so discover the path through the Maze of Ignorance and so become like Man. In response to these dangers, to learn more about the world, and to foster co-operation and learning between the six Monarchies, Trillani’s Trailblazers was formed. Teams made up of Cats from all six Monarchies as well as from the unaffiliated Cats of the Shadow Bloc serve in Trillani’s Trailblazers.

The Cats of the six Monarchies of Mau are all different. House Angora is one of scholars and intellectuals, House Cymric of diplomats and negotiators, House Korat of soldiers and tacticians, House Mau of leaders and judges, House Rex of explorers and outsiders, and House Siberian of traditionalists and medics. All of these Houses have held a monarchy before Unification, but there are still many minor Houses, organisations, rebels, and outsiders who have a voice in the kingdom, and they are represented by the Shadow Bloc. However, all Cats of the Monarchies of Mau are the same. They value privacy and secrecy, they commonly believe in reincarnation and are by nature spiritual, and they fear and have a common enemy in the evil that is the Unseen. They also adhere to the Precepts of Mau—Always trust our instincts, always reward loyalty, always respect an honest duel, and always pounce upon minions of the Unseen. Without these tenets, the Cats of the Monarchies of Mau are no longer worthy of the adoration of Man.

This is the setting for Monarchies of Mau, the feline sequel and companion roleplaying game to Pugmire. Published by Onyx Path Publishing following a successful Kickstarter campaignMonarchies of Mau, like Pugmire before it, employs the Open Game Licence for Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition. This makes Monarchies of Mau easy to pick up and play, which should be no surprise given the delightful accessibility of Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition. Like Pugmire, it presents a streamlined version of the rules, takes Player Characters from First to Tenth Level, and it can also be played in tandem with Pugmire, so that group could play an all-Cat game, all-Dog game, or a game of Cats and Dogs.

Cats in Monarchies of Mau have a Calling, a House, and a Background. A Calling is what a Cat does and is the equivalent of a Class. Six are given—the charismatic Champions (Fighters), intelligent Footpads (Rogues), wise and intelligent Mancers (Wizards), charismatic and enduring Ministers (Clerics), wise and enduring Trackers (Rangers) who hunt the Unseen, and strong and dextrous Wanderers (Monks). Now these Classes are not the exact equivalent of those in Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition, for example, Mancers do cast necromantic spells and Ministers are almost bardic in their means of spellcasting. Unlike the Dogs of Pugmire, the Cats of do not have a Breed as such, but rather the vocations of the six Houses. This neatly avoids Monarchies of Mau having to detail each and every contemporary breed and also establishes the various noble families within the kingdom. A Background is what a Cat did before becoming a hero and answering his Calling. Just eight are given, ranging from Common Folk and Criminal to Scholar and Soldier. Lastly, a Cat will have an Ideal, a Mystery, and a Flaw.

A Cat’s Calling will provide him with a view on the other Callings, on the Precepts of Mau—each Calling favours a different part of the Precepts, his Stamina Points, skills, and rucksack (equipment), plus his first Secrets. The latter are of course, a Cat’s special abilities and powers and are akin to the proficiencies or feats of Dungeons & Dragons. Another Secret and an ability bonus will come from a Cat’s House, and then more rucksack contents and skills from his Background. Six examples of each Calling are given as well as six possible Unusual Circumstances by which a Cat gained a particular item in his rucksack.

Creating a Cat involves selecting a Calling, a House, and a Background, plus skills and Secrets. Mancers and Ministers also have spells. Unlike in other roleplaying games, the core abilities are not rolled for, but assigned from a given set of values. The creation process is generally straightforward and a player is nicely guided through the process, step-by-step. One noticeable absence is that of Alignment, instead replaced by how each Calling favours a different Precept, but without laying too heavy a paw on the player’s shoulder.

Our sample character is Philomena von Angora, a Mancer who after completing her training continued conducting research in her House’s extensive libraries. Recently she was assigned to shepherd a visiting researcher from the Shadow Bloc, a Minister named Winifred von Forest. Together they conducted extensive examination of the ancient papers and they became friends, and then Philomena found herself falling in love with her. Before she could express her feelings, Winifred disappeared and nobody seemed to recall that she had been at the library. All was that left was the bone focus which Winifred von Forest said belonged to her father. With her friend missing, Philomena has left the library and joined Trillani’s Trailblazers.

Philomena von Angora
Level 1
Calling: Mancer
House: Angora
Background: Scholar
Proficiency Bonus: +2
Stamina dice: d6
Stamina Points: 6
Defence: 12
Initiative: +1
Speed: 30
Abilities: Strength -1 (08), Dexterity +1 (12), Intelligence +3 (17), Wisdom +2 (14), Constitution +0 (10), Charisma +1 (13)
Skills: Know Arcana, Know History, Know Spirituality, Search, Sense Motive
Secrets: House Secrets (Angora), Light Armour Aptitude, Mancy, Simple Weapons Aptitude, Voracious Learner
Spells: Chill, Eldritch Blast, Feather Fall, Prestidigitation, Unnatural Rebuke
Rucksack: Spear (1d8), padded light armour, Bone Focus (Borrowed from a friend who disappeared), common clothes, bottle of ink, ink pen, parchment, small collection of books, belt pouch with plastic coins

Ideal: …Studying the Unseen
Bond: …My love for a Cat of another House.
Flaw: …Return the item I know not be in my possession.

Given its Dungeons & Dragons-derived mechanics, it should be no surprise that Monarchies of Mau is a Class and Level system. Unlike Dungeons & Dragons, the Levels only go up to Tenth Level, at which point a Cat is considered to have Grey Fur and cannot advance any further, although he can still go adventuring. Unlike Dungeons & Dragons, a Cat who goes adventuring in Monarchies of Mau does not earn Experience Points, but is awarded a new Level after a few good stories and when the Guide—as the Game Master is known in Monarchies of Mau—decides is appropriate. When he does go up a Level, a Cat gains both Stamina and Stamina dice, spellcasters—Mancers and Ministers gain more spells and spell slots, and at every other Level, a Cat’s Proficiency Bonus increases. Every Level, a Cat gains an Improvement, which can be to improve an Ability score, select a new Aptitude or House Secret, or to refine a Secret the Cat already possesses. For example, a Champion can refine his Honour Challenge Secret, which enables him to force an opponent to engage in an honour duel, by using both Charisma and Strength rather than just Charisma to force the associated Saving Throw or allowing an opponent to decline and take a penalty to his Saving Throws. These tweaks and refinements give Monarchies of Mau a sense of the cinematic and heroic action as well as providing some variability in terms of Cat design.

Mechanically, Monarchies of Mau looks much like Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition, but on a closer look, there are tweaks and refinements to the rules too. The most feline of tweaks is the Pouncing rule. When a Cat takes the Ready action and studies a situation, his player rolls the resulting action with Advantage! Perhaps the most notable addition is that of Fortune and the Fortune Bowl. A session begins with the Cats in an adventuring party having two Fortune in the Fortune Bowl. A player can earn more Fortune for the Bowl by roleplaying to his Cat’s personality traits in a way that makes the game interesting, by being an entertaining player, coming up with a good plan, and by playing to his Cat’s instincts. Much of this is up to the discretion of the Guide, but a player can force the Guide to add Fortune to the Bowl by having his Cat intentionally fail. However, where in Pugmire any Fortune Points acquired by a Dog are automatically added to the shared Fortune Bowl, in Monarchies of Mau, a Cat can favour himself rather than the group and keep it in his own Fortune Pile. Fortune in the Bowl can be spent—and this is a permanent spend—to gain a reroll on any dice roll and keep the higher result, to allow a spellcaster to cast a spell if he has run out of spell slots, and to interrupt the initiative order and take their turn now. Further, some Secrets require Fortune to be activated.

Again, magic in Monarchies of Mau looks like Dungeons & Dragons, but with a tweak or two. In terms of flavour, the magic of Monarchies of Mau has a darker edge, involving the unusual and the unnatural, for example, the Mancer employing necromancy. Mechanically, magic in Monarchies of Mau can go wrong. If a player rolls a botch—a critical failure—on a spellcasting roll for his Cat, intentionally fails a spell to gain Fortune, or an opponent rolls a Triumph—a critical success—on a Saving Throw, then a spell backfires. It is up to the Guide to determines the outcome and effect when this happens. Lastly, besides the Mancer and the Minister, Cats of other Callings can take the Magic Aptitude Secret and thus become a Dabbler, knowing just a handful of spells.

Another major difference between Monarchies of Mau and Pugmire is the way in which Cats and Dogs treat Masterworks, the Relics left behind by Man. They are still divided into ‘Relics’, such as the Boots of Climbing or Chameleon Cloak; ‘Fixes’ like Explosive Eggs or Potions of Haste; and ‘Wonders’, such as the Flame Twig or Picture of Health. Now, just as with Pugmire, the world of Monarchies of Mau is being a post-apocalyptic world, the conceit is that what these items really are, is items of Old-World technology. However, they cannot so easily be mapped back onto our own technology, but then the conceit is not necessarily that important in play. The big difference between Pugmire and the Monarchies of Mau is that Dogs share and even revere Masterworks, whereas Cats study them, attune to them, and they break them in just the right way so that they can absorb the powers they contain. For example, the Charged Collar provides a temporary defence against bludgeoning attacks, but when broken down in the right way and absorbed, the Cat is Resistant to such attacks. Further, when refined, the effects of the absorbed Charged Collar can make a Cat immune to bludgeoning attacks and can even manifest a lightning barrier! This has a number of effects. It both makes Masterworks more powerful and more personal to a Cat, and mechanically it partially offsets the fewer number of Secrets a Cat has versus the number of Tricks a Dog has in Pugmire. The combination of this is drive a player and his Cat to explore the ruins of the Monarchies of Mau and beyond in search of the Masterworks, providing a base motivation in addition to those born of a Cat’s Ideal, Motivation, and Flaw. However, the Masterworks section is quite small and is very likely going to be exhausted relatively quickly.

The setting for Monarchies of Mau is explored in some detail, explaining Cats and their Houses, culture, technology, and more in some detail, as well as their enemies and rivals. It also looks at the Ruling Council as well as Trillani’s Trailblazers, the organisation which by default the Player Characters are expected to join and thus adventure. Notably, it takes the reader inside the Lounges where Cats of all stripes gather over mugs of catnip tea and saucers of milk close by the fire, whilst Rats and Mice stick to the shadows of the corners. Whilst various locations in both the lands of the six Dynasties and beyond the Monarchies of Mau are described as well, there is plenty of room for the Guide to add her own setting material. Some of the secrets of the setting are explained here and also in the chapter for the Guide, which is well written and includes suggestions for running Monarchies of Mau and Pugmire together—and even for adapting the setting to other rules systems!

In addition to the advice and further examination of the setting, the Guide is provided with a decently sized Bestiary, covering Animals, Bandits, Cats, Dogs, Badgers, Rodents, and more. That more includes monsters and the Demons of the Unseen, and some of these are nasty indeed. For example, the Breathtaker steals into camps at night and steals the breath of Cats, Bone Burrs are insect-infested skulls which attack Cats, and Witch Demons possess Cats and has the power to reflect or even absorb the spells of Mancers and Ministers! Lastly, Monarchies of Mau includes an introductory adventure, ‘All Hail the Rat King!’, in which the Player Characters are sent to investigate a sudden wave of Rat immigration in the town of Strudniksburg. Designed for First Level Player Characters, it can be played using the players’ own or the six pre-generated characters given as examples at the beginning of the book.

Physically, Monarchies of Mau is, like Pugmire, a lovely book. Again, it is full colour and illustrated with some fantastic artwork. In keeping with the darker tone of the setting, the artwork also has a darker feel to it. The book is also well written and like Pugmire, commentary is given by a pair of in-game characters. One to provide guidance for those new to Monarchies of Mau, the other to explain how it differs from other roleplaying games.

Pugmire was a roleplaying game about being a ‘Good Dog’ and gaming with a pack, but Monarchies of Mau pulls away from that. There is greater sense of individuality to the Cats in Monarchies of Mau, in terms of roleplaying, the mechanics, and the setting. The Cats are caught between this individuality and the collective need for co-operation. At a personal level, this can be seen in the choice between choosing to add Fortune to his Personal Pile or the group’s Fortune Bowl, but at a national level it can be seen in the necessity of the six Monarchies of Mau to co-operate despite their scheming against each other. This scaling means that Monarchies of Mau can do dungeoneering and exploratory adventures as much as it can inter-House rivalries and politics. There is a darker tone to the roleplaying game too in the monsters the Cats face, and also in the magics, especially the necromantic magics of the Mancer, they employ. There is thus much more of the horror genre to Monarchies of Mau, and that in combination with the darker tone, makes less suitable for a younger audience. These are of course, elements which the Guide can choose to adjust up or down as is her wont.

The darker tone and horror elements of Monarchies of Mau mean that it is not quite suited to being a beginning roleplaying game, despite its Cats being cute, and the individual versus group dynamic may divide a group as much as it sets up some interesting roleplaying choices and dynamics. Monarchies of Mau is not quite as accessible as Pugmire, or necessarily as easy to play, but it does present an entirely different, but still exciting and fun point of view from which to roleplay and explore their shared world.