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

Monday 27 June 2022

Miskatonic Monday #122: Pickman’s Action Figure

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 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: Todd Miller

Setting: Modern Upstate New York
Product: Scenario
What You Get: Fifty-four page, 31.62 MB Full Colour PDF

Elevator Pitch: Suffer the little children’s wrath
Plot Hook: Your brother disappeared years ago, so when you get a phone call from him in the night...
Plot Support: Staging advice, four pre-generated Investigators, three 
handouts, one set of  floorplans, two NPCs, and two Mythos creatures.
Production Values: Decent.

# Really great backstory and set-up
# Decent pre-generated Investigators
# Focused investigative one-shot
# Interestingly Ghoulish twist upon the the Changeling myth
# Solid convention scenario

# Needs a slight edit
# Confrontation needs careful handling
# Few options for the Investigators to prepare for the confrontation

# Great back story and set-up leads to a freaky family confrontation
# Interestingly Ghoulish twist upon the the Changeling myth makes a creepy one-shot.

Mythos Manuals I

From Unaussprechlichen Kulten, Revelations of Gla’aki, De Vermis Mysteriis to the dread Necronomicon, the Mythos and its fiction is replete with awful tomes of all too inhuman, alien knowledge, spells or formulae whose invocation all too lead to the summoning of or contact with things and beings beyond understanding, and the ravings of madmen. Their treatment in Call of Cthulhu and other roleplaying games of Lovecraftian investigative horror has varied over the years. At worst they have been treated as treasures to be plundered from cultists as in some of the very early scenarios, but in more recent times they have been properly treated as horribly insidious works of true knowledge, with even their possession having a subtle effect upon the fragility of man, whether his mind or his very being. Perhaps their first expansive exploration in Call of Cthulhu would have been in The Keeper’s Companion Vol. 1 and The Keeper’s Companion Vol. 2, and the evocative exploration and presentation would have been in the almost mythical Masks of Nyarlathotep Companion. It is strange that given their place within the fiction and their use to both impart knowledge of the Mythos and enforce its corruptive influence, that there has never been a Call of Cthulhu supplement dedicated to just these great works within the fiction.

Tomes of Cthulhu, published by Azukail Games, is not that supplement, but it points towards such a supplement even if cannot be that supplement itself—primarily for copyright reasons, of course. It is instead a generic supplement for roleplaying game of Lovecraftian investigative horror which describes some twenty different tomes and their reprints inspired by the works of H. P. Lovecraft. Each entry follows a standard format. This includes both the name of the work and its author, a description of its format and its contents, plus size and weight, number of pages, primary language it is written in, the amount of knowledge it contains about the Mythos and the effect upon the reader once the book is read, and a suggested period of study time. This is followed by notes and perhaps discussion of copies or reprints. All of which apes the descriptions and formatting of details about the Mythos tomes in Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition, but Tomes of Cthulhu shies away from supplying the Game Master with actual numbers. Thus, the suggested amount of knowledge it contains about the Mythos and the effect upon the reader once the book is read runs from Least through Lesser, Moderate, and Greater to Greatest, equating to much as 2% for the Least category to as much as 15% for the Greatest. Take any of the entries in Tomes of Cthulhu and the Game Master should be able to adapt them to the Lovecraftian investigative horror roleplaying game of her choice.

The entries range from ancient stone tablets to typed reports. A Translation and Interpretation of the Pre-Minoan Tablets Found in the Aegean is an example of the latter, supposedly written in a language belonging to a pre-Minoan civilisation and discovered by adventurer Jonathan Smedlock during a dive off the coast of Crete. The tablets were regarded as fakes and his claims ridiculed, and the tablets were either lost or are in a museum, and Smedlock was last seen in Africa. The translations in Smedlock’s own cheap hardback are based on several other works, none of them on the Minoan languages, and the Game Master is free to insert whichever Mythos she wants in here. An example of the latter is A Report of the Investigation into the Events in the Punjabi Himalayan Region in 1873 by Captain James Sutton is the typed report based on The Journal of Captain James Sutton, a soldier sent to investigate strange goings on in the Punjab in the shadow of Himalayas. The diary records weird, unearthly colours, and draining, grey effect that killed man, beast, plant, and the ground itself. The official report, not wholly written by Sutton, and since mimeographed, gives poisoning as the cause. Most of the other entries in Tomes of Cthulhu are books or reports, but Giants in the Earth by Private Tommy Atkins is a volume of horrifically grim poetry published after the Great War under an obvious pseudonym, the author consequently being confined to Bedlam where he committed suicide. The second, expurgated edition was published in 1959, its often lurid and disturbing replaced with more mundane depictions of the Western Front. The second edition is thus not of interest to book collectors or Mythos scholars, but either version reveals something about the Ghouls that prowled the Western Front.

Several famous figures are given as authors of Mythos tomes. Sir Isaac Newton wrote Philosophiæ Alchimia Principia Mathematica following a possible breakdown, a treatise on mathematics, the occult, alchemy, and chemistry which describes the true nature of the universe, particularly as they relate to time, space, or dimensional travel, even as far out as the Dreamlands. Suggested entities and races covered in the volume, which is written in Latin, include Yog-Sothoth, Azathoth, Nyarlathotep, and Great Race of Yith. Notes on an Expedition to the Antarctic by Charles Darwin is perhaps the most obvious entry in its inspiration. In 1831, during the second voyage of HMS Beagle, the expedition was given maps of a southern continent, and the book describes how it sailed south and discovered a cave entrance on the frozen land. Inside there were found pieces of green soapstone worked into rounded, five-pointed stars; carvings and murals on the walls, many damaged, depicted strange creatures and maps, perhaps of the Earth; and the strange, fossilised figure of barrel-shaped creature beyond understanding. Then there was the strange piping voice which shouted, “Tekeli-li!”. It is of course, all very At the Mountains of Madness.

Tomes of Cthulhu is relatively underwritten in terms of its ideas, because primarily, it is overwritten, repetitious, and very much in need of an edit. It also suffers from being for roleplaying games of Lovecraftian investigative horror rather than for a roleplaying game of Lovecraftian investigative horror, and so is not specific enough, which is not unexpected given the fact that the author must tiptoe around the facts that he cannot supply such numbers and he must be careful of what he can and cannot include. In combination though, the result is that any attempt to extract the information from this supplement is not as easy it should or could be. There are some potentially interesting tomes and titles which the Game Master or Keeper could extract from Tomes of Cthulhu, but it is perhaps best used to inspire the creation her own, as that might be easier.

Sunday 26 June 2022

Inglorious Fantasy

Across the patchwork of city-states, dukedoms, baronies, and petty kingdoms that make up Brancalonia, great generals ride at the head of their armies into war. Elsewhere honourable knights face down ferocious dragons, save the princess, and win both her hand and her father’s seat. Mighty wizards study the greatest of magical tomes revealing fantastic secrets and learn spells capable of warping reality itself. Brave adventurers and treasure-seekers delve into the ruins and underground complexes of the ancient Kingdom of Plutonia, the collapse of which led to the Thousand Years’ War, returning with treasures and secrets of the long past. The Kingdom of Brancalonia is a land of opportunity and adventure—but fighting wars, killing dragons, saving princesses, studying hard, and exploring deep underground, they are not your adventures, and they are not your opportunities. You might see that brave knight, mighty army, or learned wizard ride by as you step out of the House of Mother Josephine’s Rest into the sunshine, a plate of ‘Extreme Unction’ macaroni* in one hand and a cup of Troglodyte of Panduria** in the other, before you go back inside and return to the revelry you were engaged in before you got distracted by the noise outside. Perhaps to throw your wine and breakfast aside and leap into the brawl which has broken out in the meantime. After all, it is a matter of principle to support the members of your fellow brotherhood. Or you want to discuss your next job, for the silver is running short, your gear is looking shoddy, and who knows when the next bowl of zuppa di topi Bianchi or bottle of Fil de Ferro will come along? You are a knave, a ne’er do well, a scoundrel, a swindler, or a layabout—if not all four, with a misdeed or misdemeanour to your name or two (or three or…) and minor bounty (or two) on your head. You are not a villain though, but just someone from the dregs of society who knows that life is cheap and anything but fair, and so you are going to make the best of it. Just like the fellow members of your brotherhood.

*Consume with care. Known to cause fits of tears and heart-attacks.

**One of the finest wines ever to come out of Ausonia. This is not a good vintage, but it is wine.

This is the world of Brancalonia – Spaghetti Fantasy, a bawdy, sun-drenched, low fantasy campaign setting for Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition, inspired by Italian tradition, folklore, history, landscapes, literature, and pop culture. Published by Acheron Books following a successful Kickstarter campaign, it is set in a ‘back-to-front’ version of Medieval Italy—even the gorgeous map is flipped from left to right—in which low life heroes, the Player Characters, form Bands and hopefully get hired by hopefully rich merchants, petty nobles, and desperate warlords to undertake the odd job or two, typically illicit, dangerous, and deniable. That is when they are not concocting their own schemes and running into curses, demons, witches, and angry, abandoned spouses. To a wider audience, the most well-known inspiration for Brancalonia – Spaghetti Fantasy will be the films Ladyhawke, Flesh + Blood, and The Princess Bride, along with Carl Collodi’s Pinnochio, but the Brancalonia – Spaghetti Fantasy Setting Book includes numerous others. All of which are likely to be less familiar to a wider audience. And that is a bit a problem because not all of the inspiration is easily available. However, if instead you think of Brancalonia – Spaghetti Fantasy as being distinctly European fantasy—so there is definitely going to be mud and worse underfoot, not unlike Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, but with better weather, better cooking, and definitely better wine, and then directed by Sergio Leone (with Terry Gilliam as second unit director), then you have the feel of the setting.

The Brancalonia – Spaghetti Fantasy Setting Book, which won the Gold Ennie for Best Electronic Book in 2021 (plus Silver Awards for Product of the Year, Best Writing, and Best Setting) keeps its fantasy low in a number of ways. First, Player Characters can only advance as high as Sixth Level. Second, whilst it provides five new Races, it does not provide any new Classes. Instead, it gives twelve new Subclasses, one each for the twelve Classes in the Player’s Handbook, along with new Feats and Backgrounds. Third, it gives rules for brawling, intentionally non-lethal combat, which typically takes place in a tavern or other dive before the Player Characters scarper after being accused of a Breach of the Peace and another bounty put on their heads. Fourth, their arms, armour, and other equipment is likely to be shoddy, poorly maintained, and will probably fall apart at the least opportune moment. It eschews the use of Alignment, and even if used, discourages any Player Character choosing to be evil, as Knaves are rogues rather than villains. The setting for the most part is humancentric and does not include the traditional Races of Dungeons & Dragons, although they are not unknown.

Besides Humans, the five new Races in the Brancalonia – Spaghetti Fantasy Setting Book are the Gifted, the Malebranches, the Marionettes, the Morgants, and the Sylvans. The Gifted are Humans who know a little bit more magic; Malebranche are Devils who proclaimed the Great Refusal and climbed out of the Inferno, typically via the Eternal Gate which stands in the great chasm into which Plutonia fell and now stands, and who still have diabolic features such as Hellwings and the Hellvoice; Marionettes are animated puppets, often in the form of Pinnochio or the Paladin-like Pupo, who can remove and use their limbs in a brawl; Morgants are tall ‘demi-giants’ with great strength and appetite, known as fearless brawlers and champions often stationed at the vanguard of an army; and Sylvans are rustics at home in the forest. In addition, each Race has its brawl feature which gives it an advantage in nonlethal fight. The first of the twelve new Classes in the Brancalonia – Spaghetti Fantasy Setting Book is the Pagan, a Barbarian subclass, inhabitants of the Pagan Plain who favour speed, anger, and violence; the Harlequin is a Bard as street entertainer; the Miraculist is a Cleric who follows the calendar and favours the saints, and knows several defensive or helpful spells; the Benadante is a Druid as a forest sorcerer capable of interacting with and defending against the undead; the Swordfighter is a duelling archetype for the Fighter; the Friar is a Monk turned religious brawler; the Knight-Errant is the Paladin as rambling protector of the good, and likely the most courageous of any Knave; the Matador, a Ranger who hunts beasts and monsters in the wilds and fights them in the arena; the Brigand is a Rogue who steals from the wealthy and redistributes what he steals, and can always catch his targets by surprise; the Superstician is a very lucky Sorcerer who can also cast protective rituals; the Jinx is a Warlock who has the districting power of the Evil Eye and even cause misfortune; and the Guiscard is a Wizard who specialises in tomb robbing and treasure hunting.

To these Subclasses are added backgrounds such as the Brawler, the Finagler, and the Fugitive, as well as Feats like Ancient Culinary Art, Apothecary, Jibber-Jabber, and Peasant Soul. There are rules too for advancing beyond Sixth Level, but each new Level only grants an Emeriticence, such as Professional Brawler or Blessed Luck. In addition to creating their Player Characters, they come together to create their Bounty Brothers’ den, a comfortable place where they can rest up and hide. It might be an abandoned farmhouse occupied by brigands, matadors, and smugglers, or a tower in plain sight inhabited by knights-errant, swordsmen, and mercenaries, but all begin with one and can be improved with further Grand Luxuries such as Black Market or a Cantina. This though takes gold and Knaves typically only have silver, so there is a community improvement element to play as the Knaves pool their funds. The Den is also where they ‘Rollick’ and rest—the long rest in Brancalonia – Spaghetti Fantasy Setting Book is seven days long, too long to take place during actual play—and perhaps improve their Den, reflect on the Job just done (and note any misdeeds and misdemeanours that lead to further bounties being placed on their heads), and plan for the next Job. This will probably result in some kind of hazard as a result of their past activities, and it can be partially offset by going into hiding for a while.  And Knaves being who they are, can also engage in Revelry, a few days of good food, good wine, and good company, and so fritter away some of what they just earned…

Other activities the Knaves can engage in are brawls and dive games. Brawls are not like combat in that Hit Points are not lost. Instead, a Brawl attack inflicts Whacks, most Knaves being able to suffer five of them before being knocked unconscious. Brawlers can pick up props, essentially the things around them, and attack with them or use them to defend themselves with. These are divided between common props—pots, dishes, bottles, stools, and so on, and epic props—tables, barrels, chandeliers, suits of armour, and more. In general, a prop has a beneficial effect like gaining a bonus attack or increasing a Knave’s Armour Class, rather than increasing the whacks inflicted. Knaves also have Moves, which are divided into General Moves, Magic Moves, Class Brawl Features, and so. There are Stray Dangers, like ‘Rain of Stools’ or ‘It’s Raining ham’ which the Condottiero—as the Game Master is known in the Brancalonia – Spaghetti Fantasy Setting Book is called—can add to a brawl. The brawl rules are definitely designed to be cinematic in style and add a sense of action and comedy to play.

In addition to brawling in Dives, a Knave likes to play games and gamble—though that is illegal in the Bounty Kingdom. The Brancalonia – Spaghetti Fantasy Setting Book includes several different Dive games. These include the card game, Poppycock; Barrel Beating, a combined drinking-barrel smashing game in which the winner smashes the barrel and wins the wagers inside; Brancalonian Buffet, an eating contest. There are also rules for shoddy equipment, counterfeiting, equipment for the setting, like the Scudetto, a medium shield which bears the emblem of a city and is thus a symbol of pride for followers of the local Draconian Football Team, concoctions—tonics and the like for what ails you, and even some magical junk. Lastly, there is memorabilia, items of no ecumenic value, but perhaps personal value to their owning Knaves. A Knave begins play with one, but this is not obvious until much later in the book.

For the Game Master—or Condottiero—there is good advice on running Brancalonia – Spaghetti Fantasy. This is to keep the tone light-hearted, magic low, make the game one of tragicomedy and even ‘Grand Guignolesque’, so there is room here for horror too. There is in effect no budget for special effects, or little else, so a game of Brancalonia – Spaghetti Fantasy should be like a film done on the cheap—recycling character actors and redressing extras, natural backdrops and ruins, and so on. Plus, the brawls of ‘brawly’ fantasy to cut down on the bloodshed, but keep up the tension. There is advice as to what to avoid in play—unnecessary violence, sexual themes—though nature of Brancalonia – Spaghetti Fantasy does skirt the issue, and of course, any bigotry. This is the equivalent to safety tools. Plus, there is advice on handling bounties and the law, creating adventures, dives, random roads which may or may go somewhere, and more. There is also a good overall guide to the Bounty Kingdom, its history, its various regions, and even the kingdoms beyond its borders. Each is given a couple of pages, but each includes suggestions as to the types of Jobs that the Knaves might undertake there, and overall, there is just about enough to make each region different and provide the Condottiero with further inspiration.

Penultimately, Condottiero is given a six-part campaign, ‘In Search of Quatrins’ to run. It begins with ‘Little People of the Grand Mount’ and ‘Rugantino: Tales of Love and the Knife’, both of which are for First Level Player Characters, but the first is specifically written as an introductory adventure, one that younger players can roleplay, but also sets up the rest of the scenarios. To this end the Knaves are offered an easy job and the chance to join a company by Roughger of Punchrabbit. The Jobs include treasure hunts, monster hunts, missing marionettes, and more. All together ‘In Search of Quatrins’ should provide a group with several sessions’ worth of play and give them a thorough taste of life in the Bounty Kingdom. They do need some development in places, but the Condottiero should be able to do that as part of preparation. Lastly, Brancalonia – Spaghetti Fantasy Setting Book includes a bestiary of new monsters and a section of ready to use NPCs.

Physically, the Brancalonia – Spaghetti Fantasy Setting Book looks to be superbly presented, with really good artwork and excellent maps. However, it is a translation from Italian and the localisation and editing is not as good as it could have been. In addition, the index is anaemic, so finding anything in the book will be a challenge. The book could also have been done with a step-by-step guide to creating Player Characters for the setting, as there are several aspects of the process which do not appear until much later in the book. Similarly, a glossary would have been incredibly useful.

Ultimately, whether or not you like the Brancalonia – Spaghetti Fantasy Setting Book will depend on your feelings towards Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition. The new rules presented here do add to Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition, but at the same time, they add and enforce the setting and genre of Brancalonia—the brawling, the shoddy equipment, and much, much more. Whether you like it or not, the Bounty Kingdoms setting of Brancalonia – Spaghetti Fantasy jumps from every page into uproarious, tankard banging, wine quaffing, lustily voiced song and then at the end of the night, down in the cups mutterings, before another job presents itself the next day even as you are trying to get over a hangover. Brancalonia – Spaghetti Fantasy Setting Book presents a delightfully different take upon fantasy, for which even if you do not know the inspiration, the book is inspiring in itself, and you should be creating a cast list (for which Oliver Reed should be your number one choice) even as you read the book and prepare your first adventure. Once you have finished reading Brancalonia – Spaghetti Fantasy Setting Book and prepared your first adventure, you should be ready to bring an inglorious fantasy to the table.

Jonstown Jottings #64: A Short Detour

Much like the Miskatonic Repository for Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition, th 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?
A Short Detour: An Adventure for RuneQuest Glorantha is a scenario for use with RuneQuest: Roleplaying in Glorantha in which the adventurers come to the aid of a mother and her son and become involved in a moral dilemma.

It is a forty-one page, full colour 3.74 MB PDF.

It is cleanly and tidily presented and 
some of the artwork is decent.

Where is it set?
A Short Detour: An Adventure for RuneQuest Glorantha is set in northern Sartar and could easily be take place near Apple Lane as detailed in the RuneQuest Gamemaster Screen Pack.

It is set during Sea Season, 1626.

Who do you play?
There are no specific roles necessary to play A Short Detour, but this can be an interesting scenario for a Lhankor Mhy. A Storm Bull may short circuit the scenario. Martial characters will be needed as combat is likely to be involved (in which case the Storm Bull will be useful).

What do you need?
A Short Detour: An Adventure for RuneQuest Glorantha requires RuneQuest: Roleplaying in Glorantha, as well as
RuneQuest: Glorantha Bestiary and The Red Book of Magic.

In addition, Cults of Terror will be useful for its background information. Depending upon how the scenario plays out, Holiday Dorastor: The Temple of Heads, may also be useful as a sequel.

What do you get?
A Short Detour: An Adventure for RuneQuest Glorantha is a short, simple, and straightforward adventure which as written takes place in northern Sartar, but can be adapted to other areas if necessary. The Player Characters encounter, Renuvela and Nemiast, a mother and her son trying to fend off a sounder of boars. After they come to their rescue, she asks the Player Characters to escort them her and her son to Runegate.

This sounds like a simple situation, but if the Player Characters agree, it quickly plunges them into a moral dilemma. Renuvela and Nemiast are being hunted by two different factions with an interest in his future. One group wishes him ill for what will be seen as the ‘right’ reasons, whilst the other wishes him well for the ‘wrong’ reasons. At the heart of the scenario is the agreement the Player Characters will have made with Renuvela and Nemiast and their honouring that agreement even as the truth about the pair is revealed. Ideally, this should lead to a clash between their Passions and their Honour for the Player Characters. In addition, in terms of roleplaying, the scenario challenges the differing viewpoints of the players and their characters within Gloranthan cultures.

A Short Detour requires good roleplaying upon the part of the Game Master in portraying both 
Renuvela and Nemiast, but she is given good advice to that end, and further supported with a set of highly detailed NPCs, each with well explained and clear motivations. Some of them are delightfully vile and Machiavellian, but others are simply cannon fodder that the Player Characters will enjoy putting to the sword.

The scenario discusses numerous possible options and outcomes, and this includes what can be seen as an optimum outcome, though getting to that is extremely challenging when faced with the rival demands of the others involved. The scenario is supported with an abridged version of the myth behind its plot, notes on the nature of tattoos, and an essay on the nature of the Chaos Rune and its effect in play. This falls into ‘Your Glorantha May Vary’.

Is it worth your time?
YesA Short Detour: An Adventure for RuneQuest Glorantha confronts the Player Characters with a moral dilemma and excellent opportunities for roleplaying supported with some fantastic NPCs.
NoA Short Detour: An Adventure for RuneQuest Glorantha confronts the Player Characters with a moral dilemma which may not fit the group’s play style and a discussion of Chaos which may not suit the Game Master’s campaign.
MaybeA Short Detour: An Adventure for RuneQuest Glorantha confronts the Player Characters with a moral dilemma which may not fit the group’s play style and a discussion of Chaos which may not suit the Game Master’s campaign.

Saturday 25 June 2022

Cartoon Chaos

is a cartoon action roleplaying game inspired by Looney Toons and Tom & Jerry. Dynamite will get stuffed down trousers. Anvils will land on heads. Walls will be run into. Cheesegraters will be slide up and down. Stairs will be fallen down. Custard pies will be thrown and land in faces. And whether he has fallen down or is still standing, the cartoon character who suffers all or any one of these will be Bamboozled as a scattering of stars or a flight of tweeting birds orbit his head. Published by MacGuffin & Company
Ker-Splat! is a fast-playing silly roleplaying game for anyone who wants to play a chicken with a chainsaw, an otter on a skateboard, a goldfish in a bucket, a squirrel wiseguy, a mouse with a mallet, or anything else. It is ridiculous, it conforms to genre physics, not real physics, and it involves either Ordered Chaos or Pure Chaos, and true to the genre, it is played out in two-dimensional world.

A Player Character in 
Ker-Splat! is defined by his name, his Pitch, his Drive, his Quirk, his Look, and seven stats. His Pitch is whatever the character is, for example, a ‘Raccoon in a monocle and waistcoat who wants an easy life’ or ‘A Knight on a noble quest who was never told what the quest was and whose visor keeps jamming closed’. His Drive is his motivation, such as ‘Dining on freshly caught chicken’ or ‘Preventing the wolf from eating you and your fellow chickens’. His Quirk is whatever his special ability is, Ker-Splat! listing some nineteen, such as Pocket Dimension, Lucky Duck, Disguise, Wealth, and more.

A Player Character has seven stats. These are divided between the five Humours—Pow, Zip, Umm, Wow, and Pop, and Ouch! and HUH!, the latter measuring how long it is until he is either Ker-Splatted or Bambozzled. Pow is the character’s physical strength and size, Zip how fast and dextrous he is, Umm how brainy, Wow how charismatic, and Pop his ability to use tools and equipment, as well as his ability to order something from the ‘AKMEE™ PLC Catalog’. The Humours are rated between two and nineteen, and there are pluses and minuses to their high or low. For example, a Player Character with a high Zip will be fast and able to run away, but will often miss the little details, be impatient, and so on. With a low Zip, the character will take his time to understand things, not act rashly, trigger fewer traps, and so on. A Player Character with a high Umm will be good at making plans and spotting things, but in the two-dimensional cartoon world of 
Ker-Splat! will notice that tunnel entrance is just painted on the side of the mountain and so go around, whereas a Player Character with a low Umm would accept that tunnel as reality and race down it (and likely get run over by a train).

Player Character is simple. A player defines his character’s Pitch, Drive, Quirk, and Look, but he only sets the value for one of his character’s Humours. Each of the other players takes it in turn to set one stat before passing the character to the next player and so on round the table until all of the Humours are defined. In each case, a player is simply assigning a value, but in this way, the players collectively define the cast of the carton.

Chuffy the Chicken
Chicken with a Chainsaw, who isn’t going to let the wolf get her or her fellow chickens
Pow 5 Zip 12 Umm 9 Wow 12 Pop 10
Ouch! 3
HUH! 3
Quirk: Lucky Duck

Ker-Splat! is simple, but it does look a bit complex. It all depends if the Player Character is attempting to do something in keeping with his Humour or something that is not in keeping with his Humour. If the Player Character is attempting to do something in keeping with his Humour, his player must succeed or roll under his character’s Humour on a twenty-sided die. If the Player Character is attempting to do something that is not in keeping with his Humour, he must fail or roll over his character’s Humour. For example, if Chuffy the Chicken wants to use her chainsaw, her player rolls under her Pop Humour, but if she wants to break her chainsaw to prevent the wolf from using it, her player rolls over her Pop Humour. Simple enough, but where it gets slightly confusing is the fact that this can also change what a critical result is, depending upon whether the Player Character is trying to succeed or trying to fail. Thus, if trying to succeed, a ‘Good Crit’ is a roll of a one and a ‘Bad Crit’ is a roll of twenty, but if trying to fail, a ‘Good Crit’ is a roll of twenty and a ‘Bad Crit’ is a roll of one. Then if you throw in the usual mechanic for Advantage and Disadvantage…

When it comes to a Player Character’s Quirk, it always works. However, how it works and what the effect is when it does, is not always in the control of the Player Character using it. This is randomly determined by the roll of the die and half the time the player controls it and narrates the outcome, a quarter of the time another player controls it, and the other quarter, the GM controls it.

Player Character versus Player Character conflict is both simple and complex—complex that is in relation to the simple option. Which is de-escalation. Everyone involves keeps rolling a twenty-sided die until one player rolls a one and his character succeeds. Which is both simple and simply counterintuitive to the genre and simply an awkward means of preventing Player Character versus Player Character conflict. Especially given how the game goes out of its way to emulate the genre and give the players control of the outcome in other situations, such as the use of Quirks.

There are two options for combat—Ordered Chaos and Pure Chaos. The more complex of these is Ordered Chaos. In Ordered Chaos, the Player Characters are in order of their Humours depending upon the situation. For example, a martial arts contest would go in order of the highest to lowest Zip, but lowest Zip to highest Zip in a considered confrontation. NPCs, which are kept simple with a strength and a weakness, are slotted into the order as the GM decides. This is simple enough as long as the GM remembers which Humour applies to which situation. If an attack works, the target character’s player rolls a six-sided die against his Ouch! or HUH! depending on the nature of the attack. Roll under and the Player Character is fine, roll over and the Player Character is either Ker-Splatted or Bamboozled. When his character is Ker-Splatted or Bamboozled, his player keeps rolling a twenty-sided die until he rolls a one and comes to… A fight like this continues until either one side prevails or the GM gets bored…

The Pure Chaos variant—which is not recommended for online play—uses the same rules for de-escalation. Thus everyone rolls a twenty-sided die. When a player rolls a one, he can act. It is chaotic and unlike the de-escalation rules it fits the genre.

Ker-Splat! is primarily designed to be played as a one-shot. However, it does include rules for campaign, a Player Character YAY! at the end of each scenario which can subsequently be spent to buy a ‘Spree of Luck’, a temporary ‘Intern’, or even ‘Irritate the GM’. The latter lets a player pass a note to the GM with improv style play notes about how the scenario is being narrated which she must follow. Most of these options are quite fun and play around with the narrative rather than improve a Player Character. The GM also gets her on set of GM YAY options to purchase.

Ker-Splat! includes guidelines in inclusivity that take into account that most Player Characters will be animals—walking talking animals in a world where there are animals who are not! This cover gender and even sex, but also the appropriate use of stereotypes, noting that this is difficult to avoid given the genre. However, the advice is to be careful and considerate, and that includes not characters having a black face after explosions. There is also advice on the use of the Big Red Button as more immediate version of the X-card. There are more usual guidelines for NPC and scenario design and a couple of same scenarios.

Ker-Splat! is a bright and breezy affair. There is lots of bold, full colour artwork throughout and the book is well written. It does need a close read in places, primarily because it is organised into seemingly random boxes, so does not flow quite so easily.

Ker-Splat! is designed to be chaotic, bonkers fun and it will do that. Some of the rules arguably do not fit the genre and others do need everyone to adjust to them as they are counterintuitive, because almost every other roleplaying game does not have a player to roll to fail. However, make that adjustment and the ‘roll to succeed/roll to fail’ mechanic works and suits the genre. Overall, Ker-Splat! combines light, fast cartoon action with some fun narrative elements which add to the chaos with being quick and easy to bring to the table.

Friday 24 June 2022

Unseasonal Festivities: Dungeons & Dragons Annual 2022

The Christmas Annual is a traditional thing—and all manner of things can receive a Christmas Annual. Those of our childhoods would have been tie-ins to the comic books we read, such as the
Dandy or the Beano, or the television series that we enjoyed, for example, Doctor Who. Typically, here in the United Kingdom, they take the form of slim hardback books, full of extra stories and comic strips and puzzles and games, but annuals are found elsewhere too. In the USA, ongoing comic book series, like Batman or The X-Men, receive their own annuals, though these are simply longer stories or collections of stories rather than the combination of extra stories and comic strips and puzzles and games. In gaming, TSR, Inc.’s Dragon magazine received its own equivalent, the Dragon Annual, beginning in 1996, which would go from being a thick magazine to being a hardcover book of its own with the advent of Dungeons & Dragons, Fourth Edition. For the Dungeons & Dragons Annual 2022, the format is very much a British one—puzzles and games, yes, and all themed with the fantasy and mechanics of Dungeons & Dragons, along with content designed to get you into the world’s premier roleplaying game.

Published by Harper Collins Publishers, the Dungeons & Dragons Annual 2022 moves on from the Dungeons & Dragons Annual 2021. It is not so much an introduction to Dungeons & Dragons itself, but rather an introduction to Faerûn and the Forgotten Realms, the principal setting for the current iteration of the roleplaying game. The slim volume begins with the first of several entries in the ‘Peoples of the Realm’ series. This is ‘Exploring Elves’, which highlights the various different types of Elves to be found in the Forgotten Realms, noting their special skills and key Classes, as well as some background and some trivia. Included here are the Drow and the Eladrin as well as the High Elves and the Wood Elves. Also mentioned here are the various types of Gnomes, Dwarves, and Halflings, the latter with the comment, “Overlook these diminutive folk at your own risk!”, which the entry and the Dungeons & Dragons Annual 2022 promptly does by consigning all three peoples to a sidebar rather than their own entry in the ‘Peoples of the Realm’ series. It is continued with ‘Think Big’ which suggests with Goliaths, Firbolgs, Orcs, and more as other character options, refencing Volo’s Guide to Monsters and Xanathar’s Guide to Everything. ‘Plane-Touched’ does a similar thing with races such as the Tritons, Genasi, Tabaxi, and more.

The first of the two ‘Campaign Spotlight’ entries in the Dungeons & Dragons Annual 2022 is on Icewind Dale: Rime of the Frostmaiden, the 2020 campaign published by Wizards of the Coast. This covers the campaign’s key features—its entry points, secrets, new rules, locations, and of course, stats for ‘Three Kobolds in a Trenchcoat’. None of it in any detail, but enough to intrigue the reader. Further, this ‘Campaign Spotlight’ is supported by other articles in the annual. The first of the ‘Across Faerûn’ entries looks at Icewind Dale, which of course is the setting for the campaign, and provides more details such as typical monsters—snowy owlbears and frost giants being the most obvious, along with a gorgeous map of the region. The theme of Faerûn and Icewind Dale even continues in ‘Beyond the Tabletop’, the series which looks at Dungeons & Dragons beyond it being just a roleplaying game. The first of these gives attention to Dark Alliance, the Dungeons & Dragons computer in which the Drow Ranger, Drizzt Do’Urden leads his companions into Icewind Dale in search of the magical shard, the Crenshinibon. Drizzt Do’Urden himself is given the spotlight in the next two articles. First in ‘Heroes & Villains’ which introduces him, his companions, and enemies, and second, in ‘Talking D&D: R.A. Salvatore’, an interview with the author of The Crystal Shard and its many sequels which feature Drizzt Do’Urden. Of course, much of this will already be familiar to fans of Dungeons & Dragons—as is the case for the whole of the Dungeons & Dragons Annual 2022—but from the ‘Across Faerûn’ entry on Icewind Dale through the spotlight on Icewind Dale: Rime of the Frostmaiden to the spotlight on Drizzt Do’Urden and interview with his creator, there is a lovely sense of a theme or thread running through the initial handful of articles in Dungeons & Dragons Annual 2022 and it feels much more thought out.

Whilst ‘Explaining the Planes’ takes the reader beyond the Forgotten Realms to look at the Elemental Planes and the Outer Planes, the Dungeons & Dragons Annual 2022 quickly returns to ‘Across Faerûn’ and ‘The Feywild’ in particular. There is a connection between the two in that the Feywild is a reflection of the Prime Material Plane and also back to the ‘Exploring Elves’ article for Eladrin who come from the Feywild. However, ‘Beyond the Tabletop’ continues the journey away from the Elemental Planes and the Outer Planes by looking at the computer game, Baldur’s Gate III, which mentions Avernus, the first layer of the Nine Hells. The other connection to Baldur’s Gate is a two-page spread dedicated to Minsc (and Boo) in ‘Heroes & Villains’ (his counterpart in the annual, is the villain ‘Xanathar’, whilst if not the Forgotten Realms, but still in the annual, is ‘Vecna’), but the connected ‘Campaign Spotlight’ is Baldur’s Gate: Descent into Avernus. This does as good a job as that devoted to Icewind Dale: Rime of the Frostmaiden.

The ‘Bestiary’ first highlights ‘Common Foes’, so the lowly Kobold at Challenge Rating of 1/8 up to the Manitcore at Challenge Rating of 3, and then ‘Boss Fights’, which includes the Lich, the Tarrasque, and the Kraken, all with a Challenge Rating of twenty or more. ‘Oddities’ add a mix of the different and the weird, like the Gelatinous Cube, the Flumph, and the Modron. Dragons’, the last of these is devoted to iconic monsters and their minions.

There is very little about the play or rules of Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition in Dungeons & Dragons Annual 2022, especially in comparison to the Dungeons & Dragons Annual 2021. ‘Roll for Inspiration’ though focuses on advice and help. First with ‘Combat 101’, which explains the basics of that aspect of the game, whilst ‘Where To Start?’ looks at ways of starting a campaign for the Dungeon Master and ‘Learn From The Dungeon Masters’ gives advice from several Dungeon Masters on how to run Dungeons & Dragons. It is solid, if basic advice. The last entry in ‘Roll for Inspiration’ is ‘Creating NPCs’, which like the others contains solid, if basic advice.

‘Podcasts’ gives space to just the two long running series—How We Roll and Adventure Zone. The former again has a nice callback to Icewind Dale: Rime of the Frostmaiden, but both are given good introductions here. Again, just the two are covered, High Rollers and Acquisitions Incorporated, but ‘Live Streams’ reflects the move from the podcast as a means of presenting actual play to Twitch streams, from audio to visual. The look at the hobby comes up to date with ‘Find Your People’, which give two community groups—No More Damsels and Three Black Halflings—which work to build communities which are more inclusive and welcome greater representation in the hobby.

Elsewhere in Dungeons & Dragons Annual 2022, ‘Where It Began: First Edition’ looks back at Dungeons & Dragons from 1974. It is a very basic examination, with Advanced Dungeons & Dragons given only a paragraph. ‘Classic Campaigns’ similarly looks at older scenarios, again in thumbnail fashion, but the tie into Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition is definitely highlighted here. ‘Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything’ looks at everything from character options, magic items, and spells, whilst ‘It Spells Trouble’ examines a variety of spells, from Magic Missile to Wish. Rounding out Dungeons & Dragons Annual 2022 is a quiz and a glossary.

Of course, Dungeons & Dragons Annual 2022 being a British annual, it is not without its puzzles. So there are mazes, word searches, spot the difference, and more. All themed around Dungeons & Dragons. The maze for example, has you attempt to escape from Count Strahd von Zarovich’s clutches, whilst ‘Volo’s (Scrambled) Guide to Monsters’ is an anagram puzzle.

Physically, the Dungeons & Dragons Annual 2022 is snappily presented. There is plenty of full colour artwork drawn from Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition, and the writing is clear and kept short, so is an easy read for its intended audience. It would have been nice to seen a little more artwork from the earlier versions of the roleplaying where they are mentioned.

Over the years, there have been plenty of introductions to Dungeons & Dragons, some of them decent, some them of utterly pointless and useless, such as the Dungeon Survival Guide and the ‘What exactly were you thinking, Wizards of the Coast?!’ Wizards Presents: Races and Classes and Wizards Presents: Worlds and Monsters books that heralded the arrival of the Dungeons & Dragons, Fourth Edition. Fortunately, like the Dungeons & Dragons Annual 2021, its predecessor, the Dungeons & Dragons Annual 2022 is far superior to any of those.

The Dungeons & Dragons Annual 2022 is not so much an introduction to Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition, as Faerûn and the Forgotten Realms. There is much less of a focus on the rules and mechanics in the Dungeons & Dragons Annual 2022, but in terms of background and setting is genuinely an interesting and informative read. To be fair, this is not a book or supplement that a dedicated player or Dungeon Master is going to need, or even want, to read. After all, much of this will be familiar to either. The Dungeons & Dragons Annual 2022 is very much a step on from Dungeons & Dragons Annual 2021, and that does mean that some of the introductory elements of the roleplaying game as it is played have been lost, but still as something to receive at Christmas (or not) in your Christmas stocking (or not), Dungeons & Dragons Annual 2022 is a good introduction into Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition, and especially, Faerûn and the Forgotten Realms.

Friday Filler: The Fighting Fantasy Science Fiction Co-op III

Escape the Dark Sector: The Game of Deep Space Adventure brought the brutality of the Fighting Fantasy solo adventure books of the eighties to both Science Fiction and co-operative game play for up to four players in which their characters begin incarcerated in the detention block of a vast space station and must work together to ensure their escape. Published by Themeborne, with its multiple encounters, traps, aliens, robots, objects, and more as well as a different end of game Boss every time, Escape the Dark Sector offered a high replay value, especially as a game never lasted longer than thirty minutes. Now, like its predecessor, Escape the Dark Castle: The Game of Atmospheric Adventure, the game has not one, but three expansions! Funded via a Kickstarter campaign, each of the three expansions—Escape the Dark Sector – Mission Pack 1: Twisted TechEscape the Dark Sector – Mission Pack 2: Mutant Syndrome, and Escape the Dark Sector – Mission Pack 3: Quantum Rift—adds a new Boss, new Chapters, new Items, and more, taking the path of the escapees off in a new direction to face new encounters and new dangers. Each expansion can be played on its own with the base game, or mixed and matched to add one, two, or three mission packs that increase the replay value of the core game.

Escape the Dark Sector – Mission Pack 2: Mutant Syndrome exposes the escapees to the further secrets of the Dark Sector. Whether caused by cosmic radiation or proximity to toxic waste, the whole of the Dark Sector is plagued by a mutagen which alters and distorts the bodies of the inhabitants of the giant space station. Some the effects of the mutagen simply kills, but others it leaves with extra limbs and appendages, endowing them with abilities beyond the mere human. The result is that the Dark Sector has a growing population of mutants, which the escapees will likely encounter as well as the possibility that they too will be exposed to the mutagen and changed...

As with Escape the Dark Sector – Mission Pack 1: Twisted Tech before it, Escape the Dark Sector – Mission Pack 2: Mutant Syndrome 
includes twelve new Chapter cards which represent the encounters the escapees will have as they flee. They may run into raging mutant prisoners, dumping grounds for radioactive waste, hideously mutated guards, three-headed security dogs, gain medical assistance from a hologram, and even a mutant testing station! The single Boss card is for The Mutanoid, a mutant so twisted that his body consistently emit mutagenic spores that inflict damage on the escapees—or mutate them. It makes use of the new core mechanic in the expansion, the ‘Mutation Die’.

The ‘Mutation Die’ is not only rolled for The Mutanoid Boss at the end of the game but also for certain Chapter cards and Item cards—or rather Mutation cards which are added to the Item deck. When drawn, these can force an escapee to discard Item cards from his Inventory as they prevent him carrying anything, but their most immediate effect to prevent an escapee from using his Cybernetic Implant. However, a Mutation can have a greater effect. Depending upon the symbol rolled on the ‘Mutation Die’, an escapee might lose Hit Points, but he might suffer another effect all together. For example, a Mutation to the Arm can add a single Might result to an action or allow a Block in Close Combat, a Mutation to the Leg can add a single Cunning result to an action or prevent the loss of Hit Points from a single die roll, and so on. These are all one use mutations, but others change a roll of the Crew Die to a Wisdom result and reduce Hip Point loss by one, and are ongoing effects. Between Chapters, an escapee can excise a Mutation and permanently lose its effect, whether positive or negative. This is dangerous and painful and means that the escapee again loses Hit Points. Other items in the expansion include the ‘Stun Baton’ which on the successful inflicting of a wound, stuns the enemy and prevents them from attacking that round, whilst the ‘Life Serum’ either restores two Hit Points or removes a mutation.

Escape the Dark Sector – Mission Pack 2: Mutant Syndrome also adds three new escapees. Lieutenants Grib, Parvon, and Xaree are new alien crewmembers and each comes with their Crew die. This introduces the ‘Mixed Double’ consisting of two symbols within a shield, which even though they are different, they count as a double of either symbol as required. This gives the three new Lieutenants some flexibility in terms of their die results. 

Physically, Escape the Dark Sector – Mission Pack 2: Mutant Syndrome is as well produced as the core game. The new Chapter and Boss Cards are large and in general 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 40K last seen in the nineteen eighties. The Item and Drone cards are also easy to use and the dice are clear and simple. The rule book requires a careful read, if only to grasp how the different new mechanics work.

Escape the Dark Sector – Mission Pack 2: Mutant Syndrome adds new subsystems as well as new encounters with the Chapter and Boss Cards. They add both elements of complexity and luck, though more of the latter than the former. Design wise, this expansion is again thematically strong rather than narratively strong, but the Mutation is only strong when it comes to the Chapter cards and the encounters the escapees can have. In comparison, the potential mutations they might suffer during their escape attempt are underwhelming, in terms of both number in the expansion and theme. Anyone expecting a rioting of weird and wonderful powers and defects will be disappointed. Even so, Escape the Dark Sector – Mission Pack 2: Mutant Syndrome is still easy enough to add to the core game. Overall, Escape the Dark Sector – Mission Pack 2: Mutant Syndrome is not quite as interesting as it could have been, but still a decent expansion which adds more Sci-Fi theme to Escape the Dark Sector: The Game of Deep Space Adventure.

Monday 20 June 2022

Jonstown Jottings #63: The Lifethief

Much like the Miskatonic Repository for Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition, th 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?
The Lifethief is a scenario for use with RuneQuest: Roleplaying in Glorantha in which the adventurers come to the aid of a shaman of the Impala tribe in a highly testing location.

It is a possible sequel to the earlier Stone and Bone and The Gifts of Prax scenarios.

It is a forty-seven page, full colour 112.04 MB PDF.

It is cleanly and tidily presented and 
some of the artwork is excellent.

Where is it set?
The Lifethief: An Adventure for RuneQuest Glorantha is set in the Dead Place in Prax, northeast of Pimper’s Block.

Who do you play?
There are no specific roles necessary to play The Lifethief, but martial characters will be needed as combat is involved. In addition, a Shaman should prove useful, though will be greatly challenged.

What do you need?
The Lifethief: An Adventure for RuneQuest Glorantha requires RuneQuest: Roleplaying in Glorantha and the RuneQuest: Glorantha Bestiary will be useful for details of some of the encounters.

What do you get?
The Lifethief: An Adventure for RuneQuest Glorantha is a short, simple adventure which takes place in the barren, Chaos wastelands of the Dead Place where the dust itself forms angry spirits and is injurious to the health of anyone who breaths it in. Here, Maserelt, a shaman of the Impala tribe, has set up camp and been monitoring a thing of horror coming out of the Dead Place—something that lived and actually had a spirit, but twisted and warped by Chaos. She cannot face it alone and has reached out for help. In answer, Erhehta, her rival from the Bison Riders, the shaman previously met by the Player Characters in the scenarios, Stone and Bone and The Gifts of Prax, sends them out to render her the assistance she needs. (If the Player Characters have not met with Erhehta or played through either of the earlier scenarios, The Lifethief includes advice and plot hooks to involve them in this scenario.)

The most obvious challenge that the Player Characters will face in the Dead Place beyond the extremely barren nature of its environment is the fact that magic does not work. There is simply not the connection to the spirit world for it to work and the likelihood is that there is no connection to the gods either, so Rune magic may or may not work. Chaos features are another matter. The combination means that The Lifethief is a physically grueling affair which will force the Player Characters to rely upon their innate skills.

Fortunately, the Player Characters have a chance to learn about they are going and gain some skill bonuses in the process in a pleasing little social scene which contrasts with the desolation they will later face. The Lifethief is not the only encounter that the Player Characters will encounter in the Dead Place, being tested by a band of Broo—inventively and vilely designed as you would want with a band of Broo, but it is the main one. Its actions and abilities are decently described, but the illustration of it is bland and uninteresting, especially given the fantastic pieces of the Broo a few pages earlier.

Notes are included as what happens if the Player Characters fail or need to retreat and come back again, along with several plot hooks which can be run after it. Full stats are given for both Maserelt and Erhehta as well as of the latter’s Straw Weaver clan of the Bison riders, which is useful if the Game Master has not run either of the previous scenarios. Beyond the details of the adventure, The Lifethief includes two sets of encounters—Praxian and Dead Place encounters. These take up almost a third of the scenario and range from the mundane to the weird, but are all nicely done and never less than interesting. They include a trapped and angry rhino, an ancient ghost with a hatred of beast riders, Morokanth traders, lost spirits, and more. The Dead Place encounters can of course be used to supplement the scenario and the Praxian encounters used to supplement other adventures on the plains of Prax. Overall, they are a nice edition with the Praxian encounters otherwise could have formed the basis of a supplement of their own.

Is it worth your time?
YesThe Lifethief: An Adventure for RuneQuest Glorantha is a useful and easy addition for any campaign set on the plains of Prax, especially if the Game Master has run Stone and Bone and The Gifts of Prax, and wants an extra set of encounters.
NoThe Lifethief: An Adventure for RuneQuest Glorantha is setting specific to the plains of Prax and even if the Game Master is running a campaign there, it may be too challenging a scenario for some players as it takes away their characters’ magic.
MaybeThe Lifethief: An Adventure for RuneQuest Glorantha is a short but useful filler combat focused adventure, but not much more than that. The extra encounters are inventive and easy to add to a Prax set campaign.

Sunday 19 June 2022

The universe is damned, and you do care

The Big Crunch has begun. The constant expansion of the universe has halted and gone into reverse. The universe is shrinking, grinding down into an inevitable nothingness. It came at a point where civilisation neared a great revolution, but destroyed its potential in a flurry of greed and conflict. In the bleak and dreary Tenebris system, explorers had discovered gemstones which grew naturally cyst-like in the soils of the system’s barren moons and planets. The refractive qualities of these gemstones led to technological advancements such as the giant bridger ships which tore through the fabric of spacetime, as well as a Gem Rush. Individual prospectors and corporations raced into the system searching for gems to mine, the inevitable tensions and confrontations escalating into the Gem War which lasted decades, spread beyond the Tenebris system, disrupting central control and leading the isolation of system after system as the war ended. That was a decade ago. In the Tenebris system, survivors cling to life aboard the outposts and spacestations, aligned with one faction another, trying to get by even as technology breaks down and is recycled again and again… Static seems to emanate from any and all electronics. From the Void between the stars come strange and portentous whispers of things to come, even as it reaches out and corrupts and mutates those it touches.

This is the set-up to Death in Space, the blue-collar Science Fiction survival roleplaying game published through Free League Publishing following a successful Kickstarter campaign. It is from the same design team as Mörk Borg, the pitch-black pre-apocalyptic fantasy roleplaying game which brings a Nordic death metal sensibility to the Old School Renaissance. Inspired by 2001: A Space Odyssey, A Fistful of Dollars, Alien, Blade Runner, Escape from New York, The Expanse, Firefly, IO, Moon, Outland, Prospect, Sunshine, Total Recall, and The Warriors, it is a game of desperate survival and building and relying upon the your reputation, of creating a home or refuge in the face of an unknown future as the universe winds down…

A Player Character in Death in Space has four abilities—Body, Dexterity, Savvy, and Tech. He has an Origin, and details such as a Background, Trait, Drive, Looks, Past Allegiance, and Hit Points and Defence Rating. He also has some starting gear and starting bonus as well as a personal trinket. Each ability is determined by rolling a four-sided die and then subtracting the result of another four-sided die roll from the first. This gives a value between +3 and -3, which is used as the modifier for Player Character actions and dice rolls. The six Origins include four humans—Punk, SolPod, Velocity Cursed, and Void. The Punk is a rebellious non-conformist; the SolPod spends years in hibernation; Velocity Cursed, who have begun to lose their connection with reality and shift and flicker and glitch; and Void are berobed and mask-wearing nihility shamans who visions at the edge of the universe. The other two are artificial, the Carbon being short-lived exo-womb grown androids who prefer to live in an EVA suit, and the Chrome is an ancient A.I. turned cyborg. Each Origin has two benefits. To create a character, a player rolls the dice for his character’s abilities, chooses or rolls for an Origin, picks one of its benefits, and then rolls for Background, Trait, Drive, Looks, and Past Allegiance as well as starting gear and bonus plus the personal trinket. He also determines Hit Points and Defence Rating. He also has some starting gear, and possibly a starting bonus if the Player Character’s abilities are all negative, as well as a personal trinket.

Body +2 Dexterity +1 Savvy+0 Tech +2
Origin: Punk
Benefit: Green Thumb
Background: Moon Outlaw
Trait: Cynical
Drive: To never show weakness
Looks: Trucker Cap with Patch
Past Allegiance: The Winning Side
Hit Points: 3
Defence Rating: 13
Holos: 16
Equipment: Nomad Starting Kit

Once the players have their characters, they jointly create a Hub, their home and base of operations which can be a small outpost on a moon, a module attached to a larger space station, or a small spacecraft. Each has a power source and a set of core functions, the latter consisting of a command centre, crew quarters, life support, and a mess. This Hub has a Background and a Quirk, both of which are rolled for. During play, the Player Characters can add further modules, but need to maintain both power and oxygen supplies, and this is a major drive within the game.

XR-3A-29 Hab Bloc
Defense Rating: 11
Max. Condition: 5
Fuel Capacity: 4
Power Source: Standard Industrial Generator (OP 3)
Background: Site of a Holy Pilgrimage. Pilgrims still show up.
Quirk: Interior is painted in luminous colours, charged by UV light.

Mechanically, Death in Space is simple. If a player wants his character to act, he rolls a twenty-sided die and applies the appropriate ability to the result. If the total is twelve or more, the character succeeds. If the situation is combat, the target number is the target’s Defence Rating. If the Player Character is at an Advantage or Disadvantage, his player rolls two twenty-sided dice and applies the higher or lower result respectively.

However, a failed roll grants a Player Character gains a Void Point, to a maximum of four. These can be expended to gain Advantage on an ability check or attack roll, or to activate a Cosmic Mutation. A Cosmic Mutation can be a ‘Code Generator’ which converts part of the brain into a computer that can write programs—encoded with the character’s DNA—and then be transferred by skin contact or ‘Feedback Loop’, which enables them to leap back in time ten seconds at the cost of an important memory. (A Cosmic Mutation can be gained at character creation, though this is unlikely, and instead is usually gained through advancement and then randomly.)

Further, if a Void Point is spent to gain Advantage on roll and that roll is still failed, there is the possibility of the Player Character gaining Void Corruption. This can include suffering daymares and nightmares about a suffocating darkness, a part of the body being surrounded by cloud of darkness, seeing through someone else’s eyes when you sleep, and so on… They are in the main weird or odd and personalise the strangeness of the Big Crunch.

One aspect missing from the rules in Death in Space is anything covering fear or sanity. This is because it is not a blue-collar Science Fiction horror roleplaying game. It is a blue-collar Science Fiction survival roleplaying game, its focus is so much on this that you barely notice the absence of any sanity or fear rules. Then when you do notice, it feels refreshing, to not have to roll for either, to leave that entirely in the hands of the players and their roleplaying as needed.

The technical aspects of Death in Space being a Science Fiction roleplaying game are kept relatively simple in keeping with the lightness of the mechanics. They highlight how everything is wearing out and that repairs are often a necessity. They also highlight how important it is to maintain or obtain supplies of both oxygen and power. Similarly, the rules for combat are kept short and brutal, even those for spacecraft combat.

In terms of a setting, Death in Space begins with a number of principles—that nothing is new, communication is limited, that the scars of the war remain and have not been forgotten, travel takes time and little is known about places or stations at the edge of or beyond the Tenebris System, and whilst it is possible to live beyond the normal human lifespan, typically through cryo-sleep, the result is often a life of loneliness and loss. The actual given setting is the Tenebris System, the focal point of the Gem War, home to seekers, scoundrels, and miners, as well as various cults, all doing their best (or perhaps their worst) to survive. Several planets and moons across the system are described, but the starting point is the Iron Ring, a dilapidated structure consisting of thousands of old space stations and spacecraft shackled together and surrounding the yellow moon, Inauro. The ramshackle structure is divided into numerous irregularly sized sectors, connected to each other, but not always easily accessible, some inhabited, some not. Life is harsh, the inhabitants typically needing to ally themselves with or join one faction or another to get by, often relying upon their word and their reputation as the ultimate currency.

The Iron Ring is the setting for the starting scenario, ‘Welcome to the Ring’. The Player Characters have arrived with their Hub, towed into place and attached at a convenient docking port at Aurum 80 in the Aurum sector. They are low on supplies, and they owe a debt for the docking fees. How they pay this off is up to them, but perhaps they can involve themselves in the growing feud between two gangs which between control the subsector’s main resources. Both the set-up and the areas of Aurum 80 are described in some detail, but there is no one solution to the situation given. How their characters become involved in the situation and how they resolve it is entirely open and up to the players. What is notable about this is that perhaps the most obvious solution—the application of violence—is not immediately available. Player Characters in Death in Space rarely enter play armed, and whilst it is certainly possible for them to obtain weapons, initially it will be down to their wits and their persuasiveness to make any progress. This is indicative of the roleplaying game’s genre, the blue-collar Science Fiction of space as a working environment.

Beyond ‘Welcome to the Ring’, Death in Space provides the Game Master with table after table of ideas and inspiration. These include tables for Iron Ring locations, but deep space nightmares, obstacles, and space encounters, as well lists of modules and spacecraft and more. The Game Master is free to refer to these, but also encouraged to accept player suggestions too. Notable amongst these table are the only mention of aliens in Death in Space. These are a mixture of tools and threats and oddities that add to the unknown of the end of the universe. Their inclusion here also moves them away from being the focus of the game, and they could even be ignored all together if the Game Master wants to keep her Tenebris System wholly humanocentric.

Physically, Death in Space is black, a lot of black. Or rather, rather it is primarily white text or line art on black, with the occasional spot of colour as contrast. It is stark and elegant, befitting the vast loneliness of space and the Tenebris System. At first glance, it does look like the layout of Mörk Borg, but it is far more subtle and less in your face upon further examination, and therefore, may be easier to read. At least visually, the only connection between the two might be the coloured cross motif used on the chapter pages. The artwork is excellent, and the book is well written and engaging.

Death in Space is a roleplaying game about survival in the face of nihilism and an uncaring universe. It is a roleplaying game about hope and co-operation in the face of nihilism and an uncaring universe. Where in Mörk Borg, the Player Characters can be darkly and often humorously adversarial, this is not the case in Death in Space. The Player Characters have come together and need to work together to survive what is a starkly brutal and often unknown future, a future which can see them radically altered, and ultimately, this is what sets Death in Space apart from other blue collar Science Fiction roleplaying games.