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

Sunday, 31 July 2022

You and the Realm

The Realm of Legendlore and of Azoth lies at an unstable nexus of reality, and where that instability touches other planes, including the Earth, Visitors can make the Crossing from one world to another. Sometimes intentionally, often unintentionally, perhaps because they inherited a keepsake which enables a Crossing, simply opened a door, or found a portal, perhaps a wardrobe or even a suitcase. Crossings have happened many times in the past—and not just by people. Both the Library of Alexandria and the Statue of Zeus at Olympia have both appeared in Azoth, Boudica and the Ninth Legion continued to fight each other for decades in Azoth, and even Amelia Earhart and Fred Noonan landed there in 1937, and even though they were never able to replicate powered flight, but gliders launched from hot air balloons are common in certain parts of Azoth. The scientific knowledge brought from Earth continues to influence the world of Azoth where magic is common, leading to synergistic devices such as an Ensorcelled Typewriter and Food Wave Machine (microwave). Previous Visitors have left other Strange Things behind, more recently electronic devices which quickly run out of power. Whilst Visitors bring knowledge, certain attitudes, and perhaps a Strange Thing or two with them—typically no more than what they have in their pockets or a bag, what they find after the Crossing is even more amazing.

Visitors find that the Realm is a world of magic, of elves and dwarves, goblins and troll, minotaurs and dragons. They find themselves changed, because however when Visitors make the Crossing, what they find on the other side is a stronger You, a greater reflection of each of their inner selves, an Other You. They find themselves capable of casting magic, working with alchemy, fighting with swords and bows, or handling guns. They find themselves changed into different Peoples—Bryzine Trolls, Dwarves, Elves, Hairfoots (Hairfeet?), Orcs, and Pixies, as well as Humans. They find themselves as Clerics, Rogues, Wizards, Rangers, Bards, Alchemists, Sorcerers, Gunslingers, and more. They may also find themselves unchanged, so if wearing glasses is part of their identity, then they wear glasses in the Realm. Visitors are also greater than themselves—they have a Legend attached to them, a Destiny that they are only partially aware of. Thus, they might be an Avatar of Peace or a Regent of Dragons. They will have great adventures in the Realm, but ultimately, they have a choice—to stay or return home.

This is the setting for Legendlore, a roleplaying adaptation based on The Realm, the comic book series first published by Arrow Comics and then Caliber Comics. In the comic book, four ordinary, modern-day teenagers are thrown into an alternate realm where magic is real, dragons roam the skies, orcs and hobgoblins terrorise travellers, where unicorns prance through the forest, and kingdoms wage war for dominance. Although a fantasy world, it differs from the atypical Dungeons & Dragons world. Not just in the mix of magic and science, but in Legendlore the roleplaying setting, there is a sense of self-awareness. There are roleplayers on the Earth of Legendlore and they can be Visitors too, so they make the Crossing fully aware of fantasy roleplaying such as Dungeons & Dragons and all that entails. There is no equivalent of the Legendlore Roleplaying Game though, so they are not totally forearmed with knowledge. Published by Onyx Path Publishing, the adaptation is written for use with Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition. It includes new Backgrounds and Classes and sub-Classes, as well as rules for being Legends, sample beginning Player Characters, a starting adventure, and setting material for the Realm.

From the outset, it is clear that Legendlore is designed to be as gender and identity inclusive as possible and that if a player wants to and is happy to do so at the table, that player can bring as much of themselves into the game as they want. What this means is their real self, their Earth-self can be exactly what they are in real life, but their Realm-self can be their best-self, their best You—or a reflection of it. Alternatively, each player can simply play a fantasy version of themselves, whether on Earth or the Realm, or on both. All of which should be discussed and agreed upon as necessary in Session Zero, which is discussed in the chapter on running the game.

Although it is possible to play Realmborn Player Characters in Legendlore, which would perhaps be the closest that Legendlore gets to a traditional Dungeons & Dragons-style set-up, the emphasis is very much on playing Visitors. Their creation begins with selecting a Visitor Background, for example, Academic Education, Activist, Born into Wealth, High School Student, Writer, Working Poor, and of course, Roleplaying Aficionado. Several Realmborn Backgrounds are given too, which are all nation-based. The Realm Races—Bryzine Trolls, Dwarves, Elves, Hairfoots, Orcs, and Pixies—all provide certain traits and bonuses as you would expect, but these are cultural rather than innate. So a player has the flexibility to match and change as he wants. There are two new Classes in Legendlore. One is the Alchemist, which blends chemistry and magic, crafting potions which have spell-like effects, whether thrown, imbibed, or applied. The other is the Gunslinger, which specialises in the use and maintenance of firearms, including the Culverin, an actual cannon! The other options are all sub-Classes of the standard Classes in the Player’s Handbook. These include the Ocean Raider and the Woad Painted for the Barbarian, the Eye of Otharis for the Cleric, primarily sages and oracles, Paladins have Oath of Fealty, which they take to a nation, and Sorcerers are Sourceborn, who draw directly from the Pool of Magic for more powerful magic.

A Player Character, certainly a Visitor, also has a Legend. Each has a Reputation and a means of acquiring Legend Points. For example, the Avatar of Peace grants when a Player Character refuses to commit acts of violence, persuades others to lay down their weapons, and lead negotiations for peace. When acquired, they can either go into a communal pool or a player can keep them, but when expended they can either gain Advantage for a Player Character on an attack, saving throw, or ability check, or they can be used to add a new narrative element to play. The Legend system replaces that of the Inspiration from Dungeons & Dragons, adding a little more flexibility. Just five are provided—Avatar of Peace, Bane of Ardonia (who oppose the isolationist and walled scientifically-advanced nation of Ardonia), Caln of Stone (uncompromising stability and construction), Regent of Dragons (dispensing wisdom and justice), and Suzerain of Blossoms (encouraging others to follow their own path and cultivating strengths and talents). Alternatively, a player can create his own for his character, but the advice for doing so does feel underwritten and the five given in Legendlore are not really enough—certainly not if there are more than five players or the Realm is being visited a second time with new Player Characters.

All magic in the Realm draws from the Pool of Magic, but its casters—apart from Sorcerers who are Sourceborn—can suffer from ‘Menthruac’ or mind-lock if they attempt to cast too much magic, too quickly. When a Player Character casts an arcane spell, he can opt to gain a level of Menthruac, up to four levels. Each level provides several extra effects to choose from, such as ‘Careful Spell’ or Twinned Cantrip’, but comes with a downside such as Disadvantage on attack rolls or ability checks, all the way up to Hit Points being reduced to zero or even death! Menthruac is removed after a long rest, but gives a spellcaster the option to power up his magic should want to. Legendlore also includes some seventy or so new spells, as well as twelve new rituals. Rather than draw fleetingly upon the Pool of Magic, like most arcane spells, rituals draw deeply from it and require a greater understanding of magic, period of study, and time to cast. For example, Open Crossing is a nine-hour ritual which opens a Crossing from the Realm to another destination. These should all take extensive game play to really learn and cast as they do have potentially very powerful effects.

Legendlore includes a decently comprehensive guide to the Realm and East Azoth, starting with its history from the arrival of the first humans and the wars that would result from their settlement, through to the peace following the end of the Forever War and then the Plague War that led to isolationism amongst many nations. The gazetteer is comprehensive too, detailing all of the nations of the region, even the Night Land, which even if it can be found, can only be entered during the hours of darkness. In addition, the gazetteer is littered with numerous adventure seeds. The bestiary, covering allies, adversaries, and creatures is likewise nicely detailed. Some of the races, such as the Dwarves and Goblins, adhere to their usual depictions, although others, notably the Orcs are different. Orcs have a porcine look and a poor reputation as raiders and pillagers, though that was long in the past when they found themselves being pushed out of their lands. These days they seek the return of their original homelands by diplomatic means and building trust. The bestiary also details demons, some of whom, such as Shinde Imas, the Elven Slayer, and Terrorek, the Plague Bringer, are the major villains of the Realms. Not included in Legendlore are writeups of any of the characters who made the Crossing in the comics—Alex, Dom, Majorie, or Sandra—and this is intentional. The starting point for Legendlore in terms of time frame is the first issue of the comic, and it is up to the Game Master to decide whether or not they made the Crossing or not.

The advice for the Game Master on running Legendlore is a mix of the general and the specific. There is good advice on handling Session Zero and on specific elements of the Realm as a setting. In particular, on handling good and evil since as a setting for Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition, there is no Alignment in the Realm, and also dealing with Player Character death. Resurrection is possible, but the resurrected often return changed in some way. The Game Master can make the process as simple or as complex as needed—but must be consistent. The other option is a new Player Character, but the Player Character need not be wholly new. It could be an earlier version of the player’s You before his lost character made the Crossing, or even a version from a slightly alternate Earth. The new version of the Player Character arrives bereft of knowledge of his predecessor’s adventures and could be of a wholly new Race or Class. There is advice too on getting home, and whether that is a Player Character objective, and also how much the campaign involves the Player Characters going back and forth between home and the Realm.

Rounding out Legendlore is ‘Voices from Afar’, an introductory adventure in the Realm for four to six First Level Player Characters. After they make the Crossing, they find themselves caught in a plot to use a strange artefact to spread the borders of the dread Night Lands. Accompanying the scenario which should take two or three sessions to complete, is not one, but two sets of pre-generated Player Characters. These are the same, but First Level and Third Level respectively, the latter for a group which wants to try out a more powerful set of characters. At the end of the scenario, the Player Characters have the option to stay in the Realm or go home.

Physically, Legendlore is well presented and laid out with a nice range of illustrations. What it does lack though is an index and that makes finding certain things challenging. A glossary would also have helped. The setting description is pleasingly balanced by some enjoyable pieces of colour fiction that follow the fortunes of several adventurers as they make the Crossing and discover the world of the Realm.

Legendlore is not a definitive guide to the Realm of Legendlore and of Azoth, and nor does it set out to be. It is a comprehensive and gameable guide, making the setting accessible and playable. If there is an issue with Legendlore, it is that it does not include much in the way of advice on handling the transition from Earth to the Realm, and in particular, from the ‘ordinary’ You of the Player Characters of Earth to the ‘best’ or ‘inner’ You of the Realm. After all, that change is going to be more significant to some players than others. Some advice and suggestions as to long term play and campaign objectives would also have been useful. Other than that, Legendlore is an engaging exploration of a familiar fantasy set-up, of ordinary folk transported to a fantastic world. Fans of The Realm who game will doubtless enjoy Legendlore, but for players wanting an identity positive and inclusive fantasy setting for Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition, then Legendlore not only supports that, but welcomes You to it.

Saturday, 30 July 2022

The Al Amarja Quartet

Welcome to the Island is an anthology of scenarios for Over the Edge Third Edition: The Role-playing Game of Surreal Danger published by Atlas Games. It presents four lengthy, often complex scenarios designed to do six things. First, to show what a scenario looks like in Over the Edge, Third Edition. Second, to act as a campaign starters or slot into an ongoing campaign. Third, it is designed to present multiple story hooks and thus means to get the Player Characters involved in each of its scenarios, whether as agents of one faction or another, newcomers to Al Amarja, members of one or more of the conspiracies on the island, as street level gangsters or criminals, or as paranormals or mystics. Fourth, it is designed to showcase the island of Al Amarja and its people in all of their conspiratorial, counterintuitive, and corresponding weirdness. Fifth, it is designed to shake everything up by throwing a grenade into the room and upsetting the status quo. In other words, once the Game Master has run and players roleplayed any one of the four scenarios in the anthology, the situation on Al Amarja will not be the same as before. For example, by the end of the second scenario, ‘A Conclave of Chikutorpls, or the Winds of Change Are Blowing (Up), or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Multidimensional Convergence.’ Frank Germaine, owner of Sad Mary’s, the hottest bar on Al Marja, may have lost control of it, whilst at the end of ‘Battle of the Bands’, the biggest band on the island may or not have been reformed and even one of the Player Characters might be a member of it! The result, whatever the outcome, is to enforce the sixth thing and that is, make Al Amarja and thus Over the Edge Third Edition: The Role-playing Game of Surreal Danger the Game Master’s own and thus different from that of any other Game Master with an Over the Edge campaign.

Right from the start though, Welcome to the Island is a challenging set of scenarios. There is always homework for the Game Master to do as part of her preparation. Thankfully, each scenario references the very sections of the core rulebook that she needs to read, though there are multiples of them. There are usually a lot of NPCs to handle as well, often quite detailed in terms of their background and motivations, if not their stats. The authors of the anthology do go out of their way though to give advice and further explanation, including tips and playtest notes, with much of this supplementary information organised into sidebars and sections of boxed text. These are categorised by colour, so for example, advice and Game Master tips are always in red sections, NPCs in black, suggestions as where one scenario intersects with another in violet, and so on. Thus, 
Welcome to the Island is laid out in great blocks of colour that are easy on the eye.

Welcome to the Edge begins in relatively gentle fashion with ‘Battle of the Bands’. The Glorious Lords of the Edge are hosting the biggest battle of the bands on Al Marja, an event which anyone can participate in, but one in which Oblivion Function, an electronica trio, is tipped to win and win big, and so get to perform a victory concert. However, this will be a big win too for the backers of the Oblivion Function, the Movers, and there are plenty of other factions on the island who do not want that to happen. So, another band needs to be found to defeat Oblivion Function and there is only one band capable of doing that, Betwixt, one of the biggest and most critically acclaimed groups on the island. Only Betwixt split up over a decade ago and nobody knows exactly why. If somebody—by which we mean the Player Characters—is to get Betwixt back together, they are going to have to track down the four members, find out why they split, and get them to make up and put aside their differences enough to perform together once again. Which means a road trip back and forth across the island as the Player Characters track down one band member after another.

The four members of Betwixt are nicely detailed, each with their own views and revelations as to why the band broke up and reasons for getting back together (or not). Part of the scenario involves getting the old band tour bus back on the road too (although alternatives are suggested) as well as finding out what has become of the band members. There are some fun encounters to had on the road too, such as a big burrito-eating competition and an attack by a hit squad consisting of a Capella band whose singing has dangerously telekinetic heft to it, and the scenario will climax with the actual battle of the bands.

‘Battle of the Bands’ is the least weird and the least complex of the four scenarios in the anthology, in some ways more of a multi-character piece than the weird conspiracy shenanigans that you would normally expect with a scenario for Over the Edge. This makes it both a good introduction and a poor introduction to Al Amarja. A good introduction because the level of weirdness is relatively low, plus because the road trip format provides a really good reason for touring the island, but a poor one because the weirdness is low and because the introduction, at least for ordinary visitors to the island, as members of the Betwixt fan club, is underwhelming. As a scenario, ‘Battle of the Bands’ has an enjoyably languid, summertime, dust and tarmac feel to it, and as an interlude from the weirdness of Al Amarja, it is just perfect.

The second scenario, ‘A Conclave of Chikutorpls, or the Winds of Change Are Blowing (Up), or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Multidimensional Convergence.’ both turns up the weirdness and has an easier means of introduction. It opens with the car they are in—either they are driving or being driven—knocking someone down in the street and a woman known as Chikutorpl appearing almost immediately out of nowhere. Then they begin finding flyers announcing the reappearance of the Winds of Change, the high-stakes pop-up casino owned by Chikutorpl where it is possible to bet your youth, your beauty, your talent, a memory, even your life… When they attend, Winds of Change lives up to its reputation as a raucous, racy event filled with strange games like hyperbolic billiards and immortal combat. Throughout the host is in a highly mercurial mood and seems to change almost every time the Player Characters see her. Whatever the outcome of their attendance, the Player Characters receive invitations to the next opening and that is when it gets even weirder. It turns out that the host both sent and did not send the invitations, because there are multiple Chikutorpls, each pursuing agendas of their own and seeming to threaten reality in the process. Successive events get more chaotic, and this begins to ripple out as multiple Chikutorpls’ plans have a greater effect upon attendee after attendee. Ultimately, it comes down to a showdown when all of the Chikutorpls on the island host their events to outdoor each other. Throughout the Player Characters can pursue their own agendas or get caught up with those of every other attendee, but the end result is likely to change them in ways they did not anticipate at the start of the scenario.

ParaCon is the most important cutting edge scientific and technological event on Al Amarja, if not in the world, and it is hosted by the leading paranormal figure on the island, Doctor Chris Seversen. In ‘Seversen’s Mysterious Estate’ the Player Characters get to attend the most exclusive high-tech event of the year, whether as bodyguards, as inventors, or simply at random! The scenario is one big party with a lot of guests and a lot going on, including the event being gatecrashed by an astral vampire (note this is not a spoiler, the author advises to tell the players at the start of the scenario about it attending the party in order to ramp up the tension) and a Presidentials wet works strike team. This is not so much a big sandbox as a highly populated sandbox with twenty-three NPCs to weave in and out of the event and several sequences of events for the Game Master to handle and run. It comes with good advice to that end, and it also provides a great set of NPCs which can be used beyond the party (that is, if they survive).

The last scenario in 
Welcome to the Island is ‘Sympathy for the D’Aubainnnes’, which brings the Player Characters into contact with members of Al Amarja’s ruling family in a completely bonkers fashion. Everyone on the island receives a parcel containing a lifelike rubber mask of one of the D’Aubainnes, including the Player Characters. However, when anyone puts the mask on, they cannot take it off. Slowly the mask wearers begin to act like the D’Aubainnne family member they wear the mask off, so Jean-Christophe mask wearers starting teleporting short distances at random, Sir Constance mask wearers accrue wealth, and Sister Cheryl mask wearers become naturally disposed each other and feel stronger and better. The mask wearers also begin to hate the wearers of the other masks to the point that they will kill each other. As a rash of murders ripple back and forth across the island, it also becomes clear that someone is keeping a tally… ‘Sympathy for the D’Aubainnnes’ best works if one of the Player Characters dons one of the masks and the scenario includes multiple suggestions as to why one or more of them would do so. Once they do, then the scenario becomes one of survival and investigation, closer to a more traditional type of scenario found in other role-playing games. The result is a disturbingly surreal end to the quartet.

Physically, 
Welcome to the Island is a bright, colourful book with excellent artwork. It is also well written, and the cartography is decent.

Welcome to the Island provides four good scenarios that are all different and all easy to slot into an ongoing campaign. In fact, they work better as part of an ongoing campaign because all four will have long term effects upon a campaign, as the various factions and conspiracies work out their agendas. The is exactly what the Over the Edge Third Edition: The Role-playing Game of Surreal Danger needs, a showcase of just what the island of Al Amarja can deliver—stupendously surrealistic situations and wonderful weirdness backed up with good advice for the Game Master on how to handle all of that and run the scenarios too.

2001: The Witchfire Trilogy Book One: The Longest Night

1974 is an important year for the gaming hobby. It is the year that Dungeons & Dragons was introduced, the original RPG from which all other RPGs would ultimately be derived and the original RPG from which so many computer games would draw for their inspiration. It is fitting that the current owner of the game, Wizards of the Coast, released the new version, Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition, in the year of the game’s fortieth anniversary. To celebrate this, Reviews from R’lyeh will be running a series of reviews from the hobby’s anniversary years, thus there will be reviews from 1974, from 1984, from 1994, and from 2004—the thirtieth, twentieth, and tenth anniversaries of the titles. These will be retrospectives, in each case an opportunity to re-appraise interesting titles and true classics decades on from the year of their original release.

—oOo—

The Witchfire Trilogy Book One: The Longest Night
was published in 2001 by Privateer Press and introduced the Iron Kingdoms, the Steampunk and high fantasy setting best known for its miniatures combat game, Warmachine: Prime. In 2001 though, the Iron Kingdoms was very much a roleplaying setting, The Witchfire Trilogy being written for the d20 System and thus compatible with Dungeons & Dragons, Third Edition. The trilogy would be completed by The Witchfire Trilogy Book Two: Shadow of the Exile and The Witchfire Trilogy Book Three: The Legion of the Lost, all before being collected as The Witchfire Trilogy in 2005. The Iron Kingdoms is notable for three things. First, its interesting mix of races—Gobbers, Ogrun, and Trollkin alongside the traditional Humans, Elves, and Dwarves. There are no Halflings or Gnomes, and even the Elves are different to those of more traditional Dungeons & Dragons-style fantasy. Second, the prevalence of technology, in particular, the use of firearms and Steamjacks and Warjacks, steam-driven robots with magical brains, used in heavy industry and on the field of battle. Third, the tone of the setting is fairly grim, there being an island to the west, Cryx, where the sorcerers have long experimented with combining the undead with Steamjacks and Warjacks, and have long planned to invade the Iron Kingdoms. Some, but all of this would be introduced in 
The Witchfire Trilogy Book One: The Longest Night.

What strikes you first about 
The Witchfire Trilogy Book One: The Longest Night is the cover. It is an incredible piece by Matt Wilson, depicting a young woman wielding a black two-handed sword crackling with energy whilst she is surrounded by the undead. The cover promised much, and whilst the scenario would deliver in terms of story and plot to match the cover, the cover also revealed the villainess of the piece. But then, so did the back cover blurb! What strikes you second about The Witchfire Trilogy Book One: The Longest Night are its internal illustrations, heavy pen and ink pieces by Matt Wilson and Brian Snoddy which brought the industrial gothic of the Iron Kingdoms to life. It gave The Witchfire Trilogy Book One: The Longest Night and the Iron Kingdoms a singularly recognisable look and that cover would win the ‘Best Cover Art Gold ENnie Award’ in 2001.

The Witchfire Trilogy Book One: The Longest Night though, has something of a split personality. This is because it has to do two things. One of which is to introduce the setting and the other is to give the first part of the scenario. Although it introduces the Iron Kingdoms, the bulk of the setting material is devoted to Corvis, the City of Ghosts, in and around where the scenario itself is set. Boxed sections cover elements of the setting as the scenario goes along, such as how firearms work and what skills are relevant to their use and manufacture in the d20 System; how steam power and steamjacks work, again with the appropriate skills; Human religion in the Iron Kingdoms; and more. Only a tenth or so of The Witchfire Trilogy Book One: The Longest Night is devoted to this setting’s background, and it is both enough and not enough. It is enough with which to run the scenario, but not enough to do more than that. Notably, there are no notes on what Player Characters are like in the Iron Kingdoms. In fact, that information would not be available until the Lock & Load: Iron Kingdoms Character Primer was published in 2002. This introduced all of the new Races and Classes particular to the setting, all of which were different to that of standard Dungeons & Dragons and contributed very much to the feel and flavour of playing in the Iron Kingdoms. Without them, The Witchfire Trilogy Book One: The Longest Night and the Iron Kingdoms feel like a very different setting for Dungeons & Dragons, but one still played using the standard Races and Classes of Dungeons & Dragons, even down to the Halfling, a Race actually mentioned in the scenario.

The Witchfire Trilogy Book One: The Longest Night is designed for Player Characters of First to third Level. As the scenario and the first act opens, the Player Characters are on their way to Corvis as guards on a merchant caravan, when the caravan is attacked by Swamp Gobbers raiders including one with a device capable of creating heavy mist! Unless the Swamp Gobbers manage to run off with one of the chests, the Player Characters will be able to progress into the city fairly quickly. There they will encounter Father Dumas, High Priest of Corvis, who will hire them to investigate a series of grave robberies that he has been unable to persuade the city Watch to look into. After visiting gravesites both in and out of the city, the Player Characters learn that the bodies stolen were all connected to a witchcraft trial which took place ten years ago. Further, one of the witches put on trial and executed was Father Dumas’ sister-in-law and he himself, is the guardian of her daughter and his niece, Alexia Ciannor. By this point, the Player Characters may also have suspicions that she is behind the grave robberies.

In the second act, Father Dumas suggests that the Player Characters investigate the site where the witches were interred after their execution. This is in a former army outpost, deep in Widower’s Wood, the first of the two mini-dungeons in the scenario. It consists of a mix of caves and worked rooms and passages, there are obvious signs that the complex has been broken into and that once the chain-bound coffins are found, that not all of the witches were entombed there… The tomb is also a chance to have the Player Characters encounter more of the Iron Kingdoms’ strange creatures. There is a chance too, for the Dungeon Master to roleplay one of these and there is good advice to that end. By this time, the Player Characters’ suspicions about Alexia Ciannor will have grown and grown, and nobody will believe them if they voice such concerns. Their best course of action is to keep tabs on her and that will lead the Player Characters via the sewers—in very Shadows of Bogenhafen fashion—into her lair where she captures them, explains her plans, and temporarily traps them before making her getaway. Getting out of her lair and its surrounding tunnels ends the second act.

The third act begins with the Player Characters climbing out of the sewers and into the arms of the law. Or rather, Captain Julian Helstrom of the Watch. He more or less press gangs the Player Characters into working for him, revealing his own concerns over Alexia Ciannor, and sends them out on her trail to an old, abandoned fortress beyond Widower’s Wood. It was here that a century ago the army slaughtered a bandit army and it is their hundred year old bones that will form the bulk of Alexia Ciannor’s undead army. With this news in hand, the Player Characters must race back to Corvis to inform Captain Helstrom of the attack, which is just in time for the ‘Longest Night’, the annual celebration which takes place during a lunar eclipse. This is the setting for the climax of the scenario, the celebrations disrupted by the attack of the undead army and a showdown between Alexia Ciannor and the actual villain of the piece. There are some fun moments to throw at the Player Characters and get them involved, including a runaway coach, costumed undead using the dead as a raft, a merchant ship under attack by undead, and more. Alexia Ciannor will appear and attempt to bring her plans to fruition, and ultimately although she will be thwarted, she will get away. Of course, she will return in The Witchfire Trilogy Book Two: Shadow of the Exile.

In addition to the setting content and the scenario, 
The Witchfire Trilogy Book One: The Longest Night provides stats for all of its monsters and NPCs. The monsters in particular are all interesting creatures with a different feel to those presented in the Monster Manual. These would also go on to appear in the bestiary for the Iron Kingdoms, the excellent Monsternomicon.

Physically, 
The Witchfire Trilogy Book One: The Longest Night is a great looking book with wonderfully atmospheric artwork. However, that artwork is not always best placed. For example, the illustration depicting an attack upon a boat by a swamp squid, is placed several pages away from where it is described. The map of Corvis could have been larger and had more locations marked on it, whilst the individual dungeon and fortress maps are just a little too dark to read with ease. The writing feels rushed in places, the rules are poorly utilised in others, and the combination of mini-sourcebook and scenario means that the author has a lot to pack into the scenario, making it feel cramped in places.

There is no denying that 
The Witchfire Trilogy Book One: The Longest Night has a great setting and a great story, but the way in which it implements that story is often heavy-handed. There are scenes where the Dungeon Master is advised to try and have her players and their characters avoid certain actions and then push them back onto the plot. There is a scene where the Player Characters are captured by Alexia Ciannor so that she can explain her plans to them and she uses multiple Hold Person spells to do it. Then at the climax of the scenario where she appears, Alexia Ciannor is confronted by another NPC rather than by the Player Characters, and although they do have some influence over the outcome of the scenario, they cannot stop her escaping. Now some of this is understandable, as the author wants to tell a good story and if the Player Characters capture her or even kill her, it derails the plot. Mechanically, this is unlikely though, as the Player Characters are going to be Third Level at most and Alexia Ciannor is a Tenth Level Sorcerer! The result is that there are moments where the players and their characters lack agency even as they are on the periphery of Alexia Ciannor’s story and plot. Doubtless, a Dungeon Master would be able to fix some of these issues, much as the author did in the later The Witchfire Trilogy Collected Edition.

Yet despite its flaws, 
The Witchfire Trilogy Book One: The Longest Night is still playable and far from being a bad scenario. It is though a scenario which comes its own with the addition of Lock & Load: Iron Kingdoms Character Primer or the Iron Kingdoms Character Guide: Full Metal Fantasy Volume 1 because it brings in Player Character options. Then of course, The Witchfire Trilogy Book Two: Shadow of the Exile and The Witchfire Trilogy Book Three: The Legion of the Lost build on it in epic fashion.

The Witchfire Trilogy Book One: The Longest Night is a hugely atmospheric scenario, full of flavour and detail that is worth experiencing even if the plot in places is heavy-handed. The full potential of The Witchfire Trilogy Book One: The Longest Night might not be realised until later books, but in 2001 it stood out as a well-received scenario offering something different from the growing array of d20 System third-party content which was then beginning to flood the market.

Friday, 29 July 2022

Friday Faction: Slaying the Dragon

In Game Wizards: The Epic Battle for Dungeons & Dragons, Jon Peterson told three stories—one about a rise, one about a feud, and one about a fall and all of them about Dungeons & Dragons. The story of the rise was not one, but four, hand in hand with each other. The first rise would be of Dungeons & Dragons, the first roleplaying game. The second rise would be of roleplaying itself. The third rise would be of E. Gary Gygax, the co-creator of Dungeons & Dragons and the founder of the hobby. The fourth rise would be of TSR, Inc., the company he co-founded to publish Dungeons & Dragons. The feud would be between E. Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson, the other co-creator of Dungeons & Dragons, which would colour so many of his decisions. The fall would be his ousting from the company he co-founded, at the infamous ‘The Ambush at Sheridan Springs’ in 1985, following a debt crisis which would result in the company’s takeover by Lorraine Williams. Game Wizards though only explored the first twelve years of TSR, Inc. Another twelve years would follow with Lorraine Williams at the helm before history repeated itself and TSR, Inc. would be bought out by Wizards of the Coast following another debt crisis. How this history was repeated and how the reputation of Lorraine Williams was cemented as a villain are told in Slaying the Dragon: A Secret History of Dungeons & Dragons by Ben Riggs.

Like any other history of Dungeons & Dragonslaying the Dragon: A Secret History of Dungeons & Dragons begins with E. Gary Gygax. Its first fifth charts his rise and fall, mostly in familiar fashion before the Lorraine Williams era is ushered in with a sense of relief. This is important, because as Game Wizards highlighted, her intervention saved TSR, Inc. and with it Dungeons & Dragons. Yet again and again, her reputation is soured by poor management decisions combined with a dismissive attitude towards both the core product and the core market. This would see the company attempting to expand out of what management saw as the ghetto of the roleplaying hobby market into mass markets, whether that was the mass market for boardgames such as Monopoly or for books. This was despite being the biggest fish in the roleplaying hobby market and despite having number one bestsellers on the New York book list. Yet at the same time, the publisher put out introductory boxed set after introductory boxed throughout nineties, all in an attempt to widen the appeal of Dungeons & Dragons and attract new players. Then when the company did attempt to innovate, whether attempting to design a boardgame intended to introduce Dungeons & Dragons to a younger audience or developing a rival to Magic: The Gathering, it would always seem to be undone by management decisions.

Similarly, management’s treatment of its talent was poor. Time and again, the management would call upon the company’s creative talent to create brilliant product, and time and again it did. David ‘Zeb’ Cook created the Planescape setting, a combination of the earlier Manual of the Planes with factions inspired by Vampire: The Masquerade; Timothy B. Brown and Troy Denning designed Dark Sun, an anti-Dungeons & Dragons setting much of which was inspired by the artwork of then in-house artist, Brom; and Bruce Nesmith and Andria Hayday developed the Ravenloft: Realm of Terror boxed set, based on Tracy and Laura Hickman’s module, I6 Ravenloft. All of these were fantastic products with superb production values and gaming potential, but all at a cost that as the book reveals made the publisher nothing in the way of profit. Yet despite this, it never seemed as if TSR wanted to keep its creative talent, let alone keep them happy. Its management would change agreements that benefitted its employees and then ask them for more, driving the actual men and women who loved roleplaying and Dungeons & Dragons and what they did—being creative on a daily basis—away from the company, and often onto bigger and better things, whether as further fame as an author or artist, or in the computer games industry.

Much like the earlier Game Wizards, there are fascinating asides and missed opportunities throughout Slaying the Dragon. Notably, in Game Wizards it was the opportunity for TSR, Inc. to purchase Games Workshop. In Slaying the Dragon, the major missed opportunity was a failure to capitalise fully on its innovations, most notably in the development of comic books based on Dungeons & Dragons and TSR’s other properties, which would see the establishment of TSR West and the souring of the company’s relationship with DC Comics, and also the creation of Dragonstrike, a board game designed to introduce roleplaying and Dungeons & Dragons to eight-year-olds using a VHS recording, the company overinvested in and was unable to sell in the long term. Yet perhaps the most intriguing opportunity that TSR lost was designing and publishing a roleplaying game based on J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle-earth. From being sued for the use of the term ‘Hobbit’ in Dungeons & Dragons in the seventies to being approached by the holder of the film rights to Tolkien’s works to being offered the chance to create a new Middle-earth roleplaying game in the early nineties is quite a turnaround. Unfortunately, when TSR was unable to obtain the rights to publish new fiction set in Middle-earth—because what the management of the company wanted to be was a legitimate publisher of fiction—Lorraine Williams passed on the opportunity. In hindsight it would have been fascinating to see a Middle-earth boxed set for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, Second Edition and it would have been popular with the roleplaying game’s fans. It was not to be though, and it would not be until Cubicle Seven Entertainment published Adventures in Middle-earth in 2016 that the works of Tolkien and Dungeons & Dragons would be brought together.

Slaying the Dragon ends in 1997 with Peter Adkison manoeuvring to bring in the money that he and Wizards of the Coast had made with the huge success of Magic: The Gathering—as detailed in Generation Decks: The Unofficial History of Gaming Phenomenon Magic: The Gathering—and buy out TSR, Inc. and save Dungeons & Dragons. Which although necessary, was much to Lorraine Williams’ chagrin. By then, the terms of the company’s sales agreement with Random House, the inability to be profitable or innovate, or truly understand its market, had placed it deep in debt. The twenty-five years since are their own history, not yet written and probably not as tumultuous, but Slaying the Dragon ends on positive note, with the number one roleplaying game in safe hands awaiting the new millennium and a new edition.

Slaying the Dragon: A Secret History of Dungeons & Dragons is a not a comprehensive history of the second twelve years of TSR, Inc. and Dungeons & Dragons and nor can it be. The author was unable to secure interviews with two of the leading figures at the company. One was Brian Thomsen, managing fiction editor at TSR, Inc., whose decisions would drive bestselling R.A. Salvatore, the creator of Drizzt Do’Urden, to stop writing for the company. The other was the president of the company, Lorraine Williams. Sadly, Thomsen died in 2008, but Williams declined to give Riggs an interview. Consequently, their roles in the company’s downfall and the defence of their reputations are told via anecdote, and there are more anecdotes charting the former than defending the latter. Thus, Brian Thomsen comes across as hardnosed and unnecessarily aggressive, whilst Williams remains a cold and remote figure, dismissive of gamers and the hobby, unable to escape her reputation as the true villain of the piece and the supposed inspiration for Planescape’s Lady of Pain. Yet there are moments when Williams does come across as being human, notably her sadness at losing TSR, Inc., but they are far and few between. Ultimately, until Lorraine Williams tells the history of the company whilst she was at its helm from her perspective, even though she saved the company and thus Dungeons & Dragons in 1985 and under her tenure there were some great products published, her reputation is always going to be that of the woman who destroyed TSR, Inc.

Slaying the Dragon: A Secret History of Dungeons & Dragons is the counterpart that Game Wizards: The Epic Battle for Dungeons & Dragons needed. The two complement each other, one telling the rise of TSR, Inc., the other its fall, and it is impossible to read one without wanting to read the other. Slaying the Dragon is the lighter of the two histories, more anecdotal and less drawn from documentation—though they play an important role in Riggs’ telling of the story. Slaying the Dragon: A Secret History of Dungeons & Dragons lifts the lid on the failures of TSR, Inc. and the consequences of poor decision after poor decision. Yet it is also a tale of brilliant creativity in the face of mismanagement, writers and artists like David ‘Zeb’ Cook and Bruce Nesmith and Jeff Easley and Brom putting out acclaimed content despite the input of upper management. Slaying the Dragon: A Secret History of Dungeons & Dragons is a compelling catalogue of catastrophes and a miasma of missteps, which tell the story of TSR’s failure and talented creativity in spite of itself.

Friday Filler: Pandemic Hot Zone: Europe

Now it might seem inappropriate for a new version of Pandemic—the 2008 game of fighting and finding a cure to four outbreaks of different diseases—to be published in the midst of an actual pandemic. It might also seem inappropriate that its subject focuses entirely on North America given the high number of deaths from the Covid-19 virus in the USA. If you believe that to be so, then this review is not for you. However, you would be wrong in your thinking. To start with, the publication date of the new game is entirely coincidental. Second, the subject matter of the new game—just like the original—is about researching, teaching and finding a cure for multiple diseases, which is exactly what scientists are doing right now. So both Pandemic and the new game are about providing medical aid and saving people, undeniably positive rather than negative in both their subject matter and what the players are doing. If you still find the subject matter distasteful, then this review is not for you.

The original Pandemic was published in 2008 to much acclaim. In the game, between one and four players take the role of members of the Center for Disease Control working against four global epidemics—red, blue, yellow, and black—in a race to save humanity. The game was one of the first titles to really distill the concept of the co-operative game, a game in which the players played not against each other, but against the board and the game itself, into something that was simple, elegant, and ultimately, very popular. In Pandemic, the players race around the world, travelling from city to city in an effort to treat diseases and find a cure for them whilst staving off the effects of outbreaks that will spread these diseases from one city to every adjacent city. Too many outbreaks and the players will fail and humanity is doomed. Fail to find cures to all four diseases and the players will fail and humanity is doomed. Like all cooperative games, Pandemic is designed to be difficult to beat and can be made even more challenging through the various expansions.

The latest addition to the Pandemic family of boardgames is Pandemic Hot Zone: Europe, the second entry in the ‘Hotzone’ family of Pandemic games after 
Pandemic Hot Zone: North America. Published by Z-Man Games, this again is designed for between one and four players, has players cooperating to treat and find a cure to several diseases, and is played against the game rather than the players against each other. It is however, not the same game as Pandemic, for whilst there are many similarities, there are also several differences. The first of these is that there are only three diseases to find a cure for and the second is that it is set entirely in Europe, as opposed to the four diseases and the global scope of Pandemic. The third is the playing time. Pandemic Hot Zone: Europe can be played in thirty minutes as opposed to the sixty minutes of standard Pandemic. Further there are similarities between Pandemic Hot Zone: Europe and Pandemic Hot Zone: North America, such that their rules can be mixed and matched, although arguably if you have one, do you need the other as another shorter, fast-playing version of Pandenic?

So as with its American counterpart, Pandemic Hot Zone: Europe only needs four cards of the same colour to cure a disease instead of five, and there is only the one fixed Research Station instead of multiple Research Stations which can be placed on the board as in Pandemic. This is of course in Genève, the European headquarters of the United Nations and the World Health Organisation as well as the International Committee of the Red Cross. This negates the need for the ‘Operations Expert’ from Pandemic, who can establish Research Stations around the world and the ability of the players to shuttle back and forth between them. The four roles in Pandemic Hot Zone: Europe are the ‘Virologist’, ‘Containment Specialist’, ‘Pilot’, and ‘Quarantine Specialist’.

Pandemic Hot Zone: Europe only has three Epidemic cards. These accelerate and exacerbate the spread of the three diseases in the game, whereas standard Pandemic has three, four, and five, the number used to vary the difficulty of beating the game. Diseases cannot be eradicated in Pandemic Hot Zone: Europe, whereas in standard Pandemic, they can, preventing their appearance during the game. Lastly, rather than alter the number of Epidemic cards to vary the difficulty of beating the game, Pandemic Hot Zone: Europe—just like Pandemic Hot Zone: North America—provides a different means to alter the difficulty of play. In Pandemic Hot Zone: North America it was Crisis cards, but in Pandemic Hot Zone: Europe it is Mutation cards, which change how the various diseases in the game work.

Nevertheless, game play in Pandemic Hot Zone: Europe is similar to that of Pandemic. Each turn, a player will move round the map treating diseases to prevent there being too many on the board, visiting cities for which they have a card to give to another player, and when a player has the requisite four cards of one colour, rushing back to Genève to find cure for the disease of that colour. Designed for two to four players, aged eight and up, Pandemic Hot Zone: Europe is won by finding a cure for all three diseases. This is the only winning condition, whereas there are several losing conditions. Pandemic Hot Zone: Europe is lost if four Outbreaks occur, the players run out of disease cubes of any colour to add to the board, or when the Player Deck is depleted.

As its title suggests, Pandemic Hot Zone: Europe is played on a map of Europe. This depicts twenty-four cities across the continent, divided into three zones—the blue zone covering Western Europe, the red zone covering Eastern Europe, and the yellow zone Southern Europe. These cities are connected by various routes along which both the players will travel as they move around the continent and the game’s three diseases will travel whenever there is Outbreak in one city. This happens whenever a city with three disease cubes has more cubes of the same colour added to it. In which case the disease spreads to directly connected cities.

The game offers four different roles. The ‘Virologist’ can substitute one required card to ‘Discover a Cure’, so use three cards of one colour and two cards of another colour, and as an action remove a single cube from the board matching the colour of a card in his hand. When the ‘Containment Specialist’ enters a city with two or more cubes of one colour in a city, his player removes one of them. The ‘Pilot’ can Fly to any city within two connections of his current location, skipping the cities between them, and take another player with him. When the ‘Quarantine Specialist’ is in a city, if that city or the adjacent cities would be infected during the drawing of Infection cards, then no cubes are placed in those cities.

As well as the board, there are two decks of cards, both of which contain a card for each of the twenty-four cities on the board. The Infection deck is used to determine where incidences of the game’s three diseases will occur. Over the course of the game, Infection cards drawn will be reshuffled and added back to the top of the Infection deck to represent the populations of cities being constantly prone to the game’s three diseases. The cards in the Player deck are used in several ways. Each represents a single city and can be used to travel to or from a particular city, so to or from London. Once a player has four cards of a single colour—red, blue, or yellow—then he can travel to Genève and use them to find a cure. To acquire four cards of a single colour, a player can either draw them from the Player deck at the end of his turn or take them from or be given them by a fellow player.

In addition, the Player deck contains three other types of card
—the Epidemic card, the Event card, and the Mutation card. When an Epidemic card is drawn it increases the rate of infection—the number of cards drawn from from the Infection deck at the end of a a player’s turn, determines the city where a new occurrence of a disease happens, and shuffles the Infection cards in the discard pile back onto the Infection deck to reinfect cities that have already suffered disease already. The Event cards each provide a one-time bonus, such as ‘Mobile Hospital’ which allows the current player to remove one cube from each of the cities he travels to on his turn and ‘Resource Planning’ which enables a player to look at the top four cards of the Player Deck, rearrange them and add them to the top of the deck. There are only four Event cards in the game.

There are nine Mutation cards in the game, with three different effects, one per disease. Thus, for ‘Resistant to Treatment’, if there are three or cubes of one colour on a city, a player must spend two actions to Treat Disease in that city. There is one of these for each disease. Once drawn, a Mutation card remains in play until a cure for its disease is found. Further, until that cure is found, more Mutation cards for that disease can be drawn and they stack, combining their effects, making the disease harder to treat and easier to spread. In addition, the game’s difficulty can be adjusted by adding more Mutation cards to Player deck. Each Mutation card affects a specific disease in a specific, permanent way. However, unlike the Crisis cards in Pandemic Hot Zone: North America, the Mutation cards in Pandemic Hot Zone: Europe do not feel like a wholly new mechanic, rules for mutating diseases having been previously seen in the Pandemic: On the Brink expansion for the main game. as to which Crisis cards the players will face.

Game set-up is simple enough. Each player is given a role and two randomly drawn Player cards whilst the remainder of the Player deck is seeded with the three Epidemic cards and three Mutation cards. Six cards are drawn from the Infection deck to determine where the three diseases first occur on the board and to form the discard pile. Then on his turn, a player will move round the map, treating diseases, taking or giving Player cards, and so on. At the end of his turn, he draws two more cards from the Player deck, adding them to his hand or immediately resolving them if they are Crisis cards or Epidemic cards. Lastly, he draws Infection cards from the Infection deck—starting at two and rising to four—and adds disease cubes to the cities indicated on the cards drawn. Play continues like this until the game is won by all three diseases being cured or lost by having four Outbreaks occur, running out of disease cubes, or depleting the Player deck.

Pandemic Hot Zone: Europe is easy to lose, but challenging to win. Plus winning does feel good. Like any Pandemic game, there is a real sense of achievement in working together, discovering curses to the diseases, and so winning the game.

Time is tight. With a four player game, the number of cards in the Player deck will range between twenty-three and twenty-nine, giving the players between eleven and fourteen turns between them before the game ends. So players need to plan and coordinate their actions from turn to turn, and this is not taking into account the effects of Epidemic and Mutation cards. So the players are constantly thinking, planning, and having to adjust to unexpected events (well, they are not unexpected, their being built into the game and its set-up, so think unexpected timing of events), so game play is both thoughtful and tense. However, since it is a cooperative game, there is the opportunity to discuss what your actions are going to be and that alleviates some of the tension—a little.

Physically, Pandemic Hot Zone: Europe is very nicely presented. Everything is in full colour, all of the cards are easy to read, and the rulebook quickly guides you through set-up and answers your questions. It even has a list of the differences between Pandemic Hot Zone: Europe and Pandemic. Lastly, the playing pieces are all done in solid plastic. Everything then, is of a high quality.

So is Pandemic Hot Zone: Europe a good game? To which the answer is, yes, yes it is a good game. However, it feels very close in play to Pandemic Hot Zone: North America, and having played one, it is debatable whether it is different enough to make it stand out. The lack of major differences mean that going from one to the other is easy enough and the compatibility means that the different roles and both Crisis and Mutation cards could be mixed into the one game. Yet another problem is that the Mutation cards only have three mutations between all nine cards (there being one of each type per disease) and that does not much in the way of variation.

Pandemic Hot Zone: Europe is an efficient, simpler version of the standard game of Pandemic, streamlined for faster play, size, and price. Yet Pandemic Hot Zone: North America already did that and if you already have that, do you really need another version? Had there been more variation in the Mutation cards to make it stand out a little more, then Pandemic Hot Zone: Europe would be worth trying and buying. Without that greater degree of variation, Pandemic Hot Zone: Europe is a serviceable, playable game that is perhaps of more interest to the dedicated devotee of the Pandemic line of games.

Monday, 25 July 2022

Jonstown Jottings #65: GLORANTHA: Rivers of Blood

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

—oOo—

What is it?
GLORANTHA: Rivers of Blood is a scenario for use with RuneQuest: Roleplaying in Glorantha.

It is a five page, full colour, 1.65 MB PDF.

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


Where is it set?
GLORANTHA: Rivers of Blood is set in the central hills of the Grazelands.

Who do you play?
Player Characters of all types could play this scenario, but any Chaos-hating character or character capable of fighting Chaos will be useful.

What do you need?
GLORANTHA: Rivers of Blood requires RuneQuest: Roleplaying in Glorantha and the Glorantha Bestiary.

What do you get?
GLORANTHA: Rivers of Blood details an ancient Mostali cave where a Quicksilver dwarf has his alchemical laboratory. Madness and failure to restore the World Machine have led him to incorporate Lunar Chaos magic in his research and he has begun the source of a river in his cave. The Player Character, either members of the clan who live along the river or connected to the clan which does, are sent up river to determine why it has turned blood red and begun to kill cattle belonging to the clan.

The Game Master is provided with a short encounter table and details of the cave, plus stats for the Quicksilver Mostali. The cave complex consists of five rooms or caves, worked or unworked. The description of the cave along with its map takes up one page. The map is based a free-to-use map by Dyson Logos. (The blog is worth visiting as Dyson Logos provides a more interesting description of the cave than the author of GLORANTHA: Rivers of Blood does.)

The biggest problem with GLORANTHA: Rivers of Blood—outside of the fact that it is neither interesting nor good—is how the Player Characters get across a three-foot deep pool of contact poison. No advice or suggestions are offered to that end.

GLORANTHA: Rivers of Blood is at best a quick, mini-fixer-upper that a Game Master might be able to develop into something else. Probably not purchasing now that the scenario’s decidedly limp plot has been given away. It could be used as a quick combat encounter if the Game Master has absolutely nothing else planned. Otherwise it is nothing more than an uninspiring dungeon bash.

It is supposedly set in the Grazelands, but the scenario could be set almost anywhere else here there is a river. The fact that GLORANTHA: Rivers of Blood is said to be set in the Grazelands is irrelevant.

Cows with Chaos features is an amusing notion and utterly worth stealing from this review rather than the scenario being reviewed.

Is it worth your time?
YesGLORANTHA: Rivers of Blood is the perfect showcase of how to write an uninspiring combat scenario for RuneQuest: Roleplaying in Glorantha.
NoGLORANTHA: Rivers of Blood is a self-contained dungeon bash which the author kindly leaves all of the detail, stats, and flavour to the Game Master to develop herself. Cheap, cheerless, characterless, and charmless of which the author is highly skilled at churning out.
MaybeGLORANTHA: Rivers of Blood is a perfect showcase of how to 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, 24 July 2022

1982: Shadows of Yog-Sothoth

1974 is an important year for the gaming hobby. It is the year that Dungeons & Dragons was introduced, the original RPG from which all other RPGs would ultimately be derived and the original RPG from which so many computer games would draw for their inspiration. It is fitting that the current owner of the game, Wizards of the Coast, released the new version, Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition, in the year of the game’s fortieth anniversary. To celebrate this, Reviews from R’lyeh will be running a series of reviews from the hobby’s anniversary years, thus there will be reviews from 1974, from 1984, from 1994, and from 2004—the thirtieth, twentieth, and tenth anniversaries of the titles. These will be retrospectives, in each case an opportunity to re-appraise interesting titles and true classics decades on from the year of their original release.

—oOo—

In 1981, Call of Cthulhu would revolutionise the roleplaying hobby, introducing the works of the Lovecraft, if not to the industry, then to the wider hobby; creating horror as a genre; making Player Characters or Investigators mortal and fragile; introducing the concept of Sanity and suffering mental damage; and more. The first supplement for Call of Cthulhu, published the following year, was just as revolutionary. Shadows of Yog-Sothoth: A Global Campaign to Save Mankind was the first campaign for Lovecraftian investigative roleplaying. It introduced the concept of the onionskin campaign. This has the investigators stripping away layers of information like the skin of an onion as the players progress through the campaign, revealing more of the evil cult’s plans and coming closer to the heart of the adventure. There had been campaigns before, such as G1 Steading of the Hill Giant Chief, G2 Glacial Rift of the Frost Giant Jarl, G3 Hall of the Fire Giant King, D1 Descent into the Depths of the Earth, D3 Vault of the Drow, and Q1 Queen of the Demonweb Pits for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, First Edition, which were connected and could be run as a campaign. However, each part was available separately and could readily be run independent of the others, whereas each and every chapter of Shadows of Yog-Sothoth was integral to the plot and thus awkward to dismantle and run on their own. It was the first campaign to be set in a historical period and the first campaign to be set in a modern historical period and the first campaign to take its Player Characters around the world. In this way, Shadows of Yog-Sothoth set the blueprint for many the Call of Cthulhu campaigns we have had since, many of which would go on to improve upon the format, but Shadows of Yog-Sothoth was there first.

Shadows of Yog-Sothoth: A Global Campaign to Save Mankind also introduced the first cult to Call of Cthulhu, the Lords of the Silver Twilight, whose members range from centuries old wizards to the undead. It is their aim to force the rise of the sunken city of R’lyeh under the Pacific where Dread Cthulhu has slumbered for aeons and so unleash the Great Old One upon the world and bring about the end of mankind’s dominion over the Earth. The stars though, are not yet right to bring about such a calamitous event and there is a chance that the Lords of the Silver Twilight will fail. When they discover the plans of the Lords of the Silver Twilight have for humanity and the Earth, a group of stalwart Investigators set out to thwart them, an effort which takes them to Boston to New York, then Scotland, California, Maine, and finally Easter Island and the South Pacific. In the process, they will discover dread histories and the darkest of secrets, place both their minds and their bodies in harm’s way again and again, learn things that man was always best not knowing, and ultimately, confront an alien being beyond their comprehension.

Shadows of Yog-Sothoth opens in Boston in 1928. In ‘The Hermetic Order of the Silver Twilight’, the Investigators are invited to join the eponymous and rich, well-to-do, misogynistic fraternity with a reputation for charitable works, not unlike the Freemasons. The order has several ranks though which the Investigators will quickly progress to the point when its reveals to them that in truth, its inner circle is dedicated to worshipping an unearthly god and is awaiting the time when the stars come right, and alien species can reclaim what once was theirs. The location and rituals for The Hermetic Order of the Silver Twilight are all sketched out in some detail and once they are initiated into the upper ranks, there is the constant nagging question of, “When is knowing too much just too much?” Yet as the Investigators are promoted through the ranks and exposed to unspeakable things and expected to commit increasingly despicable acts, they have the chance to learn both what the order knows and what its aims are. This includes sneaking into some of the more secret areas where they will find horrors indeed.

‘The Hermetic Order of the Silver Twilight’, the first chapter of the campaign, is detailed and rife with roleplaying possibilities combined with skulduggery and stealth. As written though it does not support that with any ease, there being no other members described other than the cultists and their acolytes, and similarly there is no real reason for the Investigators to join The Hermetic Order of the Silver Twilight except as a means to begin the plot. This despite the fact that Shadows of Yog-Sothoth is intended for fairly experienced Investigators. Shadows of Yog-Sothoth, Second Edition, published in 2004, addressed some of these issues, but not all. It is easy to be underwhelmed by ‘The Hermetic Order of the Silver Twilight’, but set-up and the plot definitely has possibilities. They just await the hand of a good Keeper to really fillet them out.

After the Investigators have learned all that they dare and fled the headquarters of The Hermetic Order of the Silver Twilight, they receive the first of several letters which will alert them to strange events around the world. This is a device that the campaign will use again and again, typically letters which draw their attention to something which turns out to be connected to the main plot, but does not look like it first. This is one of the major complaints about the campaign, that the use of letters as a narrative device is clumsy and clichéd. In hindsight this is undeniably true, but at the time of publication this was not the case. 

The second scenario, ‘Look to the Future’, is a radical departure from the rest of the campaign, a piece of weird Science Fiction which takes the Investigators to New York where they will infiltrate an odd self-help and self-actualisation organisation. The Investigators are easily able to attend a meeting which is held in an oddly bare bunker-like building. In return for ready donations of money and unaware donations of Power—at this point in Call of Cthulhu’s rules, magic is fuelled by raw Power rather than Magic Points—at regular ceremonies, attendees are rewarded with small items of advanced technology, such as disposable lighters, digital watches, and non-stick frying pans. In addition, there is strange technology in the basement if the Investigators can gain access. Meddle too much and there is the possibility that one or more of their number will be killed, to the point that there is the possibility of all of them being killed. Even if they do not, they should find further links to the activities of the Hermetic Order of the Silver Twilight and its masters, but the scenario leaves a lot for the Keeper to develop if the Investigators want to explore beyond the walls of Look to the Future’s bunker. Curiously, this scenario involves Nyarlathotep, here indicating for the first time the involvement of the Crawling Chaos in the numerous machinations of those involved in the Mythos and other scenarios and campaigns for Call of Cthulhu. This is despite the fact that the campaign is called Shadows of Yog-Sothoth and famously Yog-Sothoth appears nowhere in the campaign. 

More letters direct the Investigators to Scotland to check upon one Henry Hancock, renowned big game hunter and local amateur archaeologist. ‘The Coven of Cannich’ is a sprawling sandbox populated by numerous masters and mistresses of the Mythos as factions from the Lords of the Silver Twilight search for parts of an artefact believed to be buried in an ancient temple on the shores of Loch Mullardoch. These are not the only Mythos forces in the area, and there seems to be a medley of them, most far too powerful for the Investigators to face. The scenario is very much one of who the Investigators can trust from among the NPCs, and the difficulty is that because there are some twenty of them, the Keeper just has too many to handle and make them stand out from each other. There is potential to camp this up a bit a la Hammer Horror, what with the screeching ghost and the accents of the locals, but ‘The Coven of Cannich’ is a difficult scenario to run and prepare, and there is little in the way of advice for the Keeper.  

Back in the U.S.A., the Investigators are hired by a Hollywood movie mogul to investigate a supposedly ‘haunted’ film set out in the Mojave Desert after the film was shut down, the director committed suicide, and the lead actor, all but a vagrant. Again, as a scenario, ‘Devil’s Canyon’, feels unconnected to the campaign as a whole, but again the Investigators will find what also seem like coincidental links. Yet there is some fun investigation to conduct in Hollywood before the Investigators set out the eponymously named Devil’s Canyon. There they find the ruined set of what would have been an epic film. After the bucolic highlands of Scotland and the city streets of Boston and New York, there is a sense of space, sunlit and dry, in this scenario’s desert setting, but even with that feeling of openness the Investigators quickly find themselves trapped and stalked by invisible things. Their invisibility is balanced by their cowardice and if they can harness the technology available, the Investigators might be able to reveal what they are. Where the Mythos and the monsters are overdone in the other scenarios, here they are restrained and creepy, and the scenario really benefits from that. However, the scenario does not add much to the overall campaign, and it comes across as a diversion rather than essential to the plot.

The campaign then takes a turn for the worse for the Investigators in ‘The Worm that Walks’. They are offered further clues, even patronage and respite, by one Christopher Edwin, but in following them up, they face increasingly nasty dangers—a family of cannibalistic backwoodsmen, an attack by a shoggoth whilst they are aboard their new patron’s yacht, and then when one of them is poisoned, stalked by something in the hospital. By the time it gets to that point, the likelihood is that the Investigators do not trust him—even if they ever did given the typical player sense of paranoia—and they have every reason not to. Edwin is out to kill them as part of the Lords of the Silver Twilight’s revenge upon the Investigators, and whilst that is understandable, to come at a point so late in the campaign when there is the possibility again of all the Investigators being killed, in what is already a campaign a deadly campaign designed for experienced Investigators, is well, overkill. 

Penultimately, the campaign switches from reactive mode to proactive mode as it nears its climax. Up until now the Investigators have been reacting to letters received, but now they have the chance to begin moving against the cult, in ‘The Watchers of Easter Island’ and then in ‘Rise of R’lyeh’, the last two parts of the campaign. In the first, ‘The Watchers of Easter Island’, they travel to Easter Island, which during the period when Shadows of Yog-Sothoth is set, is a colony of Chile and under military rule. If the Investigators can make contact with the indigenous islanders and the survivors of an archaeological team, all of whom have suffered attacks and disappearances. There is something strange going on and the island is under martial law, the local commandant curious as to the reason for the Investigators’ visit and wanting to be kept aware of their activities. The indigenous islanders will guide the Investigators to a local, elderly priest who can advise and suggest the cause, and even equip them to fight the fearsome figure responsible for the disappearances. Getting to both priest and threat is physically gruelling and the end confrontation is challenging. ‘The Watchers of Easter Island’ does feel superfluous to the campaign itself. If they fail, the Investigators will be attacked on their voyage to R’lyeh at the beginning of the next chapter, but otherwise, the Investigators’ success or failure in preventing the final preparations being conducted by a Lord of the Silver Twilight have little effect on the campaign’s climax.

At last, in ‘The Rise of R’lyeh’, the efforts of the Lords of the Silver Twilight and their acolytes come to fruition and the island of R’lyeh rises out of the south Pacific, and they attempt to call Dread Cthulhu from his slumber. By this time, the Investigators should be armed with the artefacts they found during their investigations in the previous scenarios, and have the means to reverse the ritual that the Lords of the Silver Twilight want to perform, and so sink the island. It is a very short scenario, but a fitting one, as the Investigators race across the island to find a non-Euclidean vantage point from which to perform their reverse ritual. There is that moment of course, when they will have to witness Great Cthulhu easing himself out of his tomb and wading through the flotilla of boats carrying his worshippers, a moment worthy of legend that will tear at the Investigators’ sanity, after which the survivors must flee back across the island to their boat, and hopefully get away in safety. As momentous as this actually is, it does feel as if the Investigators are doing everything from the wings of the stage and so slightly anti-climactic. 

In addition, Shadows of Yog-Sothoth includes two extra scenarios. The first, ‘People of the Monolith’ is based on the short story, ‘The Black Stone’ by Robert E. Howard and reads more like a short story than a scenario. The Investigators are hired by a publisher to travel to Hungary to look into the circumstances behind a piece of poetry and the poet’s subsequent suicide. The scenario is short and very little actually happens, although it is not without its strangeness. Written as a beginning scenario, it is suited to less action-orientated Investigators, and it works with fewer Investigators rather than more. 

The second scenario is ‘The Warren’. This takes place in Boston and focuses upon the Boucher estate, long abandoned and now purchased for demolition and redevelopment. When the demolition expert goes missing the Investigators are hired to look into what has happened at the estate. What they discover inside the house is that the Boucher family never died out, but rather degenerated and became inbred, worshipping the Great Old Ones. Despite there being a decent bit of research to do beforehand, ‘The Warren’ all too soon descends into a location-based, dungeon style adventure. Nowhere near as bad as scenarios which would appear in the pages of the anthologies, The Asylum & Other Tales and Curse of the Chthonians: Four Odysseys Into Deadly Intrigue, but not something that would be done today or indeed since they were published. Despite the investigative efforts made before exploring the Boucher estate, the Investigators are unlikely to full prepared for the true threat at the heart of the scenario and the choice of the Great Old One feels ill-suited to the role here just as much as this type of scenario, whilst Lovecraftian, feels ill-suited to Lovecraftian investigative roleplaying. 

Physically, Shadows of Yog-Sothoth is well presented and actually decently written for a campaign published in 1982. The organisation of the material leaves a lot to be desired and a lot for the potential Keeper to work through and prepare. The cover is a glorious depiction of R’lyeh and the pen and ink illustrations, all by Tom Sullivan, are all suitably dark and oppressive, and the maps have a certain charm. By the modern standards, the handouts are plain, but they are serviceable. 

—oOo— 

Following its publication in 1982, Shadows of Yog-Sothoth was reviewed in Space Gamer Number 60 (February 1983) in the ‘Capsule Reviews’ section by William A. Barton, the designer of Cthulhu by Gaslight. He identified that several of the scenarios are “almost too deadly”, but concluded that, “Overall, though, SHADOWS OF YOG-SOTHOTH should provide some exciting CoC play for even the most experienced investigators (despite the odd fact that Yog-Sothoth never makes an appearance, title or not), and I recommend it to all Lovecraftians.” 

Shadows of Yog-Sothoth was reviewed not once, but twice in Dragon magazine. First, in Dragon #81 (Vol. VIII, No. 7, January 1984) in ‘Gaming without heroes: Horror role-playing gets its vigor from victims’ by Ken Rolston. From the start he highlighted issues with the campaign: “In design, each of the seven linked scenarios is a mystery, complete with clues, NPCs, and settings. However, for smooth presentation, considerable study and preparation by the GM will be necessary. The scenarios lack strict linear narratives. Though this avoids arbitrary limits on player freedom, it forces the GM to structure the adventures in response to the actions of the players — a difficult job even for experienced gamemasters. The-tactics of the antagonists are not adequately detailed, and will need to be improvised or planned ahead.” Ultimately, he was far more positive in his conclusion, saying that, “Yog-Sothoth requires much labor and study on the part of the GM; it is not usable after a single reading. The GM will have to provide most of the narrative structure for the campaign, since the players have much freedom to choose their own approach to solving problems. The writing and editing are generally superior. Player materials are provided in ample quantity and the text is adequately organized for GM reference. The adventures are unusual and the atmosphere exotic and terrifying. Yog-Sothoth is a classic example of role-playing horror, with awesome monsters, desperate victims, and an atmosphere of mystery and menace. Since it provides enough material for a campaign of several months’ duration, it is an excellent value for the $10 purchase.” 

The campaign was then reviewed six years later in Dragon #81 (Vol. XV, No. 1, June 1990) in ‘Role-playing Reviews: A losing war against the forces of darkness’ by Jim Bambra. This was as part of the Cthulhu Classics anthology, which reprinted Shadows of Yog-Sothoth along with ‘The Warren’, but not ‘People of the Monolith’, alongside ‘The Pits of Bendal-Dolum’ and ‘The Temple of the Moon’ from Terror from the Stars; ‘Dark Carnival’ from Curse of the Chthonians; and ‘The Secret of Castrenegro’ from Cthulhu Companion. Bambra was positive in his summation, stating, “The horror elements are well presented, and the adventures span a wide variety of locations and investigative approaches. Opportunities for role-playing, investigation, and combat abound with nameless horrors and the depraved cultists who worship the creatures of darkness.”

Ian Bailey reviewed Shadows of Yog-Sothoth in ‘Open Box’ in White Dwarf #44 (August, 1983). Before awarding it ten out of ten, he said, “All in all the Shadows of Yog-Sothoth is an excellent and masterly campaign that demands a high standard of play throughout. It is well presented (one feature is five pages of player-information which can be photocopied or pulled out to save the Keeper time) and carefully managed throughout, and it provides, I believe, the most exciting and satisfying adventure available on the market to date. It might seem expensive but it is worth every penny.” 

Anders Swenson reviewed the campaign in ‘Game Reviews’ in Different Worlds Issue 34 (May/June 1984). He highlighted the deadliness of the campaign saying that, “…[M]any  of the scenarios would seem to work better with relatively well-equipped adventurers who have gotten access to heavy military weapons…” as well its organisation, complaining that, “Then there is the organization. Each scenario does contain the material needed to run the adventure, but finding it and having it handy is another question. Many of the scenarios have a lot of nonplayer characters, situations, maps, etc., and the tendency of the layout people was to string them together without enough introductory, transitional, and connective next to make everything findable.” As with other reviewers, he ended on a positive note with, “Overall, though, this is an excellent collection of first-rate Call Of Cthulhu scenarios. All keepers (gamemasters) should get Shadows of Yog-Sothoth.” 

—oOo— 

When it was first published in 1982, Shadows of Yog-Sothoth was like nothing that had come before. It was a whole campaign, consisting of several linked parts, each integral to the whole and the flow of the campaign’s story. It was set in a modern age and it was a first horror campaign, and it pitted the Investigators against H.P. Lovecraft’s signature creature, the Great Old One, Cthulhu himself. That is one thing that no campaign has done since. It is this version that would be reprinted as part of the Call of Cthulhu Classic Kickstarter campaign to celebrate the fortieth anniversary of Call of Cthulhu. It is also this version which would be reprinted as part of Cthulhu Classics in 1989.

Yet for all its scope and grandeur, Shadows of Yog-Sothoth suffers, by modern standards, numerous flaws—and those flaws are well known. They include an underwhelming set-up which challenges the Keeper to involve her players and their Investigators in the campaign. The links between the chapters are flimsy, awkward, and repetitive, and the constant use of the letter as a plot device is wearisome. ‘The Worm that Walks’, the fifth scenario, has a well-deserved reputation as a killer, an intentional method of murdering one Investigator after another at a point in the campaign when their knowledge and experience are needed for the last two scenarios. The campaign also lacks advice for the Keeper and having been written by different hands, it has a rough, incohesive feel. 

It is possible that some or all of these issues could have been addressed by the planned development of a longer, more extensive, and greater world-spanning version of the campaign which would have been edited by Scott David Aniolowski. This would have included far more of locations visited in Lovecraft’s ‘The Call of Cthulhu’, the story which directly inspired Shadows of Yog-Sothoth, including Greenland, China, Germany, New Orleans, Kingsport, Saudi Arabia, Irem, San Francisco, and Xoth. Unfortunately, due to time constraints, this expanded version of the campaign was cancelled and Shadows of Yog-Sothoth, Second Edition was published instead. It should be noted that some of content of ‘The Call of Cthulhu’ has been presented for Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition in Cults of Cthulhu.

Some of these problems were addressed in Shadows of Yog-Sothoth, Second Edition, published in 2004. They included reasons and motivations for the Investigators to join the Hermetic Order of the Silver Twilight in ‘The Hermetic Order of the Silver Twilight’, as well as NPCs beyond the Cultists which they could interact with. The links between the chapters were listed and made more obvious and some advice was provided for the Keeper, although all too often, not enough. Whether the version from 1982 or 2004, Shadows of Yog-Sothoth cannot fail to show its age and whilst as it should, it presents a huge challenge to the players and their Investigators, it also presents an enormous challenge to the Keeper who wants to run the campaign. There is so much to prepare in the campaign and Shadows of Yog-Sothoth never makes it easy. Certainly, within two years, there would be campaigns from Chaosium, Inc, beginning with The Fungi from Yuggoth and Masks of Nyarlathotep, the latter often regarded as the greatest roleplaying campaign ever published, which made incredible strides in campaign design and presentation. There is no denying that Shadows of Yog-Sothoth needs a rewrite and even a redesign and hopefully its third edition will be the rewrite and the redesign it needs and addresses its issues.

Shadows of Yog-Sothoth: A Global Campaign to Save Mankind broke new ground in so many ways, but it is no masterpiece. It is flawed and often incoherent, and it remains a daunting prospect for any Keeper who sets out to run it for her players. Yet it has many fine moments of horror and creepiness, and above all, it has ambition, and it has a grandeur and it does something no other campaign has done since, which is have the Investigators face Cthulhu himself.