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Saturday, 31 December 2022

Manners & Mythos

Regency Cthulhu: Dark Designs in Jane Austen’s England
extends the reach of the Cthulhu Mythos and Lovecraftian investigative horror into the late Georgian period, a period synonymous with the novels of Jane Austen such as Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice. Indeed, it is these novels which this supplement for Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition draws from to create a highly stratified setting that is very much one of pride and propriety, reputation and rumour, and scandal and sobriety. Both gaming and roleplaying have visited the period before, but only in a limited fashion, for example, Jane Austen’s Matchmaker and its expansion, Jane Austen’s Matchmaker with Zombies and Good Society: A Jane Austen RPG, but for the most part have preferred to visit the earlier Georgian period of the eighteenth century or the later Victorian Era of the nineteenth century with roleplaying games such as Dark Streets and Cthulhu by Gaslight respectively. Regency Cthulhu provides everything a Keeper and her players needs to explore the period and mind both their manners and the Mythos, including an overview of the period, new Investigator Occupations, new rules for Reputation, a setting, and two scenarios, as well as appendices.

Regency Cthulhu: Dark Designs in Jane Austen’s England is set between 1811 and 1820, the period when King George III succumbed to mental illness and under an act of parliament, his eldest son George, Prince of Wales, was appointed prince regent to discharge royal functions. The Prince Regent would succeed his father as George IV in 1820, followed by his brother William IV in 1830. Both the Regency and Georgian eras would end with the accession of Queen Victoria in 1837 and the beginning of the Victorian era. It encompasses a period of near constant war, primarily against the French in the Napoleonic War, but also against the Americans in the War of 1812, of social unrest and poverty, the growth of the Industrial Revolution, and the burgeoning mercantile classes wanting to better themselves despite being in trade! Much of this, though, remains offscreen in Regency Cthulhu which focuses on the landed gentry, the well-to-do, and the minor nobility. The men of this class either inherit their wealth and their home from their father as the eldest son, or enter an appropriate profession, such as the military, the clergy, or the law, whilst women take up acceptable pastimes like embroidery, painting, or the piano, prepare herself for marriage, find a suitable husband—if one is not found for her and do so early, lest she become an old maid, and then devote herself to her children. It is these members of the landed gentry that players roleplay in Regency Cthulhu, going to tea, attending fancy balls, entering into chaste courtships, minding their manners—always, and perhaps, investigating the dark, unseemly presence of Cosmic Horror which hides behind the gentile façade of good society!

Regency Cthulhu opens with a good overview of the Regency period, including social interaction, the roles of both men and women in society, romance and courtship, transport, technology and weapons, as well as a detailed timeline. It also includes appropriate discussions on consent within the game, particularly on how to handle romance, as well as notes on sex and sexuality, and race and ethnicity, which both highlight how Georgian England was often more diverse than you might think, but in the case of sex and sexuality, usually behind closed doors, and if more public, then only because wealth allowed such indulgences by society at large. This enables some degree of representation in what is otherwise a highly stratified and conservative society, should the Keeper and her players want to include it.

In terms of what Investigators are available, Regency Cthulhu gives a lengthy list of Occupations, highlighting those appropriate to the setting. Artist, Author, Clergy, Doctor, and even Spy are included as suitable, whilst those such as Craftsperson, Criminal, Miner, and Shopkeeper are not, all being labouring or trade jobs. Some are also listed as ‘hobby’ careers that typically a gentleman can take up as a pursuit, but not pursue too zealously. In addition, Gentlemen, Gentlewoman, Nouveau Riche, and Servant—Housemaid and Footman are included as new Occupations. New skills are added too, whilst the technological ones of the future are forgone. Skills such as Dancing, Etiquette, and Fashion become important, whilst Mesmerism replaces the Hypnosis skill and the delightfully done Reassurance skill replaces the Psychoanalysis skill. Guidance is also given should the Keeper want to run Regency Cthulhu using Pulp Cthulhu: Two-fisted Action and Adventure Against the Mythos, as a well as an Investigator sheet for it.

The major changes in terms of the rules in Regency Cthulhu are both social in nature. The first, Occupational Bands, represent a person’s—and thus an Investigator’s—status in society. There are five Occupational Bands: Labourer/Servant, Shopkeeper/Craftsperson, Professional, Gentry/Nouveau Riche, and the Aristocracy. Which Occupational Band a person or Investigator belongs to is determined by a combination of his Credit Rating and what he does as an occupation (or Occupation). In Regency Cthulhu, the default is Gentry/Nouveau Riche and the Occupations Gentlemen, Gentlewoman, and Nouveau Riche, but the Professional Band and its Occupations of Accountant, Antiquarian, Architect, Clergy, Doctor, and so on, are also acceptable. It is possible to play members of the lower Labourer/Servant or Shopkeeper/Craftsperson Occupational Bands, but a combination of their lack of social mobility and the disdain in which they are held would preclude them from the type of events and soirees that members of the other Occupational Bands could attend. Of course, it could be possible to solely roleplay members of the Labourer/Servant or Shopkeeper/Craftsperson Occupational Bands and conduct investigations of their own, well away from the notice of the well-to-do (if they took the time to notice, that is). It is possible to move between one Occupational Band and another, but being upwardly mobile would, publicly at least, be seen not knowing one’s place and getting above one’s station.

The second, is that of Reputation. It is derived from the Investigator’s Etiquette and Credit Rating skills and measured as a percentile value. It can be lost for a mix of infractions, such as dressing inappropriately for a social event, making a false accusation against another, defaulting on one’s creditors, and serious loss in one day can lead to societal censure and both a Penalty die to social skills and invitations to events not being extended to the Investigator. A higher Reputation will grant an Investigator a Bonus die to social skills and invitations to more prestigious events. In general, it is easier to lose Reputation than it is to gain or restore it. The Reputation rules also handle gossip in the game. Reputation is, essentially, the equivalent of Social Sanity, both mechanically and thematically, and just like the Sanity mechanics it is eminently elegant and simple piece of design. It sets up not just a fantastic verisimilitude, but also a brilliant tension in the game between the need to investigate the Mythos and its dire influences and the potential cost in terms of an Investigator’s Reputation because he is being seen to act outside of societal norms. Consequently, any Investigator making enquiries as to the Mythos or the occult or the outré, had best do so away from the judgement of his peers.

In terms of setting and scenarios, Regency Cthulhu details one of the former and provides two of the latter. The fictional rural town of Tarryford, located in the county of Wiltshire between Salisbury and Bath, is described in some details as are its inhabitants. The latter in particular provide plenty of secrets, and story and roleplaying hooks that the Keeper can develop once the two scenarios, both set in and around the town, have been played through. The town feels very English and anyone from the region will recognise its feel. The first scenario is ‘The Long Corridor’ and is a short, two session affair that sees the Investigators invited to the annual Northlake Ball to be held at Northlake Hall by Lord and Lady Northlake. Set in 1813, the ball proceeds apace until the Investigators are intrigued by the activities of the Northlakes’ eldest daughter. She and her friends are investigating one of the corridors in the house—it has grown longer! Ideally, the Investigators look into this themselves and discover not only that the corridor is growing longer, but it also hides both monsters and a dark family secret. It does take some investigation to get to the truth of the matter and can leave the players and their Investigators with a moral quandary depending upon which possible solution to the mystery the Keeper has opted for. One of the appendices at the back of Regency Cthulhu details Tarryford in 1913 should the Keeper want to run a sequel to the scenario.

The second scenario, ‘The Emptiness Within’, is much longer and intended to be run as a sequel to ‘ The Long Corridor’. It takes place in 1814, as a rash of sleeping sickness besets the inhabitants of Tarryford. Initial investigation points to the town’s Four Feathers public house where the victims all regularly drank, so is there something wrong with the beer or has the landlord adulterated it? Discovery of ancient tunnels beneath the tavern lead to a temple complex, the ambitious inheritors of a nearby house with an unsavoury reputation, and a mystery thousands of years old! It is a good follow up to earlier ‘The Long Corridor’ with opportunities for both adventure and social faux pas aplenty.

Regency Cthulhu is rounded out with a quintet of appendices. The contains a set of six pre-generated Investigators, all of them interesting and accompanied by options for running them using Pulp Cthulhu: Two-fisted Action and Adventure Against the Mythos. These are designed for use with the two scenarios in the supplement. The second appendix covers ‘Equipment, Tables, And Miscellanea’, including a Regency costume glossary (sadly not illustrated); the third the town of Tarryford in 1913; and the fourth all of the handouts. The latter includes both an invitation of the Northlake Ball for ‘The Long Corridor’ scenario and ‘A Brief Introduction to the Regency Era’ intended to be given to the player who does not necessarily want a history lesson before he begins play! Lastly, the fifth appendix consists of a good bibliography.

Physically, Regency Cthulhu is as well presented as you would expect for a supplement for Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition. It is engagingly and enjoyably written, the cartography is decent, and the range of artwork, including one done in the style of James Gilray, is all period appropriate and in some cases, subtly disturbing. The handouts are also very well done.

One possible downside to Regency Cthulhu is that the supplement does not explore the Mythos or the occult during the late Georgian period. So, there is no discussion of what cults—Mythos or mundane—might be operating in England at the time or what their objectives are, what the various Mythos races might be doing, who the leading cultists or occultists might be, and so on. Nor does it address the wider world in anything more than passing detail. It is thus not a setting supplement in the fullest sense of the term, such as 
Cthulhu by Gaslight or Cthulhu Invictus. To be fair, its remit is quite narrow, in terms of both setting and of who and what you play, as is its primary source material. Further, this does leave a much wider canvas for the Keeper to create her own content, including for the Miskatonic Repository, as with Host and Hostility: Three Regency Call of Cthulhu Scenarios. In this, Regency Cthulhu does at least suggest different campaign possibilities set during the period such as one set during the Napoleonic Wars a la Sharpe or one involving the servants of the landed gentry rather than members of the landed gentry a la Upstairs/Downstairs or Downton Abbey, but a century earlier.

Another potential problem is the way in which women, members of what would be today called the LGBTQ+ community, and non-Caucasian characters, are portrayed. Not in Regency Cthulhu itself, but in the society of the period. It is difficult to get around the issue and the supplement does address the issue in a mature fashion and suggests ways in which it can be handled. Nevertheless, the setting and its society do place constraints on such characters and in some ways—especially for women—they are integral to the setting. Ultimately, whilst the Keeper and her players should make adjustments to Regency Cthulhu so as to alleviate any difficulties or discomfort they may have with the Regency period, the tension between what is proper and acceptable and scandalous or improper behaviour lies at the heart of the Regency Cthulhu setting. There is of course, nothing from stopping the Keeper and her players from taking their cue from Bridgerton for the tone and style of Regency Cthulhu that they want to play.

Of course, a less serious issue is the possible humour to be found in the setting primarily inspired by Blackadder III. There is no way around that except to agree not to involve it or get it out of the way as soon as possible. After, King Arthur Pendragon remains a superb roleplaying game despite the influence of Monty Python and the Holy Grail over the players. 

Regency Cthulhu presents a challenge in portraying men and women of good character in a highly conservative and stratified society by emphasising the roleplaying and storytelling possibilities within that challenge. It also contrasts this challenge against the drive to investigate the unknown horrors of the Mythos and suffering the consequences of doing so in such a society. By successfully doing so, through a combination of elegant mechanics, clear explanations of societal norms, and two good scenarios, Regency Cthulhu: Dark Designs in Jane Austen’s England brings alive the Regency period and its roleplaying potential to the fore, balancing tensions and expectations both.

1982: Gangbusters

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—

Gangbusters: 1920’s Role-Playing Adventure was published by TSR, Inc. in 1982, the same year that the publisher also released Star Frontiers. It is set during the era of Prohibition, during the twenties and early thirties, when the manufacture and sale of alcohol was banned and criminals, gangs, and the Mafia stepped up to ensure that the American public still got a ready supply of whisky and gin it wanted, so making them incredibly wealthy on both bootlegging whisky and a lot of other criminal activities. Into this age of corruption, criminality, and swaggering gangsters step local law enforcement, FBI agents, and Prohibition agents determined to stop the criminals and gangsters making money, arrest them, and send them to jail, as meanwhile the criminals and gangsters attempt to outwit the law and their rivals, and private investigators look into crimes and mysteries for their clients that law enforcement are too busy to deal with and local reporters dig deep into stories to make a big splash on the front page. In Gangbusters, the players take on the roles of Criminals, FBI Agents, Newspaper Reporters, Police Officers, Private Investigators, and Prohibition Agents, often with different objectives that oppose each other. In a sense, Gangbusters takes the players back to the explanation commonly given at the start of roleplaying games, that a roleplaying game is like playing ‘cops & robbers’ when you were a child, and actually lets the players roleplay ‘cops & robbers’.

There had, of course, been crime-related roleplaying games set during the Jazz Age of the twenties and the Desperate Decade of the thirties before, most notably the Gangster! RPG from Fantasy Games Unlimited and even TSR, Inc. had published one in the pages of Dragon magazine. This was ‘Crimefighters’, which appeared in Dragon Issue 47 (March 1981). Similar roleplaying games such as Daredevils, also from Fantasy Games Unlimited and also published in 1982, and Mercenaries, Spies and Private Eyes, published Blade, a division of Flying Buffalo, Inc., the following year, all touched upon the genre, but Gangbusters focused solely upon crime and law enforcement during the period. Lawrence Schick, rated Gangbusters as the ‘Top Mystery/Crime System’ roleplaying game in his 1991 Heroic Worlds: A History and Guide to Role-Playing Games.

Although Gangbusters is a historical game, and draws heavily on both the history of the period and on the films which depict that history, it does veer into the ahistorical terms of setting. Rather than the city of Chicago, which would have been the obvious choice, it provides Lakefront City as a setting. Located on the shores of Lake Michigan, this is a sort of generic version of the city, perfectly playable, but not necessarily authentic. Whilst the ‘Rogue’s Gallery’ in Appendix Three of the Gangbusters rulebook does provide full stats for Al Capone—along with innumerable notorious gangsters and mobsters and upstanding members of the law, Lakefront City even has its own version of ‘Scarface’ in the form of Al Tolino! To the younger player of Gangbusters, this might not be an issue, but for the more historically minded player, it might be. Rick Krebs, co-designer of Gangbusters, addressed this issue in response to James Maliszewski’s review of the roleplaying game, saying, “With eGG and BB eager to have a background in their childhood city (if you thought Gary’s detail on ancient weapons was exacting, so was his interest in unions and the Chicago ward system), TSR's marketing research leaned toward the original fictional approach.” 

Gangbusters was first published as a boxed set—the later second edition, mislabelled as a “New 3rd Edition”, was published in 1990. (More recently, Mark Hunt has revisited Gangbusters beginning with Joe’s Diner and the Old School Renaissance-style Gangbusters 1920s Roleplaying Adventure Game B/X). Inside the box is the sixty-four-page rulebook, a sixteen-page scenario, a large, thirty-five by twenty-two-inch double-sided full-colour map, a sheet of counters, and two twenty-sided percentile dice, complete with white crayon to fill in the numbers. The scenario, ‘“Mad Dog” Johnny Drake’, includes a wraparound card cover with a ward map of Lakefront City in full colour on the front and a black and white ward map marked with major transport routes on the inside. The large map depicted Downtown Lakefront City in vibrantly coloured detail on the one side and gave a series of floorplans on the other.

Gangbusters followed the format of Star Frontiers in presenting the basic rules, standard rules, and then optional expert rules. However, Star Frontiers only got as far as providing the Basic Game Rules and the Expanded Game Rules. It would take the release of the Knight Hawks boxed supplement for it to achieve anything in the way of sophistication. In Gangbusters, that sophistication is there right from the start. The basic rules are designed to handle fistfights, gunfights, car chases and car crashes, typically with the players divided between two factions—criminal and law enforcement—and playing out robberies, raids, car chases, and re-enactments of historical incidents. This is done without the need for a Judge—as the Game Master is called in Gangbusters—and played out on the map of Downtown Lakefront City, essentially like a single character wargame. In the basic game, the Player Characters are lightly defined, but the standard rules add more detail, as does campaign play. In this, the events of a campaign are primarily player driven and plotted out from one week to the next. So, the criminal Player Character might plan and attempt to carry out the robbery of a jewellery store; a local police officer would patrol the streets and deal with any crime he comes across; the FBI agent might go under surveillance to identify a particular criminal; a local reporter decides to investigate the spate of local robberies, and so on. Where these plot lines interact is where Gangbusters comes alive, the Player Characters forming alliances or working together, or in the case of crime versus the law, against each other, the Judge adjudicating this as necessary. Certainly, this style of play would lend itself to would have been a ‘Play By Post’ method of handling the planning before the action of anything played out around the table and on the map.

Yet despite this sophistication in terms of play, the crime versus the law aspect puts player against player and that can be a problem in play. Then if a criminal Player Character is sent to jail, or even depending upon the nature of his crimes, executed—the Judge is advised to let the Player Character suffer the consequences if roleplayed unwisely—what happens then? There are rules for parole and even jury tampering, but what then? The obvious response would have been to focus campaigns on one side of the law or the other, rather than splitting them, but there is no doubting the storytelling and roleplaying potential in Gangbusters’ campaign mode. Gangbusters is problematic in three other aspects of the setting. First is ethnicity. The default in the roleplaying game is ‘Assimilated’, but several others are acknowledged as options. The second is the immorality of playing a criminal and conducting acts of criminality. The third is gender, which is not addressed in terms of what roles could be taken. Of course, Gangbusters was published in 1982 and TSR, Inc. would doubtless have wanted to avoid any controversy associated with these aspects of the roleplaying game, especially at a time when the moral panic against Dungeons & Dragons was in full swing, and given the fact that it was written for players aged twelve and up, so it is understandable that these subjects are avoided. (The irony here is that Gangbusters was seen as an acceptable roleplaying game by some because you could play law enforcement characters and it was thus morally upright, whereas despite the fact that the Player Characters were typically fighting the demons and devils in it, the fact that it had demons and devils in it, made Dungeons & Dragons an immoral, unwholesome, and unchristian game.)

In the Basic Rules for Gangbusters, a Player Character has four attributes—Muscle, Agility, Observation, and Presence, plus Luck, Hit Points, Driving, and Punching. Muscle, Agility, Observation, Luck, and Driving are all percentile values, Presence ranges between one and ten, and Punching between one and five. Punching is the amount of damage inflicted when a character punches another. To create a character, a player rolls percentile dice for Muscle, Agility, and Observation, and adjusts the result to give a result of between twenty-six and one hundred; rolls a ten-sided for Presence and adjusts it to give a result between three and ten; and rolls percentile dice and halves the result for the character’s Luck. The other factors are derived from these scores.

Jack Gallagher
Muscle 55 Agility 71 Observation 64 Presence 5 Luck 36
Hit Points 18 
Driving 68 Punching 3

At this point, Jack Gallagher as a basic character is ready to play the roleplaying game’s basic rules, which cover the base mechanic—a percentile roll versus an attribute, plus modifiers, and roll under, then fistfights, including whether the combatants want to fight dirty or fight fair, gunfights, and car chases. Luck is rolled either to avoid immediate death and typically leaves the Player Character mortally wounded, or to succeed at an action not covered by the attributes. Damage consists of wounds or bruises, gunshots and weapons inflicting the former, fists the latter. If a Player Character suffers more wounds and bruises than half his Hit Points, his Muscle, Agility, Observation, and movement are penalised, and he needs to get to a doctor. The basic rules include templates for things like line of sight, rules for automatic gunfire from Thompson Submachine Guns and Browning Automatic Rifles, and so on. The rules are supported by some excellent and lengthy examples of play and prepare the player to roleplay through the scenario, ‘“Mad Dog” Johnny Drake’.

So far so basic, but Gangbusters gets into its stride with its campaign rules. These begin with adding small details to the Player Character—age, height and weight, ethnic background, rules for age and taxes (!), and character advancement. Gangbusters is not a Class and Level roleplaying game, but it is a Level roleplaying game. As a Player Character earns Experience Points, he acquires Levels, and each Level grants his player a pool of ‘X.P. to Spend’, which can be used to improve attributes, buy skills, and improve already known skills. So, for example, at Second Level, a player has 10,000 X.P., 20,000 X.P. to spend at Third Level, and so on, to spend on improvements to his character. It costs between 2,000 and 5,000 X.P. to improve attributes and 20,000 X.P. to improve Presence! New skills range in cost between 5,000 X.P. and 100,000 X.P.

Thirty-five skills are listed and detailed, ranging from Auto Theft, Fingerprinting, and Lockpicking to Jeweller, Art Forgery, and Counterfeiting. Some are exclusive to particular careers. Each skill is a percentile value whose initial value is determined in the same way as Muscle, Agility, and Observation. When a Player Character is created for the campaign, in addition to a few extra details, he also receives one skill free as long as it costs 5,000 X.P. This list includes Auto Theft, Fingerprinting, Lockpicking, Photography, Pickpocketing, Public Speaking, Shadowing, Stealth, Wiretapping.

In addition to acquiring ‘X.P. to Spend’ at each new Level, a Player Character might also acquire a new Rank. So, a Rookie Local Police Officer is likely to be promoted to a Patrolman and then a Patrolman to a Master Patrolman, but equally, could remain a Patrolman for several Levels without being promoted.

Jack Gallagher
Ethnicity: Irish American Age: 25 
Height: 5’ 9” Weight: 155 lbs.
Features: Brown hair and eyes, crooked nose
Muscle 55 Agility 71 Observation 64 Presence 5 Luck 36
Hit Points 18
Driving 68 Punching 3
Skill: Auto Theft 89%

Rather than Classes, Gangbusters has Careers. These fall into four categories—Law Enforcement, Private Investigation, Newspaper Reporting, and Crime. Law Enforcement includes the Federal Bureau of Prohibition, Federal Bureau of Investigation (F.B.I.), and local city police department; Private Investigation covers Private Investigators; Newspaper Reporting the News Reporter; and Crime either Independent  Criminals, Gang members, and members of  Organized Crime Syndicates. In each case, Gangbusters goes into quite a lot of detail explaining what a member of each Career is allowed to do and can do. For example, the Prohibition Agent can make arrests for violations of the National Prohibition Act; can obtain warrants and conduct searches for evidence of violations of the National Prohibition Act; can destroy or confiscate any property (other than buildings or real estate) used to violate the National Prohibition Act; close down for one year any building used as a speakeasy; and can carry any type of gun. There are notes too on the organisation of the Federal Bureau of Prohibition, salaries, possibility of being corrupt, possible encounters, and notes on how to roleplay a Prohibition Agent. It does this for each of the careers, for example, how a Private Investigator picks up special cases, which are rare, and how a News Reporter gets major stories and scoops. The Crime careers covers a wide array of activities, including armed robbery, burglary, murder, bootlegging, running speakeasies, the Numbers racket, loansharking, bookmaking, corruption and more, all in fantastically playable detail. This whole section is richly researched and supports both a campaign where the Player Characters are investigating crime and one where they are committing it. Further, this wealth of detail is not just important because of the story and plot potential it suggests, but mechanically, the Player Characters will be rewarded for it. They earn Experience Points by engaging in and completing activities directly related to their Careers. Thus, a member of Law Enforcement will earn Experience Points for arresting a felon, when the felon arrested is convicted, for the recovery of stolen property, and more; the News Reporter for scooping the competition, providing information that leads to the arrest and conviction of any criminal, and so on; whilst the Criminal earns it for making money! This engagingly enforces a Player Character role with a direct reward and is nicely thematic.

Further rules cover the creation of, and interaction with, NPCs. This includes persuasion, loyalty, bribery, and the like. In fact, persuasion is not what you think, but rather the use of physical violence in an attempt to change an NPC’s reaction. There are rules too for public opinion and heat, newspaper campaigns, bank loans, and even explosives, and of course, what happens when a crook or gangster is arrested. This goes all the way up to plea bargaining and trials, jury tampering, sentences, and more. The advice for the Judge is kept short, just a few pages, but does give suggestions on how to prepare and start a campaign, and then how to make the game more fun, maintain flow of play and game balance, improvise, and encourage roleplaying. It is only two pages, but given that the rulebook for Gangbusters is just sixty-four pages, that is not too bad. In addition, there also ‘Optional Expert Rules’ for gunfights, fistfights, and car chases, which add both detail and complications. They do make combat much harder, but also much, much deadlier. Finally, the appendices provide price lists and stats for both generic NPCs and members of both the criminal classes and members of law enforcement. The former includes Bonnie Barker and Clyde Barrow, John Dillinger, and Charles Luciano, whilst for the latter, all of the Untouchables, starting with Elliot Ness, are all listed, including stats. Oddly, the appendix does not include a bibliography, which would have been useful for a historical game like Gangbusters.

The scenario, ‘“Mad Dog” Johnny Drake’, is a short, solo-style adventure that is designed to be played by four players, but without a Judge. It includes an FBI Agent and three local detectives, all pre-generated Player Characters, who are attempting to find the notorious bank robber, ‘Mad Dog’ Johnny Drake. It is intended to be played out on the poster map and sees the Player Characters staking out and investigating a local speakeasy before they get their man. The scenario is quite nicely detailed and atmospheric, but the format means that there is not much of the way of player agency. Either the players agree to a particular course of action and follow it through, or the scenario does not work. Nevertheless, it showcases the rules and there are opportunities for car chases and both shootouts and brawls along the way. If perhaps there is a downside to the inclusion of ‘“Mad Dog” Johnny Drake’, it is that there is no starting point provided in Gangbusters for the type of campaign it was meant to do.

Physically, Gangbusters: 1920’s Role-Playing Adventure feels a bit rushed and cramped in places, but then it has a lot of information it has to pack into a relatively scant few pages. The illustrations are decent and it is clear that Jim Holloway is having a lot of fun drawing in a different genre. The core rules do lack a table of contents, but does have an index, and on the back of the book is a reference table for the rules. Pleasingly, there are a lot of examples of play throughout the book which help showcase how the game is played, although not quite how multiple players and characters are supposed to be handled by the Judge. Notably, it includes a foreword from Robert Howell, the grandson of Louise Howell, one of the Untouchables. This adds a touch of authenticity to the whole affair. The maps are decently done on heavy stock paper, whilst the counters are rather bland.

–oOo–

Gangbusters: 1920’s Role-Playing Adventure was reviewed by Ken Rolston in the ‘Reviews’ department of Different Worlds Issue 29 (June 1983). He identified that, “…[T]he model of the “party of adventurers” that has been established in science fiction, fantasy, and superhero gaming is inappropriate for much of the action of Gangbusters; private detectives have always been solitary figures (who would think of the Thin Man or Sam Spade in a party of FRP characters?) and if players variously choose FBI agent, newspaper reporter, and criminal roles, it is hard to see these divergent character types will be able to cooperate in a game session. At the very least, the Gangbusters campaign will have a very different style of play from a typical FRP campaign.” before concluding, “Gangbusters is nonetheless a worthwhile purchase, if only as a model of good game design.”

–oOo–

Although mechanically simple, Gangbusters shows a surprising degree of sophistication in terms of its treatment of its subject matter and its campaign set-up, with multiple Player Character types, often not playing together directly, but simply in the same district, and often at odds with each other. However, it is not a campaign set-up that the roleplaying game fully supports or follows through on in terms of advice or help. It represents a radical change from the traditional campaign style and calls for a brave Judge to attempt to run it. This would certainly have been the case in 1982 when Gangbusters was published. The likelihood though, is that a gaming group is going to concentrate on campaigns or scenarios where there is one type of character, typically law enforcement or criminal, and these would be easier to run, but alternatively the Judge could run a more montage style of campaign where different aspects of the setting and different stories are told through different Player Characters. That though, would be an ambitious prospect for any Judge and her players.

Gangbusters: 1920’s Role-Playing Adventure is a fantastic treatment of its genre and its history, packing a wealth of information and detail into what is a relatively short rulebook and making it both accessible and readable. For a roleplaying game from 1982 and TSR, Inc. Gangbusters combines simplicity with a surprising sophistication and maturity of design.

Friday, 30 December 2022

1982: SoloQuest

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—

SoloQuest was published in 1982. It is an anthology of solo adventures published by Chaosium, Inc. for use with RuneQuest II, a roleplaying not really known for its solo adventures, unlike, for example, Tunnels & Trolls. However, 1982 marked the beginning of a solo adventure trend with the publication of The Warlock of Firetop Mountain, the first Fighting Fantasy adventure which would introduce roleplaying and solo adventures to a wider audience outside of the hobby. SoloQuest presents three mini quests of varying complexity and storylines, but all playable in a single session or so. They are best suited to a Player Character who can fight, knows a degree of magic, and who also has a few decent non-combat skills. A Player Character with a weapon skill of 60% or more and the Healing and Protection spells, plus some Detect spells—which for RuneQuest II would have been Battle magic—will be challenged by these scenarios, but not overly challenged.

SoloQuest—now part of the SoloQuest Classic Collection—is written by Alan LaVergne, who also designed its sequels, SoloQuest 2: Scorpion Hall and SoloQuest 3: The Snow King’s Bride, and who also been a member of Steve Perrin’s Pavis campaign. It contains three scenarios, ‘DreamQuest’, ‘Phony Stones’, and ‘Maguffin Hunt’. The first of these is ‘DreamQuest’ in which the Player Character’s god sends him off on a mini-heroquest in which he will face four random opponents before an encounter with a foe that is definitely his equal. This is not an adventure for Rune Masters, but someone aspiring to that position, and success means that the Player Character is well rewarded. There is greater chance of skill improvement and raising the Player Character’s POW, and if successful on the first attempt, gaining favour with both god and cult such that an extra bonus is granted to becoming a Rune Master and learning a cult Rune spell. The fights themselves are to the death, but the Player Character is not physically harmed when he awakens since the combats take place in his dreams. For the same reason, any Chalana Arroy initiate on this ‘DreamQuest’ is not only allowed to participate, but also attack his opponents—although putting to sleep counts as a victory! The rules for adjusting to each fight are quite detailed, but essentially, the Player Character begins each fight alone, weapon in hand, and ready to assess the opponent. The set-up also suggests that the player keep a detailed record of the fights to track spell effects and the like, and avoid any confusion.

Where ‘DreamQuest’ shines is in its range of NPCs and combatants—all twenty of them! Infamously, they include Errol, a swashbuckling Manticore; Lucky the Human athlete against whom the Player Character must run an assault course; ‘Huey & Looie’, a pair of Death Ducks; and Elvis, a Centaur armed with bow and lance. All come with not just the full stats, but also their reaction to the Player Character and a detailed breakdown of their actions over the course of the melee. ‘DreamQuest’ is primarily an exercise in mechanics and working out how the combat rules of RuneQuest II work, one that can be both replayed by a Player Characters and played by different Player Characters. Yet it also serves as a showcase for the occasional weirdness of RuneQuest and Glorantha, as well as a source of NPCs for the Game Master.

The second solo adventure is ‘Phony Stones’. This begins with a lot more story. Someone is selling fake statues of Issaries in the city of Whitewall and the cult has brought in Zero, a Lhankor Mhy scholar who claims to be the world’s greatest living detective, but in a nice nod to Rex Stout’s Nero Wolf, never leaves the city. Fortunately, he has deduced that the culprit is hiding in one of ten houses on the same row in nearby Slime Haven. The Issaries cult hires the Player Character to do the physical investigation and the scenario begins with him outside the first house in the row. The Player Character can approach the houses in any order, each one mini-adventure in itself. Approaching each house follows the same procedure. First, casting spells such as Detect Life, Detect Enemies, Detect Magic, and Detect Gold, then entering the house and encountering the occupants. Most will be hostile towards the interloper, at least initially, and the Player Character will need to work hard to gain their trust. Once gained, the Player Character can begin to learn more about each of the inhabitants along the row as he moves from house to house, putting clues and facts together to determine who the culprit is.

Yet despite its story potential, ‘Phony Stones’ does not quite work as an investigative, mystery style scenario. To begin with, the Player Character has no real means of interacting with the NPCs other than fighting them or threatening them. Nor is he given any real means of actively hunting for clues. Effectively, this means that the Player Character cannot use the Spot Hidden skill or ask the inhabitants questions, so it feels more like the player is reading the plot of mystery which has been deconstructed on purpose and it is his job to put it back together. Neither does it help that the clues are not particularly easy to spot. Of course, building those elements into the scenario would have made each mini-adventure at each house all the more complex and difficult to design and present. Ultimately, it highlights the difficulty of designing a scenario of this type for solo play and just how close the designer got to creating an effective scenario. ‘Phony Stones’ is not without its merits. There is flavour and detail here if the player and his character can get to it, plus there is actually much more going on in Slime Haven than at first seems. If the Game Master was to extract this plot and then both develop and run it as a non-solo scenario for a single Player Character or a few, it would work very well.

The third and final solo adventure is ‘Maguffin Hunt’. The Player Character is hired by the Duke of Jawain to recover a ‘maguffin’, which has been stolen by some Dwarves. As the scenario opens, the Player Character stands outside their hideout, a small cave complex. Stealth is important as the player will track his character’s Noise level throughout the adventure. Amounting to just over one hundred entries, this cave complex consists of mostly tunnels plus a few rooms and barely a handful of encounters. The player will need to map his character’s exploration as it does involve a lot of going back and forth and trying one tunnel after another. The majority of the encounters are combat based and actually consist of multiple paragraphs that the player will need to work through as each fight progresses. The adventure itself is not that interesting nor is it that easy to keep track of the Player Character’s movement without drawing a map. Ultimately, what lets the scenario down is that the Player Character cannot succeed in locating the ‘maguffin’. This is because it simply is not in the cave and the dwarves do not have it. If there was some hint as to where it was or even a sequel scenario in which the Player Character could find, it would be another matter. As it is, ‘Maguffin Hunt’ is a disappointing end to the trilogy.

Physically, SoloQuest is cleanly written and presented. All of the paragraphs are organised into their own boxes which makes them self-contained and easy to find. Similarly, the various NPCs and monsters and enemies are neatly and clearly organised and presented. Bar the occasional silhouette, SoloQuest is unillustrated.

–oOo–

SoloQuest was reviewed several times in 1982 and 1983.

Forrest Johnson reviewed the anthology in The Space Gamer Number 55 (September 1982) in the ‘Capsule Reviews’ department. He described ‘DreamQuest’ as “[T]he first and best of the three.”; was critical of ‘Phony Stones’ and “[T]he frustration and futility of this scenario.”; and due to the fact that it was impossible to complete and suffered from difficult to identify paragraphs, described ‘Maguffin Hunt’ as a “[F]orgettable scenario.” He concluded with, “SOLOQUEST is not the best solo adventure booklet around, but if you play RuneQuest, there is not much competition. I hope Chaosium takes more care with future adventures.”

Writing in White Dwarf Issue 37 (January 1983) for ‘Open Box’, Clive Bailey was more positive, stating that, “Overall, I found this adventure pack easy and enjoyable to play.” He summed up the anthology, saying that, “The adventures are full of non-player characters ready for use in your own adventures and the ‘unusual’ encounter at the end of DreamQuest is an especially good idea. You can also run all three adventures as referee and player mini-scenarios (Phony Stones is even better played that way). Finally my rating combines playability and value for money.” He awarded SoloQuest a total of nine out of ten. (It should be noted, just as the review does, that at the time of the review’s publication, Games Workshop was printing RuneQuest and its various supplements, including SoloQuest, under licence from Chaosium, Inc.)

In the ‘Reviews’ department of Different Worlds Issue 27 (March 1983), Anders Swenson was also more positive. After initially explaining the nature of solo adventure books, he described ‘Phony Stones’ as being “[T]oo subtle”, whilst praising the other two scenarios. He finished with, “For a first book of solo adventures, SoloQuest is a great success. Alan Lavergne has demonstrated a good grasp of solo adventure design, and the layout and typography provide an excellent setting for the well-written text. This book is highly recommended for all RuneQuest players.”

Trevor Graver reviewed SoloQuest in the ‘Game Reviews’ section of Imagine No. 6 (September 1983). He was critical of the fact that “…RQ cults are referred to frequently, but the book carries no warning of this. If you haven’t got the Cults of Prax, it will lessen the entertainment value of this book.” However, he concluded that, “This apart, SoloQuest is a nice addition to the RuneQuest family. I look forward to the sequels.”

–oOo–

The adventures in SoloQuest can all be played using RuneQuest II, or if the player has access to it, a copy of RuneQuest Classic. The player will also need access to a copy of Cults of Prax. Armed with both, the player can happily play through SoloQuest without any issue. However, it is entirely possible to play through SoloQuest using the modern iteration of the roleplaying game, RuneQuest: Roleplaying in Glorantha. The mechanics are similar and there is a conversion guide, plus the player will not need access to a copy of Cults of Prax. If this is done, the player will need to adjust the opposition his character will face, at least for martial characters. Such characters are like to have double the skill of any opposition they face in the three scenarios, if not triple the skill in some situations, so will need to adjust accordingly. Less martial characters will be on more of an equal footing with the NPCs and monsters they will face in the trilogy of solo adventures.

In terms of the three adventures in SoloQuest, ‘DreamQuest’ is the most accessible and easiest to play, and it is replayable. ‘Phony Stones’ is the most interesting and has both the best story and plot, as well as the most potential for roleplaying. Consequently, it has the most potential for development into a proper scenario run by a Game Master. ‘Maguffin Hunt’ is the scenario most like a traditional solo adventure, but unfortunately not a very interesting one.

SoloQuest feels like an experiment in solo adventures for RuneQuest, one that almost works, but not quite. Even the ones that do not quite work have potential. After all, there is nothing to stop the Game Master from playing and then developing them, or the player just simply playing them. Plus, as part of the SoloQuest Classic Collection, both Game Master and player will more and bigger and better adventures to play than presented here.

Subaquatic Skeletal Adventure

When you die, your skeleton’s duty is ended and it hatches, leaving its fleshy, but rotting shell behind, and goes in search of both refuge and self. Some never make it. Some are buried too deep. Some are cremated. Some fall into the clutches of necromancers and some are destroyed by torch and pitchfork wielding villagers. Others though do find their consciousness and refuge, far away from the world of both Humanity and oxygen. Under the sea, on the ocean floor where they make new lives for themselves amidst the Sulphur Spires, along the Reef Roads, in the Final Shipyard, and at The Bottom of the Barrel. (It is a meeting place for undersea creatures specially constructed with an air half and a water half so that crabs, fish, wizards, witches, skeletons, and any other creatures can meet in safety.) They must deal with the mercantile Crab Cabal whose members always know what your credit rating is, Sleep Jelly (fish) that steals a Skeleton’s memories, and the oh so silent Cephalopods—so silent that they surely have to be planning something, as well as the occasional Wizard who descends into the ocean depths to continue his studies. In this strange world, the skeletons explore the ocean floor, walking, rather than swimming as they are no longer encased in the flesh which would give them buoyancy, climbing underwater mountains and ridges, absorbing the memories of those they touch to learn more about the oceanic world around them, making new memories for themselves. They are truly Bones Deep…

Bones Deep is a subaquatic setting for Troika!, the Science Fantasy roleplaying game of baroque weirdness published by the Melsonian Arts Council. Published by the Technical Grimoire Games following a successful Kickstarter campaign, it is a toolkit to run adventures on the bottom of the sea, sandbox fashion, in which Skeletons explore a whole new world, discover its secrets, get involved in the various sea factions and their feuds, and begin to make a new life for themselves. Inspired by real deep-sea life, it combines this with strange fantasy to present twenty locations, such as the Graveyard Lake or Kelp Forest; some fifty creatures, including Otters, Shark Hydras, and Witches; and some thirty-six spells, all ocean themed, like Air Bubble, Coral Shaping, and Undertow. It includes a handful of stories to help start a campaign, including finding out what the secret plans of the Cephalopods are, curing Wizards, repairing the Sunken Barge—a space barge which fell to the Earth and crashed into the sea, and is now occupied by a Necromancer! The Sunken Barge is one of the few mapped locations in Bones Deep.

Given that Bones Deep is written for use with Troika!, it should be no surprise that Skeletons in the setting are lightly defined, primarily by their Skills, Backgrounds, Abilities, and Drives. A Skeleton is first defined by his Background. There are six in Bones Deep. The Newborn is recently hatched, learns skills quickly, and is confused with flesh still clinging to his bones. The Carver turns to scrimshaw in pursuing the deepest of arcane secrets, channelling magic through the runes he carves into his bones. The Keeper misses the sensations of his former flesh and so offers his ribcage, skull, and the kelp on his arms as home for various creatures who will follow his commands. The Junker remains fascinated with technology and tools, so salvages debris from the seabed and tinker with gadgets it embeds into his bones. The Shifter has realised that just as his Skeleton is no longer limited by its former fleshy home, his bones are no longer limited to the humanoid form, so with effort shift into different forms which possess different skills. The Infested not only recalls his hatching with horror, he is also home to a squirming parasite that changes him, torments him, and wants it to consume him.

Skeleton creation itself is very simple. A player selects or rolls for a Background, notes down the details, and that is it. He can however, also roll on the ‘Skeleton Generator’ table at the back of the book to determine whether his Skelton is spooky or scary, and what Allegiances, Conditions, Past Life Memories, Clothing, Fleshy Life Skills, Drives, and Quirks he has. These are all optional, intended primarily for use with NPCs, but useful here.

Wilf
Background: Junker
Base Skill: 4
Stamina: 19
Luck: 9
Drive: To Salvage

SKILLS
5 Taking Things Apart
2 Inventing
2 Spell – Torpedo Throw
2 Spell – Protection from Rain
1 Gadget Fighting

POSSESSIONS
Tinkering Tools, Flowlantern, 3 Flares, Old Coat Rack, Umbrella, Gadget – Bounding Shield, Gadget – Charged Wrench

Mechanically, Bones Deep makes only a few changes to Troika! Drives replace the standard means of healing Stamina and recovering Luck, whilst Stamina becomes even more important than usual. It represents a Skeleton’s energy, motivation, and will to keep going. Whilst a Skeleton no longer has the needs of his former fleshy coating—oxygen and food, love and intimacy—he can still suffer damage. Bones can be broken, crushed, burned, and fall under the influence of necromancy. Spells also cost Stamina to cast. The major ability that every Skeleton possesses is being able to absorb memories. This is a Luck test and if successful, the Skeleton can learn about an object’s past, a creature’s emotions, and the recent changes to an environment. He can also communicate with fish using the same method. However, if a Skeleton fails to absorb a memory, he suffers a Memory Mishap, which can lead to the loss of memories, spells, or other weirdness.

The bulk of Bones Deep can really be divided into two long sections. Almost a third is devoted to a lengthy bestiary of fish, cephalopods, cetaceans, crustations, and jelly fish, plus witches and wizards. Whereas over two thirds of Bones Deep is dedicated to various locations, which run from the Jungle and Silt Rivers and along the Shore Line to Sulphur Spires and Sargasso. Each location includes a description, an associated table of events or things which can be found there, plus nearby locations. For example, at the Graveyard Lake, the table is ‘2d6 Things Dredged from the Lake’. One location is mapped out in detail, the Sunken Barge, but there is a table of encounters too, plus several stories that the Game Master can develop into fuller scenarios.

Physically, Bones Deep is cleanly and tidily presented. All of the undersea creatures are very nicely presented and the writing never less than engaging or interesting. In the particular, the book is full of small details bring the setting to life. For example, the Air Bubble spell creates a bubble of air that can choke a water breather or drag someone to the surface because of its buoyancy or the Teleport spell that underwater that leaves behind a vacuum that causes a shockwave when the caster teleports and compression when he arrives at the desired location that forces him away from the intended destination. Both spells take into account the physics of the subsea environment. All of the creatures have a ‘Mien’ table which determines their behaviour, which for example would be practicing Swordplay, Practising Pacifism (Badly), Swordfighting (Angry), Swordfighting (Mating), Swordfighting (You), and “You talkin’ to me!?” for the Blade Eel, a creature created by the Necromancer “as a living pun”. These various tables lend themselves to a game designed to be run with a minimum of preparation—that is, once a game is got going.

Bones Deep does not have a starting point. There is no beginning scenario, and for all of its atmosphere and flavour and detail, instead of there being a way into the game and setting, the Player Characters just are. Which for a setting as odd as this is a potential problem for some players and their Game Masters. There are plenty of adventure hooks within its pages, but not an easy starting point. Similarly, there is no break between sections in the book. Flip over from one page and you find yourself in a completely different section of the book, going the section on spells to the one on creatures. It is disconcerting.

Bones Deep explores a brilliantly alien world brought to life. It could easily be adapted to the rules system of the Game Master’s choice, but as a Troika! supplement, it is pleasingly self-contained, but could work as a region for Player Characters to explore as part of a Troika! campaign. On its own, Bones Deep is a weird and wonderful and wet standalone campaign setting.

Monday, 26 December 2022

[Fanzine Focus XXX] Black Powder, Black Magic: A ’Zine of Six-Guns and Sorcery Volume 2

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

Since 2008 with the publication of Fight On #1, the Old School Renaissance has had its own fanzines. The advantage of the Old School Renaissance is that the various Retroclones draw from the same source and thus one Dungeons & Dragons-style RPG is compatible with another. This means that the contents of one fanzine will compatible with the Retroclone that you already run and play even if not specifically written for it. Labyrinth Lord and Lamentations of the Flame Princess Weird Fantasy Roleplay have proved to be popular choices to base fanzines around, as has Swords & Wizardry. Another popular choice of system for fanzines, is Goodman Games’ Dungeon Crawl Classics Roleplaying Game, such as Crawl! and Crawling Under a Broken Moon. Some of these fanzines provide fantasy support for the Dungeon Crawl Classics Roleplaying Game, but others explore other genres for use with Dungeon Crawl Classics Roleplaying Game.

Black Powder, Black Magic: A ’Zine of Six-Guns and Sorcery is one such fanzine. Published by Stormlord Publishing, it takes Dungeon Crawl Classics to the Wild West and the Weird West of the 1880s. The discovery of ‘Demon ore’ in the Dakota Territory in the 187os leads to the establishment of the town of Brimstone in South Dakota, conflict with Lakota and other Plains Indians, and a rush to work the mines soon built under the town and the Dark Territories surrounding it, to strike it rich! With it came graft and corruption and Demon Stone and Hellstones. Since Black Powder, Black Magic: A ’Zine of Six-Guns and Sorcery is published as a series of fanzines, its secrets and details are revealed issue by issue rather than in one go. Black Powder, Black Magic: A ’Zine of Six-Guns and Sorcery Volume 1 introduced the setting and got a Judge and her players playing with a ‘Character Funnel’. A feature of the Dungeon Crawl Classics Roleplaying Game, this is a scenario specifically designed for Zero Level Player Characters in which initially, a player is expected to roll up three or four Level Zero characters and have them play through a generally nasty, deadly adventure, which surviving will prove a challenge. Those that do survive receive enough Experience Points to advance to First Level and gain all of the advantages of their Class. What those Classes are, are not revealed in Black Powder, Black Magic: A ’Zine of Six-Guns and Sorcery Volume 1, but they are in Black Powder, Black Magic: A ’Zine of Six-Guns and Sorcery Volume 2.

Black Powder, Black Magic: A ’Zine of Six-Guns and Sorcery Volume 2 was published in 2015 and picked up where Black Powder, Black Magic: A ’Zine of Six-Guns and Sorcery Volume 1 left off. It includes new rules and new Classes, changes to existing Classes, magical items, a patron, and more for running a Black Powder, Black Magic campaign under the Dungeon Crawl Classics Roleplaying Game. These begin with ‘Armour and Armour Class’ which removes armour from the setting, which would be useless against firearms anyway, in favour a Defensive Bonus based on Class and Level. It represents a Player Character’s combat awareness, use of cover, and simple luck when comes to being in a gun fight. It is a simple solution, more of a fudge to account for the fact that Black Powder, Black Magic is not a realistic Wild West setting, but a pulp horror Wild West setting. Alongside the new rules are a couple of pieces of magical armour, or rather magical items which provide a bonus to Armour Class. A nice touch is that they have their downsides too. For example, the Moonstone Spectacles both protect the wearer from the effects of the midday sun and grant a +2 bonus to Armour Class because they distract opponents, but they also occasionally distract the wearer and force him to attack someone other than the intended target. This combination of a benefit and a penalty makes these magical items more interesting and gives them more than the singular effect within the game.

‘Core DCC Classes in Black Powder, Black Magic’ gives the alterations necessary to make them fit the setting. For the Cleric, there is a choice of Clerical Traditions to chose from, including Protestant Preacher, Catholic Priest, Native Shaman, Chinese Mystic, and Cultist of the Old Gods . These primarily provide choice of weapons and the unholy creatures that each Clerical Tradition acts against, and they are bare bones. Enough to get started, but the Judge may want to add detail to really flesh them out. The Thief distributes points to its Thief Skills according to player choice rather than Alignment as per the Dungeon Crawl Classics Roleplaying Game, allowing an element of specialisation. The Warrior is the least changed, being the only Class to be proficient in Buffalo Guns, Cannons, and Gatling Guns. The Wizard is the most changed since magic was but absent from the world until the discovery of Demon Ore. A Wizard in Black Powder, Black Magic requires a Patron, much like the Cleric does, and needs to know or use a True Name when casting magic. This is often the caster’s own name, which becomes woven into the effects of a spell when cast. There are some fun suggestions such as having it appear in the flames of a Fireball spell! The single spell given is True Name Ritual, which enables the caster to learn the True Name of a demon, devil, summoned creature, or even another Wizard. However, the use of the True Name in Black Powder, Black Magic is really only a narrative hook, being required to cast magic, rather then providing any mechanical benefit, that is until the True Name Ritual spell comes into play provides that benefit.

The two new Classes in Black Powder, Black Magic: A ’Zine of Six-Guns and Sorcery Volume 2 are the Gambler and the Prospector. Gamblers vary according to Alignment, Lawful being rare and mostly working licensed establishments, whilst Chaotic Gamblers are common, willing to take big risks for big rewards. The Class has Luck like the Halfling in the Dungeon Crawl Classics Roleplaying Game, several Thief skills, and in a nice nod to The Maverick always go first in round when drawing a concealed weapon. The Prospector is typically Lawful in Alignment, methodical and practical when extracting the difficult mineral, whilst Chaotic Prospectors often align with dark powers. The Class is used to working in cramped conditions, so can fight close in with the Warrior’s Mighty Deeds of Arms with mêlée weapons, have bonuses to skills related to mining, and with ‘A Nose for the Infernal’, can sense the presence of Demon Ore. The Prospector’s Luck modifier also applies to mining and hunting for Demon Ore, and for mêlée weapons used in mining. The Class can also spend it to negate the negative effects of Demon Ore. Both Classes are fairly lightly done, but come with detail and mechanics changes enough to make them interesting to play as well as fit the setting.

‘John Henry: Steel Drivin’ Patron’ is the only Patron given in the second issue of Black Powder, Black Magic: A ’Zine of Six-Guns and Sorcery. This article does reveal a minor secret to the setting, but primarily provides the folk legend and hero as a Patron. There is a pleasing physicality to the details of the Patron, such as channelling past exertions into the Steel Drivin’ Man Patron spell to gain bonuses to physical abilities for the caster and his allies and the Shake the Mountain Patron spell which with a stamp of the caster’s foot, knocks people and causes buildings to collapse. Unfortunately, having only the one Patron severely restricts player choice when it comes to selecting the Patron for their character, exacerbated by the fact that the Wizard Class also needs a Patron.

Rounding out Black Powder, Black Magic: A ’Zine of Six-Guns and Sorcery Volume 2 is the first entry in the ‘Varmits!’ series. This describes creatures suitable for the setting, and for this issue, it is the Mine Wight, an undead humanoid creature when a miner dies in the presence of Demon Ore or is killed by a Mine Wight. Quiet and cunning, the deadly claws of the Mine Wight leech Luck from a victim when struck. The description is accompanied by a table of folklore to roll on—the article actually begins with how to handle folklore and research in the game—and a basic plot hook. Overall, the monster is decent, the folklore rules useful, and the hook something for the Judge to develop. 

Physically, Black Powder, Black Magic: A ’Zine of Six-Guns and Sorcery Volume 2 is done on pale cream paper with a fittingly buff cover. It is lightly illustrated in black and white, but the illustrations are good and the issue is also well written and overall, everything feels right about this issue. Except of course, it leaves the reader, just as it will the Judge and her players, very much wanting more. There are four issues of Black Powder, Black Magic: A ’Zine of Six-Guns and Sorcery in total as well as the Brimstone Census and Fire Insurance Atlas of 1880, so there is yet more of this setting to explore. However, the actual issues of the fanzine are limited, so are difficult to find and purchase.

Black Powder, Black Magic: A ’Zine of Six-Guns and Sorcery Volume 2 is a solid continuation from Black Powder, Black Magic: A ’Zine of Six-Guns and Sorcery Volume 1. The changes to the Classes make sense to fit the setting and the new Classes good too, but where the issue comes up short is in including only the single Patron. More would have been very useful. Black Powder, Black Magic: A ’Zine of Six-Guns and Sorcery Volume 2 picks up where the first issue left off and delivers more of the same entertaining flavour and feel of a ‘Weird West’ suitable for the Dungeon Crawl Classics Roleplaying Game, but both Judge and players will be left wanting more.

[Fanzine Focus XXX] Carcass Crawler Issue #1

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

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

Carcass Crawler Issue #1 is ‘The Official Fanzine Old-School Essentials zine’. Published by Necrotic GnomeOld School Essentials is the retroclone based upon the version of Basic Dungeons & Dragons designed by Tom Moldvay and published in 1981, and Carcass Crawler provides content and options for it. It is pleasingly ‘old school’ in its sensibilities, being a medley of things in its content rather than just the one thing or the one roleplaying game as has been the trend in gaming fanzines. Carcass Crawler Issue #1 is primarily about character Classes and new options in terms of the Player Character. So it includes six new Classes and three new Races, and rules for black powder weapons, Fighter combat talents, d6 thief skills, and Adjudicating thief skills.

The six new Classes follow standard Old School Essentials rules in that it allows for ‘Race as Class’, whilst the three new Races support the separation of Race and Class as per Old School Essentials: Advanced Fantasy. The six entries of ‘Character Classes’ begin with the Acolyte, a priestly or religious Class which switches out the spell memorisation of the Cleric with percentile skills as per the Thief Class. Although the Acolyte can cast Cleric scrolls from scrolls, it cannot cast spells otherwise. Instead, the Class has Bless, Detect Magic, Know Alignment, Purify, Rally, and Turn Undead as percentile skills. In addition, the Acolyte can Lay on Hands to heal. Designed as a thought experiment, Class is surprisingly untraditional, less divine even, and moves towards a modern presentation of the Cleric. The Gargantua is the opposite of the traditional demi-humans in Dungeons & Dragons—big humanoids rather than small. The Class is a Fighter type, capable of wielding two-handed weapons in one hand, opening doors with ease, and throwing rocks. The opposite of the Gargantua is the Goblin, which with its Defensive Bonus, Infravision, Stealth, and Wolf Affinity is very traditional adaptation of the demi-human race.

The Hephaestan are another Race of demi-humans, tall, thin with angular features and pointed ears. They are not another version of Elves. Instead, they have mental powers including ESP, Gestalt, Healing Trance, Mind Control, Mind Shield, and Telepathy, which can be used twice per day per Level and require activation. However, they also have the Neuropressure ability, a non-lethal combat technique involving the gripping of the back of the neck, which indicates the inspiration for the Class—the Vulcans of Star Trek. The Kineticist are monk-like, but employ mind over matter to manipulate and control kinetic force. The given mental powers include Control density, Crush Life, Kinetic Fist, Kinetic Shield, Throw Weapon, and more, and the Kineticist is obviously inspired by the Jedi of Star Wars. The Mage is the arcane equivalent of the Acolyte. The Class can only cast spells from scrolls, and again, Detect Magic, Open/Close, Rally/Fear, Read Magic, and Suggestion are skills rather abilities. The Mage’s staff can radiate light once per day and can be used to harm monsters that are otherwise invulnerable to mundane attacks. In comparison to the Magic-User, the Mage is more of a physical interpretation of the arcane Class and inspired by Gandalf of The Lord of the Rings, is suitable to low magic settings.

The Acolyte, Kineticist, and Mage are designed by Gavin Norman, the designer and publisher of Old School Essentials, whilst the Gargantua, Goblin, and Hephaestan are designed by James Maliszewski of the Grognardia blog. Of the six Classes, the Gargantua and Goblin will fit easily into a standard fantasy campaign, whereas the others will change the feel of a campaign. The Acolyte and Mage feel suited to a low-powered campaign, notably because they do introduce the possibility of failure in their abilities, rather than the automatic success of casting a spell like the Cleric and the Magic-User. Whereas the Hephaestan and the Kineticist would push the campaign in a Science Fiction direction. Gavin Norman and James Maliszewski collaborate in ‘Character Races’ which present the Gargantua, Goblin, and Hephaestan as standard Races and give the available Classes and maximum Levels for each for use with Old School Essentials: Advanced Fantasy.

‘Black Powder Weapons’ by Gavin Norman and Donn Stroud provides rules for early firearms such as matchlocks, wheellocks, and flintlocks in Old School Essentials. Provides the stats for these weapons, suggests which Classes can use them—non-martial Classes can only use pistols, semi-martial Classes all firearms bar the heavy musket, and martial Class can use all firearms—and describes the specialists, the Gunsmith and the Assistant Gunsmith, who can make and maintain. It also includes the rules for their use with optional rule of their being able to penetrate armour.

Lastly, Gavin Norman’s ‘Optional Rules’ adds three new ways of handling aspects of the Fighter and Thief Classes. For the Fighter Class there is a ‘Combat Talents’ such as Cleave, Defender, and Slayer, which allow the Class to specialise a little further, whilst d6 Thief Skills which scale the Class’ skill down from a percentile range to that of a six-sided die. The Thief gains Expertise Points which the player can assign to the skills, raising each skill from a one-in-six chance on a point-for-point basis. This version offers flexibility and simplicity, as well as a degree of specialisation in how the player assigns the points. If there is an issue here, it is the missed opportunity for to take this means of handling Thief skills and applying it to the earlier Acolyte and Mage Classes to give them the same flexibility. Lastly, Adjudicating Thief Skills is for the Referee, offering suggestions how they can be handled and ruled in play. So for the Climb Sheer Surfaces skill, it suggests that non-sheer surfaces do not require a skill roll, whilst non-Thief Classes will require specialist equipment for sheer surfaces and a Dexterity check under difficult situations. It does this for each of the Thief Skills and expands and explains their use in game to make the Referee’s job easier.

Physically, Carcass Crawler Issue #1 is well written and well presented. The artwork is excellent. 

Carcass Crawler Issue #1 is a pleasing collection of options and ideas, some new, some old, but here presented for Old School Essentials. They present means for the Referee to adjust her campaign and to make it what she wants—at least mechanically in terms of the Player Characters. Some of the content is too different for a standard fantasy campaign and would warrant more of a Science Fantasy setting than is traditional. Carcass Crawler Issue #1 is an enjoyably old school-style fanzine for Old School Essentials.

[Fanzine Focus XXX] The What on the Border Where?

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

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

The What on the Border Where? is quite possibly the oddest fanzine possible and either the weirdest or most basic treatment of B2, Keep on the Borderlands possible—if not both. What it is not, as written, is a gameable product. None of the constituent parts of the module appear in the fanzine. Not the Keep on the Borderlands itself, not the Caves of Chaos, not the river or the wilderness. None of it. So if it is not a new treatment of the classic Basic Dungeons & Dragons module that so many of entered into the hobby by playing, then what exactly is The What on the Border Where?

The What on the Border Where? is really two things. First, it is an exercise in memory, and second, via that exercise in memory, it is a way of revisiting old modules and making them playable again. The result is a tool for the Dungeon Master that she can use to create new adventures out of old ones, a way of combining the solo play of journaling with the preparation the Dungeon Master has to do in order to ready a scenario. The example used throughout The What on the Borde Where? is based on B2, Keep on the Borderlands, since it is already familiar to so may Dungeon Masters. Hence the name. However, the process can be applied to other adventures too.

So what does The What on the Border Where? involve? It starts by suggesting two exercises. First, going to the kitchen, opening the cutlery draw and memorising what is in there. Then closing the draw and listing everything in the draw. The second is get both the prospective Dungeon Master of The What on the Border Where? and a friend to think about a film, quickly write its plot on a sheet of paper, and then compare notes. When both done, compare the list with the cutlery draw in the first case and the friend’s description of the plot and yours with each other’s, and also with the actual plot. There will be differences, and the comparison is not correct them, but to highlight them, to see what that is new and how that is interesting. Once those exercises are complete, The What on the Border Where? asks the Dungeon Master to do exactly the same with B2, Keep on the Borderlands. Look at the map of the wilderness in the module which surrounds the Keep and the Caves of Chaos. Do that for two minutes. Then put B2, Keep on the Borderlands aside and draw the map from memory. Then do it again for the Keep. And again, for the Caves of Chaos.

Once done compare the maps and begin to populate them. If the same, use the original entries for the locations. If different, then create something new, whether using wandering monster tables and taking something from other sources. However, The What on the Border Where? does have monster tables of its own, this its only actual gaming content. Then play. Options included in The What on the Border Where? suggest ways in which the Dungeon Master can turn the process from a solo process into a collaborative one with tasks being swapped round from the Wilderness to the Keep to the Caves of Chaos, and so on, so that none of the players are fully aware of what the created adventure contains.

Physically, The What on the Border Where? is cleanly and tidily presented. Much of it consists of plain map pages with notes on how to draw the maps from memory and the appropriate map symbols as you would expect for a Basic Dungeons & Dragons module from TSR, Inc.

The The What on the Border Where? never explores the obvious issue between the playthrough of the original module and the playthrough of what is a simulacrum of the original module. Just how far does the new memory-based simulacrum of the module have to deviate from the original before it is no longer what was played? How many exercises does the Dungeon Master have to conduct on new simulacra after the first, before what she is left with is not really based on her memories at all and almost exactly unlike B2, Keep on the Borderlands?

The What on the Border Where? is about nostalgia, a big feature of the Old School Renaissance. Essentially, it is not replaying the adventure that you first played forty years ago, but about recreating your memories of it and what you think you played, and playing that. It is also playing with and upon our memories of doing so, but in a way that leads to the creation of something potentially different, whether because our memories are wrong or we have forgotten things about the module. Ultimately, it is telling the Dungeon Master that the details of what was played do not matter, but the memories of what was played do. Yet, is that achieving anything, except delving into memories of what was and reliving them once created? Is that a viable alternative to reobtaining the module, in this case, B2, Keep on the Borderlands, and simply replaying again? Will that not trigger those same memories with a playthrough decades since the last or first, along with new ones based upon the playthrough again of what was originally played, rather than what might just be an idea of it?

The What on the Border Where? is at best an interesting idea in memory recreation that is never really explored and is reductive is what it creates. At worst, it is a complete waste of time, one that adds nothing to B2, Keep on the Borderlands as a module and does not guarantee that Dungeon Master will have anything worth running at the end of it. Ultimately, it might just be simpler to order a copy of B2, Keep on the Borderlands and play that and so create new memories.