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

Saturday 14 January 2023

Cats & Dogs & Adventure

Standing astride the Twin Throats, the rivers known as the Malkin and the Mastin, the port town of Gullet Cove is a haven for many. With its busy harbour and its markets popular far and wide, it is a haven for thieves. With its lax attitude to mooring fees and often distracted town watch, it is a haven for pirates. With one of its founding members—the town was founded a little over three hundred years ago—being an awakened animal, though whether that awakened animal was cat or dog, none can say, the town is haven for Awakened Animals. The Thieves Guild, including the Cradle, the elite feline thieves guild within its membership, does not run the town, but it does regulate crime and criminal activities, and its influence upon the town council is undeniable. Pirates do sail from Gullet Cove and the town is a home to many others, including at The Home for Retired Pirates, Buccaneers, Swashbucklers, and Other Practitioners of Derring-do, perhaps the best ship a retired pirate could ever have on land. Whether they run on two legs or four, Awakened Animals are not only welcomed in Gullet Cove, but part of everyday life, alongside the town’s Humans, Dwarves, Elves, and others. The Order of the Golden Collar, dedicated to protecting all Awakened Animals, is a major presence in the town, whilst their particular faiths, such as the Good Mother, known to all dogs, and Urbaste, Tom o’th’Alley, the Old Striped One, and the Shadow Mover, the pantheon of the cats, all a church or other presence in the town. The Thieves Guild is not the only guild in town. The others include the Guild of Seafarers, the Guild of Adventurers and Associated Heroes (which even has its own training ground which simulates dungeon rooms), the Guild of Wizards, Ingenious Sorcerers, and Practitioners of Eldritch Ritual (or WISPER) which has a library in the town, and the Goldsmiths. Together they dominate Gullet Cove and its town council. Membership of a guild in Gullet Cove grants a degree of protection and access to guild marks, the currency used between the guilds and sometimes as bribes to those outside the guilds. This is the setting for Animal Adventures: Secrets of Gullet Cove.

Animal Adventures: Secrets of Gullet Cove is an anthropomorphic campaign and setting for Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition. Published by Steamforged Games Ltd following a successful Kickstarter campaign, this is the first campaign setting for the publisher’s range of cat and dog adventurer miniatures—the Dungeons & Doggies and Cats & Catacombs series—and previously visited in Adventures RPG Starter Set: A spellbinding roleplaying game for beginners . The supplement includes full rules for creating canine and feline Player Characters, a complete setting in Gullet Cove, a bestiary, and a five-part mini-campaign, and it packages all of this with an array of fantastic artwork.

After a very short introduction, Animal Adventures: Secrets of Gullet Cove begins with a toolkit of new Race and Class features for cats and dogs. A Dog has increased Charisma, Keen Senses, a bite attack, and another attribute increase due to size. A further ability comes from a Dog’s Breed or subrace, such as Assistance Dog, Digger, Guard Dog, and so on. All Dogs have the Awakened Dog Background and like all Player Characters in Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition, an Awakened Dog has a Personality Trait, Ideal, Bond, and Flaw. Instead of introducing new character Classes, Animal Adventures: Secrets of Gullet Cove gives the canine versions of the thirteen in the Player’s Handbook and the extra doggy abilities that an Awakened Dog gains. Then the supplement does exactly the same for Awakened Cats. They have greater Dexterity, Darkvision, both claws and teeth, and again, another attribute increase due to size. An Awakened Cat also access to the Welcoming Dark, which allows the Cat to slip in and out of sight, and is literally another place where the Awakened Cat can take the equivalent of a Long Rest. It is not without its dangers though and is not always as welcoming as it should be… Notable amongst this toolkit is the fact that the Breed Ability is not necessarily tied to canine species, and all of these options provide a player with the means to create the canine or feline character of his choice.

Besides details of Awakened Animal religions—Dogs follow just the one god and Cats a pantheon—and a broad explanation of guilds, Animal Adventures: Secrets of Gullet Cove provides a detailed gazetteer of the town which describes some twenty-six or so locations. This begins with The Sisters, the watchtowers which guard the sea entrance to Gullet Cove; Fang Point, the lighthouse, and the Ruin, its mysterious, possibly haunted predecessor; and the Smuggler’s Tunnels which run right under the town, a mix of mines, caves, sewers, cellars, and purpose dug tunnels. There is a cat equivalent, the Gutterings, which runs across and through the rooftops of the town. If there is a downside here, it is that these tunnels are not mapped, though that does leave the Dungeon Master to describe them as she wants. All of the town’s major locations are described in some detail as are several NPCs, including Gaius Vandel, the current Port Warden, who though not corrupt as his predecessors, does little each day, but frequent the town’s various taverns and chat; Ysandre the Tielfling pirate captain, supposedly in hiding, but being stalked by something nasty after big raid which made her wealthy, but got many of her crew killed; and Mister Pettifer of Mister Pettifer’s Emporium of Exotic Wonders and Divers’ Objects of Interest, a bespectacled, maroon-coloured smoking jacket-wearing and becapped feline wizard never without a particularly large leatherbound book, who might be a god or an immortal depending upon the speaker. The gazetteer is intended to be read by player and Dungeon Master alike, but there are details in this section that the Dungeon Master might not want her players to read, including a secret or two, and several scenario hooks.

Gullet Cove has the feel and look of a medieval English port. Perhaps on the Cornish coast like Mousehole or Falmouth, or in the north of England, like Whitby in Yorkshire, or Whitehaven in Cumbria. That said, with the horror elements of Animal Adventures: Secrets of Gullet Cove, Whitby is a good choice. Beyond Gullet Cove, the supplement describes the ‘Isle of Dogs’, a mysterious island off the coast that is not always accessible, whether due to storms or mists, which is said to contain ruins of the Elven city that once stood in the area. The island is left up to the Dungeon Master to develop, including mapping what is there. If the Dungeon Master wants to take her players and their characters away from the urban environment for some wilderness or dungeoneering—notably in the Caves of Wandering—this is a place to do it. Potentially, the ‘Isle of Dogs’ is worthy of a supplement of its own, or at least an adventure or two.

For the Dungeon Master there is an extensive bestiary of the NPCs and monsters to be found in, about, and under Gullet Cove. Several of these are deliciously nasty, such as the Effervescent Ooze, the bubbles of which can release an intoxicating aroma if burst; the Malbatross, a frighteningly undead version of the dread albatross; the Rataclysm, which needs no explanation; and the Skelly Cat and Zombie Cat. For the players, the counterpart to this is the selection of ten ready-to-play Player Characters, all based off the miniatures released by the publisher previously, and all starting at Third Level. Also given is a selection of new magical items. These include the Satchel of Ownership, which cannot successfully be stolen from or The Abyssal Eye, which when peered through highlights all of the traps in the room, though doing so may nauseate and poison the user, and in general, the theme of devices to help or thwart the thief rules though the selection. Alongside these there are several animal magic items, divided between items for cats and dogs. For the cat there is the Collar of Resilience whose bell rings whenever the user is doing a heroic deed as well as providing various benefits and the Wand of Fascination which emits a single point of vermillion light that confuses other creatures! For the dog there is the Everwater Drinking Bowl and Bun-Bun of Soothing, a tattered, stuffed rabbit toy which when chewed or stroked casts Calm Emotions on the user.

The campaign in Animal Adventures: Secrets of Gullet Cove is divided into five parts. It is supported with some short and simple advice for the Dungeon Master on how to run the campaign in terms of tone, work with the book’s content, mixing the content up, and keeping it fun. This and the advice for building adventures might be a little too short for the neophyte Dungeon Master coming to the supplement as her first campaign. One interesting point of reference here for the author is the Pixar style of film. The Player Characters are expected to experience a range of emotions and situations, some of them dangerous, but that they will prevail, and the author makes this clear, as well as the fact that the players also have to sign up to this heroic style of play. Although there are scary, even horrifying, situations and monsters in Gullet Cove as a setting and campaign, it is not a horrific setting. This combined with the Pixar references points to the intent to make Animal Adventures: Secrets of Gullet Cove accessible in terms of content and story in a more family friendly fashion. The campaign itself opens with ‘Adventure 1: A Gullet Cove Hello’, which is designed for First Level Player Characters. They arrive in the town and are soon subject to a pickpocket attempt, but as they chase the culprit, the Player Characters discover that this is just a ruse—someone wants to hire them. As outsiders, they can investigate things and situations that certain factions in the town cannot and that includes an unsanctioned burglary! In the course of the adventure, the Player Characters uncover something more going on, which leads into the second adventure, and so on and so on. There is a fun switch around in the campaign and a terrible pun—as in ‘Assault on Pawcinct 13’—or two, and ultimately revelations as to one or two of Gullet Cove’s darker secrets and even darker plots being made against the town. The campaign is not too difficult to run and it is accompanied by sidebars of advice throughout. If it is lacking in anything, it is maps of the various locations.

Lastly, Animal Adventures: Secrets of Gullet Cove comes with a pack of its own maps, done in full colour and designed to be used with the publisher’s Dungeons & Doggies and Cats & Catacombs series of miniatures. However, it is not clear if particular locations in the campaign make use of these maps. They include a map of Gullet Cove, as you might expect, but what is notable about this map is that its reverse shows the town at night. This is a nice touch, not only for adventurers who are going to be out at night, but especially for Rogue Player Characters!

Physically, Animal Adventures: Secrets of Gullet Cove is a superb looking book. Although the artwork is replicated in places, it is very good, some of it suitably scary, much of it actually joyous. The book is decently written, but annoyingly, does lack an index. It does need an edit in places, particularly when it comes to game terminology and game balance with some character and device abilities. The latter is really the only issue with Animal Adventures: Secrets of Gullet Cove where both setting and theme trump the mechanics. Consequently, the Dungeon Master may need to make some adjustments prior to play or rulings during play.

What strikes you first about Animal Adventures: Secrets of Gullet Cove is the artwork. This is inviting, in places joyous, in others scary, thus setting the tone for the town of Gullet Cove and its secrets. That tone, combined with the fact that the players are roleplaying cats and dogs makes the setting and campaign suitable for a younger, family audience. That does not mean that an experienced group could not play the campaign and enjoy it, because after all, it is intended to be fun and heroic rather than grim and gritty, and there is no reason why Animal Adventures: Secrets of Gullet Cove could not work as a lighter option. Although not without its issues, Animal Adventures: Secrets of Gullet Cove is a lovely book which presents its enchanting setting and campaign in an attractive and engaging fashion.

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