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

Friday 31 March 2023

Friday Fantasy: Bottled Sea

The classic hex crawl is an open-ended sandbox-style adventure in which the players and their characters explore a large geographical area, containing various Points of Interest, each of which can be explored individually or perhaps in a sequence determined from clues found at each location. Typically, the Player Characters will have a good reason to explore the area, such as being tasked to find a specific location or person, but instead of knowing where the location or person might be, only know that they are somewhere in that region. Armed with limited knowledge, the Player Characters will enter the area and travel from one hex to the next, perhaps merely running into a random encounter or nothing at all, but perhaps finding a Point of Interest. Such a Point of Interest might be connected to the specific location or person they are looking for, and so might contain clues as to its location, then again it might not. In which case it is just a simple Point of Interest. Initially free to explore in whatever direction they want, as the Player Characters discover more clues, their direction of travel will typically gain more focus until the point when they finally locate their objective. Classic hex crawls include
X1 Isle of Dread for Expert Dungeons & Dragons and Slavers for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, Second Edition, whilst more recent examples have been Barrowmaze and What Ho, Frog Demons!.

Bottled Sea
is a hex crawl—or sea crawl (seabox?)—from Games Omnivorous dotted with the flotsam and jetsam of the ages, coral-reefs stung together from debris from across the universe, wrecks both sunken and afloat, technology scavenged and jury-rigged to new purpose—survival, dolphin-riders, Mother Sea Cucumbers spraying acid, Mimic-Islets that swallow ships whole, strange tides that sweep ships away, and more. The Bottled Sea is an in-between dimension where ships lost at sea end up, from past, from today, from the future, and from elsewhere. Here survivors search for the food and water necessary to survive, but also myths of the Bottle Sea, rumours of solid land, and salvage that can be used to make repairs or even something better. At the heart of the Bottle Sea is the Harbourage, a palimpsest of waste and rubble kept assiduously buoyant, where Travellers are always welcome, especially if they have resources, in particular, the rare dirt, paper, and plants, to trade and use as currency. Four factions vie for control of Harbourage. The Collectors are a masonic lodge of inventors working haphazardly to create an article island. The Ichthys are amphibious mutants, highly capable deep-sea salvagers, who want a greater unity between the sea and the surface. The Shepherds are an ascetic cult which worships and herds Sheep for their wool and their milk, and want to take its herd home. The Rainmakers are priests of the rain.

The Bottled Sea takes its cue from the publisher’s earlier The Undying Sands, being part of its ‘Hex-n-Screen’ format series. It is thus a hex crawl of a different stripe. First, it is systemless; second, it is improvisational; third, it is random; and fourth, it is physical. The Bottled Sea consists of four elements. These are forty hex tiles, Game Master Screen, two double-sided card sheets, a cloth bag, and two pamphlets. The hexes, done in sturdy cardboard and full colour using a rich swathe of tones, measure six-and-a-half centimetres across. Their backs are either blank or numbered. The former show simple calm seas on their front, whilst the latter have locations on their front. There are eighteen such locations, all of which are different. There is the floating city of Harbourage, home to the four factions which dominate the Bottled Sea. On their journey across the Bottled Sea, the Player Characters may run into the Alabaster Fingers, colossal rocks scoured by guano and inscribed by Myths; the Drifting Dealers aboard their lashed-together ships, ready to trade salvage and other goods; the Hives, where enigmatic Beekeepers harvest and sell hallucinogenic honey; and the Great Dross Reef at the shallowest point in the Bottled Sea, a combination of rubbish and coral. There are many more, the most notable of which is the Floating Hexahedron, a sealed cube of highly polished, reflective material, which so far nobody has been able to gain access to and has any idea as what might be inside. The style of the artwork on the hexes is busy and cartoonish, but eye-catching, and gives the Bottled Sea a singular look which sets it apart from both other gaming accessories and neighbouring regions.

The Game Master Screen is a horizontal, three panel affair. The front depicts a paddle-galleon on the Bottled Sea itself, about to be overtaken by a tempestuous storm. The back is the meat of the supplement. Here, from left to right, it explains what Bottled Seas is, how to use and the best way to use it; tables of myths, salvage, pelagic—meaning open sea—encounters, weather, and details of the locations across the Bottled Sea—including areas of Solid Ground and the Mythical Whirlpool. Two locations are described in detail, one The Beacon, a lighthouse home to a Wizard, said to be able to use magic or psionic powers, depending upon, of course, who you ask, whilst the other is the Harbourage. Here can be found the Sea Lion Milk Farm, the Museum of Discarded Curiousity, the Blood Polo Sharkadrome, the Oyster Ranch, Wishing Windows, and other establishments. These require development upon the part of the Game Master, as they are not as detailed as other locations (and tiles) on the Bottled Sea, and similarly the entries on the tables of tasks and jobs will also need some development.

The first of the two posters has a full illustration of The Beacon on the one side and Harbourgae on the other. The second depicts and describes not what is on the Bottled Sea, but in the Bottled Sea. On the front is a cross section of the sea below the surface with various creatures and features illustrated and numbered, whilst on the back, ‘What is in the Sea’ provides a quick description, plus rules for fishing and deep-diving.

The Bottled Sea also includes two small pamphlets. ‘The Floating Hexahedron’ describes the six-sided, very shiny polyhedron, which literally floats above the surface of the Bottled Sea. The Shepherds from the Harbourage make an annual pilgrimage to wherever it is currently located, but like everyone else, cannot find their way in. What is inside is thus a mystery for everyone. The means to open it can be found somewhere across the Bottled Sea and locating said mean will form part of the backdrop to any campaign set on the Bottled Sea. The pamphlet provides basic descriptions as to what is inside the Floating Hexahedron, its major features, and also some adventure hooks to bring into play. The one piece of advice for the Game Master is that she should watch the 1997 film, Cube. The smaller, but longer pamphlet, ‘Watercrafts’ details some ten of the water-going vessels on the Botted Sea, from Rubbish Raft and Hydro-Cage to Catamaran Wavecutter and Benthic Bell. All have a lovely illustration, a short description, and details of their speed, price, crew requirement, power source, and cargo capacity. These are very nicely done and the illustrations are thoroughly charming. These are all vessels that the Player Characters can encounter, build, purchase, or sail—or depending upon their scruples, attack and/or capture.

So that is the physicality of Bottled Sea. What of the random nature of Bottled Sea? Simply, the hexes are placed in the cloth bag and drawn one-by-one, as the Player Characters cross or explore one hex and then move onto the next, creating the region hex-by-hex. If the hex is simple sand dunes, the Game Master might roll on the ‘Pelagic Encounters’ or ‘Weather’ tables to create random encounters. When the Player Characters reach a numbered location, they can explore one or more of individual places there, the Game Master improvising what will be encountered there based on the sentence or two description given for each. There is more detail for Harbourage, The Beacon and the Floating Hexahedron, especially the latter, and thus more for the Game Master to base her improvisation upon. This randomness means that playing Bottled Sea will be different from one gaming group to the next, more so than with other hex crawls or scenarios.

So that is the random nature of Bottled Sea and the improvisational nature of Bottled Sea? What of the systemless aspect of Bottled Sea? No gaming system is referenced anywhere on Bottled Sea, yet there is an assumed genre within its details. So it is weird. It is more Science Fiction than fantasy, especially with the inclusion of the Floating Hexahedron and many of the watercraft. However, it would work with Player Characters from any setting with a tradition of sailing, whether the ancient world or the Age of Sail or the modern day. Player Characters can come from the same setting, perhaps the same ship, or from an array of backgrounds or settings. Then depending upon what style and tone of game that the Game Master wants to run, a Bermuda Triangle style game could be using a fairly mundane ruleset, such as Savage Worlds or Basic Roleplay. However, there are numerous choices for a more fantastic style of play considering the Science Fiction elements of the setting. Numenera would be an obvious choice, as would Electric Bastionland: Deeper into the Odd, Hypertellurians: Fantastic Thrills Through the Ultracosm, and Troika!. It could even be run using Rifts if the Game Master wanted to! A more generic rules system would also work too, as would any number of Old School Renaissance retroclones. Another genre to shift Bottled Seas into would be that of the Post Apocalypse, for example, using Mutant Crawl Classics Roleplaying Game – Triumph & Technology Won by Mutants & Magic or Barbarians of the Ruined Earth. However, Bottled Sea underplays its Post Apocalyptic elements, so the Game Master will need to bring them into play more. Ultimately, whatever the choice of rules, the Game Master will need to know them very well in order to improvise.

As suggested by the range of roleplaying games which Bottled Sea would be a natural fit for, its influences are equally as diverse. Those given include Waterworld, New Weird, and a Canticle for Leibowitz, but there is also the feel of boy’s own adventure or Saturday morning cartoons combined with elements of horror, such as the Floating Hexahedron. Of course, Bottled Sea need not be run as a standalone mini-campaign, but as an extension to an existing one. All the Game Master need do is provide a reason for the Player Characters to visit the Bottled Sea. For example, the Bottled Sea could be a rumoured location of a device of the Ancients in the Third Imperium for Traveller or what if the Player Characters were passengers from a crashed starship in the MOTHERSHIP Sci-Fi Horror Roleplaying Game?

In terms of play, Bottled Sea sort of traps the Player Characters within its confines. It keeps them within its limits until the last hex is drawn from the bag and they can find their way out. By that time, the Player Characters will probably have visited every hex and encountered multiple threats and dangers, and if they have engaged with any of the four factions to be found in Harbourage, they are likely to have found employment too, and that will drive them back out onto the Bottled Sea again. How or when that will happen all depends upon when the city location is drawn during play. What this means is that the Bottled Sea is a mini-campaign in its own right.

Bottled Sea is fantastically thematic and fantastically presented. A Game Master could grab this, set-up the Game Master’s Screen, pull the first tile, and start running a mini-campaign. However, that would take a lot of improvisation and improvisational skill upon the part of the Game Master, who also has to know the game system she is running the Bottled Sea with very well to run it easily. All of which is needed because the textual content of The Undying Sands really consists of prompts and hooks with little in the way of detail—if any. Perhaps a better way of approaching Bottled Sea—especially if the Game Master is not as confident about her ability to improvise—is to work through the locations, especially Harbourage, and prepare, prepare, prepare. Some Game Masters may relish the prospect, but others may wish that there had been more information given in Bottled Sea to make the task easier for them.

Ultimately, Bottled Sea gives a Game Master the means to improvise and run a fantastically pulpy campaign in a range of genres against a weird Science Fiction, lost worlds, lost at sea background. How much improvisation and how much preparation is required, will very much be down to the individual Game Master.

The Other OSR—The Black Hack – Classic Monsters

The Black Hack – Classic Monsters is a bestiary for use with The Black Hack, Second Edition, the player-facing retroclone originally published in 2016. It is both incredibly dull and incredibly useful before it gets a bit interesting. Designed to support the play of classic fantasy, it contains some of the stats and mechanical details of some two-hundred-and-forty monsters based on those that appeared in Original Dungeons & Dragons and the version of Basic Dungeons & Dragons and Expert Dungeons & Dragons designed by Tom Moldvay. So almost everything from Ankheg, Ant, Giant Worker, Soldier, and Queen, Ape, Man-eating, Basilisk, Bat, Giant, Bear, Black, Grizzly, Polar, and Cave—and that is just on the first page, to Wraith, Wyvern, Xorn, Yellow Mould, Yeti, and Zombie—and that is on the last page! Which is a lot of monsters to get on the one page. So, the question is, how does The Black Hack – Classic Monsters manage to cram as much monster on the one page?

The Black Hack – Classic Monsters is not a bestiary in the classic sense, despite containing a large number of classic monsters. To get as many monsters as it does in its forty-six pages it forgoes any monster description and almost any monster illustration. Instead, it contains just the stats, or rather the stat for each monster and a list of each monster’s abilities or notable features. Often with a little bit of humour. This for example, is the entry for the classic Dungeons & Dragons monster, the owlbear.

Owlbear – HD5
Claw, Claw, Bite – STR (1 Close) 6 dmg
  • Huggy bear! If a failed Defence Roll is an odd number, the target takes Ongoing Damage until they make a successful STR Test as an Action.
The result is short, to the point, easy to use, but not necessarily all that interesting to read or look at. Certainly, in comparison to The Black Hack, Second Edition, which has its own bestiary and illustrations. However, The Black Hack – Classic Monsters is handy, especially if the Game Master is running an old module or scenario which itself draws from the same sources, as a ready reference to have at the table. The Game Master will still need to add some flavour to any encounter using these stats, but the likelihood is that either she would actually know many of these monsters and what they look like or her players will—if not both. Further, the scenario she would be running would have details she could use to add flavour and detail as well. So, an eminently serviceable supplement then? Well actually, The Black Hack – Classic Monsters contains a bit more than just one big list of monsters and their stats virtually free of any illustrations.

In fact, The Black Hack – Classic Monsters contains several lists. The main and longest lists contains the aforementioned monsters. The rest of the slim book consists of appendices. The first of these is a page of dinosaurs—just the one?—whilst the second consists of ‘Monsters of Legend’. These are reinterpretations of monsters extremely specific to Dungeons & Dragons. These include the Bestial Eye, Dimension Cat, Hooked Lurker, Koi-Ped, Mushroom Men, Under-Mauler, and more. These are decent adaptations, slimmed to the minimum of information necessary. However, in contrast to the easier entries in the book, the ‘Monsters of Legend’ are illustrated. This is as much to indicate to the Game Master what they are actually given the fact that the names have been changed for reasons! So, the Bestial Eye is a floating orb with a single large eye, a maw full of large teeth, and a halo of tentacles each ending in an eye of their own. The third appendix is the ‘Monsters’ Spell Index’. This lists all of the spells used by the monsters in the supplement for easy reference. It includes on how monsters cast spells according to the rules, that is, the players rolling to avoid or reduce the effect of a spell rather than the Game Master making the equivalent of a casting roll. There are guidelines too for creating shaman and witch doctor Humanoid monsters.

The fourth appendix is more expansive and possibly the most useful section in book. The ‘Conversion Guide’ provides a means for the Game Master to adapt any monster from Dungeons & Dragons to The Black Hack. This is a step-by-step process, explaining which stats and elements of Dungeons & Dragons monsters to adapt to The Black Hack. It is a quick and easy process, which with a bit of practice, the Game Master can even do during play. The notes also cover how to create powerful foes as well, and there is a list of sample abilities too. Most of these have been drawn from the abilities given for the various monsters listed earlier in the book, and of course, the Game Master can peruse their entries for other ones as well. Lastly, the final appendix, ‘Poison Tables’, provides a set of tables for determining poison effects other than death of Out of Action. These work with the book’s monsters as well as any assassins wielding a poison-coated blade!

Physically, The Black Hack – Classic Monsters is a handsome little book. The artwork is decent, if occasionally cartoonish, but the writing is clear and the layout clean and simple.

The Black Hack – Classic Monsters is more serviceable than it first appears to be. The lists of monsters are useful—and with some adjustment could be used with other microclones such as Knave or Cairn, but the ‘Conversion Guide’ makes just about every scenario or supplement monsters for classic roleplaying fantasy accessible and convertible to The Black Hack. Which is why every Game Master for The Black Hack should have it on her shelf.

Monday 27 March 2023

Miskatonic Monday #186: Swamp Song

Between October 2003 and October 2013, Chaosium, Inc. published a series of books for Call of Cthulhu under the Miskatonic University Library Association brand. Whether a sourcebook, scenario, anthology, or campaign, each was a showcase for their authors—amateur rather than professional, but fans of Call of Cthulhu nonetheless—to put forward their ideas and share with others. The programme was notable for having launched the writing careers of several authors, but for every Cthulhu InvictusThe PastoresPrimal StateRipples from Carcosa, and Halloween Horror, there was Five Go Mad in EgyptReturn of the RipperRise of the DeadRise of the Dead II: The Raid, and more...

The Miskatonic University Library Association brand is no more, alas, but what we have in its stead is the Miskatonic Repository, based on the same format as the DM’s Guild for Dungeons & Dragons. It is thus, “...a new way for creators to publish and distribute their own original Call of Cthulhu content including scenarios, settings, spells and more…” To support the endeavours of their creators, Chaosium has provided templates and art packs, both free to use, so that the resulting releases can look and feel as professional as possible. To support the efforts of these contributors, Miskatonic Monday is an occasional series of reviews which will in turn examine an item drawn from the depths of the Miskatonic Repository.

Publisher: Chaosium, Inc.
Author: Keeper Doc

Setting: 1920s New Orleans
Product: Scenario
What You Get: Forty-four page, 9.11 MB Full Colour PDF
Elevator Pitch: The dangers of the demon drink will drive you to your deaths...
Plot Hook: A missing author pulls the Investigators into the French Quarter of New Orleans and a ghoulish plot.
Plot Support: Staging advice, five pre-generated Investigators, 
three NPCs, four handouts, one map, one non-Mythos tome, one non-Mythos creature, one Mythos tome, one Mythos spell, and one Mythos monster.
Production Values: Good.

# Detailed investigation
# Nice evocation of the period and louche culture
# Fun NPCs for the Keeper to portray
# Small, but flexible options included for the Keeper
# Easy to shift to Cthulhu by Gaslight
# Easy to add to a Tales of the Crescent City: Adventures in Jazz Era New Orleans campaign
# Taphephobia
# Methyphobia
# Zerevophobia

# Cartoonish NPC portraits
# Underwritten explanation for the Keeper upfront
# Location floorplans would be useful
# Plot not necessarily obvious to the Investigators

# Woozy investigation where New Orleans nightlife and occult underground intersect that is easy to add to a campaign
# Unclear plotting makes the scenario harder to prepare and the plot may never quite become clear to the Investigators

Miskatonic Monday #185: Game Night

Between October 2003 and October 2013, Chaosium, Inc. published a series of books for Call of Cthulhu under the Miskatonic University Library Association brand. Whether a sourcebook, scenario, anthology, or campaign, each was a showcase for their authors—amateur rather than professional, but fans of Call of Cthulhu nonetheless—to put forward their ideas and share with others. The programme was notable for having launched the writing careers of several authors, but for every Cthulhu InvictusThe PastoresPrimal StateRipples from Carcosa, and Halloween Horror, there was Five Go Mad in EgyptReturn of the RipperRise of the DeadRise of the Dead II: The Raid, and more...

The Miskatonic University Library Association brand is no more, alas, but what we have in its stead is the Miskatonic Repository, based on the same format as the DM’s Guild for Dungeons & Dragons. It is thus, “...a new way for creators to publish and distribute their own original Call of Cthulhu content including scenarios, settings, spells and more…” To support the endeavours of their creators, Chaosium has provided templates and art packs, both free to use, so that the resulting releases can look and feel as professional as possible. To support the efforts of these contributors, Miskatonic Monday is an occasional series of reviews which will in turn examine an item drawn from the depths of the Miskatonic Repository.


Name: Game Night
Publisher: Chaosium, Inc.
Author: Sean Liddle

Setting: 1980s USA
Product: Scenario Outline
What You Get: Five page, 173.91 KB Full Colour PDF
Elevator Pitch: Twixmas Terror.
Plot Hook: Students stuck in a store in a snow storm leads to scares.
Plot Support: Staging and set-up advice, timeline.
Production Values: Undemanding.

# Straightforward plot outline 
# Phasmophobia
# Chionophobia

# Requires development by the Keeper
# Requires Player Characters to be created
# No Sanity losses or gains
# Works hard to trap the Player Characters in place to face the Mythos at the end

# More mundane clean-up duties than meeting with the Mythos
# Sit tight until the terror might work for the screen, but for Player Characters, not so much...

Sunday 26 March 2023

A Love Letter to Lankhmar

The influence of author Fritz Leiber and his tales of the adventures of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser on fantasy roleplaying are undeniable. Of course, they introduced the reader to the world of Nehwon and the city of Lankhmar, also known as the City of the Black Toga, an urban jungle rife with cutpurses and corruption, guilds and graft, temples and trouble, whores and wonders, and more. Sitting on the Inner Sea, it is the greatest city in Nehwon, over which hangs the pall from fire pits, charnel houses, chimneys, and smoke houses, which when combined with the fog which rolls of the Hlal river, turns into a dense smog, the bane of the city’s brown-armoured city watch, and much to the delight of the city’s many thieves, pickpockets, burglars, cutpurses, muggers, and anyone else who would skulk in the night! Not for nothing is Lankhmar called the City of Sevenscore Thousand Smokes. Yet the stories of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser also introduced the concept of urban adventures to the hobby and added both the concept of the thieves’ guild and the assassins’ guild to Dungeons & Dragons, as well as influencing the look and feel of numerous fantasy cities in roleplaying. It is no wonder that their world has been visited by roleplaying not once, but six times!

TSR, Inc. first included the Nehwon mythos, its gods and various characters to Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, First Edition in 1980 with Deities & Demigods, before publishing Lankhmar – City of Adventure in 1985. This would be followed by The New Adventures of Fafhrd and Gray Mouser boxed set for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, Second Edition in 1996. Mongoose Publishing’s Lankhmar, published in 2006, was written for use with RuneQuest, whilst Lankhmar: City of Thieves, published in 2015 by Pinnacle Entertainment Group, was written for use with Savage Worlds. The sixth and most recent version is Dungeon Crawl Classics Lankhmar, published by Goodman Games following a successful Kickstarter campaign, for use with the Dungeon Crawl Classics Role Playing Game. It is designed to help the Dungeon Crawl Classics Judge run swords and sorcery urban-set campaigns of semi-heroic adventure charting the ups and downs, successes and failures, triumphs and travails of a band of ne’er-do-wells, who will break into homes in the Rich Men’s Quarter and sneak into the temples on the Street of the Gods, run the ‘rooftop road’ to avoid the city watch, fence their stolen goods at the back of the Plaza of Dark Delights, before frittering away their ill-gotten gains by carousing and gambling early into the morning. Then with a heavy hangover, they will probably have to lie low for a week or two as the city watch searches high and low for them. Of course, those particular ne’er-do-wells may not be responsible for the crime that the city watch wants them for, but lie low long enough or bribe the right person, and with pockets empty of coin and stomachs rumbling, they are back out on the streets looking for the next score.

The Dungeon Crawl Classics Lankhmar Boxed Set is a handsome affair, filled to the brim with books and maps. This includes ‘The Judge’s Guide to Nehwon’, ‘Compendium of Secret Knowledge’, ‘Lankhmar: City of the Black Toga’, and ‘Dungeon Crawl Classics Lankhmar #0: No Small Crimes in Lankhmar’, plus a 33” × 17” poster map of the City of Lankhmar, 17” × 22” map of Nehwon, and a Judges’ Screen specifically for Dungeon Crawl Classics Lankhmar. As well as describing both the world of Nehwon and the city of Lankhmar, Dungeon Crawl Classics Lankhmar includes stats for the notable characters from Fritz Lieber’s stories, details of the setting’s gods, new magic, and beasts, rules for creating and playing Player Characters—who are heroes rather than cheesemakers or gongfarmers trying to escape their dull lives, and this being for the Dungeon Crawl Classics Roleplaying Game, table after table to help the Judge create exciting, interesting things and NPCs for those Player Characters to encounter and do, and so bring her Lankhmar to life. The Dungeon Crawl Classics Lankhmar Boxed Set is not designed as a definitive or comprehensive guide to the city and inhabitants, but rather as a combination of guide and toolkit for the Judge. The result will be a campaign that is fundamentally different to a typical Dungeon Crawl Classics campaign—darker, city-based, heroic, and adult in tone.

At one-hundred-and-four pages, ‘The Judge’s Guide to Nehwon’ is the longest book in the Dungeon Crawl Classics Lankhmar Boxed Set. When you discover that a lot of those pages consist of spells particular to Lankhmar and you realise just how detailed each spell in Dungeon Crawl Classics actually is, and that ‘The Judge’s Guide to Nehwon’ also details the effects of invoking various patron gods and the possible taints that a Player Character might suffer in poorly invoking said patron gods, then it turns out that ‘The Judge’s Guide to Nehwon’ is actually not that long a book, or least not that dense. ‘The Judge’s Guide to Nehwon’ introduces the setting and the fiction it is based upon, describing in turn the various countries and locations surrounding Lankhmar, the cultures of the Inner Sea and beyond, languages and gods, and more. Some of the cultures do feel like clichés by modern standards—the nomadic horse-riding Mingols who hail from the Steppes, the barbarian Northerners feared as pirate raiders, the Kleshites of the Jungle of Klesh who trade in slaves, and so on—but bear in mind that the stories that Dungeon Crawl Classics Lankhmar is based upon are over fifty years old and this is the swords & sorcery genre. Nevertheless, the Judge may want to be circumspect when dealing with this aspect of the setting.

There are details of Nehwonian alcoholic drinks too, such as the Bubbly Wine of Ilthmar, Ool Hruspian Old Wine, and the notorious Mushroom Wine which can grant the imbiber certain benefits or drive him to madness. These nicely tie in with the rules for recovering Luck in through carousing, later in ‘The Judge’s Guide to Nehwon’, which mostly involve a Player Character spending an evening in the bars and taverns of the city, getting drunk, and suffering the consequences. ‘The Judge’s Guide to Nehwon’ also provides a range of new spells for the setting, such as Confounding Glamour, which makes the caster difficult to detect, or Mouse’s Painful Suffering, which enables the cast to inflict suffering on another using a doll or fetish. These are not readily available to the Player Characters, and any wizard wanting to learn them will have to track down the right tome or scroll, or find someone who can teach it to him. All Player Characters in Dungeon Crawl Classics Lankhmar can be agents and servants to patrons such as the gods. Those who enter into simple agreements become agents, whereas those who enter into magical compacts become servants, much like the Patron bond spell in Dungeon Crawl Classics, and in return, a Player Character can receive certain benefits. The patrons are of course the watchful gods of Lankhmar and Nehwon, including Ningauble of the Seven Eyes, Mog the Spider God, Issek of the Jug, and others, and as well as their possible debts and boons, there are tasks which they can set those who have taken their patronage. The patrons are excellent tools for the Judge to use to drive adventures and bring the setting’s mystical elements into play.

‘The Judge’s Guide to Nehwon’ provides new rules and adjustments for a Dungeon Crawl Classics Lankhmar campaign. This includes the aforementioned Carousing rules for recovering Luck and also Laying Low, including complications associated with both, plus a list of magical items and a bestiary. There is also advice on running urban-set campaigns, which highlight in particular how different such a campaign will be from a standard Dungeon Crawl Classics campaign. This is to primarily run a campaign as an urban sandbox, to have the Player Characters face and hopefully escape the consequences of their actions, with almost everything they do having repercussions—good or bad. Burglarise a jewelry shop and the Player Characters and possibly whomever hired them, will be rich, but the city watch will be after the Player Characters, as will the Thieves’ Guild, who the jewelry shop owner was paying protection money, and then if the person who hired them to do the job turns up dead and the loot nowhere to be seen, who are the primary suspects? What the guidance highlights is that in a Dungeon Crawl Classics Lankhmar campaign, the Player Characters are not going to be comfortable, going from weird dungeon to the next. Instead, they will often be hungry or hunted, forced to rely on each other as well as their wits and their contacts—who in turn may come to rely on the Player Characters at a later date. Consequently, a Dungeon Crawl Classics Lankhmar campaign will often be more player-driven and have an occasional narrative focus as time passes, so is not as straightforward to run.

One big difference between Dungeon Crawl Classics Lankhmar and standard Dungeon Crawl Classics is the lack of a Funnel. This is a standard feature of Dungeon Crawl Classics, 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. Instead of a Funnel, Dungeon Crawl Classics Lankhmar provides the Meet, the moment or adventure when the Player Characters all met for the first time, as First Level—rather than Zero Level—characters, just as in the Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser story, ‘ Ill Met in Lankhmar’. Annoyingly the Meet is mentioned before the explanation, so at first the Judge is left to wonder what it is, but the Meet is designed to get a party together, have its members make contacts, and lastly, provide its members with an opportunity to learn more about the world, if not Lankhmar, then at least the neighbourhood. Overall, the advice is excellent and will very much help the Judge make the switch to a Lankhmar-set campaign. Lastly, ‘The Judge’s Guide to Nehwon’ does address the issue of where Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser are during the Player Characters’ adventures with several options, but really their presence should not have that much of an impact.

The second book, ‘Lankhmar: City of the Black Toga’, runs to forty-four pages and is the Dungeon Crawl Classics Lankhmar Boxed Set gazetteer. It is a more straightforward book covering the history, government, powers, guilds, crime and punishment, known Overlords of the city during the time of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, and more. Its exploration of the various neighbourhoods or quarters of the city, such as the Temple Quarter and Crafts Quarter, are supported by descriptions of places of interest, like the Forbidden Temples in the Temple Quarter, the Thieves’ House in the Crafts Quarter, the Plaza of Dark Delights in the Plaza Quarter, and so on, are backed up with tables of interesting events, random noble tables, curious people found in the Rich Men’s Quarter, and others that the Judge can use to create events and plots, perhaps chaining them together to pull the Player Characters across the city. Other tables enable a Judge to create and populate a neighbourhood, perhaps as a starting point or base for the Player Characters, and there is a table of adventure seeds too.

The third book in Dungeon Crawl Classics Lankhmar Boxed Set is the forty-page ‘Compendium of Secret Knowledge’ and is the book for the Player Characters. As well as being urban-set and using the Meet to introduce Player Characters rather than the Funnel, Dungeon Crawl Classics Lankhmar is a humancentric setting. What this means is that there are no Dwarves, Elves, or Halflings. There are also no Clerics as a Class. This is because any character can enter into a relationship with a god and take him as a patron—even multiple gods—and gain the benefits and drawbacks of doing so. This limits the Classes to just Thief, Warrior, and Wizard, who are all rogues and in play work together as a gang rather than a party. Player Characters begin play at First Level, have more Hit Points, and have a Doom and a Benison. These replace Birth Augurs from Dungeon Crawl Classics and are derived from a Player Character’s origins rather than the sign under which he was born. Sample Boons include Accepted Freelance Thief, Former Wizard’s Pupil, or Mingol Bow, whilst sample Dooms include Bad Reputation in Certain Circles, Illiterate, or Superstitious. It is possible to have an extra Benison, but this costs permanent points of Luck and an extra Doom. Overall, the effect is make the Player Character a more heroic figure, but not that much more heroic!

There are other changes to the rules of Dungeon Crawl Classics too, such as whether or not to retain Alignment, but that is only a minor change. The changes to magic and healing are not so. Nehwon is considered a ‘low magic” world and does not allow for the mercurial magic of standard Dungeon Crawl Classics, so magic takes more effort or has condition to being cast, such as the caster only being to cast spells indoor without a penalty or requiring a large boiling cauldron filled with odd ingredients to be able to cast successfully. In addition to a big table of Spell Stipulations, there tables for spell corruption, which go from minor to greater via major, reflecting the mutative effect of casting more powerful spells. Other options for a Wizard include Black and White magic, divided by spell type and casters of White inflicting less damage versus casters of Black magic suffering more corruption. Without the presence of Clerics, the Player Characters will need to find other means of healing. Some Patrons provide healing, but in the main, the Player Characters will have to obtain ointments, unctions, unguents, and other restoratives, although the Judge is provided other options too. This includes Cinematic healing for an even more heroic style of play. Lastly, Dungeon Crawl Classics Lankhmar adds ‘Fleeting Luck’, reflecting the capricious nature of Nehwon’s gods, which can come and go through play, gained for rolling a natural twenty, pulling off an amazing stunt, or roleplaying, but lost when any player rolls a one. This will give play an entertaining ebb and flow, but potentially even more fun is the optional ‘Banter’ rule, in which a Banter token passes back and forth between the players as they roleplay their characters trading quips and barbs. Whoever has the token can trade it in to gain Luck points for his character’s next role or affect another character’s or NPC’s roll, but after that, the token goes back to the Judge until the quips and barbs begin flying again. For the right group, this really rewards their roleplaying and turns play into a buddy style caper.

The last book in the Dungeon Crawl Classics Lankhmar Boxed Set is ‘Dungeon Crawl Classics Lankhmar #0: No Small Crimes in Lankhmar’. At just twelve pages, this is also the shortest book, providing a first adventure for First Level Player Characters. It is designed to be run after they have met as part of their Meet adventure, which given that the Dungeon Crawl Classics Lankhmar Boxed Set is designed to introduce the setting and provide the Judge with everything necessary to run a campaign, to include an adventure set after the Meet rather than a Meet adventure itself seems like a major omission. However, there is advice on how to run it as a Meet, but another given option is to play Dungeon Crawl Classics Lankhmar: Masks of Lankhmar, which specifically designed to be run as a Meet, and then run ‘Dungeon Crawl Classics Lankhmar #0: No Small Crimes in Lankhmar’. Inspired by both The Swords of Lankhmar and The Incredible Shrinking Man, the scenario begins with the Player Characters breaking into a long-abandoned home, rumoured to contain a cache of gold, and suffering a curse—being shrunk down to the size of rats! The Player Characters must brave the dangers of their newly enlarged world in search of a means to lift the curse and restore themselves to full size, all whilst being stalked by a cat! The change of scale makes this adventure both memorable and deadly, but with care and luck, the Player Characters should be able to survive and discover a secret or two about Lankhmar. This a pleasingly inventive scenario and fun to play.

In addition to the four books, the Dungeon Crawl Classics Lankhmar comes with two maps. One is a full colour poster map of Lankhmar, the other a black and white map of Nehwon. Both are attractive and useful. Similarly useful is the Judges’ Screen, which includes several of the tables found in the various books in the Dungeon Crawl Classics Lankhmar Boxed Set. Of course, those books include a lot more tables and the Judge will need to consult those during play. Lastly, a copy of Goodman Games Gazette, the latest issue of which is included with each new Kickstarter. This issue has an interview with Michael Curtis, the designer of the Dungeon Crawl Classics Lankhmar Boxed Set, as well as extra content, meaning that it very nicely complements the rest of the box.

Physically, the Dungeon Crawl Classics Lankhmar Boxed Set is very well produced and everything crammed into the box is too. The books are all well-written, the art is decent, and the maps nicely done too. The books are in black and white, which is not standard today, but it fits the style of Dungeon Crawl Classics.

The Dungeon Crawl Classics Lankhmar Boxed Set is a thoroughly impressive, boxed set. It has everything to get a Lankhmar-based campaign started and whilst it is not a definitive guide to the world of Nehwon and the City of Lankhmar, it is a definitive guide for the Judge to run a campaign set there. It not only provides her with the background, the tools, and the options she needs to do so, but also the advice to make the switch to doing so. For the Judge who wants to run a grim and gritty, yet heroic Swords & Sorcery campaign on the streets of the greatest city in the world, Dungeon Crawl Classics Lankhmar Boxed Set is perfect.

The Other OSR: CY_BORG Asset Pack

The CY_BORG Asset Pack is a supplement for CY_BORG, a cyberpunk purgatory that is modelled upon Mörk Borg, the Swedish pre-apocalypse Old School Renaissance retroclone designed by Ockult Örtmästare Games and Stockholm Kartell and published by Free League Publishing. It is both useful and utilitarian, consisting of four things that the Game Master can use to enhance her campaign.

The first of these is a double-sided map, done on heavy stock paper. On one side is a map of the city of CY, the location for CY_BORG. It is done in full, dark, grim glory on black and with interesting touches such as the district of Galgenbeck—the central city in the land of Tveland in Mörk Borg—being marked in gold. At the bottom of the poster is an index to the district locations in the rulebook. This is great to lay out before the players in play, to help them and their doomed characters around the city. On the other side is the diagram showing the major corporations, their logos, and some details connected to them, such as advertising, rumours about them, opinions, and more. Both the diagram and the map are reprinted from the core rulebook, but the map is definitely more useful than the diagram in play, whereas the corporation diagram may provide the Game Master with some possible scenario hooks.

‘Reaper Repo’ is a scenario for CY_BORG. The second item in the CY_BORG Asset Pack, it has the Player Characters hired to steal the new chrome legs of a Killmatch VIP! Instead of resting, Steel Jackhammer is of course, holding a marathon party. Cue the Player Characters getting in amongst the guests, including random other VIPS, subduing Steel Jackhammer, stealing his legs and getting out again. The two-page spread presents a detailed and described floorplan of Steel Jackhammer’s apartment, stats for both him as well as his guards, pet gene-spliced big cats, and random VIP NPCs. The Player Characters then, are reapers, jacking cyberware off an unwilling victim. Getting this done will be a challenge, but doing so without notice even more difficult. The Player Characters have the advantage of the party going on around them and will doubtless act accordingly. The floorplans for Steel Jackhammer’s apartment are very well done and everything that the Game Master needs to run the scenario is placed in front of her on the two-page spread. ‘Reaper Repo’ is a one location scenario, playable in one session—and therefore a good convention scenario—driven by a combination of the Player Characters’ and random acts. Steel Jackhammer’s party would probably have run its course in a few days, but with the intervention of the Player Characters, it will probably turn into a chaotically memorable party.

The third item in the CY_BORG Asset Pack is the ‘Location Pad’. This a thick sheaf of locations—a cargo ship, clinic, dive bar, street alley, bodega, coffin hotel, killmatch arena, underground anarchist art commune, and more—a total of thirty-four of them, which provide a floor plan of each, plus three random tables of what the location is and what might be found there. There is also room for some notes. With a roll of three six-sided dice, the Game Master has some basic details about the location, and with the addition of a hook to get the Player Characters involved and stats for NPCs, she has a ready-to-play location. For example, the Datacrypt, the answer to “What’s in the Crypt?” might be that “Cables merged with roots from forgotten biological experiments below Cy, creating a sentient biotech ghouls that have taken over the crypt.”; “Secured on their local servers you can find”… is … “the far-reaching cyber tentacles of a powerful AI trapped deep in the Net long ago.”; and “Stuffed inside an unused server rack is” … “a motion detector alarm.” Roll again and the Game Master has an entirely different Datacrypt and with three sheets per location, she can mark it up again and add notes as needed. With a mix of contributions from both Stockholm Kartell and freelance contributors, this a resource that the Game Master can come back to again and again, creating new plots and encounters each time. The maps in the ‘Location Pad’ will, of course, work in any Cyberpunk roleplaying game.

The fourth item in the CY_BORG Asset Pack is a pad of characters sheets. These are clearly laid out, simple to use, and have game notes where necessary.

Physically, the CY_BORG Asset Pack is a decent package. The Artpunk style of both CY_BORG and Mörk Borg is kept to a minimum, whilst the ‘Location Pad’ is more utilitarian. The layout of the scenario, ‘Reaper Repo’, is very well done.

With the CY_BORG Asset Pack, the Game Master has some that she can immediately prepare and run for her players in the form of ‘Reaper Repo’. Then the poster map and the character sheets provide useful, serviceable support to a campaign, but in the long term, the Game Master has a set of tools in the form of the ‘Location Pad’ which she can use to quickly create a scenarios and encounters, whether that is before a game or even during a game, if a particular location is needed. Although it does not look it at first glance, the ‘Location Pad’ is actually the best item in the CY_BORG Asset Pack and certainly the most useful. It would be fantastic if Ockult Örtmästare Games and Stockholm Kartell could produce a companion to the ‘Location Pad’, a book of encounters and scenarios built around designed by contributors and fans of CY_BORG. In meantime, the CY_BORG Asset Pack will energise the Game Master’s CY_BORG campaign until the last Miserable Headline…

Saturday 25 March 2023

Delving into Doctor Who

It is clear from the start that a lot of thought has gone into the design of Doctor Who: Roleplaying Game Second Edition – Starter Set. Open the box and underneath the dice is what appears to be a sheet of heavy paper with an image of the TARDIS on it. Pull it out of the box and it is that and more because the front shows the doors to the TARDIS, whilst the back, shows the other side of the TARDIS. Further, the front opens up almost like the doors of the TARDIS to reveal what is in the box. It is, of course, a classic ‘What’s in the box’ sheet, the first thing you should always see when opening a boxed roleplaying game for the first time, but here done as thematically as is possible. Combined with its ‘READ THIS FIRST’ section and what you have is an explanation of what is the box, what exactly the reader has in his hands, and what it is designed to do. It is great start to the Doctor Who: Roleplaying Game Second Edition – Starter Set, but then the publisher, Cubicle Seven Entertainment, has form here, having published the thoroughly excellent and playable Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay Starter Set for Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, Fourth Edition.

Cubicle Seven Entertainment has held the licence for a roleplaying game based on the adventures of the time-travelling Time Lord known as Doctor Who since 2009, being with the publication of Doctor Who: Adventures in Time and Space. It was intentionally designed to be played by Doctor Who fans new to roleplaying as well as veterans, and over the years has been supported by supplements covered both Classic Who—the first eight generations of the Doctor—and New Who—the later four generations. Only in 2022, did the roleplaying game come up to date to cover the adventures of the thirteenth Doctor with Doctor Who: Roleplaying Game Second Edition, and by then, the Doctor had once again regenerated into the Fourteenth Doctor and will do so again with the Fifteenth. That though, is all to come. What Doctor Who: Adventures in Time and Space never received as its own starter set, a box containing basic rules, ready-to-play characters, advice for the Game Master, dice, and an adventure or two, all sufficient to provide a good feel for how the game plays and an idea of whether or not the players want to have further adventures. That though, changes for Doctor Who: Roleplaying Game Second Edition, which has its own starter set. The Doctor Who: Roleplaying Game Second Edition – Starter Set is designed to be played out of the box, its play discovered and revealed as the reader delves deeper into the box. So, delving deeper into the box…

Below the ‘READ THIS FIRST’ folder is a sheaf of five character sheets. These use the same gatefold sheet format as the ‘READ THIS FIRST’ folder. On the front is the name of the Player Character, what he does, a thumbnail portrait, some quotes that a player can bring into play, a quick explanation of who he is, what he is like, what he enjoys, and reasons to play that character. It is kept quick, simple, and clear, making the basics of the character easy to understand. On the back, there is an even larger portrait of the character, but just like the ‘READ THIS FIRST’ folder, open up a character sheet and there is much more information. The character and his stats, skills, experiences, equipment, focus, and more are presented in the middle. To the left, a column explains the character concept and various game terms, including Focus, which is the Player Character’s motivation, Tech Level, Short-Term and Long-Term Goals, Attributes, Skills, Distinctions which mean that the Player Character is an alien or has a special skill, and Conditions that the Player Character might suffer. To the right is given the Character Background, a description of what make the Player Character’s heart sing, family, friends, and rivals, elements which the Player Character is encouraged to describe, and an introduction. The sheets all feel complete, and the five include a twenty-first century IT worker who wants to be a baker, a nineteenth century stage performer who wants to be a double act, an augmented human investigator who wants to uncover a conspiracy, a hospitality android from the Luxury Station Phaeton who wants to make a friend, and a Silurian scientist who wants to make a big discovery. Like the ‘READ THIS FIRST’ folder, the characters are done on heavy stock paper, in full colour, and are attractive to look at.

Underneath the character sheets is the first of two books in Doctor Who: Roleplaying Game Second Edition – Starter Set. This is ‘The Timeless Library’ and it has pictures of the Thirteenth Doctor, some Daleks, and a library with flying books on the front. This is both the first adventure in the starter set and the explanation of the rules, and one of the first things it explains is why the Doctor is not an option as a Player Character, which is because she is missing and the Player Characters have to find her as part of the adventure. The adventures in Doctor Who: Roleplaying Game Second Edition – Starter Set are designed to be played by three to five players and ‘The Timeless Library’ to teach the rules step-by-step. It starts with the Player Characters finding their way into the TARDIS, introducing themselves, having an opportunity to explore the TARDIS, and make a few skill rolls in determining quite where they are. Doctor Who: Roleplaying Game Second Edition uses the Vortex System in which if a player wants his character to undertake an action, he rolls two six-sided dice and add the values of an appropriate attribute and skill to beat a Difficulty. A typical Difficulty is twelve. Rolls of one on either die indicate that an attempt has failed in some way, even partially, whilst rolls of six indicate that the attempt was not only successful, but a superior success too. Story Points—each Player Character starts with several—can be used to modify any result. If a Player Character has the Advantage, three dice are rolled and the lowest value discarded whilst the highest result is discarded if at a Disadvantage.

The scenario of ‘The Timeless Library’ takes place in a vast, fabled library, which when the Player Characters arrive, has been recently attacked and instituted security response. Which makes navigating the different sections of the library a challenge, but if the Player Characters can find the head librarian, a Judoon—which should be lots of fun for the Game Master to portray—they can make progress. As they proceed through the library, the players have the opportunity to learn how the Vortex System works, including the core mechanics, how gadgets work, how to get the best use out of Story Points, extended tasks and conflict, there are points where it is suggested that the Game Master can improvise, and there is occasional appearance of the Doctor to throw in, if only to give words of encouragement as a holographic message. When it comes to conflict, the initiative rules are notable in that who goes first depends not a die roll, but on Player Character actions. Talkers go first (or Screamers if a Companion possesses both a set of lungs on her and the Screamer Trait), followed by Doers, then Runners, and last of all Fighters. Meanwhile, the Player Characters can explore the library—or at least examine its shelves, overcome technological barriers, persuade recalcitrant NPCs, and survive an encounter with the Doctor’s greatest enemy—the Daleks, and in the final sequence, get chased up to the highest levels of the library in order to reach the scenario’s McGuffin before the Daleks do. In other words, get to do all of the things that the Doctor and her companions do in an episode.

However, that is not all there is to ‘The Timeless Library’ or indeed in Doctor Who: Roleplaying Game Second Edition – Starter Set. There is advice on how to use the scenario in ‘The Timeless Library’ as a one-shot, but there is trio of adventure hooks for each of the five pre-generated Player Characters as well as ideas for further scenarios once they have played through the events of the campaign in ‘The Echo Chamber’. The adventure in ‘The Timeless Library’ is fun, taking the Player Characters from their first steps into the TARDIS to running around, saving people, and winning the day in a place that is out of this world. Unfortunately, the step-by-step process of learning the rules to the Vortex System through play does not quite work. Initially, the rules are quick and easy to learn, but as the adventure progresses, they do get comparatively more complex. Certainly, when it comes to conflicts and chases, the Game Master will need to prepare those rather than learn on the go.

‘The Echo Chamber’, the second book, picks up where ‘The Timeless Library’ left off. It contains two scenarios, one which is a direct sequel, the eponymously titled ‘The Echo Chamber’. It begins with an investigation in modern London before taking the Player Characters into deep space and an even deeper mystery, until confronting the villain of the piece and rescuing the Doctor on a planet from Classic Who’s past. The middle section is something of a spaceship sandbox—if the spaceship sandbox is also a travelling theatre—which the Player Characters can explore, interact with the crew and the performers, and try and find out more about what is going on. The scenario also provides opportunities for each of the Player Characters to shine, whether that is baking or performing, as part of the investigation, and the Game Master also scenes and nods from Classic Who to portray. If there is an issue with the scenario it is that it could have done with some floorplans for the spaceship to help the Game Master visualise it for her players, and perhaps a few suggestions could have been provided to help the Game Master portray the scenario’s many NPCs. A more open affair, it assumes that by this time the Game Master and her players will have come to understand the rules, and the boxes of information for the Game Master focus on extra content for the scenario rather than Game Master tips. ‘The Echo Chamber’ is an entertaining adventure and brings the events of ‘The Timeless Library’ to a rousing collection.

The second scenario in ‘The Echo Chamber’ is ‘The Hermit’s Lantern’. It is designed to be run as a sequel with the same Player Characters, who if successful, end up with their time travel device, enabling them to continue on their adventures without the Doctor. Stats are provided for the Thirteenth Doctor, should the Game Master want to involve her in the scenario. ‘The Hermit’s Lantern’ is a race to obtain an artefact of the same name, its location a planet only accessible once every fifty years due to severe storms. Means are suggested as to how to get the Player Characters involved other than at the bequest of the Doctor, but once on the planet, they will have a hard journey ahead of them across rough terrain, often stalked by the local fauna. This is a shorter, straightforward, and linear affair, more physical in nature, which does not go out of its way to bring the various aspects of the pre-generated Player Characters into play. Consequently, it is not as interesting to play through ‘The Timeless Library’ and ‘The Echo Chamber’, but it is a decent enough scenario.

In addition to the ‘READ THIS FIRST’ folder, the five character sheets, ‘The Timeless Library’, and ‘The Echo Chamber’, the Doctor Who: Roleplaying Game Second Edition – Starter Set also includes a sheet of Story Point tokens in thick card, and two reference sheets. One has the ‘Attributes and Skills Reference Sheet’ on one side and the ‘Story Points Reference Sheet’ on the other, whilst the second reference sheet has the ‘‘Making a Roll’ Reference Sheet’ on one side and the ‘Success Reference Sheet’ on the other side. ‘Success Reference Sheet’ is also printed on the inside of the lid to the box.

Physically, the Doctor Who: Roleplaying Game Second Edition – Starter Set is very well put together, Everything is bright, breezy, in full colour, and easy to understand, with coloured sections in both books designed to highlight and explain rules, give advice for the Game Master, provide NPC details, and so on. They are only light illustrated, with images taken from the series. One issue however is that the books do need an edit in places as there are several incidences of references to other sections of a book or parts of the starter set are inaccurate, and the authors cannot quite decide what the names of the two books in the starter set are. Unlike ‘The Echo Chamber’, the second book, ‘The Timeless Library’ does not have a card cover, so is more like a magazine and less durable. Another issue is that not all of the NPCs detailed in the three adventures in the Doctor Who: Roleplaying Game Second Edition – Starter Set. Mainly due to a lack of ready photographic sources and the expense of producing full colour art, this however leave the Game Master with pictures for some NPCs and not for others. It feels inconsistent and perhaps something that the Game Master might like to source herself.

An experienced player or Game Master will have no problem opening up the Doctor Who: Roleplaying Game Second Edition – Starter Set and beginning play. If the Game Master has run Doctor Who: Adventures in Time and Space, the previous incarnation of the roleplaying game, she will have even less of a problem. The rules have changed only slightly, and then only to streamline them very slightly. The rules are far from difficult to play, but a little extra attention is needed to understand how conflicts and extended tasks are handled according to the rules, so that does slow down the learn-by-play, step-by-step process. Nevertheless, a lot of thought has gone into the process of learning the game by drawing both Game Master and her players deeper into the box and the game, and the resulting rules are easier to understand and the scenarios engaging and entertaining.

Of course, if the Game Master already has access to the Doctor Who: Roleplaying Game Second Edition, then the scenarios in the starter set can be run from those rules. However, both ‘The Echo Chamber’ and ‘The Timeless Library’ are designed to be played using the pre-generated Player Characters, so they will need some adjusting to suit other Player Characters.

The Doctor Who: Roleplaying Game Second Edition – Starter Set is a great introduction to the Doctor Who: Roleplaying Game Second Edition. It eases the players and their Game Master into the rules and provides them with some exciting adventures to have in time and space!

Friday 24 March 2023

Friday Fantasy: The Isle of the Plangent Mage

The Isle of the Plangent Mage
is a scenario published by Necrotic Gnome. It is written for use with Old School Essentials, the Old School Renaissance retroclone based on the version of Basic Dungeons & Dragons designed by Tom Moldvay and published in 1980. It is designed to be played by a party of Third to Fifth Level Player Characters and is a standalone affair, but can be easily added to a campaign by the Referee. All it requires is a temperate coastline as a location, and possibly legends of a land lost to the waves in ages past. In the case of the latter, the Player Characters might have the opportunity to restore that, so bringing about a major change to the Referee’s campaign world and giving them somewhere new to explore. Likewise, if there is opportunity here to change the campaign world, there is also the possibility that the Player Characters will be changed and mutated by some of the encounters in the scenario. It is self-contained and so could be run as a one-shot, but unlike the earlier, official scenarios for Old School Essentials, such as The Hole in the Oak and The Incandescent Grottoes, it is not a suitable addition to the publisher’s own Dolmenwood setting. This is primarily due to the coastal rather than arboreal setting, but also because the scenario has a comparatively  technological feel to its magic. Whatever way in which the Referee decides to use the adventure, like so many other scenarios for the Old School Renaissance, The Isle of the Plangent Mage is incredibly easy to adapt to or run using the retroclone of the Referee’s choice. The tone of the dungeon is weird and unworldly, taking the Player Characters deep under the sea into a strange, James Bond villain-like secret base like that of Doctor No, to encounter the results of strange experiments, whilst elsewhere, the adventure has a mournful tone and a touch of the Lovecraftian.

The Isle of the Plangent Mage—‘plangent’ meaning ‘a loud and resonant sound with a mournful tone’—begins in the coastal village of Imbrich, whose inhabitants are possess mutations reminiscent of the Deep Ones from H.P. Lovecraft’s Shadows Over Innsmouth, including gills, scales, webbed fingers, and more. This though is only minor aspect of the scenario, one that the author does not play up and rightfully so since The Isle of the Plangent Mage is neither a horror scenario nor a Lovecraftian one. Instead, this aspect of the village of Imbrich is seen as normal by the inhabitants, and there is even a table of possible responses by the villagers should the Player Characters bring the subject up. Plus, they have bigger concerns. A pod of whales has beached itself along the cove. Cetus, a local wizard who lives on nearby Darksand Isle where he maintains a lighthouse to keep local shipping safe and conducts experiments, has gone missing. Then there are the strange sounds coming from the sea! Could they be the cause of the creatures from the sea beaching themselves?

The Isle of the Plangent Mage is a mini-wilderness and dungeon scenario which takes the classic format of a village in peril with a nearby wizard’s tower, the wizard not having been seen in a few days, and inverts it—literally. The wilderness areas consists of several caves along the coast which the Player Characters are free to explore and once they get to the island, Darksand Isle itself. One of the most notable encounters is with the pod of beached whales, which the players and their characters are likely to feel great sympathy for, but which the villagers see as bounty from the sea! This has the potential to be an interesting roleplaying encounter and perhaps there is the possibility of learning further information if the Player Characters are clever. Once the Player Characters reach Darksand Isle, they can encounter more of the villagers, with even greater signs of mutation, pirates, not one, but two lighthouses, a sad ghost, and the tower of the wizard, Cetus. However—and this is where the scenario inverts the trope to clever effect—the tower is not a tower in the traditional sense. Instead of going up, like an ascending dungeon, it goes down and does so through the centre of Darksand Isle under the sea, with great, magically sealed, observation windows looking out into the briny depths. This is not a tower, but an Undertower!

The Undertower has a weird technological feel to it, heavily themed around sound. A central lift runs up and down the tower, operated by unlabelled buttons, there are doors which can only be opened by musical tones, numerous devices which manipulate sounds and even magic, and combined with the great vistas presented by the various observation levels, the dungeon has a superbly fantastical feel. Yet imparting this to her players and their characters is going to be a challenge for the Referee because of the succinct style in which the location descriptions are presented. These work in helping the Referee grasp the details of any location with ease, but what they do not do in help her bring them to life. There is a sense that actually, sections of purple, descriptive text would really have helped here. An alternative perhaps, would have been to include some illustrations which could be shown to the players to help them visualise what their characters are seeing, much in the mode of S1 Tomb of Horrors, S3 Expedition to the Barrier Peaks, and Dwimmermount. Given the number of buttons on the lift, the Soundkey device used to open many of the doors in the Undertower, the numerous sound devices, and pipes, and more, all of these are begging for illustrations and they are never given that.

One major weakness of The Isle of the Plangent Mage—especially in comparison to the earlier The Hole in the Oak and The Incandescent Grottoes—is the lack of factions and the lack of motivations for factions. In both of those adventures, the factions and their motivations helped drive the story and bring their respective dungeons alive, but not so in The Isle of the Plangent Mage. There are multiple groups throughout the adventure, including the villagers of Imbrich, pirates visiting Darksand Isle, tribes of Sahuagin which want to attack the village, the staff in Cetus’ tower, and more. Yet apart from the individual wants of various villagers, the Referee is not told what the other factions want and are doing. The staff in Cetus’ tower, in particular, are barely mentioned beyond their quarters and the kitchen. They have disappeared without explanation, whereas their presence would really have given some pointers for the Player Characters as to the nature of Cetus’ Undertower and how parts of it work. There are bodies here and there, but it is never stated if they are former staff and if not, who they were.

Another potential is Player Character motivation. The Referee will need to devise a reason for the Player Characters to want to visit the village of Imbrich, but once they get there they will find that various villagers have reasons, if not themselves, then someone else to visit and explore Darksand Isle and the Undertower. Beyond that keeping the Player Characters motivated to continue exploring will be a challenge for the Referee.

The Isle of the Plangent Mage is as well presented and as organised as previous scenarios for Old School Essentials from Necrotic Gnome—almost. The map of the whole dungeon is inside the front and covers , and after the introduction, the adventure overview provides a history of the dungeon, details of its major NPCs and monsters, the description and purpose of the great device built into the Undertower, and reasons to visit Darksand Isle. The village of Imbrich and its inhabitants are described in detail, and there are tables of rumours, treasure to be found in the adventure, random encounters to had throughout the adventure, and Oceanic Mutations that the Player Characters could, and probably will, suffer. 

In between are the descriptions of the locations up and down the coast, Darksand Isle, and in the Undertower
. All sixty-four of them. These are arranged in order of course, but each is written in a parred down style, almost bullet point fashion, with key words in bold with details in accompanying parenthesis, followed by extra details and monster stats below. For example, the ‘Rocky Vestibule’ area is described as containing “Black rock (rough, natural, 6’ ceiling). Puddles of seawater (tiny red crabs, black brittle stars). Pale blue light (glowing snails on walls). Pile of broken coral on floor (very lifelike head, arm and lower leg carved of coral). A rotting human corpse (covered in seaweed, swollen with sea water, slashed and cut up). It expands up this with “Taking stairs: Down to Area 37.” There is a fantastic economy of words employed here often to incredible effect. The descriptions are kept to a bare minimum, but their simplicity is in many cases evocative, easy to read from the page, and prepare. As with the other official adventures from Necrotic Gnome, much of The Isle of the Plangent Mage is genuinely easy to bring to the table and made all the easier to run from the page because the relevant sections from the map are reproduced on the same page. In addition, the map itself is clear and easy to read, with coloured boxes used to mark locked doors and monster locations as well as the usual room numbers.

In places though, the design and layout does not quite work. This is primarily where single rooms require expanded detail beyond the simple thumbnail description. It adds complexity and these locations are not quite as easy to run straight from the page as other locations are in the dungeon. Elsewhere, the location numbers could have been better placed alongside the rooms rather than on them and the map slips into the gutter of the book and is not as easy to read. The full colour artwork is excellent, depicting many of the strange creatures and monsters that the Player Characters will encounter, and these can easily be shown to their players.

The Isle of the Plangent Mage is a challenging dungeon for the Player Characters, who will often find themselves changed by the encounters in the adventure and many of the encounters are deadly, with some very nasty monsters, such as the betentacled, bipedal Alpha Shark Mutant, and the truly awful Night Trawler. Then there is the puzzle of what the Undertower is and how its various devices work, let alone where Cetus has disappeared too. In fact, unless the Player Characters are clever during an early encounter in the scenario, they may never find out! Depending upon the campaign or what the Player Characters have been engaged to do, that may be an issue all by itself. For the Referee, 
The Isle of the Plangent Mage is a challenging dungeon to run and present, and to really hook the players and their characters in to want to explore the Undertower. So ultimately, the Referee may want to develop the scenario herself before play, bringing in the factions and their motivations, giving stronger reasons for the Player Characters to act and more. Once done, The Isle of the Plangent Mage is a genuinely fantastical, even memorable environment, that will really need a bit of effort upon the part of the Referee to be genuinely fantastical, even memorable adventure.