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Sunday 30 April 2023

Magazine Madness 21: Knock #3

The gaming magazine is dead. After all, when was the last time that you were able to purchase a gaming magazine at your nearest newsagent? Games Workshop’s White Dwarf is of course the exception, but it has been over a decade since Dragon appeared in print. However, in more recent times, the hobby has found other means to bring the magazine format to the market. Digitally, of course, but publishers have also created their own in-house titles and sold them direct or through distribution. Another vehicle has been Kickststarter.com, which has allowed amateurs to write, create, fund, and publish titles of their own, much like the fanzines of Kickstarter’s ZineQuest. The resulting titles are not fanzines though, being longer, tackling broader subject matters, and more professional in terms of their layout and design.


From the off, Knock! An Adventure Gaming Bric-à-Brac grabs the reader’s attention and starts giving him stuff. Open the book and there is the beginning of an adventure on the front folded flap of the dust jacket. Slip that off—a dust jacket on a paperback book, no less!—and the adventure continues so that the reader can run its adventure separate from the actual book. Flip through the pages of the book and the reader will be impressed not by the range of content, but the look of the thick booklet. Heavily illustrated with a mix of artwork, both publicly available and new, there are think pieces and opinion pieces, tables galore of almost everything and anything imaginable, Game Master advice, new twists on old ideas, new ideas about old monsters, new monsters, new Classes, and even an adventure or three. And all of it for the Old School Renaissance and the Retroclone of the reader’s choice. Some of the content has been drawn from blog entries written by the leading luminaries of the Old School Renaissance, but since the publication of Knock! #2 An Adventure Gaming Bric-à-Brac there has been less of this and the mix of the old and the new has been more balanced. Published by The Merry Mushmen, each issue of promises and delivers oodles and oddkins of and for Old School Renaissance, making it a very companionable cumulation ready for the Game Master’s consultation.

Knock! #3 An Adventure Gaming Bric-à-Brac was published in June, 2022 following a successful Kickstarter campaign. The contributors for this issue, just to give you an idea of its range include Alexandre ‘Kobayashi’ Jeanette, Andrea ‘Vyrelion’ Back, Antoine Bauza, Arnold K., Ava Islam, Bill Edmunds, Brent Edwards, Christopher S., Ciro Alessandro Sacco, Danilo Moretti, David McGrogan, Diogo Nogueira, E. A. ‘taichara’ Bisson, Eric Brimstin, Eric Nieudan, Frank Reding, Harbowoputra, Islayre d’Argolh, Jack Shear, James Hall, James Holloway, James Malizsewski, Jason Sholtis, Jean Verne, John Grümph, Jorge Velasquez, Joseph Manola, Justin Hamilton, ktrey parker, Matt Strom, Nicolas Dessaux, Nobboc, Nyhur, Paolo Greco, Phill Loe, Pierre Vagneur-Jones, Roger SG Sorolla, Ron E. Ortiz, Rosie Grey, Stuart Robertson, Thomas Rey, Vagabundork, Vasili Kaliman, and Zach Howard aka Zenopus. There are some sixty articles and entries in the issue across a range of themes and ideas.

The scenario on the inside of the dust jacket for Knock! #3 An Adventure Gaming Bric-à-Brac is ‘Valley of the Desert Hound’, a sandbox by Thomas Rey and Eric Nieudan for First and Second Level Player Characters. It describes a desert valley wherein the Desert Hound was imprisoned in ages past in a Cursed Ziggurat. Now home to bandits and a tribe of semi-feral Halflings, much of the valley is buried under sand and there is a ‘Liberal Archaeology Table’ to roll on any time the Player Characters decided to search the sands. The suggestion is that the adventure could be tied in with the Basic Dungeons & Dragons module, B4 The Lost City. The scenario comes with a table of ‘Rumours and Hooks’ too, so that the Game Master can get her players and their characters easily involved.

What strikes the reader about Knock! #3 An Adventure Gaming Bric-à-Brac is its array of tables. There are tables upon tables and whole articles of tables and tables that are whole articles in the issue. For example, David McGrogan asks ‘What Happened to the Bodies?’ and gives a table of options what happens to the bodies of the humanoids and the large monsters after the Player Characters have put them to the slaughter. Its counterpart by Andrea ‘Vyrelion’ Back is ‘I slit open the body’, a table of contents of the stomach or intestines of some great beast. Andrea ‘Vyrelion’ Back adds flavour and fun to the Kobold with ‘d8 Weird Kobold* Weapons’ with entries like ‘Stink-n-Poke’, which inflicts low damage but marks the target with a stench that never really quite goes away or a ‘Burning Blade’, which is a bone blade covered in hot pepper powder! ‘What are my rations?’ by Eric Brimstin gives detail and verisimilitude to something that is otherwise incredibly mundane and always overlooked in Dungeons & Dragons.

Knock! #3 An Adventure Gaming Bric-à-Brac does not have a theme, but there are themes to be found. The most obvious one is that of ‘Domain-level’ play, which comes about when the Player Characters reach Ninth and Tenth Level and switch their focus from adventuring to maintaining a realm or institution of some kind. ‘Revisiting the Domain Game’ by Jack Shear gives options for making it interesting by giving a table of unavoidable issues and unruly neighbours, whilst Joseph Manola dives into the subject in more detail with ‘Meet the new BOSS – 7 thoughts on domain-level play’ with advice on how to run such a campaign. This is born of his own campaign in which the players and their characters have switched focus to ignore adventuring. The advice is excellent covering problem solving, keeping it OSR-style, turning threats into resources, and more. Similarly, Christopher S. creates dragons through ‘The Seven Draconic Sins’ to give them personality and motivation, Ava Islam suggests ways of making dragons more interesting in ‘Playing Dragons’, and in ‘Humanising the Monster’, Brent Edwards presents means of combining humanising and monstrous traits to make them fathomable, all three articles forming a draconic strand.

The advice and thoughts on Dungeons & Dragons begin with ‘The Story is the Campaign’ by David McGrogan, which suggests that the play of the roleplaying game and the story that it creates is not about the Player Characters per se—although they star, of course—but about the overall campaign. He draws parallels with soap opera and its ongoing series of stories which end and are replaced by another, as well its characters who also come and go. Of course, in the soap opera, their transience is driven by the writers and the story, but in Dungeons & Dragons, it is typically driven by Player Character death—which is the starting point for the article. James Maliszewski draws similar parallels in his ‘Picaro and the “Story” of D&D’, distinctly dividing Dungeons & Dragons between its original picaresque style of play and the heroic individualism and story focus of the post-Dragonlance era. He contends the original style of play is pulp-ish, if not outright pulp fantasy, the Player Characters are roguish, and the further the roleplaying moves away from this, the more it breaks and deviates from its roots. It a very Old School Renaissance stance, but clearly explained and relatable. The advice includes Diogo Noguiera’s ‘(My) Ten Commandments For Good Refereeing’ and Arnold K.’ s ‘Dynamism and the Generic Optimum’, which dangerously modish from its title, but really suggests ways of making dungeon exploration exciting and challenging by adding dynamism, whether through random events, increased difficulty, adding a unique element, and more. This is in and out of combat. Of course, these are articles whose type we have seen again and again, both before the advent of the Old School Renaissance and after, and the ideas are still interesting and the advice sound.

The volume is full of good articles, but some of the more fun and more inspirational ones include Joseph Manola’s ‘When All You Have Is a Hammer – Item-based problem solving’ which takes the act of a player consulting his character sheet for the means to solve a problem—often with weapons or magic—as a spur to provide interesting treasures that the Player Character might otherwise sell, but when noted on the character sheet could be used to solve a problem and let the player be inventive. For example, “Broad-brimmed fisherman’s hat. Waterproof and wide enough to conceal most of the wearer’s face. Could be used as an improvised boat for carrying small objects across water.” or “A fiery political tract, full of stirring revolutionary rhetoric cataloguing the crimes of the ruling classes and calling upon the people to rise up. Handy if you want to rile up a mob in a hurry.” All have a monetary value, but all have other uses if the players think about it. Warren Denning answers that age-old question, ‘What To Do Now That Your 1st Level Magic-User Has Cast Their One Spell?’ with not exactly new suggestions, but they are spelled out in detail and do give that poor wizard something else to do, whilst Frank Redding’s ‘Compelling Arena Fights’ does a fine job of making arena fights exciting with plenty of variations.

One of the most interesting articles in the issue is ‘Jennell Jaquay’s The Caverns of Thracia – Appreciation, Critique, and DM User Guide’. This is a fascinating guide by Roger SG Sorolla to one of the classic modules to be published by Judges Guild. The other, of course, is Dark Tower, and both are, of course, designed by Jennell Jaquay. This is a detailed breakdown of the adventure, its history, quirks, nature, and the challenges that a Referee will be faced in running one of the larger adventures published by Judges Guild. It is a thorough analysis, its often-scholarly tone at odds with the rest of the issue. It does feel a little compact in places, but this an excellent piece well worth reading by anyone interested in the history of Dungeons & Dragons and the Referee preparing to run the adventure. More articles like this would add a little more thoughtful heft to the magazine.

The last quarter of Knock! #3 An Adventure Gaming Bric-à-Brac does settle down and become more focused as it organises its content into regular departments. The ‘Portfolio of Cartographic Curiosities’ contains seven maps, all absolutely beautiful pieces that you could just sit there and look at, appreciating their artistry, whilst at the same time wishing that you had the time to use them to create adventures (or more likely, someone else had the time). One niggle is that two of the maps are in French, having been originally published in a d20 System magazine. One of them has lots of text and it would have been nice if that text had been translated. This is followed by the Menagerie of Monstrosities which provides seven new monsters (in addition to those already given or discussed in  in the volume, such as ‘What Are Those Stirges Doing?’, Ktrey Parker’s table of making Stirges more interesting than just vermin) that start with the Herdling by Nobboc, half-human, half-cattle folk that are amiable and will trade secrets for trinkets and even a portion of their flesh, which provides certain benefits upon consumption. This has just a little (if not more) of the Ameglian Major Cow or ‘Dish of the Day’ from Douglas Adams’ The Restaurant at the End of the Universe. James Holloway, of The Monster Man podcast offers the Homunculites, tiny Halfling-sized magically-created worker, soldier, or based on some artificial humanoids. Almost clone-like, these chibi-style monsters are rather silly in their way and sure to infuriate certain players. James Maliszewski describes two monsters, the Blighter, disease-ridden undead which spread contagion, and the Eidolon, undead spirit of a cleric who died while in the grips of despair, no longer finding solace in True Faith, whilst the Birch Maiden by Danilo Moretti, cousin to Dryads, provides a nice variation upon the latter.

‘Retinue of Rogues’ details six new Classes. Nobboc’s ‘The Lost Droid’, a humanoid robot crashlanded onto a fantasy world, its memory banks wiped clean. As it advances in Level, it activates Techno-modules like Force Field or Echo Radar 3000, each of which has a Usage Die a la The Black Hack. This is an entertaining Class should the Game Master wants to take her campaign into the realms of Science Fiction or Science Fantasy. Vagabundork’s ‘The Rat Catcher’ is an obvious nod to the Career from Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, but here given advantages when it coms to dungeoneering, such as being able to find his way round sewers and catacombs, track vermin (including Kobolds and Goblins, as well as Rats), and possessing a certain danger sense. ‘The Blemmye’ by Pierre Vagneur-Jones is a headless humanoid—its head is in its chest—that best works with an attending group of retainers, whilst Eric Nieudan’s ‘The Lazer Mage’ is an Illusionist who can convert spell slots into explosive beams, holograms, laze swords, and light flashes. The accompanying illustration suggests that the Marvel Comics character, Dazzler, is the inspiration. ‘The Space Vampire’ by Jack Shear is intended to be vampy and campy, feels more suited to a Hypertellurians: Fantastic Thrills Through the Ultracosm-style game. Lastly, James Maliszewski’s ‘The Chenot’ is a plant-like humanoid, tiny, who can perform certain abilities such as ‘Climb sheer surfaces’, ‘Find or remove traps’, and so on with its tendrils. Again suited to weirder campaign settings, it could just be another alien species, if the setting is more Science Fiction or Science Fantasy than fantasy.

‘Extraordinary Excursions’ includes three adventures. The first is ‘Imprint’ by Jason Sholtis. This is set in ape-haunted Upper Mastodonia, the location for the brilliant Operation Unfathomable adventure and now its fully detailed setting explored in Completely Unfathomable. Described as an ‘Open Air Dungeon’, It is a miasmic-filled, lethally contaminated deression left behind by a titanic being from another place which left behind sloughed-off corporeal tissue (now decomposing) and alien gold, setting up a race to grab the lot by various factions. It is weird and pulpy, with Sci-Fi elements that provides a taster of the Odious Uplands setting, but really works in conjunction with the campaign setting. James Hall’s ‘Titan Cliffs’ begins with the hands and face of a gigantic statue of a Titan emerging from the ground. Surely something worthy of exploration, especially after cloaked figures have been seen entering the Titan’s mouth. The dungeon, relatively small, is all contained within the Titan, and also being explored by a cult attempting to revive the Titan. There is nice sense of ‘magic as technology’ here, but the villains of the piece are underdeveloped. Lastly, ‘Nexus of the Ixx’ by Nicolas Dessaux is another Science Fantasy scenario, this time inspired by Barbarella. So, it is campy and it is mature in tone, the ‘dungeon’ being dedicated to a goddess of love. Thankfully, the scenario avoids anything prurient, but there are probably a limited number of campaigns or settings into which it will fit.

Physically, Knock! #3 is impressively bright and breezy, just as with the previous two issues. The layout is a little cluttered in places and the text a little too busy, but on the whole, it looks good. It needs an edit in places, but the artwork is good and the cartography excellent.

Knock! #3 An Adventure Gaming Bric-à-Brac is another good, but not perfect issue. A very great deal of the issue could easily find its way into the campaign of any Referee, but not the scenarios, either because they have their own setting or because their tone is just not quite right for most campaigns. That aside, there is so much in the pages of the issue which is interesting, entertaining, or just fun. Knock! #3 An Adventure Gaming Bric-à-Brac contains a wealth of inventive content, and just as with the first two issues, is another great addition to the shelf of any Old School Renaissance Referee.


An unboxing of
Knock! #3 An Adventure Gaming Bric-à-Brac can be viewed here.

Saturday 29 April 2023

Magazine Madness 20: Interface RED Volume 1

The gaming magazine is dead. After all, when was the last time that you were able to purchase a gaming magazine at your nearest newsagent? Games Workshop’s White Dwarf is of course the exception, but it has been over a decade since Dragon appeared in print. However, in more recent times, the hobby has found other means to bring the magazine format to the market. Digitally, of course, but publishers have also created their own in-house titles and sold them direct or through distribution. Another vehicle has been Kickststarter.com, which has allowed amateurs to write, create, fund, and publish titles of their own, much like the fanzines of Kickstarter’s ZineQuest. The resulting titles are not fanzines though, being longer, tackling broader subject matters, and more professional in terms of their layout and design.


Technically Interface RED: A Collection for Cyberpunk RED Enthusiasts Volume 1 is not a magazine. It collects some of the downloadable content made available for Cyberpunk RED , the fourth edition of R. Talsorian Games, Inc.’s Cyberpunk roleplaying game. So, its origins are not those of a magazine, but between 1990 and 1992, Prometheus Press published six issues of the magazine, Interface, which provided support for both Cyberpunk 2013 and Cyberpunk It this mantle that Interface RED: A Collection for Cyberpunk RED Enthusiasts Volume 1 and future issues is picking up in providing support for the current edition of the roleplaying game. As a consequence of the issue collecting previously available downloadable content, there is a lot in the first is that is immediately useful can be prepared for play with relative ease. There is also some that is not, and may not make it into a Game Master’s campaign.

Interface RED: A Collection for Cyberpunk RED Enthusiasts Volume 1 opens with ‘Old Guns Never Die: A step-by-step conversion guide for bringing weapons from Cyberpunk 2020 into Cyberpunk RED’ by Mike Pondsmith, James Hutt, Cody Pondsmith, and J Gray. One of the issues with Cyberpunk RED is that its technology is often genericised and that includes its guns. This is in comparison to the weapons of Cyberpunk, in which all of the weapons are named and branded. In part, this has been offset by the release of the Black Chrome, but that does not include weapons or piece of gears from the previous versions of the roleplaying game. Which is where this article comes in, providing a step-by-step process that enables a Game Master to take a design from the previous editions of the roleplaying game and bring it up to Cyberpunk RED. The article is nicely supported by an example and enables the Game Master to loot her old sourcebooks for material just as the Player Characters can loot the city and beyond for old technology.

‘Red Chrome Cargo: A Cyberpunk Red Screamsheet’ by Cody Pondsmith is the single adventure in the magazine. Tensions have come to the boil in Night City’s Combat Zone as two gangs, the neo-fascist Red Chrome Legion and the heavily cybered Iron Sights, the Player Characters are connected by a fixer. His clients wants them to rob a train and steal a Red Chrome Legion shipment. In other words, this is a train heist, and it is as simple as that. The Player Characters have to get from one train to the target train, deal with any opposition, and bring the goods back. This is all action and combat, though the mission definitely requires a Netrunner. Although simple, the mission is nicely detailed and the Screamsheet makes a great handout. The mission will also make a decent demonstration scenario and so could be run at a convention, and it is easy to add to a campaign.

Mike Pondsmith, James Hutt, Cody Pondsmith, and J Gray further provide ‘Single Shot Pack: Pregen Characters and NET Architectures’. This presents ten pre-generated Player Characters (or detailed NPCs as required) and six ready-to-use NET Architectures for the group’s Netrunner to hack. There is one Player Character for each of the roleplaying game’s archetypes and the NET Architectures include ones for conapt security, clinic security, a small corporate facility, and even a vault for anyone who likes to lock their valuables away. All of these are designed for use on the go. The NET Architectures are easy to use and the ten pre-generated Player Characters can easily be used as replacement characters, as NPCs, or even in conjunction with the ‘Red Chrome Cargo: A Cyberpunk Red Screamsheet’ for the demonstration game.

‘Cyberchairs: New options for mobility’ by Mike Pondsmith, James Hutt, Cody Pondsmith, and Sara Thompson detail two models of cyberchair. The Mecurius Cyberchair is wheeled, whilst the Spider Cyberchair has legs. Both require operation, but both can plugged into operated cybernetically of course. Their inclusion opens up options in terms of representation of the disabled in the Time of the Red and enables their characters to become actively involved in missions and adventures.

The longest entry in Interface RED: A Collection for Cyberpunk RED Enthusiasts Volume 1 is actually two entries, dedicated to the same in-game MMORPG played via Braindance. ‘Elflines Online: A Segotari Rush Revolution Exclusive’ by James Hutt and Mike Pondsmith explains what it is, whilst ‘Elflines Online: Expansion Pack’ by James Hutt and Melissa Wong adds further background—online and offline—as pre-generated ready-to-play characters for the MMORPG, to the game within a game. Essentially this pair of articles is about a popular leisure activity in the Time of the Red, that the Player Characters really can play if they want to, almost as if they were roleplaying like the players. It has rules for in-game character creation, but otherwise uses the mechanics of Cyberpunk RED. The articles suggest the game as a platform where the Player Characters met, can encounter other NPCs, or simply as diversion. It is an interesting option that adds a layer of both immersion and complication, and that perhaps means it may not be suitable for every Cyberpunk RED campaign.

Lastly, the all-new article in the magazine is ‘All About Drones: Your Amazing Animatronic Friends!’ Written by Mike Pondsmith, James Hutt, Cody Pondsmith, and J Gray, this adds the element of biomimicry to drone design, such as the giraffe-like Zhirafa GRAF3 construction drone (there is even a junior model, My First GRAF3 for the budding engineer to build) and the Savannah Panther patrol drones. The five drones here have a generally utilitarian to them despite the thematic design, and they are all solid additions which add colour and flavour to the streets of Night City.

Physically, Interface RED: A Collection for Cyberpunk RED Enthusiasts Volume 1 is cleanly, tidily laid out. The map for the screamsheet is somewhat scrappy, but the artwork elsewhere is excellent, and the shorter page count means that that it feels as if there is more of it.

Although much of it was originally available for free, with the publication of Interface RED: A Collection for Cyberpunk RED Enthusiasts Volume 1 it is nice to have it in print. There is much that is useful and helpful in its pages, but none of it is absolutely necessary to expand either the rules or setting of Cyberpunk RED, and some of it, will be simply labelled as silly by some gaming groups. Overall, Interface RED: A Collection for Cyberpunk RED Enthusiasts Volume 1 is a solid, but essential first issue.

Magazine Madness 19: Wyrd Science – The Horror Issue

The gaming magazine is dead. After all, when was the last time that you were able to purchase a gaming magazine at your nearest newsagent? Games Workshop’s White Dwarf is of course the exception, but it has been over a decade since Dragon appeared in print. However, in more recent times, the hobby has found other means to bring the magazine format to the market. Digitally, of course, but publishers have also created their own in-house titles and sold them direct or through distribution. Another vehicle has been Kickststarter.com, which has allowed amateurs to write, create, fund, and publish titles of their own, much like the fanzines of Kickstarter’s ZineQuest. The resulting titles are not fanzines though, being longer, tackling broader subject matters, and more professional in terms of their layout and design.


Most magazines for the roleplaying hobby give the gamer support for the game of his choice, or at the very least, support for the hobby’s more popular roleplaying games. Whether that is new monsters, spells, treasures, reviews of newly released titles, scenarios, discussions of how to play, painting guides, and the like… That is how it has been all the way back to the earliest days of The Dragon and White Dwarf magazines. Wyrd Science is different—and Wyrd Science – The Horror Issue (Wyrd Science Vol. 1/Issue 3) is different in comparison to both Wyrd Science Session Zero and Wyrd Science – Expert Rules. Gone is the ‘BECMI’ colour coding of the colours and the focus upon fantasy and the Old School Renaissance. Instead, the issue focuses on a much darker genre—horror, and instead of providing new monsters or scenarios, it explores the genre which has threaded its way through roleplaying since 1981 with the publication of Call of Cthulhu with a range of interviews and articles. This is not say that other genres are completely ignored, but the emphasis in this issue is very much on the dark and the forbidding, the scary and the spinetingling, and the unknown and the uncertain.

Wyrd Science – The Horror Issue (Vol. 1/Issue 3) was published by Best in Show in September, 2021 following a successful Kickstarter campaign. There are some ten interviews in the issue, beginning with ‘Publish & Be Damned: The Merry Mushmen’, or rather Eric Nieudan and Olivier Revenu, the French publishers best known for Knock! #1 An Adventure Gaming Bric-à-Brac and its subsequent issues. They give a little of their history and how they came to work together and their interest in the Old School Renaissance, including both Knock! and other projects. ‘Cast Pod: the Vintage RPG Podcast’ continues the magazine’s showcasing of a podcast in each issue and this time it is the podcast, The Vintage RPG Podcast run by Stu Horvath and John ‘Hambome’ McGuire. The podcast is dedicated to the history and art of RPGs, but the interviewees explain how they came to hosting a podcast and how they about creating an episode and in the process create a community around themselves.

Two artists are interviewed in Wyrd Science – The Horror Issue. The first is Tazio Bettin in ‘Art of Darkness: Tazio Bettin – Fighting Fantasy’. An Italian artist, he is the illustrator of Secrets of Salmonis, one of the two titles released for the fortieth anniversary of the Fighting Fantasy series and the first to be written by the series’ co-creator, Steve Jackson. There is some fantastic artwork on show here alongside the interview, in which the artist talks about his work and his turning his interest and hobby into a full time occupation. The second is Jonathan Sacha. In ‘Monstrous Arcana: Goblins & Gardens’ we find out how he came to be interested in Tarot decks and adapting the monsters of Dungeons & Dragons in weirdly bucolic, but unsettling Tarot deck by combining them with a gardening book!

Where all of the previous interviews have been conducted by John Power Jr, the editor of the magazine, Will Salmon interviews David Hughes of Plumeria Pictures on the release on Blu-ray of the 1982 television film starring Tom Hanks, Monsters & Mazes. The interview provides some context for the film and is more positive about it than others might be.

The issue’s horror theme swings into action with ‘I Will Show You Fear In A Handful Of Games...’ by Shannon Appelcline, which takes the reader through a history of the horror genre in roleplaying. He does this in a series of one-page mini essays, each one dedicated to a particular ear. Thus we begin in the early days of the hobby and Dungeons & Dragons, in which its horror was best seen in modules such as X1 Isle of Dread and I1 Dwellers of the Forbidden City veering towards the Lovecraftian, but quickly steering away following issues with Deities & Demigods and mostly adhering to Pulp horror. The title of the opening essay, ‘Dark Shadows: 1974-1986’ is a nice nod to the soap opera of the period. The article really takes off with the appearance of Call of Cthulhu, the Satanic Panic of the eighties (of which the aforementioned Mazes & Monsters was a partial instigator), and the appearance of Vampire: The Masquerade in 1990, tracing their evolution over the past forty years and coming up to date with the more recent broadening of means, such as the Jenga of Dread, and areas explore, like LGBT adolescence with Monsterhearts and the feminine fairytale in Bluebeard’s Bride. It is an excellent history and with any luck, should future issues of Wyrd Science explore other genres, there will be similar articles.

Roleplaying games and the Gothic collide in Jack Shear’s ‘Wuthering Frights’. Here he looks at his favorite setting, Ravenloft. First seen in the 1983 module, I6 Ravenloft, this would be later developed into a full setting with the Realm of Terror boxed set in 1990. Shear examines the origins of Dungeons & Dragons’ signature villain, Count Strahd von Zarovich, of I6 Ravenloft fame,
in Dracula and then each of the other Domains and their villains more recently for Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition presented in Van Richten’s Guide to Ravenloft. A clearer bibliography might have helped what is otherwise an informative article and useful accompaniment to whichever version of the Ravenloft setting that the Dungeon Master is using.

Just as horror roleplaying games have changed over the decade, so have their portrayal of mental health. After all, the nature of the genre is all about the loss of self and control—physically, emotionally, and mentally. However, as Stuart Martyn points out in ‘Mind Games’, the portrayal of that loss, especially the mental loss, has not always been an accurate one, often leading to the enforcement of stereotypes about mental health and a lack of understanding of those suffering from poor mental health. To be fair, much of this can be explained by a game’s age. Call of Cthulhu is rightfully acknowledged as the first roleplaying game to explore fear and model the loss of control through its Sanity mechanics, but Call of Cthulhu and Vampire: The Masquerade are singled out as leading examples poor portrayals of mental health. However, as the article moves into the twenty-first century and comes up-to-date, it makes clear that modern iterations of these roleplaying games, as well as others, designers have shown more awareness and understanding of the subject and better tried to reflect that in their games. This is a fascinating look at a key mechanic, or least concept, that almost no roleplaying game can really avoid dealing with, and how it has changed over the years.

John Power Jr. takes us temporarily to the Mythic North’ of Scandinavia, before returning to the British Isles in ‘This Septic Isle’ and an interview with Graeme Davis about Mythic Britain & Ireland, his supplement for Vaesen – Nordic Horror Roleplaying. This highlights the stronger tensions and divisions present in nineteenth century Britain, discusses some of the new Vaesen to be found in the new setting, and interestingly, suggests how the limited geography of the setting can lead to distinct variations upon the Vaesen within only a few miles. Davis also draws the distinction between the horror of Vaesen – Nordic Horror Roleplaying and the horror of Call of Cthulhu, primarily in that the later the aim at best is not to lose, whilst in the former, it is possible to resolve situations without necessarily resorting to despair. A different type of horror roleplaying game, Campfire, is discussed in ‘Flames of Fear!’, Samantha Nelson’s interview with its creators, Adam Vass and Will Jobst. Campfire is a storytelling game inspired by the horror anthologies such as Creepshow and Are You Afraid Of The Dark? The game uses decks of cards as prompts to encourage the players to tell horror stories about the protagonists rather than a single character each and also allows the players to step back from the story itself to comment upon the ongoing narrative as they are watching it unfold. This is shared storytelling and designed for shorter sessions than most roleplaying games.

Just as Call of Cthulhu remains the template for horror roleplaying in general, Ridley Scott’s 1979 Alien remains the template for all Science Fiction horror games. John Power Jr.’s ‘Dark Future’ looks the three roleplaying games and how they handle horror and fear in examining this meeting of genres. Most obvious here is Free League Publishing’s Alien: The Roleplaying Game, but Mothership Sci-Fi Horror RPG – Player’s Survival Guide is also inspired by the film too. The third roleplaying game is The Wretched, a solo-journalling game about the last survivor aboard a spaceship whose crew was killed by alien monstrosity except for the survivor. One aspect of these settings that the article does not really explore is the class distinction between these and other horror roleplaying games. These are all Blue-Collar sci-Fi horror roleplaying games whereas many horror roleplaying games are not. Again, this is a legacy of the film Alien. Featuring interviews with the designers of three roleplaying games, article however, does nicely balance the unknown, but not cosmic, nature of the sub-genre’s horror against the possibility of survival—and even hope.

Wyrd Science – The Horror Issue also interviews the team at Rowan, Rook, & Deckard. They talk to Luke Frostick in ‘The Importance of Powerful Deaths’ about the origins of Spire: The City Must Fall and the consequences that its protagonists—Drow rebels seen as terrorists by the High Elf state—suffer in acting against the regime. Spire is not necessarily seen as a horror roleplaying game, at least not in the traditional sense, but the article makes it clear that it has strong horror elements. The article explores how the team works together and some of the ideas and concepts which make it into the setting, but without restricting the setting for the Game Master and her creativity. The issue returns to the Old School Renaissance with ‘In The Darkest Recesses of Ourselves’, an interview by Walton Wood with Paolo Greco of Lost Pages about The Book of Gaub. This brings out the horrific nature of the book and its spells and their broader effect upon a campaign. It is a pity that this book comes from Old School Renaissance, because being systems agnostic it can have a wider use in non-fantasy genres and settings too. The interview does not necessarily suggest this, but it highlights the nature of the book and will hopefully bring it to the attention of a wider audience. The interview by John Power Jr. of Guilherme Gontijo, in ‘Silver Scream’ turns to mundane horror, but horror, nonetheless. Blurred Lines – Giallo Detective Solo RPG is the Brazilian designer’s solo journalling game designed by the Italian giallo cinema of the sixties in which the protagonist is a crime scene photographer who hunting, and in turn being hunted, by a serial killer. Like the earlier The Wretched, this explores the notion of playing alone and at night, how that can immerse the player deeper into the game. The interview also notes the difficulty in bringing designs from Latin America to the English-speaking hobby and various attempts to support this.

The last two articles in Wyrd Science – The Horror Issue do not switch subject, but they do switch format under discussion. In ‘Roll & Fright’, Dan Thurot asks whether a sense of horror can be created in playing a board game, pointing to hidden identity or movement games such as Fury of Dracula or Battlestar Galactica, as possible vehicles as they both add a high degree of uncertainty to play. Whilst he acknowledges that most horror board games are merely themed, adding the veneer of the genre, he ultimately concludes that it is possible, if only under its terms. The challenge being that sense of immersion and the loss of control at the heart of the genre makes it all the more difficult to do in a board game. The last interview in the magazine is again by John Power Jr. and with wargames designer, Joseph McCullough. In ‘A Field of Horror’, the designer of the highly regarded Frostgrave: Fantasy Wargames in the Frozen City talks about his latest design, The Silver Bayonet, which fuses Napoleonic wargaming with horror and narrative storytelling. This looks to be a fascinating setting and with rules for solo play included suggests it can be played on a more casual basis without the need for more confrontational play of traditional wargaming.

Wyrd Science – The Horror Issue is rounded out with ‘Hit Points’, its extensive reviews sections. It includes reviews of wargames such as Warlord Games’ Sláine – Kiss My Axe Starter Set, roleplaying games like the RuneQuest Starter set from Chaosium, Inc. and Orbital Blues from Soulmuppet Publishing, board games such as Tales From The Loop: The Boardgame from Free League Publishing, and a range solo games (all revewed by Anna Blackwell), like Be Like a Crow and Bucket of Bolts, before looking at Christopher Frayling’s Vampire Cinema – The First one Hundred Years and various films and television series, which has a report from the FrightFest 2022. Two of the more interesting reviews here are of The Elusive Shift: How Role-Playing Games Forged Their Identity by Jon Peterson and Slaying the Dragon: A Secret History of Dungeons & Dragons by Ben Riggs, pleasingly placed opposite each other in an entirely appropriate pairing. Lastly, the issue catches up with the adventures of Mira Manga in ‘Appendix M’. It adds a personal touch to the magazine and brings it to a close.

Physically, Wyrd Science – The Horror Issue is impressively bright and breezy—despite its subject matter. The layout is clean and tidy, but the issue does need another edit in places though.

Wyrd Science – The Horror Issue covers a wide range of roleplaying games in exploring the issue’s genre. Some of the roleplaying games and supplements, such as Call of Cthulhu, Van Richten’s Guide to Ravenloft, and Mythic Britain & Ireland obviously fall into the horror genre, others less obviously so, for example, The Book of Gaub. There is a lot to read and discover in the pages of the magazine and that is where it is at its best, finding out about a game you never heard of or wanted to know more about. Yet the format of the magazine, or at least this issue, makes it unbalanced and often not as engaging to read as it deserves to be. There are simply too many interviews in the issue compared to other articles, so that the other articles, whether Shannon Appelcline’s ‘I Will Show You Fear In A Handful Of Games...’ and Jack Shear’s ‘Wuthering Frights’ stand out more because they are different rather just because they are both interesting and informative. Consequently, whilst the issue is interesting and informative, providing an engaging look at a particular genre in roleplaying, Wyrd Science – The Horror Issue is better for what it covers rather than the way it covers its content.

Friday 28 April 2023

Magazine Madness 18: Senet Issue 4

The gaming magazine is dead. After all, when was the last time that you were able to purchase a gaming magazine at your nearest newsagent? Games Workshop’s White Dwarf is of course the exception, but it has been over a decade since Dragon appeared in print. However, in more recent times, the hobby has found other means to bring the magazine format to the market. Digitally, of course, but publishers have also created their own in-house titles and sold them direct or through distribution. Another vehicle has been Kickststarter.com, which has allowed amateurs to write, create, fund, and publish titles of their own, much like the fanzines of Kickstarter’s ZineQuest. The resulting titles are not fanzines though, being longer, tackling broader subject matters, and more professional in terms of their layout and design.


—named for the Ancient Egyptian board game, Senet—is a print magazine about the craft, creativity, and community of board gaming. Bearing the tagline of “Board games are beautiful”, it is about the play and the experience of board games, it is about the creative thoughts and processes which go into each and every board game, and it is about board games as both artistry and art form. Published by Senet Magazine Limited, each issue promises previews of forthcoming, interesting titles, features which explore how and why we play, interviews with those involved in the process of creating a game, and reviews of the latest and most interesting releases.

Senet Issue 4 was published in the Spring of 2021 and as is usual, opens with ‘Behold’, a preview of some of the then-forthcoming board game titles. Perhaps the most notable of these are Tales From The Loop: The Board Game and The Thing. Both are based on well-known properties, the former the roleplaying game, Tales from the Loop – Roleplaying in the '80s That Never Was, in which Player Characters are teenagers living an alternate Sweden and the latter, the 1981 film directed by John Carpenter. Both of these games have an emotional heft to them. Tales From The Loop: The Board Game in that the players are teenagers with difficult family lives as well having to deal with the mysteries of the Loop and The Thing with the uncertainty that one of your fellow base members might be a mutating alien infection! Other games previewed include Dreamscape, a solo exploration of H.P. Lovecraft’s Dreamlands and HEL: The Last Saga, a dark fantasy co-operative board game in which the players create their own Viking saga. These are not quite full reviews, but they are given as much prominence as the reviews are later in the issue, and in each they entice the reader to investigate further.

‘Points’ provides a selection of readers’ letters, two of the letters making some interesting points about using board games as part of the teaching process, whilst in ‘For Love of the Game’, Tristian Hall continues his designer’s journey towards Gloom of Kilforth. In the previous issue, he explored how the game became a vehicle for roleplaying and storytelling, but here he he looks at how he uses the mechanics to bring the setting to life and have events going on in the background that can affect the lives of the Player Characters. There are some interesting ideas here that draw parallels with roleplaying worlds and much that will be familiar to Game Masters running their own campaigns. These connections continue to make the series a fascinating path and it will be interesting to follow in in future columns.

As with previous issues of Senet, the fourth issue of the magazine dedicates its centre section to a quartet of lengthy, immensely enjoyable articles. These begin with Owen Duffy’s ‘How The West Was Fun’ examines how the Western and the Wild West figures in board games. Perhaps the most well-known board game in the genre is the Spiel des Jahres-winning Colt Express, but as entertaining as banditry and shootouts is in games like BANG! and Flick ’em Up!, the genre offers more than just that. For example, Western Legends offers multiple means of achieving victory, including herding cattle and mining for gold as well as the banditry and the hunting for the perpetrators of such banditry. Along with recommendations for the best Western-themed board games, the article interviews several designers, most of them surprisingly European rather than American. This highlights how the Euro games that employ this theme are often inspired not so much by Hollywood as the bandes dessinées, such as those of the character, Lucky Luke.

Martin Wallace, best known as the designer of Age of Steam, Brass, and
Discworld: Ankh-Morpork, is the subject of the interview by Sara Elsam in ‘Lord of Creation’. The discussion focuses on his exploration of both history and technologymany of his designs involving trains and early industry, if not both—in games, before branching out to look at the fantasy games he has designed and the difficulties involved in making that switch. Written just before the release of Rocketmen and Wildlands: The Ancients, the interview is not quite as interesting as those in previous issues, but still worth reading. The artist interviewed by Dan Jolin in the issue is Dominik Mayer, whose work has been seen in cards for Magic: The Gathering, the cyberpunk game In Too Deep, and ISS Vanguard. His artwork is rich and deep and as with previous artists interviewed in Senet, it is given a fine showcase here.

Previous issues of Senet have explored various mechanics key to board game design and play, such as deck-building in
‘Decks in Effect’ from Senet Issue 2 and ‘Roll-and-Write’ from Senet Issue 3. The mechanic examined in this issue by Matt Thrower is tile placement in ‘On the Tiles’. Tracing a line back to medieval China with Dominoes, the mechanic is much older than those, and in modern terms is still predates those other mechanisms. Having appeared in Acquire and 1829—the later the first railway construction and stocks game which would spawn a large family of its own—before featuring at the heart of classics such as Settlers of Catan, Tikal (Tikal is in fact, this reviewer’s first modern Eurogame), and most famously of all, Carcassonne. In the case of the latter, and for most tile-laying games, there is usually a pleasing sense of organisation and having built something using the mechanic at the end of the play. In addition, there is also often a semi-co-operative aspect to play, the players building something together even if they are still competing for the points in doing so. It is a solid overview of the mechanic, but being an older one does feel as if the limits of what it can have already been reached and that sense comes across in the article.

As ever, the ‘Unboxing’ section of Senet Issue 4 covers only a relative handful of games, but there there is a range to them and they are all interesting titles. Leading the way are reviews of the big titles, Gloomhaven: Jaws of the Lion and Pandemic Legacy 0, providing roleplaying and dungeoneering and legacy-style espionage respectively, whilst Dune Imperium offer strategic play and intrigue and Mysterium Park, confrontation-free deduction. None of the reviews are necessarily long, but they are to the point and they cover a decent range of titles in smart fashion. Three of games reviewed also appear in the self-explanatory ‘The Best of 2020’, so their reviews are a pleasing accompaniment and like any good list, this one is worth checking out because it does contain some classics even two years on.

Rounding out Senet Issue 4 is ‘How to Play’ and ‘Shelf of Shame’. In ‘How to Play’, Andy Bush of the podcast, Bush’s Board Game Thing, discusses ‘The tricky art of explaining rules’ and how to get around the problem of someone having to explain how a game is played for the first time. It is a challenging problem still today, in general not for the dedicated board game enthusiastic, but certainly for the more casual player,
but there is good advice given here that is still useful. In ‘Shelf of Shame’, Ella Ampongan of Ella Loves Boardgames, in which takes her copy of Bärenpark off the shelf and plays it for the first time. Her verdict that it is better than Carcassonne, which is high praise indeed.

Physically, Senet Issue 4 is very professionally presented. Previous issues of the magazine have all looked sharp and attractive, and this issue is no exception, ensuring that the games it covers live up to the magazine's motto of “Board games are beautiful”.

Senet Issue 4 maintains the high standards set by the previous issues, another fine looking magazine with a good mix of reviews, interviews, and articles. In places the articles do feel shorter, with less depth to them, and so not quite as involving. Nevertheless, the quality of the magazine and its writing is excellent, maintaining its place as vehicle to show off and explore some of the best ideas, contributors, and games in the hobby.

Magazine Madness 17: Parallel Worlds Issue #04

The gaming magazine is dead. After all, when was the last time that you were able to purchase a gaming magazine at your nearest newsagent? Games Workshop’s White Dwarf is of course the exception, but it has been over a decade since Dragon appeared in print. However, in more recent times, the hobby has found other means to bring the magazine format to the market. Digitally, of course, but publishers have also created their own in-house titles and sold them direct or through distribution. Another vehicle has been Kickstarter.com, which has allowed amateurs to write, create, fund, and publish titles of their own, much like the fanzines of Kickstarter’s ZineQuest. The resulting titles are not fanzines though, being longer, tackling broader subject matters, and more professional in terms of their layout and design.


The fourth issue of Parallel Worlds magazine was published in the winter of 2020. As with previous issues, beginning with the
inaugural issue, Parallel Worlds Issue #01 published in 2019, it contains no gaming content as such, but rather discusses and aspects of not just the hobby, but different hobbies—board games, roleplaying games, computer games, films, and more. Unlike like later issues, for example, Parallel Worlds Issue #21 and Parallel Worlds Issue #22, this fourth issue is a fairly unbalanced issue, with relatively little, direct gaming content in favour of focusing on computer games and films. Further, the standard of writing is better, which when combined with its selection of interesting articles and brevity serves to make it overall an engaging, even sometimes thoughtful read. Of course, Parallel Worlds Issue #04 is readily available in print, but all of the issues of Parallel Worlds, published by Parallel Publishing can also be purchased in digital format, because it is very much not back in the day of classic White Dwarf, but here and now.

Parallel Worlds Issue #04 opens with its editorial from Tom Grundy, briefly mentioning the importance of escaping into the fantasy of a new book, film, or video during the winter, before giving an overview of the issue’s contents. It is followed by the first of several articles in the issue dedicated to computer games. This is the issue’s ‘Interview’ with Julian Gollop, designer and programmer of the classic, turn-based strategy games, Laser Squad and UFO: Enemy Unknown. Timed with the then release of Phoenix Point, this is a relatively short piece which looks back at the creation process of UFO: Enemy Unknown in particular and how that has developed with the then new game. It would have been useful perhaps if there had been some more information on the designer’s earlier titles, perhaps to give context for younger readers, but otherwise an enjoyable read. Aliens are the subject of the second article dedicated to computer games. In Louis Colvert’s Thinkpiece, ‘Why Aren’t Aliens In Video Games More… Alien?’, the author explores the role and expectations of the alien in our most modern form of fiction—the video game. Drawing from a number of different titles, Halo and Oddworld: Abe’s Oddysee in particular, he notes how the design of the aliens have been used to reinforce and subvert the expectations of the players. In Halo, the size and speed of the aliens often reflects what expect of the animal world—larger aliens are slower, hit harder, and take more damage, whereas with the smaller ones, the reverse is true. Oddworld: Abe’s Oddysee has alien creatures which are human-like in all but appearance, meaning that in telling a story around slavery it can draw parallels with our own history. Ultimately, the near familiarity of how these aliens act is how we are best able to interact with them in game.

Under ‘Video Games’, Parallel Worlds Issue #04 continues its computer game strand with Ben Potts’ ‘Anthem: The game that nearly was’ examines the perceived failure and difficulties of Bioware’s Anthem, drawing parallels in terms of development with Destiny and Destiny 2 and highlighting the anticipation for the game following its 2017 demo versus the disappointment upon its release. That was in 2019 of course, and Anthem can be seen as a failure now, since development on the game ceased in 2021. Nevertheless, the article is another interesting read, and contrasts nicely with the piece that follows by Thomas Turnbull-Ross. ‘Lambda Cubed: The continuing mystery of Half-Life 3’ sets up and then explores the anticipation, even then a decade old, for the eagerly awaited, but yet to appear, third part in the Half-Life series from Valve. Even several years on from the article, fans will have to be satisfied with a sequel of sorts, Half-Life: Alyx, though that, of course, is unlikely. Consequently, this article has not really dated!

The ‘TV & Film’ articles in the issue open with ‘Star Wars Rebels: A Love letter To The Fans’ which examines the animated series and how it fits into Star Wars canon. Exploring the links to what is now known as ‘Legends’, but which was previously known as ‘The Expanded Universe’, the article highlights how much fan service it delivered, how it delved into and developed the lore, and some of the stories it told. It is clear that its author, Louis Colvert, is a fan, and he very much sells the series. Fans of Star Wars Rebels will enjoy the article, whilst anyone else should be intrigued enough to want go and watch it. Next, Jane Clewett provides thumbnail reviews of various genre films, such as Us, Midsommar, and It Chapter Two in ‘2019 in horror cinema’, which are decent enough. More interesting is ‘Let’s Talk About... Ad Astra’, which is a follow on from Parallel Worlds Issue #03 and its ‘Let’s Talk About... The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance’. This is a discussion piece, a two-hander between Tom Grundy and Jane Clewett about their reaction to the film and their thoughts about it. This article is shorter, but it highlights the odd nature of the film and disparity of its story elements.

The issue includes three entries under the ‘Tabletop Games’ label. First, ‘We Found a Body’ launches the first in a series of ‘The Generic Adventure Module’ which explore particular plot types which can be added to a game. In this case, Allen Stroud adds a corpse and accompanying mystery. Graphically, it suggests that this is for a modern game, but the article is broad enough to suggest otherwise, in turn examining ways in which the body can be introduced, forensics applied, suspected questioned, and the death investigated. This is all from a point of setting up a good story and whilst it could have been more detailed, the advice is sound and the article lays the groundwork for future articles to come. It is followed by Christopher Jarvis’ review of Zombie Kidz, which is given high praise. The trio is rounded out the ‘Mini of the Month’, this time by Allen Stroud. The regular article, this time devoted to ‘Grak, warlord of the Clan’, an orc miniature that he purchased at Gen Con UK, benefits greatly from being a page in length rather the two in earlier issues, but is very much a nostalgia piece, since the convention and the miniature date from 1995.

Ant Jones and Tom Grundy follow up Allen Stroud’s ‘Diamonds in the Rough: Read Adventurous!’ on self-published novels in Parallel Worlds Issue #03 with ‘Self-Pub Review’, a trio of reviews of three self-published books. These are all good and sound interesting reads from the reviews. With half of the article devoted to its award winners, Allen Stroud’s ‘Fantasy Con Glasgow’ is never given sufficient space to make the event come alive or sound interesting as other entries in the ‘Events’ department in previous issues managed to do. Rounding out the issue are two pieces of short, ‘Original Fiction’. They consist of ‘Lazaraki Chronicles’, a horror piece by Connor Edles, and a Science Fiction piece, ‘Red 14’ by Ben Potts. These are decent enough.

Physically, Parallel Worlds #04 is printed in full colour, on very sturdy paper, which gives it a high-quality feel. Unlike in previous issues, it not does suffer from a lot of empty space and the articles are compact rather than stretched out. Consequently, the issue does not feel as empty as was the case with the first three issues.

Parallel Worlds Issue #04 is the best issue yet. It has more content, the less interesting articles take up decidedly less space, and there are more interesting articles to read. ‘We Found a Body’ is good, as is, again ‘Let’s Talk About... Ad Astra’, and also ‘Star Wars Rebels: A Love letter To The Fans’. Yet as much as there is more interesting content in the pages of the issue to read, it is unbalanced. The tabletop gaming content does not come off as a poor second or third so much as a poor fourth or fifth. Three articles, one of which is a review (and compare that to the fact that three books are reviewed to one game) and another a nostalgia piece about a twenty-five year old miniature, compared to four computer game articles and three film and television articles, all lengthier articles, do not feel enough for magazine which was at the time being pitched to sell in game shops. ‘We Found a Body’ is a good start, but Parallel Worlds needs more gaming content to balance everything else out. In the meantime, Parallel Worlds #04 is still a decent read.

Monday 24 April 2023

Miskatonic Monday #191: Victor Frankenstein-Reanimator

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 noneeless—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 Invictus, The Pastores, Primal State, Ripples from Carcosa, and Halloween Horror, there was Five Go Mad in Egypt, Return of the Ripper, Rise of the Dead, Rise 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: Al Smith

Setting: Regency Cthulhu: Dark Designs in Jane Austen’s England
Product: Pamphlet Scenario
What You Get: Two-page, 1.92 MB Full Colour PDF (Plus more)
Elevator Pitch: H.P. Lovecraft writes Mary Shelly/Mary Shelly writes H.P. Lovecraft
Plot Hook: Victor Frankenstein’s greatest experiment!
Plot Support: Staging advice and FAQ, four pre-generated Investigators, two handouts, one NPC, one floor plan, one Mythos tome, and one Mythos monster.
Production Values: Decent.

# Minimalist pseudo-scientific one-shot
# Low preparation scenario
# Plenty of elements left up to the Keeper to decide
# Another find the solution to the unstoppable monster scenario (but themed)
# Chemophobia
# Necrophobia
# Diokophobia

# Minimalist pseudo-scientific one-shot
# No stats for Victor Frankenstein or Igor (Fritz)
# Plenty of elements left up to the Keeper to decide
# A grand manor with one floor?
# Another find the solution to the unstoppable monster scenario (but themed)

# Lovecraftian creature-feature in minimalist style
# Easy to set-up and run Mythos-Monster mash that goes all points Herbert West

Sunday 23 April 2023

An Epistle to the Eternal Champion

The world—nay, the universe—is drawing to its end, and the eternal struggle between Law and Chaos will come to its fruition. What will be born in the wake of that mighty battle, who knows, but now there are enemy forces upon enemy forces arrayed before, threatening you, your loved ones, and your family. Whether a doomed prince, cunning vagabond, or greedy mercenary, you cannot escape the conflict to come, so where will stand as the final trumpet is blown? Take up your mighty sword infused with the power of demons, place the helm capable of shining the light of law upon world upon your head, remember the spells you stole long ago from the longest library of the age and slip onto the tip of your tongue ready to cast, and renew the pacts of power with the lords of law and counts of chaos and the elemental earls. Their might and magics are yours to command one last time as you explore the dark streets and mausolea of the forbidden city, ride alongside a mercenary band in driving back the raiders from the north, entreat with the wealthiest of mercantile leagues for support lest all theirs be sunk by creatures summoned from the depths—and beyond, and more, for you are a champion of the age and the final fight will come to you.

This sounds much like the classic Swords & Sorcery stories of Michael Moorcock and his Eternal Champion, most notably Elric of Melniboné and Stormbringer, the great blade he wields which infamously feeds upon the souls it kills and infuses the albino prince with their vitality. And it is, but it is also the tales of R.E. Howard’s Conan, Karl Edward Wagner’s Kane, Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser and Lankhmar, and Jack Vance’s Dying Earth. It is all of those things, but not. Rather this is a roleplaying game of dark Swords & Sorcery fantasy inspired by them—rough and ready, decadent and dangerous… Several of these story series have had their own roleplaying games. Most obviously Stormbringer from Chaosium, Inc., Robert E. Howard’s Conan: Adventures in an Age Undreamed Of, the Dungeon Crawl Classics Lankhmar Boxed Set from Goodman Games, and Dungeon Crawl Classics Dying Earth: Adventures in a Doomed World, also from Goodman Games. The influence of these stories is not just seen in these roleplaying games, but also Dungeons & Dragons going back to 1974, and thus to the Old School Renaissance. The Black Sword Hack: Ultimate Chaos Edition takes these influences—none more so than that of the Eternal Champion—and puts them front and centre.

The Black Sword Hack: Ultimate Chaos Edition is an update of the earlier Black Sword Hack. Published by The Merry Mushmen—best known for the Old School Renaissance magazine, Knock! An Old School Gaming Bric-à-Brac—following a successful Kickstarter campaign, as its title suggests, the Black Sword Hack: Ultimate Chaos Edition is written for The Black Hack Second Edition, the player-facing retroclone originally published in 2016. Although it uses the base architecture of Dungeons & Dragons, what this means is that the players are going to be making all the rolls—not just to attack, but also to defend, resist magic effects, and so on. The Black Sword Hack: Ultimate Chaos Edition is standalone though, eschews the Classes of The Black Hack and thus Dungeons & Dragons, allows the Player Characters of all backgrounds to learn sorcery and enter into demonic pacts, and provides the Game Master with the tools to create her own world (or worlds) and have her Player Characters encounter runic swords, the fae, arcane science, and more.

A Player Character in the Black Sword Hack: Ultimate Chaos Edition is defined by six Attributes—Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, Intelligence, Wisdom, and Charisma. These are initially rated between eight and thirteen. He also has an Origin, which is either Barbarian, Civilised, or Decadent, and three Backgrounds. These provide him with extra bonuses. There is one Background unique to each Origin, Berserker for Barbarian, Inventor for Civilised, and Assassin for Decadent. A Player Character can only have a unique Background if from its Origin. In effect, Backgrounds replace the Classes of The Black Hack. Each gives a single attribute bonus and a skill or ability. To create a character, a player rolls to generate the value for his character’s Attributes, selects an Origin category and rolls for its specifics, and then selects three Background. Two must tie into his Origin, but the other not. The process is quick and easy.

Name: Frivif
Origin: Civilised (Born on the prison island where the monarch’s political opponents are sent)
Backgrounds: Street Urchin, Sword Master, Storyteller
Languages: Thyrenian, Askavian

Doom Die: Ud6

Strength 11 Dexterity 12 Constitution 9
Intelligence 10 Wisdom 11 Charisma 13

Hit Points: 9
Damage: Weapon d6 Unarmed d4
Coins: 50

Mechanically, the Black Sword Hack: Ultimate Chaos Edition is simple. To have his character undertake an action, a player rolls an Attribute Test. He rolls the twenty-sided die and if under the appropriate attribute, his character succeeds. If it is equal to the Attribute or higher, he fails or succeeds at a cost. A roll of one is always a success and twenty a failure, and the Black Sword Hack: Ultimate Chaos Edition also uses a standard Advantage and Disadvantage mechanic. It also uses the Usage Die of The Black Hack, but where that employs the Usage Die to represent mundane resources, such as arrows or rations, 
Black Sword Hack: Ultimate Chaos Edition does not, instead using as a means to handle debt and other important resources that can affect the story. When a Player Character uses a resource, its associated Usage die is rolled. If the result is one or two, the die size is decreased and when a four-sided die has to be decreased, all of the resource it represents is expended. One genre addition that every Player Character has is the Doom Die. This is a Usage die. It is rolled when a Player Character repeats an action in combat, rolls a critical failure on an Attribute Test, or uses a Gift which requires it, and so on. However, it can be called upon and rolled to modify an Attribute Test, but this forces it to be downgraded. With rest it can reset. Once the Doom Die has been depleted, a Player Character cannot use any actions or Gifts which require it and is considered to be Doomed. All rolls are made with Disadvantage until the Player Character rests.

Combat in the Black Sword Hack: Ultimate Chaos Edition uses the same rules and is designed to be quick and deadly. Attacking with melee weapons and parrying require a Strength Test, ranged attacks and dodging a Dexterity Test. Armour subtracts damage, but a shield enables a player to roll a Strength Test at Advantage when parrying. Attack effects such as breaking an opponent’s weapon, disarming an opponent, and making a brutal attack are possible, but require a player to roll his character’s Doom Die. These effects provide a more cinematic feel to combat. Each time a Player Character survives a number of adventures—recorded as story titles—equal to his current Level, he goes up a Level. At all Levels, a Player Character gains a Hit Point, but at even Levels, he increases an attribute and at odd Levels, he is granted a Gift. These divided between the Gifts of Balance, Law, and Chaos, for example, Spirit Alliance, Riddle of Steel, and Bloodlust, respectively. A Player Character in the Black Sword Hack: Ultimate Chaos Edition has a maximum of ten Levels and the gifts his player chooses will affect his final fate.

The Black Sword Hack: Ultimate Chaos Edition grants certain Player Characters access to certain powers from ‘Dark Pacts & Other Vileness’. Initially, these are dependent on particular Backgrounds. Thus, the Warlock for Demonic Pacts, the Shaman for Spirit Alliances, Forbidden Knowledge for Sorcery, the Changeling for Faerie Ties, and Inventor for Twisted Science. None of these are quite straightforward. For example, Demonic Pacts can be invoked daily, such as ‘Ruin’ which breaks a single targeted item or ‘Nightmare’ which prevents the target from sleeping. If more than Demon is invoked per day, the Doom Die is rolled with Disadvantage and the Demon can take its revenge on the invoker if the Doom Die is depleted. There are also suggestions as to how new pacts can be created. Spirit Alliances work in a similar fashion, but are primal in nature and their powers are broader. Sorcery is tied to Chaos, but not as powerful as Demon Pacts and the roll to cast a spell is only at a Disadvantage if it has been cast before that day. Faerie Ties are broader and more varied, such as ‘Barrow Wisdom’ which lets the Player Character talk to the dead, but takes a Wisdom Test and decreasing the Doom Die to get them to co-operate or ‘Cold Iron Weapon’, an inherited blade of legend that inflicts extra damage on the faerie. Twisted Science allows the Player Character to design and build technological marvels a la Steampunk. There are some examples provided, but it is up to the player’s imagination and whether the device fits the world as what his character might create. The Player Character has weekly invention Points to spend creating devices, but must maintain the old ones he already has, so the more devices he has, the less time he has for inventing. This is simple and clever. Lastly, with Runic Weapons, the Game Master can create a great weapon to be wielded by an agent of Law, Chaos, or Balance, often as dangerous to the wielder and his friends as his foes.

The six categories for ‘Dark Pacts & Other Vileness’ are all optional and the Game Master can pick and choose which ones she wants to have for her Black Sword Hack: Ultimate Chaos Edition campaign world—or worlds. Their inspirations are obvious too from the works of Michael Moorcock. The Young Kingdoms for Demonic Pacts and Runic Weapons, the Dark Empire of Granbretan for Twisted Science, and so on. For the Game Master there is also bestiary as well as the all but obligatory for the Old School Renaissance ‘What Do You Find On The Corpse?’ table, and then a complete toolkit to help her create her campaign world. This provides options on the nature of Law and Chaos and the struggle between them; pages of adventure seeds by region or group, like a forbidden city or an iron horde; tables for creating great cities where the forces of Law and Chaos feud; and tables for making travel interesting as it should never be trivial. Balance receives its own section, which also discusses the end game, placing the point of True Balance far away, and it is here perhaps that in the final clash, the Player Characters will be forced to choose a side—losing the Gifts of Chaos if they side with Law and vice versa—and bring the campaign to then end. All of this is written in succinct style, yet this is not enough for the end game. More advice would have been useful for creating such a climatic, campaign-ending adventure.

Two adventures are included in the Black Sword Hack: Ultimate Chaos Edition. The first, ‘Dark Seeds’ is a good starting scenario, the Player Characters waking up with amnesia after having served some kind of prison sentence and forced to work together to survive in a strange land where everyone seem to want them dead. The ending is open and can go anywhere the Game Master decides her campaign is set. The second, ‘Slayers of the Blood God’ is more a mission, the Player Characters sent after a mercenary captain to prevent him from performing a ritual. Both scenarios are short, easily playable in a single session, and leave details ready to be expanded upon by the Game Master. Lastly, there is ‘Heimdallir: Port of the North’, a complete city port standing on the edge of the tundra, ready for the Player Characters to visit.

And there are the appendices. The Black Sword Hack: Ultimate Chaos Edition contains not just one, two, or three appendices, but twelve! In turn, they give advice on running the game, take advice from various inspirational authors, provide solo rules and a bibliography, introducing a Cosmic Usage Die for both Law and Chaos, a complete world with map by Evlyn Moreau in two pages, and more. It is an unexpected embarrassment of riches, short and direct, but always useful and interesting, giving the Game Master more tools and further inspiration.

Physically, the full colour Black Sword Hack: Ultimate Chaos Edition is clean, tidy, and very well laid out. The artwork, oppressive and foreboding, is excellent throughout, and the book easy to read and understand. There are plenty of examples too, and if the book is unnecessarily succinct in places, such occurrences are rare. Otherwise, the Black Sword Hack: Ultimate Chaos Edition is a grand treatment of The Black Hack.

To be clear, the Black Sword Hack: Ultimate Chaos Edition is not an Elric of Melniboné roleplaying game, a Conan roleplaying game, a Karl Edward Wagner’s Kane roleplaying game, a Lankhmar roleplaying game, or a Dying Earth roleplaying game. It is none of these—but it could be. Its inspirations are clear throughout and what they inspire is generic in nature, rather than specific to any particular setting. Think of it, instead, as a tribute act to all of them, but to Elric of Melniboné and the Eternal Champion in particular. And then it goes one step further in providing both players and the Game Master with the tools to tell great adventures and stories in the style of the constant struggle between the primal forces of the universe. In the absence of a roleplaying game in the English language set in the Young Kingdoms—there only being Mournblade from Département des Sombres Projets and that is in French—or indeed any of the other worlds of the Eternal Champion, the Black Sword Hack: Ultimate Chaos Edition not only fills that niche in but perfect fashion, but does so with a very well presented, accessible, and impressive set of roleplaying tools to run dark fantasy in its style.