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Saturday 2 March 2024

The Other OSR: Miseries & Misfortunes III

Miseries & Misfortunes is a roleplaying game set in seventeenth century France designed and published following a successful Kickstarter campaign by Luke Crane, best known for the fantasy roleplaying game, Burning Wheel. Notably, it is based on the mechanics of Basic Dungeons & Dragons. Originally, Miseries & Misfortunes appeared as a fanzine in 2015, but its second edition has since been developed to add new systems for skills, combat, magic, and more. However, the underlying philosophy of Miseries & Misfortunes still leans back into the play style of Basic Dungeons & Dragons. For example, the differing mechanics of rolling low for skill checks, but high for combat rolls and saving throws. Plus, the Player Characters exist in an uncaring world where bad luck, misfortune, and even death will befall them and there will be no one left to commiserate or mourn except the other characters and their players. Further, Miseries & Misfortunes is not a cinematic swashbuckling game of musketeers versus the Cardinal’s guards. It is grimmer and grimier than that, and the Player Characters can come from all walks of life. That said, it is set in the similar period as Alexandre Dumas’ Three Musketeers and Twenty Years After, so will be familiar to many players. The other major inspiration for Miseries & Misfortunes is Les Misères et les Malheurs de la Guerre, a set of eighteen etchings by French artist Jacques Callot that grimly depict the nature of the conflict in the early years of the Thirty Years War.

Miseries & Misfortunes – Book 3: The Sacred & The Profane is the third of the roleplaying game’s rulebooks. The first, Miseries & Misfortunes – Book 1: Roleplaying in 1648 gives the core rules for the roleplaying game, and the second, Miseries & Misfortunes – Book 2: Les Fruits Malheureux provides the means to actually create Player Characters, and together they make up the core rules. Miseries & Misfortunes – Book 3: The Sacred & The Profane does two things. One is that it provides the rules for learning and casting various types of magic and the other is a set of Lifepaths for both religious and arcane character types. The Game Master can make use of some of the Lifepaths without making use of the rules for magic.

Magic in Miseries & Misfortunes can only be learned through the reading and studying of the written word. This is primarily from grimoires which contain hidden truths far beyond that of the two divine books of Christianity—the Book of God and the Book of Nature. This knowledge is called ‘Gnosis’ and it is required to perform rituals, cast spells, and mix formulae. Through Gnosis, a practitioner can study the physical and metaphysical properties of the world and learn to alter numerous substances through Chymistry; Goëtia to summon and command demons; Necromancy to affect the world, particularly spirits and the dead; Theology to understand and communicate with the divine to invoke prayers of one’s faith; and Theurgy to summon and bind aerial spirits or angels. There are parallels certainly in the study of ‘Gnosis’ and the Mythos of Call of Cthulhu, but with differences. One is that there is no Sanity loss for reading the grimoires in Miseries & Misfortunes, but the other is that where a Player Character will know how much Cthulhu Mythos knowledge his Investigator has, a Player Character in Miseries & Misfortunes does not. Instead, it is kept secret by the Game Master.

Miseries & Misfortunes – Book 3: The Sacred & The Profane lists some one-hundred-and-forty grimoires. Most have a language requirement to be read, and any attempt to read a grimoire can lead to a successful interpretation or a misinterpretation. The reader who misinterprets a grimoire can attempt to read it again, but the amount of Gnosis he can learn from it is reduced. If this happens too many times, the grimoire actually becomes useless. A reader’s Gnosis also needs to be high enough to be able to interpret the grimoire, which takes time. However, a failure to misinterpret can lead to a long period of meditation without learning anything, the learning of false knowledge, and again, the degradation of the text. The process takes time, whatever the outcome. Another way of gaining Gnosis is through appreciation of great art and beauty, though the Player Character needs to be open to this rather than being stubborn.

Once learned, Gnosis represents the degree of knowledge a practitioner knows, no matter which tradition he follows or studies, each of which has its own skill. Chymistry includes a list of chymical formulae; Goëtia comes with a list of demons, their form and office—the latter the purview of their powers, and Demons can only be summoned at certain times of the day; Necomancy a list of highly detailed spells; Theology divides its prayers between those used by Catholics and those used by Protestants; and Theurgy, a surprisingly short list of Angels and their offices. Notably, each of the practices has its own set of unintended results and catastrophic results, many of which are quite amusing. In addition to the major difficulties of learning and casting, there are social challenges in learning Gnosis. Many of the traditions have been declared heresy and practitioners are hunted by the Inquisition.

The particular tradition that a practitioner studies depends on the Lifepaths they have followed. Miseries & Misfortunes – Book 3: The Sacred & The Profane includes five new Lifepaths. These are Exorcist, Jesuit Priest, Occultist, Protestant Pastor, and Philosopher. Thus, the Exorcist studies Goëtia, the Jesuit Priest and the Pastor Theology, the Occultist both Goëtia and Theurgy, and the Philosopher, Chymistery. All five begin a six-sided die’s worth of Gnosis.

Physically, Miseries & Misfortunes – Book 3: The Sacred & The Profane is well presented and written, and although it does include some examples, these feel underwritten in places. It is illustrated with a period artwork and etchings which helps impart its historical setting. If it is missing anything, it is an index, but at just forty pages, this is not too much of an issue.

Miseries & Misfortunes – Book 3: The Sacred & The Profane provides a solid set of rules for adding ‘magic’ to the world of Miseries & Misfortune, although it is not really magic or even as simple as magic. In many cases the practitioners are dealing with the profane and the heretical, so dangerous both metaphysically and socially. It also takes time to research and interpret, so it involves more effort and work than most magic systems, so more commitment upon the part of the players and their characters. Of the traditions, Theurgy does feel underwritten, but the others are nicely detailed, and if there is anything missing, it is a Nun Lifepath and notes for Gnosis studying NPCs. Otherwise, Miseries & Misfortunes – Book 3: The Sacred & The Profane expands its Early Modern France setting both mechanically and thematically adding dangerous knowledge.

Stone Age Science Fantasy

Primal Quest – Weird Stone & Sorcery Adventure Game is a roleplaying of a Stone Age that never was, inspired by Edgar Rice Burroughs’ The Land That Time Forgot and The People That Time Forgot, Quest for Fire and One Million Years, B.C., Thundarr the Barbarian, Horizon Zero Dawn, and the Cavemaster RPG and Hollow Earth Expedition. This is a world in which humanity survives alongside dinosaurs and other creatures and ancient secrets and aliens lurk, the Player Characters as warriors and hunters, shamans and sorcerers, exploring an environment dominated by a natural untrammelled by mankind. Designed by Diogo Nogueira because of his love of dinosaurs and published by Old School Publishing, the core rules for Primal Quest – Weird Stone & Sorcery Adventure Game are presented in Primal Quest – Essentials. Besides a surprisingly thorough bibliography, this includes a simple set of mechanics using six-sided dice designed to handle both consequences and narrative control, character creation, survival and exploration, sorcery, and a complete mini-hexcrawl that encompasses twelve, lightly-detailed locations, that introduces the World of Thaia. In addition,
Primal Quest – Weird Stone & Sorcery Adventure Game is not only supported by its own licence enabling others to write and publish for it, but also its own series of supplements, including The Primal World of Thaia fanzine.

A Player Character in Primal Quest – Weird Stone & Sorcery Adventure Game has three attributes—Body, Mind, and Heart. These can be negative values, but typically range in value between 0 and +3, though can be higher through experience. He has five Tags, one each for his Concept, Talent, Motivation, Relationship, and Trouble. His Vitality represents his Hit Points, whilst his Defence is dependent upon armour worn and shield carried. To this are added name, gender, looks, and personality. To create a character, a player divides three points between the three attributes, to a maximum of +3. A bonus attribute point can be gained by lowering one attribute to -1. He defines his five Tags and the five aspects of his character, and then chooses an equipment option. Three are given, one each suitable for a warrior with more weapons and armour and shield, one for a hunter with hunting tools, and one for a sorcerer or shaman with three foci for casting spells.

Name: Dres’zhi
Body -1 Mind +3 Heart +1
TAGS: Curious Shaman (Concept), Secrets (Talent), To Prove Herself (Motivation), Cantankerous Master (Relationship), Mother (Trouble)
Vitality: 9
Defence: 1
Equipment: wood spear, light armour, arcane foci (Fire, Spirit, Life), three torches, fire, three units of Food, three units of Water.

Primal Quest – Weird Stone & Sorcery Adventure Game uses pools of six-sided dice, needing several of two different colours. One colour is Positive Dice, the other Negative dice. A player always rolls one of each die type. More Positive Dice can be gained by invoking a Tag, which can be a Player Character’s own, or come from an item of equipment, the environment, and even an opponent. Extra Effort, gained by sacrificing Vitality, provides further Positive Dice. Further Negative Dice can also be added to the pool, whether from poor equipment, difficult terrain, or spell or monster effect. Once the combined pool is rolled, the value of the highest Negative Dice is subtracted from the value of the highest Positive Die. The value of the appropriate Attribute is added to the resulting value and compared to the Difficulty of the task, which ranges between zero and moderate and six or Legendary. The default is zero, but it is otherwise determined by a stat, such as an Attribute, Defence, and so on. If the final value is equal to, or greater than the difficulty, the character succeeds.

The degree of success, or Effect, of a task, is determined by subtracting the result from the Difficulty. In addition, a Player Character can benefit from Boons and Setbacks. A Boon is gained for rolling a six on a Positive Die, a Setback for rolling a six on a Negative Die. A Boon can be used to add an extra Stat if appropriate to the result, give an extra Positive Die to another Player Character’s action, impose a Negative Die on an opponent, or to gain insight about a situation. A Setback can grant an extra Stat if appropriate to an opponent’s result, add an extra Positive Die to an opponent’s action, inflict a Negative Die on the Player Character’s next action, or add a negative consequence to the current situation.

Combat uses the same mechanics, with an opponent’s Defence value, derived from his armour, determining the Difficulty. A shield blocks an attack entirely, but used to block too many attacks and it will break. Weapons inflict either one, two, or four points of damage depending upon their size, plus the Effect value of the attack roll. Combat can be short and brutal, but the healing rules are fairly forgiving.

The primary resources in the game are food and water, and Player Characters need one of each per day to survive. The primary means of exchange is barter, and there are simple rules for encumbrance and material durability, which includes bronze—though not copper—as well as wood, stone, and bone.

Sorcery requires two things—an Arcane Focus and an associated word. The latter can be ‘Fire’ or ‘Truth’ or ‘Grasp’, and once a focus—a particular object like a stone with a hole through it or a piece of carved leather or bone—it cannot be used with another word. That said, different foci and their words can be combined for different spell effects.
Primal Quest – Weird Stone & Sorcery Adventure Game does not include spell lists, but instead a sorcerer decides upon the desired spell effect and describes how he is using the Arcane Focus to cast it. Once a player has described the spell that he wants his character to cast, the Game Master decides whether it is a Cantrip, Invocation, Ritual, or Miracle, each one more difficult to cast than the last.

For the Game Master there is the recommendation that safety tools be used and several pointers of good advice. Much of it will be obvious to an experienced Game Master, but useful, nonetheless. Further rules cover opponents, exploration, getting lost, camping, and so on. Half of
Primal Quest – Weird Stone & Sorcery Adventure Game is dedicated to ‘Mother’s Vale’, a ‘Weird Stone & Sorcery mini-Hexcrawl’. To the north lies Father Mountain rich with life upon its slopes; to the south in the Deep Jungle the Mother Tree upon which grows fruit that can restore life to the dead, to the west the Fanged Hills that smell of fear, sweat, and death; and to the east, lies the Tower That Fell, a strange organic structure that left a ravine and Mother’s Mounds, a series of ravines that stretch for miles and lead beneath the vale where the remains of ancient, non-human civilisations can be found. There are twelve locations strewn across Mother’s Vale, each given a broad description, a combination of a problem, a secret, a danger, or a special detail, and a table of random encounters. The latter ranges from tribesmen from the three humankind villages in the Mother’s Vale, aurochs, and Triceratops to Argentinosauruses, a Giganotosaurus, and Devouring Chaos Beasts via Red Gorillas, Yeti, Giant Constrictors, Brachiosauruses, and a whole lot more. These encounter tables also serve as the bestiary for Primal Quest – Weird Stone & Sorcery Adventure Game.

Although obviously an anachronistic mix of Stone Age man and dinosaurs, in very Ray Harryhausen fashion,
Primal Quest – Weird Stone & Sorcery Adventure Game is also a Pulp adventure setting, a lost world of sorts which mixes in elements of Science Fiction too. Much of these require further development upon the part of the Game Master, as the ‘Mother’s Vale’ is drawn in quite broad detail. Once that is done, the Game Master can add an adventure site or two and be in position to respond to what the players and their characters want to do. That said, there is plenty of further content available for the roleplaying game, plus each of the three villages in Mother’s Vale—the obvious starting point for any campaign—has a problem that can easily serve as a hook for the Player Characters.

Primal Quest – Weird Stone & Sorcery Adventure Game is well done. It is lightly illustrated, but the artwork is decent, whilst the cartography for Mother’s Vale is engaging. It does need an edit in places and feels slightly underwritten in others.

In terms of tone and to an extent play style,
Primal Quest – Weird Stone & Sorcery Adventure Game is like an Old School Renaissance roleplaying game, but mechanically, it is anything but that. Its dice pool mechanics are far more modern and its narrative controls in the form of Boons and Setback are distinctly opposite the mechanics you would find in an Old School Renaissance retroclone. That aside, Primal Quest – Weird Stone & Sorcery Adventure Game is a solid Pulp-style Stone Age-set roleplaying game in which its Science Fiction and Fantasy elements and thus many of its stories are wrapped up as mysteries for the Game Master to develop and make her own.

Friday 1 March 2024

Friday Fantasy: Galileo 2: Judgment Day

Galileo Galileo is famous as the astronomer who attracted the ire of Pope Urban VIII and the Catholic church and the Roman Inquisition by championing Copernican heliocentrism, the concept of the Earth rotating daily and revolving around the Sun, rather than the Aristotelian geocentric view that universe revolving around the Earth. Tried for heresy, in 1633, he was condemned and sentenced to house arrest, remaining in his villa outside Florence until his death in 1642. What though, if Pope Urban VIII, deeply irked at an insult Galileo had insinuated at him in his work of 1632, Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems, believed that house arrest was too good for the heretical natural philosopher? How far would the Holy Father go in order to have his revenge? Would he commission a clockwork automaton that would tramp the halls of Galileo’s villa, tormenting him verbally and playing tricks on him, day after day? Well, to be fair, very probably not, but since this is the set-up for a scenario for Lamentations of the Flame Princess Weird Fantasy Roleplaying published by Lamentations of the Flame Princess, it is safe to assume that this did happen and the Player Characters got caught up in it, because otherwise, there is no scenario. The scenario in question is Galileo 2: Judgment Day, which if you are thinking the title of which sounds an awful lot like Terminator 2: Judgement Day, you definitely have some idea what this scenario is about, because it does involve Galileo and it does involve a big, near unstoppable, clomping robot. Just not from the future.

Galileo 2: Judgment Day takes place roughly in 1640. Galileo Galilei has been under house arrest for several years and the Inquisition maintains a steady watch on his villa, the Villa Il Gioiello, hiring spies to do so from a neighbouring house. The Player Characters are the latest to be hired to fulfil this role, discovering the pay to be a pittance and the house where they stationed, a mould and rat-infested tumble down ruin. The job is also boring. Nothing happens. Except on this summer’s night when strange noises are heard in the villa and then a figure runs out through the games. Followed, not long after, by a mountain of a man, heavy-footed, but determined. With the change in circumstances, do the Player Characters have the chance to take advantage of the situation and come out of it richer either than they were before or they would have been if nothing had happened? Their choices are simple? Do they ransack the Villa Il Gioiello, said to be home to untold riches? Do they race after the fleeing man, and then after determining who he ismost likely Galileo—work what to do with him then? Hand him into the Inquisition and collect the reward or let him go free because they believe him to have been unjustly imprisoned? And if they do let him go free, do they follow him, or do they take advantage of an empty house, to go back and ransack the Villa Il Gioiello and make off with any money and valuables that Galileo has left behind? Then what of the great bear of man, huffing and puffing after Galileo, taunting him all the way? Can he be stopped, bribed, or does he simply need to be bribed and done with it?

Galileo 2: Judgment Day takes places in the default setting for Lamentations of the Flame Princess Weird Fantasy Roleplaying of the Early Modern period, the first half of the seventeenth century. What it promises is a pair of one-shot adventures, but that is really not what it provides, because what Galileo 2: Judgment Day really sets up is a situation with a handful of options and another handful of endings. In one option, the Player Characters might see Galileo run out of Villa Il Gioiello and decide to burglarise the building and make a run for it themselves, being hounded by the Inquisition once the authorities realise what they have done and they attempt to fence their loot. In another option, they chase Galileo to nearby Florence, help his escape, and he rewards them with details about the Villa Il Gioiello and the many traps he has laid, letting them grab the loot. Alternatively, they capture Galileo, hand him over to the Inquisition and take the reward for doing so, and head for the nearest bar and get stinking drunk? These are the main options, but there are others too, including one where the Player Characters end up in the hands of the Inquisition themselves and face the possibility of torture and death—the table for that is just ever so slightly unpleasant—and another where the neighbours of Galileo decide the rob the Villa Il Gioiello before anyone else does. And that still leaves the unstoppable killing machine which has been tormenting Galileo and will stop at nothing to prevent his escape to Florence and beyond...

However, it is possible for the Game Master to run
Galileo 2: Judgment Day as two separate things. For example, whilst the Player Characters chase after Galileo on the road to Florence, his neighbours could be attempting to loot the Villa Il Gioiello. To that end, several nosy neighbours are provided, who either turn up whilst the Player Characters are still there or could be played as would be looters with a little bit of development. They include a widow wanting to prove the capability of old people, a castrato who takes the opportunity to perform, an Ottoman mercenary, a gossipy chandler and his wife, and so on. These are simply drawn, but could developed into playable characters.

And then there is the Automaton or ‘L’Assassino Meccanico’. All six feet of it, a half-tonne of steel, and dressed in the best boots, wig, and cloak that money can buy. Designed to impersonate a man to the best of its abilities and then placed to taunt the poor Galileo for as long as he shall live. The thing is described in some detail, and comes with a table of twelve wrestling moves for the Game Master to roll on and randomly determine if it engages in combat. Galileo Galileo is similarly detailed, though as an NPC rather than a monster.

Galileo 2: Judgment Day includes the detailed background for Galileo’s situation, his means of escape, and the resulting chase from the Villa Il Gioiello to Florence, plus a set of encounters along the road in the dark. Possible events in Florence are also covered, including a case through its streets and encounters with the Inquisition. The Villa Il Gioiello itself is described in detail should the Player Characters decide they want to take advantage of the absence of its occupants. The description includes some really nasty traps, though of course, the Player Characters may avoid them should they help Galileo and he reward them with their particulars.

Galileo 2: Judgment Day is a short, clean and tidy affair. It is well laid out, and easy to read. The cartography is decent and the artwork is excellent. The illustration of the Automaton is particularly good and in combination with its portrayal by the Game Master with its booming voice, it should enforce its imposing nature.

Galileo 2: Judgment Day demands a greater suspension of disbelief than might be required in other scenarios. If that is achieved though, then all bets are off, and that includes quite where the events of the scenario and the Player Characters will end up. This is very player-driven scenario, with their decisions deciding which its parts will come into play. Go in one direction and only
Villa Il Gioiello does, go in another and only Florence comes into play, although there is the possibility of the scenario coming back round from Villa Il Gioiello to Florence and then back to Villa Il Gioiello. Yet if it does not, there is possibility of using Villa Il Gioiello all by itself as a target of the Player Characters’ larceny. So there is the possibility that the Game Master could use the parts of the scenario rather than as a whole. The nature of the scenario also means that it is difficult to work into a campaign, but an inventive should be abale to come up with something suitable.

Galileo 2: Judgment Day—inspired as the author admits by Terminator 2: Judgement Day—takes the concept of the unstoppable robot killing machine and drops it into the last situation you would think of. It has the potential to be a classic slasher horror with a really weird premise that could be run as a one-shot and thus a convention scenario, or it swirl out of control and end up in another of the scenario’s various endings, which would probably take another session to play. Galileo 2: Judgment Day is a ridiculous, but still enetrtaining scenario, whose set-up is pleasingly detailed as are it various different endings.


DISCLAIMER: The author of this review is an editor who has edited titles for Lamentations of the Flame Princess on a freelance basis. He was not involved in the production of this book and his connection to both publisher and thus the author has no bearing on the resulting review.

Pocket Sized Perils #4

For every Ptolus: City by the Spire or Zweihander: Grim & Perilous Roleplaying or World’s Largest Dungeon or Invisible Sun—the desire to make the biggest or most compressive roleplaying game, campaign, or adventure, there is the opposite desire—to make the smallest roleplaying game or adventure. Reindeer Games’ TWERPS (The World's Easiest Role-Playing System) is perhaps one of the earliest examples of this, but more recent examples might include the Micro Chapbook series or the Tiny D6 series. Yet even these are not small enough and there is the drive to make roleplaying games smaller, often in order to answer the question, “Can I fit a roleplaying game on a postcard?” or “Can I fit a roleplaying game on a business card?” And just as with roleplaying games, this ever-shrinking format has been used for scenarios as well, to see just how much adventure can be packed into as little space as possible. Recent examples of these include The Isle of Glaslyn, The God With No Name, and Bastard King of Thraxford Castle, all published by Leyline Press.

The Pocket Sized Perils series uses the same A4 sheet folded down to A6 as the titles from Leyline Press, or rather the titles from Leyline Press use the same A4 sheet folded down to A6 sheet as Pocket Sized Perils series. Funded via a Kickstarter campaign as part of the inaugural ZineQuest—although it debatable whether the one sheet of paper folded down counts as an actual fanzine—this is a series of six mini-scenarios designed for use with Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition, but actually rules light enough to be used with any retroclone, whether that is the Dungeon Crawl Classics Roleplaying Game or Old School Essentials. Just because it says ‘5e’ on the cover, do not let that dissuade you from taking a look at this series and see whether individual entries can be added to your game. The mechanics are kept to a minimum, the emphasis is on the Player Characters and their decisions, and the actual adventures are fully drawn and sketched out rather than being all text and maps.

Death in Dinglebrook
is the fourth entry in the Pocket Sized Perils series following on from An Ambush in Avenwood, The Beast of Bleakmarsh, and Call of the Catacombs. Designed for Fourth Level Player Characters, the scenario is a gothic mini-mystery, much in the style of the Hammer Horror films or Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay. Although written for use with Dungeons & Dragons, its theme and tone make the scenario easy to adapt to other fantasy roleplaying games or even to the Victorian era. It does have some set-up requirements which limit its usefulness, in that it suggests that each of the Player Characters is ill at the beginning of the scenario, but these can be worked around. Perhaps an NPC is ill or one of the characters whose player is present is ill, and so on. Whichever of the Player Characters (or not) is ill, they are all travelling into the mountains to the isolated vale of Dinglebrook. Here, it is rumoured that a gifted healer named ‘Sirona’ can be found, one who is capable of curing whatever rare disease it is that ails them.

Upon arrival, it seems bar the local tavern, ‘Thin Fat Jim’s’, Dinglebrook is deserted and when the Player Characters do discover the locals, it turns out that they are all skeletons, although going about their normal lives, just as they did before their undeaths. After realising that the skeletons are not actually evil and do not want a fight, probably after the bones have knitted themselves back in order and the correct place, probably after the bones have knitted themselves back in order and the correct place—ideally to the sound of ‘Dem Bones Dem Bones Dem Dry Bones’—the Player Characters are going to be wondering quite what is going on in Dinglebrook. Which is when three stone golems, dressed as orderlies turn up and attempt to take them away... So, what has happened to the inhabitants of Dinglebrook? Who are the stone orderlies working for and where are they taking their captives? And lastly, where is ‘Sirona’ and why has she not cured all of this?

Flip through the few, but heavily illustrated pages of Death in Dinglebrook and the story will take the Game Master and her players and their characters to the village and the local tavern, ‘Thin Fat Jim’s’, and from there outside to look up the Abbey that looms over the village from the mountainside. To reach this the Player Characters will need to climb the mountain, but all the Game Master has to do is open up the pages of the scenario, flip it over, and pull it open. This reveals the abbey in all its glory, fantastically drawn in isometric style, with room descriptions round the edge and Sirona’s stats and roleplaying hints below. The abbey is no longer a place of worship, but part-hospital gone wrong and part-alchemical laboratory gone awry, overseen by stone, golem-like orderlies, and Sirona, would be healer driven to madness and monstrousness by her failure to heal the sick.

Death in Dinglebrook is straightforward enough, but its set-up is all for a standup, knockdown fight, without any scope for roleplaying. This is a pity, since there is the fun earlier of interacting and roleplaying with tongue-less and therefore speechless skeletons in the tavern, whereas Sirona is only given a motivation. Given the genre and tone of the scenario, she deserves more, and the Game Master should really seize the opportunity to let her explain her actions and motivations, and have her chew some scenery!

Physically, Death in Dinglebrook is very nicely presented, being more drawn than actually written. It has a cartoonish sensibility to it, that although it plays up the scenario’s tone and genre, lacks the humour of the previous releases in the Pocket Perils series. The combination of having been drawn and the cartoonish artwork with the high quality of the paper stock also gives Death in Dinglebrook a physical feel which feels genuinely good in the hand. Its small size means that it is very easy to transport.

Ultimately, the plot of Death in Dinglebrook is short, simple, and the whole thing can be run and played in a single session. It is not as sophisticated or as engaging as previous entries in the Pocket Perils series, and its set-up requirements are quite strict, which in combination, does limit its usefulness. That said, if the Game Master can meet the requirements for its set-up and is prepared to develop her portrayal of its villain, then Death in Dinglebrook is easy to prepare and run for a single session’s worth of play.

Thursday 29 February 2024

1984: Toon

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


It is interesting to note that two of the hobby’s mostly highly regarded humour roleplaying games were co-designed by Greg Costikyan and both were published in 1984. One, the dystopian Science Fiction roleplaying game, Paranoia, published by West End Games, was most obviously published in 1984, because after all, that was the year that George Orwell’s eponymous novel is set. The other was Toon – The Cartoon Roleplaying Game. Published by Steve Jackson Games, it was based on an original idea by Jeff Dee which was inspired by a conversation about genres that nobody had then yet designed roleplaying games for. As its title suggested, that genre was cartoons. Not the cartoons of Saturday mornings, but rather the short, sometimes violently anarchic cartoons of Warner Bros’ Looney Toons, Hanna and Barbera’s Tom and Jerry, and Walt Disney’s Silly Symphonies and others. This is a genre that almost everyone is familiar with, making the resulting roleplaying game incredibly familiar in terms of what you were playing and the world in which it took place. However, Toon also asked a great deal of its players in terms of how it was played, because in many ways it was asking them to do everything which other roleplaying games had taught them to do.

In almost every other roleplaying game, the player not only wants his character to survive, to grow, and to thrive, which invariably means plotting and planning, and taking the time to come up with the best tactics or strategy to achieve all three. Not so in
Toon. Let alone the fact that a character in Toon cannot die—only fall down for three minutes of real time—the play is all about the immediate. What does my character want? How does he achieve that right now? What is the simplest and more direct way of getting that? It does not matter if that direct way is not the most logical, for it serves its purpose right now. So rather than ‘think before you act’, the credo of Toon is ‘ACT before you THINK’. The roleplaying game will even punish a player if he thinks before he acts or attempts to think before he acts, rendering his character Boggled and unable to do anything until his next turn. This is a roleplaying game played at high speed, even breakneck speed, in which the action passes from one character to the next in a flurry, in which Short Subjects and Feature Films always take place in Anytown, Outside of Town, The City, and Outer Space, where there is always a mailbox close by to receive that thing you just ordered, logic has a way of being illogical in an entirely logical way, coincidences are perfectly normal and to be expected, cause and effect might go one way for a character, but not another, and nobody reads the fine print until you write it and persuade everyone as to its veracity.

Toon – The Cartoon Roleplaying Game is a roleplaying game with a genre that everyone will know and will understand how its worlds work, supported by simple, fast-playing mechanics, good advice for the Animator—as the Game Master is known, and four Short Subjects and one Feature Film. One of the Short Subjects is designed to teach the game and so with a quick read through and copies of the characters ready, the Animator really could be running her first game in fifteen minutes.

A character can be anything. An ant, a robot ant, a sea serpent, a kangaroo, a pig, a parakeet, and so on. He can run and talk, take part in the Cartoon Olympics, go to Outer Space, and more, whether he is a Milkman, a Retired General, a French Chef, or a Cowboy. He has four attributes—Muscle, Zip, Smarts, and Chutzpah—which determine how strong, how fast, how intelligent, and how pushy he is. They are range in value between one and six. Each attribute has a number of skills, which range in value between one and nine. He will have a natural enemy, such as a cat for a dog or a park ranger for a bear; a Belief and a Goal, for example, “I hate elephants” and “Stop the hunter from hunting me in Rabbit Season”; a possession or two; and Shtick. A Shtick is an amazing ability that breaks rules. For example, a Bag of Many Things from which innumerable objects can be drawn, Shape Change, Hypnosis, and so on. Mechanically, they are rolled for just like skills to see if they work.

To create a character, a player rolls a six-sided die for each of the four attributes. Species, Occupations, Beliefs, and Goals can selected or rolled for, or selected, whilst Natural Enemies are always chosen. The base value for each skill is equal to its associated attributes, but a player has thirty points to divide between them. Alternatively, a character can have a Shtick, which costs five skill points and always begins play with a value of five. This cannot be increased during character creation, only later through experience. The process is quick and easy and takes five minutes.

Doctor Freuderick “It’s pronounced ‘Frederick’” von Mesenme (Actually Joe from Pittsburgh)
Species: Human
Natural Enemies: Patients and other doctors
Belief: I always know what is best for my patients
Goal: Get rich
Hit Points: 9

Muscle 3
Break Down Doors 3, Climb 3, Fight 6, Pick Up heavy Things 3, Throw 3

Zip 2
Dodge 7, Drive Vehicle 2, Fire Gun 2, Jump 4, Ride 2, Run 4, Swim 4

Smarts 5
Hide/Spot Hidden 5, Identify Dangerous Thing 7, Read 5, Resist Fast Talk 8, See/Hear/Smell 5, Set/Disarm Trap 5, Track/Cover Tracks 5

Chutzpah 6
Fast-Talk 9, Pass/Detect Shoddy Goods 9, Sleight of Hand 6, Sneak 6

Hypnosis 5

Medical Diploma from The Republic of Užupis University of Universal Study, Pocket Watch, Pipe (for bubbles), medical forms

Toon is simple. To undertake an action, the player rolls two six-sided dice, and aims to roll equal to or lower than the skill or attribute. It is a simple yes or no mechanic. Situations where there is an opposed roll, such as a fight or a chase or a competition, the outcome is determined by who rolls successfully and who fails. Thus, in a chase, the character who makes a successful roll with either Drive Vehicle, Run, or Swim will get away from the character who fails his roll, whereas if both make a successful roll or fail, neither makes any progress. Combat uses the Fight or Shoot Gun skills, with brawls and bust ups being opposed rolls. In general, if neither side is successful, that is, makes a successful roll whilst the other fails, then after three rounds of both making successful or failed rolls, both characters fall down exhausted. If a character is successfully hit in a fight or shot, then he suffers a six-sided die’s worth of damage. If he loses all of his Hit Points, the character will Fall Down. This is bad, but not actually that bad, because unlike every other roleplaying game, the character is not dead. Instead, he is out for the count, but can bound back, because that count is three minutes of real time. After that, the character and his player are back in the game with full Hit Points, ready to play.

The mechanical aim of play is to earn Plot Points. These actually reflect how well a player has roleplayed his character and served the genre of the Short Subject or the Feature Film. Each Short Subject and Feature Film has a budget to divide amongst the Player Characters at the end, but a player can earn more when his character makes another Fall Down, roleplays the character’s Beliefs & Goals, has his character make a Natural Enemy Fall Down, roleplays his character in a clever or entertaining fashion, and even for making the Animator laugh. Conversely, he loses them if he does not roleplay the character’s Beliefs & Goals or if the character is made to Fall Down by an NPC. Plot Points are used to increase a Player Character’s skills and shticks, including buying new shticks.

In terms of game play,
Toon – The Cartoon Roleplaying Game begins before Player Character creation. This gives a description the base elements of the game, how the skills work, a quick introduction to Plot Points, and some advice the Animator. All this in preparation for ‘The Cartoon Olympics’, a Short Subject designed for the Animator and two players. Taking place in the Anytown Anydome, this sports event will see the Player Characters compete in boxing matches, javelin toss, and marathon to determine the winner. They will also have to deal with Judge Mole, who of course, is blind as and also armed with a deadly starting pistol, and a bunch of monkeys. Although intended for two platers, the Short Subject includes a quartet of potential Player Characters, such as Mack the Mouse, Olga Hippopovna, Fred Bulldog, and Fifi La Feline. This is an easy to prepare Short Subject that can be brought to the table very quickly.

It should be noted that
Toon also emphasises adversarial play, a feature also shared with Paranoia. Player Characters can have conflicting goals even as they work collectively towards the objective of a Short Subject or Feature Film, but more often than not, they are directing competing against each other, as in ‘The Cartoon Olympics’, and unlike in other roleplaying games, there can be a winner. Offset that though, with the fact that Toon is designed for ephemeral, one-shot play rather than campaigns, so even if the same Player Characters appear in a subsequent Short Subject or Feature Film, the events or outcome of a previous Short Subject or Feature Film will not have any real influence on the next one.

Beyond both ‘The Cartoon Olympics’ and Player Character creation,
Toon – The Cartoon Roleplaying Game explains how Beliefs & Goals, skills, and shticks all work, plus there is good advice on being the Animator. Ultimately, this boils down to keeping things moving, throwing in sound effects, playing to the genre, and transmitting the right atmosphere to her players. The advice also stresses that the most important aspect of being an Animator is to remember that the Animator is in charge, and that anything she says goes. That said, the Animator should always be open to ideas from her players and when it counts, she should act crazy.

Rounding out
Toon – The Cartoon Roleplaying Game are another three Short Subjects and one Feature Film. The extra Short Subjects include ‘The Cartoon Olympics Strikes Back!’, which really just expands on ‘The Cartoon Olympics’ with a single page; ‘I Foogled You!’ sends the Player Characters into the jungles of Darkest Africa (conveniently located Outside of Town) in search of the famed Foogle Bird, which involves lots of swinging on vines with a Tarzan-like character and his wife; and ‘Spaced Out Saps’ in which members if the Space Aeronautics Patrol Squad or S.A.P.S., take a trip to the Moon (conveniently located Outside of Town) and investigate strange activity involving The Martian and The Martian Dog. The Feature Film is ‘The Better Housetrap’ in which the Player Characters are trying to hide out in a newly built house, only for them to discover that the house is actually robotic! Each one of the Short Subjects and the Feature Films can be played in a single session and each wears its inspirations firmly on its sleeves.

Toon – The Cartoon Roleplaying Game is cleanly, tidily laid out and organised. It is liberally illustrated with entertaining cartoon artwork. The roleplaying game is well written and easy to read and grasp.

Toon – The Cartoon Roleplaying Game was reviewed not once, but twice by Dragon magazine. First by Michael Dobson in ‘New heights(?) in silliness’ in Dragon #92 (December 1984), in which the opening line is, “TOON™, The Cartoon Roleplaying Game, appears at first glance to be just an elaborate joke.” before he qualifies this with, “…TOON is a genuine good idea – an original (if unlikely) concept in role-playing – that is enjoyable, fastmoving, and incredibly silly.” Although critical of the roleplaying game’s use of Plot Points, which he felt were, “…[A] holdover from traditional role-playing games that doesn’t quite fit the TOON spirit. In a straight adventure game, a character’s potential to improve may be important as a tool to motivate the player and to keep a campaign going. In TOON, this approach doesn’t make sense. Cartoon characters never get “better.”” Nevertheless, Dobson described Toon as “Inspired silliness…” Jim Bambra would follow this up in Dragon #144 (April 1989) in ‘Role-Playing Reviews’. He described it as “…[A] classic – a game which deserves the attention of everyone looking for a dramatic change of pace and emphasis in their role-playing.” before concluding with, “The TOON game provides an excellent change of pace and a shift of emphasis away from the more serious role-playing games. I highly recommend it as an evening’s entertainment and as a cure to role-playing blues.”

In ‘Notices’ in Imagine No 21 (December 1984), Mike Lewis was equally as positive, concluding his review with, “Toon is a very refreshing change from the usual run-of-the-mill rpgs which have been appearing recently. The game very firmly puts a sense of humour back into rpgs. If you are interested in cartoons, then Toon is an essential purchase — but even if you aren’t, try it for a change. I am very impressed with the ideas behind this game and hope that it gets more support than most minority RPGs have done in the past. It deserves it.”

R.A. Greer reviewed
Toon in Space Gamer Number 72 ((Jan/Feb 1985) and like Jim Bambra would four years later, described it as an antidote to the roleplaying blues, saying that, “TOON is a quick cure for all your roleplaying ills, a fast-acting balm to be applied directly to your funny bone, speeding you back to those uncomplicated days of roleplaying when it was fun!” His conclusion was equally as complimentary, stating that, “TOON is a gen for those willing to work with it a little bit. (The game should have been published with a qualified Animator stapled inside.) It may not replace the weekly fantasy game, but it’s great change of pace. It is also a great introduction to roleplaying for that new to the hobby and really allows experienced gamers to let down their hair. Almost all of TOON’s problems can be solved by applying this simple maxim: “If you want to do it, exaggerate it; if it’s simple, complicate it; if you’re in a jam, take all steps to make it worse.” Follow these simple rules and you’ll advance the plot and add to the fun. Congratulations to Steve Jackson Games on a job well done.”

None other than Larry DiTillio reviewed Toon in ‘Game Reviews’ in Different Worlds Issue 38 (Jan/Feb 1985), awarding the roleplaying three stars out of four and praising its writing, stating that, “[Greg] Costikyan has clarity, wit, and the good sense to be brief, as well as an obvious love for cartoons. The rulebook not only reads quickly and easily, it makes you eager to play the game.” He advised that, “Role-players of a basically serious nature and gamemasters who prefer rigid detail are advised to stay away. On the other hand, for a few hours of silliness, Toon can’t be beat and is a refreshing change from the ofttimes leaden pace of other role-playing games. It’s fast, it’s fun, it’s simple.”

Toon was reviewed in ‘Open Box’ in White Dwarf Number 63 (March 1985) by Stephen Kyle, who awarded it nine out of ten. He concluded that, “For anyone who likes cartoons, then Toon is definitely worth looking into. It concentrates more on the Warner Brothers/Hanna Barbera type of American cartoon, rather than the more sophisticated British product like Dangermouse. Nevertheless, all of us have favourite cartoons or characters and Toon enables you to recreate them easily and with a lot of fun. I just hope it gets more support than most minority RPGs.”

Toon – The Cartoon Roleplaying Game does have one single problem—and it is a big one. That is the degree of buy-in that a Game Master and her players need to have to play and enjoy Toon, the willingness to accept its implied anarchy and mandatory impulsiveness of ‘ACT before you THINK’, and to break the learned habits of playing roleplaying games. A player unwilling or unable to make that adjustment is not going to enjoy or appreciate the fun that Toon has to offer.

Toon – The Cartoon Roleplaying Game is and was a groundbreaking roleplaying game, because of its treatment of the cartoon genre and its humour, although numerous roleplaying games have visited its genre since. It is simple, even simplistic, but the simplicity of the rules and the mechanics means that Toon is incredibly easy to teach and just as easy to grasp, and when it comes to its genre, Toon has the most accessible, most familiar genre of almost any roleplaying game. After all, who has not seen a Looney Tunes or Tom and Jerry cartoon? Which absolutely makes it great for convention play. That said, whilst it can be used as an introductory roleplaying game, it is not written as an introductory roleplaying game, so is best suited to be run by an experienced Game Master who can adapt to its fast pace and over the top, silly play. Similarly, this is a roleplaying game whose speed and tone is something that experienced players will also have to adapt to in order to get into the spirit of the roleplaying game and its silly, cartoon humour.

Toon – The Cartoon Roleplaying Game is undemanding fun that in the hands of a good Animator awards energy, inventiveness, and impulsiveness. Toon – The Cartoon Roleplaying Game is the roleplaying equivalent of a tonic, a great pick up and play roleplaying game that enables the players to engage in all of the mayhem and madness of their favourite childhood cartoons and after they Fall Down, get back up and dive right back in.

Monday 26 February 2024

Jonstown Jottings #88: The Bully Bird

Much like the Miskatonic Repository for Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition, the Jonstown Compendium is a curated platform for user-made content, but for material set in Greg Stafford’s mythic universe of Glorantha. It enables creators to sell their own original content for RuneQuest: Roleplaying in Glorantha, 13th Age Glorantha, and HeroQuest Glorantha (Questworlds). This can include original scenarios, background material, cults, mythology, details of NPCs and monsters, and so on, but none of this content should be considered to be ‘canon’, but rather fall under ‘Your Glorantha Will Vary’. This means that there is still scope for the authors to create interesting and useful content that others can bring to their Glorantha-set campaigns.


What is it?
The Bully Bird is a “A monstrous predator packed into two pages” for use with RuneQuest: Roleplaying in Glorantha which presents a creature and three hooks to use the creature in a campaign that the Game Master can develop and run as a single session’s worth of play or possibly longer.

It is a two page, full colour 329.59 KB PDF.

The layout is tidy, the artwork rough, but serviceable.

The creature and the scenario hooks can be easily be adapted to the rules system of the Game Master’s choice.

Where is it set?
As written, The Bully Bird details a creature found across Dragon Pass.

Who do you play?
The Bully Bird does not require any specific character type, but the Bully Bird is hated by Orlanth-worshippers in particular, and anyone who keeps alynxes, such as Odayla or Yinkin worshippers.

What do you need?
The Bully Bird requires RuneQuest: Roleplaying in Glorantha only.

What do you get?
The Bully Bird details simple, but very large creature, roughly four times taller than the average man and the size of a mammoth. It is a giant bird that talks and pecks its way back and forth across Dragon Pass, able to fly, but only with the benefit of a running start. It will stalk and eat anything it likes, but not men, though it is capable of defending itself by pecking or grappling with its beak or flapping its wings in a strong strike. Having escaped into the mortal world from God Time following a botched heroquest, it has become both a terror across the region and a much desired trophy for hunters, who are seen as being either very brave or very foolish for wanting to hunt it. One reason to hunt are its magical feathers, which either make magnificent trophies or can be used to attract predators when hunting.

In addition to describing the Bully Bird, how it came to be in the mortal world, and giving its stats, The Bully Bird includes three plot hooks. These will have the Player Characters preventing it being accidently caught by Summons of Evil cast by a clan, the Bully Bird becoming infatuated with a Player Character, and the Player Characters becoming involved in an attempt to banish the Bully Bird. These are thumbnail descriptions at best, and the Game Master will need to undertake a fair amount of development to have something readily playable.

One aspect of the Bully Bird which would have have benefited from further development is the heroquest that enabled it to escape God Quest. That might have better prepared the Game Master who wants to run a heroquest to banish it or it might even set up the possibility of the Player Characters having performed the original heroquest that set the Bully Bird free in Dragon Pass!

Ultimately the usefulness of The Bully Bird will depend upon if the Game Master does not mind adding another creature to Glorantha, especially as one as ridiculous as the the Bully Bird, and does not mind developing the included scenario hooks.

Is it worth your time?
YesThe Bully Bird adds a strange beast to Glorantha that can be seen lurking here and there throughout Dragon Pass before the Player Characters go hunting for it just as in Lewis Carroll’s The Hunting of the Snark.
NoThe Bully Bird is just a bit too gonzo, even silly, and needs too much effort upon the part of the Game Master to effectively use.
MaybeThe Bully Bird is fantastically absurd, a looming presence which reminds others of the dangers of heroquests gone wrong and with a bit of effort its plot hooks can be developed in something worth running..

Miskatonic Monday #265: Mad Sci – How to Train your Shoggoth

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: Kurt Havelock

Setting: Miskatonic University
Product: One-shot
What You Get: Thirty-eight page, 142.16 MB Full Colour PDF

Elevator Pitch: Miskatonic Mad Science
Plot Hook: Cartoonish capers with chemistry and whatnot causes chaos
Plot Support: Eighteen NPCs, one map, and sixteen Mythos monsters, plus one robot.
Production Values: Plain

# Entertainingly cartoonish art
# Interesting set of NPCs/Mythos Monsters
# Variant Great Race of Yith
Science Anxiety

# EDU as a stat is NOT stupid
# Variant Great Race of Yith
# All set-up, no plot
# No staging advice
# No investigation
# Unusable as written without a lot of effort

# All set-up, but no plot, investigation, adventure, or advice on how to use it
# Actually more the bible for an anime-style Saturday morning Miskatonic University mad science cartoon