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Sunday, 21 January 2018

Cthulhu Classics VIII

From one week to the next, Reviews from R’lyeh writes reviews of new games and supplements with an emphasis on Call of Cthulhu and other games of Lovecraftian investigative horror. This series concentrates on Call of Cthulhu and other games of Lovecraftian investigative horror, but not those recently released, but those of the past. There have been innumerable titles published over the years and this is an opportunity to appraise them anew, often decades after they were first released.

Having looked at the releases from Games Workshop, culminating with Green and Pleasant Land: The British 1920s-30s Cthulhu Source Pack, Reviews from R’lyeh now moves on to another early licensee for Chaosium, Inc. This is T.O.M.E. or Theatre of the Mind Enterprises, a publisher best known for the five titles it released for use with Call of Cthulhu and Gardasiyal: Adventures in Tékumel, the 1990s roleplaying game set in the world of Tékumel: Empire of the Petal Throne. Between 1983 and 1984, T.O.M.E. would publish five collections of scenarios—The Arkham Evil, Death In Dunwich, Pursuit To Kadath, Whispers From The Abyss And Other Tales, and Glozel Est Authentique!—for use with Call of Cthulhu, Second Edition. The second release though, and the subject of this review, is Death In Dunwich.

As with The Arkham Evil, it is initially difficult to determine what Death in Dunwich actually is. The extent of the back cover blurb runs to, “The Nightmare Continues . . . The police aren’t talking . . . The coroner is terrified . . . But it’s Business as Usual in Dunwich! Another macabre adventure from: Theatre of the Mind Enterprises, Inc.” Not only is this unhelpful, elements of the blurb are inaccurate. There is no indication as to what nightmare is continuing from, is it H.P. Lovecraft’s story ‘The Dunwich Horror’, or is it from The Arkham Evil? It is certainly no sequel to The Arkham Evil and despite being set in Dunwich, it has very little to do with that story. As to the inaccuracies, the police will tell the investigators what they want to know, so they are talking, and as to the coroner, he is more mystified than terrified.
So what is Death in Dunwich? Well, it is a scenario set in 1922 which takes place in Massachusetts and New York. The mystery at its heart is the death of Dale Plunckett, an art expert with French citizenship whose body has been found a few miles outside of the Massachusetts town of Dunwich. The investigators are hired by a mysterious stranger to determine how he died, who killed him, and why he was killed. They are given a week in which to conduct the investigation and paid handsomely for it. Exactly what the interest of this mysterious stranger has in the fate of Dale Plunckett is unclear, adding further to the number of obfuscations littering the pages of Death in Dunwich.

The investigation begins with the state police in Springfield, Massachusetts and they will be happy to answer the investigators’ questions as will be the coroner. There are one or two clues to be found in Dunwich, but the next step of the investigation hinges on the discovery of a key. If this is found, then the investigators can access a treasure trove of clues—some twenty-five or so individual clues across some eight pages, nearly a quarter the length of Death in Dunwich’s thirty-six pages. If the investigators do not get the key, then both they and the scenario are basically derailed. There is a way to get them back on track, but it essentially involves the investigators being arrested after the disappearance and death of the investigating officer and the Keeper having the interrogating officers drop enough clues for the investigators to know where to go next.

As to what is going on in Death in Dunwich, this kept hidden from the Keeper, let alone the players and their investigators, for nearly all of the book, and even then it is barely spelt out. The background to the plot begins with two brotherhoods. The Right Hand is good and seeks to protect various relics and artworks against the Left Hand, which of course being ‘sinister’, is dedicated to evil. This background has no relevance to the plot of Death in Dunwich, except that Roland Dunkelherz, an agent of the Left Hand has enveigeled himself into the service of the world’s richest man, the octogenarian, J.D. Rothenfelder, and found a way of providing him with unique works by the Old Masters that he so craves. This is by resurrecting Old Masters, including Da Vinci, Rubens, Caravaggio, and so on, and forcing them to create new masterworks. Somehow, Dale Plunckett came across one of these unique works of art, a previously unknown painting by Leonardo da Vinci, and was investigating its provenance when he was killed.

The denouement of Death in Dunwich essentially involves the investigators arriving at the door of J.D. Rothenfelder who has moved to the tiny, isolated town of Dunwich, discovering something that there is something odd going on, the least of which is the fact that he has a pet gorilla. Then having a fight. Getting there is an awkward journey as without the clues from the trove, the investigators will have no reason to visit him, or indeed, stay in Dunwich once they have learned all that they can. This is despite the scenario devoting a lot of space to detailing the town and its inhabitants, who will not have a bad word to say against him. The investigators may learn about the events which Lovecraft described in ‘The Dunwich Horror’ and which the inhabitants of the town are reluctant to talk about, but of course, this is just one more aspect of the Death in Dunwich which is irrelevant to the scenario’s plot.

If The Arkham Evil has a poor reputation, then Death in Dunwich deserves an equally poor, if not a worse, reputation. At the back of the book, in the ‘Advice to Keepers’ section, the designer states, “This scenario should be run as follows: the Introduction should be intriguing, the Middle Game should be frustrating, and the End Game should be an orgy of violence.” The scenario more than lives up to all three claims. The set-up is intriguing of that there is no doubt. After all, there is the dead body of man who died under mysterious circumstances and that of course, raises questions. So having got the players and their investigators intrigued with a set-up, the scenario literally locks the second two thirds of the scenario away unless the investigators find the key. What this means is that this physical key is the literal key to completing the scenario.

This also has the effect of undermining any semblance that the scenario has of a second act. If the investigators do not get the treasure trove of clues, they have nothing to do except wander around Dunwich not being told anything by the inhabitants because they lack the questions to ask and so cannot move onto the third act and its climax. This is unnecessarily frustrating and even if they do find the treasure trove, then the players and their investigators spend the entire second act sifting through a lot of clues before moving onto the climax.

The climax itself is likely to be violent and it has the possibility of being somewhat creepy, but whether or not it turns out to be horrifying is all down to the players. To begin with, they might not even encounter the resurrected artists. This might be because they simply never discover where they are being held captive, but it might because they kill Dunkelherz and since he was responsible for their resurrection and is now dead, they crumble back into dust. If the investigators do encounter the resurrected artists, it suggests that they stab them and send them back to dust. Whilst this is the humane thing to do, it ignores the fact that the first thing that the investigators will want to do is ask questions and then stab later…

This highlights another pair of issues with Death in Dunwich. One is that whilst there is mystery, there is barely any horror present and that in the scenario’s third act only. There is absolutely none in the first and second acts, and just the single Sanity loss mentioned in the scenario at all. The other issue is that there is barely any Mythos in Death in Dunwich, instead just dancing around the events of ‘The Dunwich Horror’ and using the mechanics of Call of Cthulhu to design Roland Dunkelherz as a difficult opponent to beat in a fight. So in a sense it barely qualifies as a Call of Cthulhu scenario and the fact that it uses the backdrop of ‘The Dunwich Horror’ as window dressing means that the scenario could just as easily be set in any small town. Certainly nobody would notice the difference just as they would not notice that the irrelevant links to ‘The Dunwich Horror’ have been removed.

Physically, Death in Dunwich is surprisingly well presented. The artwork is okay, but the cartography is clear and simple and there is some semblance towards creating some decent handouts. Many of them though will need to be photocopied and cut out, and there is rather a lot of them, but they do work as a set of handouts and clues. One annoying aspect of the writing is the use of slightly silly names of NPCs which serves to undermine the tone of the scenario. Right the middle of the adventure is a screen of sorts. It is a nice idea, but really all it does is reprint the maps that appear elsewhere in the book. The scenario also comes with some pre-generated investigators, though they will need fleshing out, and an envelope. This contains further information for the Keeper, in fact, the stats and description of the bad guy at the heart of the scenario. Its inclusion feels more like the designers forgot to add these details during the writing of the scenario.

Yet much like The Arkham Evil before, Death in Dunwich is not without its merits. It is of course the first scenario to present Dunwich for Call of Cthulhu. It has some good clues and they do support the mystery at the heart of the scenario. Further, they support what has the potential to be an interesting mystery, but not without a rewrite. 
Reviewing Death in Dunwich in Dragon #91 (November, 1984) in ‘The butler didn’t do it: Mysterious adventures in role-playing’, Ken Rolston made several criticisms of the adventure, most notably, “No summary of the narrative is provided, and no chronology is listed, so it is difficult to get an orderly sense of the whole adventure. The gamemaster must pay close attention when reading the background information, and I often found it necessary to backtrack and scan ahead to make sense of what I was reading.”, but he was surprisingly positive, finishing the review by saying that, “The mystery itself is detailed, challenging, and dramatic. The horror is satisfactorily evil and gruesome in the Cthulhu style, and the setting, background, and characters are effectively detailed.” Similarly, Jon Sutherland, reviewing both The Arkham Evil and Death in Dunwich in Open Box in White Dwarf #48 (December, 1983), described Death in Dunwich as “...a much shorter, ultimately more satisfying adventure; the compactness of the information is useful, as is the Keeper’s screen which is stapled inside the book.” and in comparing it to The Arkham Evil said, “Death in Dunwich can be interesting, frustrating and terminal and consequently is the better of the two.” He gave the scenario an overall score of eight out of ten.

Death in Dunwich was discussed not once, but twice in the pages of The Space Gamer. The first time was in The Space Gamer #71 (Nov/Dec 1984) by William A. Barton, the designer of Cthulhu by Gaslight: Horror Roleplaying in 1890s England. In ‘Whispers of Things Lovecraftian: TOME’s Cthulhu Modules’ Barton provides an overview of the line published to date before reviewing, the fourth release from T.O.M.E., Whispers from the Abyss and Other Tales. As well as highlighting the scenario’s deficits and some of the criticisms made elsewhere of the scenario, Barton’s opinion was that “...[T]he scenario could also be viewed as an interesting change of pace for experienced CoC investigators (similar to a couple in Chaosium’s The Asylum and Cthulhu Companion). With a few changes, it could even prove suitable for use as an occult-oriented scenario for such systems as Mercenaries, Spies & Private Eyes, Daredevils, or Tri-Tac’s Stalking the Night Fantastic.” This was followed up with a capsule review in The Space Gamer #73 (Mar/Apr 1985) by Russ Williams  who pointed out that, “Unfortunately, most of the scenario’s background is hidden from the players, so from the point of view of this adventure, it is wasted space.” In general though, he was more positive than most reviewers of the day, ending with, “I recommend Death in Dunwich for players with  bit of experience and tact who are ready to concentrate on a murder mystery instead of the Cthulhu mythos.”

The scenario was reviewed in Different Worlds #32 (Jan/Feb 1984) by Larry DiTillio—the designer of Masks of Nyarlathotep—no less! He was enthusiastic about the plot, describing it as a “dandy idea”, but of the overall scenario, he wrote, “Summing up, Death in Dunwich leaves a lot to be desired in terms of a Cthulhu scenario.” but that the best thing about it from a Cthulhu standpoint, “...[I]s the detailing of Dunwich itself.” He finished by writing, “...with a little bit of hole-plugging and expansion, the mystery itself might make a good change of pace scenario in a Cthulhu campaign. My recommendation: think it over before buying it and if you do buy it, keep a grain of salt handy for the designer’s suggestions.”

It is difficult to sum Death in Dunwich up as anything more than a failed attempt to both write a mystery and provide the means to investigate it. Obviously, the scenario was released at a time when the concept and art of writing investigative scenarios was relatively new, but Chaosium was also new to the process and it was providing solid investigative scenarios at the time when T.O.M.E. was not. Ultimately Death in Dunwich feels like three parts—the opening mystery, the clues, and the climax—which were designed separately before being brought together to see if they work as a whole. Which of course, they do not—not without a lot of redesign upon the part of the Keeper. To return to the designer’s statement that “This scenario should be run as follows: the Introduction should be intriguing, the Middle Game should be frustrating, and the End Game should be an orgy of violence.” Well, Death in Dunwich is all of those things, but mostly an exercise in frustration.


—oOo—


With thanks to Brandon Blackmoor and Stephen Ward for providing access to Dragon #91 as well as to Darren Happens for access to Different Worlds #32.

Saturday, 20 January 2018

Disappointingly Close To The Near Heavens

The advent of the Open Gaming Licence opens up a world of publishing possibilities for both creatives and other publishers. So it is with the Cepheus Engine System Reference Document from Samardan Press which details the core rules for a Classic Era Science Fiction 2D6-Based Open Gaming System. In other words, it allows the creation of Science Fiction gaming content which is compatible with Traveller, the first big Science Fiction roleplaying game, though not set in the same background as Traveller’s primary setting of the Third Imperium. So for example, Stellagama Publishing has its own setting in These Stars Are Ours! as does Battlefield Press with Warren C. Norwoods Double Spiral War. Stygian Fox Publishing, best known for publishing the highly regarded Things We Leave Behind for Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition, also has its own setting in the form of ‘The Near Heavens’ of which A Life Worth Living is the first release for.

‘The Near Heavens’ offers “Hard Edged Science Fiction Roleplaying in the Near Heavens Setting of AD2151’. In the twenty-second century humanity has explored and colonised worlds out as far as Groombridge and Sirius, the limits of the authority of the Terran Associative. This is the governmental organisation which has come to regulate life on and off world as nation states shattered in the wake of a limited nuclear war in the twenty-first century. Although there are still nation state holdouts, what has replaced them across most of settled space are polities based around cultures, often fracturing out of their former states in a series of ‘Culture Wars’. These continue to this day, with some ‘Culture Wars’ actually serving as proxy wars for other polities or corporations. Such conflicts, typically low scale, offer employment opportunities for mercenaries. Interstellar travel is achieved via Jump Space, but a Jump takes weeks and requires passengers to travel in cryosleep as only Synths, or Synthetic androids, can withstand the rigours of Jump space. Passengers do not age in cryosleep, so frequent travellers are typically biologically younger than their chronological age. Space travel is not entirely safe and Jump inversion incidents, which occasionally result in the loss of passengers rather than a starship, are a known hazard.

A Life Worth Living is an introduction and scenario for ‘The Near Heavens’. It is a fairly linear affair designed to highlight various aspects of the setting and comes with a set of pre-generated player characters designed to play the scenario. They are Private Security Contractors—or mercenaries—who operate as a special operations cadre known as Black Maul. Currently on Groombridge after completing a contract, they receive messages from Terese de Sainte, an ex-member of the squad. Her messages make reference to the ‘Cabin in the Woods’, an incident on the world of Eden in the Groombridge system in which the squad was attacked by Edenite separatists and had to hold out until it was evacuated. It was a defining moment for the squad and the constant references to this incident suggest that she might be serious trouble.

The trail leads back to Earth and beyond, the mystery revolving around a McGuffin or two, both of which will remain elusive and just out of reach for much of A Life Worth Living. The plot is fairly straightforward and involves a good mix of interaction and combat as well as investigation. Whilst it has some decent moments, it does end on a downbeat note with little in the way of a decent climax. Both it and the ‘Near Heavens’ setting is supported by details of various drones and vehicles, ’Bots and Synthetics, and arms used by both the members of Black Maul and other Private Security Contractors. The description of the Synthetics includes the means to create them as characters—both player characters and NPCs—and it should be noted that one of the members of Black Maul is a Synth.

Although A Life Worth Living is designed to be played using the pre-generated characters provided, it can be played using characters that the players created themselves. They need to be mercenaries, primarily with ground combat related skills, but there are plenty options within that framework. The Game Master will need to work some of the scenario’s background into that of player characters’ background, especially to establish the relationship with Terese de Sainte. One way to do that is to stage the ‘Cabin in the Woods’ scene is as a prologue. This would strengthen the ties between the Terese de Sainte and the rest of Black Maul and so strengthen the motivations of the Black Maul squad members—that is, the player characters—to go to the help of Terese de Sainte at the start of the scenario. One of the players would have to roleplay Terese de Sainte as one of the members of Black Maul does not turn up until the closing moments of ‘Cabin in the Woods’ to rescue them. This would also strengthen the player characters’ ties to Terese de Sainte. Plus, it would work with the pre-generated characters as well as those created by the players.

Physically, A Life Worth Living is beautifully presented. The layout looks clean and the book is liberally illustrated with stunning artwork, the best of which is very well done as contemporary adverts. Unfortunately, A Life Worth Living is far from perfect. As pretty as the layout is—and it is undoubtedly pretty—look closer and it is just a bit rough around the edges. The editing, or lack thereof, is excruciating and leaves the reader wishing that time had been spent on this. It does not help that there are no page numbers and no index. For some gamers, the scenario’s linear plot may be more of an issue, but A Life Worth Living does involve a lot of space travel, going from point A to point B, and it really is an introductory scenario, so arguably, this can be overlooked.

The primary problem with the design of A Life Worth Living is that there is no explanation of the plot. Instead, the plot is explained as it progresses in the book and this is the most awkward means of presenting the plot. A summary of the plot would really have helped the Game Master prepare the scenario.

A Life Worth Living is probably the prettiest and most professional looking book ever released for use with the Cepheus Engine System, let alone for Traveller. Yet that professionalism is not carried off as far as the content is concerned. Although the it is far from unplayable, A Life Worth Living needs another edit and it needs just a little further development. 

Monday, 15 January 2018

Miskatonic Monday #3: Terror Itself

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 a Five Go Mad in EgyptReturn of the RipperRise ofthe DeadRise ofthe 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 far reaches of the Miskatonic Repository.

—oOo—


NameTerror Itself

Publisher: Chaosium, Inc.
AuthorJames Coquillat & David Naylor
Illsutrations: Alex Low, David Naylor, & Leon Fechner

SettingMassachusetts, 1920s, Miskatonic University, Lovecraft Country
Product: Scenario
What You Get2.2 MB, 24-page full colour PDF
Elevator Pitch: Archaeology meets things under the bed all against the clock

Plot Hook: A lonely strangeness comes to an isolated Massachusetts village after the Investigators begin an archaeological dig on an Indian burial ground.
Plot DevelopmentInteresting archaeology and missing animals. Are strangers—the investigators?—responsible or is something else haunting the town?
Plot SupportFully plotted out with eight NPCs, scenes and events, timeline, and archaeological investigation. Plus six pre-generated investigators.
Production ValuesNeeds an edit. The map could be clearer. No area map.

Pros

Archaeological dig used as a means of investigation
Good mix of main NPCs
# Good addition to an archaeology-based campaign
Good addition to a Miskatonic University-based campaign
# Good mix of timed and freeform events
# Possible link to Innsmouth (in name only)
# Makes great use of shadows
Easy to adapt to Cthulhu by Gaslight or Cthulhu Now 

Cons

Minor NPCs left undeveloped
No village or area map
Sanity losses and gains too low in places
Needs a careful read through
# Odd mix of pre-generated investigators
# Title feels like a placeholder

Conclusion

# Excellent use of Archaeological excavation as investigation
Short, two session scenario
Creepy and underplayed plot
# Solid addition to a Lovecraft Country campaign
Uninteresting title
# Pleasingly unnerving in places

Saturday, 13 January 2018

Under Swords & Wizardry's Light

When it comes to the Old School Renaissance, the gamer has plenty of retroclones to choose from, depending upon his preferred version of Dungeons & Dragons. Of course, if you really wanted to play in the Old School style, then what you want is a retroclone which draws from Original Dungeons & Dragons and for that there is no finer starting point than Swords & Wizardry. Originally published in 2008, Swords & Wizardry has proved to be a popular choice of retroclone and despite  being a fantasy roleplaying game, it has actually formed the basis of some Science Fiction roleplaying games, in particular White Star: White Box Science Fiction Roleplaying  from Barrel Rider Games and its Pulp Sci-Fi offshoot, Dare the Stars! The Future as it Once Was from Wild Boar Games, LLC. In the decade since, Swords & Wizardry has appeared in various versions, most notably Swords & Wizardry - Complete Rulebook and Swords & Wizardry Light. As its title suggests, the former contains everything you need to play and more, but the latter is a free-to-download and play version that covers the four core Classes of Dungeons & Dragons and First to Third Levels of play. Between the two and released in late 2017, is the latest iteration of the roleplaying game, Swords & Wizardry Continual Light.

The opening sentence of the introduction to Swords & Wizardry Continual Light is as follows: “You remember, don’t you? The sounds of battle heard through the clatter of dice? The shuffling of character sheets? The war stories shared with fellow campaigners?” This perfectly explains what Swords & Wizardry Continual Light is designed as. This is both as an introductory roleplaying game and not as an introductory roleplaying game. It is an introductory roleplaying game for gamers who have roleplayed before, either returning to the hobby after a while away and wanting to play a fantasy roleplaying game a la Dungeons & Dragons once again or wanting to try an Old School Renaissance retroclone after playing other roleplaying games. It is not an introductory roleplaying game in that its rules are radically streamlined for ease of play rather than ease of learning, so there is no explanation of what roleplaying is or how the game is played.

Characters in Swords & Wizardry Continual Light have the usual attributes—Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, Intelligence, Wisdom, and Charisma. A bonus of +1 is awarded if one of the attributes is fifteen or more, which has various effects depending upon the attribute. So yes, the +1 bonus for Strength applies to a Fighter’s attack and damage rolls, but for a Magic-User, a +1 bonus for Intelligence acts as a penalty to anyone who has to save against his spells, whilst for Charisma, it also grants an NPC, a Torchbearer, who will join the adventurer on his explorations and expeditions. There are four Races—Dwarf, Elf, Halfling, and Human, and four Classes—Fighter, Cleric, Magic-User, and Thief. The three non-Human Races provide various bonuses, but are limited in their choice of available Classes. The Classes work as well as you would expect, granting Class abilities, a Saving Throw, a Base Hit Bonus, and a Hit Dice, but there are differences.

So a Fighter is good at fighting, a Cleric can cast holy spells and turn undead, and so on. All Classes presented in Swords & Wizardry Continual Light are given a choice of Gear Sets in terms of weapons and armour, whilst all characters get to pick from a choice of Adventuring Packs which provides their starting equipment. The first difference though, is the fact that every character’s Hit Points are rolled on a six-sided die per Level rather than on different polyhedral dice per Class as in other Dungeons & Dragons-style roleplaying games. Similarly, the damage rolls for various weapons are rolled on six-sided dice rather than on polyhedral dice. The second difference is that each character only has the single Saving Throw, which of course, improves as the character acquires Levels. The rate of improvement varies between Classes. The other difference pertains to the Thief Class, which like every other treatment of the Class, has various burglary-related skills. These are rated between one and six, rather than on a percentile scale as in other Dungeons & Dragons type roleplaying games.

To create a character, a player rolls three six-sided for each attribute and keeps the results. He selects a Race, a Class, spells if the Class allows spells to be cast, and then a Gear Set and a Adventuring Pack. The most time consuming part of this process is actually writing it all down, but the information is slight enough that it could be noted down on an index card.

Elidyr Virzana, Elf, Level 1 Magic-User
Str: 12 Int: 16 (+1) Wis: 07
Con: 11 Dex: 13 Chr: 15 (+1)
Hit Points: 3 Save: 15 (+4 Saves vs. Magic)
Armour Class: 10 Ascending Armour Class: 10
+1 to-hit vs. goblins, orcs, and undead; immune to paralysis; +2 save vs. magic; +1 to Hide in Shadows & Move Silently
Spellbook: Sleep, Detect Magic
Gear: Staff (1d6), Daggers (2) (1d6-1), Adventuring Pack
Torchbearer: Norbert Smith (HD 1-1, AC 9 (10), HP 5)

Perhaps the biggest difference in Swords & Wizardry Continual Light is how experience and the acquisition of Levels is handled. It foregoes Experience Points and simply awards a character a new Level after he has played through a set number of adventures. This is two to go from First to Second Level, then five to go from Third to Fourth Level, and so on all the way up to Seventh Level, the maximum Level possible in Swords & Wizardry Continual Light. This is pleasingly simple and it nicely supports a couple of options also given. These include eight optional Classes—Bards, Assassins, Druids, Monks, Necromancers, Paladins, Rangers, and Swashbucklers—which are variants of the four core Classes. All eight are quite powerful in comparison to those four core Classes, so Swords & Wizardry Continual Light balances this in a simple way. The character of an optional Class has to complete an extra adventure to acquire a new Level in comparison to the four core Classes, so three instead of two to go from First to Second Level. Further, the rules provide an option for playing beyond Seventh Level, allowing players to purchase Perks like an extra Hit Point, an additional spell slot, or a reduction a character’s Saving Throw, using credits they accrue for completing adventures. One last option gives rules for balancing playing a Human character rather than a character of another Race and allowing a Cleric to have spells at First Level.

In the main, the rest of the book consists of a series of short sections. So equipment, spells—four or five spells for each Level up to Third Level for the Cleic and the Magic-User Classes, combat and running the game, and treasure are covered in just a couple of pages each. This is done by stripping the content back to its bare essentials, so that spell and treasure descriptions and effects are expressed on no more than a couple of lines. Monster details and descriptions understandably need a little more space, but not much, but the sheer number of them means that almost five pages are devoted to them. Again, their details are stripped down, but the combination of stats and description rarely amounts to more than four lines.

Rounding out Swords & Wizardry Continual Light is a glossary and a guide to converting  Swords & Wizardry Complete to Swords & Wizardry Continual Light. All this runs to just twenty pages, including the Open Gaming Licence. Which begs the question, what is missing? Obviously, there is no introduction to roleplaying, no example of character generation, no example of play, and so on, but then arguably Swords & Wizardry Continual Light does not need them because it is not aimed at an audience which needs that sort of introductory content. What Swords & Wizardry Continual Light very much lacks is an adventure. Without that, it feels like a complete set of mechanics, but not a complete package and an adventure would have rounded the Swords & Wizardry Continual Light out. It is not even as there is not space available—there are a few more blank pages which could have been filled with an adventure.

Physically, Swords & Wizardry Continual Light is a bit hit and miss. The layout is at best serviceable and readable, but that is in the main due to the stripped down nature of the text, organised as it is into almost bullet points. One issue is that the character sheet is plain ugly and artless. Another is with the art. The book’s cover is great, but it does not match the internal illustrations, especially in terms of tone. It is great and it is heroic, but the internal illustrations depict down at heel, desperate adventurers all but muddling through in grim, dangerous situations. Some of the artwork quality is poor, but the worst problem is that its size varies too much and impinges upon the layout. This really needed to be more consistently handled. Lastly, it feels as if it should be presented as an A5, digest-sized book rather than the A4 size it is.

Bar the adventure, there is no denying that Swords & Wizardry Continual Light gives you everything necessary to play and presents it in as to the point and as accessible a fashion as possible. As a printed booklet though, it feels  a little more expensive than other games of its ilk, especially given the lack of adventure. That said, the PDF version of Swords & Wizardry Continual Light is inexpensive and the available adventures are just as inexpensive, so that the Dungeon Master can get playing quickly and easily without being too heavy on the wallet. It also feels like it should be in a box with dice and adventures and character sheets, essentially a ‘White Box’ version of Swords & Wizardry Continual Light.

Published by Triumvirate Tavern PublishingSwords & Wizardry Continual Light is overall, an impressively simple and straightforward retroclone. It may not do anything particularly original, but what it does, it does to the point and it does in a pleasingly familiar fashion. Swords & Wizardry Continual Light is stripped down, sparse Dungeons & Dragon-style gaming, perfect for making the switch to the Old School Renaissance or coming back to the hobby.

Thursday, 11 January 2018

The Ninth Doctor

With The Ninth Doctor Sourcebook, Cubicle Seven Entertainment’s celebration of Doctor Who’s fiftieth anniversary for the Ennie-award winning Doctor Who: Adventures in Time and Space roleplaying game leaps onto more recent and familiar ground with an examination of the first Doctor to appear in the ‘Nu Who’ era. Brushing all but the basics aside of what had come before it, the Ninth Doctor reset just about everything to have unencumbered adventures with a new Companion, all new monsters—only one old monster would return in the first season of ‘Nu Who’, and hugely improved funding at Saturday teatime where he belonged. Of course, neither the Doctor nor his Companions were wholly unencumbered—as we shall see—but the success of the first season of ‘Nu Who’ would lay the foundation for the worldwide phenomenon that Doctor Who would become in the twenty-first century and ensure that the BBC had faith in the programme once again. The shortness of the Ninth Doctor’s incarnation though, does have its repercussions and its parallels for The Ninth Doctor Sourcebook.

“Change, my dear. And it seems not a moment too soon.” If the quote from the start of the Sixth Doctor’s era is appropriate for a review of The Sixth Doctor Sourcebook, then it is never more appropriate for the Ninth Doctor and The Ninth Doctor Sourcebook. For it is actually surprising to realise that the Sixth Doctor and the Ninth Doctor have certain aspects in common. Both had more or less the same number of stories—eleven in the case of the Sixth Doctor, ten in the case of the Ninth Doctor. Both were brash and no-nonsense characters, both in counter to their previous incarnations, but where the Sixth Doctor was assured bluster, the Ninth Doctor hid regrets and grief. Both also introduced a longer format for their stories—forty-five minutes rather than the traditional twenty-five minutes. Both stories of the Sixth Doctor and the Ninth Doctor included seasons with overarching plotlines, the Sixth Doctor with ‘Trial of a Time Lord’ and the Ninth Doctor’s only season.

Of course, the big difference was that the Ninth Doctor introduced ‘Nu-Who’, reviving the series after almost a decade away from the screen, and that only after Doctor Who: The Movie, the primary outing for the Eighth Doctor, as detailed in The Eighth Doctor Sourcebook. It brought in production values that the BBC had never applied to Science Fiction, it told more personal stories, and engaged more with the lives of the protagonists, especially the Companion, Rose Tyler, along with her family. Although perhaps not as successful worldwide as the seasons that were to come for the Tenth Doctor, it proved to be popular and laid the groundwork for the more than a decade’s worth of seasons that have followed.

Despite the change in format and style of the television, The Ninth Doctor Sourcebook follows the same format of the previous eight entries in the series. It can be divided into three chapters—‘The Ninth Doctor and Companions’, ‘Playing in the Ninth Doctor’s Era’, and ‘The Ninth Doctor’s Adventures’. The first chapter looks at who the Ninth Doctor is, who his Companions (and almost-Companions are) are, and their characters as well as providing a character sheet for each. The second examines the various and elements of the Ninth Doctor’s era, whist the third details each of the Ninth Doctor’s adventures and extrapolates games ideas and content from them in turn. All of which is presented as essentially the after effects of the Last Great Time War between the Daleks and the Time Lords which ended in mutual destruction of both races at the Doctor’s hand. As much as the Time War casts a pall over both the Ninth Doctor and his stories, The Ninth Doctor Sourcebook comes at those stories and his character with no little hindsight. Now the details of the Last Great Time War would not be revealed until 2013 and the fiftieth anniversary special ‘The Day of the Doctor’, but where the previous sourcebooks merely touched upon the subject of the Time War to one degree or another, The Ninth Doctor Sourcebook more fully explores its ramifications.

What is significant about the Ninth Doctor is how much character development he undergoes during his season. Mostly obviously he begins uptight, gruff, and grief-stricken, but as the season progresses, he relaxes, learns to trust again, and become what the Doctor was before he took the drastic actions he did at the end of the Last Great Time War. Much of this will come about because of his time with Rose, who in ‘The Ninth Doctor and Companions’ is detailed as the Doctor’s main Companion through the season. She is joined by the ex-Time Agent and con-artist, Captain Jack Harkness, really his first appearance in Doctor Who: Adventures in Time and Space roleplaying game and perfect for anyone wanting to run a game based on Torchwood. Essentially Rose Tyler and Captain Jack Harkness are the Ninth Doctor’s only Companions, anyone else is more a member of the supporting cast. To that end, three other characters are included in the chapter, two as ‘almost-Companions’ and one as a ‘not-Companion’. Rose’s mother, Jacky, and Rose’s ex-boyfriend, Mickey, are the almost-Companions, characters who revolve around the Doctor—or at least the effect he has on Rose, but do not accompany him on his adventures. Parallels here can be drawn between the Third Doctor and various members of UNIT who join him in his rare excusions in the TARDIS. The ‘not-Companion’ is of course, Adam Mitchell, the young genius who worked for Van Statten in the episode, ‘Dalek’, and who Rose persuaded the Doctor to join them aboard the TARDIS, and whose greed would quickly find him ejected again. Adam provides a counterpoint to Rose, showing how she is suited to travel with Doctor, whereas he is not.

Just as a reset lies at the heart of the Ninth Doctor’s return, so it forms a central theme in ‘Playing in the Ninth Doctor’s Era’. It suggests that playing a campaign similar to that of the Ninth Doctor’s season, is much like returning to a roleplaying campaign after a break with all new characters. It also allows players familiar with the setting to also come at it anew and the Game Master to present old threats and familiar situations in new and different ways. In other words, to keep it fresh. The other issue with the era is its short and personal nature and the chapter examines how it can be used as a framework for a similar, but short campaign (or season). To back that up, it gives three campaign ideas that a Game Master could develop, each drawn from elements present in both the series and the sourcebook, but without the Doctor.

The third and final chapter, ‘The Ninth Doctor’s Adventures’, is also the longest—some three quarters of the book. It details all of ten of the Ninth Doctor’s adventures, but with so few to deal with, the danger with The Ninth Doctor Sourcebook is that its story write-ups would suffer from being too long and too detailed. To an extent, with a paucity of stories to write up, this is unavoidable. Fortunately, the story recaps over not overwritten, so lack the flaccidity of The Fifth Doctor Sourcebook. So it is pleasure to read up on some personal favourites, such as ‘The Unquiet Dead’, ‘Dalek’, and ‘The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances’, and see what the sourcebook does with them. All ten are supported by good write-ups of the various NPCs who appeared onscreen. So there are write-ups of Lady Cassandra O’Brien Dot Delta Seventeen, the Face of Boe, and the Trees of the Forest of Cheem from ‘The End of the World’; Charles Dickens from ‘The Unquiet Dead’; Harriet Jones, MP Flydale North from ‘Aliens of London/World War Three’; and Pete Tyler—father of Rose, from ‘Father’s Day’. There is some repetition between the monsters and NPCs given here and those found in the Doctor Who: Adventures in Time and Space roleplaying game core rules, but given the amount of crossover material between the two, this could hardly be avoided.

If there is an issue with the write-ups, it is that they are each followed by lengthy continuity lists which seem more a little superfluous. Their inclusion is more than made up for by the ‘Running the Adventure’ sections. Each explores how each story can run as seen on screen or changed make it feel different or fresh, if as seems likely, the players have seen the episodes. Notably, they include advice listed under ‘Changing the Desktop Theme’—a reference to the changed look of the TARDIS interior after some thirty or so years on how to reskin the story with another threat or enemy, and so on. So ‘The End of the World’ is reexamined as a cosy murder mystery, how to use a different alien in ‘Dalek’ trying to escape (or even trying to get in), and so on. This is all backed up by exploration of the ideas and questions raised by each episode. Again these are well done, if a little too long in places, but each story write-up is rounded by a selection of further adventure ideas so that the Game Master can run sequels to the adventures, if not the adventures themselves.

Physically, The Ninth Doctor Sourcebook is as well presented as the rest of the line and is profusely illustrated with photographs from the series. In truth there have been better sourcebooks in this line, but there have been worse also, and to be fair, The Ninth Doctor Sourcebook is good entry in the series. It is perhaps a little overlong in places, but a high page count and limited source material will lend themselves to that effect. Nevertheless, The Ninth Doctor Sourcebook provides a good gaming examination of the Ninth Doctor’s stories and their themes, explores some interesting questions, and provides a solid start to the series’ coverage of ‘Nu Who’.

Sunday, 7 January 2018

Miskatonic Monday #2: Isle of Madness

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 a Five Go Mad in EgyptReturn of the RipperRise ofthe DeadRise ofthe 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 far reaches of the Miskatonic Repository.

—oOo—

NameIsle of Madness

Publisher: Chaosium, Inc.
Author: Ed Possing
Cartography: Ed Possing

SettingDesperate Decade, 1930s (1950s), Pulp Cthulhu
Product: Scenario
What You Get0.996 MB, 16-page full colour PDF
Elevator Pitch
The Tempest meets The Island of Doctor Moreau in the Bermuda Triangle with not-Deep Ones

Plot HookThe heroes are shipwrecked off a secret island in the North Atlantic and get caught up in a Mad Scientist’s plans for revenge on his batrachian brothers.
Plot DevelopmentFriendly not-Deep Ones, a big tank of water in the Mad Scientist’s lair, evil plans, and sharks. Plus a giant robot! In a volcano!!
Plot SupportFully plotted out with eight NPCs, scenes and events, and a map of the island.
Production ValuesNeeds another edit and no artwork. The map is scrappy.

Pros

Straightforward plot
Very little investigation
Easily shifted to the 1950s
Easy to drop into a Pulp Cthulhu campaign, especially The Two-Headed Serpent
# Works as a short scenario or a sidetrek

Cons

Highly action orientated
Straightforward plot
Sanity losses too high in places
Very little investigation
Where’s the Mad Scientist’s monologue?

Conclusion

# A ‘B’ Movie writ large
Solid, though not original, plot
A big fat punch up from start to finish
Easy to run
Playable in a session
Still want that Mad Scientist’s monologue, dammit!

The Horrors of Harlem

In Lovecraftian investigative horror and in Call of Cthulhu horror, the role of Race has always posed a contentious issue, even a taboo issue. This is because the source upon which the roleplaying game, Call of Cthulhu and its like, draws, that is, the fiction of author H.P. Lovecraft—or at least some of the fiction—espouses his racist and bigoted points of view. Or at least some of his fiction does, most notably his short story, ‘The Horror at Red Hook’. Now it is true that racism and bigotry were prevalent in society throughout Lovecraft’s life, but this does not excuse the esteem in which Lovecraft held white, Anglo-Saxon Protestant men above all other races. The contentious nature of this issue means that Call of Cthulhu has never addressed it directly in its almost forty-year history. Now there are scenarios where it raises its ugly head, most notably ‘Deadman’s Stomp’ which appeared in the Call of Cthulhu, Fifth Edition and Call of Cthulhu, Sixth Edition rulebooks and ‘The Plantation’ from Mansions of Madness, but even these shy away from dealing with the issue because it is an unpleasant one and it is not something that many gamers want to have to face in their roleplaying.

Nor is Call of Cthulhu alone in this attitude as far as roleplaying is concerned, the 2007 game, Steal Away Jordan: Stories from America’s Peculiar Institution, from Stone Baby Games being a rare exception. In more recent times, authors have moved to explore the Mythos from a Black perspective, most notably in Matt Ruff’s Lovecraft Country and Victor LaValle’s The Ballard of Black Tom, the latter a counterpoint to Lovecraft’s ‘The Horror at Red Hook’. In late 2017 though, Darker Hue Studios published a supplement and campaign setting in which Call of Cthulhu can be played from a Black perspective. This does mean that to one degree or another, racism is part of the supplement, but what Harlem Unbound: A Sourcebook for the Call of Cthulhu and Gumshoe Roleplaying Games does is make it part of the setting as it focuses upon the energy and exuberance of the Harlem Renaissance.

Published following a successful Kickstarter campaign, Harlem Unbound is not just about a specific place, but also about a specific period. The setting is the northern section of the borough of Manhattan which in the early years of the twentieth century became a ‘Black Mecca’ for a wave of mass immigration from the Southern United States and the Caribbean. This mass immigration would lead to the specific period, roughly between the Great War and the Great Depression, a flowering of Black arts, culture, politics, and society, known as the Harlem Renaissance. Not for nothing were the 1920s known as the Jazz Age and if the Jazz Age had an epicentre, it was Harlem and the Cotton Club, but other music, poetry and literature, stage performance and art also flowered in the neighbourhood throughout the period. The mass immigration would also lead to overcrowding in the tenements and brownstones of Harlem. This was encouraged because White landlords raised the rents on the properties owned in Harlem and having more people living in an apartment made the rent easier to pay. Nor did the mass immigration and growth in the Black population in Harlem lessen the effects of racism or segregation, mostly obviously in the fact that whilst the Cotton Club was famed for its performances by Black artists, its audiences were White. This highlights how Harlem also became a cultural mecca for the dilettante, the demi-monde, the rich, the famous, and the criminal from outside of the neighbourhood, attracted as they were by its raciness and licentiousness. The resulting melting pot led to tensions between the various Races and cultures. In addition to Racism which was rife throughout the period and setting, there was tension between the Blacks who had moved to Harlem as part of the Great Migration and the last remnants of the Whites they forced out—often immigrants themselves. There were tensions with the Whites who were coming into Harlem, whether to partake of the nightlife and the culture, to criminally exploit, and so on.

This then, is the setting for Harlem Unbound, a supplement written by the creator of Langston Wright, the Black demobbed G.I. from Pelgrane Press’ Cthulhu Confidential. Written for use with Chaosium, Inc.’s Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition and Pelgrane Press’ Trail of Cthulhu, it can be seen as companion supplement to a trilogy of supplements—Secrets of New York published by Chaosium, Inc., Arkham Detective Tales from Pelgrane Press, and Tales of the Sleepless City from the much lamented Miskatonic River Press, as well as any number of scenarios set in New York published over the years. Yet whilst any of those could be used or run in conjunction with Harlem Unbound, the supplement asks one thing of both the Keeper and his players. It asks the Keeper to depict and roleplay NPCs who are Black and to depict and roleplay NPCs who are racist, whilst asking the players to depict and roleplay investigators who are Black. Now this is a challenge for the average Keeper and player alike for neither is Black and neither has the experience of being subject to racism. Handling both can be seen as just a roleplaying challenge, but it should be seen as a delicate roleplaying challenge at the very least, lest a line be crossed, inadvertently or not.

To help player and Keeper address this challenge, Harlem Unbound provides four things. The first is advice on portraying Black characters, whether NPCs or investigators, and this can be boiled down to a checklist of things to avoid—Black accents, the N-word, and stereotypes. The author elaborates upon this of course, but these are the basics for everyone to keep in mind. The second is advice is on how a White Keeper should approach a Black player and broach the subject of how he plans to run the game, handle different situations, and so on, essentially to set boundaries and to determine what the player is comfortable with in terms of the setting and its inherent social issues. Although written specifically with Harlem Unbound in mind, it is good advice that applies well beyond the boundaries of Harlem—geographically and historically. This is supported by short and to the point descriptions of the Jim Crow Laws, what it means to be Black in America, and the rise of the Ku Klux Klan.

Third, to represent the hotbed of tension and mistrust that Harlem is throughout the period gives a Racial Tension Modifier to apply all Social rolls made between different cultures. This is a simple matter of increasing the difficulty of the roll or even applying a Penalty die—if for Call of Cthulhu—or increasing the point spend by one, if for Trail of Cthulhu. Fourth and last, it suggests setting a three-tiered system of ‘reality’ consisting of ‘The Passing Player’, ‘The Harlemites Player’, and ‘The Purist Player’. The first of these is for the player who wants to visit the Harlem of the period, but not be confronted by the social issues rife in the neighbourhood; the second is for the player who is prepared to roleplay being subject to the Racism and social issues of the setting to a degree and mechanically be subjected to the Racial Tension Modifier; and the third is for the player who prepared to be subjected to the Racial Tension Modifier and every aspect of the Racism and social issues of the setting. Again, each of these tiers is accompanied by staging advice and notes to help the Keeper apply them to his game. And again, it can be taken and applied to periods and settings outside of Harlem. If there is an issue with the mechanics and advice, it is that they are buried deep in the supplement and not readily to hand for easy reference. Which is only exacerbated by the lack of an index.

The supplement itself opens with ‘Song of Harlem’, a history of the neighbourhood from well before the first White settlers until the start of the period upon which Harlem Unbound focuses, starting in 1919. The rest of book focuses the subsequent decade or so… This is followed by ‘Harlem Herself’, a description of the neighbourhood and its important locations throughout the period. These are relatively short sections, but no less informative. ‘Harlemites’ presents the means to create investigators for Harlem for use with both Call of Cthulhu and Trail of Cthulhu. This includes eight new Occupations—Hornman (Musician), Hellfighter (Military), Dockworker (Everymen), Painter (Artist), Rabbi (Clergy), Patron (Socialite), Conjure Woman (Occult/Researcher), and Writer (Author). Most of these will be obvious in what they are, but two deserve further explanation. One is the Hellfighter, a Black soldier who served with the US Army in the Great War, but whose unit was assigned to fight in the French Army, and whose return home has not been readily accepted by White society. The other is the Conjure Woman, part-mystic, part-detective to whom the community comes for her magic and her insight. Of course, the Conjure Woman is not wholly new, a version having previously appeared in Secrets of New York as the Conjure Man. Overall, this is an interesting selection, but it would have been useful if a list of Occupations had been included suggesting those which would be useful for running a Harlem Unbound campaign.

Harlem Unbound also includes the OGL Gumshoe rules, including creating and handling clues, scenarios, and stories. What this means is that Harlem Unbound could be run without immediate reference to Trail of Cthulhu, though in the long term, the Keeper will need to refer to those rules, at least for more information on the Mythos. The Keeper wanting to run Harlem Unbound using Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition will still need to refer to the Keeper Rulebook at the very least. Most of the supplement though, is written with both systems in mind. This includes new additions to the Mythos, such as the Baron in Blues, an avatar of Azathoth; the Golem, based on Jewish legend and perhaps to be found in the Jewish community on the periphery of Harlem; and the Soucouyant, a shapeshifting vampiric witch, the Duppy, a malevolent spirit, and the Zonbi, living undead slaves, all from the Caribbean. Further support comes in the form of several scenario hooks worked out to varying degrees—these in addition to those peppered throughout the book, and various members of the supporting cast. These are a mix of simple descriptions and fully statted and several of their descriptions serve as scenario hooks also.

Rounding out the volume is a series of bibliographies of the great, the good, and the bad of Harlem. This includes literature and musical artists as well as politicians and criminals. A full timeline is included as is a section on Harlemite slang and various organisations.

Regions beyond Harlem are not ignored in Harlem Unbound. Links are made between Harlem and Lovecraft Country as potential points of origins for both NPCs and investigators. One link is made to Ross’s Corners, but others are made—primarily through the book’s set of supporting cast—to a pair of towns new to the setting. One is Attucks, a slave sanctuary town populated by all Blacks, the other is Harbormill, an industrious place fallen on hard times due to its proximity to Innsmouth. None of the quintet of scenarios is set in any of these towns, but perhaps the author could be persuaded to take the Harlemites of Harlem Unbound on the road to New England?

Harlem Unbound includes four scenarios. They are written to be played using Black investigators and although they could be played by White investigators, that would be to undermine the author’s intent. The quartet introduces the investigators to Harlem and draws them into Harlem society over the course of a decade. It opens with ‘Harlem Hellfighters Never Die’ which deals with revenge from beyond the grave on the Western Front that reaches onto the streets of Harlem. It nicely gets the investigators involved in Harlemite society and culture before exposing to racism in Harlem and racism brought to Harlem. Given the physical nature of the investigation and the military links in this scenario, it should be no surprise that ‘Harlem Hellfighters Never Die’ best suits investigators with a military background or who served in the Great War. (In fact, there are a number of scenarios for Trail of Cthulhu, particularly in Dulce et Decorum Est: Great War Trail of Cthulhu that would work as preludes for the investigators in Harlem Unbound.) This is a solid introduction to Harlem, nicely opening with a local event before plunging the investigators into the horrors that the Hellfighters brought back with them. Where ‘Harlem Hellfighters Never Die’ is a quite uncomplicated affair, the second scenario, ‘Harlem (K)Nights’ is more complex and more of a location-based scenario as the investigators have to work out what is being summoning, who is summoning it, and where they are summoning it. Set against the backdrop of the recently imposed Prohibition and involving gang warfare, this is not as well written a scenario as the other three and it also suffers from a weak introduction. The Keeper will need to give this one a closer read to gain a full understanding of what is going on. The scenario also suffers from a lack of maps.

As the title suggests, ‘The Contender: A Love Story’ involves boxing. The investigators are hired by Jack Johnson, former heavyweight champion of the world. One of the boxers in his stable is due to fight Stefano Rossi. This pairing should never have happened, for Rossi is nothing but a washed-up fighter nearing the end of his career with a reputation for throwing fights. He seems to have found his edge again, severe enough that he recently killed another boxer in the ring and Johnson does not want that happening to his boy. Can the investigators find out what is giving Rossi his edge? The investigation involves plenty of roleplaying, in particular with some really creepy characters and ultimately, like any good boxing story, it will turn into a tragedy. The scenario is also something of a cliché—and the parallels between it and ‘The Hopeful’ from More Adventures in Arkham Country are quite strong, but the tragedy overcomes that and makes ‘The Contender: A Love Story’ the strongest scenario in the book.

If the third scenario takes the investigators into the world of boxing in Harlem, ‘Dreams and Broken Wings’ takes them into the world of the neighbourhood’s literati. An artist has been seen for days and his sister fears that he may have committed suicide following the recent death of his wife in a shooting. Although the investigation will probably stray into the criminal interests of those organisations preying on Harlem, this scenario has a feeling of the weird to it. Again, much like the previous scenario, ‘Dreams and Broken Wings’ is a tragic affair and is all the better for it.

Physically, Harlem Unbound is sturdy hardback done in a two-tone, red, black, and white throughout. Behind its strikingly brash cover, the book is well laid out, with a judicious use of the red to mark titles and highlight particular blocks of text—notably details for use with Trail of Cthulhu rather than Call of Cthulhu. Yet the book is not perfect. The map of Harlem is too small and too difficult to find easily in the book. It is a pity that it could not have been reproduced larger inside the front and back covers. Similarly, it would have been nice to have had the map reproduced in each scenario and marked with the locations particular to that scenario. Another issue for some might be that the artwork is too bold and brash, especially in comparison to the delicate thumbnail portraits done for the biographies of the members of the African-American community who were part of the Harlem renaissance. These are rather nice pieces and it is a pity that none of the NPCs in the various scenarios are afforded the same treatment, especially since the descriptions of their appearance is often underwhelming. Certainly, the book could have done with an index—an inexcusable omission in the twenty-first century—and another edit would not have gone amiss. That said, as a first book and an ambitious book at that, Harlem Unbound is physically impressive.

Harlem Unbound is the supplement that Call of Cthulhu has always needed and was always afraid to have, but the arrival of the supplement begs the question of why have we had to wait for it for so long? The likely answers to that question are that there were not the authors with the interest or knowledge to do the subject and its difficulties the justice they deserved. Further, for anyone other than a Black author to write about the issue of racism in the roleplaying game would have been as contentious an issue as racism itself. Yet in writing about the issue, the author of Harlem Unbound has not made it the point of the supplement, but rather framed it in a period and setting that for Black culture and society was a positive time. The resulting book has been worth the wait though, including as it does good background and good advice—above all, good advice—as well as the four scenarios. It feels like a first book though, being rough around the edges and not quite as polished as it could be.

Ultimately, as good a guide to the Black Mecca as Harlem Unbound is, its subject matter means that it is not going to be liked or played by everyone. Which is a pity because Harlem Unbound: A Sourcebook for the Call of Cthulhu and Gumshoe Roleplaying Games is the definitive guide to playing in a time when the investigators have to face mundane horror on a daily basis as well as confront the horror of the Mythos.