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

Saturday, 24 September 2016

Cthulhu 'Old Style' like its 1980

In the wake following the publication of The Black Hack has come a slew of games that either added to the Dungeons & Dragons-style fantasy of The Black Hack or took the Old School Rennaisence play style/player facing mechanics combination in another direction. So The Class Hack and The Race Hack, both from Cross Planes Game Studio added new/old Classes and Races to the game respectively, whilst Feral Games’ The WasteLand Hack goes all post-apocalypse, The Space Hack from Ivanhoe Unbound takes to the stars, and Just Crunch Games’ The Cthulhu Hack lets you confront the horrorifying nature of the universe. As can be seen from just from mentions of these, there are plenty to choose from, so after having selected that looked interesting to review in the form of The Jack Hack: A Role-Playing Game of Victorian Villains, Reviews from R’lyeh turns to the obvious one it should review—The Cthulhu Hack: Surviving the Unnameable made using The Black Hack.

The Cthulhu Hack combines the framework of the original fantasy roleplaying game with the player-facing mechanics of 2013 for its dark uncaring tones of Lovecraftian investigative horror. What this means is that The Cthulhu Hack is a Class and Level game which uses many of the design elements of Dungeons & Dragons. For its core mechanic, whenever a player character—or investigator—wants to take an action, he makes a Saving Throw against an appropriate attribute by rolling under it. This is always player facing, so whenever an investigator wants to shoot a cultist, he saves against his Dexterity, but he also saves against his Dexterity to avoid being shot. This is always on a twenty-sided die. Where an investigator has the Advantage on an action, he receives a second twenty-sided die and rolls them both, using the better result. Having the Disadvantage works the same way, but the worst result is used instead.

Like all games derived from The Black Hack, what the player facing mechanics means in terms of running the game is that the GM hardly has to roll any dice. This leaves him to concentrate on presenting the world and especially in The Cthulhu Hack, the presenting the plot for the player characters to investigate.

In terms of characters The Cthulhu Hack provides five Classes—Adventurer, Bruiser, Philanthropist, Ruffian, and Scholar. In the main, these Classes map back onto those given in The Black Hack. So the Bruiser, able to gain a second wind whilst in a fight, make extra attacks, and sacrifice a piece of equipment to stop an attack, is the Fighter. The Philanthropist can heal others out of combat, so this the Cleric, whilst with his ability to avoid traps and attack better from surprise, the Ruffian is the Rogue. Of the other two Classes, they do have a more investigative bent. Thus the Adventurer can gain a hint from the GM once per session, whilst the Scholar can improvise a solution to a situation or problem, using whatever means he has to hand, including from ye olde musty tome of forbidden lore.

In addition to selecting a Class, each player rolls to determine an Occupation related to that Class. So for example, the Scholar gives Astronomer, Professor, Medium, Librarian, Solicitor*, and Linguist, along with a set of possessions for each. Each Occupation also represents a character’s field of knowledge and grants the character the Advantage on rolls related to said Occupation. So for example, a Solicitor would have the Advantage in accounting or legal matters, whereas an Engineer from the Adventurer Class would have an advantage in fixing and designing things as well as working them out. This then covers another aspect of Lovecraftian investigative horror—skills and what a character knows as much as what he can do.

*The inclusion of the Solicitor an indication of the author’s nationality.

Our sample investigator is Rogatien Renaudeau, a French-Canadian sailor turned rumrunner. He runs whisky across the Great Lakes into Prohibition hindered USA. Of late, he has started noticing strange crews out on the water that are doing something other than running rum…

Rogatien Renaudeau
First Level Ruffian
Occupation: Smuggler
STR 11 DEX 16 CON 10
INT 13 WIS 10 CHA 14

Hit Points: 6
Sanity Die: d8
Attack Damage: 1d6/1d4 (Unarmed/Improvising)
Flashlights/Smokes: d6/d10

Gear
Revolver, Tide Tables, Radio, Codebook, $14

Like other Black Hack derived games, The Cthulhu Hack makes use of the Usage Die. This is rolled whenever a character uses, for example, a torch or ammunition. If the result of roll is a one or two, then the die is degraded by one step, for example, from an eight-sided to a six-sided die, and so on. The Cthulhu Hack does not use the Usage Die for money, but instead uses money as you would normally. What it does use the Usage Die for is Sanity, Flashlights, and Smokes.

The Sanity Usage Die is rolled whenever encounters a shocking or dehumanising situation. So learn of the death of your aunt or discover a dismembered body or be stalked by a Deep One, the Sanity Die is rolled and if degraded down a step, the GM also rolls for the character’s Temporary Insanity. A character whose Sanity Die has been degraded down to a four-sided die over the course of play and who then rolls a one or two when making a roll of his Sanity Usage Die goes permanently insane.

Flashlights and Smokes represents a character's ability to ability to conduct investigations and get clues. Flashlights are a character’s ability to discover things, whether from time spent in a library or spotting something odd, whilst Smokes are his ability to learn from others, whether through interrogation, persuasion, bribery, and so on. When their Usage Die degrades, they represent a character getting tired or clueless. Importantly, the Usage Die is rolled after the clue is gained, so the result of a Usage Die degrading is effectively the character gaining the clue with consequences, the equivalent of ‘Yes, but...’ or ‘Yes, and…’. Now where a character’s Flashlight Die and Usage Die refresh at the end of an adventure, the Sanity Die takes much, much longer to recover—weeks and months.

In terms of the Mythos, The Cthulhu Hack gives just a handful of creatures and entities, from Byakhee and Deep One to Mi-Go and Shoggoth. It does not give any stats for any of the Elder Gods, Great Old Ones, or Outer Gods, but rather abstracts them in the book’s discussion of, and introduction to, the Mythos. Of course there is much more that could be written about them, and whilst there is not the space to expand greatly upon the nature of the Mythos, it does leave the reader wanting. The main problem is that although the greater entities are discussed, only the stats are given for the lesser entities—the Elder Thing, the Great Race of Yith, and so on. Which means that there is no discussion of how they are used.

The Cthulhu Hack does though, include rules for Mythos spells. Only the Scholar and the Philanthropist can learn more than one spell and for each spell learned, a character’s Sanity die degrades. The spells themselves are divided into seven Levels, with three or four spells per Level. This does mean that some spells, like Elder Sign and Call Byakhee, do take quite a long time to learn.

It should also be made clear that The Cthulhu Hack is in the main period neutral. There is however, a slight bias towards the classic period of Lovecraftian investigative horror, that of the 1920s, in the choice of Occupations. Thus there is an Alienist rather than a psychiatrist. Nevertheless, The Cthulhu Hack is easy to run in most modern periods, but will need some adaptations upon the part of the GM if he wants to run it outside of the modern period.

Now there are oddities in The Cthulhu Hack. Why are things like ammunition abstracted with the Usage Die, but money is not? In actuality, it is designed to emulate the chaos of battle and that moment in the heat of a fight when track is lost of exactly how many bullets there are in a gun. Now this is not an unreasonable assumption, but it still feels odd. Then there is the matter of how both the entities and spells of the Mythos are covered, but Mythos tomes—such as the infamous The Necronomicon—are not. Also not covered is how knowledge of the Mythos is gained or learned and then applied in play. If the aim of The Cthulhu Hack is to simplify this to exactly what a character has learned in the course of an adventure, then this should have at least been addressed. Nevertheless, it does ignore a major aspect of the Mythos. Another oddity is that the Philanthropist carries over the Healing ability of the Cleric from The Black Hack in that it can heal Hit Points, but does not adapt it to deal with Sanity. This despite the fact that the Alienist and the Doctor are included in the Occupations for the Philanthropist, let alone the Clergyman who should be able to provide succour in times of need at least…

Physically, The Cthulhu Hack is neat little book. There are no illustrations, but it does not really need them. It needs an edit here and there.

From Call of Cthulhu and Trail of Cthulhu to Realms of Cthulhu and Shadows of Cthulhu, there have been plenty of RPGs of Lovecraftian investigative horror over the past thirty-five years. Now The Cthulhu Hack is not as simple as Cthulhu Dark – A Rules-Light system For Lovecraftian Horror, but it is stripped back and it does provide an elegant means for discovering clues and handling investigations in the form of Flashlights and Smokes. These are excellent additions to The Black Hack, yet as much as The Black Hack and thus The Cthulhu Hack are forward facing, The Cthulhu Hack still feels a little too much like the Dungeons & Dragons of The Black Hack and does not quite address all of the elements of Lovecraftian investigative horror. Fortunately, the mechanical simplicity of The Black Hack and thus The Cthulhu Hack means that the GM can address this issue with relative ease. Despite its omissions, The Cthulhu Hack offers a clean, simple, and unfussy approach to Lovecraftian investigative horror that feels refreshing compared to similar RPGs.

Friday, 23 September 2016

A Haunting Encounter

Although there is no scenario in the rulebook for Shadow of the Demon Lord, the first RPG released by Schwalb Entertainment following a successful Kickstarter campaign, one of the excellent decisions upon the part of the designer has been to release support—and release it early—in the form of scenarios for the game. This way a gaming group can get playing quickly, even if they are just using the core rules presented in Victims of the Demon Lord: Starter Guide and an adventure. In addition, the publisher has also released Tales of the Demon Lord, a complete mini-campaign that takes a party of characters from Zero Level up to Eleventh Level. In the meantime, the thirteenth adventure is The Huntsman’s Isle.

The Huntsman’s Isle  is the third adventure written for characters who have entered their first or Novice Path, that is of First or Second Level. It is written by Skip Williams, co-designer of Dungeons & Dragons, Third Edition, regular columnist in both Dragon and Kobold Quarterly magazines, and author of the boxed campaign supplement, The Rod of Seven Parts. The scenario also marks a reteaming of Williams with Kim Mohan, the longtime editor at TSR, Inc. and Wizards of the Coast and now editor on Shadow of the Demon Lord, their having worked together on Dungeons & Dragons, Third Edition. It comes as a five page, 12.13 MB PDF. Physically, The Huntsman’s Isle is decently presented with a nice piece of cartography and one good illustration. The GM needs to give the scenario a careful read through, primarily to understand how its big monster works.

The scenario is almost, but not quite setting neutral, requiring a wide, fast flowing river where Stocesa Island can be located. The island was once the home of the Stocesa family, but since the death of the last baron, the family castle has fallen into disrepair and the island has gained a poor reputation. It is said that the island and the surrounding lands are haunted by a restless and greedy spirit who demands a toll from anyone using the river. Monsters are also said to infest the island.

The Huntsman’s Isle is an exploration adventure, one with just eight locations and encounters. Most of these are nicely detailed and not all of them are combat related. Some of them though are a little odd—exactly why are some of the locals giving tribute to the island and its inhabitants? A more pressing issue is that of getting the player characters involved. Two means are suggested, either the locals hiring them to bring an end to the dangers emanating from the island or their visiting it in search of treasure, but these are underwhelming given that the scenario is really just an extended encounter. Of course, any GM worth his salt should be able to come up with a stronger hook, but it is disappointing that no such hook is given. Especially given that there is just enough room for it in the scenario’s five pages. The primary foe in The Huntsman’s Isle is also quite tough for a party of characters in their Novice Path. The GM may feel that he needs to adjust the abilities of this foe, especially if there are fewer numbers in the party. He may also want to add a little more treasure or other reward as what is included is decidedly scanty.

The scenario may also be perhaps a little too short to warrant the player characters going up a Level as with longer adventures. So the GM might want to use it as a side encounter rather than a full scenario. Nevertheless, The Huntsman’s Isle is a solidly written encounter that should provide a gaming group with a single session’s worth of play.

Saturday, 17 September 2016

Dark Detritus

Things We leave Behind is the first release from Stygian Fox Publishing. It is an anthology of six scenarios for Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition, all firmly set in the modern day and the USA. It brings together the author of the superb modern day mini-campaign, Lost in the Lights; the editor of Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition; the author of The Legacy of Arrius Lurco, the campaign that is the best support for Cthulhu Invictus to date; and diverse hands. Published following a successful Kickstarter campaign, the collection draws upon sources such as Pagan Publishing’s Delta Green, the works of the Coen Brothers in both Fargo and Blood Simple, and the television series, True Detective, to present six very modern and very dreadful situations in North America. Note that all six scenarios do deal with adult themes and should be best played by mature gamers.

The anthology opens with Jeffrey Moeller’s ‘Ladybug, Ladybug, Fly Away Home’ which begins with the abduction of Regina Balfour, a five year old girl in suburban Cleveland, Ohio. As shocking as this incident is, it stands out for three reasons. The first is that after grabbing Regina and then passing her to a co-conspirator, the abductor commits suicide. The second is that the abductor turns out to be a retired Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms agent. The third is that Regina’s parents run the extreme Christian fundamentalist Church of the Passover Angel. The question is not just what drove a man to abduct a child, but what drove a retired federal agent to abduct a child and then kill himself? It is a powerful setup, one designed for player characters who are themselves in law enforcement or associated with it, although a suggested alternative is for them to be a television news crew looking for one hell of a scoop. In fact, this also means that ‘Ladybug, Ladybug, Fly Away Home’ is a good addition to any Delta Green campaign.

Mixing paranoia, religious mania, and its subversion, ‘Ladybug, Ladybug, Fly Away Home’ is a strong investigative scenario, not necessarily subtle in the muscularity of its tone, but its Mythos elements are for the most part obfuscated and merely hinted at. Its subtleties are also kept quite well hidden and players who embrace that muscularity and charge headlong into its story may find themselves in a for a very nasty surprise. Nevertheless, this is an impressive opening scenario for both Things We Leave Behind and Stygian Fox Publishing.

If ‘Ladybug, Ladybug, Fly Away Home’ delivers an opening jab to the torso, then ‘Forget Me Not’ more than delivers an uppercut to the chin. Written by Brian M. Sammons (and surprisingly not another author in the collection given the Mythos foe at the scenario's heart), this opens en medias res—or rather post media res—with the investigators waking up, sitting in a van after having crashed on a quiet road somewhere in middle America. With them they have filming equipment and various forms of identity. Except for those they have no exact memory of where they are, how they got there, what they have been filming, and who they are. This sets up a dual investigation, first into the mystery of their backgrounds and what they have been doing, and then into the mystery of what got them involved in the first place.

It takes a little effort to set up upon the part of the Keeper and it does need the players to buy into that setup in order to work effectively. The effect though is worth it as this is a finely wrought set up with a payoff that packs an emotional punch. Scenarios involving amnesia have been done before for Call of Cthulhu, most notably with Pagan Publishing's ‘In Media Res’ from The Unspeakable Oath #10 and The Resurrected Vol. 3: Out of the Vault. That scenario is regarded as being something of a classic, but ‘Forget Me Not’ is a well written, well judged addition to the sub-genre.  that really delivers on its setup.

Simon Brake’s ‘Roots’ also takes place in mid-west and also involves a missing girl, this time the eldest and adopted daughter of a friend of the investigators, Mary. It appears that the daughter, Karen, has has contact contact from her mother and gone to visit her in a nearby, isolated town. Alternatively, the player characters might be private investigators hired to get her back, but this is quite a small scale story to get the federal authorities involved. Karen’s destination is also small scale, a town of white picket fences and an unsettling orderliness amidst woods that hide much…

‘Roots’ has echoes of the film, The Wicker Man, but harks back more to the type of grim and bloody faerie tale that you do not tell your children at bedtime, so A Company of Wolves also. Unfortunately after examining ‘Ladybug, Ladybug, Fly Away Home’ and ‘Forget Me Not’, the truth is that ‘Roots’ feels a little underwhelming. This is because there is neither the muscularity or urgency of the previous two scenarios in ‘Roots’. In other words, it is not as direct as those two scenarios. Instead, it is much more of a situation to be explored and investigated, and although there is a threat—such as it is—involved, it is not antagonistic threat. It has no desire to spread its strangeness beyond the confines of the surrounding woods, nor does it wish any ill will towards the investigators. Only in their meddling will they come to any harm… Also, ‘Roots’ is not quite as Lovecraftian as the other scenarios in the collection, feeling earthier and more faerie gothic. This though, does not make it a bad scenario or anything less of a horror scenario, but rather it is different.

‘Hell in Texas’ by Scott Dorward takes us to the Lone Star State and another manifestation of evangelical Christianity—the ‘hell house’. These are attractions run by a church in and around Halloween to warn parishioners of the sin to be found in society with gruesome exhibits and vignettes. Typically they warn of the dangers of sex, abortion, homosexuality, drug and alcohol use, and of course, the seven deadly sins. All ending with the choice to be made between Heaven and Hell. The scenario takes place in the fictional town of Leland, Texas, where the Father Weaver of the Leland Free Evangelical Church has set up a hell house for the forthcoming halloween. Unfortunately, a troubled young volunteer committed suicide while decorating an exhibit. This makes the opening of the Leland hell house a much juicier story. The investigators can become involved at the request of the late volunteer’s father, they might be even a new crew covering the story, or they might be be members of the congregation.

Of course, this being a horror scenario, the hell or ‘haunted’ house of the story is actually haunted; and this being a Call of Cthulhu scenario, it is not haunted by just any old ghost. This is a ghost that will take advantage of the economic and social desperation that pervades the town of Leland and drive the weak and the susceptible to radical acts. Preventing these are perhaps the best that any group of investigators can hope to gain in ‘Hell in Texas’ as all hell breaks out in hell house and in the town. This is not an investigation that leads to a direct confrontation with the Mythos threat present in the town, but rather a confrontation with its manipulation in the hell house in operation. There a sense of the Grand Guignol in the author’s enjoyably macabre description of the hell house in operation—and he comments that it could have been much, much worse had he drawn directly from real world hell houses—which brings to the scenario to its probable gruesome finale. The scenario has echoes of the  classic scenario, The Haunting, but definitely goes in its own direction.

Jeffrey Moeller’s second scenario in Things We Leave Behind is both clever and silly—or has the very great potential to be so. ‘The Night Season’ is set in the rarely visited—at least in terms of Call of Cthulhu—city of Anchorage, Alaska, where the investigators might be asked to re-examine the suicide of a teenage boy some years earlier, perhaps by his parents or after coming across the case. Robert Horn was found locked in his bedroom with a strange, apologetic suicide note after having stabbed himself in the stomach. The question is, what drove an athletic teenager to kill himself?

Experienced players—and perhaps experienced investigators too—of Call of Cthulhu will quickly realise that the Dreamlands are involved, but not exactly how. As the characters investigate, strange things start happening first around them and then to them. What is particularly odd is how these strange things happen out of thin air and then disappear again. What is even odder is that they are all related to a cult Science Fiction television series. As the scenario progresses, the length and frequency of these events grow and grow until they come to dominate it. Now the Keeper can have a lot of fun with these and even more fun if everyone knows the television series being referenced. The scenario includes one to essentially avoid copyright issues, but the author hints heavily at how several well known series can be used and notably, as Things We Leave Behind was being released in PDF, it was the fiftieth anniversary of a certain famous Science Fiction franchise… (One fun option would actually to run the later scenes in the scenario using the RPG based on that property.) What this means is that ‘The Night Season’ possesses a potential for silliness found in few scenarios for Call of Cthulhu. This may well divide the potential audience for the scenario, which in actuality presents an interesting and original situation and dilemma

Rounding out the anthology is ‘Intimate Encounters’, a bonus scenario by the prolific Oscar Rios. The investigators—perhaps journalists, private investigators, or occult investigators—are tracking a serial killer known as the ‘Lipo Killer’ because he leaves his victims drained of their body fat. This very has the feel of a traditional investigation and is reminiscent of an episode of the television series Kolchak: The Night Stalker or The X-Files. This is perhaps the most straightforward scenario in the collection, but is none the worse for that.

Physically, Things We Leave Behind is nicely presented. The layout is clean and simple, but still with a slightly rough character. The cartography is as good as you would expect from the publisher and the artwork is for the most part excellent, being just slightly off kilter. Although it needs a slight edit here and there, for a first book, Things We Leave Behind is professionally presented. Further, a nice touch is that the names of everyone involved—artists, editors, cartographers, et al—is list on the book’s front cover.

There is not a bad scenario in Things We Leave Behind, but ‘Ladybug, Ladybug, Fly Away Home’ and ‘Forget Me Not’ both stand out as fantastic scenarios, whilst ‘The Night Season’ is both fantastic and fantastically absurd. This is a good anthology and a good anthology of scenarios for the modern day, quite possibly the best anthology since the publication of Chaosium, Inc.’s The Stars Are Right. Perhaps the highest praise that can be paid to Things We Leave Behind is that is not hard to imagine Miskatonic River Press publishing this collection, but what is definitely true is that Things We Leave Behind is the first great release for use with Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition.

Friday, 16 September 2016

Fenland Fears

The Colour Beyond Time: A Medieval Mythos Mystery is scenario written by John R. Davis, the author of The Jack Hack. It is a medieval mystery adventure with Lovecraftian flavour that describes itself as “An adventure for use with any eldritch horror & mystery roleplaying game.”, essentially a plot without a system. What this means is that the GM can use the system of his choice to run the scenario, be it Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition, Savage Worlds, Maelstrom Domesday, or Cryptworld, so long as the system has a means of handling mental shock and instability. Cthulhu Dark Ages would be an obvious fit, although at time of publication, details of this supplement are only hinted at in Cthulhu Through the Ages.

More specifically, The Colour Beyond Time is designed to be played by between three and five players—plus GM—and is set in an area of fenland, much like that of Cambridgeshire, Huntingdonshire, Lincolnshire, and Norfolk, in roughly the year 1100 AD. The player characters are in service of the recently appointed baron, Philip De Guiarme, sent out to assess the southern extent of his barony. This includes the village of Honningsby, an isolated place on the coast. As the scenario opens, they are on their way there, stopping first at the hamlet of Farabridge to stay overnight. Here the party first learns of the dark doings in the Honningsby and its surrounds over which 'greenfire' fell from the sky some months past… Once in Honningsby, the characters will find further strangeness. Villagers seemingly frozen, visions—of both the future and the past, and more.

The Colour Beyond Time is an odd little scenario. There is little combat involved and there is no real confrontation with the alien being that is the cause of the weirdness that has befallen Honningsby and its surrounds. Rather, this is an investigative and interpersonal scenario in which medieval men encounter the aftereffects of a Mythos event. Even the educated amongst them will have little understanding of what has gone on and perhaps never truly will.

Physically, The Colour Beyond Time is a 2.64 MB, five page, black and white PDF available from RPGnow.com. It is best described as decidedly rough and unsteadily ready. Although the artwork is excellent and the layout workmanlike, the scenario is begging for a proper edit. The cartography is also rather scrappy.

Overall, The Colour Beyond Time: A Medieval Mythos Mystery feels underwritten and underdeveloped. It is more of a Mythos vignette than a full scenario, but it is not without a sense of isolation and brutal ignorance that more than fits the setting. It could have been expanded in places and perhaps the inclusion of a set of pre-generated player character backgrounds might not have gone amiss. Nevertheless, there is potential for an session or two—at most—in The Colour Beyond Time: A Medieval Mythos Mystery and perhaps interest enough to examine the forthcoming sequel, After The Mountfall Madness. That is not really too bad for a scenario that costs $1.

Sunday, 11 September 2016

Shining for Cthulhu Dark

Sun Spots is the second scenario designed by Dave Sokolowski following on from He Who Laughs Last. Like He Who Laughs Last, it is another scenario written for use with Cthulhu Dark – A Rules-Light system For Lovecraftian Horror, the stripped down RPG designed by Graham Walmsley, the author of Stealing Cthulhu, but unlike Like He Who Laughs Last, it is not set in the here and now, but in the heyday of Lovecraftian investigative horror, the Jazz Age of the 1920s. More specifically, it takes place in 1926, west of Boston in Massachusetts, so in a period and setting that will be familiar to most players of games of Lovecraftian investigative horror.

As it opens, the investigators are on that journey west of Boston, driving in midwinter to Red Valley. They are in the employ of Daniel Peterson, a prominent New England banker, accompanying him to the mountain resort where he believes  that has his daughter has fallen under the influence of a cult, perhaps a pagan one or a Communist collective after having failed to return to college. He has already been to the town to speak to his daughter, but now he hopes that the investigators will not only be able to help him talk to his daughter again, but also help extract her too and get her back to college. Yet when the party reaches the high mountain valley, they find themselves not in town drawing itself in ready for a worsening winter, but inhabitants and visitors alike in turns praying and cavorting under clear blue skies and bright sunshine as if it was the Fourth of July. Having come dressed for the season, are the investigators ready for a day at the beach?

Upon investigating the balmy situation—a matter of talking to the town’s now many inhabitants rather than delving into musty tomes—the player characters will learn that that they have become worshippers of the Sun. Upon closer examination, this worship seems not to actually centre on the sun itself, but upon stones that they meditate upon. Known as Sunstones, these play a central role in the scenario, the inhabitants of the town becoming increasingly obsessed with them as they come to represent a source of power and influence. As this escalates, where Sun Spots gets interesting is in two ways… First is in the rising religious mania and feuding between rival interpretations of how the Sun should be ‘correctly’ worshipped. Second is in how the investigators are likely to need to obtain Sunstones of their own—a challenge in its own right as the various faiths feud over possession of these artifacts—if they are to truly understand the threat that the Sunstones represent. There are of course dangers inherent to this in that any investigator who examines a Sunstone is likely to become obsessed with the artifact himself and hinder, if not outright endanger the investigation and the other investigators… There is even an opportunity for the investigators to become involved in the religious mania in way or another, right up to them actually leading their own Sun-worshipping cult. 

Although the Mythos is having a direct influence upon the events in Sun Spots, its effect is more a force of the natural universe and whilst that effect is catastrophic in the long term, in the short term the primary is represented by the religious mania that sweeps Red Valley. There is of course a Mythos explanation to the events in the resort town, but these are quite underplayed. This explanation revolves around a new interpretation of Azathoth, the Blind Idiot God, one that is more stellar than interstellar in nature. In some ways, the powers presented in the scenario might be more readily said to belong to the purview of Cthugha, and should a Keeper not agree with the author’s interpretation of the Daemon Sultan, then perhaps Cthugha might be a suitable substitute. 

In addition to the scenario itself, Sun Spots also includes two appendices. The first presents the rules for Cthulhu Dark – A Rules-Light system For Lovecraftian Horror, a set of simple rules that in three or so pages gives everything needed to play a game of Lovecraftian investigative horror. What this means is that Sun Spots comes as a complete package. That said, the second appendix includes some of the scenario author’s house rules for Cthulhu Dark. These cover the use of skills and particular skills and a means to advance your surviving investigators. Both are simple enough, but both slightly move the rules away from the rules light, bare bones, horrifyingly uncaring simplicity of Cthulhu Dark.

Physically, Sun Spots is well presented, though it could do with a little more organisation to better order its information and a slightly tighter edit. It is lightly illustrated, but the artwork is reasonable. The one map, a topographical map of the town of Red Valley and its environs, is nicely done, though what it really highlights is the need for a map of the town itself, which is not included in the scenario. Of course, the Keeper can run Sun Spots using just the description of Red Valley included in the scenario, but a map would be a sufficiently useful aid. There are some elements where the scenario could be developed a little, particularly to present the rival religious factions, but there is perhaps still time for this.

Interestingly, Sun Spots did not begin life as a scenario for use with Cthulhu Dark, but rather as a submission for The Outer Gods, a cancelled scenario anthology for Call of Cthulhu, Sixth Edition that would have been published by the late and much lamented Miskatonic River Press. Although it was never published, in the decade since, the author has had the time to develop the scenario and then develop it again for use with Cthulhu Dark. Much of this is chronicled in the author’s introduction, the inclusion of which provides the interesting backstory for Sun Spots.

What this introduction does highlight is that Sun Spots can be run using the game system of your choice, so long of course, as it has mechanics for handling mental states and shock and loss of sanity. The inclusion of skills—a house rule variant rather the standard rules for Cthulhu Dark—is actually helpful to that end, but since Cthulhu Dark is such a light system, there is very little impediment for the Keeper who wants to run the scenario using any RPG of Lovecraftian investigative horror, whether that be Call of Cthulhu, Trail of Cthulhu, or Realms of Cthulhu. All he has to do is create the stats for the various NPCs and artifacts.

The history behind Sun Spots presents a moment to reflect upon what might have been had Miskatonic River Press remained in business. Although the publisher released a limited number of books not a single one of them was a bad book. In fact all of them were good—even great books—the latter including a campaign in the form of The Legacy of Arrius Lurco, to date the best support for the Cthulhu Invictus setting. Further, Miskatonic River Press has spurred further publishers such as Golden Goblin Press and Stygian Fox. In looking back and thinking about the scenarios that appeared in New Tales of the Miskatonic Valley and More Adventures in Arkham County, it is not difficult to see why Sun Spots would have been a suitable inclusion in a Miskatonic River Press anthology.

In presenting a new interpretation of an Outer God, Sun Spots brings an uncaring and elemental influence to bear down on New England, but this is pleasingly manifest in an all too human a fashion—pride, belief, and religious mania that are as much a threat to the investigators as the Daemon Sultan is himself. Sun Spots is a delightfully balmy investigation into the dangers of sun worship.


—oOo—

This review is of the pre-release version of Sun Spots. This is of the version of the scenario written for use with Cthulhu Dark – A Rules-Light system For Lovecraftian Horror. As of Tuesday, 13th September, 2016, Sun Spots will be published for use with Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition. The scenario is currently on Kickstarter.

Saturday, 10 September 2016

Cthulhu Without Cthulhu II

Nameless Horrors: Six Reasons to Fear the Unknown is an anthology of scenarios for Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition and is indeed the first anthology of scenarios for Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition, having been published as a stretch goal for the Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition Kickstarter. It brings together both the co-author and the editor of the new edition of the original RPG of Lovecraftian investigative horror, plus a prolific scenario writer—in order, Paul Fricker, Scott Dorward, and Matthew Sanderson, who are together the hosts of the podcast, The Good Friends of Jackson Elias—to pen two scenarios each for a total of six. What marks this anthology out in comparison to previous releases for Call of Cthulhu is that none its scenarios involve traditional horrors of the Mythos. No Nyarlathotep or the King in Yellow, no Elder Things or Shoggoths, no Ghouls or Byakhee, and so on. This is not to say that none of the scenarios in Nameless Horrors are Lovecraftian, for many exude a sense of the greater or cosmic unknown and embrace the fragility of humanity in the face of this unknown. In this they differ from the scenarios presented in Pagan Publishing’s similar Bumps in the Night, which presented a quintet of non-Mythos scenarios, but the intent of both collections is to present situations and scenarios that veteran players of Call of Cthulhu can enjoy and be challenged by shorn of their familiarity of the Cthulhu Mythos. Hence the subtitle, ‘Six Reasons to Fear the Unknown’.

Where Nameless Horrors really differs over the earlier Bumps in the Night is that its six scenarios are all one-shots, that is, not specifically designed to be slotted into a campaign. Each comes with a set of six pre-generated player characters, player characters rather than investigators since these are not scenarios in the traditional sense of Call of Cthulhu and thus the characters are not investigators in the traditional sense. Each player character comes with his own objectives and motivations and relationships—both positive and negative—with the other player characters and the NPCs. This enables the players to engage with each scenario relatively easily and gives them reason to get involved in its plot. All three authors have extensive experience with this type of scenario, having run these or similar ones at gaming conventions over the past few years. The scenarios take the players to Cthulhu by Gaslight—and earlier, to the Jazz Age of classic Call of Cthulhu, to the opening years of the Great Depression of the 1930s, and lastly to the modern day.

It opens with the two scenarios by Matthew Sanderson and gets off to bad start with ‘An Amaranthine Desire’. Not necessarily the scenario itself, but rather its presentation, which begins with a thick wodge of history about the medieval seaport of Dunwich, that is, the ‘other’ Dunwich. Although it becomes clear later in the scenario, initially it is unclear as how the player characters are involved, nor is it clear whether the scenario is set in the eighteenth century (from the introduction of Nameless Horrors), the nineteenth century (from the player handout which is not presented until ten pages into the scenario), or the thirteenth century, which the bulk of the scenario is devoted to. Once it does become clear, what is actually happening is that for reasons beyond their understanding, a band of smugglers from the Victorian era have been cast back into medieval Suffolk and must prevent a great evil from happening that threatens the future of the region.

Specifically, the smugglers find themselves washed ashore in medieval Suffolk amidst a plot involving greed, witchcraft, and murder. Besides the characters being fish out of water, the other intriguing fact about ‘An Amaranthine Desire’ is that the player characters can make multiple attempts to thwart the plotting of its villain as the night loops and repeats itself in Groundhog Day fashion—a comparison that the author makes himself. This looping of time is not without its consequences as the characters will discover, so giving the scenario its urgency. The plot is relatively straightforward given the amount of background, but it may take the players a few times to work their way through it to understand what is going on and the final resolution should be influenced by the pre-generated characters, not all of whom have Suffolk’s (or England’s) best interests at heart. Feeling not a little like Groundhog Day meets Macbeth, the danger with  ‘An Amaranthine Desire’ is that it may fizzle out if the players fail to grasp the plot, but its structure should make it a memorable affair and should the characters survive, the scenario does throw one final loop when they return to the future...

Sanderson’s second scenario is ‘A Message of Art’ for use with Cthulhu by Gaslight. It is set in Paris at the height of the Belle Époque. The year is 1892 and the characters are involved in the avant-garde art world of the City of Light. All are invited to the closing party of the Salon de la Rose + Croix, which has become known for its prominent Symbolist painters, writers, and composers. Each has his own reason to attend, whether that is to gain access to the Mystic Order de la Rose + Croix out of which the Salon grew, looking for art to purchase or confirmation of rumoured disharmony within the Salon, to gain membership, and so on. Equally, the members of the Salon have their own reasons for attending, most of them at odds with each other and there is opportunity in the scenario’s opening scenes for the characters to become involved in various intrigues and rivalries. To an extent the Keeper will have to push these rivalries to the fore and pull the characters into the scenario as the characters’ own motives may not be strong enough to initially involve in the scenario’s plot. Later in the scenario this will not pose as much of a problem.

The scenario describes itself as a “social, sandbox environment”. What this means is that the characters are free to visit and interact with whomever they want and whatever order they want. This is not a scenario about exploring Paris, but rather the inhabitants of a small world within the city. This will become increasingly necessary as one by one each of its members—and quite likely one or more of the characters as well—falls victim to an existential threat: inspiration made physical. Essentially, once infected, a character is driven create the most perfect piece of art he can or die. Thematically this is a perfect fit for the avant-garde art world of the 189os, but it feels highly exclusive and ill-suited for use with Call of Cthulhu investigators from a more traditional campaign, despite the suggestions given to that end. Further, once one of the player characters becomes infected or inspired by his muse, then the scenario becomes somewhat heavy handed in its use of timing mechanism in pushing it to the climax.

Where neither ‘An Amaranthine Desire’ nor ‘A Message of Art’ could be moved to another location without great difficulty, this is much less of a problem with ‘And Some Fell on Stony Ground’. This is the first of the two scenarios by Paul Fricker and is nominally set in Stowell, an archetypical American small town, but it could be relocated with relative ease. That said, it is heavily built around the pre-generated player characters and they are specifically pushed at certain points in the scenario. The player characters are simple townsfolk—waitresses, teachers, barbers, and so—whose quiet lives are thrown out of kilter when other townsfolk begin acting oddly. Initially this might be seen as the eccentricities of small town life, but the inhabitants of Stowell soon become divided between those who driven because they suddenly have some great gift and those that lose much of their will because they do not, the latter often becoming enslaved to the former. This effect ripples across the town and can come to include the characters, and as this exacerbates, the town’s once stable society collapses.

There are multiple paths to uncovering what has befallen the small town, most initially built around the links that the pre-generated characters have with their families and other townsfolk. The investigation itself is loosely structured around Call of Cthulhu’s classic onionskin format with the characters peeling back layer upon layer to reveal the mystery at the heart of ‘And Some Fell on Stony Ground’. Resolving it though has its consequences as the situation in the town will break out into the brutal survival horror it has been hinting at all along. Arguably ‘And Some Fell on Stony Ground’ harks back to the core of play in Call of Cthulhu, that is, ordinary men and women forced to contend with and confront the extraordinary—and there are no more ordinary characters than those presented here. The scenario is all the more refreshing and all the more intense for it.

Scott Dorward’s first contribution to the anthology, ‘Bleak Prospect’ is perhaps the most obviously Lovecraftian, but then it does draw upon H.P. Lovecraft’s short story, From Beyond for its inspiration. It is set during the Great Depression and as it opens the characters find themselves all but destitute, forced to live in the Hooverville or shantytown on the edge of the New England town where they once had successful businesses and nice homes. (Perhaps this might be the eventual destination for those investigators who stalwartly faced the unknown in the previous decade and have now found their retirement not to have lived up to their hopes?) Yet their mouldering lives are further beset by a strange, almost desiccating disease, supposedly faceless men preying upon the camp in barely remembered attacks, and one of the children also living at the camp is also missing.

From the start, the efforts of the characters to determine the cause of both the malaise and the attacks, as well as locating the missing children are hampered not just by their newly suffered lack of social status, but also mechanically in game terms. Quite literally, they are down on their luck. Although they have their allies, it seems as the whole of their world is against them and to be fair, it is. Though there is good reason for this within the scenario, it still seems unfair, but the destitute world of the characters is an uncaring one and so unfair it should be. There is no doubt that ‘Bleak Prospect’ lives up to its name, right up to its horridly organic climax.

The penultimate scenario is the second by Paul Fricker. ‘The Moonchild’ is a contemporary set affair that is nominally set in the town of Milton Keynes and nearby Northampton, although this really has no effect upon the scenario whatsoever and it can easily be relocated to the town and country of the Keeper’s choice. (That said, it would have been interesting if the author had involved the setting in the scenario.) The players take the roles of very ordinary middle-aged folk whose lives never lived up to the hopes they had in college. Once members of the college occult society, they decide to come together again after making contact again on social media. One of their number wants their help. She is still involved with the leader of the occult society from two decades and he is not only threatening her and her family, but now she tells them, he is threatening them, the other former members of the society.

Echoing films such as The Omen and Rosemary’s Baby, ‘The Moonchild’ is a nasty, grim affair on several levels. One because it twists the characters’ beliefs and sense of what is real; two, because it grounds the scenario in the sordid underbelly of recession-set United Kingdom; and three, because none of the pre-generated characters are innocent in either the events that set up the scenario or those that have occurred since. Lastly, because it should be noted that ‘The Moonchild’ does deal with issues of child abuse, possible incest/molestation, and sex with a minor, making it the most adult of the scenarios in Nameless Horrors. Fortunately, a warning is given, but a Keeper may need to make adjustments so as not to upset or offend his players.

The plot to ‘The Moonchild’ feels much like that of a film and more like a traditional horror scenario rather than one that is strictly Lovecraftian. Nevertheless, it is the most horrifying of the six scenarios in Nameless Horrors, primarily because the pre-generated characters are the most involved in the horror.

Rounding out the anthology is ‘The Space Between’, Scott Dorward’s second contribution. It takes place in Los Angeles where the player characters are the cast and crew of the eponymously named movie which will showcase the teachings of the Church of Sunyata, a popular faith in Hollywood and beyond. The player characters also are members the Church and keen to prove their loyalty to the Church by getting the film finished and released when its leading actress fails to report to the set and its director has gone into hiding. Scenarios set in Hollywood tend to be quite fun and there is a certain frisson to ‘The Space Between’ because of the parallels between the fictional Church of Sunyata and a real world cult noted for having various Hollywood stars as leading members and there is a certain wry amusement to be had in spotting the various parallels as they appear.

Getting to the heart of ‘The Space Between’ means getting to the heart of Church of Sunyata and learning its secrets. This should be a profoundly shocking experience for the player characters who have obviously invested their faith and their lives in the Church and those secrets are likely to shatter both. Worse is the possibility that the player characters become true converts to the Church and so hasten the spread of the Church’s teachings. This is in turns a funny and a horrid scenario, one that takes the idea of the emptiness at the heart of Hollywood to its furthest extent...

Physically, what sets Nameless Horrors apart from other titles for Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition is that it is wholly done in black and white. Indeed, it is the last black and white book to be released for Call of Cthulhu. That said, the scenarios are themselves cleanly presented and each comes with well-done cartography, some decent artwork, and a relationship map, the latter showing the relationships between both the player characters and the NPCs. In places the book needs another edit and the relationship maps—as useful an idea that they are—would have worked better if they had not been placed at right angle to the page. It is also a pity that the various handouts, although serviceable, are presented in as pedestrian a fashion as they could be. Perhaps the least attractive aspect of Nameless Horrors is the player character thumbnail portraits which are bland and characterless in comparison to the depictions of the various NPCs.

For many, the problem with Nameless Horrors is twofold. First, these are scenarios aimed more at veteran players of the game rather than than those new to Call of Cthulhu and whilst this does not mean that players new to Call of Cthulhu cannot play them, it does mean that they do present a challenge to anyone who is new to being a Keeper. Second, these scenarios are all one-shots and despite the notes included in several of the scenarios, not really suited for play as part of an ongoing or existing campaign. This means that the entries in Nameless Horrors may not get as much play or as much use as those in other collections beyond serving as a source of ideas for the Keeper. The advantage of the format of course is that the authors can create tighter setups with stronger reasons for the investigators to get involved. In that case, perhaps one of the ways in which any one of the scenarios contained in Nameless Horrors might be used is as the setup for continuing investigations? Depending upon the outcome, of course...

If there is another linking element to this sextet of scenarios, it is perhaps the built-in timing mechanisms—different in each case—that pushes the plot of each scenario forward. This comes primarily from the authors having run these and other scenarios at conventions in limited timeslots and whilst it works in all cases, it is not always subtle. Nevertheless, there is not a bad scenario in this anthology, though perhaps the scenarios in the second half of the book are the more interesting ones. All six though, succeed in meeting the remit of Nameless Horrors: Six Reasons to Fear the Unknown—presenting threats and dangers that are original yet still Lovecraftian in tone and challenge.

Sunday, 4 September 2016

Fenworthy Hammer Horror

The Fenworthy Inheritance is almost, but not quite a Call of Cthulhu scenario. Published by MontiDots Ltd., it is a scenario set in the classic period for Chaosium, Inc.’s RPG of Lovecraftian investigative horror, the Jazz of the 1920s; its mechanics do involve percentiles and they do make use of a sanity-style mechanic; and it is a horror scenario. More specifically, it employs the GORE™ Open Game Content Rules published by Goblinoid Games—best known for the Old School Renaissance Retroclone, Labyrinth Lord—to which MontiDots Ltd. has added its own Horror Rating System. As to the horror, although there is certainly a nod to the Lovecraftian, it is feels more influenced by the works of Dennis Wheatley and Hammer Horror with perhaps a tip of the deerstalker to The Hound of the Baskervilles.

The Fenworthy Inheritance is a one-shot scenario set in and around the village of Fenworthy on Dartmoor, in the county of Devon in southwest England in the years following the Great War, specifically 1922. It is the destination for businessmen and Great War veteran, David Farrington, who has been instructed by their parents to take his sister Jinx on a walking holiday in order to recover from her having spent too much time in the company of the Bright Young Things. They will each be joined by various friends, enabling the scenario to be played by between two and seven players, though four to six is probably the optimum number, there being seven pre-generated characters provided to that end. Unfortunately, a sedate weekend is the last thing that they will enjoy when they encounter death on the road, rural superstition, village politics, and revenge from down the years…

The scenario takes place over the course of a long weekend. The set-up is fairly lengthy, but it should be enough to draw the player characters into the strange things that are going on in and around Fenworthy. This is very much a physical investigation. There is very little in the way of having to read through musty and instead the player characters will find themselves relying upon interaction, perception, and stealth if they are learn anything. Of the seven pre-generated investigators provided, only one of them is a natural investigator, a journalist, so the others may have to be worked hard to involve themselves in the strange goings on in the village.

Although there is no advice as to using The Fenworthy Inheritance with characters other than the ones provided, the scenario does come with suggestions as to possible sequels. These push the events in The Fenworthy Inheritance towards a more Lovecraftian bent, perhaps even verging on Delta Green territory just a little...

The Fenworthy Inheritance is written for use with Goblinoid Games’ free to use GORE™ Open Game Content Rules, themselves based on a 1980s role-playing game. Parallels between GORE™ and Call of Cthulhu are certainly apparent, most obviously in the use by GORE™ of a Challenge Table that looks very much like the Resistance Table to be found in Chaosium, Inc.’s Basic Roleplaying and the other RPGs based on its mechanics. The basics of the percentile rules are explained in the opening pages of the scenario, including some notes towards character creation, though this explanation is not fully detailed. To this, the author has added a new set of rules for handling being exposed to the unknown and the supernatural and the shocking effect this has on the psyche. Every character—player character or NPC—has a Stability rating, a percentile score that represents his state of mind. If he encounters a horrific event, then a character can lose points from his Stability, leading to a deterioration in his state of mind. The strength of any horrifying encounter, whether discovering a dead body, reading a malignant tome, or being chased by something eldritch, is measured by its Horror Rating. This Horror Rating is compared against the character’s Power attribute on the Challenge Table—modified by the character’s Stability rating—to give a saving value he needs to roll under.

Over all, the Horror Rating and Stability mechanics are a rough facsimile of the Sanity mechanics from Call of Cthulhu. They are not quite as simple or elegant, being a bit more complex and fiddlesome, but they do get the job done. Together with the GORE™ Open Game Content Rules, they provide a familiarity that makes The Fenworthy Inheritance readily accessible for anyone who has played Call of Cthulhu—at least up to Call of Cthulhu, Sixth Edition. Then again, like all material published for Call of Cthulhu, it would not be a challenge for the Game Master to adapt The Fenworthy Inheritance to Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition.

Physically, The Fenworthy Inheritance is a study in contrasts. The spiral bound book is well presented with some excellent illustrations—all done by the author. Some are used over and over, but they are good pieces, the better being of monsters and buildings. The cartography is also decent, clear and simple, although perhaps lacking in flavour. In some cases, the maps are perhaps a little bigger than necessary. The layout is also clean and tidy, but… The scenario is in need of another edit at the very least, if not another round of development. The problem as such is not the content itself, but the way in which it is presented. In some places there is too much information, in others not enough, and not always in the right place or order.

For example, much of the scenario’s opening description meant to be read out to the players should have been subsumed into the backgrounds of the pre-generated investigators to make them stronger and enforce roleplaying ties and relationships which are otherwise underwritten. Elsewhere, NPCs are described in the order that the author would introduce them if he was running the scenario or writing a novel, so that the GM needs to give what is otherwise a straightforward scenario a good read.

Now this all sounds as if The Fenworthy Inheritance is a terrible scenario. This could not be further from the truth. There is everything within its pages for a good adventure and a solid roleplaying experience—a familiar setting, a reasonable plot, and decent support. Unfortunately, this is not always presented as clearly as it should be and for more experienced players, the plot may well too familiar, if not an out and out cliché. What this means is that the GM will have to put a little extra effort into understanding the plot and being able to present it to his players.

The Fenworthy Inheritance is a complete scenario, if just unfinished. It comes with everything necessary to play, but as written and presented, it just lacks the polish that the author wanted to achieve.


—oOo—

At the time of publication, MontiDots Ltd. did not have a website. It does however, have a presence on Facebook and the author can be contacted directly via email: info@montidots.co.uk. As of September, 2016, MontiDotsLtd. titles are available on RPGnow, beginning with The Fenworthy Inheritance.