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

Monday, 8 February 2016

For Cultured Friends IV

The release of the fourth issue of The Excellent Travelling Volume marks a small, though no less pleasing achievement—four issues of the fanzine dedicated to TSR Inc.’s Empire of the Petal Throne: The World of Tékumel published in a year! Self-published by James Maliszewski, the release also marks the first anniversary of the author’s return to the gaming hobby after time away, having previously made a name for himself as a leading figure in the ‘Old School Renaissance’ via his his blog, Grognardia. Previous issues of the fanzine—one, two, and three—have sold out and the likelihood is that this issue will also sell out. Although the fanzine is firmly aimed at ‘Petalheads’, devotees of Tékumel: Empire of the Petal Throne, the linguistic and RPG setting devised by the late Professor M.A.R. Barker, it is not aimed at the deep cultural aspects that the setting and thus the RPG is rightly renowned for. Rather, it sets out to provide material that has been played and can be played. 

As with previous issues, The Excellent Travelling Volume #4 comes as a twenty-eight page, digest-sized booklet, illustrated with greyscale pictures. Inside are just five sections. Unlike the previous issues, only one of these five articles is specifically focussed on a single location—Sokátis, the City of Roofs, the Tsolyáni city close to Salarvyá and Pecháno in the far east of Tsolyánu that is the setting for James Maliszewski’s home campaign. Two of the articles though do focus on the north and the east of Tsolyánu, the Empire of the Petal Throne and thus would influence campaigns set in and around Sokátis. The others are more general in terms of their nature and geography.

The issue opens with more background options for both player characters and NPCs. ‘Yán Koryáni and Sa’á Allaqiyáni Characters’ provides background information for creating both player characters and NPCs from the northern nations of Yán Kór and Sa’á Allaqí. It gives level titles for all three classes, male and female names, the differences in religion from Tsolyánu, and the major clans for both nations. This is useful information for any campaign. It is pertinent to Maliszewski’s own campaign since that is set in the northeast of Tsolyánu in the 2350s and also before the Tsolyáni invasions of Yán Kór and the events of the civil war that would beset Tsolyánu during the 2360s, essentially the canonical period for very many Tékumel-based campaigns. Now of course not all of this is exactly canon, but there is much that there is, and what is not actually feels right in the setting.

This is followed by another entry in the Patrons series of articles. These have often been the highlight of previous issues of The Excellent Travelling Volume and the collection of patrons here is no exception. Again done in the style of Patron Encounters for the author’s beloved Traveller RPG, three of these five have the player characters running around after a Macguffin for one temple or another, whilst the others have them performing an extraction from another temple and going animal hunting. Again these are good mix, and in the case of the latter, could be run again using one of the given options. The third section, ‘A Portion of the Underworld of Sokátis’ continues the description of the other half of the ‘Tsuru’úm’ or underworld that lies beneath the city’s Foreigners’ Quarter first described in issue #2. Detailed enough, the description of the map given is not complete—that will have to wait for another issue—and hopefully the next issue will not only complete the description, it will also provide some hooks and details to get the player characters involved. Unfortunately, this has been an issue with previous entries in the description of ‘A Portion of the Underworld of Sokátis’.

The fourth and shortest section in The Excellent Traveling Volume #4 is ‘The Shape-shifters – the Mihálli’. It describes the near mythical and ancient shape-shifting alien sorcerers said to exist on more than one plane at once, but mostly seen to the north of Tsolyánu on Tékumel. Although a decent enough description, an adventure hook or two would have been a nice addition given how alien these creatures and their motives are.

In The Prismatic Fortress, the inhabitants of Ruthálu have become aware of a glinting structure high up in the surrounding mountains, but when a group is sent to investigate, its members do not return. So the elders of Ruthálu ask outsiders—that is, the player characters—to go up the mountain and investigate. What is going is that the insectoid Hlüss have restored an old fortress and established as it as a forward base for future operations. This is a reasonable little dungeon, but not much more, lacking the potential depth of ‘The Hidden Shrine’ from The Excellent Travelling Volume #1. The GM may also want to play up the ‘Alien’-like potential in this scenario, although as written it is lacking in flavour and detail.

Rounding out The Excellent Travelling Volume #4 is ‘Tomes of Power’, which builds upon the library given in Empire of the Petal Throne: The World of Tékumel. The article notably includes the infamous compendium of demonology, ‘Kranuóntio Mishatlnéa Üroshjanál’ or ‘The Book of Ebon Bindings’, itself also a supplement for the game. This is a pleasing collection items that will peak the interest of any player-character magic-user or priest, let alone other NPCs. That of course, means that these books can be used by the GM as the basis of adventures of his own.

Physically, The Excellent Travelling Volume #4 is solidly presented. Both its artwork and its cartography continue to be excellent. That said, the issue could have done with another proofing pass if not another pair of eyes.

The Excellent Travelling Volume #4 contains another set of decently done articles for Empire of the Petal Throne: The World of Tékumel. One or two of them could have benefited from some sample application, but this does not mean that they do not add to the setting. Although perhaps a little rushed in places, The Excellent Travelling Volume #4 continues James Maliszewski’s love affair with Empire of the Petal Throne: The World of Tékumel.

Saturday, 6 February 2016

Fanzine Focus: The Undercroft #1

On the tail of Old School Renaissance has come another movement—the rise of the fanzine. Although the fanzine—a nonprofessional and nonofficial publication produced by fans of a particular cultural phenomenon, got its start in Science Fiction fandom, in the gaming hobby it first started with Chess and Diplomacy fanzines before finding fertile ground in the roleplaying hobby in the 1970s. Here these amateurish publications allowed the hobby a public space for two things. First, they were somewhere that the hobby could voice opinions and ideas that lay outside those of a game’s publisher. Second, in the Golden Age of roleplaying when the Dungeon Masters were expected to create their own settings and adventures, they also provided a rough and ready source of support for the game of your choice. Many also served as vehicles for the fanzine editor’s house campaign and thus they showed another DM and group played said game. This would often change over time if a fanzine accepted submissions. Initially, fanzines were primarily dedicated to the big three RPGs of the 1970s—Dungeons & Dragons, RuneQuest, and Traveller—but fanzines have appeared dedicated to other RPGs since, some of which helped keep a game popular in the face of no official support.

Since 2008 with the publication of Fight On #1, the Old School Renaissance has had its own fanzines. The advantage of the Old School Renaissance is that the various Retroclones draw from the same source and thus one Dungeons & Dragons-style RPG is compatible with another. This means that the contents of one fanzine will compatible with the Retroclone that you already run and play even if not specifically written for it. Labyrinth Lord and Lamentations of the Flame Princess Weird Fantasy Roleplay have proved to be popular choices to base fanzines around, such as The Undercroft and Vacant Ritual Assembly.

Published in the July 2014 by the Melsonian Arts Council—the publisher of the recently released Something Stinks in StiltonThe Undercroft #1 is the first issue of an English fanzine devoted to Lamentations of the Flame Princess Weird Fantasy Roleplay and the campaign of the author, Daniel Sell. From the off, it looks like a fanzine in the English tradition, reminiscent of the 1980s. It has red card cover which makes it a little sturdier, whilst the layout inside is kept very simple and unfussy. It does use public domain artwork, but the selection is decent and gives the whole affair a baroque feel. The content is equally as baroque.

The Undercroft #1 sets out to provide material that will unsettle the players and their characters and make the lives of the player characters just that little more uncomfortable. It does so really in just four articles—well three actually, since the fourth is really part of the third. The first of the these is not by Daniel Sell, but by Alex Clements. In ‘Rewriting the Cure Desease Spell’, he redesigns diseases to more reflect their real world effect rather than the poison-like cure or die effect that Dungeons & Dragons and other Retroclones possess. Instead Clements’ take on the disease is that they have a chronic, longer lasting more debilitating effect, wherein a suffering player character can continue being played—albeit at less than optimum capability—rather simply dying. Further, the Cure Disease spell is no longer a ‘fire and forget’ affair, but each disease has its own Disease Hit Points, each point of these Disease Hit Points requiring an application of the Cure Disease spell. For example, Syphilis has ten Disease Hit Points whereas the Plague has just the one. In the case of the former, this feels like an awfully big number of castings of the Cure Disease spell. Perhaps I might have opted for each casting curing a random number of Disease Hit Points rather than just the one—1d4, 1d6? In addition to the aforementioned Syphilis and the Plague, the article adds a number of fantasy diseases, such as Godrickson’s Corruption, an alchemist’s blackmail device which liquefies its sufferers, and Death Eye Worm, a parasitic infection from caves that fill its sufferer's eyes and makes him see everyone as rotten corpses!

Daniel Sell’s ‘The Wager of Battle’ hints at so much and would make for interesting addition to any urban-based campaign. It describes how legal disputes are settled in Yongardy—presumably the location of the author’s campaign—between the lawyers and solicitors of that city. Matters are often settled by personal combat between the lawyers and each type of law and lawyer has adopted a certain style of dress and combat. For example, guild lawyers or barristers wear the latest styles in puffy jackets and pantaloons with the finest blades decorated with beautiful hilts, whilst practitioners of Common Law are not dandies, but are rougher characters who wield heavy duelling knives. When they duel, each duellist both grasp a heavy knotted rope and the first one to let go loses. Six type of lawyers are given, but what is not is culture of the law in Yongardy and this means that the colour of these lawyers and their duelling codes feels divorced from its setting, giving ‘The Wager of Battle’ an undeveloped feel. The article itself is rounded out with a lengthy table that enables the Referee to roll up an NPC lawyer should a player character need one.

The third article is ‘Barrow of the Old King’ is a thirty or so location dungeon that can be dropped into most campaigns. It consists of an old king’s tomb and a cave complex beneath it, the latter infested by corpse-eating scavengers called Corpse lions. The tomb is believed to be the location of a particular item—the item being determined according to the needs of the campaign—and the player characters are tasked to retrieve it. The dungeon is quite light on encounters as such, but several locations are marked with just an asterisk, the Referee being expected to populate these with entries from the scenario’s Random Encounter Table. Some of these are quite nasty, so the Referee may want to be a little more judicious in his choices from said table. The dungeon is stated as being suitable for characters of all Levels, but it is probably slightly too tough an adventure for First Level characters. ‘Barrow of the Old King’ is in general, a solid adventure, but the descriptions of the various rooms and particularly their contents do much to give it an ancient Britannic feel.

The last article describes a monster, the ‘Corpse Lion’, a large insect that feasts upon corpses, desecrating tombs and graveyards, before raiding the surrounding area for the living to hang until they are nicely ripe. Although separate, it really is a corollary to  ‘Barrow of the Old King’ as that is where the monster appears.

The Undercroft #1 is a well presented little fanzine. It needs a slight edit, but the writing is clear, barring the lack of development in ‘The Wager of Battle’. Whilst the hand drawn cartography of the ‘Barrow of the Old King’ is really rather charming, it would have been nice if the maps—both of which are placed inside the front and back covers in true Old School Style—had been labelled.

In The Undercroft #1 there are hints of an interesting society or setting, although none of its three or four articles are connected. This is mostly evident in the slightly disappointing ‘The Wager of Battle’ and that article is probably the most difficult to bring to a campaign as more context might have made it easier to adapt or adopt. The other two articles are easier to use  as they do not need the context. Hopefully future issues of The Undercroft will present more of Yongardy, but otherwise, The Undercroft #1 is a pleasing initial issue.

Fanzine Focus: Vacant Ritual Assembly #1

On the tail of Old School Renaissance has come another movement—the rise of the fanzine. Although the fanzine—a nonprofessional and nonofficial publication produced by fans of a particular cultural phenomenon, got its start in Science Fiction fandom, in the gaming hobby it first started with Chess and Diplomacy fanzines before finding fertile ground in the roleplaying hobby in the 1970s. Here these amateurish publications allowed the hobby a public space for two things. First, they were somewhere that the hobby could voice opinions and ideas that lay outside those of a game’s publisher. Second, in the Golden Age of roleplaying when the Dungeon Masters were expected to create their own settings and adventures, they also provided a rough and ready source of support for the game of your choice. Many also served as vehicles for the fanzine editor’s house campaign and thus they showed another DM and group played said game. This would often change over time if a fanzine accepted submissions. Initially, fanzines were primarily dedicated to the big three RPGs of the 1970s—Dungeons & Dragons, RuneQuest, and Traveller—but fanzines have appeared dedicated to other RPGs since, some of which helped keep a game popular in the face of no official support.

Since 2008 with the publication of Fight On #1, the Old School Renaissance has had its own fanzines. The advantage of the Old School Renaissance is that the various Retroclones draw from the same source and thus one Dungeons & Dragons-style RPG is compatible with another. This means that the contents of one fanzine will compatible with the Retroclone that you already run and play even if not specifically written for it. Labyrinth Lord and Lamentations of the Flame Princess Weird Fantasy Roleplay have proved to be popular choices to base fanzines around, such as The Undercroft and Vacant Ritual Assembly.

Published in the winter of 2014 by Red Moon Medicine, Vacant Ritual Assembly #1  is the first issue of ‘An OSR Zine’ devoted to Lamentations of the Flame Princess Weird Fantasy Roleplay and the campaign of the author, Clint Krause. If there is a focus for this inaugural issue, it is upon certain aspects of magic that do not feature in Lamentations of the Flame Princess Weird Fantasy Roleplay. The first is the acquisition of magic items, in the author’s campaign available at the Ghoul Market, a roving underground collection of traders who source magic items from high and low—mostly low. Items such as Wind Whales (2000sp) and the Ostritch-like Ergoraptor mounts (1000sp) add an expensive if outré element to a game, whilst Fairy Amber (3000sp per piece) can be bought and embedded in arms and armour to gain a bonus, though if too many are used there is the chance that the bonus will be lost.

Also seen at the Ghoul Market, is the Skinsmith as detailed in ‘Meat the Skinsmith’. This demonic and corpulent being provides surgeries—replacement limbs and even resurrection of the dead, though this comes at a terrible price, the possibility that the resurrected returns to life with the head of a bull, a demonic face in each palm that whispers ill to the resurrected, or even with his non-vital organs replaced with internal ‘pockets’ for the easy storage of small items. A regular customer at the Ghoul Market is detailed in ‘Vespero the Antiquarian’, a fixer who arranges for the finding and obtaining of objects and artefacts, perhaps employing adventurers such as the player characters to do so. He will have magic items for sale too, a different inventory each time he opens up shop. Both of these NPCs would make sold additions to a more fantastic style of campaign Lamentations of the Flame Princess Weird Fantasy Roleplay as they both retain the dark horror elements intrinsic to the RPG.

‘Luminari, Lady of the Golden Lamp’ provides a respite from the horror.  It details a possible roleplaying encounter deep in the forest with the goddess of fireflies and is easily dropped into most campaigns. Perhaps the highlight of Vacant Ritual Assembly #1 is ‘Brahnwick is Dead’. This scenario starts with the player characters being hired by Vespero the Antiquarian to recover a signet ring from the late Lord Brahnwick as part of a succession dispute. To do this they must visit the Brahnwick family seat of Sylvan Lake, a village that has been partially drowned following the collapse of an ancient dam and infested with escaped patients from an asylum, the House of Mercy. The scenario sees the player characters boating across the submerged valley, going from one building to the next, and diving down to the lower floors whilst dealing with the escaped and insane inmates and scavengers. The scenario has a pleasing feel to it because it is a relatively mundane affair barring the upside down environment. Now there are ‘weird’ elements to the scenario, but they are kept to a minimum and the scenario is all the better for being underplayed. This also makes the scenario easy to drop into another setting, even the Early Modern period setting seen in official scenarios from Lamentations of the Flame Princess Weird Fantasy Roleplay.

Rounding out the first issue is an interview with Chris McDowall, the author of Into the Odd, the post-industrial age dungeon exploration RPG. This is rather a decent advert for the game and it got me interested in reviewing the game. It is followed by a map of ‘Greycandle Manor’, an abandoned priory turned manor house now awaiting the GM to populate it, accord it a plot or two, and drop it into his game.

Fanzines can of course vary greatly in quality since they are not produced by professionals, but to a certain extent, there is no excuse for poor layout as desk top publishing has been available for decades. Fortunately, Vacant Ritual Assembly #1 s reasonably laid out and on the whole is rather serviceable. The writing is clear and the author pleasingly takes the time to describe how each of the pieces in the issue played out in his campaign.

As the first issue—of which there are five to date—Vacant Ritual Assembly #1 is a solid affair. It contains elements that are all connected. Both Meat the Skinsmith and Vespero the Antiquarian to the Ghoul Market, and Vespero the Antiquarian to ‘Brahnwick is Dead’, but at the same each is easy to separate from these connections to be used on their own. Good support for both Lamentations of the Flame Princess Weird Fantasy Roleplay and for darker Old School Renaissance campaigns from the off—let us hope that the next issues will be as good.

Friday, 5 February 2016

Fanzine Focus: Skullfuck #1

On the tail of Old School Renaissance has come another movement—the rise of the fanzine. Although the fanzine—a nonprofessional and nonofficial publication produced by fans of a particular cultural phenomenon, got its start in Science Fiction fandom, in the gaming hobby it first started with Chess and Diplomacy fanzines before finding fertile ground in the roleplaying hobby in the 1970s. Here these amateurish publications allowed the hobby a public space for two things. First, they were somewhere that the hobby could voice opinions and ideas that lay outside those of a game’s publisher. Second, in the Golden Age of roleplaying when the Dungeon Masters were expected to create their own settings and adventures, they also provided a rough and ready source of support for the game of your choice. Many also served as vehicles for the fanzine editor’s house campaign and thus they showed another DM and group played said game. This would often change over time if a fanzine accepted submissions. Initially, fanzines were primarily dedicated to the big three RPGs of the 1970s—Dungeons & Dragons, RuneQuest, and Traveller—but fanzines have appeared dedicated to other RPGs since, some of which helped keep a game popular in the face of no official support.

Since 2008 with the publication of Fight On #1, the Old School Renaissance has had its own fanzines. The advantage of the Old School Renaissance is that the various Retroclones draw from the same source and thus one Dungeons & Dragons-style RPG is compatible with another. This means that the contents of one fanzine will compatible with the Retroclone that you run and play even if not specifically written for it. Labyrinth Lord and Lamentations of the Flame Princess Weird Fantasy Roleplay have proved to be popular choices to base fanzines around, such as The Undercroft and Vacant Ritual Assembly. The latest fanzine to join Old School Renaissance is Skullfuck.

Published on the Blood Moon of October 2015 by Necropants'd Publishing, Skullfuck #1 is an eight-page sampler for what it describes as a ‘Dungeon Slime ‘Zine’. In tone and style, Skullfuck #1, as its title suggests all about being in your face. There is a metal/punk attitude to the issue, one that apes that of the 1970s, so in places—indeed multiple places—it is rude and crude, so it feels more like the author is writing a punk rock ‘zine than an RPG one. This is carried over into the content, so in a very great many cases, the content of Skullfuck #1 is unlikely to translate into the average campaign with any ease.

The content opens with ‘Black Würm Deathcrawl’ in which the adventurers have been captured by the Mad mage Oakez and miniaturised before being sent on a medicinal procedure up his colon into order to excise it of the Black Wurms that infest it. This mini-scenario echoes ‘Round the Bend’, the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Team Competition Module from Games Fair ‘84 that appeared in Imagine #15, but ‘Black Würm Deathcrawl’ is a thin affair with none of the invesntion of  ‘Round the Bend’. It is does indeed live up—or is that down?—to its own description of being a “shitty solo scenario”.

It is followed by ‘The Marshmallowy Tomb of the Yummy Mummy’. In this the characters are sent into the dark basement of your house to fix the fuse box. Unfortunately, the basement is populated by the leftovers of your childhood thirty years ago—a ‘pissed off Barbie doll’, the ghosts of breakfast cereal mascots past, GMO-fortified Frankenroaches, and Uncle Nuncie who has been hiding down there from the Mob for a decade. It is too silly to be a satire and too modern to be used other than as a one-shot Halloween style, roll up new characters and watch die affair. It does promise to be a “Guaranteed Sweet Ass TPK”* and is okay I suppose. 

*TPK—Total Party Kill.

Perhaps the most practical piece in Skullfuck #1 is the interview with the author and designer Rafael Chandler. This primarily discusses his Dracula: The Modern Prometheus and his love of Lamentations of the Flame Princess Weird Fantasy Roleplay and is the only piece in the issue to be typeset. It is perhaps the most readable section of this first issue. Rounding out Skullfuck #1 is ‘Flesh Hook Death Trap’, which is not actually a trap as such since it is a character has to be physically put into it and stretched akimbo before he is affected by it. The effect of the mechanism is triggered when others step onto the checkered roundel surrounding the victim. It could be used, but it would take some effort...

The majority of the eight pages of Skullfuck #1 have a hand drawn, counter-culture punk style that echoes the punk publications of the 1970s. This when combined with the push to use as much of the page as possible, gives it a cramped often difficult to read look.

When it comes to summing up a review, you have to ask how good a product is and how useful it is. Answering both questions with regard to Skullfuck #1 is difficult. On an entirely practical level, Skullfuck #1 is neither useful nor is it good. There is little, if anything here, that could be brought to the average fantasy game. It is too weird, too wacky, and too in your face for that. Now this is not to deny the effort and the artistry that the author has put into this first issue, and perhaps if he can combine this with content that others will want to use, then there is promise in Skullfuck. At the moment though, all Skullfuck #1 is doing is poking its tongue out and nothing more.

Saturday, 30 January 2016

Coming Together

Reunion is the first scenario for River of Heaven: Science-Fiction Roleplaying in the 28th Century, the near Transhuman Space Opera RPG published by D101 Games. Designed for four to six players, it is an introductory adventure that can be used as a one-off scenario, a convention scenario, or as the starting point for a campaign. They take the roles of crewmembers serving aboard the interstellar stepship, the Cape Verde, a vessel owned by House Harper-Yung, one of the ruling families on Jericho. Of course like any stepship, all interstellar piloting and navigation functions are carried out by a Pilot’s Guild provided Stepdaughter, who is literally plugged into the ship.

As Reunion opens, the crewmembers are waking up from Vitrification, the means of cryopreserving both passengers and crew for the long, typically years’ long, voyages between star systems. This is typically an unpleasant experience, those put under usually suffering from nausea, disorientation, and even temporary sleep sickness. Fortunately, the crew are trained to overcome these symptoms and quickly realise that something is amiss… First, the medical team that would usually be on hand to help revive them is not present. Second, they are in zero-g—which means that the ship is not accelerating. So where is the medical team and what has happened to the rest of the crew? Further, what is going on with the Cape Verde?

The truth of the matter is that the Cape Verde has been attacked and boarded. To say more would be to spoil the scenario, but the player character crew members need to find out by whom and why as well as what has happened to the rest of the crew. In doing so, they not only get to explore their stepship from nose to tail, they may also discover a deep, dark secret at the heart of River of Heaven. The player characters are free to pursue the plot in Reunion however they like, though much of the plot will proceed unless they intervene. There will certainly be locations aboard the Cape Verde that the player characters will want to visit—the bridge being an obvious example—and the scenario does include certain encounters to that end. For the most part, the scenario and its plot are location based, but this will diminish as the actions of the player character crew members impinge upon the plot. 

To support this set-up and plot, Reunion includes descriptions of, and deckplans for, the Cape Verde, plus the vessels used by the scenario’s adversaries. Also given are the stats and write-ups for the NPCs, both the crew members of the Cape Verde and of the adversary vessels. Last of all are the character sheets for the six pre-generated player characters.

Physically, Reunion is slightly underwhelming as the deckplans for the various spaceships and starships feel just a little too basic. The deckplans do break the book’s text as otherwise there are no illustrations. In places, Reunion could also do with another edit.

Reunion is a scenario in which the player characters really do need to be proactive in pursuing the mystery at its heart. If they prevaricate, there is every chance that they will find themselves adrift and potentially be unable to get back to civilisation. This is not so much of an issue in a one-shot or convention scenario, but in one intended as the start of a campaign…? Other than this, Reunion is a solidly done scenario with potential for some good action and revelations at the heart of the setting for River of Heaven.

Friday, 29 January 2016

An Outpost of the Blind

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 sixth adventure is A Measure of Faith.

A Measure of Faith is the second adventure written for characters who have entered the Expert Path, that is of Third Level or higher. It is written by Steve Townshend, best known as the co-author and contributor to supplements such as the 13th Age Bestiary for Pelgrane Press’ 13th Age and Madness at Gardmore Abbey for Dungeons & Dragons, Fourth Edition and comes as a seven page, 9.89 MB PDF. Physically, A Measure of Faith is decently presented, though the cartography is not as the  good as the three dimensional map of The God Below. The writing is clear and simple, but the GM will need to give the scenario a careful read through as he will have to track the adventurers’ mental state as this will drive elements of A Measure of Faith. Both the GM and the players should be warned though, for this is a horrifying scenario in places... 

The adventure takes place in, around, and under Martyr’s Point, the first Crusader citadel, built to overlook the region known as Desolation and thus protect the lands of the Empire to the south. Whilst these the men have held the citadel and protected the Empire for centuries, there are those that have protected both the other men of the citadel and the Empire from a dark secret. For as holy a mission as the Crusaders have conducted in those years, the site of Martyr’s Point is far from holy. Beneath its profane ground is a fathomless subterranean abyss with the godlike power to warp reality to the shape of what people believe and fear. There are legends of an ancient bogeyman said to plague Martyr’s Point and the lands beyond and it is these legends that the abyss exacerbates to the point of making them real.

Fortunately, the Crusaders at Martyr’s Point are no fools and a secret order—the Circle of Six—has worked tirelessly down the centuries to bury both the abyss and all knowledge of it. Yet sinister rumours of this secret order have been powerful enough to attract the attention of the Inquisition of the Cult of the New God. As the Inquisitors carry out their holy investigation at Martyr’s Point, it is not a matter of what truths their interrogations reveal, but rather what horrors will be unleashed by their zeal and the efforts of the Circle of Six to hide a far darker truth than the Cult of the New God suspects. 

The scenario consists of three locations: the citadel of Martyr’s Point, the dungeons underneath it, and the village that clusters against the citadel’s walls. The village is slipping into chaos as the Inquisition seeks out cultists and a plague borne of belief drives the sufferers into cannibalism. The primary locations of the dungeons and the village are visceral, bloody places, redolent in insanity inducing sites and sights, and populated by men and women driven to desperate, sometimes craven acts by their beliefs. This is a nasty scenario which should culminate in the dungeons below the citadel, although how the player characters get there is largely up to them. They might be employed by the Inquisition to track down and recapture on the run members of the Circle of Six, be hired by the Circle of Six to stop the real threat underneath Martyr’s Point, or perhaps be persuaded to help the villagers of Martyr’s Point. There are rewards for giving help to each should the player characters survive.

Although A Measure of Faith is a bloody horror scenario, there is certain hamminess to it, much in the melodramatic style of the Hammer horror movies. Certainly the GM should play up the gothic melodrama underlying the piece as much the grand guignol, but without forgetting what really drives the scenario—the power of (misplaced) belief.

Sunday, 24 January 2016

Too Forced

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 fifth adventure is Wretched.

Wretched is the first adventure written for characters who have entered the Expert Path, that is of Third Level or higher. It is written by Shane Hensley, best known as the designer of Deadlands: The Weird West Roleplaying Game and Savage Worlds, and comes as a seven page, 9.44 MB PDF. As it opens, the player characters are on the road, skirting their way between a forest and a marsh when they spy a notice of a bounty—the village of Fimmoran is offering money (and lots of it), for the head of Grülag the Witch. When they reach the village the player characters are informed that its children have fallen sick and that the efforts upon the part of the village priest have come to naught. Therefore the illness must be due to another cause; in other words, Grülag the Witch. If the player characters take up the bounty, they are directed north out of the village and first into the surrounding marsh, then into swampland. The journey is not without incident and it is does end with a big fight.

Wretched looks to be another straightforward affair, but there is a big twist to the adventure—and it is not a good one. The problem is that the scenario pushes the player characters along path in pursuit of an answer and pushes them there without giving them any other option. If they had the opportunity to pursue those options—and there are options, but only after the primary one has been pursued—then the events of the scenario might not come about. The problem is, the plot of Wretched does not just feel forced, it is forced—it is designed to force the player characters down a path and then make them feel ‘wretched’.

In addition to the scenario, Wretched includes write-ups of two monsters new to Shadow of the Demon Lord—the Newtling and the Swamp Troll, plus Grülag the Witch herself and a magical artifact that any spellcaster will want. The two monsters are a useful addition to the game whilst Grülag the Witch can be used as the basis for another NPC. Physically, Wretched is decently presented.

Unfortunately, Wretched is the first scenario released for Shadow of the Demon Lord to be a disappointment. Its plot is too simplistic and forced; there might be a great scenario to be had in Wretched, but it should come about by player agency rather than author fiat.