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

Friday, 18 April 2014

Tales of the Star Guard III

One of my favourite RPGs from 2011 is Cosmic Patrol, Catalyst Game Labs’ Science Fiction RPG inspired by the Golden Age broadcast Science Fiction of Tom Corbett, Space Cadet and X MINUS ONE as well as the writings of Robert A. Heinlein, Poul Anderson, and E.E. “Doc” Smith. It is a light storytelling RPG in which the characters are stalwart members of the Great Union’s last line of defence against a dangerous universe. As Patrolmen, members of the Cosmic Patrol, the player characters crew rocketships sent out to explore the galaxy, to investigate its strange phenomena, protect the Solar System, and respond to emergencies as necessary. The mechanics are kept light with everyone taking it turn to narrate scenes in the current adventure with heroics being encouraged. Plus the little rulebook is a work of art itself, looking exactly like a handbook for the Cosmic Patrol itself.

Having previously reviewed Into the Cosmos: A Cosmic Patrol Sourcebook, the first supplement for Cosmic Patrol, it only seems fair that I should also review the second, more recently released supplement. Although plenty of patrol encounters and scenarios are presented in both Cosmic Patrol and Into the Cosmos, what Cosmic Patrol is yet to present is something that fulfils its promised grandeur and scope. This void is negated by the publication of The Moon Must Be Ours! A Cosmic Patrol Campaign that pitches the men and women of the Cosmic Patrol against a threat that has been disrupting Grand Union activities for decades—making objects and people disappear, directing activities and experiments with false readings, and generally being a nuisance. Further, the Moon Men forbid anyone from landing on the Lunar surface, ever since the Rocketship EM disappeared! 

This has been done without their being seen, all through their strange powers of Dynamo-Psychism. They present a threat to humanity and the Grand Union like no other—so Director Roderick Dyson has assembled the largest flotilla of ships in the history of the Cosmic Patrol and given the order: “The Moon Must Be Ours!”

The Moon Must Be Ours! is a complete campaign that throws the player characters into the Cosmic Patrol’s operation to conquer the Moon and put an end to the Moon Men as a threat. The invasion begins disastrously—Cosmic Patrol ships suddenly vanish from the flotilla, some explode or are impaled by previously unknown and powerfully destructive weapons, whilst others career off course and crash or collide with other vessels. The upshot is that very few Patrol vessels manage to reach the Moon’s surface—much of this is described in the supplement’s opening fiction, ‘Retaking the Sky’. The player characters’ vessel is one of those few. With their rocketship having crashed, they are the Patrol’s only hope and must penetrate the labyrinth of rooms under the lunar surface to discover the secrets of the Moon Men.

Cosmic Patrol is played without a dedicated GM, instead each player takes a turn being Lead Narrator. Although the Lead Narrator needs to be fair in presenting a challenge to his fellow players, what it means is that the players are all playing against the game rather than the game as presented by a GM. The Moon Must Be Ours!  pushes this aspect further in presenting a ‘Choose Your Adventure Path’ scenario that the players plays together. In comparison to The Warlock of Firetop Mountain or the more recent Blood of the Zombies, the locations and paragraph entries are few in number, consisting primarily of forty-two rooms that are played one after another, even in linear fashion—depending on the difficulty setting that the group decides to play the campaign at.

Each room consists of a two-page spread that contains Objectives, Cues, Tags, and Exits, as well as Opening Narration, Room Description, and Enemies and Obstacles. Each room gives seven or eight exists divided between the difficulty settings. Typically three each for an Easy setting, two for Normal and Hard settings, but just the one for the Insane setting. The latter because the players have no choice in what room they choose next—it must be the next room in sequential order, from one to forty-two. In order to complete The Moon Must Be Ours! at Easy difficulty, the group needs to overcome nine or ten rooms, thirteen or fourteen at Normal difficulty, and twenty-two at Hard. The idea is that once a group has completed The Moon Must Be Ours! at one difficulty, it should then try and play it again at a higher difficulty. Again, another aspect of the campaign that feels like a ‘Choose Your Adventure Path’ scenario.

A Room Tracker is provided so that no room is repeated. Also included are sample hero character dossiers and dossiers for the campaign’s villains, advice for the Lead Narrators—particularly on handling character death, and plot twists. Tables give random Dynamo-Psychism powers and random adversary creation, the latter including what is probably the best gun in Science Fiction—the Godwinization Ray. Its effect? It makes the affected target irrelevant! (If a player character, then he is Knocked Out for the length of his player’s next stint as Lead narrator). Many of the villains presented in The Moon Must Be Ours! veer towards to the weird and wacky, including an incredibly silly villain towards the end…

The Moon Must Be Ours! is well presented. It is not as liberally illustrated as previous books, but that is primarily because the book consists of rooms and these are not illustrated in Cosmic Patrol. The campaign itself, is probably too combat orientated, so the rules and suggestions for character death are likely to be necessary.

The Moon Must Be Ours! A Cosmic Patrol Campaign presents the chance to delve back into the history of the Grand Union. It possesses a slightly creepy, almost Lovecraftian sense of the unknown that might be difficult to maintain with multiple Lead Narrators, whereas its joyous embrace of 1950s retro-futurism will be easier to keep up. Above all, it provides a Cosmic Patrol crew with a big adventure, mysteries to be solved, and the chance to be heroic.

Sunday, 13 April 2014

Renaissance Deluxe

From the designers of the award-winning Abney Park’s Airship Pirates, Renaissance Deluxe is set of rules designed to handle adventures and campaigns during the Early Modern period, between the Middle Ages and the Age of Revolutions. It is a game that thus encompasses three hundred years of history, from 1500 AD to 1800 AD, taking in changes weapons and warfare—the change from plate armour and swords and shields to wheellocks and flintlocks and pikes and swords; of education and reason as the printing press spreads, leading to a rise in literacy and political agitation; of exploration and conquest as the Age of Sail heralds the discovery of new lands and peoples everywhere. In England alone this covers much of the Tudor, Stuart, and Hanoverian monarchies, the English Civil War, the Jacobite Risings, while elsewhere it takes in the discovery of the Americas and the founding of the colonies, the Indian Wars and the American War of Independence, the Thirty Years War, and the French Revolution.  This is not say that the game is entirely a historical affair, for the rules also cover alchemy, magic, and witchcraft, as well as sanity and insanity, and various fantasy creatures.

Renaissance Deluxe is a percentile RPG that uses OpenQuest, an Open Game License iteration of Chaosium, Inc.’s Basic Roleplaying that is based on the Mongoose RuneQuest SRD, as the basis for its rules and mechanics. What this means is that they will be familiar to anyone who has played Call of Cthulhu, RuneQuest, and other similar percentile RPGs descended from the original RuneQuest from 1978. For those not familiar with OpenQuest, RuneQuest, and Call of Cthulhu, what this means is that the rules and mechanics provide a skill-orientated system that gives dangerous combat and a gritty playing experience. The rules are simple and unfussy, being relatively streamlined in comparison to other iterations of the Basic Roleplaying family.

Character creation in Renaissance Deluxe begins with a player rolling his character’s characteristics—each on a scale of three to eighteen, before choosing a Social Class—Peasant, Townsman, Middle Class, Gentry, and Nobility—which determines what Profession he can select. From Agitator and Camp Follower to Witch Finder/Inquisitor to Woodsman, most of the given Professions are quite mundane, although the Alchemist and the Witch/Warlock provide outré options. Both Social Class and Professions provide bonuses to a character’s Common Skills and Advanced Skills, the value each of which is derived from the character’s characteristics. On top of that, a player receives 250 points to assign to his skills. A table of connections and past events enable a group of adventurers to create links with each other.

Our sample character is Martin O’Connell, an ex-mercenary who fought for various armies in Europe, but sickening of the slaughter decided to return to England. He came to the aid of one Noah McKay, a Scots doctor in Paris who was set upon by ruffians. Not only did Doctor McKay buy him a drink, but hired him as a bodyguard. McKay’s family does not approve, especially as Martin is Roman Catholic. Martin is confident of himself and a doughty man to have in a fight. He thinks McKay is an odd fellow, but enjoys his company and his coin. Much of the latter he sends home to his family.

Adventurer: Martin O’Connell
Nationality: Irish Age: 31
Homeland: Ireland Gender: Male
Social Class: Peasant Profession: Mercenary
Connections: Political Affiliation:

Righteousness Points: 50
Faction: Roman Catholicism Faction Zeal: 25

STR: 15 CON: 13 SIZ: 16 INT: 14
POW: 11 DEX: 12 CHA: 10
Damage Modifier: +1D6 Combat Order: 12
Spellcasting Order: 12 Movement: 15 metres

Type: Buff Coat AP: 2/1

Hit Points
Maximum: 15 Current: 15
Major Wound Level: 8

Sanity Points
Maximum: 11 Current: 11
Major Insanity Level: 6

Basic Skills: Athletics  47%, Close Combat  69%, Culture (Own) 58%, Dance  22%, Dodge  62%, Drive  36%, Evaluate  54%, First Aid  36%, Gun Combat  66%, Influence  52%, Insight  25%, Lore (Ireland) 58%, Perception  45%, Persistence  42%, Ranged Combat  35%, Resilience  56%, Ride  23%, Sing  31%, Sleight  22%, Stealth  35%, Unarmed Combat 47%

Advanced Skills: Beliefs (Catholicism) 53%, Boating 48%, Craft (Baker) 25%, Dual Weapons (Sword & Main Gauche) 55%, Dual Weapons (Sword & Shield) 25%, Engineering 28%, Language (English) 54%,  Language (Gaelic) 45%,  Language (German) 25%,  Lore (Plants) 28%, Lore (Tactics) 38%, Play Instrument (Pipes) 22%, Survival 24%

One notable addition to the characters are the rules for Righteousness, which represents each character’s belief in a creed or organisation. This could be his religion, a secret society, his clan, his master, his guild, or personal self-interest, such as honour or greed. It is a percentile score that can go up and down according to a player’s actions. For example, a player who has the Faction of Rebellion (Jacobite) would gain points for defeating a band of English soldiers in a public brawl, but lose points if he was defeated and captured. A character’s Righteousness can also contribute a bonus to skill, such as Close Combat in a fight or Influence in a debate. A Faction can also hinder a character. Obviously, a Faction may well call upon a character for certain tasks, but it might also get a character into trouble if his Righteousness is called into question or tested by another Faction. It is also possible for the Righteousness a character or NPC has in Faction to be driven to zero, in which case he is ripe for conversion to another Faction.

Righeousness then, is a roleplaying tool. It is there is to gauge, push, and pull player character actions and motivations. It is befits the period with its religious divisions,  division between religion and science, and so on. Four sample Factions are included, so the GM will probably need to create more.

Mechanically, Renaissance Deluxe is a percentile system—a player generally needs to roll under an appropriate skill to succeed. Critical rolls and fumbles are also possible. Combat in Renaissance Deluxe is designed to be fairly unforgiving—the average character only has to take seven points of damage, which most weapons are capable of inflicting—and he suffers a Serious Wound, such as broken ribs or a scar across the face. Typically, minor NPCs will be hors de combat, but player characters and major NPCs are capable of suffering even more debilitating Grave Wounds. Armour is available, but not particularly effective against firearms.

Most characters have access to weapons of all kinds, these being covered by the broad Close Combat, Gun Combat, Ranged Combat, and Unarmed Combat skills. The signature combat skills of the period fall under a number of Advanced Skills—Polearms and Bows are covered by their own skills, whilst Dual Weapons is covered by a number of separate skills, such as Sword & Pistol, Sword & Main Gauche, and Sword & Shield. Firearms take too long to reload, so are generally used as one-shot weapons before melee weapons are drawn. Critical and Fumble tables are provided for the various weapon types in the game.

In comparison to NPCs, player characters have Hero Points. These are used to gain re-rolled skills, downgrade Serious and Grave Wounds, to avoid death, and for alchemists, to design new spells. Characters also earn Improvement Points through play—these can be expended to improve skills, learn new ones, and even improve their characteristics.

The broad swathe of Renaissance Deluxe’s historical setting is supported with rules for travel and weather, illness and disease, an extensive list of poisons, ship travel, and naval combat. The latter is streamlined for ease of play. Where Renaissance Deluxe begins to diverge from a mundane treatment of its history is with Alchemy, one of two magic systems in the RPG. The other being Satanism. Alchemy revolves around the four elements—air, earth, fire, and water, as well as aether—and requires that the alchemist create a Philosopher’s Stone, in which he stores the energy to fuel his spells. The RPG’s short spell list is perhaps too cumbersome, each entry being named something along the lines of For to Speak unto the Mind of Another or For to Steady the Hands of a Marksman, and thus too awkwardly named to find with any ease. The rules also cover the making of potions and the summoning of familiar. Guidelines are also included so that the GM can alter these rules create the magic system that he wants.

Most spell-casting characters in Renaissance Deluxe will be alchemists. Two other options are available. Galenic physicians balance their patients’ humours as part of their treatment, though some also two or three healing spells. Our second sample character is an example of this. The second option is Witchcraft, which Renaissance Deluxe divides between that used for good and that used for evil. Cunning Men and Wise Women use it for good as do unaligned witches and warlocks, whilst Satanic Cultists, Witches, and Warlocks put it to malign purposes. Unless the entire party is evil, it suggested that evil practitioners of witchcraft be NPCs. Alternatives are suggested if the GM wants to adapt the rules of Witchcraft to suit his gameworld.

Noah McKay is the son of a rich Edinburgh merchant who could afford to send his son to university to study medicine, first in Edinburgh and then in Paris. Currently Noah is building up a practice tending to his friends of both his mother and his father, who wish that he would marry. This is marred by his own sickness, consumption that has left him weak and sometimes feverish. This has also left him little time to continue his studies, especially his alchemical ones, the latter his having first studied with colleagues he met as a member of the Freemasons. His poor health means that it is rare for McKay not be seen wearing a thick coat and his skinny appearance means that he is sometimes an easy mark for muggers. For this reason, he carries a walking stick as a means to protect himself.

Adventurer: Noah McKay
Nationality: Scottish Age: 29
Homeland: Scotland Gender: Male
Social Class: Middle Class Profession: Physician (Galenic)
Connections: Political Affiliation:

Righteousness Points: 50
Faction: Freemasons Faction Zeal: 25

STR: 07 CON: 08 SIZ: 11 INT: 14
POW: 11 DEX: 14 CHA: 14
Damage Modifier: None Combat Order: 12
Spellcasting Order: 12 Movement: 15 metres

Type: Buff Coat AP: 2/1

Hit Points
Maximum: 10 Current:
Major Wound Level: 5

Sanity Points
Maximum: 11 Current: 11
Major Insanity Level: 6

Magick: 3
Spells: For to Bring the Touch of Healing (2), For to Ehance the Hands of Healing

Basic Skills: Athletics  21%, Close Combat  41%, Culture (Own) 58%, Dance  38%, Dodge  28%, Drive  28%, Evaluate  42%, First Aid  78%, Gun Combat  28%, Influence  78%, Insight  45%, Lore (Scotland) 63%, Perception  35%, Persistence  52%, Ranged Combat  28%, Resilience  36%, Ride  35%, Sing  35%, Sleight  28%, Stealth  28%, Unarmed Combat  21%

Advanced Skills: Alchemist  25%, Art (Prose Writing) 35%, Beliefs (Freemasonry) 53%, Commerce 28%, Courtesy 58%, Elemental Casting (Earth) 25%, Gambling 38%,  Healing (Galenic) 55%, Language (English) 78%,  Language (French) 38%,  Language (Latin) 38%,  Lore (Law) 28%

The RPG’s bestiary consists of a mix of ordinary animals, such as boars and wolves, cats and dogs with the more fantastic, including basilisks, dragons, ghosts, and ghouls. Goblins and Orcs are also included, as are dwarves and elves, the latter two as playable races, though sadly, halflings are not listed. The Sanity system in Renaissance Deluxe is again, a slimmed down version of the rules seen elsewhere. It treats Sanity as a type of mental hit points rather than the percentile ‘death spiral’ of Call of Cthulhu, with the horror checks being made against the skill of Persistence. This does place a lot of reliance upon the one skill, especially in a horror game or setting—such as in Dark Streets, Cakebread & Walton’s setting of Lovecraftian investigative horror. That said, just as a player character’s hit points can recover, so can his Sanity points.

Rounding out Renaissance Deluxe is a section of GM advice. For the most it is a bit too broad given what it has to cover—essentially not a straight treatment of three centuries of history, but a fantasy one too… This is not say that its advice is bad, more that it is short, being mostly pointers and thinking points for the GM.

Physically, Renaissance Deluxe is a black and greyscale book, which combined with the somewhat dark art, gives it a grubby look. This seems fitting given the grubbiness of the period it covers. That said, the book is clearly written and well-organised.

Renaissance Deluxe joins a number of RPGs and settings that cover the Early Modern period, such as Games Workshop’s Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, Rogue Games’ ColonialGothic, Arion Games’ Maelstrom, and more recently, scenarios like Forgive Us, Death Love Doom, and Tales of the Scarecrow for Lamentations of the Flame Princess:Weird Fantasy Role-Playing. Indeed, it would be possible to pick any of the supplements or scenarios for those games, and with a little adjustment, the GM could run them using Renaissance Deluxe.

If there are issues with Renaissance Deluxe, it is that the book does require the GM and his players to know a lot about the history of the period. A timeline and a deeper overview of the period than the one given would have been helpful, as would a bibliography. Although the book is supposed to cover three centuries of history, it feels distinctly slanted towards the earlier half of the period. It would have been nice if the book had included some setting pitches too for the GM to develop further as well as an accompanying bibliography.

Renaissance Deluxe is not written with the novice game in mind. It is all a bit grey and ever so slightly intimidating, and it is lacking in the history of the period—it may just not be ‘deluxe’ enough. As a ‘core’ book though, it has much to recommend it. The book is well-written, the rules decently presented, and for the GM and the player who has any experience with any iteration of Basic Roleplaying and grasp of the game’s intended historical setting, Renaissance Deluxe is accessible and easy to grasp. 

Saturday, 12 April 2014

Another Keep on the Borderlands

Hell’s Throat is a seventeen-mile long river gorge that cuts through the Krond Heights. In the past century it has been used as means for orc and goblin tribes to invade settled lands of the city-state of P’Bapar below. A decade ago, a great confederation of Orc tribes flooded through the pass and sacked the keep that had been built on an island above Tanara Falls. In response, the Earl of Reyifor constructed Frandor’s Keep, a larger and more impressive fort intended to monitor and curtail any further incursions down Hell’s Throat, on the same site. In the years since, it has become a base for hunters and trappers, lumberjacks and prospectors, as well as a focus for bandits and thieves and orcs and goblins that have snuck into the region to prey upon the merchant traffic that passes through the Borderlands to Frandor’s Keep and back again. Such is the threat that they represent that the Earl has established a bounty on the heads of all non-humans and non-demi-humans in the region. In the keep itself and in Quarrytown—the shantytown outside it—rumours abound of ghosts on Hell’s Throat Trail, of missing trappers, and more…

Frandor’s Keep: An immersive setting for adventure is a mini-campaign setting for HackMaster Basic published by Kenzer & Co in 2009. One reason that I did not review it at the time was because of how irritated I was by certain parts of HackMaster Basic, though my intention had been to review it as part of the mini-series of reviews devoted to B2, Keep on the Borderlands. Putting aside my dislike of HackMaster Basic—or least certain parts of it—I finally picked up Frandor’s Keep and decided that I wanted to review it. The good news is that I was more than pleasantly surprised by how good it is.

Designed for characters of levels one through five, Frandor’s Keep takes its cue from the classic Basic Dungeons & Dragons scenario, B2 Keep on the Borderlands. Its set-up is that of a lonely outpost located in the hinterland between civilisation and orc or goblin infested wilderness. Unbeknownst to the soldiery and inhabitants of the keep, dangers lie close by and a serious threat is readying itself to sack the keep and sweep down on the civilised lands—just as the orcs and goblins did years ago. It is to this keep that the adventurers will come and in the course of interacting with its inhabitants will learn rumours and pick up small tasks that will eventually lead them to not only uncovering this threat, but thwarting it too. So saving the keep, its inhabitants, and the civilised lands behind the keep.

Much of Frandor’s Keep’s one-hundred-and forty-four pages are devoted to describing the keep’s history and the region around it, before focusing specifically on the keep itself. The setting is that of the Kingdoms of Kalamar, Kenzer & Co.’s house setting for HackMaster. Thus it moves from B’Par to the Earldom of Reyifor to the vicinity of Frandor’s Keep and the series of watch towers mounted on the peaks above Hell’s Throat. Frandor’s Keep really consists of two locations. The first is Quarrytown, the former quarry the mined stone from which was used to build the keep, the second the keep itself. No longer mined, Quarrytown has become a shantytown, home to outcasts from Frandor’s Keep itself, its continued existence allowed by the Earl so that he can keep an eye on its inhabitants. It is a lawless place, though a gang known as the Ravens maintain order and exact taxes of their own. The Ravens serve as the supplement’s primary antagonists.

Frandor’s Keep consists of an Outer Bailey, Lower Bailey, Middle Bailey, and Upper Bailey. Its various buildings and inhabitants are described in some detail, but the buildings themselves are not individually mapped. Two aspects of the supplement stand out throughout the descriptions given. The first of these aspects is the book’s cartography. Where possible, an isomorphic view is given of the layout of the buildings. This provides a three dimensional view of the buildings, the effect being to make them stand out and bring them to life. The other maps in the supplement are clear and simple, but lack the sophistication. The second aspect is effort made to integrate the NPCs into the setting of Frandor’s Keep. This is done through their knowledge of the keep and its surrounds—several lists of rumours and commonly known information being included in the bok, and by providing story hooks designed to get the players and their involved in the life and events of the keep and its surrounds. Each is also accompanied by a story award of several Experience Points.

For example, when the adventurers enter the keep for the first time, they see a man manacled to the pillory. He is a hunter who has been whipped because it believed that he committed a murder—he brought in the head of his victim saying that it was that of a centaur in order to claim the bounty placed by the Earl of Reyifor on the heads of non-human humanoids. If the adventurers can find the body of the centaur and prove to the officials at the keep that hunter was telling the truth, then they will have gained an ally and earned themselves 200 Experience Points.

Opportunities for story awards are seeded throughout the supplement. As long as the players engage their characters in the setting beyond the desire loot and pillage—though there is opportunity to do that too—all the GM has to do is work them into the game and the events of the campaign should all but drive the play of game forward. This is in addition to six named, larger encounters in the book and three multi-session adventures that round it out. Of these three, it is the first—‘The Ransom’—that stands out and is the most interesting. The other two, ‘The Kobold Brambles’ and ‘Mine of the Goblin King’, feel like more traditional Dungeons & Dragons-style adventures and are not quite so tightly bound into the setting of Frandor’s Keep. Lastly, player characters from the keep and up to one of the watch towers overlooking Hell’s Throat. Both The Mysterious Shrine and White Palette, Ivory Horns are available for free, whilst In the Realm of the Elm King serves a similar function and is available for purchase.

Physically, Frandor’s Keep is well presented. It is clean and tidy, and reasonably illustrated in a fairly simplistic style. Bar a single map of the greater region that lacks detail, the maps in the book uniformly good. What is particularly pleasing after having read and reviewed HackMaster Basic, is that the writing is straight and to the point. There is none of the silliness and missed opportunities that marred the pages of that book.

Still, Frandor’s Keep is not perfect. Both ‘The Kobold Brambles’ and ‘Mine of the Goblin King’ could have been better woven into the campaign built around the keep and lastly, it is missing the one element key to B2 The Keep on the Borderlands and its various iterations—that is the equivalent of the feared Caves of Chaos. That equivalent is actually the Mines of Chaos as described in the adventure supplement, The Mines of Chaos. Intended for use with higher level characters and HackMaster Fifth Edition, the sad news is that five years after the publication of Frandor’s Keep, its sequel campaign is yet to see print.

Frandor’s Keep: An immersive setting for adventure lives up to subtitle. It works very hard to involve the players and their adventurers in what is a low fantasy setting—one that could easily ported over to another setting or ruleset, the Kingdoms of Kalamar not being absolutely necessary to play through Frandor’s Keep. It works hard to involve the adventurers and it presents them with plenty of story and plenty of opportunity to create stories. It is this that makes the HackMaster Basic iteration of B2 Keep on the Borderlands a surprisingly mature and contemporary approach to a classic set-up and format.

Saturday, 5 April 2014

NBC Mañana

Tomorrow: an apocalyptic nightmare, published by Conquistador Games, is one of the most challenging games to be crowd-funded via Kickstarter in 2013. It is challenging in two ways. First, in its subject matter, and second, in its game play. It takes as its subject matter, the idea that humanity is in the process of killing the planet and thus ultimately, itself. The solution, as devised by the world’s great scientists and leaders, is a radical onereduce the planet's population in order to save the Earth and the survivors. Tomorrow's game play involves the culling of humanity, 70,000,000 people at a time... At game's end the players will score points not only for the survivors they control, but also for those that they killed during the game. Such slaughter may not be to everyone's liking.

In order to conduct such slaughter, each player takes the role of a global superpower that will employ cyber warfare, and biological and nuclear weapons to whittle away at the world's inhabitants. Although it looks like a standard game of strategic global domination, Tomorrow is anything but that, and to play it as such would be at odds with the game's intent. Tomorrow is in fact a semi-cooperative game with a time limit. The players have to cooperate in order to kill the required population, but must do so before the world ends. If they fail to do so before the world ends, then everyone loses. Yet even if the players succeed in annihilating the required numbers, this does not mean that everyone has won as it might in any other cooperative game, for in the desperate future of Tomorrow, there can only be one winner, that being the player who has killed the most and has the most survivors and has thus acquired the most points of Political Capital. Tomorrow is in effect, a sort of anti-Risk.

Designed for four to six players, Tomorrow carries an a suggested minimum age of seventeen plus, which is not surprising given its subject matter. Each player is the leader of a global superpower—China, the European Union, Russia, and the USA  in a four-player game, plus the Arab Caliphate in a five player game, and India in a six-player game. Each superpower begins the game with a nuclear and military arsenal, the size varying from superpower to another. Both Russia and the USA have the largest nuclear arsenals, whilst the USA has the largest military. Each superpower has the ability to deliver these military and nuclear attacks as well as biological attacks. It can also conduct espionage missions and it also has a special ability of its own which is invariably useful and thematic.

Game Set-Up for six players.
China begins play with control of Cyberspace, which enables it to draw Strategy Cards, steal Strategy Cards from other superpowers, or dictate play order each turn, and as a ‘Closed Society’ can once per game regain control of Cyberspace if it has lost it. The European Union holds the position of ‘Secretary-General’ and determines play order each turn unless overruled by whomever controls Cyberspace. Russia suffers from ‘Desolation’, its home territory being so large that diseases caused by Biological Attacks do not spread into or out of Russia. With ‘CDC’, USA controls the Centre for Disease Control, which means that sometimes a biological attack on its home soil can be stopped. The Arab Caliphate can conduct acts of ‘Terror’, either to prevent another superpower from taking one of its actions or once per game, to sneak into a rival superpower’s virulent disease store and unleash it on that superpower’s home territory. Lastly, India possesses ‘Peaceful Oversight’, which enables it to protect minor powers it occupies more effectively. Of these special abilities, only ‘Terror’ requires a player to use it as an action—the others are all permanent effects.

At game’s start, each player receives his arsenal of military and nuclear missile tokens, a set of Action Cards, three diseases for use in Biological attacks, and his population pawns. These are set up according to the numbers on the board. Population pawns are also added to the regions of the world occupied by the minor powers—Canada, Central America, South America, North and South America, South Korea and Japan, Southeast Asia, Australia, and Oceania, again according to the numbers marked on the board. The minor powers also have their population pawns. They also have their own armies and nuclear missile tokens, though they come into play with certain Event Cards. The game’s Strategy Cards are shuffled as are the Event Cards. There is a set of Strategy Cards for each of the game’s three Threat Levels—Yellow/1, Red/2, and Black/3. Each card provides a benefit and many also provide a player with extra points of Political Capital at game’s end. For example, the Yellow/1 ‘Antidote’ Strategy card can be played to prevent a disease spreading into a territory that you control and is worth +1 Political Capital; the Red/2 ‘War Crimes’ Strategy Card is played on a superpower when it removes the final population pawn from any power to levy a penalty of -3 points of Political Capital; and the Black/3 ‘Defense in Depth’ Strategy card gives a bonus to support the defence of a minor power that is being invaded. Most Black/3 Strategy cards simply award points of Political Capital (which are somewhat lacking in flavour, but this offset by the fact that they mainly drawn once play has ended and scoring begins).

The Event Deck represents tomorrow’s news that will affect one or more of the superpowers. Each Event Card describes three events, one for each of the game’s three Threat Levels. Only one of the events on an Event Card will apply that turn, this depending on what the current Threat Level is. At Yellow/1, an Event Card gives ‘For Israel!’ which awards any superpower that nukes the Arab Caliphate with a Strategy card and a +5 Political Capital bonus; at Red/2, ‘Religious Radicals’ in India award anyone that nukes India with a +5 Political Capital bonus; and at Black/3, ‘Panicked Bloodlust’ forces everyone to launch a nuclear or biological attack that turn or be unable to act. With twelve Event Cards in the deck, there is plenty of variety here, but only nine are used to form the Event Deck in play. This Event Deck is the timing mechanism in Tomorrow. With an Event Card being drawn at the beginning of each turn, the superpowers have only nine turns before in which to deplete the world’s population or the world ends...

Lastly, the Death Marker is placed high on the Yellow/1 Threat Track, which runs parallel to the Red/2 and Black/3 Threat Tracks. As the game proceeds and the world is depopulated of Population pawns, the Death Marker is moved down the Threat Track, moving from the Yellow/1 Threat Track to the Red/2 Threat Track and then the Black/3 Threat Track. The aim is to get it right down to the bottom of the Black/3 Threat Track by game's end.

Each of the game’s nine turns consists of five phases. First, an Event Card is drawn and its effect is noted for that turn. Second, the current controller of the Cyberspace card chooses either to take a Strategy card from the current Threat Level, steal another superpower’s Strategy Card, or override the European Union’s Special Ability to determine the play order for that turn. Third, each superpower chooses two of his Action Cards that will represent what it will do that turn. Fourth, the European Union (or the superpower that controls Cyberspace) determines play order, one superpower at a time. As each superpower is revealed, it chooses either to pass or use an Action Card. Once every superpower has played or passed, they get to do it a second time in the same order. Last and fifth, all tokens are refreshed and new diseases acquired if any Biological attacks were launched.

Each turn a superpower can undertake up to two actions using its Action Cards of which it has a hand of five. The ‘Biologicals’ Action Card enables a superpower to attack a minor or major superpower with a disease such as ‘British Hugging Duckling Syndrome’ or ‘Beubonic Wrath’. Each disease will typically kill one or two Population pawns in the targeted region and usually has a chance of spreading to adjacent regions as well—Russia being the exception to the latter. Alternatively, the ‘Biologicals’ Action Card enables a superpower to gain two new diseases. The ‘Cyber’ Action Card lets a superpower attempt to wrest control of Cyberspace from the superpower that currently holds the Cyberspace card. When played, the ‘Espionage’ Action Card prevents another superpower from using either the ‘Biologicals’ or ‘Espionage’ Action Cards as well as the Arab Caliphate from using its  ‘Terror’ Action Card. The ‘Espionage’ Action Card is the only card that can be played reflexively and out of turn. The ‘Military’ Action Card is used to launch a conventional attack on a minor power such as Canada or South Korea & Japan—such attacks cannot be launched on other superpowers. Such an invasion can be countered or supported by other superpowers and temporarily exhausts the army units until the next turn. If a superpower successfully invades a minor power, it must maintain an army in the region and will be rewarded with a Strategy Card when the Death Marker moves from one Threat Track down to the next (from Yellow/1 Threat Track to the Red/2 and then the Black/3 Threat Track). A superpower can launch a nuclear attack with the ‘Nukes’ Action Card. Only China, the European Union, Russia, and the USA possess missiles that can target any region on the planet, while the Arab Caliphate and India have missiles that can only strike adjacent regions. Launching a nuclear attack has a negative effect. It only kills one Population pawn and levies a penalty of -3 Political Capital upon both the attacking superpower and the superpower in possession of the targeted region. Further, it drives up the Death Marker on the Threat Track, not down it, and nor does the attacking superpower points score points for it at game’s end. The ‘Nukes’ Action Card cannot be blocked though…

Africa, the Arab Caliphate, and European Union have suffered biological attacks.
China has invaded Canada before the USA does and declared the Canadian Communist Republic.
India has initiated a peacekeeping mission in  Australia.
When Population pawns are removed from the board, the Death Marker on the Threat Track is driven ever lower. How much by depends on where the Population pawns come from. For each Population pawn from Russia and the USA, it is moved down by three spaces, by two spaces if from China or the European Union, and by one space from anywhere else. This feels a little odd, but essentially, the value of each Population pawn represents not just  70,000,000 people, but also the impact they have on global resources.

The USA strikes back—successfully invading the Canadian Communist Republic and then Japan & South Korea.
Russia has launched two invasions. One in Central America, mostly unsuccessful due to the 
population having been devastated by a biological attack, and in the other in South-East Asia, which is much more successful.
Elsewhere, the populations of the Arab Caliphate, European Union, India, and Russia have been seriously depleted. The end of the game is near...
 Tomorrow ends after nine turns have been played. If by this time the superpowers have failed to drive the Death Marker down to the end of the Threat Track, then the world ends and nobody wins. If they have, then each superpower adds up the Political Capital to be gained from the Population it still has, the Population it killed, any Strategy or Event Cards, and then deducts points from the devastating effect of nuclear attacks. The superpower that comes out of the depopulation campaign with the Political Capital is the winner.

End Game. 
China has driven the USA out of Japan & South Korea—and launched a nuclear strike on Russia.
The Middle East, Central Asia, and northern India have been devastated.
The game was not a loss
—sufficient numbers of the population were annihilated. 

Despite having suffered a nuclear strike, Russia won.
Physically, Tomorrow is a beautiful game, sober and austere, with the look of an actual global threat assessment map like that found in the film Doctor Strangelove. The Population pawns are solid pieces of coloured wood, the cardboard tokens are thick and colourful, and the cards are easy to read and understand. The Kickstarter.com version of the game may include wooden tokens for the armies in the form of tanks and thick and heavy mushroom clouds for the nuclear missiles. Although not necessary to play, they add much to the theme of Tomorrow. The good news is that these wooden pieces are now available from the publisher. The rules themselves need a good read through as although the game is actually much simple than it looks, there are one or two little elements that can be lost when first playing. Some advice is given alongside the rules, necessary because essentially the theme of the game is at odds with the look and style of the game. 

Throughout the rulebook, one piece of advice is given again and again‘Negotiate!’ Tomorrow is a cooperative game and the players have to work together if there is the chance that one of them will win, but that said there is no means or a mechanic in the game that would prevent a player from working against this aim. If a player wanted everyone to lose, then he could certainly cause that to happen. This may well be the game’s Achilles’ heel. Nevertheless, the players really should work together if they are not to lose, and there are plenty of opportunities to bargain throughout the game. In support of, or against, a ‘Military’ Action Card, on whom to use an ‘Espionage’ Action Card, and where to target a ‘Biologicals’ Action Card for example. Throughout, agreements and promises can be made between the superpowers, but these do not have to be adhered to, but such betrayal may lead to repercussions…

One advantage of negotiating is that it can offset each superpower’s disadvantages. For example, the Arab Caliphate is relatively weak, has a small military, and its nuclear missiles are few in number and of limited range. It has the ‘Terror’ Action Card though, which is a powerful threat as it can limit the actions of another superpower. Promising to direct the ‘Terror’ Action Card elsewhere may redirect the attention of an superpower that might otherwise attack the Arab Caliphate. Similarly, whilst Russia and the USA possess the largest nuclear arsenal, there is almost no point in actually using themthe penalty in terms of Political Capital and the fact that their use drives the Death Marker up the Threat Track not down, should be deterrent enough. This does not discount their use as a big stick with which to police the depopulation of the world, that is a deterrent. Such negotiation should of course be accompanied by plenty of ‘table talk’—preferably in character!

Similarly, each player needs to learn how to use effectively each superpower’s Special Ability. For example, both China with its control of Cyberspace, and India with its ‘Peaceful Oversight’, both grant the means to gain Strategy Cards which will give them advantages or Political Capital. Both Russia and the USA possess defensive Special Abilities, whilst the Arab Caliphate can use the ‘Terror’ Action Card to deny another superpower an action each turn, and the European Union can control play order and that can also be negotiated for!

So what of Tomorrow's subject matter? Is it really as controversial as the outcry suggests? Arguably it does call for the players to cooperate in committing mass genocide, but this is simulated genocide after all. Further, is this subject matter as bad as that of many other games, whether that is the death and pillage at the heart of Dungeons & Dragons, the forced labour of the plantation workers in Puerto Rico, or the grisly combat of Advanced Squad Leader? Arguably, it is not as controversial because it is asking players to do no more than they might in any other game. The controversy comes in Tomorrow being explicit about about its subject matter, in being upfront about what the players are expected to do, in making it the point of the game rather than the ‘side effect’ of winning...

Tomorrow is a beautifully presented game with engaging theme aplenty that should drive the game’s table talk. Whether or not a playing group will enjoy Tomorrow will depend upon how they take to that theme. The gameplay is relatively simple, but there are nuances in the design that run counter to the atypical global-political game and such nuances will vary between the superpowers and their Special Abilities. These do provide the game with some replay value, but in the long term, Tomorrow: an apocalyptic nightmare may not outlive its nouveau notoriety despite it being an interesting design and an interesting idea.

[Photographs courtesy of Debbie Leung. Thanks to attendees of Afternoon Play for helping me test out Tomorrow: an apocalyptic nightmare as preparation for this review.]

Friday, 4 April 2014

Cthulhu Classics III

These days Grenadier Models, Inc. is better known for its miniatures, whether for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons or Call of Cthulhu. What is oft forgotten is that the company also branched out into becoming a publisher. These included the adventure Cloudland and the bestiary, the Monster Manuscript, both lesser known releases for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons; Raid on Rajallapor for Flying Buffalo’s Mercenaries, Spies & Private Eyes RPG; Disappearance on Aramat for GDW’s Traveller RPG; and of course, The Horrible Secret of Monhegan Island for Chaosium, Inc.’s Call of Cthulhu. As with the previous entries in the 'Cthulhu Classics' series, spoilers abound in this retrospective.

The Horrible Secret of Monhegan Island was published in 1984. This was a year in which four of the eight titles published for Call of Cthulhu were not released by Chaosium, Inc. This should not diminish Chaosium’s output by any means—after all, those four included the classic campaigns, Masks of Nyarlathotep and Fungi from Yuggoth as well as the lesser regarded Curse of the Chthonians and The Trail of Tsathogghua anthologies. A slim, a forty-eight page book, The Horrible Secret of Monhegan Island is actually an anthology, consisting of two scenarios. The first is ‘The Horrible Secret of Monhegan Island’, the second, ‘The House in the Woods’. Both are short affairs—‘The Horrible Secret of Monhegan Island’ can be played through in two sessions at most, whilst ‘The House in the Woods’ will last no more than a single session. Each is also heavily inspired by a single H.P. Lovecraft story. In the case of ‘The Horrible Secret of Monhegan Island’ it is ‘The Shadow over Innsmouth’, whilst the inspiration for ‘The House in the Woods’ is ‘The Whisperer in Darkness’. For veterans of Lovecraftian investigative horror, the menace at the heart of either scenario should be obvious—Deep Ones in ‘The Horrible Secret of Monhegan Island’ and the Mi-go in ‘The House in the Woods’.

Remember though, The Horrible Secret of Monhegan Island was published in 1984. Such inspiration would not have been familiar as it is today when Lovecraft’s influence is near ubiquitous and his fiction is deemed worthy enough to published as part of the Penguin Classics imprint. Thus what could be seen as derivative, even unoriginal, with the benefit of three decades’ worth of hindsight, would have seemed fresh and original at the time of publication. Further, and with four decades’ worth of hindsight, ‘The Horrible Secret of Monhegan Island’ feels derivative of something else, but we will get to that…

As its title suggests, ‘The Horrible Secret of Monhegan Island’ takes place on Monhegan Island, an isolated and insular community just off the coast of Maine. In June, 1924, a young girl is reported missing, but the Maine State Police has been unable to do no more than report her as “missing and presumed drowned”. Nevertheless, the head of the island, Roger Martinson, believes that the girl was murdered and wants her disappearance investigated further and so hires the player characters. They have little time to conduct their investigation on the mainland—and this does feel rushed—before being whisked away to the island where they find that the dissipated lifestyle of both Martinson and his lady companions seems at odds with his interest in determining the girl’s fate. 

The investigation process is relatively slight. By the time the investigators get to Monhegan Island, they should have done the bulk of the investigative paperwork. This leaves the physical process and here the investigators come up against the bulwark of the insular nature of the islanders. Few if any of them will talk and the likelihood is that the physical investigation will end up with the investigators being led on a wild goose chase before being herded to the scenario’s denouement. The truth of the matter is that the islanders are making human sacrifices in return for bountiful harvests from the sea—and guess who the islanders plan to sacrifice next? 

This is not an original idea. In fact it is all but a ‘pulp’ trope, but ‘The Horrible Secret of Monhegan Island’ feels like the plot of the 1973 film, The Wicker Man. Admittedly, this is as fine an inspiration as you could wish, but here it feels leaden and somewhat plodding. The problem is that there is relatively little for the investigators to do and the effect is likely to be frustrating for many. The other issue with ‘The Horrible Secret of Monhegan Island’ is a problem endemic to early Call of Cthulhu scenarios—the need to award the player characters with physical treasure. A hangover from Dungeons & Dragons, a game in which loot is everything, what the investigators receive in ‘The Horrible Secret of Monhegan Island’ is a tumult of tomes. Three classic Call of Cthulhu Mythos tomes can be found in the scenario and that in addition to the other texts to be found.

Again set in 1924, ‘The House in the Woods’ takes place in Maine. Jeffrey Winter, a Professor of American Indian Archaeology has gone missing. Recovering from a nervous breakdown, he has not returned from a weekend away at his doctor’s holiday home and the Maine State Police have pronounced him a missing person. The investigators are hired by one of Professor Winter’s friends to determine what has happened to him. If the degree of investigation required in ‘The Horrible Secret of Monhegan Island’ is slight, then it is absolutely brief in ‘The House in the Woods’. This is no surprise. ‘The House in the Woods’ is intended to provide a beginning encounter with the Mythos for Keeper and players alike, and this it does reasonably well. There is the opportunity for a little investigation, the Keeper to ham it up with an NPC, and then short creepy encounter. 

Where ‘The Horrible Secret of Monhegan Island’ definitely comes to strong and definite denouement, the climax to ‘The House in the Woods’ is underwritten and gives a somewhat fleeting experience. That said, this ‘fleeting’ experience befits the scenario and the foes that the investigators face.

Accompanying The Horrible Secret of Monhegan Island is a set of pre-generated investigators. What is interesting about the six is that they are written, as are the scenarios, for Call of Cthulhu, First Edition, and this shows most clearly in the pre-generated investigators. For example, each has ‘POW POINTS’ rather than Magic Points, and the skills are listed not in alphabetical order, but by type—Knowledge Skills, Perception Skills, Manipulation Skills, Stealth Skills, Communication Skills, and Agility Skills. The six point to an age when investigators were slightly more powerful and physically capable, this time a hangover from the Basic Roleplay mechanics of the period from which the Call of Cthulhu rules are derived. Of course, this is before the paring down of investigator skills and capabilities that would come with Call of Cthulhu, Third Edition and subsequent editions. Of course, rounding out the book is an advert for Grenadier Models, Inc.’s Call of Cthulhu miniatures.

Physically, The Horrible Secret of Monhegan Island feels well-produced. In particular the artwork has a pleasingly oppressive feel to it and the maps have both character and detail. Advice for the Keeper is light, but what is given is in keeping with that given for scenarios and campaigns of the period. Notes are included should the Keeper want to run other scenarios after running ‘The Horrible Secret of Monhegan Island’ and ‘The House in the Woods’, though those for the latter are slight at best.

At the time, Stephen Kyle, writing in White Dwarf #59 (November, 1984) described The Horrible Secret of Monhegan Island as being “more down-to-earth” and that ‘The Horrible Secret of Monhegan Island’ “shows that simplicity can work to a story’s advantage, and manages to reproduce that strangely disturbing atmosphere of such Lovecraft tales as The Shadow Over Innsmouth.” Pointing out the relative cheapness of book, Kyle suggested that The Horrible Secret of Monhegan Island presented “a very useful package”. Conversely, John Dark, writing in Different Worlds #40 (Jul/Aug 1985) was less kind, stating that, “Sadly, these scenarios are just not very interesting.” and that “To sum up, Monhegan Island has nothing outstandingly bad with it.  But there's nothing outstanding about it at all.” (Thanks to Allan Grohe of Black Blade Publishing for providing access to the relevant issue of Different Worlds).

The Horrible Secret of Monhegan Island is neither a forgotten gem nor instantly forgettable. That said, it has none of the arch, sometimes absurd, Pulp propensities of the T.O.M.E. titles of the period. Neither of its scenarios is without its faults, but both do work as introductions to playing the game. Of the two, ‘The House in the Woods’ feels better for its ‘fleeting’ nature—indeed it would make for a suitable prequel to the scenario, ‘The Madman’ from the Call of Cthulhu, Sixth Edition rule book. Overall, The Horrible Secret of Monhegan Island is a pairing of the serviceable with the familiar, notable more for its publisher than for its content.

Cogs in the Sky

As delightful a little game as Cogs, Cakes & Swordsticks: Cracking Adventures in the Empire of Steam is, one of the issues with it is that it is a little too polite, lacking shall we say, any sense of menace, of threat, and of perfidy. Pleasingly, such concerns with this roleplaying game of Steampunk pulp are addressed in Atlantis City in the Clouds: A Supplement for Cogs, Cakes, & Swordsticks. Published by Modiphius Entertainment, it details a complete setting—one mentioned in the core rules, an adventure involving a threat to this setting, and supporting materials.

Her Majesty’s Flying Steam City Atlantis is the wonder of the age. Designed by the combined talents of Isambard Kingdom Brunel and George Stephenson and completed by Brunel’s son, Henri Marc, as the late Prince Albert’s last wish, it floats in mid-Atlantic, chained to the artificial island of Monturiol. This second jewel in Her Majesty’s Empire—as opposed to the Jewel in her Crown that is the Indian subcontinent—has become a noted tourist destination, a port of call for transatlantic dirigible flights, and of course, a target for England’s enemies, as well as the Balloon City Sky Pirates!

A slim volume—much like its core rules, Atlantis City in the Clouds is divided into just two chapters, plus a pair of appendices. The first chapter details Atlantis itself, the second presents a full adventure, whilst the first appendix, ‘Dramatis Personae’, provides a full set of pre-generated adventurers that can be used as player characters or NPCs and the second, ‘New Attributes’, lists and explains all of the Cogs, Cakes, and Swordsticks attributes that appear with the NPCs in Atlantis City in the Clouds.

Her Majesty’s Flying Steam City Atlantis consists of an upper and a lower ring. The latter is home to the six Directional Steam Assemblages, the mighty, ever thrusting engines that keep the city, itself known as ‘The Cog’, aloft. Each is fed a steady supply of coal—dug from the mines that run from underneath sea surrounding Monturiol below—around the clock. Their engineers and stokers work shifts, the stokers receiving one shift off a week to spend at their leisure on Monturiol, officially the only place where they can purchase alcohol. Monturiol primarily consists of the mine, surface docks, and an army and navy base.

In comparison to the shadowed enshrouded works below, the upper ring has all the conveniences and attractions of a genteel small town—hotels and boarding houses, covered markets, shops and arcades, police boxes (sadly green and octagonal rather than square and blue), parks and teahouses, and even a museum, though that is housed in the Pinnacle, the residence of Atlantis’ governor. Overall, it has the feel of a small English seaside town, perhaps Bournemouth or Scarborough, though only if either such towns could be reached by dirigible and had their own diplomatic attaches posted there by Canada, France, Prussia, and the USA. Accompanying the descriptions of the various locations and establishments are numerous NPCs, from businessmen and proprietors to pirates and members of the military via workers, diplomats, and engineers.

The adventure, titled ‘Adventure in the Clouds’ is a three act affair which begins with the adventurers receiving tickets to travel to Her Majesty’s Flying Steam City Atlantis as tourists. There is plenty of time for the adventurers to interact with their fellow travellers before they arrive and even explore Atlantis a little. Yet when a murder victim dies with the name of a player character on his lips, their trip takes a dark turn. Was this a simple case of robbery gone wrong or a murder with a deeper motive. Uncovering both the motive and the culprit reveals dark plans are afoot…

Atlantis City in the Clouds is neatly presented with an array of illustrations done in a slightly cartoonish style. It even comes with an index, a surprising inclusion for a book of its length. As much as the book’s description will suggest adventure ideas to the GM, what the book lacks is more story hooks. The five included under the heading, ‘Not What It Seems’, do feel underwritten, though this is the supplement’s only real weakness. In keeping with the Steampunk genre, the setting of Atlantis City in the Sky is a slightly more of a cosmopolitan, politically correct place, such that positions of power and influence are not wholly dominated by Caucasian men.

Atlantis City in the Clouds provides Cogs, Cakes, & Swordsticks with much needed support. The book as a whole is a quick, but quite detailed read. Hopefully Modiphius Entertainment will follow this up with further supplements as there must be numerous places to visit in the world of Cogs, Cakes, & Swordsticks and take tea. In meantime, Atlantis City in the Clouds: A Supplement for Cogs, Cakes, & Swordsticks brings peril and perfidy to Cogs, Cakes, & Swordsticks, perfect for an assignation’s game over tea.

Sunday, 30 March 2014

Pagan Publishing's Peculiar

The early years of the 21st century was a fallow period for Pagan Publishing with no new material for Call of Cthulhu from the highly regarded publisher until the publication of the scenario, Final Flight, in 2007. That one-shot would be followed in 2009 by a sourcebook, which if it had been released by its intended publisher, would have meant that Pagan Publishing would have gone the whole decade without releasing any new material, let alone a sourcebook. The Mysteries of Mesoamerica began life as a project for author and illustrator, by Blair Reynolds’ RM308 Graphics & Publishing. Unfortunately, RM308 was unable to complete The Mysteries of Mesoamerica and it would be Pagan Publishing that brought the sourcebook to fruition, though five years on, the same cannot yet be said of The Mysteries of Mesoamerica’s sister book, Mysteries of the Old West. Despite his not publishing the book, Blair Reynolds’ touch is indelibly worked into every one of the sourcebook’s pages—The Mysteries of Mesoamerica is beautifully and thematically illustrated and laid out. This should be no surprise given the visual quality of Pagan Publishing’s earlier The Realm of Shadows, but to date, certainly no English-speaking Call of Cthulhu publisher has managed to release a book as visually appealing and as visually well designed as The Mysteries of Mesoamerica—though certain titles from Miskatonic River Press have come close.

The Mysteries of Mesoamerica: 1920s Sourcebook and Mythos Adventures for Mexico and Central America is a supplement devoted to the burgeoning field of Mesoamerican archaeology during Call of Cthulhu’s classic period of the Jazz Age. It has thus a diverse number of subjects to cover, both ancient and modern. These subjects include the various cultures that dominated the region of Central America prior to the coming of Christopher Columbus—the Olmecs, the Toltecs, the Mayans, the Aztecs, and others; their numerous deities and their religion—with its fixation upon blood, sacrifice, and death; their weapons of war and how they fought their wars; and calendrics, the highly involved means used by the pre-Columbian inhabitants to keep the time and organise their society. It brings the history up to date, covering the status of the countries of Central America—British Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Mexico—during the first three decades of the twentieth century, as well as their geographies and politics. The Mysteries of Mesoamerica also details various figures of note that travelled throughout the region and brought to light the fantastic historical finds long left hidden under the region’s thick jungle canopy.

So what of the Mythos and The Mysteries of Mesoamerica? Right from the outset, its intent, as made clear in the introduction, is not to equate the deities of the ancient Mesoamerica with those of the Cthulhu Mythos. Rather, as the introduction also states, this is left up to individual cults and cultists to interpret however the Keeper wants. Examples of this underwrite several of the supplement’s scenarios. The supplement though, does present a means of combining Mesoamerican archaeology with Mythos in the form of glyphs for seven of the most notable deities of the Mythos. These can be used add flavour and detail to a Keeper’s scenario without his having to equate the deities himself.

The setting material in The Mysteries of Mesoamerica is supported by four scenarios. Three of these are set during the 1920s, so can be slotted into an ongoing campaign with little difficulty. The first though, is set in 1914, so is more difficult to run as more than a one-shot, though it might work as a prequel adventure that introduces a group to the dangers of, if not the Mythos, then at least that there is something outré out there and that it is very, very dangerous. (Indeed, it would make for an interesting first encounter for the investigators with the late, much lamented, Jackson Elias of Masks of Nyarlathotep fame). This first of the four is ‘The Well of Sacrifice’, which in the years since has gained a reputation as a sanguinary party killer. Written by John H. Crowe III—an author best known for the campaign’s Walker In The Wastes and The Realm of Shadows as well as the recent anthology, Bumps in the Night—it initially feels underwhelming with the investigators having already arrived in Mérida, the capital of the Yucatán in Mexico, having already worked at various archaeological sites in the region. The investigators have the opportunity to explore and catalogue a previously unknown city, but its ruinous condition leaves only one site of interest. Shorn of the Mythos, ‘The Well of Sacrifice’ is a survival horror scenario, one that is short and sweet, so it would actually work well as a one-shot or convention scenario.

Essentially, ‘The Well of Sacrifice’ sets the pattern for the following three scenarios—the investigators visit somewhere ancient, investigate the site, and then discover something inordinately evil that will probably be their undoing. Now to extent, this is symptomatic of the archaeologically themed scenario and whilst it is difficult to get away from, at least one of the other scenarios offers a variation upon this.

Brian Appleton’s ‘Menhirs in the Grotto’ moves the quartet on to 1923 and a dig near Texcoco, not far from Mexico City. Here a new Aztec site has been uncovered and the investigators and their employers have been permission to excavate it, although under the close supervision of the University of Mexico City. In comparison to ‘The Well of Sacrifice’, this is much more of a traditional Call of Cthulhu scenario, complete with strange deaths, curious lights over the site, and a cult with its own agenda. It is a well-executed affair, with much more going on around the site than in the other scenarios, but it is not quite as interesting as the third scenario, ‘The Heretics’. Written by John H. Crowe III, it is set in 1925 and as the title hints at, it casts the investigators between two rival Mythos sects, each with a radically different interpretation of a certain deity. It begins in the city of Mérida, where unlike ‘The Well of Sacrifice’, the investigators have time to conduct some research and enjoy some local colour—and are given the detail to do so—before moving off into the jungle. Once at the site, the ancient city of Mayapán, the investigators will eventually find themselves caught between the two cults as they battle for possession of a certain sacred site… Like ‘Menhirs in the Grotto’ before it, ‘The Heretics’ is an involving scenario, one which has a good build up to its hectic climax.

Rounding out the quartet is ‘The Temple of the Toad’ by Brian Appleton. A sequel to the Robert E. Howard story, ‘The Thing on the Roof’, it is set in Honduras in 1927. The investigators are asked by a colleague to join him in the search for the Temple of the Toad. A short if somewhat linear affair, it has some pleasing connections to the Call of Cthulhu canon, and a pulpier feel than the previous three scenarios. The scenarios in the quartet are a bit too spread out to be run as a continuous campaign and probably too similar in structure.

As good as the background information is and the scenarios are in The Mysteries of Mesoamerica, it is not a perfect sourcebook. The problem is one of support for the Keeper in helping him run scenarios and campaigns set in Central America during the period. There is no guidance as to how to set up a campaign in the region and no advice as to how to involve the investigators in general, let alone information about how they might reach the region. Some of this appears in individual scenarios, just as information about how to set up an archaeological expedition and its requirements are covered in one of the scenarios, but not in any campaign or setting advice. Outside of this, there is no advice as what types of characters are needed to play The Mysteries of Mesoamerica or what Occupations would be appropriate for the setting. Certainly, there is no advice on playing investigators or portraying NPCs from the region, whether of Hispanic or native origins.

This lack of application also applies to the scenarios themselves. All four do take place in Mesoamerica yes, but they feel isolated from their contemporary settings. There is little within each of the four scenarios to indicate what is going on in the countries when and where they are set. Which seems a pity given the setting material presented earlier in The Mysteries of Mesoamerica.

Physically, The Mysteries of Mesoamerica is, as has already been mentioned, a beautiful book. Its layout is thematically crisp with rich detailed artwork. A nice touch is the R.I.P. notices for the investigators who died in the process of playtesting the four scenarios; each includes illustration of the investigator—or investigators, the dates of his or their deaths, and a poignant quote. The only downside to the layout is that the boxed text is slightly difficult to read, especially if the Keeper needs to refer to it in a hurry. The book includes an extensive bibliography, but sadly not an index.

The Mysteries of Mesoamerica is thus incomplete. Its source material is excellent, its scenarios are solid, and it is beautifully presented, but its lack of application, its lack of advice, and its lack of support for the Keeper, all undermine the intent of the designers and the publishers. Perhaps the most disappointing book published by Pagan Publishing, it nevertheless contains content that is solid and useful. Thus, The Mysteries of Mesoamerica: 1920s Sourcebook and Mythos Adventures for Mexico and Central America is Pagan Publishing’s curate’s egg.