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

Wednesday, 25 February 2015

Cosmic Numenera

The Ninth Age, the setting for Monte Cook Games’ Origins award-winning RPG, Numenera is already weird. Its combination of Science Fiction and Fantasy set a billion years in the future brings together all manner of strange devices and uncanny wonders, both great and small. Such devices and wonders may well be ‘magic’, but they may also be technologies, relics of the past ages or civilisations. They all but litter the landscape, from small artefacts known as ciphers to great edifices that hang in the sky without rhyme or reason, whilst creatures unknown to our distant age—alien species, newly evolved animals, bioengineered things, and more, lurk just beyond the edges of the civilisation, just as that current civilisation lurks in the shadows of those past... Which all seems perfectly suited to one further ingredient—Lovecraftian horror!

In Strange Aeons: Lovecraftian Numenera is a mini-supplement designed to add the Cosmic horror of author H.P. Lovecraft to Numenera, to make it even more uncanny, even stranger, and further, unfathomable. Unfathomable to the point where the mental fortitude of the adventurers is threatened and undermined. It describes how to elements of Cosmic Horror to adventures and campaigns set in the Ninth Age, including rules for handling the loss of sanity and its effects, reskinning creatures with Cthulhoid tags, and of course, certain creatures of the Mythos. The supplement comes as a full colour, twelve-page PDF, just 0.9 MB in size.

Divided into three parts, In Strange Aeons: Lovecraftian Numenera begins with ‘Bringing Lovecraft to the Ninth World’. Here author Monte Cook gets to play a little further with the Arthur C. Clarke Third Law that states that ‘Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic’, for although much of the numenera or devices of the Ninth Age may look like or work like magic, they are actually scientific or technological items, though ones created using knowledge that is now lost. In a Ninth Age lost to the baleful effects of Cosmic Horror, such scientific or technological items are just as likely to be ones created by a science never fathomed by man. Thus the discovery of Lovecraftian Numenera is likely to have unheralded effects and influences. A Lovecraftian Ninth Age will  not only be weirder, but will also push the setting away from exploration and adventure, to one of exploration and horror. Overall, this is a solid introduction to combining the genres.

Of course any encounter with the Cthulhu Mythos requires a sanity check and thus a means to handle sanity loss. Numenera being a simple system means that the new mechanics for are just as simple. Saves against sanity are done as Intellect defence rolls. Should a character’s Intellect be driven to zero, the excess is not passed onto another attribute, but simply lost, whilst the maximum size of the Intellect pool is reduced by one. Should his Intellect pool be permanently driven to zero, then he gains the Mad descriptor. A further means of the effect of sanity can also be effected through GM Intrusions—the latter being one Numenera’s more interesting storytelling mechanics.

The second part of the supplement, ‘Lovecraftian Descriptors and Skins’, gives mechanical means to handle the Mythos. The two Descriptors—descriptors describing how a character does something—are ‘Mad’ and ‘Doomed’. Both suit the additional genre and both have their advantages and disadvantages, but mostly the latter. For example, the ‘Doomed’ Descriptor grants a bonus to a character’s Speed pool as well as skills in perception and Speed defense tasks, plus Intellect defense tasks related losing your sanity. All this because the character is jumpy, wary of danger, defensively minded, and both cynical and pessimistic. Yet the character is also Doomed, so whenever the GM uses an Intrusion on him, the character refuse it nor does he receive XP for accepting it. Now that is undoubtedly harsh, but hey, the character is doomed…!

The Skins are equally simple matters. The three—Non-Euclidian, Squamous, and Unnamable—provide means to adapt the creatures of the Ninth Age to a Lovecraftian horror setting. For example, Non-Euclidian creatures are not only more skilled in Speed defense and in stealth tasks, they can also slip between the spaces to seemingly teleport short distances. Again, useful and simple.

The third and final part of the supplement is devoted to Lovecraftian Creatures. These are few in number, being just four. Which is somewhat disappointing. The four are Deep Ones, Great Race of Yith, Mi-Go, and Shoggoths. Given a page each, these are rather nicely written up, in particular the Great Race of Yith and the Mi-Go, both of which are highly suited to the Numenera setting as they are noted for their scientific, if alien bent. Nevertheless, four such creatures is not enough—and surely Nyarlathotep could have made an appearance!

Physically, In Strange Aeons: Lovecraftian Numenera is well presented. The artwork is very good and the writing clean and simple. If there is an issue with the supplement it is not the uninitiated—the GM will still need to know his Mythos. Either through reading the fiction or having played any one of the Lovecraftian horror RPGs available, it helping that a mix of both is listed in the supplement’s bibliography.

There is almost nothing wrong with In Strange Aeons: Lovecraftian Numenera. It provides a GM with just about everything needed to add the basic elements of Cosmic Horror to his game, and what does being evocative and interesting. What is wrong with In Strange Aeons: Lovecraftian Numenera is the feeling that there should be more. In fact there should be a full Lovecraftian RPG using the Cypher System—the supplement certainly hints at the possibility. As a side note, this supplement would also work with The Strange, Monte Cook Games’ other RPG.

In Strange Aeons: Lovecraftian Numenera is a pleasingly simple and straightforward supplement. It might well, very much, leave you wanting a lot more, but what it does give is evocative and embodies the weird side of the Mythos.

Monday, 23 February 2015

Aargh! Thar be brains!

The fact is, I have been waiting for years to write that title. I have always liked All Flesh Must Be Eaten, Eden Studios, Inc.’s RPG of horror and surviving the zombie apocalypse—and in particular, its many supplements. From Enter the Zombies and Pulp Zombies to Fistful O’ Zombies and One of the Living, each offered interesting zombified twists upon classic genres—even Zombie Smackdown, a supplement that actually managed to make the subject of wrestling not only interesting, but also palatable and fun. So the news that the publisher would be releasing a pirates and zombies supplement was most welcome indeed—and not only because I could use this particular title.

Unfortunately, by the time Aargh! Thar be Zombies! was published in 2010, it felt as if the premier zombie roleplaying game had missed the boat. After all, the mini-craze of piratically-themed roleplaying games, arguably initiated after the release of the film, Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl in 2003, had sailed by 2010, no doubt spurred by that film’s decidedly dull sequels. And whilst Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl certainly had a dead hand in raising zombies to the mainstream, it was followed by dull sequels that added nothing to the genre whilst other media has had a stronger, more recent hand in making zombies popular. This is not say that Aargh! Thar be Zombies! is a bad supplement as there are some good ideas within its pages, but the truth of the matter it is not good one either. Which to be honest, is disappointing given the quality of the publisher’s previous support for All Flesh Must Be Eaten.

The main problem with Aargh! Thar be Zombies! A Pirate Sourcebook is the writing. Or rather, not with the writing, but with the editing. In terms of its actual writing, it is overwritten; in terms of if its ideas, it is often underdeveloped; and if anachronisms do not quite abound, they are certainly present. This supplement could have been a solid, if not a stand-out addition to the All Flesh Must Be Eaten line, but fundamentally it never got the edit it deserved or needed. The result is somewhat frustrating book, knowing it could have been just that little bit better.

Roughly half of the book is devoted to the subject of piracy. The history of piracy— including its Golden Age that lasted from 1680s to the 1720s; a discussion of why someone might go on Account—that is, become a pirate; life in the Age of Piracy, including death, disease (nasty they are too!), women pirates, the Pirate Articles, pirate punishments (the latter noting that being made to ‘walk the plank’ was a myth, though a good one), and more. Perhaps the most interesting section here is that devoted to Asian Piracy, which revolved the dynastic wars in Vietnam and the wars between Vietnam and China. This is interesting of course because it is unfamiliar, but it nicely dovetails into the supplement Enter the Zombie. At two pages long it feels a little short and perhaps deserves a chapter of its own, especially as it feels out of place amidst the traditional pirate history.

Mechanically,  Aargh! Thar be Zombies! works around three character types—the Norm, the Survivor, and the Inspired. This of course determines how much a player has to spend on his character’s stats, skills, and Qualities. Most player characters are expected to be Survivors, but the Zombie Master can allow the Inspired if he wants his game to include Vodou. In addition, the Silver Screen Swashbuckler is available if the Zombie Master is running a pulpier, more action orientated game. The supplement gives an array of Qualities and Drawbacks—advantages and disadvantages—to help create all four character types. For example, the ‘Born for the Sea’ and ‘Sea Legs’ Qualities and the ‘Landlubber’ Drawback are there as you would expect, as is the discussion of using the Physical Disability Drawback from the All Flesh Must Be Eaten for doing peg-legs and hooks for hands. Also included are rules for fighting Florentine style, that is with two weapons in true classical style. What is odd here, is that the history of duelling feels out of place in what is otherwise a very mechanical section and it does not help that the history is very Anglo-centric in that it does not present options for learning the art outside of London. 

Rules are included for the creation of ‘Zombie Swashbucklers’ player characters or NPCs. Essentially, these are a cut down version from those given in full detail in Enter the Zombie, though with a piratical slant. Thus the ‘Billy Bones’ Aspect allows for the creation of a fleshless zombie (or skeleton)whilst the ‘Ghostly Form’ Aspect allows for the creation of zombies that can walk through the bulkheads of ships or even a sword blow. As well as full equipment lists, the supplement of course handles ships and their crews in detail, including sample ships such as the galleon, the junk, and the viking longship! The equipment chapter also covers both experienced and cursed ships—plus ghostships, gives Qualities and Drawbacks to  individualise both ships and crews, and of course,  ship-to-ship combat, the latter a solid set of rules.

Aargh! Thar be Zombies! mixes both authenticity and Hollywood in its treatment of the magic and religion of the period. Not ‘Voodoo’, but ‘Vodou’, in which practitioners can invoke and entreat the Loa to gain the benefit of various miracles and rituals. These are powerful without being flashy and go all the way up rituals involving zombies. There is plenty of opportunity here for roleplay by any character who is practitioner, and similarly, for the GM to portray the Loa whom the character may need to do favours for.

Aargh! Thar be Zombies! includes several campaign settings or Deadworlds, just as you would expect with any supplement for All Flesh Must Be Eaten. There are three fully described ones, plus two shorter ones, followed by some scenario ideas. The five begin in somewhat mundane fashion, with ‘Voodoo Queen of the Shrouded Isles’ in which a Vodou Mambo calls for vengeance after she has been wronged and so unleashes a zombie plague from the Caribbean upon the rest of the world. ‘The Black Fleet’ is equally as mundane, having an Aztec curse unleash a plague of black ships upon the world. Both of these Deadworlds feel as if the author was obliged to include because after all, you have to do something based upon a certain series of pirate films. Given just how ordinary they are, it is a pity that so much space was devoted to them.

Fortunately, both are followed by the third, fuller Deadworld, ‘Islands in a Dark Sky’. This is the absolute highlight of Aargh! Thar be Zombies! and describes a Deadworld in which Galileo uses Da Vinci’s flying machine to leave the Earth and sail ‘the Dark Sea’ between the worlds. By 1643 pirates, national navies, and merchantmen now sail ‘the Dark Sea’ in Essence-powered ships, whilst their crews know not to fall overboard lest their Essence is leached out… Another threat are the Necronian Corsairs, fearsome skeletoid humanoids that hover near death and who augment themselves with horns, spines, wings, and more to further instil fear in their continuing drive to drain Essence from other worlds and other species. It is also possible to create Essence-powered devices and weapons, such as flintlocks, lightning swords, and air masks. This is an engaging mix of the Fantasy and Science Fiction genres that transplants all of the piratical elements to between worlds, whilst adding the unknown and the chance to explore new ‘seas’ and ‘strange new worlds’ to the mix. This could almost have been a whole setting all on its own, and certainly more space could have been devoted to it in favour of some of the less interesting Deadworlds.

Of the lesser Deadworlds, ‘Tay Son Rebellion’ draws heavily on the section describing Asian Piracy to give something interesting, a big civil war that spreads beyond the borders of Vietnam to involve China and eventually armies of thinking zombie! There is potential here to mix in Enter the Zombie and thus add in Wuxia zombies, just as there is potential here for something exotic and more flavoursome than the first two Deadworlds. So it is a pity that this is as short as it is. Lastly, ‘The Aztec Lord’s Curse’ is as the title suggests another take upon the Aztecs and curses, and again is more interesting than ‘The Black Fleet’, though not by much. 

Physically, Aargh! Thar be Zombies! feels rushed and not quite up to the standard of previous supplements for All Flesh Must Be Eaten. As has already been mentioned, the editing is lacklustre at best, woeful at worst, whilst an actual feature of Eden Studios, Inc.’s house style actually leads to an annoying anachronism. The publisher alternates gender in terms of ‘he’, ‘she’, and so on, from one chapter to the next. The problem is that in a semi-historical book like Aargh! Thar be Zombies! this just looks anachronistic. Another annoyance is the use of the piratical vernacular. It works in the sections of colour fiction that precede each chapter, but not in the main text where it it is at odds with technical context of the book.

If you were looking to run a game set in the Age of Piracy using the UniSystem, then Aargh! Thar be Zombies! would be a good place to start—and if you wanted to add zombies and Vodou, then again Aargh! Thar be Zombies! would be a good place to start. Yet were you looking for inspiration, particularly from its Deadworlds, then whilst Aargh! Thar be Zombies! is not without its flavoursome and inspiring settings, the majority are uninspiring and uninteresting at worst, at best, just flat—or is that becalmed? The overall effect is to undermine the solid content to be found within the pages Aargh! Thar be Zombies! whose parts are better than the sum of its whole.

Thursday, 12 February 2015

Kick the Bucket

In writing a review of Bucket of Doom: Death Dodging Party Game it would tempting to simply take my review of Cards Against Humanity and literally reskin it with the review of Bucket of Doom. Both use the same mechanic in that each turn one player has to match answers from each of the other player's hand to a given question and chooses the winning answer. Which makes both very similar to Apples to Apples, but what Bucket of Doom and Cards Against Humanity have in common is a mature subject which means that they are games for adults. Such a reskinning though, would be simplistic and unfair to Bucket of Doom.

Funded through Kickstarter and published by Big Potato, Bucket of Doom is a game in which you find yourself in incredibly dangerous or awkward situations and the only thing that you have to hand is very probably utterly useless. Like Cards Against Humanity, the packaging of Bucket of Doom is quite striking. Where Cards Against Humanity makes use of stark black and white throughout, Bucket of Doom actually comes in a bucket—a bright ‘toxic’ pink bucket. Inside can be found some five hundred cards, of which one hundred are Doom cards and four hundred are random Object cards. Also included in the box are the rules sheet, two voting pads, and two pencils.

The full colour Doom cards each give situation that it is deadly, or least perilous—and quite possibly controversial. For example, the simply perilous include ‘You’re an intrepid archaeologist and a giant boulder is chasing you down a dead-end tunnel’, ‘You’re James Bond strapped to a table. A redhot laser is burning a path towards your ‘bits’.’, or ‘Darth Vader senses that you did the ‘wanker’ sign behind his back. He starts suffocating you with his death pinch.’, whilst ‘You’ve been nailed to a cross for being nice to people.’ and ‘You are Edward Snowden and you’ve inadvertently boarded a flight to America.’ are certainly bordering on the controversial. The various Object cards range from ‘Record-breaking paper aeroplane’, ‘Hi-Vis Jacket’, ‘Bowl of Egg Whites’, and ‘Feather Pillow’ to ‘Justin Bieber’s Brain’, ‘A Grumpy Gnome named Gary’, ‘Full Colostomy Bag’, and ‘Number for a very prompt taxi service’. The Object cards are double-sided, white on one side, black on the other, and in a nice touch, have an object on each—thus giving not just four hundred objects, but eight hundred!

At the start of the game, each player receives eight Object cards. One player draws and reads out a Doom card and gives a few moments for the other players to look through their hands. Each will select one Object and think up a way of his using it to help his escape from the situation described on the Doom card. Everyone then takes it in turn to explain how the item described on their Object helps in their escape. Once the explanations are given, everyone gets to vote on the answers—of course you cannot vote on your escape plan—and the player with the most votes is awarded the Doom card. The next player reads out Doom card and so on and so on. The first player to garner three, five, or seven Doom cards—depending upon the length of the game—wins the game.
For example, it is Debbie’s turn to read out the question on a Doom card, which is, ‘Walking home after a night out wearing Lady Gaga’s meat dress you are attacked by militant vegans.’ Peter, Stef, and I select what we think are suitable Object cards from our hands and concoct our explanations. So Peter grabs ‘Harry Potter’s owl, Hedwig’ and sends the bird off to get help from the wizard, who will either save me or resurrect him should the vegans pulp him. I pull out a ‘10m roll of turkey foil’ and wrap it around myself so that not only is the dress hidden, but what the vegans see I am wearing is their own clothes reflected in the foil—thus I am one of them! Stef grabs a ‘Pregnancy test kit’ and with a shout of “Don’t hit me! Think of the baby. I’m only wearing the dress to satisfy my pregnancy cravings!” Everyone takes a moment to consider their vote, but it is unanimously in favour of Stef’s escape plan and he gets the Doom card.
Of course, that was a mild example, but both the Doom cards and the Object cards are likely to engender much stronger, if not viler escape plans. Physically, Bucket of Doom is as simple as its game play. Its production values feel do slightly cheap, in particular the quality of the cards meaning that that they are not as durable as they could be.

Although there is much that is similar between Cards Against Humanity and Bucket of Doom, the play of the former is absolute in terms of its results and is less inventive. This does not mean it no less fun, but in comparison, Bucket of Doom is more flexible in terms of its results and is more inventive because it requires a greater input upon the part of the players. In this it shares more in common with Mad Science University from Atlas Games—both it and Bucket of Doom involve storytelling, and this aspect of the game is dependent upon the players. Which means that the humour of the game is also dependent upon the players. If that does not work, then the game is no fun.

The similarities between Cards Against Humanity and Bucket of Doom: Death Dodging Party Game are undeniable, but Bucket of Doom is is just different enough to provide a slightly different playing experience to Cards Against Humanity. In the right group, in the right frame of mind, Bucket of Doom: Death Dodging Party Game is a fun, light, and probably offensive party game.

Probity & Purges

With Call of Cthulhu Seventh Edition not quite with us, its publisher, Chaosium, Inc. has instead been tempting us with number of scenarios that are compatible with the forthcoming rules update. Part of the publisher’s ‘one night of horror’ series, they include the toothlessly lacklustre Canis Mysterium: A Scenario With Bite and the much, much better Dead Light: Surviving One Night Outside Of Arkham, which is now joined by Cold Harvest: Roleplaying during the Great Purges of Stalin’s Russia. Written by Chad J. Boswer, the designer of Cthulhu Invictus, Cold Harvest lets the players be members of the Narodnyy Komissariat Vnutrennikh Del or the People's Commissariat for Internal Affairs. In other words, the NKVD!

In Cold Harvest the loyal officers of the NKVD are sent to a remote collectivised farming commune or sovkhoz, where there have been reports of anti-Soviet activity and a fall in the production of its main crop, flax. The investigators are surprised to find that many members of Krasivyi Okatbyr, the sovkhoz, all seem to be suffering from a strange lassitude that prevents them from working as hard as loyal Soviet citizens should. Others are violent, while some seem to be suffering from malignant deformities. Worse, by the time the investigators arrive there has been a murder. All this in a sovkhoz that was the previous year a model of Soviet activity and production. What has gone wrong?

Although the NKVD investigators come armed, Cold Harvest is not really a combat-oriented scenario. Its primary focus is upon investigation, even interrogation, but either way, still detective work—even if that detective work is backed by threats of deportation or death. Now whilst oddities abound throughout the scenario, the Mythos threat is underplayed and so is more effective for it. Mostly we see the effects of the Mythos and the advice for the Keeper all but states that he should keep the Mythos threat offstage. In the hands of a good Keeper this allows the oddness and the disturbed humanity of the sovkhoz to unnerve the players and their investigators. Though options are given to increase the Mythos activity, they threaten to push the scenario away from its weird atmosphere and its Purist sensibility. Anyway the challenge in Cold Harvest lies not in facing and defeating the cause of the weirdness, but in making the choices that decide the fate of the members of the sovkhoz—death or deportation.

One suggested option for playing Cold Harvest is one-on-one, that is, one Keeper and one player/investigator, which would work with the scenario’s toned down, Purist leanings. It does not work though with the historical details given in the scenario about how the NKVD operated. Essentially they were so feared and hated, that agents did not work alone.

Support for Cold Harvest includes plenty of historical detail, a set of eight pre-generated investigators, and a conversion guide so that the scenario can be run using Call of Cthulhu Sixth Edition or earlier incarnations of the game. One pleasing touch is the appendix acknowledging the existence of other scenarios for Call of Cthulhu set in Stalinist Russia. Not only does it list Bret Kramer’s Machine Tractor Station Kharkov-37 and Troy C. Wilhelmson’s The Terror, both Miskatonic University Library Association monographs published by Chaosium, Inc., it also lists Mike Ferguson’s Age of Cthulhu III: Shadows of Leningrad and E.S. Erkes’ ‘Secrets of the Kremlin’ from the TOME title, Glozel Est Authentique!. Further, it discusses how these four scenarios can be run as an intermittent campaign set during the Desperate Decade of the 1930s. This is a useful inclusion, though only for those of us who own a copy of Glozel Est Authentique! as it has long been out of print.

If there is an issue with Cold Harvest it is that it does not provide enough support for the players. The scenario does include a section on roleplaying investigators who are members of the NKVD. It is a useful section, even helpful, but the question has to be asked, why was it not included as a handout rather than being stuck in the middle of the book? After all, roleplaying a member of the NKVD is a markedly different challenge to that of playing a Private Eye or a dilettante. Further, this support is not carried on to the suggested campaign in that there are no guidelines for creating investigators who are members of the NKVD, surely something that would help the players identify with investigators who are alien twice over, that is Russian and members of the NKVD.

A minor niggle would be the keeping of the skill ‘Credit Rating’ rather than something more appropriate to the period and setting. It feels like an anachronism when like ‘Party Standing’ could have been substituted instead, especially when the scenario goes to the length of describing how the Credit Rating skill works in the Soviet Union.

Another niggle may be the similarities between it and Machine Tractor Station Kharkov-37. Yes, both take place on collective farms where there has been a drop in productivity, but there the similarity ends. The investigation process is different, the Mythos threat is different, and Cold Harvest possesses a moral aspect that Machine Tractor Station Kharkov-37 does not. In many ways, this makes Cold Harvest the more interesting of the two scenarios. After all, do the investigators have the ‘strength’ of character to participate in the Purges?

What is interesting in Cold Harvest is not necessarily its Mythos menace, but rather that it involves multiple menaces. Obviously the Mythos is one menace—and in terms of Call of Cthulhu, self-evident—but there are two other menaces present in the scenario. The first is distant, but is one that the investigators must answer to—their superiors in the NKVD. They will decide the investigators’ final fate should they survive the scenario, this decision looming over all of the investigators’ actions in Cold Harvest, should they fail in their assignment. The third menace in Cold Harvest is actually the player characters, the investigators. They are a danger to the residents of the Sovkhoz for they hold their fates in their hands as they have the power of life and death over them. They are also a danger to themselves, always looking to forward or bolster their standing with both the Party and their superiors. After all what better way to cement your loyalty than denounce the disloyal actions of another officer? Not since the days of the Judge Dredd RPG have the players so much power, whether it is to have someone sent to a labour camp for correction or simply executed for being ‘anti-Soviet’. This already instils paranoia and fear in anyone not associated with the NKVD, so why not the agency’s members?

Ultimately, there is no easy outcome to Cold Harvest. Though a Mythos threat hovers in the background throughout, the true monsters in Cold Harvest: Roleplaying during the Great Purges of Stalin’s Russia may be the player characters themselves. This is a pleasingly atmospheric affair which asks the question, ‘Can monsters make moral choices in an immoral system?’

Tuesday, 10 February 2015

The Call of Cthulhu


H.P. Lovecraft’s stories are notoriously difficult to adapt to other media, but Michael Sabbaton manages to take the author’s signature short story, The Call of Cthulhu, and deftly distil it down to its malign influences in his one man stage adaption. At its heart is a compelling if plain wooden box that sits on pedestal at the left of the stage, exerting its influence to pull the audience back and forth through the madness, the paranoia, and the despair of those whose possession it falls into. The box is said to contain the ‘Horror in Clay’ that we learn depicts something beyond the comprehension of man, though mercifully the box is never opened* and we never see its contents.

*I had the opportunity to open the box but resisted… Laying my hand upon it was mercifully enough.

Beginning with Francis Wayland Thurston, Sabbaton slips back and forth to the characters in the story, first sculptor Henry Wilcox, then Thurston’s granduncle Professor Angell, followed by Inspector John Legrasse, and lastly, to the cultist, ‘Old Castro’. Each of these changes in personality and fragility is achieved with the simple adjustment of costume or the picking up of a prop, occasionally supported by a drop into darkness or crash of sound. In some cases, these changes actually mark the switch from one participant of a conversation to another. This is at first disconcerting, but as the story progresses, it serves to take us back from the Roaring Twenties through the characters to Legrasse’s fateful encounter with the strange, writhing , cavorting degenerates before the corpulently alien statuette deep in the New Orleans swamps. Before we know it, we come hurtling back through the lives of those that the ‘Horror in Clay’ has touched and disturbed, catching up on the fates of each the cast...

The play is staged very closely, with the small audience mere feet from the singular cast, their entering to find Sabbaton seemingly dozing, awaiting impervious to their arrival. With a bang—quite literally—Sabbaton stirs into action and is into the first of his sanity-deprived characters. From here, it is a fifty-minute tumble through near insanity into the utter absence of sanity. It is though, not a staging for the uninitiated, the audience needing to have an understanding of Lovecraft’s short story if it is grasp the finer points of the author’s intent. Fortunately for the aware, Sabbaton brings The Call of Cthulhu to life most effectively, ably supported by a well put together soundscape that works to open up the horror beyond the stage to somewhere behind the audience—especially during Legrasse’s assault on the cult.

Engrossing from start to finish, Sabbaton’s staging of The Call of Cthulhu is a blisteringly wrought affair, pleasingly focusing upon the effects of ‘Cthulhu’ and the Mythos, rather than directly on ‘Cthulhu’ and the Mythos.

Friday, 6 February 2015

A Wilderness Expanded

All good RPGs need a campaign—and none more so than The One Ring: Adventures over the Edge of the Wild, the Middle Earth-set RPG from Cubicle Seven Entertainment. After all, this is the RPG set between the events described in The Hobbit and The Fellowship of the Ring, there is a known time line and thus a framework for a campaign. So we want to see how the ‘events’ of the future after the Battle of the Five Armies play out. Now The Heart of the Wild is not that campaign, but it is a companion to The Darkening of Mirkwood, which is that campaign. It is also a standalone supplement that details two thirds of the wilderland that is the focus for The One Ring—the Vales of Anduin along the banks of the Great River and the trackless forest of Mirkwood.

In detailing such a vast area, it expands upon the information given for the Loremaster in The One Ring, particularly the lands of the Elves of Mirkwood, the lands of the Woodmen, and the lands of the Beornings. As well as detailing the homes of the cultural origins open to player characters, they are also potential Sanctuaries for all player characters. Thankfully they are not the only ones described in The Heart of the Wild. Conversely, the supplement also describes some of the worst places in Middle Earth, none no worse of course—in Mirkwood at least—than Dol Guldur, the ‘Hill of Sorcery’ that for centuries was the refuge for the Necromancer. The supplement also includes an expanded bestiary and several new options for player characters.

After giving a history and an overview of the region, The Heart of the Wild takes the reader through the regions of the Vales of Anduin one by one and then it does the same for Mirkwood. For each region it gives a more detailed overview, a description of its typical wildlife, some notable characters, presents its notable places, and lastly presents various supplementary facts and relevant game information in sidebars.  So for the Vales of Gundabad where the waters of the Anduin rise, we are told that it is home to goats, rabbits, wild horses, and cattle—all hunted by hungry goblins when the heavy fogs roll in; the sparsely populated region is primarily home to goblins and orcs underground, and to wildly savage Hill-men of Gundabad above ground; and it is also home to trappers like Amfossa whilst with the death of Bolg, son of Azog, there is at last a new Orc prince—Gorgol, son of Bolg. The notable places in the region include the City of the Éothéod, the most northern outpost of the ancestors of the Rohirrm, now hollow ruins occupied by Orcs and Trolls; a secret outpost of the Dwarves, Hidden House, originally built to spy on  the Éothéod, but still used as a waystation by the Dwarves; and the Hill of Skulls, a lonely mound surrounded by stakes upon which rest the skulls of Orcs and Wargs, Dwarves and Men, and others, though no-one knows why… Sidebars cover the Hill-men of Gundabad and their sorcery, a Fellowship Phase undertaking, and the origins of the grudge that led to the construction of the Hidden House. From this, the Loremaster can draw out details as well as adventure and encounter ideas. 

Naturally, more attention is paid the settled areas around the Halls of Thranduil, the house of Beorn, and the three Woodmen settlements in the eaves of Mirkwood as well as to a certain extent, Dol Guldur. Notably, the Loremaster is directed to the core rules for more information on Beorn and whilst some may find this irksome, there really is no need for the repetition of information from the core rules. The book does suffer a little from repetition from one region to another, mostly in terms of the mundane details—the wildlife and the weather. This though is more of an issue if you read the book from start to finish, when really The Heart of the Wild is a reference work meant to be dipped into as needed. Such as for example when preparing to run and then running The Darkening of Mirkwood.

In terms of character options, The Heart of the Wild offers variations upon existing Cultures rather than new Cultures. This makes sense, since there are few Cultures and few Races in Middle Earth, at least in terms of those that can be played. The two Cultural variants are  the Wild Hobbits of the Anduin Vales and the Woodmen of Mountain Hall, both of which feel somewhat underwritten. The Wild Hobbits in particular probably could have warranted with their own Backgrounds as the ones given in the core rules are rather bucolic and cozy which is at odds with the reserved and secretive nature of the Wild Hobbits—Sméagol was after all a Wild Hobbit. For the Woodmen there is the Cultural Virtue of ‘River-blooded’, meaning that they have River Maiden ancestry, whilst ‘The Call of Mirkwood’ is for those Elves who have taken a greater joy in life and in doing so have accepted that they will fade rather than go into the West.

Rounding out The Heart of the Wild is a short bestiary. This adds new foes that are particular to areas presented in the supplement—Basilisks, Forest Goblins, Grim Hawks, Hunter Spiders, and so on. It also includes the stats and short write-ups for the individual foes described earlier in the text.These include Gorgol, Son of Bolg, Maghaz, Orc-Captain, the New Great Goblin, and the Children of Shelob. These are all useful additions to a game and setting that really does not need much in the way of monsters. After all, slaying monsters is rarely the point of The One Ring.

Physically, The Heart of the Wild is well presented. Just like the core rules for The One Ring, this supplement is done in earthy tones, both the graphical design and the illustrations that do much to capture the feel of Tolkien’s Middle Earth. The maps are decent, being mostly simple affairs. The map of Dol Guldur though is done as an illustration and has a pleasing air of menace to it.

The Heart of the Wild is of course the companion to The Darkening of Mirkwood and throughout the supplement references are made to the campaign. These are not overdone, though doubtless there may be more information contained within the campaign’s pages about specific locations. Yet it is also a companion to Tales from Wilderland, the anthology of scenarios for The One Ring, since The Heart of the Wild covers much the same area.

Whilst The Heart of the Wild is disappointing in one place—in its treatment of its new character options—it is a well written supplement. Where another publisher might have overwritten this and swamped the reader with unnecessary details, The Heart of the Wild feels appropriately sparse and light. After all,  it has to cover swathes of wilderness where there is little in way of civilisation or notable features, and this The Heart of the Wild does well. 

Friday, 30 January 2015

1984: Railway Rivals

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

-oOo-

Back in the early 1990s, TSR held European GenCon at Camber Sands, a windswept holiday camp on England’s south coast, much to the shock and amusement of any visiting American guests. The fact that it was within sight of Dungeness nuclear power station only added to the weirdness—and that became a joke in Shadowrun supplement. It was there that I had my first exposure to Railway Rivals to the sound of designer Jack Jaffe extolling you to come and play Save the President. I joined a game run by David Watts, the designer of Railway Rivals, which was played using a map of Ireland. I certainly did not know that I was playing with the designer and I certainly did not win the game, but I enjoyed playing what was essentially my first exposure to railway games. I thought that the idea of drawing on the map to be novel and clever. This memory was enough a decade later to purchase the Games Workshop version of the game and then two decades on, to purchase the original version that came in the heavy cardboard tube that could hold multiple maps.

Railway Rivals is a very stripped back game. It consists of a single six-sided die, six trains (or simply tokens), and a set of washable felt pens that match the colours of the tokens, but at the heart of the game—its maps. Each depicted a geographical area—Eastern USA, London & Liverpool, Germany, and so on—marked with cities, hills, and rivers on a hex grid. Each map sheet is laminated so that it can be drawn on—and that is the point of the game. Each player was setting out to build or draw his own railway network that connected the cities on the map. Then the players would race their trains over their networks to score money.

At the beginning of a game each player receives a train and a pen in a matching colour before rolling for his starting city. Then on his turn a player rolls the die to determine his income which he spends to build, or draw, new track in his network. Most of the maps consist of open plains which are cheap to lay track over, but hills and rivers cost more to cross, as does having to cross or parallel a rival player’s railway line. Money is earned for connecting your network to the cities on the map.

As soon as all cities have been connected, the game’s second phase begins. Races are set up between random cities and the players compete to get there first. Money is awarded to players arriving in first and second place, but must be paid to any railway rival whose track you used as part of your move. This is likely because it is rare for a player to connect to every city on the map. At the end of the game, the player with the most money wins.Once all cities are joined by railway tracks, the second part of the game starts. Players race their trains along the tracks between randomly chosen pairs of cities; just as in real life, players must pay other players to use elements of their track if they do not have a complete route of their own to the current target city. The choice of routes raced is random; each city is used one or more times. Money is awarded to the trains that arrive first and second, and the player with the most money when all routes have been raced is the winner.

By modern standards, Railway Rivals looks simplistic, but that would be an unfair assessment. The laying of the track across a map offers some tactical choice as each player attempts to make the best advantage of his starting position and map’s terrain. Often, this focuses upon certain choke points, typically to cities only accessible via gaps in the surrounding hills that are expensive to build through or to groups of cities, like those of New England.* In such a situation, when it comes to laying track, a player needs to ask himself if it is cheaper to build through the hills or lay track alongside that of his rivals.

*Note that this is typical of most railway games set in the Eastern USA.

Racing the trains in the second phase of course does involve more than a degree of luck, both in terms of rolling for the starting and finishing cities for each race, and rolling movement each turn. Each race will proceed without any complications when a player is travelling over his own network, but should a player need to switch to a rival network to get to a destination, then he needs to pay for the track use. Which loses him money—and thus a potential victory—to his rivals. He can offset this by spending the money he already has to build new track, but again, the cost and any advantage it gains a player needs to be carefully weighed up.


Once all of the races have finished, the players need to total up their money. The player with most is the winner.

Railway Rivals was self-published for many years, but versions have been published by Games Workshop and Queen Games. Despite having won the Spiel des Jahres in 1984,* Railway Rivals is a forgotten classic, having been out of print for almost two decades now. After all, winning the Spiel des Jahres back then did not have the same prestige as it does now, and barring Settlers of Catan, which won in 1995, few winners are remembered from before the rise in popularity of the hobby board game in last fifteen years. Surprisingly it did find a home as a PBEM, or Play-by-E-Mail, game played via fanzines, its simplicity nicely supporting this type of game play. 

*It is unlikely that a game like Railway Rivals would win the Spiel des Jahres today. Arguably though, Railway Rivals was the Ticket to Ride of its day.

Of course, Railway Rivals lacks the sophistication of the modern game. Indeed it looks very plain, but this plainness  suits the simplicity of the game and the simplicity of its game play. In fact the maps are clean, simple, and elegant. The only real complaint about the game is how messy it is—having to wipe a map clean after a game is over is a chore. Yet this write-on, wipe-off feature lies at the game’s heart—prefiguring the crayon games series begun with Empire Builder from Mayfair Games by several years—and makes the game most replayable. Some thirty-five official maps were released for the game, many of them classics in terms of locations for railway games—Germany, New England, France, and so on.

Railway Rivals is all about the maps and getting the chance to draw on them—again and again. Getting to scribble like this has a little of the childhood pleasure to it, but this is a game and a rather charming one at that. Simple and fun, Railway Rivals is not just about lay tracking, but drawing them!