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

Sunday, 20 April 2014

Dungeons & Dragons 4.95?

So when I said in my review of Against the Slave Lords that it was the only ‘official’ release from Wizards of the Coast for Dungeons & Dragons, this was not exactly true—there was one additional release. It was a release not for any previous edition of the game, but for one to come, one that had not yet been released, that is ‘D&D Next’, the development version that will be released in 2014. Whether it will be released as Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition is another matter, but that essentially is what the new game will be. In the meantime, there is Ghosts of Dragonspear Castle: A D&D Next Preview, which was an exclusive release at GenCon 2013 and has since been made available as a PDF.

Ghosts of Dragonspear Castle is two things in one. First, it is a mini-campaign consisting of four adventures designed to take a party of adventurers from first to tenth level. The second is an explanation of the rules, complete with monster statistics, spell descriptions, magic item descriptions, pre-generated adventurers, and setting material to support the campaign. Together, these two parts provide a preview of D&D Next—or at least a version of it. For at the time of the publication of Ghosts of Dragonspear Castle, the rules for D&D Next had not been finalised. Nevertheless, this preview presents a version of D&D Next that essentially has the feel of Basic Dungeons & Dragons, but with some influences from more recent versions of Dungeons & Dragons. This means that Ghosts of Dragonspear Castle could actually be run with any version of Dungeons & Dragons—bar Dungeons & Dragons, Fourth Edition—and indeed any Dungeons & Dragons retro-clone.

The campaign, Ghosts of Dragonspear Castle, consisting of ‘Fane of the Sun Swallower’, ‘The Cursed Crypts of Ambergul’, ‘The Fall of Illefarn’, and ‘Dragonspear Castle’, takes in and around the town on Daggerford on the Sword Coast of the Forgotten Realms. It opens with ‘Fane of the Sun Swallower’, in which the adventurers, either locals from, or visitors to, Daggerford, are attending the town’s midsummer festival. Unfortunately, the poor weather and the recent attack on a local noble’s estate has driven everyone indoors, except that is, for the public hanging of a Red Wizard of Thay who is believed to have been responsible for the attack. Whilst at this hanging, the adventurers are approached by Sir Isteval, a retired Paladin who resides in Daggerford to ride with him to the aid of Cromm’s Hold, a nearby keep that has been attacked by a black dragon! When they arrive, they learn that the dragon was after something—and that is enough for Sir Isteval to direct the adventurers to find what and why…

After a trek through a foetid swamp, this leads to the first of the campaign’s three mini-dungeons, a sun temple that has been desecrated by pestilent lizardmen. It is also the first of the campaign’s well-designed and inventive dungeons, which although quite small, is full of flavour and detail. This is not a dungeon that needs to be fought through, but rather it needs to be explored and learned from. Although there are plenty of combat encounters, there are also plenty of encounters where the DM gets to portray interesting NPCs—sections of boxed text throughout give advice as to how to roleplay each of the more important NPCs—and the player characters get to achieve their objectives without the need to draw a sword or prepare a spell. The dungeon has some memorable moments—the player characters gain an interesting pet, deal with an interesting family or two, and finally get betrayed.

This is perhaps the first and biggest weakness in Ghosts of Dragonspear Castle. Its plot revolves around not just one ‘MacGuffin’, but a quartet of them. Each once belonged to an ancient elemental cult, each is now sought by the Red Wizards of Thay, and each is unlikely to remain in the hands of the player characters—if at all. Which leaves the adventurers chasing, if not after what is in effect nothing, then at least after something to no obvious effect; all right, so they are chasing after a set of ‘MacGuffins’ and not getting hold of any of them is the point of the ‘MacGuffin’ or the ‘MacGuffins’, but the first scenario, ‘Fane of the Sun Swallower’, goes further and ends with the party’s betrayal. Simply, their success in the scenario is snatched out from under them, so not only is this plot device tiresome and heavy-handed, it is dispiriting too. This plot is part of the NPC’s desire for revenge on another NPC.

Should the adventurers decide to persevere, they are asked by a young pregnant woman to go after her child’s father who has been hired by a wanted Red Wizard, Darwa Dalion. She plans to explore ‘The Cursed Crypts of Ambergul’, the last resting place of the Ambergul family. The family were notable members of the ancient elemental cult, so in bringing Darwa Dalion to justice, the party may also be able to find the young man and learn more about the aims of the Red Wizards. In comparison to ‘Fane of the Sun Swallower’, this dungeon is much more sophisticated in its design, with an emphasis on traps and tricks as well as curses—lots and lots of curses. In fact, the player characters may well become tired of being cursed in this dungeon. Nevertheless, there is an inventiveness to the design of this dungeon and lots of interesting NPCs, most of them members of the Ambergul family.

Unfortunately, there is less inventiveness on show in the third part of the campaign, ‘The Fall of Illefarn’. This takes place in a collapsing Dwarven city that is inhabited by a Dwarf clan that has interbred with an Orc tribe. The underwhelming design of the dungeon owes much to its Dwarven heritage, but at least it maintains the same high standard in terms of its NPCs, and it does present an interesting puzzle when it comes to find much of the treasure scattered through its levels. Finding the final MacGuffin is also possible if something of a challenge, and of course, the player characters are unlikely to hold on to it for very long.

Sadly, the dip in quality continues with the fourth and final adventure, ‘Dragonspear Castle’. Although the adventure comes with a rousing though somewhat scripted denouement, getting there feels flat and something of a plod. It also seems rushed and out of step with the rest of the campaign, almost irrelevant to it the plot that the characters have been involved in, rather than the one that the major NPC has been orchestrating. Rounding out the adventure is a section on Daggerford and the surrounding Sword Coast, which should help the DM add flavour to his portrayal of the town and its inhabitants.

One interesting aspect of Ghosts of Dragonspear Castle is the magic items it includes. There are almost no ‘+1 swords’ or other archetypal weapons usually found in Dungeons & Dragons. There are scrolls and potions aplenty, but there are items such as an animated dwarf skeleton that will do your bidding and a music box of sobriety whose sober tune negates intoxicated condition. These and similar items are minor pieces of magic, but they are notable and any one of them is a worthy addition to a player character’s possessions.

The second problem with Ghosts of Dragonspear Castle is how experience is handled. ‘Fane of the Sun Swallower’ is designed for characters of first level, ‘The Cursed Crypts of Ambergul’ for characters of fourth or sixth level, ‘The Fall of Illefarn’ for characters of sixth or seventh level, and ‘Dragonspear Castle’ for characters of ninth level. The campaign advises that if the adventurers have not acquired enough experience points to reach such character levels, then the DM should add random encounters to boost the party’s experience point reward. Not only is this weak advice, it should be unnecessary advice—the adventures should be awarding sufficient experience points. Ghosts of Dragonspear Castle compounds this by not giving any advice in the DM Guideline chapter as to experience point rewards, nor any advice as to when the experience rewards should be given or levels awarded.

Half of Ghosts of Dragonspear Castle provides a version of D&D Next, covering ‘How to Play’, magic and spells, equipment, DM Guidelines, and a Bestiary. Of course, it is impossible to detail exactly what will be in D&D Next, but some impressions can be gained from reading through the second half of the book, even if, by the time of the publication of D&D Next in 2014, the version here will be a year out of date. The fundamentals appear not to have changed in terms of what the players can play—Elves, Dwarfs, Humans, Halflings, Fighters, Clerics, Wizards, Rogues, and so on. Characters very much look like Dungeons & Dragons characters, though more like those of Basic Dungeons & Dragons than those of other editions—though this does not mean that Elves, Dwarves, and Halflings are Classes in their own right. Characters do have Backgrounds, such as Soldier or Priest or Sage. Each provides a few quite significant bonuses.

The first notable omission to D&D Next is that of skills. Everything is done by ability modifiers—need to ride a horse? Make a Dexterity check by adding the Dexterity ability modifier to a roll of the twenty-sided die. Or a Recall Lore roll? That requires an Intelligence check. In addition, a character can also have one or more proficiencies, which either grant the ability to use various items—such as weapons or dice and cards, or grant a bonus to these checks. A +10 Lore check is one common feature of the book’s given player characters and is typically granted by a Background.

In addition to rolling the twenty-sided die for attacks, saving throws, and ability checks, characters can now gain ‘Advantage’ or ‘Disadvantage’. Both enable a character to roll two twenty-sided dice, having the ‘Advantage’ lets a character keep the better roll, whereas having the ‘Disadvantage’ forces him to keep the worst roll. Examples given in Ghosts of Dragonspear Castle include a character wearing chainmail armour having the ‘Disadvantage’ when attempting to sneak anywhere and a Halfling always having the ‘Advantage’ when making Saving Throws against fear effects.

The list of spells in Ghosts of Dragonspear Castle is not exhaustive, being primarily built around the pre-generated adventurers. What is noteworthy is that spellcasting Classes receive cantrips that can be cast at-will and that some spells, for example, Melf’s Acid Arrow, require an attack roll. Healing from rest enables a character to reroll one or more of his Hit Dice back up to his maximum Hit Points, so essentially, how well a character heals depends on his Class. Healing spells work normally. Lastly, a critical hit only adds one extra die to the damage roll, even if the weapon or attack normally rolls two or more for damage. Presumably this applies to spells because a weapon generally rolls just the one die for damage. For the most part, combat seems to have been simplified and streamlined, but still covers most eventualities.

Rounding out Ghosts of Dragonspear Castle is an appendix containing six pre-generated player characters designed for use with the campaign. They include a Human Cleric, Dwarven Fighter, Human Fighter, Elven Mage, Human Mage, and a Halfling Rogue—though no Human Rogue. Each is given a two-page spread, much of devoted to the advances made with each level, from second through to tenth levels. These are all set in stone so that no player has to roll for anything. It does seem odd though, that no Human Rogue is included, especially given that two variations are for each Class. (Note that I had planned to include one here as an example character, but unfortunately the difference between this version of D&D Next and the most recent I have access to was too great).

Physically, Ghosts of Dragonspear Castle is well presented and for the most part, well written. It needs an edit here or there, and it does suffer from some knowingly silly anachronism. That said, the authors acknowledge that the book is not the finished article, not the definitive version of D&D Next, and do have some fun with their commentary. The book nicely acknowledges the breadth and feel of almost forty years of Dungeons & Dragons in its choice of art, all drawn from the game’s history—it seems fitting that the main opponents of ‘Fane of the Sun Swallower’ are illustrated with a piece by the late David A. Trampier. The cartography is also well done, although annoyingly, the map of the region over which the campaign takes place, is hidden in the middle of the book, rather than being towards the front where it would have been of better use. Absurdly for a book that the DM is meant to make reference to during play, Ghosts of Dragonspear Castle lacks an index. 

Wizards of the Coast has released two sequels to Ghosts of Dragonspear Castle, though not direct sequels as neither use the same player characters. The first is the Dreams of the Red Wizards: Scourge of the Sword Coast, which is designed to be used with characters of second level, and will be followed by Dead in Thay.

The sad truth is that Ghosts of Dragonspear Castle is a stop-gap product, a book designed to give its audience a taster of things to come during a period when there is nothing else. Which is fine, as after all, it is intended as a preview for D&D Next. As a taster, it is not an unreasonable introduction to the new game, a more simple, streamlined version of Dungeons & Dragons in which—if the scenarios are any basis to go by—there is an emphasis on roleplaying and exploration rather than on set encounters. As to the campaign itself, Ghosts of Dragonspear Castle gets off to a great start with pair of meaty, well thought out, detailed, and flavoursome dungeons, before becoming losing steam with the second two parts and ultimately failing to quite deliver on the promise made in the first two scenarios. It is hampered by a lack of guidance as to how to handle Experience Points and gaining Levels, and the plotting never really strays too far from being a cliché. Nevertheless, it could still be played throughout, though not without some extra effort upon the part of the DM, using either the version of D&D Next in the book, the one officially published in 2014, or indeed most versions of Dungeons & Dragons. Which can only be a good thing as it means that Dungeons & Dragons, in the form of D&D Next, is not going to be as proscriptive as previous editions, is going to be accessible using multiple versions of Dungeons & Dragons, and thus is going to be ‘our’ game rather than just belonging to Wizards of the Coast.

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
Family:
Connections: Political Affiliation:

Righteousness
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

Armour
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)
Family:
Connections: Political Affiliation:

Righteousness
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

Armour
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.