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Saturday, 22 October 2016

Advanced Dungeons & Dragons & Weird

In the Old School Renaissance, the truth is that Advanced Dungeons & Dragons does not get as much love as other versions of the classic fantasy RPG. The problem is that Advanced Dungeons & Dragons is the more complex than the other versions of the classic fantasy RPG, it is not as flexible, and it shows its wargaming roots more clearly. In comparison, both Dungeons & Dragons and Basic Dungeons & Dragons are simpler, more malleable, and have proved the easier basis for multiple Retroclones, from OSRIC and Swords & Wizardry to Labyrinth Lord and Lamentations of the Flame Princess Weird Fantasy Role-Playing. Yet this does not mean that Advanced Dungeons & Dragons has not formed the basis for Retroclones, most notably Advanced Labyrinth Lord and Astonishing Swordsmen & Sorcerers of Hyperborea. The former is a close emulation of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, building from Labyrinth Lord, whilst the latter is not just an emulation of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, but also a development of it, both in terms of mechanics and setting.

Published in 2012 by North Wind Adventures following a successful Kickstarter campaign, Astonishing Swordsmen & Sorcerers of Hyperborea: A Roleplaying Game of Swords, Sorcery, and Wierd Fantasy takes its cues from two sources. Mechanically, it takes its mechanical cue from Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, but streamlines many of the mechanics in play, from Saving Throws to the infamous ‘THACO’, whilst also adding a simple resolution system for actions that take place out of combat or do not specifically pertain to a Class and its abilities. Inspirationally, it also takes its cue from Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, specifically certain books suggested in Appendix N, that is the weird fiction of Robert E. Howard, H.P. Lovecraft, and Clark Ashton Smith, and this is expressed most obviously in its default setting of Hyperborea and in the creatures and entities drawn from Lovecraftian fiction that populate its setting.

Currently, Astonishing Swordsmen & Sorcerers of Hyperborea is only available as a PDF, but originally it was published as a deep boxed set containing a pair of digest-sized spiral bound  books. One was the two-hundred-and-fifty-two page Players’ Manual, the other the two-hundred-and-thirty-six page Referee’s Manual. Besides this, the box contained a poster map of Hperborea, six character sheets, and a set of polyhedral dice. Each of the spiral bound books is divided into three volumes. The Players’ Manual is divided into Volume I: Swordsmen & Sorcery, Volume II: Sorcery, and Volume III: Adventure & Combat, whilst the Referee’s Manual is divided into Volume IV: Bestiary, Volume V: Treasure, and Volume VI: Hyperborea Gazetteer. It is this boxed set that Reviews from R’lyeh will be reviewing.

With an RPG like Astonishing Swordsmen & Sorcerers of Hyperborea, the place to start is with the types of characters that can be played. In terms of Race, the Hyperborea setting gives nine pure races of mankind—Amazon, Atlantean, Esquimaux, Hyperborean, Ixian, Kelt, Kimmerian, Pict, and Viking as well as two distinct mixed races, Kimmeri-Kelt and Half-Blood Pict. In addition to these, men of indeterminate ancestry are simply of ‘Common’ stock. What is important to note about all of these Races is that none of them provide anything in the way of mechanical benefit and they are simply integral to the Hyperborea setting. They are also the only player characters Races available as Astonishing Swordsmen & Sorcerers of Hyperborea does not include any non-humans as playable Races.

In terms of Classes, Astonishing Swordsmen & Sorcerers of Hyperborea gives the four basics—Fighter, Magician, Cleric, and Thief—and then a whole lot more. For each of the four basic Classes, there are four or five Subclasses. Thus for the Fighter there is the Barbarian, the Berserker, the Cataphract, the Ranger, and the Warlock; along with the Magician there is the Illusionist, Necromancer, Pyromancer, and Witch; the Cleric includes the Druid, Monk, Priest, and Shaman; and for the Thief, there is the Assassin, the Bard, the Legerdemainist, and the Scout. Most of these look very much like their counterparts in Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, but some need a little explanation.  The Cataphract is  warrior-knight or cavalryman, the Warlock is a spell-casting fighter; the Necromancer practices black magic and consorts with the undead, the Pyromancer specialises in fire magic, and the Witch specialises in potions, portents, and curses; the Priest is more mystic than warrior, and the Shaman, or Witch Doctor, communes with ancestral and totem spirits; and the Bard or Skald is a warrior, scholar, and master of music, the Legerdemainist is a Thief who uses sorcery, and the Scout is an explorer and intelligence gatherer. The use of these Subclasses is regarded as an option rather the default. Beyond this, a character in Astonishing Swordsmen & Sorcerers of Hyperborea can only advance as high as Twelfth Level, shares the same attributes as Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, uses Hit Points and descending Armour Class, and so on, but there are notable differences as can be seen below.

Olaf the Short
Race: Viking Age: 17
Height: 5’ 6” Weight: 145 lbs.
Hair: Blond Eyes: Brown

Languages: Common, Old Norse
Secondary Skills: Boatwright, Whaler

Alignment: Chaotic Good

Strength 16
+1 Mêlée To Hit, +1 Damage Adjustment, 3:6 Test of Strength, Extraordinary Feat of Strength 24%
Dexterity 16
+0 Missile To Hit, +0 Defence Adjustment, 3:6 Test of Dexterity, Extraordinary Feat of Dexterity 16%
Constitution 10
+0 Hit Point Adjustment, +0 Poison Adjustment, Trauma Survival: 75%, 3:6 Test of Constitution, Extraordinary Feat of Constitution 04%
Intelligence 09
+0 Languages, – Magician’s Bonus Spells Cast per Day, Magician’s Chance to Learn New Spells 50%
Wisdom 14
+0 Willpower Adjustment, One Level 1 Cleric’s Bonus Spells Cast per Day, Cleric’s Chance to Learn New Spells 65%
Charisma 11
+0 Reaction/Loyalty Adjustment, Maximum Number of Henchmen 4, +0 Turning Undead Adjustment

Fighter Level 1
Attack Rate 1/1, Heroic Fighting (Attack Rate 2/1 versus 1 HD or less), Weapon Mastery (+1 Hit, +1 Damage with Spear and Axe)
Fighting Ability: 1
Armour Class: 4/3
Hit Dice: 1d10 Hit Points: 9

Saving Throw: 16
Saving Throw Modifiers: Death +2, Transformation +2

2×Hand Axe (1d6, WC 1), Short Spear (1d6/1d8, WC 3); Chainmail, Large Shield (+1/+2)

What is noticeable about the derived factors from the attributes is that Strength differentiates between the To Hit and Damage bonuses and has both Test of Strength and Extraordinary Feat of Strength factors. These equate to Open Doors and Bend Bars/Lift Gates respectively in Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, the Test of Strength being rolled on a six sided die and the Extraordinary Feat of Strength rolled as a percentile. Astonishing Swordsmen & Sorcerers of Hyperborea goes further and applies the two resolution mechanisms to Dexterity and Constitution as well as  Strength. The ‘Test of…’ is a way of handling a character who wants to take a non-standard action that relates to a physical attribute, whilst the ‘Extraordinary Feat of…’ represents a player character undertaking a superhuman action.

Perhaps the biggest change in Astonishing Swordsmen & Sorcerers of Hyperborea is the addition of Fighting Ability. Every character has this. It does two things. First, it simply measures how good the character is at physical combat when compared to a Fighter-type Class of the same Level. The Fighting Ability of a Fighter will always increase as he goes up a Level, up to the maximum of Twelfth Level, but a Cleric or a Magician will not. Thus a Thief will have Fighting Ability of 1 at First Level, of 2 at Third Level, of 3 at Level Four, and so on. Second, it simply serves as a Class’ bonus to hit at any one particular Level, this bonus or Fighting Ability being applied to the one table. All Classes possess the Fighting Ability, but some Classes also have the Casting Ability, the capacity to use sorcery (which will be examined later), and Turning Ability, the capacity to turn or control the undead. However, Fighting Ability is so beautiful in its elegance and simplicity, let alone the fact that it deals away with multiple tables for handling combat.

Armour Class works as you would expect, but minor tweaks. Notably that it provides some damage reduction, whilst larger shields provide better Armour Class adjustment against missile attacks. 

Saving Throws are also streamlined. In Advanced Dungeons & Dragons there are five categories of Saving Throw—‘Paralyzation, Poison, or Death Magic’, ‘Rod, Staff, or Wand’, ‘Petrification or Polymorph’, ‘Breath Weapon’, and ‘Spells’. In Astonishing Swordsmen & Sorcerers of Hyperborea there is just one generic Saving Throw for all Classes which improves as a player character goes up in Levels. Astonishing Swordsmen & Sorcerers of Hyperborea also breaks its Saving Throws down in five categories—Death, Transformation, Device, Avoidance, and Sorcery—but rather they become modifiers to the core Saving Throw. The type of modifier a player character has will depend upon his Class. For example, Olaf the Short, is a Fighter and therefore receives the modifiers Death +2 and Transformation +2. A character’s Attributes may also provide additional modifiers. Like the Fighting Ability and Casting Ability, this is a streamlined and elegant method of handling an old mechanism that also avoids the need for big tables.

Alignment is similarly streamlined. Astonishing Swordsmen & Sorcerers of Hyperborea reduces the seven options found in Advanced Dungeons & Dragons to just five—Lawful Good, Lawful Evil, Chaotic Good, Chaotic Evil, and Neutral. It removes the purity of both Law and Chaos and perhaps may not be as nuanced as some Gamemasters and their campaigns, might like.

The approach to skills in Astonishing Swordsmen & Sorcerers of Hyperborea is ambivalent. Just like Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, the Thief Class in Astonishing Swordsmen & Sorcerers of Hyperborea includes a list of skills useful to all aspects of theft and stealth and detecting traps and so on. This is rolled on a twelve-sided die, not percentile dice, and may be modified by a Thief’s Dexterity if high enough. So for example, a First Level Thief would have skills of Climb 8:12, Decipher Script 0:12, Discern Noise 4:12, Hide 5:12, Manipulate Traps 3:12, Move Silently 5:12, Open Locks 3:12, Pick Pockets 4:12, and Read Scrolls –. The Ranger’s Track ability works in a similar fashion.

In addition, there is a mechanic for a character undertaking an action not covered by his Class, that is, a nonstandard action. For example, a Magician might want to pick the pockets of a merchant or a Bard wants to recall what he knows about a hero of old. The chance of this is expressed much like the Test of Strength, but is typically low, for example, 1:6. At least there is a mechanic for this, but why not turn it into a unified task resolution and have the Test of Strength, the Thief’s skills, the Ranger’s Track ability, and this unskilled test all resolved on a twelve-sided die and allow a character’s Attributes to modify the results? Having separate small mechanisms in this fashion is an annoying hangover from Advanced Dungeons & Dragons and makes no sense in terms of aesthetics or design.

Combat is for the most part little different to Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, with attack rolls on a twenty-sided die made against an opponent’s Armour Class, with damage inflicted then being deducted from his Hit points. The rules cover most eventualities, notably unarmed combat—always an issue in Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, whilst the advanced rules cover a variety of options and manoeuvres from Arrow Setting and Disarm to Throw and Attack and Two-Weapon Fighting, as well as Critical Hits. Initiative is handled normally, except that a combatant armed with longer weapon against one armed with a shorter weapon, may be able to strike first. 

Perhaps the first real disappointment with Astonishing Swordsmen & Sorcerers of Hyperborea is in its approach to sorcery. It provides spell lists for each of its various spell-casting Classes, the spells starting at First Level and ending at Sixth Level, as well as covering learning and casting spells, researching spells, and so on. Now this is all well and good, but the spells do not inspire and they do not feel appropriate to the genre that Astonishing Swordsmen & Sorcerers of Hyperborea is based upon. Magic in Swords & Sorcery is typically dangerous, not just to those it is cast upon, but also upon the caster, and the magic in Astonishing Swordsmen & Sorcerers of Hyperborea is never that. This is because it does not really deviate from the magic of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, of E. Gary Gygax and Jack Vance.

Xanthe Pontos
Race: Atlantean Age: 17
Height: 5’ 5” Weight: 140 lbs.
Hair: Black Eyes: Yellow

Languages: Common, Hellenic (Atlantean Dialect), Keltish (Pictish Dialect)
Secondary Skills: Messenger, Bookbinder

Alignment: Lawful Evil

Strength 13
+0 Mêlée To Hit, +1 Damage Adjustment, 3:6 Test of Strength, Extraordinary Feat of Strength 08%
Dexterity 10
+0 Missile To Hit, +0 Defence Adjustment, 2:6 Test of Dexterity, Extraordinary Feat of Dexterity 04%
Constitution 18
+3 Hit Point Adjustment, +2 Poison Adjustment, Trauma Survival: 95%, 5:6 Test of Constitution, Extraordinary Feat of Constitution 32%
Intelligence 16
+1 Languages, 1 Level One, 1 Level Two Magician’s Bonus Spells Cast per Day, Magician’s Chance to Learn New Spells 75%
Wisdom 12
+0 Willpower Adjustment, – Cleric’s Bonus Spells Cast per Day, Cleric’s Chance to Learn New Spells 50%
Charisma 15
+1 Reaction/Loyalty Adjustment, Maximum Number of Henchmen 8, +1 Turning Undead Adjustment

Necromancer Level 1
Read Magic, Scribe Scroll, Sorcery 
Fighting Ability: 0
Casting Ability: 1
Turning Ability: – 
Armour Class: 9
Hit Dice: 1d4 Hit Points: 6

First Level: Animate Carrien

Saving Throw: 16
Saving Throw Modifiers: Death +2, Sorcery +2

Quarterstaff (1d6, WC 3), Dagger (1d4, WC 1)

The bestiary in Astonishing Swordsmen & Sorcerers of Hyperborea is a mix of the old and the new, or rather the old and the weird. What is noticeable by their absence is the Goblinoid family of foes—Goblins, Hobgoblins, and Bugbears—although Gnolls, here called Hyæna Men, and Orcs, here called Dæmon-Picts, are present and take on a more bestial and more demonic natures respectively. The rest is mix of the traditional Dungeons & Dragons creatures and the weird of Cthulhu Mythos. So we have the Aboleth, the Black Pudding, the Chimæra, the Gargoyle, the Gelatinous Cube, and so on from Dungeons & Dragons, whilst the Deep Dweller, the Elder Thing, the Great Race, the Night-Gaunt, the Shoggoth, and so on, from the Cthulhu Mythos. There are some changes and new entries too. For example, Hill Giants are known as Formorians and Golems are called Automata, and whilst the materials they are constructed from remain the same, whether clay, flesh, iron, or stone, take on the feel of ancient technology rather than magical constructs. New creatures include Leaper Camels (a kangaroo-like marsupial ridden by the Abominable Snow-Men and the Men of leng), Lotus Women (plant-like vampires that lure their prey with lamenting song), Minotrons (bronze clockworks in the form of Minotaurs), Oon (subterranean humanoids who serve the Mi-Go), and Thew Wagons (bequilled slug-like beasts that can be trained as giant beasts of burden). It is a delightful mix and in a great many cases, the monsters from Dungeons & Dragons do not look out of place alongside those from the Cthulhu Mythos.

Again treasure in Astonishing Swordsmen & Sorcerers of Hyperborea feels the same as Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, but different. So alongside Plate Mail +1, Sword +2, Flame Tongue, Potion of Gaseous Form, Ring of Water Walking, Staff of the Snake, Boots of Speed, IOUN Stones, there is also the Girdle of Golden Serpents (creates a greater globe of invulnerability that has a chance of ceasing function for its current wearer, but will work for the next wearer), the Sphere of Blackness (grants use of various shadow-related spells), and the Vacuous Grimoire (reduces the Intelligence and Wisdom of the reader). Other items of treasure draw from the Pulp Sci-Fi genre, for example, the Sword +2, Laser—Star Wars eat your heart out, but then the weapon has always been there at the periphery of the Science Fantasy of Dungeons & Dragons. Other Science Fantasy weapons include the Paralysing Pistol and the Radium Pistol.

Overall, Astonishing Swordsmen & Sorcerers of Hyperborea presents a good mix of magical items, but not necessarily a great one. Again, the issue is that they are too much like Dungeons & Dragons and not weird enough, not dangerous enough. The Hyperborea of Astonishing Swordsmen & Sorcerers of Hyperborea feels as if there should be a danger to using any one of the magical items, but unless they are specifically cursed, there is very little of that. Also missing is a means for the player characters to create magical items beyond potions and scrolls, which befits the ancient, but lost knowledge aspect of the Hyperborea setting. Of course, that is only lost to mankind. Some of the older and ‘elder’ races, such as the Deep-Dwellers, Dwarves—here described as “...foot-long, sickly yellow maggots” and “...cunning, evil, greedy, and lecherous; equally they are tireless forgers and brilliant dweomercafters”, Elder Things, and members of the Great Race, may have the means to create such magical or scientific devices.

Rounding out Astonishing Swordsmen & Sorcerers of Hyperborea is the Hyperborea Gazetteer, which details and describes the mythic ‘micro-setting’ that is Hyperborea, that might be a land long lost to Earth or a land that lies at the North Pole. Wherever it lies, Hyperborea is an ancient land over which a giant red sun hangs, around which it has a thirteen year orbit which includes one year of midnight sun and one year of polar night. It was once home to a great race, the Ancient Hyperboreans, but whilst they were able to survive an Ice Age, their civilisation did not survive a  plague known as the Green Death. There are few Ancient Hyperborean survivors and their once great civilisation now consists of ruins to be picked over by other men. The Gazetteer covers everything from Hyperborea’s astronomy and calendar to its races and religions—many of the latter including faiths and devoted to Great Old Ones like Kthulhu and Azathoth. It provides a thorough overview of Hperborea, including some mysteries and marvels, such as the great black obelisks and ancient R’lyeh.

So the question is, what do adventurers do in Astonishing Swordsmen & Sorcerers of Hyperborea? According to the website, they “...delve dungeons filled with horrifying monsters, lethal traps, and bewildering puzzles; they explore savage wilderness frontiers and hostile borderlands; they probe ancient ruins and investigate cursed tombs; they match steel against sorcery, and sorcery against steel; and they plunder for gold, gems, and magical treasure in a decaying world inhabited by bloodthirsty monsters and weird, alien beings.” The next question is, how does this differ from Advanced Dungeons & Dragons? The answer to that is that it does not and this is disappointing. It does not help that there is no adventure included in the Astonishing Swordsmen & Sorcerers of Hyperborea boxed set, an adventure that would showcase the game in action. (The box though, does include a poster map of Hyperborea, a set of character sheet pamphlets, and a set of polyhedral dice.)

Given the presence of the weird and certainly the Cthulhu Mythos in Astonishing Swordsmen & Sorcerers of Hyperborea it seems odd that there are no rules for handling the weird and the uncanny. There are essentially no Sanity mechanics and that, when combined with the lack of threat in spellcasters using magic, points to the flaw in the RPG’s design—it never makes the weird feel personal and so never quite really brings the character Classes provided into the Hyperborea setting. Lastly it would have been nice if an equivalent of Appendix N from Advanced Dungeons & Dragons could have been provided as inspiration for the Gamemaster.

Physically, Astonishing Swordsmen & Sorcerers of Hyperborea is very ably presented. It is well written and everything is well explained, the language in places being mature and rich enough, that in places it was necessary for Reviews from R’lyeh to look up the meanings of certain words. Both volumes of the rules are nicely illustrated by Ian Baggley, his dark pencils nicely depicting the dark dangers of Hyperborea.

As a retroclone, Astonishing Swordsmen & Sorcerers of Hyperborea had the potential to be a superb development of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, but unfortunately, it never gets quite beyond interesting. Mechanically the RPG provides interesting choices and some elegant redesigns of standard Dungeons & Dragons mechanisms, and there is potential in both the setting of Hyperborea and the threats it should present. Yet for all that potential, Astonishing Swordsmen & Sorcerers of Hyperborea never quite escapes the bonds of Dungeons & Dragons and never quite fully embraces the weird of its inspirational genre.


The second edition of Astonishing Swordsmen & Sorcerers of Hyperborea: A Roleplaying Game of Swords, Sorcery, and Wierd Fantasy is currently funding on Kickstarter. Please check it out.

Sunday, 16 October 2016

Your Fault

Launched at UK Games Expo 2016 prior to a successful Kickstarter campaign, The Game of Blame: A Card Game About Shirking Your Duty is a card game of memory and card counting published by Warm Acre. Designed for between two and four players, it is a quick filler of game that is easy to learn, easy to play, and easy in terms of its theme. The players take the roles of courtiers at the court of a capricious, unpredictable, and fickle Queen who is ready to appoint and reappoint them to various positions at her court—and then mete out terrible punishments for those that disappoint her.

Game of Blame consists of fifty or so cards. Six of these are Role cards, Archbishop, General, Spymaster, Treasurer, Viceroy, and Wizard, each of which has its own colour. The bulk of the cards consist of Issues cards, such as ‘Another Holy War’, ‘Faulty Golems’, ‘Scandalous Gossip’, ‘The Treasury is Empty!’, ‘Vampire Rampage’, and ‘We’re Doomed!’. Each Issues card has one or two Seals on it and the colour of these Seals match the Role cards, denoting the responsibility of the Role for that Issues card. There are also Treason cards. These have no Seals on them, but can count as any Seal (so they are essentially wild cards).

The aim of The Game of Blame is end the game with the least number of Issues that match that match your Role. At game start, each player receives a Role card, which is placed in front of them, and three Issues cards, whilst a single Issues card is drawn and played face up to form the Blame pile.

On his turn, a player must play between zero and three cards on the Blame pile. As each Issues card is played, one of its Seals must match the colour of one of the Seals of the Issues card it is played onto. How cards played determines a player’s second action. If he played zero cards, he must draw three new Issues cards; if he played one, then he must draw one; if he played two, then he can swap any two Roles—this can be between himself and another player, between any two players, and one of the Role cards can be one not in play; and if he played three Issues, then he can Accuse someone!

To Accuse someone, a player chooses another player to blame and then together they compare the number of Seals in the Blame pile that match their current respective Roles. The player who has the most Seals in the Blame pile literally takes the Blame and adds the pile of cards to his hand. Everyone else, including the successful Accuser, can bury one of their Issues cards, including a Treason card, into a personal Secrets pile. All Issues in a Secrets pile are safe and do not play any further role in the game.

 This is the heart of The Game of Blame. The problem though, is that because Roles can swap from one turn to the next, remembering exactly what Issues and thus which Seals—and how many—are in the Blame pile, can be difficult to remember! This is intentionally made difficult because the players cannot look through the Blame pile. Plus having all of those Issues cards in your hand at game’s end is really bad, because the more Issues cards a player has in his hand that match his current Role card, the worse his fate is… Each matching Issues card is worth a point, Treason cards are worth six points! The player with the least number of Issues cards that match his current his current Role card in his hand, will win, but his fate is still down to the Queen’s temper…

The Game of Blame is deceptively simple and deceptively tactical. Counting the Issues as they go into the Blame pile is as important as knowing when to swap Roles—your own as well as anyone else’s. Getting this right means that you can avoid the Blame and place it on someone else! There is also room for some tactical play too, stacking the Blame pile with Issues of one colour, then switching Roles so that another player’s Role matches those Issues, just as much as there is for throwing back and forth the Accusations. Though the likelihood is that a game will involve more of the latter than the former.

The game’s advanced rules allow the Roles to do a whole more than just be swapped or matched. Each one has a special function, for example, the General has ‘Honour’ and cannot be Accused if he has no Secrets and the Wizard’s ‘Sorcery’ enables him to swap hands with another player instead of Roles when he plays two cards. These make the Roles ever so slightly more important and Kickstarter edition of the game adds a further handful of Role cards.

Physically, The Game of Blame is nicely presented. The cards all feel like medieval documents—though sadly, the body text on is faded and difficult to read when we really wanted to read it—and this adds much to the game’s theme. In fact, The Game of Blame would be bland without its fantasy theme—as light as it is—and with that theme, it actually encourages a little light roleplaying and table talk.

Lasting no longer than twenty minutes, The Game of Blame: A Card Game About Shirking Your Duty is a light and lightly themed game that works as a solid filler.

Friday, 14 October 2016

Your First Miniatures Wargame Campaign

Thaw of the Lich Lord is the first release for Frostgrave: Fantasy Wargames in the Frozen City, the fantasy skirmish Wargames rules published by Osprey Games. It presents a ten-part campaign that charts the rise of a newly released power in the ancient city of Felstead and the efforts of the various warbands to thwart the danger he represents. The power turns out to be a wizard older than the city’s frozen history who has prolonged his life beyond death and commands both undead and cultists devoted to him. Throughout the campaign there are opportunities to do more than just stop the efforts of the Lich Lord—a wizard and his warband might capture great artefacts and knowledge, and perhaps even learn the secrets of the Lich Lord’s undeath!

The ten scenarios present a variety of different challenges and rewards. They begin with ‘Total Eclipse’, in which rival warbands must search and fight for the ancient treasures of Felstad under a sudden solar eclipse and include skirmishes across the city’s frozen river, inside the ruins of a lost mansion, and more until the showdown in ‘The Final Battle’ which takes place in the Lich Lord’s newly raised fortress over the city. In many cases there are situations where rival warbands might be forced into alliances in order to defeat the minions of the Lich Lord and of course, this may also lead to the betrayal of one ally by another. Especially when it comes to getting some of the campaign’s more treasures home to a warband’s base. In addition, some of the scenarios would benefit from the involvement of a referee who would handle the Lich Lord and his forces. In such cases, the scenario provides full rules for handling both without the need for a referee.

The ten scenarios in Thaw of the Lich Lord takes up just half of the book. The other half is devoted to new material, some of it supporting the campaign, but all of it useful beyond its events. This includes four new soldiers that a wizard might hire. The Bard grants a bonus to the Will rolls of other soldiers; the Crow Master trains and uses Blood Crows in battle to strike at a distance, the birds requiring a Crow Roost in the warband’s base; the Javelineer is a cheap missile thrower; and the Pack Mule can carry more treasure. New spells like Lichdom and Revenant enable a wizard and a soldier to live beyond death respectively. There is also a hoard of new treasure items, such the Book of Bones, a tome that details how to create an animated skeleton when the spell Raise Zombie is cast; Club of Battering, a two-handed maul that can drive an opponent back further than most weapons; the Dark Cauldron, which grants a bonus when Raise Zombie or Revenant is cast; Quiver of the Soul Keeper that imbues arrows with ability to strike the ethereal undead; and so on. There are over twenty of these new treasures, many of which are particular to this campaign. 

There are just half this number in terms of new monsters. There is of course the Blood Crow, ready to serve the Crow Master, but the majority of the new creatures are members of the undead, such as the Frost Wraith and the Wraith Knight. Two or three are particular to Thaw of the Lich Lord, including the Lich Lord himself, who receives a two-page spread detailing his background, his abilities, and his tactics during the final battle. These tactics are fairly straightforward and make his handling when there is no Referee present relatively easy.

Thaw of the Lich Lord is well written, decently illustrated, and a solid expansion for Frostgrave: Fantasy Wargames in the Frozen City. There is perhaps a single problem in story presented by the ten-part campaign and that appears early on when the various wizards and their warbands hear rumours of new power, possibly a necromancer, having established himself in Felstad. Now they learn of this not in game, but out of game, and perhaps it would have been nice if the players could have learned this through play rather than in spite of it. Of course there is nothing to stop someone running Thaw of the Lich Lord to write his own scenarios.

As well as the standard miniatures manufactured by Northstar for use with Frostgrave: Fantasy Wargames in the Frozen City, the manufacturer has also released a series of miniatures specifically for use with the campaign. These include all of the creatures right up to the Lich Lord himself. Of course, the players are free to use whatever miniatures they want, just as in the core rules. Whatever miniatures the players use, Thaw of the Lich Lord is solid support for the rules and setting of Frostgrave: Fantasy Wargames in the Frozen City and the good news is that there is a second expansion, Frostgrave: Into the Breeding Pits, already available and a third, Frostgrave: Forgotten Pacts to come.

Saturday, 8 October 2016

Screen Shot IV

How do you like your GM Screen?

The GM Screen is a essentially a reference sheet, comprised of several card sheets that fold out and can be stood up to serve another purpose, that is, to hide the GM's notes and dice rolls. On the inside, the side facing the GM are listed all of the tables that the GM might want or need at a glance without the need to have to leaf quickly through the core rulebook. On the outside, facing the players, is either more tables for their benefit or representative artwork for the game itself. This is both the basic function and the basic format of the screen, neither of which has changed very little over the years. Beyond the basic format, much has changed though.

To begin with the general format has split, between portrait and landscape formats. The result of the landscape format is a lower screen, and if not a sturdier screen, than at least one that is less prone to being knocked over. Another change has been in the weight of card used to construct the screen. Exile Studios pioneered a new sturdier and durable screen when its printers took two covers from the Hollow Earth Expedition core rule book and literally turned them into the game's screen. This marked a change from the earlier and flimsier screens that had been done in too light a cardstock, and many publishers have followed suit.

Once you have decided upon your screen format, the next question is what you have put with it. Do you include a poster or poster map, such as Chaosium, Inc.’s last screen for Call of Cthulhu ?  Or a reference work like the GM Resource Book for Pelgrane Press' Trail of Cthulhu? Or a scenario such as ‘A Restoration of Evil’ for the Keeper's Screen for Call of Cthulhu from 2000. In general, the heavier and sturdier the screen, the more likely it is that the screen will be sold unaccompanied, such as those published by Cubicle Seven Entertainment for the Starblazer Adventures: The Rock & Roll Space Opera Adventure Game and Doctor Who: Adventures in Time and Space RPGs.

So how do I like my GM Screen?

I like my Screen to come with something. Not a poster or poster map, but some form of reference material. Which is why I am fond of both the Sholari Reference Pack for SkyRealms of Jorune and the GM Resource Book for Pelgrane Press' Trail of Cthulhu. Nevertheless, I also like GM Screens when they come with a scenario, which is one reason why I like the new screen published by Chaosium, Inc. I like it equally as much because Call of Cthulhu Keeper Screen Pack comes with not one scenario, but two—and both are of a criminal bent. It also comes with a set of maps, a reference booklet, and some Investigator sheets.

The screen comes as a threefold affair of A4-sized sections in landscape format. The front of the screen presents a full colour panorama of an investigation in progress. It is a night shot and a nice piece of art that warrants further scrutiny to catch the little things going on… On the reverse, an Insanity and Extreme Difficulty Gauge runs across the top. On the left hand section, boxes summarise the base mechanics, combat with firearms, and other forms of damage. A combat flow chart sits on the middle section along with a bouts of madness summary and sample Sanity costs. There is also a page guide for spells and tomes rather than any rules summarised. The right hand section gives sanity effects, a damage flowchart, and summaries of the rules for chases and vehicle collisions. This is all done in shades of grey, but is easy to read and where necessary, page references to the pertinent sections in the Keeper’s Rulebook have been included. If there is an oddity about the screen and the layout of its reference material it is that the damage rules are summarised away from the combat rules, but flitting from one to the other is unlikely to present a challenge. Overall, the screen is sturdy, useful, and solid support for the rules themselves.

The reference booklet, or Keeper References, reprints the rest of the tables that do not appear on the screen itself. Primarily they include the weapons tables, sample phobias and manias, sample tomes, and the skills list. They also include the indices for both the Investigator Handbook and the Keeper Rulebook. Printed in plain black and white, the reference booklet nicely supplements the screen.

The maps primarily consist of maps of Arkham, Lovecraft Country, and the world, all three reprinted from the Keeper Rulebook. The first is a nice depiction of Lovecraft’s signature town, but only the very most important buildings and locations are marked, so its usefulness is limited. The second is of the region of New England pertinent to Lovecraft’s writings and is useful for the scenarios here and in Doors to Darkness. The third marks the various notable mysterious locations and Mythos places around the world. Not necessarily of immediate use, but veteran players of the game will have fun spotting the Mythos places from previous campaigns on the world map. These three maps are done in full colour and are poster-sized. Of the three maps, the one of Lovecraft Country is likely to be most useful, since it provides a much needed overview of the region where a great many scenarios for Call of Cthulhu have been, and will continue to be, set. The other four maps are also full colour, but depict locations from the scenarios in the Keeper Rulebook. All seven maps are all well done and make for nice additions to the Call of Cthulhu Keeper Screen Pack.

The first scenario is ‘Blackwater Creek’ by the editor of Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition, Scott Dorward. It takes place in in the village of Blackwater Creek, somewhere out Dunwich way, in Massachusetts at the height of Prohibition in 1926 and has two options to get the player characters involved. The first is as academic investigators from Miskatonic University sent out to locate a missing archaeologist and his wife, who conducting a dig in the area. The second is as Boston Bootleggers, sent to obtain a new and abundant supply of whiskey for their boss, Declan McBride. 

As Boston Bootleggers, the group is tasked with travelling to Blackwater Creek and there negotiating with the distillers who have been supplying their bootleg whiskey to a rival gang in Boston. This means making the distillers an offer they can accept or if they refuse, an offer that they cannot refuse. The group will arrive in the rundown, dilapidated village to discover recalcitrant villagers and sick children, the place beset by a fecund decay. There are further signs of this fecundity if the player characters go looking for it, but very quickly the plot drives them to the distillers and their farm and it is here that the scenario is likely to one of two ways. First, the negotiations with the distillers are successful and the scenario all but peters out; second, the negotiations with the distillers fail and everything goes awry.

Of the two options, the second is more likely—even the author states that “It’s highly likely that combat will ensue at the farm.” In fact, this is the scenario’s major scene, one that raises the stakes between the player characters they become involved in a confrontation between the distillers, their men, and more… This is because the  tensions between the pre-generated characters—they are not in any traditional sense, investigators—are likely to rear their ugly heads. There are both ties and rivalries between the six, ties and rivalries that involve brotherhood, friendship, love, ambition, and money. These are very likely to come to the fore here in what will be a bloody shootout. Should this happen, then ‘Blackwater Creek’ is unlikely to continue because the gang members will be dead or bloodied and bruised and driven off...

Whereas, the academics are tasked with travelling to Blackwater Creek in order to locate Doctor Henry Roades, an associate professor of archaeology at Miskatonic University who had recently led a field trip in search of an early colonial settlement in the Miskatonic Valley that had failed for unknown reasons. Roades has not returned and his colleagues are growing concerned. They will have the same initial encounters in the village as the gangsters, but unlike the gangsters, the academics have much more in the way of an investigation to conduct. For them there are clues to be followed and if they do so, they are much likely to move towards the source of the fecundity and its corrosive effect in Blackwater Creek, whereas the bootleggers are not. As investigators, theirs is a less confrontational path, less combat oriented, though still dangerous.

The problem with ‘Blackwater Creek’ is that there are no pre-generated academic player characters. This means that of the two plot hooks given to draw the player characters into the scenario—‘Investigator Option One: Miskatonic Faculty’ and ‘Investigator Option Two: Bootleggers’—it is the criminal option that is the more favoured. This is because the pre-generated criminals have plot hooks built into each one that tie them into the scenario and of course with each other that give the scenario much more of a dramatic impetus when those characters are used. Now the presence of the academic and the archaeological field trip has always been part of the scenario’s plot, but not necessarily as plot hooks to pull academic investigators into the scenario. Its inclusion as a plot hook is decently done, but it does not feel as well supported and it does feel like an afterthought.

With the two different options in ‘Blackwater Creek’, the scenarios deliver two different playing experiences. One underplayed, but much more of a traditional Call of Cthulhu investigation, the other more direct and much less of an investigation. Yet, there is a third option. What if both options were played? What if two groups played the two options simultaneously, perhaps at a convention? It would take two good groups and it would require a second set of pre-generated investigators, this time an academic set. So what if…?

The second scenario, ‘Missed Dues’, is written by Mike Mason, the co-author of Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition, and like ‘Blackwater Creek’ is a criminal affair and set in Lovecraft Country. It differs though by being set earlier in 1922 and in town rather than in the countryside, but like ‘Blackwater Creek’, it comes with a set of six pre-generated player characters. Now these six are underwritten, lacking the backgrounds of the six given for ‘Blackwater Creek’, but they are all criminals working for gang boss, Mordecai ‘the Hammer’ O’Leary, to whom they owe a favour. This is made clear in the conversation that opens the scenario that also suggests their misdeeds—losing a truckload of bootleg whiskey, an extortion attempt that went too far, and an attempted bank robbery made without permission. In return for forgetting their misdeeds, O’Leary wants them to find a small time thief known as ‘Sticky Jack’ Fulton who owes him for a series of burglaries that he committed without permission.

This is an investigation that takes the player characters into the murky alleys of Arkham’s criminal underworld as they track their quarry down. Here they will be at an advantage, since they know this world and they can interact with its denizens. Where they will be at a disadvantage is in determining what it was that ‘Sticky Jack’ Fulton stole, why they were stolen, and who for. This will also take them into the realms of academia where they will stick out like sore thumbs. The likelihood is that they will probably have to rely upon their criminal skills, so they get to shine otherwise. Their investigation will lead them to Fulton’s employer and from their the scenario takes a turn for the weird…

In comparison with ‘Blackwater Creek’, ‘Missed Dues’ is written as a much more of a traditional investigative scenario, even though it is with criminally orientated player characters. Only the single option in ‘Blackwater Creek’—‘Investigator Option One: Miskatonic Faculty’—lends itself to this style of investigation, whilst the other option—‘Investigator Option Two: Bootleggers’—presents more of a Mythos encounter, than an investigation. A probably bullish and hectic, as well as enjoyable, encounter, but an encounter nevertheless.

Ultimately what both scenarios included with the Call of Cthulhu Keeper Screen Pack feel like are convention scenarios with their pre-generated investigators and plots that limit their use by character types beyond the criminal. This does not mean that either cannot be used with more traditional investigators or more traditional campaigns. ‘Blackwater Creek’ is probably easier of the two to use to that end since it includes that option. On the whole,  ‘Blackwater Creek’ and ‘Missed Dues’ are enjoyable diversions rather than immediately useful as scenarios.

So how I like the Call of Cthulhu Keeper Screen Pack? The screen is clear, simple, and easy to use, whilst the reference booklet provides further supplementary support. The maps are good to have, and beyond those for the scenarios from the Keeper’s Rulebook, will serve as useful aids in the long term. Whilst it is always good to have scenarios, those presented with the Call of Cthulhu Keeper Screen Pack offer offer something different to play rather than being necessarily useful. For some that may be a refreshing change, whereas others may not find quite as useful. Overall, the Call of Cthulhu Keeper Screen Pack can definitely be said to be found not wanting and is a solid, pleasingly complete package.

Friday, 7 October 2016

1985: The Good Games Guide 1

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.


In 1985 Games Workshop dominated the gaming hobby in the United Kingdom. It had, over the course of a decade, built up a distribution business importing the American RPGs that had begun with Dungeons & Dragons and then gone on to publish British editions of many of these games, including Call of Cthulhu, Middle Earth Roleplaying, RuneQuest, and Star Trek. It had published board games such as Apocalypse, Battlecars, Judge Dredd, and Talisman, as well as RPGs of its own in the form of Golden Heroes and Judge Dredd. It had established a chain of its shops and in the form of White Dwarf magazine, had what was the voice of the British roleplaying hobby. So what was it doing in 1985, publishing The Good Games Guide 1 Winter 85-86, what was it, and what was it doing on the shelves of our newsagents?

It was essentially an exercise in marketing, a way to present the games available in the hobby game market, not just to dedicated gamers (such as myself), but also members of the public with an interest in hobby games. This was in the run up to Christmas and thus an attempt to drum up interest from the general public rather than the readers of White Dwarf. It provided reviews and overviews of the leading RPGs within each genre with a  particular focus, of course, on Games Workshop titles. So we have a discussion of Dungeons & Dragons, both Basic Dungeons & Dragons and Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, as well as a look at the various modules and supplements then available. Remembering that this was 1985, there are some interesting comments in this overview. For example, the then new Advanced Dungeons & Dragons rulebook, Unearthed Arcana is described as “...a sign of the future.” There is a certain irony to the statement given how that supplement is held in such poor regard. Of Oriental Adventures, it says, “Whether this marks the beginning of a new phase of the game’s development, with ‘culture books’ for different types and periods of fantasy remains to be seen.” Perhaps the nearest that Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, Second Edition got to these would be seven years later with the Historical Reference series that began with HR1 Vikings Campaign Sourcebook.

There are similar examinations of Middle-Earth Role Playing and of Avalon Hill’s RuneQuest III, but both less critical than that of the overview of Dungeons & Dragons. Shorter reviews follow of the fantasy RPGs and settings then available, such as Elfquest and Conan: The Roleplaying Game and Thieves’ World and Hârn. Similar treatments follow for Call of Cthulhu and other horror RPGs; Star Trek, Traveller, and other Science Fiction RPGs; the James Bond 007  and Golden Heroes RPGs and similar heroic RPGs, and so on. Shorter articles race through subjects as diverse as solo adventure gamebooks, miniatures and painting, fantasy board games (all described as American classics), Steve Jackson Games’ titles, and wargames. In addition a full colour insert advertising Games Workshop’s own titles reinforces the role of The Good Games Guide 1 Winter 85-86 as a piece of marketing.

Although it would be the only issue, The Good Games Guide 1 is notable for its inclusion of two scenarios. Their inclusion would have been reason enough for gamers and readers of White Dwarf to purchase it rather than the casual gamer and the interested gamer that the magazine was really aimed at. The first of the scenarios is ‘The Web of Eldaw’ by Rick Priestly. It is notable because according to Graeme Davis, it was the first mention anywhere of Warhammer Role Play, the game that would become Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay as well as being the first scenario written for it. The scenario is also written and comes with stats, for use with 2nd edition Warhammer Fantasy Battle, so this would have been at a time when there was still some crossover over between the RPG and the miniatures rules and before the RPG became Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay and took the well-known direction it did with The Enemy Within Campaign, that is, a Moorcock-influenced fight against Chaos. The adventure itself is a dungeon, set in the rarely visited Albion—outside of the miniatures game that isand concerns the attempts of a young prince to reclaim the family throne following a recent coup. The scenario has Shakespearean undertones with hints of both Hamlet and Macbeth to it, especially in its four pre-generated characters. It is their motivations that drive the adventure and have the potential to make it much more interesting than the traditional dungeon bash. ‘The Web of Eldaw’ can be read here.

The second of the scenarios is Marcus L Rowland’s ‘Underground’, written for use with Call of Cthulhu, Third Edition. This is set in 1942 in wartime England with the investigators on leave and staying with an old colleague, Julian Hammond at his home in the scenario’s unnamed village. His wife is worried about her husband’s odd behaviour, sleeping during the day and being out at night, despite having resigned from the Home Guard on the grounds of illness. Not that he is ill… What exactly is Julian Hammond up to? ‘Underground’ is a straightforward if dangerous scenarioon two counts. First, Hammond is a member of the GHQ Auxiliary Units, the ‘stay behind’ guerilla cells set up in absolute secrecy that would carry out acts of resistance in the event of the Nazi invasion of England. This means that Hammond and the fellow members of his cell have access to considerable firepower. Worse, Hammond and his fellow cell members have fallen under the influence of the spirits of eighteenth century wizards bent on returning from the grave and sapping the men’s Sanity by teaching them of the Cthulhu Mythos. The latter is arguably overdone and the scenario is likely to end in a bloody and violent firefight. Nevertheless, this is a nicely detailed scenario with plenty of period feel to it. 

‘Underground’ is unique for being the first scenario for Call of Cthulhu set during World War 2 and thus a further innovation from Marcus L Rowland following his development of Call of Cthulhu for the modern day with On the Trail of the Loathsome Slime and its forebears. These days Lovecraftian investigative roleplaying during World War 2 is more than ably supported with two settingsAchtung! Cthulhu from Modiphius Entertainment and World War Cthulhu from Cubicle Seven Entertainment, and ‘Underground’ would work in either setting.

Physically, The Good Games Guide 1 Winter 85-86 feels very much like the White Dwarf magazines of the time. This is no surprise given that it was assembled by the same team, but it feels slightly rushed, even tired. Otherwise, it needs another edit.

To assess The Good Games Guide 1 Winter 85-86 as anything more than an obscure  piece of gaming hobby frippery would be to do it more justice than it deserves. Nevertheless, the inclusion of its two scenarios, both of which made notable debuts in their own way in its pages, make it of  interest to players and collectors of two leading roleplaying games. Beyond that, The Good Games Guide 1 Winter 85-86 captures some of the state and some of the views of the British gaming hobby in late 1985.


With thanks to Andy Hopwood of Hopwood Games for the loan of his copy of The Good Games Guide 1. Without his making it available, this review would have appeared much, much later.

Saturday, 1 October 2016

The Call of Cthulhu II Starter

Doors to Darkness: Five Scenarios for Beginning Keepers has the distinction of being the first anthology published by Chaosium, Inc. for Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition not funded via its Kickstarter campaign. As its title suggests, it contains five scenarios designed to be run by those new to being a Keeper in Call of Cthulhu, but it also promises horror, mystery, investigation, ghastly monsters, strange magicks, and forgotten secrets. The five scenarios are designed to be challenging, but not necessarily lethal, and to introduce concepts core to Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition through example and play. To that end, each scenario includes especially marked sections of advice for the Keeper on everything from research and player character motivation to staging advice and handling both mystery and menace. Further, the supplement also comes with a guide to running Call of Cthulhu. Yet as much as the quintet of scenarios in Doors to Darkness are designed to be run and played by those new to Call of Cthulhu, they are also suitable to be played by those new to Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition, but who have plenty—sometimes decades—of play with the previous editions under their belt.

Doors to Darkness opens with ‘Sharing Nightmares: Tips for Gamemastering and Playing Call of Cthulhu’. Written by Kevin Ross, the veteran designer best known for the scenario ‘Tell me, have you seen the Yellow Sign?’, originally published in the anthology, The Great Old Ones, and most recently seen in the collection Tales of the Crescent City from Golden Goblin Press along with its sequel, ‘Asylum: The Return of the Yellow Sign’. The ten or so pages here gives advice on a diversity of topics, from styles of play and investigator motivation to Lovecraftian plots and atmosphere, via learning the rules and creating and investigating mysteries. This is an excellent introduction to the themes and elements common to the game, nicely building on the Keeper’s advice given in the Keeper Rulebook. It is worth reading by veteran Keepers too, even if just as a refresher, but then further essays might be of use too, covering these and more advanced topics in more detail. (Perhaps therein lies an idea for another supplement?)

All five scenarios in Doors to Darkness are set in the default period for Call of Cthulhu, that is the Jazz Age of the 1920s. They are also set in New England. What this means is that the scenarios can easily be run as part of a campaign set in Lovecraft Country. That said, any of the five scenarios can be updated to the modern day or moved to another location with relative ease.

The first scenario in Doors to Darkness is ‘The Darkness Beneath the Hill’ by Christopher Smith Adair. Set in the rarely visited city of Providence, Rhode Island, the investigators are asked by an old writer friend, Josh Winscott, to come to the house he is renovating. He has discovered a series of tunnels beneath his house and he wants the investigators to come explore them with him. Of course, they lack the equipment necessary to go spelunking, so they decide to come back tomorrow. When they do, Josh Winscott is nowhere to be seen. What has happened to their friend?

‘The Darkness Beneath the Hill’ is simple and straightforward. It is almost too basic—a friend in need, an underground complex to be explored, things in the darkness, and a foe ready to take advantage of the investigators’ curiosity. There is relatively little research for them to do and the main focus of the scenario is the going underground. In some ways, ‘The Darkness Beneath the Hill’ looks and feels looks like a ‘dungeon crawl’, a type of scenario not seen in Call of Cthulhu since The Asylum & Other Tales and Curse of the Chthonians: Four Odysseys Into Deadly Intrigue. Yet the simplicity and the straightforward nature of the scenario does not mean that it is a poor scenario. The plot is well handled and the absence of complexity means that it is both easy to run and easy to play, making it suitable to new players, Keepers, and investigators alike. More interesting though, is the fact that ‘The Darkness Beneath the Hill’ harks back to an older style of scenario, much like that found in The Cthulhu Companion, and it feels pleasingly refreshing for all that. In this way, ‘The Darkness Beneath the Hill’ sets the tone for the other four scenarios in Doors in Darkness.

Brian Courtemanche’s ‘Genius Loci’ is the second scenario and revolves around events at the Danvers State Lunatic Asylum. A friend of the investigators, Lawrence ‘Larry’ Croswell, a local author and folklorist, has signed himself into the local asylum to rest and recover from his researches and sends them a letter telling that there is a certain wrongness at Danvers State Lunatic Asylum. This letter though, is followed by another informing them that everything is okay at the hospital. Is there something going on at the facility?

The most obvious thing that a more seasoned Keeper might do with ‘Genius Loci’ is change the identity of the self-institutionalised inmate. Possibly to that of Josh Winscott from ‘The Darkness Beneath the Hill’ or even Jackson Elias if the scenario is run as part of the lead into Masks of Nyarlathotep. Equally, it could be an ex-investigator. After ‘The Darkness Beneath the Hill’, this a much more traditional Call of Cthulhu scenario—there is more investigation involved; there will be consequences for the player characters for their investigative efforts, including several that the Keeper will have fun with; and the antagonists will do their best to hide and deny their outré activities. The result is a much creepier scenario and a more challenging one. Veteran players will probably identify the Mythos culprit with ease, whilst less experienced players may find the experience of not being able act directing against this foe a little frustrating. Nevertheless, this a nicely moody piece that takes advantage of our fears of the asylum and whilst its set-up may have been seen before, this take upon the ‘friend in peril in an asylum’ is anything other than tired or overdone.

‘Servants of the Lake’ by Glynn Owen Barrass is a missing persons case that will probably take just a session to play through. A student at Miskatonic University, James Frazer, has gone missing and his father, a local banker, asks the investigators to try and find them. Following his trail leads them to a motel on a lonely road to Kingsport standing on Squatters Lake. Did James ever stay at the motel and has anyone at the motel seen him? The closed environment of the scenario means that the investigative process involves interaction and stealth rather than strict research. Here the Keeper can have fun roleplaying the various NPCs and the players get to roleplay their investigators a bit more than in the previous two scenarios as this much more of a character piece. There is a sense of the American Gothic to the scenario, particularly in its sense of location that invokes the film Psycho just such a little… 

‘Ties That Bind’ by Tom Lynch marks the return of the head of the late, much lamented Miskatonic River Press to Call of Cthulhu. The investigators—perhaps members of law enforcement, hired private investigators, or journalists in search of a story—are called to the home of Mrs. Enid Carrington, the wife of a wealthy banker, whose latest renovations to her house involved the installation of a very expensive Italian fountain. Unfortunately, someone has vandalised the fountain and left behind strange banana-shaped rocks—like no rocks that anyone has ever seen. Mrs. Carrington, of course, wants the vandals found and the rocks identified.

The truth is that author has not written very many scenarios for Call of Cthulhu and they can be both direct and a bit punchy. Here though, this works because of the back story and the motivation it gives the antagonist. This combined with the reactions of the NPCs and the scenario’s inbuilt schedule actually means that the directness of plot is more appropriate, whilst also being a more sophisticated affair.

The last scenario in the anthology is Brian M. Sammons’ ‘None More Black’. Set in Arkham at the heart of Lovecraft Country, the scenario begins with the recent death of Walter Resnick, a student at Miskatonic University. Formerly diligent and friendly, in the few weeks before his death, he became dismissive and distant, before losing weight and then dying. The investigators might be friends of Resnick’s, local medical examiners, or private investigators hired by his family, all concerned at change in his nature and the nature of his death. What they quickly learn is that Resnick was killed by a new drug known as ‘Black’. The question, what is this new drug and who gave it to him?

‘None More Black’ is again a fairly straightforward scenario, but in dealing with drugs and drug abuse, its subject matter is the most mature in the anthology. It is more overtly combat orientated than the other scenarios and the climax is likely to be deadly and difficult, probably more so than any of the other scenarios in the book.

The supplement itself is rounded out with ten pages of handouts and ten pre-generated investigators. The former are well done, simply being better presented versions of the ones given in each scenario. The pre-generated investigators feel a bit underwritten and veer towards the cliché, but to be fair, this gives room for players to develop their investigators as they wish.

Physically, behind Victor Manuel Leza Moreno’s imposing cover, Doors to Darkness is maturely presented in full colour and is to date, quite possibly the best looking book published for Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition, if not Call of Cthulhu. The artwork is used sparingly and has both the room to breath and illustrate specific points in each scenario—the full page illustrations of the investigators and others in peril are particularly effective in their horror. There are certainly several pieces here that worth showing to the players during their play of the scenarios in this anthology. The cartography by Dean Engelhardt also good, some of it aping the early years of Call of Cthulhu with its ‘Old School’ feel. One minor point in terms of organisation is that almost every scenario has an Appendix A, in each case, its only appendix. This sets up a situation where the book has multiple Appendix A’s. Nevertheless, Doors to Darkness is a very handsome book.

As one scenario follows another in Doors to Darkness there is a progression in terms of complexity. So one scenario begins by introducing the basic concepts behind Call of Cthulhu and Lovecraftian investigative horror, the next introduces more complex investigation and human involvement, the next deals with a Mythos god more directly, whilst another introduces greater human involvement or a programmed plot and so on. As this complexity increases, it feels as if the scenarios in Doors to Darkness are introducing players and Keepers alike to the standard conventions and tropes of Lovecraftian investigative horror and that is no bad thing. In doing so, the collection harks back to the early days of Call of Cthulhu, but brings a freshness to them that comes from examining them through the new rules.

Doors to Darkness: Five Scenarios for Beginning Keepers is exactly the book that Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition needs. The scenarios it presents are not necessarily better than those given in the Keeper Rulebook, but they are better introductions and they are better supported with advice and suggestions. They present situations that are challenging, but not difficult to play or run, and as much as they introduce the game, they still represent a challenge that the experienced Call of Cthulhu player can also enjoy. In revivifying the standard conventions of Lovecraftian investigative horror, Doors to Darkness: Five Scenarios for Beginning Keepers manages to feel old fashioned and new at the same time.

Friday, 30 September 2016

Slügs ain't what they used to be

In past years, Lamentations of the Flame Princess, the Finnish-based publisher of Lamentations of the Flame Princess Weird Fantasy Roleplay has, for Free RPG Day [http://www.freerpgday.com/], offered a complete mini-campaign with Better than Any Man and a shorter scenario in the form of The Doom Cave of the Crystal-Headed Children. The aim with both was to provide support for Lamentations of the Flame Princess Weird Fantasy Roleplay that the fans of the game would want and enjoy rather than a set of QuickStart Rules best suited for new players. Which makes sense since the tone and maturity of subject matter often means that Lamentations of the Flame Princess Weird Fantasy Roleplay is not an RPG intended for those new to RPGs anyway. For Free RPG Day 2016, James Raggi IV went even further by offering a ‘sluggery’.

Well, what Raggi—with an addition from Kelvin Green—actually offers is Slügs!, a gastropodic molluscular bestiary of truly tremendous proportions. Or rather the slugs of the title—all sixteen of them—are of tremendous proportions, because the umlaut or ‘¨’ above the ‘u’ in Slügs! stands for nothing less than ‘giant’ as in giant slugs. All are variations upon a theme, or rather themes on a Slüg, from Acid Slüg and Breakfast Slüg to Swiss Army Slüg and Vomit Slüg. A great many of the applied themes are pop culture references that Raggi twists, so the Breakfast Slüg is inspired by the tee shirts that show breakfast cereal packets themed an intellectual property, for example, Iron Bran or Baggins’ Frodos, whilst the Slügatron is actually an alien in disguise that can transform between Slüg and a blocky humanoid form. The Slügatron even comes with his own giant blaster rifle. Just remember not to ask where the yummy nuggets of breakfasty goodness that swim enticingly in the bowl of ‘milk’ that sits in the Breakfast Slüg’s back, come from. 

What is interesting about any one of the entries in Slügs! is what each Slüg can do and the effects of what it can. So not only can the Doctor Slüg heal you, it gives you the disease in the first place and books you an appointment for when that healing will take place; Hypno Slüg will plant a suggestion that you steal the next boat you see, enter your next battle naked whatever your plans, intentionally trigger the next trap you find, and so on; and the Mentallo Slüg might well help you prevent the Burning of Paris or the Stars from Being Right, but in return you might need to start a war or sell the most lambs at the next market in Dorchester. Without a doubt these Slügs are weird and their effects are weird, and some will change the nature of a campaign and send it off down weird twists. Which is the point. The Slügs! are meant to change things, not merely be slaughtered—and yes, there are rules for killing them with salt. You need an awful lot of salt. Nevertheless, some of the Slügs! are adult in nature and they may well border on the offensive. Certainly there is artwork, however good, that is adult in nature.

Slügs begins with an introduction and an afterword from the author. In the former he thumbs his nose at the industry, as if he were writing as Trump. He also writes as Sanders too, but this is not quite as obvious. It is all a bit silly and all explained in the afterword, wherein the Raggi also philosophises further about his views on gaming and the industry—just a little. At times, the book is funny too and when it is, it alleviates the po-faced silliness of it all—just a little.

So the question is, “Do you need a cornucopia of Slügs!?” Well, the most truthful answer is that you probably do not and even if you did, how many of the sixteen giant gastropods in Slügs! would your campaign benefit from? How many is too many Slügs!? Of course that is only a semi-serious question which befits a semi-serious book that is essentially James Raggi having a joke on the industry about what is or is not suitable support for an RPG as compared to some QuickStart set of rules for some hefty and far from inexpensive RPG in hardback format. And also making the point that content need not be familiar or easy, and can of course, be weird. So the question is, “Do you need a cornucopia of Slügs!?” 

When your campaign is feeling Slüggish, then Slügs! is the only answer.