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

Saturday, 31 March 2018

Fanzine Focus X: Echoes From Fomalhaut #01: Beware the Beekeeper!

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

Since 2008 with the publication of Fight On #1, the Old School Renaissance has had its own fanzines. The advantage of the Old School Renaissance is that the various Retroclones draw from the same source and thus one Dungeons & Dragons-style RPG is compatible with another. This means that the contents of one fanzine will compatible with the Retroclone that you already run and play even if not specifically written for it. Labyrinth Lord and Lamentations of the Flame Princess Weird Fantasy Roleplay have proved to be popular choices to base fanzines around, as has Swords & Wizardry. Echoes From Fomalhaut is a fanzine of a different stripe. Published and edited by Gabor Lux, it is a Hungarian fanzine which focuses on ‘Advanced’ fantasy roleplaying games, such as Advanced Dungeons & Dragons and Advanced Labyrinth. It also showcases some of the content from the Hungarian Old School Renaissance roleplaying game, Kazamaták és Kompániák, or ‘Catacombs & Companies’.


Published in March, 2018, Echoes From Fomalhaut #01: Beware the Beekeeper! comes with a dungeon as well as two other adventures and various articles listing things. As mentioned in the editorial, the aim of this inaugural issue is to present ‘good vanilla’, that is, standard fantasy, but with a heart. In ‘The Rules of the Game’ though, it sets out the parameters of its fantasy—NPCs of Fifth Level and above are rare, as are spells above Fifth Level, magical items are limited to +3, Experience Points for treasure are gained through hedonistic expenditure of said treasure, and after inflicting a killing blow, Fighters can carry damage over.

Having set out its stall, the issue leaps into its first article, ‘Bazaar of the Bizarre’, a percentile table for determining who is selling what, what they are like, and what complications they might bring. It is followed by ‘Caravan Goods’, a thumbnail guide to merchant caravans. Both are sort of filler articles, nothing really new, but decent enough spurs for the Game Master’s imagination. In comparison, ‘Philtres & Dusts’ is much more detailed, listing various alchemical bombs, dusts, and oils, such as the Dust of Mung which when sprinkled on a recently deceased corpse causes them so much agony that they are forced to answer questions or the Dust of Desiccation, which lowers water levels, reduces ponds to puddles, and anyone foolish enough to imbibe or sniff it, into a dried-out husk! There is a dark, sometimes ghoulish quality to all of the various substances described here, each of which should arouse the interest of any player character or NPC with an alchemical bent. If not that, then each is a perfect addition to the list of things to be found in a wizard’s laboratory.

The fourth article is again a short piece. ‘Morale & Men’ by Istvan Boldog-Bernad and Sandor Gebei is a short set of rules from Kazamaták és Kompániák for hiring retainers and soldiers and handling their morale once hired. The rules are straightforward and relatively easy to use and expand.

The three main pieces of writing in Echoes From Fomalhaut #01: Beware the Beekeeper! are in fact, adventures. The first of these is ‘The Singing Caverns’, which is designed for characters of between Second and Fourth Level. The longest entry in the issue, it describes the caverns close to Heartless Hugo’s Keep. Set across two levels, they include an apiary run by mad, sometimes murderous old coot—everyone is told to ‘Beware the Beekeeper!’, a tavern in the caves run by Orcs, where most are welcome if they behave themselves, great oaks that grow out of the caverns and onto the hill, a bandit lair, and more. The dungeon has an odd feel to it, with a mix of quite civilised inhabitants are not necessarily spoiling for a fight with the player characters—hence the Orcs running a tavern, separated by mysterious rooms and passageways. There is far more of the home to these caverns than there is threat, though the inhabitants will protect themselves if they are attacked. The emphasis here then is much more on exploration and interaction rather than combat. One issue with the dungeon is the lack of reason to go there. A few hooks to that end would have helped, although the Game Master should be able to create some of his own. Another issue is that maps are cramped and scrappy, so not always easy to read, especially as they have to show a lot of detail.

The second adventure is ‘Red Mound’. It is quite short, detailing only a handful of locations and it does not suggest a playing Level, but characters of Third and Fourth Level should be suitable. It describes a great stone outcrop in the desert wastelands, a regular stopping point for travellers which is also said to be the tomb of a great hero. Guides and the Red Men of the nearby deserts never ascend beyond the lowest sacrificial chamber, so what lies on the path beyond this? The scenario manages to fit in encounter with dark god who might bestow the ability to summon ‘invisible’ Black Puddings as servants and the discovery of a thrice cursed great sword—all with caveats! This is a good mini-encounter or side trek adventure with a strong Swords & Sorcery feel to it, which would make it suitable for use with North Wind Adventures’ Astonishing Swordsmen & Sorcerers of Hyperborea: A Roleplaying Game of Swords, Sorcery, and Weird Fantasy.

The third and final adventure is ‘The Mysterious Manor’, which again is designed for player characters of between Second and Fourth Level. A shorter encounter than ‘The Singing Caverns’, it describes a tumbledown manor, once the seat of a minor noble family, and the cellar and tombs below. The family has long died out and the building is now the base for the dread pirate captain, Saydir the Kassadian, who has staffed it with monsters of sorts, all of them in his service. The upper areas are where they live and work, whilst below, the original owners have their tombs. This gives the adventure two areas with quite distinct feels to them, one rough and ruined, the other sepulchral and sinister. Certainly, the latter section will challenge any Thief! One inclusion which does seem unnecessary is that of the full write-up of Saydir the Kassadian, since he is an Eighth Level Fighter and can thus outfight any of the characters supposed to be exploring his base. The maps for the manor and the cellar below are easier to read, primarily because there this is less detail to cram in.

Rounding out the issue are some maps for the Game Master to use—sadly better than those used elsewhere in the issue, such as in the scenarios—and an advert. This is notable for being for Helvéczia, a roleplaying game with a Swiss or middle European feel to it. Hopefully this will make it to English language hobby.

Physically, Echoes From Fomalhaut #01: Beware the Beekeeper! is neatly presented, though it does feel rather cramped as if it could have done with a few more pages. It is generally well written with a range of artwork which varies from the amateurish to the professional, plus the odd bit of publicly sourced pieces thrown in. Unfortunately, the amateurish pieces really do not do the content justice, though they do make the maps look decent in comparison. What does let the issue down are the maps, which are often cramped and scrappy, in places difficult to read. It should be noted that the issue also comes with separate, unkeyed city map. This is extra to the fanzine and is essentially a free map on heavy stock paper. It is up to the Game Master to put the map to a good purpose.

Echoes From Fomalhaut #01: Beware the Beekeeper! provides a good mix of material—‘Philtres & Dusts’ is excellent—and the three adventures are all different in tone and content. In setting out to offer ‘good vanilla’, that is, standard fantasy, but with a heart, the issue has certainly achieved that. Problematically, this makes it difficult for this issue of the fanzine difficult to stand out from the crowd and anyone coming to this first issue wanting to read fantasy roleplaying content with a Hungarian flavour is likely to be disappointed. Despite this, Echoes From Fomalhaut #01: Beware the Beekeeper! is an assured first issue whose teething problems will be easy to overcome for the second issue.

Fanzine Focus X: The Undercroft No. 9

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

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

Published in April 2016 by the Melsonian Arts Council, after solely concentrating on the scenario, ‘Something Stinks in Stilton’, for its eighth issue, The Undercroft No. 9 returns to its usual format and mix of content, though with an emphasis on new Classes. The black-covered issue begins with ‘Skinned Moon Daughter – A new class for games in the Great North’ by Benjamin Baugh. It is not so much a ‘Race as Class’, a la Basic Dungeons & Dragons, but a particular individual of a particular gender as Class. This is a Skinned Moon Daughter, who born under the omen of a Skinned Moon, grows up immune to the cold and with a taste for meat of any condition. When she comes of age, her Moon song can summon beasts such as wolves, walruses, and bears, and when one comes, she persuades it to swallow her whole. Inside the warmth of the creature’s belly, the Skinned Moon Daughter controls the beast, its strengths and abilities, but it speaks with her voice and moves with her intelligence. Such beasts can only be occupied for a month before they vomit the Skinned Moon Daughter back up, but she will be able to summon another… This is an interesting Class with varying powers according to the beast ridden. There are also interesting roleplaying opportunities should a Skinned Moon Daughter come to marry. This Class would work well with Frostbitten and Mutilated, the recently released supplement from Lamentations of the Flame Princess.

Barry Blatt offers up ‘101 Uses of a Hanged Man’, drawing upon the seventeenth century belief in the medical efficacy of items such as Dead Man’s Hair, to create charms and potions. Researching the recipes to create these is no simple matter and the article suggests the difficulties involved. There is some good period detail here and although the article is limited in its scope, it can be used as the basis for further recipes of the Referee’s creation. The author’s blog expands upon this article. It is followed by a second new Class in the issue, ‘The Doctor’, designed by Patrick Stuart. Both a natural philosopher and a trained medic, the Class focuses on healing and saving lives, and notably, is forbidden from inflicting lethal damage. As the Doctor gains Levels, he becomes an Intolerant Rationalist, knowing that magic to be explicable and so able to withstand its effects, but unable to benefit from it; a Dangerous Atheist, for whom divine magic works just like arcane magic; a Master Surgeon, capable of conducting surgery on the brain and more despite society’s taboos attached to it; and more… This Class makes a different addition to campaign set in the early modern period—the default period for most Lamentations of the Flame Princess Weird Fantasy Roleplay settings—and comes with some fun roleplaying hooks.

Where ‘The Doctor’ and ‘Skinned Moon Daughter – A new class for games in the Great North’ adds new Classes the game, ‘Everyone is an Adventurer’ by Daniel Sell does away with all Classes, replacing with the singular Adventurer. At each Level, a player selects either Fighting, Learning, or Cunning. This determines the player character’s capabilities as well as lowering their Saving Throws at each Level, so Fighting grants a +1 attack modifier and 1d8 Hit Points; Learning grants two Skill points and 1d6 Hit Points; and Cunning grants two three random spells and 1d6 Hit Points. Spellcasting is based the expenditure of Magic Points. Although this offers scope for customisation and flexibility as a character acquires Levels, the result is likely to feel somewhat flavourless in play.

The last of the new Class options in The Undercroft No. 9 is Edward Lockhart’s ‘Dead Inside – Replacement classes for a world of sadness and pain’. The four Classes given—the Fallen, the Pariah, the Detached, and the Partners in Crime—have all seen too much in their former adventuring lives and are designed to replace the Classes they once had. Such Classes—the Fighter, the Cleric, the Wizard, and so on, are now the province of the NPC. Instead, the four new ones given here sort of map back to the classic four Classes, being degenerate, almost wrung out versions of them. Thus, the Fallen is a Cleric of sorts whose voice can work like the Command spell, use both Wizard and Cleric spells and wands, and whilst they can cast some spells, they can only cast them the once—and once only. How playable these Classes are in the long term is questionable, whereas for a one-shot or two, or even a relatively short campaign they might work. Similarly, they might work as NPC Classes, something that the player characters do not want to aspire to.

Luke Gearing’s ‘The Sickness’ presents the first of the issue’s monsters. A combination of cancerous slime and undulating sexual pox given physical, it invokes severe lust in those it infects. Sadly, such victims become hosts for a similar creature and so the disgusting cycle begins again. The third is contained in ‘Nine Summits and the Matter of Birth – Cosmic disasters and antinatal cults among the island people’ by Ezra Claverie. This is set in the same world as his Crypts of Indormancy, describing how the Sea People, islanders who were once part of a great Elven empire, suffer under an infrequent astronomical conjunction which causes the Generative Authority, a wave of monstrous births to ripple through the Sea People clans. As these both escalate and cascade, the ultimate effect is to unleash kaiju-sized chimeric creatures upon the island. How large and how many is up to the Referee to determine as it is possible to have too many and have them rampage across the islands. Combine this with the mystery of their cause, a cult with hatred of birth, and a race against time to stop the kaiju rampage, and you have a weird ‘atomic-horror, pacific island, giant monster’ style scenario. It will need some development upon the part of the Referee, but is as odd a set-up as you would imagine.

Between these two, there is ‘Cockdicktastrophe – A sexy beast’ which it is not and of which the less said, the better. Written by Chris Lawson, it describes a monster and encounter every ‘inch’ as bad as the title suggests. It is not badly written, but it is awful in it its utter lack of point or use. As a piece of body horror, it is onanism, nothing more, nothing less. Six wasted pages which would have been put to better had they been left blank.

Physically, The Undercroft No. 9 is well presented, cleanly laid out, and the few pieces of art all serve their purpose. It needs a slight edit in places, but that is by-the-by. In terms of content, the issue brims with interesting articles, especially if you like working new Classes into your game. For the most part, these Classes are things you would add to separate games as none of them necessarily work together, and barring the Doctor Class, none of them can be added to an existing campaign without changing aspects of that campaign. With some of them, campaigns can be perhaps built around them instead of their being added to a campaign. Of the monsters, perhaps ‘Nine Summits and the Matter of Birth – Cosmic disasters and antinatal cults among the island people’ is the most involving piece in the fanzine and easily the standout from the three monster-related entries. Overall—and bar the one dreadful article—The Undercroft No. 9 presents plenty of content for the Referee to work with rather than add immediately to his campaign.

Friday, 30 March 2018

Fanzine Focus X: Virtual Ritual Assembly #5

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

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

Published in the Winter of 2015 by Red Moon MedicineVacant Ritual Assembly #5 follows on from the solidly done issue #1issue #2issue #3, and issue #4evoted to both Lamentations of the Flame Princess Weird Fantasy Roleplay and the campaign of the editor, Clint Krause, the issue marks a break for the fanzine as the editor and publisher takes time to work on other projects, most notably, The Driftwood Verses. Indeed, it would be another year before Vacant Ritual Assembly #6 would see publication.

Vacant Ritual Assembly #5 contains just five articles, providing the Game Master with a setting, a new Class, a faith, a disease, and an interview. The setting is Judd Karman’s ‘Koster’s Knob’, a Hobbit shire best known for its pipe weed, the occasional stalwart adventurer, and as a rest home for overworked wizards. It is far from the rural idyll that most Hobbit shires are depicted as, there being a distinct divide in social class between the rich and the wealthy—who live in the Knob, a hill at the centre of the shire and the various farming families and surrounding their lands. Most of the inhabitants of Koster’s Knob possess a strong sense of cynicism, especially with regard to the inhabitants of the Knob, Hobbits who go on adventures and come back, and wizards who come to take a rest. The attitudes of these Hobbits really shine through in this article which includes details of notable NPCs, some encounters, and a guide to ‘Weedwise Wizarding’ and the pipe weed of Koster’s Knob. Besides the samples of different pipe weeds, it adds the Pipe Arts skill, which enables a Wizard who smokes pipe weed to forget spells he has prepared and recover Hit Points in return. Lamentations of the Flame Princess Weird Fantasy Roleplay is  not a fantasy roleplaying game known for its inclusion of Hobbits, but ‘Koster’s Knob’ adds a cynical, almost knowing twist to their treatment and is all the better for it.

‘The Ritualist’, by Kathryn Jenkins, is the new Class. This takes up the idea that magic is illegal, taboo, and dangerous and applies to a variant of Magic-User who has to go to great extremes to both hide and cast his magic. Instead of the traditional spell slots, the Ritualist has access to a limited number of spells and what spells he knows varies from one day to the next, but can cast those spells as often as he likes each day. Unfortunately, doing requires a Ritualist to sell part of his Soul—represented by the permanent loss of Hit Points or Ability points to the greater power he has entered into a pact with. Further spells require the use of rare ingredients—monster bones, gems, herbs, and so—to cast. Accompanied by eight sample spells (the included Wall of Flesh is quite vile), the Ritualist as a Class is designed as a something akin to a witch, scholar, voodoo practitioner, and so, all having to put a lot of effort into casting their magic. It is an interesting concept, especially for the Referee and player who wants to do and roleplay magic differently to the standard ‘fire and forget’ spellcasting of the Magic-User, but here feels underwritten and deserving of greater development.

The fanzine’s editor takes us back to his home campaign with ‘Unholy Inversion of Hope’. This describes the Synod, the dominant monotheist faith in his campaign. It is profoundly anti-magic, so would work very well with the Ritualist. It covers its core beliefs, leadership, major divine beings associated with it—sort of like saints, and its guardians and inquisition, the Templars. There are no stats provided, but then all of this information is given in a couple of pages, and anyway, a Referee should be able to provide these should he need them. This is accompanied by ‘The Sineater Wolves’, which brings Lycanthropy to Lamentations of the Flame Princess Weird Fantasy Roleplay, and of course, gives it a twist. The twist is that the Sineater Wolves is actually a heretical order of monks, which in its desire to cleanse all sin from the world, abandoned the humanity of its members and embraced the curse of Lyncanthropy. Now the order uses the bestial strength of the wolf to confront and battle evil, but this perhaps the aspect of the order and article which is left unexplored. It does include rules for Lycanthropy, a secret or two, and a schism, which is all useful. It just does not fully explore what the order does.

As per usual, Vacant Ritual Assembly #5 is rounded out with an interview of an Old School Renaissance personage of note. This time it is with James Raggi IV, the designer and publisher of Lamentations of the Flame Princess Weird Fantasy Roleplay. Now Raggi has been interviewed lots of times and is probably the most interviewed man in the Old School Renaissance niche, but the interview is light and informative, if a little dated. The latter of course, being due to the much delayed nature of this review. The only complaint would be that the title of the interview, ‘On the Raggi’, is both trite and tasteless.

Physically, Vacant Ritual Assembly #5 well presented, decently written, and comes with some good artwork. The cartography of ‘Koster’s Knob’ is good too. If there is one problem with Vacant Ritual Assembly #5, it is the lack of space. Too many of the articles feel as if they needed a page or two extra and thus room to better develop and present their ideas. This is not to say that the articles in question—‘The Ritualist’ and ‘The Sineater Wolves’ are bad, rather that they have not realised their full potential. Just as with the previous issue, Vacant Ritual Assembly #5 presents a good mix of content, all of which can be added to a campaign with relative ease. Overall, a good selection of material for the Referee to pick and choose from as well as a good point at which to put the fanzine on a hiatus.


Monday, 26 March 2018

Miskatonic Monday #8: The Man Downstairs

Between October 2003 and October 2013, Chaosium, Inc. published a series of books for Call of Cthulhu under the Miskatonic University Library Association brand. Whether a sourcebook, scenario, anthology, or campaign, each was a showcase for their authors—amateur rather than professional, but fans of Call of Cthulhu nonetheless—to put forward their ideas and share them with others. The programme was notable for having launched the writing careers of several authors, but for every Cthulhu InvictusThe PastoresPrimal StateRipples from Carcosa, and Halloween Horror, there was a Five Go Mad in EgyptReturn of the RipperRise of the DeadRise ofthe Dead II: The Raid, and more...

The Miskatonic University Library Association brand is no more, alas, but what we have in its stead is the Miskatonic Repository, based on the same format as the DM’s Guild for Dungeons & Dragons. It is thus, “...a new way for creators to publish and distribute their own original Call of Cthulhu content including scenarios, settings, spells and more...” To support the endeavours of their creators, Chaosium has provided templates and art packs, both free to use, so that the resulting releases can look and feel as professional as possible. To support the efforts of these contributors, Miskatonic Monday is an occasional series of reviews which will in turn examine an item drawn from the far reaches of the Miskatonic Repository.

—oOo—

NameThe Man Downstairs
Publisher: Chaosium, Inc.
Author: Adam Gauntlett

Setting: Jazz Age
Product: Scenario
What You Get2.7 MB, 24-page full colour PDF
Elevator Pitch
What’s the story with the missing storey?

Plot Hook: The investigators are hired to find who the tenant is at 224 Lennox Avenue who has never signed a lease and never paid rent.
Plot Development: A stink, a cold cat, a broken up speakeasy, astraphobia, and four storeys of ordinary Harlem folk.

Plot Support: Sixty plus NPCs; period floorplans; investigation angles neatly organised.
Production ValuesNeeds a slight edit. Lovely period maps and floorplans.

Pros

# Lots of social interaction and roleplay 
Lots of NPCs for the Keeper to roleplay
# Simple, but involving plot
# Adaptible to the Mythos entity of the Keeper’s choice
# NPCs are neatly compartmenatlised
# Companion scenario to Harlem Unbound
# Companion scenario to Tales of the Sleepless City

Cons

Lots of NPCs to keep track of
# Keeper needs to print out floorplans to track who lives where
Potential for investigators to circumvent the investigation
# Only one scenario hook given

Conclusion

# Meaty investgative scenario
Lots of good NPCs
# Strong plot

Saturday, 24 March 2018

Under Middle Eastern Stars

The Third Horizon is both a place—a system of thirty-six star systems—and a wave of colonial expansion and exploration reached through a series of portals built and abandoned long ago by an alien species now known as the Portal Builders. For centuries the Third Horizon has been isolated, all contact having been lost with the First Horizon and the Second Horizon following an interstellar war which ended in the portals being permanently closed to the previous Horizons. In the time that followed, the peoples of the Third Horizon turned inward and became distrustful, contact between worlds declining as their technology regressed. Then mere decades ago, the Zenith arrived. Together with its sister ship, the Nadir, the colony ship Zenith had left Earth centuries before, heading for Aldebaran. Whilst the Nadir disappeared into the Dark Space between stars, to the surprise of both the Zenith’s crew and its passengers, they found the world and those worlds connected to it colonised—explorers from Earth had found the portals and colonised the First Horizon and the Second Horizon and then the Third Horizon in the centuries since the ship had departed Earth. The arrival of the Zenith proved a catalyst for the inhabitants of the Third Horizon as contact was once again re-established with system after system, colony after colony and relations restored. Even as the colonists from the Zenith settled one world and much of the crew cannibalised the Zenith and rebuilt it as the Coriolis, a massive star station where all could come to meet and trade, the arrival of the Zenith divided the inhabitants of the Third Horizon. Those that were there before her arrival are the Firstcome, whilst those aboard the Zenith are the Zenithians. This is perhaps the primary divide between the peoples of the Third Horizon, but there are others, such as how the Nine Icons should be worshipped; distrust of the Humanites, those Humans who have been biosculpted or altered to adapt to the extreme environments of some worlds; and more recently, how to treat the recently arrived Emissaries, faceless aliens who rose from the gas giant Xene who might be spectres from another world, the actual Icons, or the Portal Builders. This is exacerbated by one of the Emissaries claiming to be an Icon! Further, there have been growing reports of people possessing Mystical abilities said to be the province of the Icons themselves—seeing the future or events on other worlds, conjuring pyrotechnics, and more… Are these Mystics a sign of heretical evolution or the meddling of the Emissaries?

The Third Horizon is not dominated by one government, but a council of factions which meets on Coriolis. The factions include the Consortium, the major corporations of the Third Horizon; the Zenithian Hegemony, the descendants of the captains' family aboard the Zenith; the Free League, a union of free traders; the mercenaries of the Legion; the secretive Draconites; the divine iconcrates of the Order of the Pariah; the courtesans, companions, and assassins of Ahlam’s Temple; and the Church of the Icons. Neither the criminal Syndicate nor the nomad fleets of the Nomad Federation have seats at the council, though the Nomad Federation has observer status and the Emissaries have demanded a seat on the council. As  distrust grows and escalates into proxy wars between the factions—and even within the factions—trade continues between worlds, the devout undertake pilgrimages, xeno-archaeologists search for the secrets of the Portal Builders, and there lurks something out there, in the Dark Space. A fear, a rumour, something…

This is the setting for Coriolis: The Third Horizon, a Science Fiction roleplaying originally published by published by Järnringen and since redesigned and re-released by Free League Publishing. Published in English following a successful Kickstarter campaign by Modiphius Entertainment, Coriolis: The Third Horizon is described by its publisher as ‘Arabian Nights in Space’, but its Middle Eastern feel is joined by that of Babylon 5 and Firefly—though the latter with Middle Eastern rather than Chinese influences—amongst other Science Fiction insirations. It is a far future setting in which the old is set against the new—the Firstcome versus the Zenithians; mysticism prevails and the Icons are worshiped by all; and the Dark between the Stars waits as a corruptive force somewhere between the depths of space and civilisation. Faster Than Light travel is impossible, but travel between star systems is achieved through the portals. Even then, this involves extensive calculations—which takes hours and is expensive—and the portals can only be traversed whilst in stasis lest the traveller suffer severe mental trauma. Interstellar travel is not undertaken lightly and is often done in convoys for safety and to keep costs down. Similarly Faster Than Light communication is impossible, so data and stories are carried between systems and then disseminated. Within systems the infonet is easily accessed, but not always trusted. Anti-grav technology is available, but often expensive to maintain. Personal weapons technology amounts to rocket guns, known as Vulcan guns, magnetic accelerator weapons, and thermal weapons which fire slugs of superheated matter, whilst advanced melee weaponry is powered or made of liquid mercurium. Cybernetic implants—body armour, built-in weapons, language modulators, and more—are not uncommon, as are biosculpts, though there are those who believe the human form to be sacrosanct and to alter it would be blasphemous.

Character creation in Coriolis: The Third Horizon begins not with the character, but the group, specifically, the group concept. By default, the player characters are humans, though modified humans or humanites are available. They will own and operate a spaceship, whether as free traders, mercenaries, explorers, agents, or pilgrims. There are further broken down into subconcepts, for example, Corsairs, Rebels, or Tactical Teams for the Mercenaries concept. Each concept suggests roles for the group as a whole and possible roles for the player characters as well a patron and a nemesis for the group. Several suggestions are given as who this patron and this nemesis might be, all of them potential NPCs who will tie the player characters into the setting. The group concept also provides a talent that everyone in the group has access to. There are several to choose from for each concept. For example, ‘Quickest Route’ for the Free Trader concept halves travel time and reduces the number of encounters trip, but earns the Game Master a Darkness Point, whilst with the ‘Assassin’s Guild’ for the Agents concept, players roll their Infiltration skill instead of Melee when attacking an enemy unseen. Each player character will have a role aboard the group’s spaceship.

As to individual characters, some eleven are given—Artist, Data Spider, Fugitive, Negotiator, Operative, Pilot, Preacher, Scientist, Ship Worker, Soldier, and Trailblazer. Each includes three sub-concepts, so for Data Spider there is Analyst, Correspondent, and Data Djinn, and each gives a key attribute and concept skills plus options for dress and appearance, Talents, personal problems, relationships with the other player characters, and begining gear. A character’s upbringing—Plebeian, Stationary, or Privileged—determines how many points a player has to assign to a character’s attributes and skills, as well as his starting reputation and capital. Besides a personal Talent and a group Talent, each character receives a Talent for their favoured Icon. For example, the Messenger’s Talent enables a character to make someone obey them, including both player characters and NPCs without the need to roll the Manipulation skill. Lastly, a character has four Attributes—Strength, Agility, Wits, and Empathy—and a mix of General and Advanced skills. General skills, like Infiltration and Observation, can be used by anyone and can be used by rolling a raw attribute roll if a character lacks the skill. Advanced skills require training and cannot be rolled for unless the character has the skill.

The Mystical Powers also fall under the Talents group, but require a character to have the Mystic Powers skill and make skill rolls in order to use them. They include Clairvoyant, Intuition, and Telekinesis as well as Exorcism, Mind Walker, and Stop. Like many other Talents, their use also awards the Game Master a Darkness Point.

Our sample character is Rufaidah ‘Mule’ Maloof, a deckhand who doubles as the ship’s engineer. A slummer from the Cellar on Coriolis, she had little going for her apart from her fists and that she could work. Work began early, working for Hassan the Scrap, a merchant who dealt in scrap and broken technology, sorting the broken devices and items and readying them for sale. Over time, her fingers found that she could fix some of them and Hassan could sell them, and so she was no longer sorting scrap, but fixing it. He even got her books and she got better and better. In time, she came to see him as an uncle rather than her greedy boss. When her parents were killed by crossfire in a Syndicate war, Hassan not only agreed to take her in, but also demanded that she marry him. Rufaidah took one look at the old man and floored him with a punch. That day, she decided to get out of the Cellar and off Coriolis. She took her books and she shipped out as a deckhand. She has no plans to be anything else.

Rufaidah ‘Mule’ Maloof
Concept: Ship Worker (Deckhand)
Appearance: Pursed lips
Clothing: Leather jacket
Personal Problem: Short fuse
Upbringing: Plebeian
Icon: The Lady of Tears
Reputation: 1

Strength 4 Agility 3 Wits 3 Empathy 3
Hit Points 7 Mind Points 6

General Skills: Force 2, Manipulation 1, Melee Combat 1 
Advanced Skills: Technology 3

Talents: Quickest Route (Free Traders), The Lady of Tear’s Talent, Zero-G Training

Equipment: Vacuum Sealer, Dura Knife, Arrash, Exo-Shell, Hyper Rope

Relationships to the other player characters
Qasim (Scientist) treats you like a skavara
Faridah (Soldier) plots to hurt your best friend. You must find out how.
Esam (Negotiator) is your closest friend. You can talk about anything with each other.
Hanbal (Pilot) is someone you would follow into death, if needed.

Mechanically, Coriolis: The Third Horizon uses the same system as Mutant: Year Zero – Roleplaying at the End of Days, but very much a stripped down version of that system. It employs dice pools of six-sided dice, typically either equal to an attribute plus skill or just an attribute if a player character does not have a skill and the skill is a general skill. Bonus dice may be awarded for use of the right gear and for the situation. All a player has to do is roll results of six on the dice and only one is required for a character to succeed. This is counted as a limited success, but results of two or more success unlock bonus effects which can be purchased using these successes, especially in combat—on the ground or in space. Three or more successes indicate a critical result.

Now if a player does not roll any sixes and the player character fails or needs to roll more successes, then he can pray to the Icons. This allows a player to reroll all dice which did not come six. This can only be done once per skill roll and grants the Game Master a Dark Point. Bonuses to this roll are available if the player character has prayed at a shrine or church beforehand.

Now what is important in these rolls and tests is that they are framed around narrative control. So when a player wants his character to do something, he describes what his character is doing and what he wants to achieve with the roll. If enough successes are rolled and the character succeeds, then the player describes the outcome. Similarly, if the character fails and needs to send a Prayer to the Icons, the player details which Icon the character is making the prayer to and what the prayer consists of.
For example, the Zephira’s Tears is in the Kua System, making a delivery to one of the prospecting stations deep in the system’s asteroid belt. The ship has been jumped by a pirate ship on the prowl out of Surna and taken a hit from an ion cannon. The pirates get a good hit on the Zephira’s Tears and damages the ship’s thrusters. Despite the damage the pilot manages to slip the ship deeper into the asteroid field and go silent. Rufaidah ‘Mule’ Maloof’s player knows that she will have to go out to fix the ship, so tells the Game Master that Rufaidah will pray at the ship’s shrine before undertaking the Extra-Vehicular Activity. If she needs to make a Prayer to the Icons during the task, then the Game Master says that she will grant Rufaidah a +1 bonus.
Rufaidah suits up in her Exo-Suit and makes her way out of the ship and along the hull to the damaged thrusters, toolkit in hand. Her player describes Rufaidah’s action as kneeling down beside the thruster and working to clear the nozzle, so that the ship can maneuvre once again. The Game Master explains that although Rufaidah will not be rolling for whether she can fix the malfunctioning thrusters, but for how long it will take. Rufaidah’s player puts together the pool of dice he will be rolling—Wits and Technology, with a +2 bonus for her advanced toolkit. This gives the player eight dice to roll. He rolls one success. It is enough, but as the pilot begins to test the thrusters, the pirate ship hove into view… The pilot squawks over the radio, “‘Mule’, the pirates! They’ve found us. Get inside now!”
This is a new situation and Rufaidah’s player has to describe her actions and put together a new dice pool. This will be Agility and Force, together with a bonus of +2 for her Zero-G Talent for a total of seven dice. Her action is described as charging across the hull and throwing herself into the airlock, so that the Zephira’s Tears can get under way before the pirate ship can manoeuvre into a firing position. The Game Master agrees, but says that this will require three successes. Rufaidah’s player rolls his seven dice and gets only one success! This is a disaster. Quickly, Rufaidah’s player has her offer up a Prayer to the Icons, the Lady of Tears. He describes this as, “I call upon the judgement of Lady of Tears for my safe passage into the ship so that she may ferry us all to safety.” The Game Master likes this and lets Rufaidah’s player have the +1 bonus from giving prayers in the shrine. Ordinarily, he would have six dice to reroll for making the prayer, having already rolled one success. The prayer brings this up to seven again. Fortunately, he rolls two further successes and Rufaidah is back inside the Zephira’s Tears. Rufaidah’s player narrates this as, “Rufaidah charges over the hull and as the darkness of the pirate ship looms into view, she launches herself into the airlock and slams the outer door shut. She yells into the comlink, ‘I’m in! I’m in! Getting moving. Now!’”
If the player has influence in the game in narrating what his character does and what happens next, then the tool that the Game Master has at her disposal is the Dark Point. Reflecting the influence of the Dark Between the Stars, the Game Master earns these whenever a player character offers a Prayer to the Icons and when certain Talents are used. They can then be spent to allow an NPC to reroll or grab the initiative, force a player character to empty his weapon’s clip or the weapon to suffer a misfire, bringing in reinforcements, up to inflicting a Dark Madness on the player characters.

The rules for combat use the same mechanics to present a fast , if potentially deadly system. Each turn a character has three Action Points to spend on actions. Slow Actions, such as firing an aimed shot or administering first aid require all three Action Points. Normal actions like taking a standard shot or reloading take two, whilst taking a snapshot or diving for cover takes only one. This is in addition to free actions like talking or defending oneself. Spending these Action Points in this way gives a strong narrative flow to the action and the narrative during play.

Where the system becomes deadly is when a player rolls multiple successes as he can use them to buy critical damage effects. Every weapon has a critical effect value, the number of extra successes needed to roll for critical damage, for example, a Vulcan pistol has two, but an Accelerator rifle has one. Any successes leftover can even be spent to increase the severity of the critical effect, allowing a re-roll on the critical damage table. Dislike the critical effect rolled? Then spend and re-roll again and again to get the one you do! Other effects which can be purchased using extra successes include increasing damage, striking fear into a target, raising initiative order, disarming, and grappling.

In melee, a defender gets to react and his player can roll to get successes which will negate the attacker’s successes. In addition, a character can wear armour, which other than taking cover will be their primary means of protection—especially in ranged combat. The deadliness of the system is not assuaged by the armour mechanic, which only stops damage when successes are rolled for its Armour Rating, for example, an Armour Rating of one for a flight suit and four for light armour. Further, characters will only have a few Hit Points, typically five or six, and no more than ten. That said, being reduced to zero Hit Points only puts a character down rather than killing them, it taking a fatal critical hit to do that. Plus of course, the player characters are likely to have access to advanced medicine.
Continuing the previous example, Rufaidah ‘Mule’ Maloof has managed to make her way back into the airlock of the Zephira’s Tears and everyone sat round the table thinks that she is safe. Unfortunately for Rufaidah and his player, the Game Master has a handful of Dark Points in front of her and decides to spend one to bring some reinforcements into play. The pirates sent out an exo-team to board the ship and one of them has managed to reach the airlock just as Rufaidah is about to close and lock it. The pirate reaches in and grasps at Rufaidah, trying to stop her shutting the airlock. Both Rufaidah’s player and the Game Master need to roll initiative on a six-sided die each, but the Game Master states that since this is a surprise attack, so the pirate gets a +2 bonus to the roll. The Game Master rolls 3 and adding two, gets 5. Rufaidah’s player rolls 6!
Rufaidah gets to act and her player decides that Rufaidah will attempt to push the pirate out of the airlock. This will be Close Combat, a Normal Action, whilst her remaining Action Point will used to parry whatever attack the pirate makes. This uses up all three of Rufaidah’s Action Points. His player gets roll five dice for Rufaidah’s Strength and Melee, to which the Game Master allows him to add another two for Rufaidah’s Zero-G Training, so seven dice. The pirate will be defending with a Strength of 3 and Melee of 2. Rufaidah’s player rolls two successes. The Game Master rolls two success and fends off Rufaidah’s push attempt. For the pirate, the Game Master decides that he wants to clear Rufaidah away from the outer airlock dock so that he can climb in. The Game Master rolls three success, but Rufaidah’s player rolls two, cancelling two of the three out. Rufaidah is knocked back and the pirate eases his way into the airlock.
Round two. Rufaidah’s player states that she will draw her dura knife (Fast Action) and attempt to use it to drive the pirate out of the airlock (Normal Action). Again, Rufaidah’s player will have seven dice to roll and comes up with three success! This might not be enough, so Rufaidah will offer up a quick prayer to the Icons, muttering under her breath that a pirate in the airlock is not ensuring a safe journey. Her player rolls the remaining four dice which did not come up a six and gets another two successes for a total of five. The pirate fails to parry and rolls only one success for the armour of his Exo-Shell, so Rufaidah’s player has four. One of these he uses to confirm that Rufaidah hits with her dura blade with another two being used to get a critical strike and a roll on the critical table. He keeps the fourth success in case he needs to increase the severity of the attack and get a reroll on the table. He rolls ‘d66’ and reads each separately rather than adding them. The first roll is 16, which is a bruised lower leg. Rufaidah’s player decides that this is not quite the effect he wants, so he increases its severity and rerolls. This time, the result is 35 or a gouged eye. This stuns the pirate and reduces his Ranged Combat and Observation. Her player describes this as Rufaidah’s dura knife cracking the faceplate of the pirate’s Exo-Shell and the shards peppering his eye. Then says, “Okay. As the pirate stumbles back stunned, I have time to shut the airlock’s outer door and then grab the pirate’s Vuclan rifle. When he comes round, I will be pointing it at him. We have a prisoner!”
As part of setting up the player character group and deciding on the concept, the players also need to decide on what ship they should operate. This primarily consists of selecting a ship to fit the group’s concept, for example, a light or medium freighter for free traders, a flying circus for pilgrims, courier ship for agents, and so on. Then the players get to build it by selecting modules according to its size, including the type of cabins, medlab, weapon systems, and even a chapel, which is where the ship’s crew will worship the Icons. Many of these modules provide bonuses, the Medlab doing so for the Mediurgy skill, as does Chapel for when praying to the Icons and when travelling via the portals. A ship aso gets a problem which the Game Master can activate by spending a Dark Point and three features to further individualise it. Various ready-to-play ships are given in the book, including deckplans.

Although, Coriolis: The Third Horizon is a relatively light game in terms of its mechanics, where it is complex—and understandably so—is in handling space combat. Just like the Star Trek III Starship Combat Roleplaying Game published by FASA for use with its Star Trek roleplaying game and the more recent Ashen Stars from Pelgrane Press, the player characters take positions aboard their ship and then act in the specific five phases of a round in space combat. So in the Order Phase, the captain secretly writes orders which will grant bonuses to subsequent phases, then in the Engineer Phase , the engineer assigns energy to the various systems aboard the ship. In the Pilot Phase, the pilot maneuvres the ship; in the Sensor Phase, the sensor operator attempts to get or break a target lock, launch electronic data or meme attacks, or even operate stealth technology, if the ship has it; and lastly, the gunners get to open fire in the Attack Phase. It is a set of mechanics designed to keep everyone involved and the fact that the ship is also the player characters’ home, enhances this aspect.

A good half of Coriolis: The Third Horizon is devoted to detailing the setting of the Third Horizon. This covers the history of the setting in more depth and the current state of the Third Horizon as well as looking at each of the many factions operating in the region. Not just the major factions like the Zenith Hegemony or the Church of the Icons, but the minor ones too, such as the various intelligence and mercenary agencies, travellers and space caravans, spy nests, and so on. Further, lots of supplementary information accompanies this information, so there are lots of lists of companies, and NPCs, and so on. This continues throughout the descriptions of the culture, everyday life, and faith of the Third Horizon into the lengthy descriptions of the Coriolis Station and the nearby planets of Kua System. Many of these lists amount to no more than names, but they add easy verisimilitude to the setting.

Perhaps the shortest section is devoted to the ‘Beasts and Djinni’ of the setting. It includes some semi-intelligences, the Badger-like scavengers, the Skavara, and the tiny, Lemur-like Ekilibri, for example, most of which are available as player character races should the Game Master allow it. In general though, this is an option and not really the focus of the game. The section also details several threats, such as the Darkmorphs, creatures from the Dark Between the Stars; Constructs, artificial intelligences from the distant past or straight out of the design laboratories; and spirits and sarcofigoi, including Djinn, Bokor, and Hazared—the latter inflicting nightmares on those it possesses and obviously inspired by something...

Advice for the Game Master is brief and to the point. It does highlight how the Dark Between the Stars represents something that nobody can agree on across the Third Horizon, but everyone fears and hopes the Icons will protect them against. There is an existential aspect to this malign something, whatever it is, and perhaps here is where Coriolis: The Third Horizon veers into Cosmic Horror, though this is not explicitly stated. In terms of support for the Game Master, the book includes a mini-adventure, ‘The Statuette of Zhar’, a MacGuffin hunt aboard Coriolis the station, plus a couple of scenario locations which the Game Master can develop into something of her own.

So what is missing? The obvious omission is a guide to names for the inhabitants of the Third Horizon, which would have been helpful for players and Game Master alike. The other omission is a bibliography, a selection of suggested reading and thus inspiration for the Game Master. Some sources are mentioned, but it definitely feels as if there should be more. Although there is an extended example of spaceship combat, it is a pity that there are not examples of extended play or character generation. Also, the scenario is a bit short, just two sessions in length, at the very most. It will certainly leave the Game Master wanting more and of a longer length.

Physically, Coriolis: The Third Horizon needs an edit here and there, but is well written and beautifully presented, with large text boxes placed against a black background. The artwork though, is stunning, very easily imparting the feel of the setting. The cartography is also very good, the deck plans of the Coriolis in particular being nicely done and easily imparting a sense of scale. In addition to the core rules, an Icons Deck is also available, which can be used to foretell the future, create scenario seeds, determine combat initiative, simulate dice rolls, manage your ship crew positions, and more. The range of artwork on the cards is limited, but the deck is a handy tool. 

In drawing from sources other than occidental inspirations, Coriolis: The Third Horizon feels not a little like the roleplaying game, Fading Suns, and the setting of Frank Herbert’s Dune series. Certainly there are parallels in the mysticism present in the setting of the Third Horizon and in the mystic powers also present, but significantly, only just emerging rather than being prevalent. Both settings are rife with factions, just as Coriolis: The Third Horizon is, but unlike in Coriolis: The Third Horizon, there are factions both settings that stand out as good and stand out as bad. Further, Coriolis: The Third Horizon lacks a central ruling figure, an emperor, if you will. Of course, no faction in the roleplaying game is exactly good or exactly bad, which has certain effects on the game. One is that the game feels rather flat, almost monotone in its setting and culture, but delve beneath the surface and the rivalries between and within the factions are rife and thus rich pickings for the Game Master to develop into scenarios and adventures. The other is to avoid the danger of relying on stereotypes when drawing upon another culture to detail the various elements and NPCs of the Third Horizon.

Coriolis: The Third Horizon presents a rich and detailed setting before using its simple mechanics and narrative tools—the group concept, the ship design, relationship to the Icons, player input over their character’s actions and their outcome, and so on—to pull the players and their characters into the setting. It also presents inumerable hooks and descriptions which the Game Master can develop into adventures of her own. Yet as good as the game feels and looks, there remains the issue of the game’s tagline of ‘Arabian Nights in Space’ and just how much it truly lives up to that. Certainly, the setting of the Third Horizon draws deeply from the Middle East for its inspiration and certainly, mysticism and reverence for the spiritual play a large role in the setting in the form of the Icons and some of the creatures described. For all that, it still feels as if there should have been more of these elements present, as if Coriolis: The Third Horizon should have embraced it more, perhaps by making more of it in a scenario. Hopefully, future releases will do so.

Coriolis: The Third Horizon has the potential to be run as space opera with strong cultural and religious aspects, as space opera with cosmic horror with the Dark Between the Stars, and as space opera with Middle Eastern flavour. All of that currently exists in the game and as much as it is decently supported by the simple, elegant mechanics, the Game Master will need to work hard to impart the importance and sense of each to her players. If she can, the rulebook provides plenty of content to work with, though of course supplements and scenarios would be very welcome. Above all, the setting of Coriolis: The Third Horizon is both enjoyably different and very well designed, pulling the reader in to want and go adventure in the Third Horizon.

A Gaslight Precursor

Victorian Adventure was not the first British roleplaying game to be published—that honour falls to Bifrost, but arguably, it was the first to live up to its tag line, “The first ‘Truly British’ role playing game”. Published in 1983, it was the first roleplaying game to address the Victorian Era—Chaosium’s Cthulhu by Gaslight would not be published until 1986 and Steve Jackson Games’ GURPS Horror, which included a chapter on the period, would not appear until 1987. It can certainly be seen as a precursor to Cthulhu by Gaslight, having a similar set-up with ordinary men and women facing mystery and danger, though of course, not necessarily the Mythos. It does touch upon similar elements as the Cthulhu Mythos, but only very briefly and instead draws classic Gothic stories for its very traditional horror. Mechanically, whilst it does use percentiles for its resolution system, Victorian Adventure is more inspired by the complexity of the roleplaying games published by Fantasy Games Unlimited rather the streamlined simplicity of Call of Cthulhu and the Basic RolePlay system. Nevertheless, it can also be seen as a precursor of Cthulhu by Gaslight since according to Stephen Jennison-Smith, the designer of Victorian Adventure, the second edition of the game was to be produced in America by Paranoia Games and William A. Barton, but the deal fell through. William A. Barton, is of course, the designer of Cthulhu by Gaslight.

In just forty-eight pages, Victorian Adventure provides the rules for character generation, action and combat resolution, Spiritualism, and more, supporting it with a timeline, a guide to wages and a price list for goods in both 1837 and 1901, a guide to NPCs and monsters, plus three scenarios. The large yellow, buff-paged book even includes an index—not bad for a forty-eight page book! Given the limited page count, it is no surprise that after a quick introduction to the game and an explanation of what fantasy roleplaying is, and the dice needed to play, Victorian Adventure begins its explanation of character generation—and all that on the first page.

To create a character a player rolls two-sided dice for eight attributes—Physical Strength, Mental Strength, Spiritual Strength, Agility, Health/Physique, Wit/Charm, Countenance, and Education—and adds the results together for each. Physical Hurt Points are derived from Physical Strength and Health/Physique, Build and both Height and Weight from Health/Physique, and Looks from Countenance. Also rolled for are Sibling Rank, Father’s Social Class and whether a character has an occupation of higher or lower social class (which determines the jobs available), Schools Attended, and Marital Status. There are oddities though… For example, women lose Physical Strength if their Physical Strength rolled is higher than twelve, and a character cannot have a difference of more than six between his Physical Strength and his Health/Physique. 

Skill points to be divided between the game’s skills—both ordinary skills and combat skills—are derived from a character’s Mental Strength and Education. Some of the skills do get some base values, mostly a character’s general skills. The assigned skill points are multiplied by ten to give a character’s starting value. There are a couple of oddities to the game’s skills also. For example, it differentiates between Climb and Mountaineering, and it includes Ventriloquism, but not Hypnotism. Also, there is no Psychology skill or Perform skill.

Name: Mrs Betty Wyndham
Class: Middle Class
Occupation: Lady’s Companion (Servant)

Description: A short, rotund woman with greying hair and pince nez. Dressed in dark colours, she is never without her hat or an umbrella
Background History: Margaret Wyndham nee Hayes, is the only daughter of a clergyman who became a lady’s companion. She has never married, although she was engaged to an army captain who was killed in the Second Afghanistan War.

Year of Birth: 1851
Place of Birth: Princes Risborough
Schools Attended: Dame, Charity, and Sunday Schools
Marital Status: Single
Build: Stocky Sex: Female
Height/Weight: 5’ 6”/145 lbs
Looks: Unattractive Gait: Shuffling

Physical Strength 07 Mental Strength 18
Spiritual Strength 19 Agility 03
Health/Physique 14 Wit/Charm 16
Countenance 07 Education 14
Physical Hurt Points 11
Bonus/Penalty to opponent’s P.H.P. —

Skills
Ancient Language: Latin 20%, Dealing 10%, Etiquette 40%, Language: French  30%, Lockpicking 10%, Occult: 10%, Riding 10%, Streetwise 10%

General Skills
G1 English 70%, G2 Search 21%, G3 Observation 40%, G4 Climb  24%, G5 Jump 45%, G6 Grab 03%

Hand-to-Hand Combat Skills
Punch 10%, Head Butt 08%, Kick 05%, Knife 05%, Club 25%, Hand Axe 04%, Spear 04%, Sword 03%, Rapier 01%

Missile/Projectile Combat
Rifle 05%, Shotgun 04%, Pistol 03%, Dagger 02%, Spear 02%, Bow 01%

Character creation is not straightforward and requires a fair bit of arithmetic, a process not helped by the production methods of the day which could not always handle mathematical symbols with any great clarity. The results also feel underpowered in terms of what a character can do, with an average of just eleven points per character to assign to a wide variety of skills. The likelihood is that skills of more than 50% will be uncommon. Likewise, improving a skill is challenging, if not plain hard work. Each time a skill is used, it is improved by 1%, up to 50%. At which point, each time a skill is used, it grants a player a 1% chance of the skill being improved. Alternatively, a player can save these chances, 1% at a time building the chance of a skill being improved until the player wants to roll against this chance. If the roll is successful, points accumulated are lost, but even if the roll is successful, the skill only increases by 1%! It is also possible to raise an attribute in a similar fashion.

As to the actual game mechanics, Victorian Adventure employs a simple percentile system—roll under and succeed. The system, as such, is barely developed and there is no advice as to how and what might modify a skill attempt depending upon the situation. The same can be said of the combat system, which focuses more on a relatively complex initiative order and action system which plays out second by second. The rules do cover most personal combat situations, but they are not clearly written and feel muddled and obtuse. There is a relatively simple system at the heart of the rules presented in Victorian Adventure, but as written, they are a challenge to read and learn.

In terms of background, Victorian Adventure is light on content, the bulk of it essentially comprised of lists. There is a timeline running from 1817 to 1901, a list of inventions year by year, and of wages and prices in both 1837 and 1901. The longest section of background is weirdly specific, being devoted to Spiritualism. It details how modern Spiritualism came about, the divisions—or spheres—of the spirit world, how to contact a spirit and how to hold a seance (it advises not to hold real seances), as well as how to use Spiritualism in the game. There is the possibility that a player character might become a Medium, or at least sensitive, but again the rules are not clear. 

Both this content and the option to become a Medium are problematic. The content is problematic because its specificity unbalances everything else in the book—no other subject is given as detailed a treatment. The option to become a Medium is problematic because it is the only option provided for player characters to be anything other than mundane. Unlike O.P.s, or ‘Other People’, as Victorian  Adventure likes to call its NPCs. In particular, O.P. heroes with high combat skills—combat skills of 90%, that is, skills far in excess of anything a player character can expect to have except after long periods of play. Each of these O.P. heroes—Acrobats, Chinese Boxers, Cowboy, Dare Devils, Duelling Swordsmen, Elite Soldiers, Ring Boxers, and Sleuths—has one or more particular special skills. So a Sleuth has Deduction, a Cowboy has Fast Draw, a Dare Devil has Luck, and a Duelling Swordsman has Swordfence and Swordfence Deflection, and so on. Not only are these skills inaccessible to player characters, they are also double what a player character can expect to have and so are nigh on unbeatable. Ultimately it is difficult to determine what purpose these NPCs serve.

Fortunately, the point of the monsters given is more obvious. Just six are given: the Mummy, the Vampire, the Werewolf, the Zombie, and the Serpent People and the Children of the Serpent People. The latter two entries have, of course, nothing whatsoever to do with the Mythos. Anyway, it would be easy enough for the Game Master to adapt almost any monster to the rough mechanics of Victorian Adventure. Some of these monsters appear in the roleplaying game’s three scenarios. The first is ‘Bane of the Downs’, in which the players characters—on a camping trip no less!—are trapped in a Yorkshire public house, ‘The Wolf & Lamb’, as a werewolf hunts outside. The second, ‘Fish’s Plot’, is much longer and involves a criminal’s plans to carry off a major jewelry heist, but the hook to get the player characters involved will need some work. A problem with the scenario is that it does not start with the hook, but with the first scene, so it reads oddly. Lastly, ‘Lord Farringtons Son’ at first involves a trade in young men being snatched off the streets of London and sent to China as slaves, but then turns out they are being trafficked into the den of a Serpent Man and served up as dinner! Again the problem with the scenario is the lead in, which the Game Master will need to develop in order to get the player characters involved. By the standards of the day, these scenarios are not bad, and arguably they are one of the better features of Victorian Adventure, but they do need development work upon the part of the Game Master. It does not help though that there is no map of London or the United Kingdom to support any of the scenarios.

There is advice as to both play and run the game. There is a guide to roleplaying for both aspects of the game and for the players the pertinant advice is that their characters stick together because their skills are low and stick to the law because so many criminal offences are hanging offences! In fact, the bulk of the very short section on history is devoted to crime and justice. The general advice on creating scenarios is pretty decent in comparison. Rounding out the book is a map of the British Empire and some illustrations of typical period dress, illustrations which are not that dissimilar to those that would later appear in Cthulhu by Gaslight.

Physically, Victorian Adventure is lacklustre. The layout and look of the book is rudimentary and the artwork amateurish. That said, the front cover has a certain charm. The absence of maps of London and the British Isles is a major omission, and even if there is a map of the British Empire, it really lacks sufficient detail to be of great use.

It is no surprise to discover that William A. Barton reviewed Victorian Adventure shortly after its release. In Fantasy Gamer No. 6 (June/July 1984), he wrote “If the Victorian Era holds any interest for you in terms of roleplaying, and you don’t mind having to convert your dollars to British pounds and sending to England to obtain a copy, I think you’ll find much of interest in Victorian Adventure.” The only other review appears to have been in Imagine No 15 (June 1984). Where William A. Barton was positive, Chris Hunter was not. He criticised the social class mix for player characters as being too realistic in that it led to there being too many Lower and Middle Class characters who would not have had the opportunity to adventure whereas Upper Class characters would have. He described the combat system as being “…[N]ot one of the best I have ever seen.”, highlighting the lack of modifiers and weak rules for reloading weapons. Hunter was particularly unhappy with the section on Spiritualism, finding it disturbing and suggesting that the author’s time could have been better spent on finishing the combat rules. In concluding he wrote, “In the game’s favour, it has some interesting background information including a diary of events and inventions, a table of wages and cost of living for each year of Victoria’s reign and a price list for items both at the beginning and the end of the era. However, the poor artwork and the occasional low standard of English do not help a set of rules which in their present state I would not recommend.”

It is tempting to dismiss Victorian Adventure as the first—and apparently only—efforts of an amateur designer. It is certainly no more than that and there is almost no reason to recommend it to anyone who is not a student or collector of roleplaying games, British or otherwise. So what Victorian Adventure really is, some thirty-five years on, is a curio. What makes Victorian Adventure a curio is that it is the first entry in a long line of Victorian Era set roleplaying games. The truth of the matter is that Victorian Adventure would quickly be surpassed by other Victorian Era set roleplaying games—most notably Cthulhu by Gaslight.

—oOo—

With thanks to Jon Hancock for providing access to the review in Fantasy Gamer No. 6.