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

Monday, 19 March 2018

Miskatonic Monday #7: The Knife

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 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 ofthe 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.


NameThe Knife
Publisher: Chaosium, Inc.

Setting: Modern Day
Product: Scenario
What You Get1 MB, 6-page full colour PDF
Elevator Pitch: Murder and possession is knife-tenths of the law in this university town

Plot Hook: The investigators look into a series of bloody murders as a serial killer goes on a heart-stopping killing spree.
Plot Development: Missing hearts & missing blood; copycat ahoy!; possible prequel to ‘Forget Me Not’ from Things We Leave Behind or an investigation for Saucerwatch from Delta Green?

Plot Support: Two NPCs; very straightforward plot.
Production ValuesNeeds a slight edit. Update to Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition of a scenario previously released in 1992 and 1996.


Short one-session scenario 
Easy to run
# Simple plot
# Can be run in the background of a campaign
# Easy to set in the university town of the Keeper's choice
# Experienced Keeper can run and improvise from the page
# Easy to adapt to other periods


# Keeper may need to develop the victims and minor NPCs
No suggestions as what the media might call the killer
# Information could have been organised

No illustrations


# Slight investgative scenario
Investigator involvement underwritten
# Solid one-session/one-night scenario

Sunday, 11 March 2018

Miskatonic Monday #6: The Kirkwood Farmhouse Massacre

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 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 ofthe 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.


NameThe Kirkwood Farmhouse Massacre

Publisher: Chaosium, Inc.
AuthorFred Love

Setting: Modern Day, Dreamlands
Product: Scenario
What You Get4.3 MB, 10-page full colour PDF
Elevator Pitch: Murder expose takes The Haunting to Iowa
—and beyond (via a slippery slope)!

Plot Hook: The investigators are literally investigators—journalists—looking to write an expose of serial killer murders in the 1920s.
Plot Development: Unincorporated towns; ghosts; possible prequel to ‘Forget Me Not’ from Things We Leave Behind or an investigation for Saucerwatch from Delta Green?

Plot Support: Free PDF, The Kirkwood Farmhouse Investigation, provides investigation and context; straightforward plot.
Production ValuesNeeds a slight edit. Hand-drawn maps.


Short scenario 
Easy to run
# Simple plot with few timed events


# Ignores the greater plot and the other villains
Sanity losses too high
# Ignores the journalistic process


# Slight investgative scenario
Greater story left unexplored

Leagues of Mummies

Leagues of Gothic Horror takes Triple Ace Games’ roleplaying game of globetrotting adventure and mystery, Leagues of Adventure: A Rip-Roaring Setting of Exploration and Derring Do into that melodramatic genre full of legends, ghosts, vampires, dark magic, great evils, sinister villains, and even romance—gothic horror! That supplement is further supported by a number of smaller books, each of which explores various aspects of the gothic horror genre in greater in order to bring them to life. The Guide to Mummies is one such volume, expanding upon the information upon certain monsters and threats presented in the night—and more! And just like other titles in the series, such as the Guide to Apparitions, the fact that it is written for use with the Ubiquity roleplaying system means that its contents works with other roleplaying games and settings which use those mechanics, such as Exile Game Studio’s Hollow Earth Expeditions and Clockwork Publishing’s Space: 1889.

Given that our fascination with the Mummy really stems from the discovery and excavation of Tutankhamun’s tomb in the 1920s and Boris Karloff’s portrayal of  Imhotep from the 1932 film, The Mummy—and exacerbated by the more recent 1999 remake—initially it seems slightly out of place to have the Mummy as a monster back in the ‘Mauve Decade’ of the 1890s, which is when Leagues of Adventure and Leagues of Gothic Horror is set. Yet fascination with the Mummy dates to even earlier, with French and British archaeologists finding and excavating tombs throughout the nineteenth century as their nations’ imperial interests extended to Egypt and the recovered artefacts and Mummies being brought back to Europe for display. Further, both Bram Stoker and Conan Doyle wrote stories featuring Mummies—The Jewel of Seven Stars and Lot no. 249 respectively—during or close to this period. So if Leagues of Horror can do vampires, werewolves, ghosts, and more, then why not the not so humble Mummy?

Now from the outset, it should be no surprise that the Guide to Mummies focuses on the Egyptian Mummy, since that monster is essentially what we think of first when it comes to Mummies. It examines their origins in Ancient Egypt, their embalming process, animal Mummies, and the misuse of Mummies for medicinal and other purposes. In terms of game design, it suggests and examines various origins—accidents, curses, magic, and so on—and when you combine this with the list of Mummy motivations such as duty, love, power, and revenge, then the Game Master has a readymade ‘big bad’ generator. They should also provide the basis for the research needed by the globetrotters—the player characters—in order to identify any Mummy antagonist and how to protect themselves from it or destroy it. The various new magical texts given in the supplement, such as Egyptian Magic and The Imhotep Papyrus, may also provide further clues.

Mummies also need tombs. Locating them is also a matter of research, but designing them is the Game Master’s task. The Guide to Mummies gives a guide to their design, including their size, traps—descending stone blocks, pits of spikes, volleys of darts, and so on, and of course, and of course, curses to trigger by a tomb being excavated. So Raiders of the Lost Ark or the Curse of King Tut—take your pick! A selection of Mummy related relics can be used to provide further clues, serve as objects to be found in such tombs or with the Mummies, or serve as MacGuffins.

As to their design, the Guide to Mummies divides Mummies into Greater and Lesser types. The latter are mostly unintelligent servants, the former actually intelligent, whether as supernatural masterminds or servant to some other mastermind. Their form can be skeletal, preserved, incorruptible, or even flesh and blood, but all Mummies have the advantages of not needing to eat, drink, or sleep, not feeling pain, and cannot be stunned. Beyond this, for each Level of the Patron advantage, a Mummy can have an extra Power, such as Body of Dust, Crush, Mesmerise, or Phylactery, to individualise the Mummy.

Of course, the Game Master need not go to such lengths, as the Guide to Mummies provides plenty of examples to use as threats and villains. Although the supplement has mentioned Mummies from South America and Europe—the latter the Bog Bodies, the primary focus of the Guide to Mummies to this point has been the Egyptian Mummy. Here it includes the frozen Mummy as well as the Warrior, the Crusher, the Shambling Corpse, and others. Stats and write-ups for Egyptian threats typical to the genre, animated statues, cobras, are also given, including flesh-eating scarab swarms, for the Game Master who wants to emulate a certain film. To ensure that Mummies do not grow stale, the supplement includes an short essay on making both them and their motivations interesting and thus memorable. The principles are applied to the ten or so major villains and NPCs. These include Aristeides, a former librarian at the Library of Alexandria and fanatical bibliophile who seeks to recover all of the library’s lost works; Rupert Stafford, mediocre archaeologist whose famed discoveries came hand-in-hand with membership of a cult dedicated to He Who Will Arise; and Eztli, an Aztec Mummy released in London who now enjoys a life of frivolity and gaiety, but must feed on a mortal once a month to retain her beauty! These ten or so, in some cases including associated cults, are a ready selection of villains and NPCs around which a Game Master build a scenario or two. After all, Mummies have been known to return!

Physically, the Guide to Mummies is decently written and presented, although some of the artwork is somewhat scratchy. It is short enough to not need an index, although the inclusion of a proper bibliography would not have gone amiss.

Like other entries in this series, the Guide to Mummies feels a little concise in places, but it gets a lot of mileage out of its subject matter and presents ideas and hooks aplenty with which a Game Master can create scenarios and threats. There is content here suitable for any pulp horror roleplaying game, not just the Leagues of Gothic Horror setting, but this greatly expands information about Mummy and enables the Game Master have this monster return again and again to his campaign.

Saturday, 10 March 2018

A Symbaroum Miscellany

To date, the majority of the releases for Symbaroum, the dark fantasy roleplaying game published by Järnringen and in English by Modiphius Entertainment, have been scenario anthologies, such The Copper Crown, the Symbaroum: Gamemaster Screen which included Adventure Pack 1, and Adventure Pack 2. All that changes with the release of the Advanced Player’s Guide, a supplement which greatly expands upon the options for players in the design of their characters; recategorises occupations as well as providing new ones; adds boons and burdens; offers new Races; and even gives away one or two of the secrets to the setting of Symbaroum. As much as the contents of the Advanced Player’s Guide adds to the game, all of it is optional. Not only that, but it is explicitly stated in the book that the contents are optional, which is important because this supplement changes many elements of Symbaroum.

The Advanced Player’s Guide is divided into three sections—The Characters, The Skills, and The Tools, each further divided into various chapters. The Characters sections opens with an expansion of the roleplaying game’s archetypes. In the core rules, there are just three Archetypes—Warrior, Mystic, and Rogue, but this set up the oddity where essentially the Hunter occupation fell under the Rogue Archetype. It felt out of place. Here the Hunter becomes an Archetype of its own, with the Witchhunter and Ranger occupations from the core rules being joined by the Iron Sworn, Bounty Hunter, and Monster Hunter all falling under its category. In addition, the Archetype is given a unique ability, in this case, Hunter’s Instinct, which makes a Hunter better at hitting a target or quarry. It is unlocked and can be selected once a player character has taken three other abilities from those suggested for the Archetype. Of the occupations, the Iron Sworn, who works to maintain the Iron Pact, is actually a Profession. This is actually an advanced occupation, something not available at character creation, but available through play and the expenditure of Experience Points.

The Advanced Player’s Guide does this in turn for the Warrior, the Mystic, and the Rogue. So for the Warrior, the new occupations are the Tattooed Warrior, Rune Smith, and Weapon Master with the Templar, who serves the Church of Prios, and the Wrath Guard, who serves the High Chieftain of the Karvosti, being the Professions. The Mystic has more Professions than new occupations—eleven versus two! The latter are the Symbologist and Troll Singer, whilst the former are the Artifact Crafter, Staff Mage, the White Path of Witches Spiritualist, the Red Path of Witches Blood Wader, Demonologist, the Green Path of Witches Green Weaver, Illusionist, Inquisitor, Mentalist, Necromancer, Pyromancer, and Confessor. The Queen’s Spy and Gentleman Thief are the Professions for the Rogue, whilst its standard occupations are the Former Cultist, Guild Thief, and Sapper.

As much as this opens up the options for characters with the Warrior, the Mystic, and the Rogue Archetypes and now the Hunter Archetype, and is all the more welcome for that, there is an imbalance in terms of Professions for the Mystic Archetype versus those of other Archetypes. Another issue becomes apparent when considering the new Races added in the Advanced Player’s Guide. These are Elves, Abducted Humans, Dwarves, Trolls, and Undead. These are Summer Elves tasked with enforcing the Iron Pact, the agreement which protects the dark secrets of the Davokar forest; Abducted Humans are the children taken by the Elves when they leave Changelings behind and who grow up to serve the Iron Pact; Dwarves value their families above all, including morality and law; Trolls are crafters, singers, and warriors from below the earth who learn through song and challenge; and the Undead are a recent phenomenon, individuals returned from death for reasons unknown. The races are given the same treatment as those in the core rulebook, the section explaining why each member of that race might become an adventurer providing both motivation for the player and a hook for the campaign for the Game Master.

The issue with many of these new character options is that they lend themselves towards learning more of the secrets to the setting of Symbaroum. For example, the Abducted Human would be expected to know of some of these secrets, having spent time with the Elves. Similarly, the Staff Mages, said to be the descendants of the order of warrior monks who protected the last emperor of Symbaroum, and live and train in a castle deep in the Davokar forest, could be expected to know something of the forest’s secrets. Yet as much as the Advanced Player’s Guide is not the book to present such secrets, you almost wish that it did given that so many of the new character options are more deeply embedded in the setting. Even the two new traits, Wisdom of the Ages and Earth Bound, given in the Advanced Player’s Guide which support the strangeness of the Elves and the Dwarves in the setting, do not give any of the setting’s secrets away.

That said, neither the new races new the new Professions are aimed at players new to the setting of Symbaroum. They are instead aimed at players who have some experience of the setting. Certainly, the Professions support this, being something that the players and their characters can aspire to, whereas the new races are better suited for replacement characters. Indeed, the option is given for player characters who are killed in the course of the play to come back as Undead.

Where abilities provide active skills, knowledges, and powers, the new Boons and Burdens provide advantages and disadvantages in social situations and for solving problems rather than doing things in combat. Boons can be purchased using Experience Points during play or a couple selected during character creation for a Novice level or balanced against selecting a Burden or two. Some Burdens can be purchased up to three times. For example, Archivist grants a +1 bonus when researching libraries and archives and can be selected three times. In general, Boons and Burdens help a character flesh out, but it is recommended that a player only take a few so as to not make the character too complex to play.

The Skills section adds thirty or so new abilities, many of which support the new Occupations given earlier in the supplement. Many are only available to certain Archetypes or Professions, for example, Staff Magic for the Staff Mage and Blood Combat for the Wrath Guard. As with the abilities given in the core rules, each is arranged into three ranks, Novice, Adept, and Master. Similarly, two of the supplement’s three new Mystical Traditions—Staff Magic and Troll Singing—are only available to specific Professions. Staff Magic enables a Staff Mage to weave and store magic in his staff, including eventually great ritual like Blood Storm and Quake, whilst the staff also absorbs some of the corruptive effects of learning and casting magic. Troll Singers perform their magic through singing, their hymns often combined with the crushing blows of the great hammers they wield. Symbolists write or paint runes on parchment or in the dirt, weaving magic into the runes to be unleashed later. Initially, the process takes time and only one rune can be stored at a time, but later can learn to write the runes in the air. In addition, the new Powers and Rituals also expand what Mystics can do as well as providing the new Mystic occupations and professions with their spells. Notably, some of the new Rituals are actually higher levels of those already available. For example, Death Lord is the higher level of the Raise Undead ritual known to necromancers, enabling them to summon a blackened skeleton in soot-covered full plate armour to serve as a bodyguard or commander of undead armies. Worse, this Death Lord continues to learn and grow just like a player character would…

The third section, The Tools, is the shortest and provides a miscellany of new rules and equipment. They include alchemical weapons, such as the fire tubes and mines used by Sappers; Feats, heroic actions like Quick Strike and Steely Gaze which cost Experience Points or Corruption to use; and rules for traps and their setting and disarming, earning money between adventures, combat manoeuvres like Careful Aiming and Knock out, taking monster trophies, making pacts with ancient powers, as well as using Hit Locations and character Reputation. Lastly, the equipment covers everything from arms and armour to siege equipment and lesser artefacts—the latter possibly available for sale or to be found, but also can be constructed by Artefact Crafter. 

In amongst the new rules and character options, it should be noted that the Advanced Player’s Guide does include some background information and even some secrets to the background. Of the former, there is mention of monster hunting societies, demonology, siege warfare, and more, whilst the latter discusses the origins of humanity, the links between Goblins, Ogres, and Trolls, and so on. This is in addition to mentions of places beyond Symbaroum. Now none of this gone into in any depth and again, the frustrating feeling of secrets not revealed may be an issue for some. Nevertheless, there are little snippets of information here that will not only intrigue Game Master and player alike, but also serve as possible hooks for a Game Master’s campaign.

As you would expect for the Symbaroum line, the Advanced Player’s Guide is a superb looking book, clean and tidy, but with fantastic artwork which captures the gloom and grit of the lives of the people of the region as well as grandeur of some of its dangers and places. Simply put, the Advanced Player’s Guide is as good a looking book as you would want. A decent index should help the reader everything they need, although a combined index for both this supplement and the core rules would have helped.

The biggest issue with the Advanced Player’s Guide is whether or not a playing group decides to embrace its contents. It adds an enormous amount to the game, expanding greatly what the player characters are, what they can be, and what they can do. The range of options available means that everyone may have almost too much to choose from between Symbaroum Core Rulebook and the Advanced Player’s Guide, and with that range, the roleplaying game itself may lose some of the focus to be found in the core rules and the first few adventures. Further, some character types may not be suitable for every type of scenario or campaign that the Game Master may want to run. The effect of the new rules and options also needs to be gauged when a playing group decides to add them to its campaign. Certainly, some of them, like the Feats, do pull Symbaroum away from its grim and gritty tone, as they add an element of heroism to the game. Similarly, the addition of the new races, especially the Elves and the Dwarves, do push the game towards being like any other fantasy roleplaying game. In their defence though, their treatment here is still grim and they do feel different to approaches taken to them in other roleplaying games. That said, the challenge imparting this difference to the players is one reason why they are advanced options.

Ultimately, everything is optional in the Advanced Player’s Guide. Some of the options are logical, even necessary, such as the recategorisation of the Archetypes, but for the rest, that is very much a matter of choice. The Advanced Player’s Guide provides a wealth of fascinating and fantastic options that expand the game, enabling players to create interesting player characters and the Game Master to create interesting NPCs.

Saturday, 3 March 2018

Lost on the Gods

Published by Apollyon Press, LLC, following a successful Kickstarter campaign, On the Shoulders of Giants is a setting sourcebook for use with Lamentations of the Flame Princess Weird Fantasy Roleplaying and other Old School Rennaisance retroclones. It presents an intriguing setting, four new Classes, associated spell-like abilities, a short bestiary of strange beasts, a location ready for adventure, and more, all illustrated by Scrap Princess, the artist whose artwork has graced the pages of other titles for use with Lamentations of the Flame Princess Weird Fantasy Roleplaying, most notably the Ennie Award winning Veins of the Earth and Deep Carbon Observatory.

The setting for On the Shoulders of Giants is not the body of one dead god, but twelve. In ages past, the twelve gods of the Greek pantheon—Zeus, Hera, Poseidon, Demeter, Athena, Apollo, Artemis, Ares, Aphrodite, Hephaestus, Hermes, and Dionysius—warred against each other over the imperfections they saw in one another, and one by one they died at the hands of their fellow gods until only Apollo lived. In anguish at what he had wrought, Apollo stabbed himself in the heart, and he too, died. Their divine caracasses did not remain inviolate however, and from their bodies were born maggots and as these maggots feed upon the godly flesh, they first formed mannish faces, before transforming into men, each with behaviours and attitudes born of their source flesh.

In time these men learned to make their way on the bodies of these gods. They farm the maggots for food and crafting materials; they draw the gods’ blood from their giant veins and distil, filter, and separate into humours for use in draughts and potions; they extract bone marrow and harden it with fire to make arms and armour; they take god-flesh and smelt it into metal or grind it into a paste; and they seek out the organs of the gods for the untold riches they might hold—although the stomach is known to be home to daemons!

On the Shoulders of Giants offers four Classes—the Conspirator, the Corpse Worker, the Prize Fighter, and the Witchdoctor, each of them quite simple. At each Level, the Conspirator gains Planning Points which he can use in an adventure to modify the results of the twenty-sided die, roll twice for damage and take the best result, and reduce damage taken on a point for point basis. When a Planning Point is spent, the player has to explain what he did before the start of the adventure in order to prepare for such a situation. This is a nice and simple mechanic, allowing a player to add to the narrative. The Corpse Worker extracts vital memories, the four humours, and more from the bodies of the dead gods, supplying Witchdoctors with ingredients for their experiments and more. Corpse Workers are skilled in Climbing and Architecture as well as being hardier and having good Saving Throws.

Prize Fighters are bruising fighters and can withstand the Witchdoctor’s ability to graft limbs more easily than others, but they cannot take much in the way of punishment. Witchdoctors research and conduct Experiments using reagents and ingredients mined from the bodies of the gods. Some thirteen Experiments are described in On the Shoulders of Giants, for example, Bloodletting involves humours being sprinkled on an open vein to actually heal someone (though there is the chance it may inflict more damage); Pick Up the Scent requires the use a nose which will twitch in the direction of the intended quarry; and with Viscous Membrane, a phlegm-coated leather scrap can be turned into an impenetrable barrier for a few rounds. It should be made clear that Experiments are not spells, but rather vile tests and procedures using godly ingredients.

By default the only available Race in On the Shoulders of Giants is the Human-like men transformed from maggots born of bodies of dead gods. It is suggested that depending on what body a maggot was born from, certain residues might carry over and influence certain attitudes and behaviours. For example, someone born of Artemis would know great precision and accuracy, but have skin possessing a silvery sheen, whilst those born of Hera are loyal to a fault, but wrathful when betrayed. Oddly, there are no bonuses or penalties provided for these, especially when it would have been easy for the author to provide them. Indeed, the Game Master can easily create them himself. For example, a man born of Hermes, who values and takes great pride in physical prowess, might gain a +1 bonus to physical actions, but a -2 reaction towards anyone who does not.

A few monsters are detailed in On the Shoulders of Giants, such as the stomach-born acidic Daemons who slide out of the noses of the gods to offer binding contracts which exchange baubles and trinkets in return for men’s souls; Flesh-eaters are men who have been transformed into mindless husks after having consumed far too much god-flesh, but who can recover if allowed to gorge on adequate food for days and days—some cults force initiates to undergo this process to prove their devotion; and Sky Squids, tentacular creatures that will convey those who ride inside them to the body of another random god. This is in addition to a set of tables for creating random monsters. In terms of specific settings, the supplement describes ‘The Gray Pools’, an adventure outline. A Gray Pool is a site where a god’s brains have seeped to the surface through his shattered skull, the liquid having a variety of results when consumed, including psychic powers. An NPC or two who possess an interest in controlling such sites are also described as are some adventure ideas. Rounding out On the Shoulders of Giants are appendices providing a bibliography, conversion of the four Classes to The Black Hack, the Maggot Farmer as an NPC Class, and a table of names.

Physically, On the Shoulders of Giants is decently produced, a somewhat thin, if sturdy hardback. The writing is decent, but the artwork is fetchingly grimy and menacing.

Now the idea of adventurers plundering the body of dead gods is nothing new. After all, Malhavoc Press published a supplement devoted to it for use with Dungeons & Dragons, Third Edition in 2002, called Requiem for a God. But living on the gods and mining them is an interesting idea and suggests possibilities aplenty. Unfortunately, as intriguing a setting as presented in On the Shoulders of Giants actually is, the supplement fails to do two fundamental things. First, it fails to  answer some very basic questions. Who lives on the bodies of the twelve gods, what peoples, what towns, and so on? What do they do? Where are the bodies of the twelve gods located? How can outsiders get there—a possibility suggested in the text? What do adventurers—or the player characters—do on the bodies of the twelve gods? Second, it sets up some interesting facts and then utterly fails to support them. So if the Conspirator is the brains behind daring heists and organisations, then what heists and what is he stealing, and what organisations? Where does the Prize Fighter fight and what for? If some cults force feed initiates godflesh, what are these cults and what do they want? And more importantly, where is the rest of On the Shoulders of Giants with these answers?

As it stands, this supplement is incomplete or unfinished. Either way, as much as a setting based on the dead bodies of the Greek gods is rife with possibilities, On the Shoulders of Giants fails to flesh out its setting, leaving the Game Master to do the development work and answer some very basic questions that the author should have done. It is a book of ideas rather than the setting it should have been.

Friday, 2 March 2018

Dracula Goes West

Dracula’s America: Shadows of the West: A Wargame is a new set of rules from Osprey Publishing. They work on three levels. The first is as a set of rules for handling skirmish conflicts in the Old West. The second is as set of rules for handling campaigns involving such skirmishes. The third is as a campaign setting which brings elements of the supernatural and the gothic to the Wild West. As with the publisher’s Frostgrave, the buy-in for this game is no more than ten figures per side, and as with Frostgrave, players are free to use the miniatures of their choice, though Northstar Miniatures manufactures the official range of miniatures. The likelihood is that the official miniatures will be worth obtaining once the players decide to add the supernatural elements of Dracula’s America to their games. In addition, players will need to provide whatever scenery they want to play as well as six each of six-sided, eight-sided, and ten-sided dice, along with various tokens to indicate various statuses and a deck of cards for each player. A good playing surface, roughly equal to the size of a kitchen table will also be required.

Each player in Shadows of the West controls a Posse of between six and ten figures, typically led by a Boss. Each figure is armed with the weapons it carries and is either a Novice, a Veteran, or a Hero. This determines the dice type a player rolls for each type, six-sided for Novices, eight-sided for Veterans, and ten-sided for Heroes—and represents each figure’s Rank of Grit. These dice are rolled in various tests, including disengaging from combat, shooting, fighting, and saving against hits. A success in any test is counted as a result of five or more on each die, though modifiers can adjust the results on each die. Any die which comes up the maximum result allows a player to reroll the result of a failed die (rather than allowing the successful maximum die to be rolled again). Only one success has to be rolled for a figure to succeed in an action, though in combat successful hits can be countered by successful saves. Successful hits which are not stopped will inflict damage—up to two hits will render a figure Shaken, three or four hits will Down a figure, and five or more will remove them from play as a casualty.

Like other Old West or Wild West games, initiative in Shadows of the West is handled through cards rather than dice. On a turn, each player draws a hand of cards from his deck—typically equal to half the number of figures he has in his Posse—and then uses these cards to determine the order in which his figures are activated during the Action Phase. This is a fairly straightforward mechanic and provides the players with the means of better controlling when their Posses act than dice would.

The rules to Shadows of the West are in general and straightforward to understand and play. Besides the basics, they cover maintaining Lookouts, handling Bystanders and NPCs, using dynamite, horses, unexpected events, and so on. The advanced rules also cover building a Posse, choosing a scenario, and setting up the table. To support this, guidelines cover special rules for scenarios and some seven sample scenarios. The latter includes staking claim to particular objectives, grabbing loot, having a straight shootout, and so on. So far, so good, but whilst the core rules to Shadows of the West are not complex by wargaming standards, they are not quite suited for pick and up play by beginning, or at least, younger players. That said, they are not difficult to teach and really only represent a step up or two in terms of complexity when compared to the beginning rules of Frostgrave.

The second level for Shadows of the West, the campaign rules, allow the players to each take a Posse and play multiple scenarios between them, each scenario having the potential for lasting effects beyond its play through. This includes injuries that might leave a member of a Posse with an old wound that will not go away and acquiring experience which they can learn from, either in the form of a new skill or going up a rank in terms of Grit. A Posse also earns income from other activities and may have other encounters, which like the agendas given earlier in the book, add more flavour to the game than is found in the scenarios given earlier in the book. Similarly, a player can hire Hired Guns—Doc, Moonshiner, Preacher, Prospector, and so on—which serve in a Posse, but are not officially part of it. Again, these are slightly more interesting than the options available to the actual members of a Posse, at least until a member gains experience and can roll for Advancement and so gain a skill. Overall the campaign rules add only a limited amount of complexity to the game, but they do add more flavour to Shadows of the West especially once a Posse has played through a few games.

The third level to Shadows of the West is ‘Dracula’s America’ and adds the gothic and the supernatural to the post American Civil War continent of North America. There are two divergent points to this alternate history. One is the arrival of Dracula in the USA in the 1840s and his eventual insinuation into Abraham Lincoln’s cabinet as a military advisor in 1861. The other is a cease-fire called between the North and the South in the aftermath of the battle of Gettysburg in 1863 which eventually turns into a bloody guerilla war rather than all out fights as before. The assassination of Lincoln and his cabinet leaves room for Prince Dracul to first assume control of the North and then be appointed President-for-Life of the United States, forming the so-called ‘Shadow Union’. President Dracul’s Winter Address would attract dark creatures from the Old World to the New World as resistance movements against him are founded—led by General Ulysses S. Grant in the North and by General Robert E. Lee in the South. Across America, Edward Crowley, businessman, philanthropist, and secret Grand Magister of the Crossroads Cult lays an intercontinental railway to begin about the Great Ritual and disrupt the Balance of Nature, but his efforts are disrupted by the Skinwalker Tribes led by the mysterious Shaman known as White Raven. General Jebediah Craine, commanding newly learned secrets of Vodou raises the first Revenants and establishes the Dark Confederacy to attack the North as refugees flee from back East to the West in order to escape Dracula’s terror.

Six factions—essentially organisations around which players can build their Posses—are vying for a ‘better’ America, each capable of fielding powerful and different allies. The Templar-like The Twilight Order has access to blessed arms and ammunition; the Red Hand Coven are thralls of Dracula and the Shadow Coven and are thus supernatural, hard to kill, and can feed on bystanders or or downed Posse members to restore themselves; and the Skinwalker Tribes whose members can sometimes transform into bears or wolves. Some of the Crossroads Cult are Magisters capable of summoning infernal creatures, whilst others are Harbingers of the Abyss; the Congregation is comprised of ex-slaves and Abolitionists opposed to the Dark Confederacy whose members can sometimes be possessed by the Loa; and the Dark Confederacy are necromancers and raise Revenants. In game, these are reflected by two members of each Posse possessing the specific arcane powers of the faction the Posse serves.

In addition to Posse members with faction-related or Arcane powers, a Posse can also include an Arcanist amongst its members. An Arcanist can cast Arcane Powers from Arcane Blast, Bless, and Dispel to Summon, Transfix, and Warding Circle, the casting roll using the same mechanic as combat. Essentially, a player needs to roll a number of successes equal to the casting difficulty of each Arcane Power for the Arcanist to successfully cast it. An Arcanist starts play with three Powers, but can learn more with Advances. The most notable of the Arcane Powers is Summon, for which an Arcanist can summon supernatural creatures such as Hellhound, Seraphim, and Swamp Baka. These are in addition to ‘Unwelcome Guests’, supernatural creatures which might be encountered as a result of a random supernatural event or Supernatural Hired Guns a Posse might employ, like a Maverick Arcanist or Stitch-Doctor.

Physically, Dracula’s America: Shadows of the West: A Wargame is sturdy hardback, well written and nicely illustrated, with both fully painted artwork and photographs of miniatures in play. Reference tables are provided at the back of the book for easy play, but an index would have been a useful addition.

Dracula’s America: Shadows of the West: A Wargame presents an intriguing setting and the idea of fighting vampires and other threats or fighting as vampires and other threats sounds a lot of fun. The mechanics also nicely build up to this idea, taking players step-by-step from one level to the next, giving everything the players would want, at least mechanically. Whilst the rules themselves are solid and playable, easily grasped by anyone with some gaming experience under their belt, where  Dracula’s America: Shadows of the West: A Wargame is really lacking is depth to the background and what the objectives are of each faction. This makes it challenging for players to develop scenarios beyond those given in the book, which it must be said, are a little bland themselves. The random encounters are more flavourful in terms of background. The lack of objectives is perhaps the book’s biggest disappointment because they would really give a drive to the gothic in the Wild West and something to fight for by the various Posses. Overall, Dracula’s America: Shadows of the West: A Wargame provides a solid set of rules, but really needs more background and more detail to bring out its flavour and its promise.

Dice Against Death

Published in 2015 following a successful Kickstarter campaign, Grim Games’ Grim is a push your luck, dice rolling, take that game in the which players must compete against each other in a humorous dice game of Grim’s own design in an attempt to save themselves from a GrimFATE in the AfterRealm. Described as ‘The Exciting Dice Game’ in which your ‘Roll For Your Life’, it is a filler game, designed for between two and six players, aged ten plus, which can be played in approximately fifteen minutes.

The game consists of one-hundred-and-twenty green Grim counters, eighteen red Strike counters, six Grim Scorecards, decks of Grim’s Hand and Grim’s Decision cards, a deck of GrimFATE cards, a green twelve-sided die, and three Grim dice. The latter are six-sided dice, each marked with Grim’s face in red, blue, and green. Both the Grim’s Hand and Grim’s Decision cards are circular in shape, whereas the GrimFATE cards are standard shaped. The Grim’s Hand cards are a way of striking at rival players, whilst the Grim’s Decision cards are optional penalty cards that a player may be forced to take.

The objective for each player in the game is to rid themselves of their green Grim counters, either by passing them to rival players or handing them over to Grim himself. Each turn, a player rolls the Grim dice to generate Grim counters to either turn in or save them up to purchase Grim’s Hand cards. By ridding himself of all of his Grim counters, a player earns the right to go one-on-one with Grim. If the player loses, he restarts play with ten green Grim counters, but if he wins, he gains immortality, wins the game, and all of the other players have to read out their GrimFATE cards as the losers.

At the beginning of the game, each player receives a Grim Scorecard, ten Grim Counters, and a Grim Fate card. The latter is dealt out randomly and kept face down and hidden from everyone until the end of the game—even its owner does not know what his ultimate fate is… The Grim’s Hand cards are placed in easy reach, along with the twelve-sided die.

On his turn, a player rolls the three Grim dice, the colour rolled determining the outcome. A blue Grim face die freezes the die and prevents it from being rerolled; a green Grim face means that the player gains a green token; and a red Grim face means that the player gains a red Strike counter. A player keeps rolling the dice and generating green Grim counters until either he has rolled a green Grim face and decides to stop; rolls three blue Grim face dice and has to stop; or rolls three red Grim face and has to stop and add three green Grim tokens to his total. (Alternatively, he can draw a Grim’s Decision card if they are being included in the game.)

Once a player has either given all of his green Grim counters to Grim or other players, he can duel Grim himself. This involves the duelling player attempting to roll higher then Grim on the twelve-sided die. The duelling players gets three rolls to beat the number rolled by Grim, but the actual number to beat is actually determined by the other players. They in turn, each roll the twelve-sided die, and whomever rolls the highest, sets the target to beat for the duelling player. If the duelling player beats Grim’s number then he wins; if he rolls lower than Grim’s number, he loses; and if the result is a tie, the duel starts all over again.

Physically, Grim is well presented. The card quality is decent, the dice are actually quite nice, and the counters solid. The rules leaflet is perhaps a little underwritten, but the game is easy enough to pick up.

So instead of accumulating resources or tokens, Grim is all about getting rid of them, either to Grim himself or on to other players, the latter via the Grim’s Hand cards. To support that though—as well as the duelling, which sometimes can be against other players rather than Grim if the right Grim’s Hand card is played—the game is all about dice rolling and luck and knowing when to stop rolling (or not). Which all means that Grim is just a very light filler of a game. The game’s mortal theme may not be to everyone’s tastes—some parents might object to it as being unsuitable for younger players, for example—but that said, the treatment of that theme is very superficial. It is by its very nature also humorous, the text of the GrimFATE cards not only be so, but grim too.

One issue with the dice rolling and the randomness is that can prevent player after player from acting and it can stop player after player losing duels with Grim. When this happens, the game will last longer than the suggested fifteen minutes, which for a game as light as this, is perhaps too long a playing time.

Ultimately, Grim is just okay. It is a silly way to pass fifteen minutes before moving on to the more engaging and deeper game of your choice, but nothing more. Which is fine, except there is not really enough in Grim to come back to more than a few times, so even as a filler, Grim is not quite filling enough.