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Of Gods & Heroes
Publisher: Green Fairy Games
by Alexander L. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 09/18/2014 06:41:37
Earlier this month, the core author and creator of this particular RPG sent me an email and asked me if I reviewed his game. I said sure and now that I’m mostly caught up with the GenCon glut of stuff that comes out every year (I just have to review The Strange and Warhammer: The End Times – Nagash) I’ve had a chance to read through and play a bit of Of Gods & Heroes and I have to say, it’s pretty good.

Like a lot of games, Of Gods & Heroes takes place during the mythological age of B.C.E. Most people will instantly go to Ancient Greece and/or Rome in their heads when they hear this, and yes, much of the games artwork and mechanics examples is from this period. However, of Gods and Heroes is more the GURPS of Myth-genre RPGs as it can be anywhere. DO you want to do a Native American setting? You can. Do you want Norse or Egyptian? The game is flexible enough for this. Do you want to play in Shinto priests in feudal Japan? You can! Of Gods and Heroes is more about the concept of a mythological setting than tying itself down to one specific pantheon. Of course that means games like Weird Wars Rome, Cthulhu Invictus and Mythic Iceland will probably be a better choice if you’re looking for a lot of depth on a specific place and time. For those who want a flexible game that can let you play a campaign in Mayan times and then the next with Innuit folklore, Of Gods & Heroes is a great choice that will only be limited by your imagination and ability to put the source material together yourself. Hey, it’s only 162 pages. You should not go into this game expecting a primer on ancient world religions. That’s just silly.

Speaking of silly, the narrative in Of Gods & Heroes is a bit light hearted compared to a lot of RPGs that can be quite dry to read. Now, this doesn’t mean Of Gods & Heroes is written like HoL, but it does mean that the book reads more like a friend explaining a game to you rather than how a core rulebook usually comes across. So you’ll see the Amazon PC example referred to with her left boob cut off instead of “breast,” NPCs and cannon fodder characters are referred to as “splats” and Thor is called “spanktacular.” This is neither bad nor good, but one of the many ways that Of Gods & Heroes stands out. If you prefer your games a little more somber or stoic, you might not enjoy the narrative style of this book. If however, you’re used to the off the cuff writing style of games like World of Darkness titles, you’ll be pretty at home with the way Of Gods & Heroes is written.

Mechanically, Of Gods & Heroes is a mix of old school Shadowrun and World of Darkness games. All you will use are six sided dice, which makes the game a bit more affordable and easier for newer/casual gamers to try. They should be two different colors though – one color for regular dice and one for prowess dice. Prowess dice come into play with your character concept. Your Prowess is your core descriptor. Hercules would be Strong and thus get Prowess dice for physical actions like wrestling or hucking things. Eagle-eye Jake would have a Prowess of Keen-Eyed, and thus would get Prowess dice for spotting hidden objects, perception, looking for traps and the like. You have a lot of options here, along with an Epithet to flesh out the concept. So Hercules’s Prowess would be Strong and his Epithet would be Mighty (Or Incredible if you are Greg Pak). So why are these dice a different color than the regular ones? Well, for a good reason. When you make a roll (Test), a success is a 5 or a 6. If a Prowess die comes up a 6, you get to roll it again. Now, if they were all the same color, you could point at the six that you rolled and say, “That was my Prowess die!” If you don’t get any successes, you fail at the action and if you get all 1s, you Botch and something bad happens. Botches are exceedingly rare as they all have to be 1s, so feel free to make them spectacular.

Although the dice rolling described above is pretty much the core of the game, there are a lot of mechanics examples with these. So the game is easy to learn, but a bit hard to master. This means GMs will be flipping back and forth through the book for some time until they feel comfortable will all the possible rules for combat, sailing, swimming, poison, starvation, social tests and more. It does feel like a lot when you read through the book for the first time, even though only thirty pages are devoted to the various mechanics in the game. Perhaps it just feels that way because the back of the book has a dozen pages of charts. The game reads a lot more mechanics heavy than it really is. Once you re-read it or play it a bit you’ll see the game is fairly intuitive and flows smoothly.

Character creation is pretty easy. Things are extremely freeform as you pick your personality, Fatal Flaw, Prowess and Epithet. Then you get 25 points to put into skills. Each level of a skill costs a single point, except Rhyme which costs two. Rhyme is one of two types of magic, along with Ritual. Both let you cast different types of spells, but Rhyme is a lot more powerful and off the cuff so it costs double.. Starting characters can only have a maximum rating of 4 in a skill, but as they advancement in-game, they can get higher than that. Finally you pick your Fate (which is essentially your character’s destiny) and you’re done. Character creation shouldn’t take very long at all unless you’re trying to Min/Max which, while possible in Of Gods & Heroes, is a bit silly.

Besides of all of Of Gods & Heroes has a nice section for GMs – which are called Chroniclers in this system. If gives some fine advice on how to gun a game, how to deal with players that go off the rails and how to design adventures. There’s also a mini Monster Menagerie featuring thirty-three different creatures to throw at your PCs. I do think this setting could have used a page or two showing GMs how to make their own creatures, especially at is does feel geared towards younger and/or newer gamers, but even a rookie GM will be able to figure out how to do that after they spend some time reading and running Of Gods & Heroes.

In all, Of Gods & Heroes is a very well made game. It tries to account for every possible situation or rule you might need, while still trying to be a more “rules-lite” style game. Character creation is easy and quick. It even includes a list of 101 story seeds to create your own adventures/epics. It does lack a full starter adventure like a lot of RPGs, which would be of help to newer gamers or those that don’t like to use homebrew adventures, but that’s okay. The $15 price tag is a bit high for a PDF in this day and age, especially when you can get more detailed game with better production values for around the same price. Still, what’s here is pretty good if you are looking for an all-encompassing or generic mythological setting RPG. As mentioned earlier, those that want a more specific and detailed look at a pantheon have several other options to choose from, but Of Gods & Heroes is more about flexibility and an easy to learn system than anything else. I’m usually not a fan of mythological setting RPGs and to be honest, Of Gods & Heroes really wasn’t on my radar before I was asked to review it. That said, mechanically and design-wise Of Gods and Heroes is a well-designed and interesting game. Sure it might not be something I’d play myself, but I can’t deny that gamers who do want to play a game where you are Grecian Demigods or African Tribal Warriors being used as pawns of the gods that you might want to pick up Of Gods & Heroes and see if it fits your needs. I definitely enjoyed it for what it is and I really hope it finds an audience, because it deserves to.

Rating:
[4 of 5 Stars!]
Of Gods & Heroes
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Horror Stories From The Red Room
Publisher: Chaosium
by Alexander L. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 09/08/2014 14:31:42
Originally posted at: http://diehardgamefan.com/2013/11/05/tabletop-review-horror--
stories-from-the-red-room-call-of-cthulhu/

Chaosium Monographs are pieces that are largely edited and laid out by the author(s) in question rather than by the actual employees of the publisher. Because it is generally very hard for a writer to edit or even see their own mistakes, Monographs can be very hit or miss in terms of quality. More often than not, they are filled with typographical, grammatical and editorial errors that would have easily been caught by a different pair of eyes. Now, this is not an across the board condemnation, but rather a generalization. After all, there are some great monographs that have been of a higher quality than some full fledged Call of Cthulhu releases. Just look at Mysteries of Ireland and Children of the Storm. I’d put those up as some of the best monographs, and easily some of the better Chaosium releases, in some time. Unfortunately, Horror Stories From the Red Room is one of those products that gives monographs a bad name, as the adventures are sub-par and the editing is just terrible. I think this is the first Chaosium release in two years that I have to say up front, “Wow, this is a stinker. DO NOT BUY!” to.

You know something has gone horribly wrong the second you go to the table of contents page. Now, the monograph is only 108 pages long, yet the table of contents seems to think this piece is over 150 pages long. “Dear Ladies,” the first adventure in the collection, is the only one listed as starting on the correct page, which is 5. From there on, it goes insane. “Horror Stories From the Red Room” supposedly starts on page 39. It actually starts on page 16. “Northanger Abbey and the Necronomicon” is listed as starting on pages 150-152, and then the next adventure, “Splatter Punks,” is listed as starting on page 154. The final adventure, “Three Maidens of Bingen,” is listed as starting on page 144. Oh my god, how did this get through publishing? There were seven authors on this thing, which implies seven editors, and not a single one noticed how messed up the Table of Contents was? It’s the first thing players and purchasers will see! Unfortunately, I bring up the Table of Contents in great deal because it is a perfect example of how badly done this book is in all respects, with the adventures generally being poorly written and edited with this same lack of regard for quality. I’d actually be ashamed to be one of the authors in this collection, which is sad, because there are some good CoC writers in the mix that simply just half-assed their way through this collection.

The first adventure is “Dear Ladies,” and it’s the best of the bunch. It’s the only one to stick to the original theme of the piece, which is Chaosium’s yearly Halloween offering, and it’s mostly free of errors. I should also add it’s the only adventure any of us found to be any fun to actually play through. “Dear Ladies” is a black comedy about two elderly ladies whose neighborhood feud has gone from petty comments and cruel pranks to a mutual decision to inflict homicide upon the other. One lady decided to just break in and beat the other one down. The second lady decides to use the power of the occult to summon a “demon” from another dimension to commit murder at her behest. A little bit extreme, but hey. This is where the Investigators come in. They’re here for a Halloween party thrown by one of the two women, so they have an alibi when everything goes nutty. Can the players keep both women from fulfilling their murderous desires while keeping a classic Mythos creature at bay? This is definitely a well laid out and potentially amusing adventure, and it’s the crown jewel of the lot. 1 for 1.

The second story is the titular adventure for this piece, “Horror Stories from the Red Room.” Unfortunately, it’s not very well done at all. For example, the piece takes place in a two floor estate, and it provides you with a map of both levels. This is fine in theory, but not in follow through. You see, each room on the map is numbered on the map, but it does not list which room is which. Conversely, the text of the adventure gives a description of each room, but does not correlate to which number on the map they correspond to. Another example of sloppy editing. The adventure is also missing details like the approximate year the adventure takes place (although you can surmise it by reading the text and inferring the author’s intent), and there are some odd decisions, like having the Investigators being paid $20 flat to investigate the history of some paintings and their creator. I have a feeling the author has no idea how long authentication and historical research into little known figures actually takes, as twenty dollars for a group of people to do this would be chicken feed, even in the 1920s. The piece is littered with huge and obvious inaccuracies that a good Keeper can catch and fix before playing, but that should have been the author’s or an editor’s job in the first place. Finally, the adventure relies far too heavily on the idea that the players and/or Keeper have Secrets of San Francisco, and the adventure cannot be played to its potential without it. One of the big cardinal rules of adventure writing is never to make a piece so reliant on a single not core rule book that it can’t be played without it, but that’s the case here. With all the errors in this piece, I’m shocked Chaosium chose it for publication. It’s just bad in all ways across the board, both to read and to sit through. 1 for 2.

Next up is “The Inheritance,” and while it is a fairly standard, paint by numbers haunted house adventure, it’s well written (especially by the standards of this piece). It uses a lot of tropes such as time loops (It felt like I was reading about The 7th Guest at times…), an inability to leave once Investigators have entered the building in question and a ghostly mystery that only the players can solve. Again, all stuff we’ve seen before numerous times, but the adventure is laid out well, organized nicely and it flows properly. It might make a good adventure to start a campaign or to introduce people to Call of Cthulhu, but more experienced players may find it dull and too familiar. 2 for 3.

Our fourth adventure is “His Pleasant Dream Was Shattered” and it’s not very good. The premise is that an eccentric alcoholic millionaire has caused a bit of trouble and may be sent to Arkham Asylum due to what appears to be a tenuous grasp on reality. Investigators are hired to… well, do a lot of crap actually. They have to keep him out of the asylum, keep him from going to jail, break his ties with local mob affiliates and help him confront the root of his once subtle madness. This adventure is just far too busy and all over the place, with tasks that the Investigators have to accomplish. Worse, if the players fail at a single task, the adventure ends in spectacular failure, and that’s just nonsensical. So are some of the solutions to these tasks, one of which involves taking the client, somehow finding family remains that were eaten by ghouls FOUR YEARS AGO, and then killing one of the ghouls whose only offense was being seen by this schmuck and whose pack actually went out of its way not to kill him when they met previously. This is just so stupidly written, and the goals the author has set out to accomplish wouldn’t actually cure the client of his depression, madness, alcoholism and more. For the ghoul goal, why not just show him they are real? Hell, any experienced Cthulhu character would go, “Oh, there are absolutely ghouls in this crypt? Let’s bring some assorted meat based leavings and bargain with them to go somewhere else.” If only, because human on ghoul violence generally turns out very bad for the humans in this game. Randomly murdering something, even a Mythos Creature, that is just doing what comes naturally to it would be a sanity loss in any other adventure, but not here. No, this really needed an editor to straighten out a lot of plot incongruities and issues that are quite obvious just in reading the piece, much less trying to make it playable. This really needed two or three passes by an editing table before being considered fit to print. 2 for 4.

“Northanger Abbey and the Necronomicon” is adventure number five, and it’s in the same vein as the terrible mashups like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters or Wuthering Heights and a Werewolf that were all the rage several years ago and quickly burned out. Not only is this adventure riding on the coattails of an idea that has long since become passé, the author picked yet another Jane Austen novel to mashup with something horrific. If you’re going to ape an idea already done by someone else, why not pick an author from the same time period who has been overlooked? Even the Restoration period! That hasn’t been touched except for Samuel Pepys, who’s diary has already been used in numerous horror and mythos mashups. Edmund Burke, John Locke, Samuel Johnson, John Bunyan, William Blake, Hugh Walpole. Get creative people!

The adventure itself is loosely based on the novel Northanger Abbey, but mashed up with Cthulhu Mythos references like Hastur worship, byakhee summoning, vengeful ghosts from beyond the grave and mind swapping rituals. It’s interesting, but unless you know the book, the adventure loses what little charm it has, and if you or any of your players do know the book, you risk someone nitpicking the adventure to death or complaining about where and how the adventure deviates from the book. It’s kind of a lose-lose situation here, and the adventure is best read rather than played… but then that’s not a good thing to say about an adventure. I will say that the adventure can be a lot of fun if played with a very specific makeup of players and a Keeper that knows his or her Austen in addition to CoC mechanics, but that’s just too niche of a target audience to make this recommended. 2 for 5.

The sixth adventure is “Splatterpunks” or “Splatter Punks.” The name of the adventure changes throughout the monograph, again giving a nod to the terrible editing job in this piece. It’s an outside the box adventure, taxing place in the 1980s, and is a nod to weird horror movies like Ghoulies, Critters, Troll and other films from that era that had somewhat comical monsters wreaking havoc on a town. The adventure feels like it would work better with Chill or Cryptworld mechanics, but that doesn’t make it a bad fit for Call of Cthulhu – merely something that is very different from the norm, and as such, players may dislike it for its lack of anything relating to the usual CoC moods, themes and monsters. Now, while it’s not personally an adventure that would be my first choice (or even my second) to run for Call of Cthulhu, it is very well written, and I appreciate that it eschews all the usual done to death bits of the system and setting. I also had far more fun with this adventure than I thought I would, and this ended up being my second favorite in the collection. I also think this adventure has the best art in the monograph – such as it is.

The adventure involves a bunch of teenagers accidentally summoning a pack of murderous goblins to their town through the arcane ritual of playing a song backwards on a heavy metal album. What do you know – it actually worked! Of course, there is a little more to it than that, but it’s a cute take on classic 80′s urban legend (The only one I was ever able to make a hidden message appear on was by “Weird Al” where it said, “Satan eats Cheese Whiz.”) The investigators are either kids from the town or their usual characters that have the bad luck of passing through once the ritual has been completed. Players then have to try and find a way to send the goblins back to their own dimension, before they burn, pillage and murder everything in the little town. I will say the adventure had some unexpected comic relief, as one of the goblin summoning kids just happened to be named Matt Hardy. The adventure was then filled with constant jokes about his name, ranging from “Fat Hardy” whenever he ate, to people saying “Matt Hardy… WILL NOT DIE!” whenever he escaped a potentially dangerous situation. Note to authors: never name your characters after pro wrestlers, especially in a horror game, as the suspension of disbelief goes out the window entirely and cannot be rebottled. Still, “Splatterpunks” is a more comical adventure than most, so it actually fit the mood the adventure was trying to create. The biggest criticism I have about the piece is it refers to a previously published monograph but doesn’t give its name. Instead it just lists it as “CHA0404.” Most people don’t know a tabletop publication by its internal call letters. Some more bad editing. 3 for 6.

Our last adventure is “Three Maidens of Bingen.” Now, I have a confession to make. I have reviewed well over a thousand products in the past eleven years, and god knows that since I have been writing for and about the gaming industry, I have encountered some truly god awful adventures or video games. Things so bad that, without hyperbole, I have mentioned that I would rather face bodily harm than spend time with that product again AND MEANT IT. While “Three Maidens of Bingen” is far from being that level of awful, it is the first adventure that has ever been so dull, dry and boring that I FELL ASLEEP reading it. I’m a guy that reads extremely dry non-fiction for fun, so you would think I’d be immune to what was the equivalent of “Ben Stein in Ferris Buller’s Day Off” dull, but no. This was such a stinker I literally fell asleep trying to wade through this piece. It also didn’t help that, at twenty pages, this was the LONGEST adventure in the collection as well. Ugh. I’m sure the author isn’t normally this bad. I think he just got overzealous with putting every minute detail he could think of into the adventure, and it just magnified his already dry and dull writing style. Just be warned, if you do buy this, have some caffeine handy. Why am I allergic to caffeine, dammit?

“Three Maidens of Bingen” is for use with Cthulhu Invictus, a campaign setting taking place during the golden age of Rome. Thankfully, the adventure gives you enough information that you don’t actually need the campaign setting books to play through this. Unfortunately, you have to deal with the writing style to get the pertinent information. The crux of the adventure is that river shipping is being blocked, causing commerce to die down and tensions to grow. There are several possible red herrings as to what could be at the root of the problem, from River Pirates to supernatural entities. The players have to find out what is going on and stop it before anarchy reigns. Sadly, the idea is as dull and formulaic as the writing style, but there are some interesting ideas. I think that in the hands of a better writer, this could have been a lot better. Perhaps the author would work better as an idea man rather than a scripter? All in all, this was the worst adventure in the collection, and considering there are some real turkeys in here, that says something. 3 for 7.

So out of seven adventures, only three are any good, and of those three, there is only one that I think would be fun for a large cross section of Call of Cthulhu fans. Horror Stories from the Red Room is a perfect example of how a monograph can go spectacularly wrong. Bad ideas, bad adventures and certainly bad editing litter this piece from beginning to end, and I can safely say this monograph is not only the worst offering from Chaosium in several years, but is something to be avoided unless you foolishly agreed to review it. You know, like me. Save your money and your sanity points, dear readers, and pick up something else instead.

Rating:
[3 of 5 Stars!]
Horror Stories From The Red Room
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Mysteries of Ireland
Publisher: Chaosium
by Alexander L. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 09/08/2014 14:29:19
Originally posted at: http://diehardgamefan.com/2012/08/02/tabletop-review-mysteri-
es-of-ireland-call-of-cthulhu/

Mysteries of Ireland is the latest low-frills Call of Cthulhu publication known as a Monograph. Monographs are CoC supplements, adventures or texts that Chaosium publishes, but has not done any of the art, editing or layout for. Because of this the books can range from extremely high quality like Children of the Storm to subpar offerings like Ghosts in the House, you never know what you are going to get. I decided to pick this up this since I’m a big fan of Cubicle 7′s Cthulhu Britannica line. I have the core book, the Avalon one and Shadows Over Scotland, but I was surprised that they never did one for Ireland. Well, not to worry because now we have one, albeit one by a different writer.

So what do you get in Mysteries or Ireland? Well, you get a wonderfully done and extremely comprehensive look at Ireland from the year 1919 to 1930, two short but nicely done city guides to Dublin and Belfast and finally, three adventures to let your gaming crew experience the beauty and horrific monstrosities that Ireland has to offer.

Ireland is an odd choice for a CoC setting as Lovecraft only ever wrote a single story set in the country. Mysteries of Ireland acknowledges that and as such tries to bend Irish folklore to the Mythos and filling in the blanks rather than adapting Lovecraft into Irish history. It’s very well done and I enjoyed seeing things like Merrow as Irish Deep Ones, Morrigan as an aspect of Shub-Niggurath and so on. Mysteries of Ireland is very thorough in this regard and manages to preserve the Irish folk tales of yore while merging them with Lovecraftia.

Mysteries of Ireland contains a very thorough history on the Emerald Isle for the years ranging from 1919-1930. You’re given a look at post WWI life, the War of Independence from England, a look at the divide between Northern Ireland and the Republic and why it occurred, and so very much more. This book is as informative as it is educational and you’ll come away knowing a lot more about the real Ireland, which in turn, should help you to really flesh out a campaign or adventure set there, even if you’ve never stepped foot in the country.

Besides a general history of the island, you’re also given a ton of information on little things like firearm laws, technology, public houses, celebrities, holiday and even fashions for the era. This is wonderful and the historical bits alone are well worth the cover price. There’s even a comprehensive price guide for just about everything player characters will want to purchase. Whether you’re wanting to know about the old Irish Standing Stones, or how much it costs to send a telegram to the continent, this book has you covered.

Of course, as interesting as information on secret societies, the condition of asylums, ferries across the Atlantic and the like are, you probably want to know what this adds to the Call of Cthulhu game itself? Well, quite a lot actually. The book contains stats for Irish creatures unique to the region, such as Bog Wraiths and Leprechauns. You have two new Occupations for players to try out: Tinkerers (thinking Gypsies, but Irish) and Veterans of the Great War. Both have an interesting skill range and should be fun to try out. Of course there are also the three adventures that come in the book. The first two can be played in a single session while the third is much longer. Let’s take a look at each of them briefly.

“Poitin For Father Moloch” is all about a bootlegging operation gone wrong. What should have been a simple run for some potato based moonshine because an excursion into horror and senseless death. Seems the bootleggers were hiding in a cave that happened to house an ornate statue with a large and near priceless crystal. The bootleggers removed the crystal…which just so happened to belong to the Merrow (Irish Deep Ones) and now they want it back by any means necessary. Can the Investigators save the bootleggers, return the crystal and stem the wraith of the Deep Ones? Well, maybe one or two of the goals… This is a pretty fun adventure that can easily be adapted to a non-Irish setting if needed. It gives you a standard Mythos antagonist and a somewhat generic story, but with some very nice locales and a good deal of information to help the Keeper. This would honestly be a very good first adventure for some players.

“The Demon in St. Niclaus’ Church” in my favorite of the three adventures. It’s a tale that spans centuries and features one of the most gruesome ways to defeat a CoC antagonist yet. It’s not for the faint of heart and although the adventure is more gross and horrific than scary, it’s definitely a highly memorable one. In the 14th Century a group of Franciscan monks sought to summon an angel. What they brought forth instead was something alien with a taste for human flesh. What happens when the creature is set free during a routine bombing during the Irish Civil War? Your gaming group gets to find out. For a more interesting session, perhaps half the players should be Loyalists and the other half IRA, creating an adventure where both warring factions must get along to save lives and sanity alike.

The final adventure in this monograph is “Blood Fruit.” This long adventure doesn’t really feel Lovecraftian, but it is still a very unique and weird one. It involves an Irish island that has a more tropical climate that one would expect for that region of the world. It boasts a legion of ghostly children, fruit with terrible message written on the INSIDE of the skin and a hideous pact with Yig itself. The adventure is probably the hardest to set up as you’ll really have to push your players to want to investigate this mystery. It might be harder for them to figure out just what they have to do to “win” as well as it’s a bit hard to come to without some prodding from the Keeper. Finally, even after players have accomplished their main goal for the adventure, they’ll probably all die horribly Phantasy Star II style. That’s all I can say there.

All in all, Mysteries of Ireland is a great little purchase. You’ll get an amazing source book and three fun adventures, all for less than ten dollars (if you pick up the electronic copy). Sure there are a few typos and editing errors, but there aren’t that many and then, they seem to only be in the adventure. This is a Monograph after all, so it’s not as was done by a highly paid professional. They’re still less errors here than in some recent Shadowrun products I’ve reviewed recently. Honestly the only real turn-off for some Call of Cthulhu fans is that like all Monographs, Mysteries of Ireland is a low-frills product with no real art or production values, especially where compared to the higher budgeted pieces in the “Mysteries of…” line Chaosium has done itself. This is up there with Children of the Storma s one of the best Monographs Chaosium has put out and whether you’re specially looking for more content for a Cthulhu Britannica campaign or you just want a meaty sourcebook to give you ideas for new adventures, Mysteries of Ireland is one Call of Cthulhu book you don’t want to pass up.

Rating:
[5 of 5 Stars!]
Mysteries of Ireland
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The Phantom of Wilson Creek
Publisher: Chaosium
by Alexander L. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 09/08/2014 14:28:31
Originally Published at: http://diehardgamefan.com/2013/01/25/tabletop-review-the-pha-
ntom-of-wilson-creek-call-of-cthulhu/

The Phantom of Wilson Creek is one of Chaosium’s monographs. For those unaware of this imprint, a monograph is where the author, rather than Chaosium does the editing and layouts in addition to the writing. Often times they also do (or hire) the artist themselves as well. Chaosium just does the publishing. This means monographs are a crap shoot in terms of quality. Sometimes you get really good releases like Mysteries of Ireland or Children of the Storm and other times you get sub-par material like The Ghosts in the House. Unfortunately, The Phantom of Wilson Creek is one of the latter. It’s a collection of four adventures set in the same location of rural North Carolina. The problem is none of the adventures are that good and the piece really needed a better editor as the entire book’s flow feels clunky and thus it reads poorly. Still, it’s not the worst monograph I’ve seen Chaosium put out and with a price tag of under fifteen bucks, you are getting four adventures which can form a nice mini campaign for those who like the location and the idea of reusing the same location over and over with their players.

I should point out that only HALF of the monograph is actually adventures. The other half (from page 93 on) involve playtest notes, handouts, spell lists, timelines, maps and roughly FORTY PAGES of pregenerated characters. I appreciate all the ancillary bits put into the monograph, but no one, and I mean no one, needs forty pages of pregenerated characters. It’s basically overkill that just increased the page count and the price point of the monograph. I will say I love the idea of the handouts, but there’s no attempt to make them look like anything more than typewritten words on a page unlike some of the higher quality monographs. As well the maps are something you’re either going to love or hate as they are hand-drawn rather than done by a program like Visio or some other software we tend to see used for map making in tabletop games.

The first twenty-seven pages of the book are background information on the location (Mortimer, North Carolina and the surrounding area) and the Campbell House, where most of the action in the adventures takes place. The background information really helps the Keeper to set the mood of the location as well as the information. There’s a lot of detail here, although the problem is that much of the background information is repeated in EACH of the four adventures, again adding to extra pages (and a higher price cost) and a level of repetition I’ve never seen in an adventure collection before. The author states that they did this so the Keepers wouldn’t have to hunt and peck for information and that they can flip right to what they need. However the way this monograph is laid out, the exact opposite is true. When you are reading the collection your eyes will begin to glaze over as you see the same information for say, the third time. As well, because of the length of this collection, with only about sixty-six pages of the book actually the adventures themselves (less if you discount the repeated pages in each one), you WILL find yourself hunting for the information, especially if you purchase the PDF. You can do a ctrl+F search but then you’ll want to make sure you’re in the right adventure after that. Plus the fact so many pages of this monograph are extras rather than the adventure itself, with the paper version of this book, you’re still flipping through unless you bookmark everything. For any adventure collection where a lot of information is reused, it’s much better (and smarter) to have a centralized location for all common info about the location(s), preferably at the front or very back of the book for easy access. This is just one of the many layout issues that plagues The Phantom of Wilson Creek and makes it as hard to use for adventures as it is to wade through reading-wise. Again, a second or third pair of editing eyes could have made the end product so much better than it turned out.

The first three adventures in the book take you to the old Campbell House. Each adventure occurs a year after the previous one and they are pretty interconnected. However there are two small problems. The first is that the characters in the second and third adventure really need to be the same ones that were in the first adventure (give or take new ones replacing any that have died or gone mad), otherwise they just don’t work very well at all. The second is that reusing the same exact location for three straight adventures can easily lead to a sense of boredom and make for a humdrum experience. It’s the “going back to the well once too often” metaphor and Call of Cthulhu pretty much needs a constant change of locations and enemies for the creep and fear factors to stay where they should be. Otherwise it’s just another encounter with cultists or creepy monsters and much of the atmosphere is lost. Honestly, I’d just stick with the first and fourth adventures in this book if you were going to play any of them. The middle two just aren’t well designed or thought out enough for a quality experience if you were to try and play them on their own. The other two are nicely done, even if they are pretty generic and because they aren’t connected to the same exact location (same region though), you can have one be on the tail end of the other.

The first adventure “The House on Yellow Buck Mountain” is by far the best in the collection, even if it is pretty generic. The Investigators have been brought down to rural North Carolina to take a look at a house that a mutual friend inherited from a very distant relative. In the small community, the Campbell House is considered to be a cursed place and players are going to have to figure out what lurks within the walls of their old friend’s inheritance. Now this is a pretty common plot hook for an adventure. Hell, I’ve used it myself in a CoC adventure I had published in the late 1990s. It’s a trope that works with both the setting and the time period in which the adventure takes place (1925). However, I did raise an eyebrow when I noticed the adventure lifted a bit from “The Haunting/The Haunted House,” which is arguably the most commonly played Call of Cthulhu adventure of them all. The nemesis in that adventure is almost exactly the same as The Haunting, which can be found in every core rulebook and also in the free Quick Start Rules. Why the author didn’t go for a more unique antagonist is beyond me, but it feels more like copying rather than an homage. Don’t worry though, “The House on Yellow Buck Mountain” isn’t a carbon copy of The Haunting; only the monster is. This adventure has its own creepy shenanigans going on, complete with the potential for an Investigator to find himself trapped in a coffin with a corpse six feet below the surface or in a ghoul warren. I’ll let you decide which is the worse fate. The adventure does continue to be a pretty paint by numbers one though, with players making liberal use of the Library Use skill and poking around the house until the cause of the horrors within is revealed, culminating in violence or fleeing into the night. Whichever works. It’s a very paint by numbers piece, but it’s a well done that you should have fun with even if you’ve been through similar trappings several times before.

The second adventure is “Return to Yellow Buck Mountain” and it takes place a year later. It’s really not much of an adventure to be honest. Almost all of the content is recycled from the first one and the adventure hinges completely on what happened with your playthrough on the first. In fact,”Return” really isn’t playable at all if you haven’t done “House,” which is enough to make me give it a thumb’s down. The plot is basically “Something crazy appears to be going on at Campbell House” again and the Investigators are asked to check on things. If you played through the first adventure, “Return” probably won’t last you more than two hours because it’s a very cut and dry plot. If, however, you are using Investigators that didn’t play through the first adventure, they will probably be lost throughout the whole thing and will definitely be unable to capitalize or appreciate the climax. It’s just completely unsatisfying on every level. There’s not enough substance here and it’s going to hard to convince any team of characters to make a yearly outing to a remote backwoods location where they faced certain doom once before.

The third adventure is “The Wizard of Wilson Creek” and yes, once again , you’re going back to Mortimer, NC and the Campbell House. Yet again the hook is, “Thar be strange goings on at the Campbell House.” MOST players will be annoyed at the idea of having to return to the same location for a third time, especially with how anticlimactic the second adventure is. In fact, the author even notes by this point the PCs will want to just burn the Campbell House down – if they haven’t already. Here’s a hint: if your adventure leads to the players wanting to commit arson to call it a day you’ve either a) written a bad adventure or b) gone to the well once too often. In this case, it’s both. I can’t think of too many people that will want to investigate the same location three times in a row with little to no change between each passing in-game year. Hell, I was bored just READING about the same location for the third time. The catch here is that the antagonist is a once friendly NPC in the previous two adventures. So for characters that have had to deal with Campbell House on multiple occasions, there is a bit of pathos here. Not much though, because CoC characters that have survived multiple adventures tend to go, “Oh no. Character X is corrupted by dark insane magick. Welp, better kill ‘em so he doesn’t summon a shoggoth on us.” Characters and players that haven’t played through the previous two Buck Mountain adventures will gain nothing from this. It’s just an NPC being a bad guy instead of a familiar one. Once again, this means this adventure can’t be played on its own and have it remotely be memorable or for players to receive the full impact from it. For those that have spent three straight years going to Yellow Buck Mountain, it’s a dull retread over everything trying to figure out who is the evil psychopath THIS time around. There’s just not enough here to hold anyone’s interest in any way, shape or form. At best “The Wizard of Wilson Creek” is a short and very generic experience featuring a betrayal by an NPC the Investigators know casually and at worst, it’s a dull and bizarre affair that is somewhat nonsensical.

The final adventure in this collection is “The Strange Case of the Brown Mountain Lights” and it’s the second best of the adventures. It can be played whenever and has no actually connection to the first three in this monograph. Thus it can be played on its own. The downside to running this one though is that the Keeper needs to keep careful track of in-game time rather than letting players do what they want when they want. This means that, in the hands of a less experienced Keeper, “The Strange Case of the Brown Mountain Lights” can feel rushed and harried rather than a quality experience. Careful planning and selective prodding of the players is the key to making this adventure work. In this adventure players will be trying to find a lost little boy that wandered off on Brown Mountain. Unfortunately the child is an idiot savant, making its survival unlikely unless he is found quickly. Even more unfortunately is that a clutch of creatures from the Cthulhu Mythos have found the child first and are as perplexed by its unique form of mental retardation as the child is completely unfazed by them. So the Investigators not only have to beat the clock, but somehow get the child away from “his new friends” and deal with humans that work for the creatures and are actively trying to sabotage the search. It’s a complex affair and the adventure really works best in the hands of someone used to running things at conventions and thus can deal with time crunches keeping the players in a linear motion. It’s well written and has a lot of potential and the second best piece in the collection.

So The Phantom of Wilson Creek is a definite thumbs in the middle at best. Only two of the four adventures are worth playing through, and although they are somewhat generic, they are well written and fun to experience. The other two are best left forgotten or read as an example of how NOT to do a mini campaign in a single locale. Half the book consists of ancillary material, some of which is doubled up on from the adventure section itself and not all Keepers will make use of what is provided. The book really needed a better editor (or several of them) as the book just doesn’t flow well at all and there are numerous typographical and formatting errors in addition to full pages that are reprinted for each adventure in a well meaning but ultimately erroneous attempt to make things easier to find. The collection isn’t all bad; it just really needed some outside guidance to keep things on track. As such I can’t really recommend this monograph, especially for the price tag it is saddled with, but The Phantom of Wilson Creek does have its shining moments.

Rating:
[3 of 5 Stars!]
The Phantom of Wilson Creek
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No Salvation for Witches
Publisher: Lamentations of the Flame Princess
by Alexander L. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 09/08/2014 14:26:33
Originally posted on: http://diehardgamefan.com/2014/09/05/tabletop-review-no-salv-
ation-for-witches-lamentations-of-the-flame-princess/

Back in August, Lamentations of the Flame Princess ran an IndieGoGo campaign for an adventure entitled, No Salvation for Witches. You might have seen an interview I did with James Edward Raggi IV and Rafael Chandler about it. The campaign ended on August 25th and ended up raising 8,328 Euros. With 665 backers (so close, I know!) that meant the average was 12,52€ per book. That’s a pretty great when you realize that the project was a “Pay What You Want Campaign,” meaning you could get the book for a single Euro if that is all you wanted to throw the company’s way. Well, the PDF is now out and I’ve been sent a review copy to add to my ever growing horde of digital LOTfP adventures. I have to say I enjoyed NSFW a lot – moreso than Thulian Echoes, but not quite as much as other 2014 LOTfP releases like Scenic Dunnsmouth or The Doom Cave of Crystal Headed Children, but it’s still a fantastic adventure sure to delight longtime fans of Lamentations of the Flame Princess

The adventure’s acronym is NSFW and it’s very fitting. Right off the bat the cover had a naked levitating lady (Okay, she has a sash, but all the naughty bits are visible, which is why this review isn’t show the naughtiest art. It was that or putting the piece behind an age gate. We have so many young Pokémon oriented children that read our site after all). The artwork is fantastic, but there’s a lot of gore and genitals in it, so obviously, this is not the gaming piece you give to seven year old Billy (Or Jack Chick) and say, “This is what tabletop gaming is all about little dude!” As well, the adventure is a very open ended one meaning a DM will have to fill in a lot of blanks, take detailed notes and pay close attention to where everything is in this adventure, but also adhere so some sort of internal clock as the adventure must be finished in twenty-four hours (game time, not real time). The preface does warn you that this is far from a low prep adventure so like small impressionable single digit aged children, No Salvation For Witches should not be someone’s first ever adventure to run as they will most likely be in over their head, disappoint their players and feel a bit down in the dumps for a slight period thereafter. NSFW takes a decent amount of work to make it work right, much less as the author intended, so you might want to pick up the adventure to read several times over before you even think about running it. Sure, the complicated nature of the adventure means only a small percentage of gamers will appreciate this, and even less will run it, but those that do manage to pull of NSFW, which find it a very memorable adventure, even if all their characters die horribly (which is like because hey, LotFP!).
So what is No Salvation for Witches about? Well, it’s about a well-meaning motley crew of women trying to enact social justice in 1620s England due to the Price Revolution where hyperinflation and population booms decimated the pocketbooks of the lower and middle class. What, you didn’t study about this in High School or College? Shame on you. Anyway, this coven of women take over a priory and enact a magical ritual meant to make the world a better place. In doing so she has made contact with…something alien and unfathomable that is enhancing the coven’s power and making changes to the local landscape (and lifeforms) happen. Of course, this creature being so alien that that descriptor does not do it justice is not a native English speaker and so something gets lost in the translation. Doubly so because humanity does not make all that much sense to this life form. So good intentions but LotFP equals all sorts of crazy crap that will no doubt pose a threat to the PCs in the adventure, primarily in regard to shortening their lifespans.

The adventure is very much an open-ended sandbox. The only restriction is that once players enter the sphere in which all this organized chaos is occurring, they will be unable to leave. So they can’t just flee to France after being nearly nibbled to death by a school of undead fish. As well you do have the time constraint to keep track, but players will be unaware of this fact and it won’t hinder their exploration of the area. Really most of the adventure once you have entered the sphere is simply exploration and figuring out what gruesome threat to life and limb awaits you in this neck of the woods. In some ways the adventure is a more people friendly Tomb of Horrors because death is everywhere, but it’s also quite social and willing to have a nice talk with you, make you a cup of tea or offer to go on a woodland walk before massacring you. At least when you die in NSFW you can say the unspeakable monstrosities than butchered you were more polite than most.

For most of the adventure you’ll be trying to find your way into the abbey without being replaced by a psychotic clone of yourself than erupts from your skin. This involves finding three McGuffin spheres that are in locations offering challenge and disembowelment. This is pretty pat and almost generic in concept but it’s the challenges, NPCs and antagonists that really make the adventure more than just another fetch quest based adventure. There are interesting goos, people with hideous things living inside them, witch hunters and more. Once all that is dealt with, you have to get inside the priory and see the horrors that await you there. Evil monster babies, nuns who vomit up sentient blood thingies with a taste for horseflesh, conjoined spouses, a troll abbot, horribly deformed people and of course the coven that caused all this to begin with. The adventure will then end in one of two ways: The ritual is stopped or the ritual is successful. In either case, every PC might be dead at the end of the adventure or some might live. This is LotFP after all, so character death is as guaranteed as something like Call of Cthulhu or Dungeon Crawl Classics, so don’t form emotional attachments to that sheet of paper full of stats and your handwriting. Each ending is pretty interesting its own right, and so even if the PCs fail to stop the coven or even all die horribly, they will (more than likely) enjoy the ending that occurs.

Besides the adventure, No Salvation For Witches also contains fourteen pages devoted to “The Tract of Teratology” which may or may not come into play within the adventure, based on character actions and/or who they encounter. More than likely it won’t unless the GM really pushes it on players and perhaps they should because for the GM the Tract is a collection of random tables for them to roll on. What is all the randomness for? Demon summon of course! There are eighteen different d100 charts which, when combined, will provide a ritual for summoning a demon and all the necessary stats. The creature could become an ally to the PCs or a mortal enemy. It’s all in the dice! Let’s take a look at one I rolled up specifically for this review.

The ritual involves lashing a person to a giant wheel and beating them with a cudgel or some other blunt object for one to two hours, or until all the limbs break. As well, you’ll need to burn Three longspoons of white crystalline arsenic and the victim’s esophagus. Doing so will get you a twenty foot high elephant whose tongue has serrated hooks at the end of it and who gives off a strong scent of eucalyptus. It is helpful towards PCs, has 5d8 Hit Points, an AC of 14, has two attacks of 1d3 each, a movement of 60′ and a morale of 12. It also gets a +1 to hit. That’s not a bad spell or ally, now is it? Sure it requires the horrible torture and eventual demise of a peasant but they’re an NPC. They might as well be wearing a sign that says “Orc.” Of course, there is a bit of a catch. The creature has a compulsion to force two people who love each other to fight to the death. Doubly unfortunate, the caster must be one of the two fighting while the creature watches and if they fail to do so, said ritual participants will vomit up blood for 1d4 damage. Of course the creature is only around for a day before vanishing silently, so it’s a small bit of pain to endure in exchange for a giant meat shield.

As you can see the Tract is a lot of fun for the DM, although maybe not as much for the players. It’s worth picking up No Salvation for Witches just to introduce this book to player sand watch them use it over and over until they are the cause of their own demise, Deck of Many Things style.

Overall, NSFW is a lot of fun to both run and play. Like a lot of Lamentations of the Flame Princess, this adventure is NOT for everyone and the levels of gore, nudity and the like could turn off some games rather than entertain them, so you’ve been warned. Fans of the product line will fine this a fine addition to their collection and may even kick themselves for not backing the Indiegogo project. You’re going to want to be a GM with a good deal of experience under your belt to run this but if you can pull this off, you and your gamer buddies will have a lot of fun trying to make it out of this one alive.

Rating:
[4 of 5 Stars!]
No Salvation for Witches
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The Secrets of Cats • A World of Adventure for Fate Core
Publisher: Evil Hat Productions, LLC
by Alexander L. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 09/04/2014 08:18:48
Originally published at: http://diehardgamefan.com/2014/09/04/tabletop-review-the-sec-
rets-of-cats-fate-core-system/

It’s been a good year for Evil Hat Productions and Cat based RPGs. Atomic Robo: The Roleplaying Game is one of the best new titles of 2014 and by far my favorite use of the Fate Core System so far. Meanwhile, 2014 has also been the year of RPG with cat based protagonists. Cathulhu for Chaosium’s Call of Cthulhu was remixed and released as a supplement. We’ve also seen Call of Catthulhu Deluxe get released (although I am still waiting on my physical box set of the game!) which is a more newcomer/family friendly game that Cathulhu. Heck, earlier this month Strays (which uses the Fate Accelerated Engine) was funded over at Kickstarter. So if you’re in the mood for taking on the role of an animal trying to stop nefarious types and creepy crawlies, you’re got a lot of options right now.

The Secrets of Cats was crowdfunded via Patreon which is crowdfunding along the lines of regular payments ala NPR or PBS rather than a single lump sum in the way one funds on Kickstarter or Indiegogo. Currently Evil Hat has 644 patreons, which means they’re bringing in a little over $2,500 per Patreon release if you just use the minimum suggest amount of four dollars. Now I bring this up only because if that is all Evil Hat raised for The Secrets of Cats I am SHOCKED, because the art alone is some of the best I’ve seen in a RPG this year and the writing is pretty top notch too. So although this is currently a “Pay What You Want” piece that you can get for free if you choose to be a skinflint, this fifty-two page supplement for Fate Core really does deserve to have a MSRP of at least twice the suggested rate because it’s that fantastic.

Let me get the praise for the art of the way right now. The wonderful cartoon designs of Crystal Frasier really made this piece come to life for me. It’s cartoony and yet dark at the same time. I felt the book gave off a modern, friendlier Ralph Bakshi meets Cartoon Network style and the art alone will make you want to throw money at Evil Hat for this supplement – even if you don’t own the core Fate Core System book. I normally try to avoid making any reference to the name of a specific creator or artist in a review because I’m critiquing the body of work rather than a specific person, but the art in The Secrets of Cats is some of the best and most original I’ve seen in a RPG all year and I will be shocked and horribly dismayed if this isn’t on our short list for the “Best Art” award come the end of the year. So yes, buy this thing just for the art and then go back and get the Fate Core System handbook. It’s that good.

So let’s talk about the meat of the supplement now. As this is a supplement, you will need the core rulebook for Fate. Make sure it is Fate Core and NOT Fate Accelerated as they are two slightly different systems ala AD&D 2e and Basic D&D. You can still make The Secrets of Cats work with Fate Accelerated but it does take some work on the part of the GM. The supplement does assume you already have Fate Core and are familiar with the both the rules and jargon of the game, so if you pick this up without it, you might find some (well, a lot) of the text in the character creation section to be gobblygook.

Part 1 is “The Duty of Cats” which serves an introduction to the supplement’s concepts and themes. In like most games with animal protagonists, the cats in The Secrets of Cats are actually protecting the world, and specifically humans, whom they call “burdens” from the secret evils that lurk in the shadows. Spirits, dark fae, boogeymen and other fiendish thingies are all real, but mankind (burdenkind?) are oblivious to. There is also the concept of sapient animals, which follows Descartian philosophy. It’s odd that the text states that sapient thought can vary wildly between species. Some (humans, cats, crows and raven) are almost all sapient but then dogs, squirrels and mice are mostly instinctual. I would have liked some insight as to why those species were chosen as examples of each, but I didn’t get it. The good thing is that is someone REALLY wants to play a chicken hawk or a gerbil, they pretty much can with this supplement. Examples of sapient owls, bats and rabbits are given in the text, but remember – the game is primarily about cats, even though I like the option of a rabbit protagonist. You also learn that cat based magic relies heavily on sacrificing other life forms. This might squick some people out and I’m sure the Jack Chick type people of the world will point at this aspect as proof that “RPGS AM SATAN WORSHIP,” but it makes sense in the context of the game and why cats sometimes kill things without eating them. Of course, there’s no correlation for how an herbivore would use magic, but this is The Secrets of Cats after all. Perhaps if this does well enough, we’ll get an additional supplement for other species.

Part 2 is “The Naming of Cats” and it is purely character creation. Again, newcomers might be a little lost here, especially if this is their first exposure to Fate, but people who have played any other version of the game will plow right through this as it is almost instinctual. Making a cat character is very similar to a regular Fate character except The Secrets of Cats> has its own magic system and some slight modifications. The section gives you some reminders on cats and how they are not human, so they see and hear things differently, can’t read and are easily distracted. You have to pick your High Concept (personality), your Trouble (character flaw) and your Burden (Human or humans you protect). You pick your skills, each with a rating of +4 to +0. If you are new to Fate each + in your skill is an automatic success. So if you have a +3 in Investigate and you need five successes for a specific action. You only need to get two more +s from your die roll. If you have a +0 in Investigate, well, you’re in for a harder time as you only get four dice to roll. It’s not impossible though!

You have four types of magic: Warding, Seeking, Naming and Shaping. They’re all pretty self-explanatory and you can learn more than one sphere of magic. However, you can only master a single sphere. Master of a sphere get some exclusives stunts and spells, so it’s worth doing at some point. You don’t HAVE to do it at character creation time. Stunts are essentially your special abilities and talents. You get three regular stunts relating to your non-magic skills and another three magic stunts. So your character is pretty well rounded from the start. There is no discussion on character advancement in this supplement so I have to assume it is the same as in regular Fate Core.

Part 3 is “Silver Ford” and it’s the campaign setting for this supplement. Silver Ford is a small tourist resort town in Maine which happens to have more than its fair share of ghosts. This section is really short, details some story seeds and primary locations for the town, but really, it’s just window dressing for Part 4.

Part 4 is “Black Silver” and it is both the adventure and the majority of this supplement’s page count. The adventure is about a vengeful old ghost who is awakened when some stupid kids go into its abandoned silver mine and steal nuggets from its corpse. The ghosts ends up taking control of the albino rat colony in the mine and…becomes something unpleasant. The cats of the town must discover what is behind the strange occurrences in Silver Ford and how to shut them down. It’s a pretty straight forward adventure. It’s somewhat linear and definitely comes across a bit hand-holding, but honestly, that’s how first adventures for a setting/system SHOULD be. It lets the PCs and GM alike learn the mechanics of the game without having to tax themselves too much. The cast and crew of “Black Silver” are a lot of fun and many of you might decide to set further adventures in this location instead of making it a one-shot. If that is the case you’ll be happy to know there are some extra story seeds and dangling threads at the end of the adventure to let you do just that. There are found in Part 5 – “Threats and Complications.”

Overall,The Secrets of Cats is fantastic and left me wanting more, even though I probably won’t get it. The concept is a fun one, even if we’re being hit with a deluge of cat oriented RPGs this year and the artwork really makes this supplement stand out. I do wish there was a little more substance here as there is a lot more than can be done with the ideas presented here. As a freebie, this is a no-brainer. However I do have to strongly suggest that you throw SOME money towards Evil Hat (and not just because they’re local to the Washington D.C. area as well) because it’s that well done. I’m looking forward to seeing what else comes from Evil Hat’s Patreon project because if the other releases are half as good as this one, they’ve got a winning formula other companies are going to start duplicating.

Rating:
[5 of 5 Stars!]
The Secrets of Cats • A World of Adventure for Fate Core
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The Curse of Hallas Reach
Publisher: Assassin Games
by Alexander L. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 09/01/2014 09:56:24
Originally posted at: http://diehardgamefan.com/2014/09/01/tabletop-review-the-cur-
se-of-hallas-reach-ogl/

The Curse of Hallas Reach is an OGL adventure, meaning it can be used with Dungeons & Dragons 3.0/3.5 and Pathfinder. It’s a fairly straight forward adventure consisting of two dungeon crawls and a decent amount if investigation/NPC interaction between each hack and slash affair. The adventure is designed for characters between Levels 3 and 5 although there is no recommended party size.

Now, from the cover, you might be expecting a Ravenloft style fantasy horror adventure. While supernatural beasties are at the root of this adventure, it’s more in line with the very traditional D&D adventures, so don’t be expecting there to be an emphasis on horror or terror. Unless the GM decides to crank up those factors. Instead The Curse of Hallas Reach is very reminiscent of the adventures we played in the 80s and early 90s where you are given a quest and then dungeon crawl to find the root of the problem. The adventure plays it very safe and sticks to a formulaic and linear progression. This isn’t a bad thing. A linear adventure is only bad if players feel they are being railroaded to a specific destination and have no real control over the plot or even their characters. The Curse of Hallas Reach offers some minor Call of Cthulhu-esque investigation options but a lot of the plot progression will come from talking to and learning about recent events from the NPCs within the town. This means that The Curse of Hallas Reach has something for every type of gamer and it does a nice job of balancing the aspects. Sure the dungeon crawls will be the most memorable and take up the most time, but it is nice to see the gamers who like to solve mysteries or engage in intrigue have not been forgotten.

As you might imagine, The Curse of Hallas Reach finds the PCs in the small town of Hallas Reach. Perhaps they are there on a longer journey to stock up on supplies or perhaps they just needed a place to sleep for the night. How and why the PCs are there is up to your respective Dungeon Master. Once there though, several packs of ghouls erupt from under the earthen floor of the town and the PCs have to help the town guard fight them off. The town’s guard is depleted in the attack and the PCs are asked to trace the ghouls; footsteps to see where they came from. An initial foray of the caverns below Hallas Reach combined with post dungeon crawl conversations with townfolks will lead the characters to a much larger dungeon crawl event and the true culprit behind this ghoul attack. The time between both dungeon crawls is padded with three different random encounter charts (wilderness, night and mire), each with very different events and creatures to encounter. The Nighttime list is my favorite as it offers some spooky bits to flavor up what would otherwise be a pretty humdrum adventure.

The second dungeon crawl is quite large, with twenty six locations and three levels to scour. Here you’ll find the adventure’s big bad, along with foul beasties to slay and treasure to take. Again, what’s here is fairly pat and standard. That’s not to say The Curse of Hallas Reach is generic, because it offers some story depth and interesting antagonists. The adventure does play things safe by providing the same type of adventure (flow-wise) that you’ve probably played dozens of times before. That’s okay. Not every adventure needs to be some incredible mind blowing affair that changes how you game. The Curse of Hallas Reach sticks to tropes but it also does them very well. There’s a good amount of flavor and descriptive text to help make the adventure seem spookier or eerier than your normal dungeon crawl, but don’t be looking for some sort of deep story or even real plans from the Big Bad on what is he doing other than “Go team evil!” Still, it’s a fairly fun adventure, especially for new or casual gamers and I have to admit the tactics and battle strategies for the final boss were really well done. He’ll definitely pose a challenge.

The Curse of Hallas Reach doesn’t have much in the way of art or fancy schamncy layouts. It is what it is – a solid fun third party adventure that doesn’t waste time with frills. This is certainly reflected in the price point of the piece. I’m kind of glad that the adventure included a mini monster manual with all the creatures you can encounter, along with descriptions of several traps and diseases the PCs can encounter. I’d rather have the substance than art, you know?

All in all, The Curse of Hallas Reach is a formulaic piece that some gamers might get déjà vu from, but it’s also a fun adventure and worth playing or at least reading – especially since it’s only $2.99. For the cost of a comic book, you and your friends can spend a few gaming sessions doing battle with ghouls and investigating ominous locales. That’s a pretty good deal in my book.

Rating:
[4 of 5 Stars!]
The Curse of Hallas Reach
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The Manor, Issue #7
Publisher: GM Games
by Alexander L. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 08/29/2014 08:02:44
Originally posted at: http://diehardgamefan.com/2014/08/29/tabletop-review-the-man-
or-issue-7/

The Manor is a OSR style fanzine that I haven’t had a chance to pick up until now. Like most gaming magazines, it contains a range of articles, adventures and new things to dismember. Like a lot of magazines, the quality of the articles varies, although which ones are worth reading depends on the point of view of whoever is paging through it. After all, what interests one person may bore another.

I will say that I enjoyed this issue of The Manor and I will probably be coming back for more. There were six articles and my biggest complaints are in fact minor ones about layout. The copyright information on page two cuts off abruptly after “All Artwork, Maps and Articles are the,” which I first took to be a bad sign, but thankfully the content was pretty good. The other weird layout issue was with the “Tenkar & the Badger” radio ad on the last page. The entire magazine is laid out in portrait, but the ad for this is in landscape, meaning you have to turn your head to an odd angle to read it…or just turn your e-reader if you’re not at a computer.

There are six articles in The Manor, Issue #7, along with a one page introduction from Tim Shorts. The first article is “Boltswitch’s Mobile Potion Emporium.” It’s three pages of fiction where a Gnome named Mikklum Boltswitch is hawking potions from the back of a cart, snake oil salesman style. Seven potions are discussed, with the name in Italics, followed by a description of what the potion does. This was a fun little piece and a neat way to showcase new items. Usually new items are done in a very dry straightforward manner, and I liked the method in which this was done.

“Skinwalker (Coyote)” is the next piece and it’s about a new playable race/class. This was the only article I didn’t care for, but that’s because it felt unfinished. You’re given an XP chart, abilities gain by level and the usual weapon/alignment restrictions, but the saving throws and THAC0 bits are also missing. There is also no indication if the piece is a PC class, NPC class or the like. What’s here has a decent start but it really needed to be fleshed out more. Right now it just feels like there are huge gaps in the piece.

“Mirror, Mirror” is article #3 and it gives us eight magical mirrors to throw into your game. Unlike “Boltswitch’s Mobile Potion Emporium,” “Mirror Mirror” is done in the usual descriptive narrative instead of a fiction based one. Each of the mirrors in this piece are a lot of fun and I really loved the artwork in this article. The Mirror of Mugging and the Mirror of Morbidity are my two favorites. Each mirror only gets a paragraph of description, but that’s on par with what you would find in the DMG, so I’m fine with it as the whole piece is a lot of fun.

“Trouble Down the Well” is the first of two adventures in this issue. You get a one page map and a one page description of the adventure. A well in a small town has dried up and it has started to smoke. The local blacksmith went down to see what has occurred and never came back. Now it is up to the PCs to save the day. It’s a pretty simple and short affair with only a single monster to deal with. You should have no problem playing this in only a single session. It’s a fun little adventure for what it is and that’s all that matters.

The second adventure in the piece is “Horrid Caves” and it is a full length adventure that only has nine locations so it too should be able to completed in a single session. However, the adventure also contains a ton of new monsters and spells. It’s a pretty routine hack and slash dungeon crawl, but the new monsters and spells that show up are quite weird and remind me of something I’d see in Dungeon Crawl Classics. I really enjoyed this piece and since it is for first or second level characters, it’s a great way to let people try out their new characters or to pad out another short adventure.

The sixth and final article is a haiku about a mind flayer. It’s amusing and the full page of art really makes the piece.

In all, this seventh issue of The Manor was a lot of fun, and if I have time, I might pick up some of the earlier issues to see if they are as good. The issue is short, with a page count of under thirty, but it’s also only $2.50, so it’s not as if the zine will break your bank. The two adventures and the two magic items articles are well worth reading through if you are a fan of retro clones like OSRIC, Swords and Wizardry Castles & Crusades and the like. I wish I had more room in this review to showcase the artwork too. If you have the time and spare change, definitely pick this up.

Rating:
[5 of 5 Stars!]
The Manor, Issue #7
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Geoff Gillan's The Machine King
Publisher: Cthulhu Reborn
by Alexander L. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 08/28/2014 07:03:31
Originally published at: http://diehardgamefan.com/2014/08/28/tabletop-review-the-mac-
hine-king-call-of-cthulhu/

The Machine King is an adventure that was originally designed back in the late 90s for Dreamlands book that never made it out of the planning stages. Why, I have no idea. I can only go off the Author’s note that starts of this long adventure. Since then, the adventure has been though lost to a flood, found, rebuilt from the ground up and now released as a freebie via DriveThruRPG.com. The fact that The Machine King is free is reason enough to download it. I mean, even if you never play it or outright don’t like it, it’s a free addition to your Call of Cthulhu collection. It’s not a bait and switch where the free adventure is used to actually hard sell some upcoming books or requires half a dozen or more sourcebooks to be playable. Nope, all you need is a CoC core rulebook, although the edition this was designed for is not stated in the text. Anything pre-seventh and you’ll be fine though.

The Machine King is a combination Cthulhu by Gaslight and Dreamlands adventure where characters will time in both setting. Of course, the Dreamlands in this adventure is not the standard one that you usually find in Call of Cthulhu, but its own pocket dimension with different rules, creatures and atmosphere. In many ways, The Machine King doesn’t feel like a Call of Cthulhu adventure at all. There are no standard Lovecraftian foes or creatures to encounter, and the mood of the piece is notably different from what you usually encounter with CoC adventures. There is certainly a steampunk vibe for much of the Dreamlands section of the adventure and the Cthulhu by Gaslight climax will be greeted by delight or disdain – depending on how much you like fighting a giant killer robot in the middle of London. This is definitely going to be one of those hate them or love endings, based on one’s play style and how staunchly you keep to Lovecraftia in your games.

In many ways The Machine King looks at the horrors of the Industrial Revolution through the eyes of a nightmare, showcasing the exploitation of the masses, and how early industry focused on production over the safety and working conditions of the employees. Now this does not mean that The Machine King is espousing a Luddite stance. Indeed, the Luddites do make an appearance in the adventure, but they are treated and portrayed crazy extremists. So don’t be looking for a political philosophical message hidden between the lines here. It’s just that the Industrial Revolution and the early machines of that era are good fodder for a horror story, that’s all.

The adventure itself starts with the Investigators having nightmares about a horrible clockwork like cog filled world and a machine that is about to crush them when they are saved by a young urchin. They wake up and things seem fine. Just a bad nightmare, right? Well that’s until they see the paper a few instances of machines gone amok. Between this, one Investigator having eerie visions of their savior from the previous night beseeching them for help and a new exhibition as the London Science Museum entitled “The Machine Kings,” the characters will be drawn once more into the dark dystopian dream world of the Machine King.

Once in the dimension of dreams, Investigators may find themselves there for the long haul. This part of the adventure is designed to play out over several sessions, making it essentially a mini campaign. Be prepared for that if you decide to run this, especially if players are used to shorter one-to-two session pieces. The adventure lays out an entire world where players may become cogs in the machine, transformed into Overseers or Workers (thus splitting the party) or even engaging in a full scale revolt by the citizens of the this dreamworld. This long scale mid-part of the adventure is only briefly discussed in the text, meaning the Keeper will really have to flesh out these encounters and story scenes to make this part work. After that you have a weirdly done steam engine chase scene where Investigators and the Machine King using dreaming powers to combat each other.

I have to admit, I was very interested in the first half of the adventure. It was your normal weird little CoC adventure full of strange happenings and investigations. However, once you hit the dream world of the Machine King, the adventure just lost a lot of steam, so to speak. The dream world of the Machine King is really fleshed out, but is a weird juxtaposition to go from a very detailed step by step adventure for the first part into what is more a campaign setting than an actual adventure for the second half. Key locations, enemies and events are noted, but there is very little in the way of structure or getting characters from point A to point B. Younger or less experienced Keepers aren’t going to enjoy the dramatic change in writing style or adventure progression and even more veteran CoC Keepers will notice how piecemeal the piece feels. I don’t know. Once you get into the Machine King world, the adventure feels like more of a dungeon crawl/hack and slash affair where you’re either killing machine monsters or being maimed by them. The climax of the adventure with the steam train fell utterly flat for me and the return to the real world and what happens their actually elicited a loud groan from me. The piece just lost me entirely in this latter half and I can’t say I’d ever want to play or run The Machine King as neither the setting nor the events were something I enjoyed.

That said, The Machine King is not all bad. There’s some great ideas here and I loved the first half. It just seems that when you hit the dreamlands that the adventure spirals out of control including too much background information and a description of key events. It’s like they just kept adding more content to where the adventure become supersaturated with things. There are new skills and abilities added to your character sheet (which come in at such a low level you can’t really use them to any effect because of how you “level up” in Call of Cthulhu), along with splitting up the players into multiple groups which can be long and dull for one group when the Keeper in engaging with the other. It stopped being an adventure and more a campaign setting. I loved the charts for Machine Accidents and Mechanical Nightmares. There is also an amazing amount of detail just of the Machine King’s realm. Nine pages of the adventure (15%) are allocated to just the background information of the world (although it’s slammed right into the middle of a scene, completely disrupting the flow of the text and book entirely. This should have been either an appendix or right at the start of the Machine King section rather than appearing abruptly in a way that didn’t feel or look right) and even more are devoted to specific locations, so depth and clarity are not a problem. It’s just not a setting I particularly cared for and the characters, antagonist or otherwise, held no interest for me. There’s some great artwork here and you can tell the Cthulhu Reborn team worked really hard on this. It just wasn’t for me. I think if they had scaled this back a bit instead of trying to cram so much into a single adventure, this would have flowed better and been a more fun experience.

Now, just because *I* didn’t care for The Machine King doesn’t mean it’s not for you. There’s a lot of content here and the themes and atmosphere of the adventure might be far more up your alley than it was mine. The Machine King is FREE after all, so there is no harm in downloading it and seeing for yourself if you like it. Who knows, maybe you’ll get more out of The Machine King than I did! I’ll give it a thumb’s in the middle because of the sheer size and scope of this piece, even if the content and content alike weren’t for me.

Rating:
[3 of 5 Stars!]
Geoff Gillan's The Machine King
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Newshounds #1
Publisher: NUELOW Games
by Alexander L. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 08/21/2014 06:34:57
Originally published at: http://diehardgamefan.com/2014/08/21/tabletop-review-newshou-
nds-1-d6xd6-core/

Usually NUELOW Games puts out pieces for their ROLF brand, but Newshounds #1 is different. It’s actually for a system that’s not even out yet! I’m talking about d6xd6 CORE, which nearly 500 games crowdfunded earlier this month. Now you’re probably wondering how you can possibly play this when the core rules won’t be out for several months yet. Well, until the game is out you can pick up a draft copy of the rules at the game’s official website. Besides, it’s not unheard of for adventures to core out before the core rulebook. CHaosium has been doing it for Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition and Catalyst Games Labs has been doing it for the Valiant Universe RPG. Now, I was a backer for d6xf6 CORE but only at the PDF level. Backers who pitched in more than I received a free backer copy of Newshounds #1 in addition to Judy of the Jungle. So in fact there are two adventures for this newer than new system if you are interested. That said, the only one I received a review copy for was Newshounds so that’s why we’re looking at that.

Newshounds #1 is more than an adventure. It actually contains five old school pulp comics from 1945. All of these comics are now in the public domain and thus are technically free to anyone who wants to reprint them in a similar fashion to what NUELOW Games has done here. Each of the five comics are in black and white (save for the cover), which works just fine for me as they are pulp fiction, and I always feel they look better in greyscale than in four colour. Three of the comics are from the “Ace of the Newsreels” line (which only had eight comics, so you’re getting nearly half of the run here!), along with one entitled “Gail Porter, Girl Photographer” and another called “Copy Boy”. Quality of the comics varies from story to story and ultimately, it will depend on the reader to ascertain the quality for themselves. I can see why the “Ace of the Newsreels” series didn’t last very long in its heyday and parts of the stories have not aged well such as the dizzy danger-prone dame sidekick who always needs to be rescued by the male protagonist. It is what it is. While I’m okay with it because it is a product of its time, I know some people CAN’T so they might roll their eyes at this running plot hook or worse. The “Gail Porter, Girl Photographer” is bookended with anti-suicide cheese, but the core story is a fun one. “Copy Boy feels like a “Jimmy Olsen” rip-off complete with Judy as Lois Lane, Mr. Jackson as Perry White and Mr. Trent as Clark Kent (No Superman alter ego though!). Again, all the stories in here are worth flipping through. Five pulp comics for $1.99 isn’t a bad deal by any means, but there’s more content than just this, which only serves to sweeten the deal.

In addition to the comics and a one page crossword puzzle, Newshounds #1 gives us a three page adventure for the d6x6d CORE system. The adventure is called, “The Death of a Mystic” and it uses the protagonists from “Ace of the Newsreels” along with the Neulow mascot superheroine, The Black Cat. The story revolves around saving socialite Linda Turner from the machinations of a fraudulent swami. Of course, exposing the swami as a fake is just the start of the adventure as he vows revenge on the PCs for taking a way his meal ticket and will try to murder each of them in turn. The adventure itself is very much an “on-rails” piece with little room for flexibility or deviance, and you really have to know and care about the “Ace of the Newsreels” characters for this piece to work. What’s more, there is no real explanation of d6xd6 CORE at all in this piece. The adventure assumes you have extremely familiar with the rules system, so the mechanics side will read as little more than gobblygook to most of you. The good news is that because the adventure is so scripted out, it can easily be converted to a different system. The GM/Host will have to rework the character sheets if they want to covert “The Death of a Mystic” but every scene and much of the NPC dialogue is all there for you. In the end the adventure is an okay one. For people already familiar with d6xd6 CORE, it’s a fun way to see the mechanics in action and you’ll also get six pregenerated characters, a new Core Occupation and a new Core Skill. For everyone else, you might want to wait until you have the core rulebook in your possession unless you think five pulp comics for $1.99 is a fine deal. For myself, I’m glad I picked this up as I wanted to see how d6 x d6 CORE would look done by a third party publisher and for only $1.99, fans/Kickstarter backers of this upcoming system should certainly consider picking Newshounds #1 up.

Rating:
[3 of 5 Stars!]
Newshounds #1
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Technology Compendium: Sir Arthour’s Guide to the Numenera
Publisher: Monte Cook Games
by Alexander L. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 08/19/2014 07:00:00
Originally published at: http://diehardgamefan.com/2014/08/19/tabletop-review-technol-
ogy-compendium-sir-arthours-guide-to-the-numenera/

Although Monte Cook Games has been very busy with the release of their newest game, The Strange, they haven’t neglected their original release, the multi award-winning Numenera. Their latest release, Technology Compendium: Sir Arthour’s Guide to the Numenera, focuses specifically on the bits of technology left over from the previous eight worlds which now litter the Ninth. These include cyphers, which are one shot use objects which players will have to monkey with to see what they do. Numenera also includes artifacts, which are devices with more than one use. Of course, because these artifacts were created by races long since dead (or something else?), the current inhabitants of the Ninth World will still have to poke, prod and guess as to what they do. Even if they get the artifact to work, it might not be used in the way its creators intended. A toaster might be used as a torture device rather than a bread warmer, for example. Then there are oddities. These are exactly what you might think – things that have no discernible use to the players or their characters, but are there because some previous race had a use for them. These might include things like a telescope device, but when you look through it, everything you see is coloured purple and all living creatures look like tree sloths. Who knows? Maybe it’s just the way the PCs’ brains interpret the visuals of the device. Maybe it’s a failsafe to prevent anyone but the original owner from using the device properly. It could be anything, but no one will ever know, in or out of the game! Oddities are there just to enhance the weird nature of Numenera and to give players something to think about.

Sir Arthour’s Guide to the Numenera is essentially two books in one. The first two dozen or so pages are for the GM, and are designed to be a guide on how to create, use and implement Numenera in your campaign. Here you’ll get an introduction as to who Sir Arthour is, along with a pretty in-depth look at the different power sources for various Numenera and the multitude of ways they can be used. Numenera are technology, but it’s also technology completely and utterly alien to the current residents of the planet, so even if there are multiple, or even plentiful, versions of a particular Numenera type, that doesn’t mean they are being used in the same way, or even correctly (per the original vision of the piece). Is essence, the game of Numenera is one of people who are technology scroungers, and this first section does a great job of reminding you of this fact.

This first section is written out of character, because it’s speaking directly to the Gamesmaster. It is meant to be a guide and/or learning tool to help one’s game become more detailed. You are given examples of different ways aspects of reality, like light, time, sound, magnetism, gravity, and heat can be used in pieces of Numenera. You are also given examples of chemical, biotech, the datasphere (think the evolution of the internet) and even self-aware machines that would also count as Numenera. Most of the examples in this section involve offensive capabilities or are traps for the PCs to fall into, which makes sense. After all, this section is designed to help the GM, as most will use Numenera in one of these two ways. I personally tend to focus more on the oddities side, but I realize I’m also probably in the minority in wanting to give players a blow gun that shoots out thoughts as rock rather than healing items or heat rays.

I also appreciated that this first section gave frank advice like, “Don’t use time travel,” or anything else that would give concrete evidence of any of the previous worlds. Numenera is best when evoking a sense of mystery, alien horror and wonder. To reveal too much is to miss the point of the game. I also enjoyed seeing a new descriptor buried in this section which will allow you to play some sort of artificial intelligence. You get a lot of stat boosts, but real hindrances to healing and dealing with fleshy life forms. It looks really interesting. In fact, everything about this section is fantastic and well worth reading, no matter how experienced with Numenera or RPGs in general you feel you are.

Now, Monte Cook Games COULD have released the first section as its own stand-alone piece, as they did with titles like In Strange Aeons, Love and Sex in the Ninth World or Injecting the Weird, but instead they bundled it with the second part of the book which, at over 100 pages, is the real meat of this piece. If you picked up previous digital PDFs from Monte Cook games, like Cypher Collection I or Artifacts and Oddities Collection I, than you know what to expect here. You’ll find chapters on Cyphers, Artifacts and Oddities, all done in similar manners to those previous releases. Don’t think you’re getting the same content however. For example, in Cypher Collection I, there were “only” fifty new cyphers to use. Here in the cyphers chapter in Sir Arthour’s Guide to the Numenera, you are roughly 500 new cyphers (I lost count as my mind started to wander around 400 and I still had several pages to go.). There are tons of new things here, along with random charts to roll on and a full page look at how to use malfunctions as GM intrusions.

Of course, you would think five hundred cyphers would be enough of a selling point, but we still have the artifacts and oddities! With both sections you, again, have a refresher on what the specific type of Numenera is meant to be, the random rolling lists and a whole bevy of new items to throw at your players. You have approximately 225 new artifacts and 300 oddities. That is an insane amount of content. Each new item gets a little blurb about it. Cyphers and artifacts get a full paragraph, while oddities get about a sentence each. All of the book is exceptionally well done, and if you’re in the need for more items to place in your Numenera campaign, then Sir Arthour’s Guide to the Numenera is a must own. There is so much stuff here you’ll never need another book or PDF on the subjects. Of course, that doesn’t mean more won’t be made, but I can’t imagine anyone being able to use All of these in their time GM’ing a Numenera campaign.

So yes, Sir Arthour’s Guide to the Numenera is an absolute steal for its $14.95 price tag. Those previous released collections offered only a fraction of the Numenera found here, and you’re getting a bigger bang for your buck with the Technology Compendium. About the only people I can see not getting their money’s worth out of this sourcebook are those that absolutely have to homebrew their worlds from the ground up. Hey, if you want to make your own Numenera, more power to you. I do it myself. However, you can’t deny that this book will not only save you a lot of time, but reading it will help you to really craft better objects to place in your campaign. You get a solid look at where the designers are coming from, and with so many examples in this thing, your idea might already be made and waiting for you nestled amongst the pages of this tome. This is certainly another fine addition to the Numenera line, and one fans of the game will really enjoy.

Rating:
[5 of 5 Stars!]
Technology Compendium: Sir Arthour’s Guide to the Numenera
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The Strange Player's Guide
Publisher: Monte Cook Games
by Alexander L. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 08/13/2014 07:58:16
Originally published at: http://diehardgamefan.com/2014/08/11/tabletop-review-the-str-
ange-players-guide-cypher-system/

Back in late 2012, Monte Cook Games ran a Kickstarter for a game you might have heard of called Numenera. It was awesome, received praise from critics (like myself) and went on to win scads of awards like “Best New Game of 2013″ from Diehard GameFAN. Since Numenera‘s release, I have reviewed sixteen different products for the brand (both first and third party), and all have been fantastic. So of course Monte Cook Games had to follow up Numenera with something, but what?

Well that would turn out to be The Strange. This too was another successful crowdfunding project, although not as successful as Numenera. Now backers and those that pre-ordered are getting their items for this new RPG hoping it will captivate and excite them in much the same way the Ninth World did. In my opinion, The Strange is not as great as Numenera, but it’s still a pretty terrific game I’m glad I pre-ordered. I decided to do a review of the Player’s Guide first for three reasons. The first is that with a price tag of only ten bucks for the digital version, it’s a lot cheaper than the core rulebook and thus easier to recommend as something to try sight unseen. After all, you’ll only be out ten dollars. The second reason is that the Player’s Guide is a truncated version of the core rulebook, focusing only on character creation and the core mechanics. You’ll get some basic overview about the setting and key terms and/or players in The Strange, but this book is all you need to PLAY The Strange. So if you are interested in playing The Strange but not running it, this is all you need. The third and final reason is that the Player’s Guide is only one-fourth the size of the core rulebook, meaning it’s an easier review to write in terms of topics and word count. Don’t worry – I’ll be reviewing the core rulebook later this month, but I really wanted to get this up for all of you curious about the game and my thoughts on it.

So to start – The Strange uses the Cypher System just like Numenera. This means the games are somewhat interchangeable and if you already know how to play Numenera, you already know how to play The Strange. Sure there are some differences but most of them are in terms of storytelling rather than mechanics. You’re still rolling a d20 for nearly everything. You still have the same ten point difficulty chart where each step up or down is a difference of three in terms of what you are trying to roll (so a Step 1 challenge means you want to roll a 3 or higher, a Step 2 means a 6 or higher and so on up to Step 10 which is a 30). This is great because I love the Cypher System, it’s so easy to explain and teach. I’ve seen Numenera used as a first game for kids and completely new gamers alike and it works so well. So this ensures The Strange will feel intuitive and familiar. It’s almost akin to a new campaign setting rather than a new game. Indeed who is to say the Ninth World is not a recursion for The Strange or that the setting of this game isn’t one of the eight previous worlds alluded to in Numenera? It’s your game, and you can make the two as connected or utterly separate as you choose!

Now, the Player’s Guide for The Strange devotes VERY LITTLE time and space to the world setting and core concepts of the game, so I’ll be saving much of that for the review of the core rulebook. The Strange does take place on Earth during a modern era. The Strange is not just the name of the game but also the nickname to a network or portal system created by…some advanced alien species a long time ago. None of it is certain. What is certain however is that The Strange has become its own thing, where the rules and laws of our universe do not exist. It is pure chaos. It is a void and yet everything at once. Inside the strange are two things. The first are Plantevores which are sentient life forms that move around the chaos like a fish in water. Perhaps a shark is a more appropriate analogy for these Planetvores want to devour entire planets or perhaps even reality itself. That’s where the PCs come in. They are part of an organization dedicated to preventing Planetvores from breaching our reality, mapping the Strange and the recursions within it.

What is a recursion? Well they are stable pocket universe that reside within the Strange. These alternate realities may have physics and scientific principles similar to our own, or they may operate completely differently. Perhaps one is a world of high fantasy with dragons and wizards. Perhaps one is a dystopian scientific future ala Shadowrun. Perhaps one is a steampunk version of the Victorian era. Anything and everything is possible in theory. There are two really fleshed out recursions in The Strange – one is a D&D style fantasy world called Ardeyn and another is a dark sci-fi world known as Ruk. Both of these aren’t fully touched on in the Player’s Guide, but it does mean GMs who purchase the core rulebook have two in-depth pre-designed recursions that they can really work with if they don’t want to homebrew something. Remember, the Player’s Guide is almost 100% focused on creating characters.

So let’s talk character creation now. Again, it’s very similar to Numenera but there are a few differences. In Numenera your three character classes were Glaive (warrior), Nano (mage/psionist) and Jack (rogue). In The Strange you have Vector (warrior), Paradox (mage/scientist/psionist) and Spinner (bard). The archetype I gave in parenthesis aren’t 100% accurate but it’s more to help those of you new to the Cypher System to understand what each Type basically is. Now the Types in The Strange are not an exact copy of their Numenera counterpart. Their starting stats and powers are different, but progression through the Tiers (the equivalent of levels) is the same in that you raise stats, skills and powers first and then eventually move on to the next tier.

You have three statistics or Pools as they are known in the Cypher Systems: Might, Speed and Intellect which are self-explanatory. You also have an Edge for each of these stats which can help decrease the number of Pool points you have to spend on a power, skill or challenge. Finally you have Effort which allows you to spend Pool points to decrease the target number of a challenge you are currently facing. The game is really quite simple in this regard and so character stats are really light and easy to remember mechanically.

Character creation in The Strange comes down to the following phrase: “I am a Advective Noun who Verbs.” Basically you fill in the Mad Lib style blanks and that determines your character. The “Noun” part is your character type (Vector/Paradox/Spinner) and determines much of your starting Pools and Edge, as well as your powers. The “Adjective” part is your “Descriptor and this will give you some slight changes to your stats and skills. For example, out of the fourteen Descriptors provided in the game, I could choose Stealthy and gain +2 to my Speed Pool, and several related skills. I would also get a disadvantage of movement related challenges being harder because my character would be precise rather than fast. There were only twelve Descriptors in the core rule book for Numenera, so it’s nice to have two extra here in The Strange. Only a few of the Descriptors transfer over from one game to the other, and even then it is mostly in name only, which helps to make the two games stand apart.

The “Verb” part of the character sentence is the Foci. The Foci basically fleshes out you core power set that makes the character unique and/or special. Unfortunately this is the weakest part of character creation for The Strange, but not Numenera There are two reasons for this. The first is that The Strange has far less Foci than Numenera. Numenera started with twenty-nine Foci while The Strange only has twenty-six. That doesn’t sound so bad at first. However there’s a catch to Foci in The Strange and that’s that they will change from recursion to recursion as your body is transformed (more or less0 to fit in with the new reality. So a professional wrestler might be an Orc Barbarian in Ardeyn or a Terminator on Ruk. What this means is that your Foci changes from place to place so you might want to have several character sheets. Now, out of those twenty-six foci? Only eight are available for Earth, ten are available for Ardeyn and seven are for Ruk. There last is one you can only get after you’ve been off Earth at least once. The problem here is that since the game starts on Earth, you have a lot less options for your starting character. I’m totally fine with the idea of the Foci changes from reality to reality. I really like it in fact. I just wish there were more options. There needed to be at least a dozen for each of the three “worlds” in order to help characters feel more alive or unique to their creators. It just feels too sparse for my liking.

Of course, if all the Foci were applicable across the board, it would be a different story. Some actually can be which is called “Dragging” or “Draggable Foci.” Only eight of those are (mostly the Earth based ones) and the decision behind what ones are and are not draggable eludes me completely. For example “Solves Mysteries” can. That makes sense, but “Carries a Quiver” or “Lives in Wilderness” are not? Because the principal behind arrows should be the same in all three worlds, especially Ardeyn and Earth -doubly so as it doesn’t involve magical arrows strange bow skills like that. It’s just straight up archery and fletching. Yet it is not draggable. Why? Who knows! It’s apparently arbitrary. Of course it is your game so you can make any of these skills draggable, but the lack of Foci options and the weirdness of what is and is not draggable are a weak spot in The Strange that is not present in Numenera, and this is why I say I like Numenera better. It just doesn’t have this minor, albeit easily corrected, flaw. It is still a great game with a lot of potential most gamers will find fun and exciting, so don’t less this one quibble of mine throw you off The Strange.

That’s pretty much the Player’s Guide Sixty of the pages are purely character creation and the rest is devoted to light explanations of mechanics, equipment guides, pre-generated characters and a look at how characters move from one recursion to another. For a mere ten dollars, the Player’s Guide is a great way to see if The Strange is for you. You get all that you need to know in order to play the game and make your own PC for the setting. All the core mechanics and explanations are here. This book is especially great if all you want is to PLAY The Strange rather than run it or design adventures for the game. For aspiring GMs or those who want a lot more in-depth look at the setting and history of the game’s multiverse, you will NEED to get the core rulebook, which is fine. Both books are wonderful in their own way – it just depends on what you need or want in regards to playing/running The Strange.

Again, the Player’s Guide only touches on character creation and a basic overview of the setting so that’s all I’ve talked about here. I’ll have a full review of the Core Rulebook up later this month as I continue to devour it. I can say without a doubt though that The Strange is a worthy follow up to Numenera and is up there with Atomic Robo RPG and Valiant Universe RPG as my favorite new games of 2014. Definitely check it out when it becomes available to the general public later this month!

Rating:
[5 of 5 Stars!]
The Strange Player's Guide
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Spooks! Welcome to the Great Beyond
Publisher: Nightingale Publishing
by Alexander L. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 08/12/2014 06:28:08
Originally posted at: http://diehardgamefan.com/2014/08/12/tabletop-review-spooks--
welcome-to-the-great-beyond/

Like many new RPGs these days, Spooks: Welcome to the Great Beyond is a product of crowdfunding. I remember watching the campaign on Kickstarter but decided not to back it. I back so many projects, you see, and something had to give. Thankfully, Spooks not only reached its goal of $3,000, but also surpassed it by 50% thanks to 82 backers who believed in the project. Now, while that might seem small compared to some massive Kickstarters like those by Frog God Games or Reaper Miniatures, crowdfunding was designed for small new companies to get a leg up, and that’s exactly what happened here. Now, when I saw Nightingale Press had sent me a review copy, I was more than happy to check out the final result. I was expecting a short RPG, something like 100-150 pages at most. What I got was a massive tome rivaling most high budget core rulebooks in size. Color me impressed. Of course, page count is not quality, so was Spooks able to deliver in that regard as well? Read on…

In Spooks, you play as a character who has recently died and is now in the afterlife. It turns out being dead is just a new state of being, and your character will make friends, have adventures and do battle with things, just like in any fantasy RPG. The game is set in the Victorian era, rather than modern times, which is nice to see, as I am a big fan of Cthulhu by Gaslight and Victoriana. You have a choice of eight character types, which act as your class, and each one is based on how you died. Bhoots are victims of murder or improper burial. Dolls are those that died young. Ghosts are those that have unfinished business in the realm of the living. Ghouls are those who lived with an overwhelming obsession. Skeletons are those who made it to old age. Vampires are those that died from a curse, blood born illness or harmed a family member (Which means every sibling ever would be a vampire). Wraiths are those that led violent lives, and Zombies are those that died from disease or famine. Now, from looking at this, it’s obvious that the majority of NPCs would be vampires or zombies, due to the vagueness of the terms, along with both being “catch-alls.” You’ll see this in sample NPCs, like H.P. Lovecraft who is a zombie (died of malnutrition and intestinal cancer). I was a little disappointed we didn’t see mummies as a playable class, but it makes sense. The game focuses on the recent dead, and as you get towards the back, mummies are extremely powerful (but rare) beings that work best as NPCs. Still, even without my favorite undead being available as a PC class, the eight options should make most gamers happy.

Mechanically, Spooks seems pretty straight forward. You roll 2d6 plus an extra d6 for each point you have in a skill. Add your total roll to the attribute being used, and you have your grand total. If it’s a challenge against an opponent or character, highest result wins. If it is a fixed challenge, like swimming a marathon… the GM just arbitrarily picks a numbered target. There are hints as to what numbers mean challenge wise (similar to Numenera), but the concept is not fully fleshed out until Chapter 10, around page 215 to be exact. Unfortunately, up to this point, Challenges have been talked about in a nebulous fashion with no real aim at going into detail, so players and potential GMs alike might be a bizy hazy, if not outright confused, on the concept. Even worse, the game starts talking about LARP modification to challenges in Chapter 9, complete with charts, none of which really make sense until you hit Chapter 10 and get a full description of challenges.

Which brings us to the really big issue plaguing Spooks as a whole – flow. The core concept is awesome, but the game is haphazardly all over the place in terms of mechanics, description and transitions from one aspect of the game to the next. Spooks feels more like it was done in stream of consciousness style rather than handed over to an editor to make things flow smoothly and logically. The game does things like talk about how a character levels up before properly defining and/or listing character aspects, like skills and spell cards. Generally games with a universal leveling up policy do it the other way. Another weird aspect is the chapter on Challenges is in the “Storyteller’s section” even though it is a core gameplay mechanic. I definitely wouldn’t have included it there, especially since this chapter is perhaps the most integral to actually understand the mechanics of Spooks. There are other flow issues, like discussing Nyarlathotep as an antithesis of Hatshepsut. This is fine, except that there are regular references to Hatshepsut’s background and Spooks specific history, but it’s not actually covered until the latter third of the book. For such a prominent NPC, and one that is on the more benevolent side of things, I’d have covered her at the same time as Nyarlathotep, her “evil opposite,” and not sixty-some pages later. A good core rulebook flows well and is easy to reference by putting associated topics close to each other. This doesn’t happen at all with Spooks, and as good as the core idea behind the game is, the layout of the book makes it an annoying chore to both read and use. I’d say use the index with extreme frequency, but the index is missing a lot of things… like Nyarlathotep for example, which we have just spent a full paragraph discussing. Wah Wah.

Another big annoyance for me, flow wise, is that Spooks sticks sidebars in where they simply don’t fit. I don’t mean size-wise, but that these sidebars often have nothing to do with the actual topic or even the chapter they are in. An example is that Chapters Nine and Ten are littered with these 1/3rd page sidebars about NPCs and their history. These have no place in chapters on “Storytelling” and “Challenges,” and would have been better placed back in tail end of the book where the actual STATS for these NPCs reside. Why would you break up the NPCs into bios and stats along with placing them more than a hundred pages apart? It’s nonsensical. Don’t even get me started on the writing quality on some of these, like DJ Wub. It’s god awful in every way imaginable and completely different from the quality in the rest of the book. The only thing I can think of is that these odd inserts were Kickstarter backer rewards that people submitted without any editing or rewriting on the part of the Spooks developers. Ouch. Also, for a game set in the Victorian era, there are a LOT of NPCs who died long after that time.

That doesn’t mean that Spooks is terrible. Far from it. There are lots of great things about the game. The mechanics are mostly simple, and although it’s not a game for beginners, experienced RPG fans will easily slide into the game without any real trouble or need to look up obscure rules or the like. The artwork is very good and I really love the little touches of the game, like the maps of the Great Beyond and the Grim Gazette, which is a list of Obituaries for famous real world people and what they would be in this game. There are some really well done things in Spooks – I just wish the game was more intuitive/user friendly. Hey, some games are successes in spite of that. Look at RIFTS!

Most of Spooks is going to be stuff you either love or hate. For example, the game uses a deck of cards in addition to dice, taking a page out of the Deadlands handbook. These cards are used only for the spellcasting aspect of the game, but I know a lot of people that won’t play Deadlands or any game that mixes cards with dice (for multiple reasons). Now, I personally love Deadlands Noir, but I can understand why some people shy away from games that mix multiple ways of determining fate. Another aspect people might have extreme reactions to is that, in Spooks you start at LEVEL 32. No, that’s not a typo. It sounds weird, and there is some decidedly… unique character creation reasons behind it, but suffice to say, it is supposed to represent that the characters lived a full life, or that those previous 31 levels were earned in the mortal realm. I get what the writers are trying to do here, and it does make the game stand out in this respect, but it’s also a bit awkward and something I can see people really disliking. I’m sure some people will say, “Why not just take Level 32 and make it Level 1?” I can’t argue with that line of thinking AT ALL, but the weirdness that is Spooks character creation helps make it memorable – for good or ill.

The world of Spooks is an odd mix of Lovecraftia, quasi-Egyptian mythology, steampunk and numerous other things. In a lot of ways, Spooks feels like the old adage of throwing everything at the wall and seeing what sticks. Some people will definitely read Spooks and find the game to be very disjointed and just putting in too many difference concepts and homages, muddying the waters with an inconsistent and contradictory vision. It also doesn’t help that Spooks takes extreme liberties or is outright erroneous with some of these aspects, which will no doubt annoy purists or the more anal retentive types. Someone could easily pick apart the Brans Castle (which should be Castle Bran) or the mistakes in the Nyarlathotep or Egyptology sections. You know what though? It’s a game. I just interpreted these changes to the mythos and/or motifs and the game’s version. This is the Spooks canon, and who is to say that the mortal interpretation of these things were entirely accurate? This is neither Call of Cthulhu nor Mummy: The Curse and it doesn’t have to be. If you’re fine with games like Call of Catthulhu or even Pokethulhu, you’ll be fine with this. If a non-historical or canonical interpretation of these things bothers you, then don’t even bother reading Spooks – save yourself an aneurysm.

I really like that Spooks can be as serious or comedic as the group wants. There are lots of options for this, and I do like that the game included a LARP and/or diceless rules alternatives, even if they are shoehorned into a strange spot in the book. I definitely think that Spooks is a very unique and memorable game, but in both good and bad ways. Ultimately, I have a feeling Spooks is going to be a game that people either really like or really hate. For me personally, this is a game I am glad I had the chance to read, but I don’t think it’s one I would regularly play. The book is too disjointed and flows too poorly for my liking, even though I enjoyed the core concept behind it. With the PDF alone carrying a price tag of $19.99 (it’s a huge book remember), it makes Spooks a hard game to recommend to the curious. This really is a love it or hate it game. I think a lot of the game is intriguing, but a lot of the actual format and lack of proper editing in the book irked me. If you have the disposable income to throw at this, you might find Spooks more enjoyable than I did. Nightingale is a small publisher after all, and every dollar counts. In the end, I think my gut instinct to not back the Kickstarter for this turned out to be the correct decision. I’m glad I got to experience Spooks on some level, but it really wasn’t for me. It’s not bad, but it’s not my cup of tea, so let’s call it a thumbs in the middle and also call it a day.

Rating:
[3 of 5 Stars!]
Spooks! Welcome to the Great Beyond
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Forever Summer
Publisher: Chronicle City
by Alexander L. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 07/25/2014 06:43:57
Originally posted at: http://diehardgamefan.com/2014/07/25/tabletop-review-forever-
-summer/

So, back story. I saw Forever Summer come up in late June and the concept sounded interested, but I just didn’t have time to review it. As the weeks went on I noticed no one was reviewing and I started to feel sorry for it as the concept was a cute one, so as soon as I had a break in the deluge of my usual review material, I managed to fit this in. I’m still kind of shocked this isn’t getting much attention as it’s designed for kids (a much needed demographic in our industry), is very cheap (under five bucks) and the core concept is pretty fun. What is that concept? Well, in the immortal words of Joel Hodgson/Robinson, “Let’s have an adventure like The Goonies!”

Welcome to Oceanvale, a small coastal town in the Pacific Northwest. On the surface it’s like your typical sleepy rural town. Underneath the surface though…weirdness pervades! Perhaps there is pirate treasure to find, an alien posing as the principal, a haunted house on the outskirts of town and more! All that is need is a good Responsible Grown-Up (Name for the DM/GM/Storyteller/Keeper/etc in this game) and a troupe of players willing to have adventures in the same vein as many 80s style family friendly films. Besides The Goonies, Forever Summer is also inspired by things like E.T., Eerie, Indiana, Goosebumbs, Fright Night and even South Park. The gist is something weird supersaturates Oceanvale and while the adults are oblivious, a group of spunky kids with attitude and curiosity are the only ones that can save the day. Again, this is a very cute concept although I think it is going to appeal for to adults who were children in the 80s rather than kids of today. It’s very much a piece of nostalgia rather than focuses on the type of stories today’s young children are actually watching and enjoying.

The art is…interesting. The cover is perhaps the worst art in the game and I think it’s the colouring job that makes it visually unappealing as the same artists does all the very nice internal black and white art in Forever Summer. Of course, the cover is meant to help sell the piece, especially for a digital only game, so please don’t judge a book by its cover – literally in this case. Most of the interior art are pictures of the sample characters and it’s very well done. It’s not what you would see in a big budget RPG, that’s for sure, but for a small indie press, I felt the art really captures the atmosphere of the game. There is a lot of art in this piece considering the whole book is only fifty-eight pages in length and most of it brought a smile to my face.

The game is pretty rules-lite, which makes sense for a game designed for ages seven and up. Unfortunately it’s a little too sparse on rules with huge chunks of things simply not appearing in the book, making the game a bit unplayable in its current form. Character creation is a notable example. There are eight steps to making a character, but there are no guidelines or help toward making them. Step #4 is “Add +1 to Nerd, Jock, or Popular” which are essentially the classes in the game. That is all the book gives you. This would imply that you start off with a single point in one of these and nothing in others. However, the pre-generated characters all have between six and seven points distributed between the three. There is simply no explanation at all for the discrepancy. The character creation rules are little the eight bullet points. This gets worse with Step #7 where it says “Note down your special power.” The book gives no guidelines or helping hands in this regard. It’s left completely up to the imagination. This is fine to a degree, but the game really needs some structure or hand-holding, especially if you have single aged kids playing. Little kids are going to pick things like nuclear explosions or summoning Batman. I think younger gamers or those used to more structure to their game will get very frustrated with the copious amount left unsaid in Forever Summer.

Mechanically, Forever Summer is fine. All you need are some six sided dice. You only roll when there is a possibility of failure or in a challenge with another character. In this case the player and the GM roll a six sided die and added any bonus such as their Nerd/Jock/Popular rating plus any points they have for being Good/Very Good at a skill. Highest total wins. That is literally all the mechanics in the game. Again, some RPG “purists” might poo-poo the lack of rules other than this, but for young gamers or first time RPG’ers, this is a smart way to do things. Sure, when I was in single digits, I was playing percentile games with all sorts of charts like TSR’s Marvel Super Heroes, but I’m pretty sure I was the exception and not the rule. By keeping the rules light and simple, along with only using six sided dice, Forever Summer becomes a story-telling piece with some light rolling to add tension. That’s going to be what young kids need.

That said, there are still some rules missing. There’s nothing about what happens is another kid helps you out. There is an example of holding a door closed as a challenge between one kid and a monster, but what if three or four kids are holding the door shut. What if a Brain is helping a Jock study, do they get a bonus on that test which, if passed, will let the Jock get out in the nick of time to save his friends? Again, there are a lot of things that will come up in Forever Summer that are ignored or that the authors didn’t think of, which will frustrate younger gamers or new GMs. A little more substance could have gone a long way here.

The majority of Forever Summer is spent on describing Oceanvale along with its important locations and residents. This is great that the game really fleshes out the town, but when have of your book is spent go in-depth about your core location instead of spending time on finishing the rules or character creation…that’s not a good decision in my book. The game is meant to be a rules-lite experience where imagination takes precedence, but then most of the book is telling you where you are and who dwells within instead of letting the players make it up themselves. It’s odd that the game is so constricting in this regard when it’s been so hands-off in everything else. I think the Oceanvale content should have either been a supplement and/or that the rules and character creation content should have received more attention for Forever Summer to truly work. Unfortunately, that’s not the case. Because of this odd choice of priorities by the design team, Forever Summer goes from being a great concept to a game that really needs a lot of work if it is to ever find an audience.

Although the price tag is only five bucks and Forever Summer does have its moments, I can’t really recommend the game in the condition that it is in. Perhaps with a few more pages to explain the rules in a manner the target audience could better understand, or some more in-depth help for the Responsible Grown-Up, and you’d have a fine indie game with a small but loyal underground following. In this state though, Forever Summer needs a little more work before it is ready for its big screen debut.

Rating:
[3 of 5 Stars!]
Forever Summer
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Publisher Reply:
Points taken and we\'ll revise the existing edition to try and clear up some of this. That said... I like the cover. Clearly a matter of taste! :) Nerd/Jock/Popular are the statistics, not classes. The characters aren\'t pregenerated, they\'re templates. You pick a template and customise it to get a character. The discrepancies are balance/representation. Special power is determined by template, not made up. Some think that leaving some rules and situations unstated is a good thing. The OSR - much derived from early D&D and red box, believes that leaving things to people\'s interpretation is a good formula for learning and getting into gaming. Perhaps after Machinations of the Space Princess I took that too far. I hope you\'ll re-review when we do the new version!
Valiant Universe: The Roleplaying Game
Publisher: Catalyst Game Labs
by Alexander L. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 07/24/2014 07:47:33
Originally posted at: http://diehardgamefan.com/2014/07/24/tabletop-review-valiant-
-universe-the-roleplaying-game/

Well, it’s finally here. After four Quick Start Rules sets and a Free RPG Day 2014 release, the final version of Valiant Universe: The Roleplaying Game is finally available to all…in PDF form anyway. You’ll have to wait a few more months for the physical copy. I have to tell you I am more than a LITTLE tempted by that Red Leather X-O Manowar version.

If this is the first time you are hearing about the Valiant Universe RPG, then welcome! Yes, much like how Green Ronin has the DC Universe license and Evil Hat has the Atomic Robo license, Catalyst Game Labs has added Valiant’s cast of characters to its RPG collection. No you won’t be seeing a crossover with Battletech or Shadowrun any time soon, but you finally have the chance to play as all your favorite Valiant Universe characters like Shadowman, Ninjak, Sting (Not Steve Borden), Livewire and more. Even better, the system is extremely rules-lite which makes it very easy to learn. The Cue System, or the engine that powers Valiant Universe RPG is a huge paradigm shift for a CGL game. Usually their products are extremely mechanics heavy, with all sorts of little rules for everything. Not the Cue System. This really feels designed for newer or casual gamers, which makes sense as this will be the first tabletop RPG for a lot of Valiant fans. If anything the system is kind of a mix of Cortex, Savage Worlds and the old Marvel RPG from TSR that first made me fall in love with gaming all those years ago. Honestly, the system will probably be a bit of culture shock to CGL’s longtime fans since it’s so streamlined, but for a super hero oriented game, the Cue System is a great choice as it focuses more on imagination and co-operative storytelling than letting the dice do all the work.

Now, a couple quick notes. First, the game is not up to date with current Valiant continuity. This is because new issues come out every month and games take a LOOOOOONG time to make. So characters like Rai, Dr. Silk or the antagonists from Armor Hunters are not in here. You also won’t see recent story developments so Flamingo is still alive, Monica Jim isn’t a member of the Renegades, and so on. It’s also worth noting for older gamers like myself that this only covers the current Valiant universe. There is no mention of the original Jim Shooter or Akklaim versions that came before it, so if you were hoping to see stats for Magnus, Dr. Solar or Turok….nope. That’s not going to happen for a whole bunch of reasons. On this particular note it also is important to note that the writers of the Valiant Universe RPG only have read the current Valiant Universe and the stat blocks for characters reflect what they have seen and not necessarily what some long-time fans know these characters are capable of. So yes, Master Darque is extremely underpowered in his character sheet and is lacking the ability to create undead creatures or summon demons. Things like this will probably annoy the more anal-rententive fans of the current universe or people like myself who own a lot of old trades/issue runs from the original Valiant era, but it shouldn’t. It’s a game after all and if you can’t wait for new stat blocks for these characters to be released, you can always tweak them to your own liking. House rules and all that rot. The point I’m trying to make is that Valiant Universe: the Roleplaying Game is written by readers of the new universe FOR readers of the new universe and I think that was the smart way to go. It prevents references to characters who have yet to appear in the current Valiant continuity and probably never will, like Mothergod, The Visitor or Nettie. Maybe someday we’ll get a look at “Classic Valiant” as a supplement (I’ll write it up!), but for now the focus is purely o the current version of Valiant’s offerings and that’s the way I like it.

So, remember how earlier I mentioned how the Valiant Universe RPG is extremely rules lite? Well, out of the 210 pages in this PDF, only twenty pages are devoted to rules. I can’t think of any other major release that has that little in the way of rules! This is both a good thing and a bad thing. The good is that this makes the rules easy to learn and memorize, but the bad side of it is that things can be a little too vague for gamers used to a lot of structure and mechanics, like Pathfinder or Dungeons & Dragons. So what else is in the book? Well, there are thirteen pages devoted to character creation. Yes, the character making rules are almost as long as the complete mechanics for the game. Now that’s different. This is mainly because character creation is pretty free form. We’ll take a look at that later. The bulk of the Valiant Universe RPG is about the comic continuity itself. Eighteen pages about the core nine comics, fourteen pages on various organizations and secret societies and a whopping EIGHTY-EIGHT pages devoted to Valiant characters. There are roughly three dozen major characters listed here, along with forty eight minor characters or NPCs to throw into your homebrew games. That’s pretty amazing. I can’t think of too many super hero RPGs that give you that many characters right off the bat. All the major characters right now except Rai, Ax, Dr. Silk and the Armor Hunters are here. Again, you might quibble on the stats. Faith probably should have a d4 or d6 in Might and Action instead of d8s and Archer is missing his ability to duplicate any super power or skill, but what’s here is pretty good, if not entirely accurate. Again tweak things to fit your own vision of the Valiant Universe. It’s your game after all.

So let’s talk rules. To be honest, not much has changed since I first reviewed the quick start version of the rules back in May. Each player takes turn acting as the Lead Narratior, which is the game’s equivalent of the Dungeon Master, Storyteller, Keeper or whatever you like to call the person running the show. This allows everyone a chance to both play AND direct. I like the idea very much. Of course, there are some people that like RPGs that aren’t very good at running games and some who aren’t good at playing characters, so you don’t have to do the regular switching of the Lead Narrator role if you are more comfortable using the standard way of doing things.

Characters have five stats: Might (Physical Build), Intellect, Charisma (Personality and force of will), Action (combat) and Luck. Each stat except for Luck has a die attached to it: d4, d6, d8, d10 or a d12. The bigger the die, the more powerful the character is, the better they are in that field. Powers are run the same way. Luck is unusual as it is a random number between 1 and 12. There is no intentional correlation with the Luck number and a character’s power level. When generating a new character, you are told to just pick a number and slap it in. Luck comes into play whenever you roll a die. If your Luck number comes up on a roll, BAM – instant success even if you would otherwise fail. Now the clever min/max gamer will realize something that others won’t. The LOWER your luck number, the more likely you are to actually roll it. Eternal Warrior has a Luck of 10. That means whenever he rolls a 10 on a die, it’s an automatic success. Let’s look at his stats. Gilad has a d10 Might, a d8 Intellect, a d6 Charisma and a d10 Action. Now since his luck is 10, he can never get a Luck success on his Intellect or Charsima. Those dice don’t go up to 10! Your best bet with Luck is to have it between numbers 1-4 as it shows up on any die, thus maximizing your chance for it to occur. However, that is MIN/MAX’ing, which I tend to frown upon. Plus, there is something to be said in a character who doesn’t need luck or is generally unlucky. So while a Luck from 1-4 is best for rolling, it might not be best for ROLE-PLAYING, am I right?

Making rolls is pretty easy. When a character needs to take an action they roll a D12 + the appropriate die on their character sheet. So if you are trying to be stealthy with Ninjak, you’d roll your standard D12 + his d10 in Adaptive Camouflage and then add the results together. Meanwhile the Lead Narrator would roll a d20. Whoever gets the highest wins the challenge. Now it’s not always that simple. There are occasional modifiers to the rolls and some powers might take precedence over a stat die. There are times where you can even roll both a power AND a stat die with the d12 and then you drop the highest, drop the lowest or keep them both! It all just depends. D12+ appropriate die vs. d20 is the universal equation for the Cue System though and it’s extremely intuitive.

There are rules for weapons, vehicles, combat in vehicles, mind control, breathing, being in space and other things that you’ll want for comic book style battles or situations. One thing that is notably missing are hard and fast rules for death. This is on purpose because 1) unlike other comics book universes with a revolving door policy on death, Valiant has been and always will be a place with only permadeath. Now that isn’t to say there isn’t necromancy or ghosts, otherwise we wouldn’t have characters like Dr. Mirage or Sandria, but when you are dead, you are DEAD here in the Valiant-verse. Because the game wants to keep that intact, death in tabletop Valiant only comes about when the Lead Narrator and players feel it is appropriate. Say a heroic sacrifice or it really fits the story. As such you’ll notice when a character loses all armor and health in the game, they are only Knocked Out, Pokémon style. I think that is a good idea, especially since you can’t raise the dead in some fashion here unless you are Master Darque and even then, it’s a mockery of life, not a second chance at things. I like this idea on many levels. This allows the story to come first and the dice to come second, which is how things should be. It makes death more interesting and meaningful when it happens. It also makes the group more co-operative because everyone has a say, not just a bad or jerky LN. This is just one of the many ways the Cue System and the Valiant Universe RPG really focuses on being a storytelling and role-playing game rather than a roll-playing dice fest. Some might not like it while other will love it. I’m definitely in the latter camp.

Let’s talk character creation. Better yet, let’s make one together! I’m going to make a classic Valiant character that might actually have a chance of showing up at some point in the current universe so everyone wins with this example. It’s a Bionisaur, one of the cybernetic dinos from the original Unity that shows up in the Valiant take on Turok: Dinosaur Hunter. I mean, I’m pretty sure Archer & Armstrong and/or Quantum & Woody are going to run into one of these sooner rather than later, right? So we have our concept. Let’s assign stat dice. You get a d6 two d8s and a d10 to make your character. I’ll give the Bionisaur a d10 in Might, a d8 in Action, a d8 in Intellect and a d6 in Charisma. I then have the option of turning my d10 into a d12 at the expense of turning my d6 into a d4. I am fine with this. Charisma is a dump stat for an evil cyborg tyrannosaur from beyond space-time after all. So our final build looks like this: Might: d12 Intellect: d8, Charisma: D4, Action: d8. We have a d12 in Might, so our health is as set on the character sheet – no changes needed. We pick our Luck and I’m going to choose 6 because it is my favorite number and because Bionisaur doesn’t need Luck on his Charisma roll. It gives him a really workable flaw to offset his sheet power.

Next comes powers. We have four levels for powers, with each one giving us more points to spend and a cap of powers. Now Bionisaurs are generally NPC cannon fodder for Valiant heroes, but this one we are making is special and a playable character. I’m going to choose the second tier of powers called “Hero,” which gives me 30 points to spend and a maximum of 3 powers. There are no set powers in the game. You get to use your imagination, but you also have to be pretty clear about what they do. The first power I will take is “Accelerated Healing” which comes from the cybernetic enhancements to the dinosaur. I’ll choose a d10 and the option to “discard lowest” as my option for this power, which means I roll the d12, the Stat Die, the Power Die and discard the lowest of the two non-core d12 rolls. I check the chart and this costs 10 points. So I have 20 left to spend. I next power will be “Tracking” based off of the Bionisaur’s keen sense of smell and its cyber gizmo doo-dads. I’m going to choose a d6 here and also “Keep Both” which will let me roll both the stat and the power die and then add each of them to the core d12 roll. This costs me 9 points so I have 11 left to spend. For Bionisaur’s last power I’m going to take “Protection Against Mental Manipulation.” Because he has a reptilian brain enhanced by computers I’m going to say powers like mind control, illusion, telepathy and the like have trouble with the alien nature of his thought process. This will also help shore up his Charisma based rolls in certain areas. I’m going to do a d6 and “Keep Both” again which costs another nine points. That leaves me with two points left over that I can’t do anything with. Which is fine, as the three powers we do have make him a good defensive villain that can be used as a PC or a midboss antagonist.

After that we get armor with is used (and depeleted) before Health starts to go down. Each character gets a minimum of 10 along with (Might+Action)/2 more points. In this case that’s an extra ten for a total of 20 armor points on Bionisaur. After that you pick your weapons (in this case big sharp teeth, tail smash and stepping on soft squishy mammals,) and you do the personality side of things. That’s it. It took us a page in Microsoft Word to give an example of character creation, which shows you how quick and easy this whole process is.

The book then closes with almost forty pages of adventure seeds, or Story Briefs, as is the vernacular here. These are divided into nine categories – eight for specific books and their characters like X-O Manowar or Eternal Warrior and then one four part story for immortal or time travelling characters like Ivar and Armstrong which will span literally thousands of years across the Valiant continuity. Some stores adhere closely to plots or story arcs from the comics, while some are completely original pieces. The sheer amount of briefs included means you won’t have to create your own homebrew adventures for a very long time. Of course, briefs are well, brief, so the Narrating team will have to flesh things out to make a full story out of them. This is how adventures for Valiant Universe RPG are done though due to the group effort of storytelling and the emphasis towards “on the fly” imaginative thinking. This is neither bad nor good – it simply is. I feel this affords new gamers a lot more flexibility than the on-rails format of most published adventures and it allows the group to think for themselves and become better GMs for it. At the same time, newcomers MAY want a little more structure and handholding with adventures, which isn’t something the current Story Briefs system offers.

Overall, I think Valiant Universe: the Roleplaying Game is fantastic. My favorite comic book universe is finally melded with my favorite hobby and the result is spectacular. The Cue System is a wonderful way to learn how to tabletop roleplay as the rules are simple and it really focuses on story telling over dice rolling. You have a great co-operative atmosphere that prevents the GM vs PC situations that develop with some other RPGs. Valiant Universe RPG is a very fun and easy to use system. The fact the PDF version of the game is only ten bucks makes this must buy for ANY superhero fan, even if you have little to no exposure with the Valiant Universe. Those same newcomers to Valiant might want to hold on the regular or deluxe version of the physical game as that money would be better spent purchasing a few trades (Start with Archer & Armstrong then pick up either Quantum and Woody or X-O Manowar). After all, you want to know you like the characters before you spend 30-50 bucks on a game you might not play. That’s why getting the PDF version first is the smart bet. At worst you’re only out ten dollars and even if you don’t like the game system, you might want the characters intriguing and want to learn more about them. At best, you’ve got a new gaming system to love and some new comic series to pick up! Again, with a ten buck price tag, any RPG or comic book fan should grab this without hesitation as the game is as well done as it is affordable. Valiant Universe RPG won’t be replacing TSR’s Marvel game or Mayfair’s DC Universe as my top two super hero RPGs, but I can safely say this one of the best new games of the year, Between Valiant Universe: The Roleplaying Game, Atomic Robo and the new version of ICONS, this is one of the best years for super hero RPGs in a very long time.

Rating:
[5 of 5 Stars!]
Valiant Universe: The Roleplaying Game
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