Friday, November 13, 2015

Some mini-reviews of the OSR Bundle of Holding (Bonus collection)

I'm pretty excited about a lot of the supplements and adventures in one of the latest Bundles of Holding. It's the 'Old School Revival - Revived' bundle, designed to help you run D&D-esque adventures.

I've only had a chance to skim-read these adventures and game systems but I'm very impressed with what I've read.

The God That Crawls
This adventure by James Raggi promises to flip the normal 'adventures enter a dungeon and explore deeper' dynamic. I suspect that run with a consideration for limited light sources and movement, it would be nightmarish fun. Maybe Torchbearer would be the meanest system to run it in, but I'm also tempted by something like Beyond The Wall--where the contrast between YA protagonists and shambling pursuing horror would be really striking.

I also really like lots of the seemly incidental material in the dungeon. This place is dangerous and rewarding, quite apart from the central threat.

(This is completely against the intention of both this module and the rules system ... but I'm curious how this would play using Dungeon World.)

The Monolith from Beyond Time and Space
There's about seven brilliant ideas in this adventure by James Raggi. In fact, I'm going to count them: ... There are nine ideas I'd describe as brilliant (including a meaty and central hook of the adventure: a nasty version of body-snatching), and many other ideas that could be brilliant depending on your personal taste.

This adventure is both a location and a resource for creating unnerving incidents. It would play really well as part of an ongoing campaign but it's also incredibly mean. You'd need either to have a totally accurate and insightful read of your gaming group's preferences or a conversation where you asked them if they were interested in introducing a high-horror, high-doom quotient into your game.

One reviewer accurately described it as the nuclear option: once you introduce this module, you are changing or condemning at least one of the PCs. In some ways it reminds me of the high-doom elements of the Call of Cthulhu moduel, A Dream of Japan.

Vornheim - The Complete City Kit
Note: The author of Vornheim,  Zak S, was kind enough to give me permission to use his elegant and quick technique for creating random floorplans in Soth.

Vornheim is an incredibly useful guide to creating a city that feels alive while doing not much work at all. In some places, it's dense: the first few pages of notes are the sort of thing you either get absorbed in and read cover to cover, or you dip into for inspiration. As the book goes on, it continually changes its presentation, giving you:

  • Bullet-pointed superstitions (I've found bullet-points to be great for presenting setting material)
  • Dungeon maps (of locations in the city) that are filled with character and convey a strong impression of the space without being a top-down presentation
  • Great techniques and procedures for creating suburbs and street maps, and floorplan
  • Lots of random tables.

The book ends with this insight:
In a wilderness or dungeon, the party’s adventure during any given session is defined by where they are geographically–in a volcano, in the southwest corner of a maze, at the bottom of a pit, etc.  
In a city, this is less important, movement is freer, easier and more certain than in a dungeon and distances are shorter than in a wilderness. In a city, the party’s adventure is defined by where they are in a chain of consequences
What’s most important, after a session, is not figuring our where the PCs left off, but who they pissed off getting there. The next session’s adventure can often be built from the consequences of what the PCs did during the last session
I'd love to combine this with Blades in the Dark and see what sticks together.

The Adventurer Conqueror King system (ACKS)
I've wanted to read this for ages. I've been told ACKs is amazing at helping the group create a completely logical fantasy economy that facilitates adventurers moving from nomadic looters to aristocratic managers of a stronghold or realm. The heart of this seems to be in Chapter 7: Campaigns and Chapter 10: Secrets, which (on a skim read) appears to be an incredibly useful resource for constructing a campaign setting, the regions inside it, the starting city, and dungeons.

ACKS also has two neat tables in its combat system: for moral and permanent wounds, and for what happens if someone tries to revive you with magic.

I have to admit, I'm a bit lost when it comes to trying to evaluate:

  • how well (and how differently) different OSR systems will play compared to each other
  • how a system compares to all the editions of D&D I'm familiar with (which is everything except 5th Edition).

I think the character or uniqueness of each system will have to reveal themselves in play. I've played Into The Odd, which was fantastic at getting me into an old-school mindset. But figuring out the specifics of Lamentations of the Flame Princess, ACKS, Beyond The Wall, Labyrinth Lord, and Swords and Wizardry will take a lot more time than I have at the moment.

Stonehell Dungeon
This is a mega-dungeon by Michael Curtis. Six levels of low to moderate dungeon-ecological-logic, which Curtis describes as perfect for a weekend gaming marathon. It's presented as a toolbox where the elements of the dungeon can be easily customised and modified by a GM.

It also takes a lot of inspiration from the One Page Dungeon competition about how to compress a dungeon down to its essentials.  In the case of Stonehell, each part of the dungeon in a two-page spread.

I was only able to skim this but it looks totally fit for purpose to me.

Thursday, November 5, 2015

A review of the Bundle of Tentacles (the Bonus collection)

Here are some mini-reviews of games and adventures in the Bundle of Holding's latest offering of Cthulhu-related products. (I reviewed the Bundle's 'Starter Collection' yesterday.)

Money from this latest bundle goes towards the Electronic Freedom Foundation, which defends digital civil liberties.

Disclosure: my game Soth is in this bundle, so I'll financially benefit from sales.

In this post, I'll take a look at all the products in the Bundle's 'Bonus Collection':

  • World War Cthulhu - The Darkest Hour: This complete game (based on the Call of Cthulhu RPG) sets the battle against Great Old Ones and Elder Things in the arena of World War 2. It gives you everything you'd want, including a full multi-session, an open-ended adventure, and excellent inspiration for creating your own scenarios.
  • World War Cthulhu - Europe Ablaze: Six World War 2 adventures that contain some interesting ideas. They range from standard Lovecraftian ideas in a war setting to material that's more brutal and unfair.
  • Tales of the Crescent City: Six noir-esque adventures set in New Orleans. Features three adventures I'd like to run right now.
  • A Dream of Japan: A creepy trap of an adventure that contains the seeds of an epic campaign.
Reading through these supplements and adventures I've seen examples of at least seven types of Call of Cthulhu adventure:
  • The action-adventure
  • The noir 
  • The exploration
  • The war-stor
  • The trap
  • The doom
  • The investigation
Between the Starter Collection and The Bonus Collection, there's more than enough material to create an anthologised Call of Cthulhu campaign.

You can find the Bundle of Holding here:

Here are some other things I noted about each of the supplements in the Starter Collection

World War Cthulhu - The Darkest Hour

  • I didn't know this, but World War Cthulhu (WWC) is a series of settings that puts Cthulhu tropes into different 20th century conflicts.
  • The Darkest Hour is set in World War 2, where you play intelligence agents who are also occult investigators (a pitch that reminds me quite a bit of Tim Powers' Declare). It's a strong device to justify investigators working together on multiple missions (if they survive and remain sane).
  • This supplement is sort of a replacement for the main Call of Cthulhu (CoC) rules. Starting WWC investigators will be slightly more powerful and competent than standard investigators
  • This book gives me everything I'd want, including a full multi-session and open-ended adventure.
  • There's excellent inspiration for creating scenarios. It talks about basic military and espionage plots, and then does the same for basic Lovecraftian plots. It also provides a number of initial situations in different military theatres of operation
  • I was also interesting in the short updates on what various monsters and cultures are trying to achieve during World War 2
  • It's an easy read: clearly laid-out, nicely broken up by headings and sub-headings, and a logical order to things.

World War Cthulhu - Europe Ablaze

  • This is a set of six adventures set during World War 2.
  • There's something about this wartime setting that feels right to me. It gives adventures two tracks to worry about. It gives a sense of realistic consequences to the action and the NPCs. It creates interesting ironies, subtext and choices.
  • 'Sleeper Agents' sounds like it'll be brutal: a mix of Spielberg's Munich coupled with an internal logic that will lead to the investigators almost certainly murdering a lot of people
  • 'The Play Is The Thing' makes me think it would be possible to run a whole series of published CoC adventures dealing with various performances of 'The King In Yellow' (there are similar adventures in the next supplement I'm reading, Tales of the Crescent City)
  • 'We Will Remember Them' has a interesting flashback structure and promises to fundamentally change investigators who participate. The flashbacks feel a bit like the opening cinematic to a video game, and the whole module reads like it'll take agency from the investigators in an interesting way.
  • The final three scenarios are tight monster-hunts and military operations.

Tales Of The Crescent City

  • A book of six adventures set in 1920s New Orleans (one of my favourite CoC settings, from my days where this was my RPG of choice)
  • It contains a revised version of a classic CoC adventure ('Tell Me, Have You Seen The Yellow Sign') as well as a sequel adventure written by the same author.
  • Tales of the Crescent City efficiently orients you to New Orleans. I'd like a player handout that gives you a quick bullet-pointed summary of basic facts about the city, but it's very easy to do that with the material provided here.
  • On first glance, 'Tell Me, Have You Seen The Yellow Sign' (TMHYSTYM) feels like a noir. There are lots of characters, each of whom has interesting secrets. It's also a bit of a sequel to Lovecraft's story 'The Call of Cthulhu'. I love the stakes for failing in this adventure: the relentless spread of the King in Yellow's rule.
  • In fact, framing most of these these adventures through a noir lens feels pretty good choice to me.
  • I love a good disease story and 'The Quickening Spiral' delivers. It feels like this mystery could be quite open-ended, though ... and I wonder if selecting appropriately skilled and motivated investigators (physicians, city officials) could be important to its success.
  • 'Song and Dance' features my favourite Great Old One: it's a creepy and distressing old acquaintance that warms my heart every time I see it appear. I really dig the idea behind this scenario, which involves artists, muses, and has a faint 'disease' / epidemiological vibe to it.
  • 'Five Lights At The Crossroads' has a hell of an opening scene. This is a tightly-focused manhunt where everything's pretty obvious but tricky to resolve. I liked it a lot.
  • 'Asylum: The Return of the Yellow Sign' is set two years after TMHYSTYM. It's good but I like the faint suggestion that there might be a parallel world where the events of the previous adventure ended in success for the King in Yellow and now those successes could be bleeding through into our world. That threat undercuts any feeling of success and satisfaction the investigators have--and I think CoC plays best when the investigators are unsettled. Features a nightmarish and brilliant finale.

A Dream of Japan

  • An adventure set around Aokigahara Forest. I expect it'll be made famous (outside of Japan) in this movie due to be released in 2016...
  • It promises to enmesh the investigators in a plan that has been playing out for thousands of years, that they are pawns in.
  • A Dream of Japan contains content involving insanity and suicides, and deals with it through the lenses of pulp and horror, rather than realistically and with emotional weight.
  • The implications in this adventure's final two pages point to an amazing second act of the adventure / way to resolve the situation.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

A review of the Bundle of Tentacles (Starter Collection)

I wanted to share some first-impression mini-reviews of the Bundle of Holding's latest offering of Cthulhu-related products.

The Bundles of Holding collections raise money for charity and distribute profits to game designers. Money from this latest bundle goes towards the Electronic Freedom Foundation, which defends digital civil liberties.

Disclosure: my game Soth is in this bundle, so I'll financially benefit from sales.

In this post, I'll take a look at all the products in the Bundle's 'starter collection':

  • Cthulhu Live: A Call of Cthulhu (CoC) Live Action Roleplaying (LARP) system that features amazing advice for creating makeup and costumes for Lovecraftian monsters
  • Islands of Ignorance - The 3rd Cthulhu Companion: a collection of essays (including some great advice for creating war veterans and hobos using the Call of Cthulhu rules) and 1920s-set scenarios (including a nasty ghost/possession scenario set in a luxury resort)
  • Age of Cthulhu - The Long Reach of Evil: A 1920s adventure anthology set in non-Western locations.
  • Mythos Society Guide to New England: A dense reference book that will be a useful read for a campaign based in New England. Contains a very useable, gameifiable timeline of events between 1919 and 1938, along with articles on New England's pre-European colonisation history and occult events in the centuries leading up to the 1920s.

You can find the Bundle of Holding here:

I'll look at the games in the bonus collection in another post, and then I'll choose one of the supplements to focus on in more detail.

In the meantime, here are some other things I noted about each of the supplements in the Starter Collection

Cthulhu Live

  • This delivers a streamlined CoC experience. I'd love to see how its slow-motion combat system plays out.
  • Seems to come from a different LARP culture than the ones I'm familiar with (Jeepform and NZ motivation-heavy, rules-light LARPs). The rules here rely on you having a full character sheet with stats and skills that are quickly referenced in play.
  • I'm fascinated to know what using the Accountancy skill looks like in a LARP.
  • The more practical this system was, the better I liked it. For instance, I loved the section on monsters, complete with advice on make-up, costuming and practical effects to create shoggoths and gigantic creatures. The advice on choosing a location for the game and decorating the sets was also great.
  • There's nothing here about adventure design or how to set-up/structure a session

Island of Ignorance: The Third Cthulhu Companion

  • I think how useful and enjoyable you find each of the articles at the front of this companion will be very dependent on personal taste. I really like the essay describing an unearthly opera, which detailed its history, plot, and contained an adventure seed.
  • Similarly, I liked the description of an occult tome called the Knjiga Mrvta. Again it contains a mix of history about the tome's author, some adventure seeds and information about different editions.
  • A new spell to create a portal had hints of super-science (an advanced technology that's indistinguishable from magic) about it. I liked that, but wasn't so sure about the article giving hints about the biography of Abdul Alhazared (I prefer to leave that stuff mysterious rather than create fan-canon)  
  • The advice for creating an investigator with a military / Great War background is simple, clear, and logical. The information about hoboes and hobo culture was detailed. 
  • I'm not going into too much detail about the premises of the four scenarios or how they play out. One of them contains a trigger warning for sexual violence and child abuse. One of them has a great setting (investigating an apparently haunted lighthouse). The final one is a creepy haunting / possession story - I like the way this one is presented, few NPCs, simple drives, nasty backstory

Age of Cthulhu - The Long Reach of Evil 

  • This is an adventure anthology set in non-American, non-Western locales. 
  • There are some excellent and solid premises here: a cult kidnapping, an investigation into the suicide of a friend, and dealing with the consequences of unleashing a long-buried threat
  • Each adventure assumes the investigators are outsiders to the location. I immediately wanted to invert that and have the investigators be familiar with the general locale.
  • In fact, this anthology has inspired me. I'd love to do a loosely connected, shared-world campaign, where you play specific adventurers for each new adventure. The world changes as a result of any failures in an adventure, and after a while you do an Avengers-like team up of favourite surviving investigators for a suitably epic adventure or campaign.

Mythos Society Guide to New England

  • I found this instantly educational: I wasn't aware that New England was a term for a collection of states.
  • There's a fantastic timeline of events around New England between 1919 and 1938. Feels like it'd be very easy to pick a few of these to flesh out a scenario.
  • The guide also contains a comprehensive introduction to the non-European, pre-colonisation history of New England and an overview of monsters, occultists, and paranormal events (many of these are pre-20th century).