Tagged: Reviews

Review: Dust, Fog & Glowing Embers

TL/DR: Looks fascinating, but I can’t grok it.

“Dust, Fog & Glowing Embers” is a roleplaying game written by Slade Stolar and published by Scablands Press. The game was kickstarted about a year ago. I didn’t participate in the Kickstarter, but it was one of those games that I found hard to resist. The art really drew me in. The style said: “This is some pretty screwed up shit, you’ll want to give it a read.” When it became available on RPGNow, I picked up the softcover B&W version.

The basic game system is pretty easy to grasp. When a player wants to perform a task, he rolls two different colored D6. The light-colored die is the difficulty of the task. The dark-colored die is how well the character performed the task. There are modifiers thrown in as well.

Ok, now we get to the confusing part… Depending on which die comes out on top, the GM or the player gets to add a “detail” to the scene. There are hard details, soft details, and scene details. The number and type you get to add depends upon the difference between the die results. There’s a little table you’ll need to refer to in order to figure this out (I’m too old to memorize stuff like this). So what are the details? There are examples, they provide bonuses or penalties, but I just can’t wrap my head around it… My feeling is this is a game that you need to sit down and play with someone who is already familiar with the rules in order to really understand it. Alternately, I’m just reading way too much into it… As a GM, I make stuff like this up on the fly when characters fail their rolls. Maybe it is the codification of the success or failure into these various “levels” that I can’t grok?

The character creation rules are dead simple. You pick an archetype and that determines your attributes. The attributes are Tough (strength), Precise (dexterity) and Clever (intelligence). Characters are assumed to come from the bottom rung of society. The only way to advance is to find a rich and powerful patron who employs you to do his dirty work, so once the players have created their characters, they work out the manner of patron they serve. There is a lot of player agency here. You’ll need a creative bunch to get this to work.

Next, come rules for alchemy or the “Spagyric Arts“. Your patron will provide your character with various concoctions that allow them to defy the laws of physics. These potions really “buff” your character and it is assumed that you can squirrel away a few to use when pursuing your own goals. There is also a chapter on the humors and how they relate to your character. I’m a total sucker for any game that includes humorism and enjoyed seeing how this quackery is incorporated into the rules.

After this, are chapters on the game world (it strikes me as a late Georgian or early Victorian era) and the city of Stome where adventures will take place. The districts of Stome are sketched out and there are random encounter tables for each. A chapter on the foes your characters may run into follows. There are some very cool takes on traditional monsters, like the Vampire, and how they fit into this world.

Next, we have what I’ll call “chapters on random stuff” – a couple noble houses are described, Systems of Thought (which appear to be a real “loosey goosey” magic system) and an entirely new Spagyric Art.  I think that these were authored by people who kickstarted the game. They are not incorporated into the main rules and feel more like a bunch of notes that were “tacked on”.

The game ends with a chapter on GM guidance and a scripted example of play. This helps you understand a bit more on how to use the various “details”, but it didn’t bring me full enlightenment on how it all works. I think a scene with some combat would have helped me a lot.

Honestly, “Dust, Fog & Glowing Embers” doesn’t feel like a polished roleplaying game, as much as the author’s notes or rough draft. Those “random stuff” chapters should either be incorporated into the game as a whole or excised completely. I’d like more discussion on how to use the system – what the “details” are, what is hard versus soft versus scene (and why do we even need “scene” details?). What the heck are “scars”? Finally, I would have loved to have a sample adventure. Even if I don’t use it “as is”, it’d sure help me figure out what kinds of things characters should be doing in this world.

Overall, I’m glad I picked it up. It exudes atmosphere and I will mine it for ideas for other games. I don’t understand the system well enough to run it and I don’t think it’d go over well with my game group.

“Dust, Fog & Glowing Embers” is available at RPGNow.

Review: Red Right Hand and Black Goat Blues

TL/DR: Read ’em for some exciting mythos-inspired action.

Red Right Hand and Black Goat Blues are the first two novels in Levi Black’s Mythos War trilogy. I stumbled across them at my local library and thought “It’s been years since you read any Cthulhu stuff, why not give it a go?” Man, I am glad I did. Warning – if you are looking for a traditional mythos novel, these are not the books for you. Black clearly loves the mythos, but he takes everything Lovecraft did and flips it on its head.

First of all, the mythos gods of this universe are nothing like the unknowable, alien beings we all know and love. Nyarlathotep is terrifying, but he is also petty and vindictive. I actually felt sorry for mighty Cthulhu and Shub-Niggurath at points in the novels. These beings are knowable, we understand their designs. Sure, they’re intent upon screwing up the world, but we can grasp why they want to do it. They feel more like the gods of ancient Greece than the eldritch beings Lovecraft described.

Second, humans are important. Our myths and legends play an important role in this universe. Nyarlathotep wears the skin of a flayed archangel and uses the knife with which Abraham planned to sacrifice his son. Powerful sorcerers have captured elder gods and use them for nefarious purposes and even the Crawling Chaos needs help to overcome such foes. Finally, the lead character, Charlie, grows during the course of the story and is able to go toe to toe with the “big bads” at the end of the first book.

Finally, these stories are fast-paced and action-packed. Events happen at a frenetic pace. The fight scenes are great and the gore is, well, pretty gory. The chapters are short and I found myself reading “just one more” way too many times. Heck, I finished Black Goat Blues in two nights!

I highly recommend these books and cannot wait for the next one.

Review: Tequendria

TL/DR: Glad I bought it, but I doubt I’ll play it.

Tequendria is a roleplaying game written by Scott Malthouse and published by Trollish Delver Games. It is billed as “a fantastical roleplaying game inspired by the works of Lord Dunsany”, but one can see the influence of Lovecraft, Bierce, and Chambers as well. I picked this game up on a whim… I had a Lulu coupon (one of those buy 4 for the price of 3 deals) and was, quite frankly, taken in by the cover by Ivan Bilibin. (Note, the electronic version at RPGNow appears to have a different cover than the printed copy.) Tequendria  is a 77 page, softbound book. About two-thirds of it is devoted to the actual game rules; the last 24 pages contain three stories by Lord Dunsany.

Tequendria uses the Unbelievably Simple Role-playing system (USR), published by Trollish Delver Games. It’s only a buck at RPGNow, so if you want a look it won’t break the bank. Characters are defined by three attributes and an archetype. The attributes are Action (anything physical, strength, agility), Wit (mental things like intelligence, perception) and Ego (social things, persuade, charisma). Players have 1D6, 1D8 and 1D10 to assign to these attributes. The higher the die, the more competent your character is. What really makes Tequendria cool is the archetypes. You don’t play a warrior or a wizard in this game. Instead, you play a Moonblade or a Bathraka Cloudmind.  Each archetype has three specialties (think skills) and a singular ability that sets it apart from the others. For example, a Necronaut may travel to the “Hollow” and speak to the dead. All of them look really interesting to play and the author has conveniently included a table so your players can randomly generate an archetype instead of agonizing over what to choose.

Apparently, all characters in this game are capable of casting spells. There is a list of serviceable spells included in the game, but I didn’t see any rules for choosing how many your character knows at the start of the game, or how to learn more. It could be that everyone just knows them. Spells are powered by a characters life force (i.e., hit points).  Tequendria has a level-based system for advancement. Characters will gain more hits and can improve existing or learn new skills. I’m not a fan of increasing hit points with level, so I’d probably need to house rule something for this and for spell casting…

The USR game system is (not surprisingly) pretty simple. If there is a task, you figure out what attribute makes the most sense, roll the die, add any bonuses you might get from a specialty, combat advantage, etc. and attempt to beat a target number. When facing a foe, both characters roll their attribute die and the winner of the contest succeeds. I didn’t see any rule for a tie in this situation. I guess you can fall back on the “defender” wins or the contest must go another round or something. For static contests like climbing a wall or picking a lock, there is a table of difficulties. The only quibble I have with this system is that the target numbers don’t progress in a mathematical fashion. You’ll need to memorize or refer to the table in play. Overall, the system seems robust and should be entertaining for a “one-shot” or short campaign. There’s enough “meat” here to make me happy and it only needs a few tweaks or clarifications to run easily.

There are excellent chapters on the world and the creatures that inhabit it. I would love for this to be fleshed out even more. Tequendria looks like a fascinating world, but we get only the barest glimpse of its many lands and cultures.

The book ends with three stories by Lord Dunsany. I’ve never read any of his works before. Let me warn you, the prose takes some getting used to. I found “Idle Days on the Yann” to be a complete snooze fest. It’s basically a travelogue of the weird and fantastic places the author journeys too. It was a hard slog to get through it since nothing exciting ever happens. The other two tales were more engaging and better examples of how one could structure an adventure in this world.

Tequendria is not an easy game to get into. The author has stated that this is a game about the worlds of Lord Dunsany, but he offers little advice on how to run such a game. There are no sample adventures. The snippets about abandoned towers and underground caverns sound like standard dungeon crawling to me. We do have some stories to read to “get the feel” of the world, but I think I’d need to read a lot more Dunsany to convey the world to my players. The game certainly is evocative and has a lot of cool ideas I’d purloin for other “weird fantasy” games. I’m happy I picked this game up, but I’m not sure I will ever run it.

Tequendria is available at RPGnow and Lulu.

Review: Ghastly Affair

TL/DR: Buy it – it’s great!

Ghastly Affair Player’s Manual & Presenters Manual by Daniel James Hanley

Caveat
I’ve not played this game. The review is based on a read through of the manuals only.

Premise
Ghastly Affair is a horror role playing game set in the late-eighteenth/early-nineteenth century. It takes its inspiration from the gothic novels, such as Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein, written in this period. It is obviously a labor of love. The author has created a great game with mechanics that reflect the source material well.

System
At first glance, this looks like another “OSR clone”. The stats are the same, characters have levels, classes, and so forth. That’s not the case. Hanley has redesigned the underlying mechanism to be a roll-low system. Actions are based on a character’s statistic and the player needs to roll below it on 1d20 to succeed at a task. It reminds me of Flashing Blades in many respects. There is also a system to resolve “opposed actions”. This requires reference to a table where stats are compared to come up with a modifier to the die roll. Given how light the rest of the game is, this seems a little over-engineered. Maybe a system where you compare margin of success would be simpler for a house rule?

Character classes are evocative and based on archetypes in the source material. For example, you can play a mad scientist, grave robber or true innocent. There are even options in the appendices to play a vampire or werewolf! As characters gain levels they become better in combat: hit points rise and they gain bonuses to damage. I’d probably house rule some of this away as I am not a fan of gaining HP with levels. I think I’d give the classes more “oomph” for their base skills as they rise in level too. For example, the  “fighting classes” would gain bonuses to hit in combat, while mad scientists would get better at their “science” skills (maybe level/2). Stats are rolled in the 3d6 range, but there is an option for an “allocation” system. Finally, there are advantages and disadvantages that give the characters bonuses or penalties to specific actions. These are really excellent additions to any OSR game.

The magic and mad science systems are fantastic. Magic doesn’t use the “Vancian” system common to most D&D games. Instead the character loses temporary hit points (simulating exhaustion) when casting a spell. There are systems for talismans, pacts and rituals as well. I think this is my favorite implementation of magic for any OSR game I’ve read. It’d be easy to port over to a more traditional fantasy game as well. Mad science also makes use of the “spell list”, but the trappings are different. Does Dr. Ivanovich to use a galvanic rifle? You can replicate it with the Lightning Bolt “spell”. At first blush, it feels like mad scientists get the short end of the stick as far as “goodies” go since they are limited to a items based on their level. It’d be easy to house rule giving them more stuff or allow them to create all kinds of monsters and devices, but rule that they can only carry items up to their level and the rest of it stays “in the lab”.

Monster statistics will be familiar to anyone that knows D&D and it is straightforward to import creatures from other “monster manuals” into this system. I feel the creature list is a little bloated. Hastur only knows when I’d actually need combat stats for an albatross! Outside of mundane creatures like bears and wolves, you are also treated to faeries, revenants and many other “things that go bump in the night”. The monsters are interesting enough that most can serve as a basis for a scenario.

Fluff
The default setting of A Ghastly Affair is in a fictional version of earth where monsters prowl the night and cultist conduct foul rituals. Hanley does a great job of providing the GM with enough detail to run a fun game without becoming lost in minutia. Scattered throughout the book are “sidebars” with examples of the times including some really interesting (and disturbing) facts. What really shines are the year-by-year timelines that pull together historical and strange events. This thing is chock-full of scenario seeds and makes me want to try and wade through my Dad’s copy of the Complete Works of Charles Fort again. The author regularly updates his blog with NPC write-ups, random tables and information about the Highdark Hall manor. It’s great stuff! I’m keeping my fingers crossed for some proper scenarios to make getting into the game a little easier – maybe we’ll see another book soon?

The illustrations are very nice. It’s amazing when a one-man operation pulls together some really appropriate art instead of just searching for public domain images on the internet. It shows how invested the author is in this project to see him pony up for decent art to support his game. The full page illustrations are excellent (I think the one with the werewolf is the only one I don’t like). The silhouettes are really cool (and in a twisted way kind of period authentic) as well.

Layout is clean and easy to read. This is the first set of books I’ve picked up from this Amazon self-publishing program and they look like they’ll hold up to gaming use well. They’re at least as good as anything I’ve gotten from Lulu or RPGNow.

Overall
Buy it. Even if you are not into horror, the Player’s Manual has some really great ideas you could use in any OSR game. Even better – both manuals are on sale through Xmas 2016!

Ghastly Affair Player’s Manual
Ghastly Affair Presenter’s Manual
Try before you buy? No art versions are available for download at the author’s blog.