16 May 2016

The Cthulhu Hack Review

The Cthulhu Hack Review

This is author Paul Baldowski’s answer to old-school style Black Hack Call of Cthulhu. It’s a reasonably priced PDF that printed rather nicely on my duplex laser - except for the cover which is a page of black. I’m not printing that even if  you pay me. I’d suggest reversing the cover of the PDF; black on a white background will get used - the reverse? I’m not so sure.

I got my copy from RPGNOW.com which describes the product as a 42 page PDF. It doesn’t say up front that these are digest-sized pages so you’re getting about 20 pages of content. The text is large and liberally spaced; the file could have been much smaller and achieved the same result. On the plus-side the acres of blank space gives the reader plenty of room to scribble in their own notes and house rules.

The writing is friendly and conversational and only occasionally a little clumsy for example some words and combinations are over used from time-to-time and the author treats just about everything as a proper noun requiring capitalisation. This isn’t a huge issue but it makes a block of prose feel, well, clumsy. For example we’re told that a Turn lasts a Minute. You might get away with Turn as your proper noun (not that I’d bother) but Minute? No. There are literally dozens of other examples that a proof reader could have weeded out.

The Black Hat layout still needs some work. When creating your character you’ll need to start with the section entitled Rolling Stats then visit every other section of the rule book to complete your character sheet. The vital statistics of character classes is reserved for the last few pages of the book.

The core of the game is elegant and simple; generate your character’s statistics with a throw of 3 six-sided dice for each and throw a twenty-side die to test the stat in play. You need to throw under the number by the way, which strikes me as odd. The rules are essentially telling you to refer to your character sheet and not throw the number indicted. But the confusion is short-lived. The text doesn’t offer any suggestions on what to do when your character is an incompetent idiot with perilously low scores. I’m not suggesting that’s a bad thing but in my group Stat Envy is a real issue and a session where all of the characters are bumbling Inspector Clouseau wannabes whilst potentially fun will set a tone that may be undesired and probably provide for a short and bloody game session.

Player’s throw almost all the dice in this game; throw to hit; throw to be missed; throw for clues et cetera. I like this style of play a lot; it’s particularly conducive for an investigative game.

Investigation is quietly the centrepiece and is handled deftly. If the players investigate the right location or character they receive a clue but must then check their flashlight or smokes die. Flashlight covers any kind of investigation involving searching and smokes refers to interaction. After finding a clue, the player throws a die (eight-sided for example); if the result is 1 or 2, the next time a throw is called for, the next smaller die (six-sider) must be used. When the player has used the last d4, that line of enquiry is closed. For now. The important part of the process is that the clue is revealed before the die is thrown; rarely will a mission be derailed by poor dice throws.

The mechanic referred to above is called the Usage Die. Not a term that trips off the tongue but it’s serviceable. Alas even in this iteration of Black Hack it isn’t presented in the best light despite being the cornerstone of what makes this series of games different. My take on the mechanic is this: when you make meaningful use of something tracked by a usage die, throw the die and when it’s gone, it’s gone. The rules instead tell you that the game is divided into discrete turns which are really game minutes and in each minute exists an unspecified number of moments. A moment is when you do things, a minute is when you throw the usage die. Clunky. I’ll stick with my interpretation. 

A brief interlude: starting cash for characters. Each class starts with a number of dollars based on the character’s charisma score. My sample clergyman begin with $8 in his pocket. The author takes a paragraph to say “don’t abstract cash, it’s better to use dollars and cents” but doesn’t give the reader any clue what comes after his character has blown his $8. Now, if ever there was genuine cause to wheel out the usage die, this is it. A revolver for example has 6 bullets but we don’t keep track of those six shots instead, the usage die comes into play; in theory you could continue to discharge your service pistol until Great Cthulhu was reduced to a ragged stump but when it comes to buying a pack of Lucky Strikes and a beer, well, you need to keep detailed records. Hmmm… missed opportunity? Probably. Giving a rich character a usage die of d10, for example, and letting them throw for every expense would soon whittle the resource and, importantly, provide the drama that the author is seeking with his reliance on loose change.

Sanity! You can’t have a Cthulhu game without it right? Right! In my book, this is another win for The Cthulhu Hack. Sanity is represented with a usage die based on character class and triggered by various unsavoury events. Throw a 1 or 2 and the die drops to the next smaller poly and the character suffers a period of temporary insanity. This nicely mimics the original game whilst retaining some pulp survivability for the characters. For my money, sanity recovers too quickly at one die per day of rest - I’ll probably stick to recovery when the character levels up or not at all depending on the nature of the shock. 

The game skilfully manages to reduce the referee’s tasks to running the story and interacting with the players as the adventure’s ancillary characters; he or she is mercifully saved from throwing dice and consulting charts. Enemies are described by one rating: hit dice. The more hit dice the enemy has the more damage it inflicts when the character fails to defend and the more damage it can sustain. A very nice touch is that monsters with more hit dice than the character fighting it apply the difference as a penalty to the player’s dice throws. Monsters scale effortlessly with the characters.

The rest of the game’s elements are left to individual players, for example: characters level up pretty much when the referee says they should but there are guidelines. There isn’t much in the way of assistance for new players and referees to fathom what certain classes might be capable of; a few examples would have sorted that out and there’s no shortage of unused space in the book so I think the author could have expanded that area a little.

I’m very happy with my purchase and will definitely play this game almost complete as written. My preferences mentioned earlier do little to alter the game’s intent. The Black Hat and by association, The Cthulhu Hack are so far removed from the original D&D of 1974 that the any claimed comparison is completely redundant; the ability names (strength, dexterity et cetera) remain, everything else has changed. However, as first an investigation based role-playing game and secondly as a publication that captures the feel of Chaosium’s first edition Call of Cthulhu, this is a win.

31 October 2015

Delving Deeper Review

This should appear on www.rpg.net in the next few days. I've aimed the review at players who might not have tried an OSR game but would like to.

This is what's known in OSR circles (Old School Revolution) as a retro-clone. A game designed with the intention of invoking not just the rules of the earliest role-playing games but also the spirit and style of play. If you're already a fan of OSR games, you'll likely already know about this game and perhaps this review isn't for you. If you'd like to try an OSR game, here might be a good place to start.

I'm may not the best person to talk about the origins of this game. My first experience with this genre of gaming, back in 1980 was Traveller. The first game I bought was the original Dragon Quest by SPI. I did not understand that game and I didn't care. I just filled in the gaps (deep chasms) by making stuff up. I played Basic D&D, the Tom Moldvay version and a little later, purchased that game and played it for ages. I went on to play Advanced Dungeons & Dragons and a long list of others besides.

So Delving Deeper is a painstaking recreation of the very first role-playing game ever published back in 1974. I never played it (at the time). Before I get stuck into the topic of this review I want to mention two other games with that share this goal: Full Metal Plate Mail is available as a free PDF from Lulu but you can buy both a soft and hard cover version; the wonderfully named Seven Voyages of Zylarthen is available in a four-book set as a free PDF or your can purchase the soft cover booklets also from Lulu. To my mind they are very different games. Full Metal Plate Mail is, written based solely on the first three booklets published by Tactical Studies Rules. Zylarthen takes the three original books and adds the miniature rules from the Chainmail game booklet.

The three-book boxed set of Dungeons and Dragons was intended to be used in conjunction with Chainmail since that volume provided the combat rules. The three-book set contained an alternate combat system but it was just a vague outline even though it would become the standard D&D system. I'm not a student of the game so I didn't really understand Chainmail's influence until I read Delving Deeper.

Like Zyarthen, Delving Deeper looks at the three original books together with Chainmail as the complete game to be emulated. This doesn't mean Full Metal Plate Mail is the lesser product, it's just different. Delving Deeper is available as an online hypertext document, three separate booklets (both PDF and DOCX format) and as a perfect-bound digest-sized Rules Compendium from Lulu. I'm reviewing the Compendium which I bought just over a year ago and have used heavily since then. It's still in one piece.

I imagine that many people picking up the original game back in 1974 and later understood it in the same way as I did with Dragon Quest; not very well. To play, they would have made up bits not just to fill the gaps in their understanding but also the gaps in the rules. Just like I did. We've probably all been there.

With Delving Deeper the author, with input from other interested parties on the internet, has pieced together, over a period of years, a completely playable version of that original game. When approaching this game it's probably best for the reader to leave modern conceptions of Dungeons and Dragons at the door. There are elements in this game that never made it to later releases. For example, the three tiers of play: normal (levels 1 to 2); heroic (levels 3+) and super-heroic (level 7+). They are each distinct styles of play.

So, no preconceptions right?

The book, the Reference Rules Compendium is a beauty. It's digest or pocket-sized and weighs in at 130 densely packed pages with exactly three interior illustrations. The cover is magnificent: a black and white underground battle scene between the adventuring party and hordes of kobolds, lizard men and a mighty hydra. Inside we learn a little of the game's origin, a list of required equipment: six siders and a twenty-sided die for the players, the full range of poly-dice for the referee (not the dungeon or game master, just the ref.). Character generation is familiar and brief. You throw dice to determine your basic abilities and use those numbers to get a handle on your new character. Some of those numbers modify game statistics to a greater or lesser effect but in all cases much less so than modern games. A character with low statistics is at less of a disadvantage in this game than later iterations. Character classes are broadly defined with non-humans having some unique advantages but suffering long-term limitations. The character's class defines the six-side hit dice thrown for hit points and after choosing equipment, your new player-character is ready to go.

Before I get to the rest of the game, I want to talk a little about the combat mechanics. This is where I find differences between the original and later games most prominent. Normal tier characters (2 or fewer hit dice) follow familiar rules but should they face a heroic level threat, a monster, or another character with 3 or more hit dice they're in trouble; that foe can make as many attacks agains normal types as it has hit dice (it makes each of these attacks as a level one creature). The normal character can only return with a single blow. However, a heroic-level character fighting a similarly ranked foe each make one attack at the level indicated by their hit dice.

A weapon, is a weapon. In these rules, all attack forms, with the exception of some monster attacks, deliver 1 to 6 points of damage. All game combat systems are abstractions and I have no problem with this. In fact I prefer it. A dagger to the heart will kill you just as quickly as a war hammer smack to the back of the skull. My players are happy with the situation, in fact it means they choose the weapon that seems right for the character rather the one with the appropriate mechanical modifiers.

I like the way the game handles defensive actions – spend a turn parrying and receive a 4-point defensive bonus, if the attacker misses because of that modifier you get to sneak in a riposte. Nice. Brawling or “overbearing” is carried forward from the original game, it's simple and effective: throw your hit dice, if you beat your opponent's throw, you've pinned him. There are the usual complications but the more I play, the more I realise that the system either has the main options covered or obligingly leaves sign-posts for the reader to ad-lib in the gaps. If you're used to rules-heavy games, you might find the experience liberating.

Combat is deadly. Your character has a six-sided hit die, as mentioned above, weapons will hurt. Characters will die. Modern gamers will need to adjust their mindset. Today's games have lengthy character generation routines that produce rounded individuals with backgrounds, histories, love interests and long-term goals. Delving Deeper gives you a dude with a pack full of dangerous stuff and challenges you to make something of him. Your character is put together in five minutes with three of those minutes spent choosing equipment that will keep the poor soul alive for another turn. Getting to level two is either a supreme challenge or a terrible grind (I favour the former) but the path to success is littered with the fallen. Do put effort into your character but wait to see if he survives first.

Don't forget this is a game. You have to play it. The origins of the hobby belong to social war gaming, groups were larger the role-playing part of the RPG formulae was evident but not the primary goal. Your characters have to be prepared: missile weapons; torches; rope; a bag full of caution. Never get surprised, you might not survive the first turn of combat; always be prepared to run – the game won't always throw “balanced” enemies at you. If you survive, brilliant; if not, create the next hero.

The implied skill system of the first game lives on here: firstly if a brave adventurer should be able to perform a particular action, it just happens. If it's a task involving more than the usual level of risk it's successful on a throw of 5 or 6 (on one six-sided die) and if the character should be good at a particular risky action because of his or her class or race, success is assured with a throw of 3 – 6. Simple. Love it.

Magic is interesting. Clerics, just like magic-users get their spells from dusty tomes but like Basic D&D and its clones, your cleric doesn't get access to any magic until he's proved himself and made it to level two. As in the original, cleric spells are detailed to level 5 (6 per level) and magic-users get spells to level 6 (12 per level). All the classics are there but in just about every instance, they're more powerful. Later editions sought to balance every aspect of the game but Delving Deeper sticks to the original raw text and magic is a bit scary. Charm Person last...forever.

So what else do we have? If you include the section on monsters and magic items, two-thirds of the book is aimed at the referee. These sections are both rules and advice. I particularly enjoyed the section on wilderness adventures which was surprisingly large given the game is based on one called Dungeons and Dragons. Detailed sections covering airborne and waterborne exploration and combat are included but the chapter I really enjoyed was the overland wilderness rules. Two small tables enabled me to create a wilderness area and populate it with people, lairs and features in about 15 minutes. After a further 15 minutes the random territory had developed a character all its own; I'd intended to use the tables as a mere exercise but now that region is part of my campaign world. I've seen this sort of thing before but rarely has it worked so well.

The monster index is extensive – seemingly much more so than the original text but perhaps the author is detailing the many critters that were mentioned but never detailed. Magic items are similarly filled out and described succinctly.

Having used the word “succinctly” I'd like to highlight the writing style. This is a text book and the writing is clear and precise but to keep the page count reasonable, the author just tells you once. Some published games (maybe most these days) go all out to make things as clear as possible by expressing rules in different ways with numerous examples. There's no room for that here. For example, in the description of the strength ability we're told shown how a high strength score will allow your character to carry more gear whilst still moving at a reasonable pace; when you come to choose your equipment a few pages later, you won't be reminded again. I'm fine with that but because I didn't leave my preconceptions at the door when I picked up the book, I had to read certain sections more than once. And it was enjoyable to do so.

So to finish up, how does it play? As the referee, the game flows like a dream and has me reliving some of that early wonder I felt playing my very first sessions of role-playing games. Because I wasn't there at the genesis of the hobby and didn't use the original rules I don't feel qualified to tell you how close this game is to that product. However, I do own and I've read the original 3 booklets, the supplements and Chainmail and somehow this game seems...right. I hope you enjoy it.

Find the free PDF, DOCX and Hypertext files here: http://forum.immersiveink.com/viewtopic.php?f=15&t=113

Note: included at this address you'll also find a character sheet and Microsoft Excel file containing every table in the book.

At this site you'll find two amazing adventures and a take on the Illusionist character class that will surprise you: http://forum.immersiveink.com/viewtopic.php?f=15&t=450

19 October 2015

Random Wilderness

Original Sketch
Here’s a fun thing. Killing time I used the random wilderness tables from the Delving Deeper Reference Rules Compendium to create a little 37-hex micro-setting. My word it’s a dangerous place!

I started off with a town which might be the base-camp and immediately generated a second town in the adjacent hex. The town is now a city. This small area also houses four village (3 farming communities of 100 folks each, no doubt supporting that city of 7,000) and one larger settlement of 300.

There are four lairs; the second of which is an ogre camp (Blackwall Keep, they built it so it looks like a ruin) adjacent to the city! An uneasy peace there methinks. To the north, across a forded river, a mighty sink hole home to a purple worm. No doubt there will be cultists throwing sacrifices by the cartload into that toothy maw. In the mountains to the south is the Fastness if Iban - a lair of gargoyles and in the south east a ruin that is home to a small (20) clan of hobgoblins.

The largest village lies adjacent to the hobgoblins and one of the smaller communities sits between the hobs and the ogres!

Aside from that I generated two fords and a few rivers which I linked either during or after the process, seven mountains, five woods and a single swamp. A trail runs through the swamp but the city looks rather isolated.

I’ve never tried that exercise before (!) but I really enjoyed it and rather than just being an excuse to kill some time, I’m going to use it.

After a short break and a minute or two mulling over ideas, the following narrative emerged from the random dice throws:
Player's Map

T1 and 2: The City (Ridmark)
Ruled by Lord Emile Hesard (M-U7, C) is something of a walled nightmare. A mix of luxurious palatial estates and sprawling slums in a near-ruin state. Hesard maintains an inner circle of wealthy merchants, each of whom suffers under the yoke of the wizard’s Charm Person magic. Beyond the city gates stands Blackwall Keep (L2); a fort built and maintained by the Blackwall ogre clan brought to the area by Hesard to provide protection for the city - there is little in the way of law within the walls.

V1: Eastgate
Village (100 people) that exists to service the city dwellers. The folk are well-paid and wisely choose to live outside the city.

V2: Vale
A small sheep-farming community (100+ inhabitants). Lord Hesard has them send most of their live stock to Blackwall Keep. The plan is to fill the ogre’s bellies with mutton instead of men. It’s an otherwise unremarkable valley village watered by runoff from the highlands to the South and South-West.

V3: Lydmore Green
Another tiny community, this one maintaining 50-head of cattle.

V4: Edgefield
The largest local village (300+ inhabitants) overseen by alderman Edvar Munn (F3, N) one of Lord Hesard’s charmed conspirators. 

L1: The Mountain Fastness of Iban
The monastery has seen no human residents for nigh-on ten years. A group of sixteen malign gargoyles make their lair here (Type C treasure: 4 gems 30 gp and 3 x 100 gp)

L2: Blackwall Keep
A relatively new site (18 months), the fort was constructed by the 12 ogres who dwell here, as such it looks like its been falling down for decades.

L3: Golmund (ruin)
A town ransacked and abandoned decades ago. A hobgoblin war band numbering 30 warriors now call the ruin home (type D treasure: 4,000 cp, 3,000 gp, potion of resistance to fire). The focus their energies on the trade caravans to the south-east so as not to incur the wrath of the Blackwall ogres.

L4: Splinter Valley
A deep sinkhole is home to Blind Tom a purple worm of legendary horror. Some, particularly the city’s elite quietly worship Blind Tom as Zushtu the Eater believing him to be an elder god (type D treasure: 2,000 gp, jewellery 900 gp, potion of giant’s strength).