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"Come now my child, if we were planning to harm you, do you think we'd be lurking here beside the path in the very darkest part of the forest..." - Kenneth Patchen, "Even So."


THIS IS A BLOG ABOUT STORIES AND STORYTELLING; some are true, some are false, and some are a matter of perspective. Herein the brave traveller shall find dark musings on horror, explorations of the occult, and wild flights of fantasy.

Saturday, November 7, 2020

CTHULHU DREADFULS: THE WYSTDOVJA VALE GAZETTEER and KISS OF BLOOD, a Pair of Reviews

STARTING WITH FRANKENSTEIN in 1931, Universal undertook the creation of a bizarre little pocket reality.  It wasn't intentional, not at first.  It simply cut costs to recycle the same sets and props.  Frankenstein, Dracula, The Wolf Man, and to a lesser extent The Mummy cobbled together a black and white Europe where everyone spoke English, used German place names and titles, and the date was somewhere between 1890 and 1940.  As the sequels rolled out and all the crossovers began, the universe became ever more interconnected.  Dracula had a daughter, Frankenstein had a son, and by the end films like House of Frankenstein and House of Dracula had all the monsters teaming up.  

A decade after Bud Abbott and Lou Costello sent all these monsters to a shameful and embarrassing demise, Britain's Hammer Film Productions resurrected the dead.  Kicking off again with Mary Shelley, The Curse of Frankenstein, The Horror of Dracula, and The Mummy used the same trick and even improved on it.  Here again was a weird shared universe, still English-speaking with oddly German peasants and villages, but this time more confidently gothic.  The date seemed firmly 188x.  Tame by modern standards, but infamous at the time for their sex and gore, for the true horror aficionado the Hammer films were pure gold.  With talents the like of Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, and Ingrid Pitt, they were delicious cocktails of camp, melodrama, and terror.



The first attempt to capture the magic of these films in a roleplaying game was probably Pacesetter's Chill (1984).  A more direct attempt came with the game's second, Mayfair edition; the Chill Companion included horror "subgenres" to customize the feel of the game, and included both Universal and Hammer lenses for it.  In 1990, Chaosium winked at the genre in their Blood Brothers, but it was really TSR that same year which jumped right in with Ravenloft: Realm of Terror.  This was, quite literally, a pocket dimension, peopled with residents and horrors that would have been quite comfortable on a Hammer film set.  It almost lured me to play AD&D.  Almost.

Now I haven't written for Chaosium's "Miskatonic Repository" yet...the "Jonstown Compendium" keeps me too busy.  Both are outlets, however, for fans of Call of Cthulhu and RuneQuest respectively to publish their own original works.  If I had written for Miskatonic, I might have done something very similar to The Wystdovja Gazetteer and Kiss of Blood.  Because the "Brinoceros" (I shall assume the alter ego of Brian Brethauer), along with Kevin Brethauer, Amanda Brethauer, Cody Chavez and Amanda Gutowski, has produced a pair of perfect little love letters to Hammer horror for Call of Cthulhu, exactly the sort of thing I would have liked to have done.



Set in Cthulhu's "Gaslight Era" (circa 1890), The Wystdovja Gazetteer removes us from London to Wystdovja (wist-DOE-vee-ya) Vale, a broad river valley surrounded by jagged mountains and situated in...well...Hammer film country of somewhere between Austria and Transylvania. Instead of setting your tales in Arkham, Dunwich, or Innsmouth, Wystdovja brings you Skeltzenberg, the seat of culture, power, and commerce in the Vale, decayed Middenport riddled with crime, and idyllic Karoczig.  And in-between these, the Gazetteer tells us; 

...can be found antediluvian groves, ruined monasteries, mysterious Romani camps, isolated country inns, dark forests, lonely crossroads, dangerous mining operations, degenerate railroad junctions, treacherous mountain passes, and an array of noble estates, each hiding more than a hundred years of scheming mystery...



This 40-page PDF covers a lot of ground, describing the history of the region and the key locations in it.  It is more suggestive than exhaustive; don't expect street-by-street descriptions of neighborhoods.  In true Hammer style, the Gazetteer occasionally has its tongue firmly jammed in its cheek with "wink-wink-nudge-nudge" references like Castle Hammerstein and the Gorgo Pass, but really this only adds to its charm.  Tonally, it is pitch perfect.  If you love the Hammer films and yearn to game in them, buy this.  

Now, along with the Gazetteer I am reviewing the first scenario set in Wystdovja Vale, Kiss of Blood.  As much as I enjoyed the Gazetteer, I LOVED this.



If you follow the blog you know I do not talk about scenarios for fear of spoiling them, but whether or not you use this in conjunction with the Gazetteer, Kiss of Blood deserves to be in your collection.  This is a beautifully illustrated 70-page PDF that tells a ripping good yarn, introduces new spells and a new (variation of a) monster, has a host of colorful characters, and--above all else--is The Vampire Lovers scenario that you didn't know you needed but you really, really do. If the team plans on doing more of this, I am the first in line for it.  


Don't let "fan made" put you off.  From the screen shots I shared you can see the layout is clean and professional, the art is great, and the writing top notch.  If like me you are physically incapable of turning off a Hammer film when it is on TV, if you want a solid Call of Cthulhu answer to Ravenloft, or you just want a terrific gothic romp, Kiss of Blood is for you.     


Saturday, October 31, 2020

THE CHILDREN OF FEAR: A CALL OF CTHULHU CAMPAIGN


I’ve also been digesting something of vast interest as background or source material... ...the Atlantis-Lemuria tales, as developed by modern occultists & the sophical charlatans. Really, some of these hints about the lost “City of the Golden Gates” & the shapeless monsters of archaic Lemuria are ineffably pregnant with fantastic suggestion; & I only wish I could get hold of more of the stuff. What I have read is The Story of Atlantis & the Lost Lemuria, by W. Scott-Elliot.

HP Lovecraft to Clark Ashton Smith, 17 Jun 1926





MYTH MAKER, PSUEDO-HISTORIAN, and professional digger of rabbit holes Helena Petrovna Blavatsky (1831-1891) casts a long shadow.  The co-founder of the Theosophical movement, her best known works are the sprawling, convoluted, and completely bonkers Isis Unveiled and the less sprawling, but arguably even more convoluted and bonkers Secret Doctrine.  These are works which purport to reveal the "secret history" of the world, a saga that covers millions of years and a half-dozen "root races," including Hyperboreans, Lemurians, and Atlanteans.  A seventh race is predicted on a continent or island that will rise in the Pacific, before everyone ascends and migrates to Mercury.

Still with me?

The "long shadow" I referred to extends far beyond the Theosophical Society, which continues to exist today.  Blavatsky's influence on Western esotericism is evident in both the Golden Dawn and Aleister Crowley, with their reliance on ascended "Secret Masters" guiding the destiny of the world, as well as the Aryan pseudo-anthropology that fueled the Nazis.  Her ideas also appear throughout 20th century weird fiction, all the way from the pulps to works like the Illuminatus! trilogy.  There are shades of Blavatsky in Robert E. Howard, in Clark Ashton Smith, and of course in Howard Phillips Lovecraft.  Yet to my mind Blavatsky's most significant influence was on bringing Hinduism and Buddhism into the West.  Now, I would be remiss as someone who started his career in the field of religious studies (specifically in Eastern religions) if I didn't mention she got everything all wrong (I did mention bonkers twice), but the fact remains that she did ignite tremendous interest in Europe and America in things like reincarnation, the kalachakra or "cycles of time," and even in mythical cities like Shambhala and Argartha.

Which brings us, at last, to The Children of Fear.




Roughly the same size as Blavatsky's Secret Doctrine, this massive 418 page campaign takes Call of Cthulhu east into China, northern India, and Tibet, and is rooted in the mythology of that region...well, sort of.  Because this is Call of Cthulhu, not Eastern Studies 101, so naturally the campaign leans heavily on the pseudo-history and weird fiction traditions inspired by Theosophy.  A telegram drags the Investigators into the struggle between Shambhala--the Land of Living Fire--and Argatha, the City of Fear.  Mentioned in both the Kalachakra Tantra and the Vishnu Puranas, Shambhala is spoken of as a city or kingdom which will be the birthplace of Vishnu's final incarnation before the end of the current world.  For Theosophists, it was the city of "the Sons of the Fire Mist," godlike beings who overthrew the evil empire of Atlantis 12,000 years ago.  In The Children of Fear, however, Agartha replaces Atlantis as Shambhala's rival.

While Shambhala is generally regarded as the "good guys," Agartha gets cast as both good and bad.  In some legends Agartha is an advanced empire inside the hollow Earth, of which Shambhala is the capital.  For Theosophists, Agartha was a subterranean kingdom beneath Tibet and populated by demons.  This is more the treatment it gets in The Children of Fear, where the plot revolves around preventing the sealed gates of Agartha from opening and releasing the King of Fear from emerging and ending the current age of the world.




Now I have been yammering on about Theosophy for a reason.  The Children of Fear is refreshing in that it is not necessarily about the Cthulhu Mythos at all.  It could be run as an occult thriller, with nary a reference to Outer Gods, Old Ones, or familiar alien races.  Compatible with both standard Cthulhu and Pulp Cthulhu, the Keeper could easily portray the antagonists here as Buddhist demons, wicked ascended masters, or one of Blavatsky's Root Races run amok.  They could just as easily make the cities the strongholds of Lovecraftian gods or Old Ones.  The book contains comprehensive guidelines on going in either direction and in shaping the campaign into exactly what you want.

Before we move on from this point, I need to add that it is about d*** time.  Call of Cthulhu says, right on the cover, "Horror Roleplaying in the Worlds of H. P. Lovecraft" (emphasis mine).  Long before "The Call of Cthulhu," "The Dunwich Horror," or "The Shadow Over Innsmouth," Lovecraft was writing weird fiction that arguably had nothing to do with what would come to be known as "the Mythos."  It really wasn't until late in the game that the concept of a unified universe of horror emerged.  It is easy to see The Children of Fear as being inspired by something he wrote in his earlier pre-Mythos days.  If your characters roll their eyes and say "oh no, not another shoggoth, this might be the campaign for you.

Across eight-chapters, which like Masks of Nyarlathotep are explored or not explored in an order determined by the player character Investigators and not the Keeper, The Children of Fear explores a setting that has nothing to do with Arkham or Miskatonic University, and that is refreshing too.  Loaded with hand-outs, pre-generated characters, new monsters, new spells, and a ton of resources, The Children of Fear is more evidence that Chaosium has cracked the code on how to make a massive, sprawling campaign accessible.  There is some terrific storytelling in there as well, none of which I can give you without spoilers.




With art by Kristina Carroll, Caleb Cleveland, Mariusz Gandzel, Doruk Golcu, Katy Grierson, Sija Hong, Victor Leza, Pat Loboyko, Magda Mieszczak, and Mali Ware, it is also another example of Chaosium putting together a gorgeous looking book.  Given the setting, it is also a very different style of art, much of it reflecting local sensibilities.  This gives it a fresh, vibrant look and feel.  Nicholaus Nacario's lay-out is terrific as well, fitting this book in nicely with the other recent 7th edition titles.

This is another campaign you are going to want, especially if you have any interest in a Call of Cthulhu campaign that shakes things up a bit.  Full of colorful detail and explanation, you need know nothing about Theosophy, esoteric Buddhism, Chinese legends, or Tibet to run it.  It has all the detail you need.

     




Wednesday, October 21, 2020

THE ADVENTURE OF THE GREAT HUNT: A KING ARTHUR PENDRAGON REVIEW

“For I have promised to do the battle to the uttermost, by faith of my body, while me lasteth the life, and therefore I had liefer to die with honour than to live with shame ; and if it were possible for me to die an hundred times, I had liefer to die oft than yield me to thee; for though I lack weapon, I shall lack no worship, and if thou slay me weaponless that shall be thy shame.”

Malory, Le Morte d'Arthur, Book IV Chapter X




IF YOU HAVE READ any of the reviews here, you know I like setting the stage with backstory.  Games, like films or novels or any other sort of story, don't exist in a vacuum but have history and context.  In talking about The Adventure of the Great Hunt, a quick-start scenario that gives us a preview of next year's King Arthur Pendragon 6th edition, things are a little different however.  I've pretty much already set the stage in my 2019 review of the current edition.  If you would like more context, gentle reader, I refer you there.

The Adventure of the Great Hunt (hereafter just Hunt because nothing is as unlovely as typing TAotGH over and over again) is a free 26-page PDF released for WeAreAllUs 2020, a celebration of the life and work of Chaosium-founder and master game designer Greg Stafford.  Again, I have already written about Greg and how his passing affected me, so we can move on.  Greg considered Pendragon his masterpiece, and that is saying something.  Aside from creating Glorantha and Chaosium, his contributions to the hobby are staggering.  With Ghostbusters he gave us dice pools.  With Prince Valiant, the storytelling game.  As John Wick (Legend of the Five Rings, Houses of the Blooded, 7th Sea etc etc) put it, "if you believe you've come up with a clever mechanic, Greg Stafford already did it."  So it seems right for Chaosium to remember his passing this year with a sneak peek at what he considered to be the "ultimate edition" of his greatest game.

It feels a bit pointless reviewing free downloads.  If you are reading this review you probably already have it.  If you don't, I am not sure why you are reading the review.  Yet if for some reason you haven't gotten a copy yet, I urge you to do so.  Written by Stafford with assistance from David Larkins, layout by Simeon Cogswell, and art by Riley Spalding, Kalin Kadiev, and Eleonor Piteira, Hunt is a splendid little treasure, and eight-page scenario steeped in both the medieval tradition of the Hunt and in the Arthurian tradition of symbolic and/or magical beasties.  Set nominally sometime in the Conquest Period (519-530 AD) of the The Great Pendragon Campaign, the player character knights are guests of Sir Servause le Breuse, a renowned hunter.  After feasting his guests, Servause's household unexpectedly receives Sir Ector, foster-father to the King.  His lands are being ravaged by a dragon, and being of advanced age, no true knight could forgo aiding him.  Yet dragons are not easy creatures to beat, and Servause comes up with a novel suggestion that sets events in motion.

This is Stafford at the height of his Pendragon powers.  The set-up, where Servause makes his suggestion to the players, could easily come out of the pages of Le Morte d'Arthur.  For example;

“The panther is a great cat of variegated color, known for its kindness and gentility. All beasts are its friend—save for the dragon! When the panther has eaten its fill, it sleeps for three days. When it wakes, it emits a belch of sweet perfume, not unlike the aroma of all-spice..."

Much like Glorantha, the Britain of Pendragon is not the typical fantasy world of "mostly sciencey with a dash of magic added."  It is what Malory and other medieval romanticists thought it to be.  Hunt evokes this marvelously.  Playing through it, there is no doubt you are playing Pendragon.  It simply could be nothing else.

In addition to the scenario, there is a two-page appendix of hunting rules, three pages of pregenerated player character knights, and--in what I suspect many of you have been waiting for--a six-page preview of next year's 6th edition rules.

From the taste we have been given here we are looking at more of a refinement than an overhaul.  There are tweaks, but nothing quite like the changes between, say, the 3rd and 4th editions (yes, "Celtic magic system," looking at you).  The Appearance Attribute, for example, is now "Appeal," but functions the same way.  The most interesting tweak is the apparent highlighting of "Honor."  Always a vital part of the game, it now seems to have been elevated up beside Glory in what drives and motivates a knight.  Glory accumulates, but Honor can be lost, and if too much is lost, the character is no longer recognized as a knight.  As I said, this was in Pendragon before, but it seems spotlighted in this preview.




There are a few other surprises, but people new to Pendragon will not notice and experienced players should probably just download the PDF and take a look.  One thing that should be said, however, is that the look of this PDF bodes very well for the new edition.  Pendragon 5.2 is a fine looking book, but the design here suggests the new Pendragon will be more like Call of Cthulhu 7th edition or the new RuneQuest in being laid out with richer backgrounds and better art.  The PDF genuinely looks like an illuminated manuscript.  

This is a terrific Arthurian adventure, and the perfect example of why Pendragon remains one of the best loved and most celebrated games of all time.  Veterans will love it, and it is just light enough to introduce new players to the game.  As a free gift to fans, it is a perfect way to remember Greg for 2020's WeAreAllUs.  I suspect that watching us from distant Avalon (or probably, knowing the old shaman, from visions in his Crystal Cave), Greg is grinning.


 

Saturday, October 17, 2020

THE DARE: A CALL OF CTHULHU SCENARIO AND SOURCEBOOK REVIEW




WE PROBABLY HAVE TWO "STEVENS" to thank (or, depending on your tastes, to blame) for the quaint and curious genre that--if it had a name--would probably have to be called "Eighties Pre-Teen Adventure Horror."

The first would be the "ph" Stephen, the right honorable Mr. King, whose 1982 novella "The Body" was adapted into the immensely popular film Stand By Me.  While "The Body" didn't contain any supernatural elements, it set a mold for coming of age tales which pit pubescents against the macabre, including the obligatory bully.  Building on the elements in "The Body," the prolific King unleashed his 22nd novel, It, the same year Stand By Me hit the screens.  This was a supernatural tale, and an extremely Lovecraftian one as well.  In it, we see a group of middle school outsiders struggling against an ancient, extraterrestrial horror.  While neither "The Body" nor It were actually about 80s kids--both have the kids in the late 1950s--their appearance in the 1980s link them indelibly to the decade, so much so that when It was remade in 2017 and 2019, this time it was updated to have the young protagonists in Reagan Era America.

The other Steven is the one with the "v."  Richard Donner's The Goonies was something of a cultural phenomenon, an immensely popular 1985 film that earned six times its budget in box office returns and has since been marked by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant."  But The Goonies came from a story by filmmaker Steven Spielberg, whose film company Amblin also produced the film.  The Goonies is about--no surprises here--a group of nerdy middle school outcasts who this time end up in a wild adventure to win a pirate treasure.  While again it is not strictly supernatural, there are enough pulp fiction elements in it to see how it feeds into the genre.  Spielberg, like King, was extraordinarily adept at using kids as protagonists, the epitome of which was probably his 1982 film E.T. (speaking of cultural phenomenons).  The immense success of The Goonies threw open Pandora's Box, and out would spring films like Monster Squad, The Gate, and The Lost Boys (all, curiously, in the very busy year of 1987).  A genre had emerged which fused the elements of King's fiction with the young adolescent horror/mystery comedy of The Goonies.  The genre experienced a resurrection of sorts in the second decade of the 21st century, with JJ Abrams 2011 Super 8 (produced again by Spielberg), three seasons of the Netflix smash Stranger Things (2016-present), and the aforementioned big screen adaptation of King's IT.  All of these were tales of school age outsiders in the 80s caught up in the weird and the unnatural.




Like the two new It films, The Dare (Sentinel Hill Press, PDF, 70 pages, $14.99 US) is itself a remake.  Originally released back in 1990 as a Call of Cthulhu tournament module, this Kevin A. Ross classic has returned re-imagined and greatly expanded for the 7th edition rules.  With Bret Kramer riding shotgun, Badger MacInnis on layout, art by Ian MacLean and Katie von Csesfalvay, and Dean Engelhardt, Richard LeDuc, and Clint Cronk providing handouts and character sheets, The Dare is more than the sum of its parts.  It's a Cthulhu scenario, yes, and a terrifying one at that, but it also is a terrific introduction to the venerable old RPG, a new interpretation of the rules, a love letter to the films mentioned above, and a sound foundation for a unique Call of Cthulhu campaign.  

Let's take those in order.

I am not, obviously, going to tell you too much about the scenario.  River Song would scold me.  I will tell you that your "Investigators" will all be a group of preteen kids back in the 1980s, dared to spend the night in the town's obligatory haunted house by a slightly older bully.  What comes next is itself a bit of an homage, a salute to Lovecraft (especially "The Dreams in the Witch House"), King (It and especially his 1984 short story "Gramma"), and the iconic Call of Cthulhu scenario "The Haunting."  Ross pulls no punches here, and The Dare wisely comes with two modes of play, PG and R.  The PG mode is a bit lighter and suitable for younger players, while R serves up very adult levels of terror.  

Which brings me to the next point; The Dare is a perfect introduction to Call of Cthulhu, particularly for younger players.  The reason for this is that the book contains a new, streamlined version of the 7th Edition rules called--brace for the eye roll--"The Call of Kid-thulhu."  Geared specifically for portraying kids rather than crusty-old academics or hard boiled detectives, this is a fast and easy-to-learn presentation of the rules with an abbreviated skill list heavy on charm.  Be A Pal, Be Sneaky, Gym Class, Science Class, and my personal favorite Play With Matches are all prime examples, condensing the Call of Cthulhu skill list to about 15 things.  "The Call of Kid-thulhu" rules make The Dare more than a scenario, because a Keeper could easily take them and spin out an entire campaign of kids versus the Mythos.  Stranger things have happened...like Stranger Things.



Which leaves us with the love letter.  From the front and back covers that have been made to look like battered old 1980s video cassette boxers (right down to the "be kind, rewind" sticker), to the character sheet, The Dare absolutely nails its source material.  And I mean all the source material; The Dare is painstakingly authentic to 80s adventure horror but it is also genuine Call of Cthulhu.  We are not talking Blood Brothers here, this is full-on Mythos horror.  Indeed, the layout and fonts are designed to look like Call of Cthulhu books from the 80s.  On the other side of things Brian M. Sammons closes the rules off with a terrific little survey of the 80s horror films that inspired The Dare, reminding us what a neat little trick the Sentinel Hill team has played here.  Like Pulp Cthulhu, The Dare manages both to be Cthulhu and to be its own thing.  If the gang is planning any follow up releases in "The Call of Kid-thulhu" subgenre, all I can say is "rad."    


Tuesday, October 6, 2020

SEEDS OF TERROR - THE MUMMY OF PEMBERLEY GRANGE (A CALL OF CTHULHU REVIEW)

MUMMY DEAREST

THE STORY IS SO WELL-WORN every child on a playground knows it.  Intrepid explorer digs around in Egypt.  Intrepid explorer finds a mummy's tomb.  Intrepid explorer disturbs said mummy and triggers the "mummy's curse."  The mummy then rises from the dead to strangle the intrepid explorer or he and his assistants all meet a grisly and macabre end.

It's a surprisingly modern fable though.  The ancient Egyptians didn't inscribe curses on the walls of tombs for the same reason gravestones do not typically read "John Smith 1818-1898 - Rob this grave at your own peril."  The idea is generally so taboo people A) don't expect it to happen and B) don't like to talk about it if it does.

The stories really seem to begin around the 17th century, long before anyone could read the tomb walls to know whether they were cursed or not.  One story speaks of a Polish traveller who purchased a pair of mummies in Alexandria, storing them in the hold of a ship on the journey back home.  In a Dracula-esque turn the ship was plagued with storms and fog the entire voyage, and the crew haunted by nightmares of a pair of specters roaming the vessel.  This all ended when the mummies were tossed overboard.

In the Victorian Era, the idea became a staple of the gothic novel, beginning with Louisa May Alcott's (yes, THAT Louisa May Alcott) Lost in a Pyramid and culminating in Bram Stoker's Jewel of the Seven Stars, which did for the mummy legend what Stoker had done for vampires six years before.

The story didn't really enter popular consciousness until the opening of Tutankhamen's tomb in 1923 by British Egyptologist Howard Carter, however.   The deaths of Lord Carnarvon, his financial backer, Carter's secretary, a member of the excavation team, and even a visitor to the tomb ignited a mummy's curse media frenzy.  Nine years later Universal's The Mummy made the mummy's curse a horror film staple (though to be fair, the 1911 silent film of the same title was the first to show a revivified Egyptian corpse.  The rest as they say is history.



THE MUMMY OF PEMBERLEY GRANGE 

All this having been said, when Type 40's new Miskatonic Repository offering, The Mummy of Pemberley Grange, asks us "Jessica Pemberley, rich socialite and Egyptophile, has shipped a mummy all the way from Cairo and has invited you to an exclusive "unwrapping party" at her manor house in the country...(w)hat could possibly go wrong?" we all know exactly what could go wrong.  That is exactly the point.  Written by Allen Carey and Nice Holland, Pemberley Grange is one of the "Seeds a Terror," a series of concise, easy-to-run Call of Cthulhu scenarios that can be prepped and played in a single session.  Part of the package is that these stories are built around well-known tropes...but come with an unexpected twist.  This time it is the old "mummy's curse."  Yes, Pemberly Grange comes with a deadly twist on this.  No, I am not going to tell you what it is.

Your purchase includes an 11-page PDF, a pair of well-rendered hand-outs, 5 pregenerated 1920 Call of Cthulhu characters ready for play, and really fantastic blueprints of Pemberley Grange, the setting.  A Keeper will be literally ready to run this in ten minutes, a feature that brings a sort of fast and ready Dead of Night approach to Call of Cthulhu.  My first thought was that Pemberley Grange ( and presumably the rest of the "Seeds of Terror") would be an ideal introduction to Call of Cthulhu paired with the Starter Set.   I mean let's face it, Masks of Nyarlathotep is not exactly what you would call beginner friendly!

By relying on a trope we all know and love, The Mummy of Pemberley Grange is able to tell its story from start to finish in four pages, and the twist here is simply delicious... If further "Seeds of Terror" contains similar clever twists, count me in. 


 
   

 

Thursday, September 17, 2020

LEGION: THE DEFINITIVE JONSTOWN COMPENDIUM OF BROO




FIRST, A WORD FROM THE REVIEWER...

...who has been accused of being outspoken, stubborn, and unapologetic.  Some of you might wish to just skip to the review of Neil Gibson's terrific new Jonstown Compendium book.  

AN ALARMIST MIGHT SAY that art, and artists, are under attack these days.  A cynic would point out they always have been.  I probably fall closer to the latter camp.  I am old enough to remember my parents' fury when Annie Lennox dared sport sideburns to perform "Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)" at the Grammys, their insistence I get rid of the Eurythmics' albums and buy no more.  Likewise, I recall my high school D&D club being shut down during the Satanic Panic of the 1980s and the horror that two books discovered there confirmed everyone's worst fears...Cults of Prax and Cults of Terror.  All the occult whispers about RPGs had to be true if the books said "cult" brazenly on their covers.  And yes, I fully recall TSR caving and pulling all mention of "devils" and "demons" out of their 2nd edition.

No, if there is art someone is going to be offended by it and demand its removal.  Growing up, from Mapplethorpe to the Dixie (er, excuse me, the) Chicks the attacks came from the Right.  Now the Left has embraced cancel culture with equal passion.  In all cases, and on both sides, the critics "know" moral authority is on their side.

It's come round to gaming again, and unsurprisingly D&D has once more been the one to flinch.  Drow, Orcs, and other "evil" races are now no longer allowed to be evil.  Oh sure, there are a few bad apples, but you can't brand a race evil these days.  Not even a fictional one.  Art must bend to the will of the people, after all. 

That brings us to the Broo.


LEGION

Chaos is not for everyone. However, from the very first Snakepipe Hollow scenario I have been in love with the concept of Broo. I recall early days of playing D&D and encountering with the ubiquitous Orcs. However after moving to Runequest Broo seemed to have so much more depth, danger and dare I say character. They are classic evil protagonists. In a roleplaying system that is often ubiquitous and containing shades of gray, it’s refreshing to have clearly evil creatures where there is pleasure to be had in dispatching them.

--Neil Gibson; "A Love Letter to the Broo"

In Greg Stafford's Glorantha you are hard pressed to find capital "E" Evil.  There are no alignments per se, just conflicting motivations.  Even Chaos, which most people would consider the purest form of Evil, has its defenders, and the Lunar Empire--which embraces Chaos as a necessary part of creation--is actually for most people there a terrific place to live.

As author Neil Gibson points out in the passage above, the Broo tend to be an exception.  Generally goat-like, they are like the satyrs of classical mythology stripped of even a single redeeming feature.  They are a hybrid race, each one different from the next, a mixture of its Broo parent and whatever unfortunate creature it had offspring with.  They hate most other living things and worship the very foulest gods, including one who spreads disease.  If it is sickening, cruel, or despicable, the Broo probably do it.  They are one of the few things in the setting you can kill guilt free.




Gibson's Legion, a supplement for RuneQuest: Roleplaying in Glorantha, is nearly 80 pages of Broo.  Each one is unique, each one is fleshed out, each one is sheer, horrific delight.  There are Broo of all danger levels here, from Rune Levels down to their followers.  The book is simply page after page of gloriously terrible antagonists.  

Inside you will meet the likes of Vuz Dog Witch, a hyena-broo hybrid carrying distemper.  There is Mad Eye, who has no eyes where one should reasonably expect them...but instead has eyes opening and closing all over his body.  There is the Black Bull who...er...well...originally born of a rock lizard has been mutating beyond all comprehension or recognition by his (?) worship of Porchango.

The diversity of the monsters included is amazing, and the book comes with several new diseases tucked away in the back.


    

No, this is not The Big Book of Gloranthan Bedtime Stories, but Gibson's Legion is as responsible as a work of horror or dark fantasy fiction could be.  It includes a giant warning right up front as well as in the product description.  It politely sidesteps any mention of Broo reproduction. and Gibson deftly manages the trick of going right up to the line between taste and gratuitousness without ever crossing it.  For those of us who love Gloranthan as it is, chills and all, Legion isn't a love letter to the Broo, but to us.

Shout outs also have to go out to the terrific artists, Tho Connell, Mika Koskensalmi, Yoza, and Rick Hershey.  And how could I not to mention Teguh Suwanda's glorious cover, which has to be my new favorite cover in the entire Jonstown Compendium.

At 8.95 US for an 80 page PDF, it is a treasure.            

   

Tuesday, September 15, 2020

NEPHILIM, PART THREE

A MAJOR OBSTACLE for many potential Nephilim players and gamemasters was that they simply weren’t sure what to do with it.  Once your Nephilim character was made, what did it actually do?  What are adventuress like?  When my players asked me, I simply quoted Hermes Trismegistus to them; 

“Leap clear of all that is corporeal, and make yourself grown to a like expanse with that greatness which is beyond all measure; rise above all time and become eternal; then you will apprehend God. Think that for you too nothing is impossible; deem that you too are immortal, and that you are able to grasp all things in your thought, to know every craft and science; find your home in the haunts of every living creature; make yourself higher than all heights and lower than all depths; bring together in yourself all opposites of quality, heat and cold, dryness and fluidity; think that you are everywhere at once, on land, at sea, in heaven; think that you are not yet begotten, that you are in the womb, that you are young, that you are old, that you have died, that you are in the world beyond the grave; grasp in your thought all of this at once, all times and places, all substances and qualities and magnitudes together; then you can apprehend God.

― Hermes Trismegistus, Hermetica: The Greek Corpus Hermeticum and the Latin Asclepius

Well that clears everything up, doesn’t it.

But really, it does.  Hermes is describing to us the Golden Path, the Road to Agartha.  He is laying out what every Nephilim must aspire to do.  Because “veiled,” “obscure” and “impenetrable” are all good synonyms for “occult” however we can expect it takes a fair bit of deciphering to make sense of it!  Fortunately the original authors already handed us the keys in simple numbers; to reach Agartha you need 90% in a Third Circle Occult Technique, 90 points in your Dominant Ka, 90% in a Hermetic Lore, and 90 points in your Metamorphosis.  With those numbers we can start to make sense of the passage.

“Think that for you too nothing is impossible; deem...that you are able to grasp all things in your thought, to know every craft and science...”

Mastery in a handful of key skills dates back to RuneQuest, and the requirements for becoming a Rune Lord.  With a wink and a nod, Nephilim is saluting its parent game here.  But Hermes too urges the initiate to seek mastery.  Specifically in game terms four masteries, mastering at least one Hermetic Lore and three circles of an Occult Technique.

To increase their knowledge of the Occult, Nephilim need resources.  They need libraries and laboratories.  They need to seek our rare tomes—the older the better—from private collections and museums.  They need to hunt for artifacts.  This probably requires a fair bit of globe trotting, and adventures that lie somewhere between The Ninth Gate and Raiders of the Lost Ark.  Nephilim as “treasure hunters” is probably the most accessible mode of the game for most players.  And don’t forget mundane resources!  It takes money to zoom around the globe, and safe, secure labs and libraries are not cheap.  Entire adventures could be built around Nephilim raising capital to finance their Occult pursuits, putting off nosy reporters, the curious, and dangerous rivals.

“Leap clear of all that is corporeal, and make yourself grown to a like expanse with that greatness which is beyond all measure; rise above all time and become eternal...”

To reach Agartha, a Nephilim must also raise its Dominant Ka to 90.  This is developing its spiritual nature to its very highest potential.  A Ka of 90 is practically a demigod.  Raising skills is a matter of study and having the right materials.  Raising Ka is what we call “initiation.” It only happens through the successful exercise of magical powers.  GMs should always remember to “mix the planes” in a good Nephilim campaign.  In other words, “as above so below,” and even mundane adventures should provide opportunities for magic use, making them also initiations.  The idea of the Symbol and the Veil is critical in the Occult.  A Nephilim doing something as pedestrian as conjuring a breeze to air out a noxious smelling room is, on another level, understanding the Nature of Air as an agent of Change.  In this game, everything has meaning, everything is a symbol of something else.

(F)nd your home in the haunts of every living creature; bring together in yourself all opposites of quality, heat and cold, dryness and fluidity; think that you are not yet begotten, that you are in the womb, that you are young, that you are old, that you have died, that you are in the world beyond the grave...

A requirement for Agartha is complete Metamorphosis; 90 points must be achieved across five characteristics, marking total union of the Nephilim spirit and the mortal host. Just as a Nephilim needed 90 points of Dominant Ka for Agartha (signifying perfection of spirit), it needed 90 in Metamorphosis to signify perfection of flesh.  “As above, so below. “    Metamorphosis is described as a physical transformation of the host, not the spirit.   

GMs must take care to emphasize the importance of the Simulacrum in their games.  Nephilim pursue the Golden Path because they cannot ascend without the human element; the Simulacrum is a critical element, the base matter, the lead being made into gold.  Outside of a Simulacrum, a Nephilim is an unconscious creature driven by instinct, as we see in both Khaiba and Narcosis.  Identity, Will, Awareness, these are all Solar traits.  Only Incarnated can a Nephilim think and act.  Further it seems clear from Hermes that Solar cyclicity, the way the Sun rises and falls, dies and is reborn, is also part of the Golden Path to Agartha.  For these reasons the Simulacrum is critical to Agartha, and something a wise Nephilim takes good care of.


The Trumps Lovers, Art, and Sun from the Thoth deck, or in Nephilim terms, Incarnation, Metamorphosis, and Agartha

This makes Nephilim something of a super-hero game.  Like Bruce Wayne, Peter Parker, or Clark Kent, the Nephilim leads a double life.  The Simulacrum is necessary to it, and a clever gamemaster will spin plots about this.  Does an ex-wife reach out to the Nephilim because their son needs an organ donation or transfusion the Nephilim is a match for?  Does the Simulacrum have a vengeful rival at the office making like difficult for the Nephilim?  Does the Nephilim still maintain its job and social engagements?  Conflicts between esoteric and exoteric matters are at the heart of the game.

...the Pure will be thought insane and the Impure will be honored as Wise.  The Madman will be believed brave and the Wicked esteemed as Good...

― Hermes Trismegistus, Hermetica: The Greek Corpus Hermeticum and the Latin Asclepius

Come now...you didn’t think it would be that easy, did you?
While the Nephilim struggle for the Light, they are surrounded by enemies.  The Templars, Thule Brudershaft, and the Carbonari pursue global schemes of world domination.  The Black Star hunt you for your magic.  In many ways this is a game of Occult espionage, where every government, every corporation, conceals a dread conspiracy.  Assassination, extortion, spying is everywhere.

Or perhaps it is a game of horror.

There is a secret society of things that make vampires look tame...and they have not forgotten the Nephilims’ betrayal.  The Selenim—as cannibalistic ogres, murderous werewolves, soul destroying succubi and the mummified blood-drinking dead—plot revenge in the shadows.  Then there are the Old Ones and their cults, the ancient Saurians, cyclopean Titans double-crossed by the KaIm.  In the deep places of the earth, beneath mountains and seas, they lie dreaming but not dead, waiting for the stars to be right for their return.  Beyond these, the world is full of elemental beings, some monstrous, for the Nephilim to face.