Reviews

[Let’s Study: Vampire the Masquerade, 5th Edition] Part 11: Review

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Vampire: the Masquerade’s 5th edition knows exactly what it wants to be, but has only a hazy, drug-addled recollection of how it got there.

Given that it’s a product of a new (and different) White Wolf, I suppose it shouldn’t be a surprise. They marketed V5 as a triumphant return, a reinvention of an old favorite to a new generation of fans.

What we got was a powerful remix. Sacred cows are gone (and I’d be lying if I didn’t miss the other Clans that they removed from the game) and new systems are introduced to zero in on the core thesis of the game: Vampires are Monsters, and you’re playing one.

The morally bankrupt nature of the Vampiric condition is the highlight of this edition, and the Character Creation and Hunger / Blood Resonance mechanics tie into this beautifully. You can’t help but feel pity for these wretches that eke away an existence in the night, decking themselves out with superficial symbols of power and prestige in some bizarre mockery of life when in the end all of them are less than human.

But where the game stumbles is in making the reader feel for the setting. Beyond the Vampire’s personal struggles, the whole community angle of Clans and conspiracies has been effectively swept away. Old players find that the staples of Kindred society are reduced to ashes, while new players are left to play out smaller scale games in hopes of scrabbling for influence and territorial rights in the local community of Kindred.

In terms of presentation, while the layout is elegant, I’m not entirely sold on the use of photos for the art. It’s not a major nitpick, but I’m just not a fan of that approach.

With regards to the shocking and questionable content in the book, I feel that V5 wouldn’t have made it’s case that Vampires are monsters without them. That said, the entire premise of the World of Darkness is that it’s a game and that people shouldn’t go about emulating the behavior of the depraved monsters that the Vampire are presented as. Adding both the Mature Content Advisory and the advice in the Appendix for playing responsibly goes a long way to establishing that fact.

Overall, I’m finding V5 to be something of a mixed bag. The Personal Horror angle is definitely something they achieved, but they abandoned much of what made the eternal struggle angle interesting. If this is the start of the World of Darkness, then it’s not exactly the best gunstart I’ve seen.

If you like the promise of personal horror and you’re not too invested in the past, then V5 is still a good game to get into. If you’re an old hand appalled at the changes to the setting, then the mechanical elegance won’t save you, and you’re better off sticking to your old editions.

You can grab a PDF copy of Vampire the Masquerade 5e from the World of Darkness Website for $24.99

[Let’s Study Genesys] Part 7: Review

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I’ve always had a thing for generic RPGs. I dabbled in GURPS, fell in love with HERO, and checked out OVA for anime shenanigans.

And now Genesys shows up, the new hotness, with promises of Narrative gaming and excitement. With fancy colorful dice and symbols, and a resume that boasts of being the engine behind the popular new Star Wars RPG, it certainly makes a powerful first impression.

So how does it hold up?

Mechanics

The base mechanics behind Genesys might appear gimmicky, but looking past the fancy dice lies a solid rules system. Gameplay is fluid and the thrill of rolling dice pools is given new depth with the varied outcomes for each die.

There’s something visceral about rolling your own difficulty, a sense of ownership as your GM hands you the extra difficulty dice with a grin, knowing that your character’s chances are all in your hands.

Campaigns. Your Way.

As a Generic RPG, Genesys is judged not just by it’s rules, but by how well it can facilitate a GM’s vision. A third of the game is dedicated to being able to craft a setting of your own. Alternate rules are pre-built options that you can weld into the original framework to twist gameplay towards your desired odds, and the discussion on Tones and Settings help in giving it the feel you need.

Building a campaign in Genesys should be a game in itself, honestly. It feels like putting together a project car, with a standard build, that you then personalize with Customized Rules, tweak with Alternate Rules, then spray on a fresh paint job with the Tones.

And it does it all without the burden of points juggling and math.

Conclusion

Genesys is quick. There’s obviously a lot of design thought that went into it, and a lingering sense that all the designers wanted to do was to add just one more little bit into it. Sometimes that leaves us pining for what could have been, like a more extensive section on Superhero gaming, but that’s just us being greedy.

For those with a preference for rules-medium gaming, Genesys fits in perfectly well as a contender against Savage Worlds for fast, furious, fun. While it doesn’t have the intense library of GURPS or the near insane modularity of HERO, Genesys knows how to present a lean generic ruleset that can power almost any genre.

Overall, Genesys is a must have, not only because of its versatility, but also because it forms the bedrock of a lot of products in the future. Alternate rules are a sneak peek into the future, and I expect that with products like Realms of Terrinoth, we’ll be seeing even more ways to make the system sing.

If you’d like to read along, you can get a PDF of the Genesys corebook from DriveThruRPG for only $19.95!

[Let’s Study: RuneQuest Roleplaying in Glorantha] Part 8: Review

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I walked in to this Let’s Study with a sense of trepidation. Much like Call of Cthulhu, RuneQuest was a thing even before I was born, so coming into it now in a much, much newer edition meant throwing myself into decades of lore and myth and expectations that I knew nothing about.

But gods I’m glad I did so.

The new RuneQuest Roleplaying in Glorantha by Chaosium is an incredible product. Blessed with fantastic artwork, lovely layout and writing that could only come from the heart of someone who truly, absolutely loved the setting, reading RuneQuest was a heck of an experience.

Myths and Stories

RuneQuest’s setting of Glorantha has seen many incarnations and rightfully so. It’s a land that feels like a real myth, and the practices of the people in the land and their magics and beliefs are so grounded in what could have been that simply exploring that could fuel me for entire campaigns.

It’s rare that I find a setting so well adapted to sandbox campaigns, where the point is to help your community see the next year with healthy children, a larger herd of cows and the blessings of your Gods. Gone are the traditional “Chosen One” and “Murderhobo” formats, replaced instead with the simple (but difficult) task of living.

As I Live And Breathe

Few settings are so well explored in terms of the daily lives of its denizens as Glorantha. I remember early on that I came to RuneQuest hoping that it could deliver the same sense of culture as Legend of the Five Rings.

Now I find myself praying that the new edition of Legend of the Five Rings can relay their setting with the same care and attention to detail as Glorantha was presented in RuneQuest.

Everything and everyone has a place and a role, and Adventurers are motivated and constrained by their role in their communities. It’s a beautiful social ecosystem that never feels contrived or made-up. And even in the absence of some world-shattering horror or Big Bad Evil Guy, there’s plenty to do.

The Rules

RuneQuest is a product of an older era of game design, and it shows. It’s not quick, easy or narrative. The rules don’t fade into the background as you play, and combat determines the smallest thing from where you hit to how much damage it does, and if it harm’s the target’s armor. I see a lot of slow combat and plenty of rules look ups early on and feel a great need to own a GM’s screen.

And that suits me fine.

RuneQuest is a stellar example of a game that knows what it wants to do. Combat is detailed because we’re playing out a simulation that is ugly, dirty, and likely to leave everyone injured. Magic is detailed, and full of requirements and considerations and options for ritual add-ons because you’re entreating spirits or gods to show you favor.

The rules aren’t there to obscure the moment: they’re there to highlight it.

So while I won’t reach for RuneQuest for Fast! Furious! Fun! I will use it when I want to tell a tale of heroes that reads like the Literary Epics rather than a Marvel Cinematic Universe movie.

Downsides

Not everything is perfect though. RuneQuest Roleplaying in Glorantha is a fantastic product, but it does feel incomplete. Without a bestiary (a concern now addressed with the release of the book just a few days ago) the book itself is less of a complete experience.

Also missing are chapters devoted to teaching people to run RuneQuest. While there is no shortage of inspiration, I had hoped that it would include more advice on how to start and what kind of adventures one could run for it. I’m approaching this review as a GM who has run all sorts of games so what might be obvious to me may be a concern to new GMs who picked up RuneQuest only to find that there wasn’t enough support for them right out of the gate.

I know there’s a GM book in the works somewhere, but I wish that and the Bestiary came out at the same time if only to give the full experience.

Conclusion

RuneQuest Roleplaying in Glorantha is a glorious game, and much like reading the epics, is extremely rewarding if you sit down and put some effort into reading it. The rules are complex but fit together in the manner of a Swiss watch, and the setting only makes it even more impressive.

It’s not fast, nor narrative, nor does it want to be. It knows it’s place, and doesn’t try to reach out to other spaces when it completely dominates at what it is. I would highly recommend it to GMs looking for a setting that can sandbox extremely well, has a wonderful sense of mythic realism, and isn’t intimidated by the reputation it has.

Chaosium has wowed me consistently from day 1 with my experiences with Call of Cthulhu 7th Edition, but RuneQuest is the one game that has knocked me off my feet and made me a believer.

Get it, study it, and fall in love with it.

I know I have.

If you’d like to check it out for yourself, RuneQuest Roleplaying in Glorantha is available in PDF from Chaosium or DriveThruRPG for only $27.95

For those interested in the hardcover, I’d recommend buying from Chaosium as they’ll be issuing a coupon for those who bought a PDF to discount the price from the physical copy!

[Review] Petersen’s Abominations

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DISCLAIMER: This review is based off a copy that was generously provided by Chaosium, Inc.

With the recent surge of popularity of Call of Cthulhu among local gamers in the Philippines, Petersen’s Abominations comes in with some really fortuitous timing. The local community of rpg gamers are big on hosting mini conventions, and with this, Keepers have a selection of five modern-day scenarios from Sandy Petersen himself!

Art and Layout

Presented in the gorgeous full-color format of the 7th edition line of Call of Cthulhu, Petersen’s Abominations also boasts of some delightfully troubling illustrations perfect for setting the mood or making an impression new and veteran CoC investigators alike.

Scenario Design

Given that each of the five scenarios are meant for convention play, Petersen’s Abominations delivers punchy scenarios that don’t waste time getting to the freaky stuff. That said, the scenarios don’t scrimp on detail either , and each one has the necessary maps, handouts, NPCs and background information that I’ve come to expect from Chaosium.

In addition, the book also provides the Keeper with ready-made investigators for each scenario, complete with a backstory and roleplaying tips to better integrate them into each game.

Keepers would do well to study each scenario carefully, as convention games require you to be a little bit more on the ball, with less tolerance for dead air as you flip through the book to figure out the next bit of the plot.

My personal favorite of the Scenarios in the book is chapter three: “Panacea” which is a fun Mythos take on a modern day body horror. I can’t spoil much of it, but the premise of the scenario and the discoveries that the investigators are meant to discover are definitely the sort to keep people awake at night.

Conclusion

Petersen’s Abominations joins the rest of the 7th Edition library of high quality releases. While the scenarios can’t quite be strung together to a campaign (not without a bit of elbow grease) they’re perfect for a one-shot. Players new to Call of Cthulhu will be able to bring in their modern sensibilities into play and discover that even with cellphones and the internet, the Mythos still finds a way to bring the crippling sense of helplessness and isolation to the poor investigators.

I recommend this book to Keepers looking to have something ready to run as an introduction to horror gaming and the Mythos. With a ton of work already done, and the ready-made investigators, this book is definitely a solid purchase.

You can get a copy of Petersen’s Abominations over at the Chaosium website for $19.95

[Review] The Two-Headed Serpent for Pulp Cthulhu

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Disclosure: The copy of Two-Headed Serpent I used for this review was provided to me by the fine folk at Chaosium.

If there’s one thing that the pulp genre is known for, it would be the globe-trotting adventures that some of its most well known heroes go through. Chaosium knows this quite well, and had a hell of a follow up to the already impressive Pulp Cthulhu with the release of a 272 page hardcover campaign.

Preparing to run

The Two-Headed Serpent continues Chaosium’s legacy of well organized and extremely detailed adventures. It opens with an introductory chapter to help the Keeper get his bearings. This details the key plot points of the campaign, a history background of the villains and major factions, and possibly the most important: guidelines for the creation of Heroes meant to play in this campaign.

There’s a wonderful sidebar about how to run the game in classic pulp fashion, with a most telling statement:

“The Keeper should also look for opportunities to have nonplayer characters (NPCs) pass important information to the heroes, whether through interrogation, gloating, or attempting to play the heroes off against a shared enemy—this is a different approach to most traditional Call of Cthulhu games, where investigators are expected to be thorough in their search for clues; in Pulp Cthulhu, the clues are usually only there to point the way to the next action scene.”

That definitely caught my attention. I loved what I read in Pulp Cthulhu, but to see them double down and repeat this in Two-Headed Serpent was something I really appreciated.

This isn’t to say that the campaign is easy though.

Globe-trotting Adventure!

The campaign itself takes place across nine different adventures from exotic locales such as war-torn Bolivia to the streets of New York. Each location is an fully-fleshed out adventure, with NPCs, complications and plot details fleshed out as the Heroes take on the malign forces that are conspiring to bring about the end of the world as we know it!

I’m unable to give too much information here, but as a Keeper, reading through the entire adventure fills me with giddy excitement as there are some genuinely good plot hooks and twists and turns that will make for excellent conversations post-play.

Playtest commentary

I would be remiss if I didn’t compliment the authors for including Playtest notes and commentary to the adventures. We all know that no plan survives contact with the players, so being able to see how Keepers dealt with or handled certain cases in the playtests were enlightening.

Appendices

The book caps off with a few Appendices including details of recurring NPCs, spells and technology, pre-generated characters and details of a particularly grisly procedure that would spoil a great deal so I can’t talk about it here.

Conclusion

Two-Headed Serpent is to Pulp Cthulhu what Masks of Nyarlathotep is for standard Call of Cthulhu: A must have campaign that brings out the best of the setting, presented in a fashion that is helpful for the Keeper and brimming with brilliant and thrilling ideas.

If you liked Hellboy’s take on occult horror meets pulp, then you’ll instantly love The Two-Headed Serpent. With fantastic art, and full-color maps and handouts, the players are in for a wild ride.

To summarize? Go get it. There’s really not much else to say. Two-Headed Serpent is a perfect companion to the Pulp Cthulhu supplement and will be the source of many hours of excellent gaming.

You can get a copy of The Two-Headed Serpent on PDF for $22.50 from Chaosium or from DriveThruRPG

Review: Pulp Cthulhu

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Disclosure: The PDF copy of Pulp Cthulhu that I’m reviewing today is a review copy that I was able to receive from the fine people of Chaosium Inc.

Now here’s a game that a lot of people have wanted for quite some time now. Pulp Cthulhu is a more heroic take on the classic Call of Cthulhu game, with Heroes possessed of more advantages and abilities that make them better than the normal Investigator, and yet still vulnerable when facing the horrors of the Cthulhu Mythos.

Along with it are a host of Pulp tropes common to the genre: Weird Science, Mesmerism and Daring Deeds… all of which add that delightfully weird pulp twist to the classic horror angle. Of course, the game is not without it’s terrifying antagonists, against the Heroes are villainous cults, alien horrors and outlandish monsters.

Pulp Cthulhu also pushes the setting towards the 1930’s and all the changes that go with it. As with any Call of Cthulhu Product, the research on this and the details they’re able to provide the Keeper with are remarkable and I can run a game with full confidence in the 30’s knowing that I have access to all that information. It’s a splendid reference for the era that can serve as a sturdy reference for any game set in the age.

The Pulps

The book opens up with a thorough discussion of the Pulps as literature. Its roots in the 1930’s and the various genres that were prominent in the era were highlighted. Of course, the chapter then zooms in to focus on the horror genre, which definitely left quite the impression as evidenced by the enduring love for the Lovecraftian horror to this day.

Creating Pulp Heroes

Pulp Cthulhu adds several new mechanics atop the standard Investigator character creation system to produce Heroes. Among them is choosing a Pulp Archetype, which bestows a Core Attribute that the character specializes in, additional Skill Points to distribute to skills that belong to the Archetype, and access to special Talents.

These Pulp Talents provide small mechanical advantages to a Hero beyond that of just simple increases to Attributes and Skills. These aren’t “super-powers” by any stretch of the imagination as much as edges that the Hero possesses. An example would be Night Vision, which reduces the difficulty of Spot Hidden rolls in the dark, and deducts a Penalty Die when firing a weapon in the dark.

Heroes also differ from Investigators in that they’re much hardier, with their Hit Points being double the number of Hit Points of a standard Investigator!

The character creation section also features a hearty selection of Pulp-themed Occupations that you can use including Gangster and Big Game Hunter.

Pulp Organizations

This caught me quite by surprise. While it was a Pulp staple, the idea of having organizations in a Cthulhu game was a surprise to me. This is because of how I’ve associated Call of Cthulhu as a game of isolation and lack of resources. Helplessness was the order of the day.

Adding organizations that give a structure and backup for the Heroes do fit very well, and I believe I felt a little tingle in my World of Darkness heart at the thought of being part of a *cough* conspiracy that knows the truth.

Sample Heroic and villainous organizations are introduced in Pulp Cthulhu, and they’re very well written. Each one has a ton of plot hooks and can very well support a campaign on their own (something, I believe that is done with The Two-Headed Serpent campaign for Pulp Cthulhu.)

Game Systems

This is the meat and potatoes of Pulp Cthulhu. Included here are new ways to spend Luck in order to buy Pulp-style harm avoidance, or resisting Sanity Loss. In line with this, they also introduce rules that allow for Heroes to survive near impossible odds. Rules such as the Major Wound from Call of Cthulhu are ignored, resulting in characters capable of much more in combat.

Mook rules are also introduced, and are average statted thugs that go down when they take damage equal to half their hit points. Rounding this chapter off is a selection of Optional Rules such as dual wielding weapons (like twin pistols, just like the Pulps!) and other combat-related tweaks.

Pulp Sanity is also covered in it’s own chapter, and it looks like the Heroes are still vulnerable to being driven insane. The most interesting aspect introduced would be the optional Insane Talents, which become available once a character suffers sanity loss. These are high-risk, high-reward talents that are added to the hero after it is first revealed. It’s a neat mechanic, and I’m eager to see it in play.

Pulp Magic, Psychic Powers and Weird Science!

Among the chapters of the game this was perhaps the one I wanted to check out the most. In many ways, this was perhaps the part that would pretty much push Call of Cthulhu towards strange new vectors given what Heroes could do that Investigators could not.

I won’t go into too much detail here as to not spoil anything but the team did a great job in presenting tweaks to the magic system, and introducing psychic powers and gadgets that played up the mood of the Pulps without turning it into something like Deadlands.

While some of the Psychic Powers can certainly cut investigations short, the fact that you’re exposing your mind to potentially terrifying trauma is a very expensive trade-off.

Running Pulp Games, The 1930’s and Villains

Never one to let the Keepers run unprepared, Chaosium continues their excellent support for new Keepers with three chapters aimed solely to address their needs. As a non-US citizen and having never been to the US, this is a godsend, as it helps flesh out details that I wouldn’t have gleaned through watching period movies.

Scenarios

Finally the book wraps up with four solid scenarios that cleave to the Pulps that inspired them while still having that familiar weird horror sting of the Cthulhu Mythos. Each one is splendidly detailed (perhaps intimidatingly so) but with careful study, Keepers should be able to pull off some very memorable pulp games.

Review and Conclusion

Pulp Cthulhu is one of those products that could very easily have been done wrong. It’s a genre full of easy cop-outs and shortcuts, but Chaosium stuck to their guns and delivered on all fronts.

Players get to play Heroes rather than “ordinary” investigators, and there’s a boatload of optional rules to make the game interesting. But it never loses sight of the fact that you’re still up against the Cthulhu Mythos.

You might be able to confront the creatures of the mythos to some extent, but Pulp Cthulhu only promises that you can go down swinging rather than screaming and that’s not a bad thing.

You can order a hardcover copy of Pulp Cthulhu over at Chaosium for $44.95 (plus shipping)

DrivethruRPG also sells the PDF for $22.50

[Let’s Study: Call of Cthulhu 7th Edition] Part 6: Playing the Game, GM Chapters and Review

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Finally we’ve reached the half of the book dedicated to Keepers. At this point, I’ll be switching gears and going over a quick blurb of what to expect on each of the following chapters, rather than going deep into detail as most of it is refinement and advice specific to running the game.

Given that we’re 7 editions into Call of Cthulhu, it’s gotten quite expansive, and there’s a lot of good advice to go around, especially when running for this particular take on the horror genre.

Playing the Game

I happen to like the approach the Call of Cthulhu takes in this chapter, working with the assumption that there will be newbie Keepers trying to run this for the first time. There’s good, common-sense advice included here, from putting a group together, to dealing with unsavory historical elements and setting the mood for a proper horror game.

In addition there’s more specific advice for running Call of Cthulhu, imparting insight to how the system is used, how you can take advantage of Pushing a roll to build tension, and some great stuff on interpreting success and failure in a given skill roll.

The chapter then goes into the details and advice on how to handle Action and Magic, and how to make sure that you build that air of horror into your custom scenarios.

Tomes of Eldritch Lore

This chapter goes into the listing and details involved in the Mythos Tomes. There’s some snappy advice on how to describe Mythos Tomes and the experience of dabbling in their contents, followed by a list of Mythos books, and their attributes, such as the Sanity Loss incurred when studying them, and other details.

Grimoire

As a logical follow up, this chapter lists the various spells for Call of Cthulhu that can be learned through the Mythos Tomes. The spells are all very colorful and quite… disturbing, and you can easily see what kind of insane cultist would consider using (or learning) such powers.

Artifacts and Alien Devices

Being the Cthulhu Mythos, there’s room for both arcane artifacts and strange alien devices used by the various species outside of man. This chapter is full of interesting and flavorful entries of the various items that Investigators might stumble upon on their investigations, or be subject to if they’re ever so unfortunate.

Monsters, Beasts and Alien Gods

Perhaps the favorite chapter of any Keeper, this is the bestiary that gives the stats of all the Mythos beasties from the Mi-Go all the way to The Great Cthulhu himself. It’s also lovingly illustrated (definitely a plus!)

At a certain point the numbers on the various Deities of the Cthulhu Mythos are somewhat overwhelming as some stats hit 3(!) digits when it comes to their values. Needless to say when an Investigator comes up against The Great Cthulhu himself, you might as well give up on any hope of a direct confrontation.

Scenarios

The book ends with two scenarios that the Keeper can run right out of the box. A part of me laments the fact that The Haunting is no longer here (It’s now part of the Call of Cthulhu 7th Edition Quickstart) but it does introduce two new scenarios to try. Both of these are fairly extensive, and are set in the default 1920’s era.

Each is complete with the kind of thorough scenario data that CoC is famous for, from NPCs to maps and timelines, all of which help the investigators put the clues together.

Appendices

The book wraps up with helpful appendices from items and weapons lists, a glossary and even rules summaries of the key mechanics for the entire game. Finally there are two sets of character sheets one for the 1920’s and one for modern Call of Cthulhu scenarios.

Review

While my experience with Call of Cthulhu was initially as a player with the 6th Edition (and the amazing Masks of Nyarlathotep Campaign), the new 7th Edition was the one that I really bought into as a Keeper.

As I understand it, a lot of older Keepers might prefer the older version, but I find 7th Edition to be a great entry level product for a new Keeper. The book takes the time to walk you through each of their design choices and provides a lot of great advice on how to use each of the mechanics provided to deliver a genuine horror experience.

The art and layout of the book is flavorful, and easy enough to read. The full page and two-page spread color artwork is fantastic, and I deliberately avoided posting those here as to not spoil the surprise.

Call of Cthulhu is a veritable cultural institution in the hobby. While D&D might dominate the Fantasy RPG space, you would be doing yourself a disservice by not getting into Call of Cthulhu.

When done right, the payoff for well run Call of Cthulhu scenario is priceless.

You can pick up a PDF copy of the Call of Cthulhu Keeper’s Rulebook from DriveThruRPG for only $27.95

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