Pangone: The setting for our Apocalypse World Campaign

Warning: This text contains some profanity since it’s supposed to capture the flavor of both the setting of our game and the tone of Apocalypse World itself. If you’re sensitive about profanity, stop reading here.

This is the “intro” text to our new Apocalypse World campaign, which sums up what we came up during Session #1’s setting creation process. Session reports will follow but it’s helpful to understand what we decided about the basis for our apocalypse, which revolves around an environmental one. The “cell phone pulse” stuff is something I added later (unabashedly borrowed from Stephen King’s story “Cell”) to make more sense out of the decision that people avoid the cities. I also wanted some sort of hostile threat out there aside from other survivors in order to add a bit more of a horror element to the game at times.

My granddad says it all started with that damn experiment at CERN – somethin’ to do with new tree nose travelin’ faster than light or some shit like that. I can’t say how long ago it was seein’ as clocks don’t work like they used to. My granddad once told me it was 50 years ago, but like I said, that don’t mean much now, plus he’s not always right in the head.

Where was I? Oh yeah, CERN. Fuckin’ CERN. I guess they never figured that messin’ with nature like that was goin’ to lead to the end or they wouldn’t have done it I suppose. Anyway, whatever they were doin’, somethin’ went wrong that ended in a big flash but that wasn’t the real problem. The real problem was those damn newtreenos did somethin’ to the Earth, slowed its spinnin’ down, like a brake on a wheel, all of a sudden. The days got longer, temperatures got hotter pretty fast, and the oceans started sloshin’ around, drainin’ back to the poles. Who would have thought that was possible? The Dutch went first. Sparks said he read that nearly the entire population of Holland drown in the first hour. Ten or twenty million maybe. Shit. The rest of the Europeans didn’t fare much better. Supposedly it’s all under water now. Russia too. Siberia was nothin’ but lowland, you know. And Canada. There ain’t no more point singin’ “Oh Canada” ‘cuz it’s all under water. Michigan is now prime beach front real estate. I shit you not. So is Idaho. All gone. Tori says she came from the east coast and New York City ain’t nothin’ but the tops of skyscrapers.

Course there’s more land in places. In fact we got one big land goin’ all the way around. People call it Pangone. I think that’s supposed to be ironic or somethin’.

The landscape now is different: Most of the vegetation is gone. I saw my last tree when I was 10 – we chopped that fucker down and used it to help keep us warm. I wish I could find another. Same goes for the plants. There ain’t a lot out there – some scrub grass, some lichen, a few cactii. Sometimes you see flowers when it rains. ‘course it doesn’t rain but maybe once every couple months. At least not here. I’ve heard there are places where it rains all day, every day. But not here. We mainly get by eatin’ lizards, scavenged food (canned foods are worth more than gold nowadays), and whatever animals we can hunt. Which ain’t a lot. Oh and potatoes. They seem to grow good. Sometimes. 

Course, those that died were maybe the lucky ones. See that CERN thin’ sent out some wacky pulse that fried the brains of other people. Anybody on a cell phone supposedly got fried. Left him hollowed out, but mean. Real mean. They got the basic instincts: eat, shit, fuck, but not much else other than attack anythin’ they can get their hands on. For some reason they leave each other alone though, unless they’re hungry. Hungry ones are just plain scary. Most of the folks that got fried were in the cities so nowadays you stay way from those places. Unless you’re desperate. Like most of us. 

Given all that you’d think mankind would get their shit together and help each other out. You’d think that but you’d be wrong. Instead it’s pretty much every man for himself. Sure some of us band together, that’s natural and smart. There’s a lot of petty warlords out there, and cannibals, and raiders, and religious freaks. They’re all predators, or prey, dependin’ on how desperate you are. Don’t let anyone kid you, we’re all desperate.

Life is hard.

Our game is set in Michigan, north of Detroit, not far from what is now the northern sea’s coast. The landscape is largely desert thanks to the lack of rain and the ~24 hours of daily (days are 36+ hours long now) sunlight the area gets.


Trying out Dungeon World with the students

This afternoon I ran a session of Dungeon World for the after-school club kids and it went over really well – so well, that I have at least nine students eager to play next week which means I will need to see if I can get one of the 12th graders to GM a second group.

For today’s session, which was run simply as a demo for the group to watch, I had a human fighter, human paladin, elf wizard, and halfling thief. I ran a section of the Blood Stone Idol adventure that’s included in the Basic set PDF, starting the group at the entrance of the dungeon and letting them explore the first few areas. I was surprised at how quickly the students picked up the rules and how well they engaged with the narrative elements of the game. What was most interesting to me was how much they enjoyed exploring the typical D&D tropes and story elements in an entirely new way. The session ended with the paladin being smashed flat by a marauding ogre, followed by the halfling thief running up the ogre’s leg, burying his dagger in to its throat, and then riding the dagger down the length of its neck like a pirate sliding down a sail. The group broke in to a cheer and we wrapped up the demo.

I also found the game a lot of fun to run. My favorite part was the list of GM moves which essentially dictate how I could react to failures. I loved the fact that the story’s twists and developments grew organically out of the characters’ “failures” rather than my rolls and how my main job was simply to react and spring board based on the players’ decisions.

All in all it was a great session and the result is we’ll be playing a lot more Dungeon World over the next few months.

Review – Trail of Cthulhu

Lately I’ve been reading and reviewing a number of supplements and adventures for the Trail of Cthulhu RPG, and it finally dawned on me that I have never gotten around to writing a review of the actual game. So rather than continuing to put the metaphorical cart before the horse, I’ve sat down and written a full review of Trail of Cthulhu (ToC).

Trail of Cthulhu is a game written by Kenneth Hite, and published by Pelgrane Press. It uses Robin D. Laws’ GUMSHOE system for its underlying engine (i.e., the mechanics the game is built upon), which had previously been used in Pelgrane Press’s Fear Itself and The Esoterrorists RPGs. The GUMSHOE system is specifically designed to create stories focusing on investigative mysteries and thus is perfectly suited for exploring the setting based upon the writings of H.P. Lovecraft (HPL) and his emulators. ToC retails for $39.95 for the hard cover version and $19.95 for the PDF version. I am reviewing the hard cover book.

Just in case you’re not familiar with the Cthulhu Mythos…

The Cthulhu Mythos milieu focuses on mankind’s interactions – whether they be ordinary citizens, dark sorcerers, or insane cultists – with primordial alien races, dark gods, and other ancient beings that we were not meant to know. As such it’s generally a very dark and grim setting, where insanity, death, or worse await those who delve too far into the details of the Mythos. The basic idea both in HPL’s writings and in the game itself is ignorance is bliss and knowing too much can shatter a person’s mind. As such, the setting is one where PCs’ lives can be very short indeed, especially if one sticks to the tone established in the majority of Lovecraft’s stories (Robert Howard’s stories tend to have more of a pulp-tone, in which investigators fight the horrors using weapons).

A bit of nomenclature: Keeping true to its Call of Cthulhu roots, player characters (PCs) are known as Investigators in the game and the Gamemaster (GM) is known as “The Keeper.” I’ll be using these terms extensively in the review below.

Like most of my reviews, I will start with how the publisher describes the product:

Trail of Cthulhu is an award-winning standalone GUMSHOE system game under license to Chaosium, set in the 1930s, now in its third print run, and produced in five languages. It supports both Pulp (for Indiana Jones, Robert E. Howard, thrilling locations sorts of games) and Purist styles of play (for intellectual horror and cosmic dread). HP Lovecraft’s work combined both, sometimes in the same story.

It includes a new take on the creatures, cults and gods of the Lovecraft’s literature, and addresses their use in gaming. It adds new player backgrounds, and bulk out the GUMSHOE system to give intensive support for sanity, incorporating into the rule set the PCs desire to explore at the risk of going mad.

Trail of Cthulhu won two Ennie awards for Best Rules and Best Writing, as well as receiving an honourable mention for Product of the Year.

The Physical Product

This book is beautiful looking, with a tight binding and an attractive, very evocative, color cover. Its 248 pages are printed on high quality paper with a gray-scale interior, although page headers, dividers, frames, and markers are done is a brassy-brown tone which adds a nice antique effect that fits the material well.

The book’s layout is done in a narrow, three-column form which looks attractive but tends to make the pages feel really dense. It also creates some rather cramped lines at times, something that’s exacerbated by a few editing/layout gaffs that lead to spots where words have no real space between them (this is particularly problematic with the italics) or where bullet points aren’t indented causing them to blend into the text above and below the list. This is evident particularly in the tables and sidebars. Similarly, while the book’s editing is good, it could have used another couple passes of a careful proofreader since there are missing words and other typos still evident. All of these criticisms are minor points though since they are hardly common nor problematic, and taken as a whole, the book is very well edited and laid out.

Continue reading

Review – On Mighty Thews

On Mighty Thews is an independently published RPG by Simon Carryer that is available as a PDF for the low, low price of $5 through the indie rpgs un-store.  As anyone who is familiar with Robert E. Howard’s writing, the title is a reference to Howard’s best known character: Conan. Aimed squarely at creating pulp swords & sorcery short stories in the style of Howard, Moorcock, and Leiber. It’s a story game that focuses on creating interesting, action filled stories without bogging down in five-foot shifts or counting experience points. It’s also designed to be virtually prep-free, making it an ideal game for a convention or a night when you find yourself short a player or two.

The Product

The PDF is a 51-page, black & white book with a color cover making it inexpensive to print-out. However, the book also sports a hyper-linked table of contents which is a really nice touch since it makes running the game straight from a reader or computer very easy and thus printing it isn’t really necessary.

The layout of the book is fairly straight-forward and utilitarian, which while not highly exciting to look at, does make the book easy on the eyes and easy to use. The book’s art, while fairly sparse, is good looking with a nice cover and some cool, genre appropriate art. It is also well edited and proof-read: I spotted no typos or weird layout issues, nor did I run into any sections I need to read three times to parse the language. Taken together, the book is well put together, with a fine attention to detail.

The Game Itself

Character creation is a very fast and simple affair: Each character is defined by three attributes which describe a broad skill set – Warrior, Sorcerer, & Explorer. Each of these is assigned a die type (d4, d8, & d12). The higher the die, the better the character is at that area.

Next each character is given two extra abilities which define what makes the character unique. You can think of these as skill specialties but chosen to be a bit broader rather than highly specific. These abilities are brought in when applicable. To each of these another die is assigned (d6 & d10). Again, the higher the die, the better.

Finally each character is given a d20 Trait. This is a single word that defines how the character acts the majority of the time. Think of it as defining your personality, beliefs, or motto. It’s called a d20 trait because you assign a d20 to it.

After character creation, the group deals with setting creation, working together by discussing their basic ideas for the world and looking at the characters’ abilities and traits. They then take a sheet of paper and draw out a map of the world, establishing poles on the map – each player marks a point on the map and writes the name of their character’s d20 trait next to it. From there, each person at the table draws a few things on to the map, using the labels on the poles to influence what surrounds it. For example, if one of the poles is “Blood-thirsty” then the area around that pole may contain cannibals, or could involve a demonic cult, or sport a landscape of sharp, black basalt that cuts those who try to cross it. They can add exciting places of danger or adventure too.

If this sounds like an odd way to run a game, it is, and that’s what makes it so cool in my opinion. What the group is doing is creating a setting which reflects the traits of the characters, mirroring back what makes them special and quickly providing a rich tapestry of ideas for the GM to use as he creates the story. In addition, the fact that everyone at the table is contributing to the “world” everyone has a stake in the setting and the GM’s job of finding what interests the players is virtually effortless. The map doesn’t have to represent an entire world by the way: It can be limited to a single country, a city, or even just a cave complex.

Once the map is completed (or more accurately just barely fleshed out), the group picks an area that excites them all and the adventure begins.

Actual play is broken in to scenes. The GM sets the scene, describing who’s there and what’s going on, and then play is handed over to the players. Details are filled in by the players asking questions and interacting with the world. In other words, play is pretty traditional, but because the whole setting and adventure is being improvised, the GM is relying more on the few details created by the group during the map-creation process as well as personal inspiration. In other words, you’re improvising the entire adventure (though obviously you can steal ideas from books, movies, etc) which to some GMs may be a rather terrifying prospect but it’s fairly easy since you’re feeding off what the players say and do, and the rules are simple enough to handle virtually any situation that might come up.

So far I’ve described the game as if it’s just a lot of talking and that’s a big part of it – roleplaying by describing what you do and say. However, in certain situations, the dice hit the table; specifically when a character attempts something dangerous, when two characters are competing, or when two or more characters are fighting. Again, this is very traditional RPG stuff with the exception of the first bit: You don’t roll dice for “skill checks” unless there is some obvious danger to the character – otherwise they automatically succeed. In other words, you don’t roll perception checks to find a secret door unless that door conceals a horde of orcs behind it.

There’s one exception to all this and that’s the lore roll – it represents what the character already knows about the world and as such when he or she succeeds, the character gets to define a fact about the world. Once again, for a prep-free, collaborative game, this is very appropriate since it both lightens the GM’s workload as well as provides inspiration.

Tests are simple to resolve. Simply put, the player states what want to achieve, the GM says what the price of failure will be, and some dice are rolled.

In terms of dice mechanics, the game uses a fairly straight forward, roll to hit a set target number or roll against your adversary system. Dangerous situations (i.e., the “skill” check) roll against a target of 4. This means that a character with an attribute of a d4 will succeed 25% of the time, while a character with a d12 will succeed 75% of the time. The ability and d20 trait dice are brought in when they apply (e.g., if you have a d8 in “wrestling” you roll that die when you do something related to wrestling), with the higher result from the dice rolled being the one that is used to determine success or failure.

That’s all there is to the conflict mechanics, although there is quite a bit more detail provided to the mechanics in the actual game. This includes a system for degrees of success (i.e., for every 2 points by which you beat the target, you get one degree of success) which is used to gain bonuses on future actions or define a fact about a success, as well as rules which provide for a rich, cinematic, narrative combat sequence. However, I won’t go in to details about all of there. Suffice it to say that I found them well thought out and very story-rich: Injury doesn’t just kill you but instead is evocative of what happens in the literature from which the game takes inspiration: Characters persevere through their injuries, and may be hampered by them, but ultimately they overcome them.

The d20 trait also is brought in to play, granting either a re-roll token at the end of any scene in which the character acts in a way that fits the trait or if giving the player the actual d20 to roll if they are doing something that goes against their trait. While I think this rule is cool and fits the genre, I’m not sure there’s enough of a difference between a re-roll or rolling that d20 in many cases (figuring out which involves some math on the fly which ruins counter to the rest of the game’s design). However, I’d like to see how the rule worked in actual play before passing judgment on it.

That’s about it for the game. It does include some extra material at the end, including some tables and sample maps to help serve as inspiration. These are a thoughtful addition. In particular the maps were great for helping me fully understand how the map-making mechanics work.

The Verdict

I really like On Mighty Thews because it’s a game designed to tell Robert E. Howard short stories – not birth to death sagas, but rather episodic stories of heroics, adventure, and exploration. It’s also something that doesn’t require a great deal of prep, can be learned on the spot by players, and is just the kind of collaborative world-building and story-telling game that I like. Although I haven’t played it yet, I am planning on running it with my group in the near future and even am considering trying it out with the after-school club kids since I think it would be an incredibly easy game to teach.

While the game is clearly set-up to support one-shot play, the making of the map means that the group can return to their world as many times as they want to tell new and exciting stories. Much like Howard’s Conan, the game’s heroes are timeless and thus stories can jump forward or back in time, and there’s no need to worry about advancement, aging, or even continuity.

I also would be remiss in not pointing out that the way the system is designed it will work with nearly any sized group from one on one play to a table of 10, although my gut tells me 2-4 players plus a GM is the sweet spot for the game. This makes it ideal as a back-up game when you happen to be missing players or as an impromptu game at a convention. In any event, On Mighty Thews is definitely worth a look if you’re in to Conan, or Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, and aren’t afraid of a little improvisational story telling some evening. For $5, it’s a steal.

Full disclosure: I received a complementary review copy of the game from its author.

Review – Rough Magicks for Trail of Cthulhu

Rough Magicks is a Trail of Cthulhu supplement written by Kenneth Hite and published by Pelgrane Press. It is available in both printed and PDF versions, with the print version retailing for $9.95 and the PDF priced at $5.95. I am reviewing the print version.

The Physical Details

The book is a 40-page (though only 38 pages have content), saddle-stapled soft cover. The covers are out of a heavy, gloss stock, while the interior is printed in black and white, with a gray-scale textured background on a high quality paper. The artwork, all done by Jérôme Huguenin, is top-notch in my opinion – it’s highly evocative of the setting and well done. There also happens to be quite a bit of it, something that is unusual amongst most lower page count supplements. Overall, this is a very nicely made book and you’re getting terrific value for the price.

The book’s layout follows the ToC standard, using a highly functional, three-column format. The sections are laid out logically and are generally easy to follow, although on occasion sidebars or illustrations seem aren’t placed optimally. The book also suffers from some layout and editing gaffs, including repeated occurrences of “See page 00“*, a few typos (including in the word Gumshoe on the back cover), and some poorly spaced words and floating punctuation marks. However, these are relatively rare and hardly ruin the overall experience. A very nice feature is the inclusion of page references to the ToC core rule book which makes looking up information a snap.

The Contents

Rough Magicks contains a collection of optional rules and further details on adding magic to any Trail of Cthulhu campaign. Magic in the Cthluhu Mythos is something that’s only vaguely defined and often takes many forms, something which the book stays faithful to by providing a variety of ways of defining and interpreting magic into game terms. Needless to say, many of these are unusual or even weird, which means they really honor the source material. The inclusion of numerous quotes from Lovecraft’s stories also really brings things to life and makes it clear Hite worked very hard to stay faithful to HPL’s vision.

The book opens with a brief introduction followed by a two-page discourse on the various ways magic can be defined in a ToC game. These range from it being a hyper-scientific discipline, to biologically-based technology, to the toxic leftovers of the great elemental gods. The reason so many possible explanations are given is that Lovecraft (and those that followed including R.E. Howard) described the nature of magic in different, and often contradictory, ways across the various Mythos stories – thus Hite presents a large number of possibilities and leaves it to the individual Keeper to decide what best suits his or her preferences.

The book then moves on to rules covering a new, optional general ability – Magic. This allows a group that wants to feature spell-casting more prominently in their game the chance to offer a slightly more refined set of rules. The explanation of the rules is fairly brief – they are not a radical departure from the core ToC rules – with plenty of examples of how they would be used in play. This includes an examination of the magical abilities of the various monsters presented in the ToC core book.

The next section provides a dozen new spells, including spells to call and/or dismiss various entities. Perhaps my favorite is the ritual Call/Dismiss Azathoth which ends with this ominous warning: “Also, it will probably kill everyone there, too.” Each spell gets detailed information on how it can be used, stability test difficulty, opposition, cost and time. The section also provides some variations on spells that first appeared in the ToC core book, allowing a Keeper to keep her players on their toes or offer some interesting variations over the course of a long campaign. Two sidebars, each of which takes up an entire page, provide a scholarly look at exactly what an Elder Sign looks like (something HPL contradicted himself repeatedly about), and some cool names & brief histories of legendary sorcerers of the Mythos.

This section finishes off with a detailed look at the traces that magic use leaves behind that various ToC investigative skills can detect, and a brief look at some of the things powerful sorcerers can do, addressing issues like immortality and time travel. The investigative skill list is particularly good because it provides some very colorful and interesting examples of how a variety of skills might interact with magical clues – all of these are in terms of actual narrative examples, rather than a dry set of rules, and so make for much more interesting reading and, at least for me, more practical use at the table. For example, here’s what’s listed for Cop Talk: “The detective says these designs look just like the drawings on the wall by the Riverside Killer’s victims, back in ’07.”

Of all the material in the book, the Idiosyncratic Magic Expanded section is perhaps my favorite. These rules, which originally appear in the Book Hounds of London campaign frame in the core book, are expanded upon, providing numerous colorful examples of how Mythos magic can be disguised in terms of weird rituals, and how these can be used in conjunction with general skills to provide some additional tactical “oomph” as well as color to characters’ actions. Like the previous section, this section includes a variety of narrative examples of how magic might interface with general skills at the table. For example, here’s what’s part of what is provided for the Conceal skill: “I laid some loose planking on the body in the shape of the Rune Unwatchable, you know, the one we puzzled out the description of from the Pnakotic Fragments.”

The book’s contents conclude with an analysis of Lovecraftian Magick theory, which is a succinct scholarly analysis of how magic is explained in the real world and how Lovecraft described it over the span of more than 50 stories, written over a span of a couple decades. While this information isn’t terribly useful at the game table, it does provide some interesting background material and would be of interest to most fans of the HPL stories.

The Verdict

Rough Magicks is an invaluable resource for anyone interested in expanding the role of magic plays in their game or wanting inspiration on how spells and magic might be described at the table. While I would not consider it a “must have”, it certainly deserves consideration for fans of ToC, especially given the quality of the product in relation to its low cover price. I would thoroughly recommend Rough Magicks and look forward to reading more of the recent supplements Pelgrane has released for the game.

*Ironically, Robin Laws, designer of the Gumshoe system upon which ToC is based, has a long-running column for Pelgrane Press entitled “See Page XX.”




Review – Castle Bravo for Trail of Cthulhu

Castle Bravo is a 32-page adventure for the Trail of Cthulhu RPG, written by Bill White and published by Pelgrane Press. It is available only in pdf format, and is priced at a very reasonable $5.95. While it has an attractive color cover, the interior is black & white making it very printer-friendly. In terms of appearance, the adventure is attractively laid out, with excellent, evocative artwork inside and everything you need to run the adventure, including six pregenerated characters.

The Contents

The adventure is designed for 3-6 players with the “sweet spot”, according to the author, being four players. The adventure itself plays out aboard a US Navy aircraft carrier on a nuclear test mission in the Bikini Atoll in 1954. To keep this as spoiler-free as possible, let’s just say that the previous  atomic detonations drew the attention from something beyond and this follow-up test won’t go as smoothly as those in command planned. The adventure is written specifically to be run in Purist-mode for Trail of Cthulhu, although it could easily be adapted to use as a pulp-style adventure as well and the nature of the adventure works equally with either style of play.

One of my favorite parts of the adventure is the waythe aircraft carrier – on which much of the adventure takes place – is handled: rather than trying to provide exhaustive maps of a very labyrinthine craft, the author has broken the ship into a set of zones, creating a simplified schematic that can be used to see how the zones relate to one another and thus how the characters might navigate the ship. This fits very well with ToC’s low-overhead GM style and keeps things focused on the action and story rather bogging down in to a square-by-square dungeon crawl.

The Verdict

Pelgrane Press has put out a lot of great Trail of Cthulhu adventures and Castle Bravo is one of their best because it pays homage to HPL’s stories while at the same time presenting an original setting in which they unfold. I can’t recommend it enough. However, one minor issue with Castle Bravo’s premise and set-up needs to be mentioned as a “buyer be aware” piece of info: the adventure takes place in 1954 and thus is outside the normal time frame of the default ToC era. It also is based on the assumption that the characters are members of the military – given the top-secret nature of the mission civilian involvement seems fairly implausible in most cases – and ideally the adventure really runs best as a one-shot, ideally using the pregenerated characters provided. Therefore, fitting the adventure into an ongoing ToC campaign would be difficult for most groups and is something anyone looking for the next adventure in their ongoing campaign needs to be aware of before purchasing the adventure – the use of the Bikini Atoll atomic tests as a premise for the adventure means that moving the adventure forward or backward in time would be difficult.  In reality, this shouldn’t discourage most people considering purchasing the adventure since as a “purist” adventure, characters aren’t really meant to finish the adventure unscathed and so I think Castle Bravo is ideal for a one-shot game lasting 1-3 sessions. Therefore, I would still rate the adventure as a “should buy” for anyone who is a fan of Trail of Cthulhu.