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.

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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.

Review – Jovian Fleet Blueprint File

As a follow-up to my last review, I decided to write a review of the Jovian Fleet Blueprint file which presents eight detailed “blueprints” of ships in the Jovian fleet.

The Physical Details

The Blueprint File comes in a paper envelope and consists of eight poster-sized (15″x19″) sheets, printed in blue-scale. The paper used is slightly heavier than standard paper but is not card-stock, nor is it glossy. The results are serviceable, good looking posters (they’re folded in to four sections to make them fit in the file’s envelope), but nothing spectacular and highly durable.

The art is very good, but strictly two-dimensional line art that fits in with the blueprint-style the product claims to have. The diagrams are put on a grid which is another nice touch since it lets you measure distances on the ship without needing to pull out a ruler. I also like the fact that the scales are in metric, which not only makes more sense from a futuristic, science-fiction setting but also makes conversions much easier.

The Contents

While the file contains eight prints, only six spaceships are detailed, with the other two prints providing a detailed cutaway, cross-section of the Valiant-class strike carrier’s bridge and a schematic for the Pathfinder Alpha exo-armor (what are often known as mecha in the anime genre, the Jovian Chronicles calls exo-armor).

Aside from the three-perspective illustrations of each ship, each print also includes a numbered legend making the locations of the important parts, a list of specifications, and a text section which includes an overview, capabilities, and service record for the ship. These are interesting and highly detailed which makes the prints much more useful. All of this information is system agnostic, meaning the posters are just as useful for people playing a Diaspora-based sci-fi game as a group using the actual Jovian Chronicles RPG. It was also a wise decision on DP9’s, in my opinion, since it allowed them to expand coverage of the various ships in the Jovian Fleet without creating another book – the ships included in the blueprint file are not the same as those that appear in either of the Ships of the Fleet supplements, meaning you’re getting quite a bit of bang-for-the-buck and these aren’t simply repackaged art from other books.

The down side to this is that the information you’re provided is pretty barebones and people who do play the Jovian Chronicles RPG aren’t going to get their “crunch fix” from this particular product. That’s hardly a big deal for most of us though, and is an asset if you happen to be using something like Diaspora or Thousand Suns since all the useless crunch isn’t taking up space on the sheets.

The Verdict

Overall I really like the Jovian Fleet Blueprint File – it provides inspirational fodder for science fiction games, as well as possible uses as an aid at the table. Considering how cheap the product typically goes for on Ebay (it’s long out of print), they’re quite a bargain. I wish DP9 would consider putting these out as a PDF product as well (though printing would be a pain) because priced cheaply I think the file would be a great buy for just about anyone interested in sci-fi RPGs.

Review – Montsegur 1244

Montsegur 1244 is a story-telling roleplaying game inspired by the historical events that surrounded the siege of a castle located in southwestern France. In it, each player adopts the role of one of the castle’s inhabitants, with the group exploring the time period of the siege in a series of acts that span a single session of 3-6 hours. It is a GM-less game and prep-free as well.

Here’s how the author describes the game:

Do you renounce your heretic beliefs and do you wish to receive the forgiveness of the merciful Father?

In March 1244 this question was posed to several hundred Cathars. They had surrendered to the army that had besieged the castle of Montsegur for more than nine months. More than two hundred answered no, and thereby chose death by fire. Who were these people that chose to die for their belief?

In Montsegur 1244 the players collaborate to create a story about who these people were. Each player takes on the role of one of the besieged Cathars who will face the choice between life and faith.

Montsegur 1244 is a story game about burning for your belief for 3-6 players, duration 3-6 hours.

The Physical Product

The game’s book is a 64-page, saddle-stitched, digest-sized book. It’s interior is in gray-scale printing (black text on a textured gray/white background) and is on good stock paper. The color cover features an attractive illustration that captures the feel and time period of the game extremely well.

The book is written in a very clear and easy follow manner that explains how to play the game, with several detailed examples. The book also serves as a “guide” for the session, with specific paragraphs that are read to set the scene for each act and to provide the background details necessary to give the scenes that follow a sense of time and place.

The book also includes all of the cards (character, story, and scene cards) needed for play, which can be cut out of the book, although the author also provides the necessary materials as a free PDF on his website so you’re not forced to ruin your book.

The Game

The rules of the game are very simple and don’t involve dice or any sort of conflict resolution. Instead, players take turn setting and playing out scenes, with whoever has narration rights for the scene ultimately deciding the outcome of the that particular scene.

Here’s how the game plays out in a nutshell:

At the beginning of the session, the sets of scene and story cards are shuffled and placed in separate piles on the table. 3 of the scene cards are placed face up for players to choose from at the start of each scene.

Players than choose a character from the set of 12 that are included with the game: Each player will in fact play 2-4 of the Cathars (depending on how many players there are at the table) and then from them choose one as their main character whose fate they will ultimately decide at the end of the story. The other characters are background characters whom the players use to fill in scenes, interact with main characters, and drive certain events forward.

Once all of this is taken care of, play begins, with the session being broken in to 6 sections: A prologue, followed by four acts, and then finally an epilogue. The prologue consists of a single scene which establishes what sets off the siege by playing out the events of the assassination in Avignonet; it also acts as a “teaching scene” so that players new to the game can learn the rules. After the prologue, play proceeds through the rest of the acts, with each player getting one scene for their character (thus each act will have 3-6 scenes total). Each player sets and directs their scene, selecting what other characters will be present and what the primary goals are for the scene – the other players are encouraged to suggest ideas, but the player with the narration rights gets the final word regarding the scene’s details and outcome.

Play proceeds through the acts, with the opening texts for each act providing guidance about the nature of the scenes based on the time period of the act. When the Epilogue is reached, each player in turn narrates a personal epilogue for their main character, revealing the fate of their character. Ultimately this comes down to one of three possibilities: To burn at the stake for their faith, to repent before the inquisition, or to escape in to the night. However, things aren’t quite that simple since this game and story is about tragedy and that’s accomplished through a very simple set of rules: At least one main character must burn at the stake, and at most one main character can escape. In other words, the majority of characters are either going to burn or recant their faith.

Reading through my brief summary, those used to traditional RPGs may be scratching their head regarding how all this translates in to real play? After all, there are no conflict resolution mechanics, or even dice. Similarly, what makes it a tragedy and what exactly do you do in play? Having played the game a few times, the game consistently delivers a powerful, tragic story with a great deal of internal consistency. How is a credit to the design: Each character has just enough ambiguous background information and a couple of guiding questions (which the player is encouraged to discover the answer to through play) that provide a ton of story potential – the small, insular community mixed with some really story-rich questions (e.g., “Who is in your mind when you lie with Arsende?” and “Whose child do you carry in your womb?”) virtually guarantee lots of drama. In addition, the story cards, which offer plot elements and twists that both serve as inspiration and lend a degree of unpredictability to the story.

The Verdict

I was skeptical about Montsegur 1244 before playing it for the first time – it simply did not sound like a game that I would enjoy. However, by a certain twist of fate I had the chance to play the game with the designer and was floored by how very cool and heartbreaking the story was – in my personal story, my main character, a 10-year-old boy named Amiel, sacrificed himself so that his sister could escape and ended up burning at the stake simply because the community’s religious leader told him that it was the right thing to do. In the end, a character I started off playing as a happy-go-lucky kid with aspirations of becoming a knight, turned in to a very confused, desperate boy who went hesitantly to his own death.

That doesn’t mean game play is nothing but self-flagellation and depressing outcomes. There are points of light and even humor in sessions (e.g., in the game mentioned above, another PC had a very funny scene in which he tried to get permission to marry the lord’s daughter and totally botched the whole thing). However, ultimately the game delivers on its promise of a tragedy, which makes those earlier scenes all the more bitter sweet and, at least for me, ultimately satisfying.

I can’t recommend Montsegur 1244 enough if your group likes drama and tragedy, isn’t scared by games without dice, and is willing to spend an evening playing a great game and then days afterwards talking about it.

Review – Paizo's Inner Sea Poster Map Folio

The Inner Sea Poster Map Folio is the culmination of several years of Paizo’s development of their Golarion setting. Let me start out by saying [i]I love maps.[/b] I have very fond memories of the maps from the original Forgotten Realms Campaign Set and still pull them out from time to time to look at. I also am a sucker for the map folios put out by Paizo since I find them a great source of inspiration and also handy for use at the table, even though I don’t play the PFRPG nor even D&D at the moment. I’m also a fan of Golarion and so when I saw that a set of giant poster maps were coming out for the Inner Sea region, I knew I’d be buying them.

Product Details

It consists of four quadrant poster maps detailing the entire region of the Inner Sea (essentially all of the area explored and detailed through the Pathfinder releases up through 2011). The result is ahuge map of the region – combined the maps cover an area of 5 feet (high) by 3.5 feet (wide). Each section is printed on heavy, glossy stock which is likely to hold up to regular use. The amps are beautifully drawn, full color and with a ton of detail – this includes every locale detailed in the The Inner Sea World Guide as well as most (all?) of the major sites details in Paizo’s modules and adventure paths to date (2011). The colors are vibrant, the fonts easy to relatively easy to read (though a bit cramped for my tastes), and the overall graphics are detailed without being overly cluttered. To say the maps look awesome would be an understatement.

About the only thing I can find at fault with them is that the scale is a bit odd: The demarcations on and rendering of the scale – which is broken in to 8 segments and is 420 miles in length. Obviously this means that the demarcations on the scale don’t break up evenly (that’s 52.5 miles per segment) nor do they match a standard incremental length in either the Imperial or Metric system – each segment is less than one inch (15/16″ or 24mm to be precise). That makes using the scales nearly impossible without a calculator or the ability to do fractional multiplication in your head. I also really wish that Paizo would have had enough sensibility to have abandoned the antiquated Imperial mile and stuck with the Metric kilometer since it would have at made the map a lot more user friendly since distances would have involved much simpler math.

The Verdict

Aside from the scale, there’s not a lot to not love about these maps if you’re a fan of Golarion and I think anyone running a campaign in Golarion would find them invaluable. I also think other people looking for inspiration or just a cool set of fantasy maps would find them a worthy addition to their collection.