None More Black – review and Keeper advice

The Call of Cthulhu adventure None More Black, by Brian M. Sammons, appears in the Doors to Darkness adventure collection for the 7th edition of the classic horror game. All the adventures in the book are meant as introductory to the world and system, and this adventure succeeded very well as that. It was fun to play, with variety in the challenges and it had a very cool ending.

The adventure features an unexplained death of a young college student, Walter Resnick. He was found dead in his room at a local boarding house, after he had been missing for a few days. The characters could either be local officials, such as police, coroner and perhaps a college professor, or friends of the dead student, or alternately hired investigators who get embroiled in the cause of his death.

I can highly recommend the adventure as the first adventure for a longer campaign, as the threat isn’t overwhelming, or as a stand-alone ‘one shot’ introduction to Call of Cthulhu.

It was the first adventure for our pandemic-downtime Call of Cthulhu mini-campaign. We run two parallel groups of three characters. All the characters are part of the same detective agency, Duke & Whitlock, and we switch up the characters for the next adventure, where I will be running That Jazz Craze, from Harlem Unbound.
The other Keeper ran the Haunting for three other players.

We played four 2-hour online sessions with 2-3 players for a total of eight hours of game time. It can be done faster, as some of the investigation is optional.

Online play is an inferior experience to meeting physically, particularly when you try to build mood and atmosphere, but playing with only two or three players, which CoC is great for, enhances the online play experience, compared to four or more players.


In the following article, I will briefly go through what happened in our play-through and provide some advice and highlight areas where I noticed issues or areas for special focus, in case you are running the adventure.
The rest of the article will have spoilers. So, if you want to be a player in this story, stop reading and send the link to your Keeper!

Preparing for the adventure:

How you prepare for the first part of the adventure, depends on how you involve the investigators. As my characters were private investigators, I decided that Walter’s parents hired the investigators to establish a cause of death, because they couldn’t believe the ‘natural causes’ explanation coming from the authorities.

We’ve set our game in Springfield, Massachusetts, and so I needed to have an idea of the locations where the investigators would get the initial information: the coroner’s office, the police and the boarding house. I also needed some names of students, who were part of the ‘bad element’ Walter was involved with. I’ve written that into a document you can download and use.

One of my few points of criticism for the adventure would be that there is only one physical handout for the adventure. It would have been nice, if the adventure came with eg an autopsy report and some excerpts from the Dover journal.
If you feel like you have the time and skill, you should consider making handouts for an autopsy report and an excerpt from the Dover diary.

I also changed the timeline somewhat. I found it unrealistic that Jacob Dover had amassed enough money to buy a new car and an old property and got so many followers in only a few weeks, so I increased the timeline to three very active months. One of the reasons I found it unrealistic was also that three deaths among young – upper middle class – people in a university in three weeks, would certainly be a scandal and create significant police and public awareness – and not just “throwing the campus into a panic”. Even if it happens over three months, it would be a big problem for a college and something you could play up in the adventure, with for example a nervous rector as employer and the like.

First session: initial investigation

The characters three characters were: a war veteran up and coming bootlegger of Irish descent, a classically educated black jazz musician with an occult experience and a Brazilian immigrant struggling actor/stuntman. The group was introduced to the adventure when the client – the deceased’s parents – called the detective agency. Through that brief, they learned that he was dead, that it was explained as ‘natural causes’, but it was an explanation that the parents had a hard time accepting, as the young man was known as a cheerful healthy man who did lots of sports.

The players then went to the natural first points of interest: the coroner’s office, the police and Walter’s home. They had good luck getting details from the coroner, for example that the tongue was black. The police detective was up to his ears in another case, and was stumped on this one, so he shared the highlights, but they failed a persuade roll, so didn’t get speculative details. At the boarding house where he lived, they got to speak to the neighbor and learned that he had nightmares and was ‘out of sorts’.

They proceeded to Springfield College (which I found this really nice old postcard of), where they spoke to the administration and found some of the ‘bad company’ that he had been keeping.

They managed to get Paul Rodger’s name out of them, and they followed him back to his house, when he came by to sell this ‘new thing’ later on. At Rodger’s house, I had them notice O’shea, in a car on a stakeout. As one of the characters was an up-and-coming bootlegger middle-man, he knew of him, and he decided to go talk to O’Shea.

From him they learned that Rodgers was selling something new on the market, and the O’shea family was interested in learning more. When Rodgers goes out later in the evening on a date with his girlfriend, O’Shea follows him, but the characters investigate the house. One character decides to search for a hidden extra key, and with an extreme luck success he finds one. They enter the house and find the stash (which they grab), the hidden notes and obviously the boots. That is where we ended the scene. If I had had more time, I could have had Rodgers coming home with his girlfriend to add tension, but they had learned a lot, and were ready to move on in the adventure.

Second session: scrambling scouting mission

There were only two players for this session, and it still worked very well. The jazz musician and the boot legger decided to scout the old slaughterhouse, without doing a lot of research. They drove out there, parked the car and snuck closer. They could see a car outside, and a little bit of light from inside. They also noticed a guard wandering around outside from time to time.

In the adventure, there is very little detail about where exactly the different NPCs are and what they are doing, so I decided that there was a Blackhead outside walking the perimeter once in a while, smoking a cigarette and such, but not very worried or aware.

The characters managed to sneak up to the side of the building, and from cracks in the gate on a loading ramp they could hear the chanting and Dover’s voice ordering them around, when a Blackhead had finished his spell. They try to peek into the slaughterhouse, but they need to climb to a window up under the roof. They fail their stealth test (which they are pretty bad at), push, and are discovered. The Blackhead who was patrolling comes running, and Willis Carter, the linebacker bodyguard moves outside and starts the car to use the lights on the car.

One of the few things I found missing was a more detailed description of the slaughterhouse, which my players visited twice.

I then initiate a chase scene. Unfortunately, the bootlegger is very slow, and is quickly caught up to by the Blackhead, so they enter combat, while the not very physically impressive black academic and jazz musician runs all out down a dirt road. As I’m not that familiar with the chase rules anyway, I move into a more fluid scene.

Carter drives after the musician and the bootlegger ends up shooting the Blackhead with a .45 and crits, and he falls over dead (neatly demonstrating the lethality of guns). The musician reaches they edge of the corrals and dives into the hedges to hide, but not before he sees, over his shoulder, some shadows rise from the roof of the slaughterhouse (the Nightgaunts). Carter stops the car on the road and calmly walks in there with his .38 and finds the musician trying to hide behind a tree. He orders him to walk with his hands up back to his car, as he intends to get him back to the slaughterhouse for interrogation.

But in the meantime, the bootlegger has arrived after his struggle, and takes a shot at the bodyguard. In the confusion , the not very combat capable musician kicks the bodyguard between the legs and runs away. The two combatants trade shots, the bodyguard is winged and seeks cover behind the car, and the bootlegger uses the opportunity to run away – as he is also out of bullets. With the two characters fleeing back to their car, we end the session.

Third session: deeper investigation

To account for the missing player in the previous session, we ret-con that he was sleeping in the car. We play out a scene where the two characters come rushing back and semi-panicking shouting that he needs to get the car moving. They drive back to Springfield and catch each other up and make a plan.

The group begins by following three avenues of investigation. The boot-legger seek out O’shea to get his family’s assistance. The musician research newspapers and town hall archives and the actor/stunt man will test the Black sample on a dog.

O’shea agrees to go and meet his uncle with their information and offer and they decide to meet later. Behind the scenes, I’ve decided that Dover concludes that the people spying on him was working for the Irish mob, and he will have his Night Gaunts kill O’shea in the evening, when they are to meet.

The musician digs out a lot more information – about Dover’s family history, the transfer of title to the slaughterhouse and thereby his address.

The experiment on a stray dog was a fun – but inconclusive – avenue. He lured a dog to him and feeds it with some meat with the Black on it. I explained how it fell asleep and made the ‘dog kicks’ of a dog dreaming. And then he had to wait for several hours before it awoke. Later on, it began whining and becoming restless, which is how I tried to indicate it was addicted. No matter what, the players didn’t dare to test the drug – which is of course wise.

After digesting all the information, they go to meet O’shea, but arrives at the scene of his death, with a man raving about him dropping from the sky. This underscores the danger they are in and increases the pressure on them.

They move on to Dover’s address and locate his apartment, which they force open. As I understood the adventure, Dover spends most nights at the Slaughterhouse, so he and Carter are not home. They find the journal, and the end of the session is the musician doing a first reading of this ‘mythos tome’, but he decides not to learn the spell Call the Black, mainly because of the additional time it would take.

Fourth session: the showdown

This time, all three characters approach the slaughterhouse stealthily in the spring rain. Now there is a guard circling the outer perimeter, and the bodyguard was sitting inside the car smoking (out of the rain). They get to the north side of the building and with a very good strength roll kick one of the old gates in. Both the bootlegger and the stunt man/actor are good with shotguns, and they kill two blackheads in the first round.

In the second round, Jacob Dover emerges from the old office and begins casting his spell and the two Nightgaunts attack, but the bootlegger manages to fight off the two Nightgaunts and the stuntman blasts Dover. At this point the bodyguard has also entered the room, and shot at the musician, who is in cover. But in the third round they gun down the two Nightgaunts, with some good rolls, and the bodyguard flees into the night, after seeing Dover gunned down.

The musician begins to search Dover’s room, as I decided the old inspection room was used as his office, and that the deed to the slaughterhouse, as well as his cash, was in there, given that there is nothing in his apartment, and he spends most of his time there. At the same time, the others search the main area.

At this point, I decide to introduce the Raw Head and Black Bones. I did that for two reasons: I think they deserve a ‘big monster’, and I felt like the fight against Dover and the Blackheads went a little too easy to be a good climax. If they had been less capable gun fighters and they had been wounded and barely made it, I think surviving the Blackheads and Dover would have been victory enough.

But as it happens, it forms out of the black ooze and bones. The musician fails his sanity roll and flees in the car parked outside. The two tough guys shoot a couple of shots, with little effect, before it glides over to the stuntman and whacks him with an average damage roll … and kills him instantly. At this point, the bootlegger runs for his life. RIP Francisco Oliveira (you can see the obit I wrote afterwards to the left, which reflects how the characters had to obfuscate the cause of death).

The musician flees to a bar and begins drinking, and he regains his memory and composure in the morning.

The two remaining detective regroup at the office. They decide to go back with gasoline and burn the slaughterhouse in the early morning, and – as it is still raining, which should keep the monster inside – I let them end the adventure with that.


There is of course a police investigation of the fire and the bodies found, but I think the police simply want to quiet things down at this point, and are happy the Black is gone, so nothing further is done, even though I’m sure they could easily figure out that the characters were involved in the shooting (see the newspaper clip at the end, for my wrap-up).

Conclusion and final thoughts

We had a lot of fun with the adventure. It is classic Call of Cthulhu investigation, but it isn’t overly complex to reach a conclusion, so it is good for players new to the game. It also has enough optional elements that it will not feel railroaded, despite it being linear from the college to the slaughterhouse.

I was perfectly happy to have the players meet the Irish mobsters and make a deal with them even after O’Shea died, but they players didn’t want to wait a couple of days – until the funeral was over to try to negotiate that deal – so they went to the slaughterhouse themselves. I think, if you introduce O’Shea, that many groups will consider allying with the mob, unless they are very upright citizen types, and having a few mob goons along means that you can really use Raw Head as a terrible foe at the same time as they face the Blackheads.

I wish that the slaughterhouse had more information about its contents and that the map of the slaughterhouse clearly indicated what was where. I also think the slaughterhouse is too small at about 50×30 feet. I regret not increasing the dimensions to double or triple the size, as I think it leaves more room for dark corners and a wild skirmish.

You can also play up the political elements of the story. Three dead college students would be a big problem anywhere. Particularly for a game with characters more tied to the institutions of the city, this could be a big factor in pushing them to resolve the situation.

As I mentioned above, it would also have been great with a couple of more handouts, as it is one of the aspects of a CoC adventure that really entertains and adds that special ‘feel’.

Next up for our mini campaign is the adventure That Jazz Craze.

I wrote a newspaper article to ‘wrap up’ the lose ends, which enables us to move on to the next episode of the mini-campaign.

ALIEN, women and horror

20 years ago, I co-wrote a thesis paper for my BA on gender, women and horror in the Alien films. We would have looked at it differently today, but the paper can still serve as an inspiration for Game Mothers and academics who wish to delve deeper into this universe and these topics.

Gender and gaming is a much more discussed issue today, thankfully, and I find it fitting to post this on International Women’s Day. The discussion of women and gender makes complete sense to me, especially when you discuss fictional universes and games, because it is so rewarding to examine them in the form of art and entertainment.

Ripley, as a character, undergoes radical changes through the four films, and we liken her death to the death of Christ.

Much of the theory used in the paper was already 20 years old when we used it, so from that perspective I think it could inspire others to dive deeper into the topic. That said, it is not a field I’m keeping on top of or working with, and there might be a lot of new more important theory out there which this article does not reflect.

The horror theory used I think can help Alien Game Mothers to more consciously incorporate horrific elements. As the paper describes, there are very strong links between what we consider horrific and women, reproduction, sex, birth and so on – themes that are extremely prevalent in the Alien universe. Understanding that theory can help GMs craft adventures, I believe.

The paper was written with my friend and fellow role-player, Per Frederiksen.

If these topics interest you, I suggest you give it a look!

Twilight: 2000 – a preview of a great survival game

The last message you hear on the radio from the battalion HQ is: “You’re on your own now.” Then it’s just static. The 5th US Mechanized Division is no more. It is just you, the sarge, a befuddled lieutenant you dragged out of a fox hole yesterday, Ramirez and her SAW and a local Polish kid, who had been running errands in the company. And an ol’ beat up truck nicknamed Hauler. How the hell are you going to escape the advancing Soviets, let alone get home?

This is the premise of one of my old role-playing loves, Twilight: 2000, a World War III post-apocalyptic game in a future that never was, now being republished by Swedish Free League Publishing, using another custom version of the Mutant Year-Zero ruleset.

In short, I think they’ve done an excellent job adapting their ruleset to make an intense game about humans and survival in a scary and hard future. I would very much enjoy to play or run it, and it is currently tied with Alien as the game I would most like to run for my next campaign (after I finish my now four years long D&D game).

The game system has the right level of abstraction versus crunch (to my taste), the design seems very well executed and the art and layout are excellent.

Why should I check this game out?

  • If you like post-apocalyptic games
  • If you enjoy more down to earth RPGs with some crunch
  • If you enjoy alternate history and the Cold War
  • If you want to explore very human emotions, conflicts and scenarios
  • If you enjoy movies like Black Hawk Down, Fury, Apocalypse Now, Mad Max etc.
  • A lot of military veterans play it
  • Alien RPG players, who want more crunch for combat in Alien, can get a lot of ideas from this game.

One of the parts that made me love the 2nd edition of the game was Tim Bradstreet’s atmospheric pencil illustrations. They added that sense of the setting being in a gritty, worn real world. They remind me of Hermann’s excellent Jeremiah comics.


It is in Alpha

I got access to the Alpha-version as a Kickstarter backer, and I will in this article give an overview of my initial thoughts, and maybe convince you to check it out, or give fans of the old version a few insights. It won’t be a game for everyone, but it would be great if the audience could grow. The full game is released in 2021.

Given that it is an Alpha version, the final version of the game will obviously differ from how I describe it here, and there is content clearly left out, like more locations for the characters to visit, rules for making a base and the experience system to a name a few.

I should say that this is the 4th edition of the game. My first experience with the setting was in 8th or 9th grade, where we would play the 2nd edition at my friend Tonny’s house. I just loved it. We didn’t follow all the rules (which are complex and old fashioned), and back then I already found the skill system and character creation rules annoying, because it was impossible to make a young and skilled character. But it was where my love of the post-apocalyptic setting was established, and I was already lurking on Twilight 2000 fora when news of the new edition hit.

Tell me some more…

So, what is the game about? Well, the world has basically collapsed after the next world war. The war included significant exchanges of – mainly tactical – nuclear weapons between NATO and the Soviet Union. Nuclear winter and the collapse of infrastructure has caused wide-spread famine and disease and the and civilian authority has mostly broken down. It is a very bleak world, but Free League notes that you need to add some hope, or the whole thing becomes too depressing!

It is also worth noting that the designers clearly state that this is not a game about soldiers or the military, it is about survivors, which I really like.

The default campaign is that your unit was part of a last-ditch NATO offensive that failed, and when your division is defeated outside of a Polish town called Kalisz, you are simply let go. The group of characters are a few soldiers from this division, and maybe a couple of civilians or a CIA spy. They also might have a vehicle, but that is usually randomly determined at the start of the game. The immediate goal will be to avoid – ie flee – the oncoming Soviet troops. But then what? That it is really up to the players to decide, depending on their motivations and characters. They might try to get to comparative safety in France, or see if they can find a ship to take them home somewhere in Western Europe, or they might decide to settle down and create their own base, or perhaps follow the new meta-plot line of Operation Reset? What is certain is that it will be difficult to survive and there will be hard choices ahead.

The second campaign option in the book is playing in a collapsed Sweden, which got involved in the war. Free League is Swedish, so I find it a great addition. Especially since the Baltic Sea is a key theatre for a WWIII scenario involving Russia. Sweden has been nuked, has US Marines fighting alongside Swedish regulars and partisans against Soviet troops, and a wounded US aircraft carrier has been parked in Stockholm. A fine new twist.

The game comes with big hex maps for both Poland and Sweden.

Each hex is 10 kilometers (about 6 miles), and the referee will typically draw one encounter per hex.


Who can I play?

There are two ways to make a character: picking one of the archetypes or going through a Life Path. The key difference is the level of control you have over what your character will become. If you pick one of the archetypes (Civilian, Grunt, Gunner, Kid, Mechanic, Medic, Officer, Operator and Spook), you will have a high degree of control over the character you want to play, and they are equally skilled.

The second choice starts you out as an 18-year-old, and lets you pick the different steps in your career – both civilian and military. Each step will make you 1D6 years older, and at each step you gain skills and potentially specialties and promotion, but you also roll to see if your attributes drop or if the war breaks out, at which point you get a “final” War Career. This system is more random and can make your character both more or less skilled than the archetypes. It emulates the system the old GDW games, which Twilight: 2000 was one of and Traveller was another, in which – infamously – your character could die during character creation!

The Free League version is more abstract, which is also in line with the more stream-lined set of skills. It takes up six small pages, whereas the second edition has 12 full pages with for example 18 different officer careers – eg Naval Aviator Officer or Ranger Officer. In this edition they make do with one officer career. I think it is plenty for a core book, and for the fans who want a higher level of detail, it will be easy to make your own or – I’m sure – Free League will add new options in supplements, such as aviators.

I tried the Life Path process and ended up generating an American (you can also play a local or a Soviet), which grew up as a street kid, but who joined the military and became a medic (Combat Service Support). She only served two terms before the war broke out when she was 25 years old. Compared to the Medic archetype, she had one more stat point and three specialties versus one for the archetype, but three fewer skill ranks. Definitely a viable character, and the extra stat point she was lucky to retain, will be consistently useful, if she lives long enough in game!

The system
For the people who’ve played other Free League games, the Twilight: 2000 system will feel familiar, but there is still a significant departure in the core mechanic. I’m going to gloss over details here, but put simply:

The game has a dice pool system, but the core dice is one from your attribute and one from your skill. You need to roll a six or higher to have a success, but your rating goes from A-F. A is a D12, B is a D10, C is a D8, D is a D6 and F is nothing (which only applies to skills). Rolling 10 or higher counts as two successes. Modifiers increase or decrease the dice you use. It is reminiscent of the rules for artifact dice in Forbidden Lands – their fantasy RPG. So, you want to try to sneak past a sentry, and you have Agility B and Recon C, you roll a D10 and a D8 and try to roll a six. If you roll two ones, you have a mishap. As in other Free League games, you can “push” the roll once, and roll again, but this causes stress or damage.

So, that is the basics. You can also have skill specializations, eg Machine Gunner or Forward Observer, but there are no talents to add additional capabilities (at least yet, I hope they add them).

There are also a couple of new mechanics.

You have a stat called Courage Under Fire, which you typically need to roll when getting shot at. Furthermore, your unit has a morale equal to the highest Command skill level in the group.

When you fire a weapon, they’ve also added Ammo Dice as a mechanic – a D6. For each of the dice you roll you get an additional chance to hit by rolling more sixes. Additional hits can be applied to nearby enemies. If you roll ones, they contribute to the chance of rolling a mishap, which will degrade your weapon. When you are done, you add the D6 together, and that is the ammo you just used. Simple and elegant – at least on paper. I haven’t tested it.

In some of the other Mutant-Year Zero games, you also rolled dice for water and food every day, but in Twilight: 2000 you need to keep track of daily rations. It was an abstraction I liked, and I hope they will reintroduce. But, of course, characters in a modern world have more options for storing and carrying rations.

Combat:

Combat is quite tactical, and the default assumption is that you use a hex map (10m a hex) and the counters that comes with the game. This is where most of the crunch comes in. You need rules for various weapons, from knives to mortars to phosphorous grenades. You need to know how mines, barb wire, chemical weapons and explosions work and you need to get vehicles, from motorcycles to main battle tanks, into the mix.

The dangers of combat are accentuated by a nasty critical hit system. If you get a critical hit in the head or torso, they will nearly all be fatal, unless you get medical attention. Just moving a fatally wounded will force a Stamina roll to avoid death – a mechanic I’ve never encountered in a game. I won’t explain the system here, but I like it. It fits with the game.

The system is very deadly compared to other current games, as there is no way to mitigate getting hit using “Fate Points”, “Luck Points” or the like. A medic will be a critical component to a group.


In addition to suffering damage, you can also suffer Stress, like in the Alien RPG. It happens when you push, see a mate get critically injured or if you experience other traumatic events. If you reach zero, you are incapacitated by fear, and someone with the Command skill needs to revive you (like in Alien), but there is no “panic roll”. You can risk long term effects though, like phobias and alcoholism.

The system is less complex than previous editions and has the right level of abstraction for me.

For comparison:
In the second edition of the game calculating the Concussion Effect of demolitions, you needed to “divide the DP value of the charge by 2, extract the square root of the result, and multiply by 5.”

I prefer not using a calculator, when I play RPGs.

In this edition, you look at the map, and roll a number of base dice depending on the blast power of the explosion, and for each hex beyond the center you reduce the dice with one step.

The vehicle rules are where I see the most complexity.

In this, and previous editions, vehicles play a significant role. You need to maintain them and find or make fuel (from an alcohol still), and you need to repair them if you can, when they get shot at.

The vehicle can have different armor on each side, which means its facing on the map matters. Furthermore, a hit that does not penetrate the armor might have an effect, and a penetrating hit might continue to damage other parts of the vehicle. This includes the crew and passengers of course, and as a GM I am a little concerned by the likelihood of a TPK if their vehicle is hit with an explosive shell that penetrates the armor. It is realistic – but not that much fun – if 75%+ of the group is killed by a T-72 hidden behind a road-block…

Equipment
Your kit is essential for your survival, so the game spends quite some pages on various guns, vehicles, accessories, grenades, explosives etc. Compared to previous editions there are fewer small arms, fewer vehicles and less details on equipment in the core book. The section takes up more than 40 pages in the Alpha edition (versus 78 in 2nd edition), so it isn’t like they breeze over it, especially compared to other current games.

What I loved then – and now – is that all the vehicles and weapons each have an illustration – in color in this edition.

To me, it seems a bit excessive that the Polish weapons get so much space, as they are basically identical to the Soviet weapons, but with different names.

There are no aircraft and only a few boats. However, especially the maritime aspects Free League has promised to follow up on, as sailing down the Vistula river to the Baltic Sea (and then home?) has always been a key part of the game.

Sand box play
True to the original, the game is a ‘sand box style’ game. The new edition core books does a better job supporting that style, however.

The original did have a solid section on Encounters and some adventuring sites, but the originals were more generic, whereas Free League has organized them to be drawn from a regular deck of cards and include intentions and drama to many of the pre-written encounter. The referee can then add additional meaning to by including references to the different factions that are also described in the game or play off on previous events.
For example, if the referee draws 7 of Clubs, it will be a group of angry starving refugees, but if it is 7 of Hearts it will be three orphan kids in a house and marauders approaching.

There are also a few encounters that feel too similar, and won’t work close together, such as the four different nuclear craters, which differ very slightly. I hope they beef them up a bit.

The game also includes random radio chatter, two pages of “mood elements” and a list of rumors, which is highly useful. It also has a solid system for survival, making camp, scrounging and trade.

That said, although the events and random encounters of previous edition aren’t as “ready to play” as this version, because the Referee will need to roll additional dice and check more tables, there is plenty of inspiration to be drawn from them.

In the Alpha edition there is only one premade location, but they should include four in the full game. The style will be familiar to people who owns or plays Mutant Year Zero or Forbidden Lands. The description contains a map with locations and brief descriptions, NPCs with motivations and rumours and plot hooks.

There is a Meta-plot about Operation Reset, but the Alpha-edition has few details on it. In the previous editions there were also actual “adventures” with a plot-line like you will find for most RPGs. I assume they will reappear.

The Backstory
The 1st edition of the game was published in 1984, when the Cold War was still a thing and the year 2000 in an unknown future.

As it turned out, the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact were a lot weaker than they appeared. Therefore, when you in 2020 make a game, where you start with the original conclusion (a clash between NATO and the Soviets in the middle of Poland around year 2000, and a global nuclear exchange) and go backwards to write an alternate history to get to that point, you will inevitably strain realism.

I am completely fine with that, and ultimately, for most games, the details of the backstory won’t matter the slightest, because it has little to no impact on the game – just like the ancient lore in most fantasy games has very little relevance to the actual game – so who cares what China did? Or if Israel was attacked by a coalition of Soviet and Middle-Eastern forces? You have more immediate problems!

There are however a minority of long-time fans, for whom creating a “realistic” backstory is almost a sub-hobby in it itself, and – funnily enough – most of them claim to have made a backstory that IS “realistic”, from their perspective. They are right of course in saying that the Soviets would never have the capacity to invade the UK, much less supply their troops there. But that won’t matter to the vast majority of players. I say this, to flag to newcomers that there are some vocal critics out there.

If am I to criticize the current backstory a bit myself (ironic isn’t it), I think the brief backstory needs to touch on what China and India are doing in this conflict, as they are the two most populous countries in the world and nuclear powers to boot.

To me, Free League, strikes a balance where the die-hard fans of the previous editions can still recognize the game that they love and making the game relevant and accessible to new players

Conclusions & concerns
The problem with the old editions were – in my view – that they were very simulationist and not very playable for more casual players. What Free League have basically done is to take their default system, which is already meant for survival-games, and use modern game design conventions to make the game enjoyable for the more casual player.

It is still the most complex – crunchy, if you will – iteration of the Mutant Year-Zero ruleset, and I think one of the reasons is that you still need to provide game mechanical variety in a game with nothing supernatural. It is just humans with guns, motivations – and sometimes tanks or mortars – that you need to worry about. Therefore, there must be a meaningful difference between a Soviet T-72 and T-80 tank.

The Alpha edition seems very well done to me, and most of my points of critique are minor or a matter of taste.

To me, Free League, strikes a balance where the die-hard fans of the previous editions can still recognize the game that they love and making the game relevant and accessible to new players. Hopefully, that means that the veteran players will see an influx of “new blood”.

It will however be important for new players to “manage expectations” when they join a group. There are many current fans out there, who are experts on weapons and military life and who enjoy debating various Soviet tank configurations. Some seem to be very focused on “realism”, which I’m sure may include everything from extensive details on various ammunition types to the inclusion of slavery and sexual violence in the game. If lots of logistics or very dark topics are to your gaming taste, go play! But others with different perspectives on gaming might not, and I think in this game in particular, a solid conversation on what the game will feature and what it won’t, will be critical.

In my experience, even the sand box style of gameplay can be hard to manage and is not to everyone’s taste.

I will certainly look forward to this game, and I might even be able to convince my usual group to give it a go. If you’ve read this far, perhaps you will too?

ALIEN RPG – a review

I have loved the ALIEN franchise, since I saw Aliens with my father when I was maybe 10 or 11. It is still my most memorable movie experience. So, the ALIEN RPG, from Swedish Free League, was a must buy when it came out in December 2019.

I’ve played it for a total of around 15 hours (on Roll20), and I now finally have found time to write a review.

The game won a Gold Ennie at 2020’s virtual GENCON, so it is fair to say that it is very well made game! But picking up a role-playing game also comes down to taste, personal preference and just what game you wish to run right now. So, in this blog post, I’ll try to answer: is this a game for me? You will get the short and sweet points first. In the second part, I go into more depth on the mechanics and content of the book. In a future post, I will write my thoughts on the scenario Chariot of the Gods.

In Short: What is the Alien RPG?
The game is a retro-future horror role-playing game built faithfully to the franchise (and officially licensed). It uses the Year-Zero game engine, which is a dice-pool system – like most Free League RPGs.

The game is designed for two modes: cinematic play and campaign play. The cinematic play emulates an ALIEN movie and is a single adventure in three acts. It means, each character has a secret motivation, they can’t trust each other, are likely to do irrational things and aliens are probably going to kill some – if not all – of the them.

In the campaign you are likely to play either colonial marines, space truckers or colonists, and alien life forms aren’t meant to be introduced right away. Instead, the game features more mundane missions and jobs among corporate giants and working class grunts trying to make a living.

The book is around 400 pages and about half is system and the rest is lore, Game Mother information, a short adventure and a location.

The system emulates the stress and horror of the alien universe and it is fairly simple. Combat and action are cinematic, but there are enough character options for a short to medium-long campaign.

Ripley is the greatest female action movie protagonist of all time, and is an almost unique figure in the 80’s movie landscape.

What do I think of the ALIEN RPG?
The game looks amazing, has a great atmosphere and was a lot of fun to play.

The game enables you to immerse yourself in the Alien universe; a scary, uncaring, capitalistic future where no-one will really care that you scream you lungs out or have your skull pierced by a xenomorph tail spike.

The game has a fairly narrow scope, which I think works to its advantage. The system has been tailored to create the Alien-experience, primarily adding stress dice to the player’s dice pool, when they exert themselves or things go wrong (more on that below).

Because of the relative simplicity of the rules, the widely known universe and the cinematic style, I think it is one of the best options out there for introducing new players to the hobby .

Characters will die in ALIEN. A weapon and some armor might save you… but don’t let the xenomorphs get close.

The artwork and art direction is fantastic, and the book is easy to read and make sense of. However, I have read and played other Free League games, which makes the system familiar to me.

There is enough background and lore in the book to really get my creative juices flowing and I wish I had the time to run an extra campaign using Alien.

That said, I’m sure it isn’t a game for everyone. It is science fiction. It is dark. It is easy to lose a character. It is about body horror and being fairly insignificant in a world of grey and questionable morals. The system is also not very granular. So, not everyone’s cup of tea.

Why should I buy the Alien RPG?

  • You want to play a space-horror game
  • You want to run shorter adventures with a cinematic style for your group
  • You would like to introduce D&D players to another genre/system
  • You want to introduce new people to role-playing, but they aren’t into fantasy
  • You love the Alien universe.

Why should I pass on the Alien RPG?

  • You want a crunchy game that tries to simulate life in space and combat between people in the future
  • You want a game with a vast scope that you can use for any kind of science fiction game
  • You want a game that can support a years-long campaign

AN IN DEPTH LOOK AT THE ALIEN RPG

Below I will go into more depth with contents of the rule-book and the rules. My views are mixed in between and I end with a conclusion. If you have questions or want to discuss the game, post in the comments or reach out on Twitter (@RasmusNord01).

The System

Characters
The players can pick from nine different careers. These are mostly well-known types from the ALIEN franchise, such as Colonial Marine, Company Agent, Kid, Medic and Officer. They are broad in scope, so the Officer could be a Colonial Marine Officer, a Navigator or Captain on a ship or a colony leader-type.

You can also play a colonial marshal, which looks to be inspired by the 1981-movie Outland, where Sir Connery plays a “space sheriff” on Jupiter’s moon Io. The look of the film fits very well with the ALIEN universe, and if your players haven’t seen it, you can steal the plot…

The game only has four different characteristics (Strength, Agility, Empathy and Wits), and each is associated with three skills. This means 12 broad skills and keeping it simple.
For example, Mobility covers stealth, dodging, jumping and risky climbs, which in some systems would be three separate skills. Piloting covers all kinds of driving and flying, so you don’t need separate skills for driving a quad bike, flying a drop ship and driving a tank – for power loaders you do however need Heavy Machinery.

Each career has access to three talents unique to them, and all characters have access to about 30 general talents. The career talents are what enables characters to do something none of the other characters can do.

The special talents are interesting, and some are unlike what you see in most games. For example, the officer can get the Pull Rank talent, and with a successful roll can force both PCs and NPCs to do as they are told. The Company Agent “Rat Fuck Sonofabitch” has his personal safety top of mind and can make another character the target of an attack aimed at her (with a successful manipulation roll).

The Pull Rank talent is one example of how the Year Zero system has in-built mechanics for social interaction, which I think works better than fluffy “diplomacy” or “persuasion” in other games, where the actual outcome is often left to the GM.

There are also rules for synthetics … excuse me, artificial persons. They are in most ways better than a human PC, but they also have a few limitations.

Mechanics & Stress
The system is made up of dice pools of D6s. You add your relevant characteristic with the right skill and possibly ‘gear dice’ if you have the right tool and then you try to roll a 6. If you fail, you can try to ‘push’ the roll one time by describing the extra effort (you have the same idea in Call of Cthulhu 7th ed) and re-rolling the dice.
However, when you do, you get a stress level. Each stress level adds a stress dice, and if you roll a 1 (a Facehugger on the custom dice) on one of those, you risk going into a panic.

The stress mechanic is a key part of the way ALIEN simulates the films and the horror in them. My players named them – sardonically – ‘Hero Dice’, because they do enable you to accomplish greater feats, but they can also make things go very wrong.

If you push, and still fail, there will also often be a negative consequence, including damage to your characteristics, broken equipment and so on.

In our cinematic game, the problem was that, as things spiraled out of control, we rapidly tried all the different outcomes of the panic roll.

The intention is that you roll rarely – only when it is dramatic. One of the reasons is that there is only one retry. After that, the characters will have to do something different to reach their goal. The added bonus is that it keeps the game moving forward.

ALIEN also has a feature I’ve not seen in other Mutant Year Zero-games. Each skill comes with a number of Stunts players can pick, if they roll more than one success. For a ranged attack roll that could be an extra point of damage, but you can also pin down your enemy, the target drops a weapon, is pushed back or drops down. Or in Comtech, you gain additional information or are able to hide your tracks in the system. I like that, and it is very player facing as they get to pick the stunt.

Panic is rolled with 1D6 and adding your stress level. If you roll a total of 6 or lower, you keep it together. From 7-15 bad things happen – you can freeze, go berserk or flee, for example, and often increase the stress level of nearby PCs through your erratic behavior.

In our cinematic game, the problem was that, as things spiraled out of control, we very rapidly tried all the different outcomes of the panic roll. Thus, you become familiar with it – as a player – much quicker than a long critical table, and that was a criticism from my players: the results of panic were quickly unsurprising. That is one of our main criticisms of the system.

Combat & gear
Combat in ALIEN is very lethal – especially against Xenomorphs. I’ve killed a character with s couple of dice rolls (xenomorph attack, character was unable to parry, the space suit armor didn’t stop it (second roll) and the attack happened to be an auto-kill crit to the head).

People firing guns at each other using cover and with armor is a little less lethal, but still deadly. Rifles and shotguns do a minimum of two or three damage points, so characters who aren’t particularly strong will be “broken” if they are hit and have no armor. If you are broken, you roll on the critical table, which can be everything from a minor cut to a broken leg or pierced skull. There are no Fate Points to avoid a killing blow, no Death Saves or re-rolls on the critical table. If you get a bad critical, you need to make a new character.

Xenos also have their own critical table, which means they might get blown away when they reach zero health, or they could be playing dead, or lashing out in a final berserk move. That mechanic works well, although I wish it had more than five outcomes.

Unlike some Year Zero Engine games, the characters have Health Levels. In other games, the damage is taken directly from the Strength characteristic. I’m not sure why they’ve made this design decision? Damage to character’s strength can lead to a death spiral, but since melee combat is less prevalent in ALIEN, compared to Forbidden Lands or Mutant Year Zero, it seems less of an issue.

A great design feature is that monsters don’t follow the exact same system as a character. Xenomorphs have their own list of six random attacks they’ll use – usually twice per round, as they have more actions than humans. The system is also used in Forbidden Lands and works very well with the iconic killing blows of the xenomorphs.

This section also covers the many (bad) conditions you can suffer from, such as radiation, drowning, fire and vacuum.

The gear section is robust and has all the gear you recognize from the movies, plus additional items, such as various drugs.

The vehicle section only has six vehicles, all recognizable. That seems a bit light, but can easily be fleshed out in a supplement.

My only real gripe here is a lack of information on how the weapons for example work in zero-g. Can the rifles fire in space, where there is no oxygen, for example? They do include rules for hitting the hull with shots from your pulse rifle and the potential resulting explosive decompression…

Colonies typically have shit weather, shit food, boring backbreaking work and lousy pay, but at least the coffee is good – and free!

Hard Life Among the Stars
Between the sections on gear and spacecraft, there is a section on life in the ALIEN universe, which is very player facing. It includes the basics on how space travel works, but also covers topics such as media, salaries, entertainment, religion and law enforcement. It is fairly short, but important.

I would have liked – and it could be placed in this section – more how zero gravity, low gravity, radiation and other similar aspects of living in space is dealt with.

Spacecraft and space combat
The space ship section has examples of iconic crafts, like the Sulaco, and a modular system to build your own ships or upgrade existing craft.

ALIEN RPG is the first interstellar science fiction game, where the size of cargo ships makes a bit of economic sense. In many games, characters will be doing interstellar travel with just a couple of dozen tons of cargo – around the capacity of a big modern truck. In contrast, modern bulk carriers or crude carriers have 300,000+ tons of ore, grain or oil on board.

Even current coastal cargo ships have much greater cargo capacity than what you see “traders” typically haul in games like Traveller, Fading Suns, Space Master and so on. I really like that, as it fits with the gritty economic system of the game.

Space combat is described as quick and deadly – which would fit with the rest of the game’s approach to design. The system does have a couple of fun features, but not a ton of detail. It resembles the system used in Free League’s occult Arabian nights inspired science-fiction game Coriolis, but has been simplified.

I like that the captain on each side (a player and the GM) secretly picks his orders for each “role” on the ship. On top, there are four different roles for the various crew members: gunner, pilot, engineer and sensor operator, who have a total of 14 different actions, such as Target Lock, Accelerate, Maneuver, Fire Weapon and Launch Countermeasures.

I haven’t tried it, but with 14 actions split between the four roles, it seems like it doesn’t offer a lot of options – and how often do you want to ram another space ship, really?

On the fun side, there are however a lot of different component damage options, split between minor and major, like: coffee maker malfunction (!) and Intercoms disabled to AI offline and critical crew injury. These malfunctions are also used outside of combat, and are cool.

On a side note, the game and the adventure Chariot of the Gods doesn’t really take into account the mass and speed space craft must move with, and what would realistically happen if they collide (megaton explosive events).

All that being said, I doubt that space combat is what you play ALIEN for. I guess, in a Colonial Marine campaign, you could have multiple space battles, but in most games I would suspect it happens once or twice, if at all. The risk of losing your ship – if that is the “base” of your game, will also radically change the trajectory of your game.

The Alien Universe

The final part of the core book consists of advice to the GM, a decent section on the various governments, corporations and organizations. This is followed by a description of some of the key systems, planets and colonies.

The central tension of the world is between The United Americas and The Union of Progressive Peoples – a Cold War analogy – with various skirmishes, proxy wars and covert operations happening out in the rim.

In my view, there are a lot of interesting plot threads woven into all this lore, and plenty to get some solid ideas for campaigns and intrigues.

For example, the Interstellar Commerce Commission representative, Paul van Leuwen, who chaired Ripley’s tribunal, found out that a team of colonial marines along with Ripley were sent to LV-426 to investigate and now also has disappeared. He has launched his own investigation into what is going on, and he might need passage, or some freelance investigators to help him out…

The game takes place in the year 2180 and adheres to the canon of the movies and the excellent video game Alien: Isolation. It means the that the events and technology of Prometheus and Alien Covenant are part of the book, as is everything up to and including Alien 3. Alien Resurrection happens more than 200 years later, and is therefore not a part of the lore.

I think the lore sections gives you precisely enough info to spur your imagination, leaving plenty of room for making your own systems and colonies.

Along with lore, there is a detailed map of known space, which is featured inside the cover of the book. You can also buy a digital copy or on print.

The Weylan-Yutani Corporation is can be both employer and enemy. There are several competitors also featured in the book.

Economics is out of whack
One of my few issues, is with the fictional economics of the game, including the population sizes on the colonies in the core systems.

According to the lore, some planets have been completely strip mined. This fits with the themes of greedy corporations and horror, but seems very implausible.

Earth has been intensively mined for more than 100 years and though we have caused plenty of damage, we are very, very far from having strip mined our home planet. Australia alone is estimated to have deposits of 24 billion tons of iron ore left.

Even if earth has depleted its own resources, and you need to build infrastructure in space, it doesn’t seem like there is enough population outside of earth to generate sufficient demand for strip mining entire planets. Nor the technology or manpower to actually accomplish such a task. But now I’m nit picking!

Alien Species
The section on aliens is 40 pages long and is detailed enough for you to run a campaign.

It begins with details on the Engineers and alien technology, and then moves on to the various xenomorphs including other Extra Solar Species.

Especially the Xenomorph XX121 gets a lot of love, with information on all the different stages of its development, signature attacks for all of the stages and some hints about Empress and Queen Mother stages.

Cinematic Adventures
Alien can be played in cinematic mode and campaign mode.

Free League has, as of now, published two cinematic adventures: Chariot of the Gods and Destroyer of Worlds.

Cinematic mode is meant for “short” games, one-shots and conventions. A cinematic adventure has three acts, like most movies, and a key feature is pre-generated characters, who all have a personal agenda – a goal they need to achieve. The agendas increase the drama and make players take classic horror-movie style sub-optimal actions – like going off alone to the medical bay to steal drugs or go searching for the cat in an abandoned cargo bay, while a xenomorph is on the prowl.

In Chariot of the Gods, the characters even get new agendas in each Act, to push the action forward.

I must note that it took my group five 3-hour online sessions to get through Chariot of the Gods, and I skipped parts. I have though read online that others have done it in four hours and had fun.

Creating Campaigns
There are three potential campaign frameworks laid out: Space Truckers, Colonial Marines and Frontier Colonists.

The chapter on campaign play is, mainly, a lot of charts that lets you generate your own star systems, plants, jobs, missions, colonies and so forth.

I experimented with it, and I have to say that the tables allow you to generate some inspiring combinations that really spurred my imagination.

However, unlike Forbidden Lands and Mutant Year Zero, I don’t think you can simply run a game based on the results of these random jobs and missions. Alien does not have a list of interesting random events like Forbidden Lands, nor several detailed locations. It only has the example of Novgorod Station and a handful of accompanying events at the station, which could be enough to get you started, but my players would expect more.

Especially for colonists and space truckers, the jobs seem too mundane for them to be really exiting. Even with the random complications and plot twists, you need – as a GM – to flesh out things a bit more in advance based on that random input. You have to make sure there is enough details on the intrigue and drama and probably a main protagonist to make it interesting.

A trip to deliver 2000 heads of cattle to a small colony station two parsecs away with the complication that “problems at the destination means they can’t get the cargo off – and perhaps the characters can help speed things along?” is cool, because it is mundane and “feels right”, but the real adventure orbits around the problem that “something is wrong” at the destination, which is hindering their delivery, and that characters must get involved in that. And I’m not saying it is xenomorphs – it could be malfunctioning Seegson droids, a weird AI, UPP infiltrators or something else entirely. My point is: you need to make that adventure, the NPCs, the plot and the location in advance to whatever detail suits you. The tables will only get you so far.

How does a job salvaging parts at the shuttered Fury 161 facility sound? All rumours about a “space dragon” are completely unfounded. Double pay? Done!

The random colonial marines’ missions naturally lend themselves more to being interesting and dramatic on their own: e.g. a Raid on a Sensor Site with a company agent along, who is meddling to secure corporate assets with the twist of sabotage on board with a UPP frigate on an intercept course. That sounds action packed, but you still need to craft the details: the map of the sensor site, the NPCs, the complications and so on – but at least the framework of something interesting is there already.

In my view, you also need to make a campaign arc that propels the characters towards meeting a xenomorph threat – a grand intrigue of some kind – that can connect the plots and adventures into a satisfying whole. The game doesn’t say a whole lot on that front, which is a bit disappointing.

As the game is deadly, it could make sense to have a bit of an ensemble cast. For example, the space trucker crew could be eight people for four players, with each player having two characters. Or the rest could be NPC’s until someone dies. It also leaves NPCs to put in danger – or kill horribly – for dramatic effect. Having 10 characters available for a squad of marines also makes sense, as some characters deaths seems to be inevitable.

The book ends with a short cinematic adventure, that takes place in the same location as the Aliens film: the colony Hadley’s Hope. The characters arrive back from a job at a processing plant (before the colonial marines and Ripley arrive) to find the colony deserted and a warning message sounding over the intercom. The characters must investigate and survive to catch a shuttle off the infested base.

The short adventure can be played in a couple of hours and comes with nice floor plans, PC’s and NPCs. A great place to start, if you want to introduce new people to the game, the genre or, perhaps especially, to role-playing games in general.

Alternately, the floor plans could be reused for your own adventure or campaign.

Conclusion

The ALIEN RPG is a fantastic game. It is tightly designed and sticks to its core themes.

The rules are designed to make the game feel like you are inside a piece of ALIEN fiction. It evokes the atmosphere and style of the franchise perfectly.

Inside the book, you will find everything you need to run a game, although the custom yellow stress dice with Facehuggers on, I think would make it run more smoothly (and you probably need two sets).

The art is great, and the book is easy to read – however during combat with xenomorphs, you do need to reference tables scattered all over the book. The rules are quite simple and very player facing.

That said, the style and themes are probably not for every gaming group, but I would argue that even for die-hard D&D/fantasy fans, an ALIEN cinematic adventure could be a great change of pace or palate cleanser between campaigns.

I would love to run a campaign in ALIEN, and I think it could easily stretch over 7-10 adventures – for me – a short to medium long campaign. But probably not more than that. The amount of character options and room for advancement would simply run out (see my calculation below) – unless you kill characters very frequently, which isn’t fun in a campaign.

The only real critique point in the rules are the amount of variation in the panic rolls and for critical hits on xenomorphs. I think the lack of variation could be a problem, especially in a campaign, and the panic roll mechanic is not easy to change.

My other slightly negative points are ultimately nit-picks, and every supplement for the game will be a ‘must buy’ for me.

Let’s say you play for 25 sessions, with on average 3.5 xp per session, which would leave you with almost 90 xp. At a cost of 5 XP per skill point or talent, that would purchase you:
12 additional skill points (on top of the 10 a starting character has)
2 extra career talents
and 4 additional general talents.
At that point, a group will be extremely competent and covering all bases.

Amidst the Ancient Trees – play advice & review

I ran the Call of Cthulhu (CoC) adventure Amidst the Ancient Trees from the 7th edition core rulebook by Chaosium on Roll20.

I doubt the game needs an introduction for most gamers, but CoC is a classic horror RPG where normal people – called Investigators – encounter the insanity-inducing cosmic horrors of H.P. Lovecraft’s universe and try to surviven with their lives and minds intact.

This article is one-part review and one-part advice on running the adventure, with a lengthy section on how our game went. It is one long spoiler, so if you are a player, stop reading!

A very high-level conclusion is that we had a good time. The adventure is solid, but not without flaws. It is not the classical “investigation” adventure, which is one of the reasons I picked it. It served well as a first introduction to the Mythos for the characters.

However, there are some stumbling blocks. And I probably made a mistake the way I set up the adventure. Primarily, I think the characters need stronger motivations to propel the players/characters forward towards a final conflict.

It is not a completely linear adventure, but it isn’t a sandbox either. As a Keeper, you need to make the choices available in the adventure clearer.

We had not played CoC for more than 20 years, so we were in a sense noobs, who still knew what we were getting into.

The setup

The group was me as Keeper and my three long-time friends and gaming buddies, who due to this pandemic found our games moved online, and it now made sense to play together again, despite living in opposite ends of our (albeit small) country. We made characters in advance and ran the adventure over two 3-hour sessions.

The players rolled their characters, and they were fairly mediocre, and none had a high EDU. Two did roll 80 Power, which became relevant.

tab smith
Character art one of my players found – and used the name Tab Smith.

The characters were:

 

  • A rich British dilettante living in Vermont, who had served as a liaison officer during WWI (drinking cognac and reading French poetry well behind the front)
  • A black Boston Jazz musician who owed a lot of money (motivation from the adventure)
  • A photographer of German descent who took photos for the police in Boston (and, it seemed, also more illicit photos), who wanted to get back on Harris.

So, not great woodsmen, but with some combat skills, good social skills (which they rarely needed) and good spot hidden.

Playing online

We used Roll20 as our digital tabletop but ran voice and video through Discord. I purchased the core book for CoC on Roll20 and upgraded my account to paid, which meant I saved some time setting up the adventure and taught me something about how the different assets can be used.

We could not get video and sound to reliably work on Roll20, which is why we moved to Discord.

In the first session we were on a joint call. In session two I used the bot Rythm to play music from Youtube via a Discord server. I couldn’t get the bot to play Spotify, but Youtube was quite easy. I think using a server and playing creepy music worked the best.

Short-ish recap

To help other Keepers run the adventure, it can be helpful to see how other groups went through it. Therefore you can read our version. Or you can skip down to my notes on what I liked and didn’t like, and how I would recommend adjusting it.

The group got the briefing, and one character started questioning the motivation of the kidnappers, which the sheriff answered as ‘money’, which was true. At this point I should have explained to played that he knew that Strong was a man of some means and that background, but I hadn’t picked up that he understood himself to be a local. I think it was also an initial attempt to try and figure out what the mystery was.

Harris
I used this photo for Harris.

I had found photos (mug shots from Australia) from the period to illustrate the kidnappers. It is important that the characters are able to recognize the bad guys, so I think that is important to introduce.

They were taken to the forest after their small posse had spent the morning getting ready at the dilettante’s mansion – meaning they didn’t do any kind of rumour investigation in advance. The whole hook of the adventure, I probably ran over too quickly, partly because I was conscious of game time.

They were lucky on a track roll, and advanced at a fair pace the first day and only encountered the two hunters. At night one character had a weird dream, but they didn’t notice any truck sounds.

 

Day 2

On day two they come across the track of the wounded artist, and as they can’t tell which way the track is going, they opt for going East – thus towards the camp, and agree they can go back to the Harris-track.

This is where I diverged significantly from the scenario as written. As written, they don’t get to the artist’s camp before day 3, but I couldn’t square that with a panicked wounded artist running through the woods for hours and hours at night and day. They therefore find the camp during the afternoon (before the second round of nightmares), which means they see the paintings before they had the dreams. One character had the bright idea to see which paintings seemed to be painted from memory and which were from observation, which meant he could identify which were dreams.

They opted to follow the drag marks north of the camp, and then I moved on to Night 2.

Night 2

One of the characters with nightmares got up, and was awake. He rolled an extreme success on spot hidden, and noticed Louis, the hidden servant of Gla’aki. He challenged him with the rifle he found at the artist camp, which made the servant attack. The character rolled another extreme success and did something like 24 in damage on an impaling shot. He shot him through the heart, and the servant played dead, as per the adventure. They naturally notice that he has been dead for a very long time etc. and decide to flee back to town back along their own trails. I forgot about the explosion and the weird light, though, from the dig site.

As the characters are no woodsmen, I made the very plausible call that they – instead of backtracking the whole way – end up out on the road, with the truck rumbling into sight. Here they learn some useful information, but find the driver odd and rude. I tried not to overplay it, though. He told them they were welcome at the site, but could walk.
They decide to walk to the dig site, as they might be able to catch a ride back.

Then I have another posse stumble into the road ahead of them, coming from the other side of the road. They could inform them of the sounds of gun shots during the previous night and the general direction (Harris’s cabin). This way I presented two clear choices to them (the dig site or going after the kidnappers). And this is where we ended the first session.

Second session

They chose to go the dig site, to see if they could get a ride home. On the way there, they come upon the road to the cabin and decide to investigate, making their sanity rolls as they see the same path as in their dreams and the cabin later on.

They go into the cabin, where they see the civil war outfits, an old rifle. When the photographer gets his gear set up for an amazing photo, he notices the pale blue light. They find the trap door and enter the cellar (with the big camera on a tripod). They find the coffins, and, as I share the art from the adventure, they can see a book. I rule that the coffin is open, and the pick up the book and the spine which is also in there.

coffins
The art reveals a clue. The adventure doesn’t say which coffins are open. Maybe I should have ruled that only the two coffins with occupants were closed? 

This is when the two servants emerge. The characters have a shoot first, ask questions later policy, at this point, and open fire. They discover to their chagrin that the two “zombies” don’t react as they thought to their onslaught, as the first servant played dead after getting hit. When they realise their attacks are ineffective, they flee up to the cabin and into the sunlight.
They opt out of going to the lake, and go back to the road and on to the dig site, but without reading the diary…

The group gets to the site and are able to talk their way into a conversation with foreman White. They are lured into the shed with the Turner gang and the kidnap victims. White reveals the captives (for dramatic effect) and a fight ensues. The players roll really well. One manages to escape through a window, where he begins fighting with two of the surveyors, before fleeing.

The dilettante officer knocks White down and barges into the room with the prisoners, and begin to set them free. The jazz musician, who grew up in a tough neighborhood, smashes a lit oil lantern on one opponent and sets his hair on fire. crits White with a gunshot, which I rule gives him a penalty dice due to damaged bone and sinew. Turner of course shows up, and he begins casting spells at the musician, but fails every single time, as the opposing PC has 80 in power.

Ultimately, the PCs cut the prisoners loose and smash open one of the barred windows and make their escape by stealing the truck. They return to Bennington and basically succeed, as they rescued the kidnapped girl, but fail to stop Gla’aki’s servants – and really without knowing what was going on.

Combat map element
I create a simple cabin layout in Roll20, to ensure everyone understood who was positioned where. I didn’t use grid movement as such.

 

My opinion and adventure issues

We had fun, and I think the system ran quite smoothly, despite it being the first time I’ve run a Basic game in decades.

It is not a bad adventure. It has fun action and the mood is quite cool. But it has a couple of significant problems.
The overarching problem is the loose connection between what the players have been told is the objective and the actual plot.

 

The briefing (or inciting incident) I could probably have run better. One of my players thought it would have worked better, if we had discussed they setup during character creation, and I think he is right. I just opted to have them create characters that weren’t designed for this adventure specifically. In hindsight, the other way might have been more fun.

It can seem a bit far fetched to send more or less armed civilians out to get armed kidnappers, that have shown their will to kill cops. Perhaps it would be more realistic, if Mr. Strong did the whole thing privately, offering money etc., because the cops were unable to pursue, until the Feds show up in force, because of the casualties they sustained?

My biggest failure was not spending more time on the motivations. They are not strong and dramatic enough, in my view, to propel the characters into danger, since the plot doesn’t propel the characters forward.

One of the players said, that he felt the adventure lacked a point where the story takes that clear twist from a rescue operation to a “foil the cult” plot – a point of no return for the characters.

The setup is classic horror: a group of people venture into a wilderness with one purpose but instead finds something dark and must combat it. However, there is no “point of no return” in the adventure where the characters MUST try to oppose the bad guys, to survive. They can just decide to go home or flee at any point.

The maps in the adventure aren’t that useful when running it. On the adventure map, the path seems linear, but I don’t think it is if you read the adventure. I made a flow-chart, where the road separated the kidnapper’s location from the starting point. That helped me a lot.

map coc
In Roll20 this is labled “player handout”. But it obviously isn’t, given the Legend on it… I found my own online and posted it on the Roll20 tabletop.

Can servants of Gla’aki be destroyed?

I struggled with how to handle damage to the servants. It says they are immortal in the adventure, but then why do they have HP? If you look up the stats in the rulebook, it makes no mention of them being immune to damage.

I liked that they couldn’t just destroy them with gun fire and brawling, but I assumed destroying their physical shapes will “kill” them – and that fire is effective to do that. I also began giving them penalty dice, if they had been critically injured, to reflect damage to their physical shell.

I’d be interested to hear what experienced Keepers have done, or what Lovecraftian Lore says…?

What would I do differently?

I would make some stronger motivations. Basically, by dialing the current ones up.

Verbs!
This is one of the best pieces of advice from Youtuber and game designer Matt Colville. There are good verbs and bad verbs. The original character motivations lack good verbs. 

– Harris killed your (brother, father, favourite uncle) and now you must get your revenge!

– You owe a Boston mobster 2000 dollars. If you don’t get the money it by the end of the week, he will burn your house down and break your legs, maybe kill you.

– Jane is your favourite niece, god daughter etc. You must rescue her!

To create the plot twist, from finding kidnappers to stopping Gla’aki. You could have one of the kidnapped, Jane or Arthur, show up after having fled the cabin. This should be either after finding Turner’s cabin or after the Hideout. That NPC can tell them how the surveyors have captured the artists and are digging out something unnatural from the earth and speaking of sacrifices. This could spur them into a rescue action.

The small stuff

Then there are some little things that were annoying or points I think Keepers need to consider:

  • The dig site art does not match the map. That meant I couldn’t use the art as a handout.
  • There are no role-playing tips for Jane of any kind. You need to make that up yourself.
  • There is no mention of the truck at the dig site, so I placed it there.
  • I think there is a bit of a mismatch between how the driver, James Stanton, is supposed to be role-played and the rest of the surveyors. I tried to make White a bit more distant, but not sure I succeeded.

Using Roll20

The Roll20 character sheets helped quite a bit with identifying Hard and Extreme successes.

The assets from the adventure weren’t really that helpful, as the maps contained the Keeper information, so that was disappointing. I don’t know if Chaosium converted the adventure to Roll20. If they did, it looks a bit low effort.

I made (a really ugly) map of the dig site in Roll20 (see above), just to be able to follow the action there, as there are many NPCs to keep track of.

Roll20 was great for quickly Googling a photo of that car they drive or the gun they find, and then moving it on to the screen. Playing in a historical period, where photos exist from, is an advantage when playing online.

Summary:

Amidst the Ancient Trees was a fun adventure, but with too vague motivations and nothing that propels the characters from trying to find a kidnapped girl to stopping Great Old One’s servants.

The fact that it has a limited number of paths for the characters to take, I think makes it a good introductory adventure. However, I think it needs some modification.

I could have succeeded better in creating a scary mood. But that wasn’t the adventure’s fault 🙂

It worked well on Roll20, but wasn’t fully adapted to the platform.

 

 

Adventures in Middle-Earth Reviews

AIME1
Adventures in Middle-Earth (AiME) is an RPG set in Tolkien’s world between the events of the Hobbit and Lord of the Rings. It is based on the Dungeons & Dragons 5th edition engine, and you only need the free System Reference Document to use the AiME books.
Below you can find links to Reviews of many of the AiME books.

I’ve also played Wilderland Adventures and Eaves of Mirkwood and written my comments on how I ran the adventures and what I would change.

Cubicle 7 no longer has the rights to producing the game, so there are no more supplements coming, but the books currently available are more than enough to run multiple campaigns and to build your own.

All in all, it is a fantastic and faithful low-magic merging of the D&D 5e rules and the Tolkien-universe. There are a couple of balance issues and design issues, especially at the higher levels, but nothing a creative Loremaster can’t fix.

Reviews:
Player’s Guide to Adventures in Middle-Earth
Loremaster’s Guide to Adventures in Middle-Earth
Loremaster’s Screen and Eaves of Mirkwood
Mirkwood Campaign
Wilderland Adventures
Rhovanion Region Guide
The Road Goes Ever On

Game guide:
Wilderland Adventures 1: Don’t Leave the Path
Wilderland Adventures 2: Of Leaves and Stewed Hobbit
Wilderland Adventures 3: Kin strife and Dark Tidings
Wilderland Adventures 4: Those Who Tarry No Longer
Wilderland Adventures 5: A Darkness in the Marches
Wilderland Adventures 6: The Crossings of Celduin
Wilderland Adventures 7: The Watch on the Heath

D&D Homebrew – Part 2 launch

”Any sight or word of them?”

“No, governor,” the chief scout said.

Governor Erin de Vin had recently shorn her red hair to prepare herself for the fight to come. They needed every edge they could get. There wouldn’t be room for mistakes. She was annoyed she kept thinking of how her mother used to braid it. That was a long time ago now. And in a distant land.

She was standing in the new gate tower looking towards the forest fully armored. It smelled of fresh sap. A yellow piece of cloth was blowing gently in the breeze from the sea from a branch at the edge of the forest. There was noise of chopping and digging from the work parties.

“And the elves?”

“I sent ambassador Faenar to parlay with them, but they aren’t telling him much. He is only half elf,” Oaktender said. His eyes narrowed.

“You don’t trust them?”

The halfling, long worn by weather and sorrow, shrugged.

“I think we can trust that the hobgoblins are their mortal enemies. But even I can’t sneak very close to the elves, and I only understand a bit of their hand signals anyway. They are weary of us, for sure. Like we are of them,” he said.

The governor sighed.

“Wouldn’t you be?” she then said.

Then she was silent a while, looking at the Royal Engineers and settlers working hard on their defenses. Thinking. Planning.

“The hobgoblins?”

“Still camped. But growing stronger.” The halfling spat with a practiced show of disdain. The glob of phlegm sailed over the edge of the tower.
“Whitefeather counted two ettins and at least four dozen goblins, who were new arrivals, some of them riding giant spiders. But we can’t see what their sorcerers are doing. They have obscured their camp with some kind of magical fog.”

“How do you view our chances?” The governor looked the halfling straight in the eye – don’t sugarcoat it.

“Our morale is low after the troll attack. Most have recovered physically, but many are brittle beneath. Tulh and his men will give them pause, but he will run out spells long before our enemies run out hot bodies to throw at us, and he will be an obvious target – and hard to protect. Bakhta the Bearded is a good fighter, I think, beneath his bravado, and he is cunning, but his team is too small and too inexperienced. Without Jarn and his crew, we lack striking power, and we will at a minimum face crippling casualties. It is likely we would have to abandon the settlement, if any of us survive. Even if they return in time, the odds aren’t great,” the halfling said, reporting like he used to do with his superiors in the military, and not to someone who had come to be a friend and comrade over the past three years.

They could both hear measured footsteps from below the tower and then the sound of someone climbing. The thin face of Tulh Dweomereye came through the hatch, and he proceeded to climb deftly up next to them, retaining most of his dignity. He wore his dark blue robes today. The ones with the embroidered fire elementals on the sleeves.

“You have news?” the governor said. Her words came out a little too quickly.

“Indeed,” said the wizard with a thin smile.

“Did they succeed? Are they on their way?”

“It appears that they have succeeded, yes, yet again. I wonder when their luck runs out? In any case, they are bringing back our people and will be here in a few days. It sounds like they will have quite a story to tell. Let’s hope we will get to hear it, at some point.”

“Thank the Mother!” The governor gripped the battlement hard with both hands and smiled fiercely.

“But there have been losses, I understand,” Dweomereye said. “It appears Claire didn’t make it.”

Oaktender sighed deeply and looked down, mumbling a prayer. Then he took a deep breath and drew himself up.

“I shall go spread the word. This will bring back some spirit.” He forced a thin smile. “Then I will go give the bad news to Whitefeather,” the halfling said.

“At least, now we have a fighting chance,” Erin de Vin said and looked to the vast forest beyond the clearing again. What kind of strength would the enemy assail her with? What did the elves come to offer? She cast her doubts aside, grinning inwardly. Whatever else happened, the hobgoblins and their damned giant allies would get a big kick in the teeth.

 

 

Wilderland Adventures: A Darkness in the Marshes

I’m running all seven Wilderland Adventures for Adventures in Middle-Earth with my group of 7 players and writing about the experience. You can also read reviews of other AiME products on this blog (and other D&D stuff). These adventure blog-posts are part review and part suggestions for Loremasters on how to run or adjust the adventure, based on my experience of running it. And to provide context for those two things, I will also describe what happened during our play-through of the adventure. Art is copyright Cubicle 7 and pulled from their material.

A Darkness in the Marshes is the first of the adventures in the series that is tightly connected with the storyline of the main bad guy of the seven adventures – the Gibbet King.

Radagast
I really like how Radagast is used in this adventure. I think the blessings he provides should have been used more in the Mirkwood campaign.

In the adventure, the characters are tasked by Radagast to find out what it is that stirs in the west. It is an information gathering mission – not search and destroy (to my player’s later frustration). He sends them to Mountain Hall, a woodmen settlement in the mountains, where the chief knows a lot. From Mountain Hall they can find their way to the old evil fortress Dwimmerhorn and learn something about the evil that threatens the area.

The adventure has a lot of atmosphere, and – as always – the style and mood of the adventure is closely aligned with original Tolkien canon. However, my run of it was not as successful as I had hoped and anticipated. The reasons lie partly with the adventure, partly with my players and partly with me.

On the one hand the adventures is good because the characters can fail to get to the key scene and the information at the end. The problem is, if they fail, the finale of the adventure will be unsatisfying, and you will miss the foreshadowing before the final adventure.

A second problem is mechanical, primarily with the chase system used if the characters are discovered. It didn’t seem to work – at least the way I understood it.

Thirdly, the fortress they have to investigate, appeals differently to more traditional D&D players. There are monsters to kill and human slaves they ought to rescue. Being unable to do those things doesn’t sit well with players who like being heroes, kicking down doors and slaying orcs.

To review the adventures, I intentionally keep fairly close to the adventure as written. For a better play experience, I could have customized it more to accommodate my player’s style.

How it played out:

The adventure took two sessions and a bit. For the first part I had six players and for the last part I only had four. All of them were 5th level.

The adventured started of really well. They meet Radagast and ask most of the questions anticipated in the adventure. They get their answers and are offered the blessing. My players declined a blessing, because they didn’t fear the more mundane dangers much, so they wanted to avoid being noticed by a greater danger.

In the adventure, the group is supposed to be guided by a local scout named Banna. I declined to use her, as my group already has a Wanderer, who has special knowledge of the area they travel in. I wanted him to shine, and the journeys are – so far – more than easy enough. And as far as I can tell, she has no real function in the adventure.

Mountain Hall
The Mountain Hall village has some threads to other plots and adventures you can use in a wider scoped campaign.

They arrive at mountain hall after a couple of unsuccessful journey events with an exhaustion level. As they have a woodman with them, it is fairly easy to gain access and they are led to Hartfast, the chief of the settlement.

The audience with him goes well. The dwarves offer assistance with his goblin problems and with the mining operation – as is noted in the adventure is an option, which is a nice touch – and the adventurers get descent lodgings.

The Dunedaín of the group discovers the goblin saboteurs and with a pretty astonishing amount of natural 20’s all the goblins are quickly killed, the missing guard is found, and the group are accepted as heroes.

The Dunedaín also use his foresight virtue to get a premonition that Magric the Trapper, who was offered as guide to Dwimmerhorn, is going to betray them.

They see the Horn of Warning, meet Magric and move into the marsh. The escaped slave Walar comes running, and they have the encounter with orcs and wolves. I added a couple of wolves to the encounter to make it a bit more challenging.

As they are forewarned of Magric, they are ready for his treachery and quickly slays him. It is weird that there are no stats for him. He isn’t even given – as far as I can see – one of the standard profiles from the LM Guide.

After the encounter we finish the first sessions.

A dungeon! But not quite…

Dwimmerhorn
Dwimmerhorn is an adventuring location with a lot of atmosphere, but you might need a more fleshed out dungeon below.

The characters speak with the escaped slave, Walar, and learns a few things about Dwimmerhorn and they get a rough map of the place.

They decide to all sneak up via the hidden path. After a few failures, and some falling damage, they get to the top. From there they can see the temple and that orcs feed a prisoner to the wargs.

The group is kind of split between those who want to burn down a building and/or help the slaves escape and kill the leader of the orcs, and those who want to simply investigate.

They sneak forward to one of the storage rooms and wait to see what happens. I let Ghor the Despoiler walk from the ruined keep to the temple with a couple of hooded cultists (hoping they will follow). Instead they debate and decide to sneak into the ruined keep to look for information (which isn’t an unreasonable expectation), despite knowing there are human servants in there, but overlooks the risk of a fight that warns all the orcs.

In any case, they fail at sneaking undetected into the keep. When discovered, they again debate what to do: Continue to the keep and defend it and hope the tunnel to the dungeons is there, go to the temple instead and hope for a tunnel down to the dungeons below the fortress or simply escaping over the wall?

They decide to go into the keep. I place a handful of servants in there and they dispatch them and bar the door, while orcs surround the building. This gives them a couple of rounds to search, and as they find nothing, they decide to climb to the top of the ruined keep, jump down to the encircling wall and escape down the cliff, with a few extra arrows being short at them due to the route they took.

Fleeing from Dwimmerhorn we use the chase system in the book, which I can’t see works as intended. My group decides to use the forced march option back to Mountain Hall and they only get one journey event. As far as I can tell, that effectively means they can’t be caught by the orcs (more on this below), and they arrive at Mountain Hall.

As Magric was killed, there is no confrontation at the gate, as scripted in the adventure, and they are let into the settlement, where they can rest.

The adventure concludes with Ghor and some orcs sneaking into the settlement to assassinate them. I added two additional Snaga Trackers (against four characters), but they killed them all fairly easily. Partly, the reason for them handling this encounter easily is that their main melee character is dwarf slayer, which means he fights without armor and has advantage against poison, and both features are big advantages in this fight.

How was the adventure?

The adventure is pretty good overall, but our playthrough was far from optimal, for various reasons.

  • When you put a dungeon in front of my players they want to investigate it. As a game catering to D&D players looking for something different, I think there is a bit of misalignment of expectations between regular D&D players and the location as presented.
  • The chase system doesn’t work, in my view, and fails to bring a sense of danger and pursuit to the adventure. I wanted there to be a real chance that a character had to sacrifice himself to hold off the pursuers, as that would have been epic, but there was zero chance of that.
  • The missing dungeon I had recognized as a problem, but due to time constraints I didn’t add that to the adventure. I should have found a map online and had it with me (more on that below).
  • It is in the spirit of Middle-Earth, but the adventure sets the characters up to eventually be discovered, so they have to flee. The reason is that they want the evil mastermind to vacate the fortress, so the plot can go on. Not every player will enjoy that. It is a bit railroady.
  • We failed to get to the big pay off at the end. We will see how that affects the rest of the campaign.

The betrayer, Magric, seems kind of obvious, but it is in line with the world. He seems fair but feels foul. The adventure has him almost automatically escape. I let them kill him, particularly since the Dunedaín had used an inspiration on his Foresight of the Kindred virtue to foretell his betrayal.

If you’ve had a different experience, I would love to hear about it in the comments!

What would I change/do differently

Make a dungeon

I would definitely have a large dungeon map ready with some detailed locations and monsters for a regular dungeon crawl with pursuers behind them. Or I could have made a couple of events including some dark slimy monsters to meet below the fortress for a more cinematic approach.

dysons
For some cool maps, you could for example go to Dyson’s Dodecahedron.

When my players fled into the keep, I should have let the entrance to the dungeon be there and winged a couple of encounters and let them struggle all the way to a secret underground exit, after which they would have to sneak past sentries posted around the fortress to keep them from escaping.

The chase system needs to be reworked to a greater or lesser extent, unless you wish to avoid a greater risk of character sacrificing herself to slow the pursuers. At the minimum, the characters have to be caught unless they take some action to avoid it.

The chase system

wolves
I think it is quite important you add some actions the pursuing orcs take to catch up to the PC’s. It will make it more dramatic and prompt the players to take counter measures.

As written, the characters get a Lead of 2, if discovered inside the fortress. Each failed roll made to resolve the journey decreases the lead by 1. But, they only get 1D2 journey events. Already, the risk of capture is low. Unless, if I understand it correctly, they get a journey event that requires each character to roll, then the risk increases substantially.

However, if the characters attempt the force march option the lead increases by 2 for each of the two attempts – they don’t all have to make the constitution save.

On top of that, they can attempt to throw off pursuers by eg. Covering their trail. If they succeed they increase the lead, or decrease it, if they fail. If you forced march, the negative consequences outweigh the positives.

To correct it, you can increase the journey events to 1d2+1.

I would also add some proactive actions the orcs take to catch them, which I think would also spur the characters to take countermeasures. If you do that, you might keep the journey events at 1d2-

For example:

  • Wolf scouts are sent to harry them, and they are ambushed, with the wolves targeting any mounts or wounded they might have. It also decreases their lead by 1.
  • The orcs march through the night (effectively also use the forced march option to decrease lead by 2). The characters can hear the howls of the wolves growing closer.
  • The orcs blow horns which summons a patrol from another direction or a flock of crows to watch them.

I should have narrated the chase more, but I didn’t have much to attach it to. They had such a big mechanical lead that it was hard to make it sound dramatic.

Additionally…

I should have had Walar, the escaped slave, hint at that they are keeping something of great importance in the temple. Perhaps the coffin with it arrived and he saw it being brought into the temple? Had they known that they would have investigated it.

great orc
Ghor is CR 5, but a Great Orc is CR4. The main difference is that Ghor has about 20 more hit points and does a little more damage, but great orcs have a massive AC of 20. 5 more than Ghor with AC 15. I think Ghor needs more AC to last through a fight, and perhaps a second special ability to make things interesting.

The final encounter with Ghor was not as close nor as interesting as it could have been. It also has some mechanical silliness. The DC to hear the orcs, while sleeping, with passive perception, is 12. 12! Perception is probably the most common skill in any party. I had them roll with disadvantage instead against DC 15, but most still made it.

As mentioned, I added a couple of Snaga’s, and I boosted Ghor’s AC to 17. But the characters defended a house, and could keep the dwarf slayer in front as the main target, and he is very hard to kill.

Also, would they try to assassinate the characters, when they didn’t see the Chain of Thangorodrim or the Gibbet King?

All in all

I think this can be an epic adventure. It just wasn’t when we played it. The first part ran well with roleplaying that oozed atmosphere and Tolkien-vibes.

But half of my players for the second session wanted action and they wanted to be heroes by killing Ghor, rescuing slaves and perhaps setting the orc barracks on fire. It is a very typical D&D approach, and I’m often like that myself. They were fundamentally not in the mood for ‘information gathering’ and that happens. Sometimes you just want to kick in the door and roll initiative.

If I had added a chase through the dungeon, and spotted the flaws in the chase system, and corrected them, I think the session would have been more memorable (and it would expand the adventure to three sessions).

In a couple of days we move on to the Crossing of Celduin, which I hope will run more to my (and my player’s) expectations.

 

 

Wilderland Adventures: Those Who Tarry No Longer

Adventures-in-Middle-earth-Wilderland-Adventures-cover-900
The previous three adventures are all reviewed on this blog. The first one is here.

I’m running all seven Wilderland Adventures with my group of 7 players. You can also read reviews of other AiME products on this blog (and other D&D stuff). These adventure blog-posts are part review and part suggestions for Loremasters on how to run or adjust the adventure, based on my experience of running it. And to provide context for those two things, I will also describe what happened during the adventure. Art is copyright Cubicle 7 and pulled from their material.

Those Who Tarry No Longer was one of the adventures I really loved when reading it. Unfortunately, it has some issues as an adventure when you run it.

The story involves the characters in protecting an elf noble lady who is going to the White Harbor and into the West. The characters are to deliver her to the High Pass, but unfortunately, the Big Bad Evil Guy wants to destroy her.

The adventure invokes a strong sense of Tolkien and captures the mood of the diminishing world very well.

But, the adventure is very railroaded. It depends on the players how big an issue the railroading is for the group.

My players have bought into the fact that we (more or less) run these seven adventures and nothing else, to reduce my prep time for a period and to check out Adventures in Middle-Earth. Despite that, a few of them were bored with how little actual agency they have on the adventure. Other players just enjoy the ride.

How it played out:

The adventure took 2½ sessions to play, partly because I had a large group for the two first sessions – 6 and 7 respectively.

obama
Sometimes using anachronistic real world reference can be very helpful describing in game experiences. I would be pretty dumb struck meeting this guy…

I – rather ham-handedly – narrated how they had decided to hunt the white stag of Mirkwood, and during the hunt encounter Legolas escorting Lady Irimë. I had to spend some time describing the emotion she instilled to get the players to see, how their characters might react – despite knee jerk murder hobo reactions of scoffing at pansy elves. I both described her in Middle-Earth terms, but I also equated the meeting with how we might react, if we suddenly meet a global celebrity or politician, whom we might not agree with or who’s work we don’t care fork – Beyoncé or Obama for example. You may not care for them, but it would be impossible for most people to blow them off or make fun of them. That seemed to work.

We then had a fun time role-playing the mood of feasting with the elves and travelling with her – where she gives insight of the things long gone.

It works really well that they are travelling through areas the group passed by before in previous adventures. The way she provides new layers of understanding to the history of the Old Ford for example, gave the players a sense of all the things that were forgotten, which they didn’t learn from previous Lore rolls.

After the Old Ford they begin to encounter orcs, which led to the major fight on the hill top, where they are rescued by eagles and brought to an eyrie. The seven characters held off the orcs for eight rounds and with only one character down. Then I brought in the eagles, to not drag it on any longer.

rescue by eagles
A classic Tolkien scene. Too classic?

They laughed a bit at the cliché. But it is very thematic, and the meeting with the eagles afterwards I think was quite cool.

Session 2:

The second session of the adventure began with the players being dropped off by the eagles and settling in to the ruins of Haycombe. They camp and a caught in the dream world when Irimë fights the shadow that attacks her.

Initially, they liked the mystery of being transported to Haycombe and trying to figure out how to get home. We roleplayed in the inn and had fun, but when the master arrives and a fight breaks out, it quickly becomes clear that they have no real options. They can fight until they are forced to surrender, by the threat of burning down the inn. So, they surrendered.

We ended the second session after they had been marched to Dol Guldur.

Session 3:

The final part in the dungeons of Dol Guldur had fine role-playing opportunities, the mood was dark and the dwarves of the group had fun trying to fight their way out (I simply described how their attack ended up in severe beatings). The result was that when one was picked to fight the hill troll, it wasn’t the dwarf slayer – who might have had a chance – and instead it was the Dunedaín warrior, who was killed, and woke up – but I didn’t give him all the shadow points, as it was more a narrative death, to show them what was going on in the real world.

Their wanderer took the place of the boy in the next fight against the hill troll but was only beaten unconscious.

Finally, the shadow comes for the elf, all the characters make their saving throws, and they return to the world, with Irimë alive.

Elrond’s sons then arrive (and it was nice having the Rivendell Guide, to add extra flavor to that part), and Irimë made them Elf Friends.

Irime
The final scene of the adventure. It is cool, but I have a hard time imagining player’s, who have chosen to play Middle-Earth disavowing Irimë or going over to the Enemy, which the adventure is prepared for. The players want to be heroes.

How was the adventure?

It is a very railroaded adventure.

It is also an adventure with a great atmosphere, and there are some really good role-playing scenes in it. The core idea is strong, but the execution has several flaws, in my view. It seems like the author has a story to tell, and the point is to show the players the power and magic of the elves and give them a chance to experience Dol Guldur. It succeeds at that. I think there is a chance the author had something greater in mind but couldn’t fit it within the space he has in the book.

If your players simply want to experience and ‘live’ Middle-Earth and just want to help you tell this cool story, they will most likely enjoy this adventure.

If your players want to have real agency, they are probably not going to like this adventure, unless you change it – a lot.

I think a key issue is the fact that the players can’t see what their objective is, and the mechanical parameters aren’t visible. That means the choices they actually can make which have an impact on the final outcome aren’t clear, which means the players can’t make any meaningful choices (see game designer Sid Meyer’s view on that). They can of course roleplay their character – to some extent – but if their character would flee Haycombe at the first sign of trouble or they have a great plan to avoid being captured, they can’t really execute on it.

An example are the two big battles: the outcome is given for both and in the second case there is little penalty for death. But neither is there any advantage from holding out as long as possible. They might as well just surrender at the beginning, or you can narrate the whole encounter at the inn. It makes no difference.

There is not really any advantage in figuring out what is going on, either. And very little to ‘investigate’, which was my player’s initial approach. They just have to wait for the ride.

In Dol Guldur all their actions help decide the final DC of the saving throw they have to make. But the players don’t know that – although in my case I gave them enough information to their characters that they figured it was a spiritual battle about not giving in. As they did all the right things, the final DC was not hard. Is a single dice roll for each character the best way to resolve the climax? I’m not sure…

What could you change?

It would be a significant amount of work to make the adventure less railroaded. Below I have some ideas as to how players could get more agency within the current framework. I would love to get comments with other ideas.

In the battles against the goblins, I would have Irimë tell them that she will signal the eagles, and that they would have to hold out until they arrive. I would then progressively make each round significantly more difficult, using wolves, archers and perhaps a hill troll at the end. I would also wait with the star light from Irimë’s magical ring, until they came under big pressure. It might also grant them a HD in hit points. If the group fails to hold on for the given number of rounds (it says six in the book), Irimë would be killed, and the Eagles would come and take them all away.

inn fight
Fights in inns should by fun and dynamic. I managed to make it relatively dynamic with foes breaking through the windows, but the group was well barricaded.

The fight at the inn is the biggest problem. I almost think the best solution is to simply narrate it and get on with the story.

You could give inspiration for lasting through both waves at the inn as a reward, but it is still very railroaded. Fighting to let others escape the town is another option, because that would feel like a victory of sorts, but then why would the key NPC’s not be among those who escape?

In Dol Guldur, the DC of the final roll changes depending on what their characters do. Do they tend the dying man? Do they convince the minstrel not to join the Necromancer?

To make a less railroaded version, I would keep the first part of the adventure, and the core idea for the dream and the spirits attack but make it into a (longer) more open adventure, with more freedom, requiring more investigation to figure out what is going on and more proactive means of defeating the spirit. But that is a significant amount of work.

All in all, the mood and role-playing in the adventure is great. But the players are mainly along for the ride. It depends a lot on your players if they would enjoy this. 

Review: Eaves of Mirkwood

Eaves
Eaves of Mirkwood also contains pre-generated characters.

Eaves of Mirkwood is a combination-product for Cubicle 7’s Adventures in Middle-Earth. It contains a Loremaster’s Screen and an introductory adventure which contains brief versions of the rules unique to Adventures in Middle-Earth and some pre-generated characters. You can therefore play Eaves of Mirkwood without the Player’s Guide to Adventure’s in Middle Earth.

I’ve now run the Eaves of Mirkwood adventure and used the Loremaster’s Screen on several occasions (running Wilderland Adventures) and will below provide my point of view on the product, and give a little advice on running the adventure.

Overall, we enjoyed the adventure a lot. The Loremaster’s Screen is more of a mixed bag.

Odd product combination

Eaves of Mirkwood costs 20£ in Cubicle 7’s online store. I think that is a very reasonable price, comparable with the 15$ for a regular D&D screen. That said, I find the product composition weird. I don’t understand why you would package an introductory adventure, that is supposed to pull new players to the game, with a screen, which is something that Loremasters that play regularly needs?

I think the screen fits much better with the Road Goes Ever On product (a collection of inspiration, journey tables and other things, which you can read about here). I would have made the adventure and ‘light’ version of the rules freely available for download, to get more players, and thereby more revenue.

As a note, I can see the screen came with a Laketown sourcebook in the One Ring Game – the game Adventure’s in Middle-Earth was converted from.

The Screen

part of screen illustration
This is most of the illustration used on the screen (without the text box).

[EDIT: Below I have some critique of the screen, which Cubicle 7 really couldn’t do, so it isn’t quite fair. I would like info from the core game, but to print it on the screen, they also had to print the full OGL text on the screen itself, which is obviously unfeasible. I stand by most of the core points though. To make the ultimate most useful screen, you need to rework the screen a bit – or make your own.]

To me the core product is the screen itself. The cover art is a beautiful illustration of Laketown. If you look carefully, you can see the Lonely Mountain and the ribcage of Smaug sticking out of the water. It fits very well with the campaign that Cubicle 7 supports.

You could argue that a more generic illustration of typical Middle-Earth landscape, heroes and monsters would suit a broader spectrum of groups, who might play in different ages of Middle-Earth or different geographical locations. But it certainly looks good.

What is a good screen?

The core purpose of a screen is, in my view, to help the game master run the game more smoothly. Therefore, it needs the information you most commonly need to reference on it, or – like on my original D&D screen – assist your common improvisational tasks, such as deciding encounter distance, which happens often in regular D&D. So that is the curve I’m grading on.

To be fair, my regular D&D screen is also not perfect, in my view.

The screen has four panels.

  • 1 is Starting Attitudes and Degeneration.
  • 2 is Anguish, Blighted Lands, Misdeeds, Tainted Treasure and Page References.
  • 3 are rule summaries for journeys, Audiences, Corruption and the page numbers for Fellowship phase undertakings.
  • 4 are raw embarkation and arrival tables.

To me, it seems like the team at Cubicle 7 has stretched to use all their own tables, with not enough regard for what a Loremaster needs.

What do I use:

I use the Starting Attitudes in every session. It is a matrix with more than 100 results, so it is impossible to remember.

I could have used the journey rules summaries in the beginning of the campaign, but I remember the rules now.

Why aren’t I using the rest?

I run Wilderland Adventures, so I don’t need to invent my own journey events. Therefore, it is difficult to say if I would find the raw tables helpful? I think some Loremasters might find them quite helpful for improvising journeys. But I can’t say for sure.

All the information on misdeeds, degeneration, tainted treasure, blighted lands and shadow points seems misplaced to me. The misdeeds chart might be useful, if I didn’t run a published adventure, and I ran over a long period of time. The other overviews look so rarely used to me, that I would much rather want other information available.

The page references I don’t use, because I have a pretty good sense of where to find things in the books after having played 8 sessions.

Listing the page numbers for the eight Fellowship phase events seems particularly as weird filler, as the first page is already in the page overview and they only cover three pages in the book.

What am I missing

conditions
There are many Conditions in D&D and it can be hard to remember which one has which game effect.

Every time I use the Starting attitudes, I get annoyed that they didn’t also include the Final Audience Check DC chart, which is the reason why you need the culture matrix in the first place!

Secondly, I’m slightly annoyed they didn’t include an overview of the different Exhaustion levels. It is on my regular D&D screen, but it is a much more prevalent mechanic in Middle-Earth.

I would argue that most of the Conditions should be included.

In a thread in the Adventures in Middle-Earth Facebook group, I mentioned this fact. Jonny Hodgson from Cubicle 7 was very nice to answer that they weren’t included due to the space they eat up [EDIT: because of the OGL, which wasn’t clear in the post to me].

All in all, I’m fond of the art, but somewhat disappointed with the information presented on the screen.

The Adventure:

Snorri
Snorri is one of the NPC’s the characters meet in Eaves of Mirkwood.

I ran Eaves of Mirkwood as part of a homebrew quest for one of my characters. I had three characters of levels 3 and 4, and I only had to make minor modifications to make it work.

It is fundamentally a very fun and thematic adventure, which a Loremaster could easily turn into an adventure lasting two or three sessions.

In short, the adventure is a journey through Mirkwood, where the characters encounter some dwarves fighting orcs. After the fight, the dwarves invites the characters to feast on roast pig. One of the dwarves took it from where it was tied in the woods. It turns out that a nearby village had tied it there in order to sacrifice it to a great warg. The villagers are pissed and capture the players, while they sleep after drinking too much beer. During their audience with the village chief the angry warg attacks with its orcs, and the characters have to defeat it.

How was the adventure?

We had a great time playing the adventure. The feast with the dwarves and the final battle are particularly well done. When the characters meet the dwarves there is an extended scene for the feast. It includes a smoking game (blowing different smoke rings), there is a riddle contest and the text of a dwarven song. The smoking game rules are worth a third of the product price on its own in my view!

The warg and the final battle is very well described, and the players thought the talking warg was a scary and cool bad guy. The battle is also quite hard.

Warning to new Loremasters

warg
The Warg’s ‘Pack Tactics’ ability makes it even more dangerous accompanied by a minion or two.

The last encounter looks extremely volatile to me.

If you are new to the D&D system you should be aware, that the Warg is an incredibly tough opponent against a 1st level party for a number of reasons.

First of all, the warg’s attack does so much damage that almost any 1st level character is likely to go down from one hit. The average damage is 11, and only two of the six pre-generated characters can withstand more than one average damage hit. And, when a character goes down it can quickly turn into a death spiral.

The warg also has a fear aura, which the group’s melee types are likely to fail their saves against half the time, making the encounter more volatile.

Eaves minis
Our setup of the final boss encounter.

The adventure advises that with more than four characters the Loremaster should add one orc per character. That makes the warg even more dangerous. Its pack tactic ability will ensure that with allies it is likely to hit around 75% of the time.

I added three orcs against my group of two 3rd level characters and one 4th level character, and it was still a tough encounter that could have gone both ways.

I love the fact that the encounter has a lot of tactical elements and that they get to roll saving throws. It makes it very dramatic. But I worry that the very cool boss is too ‘swingy’ an encounter.

One option is to have the dwarves participate in the fight and add an orc or two on top. The Warg attacks a dwarf first and wound him grievously and throw him to the ground. That way, the players see what they are up against, and you create drama by wounding or killing their allies – a classic game master trick.

I didn’t have time to include the dwarves. But with experienced players, you could have the players control the dwarves.

Expanding the adventure

If you plan to use this to play more than one session, or a longer session, you could expand the adventure a bit.

It would be natural for Eaves of Mirkwood to be the first part of the adventure. Instead of defeating the Warg, the characters manage to kill some orcs and drive it off. You could divide the action in the village into two – first they run down and face orcs that have climbed the palisades and then they have to run back and fight the warg, which is about to eat the village elder.

As a second part, you could have the characters go to get allies in order to defeat the warg and the orcs in their lair. This could be wood elves or woodmen in another village. That would require an audience and perhaps a small quest to demonstrate that they have the ability to lead such an expedition.

The third part would be the characters leading an expedition on a short journey to the warg lair – a ruin in Mirkwood or a series of caves – where they have to face the orcs, together with the three dwarves and the allies they’ve been able to muster.

That way the characters would be third level when they face the warg and its allies. A much less ‘swingy’ fight, and you get much more mileage out of a very cool big bad evil guy (wolf).

And if you want to homebrew after that, the warg could always be a lieutenant of something worse…

Final words

All in all, it is a solid product, and I’m glad I got to use the adventure. The adventure captures the mood of Middle-Earth perfectly and I’m confident newcomers to Adventures in Middle-Earth or newcomers to roleplaying-games will enjoy it. But I do think combining a screen with an intro adventure is a bit odd. The screen itself is useful, but not perfect.

If you’ve used the adventure as an introduction to people, who’ve never played with the D&D 5e rules or who’s never played and RPG before, I would love to hear from you on how that went? Was is accessible? Too complex? How did the final encounter go?