Cold Harvest: Roleplaying during the Great Purges

From: Chaosium, Inc.

Reviewed by: Ron McClung

Cold Harvest: Roleplaying during the Great Purges is a new RPG Sourcebook/Adventure from Chaosium, Inc..

I have seen a lot of different historical approaches to Call of Cthulhu.  Throughout man’s history, there are some pretty horrific periods.  But few periods are more unique than the horrific period of the Soviet Great Purges.  I was surprised and a little intrigued when the author handed me this booklet.  I would even guess that this part of history is not really taught all that much, at least on the pre-college level.  But if you dig deep into the terrible rise of communism in Russia, you will not only be shocked at the cruelty but perhaps inspired like Chad was when he wrote this.

From the back cover: “All is not well at Krasivyi Oktbyr-3, a collective farm hidden away in the wilds of central Russia.

The book itself is primarily a single adventure during the Great Purges of the 1930s in Soviet Russia.  However, it is a good sampling on how to role play in such a dark time in history.  At the heart of the adventure is a dark and ancient secret hidden underneath an obscure farm village or sovkhoz.  If the Keeper is running this as a one shot and not part of a campaign, the investigators are agents from the Soviet NKVD – the ministry of the Soviet government responsible for security and law enforcement.  This is one of the primary arms of Soviet oppression across the country.

Unlike many typical Call of Cthulhu adventures, this adventure focuses strongly on role play and storytelling.  I am not saying the typical CoC adventure does not have role play but there is also a strong element of pulp action or creature fighting in a typical CoC adventure.  This adventure is very low key and much of the horror in the game is man-made.  There is also mythos element in the adventure but it is not intended by the writer for the players to come face to face with it.  Instead, the players are faced with a dark and difficult decision in the end.

In an effort to help the Keeper focus on role play and portray each NPC uniquely, the writer adds notes on how to portray each important NPC in the story.  With the adventure primarily focused on role play and story, there is only one way to get that story and role play out – through non players characters (NPCs).  And there are quite a few of them.  The Keeper needs to help the players discern between each one.  I like the fact that the writer added this.  It is very difficult at times for a Keeper to portray the NPCs distinct enough that the player can tell who they are dealing with just by the Keeper’s role play.  I recommend, however, that they Keeper come up with short names for each because stumbling over the Russian names is going to make things difficult.

From the back cover: “A fall-off in production has come to the attention of the Soviet authorities and communications are down.

The writer put a lot of work into the historical aspects of the book, to help the Keeper and players immerse themselves into the setting.  He goes to considerable length to describe the world of an NKVD agent without making it a history lesson on the Great Purge.  This is essential to help stimulate the role play and story in an otherwise obscure setting that most players may not be familiar with. My favorite part is a few paragraphs explaining the rivalry between the NKVD and the GRU (foreign intelligence agency).  Nothing produces more role play than internal conflict amongst the group.  Placing a GRU undercover agent would almost be a requirement when I run this.

The adventure itself is well written and free flowing.  The investigators arrive at the scene and then the rest is up to them.  Only a few things have to happen but the rest is up to them.  The Keeper is left in charge of the ancient evil, opening up all kinds of possibilities.  The investigation pulls the players not only into a dark mythos story but also the politics and intrigue of a small farm town trying to be an asset to the State.  This is where a bulk of the NPCs are presented and the importance of good role play for the Keeper comes in.  At many points throughout the adventure, the investigators are faced with NKVD-relevant situations and are forced to make hard decisions.

It should be noted that this adventure is written for Call of Cthulhu 7th Edition, however, there are conversion notes to previous editions in the appendices.  You can see my review of CoC 7e here.

In conclusion,  while very subdued and subtle, the adventure is a great opportunity to step into someone else’s shoes that is completely foreign and unique to most players.  It creates some very uncomfortable and morally challenging situations and makes for a great story.  And in the end, if the players are successful, they can save a town for certain death by sending them off to a labor camp, if they so choose.  I think this adventure works best as a one shot and it even supplies pre-generated characters for the purpose.  I am nto sure if the adventure would fit in a normal 4 hour slot but I am definitely going to find out.

The irony of this adventure is the general mythos plot of the whole thing can be placed anywhere.  What makes it unique and fun is the setting and the type of role play that can come out of it.  It is the simplest of mythos plots, but because of when and where it is, it makes for a great gaming experience.

For more details on Chaosium, Inc. and their new RPG Sourcebook/Adventure Cold Harvest: Roleplaying during the Great Purges check them out at their website http://www.chaosium.com, and at all of your local game stores.

Codex Rating: 18

Product Summary

Cold Harvest: Roleplaying during the Great Purges

From: Chaosium, Inc.

Type of Game: RPG Sourcebook/Adventure

Written by: Chad J Bowser

Contributing Authors: Mike Mason

Cover Art by: Fifa Finnadottir

Additional Art by:  Fifa Finnadottir

Number of Pages: 64

Game Components Included: Adventure Booklet

Game Components Not Included: Core RPG rulebook

Website: http://www.chaosium.com

Reviewed by: Ron McClung

Blackwater Creek

From: Chaosium Inc
Reviewed by: Ron McClung

Blackwater Creek is a new RPG Adventure from Chaosium Inc.

This is a little different review in that I am only reviewing one adventure in a booklet of two.  The only reason I am doing this is because I actually ran this adventure and feel it deserves a review.  With all that has been going on with Chaosium over the 7th Edition Kickstarter and such, I thought I might throw a little love in their direction.

This adventure came as part of the PDF portion of the Kick Starter fulfillment.  Nope, I have not gotten the tangible part of the fulfillment but I am patient.  I wanted to five into 7th edition and run a session as soon as I got the PDFs.  See my review of CoC 7e here.  This is part of the Keeper Screen packet, and as part of the fulfillment, I got the images for the Keeper screen that I neatly Photoshopped into something that fits my customizable GM Screen.

 

From the page # 5: “Most horrible of all sights are the little unpainted wooden houses remote from travelled ways, usually squatted upon some damp grassy slope or leaning against some gigantic outcropping of rock.”

As mentioned, there are two adventures, the other one bring Missed Dues. Both these adventures have a common theme in that the investigators can be part of the criminal element.  In the case of Blackwater Creek, it gives the option of either the gangsters/bootleggers or the traditional investigators.  What I tried to do when I ran it was run it with two groups – one  gangster group and the other investigators. I had hoped that the conflicting interests would create some great role play.  Running this as a one shot, people tend to open up in the role play because whatever drama they create won’t carry over into a campaign.

The premise of the story surrounds a lost colony in rural northwestern Massachusetts and a town that is involved in illegal whiskey production.  I am going to try my best to avoid spoilers but it might be difficult.  At its core, it is a very simple story of a forgotten hidden entity and the consequences of its rediscovery.

The brief history establishes the ancient evil and its’ nature.  This creates the link to the adventure time period, as archaeologist investigate prehistoric sites that unbeknownst to them are linked to this ancient evil.  Enter the players who are investigating something related to the consequences of this discovery.

The devil, as they say, is in the details.  And that’s where the adventure is interesting.

From the page # 5:: “Two hundred years and more they have leaned or squatted there, while the vines have crawled and the trees have swelled and spread.

The first detail that makes this adventure good is the options for player characters.  Creating multiple ways to enter in creates great opportunity for role play and story making.  The bootleggers give the players an opportunity to play amoral characters that may not necessarily care about the overall implications of a dark evil infecting our world.  They may just want to survive.  This is why I wanted to create two separate groups – the standard one and the not so standard one – to give them an opportunity to explore these motivations and role play them out.

Secondly, the creature concept behind the whole adventure is simple and easy to manipulate to the Keeper’s liking.  I can’t say it overly original but some aspects of it are inspiring. Without going into much detail, I found it very easy to embellish a little to increase the kind of horror I wanted.  The Keeper needs to read through that part fairly thoroughly to get the concept that the author is trying to get across, because you can easily stray from the core concept and then in doing, change the basis of the adventure as a whole.

Thirdly, the consequences of failure could lead to an epic story.  It starts out to be s small town problem but immediately grows into something that could affect the whole East coast and perhaps beyond.  This could easily lead to major campaign with a little work and imagination.

The adventure itself is well structured.  It’s not a railroad track of events, but more like a series of locations that the players might visit.  There is no time structure to it so the investigators can do their things at their own pace.  This gives the keeper enough time to create new and unusual ways to freak the players out.

 The locale of this adventure is a town – very open locale.  It’s easier to set up the horror feel in a more enclosed area like a house or caverns.  The Keeper needs to create a feeling of remoteness and isolation in this adventure, which is more of a foreign concept today with people being so connected.  What I did was have a few minor encounters on the outskirts of the town for people to get the feeling of being out in the middle of nowhere.  I also added rain to create an awkwardness to it, as well used it to camouflage the first creepy things they encountered.

The ending is pretty epic, but also deadly.  If they Keeper wants to carry the investigators onward, there may need some modifications to the end.  The adventure can run a little long for a convention standard 4 hours slot, but with modification, it can be done.  It comes with pre-generated bootleggers which makes it easy to pick up and run the adventure.

In conclusion, overall this is a great adventure.  The people I ran it in really enjoyed it. I did not get to run it the way I wanted to, with only 4 players showing up where 8 said were coming, but it happens.  It has a lot more potential for role play that I intend on exploring at some point.

For more details on Chaosium Inc and their new RPG AdventureBlackwater Creek” check them out at their website http://www.chaosium.com, and at all of your local game stores.

Codex Rating: 18

Product Summary

Blackwater Creek
From: Chaosium Inc
Type of Game: RPG Adventure
Written by: Scott Dorward.
Edited by Scott Dorward, Paul Fricker, and Mike Mason.
Scenario Pack layout by Nicholas Nacario.
Cover illustration by Chris Huth.
Interior illustrations by Pat Loboyko, Chris Huth, and Chris Lackey.
Cartography by Steff Worthington.
Number of Pages: The whole PDF is 100 pages, the adventure is 40 pages
Game Components Included: Single PDF with two adventures and pregenerated characters.
Game Components Not Included: Core Call of Cthulhu 7e rulebooks

Website: www.chaosium.com

Reviewed by: Ron McClung

Basic Roleplaying: Rome, Life and Death of the Republic

From: Alephtar Games
Reviewed by: Ron McClung

Basic Roleplaying: Rome, Life and Death of the Republic is a RPG Core Setting Rule Book from Alephtar Games.

I have had a few PDFs in my archives that were given to me to review but due to unforeseen life complications, I was not able to.  I felt I owed those products a review and sicne I have started The Gamer’s Codex, I have gone back in my archives and found a number of those products.  Basic Roleplaying: Rome, Life and Death of the Republic is one of them.

Rome is the longest enduring civilization in western European history and its influences, good and bad, are still felt today.  Recent television shows like Rome and Spartacus have brought the brutality, sensuality and intrigue to life for us.  It is no wonder that there is an attraction to role-play in that setting.  I am by no means a Roman historian but this book seems to have backing of several learned individuals on the subject, so I trusted it to be historically accurate where it needed to be.

Chaosium was one of the first companies to develop a generic role playing game systems, and it is still sustained today through Call of Cthulhu and various other titles it supports.  A percentile skill-based system, Basic Role Play system (BRP) was used as the basis for most of the games published by Chaosium.  Its simplicity and popularity are very attractive and I can see why the author used it.

From page # 2:
S. P. Q. R. Senatus Populusque Romanus

The first thing that really hit me as I went through this PDF was the amount of information and the detail it was going into.  It is amazing, intelligent and very comprehensive.

Chapter 1 is primarily an introduction, explaining the basics and the basis of the book.  This book’s setting is during the time of Roman Republic, from its inception in the mid-700s BC to its collapse in 27 BC.  Setting it during that time is a daunting task, as 700 years is a lot of time.  A lot happened to the great civilization at that time and despite the amount of information in this 224 page PDF, as it states in the intro, it only scratches the surface.  Where it can, the author uses historical quotes from various sources to support facts and suppositions he makes throughout.

Chapter 2 covers Roman society, including Social Structure, The Family, The Clan, Client System, The Census, Guilds, Laws and Government and a number of other subjects.  To be a Roman was to be a member of a vibrant and dynamic culture; confident, arrogant and egocentric.  The social structure starts with a strong family (Familia) all the way to the Clan.   These sections go into great detail about what it is to be a member of Roman society, be it a citizen, freeman, slave or foreigner.  It also goes deep into something called The Roman Way  – an unwritten set of social rules of nobility, morals, honor and virtues.  This is the Roman society, and in many ways, parallels our own.

Finally, this chapter goes into deep detail about Roman government and politics, as well as law and punishment.  This is where you get your inspirations for the intrigue campaigns.  The Roman Republic was born from the overthrow of the Monarchy and the attempt to have an elected government.  It evolved and eventually collapsed from inter-factional conflicts between the old nobility, the senate nd the military.  If you watch the TV show Rome, you see the intrigue, backstabbing and back-alley deals that might have happened at that time, and see the adventuring potential in that alone.

Chapter 3, Roman Culture, covers various subjects related to Roman culture, including leisure and entertainment, music and dancing, prostitution, sports and games, art and literature, fashion, food and of course, wine.  If you want to know what a Roman may be talking about while standing at the fountain or talking to the coliseum, this is the chapter to read. Again, like everything else, this has amazing detail.  You feel like you are in Rome after reading this chapter.

This setting book, Basic Roleplaying: Rome, Life and Death of the Republic, primarily focuses on the city Rome and its environs.  It would have been too much work to try and cover beyond that.  However, with Chapter 4, The City Of Rome, you get enough to envision the center of the world at the time – the City of Rome.  It covers various locations throughout the city at various times in its evolution.  After over two centuries of war during the time of the monarchs, the city established its boundaries and these amazingly stayed fairly constant for several centuries.  Once again, in stellar detail, it walks you through the various locations behind these walls, what you would expect to see, what shops would be available in the shopping districts, what a standard house would look like, the water systems and other utilities, as well as the hazards and crime on the city’s streets.  The Maps section in the back completes the vision of the city with various maps.

Since watching the Spartacus series, my favorite aspect of the Roman culture is the gladiatorial games. Chapter 5, The Games, takes you into the grand events that were a center piece of Roman culture.  Today America has football, but back then they had the blood and the sand.  What is surprising is that these games were not always centered on the gladiatorial fights.  There were various sporting events as part of these festivities – various sporting contests and equestrian races.  For a time, the races were the center of the games.  It was fascinating to read the evolution of the games and the various reasons they were held.  This chapter takes you through what took place in a typical game – from the processions, animal shows, and athletics to the chariot races and gladiatorial combats.  It also covers the gladiators, their training schools and the different types of gladiators.

Chapter 6, The Army, focuses on the glory of Rome and its early conquests.  Although the book primarily focuses on the City of Rome, an adventure can just as easily take place outside the walls somewhere on the road to conquest of Rome’s enemies.  And they had many throughout its first 700 years.  It took Rome 550 years to conquer all of Italy and if a GM is wants to take his players on a military adventure, there is plenty of opportunity.  It may take some extra research to create the various locations for battle but that’s what the internet is for, right?

This chapter covers the army during its early years during the monarchy as well as during the early, mid, and late Republic.   Of all things, the means to kill ones’ enemies would change the most over 700 years, so this chapter describes the state of a typical soldier throughout each of those eras. Roman military discipline was legendary and brought great prestige to those who joined.  The chapter describes what a raw recruit went through to become a true Roman soldier as well as what they were paid in wages, what they spent their money on, what they were allowed to plunder and even the decorations and rewards, triumphs and ovations, and legionary standards.  Once again, in great detail, you are given a vision of what it was like to be in the Roman army.

From page # 2:
“Ilia the fair, a priestess and a queen,
who, full Ofmars, in time, with kindly throes,
shall at a birth two goodly boys disclose.
The royal babes a tawny wolf shall drain:
then Romulus his grandsire’s throne shall gain,
of martial towers the founder shall become,
the people Romans call, the city Rome.”

No one goes through school without learning at least a little about the classic tales of the Roman gods, but few probably know how those beliefs evolved from the spirit and animal worship of the early tribes of Rome.  Chapter 7, Religion & Philosophy, details the various religions of Rome including ancestor worship and animistic deities.  It has a fairly comprehensive list of these Roman deities and the reasons they were worshipped.  It also delves into the priesthood and the three colleges of priests.  Following this, it describes various religious practices and superstitions, festival and calendar systems.

Chapter 8, Characters, is an expansion of the BRP character generation system.  Of course, however, you need the core rule book to make your character.  In this chapter, it gives the players more options for the Roman setting.  It provides the player Roman names and why they are important, some Roman Republic era professions, and a complete list of era skills with descriptions where the BRP version does not suffice. It ends with a section on money, goods and equipment.

Magic and superstition are rife throughout Rome and all of Italy. Chapter 9, Magic And Superstition, provides you options for various approaches to magic in your campaign – no magic, psychological magic or true magic.  It covers various subjects like the legality of magic, types of magicians, and theology behind magic.  Magic in this setting is divided up into 6 skill categories: Theology, Divination, Cursing, Necromancy, Pharmacy, and Shape-shifting. Much of these rules supplement or expand on rules already in place by the BRP.  If you want magic in your Roman campaign, this is where you go.

Chapter 10 Creatures is a short chapter that gives you stats on standard animals of the era as well as mythical creatures, if your campaign wants to go down that road.  These include Aithiopian Bulls, Basilisk, Cacus, Eale, Grypes and Pegasi.  A good number of creatures stat’ed out, giving you many more options to delve into the world of the Roman Republic and its mythologies.

Designing a campaign or even a simple adventure for a standard genre like fantasy or sci-fi is hard enough.  I would imagine building one for a historical setting like this is even harder.  Chapter 11, Roman Campaigns, guides you through various means to build early Roman era campaigns.  From intrigue to adventure, suggestions are given that help inspire you to create great Roman adventures.  It also dives into some interesting alternative options like Fantasy Rome, Pax Cthulhu, Tempus Ambulatus (Time travel adventures), High Sci-Fi, and others. In addition, it helps you with designing different types of  scenarios or adventures like gladiatorial, charioteering, religious, legion, crime, animal, disaster, supernatural, patron, and  political scenarios.

The book closes out with some great resources for famous personages of Roman Republic, an extensive historical timeline and several helpful appendices including a bibliography, Latin Profanity, The Twelve Tables, Minor Roman Deities, and Maps.  A character sheet is included in the back as well

In conclusion,  this book is full of unbelievable detail, inspiration and adventure for anyone that wants to get away from the standard doldrums of regular fantasy adventuring and do something different.  The book itself is stunning with great art from various historical depictions of ancient Rome.   What I liked most is that where possible, it gave you the Latin translations of various titles, sections and names.  That added some great flavor to the read.

For more details on Alephtar Games and their RPG Core Setting Rule Book “Basic Roleplaying: Rome, Life and Death of the Republic” check them out at their website http://www.alephtargames.com/.

Codex Rating: 18

Product Summary

Basic Roleplaying: Rome, Life and Death of the Republic
From: Alephtar Games
Type of Game: RPG Core Setting Rule Book
Written by: Pete Nash
Contributing Authors: Henri de Marcellus, D.Phil (Oxford), Lawrence Whitaker
Game Design by: Basic Roleplaying is the Registered Trademark of Chaosium, Inc.
Cover Art by: Tiziano Baracchi
Additional Art by: Dario Corallo, Alexandre Togeiro
Number of Pages: 224
Game Components Included: PDF formatted rulebook
Retail Price: $15.00 (US)  (PDF)
Website: http://www.alephtargames.com/

Reviewed by: Ron McClung

 

Chad Bowser, writer of Cthulhu Invictus

In 2011, Chad Bowser wrote Cthulhu Invictus and ran a few sessions of it at MACE 2011.  He was kind enough to answer a few interview questions.

Thanks for taking the time to talk with us.  Tell us a little about yourself and your gaming accomplishments?

Thanks, Ron. I’m not sure what you want to know, but I’ll try. I grew up in Buffalo, NY. Except for the time I was traveling with the carnival, I was an upstate New Yorker. I moved to NC in 1997 to go to graduate school for medieval history. After earning that degree, I immediately shifted fields and went to work in IT. I’m now an engineer for a major financial institution.

I’ve been gaming since 1989, when I started playing AD&D 2e. I haven’t looked back. My first published item was a Call of Cthulhu scenario published in the now defunct Demonground magazine.

Tell us a little about yourself and your gaming likes/dislikes?  What kind of gamer would you characterize yourself?

To be honest, I like most games. I prefer unified mechanics, but that’s by no means a deal-breaker. My favorite games are, in no particular order, Call of Cthulhu, Pendragon, Fiasco, and Victoriana. In case you can’t tell, I’m also a sucker for historical games.

If you look at the GSN scale of gaming, I’d classify myself as a simulationist/narrativist depending on how the mood strikes me. At the end of the day, I’m the type of gamer who just likes to have a fun time playing games.

Tells us a little about the Cthulhu Invictus?

Cthulhu Invictus is the brainchild of me and my wife, Andi Newton. She’s also the co-author. It’s a horror game situating the Cthulhu Mythos in ancient Rome. I think the Roman Empire’s a good analogue for Lovecraft’s New England. You have the civilized center (Rome/Boston) surrounded by these peripheral villages where all the weirdness happens (the provinces/Arkham/Dunwich).

CI, as we call it, is a melding of history, mythology, and the Mythos. I worked on the history, Andi worked on the mythology, and we collaborated on tying in the Mythos. We view it as a toolbox where Keepers can pick and choose which elements to include in their game. If you include everything we present, you’ll have a very crowded world!

One of our other goals was to include enough of the mythology from every part of the Empire that you could ignore the Mythos and run a straight sword and sandals game. If you ever enjoyed a Ray Harryhausen film, you know what I’m talking about. Andi worked overtime to make sure the mythological beasties presented in CI stayed true to the myths and legends.

When CI won the 2010 Golden Geek Award for best RPG supplement, Andi and I were thrilled. It really meant a lot to us that we won a fan-sourced award like that.

Since then, we’ve released the Cthulhu Invictus Companion, which is a collection of three scenarios and six more cults.

If anyone’s interesting in learning more about Cthulhu Invictus, look for Andi or me at MACE. We’ll have copies to show you.

What is your latest work?  What is in the future for you?

We have several irons in the fire right now. I can’t divulge a couple of them, though. Two that I’m really excited about are a Steampunk book for the Victoriana line and an alternate history game set in 19th century Russia. The Russian game will combine Russian folklore with the revolutionary politics of the late 19th century.

Tell us a little bit about your plans for MACE?

First, I want to thank you, Jeff, and everybody else behind the scenes at MACE for putting on an excellent show. You guys have been really supportive in ways you can’t imagine.

I plan on running a few games this year. I’m demoing Delta Green for Arc Dream on Friday. On Saturday, I’ll be play testing material for a new Cthulhu setting. If you want to help shape a setting, or at least get your name in a book, make sure to sign up. I’m not 100% sure what my Sunday game will be, so keep your eyes on the schedule. If there’s something in particular you want to play on Sunday, email Ron and let him know.

One of my MACE goals this year is to play in a game of Harnmaster. I’ve wanted to play that game since the early 90s, but have never been able to work it out. Since there’s a MACE fixture who runs Harnmaster, I hope to sit in on a game.

I also look forward to meeting a couple of people I know from the rpggeek.com online community.