Betrayal at House on the Hill: Second Edition

Betrayal at House on the Hill: Second Edition

From: Wizards of the Coast

Reviewed by: Sitting Duck

In the horror genre, there is probably no set piece more frequently employed (some might argue overused) than the Creepy Old House. Because whatever form a horror story’s villain takes, it should have a base of operations which befits its status. It is this mainstay which Betrayal at House on the Hill means to exemplify.

From the rulebook:
As you explore the house, you discover new rooms. Each time you enter a new room, you might find something… or something might find you.”

Betrayal at House on the Hill employs what is probably the most frequently used impetus for entering a creepy old house; a combination of automotive trouble and inclement weather. Though if you wish to account for such things, there’s probably poor cell phone reception as well (seeing as how creepy old houses tend to be in out of the way locations). Initially, the board consists of the Entrance Hall, the Basement Landing, and the Upper Landing. But it won’t stay that way for long, as players will add new rooms through exploring the house. Many of the rooms can only be placed on certain floors, which are indicated on the back of the tiles (after all, it would be pretty silly to have the Master Bedroom in the basement, or the Furnace Room on the upper floor).

There are twelve characters for players to choose from, representing a wide range of traditional horror archetypes. Each has four traits; Might, Speed (which also determines the maximum number of spaces you may move in a turn), Knowledge, and Sanity. A series of four arrow clips are attached to the character card to keep track of each trait’s current value. A particular advantage to this is that, if you have a pet which likes to jump on your table and knock your gaming stuff askew, it’s one less thing to worry about. Frequently during the game, you’ll be required to adjust one of the traits. This involves moving the corresponding arrow clip the indicated number of spaces along a track of trait values. The actual trait value may or may not end up being adjusted by the same amount, if at all.

When most rooms are first discovered, a card must be drawn. Usually this will be from the Event Deck. Most of these will provide an encounter of some sort which often requires a trait roll. This involves rolling dice equal to the trait’s current value, with the result determining the outcome (generally higher is better). The majority of these encounters will adjust the character’s traits for better or for worse. Other times an event card will add a traditional “creepy old house” feature to the room, like a rotating wall or a secret passage. Other times, you may draw from the Item Deck. This provides a wide variety of goodies which can help improve your character’s chances of surviving. Most important however is the Omen Deck. The bulk of these cards provide some mystical artifact which may prove to be essential to victory. What really matters is that every time a card is drawn from the omen deck, a Haunt roll is made by rolling six dice. If the total is less than the current number of omen cards in play (including the one just drawn), the Haunt Phase begins.

You may be asking yourself why you would even bother making a haunt roll the first few times it comes up. The reason is that the dice included with the game are not your standard six-siders. On each one, two sides are blank, two have one pip, and two have two pips. So it is in theory possible (though not terribly likely) that the Haunt Phase could begin after the very first roll.

Once the Haunt Phase starts, a chart is consulted and the omen card and room tile which were drawn are cross-referenced to determine which one of fifty scenarios is used. These scenarios represent a wide variety of horror story types. Typically, either the omen or the room in question will be key to successfully resolving the haunt. The haunt scenario will also indicate which player is the traitor (hence the “betrayal” in the game’s title). At this point, the traitor character leaves the room to consult the scenario in one of the haunt books while the other players (henceforth referred to as the survivors) consult the other haunt book. These provide each side with the details on what they must do to win. A general idea of what the opposition is attempting is also provided, but no specifics. This point is probably the biggest intrinsic weakness of the game, as gameplay comes to a grinding halt while everyone consults reference materials. The side which manages to successfully complete their objectives wins. However, game balance during the Haunt Phase is far from guaranteed. Each scenario is internally balanced, with most providing the traitor with some form of minions to counter the superior numbers of the survivors. However, the random nature behind how item and omen cards are obtained can make one side look hopelessly outmatched from the get-go. Still, sufficiently clever players can potentially come up with tactics to counter such disadvantages.

The Haunt Phase is also when combat becomes a major factor. This is conducted with opposed trait rolls between the two parties, with the higher result winning. In most cases, the trait used will be Might. However, the attacker may possess an item card which allows the use of a different trait. If the losing side is a traitor-controlled minion, the results will be as described in the scenario. If a player lost in combat, the difference between the two die rolls is applied as physical damage (if Might or Speed was used) or mental damage (if Sanity or Knowledge was used) as appropriate. Damage is applied by moving the arrow clips of the associated traits down their respective tracks, either applied to one or split between the two as desired. Should the arrow clip of any one trait reach the lowest point on its track, that character is dead.

From the back of the box:
Take a deep breath before you enter. It might be your last.”

Interestingly enough, the game encourages players to follow what is possibly the most disdained trope in horror fiction, namely splitting up. Sticking together can result in a highly linear path with few options for maneuvering later on. Plus, when the Haunt Phase begins, it’s for the best to not be too close to anyone else in case you find yourself with a foe who is better equipped than you for combat. Also, depending on the nature of the scenario, the survivors may have to accomplish multiple tasks in different areas of the house. So it’s for the best to ignore your metagaming instincts.

In conclusion, it’s kind of a shame that the switch to the Haunt Phase has such an adverse effect on the game’s momentum. It’s due to this fact that I knocked off a couple points from the rating. Still, it can be seen as a necessary evil, as the wide range of scenarios combined with the randomly generated game board give it a ton of replay value.

Rating: 15

Product Summary

Betrayal at House on the Hill: Second Edition

From: Wizards of the Coast

Type of Game: Board

Game Design by: Bruce Glassco

Developed by: Bruce Glassco and Bill McQuillan

Cover Art by: Shelley Wan

Additional Art by: Hillary Husted, Mike Demaine, Ryan Sansaver

Game Components Included: Rulebook, 2 Haunt books, 44 Room tiles, 1 Entrance Hall tile, 6 Explorer figures, 6 Character cards, 30 Arrow clips, 8 Dice, 1 Turn/Damage track, 13 Omen cards, 22 Item cards, 45 Event cards, 12 Large Monster tokens, 91 Small Monster tokens, 14 Event/Room tokens, 14 Item tokens, 18 Trait Roll tokens

Retail Price: $49.99

Number of Players: 3-6

Player Ages: 12+

Play Time: about one hour


Reviewed by: Sitting Duck

B Movie Inspirations: Chernobyl Diaries (2012)

Chernobyl Diaries
Chernobyl Diaries

Rated R

Recently I have found a new fascination in abandoned locations around the world.  Of course the most famous is Chernobyl in the Ukraine.  It is fascinating to me to imagine a city that was abandoned in 2 days.  What is still there?  Have others looted it by now or is everything undisturbed?  From what I hear, the new Diehard movie goes there (I have not seen it yet).

I had seen the trailers for Chernobyl Diaries and have to admit that the B-movie lover in me was intrigued.  I like these types of films – Wrong Turn, The Hills Have Eyes, and all those terrible sequels.  I love their creepiness, their grittiness and their cheesiness.  I have no high expectations for any of these types of movies to be Earth-shattering, but I expect them to at least have some entertainment value.  Admittedly, I am easily entertained.

Based on what I saw, however, I was expecting another “found-footage” film.  Since the movie, The Blair Witch Project, found-footage style films have been all the rage in the horror genre.  Movies like VHS, Cloverfield and Quarantine have all perpetuated the genre. I’ll be honest with you, I am not a fan.  The only film that I have seen that did it in such a way that I could tolerate it was Chronicle.

After watching Chernobyl Diaries, I get the feeling that either they planned to do it as a found-footage film but realized that the plot would not allow it to make sense (meaning the ending would not have left anything to be found).  Either that or they wanted to just emulate the style without actually being a found-footage movie.  Whatever the case, it is not a found-footage film, although much of the film is shot with a hand-held camera, as if you were the fifth member of the party filming this whole thing.  It’s not as dizzying or annoying as actual found-footage films, however.

Chernobyl Diaries packed no huge surprises and was about as predictable as any movie like it.  I was more fascinated by the location and what they were going to do with it.  The story is very stereotypical – 3 twenty-something kids who are travelling in Europe meet up with another (the older brother of the guy in the group of three) and decide to go on an “extreme tour” of Pripyat, the abandoned town near the Chernobyl nuclear power plant.  What could go wrong?  They are assured that the radiation is low enough that a day visit won’t affect them, but they are also told they can never go near the power plant (yup, you guessed it!  Foreshadowing!)

They spend a little time establishing relationships, so you can care about these victims… oh, I mean characters.  Then they bring in two more to make things interesting.  Cap it off with an ex-military tour guide who “works alone” (so that when they need rescue, it turns out no one else knows they are there … awesome!), and you have a van full of meat bags for whatever beasties to feed on.  It turns out that the town is sealed off by government forces for “maintenance” and the “extreme tourists” decide to find another way in.

To follow is a fun-filled tour of abandoned buildings and slightly spooky moments.  IMDB says the filming locations were Hungary and Serbia, so whatever town they found to make look like Pripyat was done well.  There were several iconic scenes taken from commonly found photos of Pripyat that they found a way to shoot rather brilliantly.  From that point of view, it’s a pretty cool movie.  The locations were awesome.

Of course, things go downhill fairly fast.  Once the van is found to be sabotaged, they are forced to stay over-night with hopes of fixing the van in the morning or walking back the way they came.  That night is filled with creepy sounds and screaming girlfriends.  Eventually, they encounter a pack of wild dogs that injures one of the characters badly and apparently kills the other.  However, you are led to believe by the ravings of the wounded character that there is “something else out there” and that there are “a lot of them.”

The “something else” turns out to be mutant cannibals that you never really get a clear view of (primarily because of the hand-held camera style of filming).  You are not really given any explanation for them or why the “tour guide” never saw them before but there are quite a few of them and they are sneaky, intelligent and ravenous.  One by one, the group is picked off by these creatures.  The survivors are chased throughout the abandoned city until the last survivors are herded to where?  Can you guess?  The power plant!  Good guess!  They even conveniently CGI’ed cooling towers that resemble those at the American plants like 3-mile Island (Harrisburg, Pa.), which by the way, the real Chernobyl plant does not have.

Not too give too much away but the movie does not end well for anyone.  In the final scenes of the movie, an explanation is implied for the mutants – they are escaped experiments from some super secret hospital and the staff will do anything to cover that up.

I wasn’t going to write about this movie until I really got to thinking about it.  There are some small nuggets of genius in there, at least from a role playing game GMs’ point of view.

  • Abandoned places: Commonly used in fantasy (abandoned castles, dungeons, etc), they also can be used in other genres just as effectively.  Some of my favorites that I use in my sci-fi settings are abandoned space stations or star ships or abandoned colonies.  In modern settings, just use the internet and look for famous abandoned places.  Pripyat is just one of many very cool abandoned places.  Some of my most favorite abandoned places are asylums.  Look up places like Danvers State Hospital (sadly recently demolished), The Maunsell Sea Forts in England, abandoned city of Keelung, or the North Brother Island near New York City.  These could be great settings for horror or pulp settings.
  • Using Disaster Sites As Cover: A disaster zone is another fascinating location that can be used across the genres.  In modern and sci-fi settings, a disaster zone is fairly easy to come up with.  In fantasy, they can be places where some magic experiment went wrong, or a portal collapsed or a where a mystical being was killed.  Now, take these locations and imagine someone else using them to cover up something dark and sinister.  In this movie, apparently this “hospital” was conducting experiments near Pripyat, presumably because they assumed no one would find them in the ruins of the abandoned city. So imagine what kind of strange and dark experiments or rituals could be going on at a site of a disaster.
  • Extreme Tours:  Apparently (with a simple internet search) these really exist for Chernobyl.  A few hundred dollars and even you can tour an irradiated abandoned city and walk dangerously close to the plant itself.  What could go wrong? The answer to that question is the foundation to many great adventures for a GM.  Take the players on an extreme tour somewhere.  Give them some sense of safety and then rip it away with strange circumstances and let them figure a way out on their own.  Perhaps not a common plot point for fantasy, I know, but not unheard of.  In other settings, these could be easily used.
  • Mixture of natural and supernatural:  In many cases, movies like this rely only on the supernatural threat to scare you and hamper the main characters.  In many cases however, there are natural threats that can be just as scary or hampering as the supernatural.  The use of the wild dogs in this movie was rather refreshing.  It wasn’t for just a one-off easy scare moment.  They used them multiple times as a secondary threat to trouble the characters and force them into a corner.  This is not so much a plot idea but an adventure tool that can help your adventure seem more believable.

B Movies Inspirations: Outpost (2008)

Rated R

This movie is a rare one, but maybe I am alone in this.  I found it on Netflix, watched it, bought it on Amazon, and watched it again.  It is, in my estimation, a rare gem. But where can you go wrong with Nazi zombies? Like I said, this is one of my new favorite films because it just clicked with me.  I love the premise, the production and the look and feel.  I did end up using it in one campaign as a side adventure.  I even mapped out the entire outpost.


“In war-torn Eastern Europe, a world-weary group of mercenaries discover a long-hidden secret in an abandoned WWII bunker.”

Or from

“Outpost is a 2008 British horror film, directed by Steve Barker and written by Rae Brunton, about a rough group of experienced mercenaries who are hired to take a mysterious businessman into the woods where a WWII-era military bunker would be found, and soon they find themselves fighting for their lives.”

I am a World War II buff, a horror fan and a fan of anything with zombies, so this was right up my ally.  Another area that I am fascinated by is Nazi Germany’s occult research and secret experiments like Die Glocke and Project Riese.  This movie delves into quite a bit of that in a simple and creepy way.  The mercenaries find an old Nazi outpost where such experiments were apparently done.  They inadvertently cause a situation that resurrects several Nazi super soldiers, and mayhem ensues.

outpostposter2008How the movie ends does not matter as much as the general premise, and it is quite useful in any genre of RPG. Going beyond the obvious Nazi Zombie inspiration, these are what I thought of:

  • Setting: Any – Secret experiments gone wrong, buried and forgotten.  The outpost was a small underground facility with some horrible secrets. That can easily translate to any setting.
  • Setting: Call of Cthulhu – Roping in anything Lovecraftian into a Nazi experiment is very scary on its own but placing it into a claustrophobic setting like this outpost makes it even worse.
  • Setting: Any Sci-fi – On a planet or on a lost station, this kind of plot line creates all kinds of possibilities for the GM.

The general plotline of this movie revolves around a device that apparently does two things – reality shifting and re-animation – two concepts I do not always put together.  It is very Lovecraftian in a lot of ways, with similarities to From Beyond, among others.  But the hows and the whys really do not matter.  The experiment can be anything, although I admittedly like Nazi zombies in general.  Every universe has something about its history that is feared.  Every setting has some part of its history it never wants to see return.  Resurrect that in some dark way and run with it!

B-Movie Inspirations: Day of the Triffids (1962)

Rating: NR


Another movie I remember very well from my childhood days of watching way too much TV was the Day of the Triffids.  I will always remember the sounds the Triffids made.  Only recently did I find out (thanks to Wikipedia) that it was based on a 1951 novel  of the same name and there were also several TV series based on it.  However, this movie stands out to me because of certain aspects of it that were not in the book or the TV series.  Some may call it an Americanization of the film while others may write it up to the era of filmmaking, but there are some aspects that I really liked about this movie.

First and foremost, this movie has a strong “zombie apocalypse” feel to it.  However, before you chalk it up to one of those, you should watch it all the way through.  It’s also from 1961, before any kind of zombie-craze hit pop culture.

The movie’s basic premise is that a meteor shower rains down spores on earth, spawning man-eating plant creatures – triffids.  This meteor shower was a great spectacle and many watched it all over the planet.  However, those that watched it found themselves completely blind by morning, thus leaving them completely at the mercy of the growing population of triffids.

This is a brilliant concept, in my view.  Was this by design? Is this some kind of alien bio-weapon? Or is it a natural migration of some alien plant?

The movie follows a guy who is still healing from eye surgery. An obvious influence of 28 Days Later or even The Walking Dead, this guy did not suffer the blinding effects of the meteor shower.  He awakens to a world thrown into chaos and one of the more shocking and iconic scenes of the film is watching a plane crash realizing it was flying during the meteor shower.  For 1961, that is a pretty horrifying scene.

Our protagonist, an American by the name of Bill Masen, travels throughout this world searching for survivors and some semblance of civilization. But he is not alone.  A second story in the movie is about a marine biologist and his wife, stuck out on an island during the meteorite storm.  We switch back and forth as Masen travels from England to Europe battling the growing number of Triffids while the scientists try to figure out a way to destroy them.

Triffids are man-sized plants that were seeded on this planet by the meteor shower.  This is the major deviation from the book that I really like.  In the original novel (at least according to Wikipedia), the origin is theorized by the protagonist to be a bioengineered plant from the Soviet Union but this is apparently only a theory.  There is no link to the meteor shower that blinds everyone and in fact, the plants are being harvested for their oil, despite the danger.  They are capable of movement and have a nasty stinger that can kill.  I much prefer the extra-terrestial origin as well as the link to the meteors.  It’s a perfect symbiosis – the meteors render the prey blind, making it easier to catch.

The major failure in this story is the end.  Obviously influenced by other movies of the time, this had to have a nice and tidy ending where humans figure out way to destroy the triffids (nevermind that fact that most of the entire world is blind).  The scientist on the island accidently discovers the way to destroy them and suddenly all is well.  Instead of leaving us with a world torn by blindness and the infestation of man-eating plants, it had to end on a high note, like many of the movies at the time.  It was a time when Hollywood was not always thinking of sequels, I suppose.  It was perhaps a more pure time.  This movie would have been much better if they left it hanging.

Day of the Triffids is full of great nuggets that an RPG GM can use.

  • Extraterrestrial Apocalypse: This concept seems to be having a resurgence in today’s theaters and on TV.  With shows like Defiance and movies like Oblivion and After Earth, a world destroyed by something not of this Earth is in vogue.  This gives me hope for a possible remake one day.  A world taken over by alien plants is a setting just waiting to be written for an RPG.
  • Alien Bio-Weapon: The questions left unanswered are also a great inspiration.  Was this an alien bio-weapon sent to clear the planet, and prepare it for invasion?  Is there another wave of something else coming?  Where did they come from?
  • A World Blinded:  A world completely robbed of one its essential senses could be a very interesting setting as well.

Level 7 [Escape]

From: Privateer Press
Reviewed by: Ron McClung

Level 7 [Escape] is a new Board Game from Privateer Press.

You awaken on the cement floor, naked and covered in goo, surrounded by huge tanks with other humans. You see that you have fallen out of a similar tank, conduits and wires dangling. You are in some kind of experimental facility, dark and strange, and all you know to do is ESCAPE!

Thus is the basic premise of Level 7.  It has the feel of other games similar to it with some interesting twists.  It is a heavy thematic game with interesting mechanics.  One to four players can play a character who must escape from the Subterra Bravo facility while dodging armed guards and alien clones.

From the website:
“You are a captive of Subterra Bravo, imprisoned in the facility’s deepest laboratory, the hall of nightmares known as LEVEL 7.”

Because of my role playing game roots and my propensity to envision a story while I play a game, no matter what type of game, I lean towards thematic games over puzzle solving games.  Puzzle solving and min-maxing type games just don’t give me the thrill that a good thematic game gives me.

From the perspective of theme, in the myriad of zombie and Lovecraftian games, this game was a breath of fresh air.  This is probably one of the reasons it attracted me the most.  Don’t get me wrong, I love a good zombie or Cthulhu themed game every once in a while.  However, something different always seems to catch my eye.

The game is basically tile based.  Random tiles are placed around the starting tile defining surrounding rooms.  Players play characters trapped in this facility and go from room to room encountering things, finding things and/or performing tasks.  Characters can encounter clone gray aliens, alien hybrids, and facility guards.  The dynamic in these encounters is at the center of what makes this game different.

Each game is driven by a scenario.  The scenario booklet defines seven levels of the game.  In each scenario there is everything you need to setup and play that particular level.  One of the challenges I had initially was understanding the scenario setup.  I recommend that you read the entire entry.  The scenario outlines tile stacks, the number of enemies in the scenario, the scenario goals, and special scenario rules.  Once you go through the instructions of the scenario setup, the game board is ready to play.  Every scenario is different.  Each has different goals to get to the next level and each progressively presents more and more bad guys and challenges.

There are four characters to play.  The characters’ stats are all identical to start with.  The basic stats are what you would expect – intelligence, strength, speed and toughness.  They represent the number of dice you need to roll.  They are modified by two random skill cards, differentiating each character from each other.  You can have a Sneaky Amateur Boxer or a Cautious Bookworm.  The skills from the skill cards add to existing stats or give certain abilities.  Any bonuses from these are translated as extra dice.

Each character has two other important stats – threat and fear.  These go up and down during the game.  These two stats are what make encounters so different.  Enemies also have threat and fear, as defined in the scenario.  Enemy threat and fear may shift based on conditions defined in the scenario.  The alien clone enemies experience a sense of euphoria when they feed off a frightened human.  They generally are attracted to the target with the highest fear – which may be the guard or it may be a player.  On the flip side of this is threat, which attracts the guards.  Again this may be an enemy in the room or a player.

There is also vitality, which is basically hit points but is more than just life in the game.  Vitality is a measure of the maximum hand of Adrenaline Cards the player can have.  Adrenaline Cards are quite literally the life of a character.  They have three functions – special one-time abilities, one-time boosts or immediate fear adjustments upon discard.  Each player has a number of cards to start with and various things can burn cards throughout the game.  If you run out of cards, you get knocked out and taken to the infirmary where you have to crawl your way out.  Characters can also be killed in the rare event their vitality score reduces to the “skull” icon or if they are knocked out during a special condition called “lockdown.”

From the back cover website:
“There is no Subterra Bravo. Officially, the top-secret military facility doesn’t exist. There is no record of it: no blueprints, no photographs, no credible accounts. Rumors persist, but no one has ever found it. And those who have looked have disappeared.”

In game play, encounters occur on some tiles.  There are Event Cards that tell what happens there.  Sometimes it is a test called a Challenge, and the player rolls a number of dice to check for success or failure.  Certain things happen depending on success or failure, and many times there are consequences that affect the other players.

The game is described as semi-cooperative.  I love that term.  It’s cooperative until you have to make a hard choice – help a buddy out or leave him behind because he has the higher fear or threat.  As you traverse levels, you might work together on the goals but when push comes to shove, you may end up leaving someone behind.  Event cards also tell you when to spawn enemies and when you “activate” them.  Each time you activate enemies, all enemies of that type do something – move, attack or recover.  The catch is to remember to draw an event card whether the tile has an event icon or not.  You always see if enemies activate regardless of whether there is an event or not.

The game-flow is fairly smooth and easy to catch on.  Once you get the details down and the special rules when they come up (like Lockdown, Guard Posts and Clone Nests), you have this game down fairly easy.  My major issue with the game was that I never really felt the tension that it supposed to have.  I never really felt like I was in a big hurry to get out or felt the fear that I might not make it out.

The game materials itself are a little disappointing as well.  For a game company that does such an amazing job with minis in Warmachine and Hordes, I thought I would see some of that craftsmanship in this game.  Unfortunately, everything is card board stand-ups.  For a game at that price, I would have hoped that I was paying for a little more plastic and a little less cardboard.

Additionally, for a game with so much theme, the events seem lacking.  In some events, there are challenges but they never really give you an in-game reason for why they must be performed.  I know that might not seem like a big deal to a regular board game player, but from a theme stand-point I think a little more flavor text in the events would go a long way toward increasing the tension.

The game mechanics are much like other games I have played and did not impress me much.  They were simple enough but did not get in the way of the game, but unfortunately they did not enhance the game much either.  My major issue with this though is the specialized dice.  I am not a big fan of specialized dice.  If you lose them, you are screwed.  You cannot substitute your own dice.

In conclusion, Level 7 is a pretty good game that could have been better.  It has a great theme but seems to fall short in exploiting that theme.  It seems a little over priced for what you get and from a company that does so well with miniatures, I would have thought that some cool minis would have been included in this one.  When I played the game, I really felt like the game was missing something. Maybe expansions will enhance the game better but the base game did not blow me away.

For more details on Privateer Press and their new Board Game “Level 7 [Escape]” check them out at their website, and at all of your local game stores.

Codex Rating: 11

Product Summary

Level 7 [Escape] From: Privateer Press
Type of Game: Board Game
Game Design by: William Schooonover, Matthew D. Wilson
Cover Art by: Nestor Ossandon
Additional Art by: Ed Bourelle, Lain Garrett, Chris Walton
Number of Pages: Rulebook: 15.  Scenario guide: 15
Game Components Included: 47 Map Tiles, 138 Cards, 4 Character Sheets, 133 Tokens and Markers, 28 Stands, 8 Special Dice, Rulebook, Scenario Guide
Retail Price: $ 54.99 (US)
Number of Players: 1 to 4
Player Ages: 14+
Play Time: 30 min+
Item Number: 62001
ISBN: 75582-01172

Reviewed by: Ron McClung


B-movie Inspirations: Forbidden World (1982)

Year: 1982
Rated: R


In his over 50 years of filmmaking, Roger Corman has to be one of the best sources where an RPG game master might look for inspiration.  Any good GM that is also a B-movie fan should know who he is and has probably seen at least one of his movies.  Forbidden World is not one of his best but it has some entertainment value as well as inspiration in it.

Bottom line, Forbidden World is a cheap rip-off of Alien.  Even the creature looked like a bloated copy of a xenomorph.  According to, Roger Corman originally wanted a sci-fi version of Lawrence of Arabia but settled for the Alien copy.  Trust me, however, the clumsy puppet they used for it was so cheesy that it was embarrassing to watch.  I also had a facepalm moment when I recognized the first few scenes that made up the space battle between the main character and some pirates as recycled scenes from another Corman movie, Battle Beyond the Stars.  In addition, I recognized some sets that were recycled from Galaxy of Terror.

The basic premise of the movie is that far in the future where man has colonized many worlds a government enforcer/troubleshooter of some kind (Mike Colby played by Jesse Vint) is sent to investigate an incident at a experimental genetics station on some remote and desolate world.  Why a remote and desolate world, I am not sure but the scientists are working on some means to solve the galaxy-wide food problem.  Apparently, despite having the technology to colonize other worlds, we still do not have enough fertile worlds to feed all of us.

Of course, the foolish scientists, ever so obsessive about learning more about the universe, find themselves in trouble when they create a generic aberration they can not control.  Part synthetic DNA, part human, this creature evolves rapidly and starts killing off station members one by one, turning some into food.  I should note, along with all this gore, there are also a few sexually explicit scenes (R rated) and several gratuitous topless female scenes, so do not watch this with your kids.

The subtle subtext of the story was that the creature was keeping humans around to create a food supply for itself, tying it into the original premise of the station in a sort of ironic fashion.  I thought that was kind of creative.

From an RPG game master point of view, this kind of story has been done before over and over again.  It could be a strange creature summoned from another plane, or a magical golem created by a mad wizard.  There are several seeds that you can draw from this.

  • Something’s wrong at the station: Always a good plotline.  Something has gone wrong at a remote location like on a space station, island, abandoned oil rig or derelict ship.  Anything can happen there; the key thing is to have it mapped out.  Like a first person shooter, plant supplies for the players to get.  Perhaps place a key element clear across the location where they have to get past a peril to get to it. Instilling a sense of claustrophobia and limited resources always challenges a party.  Have them keep track of their ammo, their supplies and the sense of fear will definitely set in.
  • Alien intruder: Another plot line that requires a good and fully fleshed-out location, the alien intruder could be anything.  The key to this is it has to be something that the players have not seen before or can not predict (something a little outside the typical Monster Manual creature). Use these kinds of plot lines to show your creativity in creature creation but also keep it balanced. The last thing you want the players to feel is railroaded into a unbeatable situation.  Give them all the resources they need to defeat whatever they are facing.
  • Mixing things you shouldn’t: Central to the theme of this movie is scientists mixing DNA from multiple sources.  Although primarily a sci-fi idea, it can be applied to other genres.  It does not have to be DNA.  It could be types of magic or types of planer energies.  It could be anything.  The key to this is that it’s something forbidden or cutting edge; something no one has tried before.  The experiments being performed can be forgotten or lost lore, something that someone has tried before and failed with dire consequences.  This can be a true test of the imagination because even if it is something the players have seen before, the result can be totally original.

As I said, Roger Corman is one of the best resources for adventure ideas from movies.  He has many decades of movies, transcending many eras of movie making.  Forbidden World is not an original film but it has some good stuff in it if you can get past the cheese.  Enjoy these movies for what they are worth.  Inspirations!


Conspiracy Rules (Dark Conspiracy III)

From: 3Hombres Games/Kinstaff Media LLC
Reviewed by: Ron McClung


Conspiracy Rules (Dark Conspiracy III) is a new Role Playing Game Core Rules from 3Hombres Games/Kinstaff Media LLC.

Old school rises up again in a new release by 3Hombres Games.  Dark Conspiracy is an old game once published in 1991 by the now defunct Game Designers’ Workshop, and has floated around in different hands since GDW’s demise in 1996.  A second edition was published which updated the rules and a few adventures were published by it slowly died after that.  A couple of fans worked hard to revive it and after some difficulties, the 3rd edition was put out in PDF form.  The results of their labor is now available on DriveThruRPG.

From page # 29:
“Mo Dugan winced as he stepped on something wet and spongy.”

The setting of Dark Conspiracy has a special place in my heart although I struggled with the system.  When it was updated to a 20-sided die system, it ran a little smoother.  However, GDW collapsed before I could get started with a regular group and everyone was ready to move on to something else.  I have followed it ever since but with the advent of d20 and other house systems, I felt that they gaming community (at least the one around me) has evolved past that type of game.

For those new to it, Dark Conspiracy is a near-future horror game born out of the age of X-files, Roswell and the like.  Imagine all the folklore, myths and tabloid headlines were true to some degree or another, but each are twisted in some strange way.  Now couple that with the fact that a global economic collapse has enveloped the planet, leading to wars, population decline and general chaos.  Populations have flocked to the cities creating huge megaplexes.  For example, the east coast US from Boston to Washington DC is a solid city called New Boshwash.  Meanwhile, the countryside has become either abandoned or overrun with outlaws a la Mad Max.  All this despair and desperation overshadows the dark creatures crawling in the shadows and the strange aliens watch you at night.

Player characters are presumed to know something of the “Darkness” – the coming of evil creatures from beyond the veil of reality.  They are called Minion Hunters and they have dedicated their lives to stopping the minions of the darkness in whatever form they come, while dealing with the dark future of mega-corporate dominance, environmental collapse, and economic depravity.

At the time, GDW was fluctuating between several systems.  Twilight: 2000, Traveller, and Space:1889 were just a few of the games they were supporting.  Very forward thinking, they were one of the first to attempt a house system, bringing all their titles under one system. But unfortunately, that house sytem continued to fluctuate even as they released new versions.

I fell in love with the setting right away and continue to run it when I get a chance.  This near version has revitalized my passion for the setting but unfortunately, the system is a little too old school for today’s gamers, I feel.

First off, it’s important to know that Conspiracy Rules is just that – the rules for Dark Conspiracy III (DCIII).  Well, that’s not entirely true, because there is equipment as well as a long list of baddies for your to peruse.  The only thing really missing is the setting information.  They state in the book that the setting information will be released in a separate PDF called Conspiracy Lives! I hope in that, they will update it to more modern feel because 2013 is about what I imagined the near-future was in the 1990s.  A little updating would probably help the setting.

From the page # 75:
“When I was a kid, growing up, I heard the stories about albino alligators living in the sewers, clear-skinned cannibals who would pull you out of phone booths, and gargoyles that turn into living creatures after midnight.”

I hate to overuse a term, but it really applies to this game system – it is old school.  DCIII updates the rules to the most recent version of the GDW, used in the award winning Traveller: The New Era and Twilight: 2000 v2.2.  It is not a rules light system where the GM has a lot room to make fiats.  It has a pretty stringent combat system, a very detailed character generation system and extensive skill system.  Core to the system is the d20 die and rolling under a total of attribute and skill value.  The basic system fairly easy but the devil is in the details.  The combat system is pretty detailed and realistic.  It is one of those systems that sacrifices simplicity for realism.  However, I don’t feel that it goes overboard with the realism.  It makes a pretty good attempt at a balanced approach.  I think they describe it best:

The original rules were firmly based in the science of physics (as much as possible) and the desire to realistically account for the range of outcomes of modern weapons made the rules more complex than the average player feels necessary. The rules for fire combat, as complex as they are, are extremely consistent across the range of results they intend to model.

For example, it is one of the last systems to use hit locations in combat.  I know other games have it as an option but in this game requires it because each hit location has its own hit points.  Also, Weapons have their own recoil value and this is calculated into combat.  There is a certain level of detail that other games do not have or bother with.

Character creation for this game is legendary.  I am not entirely sure which games started it, but DCIII uses the career path system.  This system was used in some of the variants of Traveller and well as later versions of Twilight: 2000.  In one of those version (not in DCIII), there was a chance that a character could die in character generation. Not really sure what the logic was in that one but in general, it is a fairly in-depth system to create your character.  After you allocate your initial points for your attributes, you go through 4-year terms in specific careers and these careers give you skill, attribute and other bonuses.  In DCIII, there is a vast list of civilian and military careers.  From Clergy to Welfare Case, Army basic training to Navy Seal, you can fully flesh out a character in this system.

Since there is supernatural creatures involved, it would make sense that character had something supernatural on their side.  For this game, it is Empathy, often interchanged with the term Psionics. In the old books, Empathy was treated just as another skill.  In this version, combining some elements from the old Protodimensional Sourcebook as well as , Empathy/Psionics is given a little more attention.  The chapter also has an in-depth information on a concept central to the dark invasion – protodimensions.  These are different dimensional planes of varying effects and also where some of the dark creatures come from. With these powers and access to the protodimensions, characters can dimensional walk, astral travel and other multiple supernatural feats to help them fight the dark invasion.

Despite my love for the setting and respect for the rules, this new version does have it flaws.  There are a few editing issues through out the book.  For example, Character advancement is no where to be found. Also the game references the supernatural attribute as PSI but the character sheet still has the old version’s EMP attribute.  However, when it was released, the authors even admitted to the editing issues and are releasing errata as they find them on their web site.

This book is also more than just a regurgitation of previous information, reorganized and shuffled. In the writer’s attempts to consolidate all the years of material plus work in the updates from the final version of the GDW d20 house system, he reworked some things, reworded a few others and expanded on others.  For example, protodimensions were only hinted at in the first core rule book and expanded upon in the Protodimensional Sourcebook to some degree.  These were all fragmental dimensions where weird things happened.  But they never expanded upon what Earth’s dimension was or were there others.  In Conspiracy Rules, they at least categorize our dimension as a prime dimension and expand on more about other types of dimensions.  This opens the door to much more than I think even the original writers thought possible for the game.

In conclusion, despite the some amateur editing, the book itself is definitely a worthy new edition to a classic. I am not entirely sure it is something today’s gamer is going to thoroughly appreciate because of the level of detail and complexity, but it does keep the theme of original with great updates to the system. But like I have said before, I feel that perhaps the time of this type of game has moved on in favor of more player friendly, less detailed games.  The age of Pathfinder and Savage Worlds is upon us and anything else pales in comparison, at least in some circles.  GDW was breaking new ground when they decided to go with one house system and tried to merge all the best elements of the current RPG products.  Unfortunately, the system is far more involved than I think the players today are willing to take on.  I could be wrong and I hope I am, because it is a very intelligent and real-feeling system that deserves more than what it got just before GDW went under.

For more details on 3Hombres Games/Kinstaff Media LLC and their new Role Playing Game Core Rules “Conspiracy Rules (Dark Conspiracy III)” check them out at their website, and at all of your local game stores.

Product Summary

Conspiracy Rules (Dark Conspiracy III)
From: 3Hombres Games/Kinstaff Media LLC
Type of Game: Role Playing Game Core Rules
Game Design by: Lester W. Smith, Marc Miller, Frank Chadwick and Loren K. Wiseman
Developed by: Norm Fenlason, Lee Williams
Cover Art by: David Lee Ingersoll
Additional Art by: Earl Geier, Bradley K.McDevitt, David Lee Ingersoll, Norm Fenlason, Janet Aulisio, Timothy Bradstreet, Steve Bryant, Paul Daly, Elizabeth T. Danforth, Amy Doubet, Larry Elmore, LaMont Fullerton, Earl Geier, Dell Harris, Rick Harris, April Lee, David Martin, Ellisa Martin, Timothy Truman, and Kirk Wescom
Number of Pages: 298
Game Components Included: 1 PDF rulebook
Retail Price: $ 10.00 (US)

Reviewed by: Ron McClung

Stunning Eldritch Tales

Stunning Eldritch Tales
From: Pelgrane Press
Reviewed by: Ron McClung

Stunning Eldritch Tales is a new Trail of Cthulhu RPG Adventure supplement from Pelgrane Press.

Stunning Eldritch Tales is your basic scenario book for Trail of Cthulhu. It contains a collection of four adventures written by Robin D Laws.

From the back cover:
“Strolling Arkham’s fog-veiled streets, you stumble across a humble antiquarian bookshop you’ve never before noticed.”

In The Devourers In The Mist castaway investigators face the an ancient evil. As island castaways, the players are put through a rugged adventure of survival and mystery.  This scenario is perfect as an introductory adventure or a one-shot adventure game.  It is a great adventure for a convention game, where most games like this get a lot of play.  However, it also has tips on how to integrate it midstream in a campaign.

Being partial to one-shots and convention games, I love this adventure.  I can not give too much away, but it has a Lost (the TV show) feel to it initially.  The players are passengers on a boat to somewhere in the Orient when the boat sinks, stranding them in a mysterious island. It has pregenerated character at the end of the adventure which are handy if you run this as a demo at your local gaming store or at a con.

One thing I liked while reading this was the Flashback side-panel.  If used as an introductory campaign, the writer shows how a GM and a players can interactively use flashbacks to show depth in a character.  This is a technique that could be used in any game and I found inspiring.

Shanghai Bullets is a 1930s pulp fiction story with international intrigue and action combined with a Lovecraftian plot.  The author attributes Spy novelist Eric Ambler as an inspiration for this adventure.  In this adventure, the players are hired to find out the fate of a missionary named Emil de Briac.  This leads the characters to Shanghai, following a trail of bodies in the heart of Chinese gangland.  They encounter trouble with local authorities and some local denizens as well as the local gang, the Black Lotus and international spies.

I like the setting in this adventure.  Pre-war China is fascinating because of all the intrigue possibilities.  It’s described as a place where “British, French, and German  intelligence agents rehearse the coming way in Europe.”  Soviets chase down people escaping Stalin’s rule while American intelligence watch and learns.  Throw in a plot from beyond all human understanding,  and that’s what you have with this adventure.

From the back cover:
“ Driven by the febrile compulsion of the committed bibliophile, you slip inside.”

Death Laughs Lasts puts a new twist to the classic pulp hero adventure.  It has masked vigilantes and shadowy villains all with a twist of the Lovecraftian mixed in.  The characters are hired to investigate a millionaire’s murder in New York City only to find that he lead a secret life. They find themselves in a world of the masked vigilante, the Penitent, and his supernatural enemies.

This is a very different Lovecraftian adventure at first approach, but once you get into it, it is very cool.  What I liked most about it is really in the core plot and gives away too much.  It definitely has a dark feeling to it, like The Dark Knight, etc.

In Dimension Y, the PCs witness an inventor’s presentation of a new machine to peer into a non-Euclidean reality, and then feel reality slipping from beneath them.   This reminds me, in a lot of ways, of the Lovecraftian movie From Beyond, which was based on a Lovecraft story of the same name.  Unlike the others, in this one, the players are not investigating a murder, but instead are simply friends of a inventor who wish to show off his new invention.  Unforunately, one of his assistants goes mad and things fall apart from there. It’s a great mad scientist adventure.

In conclusion,  this is perfect adventure set for the Trail of Cthulhu fan.  It has a wide range of adventures, and although I tend to only run one or two out of the classic Call of Cthulhu adventure books, I can easily find myself running all of these very cool adventures.

For more details on Pelgrane Press and their new Trail of Cthulhu RPG Adventure supplement “Stunning Eldritch Tales” check them out at their website, and at all of your local game stores.

Stunning Eldritch Tales
From: Pelgrane Press
Type of Game: Trail of Cthulhu RPG Adventure supplement
Written by: Robin D Laws
Cover Art by: Jérôme Huguenin
Number of Pages: 82
Game Components Included: One softback book
Game Components Not Included: Core Rulebook for Trail of Cthulhu
Retail Price: $ 17.95 (US)
ISBN: 9781934859094

Reviewed by: Ron McClung
Date: 5/4/2009

Monsters and Other Childish Things (The Completely Monstrous Edition)

From: Arc Dream Publishing
Reviewed by: Ron McClung

Monsters and Other Childish Things (The Completely Monstrous Edition) is a new Role Playing Game from Arc Dream Publishing.

Monsters and Other Childish Things (The Completely Monstrous Edition) (Monsters) is a interesting little “indie” roleplaying game with a very interesting premise.  It is like cross between Monsters, Inc. and Pokemon, in some ways.  You play normal children with family, lives, friends and school.  But you also have something else that makes you different – a monster.

A monster in this game is your child character’s best friend, pet and guardian all rolled up into one.  The have powers, abilities and motivations all their own.  They are a shared character between the player and the GM. In combat, the player controls it but outside of that, the GM can take control whenever he wants.  It tends to get the child character in troubles at times, while other times it protects the child.  The monster is only seen when manifesting powers or attacking, but otherwise, it lurks in the shadows, stays invisible or otherwise in unseen.  However, the child knows its there and has his back.

The game itself is about how these monsters can get into trouble while the children try to stay out of trouble.  It is an interactive game if child’s play and monster mayhem.

From the front inside cover:
“Mr. Cuddles is my pet spider monkey.”

Content:  Contained in this tome is all you need to play Monsters.  The Introduction entertaining explains the basics of the theme of the game as well as the basics of role playing in general.  With subtitles like “What’s This All About” and “What Happens In The Game”,  it makes understanding the basics of the game setting and role playing in general child’s play.

The Characters section centers on character creation.  That is further elaborated on a little more below.  Characters are children in this game.  The character restrictions are fairly vague and they leave a lot to the GM.  There is no class system, of course.  It is fairly simply. After the Character chapter, is the rules of the game, covered in the chapter called Conflicts.  Following this is the chapter on Monsters.  The Monster “generation” system is equally simple and abstract.

After reading through the above chapters, you really get to know what the game is all about.  Not only is it about having fun as a kid with a pet monster, but it is also about relationships and how the help a person obtain their goals.  This is represented by key stats, Relationships, which are explained later.  It is definite a unique concept that sets this game apart.

The chapter entitled Janitor’s Closet is basically the GMs chapter.  Contained in here is solid advice for any GM but in particular a Monsters GM.  It explains that a game of Monsters is a balance of conflicts and relationships.  Depending on the type of game you are playing – short term or long term – the GM would focus on one more than the other.

Through the book, it references the players as kids and children however I had a hard time finding a reference to what specific age the kids were.  In the  Janitor’s Closet chapter, it gives the GM the Grade Level rules for Monsters. The game can be played at three different grade levels – Elementary, Junior High and High School.  Each has a different feel and flavor.

Although presumed to be in a modern or pseudo-modern setting, in truth, a game of Monsters can you played in any setting – fantasy, modern or sci-fi.  The game boils down to conflicts and relationships and any GM worth their salt can work that into any setting.  Janitor’s Closet provides good advice on the Themes common to a Monsters game.  For instance, Kids are Powerless – meaning that kids in the real world don’t have a lot of ways to influence their surroundings.  Also, School is a microcosm of the real world – meaning school shows the kids that the whole world is unfair, harsh and uncaring.

The Janitor’s Closet also provides a One-Roll monster Generator for GMs to use.  This is quite handy for creating those on-the-fly Monsters the players may encounter.  It is very easy to use.

The Chapters to follow – Being Sombody, Antagonists, and Somebody Else – provide characters and non-players characters for the GM to play Monsters.  What I like most about this is that Being Somebody provides complete characters for a pick up or convention game.

The book ends with Campaign Jumpstarts (a short chapter with two short descriptions of potential campaigns), Monsters & Wild Talents ( a chapter on how to combine Monsters with another ORE game, Wild Talents), and What did you get for Christman? (a starter adventure).  It also have some appendices on  How to play a Role Playing Game and How to run a Role Playing Game.

 System:  Character Generation is fairly abstract and simple.  Characters are represented Stats, Skills and Relationships.  All three have a certain number of starting dice and a certain number of points you allocate into them which covert to dice.  For example, Stats for a kid include Feet, Guts, Hands, Brains, and Face.  Each start out with 1d as the base and the players have a certain number of points to spread amongst them to increase the number of dice.  Stats are your basic ability scores.  Each Stat has a set of Skills associated to them that focus their talents like one would expect skills to do.

You are not limited to the skills listed, however.  With GM approval, other skills can be brought into the game.  Skill provided on the character sheet include P.E. (running and other athletics), Wind, Shop, Out-Think, and Putdown. These are explained in the text.

Monster Generation is my favorite part of this game.  You first have to draw your monster.  That’s cool.  I like it maybe because I like to draw monsters.  Then you assign hit locations, and determine its qualities – Attacks, Defense, and other Useful things like flying or wall walking.  You also determine Personality, a Way to Hide and Favorite thing to the monster.  Many things cost dice, and a monster has a dice pool of 50 dice to spend on these things. Monsters are very nasty creatures as you find out when you make one.  They can not die, the really can mess up a regular human, and basically nothing in the normal world can stop them.

The system is the much heralded (by some) One Roll Engine (ORE).  It is the house system of Arc Dream Publishing and is used in other role playing games like Godlike, and Wild Talent.   The system uses 10-sided dice.   All Stats, Skills, and Relationships are a number of dice that can be rolled.  Usually, the player is rolling a number of dice equal to Stat + Skill – called a Pool.  The system uses a very unique approach of using dice matching (rather than adding) to create a system that only requires one roll (as the name implies).  You simply roll the dice Pool, and match up the dice values.  The value of a set of matching dice is the Height and the number of dice in a set is the Width.  Using one roll, you can determine success, degree of success and how much damage you did to the opponent.  It is a very slick and easy system. I can’t say it is elegant because it has its quirks that you have to adapt to, but it is definitely innovative.

From the back inside cover:
“ Today I took Mr. Cuddles to the park.”

Layout: The hard back book is very eye catching and thematic.  It is done in a brilliant style of a child’s notebook, with the occasional scribbling or doodle on the margins.  The background to the pages look like lines notebook paper.  Occasionally, there is art placed in the notebook like a photograph.  The art is stylistic and simple but does not take away from the look of the book.  The layout overall is brilliantly done and very appropriate for the game.

In conclusion, this game is all about fun.  It is hilarious that it takes itself so seriously with such a silly and absurd concept.  Not only well written but it is entertaining to read.  The writers have a great sense of humor and are really in touch with their inner child.  They’re gamers… duh!  The game itself is meant for the type of gamer that does not take his gaming too seriously.  A good group of goofy players can have a blast with this.

For more details on Arc Dream Publishing and their new Role Playing Game “Monsters and Other Childish Things (The Completely Monstrous Edition)” check them out at their website, and at all of your local game stores.

Monsters and Other Childish Things (The Completely Monstrous Edition)
From: Arc Dream Publishing
Type of Game: Role Playing Game
Written by: Benjamin Baugh
Contributing Authors: Greg Stolze
Art by: Robert Mansperger
Number of Pages: 182
Game Components Included: One hardback book
Game Components Not Included: dice, paper, pencil

Reviewed by: Ron McClung
Date: 4/7/2009

Trail Of Cthulhu

From:  Pelgrane Press
Reviewed by:  Ron McClung

Trail Of Cthulhu is a new Role Playing Game Core Rule Book from Pelgrane Press.

One of the most enduring role playing game subjects is, of course, the Cthulhu mythos.  Associate your game concept with anything related to H.P. Lovecraft, and you are almost guaranteed a success.  Trail of Cthulhu (ToC) by Pelgrane Press came out of nowhere and won Silver Ennies for Best Writing and Best Rules at GenCon 2008.  This was a game that definitely caught my attention.

From the back cover:
“Pelgrane Press under arrangement with Chaosium Inc. presents…”

Content: Contained within this book is all you need to play ToC role playing game.  After a short introduction, The Investigator chapter covers character generation (see below).  Occupations include the basic ones you might remember from Call of Cthulhu (CoC).  Archeologist, Antiquarian, Author, Clergy, Criminal, Military, and Nurse are just a few.  There are nearly 20 occupations to choose from.  A few have customization options, like Military, which allows you to choose a branch of the military.  Also interspersed in the pages of the character generation section are historical context references and factoids about the 1930s in the US.

Following the character generation chapter is the rules system chapter.  At the heart of ToC is the Gumshoe system, by Robin D. Laws.  Contained in there are the rules for Clues, Tests and Contests.  Clues a are key part of the Gumshoe system.  Tests are your basic task resolutions.  Contests include opposed tests, combat, and chases.  I delve deep into this below.

The Cthulhu Mythos section contains everything Cthulhu related that a Keeper would need – gods, monsters, creatures, alien races, tomes, magic and cults.  There are over 20 mythos gods included, such as Cthulhu, Hastur, Nodens and Yog-Sothoth.  There are also nearly 30 creatures and alien races, all familiar to those that have played CoC, as well as a section on beasts and animals like snakes, lions and lake monsters (OH MY!).  Cults and Cultists, at the end of this chapter, provides the reader with examples of cults mentioned in the mythos as well as advice on creating cults for your own game.  There is also the Tomes and Magic section, which contains the Magic system for ToC.

Following the Mythos chapter is The Thirties – a historical reference for the Keeper about the 1930s around the world as well as technology of the day.  This section is not overly detailed, but it definitely gives you enough to work with.  It is not an encyclopedia either.  Interspersed amongst the facts of 1930s life are notes about fictional events in the Lovecraftian world.  As compared to the Call of Cthulhu rulebook, CoC has far more information, but there is different information in ToC and they do put a slightly different spin on it.  Also included in this section is the equipment section.  In the minimalist style of the game system, this equipment has more description than stats.

One of the major differences is the overall setting.  Because ToC is set in the 1930s instead of the traditional mid to late-1920s of CoC, there are different options for the Keeper to explore.  With the world on the brink of a new world war, Nazis and Communists are both seen as enemies at the time, for example.  The Depression gripped the world during this time.  Organized crime, international espionage and civil wars sparking in some parts of the world made it a dangerous place in general.

The last sections of the book help the Keeper to run a ToC game.  This includes something called Campaign Frames.  Campaign Frames help the Keeper construct a campaign and give the players a framework to work with to make their characters.  This is not something unique, but it is rare when a game gives the GM something this simple and concise.

The ToC book ends with a sample adventure called The Kingsbury Horror.  This is a brilliant take on a true serial killer story from the 1930s that brings in one of my favorite 1930s historical figures, Eliot Ness.

Rules:  The first mechanic they introduce is the concept of Purist vs. Pulp.  There are two ways to play a Lovecraftian Horror game that ToC identifies – Purist or Pulp.  The Purist approach is more dark and dismal, focusing on the philosophical horror that eventually dooms those that seek to investigate it.  This is more prevalent in H.P. Lovecraft’s latter works.  The Pulp approach is illustrated in works by people like Robert E. Howard and is more survivable for the characters.  The book denotes the aspects that are more attuned to one or the other by a set of symbols. These symbols can be found throughout the book, primarily in terms of point and ability caps.  An example of a difference between the two types – in a Purist game, Sanity, when lost, is lost permanently and is not regenerated over time.

The mechanics surrounding character generation is simple but somewhat surprising at first.  First and foremost, a character does not have attribute scores like Strength, Intelligence and Dexterity.  Skills and attribute scores are merged into one list of Abilities.  There are Academic Abilities, Interpersonal Abilities, Technical Abilities and General Abilities. I found this interestingly innovative.

Along with Occupation, the player chooses a Drive – what makes the character do the things he does.  Drive is at the heart of the character and gives you a role playing framework on how the character should be played.  Drive effects Stability if the player resists or does something contrary to the drive.  Stability is your resistance to mental trauma, not to be confused with Sanity which is a measure of how strong you sustain your ‘belief in any fundamental human concerns whatsoever’ (pg 46).  These two fundamentally different but interlinked concepts are explained later in the book, when you deal in the loss of Stability and Sanity.  Each character starts out with a default value of 4 Sanity and 1 Stability.

Players select an Occupation and then spend Build Points on his character’s abilities. These Build Points that are invested into abilities translate to Rankings in the given ability.  There are two categories of Build Points – General and Investigative.  There is a fixed number of General Build Points (65) and there is a variable number of Investigative points, based on the number of players in the party.  General points can be spent on General Abilities.  The Investigative Points can be spent on the other abilities.  If the ability is listed under the character’s occupation, you spend less Build Points for more Rankings.  Rankings are the measure of each ability and are your Abilities Point Pools used for tests.

Build points are  usually spent on a 1 Build Point for 1 Ranking basis.  If the ability is an Occupation Ability, it is spent on a 1 for 2 ratio.  It should be noted that Build Points are also spent on three key abilities that are a little different from the others – Sanity, Stability and Health.  Sanity and Stability are closely linked together (see below) and Health is your hit points as well as your ability to resist infection or poison.

What is unique about this character generation system is that everything is points driven.  Nothing is derived from other stats.  This gives you an incredibly wide range of customization options.  At first I did find it weird, as I am very used to the standard RPG model of role stats, derive other stats, and then buy skills.

From the back cover:
“An Alliance both dread and inevitable”

The Gumshoe system is a very minimalist system and centers around several distinctive key aspects.  The first thing you learn about it is the focus on story and the puzzle solving.  This is evident in their first key aspect – the Clue.  An adventure, which is assumed to be a traditional investigation into some horrific mystery, is not all about finding the clues but rather interpreting the clues you find.  In Gumshoe, you simply have to be in the right place, with the right Investigative Ability and ask the Keeper for the right thing, and you will have it.  There is no test for finding the clues.  This is interesting because it does focus on exactly what it says it does – the puzzle behind the clue. Investigative Abilities can also be spent as point pools on Benefits from clues.  Getting a clue is usually not enough.  Sometimes more Benefits can be derived from the clue.  A player spends Investigative Ability points to gain these benefits.

The core task resolutions or Tests involve a single d6 and your abilities.  The die is always compared against a difficulty that ranges from 2 to 8.  The goal is get a number higher.  The players ability can act as a pool of points the player can to add to the role.  Once spent, these points are gone until the end of the adventure or case.  This represents the character’s expenditure of resources to investigate the case.  Traditionally, only General Skills are used for Tests in this manner

Combat is as simple as the rest of the system and not too different from standard ability tests.  It is not particularly deadly because in their words – we plead guilty to making gunfights sort of survivable in the name of continuing drama.  But on the other hand, characters are not supermen either.  Instead of one shot killing a person, it might take 3 or 4, and after two, you could be already “Hurt” which can hinder a character as it is.  It is designed to be fast and furious and survivable.

The “Sanity” mechanic is a little different from classic CoC.  There are two abilities that measure a character’s mental strength – Stability and Sanity.  Stability is the primary ability measure of resistance to mental and emotional trauma of any kind.  It is likely to reduce throughout an adventure but equally likely to replenish between them.  It is a short-term measure of a character’s mental state.  Sanity, on the other hand, is the character’s ability to believe in, fear for, or care about any aspect of the world and humanity – human life, religion, family, etc.  The book puts it best – The horrible truth of the Mythos is that Sanity is the measure of your ability to believe in a comforting lie – but a lie necessary in order to live as a human being rather than a soulless tool or plaything for the Great Old Ones.  Sanity will probably slowly diminish over several adventure scenarios.

A Stability test is the most common mental check when things get hairy.  Everything has a Stability Loss value and if the character fails his check, he losses the given amount for that encounter as well as the number of points he spent on the attempt from his Stability Pool.  Stability can go into the negatives, however, which has some other bad effects as well.

Many people complain about traditional CoC games because it seems to them that all the characters eventually go insane.  In ToC, I think this is somewhat alleviated by spreading out the different aspects of one’s sanity into different simple mechanics.  It may not seem like it initially because the points seem so low but in practice, it does change things. This is especially evident with the ways to Recover Stability.

A special part of The Cthulhu Mythos, Tomes and Magic encompasses ways of using forbidden books of lore in your game as well as the Magic system.  The Magic in this game holds true to the traditions of the Cthulhu mythos in that it is hard and even more dangerous to learn and accomplish.

Layout:  The book is an impressive hardback tome.  Brilliantly laid out, with great art and writing, Trail of Cthulhu is a great addition to any Cthulhu mythos gaming fan.  The art is a little different than what a CoC would expect – a little darker and shadowy than the line art of the original CoC book.  Also, an extra kudos to the publisher for a very complete Table of Contents as well as a good Index.

The one thing I found kind of annoying was the sheer number of quotes they used in the book.  The fluff quotes tend to be a little excessive in the book, I feel, almost to the point that they are a distraction.

In conclusion, Trail of Cthulhu is an interesting and imaginative approach to the classic CoC horror adventure game.  The classic CoC system is called the Basic Role Playing System but I think this system is even more basic than that.  For those that like systems that do not get in the way of a good story, this is a system for you.  This is not a simulationist system, by any means.  It is a minimalist storyteller game geared perfectly for the type of 1930s mysteries the Cthulhu Mythos can drag you in.  It is very enjoyable with the right kind of gaming group.

For more details on Pelgrane Press and their new Role Playing Game Core Rule Book “Trail Of Cthulhu” check them out at their website, and at all of your local game stores.

Trail Of Cthulhu
From: Pelgrane Press
Type of Game: Role Playing Game Core Rule Book
Written by: Kenneth Hite
Rules system by: Robin D Laws
Publisher: Simon Rogers
Cover Art by: Jerome Huguenin
Number of Pages: 247
Game Components Included: Hard back rule book
Game Components Not Included: Dice, pen, paper
Retail Price: $ 39.95 (US)
ISBN: 9781934859070

Reviewed by: Ron McClung
Date: 10/9/2008