The Quick, a Game of Nordic Noir Ghost Stories Released

This is a post I’ve been waiting to write for a while now. I playtested an earlier version of The Quick, backed the Kickstarter, and am now happy to announce that the pretty damn nifty horror role-playing game The Quick is finally out and available on DriveThruRPG. It’s published by Myrrysmiehet and made by friends, though apart from that single session I’ve had no hand in it.

From the description:

A Role-playing game of death and ghosts in the world of urban fantasy with the distinct atmosphere of Nordic Noir.

The welfare state and decent society are just masks that hide corruption and decay underneath. Under and intertwined with these mundane horrors lies unknown forces that tear into the everyday reality.

The Quick are death cultists, ghost hunters, exorcists and unspace explorers protecting the fragile everyday reality. Trying to keep the gates of Hell closed.

It’s supernatural investigation as written by Stieg Larsson, broken people banishing ghosts with chilled fingers. The system is lightweight and more concerned with what motivates the characters and what they are willing to do to get the job done rather than calculating attack or defence modifiers.

Well worth your time, and highly recommended.

Get it at: https://www.drivethrurpg.com/product/277604

Let’s Read Planescape: Monstrous Compendium Appendix I (and the Outer Planes Appendix)

There were ultimately three monster books released for the Planescape setting, the Planescape Monstrous Compendiums I-III. They eschew the product numbering of the rest of the Monstrous Compendium line, which was a mess anyway. The first printing of the AD&D 2E Monstrous Manual was a big binder with loose-leaf monster entries, running off the idea that additional monster supplements could just be slipped in and you’d have all your monsters in the same place. While I like the idea, they’d have needed something in place to address the issue of new monsters that fall alphabetically between two creatures that are on different sides of the same sheet. Anyway, by the time this book rolled around, that concept was dead and buried, and thus in 1994 we got this lavishly illustrated 128-page book and its sequels. Well, by the time this book rolled around the second time.

A lot of Planescape Monstrous Compendium Volume 1 — or PSMC1 — is actually recycled content from 1991’s MC8 Monstrous Compendium Outer Planes Appendix. And when I say “a lot”, I mean “nearly all”. There’s a convenient Wikipedia page that lists the critters and where they’re originally from (while it’s generally bad form to use Wikipedia as a source, but I did check, and at least now in late March of 2020 it was valid). MC8 has 91 monsters, while PSMC1 has 105. By a quick count, 71 of these were carried over. Of the remaining 20, most resurfaced in Planescape Monstrous Compendium Appendix II and Planes of Law (notably the archons). Only the air sentinel, the celestial lammasu, and the adamantite dragon didn’t make further appearances. The air sentinel is basically an off-brand djinn native to Bytopia (or the Twin Paradises as it’s still known at the time), and the other two are what it says on the tin. The adamantite dragon is also native to the Twin Paradises. Its breath weapons are the traditional cone of flame, and a time stop effect. Planescape didn’t really do dragons, which is probably why it made no further appearances.

All this makes PSMC1 a dissonant book. While the art was all redone by Tony DiTerlizzi and the layout is the Planescape we know and love, complete with in-character blow-up quotations, a lot of the text was not given the proper attention. While it’s by no means just copypaste, and some entries are lavishly expanded from the original, the fact remains that MC8’s writer J. Paul LaFountain was not a particularly good prosaist. The text is janky, which is thrown into sharper relief when it sits alongside material written specifically for this book.

However, PSMC1 is a vital book. It gathers together most of the major critters of the setting with the exception of modrons and some of the good-aligned outsiders. It’s got the main lineups of baatezu, tanar’ri, and yugoloths. There’s the marut, which D&D 3E later ran with and used as a springing board for the inevitables. There’s the random monster generator that is the hordling, there’s tieflings, shadow fiends, night hags, and the animal lords of Beastlands. We’re introduced to the combatants of the Blood War and the whole larva ecosystem/economy that the Lower Planes have got going on.

Most of the art is good, though a couple of the fiends only have very closely framed mugshots that don’t really tell much about how they look besides ugly, and it took me until the 3E-era Wayne Reynolds illustration of the ultroloth to figure out what it looks like.

Possibly my favourite thing about this book are the mephits. They’re basically elemental imps; small, winged humanoids with breath weapons and bad attitudes. The core of the entry is boosted off MC14 Fiend Folio Appendix, but that one has six mephits whereas this book has sixteen, one for each elemental, paraelemental, and quasielemental plane. They’re characterised by weakness as combatants and being an amusing collection of unwanted personality traits, but what makes them really shine is the concept of mephit messages. They are used as messengers by more powerful creatures, but the mephit itself is the message, and the type of mephit sent. A radiant mephit offers truce, a salt mephit declares open warfare, and so on. It’s like the language of flowers, if the flower was also an asshole to your pets, smelled bad, and tried to cadge cigarettes off you.

Next up is Planes of Chaos, and I’ll see if I can’t draw something more interesting out of that.

Vampire: Year One, Part II

And now for the second part of my dive into 1991, when the Soviet Union fell, the Japanese economic bubble burst, Gene Roddenberry passed away, and most pertinently, Vampire: The Masquerade was first released.

Here there be SPOILERS for Blood BondBlood Nativity, and Alien Hunger.

As I mentioned in the previous post, I’ve been unable to source “Blood at Dawn”, the 16-page adventure that came with the Storyteller’s screen. However, there is a synopsis on the White Wolf Wiki. I think the interesting bit is that it’s probably the first appearance of a mage character in World of Darkness. Mage: The Ascension would not come out until 1993. Set in Gary, it’s definitely a part of the Chicago Chronicle.

So, picking up from where we left off, Blood Bond. It is a 32-page adventure module with the charming tendency to save space by referencing the stats of major characters in Ashes to Ashes. They were reprinted together in Chicago Chronicles, Volume III, which somewhat mitigates the issue. It’s a variation on The Killing Joke, told in Vampire. There’s a vampire, Neally Edwards, whose old associate-cum-enemy, to avenge an old wrong, decides to drive him into joining the Sabbat. Along the railroad tracks. I very much get the sense that the PCs are an audience to someone’s novel outline. There’s good stuff in this, but it’s more material I would rip off than use as is. For instance, early on there’s a scene in a theatre that’s attacked by a Sabbat pack, and during combat a staked elder is revealed from the shattering concrete of the walls. There’s also a Sabbat initiation at the end, which is nifty. I’m pretty sure Blood Bond is the earliest good look at the Sabbat in the game, and that later material contradicts this pretty heavily. The text expects the PCs to play nice with them, which is not really a thing I would see happening were I to run this to an even superficially WoD-literate players in the year 2020. Blood Bond is the last of the Chicago books from 1991.

There’s also a couple of early adventures that do not take place in Chicago. The major one of these is Alien Hunger, which is set in Denver and looks a lot like the game line was still looking for its identity. It’s a starter module type thing, which starts as the characters wake up after their Embrace, in a dark cellar. The house upstairs is on fire. An effective start, at least. The twist is that they’re not organically grown vampires, but alchemically created, Embraced through the power of SCIENCE, but the undead Louis Pasteur. Unfortunately, poor Louis dies before the coterie ever gets to meet him, which feels to me like a bit of a cop-out. I mean, if you’re gonna go gonzo with historical characters as vampires, at least write in some interaction.

The adventure itself is mostly the PCs finding out what happened, who did it, meeting the Prince, and probably joining the Camarilla. Despite its outré premise, the execution is pretty standard.

There’s also Blood Nativity, a 16-page intro adventure published by Atlas Games that’s also about the characters being Embraced and then discovering what they are and feeding for the first time. This one’s set in Cleveland. If you can find it – unfortunately it’s been taken down from DriveThruRPG – it’s worth it for the NPCs. The sires of different clans for your neonates are a cool and usable bunch, except for the Gangrel whose only thing is liking Cleveland Cavaliers. The silly thing is that the sires Embrace the characters for a purpose, but the module as written is only Embrace, Vampires 101, and first feeding. There is enough background on the political situation to build on, at least. It’s an odd duck.

And finally, we come to the fresh breeze of authentic 1990s role-playing game design, The Players Guide. Just what your Vampire chronicle needs, more crap. There’s more character options, like new archetypes and a merits & flaws system that later became a core feature. This is some cool stuff.

And then there’s pages upon pages of hyperspecific new skills like Carpentry or Forensics, some of which are sub-skills or even the sub-skills of sub-skills. To take a dot of Toxicology, you have to have a dot in Chemistry or Biology, but both of those require you to first have a dot in Science. And there’s also more powerful Disciplines! These go up to ten! And the Clan Prestige advantage, which is clan-specific and takes up many pages. And new clans.

The Followers of Set, Assamites, Giovanni, Salubri, and Ravnos all make their first appearance here. Ravnos is also, as studied in 2020, really pretty awfully racist. I am very interested in seeing how the clan will be reinterpreted for V5.

Because 1991, there’s also an equipment chapter, with loads of details on different firearms and melee weapons. Unfortunately, the noble katana does not get a separate entry. Several different armoured vehicles do. This chapter feels like it ran off Twilight: 2000. There’s also a really specific set of rules for throwing weapons, with a note that you really don’t have to use these if you don’t want to. The tone is generally very chatty like that.

There’s a chapter on the daily unlife of a vampire with notes on an etiquette for favour trading, equipping your haven, treating your ghouls right, and so on. Finally, there’s a chapter of short essays on role-playing from the designers of the game. Some of them have aged poorly, others feel like self-obvious. I would imagine that these texts have cast a long shadow in certain gaming scenes.

I also read Milwaukee by Night, which came out in 1992 but was packaged into Chicago Chronicles, Volume III with Blood Bond and Ashes to Ashes, so I went through it as well.

So, Milwaukee. Not the first place that comes to mind when I’m thinking of a place where it’d be interesting to set a game book. However, it is close enough to work as a satellite of Chicago, and the early-1990s gaming scene would have been amused. Back in those days, Gen Con’s home town was Milwaukee. The book even discusses the halls of power that are the MECCA Center.

In the World of Darkness, Milwaukee is a violent place where death is cheap and licks are Embraced pretty freely since they keep getting killed by werewolves. Also the Prince is freshly dead. This came out in the same year as Werewolf: The Apocalypse, but feels like probably before it. This features a lot of werewolves, but it lists them as belonging to clans, not tribes, and names Mouse, Coyote, and Eagle. Later in 1992, Vampire’s second edition would also come out, but at least the White Wolf Wiki lists this as a first-edition book.

The first half of the book is NPCs and city guide. Incidentally, Milwaukee by Night is where Carna of Tremere makes her first appearance. In V5, she causes a major schism in the clan and goes her own way.

The second half is the adventure “Psychomachia”. I mentioned the Prince is dead? This where the coterie kills him. Prince Merik has gone insane and become a serial killer, who creates elaborate Hannibal-style death tableaux and also tells the coterie to figure out who’s doing masquerade-breaching murder. He then sends them off out of town into a werewolf ambush, where they get their asses kicked and staked. There’s rules telling what kind of Courage rolls the vampires need to make to remove the stakes. This pretty bluntly contradicts the rules stating that staking paralyses vampires and renders them completely helpless. The Players Guide has a sixth-level Potence power that allows you to move Zootopia DMV speed while staked, but that’s about it. And this is the first of two encounters in the adventure that are scripted to end with the PCs captured. Bad writing, this. I kinda like the structure of the adventure and the idea of the serial killer Prince, but these encounters just don’t work.

Next I think I’ll read some Werewolf…

 

Vampire: Year One, Part I

A bit over a year ago, I backed Chicago by Night for Vampire: The Masquerade 5th Edition. In time, I received a backer PDF, and at the time of this writing, the hardcopy is in the mail. But I read the backer PDF, and it felt to me that it was too beholden to the old editions of the game, too hung up on the previous two Chicagos by Night. But this was but a hunch, as I had not read them. And of course, to read the first Chicago by Night, I would need to understand Vampire: The Masquerade 1st Edition, which I was unfamiliar with – I only came on board with Revised.

Years ago, someone told me that one cannot authoritatively talk about anything without understanding its history at least back to the 18th century. With this guideline in mind, I went on DTRPG and got myself some PDFs, and proceeded to read through the entire first year of Vampire: The Masquerade (except for the adventure that came with the Storyteller screen, because that’s not on DTRPG). Obviously, the immediate precursors are Mark Rein•Hagen’s and Jonathan Tweet’s Ars Magica as well as Shadowrun, where Tom Dowd came up with the dice pools, but today I’m starting here. This post is, incidentally, gonna have a lot of SPOILERS for “Baptism by Fire”, Ashes to AshesBlood BondAlien Hunger, the stories in The Succubus Club, and Blood Nativity.

This isn’t so much a review as a let’s read type thing, but more than that it’s just the rewriting and restructuring of a Facebook thread where I jotted down my observations into a blog post.

1991, and the book that started it all. An unsubstantiated (and likely unsubstantiable) rumour claims that for a single quarter around its release, it outsold Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. It is said it is the first game that significantly evened out the gender balance of the hobby, bringing women to role-playing games. Some say that it ruined RPGs forever.

And yeah, reading this was an experience. The writer’s voice comes through strong and it depends on the reader whether it comes through as artsy and pretentious, or something that finally dares to take role-playing games seriously as an expressive medium or – dare I say it? – an art form.

Of course, while it’s easy to see why it became a classic, it’s also very obvious where it bears its age with less dignity. The Storyteller’s guidelines tell of advanced techniques that shouldn’t be used except with the most experienced and dedicated of role-players, such as flashbacks, dream sequences, and symbolism. The book is dedicated to Václav Havel. The recommended reading list contains, among others, Mircea Eliade, Carl Jung, Hermann Hesse, Milan Kundera, and Ayn Rand. In the afterword, Rein•Hagen tells how Vampire is an attempt to delve into the nature of evil.

It’s also said that the combat system was deliberately written to be crap so people would not use it, and instead solve problems through social interaction and role-playing. Somehow, reading this book from 29 years ago, I finally felt like I understood how that could’ve made a weird kind of sense at an age when this kind of game did not yet exist and the hobby was weaned on AD&D. The rules are a bone dry read, and the meat of the game is in the setting, drama, and storytelling chapters. By today’s standards, the 263-page rulebook isn’t even big, but I felt it could’ve lost 30, 40 pages easily, and most of that from the crunchy bits. It’s hard to put myself in the position of a gamer in the year that I turned six, and try to see if they really needed this many examples of Ability+Attribute combinations to cover different situations. They feel so intuitive to me.

Going back to the first rulebook also shows me what was there at the beginning. It’s just seven clans here, all Camarilla – Brujah, Tremere, Ventrue, Malkavian, Nosferatu, Toreador, and Gangrel, plus the Caitiff. The Anarchs are a larger presence than they ended up being for most of the game. Sabbat are coyly mentioned, but we don’t really know who they are yet. A bunch of the independent clans are named but not detailed.

Finally, there’s the start of the metaplot. I’d played Vampire and read Vampire before, but before barrelling through these first eight titles, I hadn’t quite appreciated how tightly the metaplot wound through it all. The core rulebook has the short adventure – or story, in the World of Darkness parlance – “Baptism by Fire”, which is pitched as the start of the “Forged in Steel” chronicle. “Forged in Steel” is about the struggle of Gary, Indiana against the attempts of Chicago vampires to control the town. Only three of the nine Vampire titles that came out in 1991 don’t have a connection to this. (“Blood at Dawn”, the adventure that came with the Storytellers Screen is set in Gary.)

The metaplot is also visible in how the books refer to one another, which also establishes a kind of reading order. Ashes to Ashes comes before Chicago by Night, which comes before The Succubus Club and Blood Bond. I read these a bit out of order but this post is, in part, a way for me to structure my thoughts, so they’re presented as they’re “supposed” to be.

In “Baptism by Fire”, the coterie is at the New Year’s ball thrown by Prince Modius of Gary in a dilapidated mansion, with a bunch of other vampires present who could all be Malkavians for how well-adjusted they are (there’s a delightful paradox for you – Malkavians are insane but how else would a vampire be?). There’s some brouhaha and a bit of a kerfuffle and you get to meet all the movers and shakers, such as they are, and maybe run in with a vampire hunter. Then Modius is summoned to Chicago and he sends the coterie in his stead.

The story picks up in Ashes to Ashes, an 83-page adventure module, as the coterie gets to Chicago and tries to meet with Prince Lodin. Who has just up and disappeared. The crème de la Camarilla of Chicago considers the coterie if not likely guilty, then at least very convenient scapegoats and also expendable hicks from the sticks. They must solve this mystery! Hijinks ensue.

The whole complex picture also features Anarchs, vampire hunters, a methuselah in torpor who’s also kinda but not quite but really King Menelaos from The Iliad (but we’re not told this until Chicago by Night, because Vampire is coy like that), mortal Satanists, and a ghoul ram. Oh, and Harry Houdini, because if we’re going to have an expansive supernatural secret history setting, of course we need a few famous historical people as vampires. In some perverse way I find myself liking this, even though it’s a fairly hideous railroad and there’s at least one positively idiotic scene (“Hey come at the crack of dawn to this football field and we’ll airlift you out to the meeting this is not a trap honest.”). The railroad is kinda self-justified by the theme of everyone pulling someone else’s strings and the coterie being mere pawns in the game of unlife. There are some actual choices, such as the option to just let Lodin die. Which makes the follow-up interesting because in the metaplot he’s not supposed to cark before Under a Blood Red Moon.

Amusingly, since it’s 2020 and it’s trivially easy to check these things, I will note that the sunrise is listed about an hour too early. It caught my eye because the whole thing is explicitly set in the first few nights of January.

Ashes to Ashes also features an interesting structural experiment, a B-plot played in a series of flashback episodes from the villain’s perspective, intended to feed the players some of the backstory the coterie will likely stay in the dark about. I have no idea if this is remotely workable, but it’s exactly the kind of bold experimentation I am here for. The book also contains a lot of STing advice that at least looks useful, including random crap meant to be thrown at the player whose character had the least to do in a previous scene, usually with no plot significance. The intention is more to get them to participate in the role-playing rather than give some sort of experience of success.

Ashes to Ashes leads to Chicago by Night, the first of its name. Fun book. The city description feels a bit Lonely Planet, but it works, and there’s a map, and before reading this book I hadn’t actually understood that Gary, despite being in a different state from Chicago, is actually right there, like, 50 kilometres away. That’s a half-hour drive. So that was useful. There’s a cool overarching concept with the two ancient vampires vying for control of the city and nudging everyone else to do their bidding, one of them from torpor. The other one is Helena, who’s never said to be of Troy but come on now. She has a ghoul named Paris. I mean Prias. They mix the story up a bit which rather annoys me, since if you’re gonna have a bunch of characters from The Iliad in your 90s gothic vampire Chicago, you should own that shit. There’s also Al Capone, because of course there is.

There’s a lot of NPCs. For the most part they work, their story functions are clear and there’s relationship maps for who hates whom and who’s pulling whose strings. The Ventrue Horatio Ballard is a mind-boggling amalgam of John Spica from Greenaway’s The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover, and Monty Python’s Mr. Creosote. I wondered for some time why the Sabbat vampires’ clans are listed as just “Sabbat” until I realized that Tzimisce and Lasombra weren’t introduced yet, and wouldn’t probably show up until The Player’s Guide to the Sabbat. There’s also a demon here, a succubus. I’m not sure where she fits in with Demon: The Fallen, but she probably doesn’t.

Then there’s The Succubus Club, which is an introduction to a vampire nightclub where the masquerade isn’t quite as tight as most places, and a series of short adventures tying in to the club, and basically also the “Forged in Steel” chronicle. This book, incidentally, has the really filthy habit of referring the reader to Chicago by Night for NPC stats, which must’ve been a pain in the ass before they were released together as Chicago Chronicles, Volume I.

It’s an… interesting book. One of the first things we are introduced is the Blood Dolls, a youth subculture that’s about playing vampire and drinking each other’s blood, which is on one level laughably over-the-top extreme but also pretty horrifying on multiple levels. For an interesting historical footnote, in the year of this book’s release 28 569 people died of AIDS in the United States. The Succubus Club makes no reference to HIV. Somehow, when it’s vampires playing around with blood it’s distanced enough, but when it’s normal people doing it, that distance for me vanishes and it immediately contextualises with everything I’ve read about the HIV epidemic, with Angels in America, with Just a Little Lovin’ and Don’t Ever Wipe Tears Without Gloves. There’s a moment of whiplash.

And then we’re on to discuss the layout of the club and the hidden haven of Helen of Troy, guarded by her three-thousand-year-old ghoul Paris also a giant ghoul scorpion.

The scenarios themselves are a bit uneven. The first one is “Annabelle’s Party”, which is about the Toreador primogen of Chicago, who has no artistic ability herself, throwing a party which is sabotaged to embarrass her. The party itself and the ways in which she’s embarrassed are pure gold – an unveiled sculpture is just a piece of a steam locomotive as a snide jab at a prior disagreement, and the bold new piece of music is just Beethoven’s Ninth (or some other unspecified but worn classic) upside down. The trail eventually leads to the rail yard and their Ventrue overseer who’s severely in denial about the importance of the railways in 1991 and plays with a model train set. There’s something about the portrayal of Edgar Drummond as a train-obsessed manchild that in 2020, when “carbon footprint” has entered our everyday vocabulary, feels subtly off. “Annabelle’s Party” also just sort of ends at act two without actually concluding.

Then there’s “Player of Pawns”, where two Elders play chess against each other, using subordinates as pawns. The Chicago player, Critias, of course fields the coterie. This one features a Finnish vampire named Killikillarven, which is not a Finnish name, whose role-playing instructions include: “Between sentences make a lot of grunts and “hmms.” When investigating things, scrunch up your right eye and stare with your bugged-out other eye (this is also what he does for the Evil Eye; see Spirit Thaumaturgy). You are not a happy immortal, so do not laugh often, but smile occasionally.”

“Player of Pawns” looks like it might be fun for a group that likes to fight a lot. Straightforward, clear structure.

There’s “Fundamental Differences”, in which a priest who has true faith comes to protest The Succubus Club with his flock. The elder vampires present want him dead, which is a problem because touching him is physically painful for low-Humanity Kindred. An additional problem is introduced by the man being actually a very nice and kind person. This one looks fun. The fourth one is “Death’s Sweet Sting”, where there’s an engineered strain of mononucleosis that kills vampires. It’s a bit too scifi for my liking, plus as written if the coterie fucks up it’s basically Gehenna right now, right here.

The Succubus Club is wrapped up by “Child’s Play”, a longer adventure where the coterie meets Nicolai, Chicago’s Tremere primogen who’s been around for centuries in the body of a nine-year-old. Think Damien Thorn and you’re close. First Nicolai tests whether they’re good enough by putting them on the trail of some vampire hunters and then tasks them with killing the vampire Ehrich Weiss, better known as… Harry Houdini! They are basically being set up to fail, both by the text and by Nicolai, which is an interesting decision.

As this text is starting to get long, the adventures Blood BondBlood Nativity and Alien Hunger, as well as The Players Guide, will be covered in a later post.

Wendy’s d20 – The Game We Didn’t Need

On a good day, I don’t like commercials. I dislike targeted advertising and I detest branding. I have adblocker on all my browsers, an advertising ban on my mailbox and another on my mobile number, and when I go to the movies, I bring an e-reader so I don’t have to pay attention to the commercials. I feel a spiritual connection with Captain Kramer in Airplane!

So imagine my unbridled joy when an American fast food chain released a hundred-page ad trying to disguise itself as a role-playing game, advertising something I am not only deeply uninterested in but also unable to buy, seeing as Wendy’s doesn’t have restaurants in Europe.

I’m not linking Feast of Legends. If you’re reading this, chances are you’ve already run across it on your social media of choice way too many times over the past two days. I’m also not reviewing it, since it seems to operate a lot on in-jokes about Wendy’s and other fast food brands. There seems to be an obsession about their stuff never being frozen.

I’m also not reviewing it because it’s an advertisement, not an actual game. I’ve seen people on forums claim that it’s competently designed, though, which is an interesting claim since the damn thing gives every impression of being originally designed for D&D 5E and then hastily rewritten for its new system. Though it’s not D&D, knowing D&D is mandatory to actually play it since it doesn’t explain concepts like “saving throw” despite using them and you’re not told what the stats do apart from Strength. I can sorta tease out that Grace is probably supposed to give attack bonuses on ranged attacks and possibly Defense, and Arcana is probably supposed to give a bonus to spell attacks, but I have no idea what Intelligence is for. Nothing seems to actually use Intelligence, or Charm. It also uses keywords that are first not defined and then mixed up, and the equipment chapter, for some reason titled “Adventuring” is riddled with typos that even MS Word’s spellchecker should’ve caught. And of course you get buffs for eating Wendy’s (as a player, not character) and debuffs for eating stuff from other joints.

The adventure is decent, though there’s annoying wordplay-based riddles that don’t work if you play in a language other than English. The most interesting part of the whole thing is the thinly veiled references to other fast food brands, though much like Wendy’s, we’ve managed to avoid having KFC or Jack in the Box over here.

The layout looks nice, I guess. The art is sorta competent.

Initially, some people in my social media bubble were annoyed that the work credited no designers – or more accurately, credited the work to Wendy – but honestly, if I were guilty of perpetrating this thing, I wouldn’t want word to get out either. Anyway, the responsible party is an advertising agency, not a game company. The names are on Twitter for the willing digger.

And then there’s the other thing. Like, I generally find it a safe assumption that a company of a certain size, especially based in the United States, a country still suffering from national trauma over that one time they had to get rid of slavery, is going to be up to some sketchy stuff labour-wise. I accept that when I buy something made by a large American corporation, their CEO is most likely funding the GOP. Buying a senator or a share in a president is a pretty good investment, after all. Turns out that even by the modest standards of the American food industry, Wendy’s is pretty bad. Like, really bad. Quoting from an LA Times report from the Mexican tomato farms where they source their tomatoes:

One day, a mother confronted a boss. She asked for more tortillas.

Ricardo Martinez, who was standing in the soup line behind the woman, recalled the boss’ reaction.

“He told her she would only get a slap in the face,” Martinez said. “Then an older man stepped in and said, ‘Don’t hit her, hit me.’ ”

Martinez said the boss knocked the man to the ground and beat him. “She just needed more for her kids. What they gave wasn’t enough,” Martinez said.

People too ill to work were put on the no-pay list. They couldn’t get in the soup line unless they swept up around the camp.

Wendy’s had also organised a showcase game session with Critical Role, who then presumably looked at Twitter, went “oops”, and donated their sponsorship money from the week to charity, tweeting:

We’ve donated our profits from our sponsorships this week to @FarmwrkrJustice, an organization that works to improve the lives of farmworkers. If you’re able to, please consider a donation and learn more about their work: http://farmworkerjustice.org

Which was the right thing to do, of course. I’m not going after Mercer & co. here, though it would’ve been a lot better if they’d done their work and vetted the company beforehand.

The last thing that bugs me here is the corporate bullshit aspect of it. The work is credited to the company logo, like their Twitter feed. On Twitter, “Wendy” dishes out snark and presents as a person. @Wendys (whom I blocked) isn’t a soulless billion-dollar corporation exploiting cheap labour in developing countries, she’s your friend who posts funny and relatable content! And now she’s a game designer, too! And you get buffs in her game by buying food from her restaurant! Yay friendship!

The YouTuber Sarah Z covered some aspects of this a year ago:

Also, while I am flattered that a soulless billion-dollar corporation considers me as a role-playing game hobbyist a demographic specifically worth targeting, I’d rather they didn’t. There is something about the idea of role-playing a lunch menu item – which is what the classes in Feast of Legends amount to – that makes my skin crawl. There’s something I find philosophically odious about actively participating in being advertised to, about taking on the role of a commodity that’s simultaneously being sold to me. It’s like being enthusiastically complicit in being oppressed by late-stage capitalism.

And seriously, if your annual revenue is in the ten-digit range, you can afford to include an editor in your ad budget.

Chernobyl Mon Amour Out Now!

Juhana Pettersson’s unique role-playing game Chernobyl Mon Amour, funded last year, is finally out and the backer copies have been sent. I did the translation, which was a fun gig. Especially the bit where I spent a couple of days reading up on the differences between Russian and Ukrainian transliteration in English as opposed to Finnish before concluding that going with the original differentiation is the best idea.

It’s a freeform game with very little in the way of rules mechanics. In Chernobyl Mon Amour, you play criminals who have fled into the Chernobyl Zone of Alienation. There, in the community of other former criminals in similar straits, you have the opportunity to forge a new life and find love. The focus of the game is less on problem-solving, adventure and violence and more on romance, coming to (possibly perverse) terms with the ever-present radiation, and day-to-day life in what’s essentially a postapocalyptic society.

You can get the game on DriveThruRPG in both PDF and PoD softcover: https://www.drivethrurpg.com/product/233986/Chernobyl-Mon-Amour

Let’s Read Planescape: The Eternal Boundary

It’s been a while since we did one of these, hasn’t it?

Around a year ago we inaugurated an RPG book club on Facebook and it took me this long to figure I might use the social pressure to get me working on this project again. So, to reiterate, as I am the keeper of a complete collection of the Planescape product line, I will read all of it and jot down my musings.

A lot has changed since I started these. Nowadays, this stuff is available in PDF on DriveThruRPG, with product histories written by Shannon Appelcline. I will be drawing on those histories as I go. I also noticed that the blog Guile’s World has created conversions of Planescape things for Pathfinder 1E, which I’ll be linking as we go along. The Eternal Boundary’s conversion is here.

Here we go, then. I chose The Eternal Boundary, partly because it’s a short 32-page adventure and I could get through it in an hour even while taking notes, and partly because it was the first adventure module published for Planescape, coming out in June 1994. Its product code 2601 is the next one from Planescape Campaign Setting.

Incidentally, an in-depth look into its bowels will contain SPOILERS.

The Eternal Boundary is written by L. Richard Baker III, who according to Wikipedia is the same person as the Rich Baker or Richard Baker who worked on a lot of AD&DD&D and Alternity stuff as well as some of the better Forgotten Realms novels like the Last Mythal trilogy and City of Ravens.

The first thing that strikes about this thing is that production-wise, they weren’t messing around. It comes with its own DM screen, with NPC stats and dungeon maps on the DM side and art, a tavern map and a map of the Hive on the player side. The adventure itself is a coverless booklet.

The Eternal Boundary, spread out

Plot and Structure

The adventure’s background is that a wizard by the name of Green Marvent, based in the gate town Plague-Mort, is hatching a cunning plan to destabilize the kriegstanz and become a real shaker in Sigil. It’s a bit on the convoluted side, but the basic idea is that his agents pick out barmies in the Hive – the mentally ill, beggars, people nobody will miss – and take them out with a spell called feign death, which makes them appear, well, dead. They’re then taken to the Mortuary, where Marvent’s agent on the inside flings them through a portal to the Elemental Plane of Fire, ostensibly for cremation but really into a base run by other agents, who take the knocked-out barmies, reprogram them by telling them they’re dead but have a second chance at life, and give them orders to go to Sigil and join a faction. Marvent would then use these sleeper agents to do something that’s not described in detail. Green Marvent’s outfit is named the Illuminated, and they’re what we would call a sect.

The 1996 German translation by Uwe Körner.

The adventure is meant for low-level characters, levels 1st-3rd according to the text, 1st-5th according to the back cover. I checked my German-language copy, which says “Die Ewige Grenze is geeignet für eine Gruppe von 4-6 Charakteren der Stufen 1-5″, so I guess that settles it. This makes sense, first adventure and everything, and it kinda also works as an introduction to Planescape. It’s not a Grand Tour of the Planes kind of thing, but starts off slow. I figure a playthrough would take some four to six hours, depending on how quick the players are on the uptake and how much fighting they end up doing. In my judgement, this could be run as a one-shot.

The Eternal Boundary is structured into three parts, “The Hive, “The Mortuary” and “The Eternal Boundary”. In “The Hive”, they are hired to look for a person. It depends on party composition which introduction they get. If there are no faction members or only members of the Dustmen, the Bleak Cabal, or the Xaositects, they get the no-faction intro, and otherwise they get the faction start. This is because those three factions are deeply involved in the plot and especially having a Dustman in the party can shortcut most of the second part.

As a side note, it’s always felt to me like some of the factions are more NPC groups than others, and these three are on the NPC-ey end of the scale. I will talk more about this once we reach Factol’s Manifesto.

Anyway, they’re hired to look up a Hiver by name of Eliath because he has information about a demiplane called the Isle of Black Trees. This is funny to me because Planescape: Torment was later developed by Black Isle Studios. Anyway, by meeting people they should be able to figure out Eliath was killed recently and taken to the Mortuary.

“Should” is the operative word here. AD&D wasn’t the best system for running investigations and the DM is advised to just give them the map with hotspots and then throw encounters at them. They will meet Dustmen and Chaosmen and/or Bleakers, and a barmy local who “dies”. The Bleakers and Chaosmen are investigating the deaths and may decide that the PCs are either guilty or impeding the investigation. They will eventually be assaulted by the Shadowknave, Green Marvent’s catspaw, and his gang.

Hopefully, the party eventually figures out they need to investigate the Mortuary, which brings us to Part II, “The Mortuary”. First, though, they will be informed by their boss that Eliath has been spotted alive, and will hopefully look him up and interrogate him (among the things they can find out is that the Isle of Black Trees is a dead end with him). They’ll also encounter the barmy they saw “die” in the Hive, now going by another name and a member of a party member’s faction.

At this point, the party should have enough railroad track built to figure out there’s something sketchy going on at the Mortuary, so the next thing is to infiltrate it. Hopefully infiltrate, because a frontal assault will result in character deaths. Getting caught, on the other hand, will shortcut the entire second part of the adventure, since whoever catches them will either be Illuminated or hand them over to the Illuminated undercover agent. Unless they come clean to Factol Skall, who will conduct an investigation of his own and “dispose” of the PCs, which feels like bad design to me and I would have Skall throw the PCs at the problem on the philosophy that if it doesn’t make the problem go away, at least the PCs did.

The Mortuary is basically presented as a dungeon crawl instead of a more reasonable format for an infiltration mission, which I suppose is understandable considering the book reads AD&D and 1994, but does take up a lot of space. Incidentally, the Mortuary presented here is basically the same as the Mortuary of Planescape: Torment, with in some cases not only precisely the same floorplan but also the same encounters.

The problem with Part II is that by my reading, the clues the PCs go into the Mortuary with are pretty thin. They’ll have “the Mortuary” and possibly “Elemental Plane of Fire”, but unless they have a particularly kleptomaniac outlook and go to a specific crypt, they will not discover the agent’s name. These are always a bit hard to see just by reading the text, but to my eye the investigation does not flow naturally.

Anyway, one way or another they will end up through the gate to the Elemental Plane of Fire and the Citadel of Fire. The setup implies a few ways for them to go about this such as infiltration, but the end result is likely going to be an assault. At this point the party will likely have enough information to piece together what’s going on and will try to end it. There’s a boss, a githzerai fighter/mage named Imogen, to fight who will demonstrate admirable initiative once she figures out there are intruders, and will gather a team to seek and destroy them. This makes speed imperative – the more enemies the party can take out before Imogen gathers up her posse, the fewer members it will have. I like the crew in the Citadel of Fire. There’s a nice variety of adversaries. I have no idea what the stone golem is doing in a low-level adventure, though. By my reading, they’re not supposed to fight it, but it’s there and under the control of Imogen, which is weird.

The ideal ending is presented as destroying the life support gem, rescuing the prisoners, and returning to Sigil. What bothers me is what’s not presented. Green Marvent’s whole plot isn’t laid out very well, which makes failure or partial failure harder to adjudicate. The Eternal Boundary also doesn’t present options for follow-up. It’s like it’s written as the first part of a series but there are no sequels. Green Marvent, the evil mastermind, is never encountered. While he’s mentioned in the Plague-Mort entries in Planescape Campaign Setting and later in Well of Worlds, there’s no follow-up that I’ve been able to find. Reading this is like watching a story through a keyhole. I have a constant awareness of missing context.

The other side of the screen.

Summary

The Eternal Boundary is the first place where we encounter the concept of sects. Not quite as large, or powerful, or as Sigil-centered as the factions, they’re similar, significant power groups. Some of them have a governing philosophy of some kind, some – like the Illuminated – are mostly just a bunch of thugs. We will be formally introduced to sects in Planes of Chaos.

Another thing that struck me with its absence was Tony DiTerlizzi’s art. There are three full-page colour illustrations of a Sigil street, the Mortuary, and the Citadel of Fire, by Rick Berry, Ned Dameron, and Alan Pollack. The cover, portraying a Mortuary zombie with a number on his forehead, is by Robh Ruppel. I like it as an atmosphere piece but it is a bit drab.

So, there it is, The Eternal Boundary. I feel it is more interesting as a resource on the Mortuary than as an adventure module. Indeed, if its description of the Mortuary hadn’t been so detailed, I think it could’ve accommodated more immediately usable material such as more a more thorough description of the Illuminated and a rundown of Green Marvent’s masterplan. If you want a starred review, 3/5.

Next up: Monstrous Compendium Planescape Appendix I, unless someone convinces me otherwise.

MOAR ODYSSEUS

As the dust has settled after Odysseus, photo galleries have come out of embargo and a lot of interesting material has been uploaded in various places.

First of all, all of the photo galleries from all the runs are now public. Most of them are accessible through larppikuvat.fi, except for the photos of Ami Koiranen, which are found at amikoiranen.com.

Second, two of the three Odysseus talks from Ropecon have gone through postproduction and been uploaded to YouTube.


The first is about the spatial design of the larp, by Mia Makkonen.

And the second is Essi Santala’s and Sampo Juustila’s talk on the IT, audio, and lighting of the larp, which is one of those cases where being told how the magic trick works makes it more impressive.

The third and final one is the GM team telling what Odysseus was and how they did it.

The final item I wish to link is a real doozy. While the physical objects that made the game are spread to the four winds – the costumes and signage sold, the wall elements sent off to Germany, smaller props stored away – the character briefs, soundfiles, software, and everything else electronic endures. So they collected it all in one place and put it up for download. It’s all free for non-commercial use, and it’s a marvellous treasure trove.

Tales of Entropy for Free

Petteri Hannila, the publisher and designer of Tales of Entropy, has put the game up as a free download on the game’s home page. It’s available in .epub, .mobi, and .pdf formats, and is a nifty storygame, especially for one-shots. Here’s what the home page says about it.

Tales of Entropy is a story game for 2-6 players. Each player takes a central role in depicting a dramatic scenario that sets the scene for murder and romance, friendship and conflict. The central characters are set against each other from the start, but it is up to the players—and the dice—whether the tense starting situation spirals into chaos and destruction or a blaze of glory at the end.

 

The game is based on a pre-written scenario, on top of which the players build a rich tapestry of content according to their own vision, creating a unique play experience. The game book includes ten scenarios ready to play out of the box: Want to tell a tale of power, war and love from the Viking Age, or experience an adventure of Sherlock Holmes in the exotic Limehouse? How about joining a struggling rock band near a breakthrough in the 90s, or defending a child with special needs against an obsessive FBI agent.

There’s also a selection of scenarios from when he published one a week for a year.

It is also available in print from all the usual suspects, such as DriveThruRPG.com.

My Worldcon Schedule

Dublin 2019 – An Irish Worldcon kicks off next week. I’ll be in town from the 12th through the 20th, and this time around I’ve also been put into a handful of panels. This is all still subject to change, and I may end up also running a tabletop RPG session somewhere in there. But this is it for the moment. Come and say hi!

Thursday:
10:00 Retro Hugos discussion
Panel 50 minutes CCD: Wicklow Hall-1
The Retro Hugo Awards honour works published after 1939 during a year for which no Hugos were awarded. This year the finalists have been drawn from works published in 1943 which would have been eligible for the 1944 Hugo awards, had they been held. The panel will discuss the finalists and where they fall in the overall history of SFF.
Heidi Lyshol (M), Robert Silverberg, Jukka Särkijärvi, Graham Sleight, Jo Walton

Saturday:
15:30 Running a post-apocalyptic convention
Panel 50 minutes Point Square: Stratocaster BC
When society breaks down and we no longer have technology or infrastructure to help us, how can we run an SFF convention? What would we even talk about if there are no new books, films, TV shows, or even the internet? Join our panellists as they come up with absurd and sobering ideas for running a convention after the end of the world… which we hope won’t be next week.
Heidi Lyshol (M), Norman Cates, Isabel Schechter, Jukka Särkijärvi

Sunday:
16:00 Dealing with crisis in conrunning
Panel 50 minutes CCD: Wicklow Room-2
Your hotel contract doesn’t actually say what you thought it did. A Guest of Honour goes missing. None of your laptops can run a crucial presentation. What crises have our conrunning panellists experienced, how did they handle them, and what plans do they recommend for preparing for the unexpected?
Dr. Deb Geisler (M), Kris “Nchanter” Snyder, Jukka Särkijärvi, Liat Shahar-Kashtan, Gérard Kraus

Monday:
15:00 Bringing the Worldcon to a city near you!
Panel 50 minutes CCD: Liffey Room-2
Having a splendid time at Dublin 2019, an Irish Worldcon? Want to bring a Worldcon to a city near you? Our veteran conrunners will walk you through the practicalities, to set you up for success in bidding for, and then running, your future Worldcon.
Janice Gelb (M), Helen Montgomery, Alan Stewart, Vincent Docherty, Jukka Särkijärvi