Saturday, May 30, 2009

HOT WAR: A game of friends, enemies, secrets and consequences in the aftermath

Hot War is a possible sequel to Cold War, both indie RPGs from Contested Ground Studios. In Cold War, the Allies secretly hunted down Nazi occult/technology in Post-War 1950 Berlin. In Hot War, the Cuban Missile Crisis went hot, both sides used monstrous Other Weapons based on Nazi occult/technology, and the British government barely hangs on in a shattered and faction ridden London. Characters are Special Situations Groups (SSG) operatives, an agency that hunts spies, saboteurs, and Other Weapons. Character options include soldiers, policemen, even underground staff, but all are driven by their agendas and relationships (both negative and positive). Agendas are hidden (coming from another political or military faction in London) or personal, and like relationships provide bonuses and penalties to die rolls as appropriate, including those of fellow SSG agents. Agendas only last so long before they have to be resolved, which pushes the story along and gives the campaign an episodic television-like structure.

Games can be played “Closed,” the Agendas kept hidden, or “Open,” with the players (not the characters) knowing everyone’s Agendas. This allows greater player input (and trust) in a game that asks the players to participate in describing the narrative and in deciding the consequences of a conflict. Hot War has clear rules, excellent examples, evocative art and in-game documents, and a brilliant bibliography that helps evoke the post-apocalypse of the 1960s. It needs a proper scenario and more Other Weapons, but Hot War is a fantastically grim game of a Quatermass-like future past.

The CORTEX System Role Playing Game

Published by Margaret Weis Productions, The CORTEX System Role Playing Game collects the rules previously seen in the Battlestar Galactica, Demon Hunters, and Serenity RPGs. The system neatly rates attributes, skills, and traits (assets and complications) for characters, monsters, and vehicles, by die type (d2, d4, d6, d8, d10, and d12), with skills requiring specialization above the d6 rating. So Guns d6, Pistol d10 means a character can handle all guns, but is a crack pistol shot. Rolled against a target, skill checks will use different attributes depending on a situation; for example, Alertness plus Guns to spot a sniper, Agility plus Guns to shoot him. Plot Points are used to modify rolls and even the environment in small ways. Rules cover cyberware, magic, and psionics, but in a limited fashion, leaving the GM to develop them further.

Included are three settings. The Star Wars-like “Star of the Guardians” and Southern Gothic fantasy “Arcady” are too short and underwritten. The more accessible C.S.I./Law & Order-inspired “Trace” suggests the players take multiple roles, and is better supported by the rules. Although similar to the Savage Worlds system, the equally straightforward CORTEX System is gritty rather than Pulpy or slightly cinematic, and would be hard pushed to do really high fantasy or superheroes. Although its treatment of the classic genres is underwritten and under supported, with solid core rules and GM advice, The CORTEX System Role Playing Game is a good choice for the GM wanting to create his own game.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Lovecraftian Tales from the Table

Lovecraftian Tales from the Table is a DVD which collects two series of two-three hour podcasts from the Call of Cthulhu/H.P. Lovecraft fan site, The first series is the recordings of the classic campaign, The Complete Masks of Nyarlathotep, being played by the Bradford Players, a group of British roleplayers. The second is of the Bradford Players doing The Horror on the Orient Express. Both are recorded in a high quality MP3 format for listening on your iPod, computer, or in the car. Together they represent months of role-play. They are not radio plays, but game recordings, meaning the players/characters do fail and do dumb things. And they talk about non-gaming stuff, but not too much. You get to listen along, so it is almost like you were sat round the table, and laugh and groan with and at them.

The DVD is packed with extras. Interviews with the Bradford Players, the campaigns’ authors, with Sandy Petersen (Call of Cthulhu’s creator), the academic S.T. Joshi, and author Ramsey Campbell. Props, handouts, music, and standalone scenarios, including the Call of Cthulhu starter rules. The best extras are Green Ronin’s Freeport Trilogy of scenarios (a great campaign for Dungeons & Dragons) and Cults of Freeport (which shows you how much Mythos there is in the pirate city of Freeport); their inclusion makes this DVD a bargain! The campaign recordings might be too rough or English for some ears, but they give the listener plenty of fun and hours of dramatic listening.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

The Mysteries of Mesoamerica

The Mysteries of Mesoamerica is Pagan Publishing's supplement for Call of Cthulhu devoted to central America and the north of South America, detailing its ancient peoples (Olmecs, Toltecs, Mayans, Aztecs, etc.) and their cultures and religion, along with four dark and bloody scenarios. It is not a campaign book, the four scenarios being set in different years of the early 20th Century, but a Keeper can use them as precursors to a campaign that runs into the 1920s. Superbly and bloodily illustrated by Blair Reynolds, the book is information rich, but is not easily accessed. No index, and no easy organisation bar chapters, the book also lacks really useful information and maps for Mesoamerica 1914-1927, and worse, Keeper advice on using its contents.

A nice touch is the “P.C. R.I.P.” feature which describes
and illustrates the playtest investigators killed in each scenario plus their last words. The scenarios are as dark and nasty as any Pagan Publishing scenario, and are the book’s best feature, showing how the Mythos exploited Mesoamerican religions, instead of Mythos figures being equated to Mesoamerican deities. All work as one shots or as intermittent adventures for investigators who are Mesoamerican archaeologists, the early ones introducing them to the Mythos, perhaps ready for any campaign. Not an easy book to use, The Mysteries of Mesoamerica is more theory than applied knowledge, the sourcebook being an interesting read, but feeling under developed in comparison with the scenarios. Worth a Keeper buying it for the scenarios than the background.