Something haunts hyperspace. Interstellar travel, lifeblood of the sprawling human civilization, grows increasingly perilous as voyagers report bewildering and upsetting incidents associated with jump drive usage. The one common thread is a mysterious signal – the TERROR SIGNAL. Is it a natural phenomenon, an attack, or the first hints of a mystery far more dangerous?
Terror Signal is a mystery sandbox campaign for Mothership. I co-wrote it, so I think it’s cool. You can get it on itch.io and eventually drivethrurpg – the cause of the delay there is too embarassing to recount.
For a while now, I have struggled with fully comprehending the OSR playstyle. It’s documented. I’ve run several campaigns in my approximation of it. I wrote about a couple of OSRgames. I even wrote an adventure for one of them – out soon, shhh. And I still don’t feel like I’m doing it right. That is, until I had an epiphany: it’s not a coherent design philosophy, and I need to stop treating it as such. Which may well be obvious to you, but it’s my blog and my epiphany, so here we are.
And before we get going: what even is OSR? A featherless dice game, perhaps. At this point it is impossible to pin down. I have no interest in community turmoil, so by “OSR” I mean the playstyle and common mechanics supporting it. At the same time, I have no doubt there are examples of OSR/POSR/NSR/etc. games with totally different playstyle & mechanics, which I think only supports my argument, but just to be safe: don’t worry, your favourite game is entirely self-consistent.
But back to the topic at hand. A while back I wrote about the difficutly of mastering narrative games (is that a reoccuring theme here?), with the ultimate conclusion being that narrative games embed their desired playstyle into the rules (not always well communicated, and not always well implemented), and failure to follow this playstyle results in a “clunky” experience as you fight the rules to make them fit your playstyle.
OSR games, on the other hand, rely on maxims & manifestoes, often existing outside the game text. As someone who didn’t start off with this playstyle, and didn’t have other GMs that practiced it I could learn from, such posts were an obligatory reading, but may have left the wrong impression.
One such maxim is “Rulings Over Rules”. Here’s the description from Principia Apocrypha, a “new OSR primer”:
The primeval old school principle. Old school style games are often sparse in what situations their rules cover. There are often minimal, or no “skills” or “feats”. This is a feature, not a bug. The flexibility this openness allows is a big part of the appeal of old school style games. Let players take advantage of this openness and try crazy things (and apply logic to taste).
Intertwined with it is the emphasis on “Player Ingenuity Over Character Ability”. From the same source:
Old school PCs are very minimalistic because the character sheet is mostly there for when players make a mistake. Players are not meant to solve problems with die rolls, but with their own ingenuity. Therefore, present them with problems that don’t require obscure knowledge, have no simple solution, but have many difficult solutions.
So “Rulings Over Rules” is not just an attitude towards adjucating various game situations, but also the reason for having simplistic rules. Combat? It’s war, your own fault for not securing overwhelming advantage, now you toss dice like grenades. Character abilities? No need, describe what you do and the GM will adjucate.
Except OSR games do have plenty of strict rules & procedures with no space for player ingenuity. It’s such a blatant contradiction of principle and practice, it’s so deeply ingrained, it’s taken me years to notice it. These rules simply cover different areas, often neglected by other playstyles: random encounters, exploration, encumbrance, resource depletion. That’s where OSR games innovate and distinguish themselves from one another. Not just regular old encounter tables, but hex flowers, overloaded dice, usage dice.
It makes sense: these rules help create a sense of pressure, of player agency and strategic choice. Do you take the time to search the place and risk another random encounter roll, or do you push on and risk triggering a trap or missing out on treasure? That’s the essence of OSR, isn’t it.
Except. Except, except, except. If rules are good for informed player choice and agency in exploration, why are they a detriment in action resolution?
Why are tactical combat rules avoided like the plague, why is the character sheet “mostly there for when players make a mistake” unless you need to check how many rations are left? For that matter, why is ingenuity not welcome in, say, encumbrance management – innovative mule packing techniques not that interesting? Fair, but are detailed descriptions of searching for traps that much better?
A couple of examples from the list: “This glass sphere (3′ in diameter) is filled with gems and horrible undead snakes.” “There’s a tiny octopus inside your stomach and it’s biting you.” “The room is proofed against magic. The door only opens when a bowl is filled with water from a spring down the hall. The hall is long, vented to volcanic heat, so the water will evaporate before reaching the bowl.”
Dungeoncrawling is contrived as it is. There’s a hole in the ground, filled with monsters and traps and treasure? And an entire class of people dedicated to delving into these dungeons? Not a whole lot of examples in mythology or fiction – until D&D bled back into fiction through video games, and now half of anime is isekai filled with precisely that. But to take dungeoncrawling and fill it with glass spheres of snakes & gems, stomach octopuses, and water locks in volcanoes? It’s not just the classic excuse of “a wizard did it”, it’s “a wizard did it so that adventurers could experience OSR-style challenges.”
And if you’re willing to accept these contrivances in order to experience the playstyle to its fullest, the artificiality of balanced encounters of the combat-as-sport D&D playstyle really shouldn’t bother you – it may not be your preference, but it takes just as much suspension of disbelief.
The OSR playstyle works, there’s no doubt: people have fun with it. Just so we’re clear, I have fun with it too. It works not despite its inconsistencies and contrivances, but because of them. Though its manifestoes and principles may suggest otherwise, it is simply an amalgamation of parts and approaches that happened to work well together, not a unified, self-consistent design arising from deeper philosophical ideas. A local maxima of fun.
Once seen this way, it’s easy to imagine games that could have started with the OSR principles and diverged, where the line between Rulings and Rules is drawn differently. Such games may even exist, and I’m simply ignorant of them. A game where you have to describe in detail how you render first aid, with scores of blog posts and forum threads scoffing at the idea of the Heal skill or, worse yet, hit points. Or a game where you have to learn how to identify and use plants in cooking and alchemy, with herbalism tables for every occasion. Or a game where you create magic rituals from first principles, balancing various requirements and side effects. An OSR Ars Magica. Osr Magica. Or…
More practically, this means I can take from OSR what I like, and ditch the rest without worrying I’m doing it wrong somehow. Which may have been a weird mental block only I had, but, again, my blog, my mental blocks. In the grand tradition of the genre, if OSR is dead, we can loot its tomb for all its worth.
Wildsea is a roleplaying game written by Felix Isaacs about a crew of (wild)sailors cutting through the branches of impossibly tall trees on a chainsaw ship or something just as bizarre, in a world taken over by verdant greenery. Among the games that inspired it, it lists Belly of the Beast, Blades in the Dark, Heart: The City Beneath, and 13th Age, though I see a lot of Fate there too. Fiction-wise, Bastion, Bas-Lag trilogy and Sunless Sea are listed. The fact that I wrote about most of the inspirations for Wildsea would imply it is a game for me. And it is!
The world of Wildsea has experienced an unusual apocalypse 300 years ago, the Verdancy. Its civilizations were crushed by the roots of trees rapidly growing to truly titanic sizes. Living within the tangle of the trees wasn’t really an option: not only is everything ever-growing, not only are many animals and insects also of immense size now, but the trees themselves are full of highly mutagenic and acidic sap likely to blame for all the growth. All that survived found themselves sheltering on broken bits of the old world carried upwards by the massive branches, or trapped atop of mountains or otherwise isolated from one another.
With trees as the sea and survivor settlements as islands, ships capable of traversing between them were inevitable. That’s what your characters will be: wildsailors with their own ship, sailing the wildsea in search of glory, adventure, or maybe new culinary experiences. Each character is defined by three major elements: their bloodline, origin, and post. And what character elements they are.
While humans (“ardents”) are present, the rest of the bloodlines get weird – the promised influence of Bas-Lag books. Cactus people, mushroom people, swarms of spiders in human-shaped hives (my favourite), animated detritus, mutated jellyfish people with replaceable bones, and moth people that pupate and get reborn every twenty years.
Most of the origins are simply kinds of settlements your character might come from, but they start off, in alphabetical order, with amberclad and anchored. The former were trapped in amber during the Verdancy, only now waking up to a world irrevocably changed. The latter are ghosts anchored to some object. This really sets the mood: you can get wild with character concepts.
Posts feature various crew positions one might expect to find, such as corsair, navigator, or hunter; several not-magic users (arconauts, who’ve learned to wield the weirdness of the world in some way); as well as many variaitons of crafters (oh yes, there’s crafting), and stranger professions still. Would you like to be a postman? I’ve never had to describe or imagine so many different ways food is cooked in different communites as I had to in this game due to having a char (cook) on board. Now the entire party gets excited about trying local food every time they visit a new place.
The rampant weirdness of the world doesn’t stop with characters. The things you encounter vary greatly, from amusing, like tinker-monkeys that just want to disassemble your engine out of curiosity, to terrifying, like the bone disease that makes its sufferers “skeletal golems still clothed in the unwilling flesh of their erstwhile owners” or a plant that blooms on people and induces religious fervor in its hosts. As can be expected of a game with gigantic flora and fauna, there are leviathans as well. While these include “merely” titanic creatures, there are also a bewildering variety of living storms and a mobile reality distortion vibe of the Spirit of Industry.
While I appreciate the many kinds of beasties found in the Hazards chapter, large and small animals, insects, plants, constructs, I love the single paragraph descriptions of stuff that didn’t warrant a full write-up. It’s a cacophony of ideas: hydreese (hydra-geese!), hermit-hull crabs, skyward roots reaching the clouds, punchcard thinking engines.
Although there is no canonical map of the Wildsea, and majority of the book is dedicated to the general Wildsea experience, the Reaches chapter describes several geographic regions with distinct personalities. You are free to include or ignore them in your game, arranging these reaches as you see fit – a great approach to worldbuildng. You could easily base the entire campaign in one reach, or visit it for a few sessions just to see the sights.
When I originally backed the game on Kickstarter, it was the art that caught my eye. Just look at it! The setting sounded interesting and unique as well. I didn’t expect too much from the rules, to be honest. New designer, custom system to go along with the world? Hopefully it’s functional, I thought. Oh boy was I wrong to underestimate them. Mostly.
I really like the rules. They’re evocative and flexible. I think the second edition of the game can be truly special, and this isn’t meant to be a backhanded compliment. But for the one we got, you may have to do a little bit of trimming and a little bit of bending. It seems that the rules grew even as they were being written down, more ideas appeared up until the very appendix. While this may have resulted in a disaster for other systems, it’s barely a problem here. The core rules are solid, and everything else is flexible and up for interpretation by design, so you’ll naturally settle on your own version of the mechanics that makes sense to your group. As I explain the rules here, I’ll also mention some of the house rules and interpretations we’ve ended up with – which may not be for you.
Mechanically, each character element, bloodline, post, and origin, offers a pool of aspects to choose from, and it’s up to you to spread out your choices or focus on one element. It’s also perfectly acceptable to “steal” an aspect or two from a different bloodline/origin/post, or make up your own.
Aspects are a mix of Fate’s aspects and stunts. These represent character traits, gear, and companions. Each has a descriptive name, a “health” track 2 to 5 long, and often a special ability they grant. The shorter the track, the better the ability: a purely descriptive aspect like Towering is 5 long, while a Strong Stomach that reduces the impact of poisons, diseases, and sickness is 3 long. Some abilities granted by aspects are active: you mark the track to use them.
Characters don’t have health as a separate parameter. Instead, whenever they take damage they mark one of their aspects’ tracks, provided it makes sense. A fully marked aspect ceases to function. That’s where being Towering comes in handy: you’re large and tall, so you can endure more. Instead of marking an aspect, you can take an injury – add a temporary track that will take some effort to heal. The rules don’t actually define how long this track should be, but it made sense to us to set it equal to the damage you were about to take. We’ll revisit healing in a bit, take note.
In addition to aspects, characters get edges, skills, drives, and mires. Edges are binary, you either have them or you don’t, and each character gets 3 out of 6. They describe possible approaches to doing things, e.g. Iron is the edge of force, determination, and willpower, whereas Tides is the edge of exploration, learning, and lore. Edges encourage you to describe your character’s actions in a way that fits the edges you have.
Skills are straightforward: you have 0 to 3 points in all of them. In addition to regular skills, there also are languages, which cover not just the ability to speak and understand a given language, but also familiarity with the culture in which it is used. While there is a “common” language, Low Sour, this latter application makes language skills very handy in a game likely centered on travel between various communities.
Drives are used for character advancement: by working towards one of your drives, you can claim a milestone once per session. If you’ve completely satisfied a drive, you can replace it and claim a major milestone as a reward. You also get one “free” milestone once per session, and one “free” major milestone once per story arc. Each milestone is a brief phrase you write down at the end of each session to note the personally significant events that happened during it.
Later on, you can spend milestones during a montage/downtime action (hello Blades in the Dark) to gain a new skill point or an aspect, provided they somewhat fit. Maybe you’ve Survived a Pin-Wolf Ambush, Drank Pirates Under the Table, and Held Her Steady during a storm, and now you can use those experiences to gain another rank of the Brace skill. There’s also a whole system for modifying and combining aspects, as you only get 7 slots for them, but we won’t get into it here.
I love the way milestones work in this game. You create an ongoing record of important character moments, then find ways to channel them into character advancement. It feels like the next step in the evolution of the “mark xp if you’ve done something appropriate for your playbook” approach. I will seriously consider using it for any future games I run.
In addition to milestones, satisfying a drive can give you a whisper (a kind of a resource) or clear a mark of mire. Mires are your character’s insecurities, weird habits, phobias, all the things that drag them down. You get 3, each with a 2-long track. These are marked when you experience something terrible, with first mark resulting in only minor changes to a character’s behavior, and second causing the mire to dominate their scenes. They can be compared to ongoing negative compels in Fate, only without a reward for indulging in them, which I think is a missed opportunity. And given how sparse clearing marks can be, you run the risk of drowning in your mires for lengthy periods of time. So the house rule we’ve implemented was to treat twice marked mires as drives: once you act out based on them, you get a reward that will probably be clearing a mark of mire.
The core mechanic of Wildsea is very simple. Whenever you do something risky, assemble your die pool: 1 die if your action matches one of your edges, 0-3 dice from an appropriate skill, and up to 2 dice for advantage. Advantage comes from fictional positioning, having relevant aspects (the name and description of the aspect matter here, rather than the ability it provides), or risking resources – if the roll fails, the resource is likely to be lost or otherwise negatively affected. The highest die in the roll determines its outcome: 6 is a success, 4-5 is mixed, and 1-3 is a disaster.
Doubles add a Twist to the by now familiar formula: something unexpected happens during the action, not necessarily directly connected to it and often suggested by another player. Some kinds of action have default twists, like dealing extra damage in combat. While it sounds simple, it doesn’t quite work, as there are two competing mechanics hiding within the Twist: chaos and critical success. As characters’ dice pools grow with their experience, more twists suddenly occur around them. Which is fine if they signify a critical success, but gets exhausting quick when every other roll brings something unexpected. We’ve introduced the following house rule: for “regular” action rolls which don’t have critical successes, use one die of a different colour, with a twist occuring on a roll of 1 on this special die.
Another core mechanic are tracks – a lot of things get a track, not just aspects and mires. These are basically progress clocks of BitD, with a slight modificaiton: you can have multi-part tracks, with each completed part signifying some shift in circumstance. Working on a personal project during a downtime montage? That’s a track. Journeying across the waves? That’s a track for the trip, another if you’re making a map on the way, and perhaps a third if there’s some ongoing danger. With a proper setup, a few tracks can take care of an entire adventure for you.
Tracks are how the game handles combat, too. While it features a full-on bestiary in the Hazards chapter, none of the creatures there have stats in the usual sense. As Wildsea is a player-facing game where only players roll dice, all of its enemies simply get aspects and optional quirks, many of them purely descriptive. They also get a detailed description of their sensory presence, which often includes taste.
When setting up a dangerous encounter, the GM decides on the total length of its hazard tracks based on how deadly it’s supposed to be, and possibly on how good the crew’s strategy is. These tracks can be spread among the aspects the creatures have (in which case fully marking an aspect deprives the creature of it), represent the situation as a whole, or be a mixture of the two.
While this works well overall, I would have preferred to have some suggested track length for each creature to signify its danger level at a glance. Likewise, I’m a bit unsatisfied with the way monster damage is handled: the game simply suggests you deal low amounts of 1-2 with occasional larger hits of 3-4 and a rare 5+ in case of bad tacics and rolls. And, again, that works, but is a bit too loose for my tastes. Mostly because this approach lacks symmetry with player capabilities – they deal 1 damage by default, plus 1 in case of a twist, and can voluntarily cut (increasing the difficulty of the roll by removing the best die) for more.
Speaking of damage, there are simply too many types in this game: 12! Various elemental types make sense, but the fine distinction between keen, hewing, and serrated damage doesn’t seem that interesting to me. Many aspects grant resistance to several damage types, meaning you reduce damage taken by 2. A player being resistant means they can ignore random bad roll outcomes, but enemies will occasionally get through. A monster being resistant means you’d better bring a different weapon – you’d have to not only succeed at an attack (1 damage) but also roll a twist (+1) and cut for impact (+1) to leave a dent. That’s a bit much as it makes such attacks extremely unlikely to do anything while exposing the character to increased damage due to the cut. Leviathans are resistant to everything individual-scale by default.
A lot of action revolves around resources. Unlike Heart, another game featuring gaining and spending resources on the way from A to B, Wildsea’s resources don’t have a rating measuring their value, they simply are. Each resource has a name and possibly a tag giving it simple extra properties. A larger volume of a resource is called cargo, and is used for ship-scale operations, like trade and ship upgrades. Resources come in 4 types, and while Salvage and Specimen are what you’d expect them to be, Whispers and Charts deserve further explanation.
Whispers are words of power, lodging themselves in people’s minds. They can be traded, passed from one to another. They can also be said quietly, introducing a Twist-level change that fits the whisper and is under the character’s control, or shouted, changing the surroundings in a signficant but uncontrollable way. If you’re familiar with Fate, you’ll see some similiarities to boosts – if boosts had tangible in-universe presence.
Charts are conceptually complex – they are maps, but maps of something not yet found. When setting out from a port, you can utilise local knowledge (gained from, well, locals) and a chart you have to plot the course, matching the chart to the local area and making the journey significantly safer. A chart can also be used in conjunction with a whisper to make a discovery along the way, finding some landmark that thematically matches them by possibly conjuring it out of conjecture into reality. In theory I really like this, as it allows players to opt into creative agency during the game, but I’ve struggled to come up with interesting landmarks along the way, and doubly so have my players, so we have barely engaged with this chart mechanic. Both uses consume the chart – it goes from abstract to concrete, and no longer has value to you afterwards. It kinda makes sense, so long as you keep moving forward, but it’s probably best not to overthink this mechanic.
Journeys themselves are handled in a procedural way: everyone gets to do something, whether that’s being on watch and rolling to see if something happens on the way, deciding how fast you travel, or manning the engine just in case that becomes relevant. These decisions are typically made by the group, but it’s nice to have everyone engaged. The most important part of a journey are the random encounter rolls. The character on watch rolls a die to determine the type of the encounter: 1-3 is nature; 4-5 is order, that is, something to do with people – another ship passing by, an outpost, a wreck, etc.; and 6 is peace, that is, nothing significant happening, just some slice of life aboard the ship.
The rules are slightly self-contradictory here, as the GM also rolls a die in secret to determine how dangerous this encounter is, with 1-3 being an immediate danger, 4-5 a risky opportunity, and 6 a freebie. So you easily could get a “peace” result that’s also an immediate danger. To reconcile these, I’ve been interpreting “peace” as “on board the ship” and “order” as “outside the ship” – an internal danger could be a crew conflict or a sickness, for instance.
Speaking of ships, the party builds their ship together by spending “stakes” – you get 6 to share, and 3 per sailor. These individual stakes can be pooled together, but ultimately it’s up to each player how to spend theirs. There are many inventive options to choose from, not just chainsaws & sails. In addition to parts that each ship needs to have, such as a hull and an engine, you can add various fittings and undercrew. Fittings encompass all sorts of things: specialized rooms, armaments, devices, while undercrew include officers as well as gangs of less skilled sailros and even packs of trained animals. Our crew decided their ship had to be infested by scorpions in a collective fit of madness, and keep insisting it was a wise choice because they’re “used to the stings, and any invaders wouldn’t be”.
After the initial creation, ships can be upgraded at a dock at a rate of 1 cargo per 1 stake (this is quite hard to find in the rules). Ship creation rules specifically say they place no limit on how much cargo can fit into a ship, or how many fittings can fit onto a ship, leaving it up for the group. And while that’s fine, it would probably have been easy to have these rules mirror the aspect limit characters get – something I may do next time we create a ship. It’s fun to deal within limitations sometimes!
The weakest area of the rules, I find, is healing. Damage is easy to dish out: marking an aspect on a mixed success doesn’t take too much brain power. Healing, however, requires a montage (downtime) action and a resource. Where do you get resources? Other just stumbling on one along the way, you can go hunting/foraging/salvaging/introspecting for one – another montage action. Both require a roll. So now you have 2 PCs spending their montage actions for a chance to clear 1 or 2 segments of a track.
It gets better with higher skills, not only because you’re much more likely to succeed, but also because a twist on the healing roll means the resource is not expended – an extremely important rule only present in the rule summary appendix! Some aspects also let the healer treat more characters at once or make their healing more powerful, but most of them come from the Surgeon’s post, and not everyone’s going to have one aboard the ship.
One the one hand, you’re not typically limited by the number of montages you take. On the other, you don’t actually want to just sit there and do personal stuff the entire session either. And there are so many more interesting things you could do during montages, like spend milestones for character advancement or work on a project. What ended up happening at my table was players adding more aspects to their characters in part to get more tracks instead of spending time on healing old wounds, as it was a more efficient and more fun way to keep the character going. Funnily enough, aspect marks are meant to be transient damage, bruises and the like, while the more serious injuries get their own temporary tracks that (explicity by the rules) can be marked as time passes. Not so regular damage! Which had made me wary to actually dish it out once I realised what was happening.
Conceptually similar stress in Fate gets cleared every session, but that would seriously impact the resource economy of the game and make some aspects worthless, so I don’t have a good solution here. Healing a track at the end of each journey would be a good start. When I’ve tried asking about other GMs’ experience on the game’s discord, I found out with some surprise this wasn’t a problem those present there at the time had encountered, but mostly because they’ve been running shorter adventures where damage just doesn’t have the time to accumulate. Which makes me think our group is one of the few in the world to have a lengthy Wildsea campaign, currently 28 sessions and going.
At its core, Wildsea is a travelogue game, which is probably my favourite style of campaign. The party moves from place to place, seeing how the people there live and getting into all kinds of trouble along the way. I love localised worldbuilding of figuring out how people would adjust to live in various fantastic circumstances. While the overall premise of Wildsea, that of overwhelming vegetation, has a very strong influence, the book offers plenty of variations on it. Couple that with really different people that inhabit the world, and you’ll have a vast space to exercise your imagination as you explore it together with your players.
Our Wildsea campaign follows on the heels of Mothership, which followed Trail of Cthulhu. After 2 horror campaigns, everyone wanted something a bit more lighthearted, so that’s how we’ve been playing it. Very few people are outright villainous (I think the party has killed 2 so far), we focus on adventure, sight-seeing, non-hostile encounters with nature & rampant weirdness, and leave plenty of space for slice of life scenes aboard the ship. Which isn’t to say you can’t run a more action-oriented, or even horror-tinged version of Wildsea. But after (uhhhhh) a couple of decades of running games, I’ve come to really value the different experiences they can offer, and Wildsea has been a breath of fresh air.
Wildly imaginative, evocative, with flexible mechanics (which, to be fair, may require some adjustment for your table), Wildsea has been a joy. Whether you’re looking to move away from dungeons and dragons, or simply long to dive into a new world, I heartily recommend it. Embark on a voyage over the endless treetops, who knows what wonders you may discover.
P.S.: I’d like to give an honourary mention to “unsetting questions”. There are many games nowadays where players are invited to participate in creatings parts of the world, and Wildsea is no exception. Unsetting questions are a slightly different technique introduced in the book, where the GM asks players for rumours and tall tales they’ve heard on a particular topic at the start of each session to set the mood. There is no obligation for them to be factual, which removes all pressure from players and frees the GM to modify or ignore their answers as fits the game. While it may be tricky to do so all the time, it’s a fun way to start a session in any game.
Heart is a roleplaying game of weird dungeondelving about doomed people getting exactly what they desire, no matter how badly it turns out for them. It is published by Rowan, Rook and Decard and is set in the same world as (and directly beneath) another of their games, Spire.
Everything in the book drips with flavor, and, often, blood. The Heart is a tear in reality deep under the city of Spire. Above ground, dark elves struggle to free themselves from the colonialist oppression of aelfir, gnolls fight for their independence, and humans are just doing their own archeotech thing. None of this matters below, in the City Beneath.
Near the surface, it’s still somewhat sensible, caverns and tunnels and cursed train networks. Things get increasingly surreal as you delve deeper, closer to the irreality of the Heart itself. Absolutely anything can be found here: predatory libraries, assorted heavens and hells, mythic beasts, wild forests, the True Moon. It used to be a slightly more sensible place, before an overambitious engineering project of the aelfir ruptured the Heart 150 years ago, causing it to spew its weirdness far and wide. Now, populated havens and landmarks are scattered throughout the underworld, each place living by its own logic.
No one knows what the Heart actually is. Many people think they do. The very nature of the Heart means any of them could be correct at any given time, no matter how contradictory their theories. Alien terraforming mechanism, a nascent god, a benevolent slow-rolling apocalypse. The only things most agree on: it changes reality, it doesn’t understand us, it will give you what you want.
The player characters are the ones desperate, driven, or deranged enough to take the Heart up on this promise. They want the impossible, and they will go through the phantasmagoric hell to get it. The character classes can be thought of as D&D analogues thoroughly infected by the Heart. Instead of a ranger you get Cleaver, a possibly cannibalistic hunter that derives memoreis from the things they eat and becomes a progressively more fucked up were-beast. Instead of a rogue you get Deadwalker, stalked by their own death, and Incarnadine, a priest of the god of debt. Deep Apiarist, Heart’s druid, has a beehive in their ribcage and strives to maintain order in the ever-changing chaos. Junk Mage is a fairly straightforward warlock, if you discount the “junkie” part of it, borrowing power from a patron or three. Hound is a fighter that’s joined a loosely associated citizen militia of the Heart, while Vermissian Knight is a fighter that likes trains so much they wear one. Finally, Heretic is, unsurprisingly, a cleric that worships an underground, “true” moon; and Witch is a spellcaster infected by heartsblood itself, with barely any side effects at all, so long as they don’t ever experience any kind of strain.
Aside from classes, characters get an ancestry and a calling. Ancestry has no mechanical bearing, but offers characterisation ideas and asks how you got into the Heart. Calling is the reason you’re there, and is the basis of character advancement. To me, it is the standout feature of the system. Each calling comes with an ability and a big list of minor, major, and zenith story beats. The beats are various accomplishments, and range from “charm someone with tales of your exploits” to “find the final secret you have so desperately sought and use it to solve your impossible task”. Players pick two of these beats, typically at the end of a session, and inform the GM of their choice. Should they accomplish a beat during the next session, they gain an ability of corresponding power.
A genius bit happens here, a ludonarrative assonance: players tell the GM what they want their characters to experience, the GM, as the Heart, does their best to match these desires, warping the reality of the game in the process. Do you want to kick someone off a high place? There will be a high place where you’re going. That’s why Heart doesn’t have a stable map, only a list of landmarks.
Zenith beats, like the final secret one I mentioned, are very hard to achieve, and not everyone will manage to do so before their untimely but likely deserved death. The reward for doing so, a zenith ability, is incredibly powerful but typically lethal as well, or at least transformative enough to remove the character from play. It gives you a chance to completely steal the scene, overcome impossible odds, and end your character’s (adventuring) life on your terms.
Zenith abilities are cool and flavourful (though a few too many of them are essentially “you utterly destroy a place and yourself in the process”), but come a scene too late. You get them as a reward for accomplishing your utlimate task, but they would have been so much more useful while you were trying to accomplish your ultimate task. Even if the character still wants something after their main goal is met, do they want it enough to destroy themselves to get it?
It’s obviously possible for the GM/Heart to pull out some greater calamity to threaten their success or someone they came to care about, but to do so without it feeling cheap takes more skill than I had mustered for our campaign. It took quite a bit of effort to bring even two of the PCs’ stories to culmination simultaneously. The one that “ascended” first did use their zenith ability to help out the other, but it was mostly to show off. This meant the game had run its course, even though the third character still had goals to attain: with 2 of 3 characters retiring, we saw no reason to continue for another session or three with substitutes.
The core mechanics of Heart are very similar to Spire. You still assemble a die pool of d10s, one for free, one more if you have an appropriate skill (what you do), one more if you have an appropriate domain (where/to whom you do it), and another one for mastery (circumstance or abilities). Highest die determines whether the action ends in success, success at a cost, or failure. Difficulty works slightly differently: instead of reducing the die pool by one or two dice in Risky or Dangerous situations, Heart takes away one or two of the best dice after the roll. It is, as you can imagine, quite punishing, but countered by having high-quality equipment.
Much like in Spire, failure and success at a cost give the character stress in one of five tracks: Blood, Echo, Mind, Fortune, and Supplies. After a character gains stress, the GM rolls a d12. If the roll is less or equal to the total stress the character has, they suffer a Fallout, minor on a roll of 6 or less, major otherwise. This means even a character overflowing with stress has even odds of only suffering a minor fallout, making Heart characters quite resilient. Furthermore, the only way to suffer a severe fallout that likely ends the character is for a player to choose to upgrade a major fallout after suffering another major fallout. In Spire, the fallout die is d10, and the severity of the fallout depends on total stress at the time, not the roll, with 9+ stress guaranteeing a severe, character-ending fallout.
There’s a list of fallouts for each category, some are immediate and others last until dealt with, likely at a haven, in exchange for resources – useful stuff you scavenge, loot, or butcher along the way. Each resource has a die rating measuring its potency, from d4 to d12, a domain it belongs to, and sometimes a tag. For instance, you might have a Harpy’s Heart (d6, Wild, Deteriorating). A lot of character abilities interact with resources in some manner, e.g. a Cleaver can eat any resource to gain corresponding domain for a scene.
Finally, stress recovers differently. In Spire, you cleared an amount of stress depending on the severity of fallout you suffered, and could engage in character-specific activities to relieve stress or even hide away and let time pass, clearing it all. In Heart, you clear all stress from the track you just took a hit to on a minor fallout, and all stress from all tracks on a major fallout. You can also use equipment and abilities to clear stress, but that usually involves a check, which means the risk of further stress.
The main reason for all the changes is the larger amount of checks players are likely to make in Heart. Spire is typically a game of intrigue and investigation. Any misstep could spell your doom, so you tread carefully. Characters slowly accumulate stress until everything goes wrong for them at once.
In contrast, Heart is often a game of reckless violence. You’re already doomed, you’re already in Hell looking for your own personal Heaven, what’s one more gunshot wound. Stress comes and goes frequently, it’s the fallouts that stick around, and you have to make it to the next haven to fix them.
Combat is frequent, and it is quite swingy. You can overcome even a dangerous foe with only a couple of good rolls, or you might flail at them ineffectually for a while, suffering multiple fallouts. It’s a bit of an issue, as every fallout suffered pauses the game as the GM flips through the book looking for one that fits the situation. This didn’t feel quite so disruptive in Spire, because there weren’t as many rolls.
Combat is also, unfortunately, not quite deep enough. No matter what cool abilities you might have, how imaginative the monsters are, or how impactful the fallouts, at the end of the day you’ll be rolling Kill checks until the enemy is dispatched – and, again, the combat is quite swingy, so sometimes it takes a while. In addition, not all classes have good access to the skill. Usually, advances that grant you a skill come loaded with some kind of flavourful side benefit, like the ability to see in the dark or harmlessly fall from significant heights. Then they have a more generic advance that simply grants one of a few skills or domains that are not as fitting for your class – and for some classes that includes Kill. Spending an advance on it just doesn’t feel as satisfying. You can get away with playing the supporting role in a fight occasionally, or have an objective other than killing whatever’s trying to kill you, but most of the time it’s Kill or be Killed, and characters that are bad at it feel like they’re not pulling their weight.
While other fallout categories are fairly straightforward – your Blood is spilled, Supplies run low, etc., Fortune is the odd one out. It mostly deals with the consequences of poor decisions made (or just plain bad luck). You might take the wrong turn and extend your journey, piss off the locals, or become their unwilling messiah. In addition, some places and creatures have their own custom fallouts associated with them, like a mind-controlling location seeping deeper into your brain, or a ghost possessing your body. These don’t always work seamlessly, and sometimes mean the signature threat of a scene is never realized simply because the dice didn’t cooperate, but it’s a very interesting idea nonetheless, and something I’d like to see more of in future supplements, should they happen.
Fallouts are tricky in general. There’s an art to picking them so as not to overwhelm the characters. At one point, the entire party in our game was suffering so much it became comical, with multiple broken limbs, ragged nerves, blinded eyes, weird growths, etc.. This isn’t an issue with the rules, there are many once-and-done fallouts I could have given them instead, just something to keep in mind. The maleable nature of the Heart offers a fix for this as well, you just have to be flexible enough to take it. Does the party desperately need a break? The Heart can provide a haven that wasn’t there a moment ago, perhaps an all-too-convenient pub with absolutley no dark secrets hidden in its cellar.
In a certain way, Heart is the polar opposite of OSR in this regard. OSR, generally speaking, wants to establish the dungeon, draw the map, provide random encounter tables, then watch the characters deal with the problems as they come, in a “fair” fashion. Heart makes everything up as it goes. Do you need healing? Here’s a haven. You picked a beat to punish someone? Meet an absolute bastard of a person. Low on resources? Well go get them, that cursed plesudodeer isn’t using its bones for anything significant.
Broadly speaking, there are two kinds of campaigns you can run in Heart, both centered around travel. The first, and the kind we played, is a one-way descent. Somewhere deep within, the characters will find what they’re looking for, even if they don’t know what it is yet. The other focuses on a hub, probably a haven, that you try to protect by venturing back and forth. Should you be interested in it, you’ll probably want to pick up Sanctum, a small supplement written just for this. Either way, journeys play a significant role. The book is filled with unique locations and it is a delight to explore them. In fact, our campaign went for longer than it probably should have simply because I wanted to fit more landmarks into it. Even then, we haven’t even seen a third it.
It’s a shame, then, that my biggest issue with the game is the way it handles the actual journeys between the landmarks, the delves. When the GM prepares a delve, they determine the length of its resistance track, which functions much like a health pool, tracking the overall progress of the trip. As the party overcomes challenges on the way, they inflict stress on the delve, filling the track. Once the track is filled, the delve is over. Just like combat, this is very swingy: normally you inflict 1d4 stress, with a typical delve having 8-12 resistance. But while a combat taking an extra roll or three to finish is not a big deal, a delve requiring more obstacles than you have prepared means you need to rapidly improvise. And there’s no random encounter tables or even a roll to suggest the nature of the next obstacle – which is fine so long as the GM/Heart knows what should happen next, but leaves them floundering otherwise.
One of the reasons for this rule was giving meaning to delve items: grappling hooks, compasses, air-tanks, etc.. When you use a Delve item in overcoming an obstacle, you use this item’s die rating instead of the default d4 – they’re a direct analogue of Kill items i.e. weapons. Except thematically this doesn’t actually work. Having a grappling hook doesn’t make the check for climbing up a wall any easier. Instead, it means you’re likely to face fewer obstacles after you’ve climbed the wall.
Every time our party overcame an obstacle, inflicting stress on the delve was an afterthought, the least interesting part of the situation that was also the most mechanically significant one. By the second half of the campaign I had given up on tracking delve resistance, instead simply declaring the party had arrived at their destination as soon as I had used up the ideas I had for travel encounters. Thankfully, none of the characters had taken any abilities interacting with this part of the rules, so this wasn’t a problem. Still, completely cutting out the mechanic for the main activity of the game is not great.
Despite the game’s flaws – and to be clear, most of them are quite minor – I loved my time running it. In a hobby drowning in dungeoncrawling games, in grimdark and despair and lovecraftian horror, Heart offers a unique experience. Wonder and horror, grime and grandeur, hope and tragedy, alien and personal. Every monster is utterly sad, but it will still try to eat your face. Everything has gone wrong, yet people still live there. Not just live, they make art, they aspire. The characters are doomed, but they’re powerful. It’s their humanity that drives them towards becoming inhuman. Drives them deeper into the Heart.
Perhaps you’ll find what you’re looking for in Heart, too.
Mothership, a sci-fi horror OSR game by Sean McCoy & Tuesday Knight Games, is quite popular. Seemingly any time someone asks for a game that has anything remotely to do with sci-fi or horror, Mothership will be among the recommendations. What’s interesting is that Mothership isn’t even properly out yet: what we have is effectively an Early Access player guide, 0e as the author calls it. At the time this post is published, the kickstarter campaign for the full version of Mothership is well past the million dollar mark with almost a week left to go.
This unfinished nature of the game hasn’t prevented numerous Mothership adventures from being published, both first- and third-party. What is the allure of this game that has attracted so many creators, what does it look like right now, and what can we expect from the full rules? I’ve been running a weekly game for the last few months, so naturally I have opinions to share.
Mothership has firmly occupied a niche that is surprisingly underserved: the grimy and gritty future of space exploration that movies and video games have promised us. Somewhat paradoxically, its distinguishing feature is the lack of a setting attached to the game. There’s just the general vibe of getting killed by horrible things out in the darkness of space.
There are very few established facts to contend with: space travel is common, including hyperdrives; there are human-like androids; you probably owe a lot of money to a corporation. The rest is up to you. Sentient aliens? If you want them. The Alien-like aliens? Inevitably. Mind-warping artifacts, cybernetic viruses, megalomaniacal AIs, evils of (space) hypercapitalism? All this and more. The possibilites are as vast as the space itself.
Sci-fi horror tabula rasa is well and good, but what about the game itself? That’s the unfortunate part: 0e is functional at best. The core mechanic is a fairly standard d100 engine: roll under attribute + skill (if you have one) to succeed. In case of an opposed check, both characters roll. If both succeed, the highest roll wins. Doubles on a success are a critical success and doubles on a failure are a critical failure. Items and circumstance can also grant advantage or disadvantage, enabling the player to roll twice and pick the better or worse outcome, respectively.
In addition to the attributes you roll when a character acts (Strength, Speed, Intellect, Combat), characteres have saves (Sanity, Fear, Body, Armor) that are typically rolled in response to something happening to the character. Failure on a save inflicts Stress as well as whatever other consequences you might suffer. A critical failure on a save leads to a Panic Check: if you roll 2d10 over your Stress the character panics, and you roll 2d10 again, this time adding your Stress, and look up the result on a panic table. These range from an adrenaline rush to a heart attack, and indeed Stress can be deadlier than physical damage. In addition, most classes have special clauses around Stress and Panic. For instance, when a Marine panics everyone else makes a Fear save.
The Stress rules avoid a common pitfall with such sub-systems: they don’t grind the action to a halt all the time. Fail the save, mark stress, move on. Panic rules, on the other hand, plunge right into this pit. First, there’s no good reason to have two distinct rolls during a panic check that use the exact same numbers, character’s Stress. Second, it’s a different mechanic to the rest of the system, and it requires a table lookup to boot. Moreover, it often causes a cascade of saves and panic checks, roll upon roll, completely destroying the momentum of the scene.
As is traditional for OSR games, combat is deadly and fairly straightforward. Characters get two significant actions each round (great if you’re doing something tricky, kinda boring if you just want to shoot). Attacks are an opposed check with defenders rolling a save (and thus gaining stress on a failure) or perhaps Combat to counter-attack in close quarters – the rules are frustratingly vague on this. As written, it is the strictly superior option most of the time: not only do you get a chance of damaging the enemy, you won’t gain stress if you fail. But if the enemies follow the same rules, close quarters combat devolves into a frenzy of stabbing and counter-stabbing that the PCs are unlikely to win.
Monsters have a built-in defense against lucky one-shot: Hits. A typical monster’s stats look something like Hits 2(30), meaning once it takes 30 or more damage, it looses a Hit, with no carry-over damage. Narratively the monster sustains a significant injury and may change its behavior as the result. Unfortunately, these rules are not a part of the only official rules text, Player Survival Guide (0e), despite Hits being used in the published adventures. A curious gamemaster has to look for supplemental sources such as the game’s discord server to figure them out.
On paper, combat rules are fine. In practice, problems crop up almost immediately. It may take everyone a couple of sessions to get comfortable with opposed checks, which is not ideal for a system often used for high mortality one-shots. More importantly, combat is drowning in these opposed checks, which often have minimal impact: percentile systems are already prone to high failure rate, and both sides rolling and counter-rolling twice each round just gets cumbersome. A back-of-an-envelope calculation shows it takes well over a hundred rolls to get through an equally matched firefight. Now, granted, standing and fighting is not a good idea in an OSR game, but sometimes the characters don’t have much of a choice.
Probably the best part of the game is the character sheet. It is basically a flowchart for character creation, slick and stylish, just hand them out to players and they’ll be ready to go in a couple of minutes. There is, however, a nuance. Not all skills are created equal: some offer additional benefits that could be crucial, like Firearms training allowing you to reload quickly, or Tactics giving a bonus to your initiative check. This is not reflected on the otherwise perfect character sheet – even an asterisk next to the skill name would have helped.
This is becoming a major pet peeve of mine, minor caveat rules that you read and nod along because they make sense (sure, if you know how to handle firearms you know how to reload them quickly), but that slip so easily out of mind during the actual game. At worst you remember there was something important, something that could potentially tilt the odds in the PCs’ favor, and flip or scroll desperately through the rules: was it under Skills or Combat? Nope, Weapons.
To a certain extent this applies to equipment, too. A party that found pain pills and stimpaks in the equipment list will be at a significant advantage compared to the party that blinked and missed them. On the other hand, monsters are not balanced with drug use in mind – in the grand tradition of OSR they’re not balanced at all.
While character creation is a straightforward process, the same cannot be said for ships. The game features fairly involved rules for modelling your space ship, with various modules taking up hull points, which in turn require greater amount of thrusters and engines to power them. It’s not rocket science, but a fragment of the ship creation flowchart on the right should give you some idea of how complex it gets. It’s a good flowchart, I like it.
Ship creation does take a while, going over the components, figuring out the invisible thresholds crossing which means you need extra support components which in turn mean you need extra hull which means your ship gets much bulkier. It’s an interesting minigame, ruined only slightly by being ultimately meaningless.
The reason you should care about ship size is its cost: a single hull point costs 10 million credits. A Courier ship, capable of delivering a few people and a tiny payload from point A to point B and little else, has a minimum hull of 30 points, or 300m credits. A ship actually capable of combat starts at 55 hull points. That’s half a billion credits, with credits very roughly equivalent to dollars.
The rules suggest the ship the group owns is of a minimum viable size, with 6d10 percent paid off. They further suggest 10% of all credits earned in-game go towards repaying the debt, “for simplicity’s sake”. While certainly simple, it doesn’t feel right. I’m not advocating for modeling a mortgage calculator, but the whole “you’re half a billion credits in debt, so just pay 10% of your income whenever you’re able, no worries” thing just doesn’t ring true.
Economic woes go further: it costs a lot to operate a space ship. A unit of fuel goes for 10k credits, and you burn one of those per day, more when landing on a planet, more still when using a hyperdrive. The game sets up this enormous economic pressure on the party that would, ideally, push them into accepting dangerous missions we the players want them to engage in. The problem is that at the same time the rules don’t offer any guidelines for actually relieving this pressure.
This part of the game is obviously directly inspired by Traveller, the classic debit-driven sci-fi game which I’ve only read about. However, my understanding is that Traveller does in fact offer a robust economic system where the party can conceivably keep themselves afloat by undertaking various jobs, and an entire campaign can spin out of them trying to make ends meet.
Mothership, in contrast, just indicates that money are important but leaves the GM to figure out how the players are going to get them. Running a spreadsheet of fuel expenses and ship mortgage payments and trying to match it with similar payouts for deadly tasks is presumably not why you chose to run Mothership, however, which means you’re probably just going to handwave this, which in turn means money is basically meaningless. Except getting paid was supposed to be the motivation for going out into the unknown in the first place!
This is where a system should come in and offer some guidelines, but alas, alack. I understand we’re talking about a 40-page early access players’ guide, but it has four pages dedicated to mercenaries (which our group has never touched, but I guess they’re a staple of OSR), I feel it could have spared a couple pages to develop its economy.
Some of the adventures take a non-systemic approach to rectifying this: Gradient Descent lists the going rate of various [REDACTED], while A Pound of Flesh has tasks and their payouts scattered throughout. Maybe it’s just how my mind works, but I find this entirely unhelpful. I’d much rather have a simple table of task difficulty ranges and corresponding rewards than feeling like I need to collate all the sample data and extract this information.
This economic mess is further compounded by there being essentially two economic scales: macro ship costs that measure in hundreds of thousands to millions of credits, and micro personal costs that rarely go above thousands. In a campaign where the party operates their own ship, personal expenses are a rounding error. The relatable issues like choosing between a nicer hotel or a bigger gun fade into insignificance. Making both macro- and micro-prices relevant in the same game is a tough nut to crack, and I just might have to try my hand at it if Mothership doesn’t.
If you got this far, you can see I’m quite critical of Mothership 0e. Yet despite having these issues with the game, I’m still running it weekly, and having a great time with it. The rules are not fantastic, but they do work. It’s the adventures that shine. We’ve started the campaign with Haunting of Ypsilon-14, followed it up with Dead Planet, and are currently wading through Gradient Descent interleaved with A Pound of Flesh – all official adventures. Perhaps the PCs will elect to take a vacation on the Desert Moon of Karth next, or discover What We Give to Alien Gods. Or any other of the third-party adventure, there are so many and they all look so good.
And it’s very important to underscore that all of my criticisms are for the 0e version of the rules. In fact, the reason I listed all the issues I have with the rules that are about to become obsolete is because the 1e rules promise to address most if not all of them. Opposed rolls in combat? Gone. Panic checks? A single roll. Auxiliary skill benefits? Gone. General promises of smoothing out edge cases and simplifying the rules aplenty.
Reading the kickstarter campaign page and various previews and discussions surrounding it has been a very pleasant surprise. It would have been so easy for the creators to declare the game was already popular and therefore good enough. Instead, it is clear they’ve listened to player feedback, played their own game, and iterated upon the rules. In short, they’ve actually used the 0e as an Early Access game.
Of course we don’t yet know how well any of this is implemented, that’s the nature of many kickstarted projects. But I very much look forward to digging into the fully released game. It has the potential to be easy to run, evocative, flexible, brutal. A steadfast companion in exploring the horrors of the universe.
Great Arkham is a thief. One day you get out of bed, and you’re in a city you’ve never seen yet know intimately. You have a job, a favourite pub. You go about your day, and there’s something nagging at you, but you can’t place it, so you do your best to put it out of your mind. Most people live their entire lives in Arkham in this state of unease. What were you doing before coming here? Why did you come here? How did you come here? Isn’t there a life waiting for you outside?
This isn’t quite a review of Cthulhu City the campaign book written by Gareth Ryder-Hanrahan and published by Pelgrane Press, though I’ll be gushing about it. Neither is this a review of Trail of Cthulhu, for which this campaign book is written, though it did its job remarkably well. Rather, this is an eulogy for a campaign that was meant to last a few months and instead grew in the telling to well over a year, drawing in other campaigns I’ve run and, no doubt, spilling into ones I’m yet to run. Just like Great Arkham, the “Cthulhu City” itself, it spread. There’ll be some spoilers, naturally.
Great Arkham is a prison. Take a train, it will be stopped by the Transport Police. Typhoid quarantine, they say. Take a bus, it’ll blow a tyre. Take a boat, waves will threaten to overturn it. Go into the woods, you’ll wander for days before coming back to Great Arkham.
Let’s start with a confession: I’ve barely read any of H.P. Lovecraft’s works. I’ve read about them, seen them implemented in games, but every game of lovecraftian horror I run is a tribute to a tribute. This hasn’t stopped me: I’ve previously run a series of very loosely connected brief campaigns of tremulus, which I named in my self-indulgent manner “The Nyarlathotep Trilogy”. Most of my players haven’t read Lovecraft, either. This was the first hurdle: Cthulhu City is a love letter to the mythos universe. Its most basic premise is “what if all of these stories and characters weren’t just in a shared universe, but in the same city?” Dunwich, Innsmouth, Kingsport – these are all districts of Great Arkham. Colour out of space and re-animators, Charles Dexter Ward and professor Armitage, they’re all here. But I barely recognize these people and monstrosities, they’d mean nothing to my players. The solution was obvious: just like Arkham had somehow absorbed all its source material, it had absorbed the characters from our previous horror campaigns, PC and NPC alike, living and dead. Only one of my players had an “oh shit” moment when they heard the name Charles Ward, but they sure all had one when they recognized the impossibly alive professor Mastodon Jones, followed by an “ohh shiiiiiit” moment when they linked William Robinson the owner of Chemical Works processing plants with Will the one-armed teenage veteran of the Great War and a priest of Nyarlathotep, the villain of the game in which Mastodon Jones was a PC.
Great Arkham is a time-space aberration. It is impossible. It doesn’t make sense. It has drawn not just people but entire places from different time periods into itself, and trapped them all in its maddeningly vague history.
Cthulhu City is an unusual setting book. It has strong themes, but leaves putting details together to the GM. It asks questions and offers suggestions for what the answers might be. What is Great Arkham, why does it exist, what do the black monoliths dominating its skies do? Up to you. Each NPC write up, and there are a lot, from named individuals to stock characters, offers three variants: Victim, Sinister, and Stalwart. Each location description comes with Masked and Unmasked options. Each district description starts with several brief scenes that might happen there. Everyone’s hiding something. Every place has a horrible secret. These are all bits of story one can plug into their game. They wouldn’t all fit into a single campaign, or a single city for that matter, but that works for Arkham. There is no canonical Great Arkham, they’re all real, as real as Arkham gets. In practice I rarely used these stories, beyond the key NPCs and locations, but I still greatly appreciated them. Not only were they fun to read, they offered examples of what could be, sketched out the space in which I could imagine my own weirdness.
Great Arkhaim is the embodiment of the American Dream. The city is rife with opportunities, all you gotta do is have your eyes and your mind open to spot them. All truly succesful men are geniuses, and all geniuses are mad. Embrace your madness and prosper.
While the city is drowning in mythos, the games set in it are still fundamentally about people. Many of the plotlines suggested in the book center on the people who were exposed to some aspect of the impossible and immediately tried to use their newfound knowledge to turn a profit, or otherwise benefit themselves. In other lovecraftian settings, mythos is often the end goal: mad cultists are summoning a vile god to end humanity, or a monstrosity is rampaging unimpeded. There’re plenty of mad cultists and monstrosities in Arkham, of course, but by and large the city is made up of regular folk who, while vaguelly aware of the wrongness of it all, go about their regular lives. To them, mythos is the means to their mundane goals. This was a refreshing shift in perspective, providing the “villains” with motivations other than “mad and wants to end the world”. Perhaps one had to drown the setting in mythos to allow for human elements to rise to the top.
Great Arkham is the best city in the world. It has its warts, sure, but what place doesn’t. Keep your head down, work hard, and you will have a decent life, what else could anyone ask for. And even if you do everything right and things still go wrong for you, well, life ain’t fair, is it. Not like the city’s to blame for your misfortune. Is it? Besides, where would you go, some big city where no one knows you? No, there’s no way I’d leave Arkham.
In an investigative campaign, it’s very important to track who knows what. In Ctulhu City, where no one knows the truth but everyone has their own perspective, that gets especially tricky. I decided early on to summarise this by having each significant NPC discuss the nature of the city with the PCs the first chance they get. This helped me keep in mind not just their knowledge, but their attitude as well, and demonstrate it to the players. The snippets interspersed through this text are such musings.
Perhaps even more importantly, the players needed to keep track of what they already knew. At my insistence, they started a session log, which, just like the campaign it documented, grew to monstrous proportions: in the end it stands at 135 pages. I also wanted to both demonstrate that the city didn’t revolve around the PCs and show how it reacted to their actions, as well as sow the seeds for potential future investigations. Arkham Advertiser was the answer to all of these: a newspaper front page I’d produce whenever felt right – you can find an example below. It also was fun to write, especially the ads. Next time I produce such newspapers, I would propably reduce the actual articles to only a couple of paragraphs of key information. And maybe put the saved effort into layout and proofreading.
Great Arkham is a city occupied. All of us close our eyes to this simple truth. We pretend everything is alright even as we sacrifice ourselves in service to its inhuman captor. We bear the chains willingly, because to question the nature of our unnatural society is to become an outcast. None of us are strong enough to resist this oppression on our own. We must rise up together and overthrow the ancient evil that is capitalism.
Another technique I used was inserting snippets of daily life in a city occupied by mythos into the game. Small scenes of weird menace that don’t lead anywhere. It worked great, in the sense that players immediately would latch on to them and spend entire sessions chasing down clues as fast as I could improvise them. They saw a teenager being chased by transport police toss his bag over the fence before he was grabbed. Not only did they recover the bag to find a map of Massachusetts where Arkham is a small town and Dunwhich is a separate village hundreds of miles away, they broke into the Arkham Sanitarium to save the kid. The kid, Alex, was looking for his sister, Carmen. And so it went.
Another time, a PC heard faint voices coming from her shower head, followed by the stench of rotting meat and finally maggots pouring out. Creepy but ultimately meaningless. Of course the PC looked for the meaning. This lead to people infested and possessed by maggots digging new groves in their brains, to metamorphosis, to a mothman trying to make more mothpeople. Along the way there was a high school football team called Mighty Mothmen, complete with a mascot, and a bit of emergency magic surgery involving an eye and a key after a PC donned said mascot costume and couldn’t take it off. Also Native American rock art depicting something very much like a mothman god found in the caves in Dunwhich woods. The mystery kept revealing new layers.
Great Arkham is wasted potential, just waiting for someone with a vision. It is in a unique position, sprawled across histories: there are many timelines, but only one Great Arkham. With it as our beachhead, we could make history itself bow before the Yellow King.
Turned out, the mothman behind it all was a mothwoman calling herself Camilla, and all the infested people were gathering for a performance at a graveyard. Which either tells you nothing, or makes you go “oh shit” yet again. I want to run Yellow King RPG some day, also by Pelgrane Press, and this seemed like a natural tie-in, Carcosa’s attempt to take over Arkham. Naturally, PCs got into the performance and became art students in end-of-19th-century Paris, the setting of the first part of YKRPG. They attended a masked graduation ceremony lead by Camilla, followed by a sea voyage to Great Arkham to spread the word of the Yellow King via art. While on board, PCs took part in writing the King in Yellow play (which they were already performing or possibly living), adding antagonists to the plot, and, with minimal prodding, styled these antagonists after themselves. So when they disembarked into the graveyard and the play was over, they were the characters they wrote, still opposing Carcosa. Were they investigators dreaming they were moths, or moths dreaming they were investigators?
To tie all this together, I had Alex reveal the “real world” he comes from, the one outside Great Arkham, was not the United States they assumed, but the United Empire of America ruled by Emperor Castaigne. That is to say, the world of Yellow King RPG. Up until then, the PCs thought they’d escape Great Arkham, now they weren’t sure there was anywhere worth escaping. To make matters worse, Alex and Carmen, on their way into Arkham, bought wormy peaches from a roadside salesman. Alex bit into one and spat it out, while his sister was hungry and ate a whole bunch. Did I say wormy? I meant maggoty. PCs immediately and correctly realized Carmen was the patient zero of the maggot-mothman infestation, making her the mothwoman Camilla they had just killed and buried with the help of Alex. Which would of course come back to bite them.
I describe all this is not just because I’m damn proud of the plot we ended up with, but because it grew from throw-away scenes into a monumental story arc that tied mothmen to Carcosa and its convoluted plot to invade Great Arkham by violating quarantine restrictions on fruit import, and that’s without even mentioning the pre-Arkham village of Nuveau Carcasson, a.k.a. New Carcosa, a.k.a. Newcastle district which has always been in Great Arkham after this story arc was resolved – can’t invade a city if you’re a part of it. Aaand I’m rambling again. In retrospect it is amusing I’ve felt the need to invent a whole new faction vying for control of Arkham in a setting already full of them, but this freedom to add to a setting is integral for it to be not just a fun read, but actually fun to use in a game.
Do you think people of the Dreamlands have their own Dreamlands? They dream, after all, just like we do. And if they do, do you think our reality is the Dreamlands to someone else? That would explain a lot about Great Arkham.
Once we’ve dragged past and potential future campaigns into the current campaign, it was hard to stop. We have a long-running Shadow of the Demon Lord back-up game, which we discovered was actually in the Dreamlands – one of the PCs picked up the Dreaming skill and ended up in the middle of a SotDL adventure. As a side note, this meant the Demon Lord is Nyarlathothep, a fact that changed nothing yet amused me greatly. When we inadvertently opened a portal to Unknown Kaddath underneath the Arkham city hall, I looked at my bookshelf and pulled out Ultraviolet Grasslands and the Black City, a psychodelic heavy metal road trip game. Given that my understanding of Kaddath is limited to “weirder Dreamlands”, it was a great fit. Both even have mind-controlling cats!
Coup de grâce, however, came when I managed to tie Arkham Horror the board game into the campaign. As we delved deeper into the mystery of the nature of Great Arkham, this became a major piece of the puzzle, another perspective to which the PCs gained access. Locations on the board game map, we determined, were the black monoliths dominating the skyline of Arkham. PCs could enter through any of them and have a friendly chat with the entity they dubbed “the Gatekeeper” before exiting through any other monolith. All they had to do was draw a card corresponding to their new location and deal with whatever it said. This was an interesting improv exercise, translating board game cards with their wacky single paragraph events into a roleplaying environment. Some of them just say “a terrible monster appears,” and I did reserve the right to draw another event if the first one just didn’t work. Overall, they worked great as prompts, leading to some cool scenes we would never have had otherwise, including a spontaneous trip to the founding of Great Arkham.
Great Arkham is a dam. For centuries, it has stood betwen the mythos and the mundane. And just like any dam, it has a power all its own. Some would drain it, deny the divine, reduce Great Arkham to another forgettable city, perhaps to nothing. Others would open the floodgates and let the mythos through. Then there are those who quite like the way things are. Those who can draw upon this accumulated power.
The book suggests the following campaign concept: you start with street-level, individual mysteries, move on to investigating cults and other powers that run the city, then finally confront one or more of the big mysteries of the city itself. The Ritual of Opening/Closing is a convenient plot device that forces confrontation and ties the latter parts of the campaign together. Half of the various factions in Arkham would love to, given the opportunity, perform this incredibly dangerous ritual, ending the city and possibly the world one way or another. This works, but was the only part of the book that was a bit generic for my tastes. As the campaign progressed and factions and their motivations became more defined, their versions of the ritual and what it would achieve shifted. I still used the tried and true threat of cultists-ritual-apocalypse, but the individual apocalypses varied significantly. Church of Conciliator still wanted to invite Azathoth to Earth, with immediate and obvious consequences, but Yellow King wanted to use Arkham as a beachhead in reality conquest, and Necromantic Cabal wanted to incarnate a “human” god.
Arkham is an oppressive setting with a tangled web of conspiracies and otherworldly forces, it is inescapable and overwhelming. Scratch the surface of any mystery and you’ll find two more underneath, vanquish a cult and you’ll free up their opponents to advance their schemes. I tried to convey this by drowning my players in clues to pursue. At any time there’d be not just multiple avenues of research, but multiple distinct investigations they’d have to deal with, in addition to the aforementioned daily life occurrences. This combined well with time pressure as the central campaign structure: the PCs knew the time window in which the ritual was possible was rapidly approaching, even if they didn’t initially know when exactly it would happen, and we tracked every day in a 1937 calendar. For every subplot, I figured out the likely timeline of its development if the PCs did nothing, then put key dates into the shared calendar, coded after Mythos deities. The players didn’t know what “Byatis” stood for, but they knew it was coming.
As the result, the PCs ran themselves ragged, trying to battle a city’s worth of mystery and horror all by themselves. They were forced to triage. A friend left a cryptic message and hadn’t been seen since? Better hope he’s alright, the party’s putting out bigger fires. He wasn’t. Trail of Cthulhu/GUMSHOE, the system for which Cthulhu City was written, worked wonderfully here. In it, characters spend points they’ve assinged to skills to improve their rolls or get bonus effects. Some of these points replenish with a good night’s rest, but most only do between investigations. Critically, Stability (which helps one to not go insane, a useful skill in a lovecraftian horror game) only refreshed when spending quality time with loved ones. Which meant carving out crucial time to do so and making sure there were un-broken loved ones left who they could still face. This list grew quite slim by the end of the campaign.
I have to commend ToC for forcing us to come up with the list of NPCs that PCs rely on. Cthulhu City goes further and mandates we also list ‘entanglements’, who rely on PCs. This excercise was somewhat overwhelming during character creation, and would perhaps be better stretched out through the first investigation, but by the end of the campaign all these characters were involved and suffering for it. Likewise, multiple Pillars of Sanity were shattered and one PC even talked his way into destroying his own Drive, so all the prep was worth it in the end.
A direct consequence of the time pressure approach was how desperate the players were to use every hour of every day at their disposal. That’s largely the reason the campaign went on for so long: as we approached the ritual week, we went from covering a couple of days in a session to a day, to half a day. And the more attention to detail we paid, the more space I had to introduce more horrible twists. We nearly Zeno’s paradoxed the campaign into infinity.
Great Arkham is a mirage. A lie. A dream. It’s not real, is my point. Nothing here is real. No one. It is not real because it can’t be real. The things I’ve seen, the things I’ve done. I don’t feel guilty. Why should I? Nothing we do here matters.
Just like (our version of) Arkham spreads through worlds and histories, so did the real world reach into it. We began the campaign near the end of 2019. In it, a fake pandemic is used to control the populace, authorities commit ritual sacrifices, newspapers lie to keep everyone docile, and masks are a major signifier of one’s allegiance to a sinister force. As 2020 went on, this fun romp through conspiracy theories became decidedly weird and at times even uncomfortable. The heroic investigators opposing these conspiracies sounded like real life raving lunatics in the daily news (and fortunately not many of our close relatives or friends). Even gaming gets complicated when living in interesting times.
Near the end I was worried it got to be too much. Too oppressive, too gruelling, too close to home. My players assured me they were fine. Having the backup game with much lower stakes, dark fantasy with constant threat of PC death though it may be, certainly helped. However, we all agreed we wanted to do something much more lighthearted afterwards. Still, at the end of the campaign Great Arkham remains. Which means it will undoubtedly spread into future campaigns we play. There’s now a permanent portal and a small Arkham outpost in the Ultraviolet Grasslands – we’ll pay them a visit when we get around to UVG. Shadow of the Demon Lord campaign is in the Dreamlands, so an arkhamite cameo is always possible. Yellow King RPG is already tied in. Maybe we’ll do Fate of Cthulhu with its time-travel shenanigans and actually “solve” Great Arkham. One thing is certain: all I need to do to terrorize my players is mention Arkham’s black monoliths appearing on the horizon.
Clearly such mad sprawling sandbox campaign is not the only way you could enjoy Cthulhu City. You don’t need to drag past and future campaigns into it, you don’t have to write fictional newspapers, or pull out the board game. But… you could.
Great Arkham is the answer to your prayers. Ever since you’ve learned of it, you sought more: books, movies, art, games, anything to sate your growing longing. It was just a game, merely a fantasy. A mythos. You called for it, with every unpronounceable name you learned you called for it, with every maddening detail you so eagerly absorbed you weakened your ties to what is, with every frightening daydream you reached out to what shouldn’t be. And it heard you. I heard you. You are home now, and you will never leave me. Welcome to Great Arkham.
There’s a common assumption of interchangeability of OSR adventures and systems. Pick your favourite system, then draw from the vast array of adventures written for the vast array of systems (or just labeled as “OSR“). This works, for the most part, due to the unique features of the playstyle such as de-empasizing the rules and a core of shared assumptions. The GM can easily figure out how to represent the monsters and traps of a given adventure in their system of choice. What can just as easily go overlooked is treasure. A gp is a gp, is it not?
Turns out it’s really, really not.
Equipment lists vary greatly between game systems, and there’s never any thought put into actual economics of the fantasy worlds we inhabit – which is fine, that’s not what the games are about, and any attempt to extrapolate how those worlds actually function is futile yet hilarious (see the Dungeonomics articles). For my part, I’ve previously looked at what money are used for in games, and why they so often don’t “work”.
What we actually care about right now is the buying power of a gold piece, and how it differs from system to system. Real world has “Big Mac index“, so I’ve compiled a Ration index, the relative price of a week’s worth of rations, as it is a baseline item every adventurer needs, and therefore every system specifies. I’ve tied the computed value to OD&D, but it’s trivial to calculate a different conversion.
Without further ado, here’s a table of a bunch of OSR and fantasy systems I had or got my hands on. There may be errors (please correct them in comments!), as some of this was compiled from SRD documents and other information available online. Feel free to suggest other systems and their values, too.
Ration (GP/ week)
D&D 3 & Pathfinder
Shadow of the Demon Lord
Dungeon Crawl Classics
Swords & Wizardry
Best Left Buried
*Electric Bastionland doesn’t have a price for rations, but it does have a “canned eel” for 2 new pounds, so I’ve extrapolated to 5/day or 35/week.
**Best Left Buried doesn’t have ration prices either, at least not in the core book. In the Beneath the Missing Sea adventure, which is how I’ve learned about this system, there’s a price of 2 affluence points/week for food (and 3/week for water, but the whole adventure is about a disaster zone, so we’ll ignore that component).
Two square meals a day is not all an adventurer aspires to, however. Full plate armor is a common high-end equipment. In some games, that’s the pinnacle an adventurer can achieve, in others you can start with a full set of armor, so it’s tricky to use for direct comparison between systems. Also included is the Ration-Plate index, a within-system comparison of prices, or how many weeks of rations a full plate suit costs.
Full Plate Index
D&D 3 & Pathfinder
Shadow of the Demon Lord
Dungeon Crawl Classics
Swords & Wizardry
Best Left Buried
With Ration index, three outliers stand out: Shadow of the Demon Lord and Dungeon Crawl Classics on the low side, and Electric Bastionland on the high. All prices are a game design decision, and the likeliest explanation for low prices of SotDL and DCC is that players in these systems aren’t meant to sweat the “small stuff”, they have demons to fight. On the other hand, the relatively high price of food in EBL serves to push PCs into adventuring, as debt is the primary motivation for starting PCs in that game. Or it would, if that system wasn’t so focused on minimising the rules it actually included living costs.
However, if starvation is an actual threat in a game, it’s usually because the party didn’t bring enough rations with them, not because they’re too poor to afford food. Unless you’re playing Red Markets, that is. The one exception here is Best Left Buried, which, despite having the Ration index of 0.4 (seemingly making rations more affordable than in D&D), has the lowest Plate-Ration index of 2.5, meaning a BLB character can get a fancy suit of armor for the prices of 2.5 sacks of potatoes. I suspect this is the combination of the relatively unexceptional nature of full plate in that system (that is, it isn’t something you aspire to, it’s just something you wear if it fits your character) and actual possibility of starvation in the adventure that provided ration prices.
Overall, the relative Ration index is only useful when converting starting level adventures. Full Plate index is perhaps more indicative once you move past that stage. As for the Ration-Plate index, it is mostly a curiosity. The lower the value, the easier it is to afford full plate armour in that system, likely indicating, as with the BLB example above, that it is a character build item as opposed to a luxury item.
What can we conclude based on this little collection of data? Only that one game’s GP has nothing to do with another.
Bastion The electric hub of mankind The only city that matters
Deep Country It stretches forever The long shadow of our past
In the Underground Machines undermine reality
Aliens are here From beneath the Living Stars
You have a Failed Career You have a colossal debt
Treasure is your only hope
Electric Bastionland is a self-described “particularly fast” roleplaying game by Chris McDowall, a sequel/refinement of the author’s Into the Odd system. The book doesn’t discuss this in any way other than the “Deeper Into the Odd” subtitle on the cover, and I haven’t read ItO, so the exact relationship between the titles shall remain a mystery.
The system is minimalist to the extreme, but rarely to its detriment. The rules take up 3 whole pages, including very optional stuff like detachments and structure damage. The quote from the start of the book summarises the game’s approach well: “Electric Bastionland’s rules are written to be as fast and simple as possible. The true joy of play often exists in situations that arise outside of the rules,” which is a nice way to describe the entire OSR approach.
The rules themselves are a mix of old(school) familiar with some interesting twists. Characters have 3 attributes: Strength, Dexterity, and Charisma. Whenever they do something dangerous, they roll a save with a relevant attribute – a simple d20 roll, if they get less or equal to the attribute, they succeed, no difficulty modifiers. Armour acts as damage reduction, which is quite handy because there’re no attack rolls, either. If you get attacked, you’re taking damage. There’s a nuance here: targets are declared at the start of a round, and out of all the damage dice rolled against a single target, be it from multiple attackers or a circumstantial bonus, only the highest value is used. So when a bunch of attackers gang up against you, you’ll suffer for it, but won’t be instantly killed. The same is true for monsters, too: if a monster has 7 hp, the party all doing 1d6 damage can’t get lucky and bring it down in a single round.
Once your hitpoints are reduced to zero, the rest of the damage is taken out of your Strength. After each such hit you make a Strength save to avoid critical damage. Critically damaged character can only crawl until they receive care and rest up, and will die in an hour if left unattended. Characters also die if their Strength is reduced to zero. While the rules don’t explicitly state this, the gameplay example provided shows NPCs acting under the exact same rules. Which worked fine when the party faced an enemy or two at a time, but became a major pain to track when dealing with a bunch of weaker enemies at once.
Hit points come back with a simple 5 minute rest (which is a cause for a random encounter check), while ability loss requires an overnight stay in a hospital – and that’s for free, for a resonable fee you can get a near-instantaneous fix.
Overall, this sounds like a nasty death spiral: get into a fight, take damage (and enemies aren’t going to miss!), lose Strength, fail a save, drop. In practice, however, combat is suprisingly forgiving. Unless the enemy is dealing craptons of damage or your Strength is particularly low, a PC won’t be killed outright, merely knocked out. “A dying comrade presents a more interesting tactical choice than a dead one,” explains the book. It’ll take the entire party losing a fight for them to die.
Should you take damage that puts you on exactly zero hp, you suffer a permanent scar, the only mechanical way of changing up your character. The amount of damage that brought you down acts as the index value for the scars table, with a total of 12 entries. Out of these, 6 can change the maximum hp (if you roll over your current maximum hp), 3 cause some other permanent change, and 3 are purely short-term, like being hobbled until a fix. Only one scar causes a rerol of an attribute, likely reducing it.
The scars PCs get will almost always be from the start of the table. A character starts with 1d6 hp, meaning they’ll see the first few scars over and over, and have to live long enough to even get to 7+ scars. And even once they do have 7+ hp, they still have a good chance of getting a 1-6 scar from consecutive hits. It is perpexing, then, that while scars 1 and 2 force a hp reroll on 1d6, and 5 and 6 do the same on 2d6, 3 and 4 result in aforementioned hobbling and a smashed mouth, both of which entirely go away after a visit to a medic. I’d have expected a relatively rare event (we’ve had one or two scars per session at most) to be more impactful.
Character generation is extremely simple, and this is where the game shines. To make a character, roll 3d6 three times to get your attributes. Consult a table with your highest and lowest attribute to find out your class, or, rather, your failed career. Each failed career consists of a sentence or two describing it, an illustration, some sample names, starting equipment, and two 1d6 tables on which you roll. These tables tell you a bit more about the character: typically one of them will be a unique possession while another will be some further clarification of your function within the career at which you failed so disastrously. The roll on the first table also determines how much money you have, while the second roll determines your hp. Minimalism!
There’re over a hundred of these failed careers, and they take up most of the book. These unique and colourful characters you create in 2 minutes are the reason to play this game. A few examples:
Lone Stargazer. Pocket telescope, cuff-pistol (d4). What’s the best thing you’ve seen? A rift into an undersea nightmare: all sea creatures hate you. What has all that time alone done to you? The eye you close when peering into your telescope has completely fused shut.
Amateur Amputator. Bonesaw (d6), ether. What unsettled your patients? Your sense of humour: take a book of anatomy jokes. What else did you bring to work? A hook in place of your off-hand.
And my favorite, Avant Guardsman. Flashy uniform, knife (d6). What made your unit different? You have a somewhat trained Attack Bear (7hp, d8 bite). What else? You were stitched into your uniform. It can only be removed by destroying it.
Again, there’s over a hundred of these, and they’re all a delight. They’re also the main source of information about the setting, the faces of people you will meet within Bastion and what they do there. This is the approach to worldbuilding the book takes: extremely broad strokes and a scattering of wild ideas. You won’t find any maps or timelines here.
Instead, the book offers general guidelines by which you should create your own Bastion an adventure at a time, and then actually run it. These are only a few pages, but they do their job remarkably well: versions of Bastionland created by different GMs will no doubt drastically differ from one another, while still remaining recognizably Bastionland.
This is where the game, surprisingly, is related to Apocalypse World. Just like AW it has strong opinions on how it’s supposed to be run and it communicates these ideas through concise principles, but it extends these principles to worldbuilding as well, intertwining the two. For instance, here’s one of these principles:
WHEN THE PLAYERS WANT TO FIND A SPECIALIST ○ Give them a second, unrelated speciality. ○ Give them a characteristic counter to their job. ○ Put them in a complicated situation involving another character.
It is similar to AW “Name everyone, make everyone human” principle mixed with “Put someone in a spot” GM move, with additional emphasis on the self-contradictory nature of Bastion.
One day I’ll write my “OSR games are just story games telling a specific story” magnum opus, and you’ll all be sorry.
The entire Conductor’s Guide chapter is fantastic. Not only does it contain solid guidance on running EBL (or any OSR-style game), but also a procedure for mapping out routes in a place resulting in an adventure at the end of the process.
It does rely on a few stated assumptions. As written, the party will be going on expeditions somewhere dangerous looking for treasure they heard about – dungeoncrawling is the default activity. They will be chased by a rival after the same treasure. They need the treasure to pay off their debts. Collectively they owe 10,000, while a single session’s take will be 1,000 plus odds and ends. A character death will set them back same 1,000 in administrative fees. It’s a good hook to get the party into the game, offering a basic structure to the entire campaign.
However, this is where the minimalistic approach lets the game down a bit. Since debt as motivation is mandated, I’d have liked to see a bit more on it: how much you’re expected to repay each adventure (better yet, a discussion on how to choose this value), a few tables for debt holder’s reactions if you fail. Unnecessary? Maybe, but so are the values already given. Everything in any book is to be used or discarded in service of the actual game, and it’s always easier to discard or modify such extraneous subsystem than to come up with one from scratch.
Another area that is lacking are oddities. These are not-quite-magic items of Bastionland, quirky and occasionally useful. And that’s basically all we’re told. There isn’t even a random table for inspiration to help come up with them. Maybe there was more on this in Into the Odd, but that’s of no use to me with only EBL in my hands. I’ve struggled with this area of the game, which had an unfortuante knock-on effect that soured my overall impression of the game.
Other than scars, oddities are what changes your character, outside of pure roleplaying. There are no levels or any other kind of mechanical progression, instead the PCs are meant to get changed by the weirdness of the world around them. Well, scars are not that impactful (even though the book itself repeatedly calls for everything to be made as impactful as possible), while oddities are handwaved away and as a result were fairly rare in my game – and to be frank, a weird one-use item is hardly character defining. Which meant the characters didn’t change all that much: in ten or so games, one increased her hp to 12 with a lucky roll, another befriended a gas alien creature that was largely forgotten about, while the third just broke his legs over and over.
The novelty of a weird character with funny posessions wears thin after a couple of sessions. Which would be fine if they kept dying and being replaced by differently weird characters with different funny possessions – that’s the main selling point of the game, after all. But they just didn’t die! Because characters dropped but didn’t outright die, even risky choices the party made didn’t result in getting a new character join them. That is, until they ALL dropped in the same fight, but then the campaign was over with a TPK and we moved on.
Bottom line is I wouldn’t use EBL for another campaign, even a brief one, because characters, for all their wonderful oddness, grow stale. Maybe I’m just bad at running OSR games, but I’ve been using the approach in some of my games for a while now, and at some point one has to give up on the imposter syndrome. Or maybe I’m bad at running EBL in particular, and not inflicting enough weirdness on the characters. That’s where more rules, tables, guidance, anything, would have come in handy. But of course that would go against the main guiding principle of the book: minimalism.
If not campaigns, then what about one-shots? Yes, I can certainly see myself pulling out the book when the regular game falls through but we still want to do something that night. But there’s a catch: the otherwise great advice on preparing an adventure EBL offers still takes a couple of hours to implement. You need to come up with an encounter table or two, a bunch of locations and what to do there, tie it all up in some semblance of context. Players can roll their characters in two minutes, GM still needs to prepare quite a bit. Meaning I’m much more likely to pick up something like Don’t Rest Your Head or (I’m hoping, haven’t read it yet) Agon instead and run them with a few initial ideas and zero prep.
I would love a companion book to EBL that took the core concept of a 100+ strange classes and applied it to adventures. An illustration, a core idea, a couple of tables for random encounters and complications, rinse and repeat until pages run out. Something more concrete to draw upon, to sketch out an adventure with a few rolls in a few minutes then build it up as time allows.
That’s what this game does, over and over: it makes you imagine a lot more than it gives you, for good and ill. EBL is a smart game, well worth the price of admission for GMing advice alone. It’ll give you a unique party in minimal time. Its rules are simple and quick. There’s a lot to love here. But for all the good things about Electric Bastionland, I don’t know when I’d actually use it.
Roleplaying campaigns end all the time. Too bad they rarely finish. It took me years of GMing to actually complete a campaign, not merely see it dissolve. And I’m not the only one:
Far from a representative poll, certainly, but it lines up with my experience. Almost 2/3rds of campaigns don’t reach a satisfying ending. Why do campaigns fail, and how can we improve our chances?
A roleplaying campaign, traditionally, is a sequence of games with same players controlling same characters, with some sort of overarching plot. Anything that goes beyond a one-shot, basically. Finishing a campaign, therefore, typically means resolving this plotline (save the kingdom), personal plot threads PCs might have created or started with (avenge parents’ murder), as well as the majority of plot threads that came up along the way (whatever will happen to the goblin gardener the party had befriended against all odds and seems to care about much more than saving the kingdom or discovering the parents’ murderer).
There’s a plethora of ways to play roleplaying games, none of them wrong. It’s certainly possible to have a sequence of sessions with the same characters going on adventures that don’t have an overarching plot outside the adventures themselves. Perhaps you’re just playing through published adventures one after another, or running a hexcrawl. In that context, finishing a campaign could be as easy as deciding the characters have retired and opened a tavern together – or, more likely, have all perished due to a sereis of bad rolls and worse decisions.
I’m currently running such a campagin as a backup. However, most of the games I’ve ever run have been more, for lack of a better word, ambitious, even when I could not possibly fulfill these ambitions. Like many others, I began my GMing “career” with D&D. It took me a bit to be comfortable enough with the rules to make up my own adventures, but it turned out that campaigns were harder. A large part of that are basic storytelling skills, which take time and effort to develop along with other GMing skills and system mastery.
I often had the start and the end in mind, but no idea how to get from A to Z. And it was always “Z”, not “B” or “C” – a distant, pie-in-the-sky goal. Before we’d get anywhere near an ending, the campaign would fall apart. Ancient prophecies would go on unfulfilled, worlds unsaved, great wrongs unavenged, evil gods unslain. I kept imagining awesome, epic events, and never actually playing through them. I don’t think those were bad games, but they weren’t going anywhere, and I suspect it made it easier for everyone, myself included, to give up on them. It took playing in another GM’s game that actually wrapped up nicely for something to click. I ran a complete campaign that resolved to everyone’s satisfaction soon after. It wasn’t D&D, and it wasn’t a many-year epic, either.
That game was Dark Heresy, and we played through the entire campaign in about 6 months. Why does it matter? Well. I believe the basic structure of character advancement in D&D inadvertently sets its GMs up for failure, and breaking away from its paradigm helped me run a campaign with an actual ending. Paradoxically enough, after a few of these shorter finishable and finished campaigns, I was actually able to run a complete D&D 4e campaign that went all the way from 1 to 30 over 3 years, and had served as the basis for this blog for quite a while.
What’s the first thing you learn about D&D characters? They start at level 1 and go to level 20. First you fight goblins and skeletons, then demons and beholders, then dragons and… larger demons, I guess. You top it all off with a fight against some evil deity or maybe the tarrasque or some other world-ending monstrosity. That’s the implied campaign structure right there.
At a reasonable pace of 5 sessions per level up, that puts us at 100 sessions, or 2 years of weekly games. From purely pratcical point of view, that’s a huge commitment. And then there’s burn out and maintaining a semblance of a coherent narrative throughout. Still, over and over, I’d take aim at a grand finale, seed hints and prophecies, all the while throwing giant rats at the 1st level party.
Now, D&D doesn’t say you’re supposed to only play 1-20 campaigns. It just scatters the character progression charts and all the cool monsters, spells, and magic items before you, a field of very shiny rakes to step on. One solution would be to figure out the level range in which you want to set your game – the actual game, not the goblin-hunting build-up, unless that’s what the game’s about – and play there. Of course, that runs into the other issue: D&D is Not Very Good at high level play. It just gets more and more complicated and unwieldy, and the only way to mitigate that is system mastery by both GM and players. Which, in turn, requires lots of experience. But any group starting a campaign is likely to have players who’re new to the system or roleplaying games in general. So you start at level 1, and by the time the players are comfortable with their characters and the rules, the campaign has fallen apart. Catch-20, if you will.
I’m so fond of this joke, here it is restated in a punchier way:
D&D is complex at high levels, meaning one has to start at low levels and gradually increase system mastery of the entire party. But campaigns often end before you go all the way from 1 to 20, so you never get to play at high levels. That’s Catch-20.
Maybe you do want to start at level 1, to watch the characters grow from nobodies into mighty heroes, to bond with their fellow adventurers over a campfire, a found family that slays together and stays together. Some D&D spin-offs, such as 13th Age and Shadow of the Demon Lord, condense the levelling experience to only 10 levels, much more manageable. They also both suggest a campaign mode where players level up after every session. Back in my D&D days I rejected such ideas as “unearned”, whatever that meant, but the whole point of this article is to help you avoid my mistakes.
And then, of course, there are entirely un-D&D-like systems without character progression charts or implied campaign arcs to hold you hostage. Many, like Fate, Apocalypse World or Spire (and a whole host of others, I don’t mean to imply this is a modern phenomenon) are open-ended: you can keep earning advancements for your character for as long as you play. By removing the prescribed order in which you gain abilities these games also removed the unspoken campaign structure. The campaign doesn’t get needlessly stretched out to fit the implied arc. I’m particularly fond of the approach Heart took, a Spire spin-off I’m yet to play properly. In it, the most powerful abilities characters can get also end them, one way or another. An entirely different kind of implied campaign arc.
So, what are the actual practical take-aways here? I’m glad I asked. First and foremost: don’t start a lengthy campaign with people you’ve just met. Looking back to the poll for the reason campaigns end prematurely, group dissolution is far ahead. This is largely outside of GM’s control. Players may not get along with one another. They may want different things out of RPGs. Their priorities may shift, or life circumstances may change. Most of these are exacerbated by inviting new people you’ve never played with before. Which is not at all to say you shouldn’t do so, how else would you build a gaming group. Still, some or all of these players may drop out sooner or later. Since this is something you can’t control, you have to take it into account. So, when faced with building a new group, come up with a campaign that take weeks or months, not years to resolve. Use this as an excuse to try different games, there are so many good ones out there.
For that matter start with shorter campaigns yourself before you attempt something massive. Grow those storytelling and GMing skills. A few finished short stories are much better than half of a fantasy epic that gets abandoned – take it from someone with half a novel languishing out there on the Internet.
It’s hard to give generic advice given how many different kinds of campaigns and playstyles there are, but here are a few ideas. Figure out a manageable end and major steps on the way there, then hit them relentlessly. This doesn’t mean you should have a prescribed ending you steer your group towards. A common approach is figuring out what would happen if PCs do nothing, then seeing where they take the situation. The key here is maintaining momentum. Even if there is no “global” plot, there likely are individual stories PCs bring to the table.
If you do want to run a lengthy campaign, structure it like a tv series made up of several seasons, each its own arc and a satisfying hopping off point. They don’t know if they’ll be picked up for the next season, and neither do you.
And finally, and this is something I’ve constantly struggled with, use cool ideas as soon as you can, don’t hold them back for the climax that may never come. You will have more cool ideas later, you’re a GM, that’s what you do. But unless you bring your ideas to life at the table, all you’re doing is daydreaming.
Campaign games are a hot new thing in board gaming. I’m quite a sucker for them, and judging by their performance on Kickstarter, so are a lot of other people. Since I’ve backed a few, I figured I might as well write about them. To kick things off, however, let’s take a look at a game with a more traditional publishing method: Arkham Horror the living card game. As opposed to Arkham Horror the board game, its progenitor. This is a minor annoyance at most, but it’s unfortunate Fantasy Flight Games came up with “Elder Sign” and “Eldritch Horror” for its spin-offs and reimaginings, then just gave up.
What is a campaign game? Simply put, it’s a game with some amount of continuity between sessions: decisions made in one game carry over in some form into the next. Such games most likely include an ongoing plot. This is also how roleplaying games typically work, so it’s no wonder most campaign games can be described as boardgame-ified RPGs, with each player controlling their own character that grows in power between games. It’s not a particularly new idea: Descent 2e, out in 2012, came with a campaign in the core box. There’re most likely much older examples I’m simply unaware of. Progression is a great hook.
Legacy games, such as Pandemic Legacy, are a subtype of campaign games distinguished from the rest by permanent changes made to their components in the course of play. While Pandemic Legacy does give each player a character with their own abilities, and these characters do gain new powers between sessions, the core game is still the original Pandemic, far from an RPG in a box. Other legacy games, which I haven’t played, explore different genres as well.
It’s curious, then, that it took the fairly brief popularity of legacy games to reinvigorate campaign games, which have since gone back to emulating RPGs with great success. Gloomhaven is one of the early examples of this resurgence that I wrote about previously.
The inner workings of horror
AH is a scenario based cooperative card game with deck-building progression between sessions. Each player gets a character – an investigator – and together the players unravel mythos mysteries. Each such character has a deck of cards representing the items they may find, allies they may recruit, or skills they may master. This metaphor is card-thin, as scenarios range far and wide, and accidentally stumbling on your old buddy in a jungle temple is slightly implausible. Thankfully, immersion comes from the scenario itself, not the character actions. And the core of each scenario is a deck of encounter cards each player draws from at the end of their turn, containing monsters, obstacles, and other misfortunes.
Scenarios come with a set of location cards and instructions on how to arrange them, and a few Act and Agenda cards, tracking progression of mythos and investigators. As conditions listed on them are fulfilled, players flip these cards to read the advancing story and learn of their new objectives and threats. You win by getting through the Act deck. Should the Agenda deck run out before you manage to do that, the consequences will range from permanently injuring your characters to ending the world.
If you’re familiar with the board game version of Arkham Horror, most of this should sound very familiar to you. The truly ingenious part of the card game version is the way the encounter deck is constructed. Every card belongs to a particular set, with the core game providing generic sets such as Rats, Dark Cult, Ancient Evil, etc. Similarly, scenarios have their own themed sets of encounter cards. Scenario setup instructs you which sets to mix together to form the encounter deck.
Taken together, this makes every scenario a unique and highly thematic experience. While the core gameplay remains the same, the map, objectives, and threats all change to fit the story. One scenario you’re wandering the mistrustful Dunwich village, another you’re fleeing down a disintegrating train, or lost in another world. The designers do a fantastic job of making the scenarios feel and play differently.
Investigators facing these scenarios are quite varied as well. Their decks are made out of an ever-growing pool of cards split into six types: Guardian, Survivor, Seeker, Rogue, Mystic, Neutral. All but one character belongs to one of these types, meaning their deck can use any of these cards, and has access to some constrained set of other types. These constrains can get more fiddly than I personally like – hunting through hundreds of cards for a particular subtype a character can use is not that much fun. As you may have guessed, every character can use Neutral cards.
In my admittedly limited experience, not all archetypes are created equal. The core activities of the game are killing monsters and investigating – you have to do these to succeed. That’s what Guardian and Seeker are for. Mystic can do anything with a right spell, but is entirely reliant on them, so I wouldn’t play one in a 2-player game where there’s no one to pick up the slack should you fail to draw the needed cards. Rogues generate resources, card advantage, evade monsters (which is occasionally preferrable or easier done than outright killing them, but means you have to keep evading them), and are overall fiddly to play for the sake of being fiddly to play. Survivors, as their name suggests, are good at not dying. Which is great, but doesn’t really help them accomplish any objectives. 4th pick at best.
At the end of an adventure, players earn experience points based on their performance. These often introduce delightful tension between getting on with the main objective, or even escaping once it’s completed, and sticking around to get the precious XP by tackling tough monsters or fully investigating locations. This is one of the joys of campaign games: it matters not only that you win, but how you win.
These experience points are spent on buying more powerful cards. It is a very gradual process – you’ll get somewhere around 3 xp per adventure (the mini campaign in the core set is the exception, packing lots of xp into its shortened form), and a card can cost up to 5 xp. The total number of cards in the deck stays the same, usually 30 plus plot-related cards, unique character cards, and weaknesses. Oh, yeah, weaknesses are cool. Characters get one specific to them, and also draw a generic one. These fire off as soon as they’re drawn, and are always a pain to deal with. These are ongoing problems, objectives, or compulsions characters have.
As for the actual turn-by-turn gameplay, it is fairly straightforward. Characters get 3 actions per turn to spend on moving around, fighting, evading, and investigating, as well as drawing, gaining resources, and playing cards. Any test is resolved by drawing a token from the bag and adding to it the appropriate character stat, with the option to discard cards with a corresponding symbol for a boost. The game offers different distributions of tokens to adjust difficulty, but I’ve never bothered moving away from the default, it is evil enough.
The token bag also contains several tokens with special symbols that have unique effects determined by the scenario. Some campaigns mess around with bag contents, adjusting these special tokens. This hasn’t been particularly effective: in a highly thematic game, having one abstract mechanical effect be replaced with another abstract mechanical effect doesn’t do much.
Despite these quibbles, Arkham Horror is an excellent game, offering thematic, engaging, and tense experience. But this is a campaign game, and individual game sessions are only a part of the whole story.
Campaign of terror
To talk about the campaign side of AH, we have to talk about how it is sold. It is a “Living Card Game”, an invention of Fantasy Flight Games meaning every year they put out a box starting a new campaign, called “cycle”, with two scenarios in it, then every couple of months a smaller box with the next scenario, for a total of 8 scenarios. All of these contain character cards as well. Unique to AH, a couple of years after the final release in a cycle FFG puts out a “Return to” capstone expansion, with, essentially, patches to all scenarios in a cycle, offering yet more cards. As the name suggests, these releases are a good excuse to replay the cycle.
The Living Card Game model is a definite improvement on the traditional Trading Card Game model from the consumer’s point of view: you’re guaranteed to get everything for a sane price so long as you keep up with the releases. It was great for Android: Netrunner! For AH, things are more complicated. We’ll get to the practical aspects later, for now let’s focus on the game itself.
While each scenario can be played individually, I doubt many people buy random scenarios to play them on their own. I certainly followed cycles, playing through The Dunwhich Legacy, The Path to Carcosa, and half way through The Forgotten Age (then current events made in-person games more complicated). Bear in mind I’m simply unaware of any developments and tweaks to the formula further cycles may have introduced.
The LCG model means every scenario can only reference cards from core set and the first box of its cycle – the players may not have bought the ones in-between. Moreover, it means the plot can’t actually branch. At most you get a choice which of the starting two scenarios to tackle first, as they come in the same box. And you certainly can’t have scenarios that don’t occur at all in a given playthrough: people paid good money for those scenarios!
This means the campaigns are linear. There’re still consequences to the choices you make and objectives you accomplish, but these affect relatively minor things: a card representing an ally you saved, a modification to setup if you previously managed to kill a monster. There are attempts to vary this up. In Path to Carcosa, you track your belief/skepticism, which had significantly affected at least one of the scenarios in the cycle. Likewise, in Forgotten Age you track just how much you’ve pissed off the snake god, though not pissing off the snake god seems like the strictly superior option: basically, you have to avoid killing snakes or snake people get buffed, meaning you can’t kill snake people and have to avoid them, but you chose characters that are bad at avoiding monsters which is why you were killing snakes in the first place. We’ve had to give up by the second scenario in that playthrough and start over.
Scenarios themselves go to some length to be replayable. A typical example would be including two versions of each location and randomly choosing one during setup. Thing is, that’s the wrong kind of replayability. A location that works differently, or a changed layout, is great if you’re going to replay the same scenario immediately. Short of failing a scenario utterly and deciding to redo it, we’ve never done this. Rather, you’re much more likely to revisit a cycle a year or two later, perhaps once you got the “Return to” box, at which point you simply won’t remember any of these minor variations.
The main distinguishing feature of AH are the distinct scenarios, threaded together into a narrative. I can’t say we played the game for the gripping plot – the writing in Dunwich Legacy was terribly cliched, though improved in Path to Carcosa and Forgotten Age. It’s not the story, but the ongoing story that makes AH special. There are stand-alone scenarios you can get, to be slotted anywhere in the campaign, and they’re fine as far as scenarios go, but we couldn’t wait to get back to the main story.
You could play these stand-alone scenarios, or even any scenario from a cycle, on their own, and it would be a good experience. But by definition it would be a lesser experience than what the game has to offer. Moreover, since AH can be said to emulate RPGs in a board game format, it is fair to compare its scenarios to published adventures. You wouldn’t play through the same published adventure or a linear campaign of such adventures over and over.
Bottom line is you will have a lot of fun playing through a cycle, but won’t have many reasons to revisit it, other than maybe with the “Return to” expansion. And if you’re looking to get into the game right now, there are multiple complete cycles with the capstone expansions out there, and there’s absolutely no reason (other than monetary) to deliberately exclude them from your playthrough. Further undermining any thought of replaying a cycle is the fact that you could simply buy another one, fresh and exciting. The machine that is FFG keeps pumping them out. Which is where we get to the aforementioned monetary issues.
A cycle gives you 8 scenarios to play through, each can be done in about an hour (more with greater number of players). All in all, about 4 evenings worth of play-time. To get a complete cycle, consisting of the “deluxe” starting box, 6 scenario packs, and the “Return to” box, you’d have to pay $150 USD before shipping. The LCG model deliberately obfuscates this, what’s $15 every couple of months for a game you love. After a few years – quite a lot, it turns out. If you’re like me, there’s also the cost of card sleeves, which adds up over the hundreds of cards you’ll be dealing with. As far as money to hours of entertainment go, this isn’t a great ratio for a board game.
The practicalities of getting all these boxes are quite ugly, too. There is no way to get the entire cycle as a single set. Scenarios from past cycles are frequently sold out in various outlets, and for whatever reason this is not uniform: when looking at getting another cycle, I ended up ordering boxes from 3 different stores. Which means more shipping costs and more headache.
Overall, Arkham Horror the Card Game (ugh) is a fantastic game that I just can’t recommend without significant caveats. Maybe your tolerance for replaying the same storylines is higher than mine. Maybe you simply have more disposable income. Knock yourselves out, you won’t regret it. I, however, looked at the cost of catching up after missing a couple of cycles, and understood the true meaning of horror.
In a perfect world
The review part is done, here comes pure self-indulgence. How would I change AH to make it not just a great game, but a good product? Let’s take the business model of releasing a pack every couple of months as a given from up high. Each such pack has 60 cards in it, consisting of scenario and character cards. First, I’d separate these, alternating packs of character cards and scenarios. I realise currently the character cards are used to pad out the total count if a given scenario doesn’t need that many cards for itself, but it’s just cleaner that way.
With the freed up space, we’d be able to fit more scenarios into a single pack. Act and Agenda cards are neat, but their function can just as easily be fulfilled by a piece of paper, or, better yet, an app. More space found! Without getting too greedy, and with changes to the role of “deluxe” boxes at the start of every cycle we’ll discuss in a moment, we could fit 4 scenarios into a 60 card pack. This obviously means extra design work, but the behemoth that is FFG can probably afford the static cost of hiring more designers.
These 4 or so scenarios would form their own campaign, so that each pack would actually make sense as an individual product. And because they’re all sold in the same pack, this mini campaign could branch, e.g. scenarios 2 and 3 representing different clues you could pursue after scenario 1, with the order in which you do them affecting scenario 4. Not only have we doubled the amount of scenarios, we created a reason to replay them.
The core box, as well as the expansions that kick off a cycle would contain not just sets of encounter cards but locations as well, grouped by a theme that unifies a cycle, to be used throughout. We almost have that already: Dunwich Horror is backwards villages and woods, Path to Carcosa is urban adventures, Forgotten Age is jungles and lost temples. This is where AH’s approach to replayability, different versions of locations and the like, would actually work: if you can build 20 different versions of Arkham, it doesn’t matter that you keep visiting it in various scenarios. And if most of the cards a scenario requires can be drawn from this “generic” pool, we can focus on the unique cards that set it apart. In effect, we’re sacrificing a bit of scenario uniqueness for a lot more use.
In addition to these releases, there would be free campaigns regularly published online/to the app, that mix up existing sets from different releases, thus incentivising their purchase while providing further value to those who bought them. FFG already has some free individual scenarios online, so they’re moving in the same direction. And of course, if the locations are actually designed to be slightly more generic, it’s much easier for fans to create their own campaigns.
Hell, since we’re fantasizing, let’s go further. The approach of mixing up card sets to create a scenario could be extended to mixing up scenarios to create a campaign. Suppose each scenario has tags: city, village, temple, woods, journey, hunted, mystery, invasion, artifact, other world, etc. Then a campaign could consist of scenarios defined along the lines of “city + Cthulhu + scenario specific cards” tied together by plot. As more sets are released, the number of permutations would grow. Again, somewhat more generic scenarios, but a lot more replayable.
This is the crucial element that I believe is missing in AH as it now stands, its unrealised potential: while the characters get new options with each set released, scenarios and cycles remain static. The game gets wider, but not deeper. It could be so much more.