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Saturday 14 April 2018

RPGPundit Reviews: Raiders of R'lyeh

This is a review of the RPG "RPGPundit Reviews: Raiders of R'lyeh: Gothic Black & White Edition". Published by the Cipher Bureau, it was written by Quentin Bauer. This is, as always, a review of a print edition, which is a hardcover with an Indiana Jones type of character on the cover, a decent amount of illustrations, and it comes in at just over 250 pages.

Before continuing, I need to mention that I'm credited as a Special Consultant on this book. It was the next major project I worked on right after D&D 5th Edition, and I had a significant part in its design.  I'll be making every effort to be totally honest in the review, but I have some obvious bias in the matter as some of the influence is my own.

This book is part of a Kickstarter project, which took several years past schedule to be fulfilled.  But I'm certainly glad, given my own involvement, that it finally has been fulfilled and it's finally available.

In brief, Raiders is a variant of Call of Cthulhu. It uses the D100 system, but has some significant variations from the standard CoC rules. Those differences extend to the setting and themes.  In terms of the former, Raiders is set earlier, in the 1910s rather than the 20s, in the twilight of the Edwardian age leading into the horrors of the First World War. It is in some ways a more exciting time, and the theme of the decadence and the underlying impending upheaval of everything the world knows adds a different kind of tone than that of a game set in the roaring 20s.

Raiders is also more pulp-oriented than standard CoC. The PCs are certainly not supermen, but there's a generally more action-oriented aspect to Raiders than the standard CoC-RPG conceit of dusty academics pussyfooting their way through an investigation. This by itself already makes the game very different.

As you'll see, it also takes a different approach to some of the supernatural elements. Including coverage of magic that is partially historical, with much more of an influence from ideas actual occultists of the age (the Theosophists, the Golden Dawn, Aleister Crowley and all of that crowd) had about the supernatural.

Even before we get into the book itself, just by the table of contents, we get a fantastic period map of "Massachusetts and Rhode Island". It's just the start of a recurring dedication to setting detail that's quite fantastic; certainly on par with the best of Call of Cthulhu, if not superior.

The introduction of the book beings with "it is the year 1910. It is an imperial age of crumbling empires, dangerous adventures, and rotting decadence".  Those two lines capture completely the spirit of what Bauer wants his setting to be, and be about.

The basic introduction is followed up by a short essay on "The Mythos and the Imperial Age". It talks about all the context of the Lovecraft circle and its notions of the mythos, but expands this literary context to include the great Victorian and Edwardian writers like H. Rider Haggard, Rudyard Kipling, Arthur Conan Doyle, Sax Rohmer, Talbot Mundy, and Harold Lamb. The mythos of the Imperial Age needs to have all the horror of the standard CoC play, but also "colonial adventuring", in exotic and far flung locations. Bauer insists that "more than dealing with just academic concerns", heroes of Raiders should interact with "warlords, mercenaries, spies of enemy empires, hostile natives, smugglers, occultists and other supernatural threats, and various other undesirables".  I couldn't agree more.

He tries to back up his reasoning for this very different approach from the standard "academics doing a lot of investigating and then getting themselves killed" model of CoC by invoking the work of Robert E. Howard (who you may already know was not just the creator of Conan but also a significant contributor to the Mythos).

What follows is a very detailed breakdown of what the Edwardian age was like, covering everything from the cultural and political situation to arts, sports, and religion. There's also a timeline dating from 1869 to 1914.

The game system is going to be largely recognizable to anyone who's ever played CoC. You get the standard attributes for the most part (replacing Charisma for Appearance, and without the Education attribute).
Instead of Sanity, you get Rationality, which "reflects the character's carefully constructed worldview". Rationality is the ability of the character withstand challenges to his perceptions of reality.
There's several derived stats, including 'Trauma', which represent the amount of mental damage a character can take before having psychological strain; and 'mettle points', which can be spent to alter a specific check to the PCs' favor.

Social standing is another very important characteristic, and is rolled on a table (with two different categories: 'privileged' and 'disadvantaged' for minority groups; and further divided into 'industrialized cultures', 'agrarian cultures' and 'tribal cultures').
Social standing determines your standard of living, but also your 'class and credit', which reflects your access to money, to trust, and to networking. It will also have an effect on what kind of professional background a character can have (and thus what skills he'll have access to).

Skills are based on percentiles; everyone has a set of common skills. On top of this, you get a set of professional skills which you can put points into. Characters must also select places of origin, languages, religion, personal history and cultural background. It can also be important to determine a character's family ties (there's even an optional table of dark family secrets), and a character or their family will belong to a given 'circle of influence' (an "abstraction representing social networks and organizations" with which a PC routinely interacts). Sample circles include academic, bohemian, colonial, criminal, high society, Intelligence, martial, and occult. Later on in the book there's mechanics for working with circles of influence; for the time it takes when reaching out to people in your circles, for exchanges of favors, and more.

The book provides a number of templates for different professions, including artist, cleric, criminal, detective, dilettante, drifter, emissary, engineer, entertainer, explorer, fighter, herder, hunter, landlord, magus, mariner, merchant, miner, physician, reporter, scholar, scientist, scout, servant, solicitor, spy, thief, or tradesman.  Each profession will list some variations on type, common skills, professional skills, and special abilities.

Besides this, characters also select an essential Nature. These are archetypes like the every-man, outsider, scoundrel, sleuth, socialite, specialist, thrill-seeker or tough. They come with their own common and professional skills, and with a table for selecting or rolling a "drive" (what motivates the character to adventure).

Character age is also an important choice. Age determines a number of free extra skill points (the older you are, the more skill points you get) and determines the maximum number of skill points you can put into a single skill. Characters who are very young (children) or older than 40 get penalties for age.

Skills are all described in significant detail. Most skills start out based on a combination of two ability scores (for example, Sleight of Hand is a combination of DEX + CHA). There are rules for getting assistance from other characters, for augmenting skills, levels of success, dramatic skill sequences and more. There's also extensive rules for investigation. Note that these are not rules that hand-wave investigation or allow for some kind of storygaming 'manipulation of reality'.

The section on wealth and equipment is very detailed. It starts out with a list of international monetary exchange rates as of 1909! And it's quite thorough; I was surprised to learn that back then 1 Uruguayan Peso was worth $1.034 USD (nowadays its worth about $0.036 USD)!

In many campaigns, characters can work out their standard of living based entirely on social class, and there's rules for the costs of living beyond your means. There's also lists of sample earnings, costs of housing, clothing, tools, miscellaneous items, armor, travel costs, mounts and livestock, vehicles (with rules for vehicle traits and descriptions), weapons and ammo (again with traits and rules, including extensive lists of firearms by country of origin dating back about 40  years from the starting date of the campaign), and there's also rules for repairing and inventing equipment.

The chapter on game mechanics covers all types of incidentals, including keeping track of time, and the effects of aging. The section on attributes is fascinating because it includes a list of some of the most powerful people in each area at the time of the setting (so for example, William Howard Taft has the largest size score, Mary Pickford the most Charisma, Aleister Crowley the most Power).
There's also material on health and healing, and how to govern Drives and Bonds; note that with these latter two the mechanics are presented as entirely optional (in case the GM doesn't want to mechanize these fundamental aspects of roleplaying). There's material on acid, fire, poison, disease, radiation and many more sorts of conditions; and then of course the material on insanity.

With the latter, rationality works in that characters get temporary traumatic effects if they take damage to Rationality greater than their "Trauma" rating (a derived attribute). There are separate results of the type of trauma affecting the PC if the source of the trauma was Dread/Despair, or shock/awe, or Cosmic Terror. If in the process of making a horror check a character fumbles his roll, they gain a permanent new mental disorder. If their rationality ever hits zero, they become incurably mad.
So not terribly different from Sanity points in CoC, but with a couple of important differences: first, the detail and attention to the effects of failure, but second, that what you check is not always Rationality itself.  If you are faced with shock and awe, you roll on your Willpower; if you are faced with dread/despair, on your Fortitude, and if faced with Cosmic Terror you check your Rationality directly. In all cases, though, 'damage' is dealt to rationality.
Guidelines are provided for what type of horrible events require checks, plus the kind of check it would be and the rationality lost if failed. There's also guidelines for receiving treatment to recover from trauma.

The combat rules are quite detailed, and includes a large number of optional rules depending on how detailed you want your combat system to be.
The game has an interesting take on combat skills; instead of having specific skills (eg. 'shotgun', 'pistol', 'sword', etc), characters can be trained in a Fighting Method. So for example, a character who was a Texas Ranger could have a "Fighting Method (Ranger)" skill, which would encompass fighting with pistols, rifles, and shotguns. A Philippine "Moro" insurgent could have "Fighting Method (Moro)" which encompasses knives, sticks and grappling.  Characters using weapons that are not typical to their fighting style based on background or profession would have to roll those weapons at their basic level and could gain experience with those weapons as specific separate skills to the overall Fighting Method skill they have access to. There are optional rules for characters with a Fighting Method to get access to special bonus abilities (special moves, etc).

The magic section (which I will remind readers I had quite a lot to do with creating) divides the supernatural into two classifications: "Occult" and "Mythos". Occult magic is pretty much like how real-world magic functions in the sense that it is mostly internalized stuff that operates by changing the person who uses it or learns how to apply senses to making sophisticated changes in the environment or predicting developments to the degree that it seems to be control over coincidence. The sort of stuff that a skeptic could easily dismiss.
Mythos magic is the big full blown spells that typically open gates to Tentacle-town.

The book provides details for how you learn occult spells, with prerequisites to the occult skill level for the number of spells you can gain. There's guidelines for learning under a group or lodge, or learning from a text or a mentor.

Mythos magic, on the other hand, depends much less on study or occult skill level (though sometimes the occult skill can obviously still be relevant to obtaining the spell) and much more on one's willingness to give up some of one's own humanity in dark pacts with horrible entities. There's rules provided for making pacts with mythos entities, the strength of those pacts, the gifts they provide, and examples of the same.

Using spells that are connected to especially powerful entities, or using spells beyond one's ability level, can cause corruption. This requires a check, where failure will cause visible (negative) changes in the person's appearance.

Casting most spells require a cost of Essence points (a derived attribute), and also rationality points. So certainly, just as it should be in a game where the Mythos exists, magic of any kind is challenging and dangerous. Spells also require a willpower roll to succeed, with chances of criticals (that reduce the costs) or fumbles (which can result in unpredictable mishaps).

There's details on dozens of spells, of varying levels of power. In additional to these, there's also some Rituals to create objects and the like.

It should be noted that these aren't nearly as based on real 1900s magic as Lion & Dragon's magic system is based on real medieval magic; it's just not possible for it to be. The emphasis of the system is based more on it's playability for pulp/mythos gaming rather than for precise historical recreation of the sort of stuff Aleister Crowley or the Golden Dawn got up to.
And that's probably OK. A choice needed to be made and it was more important that Raiders be, first and foremost, what it was supposed to be: a mythos game first. But all that said, it still has a much more authentic feel to it than standard CoC has.

There's a big section on occult-texts, which exemplifies this approach.  You get descriptions and details of some famous occult texts, including classic (invented) mythos books like the Necronomicon or the Vermis Mysteris, but also real-life occult books like the Book of the Law or the Goetia. Then you also get a big set of rules and tables to make new occult texts for your campaign, with lots of practical guidance to make the process easy.

There's also guidelines for creating Occult Paths, that create a framework for Occultist PCs and NPCs. These include generic paths, like "Demonology", "Exorcism", and "Hermeticism"; and archetypes like "Occult Fraud", "Reformed Occultist", and "Occult Detective".

The section on Mythos creatures is a pretty straightforward bestiary; listing creatures minor and major, with details as to their traits, motivations, and some quote from a mythos story where they're featured. The minor entities have stats. The major ones do not (since destroying them would really be beyond the scope of human ability), but instead have a great deal more information, mostly along the lines of "unreliable testimony", different bullet-points of lore that aren't all going to be right (and it's up to the GM to decide which are and which aren't).

The next chapter naming itself "Story Creation" doesn't fill one with confidence, except that the very first lines in that chapter firmly state that the default mode of Raiders is to play in the Sandbox style. This is something very different than what you normally do with Call of Cthulhu.  CoC has some truly awesome adventures, but most of them are more or less linear; even the most open of the great CoC adventures try to lead the PCs along. There's lots of guidance for how to make a sandbox campaign, by focusing on timelines and creating a central threat, and dropping plot hooks along for PCs to investigate as they want. There's also guidelines for structuring adventures.

The books appendix contains a bunch of 'sourcebook' material. This includes stuff like the hierarchy of 1910 police departments; distances, times and fares for trolleys in New England, seaport distances in miles, average durations of sea voyages, and travel times by train.  The last page before the index talks about some of the major influences on the design of the game, noting some of the people (including yours truly) who helped shape Raiders into what it is.

On the whole, I think it's fair to say this is a fine product. However, this is not the culmination of what Raiders of R'lyeh has to offer. Instead, that would be the Raiders of R'lyeh Gamemaster's Guide and Core Rules, the more complete product of almost double the size, which I'll be reviewing in the near future to explain what else it contains.


Neerup Acorn + Image Virginia

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