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Trail of Cthulhu
Publisher: Pelgrane Press
by Michael H. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 08/03/2011 13:44:19
I really love Trail of Cthulhu. I think it manages to capture the feel and style of HPL’s stories, particularly when played in Purist mode, with rules built to complement the stories. GUMSHOE is a perfect fit for investigative type adventures, and well-suited for a plotted out set of scenes. It also is simple enough to be run in a more “off-the-cuff” improvisational style and doesn’t require a great deal of prep on the part of the Keeper, an important consideration for those of use with other daily commitments. That said, I think ToC works best when played in Purist mode because, frankly, if I wanted to play a really pulp-inspired game, I think there are better systems (e.g., The Dresden Files RPG which is uses FATE) that I would enjoy more. It’s not that ToC’s pulp-mode is bad – in fact it’s pretty cool – it’s just that I think where the real magic lies is in a purist-style game where investigators are outclassed and the emphasis is on investigation and running away. Your mileage may vary of course.

One common criticism of the system that I’ve heard is that it’s very “railroady” meaning that players are locked in to a set of predetermined scenes and outcomes that they have little to no actual control over. However, this criticism seems to be based largely upon a complete misunderstanding about the purpose of the “you always find the core clues” approach to investigation: finding the core clues is not meant to force players in to one particular direction – in fact, the most critical part of the investigation, namely interpreting the clues and figuring out what they mean, is still 100% in the hands of the players. Instead what GUMSHOE is doing is putting the vital pieces of information into the hands of the players so that they can actually make decisions and do something – gone are the days where a failed perception check leads to the group not finding the secret door and thus never discovering the hidden laboratory. In addition, it’s important to realize that the typical ToC adventure is based on constructing a “spine” of events or scenes, but that this framework is not a rigid, linear one. Characters can bypass whole scenes or complete them out of order – in fact one of the purposes of Investigative Ability point spends is to provide additional information or details which let the story branch in various ways. Thus, the whole “ToC adventures are built on rails” is completely wrong and instead what you have is simply a system that guarantees that players will have enough information to solve the mystery but not that they will actually come to the correct conclusion or succeed in the end.

Another factor that make ToC simply a great RPG is the quality of the supplemental material that’s been published to support the system: all of the adventures published to date are excellent (I can especially recommend Graham Walmsley’s adventures if you enjoy HPL-inspired Purist adventures) as are the other supplements. While none of the material is essential, it’s all very interesting and useful and largely aimed at helping support campaigns rather than providing an endless series of splat books. In addition, some of the material put out for other GUMSHOE games might also be of interest; in particular the Book of Unremitting Horror is a great source book for adding very disturbing, odd, or horrifying creatures – this stuff is all original and very strange which makes it a good fit for the Mythos and will keep even the biggest Mythos expert on their toes.

Finally, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that the huge volume of material that Chaosium has published over the past three decades can also be used with ToC. While the game mechanics are quite different (ToC does include a basic conversion guide in the ToC appendices on how to convert BRP to GUMSHOE), the vast majority of these publications are system-less fluff and source material and thus very handy.

In the end, ToC is a game I would highly recommend to anyone who is interested in Lovecraft’s stories, or horror investigation in general. The game’s system, setting, and supplemental material all work together to create an interesting and thoroughly compelling world to explore.

You can read the complete review on my blog: http://rpg.brouhaha.us/?p=4316

Rating:
[5 of 5 Stars!]
Trail of Cthulhu
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Ships of the Fleet Volume 1: JC
Publisher: Dream Pod 9
by Michael H. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 07/25/2011 11:27:05
I consider this book an invaluable resource for anyone interested in running a hard science fiction campaign (it's an in-system, no faster-than-light travel setting). The material presented is highly detailed and useful, and had a surprising degree of verisimilitude considering the obvious anime influences. That fusion of anime and hard science is probably what appeals to me most because I love the idea of high tech mecha mixed with an appreciation of the danger and physics of space-travel make it a very compelling setting for me and this particular book really brings all that to life.

You can read the full review on my blog: http://rpg.brouhaha.us/?p=4256

Rating:
[4 of 5 Stars!]
Ships of the Fleet Volume 1: JC
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Fiasco
Publisher: Bully Pulpit Games
by Michael H. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 07/25/2011 11:24:18
I love Fiasco. It delivers exactly what it promises: a self-contained, no-prep session in which a comedy of errors and bad decisions results in a complete fiasco. Having played in nearly a dozen sessions to date, every single one has been enjoyable and all but one have been great. I also have introduced the game to over a dozen people to date and every single one of them has loved the game. That in and of itself should speak to the quality of the experiences Fiasco yields.

Fiasco is not going to be for everyone though. First off, it requires active, creative participation from everyone at the table. It's not meant to be a game written and run by a single person, but rather a collaborative storytelling experience. Thus, if you despise collaborative gaming experiences and want very traditional RPG mechanics, Fiasco is going to be a poor fit.

It also means that everyone at the table has to be on the same page about exactly where the story is going – table chatter (some would say meta-gaming) is allowed and needed to avoid someone completely derailing the developing story by negating past events or introducing completely random elements. I've had this happen in one session (the one that wasn't great) in which one of the players in the very first scene of the game destroyed the object that linked our characters and then introduce Cthulhu-inspired horror elements which left the whole table scrambling to follow his lead – while it didn't ruin the game, it did negate everything we had discussed at the table during the set-up and ultimately left us with a story that didn't have a lot of coherence in the end.

Lastly, Fiasco can easily venture in to areas that may make certain players uncomfortable and so it's important for people, especially those unfamiliar with each other, to discuss lines and veils before the start of any game. This also needs to be considered when looking at the location where you're playing since spectators may get the wrong impression if they only overhear snippets of in-character dialogue. While the game doesn't have to involve sexuality, addiction, criminal activity, or profanity, most of the playsets as well as the tone of the actual rulebook (which fits the genre perfectly) definitely lean towards mature themes.

Some examples from games I've played in might make this clear, although these are at the extreme and in most cases things don't go quite this crazy: I've played a Russian video store owner who made amateur porn movies in the back room of his shop and who was raped by a bear while trying to make a bestiality movie. In another game, two of the characters were twin sisters in a rock band – one of them proceeded to get her twin hooked on heroin and then appeared in a porn movie posing as her twin in an attempt to ruin her sister's reputation and career. In the game described in my earlier examples, I played an incredibly foul-mouthed, very dumb, racist morgue technician – anyone who had been eavesdropping on our game could easily have been offended considering how many times I dropped the F-bomb alone.

That last point also requires a bit of caution for anyone wanting to use Fiasco with younger audiences. If you've read my blog, you'll know that I've had great success and fun using the game with the after-school RPG program I run. However, nearly all of the playsets to date, including those in the rulebook itself, are not suitable to younger audiences given how often they make explicit references to sex, drugs, and violence. That said, nearly any of them can be easily adapted for younger audiences with a little effort - I'm working on several at the moment – and some of the soon to be released playsets in the Fiasco Companion are also designed to be a little “softer” (I have playtested the High School playset with a bunch of teens and it was a terrific story).

In the end, I can't say enough good things about Fiasco. It's such an amazing value for what you get and it is my go to game at any con or I find myself in need of a game on short notice (e.g., we're missing a couple players). Everyone I've introduced the game to also loves it and the kids I've played it with have all returned in the following week wanting to play again. I can't recommend Fiasco enough and would encourage anyone who likes collaborative storytelling games to give it a try.

Read the full review here: http://rpg.brouhaha.us/?p=4124

Rating:
[5 of 5 Stars!]
Fiasco
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Trail of Cthulhu: Rough Magicks
Publisher: Pelgrane Press
by Michael H. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 07/12/2011 14:01:33
Rough Magicks is a Trail of Cthulhu supplement written by Kenneth Hite and published by Pelgrane Press. It is available in both printed and PDF versions, with the print version retailing for $9.95 and the PDF priced at $5.95. I am reviewing the print version.

The Physical Details
The book is a 40-page (though only 38 pages have content), saddle-stapled soft cover. The covers are out of a heavy, gloss stock, while the interior is printed in black and white, with a gray-scale textured background on a high quality paper. The artwork, all done by Jérôme Huguenin, is top-notch in my opinion - it's highly evocative of the setting and well done. There also happens to be quite a bit of it, something that is unusual amongst most lower page count supplements. Overall, this is a very nicely made book and you're getting terrific value for the price.

The book's layout follows the ToC standard, using a highly functional, three-column format. The sections are laid out logically and are generally easy to follow, although on occasion sidebars or illustrations seem aren't placed optimally. The book also suffers from some layout and editing gaffs, including repeated occurrences of "See page 00"*, a few typos (including in the word Gumshoe on the back cover), and some poorly spaced words and floating punctuation marks. However, these are relatively rare and hardly ruin the overall experience. A very nice feature is the inclusion of page references to the ToC core rulebook which makes looking up information a snap.

The Contents
Rough Magicks contains a collection of optional rules and further details on adding magic to any Trail of Cthulhu campaign. Magic in the Cthluhu Mythos is something that's only vaguely defined and often takes many forms, something which the book stays faithful to by providing a variety of ways of defining and interpreting magic into game terms. Needless to say, many of these are unusual or even weird, which means they really honor the source material. The inclusion of numerous quotes from Lovecraft's stories also really brings things to life and makes it clear Hite worked very hard to stay faithful to HPL's vision.

The book opens with a brief introduction followed by a two-page discourse on the various ways magic can be defined in a ToC game. These range from it being a hyper-scientific discipline, to biologically-based technology, to the toxic leftovers of the great elemental gods. The reason so many possible explanations are given is that Lovecraft (and those that followed including R.E. Howard) described the nature of magic in different, and often contradictory, ways across the various Mythos stories - thus Hite presents a large number of possibilities and leaves it to the individual Keeper to decide what best suits his or her preferences.

The book then moves on to rules covering a new, optional general ability - Magic. This allows a group that wants to feature spell-casting more prominently in their game the chance to offer a slightly more refined set of rules. The explanation of the rules is fairly brief - they are not a radical departure from the core ToC rules - with plenty of examples of how they would be used in play. This includes an examination of the magical abilities of the various monsters presented in the ToC core book.

The next section provides a dozen new spells, including spells to call and/or dismiss various entities. Perhaps my favorite is the ritual Call/Dismiss Azathoth which ends with this ominous warning: "Also, it will probably kill everyone there, too.” Each spell gets detailed information on how it can be used, stability test difficulty, opposition, cost and time. The section also provides some variations on spells that first appeared in the ToC core book, allowing a Keeper to keep her players on their toes or offer some interesting variations over the course of a long campaign. Two sidebars, each of which takes up an entire page, provide a scholarly look at exactly what an Elder Sign looks like (something HPL contradicted himself repeatedly about), and some cool names & brief histories of legendary sorcerers of the Mythos.

This section finishes off with a detailed look at the traces that magic use leaves behind that various ToC investigative skills can detect, and a brief look at some of the things powerful sorcerers can do, addressing issues like immortality and time travel. The investigative skill list is particularly good because it provides some very colorful and interesting examples of how a variety of skills might interact with magical clues - all of these are in terms of actual narrative examples, rather than a dry set of rules, and so make for much more interesting reading and, at least for me, more practical use at the table. For example, here's what's listed for Cop Talk: "The detective says these designs look just like the drawings on the wall by the Riverside Killer's victims, back in '07.”

Of all the material in the book, the Idiosyncratic Magic Expanded section is perhaps my favorite. These rules, which originally appear in the Book Hounds of London campaign frame in the core book, are expanded upon, providing numerous colorful examples of how Mythos magic can be disguised in terms of weird rituals, and how these can be used in conjunction with general skills to provide some additional tactical "oomph" as well as color to characters' actions. Like the previous section, this section includes a variety of narrative examples of how magic might interface with general skills at the table. For example, here's what's part of what is provided for the Conceal skill: "I laid some loose planking on the body in the shape of the Rune Unwatchable, you know, the one we puzzled out the description of from the Pnakotic Fragments."

The book's contents conclude with an analysis of Lovecraftian Magick theory, which is a succinct scholarly analysis of how magic is explained in the real world and how Lovecraft described it over the span of more than 50 stories, written over a span of a couple decades. While this information isn't terribly useful at the game table, it does provide some interesting background material and would be of interest to most fans of the HPL stories.

The Verdict
Rough Magicks is an invaluable resource for anyone interested in expanding the role of magic plays in their game or wanting inspiration on how spells and magic might be described at the table. While I would not consider it a "must have", it certainly deserves consideration for fans of ToC, especially given the quality of the product in relation to its low cover price. I would thoroughly recommend Rough Magicks and look forward to reading more of the recent supplements Pelgrane has released for the game.


*Ironically, Robin Laws, designer of the Gumshoe system upon which ToC is based, has a long-running column for Pelgrane Press entitled "See Page XX."

Rating:
[4 of 5 Stars!]
Trail of Cthulhu: Rough Magicks
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Trail of Cthulhu: Castle Bravo
Publisher: Pelgrane Press
by Michael H. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 07/12/2011 06:25:23
Castle Bravo is a 32-page adventure for the Trail of Cthulhu RPG, written by Bill White and published by Pelgrane Press. It is available only in pdf format, and is priced at a very reasonable $5.95. While it has an attractive color cover, the interior is black & white making it very printer-friendly. In terms of appearance, the adventure is attractively laid out, with excellent, evocative artwork inside and everything you need to run the adventure, including six pregenerated characters.

The adventure is designed for 3-6 players with the "sweet spot", according to the author, being four players. The adventure itself plays out aboard a US Navy aircraft carrier on a nuclear test mission in the Bikini Atoll in 1954. To keep this as spoiler-free as possible, let's just say that the previous atomic detonations drew the attention from something beyond and this follow-up test won't go as smoothly as those in command planned. The adventure is written specifically to be run in Purist-mode for Trail of Cthulhu, although it could easily be adapted to use as a pulp-style adventure as well and the nature of the adventure works equally with either style of play.

One of my favorite parts of the adventure is the waythe aircraft carrier - on which much of the adventure takes place - is handled: rather than trying to provide exhaustive maps of a very labyrinthine craft, the author has broken the ship into a set of zones, creating a simplified schematic that can be used to see how the zones relate to one another and thus how the characters might navigate the ship. This fits very well with ToC's low-overhead GM style and keeps things focused on the action and story rather bogging down in to a square-by-square dungeon crawl.

Pelgrane Press has put out a lot of great Trail of Cthulhu adventures and Castle Bravo is one of their best because it pays homage to HPL's stories while at the same time presenting an original setting in which they unfold. I can't recommend it enough. However, one minor issue with Castle Bravo's premise and set-up needs to be mentioned as a "buyer be aware" piece of info: the adventure takes place in 1954 and thus is outside the normal time frame of the default ToC era. It also is based on the assumption that the characters are members of the military - given the top-secret nature of the mission civilian involvement seems fairly implausible in most cases - and ideally the adventure really runs best as a one-shot, ideally using the pregenerated characters provided. Therefore, fitting the adventure into an ongoing ToC campaign would be difficult for most groups and is something anyone looking for the next adventure in their ongoing campaign needs to be aware of before purchasing the adventure - the use of the Bikini Atoll atomic tests as a premise for the adventure means that moving the adventure forward or backward in time would be difficult. In reality, this shouldn't discourage most people considering purchasing the adventure since as a "purist" adventure, characters aren't really meant to finish the adventure unscathed and so I think Castle Bravo is ideal for a one-shot game lasting 1-3 sessions. Therefore, I would still rate the adventure as a "should buy" for anyone who is a fan of Trail of Cthulhu.

Rating:
[5 of 5 Stars!]
Trail of Cthulhu: Castle Bravo
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A Penny For My Thoughts
Publisher: Evil Hat Productions, LLC
by Michael H. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 05/25/2011 14:10:11
An excellent, improv story-telling game that doesn't require a GM nor even anyone to have read the book prior to play. A Penny... is one of my favorite "go to" games when we're short people for our regular campaign or for introducing people to roleplaying. I've even run/played it successfully with teens at an after-school gaming club.

Rating:
[5 of 5 Stars!]
A Penny For My Thoughts
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Counter Collection 4th Edition Heroic 2
Publisher: Fiery Dragon
by Michael H. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 05/03/2011 13:31:02
An excellent, economic solution to trying to have unique counters for the monsters in the 4th edition MMs. The art on these rates from decent to excellent, and are pretty easily identifiable. My biggest problem with the tokens is that they're not terribly durable or easy to use, even when printed out on card stock - you really need to mount them to 1" plastic bases to make them easy to pick up, move, and use but that quickly gets expensive fast.

Rating:
[4 of 5 Stars!]
Counter Collection 4th Edition Heroic 2
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Fiasco: The Jersey Side
Publisher: Bully Pulpit Games
by Michael H. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 05/03/2011 13:28:40
A great playset for a great game: The Jersey Side produces some very cool, story-laden set-ups. The first game we ran using it resulted in a blood-smuggling ring that revolved around the city morgue, along with a ME and an assistant DA who were working for the mob. Great stuff.

Rating:
[5 of 5 Stars!]
Fiasco: The Jersey Side
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e-Adventure Tiles: Desert Boulder Fields
Publisher: SkeletonKey Games
by Michael H. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 05/03/2011 13:26:36
A decent, though uninspiring tile set. Overall the quality is good but these tiles have more limited use than other eAdventure offerings and thus I'd recommend checking out the more interesting sets first.

Rating:
[3 of 5 Stars!]
e-Adventure Tiles: Desert Boulder Fields
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Monster Listing (Labyrinth Lord)
Publisher: Goblinoid Games
by Michael H. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 05/03/2011 13:24:49
A very handy, very inexpensive add-on to your LL game.

Rating:
[5 of 5 Stars!]
Monster Listing (Labyrinth Lord)
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ICONS Superpowered Roleplaying
Publisher: Ad Infinitum Adventures
by Michael H. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 05/02/2011 14:04:56
A solid game that incorporates elements of FATE to create a more character-driven super-heroes game which is just what I like. Overall, an excellent product although the artwork isn't really to my taste. The inclusion of random character generation means you can get started quite fast and even run one-shots with the game. If you like FATE and super-heroes, this is a great game to try.

Rating:
[4 of 5 Stars!]
ICONS Superpowered Roleplaying
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Warhammer Fantasy RolePlay: The Creatures Guide
Publisher: Fantasy Flight Games
by Michael H. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 05/02/2011 14:01:43
An excellent looking monster manual for WHFB, focusing on some of the setting's most enigmatic or identifiable creatures. The PDF is a beautiful, full-color book which looks great but will be a real ink/toner drain if you decide to print it. The creatures themselves are all well-done, with good descriptions and best yet story seeds which provide ideas of how to integrate them in to your game. My only criticisms of the product are that not all monsters have story seeds (likely an issue of space), nor are all fully illustrated. Otherwise this is an excellent product.

Rating:
[4 of 5 Stars!]
Warhammer Fantasy RolePlay: The Creatures Guide
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Dragon Age Game Master's Kit
Publisher: Green Ronin
by Michael H. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 04/30/2011 17:55:16
The DA Game Master's Kit is an excellent resource for an already excellent game - the charts are obviously highly useful and the included art work is top-notch. Similarly the included adventure (A Bann Too Many) is well-written and interesting, and is written specifically to be a follow-up to the adventure included in Set 1 (The Dalish Curse). My only hesitation in recommending the kit is the fact that the PDF version doesn't really give you a screen (obviously you have to make your own) which largely defeats the purpose of the whole thing if you like a screen between you and your players. Personally I prefer to game without a screen and so the product is perfect - print out the tables and laminate them to use as quick reference sheets and away you go!

Rating:
[4 of 5 Stars!]
Dragon Age Game Master's Kit
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Labyrinth Lord: Revised Edition (no-art version)
Publisher: Goblinoid Games
by Michael H. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 04/11/2011 15:10:13
Read my full review here: http://rpg.brouhaha.us/?p=4108

Rating:
[5 of 5 Stars!]
Labyrinth Lord: Revised Edition (no-art version)
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Dresden Files RPG Casefile: Neutral Grounds
Publisher: Evil Hat Productions, LLC
by Michael H. [Featured Reviewer]
Date Added: 04/11/2011 15:06:57
It's hard to find fault with a free product, especially one that includes color art and delivers such a well-laid out and written supplement. Adhering to the tenants of the DFRPG, the "adventure" presented is more of a set-up and then a series of suggestions on how things might develop, making it light on railroad and heavy on story potential. That lack of concrete story may rub some readers the wrong way but it's precisely what makes the adventure so interesting to me: You're handed a loaded situation that could go in one of a dozen ways once the PCs get involved.

Rating:
[5 of 5 Stars!]
Dresden Files RPG Casefile: Neutral Grounds
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