Monday, June 20, 2016

Review: Dark Albion: Cults of Chaos

Last year in my review of Dark Albion: The Rose War I called the historic OSR campaign setting and supplement one of the best products in the past five years and I hold to that. With that in mind, I was both excited and a bit skeptical for the first major follow-up: Cults of Chaos. When a product line's launch title sets such a high bar, its easy to see future products fall into a glut of diminishing returns. Still, I remained optimistic and was quite eager for the product's release.

Much to my surprise, the RPGPundit and Dominique Grouzet were kind enough to provide me with a complimentary review copy of Cults. I spent the weekend reading through this 90 page softcover supplement and have to say that Cults of Chaos is a worthy follow-up to Dark Albion: The Rose War. 

Cults of Chaos continues the same easy to read two-column layout found in Dark Albion and like its predecssor, it continues to make excellent use of medieval and public domain artwork that, unlike other publishers who are forced to use material for budgetary reasons, is quite evocative and strengthens the themes of the written material. Unlike Dark Albion, Cults of Chaos also makes use of some more modern black and white line art. While the art remains thematically appropriate to book's written word, it is sometimes jarring when it appears on opposite a late medieval woodcut. That being said, it's never so much to draw you out of the book - just a noticable change from the Dark Albion: The Rose War.

With only 90 pages to work with, Cults of Chaos doesn't waste a single word in getting straight to the point. From the second page it launches into exactly what the book is designed to do and how to impliment the source material in both a Dark Albion campaign and other OSR fantasy RPGs. Cults of Chaos is exactly what it says on the tin: It is a supplement that allows referees and game masters to develop, design, and apply evil cults as antagonists in a campaign. In addition, it addresses in a brief, but not stunted, fashion how to run a campaign where hunting down these vile organizations.

But its not a matter of "find the dudes in the black hoods sacrificing virgins." Through a well developed collection of charts, Cults of Chaos takes a hokey, worn-out gaming trope and breathes life, depth, and genuine groteseque fear into it. Cults worshipping Wolf Gods, Lycantropes, Demons, Chaos Entities, Frog Men, and the terrifying Albion Elves are all detailed here. In broad overview, the authors manage to take otherwise over-used concepts and infuse them with freshness and validity. They feel like they really do exist in the world of Dark Albion - and that realization is a terrifying one. 

But each of these cults isn't concretely defined. Instead they're given a broad overview and an extensive collection of random charts allow the referee to either leave the details to chance or customize them to suit their individual campaigns. Halfway through the supplement, methods are provided to run investigative campaigns where players are tasked with hunting down and destroying these vile organizations. But it's not a matter of simply putting a sword in the one in front of the altar. Deception, manipulation, and the terrible cost of interacting with the forces of Chaos - even if you're trying to keep a lingering Order in a world dark and full of terrors. As terrifying and inhuman as some of the information in Cults of Chaos is, the creators never stray into adolescent shock tactics or gratuitous blood and gore for its own sake. By keeping it frank, they maintain the integrity of the product.

In the closing pages of Cults of Chaos the mystserious elves of Dark Albion are finally explained, and I won't spoil the surprise here - but I genuinely enjoyed reading it and the revelations added a whole new layer of fear to an already dark setting. Finally, we get a cult design work sheet and a standard character sheet.

The only flaws I could find in the book (beyond the sometimes jarring use of art mentioned above) were some of the abstract rulings standard to a product that attempts to be universal, but anyone familiar with OSR gaming can easily tweak things to suit their system of choice. It should be available in both softcover print on demand and digital release on Lulu and OneBookShelf very soon, and I highly recommend it. Even if you're not playing Dark Albion, the universal nature of the product means it can easily be applied to any OSR fantasy game looking to add an element of grounded, detailed and genuinely terrifying villainy to their campaign.

Thursday, June 2, 2016

Mazes & Perils Deluxe

Today marks the release of Mazes & Perils Deluxe Edition, published by Moebius Adventures, the follow-up to the original  ENnie Award-winning Mazes & Perils roleplaying game. Written by +Vincent Florio and Brian Fitzpatrick, M&PDE is a modified retro-clone of the Holmes version of Dungeons & Dragons. It clocks in at a mere 75 pages, but packs a helluva a lot of content into such a tiny book. While loyal to the eccentricities of Holmes-era D&D, Mazes & Perils isn't afraid to add its own tweaks and modifications to what many regard as the greatest pre-AD&D version of the game.

Absent from the original M&P are two new classes: The Enchanter and the Shaman. While I was initially drawn to paralell them to the AD&D Illusionist and Druid simply based on their names, these classes (while similar) do bring their own unique flavor to the game and because they are included as core classes, show that Mazes & Perils Deluxe Edition isn't afraid to go beyond its Holmes roots. Nor is M&P afraid to draw more directly from AD&D for inspiration, while still holding true to its roots. The Fighting-Man (a class wonderfully reminding me of the long past gaming days of yore) who has a Strength attribute of 18 may roll on a special d100 percentile chart, giving them exceptional modifiers in that attribute. This is a direct paralell to AD&D (1st and 2nd editions), without drawing the reader out of the game's simpler-time-simpler-rules feel. In addition, its demihuman races (dwarf, elf, and halfling) are given a broader selection of classes than most old school incranations, but still retain level limits to keep humans important and balanced in the greater context of the game.

But M&P never strays so far from its roots as to feel like a mishmash of various D&D editions slapped together to create a Frankenstein game. It holds fast to the Holmes-era level limit of 12 and the games visual style is both simple and light-hearted. Art is sprinkled liberally throughout the core rules and alternates between an almost comedic style all the way up to grandiose high adventure. All of it is done in black and white line art and the book is cleanly laid out in two column format that's easy to read and reference.

The game also remains true to old school DIY values, by including a complete map which can be easily stocked using the monsters provided. The GM simply needs to decide the thematic elements of the dungeon and stock it in a manner that suits their campaign. While a general sense of how to do so is provided, the reader is not spoon-fed their options and is given ample liberty to make it something all their own.

In short, Mazes & Perils Deluxe Edition does exactly what it claims to do - it is a faithful recreation of Holmes-style D&D that provides a well described rules set, is easy to read, and adds a few bells and whistles without becoming bogged down. At a slick 75 pages it provides a full gamiang experience and anyone looking to re-create the 1977 gaming experience is sure to have a heck of a good time with this rules set.

The PDF version of Mazes & Perils is available at RPGNow & DriveThruRPG, with the print-on-demand version soon to follow.