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Minireview: The Apocalypse Codex, by Charles Stross

The Apocalypse Codex is the latest book in the “Laundry Files” series of books, which originally introduced us to Bob Howard (not his real name): a geeky employee of the ultra-secret British organization dubbed “The Laundry”, tasked with preventing global occult doomsday scenarios while keeping expenses within budget and signing off (in triplicate) on all actionable items. The previous book in the series, “The Fuller Memorandum”, dealt with the past history of Bob’s creepy boss, Angleton. This book, in its turn, partly deals with the Laundry itself. Bob is shocked to find out that (despite the total denial of such), the Laundry seems to employ “external assets” at times. Even more worryingly, the Laundry itself seems to be just a part of something larger and more complicated. How does Bob find this out? By being considered for promotion, of course.

The actual main plot concerns an investigation into the actions of a new U.S. televangelist superstar, who seems to be (among other things) worryingly close to the current British Powers That Be. Can’t have that. Cue action for Bob, with the adrenaline junkie “Persephone Hazard” (also certainly not a real name) and her commando sidekick Johnny MacTavish along for the ride. Or maybe it’s the other way around. This ends up involving a trip to the States, and some careful coordination with the Laundry’s U.S. counterpart, the “Black Chamber”. It also ends up involving occult weirdness, gunfire, and all sorts of demonic forces… but hey, it’s a Laundry novel, that’s par for the course. The main villain has understandable motives and is suitably villainous at the same time (in addition to being the leader of an evangelical superchurch and therefore moral pond scum, he’s also consorting with Things Best Not Consorted With). The action flows quite nicely, though it jumps between several viewpoints now and then. We get a first real glimpse of the Black Chamber, which turn out to be a lot creepier than previously suspected… and there’s also the new revelations about the very nature of the Laundry itself to contend with.

It’s a fun read and a good addition to a so-far quite excellent (if lightweight) series of books. Can’t really find much to fault here, as long as you consider this good light entertainment and not deep literature. If you’re seriously religious you’ll probably find a lot of depictions of evangelicals here to be a bit insulting… but let’s face it, if you’re deeply religious it’s unlikely that you’ll touch books like this with a long stick, to begin with. Me, I’m fine with people making fun of evangelical “send us more money!” superchurches. They deserve it. And then some.

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Minireview: The Laundry

“Never cross the line of a pentacle or summoning grid. Remember, incomplete pentacles emit tentacles.”

The Laundry is a roleplaying adaptation of Charles Stross’ “The Laundry Files” novels, based on the same core mechanic as Call of Cthulhu (BRP) and written (among others) by Gareth Hanrahan of Paranoia fame. Since the books have been describes as “Cthulhu meets Dilbert, with a dash of Paranoia”, all that is quite apt. I’ll say this up front: it’s among the best, if not the best, book-into-rpg adaptation I’ve ever read.

For people who haven’t read the books: the stories deal with the life and times of one Bob Howard (not his real name), an employee in Her Majesty’s Occult Service, more properly known as “The Laundry”. Operating in the U.K., it tries to keep the country safe from supernatural horrors, while at the same time fighting the more tangible horrors of budget cuts, (literally) nightmarish bureaucracy, clueless supervisors and antiquated equipment. So yes, Dilbert meets Cthulhu. Many of the alien horrors here are quite explicitly from the Cthulhu mythos, though there is a twist: in this world, magic and mathematics are inseparable, and if you do clever simulations with computers you risk summoning something from Dimension X to eat your brain on the side. The general public is blissfully unaware of this, of course, so the Laundry has its hands full trying to quell demonic incursions caused by clueless hackers. Or cultists, can’t forget those.

So, it’s Cthulhu set in a modern-day environment where you’re actually working for a government agency (kinda sorta like Delta Green), but unlike DG this one is very British. It’s also not a rogue agency and actually has a budget… though it’s a very skimpy one. The books are heavy on the humor side, and the game mirrors that. It’s not a joke game, but there is a heavy humor element involved – witness the cover in which a Laundry agent fends off zombie hordes in a cubicle office, while wearing an XKCD t-shirt. Pop culture references are everywhere here, and a lot of the humor depends on being aware of them.

Gamewise, it uses the venerable old BRP engine. Now, this is both good and bad. Good because BRP is definitely in the “if it’s not broke don’t fix it!” department, it’s been the engine of choice for Cthuluoid games for decades now. Conversion of Cthulhu modules into Landry ones is (at least mechanically) easy, and experienced Cthulhu players will feel right at home. On the minus side, the engine is a bit old and creaky in places, and the Sanity mechanic as “mental hit points” is something that is done better by many other systems. The system used here is mainly straight-up BRP, with some expansions to handle the magic-via-math framework of the books.

The book is well organized and is a great read. It’s damn funny in places and presents the material in a way that makes things easy to follow. The artwork is nothing brilliant, but solidly in the “good enough” category. The beginning of the book concentrates on the mechanical details of creating a character, along with the BRP mechanical details. After that we get a huge pile of detail on the Laundry, along with a wonderfully byzantine organization diagram, a list of key NPCs (along with pics), some “ingame” case file notes, a list of antagonists (otherworld horrors, cultists, and other fun stuff). There is also a fantastic section on CASE NIGHTMARE GREEN, which is Laundry-speak for the end of the world, the time when the Stars Finally Are Right, so you could actually run a game series set around that. It probably wouldn’t be a very happy game series, but the book does give you the tools with it. Finally, we get three scenarios: “Going Down to Dunwich” which is your basic intro scenario, and not a bad one at that (the PCs get sent to a seashore village for a training session, and things… don’t quite go as planned). The scenario gets plus points for some quite clever red herrings, especially aimed at experienced Cthulhu players. Assuming things here might just get you killed (or worse). The second scenario is “A Footnote”, which is a short romp which can be plugged into the middle of pretty much any Laundry game. It’s ok, but nothing awesome. Lastly we get “The Greys”, in which the PCs investigate an alien which (reportedly) appeared in a local pub and then vanished. It’s the most complex of the three scenarios and also the best; figuring out what the hell is actually going on will need a bit of work, and the final answers aren’t all that happy ones.

As I noted in the beginning, I really liked this book. It captures the feel of the books near-perfectly, and (like the books) is a very good and at times very funny read. The presentation is excellent, and while I could quibble a bit with BRP as the engine, there is no doubt that it works. As a game, being agents of a government agency is a great mechanism for giving a game structure, and gripes about “what is this crappy mission and can’t we just go home instead?” become perfectly valid in-game, also. GMs who are fans of Paranoia also get a great excuse to throw some bizarre paperwork at the players. In triplicate, and to be signed in blood.

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Minireview: The Fuller Memorandum, by Charles Stross

The Fuller Memorandum is the third novel in the “Laundry” series, detailing the travails of Bob Howard, an emlpoyee in the U.K.’s top-secret “Laundry” unit, charged with countering supernatural threats to the country (and the world, in general). It’s been characterized as “Dilbert meets Cthulhu”, which is quite apt; while not totally a humor series, it dips heavily into (black) humor territory, especially when detailing the bureaucratic and under-staffed life within the Laundry. Filing the proper paperwork, in triplicate, is at least as critical as killing the latest Cthulhuoid horror.

This is the darkest installment in the series to date. While there is humor sprinkled throughout (“NecronomiPod”, for example), the back story is bleak and approaches the Laundry’s CODE NIGHTMARE GREEN scenario: the end of the world, when horrors from Outside invade Earth and eat everyone’s brains. Or suchlike fun. Things start off with Bob’s mysterious and cadaverous boss, Angleton, going missing. This escalates to Russian spooks tailing and approaching Bob out of the blue, a (presumed) cult trying to kill/kidnap him, and his wife Mo needing a recovery after a nasty assignment in Amsterdam (which may be related to events). Somehow, a mysterious Fuller Memorandum is also missing, and multiple parties assume Bob knows where it is. Problem is, Bob doesn’t even know what it is, let alone where, and he finds himself on an urgent timetable to trace it down before Very Bad Things happen.

It’s a good fun, and a fun one (like the two previous ones). Sure, it’s firmly in the “light entertainment” territory, but it’s good light entertainment. There are lots of pop culture jokes and references sprinkled all over, and the main plot is interesting (with a few nice twists). Well worth a read – but do read the previous two books first.

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