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Minireview: Bigger Bads (Monsters and Other Childish Things)

Bigger Bads is an expansion book for the Monsters and Other Childish Things game, by Benjamin Baugh. While the main focus is adding huge monsters to the game (think King Kong & Godzilla), it also contains lots of rules tweaks and add-ons, most of which are pretty neat. We get rules for abstracting how big a monster is (and what that means), for abstract distance and reach (needed when things go Godzilla-scale), an abstracted “Threats” mechanic which is quite nifty and useful for modeling lots of non-monster threats and antagonists, and various other bits and pieces including “weird skills” for the children themselves. The main bulk of the book consists of a list of new pre-statted antagonists, some of which use the new “big monsters!” rules. They are quite excellent; innovative and yet not tied to any one setting. Some are quite funny, some are more serious, and all are interesting. The book ends with a campaign seed, in which the PCs are kids recruited into a secret government monster-hunting organization… which is unlikely to stay secret very long, since some of the opponents are in the Godzilla category.

Great expansion book for a quirky little game.

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Minireview: Dreadful Secrets of Candlewick Manor (Monsters and Other Childish Things)

Dreadful Secrets of Candlewick Manor, written by Benjamin Baugh, is based on “Monsters and Other Childish Things”. It’s not really an expansion book as such, more a standalone campaign/setting which uses a tweaked version of the Monsters rules. Where Monsters has you play children with monster friends, here the PCs are all orphan children, sent to the dismal Candlewick orphanage. There is also something strange and disturbing about all of the (PC) children, so instead of external monsters we have internal ones. Well, mostly internal, the setting also features quite a few external ones…

It’s a crazy quilt of all sorts of Tim Burton movies, the “Series of Unfortunate Events” books, and various other such sources. The town of Candlewick just oozes Burton-style weird details, and also contains secrets galore. One of the main goals of the PCs is to figure out who and what they are, and figure out details about their past. The players don’t know these details at character creation, instead the GM slowly figures them out and makes them parts of the plot. As for the game itself, the plots depend a lot on the player group and GM. but the default assumption is to highlight the alienation of (very!) weird kids in a remote and insular seaside town, possible bullying from other more “normal” kids, and Scooby Doo -style adventures, with a dark twist. And of course, they are all orphans… or are they?

It’s a brilliant game. It takes a great game foundation from Monsters and does something quite different with it. This is pretty much “A Series of Unfortunate Events, the RPG”… or it can be. It can also be lots of other things, assuming the GM likes the semi-Gothic setting presented here. The book contains a ton of background info about the town and the inhabitants, most of which have dark secrets of their own. Each inhabitant is a walking plot hook, and there are plenty of other plot hooks to draw from, too. Highly recommended.

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Minireview: The Kerberos Club (Wild Talents)

Wild Talents (published by Arc Dream) has slowly grown into an impressive “alternative superhero roleplaying” game engine. Running on the “One Roll Engine” (ORE), it consists of the base book (“Wild Talents”, now in its 2nd edition) and a number of wildly different setting books. The Kerberos Club by Benjamin Baugh is one of these settings… and it’s absolutely brilliant. Yes, it’s a superhero game, but it’s very different from what you’d normally associate with that.

To start things off, it’s set during the reign of Queen Victoria, in England; think more along the lines of “League of Extraordinary Gentlemen” than anything from Marvel or DC. England (and the world) has slowly started to understand that weird supernatural things lurk in the fringes of civilization, and that some people have extraordinary powers. Collectively called “the Strange”, these people are largely unknown and mostly shunned at the beginning of the era, though later on they become accepted members of society. Queen Victoria makes deals with the Fae, and actually mounts a war offensive against them, becoming Queen of the Fae at one point. She’s also becoming increasingly… strange and inhuman. The British Empire rules the world, aided by cheap labor from the Fairy Lands and the resulting technology boom. Airships (zeppelins) start to appear, and various Strange individuals slowly step out of the shadows and join polite society. The focus of their activities is social club with an amazingly liberal policy. They allow as members Blacks, Orientals, evolved animals and even… Women. Club members are well-known for exotic ventures and exploits, though not all of those are exactly applauded by society or even strictly legal. However, the semi-official approval of Queen Victoria keeps the Club safe from most enemies – though the Queen is increasingly becoming… something else.

It’s a brilliant, weird, alternative steampunk / pulp Victoriana superhero setting. It consists of three separate eras, in a way; in the first era, the Strange (i.e. the PCs) are mostly shunned by polite society and must be careful in what they do. In the second, the Kerberus Club is open about its activities and some of its members start to enter the public spotlight. Things get a bit more “superhero-y”. In the end, the Strange are bona fide “superheroes”, openly fighting crime (or doing it) in the streets of London, fighting in the riggings of zeppelin on fire, and trying to foil the machinations of Victorian-era Dr. Dooms. This gives the GM a lot of choice in what sort of game he wants to run; simply by setting the game in a certain year of this alternative history, he automatically gets a certain kind of in-game environment.

The alternative history is fun, inventive and quite gritty. I liked that last point; many Victorian “romances” gloss over the horror that was the beginning of industrialized London, concentrating on the upper classes and their nice, clean tea sessions. No such gloss here (though you can run a strictly upper-class game if you wish). The poor are desperate and filty, and the lower-to-middle classes are almost as desperate and filthy. There is no social safety net to speak of (workhouses, prisons etc were intentionally designed to be horrifying and worse that being dirt-poor on the streets, to stop the poor from intentionally trying to gain access), and many aspects of society were quite barbaric by current standings. The various social classes considered the fact that they were strictly better than the lower ones a part of natural law, and also “everyone knew” that negroes, orientals, “brownies” etc were inferior by biology and breeding. And of course, women were all good and fine, but inferior to men in most ways. The book goes into quite a bit of detail on the social aspects of the setting, while keeping it playable for modern sensibilities – the Strange by design can ignore many social constructs, but there is always a price for doing that.

Systemwise, this runs on ORE, with some very nice tweaks. The skill system used here is a variant of the stock one, and I like it a lot. In fact, I think it’s strictly better than the stock one, so I’d be tempted to use this tweak in other ORE games, too. You need the “Wild Talents” core book to run this, though there is a very nice and cheap “Wild Talents Essential Edition” available which is a “just the rules” book (the bigger core book also contains its own setting and other stuff).

If you want to run a “League of Extraordinary Gentlemen” -style Victorian superhero game, this is simply the best game book for it, bar none. The setting is fantastic, the game system is solid, and the writing is fun and witty. I cannot say enough good things about this book. Get it.

Fear and loathing in Russia, with demons

Well, despite a semi-hectic real life schedule leading me to not get as much prep work done as I would have liked, I’ve managed to run a few non-horrible rpg sessions. After a long while of not running anything, it’s slowly coming back. I guess GM:ing is sort of riding a bike – you can get better at it over time, but once learned you never really forget the skill. Also like the bike, now and then you crash and fall in a spectacular fashion no matter how good you are…

Anyway, last Tuesday we had the first proper session of an Exalted game. The story starts in Nexus, and I had a bunch of plot threads semi-ready and went with what the players decided to do. Mostly things went in expected directions, but there were quite a few surprises to keep me on my toes. Apparently things seemed to progress in a logical fashion, which is nice, considering that behind the scenes I was desperately trying to integrate multiple fast-mutating plot threads together. We’ll see how this goes; at the moment the characters have recovered a few (apparently minor) artifacts and are trying to figure out the meaning of a symbol which gives some of them foreboding flashbacks from the past. Things are made interesting by the fact that the party isn’t exactly in agreement about how best to proceed… White Noise’s stealthy and paranoid approach to things is not quite in synch with Khamyn’s “go forth my followers and fetch me information!” deal. Oh, and they have a First Circle demon in their basement, happily building a nest from various spiky bits. Will the Dragon-Bloods come gunning after the party looking for stolen loot? Will the Wanderer decide to go “fuck this” and revert back to the Immaculate faith? Will Damien the Black Sword decide to pay the brothel another visit (“to gather some more info!”)? Stay tuned.

On Sunday I ran the one-shot scenario Machine Tractor Station Kharkov-37 to a bunch of people, with good results. As expected, the scenario worked very well and the pregen characters had just the right amount of built-in friction and mutual paranoia to keep things from being too easy. Most of the game went in a straightforward fashion, with creepy stuff getting discovered bit by bit and the characters going into “oh shit, let’s leave now mode (smart of them). Things took a sudden and Paranoia-style turn at the end, when the TASS leader decided that the Commissar knew too much and tried to discreetly execute him. The keen-sensed Commissar threw a spanner into the works, however, by partially dodging the bullet (literally) and running for the trucks, trailing blood and shouting “help, he’s gone mad!”. At the same time, the TASS leader was shouting something to the tune of “stop, traitor!” and confusion reigned supreme. Things wound up with the Red Army medic blowing the TASS thug’s head off with a rifle and with the Red Army group doing a “tactical retreat” from the spot. All in all, a grim but fun DeltaGreen-meets-Paranoia game session. I also used the game as an excuse to test Stolze and Detwiller’s Nemesis game system instead of using BRP, and it worked pretty well. Needs some tweaking, the stock skill list isn’t that hot and this one is probably much better – but overall is seems like a solid engine for low-power horror games. Seeing as the same engine is used in the superhero game Wild Talents, it apparently also works for high-power stuff. Oh, and Stolze is working on Reign, which uses the same “ORE” system to drive some sort of political fantasy game. It’s pretty versatile, though of course needs tweaks depending on what sort of game you want to run.

In any case, I think this became my system of choice for Cthulhu-type games, it works and is lightweight enough. The next time I use it I’ll probably give the alternate combat rules a try, they sound like they might work (even) better than the default ones – which aren’t bad by any means.

On Thursday we’ll be doing Exalted again. I’ll have to find some time today to prepare a bit, since tomorrow night I’ll probably be playing VTES at Valter Cafe – Andrea of EC2006 organizing fame is coming to Finland (from Italy) and we’ve promised him gaming company.

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