John Tynes On Narrative Sandboxes

John Tynes just wrote a very fascinating essay on his “narrative sandbox” approach to writing investigative scenarios. It was posted as an update to the Delta Green: The Labyrinth Kickstarter, but it’s sufficiently interesting (particularly in the light of my own issues with how GUMSHOE does things) that I don’t think it deserves to linger there.

In particular, he aptly describes how his approach differs from the GUMSHOE approach: as he describes it, the narrative sandbox is much more like the process of actually investigating something yourself, whereas the GUMSHOE method is really more about getting across the feel of watching an investigation-themed movie or television show.


Kickstopper: Cthulhu & Commies

Yesterday I started a survey of Cubicle 7’s major Call of Cthulhu-related Kickstarters by picking apart Cthulhu Britannica: London and its associated products. Today, I’ll finish the process by tackling the second Call of Cthulhu-related Kickstater of theirs I backed – that for World War Cthulhu: Cold War.

Usual Note On Methodology

Just in case this is the first Kickstopper article you’ve read, there’s a few things I should establish first. As always, different backers on a Kickstarter will often have very different experiences and I make no guarantee that my experience with this Kickstarter is representative of everyone else’s. In particular, I’m only able to review these things based on the tier I actually backed at, and I can’t review rewards I didn’t actually receive.

The format of a Kickstopper goes like this: first, I talk about the crowdfunding campaign period itself, then I note what level I backed at and give the lowdown on how the actual delivery process went. Then, I review what I’ve received as a result of the Kickstarter and see if I like what my money has enabled. Lots of Kickstarters present a list of backers as part of the final product; where this is the case, the “Name, DNA and Fingerprints” section notes whether I’m embarrassed by my association with the product.

Towards the end of the review, I’ll be giving a judgement based on my personal rating system for Kickstarters. Higher means that I wish I’d bid at a higher reward level, a sign that I loved more or less everything I got from the campaign and regret not getting more stuff. Lower means that whilst I did get stuff that I liked out of the campaign, I would have probably been satisfied with one of the lower reward levels. Just Right means I feel that I backed at just the right level to get everything I wanted, whilst Just Wrong means that I regret being entangled in this mess and wish I’d never backed the project in the first place. After that, I give my judgement on whether I’d back another project run by the same parties involved, and give final thoughts on the whole deal.

The Campaign

It had always been Cubicle 7’s intention to do four sub-product lines for World War Cthulhu; one for World War I (potentially very useful for people wanting to play Great War veterans in 1920s-based games), one for World War II, one for the Cold War and one for World War III. The World War II line, World War Cthulhu: Darkest Hour, I covered in my review of the Achtung! Cthulhu Kickstarter, due to them coming out close to each other and having very similar themes, and that might be why Darkest Hour didn’t have a Kickstarter associated with it – it would have looked too much like a hop onboard the Modiphius bandwagon, even though so far as I am aware the two game lines are a matter of parallel evolution rather than one ripping off the other.

Of course, Cold War material hasn’t exactly been overlooked by Call of Cthulhu publishers either; the new Delta Green product line includes The Fall of Delta Green, a standalone GUMSHOE-powered game set in the 1960s. However, that’s narrow enough in terms of focus and time period (and setting assumptions) to leave ample room for alternate takes on the Cold War through a Mythos lens. The World War Cthulhu: Cold War Kickstarter was intended to fund not just the core book but, through stretch goals, help make a call on what support materials to produce and how many resources to throw at them. (For instance, several stretch goals involved budgeting for a higher page count for Yesterday’s Men, the big fat super-campaign that was going to be part of the line.) Unlike Cthulhu Britannica: London, there was no talk of making card decks or big fancy boxed sets – just simple books like Cubicle 7 are used to producing – so I anticipated that it would be subjected to less delays than that campaign.

What Level I Backed At

SECTION HEAD – Everything! The standard edition World War Cthulhu: Cold War core setting book plus the 4 supplements – the actual physical books and the PDFs, and your name in the book!

Delivering the Goods

The estimated delivery date of my tier was April 2016, and I actually got the core book in November of that year, so that’s a seven month delay – shorter than the delay on Cthulhu Britannica: London, mind. As previously, reasonable amounts of communication were maintained to keep everyone in the loop, and with the PDF of the core setting book delivered in May 2016 we at least got something to sink our teeth into whilst we waited for our hard copies. One supplement, Our American Cousins, managed to get delivered to us as the end of Cubicle 7’s Call of Cthulhu licence started to bite, so I suspect that few people who weren’t Kickstarter backers got much of a chance to buy that one. As for the epic Yesterday’s Men campaign… I’ll get to that when I get to it.

Reviewing the Swag

World War Cthulhu: Cold War

The main book is a chunky hardcover beast, weighing in at over 200 pages and presenting a lot of material in that space. The interiors are black-and-white, generally quite readable, with art that isn’t mindblowing but is generally effective.

The basic conceit of the supplement is that it’s the 1970s, and Network N has metamorphosed into Section 46, a segment of the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS, popularly known as MI6) which, as well as handling conventional work, also fights the Mythos under N’s direction. There’s also the option to play members of the CIA friendly to N’s cause, though the Our American Cousins supplement is meant to give more full support for that. As well as providing background information on the workings of intelligence agencies during the era, the supplement also provides some useful guidance on how to handle various common espionage escapades using the Call of Cthulhu system.

In terms of setting material, to a large extent the lead of World War Cthulhu: The Darkest Hour is followed, with notes on significant Mythos forces provided as well as an overview of various countries PCs might undertake missions in, with examples offered in each of both conventional tasks and Mythos-related missions. The major difference is, of course, the time period, and the murky nature of the Cold War which by its nature raises far more “Are we really on the right side here?” questions than the World War II setting. (Take, for instance, the entry on South Africa, which doesn’t flinch from reminding the reader that apartheid was very much the major story out of that quarter of the world and something which intelligence agents may well have deep qualms about interacting with, especially since the apartheid regime is in principle an ally of the West and the anti-apartheid forces are widely held to be backed by the Soviets.)

The sense of paranoia is heightened by a shift in the dynamics of N’s network. As well as N himself becoming older and frailer, and thus having less direct control of the network, there’s another force exerting its influence over matters: a mysterious woman nicknamed “H” by Section 46, who has taken to appearing in the dreams of some of the network’s agents. The fact that any player character could be unconsciously passing information to H in their dreams – or even be subverted into doing work for her – adds a paranoid dimension that nicely contrasts with the more “We’re all in this together” camaraderie of The Darkest Hour’s World War II setting.

Although the book assumes you are running it in the 1970s, it really shouldn’t be that hard to use it to run a game set at any earlier or later phase of the Cold War; because the Internet age hadn’t really kicked off by the time the Iron Curtain fell and the Soviet Union collapsed, the overall technological paradigm of the book is broadly applicable for any time from the late 1940s to early 1990s. (You could very easily run a game inspired by Edge of Darkness with this supplement.) That said, the reasons given for picking the 1970s are sound – in the wake of the Kim Philby affair and other scandals in the UK, and the exposure of various CIA misdeeds in the USA, the West’s intelligence communities are under intense scrutiny during the time period in question, which adds a potential further complication to Section 46’s work.

The material offered here is capped off with Intersections, a sandbox espionage campaign set in Istanbul. This is a bit of a daunting prospect to run, since it moslty offers a bunch of NPCs and locations and some pointers on things which are likely to happen once the PCs are set loose, but I tend to regard that as good adventure design and expect it to be an interesting experience to run if you get your head around the way it’s presented.

Section 46 Operations Manual

This is for the most part a player-facing book-length handout – nothing less than an espionage manual, written like the sort that characters might plausibly study, with annotations from N and other Section 46 high-ups to discuss particular wrinkles that the pursuit of Our Other Enemy adds to tradecraft. There are also a range of sidebars offering brief rules suggestions of how to resolve some of the activities described there in a game context.

The supplement is an excellent resource for looking at how espionage agencies of the era would handle particular things, and is particularly handy for anyone interested in playing in an espionage-themed RPG campaign (especially a Cold War-era one, though not exclusively), but who feels constrained by a lack of prior knowledge about how espionage works.

Our American Cousins

Only the most uncritical patriot would claim that the US intelligence apparatus gained an incredibly grubby reputation in the 1970s. With extensive CIA misdeeds ranging from assassinations to illegal domestic operations to wild nonsense like MK-ULTRA exposed, Watergate destroying people’s belief in the good intentions of the federal government, and the idealism of the 1960s decaying into the malaise of the 1970s, it’s about as far from their finest hour as you can hope to get.

That’s what makes American agencies like the CIA fertile ground for exploration in the World War Cthulhu: Cold War setting. Our American Cousins discusses the American intelligence structure, how N can call on favours from its operatives, and the Mythos threats they face alongside their domestic and international operations.

This is hardly the first time that gaming products have explored the intersection of the US alphabet soup of intelligence agencies and the Cthulhu Mythos, of course – Pagan Publishing’s Delta Green line is all over that business. At the same time, Our American Cousins offers a very different interpretation of the concept. Rather than the US government being host to competing conspiracies rife with Mythos knowledge – from the sinister collaborators of Majestic-12 to the outlawed Delta Green – here the US government is presented as being overall ignorant of the Mythos, and N’s network putting a lot of effort to ensure that the dots do not get connected to a sufficient extent to lead the federal government down a seriously dark path. (At the same time, the 1970s setting means that Majestic-12’s security has never been tighter, and Delta Green has been officially shut down and its renegade mambers have not yet gotten the underground version of the project up to speed, so you could conceivably reconcile the two books by saying that N is not aware of Majestic-12 and isn’t trusted enough by the outlaw Delta Green to be taken into their confidence.

Either way, it’s a grimy slice of period flavour that nicely rounds out the Cold War line.

Covert Actions

This is a collection of missions spanning the 1970s, which between them offer a pretty solid set of investigations. Generally they are quite open-ended, with the starting situation artfully laid out (along with both the official SIS mission and the Mythos-related Section 46 investigation that the characters are tasked with), and then quite nicely stepping back to let the players’ actions drive the action whilst giving you enough material to help you judge how those actions affect the situation.

Some scenarios offer mostly-original situations – for instance, Puddles Become Lakes feels like any number of Cold War-era scandals whilst not being clearly based on one over the others – whilst others riff on events of the era. The Forcing Move, for instance, unfolds in the shadows of the 1972 World Chess Tournament featuring Bobby Fischer’s legendary confrontation with Boris Spassky, whilst Cadenza is set during the Turkish invasion of Cyprus in 1974.

In dealing with real-life situations the supplement is reasonably conscious of where it gets into contentious issues – for instance, the implication of The Forcing Move is that Bobby Fischer’s increasingly eccentric behaviour at the tournament and in the subsequent years was the result of mental illness and existing tendencies to embrace far-right conspiracy theories exacerbated by contact with the Mythos, and it is suggested that groups not comfortable with that approach may wish to replace him with a fictional chess player. Likewise, Cadenza doesn’t brush over atrocities committed during the Cyprus crisis, but leaves it down to personal taste how much these figure in the investigation.

Other missions are clumsier. Guardians of the Forest takes place against the backdrop of Indonesia’s 1975 invasion of East Timor, and is rooted in the racist old “uncontacted tribe worship alien monstrosities en mass” trope that really needs to get out of Lovecraftiana already, whilst Operation Header is based on a similarly dodgy “bloodline tainted by racial miscegenation” angle. (Header also suffers from perhaps the highest density of typos and the least polished writing of all the missions, like they just plain forgot to do an editing pass on it or something.)

Similarly apparently sloppy editing afflicts The Unclean, an adventure that has the player characters operating within Moscow itself but doesn’t really offer much in the way of support in terms of what resources they have access to or how operating in the Soviet capital works for CIA/SIS agents. (Indeed, it doesn’t seem entirely clear whether the adventure is intended for SIS or CIA agents.) There’s also major angles in the adventure which simply don’t get developed – for instance, it more or less directs by designer fiat that in a particular scene a major NPC gets shot in the head by a sniper, but doesn’t at all consider what the implications for the rest of the mission is.

With three solid but not exceptional missions and three missions I don’t care much for Covert Actions is a supplement I am glad to own in PDF but which I probably won’t be keeping hold of the hard copy version of.

Yesterday’s Men

This was supposed to be the big fat 1970s Cthulhu-espionage campaign. (This despite the fact that the title has me thinking in much more of a 1960s direction.) The basic premise sounded delicious; so far as I can piece together from the hints we were given, the essential idea was that Network N had a cell based in the divided city of Berlin which, prior to the beginning of the campaign, had gone dark, and N sends the player characters to try and work out what happened to the cell, what they’d been investigation, what needs to be done to tie up loose ends, whether there are any survivors of the cell and whether there should be any survivors of the cell.

The thing is, it never got released. Cubicle 7 made the decision to can it when not one but two teams failed to make sufficient headway on it. The first team assembled included Mike Mason (Chaosium’s Call of Cthulhu line editor), Paul Fricker (who had co-designed 7th Edition with Mason), Cubicle 7’s own Scott Dorward (who was the overall World War Cthulhu line editor) and Gareth Ryder-Hanrahan, who’s a normally very reliable industry freelancer. That’s a solid set of people, but it’s also a very busy set of people, so I could see how they could struggle to prioritise Yesterday’s Men. We know less about the second team to be assigned the project beyond that Jason Durrall, a trusted designer in BRP circles, was at the helm. Simultaneously, though, Durrall had been tasked with guiding the design process of Chaosium’s new edition of RuneQuest.

It seems like that there was no stage in its development process when Yesterday’s Men was actually the number one priority of any of the named designers. That isn’t necessarily going to be a problem for a project; lots of people in the gaming industry need to have multiple irons in the fire if they’re going to have sufficient income to feed themselves, after all. At the same time, it sounds like Yesterday’s Men was always intended to be a truly ambitious project, a real major undertaking – and it seems to me that if you are going to produce something that ambitious, then at least someone on the team needs to feel as though it is their personal magnum opus. You can have people largely working by themselves and then submit their chapters and turn the project in if your campaign isn’t working on any sort of especially complex or innovative structure, but everything we’d heard so far about Yesterday’s Men suggested that it actually was intended to have quite an intricate structure, and for that sort of project you really need someone stepping up to drive it and devote a lot of brain space to it. It doesn’t sound like that was the case here.

That said, the cancellation may have had factors involved beyond the designers being a little slow. It was announced in November 2017, which was of course very shortly before the announcement of the end of Cubicle 7’s Call of Cthulhu licence, so it may be that it was simply easier to terminate the project them so as to allow for a clean divorce rather than allow the outstanding project to complicate matters.

Either way, Cubicle 7 made sure that backers who’d been expecting Yesterday’s Men were not left high and dry – we could either accept a 100% refund on it through PayPal, or a 150% refund as Cubicle 7 store credit. For my part, I took the store credit so as to subsidise my purchase of 4th edition WFRP.

Name, DNA, and Fingerprints

I’m fine with having my name on this – although the lack of Yesterday’s Men means that the Cold War line is without a truly compelling campaign adventure, and the demise of the Cubicle 7 licence and the time it’d take for them to come up with some sort of OGL-derived equivalent system as a flag to reprint this material under means that I’m not entirely sure we will ever see one. However, the core book is very decent and it’s that that my name is on.

Higher, Lower, Just Right or Just Wrong?

I’d say Just Right, considering that I liked more of the products that I received than I disliked and I got a big fat refund for the product I didn’t get.

Would Back Again?

Absolutely. Cubicle 7’s development process may be prone to delays, but they always keep you in the loop and between this and the London boxed set I think they have shown that they always do right by their Kickstarter backers in the end. The refunds on Yesterday’s Men are a particularly classy touch.

Kickstopper: Cthulhu Britannica London

So, once upon a time Cubicle 7 had a licence to put out third-party Call of Cthulhu products. They do not have the licence any more; word is that they are going to put out their own D100-based system to allow them to reissue properties dependent on the licence at some point in the near future, though given that they have major game lines like Doctor WhoThe One Ring, the absurdly lucrative cash cow which is Adventures In Middle-Earth, and the probably cash cow which is the 4th edition of WFRP on the horizon, plus significant projects like the official Warhammer: Age of Sigmar RPG, I suspect that such a project will be remarkably low on their order of priorities.

We don’t know the inside story of why the licence ended, or who made the decision to kill it. It is possible that the long time it took to deliver the final rewards of two Call of Cthulhu-related Kickstarters – Cthulhu Britannica: London and World War Cthulhu: Cold War – may have been a contributing factor. Having been made cautious by their own Kickstarter experiences, the new regime at Chaosium have made a point of, from time to time, checking in on licensees’ Kickstarter projects and exerting what influence they can to try and ensure that wayward projects come to an acceptable outcome. (And why shouldn’t they? Dicking around with someone else’s reputation isn’t cool, and that’s what you do if you accept a third party licence to produce game material for someone else’s product line and then shit the bed on Kickstarter delivery.)

Then again, by and large Chaosium seem to have been quite reasonable and understanding about delays, and it’s not like both projects didn’t deliver their main product successfully. It is equally possible that Cubicle 7 had simply become tired of either the costs involved in maintaining the licence or, considering the many demands on their time, the extra work involved in the approvals process. Either way, there’s a cruel irony that the last few rewards to be delivered on these Kickstarters should have slipped out shortly before the licence itself died.

In this article, I’ll cover the Cthulhu Britannica: London Kickstarter; in a later article (probably going live tomorrow), I’ll do World War Cthulhu: Cold War.

Continue reading “Kickstopper: Cthulhu Britannica London”

The Platonic Form of BRP

So, I’ve covered various BRP-based RPGs on this blog over the years, and it seems to me about time that I actually reviewed the original, foundational Basic Roleplaying document from 1980. This is a brief 16-page document covering the bare essentials of the system.

It’s dull as shit.

I mean, don’t get me wrong. It’s a reasonably good introduction to the system and incorporate a thing or two that I didn’t expect to be in there – most particularly, Impales are included in the combat system, I suspect primarily because they act as handy ways to break deadlocks in combat. However, despite being penned by Greg Stafford and Lynn Willis, it doesn’t really fire the imagination very much. The reader is encouraged to sit down and use the Resistance Table to work out their odds of loading various different items into a cart in one example, and whilst that’s one way to learn the system, it may be the most boring possible way to do it.

Of course, perhaps part of the reason Basic Roleplaying is this way is that, so far as I can make out, it was never intended to be sold separately. Originally, it was a little bonus in the Runequest box; a bit later, it came with early editions of Call of Cthulhu and Stormbringer, and then a bit later it was a centrepiece of the Worlds of Wonder boxed set. Then it disappeared and Chaosium more or less stopped pushing the idea of BRP as a standalone generic RPG until they put out the Big Yellow Book.

It makes sense, given those appearances, that the booklet was as bland as it was. As a companion to RuneQuest, it seems to have been penned with the assumption that RuneQuest would provide the tempting, flavourful treat that would draw you in, and the Basic Roleplaying booklet would be there for you to consult if you found yourself way over your head and needed something to help you get your bearings. The problem there was that the 2nd Edition of RuneQuest was actually very good at providing helpful examples and is one of the better-explained RPGs of its era; many customers would never need to read the Basic Roleplaying booklet, and those who did would never really need to consult it again after glancing over it once since all the rules for playing RuneQuest were provided in the RuneQuest book.

As far as Stormbringer and Call of Cthulhu went, it was at least essential – the 1st edition of those games relied on the booklet to provide the basic rules and then had the other rulebooks in those boxed sets provide the setting-specific information. This was a clumsy and awkward way of doing things because it required regular cross-referencing between the main book and Basic Roleplaying, and also diluted the set a little by providing a slice of bland genericness in a product otherwise infused with (and sold on the strength of) a distinctive setting with an atmosphere and style rigorously supported by the rules. Subsequent editions folded the necessary rules into the main booklet.

As for Worlds of Wonder, its three terse setting booklets took the blandness of the core Basic Roleplaying booklet and translated them into utterly bland take on superheroes, traditional D&D fantasy, and science fiction. It was deeply uninspiring stuff, and I feel sorry for anyone who paid full whack for the set back in the day.

In short, Basic Roleplaying was doomed in whatever context it popped up in to either be irrelevant or actively irritating. Its discontinuation is unsurprising.

In Nomine (Doot-Doooot, Doot Doo Doo)

Parallel evolution is a funny thing. Just as Kult hit shops in Sweden prior to Vampire: the Masquerade debuted in the English-language market, so too did the French game In Nomine Satanis/Magna Veritas, by Croc, hit the French market before Vampire 1st edition hit the gaming market. Based on playing demons and angels masquerading as human beings in the modern world, it’s even closer to the core concepta of the World of Darkness games than Kult is.

No surprise, then, that at the height of the 1990s modern-day occult supernatural RPG craze someone picked it up to do an English translation – specifically, Steve Jackson Games. They’d previously had a privileged seat in the bandwagon, having won a licence to produce GURPS sourcebooks for the World of Darkness games, but the arrangement came to a sudden end. In Nomine is pretty much Steve Jackson Games jumping back onto the bandwagon that they’d been kicked off of, and the fact that White Wolf hadn’t yet done a demonic/angelic-themed game probably added a certain satisfaction at pre-empting them. (It would be interesting to see what Demon: the Fallen would have looked like in a parallel world where the In Nomine translation was never produced.)

The game casts player characters as angels and demons – either working for divine or infernal superiors, or outcasts – and runs off a “D666” system, where to resolve actions you roll 3D6 with one die distinct from the other two; the two similar dice you add together to get success or failure, whilst the remaining die determines the magnitude of success or failure. If you roll all 1s, God intervenes, and if you roll 666 Satan gets to play; whether this is good or bad depends on whose side you are on.

This mechanic is one of the few flashes of humour to carry over from the original game, which took a witheringly satirical approach to religion which Steve Jackson Games by and large toned down. Perhaps they were worried that it wouldn’t play well in the Bible Belt, though given the basic concept of the game and the fact that it has zero qualms about letting you play demons I suspect that wasn’t an issue. It seems more likely that, since they were trying to ride the White Wolf wave with this, they were going for a correspondingly serious tone, what with this being the era of pretentious declarations of trenchcoat-and-katana RPGs being high art and all.

The problem is that in removing much of the humour, they don’t replace it with anything similarly compelling. The book is somewhat more flavourful to flip through than GURPS, but that just means it has slightly more spark and flair than your average phone book or technical manual. The discussion of one’s celestial superiors suggests a certain Paranoia-like tendency towards backstabbing and political snafus and the like, but this isn’t expanded on very much. You get all sorts of cool powers, but little idea of what you’re supposed to do with all that – a problem with many World of Darkness games which the book authentically emulates.

Somehow, Steve Jackson Games manage to make the war of Heaven and Hell boring. That’s an accomplishment in a way, but not one to be proud of.

Who Aberrates the Aberrant?

Aberrant is a big colourful mess. Part of a continuity of games including Adventure and Trinity (AKA Aeon), which Onyx Path are now reviving with a comprehensively rejigged system as the Trinity Continuum game line (with Aeon as the first major setting book), part of its awkwardness comes from the fact that it was trying to act as the superhero-themed midpoint of a setting which ranged from the pulp adventure of, uh, Adventure to the starfaring psi-wielding antics of Aeon. Though you can see conceptual links between the genres, that’s still a sequence of jarring, clunky gear changes, and a big pile of baggage that each individual game would have never had to deal with (and have been stronger for it) had they not been set in the same continuity.

Aberrant is also often derided for its system, which attempts to extend the Storyteller system into superheroics and somehow manages to make a clunky mess of it, despite the fact that Vampire‘s early editions managed it perfectly well, but the thing which personally turns me off it is the setting. Part of it arises from the fact that, in diverging from real life in 1998, some of its predictions now seem kind of laughably out of date. Part of it arises from simple research failures (like the UK deciding to stay out of the European Union in the 1990s – a body it had already been a member of since the 1970s).

But most of the reason the setting doesn’t click with me is that it’s tryhard 1990s edgelord nonsense, with each faction carefully crafted to be maybe heroic but probably secretly evil. (The major exception are the Teragen, who seem to be pretty clearly monstrous on the face of it.) Maybe part of this comes down to the necessity to have the superhumans one and all become the villains of Aeon/Trinity later on down the timeline, but probably a larger part of it comes from the fact that in the 1990s everyone was trying to be darker than everyone else in the superhero field. Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns had been out for a decade and had become enshrined at the peak of the comic book pantheon, and everyone wanted to recapture that. Dark Champions steered Champions into the grim and gritty mode of the era, and all was darkness and drabness.

What’s weird for me about the Aberrant setting is that it isn’t, in many respects, all that grim and gritty – in fact, in an awful lot of respects it’s a much cleaner, brighter timeline than the one we got. (The fact that it doesn’t include 9/11 or anything like the War On Terror is a big factor; even the clashes of superhumans feel like they pale in comparison to the Iraq War or the slow, gruelling death of Syria.) This is presumably to allow a space for gamers to run a more four-colour take on the whole concept if they really want to. The problem with that is that the basic presentation of the factions has enough sneering 1990s cynicism to it that it doesn’t quite work – what you end up with is a bunch of shitty, self-serving factions suitable for a post-Watchmen grimfest in a world that’s just a few notches too bright and colourful for them.

The incongruity doesn’t quite work for me – as with the various settings that have been put out for GODLIKE or Wild Talents, or even for that matter Champions, I think you get much better results if you make a firm call on what sort of superhero setting you are going for and then design it from the ground up to support that decision, rather than trying to build a setting which can waver all the way from four-colour black-and-white-morals Comics Code Authority vapidity to edgelord Frank Miller/Alan Moore ripoffs.

Then again, the entire story of the Trinity game line seems to have arisen out of a series of messy compromises and hastily cobbled-together settings; the original Aeon setting had to be knocked out in a space of 10 months after Mark Rein-Hagen walked away from White Wolf in 1996 and took Exile, the sci-fi game series he’d been developing, with him. The games do have their advocates – Adventure seems to have a certain charm to it, perhaps because as the first game in the line it carries the least baggage, but both the Aberrant and Aeon settings have their advocates too. Part of the point of the new Trinity Continuum game line is to apply a new system to the setting (the Storypath system, which has also been used for the new edition of Scion), one better suited to it than the rather overheated Storyteller engine under the hood of 1st edition Aberrant; if this also includes giving the setting a comprehensive tune-up, perhaps even offering specific sliders to better adapt it to different takes on the superhero genre (“If your morality dial is set to ‘Frank Miller’, use the ‘evil’ version of Project Utopia”, etc.), then that might be just the tune-up the old beast needs.

Scoring By the Sentence

Pantheon by Robin Laws is his entry in the New Style series of offbeat, experimental RPGs and storygames that Hogshead Publishing put out in the late 1990s and early 2000s. It’s a GMless game based around the Narrative Cage Match rules – a shared-narration system. The way it works is that you go around the table and each player takes it in turns to add a sentence to the story you are collectively telling together. You have certain constraints (for example, your sentence can mention your own character and one other player character directly, but can’t affect every PC all at once), but the main thing stopping you from just saying whatever you like is that each player has a pool of tokens they can use to launch a challenge.

Challenges work like this: everyone rolls 6D6 and sees how many matching numbers they get. They then bid tokens from their pool (which starts at 50) to auction the right to declare the “lucky number”. The winner of the contest is the person who has the largest set containing the “lucky number” (so if it’s 3 then the more 3s you rolled, the better off you are). The winner of the contest can choose to let the challenged sentence stand, or replace it with one mentioning the same PCs and including at least one noun or verb that was in the original sentence.

Everyone also has a selection of special tokens: your green token lets you auto-win an auction, your white one allows you to nominate someone else to win it, and your black one allows you to nuke someone’s sentence, skipping their go. (So far as I can tell, though, nothing stops the next person from reciting the exact same sentence…)

Play continues until only one PC survives or until only one PC has any normal tokens left. They get to wrap up the story in a single sentence – or, for every ten normal tokens they have left, they can add a bonus sentence.

Scoring then takes place, with players scoring points based on stuff that happened in the game; in general, the more genre-appropriate things happened, the better the score. This does mean that the survival of your PC isn’t necessarily your primary concern – if it would make sense in-genre for your PC to die in an appropriate way, having that happen may be the best way to score points.

After explaining these simple rules, the rest of the booklet provides a set of scenarios to use them with, ranging from highly detailed genre exercises with clear character roles to the title scenario, where you start out in the darkness before creation and the story will be about how the PC gods created the universe and defined themselves and all that good stuff: for that one only the absolute bare minimum information is given, since by that point you should be adept enough with the system to make a go of it without training wheels.

Now, the assumption is that you are going to play each of the scenarios at least once without anyone looking at the scoring sheets, though you can replay them with everyone having access to the scoring sheets if you wish – the main difference would be that with the goals visible to everyone they’re much more likely to twist the story in a direction to maximise their own score, whereas when the scores aren’t visible then everyone has to just guess what does and doesn’t earn them points. However, in giving Pantheon a test drive back in the day I found that if you don’t have the score sheet visible, it’s a little too easy for the game to drift in a direction where nobody ends up scoring very much at all – you’re too dependent on the group at the table accurately guessing what Robin Laws thinks is genre-appropriate action for the scenario in question. Perhaps the most vulnerable one to this is the Pantheon scenario itself; its initial premise is so extremely sparse that if the play group ends up producing an extremely unconventional creation myth then the scoring sheet may be mostly orthogonal to the action.

Another advantage of having the scoring sheet visible, of course, is that it’d allow you to keep track of your score as the game progressed; conversely, if you’re playing with the score sheet unseen, you’d need to remember what happened during the story, which depending on how long and how complex it got could be tricky. (Remember, how long the story is depends largely on how conservative people are about challenging, and what they bid in the auctions during challenges.) Heck, I can easily imagine a sufficiently hard-negotiated auction dragging on just long enough that the participants end up hazy on what the sentence under dispute actually was! In some respects Pantheon seems like it’s a game best played over internet chat, provided you had a trustworthy group in terms of their die rolls and keeping track of their token totals; alternately, you may wish to actually write out each sentence of the story as it’s laid down so as to maintain consistency.

The main restriction on Pantheon is its dependency on a prewritten score sheet; this is more acute if you prefer to play it without anyone seeing the score sheet the first time around you play a scenario, because then it means the scenario designer cannot participate in the game itself. To my knowledge, nobody’s ever bothered to come up with additional scenarios for it, or if they have they haven’t shared them on the Internet; one suspects that once you work through the scenarios in the book the Narrative Cage Match system exhausts its charm. Still, as an indie story game oddity it’s worth a look.