A Romulan Engagement in the Neutral Zone

Personal Log: Commander Soral, Stardate 48212.4

This is the personal log of Soral, Commander and Chief of Engineering currently serving aboard the USS Chiron in the Delta Quadrant.

Having situated myself with the current capabilities of this vessel, running through numerous simulations involving improving efficiency of our warp drive and energy distribution systems, interviewing the staff of our engineering department to introduce myself and become aware of their personalities, interviewing with my captain to learn of her philosophies and planned implementation of commanding our crew, I found myself greatly anticipating our first mission.

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Border Dispute, 1.2

The spoiler warning for this one has to go up right away, because this one was a mystery scenario with a few twists and surprises. This was the first scenario I’ve run from the These Are The Voyages Vol. 1. So yeah, if you haven’t played Border Dispute, but might, seriously worth your time to NOT read this; it really is a good, very Star Trek adventure by Andrew Peregrine.

Act 1

The action got underway when the Captain of the Chiron was hailed on secure subspace channel and went to take the message in her ready room. A few minutes later, she re-emerged, gave the helm new coordinates and put the ship on Yellow Alert. She summoned her senior officers and informed them of the situation.

A Federation medical vessel, the USS Nightingale had strayed into the Romulan Neutral Zone and been apprehended by a Warbird, which had disabled it and was preparing to tow it back to Romulus as proof of the Federation’s ill intentions towards their treaty with the Romulan Star Empire.

Upon arriving just outside the RNZ they found the Nightingale pretty badly beat up, dwarfed by the hulking D’deridex-class T’Varen. Establishing contact with the Nightingale they found that her captain was dead, her computer core deliberately scuttled, her hull falling apart in places, half her crew dead and her engines buggered. It was looking bad over there.

via GIPHY

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Interstitial 1.1x

I went over the time between the end of the last Mission and glossed over debriefing and the character’s actual meet up with the Chiron before we actually dug into the next episode. I went over the Milestone system of character development too, which is unusual to me, but makes sense and has a nice cooperative element to it. We also decided how Riker sits on the toilet; and now you know how Riker sits on the toilet.

“Muh basement got one of them there Riker turlets.”

If you are injured (for reals) or if you challenge/live up to/suppress a Value or Directive (mission specific value, essentially) that’s an important moment in your career and you achieve a Milestone. For special circumstances, I – like a preening emperor tossing a laurel wreath to a gladiator-slaying lion – will throw out a Spotlight Milestone award. This is up for a vote by the players, deciding whose “special episode” this was. Both Milestone and Special Milestones allow you to reassign numbers on your character sheet – you can lower one thing to raise another. It isn’t necessarily a character getting better, they’re already hyper-competent, but they get the opportunity to dial in on what makes their character particularly useful.

Once you’ve received a few Spotlight Milestones (which isn’t going to be that often, even if you play a lot of missions given that we will have 5-8 players sharing the spoils) you get an Arc Milestone, which signifies particular growth as a person and does, finally, unequivocally improve your character’s numbers.

I’m not sure how often this will be important, but I kinda like the system. Especially that a Milestone is tied to a particular experience, which players should make note of at the time. “Whose episode was it?” Is also an interesting question to ask of the players and could lead to a little more player agency, which I’m growing to love now that I’ve taken my Dungeon Master gauntlets off.

To start play off I leaned into the cinematic/televisual nature of the game’s structure and asked everyone for a few montage scenes of their settling in to the Chiron. Show a lot of things happening at once, remind everyone of what’s going on (What’s going on?) And with every shot you show a little improvement, to show it all would take to long, that’s called a montage (Montage).

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Encounter at Xerxes IV

Personal log, Commander Soral: Stardate 73034.2

This is my first entry as engineering commander for the USS Chiron, and I anticipate future entries to include higher levels of detail, as I am new to recording a mission’s relevant activities. I will endeavor here to include as much detail as would be relevant to a crew member, Starfleet officer, or other interested third parties including those of any species yet to be discovered as I anticipate my participation in our 5 year mission will reveal new friends, and foes alike.

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Episode 1.1 The Rescue At Xerxes IV

I guess that means the Starter Set was the Pilot. I’m liking the new blog layout; much easier to use, but I can’t find the “read more” cut… so here’s everything.

With our crew of players assembled, and vacation and post vacation illnesses managed, it was time to get to the serious business of boldly going. Greg and JIM had never played it before, but I think the rest of us were happy to go over the game’s basic concepts again.

There’s a learning hump to get over with Star Trek Adventures and once you get over that, I suspect we’ll be golden. (Also, at the exact moment we do all get comfortable with the rules, it’ll be time to get back to Deadlands or Numenera or Paranoia, or maybe The Stars Are Fire will have arrived and we’ll do totally different Sci-Fi… who knows? An entirely new volume of Numenera Scenarios arrived at in the mail today – I think that’s the last thing I’m getting from the N2 kickstarter and should keep us going for another year’s worth of adventures in the distant and weird future.). I studied up a bit ahead of time and then explained basic tests and focuses, momentum and threat, values and determination and then forgot to mention Challenge Dice. But those are the cliffs to be scaled before we plateau.

The adventure I ran was the basic adventure included in the rulebook, designed (pretty well, I thought) as a starter/intro. For that reason, if you’ve stumbled across this blog and have any intention of playing this adventure, you should turn back now. Spoilers, obviously.

There are more advanced rules and concepts included in the rulebook: character arcs and the like. We’ll get to those sometime. Once I’ve got reminders about the basic rules streamlined out of my prep I should be able to help this game along with some reference materials for players (a few ship schematics and a couple of cheat cards) and I can delve a bit further into some of the more meaningful parts of the rules because the game contains quite a bit of development stuff and that’s cool.

Since everyone is new to their characters, there was quite a bit of table talk about what everyone is good at and given that things were supposed to be happening at a tense clip, I decided that players could only exchange numbers if their XO, Commander Troka succeeded at a test. In the short term I think that worked just fine, long term, I’m not sure we’d have to bother: everyone is hyper-competent at the things you’d kind of expect them to be hyper-competent with. Maybe though. That kind of group facilitation comes out as a feature of the Commanding Officer in space combat, so I’m into extending the benefits of rank in other situations.

Episode 1.1 The Rescue At Xerxes IV

Our episode’s cold open involved several of the USS Chiron’s officers climbing aboard the runabout USS Acheron. Piloting the runabout was Master Chief ch’Hezney who had been part of the shakedown crew taking the newly minted Defiant-class Chiron from the Utopia Planitia shipyards to Narendra Station for crew assignment. ch’Hezney was a relatively-grizzled Andorian Starfleet veteran, but this assignment: having a warp-capable craft under his guidance, was pretty choice and had him quite excited in his own way.

Climbing aboard: two and a half humans, one and a half Vulcans and a Denobulan. Ensign Rands, a young Conn officer; Lt V’Rona, Chief Medical Officer; Commander and Executive Officer Troka; Science Officer Soral and Chief Specialist Rolland. Handpicked by Captain Vasquez, these officers had landed a plum assignment on the Chiron. The USS Chiron had been imagined as a crisis response ship, making use of the Defiance-class engine power and advanced weaponry, but supplemented by two Runabout Class warp-capable modular shuttles. This allows the Chiron a remarkable degree of flexibility, despite its small size and small crew compliment (about 40 long term crew for the five-year mission, with space for a few more specialists brought on temporarily). The officers chatted amiably about their upcoming posts as the Acheron cut through warp…. until…

…an alarm from the Runabout alerted them to a distress signal in the area through which they were traveling. The crew jumped to their terminals to find out everything they could about the system and who may be activating a beacon there. Diverting to the source of the simple signal, the Xerxes system, they were dumped out of warp and into the heart of a raging system-wide ion storm. Warning lights blazed to life and alerts sounded as minor systems burst into showers of sparks and larger systems flickered on and off. The passengers of the Acheron were thrown around as their shuttlecraft began its largely uncontrolled descent to the surface of the source of the distress beacon, M-class planet Xerxes IV.

Cue good theme music and titles, none of this Discovery-era country horseshit. I’m talking stirring strings, horn sections, the whole thing.

Scene 1

Largely through pilot competence and a little bit of in-plummet fixing, the Acheron made a “controlled crash landing”. A quick survey of the shuttle showed no structural damage at all, barely any scratches, but with catastrophic ionic damage to several important Electro-Plasma conduits. These were not difficult to replace – far from it, they were one of the simplest fixes – but the Acheron’s supply of backups had also been frazzled by the ion storm. Not to worry – they knew from their scrambled information gathering session as they diverted towards the Xerxes system that there was a Starfleet research base on the planet large enough to a) weather the system’s crazy solar fluctuations and b) have a decent supply of shielded EPS conduits. And it was also c) certainly the source of the distress beacon, so win-win.

There was no sentient life on Xerxes IV that Starfleet didn’t bring there, so they didn’t have to worry about the Prime Directive, or any political machinations this far from contested space. No, their main problem at the moment seemed to be that they’d overshot the research base and had a hike in their near future. Stepping out into the violet gloom of the planet, they found plenty of phosphorescent flora lighting their way, but they’d only just left the safety of the shuttle when they were rushed by four shambling figures.

The “creatures” wore the tattered remnants of Starfleet uniforms on their coarsely furred body and one waved a type 1 phaser around dangerously but ineptly. The crew held their ground and exchanging a few blows with these cavemen-looking aggressors, incapacitated them all. Lt. V’Rona scanned them and found several aspects to these attackers that she found… fascinating.

For a start, their appearance was that of Homo Habilis or Homo Erectus, pre-human predecessors, rather than a new form of alien and she hypothesized that they had succumbed to a devolution virus, of which not many are known to affect humans. But further findings led her to believe that it wasn’t a virus at all, but worked through the same mechanism as allergens – presumably with a local environmental trigger. The devolved scientists all lacked their Starfleet insignia, but those likely had alarmed the creatures when used as communication devices. They appeared to have acted on instinct alone, with little fear (and therefore memory) of phasers.

Scene 2

First things first then, everyone went back into the shuttle and got into their environmental suits, quickly. Then, a little more on edge they began hiking their way towards the research facility. On the way Commander Troka became aware that he was beginning to suffer excessive anxiety, heightened senses and paranoia, likely the first sign of loss of higher functioning as his primitive brain started to take over. He alerted the rest of the crew to this and did his best to stay centered.

Lt. Vrona had the responsibility of determining when Troka had become so compromised that he should be relieved of command. But she also had the looming knowledge that pre-Surak Vulcan genetic-ancestors lived lives of paranoia and rage on levels humans could scarcely comprehend. So there was that to chew over.

They worked together to overcome the problems that the terrain threw at them with aplomb and finally arrived at the research base.

Scene 3

Outside the base they found a large functioning pest repellent and by the nature of the hardware attached to it, it seemed like a pretty big pest. Inside, they found damage throughout the facility. Mostly superficial damage though, so most crucial systems were still working.

They found Doctor Heidi Schipp cradling colleague Dr Jasper McIncreasinglycaveman, who was feverishly undergoing physical changes before their eyes. As they watched, they saw his brow twitch as his supraorbital ridge thickened and knotted into a thicker bone plate. Dr Schipp took a while to calm down, but eventually was able to fill them in on their predicament: the ion storm had triggered a wave of genetic regression on the planet’s flora and fauna which had also begun to effect the botanists and zoologists as their immune systems were overwhelmed by the new and ever-changing allergens, although at very different rates. It took everyone eventually, human and Andorian, although at different speeds. They were frustratingly close to a breakthrough in a possible cure for Irumodic Syndrome, although she believed that the possible curative qualities they found in the devolving plants may be a temporary feature of the regressing flora.

On a more practical level, she confirmed that the replacement conduits should be easy to salvage, but she stressed that she wasn’t going to leave Jasper here to devolve, for you see, they were lovers.

Also, years worth of research and recent breakthroughs into the treatment of Irumodic Syndrome would be lost, with lives across the galaxy being impacted. Also also, an old colleague of Lt. V’Rona’s was one of the missing-presumed-apewomen scientists.

Also also also, their portable weather radio indicated that an Ion storm-battering was about to commence planetwide leaving them a very small window to get everything done before the genetic regression accelerated in anyone/anything affected by it.

Scene 4

Alright, time to roll up the sleeves and get on with the business of actually solving these problems. Commander Troka did a quick mental recap of everyone’s strengths and qualifications and set to forming work teams.

Ensign Rands and Chief Rolland set off into the thick demi-jungle with their tricorders loaded up with information about the samples that they needed to get into shielded stasis pods. Technically Rands had the rank, but Rolland had all the experience, so that’s a fun pairing!

Science Officer Soral and Chief ch’Hezney set about stripping the conduits that they needed from the science station’s non-essential machinery. Their goal was to find enough of them to fix the shuttle without having to break them out of vital systems, not least of which the medical equipment.

Working that medical equipment as hard and as fast as was logical, Lt Vrona with as much aid as her XO could give her, but since Troka was antsy and not really medically inclined, that meant a lot of the burden fell on the Vulcan. Her goal was nothing less than finding a way to reverse the devolution of her colleagues and then figuring out a way to make that happen.

Rands and Rolland carefully collected the samples from the gnarly plants (the planet seemed to specialise in plants with innate defense mechanisms, many of which were very, very painful) but before they could complete the task were rushed by two more cavemen. Rolland responded quickly and shot his dead with his phaser, while Rands took the less lethal colleague-murdering route of trying to incapacitate his foe. He did, eventually, but not before the savage throwback leaped on him and bit deep into his shoulder, tearing his enviro-suit open. Lot to unpackage in this scene, and given that this game is about the moral quandaries in which we might find ourselves were we Starfleet members on the bleeding edge of human experience… rest assured, it will get unpackaged. The good news is that the berries they needed weren’t hopelessly trampled by the savages and the two returned successfully with time to spare and with an unconscious cavedude in tow ( I think).

ch’Hezney and Soral began searching the base for usable conduits and were able to procure enough to fix the Runabout and get off the planet pronto. This was the smoothest of all the necessary tasks, and no one murdered a colleague in self defense while doing it.

Toughest of all was attempting to cure the devolution and much depended on Vrona’s skills as a physician. First, she had to identify the exact cause – she had already figured out roughly how the change was initiated. Then she had to study the fast moving symptoms which was difficult because she didn’t have a whole lot of test subjects. Jasper was ideal, but he was about the only one.

Last of all, she had to formulate a cure. And amazingly, she did.

Get shit done, V’rona! Pretty rad retro ST art by Phil Noto.

With about fifteen minutes to spare, the replicators were ready to create a medicinal cure and everyone had returned to the base. But, what of those devolved creatures running around outside in the ion storm? It was going to be difficult to track them down and hypospray each one individually. Never fear, they’d actually formulated a plan for that too: while a hypospray full of medicine and sedative was just the thing for a caveman standing right beside you, the ion storm could be counteracted by broadcasting a counter-signal. If the radiogenic mutation could be forced one way, they could force it the other way, but it would be tricky.

Commander Soral and Ensign Rands scaled the crest of the rocky peak overlooking the research base and hooked up the necessary broadcasting parts to the beacon but their in situ fix wasn’t working. Soral, seeing that his attempts had failed, stepped aside emotionlessly to allow the young Starfleet graduate a crack at the job as ionically charged particles began to bombard the atmosphere and, in the nick of time, the signal burst to life, covering the surrounding region in just the right kind of magnetically charged particles, to counter the ionic surge sweeping the planet and reverse their effects when the surge died down.

Scene 5

Loading up lover-boy Jasper, their soon-to-be-replaced EPS conduits and their soon-to-be-replicated biological samples onto a floating palette, the soon-to-be crew of the Chiron hiked back to the runabout in the now relative calm of their counter-signal bubble.

Chief ch’Hezney enlisted help in replacing the conduits, but that wasn’t too tough a job. Much harder was standing outside being stalked by the Xerxes Panthers, a toothsome, lithe and ruthlessly fast flying predator that seemed to have little in common with a panther, other than it showed up silently and fucked you up. It tore into the crew as they waited for their shuttle to come back on-line, mauling V’Rona badly. As the power was rerouted successfully and the ship’s functions were restored, the crew piled in and hit the “hatch close” button just as a second lethal ‘panther’ slithered over the rocks near them. The engine hummed to life and impulse power took the Acheron out of Xerxes IV’s tortured atmosphere and into the still-pretty-rough space. With the runabout’s meager shielding straining, they hit warp and got out of there. OoooooooooBAMF

Roll Credits

via Gfycat

Assemble your crew.

So last night we rolled up (no actual rolling) our crew for Star Trek Adventures. The Modiphius website’s character generator is very good except that:

A) it doesn’t limit character races by sourcebook, so a few people got very excited at the idea of playing hybrid Klingons only to find out that they could not, because we don’t have the source material to back that up in play.

B) it appears to cast entirely created characters out into the void on a whim.

Other than that it does everything and largely negates the need for the Rulebook. But I’m still glad we got together to talk about what we wanted to play and also the ship-building. Hopefully these notes accurately reflect what people put together.

Six to beam aboard:

Commander Sorel, an honourable half human, half Vulcan Engineer, determined to discover the mysteries of the cosmos. Sorel believes strongly in the value of teamwork and the application of the rigorous training he has received throughout his life. Cmdr Sorel will be played by Bryce.

Lieutenant (Junior Grade) V’Rona a Vulcan medical officer. V’Rona’s career so far sets her up perfectly to serve aboard the Chiron as she has a passion for curing disease. She is devoted to the twin rigours of science and the Starfleet command structure. Dr Lt V’Rona will be played by Noe.

Commander Troka is a firm but fair Denobulan of the Command Division. He puts great stock in the performance of his team and is willing to act decisively should diplomatic measures fail to resolve the problems he encounters. He is motivated by the drive to reduce suffering in the galaxy. Cmdr Troka will be played by Ben.

Fun Fact: Denobulans are very social, polyamorous and have unbelievably long tongues.

Commander Changa is of Andorian and Betazoid heritage and is head of Security. An ex-Section 31 operative (shh, that’s a secret), his ruthlessness in service of the Federation would make many quail. Like, seriously. SERIOUSLY. Cmdr Changa will be played by Sean.

Chief Specialist Rolland is an NCO and so has never attended Starfleet Academy in San Francisco. Instead he learned the soft power of scientific advancement elsewhere and never really bought into the stiff Starfleet structure. An optimist, he is ready to set out on the Chiron’s extended mission. Conveniently, Specialist Rolland will be played by Rolland, otherwise that would be confusing.

Master Chief ch’Hezney is an Andorian Conn operator who is excited at the prospect of taking this new Defiant-class starship through its paces. He is a competitive and keeps two of his vices (his hatred of Romulans and his leniency towards slavery) under enough wraps to pass through the NCO ranks of Starfleet. Chief ch’Hezney will be played, when he can, by JIM.

“To everyone except Romulans, am I right? Those fucking guys.”

The last member of the team is the USS Chiron, a brand new, Defiant class starship. Commissioned as a Crisis and Emergency intervention vessel, its mission is to use its considerable speed to establish a Starfleet presence in some of the most perilous situations within and without Federation space. The Chiron is unusual in that it has expanded shuttlebays, with insertion and extraction flexibility when transporters aren’t cutting it.

By the light of unseen stars.

We finally (FINALLY) wrapped up Call of Cthulhu last night. As a test of 7th edition went… it wasn’t a great test. I chose an old scenario (which was very good and thorough, I thought) that wasn’t written for 7th edition, so I had to do more work than I really like doing to convert a handful of things and I HATE doing work.

Really, other than the easy switch to percentile stats, advantages and disadvantages, the possibility of pushing a test (did anyone even ever do that? I know it was offered, but I can’t remember anyone risking it) and the easy side of temporary insanity, we didn’t really dive too much into the new rules system. I’m overselling how much new stuff there really IS… there are only a few changes to the system, but it would have been nice to stretch our legs a little more on them. I’m a sucker for handouts though and this scenario had them in spades.

Character creation is a good process and the good characters that were created helped carry the game. A few small touches in character creation eventually came back around over the course of the story and that’s cool. Those little things can make all the difference.

Our heroes uncovered a scientific advance that seemed to be at the source of visions and madness and were able to tie the new illuminations on deprived South Walnut Street to the disappearance of an entire village in the previous century. They discovered the cave in which a dormant old thing from beyond lay waiting, the walls of the cave providing the material for the technology that was warping the minds of the poor inhabitants of South Walnut.

It ended with a chase, as the naive Professor who had been manipulated into helping awaken this Thing tried desperately to undo his error. In his fatal failure, he eased the old being out of its slumber as it sought to replenish itself under the light of its distant star. It was not to be, however, for while the minds of Swoosie and P.H. snapped at the sight of them, Tony Crazy Legs Balta, unable to see the thing began to recite the old fragment of the Book of Eibon that they believed would steal the sight from the waking god. He recited the song the musical trio had come up with as an aide de memoire and soon Pleasant Hannibal joined him in creating a sense-stealing shield to deprive the god of its nourishment. Swoosie, was temporarily convinced that Tony was her murdered mother (Gasp! Foreshadowing!) but eventually came to her senses and tried to stop the tentacled mass from heaving itself from the hillside.

They were attacked by one of the god’s alien servitude’s and it sucked into the air and then crushed poor Tony to a broken mass. Pleasant Hannibal persisted and the spell they cast stole the thing from the repulsive star’s ability to fully awaken and so they saved… the day?

They certainly seemed to save some of South Walnut Street’s slum dwellers, as the brisk pace with which they had been being driven insane/killed came to an abrupt end.

Swoozie, unfortunately, made the mistake of telling her lawyer about the sky-jellyfish crushing Tony in defense of the tentacled invisible being and the lawyer, sanely, had her and Pleasant Hannibal locked up in the looney bin.

Their stay was brief, barely worth the paperwork, as the doctors concluded that they were both sane but had suffered trauma caused by the sudden crushing death of their friend in a cave in. However, Pleasant Hannibal was roomed in a secur-ish cell next to the poor old Polish cripple who had glimpsed things beyond the veil of our mundane existence. In the few nights he stayed in Arkham’s premiere mental hygiene care facility prior to his immediate and slightly apologetic release, the demented old Pole whispered so many impossible secrets to P.H.

So many.

Eyeless astronomers and screaming milkmen

We rolled up the core of our Call of Cthulhu-heeding superchums last night and they got rolling on their first investigation.

Moar like the Lost Their Minds Generation, amirite?

Noe rolled up Swoosie Staines, daughter of a murdered mother and outstanding-in-her-graveyard parapsychologist. A thoroughly modern gal, she knew the others from her time in Paris earlier in the decade and shared their love of music (she’s the violinist in the jam sessions they have during their meetups) .

Ben rolled up Tony “ Crazy Legs” Balta, a middling boxer on the Eastern Seaboard circuit. Tony was hosting the others in his apartment in Arkham, generous fella that he is, for one of their semi-regular long weekends of motorcycle touring, fascinatingly deep late night symposia and impromptu recitals (Tony contributes the harmonica).

Rolland came up with Pleasant Hannibal Clemens (Clements?) reporter for the Hartford Courant. He and Tony share an interest in Egyptology, motorcycles and trying to pay the bill faster than the other. Pleasant Hannibal (two first names) brought his Glockenspiel up from Hartford.

Tony provides the obvious brawn, while Swoosie is READY TO BELIEVE and has the machines that go widdley-wee and PH brings his journalistic shrewdness.

When their long-weekend retreat was disrupted by an escaped self-mutilating lunatic, they followed up and have uncovered a series of bizarre and increasingly dangerous events in Arkham’s squalid Southside. They’ve got a few leads to follow up on next session: a milkman who had a hysterical breakdown; the Sanitarium that holds the auto-enucleating madman; and a sneaking suspicion about recent improvements made by the town council to the street one which both of these events occurred.

I found this scenario online and for some reason chose this one rather than the normal starting point of haunted house-investigation-gone-wrong because it was unusual, and a good detective-y scenario with lots of pretty handouts. I’ve got to remember to print them out in colour… really helps the blood smears pop. So far it’s going pretty well; it’s a creepy start that hopefully carries through to a satisfyingly harrowing conclusion.

That is not dead which can eternally be reprinted in new editions.

Is Call of Cthulhu the best Roleplaying Game of all time?

Of course it is. Arguing whether or not some other game might be better is like arguing that cheese isn’t the best dairy product of all time. It definitely wasn’t the first and it might not be your favourite and it might not be scratching your itch right now. There have even been missteps, sure. But it brought something new and unexpected, it has inspired far-and-away the best games-writing in RPG’s short history, it still holds up after all these years and what it does, it does really really well.

The 7th edition is, I think, the farthest the rules have deviated from their original, but they don’t deviate far. Say what you will about Dungeons & Dragons, between the original game and the latest iteration is a pretty big stretch. Really only the subject matter stays the same, although much improved. CoC’s subject matter hasn’t strayed from the original formula.

There are spinoffs from core CoC – versions that incorporate more of a pulp adventure feel, Delta Green which is a modern take, medieval CoC etc.

The differences between 2nd and 5th edition CoC were minimal if they were even noticeable at all. 7th edition streamlines a few things and introduces a small sprinkling of new mechanics, so in that respect it’s a big change in CoC terms. But the subject matter remains completely the same: ordinary people discovering something in the backwoods of New England that makes their brains leak out their ears and then they have to roll new characters.

The epic journey that 7th edition took before it got to the shelves (a financially botched Kickstarter and long delays) sort of explains some of the failings of the new rules (the chase mechanic is… not good. And there seems to be a misunderstanding about whether or not the rulesbook is in two parts (Keeper’s Book and Player’s Book) when nothing necessary for play is found in the Player’s Guide.

Anyway: Call of Cthulhu is a cosmic horror roleplaying game set in the 1920s where the players play those whose investigations have brought them closer than is strictly healthy to Unknowable Horrors Too Powerful To Comprehend. What we know as reality and existence is just a thin facade that can be too easily stripped away once you know a little of what lies beyond. These Horrors are typically not villainous, their motivations aren’t usually that fathomable. Instead they are malign cosmic entities whose very presence in our universe is incompatible with our survival as a species, sanity, and reality as we understand it. And that’s a lot for an Antique Dealer or Librarian or Professor of Linguistics to deal with.

While there may be mundane dangers to contend with, there’s not much point in putting together a bunch of tough player characters, because they won’t last very long trying to be tough with a flying polyp from before time. Guns and tough guys are handy to have, but not too many are needed, just enough to keep the padlocks blowing open and the enraged cultists at bay. No, when you’re looking for a powerful, long lasting Call of Cthulhu character, you’re looking to create a very thorough researcher with a strong sense of self and a yellow streak a mile wide. On those narrow, quivering shoulders the fate of humanity may rest.

The basic mechanic for CoC has always been a percentile test; rolling under your Library Use skill’s percentage means you succeed at reading the weird old book. Its signature mechanic though is measuring your character’s sanity. You can lose damage/hit points, but you can also lose Sanity. Losing big chunks of sanity will cause breakdowns, flip-outs and unpleasant ‘episodes’. Losing all your sanity and the filter your brain applies to the universe to make it manageable and not constantly terrifying is torn away. Your character doesn’t die… the Keeper gets him/her. And he/she becomes one of the ravening nutcases intent on ending humanity’s brief anomalous existence.

The 7th edition adds a few welcome modern touches to this basic set up:

  • To make it easier all your stats/attributes are percentile based now too. Making a roll based on brute strength is no different than any other skill test.
  • Instead of having the percentile modified (-20% to hit) which is a fiddle and relies on you being told by the Keeper all the time, there are Hard and Extreme tests, with Hard being half your usual percentile chance and Extreme being 1/5th of your usual percentile chance. Fortunately space is made on the character sheet to have these noted down. There are some tests that may only require a simple success, but if you achieve a number so low that you’d qualify for an Extreme or Hard success, you can assume that it’s an extra kewl success or tiebreaker, in the case of opposed rolls.
  • If a player has an advantage in a situation (careful planning, beneficial environment etc) then they get to roll an extra d10 when calculating the 10s portion of their Percentile check and they choose the best result (I assume); whereas if the character is disadvantaged, they roll an extra d10 and take the worst.
  • Players can Push (Their Luck) and retry a failed test… on the understanding that if they fail the second time something really bad will happen.
  • The Luck mechanic and the Idea check mechanic have changed a bit, but they’re not huge factors. Idea is for when you as a player don’t know what the fuck is going on and shows how likely your Keeper is to give you a hint. It’s a crummy training wheel mechanic and always has been. Luck is more or less just floating points to help you out when you really need them/are tricked into thinking you really need them.

The mechanics of the game have never been the main draw though. It was set up to not be an overly complex system because the game must keep flowing and the tone – important maybe more than any other game’s tone – can’t be maintained if you’re monkeying around with excessively granular game mechanics.

More than anything else, it is a game of investigation. The plots and machinations are slowly revealed and if the players don’t stay on target and dig into the situation, they’re definitely boned. If they do diligently chase down leads, gather evidence and muster resources and put them all together in the right way…. they’re only maybe boned.

Our shared love of Mansions of Madness has, I think, a lot to do with how easy it is to put all that work in and fail, dramatically. I think we’re probably at a 70/30% win rate with MoM and even then some of the wins are pyrrhic and/or only relative victories rather than actual triumphs. Player character deaths will happen – not for cheap plot shocks, not even for yucks (Hey Paranoia!), but because their opponents are so monstrously more powerful than they are and also because the game is a meat grinder, slowly wearing down even the most fortunate and durable investigators. That’s as it should be, because against the malevolence beyond the veil of sanity there can be no great triumphs.

I’m not sure if this is for Call of Cthulhu, but it’s a cracking piece by Nacho Molina who has a Deviant Art account full of great paintings and I got lost for half an hour just admiring them.

Modiphius Star Trek Adventures Starter Set

We just got done running through A Star Beyond The Stars, the starter adventure (in three parts) from Modiphius for their Star Trek Adventures game. I like the idea of Starter Sets because I think they worked pretty well for Numenera and Pathfinder and at best they can provide players with sort of a tutorial and introduction to the game.

I think it was a qualified success, some of which was helped along by the Starter Set and some of which was actively hindered. During this we had the use of the Main Rulebook in hard copy and pdf, which I suppose technically you wouldn’t need to run the Starter Set. Since we were also playing with experienced, wily players in a relatively known universe, they were more apt to go “off-script” and do things more complicated than the Starter Set easily allowed. I mostly just rolled with these and then tidied up our collective understanding later. During the first few sessions I spent more time than I would have liked actively reminding players that they can’t commit war crimes or extra-judicial executions just because they face opposition. But by the end of the adventure they were arguing amongst themselves about whether or not their actions might count as a genocide. And they successfully navigated their way out of the situation in the best possible way (i.e. no genocide).

What sort of worked:

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  • Tests are made by combining one of your PC’s personal qualities (Attributes) with one of the appropriate Star Fleet Training packages (Disciplines): E.g. Daring and Security, or Reason and Science, etc. This in itself is a good idea and saves you from having a large list of skills to track. Buuuut, who the fuck can easily keep track of all the different standard permutations? Melee is always Daring & Security, shooting phasers is Control & Security, similarly, medical tasks and sciences stuff with your tricorder tends to be the same thing, but not a particularly easy to remember list. The Rulebook itself badly needs a cheat sheet for tasks and their appropriate combos. The Starter Set has (on the reverse of the character sheets, which is handy, but in practice not ideal) PC appropriate summaries, but still nothing close to exhaustive. Either the system should be flexible (allowing a thematically appropriate substitution of Attributes/Disciplines e.g. someone who melee attacks with Fitness and Security) or rigid and well supported.
  • The PC and NPC tokens were good quality with enough that they could be useful if a bunch of other tokens are available. There aren’t. So that’s that wad blown. The map sections are less necessary (and a bit small) but at least Modiphius is releasing more map tiles if you wanted to buy those.
  • The rules themselves. This kind of game dumps all the rules on you at first level and there’s no way that a Starter Set can reasonably slowly introduce the rules. This doesn’t seem to be a game that gets gradually more complicated like levelling-up games. Instead, you are hit with a wave of crunch and if you survive that, well, you might just enjoy yourself. The central mechanic – roll 2 or more d20s and try to roll under the combination of your stat and your skill – is sound and you can make the dice rolls explode into more successes if you roll 1s or roll low enough to trigger a focus. You can make things worse with rolls of 20 or succeed at cost. You can help buddies out or even better, have the powerful starship help you out. All this is good and easy to wrap one’s head around. But then there’s Momentum and Determination and Threat to make life more interesting – in and of themselves, not bad; then there are Values and Stress and Injuries, there are situational Advantages and Disadvantages to track and situational/environmental Traits, then Challenges and Extended Tasks. None of these are bad things, but there is A LOT of pretty good, but not great, working parts.

What didn’t work:

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    • The Rulebook, the Starter Set and even the reference sheets are formatted to seem like they’re being displayed on LCARS, and oh holy balls it makes things difficult to read. In general, I found the pages of the Starter set badly organized, with important information to a scene over a page or stat blocks for combat split over pages, necessitating page turning. None of this is unsurmountable, but it’s also completely avoidable and prevents on the fly or even quick reading by the GM. In this respect I’m spoiled by the Quick Adventure format by MCG, but it also seemed like a unnecessarily old-fashioned way of doing things, more like an 80s RPG than anything that might have benefitted from… decades of improvement.
    • The Index in the Rulebook is real bad. Like, Paragon of Sloppy Indexing bad. Want to look up what Transporters, one of Star Trek’s signature technologies, do? Good luck! Turns out that info about Transporters is on p224 and 225 of the main Rulebook under Internal Systems… which is also not in the index as its own entry. And is nowhere near an exhaustive description of what they can and can not do.

      And Transporters are one of those tricks that your players are going to want to try ALL THE FUCKING TIME like their ship is just a big vacuum-cleaner sucking up bad, guys, good guys, all their weapons and depositing them in appropriate places.

So, with all that mumping and griping: What Does Work?:

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  •  The setting, as presented in tone and text is absolutely spot on Star Trek. If you enjoyed the good seasons of Deep Space Nine and Next Generation, I really think you’d be hard pressed not to love this game and the way it is presented.  The writing (rather than the layout) of the adventures I’ve read so far has been excellent. It is the quality and obvious sincerity with which Modiphius has attempted to create an authentic Star Trek experience that overcomes all my other grumbles and will keep me playing this RPG for years to come. Even if you abandoned the rules system and used some other system for a Star Trek homebrew you’d still find value and direction in the bulk of the writing.
  • It’s really well supported. There is A LOT of extra material for this game and it hasn’t been out that long. You could play and play for quite a while without ever running out of material created by Modiphius. And with the standard set by the Rulebook and Starter Set, you can be assured that the stories and feel will have the same authentic feel.
  • While it creates rules for lots of things, some of the things it creates rules for are ambitious and awesome. For example, having the ship be its own kind of character is thematically appropriate and also mechanically means that even characters who aren’t physically present at a scene can participate in play. Either because their characters are working their stations on the bridge or just rolling for the participation of the ship. Similarly, having bridge stations with unique roles in starship combat and hazard navigation and characters assigned to those stations and those roles is pretty rad. It seems like a good way to do ship-to-ship combat when one player is deciding the approach, another is keeping the ship intact, another is maneuvering to advantage and another is planning attacks.
  • The GM takes a fairly active role in modifying the written storyline based on the PC’s actions. With reckless/lethal play or too much reliance on buying dice, the Threat pool grows and the GM can upgrade enemies or insert complications as a reaction to that.
  • It is a game in which you have a boss: not just one boss, lots of bosses. Or maybe you are a boss. From Starfleet High Command, to local Admirals, to your Captain, to your XO, to your section chief… there could be a lot of people above you. You could be a lowly Ensign. You could be a Captain. These people will tell you what they want done and to certain extent how they want it done, the PCs have to balance getting the job done, with getting the job done the way they should do it and being true to their own values. They’re a member of an organization that has prospered by coming in peace and their continued survival rests on walking that walk, not just talking the talk when it suits them. Their scientific prowess has meant that they have tremendously powerful weapons and incredible responsibilities to the UFP, but these are always a fringe-cost/benefit of their scientific advance, not their raison d’etre. Balancing these often competing pressures lets you decide who your character is loyal to: Their Captain? Their team-mates? Starfleet’s higher principles? Principles beyond Starfleet and the UFP?
  • You play hyper-competent, nerdy, good guys. And there’s nothing wrong with that at all. Doing things the right way almost always causes more conflict and turmoil than doing things the easy way – its just that you take that conflict and turmoil on yourself rather than foisting it off on someone else. The buck stops at the idealistic botanist, xenolinguist, particle physicist et al. Chaotic Neutral is always easier to play than Lawful Good, because it is mostly about avoiding repercussions. In Star Trek, you’ve got to boldly take it. That’s the inherent nobility in the Roddenberry vision  and the game does a great job of recognizing and facilitating that.

Verdict: Will happily play again, with a bit of work.

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