Imagine, if you will, a medieval 'fantasy' world where there are no mages and there are no clerics. Man does not have the power nor the mind to wield magic, nor do the gods listen to the prayers of the devout. There are no holy knights, no druids in secluded glades, and no elves nor dwarfs in the deep forests or the mountains yonder.
Just humans, be them thieves or soldiers. Weapons of iron and souls steeled to the nightmares from beyond.
And a world of horrors from beyond time and space who prey upon these souls in a manner so callous and uncaring it is as if our race were ants under the heel of these cosmic beings.
Realms of Crawling ChaosThis is another cool book from Goblinoid Games of Labyrinth Lord fame, completely compatible with the Goblin-verse of games including the fore-mentioned, Mutant Future, Starships and Spacemen, and even Apes Victorious. It is as if the world never moved on from the B/X ruleset, what we knew is what worked, and things like the TSR d100 systems never came to be and AD&D 2nd Edition never happened. Things just stayed kind of the same, and what we had was how the world worked.
This is a book that meshes a unique interpretation of the Lovecraftian myths with the B/X sensibilities of Labyrinth Lord and it works. It is as if that banned section of the original Deities and Demigods took on a life of its own, spawned a dark and twisted fantasy world, and all sorts of horror and beasts lurked in the darkness of fantasy worlds as black as night and as dark as the souls of the evil which lurks in mankind's hearts.
It is a book when I read it it feels as if I should not be reading it, and that is a cool feeling. It is very different than the more well-known Call of Cthulhu, with a B/X sensibility and a bunch of creatures unique to this interpretation of the mythos. That said, I am not sure I would want to mix these in with orcs and trolls as a monster manual expansion for the base game, though it would be fun for an adventure or two as a one-time-only diversion for a party that thought they have seen it all. Maybe they would never make it back from a place inhabited by creatures such as this.
The Dark Fantasy CampaignI like the idea of the no player magic of the dark fantasy idea presented in this book - it feels entirely unfair and punishing, but a part of me thinks there are players out there up for such a challenge. No ultimate power 'I win button' magic spells and no 'pray to my god' party heals. Just iron and bone, flesh and sheer will, and the mastery of weapons smithed in the forge and the guile of rogues ready to stab evil in the back.
I did not see any insanity rules, though that in a way fits in with my feelings about B/X and the referee should run the game to make the players feel the fear and go insane when they argue among themselves if they should open that next door or not. Though if you wanted to, there are two or three easy ways around this:
- Save versus Death for insta-kill situations
- Save versus Paralyze/Petrify for fear or insanity effects
- Save versus Spells for resisting curses and eldritch magic
Done. There, you have most of what you need for a sanity or fear system with the base game's saving throw system. Save versus petrify, roll random flight or freeze whenever a horror is encountered. Allow the character a Wisdom saving roll modifier on those fear saves (if you want) and you are all set.
Save versus death modifiers? Strength for crushing traps, dexterity for falling to your death, constitution for poisons, intelligence for things which would utterly destroy your mind, and so on. I am a fan of the flexible death save like this, and these should come often enough that if you go pokeing around in a bastion of alien power and infestation a couple insta-death books, snake filled pits, evil soul sucking mirrors, deadly traps, death magic doorknobs, look at the symbol and die, flying metal sigils with razor blazes, falling racks of nails, peer through a keyhole and a poniard thrusts out, and other scary horror-show traps of instant death lurking about that players should be very afraid of random and uncaring peril awaits around every corner, ready to strike.
As a referee, if I ran these death traps the less logical I mad them the better. Hurald the Brave brushes his bare arm against the black tapestry and he beings coughing violently, only to disintegrate into a ashen pile of dust. Jontik peers into the dark hallway, only to have his soul sucked out by the darkness beyond. Tranard tries to squeeze between the stones, but misunderstands the geometry of the space and is crushed to an infinite thinness between planar walls. Rejik suddenly collapses to the ground, and the high pitched whine only he can hear scrambles his consciousness as it leaks out his ears in purple ichor.
Curses too can be used, like a magic curse affecting a character that randomly blanks out a character's memory of what that character did when they were sent off alone in a certain room. Another magic curse that makes a character hear howling noises behind them, and just when they thought those were just noises...bam! A curse that makes a character stand there stone still instead of fight. A curse that makes a character afraid of the sun. A curse that turns a character against the townspeople, causing mistrust and anger towards them. You are but an ant in this world of alien cosmic power, you could not know nor understand the powers upon which you touch nor could you predict what they would do to your fragile mind. That.
Insanity too, if a character is unlucky enough to fail two fear saves in a roll, give them a temporary insanity. Critical fail or a failed save while temporarily insane? Permanent. Make up their affliction and have the player run with it.
Nothing has to make sense, it only has to be deadly and strange enough to give players the creeps. They may not want to play with you again because you are such a weird and creepy dungeon master, but they will be back for more.
Better With Simple RulesI get the feeling if I ran this the body count on the player's side would be pretty high. At the beginning of the night there may be grumbling that we aren't playing this with a more character-building friendly game such as Pathfinder. At the end of the night, they will understand why they will need to be able to spin up a new character in 5 minutes because their last four characters did not make it out of the strange hole in the ground alive. This is better as a horror game where your character starts off expendable, and if you ever manage to survive an infestation, you hold onto that second or third level hero with dear life. If we end up with an even mix of laughing and sheer terror with characters dropping like this was a crazy session of the game Paranoia I know I will have done a good job as referee.
Really, I like these retro clones because they are crazy, indie, creative remixes of what came before with a new spin on things - and they excite my imagination in ways other game's don't. I feel I don't have that freedom to invent strange insanities, deathtraps, and curses in normal Lovecraftian games - but because of the Tomb of Horrors make up whatever killer trap or deadly curse legacy of B/X games, I do feel a lot more free with this game to just say it and do it.
I don't need every scary effect vectored out with rules and character options to defend against them. Trust me, this is how dungeon masters back in the day ran things, and as long as we were fair, cool about things, and listened to players when things got too intense our group could handle and play anything. We could make up rules for lots of things and have fun. The game became ours in a way, with our own tweaks and mods, and we played it how we wanted to play it.
That is what I love about B/X style rules, they left a lot up to us and we loved the freedom.