Allen Varney, Writer and Traveler



Modern horrors (the good kind)

by Allen Varney

[Published in Dragon #175, November 1991]

What scares you? I don't mean abstract perils like overpopulation, the greenhouse effect, political leaders, or whether your subscription to DRAGON Magazine is about to run out. What horrific sights drive straight into your medulla oblongata and send you running, screaming, from the room?

Snakes? Heights? Bugs? Slugs? (My mother is a big screamer, slug-wise.) What about roleplaying games? A dozen games out there are trying to scare the wits out of you. Most interesting is the number of different ways they try to do it. There's Gothic horror in TSR's RAVENLOFT campaign set, otherworldly Lovecraftian grue in Chaosium's CALL OF CTHULHU, and, if you want to stretch it, paranoiac fear in West End's PARANOIA. And more.

The new fad is modern-day horror. Mayfair Games has already crawled out of the darkness with the new edition of CHILL, and Chaosium's Cthulhu Now is CALL OF CTHULHU's best-selling supplement, with a second edition due as I write. Each tries to scare you in different ways. But do they exhaust the repertoire of frights? Not hardly.

This column examines three other modern or near-future ways to horrify, as presented in a couple of major new games and a truly offbeat supplement.

Dark Conspiracy

336-page softcover book; GDW, Inc., $22

Design: Lester W. Smith

Development: Frank Chadwick, Loren Wiseman, Julia Martin

Cover: Larry Elmore

"Everything you've ever heard about monsters is true, but not the way you think." Such is the high-concept hook that designer Lester Smith uses to describe this new game of, as it were, techno-horror.

DARK CONSPIRACY is set early in the next century, after a worldwide economic collapse, the "Greater Depression," has left most nations balkanized and incompetent. Mysterious monsters have appeared (or returned) -- not magical creatures as such, but psychic "dark minions" armed with bizarre devices. Like so many narrative horrors nowadays, they feed on human suffering. In nightmarish cities and in wasted countryside, "demongrounds" spawn enigmatic dangers. Only the player characters (PCs) recognize these dangers and fight them.

Institutions are either ineffectual or malign. The PCs are out on their own, without support; they get their tips mainly from supermarket tabloids. The heroes face not just otherworldly evil, but weird regional laws, provincial locals with MP-7 submachineguns, dog packs, cyborgs, environmental hazards, terrorists, prosthetic chainsaws, and the occasional mega-corporate security robot. The game tries to emphasize suspense, paranoia, and mystery.

Presentation: "Boy, sure sounds like FASA's SHADOWRUN," you may be saying. DARK CONSPIRACY clearly takes its inspiration from FASA's cyberpunk-magic RPG, though Smith says, "This is not a cyberpunk game."

The most obvious resemblance is their similar look: Both games spotlight stylish page design, heavy use of artwork, lavish interior color, "grabber" quotations, and supposedly atmospheric fiction intros to rules sections. GDW, flush with funds from the blockbuster sales of its Desert Shield Fact Book, went all out to make DARK CONSPIRACY its best-presented product ever, and it succeeded admirably.

Seventeen artists have ornamented almost every page with strong, atmospheric work. In particular, Janet Aulisio and Elizabeth Danforth nicely visualize a zooful of monsters and beasts; Timothy Bradstreet shows the grotty, war-weary, but heavily armed veterans who fight them. (Very few good guys portrayed in the art are what you'd call clean-cut, unlike the hairpsrayed Senior Prom kids on the cover.) The copious artwork conveys, better than anything else in the book, the game's ideal tone and potential story situations. Boxed quotations from one Zena Marley, identified eight times as an "early 21st-century mercenary-philosopher," are less informative and more distasteful, coming out of Nietsche by way of Heinlein and arriving nowhere.

The text, though clear and complete (and thoroughly indexed -- thank you!), seldom tries to emulate SHADOWRUN's evocation of mood. Yes, its monsters are "Beasties" the way FASA's are "Critters," but as always, GDW rules are serious business. Color and mood have no more place in DARK CONSPIRACY than in an Army field manual. Humor? Remember the GDW Light-Bulb Joke:

Q: How many GDW designers does it take to screw in a light bulb?

A: (puzzled) That isn't funny.

Still, there's much cool stuff in the background material: a compendium of bizarre monsters ripped from the pages of tabloids and UFO books, as well as from the writers' fevered imaginations; "RetroTek" and "HiTek," the major technological styles of the near future; and intriguing "Darktek," the evil technology of biocomputers, zombie-making animator generators, cyborg changelings, and (hey, yeah!) death rays. Solemn though it is, this makes good reading and playing.

Character creation: This runs 42 pages, including 20 pages of PC careers and two long and helpful examples, plus another eight pages describing 51 skills.

You can generate your character by random die rolls or point allocation. A series of four-year terms in careers of your choice determines your skills, grouped under seven controlling attributes, and your contacts (people who owe you favors or can help you). Education level and number of career terms determine your starting money, and that governs how much equipment you can buy (and that governs how long you're likely to survive!).

The term approach creates PCs with nice resumes. Given the importance of firepower in the campaign, the system also selects strongly for military or ex-military careers, obviously the best sources of weapon skills. The system does not help create your character's personality or goals, as some others do; in fact, the text never mentions personality or goals. Significantly, the "If You're New to Roleplaying" section describes roleplaying purely in terms of making decisions for a particular character, becoming swept up in the PC's experiences, and watching the PC improve in abilities over time. Only NPCs get traits and motivations, using the T2 playing-card system (e.g., if you pull the king of spades from a deck, your NPC is deceitful). Otherwise, the whole game is hermetically free of the idea of playing a role.

Rules: DARK CONSPIRACY is the third GDW release using the very popular TWILIGHT: 2000 system (fourth, if you count the MERC: 2000 campaign supplement). Adding rules for Empathy (psychic abilities) and air and space travel, and modifying skills and careers, this game otherwise follows the "T2" system closely; it's "T2 with monsters" much as last year's CADILLACS & DINOSAURS was "T2 with Triceratops."

The essential mechanics are simple and fast-moving. To perform a task, roll 1d10 against the appropriate skill or attribute. For Easy tasks, your skill number is doubled; for Difficult tasks, your number may be halved, quartered, or worse. You get a critical success if you roll 4 under the needed number, and a fumble on a roll of 4 or more over. (Note, though, that there is no rule for automatic failure, an unfortunate oversight that could sap suspense from skillful characters' adventures.) Empathy skills require one additional roll to determine the "power level" of that task.

Combat occurs in 30-second turns divided into six five-second phases. Characters can perform one action each phase, acting according to Initiative rating. This crucial number (known in first-edition T2 as "Coolness Under Fire") determines how quickly and how often you act in a turn. Also, when surprised, wounded, or being run down by something big, you must roll under your Initiative on 1d6 to avoid freezing in panic. If you're short on Initiative, you're usually in deep trouble. You gain it with special Initiative experience points, awarded according after major battles.

These simple rules fit cleanly in four pages. Then come 17 more pages with, gee, must be 80 or 90 special cases. Then seven pages about taking damage, four for wounds and healing, 12 for vehicle combat, five for space travel (space travel?), and four for robots. And at the back, 55 -- right, fifty-five -- pages of equipment, with illustrations for every weapon and vehicle.

My first impulse was to whine loudly about this, but after mature consideration I changed my mind. However bulky these rules, I am glad they're all here, as opposed to being scattered among numerous books -- or, almost as bad, given sketchy, lick-and-a-promise treatment for later expansion. (Again, I could invoke troubled memories of SHADOWRUN.)

A caveat: The major new addition to the T2 rules, Empathy, is one of the few vague sections in the game. GDW plans, yes, a supplement that expands and further defines the basic rules. Oh well.

As for the equipment, I agree with Lester Smith: "Some people want lots; others want little... [P]eople that don't want them can ignore them, but people who do want them will be glad they're there. It doesn't work the other way 'round... As a roleplayer myself, I want to be able to see what something looks like, if my character is going to be carrying it. I hate picking something for its stats and having no idea of what it looks like."

Though generally complete, the rules are sometimes cumbersome. In particular, the nightmarish explosives rules call for taking square roots and dividing by decimal fractions -- got a calculator handy? Then, as in any rules system, there are a few oddities (all weapon skills are Strength skills; Languages are controlled by the Charisma attribute). It may irritate some "realism" fans that you can't kill a PC with a single shot to the head from a .45 pistol, or that the rules inherently favor PCs over NPCs. Me, I prefer keeping PCs alive when feasible, rather than following the dictates of "realism." In a game with this much heavy hardware, I'm glad the damage rules protect the PCs reasonably well.

Then there's the space travel stuff. All right, better here than in a supplement (he said, gritting his teeth), but what are these rules for? When and why do you need an Atlas rocket?

The DARK CONSPIRACY rulebook does not say why you would need to go into space. In general, it says very little about what kind of adventures to run, how to stage them, what genre conventions each kind requires, what characters are appropriate to the different kinds of horror, and so on. Players must discover for themselves what kinds of horror this game does best.

How it scares you: If you have strong and unorthodox ideas about, say, the Kennedy assassination or the reasons for the government's war on drugs, you'll sympathize with DARK CONSPIRACY's mindset. The premise assumes as a matter of course that if something goes wrong, someone is behind it.

Conspiracy buffs may find the scope here rather narrow. By and large the adventures avoid sensitive real-world areas like political killings and covert fund-raising, instead targeting easy marks like the Air Force's "Men in Black" and phone calls from the dead. The adventure suggestions, all based on real tabloid stories, sometimes verge on high camp -- one substitutes an elvish changeling for musician Julio Iglesias.

No, despite its conspiracy-theory premise, this game does not try hard to leave you disturbed after you finish playing. What does it try to do?

Lester Smith discussed this with me in the Gaming Roundtable on the GEnie computer network. "Pretty much every horror RPG that I can think of to this point has been `brooding' horror, and while that's lots of fun, it isn't the only type of horror possible." He listed such breeds as spooky, Gothic, splatter-movie, paranoid, and campy.

"I set out to design something that would allow any of those types of horror to be played," says Smith, whose previous credits include modules for several other GDW games. "I wanted a background history that would explain how '50s flying saucer movies could fit into the same world with werewolves and ghosts and crawling hands. I wanted a referee to be able to get up from a theater seat, or a novel, or a comic book, or even a tabloid, say `I want my PCs to run into that,' and be able to do it, without having to change the campaign. I think DARK CONSPIRACY allows that by integrating everything into one history, rather than simply being generic rules, or being specific to one type."

True, the campaign history is quite accommodating. I wish the rulebook had conveyed this -- had described these horror sub-genres, how the campaign premise lends itself to them, and what elements work best for each one. Smith's assertion of flexibility, though true, came as complete news to me.

Up to that point, I had decided that DARK CONSPIRACY was broad, horrific fun, full of straightforwardly weird things that jump at you from the darkness. Sometimes the things turn out to be substitutes for your own friends, and this can be spooky. But in any case, you're so well armed (55 pages of equipment, remember?) that you can blast away with impunity.

How different from, say, CALL OF CTHULHU. There, if you stumble on the major fiend behind the plot, you're usually helpless and doomed. In DARK CONSPIRACY, you shoulder your Browning Autoriot shotgun, and it's time to rock'n'roll. It sounded great to me -- good PCs fighting evil monsters is at least an improvement over the moral vacuum of TWILIGHT: 2000 -- but that was all I saw here.

[NOTE: The remark about T2's moral vacuum prompted strenuous protests from GDW employees, and an online discussion that eventually prompted my 1992 essay "Do The Right Thing".]

Still, Smith is right. There are lots of different scares waiting here. Too, given the experienced audience that GDW has targeted, I don't mind the shortage of advice on genres and adventure design. (Actually, I'm happy to report that there's more such advice here than in any previous GDW roleplaying game.)

I might legitimately question, though, how well the rules aid the various kinds of horror Smith mentioned. For instance, some of the scariest stories depend on personal, introspective, or (to use his term) "brooding" horror -- the reshaping of a personality. In gaming, the cardinal example is CALL OF CTHULHU, where the Sanity rules cause your character's inevitable fall into gibbering mania.

In contrast, the DARK CONSPIRACY rules are definitely focused outward, as shown by the space devoted to combat rules and equipment. The rules also protect PCs: no Sanity rolls; psychic Empathy skills; and NPCs who are comparatively easy to defeat. Most importantly, the game leaves PCs' personalities undefined -- there's nothing to reshape!

I have no problem with this.

Surprised? Don't be. DARK CONSPIRACY doesn't approach its subject the way I would -- but I never ordered the Gaming Gestapo to make everyone play like me. As Smith said, other games already take care of the personal kind of "brooding" horror. Also, not everyone looks on roleplaying as a storytelling experience or an acting challenge, and that's fine with me. This game does a great job on its own terms and for its chosen audience.

Evaluation: Like GDW's previous RPGs, DARK CONSPIRACY targets experienced referees who already know the kinds of horror adventures they want to run. Its long and very complete rules offer much value to players who want a fair shot (or multiple autofire shots) against the monsters. This game is a giant step forward for Game Designers' Workshop in size, presentation, and imagination. Sincere congratulations.

VAMPIRE: The Masquerade

264-page softcover book; White Wolf, $20

Design: Mark Rein-Hagen

Written by: Mark Rein-Hagen, Graeme Davis, Tom Dowd, Lisa Stevens, Stewart Wieck

Development: Mark Rein-Hagen, Andrew Greenberg, Stewart Wieck

Cover photo: Mark Pace

Interior art: Timothy Bradstreet, Charles Dougherty, Chris McDonough, Ron Spenser, Richard Thomas, Josh Timbrook

In striking contrast to DARK CONSPIRACY and many other horror RPGs, this modern-day game frightens you in a highly personal way: It casts you as one of the things that jumps out of the darkness. The high concept here is, "You've been turned into a vampire. While you explore the intricacies of vampiric society, you struggle to hold onto your humanity."

Mark Rein-Hagen helped design the landmark ARS MAGICA RPG (or, rather, "storytelling game") from Lion Rampant. Though I'm not intimately familiar with that game, I've seen enough to convince me that my fellow reviewer Ken Rolston is right: It's one of the most innovative RPGs of the last five years. Now, with Lion Rampant subsumed under White Wolf of Stone Mountain, Ga. (publisher of the eponymous gaming magazine), Rein-Hagen has produced this effective game of deep-down psychological roleplaying, moody storytelling, and blood thirst. It is the first of five compatible story games, all based on a so-called "Gothic-punk" version of our world. The other four, to be released annually, cover modern-day werewolves, magicians, Faerie, and ghosts.

"Gothic-punk" clearly has much to do with recent vampire novels by Anne Rice, Nancy Collins, and others, as well as films like "Near Dark" and "The Lost Boys." In this game, vampires are not dark aristocrats out of Stoker or Lugosi. Instead, they dress like yuppies or street people, and they strike a posture of sombre coolness that may hide inner grief or fear. But they have the traditional weaknesses to sunlight and fire, and like vampires of old, they often revel in periodic episodes of murder or brutality.

VAMPIRE is the polar opposite of GDW's DARK CONSPIRACY, focusing monomaniacally on character personality, tone, storytelling, and the ongoing "chronicle," or campaign. Just as GDW's game steadfastly ignores these ideas, so the White Wolf release pays little heed to rules or equipment: "You may buy weapons, clothing, homes, condos, cars, anything -- use an appropriate catalogue for prices" (p. 51). The core rules, a straightforward emulation of the basic SHADOWRUN system, fill five and a half pages. Firearm stats? Hey, there are ten guns listed right there on the bottom of page 150, plus almost four entire pages of combat rules. Oooh.

In fact, this book offers many scattered rules, mostly relating to the vampiric condition and to a fancy and fascinating societal background. But the text constantly stresses "drama" over systems: "The rules are for keeping characters in line. If your imagination is superior to the rules, then go beyond the rules" (p. 230, just one of many similar passages). This attitude has appeared to varying degrees in most RPGs of the past few years, but I see no trace of it in DARK CONSPIRACY or any GDW release. That's the main sign of these two games' differing attitudes and audiences.

Presentation: Though the VAMPIRE rulebook looks clean, it's no match for GDW's slick and lavish production values; this is straight desktop publishing. The text is littered with comma splices and style inconsistencies, a garage-band failing (also seen in White Wolf magazine) that detracts from the game's forward-thinking ideas. Absurd numbers of epigraphs, quoting everything from the Bible to pop song lyrics, furnish more litter and amplify the game's highflown demeanor.

In VAMPIRE, even the artwork tells a story -- a moody 89-picture tale, serialized in amateur drawings throughout the book, of an ancient vampire and her reincarnated lover. The narrative nicely evokes the game's ambience. Timothy Bradstreet provides ten superb full-page portraits, using tone and wash techniques to convey a much more sinister atmosphere than does his hard-edged work in DARK CONSPIRACY. Again, this symbolizes the contrast between these two games.

Characters and setting: These are the great strengths of this remarkable game -- its elaborate background, and, just as important, its ways to encourage creation of vivid characters for that background.

Stats and skills do not distinguish VAMPIRE characters well, for these are truncated or trivialized. Somewhat more distinctive are the various Disciplines, or innate powers, like Auspex, Celerity, and Dominate. (Another, Thaumaturgy, allows literal spell-casting, but these are the vaguest rules in the game.) Then there are Background perks like Fame, Herd ("the number of Vessels [victims] you have readily available"), and Mentor, among others.

But the traits that really make vampire PCs come to life (or undeath) are unrelated to numbers. Your Nature, Demeanor, and Archetype (e.g., Gallant, Hedonist, Martyr, and many more); your Haven, where you retreat from the sun's deadly light; and, above all, your Clan bloodline make your character unique. The seven Clans have different goals, abilities, personalities, and politics: Ventrue aristocrats mingle in mortal society and feed on only particular kinds of victims, whereas Nosferatu are deformed outcasts of the sewers. The Tremere thaumaturgists, hedonistic Toreador artistes, mad Malkavians, shapechanging Gangrels, and rebellious Brujah punks -- all give your PCs built-in connections, rivalries, and objectives. The Clans have little in common except "the Masquerade," the overriding need to conceal the existence of vampires from mortals.

Sound complex? That's just the start. Vampires have a long, involved history going back to Caine, sentenced to vampirism for the sin of murdering Abel. Caine, who apparently is still around, spawned an immortal line of "the Kindred" stretching over thirteen generations, each generation weaker than its predecessor. Younger, weaker vampires gain power by killing and feeding on those of earlier generations. Conversely, as a vampire ages, mortal blood no longer sustains it, and it must feed on Kindred to survive (often creating vampiric progeny for just this purpose).

You can see already that vampires are a fractious lot. They have developed the Camarilla alliance of Clans to police themselves. The Prince of each major city regulates the creation of new progeny; Justicars adjudicate disputes, sometimes declaring trial by combat; shadowy figures from older generations, the "Antediluvians," set the Clans against one another in a mysterious Jyhad. Then there's the Sabbat, a ruthless league that controls the east coast of America; and the Inconnu, ancient calm vampires who have retired to nature and achieved Golconda, salvation from the urge to drink blood.

And these are just the vampires! There are also the Lupines, lycanthropes who control the countryside and feud bitterly with the urban Kindred; mortal vampire hunters, like the Arcanum and the modern-day Inquisition; and the National Security Agency. This is a rich background, filled with story possibilities. Better yet, the writers scrupulously tell you how to use it.

Campaigning: Not enough campaign advice in GDW's DARK CONSPIRACY? In White Wolf's game, you practically drown in it. There are whole chapters on how to plot stories, maintain suspense, handle players, and so on. The setting does not lend itself to different genres (the flavor is pretty much built-in). Nonetheless, there is great value in the text's long, fascinating list of different campaign premises within the given setting. Want your vampire PCs to be thaumaturgists, society wheels, Muslim extremists, nomads, plain gang members, or even vampire hunters? They're all here (albeit glancingly mentioned in some cases).

But this is not the core of the campaigning advice.

I find that core on a single page, 111, unrelated to anything around it, yet the linchpin of the book. It's a sudden, surprising discussion of the psychological significance of monsters. It reads in part, "These fiends express what we are at the deepest and most inaccessible levels of our consciousness. ...[T]he vampire is so much our own reflection. Vampires feed as we feed, by killing, and through death can feel the same dread, guilt, and longing for escape... They are the poetic expressions of our deepest fears, and the shadows of our primal urges.

"...[S]o must we descend into the depths of our mind in order to learn what is really there...."

How it scares you: VAMPIRE turns out to be an unlikely but compelling version of the hero-quest, described by Joseph Campbell and others. Vampire PCs constantly struggle against the Beast, the animal urge within. Characters have one to ten Humanity points that they gradually lose, by committing increasingly awful crimes or by succumbing to the Frenzy, the mindless fight-or-flight reflex. When you run out of Humanity, like Sanity in CALL OF CTHULHU, the Storyteller takes over your character as an NPC.

The game's campaign advice strikes this note over and over, often capturing it in a phrase: "A Beast I am lest a Beast I become." Vampires are driven to violence to survive, yet only by regular feeding do they fend off Frenzy. "They must defeat the monster within by exerting self-restraint, nurturing the impulses of human virtue, and displaying genuine courage" (p. 201). This is a powerful idea, one with (not to be frivolous) a lot of blood in it.

Evaluation: I played in a PCs-as-vampires scenario several years ago, using another game system. It creeped me out. There were villains to fight, yet the real horror came not from enemies nor monsters, but from what my character and the other PCs were forced to do -- more precisely, what we found ourselves capable of doing. It was intensely disturbing.

Rein-Hagen has very consciously captured that experience in VAMPIRE: The Masquerade. He has founded it on the psychological basis for vampires and for horror stories themselves. If you're up for a potent and even passionate roleplaying experience, look for this game.

Be sure to look carefully -- the photographic cover features a marbleized green-on-green logo apparently designed to fade invisibly into store shelves. Talk about a masquerade!

And now for something completely different....

Blood Brothers

128-page softcover CALL OF CTHULHU supplement; Chaosium, Inc., $18

Design: John B. Monroe, Fred Behrendt, Geoff Gillan, Barbara Manui, Chris Adams, Kevin A. Ross, Sam Shirley, Keith Herber, Marcus L. Rowland, Scott Aniolowski, Michael Szymanski, Gregory Detwiler, John Scott Clegg, and Tony Hickie

"Chainsaw Cthulhu" cover: Lee Gibbons

Interior art: Earl Geier

The high concept for this one: "Welcome to Camp Cthulhu!"

There are times to blast things that jump out of the darkness, and there are times to confront your own darker impulses. Then there are times a horror fan just wants to shout "Eeeeyaaagh! Get 'em offa me!"

Appealing to the same spirit that makes people rent really bad horror films at the video store, Chaosium has produced its first CALL OF CTHULHU supplement that makes no use of H. P. Lovecraft's Cthulhu Mythos. Blood Brothers offers 13 short scenarios based on classic (or classically awful) horror movies from the 1930s to today: Lugosi-style vampires, werewolves a la Lon Chaney, zombies right out of George Romero ("Night of the Living Dead" and its ilk), killer dolls, cavemen and dinosaurs (a scenario called "The Land That Time Ignored"), gremlin-style mischief makers ("Ancient Killer Nazi Shamans"), and even a nice science-fictional Alien tribute. Each provides stock one-shot characters of the John Agar variety, all designed for broad roleplaying fun and -- need I add? -- disposability. And if that wasn't enough, check out the CoC stats for Bud Abbott and Lou Costello.

Recognizing the fundamental differences between a mind-shattering Elder God and a cheesy papier-mache construct from Universal Studios, the supplement changes the effects of a Sanity roll. CALL OF CTHULHU players shudder at the typical effects of failed SAN rolls, a galling battery of psychoses, phobias, and disastrous proclivities. In Blood Brothers, when you fail a SAN roll, you scream, or you fall down in the path of the approaching crab-thing. Or, worst of all, you faint. Eeeeyaaagh!

If you haven't already groaned and put down this magazine, then Blood Brothers is your cup of fake theatrical blood.

This supplement highlights a surprising and welcome turn in our hobby: the impish sense of humor in the field's leading horror game. Think also of Chaosium's Miskatonic University Graduation Kit (with the Restricted Stacks library pass, the "Go 'Pods!" bumper sticker, and more); and of the appendix to its recent Cthulhu Casebook (reprinted from an old Different Worlds magazine article) that helpfully describes what a corpse looks like after various Chtulhoid monsters get done with it. Blood Brothers continues that fine tapdance on the line between horror and comedy, and as usual, it delivers admirably on both sides.

Each scenario here includes a knowledgeable sidebar listing the movies that inspired it. Recipe for a fun evening: Rent one of these movies, invite your players over to watch it, and pop a big bowl of popcorn. Then, when everyone's in the proper mood, run the appropriate scenario. What a night! Can I tag along?

PS. Apropos of nothing, I pass along the Cthulhu Light-Bulb Joke:

Q: How many CALL OF CTHULHU characters does it take to change a light bulb?

A: All of them. Never split the party!

Short and Sweet

WGA4 Vecna Lives!, by David "Zeb" Cook. TSR, Inc., $9.95. Yet another way to scare players. Every longtime player in the AD&D GREYHAWK campaign setting knows those two awesome relics, the Eye and Hand of the arch-lich Vecna. Now the wizard and a rather interesting cult are plotting to change Oerth forever -- and the spooky thing is, they really can succeed! Zeb Cook has started this horrific 96-page adventure with some good staging tips and a really killer scene, where the players play Greyhawk's great Circle of Eight wizards (you know, Bigby, Otto, Tenser, that bunch). At the end of the first scene, they -- well, let's just say you'd produce the same effect on your players if you torched your game room. The rest of the adventure is more routine, but your heroes have many chances to mess this one up big-time, and that will transform your campaign in ways you may not want. For fans of high-level AD&D adventures, though, this is definitely worth a look.

COSMIC ENCOUNTER, by Eberle, Kittredge, Olotka, and Norton; revision by Barker, Guon, Rhoades, Sheaves, and Simon. Mayfair Games, $35. This brilliantly interactive and spectacularly fun 1977 design is my very favorite game, bar none. Cast as one of 48 alien races, each with a unique power to break the rules of the game in one specific way, you move out from your home planetary system to conquer the Cosmos. Recruit allies and play Challenge Cards to establish bases in your opponents' systems, but beware of Edict and Flare cards that can send your tokens to the Warp! COSMIC ENCOUNTER is what Risk was meant to be, and this new Mayfair edition only improves it: more and nicer components; nine new alien powers like the Cavalry (plays a Challenge Card as an ally) and the Subversive (pulls opposing allies to its side after cards are revealed); and a rules cleanup that is eminently respectful and sensible. I love this game so much that I view any revision warily, yet this superb update wins me over completely.

The problem, of course, is the price. But if you know several other players (the game works poorly with less than four), mark me: You definitely will get $35 of fun out of this box. I've played the original COSMIC ENCOUNTER (from the late Eon Products) over a hundred times; every game was wildly different, and -- as Woody Allen remarked on another subject -- the worst one I ever had was right on the money.

Western Hero, by Matt Forbeck. Hero Games, $20. This 208-page campaign sourcebook for CHAMPIONS or the Hero System brings the Old West to life -- sort of. At times Forbeck seems uncertain whether to recreate a historically accurate milieu or a rootin'-tootin' larger-than-life "cinematic" frontier. This 208-page supplement includes plenty of both. It's strongest in its extensive descriptions (with stats) of historical figures like Calamity Jane and the young Teddy Roosevelt, as well as a meticulous portrayal of 1876 Deadwood, South Dakota. Learn how to shoot from the hip, fight atop a moving train, and slide a bad guy down the bar. Enjoy the extensive campaign advice and many pages of scenarios. But ignore those ludicrous animal stats -- a mere scorpion, as written, could almost give a super-hero a run for the money! Stick with the people and you'll have a high old time on the range.

BOOT HILL Wild West roleplaying game, 3rd edition, by Steve Winter (after Blume and Gygax, 1975); scenarios by David Cook and Jeff Grubb. TSR, Inc., $20. Western games are hitting like a blast from a Gatling gun -- or in this case, a blast from the past, for this was one of TSR's first RPGs. Winter's revised rules are simple and abstract (though realistically, rather than cinematically, oriented) -- and smoother than the CHAMPIONS game that Western Hero supports (see above). This game's campaign material generally emphasizes realism, except for a few incidentals such as "The Fastest Guns That Never Lived." (This is the first time I've seen RPG stats for Steve McQueen and Charles Bronson.) Of course, a 128-page rulebook can't offer the depth and scope of the Forbeck supplement, but it has some fun mini-scenarios and a great map. If you can spring for both, these two Western books ride nicely together.

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