Wednesday, 20 January 2016
Review: SILENT LEGIONS
CALL OF CTHULHU is an outlier in the gaming industry, a game that has been around in the industry since the early 1980's in very much the same form. The 7th Edition of CoC will apparently change things up from the venerable Basic Roleplaying rules that have powered it from its beginnings, and time will tell how well it will be received. If I sound a little skeptical, it's because CoC is pretty much the perfect case point in "if it ain't broke, don't fix it". I have been running games from my battered old copy of the 5th edition rules for twenty years now, and (notwithstanding a flirtation with the excellent but short-lived d20 incarnation of the game) never felt like it needed an update. Oh, I've played other games that take on Lovecraftian horror, like Graham Walmsley's rules-so-light-they're-hardly-there CTHULHU DARK, but the grandfather of horror gaming is still the best, in my book.
I had hopes that TREMULUS, Sean Preston's Powered-by-the-Apocalypse take on Lovecraftian horror, would bring something new to the party, but found the implementation wasn't quite bold enough for my liking. Most of the design trod along very familiar pathways, and never really seemed to be "about" something, in the way that the best *World games have strong thematic content echoed in the design.
So what brought me to SILENT LEGIONS, Kevin Crawford's take on Lovecraftian gaming?
I mentioned in my last post that I've been interested lately in games that cater to a "sandbox" gaming experience. I expect that part of that is nostalgia, thinking back to my early days as a gamer, exploring fantasy worlds like Greyhawk and the Forgotten Realms. Sandbox gaming has very strong advocates in the modern gaming community, though, who claim that there is an authenticity in sandbox gaming that narrative-focused games lack. I'm not convinced by this argument, but emergent gameplay is something that is always satisfying, so I've been reading into the games of the OSR (Old School Renaissance) with a mind towards stealing anything that might be useful. It's good to get your head out of the Same Old-Same Old and try to inject some new ideas.
I enjoyed my read of STARS WITHOUT NUMBER, Crawford's homage to another venerable game (TRAVELLER), and especially liked a lot of the tools he included to create your own space opera campaign. I think most gamers get a little shot of endorphin straight to the brain when they find a good random table, and I'm no exception. The idea of building up a unique campaign world out of raw material like that is pretty thrilling - there's an element of discovery even for the GM.
SILENT LEGIONS brings the same thing to the world of Lovecraftian horror. I wondered about that when I first heard about it - a Lovecraftian sandbox? In my mind, horror games are pretty heavily rooted in narrative, and CoC investigations seem to demand heavy structure, if not necessarily a "railroad" structure. TRAIL OF CTHULHU (and other Gumshoe-powered games) is built specifically around the idea of stopping an investigation from floundering because missed (or misinterpreted) clues are sending the players down blind alleys. Can you really do without all that?
After reading the rulebook, I'm still not sure; I think I'll need to play it to know for certain. The game makes a very good argument for thinking about Lovecraftian games differently, though. First, the system is very simple, using the same engine that powers STARS WITHOUT NUMBER; that's nothing new, as CoC's percentile-based system is among the easiest to grasp, but the characters are a whole lot simpler. Each of the game's four Classes only has a handful of skills, plus a few gained from a background, and a unique ability that gives them an individual character. That means players can dive in pretty quickly, which is very nice - especially since characters in this game are very, very fragile. Perhaps even more fragile than CoC characters, and that's saying something.
The game uses a "Slaughter Die" mechanic that means there is always the chance a successful attack will do triple damage to some unlucky bastard. OUCH. Crawford mentions that this is not a game where combat is supposed to be a palatable option, but still. Dangerous.
The system is sort of a hybrid between classic D&D and TRAVELLER, but it's very sleek and playable. It feels like a very modern take on that kind of ruleset, in the same way that CASTLES & CRUSADES manages to streamline out a lot of the clutter.
Now, the best bit. Like I said, random tables are awesome, and oh my goodness does this game have a lot of fabulous ones. Pretty much every element of a Lovecraftian game (or really, just a modern horror game) is represented here with robust tools. You can create your own pantheon of dark Elder Gods, bloodthirsty cults, alien marauders, weird creatures, even other dimensions - all with a few rolls of the dice. I think Crawford has it right that there is a real possibility of diluting the power and strangeness of cosmic horror if Cthulhu and his critters become too familiar, so all of this random goodness makes it easy to bring a fresh face to old tropes.
SILENT LEGIONS is not as scholarly and erudite a game as CoC or TRAIL, but that isn't what it's trying to do. This game pushes a lot of the same buttons as BEYOND THE SUPERNATURAL did when I was in high school, promising thrills and chills lurking behind the facade of the modern world. Crawford's writing is evocative and effective at communicating the proper tone of the material, and he does it without dropping a lot of the usual names from the Mythos canon.
I found reading the game was energizing and inspiring, and I wanted to get my online game playing this as soon as possible. If you're the kind of person who likes playing Lovecraftian games with any ruleset, you will find a lot to like in this book - and, if you're like me, a lot of system-neutral tools you can steal and make use of.