Monday, 8 January 2018

Review: Stalkers of the Elder Dark

This a reading review of the recently published Stalkers of the Elder Dark. It is a game of cosmic horror in the veins of Call of Cthulhu and Silent Legions. It is a small game (roughly 12k words on 94 pages of 6×9 inches) with very few mechanical widgets, set in the 1920s, and the cosmic creatures, grimoires, and alien technology greatly resembles the Cthulhu mythos (although it also alludes to another product by the authors, Opherian Scrolls).

System Summary
  • The core resolution mechanic is rolling action dice. It's a 2d6 roll that must equal or exceed 7 to succeed. Modifiers chiefly come from skill ranks.
  • Players choose a background (Academic, Bootlegger, Creative, and Explorer), and then one of the three specialties the background offers (e.g. Performance for Creatives or Paleontology for Academics). They ensure automatic success with or grant a bonus to certain actions.
  • Characters have two common skills chosen from a larger list (e.g. First aid, Repartee, or Willpower). Some skills can be taken multiple times to increase their bonus.
  • Characters start with a random phobia (or two if they'd like to start with 3 skills instead). These only manifest when a character has at least 1 trauma (then, when confronted with their phobia's subject, they need to roll action dice to suppress their fear.
  • Physical injuries cause wounds, while exposure to the horrors of the setting inflicts traumas. Up to the 15 may be sustained before death or mental breakdown occurs, respectively. A mental breakdown results in either catatonia, mania, or psychosis (rolled on a table). There is an optional rule for dying that offers a chance to stabilise someone at 15 wounds. Recovery is slow (a single point of wound/trauma per day), and it might even require medical or therapeutic attention.
  • Combat (and other instances of danger time) is broken into rounds. Initiative is rolled once (a simple d6 per group). Attack rolls and damage rolls are combined (similarly to how Into the Odd handles it). Most attacks deal 1d6 damage (firearms may deal more), although thick clothing and cover may reduce that. Player characters may decide to take traumas instead of wounds when attacked.
  • XP is earned for participation, role-playing, suffering a mortal wound or experiencing a breakdown, and overcoming a major enemy (for a maximum of 5 XP per session). Learning and improving skills costs 7 XP. Also, spending 1 XP grants success on the action dice or maximum damage.
Things I Liked
  • this game is much more pleasing to the eye than the publisher's previous game, using an actually readable font and bolded terms (I'm sad I even need to mention it)
  • the background list is very concise; characters are assumed to have a lot of free time and money (in the form of passive income or inheritance) that allows them to travel and investigate
  • the elder ones have epithets (way easier to remember than their Lovecraftian names); too bad the servitor races don't have them
  • XP is earned for mortal wounds and mental breakdowns, incentivising proactivity and daredevilry
Things I Disliked
  • a petty thing to mention, but the GM-equivalent of the game (Watcher) is consistently capitalised, whereas player isn't (it only started to bother me recently, to be fair)
  • overuse of the precomposed ellipsis
  • phobias are rolled with 3d6, which might make characters too similar in the long run (also, gnosiophobia is right at the middle of the curve)
  • virtually no advice concerning scenario design
  • only 3 spells (called Opherian Mysteries)

I don't mind the barebones mechanics, and I actually applaud the tightness of the available character archetypes. There are a handful of different elder ones and servitor races described (briefly), and also a couple of animals that might pose a threat while travelling around the world. However, the Watcher advice given is lackluster to say the least. I can only recommend this game to those who already know how to design and run investigative scenarios. Or you could use the GM chapters of Silent Legions. If you do have experience running this sort of game or have a lot of tools, and all you need is a simple, easy to remember set of rules that is also very cheap, this might be your game.

Stalkers of the Elder Dark was written by James and Robyn George and published in 2018 through their imprint, Olde House Rules. It is available in PDF through RPGNow and DriveThruRPG.

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