Wednesday, 6 March 2019

Review: Eldritch Tales

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Eldritch Tales, as its subtitle says, a Lovecraftian White Box role-playing game. It takes place in the 1920s (like the majority of games centred around the Cthulhu Mythos), where the player characters investigate mysteries and strange phenomena (just like in Call of Cthulhu or Stalkers of the Elder Dark).

System Summary
  • The six classic attributes (determined by 3d6 in order). Scores of 7-14 have no modifiers; scores below have −1, scores above have +1. Intelligence (extra languages) and Charisma (assistants and loyalty) have separate tables (as usual in White Box games).
  • The standard resolution mechanic is the Attribute Feat System, where a d6 roll of 5-6 succeeds (above average scores allow a success on a 4 as well, while someone with a score below average only succeed on a 6). Difficulty may impose penalties, and the text also advises that the referee consider automatic failure or success depending on the situation.
  • Class and level determine Hit Dice, Base Attack Bonus, Saving Throw (single value with bonuses to certain types based on class), and XP requirement.
  • There are four classes available: the Antiquarian, the Combatant, the Opportunist, and the Socialite. Each comes with a few special abilities and skills (essentially a bonus to relevant Attribute Feats), as well as some contacts.
  • Choosing an Occupation is optional. It provides a few specialties (applies "roll twice, keep higher" for related Attribute Feats), some extra starting possessions, and weekly disposable income.
  • Time is measured in turns (10 minutes) and rounds (1 minute). A sidenote says the exact lengths are there for compatibility with other White Box games and can safely be adjusted.
  • Combat is pretty much the same as in other White Box games: 1-2 on d6 per side for surprise, d6 per side for initiative, d20 + bonuses vs. AC for attacks (the game supports both ascending and descending AC).
  • Burst attacks expend 3 rounds of ammo for +1 attack bonus. Spray attacks expend 10 rounds or half the magazine, attack is at −2, but it targets a 10-foot area (everyone hit takes 1 less damage than normal). Double-barreled shotguns may fire both barrels at once, dealing an extra die of damage (provided the target is in short range).
  • All Hit Dice and damage dice are d6s (as normal in White Box games).
  • Characters die at 0 hp. There are optional rules for making the game even deadlier (!) or a little less punishing.
  • Mythos Lore measures (have you guessed it?) one's knowledge about the Cthulhu Mythos; it starts at 0, and it grants bonuses to Mythos-related checks, spellcasting, and saves against insanity after certain thresholds.
  • Insanity points are accrued for sighting mind-bending horrors and failing a Saving Throw vs. insanity. In certain cases a random temporary insanity develops for 1d6 rounds (e.g. hallucinations, panic attack, violent outbreak). Whenever one's Insanity points reach half their Wisdom score, a permanent insanity manifests. There are means to recover sanity (e.g. spending time in an asylum or levelling up), but each time this threshold is reached, a new permanent insanity is gained. Accumulating points equal to one's full Wisdom score means they go irrevocably insane and become an NPC.
  • Mythos Lore points, recovery from insanity, wealth, and new contacts are all valid rewards with mechanical impact.
  • Advancement in levels is measured in XP, which can be awarded for defeating enemies (based on their HD), earning Mythos Points, exemplary role-playing, and advancing or completing an investigation.
  • Spells are usually acquired from books and inscriptions. There are 57 of them described in the book.
  • Learning a spell takes 1 day per spell level and an Intelligence Feat (usually with a penalty specified in the spell's description). On a failure they save vs. insanity or gain 1 point of insanity. On a success they learn the spell. Regardless, the wannabe sorcerer gains 1 Mythos Point.
  • Casting a spell may be attempted any time, and it takes a successful Intelligence, Wisdom, or Charisma Feat (specified in the spell's description along with any penalties). On a failure there is always some negative consequence detailed in the spell's description.
  • A total of 54 adversaries, 7 mythos tomes, 7 items of weird science, and 8 sorcerous objects are given description.
  • There is a sample scenario (although I haven't delved into that one yet). Still, the thought counts.

Things I Liked
  • There's a random table to determine relationships between party members (e.g. A owes a debt to B, while B is a mentor to C, whose family might have had business deals with the family of A).
  • Contacts are an integral part of the game, and there's a short section detailing their subtypes (such as Academic and Medical) and offering some advice (i.e. watch out for abusing their help, use them to relay info and introduce twists).
  • Money isn't abstract; you keep counting your bucks or bobs or whatever. It's very much a personal preference thing.
  • Armour is not "actual" armour, but rather anything that is protective (a leather jacket and a fedora might be considered light armour, for instance). Instead of getting rid of the mechanic and replacing it with something else, it just reframes what armour means (a classic move in White Box games).
  • Testing Loyalty and checking Morale mirror Attribute Feats, only with different ranges for success (so they are simply d6 rolls). I have nothing against 2d6; I just like symmetry.
  • Light sources last for some time, but then they have a 2-in-6 chance of going out per hour (there is a maximum time limit, though). The idea is neat, but it seems like one of those little rules that gets forgotten mid-session.
  • There's an optional rule for awarding XP for Insanity damage.
  • There is a short list of optional rules (mostly through increasing the characters' resources) to run pulp adventures (something more along the lines of The Two-Headed Serpent than Masks of Nyarlathotep).

Things I Disliked
  • A few typos and inconsistencies in capitalisation. Nothing that impacts understanding the rules.
  • The pound-based encumbrance system is nice for compatibility, but I think a more abstract variation would've been more fitting (like the Strength score based rule variant so pervasive in OSR circles). A minor nitpick that even I often change my mind about, to be honest.
  • Inconsistent use of gendered pronouns. I personally prefer the singular they, but I actually don't care whether he or she is used as long as the usage is consistent.
  • I personally dislike all XP schemes that reward role-playing, because it is just too subjective.
  • There is no alphabetical or ordered-by-level summary of spells.
  • Although the book is fairly light (52k words spread over 220 pages or so), the PDF is unacceptably large (nigh 130 MB!).
  • Content copying is disabled in the PDF, which makes it harder to make your own reference documents. There's an official referee screen available, but I still dislike this practice very much.

I very much appreciate the simple rules chassis White Box games are built on, and the presentation of Eldritch Tales is overall good. A wide variety of alien creatures and cults are described to fuel adventures, and the setting overview is sufficiently brief and to-the-point. Still, there isn't much advice concerning how to structure investigative scenarios (general considerations are brought up, but nothing concrete). Even though there is no shortage of CoC scenarios out there, I think Eldritch Tales needs a stronger identity - a handful of adventure modules and tools helping the referee design suitable scenarios would do the trick.

Eldritch Tales was written by Joseph D. Salvador and published by Raven God Games in 2018, and it is available in PDF and softcover/hardcover POD on DriveThruRPG and RPGNow.

1 comment:

  1. Ehh, I knew I forgot something: by default there's a level limit of 6 in the game, which is just strong enough to kill a bunch of cultists, but still not enough to wade through legions of Mythos creatures.