sábado, 1 de abril de 2023

Review of The Red Star: a scenario for Odd Soot

5 comentarios

Odd Soot is a vintage sci-fi roleplaying game that uses the Mythras (RQ6) ruleset with some adaptations and innovations (read a review). After FrostByte Books published the corebook, it got a small supplement called Oddities, and The Red Star is its first official scenario beyond the introductory one. Although The Red Star can be played as a standalone scenario, it is also the first scenario in a three-part campaign (A Falling Mind), with the other two coming soon. The authors of the campaign are Nils Hintze and Erik Hylander, who have worked for the Swedish company Free League: Hintze has written well-known games like Vaesen and Tales from the Loop, while Hylander has created adventures for Symbaroum. Below you can read my review of the scenario they have created for Odd Soot (beware of spoilers!). I must say I got a copy from the publisher so I could write this, but I think I have been objective in my assessment. Please tell me if you think otherwise.

The look

If you have any other publication by FrostByte Books, you probably already know what to expect: squarish format, one-column text with ample margins filled with additional notes and art, and a somewhat dry but stylish presentation. This time, however, all the interior art and the cover are by Clarence Redd. The full-page pieces of colour art, as the cover, are as atmospheric and moody as the ones he did for Junkyard Blues, and I guess he must do them by cleverly combining the use of 3D shapes and Photoshop (see here for more). The layout and general look of the book is even better than previous publications. The cover itself is great as it summarises the tone "the end is near", the characters and the car place the setting as somewhere in the 1920s, and it includes the main driver of the scenario (the meteor). Aside from this, the little fillers, portraits, and maps in the scenario are all quite good. The portraits and the maps in particular fit perfectly with the setting, as they have a properly vintage look. Of course, the whole scenario could have taken much less space were it not for its layout style, but it certainly gives the book an elegant finish

The vintage-looking map of Glimminge, the capital town of Doggerland

The adventure

This 80-page long scenario starts when a red star appears in the sky. As it grows bigger, the news of the approaching meteor spread and apocalyptic hysteria seizes the inhabitants of Glimminge, a town in the fictional island-nation of Doggerland. At the same time, some people start experiencing worrying psychological effects that increases in magnitude as the meteor looms closer. In the middle of it all, the player characters are drawn into a murder investigation.

This is the basic premise of the scenario, which is divided into three parts. In the first one, the authors suggest that every player character should start from a different starting point. They could belong to an esoteric art society, they could work or study at the university, or they could be investigating the murder of an astronomer. In each of these first scenes, players describe how their characters see the meteor for the first time, and then improvise or the GM describes or sets a scene in which a close friend or relative NPC starts experiencing weird effects in their mind. Starting with the characters on their own, before they can act as a group, is a cool way for players to begin stretching their creativity and get to know their characters, their backgrounds, and the town of Glimminge. In fact, aside from the map, the book does not describe the town in any detail. Instead, the authors suggest that players can work together to flesh it out as needed. That means while the limelight is set on each PC, the rest of the players need to wait for their turn, so this beginning will appeal particularly to the more creative, proactive, or story-centered players. An advantage of this approach is that if the players are on board with improvising a little, the scenario can feel like the initial episode of a TV series, or the chapter of a novel, where you usually get to know the main characters little by little. The book also suggests that all PCs should belong to the same circle (groups of people with a common interest as per the Odd Soot rules), to be determined by the players, so they all have reasons to trust each other from the start.

I love it when scenarios include handouts for the players, as well as portraits of the main NPCs

The first part of the scenario just describes what happens in each of these starting points and what can be found out in five different locations. The actual string of events will then depend on the kind of character that starts there, the player's decisions, and the scenes the GM decides to include from a provided list or their own imagination. The scenario offers several ideas to match every character to a different beginning. For example, if you are playing an artist, an art dealer or an occultist, you could start from the esoteric art association angle. All starting points include clues that point to the further development of the scenario, but also to the other starting points. Only the esoteric art association is less connected than the other two. Later on, after all player characters have had the time to explore their initial scenes, they are supposed to meet and share their findings, get interested in the murder case, and play as a group as they investigate together from that moment forward. 

In the second part, player characters are going to follow the clues pointing to two other locations containing further clues. These clues point both the other location and to the final part of the scenario. All clues are just lying there. There is no roll needed to find them, so failed rolls never block the investigators' progress. The PCs will just need to kick down some doors or somehow sneak into closed buildings, and the GM will need to make sure they succeed. This is left for the GM to decide, the scenario just assumes they will manage to get access to those places. Aside from that, the characters' skills are only needed for whatever scenes develop along the course of the scenario, to get some extra information in a couple of cases, and for the extended conflicts.

In this scenario, tension escalates quickly, and in three different ways. First, a meteor is coming! The GM needs to show during the game how the news about the approaching meteor increase the hysteria on the streets. In this regard, some players might start pondering why don't their characters just flee the island with their families, and thus exit the adventure. That can be handled before the scenario properly starts, by establishing the buy-in with your players. Like in your typical Call of Cthulhu scenario, or horror movie, the main characters are expected to dive deep into the investigation, not flee from it at the first opportunity. Therefore, when I run this scenario, I'll make a point to ask my players to describe a reason why they stay in Glimminge instead of just abandoning it like many scared people are doing.

Some more pages from The Red Star scenario

Secondly, the approaching meteor is causing some psychological effects to an increasing amount of people. The so-called "Fraction" could even affect the player characters, and there are some suggestions on when and what exactly can happen. The book also suggests that this phenomenon should have an effect on some NPCs the PCs care about, and it intensifies as the meteor gets closer to Doggerland. Here it shows that Nils Hintze has a degree in Psychology, as some of these effects are similar to dissociation. For example: losing consciousness for several seconds, losing one of the 5 senses for some minutes, losing the use of a limb or even developing a split personality! I would suggest being careful with these effects, because losing the chance to act in a scene could be frustrating for an unlucky player. Fortunately, some of these effects do not last long or can be interrupted by another character, so the GM can augment the tension of a scene with these annoying effects.

Thirdly, an NPC has an agenda that may collide with the PCs' investigation. A sort of fanatical witch hunter is following the same clues as the player characters, and they will need to decide whether to trust him or not. Either way, there will be consequences.

Finally, the second part includes some dangers to the PCs' lives, represented by means of the extended conflicts. If they overcome them, the clues they gather will alert them that something bad is going to happen soon if they do not stop it. That is, on top of the meteor falling on Glimminge! This is the third and final part of the scenario. In the climax, the characters need to stop a murderer from committing a bigger murder with a weird contraption, and this is the part where the characters can have an outwordly encounter. It is cool that there are 3 different ways of dealing with the final part, all of them represented by means of extended conflicts, which are one of the gems of the M-Space and Odd Soot rulesets. However, the immediate reaction of players might be to turn off the machine, and that requires professional skills such as Engineering that can exclude most PCs. The most fun way of finishing the adventure is for the player characters to put on the masks and travel to the Other World to save the students, but that may not look like an obvious (or sensible!) course of action. Therefore, when I run this scenario I will leave some clues around the machine to make that choice much more likely.

This atmospheric piece of art is one of the several full-page pieces included in the scenario

As you can see, when running The Red Star, the GM needs to juggle several aspects. At the beginning, the GM needs to make every characters' scene vivid and interesting, think what scenes to include, and then pause the action to switch to another character, so players do not have to wait for too long to act. Especially in the second part, the GM also needs to make the increasing tension palpable through narration, while judging when and how to insert scenes and psychological effects. Finally, the GM needs to spice up the extended conflicts where most of the dice-rolling is concentrated. However, if all goes even moderately well, this can be a highly enjoyable scenario.

The book also includes four pregenerated characters in case you want to start playing straight away. They fit perfectly with the scenario, and they have predefined starting points and a common circle. As with the rest of The Red Star, players can personalize a couple aspects of these pregens, which is a cool touch.  On top of that, you could turn the NPC Rebecka Nold into a player character. This way the part of the esoteric art association would be much more interesting.

The Autumn Leaves is the group of friends that can be used as pregens for the scenario

All in all...

Without having run it yet, The Red Star looks like a well designed, interesting investigative scenario for an evening of play, or perhaps longer. The theme of the meteor falling is appealing, and the effects of Fraction make it even more so. Both the players and the GM have room for improvisation and to run some parts in their own way. Moreover, the abstract extended conflict mechanics make the dice-rolling side easy and tense to follow, without placing the focus too much on the rules. Therefore, I could imagine myself running this scenario to either a group of beginner or experienced roleplayers. It might not be ideal for a beginning GM though, as it leaves a lot on your own gamemastering experience. I hope my indications about what I would add or modify are helpful in this regard. 

In essence, the plot is the common "stop the ritual", but with enough original details on top that make it its own thing. If your players enjoy the Call of Cthulhu roleplaying game and they are in for something a little bit different, they are quite probably going to like this adventure. So, in other words:

You will like it if...

  • You enjoy serious investigative adventures with weird and supernatural elements.
  • You like to see how players roleplay their characters's personalities during play.
  • You consider interesting to explore psychological effects in NPCs and player characters. 
  • You love the extended conflict rules described in Odd Soot and M-Space.

This is not for you if...

  • You expect to find classic sci-fi elements like interaction with aliens or visits to other planets. Some of this may happen in the next scenarios, but not this one.
  • You prefer combat-oriented scenarios.
  • You are a beginning GM, as it might be challenging to run, particularly the first scenes.

You can purchase The Red Star on DrivethruRPG for 9$ (PDF) or 16$ (softcover colour book and PDF). Remember you can download for free the scenario handouts from the publisher's website. Soon, FrostByte Books will publish the next two chapters of the campaign "A Falling Mind": What We Carry With Us, in which the PCs embark on a dangerous boat trip competing with other teams, and The Giggling Iceberg, where the final mystery will be resolved for good or bad. Did you like this review? Would you like to run this scenario? Please tell me in a comment below!

In the overview of the campaign A Falling Mind, you get a glimpse of the contents of the next two chapters.

5 comentarios:

  1. Odd Space always attracted me. This scenario looks pretty cool and very suggestive for this setting. I now the format helps to have a large book, but 80 pages is quite a large number for a single session scenario! Why do you think it needs this extension? How much preparation needs a GM in order to play it?

    In your opinion, how visible is the application of the extended conflict for the players in the resolution scene? How different should the game experience be without the use of this rule? Or what's the advantage of use it.

    You say it's part of a trilogy, but can be played alone. Does it give tips you keep playing with the same characters to fill the time before the publication of the next book or the story is intended to continue immediately after the events of this scenario?

    1. Hi MG!

      Since I haven't run it yet, I may have misjudged how long it takes to run it, so perhaps one 4-hour session is too little time and you really need 2 sessions. If you follow the link to DrivethruRPG and click on "Quick Preview" you'll see the Contents page and there you can get a better idea of how many pages are devoted to each section. For example, in the beginning there is an overview of the whole campaign and guidelines to create player characters, so the actual scenario goes from page 17 to page 65 (48 pages including full-page art). As for the preparation, you'll need to read it through, print out the handouts and the pregens, and think which of the suggested scenes you are going to include in the first part and between the other parts to show how the hysteria grows and the psychological effects intensify.

      The extended conflict in the final scene is visible as soon as the players make a choice on what to do. You could also ask for a series of rolls with a certain difficulty, but that would probably make it too short. For me the advantage of using the extended conflict rules is that the tension is extended, and you don't finish off the scenario with just one successful skill roll, which can be a bit anticlimactic.

      There are no tips to keep playing before the publication of the next scenario. However, the characters may want to think what to do with the machine, for example, as it could be put to good use, and that could spark other scenarios.

    2. Understood, thanks for the explanations. Regarding the extended conflict that was not my question, I know what they are meant for. If the scope is to disable a machine, it could be achieved for example with a sort of puzzle that needs to put together clues found along the story. Maybe an extended conflict gives less work for the designer of the module and the GM who runs it?

    3. Yes, it definitely means less work when running it. As it is a more abstract resolution system, it gives players and the GM more freedom in how to interpret every dice roll exchange.

    4. I don't think it's about freedom of interpretations of the rolls, they are always open to GM criteria with or without extended conflict, but to give the GM a standard conflict framework of resolution instead of an ad hoc one or blank space to be filled. But I don't want to move away further the discussion from the main topic of the post, that's the module itself :)


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