Friday, June 25, 2021

A Devilishly Good (Evil?) Time

Something has gone wrong and the devils have broken through. Hell has come to earth! Literally! Except devils are Lawful, so this particular colony of Hell turns out to be a functioning, albeit evil, society.

(Just like our own! Lols.)
That's the setting of Perdition, a game I bought back in 2016 and for some reason had not read until Tuesday. This turns out to be my error.

Perdition is a Dungeons & Dragons variant with an Old School feel but some modern touches, and in terms of complexity it feels somewhere between a B/X clone and a lighter version of D&D3. The book itself is a complete game with the setting elements conveyed through rules mechanics; there is no gazetteer of the world here, and only a few major personalities -- all devil lords, of course -- are detailed.

The book is written by Courtney Campbell and Arnold K, with art from Heather Gwinn, Marcin S, Matthew Adams, Michael Raston, Russ Nicholson, and that most prolific of artists, Public D. Omain.

The Good (or maybe The Bad in this case, because Bad is Good)

The setting comes through on every page and in almost every line. It's an implied setting, oh yes, but "implied" doesn't seem strong enough a word. Infused, maybe. Soaked, even. You couldn't use this ruleset to play anywhere else but Perdition -- or a similar devil-infested place -- but then you have countless D&D variants for that.

The classes are evocative. some familiar, some new, some familiar but with new twists, but all flavoured -- soaked even -- with Perdition, er, badness. Each of the 12 (!) classes has a fun ability or mechanic and some feel almost like little games within the game. They are similar to 13th Age in that respect, although they are less elaborate and extensive than some of the classes in that game. Even so, each is like a little toy box and they all look like great fun to play. Yes, even the fighter.

As a D&D cousin, Perdition uses experience points, although here they are transformed into prestige. At a basic level, it works much like it does in most OSR variants; go into dungeon, drag out coins, convert into points and levels. But levels have a special importance in a lawful, hierarchical society like Perdition, and that's reflected in the mechanics, as more powerful characters attract more attention from the devils that run things.

Nor is money the only currency, because devils also trade in souls -- which do have a monetary value if you are desperate enough! -- and infernal contracts are common, to the extent that there's a lovely set of mechanics for handling how such agreements work, turning the negotiations into a neat little sub-game in which even the winner can come away with a bad deal.

(This twisty-turny but logical economy of money, souls, and contractual obligations can drive the game and provide the impetus for characters to adventure together. Why are we going on adventures when the devils have already won? Well, because Geoff owes Maluthraxus 2000gp from his last level-up, and Alice has been promised immortality if the black orcs are forced from Thunder Mountain.)

My favourite concept in the entire book is the Vile Conclave, an extension of this ordered system of agreements, contracts, and transactions. The Vile Conclave is brilliant. The world is ruled by devils, and devils like law and order, so of course, there is an official procedure for dealing with them. I don't know if the writers were influenced by the demonic parliament in Disgaea 4, but it's a similar concept. Rocking up at a devil's fortress and killing the fiend is frowned upon, and will probably get you eviscerated by the Devil Police, but players can instead take their grievances to the Conclave. They can also make requests at the Conclave, or even go to make veiled insults to try and force a devil to make a faux pas and thus face sanctions from its peers. All of this works through betting experience/prestige and while the mechanics are a bit light on specifics, it's a wonderful, fun idea, and I could see enthusiastic groups expanding it through use.

(Forms. There needs to be forms. Devilish requisition? That's Form 666B, sir.)

I adore how devils are used in the book. They are evil, yes, but they are reasonable and while you can kill them like your average D&D murderhobo would, there are better -- and more entertaining -- ways to deal with them, and those ways baked into the mechanics and the setting. It's so good. If you're running a game in which devils play a major part, then it's worth getting the book just to steal the contracts and the Conclave.

The Bad (or Good, see above)

Nothing! Honestly, Perdition is full of good ideas, and a handful of average ones, but there's nothing I would call bad in here. Aside from the devils. Ha. There is one extended case where some of those ideas clash and trip over each other, but that's for the next section...

The Ugly

I am not at all fond of the multiple resolution systems. You have attribute tests, which use 2d6 -- or sometimes 2d4 or 2d8, depending on the character -- against target numbers between 5 and 12, depending on difficulty. You also have skills, which are tested against a target of 6, and use a die between 1d6 and 1d12 depending on the skill level of the character. On top of that you have the standard B/X reaction roll, which is a Charisma test, but is a special case that always uses 2d6, and the game also uses a Swords & Wizardry-style saving throw. On top of that there are "struggles" which are opposed tests that involve rolling and totalling hit dice, with the highest total winning. As well as physical hit dice for physical struggles, there are mental/social hit dice for, um, mental and social struggles.

(There's also the good old attack roll and a new social/psychic attack roll, the latter of which works in the same way as the former but uses a different statistic. Some may consider those resolution systems, which they are, but not in the sense I mean here; I don't think it's fair to complain about attack rolls and other task rolls being different in a D&D variant.)

Now, I don't advocate for a universal mechanic here, because like any element of games design, a mechanic is good if it serves a valid purpose, and that's true of a single unified task resolution system too. If there is a good reason for different systems, then so be it.

(The classic example is percentile thief skills in D&D. One compelling argument for them is that switching to a completely different set of dice is a sort of direct, haptic feedback that reinforces the feel that these are a set of abilities unique to the thief.)

The issue I have with the multiple systems in Perdition is that I cannot espy the valid purpose; it feels like a bit of a janky kitbash and I imagine it would be chaotic and confusing at the table. Maybe not, but I can't see any good reason why a unified mechanic -- or at least some streamlining -- wouldn't have been worthwhile, a bit of filing down of the spiky bits.

I've written quite a lot about the task resolution, which suggests that it's a big problem, but in truth it's a minor issue and it's really the only Ugly part of the game. There is so much to enjoy here.


Perdition has lots of great ideas, heaps of fun mechanics that make you want to get to the table and play right away, and a lovely, light, and elegant evocation of setting through rules. It's very good indeed and I am kicking myself for leaving this unread on my shelf for five years. Sorry, Courtney, sorry Arnold!

My copy of Perdition is a hardback printed by back in 2016. It doesn't look like it is available any more but you can get a pdf from DriveThruRPG.

Wednesday, June 23, 2021

Forever Fibbing

I bought Eternal Lies soon after its release in 2013 but Stuart's children were part of our gaming group at the time, and I was aware that the campaign was full of content that wasn't appropriate for them, nor could it be removed without undermining some of the key themes. Almost a decade later, Stuart's kids are far too cool to play with us old fogeys, so I was able to get the campaign to the table at last.

We've been playing since June 2020 -- with a couple of gaps -- but I haven't been posting summaries here because, well, the authors ask that no details of the plot are revealed in reviews or other discussion. I intend to respect that, although it will make this review a bit tricky in places. Bear with me.

I'm going to reverse the usual Good, Bad, and Ugly order here because -- spoilers, dear reader -- this campaign has major problems, and I want to end on a positive note. As much as I can, anyway.

The Ugly

The book is massively overwritten. This is obvious from the first page and was part of the reason why I didn't push to get it to the table earlier, as I feared it would be a lot of work to get it to a playable state. I was not wrong. The book has around 400 pages but there are probably about 100 pages of actual content; the rest is faff, nonsense, guff, and vast swathes of pointless repetition. Also, there's quite a lot of repeated information, and furthermore much of the page count is taken up with repeating what you've just read a few pages earlier.

There's also an issue with the tone of the writing, which I admit may be a matter of taste, in that it comes across as smug, arrogant, and hypocritical at times. For example, there are a couple of places where the very concept of dungeon-delving is ridiculed, but then we get at least three actual, honest-to-Gygax dungeons. Maps are mocked and considered tools of the imagination-challenged, except when they are not. It's a bit sad and almost embarrassing to read.

The Bad

Oh crikey.

Perhaps the biggest issue with the campaign as a whole is that, aside from a couple of places, there's not much in the way of player choice. The overall structure is somewhat similar to the classic Masks of Nyarlathotep -- which I suspect is deliberate -- in that once things get going, the players can tackle the main campaign locations in any order, but that's where the flexibility ends. Each location is a little railroad, literally in one case, which doesn't even have the decency to be a knowing joke.

(A quickish aside: my understanding is that the entire point of the Gumshoe -- I'm not capitalising it until you tell me why -- philosophy is that the players cannot fail to find essential clues, and so the investigation never stalls. To my mind, this means you can design adventures with a rich and -- if you want -- complex structure, knowing the players will not be blocked from accessing that structure because of a failed skill roll. The authors of Eternal Lies, on the other hand, seem to have taken it to mean that they can force players to experience a sequence of set pieces; it's the sort of structure that we all knew was bad in 1990 so it's a bit baffling to see in 2013, even more so in a game line that I thought was supposed to encourage the opposite. Thus endeth the asideth.)

The grand irony is that despite the rigid design, there are holes in the structure big enough to pilot the Alert through that cause some parts of the campaign to be tricky if not impossible to access. The most egregious is the climax of the entire campaign, which happens for reasons the players have no way of knowing, so the authors crowbar in some quasi-flashbacks to get the players there. One of the major non-player-characters is sort of halfway to working it out, so can nudge the players in the right direction, but -- and look at this for a clusterfudge of bad design -- if the players are sensible there is no reason for them to encounter this NPC at all, so the adventure as written has them beaten unconscious, stripped of their equipment, and dumped literally at the NPC's feet.

(I wasn't going to do that to my players, so in my game, the players arrived at the location and did what they came to do, then decided there was no reason to pursue the NPC, and left.)

This isn't something Gumshoe can fix, because the NPC's name and location are clues the players find whatever happens, but you still need a reason for them to meet the NPC, other than "some thugs knock you out", and the GM shouldn't be doing the work that a £40 book should be doing.

What's worse is that the climax only happens as a result of player action. This is supposed to be a final ironic twist, but because there's no way for the players to realise this, it can come across as arbitrary and random. For the GM, who can see the workings behind the curtain, there is a further disappointing revelation: if the players do nothing, nothing bad happens. The bad guys carry on, but they don't "win", indeed the way they are written -- which is one of the good parts of the campaign; see below -- means that they cannot triumph.

Without going into spoilers, for I have made a promise, this is how the campaign works:

In 1924, a cult attempts to do a Very Specific Thing. It is interrupted and although there are survivors, none of them know what the Very Specific Thing was, or even that the cult was trying to make it happen. This crucial bit of data is lost in 1924.

In 1934 -- or maybe 1937, because the campaign isn't sure when it is set (sigh) -- the players go around tracking down splinters of the original cult and dealing with them.


The players do the Very Specific Thing (oops) and must save the world.

Okay then.

That ????? is a huge narrative and structural gap -- again, a surprise in a campaign which has up to that point forced players along a strict linear path -- and the authors seem to just assume that it will not be an issue. In my game the players decided that yes, they would go and do the Very Specific Thing but they didn't really have any good reason to do so, which strikes me as a problem, and the "twist" that they really shouldn't have done so after all is an even bigger problem, but now I am repeating myself.

(How very appropriate.)

The campaign as a whole is a mess of rigid railroading and massive gaps, which is a worst-of-both-worlds chimera I didn't think was possible.

The Good

There are a couple of terrible non-player-characters in the campaign, but they are not essential and are easily cut. The majority of the NPCs are at least interesting, and the main cast are quite well written, in particular the major antagonists. I am reluctant to call them villains, because while they stand in opposition to the players and represent the traditional Cthulhu cultists, they are far from traditional in their characterisation. Each of the major opposition NPCs is written as complex, with their own goals and motivations, and although the characters are technically on the same side, they have more differences than commonalities.

(The obvious approach is to use these differences to turn the antagonists against each other, but the geographical scope of the campaign does make this difficult and, alas, there is zero support for such an approach in the book. That the potential is there is at least half-good.)

The chief antagonists are layered and interesting enough that they could even be useful to the players under the right circumstances. On the other hand, they are cultists, so even if they are being helpful, the players may not trust them, which of course is fun and interesting. The treatment of these characters is nicely done and by far the strongest aspect of the campaign.

I must also admit that some of the set pieces are effective and fun, so while I can't condone the authors strongarming the players into experiencing them, I can at least understand why they are so keen to show them off. It is ironic and more than a little disappointing that perhaps the chapter with the worst writing is also the one with some of the most fun encounters, and my favourite section of the entire campaign is something of a side trek, optional and not strictly relevant to the main adventure.

I also like the general idea of the big climax, even if it is almost impossible to get there as written.


For the most part I enjoyed running Eternal Lies and I think my players had fun, but my gosh the thing is a janky mess almost from page one, and running it is a lot of work. I don't even mean preparation work of the sort any large campaign needs, but rather a lot of fixing of broken parts and filling in gaps, and even ground-up rewrites in some places. I don't think it's too unreasonable to expect a better, more polished, and more complete product for £40.

I would recommend the campaign only to the GM that enjoys going to such effort, or perhaps as a source of ideas, as there are some good sections that could potentially be pulled out and used in other contexts. Otherwise, there are better, and easier, campaigns to run. You may have heard that Eternal Lies is a classic, on the same level as the venerable Masks of Nyarlathotep, but do not listen to such... lies.

Ha ha.

I ran Eternal Lies over 25 weekly sessions between the 20th of June 2020 to the 20th of June 2021 (!), with some interruptions here and there. We played it over Roll20 with a modified version of Call of Cthulhu fifth edition, rather than Trail of Cthulhu; I made good use of the official conversion notes here.

(And how cool is it that Chaosium and Pelgrane allowed those conversion notes to exist?)

Also useful was the Alexandrian Remix; Justin Alexander holds the campaign in much higher regard than I do, and I didn't use much of his actual remix material in my version, but reading it was helpful and it confirmed some of my own misgivings about the source and gave me the confidence to make my own changes. Justin's chapter summaries are far more readable than the ones in the book, so I recommend reading them if you're going to try running the campaign.

Monday, June 21, 2021


About the size of a chubby pigeon and twice as stupid, these giant insectoid* idiots are most common in the late summer and early autumn months. They are attracted to light, fly like they've chugged 13 barrels of ale, and seem to do everything in their limited, ungainly power to get themselves killed. How they manage to survive long enough to breed is a mystery that has baffled sages everywhere.

*(As any pedant will tell you, they are not true spiders. Ettercaps get quite exasperated if you mention them as they are a bit of a PR disaster for spider-kind.)

Suicidal Tendencies (roll 1d6 once per round/turn per FLYING IDIOT DEATH SPIDER):
  1. Wibbles into the middle of combat and takes a hit meant for something else.
  2. Flumps into a lantern or torch, extinguishing it, then flies about in a panic, setting fire to 1d4 random items before burning up.
  3. Bumps into a random character's face, causing penalties (-2, disadvantage, whatever) to all rolls until it flies off to do something else.
  4. Blunders into the nearest trap, setting it off.
  5. Plunges face first into the nearest liquid, drowning itself, and potentially ruining lunch if the nearest liquid was your soup.
  6. Flip-flops around, bumping into things and causing a surprising amount of noise, alerting any nearby creatures.

FLYING IDIOT DEATH SPIDERS in Troika! and similar games of fantasy fighting:
Initiative 3
Armour 0
Damage 0

FLYING IDIOT DEATH SPIDERS in LotFP and other old-school games of dungeon-based adventuring:
FLYING IDIOT DEATH SPIDER, Armour None (12), Move 120', 1 Hit Dice, 1hp, annoying flapping (no damage), Morale 12 (fearless because of stupidity)

Fly my pretties!

Thursday, June 10, 2021

Feathered Cap

This enchanted hat provides no special protection -- apart from keeping the rain off your head -- and takes up a head slot, if your game uses such things.

It enhances the effects of any single-use magic item in the form of a feather; a feather token, Phoenix Down, chimera wing, and so on. If such an item is placed in the band of the hat, then it is not consumed when used. A used feather item crumbles, disappears, fades, poofs, or otherwise expires only if removed from the hat.

The feather item, if not already large, grows to an impressive size, and everyone the wearer encounters will comment on it. Use your game's standard reaction mechanics to determine if the remarks are positive or not. If the reaction is negative, it's just jealousy, obviously.