Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Review: Horror - The Madness Dossier

Approximately 5% of this
counts as cover art.
There was a sale on horror themed books on Warehouse 23, so I bought this one on a whim, and I liked it. It's a setting book for a high power horror game where the players take part in dealing with world ending threats while having to keep things a secret. It plays with outright action elements by giving high powered combat threats and psychological horror by giving players mechanically meaningful ethical dilemmas. I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed it, and how it felt like a bit of an interesting departure from my standard "find problems, get rid of them," games with engaging restrictions. Let's take a closer look then.

Nice space filling table of contents.


This is a 65 page PDF; five chapters, three pages of front matter and an introduction; 4 pages of back matter including a table of inspiration (Bibliography and other media) an index, and an ad for Warehouse 23. Ya know, in case you forgot where you bought it (or they ever release it on drive thru RPG.) This means we have 58 pages to split amongst the 5 chapters; 7 goes to the first chapter on setting fluff; 18 goes to the second chapter discussing appropriate character building options; 8 go to the third chapter on designing hostile npcs; 16 go to the chapter on abilities and equipment; and the last 9 go to the final chapter with advice on building adventures and campaigns.
The book definitely benefits from having Horror proper, and recommends investing in Social Engineering, Martial Arts, and those from the Psionic Powers line; I think the book works fine without them, but from my experiences, those are all pretty good resources anyway, so it won't hurt you to have or implement them if you want to do so.
There is a certain subjective sublime quality to this book that I don't find in others; it feels like the ratio of mechanical rules to content to fluff and so forth is in some kinda golden ratio that keeps me engaged. It was pretty easy to read this from front to back, and I came up with bunches of interesting (my opinion) ideas while reading it. Maybe it just works out because "eldritch evil pulling the strings behind the curtains all along" is one of my favorite secret setting elements, but this setting makes it one of the front and center fixtures.
In terms of decorative content, the illustrations are typical, but that's not bad. The Pull-quotes seem just slightly off point though. The chapters start with entertaining, illuminating vignettes which I always enjoy. The inspirational sources at the end is a pretty interesting list; I've already read a few of them before, and I hope to maybe check one or two out at my library if I get a chance. Altogether, one of the best 4e setting books I have read.

The Secret History of History

This chapter lays out the background and plot of the setting, in mostly system agnostic terms; that our timeline is a splinter off of the "real" timeline where Babylonian/Assyrian deities enslaved the human race, and they are using memetic warfare to try to bring us back by making us believe in them hard enough. The SANDMAN organization faces off against eldritch forces that somehow slink into existence by little cracks in reality, and do what they can to keep the existence of such things a secret because, as said, if the real world know too much, it's back to the slavery for the deities timeline. The fiction is right up my personal alley, so I enjoyed it, and I like that the parts that were highlighted were entertaining to read, but there are enough gaps in the detail to implant whatever bits a GM might like for their game group. It's a fun little tightrope walk to be detailed enough and vague enough to be just right, and this, to me, is just right.

The Sandmen

This is the "how to build a PC" chapter. It starts with a description of traits and special notes to consider for the setting; then it goes into templates; and ends with some advice for slightly less expensive templates for a lower powered game if that is desired.
I like the templates, but I wish there was a little bit of the customization notes you would see in books like Dungeon Fantasy or After the End's first volumes that would suggest a handful of cohesive options. The template names were also chosen to be a bit more evocative than others, so the extra bit of jargon makes it a little bit confusing for me to keep the roles sorted in my head, but at least they aren't as unimaginative as "faceman," "driver," and "tough guy;" kind of a six in one hand, half a dozen in another situation.

Enemies of History

The chapter gives various groups that the player characters would likely face against and gives a few prototypical NPC templates for them. The mundane human opponents are appreciated, and the flavor text that goes with them helps a lot in terms of inspiring plots, but there is not much interesting to say about them themselves. The Irruptors though, the supernatural servitors of the antagonistic beings from the original timeline, all do well at having different strategic and tactical niches, allowing for the formation of several different adventures with a particular bent or flavor to challenge or complement the PC's strengths or weaknesses. I enjoyed reading about them, but a small pet peeve of mine is that their mechanical write-ups include references to abilities that haven't been explained yet; and since these abilities have setting-sensitive names, it seemed a bit unintelligible what was going on.

Powers and Gear

The most mechanically intensive chapter, and also probably the most straightforward name for a chapter. It starts with a discussion of power-granting reality shards, double edged swords that give reality warping abilities but unhinge the bearers. There is some guidance for making them, but I wish there were a few examples. The next bit is a catalog of special glyphs. As the Anunnaki, the antagonists from the original timeline, use memes to control humanity, these are a collection of some of them, all of which have been "reverse engineered" to be used by the PCs if necessary, at a very steep cost. I like the abilities, but they have no design system, being skill based. This is probably the one mechanical bit I don't like about the book, but most of the effects are straightforward enough to recreate them as power abilities, so I might do that if I ever try out the setting.
Weirdly, the chapter is interrupted to discuss mechanics involving the successful deployment and recovery from memes. This section is interesting enough, but it seems like the wrong place for it; though, I couldn't actually pinpoint the best place to put it if you needed me to.
After that, we have a fictional martial arts style from the setting, focusing on karate, judo, and pistols. I think it's neither here nor there.
Next is a bunch of equipment, half of the name of the chapter basically. Mostly drugs, weapons, and various tools to support the concepts of the setting. I like all of it, and they all fit the setting well.
The chapter ends with a section on corruption mechanics, something again that seems a bit out of place from the chapter name, but, yeah, maybe it works if you consider that most supernatural abilities in this game use the corruption mechanic, so it might actually be just the right place for it. The mechanics are pretty gameable and easy at a glance; they seem pretty similar to the corruption rules already in Horror, so I don't anticipate any problem in utilizing them.

Opening the Madness Dossier

This chapter is advice for running a game, adventure, or campaign using the madness dossier setting. It gives suggestions on how to put players into dire straights to force them to make difficult decisions, an important aspect of the psychological horror and something I appreciate. It gives ideas for integrating this setting with other books, like Infinite Worlds or various GURPS 3e settings. It is peppered with several adventure and campaign ideas, all more than decent, and probably a good start for someone that needs a pointing in the right direction to get started with running the setting. I always enjoy these chapters.

1 comment:

  1. Well, the reason they seem similar to Horror is because Horror set up the framework for corruption systems, and most other official corruption systems (or fan-made and put in Pyramid) are based on that system. They don't actually give you a 'here's how to build a corruption system' in Horror, they explain what a corruption system represents and then give you 2 or 3 examples on how to execute it and basically say 'like that' :P

    Overall, I agree fullheartedly with your review, and I wish there were more Setting + Genre Framework books for 4E than just this. DF, A, MH, and AtE are all 'Here are the genre assumptions, build your own setting', and this book hits a sweetspot for me.


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