Publisher: Spectrum Games
Cost: $14.99-$46.98 (depending on version)
Release Date: 10/30/2011
Get it Here: DriveThruRPG.com
If you’re a long time reader, you know I’m a sucker for horror RPGs. Whether it’s Ravenloft, Call of Cthulhu, Chill, Don’t Look Back or even the obscure (and official) Bram Stoker’s Dracula Role Playing Game, I’ve either played it, owned it, or both. So when I saw Macabre Tales and the promise of a new twist on Lovecraft influenced gaming, I decided to pick it up and review it. Although the game has some interesting and very original gameplay mechanics, the actually quality of the writing along with knowledge of the subject base was…not very good. I went in really optimistic and excited for this, but by the time I was done I felt like I had just read the worst horror/HPL themed roleplaying game EVER.
So let’s talk writing quality first and start on this downward spiral of negativity. The people behind Macabre Tales are the worst kind of writers – people who barely know their subject matter but espouse their take as if it was the CORRECT one. You know the type. The entire first chapter, which is supposed to be about Lovecraft, is as smug and holier than thou as it is massively erroneous. Whether it’s the attempt to take Lovecraft and his works in a vacuum (which is somewhat impossible as many of Lovecrafts stories include homages, shout-outs and direct references to the works of other authors such as Robert Chambers, Ambrose Bierce, Arthur Machen, Lord Dunsay and more) or the outright fallacy that “Lovecraft was never big on recurring protagonists,” (Randolph Carter appeared in SEVEN different stories for example and Richard Upton Pickman, although not a protagonist, is another example of a repeating character), the writers of Macabre Tales are kind of a joke in regards to their actual knowledge of Lovecraft, his writing and his reasons behind them. Considering there are multiple books of just Lovecraft’s letters published out there, you would think ONE of the writers would have read at least ONE of those books for some insight. Instead, you get something that anyone with who is pretty familiar with Lovecraft (and his contemporaries) can pick apart. The end result is a very sloppy and rank amateur affair that will turn off most fans of the genre. Cthulhu knows I showed that first chapter to several people I know that are published authors in regards to Lovecraft (both academic and fiction) and their reaction was almost universally, “How did this get published?”…albeit with more profanity. It’s a shame too as the actual SYSTEM behind Macabre Tales is a pretty interesting one and something that really stands out. If only the system designers had more knowledge about Lovecraftia…along with a little less ego. The designer notes alone will have you rolling your eyes at the sheer arrogance of the person primarily behind this. Oh my god, talk about a person just not getting the subject matter they are “obsessed with.”
So let’s talk the system itself. Unlike most RPGs that are for a GM and a group of players, Macabre Tales is primarily designed for one-on-one gaming. That really struck me as solo adventures, regardless of system are quite rare. I have a few old ones from 2nd Edition Advanced Dungeons and Dragons, or things like Pagan Publishing’s Alone on Halloween for Call of Cthulhu, but one-on-one gaming is especially rare as tabletop RPGs are a form of social entertainment. Generally if two people wanted to do something Lovecraft related, they’d play a video game like Shadow Hearts or Shadow of the Comet, perhaps the old Mythos CCG, or just watch a movie. So to design a system that is specifically for one-on-one gaming is not only pretty out there, but it’s also pretty risky as it limits the potential audience for the product quite severely. That doesn’t make Macabre Tales bad for doing this. In fact, I applaud Spectrum Games for attempting it. My only concern is WHEN would anyone play this and WHY. The good news is that there are optional rules to have a “party” of sorts, but when we get to those in a few paragraphs, we’ll see that it is somewhat…unwieldy
Another interesting thing about Macabre Tales is that it is meant for one shot gaming. No campaigns and no ongoing adventures. This will more than likely be a bit unsatisfying to some gamers as they want to see their characters grow and advance. As well, because this is a LOVECRAFTIAN game, you pretty much know how the story is going to end for the protagonist – and that’s poorly. VERY poorly. One again it’s hard to think of who would want to experience this. It’s one-on-one, it’s a single adventure, and it’s very much “DM Vs. PC,” instead of DM WITH PC. You might as well write a piece of fiction called “Character X Dies at the End” and give it to your friend to read. It’s also kind of odd to spend all this time in character creation only to know you might spend less time actually playing the game than it took you to build your protagonist.
Then there’s the actual playing of the game itself. Instead of dice, which are portable and universal, Macabre Tales wants a player to use dominoes. Wait, there’s more. It’s actually two sets of dominoes with a few pieces taken out of each. Not only is this bulky and a bit hard to take places but once again, the potential audience is limited to a very few gamers. Now I like the idea of diceless roleplaying and think that the whole dominoes concept is a nifty one, but every aspect of Macabre Tales comes off as more of a, “LOOK HOW HARD I AM TRYING TO BE DIFFERENT” instead of focusing on making a solid game that is inviting to as many people as possible. It feels like the designers were trying so hard to do everything outside of the box, that they forgot the most important aspect of a good tabletop RPG – QUALITY. Honestly ask yourself the following question: How often are you going to want to play a tabletop RPG with only a single friend while using a system that is not only the exact opposite of instinctive but demands you own not just something but TWO sets of something that you’d rarely ever use otherwise. If you answer anything other than “never” you’re either lying or you’re an employee of Spectrum Games.
Then there is the artwork of Macabre Tales. It’s a beautifully done piece, with the pages looking like an old time pulp magazine. The actual art is quite good two and again feels like something you might have found in magazines from the same era that Lovecraft was writing in. The downside is that the PDF comes in at an insane 101 MB. It’s only 93 pages! It’s the same size as Vampire: The Masquerade – 20th Anniversary Edition and that’s a full colour PDF clocking in at well over 529 pages. You have to wonder who designed the Macabre Tales PDF as there’s no way this thing should be that big. This is just another example of me being completely baffled by this piece.
Now, let’s talk the gameplay and use of the dominoes. Basically where you would normally roll a die (or dice), the GM instead gives the player a Challenge Rating between 2-12. The higher the number, the harder the goal is to accomplish. The player than uses a domino, and adds the highest side of the domino and then adds his applicable rating to the number. If the end result equals or is higher than the challenge number, they are successful. That’s…the majority of gameplay there. The same thing could mostly be accomplished with a deck of cards, which is not only far more readily available, but easier to carry around as well. Still, it wouldn’t be a perfect port as there are three special dominoes with their own unique rules. Doubles (Dominoes with the same number on each side) are used by the GM to make things even harder for the player (Again, the game revolves around the dreaded “Player Vs. GM” aspect that is almost universally reviled.). Dominoes with a blank side can either have their blank side act as a three or can let the player use a second domino in which you add half of the highest side (rounded up) of the original domino to the new one for your result. Wordy, isn’t it. A double blank is similar but the blank is worth a “seven.” Again, it’s a neat concept, but it’s just poorly done as the player is always drawing dominoes and then discarding them, only to have the discard pile be reshuffled into the selection process. It’s a very interesting and unusual idea, but it just doesn’t play out well in actual practice. It’s cumbersome, the mechanics are poorly written and the more you read, the more the text feels like, “THIS IS HOW YOU KILL THE PLAYER. LOL.” Albeit it far more smug than that.
If you have multiple players, each will need its own two sets of dominoes. This means your gaming table will be exceptionally cluttered if you try to have an experience even remotely close to a normal gaming session. Again, everything about Macabre Tales is so ill-thought out you have to wonder why no one said anything during playtesting…if there WAS playtesting.
One of the strangest and most offensive things about the game is the concept of “genre points.” These aren’t experience points (as this is ONE-SHOT GAMING after all), but rather a bribe from the GM to the player to ensure the story goes in a specific linear fashion. The game actively derides investigating or the potential of side stories. It honestly says that genre points are to get the player to move the story forward in the way the GM WANTS it to proceed. I’m sorry, but this attitude makes the Player something cursory and merely in a supporting or passive role. If this is what someone wants, they should just write a play or story. The PC needs to feel like they are driving the game, not being led around by the nose.
Most of all, I’m shocked by the price. $14.99 for the PDF…is a bit much considering the size and contents…but nearly FIFTY DOLLARS for the hardcover version of this thing? My god, I’m not sure if that’s arrogance or just unintentional hubris but that is insanely overpriced, especially compared to other hardcover RPGs you can purchase. The sticker shock on Macabre Tales along disgusted me and it was only worse after I finished reading it. I honestly can’t imagine who could justify the price tag of this thing or even attempt to defend its lack of quality. Macabre Tales is just that terrible is nearly every aspect you can think of. Honestly, when all is said and done it reads like something by people that were turned down by Chaosium and Pelgrane when they applied for jobs there and then decided to “show them” by publishing the Lovecraftian equivalent of “Sonichu.” Macabre Tales is just embarrassingly bad and I can’t believe people have paid money for this. It’s a poorly conceived of game that is made by people think they are far smarter than they really are. The end result is pure crap. I honestly feel stupider for having read through this. As such, I can only do one thing and that’s warn you, the reader, as far away from this game as you can possibly get. The only real thing it has in common with Lovecraftia is that it is a book that the wise and sane alike should stay well away from lest they slip into madness upon reading it.