Folk horror has flourished in the last few years though its roots run deep throughout the entire genre. Films like Midsommar and The Ritual brought these kinds of scares to the forefront but the concept that there’s something hidden deep in the rural areas of the world that we will never understand and it will kill us if we don’t pay proper respect to the old ways. This idea bubbles up in other horror stories too, whether the prophetic gas station clerk in a slasher movie or the strange small towns in the New Englands of Stephen King and H.P. Lovecraft. Old Gods of Appalachia offers listeners a family sized serving of stories like this in every podcast episode. It introduced fascinating, relatable characters and then puts them through the ringer in the hollers and haunts of Appalachia. I was excited when Monte Cook Games announced they were going to be doing a game in the setting and even more so when a review copy appeared on my doorstep. Does Old Gods of Appalachia Roleplaying Game deserve a place of honor by the fireplace? Let’s play to find out.
Designer Shanna Germain and her team, including Cam Collins, Dominique Dickey, Sean K. Reynolds, Steve Shell and Tammie Webb Ryan put forth a fairly straight forward Cypher System adaptation in this book. The basics of the system remain the same. Players roll a d20 against a static target number. They can spend points from one of three pools, Might, Speed and Intellect to lower that difficulty or to use a character’s special abilities. I haven’t kept up with Cypher System since the days of Numenera and The Strange but there are a few changes that I liked here. There are now four broad classes; Protector, Explorer, Sage and Speaker. Players are encouraged to take an identity to further flavor their character, allowing groups with the same character type a bit more individuality. This is supported mechanically by more special ability choices by level. Numenera characters always felt a little pigeon-holed to me and it seems like in the years since Cypher System has opened up the doors.
The core concept of character creation remains choosing a type, descriptor and focus and then plugging them together to figure out what resources your character has. This results in a short sentence structured as “An ADJECTIVE NOUN that VERBS” which felt a little more slick than using class and race descriptors. The flavor of the podcast seeps into the game here. Saying your character is a Neighborly Sage who Fears No Haints is much more in the spirit than saying you are a high Charisma necromancer. These choices also offer player bonds and connections to the starting adventure, though I was hoping for more discussion about a starting concept, like playing as a family or as a group of miners. There’s some discussion of this in the GM section but I was hoping for a bit more focus on the player’s side, given how community is one of the big themes of the stories on the podcast.
One of the big mechanics I struggle with in Cypher System is the XP economy of the game. I’ve always been a little bit leery of games where players spend XP as plot candy resources. In my experience it makes players get very stingy even if they get piles and piles of XP because they’re much rather hoard it and die then fall behind in character progression. While that remains in play here, I also like the inclusion of character arcs as the main advancement tool in Old Gods. Players create or choose an arc for their character, such as becoming a parent or falling from grace. Every session where they take a step to advance their storyline gains them XP until the storyline comes to a head followed by a resolution. Characters can be involved in more than one arc as well for those players who want messy, messy drama. I’ve seen character advancement like this before, but Old Gods includes several pages of ready to use examples that both players and GMs can use to help develop the pacing of their storylines.
The authors call the setting of Old Gods Alternative Appalachia. It’s focused on the region during the 1920s and 1930s featuring the robber barons of the era aligning with dark forces buried deep within the era to prey upon the common folks who live in company towns and farms. There’s a long standing war going on between the monsters of the Inner Dark and the forces of The Green, a kind of animistic life magic, though humans are often caught up between the two without understanding what’s truly going on. The era and themes of the game mirror those of the Cthulhu Mythos, though without the racism and other elements that can make celebrating Lovecraft challenging. While Call of Cthulhu is often set from the perspective of wealthy academics and dilettantes jetting around the world, Old Gods focuses on poor folk doing what they must to face down threats to their homes and families with the same bravery and cleverness of a Cthulhu investigator.
The book dives into the setting by touching on several of the communities featured in the podcast. The anthology nature of the podcast helps broaden the setting as different stories touch on different areas within the region. Each of these areas also tends to be menaced by different supernatural things which gives the GM a broader base of monsters to inspire or use in their own games. For fans of the podcast, these sections feel like getting a chance to flip through the creator’s notes in a way that few licensed games do. Even without knowing about the podcast, the setting sections are full of excellent details, including a “hushed murmurs” section for each place that offers three story hooks right out of the gate.
Old Gods of Appalachia Roleplaying Game offers a great folk horror setting and a lot of extra information for fans of the podcast.
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