RPG First (Proper) Look: Silent Legions

I’ve already declared my deep joy at Silent Legions’ epub format — without illustrations and multiple columns I blazed through about half of the text yesterday on a couple of short bus journeys.


It’s easy to gloss over Silent Legions as “the OSR does Sandbox Cthulhu” which puts it on a pretty crowded field already, even before we start to consider the Cthulhu-alikes such as Kult and Nemesis. And gloss over is what I do more often than not; I don’t have much tolerance for other people’s worldbuilding efforts these days. RPGs are tools to be exploited (with the exception of self-contained storygames).

So let’s say you’re like me: you have an itch to run a cosmic horror game “your way” and you have many different games at your fingertips. You could pick any one (or more) of those systems, cut-and-shut until you have the right combination of mechanics to serve your purposes.

In the process of assembling your campaign, where’s the hard work? Picking the system should be easy, particularly if your group has a tried and tested favourite. You will have to take a knife to your chosen game and turf out any established mythos and ecosystem, although that shouldn’t be too hard — the smell of Unknown Armies or World of Darkness is likely to linger for a few sessions, but you’ll probably get over that quickly.

The bulk of the creative work will be building your pantheon of nameless horrors, factions, and adventures. In doing so you’ll mentally deconstruct your genre of choice: you will externalise the need for an overarching cosmic structure, human scale factions, alien influences, metaphysics of magic, and so on.

And this is exactly what Crawford has done with Silent Legions. There is no setting here, there is only genre, and that makes this game phenominally useful.

For Players

Let’s get the boring and obvious bit out the way first.

You have four character classes (Scholar, Investigator, Socialite and Tough) each with their own skills, special abilities, and Prime Attributes. These progress through levels in OSR style. Combat, saves, stats, Armour Class are all familiar — nothing weird that would get in the way of players getting into character.

The skill system is functional and appears identical to Stars Without Number (2d6 and add your skill), as does the approach to Sorcery/Disciplines (five levels). Madness is new, as is the use of the “slaughter die” in combat (roll a d6 or bigger die along with your damage dice; on a 6 or more, triple the damage). Finally the class special abilities are activated by “expertise” points, which regenerate overnight — meaning that class abilities are useful but don’t dominate. Magic can be paid for in either Expertise or Madness.

That’s pretty much it. It’s the usual weird OSR melange of arms and legs, but in many ways it will probably get out of the way more effectively than a lot of other systems.

For the GM: Workflow

Where Silent Legions really shines is genre deconstruction and the implied workflow for the GM to build their complete world:

  1. Tone and theme.
  2. Create your pantheon of dark gods.
  3. Alien races.
  4. Kelipot, the places outside normal space.
  5. Artifacts.
  6. Locations and location tags for your world.
  7. Adventure templates.
  8. Scenes.
  9. Cults (a.k.a. Factions).
  10. Monsters.

We already knew these different areas. But Crawford is not teaching us to suck eggs; this is a masterful deconstruction of the genre, a step-by-step aide memoir for making a complete world.

More importantly it’s not just paragraph after paragraph of text. There’s a truly remarkable number of tables in each section for random creation. There are epithets for the dark gods, motivations for aliens, flora and fauna and cultural flavour for Kelipot, foundation events for Cults, strangeness for Artifacts, and so on.

The world-building section uses the same location tags as SWN, although for some reason I found SL much more accessible. It’s worth mentioning in detail:

  • There are sixty location tags (randomised with d6 and d10)
  • Each tag has an evocative name like Bitter Envy or Cult Beachhead
  • Each tag has five elements: Enemies, Friends, Schemes, Secrets, Places.
  • Each of those elements includes a few terse examples, for example the Friends in Cult Beachhead include “Clergy for dwindling local faith” and “Suspicious society grandee”

This section packs a remarkable amount of value in a very small space, and again Crawford’s attention to the genre shows.

SL recognises the main mode of this genre is investigation, and requires preparation; and the advice given for the Adventure Template section is a process of Build, Tighten the Framework, and Implement. It also talks about change in the sandbox, and the need to clean up after an adventure in a given location.

The Scenes section is remarkably detailed. Crawford identifies Resolution, Investigation, Introduction, Hook, Ambush, Conflict, Escape, and Respite scenes, each with their own tables (for randomising or examples). Then there are specific Challenges that target a given class (for example the Socialite has a table of “People who want something” and the Investigator has “Infiltrating a place”). The section is finished with random tables for NPCs and crimes.

Cults are analogous to SWN’s Factions. Each Cult has its own attributes, actions it will take to further its aims, and resources. Cult Turns are intended to be run once per game month. There are point-buy costs for assets at different levels, and descriptions of those assets, some of which could then be plugged into locations and adventures.

The Monsters section is all about making monsters, and acknowledges the different kind of horror such monsters exude (Body Horror, Domination Horror, etc.). Yet more tables for fun.

The final section of GM’s Resources is a patchwork affair of ideas — each gets its own page. The Lovecraftian Name Generator is probably essential, the Secret Adepts tables are great, and there is the obligatory advice on how to use SL with other games (notably SWN and fantasy).

Final Words

The comparisons with CoC are inevitable, but this game works hard to distance itself from Lovecraftian Horror and has the potential to be much more.

Right now I fancy using this kit for a Clive Barker-inspired setting like Weaveworld or The Great and Secret Show where the horror and mythology borders on urban fantasy, and where the characters actively explore worlds outside Earth, using the Gnostic themes as suggested. I think you could actually downplay the horror and run a good fantasy game with this kit.

Historical games could be great, too. What about an early modern horror game borrowing from LotFP? What about a Dark Ages game? What about the Name of the Rose? How about giving Cthulhu Invictus a run for its money?

The OSR framework may not be everyone’s cup of tea — but actually a lot of the tables are system agnostic, and good for inspiration for a campaign or one-shot game. What you’ve got here in the end is a creative process in a very tidy package. Highly recommended.

Yes, well done Giles. I remember when you were advertising Nescafe.