Every Week It's Wibbley-Wobbley Timey-Wimey Pookie-Reviewery...

Friday, 21 April 2017

Rory's Mild Peril

It helps at nine years old, that if you want to design and publish your own board game, your father is the creative director for a British RPG and games publisher. This is not to say that the resulting game is published via said publisher, but rather that your father has some expertise and knowledge when it comes to designing a game and getting it published. And get the game published father and son did after a successful Kickstarter campaign. The game is The Forest Dragon: A Card Adventure Game. The designer is Rory and he is nine years old. The creative director is Jon Hodgson. The publisher is Cubicle Seven Entertainment and it did not have a hand in publishing The Forest Dragon.

Designed for two or more players aged six and up, The Forest Dragon is a simple, fantasy-themed push-your-luck style card game. It consists of sixty, full colour cards each illustrated by Rory and his younger brother, Ben. Seven of these cards give the rules. The others consist of resource cards—such as Sticks and Berries, treasure cards like Golden Coins and Crystal Compass, monster cards such Sinister Cloaked Gentleman and the Cursed Crocodile Knight, and adventuring item cards like Bow and a Friend. Both the resource and the treasure cards are worth Victory Points at game’s end, for example, Berries are worth a single Victory Point and a bottle of Ghost Milk is worth four. (The game does not explain what Ghost Milk is.) Monster cards typically end a player’s go, like the Wolf Pig, whilst others have an extra effect, for example, the Venom Spitting Snake also forces a player to discard three items. Adventuring item cards aid a player, for example, the Sword can be used to defeat one monster per turn, whilst Rations can be discarded instead of a treasure card.

At the start of a game, the cards are shuffled and laid out face down in rows of five. Only twenty such cards are needed for a two-player game, with a further row needed for each additional player. This forms the forest that is home to the Forest Dragon. Then on his turn each player explores the forest by drawing one card at time. If the card drawn is a treasure, resource, or adventuring item, the player puts them in his backpack. This is invariably sticks or berries—there are lots of sticks and berries in the forest. If the card drawn is a monster, the player has to what it says on the card. Typically, this is to end his turn, but he might also have to discard cards from his backpack. Should a player have an appropriate adventuring item in his backpack, he can use it to overcome the monster. For example, the Sword can be used to defeat a monster and carry on adventuring whereas other adventuring item cards have other effects, such as the Map which enables a player to examine two cards on the table and take one of them.

A player can continue exploring the forest and drawing cards for as long as he wants or until he decides to stop or draws a card that instructs him to stop. Then the next player begins exploring the forest and drawing cards, and so on and son. Play continues until all of the forest has been explored and all of the cards examined. At this point, each player totals up the Victory Points of the cards in his backpack and the player with the most is the winner.

This is all that there is to The Forest Dragon: A Card Adventure Game. It is simple to learn and play and a game will last no more than ten minutes at most. As much as it is a push-your-luck game, it is also very much a luck based game and this can lead to one player running away with Victory Points upon Victory Points—play can be a bit one-sided if this happens. Fortunately, The Forest Dragon is a quick game and once game is over, it is simply a matter of collecting the cards, shuffling them, and laying them out again.

Physically, The Forest Dragon: A Card Adventure Game is very nicely presented. The artwork is charming and the cardstock feels good in the hand. Even the tuckbox that the game comes in is easy to use.

Beyond the core game, The Forest Dragon: A Card Adventure Game has several expansions. The ‘Quest Givers’, ‘Fire Dragon Realm’, ‘Poo Cave’, ‘Ro-Bo Realm’ and ‘Dogs and Things’ expansions all come in The Forest Dragon Expansion Box, whilst ‘Faerie Mischief’ and ‘Star Gazer’ are separate expansions. Some of expansions these simply add extra cards to the core game, such as ‘Quest Givers’, but most add a single portal to the core game which once discovered allows the players to enter another realm, as often they like, and explore its environs. This realm is represented by separate deck of cards. So once the Fire Dragon Realm Portal card has been found, the players can enter and explore the Fire Dragon Realm. (This feels not unlike the expansions for the boardgame, Talisman.)

In terms of its rules, The Forest Dragon: A Card Adventure Game is not a sophisticated game design, but in terms of game play it is a surprisingly sophisticated design. When playing this game you can imagine yourself on an adventure to find monsters and treasure—or at least out collecting sticks and berries and discovering something more!—and so every time you play The Forest Dragon: A Card Adventure Game, there is a story to tell in the process of exploring the forest. For that, The Forest Dragon: A Card Adventure Game is a delightfully charming filler.

Monday, 17 April 2017

Fanzine Focus VI: Black Pudding #2

On the tail of Old School Renaissance has come another movement—the rise of the fanzine. Although the fanzine—a nonprofessional and nonofficial publication produced by fans of a particular cultural phenomenon, got its start in Science Fiction fandom, in the gaming hobby it first started with Chess and Diplomacy fanzines before finding fertile ground in the roleplaying hobby in the 1970s. Here these amateurish publications allowed the hobby a public space for two things. First, they were somewhere that the hobby could voice opinions and ideas that lay outside those of a game’s publisher. Second, in the Golden Age of roleplaying when the Dungeon Masters were expected to create their own settings and adventures, they also provided a rough and ready source of support for the game of your choice. Many also served as vehicles for the fanzine editor’s house campaign and thus they showed another DM and group played said game. This would often change over time if a fanzine accepted submissions. Initially, fanzines were primarily dedicated to the big three RPGs of the 1970s—Dungeons & Dragons, RuneQuest, and Traveller—but fanzines have appeared dedicated to other RPGs since, some of which helped keep a game popular in the face of no official support.

Since 2008 with the publication of Fight On #1, the Old School Renaissance has had its own fanzines. The advantage of the Old School Renaissance is that the various Retroclones draw from the same source and thus one Dungeons & Dragons-style RPG is compatible with another. This means that the contents of one fanzine will compatible with the Retroclone that you already run and play even if not specifically written for it. Labyrinth Lord and Lamentations of the Flame Princess Weird Fantasy Roleplay have proved to be popular choices have proved to be popular choices to base fanzines around, as has Swords & Wizardry.

Although Black Pudding is nominally written for use with Labyrinth Lord, it is still compatible with other Retroclones. Published by Random Order Creations via Square Hex, Black Pudding #1 was released in 2016 to no little acclaim. The inaugural issue was praised for its consistently singular look and feel, cartoonish, slightly tongue in cheek, yet still fantastic and weird on a small scale. Drawn from the author’s ‘Doomslakers!’ house rules, its genre was firmly Swords & Sorcery and thus was accompanied by the genre’s sexism with its chainmail bikinis and mighty thewed barbarians. Whilst Black Pudding #2 retains the Swords & Sorcery genre and cartoonish style, it tones down the sexism, and so is a very much better issue for it.

Black Pudding #2 contains the same mix as the first issue of new character Classes, spells, magic items, monsters, NPCs, and adventures. Specifically, six new Classes, a spellbook and eight spells, multiple magic items, eight new monsters, eight NPCs ready to hire, and a wilderness encounter and a short dungeon. It also includes two character sheets designed to be used with the issue’s various Classes, one for spellcasters and one for non-spellcasters.

The issue opens with the first of the new Classes. This is the Keeper, an archer and hunter dedicated to protecting the forest and who can track like a Ranger, attacks better with a bow, and can not only cast Druid spells and element-related Magic-user spells, but also imbue them into arrows. It is followed by the Blind Guardian, a holy warrior who gives up his eyes to gain Blindsight, ‘see’ evil and malice at will with Righteous Vision, cast Read Magic and Read Languages daily with Eyeless Understanding, can deliver a Righteous Blow to deliver a killing blow to Chaotic or evil enemies, and even absorb blows or spells intended for an ally with his Shield of Light. In return, the Blind Guardian must be Lawful or Good, is only trained in the one Holy Weapon, and as a Defender, must avenge any innocent who suffers as result of his negligence or failure. The Blind Guardian is a powerful Class since he gains all of these abilities at First Level, but there is plenty of roleplaying to be found in the Class too, especially if the Dungeon Master ties the Class to a particular god and faith.

The Werewolf Hunter is fairly self-explanatory and quite specialised. He can work silver to silver-edged arrows and weapons, is resistant to a werewolf’s bite, can prepare wolfsbane, fight all wolves effectively, and track and detect werewolves and eventually other lycanthropes. The Werewolf Hunter is really too specialised for general play and needs a Gothic land infested by lycanthropes to come into its own. The Mouldwarp is equally as specialised, a ‘Race as Class’ Class that anthropomorphises the humble mole and turns it into a digging hunter with an innate feel for the underground world and anyone who tells lies and a saliva that is particularly toxic to the worms that the Mouldwarp loves to consume. Lastly, the Fey Savage is a second ‘Race as Class’ Class, but is much odder. The Fey Savage is the battle-loving offspring of a dainty fairy and a human barbarian who must choose between his fey and human heritage—Barbaric Rage or Fey Charms, hates goblins, can cast a single magic spell once per day, and whose innate Fey Savagery allows him to attack with a bonus on his first attack and potentially avoid ignore all damage in combat. The Fey Savage lies towards the tongue-in-cheek approach to Class design, so is compatible with some of the Classes given in Black Pudding #1.

The six new monsters in Black Pudding #2 include goblin angels, fungus-infected kissing undead, alchemically-infused hairballs, and more. The Angel Mama, the goblin angel, can transform dead goblins into Shadow Goblins who can turn incorporeal and in return they can turn her incorporeal while she demoralises others with her eye beams; while the Kisser is fungus-infected undead that kisses others to steal their Constitution and whose fungus can be turned into Potions of Unhealth that also steals the Constitution of the imbiber and then heals Hit Points as well as granting the potion maker Hit Points! The Scurramancer is a Harley Quinn-like demon with Illusionist spells, a staff that emits laughing gas, and who taunts for lots of Psychic damage. Overall, the monsters are not all that serious, but are just weird enough to suit the fanzine’s genre.

The spells in Black Pudding #2 are all contained in Elegrain’s Fearful Book of Death and are all related to death. For example, Death Augur lets the caster divine facts about the deaths—past, present, and future—in the immediate vicinity, whilst Death Denial gives the target a chance to survive death. Unless the player characters include a priest of death or a necromancer amongst their number, then this is really a set of spells and a dark, dark tome for an NPC.

The first of the two adventures is ‘Mace of the Ape King’, a jungle-set encounter for experienced characters of at least Fourth Level. It is a simple, though tough combat encounter, easy to drop into a campaign and replete with a fun variable weapon that any warrior would want to own. The second adventure, ‘Vault of the Whisperer’, is the highlight of Black Pudding#2 and its lengthiest piece at eight pages long. Again written for experienced adventurers, it is a thirteen location mini-dungeon that can be dropped into a wilderness sandbox—with perhaps its strange cult preying upon nearby villages—or into a larger dungeon. At the heart of the dungeon is a great demonic maw attempting to chew its way into this world that whispers seductively to all and sundry as caged and bell-helmeted cultists dedicate themselves to the maw in order to hear its whispers. A strong vein of the Weird runs throughout the dungeon, in the creatures of course, but particularly in the magic items that are hidden throughout the complex. Notable items include the Gauntlet of Goorph, a tentacled glove that increases the user’s Strength and gripping damage, but can decrease his Wisdom, and the Staff of the Slug, which can be slapped against a surface to aid climbing, used to slap and grab objects, and to control slug-like monsters. This is a really nice little dungeon that should provide a session or two’s worth of play.

Rounding out Black Pudding #2 is a feature continued from Black Pudding #1. This is ‘Meatshields of the Bleeding Ox’, a collection of NPCs ready for hire by the player characters. The majority of the eight involve the standard Classes—Fighters, Magic-users, Thieves, and more, though a few do include Classes introduced in this issue, such as Trey Mottle, a Second Level Fey Savage and Fay May, a Third Level Keeper. Each comes complete with a hiring cost, likes and dislikes—which affect attempts to haggle with them, a line of background, and more as well as the traditional attribute scores and Hit Points. Although perfect for hiring, these NPCs can also be used as replacement player characters or even rivals if the Dungeon Master wants to further develop them. This is a decent mix and the Dungeon Master should have fun roleplaying any one of them.

Physically, Black Pudding #2 is almost as professional a fanzine as you might want. Perhaps some of the entries are underwritten, but the writing is otherwise clear and simple, though it does contain strong language in places. The fanzine is profusely illustrated and the cartoonish artwork gives the fanzine a singular, consistent look, from the fun front cover to the back cover character sheet.

If there is an issue with Black Pudding #2 it is that its tone may not be compatible with the style of Dungeons & Dragons that a Dungeon Master is running. The tone of Black Pudding #2 is lighter, weirder, and in places just sillier than the baseline Dungeons & Dragons game, so the Dungeon Master should take this into account when using the content of the fanzine. This though, should not be held against the fanzine or its authors.

There is a tendency for the second issue of anything to be not quite as good as the first. This is not the case with Black Pudding #2. It is a balanced issue with a good mix of content, a solid Weird element, a delightful dungeon, and just enough sexism to uphold its Swords & Sorcery genre.

Sunday, 16 April 2017

Fanzine Focus VI: Burgs & Bailiffs: Hunger, Disease, & the Law

On the tail of Old School Renaissance has come another movement—the rise of the fanzine. Although the fanzine—a nonprofessional and nonofficial publication produced by fans of a particular cultural phenomenon, got its start in Science Fiction fandom, in the gaming hobby it first started with Chess and Diplomacy fanzines before finding fertile ground in the roleplaying hobby in the 1970s. Here these amateurish publications allowed the hobby a public space for two things. First, they were somewhere that the hobby could voice opinions and ideas that lay outside those of a game’s publisher. Second, in the Golden Age of roleplaying when the Dungeon Masters were expected to create their own settings and adventures, they also provided a rough and ready source of support for the game of your choice. Many also served as vehicles for the fanzine editor’s house campaign and thus they showed another DM and group played said game. This would often change over time if a fanzine accepted submissions. Initially, fanzines were primarily dedicated to the big three RPGs of the 1970s—Dungeons & Dragons, RuneQuest, and Traveller—but fanzines have appeared dedicated to other RPGs since, some of which helped keep a game popular in the face of no official support.

Since 2008 with the publication of Fight On #1, the Old School Renaissance has had its own fanzines. The advantage of the Old School Renaissance is that the various Retroclones draw from the same source and thus one Dungeons & Dragons-style RPG is compatible with another. This means that the contents of one fanzine will compatible with the Retroclone that you already run and play even if not specifically written for it. Labyrinth Lord and Lamentations of the Flame Princess Weird Fantasy Roleplay have proved to be popular choices to base fanzines around, as has Swords & Wizardry.

Burgs & Bailiffs is not written with any particular Retroclone in mind. Published by Lost Pages, it is instead a generic fanzine for use with Dungeons & Dragons-style Roleplaying Games that explores aspects of the history that the medievalism of Dungeons & Dragons is based upon. It takes its tone from the strapline, “Life in the Middle Ages were some kind of extremely hardcore live RPG that went on 24 hours a day”, so is thoroughly rooted in the history that Dungeons & Dragons is based upon rather than the fantasy. Future releases in the series will deal with warfare and then pilgrimages—the latter an excellent and all but definitive treatment upon the subject for Dungeons & Dragons, but the first release dealt with the eponymous hunger, disease, and the law. One way in which the fanzines of today differ from the fanzines of the past is that they never truly go out of print. Thus the first issue, Burgs & Bailiffs: Hunger, Disease, & the Law, published in April, 2013, is still available in Print On Demand.

The subject matters for Burgs & Bailiffs: Hunger, Disease, & the Law are of course, obvious. To that end, the fanzine contains nine articles exploring various aspects of these subjects and more. The issue opens with ‘Medieval Tournaments: The Real Mêlées’, an examination of what really took place at tournaments rather than the idealised versions we have in our heads, so quite simply a whole lot fewer jousts and more bloodied, day long combats for practice and the taking of ransoms, though with a few rules to prevent deaths if not injuries. As well as looking at how and why they were run, the author suggests questions to ask when setting one up in-game and then gives rules for handling the mêlée and the likelihood of fighting random knights with varying skill levels. There are lots of roleplaying opportunities in this one article, which includes some character archetypes that the player characters might encounter on and off the field of mêlée.

A similar if shorter article by Shorty Monster, ‘Bowmen, Class, & War’ looks at the role of the bowmen in English society during the medieval period. It covers how and why they trained and then how they fought in battle—literally, very dirty indeed. There are fewer roleplaying opportunities suggested in this article, but for anyone wanting to play an archer in medieval England, this should be required reading.

Upon first glance, neither ‘Medieval Tournaments: The Real Mêlées’ nor  ‘Bowmen, Class, & War’  pertain to any of the three subjects given in the fanzine’s title. The link to both though, is the law. Certainly it was a English legal requirement that all men of suitable age practice archery in the event that their lords raise them as levies in any conflict—whether for or against the King. As to the mêlées, these were at first banned as being disruptive to the public order due to their popularity, since the ban failed, they were formalised and legalised to prevent disorder and then unnecessary death which would prevent the nobility from carrying their duties to the king. The obvious legally themed content comes from Mike Monaco in the form of two articles. The first is ‘Settling Disputes: Ordeals & Trials’ which looks at Medieval justice and how it was applied. This includes ordeals by various means, including by fire walking, water, and ingestion, trials by jury and by combat, as well as punishment. Lots of gaming potential here of course, whether the player characters are the accused, aiding the accused, or thwarting him. The second is ‘The Night Watch’, which deals with the enforcers of the curfews that affected every town and city who can arrest curfew breakers. Besides giving rules for creating members of the Night Watch, the article lists the exceptions who could legally move about at night, like doctors, midwifes, nightsoil collectors, and so on, as well as random encounters at night for urban and rural settings.

The articles about hunger are more a look who medieval society is fed and what it eats. First, Paolo Greco’s ‘Food Surplus: Cities & Armies’ looks at how important food is and how useful a surplus is in feeding greater areas and even armies. Controlling this supply is potentially ripe with gaming potential, whether dealing with selling it, stealing it, protecting it, and so on. The article also comes with several adventure ideas. This is a solid article that echoes the much earlier Designing a Quasi-Medieval Society for D&D (White Dwarf #29 and White Dwarf #30) and  ‘The Town Planner’ series (White Dwarf #30, White Dwarf #31, and White Dwarf #32), both by Paul Vernon—the author of the well regarded module, Starstone. This article is accompanied by ‘Medieval Cooking or: What is in that Meat Pie?’ by Steve Sigety and and ‘Recipes: Pottage’ by Steve Sigety and Paolo Greco, both articles that add flavour to the issue (though this being the medieval period, just not very much).

Lastly, Jeremy Whalen’s ‘Pestilence & Putrescence’ and then Mike Monaco’s ‘Leeches, Clysters, and a Hole in the Head: Old School Medicine for Grimmer Games’, address the subject of disease. Together, the two provide a look at Medieval medicine and medicinal theories—primarily miasmas and humours, and treatments—including of course, leeches. Trepanation is also recommended as a surprisingly effective treatment for swellings of the brain. In some ways, these two articles show just how ‘hardcore’ life in the Medieval period was and so live up to the fanzine’s strapline.

Physically, Burgs & Bailiffs: Hunger, Disease, & the Law is plainly presented. It is lightly illustrated and then with publically available art. The writing in places could have done with another edit and the font size is just that little too small for easy reading. The writing style is drier than in most other fanzines, but this is due to the dryness of the subject matter rather anything else.

The contents Burgs & Bailiffs: Hunger, Disease, & the Law will add history to any medieval campaign specifically run using Dungeons & Dragons, though the dryness of that history may not suit every Dungeon Master’s campaign. That said, its content will suit more historically-based settings like that of DOM Publishing’s Dark Albion: The Rose War or Green Ronin Publishing’s Medieval Player's Manual as well as the previously mentioned Starstone. A nice touch is that the fanzine does include a good bibliography for further reading, but the fanzine probably contains more than enough history for most Dungeon Masters. Much of the contents may be familiar with veteran gamers, but even if they are, Burgs & Bailiffs: Hunger, Disease, & the Law contains ideas aplenty as to how to bring its content and thus verisimilitude to a Dungeon Master’s campaign.

Saturday, 15 April 2017

Fanzine Focus VI: Wormskin No. 2

On the tail of Old School Renaissance has come another movement—the rise of the fanzine. Although the fanzine—a nonprofessional and nonofficial publication produced by fans of a particular cultural phenomenon, got its start in Science Fiction fandom, in the gaming hobby it first started with Chess and Diplomacy fanzines before finding fertile ground in the roleplaying hobby in the 1970s. Here these amateurish publications allowed the hobby a public space for two things. First, they were somewhere that the hobby could voice opinions and ideas that lay outside those of a game’s publisher. Second, in the Golden Age of roleplaying when the Dungeon Masters were expected to create their own settings and adventures, they also provided a rough and ready source of support for the game of your choice. Many also served as vehicles for the fanzine editor’s house campaign and thus they showed another DM and group played said game. This would often change over time if a fanzine accepted submissions. Initially, fanzines were primarily dedicated to the big three RPGs of the 1970s—Dungeons & Dragons, RuneQuest, and Traveller—but fanzines have appeared dedicated to other RPGs since, some of which helped keep a game popular in the face of no official support.

Since 2008 with the publication of Fight On #1, the Old School Renaissance has had its own fanzines. The advantage of the Old School Renaissance is that the various Retroclones draw from the same source and thus one Dungeons & Dragons-style RPG is compatible with another. This means that the contents of one fanzine will compatible with the Retroclone that you already run and play even if not specifically written for it. Labyrinth Lord and Lamentations of the Flame Princess Weird Fantasy Roleplay have proved to be popular choices to base fanzines around, as has Swords & Wizardry.

The Wormskin fanzine, published by Necrotic Gnome Productions is written for use with Labyrinth Lord and issue by issue, details an area known as Dolmenwood, a mythical wood, an ancient place of tall trees and thick soil, rich in fungi and festooned with moss and brambles and rife with dark whimsey. Published in December, 2015, Wormskin No. 1 introduced the setting with a set of articles rich in flavour and atmopshere, but lacking a certain focus in that the region itself, Dolmenwood, was not detailed. Wormskin No. 2 suffers from a similar problem, but fortunately, in March, 2016, Necrotic Gnome Productions released Welcome to Dolmenwood, a free  introduction to the setting. That said, Wormskin No. 2 loses none of the dark tone and whimsey of the first issue.

Wormskin No. 2 opens with ‘Common Tavern Fare’, a quick means of providing flavoursome provender at a hostelry, whether that is spit-roast pork shank with vinegared oak leaves or a giant puffball mushroom sandwich with parsnips and burdock. The contents are intended to be just that little bit different and thus make any tavern that serves such dishes memorable. This is followed by ‘Psychedelic Compounds’, which treats psychoactive powders, infusions, and fumes in exactly the same fashion as fungi was in ‘Fungi of Dolmenwood’ in Wormskin No. 1. A table lists some thirty compounds, their slang names, substances, procedures for use, and both primary and side-effects, whilst the article details they are manufactured and sold. For example, Angel Dust is ground Unicorn horn which is moistened with wine to make the user feel great, even godlike, though the eyes take on an unnatural hue. As good as this article is, it feels too much like a retread of the ‘Fungi of Dolmenwood’ article from Wormskin No. 1. If the article had appeared in a later issue of the fanzine, then the comparison would not be as unfavourable.

The remainder of Wormskin No. 2 focuses on a particular part of the Dolmenwood, The High Wold, which lies to the south and west of Lake Longmere and the River Hameth (a nice touch is that the map of the region is reprinted in colour on the back cover of the fanzine). In particular the articles focus on the village of Lankshorn and the strangeness of the surrounding environs, such as Lankston Pool, where the only sign of the former village of Lankston is the village’s church pool sticking up out of the bog; King Pusskin’s Road upon which it is suggested that tribute be made to cats lest ill fortune fall upon you—cat scratches appearing on hands and arms, coughing up furballs, and so on; and a band of barrowbogeys prey upon travellers from the King’s Mounds. Notable places and peoples in Lankshorn include The Hornstoat’s Rest Inn, rife with rumour and innuendo, whose owner, Margerie Stallowmade is said to consort with fairies; The Man of Gold Apothecary, a ready source of the fungi and psychedelic compounds—as described in both this issue of Wormskin and the first—to be sourced from Dolmenwood; whilst not far out is the manse of Lord Malbleat, one of the goatlords of the region, renowned for his love of poetry and human brides, but rumoured to be a sorcerer and a sadist.

Rounding out the description of the region is a bestiary of some of the monsters common to the region. They include Barrowbogeys or ‘plague fairies’ who carry jugs or pots as heads and curse others with plagues of boils and warts; Bog Zombies who jealously strangle their victims and drag them into the bog to rise as one of their number; and Woldish Goatman, who look down upon humans as an animal species whilst still breeding with them to produce Goatmen Thrall and sadistically flaying their skins to work into armour. It is said that to fall under the gaze of the Goatman is said to fall irrevocably under his charm. Accompanying each of these descriptions is a set of three tables, giving options for individual traits and potential lairs and encounters. These tables nicely extend the utility of the creatures whilst also providing the Dungeon Master with further ideas.

Wormskin No. 2 is as ably presented as Wormskin No. 1. The layout is tidy and the writing not only clear, but also engaging. The artwork, a mix of publically sourced and original pieces is well chosen and enhances the dream-like menace that permeates the Dolmenwood. Perhaps the only thing that might be said to be missing from the issue is a scenario—there can be no doubt that it would be interesting to see a scenario set in the Dolmenwood—but until then, Wormskin No. 2 includes rumours aplenty that the Dungeon Master can develop into encounters and sessions as the player characters adventure in the region. This is in addition to the encounters and lairs given for the issue’s five monsters.

Workskin No. 2 continues in the same vein and the same tone as Wormskin No. 1. It builds on the material given in that first issue even if to an extent—in the form of the article on psychedelics—it repeats itself. It develops the setting further by giving somewhere for the player characters to begin their exploration and adventures in Dolmenwood.

Friday, 14 April 2017

Fanzine Focus VI: The Wizard's Scroll #1

On the tail of Old School Renaissance has come another movement—the rise of the fanzine. Although the fanzine—a nonprofessional and nonofficial publication produced by fans of a particular cultural phenomenon, got its start in Science Fiction fandom, in the gaming hobby it first started with Chess and Diplomacy fanzines before finding fertile ground in the roleplaying hobby in the 1970s. Here these amateurish publications allowed the hobby a public space for two things. First, they were somewhere that the hobby could voice opinions and ideas that lay outside those of a game’s publisher. Second, in the Golden Age of roleplaying when the Dungeon Masters were expected to create their own settings and adventures, they also provided a rough and ready source of support for the game of your choice. Many also served as vehicles for the fanzine editor’s house campaign and thus they showed another DM and group played said game. This would often change over time if a fanzine accepted submissions. Initially, fanzines were primarily dedicated to the big three RPGs of the 1970s—Dungeons & Dragons, RuneQuest, and Traveller—but fanzines have appeared dedicated to other RPGs since, some of which helped keep a game popular in the face of no official support.

Since 2008 with the publication of Fight On #1, the Old School Renaissance has had its own fanzines. The advantage of the Old School Renaissance is that the various Retroclones draw from the same source and thus one Dungeons & Dragons-style RPG is compatible with another. This means that the contents of one fanzine will compatible with the Retroclone that you already run and play even if not specifically written for it. Labyrinth Lord and Lamentations of the Flame Princess Weird Fantasy Roleplay have proved to be popular choices to base fanzines around, as has Swords & Wizardry.

The Wizard’s Scroll #1 is a new fanzine written for use with Swords & Wizardry. Published by Seattle Hill Games, the fanzine differs from most fanzines in that it contains not the vision of one writer, but many. Its fifty-four pages includes two ‘Race as Class’ Classes, one NPC, four monsters, seven new artefacts, three scenarios, and three rules additions—and more. The fanzine is cleanly laid out and nicely presented with some well done artwork. The cartography is a little variable in quality, but not enough to detract from any of the three scenarios.

The Wizard’s Scroll #1 opens with the two ‘Race as Class’ Classes. D.J. Chadwick’s ‘Testudo’ are tortoise men who can either be Fighters or Magic Users and imbue their shells with sigils that enhance their Armour Class or spells that can be cast like scrolls respectively. Though renowned as being wise, their description feels underwritten, but there are points here that a Dungeon Master can easily develop should he want to add more detail. The second ‘Race as Class’ Class is the ‘Ratfolk’, the first of six submissions to the fanzine by Charlie Mason. The ‘Ratfolk’ are either Fighters or Thieves, though better at the latter than the former. They are naturally stealthy and resistant to poison and disease, but have a reputation for being thieves and spreading disease.

James M. Spahn—best known as the designer and publisher of White Star: White Box Science Fiction Roleplaying—gives the first of the rules additions in ‘Bind a Familiar’. This presents the Find Familiar spell for Swords & Wizardry, offering a small range of possible animal companions and the accompanying powers they grant a Wizard, such as the cat and its Dark Vision, the frog and its swimming speed, and so on. The potential disadvantages—losing a familiar is possibly fatal for a Wizard—slightly outweigh the benefits of having one, but the advantages still make having one useful. Charlie Mason’s ‘Critical Hits’ provides a means for handling critical hits in Swords & Wizardry, including the range on the twenty-sided die that widens as each Class gains Levels and the effects, such as tripping an enemy or maximum damage. He also provides a means of handling skills for the rules with ‘Basic Skills’, handled on a roll of a six-sided die in a fashion not dissimilar to other Retroclones. Again, the range on the die grows as the characters rise in Level. No specific skills are covered, but the primary purpose of the mechanic is to handle situations not covered by the rules so is workmanlike enough to do this.

Tod Roe offers the only NPC in The Wizard’s Scroll #1, a Sorcerer from Carcosa known as ‘Niptuk’. Driven insane by forbidden sorceries, Niptuk delights in the manipulation of the flesh of his prisoners and often uses their skins to change his identity. The first monster in the fanzine is the ‘Skin Bag’ by David Przybla, a nasty construct that is literally the skin of its victim containing only the victim’s soul. It can thus pass as the victim despite no longer needing to eat, drink, or sleep, and is often sent to spread disease or do the bidding of dark gods. James V. West—the creator of the fanzine, Black Pudding—offers the ‘Lightning Monk’, a diminutive blue-skinned humanoid that worships with others of its kind in Storm Temple and defends itself with its Inner Storm if disturbed. There is not as much application for the ‘Lightning Monk’ in a game as there is of the ‘Skin Bag’ or of the next monster, the‘Shield Guardian’ from Charlie Mason. The ‘Shield Guardian’ is a golem-like construct whose purpose is to protect places or things. Its face is on the massive shield it carries and this face constantly comments on any battle it participants in. Charlie Mason also details the ‘Abominable Beastman’, a terror of the north that likes Elf-flesh, especially that of Elves who make toys for Yuletide, though his aggression can be abated with jolly songs. The description of the ‘Abominable Beastman’ marks the first appearance of a slight streak of silliness that runs through the fanzine, but the monster works with or without it.

The first of the magical items described in The Wizard’s Scroll #1 are all ‘Weapons of Legend’. Redneck DM details six such weapons, such as ‘The Mocking Bird’s Hungry Bow’ which turns arrows fired from it into +2 arrows and some arrows each day to explode upon impact and the ‘Force Saber of Lucas Star-Born’, an energy weapon that works as a +2 two-handed sword and grants an Armour Class bonus against missiles. As can be seen, these weapons continue the silliness—even if just knowing silliness—that runs through some of the articles in The Wizard’s Scroll #1. This need not be enough of a reason for a Dungeon Master to avoid adding these weapons to his game, but he may want to change the names so that the inspirations are not as obvious. The other magic item in The Wizard’s Scroll #1 is the ‘Fuhrung (Magic Ring)’ by David Przybla, a pleasingly simple magical ring that is worn by officers to grant the men under their command bonuses to their saving throws, Armour Class, and their rolls to hit and do damage.

The first of the three scenarios is ‘The Demon-Shattered Tower’ by Steven A. Cook. A side-trek encounter for four to six characters for Levels Two and Three, this has the adventurers coming across a pack of Gnolls camping over a dungeon once the possession of a Wizard. Amounting to just ten locations, this is nicely detailed, fairly simple dungeon that can easily be dropped into a campaign. As can ‘The Bandit Caves of Cyrus Blacknail’ by Doug ‘Merias’ Maxwell, a location designed to be explored by five or more First Level characters. Consisting of eleven locations, this describes a disused series of caves, once a bandit den, now home to a goblin band. This is not as detailed or as interesting a dungeon as ‘The Demon-Shattered Tower’, but it is perfectly playable and can easily be adapted to a setting of the Dungeon Master’s choice. The third and last scenario is Charlie Mason’s ‘The Wizard’s Tower’. This describes the tower home of a Wizard—and a tough one at that—and truth be told, that is all it is. The tower and the Wizard both just exist, there is no plot to the adventure and the Dungeon Master will just have to develop one himself. One option might be for a Thief to have to burgle the building, another might be that the Wizard has knowledge or a spell that the adventurers need, but either way, the lack of a plot in ‘The Wizard’s Tower’ also makes it the easiest of the three locations to drop into a setting.

Rounding out The Wizard’s Scroll #1 is a recipe, or rather, ‘How to Cook a Halfling.’ Fortunately, an alternative ingredient is suggested instead of Halfling—useful when there are so few Halflings to be found at Sarehole Mill these days—though it does continue the silliness that runs through some of the articles in the fanzine. This is followed by a simple puzzle, the clues to which are dotted throughout the fanzine.

Physically, The Wizard’s Scroll #1 is clean and well presented. Much of the artwork is excellent, the cartography is decent, and all together it feels like a tidy package. That said, some of the articles feel underwritten and some suffer from a silliness that may not find favour with every reader or Dungeon Master. The fanzine does include some well-written rules that add to Swords & Wizardry without overcomplicating the roleplaying game. That said, this is not an outstanding fanzine, neither very good or very bad, rather, The Wizard’s Scroll #1 is competently done and provides reasonable support for Swords & Wizardry.

Monday, 10 April 2017

Faith's First Steps

Published by Burning Games in 2016, Faith: The Sci-Fi RPG is a Spanish Science Fiction Roleplaying Game that suffered from a number of issues which hampered play. Primarily these consisted of a lack of a scenario to play and a lack of background and objectives for the player characters, but the RPG also came without effective examples of how the rules worked or a fuller example of play. Despite these issues, Faith: The Sci-Fi RPG was not without its merits. The setting was intriguing, depicting a future in which some time after the collapse of human society, an alien insectoid species known as the Corvo appear, annex the Earth, and begin using humans as mercenaries in the ongoing cold war between the Corvo and their traditional enemy, aquatic mammals known as the Iz’kal. This lasted for nearly three centuries, but in the last three decades this war has been put on hold as the Corvo, the Iz’kal, and other species have been attacked by the Ravagers, a hive-race intent on harvesting any genetic material it can. The Corvo and the Iz’kal have formed a Coalition to defeat this threat, with Humans serving alongside both them and other species.

The setting of Faith: The Sci-Fi RPG is fairly hi-tech. Both biological and technological upgrades and implants are available and many devices can be accessed and even hacked using a Cortex Connector. The stars are reached not by Faster Than Light starships, but by accessing a network of wormholes called the Labyrinth, whose extent remains unknown. Beyond this though—and this is where Faith: The Sci-Fi RPG is unique—faith and a belief in the gods play a fundamental role in everyday life and beyond. Five are described. Ergon favours selflessness and happiness, Kavliva values strength and ambition, Vexal favours freedom and respect for individuality, Hexia values the pursuit of knowledge for the common good, and Ledger favours individualism above and the chaos it can reap. Of the five only Ledger does not have cults organised around his worship, although such cults are more organisations through which their members can demonstrate their faith rather bodies sanctioned by the gods. Anyone who embodies the commandments of one of these gods may be granted gifts or Divine Upgrades and become a Soulbender, able to warp reality.

Further, the mechanics in Faith: The Sci-Fi RPG favour player choice rather than randomness. They are card driven, each player drawing from their own decks, whilst the GM has his own. Although each player only holds a limited number of cards for each scene, they enable a player to better control his character’s luck rather than relying on the randomness of dice. Lastly, Faith: The Sci-Fi RPG is fantastically well illustrated with numerous, fully painted pieces of artwork that capture and depict the feel and grandeur of the setting far more than the writing does.

Now Burning Games has followed up Faith: The Sci-Fi RPG with FAITH: A Garden in Hell - RPG Starter Set. Funded via Kickstarter, FAITH: A Garden in Hell - RPG Starter Set is designed for two to five players, including the Game Master, which comes in a box that contains an eighty-page Campaign Book, a thirty-eight-page Rulebook, four player character folios, a GM tracking sheet, a deck of fifty-four of Gear & NPC Cards, a player deck, and four Boss Cards. Notably, the campaign, ‘A Garden in Hell’ is designed to be played straight out of the box, including as it does a scene that sets the campaign up and runs both players and Game Master through the mechanics.

Opening the box that contains FAITH: A Garden in Hell - RPG Starter Set and the first thing that you come to is the GM’s Outline. This four-page folio is the starting point for the boxed set, but it is primarily used to track the player characters’ progress through the campaign. It enables the GM to mark off chapters and various effects that will may affect later chapters as the campaign proceeds. Below this are the four player character folios, each four pages in length and complete with a background, technological and divine upgrades—currently possessed and available to take as the campaign proceeds, and of course, the character sheet. These folios are presented in a clear and open fashion, and are easy to read and use, especially the explanations of how various upgrades work. One notable feature is that each character’s skill and attribute ratings are marked not in black, but grey so that they can be easily amended as they play through the campaign and gain experience. These are accompanied by full colour card decks that detail the campaign’s NPCs and equipment, whilst the major NPCs are described and given stats on larger cards, essentially, ‘boss cards’.

The four player characters include two male and two female characters. They consist of a Corvo tech-engineer with a cybernetic arm, a Raag med-tech and xenologist, an Iz’kal covert ops specialist, and a Human military explorer. Interestingly, it is the Human character—Humans being primarily employed as mercenaries in this future—who is in charge rather than one of the major races of the Coalition. On the other hand, one race not represented in the ‘A Garden in Hell’ campaign are the Ravagers, who are available as a player character race in the Faith: The Sci-Fi RPG. Now there are reasons for this as the campaign does deal with secrets about the Ravager, but perhaps having a Ravager player character on the team would have been actually more interesting and more poignant once those secrets are revealed? Were a Game Master to want make adjustments to the campaign, this might be one that would add to ‘A Garden in Hell’.

The first of the two books in the box is the Rulebook. This is v1.5 of the Rulebook, which is available to download here. The Rulebook does include quick rules for creating player characters, so that a player could create his own to play through the campaign, though the four pre-generated player characters are designed with the campaign in mind. This version of the Rulebook benefits from more examples, but there is no example full play and the writing is perhaps a bit curt in places.

The ‘A Garden in Hell’ campaign casts the player characters as members of Team Inferi, a recon unit in the Coalition’s Planetary Expedition Corps. The Coalition has just launched a major operation against a Ravager strikeforce, but as the campaign begins, it is not going according to plan and Team Inferi finds itself alone, having crash-landed on System NT-44 after being attacked by Ravager forces. Team Inferi must survive this biologically rich and fecund world, recover what supplies they can and gather other survivors before going on to discover the secrets that the world hides. The structure of the campaign—which will find the player characters undertaking a wide array of mission types, including diplomatic, exploratory, patrol, recon, and rescue missions, and more—is somewhat linear in structure. There are points where the campaign opens up to allow the players to choose the missions that their characters can undertake and who they report to, allowing them to explore and experience more of the world and discover its secrets. Spread out over twenty-one chapters across four acts, the bulk of the encounters do involve combat, primarily against Ravager forces, but the planet is itself equally as dangerous, whether it is from native species or the environment itself, such as the acidic seas.

The ‘A Garden in Hell’ campaign does involve quite a lot of purple prose to read out, but notably, the first scene is specifically designed to walk the Game Master and his players through the rules and how they work. Essentially this can be done as soon as the Game Opens the box and examines everything, but to be fair, he would benefit from reading through the Rulebook first before running the campaign.

Unfortunately, FAITH: A Garden in Hell - RPG Starter Set is not without its issues. The most obvious one is an insufficient number of Player Decks. Now the new edition of the Rulebook that comes with this Starter Set does include new rules for multiple players to play using just the one Player Deck, but if they want a better showcase for the rules, a playing group can easily substitute Poker decks though or use those found in the Faith: The Sci-Fi RPG. The other is the writing itself. Although clear in meaning, it is often unnaturally phrased in places, for example, the use of ‘Unconfronted’ instead of ‘Uncontested’. Ideally, it needed localising before seeing print.

Physically, the components in FAITH: A Garden in Hell - RPG Starter Set are all in full colour and of good quality. Of course, the artwork in both the books and on the cards is fantastic and fantastical. In particular, the artwork created for the campaign—including the cartography—is particularly good and much of it can be used as illustrations to show the players as they play through the campaign.

Faith: The Sci-Fi RPG was a difficult game to approach because it did not give the Game Master and his players the means to apply it. FAITH: A Garden in Hell - RPG Starter Set does this and more. It provides the means to apply the rules and get a feel for what for the RPG is like, doing so through better presented rules and a playthrough example. Above all, FAITH: A Garden in Hell - RPG Starter Set provides a solidly written, well presented campaign that offers multiple sessions of good play and a taste of the Faith: The Sci-Fi RPG universe.

—oOo—

Currently, funds are being raised on Kickstarter for FAITH: The Sci-Fi RPG Core Book, which includes the complete rules and background.

Sunday, 9 April 2017

Goblin it up

Rebel Minis is better known as a designer and manufacturer of miniatures and wargames rules, but following a successful Kickstarter campaign, it has published its first roleplaying supplement. This is Dark Hold Goblin Adventures, which describes a setting that can be dropped into most fantasy worlds and uses Savage Worlds, the slightly Pulpy set of mechanics published by Pinnacle Group Entertainment. The choice of mechanics is no surprise since Savage Worlds is designed to handle skirmish level war gaming as much as it is roleplaying. Where Dark Hold Goblin Adventures is different to most other RPGs is that just like Vampire: the Masquerade and the Monsters! Monsters! RPG, the players do not get to take the roles of heroes doing the right thing. Here they play Goblins, small grovelling goblinoids, scratching out an existence in the very tunnels and catacombs where stalwart heroes of the surface races delve for secrets and treasures… As fractious and as warty as goblins are, they do stand together against such interlopers (except of course, when they might just kick the tribe’s chief off the top step!).

Dark Hold Goblin Adventures is set in the Dark Hold, a valley that was once home to a great Dwarven fortress-dungeon over a mine. Long abandoned, the valley is now home to various goblin tribes, some living in the upper tunnels and workings of the mines, others actually in villages on the surface. Some adventurers venture into the Dark Hold and delve into the tunnels below, but most rarely go further than Trade Town, the town at the exit of the valley where the Goblins go to trade. The goblins themselves are small, dirty, and ornery, but also tenacious, cunning, and stubborn. They also come with oversized noses, fingers, feet, widely varying looks, but always with the ability to see in the dark and eat, enjoy, and digest the inedible. Others have Benign Mutations such as warts that make them tougher to hit, longer noses for sniffing and tracking, and so on. There are some though, that know ‘Crystal Smything’. Such Crystal Mages learn to mine the geodes and then carve them in crystals into which Powers—the equivalent of spells in Savage Worlds—can be implanted until used. ‘Crystal Smything’ is not a perfect science though and crystals can be carved with flaws that cause side effects when tapped to use the Powers implanted in them. These might cause the Crystal Master to become all thumbs, cowardly, pedantic, shrink in size, a megalomaniac, or worse…

Everyone in Dark Hold Goblin Adventures plays a Goblin and takes the same Racial Template. Character creation is otherwise standard for Savage Worlds, though various new Edges are provided, including Benign Mutation, Arcane Background (Crystal Master), Lucky Item (an item that essentially will not break), Disgusting Spew (the goblin can spit acid), and Goblin Leader (re-rolls allow the use of a better die type when spending a Benny). No new skills are added bar the aforementioned Arcane skill of ‘Crystal Smything’ and no new Hindrances. Some ideas are given for character Archetypes as is advice on playing low level characters, but in general the advice on creating Goblin characters is somewhat underwritten. Dark Hold Goblin Adventures includes the one rule change in that critical failures—rolling double ones—on any Trait test always results in a critical failure as it cannot be bought off with a Benny.

In terms of background, the focus is definitely more on the goblins and their gods rather than the area above and below the Dark Hold. In fact, the description of the Dark Hold is quite broadly drawn, specific details often being given in the supplement’s various adventures rather than in the region description.

Several adventures are given in Dark Hold Goblin Adventures, consisting of three full adventures plus eight mini-adventures. The first of the full adventures is the introductory adventure, ‘Who Wants to be an Adventurer?’. This has the chief of their tribe sending the player characters after his cowardly son who has disappeared down some dark and mysterious tunnels. This is a straightforward dungeon crawl, quite nicely detailed, but rather linear. It is followed by ‘Goblin Faire’, which sends the player characters to the annual fair held in the Dark Hold where they can compete for hand of the daughter of the hosting tribal chief in competitions involving belching, flinging cow pats, jousting with hogs, hunting for grubs, and rat races. This offers lots of things for the player characters to do and get involved in, so it seems odd that the scenario includes a plot switch that involves another missing goblin and the need for the player characters to descend into another set of tunnels. This time it is the tribal chief’s daughter that has gone missing, but whereas in ‘Who Wants to be an Adventurer?’ this lead to a linear dungeon crawl, the Game Master is given the flexibility to run the encounters in the order that he wants. The Game Master also has a greater number of NPCs to handle and perhaps a means of handling and tracking the results of the various competitions could have been provided.

The third and final full adventure, ‘Pursuit of the Perfect Pig’, offers much greater variety in terms of things to do, although it is very much a traditional quest-type adventure. One of the tribe has had a vision of a ‘humie’ astride flying, winged pig and since all goblins loving riding pigs, capturing a flying pig would make the player characters’ names. This is a fun adventure, a sneaky mission to get in past Orc guards and workers as well as the mad wizard experimenting with his pigs. It is followed by six short adventures, each just a little too long to be a ‘One Page Adventures’. ‘Temptation’s Lonely Heart’ sends the player characters off to search a newly revealed mountain mining complex in search of a giant crystal; ‘Should We Eat It?’ presents a dilemma—save a Humie baby or have it for tea; and ‘Kitchen Chaos’ requires the player characters to save the tribe’s special soup. In ‘Pig Hunt’, the player characters need to find a pig worthy of riding in the pig jousting competition in the next goblin fair; ‘Tomb Raider Raiders’ sends the player characters off in search of a rumoured magical sword; and in ‘Mushroom March’ the player characters get involved in a cooking competition. The six one-page adventures offers plenty of variety and should offer something different from the similarities between the fuller adventures.

Rounding out Dark Hold Goblin Adventures are three appendices. The first gives a selection of new creatures particular to the Dark Hold, whilst the second lists several new items. The third gives a collection of pre-generated characters, either to use as sample player characters or as NPCs. In general, these showcase what goblin characters should be like better than the archetype suggestions given earlier in the book.

Physically, Dark Hold Goblin Adventures needs another edit. The writing in general good though and the artwork is decent. The issues with underwritten advice for creating characters and the lack of variety between the main adventures are not insurmountable and the appendices and short adventures make up for both with a little effort upon the part of the GM. Get past those issues and what Dark Hold Goblin Adventures presents is a lighter option, comic in tone, and more rough and tumble in comparison to the usual fantasy adventuring fare.