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

Monday, 2 May 2016

For Cultured Friends V

The fifth issue of The Excellent Travelling Volume  continues James Maliszewski’s support for TSR Inc.’s Empire of the Petal Throne: The World of Tékumel, only the third RPG to be published and the first to come with its own background. It also marks his continued involvement in the ‘Old School Renaissance’, though one more ‘cultured’ and not as prominent or as public as its once leading light via his blog, Grognardia. As with previous issues—one, two, three, and four—the fanzine showcases his own campaign, ‘House of Worms’, although with this issue, he introduces a second campaign. Although the fanzine is firmly aimed at ‘Petalheads’, devotees of Tékumel: Empire of the Petal Throne, the linguistic and RPG setting devised by the late Professor M.A.R. Barker, it is not aimed at the deep cultural aspects that the setting and thus the RPG is rightly renowned for. Rather, it sets out to provide material that has been played and can be played.

As with previous issues, The Excellent Travelling Volume #5 comes as a thirty-two page, digest-sized booklet, illustrated with greyscale pictures. Inside are just six sections, most of which will be familiar to readers of previous issues. It opens with ‘Mu’ugalavyáni and N’lüss Characters’, a guide to creating characters from Tsolyánu’s greatest rival, the Empire of Mu’ugalavyá and N’lüssa, the lands of the giant N’lüss, the barbarians to the north of Mu’ugalavyá. The article covers the basic information needed to play characters from either region, alignment, gender, skills, Level Titles, gods, and both names and clan names, and so on. The Mu’ugalavyáni get more of a detailed treatment than the N’lüss, but then the N’lüss are an ‘uncultured’ lot in comparison to the Mu’ugalavyáni, who make up one the Five Empires. As with previous articles in the series, this provides excellent support for both NPCs and player characters.

The article though, marks a radical shift upon the part of the author since it describes peoples to the west of The Empire of the Petal Throne, whereas previous issues have focussed upon the east with discussions of Sokátis, the City of Roofs, and articles about the Salarvyáni and the Pecháni and the Yán Koryáni and the Sa’á Allaqiyáni. The shift is explained by the author’s fascination with the Mu’ugalavyáni and his recently having set up a new campaign set in the city of Gashchné.

It is followed by another entry in one of the continuing highlights of The Excellent Travelling Volume—‘Patrons’. Except that where in the past the author has presented potential employers suitable for civilised and cultured clan members as well as uncultured, uncivilised, nakome scum*, here he takes us to ‘At the Clanhouse’ to present five patrons that Tsolyánu player characters might encounter. As before, each is accorded full stats, background and a story hook, plus options as to what is really going on. The various NPCs include a legion veteran, a matchmaker, a respected elder, and so on. Encountering may lead one or more player characters enlisting, getting married, covering up indiscretions, and more. The five patrons here are aimed at the campaign that involves Tsolyánu clan members and in particular work well with a single-clan campaign, though there would be little adjustment needed to use them in a campaign set in Mu’ugalavyá or the other Five Empires. However the GM uses them, these are good adventure hooks, especially for getting the players involved in clan life and politics.

Continued in The Excellent Travelling Volume #5 is ‘A Portion of the Underworld of Sokátis’, a description of part of the ‘Tsuru’úm’ or underworld that lies beneath the city’s Foreigners’ Quarter first described in issue #2. This completes both halves of the portion detailed so far. Now complete it still feels much like a sandbox for the player characters to explore and adventure in, the issue being that the player characters lack reasons to delve into its musty halls and tombs. Of course, a competent GM would be able to create reasons and hooks for his own campaign, but perhaps the regular Patrons section could be devoted to potential employers to lead on to adventures in the ‘Tsuru’úm’ described in the ‘A Portion of the Underworld of Sokátis’ series.

The ‘Bestiary’ describes two types of the undead that might be found in the ‘Tsuru’úm’ below Sokátis. One is the Mnéktan, ‘the sword-handed’, whose arms have been sharpened into swords, whilst the Turuvándu, ‘the scuttler’, bends over backwards and is capable of walking up walls and across the ceiling. Each is a type of reanimated corpse that is used as tomb guards, the Mnéktan being the creation of the Temple of Ksáru, the Turuvándu the creation of the Temple of Sárku. Further creatures are described, but not given stats, in ‘The Underpeople’. These are the various nearly- and non-human species that live below the planet and who have been forgotten by, or are looked down upon by mankind. The author begins with those mentioned in Man of Gold, M.A.R. Barker’s first novel set in Tékumel, that is the Hehegánu and the Hehecháru, before going on to describe those that he developed for his own campaign and presenting a means for the GM to create his own. They are a means to further highlight the long history mankind’s future history on Tékumel and the activities of the Ancients, the xenophobic attitudes of the Five Empires and the weirdness of the setting. Rounding the coverage of monsters and creatures in The Excellent Travelling Volume #5 is a trio of ‘demons’ in ‘Demons of Belkhánu & Qón’.

Lastly, ‘The Tomb of Vrikheshámma’ describes the step-pyramid tomb of an ancient and once revered sorcerer. Located in some distant desert or badlands, this is a nicely described destination that consists of just a few rooms which should keep a group of  adventurers occupied for a session or two. As written, it just needs a good reason for them to go looking for it and it is all ready for the GM to drop it into a convenient hex in his campaign or sandbox.

Physically, The Excellent Travelling Volume #5 is solidly presented. Both its artwork and its cartography continue to be excellent. That said, another edit would not have gone amiss, but there is a solidly assured feel to this issue.

The Excellent Travelling Volume #5 continues James Maliszewski’s exploration and development of his own campaign for Tékumel: Empire of the Petal Throne. Although perhaps some more adventures and more involved adventures might be a nice idea, especially for Sokátis and its ‘Tsuru’úm, for future issues, the mix of articles in this issue feels like a good balance and is never uninteresting. The Excellent Travelling Volume #5 is as close to a professional magazine as a fanzine can get. If you are a ‘Petalhead’, a fan of Tékumel: Empire of the Petal Throne, then The Excellent Travelling Volume #5 is a must.

Sunday, 1 May 2016

Fanzine Focus II: Vacant Ritual Assembly #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 began 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 tcompatible 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, such as The Undercroft and Vacant Ritual Assembly.

Published in the Spring of 2015 by Red Moon MedicineVacant Ritual Assembly #2 follows on from the solidly done issue #1 and like that first issue is devoted to Lamentations of the Flame Princess Weird Fantasy Roleplay and the campaign of the editor, Clint Krause. Unlike that first issue there is no real theme to Vacant Ritual Assembly #2, but this does not mean that the contents of this issue suffer for it.

Once past the editorial and the editor’s campaign update, Vacant Ritual Assembly #2 opens with a pair of slight pieces, a list of names for a dark fantasy game and a reinterpretation of the Zodiac as part of character creation. This is followed by ‘Dretcher’s Bay’, a description of a forlorn, Innsmouth-like hamlet. Governed by ‘the captains’, the village is best known for the Bell Crab, the rich meat of which sells for high prices. Each of the captains commands rival crews of crabbers that dive upon the nearby submerged ruins of Acray to harvest the crabs, though the creatures are sacred to the strange lobster-like Nephroids who herd them. The description of Dretcher's Bay does not include any plot hooks or scenario ideas, but the setting itself has plenty of opportunities, whether the player characters want to get involved in village politics, dive for Bell Crabs, or scour the ruins for its secrets. It feels old and mouldering and is easily dropped onto any suitable coastal spot in a Referee’s campaign.

The only piece in Vacant Ritual Assembly #2 offered by an author other than the editor is ‘Oarsmen & Their Woes’ by Anxious P. This describes a strange Charon-like race that might be encountered singly when someone needs to escape from a situation or environment. The Oarsman offers a way to somewhere safeor at least somewhere saferaboard his ferry along impossible creeks, but there is a price. The Oarsman will not only share the woe that lead to him becoming an Oarsman, but also demand a price for their passage to be paid by one of the adventurers. This is usually something personal and vital to the adventurer. ‘Oarsmen & Their Woes’ offers both something useful and something creepy to a campaign and really works if used more than once because no two woes and no two prices should be alike. To that end, a few more suggested prices might not have gone amiss, but a competent Referee should be able to devise a few more.

‘With Thine Eye Beheld’ offers a short encounter with a strange cargo cult obsessed with a cyclops-God and his eye. It details the small, family cult and its temple, essentially a small dungeon. There is relatively little to the scenario, but it carries its eye motive as far as it can in a few pages, right up to a sort of bonkers magic item. Just as ‘Dretcher's Bay’, this scenario lacks the hooks to get the adventurers involved, but unlike ‘Dretcher's Bay’, this scenario lacks the depth for the Referee to really develop interesting hooks. So the Referee will need to work harder to work it into his game, but it is nevertheless easy to drop ‘With Thine Eye Beheld’ into a hex of your sandbox.

As with the first issue, rounding out Vacant Ritual Assembly #2 is a lengthy interview. This time it is with Greg Gorgonmilk, the co-author and publisher of Dolmenwood - Character Archaics. It is informative, but at six pages, it is somewhat lengthy given that the fanzine is just twenty-four pages long. Essentially it is a magazine-sized article and perhaps it could have been split over two issues?

Physically, Vacant Ritual Assembly #2 is well presented, and there are decent maps whilst the illustrations do vary in quality. Where second issueswhether of albums or fanzinesmight seem to have a difficult gestation with ultimately unsatisfactorily results, this is not the case with the Vacant Ritual Assembly #2. It contains some satisfying and usable content in both scenarios, an interesting creature to encounter, and even page filling pieces that can be used. Overall, a solid issue with a few problems which can easily be overcome for issue #3.

Saturday, 30 April 2016

Fanzine Focus II: The Undercroft #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, such as The Undercroft and Vacant Ritual Assembly.

Published by the Melsonian Arts Council—also the publisher of he recently released Something Stinks in Stilton—in July, 2014, issue #1 of The Undercroft was an engaging initial issue, full of intriguing and useful material. It was followed in September, 2014 with issue #2 and as with all second efforts, especially after successful first efforts, the problem of the ‘second difficult album’ has to be addressed. Essentially can the editor and authors maintain the consistency and interest achieved by issue #1? It is even a concern raised by the editor in the opening sentences of the issue’s editorial, but it is clear that the editor is not only unconcerned by the problem, he is proud of The Undercroft #2. That is of course, his prerogative, but the truth of the matter is that The Undercroft #2 is a ‘second difficult album’, or rather a ‘second difficult fanzine’.

It opens well enough with Simon Forster’s ‘Between the Cracks’, a nasty little dungeon in which the adventurers explore the laboratory-home of a wizard-alchemist said to live beneath a pool of water. Of course he has not been seen in many years and is said to possessed a valuable treasure. What does lie below is not necessarily treasure, but a horrible monster—a little in the vein of a Hound of Tindalos—waiting for some fool of an adventurer to release it. This is all a bit of a cliché, but no less fun for it. The scenario could have done with giving a motive or two beyond the simple suggestion that the wizard’s laboratory-home be of interest to tomb robbers, but any competent GM should be devise motivations suitable for his campaign and player characters. The simplicity of ‘Between the Cracks’ means that it can easily be added to any wilderness adventure or sandbox.

As to the monster trapped in ‘Between the Cracks’, this is oddly not detailed after the scenario, but instead several pages later in The Undercroft #2. ‘That Which Slips Between’ by Luke Gearing describes a being of inhuman alienness, man-like, but not, that seemingly acts and attacks random. This is because it does and there tables to determine its next course of action and direction. It is also all but unstoppable and the only fact that this may not might drive the players and their characters into frustration is that the thing can just stop and it can head off in a random direction, so its behaviour may not be wholly directed at them. This is where it is quite clever because it leaves the player characters to wonder where and at whom it might strike should just wander off—they might even feel guilty for letting it go free... 

The other monsters presented in The Undercroft #2 are not quite as interesting. In ‘The Pit of Flesh: A Bestiary’, editor Daniel Sell offers the reader the ‘Transplasmic Organic Bifurious Inductors’ and ‘The Visitor’. The former is a ram-horned, porcine-featured ape-like creature created by wizards to turn magical pollutants into slurry that has since been put use dealing with all sorts of waste, from cutting the grass to chomping down on unwanted biological masses… The latter plays the part of the ancient relative, old and sad, insinuating itself into families and feeding on their warmth and their joy, whilst slowing coming to control the members one by one. Of the two, the ‘Transplasmic Organic Bifurious Inductors’ are simply silly, but ‘The Visitor’ has the potential to be quite creepy.

Two or three monsters would seem to be sufficient in a twenty-four page fanzine, but The Undercroft #2 offers yet more. Matthew Adams, best known for his illustrations for the supplement, Yoon-Suin: The Purple Land, draws and describes in turn ‘The Storkman’, ‘The Briar Witch’, and ‘The Snailing’. The first swaps newborn babies for reasons unknown, the second haunts ruins covered in briars, and the third are former misers turned snail-like demons that obsessively hunt and collect certain objects. All three are accorded a full page illustration and barely half a page of text without any stats. What this means is that none of them amount to very much, not helped by either the swathes of empty page or Adams’ scratchy art style which does not really work as full page pieces. Further none of them with stats, so they are not immediately useful. Given how much space they take up—one quarter of the issue—all three entries feel like page fillers. Which is odd given how much little space each takes up on their respective pages.

Fortunately, Tony A. Thompson offers up something with a little more substantial in the form of ‘Piteous Potions’. This details a dozen potions of weirder sort—ones that cause the imbiber’s toes to fall and be replaced by hooves, to become disorientated, make a vow of poverty, and so on. All twelve are weird and wonderful and should put the player characters off trying any potions they find for quite a long time. Lastly, the issue is rounded out with Simon Forster’s ‘Blood’, a sanguine piece of horror fiction that just is.

Physically, The Undercroft #2 is generally well presented, but this is not the problem with the issue. The problem is that too many—in fact, more than half—of its pages are devoted to uninteresting material, primarily, too many monsters. This is not to say that any of the articles in The Undercroft #2 should not have seen print, but rather they should never have seen print all together in the one issue. The result is that a decent scenario and an interesting monster and some potions are drowned in the underwhelming rest of the issue. Ultimately, a poor choice of material and dearth of interesting ideas after the promise of The Undercroft #1 explains why The Undercroft #2 is a difficult second issue.

Friday, 29 April 2016

Fanzine Focus II: Mystic Pangolin #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, such as The Undercroft and Vacant Ritual Assembly. Similarly, Goodman Games’ Dungeon Crawl Classics Roleplaying Game has proved to be popular choice for fanzines. Mystic Pangolin though, is written for use with Swords & Wizardry, Mythmere Games’ interpretation of the original Dungeons & Dragons.

Published in the Autumn of 2014 by Blackie Carbon/Cloudstepping Media, Mystic Pangolin #1 is wholly written by R.G. Anderson and promises to deliver “Old School Fantasy Gaming” in “an ogre’s lunchbox full of goodies”. Putting aside that image, the unfortunate truth is that this first issue does not quite deliver on that claim. The problem is that the fanzine opens with a mundane article and never quite lifts itself above being pedestrian. The first of these is ‘Casks & Barrels – terminology and definitions’, part of the Down ‘n’ Dirty Dungeon Dozens series, which as the title suggests gives the twelve terms and definitions for casks and barrels—and that is it. There is no faulting the facts in the article, but there is no application, no suggestion as to how the details can be used. This is followed by ‘An Elaborate System of Curious Signs – a lexicon of hobo signs for your game world’,  which draws upon the signs used by hobos during the Great Depression to communicate amongst themselves as they rode America’s railways. The suggestion is that they can be used to form the basis of secret signs and the cant between thieves and that is a nice idea. Unfortunately the author only presents the historically used signs and does not take the time to develop any for the fantasy setting that fanzines like Mystic Pangolin is written for. This is a missed opportunity, but this does not mean that a Dungeon Master could not create some of his own, plus as written, the contents of the article could be used with the recently released Gang Busters Basic Rules or indeed with the article on hobos in Island of Ignorance – The Third Cthulhu Companion.

The third article is part of the fanzine’s ‘Randomizer-O-Rama’ series. Initially ‘Books & Scrolls – Alternate treasure and adventure hook’ reads very much like ‘Casks & Barrels – terminology and definitions’, essentially presenting the various ways in which the written word has been preserved, from the clay and wax tablets to scrolls and parchment. It backs these up with a somewhat convoluted table for determining the type, material and condition of the written work and another for determining a manuscript’s contents. Again, the article suffers from a lack of application and a lack of examples. There is though more substance to the fourth article, the first entry in the ‘Ports of Call’ which describes the minehead and ore port of Haeford. The small settlement supplies the nearby towns with lumber and iron, whilst also engaging in some shipbuilding. Although there are one or two pieces of nice description, the write-up of Haeford never really comes alive and never feels like a place that the player characters might visit or do little more than pass through.

Rounding out Mystic Pangolin #1 is ‘The Reliquary of Thazur Zul’, a dungeon adventure for characters of Second to Fourth Levels. Again written for Swords & Wizardry, the adventure also makes use of the Swords & Wizardry Monster Book and Roger S. G. Sorolla’s Varmints and Vermin, so any Dungeon Master wanting to adapt the adventure to the Retroclone of his choice may need to do a little extra work. The scenario has the adventurers hired by a mercantile matriarch to retrieve the head of the corpse of a rival in an effort to restore her family’s fortunes. Unfortunately the matriarch’s sons hid the head in an old tomb and access to that tomb is blocked by rival tribes of Gnolls and Kobolds. The adventure is fairly large, taking up half of the fanzine, but as written is somewhat colourless and flat, lacking the detail and flavour that might bring it alive. There is also a certain degree of artificiality to the set-up, having Kobolds and Gnolls so close together without the latter turning on the former. There is a reason given for the stand-off between the two tribes, but it does not feel enough. Ultimately the adventure is somewhat pedestrian and the Dungeon Master will need to work hard to bring it alive.

Physically Mystic Pangolin #1 is cleanly laid out, but does suffer from a surfeit of white space. It needs another edit as the writing is clumsy in places. The use of photographs and illustrations is decent though. Mystic Pangolin #1 is no longer available in print, but is available as a PDF. Mystic Pangolin #2 is currently available in print.

Ultimately, not everything is going to be great and Mystic Pangolin #1 is not great. It is again pedestrian, lacking the application and the development that would lift it above the mere presentation of facts. This does not mean that a good Dungeon Master could not take the information here and develop it into something more exciting, more inspiring, and more fun, but that would require effort that might be better directed to writing his own material.

Saturday, 23 April 2016

Kaves of Karshoon II

Although there is no scenario in the rulebook for Shadow of the Demon Lord, the first RPG released by Schwalb Entertainment following a successful Kickstarter campaign, one of the excellent decisions upon the part of the designer has been to release support—and release it early—in the form of scenarios for the game. This way a gaming group can get playing quickly, even if they are just using the core rules presented in Victims of the Demon Lord: Starter Guide plus the adventure. In addition, the publisher has also released Tales of the Demon Lord, a complete mini-campaign that takes a party of characters from Zero Level up to Eleventh Level. In the meantime, the sixteenth adventure is The Gorgon’s Tears.

The Gorgon’s Tears is written by Cam Banks, co-author of various titles including the Cortex Classic System Role Playing Game, the Leverage: The Roleplaying Game, and the Marvel Heroic Roleplaying Basic Game. It is the fifth adventure written for characters who have entered the Expert Path, that is of Third Level or higher, and comes as an eight page, 19.36 MB PDF. It is designed as a standalone adventure, but can also be run as a sequel to Beware the Tides of Karshoon, being set in the same city of Gateway. It is also designed to serve as a bridge for characters moving from the Expert Path to the Master Path, that is of Seventh Level or higher. So ideally it should be run for characters of Sixth or Seventh Level. By the end of the adventure, the characters will have either prevented or allowed the return of an ancient evil—and if the latter, then they might even be working for it!

As the scenario opens, word has reached Gateway of the Orc uprising to the south and of the assassination of the Emperor—and the city is in uproar. Certain factions in Gateway advocate separation from Empire’s provincial government and foment civil unrest, inciting mobs to riot and protest. Leading these protests is the wealthy and decadent Gogenthaler Clan, but whilst the clan campaigns for Karshoon’s ‘independence’, something else stalks its members for reasons of its own. It is amidst one of these protests that the player characters find themselves when the scenario opens. By the time the riot is over, they will likely have an offer of employment—from one side or another—and have been presented with a grisly mystery. It is this mystery that lies at the heart of The Gorgon’s Tears

The likelihood is that solving the mystery in The Gorgon’s Tears will involve violence and combat—violence and combat upon the part of the player characters. Yet the scenario does not have to and there is the scope for this too. The scenario’s antagonists are not necessarily hostile towards the player characters and are even prepared to negotiate with them. This is refreshing after the focus in so many of the scenarios for Shadow of the Demon Lord having been on combat and it leaves several of the other scenarios available for the RPG slightly wanting as roleplaying experiences… The scenario almost begs to be expanded and to last longer than the simple one or two sessions that it offers.

The Gorgon’s Tears is a good scenario for Shadow of the Demon Lord, involving a decent mix of mystery, combat, and social interaction. The latter, the social interaction, is the adventure’s most interesting feature, but unfortunately, it is slightly underplayed. Perhaps though, there is scope here for the Game Master—perhaps even Schwalb Entertainment and the author?—to expand The Gorgon’s Tears into the fuller, more interesting, and more rounded scenario it deserves to be.

Friday, 22 April 2016

Lost from the Sun

Thralls of the Sun is the first release supporting Blood & Bronze: A Fantasy Game of High Adventure and Role-Playing, the post-Old School Renaissance Retroclone set in Ancient Mesopotamia published by Cyclopean Games. It is the Bronze Age RPG’s first ‘Adventure Setup’ or scenario, a dungeon of a very different stripe. Designed to be used by beginning or intermediate characters, it offers classic dungeoneering play combined with some solid social interaction—both necessary for completing the adventure. The adventure or dungeon comes in two parts which can either be played separately or together, but if Thralls of the Sun is played as written, it comes with a really good set-up and hook for the player characters.

Thralls of the Sun begins with the player characters in servitude. They have been found guilty of crimes—and each player gets to define his character’s crime or crimes—by the court of Shamash, the Gleaming God of Sippar, and been sentenced to labour in the Slave Pits beneath the golden ziggurat of the Midday Sun where the city’s waterworks are. This sentence is for life! So the adventurers are cast into the darkness below city of Sippar, enslaved and stripped of their goods, expected to work each and every day… until they die. Their aim of course is to escape their sentence and their captivity, but how do they do that in the dark, friendless, and chattel-less?

From this great set-up, the characters are not just going on a dungeon bash. Rather they are preparing to explore the underground network of waterworks, mechanisms, tunnels, and caverns. For this they will need to find equipment—and sources of light in particular—and allies and patrons. Obtaining the latter will probably gain the characters the time to explore, though of course at the direction of their patron. The other benefit to having a patron is that it will give someone to whom the player characters can pay tribute. This is important, for in Blood & Bronze, the only way in which a character can gain Ranks beyond his first is to pay tribute to his patron. Of course, the only way to gain the loot to pay this tribute is to go exploring! There is also another reason for the characters to gain a patron. Each slave is bound by a leather collar that prevents their simply leaving the Slave Pits without incurring horrid pain, followed by death. Perhaps their patron can help them remove the collars?

There are opportunities to find loot in Thralls of the Sun—they lie beneath the Slave Pits in the lost Crypt of Ubara-Atutum. The dungeon of the adventure consists of four levels, divided into two sets of levels, each set being of a different character. The Slave Pits are roughly hewn, leading to caverns and tunnels below, but the Crypt of Ubara-Atutum is older than the Slave Pits, a tomb network cut in an older style and with greater precision. Getting from the first two levels down to the second two will take no little effort, primarily social in nature backed up with a number of puzzles. This perfectly exemplifies Blood & Bronze, which unlike other Retroclones is not quite so focused on combat.

The divide between the two sections means that Thralls of the Sun could be run without each other, though perhaps a little effort would required by the Referee to separate them easily. Further, the player characters may not be guilty of any crime, so why are they in the Slave Pits? Is it to plunder the Crypt of Ubara-Atutum? Or are they after something else? 

Physically, Thralls of the Sun is very nicely presented. This is to be expected, since the core rules for Blood & Bronze were solidly presented and punctuated with some superbly evocative artwork. Its map was also nicely done. Now the writing is as good in Thralls of the Sun, though another edit would not have gone amiss, but the artwork is not as good. This is not to say that the artwork is bad—it is not. It is not just as good as that in the Blood & Bronze core rules. Glynn Seal’s cartography though, is fabulous. Again, it is evocative and flavoursome, detailed and clear, and just really good.

Thralls of the Sun is an impressive first adventure for Blood & Bronze. It should provide multiple sessions of play, but above all it provides a solid reason and motivation to play. 

Friday, 15 April 2016

Super Zombies

The question of how you would survive a zombie apocalypse has been asked so often in the last few years that it has become a cliché. Yet how would you survive a zombie apocalypse if you were not an ordinary member of the public, but a superhero? This is a question asked in Rotted Capes, a superhero/zombie fusion RPG published by Paradigm Concepts that brings the Four Colour superhero genre into violent and bloody collision with the rise of the dead. Four years after ‘Z-Day’, the inhabitants of Paradigm City must survive not only the corpse cortege that roams the city, but former superheroes and super-villains that have fallen to the flesh feasting freaks and risen as Super Zombies, each equally as hungry for the flesh of the living, but without their former morality and still possessing the superpowers they had in life. Worse, the surviving superheroes—that is, the player characters—are not ‘A-Listers’, the equivalent of members of The Avengers, the Justice League of America, the X-Men, or Stormwatch, but ‘B-Listers’, sidekicks or minor superheroes or villains, forced through circumstances to go above and beyond to survive in a ‘Grave New World’. 

Published via Kickstarter, Rotted Capes is a Four Colour superhero RPG brought to flesh wrenching halt by the zombie apocalypse—essentially Mystery Men meets The Walking Dead. It is not a new idea. 2005 ‘s Marvel Zombies explored an alternative universe where the familiar heroes of the Marvel universe were zombies, whilst Peter Cline’s Ex-Heroes series of novels presented a post-apocalyptic Los Angeles where super heroes worked to protect the survivors. ‘B-Listers’ being expected to step up when the ‘A-Listers’ are dead—or in the case of Rotted Capes, undead—is not exactly new to gaming either. It is essentially the same set-up as Necessary Evil, the superhero Plot Point campaign from Pinnacle Entertainment Group for use with Savage Worlds, though of course, that sees the minor villains and ex-sidekicks forced to face the aftermath of an alien invasion after the world’s major heroes and villains have been killed defending the Earth against the invaders.

Creating a super-powered character in Rotted Capes begins with selecting a power source and an archetype. The former—Super-Human, Skill Hero, and Tech Hero grants an Attribute bonus and some Advantages and Disadvantages, whilst the latter— Blaster, Brawler, Controller, Infiltrator, Heavy, and Transporter—each grants another Attribute bonus and reduced purchase cost during character creation for certain powers. As a ‘B-lister’, each player character is built on 150 points. In comparison, ‘A-Listers’ are built on 600 points. These points are spent on Attributes, Skills, and Powers. 

A character has eight Attributes; four physical—Might, Prowess, Quickness, and Vigour, and four mental—Charisma, Insight, Logic, and Resolve. Each Attribute has a score value, which has an associated Base Die type and a Passive Modifier. The Die type is rolled when a character takes an action, the Passive Modifier for passive rolls, defenses, and initiative, amongst other aspects of the rules. The average human has a score of four in each Attribute, with ‘B-listers’ having a score as high as nine. Score values scale up, to thirty-six and more, measuring at the same time, how much a character lift, push,  and how fast he can run. Thus the average human can lift 100 lbs., push 150 lbs., and run at 10 MPH, whereas a character with a score of eight can lift 500 lbs., push 10000 lbs., and run at 18 MPH. A character with a score of thirty-six in any Attribute is akin to a god…

Skills reflect the modern setting of Rotted Capes, but whilst fairly broad, most allow characters to focus on certain aspects of a skill, whilst others require a character to specialise. Powers though, do not reflect a true Four Colour setting, as neither magic nor spells are given. For the most part, Rotted Capes keeps its powers relatively straightforward, but it makes a couple of interesting tweaks to gaming superpowers. The first is the capacity to use one power to emulate another, for example, using the Teleport power to move items as per the Move Object power. This grants a fair degree of flexibility when it comes to character design. The second tweak is the concept of ‘Burnout’. Every hero has a Burnout Threshold and many of the game’s powers have a Burnout value. When a character uses powers with Burnout, these values accrue and when they exceed the hero’s Burnout Threshold, there is a chance that all of the hero’s powers with Burnout values will burn out and be unusable for several actions. This is not a rule that particularly fits the Four Colour genre, but rather it makes Rotted Capes much grittier and pushes its tone towards the zombie apocalypse genre.

Our sample character is small, would be villain, Elliot P. Anderson. Before Z-Day, he had been a recent graduate of CalTech who got hired straight out of college by a new start-up company in Paradigm City. Which was going well until it got busted as a cover for the criminal mastermind Professor Gojkovik and Elliot first got zapped when some equipment exploded in the fight and then arrested. Before he could be arraigned, Elliot just vanished out of his cell and found himself back in his apartment. Unable to get work, he was forced to use his newly found powers for burglary. He never got caught, but then Z-Day happened and now he is on his own, looking for somewhere to hide.

Inside Man. 
Origin: Super-Human (Power Source), Transporter (Archetype) 
Personality Flaw: Greedy

ATTRIBUTE/SCORE/ACTION VALUE/PASSIVE
Might 4/d8/2
Prowess 5/d8/3
Quickness  5/d8/3
Vigour  5/d8/3
Charisma  5/d8/3
Insight  5/d8/3
Logic  5/d8/3
Resolve  11/d12/4

Pace: 3
Initiative: 3
Burnout (Discipline): 19
Avoidance: 18
Fortitude: 17
Discipline: 19
Stamina: 54
Wounds: 4
AR vs. Ballistic: 2 Melee: 2 Energy: 2

Common Attacks:
Glock 19 9mm semi-auto handgun (d8)
Machete (d8)

Personality Flaw: Greedy, Survivor’s Guilt

Powers: Enhanced Attribute [Resolve] 5/20, Teleport 8/24

Advantages: Burglar, Jury Rig

Disadvantages: Physical Flaw [Glasses] (+2)

Skills [Bonus/Passive]:
Drive: 1/16, Empathy: 2/17, Engineering [Computers]: 3/18, Engineering [Programming] 2/17, Firearms: 2/17, Influence: 1/16, Larceny: 2/17, Local Knowledge: 1/16, Melee: 2/17, Perception: 2/17, Scavenge: 3/18, Stealth: 2/17, Technology [Basic]: 1/16, Technology [Programming] 2/17, Urban Survival:1/16

Equipment:
Glock 17 9mm semi-auto handgun, machete, Reinforced Armour, Technician’s Kit

Character creation in Rotted Capes suffers from the same problem that character creation in all Super Hero RPGs suffers from—complexity. This is not as complex as say Hero Games’ Champions or Steve Jackson Games Supers for use with GURPS. By the standards of most modern RPGs, it is relatively complex and involving, requiring a player to balance his somewhat limited budget of points.

So far Rotted Capes has focussed on its superhero half, but this changes with its coverage of equipment. In a superhero setting, this usually one of the least important sections except where one of the player characters is a super scientist or gadgeteer, but here as in any other zombie apocalypse game it is a matter of survival, the player characters having to regularly venture forth to scavenge for supplies. In a zombie infested post-apocalypse, even one where there are superheroes, this is no different. After all, this what Rotted Capes is about. Even so, Rotted Capes nicely streamlines the process of equipment selection, starting characters simply being the initial weapons of their choice, plus a Starter Pack of their choice—’Medic’, Survivalist’, ‘Technician’, and so on. Anything else must be purchased using ‘Acquisition Points’ gained from each character’s Scavenge and Urban survival skills.

To undertake an action, a character rolls his Action Dice—two ten-sided dice—plus Attribute Die and adds to this total any modifiers from his Advantages, Tricks, and the Ranks from his Powers and Skills. The final result is compared to a Target Number, ten for Easy, fifteen for Routine, twenty for Challenging, and so on. Rolls of a maximum on the Attribute Dice—or the Plot Die—mean that the dice explode and can be rolled again, their results also added. Dice types can also be increased or decreased by Die Bumps or Die Penalties.

For example, Inside Man has got inside a big store in order to look for supplies. The Editor-in-Chief—as the Game Master is known in Rotted Capesrules that this establishment has already been picked over several times, so sets the Target Number as Daunting or twenty-five. So Inside Man picks up the Action Dice and rolls them along with his Insight Attribute Die before adding three for his Scavenge skill. So the roll is 2d10+d8+3. Undaunted, the Inside Man rolls 9, 8, and 7 before adding the +3. The final result is 27. More than enough to pass and Inside Man finds some much needed supplies.

Should a character need them, he also has Plot Dice. Equal to the value of his lowest Attribute, they are primarily used to add to action rolls. They can also be used to ignore current Wound penalties or avoid death; the effects of character Flaws when triggered by the Editor-in-Chief; to remove Conditions like Push, Stagger, Stunned, and Crippled; and to create an advantageous complication or even break the rules. Each character starts with a certain number and earns more by accepting the Editor-in-Chief triggering his Flaws or even suggesting Complications within the game.

Rotted Capes employs the same mechanic for combat, but adds two interesting tweaks over other RPGs. The first is the twelve Tick ‘Clock’ used to determine when everyone acts. Each action or combat maneuvre has a cost measured in ‘Ticks’, which when used advances the Clock. Combat in Rotted Capes also does not use Rounds in which the initiative is reset for each new Round—as in almost any other RPG—but rather Actions also roll over. In effect combat in Rotted Capes is handled on a rolling basis and there is potential for more back and forth Four Colour action.

The other tweak particular to Rotted Capes reflects the grittier setting of  zombie apocalypse. Characters have a fair amount of Stamina and can therefore withstand a fair amount of punishment, but only have a limited number of Wounds. These are lost for suffering Massive Damage or a Critical Success from an Action Roll, but worse, if a zombie bites a character and inflicts a Wound, there is a chance that he will be infected by the Z-virus. The only known cure to the Z-virus is amputation, but it is possible to prevent the infection from spreading by burning the wound area. This inflicts another Wound and also partly explains why heroes and villains from the Glory Days continue to wear their costumes four years on from Z-Day—the costumes hide the burn scars! The other reason why heroes and villains continue to wear their costumes is because in doing so, they better stand as symbols of hope for the ‘Enclaves’ that they protect.

In addition to defending against rival Enclaves and their superpowered protectors, the player characters must also defend against zombies. Not only ordinary zombies, but also zombies with blades instead of hands, zombies who can phase through walls, and zombies that can sneak! This in addition to the bystanders who possess the powerful Ultra-Gene, but never transformed into heroes or villains in the Glory Days, but infected by the Z-virus since Z-Day, have transformed into inhuman Abominations! All zombies are tough because they do not suffer Stamina damage—only Wounds, which only serves to make Super ‘Z’s or Super Zombies even more of a threat. These are former heroes or villains who have been infected by the Z-virus and transformed into a Super Zombie. Typically they retain their superpowers and their intelligence, but not their morality. Occasionally they will form wolf packs, but in general they are extremely territorial lone wolves who enjoy hunting the living. This is one reason why most Enclaves try and remain hidden. 

The default setting for Rotted Capes is Paradigm City, which has the feel of a generic Midwest American city—like a slimmed down version of Chicago. Its description is rather broad, but still with enough details for the Editor-in-Chief to use each of its neighbourhoods and particular locations in a game. Of course Paradigm City is not just any city. Before Z-Day it was home to an array of superheroes and super-villains. Many of these did not survive Z-Day or its aftermath, including the heroes Titan, many members of the Denton Dynasty, and Lady Liberty, and the villains Night Wolf, Blackstalk, Doctor Wraith, and Golden Ram. Others did survive, but the fate of many, such as The Sentinel and Professor ‘the Eternal Man’ Gojkovik, remains unknown. What this means is that there still secrets of Paradigm City waiting to be revealed, both mundane and outre, that is if the surviving characters can get past the cadaver cavalcade between them and those secrets.

Where Rotted Capes really shines is in its discussion of its tropes—both sets of them. One set is of course from the Four Colour subgenres of superheroes, the other the zombie apocalypse horror subgenre, and Rotted Capes not only discusses both, it also looks the tropes created when the two sub-genres merge to form Rotted Capes. The Z-Days of Rotted Capes  present a world where there are no longer good guys—‘White Hats’ and bad guys—‘Black Hats’, but ‘Grey Hats’ instead—including the heroes; there are no longer any Super-Villains, but zombies and ‘Super-Zombies’; where victories are small; where the player characters are forced to deal with the politics and the day-to-day personal relationships of their enclave, and so on. This discussion is accompanied by an equally as good discussion of Rotted Capes scenarios and campaigns, of possible campaign styles, and of the possible types of Enclaves and how they affect play.  Rounding out the book is a collection of write-ups, with full stats, for sample heroes and ‘Super-Zombies’. 

Where Rotted Capes does come up short is that its superhero half is not a wholly Four Colour superhero setting. It is a very humanocentric, pseudo-scientific setting, so there is no magic or rules for magic—despite the colour text suggesting that there should be—and there are no rules for playing aliens, robots, and the like. Again, this despite their being written into some of the background about the Glory Days before Z-Day.

Unfortunately, Rotted Capes does need another edit, though this is not to say that the writing lacks clarity. The fact that it was funded via Kickstarter gives rise to the oddity of the artwork depicting lots of bearded and bespectacled Americans. This does not feel as anachronistic as it does in Deadlands Noir becuase it is a modern set game—and after all, in the here and now of 2015, beards are in—but it does not feel very Four Colour. Nevertheless, Rotted Capes is a nice looking book and the artwork is mix of the bloody and the brutal with the Four Colour.

Rotted Capes could be a superhero RPG and it would be okay. It could be a zombie apocalypse RPG and it would be just about okay. What is surprising is that the combination of both in one RPG actually works, even though mechanically, Rotted Capes does bring the complexity of the superhero RPG to the zombie apocalypse RPG. What the combination does is bring a grittier, more desperate tone to the superhero genre without going down the path of comics’ Iron Age, whilst presenting both a threat that will challenge the player characters—the zombies and the ‘Super-Zombies’ and a reason for them to work together—to survive and to help their enclave survive. Although it may look like a novelty, Rotted Capes brings a freshness to both genres with challenges that will not have been seen in either before.