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

Sunday, 30 August 2015

Your Templar Primer

The writer Graeme Davis is probably best known as being a co-designer of the seminal British fantasy RPG, Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay. He has of course worked on other books for other lines for other publishers, most as line editor for Colonial Gothic for Rogue Games. Amongst his other books is a number of sourcebooks for Osprey Publishing of which Knights Templar: A Secret History is one. Part of the publisher’s Osprey Adventures line where fact and fiction coalesce, this short guide is the second in the series that began with Ken Hite’s The Nazi Occult, continuing its exploration of myth, legend, secret histories, and conspiracy theories. Although the matter of its subject, that of the Knights Templar, is older and as presented in Knights Templar: A Secret History, far better intentioned, than that of The Nazi Occult, there is just enough of a connection to cross over between the two. Well, of course there is, the Knights Templar, their history and their legend is just too big a conspiratorial confabulation not to touch upon the Nazis…

This being a book about the Knights Templar means that the book starts with a conspiracy of its own. This is the death of the historian, Doctor Emile Fouchet, who was investigating the foundation and history of the Templars in an attempt to uncover their secrets before died. His notes, compiled by the author, are what form the basis of Knights Templar: A Secret History. The notes begin with the origins of the Templars before their foundation date, and then explore their foundation and rise to power before the French monarchy brought them low with charges of heresy. More importantly, it examines their ties to the Cathars and the Albigensian Heresies that informs their philosophy and creed and their objectives—a united peaceful state free of religious strife, but also the vessel of their teachings—the Holy Grail. This is what drives them again and again, first in the Near East, then in France followed by Scotland, pre-Colonial North America, and back to France for multiple attempts, to manipulate the affairs—ordinary and outré—of governments, secret societies, and more. All the while following or protecting the Grail.

These attempts are where Knights Templar: A Secret History begins to get interesting because what it sets up is a three-way hidden war between the Knights Templar, the Vatican, and the Freemasons. Spread throughout are juicy little details such as their survival in New France, how Benjamin Franklin aided the Templars despite his Freemasonry, what might have really going on in Rennes-le-Château, the Templars' links to the Habsburgs, and all that before coming almost up to date with Dan Brown. After all, one could hardly expect a discussion on the Templars to ignore The Da Vinci Code and pleasingly, Knights Templar: A Secret History does not do that. What it does do is relegate the Prieuré de Sion, The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail, and The Da Vinci Code to nothing more than a sideshow, a smokescreen at best.

Knights Templar: A Secret History covers its subject matter quickly and easily. It is illustrated with a range of solid artwork and is accompanied by both a timeline and a bibliography. The latter is necessary given the brevity of the treatment. This is not to say that the book fails to cover the salient points of its subject matter, but rather that there is relatively little room for depth. It also means that there is no room for the application of its subject matter in gaming terms, so there are no plot seeds given or campaign ideas. Indeed, unlike other entries in the Osprey Adventures line, there are no suggestions as to what games might be applicable for running something based on Knights Templar: A Secret History.

Knights Templar: A Secret History is best used as an introduction to one of the biggest of conspiracies, and then as a source of ideas. A good overview then, but not much more.

Friday, 28 August 2015

A Muddled Presence

Understandably, the fixation of the Old School Renaissance has been upon fantasy. After all, it was born out of Dungeons & Dragons, the majority of its iterations seek to emulate Dungeons & Dragons in one form or another,  and it promotes itself as the inheritors of, if not ‘the’ true way to play Dungeons & Dragons, but ‘a’ true way to play Dungeons & Dragons. Now there have been attempts to do other genres, such as the Science Fiction of Grey Ranks’ X-Plorers or White Star from Barrel Rider Games, the post-apocalypse of Mutant Future, but until very recently, the horror genre has been all but ignored. Silent Legions from Sine Nomine Publishing is a recent exception, as is The Outer Presence.

Published by Kort'thalis Publishing after a successful Kickstarter campaign, The Outer Presence is an  investigative horror scenario designed to use a fast and easy, old school system allowing gamers to get on with it and start playing. It is an investigative horror scenario taking place in the real world during the 1970s. To play The Outer Presence, it presents ‘Quick and Dirty Rules for an Investigative Horror Roleplaying Game’, a set of light rules designed for ease of play rather than nuance.

To undertake an action, a character rolls one or more six-sided dice. If the action involves his Profession or has the advantage, he rolls three six-sided dice; if the action does not involve his Profession and is something that an ordinary person could do, he rolls two six-sided dice; or if the action is to be carried at a disadvantage, he rolls a single six-sided die. Only the result of the highest die counts. A result of a four is a Partial Success, a five gives a Success, a six a Critical Success, with lower results giving similar Defeats. An optional rule allows for shifts of luck should doubles be rolled.

Both combat and insanity use the same mechanic. The result is a light set of rules, easy to pick up, but again without a lot in the way of nuance and also unforgiving if not brutal in the possible results. Now the characters do have access to Bonus Dice, but only one at the start of a scenario and once used, it is lost. Bonus Dice are simply added to the dice rolled for any action—this is only way to exceed the limit of three six-sided dice for any roll. The only way to gain more Bonus Dice is to survive and complete more scenarios.

Although unnamed, this system is light and easy, but brutal and random in its effects. This may not find favour with all players, but at the same time, the stark brutality befits the Cosmic Horror sub-genre.

Mechanically, characters are lightly defined. They have a Profession, an Organisation and a Connection to said Organisation, a Drive, and one or more flaws. These can be rolled randomly or selected as agreed upon by the GM and his players. The sample character has been created entirely randomly.

Elvira Greer
Profession: Mercenary
Organisation: Well-connected and influential law firm
Connection: Colleague or valuable resource (symbiotic - you scratch their back, they scratch yours)
Drive: Looking for something (could be a family member, relic, cure to some rare tropical disease, etc.)
Flaw: Sociopath (antisocial behavior and no conscience)

A further option allows a character to receive a gift that makes him special, such as ‘Sorcery’ or ‘Being hard to Kill’. In return though, the character must take three Flaws or reduce his Profession to just two six-sided dice. These are not defined in any great depth and the aim is to have the actual effects come out in play.

The rules just take up twelve pages of The Outer Presence, the rest being devoted to the scenario, ‘The Outer Presence’. Inspired by films such as Cannibal Holocaust, Cannibal Ferox, and Jungle Holocaust along with  the Jonny Quest television show from the 1960s, the scenario takes the investigators to New Guinea where an expedition from Miskatonic University has uncovered an ancient temple. The leader of the expedition, Doctor Karl Steiner, has requested that a second team help him study the temple.

There is something of a leap between the set-up in the USA and the player characters’ first meeting with the scenario’s antagonist in New Guinea. Once they learn that they are going to Melanesia,  there is almost no time for preparation or guidance as how the characters should be preparing. One option given is for the characters to visit the Miskatonic University Library and consult—even steal—the Necronomicon, though to what effect their researches might have is never explained. Once in New Guinea, there is no subtlety to the events of this meeting and no build up to the protagonist’s madness, such that there is the possibility of the scenario going awry depending upon the actions of the player characters. This may deny them one of the few chances for actual investigation in ‘The Outer Presence’. An experienced GM will probably work his way around such issues, but they should have been addressed.

Either way, the next step is to get the characters to the temple itself. Although accompanied by a fine map, the temple feels like a collection of random encounters. One or two are potentially interesting, but others add little to the plot or much in the way of atmosphere. It is in one of the more ‘interesting’ encounters that the plot to ‘The Outer Presence’ sort of becomes apparent, though not necessarily what the characters can do with this information.

Structurally there are a number of problems with ‘The Outer Presence’. For the players there is no guidance as to what characters they should create to play the scenario. After all, it makes no sense for the players to be creating random characters. For the GM, there is the underdeveloped and ill-explained plot which hampers his trying to impart it to the players and it hampers player character agency. This all stems from a lack of development that perhaps in the hands of an editor that ‘The Outer Presence’ might have received.

Physically The Outer Presence is slightly disappointing. Much of the artwork is excellent, but the writing is all too often undeveloped and its suggestions being just thrown away. This is exacerbated by the fact that any advice for the GM is left unmarked, so the GM will need to highlight it. The Outer Presence also needs another edit and in many places the writing is unnecessarily graphic and of an adult nature, some of it unnecessarily so. Lastly, the scenario comes as a forty-five page PDF, but really, five pages of that are just blank and add nothing to The Outer Presence.

The Outer Presence pitches itself as an  investigative horror scenario designed to use a fast and easy, old school system allowing gamers to get on with it and start playing. The system is not ‘Old School’, its stripped down simplicity echoing the WaRP System of Atlas Games’ Over the Edge, but it fits the brutalism of the Cosmic Horror of Lovecraftian investigative horror. The scenario, ‘The Outer Presence’ though, does have an Old School feel, but unfortunately not in the way that the author intended. It feels muddled and undeveloped, even random at times, with much for the GM to do in order to present it at the table.

The Outer Presence is available from RPGnow.

Saturday, 22 August 2015

Keltia: The Chronicles of Arthur Pendraeg

The year is 485 AD. It is a little over sixty years since Rome withdrew its last legions to leave the province of Britannia to its fate. In those decades, the Saxons have continued to expand their territories from the East, the Picts have continued to launch raid after raid from the North across the Antonine walls, and Scotti raiders have harassed the coasts all along the West from across the Irish Sea. Romanised Britain has been forced to retreat to the protection of the old forts and old towns, of the hills of Wales, and of the old ways. The old religion has also grown in popularity as the druids and bards have returned in the face of staunch opposition of Rome’s official faith, Christianity, but no one can deny that the old magic has also returned. No longer is Britannia united, but a land of clans and tribes, of kingdoms allied through marriages against the invaders, provisionally ruled by the Council of Prydein under the High King, Emrys Wledig or ‘Ambrosius Aurelianus. Despite his efforts, Britannia, or Ynys Prydein—the ‘isle of forts’—as it is now known, is yet to be reunited. As a dark age looms over the people and the land, portents hint—from the High Druid of Britain, Myrddin, no less—that there is a young man who will come and reunite the land into a kingdom.

This is the set-up for Keltia: The Chronicles of Arthur Pendraeg, a new Arthurian RPG published by Cubicle Seven Entertainment. It is a translation of Keltia, les Chroniques du Roi-dragon published by Le Septième Cercle and after Qin: The Warring States, Kuro, and Yggdrasill, The Roleplaying game of Norse Adventures is the fourth French RPG to be translated and published by Cubicle Seven Entertainment. In comparison with the other Arthurian RPGs, Keltia draws heavily on Celtic myth and history, opting for a grittier, earthier, and grim approach to the legend. It is not though a truly historical RPG, as it is about the legends of King Arthur, but nevertheless, Keltia does embrace a certain romanticism, but this is in comparison to the high romance of the greatest of Arthurian RPGs, Pendragon, and the broader, slightly less gritty treatment that is Age of Arthur. The players will take the roles of young nobles, clan warriors, druids, bards, priestesses, mages, and more who look to the young Arthur Pendraeg as the future of the kingdom.

The character creation begins with the selection of an archetype, such as Noble’s Counsellor, Mercenary, Druid, Bard, Priestess, Craftsman, Forester, Merchant, Spy, and Emissary. This grants a character a set of privileged skills that are cheaper to purchase. Then nineteen points are divided between nine attributes—Strength, Vigour, and Agility (Body group); Intellect, Perception, and Tenacity (Mind group); and Charisma, Instinct, and Communication (Soul group). Attributes are rated between one and five, with two being the average. A character also has a Gift, such as Blessed by Fate, Brave, or Scholar, and a possible Weakness, such as Arrogant, Impetuous, or Strange. Use of Gifts in play grant a character more Furor—the game’s source of bonus dice, whilst Furor is gained for giving in to a character's Weakness. Some thirty-five points are spent on skills, each being rated between one and twenty. Another twelve points are available to spend on Combat Feats, which are divided into Attack, Defence, and Utility Feats, such as Stun, Mounted Draw, Iron Wall, and Not Dead Yet! It should be noted that Bards, Druids, Mages, and Priestesses have to buy their spells from this same pool of points, so will not be as capable in combat.

Our example is an itinerant blacksmith who has not long since stepped out on the road. He is skilled and wants to make a name for himself, perhaps by working on the arms and armour of a noble and his entourage. He is a giant of a man, at times reckless, but takes great pride in his craft. He is strong to wield a heavy hammer in one hand.

Gruffen ap Wren
Archetype: Wandering Blacksmith
Body – Strength 4 Vigour 2 Agility 2
Mind – Intellect 2 Perception 2 Tenacity 2
Soul – Charisma 2 Instinct 2 Communication 1

Gifts: Colossus, Inspired
Weaknesses: Bold
Furor: 3

Hit Points: 41
Reaction: 6
Physical Defence: 6
Mental Defence: 6
Movement: 4
Encumbrance: 10

Skills   
Athletics 1, Commerce 3, Dodge 1, Drive 3, Forge 8, Herbalism 1, Intimidation 1,  Knowledge (Geography) 3, Superstition 1, Two-Handed Weapons  8

Feats
Boar’s Charge (Level 1), Knock-Out (Level 2), Quick as Lightning (Level 1)

Equipment
Hammer, Knife, Leather Vest, Helm, Metal Bracers, Reinforced Leather Greaves

Mechanically, Keltia uses the same system as Yggdrasill, The Roleplaying game of Norse Adventures (the game's appendix does compare the two). To undertake an action, the character rolls a number of ten-sided dice equal to the appropriate attribute and two of these dice are chosen, usually the best results. They are added together along with a skill level and compared against a Success Threshold—ten for Easy, fourteen for Average, nineteen for Difficult, and so on. The dice can be rerolled and the results added if any of them turn out to be tens. Critical successes are possible if double the Success Threshold is rolled, whilst Fumbles occur when too many rolls of one occur.
For example, Gruffen ap Wren is engaged to repair the sword belonging to a noble which was badly damaged in an encounter with Scotti pirates. The GM sets the Success Threshold at Difficult or nineteen. Gruffen will be rolling four dice for his Strength and adding his Forge skill  of eight to the total. To ensure that he succeeds and impresses the noble, he expends a point of Furor, which means that he will be rolling an extra die and add it to the total. He rolls 3, 6, 9, and 10 for his Strength and a 4 for his Furor die. He selects the 9 and the 10 as his two dice, rolling the 10 again as an exploding die and adds the result of an 8.So far the results are 9, 10, and 8, plus 8 for his Forge skill. The current total is 35 to which is added the 4 for the Furor die, for a grand total of 39! Not only has he succeeded, but Gruffen has gained a Critical Success.  The sword is repaired to as good as new, the noble is impressed, and Gruffen becomes a member of his retinue.
Combat in Keltia uses the same mechanics and is brutal and often unforgiving. Most notably in that parrying and dodging are not passive actions, but active decisions, ones that a player character will often need to forego his attacks to do. Most player characters will have more than one action and so should be able to attack and defend during a round, even though subsequent actions after the first are done at a penalty. If a player character does not have the initiative, it may often be better to opt for defensive actions to withstand the attacks. The types of attacks possible include Classic, Precision, Aimed, Power, and Devastating, each more powerful in turn and each capable of inflicting more damage, whilst also being more difficult to carry out. In addition, the player characters have access to Gifts that give them advantages under certain circumstances, though certain notable NPCs may also possess them.

Although magic in Keltia is known and recognised in Ynys Prydein, it is not widespread. The ‘Blood of the Ancients’ runs in the veins of its practitioners, who in game terms must take the Gift of the same name. The four types of practitioners, the Awenyddion—Bards, Druids, Mages, and Priestesses—all use the Awen skill to cast their spells, but have access to different spells. Spells are divided between common spells like That Which is Hidden or Open sesame! and then the Ways of Blessing and Curses, the Way of Charms, the Way of Divinations, and so on. Druids and Priestesses can cast any spells, Bards cast all spells from the Ways of Charms and Illusions and have limited access to all other spells, whilst Mages and Sorcerers cannot cast spells from the Ways of the Goddess, Healing, and Illusions. Unlike other roleplaying games, magic in Keltia is purely an oral tradition—there are no tomes of arcane lore to study and the only way to learn magic is by being taught. The number of spells available is not extensive, but since it is actually both fairly difficult and costly to learn spells, it makes their use in the game quite special.

Our example mage is an ambitious widow who learnt spells from her mother. As a single woman her situation is uncertain and she wants a man to who can protect her and her reputation. She is not evil as such, but ambitious and prepared to do things that a good woman night not. Nevertheless, in these times when both magic and women are mistrusted, she uses her natural charm before she does her magic.

Talaith ferch Madoc
Archetype: Mage
Body – Strength 1 Vigour 1 Agility 2
Mind – Intellect 3 Perception 2 Tenacity 2
Soul – Charisma 3 Instinct 2 Communication 3

Gifts: Blood of the Ancients, Seducer
Weaknesses: Weak
Furor: 6

Hit Points: 34
Reaction: 7
Physical Defence: 5
Mental Defence: 7
Movement: 3
Encumbrance: 3

Skills   
Awen 5, Eloquence 2, Empathy 5, Knowledge (Divinities) 8, Legends 1, Seduction 2, Short Weapons  2, Superstition 5

Combat Feats
None

Magic
The Way of Charms: Charm, In a Whisper
The Way of Divination: Read Omen
The Way of Mastery of the Elements: In Pwca’s Hands

Equipment
Knifes

In addition to the historical, geographical, political, and social background given for both the GM and the players, the GM receives a section of secrets. Primarily this consists of a guide to creating NPCs and a range of beasts and monsters. These include ordinary creatures as well as things like the Ceffyl Dŵr or sea horses, the diminutive Coblyanu that work the mines, and Gryphons. Only a few such creatures are given, but a selection of traits does enable the GM to modify any of the beasts listed. Lastly, the Renown system lets the GM and players track their player characters’ reputation, though it does require the characters to work at maintaining their reputation otherwise it diminishes over time.

What is lacking is actual advice for the GM in general on how to run the game, but then as written, Keltia is not designed to be played or run by those new to roleplaying. One issue not addressed in Keltia is if the players decide that their characters do not want to follow Arthur nor if the GM decides to take his campaign in another direction.

Keltia includes a single scenario, ‘The Council of Britain’,  which takes the newly created players to Caer Ludein—formerly Londinium—a Britannic bastion in Saxon territory where said council is to be held. They are presumed to be part of a young noble’s entourage attending the council and their journey will involve bandits and difficult locals. As much as the scenario does a good job of introducing the setting—especially the complexity of its politics—it is fundamentally flawed. Simply it is all set-up and no pay off. The heroes travel to Caer Ludein, interact a little with the kings and notables of Ynys Prydein, and then, having hitched their wagon to Arthur’s destiny, ride off into the mists. Despite ‘The Council of Britain’ having a section entitled ‘Conclusion’, there is not actually a conclusion in the scenario, there is nothing else for the player characters to do, there is  no threat to deal with, there is  no objective to achieve. The question is, where is the other half of the scenario?

Physically, Keltia is disappointing. It is disappointing that the obviously original full colour artwork has here been presented in black and white, but that is merely disappointing. The RPG may well be set at the start of the Dark Ages, but does it have to look dreary? It is particularly disappointing that the given map of the British Isles, although in colour, is murky and lacks detail such that it is probably advisable for the GM and his players to find something better online. The writing is also somewhat murky, especially that of the background. The problem is that it has not been fully localised, that is, adapted from the original language to the new language, so it is often difficult to read the meaning correctly, and that is before you deal with the array of Welsh names.

There is a good game to be found in Keltia: The Chronicles of Arthur Pendraeg. As presented though, it feels rushed and not yet fully realised. The writing could have been cleaner and easier to read—particularly that of the setting’s politics and geography, the game could have been given more scope than just that of Arthur’s destiny, the map could have been replaced, and the scenario could have been completed—or just replaced with a full scenario that would present the setting to the players as well as giving something for their characters to achieve. Nevertheless, Keltia firmly sets its identity and its take upon the Arthurian legend, supporting it with a gritty, well tested set of mechanics. It is just a pity that the game as a whole does not support either with clearer writing and a better scenario that would have fully realised and developed the game.

Friday, 14 August 2015

Rootin', Tootin', Shootin', Stealin' Fun!

The winner this year of the Spiel des Jahres is Colt Express published by Ludonaute. It was up against Machi Koro and The Game and has proved to be a surprising winner given that the themes and actions of Colt Express are not necessarily as family friendly as those of other Spiel des Jahres winning games. This is because Colt Express involves robbing a train and punching and shooting each other… Even so, Colt Express is nothing but fun!

Colt Express is a’ Wild West’, programmed Action game in which several rival bandits—Belle, Cheyenne, Django, Doc, Ghost, and Tuco who will do their utmost to outwit, outshoot, out brawl, and out steal each other! It comes with a very striking play area—a three-dimensional cardboard train that the players will move their bandits along, up onto the roof and down again, all the whilst their bandits apprehend loot, and punch and shoot at each other. This is played out over five rounds, each ending with a random event, the winner being the bandit to leave the train with the most loot.


Before the game begins, the full-colour train requires some assembly. Whilst relatively easy, some care needs to be taken less the cardboard is bent or torn. Once assembled, there is just about sufficient space in the box for the train to remain assembled.




During the game, each player controls a single bandit. Each Bandit possesses a special ability. For example, Belle cannot be targeted by a Fire or Punch action if another Bandit can be targeted instead, Cheyenne can steal a purse from another Bandit after carrying out a Punch action, and Tuco can shoot through the carriage roof at another bandit (either in carriage below or on the roof above). Each Bandit also has a corresponding set of ten Action cards and six Bullet cards. Each Action card allows a Bandit to do one thing: Move (from one carriage to the next or all the way along the roof), Floor Change (climb up to or down from the roof), Fire (at a Bandit in an adjacent carriage or next in line of sight on the roof), Punch (a Bandit in or on the same carriage), Robbery (of any loot available in the carriage), or Marshal (move the Marshal to an adjacent carriage). Some Actions have consequences: the victim of a Fire action receives a Bullet card to add to his hand; the victim of a Punch action must drop a loot token; and if the Marshal moves into the same carriage as a Bandit, not only is the Bandit forced to flee to the carriage roof, he gets shot by the Marshal too!

At game’s start, all of the carriages are seeded with Loot tokens (of a random value) and both the Marshal and the Strongbox are placed in the Locomotive. Four Round cards and one Station card—the latter being for the last round—are chosen randomly. Each Round or Station card shows how many turns it has, how many are played in tunnels, and any special events. Lastly, each player shuffles his Bandit’s deck of Action cards and draws six and puts aboard the rear of the train.


Each Round consists of two phases. Once the new Round card is revealed, the ‘Schemin’! phase’ begins, each player taking it in turn to play an Action card onto a pile that forms the Action Deck. These are played openly so each Bandit can see what the other is doing, or face down and hidden if the Round card indicates that the Action cards are to be played in a tunnel. Once the ‘Schemin’! phase’ is over, the ‘Stealin’! phase’ begins. This involves revealing the cards in the Action Deck as played and their associated Bandit carrying their actions if possible. If a Robbery card is revealed and there is no loot in the Bandit’s location, then he cannot pick up any loot. Similarly, if a Punch card is revealed and there is no other Bandit to punch, then no brawling occurs. That said, if an action is possible and a player has choice of how his Bandit carries it out, he can choose how he does it. So if a Punch card is revealed and there are two or more other Bandits in the same location, the brawling Bandit chooses the target; if there is more than one item of loot in a location when a Robbery action is revealed, the Bandit’s player chooses which to take; and so on. At the end of each Round an Event takes place. These include ‘Braking’, when the train slows and forces every Bandit on the roof to move forward one carriage, and ‘Passengers’ Rebellion’, when the passengers shoot any Bandit in a carriage.


Once a Round ends, the players collect up all of their Action cards—played and unplayed—including any Bullet cards from having been shot by rival Bandits or the Marshal and draw new hands of six cards. This can leave a player with more Bullet than Action cards. Bullet cards slow a Bandit down and mean that he cannot act. Should he lacks Action cards, a player can draw three new cards instead of playing one during the ‘Schemin’! phase’.

Colt Express is a game of planning and consequences. During the ‘Schemin’! phase’ players try to work out the best actions to get the most loot, stop their rivals from doing so, or simply shooting their rivals. In the ‘Stealin’! phase’, these Actions will play out as intended, but often do not often survive contact with their rivals. Great when a plan comes together, but funny, if not frustrating when plans are unwittingly thwarted. Plans can be adapted to rival’s actions as most Action cards are played face up, but deduction is required when Action cards are played face down in tunnels.

A game typically begins with a grab for as much loot as possible from the rearward carriages followed by a frantic scramble to grab the Strongbox or stop another Bandit from doing so. All played out to a flurry of punches (to force loot to be dropped) and bullets (to gain the $1000 bonus for the most bullets fired). At game’s end, the Bandit with the most money wins, probably including the $1000 bonus.


Light and accessible enough for casual play, Colt Express’ quick-playing time offsets its frustrating aspects of plans going awry. The game’s ‘Schemin’! phase’ is its heart, forcing players to plan and think about their proposed actions, the mix of openly played Actions and hidden played Actions—the latter played in tunnels, both aiding and thwarting everyone’s planning efforts. Above all, Colt Express combines great theme and great visual appeal with simple fun.

A sex horrificam

For its third title, Golden Goblin Press returns to the setting of its principal author’s finest hour. That author is the prolific Oscar Rios, that finest hour is The Legacy of Arrius Lurco  and that setting is Cthulhu Invictus. As a setting, Cthulhu Invictus presents an approach to investigating the Cthulhu Mythos shorn of its reliance upon libraries, newspaper archives, and Mythos tomes, instead requiring the investigators to ask others lots and lots of questions, do an awful lot of watching, and sneak about a fair bit. In other words, more detective legwork rather than research. Similarly, the reliance upon firearms found in conducting investigations in the Jazz Age of the 1920s, makes such investigations and confrontations with the Mythos more fraught affairs. Unfortunately, Cthulhu Invictus never quite received the support it deserved from its publisher, Chaosium, Inc., but its potential was certainly realised in The Legacy of Arrius Lurco, published by the late, much missed, Miskatonic River Press, the only campaign published for Cthulhu Invictus, and arguably one of the best campaigns published for Call of Cthulhu in over a decade. Now, having putting out a third companion for Call of Cthulhu in the form of Island of Ignorance – The Third Cthulhu Companion and an anthology of scenarios set in New Orleans with Tales of the Crescent City: Adventures in Jazz Era New Orleans, Golden Goblin Press bring us an anthology of scenarios for Cthulhu Invictus in the form of De Horrore Cosmico: Six Scenarios for Cthulhu Invictus.

Written for Call of Cthulhu, Sixth Edition—in all likelihood one of the last supplements to be so—and published via Kickstarter, De Horrore Cosmico is an anthology of six scenarios for Cthulhu Invictus that take the investigators to southern Gaul, Britannia, Aegyptus, Sicilia, Caledonia, and of course, Rome. What really makes these six scenarios standout is that their inspiration is not just the works of H.P. Lovecraft, but in each and every case, specific works of H.P. Lovecraft. This is no mere matter of updating these stories as if they were being presented for the twenty-first century, but rather a case of their being adapted to fit the history, mores, and culture of Ancient Rome. The danger here is that this is window dressing, merely setting up the means for the investigators to play out the plots of the stories that serve as their inspiration rather than something new. Fortunately, De Horrore Cosmico does not fall prey to such dangers… As this is a review of Cthulhu Invictus scenario anthology, spoilers abound.

The six opens with ‘The Vetting of Marius Asina’, Jeffrey Moeller’s interpretation of ‘Facts Concerning the Late Arthur Jermyn and his Family’. The investigators are hired to go to the city of Massalia in southern Gaul and there investigate the background of Marius Asina to see if he is suitable for elevation beyond his current rank of senator. Rich if modest and thought to be of lowly origins, his background is a mystery and his family secretive. This requires careful and methodical investigation, thus highlighting the primary investigative process in Cthulhu Invictus. There is though, good reason for the family’s secrecy and the family is ready to protect such secrets. At its heart, as with the inspiration, this scenario is about tainted ancestry, one that the family would best prefer kept hidden. This is a fine start to the anthology, a rich re-imagining that presents not a threat as such, but a situation, one that in truth the presence of the investigators will disturb rather than thwart.

‘Doom’, inspired by ‘The Doom that came to Sarnath’, is written by Chad Bowser, the co-author of Cthulhu Invictus. Of the six scenarios in De Horrore Cosmico, ‘Doom’ is the most straightforward and the simplest, and the only one to present a direct threat to Rome. The investigators are again hired, this time by a patron who has been suffering from nightmare that foretell of the destruction of Rome. Perhaps this has something to do with a raid that the patron made upon a village whilst serving in the legions many years past? Although ‘Doom’ has some fine moments—particularly relating to the nature of portents of doom in Ancient Rome and in an encounter with a desiccated magus—but in comparison with the other five scenarios in the collection, it lacks sophistication and depth, and underwhelms because of this.

Publisher Oscar Rios’ contribution to the anthology is ‘Murmillo’. Its inspiration is ‘The Shadow Over Innsmouth’ and its structure is not dissimilar to that of the earlier ‘The Vetting of Marius Asina’. Here though the investigators are directed to go after a young man who is determined to become a gladiator, against his father’s wishes lest the boy bring disgrace upon the family name. The trail leads from one gladiator school to another and eventually to the doors of an isolated school dedicated to producing one type of gladiator for the arena—the Murmillo or ‘Fish Men’. The school values its privacy—and for good reason—but much like the town of Innsmouth that inspires the scenario, ‘Murmillo’ presents another situation that if not benign, at least keeps its inherent malignancy self-contained.

Phredd Grove’s ‘Kith and Kine’ takes the investigators to southwestern Britannia and is inspired by both ‘The Rats in the Walls’ and ‘The Whisperer in the Darkness’. With the legions busy elsewhere in the province, rumours have surfaced of a rebellion in the south, and with no-one to hand to suppress this uprising, the investigators are sent to look into these rumours. The question, do the potential rebels have cause? If not against Rome, then against those that Rome has put in charge?  ‘Kith And Kine’ pitches the investigators amidst inter-cult rivalries and feuding, which they will need to thread their way through in order to reveal the secrets in this scenario. The inspirations are less obvious in ‘Kith And Kine’ than the other entries in the book, and unlike the majority of those other scenarios, there is more agency at work upon the part of the antagonists. This is also the author’s first published scenario, but is a solid affair that has the feel of its setting despite being written by an American.

The penultimate scenario is ‘The Devil’s Mouth’. Written by Stuart Boon, it should be no surprise that this takes the investigators beyond the edge of the known world and the Wall of Hadrian into Caledonia, given that he is the author of the Origins Award winning Shadows Over Scotland. Assigned to a diplomatic mission, the investigators find themselves having to delve deep below the mountains of Scotland in order to perform a rescue mission in this scenario inspired by ‘At the Mountains of Madness’. The effect of which is make it feel like a mini-version of Beyond the Mountains of Madness and as with that campaign, the exploratory nature of ‘The Devil’s Mouth’ means that in places, play may slow to a crawl and the Keeper may have difficulty maintaining the interest of his players. Nevertheless, this focuses on the alien and the weird aspects of the Mythos and the exploration may be an interesting experience for any investigator who has some scientific knowledge.

The last scenario is written by the authors of the recently re-released Horror on the Orient Express, Penelope Love and Mark Morrison. Their inspiration for ‘The Case of Tillius Orestes Sempronius’ is ‘The Case of Charles Dexter Ward’ and finds the investigators in Rome where they are asked by a patrician to check upon his son who is convalescing at the family's country estate. The son has been ill for some time and has suffered from memory lapses. Given the inspiration it will be obvious that something is amiss fairly quickly, but proving it is another matter and that where the scenario’s challenge comes in and where it gets interesting.

Lastly—as raised by a Stretch Goal reached by the kickstarter—De Horrore Cosmico presents another sextet, not of scenarios, but of Patrons. The role of patronage played in Ancient Rome cannot be overestimated and that carries over into Cthulhu Invictus, where it provides investigators a degree of protection, financial support, and in many cases, direction. They include an attorney who serves as the intermediary for various peoples, including one that will amuse any theory conspiracists; a general with contacts throughout the empire; a poet with a penchant for the esoteric; and more… Any one of the six would serve as the driving force behind any campaign or ongoing game, either send the investigators off to the mysteries and missions described in De Horrore Cosmico—or any other collection of Cthulhu Invictus scenarios. This in fact, would be the only way in which the six scenarios in De Horrore Cosmico could used together as a campaign and to that end, it would have been nice if possible links to the six scenarios could have been given for each of its six patrons.

Physically, De Horrore Cosmico is reasonably presented. The choice of a marble effect behind the text does give the book a rather gray appearance, an effect not helped by the art and maps being too dark in places. That said, both the art and the cartography are well done, the former in particular capturing some of the anthology’s more notable revelatory scenes.

De Horrore Cosmico is a solid sextet of scenarios that successfully avoids the dangers of simply rewriting its stated inspirational sources, in most cases cleverly combining them with aspects of Roman culture. For example, the vetting process as seen in ‘The Vetting of Marius Asina’ and the combination of the Murmillo class of gladiator with certain type of batrachian threat in  ‘Murmillo’. For the most part, another aspect of Call of Cthulhu that De Horrore Cosmico also avoids is presenting its Mythos elements as threats, this being partly down its sources as much as it is its authors. This means that the anthology places an interesting take upon the Mythos, less confrontational and more passive in its malignancy. Though of course, this does not mean that the Mythos ‘dangers’ presented in De Horrore Cosmico will not react should the investigators uncover their secrets. It also means that De Horrore Cosmico: Six Scenarios for Cthulhu Invictus is mature set of scenarios, its horror pleasingly understated and awaiting discovery by the investigators.

Saturday, 8 August 2015

Final Fantasy FATE

In 2014 we were lucky enough to get not one, but two Wuxia RPGs, both of them powered by Evil Hat Productions’ FATE Core. The first was Vigilance Press’ Tianxia: Blood, Silk, & Jade, a traditional Chinese fantasy of honour and martial arts at the furthest edge of the Divine Realm. The second is Jadepunk: Tales From Kausao City, an RPG that combines martial arts and honour with elements of the steampunk and Western genres.
Published by
Reroll Productions after a successful Kickstarter campaign, Jadepunk: Tales From Kausao City casts the player characters as members of the Jianghu, folk heroes rebelling against the Council of Nine, the oppressive, corrupt government of Kausao City. Little more than a century old, Kausao City is the greatest and richest city in the world, its power and economy based upon its vast deposits of jade—especially black jade. For it is jade, once refined, that underlies the technology of the world. Green jade is used to strengthen and fortify swords, armour, and tools; red jade is used to power engines, firearms, and explosives; blue jade is used for preserving, water engines, and working with ice; white jade is used to defy gravity and lighten devices as well as for lens; and lastly, the rarest of them all, black jade, is used for working with electricity and signals transmissions, although its full possibilities have yet to be discovered. All types of jade can also be used in concoctions and potions to various effects. Examples of Jadetech include dirigible airships, red jade cannons and six-shooters, tattoos that enhance perception amongst other things, demalian green-jade infused steel blades, and data processing devices. Many of these devices also involve clockwork or steam engines.

Kausao City’s status as the ‘centre of the world’ is not only ensured by its wealth, but also by the backing of the four great nations that maintain controlling interests in the city. They are The Aerum Empire, an industrious and mountainous European-like country, known for its inventions, airships, and arrogance; Kaiyu, a Japan-like archipelago whose people highly value their honour; Naramel, a Middle East-like desert country known for its nomads, bankers, and negotiators; and Tuyang, a China-like empire whose people are haughty if learned and who are renowned for their skill with alchemy and tattoos. In particular, the four great nations support the current governor, who has held the post for twenty years—despite there supposed to be an election every five—and who rules with a jade-infused fist.Under the governor’s rule, the people labour for little reward, have little recourse to the law, and almost no chance of bettering themselves. For the rich it is a different matter, but to keep the people in their place, the owning of weapons has been outlawed, as has the study of martial arts. Yet, overworked and downtrodden, the teeming masses who survive and work in Kausao City have at last found hope—the Jianghu. Consisting of a body of men and women who are prepared to flaunt the governor’s strictures on weapons and martial arts, those of the Jianghu are prepared to step forward and defend and fight for the people. To the governor and the city watch, they are criminals and rebels, but to the downtrodden poor, they are folk heroes.

There is a no limit as to what characters can be in  Jadepunk: Tales From Kausao City. As long as they believe in the aims of the Jianghu and the good of the people, they can be ex-members of the city guard or watch, Jadetech engineers, smugglers with hearts of gold, martial artists, airship captains, gunslingers armed with Jadetech sixshooters, and more… As with other FATE Core games, character creation involves deciding on a High Concept—or Portrayal as it is termed in Jadepunk—and assigning Aspects and Professions, before designing one or more Assets. A character then receives an Aspect each for his Background, his Inciting Incident—what drove them to join the Jianghu, his Belief, and his Trouble. He assigns set values to the six Professions: Aristocrat—social skills and standing, Engineer—fixing, building, and sabotaging technology and devices of all types, Explorer—movement and physical activities, Fighter—combat of all sorts, Scholar—knowledge and research, and Scoundrel—sneaking and deception. Essentially the Professions replace skills in other FATE Core settings, but there are fewer of them and they are very broad in nature. Lastly the Assets for a character need to be defined. Unlike the Portrayal and Aspects, these are more tightly designed, and can range from personal possessions and allies to devices and techniques, the latter a catchall Asset that might be special training, years of experience, natural talent, so on. So it could be a daisho of demalian green-jade infused steel, a former colleague in the City Watch, an airship, martial arts training, graduation from a university, deft fingers, and so on. Every Asset has a flaw, but they can also be made more powerful by expending further points of Refresh, the resource that determines how many FATE points—used to power Aspects—a player character has from one session to the next.

Name: Xiang Leung
Portrayal:  Ambitious AlchemistBackground: Sacrificed all for his apprenticeship
Inciting Incident: My master was murdered for his secretsBelief: An alchemical solution for every problemTrouble: I am wanted for murderProfessions: Engineer (+3); Scholar, Aristocrat (+2); Explorer, Fighter, Scoundrel (+1)
Asset: Exceptional Alchemist
Type: Technique
Features: Focus 2 (+2 to Engineer rolls)
Flaws: Situational (When applied to alchemical engineering)
Cost: 1 

The setting itself, Kausao City and beyond, is described in relatively broad details rather than in particulars. The aim here is not quite to give the GM a complete and ready to play setting as such, but rather allow the GM room to add the detail himself together with his players and thus create their own version of Jadepunk. A prime example of this is the identity of the Governor. His exact identity and thus his nationality is important, because this determines the most influential nation in the city. This does not mean though that there is not enough for the GM or the players to game with in Jadepunk: Tales From Kausao City, yet what it could have done with is more Aspects for the setting—whether for Kausao City or the great and other nations, for example—for the GM and the players to invoke and compel.

Physically,
Jadepunk: Tales From Kausao City is a decent looking book that benefits from several very nice pieces of art that contribute towards its oriental feel and setting. The map is more representative than detailed and it does feel as if it could benefit from being bigger and clearer. For the most part, the writing is reasonable, but in places it is jaw-clenchingly execrable. For example:
"Kaiyu Lands: The Kaiyu Islands are comprised of hundreds of paradisiacal, tropical islands of various sizes on the far side of a perpetually violent ocean. For centuries the Kaiyu were forced into isolation due to the impassability of the Storm Sea, which was exacerbated by the violent winds that sweep through through the rocky cliffs that line the shores of islands around the Funarino Channel, a treacherous, quick-moving wide strip of water that spans the length of the thousand-mile archipelago."
These poor lines were almost enough to make me put the book down and stop reading it. Fortunately, the style settles down into something that more than readable after the descriptions of the various great nations.

Since Jadepunk: Tales From Kausao City has been written to be used with FATE Core or the FATE Accelerated Edition, it will be easy to pick up anyone who plays FATE. That said, there is still some decent advice on running the game for the GM, and if the GM and players are familiar at all with FATE Core then their Jadepunk could be run without the need for recourse to the rulebook. Also, given that Jadepunk: Tales From Kausao City is a wuxia setting, it bears comparison with the other FATE Core wuxia setting, Tianxia: Blood, Silk, & Jade. In that comparison, Jadepunk is the lighter of the two, broader in its detail, and broader in the number of genres that it encompasses. Tianxia is more detailed and more focused, much more of a martial arts game, but both share a by default lack of the outré or of magic. Of course, there is nothing to stop a GM from working to combine the two.

Despite its broad swathes of detail, the setting for Jadepunk: Tales From Kausao City feels very playable. A mix of familiar genres—wuxia, steampunk, and the Wild West—makes the game very accessible, as does the setting, which hint at an Dickensian version of a far eastern city like Hong Kong or Shanghai. There is another setting that Jadepunk: Tales From Kausao City feels like the computer RPG, Final Fantasy VII. It is not an exact match of course, but elements such as a single large city, a monorail, the city guard, large areas of wilderness, and so on, do echo aspects of that computer RPG.

Above all Jadepunk: Tales From Kausao City is a light, accessible setting, one that pleasingly blends and balances its genres  to leave room for the player characters to be the heroes.


—oOo—

Note: After taking advice, this review was amended on Monday, August 10th, 2015, to include an example of the text from Jadepunk: Tales from Kausao City that were found to be execrable. It has been included to support the use of the word, ‘execrable’ which has caused offence in some quarters. No offence was intended, but I stand by the use of ‘execrable’.

Friday, 7 August 2015

Harbouring Machi Koro

The 2015 Spiel des Jahres nominated Machi Koro is a beautifully simple game with a problem. The Japanese ‘dice and card building’ game published by IDW Games has proved to be a hit and a very good gateway to Japon games. The problem is that the game has a limited number of paths to victory. Either a player opts to buy Cheese Factories and powers them with Ranches or he opts to buy Furniture Factories and powers them with Mines and Forests. During the game, because all of Machi Koro's cards are laid out to buy, the game has a static feel with there being nothing to stop another player from selecting these paths to victory. This limits the game’s replayability, which is a shame, because Machi Koro's design is still good. It just needs something to take that good design and turn it into a good game that people will come back to.

Machi Koro: Harbor Expansion is the first expansion for the game. It adds coins worth twenty coins each. More importantly, it does several things with its sixty-eight cards, but does it address the problem at the heart of the game?

The very first thing that Machi Koro: Harbor Expansion does is provide the means to add a fifth player to the base game. On one level, this simply means another set of the four Landmark cards—a Station, a Shopping Mall, an Amusement Park, and a Radio Tower—that need to be built to win the game and the two starting cards for generating income—a Wheat Field and a Bakery. That though is for the base game, because after that is where Machi Koro: Harbor Expansion gets interesting.

Second, it adds three new Landmark cards. The first of these is City Hall, which enters play face up and can be used from the start of the game. It generates money if a player does not have any money before he purchases an Establishment. The second, the Harbor, is what the expansion is named for and activates a number of fishing related  Establishments once purchased. Where the Harbor is cheap to buy, the third Landmark, the Airport is not. It gives a player coins when he does not buy anything, though given its cost, the Airport’s effect will rarely enter play as most players will purchase it to win the game. There are of course, enough of the new Landmark cards for five players.

Third, it adds a swathe of new Establishment cards. The Red-coloured food outlets—Hamburger Stands, Pizza Joints, and Sushi Bars—give more means to force a player to pay their owners when their numbers are rolled. Both of the new Green-coloured cards—Food Warehouse and Flower Shop—are powered by other cards rather themselves. Apart from the Flower Shop, the other Blue-coloured cards—Mackerel Boat and Tuna Boat—require the Harbor to have been bought if they are to work. Lastly, the new Purple-coloured Special cards—Publisher and Tax Office—give news means to take money from the other players. Some of these cards are powerful, for example, the Tax Office takes half of the coins of any player who has ten coins or more, whilst the Tuna Boat grants a player two dice’ worth of coins. The new cards also strengthen the numbers available, for example, the Flower Shop can rolled on a six; they oppose other cards, for example, the Wheat Field is countered by the Sushi Bar, one generates money, the other taxes the player who rolled, both require a roll of one; and with the Tuna Boat they extend the number range from one to twelve to one to fourteen. This only comes into play if a player has a bought a Harbor which grants a bonus to a player’s roll if he rolls a ten or more.

Fourth and last, Machi Koro: Harbor makes a radical to the Market Place—the place from where the players purchase Establishments. In the base game every type of Establishment card is available to buy, but this expansion limits the Market Place to just ten unique Establishments at a time. These are set up at game start, with duplicate Establishments forming their own card piles. As soon as the last of an unique Establishment is purchased, a new one is drawn. If a duplicate is drawn, it is added to its own pile and Establishments are are drawn until there are ten unique ones in the Market Place. What this does is prevent easy access to particular paths to victory—for example, purchasing Cheese Factories and powering them with Ranches, or with this expansion, Flower Shops powered by Flower Orchards, Food Warehouses powered by by food outlets like Cafes, Family Restaurants, Hamburger Stands, Pizza Joints, and Sushi Bars, and so on. It does not prevent total access, but forces the players to generalise and adapt to the cards available rather than cherry picking. It also makes game play random.

There is a great deal to like about Machi Koro: Harbor. It mixes game play up, adding a much needed random element and countering the original game’s paths to victory. It thus makes the game less predictable and longer to play, but gives a more satisfying playing experience. It makes Machi Koro a much, much better game. You may play Machi Koro a few times, but with Machi Koro: Harbor, you will play again and again.