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

Sunday, 23 November 2014

Your Gateway to Japon Games

Japanese board games have become very popular in the last few years, most notably Love Letter and Trains, both published by Alderac Entertainment Group and both winners of Origins Awards in 2014. What this means is that new Japanese board and card games are hotly anticipated, none more so than Machi Koro. In English, it is released by IDW Games, a publisher better known for its comic publishing. Machi Koro is a quick-playing ‘dice and card’ for two to four players, aged eight and up, in which they are each the mayor of a suburb whose residents want their district developed. Starting off with a Wheat Field and a Bakery, each player will race to build four landmark buildings—a Station, a Shopping Mall, an Amusement Park, and a Radio Tower. The first mayor to do so is the winner!

The playing time is thirty minutes and very simple. On his turn a player rolls the die and everyone will compare the result with numbers printed at the top of the building cards they have in front of them. This can generate money for everyone or just the current player, who is now free to spend it to purchase a new building or a landmark. A player can have multiples of one card type, but can only buy one card per turn.

Where Machi Koro gets interesting is how the cards generate money. There are four types. Blue cards pay out to everyone when their numbers are rolled; green only pay out on a player’s turn; red cards take money from other players they roll their  numbers; and purple cards provide an action rather an a pay-out. Note that red and blue cards pay out even when it is not a player’s turn. For example, the blue Ranch cards pay everyone one coin when anyone rolls a result of a one. The green Bakery pays out one coin on a roll of two or three on the current player’s turn only. The red Café allows a player to take a coin from the current player when he rolls a three. The purple Business Centre allows a player to swap one of his buildings with that of another player.

Initially a player will be only rolling one die. If he purchases the Station landmark, he can roll one die or he can roll both dice. This means that range of results is no longer one to six, but two to twelve, and it means that as soon as they are built, a new range of buildings and their dice results are available to him. The cards with ranges above five tend to be more expensive and have more complex effects, especially results for six, seven, and eight. For example, the green Cheese Factory, which costs five coins, pays out three coins for each card the current player has with a cow symbol on it—currently only a Ranch—anytime he rolls a seven. Building the landmarks will also give a player a benefit. The Station allows him to roll two dice; the Amusement Park lets him roll again if he rolls doubles, and so on.

Although designed for between two and four players, Machi Koro works better with three and four rather than two, primarily because there more participants for the cards to work off. Physically though, Machi Koro is nicely presented. The artwork on the cards is cute, the cards are easy to read, and the rulebook is very clear and very simple. The box comes with room for expansions, but the insert could have been better designed for that.

There have been comments that it is like Settlers of Catan without the trading or Monopoly without the mortgages. To an extent this is true. You are rolling for resources (coins) and you are buying properties as in both of those games, Machi Koro is a quicker, slicker game without the trading and without the mucking about with the banks. It is certainly better than Monopoly and whilst no Settlers of Catan, it is a well-designed little game. However, it is not perfect, but the first imperfection is not of Machi Koro’s own making. The first problem is that the game is slightly disappointing, but that can be put down to it having been overly anticipated, it having taken a year to reach us since it first appeared at Essen in 2013. Second is that its game play does not offer a great deal of depth or variety. Third, it does not offer much in the way of strategy and the primary means of getting money—the purchase of Ranches and Cheese Factories (the latter with its average roll of seven)—is obvious and difficult to counter. What game needs is an expansion and it needs it now. Two have been released in Japan— Machi Koro Sharp and Machi Koro: Harbor Expansion—and they need to be released in English before Machi Koro loses its popularity.

Now despite all this, Machi Koro will appeal to a wide audience. There one or two strategies in the game that a seasoned gamer will latch on to, but the dice rolling gives it a luck factor that will offset that to give everyone a good chance of winning. So amongst gamers it can be played to a cutthroat finish, but it also be played as a casual game. It is easy to play, it is fast to play, and it is easy to teach. This, when combined with thoroughly charming artwork means that Machi Koro is a good family game and if not quite a good gateway game, then it is very, very close.

Friday, 21 November 2014

An Esteren Companion

To date, the French RPG, Les Ombres d'Esteren or Shadows of Esteren, published by Agate RPG, remains an intriguing game. This low dark, fantasy setting with Lovecraftian overtones has been explored in just two releases in the English language—Shadows of Esteren 0-Prologue provided us with an introduction to the setting as well as a set of player characters/NPCs and three ready-to-play scenarios, while Shadows of Esteren 1-Universe presented that setting, the Tri-Kazel peninsula, in more detail. Both were beautiful books, but they also left much unsaid about the setting, in particular its secrets and the true nature of the world and the Feondas, the strange and hideous beasts that threaten the inhabitants of the peninsula. In addition, the books have their own problems. In places their writing has been obtuse, a problem that comes from their being translations of books in another language. This is not to say that the translations are poorly done, but they are not done by native English speakers and that does show in places. The other problem is the sheer density of text, typically written in character. This gives the world flavour aplenty, but it does sometimes make the setting inaccessible and details difficult to find.

The third release, Shadows of Esteren 2-Travels, suffers from similar issues, but not to the same extent. It does though, have problems of its own. Its structure heavily weighs in upon those problems. The original French version began life as two chapters—‘Cartography’ and ‘Canvasses’, but to these have been added three more chapters in the English edition of Shadows of Esteren 2-Travels. The first of these new chapters provides a full length, detailed adventure, the second gives yet more NPC/player characters, and the third some actual secrets to the setting.

Initially, the contents of ‘Cartography’, the first chapter, is difficult to digest. It consists of descriptions of different places around the Tri-Kazel peninsula. Little more than snapshots,  together they initially feel slightly incoherent, but it quickly becomes apparent that these are the reminiscences of a Varigal, one of the travellers and messengers who spread news and stories via the secret ways each apprentice learns. They are full of little details such as that narrow pass known as ‘Faol Ròd’ or ‘Wolf’s Breach is said to be haunted by a giant barbed wolf appeased every twenty years by the sacrifice of a hero or that the previous villagers of Aimliù were said to hear things upon icy winds of the sea and shied away from sunlight, which is why they were put to the sword before the War of the Temple. Eventually these reminiscences switch to providing more detail about particular places, such as the newly rebuilt city of Expiation, constructed by the Temple on the site of vile heresy  as a model of the perfect town should be, and the Carmine Chasm, a maze-like canyon uniquely home to blood red flora and known for its lamenting wind and the ‘white cross widows’, the small spiders that collectively weave great webs. These longer descriptions are more accessible, and thus for the Game Leader—the Referee in Shadows of Esteren—are much easier to bring into his game. Rounding this chapter are notes the geographical features of the Tri-Kazel peninsula and travelling them, including a nice guide to the ‘Stermerks’, the ideograms used by the Varigals to mark the dangers and difficulties upon the road.

Chapter 2, ‘Canvases’, presents five short adventures intended to be played in an evening or a single session. They are more like extended encounters as they do require the Game Leader to flesh them out and provide game stats for each the NPCs, which means that they are easier to adapt to a particular playing group. Unfortunately, the quintet is an uneven lot in terms of quality. They begin in uninspiring fashion, with a pair of familiar plots. In ‘Blood Feathers’, an exiled family has turned to preying on lonely and lost travellers, while in ‘The Disappearance’, the player characters fall in with the Tarish—the equivalent of the Gypsies in Shadows of Esteren—and are honour-bound to find out happened when both their companion and a beautiful girl disappear. The fourth Canvas, ‘Say it with Flowers’ is a murder mystery and again uses a rather familiar plot. This is not to say that a Game Leader could not run these three encounters well enough, but more that their plots do not evoke the game world as well as a Game Leader might like. 

Fortunately, this cannot be said of the third Canvas, ‘Night of Fright’, which finds the player characters in a village, unexpectedly and oddly alone. It is a terrific set-up and needs relatively little in the way of preparation compared to the others. The Game Leader should have plenty of fun with it and once he has run it for one group, it worth running again for another. Or indeed stealing it for another game and setting! The fifth and last Canvas, ‘The Shipwreck’ is not as fun as ‘Night of Fright’, but it does bring out much of what is interesting and unique to the setting of Shadows of Esteren—the tension between progress and tradition, and in particular , the ecological dangers of that progress. In ‘The Shipwreck’ the player characters come across a seaside village poisoned by the wreck of a Magientist ship.

The third chapter, the first of three wholly new ones to the English edition of this supplement is devoted to a single, lengthy scenario, ‘A Life Choice’.  It has the player characters hired to accompany a Magientist to reclaim her son whom she thought dead, but who was actually kidnapped by his father and taken to join what is essentially the equivalent of religious fundamentalist cult. Unsurprisingly, neither the father nor the head of the cult want the boy to go, and worse, the boy thoroughly hates his mother. There are though those within the cult that want out and are prepared to reveal its secrets, secrets that may aid the player characters in rescuing both the boy and those that want to leave. What ‘A Life Choice’ boils down to is a custody battle, and quite a meaty one at that. There is a lot of detail to the scenario and certainly plenty for the Game Leader and player alike to get their roleplaying teeth into. The initial parts of the scenario have room to expand it a little with other adventures, possibly with some of the Canvases given earlier in the book. The intent here is to turn it into a campaign of sorts, but even with the addition of those canvasses, or others of the Game Leader’s own devising, ‘A Life Choice’ is not quite long enough to be a full campaign. One issue with the scenario is that the writing is not quite as clear as it could be, so the Game Leader will need to give ‘A Life Choice’ a more careful read through than is the norm. Otherwise, this is a good, challenging scenario for all concerned.

‘Figures of Tri-Kazel’, the fourth chapter, describes and illustrates eighteen new NPCs. At least one of these appears in the previously presented chapters, but this is not followed through with the rest, though is nothing to stop the Game Leader from adding the NPCs to one location or another. The chapter also includes some details on the setting’s ‘Mysterious Powers’, in particular how they are used by some of the NPCs given earlier. Whilst useful for those NPCs, in the long term, these powers are limited in their application as just how often can a Game Leader use them in his campaign? In general though, as well designed as these NPCs are—including stats, personality, description, and associated rumour—and as beautifully illustrated as they are, they do feel out of place in Shadows of Esteren 2-Travels.

Rounding out Shadows of Esteren 2-Travels is ‘Bestiary’, the fifth chapter which presents a mini-menagerie of monsters. Stats are provided for several mundane creatures, but what will be interest to the Game Leader will be the full stats and full write-ups of ten the strange and deadly Feondas! Of course their inclusion is only to support the scenario and Canvases that appear elsewhere in the book, but they do provide us with a glimpse of the distantly forthcoming supplement, Shadows of Esteren 4-Secrets. As with the NPCs, each creature write-up includes the stats and general description. Each creature also has its own particular powers and several come with supplementary information or associated rumours. All are nicely detailed and even those that feel a little unoriginal, like the Vampire Bats, are well done and come with more flavour than they might have done in any other horror RPG. Most though are original and interesting and should test the player characters. Of course, the problem with it being a glimpse is that we are left wanting more and there is at least one more book  to come before the publication of Shadows of Esteren 4-Secrets. That wait is frustrating, more so given that no ‘real’ secrets are given away, we are not told the true nature of the Feondas, but we are least given the opportunity to examine some in detail—and a very welcome opportunity it is too...

As with the first two releases for the game, Shadows of Esteren 2-Travels is a full colour book that is beautifully illustrated. The artwork is excellent, being evocative and eerie throughout. Surprisingly, the writing is better than in the previous two supplements. It is not as dense or obtuse as in Shadows of Esteren 0-Prologue or Shadows of Esteren 1-Universe. That is primarily due to shorter pieces, especially in the snapshot descriptions of the various locations given in Chapter 1, ‘Cartography’, though not in the full scenario, ‘A Life Choice’, which as has already been mentioned, will need a careful read through before being run.

Although lacking access to the original French version of this supplement, from examining just the contents of the first two chapters of the English language version of Shadows of Esteren 2-Travels, it suggests that the original version had more of a focus. With three extra chapters, the English edition loses some of that focus and has a disparate feel to it. This is not to say that the new content is not useful or interesting. Some of it, particularly the secrets at the end of ‘Figures of Tri-Kazel’ and the  ‘Bestiary’ of chapter 5 support both the scenario outlines of ‘Canvases’ and the longer scenario that is ‘A Life Choice’. The NPCs are another matter and they do feel lost amongst the rest of the book.

Overall, Shadows of Esteren 2-Travels is more accessible than previous releases for Shadows of Esteren, but not as focused or as detailed. This makes it more of a companion supplement than one that concentrates on the single subject. It also means that there are several sections of the book that contain material that will need the Game Leader’s attention and development in order to be of full use. As to the parts of it that are good—‘Cartography’, ‘A Life Choice’, and the ‘Bestiary’, not forgetting ‘Night of Fright’ from ‘Canvasses’—they are more than worthy of a Game Leader’s attention.

Tuesday, 18 November 2014

Tangled Trains

2014 is the year that Japanese boardgames—particularly the Japon Brand—break out into the mainstream. After all, two Japanese games won Origins Awards in 2014, both published by Alderac Entertainment Group. Love Letter won the Origins Award for Best Traditional Card Game and Trains won the Origins Award for Best Board Game—how long until one wins the Spiel des Jahres? Of course, Japanese boardgames have not sprung from nowhere, there having been a number of them published in English over the past few years. Among the first was String Railway, designed by Hisashi Hayashi, who also designed the excellent Trains and recently had the interesting Sail to India published by Alderac Entertainment Group.

The 2013 UK Games Expo Best Abstract Game Winner, what sets String Railway apart from almost every other railway board game is in the title. Railway board games fall into two types. One uses hexes with players laying railway tracks to connect towns and cities, whilst the other has the players drawing lines with crayons on a map to connect towns and cities. In String Railway the players connect railway stations, not by hexes or crayons, but string—thick, bright lengths of string.

Now published by Asmodée Éditions, String Railway is designed for two to five players, aged eight plus, each of whom is the president of his railway company. A game lasts about thirty minutes and the aim is to have the most profitable railway by game’s end. 

Its play surface is the table itself with the play area formed by a string loop that is pulled out to form either a triangle, a square, or a pentagon, depending upon the number of players—a triangle for three players, a square for four or two players (in a two-player game, each player plays with two starting stations and two sets of strings), or a pentagon for five players. Inside the play area is placed a grey loop to represent the mountains and a length of blue string that runs to the edge and represents a river. Each player then receives five strings of various lengths and a station of the same colour, the latter being placed at a corner.

On his turn, a player draws a station from the deck of thirty-four station cards. He is free to place this station wherever he likes, but he must also use one of his strings to connect this new station to a station his network is already connected to. He is free to run the string through any other station he likes as long as the new station is placed at the end of the string.

The player then earns Victory Points for the station he has placed and any stations that he has run his new placed string through. Each of the eight types of stations scores differently. For example, the Central Station scores three Victory Points, but can only be connected by five players; an Urban Station scores a player three Victory points when placed, but will lose him a Victory Point to a rival if another connects to it, up to a maximum of five players; and a Scenic Station will earn a player one Victory Point if placed on the plains, but five Victory Points if placed in the mountains. Victory Points are lost if a string crosses either the river or another string. Of course, the player with the most Victory Points is the winner.

Play quickly becomes harder and harder as more strings are placed. Players will work hard to place their stations where they can score, but their rivals cannot and work harder to place their strings to their best advantage. Even if that means pulling them to their full length or twisting them again and again; this is what makes the game fun.

String Railway is a nice looking game and the rules are easy to read. Its core mechanics are tile drawing and placing and route-laying, both quite conventional, but the placing of the strings gives the game a physicality that very few games possess. The fact that each player only has five strings means that each only has five turns, making the game quick. (The fact that both players have ten strings in a two-player game is offset by the number of players). Everyone’s last turn usually takes a little longer as they try to maximise points, but that is true of many games. 

Bright and colourful, String Railways is a solid filler. In adding a physical element to the train game genre, String Railways shows how messy and tangled up the laying of railway tracks can get.

Thursday, 6 November 2014

Dirty Pool Old Man

Back at the turn of the millenium, John Wick was contracted to write Play Dirty, a column about game mastering advice for Pyramid Magazine, Steve Jackson Games’ online weekly. Over the course of the eleven columns that he would write for Pyramid Magazine, Wick would arouse controversy, ire, and irritation. His columns were a real talking point for the magazine. Subsequently, they would be collected and published by Wick himself in 2006 in a volume entitled Play Dirty. The book also included the original column that appeared at the website www.gamingoutpost.com which would spur the then-editor of Pyramid, Scott Haring, to engage Wick as a columnist. As Wick launches Play Dirty 2: Even Dirtier on Kickstarter, it seems appropriate to look back the original essays and see what made them so controversial.

So what is the fuss all about? Well, the GM advice in Play Dirty is about doing one thing. It is also about not doing one thing. The thing it is about doing is the GM entertaining his players. The thing it is not about is the GM being fair or even honest to the players. Play Dirty is about the GM doing anything and everything to ensure that his players have a good time—and that includes lying, cheating, and stealing; being mean—even cruel; and when it counts, being a bastard. All in the name of good storytelling and good drama. 

To do so, Wick not only gives the reader tricks, traps, and tactics aplenty that will enable the GM to get down and dirty with his players, he illustrates them with anecdotes from his own games and those of others. For example, in Episode 0, ‘Hit ‘Em Where It Hurts’ the author examines the weakspots of every player character—his Disadvantages—and shows you how to punch them hard. Not out of spite or because he can, but to maximise their drama potential. After all, is that not why the player took those Disadvantages? Well sometimes not, because they are often just a means to gain more points to make the character stronger elsewhere. In one example, Wick shows us how he had an outwardly helpful and friendly NPC push the heroes about in a Champions campaign by using (NOTE, not threatening) the heroes’ dependents and their luck, pushing their immunities and their psychological limitations, and so on. In Episode 7, ‘What’s It Worth?’ he talks about player assumptions, that they assume that they are doing the right thing, that they are the protagonists, and that the world revolves around them. Other episodes make Darth Vader the good guy, explain how the players can get involved in running a city campaign with the GM, how to deal with problem players, make combat lethal, and so on and so on. There is even an episode entirely for the players about how to play dirty with the GM.

Not all of the episodes are adversarial, or at least not confrontational. For example, Episode 3, ‘The Living City’ describes a means for the players to get involved in running and adding to a city campaign. All in the name of good drama—plus cutting down on the GM’s workload of course. Yet there are many episodes that are adversarial. Take for instance, in Episode 2, ‘The Return of Jefferson Carter’ he describes how he makes a player roleplay his character whilst the character is stuck in prison. For six weeks.

That is being adversarial. That is being a bastard.

The question has to be asked, “Did you really do that John? Did you make a player sit and seeth for six weeks? Or were you simply trying to make a point?” (Technically, this is three questions, but all of them have to be asked).

It does not help that throughout Play Dirty it feels as if John has got up on stage, cane and straw boater in hand, a gleaming smile plastered across his face and preached at us. Play Dirty involves chest beating aplenty and all of it John’s. Yet if none of his advice is intended to be fair or honest in application, then why should his tone and writing be fair, honest, or even measured?

Now the original Play Dirty columns appeared in 2000—plus the last column that appeared in 2003 for Pyramid’s tenth anniversary—and were brought to print in 2006. As the author states in 2006, they were written by a younger version of himself, a brasher, more pugnacious version. It shows. In many cases it feels like Wick’s advice is obvious and that what he has done is taken said advice and ‘turned it up to 11’, but even by 2006 that advice had entered the mainstream. Perhaps not to the extremes that Wick pushes it, but it was there. By 2014, some fifteen years after the advice was first written down, it is no less useful or at least no less thoughtful, but it does feel staid. That in part is because the gaming hobby has aged and moved on, and few gamers have the time to devote to the type of game that this advice applies to—the long game, the campaign game. Even by the time that Play Dirty was published as a book, gaming had moved on with the advent of the Indie Roleplaying  movement.

To be honest, John Wick’s advice may not be to everyone’s taste. It is likely to be too ‘unfair’, too confrontational, and too much in their face. If applied, it is likely to upset their players and thus the apple cart that is their game. To some, John Wick’s advice is bad and John Wick’s advice ruins games. If this is the case, then Play Dirty and thus Play Dirty 2: Play Dirtier will not be for you. Perhaps instead Robin’s Laws of Good Game Mastering by Robin D. Laws will be of use to you. (In fact, I might just dig out my copy of that and review it…)

Physically, Play Dirty is a plain, buff book. There are no illustrations. The words draw the pictures for you.

Play Dirty is a quick and easy read. In fact, I read it on my commute to work and back again today—not all of my commute as reading and walking is not the safest of activities. Indeed I suspect that writing this review will take longer than it did to read Play Dirty. (I was so keen to start the review that I cut myself shaving for the first time in decades. So, Mister Wick, your book has blood on its pages).

Now to the point. Is Play Dirty a good book? Is its advice useful and helpful? Well yes, no, and yes. Yes, because its advice can be taken and applied with the end result being a good game, even a memorable game. No, because it is not going to suit every game, every GM, every set of players, or every campaign. It has the potential to upset each and every one of them. Lastly and most importantly of all, ‘YES’.

Yes, Play Dirty is a good book and its advice is useful and helpful. For this very important reason. It will make you think about your game. Even if you never apply the advice in its pages, it will make you think about your game. 

Friday, 31 October 2014

By evening's Dead Light

After the underdeveloped and uninteresting Canis Mysterium: A Scenario with Bite, the good news is that the second entry in the ‘one night of horror’ series of scenarios from Chaosium, Inc. combines Call of Cthulhu with survival horror to deliver both an ominous sense of the unknown and shocks and scares aplenty. Dead Light: Surviving One Night Outside Of Arkham can be run as a one-shot and is playable in an evening or single session, or it can be easily slotted into an ongoing campaign as a short side-track adventure. Further, and notably, it is written for use with the forthcoming Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition, so can be used as a taster for the new mechanics, but like all Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition titles, Dead Light is relatively easy to convert back to previous versions of Call of Cthulhu. It can also be used as an introduction to Call of Cthulhu and to horror roleplaying in general, as the threat faced in Dead Light is something other than the traditional creatures and entities of the Cthulhu Mythos. Does this mean that Dead Light is not a Call of Cthulhu scenario? Of course not, for the tone, sense of desperation, and the fact that the ‘investigators’ can be still be driven mad all firmly place it within Lovecraftian investigative horror.

Written to be played by between three and six player characters—who may or may not yet be investigators—Deadlight opens with them on the road out of Arkham, heading for the town Ipswich. The weather has drawn in and the car has been forced to slow in the face of the heavy storm. Coming to the rescue of a dishevelled and bewildered girl on the road the travellers take refuge at the roadside Orchard Run Gas and Diner. Here they find succour and shelter as well as another mystery in addition to where the girl came from. What caused a local farmer to swerve his truck so leaving the road all but blocked and left him incoherent with shock? What follows should be a nasty night and in nasty weather, the threat revealing itself as it comes hunting for those trapped in the cafe by the storm, ratcheting up the tension between the investigators and the NPCs as their lives are threatened.

Where a traditional horror scenario might have achieved this with vampires, zombies, or serial killers, Dead Light does it with something unknowable and unworldly, even ineffable. The threat almost has a Science Fiction feel to it and that is perfectly in keeping with the nature of Cosmic horror. Even its origins are horribly rational and thoroughly in keeping with the wider miscegenation found in Lovecraft Country.

Whilst Dead Light is essentially a survival horror scenario, mechanically it is quite survivable. There are relatively few dice rolls to be made throughout the scenario and it is not particularly heavy in terms of investigation or the need to make investigative rolls. What this means is that the investigators still have their supply of Luck to spend when it really matters—encountering the threat in the woods! This does not mean that Dead Light is no less deadly or lethal, indeed the threat the investigators face is not just implacable, it is all but unstoppable by conventional means. Thus investigator who attempts to use brute force to stop it is going to end up sorely disappointed and quite possibly dead. What this means is that the investigators will need to look for the means to stop the threat—and doing so will reveal the origins of the threat and perhaps the human folly that led to its release.

The issue with survival horror and with a threat as deadly as that in Dead Light is that it is too easy to kill the investigators. Whilst the thing is hunting them and everyone at the cafe, the Keeper needs to pace the scenario and not have it hunt down and kill everyone. This does not mean that he should be lenient should a player have his investigator act foolishly, but with plenty of NPCs around to show how the monster works, the Keeper should sacrifice them and so hint at the thing’s lethality and give time for the investigators to uncover what is really going on. The danger here is that in the hands of an inexperienced Keeper, Dead Light has the potential to result in the death of everyone at the Orchard Run Gas and Diner—including the investigators. A more experienced Keeper will know to play and draw the events of the scenario and the deaths of everyone present out over the course of the evening.

Although ostensibly set in the early 1920s and in Lovecraft Country, Dead Light is not location or time specific. It would work in any period from the 1900s onwards. Likewise, it can easily be relocated to almost any country. All it needs is a stretch of road that runs through heavy woods alongside which stands a petrol station and a roadside cafe. The NPCs may well need some adjusting here or there so that they are not American, but such adjustments are minor and they are well drawn enough to fit any other desired location.

Included with Dead Light is a four page guide to using it with earlier versions of Call of Cthulhu. That said, even the possession of the rules for Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition is unnecessary to run Dead Light as it could be run using the Quick-Start Rules available from Chaosium. Further, Dead Light could easily be run before or after the investigators’ strange experiences in the classic scenario, ‘The Haunting’.

Unfortunately, what Dead Light lacks is a set of pre-generated investigators. Their inclusion would have provided a ready reason for the player characters to be on the road to Ipswich and with the inclusion of integrated backgrounds, it could have added an extra degree of tension and interplay between the travellers that would come into play as events of the scenario play out. Possible ideas might be a family visiting relatives, college students returning home, mobsters on a job, and so on. This would bind the investigators together and make use of the guidelines on organisations to be found in the Investigator Handbook for Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition. It would alleviate the need to come up with reasons why newly-created random characters—an antiquarian, a dilettante, a doctor, and a private detective—know each other and are on the road together. Of course, this is not an issue for experienced role-players or when using previously played characters.

Physically, Dead Light is well presented. An edit is needed here and there, but the scenario is well written, the NPCs decently done, and the threat clearly explained. The maps are also good and much of the artwork can also serve as good hand-outs. If there is an issue with Dead Light physically, it is that the cover does not fit its threat as it is supposed to. It feels all too solid, too defined, whereas the descriptions given of the threat feel otherwise…

Although not quite suitable for an inexperienced Keeper, Dead Light is more than suitable for new players, whilst experienced players will enjoy an evening’s play up against something other than a traditional threat, whether drawn from traditional horror or that of the Cthulhu Mythos. Containing (almost) everything necessary to play an evening of survival horror tinged with Cosmic Horror, Dead Light: Surviving One Night Outside Of Arkham is a solid scenario and the best title released by Chaosium in years.

A case of the 'Curse of  Chaosium' crack’d…?

Monday, 27 October 2014

2004: Dogs in the Vineyard

1974 is an important year for the gaming hobby. It is the year that Dungeons & Dragons was introduced, the original RPG from which all other RPGs would ultimately be derived and the original RPG from which so many computer games would draw for their inspiration. It is fitting that the current owner of the game, Wizards of the Coast, will releasing the new version, Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition, in the year of the game’s fortieth anniversary. To celebrate this, Reviews from R’lyeh will be running a series of reviews from the hobby’s anniversary years, thus there will be reviews from 1974, from 1984, from 1994, and from 2004—the thirtieth, twentieth, and tenth anniversaries of the titles to be reviewed. These will be retrospectives, in each case an opportunity to re-appraise interesting titles and true classics decades on from the year of their original release.


Picking titles from one anniversary to the next has proved to be easier for some years than others. 1984 was a particularly fruitful year, offering plenty of choices, but the subsequent anniversaries—1994 and 2004—in terms of RPGs and board games have been more challenging. 1994 is difficult because it was at the height of the Magic the Gathering boom, it was before Settlers of Catan would initiate the popularity in board games that we see today, and it was at a time when RPGs were tending towards generic rules. By 2004,  board games were truly on their rise to popularity that we know today, whilst RPGs tended to be dominated by their use of the d20 System, the mechanics derived from Dungeons & Dragons, Third Edition. That though was in mainstream roleplaying…

By 2004, a publishing movement had arisen that if not in opposition to mainstream RPGs, were certainly outside it and definitely broke the model of how RPGs were played and what they focused on. Firstly, the games were self-published, self-promoted, and often, self-distributed; secondly, they focused not on broad settings with the GM serving as the ‘sole’ gatekeeper for the game, but instead concentrated on single genres, set-ups, and stories. They focused on character and story, often telling morally and emotionally wrought tales in which during the telling, the players had greater narrative input than in the traditional RPG. Their play was collaborative, not just between the players, but also between the players and the GM—and sometimes they dispensed with the GM all together.

By 2014—a decade later—it should be noted that whilst the ‘Indie Roleplaying Game’ movement is not dead, much of its design ethos and intent has been absorbed by the mainstream, most notably in the form of Evil Hat Design’s FATE RPG and the more recent Firefly Role-Playing Game from Margaret Weis Productions. No ‘Indie Roleplaying Game’ would win an Origins Award—the industry’s premier award, though Bully Pulpit Games’ Fiasco would be nominated in 2010.  A number of Indie style RPGs have won the Diana Jones Award, arguably a critically more prestigious award. They include Paul Czege’s My Life with Master, Ron Edward’s Sorcerer, and both Jason Morningstar’s Grey Ranks and the aforementioned Fiasco, the latter remaining to this day, the best known title to have come out of the Indie movement. The first games though, to offer this style of play are arguably Hogshead Publishing’s New Style series—The Extraordinary Adventures of Baron Münchhausen, Puppetland/Powerkill (Puppetland has just been relaunched on Kickstarter), and Pantheon and other Roleplaying Games being notable entries—but they predate the movement and they were not self-published.

In 2004, the most well-known were My life with Master and Dogs in the Vineyard. It is the latter, published in 2004, which is that year’s entry for the anniversary series of reviews. At first glance, Dogs in the Vineyard: A Role-Playing Game looks to be a Western RPG. It is set in Western United States, the indigenous population is not necessarily to be trusted, and the characters ride the land dispensing justice. This to an extent is true, but Dogs in the Vineyard is not as simplistic as that. The setting is the Western United States, specifically the Deseret Territory of pre-statehood Utah in the middle of the 19th century, isolated and wary of the Territorial Authority; the Mountain People may not be trusted, but they are to be brought into the Faithful; and the player characters are members of the ‘Order Set Apart to the Preservation of the Faith and the Faithful’, who ride from town to town, preaching and performing ceremonies—baptisms, weddings, funerals, and so on, keeping the peace, protecting the Faithful, ferreting out and punishing sinners, and bringing not only the word of The Faith of All Things in the King of Life, Reborn to the people, but also messages and the mail. They are the King’s Watchdogs, or ‘Dogs’, and are known for their finely embroidered coats that is their badge of office.

There is a certain historicity to this set-up. Parallels may be drawn with antebellum Utah—the Utah of the 1840s and 1850s, the mistrusted authority of the USA and Washington, DC, and of course, with the Mormon faith. On its first page, the author states that Dogs in the Vineyard is a fantasy inspired by the history, and although other options suggest elsewhere and elsewhen the game/mechanics can be set should anyone object to its depiction of Mormonism, Dogs in the Vineyard treats the religion with respect. Indeed, although it gives certain specific details, and that mainly for flavour and feel, it mainly presents the Faith as a moral code, which makes the mechanics and tone of Dogs in the Vineyard not only more easy to translate to other times and settings, it makes it much less offensive.

Each session involves the player characters, or ‘Dogs’, riding into town and interacting with the townsfolk as they carry out their duties. In doing so, they discover that someone in the town has fallen prey to the sin of Pride at a perceived injustice, which left unchecked has escalated to false doctrine and false priesthood. With the growth of sin in a town, the King of Life is likely to withdraw his protection and thus allow demons into the town. Their presence, left unchecked, will eventually result in sorcery and murder… The duty of the Dogs is thus to root out the cause, judge the sinners, and dispense mercy and punishment according to the tenets of the Faith. Then they ride out, leaving in their wake, a townspeople that may be shattered by their experience—several of them may be dead, and the town may be in flames. The Dogs may have suffered also, depending on the choices made and the relationships ruined. Between towns, they ride the beautiful Deseret Territory, reflecting upon their actions, readying themselves for the next town, or to retire as a Dog, their duty done.

A Dog is defined by several dice pools, the size of which are determined by the type of character, whether that is Well-Rounded, Complicated History, Strong Community, and so on. This sets the number of dice to assign to a character’s Stats—Acuity, Body, Heart, and Will; Traits—freeform aspects of the character such as ‘My Grandfather’s Hunting Knife 1d6’ or ‘I have a honey’d tongue 2d4’; and Relationships—ties to places and people, like ‘My brother Ned, who always seemed to pull me from the fire 2d6’ or ‘Under the green shade of the woods 1d8’. Lastly a player decides on his Dog’s equipment, generally a horse, guns (it should be noted that guns of this period are black powder, percussion cap, single-action weapons), perhaps a knife, and the coat that is his Dog’s badge of office. Lastly, each Dog undertakes an initiation rite whilst training to be a Dog. It is different for each character and serves as a means to introduce the mechanics of Dogs in the Vineyard. There is plenty of flexibility in character design and capacity for player input, but such freedoms back in 2004 were just a little daunting...

Our sample character is Sister Temperance Deakins, the adopted elder daughter of a family of undertakers. A foundling of the Mountain People, she was exactly what her mother wanted until her sister Prudence was born, all blonde curls and skin like milk. Temperance still had a place in the home and was put to the household chores or went with her mother to bring succour to the folk who had recently been bereaved. Only her Grandfather accepted her fully and never favoured Prudence over her. Prudence remains jealous that Temperance became a Watchdog and not her.

Name: Sister Temperance Deakins
Background: Complicated History

—Stats— {15d6 dice}
Acuity: 4d6 Body: 3d6 Heart: 4d6 Will: 4d6

—Traits— {4d4, 2d6, 2d10 dice}
Measured shot 1d4
I am God’s Watchdog 1d6
I am an uneasy rider 1d6
There is always women’s work to be done, 3d4
I know the ways of Grief 2d10
I overcame my fear of guns 1d6

—Relationships— 5d6, 2d8 dice {Available: 2d6, 1d8 }
Blood 1d6
My pretty sister Prudence, jealous that I am a Dog, 1d8
My adopted Grandfather, who accepted me, 2d6

Colt Paterson revolver, 1d6+1d4
Big old nag, 1d8+1d4
Watchdog’s Coat 2d6 (Green with red piping and the Tree of Life embroidered in gold on the back).

Mechanically, Dogs in the Vineyard also departed from traditional RPGs in that its focus is entirely upon conflicts, including conflicts between the Dogs and between the Dogs and the townsfolk that they are passing judgement upon. Essentially with mundane tasks and mundane knowledge, it is accepted that a Dog either knows the information or not, or can undertake the action or not. In fact the GM has one simple rule to any situation; either say “Yes”, or roll the dice and begin a conflict—indeed this was its very first appearance in any RPG. Conflicts come into play when there is something at stake, for example, “I will impose my will as a Dog and convince the congregation that I bring the true word of the King in Life” or “I will chase down the sinner, Brother Nathaniel, and bring him to judgement”. Resolving the conflict involves Poker-style mechanics opposed rolls of dice pools. The base for each pool is a pair of stats—Acuity and Heart when talking, Body and Heart for physical actions that do not involve combat (for example, in a chase), Body and Will for fighting with fists, knives, and so on,  and Acuity and Will for gunfights. To this can be dice from appropriate Traits, Relationships, and Belongings. For example, in a situation where Sister Temperance has to use a gun, she rolls her Acuity and Will, Measured shot, I overcame my fear of guns, and her gun, for a total of 8d6, 1d4, 1d6, and 1d6+1d4.

The results are not added, but kept as single dice. Then those in the conflict make Raises using up the value of pairs of their dice, narrating what they say or do as part of the Raise. In response, a target can See this Raise by countering it with dice equal to the Raise. Two dice will block the Raise; using one die will not only stop it, but Reverse it and let the target keep and use the die in his next Raise; and lastly three or more dice means that the Raise has been partly blocked, the target Takes the Blow and suffers consequences after the conflict is over. Should one side of the conflict concede or run out of dice, he suffers Fallout and will gain possible consequences.
For example, as part of her duties as a Dog, Sister Temperance has returned home to discover that her sister Prudence dressed in black and mourning for her late husband, a man whom she did not love and did not want to marry. Now she has a child and is jealous of the perceived freedoms that Temperance has. She has been complaining to her father-in-law, the local Steward, seducing him with her words and persuading him that Temperance’s place is with her mother, not with the Dogs. He now preaches that no one born of the Mountain People can be called to be Dog… This is false doctrine.
Temperance confronts her sister. The stakes for the conflict are to force ‘Prudence to admit her jealousy drives her pride and her sin’. For this, Temperance will roll her Acuity and Heart Stats, I am God’s Watchdog and I know the ways of Grief Traits, and Blood and My pretty sister Prudence, jealous that I am a Dog Relationships. This gives her 4d6, 3d6, 1d6, 2d10, 1d6, and 1d8 to roll, the result being 1, 2, 3, 3, 3, 4, 5, 5, 6, 7, 7, and 8.
Prudence likewise rolls her Acuity (2d6) and Heart (4d6) Stats, Butter wouldn't melt (2d4) and Grieving Widow (1d10) Traits, and Blood (1d8) and I am jealous of my sister, the Dog (2d6) Relationships. She rolls 2, 2, 2, 2, 3, 3, 3, 4, 4, 4, 4, 5, and 7.
Temperance confronts her sister and says, “You have my sympathies sister, I know how grief must sit upon you.” and Raises with a 5 and 5 for 10. Prudence responds with, “What do you know of grief? You have lost nothing and gained everything!” and Sees Temperance’s Raise with a 3 and 7 for 10. Prudence then makes her own Raise with a 4 and 4 before saying, “You abandoned us, your family, just like your real family abandoned you!”
Temperance Sees this with her single 8—sufficient to Reverse the Blow and retain the 8 for her next Raise—responds with, “I was doing my duty unto the Faith and answering when I was called.” She then Raises with the 8 and a 7, saying, “And just as I was doing my duty by the King of Life, so were you!” 15 is far more than Prudence can See with two dice and is forced to use four dice—5, 4, 4, and 3—instead. The consequences are that Prudence suffers 1d4 in Fallout for each of the four dice used to See. Stung by her Sister’s words she flies at Temperance in a rage. What this means is that she Escalates and the Conflict now becomes physical!
Escalating is the only way in which a Dog can gain more dice. That is, switching up to more dangerous forms from conflict—from social conflict to physical combat to gunfights. Each time the combatants would reroll. Similarly, as the conflict escalates, the Fallout dice also escalate, from the d4 of Social conflicts to the d6 of hand-to-hand conflicts to the d8 of conflicts involving melee weapons to the d10 of conflicts involving guns.

Each town is a scenario in itself and there is plenty of advice for the GM on creating towns and the hierarchies of sin that beset them. Essentially sketching them out in broad detail along with the various NPCs and their desires—NPCs always want something of the Dogs as they are the final arbiters in any situation—so that the GM can add further details as play progresses. Especially helpful here are the details on everyday life in the Vineyard and the constrictive expectations of everyone’s role in society, as they add flavour and they are reason enough for one of the Faithful to doubt his place or suffer from jealousy. From this of course, it is relatively easy to step onto the hierarchy of sin. What the GM is not doing is setting up a plot or a story to tell, but rather leaving it up to the players’ Dogs to decide what they do, where they go, and who they speak to, and ultimately how they resolve the situation that a town is hiding.

The core of the advice on running Dogs in the Vineyard is twofold—“Escalate, escalate, escalate” and “Drive Play Towards Conflict”, supported by the simplicity of “Roll the dice, or say yes”. What this means is the Dogs and thus the players are constantly being pushed to confront the evidence of the sins that lurk in every town and the sinners themselves to force them to admit their guilt. Then of course, to make and pass moral judgements upon the sinners. Whilst the towns themselves are unlikely to be memorable—though the GM is free to add as little or as much detail as he wants—it is the sins of the townsfolk that that mark one town from another and make them memorable. Certainly it is what the Dogs will reflect upon as well as the judgements passed after they leave the town.

One aspect of Dogs in the Vineyard that the GM can set ahead of time, or indeed can be agreed upon by the GM and his players is to what degree the supernatural actually plays in the Deseret Territory and in undermining the people of the The Faith of All Things in the King of Life. It may not exist at all, except in the minds of believers, but the threat may truly be real, with an unbeliever willingly accepting possession by a demon or a sorcerer, a false prophet, having a demon at his beck and call.

Physically, Dogs in the Vineyard is an imposingly simple book with a beautiful cover. Inside, the book at first looks surprisingly plain and the artwork is disappointing. The later is still true a decade on, but my opinion of the book’s look has changed in that time. With the layout and the choice of font, handled by the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society, Dogs in the Vineyard has a period feel and a plain, unadorned feel that lends it a certain charm.

In comparison to the mainstream in 2004, Dogs in the Vineyard was a truly focused and moral game, one that was truly radical for its time. Although Poker-style play underlies the game’s mechanics, their  application as a means to escalate and drive conflicts forward was radical, not to say daunting. The game’s mechanical focus on conflict was equally radical, but its advice to “say yes, or roll dice” has very much become part of mainstream roleplay design and theory. Radical also was the game’s focus on making moral judgements. There had been RPGs in which the players and their characters passed judgements before, most obviously the Judge Dredd RPG, but that was really a satire in which the law was enforced unflinchingly and unfeelingly. In Dogs in the Vineyard the judgements are made on a moral basis and that ultimately is the game’s great strength.

To be truthful, there were few great RPGs being released in 2004, or in any of the opening years of the 21st century and arguably not from mainstream publishing. Dogs in the Vineyard: A Role-Playing Game is one such great RPG. Its mechanics were and remain elegant, its design as an RPG as morality tale delightfully radical, and it is still one of the best RPGs to have come out of  the ‘Indie Roleplaying Game’ movement.

Thursday, 23 October 2014

Dicing with Dragons

Dragon Slayer: The Dice Game with a Twist is a ‘Push Your Luck’ dice game released by Indie Boards & Cards, the publisher of notable titles such as The Resistance, Coup, and Flashpoint: Fire Rescue. Funded through Kickstarter, it is designed for two to five players, aged fourteen and more—though younger players could play it, and it can be played through in fifteen minutes or so.

In Dragon Slayer, each player is a doughty warrior, a fearless hunter of dragons, ready to be crowned ‘Master Slayer’. He must set out into the Mountains; locate each dragon’s Head to determine where it hunts, its Wings to see where it soars, and its Tail to find its lair; Axe in hand ready to slay the beasts and Shield held ready to withstand each dragon’s deadly Fire Breath. There are three dragons of increasingly difficult challenge—Blue, Green, and Red—that a slayer will need to kill again and again to be crowned ‘Master Slayer’. Unfortunately, every slayer has a certain pride and once he has one dragon kill under his belt, he can be goaded into continuing the hunt. Otherwise he will lose face (and points!). This is the ‘Twist’ of the title.

Dragon Slayer consists of twelve dice. Three dice for the Warriors, marked with Axe, Shield, and Fire Breath symbols; and three dice for each dragon, marked with Mountain, Dragon’s Head, Tail, and Wing, and Fire Breath symbols. There is a scoring track and tokens for each player to track his score, a simple chart to track each slayer’s hunt, and a Challenge Token for each player.

On his turn a player rolls both the Warrior dice and the three dice for the dragon he wants to hunt. His aim is to roll the Dragon’s Head, Tail, and Wings plus an Axe to kill the beast. As soon as any one of them is rolled, those dice are put aside and the player can keep rolling. Mountains and repeated results can be re-rolled. If the dragon rolls a Fire Breath—on the Dragon dice or the Warrior dice—the slayer can defend against with a rolled Shield on a one-for-one basis. If a slayer has not rolled any Shields, then he loses a Warrior dice for every unblocked Fire Breath dice. Once a slayer has lost all of his Warrior dice, his dragon hunt ends for that turn.  

Once a player has rolled a Dragon’s Head, Tail, and Wings plus an Axe to kill the beast, he can score it. Just two points for a Blue Dragon, four for a Green Dragon, and six for a Red Dragon. He can stop there or carry on, using any Warrior dice he has remaining plus the matching dice for the new dragon. He must defeat the other two dragons before he can attempt to slay again the type he just killed. Or another slayer could challenge him into carrying on. Refuse and the player loses half his points, the challenger scoring five points. Carry on and the slayer gets double points for every subsequent dragon slain, but if he fails at any time, he loses all points for that round! Each player only has one Challenge token, so it can only be used once.

For example, Debbie attempts to slay the Green Dragon. On the Warrior dice she rolls Axe, Shield, and Fire Breath, plus Mountains and Dragon’s Tail and Wings on the Dragon dice. She sets aside the Dragon’s Tail and Wings plus the Axe. Then she blocks the Fire Breath with the Shield and then rerolls the Shield, Fire Breath, and Mountain dice. The result is two Axes and a Dragon’s Head. This enough is to slay the Green Dragon and score Debbie two points.

Dave decides use his Challenge token to goad Debbie to continue, which she does against the Blue Dragon. This time she rolls Axe, Shield, and Shield on the Warrior dice, plus Mountains and Dragon’s Tail and Wings on the dragon dice. She sets aside the Dragon’s Tail and Wings plus the Axe. Rolling again, the result is a Dragon’s Head and an Axe and Shield, again enough to slay the Blue Dragon and score Debbie eight points—double the Blue Dragon’s value.

Debbie continues against the Red Dragon. This time she rolls Axe, Shield, and Fire Breath on the Warrior dice, plus Fire Breath and Dragon’s Head and Wings on the dragon dice. One Shield is used to block a Fire Breath, leaving one Fire Breath to get through. Debbie is forced to discard the Axe result, but can keep the Dragon’s Head and Wings. This leaves her one Dragon die and two Warrior dice to roll. This time Debbie rolls the needed Dragon’s Tail and an Axe, which scores her twelve points—again the Red Dragon’s value. Debbie has done well this time and was up to the challenge!

Once a player has scored forty points in slain dragons, play continues until everyone has had the same number of turns. The player with the most points scored wins and is crowned the ‘Master Slayer’.

Physically, Dragon Slayer is pretty little game, its artwork reminiscent of the Dragon’s Lair computer game of the early ‘80s. The dice in particular, are quite fine (though the standard retail version will lack the metallic inks etched into the dice), handle nicely, and have differently illustrated dragons. The rules feel underwritten and need a surprisingly careful read through given such a light game.

Easy to learn and quick to play, Dragon Slayer presents easy decisions—when to challenge, when to stop rolling, and which dragon to roll for. Do you roll for the Green Dragon and work up to Red or roll for Red and work down to Green as it is easier? Most likely a player will Challenge when another takes the lead and looks to be winning…

Of course Dragon Slayer feels not unlike Steve Jackson Games’ Zombie Dice, but it adds a decent twist and its genre is not as gruesome. Overall, Dragon Slayer: The Dice Game with a Twist is a nice filler and a nice addition to the ‘Push Your Luck’ style dice game.