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

Sunday, 21 August 2016

Unique & Exotic, Truly...

At first glance it is difficult to work out exactly what Yoon-Suin - The Purple Land is. The lack of a blurb means that the potential buyer will be without a clue and even after he has read inside the book’s front he will know no more than that it is a ‘Campaign Setting’. What Yoon-Suin is, is explained in the book’s opening travelogue, ‘The Journal of Laxmi Ghuptra Dahl - Being an account of a traveller in distant places’. This details his journeys in the Yellow City, the great metropolis at the mouth of the God River ruled by the haughty Slug-men, home to unknown numbers of ancient libraries, temples to a thousand gods, opium dens supplied by the seventeen cartels, tea houses, and Crab-men Fighting Stables—the only free Crab-men are to be found in the Topaz Isles that stretch across the Gulf of Morays to the south of the Yellow City. From its location at the mouth of the God River, the Yellow City merges into the thick forests of the Lahag, beyond which lies the rich plains of the Hundred Kingdoms, whilst the God River leads deep inland to the wild borderlands of the Druk Yul whose upper reaches are said to be home to dragons!

From this description, along with the map included at the front of the book, Yoon-Suin suggests that it is campaign setting based on medieval India, roughly encompassing the length of the river Ganges as far north as the Himalayas, whilst also taking in large swathes of both Bengal and the Bay of Bengal to the South and Southwest. Now this would be interesting for the roleplaying hobby in general, let alone the Old School Renaissance, for campaign material set in, or based on, India, is rare indeed. Yet Yoon-Suin is not a straight adaptation of medieval India with its rich cultural, martial, and religious traditions and customs. Instead the author of Yoon-Suin is inspired by them to create a unique setting. Further, Yoon-Suin - The Purple Land is not a campaign setting, at least not on the traditional sense. There is no detailed breakdown or description of the setting given that essentially sets Yoon-Suin in stone, but rather the supplement presents table after table as a means to generate and then run a campaign across each of the different regions. So whilst there will be a very many number of elements that are common from one Yoon-Suin campaign to the next—the least of which are four mysteries that are left up to the GM to decide—their exact combination will vary from campaign to campaign. The author, David McGrogan of the Monsters and Manuals blog, describes it as thus… “...[T]here is no single Yoon-Suin, and no Yoon-Suin is ever the same as any other - nor the same way twice.”

In terms of characters, Yoon-Suin presents four Races—Crab-man, Dwarves, Humans, and Slug man. The Crab-man is a sentient crab, strong and tough, typically used in manual labour or trained and kept in a Crab-man fighting stable, but cannot read or speak or manipulate magical items. It can understand spoken languages and can communicate in rudimentary terms. In game terms, the Crab-man has its own quite simple Crab-man Class. Dwarves are warriors or adventurers (fighters or thieves) whose people have been forced to flee their homeland, the Mountains of the Moon, for reasons that they cannot agree upon. Humans are free to take any Class, whilst the Slug-man is either a holy-man or magician (cleric or wizard). Notably in the Yellow City—and in many of the Hundred Kingdoms—there is a strict hierarchy. The Slug-men rule—merchants, crime families, sages, poets, tax collectors, bureaucrats, etc.—whilst the Crab-men are held in slavery. This means that if one is taken as a Player Character, then another Player Character must be selected as his master. In between there is the possibility that even Humans are slaves.

Of course this does not mean that a player could not play a Race or Class from a traditional Dungeons & Dragons-style fantasy setting. There would have to be a good reason why such a character would be in such an isolated land as Yoon-Suin, but for a group of adventurers to this strange new land, the supplement suggests that it can be run as a ‘foreigners fresh off the boat’ campaign a la Tékumel: Empire of the Petal Throne. That said, the Dwarves do feel slightly out of place given the exoticism of the other two options in terms of Races and even then, the inclusion of the Crab-man adds relatively little given their lack of capacity for communication or character growth.

Yoon-Suin includes some sixty or so monsters, of which the majority are new. Even interlopers from traditional Dungeons & Dragons are given their own Purple Land spin, so the Kenku are tricksters who can have crow, kingfisher, or peacock heads; the Mi-go are carnivorous white ape-like creatures that prey upon yaks and their herders; Nymphs may be beautiful, but their frost or water natures means that their chosen lovers typically drown or freeze; and the Ogre Mages are found trading far and wide, but are bound to the haunted city of Syr Darya. The remainder are a fantastic mix of strange demons, spirits, the undead, and more, such the Masan, long-shadowed child vampires that like to deceive; the Ice Ghost, the tortured, screaming soul of someone who died in an avalanche or snowstorm; Figments, imp-like spirits born of the hallucinations of opium eaters; Baital, hostile and manipulative spirits that inhabit and animate corpses whilst sometimes posing as demigods; Mountain Witches who appear as nubile, young women to enslave men, whilst women can see what they are; and self-Mummified Monks who may help or hinder depending on their Alignment. In places some of these monsters do feel slightly underwritten, but what really is a shame about them is that none of them are illustrated when so many of them are begging for this treatment.

The bulk of Yoon-Suin - The Purple Land is devoted to four identically structured chapters, each one devoted to a different region, in turn, ‘The Yellow City and The Topaz Isles’, ‘The Hundred Kingdoms and Láhág’, ‘Lamarakh and Lower Druk Yul’, and ‘The Mountains of the Moon and Sughd’. So for ‘The Yellow City and The Topaz Isles’, the chapter opens with tables for creating the Player Characters’ Social Circle, such as a shrine, Crab-man fighting stable, noble house, tea shop/opium den, exploring guild, philosophical society, and so on. In many cases each table is prefaced by a paragraph or two describing the role of the place or thing or person given options in the table, just enough information to spur the DM’s creative processes. There are tables for establishing a conflict between one or more of these locations as well as tables that develop each of the location types. Other tables add Yellow City Personages, General Rumours and Hooks, Yellow City Rumours, Random Locations and Locations ‘Round the Yellow City, and Neighbourhoods. Even more tables detail the outskirts of the Yellow City , adding Lairs, personages, and so on and so on. All of these are designed to be used to help the DM create places, relationships, rumours, and hooks around which to build a campaign, but there are also eighteen more fully described locations/encounters that be dropped into a hex on the DM’s map with little need for modification. Lastly, Adventuring in the Old Town presents a set of tables to create encounters and places in Old Town, the abandoned and decrepit region of Yellow City that is ripe for exploration.

Then in turn, Yoon-Suin does the same for each of other regions, though with some variation. Thus ‘The Hundred Kingdoms and Láhág’ begins with tables for creating each one of the Hundred Kingdoms, its assets and issues, and the Player Characters’ Social Circle, and so on and so on. What this means is that Yoon-Suin - The Purple Land contains an awful lot of tables—and that sounds dull. This though could not be further from the truth, for these tables are rich in content and ideas, let alone the twenty or so more fully described locations/encounters per chapter that are but ready to play. The tables enable the DM to mix and match ideas that can be used to lay the foundations of a campaign and then develop it further as the campaign progresses. Of course, there is nothing to stop the DM from forgoing the dice and simply using the content of the tables as inspiration.

Rounding out Yoon-Suin - The Purple Land is a set of appendices. These provide further details on various aspects of life and society in Yoon-Suin, including poisons, opium, specialist teas, conducting trade, a set of rough and ready psionics rules, fortune telling, typical Dungeons & Dragons monsters to be found in Yoon-Suin, useful worms, arachnids, and insects—used as labour in Yoon-Suin and beyond, magical tattoos, and more. So need to know the particular opium that a gang specialises in smuggling or a shop serves? Then there is an appendix for that, detailing the opium’s colour, effect, and how it is administered, for example Blue Opium is a depressant that is crushed and made into a tea, which might deaden fear or pain or the mind against illusions or slows the flow of the blood to slow the spread of poison. There are six colours of opium and they all have varying effects. Specialist teas have a similar effect. Two of the more interesting appendices actually describe the Yellow City Trade Tongue and other languages that add to the cultural flavour of Yoon-Suin, whilst Appendix N of course lists the books, music, and games that form the supplement’s inspiration.

As a physical object, Yoon-Suin - The Purple Land is an oddity. Its bright pink cover is slightly overshadowed by its landscape rather than the traditional portrait format. The book is cleanly laid out and in general well-written, but its maps are somewhat lacking. The pen and ink drawn maps feel suited to the setting and general milieu, but are too small, whereas the hex maps of each are are just indistinct and difficult to read. Yoon-Suin is lightly illustrated by Matthew Adams. Now Reviews from R’lyeh is not necessarily a fan of Adams’ style, which can often veer into being scratchy doodles, but here they pleasing capture the exoticism of the setting.

As rich and as detailed as Yoon-Suin - The Purple Land undoubtedly is, it does suffer from a certain inaccessibility, both its exoticism and its lack of upfront explanation, contributing greatly to that, let alone the odd format or the weirdness that puts it well outside of the traditional Dungeons & Dragons-style campaign. Of all of these issues, it is the lack of upfront explanation that really makes it inaccessible, which is a shame given the richness of the supplement’s content once past this hurdle. Another way that this could have been addressed is by including a set of tables for handling the set-up and beginning of the ‘foreigners off the boat’ campaign that is suggested as the default. That might have eased both players and their characters into the setting without overwhelming either with the culture shock. Other than that, if there is anything missing from Yoon-Suin, then perhaps a table of weapons native to the area and some native magical items would have been worthy inclusions.

Behind the vibrantly pink cover of Yoon-Suin hides a campaign setting rich in ideas and inspiration, waiting to be plucked and given flesh by the GM. Weird and fantastic, alien and exotic, but also accessible—once the presentation issues have been overcome—and original, Yoon-Suin - The Purple Land is a thoroughly impressive toolkit and a brilliant addition to the Old School Renaissance.

Friday, 19 August 2016

High Seas Horror

Originally made available in print on Saturday, June 18th, 2016 for Free RPG Day 2016—though in lamentably limited quantities—the good news is that The Derelict: A Tale of Terror for Call of Cthulhu from Chaosium, Inc. is now available in print to everyone. Or rather, it is available to order as ‘Print on Demand’ via Lulu.com and at a very reasonable price too, even taking the cost of postage into consideration. So having got both the grumble and the good news out of the way, what is The Derelict? Well, it turns out to be scenario for Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition penned by Sandy Petersen, the RPG’s original designer, together with Make Mason, one of the co-designers of the new edition. And indeed, The Derelict carries the strapline, “By the Godfather of Call of Cthulhu”. Set in the modern day, it is a one-shot scenario that takes place on the high seas that can be played in a single session or two. Designed to be played by between three and six players, it comes with six pre-generated investigators that can either be used or the players can create their own. This can be done using either the Call of Cthulhu 7th Edition Quick-Start Rules—free to download hereor the the Call of Cthulhu Investigator Handbook. Likewise the Keeper can run The Derelict just using the rules provided in the Call of Cthulhu 7th Edition Quick-Start Rules or he can use the full rules from the Call of Cthulhu Rulebook. The advice for the Keeper includes suggestions for what type of characters should be created for use with the scenario.

As The Derelict opens, the investigators are passengers aboard the Delilah, a luxury yacht sailing across the North Atlantic bound for Liverpool in the United Kingdom. There the owner—one of the investigators—is due to sell his boat, but both he and his guests are taking one last opportunity to avail themselves of a pleasure cruise. Even if it is in the mid-Atlantic… Which is where the investigators spot a ‘reefer’ or ‘refrigerated cargo ship’, stranded on an iceberg. According to the Geneva Convention on the High Seas, the crew of the Delilah—and that includes the investigators as one of them is likely the owner—is responsible for rendering the crew of the beached vessel assistance. If that is not motivation enough—and it is a moral and legal obligation, then there is the possibility that under the Law of Finds, the ‘refrigerated cargo ship’ and its cargo might be salvage. If the investigators can get the ship off the iceberg and take it under tow back to a port, then they stand to make themselves rich indeed. (An alternative set-up suggests that the player characters are a salvage team coming to investigate the stranded vessel, but this is not the default set-up in The Derelict.)

The cargo ship turns out to be the Groenland Tropisch, a Norwegian vessel headed for Greenland. Aboard the cargo ship the investigators will find the crew missing, the vessel seemingly abandoned. Which means that under the Law of Finds, both vessel and cargo belong to the investigators as salvage. All they have to do is re-float the ship and take it under tow. There is of course the matter of the missing crew, missing lifeboats, the doors ripped open, the vandalised controls, and the bloodstains in the ice of the cold, cold ship. What did happen to the crew of the Groenland Tropisch and are the investigators in danger themselves?

What you have in The Derelict is an ‘it’s locked in here with us’ situation. Isolated and very far from rescue finds themselves prey to an unnatural alien creature out of legend. It feels reminiscent of John Carpenter’s The Thing from another World, but that is as much due to the isolated location and the low temperatures and the Norwegian thing as much as anything else. Of course if the players want think that… Nevertheless, the monster in The Derelict is nothing like that of any film, being instead drawn from Norse myth. This may be an issue for the purists, who may have preferred to seen something from the Lovecraftian Mythos appear here rather than a creature from another source. If that is the case, then they can replace the thing faced here with something of their choice, but to be fair, it is highly unlikely that they will have come across something like it in their gaming lives and so facing it will present them with a fresh rather than a familiar challenge. Just as it will for anyone else coming to play The Derelict. Plus, the scenario is a one-shot and it is meant to last a single session that, so the issue is moot anyway… (Plus it shows that Call of Cthulhu can work with other monsters, though a suggestion or two is given if a Mythos explanation is demanded.)

Since the scenario is an ‘it’s locked in here with us’ situation, the creature is difficult to stop. Not unstoppable, but difficult. The means to deal with it are provided in the scenario and discussed for the Keeper’s benefit, but this will require the full exploration of the Groenland Tropisch and a little investigation. The limited extent of the latter may again be disappointing for Call of Cthulhu, but again, The Derelict is a one-shot scenario designed to be played in a single session. This and the setting for the scenario limits possible investigative options anyway. Plus as a one-shot, The Derelict needs to get to the action and the horror with some expediency.

Physically, The Derelict is well presented. The layout is clean and tidy, the few illustrations are good, and the deck plans of both vessels excellent. If there is anything odd about the scenarios, it is the backgrounds of the six pre-generated investigators. Too many of them seem to have odd military or espionage connections and most of them come armed with an array of handguns. Working the scenario into a campaign would be a challenge, but it would be easy enough to adapt The Derelict to the Jazz Age of the 1920s or the Gaslight Era of the 1890s if the Keeper wanted to run it in either of those periods.

The Derelict is a suitable to run for either experienced or inexperienced players of Call of Cthulhu. The Keeper though, should ideally have some experience under his belt as essentially once the investigators are aboard the cargo ship, since he will be reacting to their actions as the thing hunts them down… Overall, The Derelict: A Tale of Terror for Call of Cthulhu is a solid one-shot, good for one night’s icebound horror on the high seas.

Sunday, 14 August 2016

Guide is the Thing

If Dungeons & Dragons lies at the heart of our hobby, then it is as tripod formed by the Player’s Handbook, the Monster Manual, and the Dungeon Master’s Guide. In the past, the Dungeon Master’s Guide has always been the book needed to run the game. The Player’s Handbook provided rules for creating and equipping characters and assigning spellcasters their spells; the Monster Manual  listed NPCs and monsters to kill; and the Dungeon Master’s Guide provided the actual rules to run Dungeons & Dragons as well as being a guide to running the game. With the publication of Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition that has very much changed because Wizards of the Coast has made the RPG far more player oriented, shifting the rules necessary to play the game to the Player’s Handbook. What this means is that a group could pick up the Player’s Handbook and their dice and the Dungeon Master could run a pre-written adventure, such as ‘The Lost Mines of Phandelver’, to be found in the Dungeons & Dragons, Starter Set, without the need to reference either the Monster Manual or the Dungeon Master’s Guide. Ownership and study of the Dungeon Master’s Guide though, enables the Dungeon Master to do a whole lot more, only some of it involving the application of new rules.

The three-hundred-and-twenty page tome is divided into three parts—‘Master of Worlds’, ‘Master of Adventures’, and ‘Master of Rules’. This represents a narrowing of focus as the book moves from the broadest view of a Dungeon Master’s campaign down to the narrowest, from the very nature of the universe and the planes and the gods who rule over them down to the contents of a dungeon chamber. So essentially it moves from the big picture down to the finest of brush strokes, starting with the default assumptions about a Dungeons & Dragons campaign—gods oversee the world, much of which is untamed wilderness, and the world is ancient, riven by conflict, and fundamentally magical. From here it looks at options that change these assumptions—is the world mundane or known or with few monsters or possesses just the monotheist faith? All of these change the fundamental basics of a campaign, whose physical geography is explored in the guidelines for mapping it out, politics and government, languages, as well as ways to make it dynamic by adding events that shake up the campaign. Numerous options are given this in a number tables that can be used as is or as inspiration for the Dungeon Master to develop.

The world also fits in a larger framework, that is the multiverse. This expands upon the discussion of Dungeons & Dragons’ Cosmology in the Player’s Handbook, giving options as to how rearrange and organise the Planes as well as exploring how to traverse them and what dangers and wonders might be encountered. This includes both the Astral and Ethereal Planes, the Inner (Elemental) Planes, as well as the Outer Planes. There are some nice nods to the past here, notably the Isle of Dread of X1, Isle of Dread fame and a discussion of Sigil, City of Doors, the inclusion of which begs for Planescape to be presented in Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition.

This first section feels very much like a mish-mash of different elements and this is highlighted by the discussion of the types of  fantasy from heroic fantasy and swords and sorcery to war and wuxia possible in Dungeons & Dragons. Not in its inclusion, but in its placement at the end of the section after examining campaign events. It feels very much like it should have been placed much earlier in the book.

The middle section, ‘Masters of Adventure’, is all about the elements that go towards creating an adventure. This includes types of adventure—location or event based, mysteries and intrigues, and the creating of encounters and NPCs, the latter also covering the creation of villains. Besides tables for their schemes and methods, villains are also given two options—the Death Domain for the Cleric and the Oathbreaker as the antithesis of the Paladin. These are worthy inclusions, having been part of Dungeons & Dragons ever since Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. These rules also nicely compliment the later section detailing the modification of monsters and NPCs.

Given their role in the game, it seems odd that dungeons do not get a chapter of their own, but rather they are part of a chapter devoted to adventure environments in general. Their location and purpose, hazards—including traps, and more are discussed, but so are the wilderness, settlement, underwater, and aerial environments. These complement the mechanics given in the Player’s Handbook, but certainly in the case of dungeon design, it feels as if there could be much more space devoted to it. Beyond the dungeon, there is a chapter on activities between adventures. This includes activities for the Dungeon Master, such as linking adventures and tracking the campaign, but is primarily concerned with the activities of the player characters. There are traditional activities like building a stronghold, but also carousing, crafting (and selling) magical items,  and running a business, plus sowing rumours! 

Rounding out ‘Master of Adventure’ is the longest section in the Dungeon Master’s Guide with more than a third of its pages being devoted to treasure. Initially, just gems and coins, but soon it presents a long list of magical items. All of Dungeons & Dragons’ favourites are here, from Adamantine Armour and Alchemy Jug to Winged Boots and Wings of Flying. Each of the items receives a beautiful illustration and is nicely detailed, but what really stands out about so many of them is their redesign. A great many can only be used daily or if they require the expenditure of charges, then such charges are few in number, but are topped up daily at dawn. Such items will probaby cease to work if they run out. So a Wand of Magic Missiles has seven charges and can cast Magic Missile for single charge or at a higher level if further charges are expended. At dawn it gains between two and seven charges, but if it ever runs out of charges, there is a one in twenty chance of the wand crumbling to dust. Many items also require ‘attunement’ for someone to properly use them, for example a Ring of Protection, Wand of Fireballs, or a Mace of Smiting. Since there is a limit of three attuned items, a character is not as free to swap and change the magical items he can use as he might have been in previous editions of Dungeons & Dragons.

The long section also presents sentient magical items as well as artefacts. The latter includes various examples, such as the Book of Exalted Deeds and the Book of Vile Darkness, the Eye and Hand of Vecna, and the Wand of Orcus. These are fantastic write-ups of some iconic items that are further improved, if ever so slightly, by various beneficial and detrimental properties that vary from user to user. They also mean that such artefacts are different from one campaign to the next. The great thing about magic items in Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition is that they are still powerful and will still help a player character on his quests, but barring some of major items, they are not too powerful and their use is limited. 

‘Master of Rules’, the third section in the Dungeon Master’s Guide is obviously about the rules, but is not necessarily all about the rules. There is good advice about running and playing the game at the table as well as handling the Difficulty Class for tasks and skill checks, roleplaying, social inspiration,  and Inspiration—arguably the one true innovation in Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition. Handling combat, from initiative to mobs, is discussed as are chases, diseases, poisons, madness, and Experience Points. Throughout options are given in each case and the likelihood is that the Dungeon Master will find one or more to his liking.

The majority of the rules in the Dungeon Master’s Guide come in the book’s last chapter, the ‘Dungeon Master’s Workshop’. This presents rules variants for handling replacing each player character’s proficiency bonus with proficiency dice, using Hero Points to make a game an epic campaign, and adding Honour and Sanity Points as new ability scores for campaigns where personal honour and mental states matter. Adventuring options add rules for fear and horror for darker games, adjustments to how healing works for grittier games, and with addition of firearms, explosives, and alien technology, a Dungeon Master can set his campaign in the modern age or take it into the realms of Science Fiction much on the mode of S3, Expedition to the Barrier Peaks. Further options allow for Plot Points as per lots of other RPGs, combat variants such as  weapon speed, disarming, morale and so on. There are also rules to allow the Dungeon Master to design his own magic items, monsters, races and subraces, spells, classes, and backgrounds. Notable amongst these is a spell point system for those spellcasters who prefer a more flexible magic system versus the traditional Vancian style magic of Dungeons & Dragons, and the guidelines for modifying monsters to individualise them, in particular, being able to add a Class to a monster. This is much like Dungeons & Dragons, Third Edition and enables the Dungeon Master to make his antagonists and NPCs more capable and potentially more memorable. 

Rounding out the Dungeon Master’s Guide is a series of four appendices. These start out with yet more tables, this time for the creation of Random Dungeons, from rooms to their trappings—a staple that first appeared in the Dungeon Master’s Guide for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, First Edition. The next gives lists of Monsters, by both environment and by Challenge Rating, the latter sorely missing from the Monster Manual as a means for the Dungeon Master to better design antagonists and foes for the player characters to face. The third appendix gives some rather nice sample maps, whilst the last is yet another list, this time of ‘Dungeon Master Inspiration’, of both books to read and games to play. The list is surprisingly contemporary in its selection and thought, covering the creation of both games and fiction, as well as history and gaming theory. The list is indicative of how much even the designers of the world’s biggest roleplaying game have been informed by more than just Dungeons & Dragons.

Although the Dungeon Master’s Guide is not as profusely illustrated as the Player’s Handbook or the Monster Manual, there is lots of full colour artwork and all of it is of a very high standard. It continues the realistic style seen in the first two books, in particular, the illustrations of the Dungeon Master’s Guide very many magic items are excellent. The writing is also clear, easy to understand, and accessible.

It is difficult to really find true fault with the Dungeon Master’s Guide, but there are perhaps two issues that may be seen as faults with the book and its content. The first is that for all of the ideas, suggestions, options, and variants, there is no great depth to the Dungeon Master’s Guide. Rather it presents a good overview and a few solutions to any question it raises rather than going into any great detail. So this may leave the potential Dungeon Master somewhat lacking should he want more information on particular aspect of Dungeons & Dragons, for example, world-building, since there are no subsequent books that explore such subjects in detail. At least not yet for Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition. Of course this avoids the issue of there being too many rulebooks, but it may leave the neophyte Dungeon Master wanting more when it comes to further information. This then is the second issue with the Dungeon Master’s Guide—it is not written with the neophyte Dungeon Master in mind and it may well be an intimidating volume. All three-hundred-and twenty pages of it. 

As the book aimed squarely at the Game Master—or Dungeon Master—for the world’s first and leading roleplaying game, the expectations for the Dungeon Master’s Guide are understandably high, and that following the high bar set by the quality of the Player’s Handbook and the Monster Manual. Further, the new design of Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition with its shifting of focus so that the game’s rules are in the Player’s Handbook, means that the Dungeon Master’s Guide has to do something else and still do it well… So the Dungeon Master’s Guide is very much more a guide book than a rule book—though rules are given alongside numerous options—and is full of good questions and equally good answers that should stand the Dungeon Master in good stead when it comes to making Dungeons & Dragons his game.

Friday, 12 August 2016

A Conventional Hobby

When a man gets onto your train and announces, “You’re in the latest book I’m writing.”, that moment might be the time to start worrying. Fortunately this happened at eight o’clock on the morning of Saturday, 12th March, 2016 and I was on the London Midland 07:54 am train to London, Euston travelling to the village of Wolverton where I was to attend a very pleasant gaming convention. The gaming convention in question was Concrete Cow and fortunately, the author was also attending. The author in question was Simon Burley.

Simon Burley is best known for being the co-designer of Golden Heroes, the Super Hero RPG published by Games Workshop and being the designer of its more recent redesign, Squadron UK. He is also known for the prodigious number of gaming conventions that he attends each year from one weekend to the next, each time trying to referee as many games as he can. Now he has gone from writing his own RPGs to writing about the hobby in the form of Conventional Thinking. This is a guide to gaming conventions here in the UK from September, 2015 to February, 2016, serving as an introduction to the public side of our hobby as opposed to the hobby as we enjoy it at home around our domestic gaming tables.

In actuality, Conventional Thinking is not so much a guide to ten gaming conventions as a guide to the author’s experiences at each of the ten conventions that he attends throughout the course of the six months that the book covers. In each case, he provides not only the obvious such as name, date, location, and times, but also the convention and venue types, number of attendees, and entry cost, as well as his own personal travel and accommodation costs. So he begins in September, 2015 with ReUnicon 2015, a one day event in Brighton, where he stays overnight and as ‘Guest of Honour’, referees two games using his own rules system—one a superhero game, the other based on Doctor Who—and plays a Call of Cthulhu game set in World War Two and attends another eight conventions before book the closes in January, 2016 with Conception, a four-and-a-bit day affair at a holiday camp in Dorset on the south coast. Over the course of the convention the author runs games set in the Star Wars and Doctor Who universes as well as an anime game. Mr. Burley much prefers to be the referee rather than play games. In the process, his travels take him to Newport in Wales, Sheffield, Telford, Oxford, Dorset—again, London, and Stockport. All easily accessible because being Birmingham based, the author can get to most places in the United Kingdom with relative ease.

In addition to the details about each convention and his costs, the author goes into some depth about his experiences at each, about what he enjoyed and what he did not. This includes what he eats and drinks—the cost of beer being a constant concern—as well as how well each convention is organised. In fact, most of the ten are well organised and all of them are friendly and welcoming, all the more notable because in most cases they are not professionally run events, but organised by enthusiastic amateurs who do a good job on their own time, their efforts not only going towards the attendee’s enjoyment of the event, but also donations to charity that are organised as part of the event, typically a raffle or bring and buy.

As an introduction to an extension of what is a private hobby, Conventional Thinking is a useful little book. After all, taking a pastime that you normally do round the dining room table with your friends and doing it in public with gamers that you do not know, can be a daunting prospect (indeed, I know of gamers who would never think of attending a gaming convention). Thus it provides an introduction to roleplaying on a broader stage with fellow enthusiasts, in the process showcasing what going to convention can be like, though of course from just the one perspective, indicating perhaps that a book from multiple perspectives—for example, both a player and a referee—might not be unwarranted.

One issue with Conventional Thinking is that only covers six months of a year. This means that it misses out on the conventions that happen between February to August. This is intentional, as when this was released in April, 2016, the reader could pick this book up and plan ahead for the events that he might want to attend later in the year. That said, what it means is that does mean is that the author misses out on discussing the largest gaming convention in the United Kingdom, UK Games Expo, now also the fourth largest gaming convention in the world and the hobby’s showcase in this country. Its write-up will just have to wait for volume two.

Also, as much as the book is written in a light and chatty style, essentially that of a diary, it is somewhat scruffy and it really does need a good edit. Nevertheless, Conventional Thinking is a light and engaging read. 

Conventional Thinking highlights the public practice of our hobby and showcases how fun it is, how much effort organisers put into making sure that their conventions are well run and enjoyable, and to an extent, the state of the hobby in the United Kingdom. For anyone wanting to find out what attending a gaming convention is really like, then Conventional Thinking is a sound place to start. It is also a useful resource for anyone who runs a convention and wants to find out how others run theirs  and an even bigger introduction for anyone who wants to set up a gaming convention for others to attend.

Saturday, 6 August 2016

1996: Deadlands: The Weird West Roleplaying Game

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, released 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. 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.

—oOo—


By 1996, the Roleplaying industry was in the doldrums. Primarily this was due to the effect of the first collectable card game, Wizards of the Coast’s Magic: the Gathering. Its popularity meant that the sales of other games, such as RPGs, suffered, whilst other publishers focused their attention of replicating the success of Magic: the Gathering instead of on either their existing games or on developing new games. Certainly the year 1995 will not be remembered for any RPG of note, but 1996 would be a whole other matter as would the years that followed in the lead up to the end of the millennium. Released at GenCon that year, Deadlands: The Weird West Roleplaying Game, the first RPG from Pinnacle Entertainment Group, heralded a renaissance in the hobby and the industry that would last until the release of Dungeons & Dragons, Third Edition and into the d20 System bubble beyond.

Famously inspired by Brom’s cover for the then-unreleased Necropolis: Atlanta, a supplement for White Wolf Publishing’s Wraith: The Oblivion RPG, the setting for Deadlands: The Weird West Roleplaying Game combined two genres—horror with the wild west. Specifically it described an America in its centennial year, 1876, with the appearance and then spread of horrors at Gettysburg on July 3rd, 1863, having served to prolong the Civil War and permanently divide the United States of America into the United States of America and the Confederate States of America with great swathes of disputed territory between them. In the years since, evil has spread across and infected the land, literally altering it be a darker, twisted place; monsters and other things stalk the land, including hostile Indian spirits, undead gunslingers, and strange cults; and magic has returned, practised by the Blessed, Hucksters, and Shamans. The Blessed can call upon Miracles to do the work of the Lord, Shamans bargain with spirits for magical favours, whilst Hucksters have learned the real secrets of Hoyle’s Book of Games to cast ‘Hexes’ that they hide behind hands of playing cards. In the West, earthquakes shattered much of California, throwing much of it into the Pacific and in the process creating the badlands known as the ‘Great Maze’ and exposing rich seams of a mineral known as ‘ghost rock’. Despite the fact that it seems to moan when burnt, ‘ghost rock’ is used as a fuel to power a rash of amazing new gizmos—many of them designed by Mad Scientists, from gatling guns and steam wagons to rocket packs and elixirs of healing. The discovery ‘ghost rock’ also drives a race to connect the East to the West, both in the North and the South, in a series of ‘Great Rail Wars’. Meanwhile, Federally sanctioned Pinkerton agents and Texas Rangers now prowl these territories searching for the horrors that threaten ordinary folk and their respective governments alike.

Deadlands is a game with plenty of secrets, the most well-known being that a player character can return from the dead as one of the Harrowed. Difficult to kill and capable of developing unnatural powers, a Harrowed constantly fights with the evil spirit that reanimated him for possession of his undead body. This though only comes into play should a player character be killed and have the strength of will to return from the dead. More basic character options include Wild West standbys such as Bounty Hunters, Cowpokes, Gunslingers, Indian Braves, Marshals, Muckrakers, Prospectors, and Saloon Girls, whilst the ‘Weird West’ additions include the Huckster, the Blessed (those able to cast Miracles), the Shaman, and the Mad Scientist.

The character creation process in Deadlands is slightly complex. A character has ten Traits or attributes. His Corporeal Traits are Deftness, Nimbleness, Quickness, Strength, and Vigor, whilst his Mental Traits are Cognition, Knowledge, Mien, Smarts, and Spirit. Each Trait has an associated die type—four-sided, six-side, eight-sided, ten-sided, and twelve-sided, and a Co-ordination, an associated number, typically ranging between one and four. Combine the two and the player has a number of dice that he rolls when his character is undertaking an action, for example, three eight-sided dice if the character has a Deftness of 3d8 and wants to shoot at some varmint. In addition, a character has Aptitudes that represent skills, talents, and trades, such as Fannin’, Shootin’, Teamster, Trackin’, and so on. These are rated between one and five and use the same die type as Trait that the Aptitude is associated with. So the character with a Deftness of 3d8 uses eight-sided dice for all associated Aptitudes, for example, Shootin’ and Speed-Load.

To create a character, a player draws twelve cards from a standard deck of playing cards, discarding two. Any two cards can be discarded bar draws of two and Jokers. The former grants or penalises the character with the four-sided die type, whilst the Joker grants the character the twelve-sided die type and an obligatory dark backstory devised by the player and the Marshal together, although a Mysterious Past table is included in the book for the Marshal. The suit and number of each card determines the type and number of dice for each Trait. So for example, ‘4 of Diamonds’ gives a Trait of 2d6, whilst the ‘Jack of Spades’ gives a Trait of 4d8.  Once generated, a player assigns them as he likes. In addition, a number of secondary stats are derived from the various Traits, notably the number of points to assign to Aptitudes, from the character’s Knowledge, Smarts, and Cognition die types. A character can also have up ten points’ worth of Hindrances, the amount spent on Hindrances generating a corresponding amount with which to purchase Edges.

Our sample character is Sister Henrietta, an Amish girl whose family was slaughtered by a creature that she cannot recall. The only survivor, she was blamed for what had happened and driven out of her community. Now she travels the disputed territories preaching against and fighting evil when she finds it. She also preaches the word of God and regularly performs at Prayer Meetings all over the West.

Corporeal Traits
Deftness 4d10
Shootin’ 2, Speed-Load 2
Nimbleness 3d8
Climb 1, Dodge 2, Horse Ridin’ 1, Sneak 1
Quickness 4d4
Quick Draw 2
Strength 1d6
Vigor 3d6

Mental Traits
Cognition 4d8
Scrutinise 2, Search 1, 
Knowledge 1d10
Area Knowledge (Home County 2), Language (English 2, German 2), Profession (Theology 2)
Mien 2d8
Persuasion 2, Tale-Tellin’ 2
Smarts 1d6
Spirit 4d12
Faith 3, Guts 2

Wind 18

Hindrances
All Thumbs (2), Loyal (3), Self-Righteous (3)

Edges
Arcane Background (Blessed) (3), Brave (2), Light Sleeper (1), Reputation (1), The Voice (Soothing) (1)

Equipment
Double Action .45 Peacemaker revolver, fast-draw holster, box of ammunition, gun belt, speedloader, horse, saddle, saddlebags, $38

Miracles
Exorcism, Inspiration, Lay on Hands, Protection

To undertake an action in Deadlands, a player rolls the dice for the appropriate skill. For example, if Sister Henrietta has to shoot one of the Walkin’ Dead, she rolls her Deftness/Shootin’ Aptitude (2d10), whereas if she wants to work out if said Walkin’ Dead is using the possessed six shooter that she and her posse have been tracking, the Marshal—the term for the Game Master in Deadlands—might have her roll her Cognition/Shootin’ Aptitude (2d8). In either case, the player rolls the dice and counts the best result, attempting to beat a Target Number set by the Marshal, ranging from Foolproof (3) and Fair (5) up to Hard (9) and Incredible (11). Beat the target and the character succeeds, but by beating the Target Number by five, he can get a ‘Raise’, and by beating it by ten, he can get two ‘Raises’. Each Raise improves the success of the skill attempt. ‘Raises’ are made possible because dice in Deadlands explode and become Aces, enabling rerolls to increase the total.

Combat in Deadlands builds on these basic rules, but uses the deck of Playing Cards, known as the Action Deck, to determine initiative order and a Quickness roll by each participant to find out how many cards they draw and thus how many actions they have. Cards and thus Actions can be held until a player wants to act in a round, whilst Red Jokers enable a character to interrupt another character or NPC and Black Jokers force a character to discard his highest other card and a reshuffle of the Action Deck. Rules allow for Drawing a Bead, Fannin’, Shootin’ from the Hip, two-gun action, the Rifle-Spin, and so on. When a character takes a hit, he loses Wind, but can also suffer Wounds to various parts of his body.

Every character also starts each session with three Fate Chips. These come in three colours. White chips allow a character to roll an extra die on Trait or Aptitude checks, whilst Red chips let him add an extra die to the highest die rolled on a check at the cost of allowing the Marshal to draw a Fate Chip of his own. Blue Fate Chips act like Red chips, but without the benefit to the Marshal. Both White and Red Fate Chips are earned when a player does anything clever or when his Hindrances make his life difficult, but Red chips can also be handed out when a character finds important clues, defeats a minor opponent, and so on. Blue chips are handed out for exceptional roleplaying, discovering a critical clue, or for defeating a major villain. Fate Chips can also be converted into Bounty Points which can spent to improve a character’s Traits and Aptitudes.

Beyond these basic rules are the rules for the ‘Weird’ things that the characters can do in Deadlands as Hucksters, Blessed, Shaman, and Weird Scientists. In each case, the character makes the appropriate Aptitude roll—for each Hex for the Huckster, Faith for the Blessed, Tinkerin’ for Mad Scientists, and Ritual for Shaman, but after that, the mechanics work differently for each Arcane Background. Hucksters need to draw from the deck of Playing Cards and assemble Poker hands to improve spells—better Aptitude rolls provide more cards. For example, with a single Pair, the Huckster can use the Corporeal Tweak Hex improve a target’s physical Traits by a single step, that is from one die type to the next. Two Pairs grants two steps, a straight three steps, a Flush four steps, and so on. Similarly, once a Mad Scientist has concocted a theory and devised a blueprint, he draws cards and attempts to create Poker hands, with better hands not only indicating that he has successfully built it, but improved its reliability and build time. In comparison, the Blessed simply has to have his Faith roll beat the Target Number for each Miracle and a Shaman needs to perform Rituals that will generate sufficient Appeasement Points that will allow one of the spirits to grant the Shaman a favour.

Each of the different Arcane Backgrounds gets its own chapter in the rulebook and what is interesting about this is the placement of these chapters, along with one devoted to the Harrowed and another to Fear in Deadlands. They are in the middle section of the book labeled ‘No Man’s Land’, between ‘Posse Territory’ and ‘Marshal’s Territory’, for the players and the Marshal respectively. These two sections are specifically written for the players and the Marshal, and whilst the Marshal has to read all of the book, the players only need to read ‘Posse Territory’. It is only if he wants to play a character with an Arcane Background that a player needs to read the appropriate chapter in the ‘No Man’s Land’ section.

As well as learning how a Arcane Background works, a player will also discover the dangers inherent to casting Hexes and building weird devices. Whereas the Blessed are in danger of losing their faith and the Shaman can anger the spirits, the Huckster and the Mad Scientist are dealing with ‘dark’ powers and when such dealings go wrong, madness and insanity can ensue… Each chapter also explains the life of the Huckster, the Blessed, and so on, giving some nice cues as to how each fits into the divided America of 1876 and thus be roleplayed.

Further secrets are explored in the ‘Marshal’s Territory’ section. Primarily this concerns the background to the events leading up to 1863 and the forces behind it, the Reckoners, but it also details various Abominations that the Posse might encounter, such as Dust Devils, Gremlins, Hangin’ Judges, Night Haunts, Tumbleeds, and more. Beyond the secrets,  the ‘Marshal’s Territory’ includes tips and advice on running the game and structuring adventures; on the role of fear in the game—important because essentially, the Reckoners are trying to increase the levels of fear whilst the player characters or Posse are working to reduce it by defeating horrors; and on beyond fear, on handling dementia in the game.

Physically, it is surprising just how light Deadlands: The Weird West Roleplaying Game feels in the hand. In comparison with contemporary RPGs and their density in terms of content and page count, Deadlands is lighter in terms of background and content. This does not mean that the book omits anything needed to play the game, but rather that the book is economical with its content. It is also well written and the editing is good, but the artwork does leave something to be desired. The black and white illustrations are fine, even excellent in capturing the pulp horror of Deadlands, but the full colour artwork, though suitably lurid, is somewhat murky.

There is a great deal to like about Deadlands. It is an enticing setting with a combination of genres that made it a commercial and critical success. In particular, in 1997 it received the Origins Award for Best Roleplaying Game and for Best Graphic Presentation of a Role-playing Game, Adventure, or Supplement of 1996. A second edition would follow in 1999 with adaptations written for Steve Jackson Games’ GURPS and Wizards of the Coast’s d20 System both being released in 2001. Two spinoff RPGs, Deadlands: Hell on Earth and Deadlands: Lost Colony were released in 1998 and 2002 respectively, but neither were as successful. Several other games, such as the miniatures wargame, Deadlands: The Great Rail Wars and the Collectible Card Game, Doomtown would also be released, all based on the Deadlands setting.

Yet despite its popular and critical acclaim, Deadlands: The Weird West Roleplaying Game is not a perfect game. The problem lies with the mechanics, because as thematically appropriate as they feel, they are nevertheless often cumbersome and clunky, with dice and Playing Cards and three—sometimes four—different coloured Fate Chips. Indeed, having three types of Fate Chips just complicates the game, as does having a different ruleset for each of the four Arcane Backgrounds. Fundamentally though, there is a disconnect in the mechanics between a character’s Traits and Aptitudes since the two are never rolled together and Aptitudes have a more direct application in the game than Traits do. In fact beyond providing the die type for its associated Aptitudes, each Trait has relatively little effect on a character and thus even lesser effect on his Aptitudes. Instead Traits only really come into play when a character lacks an Aptitude, in which case the associated Trait is rolled and the result halved. At the same time, a character has too many Traits all doing variations upon the same thing. Thus Deftness, Nimbleness, and Quickness are all variations upon a character’s dexterity, whilst Cognition, Knowledge, and Mien are variations upon his intelligence.

Given these issues it is no wonder that Deadlands Reloaded, essentially the third edition of the game which would itself win the 2006 Origins Award for Roleplaying Game Supplement of the Year, would use the Savage Worlds system. This would be appropriate given that the Savage Worlds rules are actually derived from the mechanics used for Deadlands: The Great Rail Wars, the miniatures wargame about the construction of the transcontinental railways that also won the Origins Award for the Best Science Fiction or Fantasy Miniatures Rules of 1997. The result, was a slicker, faster, and slightly cinematic version of Deadlands with more options within its pages and more background and in the decade since its publication, various supplements including three campaigns—The Flood, The Last Sons, and Stone and a Hard Place.

Another issue with Deadlands is that it was never a living roleplaying game in that its background and timeline never really advanced. The second edition of Deadlands reset the game’s starting date to 1877, whilst Deadlands Reloaded reset it to 1879. The sequel RPGs, Deadlands: Hell on Earth and Deadlands: Lost Colony, advanced the timeline into the near future and far future respectively. Deadlands: Noir, set in New Orleans in 1935 is a a more recent sequel. Nevertheless, between 1879 of Deadlands: Reloaded and the 1935 of Deadlands: Noir, the Marshal is on his own as what happens in North America. As to what happens in the rest of the world in the setting of Deadlands, the Marshal is given even less information. This leads to a more parochial issue—that Deadlands is a very American-set RPG which does not concern itself with the rest of the world. Now this is not really a design issue, but rather a desire to learn more about the setting in general and desire is actually given a nudge in the background given in the original rulebook, which mentions that as of 1871, Great Britain had it issues of its own in both Africa and India that prevented it becoming too involved in the ongoing American Civil War. Which begs the question, what were those issues?

Ultimately, there is the controversial question of how Deadlands: The Weird West Roleplaying Game deals with the issue of slavery, especially given that its Civil War is ongoing in 1876. It deals with it in a simple fashion, by having Confederate South abolish it as an institution in 1864, essentially to provide more manpower for the ongoing war with the northern states, to gain support from Great Britain, and negate the moral high ground held by the North over the issue. Further, the focus of the game is upon the ‘Weird West’ rather than the South and only in a later supplement, Back East: The South, do the game’s designers explore the issue, or rather the reasons for its abolition, in further detail. Essentially, the authors avoid the issue in Deadlands: The Weird West Roleplaying Game and that is understandable both because of the potential controversy in addressing the issue and because it is not what the RPG is about. This does not mean that the Marshal and his Posse cannot address the issue themselves, but in hindsight, perhaps Deadlands: The Weird West Roleplaying Game could have included a disclaimer about the subject of slavery as well as racism in the core rules, especially that it is possible to have both Black characters and White characters from the South in the game.

At the heart of the success of Deadlands: The Weird West Roleplaying Game is its superb melding of the horror and Wild West genres that make the game extremely easy to buy into, pick up, and play. This is despite the cumbersome nature of its rules—as thematically appropriate as they are. It is a formula that Pinnacle Entertainment Group would try and repeat with Deadlands: Hell on Earth and Deadlands: Lost Colony, but not with the same success, at least not critically. As the original of this trilogy, Deadlands: The Weird West Roleplaying Game remains the most powerful and most accessible of the three.

Friday, 5 August 2016

A Traveller First

Traveller is the first and greatest of the Science Fiction settings for Roleplaying Games. It projects a future history across millennia and thousands upon thousands of systems and worlds, involving true heroes and villains, hundreds of sophonts—both major and minor, and deep, interesting secrets. Originally published in 1977, Traveller has passed through five editions and multiple rule systems, from Traveller and MegaTraveller to GURPS and the d20 System and back again to Traveller. The background is huge and has developed over the course of its forty year publishing history. Yet in that forty year history, what Traveller has never really had its fiction, certainly not in comparison to RPGs of its era, such as Dungeons & Dragons, Tékumel: Empire of the Petal Throne, and even RuneQuest. All that changes with the first novel from Marc Miller, the creator of Traveller.

Published following a successful Kickstarter campaign, Agent of the Imperium: A Story of the Traveller Universe explores the setting from a unique point of view—a chipped personality who can appear again and again over the course of the centuries, roughly in the middle years of the Third Imperium. This personality is Jonathan Bland, an Agent of the Imperial Quarantine Agency, the department of the Imperial Navy dedicated to dealing with alien and outré threats.Viruses, diseases, intelligent robots, psionic outbreaks, and other threats, many of which originate from long in the Third Imperium’s prehistory. One of these chips—or wafers—is carried aboard every ship of the Imperial Navy and Imperial Interstellar Scout Service and is activated under certain circumstances. Once activated, the Quarantine Agent has the mandate the Emperor and acts with ultimate sanction to deal with any threat, which may see a world being interdicted as a Red Zone or it may see a world being systematically ‘scrubbed’ of life and all features. So Bland—surely a nod to the bureaucratic anonymity of both the role and the character—appears over the course of centuries taking decisions that no one other than the Emperor has the authority to take.

Interestingly this deals with a couple of issues intrinsic to the Traveller setting, both technological in nature. The first is the lack of advanced electronics and of cybernetics/cyberware. This is due in part to Traveller having originally appeared in 1977 in the pre-Cyberpunk outbreak that came with publication of William Gibson’s Neuromancer in 1984 and in its computer technology always having lagged in the 1960s in terms of size and technology. It is also due to the Science Fiction of Traveller being inspired by the Future Histories of writers such as Poul Anderson*, Isaac Asimov, Andre Norton, H. Beam Piper, EC Tubb et al of the 1950s. The use of wafers in Agent of the Imperium points to the use of skill chips and personality chips in the Traveller universe as much as it serves as the narrative device for the novel, but it never gets away from the negative effects and the limitations of the technology. It is not an embrace of cyberware or indeed, thankfully, of the Cyberpunk ethos, but it does point towards the use of more advanced technology than in Classic Traveller.

*Poul Anderson in particular as Jonathan Bland is cut from the same cloth as Nicholas van Rijn and Dominic Flandry, even if that cloth is bureaucratic grey.

The second is born of Traveller’s inspiration, that is, the Roman Empire. The issue in both the Roman Empire and the Third Imperium—and beyond is the technological limits upon the speed of communication across vast distances. In the Roman Empire communication speed was limited to that of horse on land and sail at sea, but in the Third Imperium and beyond, the limitation is the lack of Faster-Than-Light communication combined with an interstellar travel time—whatever the distance, between one and six parsecs—of roughly one-hundred-and-sixty-eight hours, or one week. What this means is that communication time across the Third Imperium is measured in weeks and weeks, so the exchanging of messages can take months… Without immediate and direct recourse to the Emperor, an Agent such as Bland can be called upon at any time, for the direst of emergencies, because ultimate authority cannot be reached directly.

So Bland is responsible for taking momentous decisions, which includes the ordering the death of billions if it necessary. Yet despite killing untold numbers, Bland is not an unsympathetic character. He never acts out of malice and the relatively minor acts of vengeance he takes are done to restore justice as much as they they to take revenge. Further his qualms come after the task is done when he has time to reflect upon his actions, but it is always the safety of the Empire that comes first. Not only that, the rules by which the Agent acts—Imperial Edict 97—allow him to act with kindness as much as he does with ruthlessness.

So having set this all up, Miller has Bland begin to realise that there exist not only threats extrinsic to the Third Imperium—and in the long term, quite possibly to intelligent life across the galaxy—but also threats intrinsic to the Third Imperium. The plot sees Bland jump from wafer to wafer across vast interstellar distances and decades of time as the wafers are routinely synchronised and comes to identify internal threats, some of them at the highest level. Throughout Bland never wavers from being an ‘agent of stability’ even as he makes changes to ensure that stability. The final resolution of this problem feel ultimately bureaucratic, but then that is exactly what Bland is and so it feels in keeping with his modis operandi.

For those uninitiated to Traveller as an RPG and a setting, explanation of the Third Imperium is provided, covering its history, its social structure, its world and ship categorisation, and major sophont races. Even so, this may well be still confusing or even overwhelming and some quick research online may be warranted if they are to get the fullest out of Agent of the Imperium. Traveller devotees will have no issue and there is no doubt that they will enjoy exploring a setting that they love from a fresh perspective and from the pen of its creator.

For a first novel Agent of the Imperium is a great read and an excellent piece of Science Fiction that fits neatly into its somewhat older Future History sub-genre. Anyone unfamiliar with that sub-genre may find the setting of the novel old fashioned, even baroque in places. Traveller fans may also be disappointed that the novel only covers so many centuries and so many crises, since the setting has some major emergencies to deal with in its future, especially during the gaming periods for the RPGs in the second millennium. There is no doubt that it would be fascinating to see Jonathan Bland come to deal with some of those… Nevertheless, Agent of the Imperium: A Story of the Traveller Universe is a book that Traveller fans will thoroughly enjoy and definitely want a sequel to.

Sunday, 31 July 2016

Ice Cool School

Launched at UK Games Expo 2016, Ice Cool proved to be one of the hits of the convention. Indeed it won the UK Games Expo Award for Best Children’s Game bringing as it did two major additions to the flicking game. Flicking games, such as Crokinole and the recent Push It, have long been popular, but more recently game designers have been adding theme to the flicking. Rampage or Terror in Meeple City added Kaijū attacking a big city, whilst Flick ‘em Up! takes the flicking game to the wild west. What Ice Cool does is take the flicking game back to school, all the way down to the South Pole, and lets the players—or penguins—run round and jump about it!

Published by Brain Games, whose game the Game of Trains won the UK Games Expo Award for Best Card Game, Ice Cool is designed for two to four players, aged six and above. The story is simple. It is almost lunchtime and the penguin pupils have been promised fish. Greedy to gobble down their lunch, they have decided to race round the school grabbing fish, but the Hall Monitor must adhere to his duty and catch the miscreants before the fish is gone, confiscating  their Hall Passes when he does. Played over multiple lunchtimes, the penguin player who gets the most fish and the most Hall Passes is the winner.

 Two things stand out about Ice Cool. One is the ‘Box-In-A-Box’ set-up. Open up the box and nested inside are several smaller box lids. These together with the box base that Ice Cool comes are laid out and clipped together—using the tan wooden fish—to form the school and its rooms. Between each of the rooms there are doors and over some of these doors are clipped the fish that the penguin pupils are after. 

The stars of Ice Cool are the penguins themselves. Made of plastic, each has a round bottom with a ball bearing weight inside it. A bit like a Weeble. What this means is that when flicked, a penguin will roll. Of course a penguin can roll straight, but flick it from behind on the righthand side and a penguin will curve to the right and flick it from behind on the lefthand side and a penguin will curve to the left. Which means that it can go round corners! Yet if you flick a penguin in the head, you can get him to jump, even jump over the walls of the school!

You can see a quick demonstration here.

Ice Cool is played in rounds, one round per penguin. In each each round one penguin is the Hall Monitor. His job is to catch the other penguins who are trying to get through the doors with the fish and so claim the fish. When a penguin goes through a door with a fish of his colour, he grabs that fish and a Victory Point card. If the Hall Monitor touches another penguin, then he confiscates that penguin’s I.D. Card. Everyone continues flicking their penguins around the school until either one penguin has grabbed all of his fish from over the appropriate doors or the Hall Monitor has confiscated all of the other penguins’ I.D. Cards. At the end of the round, the Hall Monitor receives a Victory Card for each I.D. Card he confiscated. Then the I.D. Cards are handed back and another round begins with play continuing until everyone has been the Hall Monitor and the game ends. The penguin with the most Victory Points wins the game.

The Victory Point cards are worth one, two, or three points. A penguin—but not the Hall Monitor—can use a pair of Victory Cards with a value of one can use them to have another go at the end of his turn. These cards are marked with skates as well as one Victory point. If a penguin uses them like this, he does not lose the Victory Points.

Ice Cool is an attractive game with physical presence. It looks great on the table and it really is simple to play. The rules themselves are easy to grasp, but they are not written for the young audience that the game is aimed at. So an adult will need to read through them and teach them to younger players, but they are simple enough to both teach and play. Having done, what players young and old will find is that Ice Cool is fun. The design of the penguins means that skill and trick shots can be taken to get the rolling fish fiends to curve and jump to grab the fish and avoid the Hall Monitor. This physical element means that young and old can play on a level ice field and younger players have a good chance of beating adults. Both of course can get better and better with practice.

In fact, adults will enjoy Ice Cool as much as children, despite it being a children’s game. At Afternoon Play it proved to be a hit, despite it not being the type of game normally played at the regular meet-ups. Two games were played, one with just four players and another with eight, with two players per penguin. The team game proved to be a lot of fun.

If there is an issue with Ice Cool, it is that there is just the one layout that can be created using its ‘Box-In-A-Box’ set-up. It would have fun if the game allowed for a variety of school layouts to be created. That aside, the design of Ice Cool is clever in its simplicity and the design of the penguins means that tricks can be flicked around and over the walls of the school. Overall, Ice Cool is heaps of fun, a game that can be enjoyed by young and old, making it a terrific family game.