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

Saturday, 25 May 2019

[Fanzine Focus XVI] Midderzine Issue 2

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

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

Midderzine, which promises ‘More green for your game’, is a fanzine devoted to The Midderlands, the horror infused, green tinged interpretation of the medieval British Isles flavoured with Pythonesque humour and an Old School White Dwarf sensibility, published by Monkey Blood Design and first detailed in The Midderlands - An OSR Setting & Bestiary. Also published by Monkey Blood Design and like The Midderlands, this fanzine is written for use with Swords & Wizardry and adds new flora and fauna, locations, oddities, and more. This is much more of a house publication and so is cleaner, tidier, and more consistent in style than the average fanzine. This includes the artwork and cartography of designer Glynn Seal as well as the artwork of Jim Magnusson.

Midderzine Issue 1 set the format with a pleasingly cohesive first issue. Midderzine Issue 2 follows that format opening with ‘Meet the Midderlander’, an interview with one of the creators of the Midderlands as a setting. This time it is Edwin Nagy, a New England author who has is currently adapting the City of Brass scenario for Dungeons & Dragons to Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition for Frog God Games. Again, short, but nicely highlighting members of the team who work on The Midderlands. Actual content for The Midderlands begins with ‘The Haven Gazette’, three pages of expanded rumours and news sheets entries which the Referee can expand upon for her campaign. For example, ‘The Lucky Bazaar’s Golden Lionman’ details a great gold statue with a lion’s body and a man’s head which looks around on the hour. Located at an indoor bazaar, this entry ties in with the third book for The Midderlands, which details the city of Great Lunden, Havenland’s capital. Other entries detail the blood being drawn from the well in the hamlet of Fetterstone or the fact that Lord Beron Mung has lost a valued, supposedly magical tankard and is willing to reward the person who returns it with turnips! These are of course hooks which the Game Master can develop for her game, but look closely at the front of the article and there is a joyously grim list of all the ways in which people have died over the last month and how many. 

‘The Vile Sign’, a new cult which is growing in influence in Staffleford as it tries to return a long-banished demi-god, Froggathoth, to the mortal realms once again. Again, this is really more of a hook which the Game Master will need to develop, but unlike the entries in ‘The Haven Gazette’, there is more detail here from which she can work from. There is some potential here for crossover between the existence of the cult and Lord Beron Mung’s missing tankard, since they take place in the same county, but again that is something for the Game Master will need to connect. Next there are three similarly themed tables. One is ‘Slightly Less Shit +1 weapons’, the second is ‘Slightly Less Shit +1 Armours’, and the third is ‘Slightly Less Shit Containers of Liquid’. With entries like the spear which summons a block of cheese at the wielder’s feet with every successful hit and the suit of leather armour decorated with skull iconography and with a skull shaped helmet, but when worn, makes the user like a skeleton, all of these are really fun and bring a degree of weirdness to any Dungeons & Dragons-style fantasy game. The Game Master though, does need a thirty-sided die for these three tables.

The issue’s ‘Hexes & Unique Locations’ presents Port Mulhollow, a refuge for thieves, smugglers, brigands, and more, located beneath the ground. It is also an illicit trading post known also for its surprisingly good tavern and as a jumping off point for expeditions which want to delve further into the Middergloom below. It is accompanied by a good street plan, but nothing in the way of hooks or reasons to engage the player characters here. Now of course, there is nothing to stop the Game Master from creating her own and ideally any party of player characters will help generate that.

Three entries are given in ‘New Monsters’ and one in the ‘New Flora & Fauna’. The later is the Gloak Tree, which is native to the Upper Middergloom and sways in a fashion which is known to beguile those who watch them. Then unfortunately for the beguiled, the Gloak Tree eats them! The first of the monsters is the Pigseer, a debased pig-man form which of late has been seen in Norfolkshire slaughtering sheep. They are armed and they do seem to have some kind of magic. The Pigseer nicely ties back to a new story in ‘The Haven Gazette’. The Biledog is a large malevolent black dog which often vomits luminous, acidic vomit on its victim and the Dungling an impish creature that operates in packs and which has long fingers which it uses to steal things out of the bags of its victim. It is more of a nuisance than the threat that the other monsters are.

Pride of place in Midderzine Issue 2 goes to Richard Marpole’s ‘Woad Rager’. This new Class is a Scrottish warrior who takes the Woad Path and thus becomes increasingly immune to fear, charges into battle for extra damage and scariness, and paints himself with Woad patterns that are extra scary, make him extra vigilant, protects him against all magic. It takes time for a Woad Rager to learn his first pattern and he learns more as he gains more Levels. The ‘New Oddities’ are also of a Scrottish nature, like Laird MacCrae’s Prime Haggis, a delicacy which not everyone can stomach, but which does seem to grant miraculous protective powers, and Iron-Beer, which might give the imbiber a cast iron stomach or it might do something else. All of these items are fun too and will be desired by just about anyone playing a Scrottish character in The Midderlands.

Physically, Midderzine Issue 2 is very nicely produced with excellent artwork and cartography. In terms of its production values, it feels a bit tight in its binding and so is not quite as easy to reference.

Again, there are some nice connections throughout the pages of Midderzine Issue 2, though not quite as many as in the first issue. Also, this is issue is a little lacking in hooks to help the Game Master get her players and their characters involved in a situation or place, so it does leave her with a little more than it really should. That said, there is a much that is actually quite good within this issue, much of if which would work as well outside of The Midderlands as much as in it. Overall, not quite as good an issue as Midderzine Issue 1, but Midderzine Issue 2 still adds to The Midderlands.

Wednesday, 22 May 2019

Retrospective: U1 The Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh

Published in 1981, U1 The Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh stood out from any adventure for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons which had come before it for many reasons. The most obvious one being that it was written and published by TSR (UK), the British arm of TSR, which would have a profound effect upon both the type of adventure its pages contained and the type of fantasy. Famously British roleplaying fantasy, grounded in a ‘real’ medieval history such as the Wars of the Roses, rather than the idealised one of American roleplaying fantasy, is full of mud and shit and death, most famously idealised in Games Workshop’s Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay. Yet, in U1 The Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh this mud and shit and death is not really present, but rather there is a feel of grime and grubbiness, of working lives, and of course, a degree of danger. What is absolutely not present is the grim sense of death and of course Chaos which would come to influence British roleplaying fantasy so heavily with the publication of the aforementioned Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay.

Like so many adventure modules, U1 The Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh presented a village in peril, an ancient legend, and a mystery. A set of clichés by today’s standards, this set-up goes all the way back to classic adventures like T1 The Village of Hommlet and U1 Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh. The difference is that where most adventures with this set-up, including T1 The Village of Hommlet, detailed the imperilled village or town in full, U1 The Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh famously does not. Instead the Dungeon Master is given half a page of advice on how to create the town herself, including detailing the members of the town council, drawing a map of the town, and deciding its taverns and inns what gods the townsfolk worship. Now given that the town of Saltmarsh is meant to be in Keoland in the World of Greyhawk, and thus an official location, it seems odd that the Dungeon Master would be expected to put in all of this effort rather than it be included in the module. Yet really, this reflects the fact that nearly forty years ago gamers had more time to do this and what the authors were quietly encouraging was the Dungeon Master making both the module and the World of Greyhawk his own.

That said, the notes do point towards a society which the player characters will be interacting with. This is enforced later on with the player characters being expected to capture rather than the kill various NPCs and their capturing of loot like barrels of brandy and bolts of silk that the antagonists are trying to avoid paying tax on. The player characters even get to work with some excise men!

The set-up in U1 The Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh is a haunted house, with the front cover reinforcing that with it depicting the adventurers approaching the house along the cliff tops as bats wing their way out of the ruined building. Saltmarsh’s townsfolk will hire the player characters to investigate an abandoned house on the hill, once home to a sinister magician and alchemist, but who has not been seen in nigh on twenty years. Recently strange lights have been seen in the house at night and the townsfolk fear that whatever is cause might be a threat to the town. So, what then, is the sinister secret of Saltmarsh?

Famously, in fact, the thing the module is most famous for is the fact that authors do a bait and switch on the player characters. In fact, they do it twice, but the second comes at the end of the adventure. U1 The Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh is set up as a mystery and a haunted house, but where it is a mystery, it is not a haunted house. Instead, U1 The Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh does something which is so utterly American it is a surprise that nobody had published anything like it before, because its set-up is actually so straight faced it is brilliant. In what has become known as the ‘Scooby Doo’ set-up, instead of being haunted, the sinister secret of Saltmarsh is that the house is being used as the base of operations for a smuggling ring which accepts regular cargoes from the ship that is the scene of the second half of U1 The Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh and which has links to one or more merchants and persons in the town itself. One issue is that the Dungeon Master will need to decide who that is, but will not find about the existence of this merchant until deeper into the pages of the module itself. The smuggling ring has employed an Illusionist who has deployed his magic in ways to suggest that the house is haunted in order to keep the townsfolk away, but bold adventurers of course will not be so deterred.

U1 The Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh is divided into two parts. ‘Part One – The Haunted House’ goes into some detail in describing the twenty or so rooms of the house’s ground and first floor. This is a house which has definitely been lived in, but which has since fallen into a dilapidated state of repair, covered in layers of dust, cobwebs, and damp. The descriptions have a mundane feel to them, coupled with a sense of eerie abandonment, and there are barely any monsters or combat to be had in these rooms, and with one exception, they consist mostly of spiders and insects. With elements such as footprints in the dust, creaking staircases and floorboards, and mysterious notes, the house is also creepy, an aspect that the Dungeon Master is expected to play up. The exception to the mundane monsters is Ned Shakeshaft, who has been left stripped of all his possessions and bound in one of the upper rooms. Now Ned Shakeshaft is an Assassin—in fact, a Third Level Assassin compared the First Level characters the players are expected to be playing—employed in desperation by the merchant in the town with connections to the smuggling ring to prevent the party from learning of its operations in the cellars of the house. Now he poses as a Thief, but the problem is that there is relatively little reason for the players and their characters to trust Ned and given the paranoia of most playing groups, it is unlikely that either will.

Below the house in the cellars and the connecting caves, the truth of what is going on in the ‘haunted’ house will quickly be discovered, as might be the fate of the house’s previous owner. There are smugglers moving about and signs that the rooms and passages are occupied. This compounds clues to be found in the house above and the player characters should soon find out what is going on. There is a quite nasty creature to be encountered down here, a body infested with Rot Grubs, which perhaps could have been better handled, perhaps by giving a chance for the searching players to spot signs of their infestation.

The second half of U1 The Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh is ‘Part Two – The Sea Ghost’. At the end of the first part, the adventurers should not only have learned of the smuggling ring’s operations in the house, but the fact that the ring is in regular contact with a ship, the Sea Ghost. The player characters are again hired by Saltmarsh’s Town Council, this time to row out to the Sea Ghost and board and capture it. The whole of this second part is set aboard this ship and is essentially a cutting out expedition against a pirate ship. Where the first part provided plans of an ordinary house, this second part includes the deck plans of the Sea Ghost as well as a diagram of its rigging. In comparison to ‘Part One – The Haunted House’, ‘Part Two – The Sea Ghost’ is much faster paced, a climatic action-based encounter that will see the player characters facing the crew, who are as much pirates as they are smugglers. 

As in the haunted house, there are some tough opponents aboard the Sea Ghost, a Fifth Level, two Third Level, and several First Level NPCs, perhaps too tough given the fact that the player characters are First Level. That said, the notes in the modules do make clear that the adventure is designed to be played and run intelligently and that the NPCs will not necessarily fight to the death. Another oddity is that there is a Pseudo-Dragon aboard who might attach itself to one of the player characters should the NPC it is with be killed… It seems so mercenary of it! Once the player characters have captured the Sea Ghost, they will learn that the pirates are not only smuggling goods into Saltmarsh and beyond, but weapons to a nearby tribe of Lizardmen. The question is, are the Lizardmen preparing for war against the townsfolk of Saltmarsh? That is a question which is answered in U2 Danger at Dunwater, the sequel to U1 The Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh.

Although the town of Saltmarsh is not fleshed out, the two locations in both ‘Part One – The Haunted House’ and ‘Part Two – The Sea Ghost’ are well designed with excellent floor and deck plans. The illustrations are pretty much all nicely done, many depicting the abandonment of the house, though there is a split in style and feel of the artwork. Some of it feels at odds with the mundane nature of the fantasy in U1 The Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh, a little too fantastic compared to the grime and grubbiness of both house and boat. Jim Holloway’s illustrations though capture that grime and grubbiness of the setting and a certain shiftiness in the NPCs he depicts.

Oddly, U1 The Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh is designed to played by between five and ten(!) characters of between First and Third Level. This is a lot of characters and for that many Third Level characters this module becomes a whole lot less of a challenge. Worse, the included twenty pre-generated player characters are expected to start play with a magical item apiece. This feels a little too much given how ordinary much of U1 The Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh is in its play.

There can be no doubt that U1 The Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh is highly regarded. In November 2004, in 116 of Dungeon MagazineU1 The Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh was listed at number four in 30 Greatest D&D Adventures of All Time. At the time of its publication in 1981, Jim Bambra in White Dwarf No. 35 (November, 1982) awarded it nine out of ten, saying, “…TSR (UK) are to be congratulated on their first module, the series should prove to be interesting and entertaining.” In Different Worlds Issue 20 (march, 1982), Anders Swenson commented, “While the characters in this adventure are not placed in a position where they must decide whether or not to break the laws of God and man, they are immersed in a social context where any random infractions would have to be accounted for. Furthermore, the characters are placed in a situation where they must work with the locals in order to further their tastes for adventure - this is a good source for a lot of role-playing.” before concluding that “Overall, I like The Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh. It is nice to explore a house for a change. If modules U2 and U3 are as good as this one they should turn out to form a solid campaign.” In the Capsule Reviews of Fantasy Gamer Number 2 (Oct/Nov 1983), David S. Turk called the mystery behind U1 The Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh “cleverly conceived”, but said, “A weak point in the module is the lack of strength in the pacing of the plot. It is too easy for a familiar "chop and slaughter" dungeon to replace the clever plot. There are too many major villains and sidekicks to keep track of, so careful dungeon mastering is needed. In conclusion, the module is a strong one. With proper dungeon mastering and an everwatchful group of player characters, this module is superior and quite enjoyable. It will surprise even the dungeon master with its creative story and twisting plot. I recommend it.”

U1 The Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh nicely combines a strong sense of naturalism with underplayed fantasy—one which actually makes the adventure really easy to adapt to other settings and genres. Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay would be easy, Legend of the Five Rings can work too as would Doctor Who: Adventures in Time and Space – The Roleplaying Game. That naturalism and underplayed fantasy, situated in what feels like a real world, also serve to make U1 The Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh a truly great adventure, strong on atmosphere and mystery. 

Sunday, 19 May 2019

Gloranthan Friends and Foes

As good as the core rulebook for the new edition of RuneQuest: Roleplaying in Glorantha is, it can be argued that there are three fundamental issues with it. One is that it is too humanocentric. What this means is that the core rulebook for the new edition of the classic roleplaying game published by Chaosium, Inc. only provides the means to create human player characters and it does not provide anything in the way of NPCs, foes, or monsters that the player characters might face or be challenged by. The second is that it lacks advice for the Game Master for running the game, necessary because its setting of Glorantha and in particular, Dragon Pass, because that is the focus of the new edition, is very different to other fantasy roleplaying games. Third, it lacks a starting scenario which can showcase both the mechanics and the setting of Glorantha for the Game Master and her players.

Now whilst it can be argued that these are problems, such arguments can be countered by the fact that like Dungeons & Dragons, the new edition of RuneQuest at its core, consists not of one book, but three. So where Dungeons & Dragons famously has the Player’s Handbook, the Monster Manual, and the Dungeon Master’s Guide, the new edition of RuneQuest has RuneQuest: Roleplaying in Glorantha, the RuneQuest: Glorantha Bestiary, and Gamemaster Screen Pack. The fact that all three are designed to fit into a rather pleasing and sturdy slipcase that looks good on the shelf not only supports this counter argument, but together they directly address the issues that some may have with the core rulebook for RuneQuest: Roleplaying in Glorantha.

As with RuneQuest: Roleplaying in Glorantha, the RuneQuest: Glorantha Bestiary is another sturdy hardback, though not as large as the core rulebook. Its contents detail some two hundred or so of the races, creatures, and monsters as well as flora native to Glorantha (and its adjacent spirit worlds), the myth-infused setting created by the late Greg Stafford. These contents are divided into eight chapters which in turn examine Glorantha’s Elder Races, Chaos Monsters, Monsters, Giant Arthropods, Animals, Spirits, Terrors, and Flora. Before it gets to the particulars, it gives some pointers as what makes the entries in this volume and this setting different from any other bestiary, setting, or fantasy roleplaying game. These highlight how deadly they can be and the player characters—if not the players—are more than likely to be aware of this. They also make clear that many of the creatures and races described in the book are intelligent and should be played that way, the Game Master being given some solid advice to that end. What is also made clear is that the contents of book covers the races, creatures, monsters, and flora of just Genertela, Glorantha’s northern continent. That does mean that anyone wanting a bestiary covering both Genertela and the southern continent, Pamaltela, will be disappointed. That said, such a book would be at least double the size of the RuneQuest: Glorantha Bestiary and arguably outside RuneQuest: Roleplaying in Glorantha’s primary setting of Dragon Pass and its surrounds. This focus on Genertela is further supported by a series of distribution maps for the various Elder Races.

All of the entries follow the same format. They all begin with an oddity though. As well as its common name, every entry is given its scientific name in Latin, so Homo sapiens, var telmori for the Wolfbrothers, Joannursus paralysis for Jack o’Bears, and Lynx umbrosus for Shadowcats or Alynxes. Of course the Roman Empire was never part of Glorantha and there is no obvious equivalent of Latin—though Trade Talk might qualify as the nearest—so of course, it feels a little odd. Except there are creatures in the Glorantha Bestiary which do have Latin names and those are the dinosaurs, here given as emotionally debased and reincarnated Dragonnewts, but actually based on real world dinosaurs such as Allosaurs and Triceratopses. Extending the use of Latin for the dinosaurs to the other entries in the supplement does make sense then, but nevertheless, it still feels a little odd.

The format for each entry covers, as appropriate, mythos and history, subtypes, description, culture, government, relationships with other races, religion, and region of origin before getting to anything mechanical. The latter includes characteristics and skills of course, but as befitting the new mechanics to RuneQuest: Roleplaying in Glorantha they also list any Passions, Runes, and Rune Spells that a typical member of that entry would have. They also go further in providing the means for creating several of the Elder Races as adventurers to be roleplayed by the players or more detailed NPCs. So to create a Trolkin adventurer, in addition to the characteristics and skills, the Glorantha Bestiary lists the Runes a Trolkin starts with—in this case, the Darkness Rune at 40% and another Rune at 20%, the starting skills in addition to those of Dark Trolls, and then the occupations. There are one, two, or four given depending upon the class a Trolkin belongs to. Thus a Trolkin classed as Food can only be a Hunter/Gatherer, as a Worker can be either a Chanter, Crafter, Hunter/Gatherer, or Insect Herder, as a Warrior can only be a Warrior, and as Value can be a Warrior or an Overseer. Besides this, the entries also detail one or more of the cults that members of the race can also belong. For the Aldryami (Elves) just the one cult is given, that of Aldrya, but this is broken down into several subcults. The special Rune spells for the cult are also listed.

Now what is not included in the character creation process for all of the races that can be created as adventurers from Glorantha Bestiary is the Family History as per step two in RuneQuest: Roleplaying in Glorantha. This should not be counted as a fault for three reasons. First, some of the races could use the Family History tables in the core rulebook, such as the Ducks, and second, the Glorantha Bestiary is not a dedicated sourcebook for any of these races where such Family Tree tables are likely to be found, and third, it would greatly increase the length of the book.

The first chapter is dedicated to the Elder Races. Five stand out here, expanding greatly upon the background given in The Gloranthan Sourcebook. The Aldryami or Elves, Dragonnewts, Agimori or Men-and-a-Half, Mostali or Dwarves, Trolls or Uz, and Wolfbrothers or Telmori. All are given quite lengthy write-ups, for example, the Aldryami covering Dryads as well as Brown Elves, Green Elves, Yellow Elves, Black Elves, Blue Elves, Pixies, and Runners. The entry on Dragonnewts is particularly impressive, covering all five stages of their lifecycle—Crested, Beaked, Tailed Priest, Full Priest, and Inhuman King, their magic, their motivations, and their roads. Similarly the description of the Wolfbrothers goes into some detail, including the Telmori cult and its special Rune spells which explain how they transform into wolves when it is not Wildday. Of course, not all of these are available as player characters, only the Aldryami, Men-and-a-Half, Mostali, and Trolls are, along with the Morokanth and the Baboons, then the Centaurs, Ducks, and Minotaurs from the Beastmen section. Other entries include Giants, Gorillas, the weird Maidstone Archers with three arms but no head, Newtlings, Triolini or merfolk, the brutal and bestial Tusk Raiders with their cult of the Bloody Tusk, and Wind Children. 

As much as some of the Elder Races hate each other—and in the case of the Trolls, ate the others—the real enemy is presented in the Chaos Monsters. Relatively short in comparison to the other chapters, the entries for creatures such as Dancers in Darkness—vampiric women who serve Delecti the Necromancer, Dragonsnails, Ghouls, Gorps, Scorpion Men, and Walktapi, are likewise shorter than those in the Elder Races chapter. That said the Game Master has the means to modify many of these creatures by using the Chaotic Features table. The first entry in this chapter is surprisingly impressive, a lengthy description of Broos and their rife fecundity infused with Chaos which lifts them from being simple Chaos fodder complete with details of their associated Mallia and Thed cults and Rune spells.

The Monsters chapter most notably includes Dragons, noting where the True Dragons of Dragon Pass and the Kralorean True Dragons are as well as providing stats for Dream Dragons. Also included are Dinosaurs, Giant Eels, Griffins, Rock Lizards, Skeletons, Sky Bulls, Wyrms, and more. Giant Arthropods covers Antlions, Beetles, Crabs—both water and arboreal varieties, Centipedes, Praying Mantises, Spiders, Ice Worms, and more all of the the giant variety. The Animals chapters covers creatures of a more mundane nature, from Bears, Bloodbirds, and Cattle to Wild Boar, Wolves, and Yaks. Not all of the entries are necessarily mundane though, for example, Dire Wolves are raised from birth to be the companions of the Wolfbrothers detailed in the Elder Races chapter.

The incorporeal entities known as Spirits get their own chapter, which cover the various types—Animal, Disease, Healing, and Plant as well as demons, the Nyctalope darkness demon, and Genius Loci like Nymphs and Ghosts which are tied to a particular location, and the means to create them using the list of powers given. Notably, the Genius Loci includes Wyters, the spirits of communities, like villages, military regiments, clans, tribes, and more. It covers their powers and what they can do and is very useful information for the Game Master given the strength of community in Glorantha and RuneQuest: Roleplaying in Glorantha. Various types of Elementals are also detailed in the chapter, but in the main this is very useful chapter if a player has decided to create an Assistant Shaman as per RuneQuest: Roleplaying in Glorantha and the Game Master wants spirits and more for the character to interact with.

The Glorantha Bestiary has already looked at large creatures such as Dinosaurs, Dragons, and Giants, but it steps up a SIZE or fifty—for the penultimate chapter. With just four unique entries, Terrors is not actually the shortest chapter in the book. These include Cwim, the three-bodied Spawn of Thed and the Devil, Chaos Gaggle, and Fiends of Cacodemon, but pride of place goes to the infamous Crimson Bat, the Chaos demon bound into the service of the Red Goddess and thus the Lunar Empire. The description covers feeding the bat, its effect upon the populations it visits, how it is piloted, and its effect as an extension of the Glowline, the magical border of the Lunar Empire. (This is actually supported by a map of Tarsh and the Lunar Empire to the northwest of Dragon Pass inside the back cover, a nice addition.) Basically, as the setting’s current ‘big bad’, this is a great addition, but for the most part, one you would run and hide from rather than readily confront. Lastly, the Plants chapter details twenty or so species of various types and uses like Darkfoil’s ability to glow in the presence of Chaos and the ability of Princess Plants to protect against fire and heat.

Physically, the Glorantha Bestiary is a sturdy, full colour hardback. The cover, dominated by a Troll surrounded by a strange cast including a Duck, a Baboon, a Morokanth, a Broo, a Scorpion Man, and more is perhaps a little dark and so not quite as effective as the cover for RuneQuest: Roleplaying in Glorantha. Inside though, the book is more impressive, being laid out in the same style as the core rulebook and illustrated in a range of styles, both colour and greyscale. What this means is that the book is clear and readable and attractive to look at.

On the downside, the likelihood is that there are going to be some creatures that diehard fans of Glorantha are going to miss from the pages of the Glorantha Bestiary, but this is still a comprehensive treatment and it does only cover Genertala. That said, not every creature is given an illustration, which is more of an issue. It also would have been nice if there had been colour fiction to accompany each of the entries, to help get an in-world view of the various races, creatures, and monsters and so add a little flavour. To be fair these are only minor niggles and should not be held against the Glorantha Bestiary.

Unfortunately, for all of the good content to found within the pages of the Glorantha Bestiary, it has one issue that is not a mere niggle—and that is ease of reference. This is due to two problems, one which follows on from the other. The first is the organisation of the book into chapters rather than a straight alphabetical listing, which whilst it makes sense thematically, does make finding anything not as easy as it should be. There is of course an index and therein lies the second problem. The index lists all of the entries for the races, creatures, and monsters in the Glorantha Bestiary alphabetically and that is fine. Except that what it does not list is all of the supplementary information, the details of the cults, their rune spells, and so on. Of course, it is a simple matter of remembering that the entry for Kygor Litor and the rune spell Blinding will be in the Troll section in the Elder Races chapter, but secondary indices for this supplementary information would have been useful for quick reference.

One function of any bestiary for a roleplaying game is to provide it and any gaming group with an array of foes to be challenged by or kill and the Glorantha Bestiary is no exception. So there are races and creatures and monsters which in general no one likes and then there are races and creatures and monsters which are disliked by certain races and creatures and monsters. So obviously there is a long standing enmity between Trolls, Dwarves, and Elves, but almost no-one has any love for the Broos, Gorps, Rubble Runners, or Tusk Riders, for example. Even then, such creatures and races are not treated as mere fodder for the sword and the spear, the Glorantha Bestiary affording races like the Broos and Tusk Riders lengthy essays and descriptions and cults of their own that add detail and depth to both them and the setting which the Game Master can bring to her campaign. 

Yet as much as the Glorantha Bestiary fulfils that function, it does a whole lot more. The Elder Races chapter provides the means to create and roleplay members of the Aldramyi, Mostali, and Uz as well as Ducks, Baboons, Centaurs, and more, whether that is as player characters or as NPCs. Then there are stats for the animals that will be of use to various player characters, whether that is the horse for any Noble character or Cavalry Soldier—five breeds are described, Cattle for the Herder, the Shadowcat for the Yinkin worshipper, the Giant Arthropods for the Uz Insect Herder, or the various beasts of burden ridden by the nomadic tribes of Prax, such as Bison, Bolo Lizards, and Herd-Men used by the Morokanth. The Spirits chapter will be of interest to any player with a Shaman character and for campaigns which focus on the community with the rules for Wyters. Players with Lunar characters will simply be worshipping the Terrors chapter—or at least the only entry in that chapter that matters.

The RuneQuest: Glorantha Bestiary opens up the world of Glorantha and Dragon Pass in particular, fleshing it out physically and spiritually with both friends and foes, some playable, some not, and does so in many ways. Its combination of background and stats, friends and foes, supports Game Master and player alike and together serve to make the RuneQuest: Glorantha Bestiary an essential companion to RuneQuest: Roleplaying in Glorantha.

Saturday, 18 May 2019

The Symbaroum Campaign III

Yndaros – The Darkest Star is ‘The Third Episode in the Chronicle of the Throne of Thorns’, the campaign for Symbaroum, the near-Dark Ages fantasy roleplaying game from Swedish publisher, Free League, distributed in English by Modiphius Entertainment. Having been successfully funded via a Kickstarter campaign, it follows on from first part, Thistle Hold – Wrath Of The Warden and the second part, Karvosti – The Witch Hammer. The first part took place in and around Thistle Hold, the northernmost outpost of Ambria, from where a great many expeditions set out into the Davokar Forest just a few hundred yards from its palisades and which has grown rich on the finds that some survivors bring back, whilst the second was set in and around Karvosti, the great cliff settlement which rises from the forest and is home to the High Chieftain of all of the barbarian clans and chief witch or Huldra, the site of the twice-a-year market or Thingstead, and which worryingly for both the High Chieftain and the Huldra, has more recently become an important site for the Church of Prios. Where Thistle Hold – Wrath Of The Warden saw the player characters involved in a mystery concerning the fate of new patron, Karvosti – The Witch Hammer involved the characters in clan politics as well as sending them out into the Davokar Forest ultimately in race with several rival groups all interested in locating a great artefact. All this was against a background of a growing schism in the Church of the Sun, Ambria’s official faith and an increasing number of Barbarian clans who have united under the Blood Princess in order to destroy both Ambria and her Barbarian allies.

Yndaros – The Darkest Star does something that no supplement for Symbaroum has done before—it takes the player characters south deep into Ambria, the Promised Land, and to its very capital, Yndaros! Barring a short chapter in the core rulebook, all of the supplements to date have focused on the Davokar Forest and its surrounds, but the third part of the Chronicle of the Throne of Thorns changes all that. It presents a guide the new country and its capital, including a gorgeous map of the city that highlights the roleplaying game’s northern European roots, and to its counties and noble houses, before going on to reintroduce ceremonial magic, present multiple conspiracies and factions, and of course, the next part of the campaign itself. This is far more straightforward and direct than the previous two parts and involving a conspiracy of an apocalyptic nature, is much more investigative in nature. In carrying out the investigation, the player characters will be faced by the blight again and again, will encounter the great and the good—and the oh so bad—of both Ambria and lost Alberetor, and in doing so, discover and confront the biggest secret in both the setting and the kingdom.

As with the first two parts of the campaign, Yndaros – The Darkest Star is divided into three sections, the first is background, the second expanded background and rules for the Game Master, and the third, the campaign itself. The first part is ‘City of Contrasts’, which presents what is generally known about Yndaros, a city that some two decades on after the founding of the new kingdom of Ambria and the defeat of the Dark Lords in the last days of the kingdom of Alberetor, is still revelling in, and giving thanks for, that triumph. It gives some history to the city, in particular how Clan Kadizar surrendered to what were the invading Alberetor forces and how much of the city was built into and over the ruins of Lindaros, a city that may be as old as the lost kingdom of Symbaroum itself. This fact plays a major role in this chapter of the campaign and is actually the key reason why the player characters will have come to Yndaros if they have played through the Karvosti – The Witch Hammer.

Although mostly taking place in Yndaros, Yndaros – The Darkest Star does not include an extensive guide to the city—after all, that would take up the whole of the supplement, but it does include a reasonable overview and a guide to some of the city’s best known places to eat and drink, such as the Town Hall’s Loft with the somewhat egalitarian views of its owner and the shabby The Scratch & Rodent run by goblins; to stay, like Zoltar’s Inn, run by barbarians and so favoured by them; to go for entertainment, such as the Dome, where gladiatorial combats and other events are held; to trade, like The Chance, which specialises in objects brought across the Titans mountain range from abandoned Alberetor; and to learn, such as the Legacy Gallery, which which not only displays items from Alberetor, but famously, has exhibits of things and events from Great War against the Dark Lords. The section on the authorities not only covers the city’s administration, city watch, and the Cathedral of Martyrs, but it also examines the city’s underworld and its undisputed king, Nobleman Dastan. The section also goes beyond the capital to present information about Ambria’s counties and baronies and leading noble families. It includes a second map, this of Ambria, which is as good and as useful as the earlier one of Yndaros.

The Game Master’s Section builds on the preceding material, focusing in particular on the faction riven politics of Ambria which will fuel much of ‘The Third Episode in the Chronicle of the Throne of Thorns’ which appears later in the book. Karvosti – The Witch Hammer highlighted how both the barbarians to the north and the Sun Church are split, but where the threat of the barbarians of the Sovereign's Oath remains very much off screen in Yndaros – The Darkest Star, the schism within the Sun Church and the conspiracies within the nobility come to the fore. As well as detailing more of country’s noble houses—including guide to Ambria’s new heraldry—the section provides several good adventure seeds to be run in and around the city. These are useful should the Game Master want her players and their characters to learn some of the ins and outs of the city before moving onto the campaign proper. Lastly there are rules for ceremonial or ritual magic and one or artefacts, all of which play a role in one form or another in the campaign.

‘The Darkest Star’, the campaign itself, takes up half of the book. It is designed to be played with characters who have approximately one-hundred-and-eighty Experience Points each and again, have the reputation as bold and capable problem solvers. It can be played as a scenario in its own right, but is really designed to be played after having finished Karvosti – The Witch Hammer. Now where that had a disappointing hook to get the players and their characters involved, ‘The Darkest Star’ is the exact opposite. As with previous entries in the series, getting to that starting point is an issue, given that the player characters need to know something about the city rather than coming to it cold. This is where the adventure seeds come into play and ideally, the Game Master should run two or three of these so that the characters get the lay of the land before the campaign proper begins.

The campaign proper though, begins with a bang—literally. The player characters have at last found a contact who can tell them more about they found in Karvosti – The Witch Hammer. Then the sky falls on them and the Cathedral of Martyrs. The question is, what, who, and why? Answering all three is what drive the player characters throughout this part of the Throne of Thorns campaign. The campaign here is primarily investigative in nature and fairly linear in structure. Ideally, they should be driven to look into the matter themselves, but there are NPCs aplenty who will hire the player characters them to do so, and as the campaign progresses through its three acts, they will find themselves not only rubbing shoulders with many of the capital’s nobility, but running into some very strange, very weird characters too. There are a number of interesting places to investigate too, starting with the opening location where the sky fell in, but going on to take in the network tunnels which run underneath the city and are mostly used as smuggling routes—mostly, a noble’s estate which has been smited by blight, a crime lord’s den, and more. There are a few red herrings, but not many, and for the most part, ‘The Darkest Star’ is quite straightforward in terms of its investigative structure and so is both easier to run and play.

The campaign proper is, like the previous chapters in the series, followed by the ‘Aftermath’. This covers both the possible outcomes of the player characters’ actions as well as events which are happening offstage, but its primary focus is the former rather than the latter. Whilst the latter are a looming threat, the events close to home, those that form the campaign, are profoundly shocking in terms of the setting, and how the player characters handle them will affect the campaign. That said, should the player characters live up to their reputations as capable problem solvers—and if they can prove they can keep a secret or three—then they will gain some powerful patrons.

Although there is plenty of combat to be found in Yndaros – The Darkest Star, this third part of the campaign consists mostly of investigation and roleplaying—the later in particular being supported with scenes which really will astound long time players and fans of Symbaroum. The Game Master also has nicely done range of NPCs to roleplay. One issue the campaign does suffer from is the amount of information both Game Master and players need to know about Yndaros before play begins. It was an issue with both Thistle Hold – Wrath Of The Warden and Karvosti – The Witch Hammer before it, but not to same extent. Further, the adventure seeds provided means that the Game Master can move her campaign to the capital and run a few sessions for everyone to learn more about it before the campaign proper begins. One advantage Yndaros – The Darkest Star of course, has over Karvosti – The Witch Hammer, is the strength of its hook to get the player characters involved.

Physically, this being a book from Free League and for Symbaroum, there can be no doubt that Yndaros – The Darkest Star is going to be a fine-looking book—and it is. The layout is clean and tidy, and the artwork is fantastic. Putting aside the repeated use of artwork—less of a problem here than in other books—the artwork could have been better used, for example as a set of portraits to show the players of the campaign’s very many NPCs. Especially given the number of factions involved in the campaign that both the players and the Game Master has to keep track of. One big issue is that the book does lack an index, potentially something that will slow play down if the Game Master needs to look something up. The writing is better too, with fewer instances of the reader trying to confirm what they author intended. Lastly, Yndaros – The Darkest Star comes with some great maps, the one of the city of Yndaros itself, is really quite lovely.

Having focused on locations in the north of the kingdom, Yndaros – The Darkest Star brings ‘The Chronicle of the Throne of Thorns’ and Symbaroum to Ambria and its capital, Yndaros. It expands greatly upon the details given in the core rulebook, enough to run both the campaign there and the various adventure seeds included in the book. That still does not mean that a supplement devoted to Yndaros or Ambria would not be appreciated as both would most useful for the Symbaroum Game Master. Nevertheless, it it good to see that the publisher expanding the setting as as providing adventuring material built around the new locations.

More straightforward and linear, Yndaros – The Darkest Star is perhaps the most focused chapter of ‘The Chronicle of the Throne of Thorns’ campaign to date—and feels all the better for it. From its big bang get go, Yndaros – The Darkest Star is also a more driven and clearer chapter of the campaign for Symbaroum, with stronger motivations for the player characters and more astounding revelations for them to roleplay against too.

—oOo—

Both Free League and Modiphius Entertainment will be at UK Games Expo which will take place between May 31st and June 2nd, 2019 at Birmingham NEC. This is the world’s fourth largest gaming convention and the biggest in the United Kingdom.

Friday, 17 May 2019

Friday Filler: Star Realms

The traditional card game plays from a single deck of cards, with players drawing from the same deck during play, for example, in games like Poker or Braggart. The publication of Magic: The Gathering in 1993 introduced a new type of card game—the collectible card game—in which players not only had their own decks, they could design and build their own decks from the ground up and then bring them to play. In 2009, the publication of the Spiel des Jahres-award winning Dominion introduced another type of card game—the deck builder. Just like the collectible card game, in a deck builder type of game, each player has his own deck, but the difference is that instead of building his own prior to player, each player starts the game with a basic set of cards and then builds and uses his deck during play. Typically, the deck building game will provide a means to purchase or obtain further cards and either attack or affect rival players or affect the game in some way. One good example of the latter is AEG’s Trains in which players acquire cards in order to build a railway network and its associated facilities, whereas a good example of the former is Star Realms.

Published by White Wizard Games in 2014, Star Realms is a spaceship combat deckbuilding game designed for two players. Starting from exactly the same set of base cards, the players will take it in turn to draw cards, generate Trade with which to purchase better spaceships and bases and Combat to attack their opponent and his Bases and Outposts, discard their used cards, and then refresh their hands for their next turn. Each player begins play with fifty Authority or health and since the base Personal Decks only include two cards (Vipers) which generate a point of Combat each, players are going to want to buy Spaceships, Bases, and Outposts which generate more combat and thus inflict more damage. Of course, these cost anywhere between one and eight Trade, and since the base Personal Decks only include eight cards (Scouts) which generate a point of Trade each, players are going to want to purchase Spaceships, Bases, and Outposts which generate more Trade. So from the outset, players are really going to want to buy more and better Spaceships, Bases, and Outposts.

One type of card (Explorers) is available to purchase throughout the game and these generate two Trade when drawn. Five other cards are also always available to purchase in the trade row, being refreshed when a player makes a purchase on his turn. The cards in the trade row are where Star Realms begins to get interesting because they fall into four colour-coded factions each with their unique mechanical focus. The green Blob faction have organic ships and bases with an emphasis on generating Combat and removing cards from the trade row; the red Machine Cult generates Combat and enables cards to be scrapped from a player’s deck; the yellow Star Empire generates Trade and allows a player to manipulate cards, either letting him draw more cards or forcing an opponent to discard cards; and the blue Trade Federation generates Authority for a player to restore his health as well as Trade.

Further, most of the cards have a secondary ability which is only triggered when a card of the same faction is played on the same turn. So play two or cards from the same faction and if they have a secondary ability, then they are all triggered. The effects will vary from faction. Most generate more Combat, but a Trade Federation card will generate Authority, a Blob ship more combat, and so on. One way in which a secondary ability can be triggered is by having a Base or Outpost in play. All four factions have Bases or outposts or a mix of the two which can be purchased and added to a player’s deck. Both have abilities which come into play on a player’s turn, sometimes a choice of abilities which a player can choose from one turn to the next, with both having their health value which represents the cost in Combat for an opponent to destroy them and return them to a player’s discard pile. In addition, the health value of each Outpost also represents their ability to stop Combat getting through to damage a player’s Authority. Until such times as a player can generate Combat to destroy his rival’s Outpost, an Outpost will continue to prevent Combat getting through to his Authority.

Some cards give a player one last option. They can be scrapped and removed from play—rather than go into a player’s discard pile—and grant the player more Combat or more Trade. In general though, a player is unlikely to scrap a card like this, but will probably do so towards the game to generate sufficient Combat to inflict the final blow to an opponent, to get rid of cards that are clogging up a player’s deck, and to generate enough Trade to purchase that a player really, really wants.

One mechanic that is common to many deck building card games is that of clogging up a player’s deck, so preventing him from more frequently drawing the better cards he has purchased. In a game like Trains, it is represented by Waste or pollution as well as the base cards in each player’s starting deck. In Star Realms, what clogs up up a player’s deck are the base cards in starting deck—the Vipers and Scouts. These do not provide much benefit to player later in the game and so a player will probably want to scrap them. Here is where the cards of the Machine Cult come to the fore, providing the means to scrap a card from a player’s hand or discard pile when played. This is one of the primary strategies in the game—essentially getting rid of the chaff in order to bring out the wheat over and over again.

Other strategies in the game are also built around the factions. So play Blob cards to inflict a lot of Combat, Star Empire cards to draw as many cards as possible whilst stopping a rival from doing so, and Trade Federation to gain or restore as much Authority as possible. What is key though, is that a strategy solely focusing on one faction rather than another is difficult to bring into play, so a player will have to mix and match strategies and factions to one degree or another. Whatever strategy a player decides to use, his objective is simple: reduce his opponent’s Authority to zero and so win the game. Mastering these strategies is not difficult and overall, the game is easy to learn.


Star Realms comes in a small, tightly packed—and easily portable—box which contains two ten-card Personal Decks—one per player; an eighty card Trade Deck from which Spaceships, Bases, and Outposts will drawn to fill the Trade Row where the players can purchase them for their decks; ten Explorer cards which provide two Trade rather than the one of the Scouts in the base Personal Decks; eighteen double-sided Authority cards for tracking how much damage a player has; and a pair of rules sheets. The cards not only feel good in the hand, but they are very clearly designed and easy to read. Best of all, their fully painted artwork is excellent, every card type having its own illustration.

With each player just drawing five cards per turn, they only have a few things to do each turn, Star Realms plays fairly quickly from one turn to the next. In fact, a game can be played in just ten minutes, making it easy to play, then set up, and play again. The rules do cover playing with more than two players, up to six, but for each extra pair, another copy of the Star Realms core set is required and that does increase the cost of the game. Plus, as much fun as multiplayer games are, the play of Star Realms feels very much best suited to just the two-player duel of the one core set.

Although there are now plenty of expansions available, the core set for Star Realms offers an incredible amount of game play and depth in terms of strategy in what is a small, inexpensive box. Plus it is really attractive to look at. Easy to learn, quick to play, very well designed, Star Realms is the perfect two-player deck building game and the perfect two-player filler.
—oOo—

White Wizard Games will be at UK Games Expo which will take place between May 31st and June 2nd, 2019 at Birmingham NEC. This is the world’s fourth largest gaming convention and the biggest in the United Kingdom.

Sunday, 12 May 2019

The Fate of Transhumanity

Image result for mindjammerIt has been 193 years since the discovery of 2-space and the invention of the planing engine granted humanity with the ability to travel faster than light. It reinvigorated Earth culture—moribund for over ten thousand years—lifting it from introspection within the Mindscape and driving them out to explore the universe once again. Within days and months, the new explorers made contact with worlds that had been first discovered millennia before by the wave upon wave of slow and generation ships during the First Age of Space. What they found were colonies whose inhabitants had diverged from Earth, both culturally and biologically, having either evolved or been engineered. This included a range of hominids such as post-human and para-human subspecies, xenomorphs or uplifted animal species, new cultures and those based on old Earth cultures and even fictitious ones, wholly synthetic species, even alien species. As they made contact, the explorers were culturally contaminating the new worlds, the cultural contamination went both ways, forcing Earth to set protection methods that worked both ways. Even then, it did not prevent cultural and technological contamination of the Empire of Venu that would lead to a vicious war with Venu.

In the Second Age of Space, the New Commonality of Humankind presides over an expanding sphere of influence and control, seeking to maintain and protect its culture as it maintains and protects those of other worlds through the offices and agents of the Security and Cultural Integrity (SCI) Instrumentality. New worlds and old colonies are being discovered daily as explorers push ever further at the frontier whilst wily traders trail in their wake looking to make a killing in new markets and diplomats and cultural agents rush into ensure cultural and diplomatic integrity.  Billions upon billions of people, from one system to another have access to the Mindscape, part skills system, part virtual reality, part library, and part recorder of memories, all accessed via an implant and each user’s Halo that also enables amazing technopsi abilities as much as it leaves users vulnerable to mindburn attacks. Depending upon your authority and/or the right implant, the Mindscape is also a new arena for cultural and technological warfare, acts of terrorism, and worse. Though faster than light communication is impossible, gigantic Mindjammer vessels travel from system to system, transmitting messages and data and updating the Mindscape of each system as they go. Each Mindjammer is an sentient ship with a real personality, often of a person or hero long dead, and they are not the only sentient vessels to pilot the spaceways. As well as accepting a Mindscape implant, members of the New Commonality of Humankind and beyond have access to an array of technological and genurigic modifications, for whatever world you want to live on, environment you want to adapt to, and job you want to do, the most common of which besides the Mindscape implant is longevity and a five hundred year lifespan.

This is the set-up for Mindjammer – The Roleplaying Game: Transhuman Adventure in the Second Age of Space, a roleplaying set fifteen thousand years into the future. Published by Mindjammer Press, it was originally published as a supplement for Starblazer Adventures: The Rock & Roll Space Opera Adventure Game, but has since been expanded into a roleplaying game of its very own and been adapted for use with Traveller. Like Starblazer Adventures though, Mindjammer is ‘Powered by Fate’. Not FATE Core, the most recent version of the roleplaying game, but the mechanics between the two versions are compatible. It presents a universe in which there are worlds to be discovered, cultures to be protected and invaded, trades to be made, a border with the Empire of Venu to be patrolled, virtual worlds to be explored, and more. All this is presented as a positive Science Fiction future with the New Commonality of Humankind as a technocratic dictatorship with the best interests of mankind at heart, though some cultures may disagree and many individuals chafe at its collective outlook so driving them to the frontier, and the only definite evil being the theocratic Empire of Venu. This is a setting where Humanity is evolving beyond its physical and mental limits through scientific and technological means, but still feels bound to protect culturally what it means to be human.

In terms of what a player can take as his character, Mindjammer offers a lot of options, including soldiers of the Armed Forces Instrumentality, SCI agents, Space Force crews, intrepid 2-space pilots, canny traders and wily rogues, explorers, mercenaries, scientists, diplomats, spies, scouts, and then sentient starships, uplifted xenomorphs that include like Canids, Cetaceans, Felines, Pithecines, and Ursoids,  Synthetics like Mechanicals, Organics, and Installations, and Hominids, like the Chembu, master genurgists whose homeworld is a planetary intelligence. It all depends upon the campaign that the Game Master wants to run. Not only are the players expected to buy into this, they are expected to create their characters together as a collaborative process in order to tie them together. Further, the players and the Game Master are expected to discuss the nature of the campaign and agree on what issues it will involve. Such issues will become Aspects that can be Invoked and Compelled to bring them into play and have them affect both campaign and the player characters.

Character creation is a fairly involved process, a player deciding upon a High Concept—essentially the thumbnail definition of the character—and then selecting a Culture, Genotype, Occupation, and Trouble—what messes up the character’s life, at each stage creating an Aspect which can be brought into play. Then in the Phase Trio, the player will co-operate with the other players to create his character’s latest adventure and how he crossed paths with their characters just he will do the same with their characters. Again, the character is given an Aspect for each of the three steps of the Phase Trio. Then the player assigns some Skill ratings and selects some Stunts which enable the character to do some amazing things. These start at three, but more can be taken, though the more a character has, the lower his Refresh value is. This limits the number of Fate Points the character has, so in order to get more, the player will have to accept more Compels on his character’s Aspects, which of course, means both trouble and more opportunities for roleplaying.

Perhaps the most complex step is spending the character’s Extras budget. This consists of further Aspects, Stunts, and Skills which can be used to buy genurgic enhancements such as a Mindscape implant, personal equipment like Dispersion Field, or even a starship, complete with its own Skills. The end process is not just a character with some special abilities and skills, but one with backstory and connections that tie him to the other player characters. Done together and three, four, or five players have essentially collaborated to create a team, whether that is a starship crew, a unit of SCI agents or soldiers, Mindscape white hacker band, or just a group of adventurers making their way in a brand-new universe.

Our sample character is a Xenomorph, a Pithecine or Chimpanzee, descended from a colony set-up team sent to a now lost world to build and prepare the planet for human colonisation. The follow-on colony vessel never arrived and the construction team was forced to adapt and settle the world themselves. Over the centuries, their society devolved into one that worshiped the humans whose arrival was foretold and the technology the brought with them originally which over time stopped functioning. This left the world vulnerable to the pirates and slavers that rediscovered the planet. Me-Jane’s curiosity got the better of her and she was captured and spent two years as a gladiator and bruiser for the pirates. Fortunately she got rescued and now happily travels aboard which does not engage in such activities and which just about tolerates her curiosity and her attitude toward technology.

Name: Me-Jane
High Concept: Barbarian Chimp
Culture: Lost World
Genotype: Pithecine 
Occupation: Barbarian
Trouble: Forward Chimp from a Backward World
Aspects: To us, Humanity were gods (Culture); Can I Try That? (Genotype); Curiosity Got the Chimp (Phase One); Rage and Rage Again! (Phase Two); One Chimp is better than… (Phase Three)
Skills: Melee Combat (Great +4); Physique, Rapport (Good +3); Athletics, Notice, Stealth (Fair +2); Drive, Knowledge, Technical, Unarmed Combat (Average +1)
Stunts: Archaic Melee Weapons, Danger Sense, Percussive Maintenance
Extras: Mindscape Implant (Aspect); Expert Climber, Jumper (Stunts); Chimp Chain (Armour 2), Chimp Club (Melee Combat 2), Library Chip (Knowledge +2)
Physical Stress: 1 2 3 4
Mental Stress: 1 2
Credit Stress: 1 2
Tech Index: Poor (-1)

Mechanically, as has already been mentioned, Mindjammer – The Roleplaying Game uses Fate. To undertake an action for his character, a player rolls four dice—or ‘4dF’—and counts the pluses and minuses rolled on the die. To this value is added the character’s Skill. Stunts enable a character to get better or specific results if the roll if successful, whilst Aspects can be Invoked to gain a bonus to the roll or get a reroll. Invoking an Aspect requires the expenditure of a Fate Point which can be regained either up to the character’s Refresh value each session or accepting a Compel for an Aspect to bring some complication into the current scene. Typically, the dice are rolled to successfully Overcome a goal, Create a situational, but temporary Aspect that other characters can Invoke, Attack, or Defend. A player only has to roll equal to the target number or the total rolled by the opposition to succeed, but roll above the target and a player can achieve Shifts, extra effects like increased damage.

Being ‘Powered by FATE’ means that Mindjammer – The Roleplaying Game has certain cinematic feel to it a la Space Opera, but being ‘Powered by FATE’ means that it does one other thing really well—and that is, scale up. This is because it combines the descriptive elements of the Aspects with a ladder of adjectives that goes from Terrible and -2 all the way up to Legendary and +8, a combination which not only works well with characters, it works well with constructs like starships and their personal avatars, installations, vehicles, organisations—including agencies, corporations, and polities which can be up to interstellar in size, cultures, planets, and more. Numerous examples of all of these appear throughout the book for the New Commonality of Humankind setting along with the means for the Game Master to create star sectors, worlds, cultures, aliens, and more. The scale though, also means that they interact with each other highly effectively, so that not only could a battle between two fleets or a culture clash between two worlds or a trade war between two merchant houses be handled with same ease as player character/NPC interaction, so player character interaction between these can also handled with the same ease, whether that is implanting a virus in the command ship’s computer to disrupt its command systems, blocking a meme attack in the cultural war, or besmirching the reputation of a rival merchant prince.

Mindjammer – The Roleplaying Game includes chapters not just on character creation, cultures, genotypes, and occupations as well as the ‘Powered by FATE’ rules, but also technology, the Mindscape, constructs, starships and space travel, vehicles, organisations, cultures and their interactions, worlds and civilisations, stellar bodies and star systems, and aliens. Quite a bit of this could divorced from the New Commonality of Humanity setting and used to run a Science Fiction setting of the Game Master’s own design, for example, the worlds, civilisations, stellar bodies, and star systems mechanics work well in any Science Fiction interstellar setting. Of course, many of the examples that support these rules are specific to the New Commonality of Humanity setting and there is great deal in the book that is still integral to the setting. Primarily this includes the history of the New Commonality Era and the Second Age of Space, but it also includes a sample octant of space, the ‘Darradine Rim’, a section of the Darradine Restoration subsector. Descriptions of just twenty of the key worlds in the octant are given, but there are hundreds more not yet located on the map and so ready for the Game Master to create. Just a pair of final scenario hooks are given, but sadly no starting scenario. This though is understandable in part, because every campaign would have different set-up and therefore require different sample scenarios.

Physically, Mindjammer – The Roleplaying Game is a sturdy slab of a book. Black and white throughout, barring the world writeups in the ‘Darradine Rim’ chapter, the book does feel as if it should be in colour. The writing is engaging throughout, clearly showcasing the author’s enthusiasm for the setting, the lengthy index decent, and the editing reasonable. The book though could be better organised, especially when it comes to character generation, which involves a lot of flipping back and forth of pages in what is probably one of the most complex means of character creation seen in any FATE roleplaying game.

What amazes about Mindjammer – The Roleplaying Game is the scope of game, whether that is in terms of the huge array of character types possible or the range of campaign types that setting and the mechanics both allow. Yet Mindjammer – The Roleplaying Game does not just amaze both reader and Game Master, it daunts them too. There is almost too much to take in in the pages of this roleplaying game such that despite the ease of play with the FATE mechanics, Mindjammer is not a casual roleplaying game. As a one-shot then yes, but a campaign requires the players to sit down with the Game Master and together work out what they are going to play as a group, though the small group of free agents with their own ship a la Firefly or Traveller is essentially the default. Indeed, character generation works best as a group endeavour. Then there are the individual parts of the rules and the setting which almost need to be learned separately, the chapter on the Mindscape for example, requires a different approach to that needed for the rest of the book and the setting. 

Nevertheless, if Game Master and players alike are prepared to step up, then what they will discover in Mindjammer – The Roleplaying Game: Transhuman Adventure in the Second Age of Space is a Science Fiction setting which offers a surfeit of choice when it comes to character types and campaign set-ups combined with tried and tested mechanics that support great roleplaying. All of which will play out against a Space Opera setting with a harder, more contemporary Science Fiction edge. 

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Mindjammer Press will be at UK Games Expo which will take place between May 31st and June 2nd, 2019 at Birmingham NEC. This is the world’s fourth largest gaming convention and the biggest in the United Kingdom.