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

Monday, 21 May 2018

FAITH Upgraded

When it was published in 2016, FAITH: The Sci-Fi RPG caused quite a stir. The Spanish Science Fiction Roleplaying Game from Burning Games presented an intriguing far future setting in which Humanity plays a relatively   minor role and which mixes themes of rampant capitalism and individualism, the greater good of the community, strength and honour, and faith in gods, which when strong enough in their believers can grant them gifts strong enough to change the universe. This came packaged in a big fat box which contained superb artwork, a solid set of card-driven mechanics, and an attractive set of components. More recently, the A Garden in Hell - RPG Starter Set  provided a full scenario to play through as well as the means to see the mechanics in action and get a taste of what the setting of FAITH: The Sci-Fi RPG was like. Even with these two products available, what the roleplaying game was missing, was the broader picture, a history, and a sense of what was going on. With the release of FAITH: The Sci-Fi RPG Core Book v2.0 there can be no doubt that these issues have been addressed.

Published following a successful Kickstarter campaign, FAITH: The Sci-Fi RPG Core Book v2.0 is a heavy weight, full colour, four-hundred-and-forty-page rulebook, of which less than a third—some one-hundred-and-thirty-one pages—is devoted to the game’s mechanical aspects. The remaining seventy percent is pure background, detailing the setting’s two major races, two minor races, their natures and behaviours, anatomies and physiologies, communication and language, societies, education systems, economies, cultures, spirituality, politics, law and crime, technology, weaponry, relationships with other species and the universe as a whole, and history and evolution, and lastly, the one threat they all face and which has brought them together. If the hints given in both FAITH: The Sci-Fi RPG box and A Garden in Hell - RPG Starter Set were at least intriguing and raised more than a few questions, then FAITH: The Sci-Fi RPG Core Book v2.0 certainly answers them.

FAITH: The Sci-Fi RPG takes place in the far future, but Humanity’s involvement only begins some three hundred years in the past of that future. The Corvo, an insectoid-like species, discovered the Earth and Humanity, reduced to wasteland and tribalism following a series of global wars fought for control of resources. The Corvo established a base and offered Humanity a chance to return to advanced civilisation and respite from their much-diminished circumstances. Valued for their adaptability, some Humans accepted contracts with the Corvo and returned with them to Tiantang, the near-Dyson Sphere which was home to the technological, capitalist, and expansionist species. The price was enforced sterility—lest Humanity come to form an interstellar polity of their own and to help the Corvo keep Earth’s location a secret—and in return, these Humans would serve as mercenaries in the ongoing cold war between the Corvo and their traditional enemy, the aquatic mammalian species known as the Iz’kal. Where Corvo society is highly technological and capitalist, the Iz’kal are communal and progressive, placing value on society and the greater good. Where necessary, the Iz’kal employ the Raag as mercenaries. They are aggressive, but honourable clansmen who come from an ice world and use spaceships of ice to raid, search, and trade for goods and supplies to return to their home world. The Iz’kal feel a kinship with the Raag, since both were once the slaves of a lost race known as the Korian.

The cold war between the Corvo and the Iz’kal was put on hold some three decades ago when first the Corvo world of Izuan Tai was attacked and destroyed, and then the Corvo co-operated with the Iz-kal to drive off a similar attack on their colony world of Parsaius. The attackers became known as the Ravagers and the likelihood of further attacks forced the two species—one corporate dominated, one state dominated—to work together along with increased numbers of Human and Raag mercenaries in an independent military force known as the Coalition. It might be the four species’ only hope in driving off and finding a solution to the Ravager menace, but the Coalition has become all but a polity in its own right...

The setting of FAITH: The Sci-Fi RPG is hi-tech. Both biological and technological upgrades and implants are available and many devices can be accessed and even hacked using a Cortex Connector—every Corvo has one of these and anyone residing in Corvospace typically has one also. The stars are reached not by Faster Than Light starships, but by accessing a network of wormholes called the Labyrinth, whose extent remains unknown. Beyond this though—and this is where FAITH: The Sci-Fi RPG is different—faith and a belief in the gods play a fundamental role in everyday life and beyond. Five are described. Ergon, the God of Community, favours selflessness and happiness; Kavliva, the God of Survival, values strength and ambition; Vexal, the God of Freedom, favours liberty and respect for individuality; Hexia, the God of Progress, values the pursuit of knowledge for the common good; and Ledger, the God of Chaos, favours individualism above and the chaos it can reap. Of the five only Ledger does not have cults organised around his worship, although such cults are more organisations through which their members can demonstrate their faith rather bodies sanctioned by the otherwise intangible gods whom their adherents worship. Each of the four species tends to favour one god over the other four, so most Iz’kal are either Ergonauts or Hexians, most Corvo are Kalivans with its cult of celebrities, whilst Vexales are found everywhere and Ledgers only in secret...

Proof of the existence of the five gods lies not just in the faith that their worshippers have in them, but also in the favours they grant—especially to their Soulbenders. Anyone who follows and embodies the commandments of one of the gods may be granted gifts or Divine Upgrades and become a Soulbender, able to warp reality. Thus, an Ergonaut who faithfully follows Ergon’s Commandments (‘All are Equal’, ‘Bend Your Will to the Needs of the Many’, ‘Do Not hinder Your People’, and ‘Help Others Be Their Greatest Selves’) may be granted powers which enable him to create bridges between people and places, communicate telepathically or empathically, to impose thought on others in the face of their selfishness, form solid or energy shields, and to heal or repair objects and people. Of course, most player characters are potential Soulbenders.

A player character is defined by his Species, an Affinity, a God, six attributes and twelve skills, and one or more Upgrades. Each of the four Species available—Corvo, Iz’kal, Raag, and Human—provides one or more traits as well as a Background trait. Of the five races available, the Corvo start the game cortex connector Tech Upgrade and can connect it to a device via their tails. The Corvo also have an innate Affinity for Space. The Iz’kal are amphibious and via a biological Hyperlink can connect together to form hive minds—actually preferring this over using their gene-added vocal cords, although some lose this ability through trauma. Humans are resourceful and so hold more cards from their Player Decks in their hand and are always at an advantage when taking athletic actions.

Each character also has an Affinity. This is for one of the four suits in each Player Deck—Nature, Urban, Space, and OS (Operating System)—used as part of the game mechanics in FAITH: The Sci-Fi RPG and representing where the character grew up, was trained, and so on. A player character’s choice of God provides a core ability for worshipping that deity and options as to how he may develop in terms of his Soulbending abilities. The six attributes are Agility, Constitution, Dexterity, Link, Mind, and Faith. Of these, ‘Link’ represents a character’s ability to understand and interact with technology as well as limiting the number of Tech Upgrades he can have, whilst ‘Faith’ defines his ability to connect or communicate with the Gods, his conviction in those Gods, and limits the number of Divine upgrades he can have. The roleplaying game’s twelve skills—Ballistic, Close Quarters Combat, Hacking, Piloting, Cunning, Survival, Initiative, Athletic, Medical, Technical, Extravehicular Activity, and Profession—are fairly broad, so Cunning covers all deception and stealth-related actions; Hacking covers breaking into electronic devices and computers as well as protecting them against such attempts; and Profession covers everything related to a character’s job, from knowledge to pay, but not an actual skill. So, a character with the Piloting and Medical skills might take Emergency Medical Technician as his Profession or Mercenary if he had the Ballistic, Close Quarters Combat, and Athletic skills.

Characters can also have upgrades. These can be Tech Upgrades, Bio Upgrades, or Divine Upgrades. Bio Upgrades include Echolocation, Improved Build, Powered Reflexes, Tissue Regeneration, and so on. Tech Upgrades range from Atomic Balance and Bionic Arm to Optical Disruptor and Shielded Skull. Basically, Bio Upgrades are bioware and Tech Upgrades are cyberware, both familiar from fiction and other RPGs, but Divine Upgrades are granted by one the five gods in FAITH: The Sci-Fi RPG. They include Extended Awareness and Phantom from Kaliva; Gravity Shift and Planeswalker from Vexal; Altered Reality and Future Sight from Hexia; and so on. There are a total five Divine Upgrades for each of the five gods. Characters can begin play with Divine Upgrades, a player spending some of his beginning Experience Points to purchase them, but they do require roleplaying adhering to the commandments of their chosen god in order to keep them. Ultimately, each Divine Upgrade can be raised to Prophet Level, but that is a significantly long-term aim for any one character.

To create a character, a player selects a Species and Background Traits, as well as an Affinity and a God. He sets his character’s Skills—one at 5, one at 4, two at 3, two at 2, three at 1, and the last three at 0 and spend Experience Points to further enhance the character. As well as Upgrades, this last step also includes the attributes which all start at one and have to be improved at this stage. (In previous iterations of the rules, a set poll of points where distributed among the attributes leading to more powerful starting characters.) Talents can also be purchased for skills rated at five or above, but may not be an option during character creation given the cost of raising attribute levels.

Our sample character is Yīnying, a Corvo resident of Tiantang. He is a freelance Hacker who believes in freeing information and aims to be a Hacker freedom hero.

Yīnying
Species: Corvo
Concept: Hacker
Affinity: Space, OS
God: Vexal

Agility 01 Constitution 01 Dexterity 02
Link 02 Mind 02 Faith 01

Physical Health: 2
Neural Health: 4

Ballistic 0, Close Quarters Combat 2, Hacking 5, Piloting 1, Cunning 3, Survival 0, Initiative 1, Athletic 2, Medical 0, Technical 4, Extravehicular Activity 1, Profession 3 (Hacker)

Traits:
Technological, Tail Reflex, Spaceborn

Talents:
Merchant’s Soul (Hacking)

Bio Upgrades:
Tech Upgrades: Cortex Connector 2.o (Data Storage)
Divine Upgrades: 

The mechanics in FAITH: The Sci-Fi RPG are built around the playing of cards from a Poker-style deck and player choice. Ideally, each player, as well as the Game Master, has a Player Deck, a fifty-four-card deck divided into the four suits—Urban, Wilderness, Spaces, and OS—plus two Jokers. Note that each Player Deck is similar to a standard deck of playing cards and if a player does not have one to hand, he can use a standard deck instead of a Player Deck specific to FAITH: The Sci-Fi RPG. A player will draw from his Player Deck so that he has seven cards in his hand at the start of a session and then at the start of each scene. He will play cards from this hand whenever there is Confrontation and his character’s action is opposed or the character is faced with a Time Sensitive Event. Starting with an Action Value equal to the total of the appropriate Skill, for example Piloting to manoeuvre a shuttle into a field of debris, a player can play cards from his hand to increase the total of the Action Value. The maximum number of cards he can play being limited by the Attribute. If a character’s Action Value exceeds the opposing value by five, he achieves a decisive success and a critical success if the Action Value exceeds the value by ten.

FAITH: The Sci-Fi RPG Core Book v2.0 includes some changes to the mechanics seen in the previous versions of the roleplaying game. Players now get to keep Jokers from their decks rather than handing them to Game Master and used to alter a character’s level of success or lower an opponent’s level of success after a confrontation is played through. Instead of confrontations with the Game Master, a player can attempt to have his character attempt to overcome a Time Sensitive Event (or TSE), the number of cards played by the Game Master representing the challenge involved. The Advantage and Disadvantage statuses now simply apply flat bonus or penalties to an Action value.

Ambience and Affinity add a pair of interesting wrinkles to a player’s management of his hand. Play a card whose suit matches the environment and a player can immediately draw a new card, but if he plays a card whose suit matches both the environment and his designated Affinity, he gets to draw two cards and keep one. Proficiency, that is, playing a card equal to or less than the skill a character is using in a Confrontation, he is being proficient and the effort has not yet exhausted himself, so again, he can draw a card.
For example, Yīnying has been contacted by An-Bai, a member of the Hwang Zhul Tong in Tiantang. The Tong member has data packet he wants decrypting. Now An-Bai will not divulge where it is from—and Yīnying will not ask, but after agreeing to a good price for the task (one benefit of having the Merchant’s Soul (Hacking) Talent), he agrees to do it and sets up a Sniffing attack to extract and decode the data. Unfortunately, a trio of a trio of Zhul Tong, from whom An-Bai stole the data packet, is on An-Bai’s trail and will attempt to retrieve the stolen item. The question is, not if Yīnying will extract the data, but when, so the Game Master will run this as a Time Sensitive Event. If Yīnying fails the Time Sensitive Event, the Zhul Tong members turn up to claim their property before he decrypts the data; if he succeeds, he decrypts the data before they turn up; and if he succeeds with a decisive success, Yīnying succeeds and gets paid!

Yīnying has a starting Action Value of 5, equal to his Hacking, and his player can play a total of two cards, equal to Yīnying’s Link. Like much of Tiantang, the environment where this taking place is in zero gravity and the action itself involves computers, which match both of Yīnying’s Affinities—Space and OS. The Game Master determines that the challenge for the TSE will be three, so she can draw three cards.
The aim of these card driven mechanics is not to negate the presence of luck or chance in the game, but to favour a player in handling his character’s luck from scene to scene. A player will always start a scene with seven cards in his hand and they become the resources he must manage for that scene. Of course, chance is involved in drawing cards when refreshing his hand from scene to scene, but under the right circumstances this can be offset by Ambience, Affinity, and Proficiency that will enable him to keep drawing cards as he plays them. Further, since a player knows what is in his Player Deck, he at least knows what he has used and is thus still available as the game progresses until the Player Deck is emptied and the discard pile reshuffled.

These mechanics are get a little more complex once Ambience, Affinity, and Proficiency become involved, these having been derived from Upgrades and Technology. Fortunately, they are supported and explained in a fully worked out and fully illustrated example of play, necessary because the mechanics to FAITH: The Sci-Fi RPG Core Book v2.0 are different. Not just from other roleplaying games, but also from previous iterations of the game. In addition to these rules for playing the roleplaying game, there are rules for playing with miniatures and advice for the Game Master on running the game. As well as solid sections on technology, equipment, and spaceships, FAITH: The Sci-Fi RPG is rounded out with a short scenario. ‘A Relic in the Streets’ is set on Tiantang, and casts the player characters as freelancers working a criminal gang which has been intimidated into handing over a piece of alien tech. Their task will be to get it back. ‘A Relic in the Streets’ is quite short, offering no more than a session or two’s worth of play, but does a reasonable job of showcasing the rules and it shows that there are other possibilities in the setting other than facing the Ravager threat—the focus of the previous releases for FAITH: The Sci-Fi RPG. The scenario comes with four pre-generated characters. This is addition to the many NPCs, secrets, and hooks presented throughout the background.

As many of the issues as FAITH: The Sci-Fi RPG Core Book v2.0 addresses—a fuller presentation of setting’s history and background, a better exploration of the importance of faith and the gods, expanded character generation rules, and so on, it is not perfect. In terms of production values, a map of the known galaxy would have been as useful as it would have depicted where the various worlds and governments are in relation to each other. Some suggestions as to naming conventions for all four species would been useful too, although it should be pointed out that the Corvo all have Chinese names. This is intentional as the nearest equivalent names found when Corvo translation software interfaced with what remained of Human software, were Chinese. This occurred again with the Iz’kal and the Raag. What this suggests is that the setting of FAITH: The Sci-Fi RPG Core Book v2.0 is not quite neutral, but rather written from a Human perspective.

Physically, FAITH: The Sci-Fi RPG Core Book v2.0 is an impressive book, but then the production values on the first two releases were also high. The artwork, is excellent, imparting much of the feel and grandeur of the setting. That said the flavour text on the NPCs, weaponry, gear, and vehicles is too small and too faint to really read. In places, the book needs another edit, as there are some odd turns of phrase, but in the main, the localisation from Spanish to English has been well handled, and whilst a great deal of effort has gone into the rules explanation, it could have been better. The various chapters supporting characters and character generation could have been much better organised.
With the FAITH: The Sci-Fi RPG Core Book v2.0, the setting of the Faith: the Sci-Fi RPG finally gets the treatment it deserved and brings it to life with a detailed exploration of its religion, its four (five) alien species, and its mechanics. FAITH: The Sci-Fi RPG Core Book v2.0 is the treatment the game has been waiting for since the release of FAITH: The Sci-Fi RPG box set in 2015 and the Upgrade has been worth the wait.


—oOo—


Games Games will be at UK Games Expo which will take place between June 1st and June 3rd, 2018 at Birmingham NEC. This is the world’s fourth largest gaming convention and the biggest in the United Kingdom.



Sunday, 20 May 2018

Lovecraftian Western Horror

‘Cowboys and Indians’ lie at the heart of hobby. A great roleplaying games back in the day began their explanation of what roleplaying was by drawing parallels between roleplaying and games of ‘Cowboys and Indians’ (as well as Cops and Robbers) which we played as children. So, it was no surprise that as the hobby progressed we got roleplaying games set in the Old West, such as Boot Hill from TSR, Inc. in 1975 and Wild West from FGU in 1981, and more recently, Deadlands from Pinnacle Entertainment Group in 1996 and Aces & Eights: Shattered Frontier from Kenzer and Company in 2007. Indeed, both of these last two roleplaying games would win the Origins Award for Best Roleplaying Game a decade apart. Now although Deadlands combined horror with the Old West, there has never been a supplement which took the Cosmic Horror of H.P. Lovecraft way out West. Now supplements and scenarios have certainly visited, such as Adios, A-Mi-Go!, the Dime Novel for Deadlands, ‘Call of Cthulhu in the Wild West: The Good, the Bad, and the Utterly Insane’ from Worlds of Cthulhu #2, ‘And Madness Shall Rise to Devour the West’ from The Red Eye of Azathoth, and the Basic Roleplay supplement, Devil’s Gulch: A Basic RolePlaying Historical and Supernatural Wild Western Supplement. All that changes with the publication of Down Darker Trails: Terrors of the Mythos in the Old West.

Published by Chaosium, Inc., Down Darker Trails: Terrors of the Mythos in the Old West is the official Old West sourcebook for use with Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition. It is not quite straight Call of Cthulhu though, for it is designed to be used—as an option—with Pulp Cthulhu: Two-fisted Action and Adventure Against the Mythos, to bring out the Pulp elements at the heart of its inspiration—the horror fiction of author Robert E. Howard. So, this is ‘gritty adventure’ rather than ‘pure nihilistic horror’ and both the mechanics and the setting support this, providing a history that covers the brutality of the period—physical, mental, and social—before it even begins describing the Supernatural West. What this background goes out of it way to highlight is the difference in social attitudes between the classic Call of Cthulhu set in the 1920s and the second half of the nineteenth century in Down Darker Trails. Racism is uncomfortably present in the former—however a gaming group wants to handle it—but in the period of Down Darker Trails, it is more explicit, prevalent, and all of the minorities suffer from it. This includes African-Americans, Chinese, Mexicans, and American Indians, the latter term being used throughout to encompass the many and varied tribes and nations of the continent’s indigenous peoples, but where the supplement can be specific, it uses the appropriate names of tribes and nations.

Character or investigator generation in Down Darker Trails is essentially the same as in Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition. A player selects an Occupation, rolls for characteristics, assigns skill points, and creates a backstory. Some twenty-six Occupations are listed, including Cowboy/Cowgirl, Dilettante/Greenhorn, Gambler, Outlaw, Rancher, Scout/Mountain Man or Woman, amongst others. A pleasing touch here is that the references to historical figures who had these Occupations as well as fictional figures from film and television are included in the Occupation descriptions. These help player and Keeper alike to visualise the type of characters typical to these Occupations.

In addition, some skills are altered, for example, the base chance for Electrical Repair is reduced as it is a new science and increased for Ride as most people know how to ride a horse. New skills are also added, including Gambling, Rope Use, and Trap. Four tables list Physical, Miscellaneous, Mental, and Combat Talents. These have been adjusted to fit the Old West setting, for example, Hunter’s Blood allows an investigator to spend Luck points to gain a bonus die on Track, Rope Use, and Trap skill rolls. If the Keeper is running Down Darker Trails with Pulp Cthulhu, it is suggested that an investigator start with two as standard. Advice is provided if a player wants to play an investigator of an ethnic background as well as rules for previous experience should an investigator have served in the Civil War.

Our sample investigator is a Civil War veteran left with burn scars on the right side of his face and chest after one charge under enemy cannon fire too many. He returned from the war scarred in more ways than one and disappeared into the mountains. In more recent years, he has worked as a scout and guide in New Mexico when he was not drunk on his own moonshine. About two years ago he found god and a way out of the bottle.

Herman Duncan
age 42, Mountain Man

STR 70 SIZ 65 CON 45 DEX 45
APP 25 INT 75 POW 70 EDU 81
SAN 55 Luck 65 Damage Bonus +1d4 Build 1
Move 8 HP 11

Brawl 65% (32/13), damage 1D3+db
Bowie Knife 65% (32/13), damage 1D4+2+db
Winchester Model 1873 Rifle 65% (32/13), damage 2D6+1 
Dodge 22% (11/04)
Skills: Climb 30%, Credit Rating 20%, Firearms (Rifle) 65%, First Aid 50%, Jump 30%, Listen 30%, Natural World 60%, Navigate 50%, Persuade 30%, Ride 55%, Stealth 60%, Survival (Desert) 40%, Track 67%, Trap 50%.
Languages: Athabaskan (Western Apache) 20%, English (Own) 81%, German 31%, Spanish 20%.

Backstory
Personal Description: Rugged and stocky.
Ideology: There is evil in society which should be routed out—the demon drink!
Significant People: Reverend Eustace Cardew
Significance: Idolise them
Meaningful Location: Place where the worst thing happened
Treasured Possessions: Bible
Traits: Polite
Notes: Immune to sanity losses resulting from viewing a corpse or gross injury.

Some optional rules are provided for an Old West set campaign. These include increased Hit Points—needed because of the setting’s lethality and lack of good medicine, Being Quick on the Draw, Fanning, Dual-Wielding with Two Weapons, amongst others. The latter comes with a decent example too, but essentially dual-wielding involves a Penalty die being applied to both weapons, whether they are pistols or blades, and this of course, means that there is a significant increase in the chance that something will go awry… Guidelines are provided for handling chases with both horses and horse-drawn vehicles; for the treatment of insanity in the Old West—the cure rate is not high, unsurprisingly; and optionally, alcohol consumption, this actually a potential positive effect upon temporary insanity at least. This is all in addition to the expected lists of equipment, weaponry, and beasts of burden.

The history of the Old West begins with the arrival of the Spanish in the sixteenth century and ends with the assassination of President William McKinley in 1901. Its primary focus is on the period after the Civil War, covering the war in some detail before exploring the primary period subject by subject. So, everything from buffalo hunting and cattle drives towns and town life and trails across America are covered in enough detail to help the Keeper to ground her campaigns and describe any necessary details for her players. This is backed by descriptions of each of the frontier states and territories and some of the major locations and events there, such as the town of Deadwood in the Dakota Territory and the Lincoln County War in New Mexico. There are some notes on ‘Back East’, the states and cities east of the Mississippi, but they really just showcase how much the region deserves a supplement of its own.

Balancing this is an excellent section detailing each of the major ‘culture groups’ and tribes to be found west of the Mississippi. Some twenty tribes are described in detail sufficient to create an investigators or investigators from any these tribes and again some notes are given on running an American Indian campaign. As with the notes on ‘Back East’, they are really only a starting point and they are deserving of a supplement or scenario anthology of their own. Rounding out the Old West section is a who’s who of the period, including American Indians, Civil War generals, lawmen and outlaws, and more. For Mythos devotees, the inclusion of Ambrose Bierce is a nice touch, as is Stagecoach Mary, and again the authors do make every effort to highlight figures of note of all ethnicities and genders, not Caucasian men.

The Old West takes up roughly half of Down Darker Trails, setting everything up for the second half, the Supernatural West. This begins with an examination of the possible creatures and entities of the Mythos to be found in the Supernatural West. In general, most of the entries, like Sand-Dwellers, Serpent People, K’n-yanians, and Yig, are what most devotees of Lovecraftian investigative horror world expect and so it feels slightly underwhelming, but there are a few surprises. For example, The Faceless God, an avatar of Nyarlathotep, better known to be found as a Sphinx in Egypt, might be found in the western deserts by some unwitting traveller… One issue with many of the entries is that they are not listed in the Keeper’s Rulebook, but in the Malleus Monstrorum, a supplement which is not in print at this time (a reprint and upgrade to Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition is planned). Various Mythos tomes are suggested which might be found in the Supernatural West along with several new ones. In addition, several new cults and secret societies are described, as shamanic or folk magic, should the Keeper want to include that option.

Things take a turn for the weird with ‘Lost Worlds of the Old West’, four locations either lost or somewhere to get lost in. Two are based on short stories. ‘Lost Valley’ is based on Robert E. Howard’s ‘The Secret of the Lost Valley’, whilst ‘K’n-Yan’ is based on ‘The Mound’ by H.P. Lovecraft and Zealia Bishop. The other two are new, ‘The Shadow-Desert’ describing a bleak parallel version of our world which can be entered physically and in dreams, whilst time has stood still in ‘El Canon De Los Viejos’ for millennia. So is perfect for a Weird West Valley of the Gwangi-style games. The advice on designing adventures might be a bit short, but it certainly showcases the author’s knowledge of the genre and there are plenty of suggestions here on campaign set-up and possible scenarios.

Rounding out Down Darker Trails are detailed descriptions of two towns, along with two scenarios. Pawheton is rough and ready gold-rush town in Dakota Territory a la Deadwood, more a tent town than an established city, whilst San Rafael is a long-established cattle ranching town on the Texas-Mexico border. If the first is inspired by the television series, Deadwood, then the latter is drawn from the Spaghetti Western trilogy, so Pawheton feels like a modern take on the Old West setting, whilst San Rafael feels like a nod to a classic take. Both though, are riven by factions and both have their secrets and rumours, some of them Mythos related, and in San Rafael, there is at least a connection to a classic Call of Cthulhu scenario from The Cthulhu Companion. The first of the two scenarios, ‘Something from Down There’ can be outside either town and sees the investigators hired to check on some miners working a nearby claim who have not come into town recently. The challenge here is in dealing with what the miners have unfortunately dug down to, but this is in general, a straightforward affair which echoes the tales of Robert E. Howard. ‘Scanlon’s Daughter’ is set in San Rafael and is not so straightforward. It is best described as a Mythos tinged version of Romeo and Juliet and requires much more in the way of roleplaying than does ‘Something from Down There’, and so is the more sophisticated and interesting of the two.

Physically, Down Darker Trails is nicely presented as you would expect from Chaosium these days. It is liberally illustrated, with lots of period photos and classic art of the Old West. In comparison, the new art is not quite as good—and in the case of the NPC collages for both the towns and the scenarios, utterly useless. Both the old and the new maps are good, although the map of San Rafael is much, much better. The book is also well written, providing a balanced approach to what is potentially a contentious subject matter.

Unlike previous attempts to bring the Cthulhu Mythos to the Old West, Down Darker Trails is unarguably more comprehensive and better researched—at least going by the extensive bibliography at the back of the book and the references scattered throughout its pages. It provides a solid foundation upon which a Keeper can build and run her Supernatural West, providing plenty of suggestions and ideas along the way. If it falters slightly in its examination of the Mythos, then the supplement more than makes up for that when it applies both genre and Mythos knowledge in the two settings and the two scenarios. Overall, Down Darker Trails: Terrors of the Mythos in the Old West is a balanced and mature take upon the Old West with some great examples of how to twist it into the Supernatural West.

Friday, 18 May 2018

Friday Filler: The Cousins' Filler

In the second half of the fifteenth century, the Wars of the Roses were fought between two rival branches of the royal House of Plantagenet—the House of Lancaster and the House of York—to determine who would rule England. Ultimately, it would lead to the extinction of the House of Lancaster, the defeat of the House of York, and the founding of the House of Tudor, which would rule England until the beginning of the seventeenth century. Were you to want to explore this dynastic conflict by playing a game or two, then the classic boardgame, Kingmaker, is the perfect choice, but that game is out of print and if you can track down a copy, it takes multiple players, and it takes several hours to play. The Cousins’ War, published by Surprised Stare Games, offers an alternative. It is a two-player game, for players aged twelve and over, designed to be played in roughly thirty minutes. Distilling a thirty-year conflict down into micro-wargame, The Cousins’ War combines area control, action card, dice and bluffing mechanics to present a game with a solid theme, involving mechanics, and easy portability. 

The Cousins’ War consists a game board, seventeen Action cards, one Play Aid card, twenty-six wooden cubes, one black cylinder, and three six-sided dice, plus a twelve-page rulebook. The game board is done on thick card and depicts England and Wales and a Turn Track. England and Wales are divided into three areas—South, Central (the Midlands and Wales), and North—and marked with the site of the conflict’s seven major battles. A short history of the Wars of the Roses is given on the back, a nice touch as that would otherwise have been in the rulebook. The Action cards are divided into two types. There is one for each battle, each Battle card giving its date and location, the starting forces present, and the number of Command Points it grants. Command Points are used to add Troops to a player’s Reserve or the Battlefield; Move or Place Influence; Remove an opponent’s Influence. The remaining ten Action cards are Event cards, which can be used in one of two ways. They can be used to generate Command Points or to bring its Primary Event into play. Each Event card also has a Secondary Event which affects an opponent and is triggered if the Event Card’s Round number matches the current Round number.

For example, the ‘Earl of Northumberland’ Event card grants on the one Command Point, but as an Event, it enables a player to ‘Add 1 or 2 cubes to the North Region from your Reserve.’ If played on the second or fourth Round, then the Opponent or Lancaster player may ‘Add 1 cube to any single Region from their Reserve.’

The represent both the Influence and the troops of each House. There are twelve red cubes for Lancaster and twelve white cubes for York, whilst the French are represented by two blue cubes. When placed on the game board, the cubes represent a House’s Influence in each Region, but serve as Troops in a Battle—the French cubes are always Troops. Although nicely presented, the rulebook is not as clearly written as it could be and it assumes that the players have some experience with the mechanics in The Cousins’ War. A careful read through of the rulebook is probably a good idea as is a careful play through.

The Cousins’ War is played out over five Rounds, each consisting of seven Phases. In the first few Phases, players draw and swap Action cards and determine which Battle will be fought during the Round. In the later Phases, the players take it in turn to use Action cards to alter their Influence in the three regions of England and Wales or to bring Troops into a Battle. Attempts to alter a House’s Influence are not a given. There is a chance it may fail, which increases the greater the Influence already has in a Region. Then any Battle is resolved, the winner gaining Influence in the Region where the Battle was fought or an adjacent Region.

Mechanics for battles in The Cousins’ War are essentially ‘Liar’s Dice’. Players take it in turn to roll the three dice and declare the result. The player with the worst result loses cubes or Troops from the Battle and once all of his Troops have been forced from the Battle, he also loses the Battle. The mechanics being ‘Liar’s Dice’ means that the active player does not have to declare the actual result of his dice roll, but can instead Bluff his opponent. His Opponent can either believe him and accept the result, or challenge him as to the veracity of the dice roll. If the challenged declaration is true, the Opponent loses, but if not, the active player loses. What The Cousins’ War allows though, is for a player to actually alter his dice roll by playing an Action card and spending Command Points to alter the values on the dice. Both players continue rolling, declaring, bluffing, and challenging until one House has troops left on the Battle. The winner gains Influence in the Region as well as the Battle card itself.

The end of each Round involves checking to see if the victory conditions have been met. These are met if a player controls all three Regions on the game board; by the player who controls the most Regions at the end of the game; or by the player who has won the most Battles if both players control the same number of Regions.

Despite its size and play time—both small—The Cousins’ War presents each player with plenty of tactical choice. Of course, there is choice to bluff or challenge in Battles, but in the Event cards, each player will really need to give careful thought as to how to get the best out of each card. This is because each has three options—use its Command Points, use its Event, and whether or not its Secondary Event will benefit his opponent. Plus, where to spend Command Points—Influence on the game board or Battles. Winning Battles affects the outcome of The Cousins’ War and may be key to winning it if neither House has sufficient Influence in play.

Physically, The Cousins’ War is very nicely presented. Both cards and game board are well designed and nicely carry through the Wars of the Roses theme. The illustration on the cover of the box is really quite good and it is a pity that none of the cards are illustrated. The rulebook is slightly underwritten, especially if coming to the Action card mechanic for the first time. There are two things that the game could benefit from. One is a second Play Aid card and the second is another set of dice, since the players will ultimately be comparing dice rolls in Battles.

Even though a microgame, The Cousins’ War does feel a bit fiddly in places, especially in the number of Phases which have to played through each turn. It also feels odd to have the three-different mechanics in the one game—the area control, action cards, and ‘Liar’s Dice’—as they would seem to be a bad fit. That said, the luck element of the dice mechanics, both for Battles and determining Influence do balance out the non-luck element of the Action cards. Further, once you play through a game or two, it becomes clear that they each work to direct each player’s Command Points and Influence. It is just not as clear as it should be that the mechanics do interlock.

As a microgame, The Cousins’ War streamlines thirty years of history and conflict with three interlocking mechanics that offer solid play and tactical choice.

—oOo—

Surprised Stare Games will be at
UK Games Expo which will take place between June 1st and June 3rd, 2018 at Birmingham NEC. This is the world’s fourth largest gaming convention and the biggest in the United Kingdom.

Monday, 14 May 2018

Miskatonic Monday #10: Hocus Pocus

Between October 2003 and October 2013, Chaosium, Inc. published a series of books for Call of Cthulhu under the Miskatonic University Library Association brand. Whether a sourcebook, scenario, anthology, or campaign, each was a showcase for their authors—amateur rather than professional, but fans of Call of Cthulhu nonetheless—to put forward their ideas and share them with others. The programme was notable for having launched the writing careers of several authors, but for every Cthulhu InvictusThe PastoresPrimal StateRipples from Carcosa, and Halloween Horror, there was a Five Go Mad in EgyptReturn of the RipperRise of the DeadRise ofthe Dead II: The Raid, and more...

The Miskatonic University Library Association brand is no more, alas, but what we have in its stead is the Miskatonic Repository, based on the same format as the DM’s Guild for Dungeons & Dragons. It is thus, “...a new way for creators to publish and distribute their own original Call of Cthulhu content including scenarios, settings, spells and more...” To support the endeavours of their creators, Chaosium has provided templates and art packs, both free to use, so that the resulting releases can look and feel as professional as possible. To support the efforts of these contributors, Miskatonic Monday is an occasional series of reviews which will in turn examine an item drawn from the far reaches of the Miskatonic Repository.

—oOo—


NameHocus Pocus
Publisher: Chaosium, Inc.
Author: Adam Gauntlett

Setting: Jazz Age
Product: Scenario
What You Get1.9 MB, 22-page full colour PDF
Elevator Pitch
That cool cat got some moves in a Hoodoo Hoedown.

Plot Hook: The investigators are hired to find out where a wannabe Hoodoo man got his latest and amazingly greatest act from—it is cutting into a better man's bottom line.
Plot Development: A black cat, your numbers are in, Houdini's ex-dive, and a horse's head all under radium's bright glare.

Plot Support: Eight plus NPCs; two nicely detailed occulted occult tomes; investigation angles neatly organised.
Production ValuesNeeds a slight edit.

Pros

Few NPCs for the Keeper to roleplay
# Straightforward, but involving plot
# Companion scenario to The Man Downstairs
# Companion scenario to Harlem Unbound
# Companion scenario to Tales of the Sleepless City
# Companion scenario to Masks of Nyarlathotep and Day of the Beast
# Opportunity for the investigators to become a band of brothers 

Cons

Keeper will need to provide area map of New York
# Main villain of the piece mostly kept off stage

Conclusion

# Meaty investgative scenario
Solid plot

Sunday, 13 May 2018

The Massively Multiplayer offline Role-Playing Game

E.D.R.P.G. or Elite: Dangerous Roleplaying Game is a roleplaying game based on the computer game of the same name, a rare thing, a pen and paper roleplaying game based on a computer game. Developed by Spidermind Games and published via Modiphius Entertainment following a successful Kickstarter campaign, it presents a far future Science Fiction setting in which owning your spaceship and space travel is cheap—and so is your life as the police shoot first and might ask questions later, entire systems are overrun with space pirates, and corporate interests dominate the galaxy. Into this free-for-all capitalist paradise come the player characters, hotshot pilots with the best customised ships on a budget, transporting cargo from space station to another in the hopes of making profit enough to upgrade every aspect of their ships before upgrading to an entirely new model of ship! This is, of course, the classic ‘Lone Wolf’ campaign as played in every version of the computer game, Elite, right back to the 1984 original, including the most recent version of the game, Elite: Dangerous. Now where Elite: Dangerous and Elite: Dangerous Roleplaying Game differ from the original, is that Elite: Dangerous is not just a lone player experience—it is a MMORPG or Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games which can be played together, and Elite: Dangerous Roleplaying Game offers exploration, espionage, and military campaigns as well as the Lone Wolf campaign. All this is played out against a persistent universe which is constantly growing and aspects of this are present in the Elite: Dangerous Roleplaying Game.

Elite: Dangerous Roleplaying Game supports this with rules for combat in person, planetside in vehicles, in space between the player characters’ and enemy ships—pirates, slave traders, bounty hunters, and sometimes the police; stats for classic spaceships from the computer game which can be customised and upgraded; trading in and out of the game; and tables for both random star system and adventure generation. All of which comes packaged in a bright and cleanly presented hardback book which is nicely illustrated and written.

The starting point in Elite: Dangerous Roleplaying Game is the character, which in the game is defined by his Rank, Skills, Backgrounds, and Karma Abilities—there are no attributes such as Strength or Intelligence as skills cover everything. Rank determines the maximum levels a character can have in his skills as well as Endurance, Karma Points, and Karma Capabilities or Enhancements. There are nine Ranks, from Harmless to Elite. Skills are expressed as percentages from which a bonus is derived; Backgrounds add a little colour, but mostly provide bonuses to skills and a possible Enhancement—an improvement which sets the character apart from ordinary folk; and Karma Capabilities are little tricks characters can pull to get out of sticky situations. For example, the Hacker Background provides Computer +20, Security +10, and the Natural Genius (Computer) Enhancement. In the case of the Natural Genius (Computer) Enhancement, it raises the cap on maximum skill level for a Rank. A Karmic Capability is something like ‘Spin Wildly’, a spaceship combat maneuvre which costs 5 Karma to use and grants a +5 bonus to a pilot’s Spaceship Defence against an attack that would hit his ship.   

To create a character, a player selects or rolls for—tables are provided for the latter—four Backgrounds, selects three Karma Capabilities, improves ten skills, and then selects his starting spacecraft from a choice of four, plus variants. These include the Sidewinder FD-4, the Eagle Interceptor MR1, the Hauler Hatchback Zeta, and the Adder Cornucopia. Experienced players are given the option of spending a set budget on a basic design and customising it. Each character also comes with a standard set of equipment plus some other items depending whether they have certain skills. It should be noted that all characters receive the Pilot Trained Background and the Escape Death Karma Capability for free and in addition to the ones selected during character creation and that all skills start at ten.

Our sample character is Rise ‘Roundhouse’ Rownels a medical graduate from 5714 Coronae VII. He expected to have a career in medical science which would last his lifetime, but when he blew the whistle on the unethical activities of his employer, Kerensky-Jadin Technology GmbH, he was blackballed from the profession and lost his medical licence. Forced to turn to other employment, he found work as a boxer and a private eye. A number of missing persons cases led him offworld and now he knows he wants to follow up on those cases. For that he needs a spaceship and the settlement from his wrongful dismissal case just got him the money he needed for that. Rise ‘Roundhouse’ Rownels is a rookie pilot, but in a brawl or after you have been punched out, he more than punches above his weight.

Rise ‘Roundhouse’ Rownels
Rank: Harmless (1)
Background: Scientist, Boxer, Private Detective, Trained Doctor, Pilot Trained 
Defence (Dodge): +1 Defence (Parry): +2 Initiative: +1
Damage Bonus: +2
Karma Points: 10 Endurance: 20
Skills: Computer +23, Cyber +34, Energy Weapons +20, Fighting+37, Insight +26, Medicine +38, Parry +20, Perception +20, Science +49, Security +22, Spaceship Piloting +35, Spaceship Weapons +30, Stealth +20, Systems +21
Enhancements: Natural Genius (Science), Strong
Karma Capabilities: Diligent Medic, Escape Death, Slam, Liar, Liar!

Perhaps one of the most interesting Backgrounds to choose from is ‘Partner’. Whether a Best Friend or Boyfriend/Girlfriend, Business Partner or Husband/Wife, this is an NPC who accompanies a player character on his missions. Controlled by the Game Master, this NPC is not quite equal to a player character, but have skills, Backgrounds, and Enhancements and can make use of a player character’s Karma Capabilities. It is possible for such an NPC to be a pilot like the player character, but either way, the Partner is a player character’s companion who can help out on missions, make repairs to ships, and so on. Having a Partner necessitates choosing a spacecraft capable of carrying both the player character and his companion. 

The mechanic at the heart of Elite: Dangerous Roleplaying Game is straightforward enough. A player rolls a ten-sided die and adds a relevant Skill bonus to equal or beat a target number. Rolls of one always fail, but rolls of ten always succeed. A Skill bonus is equal to one tenth its percentile value, so for example, a Rise ‘Roundhouse’ Rownels’ Skill bonus is +3 when using Fighting, but +4 when using Science. It should be noted that since all player characters have a minimum of ten in each skill, they always have a minimum Skill bonus of +1 in any skill. Guidance for Difficulty Number is given for realistic difficulty or relative difficulty, the latter taking into account the average player character Rank, the former not. Thus under realistic difficulty, the average Difficulty Number is between nine and eleven, representing a challenging task for a professional, whereas under relative difficulty, it is seven at the Rank of Harmless, eight for Mostly Harmless and Novice, and so on… The advantages and disadvantages of both are discussed in detail, although Difficulty Numbers as a topic are not really explored until two thirds of the way through the book. Whether successful or not, this will earn the character a tick for the skill used. At the end of an adventure, each tick enables the skill to be increased by one up to the Skill Cap for the character's current Rank, but only one tick can be earned per skill per adventure.

Given its origins, it no surprise that combat plays a big part in Elite: Dangerous Roleplaying Game, spacecraft combat in particular. Personal combat is not particularly complex, being only covered in a few pages. A player character gets a move and an action per round, but can also defend himself as necessary. One interesting touch is that if a player character successfully parries a Fighting or Melee attack, then he can counter-attack. This is essentially a free action. Space combat is really dogfighting, with player characters taking an Equipment Action—assign a bonus if the spacecraft has the right equipment, deploy chaff, or deploy mines; Recharging their spacecraft’s shields; and then taking a Combat Action. The type of Combat Action depends upon the range, for which Elite: Dangerous Roleplaying Game has just the two—‘At Distance’ and ‘Up Close’. The former means that a spacecraft is at the edge of the battle, or just beyond it, whereas the latter means that the spacecraft is involved in the heat of the battle. ‘At Distance’ enables a pilot to play Chicken, Flee, Joust, Pass, Snipe, or Strafe, whilst ‘Up Close’ a pilot can attempt to deliver a Broadsides, Disengage, Dogfight, Flight assist off, Pass, and Ram. These maneuvres determine both how a spacecraft is going to move and how many weapons her pilot can fire. In general, a pilot and his spacecraft really only gets to fire once per turn, but with the Dogfight manoeuvre, multiple spacecraft can get involved and this means multiple manoeuvres and potentially, multiple chances for a pilot to fire his weapons, each time on different opponents. Once a hit is scored, damage needs to overcome a target ship’s shields and then it is applied to the ship’s hull. If a ten is rolled on the to-hit roll and the damage is sufficient to reduce the target ship’s shields to zero, then the target ship suffers damage to both the hull and one of its components. Again, the space combat rules are covered in only a few pages, but presents a chaotic free-for-all system in which the player characters really get to mix it up. They are followed by rules for vehicle combat, which are again relatively simple and straightforward.

After all this, only now does Elite: Dangerous Roleplaying Game start present any kind of background against which the game will be run. Even then, it does not open with the background to the setting, but rather with a guide to a player character’s, or rather, a freelancer’s, first spacecraft. Delivered as a legally mandatory introduction by a representative of the Faulcon Delacy corporation, it is the first piece of colour fiction to appear in the book and it is just ever so knowing and thoroughly engaging and enjoyable. It is followed by a guide to the galaxy and the major powers—the Federation, the Empire, the Alliance, and independent worlds—which although written in the same engaging style, it really is a bit short at nine pages and barely 2% of the book for a Game Master to write adventures for. On the plus side, it means that the Game Master has a lot of freedom to write adventures, but compared to other Science Fiction roleplaying games, the background is slight. Following this is a third lecture, a guide to ‘Being a Good Citizen’, how to act and what to expect as a newly qualified pilot out there in space… Given the simplicity and shortness of the rules, it seems odd to have this very short chapter of background after those rules and not before, at the beginning of the book.

Technology wise, Elite: Dangerous Roleplaying Game presents a setting where both Faster-Than-Light travel and ownership of personal spacecraft is common. What is not common is the generation of gravity, so player characters are equipped with mag boots, whose use can play a big role in zero-g combat. In addition to listing all of the personal equipment, Elite: Dangerous Roleplaying Game does a nice thing with its personal weapons. It gives generic stats for auto pistols, laser pistols, submachine guns, assault beamers, and so on, but it treats non-generic models as both different and rare, so that whenever a player character gets hold of one, it is special. Besides all this, cybernetics are also given, but once installed, if they are too obvious, they have a deleterious effect upon a character’s Karma points and his social skills. Likewise, heavy armour has a similar effect, but conversely, wearing the right clothing can have a positive effect.  

From the Adder, the Anaconda, and the Asp Explorer to the Type-9 Heavy, the Viper MK III, and the Vulture, Elite: Dangerous Roleplaying Game details some sixteen spacecraft models and their variants. All taken from the computer game, this provides plenty of standard models to buy off the shelf—or upgrade to—but also the rules to allow a player character to modify his ship according to his taste and design. There are lots of options here and should support the player characters and their equipment progression in the long term, although this is very much a set of mechanics that is best handled between adventures. Unlike the section on spacecraft, the section on vehicles just lists various models without the rules to modify them.

The Game Master’s section covers the basic rules as well as game types—military and police, espionage and intrigue, exploration, Lone Wolf, mission-based, and sandbox games. The standard game type is, of course, the Lone Wolf, a la the Elite: Dangerous computer game. They feel a bit short, more of a good start than overall helpful, and the Lone Wolf game type has issues of its own as we shall see… This section also provides further discussion about the rules, including handling combined personal, spacecraft, and vehicular combat, as well as handling trade during adventures. Again, this is kept fairly light, but really the default set-up is for trade is handled between adventures as can be asteroid mining, exploration, and bounty hunting. This enables a player character to earn some income between adventures and essentially moves what might not very interesting to play through off-stage. Then, it gives the Game Master the perfect means to take the player characters to another location ready for an adventure, to introduce an NPC or a threat, drop a clue, and so on, thus leading into the next adventure. 

In general, those threats come in three scales—individual, vehicle, and spaceship scale. These include soldiers and mercenaries, criminals, police and security, assassins, as well as alien animals and drones. These are fully statted out and described, all ready to use with the ‘Random Generation System’. This set of tables can be used to create two things—star system and missions or adventures. There is no adventure in Elite: Dangerous Roleplaying Game, but there is the means to create plenty. Each mission type is broken down into three or four types and accompanied by five possible twists, so there is a good mix here. What the combination of the extensive list of opponents combined with the star system and mission generator is model the procedural generation of game play in Elite: Dangerous. Now a roleplaying game needs slightly more rational to its play, so the use of these tables requires an experienced Game Master or a bit of preparation beforehand. Rounding out Elite: Dangerous Roleplaying Game is an extensive set of forms to help record the details of a game.

Physically, Elite: Dangerous Roleplaying Game is an impressive book. It is a relatively light read and it is extensively illustrated in full colour. Now what it lacks is an index and that is a major, not to say, inexcusably frustrating, omission by modern standards as it will seriously hamper the use of the book. Now the book is well organised and the colour of the pages is nicely selected to make certain sections stand out, but there is no denying that there should have been an index. Full examples of character generation, general play, and space combat would been useful additions too, especially for anyone coming to the roleplaying game from the computer game without any experience of having played a roleplaying game before.

There is one very big difference between Elite: Dangerous Roleplaying Game and just every Science Fiction roleplaying game, whether it is Traveller, Firefly Roleplaying Game, and Coriolis: The Third Horizon, and that is the player characters do not crew their own ship, but crew their own ships. Thus they are not the pilot, engineer, gunner, medic, steward, navigator, and so on aboard their ship, but the pilot, engineer, gunner, medic, steward, navigator, and so on aboard their own ships. Now there is an option in the game for the player characters to crew the one ship as there is a ship suitable for that listed, but in the game’s default set-up, with everyone having their own ship, having their own objective in acquiring sufficient monies to pay for upgrades, and so on, there is a sense of the collective present in most other roleplaying games that is not present in Elite: Dangerous Roleplaying Game. If the Game Master is running a campaign built around military and police, espionage and intrigue, exploration, or mission-based games, then there is reason enough for the player characters to stick together, but in the Lone Wolf and the sandbox game suggestions, it is less obvious and the Game Master will really need to come up with something plausible if the player characters are to form a party and more importantly, stick together...

There are several things that Elite: Dangerous Roleplaying Game is missing. One is sufficient background that would help impart the feel of the setting and help a Game Master write scenarios. The second is the lack of a map of the galaxy. It need not be detailed, but it would have been nice to learn the geographical relationship between the various powers. The third is the absence of an  index, which points to certain lack of professionalism as an roleplaying game should have index. The fourth is a scenario, which will be something of an issue for anyone coming to the roleplaying game from the computer game without any experience of having played or run a roleplaying game before. Admittedly, had there there been a scenario, what type of game should it have covered—military and police, espionage and intrigue, exploration, Lone Wolf, mission-based, or sandbox? This is all despite the fact that the mechanics and the means to play Elite: Dangerous Roleplaying Game are lightly handled and relatively simple to play, and thus easy to learn and suitable for those new to roleplaying.

Ultimately, what Elite: Dangerous Roleplaying Game cannot do is reconcile the Lone Wolf campaign play of the Elite: Dangerous computer game with the collective needs and set-up of the party in a roleplaying game and this is why the other game types are stronger and easier to use. It may need more exploration in a future supplement if the Lone Wolf game type is be fully realised as a possible campaign set-up for Elite: Dangerous Roleplaying Game.

Nevertheless, despite these issues, what you have in Elite: Dangerous Roleplaying Game is a relatively light, Science Fiction roleplaying game which does its very best to model the Elite: Dangerous computer game. It might not provide as much background as it should, but it certainly provides the means and the mechanics for the players to take their freelancers to the spacelanes and trade their way to fame and fortune.

Saturday, 12 May 2018

A Whovian Quartet

There can be no denying that Cubicle Seven Entertainment has released plenty of adventures for Doctor Who: Adventures in Time and Space – The Roleplaying Game. After all, there is a sourcebook for every single incarnation of the Doctor, from the First Doctor to the Ninth Doctor and beyond, as well as U.N.I.T. and time travel. Yet even taking into account the twelve-part campaign in The Eighth Doctor Sourcebook, the roleplaying game is rather short of scenarios that the Game Master can simply add to his campaign. One solution is All of Time and Space Volume 1, a quartet of adventures set firmly during the tenure of the Twelfth Doctor—or at least after the events on Trenzalore.

All of Time and Space Volume 1 opens with ‘Ghost Engines’ by Gareth Ryder Hanrahan. The hunt for a missing boy in the present finds the time travellers shunts beck into Victorian England where the railway industry is undergoing some form of rapid advancement and conglomeration as a railway engineer appears to bringing the country within the reach of his company, ‘The Great Compass’. Yet this railway engineer might not be as clever or as charitable as everyone says he is, so where exactly are his advances in railway technology coming from? There is a lovely mix of elements here, from Bertie Wooster types and suspicious policemen to ghost trains and steamborgs, with a healthy dash of The Paternoster Gang thrown in, allowing the Game Master to crack open the Paternoster Investigations sourcebook. (Although they are referred to, neither Professor George Litefoot nor Henry Gordon Jago make an appearance, but there is no reason why they should not!) ‘Ghost Engines’ gets the anthology off to a very good start with delightful and well done mystery with lots of opportunity for roleplaying and adventure. 

The opportunities for roleplaying and adventure continue in ‘The Northern Knights’, but adds intrigue into the mix. Written by Walt Ciechanowski, it sends the time travellers into the religious schism between Catholicism and Protestantism in Elizabethan England. A strange plague has befallen a Shropshire village and the nearby castle, one beyond the capacity of a visiting physician to cure—perhaps the time travellers can help? The task is made the difficult by the presence of a very special guest at the castle—Mary, Queen of Scots! It gets a whole lot more complex when the castle is besieged by Catholic knights who would overthrow Queen Elizabeth and raise Mary in her stead, knights who not only northern, but silver! Which means of course, the Cybermen afre involved in what is essentially ‘The Time Warrior’ meets ‘Silver Nemesis’. This is another rich adventure with lots of detail, even one which looks to be an anachronism, but actually not.

The third scenario, by Nick Huggins, is perhaps the cleverest one in the quartet, combining elements of ‘Silence in the Library’ and ‘The Time of Angels’ with ‘The Doctor’s Wife’. In ‘Schrödinger’s Expedition’, the time travellers find themselves aboard a space station, but a strange one, given the strange arrangement of rooms, warehouses, libraries, swimming rooms, corridors, and more. Add to this two parallel expeditions to the station—one military, one scientific—and odd flora and fauna, and what you have is an intriguing little puzzle. A puzzle which is made all the more difficult by the fact that neither expedition can meet, but getting them to work together is the key to solving ‘Schrödinger’s Expedition’. Now there is the danger with this kind of adventure that it is too clever for its own good and that makes it all the more difficult to run, but the advice which accompanies this adventure on how to run it is pleasingly helpful.

The last adventure is Timothy Ferguson’s ‘The Tomb of Cleopatra’. Another anachronism—an artefact which looks like a Cyberman’s head—has turned up in an archaeological exhibition in Egypt, so of course, the question, where has it been? To find out how, the time travellers have to go back to Roman Egypt not long after the death of Cleopatra and get involved in the opposition to the recently imposed Roman occupation. There is a nice bit of bait and switch to a threat integral to the era of the Eleventh Doctor, but in some ways, the scenario is the most workmanlike of the four.

All four scenarios in All of Time and Space Volume 1 are nicely written with plenty of detail and good advice for staging them. There is also good advice for setting up and running each adventure, not just with time travellers equipped with a TARDIS, but other means, so that members of U.N.I.T. or Torchwood might go back in time and solve these instead of the Doctor and his Companions (or player character equivalents). Each is also rounded out with further hooks and ideas for sequels and more.

Physically, All of Time and Space Volume 1 is very well presented and organised, and is liberally illustrated with lots of photographs taken from episodes of the Tenth Doctor, Eleventh Doctor, and Twelfth Doctor. Where the book is disappointing, is in the editing as there are some ugly turns of phrase.

Now there is not a bad adventure to be had in All of Time and Space Volume 1. Yet more care could have been taken with the choice of scenarios to be included in this first volume—two of the scenarios involve the Cybermen and three involve both technological anachronisms in Earth’s past and manipulation of events in Earth’s past. Of course these are standard tropes to be found in Doctor Who, but it means that there is a fundamental similarity between too many of these scenarios—a similarity which could have been avoided with better development and editorial guidance and the authors being helped to be a bit more inventive. Again, none of these are bad scenarios, but it would have better to spread them over All of Time and Space Volume I and All of Time and Space Volume II—when the latter appears, rather than containing them all in the one book.

The best way to get around the similarities of the adventures in All of Time and Space Volume I would be to run adventures between each, because otherwise, this is an excellent quartet of adventures for use with Doctor Who: Adventures in Time and Space – The Roleplaying Game. The very best thing about these four is that if you thought about it, any one of them works as well on the page and at the table as they might on the television screen.