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

Monday, 25 May 2015

As shiny as it gets

In 2013, Margaret Weis Productions published a taster for the Firefly RPG that we had been waiting for. Gaming in the ‘Verse presented both a preview and a ‘quick start’ for the Firefly Roleplaying Game, based on Joss Whedon’s 2002 ‘space western’ television series that aped the aftermath of the American Civil War. In this ‘space opera’, the crew of the Serenity try to make living, not always legally, on the fringes of both society and a massive star system far from the aegis of the controlling central government, the Alliance. This is not a ‘clean’ space opera—making a living in space can be hard and is often dangerous work; high technology rarely makes it as far as the outer planets and their moons; and the preferred technology is stuff that works, so for example, firearms rather than lasers and on many planets, horses rather than vehicles.

In the Firefly Roleplaying Game, the players have the opportunity to explore the ‘Verse themselves. They can do this as the crew of the Serenity—Mal Reynolds, Zoe Washburne, ‘Wash’ Washburne, Inara Serra, Jayne Cobb, ‘Kaylee’ Frye, Simon Tam, River Tam, and Shepherd Book—and thus tell of their adventures between end of the television series and the events of the movie, Serenity, or they can create their own crew and then create a ship of their own to love, hate, but most of all, call home. In creating a crew member, a player also has a choice. He can either select from one of the twenty-four available archetypes—from Academy Dropout and Alliance Agent to Newly Ordained Shepherd and Retired Outlaw or he can create a character from the ground up. Obviously, such a character, whether created using an archetype or from the ground up, will not be as capable as member of the crew of the Serenity, but he will have room to grow and change as his adventures are played out.

Each character is defined by three attributes—Mental, Physical, and Social; several broad Skills, each of which can have a speciality; one or more Signature Assets, items intrinsically bound to the character, like Jayne Cobb’s Callahan full-bore auto-lock rifle Vera or Shepherd Book’s Identicard; and three Distinctions. The latter define a character and come in three categories – Roles, Personalities, and Backgrounds. All four aspects of a character—Attributes, Skills, Signature Assets, and Distinctions are rated by die type, from four-sided die up through six, eight, ten, to twelve-side die. Each Distinction provides a bonus die to a character’s actions, but can also act against a character to complicate his life and so provide him with Plot Points that can be spent later on.

Dorothea Liu
Quote: “Is that a genuine first edition Great Expectations, all the way from Earth that was?”
Character Type: On the run bride
Character Description: Dorothea Liu thought that she had a solid career in medicine before her, to be followed by a husband and children. It was what her family had planned for her after all—and she even thought that she loved her husband to be. Then she found out what her husband was—the son of a Triad boss—and the truth of her father’s business empire. She was heartbroken. She saw her parents in a new light and knew that the last person she wanted to be was her mother. With her mother’s blessing she fled, jilting her husband to be…
According to the hospital she is on extended sabbatical. According to her father, she is a traitorous shă guā. According to her mother, Dorothea is all that she could never be. According to her husband, she is a chī chóng huā dàn who should be on his arm and bearing his children.
Likes/Dislikes: Dorothea is fascinated by the history and peoples of the Border and the Rim—perhaps too fascinated. Given her own history, it should be no surprise that she is a sucker for a sob-story.
Flashbacks and Echoes: Dorothea had a more than comfortable upbringing, but then she saw the violence meted out by her husband to be. She never wants to see that again.

ATTRIBUTES
Mental 10 Physical 6 Social 8
SKILLS
Craft d4, Drive d6, Fight d4, Fix d6, Fly d8, Focus d6, Influence d8 (winning smile), Know d8 (History), Labour d4, Move d6, Notice d6, Operate d6, Perform d4, Shoot d4, Sneak d6, Survive d4, Throw d4, Treat d10 (surgery), Trick d4
DISTINCTIONS
KNOW IT ALL d8
Look smarty pants, if we wanted schoolin’, we’d have gone to school.
Gain 1 Plot Point when you roll a d4 instead of a d8.
Pedantic: Gain 1PP when you correct someone at an inappropriate juncture or tell the crew a fact that is interesting, but not useful.
Highlighted Skills: Fix, Know, Treat
ON THE RUN d8
Someone’s after you—Alliance, the Triads, the Guilds, maybe all three. You’re a fugitive and you’re in trouble.
Gain 1 Plot Point when you roll a d4 instead of a d8.
Highlighted Skills: Move, Notice, Sneak
FASHIONABLE d8
You attend the most exclusive parties, dress in the latest fashions, and hire the best Companions.
Gain 1 Plot Point when you roll a d4 instead of a d8.
Clout: Step back Influence until the end of the end of the next scene to remove a social complication.
Highlighted Skills: Drive, Fly, Influence

SIGNATURE ASSETS
Doctor’s Bag d8
Sometimes things don’t go smooth and sometimes they don’t go smooth and someone ends up with a bullet in ‘em. Times like that you need a good doctor and his bag.
Nice dresses d6
They may not be the latest styles in the Core, but out here in the Border worlds? They cut quite a figure. Out on the Rim, they’re just sassy.

In addition to creating a crew, the players also get to create or ‘find’ their ship. This involves picking a Class and then choosing Distinctions and Signature Assets to ensure that the ship stands out. Some twenty-two Classes are listed, including the Arbitrator Class Alliance Patrol Boat, the Marco Polo Class Space Bazaar, and the Cobb Class Science Ship as well as the Firefly Class Transport. There are as many Distinctions, which either relate the ship’s History, such as Former Salvage or Stolen or to the customisations carried out by the crew, such as Livestock Hauler or Smuggler’s Delight. Signature Assets might include a Chapel, Mining Equipment, or Shuttles.

Sapphire Star
Polaris Class Cargo Liner d8
Engines d6 Hull d10 Systems d8
An older mid-sized cargo liner, sturdy if slow.
Gain 1 Plot Point when you roll a d4 instead of a d8.
DISTINCTIONS
Won her in a card game d8
You gamble more than you should, but one time you should really stuck your neck out and you won big.
Gain 1 Plot Point when you roll a d4 instead of a d8.
Well-loved: Crewmembers on board may share Plot Points with another Crewmember who’s operatin’ the ship.
Cruisin’ the ‘Verse d8
Your berths are first class, with plush velvet seats, stunning chandeliers, and lovely music. Whilst the food is excellent and the service impeccable, these fineries come at a price—snooty passengers.
Gain 1 Plot Point when you roll a d4 instead of a d8.
The Customer is always right, unfortunately. Start every episode with an Unreasonable Customer Demands d6 Complication.
SIGNATURE ASSETS
Mighty Fine Quarters d8
Shuttles d8

The Firefly Roleplaying Game uses the CORTEX Plus System. Derived from the CORTEX System—now known as CORTEX Classic—that powered the Serenity Role Playing Game, the original RPG based on the Firefly television series also published Margaret Weis Productions, the CORTEX Plus System is narrative orientated set of mechanics designed to tell the type of gritty stories seen in Firefly. The difference is this: in a traditional RPG a fist fight or a shootout would involve rolls each time a punch is thrown or a trigger is pulled. In the CORTEX Plus System, each round of dice rolls—typically one roll per player character and one roll for the NPCs or the challenge—covers the whole exchange. So a fist fight is covered in one roll, the results are narrated, and the story moves on. The aim here is not to get bogged down in unnecessary detail, but to make it dramatic and exciting.

To undertake an action, a character rolls one die each for a skill and appropriate attribute and compares the totaled value against the stakes rolled by the GM. For example, several members of her husband’s Triad gang, led by one of his lieutenants, Mitchell Gao, have caught up with Dorothea and in the resulting scuffle, her fellow crewmember, the Inquiry Agent, Jian Zhang, has been stabbed and Taken Out—in general characters are incapacitated for a scene or more when Taken Out, although in dire circumstances, being Taken Out means being killed. Dorothea implores the Triads to give her time to treat Jian. The GM rolls for Mitchell Gao, who as a minor character has the Traits Triad lieutenant (d8), Ambitious, but not stupid (d6), and Sucker for a pretty smile (d4). The GM rolls all three dice and sets the stakes at 10 (5+5), but he also rolls a 1—a Jinx. This earns Dorothea a Plot Point. Dorothea’s player puts together her dice pool from her Social (d8) attribute, her Influence (d8) skill, her Know it all Distinction (d8) to convince the Triads that Jian really is hurt, and to reflect the fact that the Triads are after her, adds a d4 for her On the Run Distinction instead of a d8 to earn her a Plot Point. The result of the roll is 8, 7, 4, and 1. The best combination is course 15 (8+7), which is great because it is five higher than the Stakes. This earns her a Big Hero Die that she can add to any roll. It is equal to the highest die type rolled by the GM—a d8. Yet she has also rolled a Jinx! The GM uses this to step up Jian’s Vicious Stabbing from a d8 to a d10! Nevertheless, Mitchell Gao is persuaded to wait and Dorothea has time to treat Jian. This time, her dice pool is formed using her Mental attribute (d10), her Treat skill (d10) and surgery speciality (d6), plus her Doctor’s Bag (d8) Signature Asset. She also has at two Plot Points and if all else fails, she also has the Big Damned Hero die, so it looks like Jian is in good hands!

Yet under different circumstances, Dorothea might not have her Doctor’s Bag to hand or she might roll badly. This is where the Plot Points come in. If multiple dice are rolled for an action, but the action is failed, a character could expend a Plot Point to add one of the other dice to the result. Or she could create a temporary asset that she can use just for the scene. For example, trapped in the engineering bay by the Triads and Jian still needing help, she might expend a Plot Point to bodge together some basic medical supplies. Or even to actually act if she has been Taken out and cannot do otherwise do anything.

Plot Points earned by temporarily reducing a Distinction from a d8 to a d4, from receiving a Complication from the GM when he rolls a Jinx, whenever the GM spends a Plot Point of his own to oppose your character, and from great play. Plot Points power the wilds swings of good and bad luck in the Firefly Roleplaying Game. They are primarily earned when things do not go smooth, when there is a chance of, or actual failure occurs, but they are spent to succeed on difficult rolls, at dramatic moments, and so on. Pretty much like the television series.

As to the television series, its treatment in the Firefly Roleplaying Game is shiny! Each of the series’ fourteen episodes not only receives a full breakdown and description, including the stats and details of the NPCs involved, equipment and assets used, places visited, and ships encountered, they are also used to showcase the rules. It starts off simple in the pilot, ‘Serenity’, just by giving the stats for Patience, Badger, and Lawrence Dobson as well as a Reaver Ship, before explaining the basics of the rules with the fist fight on Unification Day in ‘The Train Job’. By the time we get to ‘Shindig’, we are shown how complex the rules can get with Mal’s duel with Atherton Wing. Each of these examples eases the learning of the CORTEX Plus System. In addition, each of the episodes is developed with more ideas and suggestions, going beyond what appeared on screen so that the GM could run more than just the episode.

Thus we are almost half way through the Firefly Roleplaying Game before it starts discussing the rules of the game in a more traditional manner. It also means that the background for the setting is rather spread out and given the lack of an index means that locating particular pieces of information can be a challenge. To be blunt, the lack of an index is both inexcusably irritating and disappointing. This is not the only problem with the Firefly Roleplaying Game—its focus is perhaps a little too tight. It really does not expand beyond the possibility of the players taking the roles of the crew of a ship and flying the ‘Verse, so the GM is on his own should he and his players want to go in another direction. Nevertheless, the Firefly Roleplaying Game is well written, an engaging read, and easier to learn than many other RPGs.

Unlike Gaming In The ‘Verse, the Firefly Roleplaying Game comes with just the single scenario, a lengthy affair called ‘What’s yours is mine’. In addition, the GM is given decent advice on creating and running a Firefly game, which nicely couples with the suggestions and ideas given for each of the episodes. The scenario itself is a solid affair that should last two or three sessions.

Putting aside the irritating lack of an index, the Firefly Roleplaying Game is well written, the presentation is excellent, and it is very accessible. Above all, in capturing the grit and drama of the television series, the Firefly Roleplaying Game is both a fine adaptation and the means recreate it at the gaming table.

Sunday, 24 May 2015

To Bee, Or Not To Bee

Waggle Dance is a game about Bees and the dance they do to make honey. Published by Grublin Games Publishing via Kickstarter, it is a worker placement game designed for two to four players, aged ten and up, in which the workers—or Bees—are simple six-sided dice. Each turn the players roll their dice—or Bees—and then in turn, place them according to the numbers rolled. From one turn to the next, the Bees want to expand their hive, claim and hatch the eggs laid by their Queen, collect nectar, trade eggs and nectar, make honey, and gain orders from the Queen Bee. As the Forebee for their hive, the aim for each player is to expand his hive and get each Honeycomb Tile to produce honey. The first Forebee to do so wins the game.

Each turn is divided into two phases—Day and Night, a Day/Night card being used to indicate which phase. In the Day phase each Forebee rolls his Bees and takes it turn to place them in turn, either on the Forebee’s Hive or the Action Cards. There are seven of these. Four of the Action Cards—’Claim Tile’, ‘Hatch Egg’, ‘Trade’, and ‘Draw a Queen Bee Card’—are marked with six die faces, numbered one through six. When a Bee of the matching number is placed on one of these positions, another cannot be placed there, so it is possible to block other Forebees. There are actually six ‘Claim Nectar’ Action Cards, each corresponding to six different flowers, and like the other Action Cards—’Hatch Egg and Make Honey’ and ‘Move Nectar’, there is no limit to the numbers of Bees that can be placed on them.

To add a new Honeycomb Tile to his Hive, a Forebee must place a Bee on the ‘Claim Tile’ Action Card. To add a new Bee-or ‘Newbee’—a Forebee needs to have both an Egg and a pair of Bees with matching numbers on a Honeycomb tile, and then place a Bee on the ‘Hatch Eg’ Action Card. To get a new Egg, a Bee must be placed on the ‘Claim Egg’ Action Card, the new Egg being added to an empty tile. ‘Claim Nectar’ gives a Forebee the nectar needed to make honey, but only the two Forebees with the most Bees on a flower—there are six flowers—can collect nectar from that flower. A Forebee can swap Eggs or nectar for the nectar of the colour he wants by placing a Bee on the ‘Trade’ Action Card. 

The ‘Make Honey & Move Nectar’ Action Card is the most complex in Waggle Dance. Move Nectar enables a Forebee to move nectar from one tile to another, but needs to have Bees of matching numbers on both the tile the nectar is being moved from and to. Much like the ‘Hatch Egg’ Action Card, the ‘Make Honey’ Action Card requires a pair of Bees with matching numbers on the tile plus four nectar of the same colour. Once done, the tile is turned over to its Honey side. Lastly, the ‘Draw Queen Bee Card’ Action Card lets a Forebee draw Queen Bee Cards, which grant special actions, such as ‘Bounty’ which allows a Forebee to claim extra Nectar, ‘Overtime’ that lets him change number of a rolled Bee, and ‘Alchemy’, which enables him to make Honey using nectar of two different colours.  Each Queen Bee Card can only be used once.

At game start, each Forbee receives six Bees (dice) and three Honeycomb Tiles. The base objective is turn five Honeycomb Tiles into honey, but this can be increased to seven or eight depending upon the desired game length. Whatever the length, turning all of them into Honey first wins the game.

Each turn is divided into Day and Night Phases. In the Day Phase, every Forebee rolls his Bees and assigns them. In the Night Phase, each Action is resolved in strict order of the Action cards. At the end of each turn, the Day/Night card is passed onto the next player, so the first player changes from turn to turn.

The first challenge of Waggle Dance is that a Forebee must work with the Bees he rolled and this can hinder his plans. The second is that the core Action Cards—‘Hatch Egg’ and ‘Make Honey’—need be set up beforehand to work. The third is that the other Forebees face the same challenges and will often hinder each other. What this means is that Waggle Dance is more of a tactical game rather than a strategic one as long range planning is not possible, a Forebee having to reconsider his actions and his plans from one turn to the next. This also means that Waggle Dance is not a complex worker placement game.

Waggle Dance is finely balanced in its actions and play. A forebee needs to keep an eye on the actions of his fellow forebees and to not focus too much on one action over another. For example, it is too easy to concentrate on hatching eggs and gaining more Bees when others are making honey!

Unfortunately there is little actual player interaction in Waggle Dance. Nor is it as good with two players as it is with three or four. Nevertheless, Waggle Dance has much going for it.

Waggle Dance is very nicely presented, with appropriate artwork and even the pips on the dice being honeycomb shaped and having bees instead of ones! Mechanically light and easy, with a charming and engaging theme, Waggle Dance both suitable for a family audience and the hardened gamer who still wants a challenge.

Saturday, 23 May 2015

Hot, Dry Fantasy

Hellfrost: Land of Fire is a supplement for Hellfrost, the desperately wintery fantasy setting published by Triple Ace Games. Over the course of three core books—a Gazetteer, a Player’s Guide, and a Bestiary, as well as numerous PDF titles, Hellfrost describes the continent of Rassilon, divided in two by the Icewall, a gigantic, mile high wall of ice and cold that rose at the end of the Blizzard War. The peoples and nations of Rassilon are threatened by encroaching armies of coldfire-breathing Hellfrost dragons, frost giants, coldfire elementals, and orcs from north of the Icewall, by the ever falling temperatures, and by the growing belief that the gods have abandoned the peoples of Rassilon to the cold. Written for use with Pinnacle Entertainment Group’s popular Savage Worlds, the Hellfrost setting is a pre-apocalyptic, Northern European-inspired fantasy. In many ways, Hellfrost: Land of Fire is both very different to the setting of Hellfrost and its counterpart.

Technically, Hellfrost: Land of Fire is not a standalone book. Of course it requires Savage Worlds, but it is actually a geographical expansion for Hellfrost, so requires two other books—Hellfrost: Player’s Guide and Hellfrost: Bestiary. The need to access these two books is limited to various Edges and Hindrances as well as certain creatures that reside in cold North and the hot South. As one book though, Hellfrost: Land of Fire combines a Gazetteer, a Player’s Guide, and a Bestiary into one volume. As its title suggests, the element at the heart of its setting is fire rather than cold. Physically, this manifests in burning sands rather than freezing ice, and just as Rassilon faces falling temperatures, so do ‘The Lands of Heat’ or Al-Shirkuh. As Al-Shirkuh grows colder, the rains come less often, and the sands of the desert encroach upon the fertile ribbons along the continent’s coasts. Nevertheless, for the last five centuries, Al-Shirkuh has been free and prosperous, ever since Suleiman the Great overthrew the great Jinn and bound them in copper jars, and left the minor jinn to be commanded by Jinn mages. Suleiman was capable of great magics—magics that he believed did not come from the ‘gods’, but came from within and that anyone was capable of were they to live a good life. This belief spread quickly amongst the human slaves who fought to throw off the shackles of the Jinn. Yet since his death, the source of Suleiman’s magic has divided Al-Shirkuh. To the Devoted he is the greatest Mage who ever lived, who mastered all of the magical arts and stated that everyone was responsible for their own salvation. To the Faithful though, Suleiman is a prophet and a priest for all of the gods rather than none. This divide cuts through the politics and cultures of the peoples of the coast of Al-Shirkuh and colours the magics of the region.

The encroaching sands is not the only threat faced by Al-Shirkuh. The vast inner plains of sand and ash are still home to Jinn that continue to plot against their former slaves, fire giants launch raids from the Heart of Fire with impunity, whilst the remnants of two ancient rival empires have resurfaced and are determined to restore themselves to their former glories—the Ophidae or Naga empire of serpent people and the Hekatic Empire, a land of the undead ruled by necrotic Pharaohs! To the peoples of the coast, these and other places within the vast deserts are dangerous, but with their lost tombs and ancient, glittering cities, they are wondrous, full of magic and secrets ready to be won by those brave enough to seek them. That is of course if they can survive the dangers of travel across the desert. Danger and intrigue also lies on the coasts, including from assassins for hire, cults devoted to re-establishing the power of the Jinn, women plotting to overthrow the traditional order, and Wizirs—some mages, other not—aiming to overthrow their Sultan masters.

As with Hellfrost, the setting presented in Hellfrost: Land of Fire provides plenty of character options. In terms of Race, these include the Cakali, nomadic jackal men known for their sense of honour and their fearlessness; the hyena men or Hyaenidae, who scavenge the ruins in the desert and have a poor reputation due their greed and taunting yap; the Jinn Blooded, humans who are naturally capable of commanding Lesser Jinn and thus have an innate control of the elements; and Sand Goblins, also known as ‘Camel Goblins’, hunched creatures with wide feet who are capable surviving longer in the desert and walking across its sands with ease, who are known for being lazy and live as beggars, scavengers, and thieves. Lastly, Humans come in two cultural varieties, the city and coast dwelling Hadaree and the nomadic, desert dwelling Bedu. Both receive a free Edge or extra skill points.

In terms of character options, players have plenty to choose from. They can play Assassins, Beggars, Headsmen, Houri, Nomads, Pegasus Guards, Tomb Raiders, and more, most of which have related Edges. For example, the Headsman Edge grants the masked members of the Guild of Headsmen the right to conduct executions, including beheadings, using the Called Shot action; beggars can be Unfortunate Souls, members of a brotherhood who often seem to pass unnoticed and can rely upon each other; and Pegasus Guards are elite soldiers and messengers who bond with their pegasi mounts. This in addition to the range of Edges that fit the Arabian Nights genre of Hellfrost: Land of Fire, such as Storyteller, Desert Son, Mameluk Mercenary, and so on.

Our sample character is a highly persuasive assassin who uses her wiles and stories to beguile her intended victims. These are her weapons against them rather than straight out good looks and charisma. She is fascinated with history and folklore and takes pleasure their study as much as she does of her studying of her victims.

Husna bint Azhar – Hadaree Houri-Assassin
Attributes: Agility d8, Smarts d8, Spirit d8, Strength d4, Vigour d4
Skills: Fighting d8, Knowledge (Folklore) d8, Notice d4, Persuasion d8, Stealth d8, Streetwise d6
Charisma: +0
Glory: 0
Pace: 6” Parry: 6 Toughness: 4 Bennies: 3
Languages: Al-Waziran, Anari, Classical Anari, Holy Tongue
Hindrances: City Dweller, Code of Honour, Sea Fear
Edges: Diverse, Brotherhood of Assassins, Houri
Gear: Dagger (Str+d4)

Magic in the Land of Fire offers just as many options, though there is a deep divide between the Devoted and the Faithful. Beyond the cultural differences, only the Devoted study the arcane arts, whilst the Faithful worship the gods and receive miracles. Dervish Magic involves spinning and the longer a Dervish spins, the more effective his magic is, whilst Jinn Magic is not so much magic as commanding Lesser Jinn to control the elements—the Jinn Blooded are often adept at Jinn Magic. The art of Khem-Hekau is actually necromancy, whilst Sand Magic is the study and manipulation of the magical energy flowing through the deserts, essentially a sort of ‘desert druidism’. Ushabti magic involves the animation of inanimate objects which the caster must be able to touch the objects he is animating, including the temporary creation of flying carpets! Animate Object, a new spell, is regarded as a signature spell. Lastly Wizir Magic is divided into two types, although both draw from the connection that a Wizir has with a patron, such as a Sultan or rich merchant. Guardian Wizirs use magic to protect their patrons, whilst Counselors are advisers or spies.

That Hellfrost: Land of Fire is the counterpoint to Hellfrost is particularly self-evident in the range of options available to design the player characters. Essentially Cakali are the equivalent of Elves in Al-Shirkuh—more or less—whilst Sand Goblins are the equivalent of Rassilon’s Engros. In place of the Frostborn from the North, Al-Shirkuh has the Jinn-Blooded, and although it has elementalism in the form of Jinn Magic, fire is the favoured element rather than ice. Indeed, in the brazen heat of the southern deserts, the ice and cold magic of the Hrimwisards of the North is severely curtailed. Similarly, the Land of Fire has rules for its difficult environment—heat, ash, and fire, and of course, water and dehydration rather than the cold, ice, and snow. Other notable setting rules govern the types of arms and armour available. Notably, these state that the use of bronze is far more common for both, and armours worn tend to be lighter because of the heat. Surprisingly, silk is considered a type of armour since it slows arrows.

The bulk of Hellfrost: Land of Fire is devoted to a gazetteer. This covers everywhere from the coastal states such as the Caliphate of Al-Shirkuh and the Free Emirate States to the deep desert ruins of Hekata, the Realm of the Medusae, and the Jinn Lands of Old. Much of it is richly detailed, typically half a page or more per major location, but for all that detail, the supplement does feel underdeveloped in one or two ways. First, the effects of the climate change that is currently affecting the northern continent of Rassilon do not feel as desperate in Al-Shirkuh and this lack of desperation moves it away from the pre-apocalyptic feel of Hellfrost. This is not to say that a lighter tone is unwelcome—this is after all, a land of Arabian fantasy—but the lack of urgency in the threat overhanging Al-Shirkuh means that there is not the impetus playing out in Al-Shirkuh that there is in Rassilon. Second, this is not helped by the lack of advice for the GM or suggestions as what sort of campaigns could be run in this setting. After all, it could be argued that Hellfrost: Land of Fire is very much a standalone setting.

Hellfrost: Land of Fire is well presented and nicely illustrated. As a setting it can of course be presented as a counterpoint to the iciness of Hellfrost set in an Arabian Nights fantasy, but just as easily it could be played as an Arabian fantasy of its own. There is certainly enough supporting material—if not advice—to do either. Where Hellfrost: Land of Fire shines is in its character options, both in terms in what there is to play and what magic there is to cast; indeed, Hellfrost: Land of Fire provides wonderfully thematic characters to play and some thematically great magic to cast.

Friday, 15 May 2015

Onslaught and the Occult in the Orient

Achtung! Cthulhu: Guide to the Pacific Front is the third of three supplements for Modiphius Entertainment's World War 2 set RPG of Lovecraftian investigative horror to examine particular theatres of the great conflict. The previous two books examined the Eastern Front and North Africa—in Achtung! Cthulhu: Guide to the Russian Front and Achtung! Cthulhu: Guide to North Africa respectively. Now the line heads to the Far East where the investigators will face foes seemingly inhuman and alien across inhospitable terrain that ranges from the wide stretches of open ocean to the depths beneath fecund, even foetid jungle. From 1932 until 1944, it covers first Japan’s growing dominance of China and then her lightning series of strikes that will see country after country and colony fall as well as the pride of the United States Navy sunk, before the Allies manage to regroup and send their forces hopping from island to the next, driving the resource starved Japanese forces back to their home islands. All this whilst certain races of the Mythos and cults devoted to Alien gods watch and wait to see if they can take advantage of the chaos…

As with the rest of Acthung! Cthulhu line, the Guide to the Pacific Front is written for use with both Call of Cthulhu, Sixth Edition and Savage Worlds. Mechanics for both are clearly marked and whilst the supplement does present a large number of items—tomes and spells in particular—that will be familiar to devotees of Lovecraftian investigative roleplaying, this is primarily because they are being presented for the first time for Savage Worlds.

Before the Guide to the Pacific Front can begin covering the war itself, there are several decades of history to explore. These detail Japan’s meteoric modernisation and rise as a regional power, defeating first China and then Russia, before siding with the Allies in the Great War and capturing several former German colonies. Resentment towards her former allies coupled with rapid militarismthe latter often promoted and encouraged by the numerous secret societies made up of members of both the military and the government, drove Japan to invade China, Korea, and Manchuria before striking at the American Fleet at Pearl Harbour and then invading and conquering colonies and islands across South East Asia and the Pacific. Not is the rise and state of Japan described, but so is the state of the colonies and colonial powers across the region. The latter includes Great Britain, France, and the Netherlands, whilst the former includes India, Burma, French Indochina, Malaya, the Dutch East Indies, and others. The timeline itself only goes as far as 1944 and not to the end of the war—at least in our timeline. This is with good reason, as events in Europe in April, 1944 and the supplements Achtung! Cthulhu: Assault on the  Mountains of Madness and Achtung! Cthulhu: Bye Bye Baby mean that the history in the Achtung! Cthulhu world plays out entirely differently...

As difficult a subject as it is, the Guide to the Pacific Front does not shy away from Japan’s deplorable treatment of her Prisoners of War. In addition to the overview an uncomfortable subject, rules are provided to surviving the harsh conditions imposed by the Japanese attitude towards prisoners as well as a Prisoner of War Hindrance for creating a POW. This lends itself to being part of an Achtung! Cthulhu campaign, but whether the investigators begin or end a game as POWs—or perhaps experience it somewhere between—this would be a harrowing and inhuman experience.

Mechanically, the supplement presents a good range of new character options, both civilian and military. These range from Colonial Settler and Guerilla Fighter to Triad Gang Member to Tribal Member and from Chindits and Codetalkers to Gurkhas and US Marines. Means are provided to create random nationalities and military drafts as training packages for the Australian Coastwatchers and US Marine Raiders. In many cases, the player and Keeper alike will need to refer back to Achtung! Cthulhu: Investigator’s Guide to the Secret War for the other generic, yet still appropriate backgrounds and Occupations. Nevertheless, this is a good mix of options and ideas, that is further supported by a solid list of equipment—primarily Japanese—to support that also given in Achtung! Cthulhu: Investigator’s Guide to the Secret War, and a good guide to fighting and surviving in the harsh conditions of South East Asia and the Pacific Islands. This covers how the war is fought and its difficulties, whether that it is the problem of conducting an amphibious landing past a coral reef, the limited lines of sight beneath the jungle campaign, or simply just trying to keep the front lines supported when they are thousands of miles away. The rules here cover jungle visibility, booby traps, and the dangers of infected wounds in a hot and humid environment amongst others.

Where the Guide to North Africa completely ignored the Crawling Chaos who it would be perfectly unnatural to have present mocking our activities throughout the desert campaign and beyond, the pleasure in the Guide to the Pacific Front is that it does not ignore the Great Old One lurking in the room—or rather in the depths of the ocean. The supplement’s exploration of the Mythos is expansive and detailed, focusing on a limited number of cults, races, and gods, starting of course, with great Cthulhu himself—or rather the cult and the races devoted to him. The focus is upon his servants rather than the Great Old One himself, so this not only includes the Deep Ones, and Mother Hydra and Father Dagon, but also his sons—Zoth-Ommog, Ythogtha, and Ghatanotha. Their inclusion pushes the supplement into some obscure aspects of the Mythos. They and their father and his cult are presented as potential allies rather than as active participants in the affairs of mankind. The Tcho-Tcho are treated in similar fashion, a detailed potential ally, but the Serpent People are not. Rather, in addition to going into detail about their origins and their reawakening, the Guide to the Pacific Front talks about their long range plans and their active interest in the doings of mankind. In fact, they appear to be most active of all the Mythos forces in the theatre and this makes them easier to use then the more passive Cthulhu Cult and Tcho-Tcho. Further, the long range plans of the Serpent People lends itself to a full campaign, one that could take beyond the end of World War 2.

Besides the races, gods, and entities of the Mythos, gives a number new artefacts, spells, and tomes. Most of them—such as the Cthaat Aquadingen and Thaumaturgical Prodigies in the New-England Canaan—are new to Savage Worlds rather than Call of Cthulhu.

What is apparent from the description of the Mythos in the Pacific is—barring the plans of the Serpent People—how little human agency is involved. This is radically different to the war in the West, where the Nazi secret organisations of Achtung! CthulhuBlack Sun and Nachte Wölfe—are actively researching and ‘co-opting’ the Mythos. In the Pacific, neither organisation is particularly active and the Japanese seem to possess almost no knowledge of the Mythos. This seems almost true of the Allies as well, Department M is hardly present and there appears to be no active opposition or investigation of the outré aspects of the war. Of course, this leaves it open for a Keeper to develop this aspect himself, but some direction would have been useful, more so given how good the Mythos material is in Guide to the Pacific Front.

Rounding out the Guide to the Pacific Front are descriptions of numerous NPCs. As with the other supplements, the real world figures are given just a description rather than a description and stats. This understandable, but the descriptions are decent and the stats given to the ordinary NPCs are good. The latter includes NPC versions of the Occupations given earlier, but notably also gives stats for some surprising NPCs—members of the INA, the Indian National Army that fought the British in the jungles of Burma. Lastly, the supplement includes a trio of adventure seeds the send the investigators to some interesting places.

Physically, the Guide to the Pacific Front is well presented, being neat and tidy, and decently illustrated, with a lot of good information. Like the Guide to North Africa, lots of extra information can be found in the boxed text that appears fairly regularly. Yet as presented as the supplement is, in terms of the writing, it is a book of two halves. The first half, which deals with the history of, and the background to, the conflict in the East and how it was fought is simply overwritten and stylistically, often a challenge to read. Now to be fair, I am reading the book as both a reviewer and an editor, and so when it comes to the writing I may be overly sensitive, but there were occasions when I had to put the book down, walk away, and then come back to it later. Fortunately, the second half of the book, the half that deals with the Mythos is infinitely easier to read and thus much more engaging.

Achtung! Cthulhu: Guide to the Pacific Front is not a perfect book. The writing is uneven in places and aspects of the book are underwritten, but it is a good book. It provides an excellent overview of the conflict in the Far East and how it was fought, the rules and armoury are solidly done in supporting the overview, and fundamentally, its treatment of the Mythos is nicely detailed and does not feel as if it sits in isolation from Call of Cthulhu cannon. Achtung! Cthulhu: Guide to the Pacific Front is a solid treatment of the war in the Pacific, whether fighting against the ordinary or the outré.

Monday, 11 May 2015

Foreshadowing The Lord of the Rings

One of the promises of The One Ring RPG, published by Cubicle Seven Entertainment is that the Company—the group of player characters—has the chance to affect the fate of Mirkwood. The Tale of Years, as related in the game’s core book, tells of how in the years following the Battle of the Five Armies and the White Council’s casting out of the Necromancer from his stronghold of Dol Guldur in southern Mirkwood, a shadow fell upon the forest once again and threatened to spread fear and despair amongst all the free peoples of the North. Although the strength of Elves will eventually prevail, many will perish or disappear if those true of heart do not stand against the darkness that has once again returned to cast a pall under the trees…

This section of the Tale of Years is known as the Darkening of Mirkwood, which is also the name of the campaign that details this threat to the northern realms. The Darkening of Mirkwood is the companion campaign to excellent The Heart of the Wild, the supplement that details the lands, peoples, and environs of the river and the forest—the Vale of Anduin and the trackless forests of Mirkwood. It takes place between the years 2947 and 2977, presenting annual opportunities for the heroes to venture forth and explore and adventure, to make names and reputations for themselves, to find both friends and their places in north, to uncover its true secrets, and at the very least, hold back the shadow.

To properly run The Darkening of Mirkwood the Loremaster will also need a copy of The Heart of the Wild, for much of background and setting material relevant to the campaign is published in that book. The Loremaster's Screen and Lake-town Sourcebook  may be of use should the Company travel that far north, whilst the Loremaster can use the scenarios from Tales from Wilderland as extras to those detailed in The Darkening of Mirkwood—at least at the start. As it progresses, the Company will become more involved with the campaign’s events rather than the relatively minor details of the adventures given in Tales from Wilderland.

The campaign is structured into five parts. They are ‘The Last Good Years: 2947-2950’, ‘The Return of the Shadow: 2951-2960’, ‘The Gathering Gloom; 2961-2966’, ‘The Years of the Plague: 2967-2974’, and ‘The Darkening of Mirkwood: 295-2977’. The campaign is then further broken down year by year, with each year organised in similar fashion into three sections—Events, the Adventuring Phase, and the Fellowship Phase. The first of these details events far and wide pertinent to the campaign. Some of these the company will learn about the same year, but others it will not find out about for years, unsurprising given that travel across Middle Earth is primarily by foot and then mostly by traders rather than average farmer or craftsman. This both adds to the sense of isolation of the regions in and around Mirkwood and enforces one of the company’s roles—bringing news.

The Adventuring Phase takes up the majority of each year. They vary in terms of both length and complexity, their possible activities also varying widely. One year the company might find itself hunting with the Elves, another dealing with mad Dwarves, another helping out one of the wizards—typically Radaghast the Brown, and so on. Increasingly, as the campaign progresses, the company will find itself more and more involved in the affairs and activities of the Woodfolk, the politics of the region, and more, missions that take it back and forth across Mirkwood. Given that the campaign covers thirty years of game time, The Darkening of Mirkwood gives some thirty of these adventures, all of them presenting a good mix of roleplaying and gaming challenges.

At the end of each year comes the Fellowship Phase when the Company has a chance to reflect upon the events of the year just gone. Some years nothing special will present itself during the Fellowship Phase and a Companion might simply adhere to Undertakings such as rest, attempt to resist the effects of the Shadow upon his heart, improve his Hope, or perhaps increase a skill. Yet during the Fellowship Phases of other years a Companion might have the opportunity to establish a Holding and thus find a place in a community—typically in one of the Woodfolk settlements, to research the history of certain events, to consult with wizards, to gain a companion, and so on.

Rounding out the campaign is an appendix containing an expanded bestiary. This is in addition to the beasts and foes described in The Heart of the Wild and certainly includes some major additions. Not just Forest Goblins, Hunter Spiders, and Wood-Wights, but also the primary agents of the Necromancerand by this we mean the nazgûl! Theirs is a growing presence throughout the campaign, understandably one that the Company would be wise to avoid.

In addition to the stats for the new creatures, The Darkening of Mirkwood also provides rules for Holdings, properties that a Companion can own and develop. They might be a farm, a tavern, a smithy, or land worked by others. For example, Bilbo Baggins’ Bag End can be treated as a Holding, as can Sam Gamgee’s gardening job. Each of these two Holdings—and every Holding—will typically generate enough income for a Companion to maintain his Standard of Living. Roll high enough though, and a Holding will generate Treasure and even a minor boon! Holdings are yet another means of tying a Companion into the campaign, because they grant said Companion a stake in the fate of the region. Conversely, the growing threat presented during the campaign will impinge on the capacity of Holdings to support the Companion, and indeed, anyone who relies upon it for his Standard of Living.

Physically, The Darkening of Mirkwood is well presented and maintains the standards set by previous books in The One Ring RPG line. As a campaign, The Darkening of Mirkwood starts out slow and builds, nicely presenting an incredibly dangerous threat that creeps into the region and grows ever so slowly until the heroes and armies of the free peoples of the North have no choice but to confront it. This is accompanied by a shift in tone, from relatively low key up to something verging almost on high fantasy in which the player are roleplaying not just Companions, but also heroes. Not of the stature of the Fellowship of the Ring of course, but heroes nonetheless. In doing so the campaign presents some thirty adventures and thus months of potential gaming time. The Darkening of Mirkwood is the campaign that The One Ring has been waiting, ably developing what amount to mere footnotes in Tolkien’s writings and involving  the player characters the holding back of the Shadow until the One Ring can be found.

Wednesday, 6 May 2015

Sweet Charnel Decay

The primary focus of Pelgrane Press’ clue orientated RPG of Lovecraftian investigative horror, Trail of Cthulhu is the desperate decade—the 1930s. Yet it is no stranger to other time periods, in particular, the Great War. Author Adam Gauntlett has penned a number of scenarios set within the four years of the global conflict that took place between 1914 and 1918 that have taken the investigators soaring into the skies in Flying Coffins, diving into the depths in Sisters of Sorrow, and slipping behind the trenches in Not So Quiet, each time to face a strange new sanity searing threat to humanity that is taking advantage of the carnage and chaos of the Great War.

With Dulce et Decorum Est: Great War Trail of Cthulhu, Gauntlett revisits the conflict to further explore the advantage taken by certain entities of the Mythos and in the process present rules for handling the conflict in the air, at sea, and on land in this new mechanical age of war; set out a campaign framework and give scenarios old and new. In previous visits to the Great War by Lovecraftian investigative horror—in particular by No Man’s Land for Call of Cthulhu—the Mythos entities associated with such mass conflict have been the feasters upon the dead, that is, ghouls. Here the author takes this to the next logical step and places the Great Old One, Mordiggian, as the Great War’s darkest celebrant and patron. The Charnel God was not the instigator of the Great War, but it is pleased to participate and further encourage the loss of life on a massive scale—one more sign that the End Times near?

Thus according to Dulce et Decorum Est, the greater the devastation and the greater the scale of death, the more likely that Mordiggian will manifest. This might be as simple as the ghost-like Angel of Mons, but it might a personal manifestation. Either way, the aim of both is to drive men to greater acts of death and destruction. Whilst Mordiggian shares an interest in mankind with Nyarlathotep, unlike that of the Crawling Chaos, he is not malicious and manipulative, but malign and monomaniacal, concerned only with death. Often worshipped by those with an interest in necromancy, Mordiggian rarely dispenses boons, but nevertheless, given the patriotic fervour with which the war is supported at home by both sides, it is no surprise that the Charnel God is worshipped by cultists on both sides. Thus cultists are given for both sides in Dulce et Decorum Est. One, Agathe von Plon, previously appeared as the villain in Flying Coffins, whilst the others, the Balfour sisters, are distant relations to the author of the infamous tome, Cultes des Ghouls and together lead The Order of the White Feather, which actively supports the war and decries any signs of cowardice.

Dulce et Decorum Est offers four campaign settings and three scenarios. The four campaigns start with ‘The Home Front’, amidst the burgeoning feminism and sexuality of women doing men’s job as the popularity of the war grows and grows, before moving closer and closer to the Western Front. This is exacerbated in the second campaign setting, ‘Paris: The city of Tears’, and combined with the whirlwind chaos of soldiery passing through, nightly bombing, and keeping the troops entertained. The third, ‘15th New York Volunteer Infantry Regiment: A Season in Hell’, sees the Charnel God take advantage of, and drive on, the pride of an African-American infantry regiment, whilst the fourth, ‘Sinai and Palestine: Shadows in the Desert’, mixes espionage and guerilla warfare of Lawrence of Arabia with the Mythos.

‘Vaterland’, the first of the three scenarios is a prequel of sorts to Flying Coffins. It is set in 1914 aboard the Vaterland, a German passenger liner that has been chained up in New York harbour to prevent it being used ship supplies in support of the German war effort. The investigators are ‘yellow journalists’ sent to attend a concert being held aboard the Vaterland in support of Germany, one that is being attended by William Randolph Hearst! Is the concert a cover for a German spy ring? If so, could Hearst be German spy! This is why the investigators’ editor sends them aboard the Vaterland, but the truth of the matter is that the investigators are unlikely to uncover exactly what is going before everything goes awry. As the lights go out in the bowels of the passenger liner, the investigators find themselves trapped in the visions of the horrors to come and must find their way out of those as much as the ship itself. A relatively short, straightforward and confined affair, ‘Vaterland’ is a primarily interesting because of its setting, one that plays against our anti-German notions of the period. The inclusion of Hearst as an NPC adds an interesting wrinkle and a certain impetus to the scenario.

The second scenario is ‘Dead Horse Corner’ and fits more readily into our narrative of the Great War. The investigators are soldiers, members of the Royal Engineers, sent up the line to a forward observation post to re-establish contact with the unit assigned there and repair a broken telephone line. Under intermittent shell fire and sniper fire, the investigators find themselves isolated and at first haunted, then hunted by something in the valley. Again a relatively short scenario, it nicely builds on a strong sense of isolation and of the three scenarios in the book, is probably best suited to add to an ongoing campaign set during the Great War.

‘Sisters of Sorrow’ is the third and final scenario in Dulce et Decorum Est. It is also the only reprint and thus has already been reviewed here. Set aboard a German mine-laying submarine,  ‘Sisters of Sorrow’ is all about the infectiousness of paranoia and desperation in confined spaces. After all, nowhere could be more confined than an Unterseeboot in the middle of a Royal Navy blockade in the North Sea when the danger comes from below.

As well as a timeline of the war, the supplement presents a number of new rules. This includes the Military Talk and Battlefield Lore Abilities—the former for interacting with members of the military and its bureaucracy, the latter for knowing about and the way around a battlefield. For the most part the new rules consist of subsets for handling the different physical environments that the war is fought in, that is, on land, in the air, and at sea. The rules for both aerial and naval combat are not new rules, having been drawn from ‘Sisters of Sorrow’ for the naval rules and from Flying Coffins for the aerial rules, but their inclusion here is fitting. The new rules for ground combat cover the digging of trenches and laying of fortifications, trench warfare—including gas warfare, and the first incidences of armoured warfare—including both tanks and armoured cars. Whilst all these rules are appropriate, what is missing is a guide to creating investigators for any of these theatres of conflict, since many of the participants will be new to the military life and had jobs before enlisting.

Physically, Dulce et Decorum Est is solidly presented.The art is excellent, though the writing feels a little rushed in places. If the supplement is lacking, it is in the lack of overarching advice for the Keeper on running a campaign set during the Great War, but as a whole though, Dulce et Decorum Est gives the tools for the Keeper to run scenarios set during the war, plus numerous good ideas and three solid, though all too short scenarios. 

Tuesday, 28 April 2015

More is less

In 2009 James Raggi IV launched Lamentations of the Flame Princess with a very singular calling card—Death Frost Doom. Inspired by the dark imagery of his musical tastes and the horror he liked to read, Raggi’s scenario was unlike anything that the Old School Renaissance had seen, although in the five years since, he has brought numerous weird horror scenarios to the hobby—many of which I have had the pleasure to edit or review. Death Frost Doom was remarkable for its atmosphere, for it was a scenario in which almost nothing happened. Further it could be dropped into almost any setting. It consisted of lonely, snow bound and wind swept mountain, one with a dark, unspoken reputation that means that the local populace of the valleys below avoid it. This is despite their believing that the halls within the mountain are said to hide a great treasure, though one protected by an ancient, slumbering evil.

If the player characters ascended the mountain what they found was a lonely, mad old man, a strangely furnished cabin, and below it an oddly empty dungeon containing almost nothing and no-one to fight. Unfortunately, the locals are correct—the mountain does harbour an ancient evil and if the player characters are too curious, they will let loose not just the ‘Doom’ upon themselves, but upon everyone in the valleys below and beyond.If all goes well, the scenario is designed to end with the ‘heroes’ fleeing down the snowy slopes with an army of the undead hard on their heels, knowing that it is entirely their curiosity that has got them there. Also notable, was what replaced the things to fight and the things to kill of any other Dungeons & Dragons-style scenario were details that added atmosphere and a sense of the weird to the exploration before the ‘Doom’. Death Frost Doom remains a classic scenario, arguably one of the best published as part of the Old School Renaissance.

Arguably though, Death Frost Doom was not perfect. Its elements were disjointed and the only thing that would bring about its deadly denouement was player curiosity. The primary motivation for the players in the scenario—unless the GM added more—was to find out if there was more to the dungeon than was readily apparent. To answer the question, “Is there more to it than this?” It is some of these issues that the new, fifth anniversary edition of Death  Frost Doom addresses as well as answering that question. Co-authored with Zak Smith—best known for Vornheim: The Complete City Kit and A Red & Pleasant Land—the new edition comes as a handsome little hardback, complete with new artwork and new maps. This is a major revision of the scenario, one that does not violate either the scenario’s structure or its story, but adds detail and pacing that makes it much more of a coherent whole.

In fact, this new edition comes with a wealth of detail, begun in the cabin atop the mountain and here continued into the dungeon below. Here every room is fully detailed and many more of the rooms have a purpose, typically to hint at the secrets that lie at the heart of the dungeon. The stand-out room here is the Chapel, which in true grand guignol style includes a giant organ with human finger bones as its keys and human thigh bones as its pipes. The effect of this detail is to intrigue the players and thus push them to investigate further.  This process is also eased by the pacing—there is a timing mechanism, a countdown, that moves events in the dungeon onto its intended  denouement and the secrets themselves are ever so slightly easy to decipher.

Where the original dungeon had almost nothing in the way of NPCs, the dungeon now has a several of them, a set of vile creations that will have the players rueing that they ever encountered them.  They are though, evidence that the new edition there comes with a marked change in tone—twice. The first of these is in the horror, which as the scenario progresses becomes more physical  and sanguinary in nature. The second is Zak Smith’s writing style, which is lighter in tone than that of James Raggi IV and in places does suffer for it, descending as it does into silliness. Fortunately, enough of the Lamentations of the Flame Princess trademark ‘screw the players’ elements are present to keep the tone on track.

Lastly, what has been replaced in this anniversary edition is the secondary adventure, ‘The Tower’. To be honest, it is no great loss, and anyway, the inclusion of James Raggi’s retrospective of the original Death Frost Doom and its art is far more appropriate.

The new edition of Death Frost Doom is physically a far superior book. It comes as a handy little hardback, with better maps and much more oppressive artwork. Its contents are better organised and easier to spot on the page with pertinent facts highlighted in almost bullet point fashion.

There is no doubt that the original Death Frost Doom was a great dungeon. Seeing it back in print was always going to be welcome, but some of the changes in the anniversary are perhaps not so. The addition of the blood and the gore take away from the subtlety of the original, but the wealth of new detail more than makes up for that.  Death Frost Doom was, and still is, a great scenario, strong on atmosphere and rich in detail.