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

Sunday, 21 December 2014

Steampunk Soldiery Spotter's Guide

After the Great Meteor Shower of 1862, the world would never be the same. For the meteorites contained a substance that turned out to be an incredible energy source—Hephaestium. Its discovery and refinement would lead to unprecedented technological development and innovation, each of the Great Powers harnessing both Hephaestium and the technological advances to their own ends. In particular, to protecting their empires! Thus Great Britain enhanced its railway network with the Ulster Bridge and Shetland Run, built the first circumnavigation cruisers, and of course, strengthened her Royal Navy. Bismark fielded first Prussia’s and then Germany’s new armoured Sturmtruppen and Kaiser-class armoured infantry in a lightening series of wars that saw him cow Denmark and then in turn defeat each of the little Germanic kingdoms, princedoms, duchies, and so on. While her domestic armies were often mutinous, France had great success in her colonies, for example, the Peugeot-built steam-powered exoskeleton-equipped Foreign Legion units lived up to their ‘March or die!’ motto in driving the Chinese out of Indochina in a counterattack that would be followed by an invasion of China in 1876. Russia experimented with both the chemical properties of Hephaestium and submarines, the Ottoman Empire with automatons derived from German designs, the Austro-Hungarian Empire lured Nicolai Tesla back to develop a variety of Hephaestium-powered electro-weapons, while Italy, with no access to the precious meteorite, became Europe’s rogue state. Its intelligence services have stolen blue prints and prototypes, sabotaged others, and kidnapped scientists—they may be perfidious, but they are extremely capable. Perhaps the most radically changed country is the USA where at the height of its Civil War, General Lee’s land ironclads forced back the Union forces and held them to a stalemate until hostilities ceased in 1869. Thus North America has remained divided between the USA, the Confederate States of America, and Canada ever since…

This is the background against which the forgotten British artist, Miles Vandercroft travelled the sketching and painting the soldiery of the age. This artwork has been rediscovered and brought together in a handsome book published by Osprey Books under its Osprey Adventures line, Steampunk Soldiers: Uniforms & Weapons from the Age of Steam. It purports to be a guide to the vivid and striking uniforms worn by the armies and the steam-powered weaponry and equipment fielded by these armies in the years between the fall of the meteors and the Great War of the Worlds. The descriptions of these uniforms, the arms and armour, and the units and the battles they fought, do much to capture some of the period’s pageantry and both honour and dishonour!

Of course, Steampunk Soldiers: Uniforms & Weapons from the Age of Steam is anything but this. It is not a pictorial guide to the past, but a past that never was. A Steampunk Age of fantastic invention, intrigue, and warfare that is captured in this collection of gorgeous colour plates each accompanied by an intriguing description. For example, where did the 24th Regiment of Foot disappear to from Portsmouth in 1886? What brought Austria and France to war in which the French 6th Engineers used steam-powered drills to break into the supposedly impregnable Austrian castle of Hochosterwitz? There are hints and mentions of events like this throughout the book.

In places the authors have their tongues firmly ensconced in cheeks. For example, the be-kilted Highlander Battlesuits worn by the members of The Black Watch not only comes with a claymore sword, but automatic bagpipes that play Scotland the Brave! One interesting aside about the artwork in Steampunk Soldiers is that it has a certain familiarity to it. Many of the art is posed in a similar fashion to pieces used in a range of other Osprey Books.

There is an undoubted pleasure to be had in reading through the pages of Steampunk Soldiers, but its intriguing nature irks as much as it delights. For the reader is very much left wanting more; if not necessarily more images and more descriptions, but very much more background, more backstory, more detail. The implied background of this new Age of Steam begs for a second book, one with more explicit history. For what Steampunk Soldiers begs for is something that can be gamed—either as roleplaying or a wargaming setting. Naturally, there is nothing to stop a gamer from building such a setting from the material and background included, but it will take no little effort. (Of course, it is a pity that no suggestions are given as what games might be used to this end, but that would break conceit at the heart of Steampunk Soldiers.)

Ultimately, this is one book whose content is something that you want to a read a little more about. Easy to dip into and peruse for ideas, Steampunk Soldiers: Uniforms & Weapons from the Age of Steam is a charming and engaging book that begs for a sequel or more information.

Saturday, 20 December 2014

Ogrecave.com Christmas Dozen 2014

Since 2001, Ogrecave.com has run a series of lists in December, suggesting not necessarily the best board and roleplaying games of the preceding year, but the titles from the last twelve months that you might like to receive and give. Continuing the break with traditionin that the following is just the one list and in that for reasons beyond our control, this list is not appearing at OgreCave.comReviews from R’lyeh would once again like present its own list. Further, as is also traditional, Reviews from R’lyeh has not devolved into the need to cast about “Baleful Blandishments” to all concerned or otherwise based upon the arbitrary organisation of days. So as Reviews from R’lyeh presents the Baker’s Dozenth’s Ogrecave.com Christmas List Dozen, we can only hope that the Baker’s Dozen below includes one of your favourites, or even better still, includes a game that you do not have and someone is happy to hide in gaudy paper and place under that dead tree for you.

-oOo-


Dungeons & Dragons Starter Set 
(Wizards of the Coast), $19.99/£16.99
If you are going to list some of the best games of 2014, then you have to deal with the ‘elephant’—or rather the ‘dragon’ in the room, for 2014 saw the return of the number one roleplaying game. 

Forty years after the original version was released, Wizards of the Coast published Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition. This new version of the classic RPG is immensely accessible and very playable, and there is no better place to start but with the Dungeons & Dragons Starter Set. It includes everything necessary to play: the basic rules, a set of five pre-generated characters, a good adventure, and of course, dice. This is a great way to bring old players to the game and a great way for old players to bring new players to the game, and the provided scenario, ‘Lost Mine of Phandelver’, is an excellent starting point, offering plenty of play before the DM (and the players) needs to invest in the Player’s Handbook.



Machi Koro
(IDW Games), $19.99/£16.99
Japanese games came of age in the English language hobby in 2014 when the highly regarded Love Letter and Trains both won Origins awards. This year they were joined by the easy-to-play and ever so cute, Machi Koro, published by IDW Games. It is a simple card and dice game in which all the players have to do is roll the die (or dice), check the buildings on their cards and get some income, and then buy another building or even improve their suburbs with landmarks. 

Each player is the mayor of suburb whose inhabitants wants better landmarks; build four landmarks and he wins the game. This is ever so easy-to-learn, quick-to-play, and can be enjoyed by the casual player and the seasoned gamer alike. Plus there are expansions to come which will provide more cards and thus more buildings. Which means more options. In the meantime, the core box for Machi Koro is simply fun.

You Are The Hero:
A History of Fighting Fantasy™ Gamebooks
 
(Snow Books) $45/£40
2014 was a great year for gaming and the history of gaming. You Are the Hero looked at one aspect of gaming history and then one aspect of that aspect… By that we mean that it explored the history of the British Fighting Fantasy™ series of solo adventure books rather than the history of the solo adventure books. This delves back to the origins of the publishing phenomenon that put The Warlock of Firetop Mountain and nearly sixty subsequent titles on the shelves of bookshops around the round and accumulated millions of sales, before going on to examine each and every entry in the series, and then the board games, computer games, magazines, and more. All commented upon by both the creators and the fans. This is also a history in part of the British gaming scene, but mostly it is a loving look at the Fighting Fantasy™ series that enabled us to go on fantastic adventures in the comforts of our own homes before the digital age.

Ivor the Engine
(Surprised Stare Games) $42.50/£25.00
Some games have ‘meeples’ or ‘my people’. Only one game has ‘sheeple’ or ‘sheep meeple’. That is, little wooden sheep; and that game is the most charming game of the year—Ivor the Engine.

Based on the BBC children’s television classic, this game sees the players come to the aid of a small green locomotive who lives in the “top left-hand corner of Wales” and works for The Merioneth and Llantisilly Railway Traction Company Limited with the help of his driver, Jones the Steam. Their prime task is tidying up all of the escaped sheep, but they can also complete jobs and so visit places such as Grumbly Gasworks and Gwynaudolion Halt, Mrs Porty’s House and Pugh’s Farm, and Tan-Y-Gwlch and Dinwiddy’s Gold Mine. Fans of the television series will enjoy the references, whilst those new to them will find them equally as charming. Although this looks a lot like a children’s game, it is competitive enough that experienced gamers can pick and play it with gusto. Plus it comes with little wooden sheep. Really cute little wooden sheep.

Firefly Role-Playing Game
(Margaret Weis Productions) $49.99/£31.99
Although we got a good taster of the game last year with Gaming In The ‘Verse, this year we finally got to see how shiny the Firefly Role-Playing Game really is. It lived up to that tag, because the game not only takes you step-by-step through every Firefly episode, but through the rules at the same time, so the original television series truly serves as a big set of fat examples of play. It is a great way to learn the Cortex Plus mechanics—the best yet—and once learned you can play out the further adventures of Mal Reynolds and the crew of the Serenity, or even better create your own crew and your own ship and chance all of the possibilities and dangers of being out in the Black. With the Cortex Plus rules, everyone’s character comes alive, not just what they do, but also what they hold dear and what just might make life difficult for them and their crew. Life don’t go easy in the ‘Verse and the Firefly Role-Playing Game is designed to bring that to your adventures and make them as dramatic as Joss Whedon’s Firefly.

Colt Express
(Ludonaute) $54.99/£27.99
There is a train coming down the track—and you are going to rob it! The year is 1899 and the Union Pacific Express is heading out of New Mexico with the Nice Valley Coal Company's weekly pay aboard. So you and fellow bandits have boarded the train and must race down the carriages, stealing bags of money and jewels from the passengers, punching and shooting at each other, climbing up to the roof (and running along the rooftops), all trying to get to the front of the train where Marshal is guarding the $1000 payroll. 

In this fun game, the players take turns to program what their bandits will do over the course of each round. Some of these actions will be seen by everyone, but whenever the train goes through a tunnel, none of the bandits can see what each other is going do. Once everyone has programmed their actions, they are revealed in order, and guess what? No plan ever survives contact with the enemy, or in the case of Colt Express, contact with rival bandits, the passengers, and the Marshal. So plans go awry, punches are landed where you never expected, gunshots miss, and some rotten stinking, varmit steals the loot before you do! All of which takes place aboard a fantastic cardboard train that comes as part of the game. So get ready for some schemin’ and stealin’ and see if you can leave the Colt Express with the most loot!

Designers & Dragons
(Evil Hat Productions) $80
2014 was an important year for the roleplaying hobby. Not only was it the fortieth anniversary of the original version of Dungeons & Dragons—and thus of the very hobby itself—but it also saw the return to our shelves of the very first roleplaying game with Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition. So there has never been a better year in which to look back at our hobby and that is exactly what Shannon Appelcline has done with Designers & Dragons, a four volume examination of the roleplaying hobby, decade by decade, publisher by publisher, trend by trend, from 1974 right up to the present day. In the process updating the original series that ran at RPG.net and was previous published by Mongoose Publishing. A useful reference for the ‘grognard’ looking to refresh his memory or delve into some nostalgia as it is for the newcomer wanting to know where it all started, Designers & Dragons is the definitive history of the hobby.


Player’s Handbook
(Wizards of the Coast) $49.95/£29.99
When you have exhausted all of the possibilities of the Dungeons & Dragons Starter Set or want to more choices when playing ‘Lost Mine of Phandelver’, its included scenario, then what you need is the Player’s Handbook, also published for Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition.

This new volume gives everything that player needs to play (minus dice) and gives him choices aplenty in terms of what he can play. All the classics are present—Elves and Orcs, Fighters and Wizards, plus Dragonborn and Tiefling, and Sorcerer and Warlock; and then all new in this edition, character options that support actual roleplaying rules. The Player’s Handbook not only supports playing adventures of the DM’s own devising, but also those published for Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition, and then for almost every scenario published in the last forty years (with just a very little work, of course)! This is an easy-to-read, easy-to-grasp introduction to the world’s number one roleplaying game—and it is truly great to see it back on the shelves at our games stores.

Star Realms
(White Wizard Games) $14.99/£12.99
Star Realms is a deck building card game of starship combat. Specifically designed for two players, it sees them start small with just some Scout ships to generate money and Viper ships to inflict damage on the enemy. With the money a player can buy better ships, bases, outputs, and more from four factions. These include the Blobs with their strong combat vessels, the Machines which destroy their own ships and enemy bases, the Star Empire which can quickly bring its own ships into play or force the enemy ships to retreat, and the Trade Federation which generates wealth and Authority (the game’s equivalent of health points).

Each player is free to purchase ships, bases, and outposts of whichever faction he can afford, and with both players buying from the same deck, the competition is on—not only to see who can generate money enough to purchase ships and build a good deck, but also use the deck to the best of its ability to destroy his opponent! All of this—just 128 superbly illustrated cards—fits neatly into a tiny box and is just as easy on the pocket!

Pandemic: The Cure
(Z-Man Games) $49.99/£37.99
Ogrecave.com has been a fan of Matt Leacock’s Pandemic since it was released in 2008. The infamous co-operative game pitches four players against the game itself as they race to find the cures for four diseases that are ravaging the world whilst trying to prevent them from spreading and further outbreaks from occurring. That though was a board and card game, but now the designer has turned the Pandemic concept into a fast playing dice game: Pandemic: The Cure. Now the players not only have to rush from continent to continent treating diseases, they also need to take and collect samples enough to roll for a cure! In the original version of Pandemic, the diseases were represented by cubes and their appearance controlled by city cards, but in Pandemic: The Cure the diseases are represented by dice—dice that are rolled to see where they appear and then if the players have collected enough, rolled again to see if a cure can be found for the disease—and until a cure is rolled, the samples have to be stored somewhere and that somewhere is the players’ dice. Which means that the players give up possible actions in order to focus on a cure. Pandemic: The Cure is quick playing dice game that presents as much challenge as the original Pandemic, but in a slightly different fashion. Just remember to wear gloves—after all, the diseases are the dice!

Mindjammer: The Roleplaying Game
(Mindjammer Press) $54.99/£34.99
In this FATE Core powered Science Fiction RPG, the New Commonality of Humankind is spreading out from Earth using relatively recently discovered faster-than-light technology and rediscovering colonies founded centuries before using generation ships. Yet as these lost colonies are found and reintegrated into interstellar culture, the New Commonality of Humankind finds itself facing cultural adulteration from these previously isolated worlds. This sets up the central conflict at the heart of Mindjammer, played out on a frontier of old new worlds as a space opera with Transhuman elements, that plays out across the physical universe as much as it does the virtual world known as the Mindscape, a shared reality that connects all of the Commonality. This is a setting in which it is possible to play a sentient starship, the memories of a dead man downloaded into a robot, a genetically engineered soldier, and more. Mindjammer: The Roleplaying Game is a game with not just the scope to play out a campaign in its highly detailed setting, but also the capacity to be taken apart and used as parts of kit for the GM to create and design aliens, technologies, worlds, and more to create a campaign of his own devising.


Castles of Mad King Ludwig
(Bezier Games) $59.99/£47.99
Have you ever wanted to build Neuschwanstein, the ‘Swan Castle’ of King Ludwig II of Bavaria? As pleased as he is with that castle, the good king has asked you to build the biggest, the best, the most extravagant castle ever—all subject to his mercurial nature and whims. Which means that each of the architects/builders must build their castle at one room at time, even as they are actually selling rooms to their rival builders!

Beginning with a simple foyer, a player tries to build the most fantastic castle possible, whether that is outside, upstairs, or downstairs in the storerooms (and dungeons). Every turn is challenging because the player take turns being the Master Builder who sets the prices for the randomly drawn buildings and gets paid when his rival builders purchase them. As the game progresses, a player will add new rooms and as he completes each room by ensuring that all entrances of the room are connected to other rooms, he will score points and gain special benefits, such as another turn, more points, or more money. At game’s end a player can score bonus points based on the random goals set at the start of the game. The random nature of King Ludwig’s whims and thus of the game means that Castles of Mad King Ludwig is worth playing again and again—after all, everyone loves castles and getting to build castles is the best way to show this love.

-oOo-


So that was the Ogrecave.com Christmas Dozen for 2014. Yet, 2014 also marks the Ogrecave.com Christmas Dozen’s ‘Baker’s Dozen’, the thirteenth year of the Ogrecave.com Christmas Dozen. So only seems fitting that for this thirteenth list, it should be a Baker’s Dozen—meaning thirteen entries, not twelve! Thus we round out this year’s list with the other elephant in room that just snuck under the wire to qualify for 2014 and not 2015, where the elephant is both the setting and the price!

Star Wars: Imperial Assault 
(Fantasy Flight Games) $100/£79.99

There is no bigger game in 2014 than Star Wars: Imperial Assault and no board game with a bigger canvas! This is a miniatures game in which the heroes of the Rebellion are pitched against the Stormtroopers and the villains of the Galactic Empire in two modes. The campaign game sees a group of elite Rebel operatives on desperate missions to undermine the Empire which ruthlessly protects its interests and holdings, whilst the skirmish game is a two-player head-to-head fight between Imperial and Rebel strike teams for the same objectives. 

The game comes packed with detailed miniatures and full colour interlocking map sections, as well as the Luke Skywalker Ally Pack and the Darth Vader Villain Pack, giving another miniature each and yet more missions. This is a big game on which to play out a big story, whether exploring the events of the Star Wars tale and bringing back your Rebel operatives back again and again, each time getting better and better with successful missions, or designing armies to pitch against each in skirmish mode. Star Wars: Imperial Assault offers play aplenty and being set in the Star Wars universe means that there are expansions and thus more play to come!

Tuesday, 16 December 2014

2004: Castles & Crusades

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

-oOo-

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

Yet at a time when the hobby thought that the d20 System could do everything, Troll Lord Games went and showed you what it did well, not with something new, but with something old. Something old in a slightly new way. What the designers at Troll Lord Games did was strip back the d20 System so that it did not emulate Dungeons & Dragons, Third Edition, the then current version of the game, but instead emulated older editions of the game. In particular, Dungeons & Dragons and Basic Dungeons & Dragons, the versions of the RPG that essentially predated Advanced Dungeons & Dragons and then paralleled it (if only for a while).

It began with something small, just as the original Dungeons & Dragons had done—a white box. This was the Castles & Crusades Collector’s Edition or Castles & Crusades: A Guide & Rules System for Fantasy Role Playing. Inside, as was traditional, could be found the three digest-sized booklets, the full set of polyhedral dice, and a white crayon. The three booklets, the 'Players Handbook', 'Monsters & Treasures', and 'The Rising Knight'—the latter the boxed set’s adventure, each no more than thirty-six pages long, aped ‘Volume 1: Men & Magic’, ‘Volume 2: Monsters & Treasure’, and ‘Volume 3: Underworld & Wilderness Adventures’, the three books of the original boxed set for Dungeons & Dragons, in being plain, simple affairs. Similarly they presented just four character Classes—Cleric, Fighter, Rogue, and Wizard—who can rise only up to tenth Level; the classic four races—Dwarf, Elf, Halfling, and Human; a goodly selection of monsters, spells, and treasures; and a decent enough adventure in the form of 'The Rising Knight'. Overall the package was pleasingly complete, and at the time in 2004, very well received.

Of course, Castles & Crusades could just been another ‘Retroclone’, a simple emulation of Dungeons & Dragons past. It is not that for one very good reason—which will be explained shortly. What marked it out though as a version of Dungeons & Dragons different to those past—at least until the advent of Dungeons & Dragons Third Edition in 2000. What Troll Lord Games introduced to its version of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons with Castles & Crusades was the SIEGE Engine. This was its core mechanic for every situation bar combat, which worked just like the d20 System. The SIEGE Engine was an attribute check system which divided each character’s and each monster’s attributes into primary and secondary attributes. Primary attributes gave a base target to succeed of 12 and secondary attributes gave a base target to succeed of 18, with primary and secondary attributes determined according to a Class and race. Every situation had a Challenge Level that could be added to the base target, which gave a Challenge Class against which a player would roll and add bonuses for character's Level, attributes, and Class. In play it proved to be a simple means of handling almost any situation in the game.

What this meant was that Castles & Crusades essentially brought coherence to the play of a game like Advanced Dungeons & Dragons without the perceived complexities that had come with Dungeons & Dragons Third Edition. It also did one other thing because as has already been mentioned, Castles & Crusades was not just another ‘Retroclone’, a simple emulation of Dungeons & Dragons past. This was because at time, in 2004, there were no other Retroclones—‘Old School Reference and Index Compilation’ or OSRIC would not appear until 2006. Which means that arguably, Castles & Crusades was the very first Retroclone, the one that other small publishers would be inspired by, if not actually emulate.

In the decade since, Castles & Crusades has continued to be popular. Its publisher, Troll Lord Games would release numerous books and supplements, plus thirty or so scenarios, for the game, the most obvious and useful one being the Players Handbook which contained the core thirteen player character Classes and seven Races as well as the core rules necessary to play the game. In the process, together with Paizo Publishing’s Pathfinder Roleplaying Game, it would support a style of play that would not be supported by mainstream Dungeons & Dragons  between 2007 and 2014. To celebrate the game’s tenth anniversary, Troll Lord Games has published the Castles & Crusades Black Box Set, a limited edition supplement that supports both the Castles & Crusades Collector’s Edition and Castles & Crusades itself.

It should be made clear that the Castles & Crusades Black Box Set is not simply a new presentation of the Castles & Crusades Collector’s Edition. It is instead a supplement, much in the same way that Greyhawk – Supplement I, Blackmoor – Supplement II, Eldritch Wizardry – Supplement III, Gods Demi-gods & Heroes – Supplement IV, and Swords & Spells – Supplement V were all supplements for the original Dungeons & Dragons. Indeed, it could be said that the Castles & Crusades Black Box Set contains similarities to all five of these supplements, so the question is, just what is in the Castles & Crusades Black Box Set? Its content consists of three booklets the ‘Adventurers Backpack’, ‘Of Gods & Monsters of Aihrde’, and ‘The Golden Familiar’, a complete set of Castles & Crusades polyhedral dice—black of course, and for the first three hundred printed, a plate signed by the designers.

The first of these, ‘Adventurers Backpack – Volume 1 of Three Booklets’, is arguably the most interesting of the three. It starts by giving us four new Classes—the Archer, the Avatar, the Thief, and the Magic-User. The first two of these are wholly new Classes, whilst the latter two are interesting interpretations of old Classes. The Archer is a Fighter that specialises in the use of the bow and crossbow, able to grab the initiative if they have an arrow or bow nocked, shoot two arrows per Round, incapacitate with a single shot, dodge incoming arrows, and even fire curved shots. Where the Cleric in Dungeons & Dragons attempts to espouse and live up to the ideals of his deity, in return receiving spells and various god-given abilities, the Avatar is this god given physical, corporeal form. Created to fulfill a particular purpose, an Avatar uses Mana Points to cast both Arcane and Divine spells and can even draw on its Hit Points if tries to cast spells beyond its Level. The Avatar's main power is its deific voice to grant a morale boost, fortitude, enthrall listeners, and even stun them!

The first of the familiar sounding Classes is the Thief. This is not the recreation of the burglar-style Thief that has been with since 1974, but a more social malcontent. The two Classes share abilities, but can now Case a person or location, Distract others, Spin a tale and detect lies, Blend into a crowd, Lay the Path for escape routes, and carry out forgery. It makes the Class much more flexible and yes, perhaps pushes it towards the Rogue of Dungeons & Dragons, Third Edition. Still it is very much its own Class, but likes its fellow similar Classes, the Thief here makes full use of the SIEGE Engine for its abilities. The second of the familiar sounding Classes is the Magic-User and just like the new Thief here, it is a new twist on an old name. Where the Magic-User of Dungeons & Dragons has become the Wizard and the Sorcerer, here the Magic-User is a literal interpretation of the name. That is, he uses magic, and by that, we mean magic items. He can easily detect, read, and locate magic, use all magic items, and even create magical items and transfer effects. What this means is that the new Magic-User becomes the ‘magi-tech’ of the party and like the new Thief Class, there is a flexibility to this Class that players can have a lot of fun with. 

The rest of the ‘Adventurers Backpack’ is devoted to a series of ‘backpacks’ for all situations and an array of new spells. The inclusions of these ‘Backpacks’ point towards a fantasy setting in which there are lots of parties of adventurers going out on missions, quests, and so on, enough that some kind of industry has arisen to cater for their needs with off-the-shelf pre-stocked backpacks. All right, on one level they are convenient to purchase rather than fiddling around with the bits and pieces, but on another, there is an artificiality to them. The new spells present lots of new options and include spells for Clerics, Druids, Illusionists, and Wizards. For example, Behold the Blasphemer enables Clerics and Druids to strike down unbelievers, Breath of Light lets them capture sunlight in a vessel to be unleashed later as a simple light or a sudden blaze that can burn the undead, whilst a Wizard or Illusionist can determine what someone is going to do next with the spell Read Others.

‘Of Gods & Monsters of Aihrde – Volume 2 of Three Booklets’ presents an examination of the bigger forces in Aihrde, Troll Lord Games’ house setting for Castles & Crusades. These are descriptions only—this is no Deities & Demigods—of not just the gods, but also the immortal Giants, of Fiends and Devils, and of Goblins. Whilst this is worthy information for the Castle Keeper, it is a pity that there is no application given for this information. Though the province , alignment, and preferred weapons are all given for each entry, but perhaps something more could have been given. Possibly each entries’ preferred spells, drawing upon both the spells given here in the ‘Adventurers Backpack’ and the Castles & Crusades Players Handbook, and possibly other benefits. Of course, this might push Castles & Crusades away from its Old School ethos and letting the Castle Keeper decide.

The third book is ‘The Golden Familiar – Volume 3 of Three Booklets’, an adventure for characters of First and Second Levels. In this adventure the heroes must assault the Castle Aucherwitch in search an ancient artefact that will kill the similarly ancient creature that holds the fortress. Perched high atop a promontory, Castle Aucherwitch can only be accessed via a narrow track that winds around the hill, the path interspersed by gates and fortifications. This makes it both linear and repetitive in play, although it gets a little more interesting in the climax when the adventurers come to face the current owner of the castle.

What the inclusion of ‘The Golden Familiar – Volume 3 of Three Booklets’ highlights is the fact the three booklets in the Castles & Crusades Black Box Set only have one thing in common with each other—Castles & Crusades. Each of the three books in the Castles & Crusades Black Box Set is a supplement for the game, a separate supplement rather a coherent whole. Perhaps if the scenario had been designed to make use of the new character Classes given in the ‘Adventurers Backpack’, then the Castles & Crusades Black Box Set might not feel as disparate as it does.

So ultimately, Troll Lord Games has decided to celebrate the tenth anniversary of Castles & Crusades by releasing a set of different three supplements and putting them in a box. All right, that is being slightly flippant, but while the Castles & Crusades Black Box Set lacks focus as a whole, each of the individual booklets is generally interesting in and of themselves. Of the three, the ‘Adventurers Backpack’ is definitely the most interesting and will find the most use in a game, though it would be good to see a scenario released that supported their use. As an anniversary celebration, the Castles & Crusades Black Box Set is definitely for devotees of Castles & Crusades. Anyone new to the game should look at the Castles & Crusades Players Handbook.

Friday, 5 December 2014

Nazis, Nasties, & N?

Before beginning this review, it is necessary to make one fact clear. I have written and edited for Achtung! Cthulhu, so in coming to review World War Cthulhu – The Darkest Hour, I cannot be seen to favour one approach over the other, one series over another. This does not mean that I can avoid making comparisons, but it does mean that such comparisons will not consist of which one is better. Rather they will be as balanced as possible and focus on where the two settings differ.

To explain, both of these series of books are devoted to Lovecraftian investigative horror set during the Second World War. One is Achtung! Cthulhu, published by Modiphius Press, the other is World War Cthulhu – The Darkest Hour, published by Cubicle Seven Entertainment. The first of these is written for both Chaosium, Inc.’s Call of Cthulhu and Pinnacle Entertainment Group’s Savage Worlds, whilst the second is solely written for Call of Cthulhu. Where Achtung! Cthulhu covers much of the breadth of the conflict that is Second World War, World War Cthulhu – The Darkest Hour, much as its subtitle suggests, has a much narrower focus. This focus is upon the opening years of the Second World War, when Britain and the Commonwealth’s back was against the wall and with the forces of Nazi Germany having rolled across the continent, Winston Churchill ordered the men and women of the Special Operations Executive to set Europe ablaze. The SOE is only one recruiting ground for ‘N’, a spymaster whose interests lie primarily in preventing certain outre knowledge from falling into the hands of the Nazis. Wherever that knowledge might be found…

This sets up the precept at the core of World War Cthulhu, that the investigators are always fighting on two fronts. In Europe they face both the Nazi occupiers and the malignly uncaring forces of the Mythos, and on that rare occasion, the Nazi who has knowledge of the Mythos. Their missions will find them dealing with military and intelligence matters as well as the Mythos–they may even coincide! Then when facing the Mythos, the investigators also have to keep its existence a secret, whether from the Nazis or the Allied governments. Whilst on the home front, they must deal with rivalries between the various intelligence agencies and perhaps the wily ‘N’ himself! Who is ‘N’ and what does he want? That  question is left unanswered in  World War Cthulhu, but several suggestions are made–including one that will be very familiar to veteran players of Call of Cthulhu. For the moment, in this ‘Darkest Hour’, the wishes of ‘N’ and the prime minister seem to coincide…

Investigators in World War Cthulhu are created as per Call of Cthulhu, Sixth Edition. Then each investigator receives skill bonuses for his nationality (United Kingdom and the Commonwealth, Europe, and the USA), upbringing (rural or urban), military service (from Advisor, Agent, and Civilian Operative to Mobile Infantry, Pilot, and Radio Operative), personality (Bruiser, Expert, Thinker, and Leader), recruitment reason and initial Mythos encounter, and additional training. This grants a total bonus of some 550 points for each investigator and in some cases a small bonus to the Cthulhu Mythos skill. This has three effects. First, the personalities handily classify the investigators’ roles and make creating a group that little bit easier, and make replacement investigators easier to slot into a group. Second, they address the issue of investigators needing to be competent enough to go on missions as part of the war effort, that is, actually have at least passing knowledge of the military and espionage-related necessary–even an average investigator will be competent. That said, the third effect is to make the investigators more competent than is usual, pushing the tone of World War Cthulhu towards Pulp and away from the Purist.

To show how this works, Niamh Brewer is a typical Call of Cthulhu investigator, created using the standard Call of Cthulhu, Sixth Edition rules, plus a few extra skill points to reflect time spent as a nurse during the Great War. Prior to being recruited by ‘N’, she worked as a legal researcher, hunting down heirs to wills. Being a woman she was unable to obtain a degree and she would have remained a spinster–her fiancée having been killed during the Great War–had she not been recruited.

Niamh Brewer, Legal Researcher, aged 44
NATIONALITY: British
OCCUPATION: Legal Researcher

STR: 13 DEX: 16 INT: 15 IDEA: 75%
CON: 08 APP: 13 POW: 16 LUCK: 80%
SIZ: 15 SAN: 76 EDU: 18 KNOW: 90%
HP 12
Damage Bonus: +1d4

SKILLS: Accounting 50%, Archaeology 21%, Drive Auto 40%, First Aid 35%, History 50%, Law 55%, Library Use 75%, Listen 45%, Mechanical Repair 40%, Medicine 20%, Occult 25%, Persuade 65%, Psychoanalysis 11%, Psychology 35%, Spot Hidden 65%
LANGUAGES: English 75%, French 41%, German 16%, Italian 11%, Latin 41%, Spanish 11%
COMBAT SKILLS: Grapple 40%, Umbrella 40% damage 1d4+db

The following are the stats and skills for the investigator who has been adapted to World War Cthulhu

Niamh Brewer, Legal Researcher, aged 44
NATIONALITY: British
OCCUPATION: Legal Researcher
UPBRINGING: Urban PERSONALITY: Expert
MILITARY SERVICE: Civilian Operative
MYTHOS ENCOUNTER: Discovered a Mythos tome
REASON FOR JOINING: Forbidden Secrets

STR: 13 DEX: 16 INT: 15 IDEA: 75%
CON: 08 APP: 13 POW: 16 LUCK: 80%
SIZ: 15 SAN: 69 EDU: 18 KNOW: 90%
HP 12
Damage Bonus: +1d4

SKILLS: Accounting 50%, Archaeology 41%, Art (Painting) 45%, Bargain 15%, Conceal 25%, Craft (Gardening) 25%, Credit Rating 25%, Cryptography 30%, Cthulhu Mythos 08%, Dodge 52%, Drive Auto 70%, Electrical Repair 30%, Fast Talk 15%, First Aid 65%, Hide 30%, History 60%, Law 55%, Library Use 95%, Listen 65%, Mechanical Repair 60%, Medicine 20%, Natural History 20%, Occult 30%, Operate Radio 42%, Persuade 65%, Pharmacy 21%, Psychoanalysis 11%, Psychology 35%, Sneak 25%, Spot Hidden 85%, Survival 15%, Tradecraft 20%
LANGUAGES: English 95%, French 61%, German 16%, Italian 11%, Latin 51%, Spanish 11%
COMBAT SKILLS: Grapple 40%, Handgun 40%, SMG 25%, Umbrella 40% damage 1d4+db

‘N’ also indoctrinates his agents against the horrors they might encounter. By invoking his ideals or whatever he holds dear, an investigator may be given a roll against his POW×5 to reduce the effects of a Sanity loss following an encounter with the forces of the Mythos. Just like the additional skill points, this pushes World War Cthulhu towards the Pulp tone. In addition to providing extra skill points, World War Cthulhu also gives new occupations–Politician, Scientist, and Spy–as well as range of skills. These are mostly a mix of new military and new espionage related skills. The former include Command, Gunnery, and Military Science, whilst the latter include Cryptography and Tradecraft. Military Science also includes the tactics skill.

Investigators and their players also receive two solid sections of advice, one covering ‘Intelligence Operating Procedures’ and the other ‘Small Unit Tactics’. As solid as the advice is, it is incomplete. The problem is that all of this advice is for handling missions against the Nazis in occupied Europe and North Africa. It ignores the other strand of World War Cthulhu, that of investigating the Mythos and preventing it from falling into the hands of the Nazis. So where is the advice for doing this? Surely ‘N’ would give out such advice since he actually goes so far as to indoctrinate the investigators? It is not as even as the investigators in the default set-up are unaware of the Mythos.

The advice for Keeper is kept short and to the point, and unlike the advice for the players, it covers the Mythos aspects of the investigators’ missions as well as the military and intelligence ones. One of the pieces of advice highlights the primary difference between Achtung! Cthulhu and World War Cthulhu. This is that the militarisation of the Mythos should be avoided–or in the form of a mad scientist or SS sorcerer, at least rarely encountered. This is not something that Achtung! Cthulhu does and is one reason why its tone is Pulp whereas that of World War Cthulhu is mostly not… To support the advice on running missions, the Keeper has a gazetteer giving thumbnail snapshots of various Intelligence Theatres, from Vichy France and German  occupied North West Europe to North Africa and the Middle East. Besides a description, each country or region comes with a mission, both a military one and ‘N’s secret mission. There is plenty of variety in the twenty-five or so given, but they will need some development upon the part of the Keeper.

World War Cthulhu does not add anything new to the Mythos. Instead it updates it and brings it into the 1940s, examining the effect of the war–if any, upon the forces of the Mythos. Nor is it a comprehensive update. Understandable since the Call of Cthulhu canon is rather large and diverse, but the major entities, creatures, and forces of the Mythos are covered along with their human cults. It does adjust, or at least quantify, the Sanity rules though. First by granting a bonus if a player roleplays his investigator to his Personality and second by how successful he and the rest of the squad have been on a mission.

World War Cthulhu offers two major rules, one of which is optional. The first major rule addition handles a fundamental aspect of intelligence operations–going undercover. Essentially it is a percentile value that if a roll is failed against, it at least arouses the suspicions of the authorities, perhaps causes covers to be blown and identities to be revealed. It does involve some bookkeeping upon the part of the Keeper, but not much. It can even be used as means to push a scenario along too as not every cover identity is perfect. The second and optional rule covers ‘Dramatic Action’ in which the Keeper offers a player the chance for his investigator to do something dramatic and successful, but at the cost of placing him in extreme danger. It feels very similar to the ‘Push’ mechanic presented in the new Call of Cthulhu Seventh Edition, but probably will not be used as often. It also pushes the tone of the game towards Pulp.

The equipment section covers not just arms and armour, but also ordinary goods and things that the agents might buy at home, or anywhere in Europe and North Africa. The weaponry section is oddly diverse given that the focus of World War Cthulhu is on the early to middle years of the war in the European and North African theatres. The inclusion of Japanese weapons feels totally out of place as many of the American arms and vehicles. Overall the selection feels pitched towards the ‘Small Unit Tactics’ section of advice than it does the ‘Intelligence Operating Procedures’. 

Rounding out World War Cthulhu is ‘The God in the Woods’, a scenario set in Vichy France. The investigators are sent in by SOE to make contact with the French Partisans, but ‘N’ also wants them to look for a colleague of his. It is more of a mini-campaign, with a fully realised location and multiple plot threads. It is challenging like any Call of Cthulhu scenario, but showcases how much difficult it is to conduct an investigation totally surreptitiously. It is an excellent scenario and perhaps the highlight of the book.

Physically, World War Cthulhu is well written and decently presented. The artwork is also decent. If there is an issue, it is that the book needs an edit in places.

World War Cthulhu – The Darkest Hour strives for a Purist tone and style of play. It does not quite achieve that, primarily because it pushes investigator creation towards a Pulp tone, as does the Dramatic Action option. Balanced against is a good mini-campaign, some solid advice on running the game, its tight focus and campaign structure, and the fact that it does not militarise the Mythos. Yet despite this unevenness in tone, World War Cthulhu – The Darkest Hour is still a good Purist approach to Call of Cthulhu and World War Two.

Thursday, 4 December 2014

Your Vampire Primer

There are some people who contend that the United Nations is fighting a secret war on sovereignty and democracy in its pursuit of a ‘one world government’. This is not true. It is fighting a secret war, not against sovereignty and democracy, but a threat insidious and hidden that preys upon humanity–vampires. The United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) fields ‘Special Action Units’ (SAUs) dedicated to the study, location, and eradication of vampires. Armed with automatic shotguns and assault rifles that fire blessed and consecrated rounds of wood, silver, and graphite, and wearing armour incised with religious iconography and inscriptions, once these teams have a target, they are sent out aboard ‘black helicopters’ to strike at the horridly implacable creatures that are vampires.

This is the set-up for Vampires: A Hunter’s Guide, published by Osprey Books as part of its Osprey Adventures line. Best known for its its military history books, each diligently researched and meticulously illustrated with period photographs and fully painted colour plates, entries in the Osprey Adventures series goes beyond the facts to meld it with fiction. The result is a sourcebook of ideas for a gamer’s current game or a background for a whole new game. All a gamer needs to do is add the rules of his choice. The series has already looked at The Nazi Occult and given us Zombies: A Hunter’s Guide–amongst others... 

Vampires: A Hunter’s Guide most resembles Zombies: A Hunter’s Guide, being an examination of several types of vampire, their creation, their feeding and hunting habits, their relationship to humanity, and humanity’s response to each of these horrors. It does these for five continents–Europe, North America, Africa, Asia, and South America. In doing so, it focuses upon five types of vampire–the Strigoi, the Asanbosam and the Obayifo, the Jiangshi, and the Chupacabra. Of course, the various chapters are nicely illustrated with pieces of period art, photographs of various artifacts, and full colour artwork.

It begins with the Strigoi in Europe and a raid on a nest during the Yugoslav Wars of the 1990s, before delving into the history and types of the Strigoi. They are closest in type to the vampire of the modern era, typified by Bram Stoker’s Dracula, but other types exist in the Balkans and beyond. The Strigoi of course feeds on blood, is capable of transforming themselves into bats or wolves, and possess a certain sexual allure. The Papacy was the first organisation to recognise the ‘satanic’ threat and attempt to deal with it, such that many of the creatures took the opportunity to flee to the New World. Here the only rivals they had were each other, for North America had no vampiric tradition, and so they hid themselves and through wise investments, managed to protect themselves with great wealth. This makes them extremely difficult to track down and identify–it can take years of careful work by the FBI before an SAU can strike.

Less familiar will be the Asanbosam and the Obayifo, the vampiric creatures native to modern day Ghana and the historical Ashanti Empire. The Asanbosam is an arboreal bat-like hunter that reaches down from the trees for its prey, which is driven to mankind when they enter and then cut down the forest. In response, vampire hunters would train to enter the canopy, armed with short, gold-tipped spears and knives, and often protected by the juju or magic of the Marabout. Where the Asanbosam feeds on blood and flesh, the Obayifo, a spirit vampire, feeds off negative empathic energy. There is the possibility that the Obayifo are capable of controlling the Asanbosam, but where the Asanbosam seems confined to the diminishing forests, the Obayifo seems to have spread beyond Ghana’s borders.

Conversely, the Jiangshi will be familiar to devotees of Hong Kong cinema. The ‘stiff corpsed’ hopping vampire takes decades to form after it was improperly buried and grows tougher, stronger, and develops a more potent breath over time. It is an empathic vampire that can track its prey by their breathing. Again a group trained to deal with the threat, this time of the monks of the Shaolin Temple, who would use their martial arts skills and meditative calming techniques to prepare themselves against the Jiangshi. Lastly Taoist magic is used to still the vampires so that they can be led away for a proper burial. Of course, with founding of Chinese communities around the world, there are innumerable cities where the knowledge and ability to deal with a Jiangshi has been lost.

The last vampire detailed in Vampires: A Hunter’s Guide is the Chupacabra, a large bat-like creature that in recent years has spread out of the cenotes found across the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico into the great cities of North America with their extensive subterranean infrastructure. In rural areas the dreaded ‘goat sucker’ is known to feed on large livestock, but in built up urban areas, the primary prey is humanity–particularly its dregs.

In addition to these five or so vampires, various other types are also discussed. For example, other types of Strigoi include the Balkan/Czech Pijavica which preys upon former family members and the Polish Vjesci which can be recognised by the caul its head. Similarly, the Dhampir human/vampire hybrids, hated by their parents, are said to have found a home with some SAUs. As much as Vampires: A Hunter’s Guide discusses its monsters, it is small details such as this and the fact that SAUs work with FBI forensics and behavioral analysts that provide hooks upon which to hang the role of SAU members or support staff, for example in creating a roleplaying campaign.

Unfortunately, a GM will need to extract such details if he wants to use them for his game. In a traditional Osprey Books title there will be colour plates depicting what an SAU operative wears and is equipped with, accompanied by suitable descriptions. Sadly, this is not included. Equally as disappointing is the lack of a bibliography in Vampires: A Hunter’s Guide. Where Zombies: A Hunter’s Guide had a short if imperfect section entitled ‘Further Reading, Watching, and Gaming’, but this is absent in Vampires: A Hunter’s Guide. There are some very obvious inspirations for many of the vampires presented in its pages–for example, the movie Encounters of the Spooky Kind for the Jiangshi and the ‘El Mundo Gira’ episode of The X-Files for the Chupacabra. Others like the Asanbosam will be more difficult to provide inspiration for, but it would certainly help the reader with his further research. Similarly, a list of games would help in applying the content of  Vampires: A Hunter’s Guide. Obviously, Pelgrane Press’ Night’s Black Agents is the go-to RPG for fighting vampires, but Pinnacle Entertainment Group’s Savage Worlds, White Wolf Inc.’s Hunter: the Vigil, Evil Hat Publishing's FATE Core, and even the recently released Cryptworld from Goblinoid Games would all work.

Vampires: A Hunter’s Guide is readable and a decent source of material to apply to the vampire hunting game of your choice. The lack of application to that end–no bibliography and no immediate material upon which to hang campaign, for example, does mean that it is just background when it could have been just a little more supportive.

Friday, 28 November 2014

Staked Twice, Never Bitten

There are one or two facts that you need to know about Double Tap, the first supplement for one of the best RPGs—certainly the finest espionage and finest espionage/horror RPG—of 2012, Night’s Black Agents: the Vampire Spy Thriller RPG. Written by Ken Hite and published by Pelgrane Press, the player characters are ex-secret agents who have learned that their former employers are controlled by vampires and decide to take down the vampiric conspiracy before the vampires take them. As much a toolkit as an RPG, it gives everything that the Director needs to design and create his game, allowing him to design the vampire conspiracy and the vampire threat, from psychic alien leeches to the traditional children of Transylvania, and set the tone and style of the espionage, from the high octane of the James Bond franchise to the dry and mundane grittiness of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. Essentially, Night’s Black Agents is your Schweizer Offiziersmesser of vampires and espionage.

The first fact is that as the title might suggest, Double Tap is not a supplement about guns—Double Tap being a shooting manoeuvre intended to ensure that a target is definitely dead by shooting him twice in the head—although there is a section about guns in the book. This of course begs the question, “Why exactly, is this supplement called ‘Double Tap’?”. Which is a perfectly good question to which there is a perfectly good answer in the last paragraph of this review. The second is that Double Tap is not the ‘Agent’s Companion’ for Night’s Black Agents. It is instead the ‘The Night’s Black Agents Expansion Book’, because it contains information for the Director as well as the players and their characters. Indeed, it has sections entitled ‘Agent’s Companion’ and ‘Director’s Companion’. Between them, the players and Director are served up a plethora of clues, benefits, cherries, manoeuvres, rules, gadgets and (yes) guns, and more—all delivered as an easy-to-digest, no-fuss, but some frills, in-country supply drop.

The ‘Agent’s Companion’ dives straight into a re-examination of an agent’s Abilities. Each receives a new overviews and a new focus, the latter less mechanical than a new means of applying it; a ‘Tactical Fact-Finding Benefit’ that showcases how might be used to best effect; sample benefits to be gained from spending the points from an Ability’s pool; and sample clues. For example, the new focus for the Accounting Ability is money laundering. It provides a short, but detailed description of how it is done; its ‘Tactical Fact-Finding Benefit’ describes how Accounting might be used to track down and use an illegal stash of guns to gain an advantage over the opposition; and how it can be spent to gain benefits on other Abilities when they are next used. The accompanying sample clues show how ‘following the money’ can lead somewhere interesting, and like the sample clues for the other Abilities detailed in Double Tap, can either be as is and added in game, or as models to adjusted for the Director’s own game. Other Investigative Abilities also include extra details, associated equipment, and so on, such as the list of British Police Jargon for Cop Talk, the most expensive hotels in Europe for High Society, toxins for Pharmacy, and what you pack in a ‘Bug-Out’ bag under Urban Surveillance.

Then Double Tap does exactly the same thing for an Agent’s General Abilities. Again, each of these is given a new focus, for example, Parkour for Athletics and Plastic Explosives for Explosives; new sample clues, and so on. Instead of ‘Tactical Fact-Finding Benefit’, they have new Cherries, the extra special benefits that come with having high Abilities. In general, these are not quite as interesting as those for Investigative Abilities, but the point of this re-examination is to make each and every Ability interesting, useful, and evocative. It highlights how every Ability can bear upon the game and how the Director should be bringing his player Agents’ Abilities into his campaign.

Double Tap then presents a number of new mechanical options or ‘Tricks of the Trade’, that work in conjunction with a player narration. All a player has to do is narrate the action to gain the benefit of an Ability refresh with these, just as with those in the core rules. In this they work in a similar fashion to the Thriller manoeuvres, like Gear Devil or Technothriller Monologue, found in Night’s Black Agents. They also push the levels of competence, so are suited to more cinematic games. The first is a number of new Thriller manoeuvres, the majority of which these are for non-combat Abilities, such as Grease Monkey for Mechanics and Verbal Trauma Unit for Medic. These are followed by a set of Achievement refreshes—inspired by computer gaming—that push up the cinematic aspects of Night’s Black Agents that little bit more, such as ‘Lifeline’ for climbing out of a window using knotted sheets or fire hose, or ‘Mother Superior’ for impersonating a religious figure! Tricks of the Trade’ continues with ‘Adaptive Tradecraft’, which takes ‘standard’ adaptive espionage or Tradecraft techniques and suggests how they might work when hunting vampires. Rounding this chapter out is a set of standard operating procedures, the Cartagena Rules. These are not for being spies in the field—Night’s Black Agents has the Bucharest Rules for that, backed up by the Moscow Rules in Double Tap—but for playing Night’s Black Agents. Their aim is to keep the game moving and enjoyable, to avoid it stagnating and getting dull, and being a set of rules, they are short and to the point. Good advice for players and Director alike.

‘Materiel’ puts gadgets, gear, and guns under the spotlight. To an extent, this section is in Q Branch territory, especially with its vehicle upgrades like oil slick dispensers and disposable car skins. Guns get the same treatment, but some of the special ammunition may have its uses in any style of game against vampires. Whilst a list of firearms is included, they are not necessarily there for the agents’ use, but rather to arm particular agencies.

The Thriller Chase rules in Night’s Black Agents turned up the action for chases by foot, by vehicle, and so on. ‘Thriller Contests & Manhunts’ does the same for Digital Intrusion, Infiltration, and Surveillance. What this means is that certain non-combat scenes—hacking attempts, stealthy break-ins and break-outs, and monitoring a suspect—can played out dramatically, even thrillingly, by making them intense contests. There are guidelines given to make each of them thrilling and how to use other Abilities during Digital Intrusion, Infiltration, or Surveillance attempts. Not every attempt or scene involving Digital Intrusion, Infiltration, or Surveillance need be run as a Thriller Contest, but when needed, now they can, and they give the player agents involved their moment in the spotlight. In similar fashion, the Manhunt rules up the ante for handling chases, especially where the quarry is trying to do more than just get away. Of course, this is all whilst the player agents are burned and out in the cold, no longer having access to the manpower or infrastructure to carry out a manhunt.

The remaining third of Double Tap is the ‘Director’s Companion’ and for his eyes only. He receives a good set of NPCs, ready to fill out cameo roles, and easy to portray and modify, that can be used as assets or clues. Accompanying these is a set of ‘Establishing Shots’, locations and scenes that the Director can set up a scene and bring it to life. Both sets are evocative and fun, as well as being easy-to-use tools. Double Tap also comes with four new monsters—the chupa, the ekimmu, the homunculus, and the penanggalan—and a complete vampire build in the form of the nosferatu, the latter being familiar to most gamers (and agents). Of course Night’s Black Agents has plenty of options when it comes to the Director creating or selecting a vampiric foe for his game, but these add more, especially given that there are notes included on how to turn these creatures of one legend into another. For the Director, a whole new story aid is provided in the form of the ‘Suspyramid’, which plugs into the ‘Conspyramid’, the structure that underpins the vampire conspiracy in Night’s Black Agents. It helps him run games in which the player agents not only dismantle the conspiracy, but set parts of it against each other. Rounding out the ‘Director’s Companion’ are notes on running Night’s Black Agents in other eras, specifically the Victorian Age, World War II, and the Cold War. These do feel a little underwritten, but they are really no more than notes. Of course, any one of these three periods would be worthy of a supplement in their own right.

Physically, Double Tap is a well-written, easy-to-read, and easily digestible supplement. Its contents are nicely supported by a good index and, for the Director, summary lists of the cherries and vampiric powers—both from Night’s Black Agents and Double Tap.

Companion volumes are not always the most interesting or coherent of reads. This is the danger of covering lots of different subjects under one cover, but Double Tap contains different things that are actually interesting. The new rules its gives are interesting and better than that, they evoke their genre and are fun in the process. If there is a downside to them, it is that they evoke the more cinematic side of Night’s Black Agents, rather than the drier grittier side. Nevertheless, Double Tap provides plenty of manoeuvres and tricks of the trade to ensure that a Director’s Night’s Black Agent is definitely fun.

Monday, 24 November 2014

Solo History

There are many gamers who will tell you that it was Vampire the Masquerade that got them into roleplaying. That was in the 1990s. There are many gamers who will tell you that it was Dungeons & Dragons that got them into roleplaying. That was in the 1970s and of course, ever since... There are many gamers who will tell you that it was another phenomenon, of the 1980s, that got them into gaming, certainly if they are British, that of the Fighting Fantasy™ solo roleplaying books. Created in 1982 by Ian Livingstone and Steve Jackson with the publication of The Warlock of Firetop Mountain, in the thirty years since, some sixty or so titles have published in the series and some seventeen million copies have been sold. In their time, the Fighting Fantasy™ series has produced bestsellers, computer games, board games, and of course, a dedicated fan base. Now it has its own history book.

You Are The Hero: A History of Fighting Fantasy™ Gamebooks is that history book. Funded via Kickstarter, this is the definitive guide to the series and the phenomenon; a ‘coffee table’ style book lavishly illustrated with artwork that has both graced the insides and the outs of titles in the Fighting Fantasy™ series, from first—The Warlock of Firetop Mountain—to the last, Blood of the Zombies. This includes the book covers by the likes of Peter Andrew Jones, Ian Miller, Ian McCaig, as well as the internal illustrations of Russ Nicholson, Martin McKenna, Alan Langford—and more!

That more includes the original map for The Warlock of Firetop Mountain; original notes for The Forest of Doom; details about cameo appearances made by Livingstone and Jackson in Fighting Fantasy artwork; maps of the worlds and locations of the Fighting Fantasy series; plus the input of not just the artists and authors involved in every Fighting Fantasy title, but the fans too. The array of opinions given here are surprisingly frank. Most of them are as positive, even as gushing, as you would expect, but some are bluntly critical, in some cases by authors and artists of their own work. This gives the book a refreshingly engaging feel. Also explored are the other media where Fighting Fantasy appears—board games, computer games, phone games, magazines, and more. The book is thus thoroughly comprehensive, all but exhaustive in its coverage of all things Fighting Fantasy. Along the way it throws in fact after fact about the books, their creators, and the Fighting Fantasy phenomenon, all before bringing right up to date with the publication of Ian Livingstone’s Blood of the Zombies and the adaptations of the Fighting Fantasy series into titles that be played on tablets and mobile telephones.

To an extent, You Are The Hero is not just a history of the Fighting Fantasy series. It should be no surprise to the reader given that Ian Livingstone and Steve Jackson created the series, that this volume also sketches a biography of the two men’s careers, and thus of Games Workshop and the games and computer industries in the UK over the last forty or so years. If there is an issue with You Are The Hero it is that it feels slightly rushed. It needs an edit in places and the layout is clumsy in places. Perhaps the book’s biggest weakness is its lack of an index, which is disappointing given that the subtitle of the book is ‘A History of Fighting Fantasy™ Gamebooks’—and that suggests that the book is intended to be reference work. The lack of an index is only a hindrance to that purpose.


There were ‘choose your adventure path’ style books available before the Fighting Fantasy™ series, whether that is the solo adventures for the Tunnels & Trolls RPG or my first experience with the genre, Mission to Planet L, part of the Tracker book series in 1975. Similarly there were various books and titles that appeared alongside the Fighting Fantasy™ series. Of course, they are not the subject of You Are The Hero, so there remains to be written a definitive history of the ‘choose your adventure path’ style book. Jonathan Green, the author of You Are The Hero and himself the author of four Fighting Fantasy adventures, is perhaps the man to write such a history… After all, he has already written the Fighting Fantasy chapter right here. As much a trip down memory lane as an informative and fascinating exploration of gaming before the digital age brought into said digital age, You Are The Hero: A History of Fighting Fantasy™ Gamebooks is the definitive guide and history to the phenomenon that introduced reading, interactive fiction, and fantasy roleplaying to a wider audience than ever before.