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

Sunday, 15 October 2017

Swashbuckling & Sorcery

From Game Designers’ Workshop’s En Garde!, Yaquinto Publication’s Pirates and Plunder, and Fantasy Games Unlimited’s Privateers and Gentlemen to The Australian Gaming Group’s Lace & Steel, Evil Hat Production’s Swashbucklers of the 7 Skies, and Triple Ace Games’ All For One: Régime Diabolique, the swashbuckling RPG has been a perennial favourite. Yet few have managed to capture all of the roleplaying genre’s elements—swashbuckling, sorcery, pirates, romance, adventure—with as much love as 7th Sea. Originally published by Alderac Entertainment Group in 1999, it was co-designed by John Wick, best known for Play Dirty and Legend of the Five Rings. For almost a decade though, the 7th Sea roleplaying game has been out of print, but with the acquisition of the publishing rights by John Wick and the subsequent successful funding of a new edition on Kickstarter, 7th Sea is in print again with an all new Second Edition.

Now published by John Wick Presents, 7th Sea presents a setting that is very like the Europe of the late seventeenth century. There are pirates, there is religious rivalry, there are flashing blades and musketry, there is diplomacy and intrigue, there is adventure and romance, there is disruption in country after country as medieval kingdoms evolve into modern nation states. Yet there are large differences also. There is an equality between the genders and races; greater advances have been made in the sciences as much as the Inquisition would seek to burn all knowledge of it; there are superstitions and monsters who are much more than folklore; and there is real magic, whether that is the Glamour magic of Avalon, the Sorte or ‘fate’ magic of the Vodacce women, or the Le Magie des Portails or Porté of Montaigne. This is a roleplaying game of great heroes and heroines, but also great villains; a roleplaying game in which the player characters are expected to be those heroes and heroines; and a roleplaying game which draws mechanically from the past as much as it does from the now, for 7th Sea is as much a storytelling game as it is a roleplaying game.

Unfortunately, right from the start, 7th Sea has a problem and that is with its overview. Now 7th Sea is a roleplaying game with an extensive background and setting as befits a line with some forty or releases for its first edition alone, and yet whilst some of that setting is given in the 7th Sea corebook for its second edition, what it really lacks is a timeline. This is a problem because the focus of 7th Sea is very much on recent events, many of which are mentioned in the 7th Sea core book’s setting material, yet without a timeline, the game feels hamstrung because it has no history let alone a sense of history and worse, because it has no context. Without that context, it is difficult for the players to create characters and it is difficult for the Game Master to create scenarios because it is difficult to tie them back into the setting.

A less pressing issue concerns the name of the roleplaying game. 7th Sea refers to the mythical sea beyond the six seas that surround the game’s setting. There is an explanation for this, but it seems so odd that this explanation appears almost a hundred pages into the book when it feels like it should and could have been mentioned much, much earlier.

The setting for 7th Sea is Théah. The year is 1668 Anno Veritas. The continent is dominated by eight countries—Avalon, Castille, Eisen, Montaigne, the Sarmatian Commonwealth, Ussura, Vestenmennavenjar, and Vodacce. Each of these countries has parallels with those of seventeenth century Europe. So, Avalon is actually the dominant nation in the Glamour Isles, the others being Inismore and The Highland Marches, all three countries being home also to the Sidhe. It equates to Elizabethan England and is ruled by Queen Elaine, who recently became the Keeper of the Sacred Graal following a civil war. Avalon has a powerful navy and her queen is said to issue letters of marque to the privateers known as the ‘Sea Dogs’. Castille is Spain, weakened following an invasion by neighbouring Montaigne, but dominated by the church—the Vaticine Church of the Prophets—which has recently moved its headquarters there from Vodacce and is itself dominated by the Inquisition following the death of its head, the Hierophant. The corruption of both the church and the nobility is opposed by the masked vigilante, ‘El Vagabundo’, whose identity remains unknown. Eisen equates to the German states of the Holy Roman Empire after the Thirty Years War, or rather, the War of the Cross which has ravaged the land and left it infested with all manner of monsters. Eisen is also a source of the metal known as ‘Drachenstein’, which when turned into arms and armour, is one of the most effective things against the monsters. Montaigne is pre-revolutionary France, a rich land in the which the rich live lavishly off the backs of the peasantry and whose whims set the fashion trends across the continent.

To the east lies the Sarmatian Commonwealth, which equates to Poland, and is best known for its radical form of government. To prevent the corrupt House of Nobles from running the country in its own interests, the king elevated everyone to the nobility and effectively created Théah’s first democracy. Ussura is medieval Russia, a land which literally supports those who respect it and destroys those who do not. The most striking figure in Ussura is Matushka, mother figure who can show great kindness and even grant magic, but is also capable of great wrath. Vestenmennavenjar equates to an alliance between the Vikings and the Hanseatic League, an alliance of proud warriors and wily merchants. They trade everywhere, their guilds dominate various trades, and their guilders have become common coinage accepted almost everywhere. Lastly, Vodacce is Italy governed by feuding city states. It dominates church politics even though it is no longer home to the Vaticine Church of the Prophets and it values its women for their beauty, their Sorte or ‘fate’ magic, but not their ability to learn.

Beyond the six seas that surround Théah, there are several far-off lands. Khitai, the Crescent Empire, and Cathay lie to the east, whilst the New World can be reached in the west. There is also the past to be explored, the ruins of the mysterious Lost Syrneth being the foundation upon which many cities of Théah are built.

So what can you do in Théah and 7th Sea? As a melange of ideas and genres, 7th Sea provides numerous options. The continent is rife with intrigue, whether that is in the feuds between the rival merchant princes of Voddace or the petit rivalries at the court of l’Empereur of Montaigne. There are monsters to hunt and kill in Eisen; ruins and distant lands to be discovered and documented, perhaps for the Explorer’s Society; there are ships aplenty to crew, perhaps as privateer with the Sea Dogs, a pirate sailing as part of the Brotherhood of the Coast, or a nation’s navy tracking down pirates. There are rebellions to foment, perhaps against church and state with the Rilasciare, or against the Inquisition as part of the efforts of the Invisible College to protect science. Ultimately, there are the dastardly plans of great villains to thwart, secrets to be recovered, damsels and swains to rescued, buckles to be swashed, and days to be saved.

The next question is, what can you play? Options include—but are not limited to—a Puritan of Avalon, an Alquimista (alchemist) of Castille, an Ungetümjäger (Monster Hunter) of Eisen, a L’ami du Roi (courtier) of Montaigne, a Winged Hussar of The Sarmatian Commonwealth, a Cossack of Ussura, a Guildmästaren of Vestenmennavenjar, or Bravo of Vodacce. Each of the eight nations has several of these backgrounds which are in addition to the thirty or so basic backgrounds which range from archaeologist and aristocrat to soldier and spy. Characters or rather, Heroes, because in 7th Sea that is what the player characters are, are themselves defined by five traits—Brawn, Finesse, Resolve, Wits, and Panache—and sixteen broad skills. These are Aim, Athletics, Brawl, Convince, Empathy, Hide, Intimidate, Notice, Perform, Ride, Sailing, Scholarship, Tempt, Theft, Warfare, and Weaponry. A Hero will also have Arcana, divided into Hubris and Virtue, personality traits which will earn him Hero Points when roleplayed or tagged by the Game Master. Similarly, each Background will have a Quirk which can be triggered to earn Hero Points. Plus, he will have Advantages, but notably, not Disadvantages. 7th Sea does not have Disadvantages.

To create a Hero, a player must first play the Game of Twenty Questions—in a fashion previously seen in Legends of the Five Rings—to set some facts down about his character and only then select his character’s nation and his two Backgrounds. So your character might be an Engineer-Crafter, a Consigliere-Priest, a Pugilist-Mercenary, an Orphan-Criminal, a Bearsark-Sjørøver (a berserker-pirate), a Sorcier Porté-Aristocrat, and so on. The choice of nation determines the bonus to one Trait, whilst each Background provides a quirk, some Advantages, and bonuses to various skills. In addition, a player has extra points to assign to Traits and extra points with which to purchase more Advantages. Lastly, he selects Arcana.

—oOo—

Our first sample Hero is Héctor de Estrella de Lucas del San Gustavo, a disposed noble from Castille. In the peace following the war the Montaigne invasion, the soldier was expecting to return home to marry Beatriz, his father’s ward, but heavy taxes forced his father’s hand. In return for paying the taxes, Beatriz was betrothed to the Vizconde Alonso de Esteban del Galán and Héctor was disgusted at his father’s actions. Especially since Beatriz would not be the Vizconde’s first wife and Héctor suspected that marrying Beatriz was a means to obtain her dowry. One too many heated arguments and Héctor’s father disowned him, with Héctor fleeing and vowing to win her hand back and raise the monies to pay for the taxes himself.

Héctor de Estrella de Lucas del San Gustavo
Nationality: Castille
Concept: Errant Hidalgo
Backgrounds: Aristocrat, Diestro

Brawn 2
Finesse 3
Resolve 2
Wits 3
Panache 3

Quirk: Earn a Hero Point when you best a trained duellist at her own game.
Quirk: Earn a Hero Point when you prove there is more to nobility than expensive clothes and attending court.
Advantages: Fencer, Disarming Smile, Rich, Fascinate, Duellist Academy (Aldana)
Skills: Aim 1, Athletics 2, Brawl 0, Convince 3, Empathy 3, Hide 0, Intimidate 1, Notice 1, Perform 2, Ride 1, Sailing 0, Scholarship 1, Tempt 1, Theft 0, Warfare 1, Weaponry 3

Arcana: The Sun
Hubris: Proud (Receive a Hero Point when you refuse an offer of aid)
Virtue: Glorious (Activate when the centre of attention to have all dice count as a Raise.)

Story: A True Betrothal
Héctor’s true love and his father’s ward, Beatriz, has been betrothed to the Vizconde Alonso de Esteban del Galán to pay for taxes owed. Héctor has sworn to win her hand true and fair.
Ending: ‘To win the hand of Beatriz’
Reward: Convince (Rank 4)
Steps:

  1. Write a letter to Beatriz ensuring her of my intentions and ensure she receives it.
  2. Investigate Vizconde Alonso de Esteban del Galán to see if the rumours about are true.
  3. Gather evidence of the Vizconde Alonso de Esteban del Galán’s activities.
  4. Present the truth about her betrothed to Beatriz.


—oOo—

One of the last steps in creating a Hero is setting up his Story. This begins with deciding upon the theme for the Story and its ending. So, for example, Héctor’s Story is very much one of romance, so the ending might be ‘To win the hand of Beatriz’, but it might ultimately turn out to be ‘Beatriz rejects him telling that she is betrothed to another man’. That depends upon the outcome of the Story, which will involve several steps. So, Gunther, a Ungetümjäger whose family were butchered by a thing of the night has the story, ‘Discover more about the creature that butchered my family’, which he builds with the following steps, ‘Return to the scene of my family’s death’, followed by ‘Study at Freiburg University to learn more of the creature’. The outcome of a story can be an improvement to a skill, a trait, an advantage, a quirk, an arcana, and so on, the new value being equal to the number of steps in the story. So in Gunther’s case, the reward is to raise his Scholarship skill from one to two.

This is the primary means of improving a character in 7th Sea. Instead of using the Experience Points of traditional roleplaying games, the improvement is explicitly tied to a Hero’s story and is set up beforehand. Now whilst it is clever and it does move 7th Sea away from traditional roleplaying towards storytelling, it comes with a number of consequences. One is that the greater the desired reward, the greater the number of steps required and the greater the number of descriptions required to detail each of those steps. So to improve the Weaponry skill from three to four would require four steps, and then from four to five, another five steps. Of course, this sets out for both player and Game Master what steps the player’s character has to take to achieve each objective, but in the long term, this is likely to prove something of challenge as the players try and be original and consistent in building longer and longer stories—and that does not count the players who find this sort of thing difficult anyway.

This also means that the Game Master cannot just create a scenario and run that—at least not very often. Like character stories, Game Master stories also consist of steps, although what the rewards are for completing all of the steps, well, the book is somewhat hazy about… In addition to the steps of the Game Master story, the Game Master has to take into consideration the steps for each of his players’ Heroes’ stories, and when this involves multiple Heroes, it can be a lot to take into consideration. Yet the Game Master cannot ignore, because without fulfilling them, a Hero cannot progress.

In traditional roleplaying games, the amount of damage a player character can take will vary from character to character. Unless changed by an Advantage, each Hero has the same damage track, or ‘Death Spiral’, some twenty pips long. Every fifth pip of damage represents a dramatic wound, which grants a Hero an advantage or inflicts a penalty. So for example, upon suffering the first dramatic wound, a Hero is given an extra die to roll when he acts, but upon the second, the Villain that the Hero is facing gains two extra dice!

Unlike other roleplaying games, when a Hero suffers a fourth dramatic wound and thus runs out of wounds, he is not dead, but helpless and cannot act. At this point, a Hero can be killed by a Villain, but even this action requires the expenditure of a Danger Point by the Game Master and a murderous declaration. Even then, another Hero can leap into save the helpless Hero. Similarly, should a Hero reduce a Villain to the equivalent of helpless, he cannot simply kill him. It takes the declaration of intent and the expenditure of a Hero Point. What this highlights is that the damage in 7th Sea is designed to be dramatic and to add to the story not just represent mechanically how much pain a Hero is in.

Should a Hero act in a way that is evil, such as inflicting unnecessary suffering or not acting to save another when the opportunity arose, then he can accrue Corruption Points. These have no mechanical effect in game, but the more corrupt acts he commits, the Corruption Points he gains and they escalate very quickly. The more they do, the greater the chance of the Hero turning into a Villain and becoming an NPC. There is a way though, via a Redemption Story, but this is hard work upon the part of the failing Hero.

One other option a Hero has is to join a secret society. Some ten are given, including  the pirates of The Brotherhood of the Coast, monster-battling knights of Die Kreutzritter, the scholars and archaeologists of the Explorer’s Society, along with what each wants, knows, and can help with. Joining one is essentially free, but a Hero can only join the one and be trusted. In return, he can gain and earn favours with the secret society and this can provide motivation for the Hero and storylines for the Game Master.

Mechanically, 7th Sea uses pools of ten-sided dice, but where both the previous edition and Legend of the Five Rings used ‘Roll and Keep’ where the player or Game Master selected the dice results and added them together, 7th Sea uses a ‘Roll and Pair’ mechanic. When a player or the Game Master rolls the dice, his aim is to build totals of ten or more using two or more dice. So rolling six dice, a player might roll 2, 3, 4, 4, 8, and 10. This would be paired like so, 3+4+4, 8+2, and 10, to give three results of ten or more. Each result being known as a Raise (which should confuse any long-time player of Legend of the Five Rings). The number of dice to be rolled will be determined by the combination of trait and skill used, for example, Finesse and Weaponry to delicately cut at an opponent with a rapier, Wits and Tempt to wheedle some information out of someone, or Panache and Perform to impress someone with your singing. Further dice can be earned through the expenditure of Hero Points as well as from various advantages, but they can also be earned through storytelling—dynamic and verbal. The latter by a player character describing how his character will undertake an action, the former for the first use of a trait and skill combination, which will lead to a character switching between combinations of trait and skill to both gain the bonus and give dynamism to the action.

For example, James McTavish rushes into battle wielding his country’s signature weapon, a claymore. This means that his player will roll seven dice for James’ Brawn and Weaponry. His player adds one die because James has the Bruiser advantage, which gives him an extra die for welding a heavy weapon, in this case, the claymore; he gains a second die for using the Brawn and Weaponry combination for the first time; and a third for the description given by his player of “With a scream, I ferociously charge into the soldiers surrounding the cardinal, attempting to knock as many aside as I can.” This gives the player a total of ten dice. On a subsequent turn, the player decides that James will switch to Finesse and Weaponry, which gives him a base of six dice to roll. His player adds one die for the Bruiser advantage, a second die for using the combination for the first time, and a third for the description, “Not all of the cardinal’s men have been scattered, so I am forced to fight them blade to blade, knocking them aside to put them out of the battle.” So nine dice to roll then.

Conversely, Brute Squads—and groups of monsters who are like squads, such as a horde of shambling corpses or a pack of ravenous wolves—do not roll dice. Instead, they simply have Strength value, representing how damage they would inflict if left to attack unchecked. Their Strength value also represents how much damage the squad can take, so reducing a squad’s Strength also reduces how much damage it does in combat. Both types of squad, Brute or Monster can have qualities. For example, Guards, which force attacks against a Villain to be made against the Brute Squad accompanying the Villain with less damage, whilst Assassins can go first and inflict damage first. Monsters have qualities such as Shadowy, which makes them more difficult to track, or Chitinous, which negates damage from a single attack. A quality particular to monsters is that of Fear, which reduces the number of dice rolled by a Hero. Many of these qualities require the Game Master to expend a Danger Point to trigger.

Villains, whether monsters or humans, are slightly more complex. Like the Heroes, a Villain has Arcana—a Virtue and Hubris—and has Advantages, but a Villain does not have skills. Instead, a Villain has a Villainy Rank which is divided between two Traits, Strength and Influence. The first represents a Villain’s personal abilities, the second his power in the world. Thus, the first might be his swordsmanship, his sorcerous abilities, his charm, and so on, rolled just like a Hero’s skills are rolled, whilst the second is his money, his allies, his political power, and so on. To thwart a Villain, the Heroes can undermine his Influence, but to defeat him, they must battle him face to face and reduce his Strength. Villains being Villains, they are always scheming and schemes require the investment of Influence. This is permanent. If he succeeds, a Villain gains the Influence back and more, but if the Heroes thwart him, the Villain loses that investment—permanently. Villains are notoriously difficult to defeat though and it takes a lot of effort upon the part of the Heroes to defeat a Villain.

One advantage that Heroes have is Hero Points. All Heroes start each session with one Hero Point. More can be earned by a player or the Game Master activating a Hero’s Hubris, roleplaying a Hero’s Quirks (from his Backgrounds), a player having his Hero accept defeat, and by the Game Master buying any unpaired dice that not part of a Raise. The Game Master also gains a Danger Point this way. Hero Points can be spent to gain dice—on a one-for-one basis—before a roll or given to another Hero to help him with three extra dice. Certain Advantages require Hero Points to be activated and Hero Points can be spent to allow a Hero to act if he is helpless. Unfortunately, where a Hero has Hero Points, a Villain—and thus the Game Master—has Danger Points. These can be spent to raise the target required for a Raise (a success), to add dice to the Villain’s action, to activate a special ability of the Villain or a Brute Squad, or to kill a helpless Hero. The Game Master begins each session with Danger Points equal to the number of Heroes.

7th Sea being a roleplaying game of swashbuckling and sorcery means that it needs mechanics for duelling, sorcery, and seamanship. Duelling requires attendance at a duelling academy, there being one per nation, and in game terms, this requires the Duellist Academy advantage. Graduates are also members of the Duellist Guild and can thus initiate duels. A duellist is taught several common manoeuvres—slash, parry, feint, and so on—plus a Style Bonus unique to each academy. For example, the Valroux style is defensive in nature, requiring the use of a primary weapon and a main gauche. Its style bonus, Valroux Press, is a blocking manoeuvre which limits the number of wounds which can be inflicted and makes the opponent’s next action more difficult. In battle, manoeuvres cannot be repeatedly used, but instead must be alternated, so what results is the back and forth of swordplay so beloved of the genre and the movies. 7th Sea’s treatment of all things nautical is unsurprisingly aimed at telling stories rather than running a simulation of naval encounters. It is informative, gives you everything you might need to know to play and run shipboard and ship-to-ship encounters, including battles and trading, but without unnecessary detail. Ships can also have histories and adventures, both building a vessel’s legend, and with it, that of the Heroes.

If 7th Sea’s treatment of sailing and duelling is quite straightforward, the same cannot be said of sorcery, which really comes down to a number of subsystems, one per type of sorcery per nation. So Hexenwerk is practised in Eisen and involves the preparation of unguents from the dead combined with herbs, poisons, and other ingredients. Some like, Winter’s Scowl, which requires holy water, a thorny rose stem, and drops of the sorcerer’s blood, can be used to inflict wounds on an undead and stun them—and so aid against the undead that plagues Eisen. Others, like Master’s Bread, which requires a combination of a dead brain with hallucinogens, enables the practitioner, upon eating the resulting doughy result, to command an undead Monster Squad, have less savoury uses and explains why Hexenwerk is illegal, punishable by death. The Knights of Avalon practise glamours, each embodying one of the knights of legend and a particular Trait like Brawn or Wits. Unlike Hexenwerk, Glamours have Ranks and so can be improved. The La Magie des Portails or ‘Porté’ of Montaigne involves the sorcerer cutting holes and doorways in the fabric of the universe. These bleed and scream, but by placing a mark on objects—in his own blood, a sorcerer can pull the object to him or pull himself to the object, no matter how far away it is. Most famously, the Sorte of ‘fate magic’ of certain Vodacce women who manipulate the strands that connect all things to change the fate of those around them with Tesse or weaves, perhaps to place a blessing or a curse on someone, or even to meddle with their Hubris or Virtue. As a Sorte Strega—or ‘fate witch’—manipulates these strands, the power of her Tesse grow, but so do the lashes that fate binds to her. To remove these lashes a Sorte Strega must pay in blood or bad luck, that is, wounds or further Danger Points for the Game Master.

Typically, a Hero only gains a minor and a major sorcerous effect when purchasing the Sorcery Advantage. To improve his Sorcery, a Hero will need to complete a five step story as the advantage costs five points! If a Hero wants to become a powerful sorcerer, then this must be done again and again, so a lengthy process. That said, it does not take a Hero long to become a powerful sorcerer and some of the powers are potent indeed. The Hero is not really meant to fully embrace these powers though, but rather use them wisely lest the power goes to his head and perhaps leads to his becoming corrupted.

The treatment of the various sorcerous powers is uneven. For example, there is lots of flavour detail in the description of Hexenwork, but not really many powers for a character to learn unless he wants to learn the darker practices. The Knights of Avalon are given lots of Glamours and a sense of progress in that each possesses a rank and can be improved. In comparison, Sorte and Porté can only do a few things and feel decidedly underwritten, but they are powerful, in many ways more powerful than the other forms of sorcery. The underwritten nature leaves the Game Master to wonder at just how much more there is to magic in Théah.

—oOo—

Our second sample Hero is Iolandia, a Sorte Strega from Vodacce who was orphaned and kidnapped as a child and forced to study ‘fate magic’ or Sorte. She never learnt who her captors were before managing to escape in her teens and she had to live on the streets and by her wits for many years. She became a burglar and a thief, at times applying her Sorte to give her an advantage, first in Vodacce, but when the princes’ men hunted her, then in Montaigne and Castille. The black clad men and women have followed her again and again and now she wants to find out who they are, why they want her, and what happened to her parents.

Iolandia
Nationality: Vodacce
Concept: Rogue Sorte Strega
Backgrounds: Sorte Strega, Criminal

Brawn 2
Finesse 3
Resolve 3
Wits 2
Panache 3

Quirk: Earn a Hero Point when you commit to a dangerous course of action that you believe is destiny.
Quirk: Earn a Hero Point when you break the law in pursuit of a noble endeavour.
Advantages: Brush Pass, Camaraderie, Second Story Work, Sorcery, Sorcery, Streetwise, Time Sense
Skills: Aim 0, Athletics 3, Brawl 1, Convince 2, Empathy 1, Hide 3, Intimidate 1, Notice 1, Perform 2, Ride 1, Sailing 0, Scholarship 0, Tempt 2, Theft 3, Warfare 0, Weaponry 0

Sorcery—Sorte
Minor Tessere: Read, Arcana, Bless, Curse
Major Tessere: Blessing, Curse

Arcana: Coins (for the Ferryman)
Hubris: Relentless (Receive a Hero Point when you refuse to leave well enough alone or quit whilst you are ahead, and it gets you into trouble).
The Fool
Virtue: Wily (Activate to escape danger from the current scene. You cannot rescue anyone, but yourself.)

Story: Who am I?
Iolandia does not know who her parents were, why she was kidnapped and why she is hunted. She wants to find out why. Starting with the name of the organisation after her.
Ending: ‘To find out who is after her.’
Reward: Scholarship (Rank 1)
Steps:

  1. Kidnap one of the men or women after her and interrogate them to find out what she needs to know.

 —oOo—

The game itself is played out in a series of sequences, either Dramatic or Action. Whilst both can handle conflict or adversity, the latter handles furious bursts of activity, combat, and derring do, the former are extended scenes which might cover an evening at a duke’s ball, a burglary attempt on a merchant’s house, or a sea voyage into pirate ridden waters. During play it is possible to switch back and forth between the two, according to the needs of the story, but both involve Risks and both are constructed with Consequences and Opportunities. Consequences represent what can go wrong if the Heroes fail at a Risk, whilst Opportunities represent chances for the Heroes to learn more information, run into a contact, find a conveniently placed item, lock eyes with a villain leading to a duel, and so on. To overcome Risks, avoid Consequences, and take Opportunities involves the expenditure of Raises. A Hero might roll enough Raises to overcome a Risk, avoid the Consequences, and take advantage of the Opportunities, but then again, he might not. In which case, he might have enough to overcome the Risk, but not grab an Opportunity whilst avoiding the Consequences. So, he might get away with kicking the villain off the top of the speeding coach and grabbing the necklace that he stole from the duke’s mistress, but he might find himself hanging onto the door to the coach as it careers into a narrow street.

What a player does at the start of either Action Sequence or Dramatic Sequence is decide upon his Hero’s approach. This determines what combination of Trait and Skill a player must roll. For example, to fire the cannon aboard a pirate ship, a player might roll Wits+Aim; to impress someone with your singing, then a player should roll Panache+Perform; and to taunt an opponent in a duel, a player might roll Wits+Weaponry. In a Dramatic Sequence, there is no specific order in which the players spend their Heroes’ Raises beyond in the demands of the story, but in an Action Sequence, the player with the highest number of Raises gets to spend them first, then the others play theirs with the Game Master running a countdown. In combat, damage is inflicted or blocked on a one-for-one basis, and unless a Hero has an Advantage or been to a Duelling Academy, the damage will come from the roll rather than from the quality of the weapon wielded.

—oOo—

In our sample Dramatic Sequence, the Heroes are in the Castille port of Arisent when Iolandia is kidnapped! Her compatriots, Héctor de Estrella de Lucas del San Gustavo and James McTavish, know that she was last seen in and around the harbour, so decide they must search this area for her. The Game Master asks what approaches their players will take in conducting this search. James’ player states his approach will be direct, using his bluff presence to scare some answers out of the inhabitants of the port area. The Game Master suggests that James’ player will be rolling Brawn+Intimidation. Héctor’s player states that Héctor will be charming and friendly, attempting to make a good impression. The Game Master says that this is Héctor is using his Panache+Convince. The Game Master also states that the players will need two Raises if they are to overcome the Risk and learn what has happened to Iolandia. He also informs them that there is one Consequence and two Opportunities.

James’ player rolls seven dice for his Brawn+Intimidation. He rolls 2, 3, 3, 5, 6, 9, and 9. Since his Intimidation skill is 3, he can re-roll a die, but only gets a 1, so no change to the rolls. These he pairs into three Raises (3+9, 3+9, and 6+5). The Game Master decides that he will purchase the unused 2, which gives him a Danger Point and James’ player a Hero Point. Héctor’s player rolls six dice for his Panache+Convince. He also gets a reroll because his Convince is 3. He rolls 1, 3, 7, 9, 10, and 10. Since this will give him four Raises (1+9, 3+7, 10, 10), he decides not reroll.

With four Raises, Héctor’s player goes first and describes how he speaks quietly to some of the smugglers in the port and asks if they have seen Iolandia. By expending two Raises, he learns that she is being held aboard the La Sybella Nera, a Vodacce vessel. This leaves him with two Raises and means that James’ player has three Raises, so can act next. He uses two of them to learn the same thing, leaving him with one raise. With two Raises left, Héctor’s player goes next and uses one Raise to avoid the Consequence—this being that the crew of the La Sybella Nera will not learn of his enquiries—and uses the other Raise to activate the first Opportunity. The Game Master tells Héctor’s player that he finds a boatman who knows the waters of Arisent who is willing to row them out to the Vodacce vessel. He has no Raises left, but James does. James’ player spends the last Raise not to avoid the Consequence, but to activate the other Opportunity and learns that the La Sybella Nera is due to sail on the morning tide.

So at the end of the Dramatic Sequence, the Heroes know where Iolandia is, know how to get there and when. The crew of La Sybella Nera know that James McTavish is looking for her, but not Héctor. The Game Master now decides to switch to an Action Sequence in which James and Héctor will raid La Sybella Nera. He asks for their players for their approaches. James’ player states that since the enemy knows that he is coming, he will be direct, rowing up to the ship, climb the side of the hull, and facing whomever he finds, claymore in hand, yelling all the way. The Game Master decides that this involves Brawn+Weaponry and awards James’ player two extra dice, one for the flair of the description and another for the first time use in the scene. Héctor’s player decides that he will climb up the stern of the La Sybella Nero while everyone aboard is distracted by the loud, bluff, Highland Marcher. This the Game Master sets as Finesse+Athletics and again awards him two extra dice. James’ player makes life easier for Héctor by giving him a Hero Point, which lets him roll three extra dice.

Aboard the La Sybella Nera is not only a Strength 6 Brute Squad, but also a Rank 12 (Strength 8/Influence 4) Villain, Lady Sybella herself! She is a Duellist and knows the Mantovani style, which uses a whip and is popular in Vodacce. She also has the Disarming Smile Advantage, the Hubris, ‘Star-Crossed’, and the Virtue, ‘Adaptable’. The Game Master sets the Consequences at three to reflect the fact that the crew of La Sybella Nera are on guard, but also tells both players that there is one Opportunity to activate.

James’ player rolls seven dice for his Brawn+Athletics, plus the two awarded by the Game Master. He rolls 2, 3, 4, 4, 4, 7, 7, 9, and 10. As he has a skill of 3 in Athletics, he can re-roll one die, which he does. He pairs the results in five Raises (4+6, 4+7, 4+7, 2+9, 10). Héctor’s player rolls five dice for his Finesse+Athletics, plus plus the two awarded by the Game Master and the three granted by James’ Hero Point. This gives him ten dice to roll and gives him the results of 1, 2, 4, 7, 8, 9, 9, 10, 10, and 10. He pairs these into six Raises (1+9, 2+8, 4+7, 10, 10, and 10)—a good result.

The Game Master only has to roll dice for Lady Sybella as the Brute Squad has a simple Strength of 6 and does not roll dice. He rolls eight dice for Lady Sybella with the results, 2, 4, 5, 7, 7, 7, and 9. This he pairs in three Raises (2+9, 4+7, and 5+7). So in order of initiative, Héctor has six Raises, James has five Raises, and has Sybella has three Raises. The round begins with Héctor spends one Raise to climb up the stern of La Sybella Nera and another to unlatch a window and slide quietly into the cabin. There he discovers Iolandia tied up and gagged. This leaves Héctor with four Raises and because James has five, he goes next. He uses one to row around the side of the ship, another to climb up the side, and a third to pull the member of the Brute Squad over the side. This reduces the size of the Brute Squad from six to five and leaves him with two Raises, but he is aboard La Sybella Nera.

Héctor has four Raises and acts next. He spends one to active the Opportunity and the Game Master says that as he hears the sound of the Highland Marcher outside making his presence known, Héctor can sneak over and slip the gag free of Iolandia’s mouth. He also spends his remaining three Raises to avoid the Consequences. The Game Master explains that Héctor is quiet enough that no one hears him in the cabin. Outside on the main, James is confronted by both the Brute Squad, currently with a Strength of 5, and the Lady Sybella. She has three Raises so acts next. Since they are faced by one man, using one Raise the Lady Sybella orders the remaining crew, the Brute Squad, to attack. It would inflict five Wounds on James, but his player expends the last of his Raises to block part of the damage and he takes only three Wounds.

No one has any Raises left bar the Lady Sybella. First, the Game Master spends a Danger Point to activate the Brute Squad’s Pirate ability and have them abduct an NPC. This will be for the Member Squad who was pulled overboard by James, to heave himself into and hijack the boat that James and Héctor were rowed to La Sybella Nera in. If the player characters are able to get free of the ship, they will need to find another way back to the shore. They just do not know it yet! Then the Game Master points out that because James did not buy off the Consequences, the Lady Sybella, although unaware of Héctor because he did buy off the Consequences, is suspicious of the Highland Marcher attacking alone. The Game Master spends one to have say, “I cannot believe that you are all that has come to rescue my prisoner. My crew will deal with you while I ensure my pretty charge is still mine.” As the round comes to an end, the Lady Sybella bursts into the captain’s cabin to discover Héctor about to untie Iolandia as the sounds of battle continue.

James’ player declares that James will swing his claymore about ferociously, attempting to knock as many of the Brute Squad over the side as he can. This gives him seven dice for his Brawn+Athletics, one for his Bruiser Advantage, one for his first use in the Action Sequence, and another for Flair. He gets the results 1, 1, 2, 2, 5, 5, 6, 7, 7, and 9. With a skill of three, he re-rolls a 1 and gets a 2. He pairs these into four Raises (1+9, 2+2+6, 5+5 and 7+7). Héctor’s player declares that Héctor will engage Lady Sybella in a duel, capturing her sole attention with a swish and flick of his blade. Héctor has six dice for his Panche+Weaponry, one for his Flair and first use of this combination, plus one for his Fencer Advantage. His player also says that he will spend a Hero Point to activate his Fascinate Advantage and capture Lady Sybella’s attention. He rolls 3, 3, 3, 3, 4, 6, 7, 9, and 10. He can re-roll a 3 and gets a 10. He pairs these into five Raises (3+9, 3+7, 4+6, 10, and 10). Iolandia also gets to act this turn and her player says that she will appear to struggle to get free, but will actually be using her Sorte sorcery to affect Lady Sybella. The Game Master lets her roll Iolandia’s Panache+Convince. This gives her five dice dice plus one each for the first use and flair. She rolls 2, 5, 5, 5, 8, 9, and 10, which become four Raises (2+8, 5+5, 5+9, and 10). Lastly, the Game Master will roll eight dice for Lady Sybella, but will add two further dice by expending a Danger Point. He rolls 1, 1, 2, 3, 3, 4, 4, 5, 5, and 8, which become four Raises (1+1+8, 4+4, 5+5, and 3+8). The order of action is Héctor with five Raises, then Lady Sybella—Villains always go before a Hero if they have the same number of Raises, then James and Iolandia. The Brute Squad will act when Lady Sybella does.

Héctor dances forward, blade in hand and with one Raise slashes at Lady Sybella’s sword arm. This would inflict three Wounds (equal to Héctor’s Weaponry skill), but with everyone on four Raises, Lady Sybella acts next and parries, blocking these Wounds. Out on the deck, the Brute Squad harries at James. The squad will inflict five Wounds on him, so James is forced use his Raises to block all but a single Wound. Neither he nor the Brute Squad will act again in this round. Iolandia acts next and uses a Raise to activate her Sorte sorcery and Read to see the Arcana in the cabin. Héctor presses forward, this time with an Aldana Ruse, a special maneuvre, which will inflict extra damage equal to his Panache when Lady Sybella next takes damage and combines it with a Feint, inflicting a knick to his opponent’s wrist in addition to the Wounds caused by the Aldana Ruse. This means that both Lady Sybella and Iolandia have three Raises left, whilst Héctor has two.

Lady Sybella acts next and deploys the Mantovani Flay, a maneuvre of her duelling school which requires the use of her whip. With a crack of the leather she ensnares Héctor’s weapon in an attempt to prevent him lunging at her again. It also inflicts a Wound on the man from Castille. Having read the arcana of the cabin, Iolandia activates Lady Sybella’s Hubris, ‘Star-Crossed’, which means that she is smitten with Héctor! This costs Iolandia’s player a Raise and causes Iolandia to suffer a Lash, a sorcerous effect that will cut her if she is not careful. Everyone is now on two Raises. 

The Game Master decides that Lady Sybella, sword in hand, but whip wrapped around Héctor’s rapier, will huskily say, “I have one of your blades in my grasp… perhaps I should make a grasp for the other?” Héctor cocks an eyebrow and responds, “You have just one of my blades my lady, but not my heart.” His player also says that he will spend a Hero Point to activate Héctor’s Fascinate Advantage and capture Lady Sybella’s attention. The Game Master agrees that he definitely has her attention. Iolandia will act now, using her last two Raises to slip free of her bonds and crack the Lady Sybella over the head with a chair. As she keels over, Héctor says, “...and I thought it was my sparkling personality that floored her.”  With that, the two head for the main deck where they can hear a bellowing Highland Marcher.
—oOo—

 Given the author’s past experience in writing both Play Dirty and Play Dirty 2, it is no surprise that the gamer mastering section for 7th Sea is very well done—and in places just as brutal. It gives three approaches—or hats—to being a Game Master in 7th Sea—Author, Referee, and Storyteller. The first covers the scope of a story, the various modes or genres which fit within the 7th Sea oeuvre—oddly not romance, themes and dramatic situations, and plots. The second looks in more details at the rules and explores the nature of Consequences. This is important because it is so very difficult to die in 7th Sea and challenging to tell stories when death is not on the line. The third discusses the literary techniques—Five Questions (how, what, where, who, and why), Five Senses, and Five Voices of narrative (action, description, dialogue, exposition, and thought)—and how to apply them to a game. Rounding the section off is a look at something rare in mainstream roleplaying games—the GMasking how he did after the game—and an better look at villains and how to handle them. Overall, this brings 7th Sea to a more than impressive close. It is never less than helpful, but it takes the times to be chatty and friendly when it is needed.

Physically, 7th Sea is a stunning book. Although the book needs an edit in places, it reads well and is tidy looking. The index is simply awful and the publisher should know better… The artwork though is just perfect for the swashbuckling genre of 7th Sea, capturing the action, the romance, the intrigue, and more. The quality of the book really is eye-catching.

One issue with 7th Sea is the disconnect between its intent and certain aspects the setting of Théah. 7th Sea promises an equality between races and genders. It almost, but not quite delivers on that promise. For the most part, there is a balance in terms of race and gender in what you can play. The issue is with the nation of Vodacce, first in its treatment of women, not allowing to be literate, merely decorative, whilst allowing mistresses to be both, and with the Sorte Strega, who can only be women (thus not be male Heroes). Now this is relatively minor issue with 7th Sea. The fact that there is no timeline much more of an issue, as is the feeling that some sections are succinct, sorcery in particular, giving just enough to play with and no more. What a prospective Game Master may find disconcerting is a lack of a scenario, story ideas and story benefits for him to work with. 

Fundamentally, there are three things that 7th Sea does. The first is mechanical in nature, stripping the crunchy heft of other roleplaying games away from the Game Master, leaving him to concentrate on the storytelling, which of course will keep him fairly busy. Whilst it pares down the mechanical elements of player characters—for example, no disadvantages and minimalised wound track, it still leaves them with a lot to work with in comparison with that of the Game Master. This comparatively greater mechanical heft on the part of the player characters is what allows the players and their Heroes to engage with the setting of Théah. 

The second thing that 7th Sea does is enforce its genre, in particular, one of heroic swashbuckling, making it difficult for the player characters or Heroes to act unherocially by having it difficult to kill Villains, Heroes, and NPCs and by punishing Heroes with Corruption if they commit evil acts. It also does this by making duelling stronger than standard melee combat and whilst making black powder weapons nasty, having duelling be effectively faster and more deadly in the long run.

The third thing is an adoption of changes in play and game mastering styles and techniques from the past decade and a half. Some of these come straight out of the author’s own gamemastering playbooks—Play Dirty and Play Dirty 2—but others come from the Indie roleplaying game movement. Most obviously, in the die reward for Flair—for a player describing how his Hero acts, but also for the increased capacity for input into the story from the players  in creating Opportunities during an Action Sequences and Dramatic Sequences, and in building their own Stories by outlining their objective step-by-step.

Above all, what 7th Sea does is update a revered classic and does so in a modern, accessible fashion. It firmly places the action and the mechanics in the hands of the players whilst encouraging their Heroes to be heroic and their players to play them as such. Although both the players and the Game Master share the storytelling, 7th Sea gives the Game Master some great tools to facilitate of the action, the mystery, the romance, and the intrigue of both Theáh and the genre.

Saturday, 14 October 2017

Sorcery & Souvenirs

Published by Lost Pages, Wonder & Wickedness is a book of magic and magic things for the fantasy roleplaying game of your choice. Primarily written for the Old School Renaissance, it collects and collates content from the author’s blog to present some fifty-six spells divided into seven schools, a whole new system of magic, and a total of fifty magical items. The spells are accompanied by catastrophe after catastrophe should the spellcasting go awry; the seven schools are Diabolism, Elementalism, Necromancy, Psychomancy, Spiritualism, Translocation, and Vivimancy; the new system of magic is Level-less a la Original Dungeons & Dragons and Lamentations of the Flame Princess Weird Fantasy Roleplay; and not a single one of the magic items is a plain and ordinary +1 item. All this is capped off by exquisite illustrations by Russ Nicholson, which are just lovely.

The simple idea behind each of the spells is that they can all be cast by First Level arcane spellcasters. These are not weak spells, but spells that scale with the caster’s Level, both in terms of damage done and duration. Some spells require the application of sigils and a spellcaster can expend memorised spells to provide defence against other spell attacks or to inflict damage. Sample spells include Miasma, a Diabolism spell which summons the poisonous atmosphere of Hell for a random effect, like instant death, uncontrollable retching, burning blindness, and so on; Trapped Lightning is an Elementalism spell which traps lightning in bottle to be unleashed at a later date; the Necromancy spell, Soul Harvest collects and bottles souls for the caster to be used later as a bonus to a roll, temporary Hit Points, or as currency with other casters; and the Psychomancy spell, Fascinating Gaze, enables the caster to capture the eyes of another force them to answer yes or no questions. Second Sight is a Spiritualism spell which allows the sorcerer to the magic radiated by enchanted items and other casters; by casting the right sigil on a living being, the caster can turn him into a Living Gate to be used by the caster and his companions with this Translocation spell; and the Vivimancy spell Bloodlust instills exactly that in another, claws and all.

All these spells are simple enough and easy enough to add to campaign. They can be added to a campaign as written or they might form the basis of a wizard’s particular studies or the curriculum of a college of magic. As written, there is a wonderful sense of the weird to a great many them, for example, Occult Consultation. To cast this Necromancy spell, the caster digs a square pit and fills it with wine, herbs, and a sacrifice in order to summon a throng of ghosts and enter conversation with them. With possession of their true name or treasured possession, the caster can even summon a specific ghost. Afterwards, when the spell ends, the caster can follow the ghosts back into the lands of the dead—with no guaranteed promise of easy return, if at all!

There is always a danger in casting spells and so it is in Wonder & Wickedness. There is catastrophe aplenty to throw at the wizard should his casting go awry. At first these appear to organised in an odd fashion, but in actuality they are simply arranged so that the Game Master can either roll a twelve-sided die to get a result for a specific school or percentile dice to get a random result from any one of the eighty-four results (rolls of eighty-five and above are re-rolled). These outcomes to miscastings, wizardly death, and so on, add to the archness of the book, and this is very much continued in the book’s last third.

Wonder & Wickedness ends with some fifty new magical items. They include a Dagger of Divergent Precipitation, which when plunged into a large body of water, draws heavy clouds around the wielder and even causes lightning strikes; a statue of a Fascinating Cat who catches the gaze of those who looks on it to the point of starvation—unless the statue covered up; the Goblin-birthing Knife, which will cause a loyal, if stupid goblin to be born from the belly of any victim killed by the knife; a Meteor Lure, used to attract meteors from which star metal might be smelted; the black iron block-headed Orc Mace, which causes humans to be transformed into orcs; and the Shadow Loom, from which cloaks, hoods, and gloves can be drawn. The first allows the wearer to hide in shadows, the second protects the wearer from all sorcery when not in direct light, and the third let the user draw spells out of a sorcerer’s mind!

Wonder & Wickedness has a plain black cover which hides a simple layout and very, very good art. There is just not enough of Russ Nicholson’s illustrations in this supplement, but that is because his art is simply excellent. 

Although there is a simplicity to the writing and presentation of Wonder & Wickedness, there is a lovely detail to the spells and the magical items it describes. There is an archness to the design of both and they will add shade to any campaign, delivering on the promise of the wonder and the wickedness of the title.

Sunday, 8 October 2017

Cows for the Khans

It is sometimes forgotten that Chaosium, Inc. is a publisher of boardgames, starting with White Bear and Red Moon, but it has not released a boardgame since the publication of Arkham Horror in 1987. That changes in 2017 with the publication of Khan of Khans, a light card game that returns the publisher to its first love and the lands of its very first board game—Dragon Pass in Glorantha. The rich green uplands of Dragon Pass are looked upon with envy by the nomadic tribes of Prax and each of the tribes regularly sends raiders into Dragon Pass to steal the wealth of its peoples. A wealth that is measured in cows! This year the High Priestess of Prax has declared that the tribal leader—or Khan—who returns with the most wealth from his raids into Dragon Pass will be declared ‘Khan of Khans’, the paramount Khan of Prax! All that stands between each Khan and his being acclaimed ‘Khan of Khans’ is the magic of his enemies, the possibility that his cows will stampede, squabbling tribal champions, and rival Khans stealing his cows!

Published following a successful Kickstarter campaign, Khan of Khans is designed by Reiner Knizia, best known as the designer of Ingenious, Lost Cities, and Keltis, the winner of the Spiel des Jahres in 2008, and is based on his earlier Polish design, Kajko i Kokosz: Przygody Wojówor or Kajko and Kokosz: The Adventures of the Warriors. It is intended for between two and five players, aged nine and over, and can be played in twenty minutes or so. The game is one in which the players must remember what cards have been drawn, press their luck in drawing cards, and use their tribe’s individual powers to their best effect if they are to be Khan of Khans.

The game consists of a Map Card which shows the relationship of the ten locations the players are raiding in Dragon Pass and a set of cards for each location. These locations consist of Boldhome, Colymar Lands, Duckpoint, Dragon’s Eye, Dwarf Mine, Earthshaker's Temple, Furthest, Grazelands, Shadow’s Dance, and Sun Dome, with each Location Deck consisting of the same eight cards and one Special card. These are one twenty-, two fifty-, and one-hundred point value Raid cards and one Tribal Champion, one Waha’s Blessing, one Stampede, and one Enemy Magic, plus the Special card. The Raid cards represent the wealth or cows each Khan brings back to Prax from Dragon Pass; a Tribal Champion protects the tribe against Enemy Magic, but will squabble with any rival Tribal Champion and drive your cows (Raid cards) away, forcing a Khan to discard both; and a Waha’s Blessing card is used to steal from a rival tribe or kept to be included in the total value of a player’s Raid cards at the end. A Stampede card forces a Khan to discard his highest value Raid card; an Enemy Magic forces a Khan to discard all of his un-corralled cows and therefore unprotected Raid cards, unless stopped by a Tribal Champion. This forces the Tribal Champion to be discarded. The Special cards vary from location to location, but essentially they duplicate another card, but are themed to that location. For example, an extra hundred-point Raid card can to be taken from the Issaries cattle market at Boldhome, the feisty ducks at Duckpoint are notorious for their extra Enemy Magic, and the Dwarf Mine has an extra twenty-point card, ‘Cows in Cans’.

The High Priestess has given a gift of corrals to each of the tribes, the number varying according to the tribe and the number of Khans. These cardboard tokens are used to round up cows taken on Raids and permanently protect them from any Enemy Magic, Stampede, or Waha’s Blessing. Each Khan is represented by a large Tribe card on the back of which is given a special ability, each tribe having its own special ability. For example, the Bolo Lizard People receive one less Corral Token, but are known for their Marauding. This means that when another Khan reveals a Stampede! card, the stampeding Raid card is not discarded, but rather goes to the Bolo Lizard People clan! The Rhino Riders are tough and Unyielding, so it takes two Enemy Magic cards to thwart one of their Tribal Champions. Some abilities are always on, but others do need to be activated and so are slightly more complex than the others. There are a total of ten tribes in the box, so Khan of Khans offers some replayability in terms of tribe and special abilities.

At the start of the game, each player receives his Tribe card and some Corral Tokens. Some tribes also get some tokens to indicate their special ability is being used. Each of the ten Location Decks is placed around the Map Card and play begins. On his turn, a Khan has four options, but can only take the one action. The four options are ‘Raid a Location’, ‘Corral your Herd’, ‘Use Waha’s Blessing’ and ‘Use a Khan ability’. To ‘Raid a Location’, a Khan selects a Location Deck and draws a card from it. If it is a Raid card, then it is placed face up in front of the Khan where everyone can see it. ‘Corral your Herd’ allows a Khan to collect up all of the Raid cards in front of him and place them under one of his Corral Tokens. A Waha’s Blessing can be played or kept to either be played on another turn or added to a Khan’s Raid total. Enemy Magic, Stampede!, and Tribal Champion are played as soon as they are drawn, their effects as described previously. ‘Use a Khan ability’ is just for those tribe’s whose special ability requires an action. If a card has no effect, such a Stampede! or an Enemy Magic card, because a Khan has no Raid cards, then it is simply discarded.

Play continues until every card from every Location Deck has been drawn. At which point the Khan with the highest total value of Raid cards both in his Corrals and in front of him is declared ‘Khan of Khans’ and is the winner of the game. Khan of Khans is a game of card counting and memory, with each Khan needing to keep a keen eye as to what cards have been drawn from what Location Deck. Has the one hundred-point Raid card been drawn from Duckpoint? Has the Stampede! card been drawn from the Colymar Lands and only one of the fifty-point Raid cards? Well, there might not many beneficial cards left at Duckpoint, especially when there are two Enemy Magic cards there, and with multiple fifty-point Raid cards in the Colymar Lands, then there still remains wealth to be taken in raids. These should be tempered with the knowledge that Enemy Magic and Stampede! cards and too many Tribal Champion cards will force a Khan to lose Raid cards. Plus, a Khan should always be careful when he conducts a Raid if another Khan has a Waha’s Blessing ready to play on him and he might draw a high value Raid card. Further, as the number of cards in the Location Decks run down, the choices available becomes increasingly limited. So there is luck involved too, often bad luck. Knowing when to Corral his Raid cards will also benefit a Khan in the long run.

Physically, Khan of Khans is very well produced. The cards are all on thick, glossy card, all easy to read and all superbly illustrated. In fact, the very best thing about Khan of Khans are the illustrations, which capture the feel of both Dragon Pass and Prax in a fully painted, if cartoon-like style. They are quite, quite lovely and serve to help make the game accessible by all ages. The rule book itself is decently written, but the rules are simple enough anyway—both to learn and teach. Plus the rules for each of the cards are repeated on the cards anyway. What is not repeated in an easy fashion is each of the tribe’s special abilities, which are given on the back of the rule book and the back of each tribe card. This information could have been better presented on a card of its own for handy reference, perhaps on more than one, especially as the abilities do vary in complexity. 

One problem in play is that being luck based, a game of Khan of Khans can go completely against a player, but it is short enough not to feel as if the time has been spent wasted. Another is that it does work better with more players, a two-player game can be a bit back and forth in how it plays. More players offsets this issue.

Although, Khan of Khans is what is technically known as a reskin, that is the taking of a set of mechanics and applying another theme to them, this game does not feel like a reskin. As such, the theme and mechanics do feel like they fit very well together. That said, the game’s theme is light, perhaps too light for some hardcore Gloranthaphiles, but really they should enjoy the references to Prax and Dragon Pass on all of the cards. For them, Khan of Khans should serve as a Glorantha-themed filler before they leap into playing RuneQuest or HeroQuest: Glorantha. For both a wider gaming audience and a family audience, Khan of Khans is also a good choice as a filler, offering a fair degree of luck against a little deduction—or at least some card counting. Whatever the audience, Khan of Khans is a very engagingly presented filler of a game which offers solid replay value and just about the right amount of challenge to please most players.

Saturday, 7 October 2017

The After-Effects of Adventure

As its title suggests, The Bridges We Burn - A Numenera Adventure is a scenario for use with Numenera, the roleplaying game published by Monte Cook Games. Set in the far future of the Ninth World, Numenera saw adventurers—clever Nanos, wily Jacks, and mighty Glaives—exploring and using the wonders of the past to learn their secrets and benefit the peoples around them. As well introducing player-facing mechanics and an ever changing supply of mostly single-use magic items or ‘Cyphers’ to play with, Numenera essentially presented a new way in which to run and play Dungeons & Dragons-style adventures. Numenera proved to be the hit roleplaying game of 2013, win the 2013 Origins Award for Best RPG, and receive numerous supplements. Although a self-published adventure, The Bridges We Burn is a sort of sequel to Monte Cook Games’ mini-campaign, The Devil’s Spine, in that it takes place in the same city of Uxphon, with its maze-like canyons of towering pipes, which stands to the north of the Steadfast. The Bridges We Burn can also be run as a sequel to The Devil’s Spine in that when it opens, the player characters are being feted as heroes—presumably the heroes who overcame The Devil’s Spine.

Designed to be played with Tier 3 characters—so they need to have more than a few adventures under their collective belts—The Bridges We Burn can be best run with access to The Devil’s Spine for possible context of the player characters’ previous adventures and The Ninth World Bestiary. Primarily though, the scenario requires that the Game Master consult the core rulebook for its information upon the city of Uxphon and of the Convergence, the rogue organisation who investigates and uses the technologies and devices of the past to its own benefit, which therefore puts it at odds with the Aeon Priests. It is the Convergence that triggers the events of The Bridges We Burn when they attempt to kidnap a beautiful young noble woman from a ball in Uxphon. It is at this very ball at which the player characters are being recognised as heroes and so when it comes under attack, they are of course expected to live up to their reputations—leap in to save the ‘princess’, and so on.

Thus begins the action and intrigue in The Bridges We Burn, a lengthy adventure which takes place over five chapters and which should provide a group with many hours of playing time. Even before the action begins, there is plenty of opportunity for roleplaying and interaction as they navigate their rough hewn ways round the manners and attitudes of Uxphon’s high society and make preparations for the ball itself. Following the ball and the attack upon it, the adventurers are asked to investigate, to determine who was responsible and quite possibly rescue the kidnapped young woman. This involves tracking the miscreants and their hideouts down across the city before following the clues out to the Convergence’s secret hideout in the wastes to north known as the Fields of Death and known to be the breeding grounds for the dangerous cragworm.

Yet if the adventurers manage to track down the Convergence cell and rescue the kidnap victim, there is still one very, very big threat to be dealt with—and it comes right out of the blue. At least for the player characters… Not only do they have to determine its cause, they also have to find a way to stop this threat, a threat that cannot really be killed. There are ways to deal with it though and the scenario provides several of these, but this requires getting a fractured city and its various factions to co-operate, so the adventurers need to put their social and the physical skills to a lot of hard work before the scenario’s big rousing climax.

For the most part, The Bridges We Burn is a straightforward scenario. Capacity is provided for some slight deviation, though not much, and the Game Master will be on own his should the players deviate too much from the plot. Yet that plot is well supported and covers most options within its scope. Each of the chapters and its various scenes is nicely supported by suggestions for Intrusions from the Game Master and advice for the Game Master. The latter includes advice for running each of the adventures as separate chapters, but this involves a bit of work as they are tightly interwoven.

One thing that some players may find missing from The Bridges We Burn is a physical reward for all of their efforts. Other adventures might offer actual artifacts—better cyphers—for their continued adventures, but here the rewards are more social ones. There is the possibility with these rewards that the player characters might become much more involved in the future of Uxphon. This might become interesting and important with the new rules for the forthcoming Numenera Discovery and Numenera Destiny books that make up Numenera 2.

The Bridges We Burn is a 6.9 MB, one-hundred page, full colour PDF. Both the artwork and the NPCs are given in separate appendices which allows the Game Master to use the former as handouts and access the latter for ease of use. The artwork varies a little in quality, but it does illustrate many elements of the adventure. There are no maps though, so the Game Master either needs to draw his own or run them the adventure without, which is possible as the scenario is written. It is in need of an edit in places, but these are minor issues to be fair. The appendices include a full breakdown and description of the scenario’s various chapters.

As written, the beginning and the end to The Bridges We Burn are more interesting and more involving than the chapters in between, but those do a good job of getting the player characters from one to the other and getting them involved. This should not detract from what is a tough scenario which should provide a challenge for its players and their player characters.

Sunday, 1 October 2017

A Fulcrum in Stasis

The Coming Storm: The Red Cow Volume I is a supplement for use with HeroQuest: Glorantha. Published by Chaosium, Inc., it is the first part of The Red Cow duology, providing the setting and background details for the campaign, The Eleven Lights: The Red Cow Volume II. This setting and background is that of the Red Cow clan, famed for the red cows that it breeds and trades which make it the envy of many of its neighbours. The Red Cow clan is part of the Cinsina tribe, itself part of the Jonstown Confederation, which firmly places it in the Kingdom of Sartar in Dragon Pass. The time frame is between 1618 and 1625, so the early years of the Hero Wars that mark the end of the Third Age. The supplement details the Red Cow clan, its leaders and notables, its allies, enemies, and their aims, laying out a rich tableau which the player characters can explore and influence. They will take the role of clan warriors, hunters, herders, healers, farmers, priests, and more, their role and position becoming more important and prominent as they become involved in the events detailed in The Eleven Lights: The Red Cow Volume II. It is important to note that although The Coming Storm: The Red Cow Volume I is set during the Hero Wars and the events of The Eleven Lights: The Red Cow Volume II take place against the background of the Hero Wars, neither the player characters nor the Red Cow clan will become directly involved in the Hero Wars. Rather they will become involved in events on the side-lines of the Hero Wars or in the consequences of those events.

As of 1618, the Red Cow clan, like most of Sartar, is under occupation by the Lunar Empire, the consequences of which are to divide the clan into several factions. Some like the Moon Winds, dominated by the Sardaling bloodline, have not only accepted Lunar rule, but also been converted by missionaries to worship of the Seven Mothers and welcomed the riches the Lunar presence brings. The Free Sartar faction sees those of the Moon Winds faction as traitors and would not only punish them, but see all Lunar presence driven out of Sartar. The Free Sartar faction supports those who rose in rebellion against the Lunar Empire and continues to support the surviving rebels who now conduct a guerilla war against the Lunar occupation. Its members also support the Orlanthi priesthood which has been forced into hiding since the Lunar administration outlawed worship of Orlanth. The Conquering Storm concerns itself with more local matters, in particular, old feuds and slights, wanting the tribe to keep the tribe itself strong and its neighbours weak, whilst the Wolfskinners fear the Telmori, the werewolves who live with their wolf brothers to the east and whose skin in wolf-form can only be cut by magical or iron weapons. The Wolfskinners would even co-operate with Jomes Hostralos, the Lunar General who has been given a land grant which was owned by a rival clan destroyed by the Telmori and who has led raids against the wolfmen. Lastly, there is Eye of the Hurricane, the faction which does not want to involve the clan in affairs beyond the borders of it lands, avoiding all talk of the Hero Wars and rebellion against the Lunar Empire. It is the clan chieftain, Broddi Strong-Kin, who leads both the clan and the Eye of the Hurricane faction, and so must keep a balance between the rivalries and politics of the factions, the clan, and the tribe.

Interestingly, the Red Cow slogan is ‘No one can make you do anything’ and that lies at the heart of The Coming Storm: The Red Cow Volume I and presumably, The Eleven Lights: The Red Cow Volume II. So at the point when the player characters enter the story the situation in the clan is one of a status quo between the faction and the clan and the external forces, and this will not change without the agency of the players and their heroes. As the young men and women of the clan, the player characters can be hunters, warriors, healers, thanes (household heads, merchants, craftspersons, housecarls, and other persons of note), mercenaries, cattle raiders (the tribes of Sartar have a tradition of raiding rival tribes and clans for their cattle), and more. An example of each of these five options is given as pre-generated characters, either ready to play or useful as inspiration for the players in creating their own. One interesting option particular to the Red Cow clan is to play one of the ‘Rattle-Born’, the warriors grown to full adulthood with a shake of Orlanth’s Rattle, a Red Cow clan treasure, one of several treasures possessed by the clan. Muscular and martial, the ‘Rattle-Born’ are capable warriors, but emotionally immature having missed out on a normal childhood. Other options might include merchants or priests to Ernalda or Heler.

The support for and background to the campaign begins with a clan sheet and a clan questionnaire taken from Sartar: Kingdom of Heroes and filled in for the Red Cow clan, which nicely summarises the clan, its history, attitudes, treasures, and so on. It expands greatly on this, going into some detail about the contents of both sheets before presenting a gazetteer of both Red Cow Fort—the clan’s principal settlement—and the Red Cow lands and a who’s who of the notables in the clan. This includes the inner circle of the clan council, the clan chieftain’s bodyguards, the Housecarls, the priests, the leaders of the clan’s bloodlines, the Headmen, the Women’s Circle, and the craftsmen. Of note amongst the latter is Willandring the Giant who has been hobbled so that clan can retain use of his iron working skills, and Erinala Goodale, who runs the inn at Red Clan Fort, a recent and Lunar addition to the settlement which the clan sees as an affront to its traditions of hospitality. Lastly, the leading members of the Lunar garrison are presented. In addition, the clan’s previous chieftains are listed, with those of living memory described in further detail, nicely personalising the clan’s recent history.

The Coming Storm: The Red Cow Volume I then expands upon the description of the Red Cow clan to detail the Cinsina, the tribe to which the Red Cow belongs. Primarily this is a history of the tribe, in particular its encounters and dealings with the Telmori, but again, it includes the tribe’s leading figures, notably Ivartha the Skinner, the Queen of the Cinsina. She is no distant figure, for she makes a regular progress through the tribe’s territory, staying at clan after clan. So when playing The Eleven Lights: The Red Cow Volume II, the player characters are likely to encounter her, especially as spends a great deal of time with the Red Cow clan. Rivals of the Red Cow are also presented, including the Dolutha, riven by the crime without compensation—kinstrife and the Two-Pines clan which would war on the Red Cow. Beyond the Red Cow clan, the supplement examines both the rebels and the efforts of the Lunar Empire to track them down, the holdings of Jomes Hostralos, and those of the Telmori and the ghouls, the lands of the dead.

Now none of the other clans, rivals, allies, and enemies are presented in quite as much detail as the Red Cow clan, which is understandable, since the players and their characters are going to be involved in the events surrounding the clan as presented in The Eleven Lights: The Red Cow Volume II. Yet there is information enough—and even some suggestions to that end—for the Game Master to develop into games that present the Red Cow clan as a threat rather than home. So the Game Master could use the material to run a game in which the player characters are the Lunar occupying forces prosecuting the Sartarite rebellion, members of the Dolutha clan attempting to restore their reputation and assuage their sorrow and woe, or even Telmori wolfbrothers, raiding the clan lands and surviving clan raids. These ideas are not the focus of The Coming Storm: The Red Cow Volume I or The Eleven Lights: The Red Cow Volume II, nor really within its remit—as the authors do point out, and whilst possible, would need a fair degree of development by the Game Master.

Of course, much of the contents of The Coming Storm: The Red Cow Volume I will be familiar to Gloranthaphiles, but having it all detailed here makes it accessible in readiness for The Eleven Lights: The Red Cow Volume II—and more so if the Game Master and his players are new to HeroQuest and Glorantha. That said, the supplement is not complete and the Game Master will probably want to refer to two other supplements for further information. One is Sartar: Kingdom of Heroes, with its guide to creating Sartarite characters and to the Orlanthi faith, as well as the events of the Hero Wars which form the backdrop for The Eleven Lights: The Red Cow Volume II. The other is the Startar Companion, which provides information on Heler, the rain god favoured by one of the clan’s bloodlines. Of all this information, it is a pity that the character generation guide and the details on Heler are not included here as that would have made The Coming Storm: The Red Cow Volume I and for The Eleven Lights: The Red Cow Volume II more of a complete pair.

Physically, The Coming Storm: The Red Cow Volume I is a decently presented colour hardback, if a little slim. The content is well organised with a lot of supplementary information packed into separate side boxes. The illustrations of the very many individuals are also good, though some are a little scrappy. Their arrangement in tableau works here very much better than it does in recent Call of Cthulhu titles from the publisher. The maps, especially those of Red Clan Fort, Dangerfort, and similar, are excellent, though those of the Cisina lands and their historical movements would have worked better if they had dates on them. The book does need an edit in places though, but the index is both full and useful.

By focusing on the one clan and its situation, The Coming Storm: The Red Cow Volume I does a fine job of bringing the setting of Dragon Pass and the political situation just before the Hero Wars to life. It has the feel of a land under occupation, very like Celtic Britain under the Romans, but of course with much more sense of the fantastic and how that fantastic is part of everyday life. Although there is some flexibility in how its content can be used, The Coming Storm: The Red Cow Volume I sets everything up ready for the events The Eleven Lights: The Red Cow Volume II and the saga that the player characters will become involved in, and does so in pleasingly readable and engaging fashion.

Saturday, 30 September 2017

Wolves on the Border

As its title suggests Time of the Wolves: An epic saga for the Age of Arthur roleplaying game is a campaign for the Age of Arthur roleplaying game. Published by Wordplay Games, Age of Arthur – Dark ages roleplaying powered by Fate—though written for use with an earlier itteration of the rules, both Time of the Wolves and Age of Arthur can work with FATE Core—is a gritty, Dark Ages-set Arthurian roleplaying game which presents a more historical approach to the Arthurian legend in comparison to the romantic approach taken by the classic King Arthur: Pendragon roleplaying game. Both are equally valid approaches to the Arthurian legend, but King Arthur: Pendragon is—and remains—the preeminent roleplaying treatment  of the genre, and rightly so. The historicity of Age of Arthur means that it does not quite have the grand sweep that King Arthur: Pendragon and The Great Pendragon Campaign together possess, but it does mean that there is greater scope for player character action and influence over a campaign.

Set in the Kingdom of Ebrauc—roughly equivalent to Yorkshire—Time of the Wolves presents four linked adventures which see a band of heroes attempt to stave off an invasion by Angles which threatens the kingdom. Ebrauc is not the only place facing the threat of invasion. King Wehha of the Wuffingas, ruler of the recently founded Kingdom of the Angles, has designs on the nearby city of Lindum as much as he does Ebrauc and has set a competition for his sons to impress him by capturing both. In the course of the campaign, the heroes will encounter treachery and greed, honour and ambition, Fae magic and Saxon magic, and more. The fate of Lindum and Ebrauc lies in their hands.

It opens with ‘Hammer to Fall’, in which the heroes are in Lindum, a city whose strategy in dealing with the threat of the Angles is to hire mercenaries—including Angle mercenaries—for protection and pay tribute to King Wehha. This has only put a temporary hold on the Angles’ ambitions and perhaps an opportunity has arisen with the news that pay for the mercenaries in Lindum’s employ has gone missing. The heroes are asked to investigate the loss and the process must deal with mercenary bands, hold off the approaching Angles, and somehow find a way of funding the city’s defence.

Yet as the heroes work to save Lindum, the Angles make a move elsewhere. In part two, ‘Play the Game’, news comes to them that the heir to Ebrauc has been struck down and lies dying whilst the command of his troops has passed to a cousin. He proves ill-suited to command and even when it becomes apparent that the heir has been poisoned, he inadvertently impedes the heroes’ search for a cure. This takes the heroes off into Britain’s wilder realms where the GM gets to portray some fun NPCs and the heroes get to step up to the stage. They should earn a favour by the end of the scenario, but also owe one in readiness for ‘Put Out the Fire’, wherein the heroes must travel north to pay it back. This third part is mostly a journey, but it does present the heroes with a question of honour when they return.

The last part is ‘Friends Will Be Friends’. Ebrauc’s situation looks perilous. The Angles have finally gathered enough enough forces to make their attack and the kingdom just does not enough men at its command to withstand their onslaught. The heroes must make one last desperate effort to bolster their forces before the invaders attack. This involves negotiation with an Angle Thane and his fearsome bodyguard and is a good opportunity for some roleplaying prior to the campaign’s climatic showdown between Ebrauc and the Angles. This allows the GM to bring all of the Angles’ forces to bear, including great magic and skin changing warriors, but there are opportunities for the heroes to counter these aspects and make the situation just a little less challenging… This is a suitably rousing climax to the campaign and hopefully, a chance for the make Lindum and Ebrauc safe for a few more years...

Although Time of the Wolves can be played with characters of the players’ design, it really benefits if these characters have ties to Ebrauc and Lindum as this will mean that they can better interact with the Aspects for both the campaign’s locations and NPCs. To that end, the campaign provides four pre-generated heroes. They include an illegitimate prince of Ebrauc and war leader, a druid in service to Ebrauc, the ambitious daughter of the Prefect of Lindum, and an ex-bandit in the permanent service of said daughter of the Prefect of Lindum. The characters are nicely tied to each other and the setting, so that they really have a stake in the future of the region. Of the four, the bandit has the weakest ties to the campaign, but they are all four very playable with Aspects that will bring the campaign to life.

One issue with the campaign is the problem with travelling. Time of the Wolves does involve quite a lot of travel and on almost every journey the heroes are attacked or ambushed by bandits or Angle warriors. The GM may want to vary these a little.

Physically, Time of the Wolves is a digest-sized hardback, done in full colour. It is lightly illustrated, but the artwork is excellent, being full colour paintings. The pre-generated hero portraits are particularly good. Likewise, the maps are done in full colour and very attractive pieces. The writing is clear, but perhaps it could have been slightly better organised within the various chapters so that some of the plot information could have been made a little more obvious. Some of it does appear after the NPC it relates to is presented. That said, the plots are not that complex anyway, but it makes finding the information not quite as easy as it should. Overall, Time of the Wolves looks great and it looks far more professional than a small press release has any right to do.

If you already have a copy of Age of Arthur, then Time of the Wolves is a perfect addition. It showcases the perilous situation in which post-Roman Britain finds itself and the efforts its peoples are making to hold off the impending threat from across the North Sea. It also showcases how to bring forth the storytelling possibilities of the setting and the Aspects of both this setting and the characters. It is also a good showcase for Fate and how it works, so if you wanted to try Fate, then Time of the Wolves with Age of Arthur is a really strong combination. Time of the Wolves is a good campaign, but it gets better when the character Aspects involve them in the narrative.