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

Wednesday, 28 June 2017

The Tools of FATE

The FATE System Toolkit is part of the sextet of books funded via Kickstarter for FATE Core, the newest version of Evil Hat Games’ ENNIE award winning light and cinematic generic RPG first seen in Spirit of the Century back in 2006. It began life as the guide to magic for FATE Core, but as the Kickstarter grew and grew, things kept getting added to it, many of which have nothing to do with magic. In each and every case, the FATE System Toolkit asks what the GM wants the new rule or approach to the rules to do and how it fits into the game. It never mandates that its solutions are how something should be done, but rather how the mechanics can be ‘hacked’ to get it done. As it states up front, the FATE System Toolkit is not ‘the’ toolkit for FATE Core, but ‘a’ toolkit for FATE Core. In other words, “Here is how you could do it” rather than “Here is how you should do it”.

In keeping with the Bronze Rule in FATE Core—that anything can be treated as a character—the first things that the FATE System Toolkit looks at are Aspects, Skills, and Stunts. Aspects underpin FATE Core and here we get a range of suggestions as what else they can do in addition to the options given in the main rulebook. This includes invoking them for effect rather than a bonus to a roll, such as a dwarf where he is underground and knows which way is North; detonating situation Aspects, that is going from ‘Weak Structural Integrity’ to ‘Collapsing Bridge’; representing quests as Aspects, for example, ‘Sabotage the Imperial Annihilation Station’; and making gear important by giving it Aspects, such as ‘Brutal Orc Cleaver’.  Skills are given a similar range of options, ranging from Professions as Skills or replacing Skills completely with adjectives that describe how a character does something, like Forceful, Graceful, Clever, or Resolute, to working into modes or bundles and even replacing them totally with Aspects. Modes package the skills into bundles for easy character generation and give bonuses to skills that duplicated between bundles. This is one of the options to replace FATE Core’s Skill Pyramid and enables a GM to design modes to fit particular genres or campaigns. Stunts receive a similar if much shorter treatment, including tying them to Aspects or gear rather than Skills, having pre-requisites—much like there was in Spirit of the Century, and so on.

The original way in which the hobby categorised characters is looked at in ‘The Big Game’ rather than campaigns as a whole. So we are shown a way to do Class and Race with Professions such as Fighter or Thief and Races like Elf or Orc. Both are packages that emulate an older style of game as much as FATE Core can. These come with an interesting side note that explains what we mean by Race in game terms. The new Origin Story method of character creation uses flashbacks rather than necessarily forging connections between the characters as per the FATE Core book whilst the Bronze Rule is applied to a scenario structure to use Aspects as the framework, a list of events leading to a crescendo that if reached means that the bad guys are winning! Special Circumstances covers particular situations, for chases which can be designed as challenges or contests and handling motivations and instincts in social interaction, whilst the section of Customized Tools is more a collection of odds and sods, from getting into the nitty gritty of Stress, Consequences,  Zones, and Refresh to creating your own FATE dice.

Given its original purpose, it is surprising that the FATE System Toolkit devotes less than half of its pages to its original purpose—magic. Even then it devotes more of those pages to examples than it does to discussing how to build magic systems for FATE Core. This starts out with what the magic system is designed to do and what its aims are before specifically looking at its tone, source, availability, cost, and limits. Once their ramifications are discussed, it looks at how magic can be modelled through the use of Aspects, Skills, and Stunts. Over all, it does not amount to more than a few pages, but they are a thoughtful few pages, prompting the GM to think about his intended design.

So where the section is lengthy is in its examples—and really good examples they prove to be. Stormcallers power their ambitions by tapping into the five Great Storms raging at the heart of creation—Earthquake, Flood, Glacier, Inferno, and Thunder, whilst Storm Summoners conjure the elementals of these storms to do their bidding. Each example can be used independently, but they nicely go together with the Stormcallers being a development of the magic system in Evil Hat Games’ The Dresden Files RPG. Thematically, The Six Viziers is a ‘Great Steppes of Russia’ inspired system where the characters are marked with a tattoo of one of the great constellations—or Viziers—in the sky and are thus capable of great actions with their skills. In comparison, The Subtle Art opts for the understated effect, that is, the placing of temporary blessings and curses—or Aspects—upon a target. It has a much grittier feel than the other example systems. All of these magic systems are great, but the highlight is Voidcallers, essentially the black, black magic version of the Stormcallers. Instead of tapping into an elemental storm, a Voidcaller draws on the Void for aid and ‘great power’, but this comes with consequences—consequences of the GM’s choosing. This begs to be used as the basis for ‘things mankind is not meant to know’ campaign and as written does not necessarily come with tentacular trappings, but there is nothing to stop a GM from adding these if so desired. Accompanying each of the worked examples is a ‘30-Second Version’ that summarises the system in easy to digest thumbnail fashion. Very useful—and that is before you get to the full details which beg to developed into a fuller setting.

Rounding out the FATE System Toolkit is a set of subsystems, ones that enable the GM to take his game into different directions and enable him to do different things in his game. These include Kung Fu, Cyberware, Gadgets, Monsters, military Squads and Mass Battles, Swashbuckling Duels, Vehicles, Superheroics, and Horror games. Of these, Kung Fu has been more recently done for the Wuxia genre with the alternate takes given in Tianxia: Blood, Silk, & Jade and Jadepunk: Tales of Kausao City. Military Squads and Mass Battles are handled as characters and character-versus-character—as per the Bronze Rule that turns everything into characters—just as you would expect, whilst the Monster rules  do a good job of handling Very Large Monsters across multiple zones. So good for fighting truly big dragons, kaijū, or monsters like those of the computer game, Shadow of the Colossus. The Duelling subsystem works in a similar fashion, enabling characters to swashbuckle back and forth across zones as well as giving advantage to the duellist who makes the best use of the terrain in each of the zones in addition to their opponent’s psychology. Both the Cyberware and Gadgets subsystems enable characters to build great devices, that is with advantages and weaknesses, whilst the Vehicles subsystem calls for the characters to emotionally invest in their joint-owned Mystery Van/Firefly class spaceship/Babylon 5.

Lastly, the FATE System Toolkit suggests ways in which FATE Core can do horror, a genre that it admits that it is ill equipped to handle. By turning up the Compels for an Oppressive Atmosphere, turning up the difficulty of any obstacles for Impossible Circumstances, and turning down player character resources—fate points, stress, and consequences—for Stark Desperation, the FATE System Toolkit shows how FATE Core could do horror, especially the more cosmic horror of Lovecraft’s works. These suggestions would also work nicely with the Voidcaller magic system given as an example earlier in the book.

Physically, the FATE System Toolkit is a sturdy hardback. It is well written, cleanly presented, and illustrated with some excellent artwork. This though, does not mean that it is without issue. Most RPGs involve one or more elements of the technical. Indeed the roleplaying game can be best described as ‘technical fiction’, their requiring technical information—or rules—to help the GM and his players participate in the fiction or setting. The FATE System Toolkit is more technical than fiction, which means that it is probably drier than most RPG supplements. Which does mean that FATE System Toolkit is not always the most engaging of reads and it explains why it took this reviewer more than one attempt to read through it, but to be fair, that is as much an issue with this reviewer as it is the book. In fact, it is probably more the former than the latter given that ideas in the FATE System Toolkit gives are imaginative and fun. There are, undeniably, great ideas in the FATE System Toolkit for adding this or that to a FATE Core game as well as, of course, for tinkering with different elements of said FATE Core game.

The rules and mechanics to almost every roleplaying game are written in stone. Their designers will doubtless note in the forward to said game that the game and thus the rules you have are now yours and can tinkered with or played the way that you want. Then they leave all of the effort making and implementing those changes up to you. Not so the designers of FATE Core. They give you a book that is entirely devoted to thinking about and implementing those changes to make FATE Core your game. Then they give you examples. Really good examples.

You never need anything more than FATE Core to run or create a FATE game, but the FATE System Toolkit may well be ever so useful when the GM and his players come to do so. The FATE System Toolkit is a thoughtful tinkerer’s guide to getting under the hood of FATE Core.

Monday, 26 June 2017

The Fall of the Wall

Please forgive this interruption from the normal round of reviews, but I want to bring your attention to a recent announcement at Yog-sothoth.com. Approximately a decade ago, fans at what is the premier site for Lovecraftian investigative gaming decided that they would work together to create a companion to the hobby’s greatest campaign, Masks of Nyarlathotep, and so answer the many questions that have arisen over the years about the campaign, offer enhancements, and provide advice and support. The result was the labour of love that is The Masks of Nyarlathotep Companion, which has been described as the equivalent of the ‘Masks of Nyarlathotep wiki’. Successfully funded on Kickstarter in support of the many costs that go to keep Yog-sothoth.com, the Companion has been well received (not least by me) and there have been calls for it to see continued publication.

Unfortunately, in fully funding the printing of The Masks of Nyarlathotep Companion, there have not been enough monies to fund the continued operation of Yog-sothoth.com and as a consequence, its owner, Paul of Cthulhu has decided to part with his collection of Call of Cthulhu books which stretches back over thirty years. There are some great titles and items on this list, including a very many rarities, If there is a tome that you are after, please check this list and consider making a purchase and so help keep Yog-sothoth.com a going community.

Sunday, 25 June 2017

Carcosa in Carcassonne

Originally published in 2000 by Hans im Glück in German and by Rio Grande Games in English, Carcassonne is one of the early, great Euro-style board games. Currently published by Z-Man Games, it won the Spiel des Jahres in 2001 and has since gone on to become a classic and is rightly regarded as a gateway game to the hobby. Based on the town in south-west France, it sees the players attempt to build the town of Carcassonne using the game’s tiles as they see fit, constructing cities, completing roads, surrounding monasteries, and occupying farms tile by tile, and then claiming them with their knights, thieves, monks, and farmers. Since its initial release, there have been both multiple expansions for the game and multiple versions of the game, but what if Carcassonne were to fall prey to a malign meme, an insidious influence, a yammering yellow? What if there were men and women desperate enough and ready to drive themselves mad in service of a greater goal, to make the ancient Roman city not ‘Carcaso’, but Carcosa?


This is almost the setup for Carcosa – A Lovecraftian board game of Cults and Madness published by One Free Elephant. It does not actually see the Yellow Sign subvert the town of Carcassonne, but it does take the same tile-laying, area control mechanics of Carcassonne the game and build on them to see rival cults—or players—race to bring the Tattered King to Earth, commanding cultists to control ley lines, conduct rituals, explore the districts of Carcosa itself as they replace our reality, and even sacrifice them to the dark waters of Lake Hali for the pleasure of the King. 

Designed for two to four players, aged fourteen and over, Carcosa can be played in about hour, sometimes less. It consists of eight-four Carcosa tiles, four Hastur tiles, a Cult Mat, four sets of ten ‘Cultists’, four sets of Ritual Stones, four Chapter House cards, four Forbidden Lore cards, and the rulebook. The four Hastur tiles are the game’s starting tiles and show parts of a District in Lake Hali. The eight-four Carcosa tiles show several types of features in Carcosa. These are Districts, Ritual Sites, Confluxes, Ley Lines, and Lake Hali. When placed each tile must be placed adjacent to an existing tile and the sides of the tiles must match. Notably, each of the Carcosa tiles is double-sided and has ‘Stable’ and ‘Unstable’ sides. When a player draws a tile, he examines it and places it so that its ‘Unstable’ side is face up. Only when a feature is completed—Districts built, Ley Lines linked, Ritual Sites surrounded, and sections of Lake Hali enclosed—will it stabilise so that the feature’s tiles can be turned over and its controlling player can harness its power.

The Cult Mat is divided into two sections. The outer section is the Occult Power track which is used to track each player’s progress towards the Summoning Ritual which will bring the King in Yellow to Earth. The inner section is the Ritual Chamber with spaces for the Carcosa tiles to be placed ‘Stable’ side face down. The middle of the Ritual Chamber is marked with the Yellow Sign. This is where potential Cultist recruits can be found and ultimately, the Summoning Ritual is held to bring the King in Yellow to Earth.

Each player’s ten Cultists consists of a Prophet, who sits on the Ritual Mat and controls access to the undrawn Carcosa tiles; an Oracle who keeps track of a cult’s score and progress towards the Summoning Ritual; and eight Cultists. Three of these wait on the Ritual Mat, ready to be recruited and two wait in the Cult’s Chapterhouse, one in the Asylum and one in the Recovery Room. This leaves a player and his cult with just three Cultists at start of play.

Each player has access to a set of six Ritual Stones, each numbered from two to seven. By completing Ley Lines, a player can imbue these with power, the longer the Ley Line, the higher the number of the Ritual Stone which can be imbued. On subsequent turns, a player can use a Ritual Stone to gain an advantage. For example, ‘We Are Legion’ allows a player to add a Cultist to an uncontrolled feature, whilst ‘Shape the Beyond’ lets him take a Carcosa tile from the stack currently controlled by his Prophet and save it to be played later. Notably, possession of a higher numbered Ritual Stone means that it can be used as a lesser numbered Ritual Stone. Each player has a Forbidden Lore card which details the powers of all six Ritual Stones.

Lastly, each cult has a Chapterhouse with two rooms, an Asylum and a Recovery Room. When a Cultist completes a feature, he is sent to his Chapterhouse’s Asylum. On subsequent turns, he will move to the Recovery Room before becoming ready to play again. This strengthens the resource management aspect of the game, since completing features will temporarily limit the number of Cultists he has from one turn to the next.

A player’s turn consists of five steps—Recover Sanity, Tile Selection, Tile Placement/Replacement, Cultist Placement, and Tile Resolution. In the Recover Sanity step, Cultists are moved from the Asylum to the Recovery Room and from the Recovery Room to a player’s supply, enabling Cultists who completed features in earlier turns and were sent insane, to gain their semblance of sanity—after all, no sane man wants to summon the Yellow King. In Tile Selection, a player takes a tile from a stack which does not have a Prophet belonging to any player on it and then places his Prophet on that stack. This blocks access to that stack until after the current player’s next turn and adds a resource denial aspect to the game as the players block and unblock access to the stacks. Having drawn a tile, a player examines its Stable side to determine where to place it in the Tile Placement/Replacement and adds it to the tiles in play with the Unstable side face up. Notably, he can use this tile to replace an existing Unstable tile—as long as the sides match with the tiles it is being placed alongside. Replaced tiles are not lost, but added to the bottom of a stack to be drawn later. In the Cultist Placement step, the player can add a Cultist to the feature he has added or extended—on the Ley Lines, Districts, Ritual Sites, or in Lake Hali—as long as there is not a Cultist already on it.

In the Tile Resolution step, if a feature is completed, all of its tiles are flipped over from their Unstable to Stable sides. The Cultists who completed the feature go insane and are sent to the player’s Asylum. Power is then drawn to various effects, depending upon the type of completed feature. Districts score points and advance a player towards starting the Summoning Ritual. Some Districts contain ‘theatres’ which allow a player to recruit additional Cultists. Ritual Sites are completed when surrounded by eight other tiles. This scores a player more points, but if the Ritual Site is home to a feaster—something that only the placing player will know—it devours the Cultist on the Ritual Site and any Cultists in the surrounding waters of Lake Hali. Although this scores points for all players whose Cultists are devoured, these Cultists are sent to the Cult Mat and cannot rejoin the game unless recruited via a District with a Theatre. Although this scores points for everyone involved, it can be used as a means of denying Cultists to a rival player. A player can sacrifice a Cultist to Lake Hali to score points, though this will reduce the number of Cultists he has to hand. By completing a Ley Line, a player will imbue a Ritual Stone, unless it is connected to an ‘Empowered Conflux’, in which case, he will imbue a Ritual Stone and score points.

Play continues until one of two conditions are met. If two stacks are depleted on the Cult Mat, the game ends, players score for any incomplete features they control, and the player with the most points takes control of Carcosa and wins the game. This is the less interesting of the two conditions. The more interesting condition occurs when a player’s Oracle reaches the end of the scoring track on the Cult Mat and so can begin the Summoning Ritual. This requires him to complete three more features and send their corresponding and now insane Cultists to the Cult Mat (instead of the cult’s Chapterhouse). The first player to do so, brings the Yellow King to Earth and wins the game.

Carcosa quite literally brings several new twists to Carcassonne and its style of play. Cultists being sent insane by completing features and their need to recover imposes a strong resource management aspect, whilst the ability to complete a Ritual Site and sacrifice Cultists of any player enforces this—though they do extra points for these sacrifices. So a player needs to be very careful not to overcommit his Cultists lest he exhaust the numbers he has to place. The ability to block access to the tile stacks gives another tactical aspect to play. The Unstable/Stable aspect of tile placement adds a sense of mystery and hidden play to the game, but being able to replace an Unstable tile can be very powerful, especially if it changes the effect of a tile, such as connecting a Ley Line to an ‘Empowered Conflux’ or changing a Ritual Site to one with a Feaster—or vice versa. That said, while the Stable/Unstable tile mechanic is clever, it can be fiddly when it comes to flipping them over, so players do need to be careful. Above all, the Summoning Ritual as the end game condition makes the game a race, one that any player can still catch up to if he is behind as well as slowing a player down who is attempting the Summoning Ritual. In addition, the Ritual Stones can give a player an advantage just when he needs it. All of those does mean that there is much more to learning to play Carcosa than Carcassonne and that the game’s full details will really come out after a few plays.

Physically, Carcosa is a nicely presented game. Everything is in full colour, the tiles are beautiful pieces of artwork, dark and moody, even ominous, each presented on thick card. The Cultists are wood—as they should be for a Carcassonne-style game—but pleasing cut to represent berobbed cult members. The rulebook does look a bit plain though and although it does explain the rules well enough, it is not the easiest set of rules to read or indeed use as a reference guide to the rules. The Cult Mat, though sturdy, feels a bit cramped in play. (Note that this review is of a pre-production copy, so the ultimate design will vary, most notably the rulebook will be presented in full colour and redesigned.)

Thematically, Carcosa is a delight. Its artwork and the Cultist meeples—this is a Carcassonne-style game, so each player’s Cultists are always meeples—bring an ominous sense of dread and doom to the game play, yet without overpowering it. There no great Mythos creature or entity lumbering into view, but always a sense of building towards something insidious and despairing. At its core, the game play remains simple, but Carcosa does add several degrees of complexity to Carcassonne’s mechanics, moving the game well away from being a gateway game as does the theme, which is more adult and darker in tone. Another reason it is not a gateway game, is that the complexity means a greater range of tactical options, perhaps slightly too many for casual play. That also means though, that the players have more opportunity to be tactical—not just in terms of their tiles and where to place them, but also which tile stack to block, when to play a Ritual Stone, when to sacrifice everyone’s Cultists, and so on. 

Of course it could be argued that Carcosa is an overly complex version of Carcassone, but then the players are trying to perform a Summoning Ritual and what ritual is ever easy? Yet the complexity is born of a design combination that is clever and in places novel, bringing both mechanical depth and thematic depth to a design classic. Ultimately though, the cleverest aspect of One Free Elephant bringing Carcosa to Carcassone is not noting the connection, which was there for all to see, but making the connection in terms of theme and game—such that you have to wonder why no one made the connection before.

—oOo—

Carcosa – A Lovecraftian board game of Cults and Madness is currently being funded via a Kickstarter campaign.

Saturday, 24 June 2017

It's the End of the World

Worldbreaker is something that The Esoterrorists has never had before. Originally published in 2006 and then in a second edition in 2013, The Esoterrorists is Pelgrane Press’ roleplaying game of investigating and combatting occult terrorists intent on tearing the fabric of the world by exposing it to the creatures of the Outer Black. Notably, it launched the GUMSHOE System, the publisher’s investigative, clue-orientated roleplaying mechanics, which it has used for the majority of its roleplaying games since, including Mutant City Blues,  Ashen Stars, and Night’s Black Agents. In that time, The Esoterrorists has been supported with numerous scenarios and a supplement or two, but it has lacked is a campaign. Worldbreaker is the campaign that fulfills that lack.

For decades the Esoterrorists have conducted occult activities and conspiracies aimed at tearing open the membrane between our reality and the horrific vortex of the Outer Dark. Only the Ordo Veritatis has worked to thwart their activities, throwing back any demons that slip through tears in the membrane, breaking up Esoterrorist plans, and conducting operations to cover up what really happened, lest the fear and the horror become known and so further weaken the membrane. To date the Esoterrorists have been conducting single operations, but now their plans seem to be coalescing and pushing forward towards to a very final end. From a brutal ritual in an underground club in San Francisco, agents of Ordo Veritatis—the player characters—will find clues and links to greater plans, clues and plans that will lead them back and forth across the globe. This is the set up for Worldbreaker, a campaign detailing the Esoterrorist efforts to bring about their final plans written by the designer of the GUMSHOE System and The Esoterrorists, Robin D. Laws.

Taking its cue from previous titles from Pelgrane Press like The Zalozhniy Quartet for Night’s Black Agents and even older campaigns of investigative horror like The Complete Masks of Nyarlathotep, the structure of the campaign in Worldbreaker has a beginning and an end that are set, but the scenarios in between can be played in any order. Clues are laid in the initial scenario with links to each of the following four and then clues gathered from the four build links to the campaign’s climax. Following these clues will take the Ordo Veritatis agents from San Francisco to Washington, D.C. and back and forth across the USA and then on globetrotting investigations to Leicester in the UK—a nod to the author’s attendance of Continuum, to a cave system in Belize, to Moldova, and Nigeria before the final destination can be determined. The campaign itself is not only globetrotting, but so are several of the scenarios.

Worldbreaker opens in San Francisco with the prologue, ‘Into the Basement’, a descent into the aftermath of an assault upon alternative lifestyles which culminated in a bloody ritual and a suicide pact. How and why did a middle class vanilla family come to commit such acts? Answering these questions presents the agents with the first clues to the campaign’s greater conspiracy. The scenario plays out as a traditional law enforcement investigation, with lots of clues to gather and organise from the crime scene, so it feels very like an episode from the C.S.I. franchise. That said, the bloody nature and adult themes of ‘Into the Basement’ definitely make it a scenario for mature gamers and set the tone for campaign to come even as it plays out in a very straightforward manner.

(Note: This review will discuss the four scenarios in Worldbreaker in the order in which they appear in the book. So when the scenario number is mentioned, it should not be taken as the implication that they should be played in this order—Worldbreaker is not The Complete Masks of Nyarlathotep.)

As the title of the first scenario suggests, it involves clowns. Drawing on the rash of random clown sightings in 2016,  ‘Coulrophobia’ begins simply with that, a thin link to the sighting of a man dressed as a clown that becomes more when the first of series of strange car-related deaths occur nearby. Are the deaths related to the clown sightings and if so, how? Following the trail leads to another outbreak, this time in Leicester in the UK. This scenario shifts from the prologue in terms of skill, involving much more in the way of interpersonal skills than it does technical or forensic skills. One issue is that the scenario’s UK-set scenes do not feel particularly authentic and still some Northern American in their details. Nevertheless, the Ordo Veritas agents will need to work quickly if the clown sightings and the strange deaths are not to spread…

Where the other scenarios in Worldbreaker are quite contained, the second scenario, ‘Geoslashers’ threatens to sprawl as the Ordo Veritatis agents investigate how the world’s leading search engine—here called ‘Waltz’, but as the author suggests, substitute the one of your choice—is managing to capture the sight of dead bodies with its street-mapping and satellite-imaging technology. Is this simply a case of one too many a coincidence or is someone playing to the cameras? A much more open scenario, this pulls the investigators hither and thither, and the GM will probably need to juggle its various scenes around in reaction to how the players and their investigators conduct the investigation.

The third scenario, ‘New Crystal Maiden’, is the most straightforward and easiest to run in the campaign. Set in Belize it draws from horror films like The Descent—which itself is probably a big clue as to what happens—in having the protagonists trapped and hunted in a cave system. This turns the more traditional investigative horror of most scenarios for The Esoterrorists into a survival horror adventure and just like a traditional horror movie, it includes a cast of deplorables that when it comes down to it, you are happy to see shredded in the dark. This cast of deplorables is in fact all too modern, the cast and crew of a new reality television series to which the agents can attach themselves to.

As with the second scenario, the title of the fourth scenario, ‘Heart of Outer Darkness’ says a great deal about its inspiration and its story. The Ordo Veritatis agents have to travel into dangerous territory and the ‘heart of darkness’ not once, but twice. Once in the furthest reaches of Eastern Europe and the quite literally ill-regarded territories caught between the old Soviet Union and the new Russia, then again into war torn Africa and the rebel-held forests of Nigeria. Both journeys have a tired, wrung out quality to them, the first of old espionage tales, the second of old colonialism, though the trip through west Africa is the one in the campaign that touches the most upon contemporary events, in particular the ebola outbreaks and the activities of Boko Haram. Both trips also highlight the limitations of Ordo Veritatis  as for the most part, the agents will be on their own as they travel up country. The journey structure of the scenario means that it builds to a definite climax and feels as it should come fourth in the order that the scenarios should be played, despite the fact that they can be played in any order.

Rounding out Worldbreaker is its climax, ‘Swallowed’. Each of the preceding four scenarios come with pipe clues which feed into this scenario and the mystery of a disappeared passenger flight. It allows the Ordo Veritatis agents to pull any last strings together before confronting the Esoterrorists and their very final plans. This echoes the end of the Call of Cthulhu campaign, Shadows of Yog-sothoth, but brings it up to date with a party, a degree of bureaucracy, and a very matter of fact attitude. 

Physically, Worldbreaker is a slim book, ably illustrated by Chris Huth. It feels slightly rushed in places and perhaps could have been better localised in places. Each of the scenarios is neatly organised with notes on handling, clues leading in and out, as well as suggestions to the veil out, the procedure for covering up each Esoterrorist activity—though in the case of ‘Swallowed’, that veil out is going to have be very big indeed. (There are also notes for running Worldbreaker for Night’s Black Agents included in an appendix.) Throughout of course, the skills required to push each investigation forward are clearly marked, though what is clear is that the expenditure of investigation skill points is kept low throughout. This also has the effect of confining the majority of the campaign’s mechanical aspects to the use of general skills—mostly in fights, scuffles, and the getting out of the way.

In terms of structure and scale, Worldbreaker does feel very much like a Call of Cthulhu campaign. A small mystery leads to a conspiracy and a larger mystery which in solving will reveal a global threat and ultimately the means to defeat it in a final confrontation. This should not be taken as a criticism, for there are some very fine Call of Cthulhu campaigns and the model has been proven to work again and again. Worldbreaker though, is a campaign for The Esoterrorists, and that means it is a contemporary affair, more brutal and often sordid in tone, its horror not quite so arcane. It is also a short campaign by any measure, none of the scenarios being more than a few sessions long, which also means it can be better paced and Ordo Veritatis can thus save the world—if not necessarily the player character agents—in quite short order.

Thursday, 22 June 2017

Free RPG Day: Torg Eternity Free RPG Day Special

Saturday, June 17th was Free RPG Day—the tenth Free RPG Day and as was to be expected, it came with an array of new and interesting little releases. Invariably they are tasters for forthcoming games to be released at GenCon the following August—or even later, but others are support for existing RPGs or pieces of gaming ephemera. Amongst the array each year there will always be one or more hotly anticipated title and one of these was the RuneQuest: Roleplaying in Glorantha – Quickstart and Adventure. This was joined by the first release for another old game, Torg Eternity Free RPG Day Special.

Originally published in 1990 by West End Games, Torg was a cinematic multi-genre role-playing game in which the Earth was invaded by several different realities—or ‘cosms’—that mapped themselves onto our reality. Each cosm was essentially a different roleplaying genre, the Living Land being a Lost World-style jungle that covered much of the USA; Aysle, a magical low-tech world a la Dungeons & Dragons covering the United Kingdom; the Cyberpapacy of France combined cyberpunk with theocratic dystopia; Japan became Nippon Tech, an ultracapitalist nightmare society ruled by corporations; the New Nile Empire mixed Ancient Egypt with pulp action in North Africa; and Indonesia became Orrorsh, a  Gothic horror realm of the Victorian age. Each of these cosms had a High Lord who competed to dominate the others in the ‘Possibility Wars’, but as ‘Storm Knights’, the player characters not only remain resistant to the changes mapped by these cosms, but can go from one cosm to another unchanged. This allowed a mix of character types, so a stone age warrior-shaman from the Living Land could fight alongside a mage from Aysle, a hacker-priest from the Cyberpapacy, a martial artist from Nippon Tech, a consulting detective from Orrorsh, and a gadgeteer from the New Nile Empire and stand up against the High Lords in the desperate Possibility Wars. 

Initially well received, Torg gained its hardcore fans, but suffered from various issues as detailed here and it was out of print by 1996 and by 2006, the proposed second edition, Torg 2.0, had also not appeared. German publisher, Ulisses Spiele, best known for the leading German fantasy roleplaying game, The Dark Eye, has owned Torg since 2010, but it is only in 2017 that we are getting to see the second edition, known as Torg Eternity, with this Kickstarter campaign. Torg Eternity Free RPG Day Special is an introduction to the new setting.

Unlike Torg, the setting for Torg Eternity is not of an Earth where the Storm Knights successfully defeated the High Lords, but one where the High Lords were far more successful in their desire to take the Earth and harvest its Possibilities. The ‘Core Earth’ of Torg Eternity is also more action orientated than our own and magic and miracles exist.

Torg Eternity uses similar mechanics to those used by Torg, what became known as Masterbook and would be subsequently used in West End Games’ own Science Fiction roleplaying game, Shatterzone, as well as a number of licensed properties, The World of Indiana Jones, The World of Necroscope, and The World of Tank Girl. In this system, a character’s attribute or attribute plus skill is compared against a Difficulty Number, the standard Difficulty Number being ten. To this is added a number generated on the Bonus Chart included at the bottom of each character sheet, which can range from -8 to +13 or more if a player rolls well. This is rolled on a twenty-sided die. The chart is very slightly slanted towards low or negative numbers, but if a player rolls a ten or a twenty on the die, he can keep rolling the die, adding up the numbers rolled to get a Die Total. The character’s  attribute or attribute plus skill plus the penalty or bonus generated on the Bonus Chart is the character’s Action Total. The Action Total is compared to the Difficulty Number to determine if the character is successful and then the Success Levels achieved. 
So for example, Tom is being chased by edeinos scouts—lizard warriors in the Living Land and having clambered out onto the fire escape decides to leap across the alley to the opposite fire escape. Tom has an attribute rating of seven for his Dexterity and a Maneuver skill rating of +2. This gives him a base Action Total of nine, but since the GM has set the the Difficulty Number at ten, Tom’s player needs to roll on the Bonus Chart. He rolls a twenty! This gives him a starting Die Total of +7, but since he has rolled twenty, he can roll again and add the total. He rolls two, which he adds to the twenty to get a Die Total of twenty-two and checking the Bonus Chart gives a bonus of +8 to add to the current Action Total, which is now seventeen. This is seven Success Levels above the Difficulty Number and gives Tom a Good result. 
The basic rules presented in the Torg Eternity Free RPG Day Special cover actions, including interaction and physical attacks. The combat rules also cover options such as all-out attacks, combined actions, and so on. In addition, every Storm Knight have Possibilities, typically three per act of an adventure and these can be used to roll extra dice for an action and to negate Wounds and Shock suffered. One other aspect of the Torg Eternity that comes into play when a Mishap or one is rolled, is that any equipment being used which is not supported by the local reality loses its connection to its home cosm made possible by the Storm Knight and will not work until the connection can be made again.

The scenario in the Torg Eternity Free RPG Day Special is ‘Invasion’. Designed to be played by up to six players plus the GM, it is set in New York on the very day that the ‘maelstrom bridge’ crashed onto the city and began turning both it and the rest of North America into the Living Land. It sees the Storm Knights—though they do not know it yet—try to get to a place of refuge away from the marauding dinosaurs and lizard warriors. Consisting of six relatively short scenes, it presents a solid showcase for the setting and its mechanics, but it is very action and combat orientated and not one of the scenes any interaction, at least in terms of the rules.

Besides the monsters, the scenario is supported by six sample characters. Including an academic, an executive, an athlete, a paramedic, a crook, and particularly up-to-date, a near celebrity, they represent a good mix of characters and Americans. Both they and the scenario is not quite ready to play though, as the sample characters do not come with their own character sheets and one will be needed to be filled in for each character. 

Physically, Torg Eternity Free RPG Day Special is a slim, sixteen-page booklet. It is done in full colour, but is sparsely illustrated. The writing is pacey and a GM could prepare Invasion and have it ready to run in an hour. The adventure itself should be completed in a session.

Of course, Torg Eternity Free RPG Day Special only covers a tiny fragment of the Torg Eternity setting, but the scenario drops the player characters into this setting and gets them up to speed quickly enough. The other issue is with the Torg Eternity mechanics, which are not quite straightforward and not quite intuitive, though they play reasonably enough.

Given that Torg Eternity encompasses a multiverse, the Torg Eternity Free RPG Day Special really does only provide a taster of the Torg Eternity setting. It is enough of a taster for one session though and that is the point of the Torg Eternity Free RPG Day Special

Friday, 16 June 2017

de Harken Inheritance

Reviews from R’lyeh’s 2016 review of The Fenworthy Inheritance caused no little interest amongst the Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition community as evidenced by these recordings* and this discussion at Yog-sothoth.com. For although The Fenworthy Inheritance is not written for use with any version of Call of Cthulhu, its use of the GORE™ Open Game Content Rules published by Goblinoid Games—best known for the Old School Renaissance Retroclone, Labyrinth Lord—means that it is surprisingly compatible with the mechanics of Call of Cthulhu. The publisher of The Fenworthy Inheritance, MontiDots Ltd. is not only a publisher of horror scenarios, but also of fantasy adventures too. Just like The Fenworthy Inheritance is written for a retroclone of a horror roleplaying game, these scenarios are written for use with a Old School Renaissance retroclone of Dungeons & Dragons.

*AireCon IV: MontiDots Interview, the fourth recording is the relevant recording.

The first of these adventures is MD2 The Curse of Harken Hall: A MontiDots Adventure for early versions Fantasy Role-playing games. which uses Knights & Knaves’ OSRIC™ System (Old School Reference and Index Compilation) for its mechanics. This means that it is roughly compatible with Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, but the advantage of this and many other Old School Renaissance roleplaying games, scenarios, and supplements is how compatible they are with Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition, let alone each other. MD2 The Curse of Harken Hall is an adventure for First Level characters, the first in ‘The Tales of Highcliff Gard’ trilogy which will continue with MD3 Necromancer’s Bane and MD4 The Tales of Highcliff Gard. It introduces the Highcliff Gard setting and presents a relatively short—just twenty-one locations—though highly detailed dungeon that can played through in a session or two.

The setting for MD2 The Curse of Harken Hall is Highcliff Gard, a village at the heart of Highcliff Gard Vale located in the south of Fiefdom of Kaldemar. Both valley and town are isolated, both geographically and politically, though the reasons why are not initially obvious. The scenario and setting make various changes to the standard Dungeons & Dragon-style set-up. One is the inclusion of Stationers, an organisation of bards who deliver messages, but more important to the players are the changes to the available Races and Classes. Dwarves, Elves, and Halflings are all available as player character Races and together with various Sylvan races and beings and many of the Giant races, they are known as the ‘Erle Folk’. Essentially the Erle Folk are all Fae and to some degree or another all possess Fae Sight. The standard version of Fae Sight allows Infravision that works day and night as well as the ability to see hidden doors and beings. Even Halflings possess limited Infravision, whilst Dwarves have limited vision when outside, but better hearing. On the downside, the people of Highcliff Gard are strongly ill disposed to the ‘Erle Folk’, Elves especially, though Halflings and Dwarves are just about tolerated. So the players really need to be aware of this xenophobia before playing MD2 The Curse of Harken Hall.

MD2 The Curse of Harken Hall includes changes to just two Classes—the Cleric and the Magic-user. Clerics in Highcliff Gard are polytheistic, worshipping a pantheon rather than a single god and making offerings to each of the gods of the pantheon as necessary. This gives Clerics access to a wide range of spheres and thus spells, the given pantheon for Highcliff Gard suggesting a Norse influence—no surprise given that the designer is from Yorkshire. Magic-Users can brew potions with the aid of a liquid known as Aqua Conjurum, which is brewed by alchemists typically of higher Level. The problem with these changes is that they are not as clearly presented as they could be. 

At the heart of MD2 The Curse of Harken Hall is a mystery and a curse. Long again, the first Lord of Highcliff Gard, Sir Agrail de Harken, came to the valley and began construction of a castle. Unfortunately, he angered an Erle noble who responded with a series of curses. The first prevented further construction of the castle; the second spread fever and famine throughout the valley after de Harken banished all Erle Folk from the Highcliff Gard; whilst the third meant that no male de Harken ever lived beyond his fortieth year. The player characters learn of this from a bard whilst passing through the valley, but their presence has obviously been noted because they receive a summons from Lady Karlina Harken, the wife of the current Lord of Highcliff Gard who is in his thirty-ninth year and so due to die within the next months…

Recently, damp at Harken Hall has revealed a previously concealed door and Lady Karlina Harken wants to hire the adventurers to venture beyond this door and discover what secrets it hides. Beyond the base payment, Lady Karlina will pay for all information that they can learn, especially if it gives clues as the nature of the Harken family cure and how to lift it. What lies beyond the concealed door is a circular complex of just twenty-one rooms and corridors. These are currently inhabited by vermin and the undead, all relatively weak ones given that this scenario is for First Level, though there are signs that the complex was once in use by the living. The dungeon is just thirteen pages in length, but several of the rooms are large enough and important enough to have one, two, or even three pages devoted to them. What this means is that these locations are rich in flavour and detail that supports the investigative and explorative aspects that dominate MD2 The Curse of Harken Hall. In fact, there is so much information in the scenario that the Dungeon Master is advised to tell his players that they should take notes about what they find and that come the end of the scenario, the player characters will be rewarded Experience Points for not just killing creatures and taking their treasure, but also for how much information they gather. To that end, MD2 The Curse of Harken Hall is not a scenario wherein the overly curious will be punished for investigating just a little too much. The players should pay attention to the details of each and every location in the dungeon if their characters are to get the best out of MD2 The Curse of Harken Hall.

This investigation and its accompanying level of detail will not only reward the player characters in terms of clues and thus Experience Points, but also some decent magic and/or special items for player characters of First Level. These are quite detailed in their effect and quite useful in their way, but without being overly powerful.

Originally devised to be run at Gary Con VII in 2015, MD2 The Curse of Harken Hall comes, like all MontiDots Ltd titles, as a spiral bound book. Which means it sits flat and folds to show a single page all very nicely, so this is a nicely serviceable format. The author is a freelance artist, so the artwork in the book is also very good, although given the spiral bound format of the book, it would have been nice if there had been some illustrations at the back of the book to show the players a la S1 Tomb of Horrors or S3 Expedition to the Barrier Peaks. The cartography is not quite as good, being serviceable at best when compared to the artwork. One problem is that whilst the area map of Highcliff Gard is better looking and has more character to it than the dungeon maps, the detail on it is just a little too small to read clearly. The writing though, does need another edit and perhaps many of the adventure’s supporting features could be better organised and presented.

Although MD2 The Curse of Harken Hall includes both clues and links to the next part in the trilogy, MD3 Necromancer’s Bane, but it could be run as a standalone affair if that is what the Dungeon Master desires. Whether it is run as part of a trilogy or a standalone adventure, MD2 The Curse of Harken Hall is a beginning adventure of a different stripe. Most adventures for characters of First Level tend to focus on exploration and combat, but this adventure’s focus upon investigation and exploration means that MD2 The Curse of Harken Hall: A MontiDots Adventure for early versions Fantasy Role-playing games makes for a refreshing change.

—oOo—

MontiDots Ltd does not currently have a website. Copies of MD2 The Curse of Harken Hall and other scenarios are available direct from the author.

Another Flippin' Deckbuilder

From Dominion to Star Realms, ‘deck building’ has become a tried and tested mechanic when it comes to card games—and a mechanic which has been integrated into a number of board game designs. In these designs the players typically begin with the same basic deck of cards which they then use to generate money that can be spent to buy better and more effective cards, typically to defeat their opponents or outscore them with Victory Points. As a mechanic gets used and developed, it not only gets improved, but designers come up with new twists upon the mechanic. So Trains is a deck building game which directs the effects of the cards to building a train network between various Japanese cities. The twist to deckbuilding in Flip City: A Deceptively Simple Microdeckbuilder—and this is the first of a number of twists that the game introduces—is that the players not only generate money from their cards to buy more cards, but they generate money from their cards to flip them—and flip them to their better sides.

Originally a Taiwanese design from Homosapiens Lab, Flip City is published in English by TMG and is a city-building card game in which the players attempt to build the largest city or the happiest city. What holds each back is the unhappiness generated by certain buildings. It can be played by between one and four players—so it includes a solo option—aged eight and up, and has a playing time of no more than fifty minutes. It consists of just eighty-six cards, each double-sided and each being city location or building type that can be upgraded by flipping it over. The second twist to Flip City is that players do not play using hands of cards, but draw from the top of the deck. Since the cards are double-sided, this has a couple of consequences. The first is that a player can always see the type of card which sits on top of his deck and can choose to draw that card or not—though certain card types force a player to draw them. The second is that when a player empties his deck and has to reshuffle it, he has to take care to prevent any of his cards from being flipped because this will change the cards he will have access to.

The game has six base card types. These are the Residential Area which flips to the Apartment; the Convenience Store which flips Shopping Mall; the Factory which flips to the Power Plant; the Central Park which flips to the Station; the Hospital which flips to the Church; and the Office which flips to the Trade Center. (Of these, the Office was originally an optional expansion, but which has incorporated into the game.) Once a card has been flipped to its upgraded side, it can also be flipped back to its basic side. Each card is delightfully illustrated and comes with a cost to purchase, a cost to flip, and an indication of how much money, Unhappiness, and/or Victory Points it generates when played. Each card also has a special ability or effect.

For example, the Residential Area generates one coin and one Unhappiness. It costs one coin to flip over to the Apartment, but when the Residential Area is revealed as being on the top of a player’s deck, its effect is that it must be played. As the Apartment, the card also generates one coin and one Unhappiness, but can be flipped back to the Residential Area at a cost of eight coins. When it is flipped back to the Residential Area, it does not go back into a player’s discard pile, but into a rival’s discard pile.

The Convenience Store costs two coins to purchase, generates a single coin when played, and costs three coins to flip to the Shopping Mall. It provides the victory conditions which when played on a turn, if the player plays a total of eighteen cards, then he wins. As the Shopping Mall, it generates two coins and a Victory Point when played, It costs one coin to flip back to the Convenience Store. Its effect is that if a player’s deck is not empty, he must play an extra card, no matter what it is.

At game start, each player receives the same deck of cards and a general market is placed is formed of Convenience Store, Office, Hospital, Factory, and Central Park cards. Each player’s turn consists of two phases. In the ‘Play cards phase’, a player draws cards from the top of his deck, generating coins, Unhappiness, and/or Victory Points as well as their effects and abilities in the process. This needs to be done card by card, because if a player generates three or more points of Unhappiness, his turn is over, no matter how many Coins and Victory Points he might have generated, and he cannot proceed to the ‘Building phase’. Some cards, like the Church, will increase this limit on the number of Unhappiness points that a player can draw, but with the two-point limit on Unhappiness without the effect of the Church cards, a player will constantly face the challenge of whether or not to draw more cards to get more more Coins or Victory Points or lose his turn because he has too many Unhappiness points. This is made all the more challenging because some cards, like the Residential Area, have to be played or force another card to be played. What this means is that throughout the ‘Play cards phase’, a player will always need to decide whether he wants to push his luck or not.

If a player has cards in his discard pile, he can also Recycle some of them, flipping them over to their other side. This again will generate a player Coins and Victory Points as well as increase the limit on his Unhappiness points.

If a player survives the ‘Play cards phase’, he can spend any Coins gained in the ‘Building phase’. In this phase he can carry out one action, either buying a new card from the general supply and adding it to his discard pile; selecting a card from his discard pile and pay the indicated cost to flip it; or developing a card, buying a card from the general supply and then paying the cost to flip it before adding it to his discard pile. 

At the end of the ‘Building phase’, a player checks to see if he has met either of the winning conditions. This is either having generated eight Victory Points and played a total of eighteen cards including the Conditions.

The rules also include a solo variant. This is played starting with the standard deck of Flip City cards and a limited number of cards in the general supply. At the end of each turn, one card is removed from the general supply. Flipped Apartments are also removed from the game. This acts as a timing mechanism for the game, the player losing if the general supply is emptied of cards.

Physically, Flip City is a well presented game and the rules are nice and clear, the English translation benefiting from a short FAQ too. The graphic design of the cards is excellent, though the players will probably need to refer to the rules to understand what the symbols mean a few times to get the hang of the game’s play. The illustrations on the cards are excellent and when the cards are placed down next to each other they do form a cityscape.

There are perhaps four issues with Flip City. The first is that handling the cards back and forth—shuffling them over and over, going through the discard pile to Recycle cards, and so on—is a bit fiddly. The second is that there is not a great deal of interaction between the players, and what there is, consists of the Apartment being flipped back into a Residential Area and into a rival’s deck. This is the game’s only ‘take that’ element and serves to clog up a player’s deck and increase the likelihood of his having to miss a turn because he is forced to draw cards and generate too much Unhappiness. If a player can generate enough Coins to do this, it can really disadvantage an opponent. The third is that this chance of generating too much Unhappiness and thus end a player’s turn without his acting can also be frustrating, but on the other hand this is at the heart of the game’s push your element and a player should really be keeping track of the number of Residential Area cards he has in his deck and his discard pile. This will give some idea whether or not it is a good idea to push his luck and draw more cards. Fourth, with three or four players, a game of Flip City does become a noticeably longer game, primarily because the players have nothing to do whilst one player goes through his turn. This makes Flip City a bit too long to be a filler. None of these are issues that will stop anyone from playing the game, but they are ones to bear in mind when playing.

Flip City looks small, but it is clever enough to deliver thoughtful and quite deep play with just a few card types. It does this by making the cards double sided, which doubles the number of cards available and by being able to flip back and forth between the two sides, which increases the number of options a player has. Although game play may be a bit fiddly in places, the game never stops giving a player choices, the design is clever, and it really is an interesting twist upon the deckbuilding game. Flip City really does live up to its subtitle of being ‘A Deceptively Simple Microdeckbuilder’.