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

Sunday, 17 March 2019

An Ashen Stars Quartet

Ashen Stars is Pelgrane Press’Science Fiction roleplaying game of investigation and action. Using the investigation-orientated Gumshoe System RPG written by the Gumshoe System’s author, Robin D. Laws, it takes the idea that Space Opera stories, especially those screened on television, are essentially mysteries to be solved and adapts it to an interesting frontier setting. This is the Bleed, a rough, wild fringe of space that barely twenty years ago was the enticingly glamorous frontier of The Combine, a two-hundred-year-old interstellar, culture-spanning government dedicated to peace, understanding, and self-determination. The Combine was an idealistic utopia that enabled numerous races and peoples to live happily under its governance, but then the Mohilar attacked, and employing technologies unknown to The Combine their vast war fleets stormed system after system until The Combine’s heart, Earth itself, was devastated. Then following an unexpected defeat at the hands of a last-ditch effort by what remained of Combine forces, they vanished. That was a decade ago and yet, due to an effect known as the Bogey Conundrum, memories of the Mohilar race have become hazy and inconsistent. Try as they might, no one call recall exactly what the Mohilar were, and certainly, no one has any idea where they are now…

In the wake of the Mohilar War, both the interstellar economy and government have collapsed and whilst The Combine exists, its reach has been pulled back from the Bleed. Thus, the worlds the Bleed, many scorched and blasted by war, have been left to their own devices, bound only by a common currency and cultural ties. Where Combine patrols once kept the peace, peacekeeping missions and criminal investigations are now put out to private tender and assigned to independent ship operators known as ‘Licensed Autonomous Zone Effectuators’ or ‘Lasers’. As Lasers, the player characters will crew and operate a ship on a tight budget, hoping to pick up assignments that if completed will enhance their reputation and so lead to better and more profitable assignments.
The first release is the scenario anthology, Dead Rock Seven. This is a collection of four, dirty, detailed, and involving mysteries to be investigated that can be run singly or in sequence as a loose campaign. The links between the four scenarios are quite light, although they build to a denouement in the final scenario. Certainly, the links are light enough that the Game Master can slot scenarios in between them, whether those of her own design or published by Pelgrane Press—though sadly, there are few of those. These links run in two strands throughout the four scenarios. One is the Restreamers, a nufaith which believes that history in the wake of the Mohilar War has run in the wrong direction and that through their efforts that the current universe can be ended and restarted again to follow the correct path. The other is the appearance of ‘CKEMGMCs’—or ‘Class K Entities of the Game Master’s Choice’, Class K entities being the deadly and implacably hostile aliens who may or may not be the Mohilar. They appear throughout the anthology in various ways and the Game Master is free to select either the Class K entities given in the Ashen Stars core rule book or the three news ones given in the Dead Rock Seven.

All four scenarios in Dead Rock Seven follow the same format. The ‘Contract’ provides the Lasers with the details of their next job; the ‘Twist’ explains the basic situation for the Game Master, whilst the ‘The Backstory’ goes into it in more detail, including the NPCs and their connections, and ‘The Investigation’ outlines the general outline of the core spine upon which the scenario is hung. ‘Complications’ add red herrings, other suspects, and corollary lines of enquiry, all culminating in ‘The Choice’ which gives the choices that the player characters are likely to have to make once their investigation is complete. Together this sets up the scenes which make up the bulk of each scenario, all given in the general order that a team of Lasers will investigate. The degree of organisation here is excellent and helps to make the quartet here very easy to run.

In addition, Dead Rock Seven comes with a set of six ready-to-play Lasers—including character sheets—and their ship. The six are a good mix of character types and include heroes as well as war criminals, with all six including some excellent roleplaying links and hooks. All six though require a little customisation before play, but that should not take too long.

The quartet opens with ‘The Pleasure Bringers’. The Lasers are hired by a corporation to find one of its executives who has gone missing on the pleasure planet of Andarta. Now this is the same corporation as appeared in the introductory scenario, ‘The Witness of My Worth’, in the core rulebook, so that the Game Master could easily this scenario as sequel to it. What follows is a murky tale of greed, criminality, sex, and more, all against the neon backdrop of world which specialises in sex and carnality. Although not explicit, this means that the scenario has a strong adult tone, so it may not be suitable for all gaming groups. As well as introducing the Restreamers, the scenario explores issues of immigration in the wake of the Mohilar War, of sexually transmitted diseases, and exploitation, but really building upon them and using them in interesting ways to create a sordid and nasty mystery with an air of grim desperation.

The second scenario is the eponymous, ‘Dead Rock Seven’. The Lasers are hired to investigate a suspicious death aboard a mining asteroid which is in the process of being decommissioned. Where ‘The Pleasure Bringers’ took place planetside and across a major city, this scenario is really confined to just two locations—the asteroid and its labyrinth of hand-dug tunnels and a tethered habitation module. This is much more claustrophobic affair, echoing both the horror and the Blue-Collar Sci-Fi of films like Aliens and Outland (such that it could well with the recently released Mothership Sci-Fi Horror RPG [http://rlyehreviews.blogspot.com/2019/03/blue-collar-sci-fi-horror.html]. The enclosed nature though, does make the cast of NPCs feel bigger and more difficult for the Game Master to handle, as does the intensity of relations between them. This is intentional though, as really what the Lasers are investigating is the labyrinthine nature of the relationships, although this is not to say that there is not the wealth of physical evidence for them to find too. It also means that the Game Master has good cast of NPCs for her to roleplay. ‘Dead Rock Seven’ also introduces ‘CKEMGMC’ for the first time and does so in a clever fashion which initially appear confusing to the Lasers.

‘Period of Tyranny’, the third scenario begins almost en media res, with the Lasers racing to answer the distress call from a stricken passenger starship, the Beatrix. Along with the distress call is a clause that gives the right for the Lasers to investigate the cause of the accident aboard the vessel and arrest those responsible—if anyone is, of course. Then again, this being a scenario for Ashen Stars, there is. After a harrowing rescue mission aboard the Beatrix, the trail leads to the nearby synthculture planet of Pioneer. Now in Ashen Stars, a planet with a synthculture is one which has adopted a culture other than the one that the colonisers originally from, often a historical one. In the case of Pioneer, it is of the frontier drive to settle America, but when the Lasers arrive, they discover that it has been subverted into a fascist, xenophobic regime that echoes an earlier period of Earth’s future history. So essentially it allows the Lasers to explore a bit of history as well as getting involved in pro-Combine and pro-Bleed politics as they attempt to work out who was behind the destruction of the Beatrix and why. It also gives the Lasers a definitive enemy in the form of Pioneer’s secret police as their constant presence and surveillance works to hamper their investigation.

Lastly, ‘The Anaitis Gambit’ adds a degree of silliness and levity before the action kicks in and brings the quartet to a close. Located at a nexus of several translight corridors, Anaitis Station is hosting a cooking contest—essentially ‘The Great Galactic Bake-off’—as a publicity stunt and hires the Lasers to handle the security. This gives an excuse for the Game Master to roleplaying lots of outrageously over the top NPCs before things get nasty as first someone lobs a gigantic heap of star junk at the station and then the dead bodies start piling up. The question is, is this all an attempt to sabotage the cookery contest or is there something to it? Well, yes and yes. The cookery contest is important, but clues from that will lead to an encounter with some strange aliens, reveal just what the Restreamers want and are prepared to do it in order to achieve it, and more… This is fun, fast, and furious adventure which nicely brings the quartet to a close, leaving the Lasers with having saved both the Bleed and the Combine, or having started a whole new war…

Physically, Dead Rock Seven is a clean looking, greyscale book printed on glossy paper. It is only lightly illustrated, but the artwork is excellent. Unfortunately, it is not in colour, which much of this artwork should be to show of how it actually is. As well organised as the book is, Dead Rock Seven does need another edit, which is disappointing.

There is a surprising degree of adaptability to these scenarios, so that they would work in other Science Fiction roleplaying games. They do require of diversity in terms of their aliens and their worlds, so that they would work better in Traveller or Star Trek Adventures: The Roleplaying Game, for example, rather than Firefly Roleplaying Game. Indeed, it could be argued that ‘Dead Rock Seven’ is not unlike ‘The Devil in the Dark’ and ‘Period of Tyranny’ is not unlike ‘A Piece of the Action’ and ‘Bread and Circuses’, all three Star Trek: The Original Series episodes. All of them would work well with the Doctor Who: Adventures in Time and Space roleplaying game too (thank you, Dave Lai). It would take some effort to adapt them to the system and setting of the Game Master’s choice, but the option is there.

Dead Rock Seven presents four good Science Fiction mysteries that are detailed, murky, and convoluted—for the players and their Lasers, for the Game Master they are efficiently explained and organised—and thus exactly what an Ashen Stars Game Master needs. They are also mature of tone and successfully show off aspects of the Ashen Stars setting, whether that is its politics or its recent history as well as gently exploring some timely themes. Worth getting to peruse for ideas for any Science Fiction roleplaying game, Dead Rock Seven is simply excellent support for Ashen Stars.

Saturday, 16 March 2019

A Samurai Hack

Published by Thunderegg Games following a successful Kickstarter campaign, Kaigaku is a roleplaying game which uses the mechanics of The Black Hack to present an ahistorical take upon a feudal Japanese style setting. This is the Empire of Kaigaku, a giant peninsula ruled by alternating emperors—Hidari no Daiten in the West, Migi no Daiten in the East. The lands are administered in his name by eight clans over the farmers, artisans, merchants, and untouchables. These are the Atsumichi or ‘Iron Flowers’, the founders of the imperial court; the Chisaten or ‘Lesser Imperials’, those of the Imperial house who do not ascend to the throne; the Kakujima or ‘Wily Traders’, island merchants who have maintained their independence; the Kondo or ‘Forest Wardens’, who remain isolated in their woodland home; the Morimoto or ‘Snakes’, manipulative sailors who maintain good relations with Southern gaijin; the Shirai or ‘Keepers of Wisdom’, scholars and Imperial archivists; the Toguchi or ‘Hidden Blade’, fabled duelists and vitriolic demagogues; and the Watanabe, the ‘Vigilant Sentries’ who stand guard on the great western wall against invasion by foreigners. 

Kaigaku is rent by internal strife as the clans feud with each other for power and influence over both the current and the next Emperor. Each of the eight clans has its own Bushi who come together in great clashes on the battlefield or great duels of honour; Courtiers who engage in matters of etiquette and politics at court; Ninja who spy and strike from hiding; and Ascetics who learn aid others and study the Kiseki, the stones which fall from the sky and which give great power. All though, must contend with the Gaijin who sailed from faraway empires to trade with Kaigaku and those who live nearby. They include the Albar, wily traders and excellent sailors; the Cordova, religious zealots; the Kherin, horse lords and raiders from beyond the Western Wall; and the mysterious Uriwane. Of these, the Albar and the Cordova have brought with them gunpowder, which the clans willingly purchase to get the edge over their rivals. The Gaijin strictly control the sale of the black powder whilst none of the clans have been able to replicate it or the weapons that use it.

This all roughly analogous with the Japan of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, roughly when the Portuguese and the Dutch were in contact with the island during the Shogunate. Indeed, the Albar and the Cordova can be seen as the equivalent of the Dutch and the Portuguese. In the Empire of Kaigaku though, there is no Shogun, only alternating emperors.

Kaigaku is a Class and Level roleplaying game, which using The Black Hack mechanics, is ultimately derived from the d20 System. The mechanics are player-facing in that a player makes the rolls rather than the Game Master, so as well as rolling for his character to hit a target, a player rolls for his character to avoid being hit by his opponent. These rolls are typically made against a character’s attributes, so against Strength to make and avoid a melee attack roll, Wisdom to spot an ambush, Intelligence to win a game of Go, and so on. Unlike other Old School Renaissance retroclones, Kaigaku does not use Armour Class, but armour points, and uses the Advantage and Disadvantage mechanics of Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition—two twenty-sided dice are rolled and the best used if a character has the Advantage, or the worst used if the character is at a Disadvantage. Kaigaku also adds a few tweaks of its own. One is Intensification. By reducing the target a player has to roll for his character by two for each level of Intensification, the amount of damage a character can do in combat is increased, the more impressive the action being rolled for turns out to be. The maximum level of Intensification a player can select is equal to the character’s Ryu tier level. Much of a character’s actions in the game will focus on rolls to check whether they are at Advantage or Disadvantage, for example in mass combat, in duelling, and so on, and the level of Intensification his player wants to apply. Another is in duels when both participants center themselves with rolls against Wisdom or Intelligence in order to see whether they are have at Advantage or Disadvantage in the subsequent strike. A third is the use of Honour, which enables a character to act with Advantage when invoked, but at a Disadvantage when acting dishonourably. 

One element common to fantasy interpretations of feudal Japan is some kind of magic. Kaigaku does not have magic, although there is a supernatural element which is just hinted at in the rulebook, so no spellcasters, whether sorcerers or priests. Instead it has Kiseki. These are gems, jewels, and precious stones infused with elemental power—Air, Earth, Fire, Water, and Void—which fall from the sky in great meteorite strikes known as seirakka and can harvested to be worked into the great arms and armour and other items to have impressive effects or implanted in the bodies of Ascetics for command over the elements. The downside is that the seirakka can send the local fauna mad and if an Ascetic implants too many, he too may be driven mad by the Kiseki.

Creating a character is a matter of rolling dice to determine the values for his six attributes—Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, Intelligence, Wisdom, and Charisma—and selecting a Class, a Clan, and a Ryu (or school). The four Classes are Ascetics, Bushi, Courtiers, and Ninja, and each of the eight Clans has a Ryu or school for each of the four Classes. A Class determines a character’s Hit Points, arms and armour use, standard attack damage, a special feature or two, and starting equipment. Choice of Clan provides a character with some general background, but primarily dictates which Ryu the character will train in depending upon their Class. Each Ryu grants five abilities ranked into five Tiers. A character receives three skills. One for his Station or upbringing, one for his Passion or hobby, and one for Duty or job. One of these begins at +2, the other two at +1. In play they add to a character’s attributes and will rise in value as a character rises in Level and Tier.

Aki
Level 1 Courtier
Clan: Kondo
Ryu: Watchful Owl

Strength 08 Dexterity 13 Constitution 16
Intelligence 12 Wisdom 15 Charisma 10

Hit Points: 8
Weapons: Wakizashi, knife
Attack Damage: 1d6 armed/1d6 armed/improvised

Skills
Station: Samurai Farmers
Passion: Animal Husbandry
Duty: Go Champion

Special Features
Advantage on Charisma tests to influence people/resist influence
Level 2 Contact in the clan

Tier 1: First Observation
Advantage when playing Go (Wisdom or Intelligence check). Intensify on the roll to inflict a penalty on opponent’s Go roll.

The focus in Kaigaku is very much upon the eight clans, their Ryu, their notable people, their relations with others—both of the empire and Gaijin, and an adventure hook or two for each of them. Together with the secrets of the clans and the factions, this takes up roughly half of the book. The rest covers the mechanics—old and new, character generation, some details on creating monsters and threats, although no specifics are given, all of which is drawn in fairly broad detail. There is potential in the interesting Kiseki, but 

Physically, Kaigaku is underwhelming. The full colour layout is clean and tidy, but the artwork tends towards a cartoon style and is pedestrian rather inspiring. Worse though, is the cartography which is so bland as to represent something that the Gaijin might know rather than the natives of the empire. The single map of Kaigaku might as been a blank page for all it serves the setting, forcing the Game Master to draw her own.

Now the first issue with Kaigaku is the opening sentence on the back cover blurb which states, “Kaigaku brings dramatic samurai action to your tabletop!” This is quite simply marketing hyperbole—or twaddle, because fundamentally, ‘dramatic samurai action’ never went away from your tabletop. There are roleplaying games which offered this before Kaigaku was published and after… What the author should have written is something like “Kaigaku brings dramatic samurai action to the Old School Renaissance!” and that would have been more accurate. The second issue is with another sentence on the back cover blurb with states, “This book presents you with a fully fleshed-out game setting that’s detailed enough to jumpstart your imagination, but light enough so you can make stories that you want to tell.” The second part of this sentence is true exactly because the first part of the sentence is not true. In no way, shape, or form can Kaigaku be described as a “fleshed-out game setting”. In fact, Kaigaku is incomplete. There are no monsters or beasts given; there are details of the foreigners or Gaijin either, despite their being constantly mentioned throughout the book; there is no history, not even a list of major events, and deliberately do so that the Game Master can write her own; and lastly, there is no geography, the map of Kaigaku being so bland and boring in its lack of detail that again, the Game Master would better off drawing her own. Arguably Kaigaku should not have come with a map just as it does not come with a history so that the Game Master can write and/or draw her own.

And yet, Kaigaku is a mechanically sound roleplaying game for anyone wanting a retroclone with samurai and ninja. Indeed, it is actually far superior to the woefully underwritten Ruins & Ronin [http://rlyehreviews.blogspot.com/2011/03/west-is-still-best.html]. Certainly, The Black Hack is a more than serviceable set of mechanics and just as it works in standard fantasy roleplaying, it works in samurai fantasy too. The design of the Classes are decent too and so are the mechanics new to The Black Hack core rules. And therein lies Kaigaku’s real problem.

For as playable as Kaigaku is, it looks and feels familiar to another Asian fantasy roleplaying game, Legend of the Five Rings. Now of course, when writing a roleplaying game based on feudal Japan there are going to be similarities between it and any other roleplaying game based on feudal Japan. There will be samurai, courtiers, and ninja, there be an emperor, and possibly, there will be Gaijin. Given that Kaigaku is an Asian fantasy roleplaying game, it mixes in China too so that there is a wall which protects the empire from dangerous foreigners looking to invade. So far, so expected.

But compare the new mechanics of Kaigaku with Legend of the Five Rings and the Intensification mechanic looks similar to making Raises in Legend of the Five Rings. In the latter roleplaying game, a player or the Game Master raises the target number the player has to beat in order to have his character do something with style or with greater accomplishment or overcome a greater challenge. For example, a player may only have to beat a target number of twenty for his character to strike a bandit, but if the player wanted his character to hit with more damage, then he might would raise the target number to twenty-five, thirty, or more, depending upon the number of damage dice the player wanted to roll. In Kaigaku, a player is doing the reverse, that is, lowering the Target Number, by a factor of two for each degree of Intensification, for exactly the same aims.

Similarly, the use of the elements in Kaigaku, are not the traditional five of Shintoism, Yin and Yang philosophy, and Daosim—Wood, Fire, Earth, Metal, and Water—as used in other roleplaying games set in ancient Asia, such as Cubicle Seven Entertainment’s Qin: The Warring States, but Air, Earth, Fire, Water, and Void. And Air, Earth, Fire, Water, and Void are the elements intrinsic to Legend of the Five Rings. Indeed, they are the five rings of the game’s title. Now in Kaigaku, they do not play as prominent a part, but they are present and one of the Ascetic Ryu, the Heavenly Fist of the Shirai clan, actually trains in their use to make elemental strikes with them.

Further, when comparing the Ryu for the ascetics, bushi, courtiers, and ninja in Kaigaku with the schools for the bushi, courtiers, and shugenja (priests) of Legend of the Five Rings, both consist of five levels, or Ranks in Legend of the Five Rings and Tiers in Kaigaku. When it comes to the individual Tiers versus Ranks, they also bear comparison. For example, ‘Dew on the Web’, the Tier 1 ability of  the Island Spider courtier of the Kakujima Clan...
“Make a Wisdom roll when you or someone you’re speaking with needs something material, such as a bottle of fine sake or an exotic perfume. The GM determines how many, if any, Intensifications you need to find the nearest source of that resource.”
...versus Rank One: The Way of the Carp, the first Technique for the Yasuki Courtier family of the Crab clan (all quotes from Legend of the Five Rings, Fourth Edition):
“The Yasuki are masters of commerce and practice far more openly than other samurai families; they do not consider it to be a breach of etiquette to engage in open commerce. You gain a free Raise when using the Commerce skill even in public. Also, Yasuki are taught from youth to be adept at sizing up their potential customers. When speaking with someone you may make a Contested Roll of your Commerce/Perception to discern some material object or service they want to desire.”
...and then, Rank Three: Treasures of the Carp:
“Your contacts in the merchant and commercial circles of Rokugan make it possible for you to acquire almost anything you might need to satisfy a customer. You may roll Commerce/Awareness at TN 20 to locate a rare or useful item, subject to GM discretion, for someone else. You may track down higher-quality or rarer items by calling Raises.”
Now neither of these are exact copies of each other. However, they do feel similar in design and intent. Another example is the Tier 1: Sure Positioning of the Frenzied Shark Ryu from Kaigaku, who are described as “...marines, sailors or just busi; their enemies call them pirates.”:
“You never suffer Disadvantage for fighting on boats, horses, or any other uneven or moving terrain.”
…in comparison with the Rank 1: The Way of the Mantis technique of the Yoritomo Bushi school of the Mantis clan:
“Mantis bushi learn to fight on the pitching decks of ships and to use anything within reach to as a weapon. You suffer no penalties to movement or attacks for rough or uneven terrain. You do not lose Glory or Honor when using improvised weapons, or weapons with the Peasant keyword, in combat. You suffer no penalties for fighting with a Small or Medium weapon in your off-hand if that weapon has the Peasant keyword. Finally, you gain bonus of +1k0 to all attack rolls.”
Now it is obvious that there is more detail to the techniques of Legend of the Five Rings, but within all that detail, there is content that is similar to that of Kaigaku. Perhaps some of the similarities between Kaigaku and Legend of the Five Rings are due to the author having contributed to the supplements Enemies of the Empire, Strongholds of the Empire, and The Great Clans, and therefore knows the fourth edition of Legend of the Five Rings. Given that degree of familiarity, the degree of similarity between Kaigaku and Legend of the Five Rings are undoubtedly striking. What can be drawn from that is another matter. The opening of the author’s introduction reads, “Kaigaku was a long time coming. I wanted to make a game system that captured the feel of other samurai RPGs without being a simple copy.” Which of course is not only a laudable aim, but exactly what you would expect from the design of a roleplaying game. Yet it does not feel as if the author has avoided Kaigaku “being a simple copy.” Rather it feels as if the inspiration of another game weighed too heavily upon the author when it came to designing his own game.

Friday, 15 March 2019

Roleplay Relief I

Since 1985, Red Nose Day has been a biennial fixture here in the United Kingdom, a telethon originally set up to support famine relief in Ethiopia. In the almost thirty-five years since, it has raised over £1 billion, but in general ignored by the roleplaying industry. In 2019, that changes thanks to Simon Burley. Best known as the co-creator of the first British superhero roleplaying game, 1984’s Golden Heroes and a dedicated attendee of gaming conventions up and down the country—as evidenced in Conventional Thinking, Simon Burley has got several of United Kingdom’s gaming luminaries who together contribute to Role Play Relief. This consists of a two volume set. One is Role Play Relief: The Beginners Book, subtitled ‘For those who know NOTHING about Table-Top Role-Playing Games (but would like to know more)’, the other is Role Play Relief: The Experts Book, subtitled ‘For those who know EVERYTING about Table-Top Role-Playing Games (or THINK they do!’, and the proceeds from the sales of both will be donated to Comic Relief.

As the title suggests, Role Play Relief: The Beginners Book is designed as an introduction to the hobby and to roleplaying for anyone who is interested and knows nothing about either. As well as providing said introduction, it comes with three complete roleplaying games, three adventures, a history, a ludography, a glossary, and more. All of this content comes in a thick paperback and is donated by Simon Burley, JPete Cakebread, John Dodd, Ed Jowett, A. J. Kear, Paul Mitchener, Epistolary Richard, and Baz Stephens, with art by Claire Peacey, Jonny Gray, C. Michael Fanning, Sophia Michailidou, Rick Hershey, Storn Cook.

Role Play Relief: The Beginners Book gets off to a jaunty start with Simon Burley introducing the concept of roleplaying and smartly leading the reader, step-by-step, into their first roleplaying game. Simon’s voice shines through here, the jolly patter of a man who attends convention after convention—not all of them dedicated gaming conventions—and encourages members of the public to play in his games. The game in question is Simon’s own d6 Hack. This is a fantasy roleplaying game a la Dungeons & Dragons, but one based upon The Black Hack. Thus, this is a Class and Level with four Classes—Warrior, Thief, Priest, and Conjurer—with character actions being decided by rolls against the character’s attributes. Now where The Black Hack and its derived roleplaying games employ a twenty-sided die for this process, d6 Hack uses a roll of three six-sided dice. This makes the game easier to pick up and less obtuse in its obvious use of funny shaped dice.

Very quickly, the rules cover actions, combat, and magic in as straightforward a manner as possible. A character sheet is provided for each Class as well as a ready-to-play example, so that the Referee can provide sheets for the players to roll up characters of their own or just grab one and play. This leads up to ‘One of Clerics is Missing’, a short rescue mission the type of which veterans will be familiar with. It amounts to no more than a ten-location dungeon which should provide between a hour and two hours’ worth of play. Certainly a veteran will pick this up without any difficulty, whereas although a neophyte Referee will be slightly more challenged, the author leads him through the process and gives him advice and pointers along the way. Beyond the adventure, the d6 Hack comes with some advanced rules, including monsters, more spells, and rules for experience and going up in Level. Overall, this is a nicely done start to the book, although perhaps a short solo adventure could have been included to get the reader playing and help him learn the rules?

Having given the reader his first roleplaying game, Role Play Relief: The Beginners Book delves into the history of the hobby with John Dodd’s ‘In the beginning…’ It is a brief introduction, before exploring a few games to choose from, all of them in print. It is very light with just a few choices being highlighted across a few genres. Fantasy is the main focus here, which is understandable given the popularity of the genre, but it is at the cost of other games being included. ‘RPG Genres’ by Paul Mitchener follows a similar pattern, but provides the reader with a slightly deeper examination of how roleplaying presents certain genres, but with less of an emphasis on particular roleplaying games. ‘How Actual Play came to shine a light on the hobby’ by Baz Stevens explores how a relatively recent development in the roleplaying hobby—the recording of roleplaying sessions and campaigns for viewing or listening by the general public—has become both its flagbearer, to the point that the recordings are listened to by people with no interest in actually playing and people are coming to playing their first roleplaying game after listening or watching them being played. It is a good introduction to the movement, but perhaps could have made clearer some sample shows for easy reference by the reader.

Donated by Ed Jowett of Shades of Vengeance, the second of the roleplaying games in Role Play Relief: The Beginners Book is Era: Lyres. This is a fantasy game in which the players take the roles of barbarians, bards, rogues, and warriors in a traditional medieval setting, that of the city of Yarnolth. Known for its innumerable number of taverns and city squares where the practitioners of Lyres’ arts, that is, the player characters, can pitch up and spin their yarns for potential profit. They must dress the part; they cannot profess to using magic—divine intervention is believable, but arcane arrows are not; avoid being found lying lest they ruin their reputations and end in barroom brawls; and lastly, not be seen committing acts of murder or theft. Okay, so far, but instead actually going on adventures, the player characters will spin stories of they slew great dragons, battered bandits, obliterated ogres and trolls, and more. The more successful they are, the more they will increase their party’s Confidence Rating and thus be able to ‘perform’ at bigger and more prestigious venues.

Era: Lyres is a brilliantly clever set-up. Essentially, it has the players roleplaying characters who are telling stories about their adventures, the types of adventures which characters in a fantasy roleplaying game go on. Unfortunately, neither the mechanics—dice pools with multiple attributes—fit the setting or Era: Lyres fit the Role Play Relief: The Beginners Book. Essentially both are too complex, the first mechanically for its concept, the second conceptually for what is meant to be an introduction to roleplaying. Had Era: Lyres been included in Role Play Relief: The Experts Book, its conceptual complexities would not have been an issue.

The third roleplaying game in Role Play Relief: The Beginners Book is Cakebread & Walton’s OneDice. Again, this uses a roll of a six-sided die, typically with the addition an attribute and a skill, to handle most of a character’s actions. In comparison to the earlier two roleplaying games, OneDice is very much stripped back, being a simpler game with just three attributes and a handful of skills. It adds the complication of Stunt Points, which when spent allow a character to get out of scrapes or survive a perilous situation, but provides some good examples of their use. There is a fairly knockabout feel to the rules, especially in the example of play. Accompanying the game are two scenarios. The first is a ‘The Hollow Horror’, a short fantasy adventure which is little more than a trek to face a big monster, whilst the second is ‘Raid on Graxlek 5’, a solo Science Fiction adventure. Consisting of just twenty-three entries, this has a security officer investigating a strange facility planetside and is a whole lot more interesting than ‘The Hollow Horror’. It is a pity though, that the reader has to get so far into Role Play Relief: The Beginners Book without being given an opportunity to play like this.

Rounding out Role Play Relief: The Beginners Book is A.J. Kear’s ‘What does that mean? A glossary of jargon and abbreviations used in roleplaying games’. From AC and Action to Worldbuilding and XP, this provides an explanation of the many terms we use regularly in the hobby. Helpful of course, but useful should anyone want to look up a term.

Physically, Role Play Relief: The Beginners Book is a a thick, digest-sized paperback, lightly illustrated and done in black and white throughout. It does need another edit and the layout is somewhat scrappy around the edges. So it feels slightly rough in places and has an amateur feel to it.

There is a lot to like to like about Role Play Relief: The Beginners Book, whether that is two good roleplaying games, the scenarios, the history, explanations, the fact that its proceeds go to charity, and so on, but there are disappointing aspects to the book too. Era: Lyres has already been mentioned as being unsuitable for a book intended to be read by anyone new to the hobby, but another is the fact that the book does not reflect the diversity of games that its various articles mention. Thus, there are is no horror roleplaying game or a Science Fiction roleplaying game—though there is a Science Fiction scenario—in the book, which is disappointing given that it would have broadened its appeal and better showcased what the industry and the hobby is capable of. Instead, what you have is three fantasy roleplaying games and two fantasy adventures when really only the one of each was needed.

In reading Role Play Relief: The Beginners Book, it feels reminiscent of a much earlier introduction to roleplaying, 1982’s Dicing with Dragons. It is not as polished of course, and in not offering a solo adventure at the start, it does not offer quite as easy an introduction to the hobby. Yet Role Play Relief: The Beginners Book provides a broader outlook on the hobby and provides more options in terms of play and so provides a solid introduction to the hobby in 2019.

Role Play Relief: The Beginners Book is available for purchase here.

Sunday, 10 March 2019

Batrachian Horrors & Tumorous Tubers

As the title suggests, What Ho, Frog Demons! – Further Adventures in Greater Marlinko Canton is a scenario set in the Hill Cantons, a region described as, “A Slavic-myth inspired, acid fantasy world of Moorcockian extradimensional incursions and Vancian swindlers and petty bureaucrats.” Previous releases—Slumbering Ursine Dunes and Misty Isles of the Eld—have focused on specific places in the region, not forgetting of course, Fever-Dreaming Marlinko, the city at the heart of the Cantons. Published by Hydra Collective LLCWhat Ho, Frog Demons! expands greatly upon these specific adventure locations by presenting the wilderness which surrounds all of them, that is Marlinko Canton, as a bucolic yet weird, mini-hexcrawl, infested with neatly trimmed, but sleepy villages and hamlets inhabited by smiling rustic yokels who adamantly adhere to customs, practices, and beliefs that are probably weirder than the last settlement you passed through.

Designed for a group of four to seven player characters of between Second and Fourth Level, What Ho, Frog Demons! is written for use with Goblinoid Games’ Labyrinth Lord, but of course is easily adaptable to the Old School Renaissance retroclone of your choice. It details a region roughly twenty-eight by forty-eight miles, with some fourteen fixed sites of interest; thirty-six random encounters encompassing ‘Road Riff-Raff and Other Personages’, ‘Creatures Fell and Less Fell’, and ‘Sites of the Weird’; ‘Rumours, Hearsay, and Gossip of the Rankest Sort’ and ‘Weighty Conversation’; a pair of Adventure Sites; and a bestiary and a ‘Bucolic Village Generator’. Together this gives the Labyrinth Lord the means to run the journey between adventure locations like Slumbering Ursine Dunes, Misty Isles of the Eld, and the two described within the pages of What Ho, Frog Demons!, as well as a hexcrawl-style campaign fuelled by rumours and random encounters.

Of course, What Ho, Frog Demons! can be run in multiple different ways, whether as a standalone wilderness region or as source of scenarios, encounters, rumours, and monsters to be taken apart and added to a Labyrinth Lord’s existing campaign. Really though, it is designed to be combined with Slumbering Ursine Dunes, Misty Isles of the Eld, and Fever-Dreaming Marlinko to give the Labyrinth Lord a campaign for low to mid-Level characters set in the Hill Cantons. There are numerous links to all three locations in the pages of What Ho, Frog Demons!, primarily in the rumours and conversations it gives to help the Labyrinth Lord present engaging NPCs and give hooks for her player characters to follow up. At the heart of What Ho, Frog Demons! though—and what several of the hooks point to, are its two adventure sites.

The first adventure site is ‘The Frog Demon Temple’, what the author call a ‘Saturday Night Specials’, a small dungeon designed to be played between larger, longer adventures. Running to just eleven locations, this is a damp, foetid, batrachian hell hole sitting awfully close to a Hot Hell and which suggests further dangers to be found lurking under the Hill Cantons and which is probably too tough a dungeon to throw at characters of the lower Level range that What Ho, Frog Demons! is written for. 

Where ‘The Frog Demon Temple’ is likely to offer one or two sessions’ worth of play—less if the player characters realise that it is just too tough and decide to make a run for it, the second adventure site presents a much longer, more traditional scenario in the vein of Slumbering Ursine Dunes and Misty Isles of the Eld. ‘Beets for the Beet God’ takes place in the village of Ctryri Ctvrt where rumour has it that a local farmer has dug up a giant beet—or beetroot—allegedly marked with a strange, face-like blemish. Other hooks are given to get the player characters there, but whatever the reason for their visiting, it really is not too far for them to go from anywhere in the Marlinko Canton. What the party will find is yet another sleepy village, one full of nicely drawn NPCs, each with their own motivations which will change over the course of the adventures. The player characters are free to wander as they wish, interact with the NPCs as they wish, and in doing so, they will discover the weirdness at the heart of the adventure. There is the possibility that they will stop the weirdness early on, but player characters being player characters…

The primary similarities between Slumbering Ursine Dunes and Misty Isles of the Eld and ‘Beets for the Beet God’ are structural. All three are ‘pointcrawl’ adventures—consisting of connected adventure nodes rather than a hex grid of locations and wilderness spaced in between—but where Slumbering Ursine Dunes and Misty Isles of the Eld are regional in size, ‘Beets for the Beet God’ is limited to just Ctryri Ctvrt and its manor house. All three use an index—or clock—to track the progress of elements or forces at the heart of the scenario. In the previous two scenarios, this was a ‘Chaos Index’, which tracked the response of those elements or forces to the player characters’ actions, but here it is an ‘Infection Index’ which tracks the progress of its threat if the player characters decline to act. Ultimately, if they decline to act, the threat escalates into one that infect the whole of the Marlinko Canton… and beyond.

‘Beets for the Beet God’ is the highlight of What Ho, Frog Demons! It is a delightfully playful satire upon the conspiracy/zombie infection genres, but one that perfectly suits the bucolic weirdness that runs throughout Marlinko Canton.

Physically, What Ho, Frog Demons! is a well-presented book. It is profusely illustrated, not quite as archly styled as Misty Isles of the Eld, but nevertheless weird, rife with rustic insularity and bucolic resentment, and involving lots of frog demons. Many of the latter verge on the adorable, possessing an almost Muppet-like cuteness, but others are twisted and freaky, infusing the canton with batrachian horror. The cartography is also good and the writing is engaging and enjoyable.

What Ho, Frog Demons! is something of a contrast to the previous two adventures, Slumbering Ursine Dunes and Misty Isles of the Eld. With their use of the ‘Pointcrawl’, both are tightly focused in their design to enable the Labyrinth Lord and her players to concentrate on adventuring rather than having to travel. So it feels a little odd to have what is a hexcrawl rather than a Pointcrawl for the Hill Cantons, but What Ho, Frog Demons! – Further Adventures in Greater Marlinko Canton brings the Marlinko Canton to quiet life with its parochial oddities and bucolic weirdness that together hide the horrors that lie in the garden shed and in the earth below.

Saturday, 9 March 2019

Pulp Sci-Fi Jockeying

Britannia Game Designs Ltd is best known for continuing to publish Chivalry & Sorcery, the roleplaying game of medieval chivalry with an emphasis upon realism, first published by Fantasy Games Unlimited in 1977. It makes a complete switch in terms of both genre and realism with the recently published Rocket Jocks - Blast Into the Future, a roleplaying game of Pulp Sci-Fi inspired by the Saturday morning serials starring Flash Gordon and Buck Rodgers, by the Skylark and Lensman novels of E. E. ‘Doc’ Smith, and so on. Thus this is a roleplaying game of the space opera from the 1930s and 1940s, when men are real men, women are real women, and anthropomorphic tigers from the jungle planet of Venus are real anthropomorphic tigers from the jungle planet of Venus. This is a roleplaying game where a crazy, bearded scientist builds a rocket ship, gets a crew, and together they escape the bonds of Earth to find new civilisations across the Solar System. This is a roleplaying game where mankind’s first interstellar destination is a star system of multiple occupied worlds under the rule of a tyrant. This is a roleplaying game in which the men and women of the Inter-Planetary Patrol keep the space lands free of pirates, investigate mysteries, enforce interstellar law, and more. This is a roleplaying game which can do all three in a future history which takes mankind from the year 1927 to 2148.

Eighteen years in the making, it should be no surprise that being published by Britannia Game Designs Ltd, Rocket Jocks - Blast Into the Future, a roleplaying game of Pulp Sci-Fi uses ‘Essence’, the same rules first seen in 2011’s Chivalry & Sorcery Essence. For a character to do anything, his player simply has to roll under a Success Chance with a twenty-sided die. This target is typically the total of an appropriate attribute plus suitable skill, modified by various penalties or bonuses. Higher rolls are better than lower ones, and a critical result is scored if a player rolls the target number exactly. The penalties—known as ‘Murphy Numbers’—are quite harsh though, running from -1 for even a ‘Very Simple’ Murphy Number up to -24 for a ‘Seemingly Impossible’ Murphy Number. A player can have his character take a Risk by lowering his Success Chance and in return a +1 bonus to the roll. Although this increases the chance of the character failing, it increases—ever so slightly—the chance of a critical being rolled.

Combat uses the same basic mechanic to cover everything from punch-ups and sword fights to Colt .45 pistols and beyond—the beyond including rocket guns, atomic bullets, sliver guns, and ray guns—blasters, stunners, and disruptors. This is covered in ‘Mad Scientist Levels’—as Rocket Jocks’ Tech Levels are known—which run from the Stone Age at MSL 0 to teleportation at MSL 10. Combat takes place in thirty second rounds with characters capable of a number of actions depending upon their Agility and the size of weapon being wielded if a melee weapon and the Rate of Fire if a missile weapon or a gun. Range modifies both the roll to hit and the damage done, with damage also being modified by half the attack roll made by the player as well as half the character’s Strength if the attack was made by a melee weapon or muscle-powered missile weapon. Ray guns have needle settings that use up two shots, but which can pierce armour and wide settings to hit more targets.

Combat is the most complex aspect of Rocket Jocks, primarily because there are a lot of fiddly little technical details as to what a weapon does, how it is reloaded, and so on. Given how relatively simple the Essence mechanics are supposed to be and what Rocket Jocks’ genre is meant to be, it just feels overly complex. Conversely, the rules for starship combat are covered in barely half a page, little more than a series of modified rolls. Sadly this is more coverage than spaceships receive elsewhere in the book, such that there are no stats or deck plans of any kind. Just what kind of a rocket is a jock supposed to ride in this near future?

Rocket Jocks does devote more than a few pages to other types of technology. Not just arms and armour, but also lots of ray-powered gizmos—because, hey, this is a Pulp Sci-Fi future—vehicles of all types (except spaceships), communication devices, sensors, and just some of the best entries from ‘The Megalomaniac’s Catalogue of Cunning Contrivances’, such as the Brainstawm Incorporated Neural Scrambler and The Handee Dandee Nerve-centre-of-evil-o-matic™. Of course, every robot comes with a chance of brain madness. Lastly, there are alien healing devices and there are psionics. The latter because despite the power of rays, the power of the mind is superior to everything else (except, of course, love and a punch to the snoot). Each psionic power gives a psionicist access to a range of abilities, so Heal, Pain Block, Purge Poison, and Sustain for the Autosophy (or self-healing) psionic power, and is bought in levels that are both a character’s skill with the ability and its power. Psionic use is fatiguing, though mysterious alien devices called Sunstones can aid a their use. Overall, the psionics rules are simple enough and suitable whether running a psionics-based campaign or wanting to give them to any villain who has a preference for mind control.

Characters in Rocket Jocks are defined by nine attributes—Strength, Constitution, Agility, Intelligence, Wisdom, Grit, Appearance, Voice, and Conviction. These are rated between six and fifteen, a player halving the roll of a twenty-sided die for each one and adding five to get the final value. A player’s choice of Species, Environment (the equivalent of home world and its gravity), and Background (social class) will provide some modifiers to the attributes as well as some skills. Humans are the baseline species, but others include the Tigermen of Venus, the mobile, intelligent crystals known as Electromen, the merman-like Nitholest, and the ursine June who find buying things weird. These are not the only species given in Rocket Jocks, there being more in the campaign settings. Backgrounds include not just Working Class, Middle Class, and Upper Class, but also Barbarian, Barbarian Aristocracy, and Escaped Slave so that other genre character types can be created by the players or the Game Master. Finally, a player selects a Vocation, such as Athlete, Merchant, Engineer, Solitary Inventor, Journalist, and so on. There are just eighteen of them, but really there are actually sixteen of them, since Deposed Space Tyrant and Unemployed Minion are probably best suited to NPCs. Unless of course, the Game Master is running a decidedly odd game, perhaps in the vein of Doctor Smith in Lost in Space.

Our sample character is Wilf Goadsby, a Gentleman’s Gentleman. From a Yorkshire farming family, he entered service as a lad and has accompanied his master all over the world, including into the Space Patrol. He is unnerved by it all and believes that mankind were not meant to leave the planet. Nevertheless, he is determined to make the best of it and not show his master up, whatever scraps they get into. This means that he is never without the means to make tea, press a suit, sew on a button, or serve cocktails.

Name: Wilf Goadsby
Species: Human
Environment: Normal (Earth)
Social Background: Working Class
Vocation: Soldier

Strength: 08 Constitution: 15 Agility: 13
Intelligence: 09 Wisdom: 15 Grit: 10
Appearance: 09 Voice: 12 Conviction: 14

Skills
Beguiling 2, Brawl 1, Craft (Farming) 1, Craft (Tailoring) 2, Dancing 1, Healing 1, Pilot 1, Rifle 1, Sleight of Hand 1, Sports (Lawn Bowls) 1, Survival (Temperate) 1

As well as advice for the Game Master, Rocket Jocks come with three settings, which can be used singly or as three consecutive periods in a short timeline. These take the player characters out into the Solar System, then interstellar, and finally intergalactic. All three settings come with adventure ideas, new character Species, threats, Vocations, and puns—terrible puns. There is a fair degree of gameable content around which the Game Master can create games. These are very much the most fun parts of Rocket Jocks

Unfortunately, Rocket Jocks can be described as physically disappointing at best. Its greyscale look feels outdated and bland, the artwork is adequate if uninspiring, and the layout scrappy and inconsistent. In places, it is so inconsistent that some of the game’s technical information is lost in a game example box such that it is incredibly difficult to find. That said, the real problem is the editing. It is simply not of a professional standard, which is disappointing given the fact that there has been an eighteen year wait for this roleplaying and really, a few weeks’ delay whilst it was in the hands of a professional editor would have made a great deal of difference.

Another problem Rocket Jocks is its untimely release. Eighteen years ago, this would have been an unusual release. Plus, it would have just been in time for release of Rocketmen, WizKids’ constructible strategy game produced in 2005. In 2019 though, Pinnacle Entertainment Group has released the Flash Gordon roleplaying game for use with Savage Worlds and Modiphius Entertainment will soon release John Carter of Mars - Adventures on The Dying World of Barsoom, so when it comes to Pulp Sci-Fi, a gamer is going to have more choice and more colourful choice.  

Rocket Jocks is designed to emulate Pulp Sci-Fi, a fairly broad, muscular genre, and it a great many ways it does this. Whether it is the discussion about ‘Ray’ technology, weapons such as ray guns and atomic bullets, the inclusion of the Deposed Tyrant and the Unemployed Minion as Vocations, the nicely done three-in-one settings, and the tone of the writing, Rocket Jocks actually has quite a bit to like. It is also obvious how fond the author is of the genre. Yet, the rules feel overly technical in places, as if an adherent sense of realism had wandered in from another roleplaying game, hampering the author’s pulp intentions. And that despite the fact that spaceships are all but ignored. The real problem though, is the physical layout and editing, which makes the book awkward to both read and use.

There are some good ideas and some fun content within the pages of Rocket Jocks, but without spaceships it feels unfinished and incomplete. Of course, a Game Master can get around such omissions as Rocket Jocks is hindered by, just as she will have to get around the disappointing layout and editing. Rocket Jocks - Blast Into the Future is not a terrible game, but it is one with problems and that is an issue in a hobby that expects better.

Thursday, 7 March 2019

Friday Filler: Cat Tower

If have not yet had enough of cats—and if you have, why?—there are plenty of feline themed games to go around. Whether its telling their tales in Action Cats! – Spin Tales From the Secret World of Cats or trying not to get them to detonate in the distinctly mediocre Exploding Kittens: A Card Game for people who are into kittens and explosions and laser beams and sometimes goats or whizzing them around in murderous fashion in amusingly titled Kittens in a Blender, there are more than enough games to satisfy the cat lover in you. So one more will hardly add to the clowder and the good news is that instead of blowing them up or whizzing them to death, you are only stacking them.

Published by IDW—best known as the English language publisher of Machi Koro—folloing a successful Kickstarter campaign, Cat Tower is the dice rolling, dexterity game of cat stacking designed for between two and six players, aged six and up, and playable in no more than twenty minutes. It requires no set-up and so can be brought to the table quickly and easily.

It comes in a bright and breezy cat-themed cube of a box inside of which can be found two rulebooks, forty-two stackable Cat cards, twelve Fatty Cat cards, five dice, and twelve cat tokens. One rulebook gives the full rules, the other a pair of variants, but neither runs to more than three pages. The three dice are wooden and an inch square. Out of the box they are blank, so they do require various stickers to be applied to each of their faces. Each of the cat cards measures 2¼ by 3½ inches and is scored across its width twice such that when folded, it will stand up. One of the things a player will need to do is fold his cats when it is not his turn. The Fatty Cards are the same size, but are flat and do not have the same score lines and so do not need to be folded. Both the Cat cards and the Fatty Cat cards depict a cute cat—a very cute cat.

At the start of Cat Tower each player receives seven cat cards. One cat card is placed in the middle of the table as the base of the tower. The first player is always determined by whomever has the most cats (which usually means myself or my partner). On his turn a player rolls a die and does what the symbol on the result instructs. This can be to stack ‘One Cat’ or ‘Two Cats’; to get another player to stack one of his cats with ‘Cat Paws’; to stack a cat card upside down with ‘Dried Fish’; and place a Fatty cat on the tower and flip a token. The tokens force play order to be reversed with ‘Turn Around’; the next player to skip his turn with ‘Skip’; all of the remaining unplayed Cat cards to be redistributed between the players with ‘All Cats are Equal’; or force another player to stack one the current player’s Cat cards with ‘Cat Paws’. Any token played in this fashion is placed on the Fatty card when it is added to the tower.

Play continues until one player has managed to stack all of the Cat cards from his hand. At this point, he is either declared the winner or if multiple rounds are being played, the other players receive a penalty point for each of the Cat cards they still hold in their hands. After the agreed number of rounds have been played, the player with the fewest points is declared the winner.

Of course, a game will never progress as smoothly as that. If a player knocks a Cat card off the tower whilst stacking a Cat card, he must take two cards from the tower into his hand. If he knocks a Cat token off the tower, he takes back an additional Cat card into his hand. If another player is placing the current player’s Cat card on the tower after a ‘Cat Paws’ die result or token, it is placing player not the current player who has to take the Cat cards back into his hand. 

Physically, Cat Tower is a very attractive game with simple, cute components. The only issue is with Cat cards that might not fold very well.

Cat Tower is quick and easy and very, very light. It is undemanding and simple and it is unpretentious. It is also cute and pretty and overall a lovely little package. It is certainly worth having on the shelf for games sessions with the family. More dedicated gamers though are not going to want to bring this to the table very often. Overall, fluffy feline fun, Cat Tower is a family filler game that plays quickly and easily.

Sunday, 3 March 2019

Dungeons & Dragons & Glorantha?

It would be trite to describe 13th Age Glorantha as Dungeons & Dragons does Glorantha, but for all that, there is some truth to such a description. Published by Chaosium, Inc. following a successful Kickstarter campaign, it uses Pelgrane Press’ 13th Age to bring the best elements of both Dungeons & Dragons, Third Edition and Dungeons & Dragons, Fourth Edition to 13th Age Glorantha and then tunes them to fit the setting and empower both the mechanical and narrative elements of the rules. From 13th Age comes mechanics which make each character an individual, not say unique, whilst Glorantha provides the means and reasons to interact with the world. Although the world of Glorantha is not new, it is new to 13th Age and similar mechanics, just as they are new to Glorantha. The result is something unique, but not without its issues because of it.

The most obvious issue with 
13th Age Glorantha is the degree of buy-in. Not only will a playing group need a copy of 13th Age Glorantha, but also a copy of 13th Age, for 13th Age Glorantha is not a standalone product. Further, both 13 True Ways and The 13th Age Bestiary are likely to prove useful too. If a group knows nothing about Glorantha, then The Glorantha Sourcebook—funded by the same Kickstarter as 13th Age Glorantha—is all but a necessity, for 13th Age Glorantha is not a standalone rulebook in terms of mechanics or setting. The buy-in also differs depending upon if the players are coming to 13th Age Glorantha as Gloranthaphiles, fans of the late Greg Stafford’s setting of Glorantha, or if they are coming to 13th Age Glorantha as fans of 13th Age or similar Dungeons & Dragons-style roleplaying games. The Gloranthaphiles will be dealing with a set of mechanics that are vastly different to those seen in either RuneQuest: Roleplaying in Glorantha or HeroQuest Glorantha, whereas the 13th Age devotees will be coming to the complexities of a setting like Glorantha.

The other difference between 
13th Age Glorantha and other Glorantha-set roleplaying games like RuneQuest and HeroQuest, is the default campaign setting. This is ‘Chaos Rising’, in which the magical energies unleashed by the Hero Wars at the end of the Third Age and beginning of the Fourth Age, rending at the fabric of the world and allowing Chaos to seep in… Much like the Dragon Empire of 13th Age, this is a time of great upheaval and it up to the player characters to take care of the crisis upon crisis that has befallen Glorantha. The setting is still Dragon Pass, one that is wracked by war and tumult in the wake of efforts to drive the invading Lunar Empire out of Sartar. The player characters are on the verge of becoming heroes, all but Rune Masters and Rune Priests at campaign’s start, the equivalent of First Level in Dungeons & Dragons, but far more capable and powerful than starting characters in either 13th Age or RuneQuest: Roleplaying in Glorantha.

To a Gloranthaphile, a 
13th Age Glorantha character will look like a Dungeons & Dragons character. He will have the same attributes, Armour Class rather than armour values, general Hit Points rather than hit locations, but because the characters in 13th Age are different to those of Dungeons & Dragons, so too are those of 13th Age Glorantha. What marks a 13th Age character out as different are the Icons, the Backgrounds, and the One Unique Thing. In the Dragon Empire of 13th Age, a character has a relation with two or more Icons, the thirteen great figures of the age like the Archmage, the Crusader, the Diabolist, the Dwarf King, the Elf Queen, the Emperor, the Great Gold Wyrm, the High Druid, the Lich King, the Orc Lord, the Priestess, the Prince of Shadows, and the Three—the latter being ancient evil Dragons. A character can interact with them as much as they can have an influence upon the scenario being played. Backgrounds represent a character’s skills, training, and experiences, for example, Woodsman +2 could be explained as the character having grown up in the woods and knowing to track, survive, and move in the forests. The One Unique Thing represents the one fact or feature that separates a character from any other, for example, “I am the true wielder of the Cleaver of Doom and my last blow with it will end the Thirteenth Age.”

In 
13th Age Glorantha a character does not have Icons, Backgrounds, and a One Unique Thing, but Runes, Backgrounds, and a One Unique Thing. So a character’s One Unique Thing might be ‘I was destined for greatness, but failed and have been reincarnated as a Humakti Duck to avenge my death’ or ‘Since that day I got lost in the caves, I have born the Dragonewt Rune, but I do not know why.’ His Backgrounds might be Yinkini Hunter +4, Ex-Slave +2, or Voice of Orlanth +1. Runes are where 13th Age Glorantha gets slightly more complex. The Runes connect the characters to the universe, to the gods that embody them, and to the cults that worship the gods, and in game, they enable a character to engage with the world in fantastic ways, all dependant upon the type of Rune, whether that is to overcome a challenge, add an element to the story, and so on. 13th Age Glorantha goes into some detail as to the nature of each of the Runes and how they can be brought into play, giving suggestions and examples as to possible Backgrounds and Gods for each Rune, as well as examples of how each might be narrated to bring it into play. Even when a player narrates the use of a Rune, there is still the chance of a complication arising which fits the Rune being narrated.

Runes also play an active role in a character’s life, with one Rune playing a significant role from one day to the next. This is determined randomly, a process known as ‘attuning’, and half the time it will be one of the Runes a character already has, half the time it will be determined by the roll of a twenty-sided die. The result of this die roll can simply mean that the character is attuned to another Rune; to a Rune opposed to one of the character’s Runes—for example, Life versus Death, Truth versus Illusion, which can complicate the narration of either Rune; to a Rune a character already has, in which it becomes empowered and when used will grant a character a HeroQuest Gift; and lastly, to the Chaos Rune, which can have story consequences, but primarily makes any battles with Chaos all that more difficult.


One important aspect of Rune use is that they are included for narrative effect only and cannot be used in combat. This is not as bad as it sounds, since all of a character’s Feats, talents, and abilities are drawn from his Runes anyway. Another important aspect of the Runes in 13th Age Glorantha is that there are some limitations in what the Runes a player can select. Most obviously, the Fate, Infinity, Law, Luck, Magic, Mastery, and Unlife/Undead Runes are all the province of NPCs only, but whilst a player is free to select any of the other Runes, some are not supported in 13th Age Glorantha. Neither are some of their associated gods. So although a player character can have the Fire/Sky Rune, none of the Fire/Sky pantheon—Yelm, Yelmalio, Elmal, and so on—are supported. Further, whilst the focus of 13th Age is on the Air and Earth pantheons, some gods are ignored, notably Chalana Arroy, Issaries, and Lankhor Mhy. To be fair, it would be a challenge to fit the possible abilities of those cults into 13th Age Glorantha with its focus on action.

Every player character begins play with three Runes—two come from the primary god that the character worships, the other is more personal. So a Yinkin or Odalya worshipper might choose the Air, Movement, and Beast Runes, the Beast Rune being his personal Rune; a Humakt worshipper would have the Death and Truth Runes, and then perhaps the Air Rune to reflect Humakt being part of the Air pantheon, or alternatively, the Humakt worshipper might have seen too much death and so has Life Rune as his personal Rune; and an Ernalda Earth Priestess would have the Earth, Harmony, and Life Runes, but could stress which was her personal Rune. Choice of Runes also influence, if not determine which of the gods that a character worships.

Character creation begins with a player making a choice of Runes, associated god and Class, and then deciding on the character’s Backgrounds and One Unique Thing. Three Races are available to choose from—Ducks and Uz, but most commonly, Humans. The first two have their own racial powers, but Humans have a Culture to choose from, either Esrolian, Heortling, Praxian, or Tarshite. Attributes are then rolled for or assigned according to a standard array and then the player selects the various options he wants for his character.
13th Age Glorantha presents a total of thirteen Classes. Five are entirely new—Berserker, Earth Priestess, Hell Mother, Humakti, and Trickster; five are transformation Classes, based on an existing 13th Age Class—Orlanthi Rebel, Rebel, Storm Voice, Troll Warrior, and Wind Lord. The other are either variants or Class updates like the Monk. (An appendix also covers alternative Classes, including those from 13th Age, Fire/Sky devotees, and Lunar devotees.) Now as much as the concept of Classes are anathema to the play of RuneQuest and Glorantha—indeed RuneQuest was one of the first roleplaying games to eschew Classes—it cannot be emphasised enough that all of the Classes in 13th Age Glorantha are deeply evocative of Glorantha.

So in order of complexity, the Orlanthi Warrior is like the Barbarian of 
13th Age, inspired by the stormy spirit of Orlanth rather than rage; the Troll Warrior is similar, but his Hit Points grow from battle to battle and he builds himself into a frenzy; and Humakti are highly disciplined swordmasters sworn to destroy the undead. The Rebel is the nearest that 13th Age Glorantha has to a Rogue or Thief Class, but is much more of a sneaky, swashbuckling, charismatic warrior, one who can still get into places where he should not be; the Berserker consists of two subtypes, one of the Orlanthi pantheon, the other of the Darkness pantheon; and the Zorak Zorani Berserker is a hate-driven Troll warrior who can summon a Troll skeleton companion. The Wind Lord is a fighter who harnesses Orlanth’s power of storm and movement; the Storm Voice is akin the Sorcerer, but who uses Gather Storm rather than Gather Power to fuel its abilities; and the Storm Bull berserker is a Chaos-hating warrior with ‘berserker die’ powers which slot into the Class’ berserker die (which replaces the Escalation die). The Monk is a shield-wielding warrior from the Square Round Monastery in Nochet; the Trickster brings pratfalls to the battlefield, spreading the bad luck as much as the good luck; the Earth Priestess is a summoner of earth spirits to fight for her, who also hands out different favours according to the Class of the recipient and casts spells that control the battlefield; and the Hell Mother is a Troll summoner of unpredictable monsters and effects.

Some of these Classes are specific in terms Race, Runes, and gender. So only a female Troll can be a Hell Mother, for example. Others not so, so that a worshipper of Barntar, Odalya, Vinga, or Yinkin could be Orlanthi Warriors, Berserkers, or even Wind Lords, all dependent upon the combination of Runes a character possesses. Our sample character is a Rebel devoted to Orlanth Adventurous, a noble prince known for his courtesy and singing voice, who was forced to flee the Lunars during an uprising and lead a guerilla war against them. This has led him to take drastic actions and he has a terrible secret. In truth he was always a sly one, quite prepared to use underhanded means to get what he wants.

Name: Broyan Blacksong
Race: Human God: Orlanth Adventurous
Level & Class: Rebel (Level 1)
Cultural Trait or Racial Power: Heortling Cultural Trait.

Strength 13 (+1) Constitution 12 (+1) Dexterity 19 (+4)
Intelligence 10 (+0) Wisdom 15 (+2) Charisma 15 (+2)

Defences
Armour Class: 15 Physical Defence: 14 Mental Defence: 13
Initiative: +5 Hit Points: 21
Recoveries: 8 Recovery Roll: 1d8+1

Attacks
Melee attack +5, Dagger (1d8/1d6 Miss)
Ranged +5, Javelin (1d6/Level Miss)

One Unique Thing
I killed my father for allying with the Lunars, but I will not kill my mother for the same crime.

Runes: Air, Movement, Darkness (Personal)

Backgrounds
Guerrilla Fighter +2, Ex-Skald +2, Princely Manners +2, Secrets & Lies +2, Clan Exile +5

Class Features, Powers, & Spells
Momentum
Opening Strike
Transgress
Consistent Trouble
Flashy Blade
Freedom!

Talents
Bravado
Kennings & Killings
Rebellion

Feats
Adventurer Feat: Call on a Rune to use the Transgress talent and if the story you tell using the rune impresses the GM, you can reuse Transgress later in the day.
Adventurer Feat: When you use Bravado, gain Momentum if you don’t already have it.

Equipment
Leather Armour
Sharp knives (1d8)
Javelins × 4 (1d6)
Lyre

Mechanically, like 
13th Age13th Age Glorantha is a d20 System roleplaying game, and so whilst it uses some elements of 13th Age, such as the Backgrounds, the One Unique Thing, powers and spells that are either used ‘at-will’, ‘per battle’, or ‘daily’, and the Escalation Die, which grants a bonus to the player characters when in battle and which rises from round to round, it adds elements of its own. Most notably, the Runes and the ability to narrate them as already mentioned and the daily need to attune them, but also changes to healing because there is no Cleric Class and the Earth Priestess does not do that (and woe betide anyone who lets the Humkati or Zorak Zorani Berserker attempt to heal them), being able to and narrating heroically coming back from the dead, notes on magical items (generally rare and the subject of heroquests rather than just being loot), and so on. In fact, there is very little emphasis on loot and treasure in 13th Age Glorantha, but then when the characters are as powerful as they are, do they really need a +2 sword? Overall, there are lots of little changes, but nothing really all that intrusive.

Although 
13th Age Glorantha lists all of the creatures suitable from 13th Age, the 13th Age Bestiary, and 13 True Ways, its main focus in terms of enemies and threats are on creatures from the world of Glorantha. From Orlanthi Bandit, Orlanthi Outlaw, and Orlanthi Bandit Leader under Air to Newtling Juvenile and Newtling Grownup under Water, the various entries are organised according to the rune they are associated with. The range of creatures offered runs from the mundane, such as Baboons, bugs, and spiders, to the weird and the bizarre, like the Thanatari Cultists who use severed heads to store their powers; the Walktapus, octopus-headed humanoids who can spray poisons and gases; and the Puppeteer Troupes who perform rather than fight and are probably getting the player characters to perform and they do not even know it. Understandably given the default ‘Chaos Rising’ campaign set-up in 13th Age Glorantha, there an emphasis upon creatures associated with the Chaos Rune in its bestiary, including a table of extra features to further add to their chaos. One notable feature of the Chaos related creatures is their ability to steal the Escalation Die and use it themselves, which can just exacerbate the challenge they present to the player characters.
13th Age Glorantha does not offer a great deal of information about Glorantha as a whole. That task is left to The Glorantha Sourcebook, but 13th Age Glorantha does offer information specific to its default ‘Chaos Rising’ campaign. There are feats which tie the characters further into the world as they adventure and rise in Level. These are Aspirational Feats and are either Ancestor Feats which indicate that a character is a descendant of one of the gods or Sartar Magical Union Feats, related to the alliance of cults which came together at the start of the Hero Wars to fight the Lunar Empire. Both types begin play dormant in a character, but certain situations may trigger their activation. There is an overview of what Dragon Pass and Sartar looks like in the wake of the Hero Wars, and a description of its major locations, again thematically Rune by Rune rather than alphabetically.

The organising of both the enemies and the geography thematically—Rune by Rune—supports an important aspect of adventuring in 
13th Age Glorantha, that of Heroquesting. Heroquests are excursions onto the Hero Plane and back into God Time to recreate and reinforce the myths and legends of the gods and great heroes. These myths are known and recounted again and again, some specific to certain cults, some not, and many of them contradict each other. So when a party of characters goes on a Hero Quest they will know what to expect. Except not. Not in the ‘Chaos Rising’ campaign, for just as Chaos has seeped into the world following the Hero Wars, it has also seeped onto the Hero Plane where it disrupts individual Hero Quests. Now as much as the adventurers are reinforcing the myths, now they are repairing them.

Advice is given for the Game Master to build her own heroquests, how to score them to measure how well a group of heroquesting adventurers have done, and what rewards they might earn in doing so. Numerous example heroquests are given, some complete, some partial, but all come with engaging sections of myth with which to introduce them. In addition, 
13th Age Glorantha comes with a series of adventures which showcase the different types of scenarios, including heroquests. The first, ‘The Horn of Snakepipe Hollow’ is a fairly simple heroquest to enforce a local myth, whereas the second, ‘Duck Point Venture’ is more of an open sandbox. The events of the first two scenarios culminate in ‘The Epic of Gagix Two-Barb’, whilst they get truly epic in the fourth, ‘Against the Crimson Bat’, in which the adventurers get to quest on a mind bogglingly location which is too good to divulge. Lastly, ‘Ascending with the Eleven Lights’ provides an extended encounter which provides a contrast to previous scenarios in being non-combat focused and the traditional view of Orlanth.

Physically, 
13th Age Glorantha is a hefty sourcebook, profusely illustrated in a range of styles. Much of the artwork will be familiar from previous releases for Glorantha, but there is much that is also new. In places, the tone of supplement is conversational, but that makes the book highly digestible. The book could be slightly better organised—the section on ‘Running Glorantha’ feels out of place between the chapters on ‘Creating Characters’ and ‘Character Classes’—but the book includes a good index, so finding particular content is not too difficult.
13th Age Glorantha has a number of problems and they all stem from the creation and play of its characters and the complexity involved in both. First, there is the matter of creating a character, which involves a player having to make a lot of choices in terms of Feats, talents, and abilities in order to get their character to work. There is an intricacy to the design of all of the character Classes in 13th Age Glorantha each with multiple moving parts. Second, it is not a quick process, so that it is not one that can be done easily at the table. Third, learning how each of these moving parts works is a challenge in itself, for every character Class plays differently. So for example, the Zorak Zorani Berserker, when berserk, his player has to roll his own die at the beginning of each round to determine his troll’s attack bonus that round instead of using the Escalation Die like everyone else; the Rebel uses Momentum—much like the Thief Class from 13th Age—to power many of its Class abilities and so a player needs to handle the flow of Momentum from turn to turn; and the Storm Voice is constantly gathering storm to power his spells. Now it should be no surprise that this is an aspect of 13th Age also, but just as 13th Age Glorantha escalates the powers and abilities of each Class in comparison to those 13th Age, it also escalates the complexity and the differences.

The complexity and the differences between the Classes leads to a fourth problem—noting it down. With multiple Feats, talents, and abilities to his character, a player needs to know how they work from his character sheet. The 
13th Age Glorantha is all but blank and it is not enough to record just the names of the various Feats, talents, and abilities. A player needs to have the information at his fingertips, not be referencing the rulebook all of the time, and this is a lot of information to write out. Now when creating characters, the solution for our gaming group was to copy and paste the relevant sections out of the 13th Age Glorantha book onto a character sheet of our own design. With all of the given information, the simplest of the characters—for example, the Humakti—takes up a mere two pages, but the most complex—for example, the Earth Priestess—takes up a whole five pages! What this suggests perhaps is that what would be useful for 13th Age Glorantha is a set of predesigned characters which a group could download and modify with relatively little difficulty.

Now to be fair, the designers of 
13th Age Glorantha do acknowledge the complexity of the characters Classes they have created. Indeed, they rate each of the thirteen Classes according to their ease of play, from Orlanthi Warrior, Troll Warrior, and Humakti to Trickster, Earth Priestess, and Hell Mother. It also means that a playing group can tailor the Classes to not just what type of character a player wants to play, but also how complex a character he wants to play. In some ways the less complex Classes can be seen as an easier path into the setting of Glorantha, whilst the more complex provide a richer flavour. Nevertheless, all of the character Classes are highly evocative of Glorantha as well as providing enjoyable playing experiences.

Another issue is that 
13th Age Glorantha may be too focused on Dragon Pass and the aftermath of the Hero Wars and so may not support every player or Game Master’s specific interests in Glorantha, whether that is geographical or in terms of playing options. Understandably, 13th Age Glorantha cannot support or cover every aspect of the setting, but that means that there is room for further support and content. For example, a 13th Age Glorantha campaign set in Pavis and the Big Rubble would make for an interesting sandbox style campaign.

So where does 
13th Age Glorantha sit in regard to HeroQuest and RuneQuest: Roleplaying in Glorantha? Well, RuneQuest: Roleplaying in Glorantha is simulationist in terms of its play whereas HeroQuest is narrative. With a strong emphasis placed on the use of Runes to tell and influence the non-combat scenes of an adventure, 13th Age Glorantha has a strong narrative element. Yet the equally as strong emphasis on combat and battles in terms of both play and mechanics, means that 13th Age Glorantha also a strong simulationist element. Much of this comes from 13th Age anyway, like the assigning of weapons and armour to a character based not on the equipment’s empirical stats, but on how good their chosen Class would be with them, but again, 13th Age Glorantha ups the power of them, for example, the greater capabilities of the Runes. What this means is that 13th Age Glorantha actually sits somewhere between HeroQuest and RuneQuest: Roleplaying in Glorantha, although arguably it mechanics are more complex than either.13th Age Glorantha is a perfect example of YGMY—‘Your Glorantha May Vary’. It may not be how you envision Glorantha, but nonetheless, it is an example of Glorantha, one that is post-Hero Wars, near apocalyptic, and verging on the Lovecraftian in the way that Chaos is seeping into the world and rending at its fabric. It presents a time in which there is need for very great heroes and supports that need with a version of 13th Age whose characters are heroic from the very First Level. Although 13th Age Glorantha brings a greater mechanical heft to Glorantha than other roleplaying games set in that world, the mechanics both support and evoke the world rather than get in the way of it. The result is that 13th Age Gloranthaa is a well-designed combination of mechanics and setting which provides a truly majestic treatment of gaming in Glorantha.