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

Sunday, 23 September 2018

Unstrange Things

From Tales from the Loop to Kids of Bikes, the genre du jour for roleplaying games is that of kids in peril, investigating mysteries that adults cannot see or do not want to investigate, and facing unknown horrors. Specifically set in the early 1980s and in general, inspired by the Netflix series, Stranger Things. Published by Bloat Games following a successful Kickstarter campaign, Dark Places & Demogorgons: The Roleplaying Game is a Old School Rennaisence roleplaying game, which as its title suggests and as its tag line—‘In the 1980s STRANGE THINGS happened everywhere!’—suggests is heavily influenced by Stranger Things. It is a roleplaying game in which you roleplay teenagers in a small town where strange things are happening. The adults are concerned, but unsure as to what to do; the local sheriff is out of his depth and wants everyone to remain calm; and Reverend Phillips calls for the real culprits to be banned—drugs and delinquency, punk and heavy metal, and of course, roleplaying games like Dark Places & Demogorgons!

Dark Places & Demogorgons is a Class and Level roleplaying game. It provides just five Levels and five Classes, although within each Class there are three subclasses, all of them highschool archetypes. The five Classes and their subclasses are The Brain (Kid Scientist, The Nerd, and The Geek), The Athlete (The Jock, Extreme Athlete, and The Karate Kid), The Outsider (Break Dancer, Goth, and Metal Head), The Popular Kid (Preppy, The Princess, and Teen Heartthrob), and The Rebel (Bully, The Hood, and Punk Rocker). Actually, this is erroneous, since there are in fact, fifteen Classes divided equally between five categories. This is simply because all of the aspects that a Class are provided by the subclass whereas the so-called Classes—The Brain, The Athlete, The Outsider, The Popular Kid, and The Rebel—contribute nothing towards character design or creation, let alone game play. Each Class provides some beginning skills, some attribute modifiers, a single ability, and some possessions and money. For example, The Kid Scientist provides Computer, Mathematics, and Mechanics & Science as skills; deducts one from the character’s Strength and Constitution, but adds one to Intelligence; and gets a +2 bonus with one of his beginning skills. He starts the game with a home computer, home chemistry set, a library card, access to the school computer lab and chemistry lab (the teacher trusts him), a bicycle, 4D6 dollars, a sack of illegal fireworks, a flashlight, and Devo’s new album. Higher Levels will add various skill bonuses and attribute bonuses.

To create a character, a player rolls three six-sided dice seven times and —Strength, Intelligence, Wisdom, Dexterity, Constitution, Charisma, and Survival—and assigns them to seven attributes in any order. A character has five Saving Throws—Courage, Critical, Death, Mental, and Poison—which are each rolled on four four-sided dice and modified by a character’s Constitution bonus, even the ones which are not physical, such as Courage and Mental. The question is, why are all of the Saving Throws based on the one attribute? Just two six-sided dice are rolled for Hit Points and once a player has selected a Class and subclass, he also gets to pick four more skills other than the beginning skills listed for his Class and subclass. No more than a single point can be assigned to any skill rank, which itself cannot be higher than a character’s Level. Any bonus from the associated attribute is of course applied to this. Fighting skills—Brawling, Martial Arts, and Wrestling—are also available. They provide set bonuses and only need to be purchased once as they do not advance in Rank.

Lastly, a player has the option to roll on the background table twice to add some interest to his character. There are a hundred entries, which might give a character an interest in Marvel comics, make him an exchange student, have a missing sibling, and so on. Some provide extra bonuses, others do not. Overall, the creation process is quick with relatively few decisions to be made.

Our sample character is Heather Robinson, a rich, preppy girl whose parents recently moved from California to small town America, her father a lawyer to set up a small practice having made his money in Los Angeles and his mother to become the weather girl on the local television affiliate. Heather did not want to come, but her parents promised her a new car on her sixteenth birthday if she did. Of course, the real reason her parents moved to the ‘middle of nowhere’ is to survive the coming apocalypse...

Name: Heather Robinson
Alignment: Neutral
Languages: English
Class: Popular (Preppy) Level: 1 XP: 0
Hit Points: 13 Armour Class: 10 Attack Bonus: +0/+1
Background: Mom is the the local weather girl (everyone thinks she is hot); your parents are Doomsday Preppers

ATTRIBUTES
Strength: 09 (+0), Intelligence: 14 (+1), Wisdom: 09 (+0),
Dexterity: 12 (+0), Constitution: 13 (+1), Charisma: 18 (+3)
Survival: 14

SAVING THROWS
Courage: 16 Critical: 13 Death: 14 Mental: 7 Poison: 9

CLASS ABILITIES
Daddy’s Money

SKILLS
Art & Music 1 (+2), Basic Athletics 1 (+1), Driving 1 (+1), First Aid 1 (+1), Intimidation 1 (+4), Outdoorsmanship 1 (+0/+2), Persuasion 1 (+4), Ranged Attacks 1 (+1) 

POSSESSIONS
Golf GTI, very nice clothes, $5,000

For the most part, Dark Places & Demogorgons: The Roleplaying Game plays as a standard retroclone, but there are some changes to the rules. The first is the addition of Survival, which although rolled the same as the standard six attributes, is not an attribute. Rather, it is a pool of points which a player can use to re-roll any dice roll. This costs one Survival per re-roll and any failed dice roll can only be re-rolled once and the effects have to be applied. Although there is no limit on the number of Survival Points which can be spent during a gaming session, they can only be recovered at a rate of one per session. This sets up a tight economy of what are essentially ‘luck points’, which does not favour the players and their characters. This is partly exacerbated by the Difficulty Checks set for using skills—ten for Easy, fifteen for Medium, twenty for Difficult, and twenty-five for Near Impossible. Few player characters are going to have more than a +2 or +3 in their skills, so any skill beyond Easy is going to be a challenge. That said, the player characters are high school teenagers and they are not meant to be necessarily competent.

Where skill rolls are rolled equal to or over the Difficulty Check, those for Saving Throws are rolled equal to or under. The mechanics for horror and fear in Dark Places & Demogorgons are split between two different mechanics. In the face of a non-supernatural opponent or dangerous situation, a Courage Saving Throw and if failed, a character receives a +1 penalty on all rolls against similar situations in the future. In the face of a supernatural opponent or dangerous situation, a player must roll a Terror Check, this being made to roll equal to or over the monster or situation’s Terror value, typically eleven or more, depending on the monster. Essentially, this Terror value works as a Difficulty Check. If either the Courage Saving Throw or the Terror Check is failed, the player also needs to roll on the Failed Courage/Terror Effect table. If either roll is successful, a character does not have to roll for either again—he has conquered his fears. There is no explanation as to why the two different mechanics are used, why there are no bonuses to either roll, and so on. It certainly would not have been all that difficult to get the two mechanics to work the same way rather than confuse the issue.

Another change is in how and why Experience Points are awarded as well as a scaling down of the number that a player character needs to acquire a new Level. Five means of rewarding Experience Points are given in Dark Places & Demogorgons. These are Session Survival, Encounter XP, Exceptional Roleplaying, Discretionary, and HERO XP. The first is for simply for completing or ‘surviving’ a game session; the second for being involved in a combat situation; the third for good roleplaying; the fourth at the the Game Master’s discretion for solving puzzles, overcoming the odds, or being exceptionally lucky; and the fifth for being particularly heroic. Each session, a player character can earn a maximum of one Experience Point for Session Survival, Exceptional Roleplaying, and HERO XP, but two as Discretionary rewards, and three as Encounter XP. Which in the case of the latter, is three combat scenes per session. This is at odds with the intended aim of the roleplaying game’s “...leveling system which takes the focus off combat…” and that, “...Dark Places should not be in a combat heavy game.”

Of course, combat is not an unexpected feature of Dark Places & Demogorgons’ horror genre, but the fact that the rules do not reduce the emphasis on combat as they suggest they should is disappointing. Unfortunately, this is exacerbated by the underwhelming advice on running the game and not running it as a combat game. For game that is supposed to be one of horror and investigation, a single page devoted to the subject and then in hardly any depth seems inadequate, especially when combat gets four pages of treatment.

The other mechanics are drawn from Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition and The Black Hack respectively. One is the use of Advantage and Disadvantage dice, the other is the use of the Usage dice for equipment.

That said, there is a lot of support for the Game Master. For the players there is a list of sample characters and a quick list comparing aspects of today’s culture with that of the 1980s, but for the Game Master, a good half of Dark Places & Demogorgons is dedicated to setting elements—monsters, villains, scenario seeds, and background on Jeffersontown, Kentucky. So the monsters cover cult leaders, soviet spies, and ninja as much as they do banshees, bigfoot, ghouls, golems, rodents of unusual size, and vampires. There are also table for creating your own villains and monsters. The scenario seeds also built around monsters, from Alien Life Form and Chupacabra in Love to Taylor’s Lake Monster and Teenage Werewolf in J’town. Their inspiration is obvious, but then much of the genre that the roleplaying game draws is equally as obvious.

Jeffersontown, Kentucky or ‘J’town’, and its major gangs and factions, are described in just a few pages. This is where Annie Crow disappeared, Stanley Parker jumped off Popelick Train Trestle, and more, perhaps due to the feared Popelick Monster, Satan, or… Unfortunately, more attention is paid to listing what is in each of the town’s four districts than to giving a good overview or a map, so getting an overall feel for Jeffersontown is somewhat challenging—especially if the Game Master has to then impart that information to her players and their characters.

What Dark Places & Demogorgons also provides is the optional Psion Class with its subclasses, Experiment X, the Pyro, and the Telekinetic. The second and third of these represent characters a la Firestarter and Carrie, so have normal backgrounds and skills, whereas the first is something akin to the character of Eleven from Stranger Things and so does not. The rules for Psionics require a roll on the Psionic Activation Table to determine if a Psion can use his abilities. His player then gets to make a roll to use the Psionic power.

Name: Example 019
Alignment: Neutral
Languages: English
Class: Experiment X Level: 1 XP: 0
Hit Points: 05 Armour Class: 10 Attack Bonus: -1/+0
Background: Unknown

ATTRIBUTES
Strength: 09 (+0), Intelligence: 17 (+2), Wisdom: 17 (+2),
Dexterity: 12 (+0), Constitution: 13 (+1), Charisma: 10 (+0)
Survival: 07

SAVING THROWS
Courage: 12 Critical: 10 Death: 14 Mental: 18 Poison: 9

CLASS ABILITIES
Psionic Attack (1d6 damage, communicate with the Otheride* for one minute)

SKILLS
None

POSSESSIONS
Dirty Medical Gown

* Whatever that is. Again, Dark Places & Demogorgons has little to say on the matter.

Physically, Dark Places & Demogorgons is decently presented and is nicely presented with a good range of art. The designers also include some high school photos from the period to add a little verisimilitude. 

Dark Places & Demogorgons is a game in which if you know your movies and you know its genre influences, then you can run it. If not, then Dark Places & Demogorgons may be a bit of challenge, since it is aimed squarely at the nostalgia market, for there is real no background detail given to the eighties other than listing a few differences. Similarly, the Game Master will be on her own in writing adventures as there is no advice of any substance to aid her in the process. Mechanically, it feels uninspiring and uneven, using too many different mechanics for too many different things for no real difference. Also the game is disingenuous in its use of its title, Dark Places & Demogorgons, not only because it does not include Demogorgon stats, but really it is not about running a game in the style of Stranger Things. It is more of an ‘80s teen horror’ roleplaying game, focusing solely upon the teenage protagonists and the monsters, and ignoring the world around them, which is not the point of its obvious inspiration.

If you are looking for game with which to run a Stranger Things style game and have some experience running your own adventures, then Dark Places & Demogorgons might be for you. After all, it provides you with all of the parts, if not the toolkit. If you are looking for a greater examination of the genre and helpful advice in running that style of game, then Dark Places & Demogorgons fails on all counts. There is good material in Dark Places & Demogorgons: The Roleplaying Game, but it completely fails to support it in terms of advice or genre, which comes down to just run ‘Monster of the Week’ and that is not good enough. Especially when it flags its inspiration so obviously.

Friday, 21 September 2018

1980: Civilisation

For fans of Kingmaker—which I reviewed in 2014—the good news is that Gibsons will be bringing it back and republishing it. Equally as good news is that the publisher has in the meantime, republished another classic board game of that era—Civilisation. This is the father of all board games in which players build and develop their civilisations, from 7 Wonders and Antike to Stone Age and Tzolk’in: The Mayan Calendar, but this is no Euro game—and it is definitely not Ameritrash. It is a game that is epic in theme, epic in scale, and epic in terms of play. Its theme is that of its name: the founding of a civilisation, the growth of its population, and the advancement of knowledge, that will take its people out of the Stone Age and through the Bronze Age into the Iron Age. Its scale is from the Stone Age until 250 BCE, some eight thousand years, five hundred years at a time, all played out across the birthplace of classical civilisation—the Eastern Mediterranean. Its terms of play are epic in that it is designed for up to seven players and the full game takes as long as eight hours!

Originally published in 1980 by Hartland Trefoil and then Avalon Hill in 1981, Civilisation would win the Charles Roberts Award for Best Pre-20th Century Boardgame of 1982. Later published by Gibsons in 1988, it has been out of print for some years, but Gibsons have brought it back out once again, to no little fanfare. Indeed, at UK Games Expo 2018, it won the Judges’ Award for Best New Board Game (Strategic Style).

In Civilisation, each player takes control of one of seven cultures—Africa, Asia, Assyria, Babylon, Crete, Egypt, and Illyria (or Thrace)—and as nations, spread out from one territory to another, grow their populations, build cities and tax them, acquire goods and trade with other nations, acquire technologies in the arts, crafts, sciences, and civics, and so on. Sometimes they will war with their opponents, but it should be made clear that Civilisation is no wargame, and often, they will suffer calamities that their peoples must weather if they are to advance. The key to winning and thus developing the greatest civilisation the technologies, represented by Civilisation Cards, which provide both an in-game benefit and points, for without them, a player’s nation cannot advance through the epochs of time… All of this involves both Area Control and Area Influence mechanics and Hand Management, Set Collection, and Trading mechanics. The game does not use dice and there are no random elements to the game.

Designed for two to seven players, aged twelve and over, Civilisation consists of five of components—the board, seven sets of counters, seven Playmats, a set of Trade and Calamity Cards, a set of Civilisation Cards, and a rulebook. The large board depicts the Eastern Mediterranean divided into four differently coloured regions—Italy and the Balkans, Greece and Asia Minor, the Levant and the Middle East, and Egypt and North Africa, further divided into zones. Each zone is marked with a number indicating the maximum number of Population Tokens it can hold. Some are marked with a square to indicate a city site, a zone where cities are cheaper to build. Several zones are marked with floodplains and volcanoes and Population Tokens and cities in these zones are particularly vulnerable to floods and volcanic eruptions or earthquakes—both represented by Calamity Cards.

The lower quarter of the board is given over to spaces for the Progress Track, the Census Track, and a display area for the Trade and Calamity Cards. The Census Track is used to record a civilisation’s population total, from one turn to the next, whilst the Progress Track is used to determine how far a civilisation has advanced. It is divided into five epochs across the New Stone Age, the Bronze Age, and the Iron Age. Each player and his civilisation with advance one square each turn until he reaches the end of an epoch. If the requirements of the next epoch have been fulfilled, then they can continue their progress. To enter the second epoch, a player and civilisation must have two cities; to enter the third, they need three Civilisation Cards from three different categories; to enter the fourth, they need seven Civilisation Cards; and to enter the fifth, they need Civilisation Cards with a total value of a thousand points. At the end of the track is a point value a player needs in terms of Civilisation Cards, his treasury,  and the value of any Trade Cards, his civilisation needs to advance to the very end of the game.

It should be noted that length of the various epochs varies from civilisation to civilisation, as does the total number of points required at the end. This is a balancing mechanism to reflect a lower capacity to support high populations.

Each set of counters consists of fifty-six Population Tokens, twelve City Tokens, and four Ships. Each set is done in a strong colour and marked with an easy to spot symbol. The play mats have spaces to store a player’s stock of tokens and a civilisation’s Treasury. The play mat also lists the game’s thirteen phases. The Trade Cards consist of eleven commodities, which have a value between one and nine. They include Ochre, Hides, Iron, Papyrus, Salt, Grain, Cloth, Bronze, Spice, Gems, and Gold. They used to trade with other players, as well as to purchase Civilisation Cards. The more Trade Cards of a single type a player has, the more valuable they are. For example, each Ochre Trade Card has a value of one, but two have a value of four, three have a value of nine, four have a value of sixteen, and so on. There are eight Calamity Cards—Civil Disorder, Civil War, Epidemic, Famine, Flood, Iconoclasm & Heresy, Piracy, and Volcanic Eruption or Earthquake—which are marked with either red or black backs. The red-backed Calamity Cards—Civil War, Famine, Flood, and Volcanic Eruption or Earthquake—affect the player who draws them, but the black-backed Calamity Cards—Civil Disorder, Epidemic, Iconoclasm & Heresy, and Piracy—do not affect the player who draws them, but can be traded away to rival players who will be affected by them.

The Civilisation Cards are divided into four categories—Arts, Crafts, Sciences, and Civics, though some do falls into two categories. Each has a name, a cost to purchase using a mix of Trade Cards and Population Tokens, the possible credits it provides to purchase other Civilisation Cards, and an advantage, either reducing the effect of a Calamity Card or providing some sort of bonus. For example, Democracy reduces the effects of both Civil Disorder and Civil War; Cloth Making gives ships an extra move; and Coinage allows for changes in taxation. In addition, the cost of each Civilisation Card also represents the total value it contributes towards a player’s civilisation. So as well as costing two hundred points, Democracy increases a civilisation value by two hundred points. What is interesting about these cards is that some do posses prerequisites, Civilisation Cards which have to be purchased before a player can purchase the desired Civilisation Card and some Civilisation Cards provide points that can only be spent on specific Civilisation Cards. For example, Law is required before a player can purchase either Democracy or Philosophy, whilst Literacy provides twenty-five points which counts towards the purchase of Law, Democracy, and Philosophy. So what you have here is a rough ‘Tech Tree’, a path which leads from one technology or advance to the next, each relying upon the preceding ones to work and understand. Now it is only rudimentary, but it was the first time that such a mechanic appeared in a boardgame. Of course, it would not be the last.

There is one possible issue with the Civilisation Cards and that is the total number that a player can hold—eleven. If a player purchases too many of the cheaper Civilisation Cards, he may not gain enough points to advance along the Progress Chart and so win the game. So he needs to be careful in what Civilisation Cards he purchases.

Game set-up is relatively straightforward. The Trade Cards are placed on their respective spaces on the board with the Civilisation Cards alongside the board. Each player chooses a civilisation—this being done in randomly determined order—and places a City Token and a Population Token in their civilisation’s starting zone. Each player places tokens on the Progress and Census Tracks. The number of players determines which civilisations and which regions are used in a game (though oddly, Italy is not included in the locations, pointing towards needing a second edition of the rulebook). Each player puts his Population Tokens into his Stock space on his Play Mat; these will move into his Treasury space as the game proceeds where they can be spent.

Game play in Civilisation consists of thirteen phases! These are ‘Collect Taxation’, ‘Population Expansion’, ‘Census’, ‘Construct Ships’, ‘Movement’, ‘Conflict’, ‘Build Cities’, ‘Acquire Trade Cards’, ‘Trade’, ‘Acquire Civilization Cards’, ‘Resolve Calamities’, ‘Return Excess Trade Cards’, and ‘Alter Progress Marker’. This looks like a lot, but many of these phases are quite simple and relatively short. Some though are quite involving, and they are the meat of the game.

In the ‘Collect Taxation’ phase, a player adds two tokens from his Stock into his Treasury for each city his civilisation has; in the ‘Population Expansion’ phase, he adds Population Tokens to the zones in which he already he has Population Tokens; and in the ‘Census’ phase, he counts up how many Population Tokens has has on the board to determine his turn order in the ‘Movement’ phase.  In the ‘Construct Ships’ phase a player builds ships and pays the upkeep costs of the ships he already has. Ships allow a player to pick up and drop off Population Tokens as they sail along the coast. Once his civilisation acquires the Astronomy Civilisation Card, a player’s ships can cross the open sea zones on the map. Ships allow Population Tokens to move longer distances and en masse. In the ‘Movement’ phase, a player can move as many of his Population Tokens he wants one space each and ships up to four spaces each.

The ‘Conflict’ phase is where the game begins to get interesting. Each zone has a population limit. If two or more players have Population Tokens in a zone that together exceed this limit, then war ensues. Cities are considered to be equal to six Population Tokens, so war always ensues if another player moves into that zone. Its resolution is quite simple—the players take it in turn to remove one Population Token, starting with the player with the fewest number in the zone. This continues until the zone’s population limit is not exceeded. In this way, the player with the highest number of Population Tokens will defeat the other. It is also possible to attack and sack a city, but this requires an invasion with at least seven Population Tokens by the attacking player.

In the ‘Build Cities’ phase, if a player has six or more Population Tokens on a zone with a square, he can build a city. If the zone has no square, it needs twelve Population Tokens. Any Population Tokens in excess of the population limit on any zone are returned to the player’s stock as those zones cannot support them. Cities need to be supported by two Population Tokens each in play and the maximum number of cities a player can have is nine. It is possible to lose a city if it not sufficiently supported. Once a player has determined the total number of cities he has, in the ‘Acquire Trade Cards’ phase, he can draw one Trade Card for each city he has. This is mandatory, and a player must draw one Trade Card from each stack starting at the first and going up in order. There is the chance that a player will draw a Calamity Card during this phase. The red-backed Calamity Cards are obvious in play and will affect the player who draws them, whilst the black-backed Calamity Cards are kept secret and can be traded in the next phase.

The ‘Trade’ phase is open to everyone, players bartering with each other in attempt to get more cards of a single type as together they are more valuable. Trading is necessary because in the ‘Acquire Trade Cards’ phase, a player can only acquire a single card of any of the trade goods available. To trade, a player has to offer at least three cards, declaring both what one of the cards is and what the total value of the cards are. So for example, a player might say, “I want Bronze. For that, I am willing to trade Cloth. My three cards have a total value of nine.” Since the value of Cloth is five, the other players may have some idea as what the other Trade Cards might be as they must add to four to make the total of nine. So they might be Salt and Ochre, worth one and three respectively, or they might be a Grain card, worth four on its own, and a Calamity. The ‘Trade’ phase can last as long as the players want or a time limit can be set, but in order to trade, a player needs a minimum of three Trade Cards.

Using the combined value of his Trade Cards and possibly tokens from his Treasury, a player can buy in the ‘Acquire Civilization Cards’ phase. A player can only buy one Civilisation Card of any one type, but can buy multiple Civilisation Cards on his turn. Expended Trade Cards back on the bottom of their respective decks on the board. The effect of Civilisation Cards come into play as soon as a player acquires them. This can be important because some of them ameliorate the effects of Calamity Cards. For example, a player who holds Grain Trade Cards can offset the effects of the Famine Calamity Card if he also has the ‘Pottery’ Civilisation Card.

In the ‘Resolve Calamities’ phase, civilisations suffer the effects of the Calamity Cards their players have either drawn—if red backed—or received in a trade—if black backed. No civilisation can suffer the effects of more than to Calamity Cards in a player’s turn. What is interesting is that many of the Calamity Cards do not just affect the player holding them in the ‘Resolve Calamities’ phase—they can affect rivals too. For example, the Famine Calamity Card forces a player to lose nine Population Tokens, but he can instruct the other players to lose up to twenty between them as well. The Epidemic Calamity Card works in a similar fashion. All resolved Calamity Cards go back at the bottom of the Trade Card decks they are drawn from.

Lastly, in the ‘Return Excess Trade Cards’ phase, each player reduces the number of Trade Cards he can hold to six, and in the ‘Move Progress Marker’, each player moves his marker on the Progress Track along one space, taking into account the requirements to move into each of the epochs. Once done, the turn is over, and the next one proceeds until the game ends and there is a winner.

It should be pointed out that not all of the phases will necessarily come into play, especially in the early part of the game where the players will be primarily concerned building their civilisation’s population up enough to build a city. Once a player has a city or three, then the game picks up and becomes more complex as trading increases in importance. Once this happen, Civilisation becomes a balancing act between a player’s Cities, Population, Stock, and Treasury. Not enough Population Tokens and Cities will collapse; not enough Tokens in his Stock for Taxation and a player’s Cities will Revolt and join another civilisation; not enough Population Tokens and a player make not be able to withstand an invasion by a rival. Notably though, the Calamity Cards can upset these balances and a civilisation that suffers the effects of one too many Calamity Cards can greatly hinder or destroy a civilisation. Coming back from these effects can be challenging, but they can be offset with the right Civilisation Cards. The fact that once their effects have been applied, the Calamity Cards are returned to respective Trade Card decks means that they will cycle through the game, appearing again and again, throughout the game and history. The Calamity Cards also serve as a means to rein in any civilisation which advances too quickly in comparison to its rivals, although of course, its player needs to be amenable to trades. Otherwise, a runaway civilisation may be difficult to catch up with.

The big issue with Civilisation is its playing time and the commitment this requires. A playing time of six to eight hours for the full game is not be sniffed at and takes dedication upon the part of the players. The game is also longer the more players there are involved, but that said, the game players better the more players there. Not only is the competition for territory fiercer, but there are more opportunities for trade and interaction, for forming alliances, and so on. Nevertheless, Civilisation is no casual game. That said, the rulebook does offer options for simpler versions of the game and shorter versions of the game. The simplest version, ‘The Game of Nomads and Seafarers’ omits most of the phases and therefore the rules, whilst the ‘The Game of Farmers and Citizens’ omits just a few of them. The shortened versions use the full rules, but play stops after the winner reaches the ninth, twelfth, or fourteenth space along the Progress Track rather than the sixteenth. Of these, ‘The Game of Nomads and Seafarers’ is too simple, whereas ‘The Game of Farmers and Citizens’ serves as a better means by which to learn the basics of the game.

Physically, Civilisation is reasonably well presented. Certainly, the board is nicely mounted, and its presentation of the Eastern Mediterranean makes good use of strong colours. The cardboard counters are clear in their design and colour, if a little small on the board to handle easily. The game’s cards are clear and easy to read, but for long term play, it might be a good idea to put them in sleeves. The reference cards feel as if they could have been sturdier and whilst the rulebook is generally well written, its use of orange as the colour for its titles on a cream background does make finding things not as easy as it should be. One issue is that the box is a bit tight to get everything into the insert tray once each of the sets of counters has been stored in zip lock bags, something that is really necessary lest the counters are left to slosh around inside the box. Overall though, the game’s production values are adequate by modern standards, but decent by the production values of when Civilisation was previously published. (That said, higher production values would have increased the price of the game.)

The designer, Francis Tresham, has said of Civilisation, “I regard this game as my masterpiece.” It easy to see why. No game does the sweep of history quite as well as Civilisation, the players being able to chart the rise—and possible fall—of cultures and civilisations over the course of centuries, spreading out to build cities, discover their neighbours and trade with them, make advances in knowledge and belief, go to war and withstand calamities, and perhaps, survive long enough to become the greatest of civilisations. It does all this—eight thousand years of history—with simple, elegant mechanics that are easy to learn and easy to play, but not necessarily easy to master as there are some subtle nuances to them. Civilisation is a classic piece of board game design and an influence on many games since, a great strategy game and a great history game. Gibsons should be applauded for making it available once again.

Tuesday, 18 September 2018

Friday Filler: Ticket to Ride: New York

Fourteen years on from its first publication by Days of Wonder in 2004, Ticket to Ride has sold millions of copies, been the subject of multiple expansions and core sets, won the Spiel des Jahres, and remained a classic piece of Eurogame design. Fourteen years on and it is still one of the best gateway games into the hobby. Having previously gone around the world with Ticket to Ride: Rails & Sails, the very latest entry in the series is perhaps the smallest, certainly the most urban! Ticket to Ride: New York takes the series away from the Mauve Age setting of the previous games into the future of the 1960s. Instead of racing across the United States of America, Europe, the United Kingdom, and so on, it takes the players to the Big Apple for some big changes in a small game!

Designed for two to four players, aged eight and up, Ticket to Ride: New York sees the players racing up, down, and across Manhattan with a diversion across the East River to Brooklyn, not in trains as in every other Ticket to Ride game, but taxis! This is the first of many changes to the Ticket to Ride series. These changes primarily stem from the game being smaller—a smaller board with fewer destinations and fewer routes; each player having fewer trains (or rather fewer taxis); and there being no scoring track around the edge of the board. Instead of the latter, the game includes a scoring pad and a pencil. The game includes just forty-four Transportation cards in seven colours plus multi-coloured cards. As play progresses, the players will draw these and then use them to claim routes on the map. The other cards are the eighteen Destination Tickets each of which connect two of the Locations on the map. These range in value from three to eight points, which a player will add to his final score for each one he completes and subtracts from his score for each one he fails to complete. The map itself, from Lincoln Centre and Central Park in the north to Wall Street in the south, marked with just fifteen Locations, connected by a series of coloured routes, the colour of these routes matching the colour of the Transportation cards. Some locations are marked with a number ‘1’, such as Empire State Building and Chinatown. If a player connects to these in the course of connecting the Locations on his Destination Tickets, then he scores an extra point at the end of the game for each one. The player who has the most points at game’s end wins the game.

Play in Ticket to Ride: New York is the same as standard Ticket to Ride. Each player starts the game with some Destination Tickets and some Transportation cards. On his turn, he can take one of three actions. Either draw two Transportation cards; draw two Destination Tickets and either keep one or two, but must keep one; or claim a route between two connected Locations. To claim a route, a player must expend a number of cards equal to its length, either matching the colour of the route or a mix of matching colour cards and the multi-coloured cards, which essentially act as wild cards. Some routes are marked in grey and so can use any set of colours or multi-coloured cards. No route is longer than four spaces and a player will score points for each route claimed.

All of which points to standard Ticket to Ride game play. What marks Ticket to Ride: New York as being different from that standard game play is most obviously its size, but once it reaches the table, what marks it out as being different is its speed of play. With fewer taxi pieces—fifteen as opposed to the forty-five in standard Ticket to Ride—a player has fewer resources and with fewer routes to claim, play is quick. The shortness of the routes means that a player will spend less time drawing Transportation cards, rather than having to draw again and again in order to have the right number of Transportation cards needed for long routes—routes five, six, and seven spaces in length are common in standard Ticket to Ride. Removing the scoring track from around the edge of the board also speeds game play as the scoring takes place at the end of the game rather than at the end of players’ turns.

The playing time for Ticket to Ride: New York is listed as being between ten and fifteen minutes. For experienced gamers this is about right. Anyone new to the game or at the younger age of its suggested age range might increase that a little.

Physically, Ticket to Ride: New York is very nicely produced. Everything is very bright and breezy. The taxi playing pieces are cute, the cards are very clear and easy to read, if perhaps a little small in the hand, and the rules leaflet short, but easy to understand. The re-theming to New York and the 1960s adds a certain charm.

Ticket to Ride: New York might be seen as a taster version, an introduction to the Ticket to Ride family, but it does not feel like that. Plus, for a younger audience, it already has that in the form Ticket to Ride: First Journey. Rather, with its short playing time, reduced number of components, and smaller amount of space it takes up—not just in terms of the box it comes in, but also when out on the table, what it suggests is that Ticket to Ride: New York is the travel version of the game as much as anything else. Its short playing time also makes it the ‘filler’ version of Ticket to Ride too, a version of Ticket to Ride when you do not want to play Ticket to Ride.

Overall, Ticket to Ride: New York does not offer anything new for fans of the Ticket to Ride series of games—really more of the same, but faster. As a travel version, its short playing time and its smaller size means that it fills a certain niche.

Sunday, 16 September 2018

The Symbaroum Campaign I

In comparison to many other roleplaying games, the pattern of support for 
Symbaroum, the near-Dark Ages fantasy roleplaying game from Swedish publisher, Järnringen, distributed in English by Modiphius Entertainment, has been to focus primarily on scenarios. The Copper Crown, Adventure Pack 1 in the Symbaroum: Gamemaster Screen, and Adventure Pack 2 have supported the roleplaying game with an array of interesting and challenging scenarios. The exception to this is, of course, Symbaroum’s only supplement, Advanced Player’s Guide, but the amount of content to play ramps up with the release of Thistle Hold – Wrath Of The Warden

Published following a successful Kickstarter campaign, Thistle Hold – Wrath Of The Warden is actually the inaugurial part of Chronicle of the Throne of Thorns, a seven-part campaign! In actuality, not all of the book is devoted to the campaign itself. It is divided into three sections. The first provides a description of Thistle Hold and its unhappy neighbour, Blackmoor; the second an expanded section for the Game Master on a variety of matters; and the third the start of campaign in full. It should be noted that the first section, devoted to Thistle Hold and Blackmoor, is designed to be accessed by the players, especially those players with characters who have been moving in and out of Thistlehold for a while and got to know their way around and a little of people’s attitudes (and in the process, have earned the fifty Experience Points needed to play the campaign). The rest of the book is very much for the Game Master’s eyes, for not does it contain the first part of the campaign, it also reveals secrets about Thistle Hold—and beyond!

The first section is ‘The Hunter’s Harbour’, which expands upon the description of Thistle Hold in the core rulebook, which focuses upon the fortified town’s taverns, inns, places of entertainment, and the like as well as various trading establishments. This focus is intentional, since it reflects life for many in the town, for most go out to eat and drink rather than do so at home. Certainly this is the case for the many treasure hunters who have struck it lucky with a find in the Davokar forest and want to enjoy their new found wealth instead of spending time in their rented rooms. So, there is a range of malted beers to be had at the Brew and you can eat cheaply and tastily from the offal menu at the Slaughterhouse; games of chance and strategy can be played and bet upon at Benego’s and bets can also be placed on Fight Day at the Abomitorium where fights between gladiators and beasts dragged from Davokar are staged; the wealthy and the well-behaved can stay the Court and Harp where Queen Korinthia stayed or if you are lucky and wealthy, stay at the Winged Ladle, the inn built into the crown of a tree! Establishments where the welcome matches the price are also available. Also detailed are the important organisations and factions in town—the Sun Temple, the Merchants’ House, the Monastery of the Twilight Friars, the town seat from where Mayor Lasifor Nightpitch and staff govern Thistle Hold and access to Davokar, and so on. Many of these factions and organisations have a role to play in the Wrath Of The Warden campaign.

Where the description of Thistle Hold adds to and builds upon material contained in the core rulebook, Thistle Hold – Wrath Of The Warden expands beyond the frontier town’s palisades to gives details about Blackmoor. This is essentially a suburb of Thistle Hold, a tent town where those who cannot afford to live or trade behind its wooden walls. Without Thistle Hold’s regulations, Blackmoor has a deserved reputation for lawlessness and a higher turnover of residents, but there are some sections where order is kept. The description of both Thistle Hold and Blackmoor runs to just over twenty pages, but this is only the publicly available information, including updated maps of both locations. There is more information in the Game Master’s section—‘In the Shadow of the Beacon’—which reveals the secrets of each of the new locations, mostly minor secrets, and mostly tied up in Thistle Hold’s relatively short past, but included are one or two major secrets to Symbaroum and its setting that should be all but impossible for the players and their characters to ever learn. The players and their characters may encounter some of these secrets, certainly some of the mysteries to Symbaroum in the course of the campaign.

The other two parts of the Game Master’s Section discuss ‘Goal Orientated Roleplaying’ and provide a host of supplementary mechanics. The latter, whether the monstrous trait of Fire Breath, the Raise Undead ritual, an array of artefacts, or the rules for conducting research or handling fleeing and following, are not actually new. They previously appeared in Adventure Pack 1, but are reprinted here because they pertain to the Wrath of the Warden part of the campaign. If the Game Master does not have Adventure Pack 1, then their inclusion is undeniably useful, but if she does, there is an undeniable redundancy to this section. ‘Goal Orientated Roleplaying’ is new though, and looks at the type of adventure or scenarios where the players and their characters set out to achieve objectives such as establishing outposts and going on expeditions into the Davokar Forest. Five steps—or phases—are discussed for each and these are designed to work with the suggestions and tables found in Adventure Pack 1 for going on treasure hunts. To accompany these new guidelines, two sets of ruins are included as possible goals or objectives for the player characters. One is a former villa, the other small castle and estate, both quite rich in terms of the loot to be found, but both nasty pockets of corruptions and danger. Of the two, the castle is more involving and presents more opportunities for roleplaying, but both are easy to drop into an ongoing campaign. Like the start of the campaign which follows the Game Master’s Section, neither is designed for inexperienced characters. That said neither is suited for inclusion in Wrath of the Warden, but could be used prior to the Game Master starting the campaign.

The last section in Thistle Hold – Wrath Of The Warden is the start of the campaign proper. As the opening part of the Chronicle of the Throne of Thorns campaign, Wrath Of The Warden has some requirements. First, it is not designed for new characters. Instead, they should have at least fifty Experience Points each. Second, they should have the reputation of being prepared to deal with the evils of the Davokar Forest that sometimes beset the town. Third, they should have played through the scenario, ‘The Mark of the Beast’, from The Copper Crown. If successful, this should have favourably established their reputation. In fact, playing through the whole of ‘The Chronicle of the Copper Crown’—consisting of ‘The Promised Land’ from Symbaroum Core Rulebook and ‘The Mark of the Beast’ and ‘Tomb of Dying Dreams’ would go some way to providing the fifty Experience Points needed to be ready to play Wrath Of The Warden.

More than half of Thistle Hold – Wrath Of The Warden is dedicated to the first part of the campaign. Like the previous two sections, it is divided into three parts, in this case, three acts. Of these, the first and third are quite linear in structure, the second and middle much more open with the player characters being left to decide what actions they want to take, lines of enquiry they want to follow, and who they want to speak to. Although there are several diversions and plot threads which will take them outside of Thistle Hold, for the most part, the bulk of the action takes place within its wooden walls. At its most basic, this part of the campaign concerns itself with the fate of a potential new patron who promises much if the player characters come to work for her. Unfortunately, a great disaster strikes Thistle Hold and this patron goes missing. Finding her will lead the player characters to come into contact with the great and good, the greedy and the ambitious, and the dissolute and the driven of Thistle Hold, many of them the town’s notables. The good news is that many are willing to help, though they might have a task for the adventurers in the meantime, which leads to a wide variety of tasks to undertake and things to do. The bad news is there are factions in the town who do not want them to succeed. 

Even during the linear acts of Wrath of the Warden, there is a good mix of action and roleplaying, but this really ramps during the middle act, combining it with a strong investigative thread. The Game Master should have fun too, as she will have a good sized cast to portray from all walks of life. The campaign also fairly detailed, it will require no little preparation upon the Game Master’s part, especially the second act, which makes very good use of the content presented earlier in the book. To facilitate the investigation, the campaign also comes with a handful of very nicely produced handouts, though it will probably be a good idea if one of the players takes notes the campaign proceeds.

With so many NPCs to be found in the campaign, it might have been useful for there to have been a set of portraits to show the players. The other thing which is missing is a good clue tree. There is a flow chart, but this feels clumsy and linear, not really effective as it needs to be to support the sandbox aspect of the otherwise strong middle act. The advice could have been stronger for what the Game Master needs to do should her players take their characters deviate wildly from the linear flow chart.

Physically, Thistle Hold – Wrath Of The Warden manages to both impress and depress. Impressively, the book is laid out in Symbarom’s house style in full colour and illustrated with some stunning pieces of art. Not all of this art is new, but as it does provide superb depictions of Thistle Hold, this is less of an issue that it might have been. A nice physical touch is that it includes two bound bookmarks, which makes marking important information a little easier. Depressingly, Thistle Hold – Wrath Of The Warden is not so badly edited as dreadfully localised. There are some very clumsy turns of phrase in the supplement’s writing, which are highly indicative of the publisher’s need for a professional English language editor.

Even at its most basic, Thistle Hold – Wrath Of The Warden expands greatly upon the settings of Thistle Hold and Blackmoor and there are secrets here enough for the Game Master to weave into her campaign and add mystery aplenty. The material also provides solid support, in conjunction the content in the core rulebook, for Wrath of the Warden which follows. Wrath of the Warden is rich and meaty in terms of content, grim and perilous in terms of tone, providing multiple sessions of roleplaying as well as setting everything up for the next part of the Chronicle of the Throne of Thorns.

Friday, 14 September 2018

Idolatry not Ideal

Marked ‘Module 1’, Idol of the Orcs was the first official scenario to be published by Goblinoid Games for use with its retroclone, Labyrinth Lord. As the first release, it is a low level adventure, an introductory adventure, one with a familiar set-up and a familiar Dungeons & Dragons enemy. Designed for characters of between First and Third Levels, it takes place in a region recently beset by surprisingly well organised Orc attacks upon local farms and passing travellers. The adventurers are charged with the task with striking at the Orcs in order to put an end to this menace, their having been tracked back to the Caverns of the Sacerns.

The blurb on the front hints that there is something behind the Orc activities, a sinister voice giving the tribe instructions from the darkness, a demonic force which lies at the heart of the Orc lair. This is the first of several clever ideas and elements contained within the pages of Idol of the Orcs, but between them are long strands of somewhat bland game play that detract from the scenario’s cleverness. The cleverness comes in the form of just four rooms or encounters—and that across three levels of a dungeon and some forty locations. The first of these is how the Orcs are getting their new found direction. At the end of their lair is a cave with a demonic idol and it is this which has been giving them orders and advice in return for sacrifices and worship. Yet the idol is simply a statue and a hollow one at that, and there is somebody inside giving that advice in a nice nod to The Wizard of Oz. Take that one step further and then that somebody is not actually evil just desperate, which sets up a good roleplaying scene for both the Labyrinth Lord and her players. The other rooms involve a strange magical item which gives out some random effects, some beneficial, others not; a mysterious encounter with a drowning person; and an inflammatory final experience in a chapel. There are of course other rooms and encounters to be found throughout the dungeon, but these are of lesser interest and between them there is much tramping around and various fights which do not really matter.

Rounding out the scenario is a pair of appendices. The first of these is Appendix A, which gives ‘Suggestions For Better Game Play’. This gives advice on handling treasure, both monetary and magical, how to be better dungeon explorers, to be prepared, and to know when to quit. It is solid advice, perhaps even familiar advice to more experienced players, but anyone coming to Labyrinth Lord—and thus Dungeons & Dragons-style play—for the first time, it is useful. The second appendix, Appendix B, provides seven pre-generated adventurers of First and Second Level, all very easy to use.

Idol of the Orcs is well written, the illustrations are good, and the burgundy and white trade dress is singular and attractive. The maps are also clear and easy to read, although terribly inspiring in their design. One definite issue is with the Rumours Table, which lists sixteen rumours and then provides a method for rolling them that makes some impossible to learn. (The Labyrinth Lord should not double the roll of an eight-sided die, but add eight instead, or simply add four more rumours so that she can roll a twenty-sided die instead.)

There is a longstanding piece of advice that when writing a review that the reviewer does not tell the author how said reviewer would have designed the thing being reviewed. This reviewer and this review will adhere to that advice. Instead, it will make some suggestions as to how make Idol of the Orcs a more interesting adventure and a more enjoyable adventure for the Labyrinth Lord and players alike. First, lay some clues pointing towards a change in the raiding pattern of the Orcs, from disorganised sorties to well planned attacks, to suggest a change in their behavior and so add a mystery to the campaign. Ideally, these should be placed around and about the caves where the Orcs have their hideout. Second, add some clues about the caverns and their use prior to the Orcs occupying them. This should be hints and rumours rather than anything definite. Third, let the player characters encounter an Orc raiding party and learn something from it. Perhaps one of the Orcs lets slip about its new master or the Orcs seem particularly cunning… Fourth, change the profession of the clue giver from a midwife—after all, what player character in a Dungeons & Dragons-style adventure is in the habit of visiting a midwife? Five, give the players and their characters the chance to explore the rumours presented in the introduction. Sixth, add some clues in the dungeon to the secrets of the deeper levels. Seventh, add some more of the interesting rooms that are the highlight of the adventure. There are probably more things which could be done to Idol of the Orcs to make it an interesting and exciting adventure, but these are just some starting points for a Labyrinth Lord wanting a fixer-upper.

Ultimately—and as written—it is impossible to really recommend Idol of the Orcs as a first scenario for Labyrinth Lord—or any other retroclone. Its set-up is underdeveloped, its dungeons are linear and simplistic, and there really no reward for the player characters to go deal with the threat which triggers the adventure. Perhaps though, it could serve as a project for a Labyrinth Lord or Dungeon Master to develop into something more and work into a campaign setting of her own. Until then though, Idol of the Orcs is a disappointing first ‘Official’ scenario for a retroclone as solid as Labyrinth Lord.

Friday Filler: Movable Type

Movable Type: The Pick-and-pass word game for families, friends, and word nuts is the card game of drafting letters, spelling words, and winning letters to create one final game winning word, all whilst attempting to meet the challenge presented by an array of classic authors, from Ada Lovelace and Agatha Christie to Oscar Wilde and Lu Xun. Published by Uncanny Games following a successful Kickstarter campaign, Movable Type is designed to be played by between one and six players in roughly twenty-five minutes or so. In actuality, it is designed for two to six players, but the rules do include a solo variant.

The consists of some one-hundred-and ten cards. These consist of seventy-six Letter Cards and nine Vowel Cards, nineteen Author Cards, five Round Tracking Cards, and one Solo Game Card. The Letter and Vowel Cards are clearly marked with their letter and vary in point value from one for A, E, I, and O up to six for J and K. Each Author Challenge Card is nicely illustrated with a portrait of the author and provides either an extra letter, an extra syllable, or an action. So for example, the Johannes Gutenberg Author Challenge gives a player the letter L to add to his collection if he plays a twelve letter word; the Louisa May Alcott Author Challenge allows a player to add the top card from the deck to his collection if he plays a word shorter than anyone else; and the H.P. Lovecraft Author Challenge gives a player the ING vowel to add to his collection if he plays a word without any vowels in it! (The designer, of course, getting to make some literary jokes here.)

Movable Type is played over five rounds. In the first four rounds, each player receives a hand of five Letter Cards. He chooses one of these cards and places it face down in front of him. He then passes his hand to neighbouring player—the direction changing from round to round—and receives a hand from his other neighbouring player. Players continue drafting and passing the cards until they have five Letter Cards in front of him. At the end of the drafting process, each player attempts to spell a word using both the letters they drafted and some of the common letters and vowels on the table. Anyone can use these common letters in their word and they can also use letters twice if they appear as doubles in the word. Once everyone has revealed and scored their word, the player with highest scoring word gets to draft any of the letters on the table into his collection. Then the player with next highest scoring word gets to draft any of these letters and so on and so on down to the player with the lowest scoring word. If a player’s word fulfills the conditions of an Author Challenge Card, he takes the appropriate card too.

Over the course of the first four rounds, each player is trying to win as many Letter Cards and Author Challenge Cards as they can to add to their collection. It is these cards which each player will use to spell out a word in the fifth and final word in the game’s last round. There is an extra challenge here in that a player cannot look at the cards in his collection once they have been added to it—he has to rely upon his memory as to what his collection contains until the fifth round when he can use them. The player with the highest scoring word created using the Letter and Vowel Cards in his collection in the fifth round wins the game.

Physically, Movable Type is simply, if handsomely presented. The cards are of decent quality and easy to read, whilst the Author Challenge Cards are pleasingly done and themed. The rules are easy to understand and easy to teach. The solo variant is played against a separate Author Challenge Card, called the Brontë Sisters Solo-Bot, in which a player attempts to play cards which outscore the sisters who get the Letter Cards that the player does not use. The playing time is the same as the full game, but the rules and mechanics are actually more complex. It should be noted though, that like most word games, having a dictionary to hand to settle any word disputes is a necessity.

To be fair, Movable Type is not going to be a game for everyone. After all, not everyone is good at spelling or enjoys it. The likelihood is that players who are will have an advantage over those who are not. Movable Type is unlikely to be a game for the latter, whilst the former will doubtless enjoy it. The game is light enough for casual players to enjoy and challenge enough for more experienced players to play at the same level.

Initially, the play of Movable Type is counter intuitive as it would seem that a player’s word score from round to round should add up to something, perhaps a final total at the end of the game. That it does not—through the drafting mechanic, the Author Challenge Cards, and the hidden Letter Cards—actually lifts what would otherwise be a simplistic and obvious word game into a design with some depth, providing an extra level of challenge and thoughtful play. Movable Type: The Pick-and-pass word game for families, friends, and word nuts presents an interesting twist upon spelling and word games and should appeal to ardent and casual gamers who like both. 

Saturday, 8 September 2018

The Other OSR: Classic Fantasy

It is impossible to ignore the influence of Dungeons & Dragons and the effect that its imprint has had on the gaming hobby. It remains the most popular roleplaying game some forty or more years since it was first published, and it is a design and a set-up which for many was their first experience of roleplaying—and one to which they return again and again. This explains the popularity of the Old School Renaissance and the many retroclones—roleplaying games which seek to emulate the mechanics and play style of previous editions Dungeons & Dragons—which that movement has spawned in the last fifteen years. Just as with the Indie Game movement before it began as an amateur endeavour, so did the Old School Renaissance, and just as with the Indie Game movement before it, many of the aspects of the Old School Renaissance are being adopted by mainstream roleplaying publishers who go on to publish retroclones of their own. Dungeon Crawl Classics Role Playing Game, published by Goodman Games is a perfect example of this. Other publishers have been around long enough for them to publish new editions of their games which originally appeared in the first few years of the hobby, whilst still others are taking their new, more contemporary games and mapping them onto the retroclone.

Classic Fantasy: Dungeoneering Adventures, d100 Style! is an example of a publisher taking an existing roleplaying game and mapping it back onto the roleplaying game designs of the Old School Renaissance. Published by The Design Mechanism, it is a supplement for use with Mythras, the set of rules previously published as RuneQuest 6, and now presented as a streamlined version of Basic Roleplaying, the skills based, percentile system derived from RuneQuest which would be used in a wide variety of roleplaying games. One important aspect of Mythras is that it includes Passions—loyalties, beliefs, and feelings towards someone or something, that are again measured as percentiles and which work in a similar fashion to the Personal Traits of the King Arthur Pendragon RPG. In essence, Mythras can be described as a ‘Skills & Passions’ percentile, simulation roleplaying game, designed to handle detail and grit in its gameplay, but without being overly complex.

Thus, Classic Fantasy: Dungeoneering Adventures, d100 Style! is designed to take the percentile system of Mythras and map it onto the Class and Level set-up of Dungeons & Dragons and its various iterations and interpretations. Which is most odd indeed, for arguably, what the original RuneQuest and thus Basic Roleplaying was designed to do was everything that Dungeon & Dragons did not. In Dungeons & Dragons, characters are defined by their role—or Class—and are restricted to the powers and abilities of their Class; characters acquire Experience Points from adventuring—killing monsters, finding treasure, and sometimes story awards too—which when the amount exceeds a set threshold, a character gains a Level and all of the benefits of that Level; and various elements of the game are abstract in nature, including Armour Class, Hit Points, and so on. In the first iterations of the venerable roleplaying game, only the Thief Class had specific skills! RuneQuest and thus Basic Roleplaying, used neither Classes or Levels; everyone had skills and could learn any skill given time, and they improved them by learning and doing, one skill at a time; weapon skills were learned weapon by weapon, armour protected a character against damage rather than made you harder to hit, with hit locations having Hit Points and being protected by pieces of armour; and of course, everyone had access to magic too in one form or another. All of which is possible in Mythras, but in order to do classic Class and Level fantasy, not all of this is possible in Classic Fantasy. What it does mean though, if your Ork Berserker has the ‘voice of an angel’, then he can learn to sing and improve his skill and does not have to become a Bard to do it! (Which of course is not allowed in Classic Fantasy…)

To create a character in Mythras, a player rolls dice to determine his character’s base attributes—Strength, Constitution, Size, Dexterity, Intelligence, Power, and Charisma. From these are derived several factors, including Damage and Experience Modifiers, Healing Rate, Height and Weight, Hit Points, and Strike Rank, plus Action Points, spent to act in combat, and Luck Points, used to give a character an edge, whether a dice roll, the mitigation of damage or unfavourable circumstances, or a vital advantage in combat. Each character also receives the same set of standard skills, the base value for each one determined by adding two attributes or doubling a single attribute. Then, the player takes his character through three steps. The first is to select the character’s Culture—Barbarian, Civilised, Nomadic, or Primitive; the second step his Career, the third his Bonus skill points. At each step a character receives a set number of points to assign to skills, either to a character’s standard skills or his professional skills, the latter type of skill, such as Commerce, Gambling, and Mysticism, gained after years of practice and learning. Some professional skills come from a character’s Culture; the others come from his choice of Class. A character’s choice of culture also determines the Classes available to him. Although the base values for both types of skills are determined by a character’s attributes, the granting of the same number of skill points throughout the process serves to balance character generation.

For the most part, character creation in Classic Fantasy follows these steps, but the first change is in selecting a Race. In Mythras, the default Race is Human, but like the roleplaying games of old, Classic Fantasy also offers Dwarf, Elf, Gnome, Half-Elf, Half-Orc, and Halfling as its other Races. The choice of Race will determine the number of dice to be rolled for Attributes and also the choice of Classes available. In some retroclones Race is treated as a character’s Class, but in Classic Fantasy, it is a character’s Culture. Humans have Barbarian, Civilised, Nomadic, or Primitive as their Culture and like the Cultures of the Demi-Humans, determines the choice of Classes to choose from. Where Humans gain an extra Luck Point and an extra Experience Roll in addition to the standard and professional skills from their Culture, Dwarves gain Magic and Poison Resistance, Infravision, and Tunnel Sense; Elves gain Infravision, Resistance to Sleep and Charm, Unaffected by Raise Dead, Stealthy, and Secret and Concealed Object Detection; Halflings gain Magic and Poison Resistance, Stealthy, and Exposure Tolerance (Feet). The other Races receive similar abilities modelling similar elements found in their design in retroclones.

Classic Fantasy offers twelve Classes—Bard, Berserker, Cavalier, Cleric, Druid, Fighter, Magic-User, Monk, Paladin, Ranger, Thief, and Thief-Acrobat. As well as standard and professional skills, each Class provides a Combat Style, a package of weapons in which members of the Class are trained—such as only honourable weapons for the Cavalier Class and daggers, darts, knives, slings, and staves for Magic-Users, and a number of Abilities and Talents. Some of the Talents are organised into Tiers and a character needs more Experience Rolls to select them. Where Classes in Dungeons & Dragons et al are organised into Levels, in Classic Fantasy they are organised into Ranks—and just the five per Class. Now Ranks are not Levels, representing progression in an organisation, such as a guild or order, rather than an abstract measure of achievement. To increase in Rank, a character needs to advance their Class’ five prerequisite skills, for example, the Ranger Class has Athletics, Channel, Combat Style (Ranger), Piety (Specific Nature Deity), and Stealth. These all need to be at 50% for a character to qualify for Rank 1, otherwise they remain Rank 0, and then at 70% for Rank 2 and so on… In some Classes, Rank is organised as a pyramid, so to progress, characters of those Classes will need to wait for a spot to open up.

In addition, all characters have Passions. During the process of generation, a character gains them from their Culture or Race, and then from their Class. One of these has to be a Moral Philosophy, either Good, Neutral, or Evil, to which a trait or two is attached. Some Classes require a strict Moral Philosophy, for example, a Druid must have Neutral (Respectful of Nature and Strives for Balance). Some Classes also require a character to take an oath and again, this is treated as a Passion. In this way, Passions model the morality of the Alignment systems to be found in various retroclones, but because they are measured as percentiles and can go up and down—depending upon how a player roleplays his character—they offer a more nuanced alternative.

Our sample character is Ned Smith, a simple blacksmith’s son from the town of Blaineford Forum. His older brother is more skilled than he is and so he has decided to search out fame and fortune elsewhere. He has decided to put to use the martial skills he learned as member of the town’s militia.

Ned Smith
Age: 18 Culture: Civilised
Fighter Rank 1

STR 18 CON 15 SIZ 14 DEX 11 INT 15 POW 12 CHA 14

Action Points: 3 Damage Modifier: +1D4 Experience Modifier: +1 Healing Rate: 3
Build: Medium Height: 182 cm Weight: 95 kg
Hit Points
Head 6 Chest 8 Abdomen 7 L. Arm 4 R. Arm 4 L. Leg 6 R. Leg 6
Luck Points: 3
Magic Points: 12
Healing Rate: 3
Movement Rate: 6
Experience Rolls: 1

Standard Skills:
Athletics 52%, Boating 33%, Brawn 52%, Combat Style (Fighter) 62%, Conceal 28%, Customs 70%, Dance 25%, Deceit 34%, Drive 28%, Endurance 50%, Evade 42%, First Aid 36%, Influence 33%, Insight 42%, Language (Common Tongue) 69%, Locale 35%, Perception 39%, Ride 28%, Sing 26%, Stealth 26%, Swim 33%, Unarmed 52%, Willpower 39%

Professional Skills:
Commerce 44%, Craft (Blacksmith) 41%, Lore (Military History) 40%, Lore (Strategy & Tactics) 50%, Streetwise 41%, Survival 47%

Abilities/Talents
Armour Proficiency, Combat Proficiency, Weapon Specialisation (Axe) (+10%/+1 Action Point)

Passions
Moral Philosophy: Good (Helpful, Honest) 58%
Loyalty to Town/City (Blaineford Forum) 57%
Love (Mother) 56%
Hate (gang) 56%

Equipment
Mail shirt & Coif (5 AP Head, Arms, Chest, Abdomen), Laminated Greaves (4 AP), Battleaxe (1d6+1), Dagger (1d4+1), Shortspear (1d8+1)

In the main, Classic Fantasy uses the mechanics of Mythras, but it adds to them in order to emulate its genre. This includes rules for locked and stuck doors, repairing arms and armour, searching rooms and finding secret or concealed doors, securing doors, traps—with several examples, visibility underground, and where to rest and recover. These all emphasise the dungeoneering aspects of the genre and thus Classic Fantasy. Instead of the Strike Rank system of Mythras, initiative is used in Classic Fantasy, but the primary change to the combat mechanics is to offer rules for miniatures combat. In effect, what these do is shift the mechanics of Mythras further away from the simulation of Basic Roleplaying to the wargaming roots of Dungeons & Dragons and thus the hobby.

Where in the roleplaying games that it is emulating have Experience Points, Mythras and thus Classic Fantasy, have Experience Rolls. As per Mythras, these are awarded by the Game Master at certain points in a campaign or at the end of a scenario and can be used by a player to improve any of his character’s skills. (In a traditional Basic Roleplaying game, they are earned skill by skill and only those skills which have earned an Experience Roll can be improved.) Although attaining a new Rank does not cost any Experience Rolls, some Classes do offer higher tier talents which cost more Experience Rolls to purchase. When a skill is improved, it will be increased by no more than five percentiles, which means that character improvement is relatively slow—although a Game Master can reward her players with more Experience Rolls for a faster game—and even slower in terms of rising in Rank. And that is if the player focuses primarily on his character’s five Class prerequisite skills necessary to raise in Rank.   

Mythras offers four types of magic—Folk Magic, Animism, Sorcery, and Thesim. Classic Fantasy offers just the two disciplines—arcane and divine, the first primarily the domain of the Magic-User, the latter primarily the domain of the Cleric. The Arcane Bard can also cast arcane spells, whilst the Druidic Bard, the Druid, the Paladin, and the Ranger can cast divine spells. Where magic and spells in most retroclones are Vancian in nature, essentially memorise, cast, and forget, Classic Fantasy offers a little more flexibility and a few more options. Arcane spellcasters still have to memorise their spells and divine spellcasters still have to pray to their deity, and spells are forgotten once cast, they require Magic Points to be expended and a skill roll to be made for a spell to be successfully cast. In addition, a spellcaster can increase the Intensity of a spell to increase its effect or its Magnitude to make it harder to disbelieve or dispel. Both cost extra Magic Points beyond the basic cost of casting. Many of the arcane and divine spells listed will be recognised as versions of those found in the Old School Renaissance and includes cantrips for the arcane spellcaster.

Similarly, the bestiary and the treasure section are full entries which will very familiar to anyone who has played Dungeons & Dragons or another retroclone. From the Red Dragon and the Kobold to the Bag of Holding and Girdle of Giant Strength, Classic Fantasy covers just about every standard a Game Monster would want to populate her dungeon (world) with and reward her players and their characters with, in turn providing a reinterpretation of each for the Mythras system. There are some new magic items too, like the Broom of Hostility and the Flagon of Curses, as well as guides for the Game Master to develop her own. Rounding out the supplement is a discussion of the cosmology common to retroclones and the deities of Greymoor, the implied setting for Classic Fantasy. This is useful if the Game Master is running a game not set in a specific world. Lastly, there is a set of encounter tables in an appendix.

Physically, Classic Fantasy is a decently presented black and white hardback book which echoes the look of the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons core rulebooks. Numerous artists illustrate the book, some of the artwork being very good, some of it being rather cartoony. Another issue is that the tables—and there are quite a few tables in the book—are not always easy to read as the text is quite small. The only thing that is perhaps missing, is a conversion guide to Classic Fantasy the Old School Rennaisence.

Classic Fantasy: Dungeoneering Adventures, d100 Style! is designed as a reinterpretation of classic Class and Level fantasy roleplaying, reworking it to function using a percentile mechanic with more realistic combat and more nuanced spell casting. Yet given its core mechanics, it is a grittier and deadlier reinterpretation, and with its emphasis on skills and passions, it brings a greater sense of individuality and nuance to each and every character. Overall, Classic Fantasy: Dungeoneering Adventures, d100 Style! is the percentile retroclone with which to take Mythras down a dungeon to fight dragons and steal treasure, as it successfully brings the Basic Roleplaying mechanics to old style gaming.