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

Saturday, 13 February 2016

Roleplaying Magic Items II

If there was an issue with WIELD: Chronicles of the Vatcha, the latest design from John Wick, the designer of Legend of the Five Rings and Houses of the Blooded, it was that the RPG lacked an actual background or setting. WIELD: Chronicles of the Vatcha is a game in which valiant heroes wield great swords, ambitious men command the powers of ancient rings, mighty kings crown themselves with bejewelled coronets to control the fates of others, and potent mages brandish arcane staves to draw upon the forces of magic and manipulate creation itself… Whilst this would appear to be inspired by the One Ring from Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings or the sword Stormbringer in Michael Moorcock’s Elric novels, yet in WIELD, the players do not roleplay these heroes, Frodo Baggins in the case of the One Ring or Elric in the case of Stormbringer, but rather they primarily roleplay the artefacts themselves; and the heroes? Well, they do roleplay the heroes, but heroes who are wielding artefacts played by other players. For despite the power and the ambitions of these powerful artefacts, not a single one can apply its great abilities, for it takes a great ‘hero’—or ‘pawn’ as the Vatcha call them to wield the powers of a Vatcha, for they are but a means to an end to bring about the destinies of the ‘Vatcha’ or ‘wilful weapons’…

Despite not having an actual setting, there is at least an implied genre in WIELDthat of the fantasy genre. This though was not enough and what both it and the lack of a setting meant was that WIELD: Chronicles of the Vatcha at least felt incomplete if it was not ‘actually’ incomplete. This issue is no longer a problem, as part of the successful Kickstarter campaign, John Wick also published the WIELD Companion. This supplement contains not only new fiction, but also a host of new Domains—aspects or elements from which a Vacha draws its powers, such as Air, Insight, and Shadow, as well as eight settings that take Vacha to medieval Japan, a London of Victoriana, way out West, and more. In the process it does Science Fiction, Fantasy, and the Fantastic, encompassing a gamut of genres, in turn giving yet more Domains and the much needed settings that serve to showcase just what WIELD: Chronicles of the Vatcha can do.

Topping and tailing the WIELD Companion is a set of paired pieces of fiction. Aping the Swords & Sorcery genre this is a Conan-esque tales that nicely depicts the insidious influence of the Vatcha and their ambitions. The first mechanical element presented in the WIELD Companion are all of the Domains and their associated Powers from WIELD: Chronicles of the Vatcha. This may seem like a waste of space, but their reprint serves as a handy reference for Fate—as the GM is known in WIELD—and players alike. With this list out of the way, the supplement gets down to the first of the eight settings. This is ‘Dark Chrome’, a Cyberpunk setting in which cyberware have begun to suffer Glitches that are reputedly supposed to cause those it is installed in to go crazy and enough damage to level city blocks. As a result, the five major cyberware companies have formed the Cyberware Conventions to investigate and prevent further incidents. The truth is that these pieces of Glitched cyberware are actually Vatcha that have  become sentient. The Domains are designed around Acquisitions such as Hammer Hand or Double Barrel Laser, Athletics such as Cybernetic Strength, and so on. The other change is that each Wielder begins with all of the dice in any Control Risk, and for each item of Cyberware installed gives up these dice to the Vatcha. Written by Alan Venables, Ro Watts, and Gillian Fraser, this effectively reverses the control relationship between Vatcha and Wielder, but neatly models the effect of cyberware seen in other genre RPGs.

‘Old Japan’ is the second setting, one which will familiar to its author, Ben Woerner, the designer of the RPG, A World of Dew. In the world of Old Japan, the Kami have long helped mankind to survive and prosper, many also bonding permanently with parts of the world around them or manmade items. These are the Yorishiro, known for their spiritual purity and dedication to combating the Oni, the bonding between dark Kami and evil men. Although the Dark Tenno Lord, the First of the Oni, has been imprisoned, Old Japan continues to be plagued by Oni, and as one of the Yorishio, the player characters have sworn to guide mankind and defend him against the Oni. Each Yorishiro consists of a vessel—such as a tea cup, an item of jewellery, a pet, or even a walking castle or hut—and a Kami heritage, like Wind, Insects, Justice, or the Seven Fortunes. The number of Domains a Kami holds sway over depends on its age, one if a Summer Kami, two if an Autumn Kami, and three if a Winter Kami. There are fewer Domains to choose from than in standard WIELD and the geis—or geas—that can be placed upon a player by Fate varies according to the time of day. During the day, as Lady Sun, Fate will demand that a character help another, save a village, or go on a quest, whilst at night, as Lord Moon, Fate will demand that the hero stand aside and let something terrible happen, kill someone, or end the suffering of a great and injured kami beast lord. Where Lord Moon is cold and calculating, Lady Sun is compassionate and impulsive.

What ‘Old Japan’ does not detail is whether not there will ever be the need for a Control Risk between Yorishiro and wielder, but given the benevolent outlook of the Yorishiro, this seems unlikely. ‘Old Japan’ does feel like it moves WIELD away from its player to player confrontation and towards a traditional roleplaying game.

John Wick and Gillian Fraser’s ‘Old Smoke’ presents a setting in which rampant Victoriana crashes into the Victorian Age to make both the fiction and the history a reality… Aleister Crowley is the Wickedest Man in the World, Professor Moriarty the ‘Napoleon of Crime’, Jack the Ripper a fiend hell-bent on performing an ancient blood ritual to make himself into a god, and Mycroft Holmes the greatest detective ever to sit in an armchair. Just as these facts are true, so is the feared existence of conspiracies and secret societies—the Rosicrucians, the Freemasons, the Brotherhood of the Yellow Sign, and more—whose sole aim is the capture and control of the ‘synesthesiactical fineins’, as vatcha are known in the ‘Old Smoke’, and thus the powers they grant. All wielders are part of one of these conspiracies, whilst the domains granted by the vatcha are subtler and more insidious, including Control, Fear, Illusion, Necromancy, Sex, and Shadow amongst others. Membership of certain conspiracies does grant some protection, the Brotherhood of the Yellow Sign against fear for example. ‘Old Smoke’ is a conspiratorial free-for-all that feels as if it is going to develop ultimately into a player versus player contest for dominance, whilst the darker nature of its Domains make it more of an adult game.

‘Princesses of Ellysial’ by Charlotte Bethel and Gillian Fraser is another Japanese setting, but one drawn from the ‘magical girl’ genre of manga or anime. Vatcha are an item of jewellery—a Princess, or a flower—a prince. A female wielder can only use the jewellery, a male wielder only the flower. The Domains—Beauty, Crystal, Friendship, Justice, Love, Mercy, Spirit, and Stardust—are inherently positive and can only be fully used when a wielder has transformed. This transformation is a theme, decided upon before play begins, and can be school uniforms, fantasy armour, sailor suits, and so on. Perhaps the most radical change in comparison to the default player versus player set-up in WIELD, is that in ‘Princesses of Ellysial’ the players are a team—in the setting described the team is combatting the Shadow Witch Uorusa. Like ‘Old Japan’, ‘Princesses of Ellysial’ is a more positive setting and it would be suitable for play with younger players.

Japan is again the inspiration for the fifth setting, ‘Sentient Frames’ by Alan Venable. Here the Vatcha are artificial intelligences that help Frame Pilots compete in Mecha Game matches. Unfortunately, as a Frame Pilot seeks to upgrade his Frame, he becomes increasingly addicted to the AI, forcing him into melancholia, anger, jealousy, and finally stability—the latter where AI has achieved ‘Bliss’ with the Pilot. The Domains in ‘Sentient Frames’ are enhancements to the Frame, such as Ballistic, Bots, Command, Force Fields, Melee, and so on. ‘Sentient Frames’ reverses the standard control structure of WIELD—a Vatcha gaining more control the more powers it grants to the wielder rather than giving it up. ‘Sentient Frames’ benefits from more background information and thus feels more developed than the other settings in the WIELD Companion.

Alan Venable and Gillian Fraser’s ‘The Big Dust’ throws down the Vatcha into the lawless, ruthless lands of the Wild West where they are firearms—derringers, pistols, revolver, and rifles; tools—such as saddles, shovels, stagecoaches, and so on; or trinkets—like hats, deputy badges, pocket watches, or poker chips. The Vatcha notably collect and absorb the Destinies of their wielders and if left unfulfilled will drive future wielders to complete them—even if this involves multiple destinies. They are also only wielded by the incomers to the Wild West—the Natives of the Big Dust will not wield or attack a wielder, although they do know how to destroy the Vatcha. ‘The Big Dust’ includes some excellent Domains, such as Gunslingin’, Preachin’, and Wranglin’, but as strongly thematic as it feels, it is underdeveloped and some advice on handling multiple destinies would not have been amiss.

The last and seventh setting in the WIELD Companion is ‘Whispering Shadows’ by Gillian Fraser in which the vatcha are spirits that have escaped to this side of the mirror to possess members of humanity and turn them into monsters. Whether Blood Spirits, Buried Spirits, Deep Spirits, and so on, their collective aim is to destroy the Guardian of the Sun or ‘the Warden’ who sends creatures to hunt down the vatcha spirits and in destroying them, seeks to restore the peace of the world. In ‘Whispering Shadows’ a vatcha’s Domains are determined by his Spirit type and a vatcha gains more rather than loses control by giving its powers away. Again, this is a darker setting for WIELD with more insidious powers—plus the fact that wielders exude an aura of fear. There is also the aspect that the vatcha are lying to their wielders, claiming that they are protecting humanity against the minions of ‘the Warden’. Yet again, it feels under-developed, there being no discussion of how the vatchas’ enemy can be destroyed and no suggestion as to his minions.

Rounding out the WIELD Companion is Mark Diaz Truman’s ‘Vatcha in Fate’, a guide to using vatcha in Evil Hat Games’ Fate Core. Two means are provided, one described as safe, the other not. The first method again casts the vatcha as the key player characters, each vatcha possessing Domains as well as Aspects tied to its Goal, Connections to the other player character vatcha, and lastly to its means of Destruction. Each vatcha has a single skill, Control, rolled to overcome its current wielder. Some agreement will need to be made to cover how each power from the Domains works in Fate Core as converting them all would require another book. The wielders also need to be created, but they are relatively weak, being mere pawns. Another advantage that the vatcha have over these pawns is that only they get Fate Points, but are restricted to spending them via their current wielder—change wielder and any excess Fate Points earned under the previous wielder are lost. The second method is in some ways more interesting—it adds vatcha to Fate Core as NPCs. The players create characters as they would normally and get to wield the vatcha, but the GM controls and plays each of the vatcha. The danger is that this sets up a potential ‘player versus GM’ situation in a game, but this does not mean that the situation is without potential.

Physically, the WIELD Companion is decently presented. Although there is no index, the list of contents at the front of the book makes up for it, especially when looking for a particular Domain or power. The supplement is very lightly illustrated, but the artwork is decent.

There are some excellent settings in the WIELD Companion and there is no denying that the supplement does solid job of showcasing the potential in the concept and mechanics presented in WIELD: Chronicles of the Vatcha. Unfortunately, some of the seven settings do feel under-developed and could have benefited with more background or more detail. Perhaps if one of these settings had been presented in the core rules, then there might have been space here for the extra material. Nevertheless, the WIELD Companion is worth reading for its development of the WIELD concept and the numerous new Domains that come with the seven settings—and some of the settings are good too.

Friday, 12 February 2016

A Sanguinary Sacrifice

Although there is no scenario in the rulebook for Shadow of the Demon Lord, the first RPG released by Schwalb Entertainment following a successful Kickstarter campaign, one of the excellent decisions upon the part of the designer has been to release support—and release it early—in the form of scenarios for the game. This way a gaming group can get playing quickly, even if they are just using the core rules presented in Victims of the Demon Lord: Starter Guide plus the adventure. In addition, the publisher has also released Tales of the Demon Lord, a complete mini-campaign that takes a party of characters from Zero Level up to Eleventh Level. In the meantime, the seventh adventure to be released is The Apple of Her Eye.

The Apple of Her Eye is written by Steve Kenson, best known as the designer of Mutants & Mastermind and co-designer of Blue Rose, both RPGs being published by Green Ronin Publishing. It marks a shift in the scenarios for Shadow of the Demon Lord in that, it is written for Novice characters, that is, characters of First and Second Level who have selected their first or Novice Path—Magician, Priest, Rogue, or Warrior. As it opens, the player characters are on the road approaching the village of Avelton whose prosperity is based upon its thriving apple orchard and the cider it ferments from its annual crop. They hear a cry of help from this orchard and when they go to investigate they discover a young boy tied up. The mystery at the heart of The Apple of Her Eye is this—who tied the child up and why?

The Apple of Her Eye is primarily an investigative scenario in which the player characters attempt to get answers out of the recalcitrant Avelton villagers. There are lots of NPCs here for the Game Master to portray—and if he is so inclined play up his best (worst) Mummerset accent, since this does place next to an apple orchard and does involve cider—before the village’s secret is revealed and confronted. To be utterly clear though, this secret is a raging cliché and will be familiar to anyone who has read or watched a story about the strange fertility rites of them there country folk. Yet the fact that the plot to The Apple of Her Eye is a cliché does not matter because it is well written and because it showcases how ordinary folk are forced to survive in world that lies under the ‘shadow’ of the Demon Lord and the choices they are forced to make.

Physically, The Apple of Her Eye is a seven page, 8.75 MB PDF. Bar the front page, all of this is text. The scenario itself is well written with plenty of detail. Given that it begins with the player characters on the road, this scenario is easy to run after the events of Survival of the Fittest or The Slaver’s Lash—if not both. The Apple of Her Eye can be played in a session or two and does a fine job of turning a cliché into a horridly bucolic scenario.

Fanzine Focus: The Undercroft #1

On the tail of Old School Renaissance has come another movement—the rise of the fanzine. Although the fanzine—a nonprofessional and nonofficial publication produced by fans of a particular cultural phenomenon, got its start in Science Fiction fandom, in the gaming hobby it first started with Chess and Diplomacy fanzines before finding fertile ground in the roleplaying hobby in the 1970s. Here these amateurish publications allowed the hobby a public space for two things. First, they were somewhere that the hobby could voice opinions and ideas that lay outside those of a game’s publisher. Second, in the Golden Age of roleplaying when the Dungeon Masters were expected to create their own settings and adventures, they also provided a rough and ready source of support for the game of your choice. Many also served as vehicles for the fanzine editor’s house campaign and thus they showed another DM and group played said game. This would often change over time if a fanzine accepted submissions. Initially, fanzines were primarily dedicated to the big three RPGs of the 1970s—Dungeons & Dragons, RuneQuest, and Traveller—but fanzines have appeared dedicated to other RPGs since, some of which helped keep a game popular in the face of no official support.

Since 2008 with the publication of Fight On #1, the Old School Renaissance has had its own fanzines. The advantage of the Old School Renaissance is that the various Retroclones draw from the same source and thus one Dungeons & Dragons-style RPG is compatible with another. This means that the contents of one fanzine will compatible with the Retroclone that you already run and play even if not specifically written for it. Labyrinth Lord and Lamentations of the Flame Princess Weird Fantasy Roleplay have proved to be popular choices to base fanzines around, such as The Undercroft and Vacant Ritual Assembly.

Published in the July 2014 by the Melsonian Arts Council—the publisher of the recently released Something Stinks in StiltonThe Undercroft #1 is the first issue of an English fanzine devoted to Lamentations of the Flame Princess Weird Fantasy Roleplay and the campaign of the author, Daniel Sell. From the off, it looks like a fanzine in the English tradition, reminiscent of the 1980s. It has red card cover which makes it a little sturdier, whilst the layout inside is kept very simple and unfussy. It does use public domain artwork, but the selection is decent and gives the whole affair a baroque feel. The content is equally as baroque.

The Undercroft #1 sets out to provide material that will unsettle the players and their characters and make the lives of the player characters just that little more uncomfortable. It does so really in just four articles—well three actually, since the fourth is really part of the third. The first of the these is not by Daniel Sell, but by Alex Clements. In ‘Rewriting the Cure Disease Spell’, he redesigns diseases to more reflect their real world effect rather than the poison-like cure or die effect that Dungeons & Dragons and other Retroclones possess. Instead Clements’ take on the disease is that they have a chronic, longer lasting more debilitating effect, wherein a suffering player character can continue being played—albeit at less than optimum capability—rather simply dying. Further, the Cure Disease spell is no longer a ‘fire and forget’ affair, but each disease has its own Disease Hit Points, each point of these Disease Hit Points requiring an application of the Cure Disease spell. For example, Syphilis has ten Disease Hit Points whereas the Plague has just the one. In the case of the former, this feels like an awfully big number of castings of the Cure Disease spell. Perhaps I might have opted for each casting curing a random number of Disease Hit Points rather than just the one—1d4, 1d6? In addition to the aforementioned Syphilis and the Plague, the article adds a number of fantasy diseases, such as Godrickson’s Corruption, an alchemist’s blackmail device which liquefies its sufferers, and Death Eye Worm, a parasitic infection from caves that fill its sufferer's eyes and makes him see everyone as rotten corpses!

Daniel Sell’s ‘The Wager of Battle’ hints at so much and would make for interesting addition to any urban-based campaign. It describes how legal disputes are settled in Yongardy—presumably the location of the author’s campaign—between the lawyers and solicitors of that city. Matters are often settled by personal combat between the lawyers and each type of law and lawyer has adopted a certain style of dress and combat. For example, guild lawyers or barristers wear the latest styles in puffy jackets and pantaloons with the finest blades decorated with beautiful hilts, whilst practitioners of Common Law are not dandies, but are rougher characters who wield heavy duelling knives. When they duel, each duellist both grasp a heavy knotted rope and the first one to let go loses. Six type of lawyers are given, but what is not is culture of the law in Yongardy and this means that the colour of these lawyers and their duelling codes feels divorced from its setting, giving ‘The Wager of Battle’ an undeveloped feel. The article itself is rounded out with a lengthy table that enables the Referee to roll up an NPC lawyer should a player character need one.

The third article is ‘Barrow of the Old King’ is a thirty or so location dungeon that can be dropped into most campaigns. It consists of an old king’s tomb and a cave complex beneath it, the latter infested by corpse-eating scavengers called Corpse lions. The tomb is believed to be the location of a particular item—the item being determined according to the needs of the campaign—and the player characters are tasked to retrieve it. The dungeon is quite light on encounters as such, but several locations are marked with just an asterisk, the Referee being expected to populate these with entries from the scenario’s Random Encounter Table. Some of these are quite nasty, so the Referee may want to be a little more judicious in his choices from said table. The dungeon is stated as being suitable for characters of all Levels, but it is probably slightly too tough an adventure for First Level characters. ‘Barrow of the Old King’ is in general, a solid adventure, but the descriptions of the various rooms and particularly their contents do much to give it an ancient Britannic feel.

The last article describes a monster, the ‘Corpse Lion’, a large insect that feasts upon corpses, desecrating tombs and graveyards, before raiding the surrounding area for the living to hang until they are nicely ripe. Although separate, it really is a corollary to  ‘Barrow of the Old King’ as that is where the monster appears.

The Undercroft #1 is a well presented little fanzine. It needs a slight edit, but the writing is clear, barring the lack of development in ‘The Wager of Battle’. Whilst the hand drawn cartography of the ‘Barrow of the Old King’ is really rather charming, it would have been nice if the maps—both of which are placed inside the front and back covers in true Old School Style—had been labelled.

In The Undercroft #1 there are hints of an interesting society or setting, although none of its three or four articles are connected. This is mostly evident in the slightly disappointing ‘The Wager of Battle’ and that article is probably the most difficult to bring to a campaign as more context might have made it easier to adapt or adopt. The other two articles are easier to use  as they do not need the context. Hopefully future issues of The Undercroft will present more of Yongardy, but otherwise, The Undercroft #1 is a pleasing initial issue.

Monday, 8 February 2016

For Cultured Friends IV

The release of the fourth issue of The Excellent Travelling Volume marks a small, though no less pleasing achievement—four issues of the fanzine dedicated to TSR Inc.’s Empire of the Petal Throne: The World of Tékumel published in a year! Self-published by James Maliszewski, the release also marks the first anniversary of the author’s return to the gaming hobby after time away, having previously made a name for himself as a leading figure in the ‘Old School Renaissance’ via his his blog, Grognardia. Previous issues of the fanzine—one, two, and three—have sold out and the likelihood is that this issue will also sell out. Although the fanzine is firmly aimed at ‘Petalheads’, devotees of Tékumel: Empire of the Petal Throne, the linguistic and RPG setting devised by the late Professor M.A.R. Barker, it is not aimed at the deep cultural aspects that the setting and thus the RPG is rightly renowned for. Rather, it sets out to provide material that has been played and can be played. 

As with previous issues, The Excellent Travelling Volume #4 comes as a twenty-eight page, digest-sized booklet, illustrated with greyscale pictures. Inside are just five sections. Unlike the previous issues, only one of these five articles is specifically focussed on a single location—Sokátis, the City of Roofs, the Tsolyáni city close to Salarvyá and Pecháno in the far east of Tsolyánu that is the setting for James Maliszewski’s home campaign. Two of the articles though do focus on the north and the east of Tsolyánu, the Empire of the Petal Throne and thus would influence campaigns set in and around Sokátis. The others are more general in terms of their nature and geography.

The issue opens with more background options for both player characters and NPCs. ‘Yán Koryáni and Sa’á Allaqiyáni Characters’ provides background information for creating both player characters and NPCs from the northern nations of Yán Kór and Sa’á Allaqí. It gives level titles for all three classes, male and female names, the differences in religion from Tsolyánu, and the major clans for both nations. This is useful information for any campaign. It is pertinent to Maliszewski’s own campaign since that is set in the northeast of Tsolyánu in the 2350s and also before the Tsolyáni invasions of Yán Kór and the events of the civil war that would beset Tsolyánu during the 2360s, essentially the canonical period for very many Tékumel-based campaigns. Now of course not all of this is exactly canon, but there is much that there is, and what is not actually feels right in the setting.

This is followed by another entry in the Patrons series of articles. These have often been the highlight of previous issues of The Excellent Travelling Volume and the collection of patrons here is no exception. Again done in the style of Patron Encounters for the author’s beloved Traveller RPG, three of these five have the player characters running around after a Macguffin for one temple or another, whilst the others have them performing an extraction from another temple and going animal hunting. Again these are good mix, and in the case of the latter, could be run again using one of the given options. The third section, ‘A Portion of the Underworld of Sokátis’ continues the description of the other half of the ‘Tsuru’úm’ or underworld that lies beneath the city’s Foreigners’ Quarter first described in issue #2. Detailed enough, the description of the map given is not complete—that will have to wait for another issue—and hopefully the next issue will not only complete the description, it will also provide some hooks and details to get the player characters involved. Unfortunately, this has been an issue with previous entries in the description of ‘A Portion of the Underworld of Sokátis’.

The fourth and shortest section in The Excellent Traveling Volume #4 is ‘The Shape-shifters – the Mihálli’. It describes the near mythical and ancient shape-shifting alien sorcerers said to exist on more than one plane at once, but mostly seen to the north of Tsolyánu on Tékumel. Although a decent enough description, an adventure hook or two would have been a nice addition given how alien these creatures and their motives are.

In The Prismatic Fortress, the inhabitants of Ruthálu have become aware of a glinting structure high up in the surrounding mountains, but when a group is sent to investigate, its members do not return. So the elders of Ruthálu ask outsiders—that is, the player characters—to go up the mountain and investigate. What is going is that the insectoid Hlüss have restored an old fortress and established as it as a forward base for future operations. This is a reasonable little dungeon, but not much more, lacking the potential depth of ‘The Hidden Shrine’ from The Excellent Travelling Volume #1. The GM may also want to play up the ‘Alien’-like potential in this scenario, although as written it is lacking in flavour and detail.

Rounding out The Excellent Travelling Volume #4 is ‘Tomes of Power’, which builds upon the library given in Empire of the Petal Throne: The World of Tékumel. The article notably includes the infamous compendium of demonology, ‘Kranuóntio Mishatlnéa Üroshjanál’ or ‘The Book of Ebon Bindings’, itself also a supplement for the game. This is a pleasing collection items that will peak the interest of any player-character magic-user or priest, let alone other NPCs. That of course, means that these books can be used by the GM as the basis of adventures of his own.

Physically, The Excellent Travelling Volume #4 is solidly presented. Both its artwork and its cartography continue to be excellent. That said, the issue could have done with another proofing pass if not another pair of eyes.

The Excellent Travelling Volume #4 contains another set of decently done articles for Empire of the Petal Throne: The World of Tékumel. One or two of them could have benefited from some sample application, but this does not mean that they do not add to the setting. Although perhaps a little rushed in places, The Excellent Travelling Volume #4 continues James Maliszewski’s love affair with Empire of the Petal Throne: The World of Tékumel.

Saturday, 6 February 2016

Fanzine Focus: Vacant Ritual Assembly #1

On the tail of Old School Renaissance has come another movement—the rise of the fanzine. Although the fanzine—a nonprofessional and nonofficial publication produced by fans of a particular cultural phenomenon, got its start in Science Fiction fandom, in the gaming hobby it first started with Chess and Diplomacy fanzines before finding fertile ground in the roleplaying hobby in the 1970s. Here these amateurish publications allowed the hobby a public space for two things. First, they were somewhere that the hobby could voice opinions and ideas that lay outside those of a game’s publisher. Second, in the Golden Age of roleplaying when the Dungeon Masters were expected to create their own settings and adventures, they also provided a rough and ready source of support for the game of your choice. Many also served as vehicles for the fanzine editor’s house campaign and thus they showed another DM and group played said game. This would often change over time if a fanzine accepted submissions. Initially, fanzines were primarily dedicated to the big three RPGs of the 1970s—Dungeons & Dragons, RuneQuest, and Traveller—but fanzines have appeared dedicated to other RPGs since, some of which helped keep a game popular in the face of no official support.

Since 2008 with the publication of Fight On #1, the Old School Renaissance has had its own fanzines. The advantage of the Old School Renaissance is that the various Retroclones draw from the same source and thus one Dungeons & Dragons-style RPG is compatible with another. This means that the contents of one fanzine will compatible with the Retroclone that you already run and play even if not specifically written for it. Labyrinth Lord and Lamentations of the Flame Princess Weird Fantasy Roleplay have proved to be popular choices to base fanzines around, such as The Undercroft and Vacant Ritual Assembly.

Published in the winter of 2014 by Red Moon Medicine, Vacant Ritual Assembly #1  is the first issue of ‘An OSR Zine’ devoted to Lamentations of the Flame Princess Weird Fantasy Roleplay and the campaign of the author, Clint Krause. If there is a focus for this inaugural issue, it is upon certain aspects of magic that do not feature in Lamentations of the Flame Princess Weird Fantasy Roleplay. The first is the acquisition of magic items, in the author’s campaign available at the Ghoul Market, a roving underground collection of traders who source magic items from high and low—mostly low. Items such as Wind Whales (2000sp) and the Ostritch-like Ergoraptor mounts (1000sp) add an expensive if outré element to a game, whilst Fairy Amber (3000sp per piece) can be bought and embedded in arms and armour to gain a bonus, though if too many are used there is the chance that the bonus will be lost.

Also seen at the Ghoul Market, is the Skinsmith as detailed in ‘Meat the Skinsmith’. This demonic and corpulent being provides surgeries—replacement limbs and even resurrection of the dead, though this comes at a terrible price, the possibility that the resurrected returns to life with the head of a bull, a demonic face in each palm that whispers ill to the resurrected, or even with his non-vital organs replaced with internal ‘pockets’ for the easy storage of small items. A regular customer at the Ghoul Market is detailed in ‘Vespero the Antiquarian’, a fixer who arranges for the finding and obtaining of objects and artefacts, perhaps employing adventurers such as the player characters to do so. He will have magic items for sale too, a different inventory each time he opens up shop. Both of these NPCs would make sold additions to a more fantastic style of campaign Lamentations of the Flame Princess Weird Fantasy Roleplay as they both retain the dark horror elements intrinsic to the RPG.

‘Luminari, Lady of the Golden Lamp’ provides a respite from the horror.  It details a possible roleplaying encounter deep in the forest with the goddess of fireflies and is easily dropped into most campaigns. Perhaps the highlight of Vacant Ritual Assembly #1 is ‘Brahnwick is Dead’. This scenario starts with the player characters being hired by Vespero the Antiquarian to recover a signet ring from the late Lord Brahnwick as part of a succession dispute. To do this they must visit the Brahnwick family seat of Sylvan Lake, a village that has been partially drowned following the collapse of an ancient dam and infested with escaped patients from an asylum, the House of Mercy. The scenario sees the player characters boating across the submerged valley, going from one building to the next, and diving down to the lower floors whilst dealing with the escaped and insane inmates and scavengers. The scenario has a pleasing feel to it because it is a relatively mundane affair barring the upside down environment. Now there are ‘weird’ elements to the scenario, but they are kept to a minimum and the scenario is all the better for being underplayed. This also makes the scenario easy to drop into another setting, even the Early Modern period setting seen in official scenarios from Lamentations of the Flame Princess Weird Fantasy Roleplay.

Rounding out the first issue is an interview with Chris McDowall, the author of Into the Odd, the post-industrial age dungeon exploration RPG. This is rather a decent advert for the game and it got me interested in reviewing the game. It is followed by a map of ‘Greycandle Manor’, an abandoned priory turned manor house now awaiting the GM to populate it, accord it a plot or two, and drop it into his game.

Fanzines can of course vary greatly in quality since they are not produced by professionals, but to a certain extent, there is no excuse for poor layout as desk top publishing has been available for decades. Fortunately, Vacant Ritual Assembly #1 s reasonably laid out and on the whole is rather serviceable. The writing is clear and the author pleasingly takes the time to describe how each of the pieces in the issue played out in his campaign.

As the first issue—of which there are five to date—Vacant Ritual Assembly #1 is a solid affair. It contains elements that are all connected. Both Meat the Skinsmith and Vespero the Antiquarian to the Ghoul Market, and Vespero the Antiquarian to ‘Brahnwick is Dead’, but at the same each is easy to separate from these connections to be used on their own. Good support for both Lamentations of the Flame Princess Weird Fantasy Roleplay and for darker Old School Renaissance campaigns from the off—let us hope that the next issues will be as good.

Friday, 5 February 2016

Fanzine Focus: Skullfuck #1

On the tail of Old School Renaissance has come another movement—the rise of the fanzine. Although the fanzine—a nonprofessional and nonofficial publication produced by fans of a particular cultural phenomenon, got its start in Science Fiction fandom, in the gaming hobby it first started with Chess and Diplomacy fanzines before finding fertile ground in the roleplaying hobby in the 1970s. Here these amateurish publications allowed the hobby a public space for two things. First, they were somewhere that the hobby could voice opinions and ideas that lay outside those of a game’s publisher. Second, in the Golden Age of roleplaying when the Dungeon Masters were expected to create their own settings and adventures, they also provided a rough and ready source of support for the game of your choice. Many also served as vehicles for the fanzine editor’s house campaign and thus they showed another DM and group played said game. This would often change over time if a fanzine accepted submissions. Initially, fanzines were primarily dedicated to the big three RPGs of the 1970s—Dungeons & Dragons, RuneQuest, and Traveller—but fanzines have appeared dedicated to other RPGs since, some of which helped keep a game popular in the face of no official support.

Since 2008 with the publication of Fight On #1, the Old School Renaissance has had its own fanzines. The advantage of the Old School Renaissance is that the various Retroclones draw from the same source and thus one Dungeons & Dragons-style RPG is compatible with another. This means that the contents of one fanzine will compatible with the Retroclone that you run and play even if not specifically written for it. Labyrinth Lord and Lamentations of the Flame Princess Weird Fantasy Roleplay have proved to be popular choices to base fanzines around, such as The Undercroft and Vacant Ritual Assembly. The latest fanzine to join Old School Renaissance is Skullfuck.

Published on the Blood Moon of October 2015 by Necropants'd Publishing, Skullfuck #1 is an eight-page sampler for what it describes as a ‘Dungeon Slime ‘Zine’. In tone and style, Skullfuck #1, as its title suggests all about being in your face. There is a metal/punk attitude to the issue, one that apes that of the 1970s, so in places—indeed multiple places—it is rude and crude, so it feels more like the author is writing a punk rock ‘zine than an RPG one. This is carried over into the content, so in a very great many cases, the content of Skullfuck #1 is unlikely to translate into the average campaign with any ease.

The content opens with ‘Black Würm Deathcrawl’ in which the adventurers have been captured by the Mad mage Oakez and miniaturised before being sent on a medicinal procedure up his colon into order to excise it of the Black Wurms that infest it. This mini-scenario echoes ‘Round the Bend’, the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Team Competition Module from Games Fair ‘84 that appeared in Imagine #15, but ‘Black Würm Deathcrawl’ is a thin affair with none of the invesntion of  ‘Round the Bend’. It is does indeed live up—or is that down?—to its own description of being a “shitty solo scenario”.

It is followed by ‘The Marshmallowy Tomb of the Yummy Mummy’. In this the characters are sent into the dark basement of your house to fix the fuse box. Unfortunately, the basement is populated by the leftovers of your childhood thirty years ago—a ‘pissed off Barbie doll’, the ghosts of breakfast cereal mascots past, GMO-fortified Frankenroaches, and Uncle Nuncie who has been hiding down there from the Mob for a decade. It is too silly to be a satire and too modern to be used other than as a one-shot Halloween style, roll up new characters and watch die affair. It does promise to be a “Guaranteed Sweet Ass TPK”* and is okay I suppose. 

*TPK—Total Party Kill.

Perhaps the most practical piece in Skullfuck #1 is the interview with the author and designer Rafael Chandler. This primarily discusses his Dracula: The Modern Prometheus and his love of Lamentations of the Flame Princess Weird Fantasy Roleplay and is the only piece in the issue to be typeset. It is perhaps the most readable section of this first issue. Rounding out Skullfuck #1 is ‘Flesh Hook Death Trap’, which is not actually a trap as such since it is a character has to be physically put into it and stretched akimbo before he is affected by it. The effect of the mechanism is triggered when others step onto the checkered roundel surrounding the victim. It could be used, but it would take some effort...

The majority of the eight pages of Skullfuck #1 have a hand drawn, counter-culture punk style that echoes the punk publications of the 1970s. This when combined with the push to use as much of the page as possible, gives it a cramped often difficult to read look.

When it comes to summing up a review, you have to ask how good a product is and how useful it is. Answering both questions with regard to Skullfuck #1 is difficult. On an entirely practical level, Skullfuck #1 is neither useful nor is it good. There is little, if anything here, that could be brought to the average fantasy game. It is too weird, too wacky, and too in your face for that. Now this is not to deny the effort and the artistry that the author has put into this first issue, and perhaps if he can combine this with content that others will want to use, then there is promise in Skullfuck. At the moment though, all Skullfuck #1 is doing is poking its tongue out and nothing more.

Saturday, 30 January 2016

Coming Together

Reunion is the first scenario for River of Heaven: Science-Fiction Roleplaying in the 28th Century, the near Transhuman Space Opera RPG published by D101 Games. Designed for four to six players, it is an introductory adventure that can be used as a one-off scenario, a convention scenario, or as the starting point for a campaign. They take the roles of crewmembers serving aboard the interstellar stepship, the Cape Verde, a vessel owned by House Harper-Yung, one of the ruling families on Jericho. Of course like any stepship, all interstellar piloting and navigation functions are carried out by a Pilot’s Guild provided Stepdaughter, who is literally plugged into the ship.

As Reunion opens, the crewmembers are waking up from Vitrification, the means of cryopreserving both passengers and crew for the long, typically years’ long, voyages between star systems. This is typically an unpleasant experience, those put under usually suffering from nausea, disorientation, and even temporary sleep sickness. Fortunately, the crew are trained to overcome these symptoms and quickly realise that something is amiss… First, the medical team that would usually be on hand to help revive them is not present. Second, they are in zero-g—which means that the ship is not accelerating. So where is the medical team and what has happened to the rest of the crew? Further, what is going on with the Cape Verde?

The truth of the matter is that the Cape Verde has been attacked and boarded. To say more would be to spoil the scenario, but the player character crew members need to find out by whom and why as well as what has happened to the rest of the crew. In doing so, they not only get to explore their stepship from nose to tail, they may also discover a deep, dark secret at the heart of River of Heaven. The player characters are free to pursue the plot in Reunion however they like, though much of the plot will proceed unless they intervene. There will certainly be locations aboard the Cape Verde that the player characters will want to visit—the bridge being an obvious example—and the scenario does include certain encounters to that end. For the most part, the scenario and its plot are location based, but this will diminish as the actions of the player character crew members impinge upon the plot. 

To support this set-up and plot, Reunion includes descriptions of, and deckplans for, the Cape Verde, plus the vessels used by the scenario’s adversaries. Also given are the stats and write-ups for the NPCs, both the crew members of the Cape Verde and of the adversary vessels. Last of all are the character sheets for the six pre-generated player characters.

Physically, Reunion is slightly underwhelming as the deckplans for the various spaceships and starships feel just a little too basic. The deckplans do break the book’s text as otherwise there are no illustrations. In places, Reunion could also do with another edit.

Reunion is a scenario in which the player characters really do need to be proactive in pursuing the mystery at its heart. If they prevaricate, there is every chance that they will find themselves adrift and potentially be unable to get back to civilisation. This is not so much of an issue in a one-shot or convention scenario, but in one intended as the start of a campaign…? Other than this, Reunion is a solidly done scenario with potential for some good action and revelations at the heart of the setting for River of Heaven.