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

Saturday, 11 June 2011

Nazi Hunting. Back for tea!

You can count the number of RPGs from Scandinavia that have made it into the wider, English speaking market on one hand. There are many that have never been translated, and there are some that have been published in English, but have not yet been distributed outside of their home countries. An example of the latter is Operation: Fallen Reich, an RPG from Swedish publisher, Fallen Publishing. Subtitled “CAN EVIL BE STOPPED IN TIME FOR TEA?”, it is set in the shadow of World War II, with small teams of stalwart, if not entirely effective, British men and women challenging the evil behind the Nazis. It presents a very light and slightly pulpy fast playing rule set – with the harshest healing rules you can imagine, a nastier than nasty set of villains, and quite the most cleverly imaginative, yet clunky, means of character creation you can also think of.

Voted the Best Swedish RPG of 2009 by readers of Fenix Games Gazette, Operation: Fallen Reich comes in two parts, one of which is optional, but which you are probably going to want to get anyway. The first is the main rulebook, an attractive cloth bound hardback that inside evokes a pleasingly period style, echoing the publications of His Majesty’s Stationary Office of the time. The second is the Life Board, an almost board game-like device that is used to create characters. Character creation can be carried out without the Life Board, but the results are somewhat bland in comparison with what using the Life Board can inspire. The Life Board and how it works will be detailed below with the example character, so I will instead look at the main rulebook. It should be made clear that whilst the book is not unreadable, it shows in the details that English is not the authors’ first language. That said, I can only wish that I wrote Swedish as well as they do English. The other issue with the rule book is a linear style of order and writing that often means that elements and rules sometimes lack an initial clarity, but patience rewards the reader as the game turns out to be fairly simple and straightforward. One entertaining element is the book’s lavish use of examples that not only serve to show how Operation: Fallen Reich works, but also to deliver an entertaining story of British bumbling derring-do along the way.

The most notable aspect to the mechanics of Operation: Fallen Reich is that characters are not defined by the traditional attributes, skills, and abilities, but purely by skills alone. The skills listed do include what would traditionally be regarded as attributes and other factors – Strength, Endurance, Toughness, and so on. They can be increased just as with any other skill in the game, both during character creation and during play. Skills are rated between one and twenty, but it is possible for skills to be negative numbers – such as Reginald Uckley’s skill of Arson/Fire Fighting -8 below . The mechanics themselves are based around the twenty-sided die, the means of resolution being to roll and add a skill to the result to beat a set difficulty. An easy difficulty would be ten, a hard fifteen, very hard twenty, and an extremely hard twenty-five. A very easy difficulty would be five. A roll of one always fails and the skill checks to be made again. If this fails, the result becomes a critical failure or an “Oh Dear” result. Similarly, a roll of twenty always succeeds and gains the skill check another roll that is added to the current result. For every score of ten above the difficulty, a player gets a critical success or a “Jolly Good” result.

Combat is fast and deadly, with any damage inflicted greater than a character’s Pain Threshold forcing a Toughness check that if failed will leave the character stunned. Gun combat is designed to take account that it is not taking place on the firing range and that other people might be shooting back. Thus it is difficult. It is supported by a small selection of firearms, essentially the signature weapons of the period for the British and the Germans alike. Each weapon is nicely drawn with most supported with a little mechanical effect, such as the Mauser C96’s high recoil that might prevent a user from firing for a turn. Healing takes time though – if resting, blunt damage can be recovered at a rate of one point every fifteen minutes, whilst sharp damage – which includes bullets – is recovered at a rate of one point per twelve hours, and only if under medical care.

The rules in Operation: Fallen Reich are not comprehensive, for example, there are no chase rules. Yet the mechanics are simple enough that a GM should be able handle most situations. This does also mean that Operation: Fallen Reich is not really designed for use by novice GMs.

Character generation in Operation: Fallen Reich is either very simple or very complex. Or both. Or rather, it is simple, but involves lots of dice rolls, cards, a board, and a bit of time. It is best done through the use of the Life Board which is sold separately from the main rulebook as a boxed set that includes a large foldout board done in heavy card, one hundred Start Cards, two hundred Destiny cards, five character sheets, three six-sided Operation: Fallen Reich dice, and a Quick Rules Sheet that summarises the character creation process.

The first step involves drawing four Start Cards. Each has two sets of information, both of which provides information and Experience Points for the character. The top part gives personality traits, while the lower a starting career. A player selects one of the careers given on his four Start Cards and takes the personality traits from the other three to describe his character. So for example, the four Start Cards I drew for Reginald Uckley were Francophile-Cricket Player, Warmonger-Archaeologist, Reckless-Photographer, and Emotional-Prospector/Exploiter, and of these, I selected Cricketer as his occupation and his personality traits as being Reckless, Emotional, and Warmonger. This gives him the following number of Experience Points to be spent on the associated skills:

PHYSICAL SKILLS: Agility +3, Endurance +3, Speed +5, Strength +3
PERCEPTIVE SKILLS: Searching -3, Sixth Sense +3, Tactics +3
INTERACTIVE SKILLS: Charm +8, Etiquette +3
TEXT BASED SKILLS: Reading/Writing +3
LOGICAL SKILLS: Mathematics +3
MENTAL SKILLS: Courage +3, Reaction +1
AIMING SKILLS: Pistols +3, Rifles +3, Throwing +10

A character’s starting career will also determine his starting point on the Life Board. For example, Reginald starts on the square, “Sports as a Lifestyle.” From there, a character will roll a six-sided die and move around the board which consists of a series of sections connected by paths that provide further careers, events, and places, for example, Artist & Struggling, North America for a Visit, or Asylum or Insane by Yourself. Each space on the board is marked and usually provides one more Experience Point in a specific skill. Every time a player rolls a six on the die, he still moves, but he also draws a Destiny Card and applies its effects to his character. Like the Start Cards, each Destiny Card has two sets of information, one a more mundane set for when the character lands on a green square with the roll of a six, and a more exciting and dramatic set for when he lands on a red square – red squares usually provide more Experience Points and can even send a character to another part of the Life Board or change his Personality Traits. An example Destiny Card might give “Marriage as a Career Move” (Rank +3, Aura -1) in green text and “Being on Horseback” (Riding +3) in red. A player continues moving around the Life Board, gaining Experience Points and taking inspiration from results on the board and from his Destiny Cards for his character’s origins and history until he has drawn a total of sixteen Destiny Cards. The player then totals up the Experience Points for each skill gained and spends them on that skill, with any points left over put towards increasing that skill during play. These are marked in parentheses after the skill.

Over all, the process takes about an hour and the results are varied and interesting, if not occasionally, a little quirky. On the downside, finding some of the Starting Squares requires a lengthy hunt, and because the game’s combat rules are resolute and healing takes time, it is recommended that a player create a total of three characters. Which when you consider that this is three characters per player and that using the Life Board takes an hour… It is also by its very nature quite mechanical a process, but an engaging one at that. When telling another player about the Life Board, a friend wondered why it could not have been done as a book instead? Well, it could, but it would have been an all but impossible task. In the meantime, the Life Board is a terrific tool, one that could easily be used to create the background and skill biases of any character in any game between the Victorian and the Inter-War periods.

Anyway, back to our example. Although Reginald Uckley started out as a cricketer, a car accident in which he got badly burned meant that he had to give the sport up and he drifted into crime and con tricks before making a dash for the continent where he got mixed up in smuggling and revolutionary politics. Thinking of King and Country he returned and tried to join the intelligence services, but was turned down. While the powers that be slammed the door in his face, it was suggested that a man like himself might do well for himself and for his country in the Far East. For the past few years, Reggie has been in Shanghai, where he has fought bandits, gained a respect for the locals and their mysticism, got married, divorced, married again, came into an inheritance, and dabbled in politics. He has two children, which has strongly changed his outlook on life, which explains his different Personality Traits.

Reginald Uckley
Age: 36
Starting Career: Cricketer
Current Occupation: Dilettante
Personality Traits: Playful, Tea Drinker Emotional Problems: Pyrophobia
Rank: +4 Fame: 0 Wealth: 8 (£10,000, £22 to hand)
Running Speed: 20 Defence: 16 Pain Limit: 15 Maximum Damage: 75
PHYSICAL SKILLS: Agility 12 (1), Climbing 2, Endurance 12, Speed 10 (1), Stealth 2, Strength 10, Swimming 5
PERCEPTIVE SKILLS: Arson/Fire Fighting -8, Orientation 6, Searching 1, Shadowing 2, Sixth Sense 3, Tactics 3, Tracking 4
LANGUAGE & CULTURAL SKILLS: German 2, Mandarin 5
INTERACTIVE SKILLS: Acting Disguise 2, Animal Training 2, Attractiveness 4, Charm 13 (1), Etiquette 8, Instruct 2, Interrogation 5, Judge of Characters 6, Scare 2
TEXT BASED SKILLS: Archaeology 1, Art 4, Botany 1, Evaluate 2, Geography 1, History 1, Info Searching 1, Law 1, Myths 2, Politics 8, Reading/Writing 4, Religion 1, Zoology 1
LOGICAL SKILLS: Administration 1, Gambling 1, Economics 1, Mathematics 3
VEHICLE SKILLS: Boats 1, Riding 2, Skiing 3
MENTAL SKILLS: Aura 8, Courage 10, Reaction 10, Toughness 11
MELEE SKILLS: Blades 9, Boxing 3, Clubs 11 (1), Dodge 6, Wrestling 3
AIMING SKILLS: Pistols 4, Rifles 7, Throwing 11

As mentioned at the start of the review, the raison d'être behind Operation: Fallen Reich is fighting the evil behind the Nazis. This is evil is hellishly evil in nature, but not devilishly so in the Judeo-Christian sense, which could have been offensive to the religious sensibilities of some. It has plagued mankind for millennia, leading to the rise of both the Roman and Mongol Empires, and of late, the deaths of millions in the Great War enabled their return and growing influence in Germany. For part, these creatures, known as the Fallen, hide behind a human face and work to further the ends of the Nazi Party. They tend to work in subtle and subversive ways, but once their true nature is revealed, they can be very tough to stop.

In addition to being tough and difficult to stop, many Fallen have access to various rituals. For example, one type can bind soldiers to its will, a process that is made easier if the soldiers are marked with a blood group tattoo, which in part explains the fanaticism of the SS. Player characters can also have access to certain Rituals, which include Christian, Spiritualist, and Witchcraft Rituals as well as Dark Rituals, and also Gifts that include Clairvoyance, Remote Viewing, Mind Reading, Animal Whisperer, Fire Starter, and Medium. Access to both Rituals and Gifts is intended to be rare with player characters not expected to possess too deep an understanding of what exactly each can do. Neither Rituals nor Gifts are all that detailed, but this is in keeping with the style of the game, except for the Fallen, which are the most detailed aspect of the game.

Rounding out Operation: Fallen Reich is the scenario, “The Oldest Killer.” It is a short, perhaps two session action orientated affair set in an English village. Designed to introduce the player characters to the strangeness of the setting, it begins with the characters meeting at a pub and ends in a weird old people’s home. It is a decent little adventure, but it suffers from some dreadful puns and some of setting details are not quite right, or rather, not quite truly English. That said, the maps are excellent and it works well as a solid introduction to the setting.

At the beginning of the game, there is a disclaimer which explains that although the authors tried to make Operation: Fallen Reich as British as possible, they are only a pair of Swedes. The disclaimer is not unwarranted, because the RPG manages to both fail and succeed at presenting a very British game. It fails because outside of the details about the Fallen, the game has almost no background about Great Britain or the British Empire, and what there is – a price list – is actually given in the metric format rather than the traditional and period appropriate pounds, shillings, and pence. This leaves the GM and players alike to draw on sources such as old movies and clichés, but some of the attitudes of the time – the patriotism, the jingoism, the distrust of all things foreign, the can do spirit, and so on, come through in the extensive examples that run throughout the book and this is where Operation: Fallen Reich succeeds.

Unfortunately, this is not quite enough for anyone coming to this game who is not already British or who is at least not knowledgeable about the Britain of the 1930s or its clichés. Similarly, another issue left undeveloped is when exactly Operation: Fallen Reich is exactly set. The given time period is within the shadow of World War II, but is that before, during, or after the War? The in-game fiction varies, some of it reads as if it is set before the War, whilst the end fiction definitely comes at the end of the War. So the inference is that it is set during the War, but again, there is no background to support a game set during Second World War. To be fair, the game can be begun at any time during the late 1930s and then run into the outbreak of war.

Given what it is – a rip-roaring RPG of fighting the Nazis – Operation: Fallen Reich is a little too expensive for what you get, and that is before you consider purchasing the Life Board, which is more than the core rulebook. There is no issue with the light and easy mechanics, but by any standards, the background is too light and assumes a lot of knowledge upon the part of the GM and player alike. If both have that knowledge, then Operation: Fallen Reich will be highly entertaining to play, plus once a player has managed to create a character as imaginative and as detailed as is possible using the Life Board, he will want to play the character at the very least and so the game too.