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

Saturday, 28 May 2011

Arrius Lurco Victoria

You can barely count the number of campaigns for Call of Cthulhu set outside the classic period of the 1920s on the Great Old One’s tentacles, so the arrival of a campaign for Call of Cthulhu's newest setting is all the more welcome. Especially as it is the fourth release from Miskatonic River Press, the publisher of the well regarded New Tales of the Miskatonic Valley anthology and the modern-set, Mythos free campaign, Our Ladies of Sorrow. This new campaign is The Legacy of Arrius Lurco, written by Oscar Rios for the Cthulhu Invictus setting which explores the place of the Cthulhu Mythos in Ancient Rome. It presents a full four-part campaign against a Great Old One and his nefarious minions that takes the investigators from Rome itself, the heart of the empire to the provinces of Achaea (Greece) and Cyrenaica (Crete). The campaign is ostensibly set in the year 130 C.E. during the reign of the Emperor Hadrian, but much like the rest of the support for Cthulhu Invictus, it can be set at almost any time during the Roman Empire’s long history.

The background to campaign begins several years before when Arrius Lurco, one of the co-owners of the Reds Racing Faction – one of the teams in the Empire’s greatest and most popular sport, chariot racing – went missing in Crete. Found a few weeks later, to this day Arrius Lurco has no memory of what happened to him during the missing time and even though he tried to resume his life, the patrician has since been plagued by nightmares and erratic behaviour. As both have grown worse of late, so have the worries of his family, their concerns coloured by the need to know the cause of Arrius’ behaviour and the need to keep it from becoming public and so shaming the house of Lurco.

These concerns are only the first in serious of impediments as the investigators have to navigate both the highs and lows of Roman society in order to discover the cause of Arrius Lurco’s behaviour. Later they will find themselves at first being investigated and then harried by that cause, a sinister cult that worships Eihort, Lord of the Labyrinth, the Great Old One whose influence reaches out of the Severn Valley in the province of the Britannia across the Empire to weave itself tightly into one of the classic tales of Greek Myth located at the heart of the Mediterranean. Over the course of the campaign, the investigators need to understand the nature of the threat that they face, avoid falling into its clutches, and discover a means of defeating it. This might sound like any other Call of Cthulhu campaign, but the threat faced in The Legacy of Arrius Lurco is comparatively more pro-active, at times actively hunting the investigators.

In comparison with the archetypal Call of Cthulhu campaign, The Legacy of Arrius Lurco is virtually paper-less. Few if any of its clues come as part of the traditional paper trail, forcing the investigators to talk to people and to rely on detective dog work, much like a “Film Noir” movie. In fact, the early parts of The Legacy of Arrius Lurco feel very much like “Romanorum Senium,”or “Rome Noir,” though later parts owe more to the “Swords & Sandals” genre as seen through the lens of Dungeons & Dragons. The campaign also forces the players and their investigators to explore different aspects and strata of Roman society, in particular the relationship between master and slave and between patron and client. In the case of the latter, the investigators will have the chance to establish and explore this kind of relationship. Further, the investigators will need work to establish and maintain various relationships as alliances shift throughout the campaign.

The other effect of being a paper-less campaign is that the means of learning about the Mythos needs to be different. So instead of learning by ingesting great tome-sized dollops of information, the investigators must be both learned from a teacher and from experience. The aim of this is deliver the insidious information drip by drip in small, more easily digested bytes, but whilst the aim of this is to make the learning about the true nature of the universe more corrosive, in practical terms it often means that the information is delivered as less easily digested expository wedges.

It is no surprise that The Legacy of Arrius Lurco weaves the Cthulhu Mythos into the Greco-Roman Mythos, it being an important facet to the Cthulhu Invictus setting. The campaign’s author goes further though, literally building its background around a well-known Greek legend before taking one more step. That step is to validate the Greco-Roman viewpoint on magic with the mechanics, so that for example, the Oracle at Delphi really can predict the future and it is possible to gain the blessings of the gods, and so on. This in addition to the various devices that are so advanced as to be akin to magic.

The campaign comes with two in-built choke points. The first of these provides an intentional means of exit for one or more investigators and is intended as a point at which new or replacement characters can be introduced. As useful as this can be, the danger with it is that too many players can decide to change characters and so lose their connection with the events of the campaign’s first chapter. The second presents a challenging moral choice that forces the players to ask how far their characters will go in order to defeat the cultists. The investigators have almost no time to debate the situation in which the safest option will result in their committing a repugnant act, one whose Sanity loss is to be honest, not severe enough. Like the first choke point, this decision can be a campaign breaker, presenting too difficult a choice for some players. That said, the way in which it is presented and given the person who presents it, the choice is not at odds with the story of the campaign. In fact, it is hinted at early in that part of the campaign and the more perceptive players will likely be aware of it ahead of time.

If the campaign is at times hard on the players, it also demands a great deal from the Keeper. Especially in its portrayal of some NPCs. As with any Call of Cthulhu campaign, there are many that are not to be trusted, but here there are some that need to be trusted despite their actions – actions that would in the eyes of many players damn them forever. It is possible to play around this situation, but if the campaign presents the investigators with difficult choices, it also presents them to the NPCs as well.

In addition to the campaign itself, The Legacy of Arrius Lurco adds to Call of Cthulhu and the Mythos. Not just developing the cult devoted to Eihort and providing it with several servitors, but also adding new spells to the game, and specifically for Cthulhu Invictus, describing five new Occupations: the Charioteer (a sports charioteer rather than the military Occupation listed in Cthulhu Invictus), the Advocate (a legal expert), the Newsreader, the Labourer, and Vigiles (primarily firemen, but also local law enforcement). Some of these actually appear in the campaign, whilst all can be chosen by the players as investigator types.

Physically, The Legacy of Arrius Lurco is a cleanly laid out book with fitting artwork and solid maps that are only let down by being a little too dark to read clearly in places. It needs an edit here and there, and sometimes an index would have helped. Another problem is that sometimes references are made to sections that appear a page or two later, so that the campaign’s narrative is not always immediately obvious.

Just as with Our Ladies of Sorrow, its modern set campaign for Call of Cthulhu, Miskatonic River Press has produced another campaign that showcases what is possible to do beyond the game’s beloved campaign archetypes. In particular, The Legacy of Arrius Lurco showcases what is possible with the Cthulhu Invictus setting, emphasising its strengths and differing approaches to delving into Lovecraftian investigative horror whilst also exploring the setting itself. The campaign is not without its faults, but those really derive from strength of the material and the demands it makes of players and Keeper alike – be warned this is not a campaign for the timid or for those who prefer their games not to be too challenging. Ultimately, The Legacy of Arrius Lurco is exactly the kind of support that not only Cthulhu Invictus, but also Call of Cthulhu should be getting, setting the standard by which all future Cthulhu Invictus releases will be measured.

More Death to the French

For anyone wanting to explore the Napoleonic Wars, there are plenty of options available in terms of wargaming, using either miniatures and terrain or counters and a board. There are fewer options in terms of roleplaying, but the best of them to date has to be Omihedron Games’ “Indie” RPG, Duty & Honour: A Game of Adventure and Romance in Wellington’s Army. Clearly inspired by the television series Sharpe – and the Bernard Cornwell books that they are based upon, Duty & Honour casts the player characters as soldiers undertaking small and important missions on the edge of Duke of Wellington’s campaign against the French and the Spanish during the Peninsular War of 1810. Already the game has a companion in the form in of Beat to Quarters, an RPG that uses the same rules to run naval campaigns during the Age of Sail, but it also has its supplement in the form of Duty & Honour 1809 Miscellany, which as the “miscellany” of the title suggests is a collection of articles and entries devoted to the game.

The majority of the fifteen entries in Duty & Honour 1809 Miscellany previously appeared as Almanacs that could be downloaded directly from the publisher’s website, and thus they are rarely more than a few pages long. Many of the articles complement each other, with the book’s content divided between elements that support the material to be found in the core rulebook and elements that expand the setting. The focus of the Miscellany is fourfold: character detail, within the regiment, away from the regiment, and the Spain and the Spanish forces of the time, with many of the articles complementing each other.

The supplement opens with “The Enemy Within,” a set of varied, though usually villainous NPCs that can be used to spice up the players’ Personal Missions. Including a well-connected NCO bully, a sultry Spanish maiden, and a trio of flawed officers, the quintet need careful handling in order to prevent their flaws becoming too clichéd. Continuing the within the regiment focus, “Death for a Filthy Rag” adds a whole new regiment complete with officers and enlisted men that the player characters can either encounter or be a part of. Accompanying the description of the 5th Northumberland is a quartet of Missions keyed to the given NPCs, followed by “Band of Brothers,” four ready-to-play characters that are members of the regiment. Unlike the quintet of NPCs given in “The Enemy Within” these four player characters show a little more invention and should be interesting to play.

The focus on Spain in Duty & Honour 1809 Miscellany begins with “The War of Independence!” which adds a whole new aspect to the RPG – the opportunity to play members of the Spanish Resistance. It uses the same rules for character generation, but suggests new Experiences (Life Before Invasion by Bonaparte and time with the Guerrillas rather than life before and after joining the British Army), Reputations, Traits (such as Knife-Fighting and Rabble-Rouser) to create new player characters or detailed NPCs. It comes with rules for fighting with knives, a guide as to run a game based around Spanish characters, four sample NPCs, and five sample Missions that help characters establish their relationships with the Resistance. What these rules offer is a chance to play a less regimented and ordered game, and more interestingly, the opportunity to play female characters that do not fall into the clichés of helpless lady, deceptive hussy, or spirited lover.

“London Gazette Extraordinary!” brings the outside world to the regiment, discussing how news from home can be used within the game, whether it be gossip, politics, or news from elsewhere on the front. Links are given to samples that will further inspire the GM. Its companion piece, “London Calling!” provides an overview of what characters might get up to if they have the chance to return to London. It covers everything from Horse Guards and Gentlemen’s Clubs to dangerous liaisons and shopping, with an understandable emphasis on what the officers might do. It is accompanied by several new Traits like Gentlemen’s Club Membership and Influence at Horse Guards that do further emphasise the place of an officer and a gentleman in Duty & Honour.

Character backgrounds can be developed with several articles to be found in Duty & Honour 1809 Miscellany. “British Army Deployments” lists alternative places where England’s soldiery might be found serving and thus where a character might have had his army Experiences during character creation, whilst “A Matter of Class” suggests three ideas for the various degrees of Social Class within the game. For example, under Professional, it suggests that a character of that Social Class could have been a lowly clerk, tutor, or physician prior to joining up. These are no more than simple suggestions, and perhaps there is scope for a corresponding article that explores the reasons why a character might join the army. Another aspect of character creation is explored in “Curious Curiosities,” that of loot. The entries are listed here skill by skill and are either items such as a pair of bloodied brass knuckledusters for the Intimidate skill or an actual ability, such as an inexhaustible supply of platitudes, quotations, and witticisms for The Arts skill. Either way, they grant a +1 bonus when brought into play with that particular skill.

For officers and gentlemen everywhere, “I Demand Satisfaction” presents rules for duelling in Duty & Honour. Not only illegal, duelling is also dangerous and this is represented by the GM having to add a Joker to his deck to represent the chance that the opponent might score a Perfect Success and inflict a lethal wound on the player character. The emphasis is on duelling with pistols as duelling with swords can be covered by Duty & Honour’s combat rules. The rules are supported with a pleasing example, as well as several new Traits and a sample mission. Again, the emphasis in the article is on the officer and the gentlemen, but then the rank and file used their fists to sort such issues out.

Duty & Honour 1809 Miscellany is rounded out with a trio of scenarios. In “Last Stand of the 22nd," the player characters come upon the remnants of a company and must decide between getting the survivors or important information back to their front lines. The second two, “Cadiz or Bust!” and “The City of Vipers” are linked, but can be run separately with both involving the characters in the fate of the free city of Cadiz as the French move to capture it. All three are supported with appropriate Missions and are decent affairs that should provide several sessions of game play.

Physically, Duty & Honour 1809 Miscellany can be best described as being a little rough around the edges. The text certainly needs a second edit, and some of the artwork is not present as described in the text. Some of the artwork is excellent though.

There is much to like about Duty & Honour 1809 Miscellany. It is full of little details that will add colour to a Duty & Honour campaign, whilst in adding rules for Spanish characters with the article “The War of Independence!”, the supplement opens up numerous possibilities, whether that is in the form of a whole new campaign or new NPCs. It also fills in holes in the rules with the guide to duelling and suggests details aplenty that can be used to flesh out a character. If you run a Duty & Honour campaign, then Duty & Honour 1809 Miscellany is your next, best purchase.

Sunday, 22 May 2011

Lost. Again.

The Legacy of Arrius Lurco, the fourth supplement from publisher Miskatonic River Press offers something very new: a whole campaign for Chaosium, Inc.’s Cthulhu Invictus, the supplement that explores Call of Cthulhu in Ancient Rome. It is something that the “Cthulhu Antiquita” period as seen in Cthulhu: Dark Ages never received before, and with the recent publication of the Cthulhu Invictus Companion, the Ancient Rome setting is on the verge of becoming the best supported setting outside of the 1920s of classic Call of Cthulhu. When consider that this is the publisher’s second campaign after the contemporary-set, all but Mythos free Our Ladies of Sorrow, Miskatonic River Press has to be seen as providing the most progressive support for Call of Cthulhu in some years. The review of The Legacy of Arrius Lurco will have to wait until I have completed reading it, but in the meantime, the publisher has provided two new scenarios to support the campaign, both of which were made available as part of its pre-order package. The first of these is, “Naufractus Or Shipwrecked – A Prequel to The Legacy of Arrius Lurco.”

“Naufractus” is designed to solve a problem that always plagues the beginning of any Call of Cthulhu campaign – how do the investigators know and trust the NPCs that the campaign introduces? Players being players, they expect to be betrayed, the betrayal invariably coming from one of the newly introduced NPCs. To allay their fears, one of the best solutions is to introduce the NPCs as early as possible in an on-going campaign, though in the case of Cthulhu Invictus, there are very few scenarios available to do this with. Nevertheless, “Naufractus” sets out to introduce the campaign’s major NPCs to the player characters and does so in dramatic fashion.

As the scenario opens, the investigators find themselves aboard the Crimson Dawn, a sailing vessel run by the owners of the Reds Racing Faction, one of the teams in Rome’s most popular spectator sport, chariot racing. They may be simple passengers aboard the ship, guests of the owners, or potential investors in the faction, but whatever their reason for being aboard, the Crimson Dawn is on its way back to Rome across the Mare Internum Nostrum – or Mediterranean Sea, when it comes across the survivors of a shipwreck. Being a good Roman, the ship’s captain picks them up and goes in search of other survivors, but as the title suggests, this leads to disaster and both the player characters and various NPCs being washed ashore a strange island.

What the opening scenes set up is a classic situation, one more recently seen in “Devourers in the Mist” in the supplement Stunning Eldritch Tales for Pelgrane Press’ Trail of Cthulhu and “Robinson Gruesome” from free Call of Cthulhu anthology, Monophobia: A Fear of Solitude. Just like those two scenarios, the situation in “Naufractus” is one of survival on limited resources that make facing the dangers present on the perilous promontory all the more difficult. The problem perhaps is that the scenario is too dangerous. Not too dangerous as a one-shot, but as a scenario designed to introduce to a campaign’s major participants, the Keeper will need to adjust the scenario accordingly to ensure that the investigators survive and thus enable to ensure that the NPCs that pull them into the campaign survives. Of course, if this is not the aim of the Keeper in running “Naufractus,” it also happens to make an engaging and exciting single scenario that can be slotted into an on-going Cthulhu Invictus game without the need to move onto The Legacy of Arrius Lurco.

At just ten pages in length, the 1.26 Mb PDF that is “Naufractus Or Shipwrecked – A Prequel” to The Legacy of Arrius Lurco” is a handy size. It is not illustrated, but the layout is clean and tidy, and the map is pleasingly clear. If there is anything missing, it is that perhaps some of the NPCs should have been given full stats if only to provide stand-in investigators when a player character is killed or rendered hors de combat, but that is minor problem, and one that the Keeper can easily remedy by creating ready-to-play versions of his own of said NPCs. What is missing is an illustration of the “villain” of the piece, one that in providing, Miskatonic River Press could made up for the similar lack in the Cthulhu Invictus supplement itself. Then again, this scenario was provided as a free bonus, and art is hardly free.

As a taster of things to come, “Naufractus Or Shipwrecked – A Prequel to The Legacy of Arrius Lurco” has nothing to with the campaign itself, except of course that it introduces the investigators to its major NPCs. Which is how it should be, but in the meantime, it draws heavily upon Greek Myth before giving it a Mythos twist in what is essentially, Cthulhu Invictus’ trademark. Similarly and in-keeping with what we have seen of Cthulhu Invictus to date, it is another more physical scenario with an emphasis on combat and survival rather than on investigation. There will be though, much more investigation in the campaign itself, “Naufractus Or Shipwrecked – A Prequel to The Legacy of Arrius Lurco” serves up a punchy though harrowing experience.

Saturday, 21 May 2011

Super Fast, Super Light

The very first thing that you notice about ICONS – Superpowered Roleplaying is its cover. Published by Adamant Entertainment through Cubicle Seven, its depiction of the comic book stalwarts is cartoony and stylised, echoing more the animated work of Paul Dini than say, the realism of Alex Ross. This has drawn the book some criticism both because the artwork is not to everyone’s taste and the RPG is designed by Steve Kenson, who is better known for the more serious take upon the genre in the form of Green Ronin Publishing's Mutants & Masterminds and the more recent DC ADVENTURE Hero’s Handbook. The criticism is born of the fact that ICONS is not a “serious” take upon the genre, but a lighter, faster approach inspired by the same source as its artwork – Saturday morning cartoons. In RPG terms its faster, lighter mechanics and design feels reminiscent of 1980s stalwarts, TSR’s Marvel Superheroes and Games Workshop’s Golden Heroes (more recently made available by its author as Squadron UK), but are more up to date in that they are a variant of the FATE system that has been used in games as diverse as Spirit of the Century and Starblazer Adventures: The Rock and Roll Space Opera Adventure Game to The Dresden Files and Diaspora.

The real “Old School” design element to ICONS is that players create their characters randomly, just as they did in Marvel Superheroes, Golden Heroes, and Villains & Vigilantes. A player not only rolls for his character’s Abilities (or attributes), but also his hero’s Origins, number of Powers and the actual Powers, and number of Specialities (or skills). He also needs roll the level of each of his Powers, which like his Abilities, are rated between one and ten, with three being human average, six being human maximum, and ten being on a cosmic scale. All this takes is two six-sided dice rolled a few times. From the Abilities and the Powers rolled and the Specialities selected, a player is free to create his hero’s background and identity. (A point-buy system is also included if a player does not want to roll for his Powers, but that is the blander option.)

In addition, a player is also free to choose up to ten Aspects that define who the hero is, split between five Qualities and five Challenges. The former are positive descriptors that can also occasionally work against a hero, such as a Catchphrase, a Connection, or a Motivation; while the latter are negative like Bad Luck, Enemy, or Weakness. In keeping with the game’s more contemporary design use of the FATE system, a character’s Aspects define where he can spend “Determination,” its equivalent of Luck or Hero points. Every hero begins a base level of Determination with the greater the number of Powers and high Abilities a hero has, the lower his base Determination. By Qualities being Tagged and Challenges being Compelled during play, a player can earn more Determination and in the process add to the game’s ongoing story.

To gain further Determination during the game, the players can also work together to create a Team and its Qualities and Challenges. Each hero has to contribute one point of permanent Determination to a Team pool that can be drawn from when the Qualities and Challenges particular to the Team come into play. Determination can also be invested in Team Resources, the rules suggesting several ways in which Resources can be handled in the game.

Our sample is Doctor Farland Boring, a doctor and biologist working for an environmental research institute. Whilst working as part of a survey team monitoring the impact of deep sea drilling in the Java Sea, the ship he was aboard was attacked by pirates and he was knocked overboard and into the sea where he was bitten by a sea snake. The venom, tainted from pollutants from the nearby drilling, did more than poison him. It gave him the ability to swim at fantastic speeds, deliver a fast bite, and follow that up with potent venom. With his newfound abilities, Farland trailed the pirates, rescued his colleagues, and in the process, discovered that the pirates had corporate masters. In the past two years he has become an environmental campaigner, supporting causes around the world and making a nuisance of himself to many of the world’s leading oil companies.

Sea Krait
Real Name: Doctor Farland Boring
Origins: Transformed
Prowess: 4 Coordination: 6 Strength: 5
Intellect: 3 Awareness: 4 Willpower: 6
Stamina: 11
Determination: 3
Powers: Aquatic-7, Offensive Power – Paralysis-8, Offensive Power – Strike-5
Specialities: Medicine, Science – Biology, Underwater Combat
Qualities: Catchphrase (By the power of sea!), Connection (ex-girlfriend, Jennifer Baker), Epithet (The Sea’s Greatest Warrior), Identity (Mild Mannered Scientist), Motivation (To help save the environment)
Challenges: Enemy (Big Oil), Personal (Hates to use his strongest Power), Social (Enemy of big business), Weakness (Crude oil)

The base mechanics in ICONS are straightforward and simple. Whenever a hero wants to undertake an action, his player takes two six-sided dice, designating one die as positive and the other negative. After they have been rolled, the dice are added together to generate a number between -5 and +5, and this is applied to the Ability or Power being used. If the end result beats a difficulty number, a hero has succeeded. The most radical aspect of the dice mechanics is that the GM never rolls them, only the players. So for example, in combat, a player rolls to hit when attacking and rolls to dodge when being attacked, the difficulty numbers being taken by an opponent’s Abilities and Powers or set by the GM.

For example, Sea Krait has tracked down the pirates that attacked the ship he was aboard to a drilling rig and dealt with most of them except for the armoured suit wearing villain, Big Oil, who has Sea Krait’s girlfriend, Jennifer Baker, in his grasp. Before Sea Krait can move, Big Oil releases a jet of crude oil at him with his Blast – Crude Oil-8 Power and Co-ordination 6. To avoid this, Sea Krait needs to make a Co-ordination test against that of Big Oil’s. With a result of -5, his player rolls badly and Sea Krait is hit by the jet and takes damage equal to Big Oil’s Blast Power, plus extra for Weakness, reducing his Stamina down to 1, but because his Weakness has been Compelled, receives an extra point of Determination. Knowing that this could be his last chance in this fight to save Jennifer, Sea Krait’s player Tags his Connection Quality to his girlfriend, enabling him to spend Determination. He opts for Determined Effort to increase the likelihood of successfully hitting Big Oil. His player rolls a total of +2, spends a point of Determination to add another +2, giving him +4 to apply to his Prowess. When compared to Big Oil’s Prowess of 6, Sea Krait’s total of 10 is a successful use of his Strike Power, but will not inflict enough damage to stop Big Oil. So he follows the bite by injecting the villain with his Paralysis Power. Enough to stop Big Oil, but too much for Jennifer, who is horrified at what her boyfriend has become and runs screaming!

To an extent, Determination works like ICONS’ currency. Both players and GM are meant to Compel and Tag Aspects not just to gain Determination and an explanation within the game for its use, but also to add to bring story elements into the game. And not just each hero’s Aspects, but also those are belonging to the villains and to an extent the environment around them. When brought into the game Determination can be spent to various effects. Besides Determined Effort which lets a hero improve his dice rolls, Focused Effort allows a hero to use an Ability or Power of his choice, Recover restores his Stamina (this needs no explanation or tying to an Aspect to use), “Retcon” adds details to the game, and Stunts let him do something special with his Powers.

The Powers themselves are divided into seven categories: Alteration, Control, Defensive, Mental, Movement, Offensive, and Sensory. Some like Blast will need further definition, whilst others are more costly at character generation, such as Immortality, Probability Control, Teleportation, and Wizardry. The Powers included in ICONS should cover most types of heroes and villains, and in keeping with the design are fairly broad. Plus a player will need to define the exact nature and flavour of his Powers, but that should be part of his character’s background.

Advice for the GM covers everything from handling character and team creation to individual actions, designing adventures, and dealing with Determination. It tries to cover most situations, but part of the game’s light mechanics and design philosophy is that the GM is meant to adapt them to most situations rather than find a rule in its pages to cover every situation.

Besides the rules support, the GM is given an array of villains to include in his games, all of them with surprisingly detailed backgrounds given ICONS’ intended light style. It would have been nice if some sample heroes had been included as well as the villains, the only given hero in the book being the cactus-themed Saguaro used as an example of character generation. There is also a short scenario, “The Wages of Sin,” which provides a suitable means of introducing the rules to the players and the player characters to each other. Beyond its core rulebook, ICONS is supported with plenty of PDF titles.

Putting aside the fact that the artwork in ICONS might not be to your taste, the book is far from physically perfect. Although it needs an edit here and there, the real problem is the lack of an index. There are few if any rules to ICONS, but having to flip through the book to find them is time consuming considering how light and fast the game is meant to be run. By any means though, the lack of an index in an RPG rulebook in this day and age is inexcusable.

Although ICONS is a light game, it is not suited to be run by an inexperienced GM. It requires too much rules adjudication upon the part of the GM, and that calls for someone with some experience under their cape. Nevertheless, it is suited to inexperienced players, especially if they know the superhero genre, whether that be from the comics or the Saturday morning cartoons. In comparison with other more detailed superhero RPG designs, ICONS places more of an emphasis on the story and the drama through the use of the FATE system and its Aspects that encourage everyone to stick to the genre. Combine that with its light mechanics, and what you have in ICONS – Superpowered Roleplaying is a fast playing supers RPG that does both the genre and pick up and play.

Sunday, 15 May 2011

Wanted, Dead Only

The third release in Nightfall Games’ Data Packet series for SLA Industries is a little different and needs some explanation. With its mix of flavour text tied into the game’s background and two targets to track down and eliminate, Hunter Sheets, Issue Two: Part One feels disparate and unfocused, but when you separate them into their individual parts and learn that this Data Packet is not yet complete, then this PDF begins to make sense. The key to Hunter Sheets, Issue Two: Part One is that is almost a “Part Work,” an incomplete release until the purchaser has everything. In other words, Hunter Sheets, Issue Two is meant to be a whole book and will be available as such, and so will be a sequel to what was the last release for the game, Hunter Sheets, Issue One. Having said all that, the individual elements themselves do stand up on their own.

The first question that has to be answered with this release is, “What exactly, is a Hunter Sheet?”. Within the World of Progress that is SLA Industries, each Hunter Sheet details a subversive target that SLA Industries wants eliminated. In game terms, they are more combat orientated assignments than the usual investigative BPN or “Blue Print News” sheets, and are more popular with Contract Killers and Contract Hunters than the standard SLA Operatives normally played in the game. Hunter Sheets, Issue Two: Part One suggests that they are a fairly recent new innovation and that combat focused operatives have been forming “Death Squads” that have gone deep into Downtown, where they have not gone rogue as such, but have taken advantage of their power to set up small fiefdoms lording it over civilians far from the reach of SLA Industries. Opinion within the company is currently divided as to what to do about this situation, either seeing the use of Hunter Sheets and Death Squads as a necessity, but wanting to curb and control their excesses, or simply wanting to stop them all together. To an extent, the first Hunter Sheet included in this Data Packet can be seen as a way to do the former by making the locating and elimination of its target very public, whilst the second Hunter Sheet shows why SLA Industries needs to issue them.

The first of the Hunter Sheets has been issued for latest serial killer on Mort to break through the thirteen victim threshold and so come to the attention of the media. “Socko” is all the more notorious for the fact that he has about as much presence as well, a sock. Even his victims find him laughable. That is, until he slices them up. The media has picked this up and there betting pools being run on how long he will last before either SLA Operatives get him or some civilian makes a name for himself by doing so. The only thing that Socko has going for him is the fact that he is adept at making a getaway and that he has a fan club.

The second Hunter Sheet is for Sidi Gejkta, a male Wraithen who after being trained by SLA Industries has fled from a War World to home world of Matanwa where he has fomented an armed insurrection. This will lead to a very different kind of scenario, taking the player characters out of the Urban Horror genre as they go the equivalent of “up country” much in the style of Apocalypse Now. In comparison with the first Hunter Sheet, this second one feels less detailed and broader in its approach, its contents lending itself to fewer ideas for the GM. In part this is due to the fact that the second Hunter Sheet also details a figure known as the “Carrion Politician” who serves SLA Industries’ greatest enemy. In game, the player characters are told to stick to going after Sidi Gejkta rather than this figure, though with his full stats given and the devices he uses, the inclusion of the “Carrion Politician” almost begs to be encountered by the player characters.

Throughout Hunter Sheets, Issue Two: Part One there is, as mentioned before, plenty of flavour text that exposes more of the deep background and the “Truth” of SLA Industries. Hopefully we see more of its like in the rest of Hunter Sheets, Issue Two as it hints at the changes across the World of Progress as its defences are weakened and enemies grow in strength.

As with the previous releases in the Data Packet series, Hunter Sheets, Issue Two: Part One is another fine looking release. The ten-page, 2.77 PDF is clearly laid out with pleasing pieces of art. Nor does it suffer from the lack of separation between information for the GM and information for the player characters, with the Hunter Sheets done as full hand-outs for the players’ eyes. It needs an edit in places, perhaps hinting at a slightly rushed production.

Of the two Hunter Sheets included in Hunter Sheets, Issue Two: Part One, the one detailing Socko is the more detailed and all the better for it, making it much easier to run. While neither Hunter Sheet is quite ready to run, both can be developed into full scenarios that should provide two or three good sessions of play.

Sunday, 8 May 2011

Ave Cthulhu!

Taking Call of Cthulhu back before the Age of Reason is not new. In 2004, Chasoium, Inc. published Cthulhu: Dark Ages, a translation of the German supplement that explored Europe at the time of the first millennium when Christianity first began to spread its influence amongst a population that remained at heart, still pagan in their outlook and when the Necronomicon, recently translated from the Greek, was passed easily from interested scholar to interested scholar. Unfortunately, Cthulhu: Dark Ages remained an intriguing possibility, for it was not a complete RPG all of its own, it was ferociously underdeveloped as a concept and never received any support, and the possibilities and limitations of the setting remained all but ignored. The most fundamental of which being how a Cthulhu: Dark Ages game and how a Cthulhu: Dark Ages campaign should be both run.

Sadly it is a problem shared with Chaosium’s latest venture into antiquity, Cthulhu Invictus. Fortunately, this is less of a problem for two reasons, though undeniably still a flaw. The first is that the history of Rome and the Roman Empire is one that far more familiar to us than that of Cthulhu: Dark Ages. For many we have been learning about the Roman Empire ever since we went to school and today there are plenty of programmes on television, such as Rome, Spartacus, and Time Team; and books, such as I, Claudius and Lindsay Davis’ Falco series; and surprisingly RPGs, like Green Ronin Publishing’s Glory of Rome and the wonderful, FVLMINATA: Armed with Lightning, to draw from for inspiration and background. Second, the civilizing and stabilizing nature of the Roman Empire means that the player characters or investigators are, just as in a Call of Cthulhu, Cthulhu by Gaslight, and Cthulhu Now campaign, free to travel and scrutinize strange incidents without the constant distrust, difficulty of movement, and lack of education impeding the play of anything more than a game set within a relatively small region. So what this means is that most players and Keepers will have some familiarity with the setting and the adjustment needed to adapt to playing Call of Cthulhu in Ancient Rome will be much less, but whilst the setting itself does not necessarily limit the type of scenarios and campaigns possible, the lack of advice does.

Nevertheless, the fact that Roman society is different to ours should not be ignored when playing and running Cthulhu Invictus. At the very least, it is more hierarchical, it is more brutal, and its outlook on the world and the Empire is bound up a strong belief in the gods, in the supernatural, and the strength of magic. Certainly the latter factors means that in playing Cthulhu Invictus the investigators are exploring a world of horror in which the true nature of the universe is not explained by scientific rationalism and cosmic indifference, but by myth, magic, and the supernatural.

Ostensibly, Cthulhu Invictus is set during the 1st Century A.D., specifically during the latter years of Claudius’ reign, though the book’s scenario is set in A.D. 80, during Titus’ reign, and The Legacy of Arrius Lurco, the campaign from Miskatonic River Press, is actually set in A.D. 130, during the later years of Hadrian’s rule. This mix of dates is potentially confusing and a Keeper of a Cthulhu Invictus campaign is going to have to decide when he wants to set his game and adjust accordingly.

Whatever the year, the Empire is prosperous, thriving, and expanding, but is also open to the venal, the corrupt, and the squamous. While mothers tell children tales of gods, of heroes, and of monsters, real horrors are abroad in the night, some unknown; others kept hidden for the Empire’s safety. In Greece, Athens has been prevented from progressing for over a century, punishment for magi summoning an avatar of Yog-Sothoth. Rome’s Vestal Virgins tend the Sacred Flame to keep both city and Empire safe spiritually, were it extinguished, Y’Golonoc will be set free and the city easy prey to his depraved followers. At night Hypnos, Lord of the Dreamlands, pulls the dreamers of Rome into his realm to compete in bloody and sadistic games. Merchant shipping crossing the Mediterranean is beset by attacks from Tritons and Merman. Or rather, Deep Ones. Both Bast and Nyarlathotep are active in Egypt, and cults to Shub-Niggurath are widespread, though under other names. The Cult of Cthulhu remains small, with the Elder God still slumbering in sunken R’lyeh, with worship having slowly drifted in from the East.

The Empire is home to many cults and secret societies. They include Christians, the cult of Magna Mater, Mithraism, Gnosticism, and Republicans, but perhaps the most interesting are the two dedicated to fighting the evil represented by the Mythos. Originally founded by the Greek Aristion, the “Custus Notitiae” is a closed society of 25 scholars that aim to recover any book that might damage mankind. The “Blade of Zarthost” is the second, an all-female militant branch of Zoroastrianism that emerged from Parthia to fight Sand Dwellers, Deep Ones, and other Mythos threats.

Besides the more “traditional” Mythos aspects, the authors have made an effort to work elements of the Greco-Roman mythology into the Mythos. Almost 3000 years before the time of Cthulhu Invictus, a group of clerics used an artifact to steal power from the Dreamlands. They declared themselves to be Olympians, with the powers of flight and invulnerability, and were worshipped and sacrificed to. Further, they were capable of creating creatures and casting spells, summoning Dimensional Shamblers and the like. Zeus himself favored a three-headed Hound of Tindalos named Cerberus! Although Hypnos was to eventually blast the mind of most of the Olympians, they live on in legend, and so do the creatures created and associated with them. This includes Cerberus, the sea vortex Charybdis, the Cyclops, the Gorgons, Lamia, the Mother of Vampires, and the Muses.

Opposed against the Olympians were the Titans, an elite core of religious elders who engaged in vigorous scholastic studies and debate. Predating the rise of the Olympians, they employed advanced sciences to combat the Mythos-based powers of the newly arisen gods. Although the Titans ultimately failed, again some of their creations live on. Other creatures given in the bestiary are not so heavily tied into this background, and are less interesting for it, lending themselves more to a “Swords & Sandals” style game.

The new spells follow this combination of the Greco-Roman Mythos and Cthulhu Mythos. For example, Beseech Charon does indeed contact the keeper of the way over the River Styx, but who just happens to be an avatar of Yog-Sothoth. Likewise, Summon Child of the Sphinx does call forth an anthropomorphic animal, meant to be an Egyptian god, to the caster; it is again another avatar, this time of Nyarlathotep. Another spell, Augury ties into the rules for “Roman Augury,” which covers the five types used by the College of Augurs.

Before getting down to character generation, Cthulhu Invictus provides a solid guide to Rome and the Empire of A.D. 50, covering the key points of life in Rome as well as a grand tour of the Empire’s provinces. For each province there is a listing of its major cities, languages, male and female names, common occupations, notable cults and secret societies, and known monsters, plus descriptions of the region’s notable features. For the brave, the tour also encompasses regions outside of the Empire, such as Germania Magna and the Empire’s current foe, the Parthian Empire. There is enough information here for most purposes, including character background, so that players can create investigators from within and without the Empire. Those purposes also include playing Cthulhu Invictus, but if the Keeper wants more information, then Alephtar Games’ Basic RolePlay Rome: Life and Death of the Republic is a reasonable source, despite it being set much earlier. Cthulhu Invictus also comes with nicely done maps of both the Empire and Rome itself.

Character generation follows the standard rules of Call of Cthulhu, though the occupations and skills are far closer to those of Cthulhu: Dark Ages than found in the core rulebook. They include Roman occupations such as Augur, Centurion, Gladiator, and Prefect, plus non-Roman ones like Barbarian, Druid, and Rabbi. The rules are given a series of minor tweaks to change how combat, healing, and sanity work. Combat involves more hand-to-hand encounters, thus warranting the more detailed rules for parrying. Damage is not recorded not just as points, but also wound-by-wound to reflect the less effective healing methods of the time. Armour is more readily available, but is designed to deflect damage rather than absorb it. Given the lack of therapists in Ancient Rome, Sanity is more difficult to recover, and the only reliable methods involve either rest or the grounding of the sufferer in everyday activity.

My sample character is actually an NPC from our campaign, the patron for our investigators. Spurious Petillius Maso is former centurion in the legions with over twenty years’ service. He was cashiered after a wound gained in battle left him with a severe limp. For the last decade he has been a banker, responsible for moving the monies that pay for the legions. Petillius Maso is by nature superstitious and harbours a strong belief in magic.

NAME: Spurious Petillius Maso
GENDER: Male AGE: 56
STR: 11 DEX: 05 INT: 16 IDEA: 80%
CON: 16 APP: 14 POW: 10 LUCK: 50%
SIZ: 14 SAN: 50 EDU: 17 KNOW: 85%


SKILLS: Accounting 70%, Art (Forgery) 60%, Bargain 45%, Civics 50%, Climb 16%, Drive 35%, Empire 35%, Fast Talk 45%, Insight 20%, Other Kingdoms (Egypt) 11%, Other Kingdoms (Iudea) 11%, Persuade 55%, Ride 25%, Spot Hidden 30%, Status 55%, Tactics 30%
LANGUAGES: Celtic 11%, Egyptian 11%, Greek 21%, Hebrew 11%, Latin 85%, Write (Greek) 20%, Write (Latin) 85%

Pilum 20%, 1d8
Short Sword 40%, 1d6
Shield (Large) 25%


Cthulhu Invictus is rounded out with a single scenario, “Prophylaxis Panacea Efqa.” This takes the investigators to the edge of the Empire to face threat that could poison the whole of the Empire. It is perhaps a more muscular and pulpy affair than Call of Cthulhu players might be used to, but the players should push for a more brutal, action orientated game.

Physically, Cthulhu Invictus is clean and tidily presented, its simple layout being very accessible. It is lightly illustrated and unfortunately not always well illustrated. Fortunately, the maps are excellent.

In the hands of an experienced Keeper, Cthulhu Invictus contains everything necessary to start playing in Ancient Rome. Even an experienced Keeper will have adjust to what is still a very different, perhaps even alien, setting, and the players will have to do likewise. The main difference is the more physical nature of the game’s investigative process over the intellectual that comes with the paper trail usually left in Call of Cthulhu and its modern incarnations. Given the very other nature of the setting, it is surprising though, that there is no advice on either running or playing the game, or indeed a discussion of the style of game that can be played. Cthulhu Invictus lends itself to a hard boiled Private Eye style with the Finder occupation and a “Swords & Sandal” approach with more combative occupations. Either way, this lack of advice is even more disappointing given that Cthulhu Invictus originated as a Monograph.

Ultimately, whilst the supplement includes everything necessary to play and run a game set in Ancient Rome, the failure to address both the differences already present before the Mythos was added and how the game should be run forces player and Keeper alike to either do unnecessary research or ignore them and so simplify the setting. Nevertheless, Cthulhu Invictus really shines in successfully integrating the Cthulhu Mythos into the myths and legends of Ancient Rome and beyond, but the failure to include any Keeper advice is a major omission upon the part of the publisher.

Friday, 6 May 2011

Blight's End

For the second entry in its Data Packet series for SLA Industries, Nightfall Games takes us deep into Upper Downtown and to the all but forgotten blight that is 002 – Klick’s End. In the centuries since the three blocks that make up the neighbourhood were hurriedly raised, the path of progress has done little more than insure its unemployed inhabitants receive their Civilian Security cheques whilst building new infrastructure that only served to keep them from the constant television signals that would inform the inhabitants of the World of Progress. As a result, the inhabitants, known as Klickers, have become xenophobic, slovenly, and clannish, rarely straying from the confines of Klick’s End except to carry out criminal acts. Their ill-educated lives revolve around the taking of Bond-X glue, alcohol, the raising and training of Carnivorous Pigs for use in organised “Pig Fights,” and the harassment of anyone not born within the confines of Klick’s End and entering its environs. The latter includes the rare visits by patrolling Shiver Units – SLA Industries’ militia, and rarer still, any visiting SLA Operatives.

The eleven-page, 4.16 Mb PDF provides just about everything that a GM needs to take his game to the slum that is Klick’s End. With its history all but irrelevant, it focuses upon the towering shantytown, its forlorn inhabitants and their immoral habits, and The Quartet, the four Props or rogue guns-for-hire who have installed themselves as the de facto rulers of Klick’s End. A mix of ex-War Criminals, ex-Dark Night agents, and ex-SLA Operatives, The Quartet has a bad reputation, even amongst other Props, as they readily deal with any client, including the Skin Trade which kidnaps and traffics people. All four members of The Quartet are described and detailed along with two pieces of new equipment – War World Infantry Armour and the FEN WW09 Thrasher Cannon, both used by SLA Industries on War Worlds and in the case of the firearm, illegal on Mort. In addition, stats are given for the typical Klick’s End citizen and a new civilian skill that lets them raise and train the Carnivorous Pigs.

Although 002 – Klick’s End has a GM’s section, there is little in this Data Packet that the players should see beforehand. Besides the write-ups for the NPCs, it gives several means of getting the player characters into Klick’s End. These include taking a wrong turn; following up on a kidnapping; going after the members of The Quartet in particular; and an actual BPN or mission. This has the SLA Operatives sent into the slum to make examples of the population and by that, SLA Industries means that it wants the Operatives to carry out acts of mutilation. This coming out of a new department known as the Moral Rights Division, fronted by a woman whom you almost expect to have a blue rinse.

If ever there was an example of urban blight in the World of Progress, then 002 – Klick’s End surely showcases it. Further, it brings to the fore the urban origins of the look and feel of SLA Industries, the Glasgow of the 1980s under Margaret Thatcher. This Data Packet never lets you forget that the inhabitants of Klick’s End have been forgotten and left behind, their mortal, mental, and moral decay, it being particularly evident in the artwork depicting the grotesque inhabitants. The Data Packet’s reaction to the situation is also as scathingly typical of the times, a moral panic with an extreme solution, the BPN from the Moral Rights Division. There is no doubt that the orders in the BPN are morally objectionable, both in the game and out of it, and whilst it comes out of a sense of moral outrage within the game and is in-keeping with the World of Progress, there are going to be many gamers who find this aspect of 002 – Klick’s End too extreme for their tastes. Were I to run this, then I would have the members of The Quartet hunt them down with extreme prejudice – Klick’s End is their domain after all.

Physically, 002 – Klick’s End is up to the same high standards as oo1 – Ursa Carrien. The writing is succinct and gives everything that the GM needs to use the setting, whilst the art is excellent. In particular, the images of the inhabitants of Klick’s End are delightfully grotesque. If there is anything that the Data Packet is missing, it is maps and perhaps some GM advice. Maps would have been useful in helping the GM run 002 – Klick’s End, but then maps are always useful. Perhaps there is the possibility of a Data Packet of cartography? And GM advice because of the extreme nature of the BPN included.

Where 001 – Ursa Carrien just provided a monster to defeat, this second Data Packet gives much, much more, primarily the location and its situation for the players to explore and interact with, but also the new items and skill. At eleven pages in length, 002 – Klick’s End manages to pack in plenty of gaming and bags of atmosphere into what is about the right size.

Sunday, 1 May 2011

Villains Never Get Even

After a change of straplines with the last issue, Kobold Quarterly returns to its ever faithful, “The Switzerland of Edition Wars.” Which is a little odd, because this edition also happens to contain material for Green Ronin Publishing’s’ Dragon Age: Dark Fantasy Roleplaying, and that is yet to get involved in the fraternal squabble that is Dungeons & Dragons. Nevertheless, there are enough articles in this edition to satisfy devotees of Dungeons & Dragons, Fourth Edition and the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game alike. As to the theme behind this latest issue of Open Design's Kobold Quarterly, it is one of villains and villainy, and since villains never truly get even, it seems appropriate that the issue number is seventeen.

Getting under villainy’s hood begins with Michael Kortes’ “So We Meet Again!” Written for the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game, this gives optional extra powers called Adversary Abilities to both player characters and NPCs when they become sworn enemies, such as Ears to the Ground which grants a Diplomacy bonus when gathering information about your nemesis. Adversary Abilities are graded, so that initially only Returned Foe abilities can be gained, but after surviving subsequent encounters with each other, both will learn better ones, right up to Arch-Nemesis abilities. This is a neat idea that progressively gives an edge to the player characters whilst still making the villain more capable and more likely to survive a meeting with his foe. With “The Right Way to Do Wrong,” Brandon Hope switches scale in describing a nonet of cons and tricks that can be pulled by player character and NPC rogues alike. Although again written for the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game, the article is relatively light in terms of rules and mechanics, so they can be adapted to most games.

Stefen Styrsky’s “The Scourges of Vael Turog” describes the results of villainous efforts long in the past of Open Design’s forthcoming Midgard Campaign Setting. Derived from magical research the three diseases have mutated over the years, one being transmitted by handling magical items, another actually becoming a physical hazard and one last has gained a certain sentience. Although possible encounter groups are listed and a potential adventure detailed, what flavour the article has is lost under the mundanely mechanical rules of Dungeons & Dragons, Fourth Edition. Complementing all of this practice is “The Value of the Monster,” Monte Cook’s exploration of the monster and the villain in his regular Game Theories column, which nicely puts the meaning back in monster.

It is my heartfelt belief that every issue of Kobold Quarterly should include an adventure, so issue seventeen has given me no cause to grumble. “Ambush in Absalom” by Mark Moreland is an Official Pathfinder Society Quest, so is specifically designed for use as part of Paizo Publishing’s Pathfinder Society Organized Play campaign. This is a quick, and since it takes place in a sewer, a dirty affair that has the player characters attempting to locate a lost messenger who took a shortcut underground. Their instructions are that if they cannot find the messenger, they should at least find the message and deliver that. A mostly combat orientated affair for low level characters, this could be slipped into a game set in the Free City of Zobeck. Likewise, “The Black Goat,” the Zobeck tavern famed for its mundane magic show as fully described by Richard L. Smith II is located to a locale of the GM’s choice, along as the horror in the basement goes with it, of course.

From its title, it is clear that Matthew J. Hanson’s “Elf Needs Food Badly” has been inspired by one computer game at least, though with recipes as diverse as Candied Spider and Gnomesalt Taffy, it could just as easily been influenced by a more modern MMORPG. Anyway, this article for Dungeons & Dragons, Fourth Edition, describes fifteen magical foodstuffs and a Feat with which to cook them. When eaten during a rest, each provides a bonus to any Healing Surge plus an extra effect such as Poysenberry Pie’s poison resistance. This could be a fun addition to your Dungeons & Dragons, Fourth Edition, but tastes will vary. Candied Spider anyone…?

“Secrets of the Four Golden Gates” by David Adams provides support for the monk in Dungeons & Dragons, Fourth Edition with four new societies and their associated items. For example, adherents of the Path of the Singing Sparrows greatly value nature, and sparrows and songbirds in particular. Their bamboo flutes are capable of inflicting damage when played, and each day, will grant a listener extra Hit Points. The items are themselves well done and nicely supported with plenty of background.

For anyone with a penchant for pyrotechnics, Jonathan McAnulty offers up “Magical Squibs, Crackers, and Fireworks” for the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game. Often just as dangerous for the user as they are for the target, these offer something a little more than just bangs and bedazzlements. For example, a Blinding-Goblin Cracker explodes in a blinding flash, whilst the sparkles from a Guiding Rocket always drift to the North. Anyway, these can add pleasing bang to your game, and would be sure to fascinate any overly curious Halfling.

Completely ignoring the Edition Wars, Quinn Murphy’s “On the Streets and In the Books,” which details two new sets of rules for Dragon Age: Dark Fantasy Roleplaying, both of which come with their own Stunt Tables for when the players roll well. As the title suggests the second of these sets covers research, whilst the former handles chases and fights in chases. Both new rule sets are useful, but there is an imbalance between the two, the rules for chases being more detailed, but have fewer options on the Stunt Table, whilst the opposite is the case for the research rules. It is the concept behind the Stunt Tables in Dragon Age: Dark Fantasy Roleplaying that Jeff Tidball discusses in “Feats of Stunning Might and Brilliance,” looking at how they work and why they are fun before suggesting how concept might be applied to Dungeons & Dragons. As a bolt on feature this does not add much in the way of complexity to earlier iterations of the game, but to later versions that have Feats, it does and in part, would it actually being doing that existing aspects of the Dungeons & Dragons rules are meant to be doing already?

Tom Allman’s “Lackeys, Hirelings, and Henchmen” and “Group Concepts” by Mario Podeschi all but complement each other. Both are generic articles, although the latter is written for the Midgard Campaign Setting suggesting as it does ways, means, and reasons as to why the player characters come together. It gives several campaign frameworks under which they can do so, from all playing members of the same race or species, profession or organisation to being from the same family or on the same quest. Accompanying each framework is a number of examples particular to Midgard, though there is nothing to stop a DM adapting them to his campaign setting, each of which shows how a framework can give a campaign direction. Once a group concept and its particulars has been decided upon, the player characters are going to want some hired help and the DM some interesting NPCs, to which Allman’s “Lackeys, Hirelings, and Henchmen” provides a serviceable introduction. Plus, if the characters want a four legged friend, Skip Williams describes everything that you might want to know about owning a guard dog in “The Barking Kind of Party Animal” for column, “Ask the Kobold.”

“Getting Ahead” is about as bad a title you could get for an article devoted to the power of the severed head, but fortunately, there is a deliciously evil streak to relish in Ben McFarland’s article for the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game. The Craft Shrunken Head Feat is one that every tribal shaman or necromancer should consider taking. Lastly, should an adventure result in character death, then “It’s Not Supposed to End This Way” by Scott A. Murray describes six ways to avoid it, though not without consequences, which should be entertaining to play.

As we have come to expect, this issue of Kobold Quarterly is rounded out with its usual supporting features. There are the cartoons, the letters page, the book reviews, and the regular column that ends every issue, Free City of Zobeck. This is in addition to Monte Cook’s already mentioned theories about monsters, but there is also another interview with “If You're Having Fun,” this time with Jeff Tidball, author of supplements for RPGs as diverse as Ars Magica, All Flesh Must Be Eaten, and The Edge, and co-publisher of the excellent Things We Think About Games.

After the previous issue, Kobold Quarterly #17 is as a whole, not as interesting an edition. Understandably, Kobold Quarterly #16 had more of focus and more of a reason for that focus in the announcement about the Midgard Campaign Setting, but it also had more energy to it. This is not suggest that there is any one bad article in this issue or that it being an odd numbered issue that it is suffering from Star Trek movie curse, but rather as a whole this issue is not quite as satisfying. Nevertheless, the articles are themselves good, with “Getting Ahead,” “Group Concepts,” and “The Right Way to Do Wrong” all being excellent, making Kobold Quarterly #17 another solid issue.