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

Saturday, 7 May 2016

Unparalleled Alternatives

For many British gamers, their first encounter with Luther Arkwright came with Imagine #14, the June, 1984 issue of TSR (UK)’s house magazine. The issue gave an introduction to the character and to the seminal and award-winning comic strip by Bryan Talbot, The Adventures of Luther Arkwright, as well as presenting a scenario, ‘The Fire Opal of Set’, written for use with Classic Traveller and TSR, Inc.’s own Star Frontiers, which came complete with pre-generated player characters that could be played as a gaming introduction to the setting. The setting for the comic is not one Earth, but many, across which a war is being fought between one parallel, Zero-Zero, and the Disruptors. The latter seek to destabilise and control multiple parallels, typically through advanced technologies and the backing of totalitarian governments, to their own ends. Zero-Zero, an advanced scientific utopia, seeks to prevent this, its primary agent being Luther Arkwright, an escaped Disruptor trainee, who as the next step in Human evolution is unique in all the parallels and can psychically transport himself across the parallels.

The Adventures of Luther Arkwright, recently reprinted in a collected volume, is exquisitely drawn, its setting and central character a nod to the works of Michael Moorcock and the swinging television adventure series of the 1960s—The Avengers, The Champions, Adam Adamant Lives, and so on. Originally conceived in the 1970s, it would not be fully published until 1989 and go on to receive multiple awards as well as a sequel, Heart of Empire, or the Legacy of Luther Arkwright, a decade later. An audio adaptation was released in 2005. In terms of gaming, 23rd Parallel Games published The Adventures of Luther Arkwright, in 1992, but unfortunately it was ill received. More recently, the second iteration of Hogshead Publishing, announced that Zero-Zero, an RPG based on The Adventures of Luther Arkwright and using the d20 System, was due to be published in 2004, but it did not come to fruition. Then in 2015, The Design Mechanism, the Canadian publisher best known for RuneQuest 6 released Luther Arkwright: Roleplaying Across the Parallels.

Luther Arkwright: Roleplaying Across the Parallels though, is not a roleplaying game in its own right, but supplement that requires the use of RuneQuest 6. It casts the player characters as agents of Valhalla Project, a programme directed by the computer W.O.T.A.N on Zero-Zero, to monitor and counter Disruptor operations. Each is highly gifted being trained experts in their field and in many cases also possessing psychic powers, perhaps being in the progenitors of homo novus, the next step in human evolution. Whether they are indigenous to a particular parallel, able to operate through empathic links forged with other selves on other parallels, or shunting between parallels via advanced technology, the agents of Valhalla will be participating in missions that will ultimately lead into the events of the first series—roughly analogous the early 1980s.

Character or Agent Zero-Zero creation in Luther Arkwright: Roleplaying Across the Parallels follows the step-by-step process as RuneQuest 6 and other Basic Roleplaying derived RPGs. A player rolls dice for his attributes and from them derives the starting values for his skills. Then the player has three sets of points to assign—one for his Culture, derived from his Parallel Type and his Social Type; one for his Career; and lastly a set to spend as he likes, representing his training by Valhalla. Several new skills included, whilst others are updated, to reflect the fact that the many Earths of  Luther Arkwright: Roleplaying Across the Parallels are far more technologically advanced than the Bronze Age of RuneQuest 6.

It should be noted that the character creation process is not an easy one. Primarily this is due to having to flip back and forth between Luther Arkwright: Roleplaying Across the Parallels and the RuneQuest 6 rulebook. This is exacerbated by the supplement’s slightly poor organisation and the need to work out which skills an Agent needs to represent the selected background.

Our sample Zero-Zero Agent is Lucretia Raslo, an airship mechanic on Parallel 13.16.94. Her family runs shipyards in New New York, building and repairing airships. Lucretia followed in her father’s footsteps, her mechanical aptitude being noted at an early age, and became a mechanic and engineer. This was despite her mother’s efforts to teach her the social niceties. With little chance of finding an eligible suitor for Lucretia, her mother’s attention turned to her younger daughter. This left Lucretia to work where she is happiest, that is, with machinery. Her knack for diagnosing and solving mechanical problems—represented by her Technical Trait—was what brought her to the attention of Valhalla Project Agents.

Lucretia Raslo
STR 8 CON 10 SIZ 10 DEX 11 INT 17 POW 16 CHA 11

Action Points: 3 Damage Modifier: -1D2 Experience Modifier: 0 Healing Rate: 2
Build: Heavy Height: 161 cm Weight: 67 kg
Hit Points
Head 4 Chest 6 Abdomen 5 L. Arm 3 R. Arm 3 L. Leg 4 R. Leg 4
Luck Points: 3
Prana Points: 16
Tenacity Points: 16
Movement Rate: 6
Strike Rank: 13

Standard Skills:
Athletics 19%, Brawn 53%, Conceal 27%, Customs 80%, Dance 37%, Deceit 28%, Endurance 45%, Evade 28%, First Aid 28%, Home Parallel 39%, Influence 22%, Insight 33%, Native Tongue 70%, Perception 48%, Sing 27%, Stealth 28%, Swim 18%, Unarmed 19%, Willpower 52%

Professional Skills:
Commerce 43%, Craft (Blacksmithing) 57%, Craft (Embroidery) 37%,Drive (Land Vehicle) 42%, Electronics 53%, Engineering 64%, Gambling 58%, Mechanisms 73%, Pilot (Airship) 44%, Streetwise 26%

Passions
Loyalty to Society 53%
Love (Sister) 47%
Hate (Gang) 53%
Dependency (Gambling) 20%

Parallel Type: Industrial Age
Sociological Type: Manufacturing

Trait
Technical

In addition to the various changes to the skills to reflect the width of technology found across the parallels, the Magic Points of RuneQuest 6 are replaced with Prana Points that fuel the setting’s Psionics and Mystic talents. Each Agent also has an attribute new to RuneQuest 6. This is Tenacity. It is equal to an Agent’s Power attribute and works like the mental or psychological equivalent of his Hit Points. Loss of Tenacity Points from shocks or sanity-shaking events can lead to an Agent loosing his mind.

Further, each Agent has one or more Traits that brought to the attention of the Valhalla Project and lead to his recruitment. These can be as simple as Charming, Polyglot, Quick, and Unshakeable, and most of these provide a base advantage rather than require the use an Agent’s Prana Points. Conversely, the rules for Psionics are more complex, though only slightly so, and do require the use of an Agent’s Prana Points. Once an Agent has rolled, or selected, the Psionic Trait, it opens up further options—Disciplines such as Biokinesis, Empathy, Telekinesis, Telepathy, and so on. Each Discipline possesses a number of Talents. For example, the Talents for Telepathy include Mental Scan, Mental Shield, Mind Probe, Telepathy, Thought Implant, and Psychic Wrack. Each Discipline will have its own skill, for example, Discipline (Biokinesis), that is rolled whenever a Talent is used from said Discipline.

As long as an Agent has Prana Points to spend and can make the appropriate Discipline checks, he is relatively free to use his Psionic abilities as he wants. What stops him is the Psionic Intensity he has for each Discipline. Equal to one twentieth of his Discipline, it governs the number of Talents he can use at any one time as well as the effects of some Talents. For example, the Focus Force Talent can be used to inflict damage equal to the user’s Intensity, whereas the protective value provided by Mental Shield is also equal to his Intensity.

Another option, representing the route taken by Luther Arkwright himself in the comics, is that of Mysticism. Consisting of a number of Paths of Enlightenment, such as Focal Yoga, Shaolin Monastics, and Transcendentalist Meditation, each of which have their own Talents. Where the Psionics of Luther Arkwright: Roleplaying Across the Parallels presents a whole new set of powers and mechanics for RuneQuest 6, the rules for Mysticism in this supplement function exactly as they do in RuneQuest 6. It is possible for an Agent to begin the game already on one of these Paths of Enlightenment, but their primary use is twofold. Initially as abilities for NPCs—Luther Arkwright has them, but later on, as a campaign progresses, as something for the Agents to aspire to.

As powerful as Psionics and Mystic can be in Luther Arkwright: Roleplaying Across the Parallels, their use, along with the difficulties and dangers of combating the machinations of the Disruptors, places a lot of stress upon an Agent and makes them prone to certain Dependencies. These can be as mundane as Alcoholism or Gaming (gambling), or as antisocial as Stealing or Voyeurism, or worse. Every Agent begins play with at least one Dependency—and can have more—and the strength of a Dependency also weakens his Tenacity, that is, his mental fortitude. Each Dependency has a percentage value that works like a skill, but any checks against it are ones that an Agent wants to fail lest it grow like any other skill. Again, this is another reflection of the comic series in which the characters, including Luther himself, suffer from addictions, whether drugs or behaviours. In game though, the effect of any Dependency will primarily be part of a scenario or ongoing campaign. These rules also mark Luther Arkwright: Roleplaying Across the Parallels as a setting for mature players.

Although Luther Arkwright: Roleplaying Across the Parallels has to encompass a wide range of technology, much like the comic, it places an emphasis upon steampunk and clockpunk devices. This does not mean that other technologies are not ignored as various examples of alchemical and chemical, psionic and multiversal, and computer and nanotech technology are also given. For the Agent who likes to tinker, there are rules for creating devices of their own, including vehicles and firearms. These feed into the supplement’s new rules for handling firearms and vehicles, which again encompass a wide array of types and technologies.

Having got the technical aspects of a Luther Arkwright: Roleplaying Across the Parallels out of the way, the last third of the supplement devotes itself to the background. This starts with W.O.T.A.N, the Valhalla Program, and the Disruptors, but as much as they figure in the setting, the focus of this background is the infinite number of Parallels and the means to travel between them. Each parallel is significantly different to its neighbours and the further a parallel is away from ZeroZero, the more likely it is diverge from ZeroZero. Some parallels might be radioactive wastelands or frigid icehouses following runaway climate change, but there are common themes running across a great many of them. These are known as ‘variations’, for example, an Aztec Empire variation in which Christopher Columbus was executed for heresy and Spain is now the vanguard against an invasion from the New World; a British Empire variation in which the Great Fire of London did not happen, allowing mathematician Sir Christopher Wren to become astronomer royal and spur a scientific revolution that would lead to better timekeeping and thus improved navigation by the Royal Navy, ensuring its dominance decades earlier; and German Republic variation in which Franklin D. Roosevelt is lost at sea on a trip to Clipperton Island and an isolationist president is elected in 1940; and so on. 

The discussion of Parallels is supported by numerous examples, each ready for the GM to drop an adventure into, as well as guidelines for creating his own. These are very much pointers to spur the GM’s imagination rather than a set of tables to create Parallels from start to finish, though perhaps such a set of tables might have been of use for the GM new to The Adventures of Luther Arkwright. The inclusion of such a set of tables would also support the other technical aspects of Luther Arkwright: Roleplaying Across the Parallels that aid in construction of devices, weapons, and vehicles. Perhaps they could be included in companion volume?

Advice for the GM is kept relatively short, but is supported by full stats for the various characters from The Adventures of Luther Arkwright and Heart of Empire as well as a short scenario. ‘On Thin Ice’ sees Valhalla Program Agents attempt to thwart a Disruptor plan to destabilise 13.16.94, a Parallel caught in a new ice age. Amusingly, it takes place in Design Mechanism’s home country of Canada and even has a chance for the Agents to encounter a Baron Harkonnen-like alternate version of Mayor Frode! Any fans who remember Imagine #14 may also note that illustrations from its adventure, ‘Fire Opal of Set’, also appear in ‘On Thin Ice’ as thumbnail portraits for various NPCs. Rounding out Luther Arkwright: Roleplaying Across the Parallels are a complete write-up of the Luther Arkwright Saga—The Adventures of Luther Arkwright and Heart of Empire—and an appendix of extra sources and inspirations, all of them worth investigating in their own right, though that said, the inclusion of some nonfiction sources on alternate history would have been nice additions.

Physically, Luther Arkwright: Roleplaying Across the Parallels is a slim hardback down in black and white. In some ways this is a pity, since the Luther Arkwright Saga has been done in colour. That said, black and white certainly suits the exquisite and beautifully detailed line art of the first series. In places Luther Arkwright: Roleplaying Across the Parallels does need a tighter edit, but really it needs to be slightly better organised for ease of use, mostly because the GM will need to refer to RuneQuest 6 for its rules and because of the complexity of the setting. Some may also  find the choice of a smaller typeface wearying on the eyes.

Luther Arkwright: Roleplaying Across the Parallels is not necessarily a setting nor a supplement for the uninitiated or the non-fan of Luther Arkwright. If you fall into that category, then go read the graphic novels and then come back to this review, because The Adventures of Luther Arkwright is far, far better than this or any other review of mine. Luther Arkwright: Roleplaying Across the Parallels definitely feels like a toolkit for running a game across the Parallels. It is solidly done toolkit, but nevertheless, given the complexities of the setting and of the rules, Luther Arkwright: Roleplaying Across the Parallels is a sourcebook for the experienced GM and players alike.