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

Saturday, 27 February 2016

Strange Ways

The universe is stranger than we think… Beneath our world and the rest of the natural universe is a sea of dark energy known as the ‘Strange’ that can be accessed, traversed, and sailed by those in the know who have the ‘Spark’. Dotted across this chaotic sea are any number of unique worlds, varying wildly in size and possessing their own laws of reality. These are ‘Recursions’, the closest of which, caught in the shoals around the Earth, are reflections of the human imagination, even of humanity’s fiction. Many of these Recursions can be accessed from the Earth and then from each other by those known as the ‘Quickened’. As ‘Recursors’, only they possess the ‘Spark’ necessary to make the Translation between Recursions and thus explore the Sumerian-influenced high fantasy that is Ardeyn or the advanced bio-tech dystopia of Ruk, walk the fog-bound streets of 1890s London in the Recursion known as 221b or confront the Cthulhu Mythos in Innsmouth, and more. There are adventures to had, discoveries to to made, and treasures to be found—not just gold or jewels, but powerful devices known as Cyphers that can bend reality on each of the Recursions. Yet there are dangers too—dragons and shoggoths, jabberwock and sarks, weird drugs and great artifacts, and worse—planetovores, great creatures or constructs that devour whole worlds. With the Strange open to the Quickened, Earth is vulnerable to attack by these creatures, and there are factions on Ardeyn, Ruk, and the Earth that would see the planet attacked and consumed by a planetovore. Equally there are many Quickened who would not see this happen.

This is the setting for The Strange, the second RPG to be published by Monte Cook Games, following on from the highly successful, award-winning Numenera. Released following a successful Kickstarter campaign, The Strange uses the same Cypher System mechanics as Numenera and shares some of the same concepts, but its genre and setting is radically different. For The Strange does not involve just the one genre or the one setting, but it is a multi-genre, world-hopping RPG in which the player characters can jump from one world or Recursion to another world or Recursion. Each time they jump, they not only change worlds or Recursions, but also bodies and powers. Further, they might change their gender, their species, and their genre, from modern day Earth to fantasy to Science Fiction to… Some of these Recursions are all original to The Strange, but others are derived from fiction, such as the works of H.P. Lovecraft, Lewis Carroll, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and others.

In Numenera, there are just three character types—Glaives, Nanos, or Jacks. Glaives are warriors, either wearing heavy armour and wielding heavy weaponry or relying light arms and armour to give them movement and agility. Nanos are sorcerers, capable of tapping into the Numenera to alter reality or learn more about it, wielding ‘Esoteries’ to command nano-spirits. Jacks are somewhere in between, being flexible in what they can do, capable of learning to fight, using ‘Esoteries’, and more. In The Strange, the three are replaced by Vectors, Paradoxes, and Spinners. Vectors are physical types, whether it is about combat, movement, or action; Paradoxes are scientists/sorcerers, who can use science, psionics, spells or similar to draw upon The Strange and alter reality; and Spinners are charismatic storytellers, persuaders, and dissemblers.

At their core, each character is defined by three stats—Might, Speed, and Intellect, and a descriptive sentence. This sentence has the structure of “I am a [adjective] [noun] who [verbs]”, where the noun is the character’s Type; the adjective a descriptor, such as Clever or Intelligent, that defines the character and how he does things; and the verb is the Focus or what the character does that makes him unique. For example, ‘I am a Tough Vector who is Licenced to Carry’, ‘I am an Intelligent Paradox who Solves Mysteries’, and ‘I am an Appealing Spinner who Works the System’. A player will also need to assign some points to the three Stats and choose some options in terms of Background—how the character became a Paradox, Spinner, or Vector—and select some skills from the Type. The choice of descriptor and the verb further defines and modifies the character, whilst the Background and the Connection help hook the character into the setting. Characters begin at Tier One and can advance as far as Tier Six, gaining skills and abilities along the way. The three sample characters attempt to showcase what the system can do. The Paradox is a native of Earth, the Spinner is from Ardeyn, and the Vector is a native of Ruk.

Huongsem Kim
‘I am a Clever Paradox Nano who Solves Mysteries’
Tier One Paradox
Might 08 (Edge 0)
Speed 10 (Edge 0)
Intellect 18 (Edge 1)
Effort 1

Cyphers (3): (Three Cyphers selected by the GM)
Revisions: Exception (1 Intellect), Premonition (2 Intellect), Investigator
Skills: Trained in the Strange, Train in Lies & Trickery, Trained in Mental Defence, Trained in Computer, Trained in Perception, Trained in Identifying & Assessing danger/lies/quality/importance/function/power, Practiced with light weapons
Equipment: Street clothes, light handgun, laptop computer, torch, utility knife, mobile phone, $500

‘I am an Appealing Spinner who Shepherds the Dead’
Tier One Spinner
Might 10 (Edge 0)
Speed 12 (Edge 1)
Intellect 14 (Edge 1)
Effort 1

Cyphers (2): (Two Cyphers selected by the GM)
Physical Skills: Trained in Persuasion, Trained in Pleasant Interaction, Trained to Resist Persuasion & Seduction Attempts, Practiced with light and medium weapons
Twists: Fast Talk (1 Intellect), Understanding (2 Intellect)
Equipment: Ardeyn clothing, light armour, quarterstaff, explorers, incense, 10 matchsticks, 400 crowns

“I am a Graceful Vector who Controls Infiltrates”
Tier One Vector
Might 12 (Edge 1)
Speed 14 (Edge 1)
Intellect 10 (Edge 0)
Effort 1

Cyphers (2): (Two Cyphers selected by the GM)
Moves: No Need for Weapons, Fleet of Foot
Skills: Trained in Unarmoured Speed Defence, Trained with Running, Trained with Climbing, Trained in Balance & Careful Movement, Trained in All Physical Performing Arts, Practiced with weapons
Equipment: Ruk Clothing, light armour, knife, light tools, umbilical, account with 50 bits

In comparison to Numenera, there are fewer options when it comes to a player choosing a Focus in The Strange. The problem is not only that there are fewer of them in The Strange, but they are divided between the different Recursions. What this means is that there are certain Foci that a Recursor from Earth cannot have until he Translates to a Recursion where said Focus appears. Until then, he is limited to those available on his home world or Recursion. For example, a character from Earth who is ‘...a Strange Paradox who Conducts Weird Science’ might Translate to Ruk where he becomes ‘...an Strange Paradox who Processes Information’. Now some of the Foci given are ‘Draggable’ in that when a character Translates, a Focus can go with him unchanged. He still has the choice to change his Focus if he wants to. As much as the idea of Translation and changing the Recursor when he goes from one Recursion to another fits the setting of The Strange, this limited number of Foci also restricts choice in terms of character design and in comparison with Numenera, where there were no limitations in terms of Foci choice, The Strange could really do with more Foci and thus with more choice. Now to an extent this is offset by the default set-up in The Strange where every player character begins the game aware of the Strange, Recursions, and the ability to Translate, and can thus choose freely from all of the Foci.

Mechanically, The Strange uses the single mechanic of the Cypher System—the roll of a single twenty-sided die against a Difficulty, ranging from zero up to ten. The actual Target Number is the value of the Difficulty multiplied by three, thus giving a range between three and thirty—any action with a Difficulty of zero is automatic. Modifiers, whether from favourable circumstances, skills, or good equipment, can decrease the Difficulty, whilst skills give bonuses to the roll. A character can also spend points from his Stat pools—on a one-to-one basis—to reduce the Difficulty, though a player should bear in mind that the Stat pools reflect his ability to act and take damage when attacked. The cost of spending points from a Stat pool is reduced by its associated Edge, as are the use of a Paradox’s Revisions, a Spinner’s Twists, and a Vector’s Moves. In some cases, this will reduce the cost to zero, thus reducing it to an innate action. For example, Huongsem has an Intellect Edge of 1, which reduces the cost of his Exception and Premonition Revisions. His Exception Revision costs one point from his Intellect pool to use, but his Intellect Edge is also one, so that reduces the cost to zero and means that he can do it instinctively. No effort is required. Whereas, his Premonition Revision costs two points from his Intellect pool, so he still needs to spend a point of Intellect to use it because his Edge reduces the cost by one. Results of nineteen indicate a success and a Minor Effect, which might be extra damage in combat or something listed for a character, such as ‘Hitting a Muscle’ for the ‘Carries a Quiver’, which inflicts Speed damage as well as ordinary damage. A roll of a natural twenty also inflicts extra damage as well as a Major Effect.

While the system is simple enough—even if the GM adds any of the given options—the radical, even elegant aspect to the Cypher System mechanics is that the GM never, ever rolls a die. So whilst a character rolls to attack as normal, when an opponent attacks him, the character rolls to avoid the attack. Essentially the mechanic focus of the game is always on the player characters and they are always the focus of the action and the story. At the same, the shift for the GM is on running and presenting the story, not the dice rolls, and as a development of this idea, player characters receive Experience Points in again, another radical fashion when compared to other RPGs. First and foremost, they are not earned for defeating opponents, overcoming challenges, and so on, but for finding interesting things and making discoveries. Secondly, a player character gains them when the GM ‘intrudes’ on the game in storytelling terms to present the character with a challenge or difficulty, such as his crossbow string snapping whilst in combat or the rope slipping whilst climbing. Accept this ‘Intrusion’ and the character earns two Experience Points, one of which he must give to another character. A player could reject this ‘Intrusion’, but that would cost him an Experience Point. If a character rolled a natural one at any time, the GM can give an ‘Intrusion’ that cannot be bought off. However it comes, a GM ‘Intrusion’ replaces the need for him to roll dice and encourages him to participate in the telling of the story.

In addition to their own abilities, the player characters in The Strange can find and use cyphers. They come in two types. Devices are simple items, commonly in the form of pills or grenades, such as a Curse Bringer, Monoblade, or Melt All, that have a one-time use and in each case grant a Recursor an amazing power—if only for that moment. Recursors are not expected to hold onto devices such as this for very long and can only carry a few anyway, but they are expected to use them at will. This is for two reasons. First, the GM will always let the player characters find more, and two, using cyphers gives a Recursor to shine and look great. More desirable are the artifacts, as they have greater endurance and more obvious application. For example, a Dragontongue Weapon or a Skill Bud. Unfortunately, artifacts have a depletion factor, a chance that they will cease to function. Artifacts are not always perfect and may have quirks that the GM can use as ‘Intrusions’. In the setting of The Strange, there are a number of Quickened who have learned to Translate and who go Recursion Mining for cyphers to bring back home.

A good proportion of The Strange is devoted to describing its background and setting. This begins by examining the mechanics of Translation and what is important here is that Translation takes time and effort—it is not instantaneous. Now it can be sped up and the process can be eased so though it is not as disorientating—and each player character Type can participate to ease and hasten the process, but it never takes less than ten minutes and it can be as long as four hours. Further, when Recursors first Translate to a Recursion, they always appear at a set location and later, if they Translate from a different location and then come back, they will always appear at the new location. This firmly places the emphasis in The Strange on adventuring and gaming on the various Recursions or in the Strange itself rather than on the act of Translation. There is little chance of there being a chase from one Recursion to another because of both the time delay and location limitations. Most of the time, Translation is an act of concentration, but there are gates and devices, often permanent ones, that connect Recursions and make Translating easy.

The description of the various Recursions begins with the Earth. Since it is our Earth, it really only looks at the Earth and its connections to The Strange, primarily the various agencies with an interest in these connections. The primary agency is The Estate, a private science foundation dedicated to protecting the Earth, exploring the Strange, and preventing the development of technology that might ping the Strange and attract the attention of a planetovore. The default set-up for The Strange has the player characters as agents of The Estate. Other agencies, like the government funded OSR (Office of Strategic Recursion) want to use the technologies and discoveries from other Recursions to weaponise them, whilst the September Group wants to to build advanced technology.

As well as the Strange itself—how to navigate it and what can be found there—the two Recursions that receive the most coverage are Ardeyn and Ruk. Formed from the prison of an evil god called Lotan the Sinner, Ardeyn is a world of mighty magics with a lengthy history. Lotan the Sinner’s gaolers numbered  the Maker, his Seven Incarnations, and their angelic qephilim servants, but since their fall long ago, Ardeyn has been without protection. In their stead, humans and fallen qephilim seek to protect the world against dragons, soulshorn, homunculi of the Betrayer, invaders from alternate recursions, demons of Lotan, and worse. Where Ardeyn is a fantasy world, Ruk is a Science Fiction Recursion. Located in the shoals of Earth, Ruk is a bio-tech, bio-punk near-dystopia, that although self-contained, is constantly expanding. Rife with factions, the not-quite human inhabitants of Ruk have lost their history and constantly search for what they call the True Code, the original basis for their race. The capital, Harmonious, is relatively safe, but beyond this floating city there are spore worms, venom troopers, free-roaming constructs from the Qinod Singularity, and glial storms. Where most of Ardeyn are not aware of Earth, it hangs faintly in the sky over Ruk and many of the inhabitants of Ruk see the future of Earth as being tied to that of Ruk. Other Recursions include Atom Nocturne, an anime-influenced world of youth and psychic superpowers; Catalyst, a post-singularity Recursion of runaway transformation; Crow Hollow, a world-tree home to anthropomorphic crows and ravens who run the Glittering Market; and more.

Both the Strange and all of the Recursions in The Strange are described in some detail and extensively supported with places, personalities, and possible adventure hooks. Indeed, both Ardeyn and Ruk could have RPG settings all of their very own. This is in addition the RPG’s bestiary and list of cyphers, the latter complementing the various artifact descriptions given for each Recursion. In the long term, the player characters have an interesting for the Strange—they can create a Recursion of their own. This requires a Starseed and no little effort, primarily in the form of Experience Points. This is an interesting option, but the rules for do feel slightly underwritten, but doubtless there will be a sourcebook devoted to this at some point.

As with Numenera, the GM advice in The Strange is well written and helpful. It includes sections on how to use the rules, building stories, and specifically running a game of The Strange. Together this covers things such as how to set task difficulty levels and using GM Intrusions properly, how to introduce the game and understanding the mechanics, challenging the player characters and how to involve characters from different Recursions. It is supported with a single adventure, ‘The Curious Case of Tom Mallard’, plus various adventure hooks. Like the RPG itself, the adventure assumes that the characters begin the game aware of the Strange.

Physically, The Strange is as well presented as Numenera. The writing is clear and the book is redolent with superb, full colour illustrations. It is also clearly laid out and organised. Yet at the same time, The Strange is messy. In a good way and a bad—which comes of it being a multi-genre, multi-world RPG. This means that the artwork has to depict a variety of things and styles; and it does that. The setting though, is not a coherent whole, but interconnected parts held together by a framework. This may make the RPG difficult to run at the outset—despite the good advice for the GM—because there are too many options and because The Strange has one singular flaw.

As an RPG, as The Strange has a flaw that hinders initial play, or at least anyone’s first approach to the game. Simply, it utterly lacks an ‘elevator pitch’, a simple statement that defines what the game is about and what the characters do. In comparison, Numenera did this—it had a whole chapter up front that told the GM and the player what the game was about. The Strange lacks this and in an RPG as conceptually complex as it, it seems like a very odd omission. In its stead there is a leaflet from The Estate, but it is not an adequate pitch for the game. Worse, it is not until fifty pages into The Strange that it is fully explained how a Recursor translates and switches to a new body—in the process becoming part of the new Recursion—rather than translating in whole. There are hints up until this point, but it seems odd not to have this vital piece of information up front, especially when the default set-up in The Strange is that the player characters will be aware of it from the start of a campaign. Similarly, it feels odd not to have a scenario in The Strange that introduces its setting and concepts, which might again have helped with this issue.

Despite the oddities of these omissions, The Strange is a well-produced, interesting RPG. Although there have been many RPGs that have done world-hopping, genre-hopping, and so on, like Tri Tac Games’ Fringeworthy, Chaosium, Inc.’s Worlds of Wonder, or West End Games’ TORG, but oddly the game that The Strange is closest too is TSR, Inc.’s 1993 Amazing Engine. In that RPG, a player created a core character and could take said core character from one game to another, from the alien-monster blast ‘em up of Bughunters to Tabloid!, a spoof comedy setting of sensationalist journalism. The process though, was between games/settings and not within the setting of the game itself, whereas it is within the setting of The Strange. The multiple settings also means that The Strange is also greatly expandable, with new Foci and Descriptors, new Recursions, and so on. This is in addition to expanding upon the Recursions given in The Strange. Similarly The Strange is also infinitely expandable with the GM’s own material, whether of his own creation or derived from his favourite fiction, film or television series, or even RPG. (It should be noted that the Recursions in The Strange based on other sources are all based on out of copyright intellectual properties.)

As a framework, The Strange is a rich, well realised RPG. It is not quite as accessible as it should be and not all of the settings are quite as rich as they would be if the game was just devoted to the one setting. Nevertheless, the settings are interesting, varied, and rife with gaming possibilities. 

Friday, 26 February 2016

A Shadowed Sanctuary

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

The Star’s Refuge is the third adventure written for characters who have entered the Expert Path, that is of Third Level or higher. It is written by Monte Cook, best known as a co-designer of Dungeons & Dragons, Third Edition and as designer of Numenera, and comes as a five page, 8.07 MB PDF. Physically, The Star’s Refuge is decently presented. The writing is clear and simple, and the illustrations are good.

The scenario is set in an area known as Troll’s Fist during the growing reach of the ‘shadow’ of the Demon Lord, his influence having grown as the wall has weakened between our reality and the Void where he is imprisoned. Thus the undead walk the land, swarming village after village; trolls and other creatures strike at the remnants of the Empire with seeming impunity; and cultists boldly sacrifice the innocent in droves in order to bring the Demon Lord’s imminent arrival ever closer… To the ordinary peoples of the blighted lands east of the Troll Mountains, there appears to be no hope, but there are legends of a portal in the wilderness that leads to sanctuary from the growing madness and murder—a sanctuary known as the Last Refuge.

Unfortunately it has grown to be too much for Troll’s Fist. What forces there were that might have protected the region have long retreated to the fastness of West Hold and those who remain have no protection—not even the player characters can stand against the dangers that stalk Troll’s Fist. Whether they have come to the region for altruistic reasons, because they have reasons of their own for seeking out the Last Refuge, or because they have been hired to do so, perhaps the player characters might be able to persuade the remaining inhabitants of the region to evacuate, though even this is fraught with danger.

This set up is one that the GM of Shadow of the Demon Lord will have to develop himself, but the threat from monsters—human and otherwise, should be ongoing as the player characters first seek information about the location of the Last Refuge and and second, seek it out directly. The bulk of The Star’s Refuge is devoted to the sanctuary itself and more importantly, the means of gaining entrance. This lies at the heart of the scenario because the adventurers have to ask themselves how far they will go in order to find sanctuary for the inhabitants of Troll’s Fist. The scenario sets up a moral dilemma for the player characters and…

Well that is it. That is really all there is to The Star’s Refuge. There is no predetermined outcome and whatever happens is really down to the decisions taken by the player characters.

The Star’s Refuge is a challenging encounter. There is nothing wrong in that, but it is a challenge that may not find a home with all groups, for whom it will be unsatisfying, even unenjoyable, to both play and answer.  For others though, the very nasty moral dilemma at the heart of The Star’s Refuge will be lead to a session or two’s worth of memorable gaming.

Saturday, 20 February 2016

There, but mostly Back Again

2013 was an exceptional year for Lovecraftian investigative horror for it saw the release of not one, but two campaigns. Both start from, and take the investigators in, radically different directions. One is Eternal Lies, written for Trail of Cthulhu and published by Pelgrane Press, whilst the other is The Sense of the Sleight-of-Hand Man: A Dreamlands Campaign for Call of Cthulhu, published by Arc Dream Publishing. Written for use with Call of Cthulhu, Sixth Edition, The Sense of the Sleight-of-Hand Man is radical in three ways. First, it is set in the Dreamlands, that realm of dreams that can be accessed by many Earthly sleepers, and is thus only the second campaign to be set there after Chaosium, Inc.'s The Dreaming StoneSecond, it begins where many Call of Cthulhu campaigns end up (see spoiler below). Third, it forgoes the traditional onionskin format that have underpinned the majority of the fifteen or so campaigns published for Call of Cthulhu since 1982.

Originally published as a scenario in Worlds of Cthulhu #6 in 2009, The Sense of the Sleight-of-Hand Man has since been expanded and published as a full campaign following a successful Kickstarter campaign. For its inspiration it draws from H.P. Lovecraft’s Dream Cycle of stories—‘The Doom That Came to Sarnath’, ‘The Cats of Ulthar’, and ‘The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath’ in particular, as well as being inspired by Wallace Stevens’ poem of the same name, ‘The Sense of the Sleight-of-Hand Man’. Despite the majority of the campaign being set in the Dreamlands, it actually begins in New York in 1925. Here the player characters—they are not investigators in the traditional sense of Call of Cthulhu nor are they yet Dreamers—begin the campaign as opium addicts, driven to their addiction by trauma suffered in the Great War, by artistic temperament, by delving too deeply into things that man was not meant to know, and so on. They all also owe their supplier money and it is the payment that he extracts that initiates the campaign proper. He does this by flinging them into the Dreamlands and it is from here that the player characters must find their way back to Earth. What follows is a languorous, almost Arabesque campaign that sees the Dreamers trek back and forth across the northern regions of the Dreamlands, all the whilst being taunted and manipulated by the Black Man of the West. It is a standalone campaign in two senses. First, because it is set in the Dreamlands—not the most normal of campaign settings, and second, because the campaign set-up calls for characters with addictions—not the norm in investigators either, though the campaign being set in 1925 does mean that it can lead into some of Call of Cthulhu’s major campaigns. Should the Dreamers find their way home, that is...

Although The Sense of the Sleight-of-Hand Man takes place within the Dreamlands, the Keeper need not own a copy of H.P. Lovecraft's Dreamlands: Roleplaying Beyond the Veil of Sleep to run it. Rules are provided for handling Directed Dreaming, the ability to manipulate dream world around the Dreamers, which replaces the Dreaming skill from H.P. Lovecraft's Dreamlands. Also absent is the Dream Lore skill, but the Cthulhu Mythos skill is retained and the campaign provides multiple means to learn more of it. That said, having access to H.P. Lovecraft's Dreamlands will be useful in terms of background material.

So that SPOILER…

In most Dreamlands scenarios, the Dreamers’ dream selves travel nightly to the Dreamlands whilst leaving their physical, Earthly bodies behind. In The Sense of the Sleight-of-Hand Man, the Dreamers are flung bodily into the Dreamlands, but not in their own bodies—and not even their own genders. Now Miskatonic River Press’ The Legacy of Arrius Lurco did something similar and just like in that campaign, this is an audacious piece of campaign design. One that is not done ‘just because’, but rather because it means is that the Dreamers arrive doubly disconcerted, first from being literally in a strange new land, and second from being in a strange new body. It also drives the Dreamers on through the campaign to escape their brave new world and reclaim their bodies.

Once in the lands of dreams, The Sense of the Sleight-of-Hand Man takes place in the North and West of the Dreamlands. It begins in Sarkomand and from there the Dreamers are free to search for a way out of the Dreamlands wherever they want… The city of Inquanok is nearby, but the best routes seem to lie south, possibly near the cities of Lhosk, Ilek-Vad, Sarnath, and Ulthar. Suggested routes take the Dreamers by road, by sea, and by underground and there is also the suggestion that events will take them down one route, but divert them into another, and so on. Along the way there are likely to be encounters with the Men of Leng, Gugs, Moonbeasts, and Ghouls amongst other denizens of the Dreamlands. There are also plenty of strange encounters to be had, some dangerous, some whimsical, and some helpful. Then there are opportunities to interact directly with elements drawn from Lovecraft’s fiction, most notably Earth’s greatest Dreamer himself, Randolph Carter.

The tone and feel of The Sense of the Sleight-of-Hand Man is also slightly odd in comparison to traditional Call of Cthulhu campaigns. It is at times languid, at others frantic, but for a fair amount of the time it does not feel as if the Dreamers can do much beyond being led around by the nose. This is understandable since the Dreamers do need a guide and it does give the Keeper a key NPC or two to roleplay almost throughout, but it does limit player agency. Likewise in comparison to standard Earthbound Call of Cthulhu campaigns, the number of ‘magical’ items and artefacts that the Dreamers can have access to in The Sense of the Sleight-of-Hand Man is astounding, almost as if they are not playing Call of Cthulhu, but Dungeons & Dragons. Yet again this is understandable. After all, the Dreamers are in a strange and wondrous land, a fantasy of the mind; none of the magical items are really all that powerful; and they do fit the dark, ‘swords & sorcery’ style of the campaign.

Further, in comparison to standard scenarios set in the Dreamlands, The Sense of the Sleight-of-Hand Man is a deadlier affair. In most of those scenarios, the investigators are doing no more than endangering their dream selves, but in this campaign, the Dreamers are in danger of losing their physical bodies—not just the ones in the Dreamlands, but the ones in the waking world also. A way is provided to overcome both the physical and mental damage that is likely to be suffered by the Dreamers, but this does not stop the campaign from dangerous if not outright deadly in places. 

There are two definite issues with the campaign. One problem not dealt with in a satisfactory fashion is that of replacing lost characters. There is a means late into the campaign, but it does feel as if it is a little too late by then. The other is an odd ommission, that of the details and stats of the Dreamlands counterpart to the Dreamers' supplier on Earth.* Although he is mentioned in passing, he is ignored for the rest of the campaign. This is not an issue if the Dreamers focus entirely upon getting out of the Dreamlands, but the likelihood is that most players will want answers as to why their characters are in the Dreamlands and what their characters can do to get their bodies back. Now to some extent some of these questions are answered by other NPCs, but the even greater likelihood is that other players will simply want to have their Dreamers take revenge upon said counterpart. This is disappointing since the roleplaying opportunities afforded by allowing the Dreamers to hunt down and confront the counterpart could have been interesting.

*Note: I am indebted to Mr. Mike Mason for reminding me of this ommission. I successfully made my Spot Hidden roll to note the ommission, failed my Idea roll to realise its full significance, and then failed my Own Language roll to include in the first draft of the review.

Now The Sense of the Sleight-of-Hand Man is not an easy campaign to run and that is primarily due to its structure. The issue is that this structure is not linear as more traditional onionskin style campaigns for Call of Cthulhu tend to be as their investigation process takes the investigators from the start of the mystery to its resolution. Here there is no one path from the start of the campaign to its end. Rather, there are multiple, almost parallel paths and the Keeper will need to prepare more than one to account for his players’ choices. This is compounded by the fact that the Keeper can do a bait and switch with these routes—send the Dreamers down one route before sending them down another. Indeed, the inference in the campaign is that this is what the Keeper should do, compounded by the emphasis upon one particular route. To an extent there is nothing wrong with this, in part because the campaign has a story-like quality which means that it should weave back and forth a little and also because the direct route is likely to be the least interesting story to play out. The advice for handling this could have been stronger and easier to use.

Physically, The Sense of the Sleight-of-Hand Man is ably, even spaciously presented, with wide margins and the author’s own artwork. The wide margins are a useful space for supplementary information, but do make the pages of the books look underused when the margins are left empty. Another issue is that it could be better organised, but proper preparation will get around this hindrance. It should be noted that although it is written for use with Call of Cthulhu, Sixth Edition, like all good releases for the RPG, The Sense of the Sleight-of-Hand Man could be run using Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition. Similarly, the campaign could be run outside of the 1920s with relative ease.

Where scenarios for Call of Cthulhu set in the Dreamlands have been about getting into the realm of dreams, The Sense of the Sleight-of-Hand Man is all about getting out. It is as fresh and as original a treatment of the Dreamlands as there has been in over three decades of Call of Cthulhu being in print and without a doubt is the best book ever published for the Dreamlands. Unfortunately, The Sense of the Sleight-of-Hand Man stands out for those reasons rather for the quality of the campaign. This is not to say that The Sense of the Sleight-of-Hand Man: A Dreamlands Campaign necessarily a bad campaign, but it needs a very good Keeper to really bring out the best of that quality.

Thursday, 18 February 2016

Give it up for the Giant

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

The Giant’s Tribute is the first adventure released for Shadow of the Demon Lord for characters who have entered the Master Path, that is of Seventh Level and above. It comes as a seven-page, 22.36 MB PDF. As it opens, it finds the adventurers on the Emperor’s Road between Sixton and Crossings in terrible weather and thus have decided to seek warmth and shelter in the nearby village of Rowanrest. When they arrive, the player characters find the village in disarray—its inn has been assaulted by a giant! In fact, the inn has been assaulted by Roog Muttonfist, a lazy brute of a creature who for the last ten years has been monthly demanding tribute from the villagers in the form of beer and sheep. This has proved to be a small price to pay to avoid having their houses knocked down and the likelihood of the giant feasting on them. The previous evening though, Roog changed his demands—he wants people, not sheep. The villagers, are of course, terrified, since they know that the giant might destroy the whole town and kill everyone if they refuse him.

So the question is, what caused Roog Muttonfist to change his appetite? This is the mystery at the heart of The Giant’s Tribute—and it is a good little mystery. Rowanrest is beset by terrible circumstances outside of its control and if the adventurers decide to investigate, their research efforts will take them to various locations surrounding the village. The majority of these efforts will lead to a fight, but there are also some quite nice roleplaying encounters too, notably with the inhabitants of another village. That said, thematically, The Giant’s Tribute does feel similar to the Novice Path scenario, The Apple of Her Eye. Here though, the villagers are definitely the innocent party. The scenario does end with a big stand up fight, one that is relatively complex, so the Game Master will need to prepare it with some care.

Physically, The Giant’s Tribute is well written and a straightforward affair. It requires another edit in places, but since it is a PDF, the likelihood is that this can be done with ease. The main issue is with the scenario’s cartography—or rather its single map. It is an attractive affair with an Old School, almost Tolkienesque feel to it. Unfortunately, some of the location names are hard to read and they do make the map hard to read and its locations difficult to find at a glance.

Perhaps though, The Giant’s Tribute might be seen as lacking the depth that an adventure for the Master Path might demand. Otherwise, The Giant’s Tribute is a decent, enjoyable adventure that offers a session or two’s worth of play. 

Sunday, 14 February 2016

Sixties Style Stealthy Steal

Burgle Bros. is a co-operative board game in which between one and four players perform a heist! As an elite crew they will break into the target bank, locate and crack open three safes, avoid the patrolling guards, and then escape up through the roof with the loot. It comes with three building floors that are different each time the game is played; guards that are constantly on patrol; and nine different roles—each with a basic and an advanced variant. The base game is called ‘The Bank Job’ and involves all three floors, but introductory and expert games are also included. The former is ‘The Office Job’ and involves just two floors, whilst the latter, ‘Fort Knox’, also involves two floors, but they are larger, which means the safes are much harder to crack. A game should last no more than an hour-and-a-half, but familiarity should reduce that time down drastically.

Published by burglebros.com following a successful Kickstarter campaign, Burgle Bros. comes a sturdy, tightly-packed box that looks like tower block. Inside can be found over one hundred cards, forty-eight cardboard tiles, nine character and three guard meeples, nine dice, over seventy tokens, twenty-four wall pieces, and the rulebook, all in full colour. The cards include Player Turn (or reference) cards for each player; a set of Patrol Cards for each floor that determine where the guards move; Character cards for each of the game’s nine characters; Loot Cards to be taken from each safe and carried to the roof; Tool Cards that can help a character out; and Event Cards that can also help a character out—or hinder him! The Characters include the Juicer, an Electronics Expert capable of triggering alarms remotely; the Hacker, a Computer Expert who can hack into any system from anywhere on a floor via Wi-Fi; and the Acrobat, a Retired Performer who can move through the guards. The Loot Cards tend to hinder or slow a Character down, such as the Chihuahua (the chance that it sets off an alarm each turn with its barking) or the Painting (too large to be carried through Secret Doors or Service Ducts). Tool Cards are one-use devices, like the Doughnuts left out to distract the Guard from moving or the Crowbar that can be used to disable an adjacent tile. Lastly the Event Cards provide a one-off event that can help or hinder the Characters, such as ‘Throw Voice’ which is used to distract the Guard or ‘Squeak!’, which attracts his attention.

At the start of the game, the cardboard tiles, each representing a room, are divided into three piles of sixteen, with each sixteen laid out randomly as a four-by-four grid. These Room Tiles include the Camera Room, from a Guard can see into all other Camera Rooms on a floor, the Lavatory which has plenty of stalls to hide in for the Characters, the Scanner which sets of an Alarm if a Character is holding a Tool or an item of Loot, and of course, the Safes that need to be cracked. All of these are laid face down so that at game start, the Characters do not know where anything is! The Wooden Wall pieces are placed between some rooms. These block direct movement between rooms, but Secret Rooms and the ‘Dynamite’ Tool Card are ways to get around—or through—the walls. All of the card decks are shuffled, but the particularly the Patrol Decks, there being one deck per floor. Each Patrol Card shows a four-by-four grid of squares, representing that floor and its rooms. One square will be marked in red, such as ‘A4’ or ‘D2’, this being the next destination for that floor’s Guard. When the Guard moves, it will be to that square, and as soon as he does, a new Patrol Card will be drawn. The destination will be marked on the grid of rooms by an orange die, set to show the number of movement points the Guard currently has per turn. So on the first floor, this is just two, but then three on the second floor, and four on the third floor. When the Patrol Deck is exhausted, it is reshuffled, but the die is moved to the next highest number. Thus from two to three on the first floor, three to four on the second floor, and so on. This the primary way in which Burgle Bros. increases in difficulty the longer that the game takes to play.

Once the game is set up, Burgle Bros. proceeds in straightforward fashion. On his turn each Character has four Action Points. These can be spent to Peek into an adjacent Room, thus revealing it; Move into an adjacent tile; Hack the Computer Room to turn off Alarms elsewhere on the floor; adding a (green) die to a Safe Tile; rolling the dice on a Safe Tile to crack the Safe; or to move the Guard. Lastly, a Character can spend two Action Points to draw an Event Card. To crack a Safe, a character rolls the dice on the Safe Tile, the aim being to match the numbers in the combination. This combination is formed from the numbers on all of the tiles in the same row and the same column as the Safe Tile. So these tiles have to be revealed before they can rolled and the Safe cracked—thus forcing the Characters to explore each floor. Any Character who cracks a Safe receives a Tool Card and a Loot Card, but also sets off a silent Alarm and adding one to the Guard’s movement on both the floor he is on and the floor below. This the second way in which Burgle Bros. increases in difficulty—with success and the increased attention of the Guard!

Once a Character has moved, then the Guard on the same floor also moves (a Guard on a floor where there are no Characters does not move). The Guard can move freely around the floor, whereas the Characters have to overcome rooms with Keypads, Laser Grids, and so on. Should a Guard pass through the same room as a Character, then he is spotted and loses one of three Stealth Tokens. Should a Character lose all of Stealth Tokens and be spotted again, then he is captured, is interrogated and reveals the identities of his fellow burglars. Everyone loses the game. Winning requires the Characters to crack each Safe, take the Loot in each, and then get to the roof from where they can escape via a helicopter. 

Playing Burgle Bros. is all about knowing which rooms do what and knowing where the Guards are and where they are going so that each Character can keep out of their clutches. Having easy access to the rulebook helps with the rooms, whilst to some extent the players can manipulate the movement of the Guards. Moving from one floor to another so that there are no Characters on that floor will stop a Guard’s movement and sometimes an Alarm can be set off to distract a Guard from his current patrol route. The players also need to be aware of the special abilities that each character has and when to use them to the team’s best advantage. They also need to know what each room does, so having the rulebook will be more than useful, at least initially.

Physically, from the cover box design to the Character images, Burgle Bros. is delightfully thematic—that theme being that of a sixties heist movie. The components themselves are of a decent quality, though perhaps the rulebook feels slightly truncated in places. The high number of components does make the game slightly fiddly to set up at least and also means that the game is not quite as elegant as other co-operative designs to play. Getting the components back into the game’s box also takes careful packing.

As a co-operative game, it is not difficult to see the same mechanical architecture that underlies Pandemic and Forbidden Island present in the design of Burgle Bros. That said, it is less obvious than in a design like Flash Point: Fire Rescue. Like those designs, Burgle Bros. gets all the more challenging to play as the number of players increase, here because the more Characters there are, the more often that the Guards move and the more Characters there, the harder they will have to work to keep out of sight of the Guards. The game also provides for plenty of replay with the game’s random set-up—primarily of the floor layouts, the section of Characters, and the Patrol card order—and difficulty settings. Like the best of co-operative game designs, Burge Bros. is a solid combination of theme and rules that pleasingly emulates the classic heist or caper movie.

Saturday, 13 February 2016

Roleplaying Magic Items II

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, 12 February 2016

A Sanguinary Sacrifice

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

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

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

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

Fanzine Focus: The Undercroft #1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, 8 February 2016

For Cultured Friends IV

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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