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

Thursday, 20 July 2017

The Innsmouth Project

In terms of Lovecraftian investigative horror, salt-sodden Innsmouth is an outlier, a place where the Mythos walks wild, its true batrachian nature hidden behind a  veneer of pretense to human civilisation. So of all the places in the Call of Cthulhu canon, it is relatively little visited. There is the campaign Escape from Innsmouth and the anthology, Before the Fall, both published by Chaosium, Inc., but scenarios are far and few between in comparison to the many other locations visited in Lovecraft Country. Further, the fate of Innsmouth remains unexplored and unvisited, the proposed 1998 supplement, Children of the Deep, never having materialised. That is until the release of Save Innsmouth: A Student Documentary in 2016.

Save Innsmouth: A Student Documentary is a short, one-session, one-shot of survival horror scenario for use with Just Crunch Games’ The Cthulhu Hack. Based on The Black Hack, The Cthulhu Hack is a rules, light set of player facing mechanics that handle investigation, sanity loss, action, and combat with relative ease. Investigator creation is also easy, so a group could create their investigators and get playing in a very time. Similarly, the scenario is straightforward and simple enough that the Game Master could adapt it to the rules of his choice, whether a Lovecraftian investigative horror roleplaying game or not.

Save Innsmouth: A Student Documentary takes its cue from the dilapidated and crumbling nature of post-financial crash Detroit and the loss of its history with the loss of its architecture. In the early twenty-first century, Innsmouth has been abandoned for some ninety years, raided and cleaned out by the FBI as part of Prohibition. Now some developer wants to move and regenerate the town, meaning the loss of the remaining architecture which dates from the period of Prohibition and even older. Keen to document and explore this rare remanent of the twentieth century before it is lost, a group of students and ‘urban explorers’ from Miskatonic University in Arkham—the player characters—have made the trip north. Yet as the scenario opens, they find themselves at the bottom of a briny hole, battered and bruised, with only one way out...

Beginning in media res, Save Innsmouth: A Student Documentary is at its heart a linear affair, a set of underground tunnels, cellars, and caverns that ultimately do lead to an exit. The investigators do no more than follow this labyrinth—the Game Master can arrange these as he likes, but the tunnels will lead to this exit anyway—perhaps piecing together Innsmouth’s secret history from the clues found at several of the locations in the labyrinth, eventually either escaping via a flooded cavern, dying in the attempt, or being consumed by the tunnels’ other inhabitant. The Game Master is free to run this how he likes, but a time mechanism or countdown is provided to speed the scenario up.

The problem with Save Innsmouth: A Student Documentary is that although it has the means to break up the monotony of the escape attempt, it does not develop or handle them as well as it should. The scenario includes some eleven points that the investigators are supposed to know or have experienced prior to the start of the scenario. These can be given out as is, but it is suggested that they be played out as flashbacks. In fact, this should have been more than a suggestion—it should have been a recommendation, perhaps with advice on how to present them and more detail which would have both fleshed them and the scenario out. Together they would have helped to bring the current state of Innsmouth to light, as currently this feels overlooked—or at least, underdeveloped.

Another issue really left up to the players to decide is what their investigators are carrying. They are allowed the gear necessary to help them document or explore the soon to be bulldozed town of Innsmouth plus a luxury item. Some advice as to both would not have been unwelcome and would have made the scenario easier and quicker to set up. Certainly some equipment suggestions would have helped. That said, the character creation process is otherwise well done and includes a means to establish relationships between the characters in readiness for their ordeal.

Physically, Save Innsmouth: A Student Documentary is a simple, eight-page booklet, unillustrated and done on glossy paper behind a good, brochure-like cover. At the core of Save Innsmouth: A Student Documentary is a good scenario, but it misses opportunities to flesh the scenario out and to bring the dilapidated current state of Innsmouth to life as much as it does its past.

Monday, 17 July 2017

HeroQuest in Glorantha

HeroQuest Glorantha reunites Glorantha—the Bronze Age setting in which the player characters aspired to join the great religious cults of the Lightbringers and other gods and become heroes in the war to come against the invading Lunar Empire, with HeroQuest—the narrative, drama driven roleplaying system first seen in Hero Wars. Published in 2000 by Issaries, Inc., Hero Wars would be developed into HeroQuest: Roleplaying in Glorantha into 2003, with a third edition, simply called HeroQuest, being released in by Moon Design Publications in 2009. This version of HeroQuest presented the rules as a generic set of mechanics with relatively little reference to Glorantha.

Published in 2015, HeroQuest Glorantha integrates the mechanics of the third edition of HeroQuest with the setting of Glorantha to present a roleplaying game in which the faithful worshippers of the Lightbringers and other gods and demi-gods in the area known as Dragon Pass campaign against the occupying forces from the Lunar Empire to the north. The Lunar Empire is regarded as aberrant because it worships Chaos and because it wants bring all lands under the glare of the Red Moon. Whilst it is possible to play Lunar characters—and play them as the heroes rather than the villains—this is not focus of player characters in HeroQuest Glorantha. Rather, the player characters are of heroes to be in the uprising against the Lunar Empire, who in worshiping the gods are allowed to wield part of the power granted to the gods by the Runes, the underlying elements of the universe. Each Rune grants power over a particular aspect of the universe—Air and Fire, Movement and Truth, Man and Spirit, Luck and Mastery, and so on—to bring about great effects and power great changes and so help achieve their objectives. In doing so, they will come to embody the very gods themselves!

HeroQuest Glorantha is supported by the narrativist, storytelling driven mechanics of HeroQuest created by Robin D. Laws, under which the possible outcomes of any action—sneaking past the palace guard, seducing the governor's daughter, rifling the governor’s safe, persuading the governor to support your cause, and so on—are explicitly framed and set before any dice are rolled. Both the player undertaking the action and the Game Master will be rolling the dice. The player will be rolling against one of his character’s abilities, which can be an ability, his homeland or culture, an object, an occupation, a relationship, a Rune, and so on. Each ability is a rated by a number between one and twenty. For example, The Gift of Tongues 17, Esrolian 16, The Glittering Eye 13, Gruff Farmer 17, Loyal to the Chief 18, Air 19, and so on.

Although the Game Master might be rolling against similar abilities for an NPC—especially if he is an important NPC that the Game Master has created—the likelihood is that he will be rolling against a Difficulty Level representing an obstacle or abstract force, for example, a great height that needs scaling, a community’s unwillingness to go to war, or a raiding party from a rival tribe. The value of the Difficulty Level is determined not by some pre-set value, but by the needs of the story and whether it is dramatically appropriate for the character to succeed or fail at that point. The Difficulty Level begins at a base of fourteen and will rise as a campaign proceeds, but will constantly be adjusted up or down according to the needs of the story.

The GM and player will each roll a twenty-sided die and compare the results to their respective abilities, results of twenty being a fumble and one being a critical success. In some contests, a simple success/failure outcome will suffice. 
For example, Farnan, son of Venharl, is a Sartar rebel who has sworn vengeance against Hurbios Crestfallen, a Lunar commander with a reputation for the harsh treatment of the Sartarite peoples under his control, including Farnan’s parents. Farnan has heard rumours that Hurbios is hiding in a nearby villa until he can make his escape north. Farnan decides that he wants to get into the villa and find out if the rumours are true. The GM decides that it would be easy for Farnan to get into the villa, the dramatic challenge should be whether he gets noticed or not. He decides to set the Difficulty Level at moderate or equal to the current base, which is 14. They frame the contest that if Farnan succeeds, he enters the villa unnoticed and finds Hurbios, but if he fails, Farnan will be found by some guards before finding Hurbios. Farnan’s player decides that he will use Farnan’s ability of Clan Huntsmen 17. The GM rolls 15 and fails, but Farnan rolls 12 and succeeds. This enough for Farnan to get into the villa and locate the rooms where his quarry is hiding. 
For other contests, though, it will be important to know what the margin of success will be—Marginal, Minor, Major, or Complete Victory. So, in the previous example, Farnan’s Success would be compared to the GM’s Failure to give a margin of success of Minor Victory. This would be narrated as Farnan succeeding, but noting that the guards will find signs of his entry into the villa. Just not yet though…

One of the aspects of HeroQuest is that it is scalable, so ability ratings can go above twenty. This is expressed as degrees of Mastery or W—the W representing both the Mastery Rune and the ability rating above twenty. So 3W is the equivalent of 23. Masteries are important, because along with Hero Points, they can be used to affect, or ‘bump’, the results of a die roll up or down—bump up to improve a die roll and bump down to weaken an opponent’s die roll. This can be done with Masteries or Hero Points. 
Continuing the previous example, Farnan, son of Venharl has sneaked into a villa where the man he has sworn vengeance against for killing his parents, Hurbios Crestfallen, is hiding. Farnan confronts Hurbios and Farnan’s player declares that he will attempt to capture Hurbios and bring him before the tribe for judgement. Looking over Farnan’s abilities, his player can see that he has Air Rune 1W and Sartarite Rebel Warrior 3W, having fought several battles against the Lunar invaders. The GM knows that capturing the killer of his parents and bringing him before the tribe would be a major achievement for Farnan. Therefore, the Difficulty Level should be dramatically appropriate. The GM sets the Difficulty Level for capturing Hurbios at a Hard resistance, which is equal to the base +6. Since the base is currently fourteen, this sets the Target Number at twenty. Both Farnan’s player and the Game Master rolls a twenty-sided die. As Farnan has a Mastery of 3W in Sartarite Rebel Warrior, his player is rolling against 3. He rolls 2, which is a Success. The GM rolls for Hurbios and gets a 19. This is under 20 and is also a Success. Because Hurbios has the higher roll and both contestants have the same level of success, Hurbios would win, but Farnan’s Mastery grants him an advantage. Farnan has 3W and Hurbios has 20, so Farnan has one level Mastery over Hurbios, which enables his player to bump Farnan’s Success up to a Critical Success. Comparing Farnan’s Critical Success versus Hurbios’ Success gives the result of a Minor Victory. The Game Master Farnan gets the stakes as framed—defeating his opponent—and no more. (Had the outcome given a better Margin of Victory, Farnan might have been able to force a confession from Hurbios at spear point.) Farnan’s player narrates how Farnan confronts his parents’ killer, shouting that the Lunars have lost in Sartar and demanding that Hurbios Crestfallen give himself up. The Lunar soldier at first refuses, but he cannot defend himself against the flurry of blows that Farnan delivers before they drive him to the floor. 
At its heart, HeroQuest is a simple enough system and its core mechanic covers physical actions, tests of knowledge, social interaction between player character and NPCs, as well as combat. Mechanically, the rules do get more complex with group and extended tests, both used in key, dramatically appropriate scenes. These might include negotiation between an Issaries merchant and a Praxian tribal chief for trading rights, a major clash between Sartarite militia and an uppity Trollkin raiding party, or participating in a heroquest to both prove your worthiness to your god and to reinforce the validity of his mythology. For the most part though, simple contests are used unless it is dramatically appropriate, in climatic confrontation, for example.

Further mechanics define the creation and handling of communities in HeroQuest Glorantha. This can be a tribe, kingdom, temple, mercenary company, clan, guild, and so on, and represents the organisation that the heroes belong to or have ties to. Each community possesses five types of resource—wealth, communication, morale, war, and magic—that the heroes can draw upon, but other times bolster and support. At other times, they are great sources of roleplaying. As is the guide to heroquesting, in some ways the eponymous point of the game in which the heroes journey into myth and after facing a number of great challenges and tests, bring back magic of the Gods Age, the period before Time was imposed on the world.

HeroQuest Glorantha supports and explains these mechanics with some very nicely done examples, many of them drawn from the ongoing backstory of the HeroQuest period as detailed in Prince of Sartar. These examples also show how HeroQuest can handle certain situations and scales, so there is not only a negotiation, but also political manoeuvring on a city scale, a heroquest, and a military battle. These examples are also entertaining as well as showcasing how the rules work.

In comparison to HeroQuest, advice for the GM in HeroQuest Glorantha is actually quite light. Primarily, this consists of advice on handling conflicts and action in a dramatic effect, especially with a view to climatic resolution, and structuring scenarios and campaigns to that end using a pass/fail cycle. This is a chain of dramatic obstacles that the characters will have to overcome in the course of an adventure, with passes giving the heroes an advantage in facing the next obstacle and then again, with failures giving them a disadvantage and then. Ultimately, the chain of failures will be overcome and the player characters will be able to build back up with passes. There is also a good section on gaming in Glorantha and creating adventures that includes a scenario outline or two, but most of the advice pertains to HeroQuest rather than Glorantha specifically. Much of this advice is explored at greater length in HeroQuest—which is worth referencing for that reason—but ultimately, the advice for the GM (and sometimes the players) in HeroQuest Glorantha comes down to ‘Five Principles of Gaming’, one each from the luminaries of Chaosium, Greg Stafford, Sandy Petersen, Jeff Richard, Neil Robinson, and Rick Meints. In fact, there is very little in HeroQuest Glorantha that the players should not know because as players they will benefit from knowing the rules and because their characters will know about the world of Glorantha.

To create a Hero in HeroQuest Glorantha—and it is a Hero rather than a character—a player assigns a number of values to various keywords and abilities. These begin with a distinguishing characteristic and an occupational keyword before adding a cultural keyword, determining the hero’s community, adding some flaws, and so on. Three of them are the Runes which reflect the hero’s personality, how he does magic, the god he worships and the cult e belongs to. Some of these keywords can be ‘Breakout’ abilities, specialised abilities keyed off a broader ability. Whilst mechanically it is an easy enough process, conceptually, it is more challenging because of its freeform nature. That said, the process is helped by examination of the possible Cultural, Community, and Occupational Keywords, Runes and how they reflect a character’s personality, abilities, flaws, and so on. At each step, it presents one more aspect of the setting and how it relates to a character, so drawing the player and the character into Glorantha and preparing both for play. The process is helped by several examples of character generation, again drawn from Prince of Sartar.

Hero: Heidrik of Prax, Appraising Merchant
Runes
Trade Rune 2W
        Gift of Tongues +1
Movement Rune 1W
        Maps show the way +1
Air Rune 13

Keywords & Abilities

Merchant 2W
        Read & Write +1
        The Value of Everything +1

Heortling Culture 13

Distinguishing Characteristic
        Fair Minded 17

Reluctant Praxian Militiaman 13

Remaining Points: 2

As to Glorantha itself, a large amount of HeroQuest Glorantha is dedicated to the setting, specifically that of Dragon Pass during the period of the Lunar invasion and the Sartarite uprising. It starts off with an overview of Glorantha before explaining the nature of the various types of Runes—elemental, power, form, and condition—before delving into the geography and history of Dragon Pass. The importance of the Runes comes into play with a lengthy examination of magic and cults in Glorantha. The discussion looks at three types of magic—Spirit, Rune, and Sorcery, but tends to favour the first two, although it possible to play a Sorcerer. It is here that the importance of the Runes and Cults comes to the fore, an importance that cannot be underestimated since much of a hero’s fate and beliefs are strongly tied to both. Six allied cults—Ernalda, Issaries, Humakt, Lankor Mhy, Orlanth, and Waha—are presented in detail, examining in turn each cult’s Runes, its mythos and history, how it is organized, what it likes and dislikes, who its enemies are, the requirements to be a lay member, an initiate, a devotee, and so on, as well as the feats commonly associated with the cult. These feats replicate a god’s mythic deed, for example, ‘The Thunderer’, associated with Orlanth via the Air rune brings thunder and gales with each step as the devotee literally channels Orlanth.

A notable inclusion alongside the discussion of the six allied cults is that of Lunar magic employed by the Lunar Cults such as the Seven Mothers cult. It is reviled outside of the Lunar Provinces because of its willingness to use the powers of Chaos—the powers of entropy and the void. This enables the Game Master to present the enemy on a footing equal to that of the player characters, in both mechanical and narrative terms. It also allows a player to create a Lunar player character should he so desire and should a campaign allow for it, but both Lunar magic and Seven Mothers Cult are more complex than the other magical and cultic options presented in HeroQuest Glorantha. They are probably best played by more experienced players rather than someone coming to Glorantha for the first time.

Rounding out HeroQuest Glorantha is a short bestiary which covers the creatures of the setting, Dragon Pass in particular. These are primarily the Elder Races—the Aldryami (Elves), Dragonewts (Draconic Lizardmen), Mostali (Dwarves), and Uz or Men of Darkness (Trolls), but a number of the Lesser Elder Races and other creatures are also mentioned. The former include Baboons, Ducks, and Tusk Riders, the latter dinosaurs and dragons. None of these have stats since how the Game Master uses them is as obstacles that the player characters can overcome. Unfortunately, the level of detail accorded to each is light, so creating more interesting obstacles and NPCs will be a challenge for the Game Master.
The appendices cover goods, a glossary, a bibliography, amongst other things.

Physically, by contemporary standards, HeroQuest Glorantha is a slim rulebook. Its layout is clean and tidy if plain, but this is leavened by some lovely pieces of artwork, many of them in full colour, that help bring Glorantha and Dragon Pass to life, including several pages taken from Prince of Sartar. Initially, the book feels a bit ponderous, but it quickly settles down into a readable fashion. Physically—and conceptually—there is one aspect of HeroQuest Glorantha that does irk and that is the line on the back-cover blurb which states that “Glorantha is the most elegant, original, and imaginative fantasy setting since Middle Earth.” It is not that Glorantha is not elegant, is not original, is not imaginative. There is nothing wrong with these terms or with the description. Rather that it should be amended to “Glorantha is one of the most elegant, original, and imaginative fantasy settings since Middle Earth.” just as “Tékumel: The World of the Petal Throne is one of the most elegant, original, and imaginative fantasy settings since Middle Earth.” is also a reasonable claim.

What issues there are with HeroQuest Glorantha, are really only minor. The most obvious one is that it is very much a humancentric roleplaying game, both in terms of what you can play and what the NPCs will be. This is understandable because it ties the player characters into the magic and the cults, but some players will be disappointed that they cannot play Aldryami or Mostali, for example. Likewise, the Game Master’s options in terms of foes are limited by the lack of means for fleshing them out and detailing such creatures beyond obstacles. Another issue is the lack of information about Glorantha and Dragon Pass. What there is though, is broad in nature and does at least provide a more than serviceable introduction to the setting, especially when coupled with the background about the cults and the gods, but the reader cannot escape the feeling that there is much, much more to know and learn about the setting. Of course, HeroQuest Glorantha cannot equal the gargantuan and definitive The Guide to Glorantha, but there is no easy next step to learn more. This is not to say that there are no supplements for HeroQuest Glorantha. Both Sartar: Kingdom of Heroes and Pavis: Gateway to Adventure are available and are possible next steps, but they are both lengthy, daunting tomes. Hopefully, the release of The Coming Storm: The Red Cow, Volume 1 will serve as that next step, especially in support of the forthcoming The Eleven Lights campaign. Lastly, as a ‘Culture’ game, a roleplaying game where a player character’s background, upbringing, and attitudes play as much a role as his personality, HeroQuest Glorantha could have been stronger, especially in terms of providing the cues and attitudes for the cultures offered in its pages.

The HeroQuest rules are a solid set of narrative mechanics which given their origins have always felt as if they should be tied to Glorantha and in HeroQuest Glorantha, they are. Of course, HeroQuest included a chapter on Glorantha, but in HeroQuest Glorantha, the setting benefits from the greater space given to it, whilst the mechanics benefit from being applied to the one setting and from being supported by the numerous applied and well-executed examples. Best of all are the presentations of Glorantha’s Runes and cults, the latter in particular providing an accessible means of stepping into the Glorantha and its background. Above all, HeroQuest Glorantha brings together everything that a game set in Glorantha needs to get started, especially in terms of the cults—something that Glorantha has not always benefited from—and does so in one well written book.

—oOo—

With much thanks to Ian Cooper, Tim Ellis, and Dan Happens for their advice and input on this review.

Sunday, 16 July 2017

Rats in a Maze

Published by Questing Beast, Maze Rats is a simple, straightforward fantasy roleplaying game that is easy to pick up and easy to play. Never using more than three six-sided dice, it combines light mechanics with a plethora of tables to spur the imagination or draw from for inspiration. Designed as an introductory level game—or at least a lighter alternative to Dungeons & DragonsMaze Rats does all this in bare, unillustrated twenty-four pages. 

At their core, characters in Maze Rats are defined by three attributes: Strength, Dexterity, and Will. Initially, they are rated at +2, +1, and +0. A single roll determines the level of these abilities and then the player gets to choose his character’s starting Feature and combat gear. A Feature can be a +1 Attack Bonus, a spell slot, or a path that gives the character an advantage when attempting Danger Rolls for certain activities. For example, the Briarborn Path provides an advantage with rolls for Tracking, Foraging, and Survival. A character’s combat gear consists of light armour, a shield, and two weapons—light weapons require one hand, heavy weapons two hands, but give a damage bonus, and ranged weapons require two hands. A player can then roll on or choose from tables for his character’s appearance, physical details, background, clothing, personality, and mannerism. The process is quick and easy and provides some fun hooks upon which to hang a player’s roleplaying. Notable though from the whole process is roll or choice for Race as per any other fantasy roleplaying game. This makes characters in Maze Rats all Human, and though there is nothing wrong with that, some players may lament the lack of choice.

Clover
Level 1 XP 0

Strength +0
Dexterity +2
Will +1

Health 4
Maximum Health 4

Feature
Fingersmith Path (Tinkering, Picking Locks/Pockets)

Items
Crowbar, Manacles, Metal File, Shovel, Lockpicks, Bedroll

Equipment
Light Armour (+1), Shield (+1), Short Sword (Light), Spear (Heavy)

Appearance: Square-Jawed
Physical Detail: Braided Hair
Background: Usurer
Clothing: Haute Couture
Personality: Know-it-all
Mannerism: Laughs

A character will typically acquire two or three Experience Points per session and will need two, then six, twelve, twenty, thirty, and forty-two Experience Points to go up to the next Level. Each Level increases a character’s Health, grants an Ability increase, and gives a player a choice of an extra Attack Bonus, a new Path, or a new spell slot. Character are retired beyond Seventh Level. What this means is that a campaign in Maze Rats has a relatively short playing time, but this is no surprise given the scale of the dice rolls which do not allow for too much room for improvement, at least mechanically.

The system in Maze Rats is simple enough. To have a character undertake an action or overcome a Danger Roll, a player rolls two six-sided dice and attempts to beat ten or more to succeed. Bonuses are added for appropriate attributes. A character might also have an Advantage in a situation, whether from a Path or the circumstances, in which case, the player rolls three six-sided dice and chooses the best. Combat rolls are made against an opponent’s Armour Rating, which for characters is equal to six plus bonuses for any armour worn and shield carried. Any roll above this is counted as a hit and the difference the Armour Rating and the roll inflicted as damage. Heavy weapons inflict extra damage, unarmed attacks slightly less, and rolls of double six are counted as a Critical Hit. Damage from Critical Hits is doubled! With only a starting Health of four, combat for beginning characters in Maze Rats is tough and deadly. A given option is to allow a shield to be sundered and lost instead of taking damage, but the other should be to either scarper or get in first and hit hard!

Magic in Maze Rats has a strong random aspect. There is no spell list, but instead a spellcaster rolls at the beginning of each day to determine what spell he knows, one spell per slot. To that end, a player rolls for each spell’s form, element, and effect, either physical or ethereal in nature. A table is provided for this as well as the forms, elements, and effects. For example, a spell with a physical element and a physical form might result in a repelling spell that has the form of sap, so a spell that draws the sap from surrounding trees to repel opponents, whereas, a spell with an ethereal element and an ethereal effect might give a concealing in the form of a call. So perhaps a spell that causes a noise when it detects any nearby concealment or creates a concealment by distracting others with a strange call. How exactly a spell worked is open to interpretation and is up to the Game Master to decide. Once a spell is cast, it is lost and its slot is empty until the next day. Further tables suggest possible mutations, insanities, omens, and catastrophes that might occur if spellcasting goes awry, but how such effects are reached is not explored.

Tables are also used to create monsters and NPCs in Maze Rats. These tables determine a monster’s base creature, for example, bear, mantis, or seal, to which the Game Master can add monster features, traits, abilities, and tactics as well as a personality and a weakness. These are added to the base stats for the monster or NPC, which are selected by the Game Master rather than rolled for. Further tables can be used to develop any NPC, whether it is determining an occupation from civilised, underworld, and wilderness options, names and surnames by social class, their assets, liabilities, goals, misfortunes, and missions. Other tables cover his method, appearance, clothing, personality, mannerism, secret, reputation, hobby, relationship, and so on. Of course, not all of these tables have to be included and they can be selected from rather than rolled on, but either way, they provide inspiration aplenty.

Maze Rats does not include a specific world or setting, but again provides the means to create it within the standard fantasy Dungeons & Dragons-style type of setting. Unsurprisingly, this is done through sets of tables that cover treasure and equipment, and the city, wilderness, and maze environments. In each case, a few dice rolls will generate elements of each that the Game Master can develop quickly and easily. To some extent, this can be done as the play of the game proceeds, but only in broad terms. Certainly, as far as a maze goes, the tables are not detailed enough or directed enough—certainly not in comparison to the tables provided to that end in the Dungeon Master’s guide for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, First Edition—to effectively create a dungeon on the go.

The Game Master is supported in Maze Rats with a sample of play, advice on preparing a game and running a game, and on building the world. Much of the advice comes in the form of bullet points and perhaps the most interesting advice is that given for handling magic items, which is to make them tools, such as a shovel of digging or a ring that changes a different aspect of your appearance depending upon which finger it is worn, rather than as a means to boost an ability or attack roll. This is indicative of how tough Maze Rats is meant to be and how magic is not an easy to ameliorate that. It also indicates how the game favours the players being clever and inventive over the brute force of Danger Rolls. In general, the advice is useful and to the point.

Physically, Maze Rats is a black and white digest-size booklet. It is clean and tidy and easy to read. It does though come with two character sheets and perhaps one of these could have been replaced with something else. A scenario possibly if the character sheet had been moved to the back page to give two free pages? Another issue is that the monster section could have been better explained, but this is not too difficult a problem. If the roleplaying game looks like it is table intensive, then it is, but not in play. Of course, the tables can be referenced in play if the Game Master wants to and they can be useful to roll for details like an omen or a neighbourhood or the name of an inn. Where the tables really come to the fore is in the preparation step before a game is run and just with a few rolls, the Game Master can create the physical elements of an adventure. Otherwise, the mechanics in Maze Rats are light and easy.

In terms of content, Maze Rats feels as if it gives you everything necessary to play and nothing more, so no adventure, no setting, and so on. A good Game Master will be able to create these himself, but it would have been nice to see where the designer took his game and his rules. To that end, Maze Rats lends itself to development into a boxed set and who knows what delights might be packed into that, even if just the traditional three little books? Certainly some support and further development would not be unwelcome.

The complexity of Maze Rats puts it on a par with Precis Intermedia’s Ancient Odysseys: Treasure Awaits! An Introductory Roleplaying Game and the Fighting Fantasy series of solo adventure books and its associated RPG, Advanced Fighting Fantasy, published by Arion Games. Like those roleplaying games, Maze Rats is of course a Dungeons & Dragons-like roleplaying game, and although it uses different mechanics, it still harks back to the stripped back, more brutal style of play found at the beginning of the hobby with Original Dungeons & Dragons which has more recently been embraced by the Old School Renaissance.

Maze Rats is a light, brutal roleplaying game of fantasy adventure which is supported by random inspiration aplenty, which lends itself to a lighter, slightly whimsical tone. It is quick to learn, quick to teach, and easy to play, relying on player ingenuity and cleverness rather than a reliance upon the mechanics. 

Saturday, 15 July 2017

Free RPG Day 2017: Robert E. Howard's Conan – The Pit of Kutallu

Saturday, June 17th is Free RPG Day and with it comes an array of new and interesting little releases. Invariably they are tasters for forthcoming games to be released at GenCon the following August, but others are support for existing RPGs or pieces of gaming ephemera. The scenarios are of course for existing games, but whilst the quickstarts may likewise also be for existing games, many are for forthcoming games, giving gamers a chance to experience a new game or setting before they are  released. One such title is Conan: The Pit of Kutallu.

Conan: The Pit of Kutallu is a standalone adventure and quickstart—though not the quickstart, which is available here—for use with Robert E. Howard’s Conan: Adventures in an Age Undreamed Of, to be published by Modiphius Entertainment following a successful Kickstarter campaign. It includes the rules needed to run the adventure, four pre-generated adventurers, and the adventure itself, essentially enough to play through the adventure in a couple of sessions at the very most.

Robert E. Howard’s Conan: Adventures in an Age Undreamed Of uses the 2d20 System and so does Conan: The Pit of Kutallu. Previously seen in Mutant Chronicles, when a character undertakes an action, his player rolls two twenty-sided dice, aiming to roll low. This roll is made against an Attribute or against an Attribute plus the Expertise value of a skill. Each roll under this Target Number generates a success. Further, a character can also have a Focus associated with a skill. This is not added to the skill or the Target Number, but ranging between one and three, it represents a ‘critical’ target which when rolled also generates a success. So when a player rolls his character’s Focus for a skill, two successes are generated. The number of successes generated are compared against a Difficulty Rating, one being average, two being challenging, and so on. Any successes generated above the Difficulty Rating are counted as Momentum and these can be spent for various effects. For example, to learn more information, reduce time taken, improve the quality of the check, and so on, whilst in combat they could be used to increase the damage, target a specific area, or disarm an opponent. They can also be used to buy extra dice to roll for actions and they can even be saved to be used as a pool to draw from to represent teamwork and further co-operation.
For example, Papius Varro, an Aquilonian noble (and one of the pre-generated heroes in Conan: Pit of Kutallu) has been captured by pirates and taken aboard their ship. A storm has driven the ship ashore and as it crashes onto the rocks, the pirates have abandoned it and are trying to row to safety, leaving the noble behind. Papius has already snatched up a sword and wants to leap into the boat. The Game Master sets the Test Difficulty to D2 or Challenging. This means that Papius’ player needs to roll two successes with his Acrobatics skill. Papius has an Agility of ten, an Acrobatics of two, giving him a Target Number of twelve. He also has a Focus of two.
Papius’ player has two dice to roll, but to ensure that he succeeds, decides to purchase another using the group’s Momentum. So now he has three dice to roll. He rolls one, five, and twenty. This is both good and bad. The five generates one Success, the one generates two Successes because it is under the Focus of the skill, and the twenty generates a Complication. Since Papius’ player has rolled three Successes, he not only succeeds, but also generates one Momentum. Knowing that Papius is going to suffer a Complication immediately, his player donates the extra Momentum back to the group pool. The Game Master rules that the effect of the Complication is that Papius lands off-balance in the pirate’s boat and loses grip of his sword. Papius has escaped the shattering ship, but is unarmed and standing in a pitching rowing boat full of pirates!
Complications occur on rolls of nineteen (if unskilled) or twenty (if skilled) and represent critical failures, but failures in narrative terms rather than mechanical terms. What this means is that a character can succeed, but still suffer a complication. In addition, all characters have access to Fortune, points of which can be used to add a bonus die like Momentum, add an action, recovery mentally or physically, ignore wounds or trauma, or make a story declaration. Fortune is earned for invoking one of a character’s traits, good roleplaying, and so on, but earning Fortune is a little beyond the scope of Conan: The Pit of Kutallu. The Game Master also has his own fund of points--Doom points. These are are used to activate an NPC ability or environmental effect, to have an NPC grab the initiative or overcome a Complication, and so on. The Game Master begins each session with a limited supply of Doom, but it can be augmented by a player buying extra dice instead of using Momentum (having run out), as the result of a Complication, or even lingering over a course of action.

Combat includes melee, ranged, and threat attacks. What this means is that a character can suffer physical attacks which reduce Vigor and mental attacks which reduce Resolve. An attack which inflicts five or more damage or reduces a character’s Resolve or Vigor to zero, also inflicts Harm, either Wounds if physical Harm or Trauma if mental Harm. A character who suffers four Trauma or four Wounds is incapacitated. Beyond that and a character is either dead or mad. In addition to damage, certain weapons have qualities that can impose certain Effects with the right roll of the combat dice. For example, a weapon with the Quality, Vicious 1, inflicts extra damage for each Effect result rolled. Armour and cover can help Soak physical damage, whilst Courage can Soak mental damage. 

Of course, Conan: The Pit of Kutallu can only give a taster of the rules to Robert E. Howard’s Conan: Adventures in an Age Undreamed Of, but combat feels rough and bruising and actions possess a pleasing physicality. There is also plenty of scope for outcomes beyond a simple yes or no with the use of Momentum and of course, Doom. The rules given are certainly enough to play the scenario, ‘The Pit of Kutallu’.

In truth, ‘The Pit of Kutallu’ is not a particularly original in terms of plot. Designed for four characters, it opens with their having been recently captured by Kushite slavers and the ship they are held in being caught in a storm. Their motivation to escape is bolstered both by a fellow captive offering a handsome reward if they can free her too and the storm being bad enough to drive the ship ashore. Worse, their benefactor is swept into the water and dragged ashore by something batrachian. Now the adventurers will have to escape the shattering ship, get ashore, deal with the slavers, and trek into the interior where they will find the ruins of a lost city and who knows what…? It is straightforward, written to be action packed, and can be played in a single longer session—just about—though two sessions will probably be a typical playing time.

Four pre-generated adventurers are provided to play the adventure. They include a disciplined noble warrior, an accurate archer, an observant ex-pirate, and a brutal barbarian. The latter is the adventure’s Conan analogue and although all four characters possess Talents that are not used in the adventure, they are well designed, all different, and all suited to the physical nature of the adventure. More characters are available to download.

Physically, Conan: The Pit of Kutallu is clearly written, laid out in a tidy fashion, and pleasingly illustrated. It is a very nice looking booklet. The rules are clearly explained and if the adventure itself is not all that original, it nevertheless feels in keeping with the pulp fantasy genre, is written to be fast paced and action packed, and is supported by some good characters. Overall, Conan: The Pit of Kutallu is a crowd-pleasing introduction to Robert E. Howard’s Conan: Adventures in an Age Undreamed Of.

Sunday, 9 July 2017

Mutant: Year Zero Utilities

Mutant: Year Zero – Roleplaying at the End of Days is quite arguably the version of Gamma World that you always wanted. Although the modern roleplaying game only allows you to play mutated humans—you will need a copy of Mutant: Genlab Alpha if you want to play mutated animals and a copy of Mutant: Machinarium* if you want to play robots—it does allow you to play strong characters, it does allow you to build and support a community (or ark), and it does allow the GM to create a new world based on his home town or a town of his choice. Indeed, in the core rulebook, the two maps given in the endpapers—the big apple and the big smoke—are based on New York and London respectively. Based on Mutant - År Noll, the Swedish roleplaying game published by Free League Publishing, Mutant: Year Zero is published in English by Modiphius Entertainment.

*Yet to be published in English. When it is, its title will be Mutant: Mechatron.

Maps are one of the elements included in the Mutant: Year Zero Maps and Markers Pack, along with several sheets of counters. There are two map sheets included in the pack. Both are done in full colour and double-sided, roughly thirty by twenty-inches, and marked with one-inch squares. One map shows the Big Apple on one side and the Big Smoke on the other. The latter is clearer see because the landmarks such as The Column and Old Ben are more obvious, though The Fallen Lady clearly marks Liberty Island and thus The Big Apple. Of the two maps, The Big Smoke would be easier to use to run a primarily land-based campaign, whereas The Big Apple lends itself to a water-based campaign—or at least a campaign with a strong mix of land and water a la Zone Compendium 2: Dead Blue Sea with its heavily rent Manhattan. One side of the other map depicts a coastal region, whilst the other a region split by a river network. The former is of Los Angeles with its Huge Letters of the old Hollywood sign, the latter is of Washington DC with the Stone Rows of Arlington Cemetery and Fort Death of the Pentagon.

Mutant: Year Zero has busy economy in terms of bullets, grub, water, and Rot. Bullets are used as trade goods as well as for protection, grub and water for survival as well as trade goods, and Rot represents the combined nuclear, biological, and chemical side effects of whatever it was that caused the Apocalypse and which can accumulate in a Mutant’s body. To that end, the Mutant: Year Zero Maps and Markers Pack includes some one-hundred-and-eight cardboard tokens, each done in full colour and on heavy duty card, representing bullets, grub, water, Mutation Points and the passage of time in the Zone. These are all nicely done and whilst the Game Master will need to find a box to store them in, once in play, they add a physicality to a character’s possessions. No more these numbers down and erasing them as necessary, but handing them back to the Game master as they are used.

As well done as the Mutant: Year Zero Maps and Markers Pack is, there are a couple of problems with it. The first is that as much utility as the counters add and as nice as they are, they are not necessary to play and really, they are a luxury. Especially sold on their own. Had they been included in the Mutant: Year Zero Gamemaster Screen, then this would have been less of an issue. The second problem is that the selection of maps is poor. The inclusion of the Big Smoke and the Big Apple is understandable, but the inclusion of Los Angeles and Washington DC is not, as it points to a pandering to the American audience. The inclusion of one extra American map would have been reasonable, but two arguably not… Especially when so many other cities could have been included. Paris, Tokyo, Moscow, Berlin, and Mexico City all spring to mind as worthy additions.

So, the maps are nice, though the selection is disappointing geographically, but the counters are even better by also being useful. Overall, the Mutant: Year Zero Maps and Markers Pack is nice to have, but not absolutely necessary to play Mutant: Year Zero.

Saturday, 8 July 2017

Pulp Dungeon Pillaging

As the Old School Renaissance has grown and the number of Retroclones has proliferated, one of the questions it has posed itself is, “What if Gygax and Arneson had based the first roleplaying on something else other than Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings and Howard’s Conan?” It was first answered with the release in 2007 by Legendary Games Studio with Mazes & Minotaurs, a roleplaying game based on the film Jason and the Argonauts and Homer’s Odyssey. It has been answered more recently by new publisher Night Owl Workshop with a number of titles which draw from military science fiction, pirates, planetary romance, superheroes, and two-fisted archaeology instead of high fantasy and swords and sorcery, but which use ‘Original Edition Compatible’ mechanics. Of these, Raiders of the Lost Artifacts: Original Edition Rules for Fantastic Archaeological Adventures is the one being reviewed here.

Now Raiders of the Lost Artifacts: Original Edition Rules for Fantastic Archaeological Adventures is inspired by two things. The first is the Pulp stories of adventure of the 1930s, but very obviously, the second is the trilogy of movies about the whip-cracking, fedora-wearing archaeologist played by Harrison Ford. The game is about researching and exploring ancient ruins, tombs, catacombs, and more in search of the great relics and artefacts. So much like the roleplaying game it draws from, there is an emphasis placed on tombs and underground complexes full of monsters, mysteries, and traps—indeed this is probably one of the few modern-set roleplaying games where Grimtooth’s Traps would be useful. Yet because of its Pulp genre and movie-derived inspiration, there is an emphasis on the research, on the getting there, and on the fighting to keep the recently unearthed and gained artefact from falling into the wrong—mostly Nazi™—hands, which is not typically present in Dungeons & Dragons-style games.

Being ‘Original Edition Compatible’ means that Raiders of the Lost Artifacts is a Class and Level roleplaying game. It has three Classes—Mercenary, Scientist, and Treasure Hunter—which map roughly onto the Fighter, Magic-User, and Thief Classes of classic Dungeons & Dragons. The Mercenary is a brawler and marksman who arms himself with a favourite weapon and learns to handle demolitions and hand out both tactical and strategic advice. The Scientist can build gadgets like Aqua-Lung, IR Goggles, Miniaturised Radio, Major Electro Pistol, and Rocket Pack. These become part of the Scientist’s repertoire, but can only be used once per day between recharges, so essentially replicating the spells of the Magic-User. The Treasure Hunter has the Appraise, Climbing, Find/Disarm Traps, Hide, Open Locks, and Stealth skills as well as being able to learn languages, much like the Thief Class. 

In addition, a player character has a number of genre-enforcing stats and factors. These start with Luck. This is essentially a Saving Throw against terrible events such as poison or a puzzle, to which a player can apply an appropriate attribute modifier from his character and which improves as a character gains Levels. Whenever it is rolled against, extreme rolls can have beneficial or detrimental effects. On a roll of nineteen or twenty, a player character will not only succeed, but also gain an extra benefit of a Lucky Break, whilst on a roll of one or two, a player character will not only fail, but also suffer the effects of a Bad Break. Every player character also has a phobia like Mysophobia or Phasmophobia, as well as a Background such as Aristocrat, Military, Show Business, or Science. Some of these also need a speciality, like singing or dancing for Show Business or Archaeology or Physics for Science.

Philip D. Sheehan
First Level Scientist (Academic)
STR 12 (+0) DEX 11 (+0) CON 12 (+0) 
INT 16 (+2) WIS 11 (+0) CHA 13 (+1)

Hit Points 6 BHB +0 Luck 13
TN0 20 Armour Class 10

Phobia: Claustrophobia
Background: Scientist (Physics)
Languages: German

Gadgets: UV Goggles

Unfortunately for a modern set roleplaying game Raiders of the Lost Artifacts does not produce interesting character types. The problem is that they are too tied into the format of the ‘Original Edition Compatible’ mechanics, so the Mercenary (Fighter) fights and handles battles, the Treasure Hunter (Thief) gets into rooms, safes, and tombs and can at least appraise the value of anything he finds, but the Scientist (Magic-user) has a collection of one use gadgets and nothing else. It does not help that there is a Science option given for the Background aspect of the characters, so in order to know anything about science, the Scientist has to take that Background. Which highlights what the Scientist is not, which is a Scientist, and what the Scientist is, which is a Gadgeteer—and a Gadgeteer that cannot fix anything at that. The Backgrounds themselves are only lightly defined and only suggest that they work by giving a player character knowledge, possible contacts, and an unspecified bonus to any dice rolls related to the Backgrounds.

This also means that certain characters, staples of the genre, take more effort to do in Raiders of the Lost Artifacts, especially if their players want to do anything outside of the Fighter/Magic-User/Thief paradigm. Investigative-style characters like the Academic or Journalist are not really covered and characters who do things like driving, flying, or fixing things like a pilot, driver, or mechanic, not at all. 

Raiders of the Lost Artifacts does include some other options in terms of characters. One is the Occultist Class, which is capable of casting various spells—all of which have a slightly Lovecraftian overtones—and has Magic Sense and Esoteric Knowledge, but might suffer corruption in casting his spells. There is also a simple skill system which includes a resolution mechanic and a list of skills which the player characters can acquire, a mix of general skills and skills particular to each Class. Now the player characters do not get a lot of skill points, but they do serve to broaden the player characters and make them a little more distinctive, especially given that some of them are more like actual powers, especially for the Occultist, such as Fortune Telling, Medium, and Sixth Sense. The problem is that many of the skills conflict with the abilities of the various Classes, so the Game Master will need to adjudicate where the skills and abilities conflict. Yet although the skill system is an optional and its ramifications are not fully worked out, it is all there is in Raiders of the Lost Artifacts and it is something that Raiders of the Lost Artifacts does need.

Other elements that enforce the Pulp genre and the archaeological adventure subgenre, include rules for unarmed combat and grappling plus Experience Point bonuses for achieving goals and publishing stories about them, as well as killing monsters and accumulating treasure. That said, Raiders of the Lost Artifacts seems to want to race through the somewhat underdeveloped rules to get to the good stuff and that is all genre related. This includes an excellent essay on adventure design and examination of the tropes specific to this subgenre—cliffhangers and lost worlds—as well as a good mix of rival organisations. These includes Nazis as well as rival schools of archaeological thought. Want a race between the Sonderlehrgang ‘Wewelsburg’ and the Ancient Astronauts school of archaeological study and the player characters, then Raiders of the Lost Artifacts allows for that… The objects of everyone’s desire, including the player characters are Relics and these are highly detailed magical artefacts torn from our history and various mythologies, including Baba Yaga’s Hut, the Book of Thoth, Pandora’s Box, and the Necronomicon. Any one of these is reason enough to start an adventure, a race to find a great object out of history before someone else does and so claim the glory and fame of doing so. (A Game Master wanting more background and more artefacts might want to check Fortune and Glory: A Treasure Hunter’s Handbook published by Osprey Publishing.)

So for example, Crocea Mors is the gladius wielded by Julius Caesar in his invasion of Britain. As recorded by Geoffrey of Monmouth, Julius Caesar fought Nennius, a British prince, in hand-to-hand combat. Julius Caesar mortally wounded Nennius, but lost his sword to him. Nennius escaped and fought on for another fifteen days wielding Julius Caesar’s sword. The sword was buried with Nennius when he died, but the location of his tomb has long been lost. In game terms, the sword is a simple +2 blade (though if this was the object of a Raiders of the Lost Artifacts game, I would also give it the ability to help the wielder to temporarily survive mortal wounds) and an obvious object of interest to Benito Mussolini.

As the basis of a scenario, Crocea Mors would involve Italian archaeologists and probably agents of Italy’s Servizio Informazioni Militare, specifically a secret wing of the cryptologic Sezione 5. Doubtless, a British ‘ancient’ order of druids—perhaps headed by Churchill because you can do that sort of thing—protects the location of Nennius’ tomb and agents of Sonderlehrgang ‘Wewelsburg’ simply want the sword to (a) make Hitler good, (b) allow Hitler to lord it over Mussolini, and (c) remove an ancient symbol of resistance from Great Britain in the event that Germany has to invade the British Isles.

Some seventeen such items are described in Raiders of the Lost Artifacts, each one not just a description of an object, but the basis of scenario as well. This collection is backed up by an appendix of descriptions real world heroes, villains, places, and things. It is not comprehensive, but it is a good starting point for the Game Master wanting to do more research and it does include descriptions of all the major archaeological figures of the period, so is an invaluable source of real world NPCs should the player characters require some expertise and the Game Master some verisimilitude. 

Of course, getting to the tombs is only half the fun and to that end Raiders of the Lost Artifacts provides a good list of foes and allies to throw into the player characters’ path. From cultists, desert nomads, and femme fatales to secret policemen, soldiers, and swordsmen (for the shooting of) are joined by monsters like ghouls, golems, mechanisms, mummies, yetis, and more. This is in addition to a good bestiary of more mundane creatures and of course, Raiders of the Lost Artifacts being ‘Original Edition Compatible’ means that a Game Master with access to other bestiaries will have a ready source or two of foes to throw into the path of his player characters. Then once they have reached the tomb or ruins, there are traps to be avoided or set off as well as more foes to be faced. So it includes a look at pitfalls, traps, snares, and more, and how to handle them in a more modern set roleplaying game.

Further support for the Game Master’s game includes tables for rolling up traps and scenario outlines, the latter complete with its MacGuffin table. Appendices cover real world heroes, villains, places, and things; the Occultist Class and its associated spells; a sample adventure, ‘The Treasure of the Rhinemaidens’; an optional skills system and additional phobias; and of course, an Appendix N. This is a good bibliography which covers books, films, television, and games, and should keep the Game Master entertained let alone provide him with a ready source of inspirational material for his game.

Physically, Raiders of the Lost Artifacts is a handy digest-sized book. It is a clean and tidy and very readable. It does need an edit in places and some of the artwork is anachronistic.

By modern standards, Raiders of the Lost Artifacts is let down very much by its character designs and options which not only limit player choice, but make it hard work for the players to deviate away from the Fighter/Magic-User/Thief paradigm that its character mechanics are based upon. To an extent this can be excused by Raiders of the Lost Artifacts being ‘Original Edition Compatible’ so that there is an inherent looseness in the mechanics, right down to there not being resolution mechanic bar the one for Luck and the optional skill system. At worst, this means that mechanically, Raiders of the Lost Artifacts is a bit awkward, at best, something for the Game Master to tinker with…

Yet get past the mechanic malarkey of Raiders of the Lost Artifacts and what you have is a really fun game supported by lots of useful information and background material. In fact, it would be useful no matter the rules you used as it could be easily adapted were you so inclined, though it would be interesting to see a post-‘Original Edition Compatible’ version of the game. Overall, the impressive background detail and the obvious love for the subgenre is what shines through in Raiders of the Lost Artifacts: Original Edition Rules for Fantastic Archaeological Adventures and makes you want to run games of Pulp action and archaeological adventure.

Friday, 7 July 2017

Free RPG Day 2017: The Spire of the Hunting Sound

Now in its tenth year, Saturday, June 17th is Free RPG Day and with it comes an array of new and interesting little releases. Invariably they are tasters for forthcoming games to be released at GenCon the following August, but others are support for existing RPGs or pieces of gaming ephemera. One of the regular pieces of support for an existing roleplaying game in 2017 is The Spire of the Hunting Sound, a scenario for use with Monte Cook Games’ highly regarded and award-winning Numenera roleplaying game.

Numenera describes a world a billion years into the future in the Ninth Age, drastically changed by huge advances in science, but whilst the evidence of those changes is all around, the understanding of the science has long been lost. This does not mean that it cannot be regained and Numenera is all about discovering the great secrets of the past and using them to make a better world. Examples of this technology include Cyphers, one-use devices that the player characters can freely find and use for strange magical-like effects and there are lots of Cyphers to find and use, so the player characters are encouraged to use what they find—there will always be more. In essence, Numenera re-invented Dungeons & Dragons-style play, but in a Science Fantasy setting and combined it with accessible, player facing mechanics that allowed the GM to focus on storytelling. With the inclusion of some fantastic artwork—and every release for Numenera is superbly illustrated in full colour—that beautifully portrays the far future world of Numenera, you have an RPG setting with both scope and grandeur.

The Spire of the Hunting Sound is written by Dennis Detwiller, best known as a co-designer of Delta Green and Godlike, and is a complete scenario and introduction to the rules, but not quite a quick start set for Numenera since the GM will need to download a set of pre-generated adventurers. Once he has those, then The Spire of the Hunting Sound can be run with relatively little preparation. It should also be pointed out that the scenario is a lengthy affair and will take several sessions to play through, so is not the casual affair that a quick start might suggest.

As The Spire of the Hunting Sound opens, the adventurers find themselves aboard the Aelestrian, a Qi airship which has been hijacked by strange, musically robotic raiders. Attempts to wrest control from them ultimately proves futile as the airship is forced to the ground and the survivors find themselves stranded in a rolling green desert with only lights in the only far distance to indicate any sign of life. Having gathered supplies, the heroes are of course, the best suited to the difficult journey in search of help and rescue. Short of food and water, the heroes will be challenged again and again on this trek, essentially each time by the same thing—a prison and a puzzle. The first puzzle-prison is biological/mechanical in nature; the second is abstract in nature; and the second is interpersonal in nature. Each of these puzzles is a staging post for the overall journey, a point where the adventurers are expected to concentrate on things other their survival needs.

Unfortunately, both the structure and the nature of The Spire of the Hunting Sound means that it will not provide a good playing experience for everyone. The problem with the structure is its length and the repetition of the character actions. This is worse in the first and second staging points of the adventure where the player characters are trapped inside a puzzle box and have to find their way out. The second puzzle in particular, has the potential to be very frustrating because of its abstract nature and the need to work out how to solve the puzzle with very little in way of clues. If the puzzle is solved, there is a fun pay-off and some elements of the scenario that the heroes get to play with. Beyond this and actually succeeding in solving the puzzles and escaping, there is actually very little in terms of reward to completing The Spire of the Hunting Sound and very little terms in available cyphers to feed the cypher economy in Numenera. The latter can be problematic because there are encounters in the scenario designed to negate the adventurers’ cyphers and whilst that can be seen as a means to push the adventurers further forward, it can also be a frustrating experience for the players.

The second half of The Spire of the Hunting Sound presents an explanation of the rules to Numenera. It is a good explanation and it will be familiar to anyone who has The Numenera Starter Set. In fact the material from The Numenera Starter Set is more than enough to play though this scenario. Physically, The Spire of the Hunting Sound is as well presented as you would expect from a book from Monte Cook Games. The layout is clean, the writing clear, and the artwork, although recycled from other products, is excellent.

Rather than being necessarily a good scenario, The Spire of the Hunting Sound is different scenario and a scenario that not everyone will enjoy. It is though, a much better, more assured, and above all, complete product in comparison to The Numenera Starter Set. The puzzle nature of The Spire of the Hunting Sound means that it is not necessarily a suitable scenario to introduce the game with, but as a change of pace and tone, it will slip into an ongoing campaign with relative ease.

Monday, 3 July 2017

Another Flippin' Deckbuilder

From Dominion to Star Realms, ‘deck building’ has become a tried and tested mechanic when it comes to card games—and a mechanic which has been integrated into a number of board game designs. In these designs the players typically begin with the same basic deck of cards which they then use to generate money that can be spent to buy better and more effective cards, typically to defeat their opponents or outscore them with Victory Points. As a mechanic gets used and developed, it not only gets improved, but designers come up with new twists upon the mechanic. So Trains is a deck building game which directs the effects of the cards to building a train network between various Japanese cities. The twist to deckbuilding in Flip City: A Deceptively Simple Microdeckbuilder—and this is the first of a number of twists that the game introduces—is that the players not only generate money from their cards to buy more cards, but they generate money from their cards to flip them—and flip them to their better sides.

Originally a Taiwanese design from Homosapiens Lab, Flip City is published in English by TMG and is a city-building card game in which the players attempt to build the largest city or the happiest city. What holds each back is the unhappiness generated by certain buildings. It can be played by between one and four players—so it includes a solo option—aged eight and up, and has a playing time of no more than fifty minutes. It consists of just eighty-six cards, each double-sided and each being city location or building type that can be upgraded by flipping it over. The second twist to Flip City is that players do not play using hands of cards, but draw from the top of the deck. Since the cards are double-sided, this has a couple of consequences. The first is that a player can always see the type of card which sits on top of his deck and can choose to draw that card or not—though certain card types force a player to draw them. The second is that when a player empties his deck and has to reshuffle it, he has to take care to prevent any of his cards from being flipped because this will change the cards he will have access to.

The game has six base card types. These are the Residential Area which flips to the Apartment; the Convenience Store which flips Shopping Mall; the Factory which flips to the Power Plant; the Central Park which flips to the Station; the Hospital which flips to the Church; and the Office which flips to the Trade Center. (Of these, the Office was originally an optional expansion, but which has incorporated into the game.) Once a card has been flipped to its upgraded side, it can also be flipped back to its basic side. Each card is delightfully illustrated and comes with a cost to purchase, a cost to flip, and an indication of how much money, Unhappiness, and/or Victory Points it generates when played. Each card also has a special ability or effect.

For example, the Residential Area generates one coin and one Unhappiness. It costs one coin to flip over to the Apartment, but when the Residential Area is revealed as being on the top of a player’s deck, its effect is that it must be played. As the Apartment, the card also generates one coin and one Unhappiness, but can be flipped back to the Residential Area at a cost of eight coins. When it is flipped back to the Residential Area, it does not go back into a player’s discard pile, but into a rival’s discard pile.

The Convenience Store costs two coins to purchase, generates a single coin when played, and costs three coins to flip to the Shopping Mall. It provides the victory conditions which when played on a turn, if the player plays a total of eighteen cards, then he wins. As the Shopping Mall, it generates two coins and a Victory Point when played, It costs one coin to flip back to the Convenience Store. Its effect is that if a player’s deck is not empty, he must play an extra card, no matter what it is.

At game start, each player receives the same deck of cards and a general market is placed is formed of Convenience Store, Office, Hospital, Factory, and Central Park cards. Each player’s turn consists of two phases. In the ‘Play cards phase’, a player draws cards from the top of his deck, generating coins, Unhappiness, and/or Victory Points as well as their effects and abilities in the process. This needs to be done card by card, because if a player generates three or more points of Unhappiness, his turn is over, no matter how many Coins and Victory Points he might have generated, and he cannot proceed to the ‘Building phase’. Some cards, like the Church, will increase this limit on the number of Unhappiness points that a player can draw, but with the two-point limit on Unhappiness without the effect of the Church cards, a player will constantly face the challenge of whether or not to draw more cards to get more more Coins or Victory Points or lose his turn because he has too many Unhappiness points. This is made all the more challenging because some cards, like the Residential Area, have to be played or force another card to be played. What this means is that throughout the ‘Play cards phase’, a player will always need to decide whether he wants to push his luck or not.

If a player has cards in his discard pile, he can also Recycle some of them, flipping them over to their other side. This again will generate a player Coins and Victory Points as well as increase the limit on his Unhappiness points.

If a player survives the ‘Play cards phase’, he can spend any Coins gained in the ‘Building phase’. In this phase he can carry out one action, either buying a new card from the general supply and adding it to his discard pile; selecting a card from his discard pile and pay the indicated cost to flip it; or developing a card, buying a card from the general supply and then paying the cost to flip it before adding it to his discard pile. 

At the end of the ‘Building phase’, a player checks to see if he has met either of the winning conditions. This is either having generated eight Victory Points and played a total of eighteen cards including the Conditions.

The rules also include a solo variant. This is played starting with the standard deck of Flip City cards and a limited number of cards in the general supply. At the end of each turn, one card is removed from the general supply. Flipped Apartments are also removed from the game. This acts as a timing mechanism for the game, the player losing if the general supply is emptied of cards.

Physically, Flip City is a well presented game and the rules are nice and clear, the English translation benefiting from a short FAQ too. The graphic design of the cards is excellent, though the players will probably need to refer to the rules to understand what the symbols mean a few times to get the hang of the game’s play. The illustrations on the cards are excellent and when the cards are placed down next to each other they do form a cityscape.

There are perhaps four issues with Flip City. The first is that handling the cards back and forth—shuffling them over and over, going through the discard pile to Recycle cards, and so on—is a bit fiddly. The second is that there is not a great deal of interaction between the players, and what there is, consists of the Apartment being flipped back into a Residential Area and into a rival’s deck. This is the game’s only ‘take that’ element and serves to clog up a player’s deck and increase the likelihood of his having to miss a turn because he is forced to draw cards and generate too much Unhappiness. If a player can generate enough Coins to do this, it can really disadvantage an opponent. The third is that this chance of generating too much Unhappiness and thus end a player’s turn without his acting can also be frustrating, but on the other hand this is at the heart of the game’s push your element and a player should really be keeping track of the number of Residential Area cards he has in his deck and his discard pile. This will give some idea whether or not it is a good idea to push his luck and draw more cards. Fourth, with three or four players, a game of Flip City does become a noticeably longer game, primarily because the players have nothing to do whilst one player goes through his turn. This makes Flip City a bit too long to be a filler. None of these are issues that will stop anyone from playing the game, but they are ones to bear in mind when playing.

Flip City looks small, but it is clever enough to deliver thoughtful and quite deep play with just a few card types. It does this by making the cards double sided, which doubles the number of cards available and by being able to flip back and forth between the two sides, which increases the number of options a player has. Although game play may be a bit fiddly in places, the game never stops giving a player choices, the design is clever, and it really is an interesting twist upon the deckbuilding game. Flip City really does live up to its subtitle of being ‘A Deceptively Simple Microdeckbuilder’.