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

Sunday, 17 September 2017

Down the Rabbit Hole

To get the obvious out of the way, the supplement, Kefitzah Haderech: Incunabulum of the Uncanny Gates and Portals has absolutely nothing to do with the ‘Kwisatz Haderach’, the Bene Gesserit programme in the Dune series of novels by Frank Herbert to create a male capable of bridging time and space that would inadvertently culminate in the form of Paul Atreides. Although both ‘Kefitzah Hadereach’ and ‘Kwisatz Haderach’ both derive from the same Hebrew phrase, ‘Shortening of the Way’, Kefitzah Haderech: Incunabulum of the Uncanny Gates and Portals is actually a supplement for the Old School Renaissance which explores and presents ideas on how to use portals to other places in your Dungeons & Dragons-style game. Published by Lost Pages, responsible for the excellent Burgs & Bailiffs fanzine, it is a systems neutral supplement, which means that its contents can be used with most fantasy roleplaying games, although that fantasy is essentially the high fantasy of Dungeons & Dragons.

Kefitzah Haderech: Incunabulum of the Uncanny Gates and Portals begins by stating what portals are and the role that they play in a game, that is, as plot points. They are a means to ‘cut to the chase’, to get to the next chapter without the need for all that necessary mucking about with time, travel, encounters, and so on. Of course, they also allow connections to be made between distant points in a game world or setting. The supplement quickly runs through the  various types of portal and portal networks, what might be perceived on the other side of a portal, and how much is known about them and how access to them is gained about them. Thus it covers one-way portals and portal relays; how knowing what is on the other side is safer than not; and whether portals are a secret or widely known and part of the world. There is some discussion of the potential dangers in their use for the player characters, but on the whole this feel like a bit of a gallop to get to where the author really wants to go…

Which is to the ‘PORTATRON: Holistic Portal Opening Generator’, which can be best described as the supporting structure to the point of Kefitzah Haderech, which is to present ‘The Infamous d666 Quick Portal Destination Table’. To get there the Referee needs to roll a few dice first, these determining the portal form, the keys—if any—to the portal and their names, and how and where they are constructed. Once done, the Referee can roll on the PORTATRON for what the portal looks like, where it can be found, what makes it unsafe, what makes the key special, and then… The Referee can roll three six-sided dice and so generate any one of over two hundred destinations (in addition to those in his own campaign). So roll the dice or pick an entry and the Referee can send his players to a hidden treasure room via a one way portal; on to the main table at a cannibals’ banquet; or somewhere in deep space, in a halfling village inside a giant flying penguin golem. So almost anywhere and everywhere. At which point, the ‘PORTATRON: Holistic Portal Opening Generator’ becomes an ideas generator for adventures and the Referee has a bit more work to do if he wants to develop the adventure from there...

Rounding out Kefitzah Haderech: Incunabulum of the Uncanny Gates and Portals is an equivalent of ‘Appendix N’, the section at the rear of the Dungeon Master’s Guide for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons devoted to its literary inspirations. In this supplement, ‘Appendix N’ is devoted to inspirations for portal use drawn from computer games, roleplaying games, and other media. It is engaging read to round off the supplement and just like the contents of ‘Appendices N’ contains further entertainment and inspiration for the Referee. Doubtless there are other sources not listed here, but it is a decent start.

Physically, Kefitzah Haderech is a slim, digest-sized paperback. It is very lightly illustrated and although it needs an edit here or there, is decently written. 

Unfortunately, Kefitzah Haderech: Incunabulum of the Uncanny Gates and Portals feels a little too light. It does not go into as much depth about its subject as said subject deserves, a mere four pages or so before the Referee is expected to get the dice out and start rolling on tables. It feels as if a small article for a magazine has been abutted to the reason for Kefitzah Haderech—the ‘PORTATRON: Holistic Portal Opening Generator’. This sounds like Kefitzah Haderech is a bad supplement, but it is not, it is just that it is a light treatment of it portals and portal travel and it may not have the detail that some Referees might be looking for. Kefitzah Haderech: Incunabulum of the Uncanny Gates and Portals is a good introduction to the use of portals in fantasy gaming and the ‘PORTATRON: Holistic Portal Opening Generator’ is useful as an adventure generator too.

Cards Against Culture

The Metagame looks a lot like Cards Against Humanity. It comes in a similar sized box, it contains lots of cards, and it is a social game. There is a good reason for this. An early version of The Metagame was played by the designers of Cards Against Humanity and so inspired them to bring out their very popular game. There the comparisons end for The Metagame is very different in many ways to Cards Against Humanity. First, its subject matter eschews the tastelessness and sheer indecency of Cards Against Humanity, taking as its subject matter culture and pop culture and getting us to express our opinions about them. Second, it includes not one game, but six! Some are designed for two players, some for three players, some for three or more, some for between three and seven, some for five or more, and some for between five and thirty-three—or more! Third, it comes in a big white box, not a big black box.

Published by Local No. 12The Metagame consists of three hundred cards—of which one hundred are Opinion cards and two hundred are Culture cards. The Opinion cards ask questions like “Which would Freud want?” and “Which is the most useful on a desert island?” or gives statements such as “The Gold Standard for BLANK” and “More Myth Than Fact”. The Culture cards are white, nicely illustrated, and come with a short paragraph of descriptive text and range from Enron, Brie Cheese, and World of Warcraft to The Vagina Monologues, Riverdance, and Romeo and Juliet. Notably, all of the Culture cards include a date. The rules come on several pieces of stiff card and are succinctly written with no rules card being longer than four sides long.

‘Matchmakers’, designed for three or more players is the recommended starting game for The Metagame. Each player begins play with a single Opinion card paced face up in front of them as well as a hand of four Culture cards. Then everyone puts all of their Culture cards face down next to the Opinion cards that they think are good matches, though not next to their own Opinion cards of course. Each player picks up the Culture cards in front of them and shuffles them before choosing the one he thinks best matches his Opinion card. The player who played the Culture card receives it back along with the Opinion card and all Culture cards played on it. After three rounds the player with the most cards wins. There is nothing to stop a player playing multiple cards on an Opinion card and so can try to stack the match in his favour. ‘Matchmakers’ is the nearest game to Cards Against Humanity, but of course lacks its indecency. 

Designed for two or more players, ‘History 101’ is the simplest game. It starts with a Culture card being placed face up on the table. This is the starting point for the timeline. Then on each player’s turn, the player to his left draws a card and reads it aloud without mentioning any dates. He can also be shown the card—with any dates kept hidden. The player whose turn it is has to decide where it goes on the timeline. If successful, the Culture card is added to the timeline, but if not the player has to keep card. If a player accrues three Culture cards, he is eliminated. The last un-eliminated player is winner.  ‘History 101’ is a simple general knowledge, one that nicely gets more complex as more cards are added to the timeline.

‘Head to Head’ is a three-player game. Two of the players each start with stack seven Culture cards, whilst the third, known as the Critic, begins with seven Opinion cards. The Critic begins placing the Opinion cards in a column, face up, and as he does, the two players draw their Culture cards and place them beside the Opinion card that they think is the most appropriate. A player is free to move his Culture cards to a more appropriate Opinion card if he wants, but ‘Head to Head’ is is played as a race  with each player holding a hand behind his back! As soon as one player has played all of his Culture cards, the round ends, the slower player only being allowed to play six of his cards. The Critic then collects each Opinion card and the Culture cards beside it, mixing them up and then deciding on the winner, who is awarded that Opinion card. Play continues until everyone has been the Critic and at the end of the three round, the player with the most Opinion cards wins. ‘Head to Head’  is stripped down, speed version of ‘Matchmakers’ that is fast and fun.

Designed for three to seven players, ‘Metaquilt’ is a tile laying game in which the Culture cards have to ‘match’ or answer the questions on the Opinion cards they are placed next to and vice versa for the Opinion cards. Each player begins with five Opinion cards and five Culture cards, the aim being to successfully play their last card—of either type. When a card is played, if another player thinks that he has a better card, then he can challenge the first player. Both players have an opportunity to debate the suitability of their cards, but the winner is decided by the vote of the other players. The winner gets to add his card to the ‘Metaquilt’, the loser gets to draw a new card—or two cards if the challenger lost. Whomever gets to play their card can reduce their hand by the number of cards their newly added card is adjacent to. In this way, the game speeds up as more cards have been played. Overall, ‘Metaquilt’ is a neat spin on the tile laying game.

‘Debate Club’ is a game for five or more players. One player is the Critic, who receives three Opinion cards, whilst everyone else is given five Culture cards. Each round, the Critic reads out one of his Opinion cards and each of the players selects the Culture card that best matches the Opinion card. In turn, they reveal their Culture card and explain why they think it matches in sixty seconds. Once everyone has had a chance, the Critic chooses the best and worst cards. The player with the best card draws a new card and continues onto the next round, but the player with the worst card discards all of his cards and becomes a Critic! Play continues from round to round until the last remaining player wins. ‘Debate Club’ feels like another game, but then there is a lot of debating style games. Thankfully there are plenty of cards in The Metagame to keep this reasonably fresh.

Finally, ‘Massively Multiplayer Metagame’ is the big game, designed for five or more players, up to thirty-three or more. Everyone starts with six Culture cards and three Opinion cards. Their aim is to win debates and collect the most Culture cards. At any time, anyone can instigate a debate by revealing an Opinion card and saying, “DEBATE THIS!” The first two players to show a Culture card debate the Opinion card with the instigator moderating. Anyone nearby can vote on the debate. The winner gets to keep the loser’s Culture card. Play continues until an agreed time is up or the event—‘Massively Multiplayer Metagame’ is designed to be played over dinner, at parties, or at conferences—has ended, at which time, the player with the most Culture cards is the winner.

Two expansion packs—Film 101 and Science Fiction—previously only available to backers of the Kickstarter are now available. Each includes forty Culture cards and fourteen Discussion cards and is a fun addition to the game, especially for film fans.

The Metagame looks like Apples to Apples and Cards Against Humanity, but is a more social game, a more accessible game, and literally, a more Culturally interesting game. The Culture cards are well chosen, for they are thoughtful and engaging—engaging enough to draw players into the debates that most of The Metagame’s games revolve around. All of this makes The Metagame a good party game, but with six good games inside the box, The Metagame offers more than the average party game.


A Kickstarter campaign, The Metagame: The Games Expansion w/ Shut Up & Sit Down! is currently underway, seeking to fund a new expansion.

Friday, 15 September 2017

The Professional Traveller

Although it was not the first Science Fiction roleplaying game—that distinction would fall to Flying Buffalo Incorporated’s Starfaring, published in 1976—Traveller was the first popular Science Fiction roleplaying game. Published in 1977 by Games Designers’ Workshop, it began life as a set of generic rules which could be used to run a science fiction game. These rules would go on to exhibit a number of key features influenced by the Imperial Science Fiction of Poul Anderson, Isaac Asimov, Andre Norton, H. Beam Piper, EC Tubb et al of the 1950s. These features are a focus on human characters, though with capacity for alien species; Faster-Than-Light travel via ‘jump space’ of limited number of light years per jump, but with the same duration per jump; no Faster-Than-Light communication—the speed of communication is limited by the time taken by each jump; no Prime Directive—planets conduct internal wars, whilst capitalism is engaged in on every level; a stratified, almost feudal society, with the nobility—from baron, marquis, and viscount to count, duke, and archduke all the way up to emperor—governing continents, planets, star systems, sub-sectors, and sectors; materialism in that rewards are physical and social rather than mechanical, so no Experience Points, Leveling Up, and so on; an array of options in terms of career, ship, and subsector design to create diversity; and mortality—characters are normal and skilled rather than superpowered, and can die even with the huge advancements made in medical science, even during character generation. For Traveller, these would find expression in The Third Imperium, perhaps the greatest of the Science Fiction settings for any roleplaying game, which projects a future history across millennia and thousands upon thousands of systems and worlds, involving true heroes and villains, hundreds of sophonts—both major and minor, and deep, interesting secrets. 

In the four decades since its original publication as ‘Little Black Books’, Traveller has appeared in numerous versions from various publishers, including Traveller, MegaTraveller, and Traveller: The New Era from Game Designers’ Workshop, T4: Marc Miller's Traveller from Imperium Games, GURPS Traveller and GURPS Traveller: Interstellar Wars from Steve Jackson Games, Traveller D20 from QuikLink Interactive, and Traveller Hero from ComStar Games. In its fortieth year, Traveller is published by two companies. Traveller 5 is published by Far Future Enterprises, whilst Traveller, now in its second edition, is published by Mongoose Publishing.

First published in 2008, what is so amazing about the second edition of Mongoose Publishing’s Traveller: Science Fiction Adventure in the Far Future is that the core rulebook is in full colour throughout. This includes the artwork, some of which is good, but quite a lot of which is awful. What is also amazing is that the layout is clean and tidy. What is really amazing is that the editing is of a professional standard. In other words, the Traveller: Science Fiction Adventure in the Far Future core rule-book is a product that looks and feels professionally done—barring some of the art-work—which is not something that could always be said of previous books from Mongoose Publishing, especially those released for Traveller.

It is important to note what the Traveller core rulebook is not and that is, a complete toolkit for creating and running a science fiction campaign. If a Game Master wants a complete toolkit for his Traveller game, then Traveller 5 is perhaps a better choice. What the Traveller core rulebook does include is rules for character generation and combat, operating vehicles, spaceships, and starships in and out of combat, trade, psionics, and world creation, but it does not include rules for creating or designing spaceships and starships. This is covered in the High Guard supplement. Instead, details are given—including deck plans—of some nineteen starships and smallcraft plus variants common to the ‘Official Traveller Universe’ of The Third Imperium. What this means is that long time devotees of Traveller and The Third Imperium could switch to these rules and continue playing without any problem. It also means that the Game Master could create a Traveller-like setting and run a game in that setting, but the technical aspects of his setting would still be those of Traveller rather than those of his design.

The starting point in a great many roleplaying games are neophyte characters, barely teenagers, armed, armoured, and possessing just enough skill-at-arms, magical knowhow, divine grace, and slippery stealthiness to get into trouble. Traveller changed that by introducing a form of lifepath to create a character and his back-ground. Characters in Traveller instead spent years in a career, learning skills, gaining promotions, and so on, before leaving the service with a bonus, perhaps a pension, and either possession of, or shares in, a starship. Notoriously, there was always the possibility of a character dying during the character generation process. This still forms the basis of character generation in Traveller, but with several differences, one of which is that characters no longer die during the creation process, though they can be wounded.

Characters are defined by six characteristics—Strength, Dexterity, Endurance, Intellect, Education, and Social Standing—each rolled on two six-sided dice and expressed as line of numbers and letters called UPP or Universal Personality Profile. After acquiring some base skills at level zero, a character can attempt higher education—either university or a military academy before entering a service. Five of the original six that appeared in the Little Black Books—Army, Marines, Merchant, Navy, and Scout—are joined by a further seven—Agent, Citizen, Drifter, Entertainer, Nobility, Rogue, and Scholar—representing the sixth of the original careers, Other. Two further careers, Psionicist and Prisoner, are also available, depending upon the results of certain dice rolls during the character creation process. Each career provides three branches or variations. So for example, the Navy career lists the Line/Crew, Engineer/Gunner, and Flight assignments, the Entertainer career lists Artist, Journalist, and Performer assignments, and the Drifter career lists the Barbarian, Wanderer, and Scavenger assignments, and so on. A character can change assignments within a career, this is easy within a service like the Navy or Scouts, but is treated like changing careers for some like the Merchants and Citizens.

From one term to the next, events are also rolled for the character. Tables for both events and mishaps are given for each career and there is also a table of life events. These add colour and detail to a character’s background and can grant benefits as well as penalties. Players can also link their characters by sharing an event and are encouraged to do so by being granted an extra skill each. At the end of the process, a character receives benefits ranging from money, characteristic increases, weapons, and equipment to contacts, ship’s shares and mortgages, and actual ships, all depending upon the career. The last two steps in the character generation process are rolling for aging and taking a skills package. Aging is inevitable and will eventually result in the reduction of a character’s characteristics, and though it can be forestalled with the use of anagathics, this is hazardous to the health, expensive, and potentially illegal. The skills package is selected as a group, each package representing the type of game that a group wants to play. So there is a general Traveller skill package, a Mercenary skills package, a Trader skills package, and so on. What it means is that between them, the characters in a campaign will have the right skills.

The default species for characters in Traveller is Human, but it also offers two other options from the Third Imperium setting. These are the leonine Aslan and wolf-like Vargr. These are the most accessible of the alien species from the Third Imperium setting and their inclusion comes with just about enough information to play them. Their inclusion does not add any further complication to the process of character generation, but character generation is relatively complex anyway and takes a bit of time and a lot of dice rolls, so it is essentially all random. It is also made longer by needing to be a social process in order to form the social connections. The sample character failed to get into university and so instead decided to see the galaxy by signing on with a free trader. Originally learning to handle and trade cargo, she become a pilot and navigator before war broke out between two minor states outside the border of the Third Imperium and the Third Imperium stepped in to enforce a peace. Driven to trade beyond the war zone, the free trader’s fortunes took a turn for the worse and she and her crew were forced to turn to piracy. 

Anged Jonett, Age 46
Merchant/Free Trader 3/Experienced Trader
Rogue/Pirate 3
Admin 0, Astrogation 1, Broker 1, Deception 0, Drive 1, Electronics (Computers) 0, Engineer (J-Drive) 2, Flyer (Grav) 0, Gambler 1, Gunner (Turret) 0, Jack-of-all-Trades 1, Melee (Unarmed) 1, Persuade 1, Pilot (Spacecraft) 2, Pilot (Spacecraft) 0, Steward 0, Streetwise 1, Vacc Suit 2
Benefits: Free Trader (owned), Cr110,000, Body Pistol
Events: Travel, War, Forced Out of Business, Enemy, Criminal Activity, Gambling Ring

Overall, characters in Mongoose Traveller look pretty much like those of previous editions. Notably, there is a slimming down of both the number of skills in the game and the skill points a character can gain during the creation process. The former is achieved by subsuming a lot of the skills in previous editions of the roleplaying game into specialities, so that Computers is part of the Electronics skill along with Comms, Sensor Ops, and Remote Ops, and Battledress is part of the Vacc Suit skill. The latter is achieved by it being possible to have a level of zero in a skill and the upper value of any skill rarely needing to be above two or three. This is offset by bonuses granted by a character’s attributes.

The core mechanic in Traveller remains effectively the same as in the previous editions. To have a character attempt an action, a player rolls two six-sided dice, aiming to roll a set Task Difficulty or higher. An average Task Difficulty is eight or higher, but can drop as low as two and rise as high as fourteen. Modifiers for a roll can come from a character’s attributes and skills. In addition, a character can gain a boon or a bane die to add to the roll, depending upon the circumstances. So, a boon might come from a good set of tools, whilst a bane might come from an inferior set of tools. A boon or a bane die adds a third die to the two rolled for an action, but only two are counted. In the case of a boon die, the highest two are counted, whereas a bane die means that the lowest two are counted.
So, for example, Anged Jonett’s ‘merchant’ ship is ambushed by Vargr pirates and it suffers a hit that causes the bridge to suffer decompression. She and her fellow bridge crew need to suit up as fast as possible. Anged is not in her spacesuit, but since she captains a ship that is involved in situations where combat might ensue, she ensures that vacc suits are kept at duty stations. The Game Master sets the Task Difficulty at Average or eight. Anged’s player will roll two dice and two for Anged’s Vacc Suit skill and two for her Dexterity. Anged’s player suggests that since Anged has run drills for this, she should have a boon die. The Game Master agrees.
Anged’s player rolls 3, 5, and 6. The boon die means that she keeps the best two, which are the 5 and the 6. With the addition of the modifiers, Anged’s player rolls a total of fifteen and succeeds.
Sometimes, it is not enough to succeed, but necessary to know how well. The difference between the Task Difficulty and the number rolled gives an Effect value which measures how well a character has succeeded or failed. Using this Effect Value, it is possible to actually fail the roll with a marginal failure which can be turned into a success with consequences.  An Effect value of six or more below the Task Difficulty results in an ‘Exceptional Failure’, whilst an Effect value of six or more above the Task Difficulty results in an ‘Exceptional Success’. Continuing the previous example, the Effect Value would be seven, the equivalent of an Exceptional Success, which the Game Master rules that Anged manages to suit up without any difficulty and also manages to help her crew suit up without any difficulties so that can respond to the attack unhindered!

Notably the Effect value is added to damage inflicted in combat, the rules for which are explained in just a few pages, much like the rules for skills. In fact, the rules for personal combat are simple and straightforward with a concise set of modifiers so as not to hamper play. This being Traveller, it should be noted that any damage suffered is deducted from a nebulous set of Hit Points, but directly from a character’s physical attributes, first Endurance, then Dexterity, then Strength. Players should be aware though, that weapons, especially guns—slugthrowers, energy weapons, and heavy weapons—can be very deadly. An autopistol will inflict up to fifteen points of damage, a laser rifle up to thirty points, and a Plasma Gun, Man Portable—which is particularly deadly—as much as sixty points! Put that in the context of an average human having attribute values of seven each and it is easy to see how deadly weapons are in Traveller. Armour is therefore vital equipment.

Equipment in Traveller is presented like a catalogue as much as it is a set of mechanics. So not just an indication of average standards of living per Social Standing, but also armour, communication gear, computers and software, medical gear, sensors, survival gear, and of course, weapons. All of the items are illustrated to give some idea what they look like in The Third Imperium. In comparison to previous editions of Traveller, the equipment here is not so obviously dated. In particular, the computer technology of Traveller was always stuck in the period of the 1960s and 1970s, but here it has been updated to reflect what contemporary computers are like. To that can be added rules and devices for personal augmentation or augments. So characters can improve themselves with Cognitive, Dexterity, Endurance, or Strength Augmentations, improve their senses with Enhanced Vision, armour themselves with Subdermal Armour, and gain access to improved or other skills with Wafer Jacks. This reflects a change in the Imperial Science Fiction of Traveller to the Cyberpunk fiction of the 1980s, but their inclusion will not necessarily overpower a Traveller game as they are expensive to purchase. So, in a Traveller-style game, player characters with extensive cybernetic augmentation are likely to be rare.

Combat in Traveller scales up to encompass vehicle combat and space combat. Much like the rules for skills and personal combat, these opt for a certain concision. So in just eight pages, rules are presented for movement, combat, maneuvering, vehicle weapons and equipment, damage, repair, and collisions. These are supported with seven sample vehicles, from ground cars to G-Carriers and Grav Bikes. What is clear from the rules is that are they are designed for small engagements, rarely more than one-on-one, rather than mass battles. The aim here is personal, or rather, character involvement and roleplaying rather than simulation. This is more explicit in the explanations of spacecraft operations and spacecraft combat, where Traveller has a number of specific skills that needed to successfully operate a spaceship. In combat, though, a character will have a very specific role, depending on his skills. So a Captain will make rolls on Leadership and Tactics (Naval), an Engineer might prepare the Jump Drive or repair a system, a Sensor Operator will engage in electronic warfare or try and gain a sensor lock, a gunner will fire weapons or reload, a Pilot will evade or maneuver for advantage, a marine will conduct or repel boarding actions, and so on. 

Just as the chapter on vehicle combat is supported by a selection of sample vehicles, the chapters on spaceship operations and spaceship combat are supported by some nineteen starships and smallcraft plus variants common to the ‘Official Traveller Universe’ of The Third Imperium. These all come with full colour deck plans, though in the larger ships these are a little difficult to read. They range from the one-hundred-ton Scout/Courier and two-hundred-ton Far Trader—both staples of a Traveller campaign—up to the six-hundred-ton Subsidised Liner and the eight-hundred-ton Mercenary Cruiser. The selection enables the Game Master to run a variety of campaign types, a tramp freighter type campaign could be built around the Scout/Courier or Far Trader; a mercenary campaign around a Mercenary Cruiser; a Yacht or Safari Ship for a more leisurely style of campaign, and so on.

More setting rules cover encounters with animals and NPCs, some encounter tables, trade between star systems—which supports merchant campaigns in particular, and the creation of the setting itself and worlds. The latter focus on the creation of single worlds rather than actual systems and their stats can be expressed just like the UPP as a Universal World Profile. The process is quicker and simpler than the creation of player characters and the process includes some cultural differences to differentiate between other worlds. Our sample world is Clora 63, a small, low-g (0.25 G) water world with a diameter of 4,800 km, standard atmosphere which is home to roughly seven million inhabitants. It is an icy world with extensive ice caps and little standing water. A rich, non-industrial world, it is a retreat world governed from neighbouring Foastea which makes its money catering to all year-round winter sports.

Clora 63 B369667A Ni Ri

Although they are outlawed in the setting of the Third Imperium, Traveller includes the rules for psionic abilities. These are organised into five Talents—Awareness, Clairvoyance, Telekinesis, Telepathy, and Teleportation—under which there are activities a psion can use. So, Telepathy includes Life Detection, Mind Link, Telempathy, Read Surface Thoughts, and so on. Each Talent is treated like a skill and each activity a skill check, much in line with the Task Difficulty mechanics. The core modifiers to any roll will be a character’s modifier from his PSI stat and the level of the Talent it-self. Although Psionics can be powerful, what limits their use is the number of points of psionic power a character has to use and by their use being illegal in the default setting. Plus, gaining access to the Psion career requires certain Life Events to be rolled for during character generation, the same as the Prisoner career. Ultimately, whether or not psionics play a role in a campaign is up to the Game Master to decide, but if allowed, the Psion career is not one that can be freely chosen.

Our second example character is a corporate manager and leader whose long-term career was hampered by his poor social standing. Instead he took a sabbatical to join a secret psionic study institute he had been in contact with since his days at university. Unfortunately, the institute was unmasked and he was forced to go on the run before being captured and imprisoned for crimes against the Imperium.

Hary Grownes, Age 54
University Graduate (Honours)
Citizen/Corporate 4 (Senior Manager)
Psion/Adept 3 (Acolyte)
Crime/Fixer 1
Admin 3, Advocate 3, Carouse 1, Deception 1, Diplomat 2, Flyer (Grav) 1, Gambler 2, Gun Combat (Energy) 1, Jack-of-all-Trades 1, Melee (Unarmed) 2, Persuade 2, Science (Psionicology) 1, Vacc Suit 1

Psionic Strength 7
Talents: Telepathy 2, Awareness 2, Clairvoyance 1

Events: Psion Group, Befriended a Superior (Ally), Romantic Relationship (Ally), Business Expands, Political Upheaval, Psionic Strength, Specialist Training, Crime, Back Breaking Labour

TAS Membership, Ship Shares (5)

Rounding out the Traveller rulebook is a description of a complete subsector. This is the Sindal subsector in the Trojan Reach located between the Third Imperium and the Aslan Hierate. Just seventeen worlds are described in a mostly empty subsector of space, each with a patron who might hire a player character group. It contains a good mix of worlds and is decidedly rough and ready section of space where the player characters can act with impunity.

As pleasing as the relative simplicity and concision of the rules in Traveller are, they are lacking in two ways. One is the lack of reference or flow charts, both of which would have been helpful for running combat at all levels—personal, vehicular, or space—of the roleplaying game. There is one for character generation, but nothing else. The other is a lack of examples. There are examples in the book and they are useful, but there are no extended examples. So, no example of play, of combat, of vehicle combat, or spaceship combat. Which is such a shame and such a missed opportunity, as they would have helped bring the game come to life and the rules easier to understand through seeing them in action.

At the start of the review, I stated how much of a revelation the corebook rulebook for Traveller: Science Fiction Adventure in the Far Future was and that remains true. As physically decent as the book is, what strikes you about this version of Traveller is the efficiency and concision with which the rules are presented and written. This in turn makes them accessible and easy to understand—especially for anyone already familiar with Traveller—though the lack of worked examples may hinder players new to the game and the setting. Above all, the Traveller Core Rulebook is a competent, accessible set of rules for playing in the Third Imperium and playing Imperial Science Fiction.

Monday, 11 September 2017

The Voodoo that Huhu do

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 or a quickstart. One of the regular pieces of support comes once again from Lamentations of the Flame Princess, the Finnish-based publisher best known for Lamentations of the Flame Princess Weird Fantasy Roleplay and its scenarios like Death Frost DoomA Red and Pleasant Land, and Bloodmother Skyfortress. Following on from last year’s release for Free RPG Day in 2016, Slügs!, which asked the question, ‘Do you need a cornucopia of Slügs!?’, as well being controversial for it political sliming, Lamentations of the Flame Princess brings us Vaginas Are Magic!

Vaginas Are Magic! is designed to be provocative. It is a gaming supplement and it does material that a Dungeon Master could bring to his gaming table, but it is designed to be provocative. After all, it has the word ‘vaginas’ in the title. It is not designed to be offensive, though there is certainly capacity for some to take offence at its tone and content. For as a book, Vaginas Are Magic!—sometimes known as ‘VAM’, but honestly(!)—is mature in tone and content and two or three pieces of its artwork are of an adult nature. Some might even say pornographic. There is also the fact that what Vaginas Are Magic! is, is a sourcebook of magic and spells that can only be cast by women who can have children. This again is something that some may take offence at. So the question is, is Vaginas Are Magic! offensive? Arguably no, since there should be room in the hobby for what is mature, adult material, as the majority of gamers are adults—and in comparison to some material published by Lamentations of the Flame Princess—this is much more measured, adult gameable content. Now when it comes to the illustrations, then arguably, two or three pieces are strong in nature and probably stronger than is necessary. The rest of the content though, is definitely designed to provoke a reaction, but how much of a reaction will be down to the reader.

So what of the content and the book itself? Essentially, Vaginas Are Magic! presents two things. One is a stripped down magic system for Magic-users, the other is a grimoire. The former does away with spell levels and the need for the Read Magic spell. Instead, a Magic-user has potentially access to any spells and can cast any spell that she knows at whatever Level she wants. So, a Fifth Level Magic-user could cast Magic Missile as a First, Second, Third, Fourth, or Fifth Level Magic-user. A Magic-user has a number of spell slots equal to her Level, but this limit is only for casting memorised spells safely. Once these slots have been exhausted, she can cast as many slots again, but with the chance that she might miscast them and thus have to roll on the Miscast Table each time she casts again. After that, a Magic-user must rest and memorise her spells again. A Magic-user at First Level knows three randomly determined spells and since spells have no Level limit, there is is no limit to how many can be learned. This then presents a very quick and easy magic system that expands a Magic-user’s choice of spells and has the potential to make her very powerful even at First Level. A First Level Magic-user with Cloudkill or Fireball or Teleport, anyone? Of course, there is little to stop a Games Master from adapting these rules to the other spellcasting Classes.

This new magic system is spelt out inside the book’s front cover, leaving the actual book to be devoted to the contents of Vaginas Are Magic! This consists of a primer on magic in the author’s campaign—essentially how dangerous magic is physically, mentally, and socially, and how it should be taken out of the hands of grey-bearded old men—and a grimoire of some twenty spells, from A Blaze in the Northern Sky and Chaosgoat Law to Triumph of Death and Volcanic Slut. These names though, are the song titles of classic black metal tracks which the author has deemed suitable enough to work as the names of interesting spells. In keeping with the magic system presented at the front of the book, each of the actual spells given in Vaginas Are Magic! comes without Level, spell components, range, and so on. 

What each spell does come with though, is a full-page illustration, a description, and a miscast table, and the result for each is a stripped back, self-contained feel. So, for example, A Blaze in the Northern Sky weakens a planet’s inherent defences such that a meteor is able to enter the atmosphere and indeed, blaze a light across the sky. This turns night into day, affecting nocturnal and diurnal creatures alike, and inspiring sheer terror or loyalty out of sheer terror for being to summon this object from the heavens. Should this spell go awry, possible effects include the meteor impacting on the ground, odd radiation, temporary banishment of night as the meteor burns up very slowly, driving the local inhabitants insane, and so on. It is illustrated with an image of a meteor lighting up a landscape as it blazes across the sky. 

What A Blaze in the Northern Sky showcases is the greater ramifications a spell can have on a campaign. This is applied again and again throughout the twenty or so spells, so not one can really be cast without consequences. In other words, there are ‘no fire and forget’ spells a la traditional Dungeons & Dragons in Vaginas Are Magic! 

Some of the spells in Vaginas Are Magic! are not all that interesting or useful. For example, Sepulchral Voice allows the caster to steal and use the voices of those she has killed, whilst Raise the Dead enables her to do that from the walls, floors, and ceiling of wherever the caster is, but the dead do not obey her. Rather they fixate on others around her—which includes other player characters! It has potential as a barrier perhaps, but the danger to others… This does not mean that these spells are wholly useless, but rather that their utility is not wholly immediate and really, it will be down to player ingenuity to get the best use out of them. Other spells though, can have lasting effects—effects with ramifications for a campaign. For example, Chaosgoat Law can be cast to summon the Chaosgoat which settle an argument, a dispute, and so on, the resulting ruling once the cases of either side have been put, being binding—whatever the consequences and whether one side is ‘right’ or not. Into the Crypts of the Rays brings the Magic-user into astral contact with an old master—possibly Gilles de Raiswho will answer one question, but in return ask the caster to become the vessel for his return to the world for he is currently trapped in his old chateau. Is this too strong a price to pay, bearing the essence of the old master and bringing to term, not quite knowing what the caster might have unleashed on the world—once again? On a more mechanical basis, My Journey to the Stars transports the caster into a stellar garden, deconstructs them, and then recreates her anew, but with one attribute physically rolled and assigned the new value. This can be done over and over, but there are diminishing returns…

Physically, Vaginas Are Magic! is a cleanly laid out book in black and white behind a full colour photo cover that has the potential for provocation. Inside, the book is professionally presented, the artwork is good, and the writing good.

So what you have in Vaginas Are Magic! is a magic system and some new spells accompanied by reasons to limit their use and by reasons to provoke a negative reaction. It should be made clear that there is some validity to that reaction, if only for the choice of adult artwork rather than in writing a book for spell-casting women in your favourite retroclone. What you also have though, is some interesting spells and the point that magic is not the sole province of grey bearded old men and that women can be as powerful and have access to potentially as powerful and as interesting spells as those grey bearded old men—if not more so. This may limit its use by some gamers, but that does not negate its point and it does not limit the use of these spells by female player characters. Vaginas Are Magic! may not be quite at home in your campaign, but it may be worth look nevertheless. 

Sunday, 10 September 2017

Free RPG Day: Free RPG Day 2017 – Swords Against Owlbears/Font of Knowledge

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 or a quickstart. One of the regular pieces of support for an existing roleplaying game in 2017 is Free RPG Day 2017 – Swords Against Owlbears/Font of Knowledge flipbook. Published by Pelgrane Press, best known for 13th Age, the dramatic Dungeons & Dragons-style roleplaying game, and Trail of Cthulhu, the clue-orientated roleplaying game of Lovecraftian investigative horror. Like previous releases from Pelgrane Press for Free RPG Day, the Free RPG Day 2017 – Swords Against Owlbears/Font of Knowledge flipbook presents two adventures for two different systems. The first is for 13th Age, whilst the other is for TimeWatch, the roleplaying game of time travel investigation and action. Each adventure is relatively short, playable in roughly a session or two.

The first of the two scenarios is for TimeWatch, the roleplaying game in which the player characters are members of the eponymous agency, policing and repairing the time stream from natural chronological disasters and meddlers. The plot to ‘Font of Knowledge’ is very much a play on words, involving the mass extinction of humanity and weirdly, an inappropriate use of the font, Comic Sans. To foil this plot, the agents will need to operate in their own time bubble, passing up and down the time stream to determine what caused the extinction of the timeline and why a thirteenth century religious tract now appears to have been originally in one of the most reviled fonts of all time. The scenario consists of a few scenes, but they provide a good mix of investigative, combat, and roleplaying opportunities. This being a time travel adventure, there is also the chance to meet a historical figure, this time Leonardo de Vinci.

The scenario is deadly in places and it should be made clear that the fate of humanity is on the line. So the Game Master may not want to throw such responsibility at his player characters, but there is nothing to stop ‘Font of Knowledge’ being dropped into an ongoing campaign and it is in fact, easy to do so. Otherwise, it serves as a good one-shot. To that end, the scenario is supported by six pre-generated agents, a mix of historical figures, both real and fictional, and the slightly pulpy Science Fiction agents. So the real historical figures include Colonel Thomas Blood and Julie d’Aubigny, whilst the historical includes a near ageless African immortal. The others include an uplifted gorilla and a health monitoring robot. Overall, a good mix and some fun characters.

The second scenario is for 13th Age. ‘Swords Against Owlbears’ is an excuse to write a scenario involving owlbears, especially one explaining where the strange hybrid creatures come from. Unlike ‘Font of Knowledge’ this is a much more difficult scenario to run with an existing group since it begins with the player characters trapped and altered beyond all recognition. The question is, who imprisoned them and what has been done to them? In the fact, the person responsible is known as the Maker of Many and she is a true Frankenstein, constantly pushing at the boundaries of life, art, and death, all in the name of knowledge. Once the player characters have smashed their way out of their vats, they will quickly find out two things--and after that, they will find out a third. First, they are mutagenic, which means that one from encounter to the next, they will be swapping mutations with each other and just every creature they encounter. So they might find themselves mutating into a half-monkey better Armour Class and climbing skill, lots of curiosity, or a half-moss thing which can collapse to the floor to avoid an attack, but which suffers from depression. The scenario includes some twenty or so mutation cards to spread around and swap from one encounter to the next, ranging from chicken and hydra to squirrel and rosebush, each with advantages and quirks.

Second, they are in the Twisted Gardens, which can be best described as ‘Moreau’s Murder Island’. Third, there is a way out of their predicament, but it involves more murder and danger and having to make a deal with the Maker of Many. ‘Swords Against Owlbears’ is a mix of the fun house and the murder house and should provide good session of bonkers fighting. It does come with six pre-generated adventurers, all Sixth Level, including a Tielfling Paladin, a Human Rogue, a Gnome Barbarian, a Half-Elf Sorcerer, a Dark Elf Ceric, and a Halfling Druid. These all need their ‘One Unique Thing’ which defines them to be decided upon as well as their Icon relationships and exactly why they are in the Twisted Gardens. The characters are just the bare bones, so anything beyond this will have to be created during play.

Of course, Free RPG Day 2017 – Swords Against Owlbears/Font of Knowledge flipbook is not really a flip book. One scenario follows the other rather than having to flip the book over and around to get to the other scenario. Unfortunately, as it appeared on Free RPG Day, Free RPG Day 2017 – Swords Against Owlbears/Font of Knowledge flipbook does have problems with both adventures. Most notably for ‘Font of Knowledge’, none of the pre-generated agent came with any stats, and for ‘Swords Against Owlbears’, some stats for both monsters and pre-generated adventurers needed updating. Fortunately, the PDF version has since been fixed and the errata for both adventures is available from Pelgrane Press. One other issue with ‘Swords Against Owlbears’ is that the map is not the easiest to work out what is where and it could have done with a better key, so careful study of the map is required. The overall effect of these issues is to make Free RPG Day 2017 – Swords Against Owlbears/Font of Knowledge flipbook feel just a little rushed.

Although not as good as it should have been on the day, the good news is that Pelgrane Press has fixed Free RPG Day 2017 – Swords Against Owlbears/Font of Knowledge flipbook. The result is an entertaining pair of adventures, both suited to one shot play, even convention play, and do a nice job of showcasing both systems.

Friday, 8 September 2017

Free RPG Day 2017: Familiars of Terra – Dissonant Notes

Now in its tenth year, Saturday, June 17th was Free RPG Day and with it came an array of new and interesting little releases. Invariably these 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 or a quickstart. 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 Familiars of Terra – Dissonant Notes, published by Angry Hamster Publishing.

Familiars of Terra is set in a world not unlike our own, perhaps a few decades ahead and not long after a nasty war which left areas of badlands to be scavenged or avoided. What marks it out as being particularly different is that everyone has a familiar or animal companion who bonds with them and grows with them. A Familiar cares for and helps its human companion, but for certain heroic humans—known as Seekers—Familiars will not only grow and bond with them, but also evolve. So, a snake companion might grow wings and an electrical strike, whilst a cat might gain size to rival that of a leopard or lion. This is a setting inspired by the Pokémon video games and animated television series and Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy.

Players in Familiars of Terra play not one, but two characters. One is a Seeker, the other is his Familiar. Both are defined by five attributes—Agility, Awareness, Charm, Might, and Wit, plus Health. The five attributes range between five and ten for humans, slightly lower for Familiars. Humans have traits like Nerdy (Music) and Acrobatic, a mix of skills and advantages, whilst Familiars have both combat manoeuvres and traits. Combat manoeuvres grant advantages in fights, like Bleed, which inflicts extra damage, and Shield, which blocks all damage. Each combat manoeuvre has a limited number of uses in each battle. A Familiar’s traits tend to be more fantastic than those of his human, so they might be ‘Hover’, ‘Quills’, ‘Blue’ (has blue skin and fur and can freeze an object with its icy breath once per session), and so on.

The mechanics of Familiars of Terra are simple enough. Each player requires his own deck of playing cards minus the Jokers. Each time a Seeker or a Familiar wants to take an action, his player draws a card and if it is equal to or lower than the value of the attribute, then they succeed. The Game Master can adjust the attribute value up and down depending upon the difficulty of the task. Combat is equally as simple, each player having a hand of cards that he can discard and redraw if he has a bad hand, though this is at the loss of a turn. On his turn, a player selects a card and reveals it simultaneously—usually with the Game Master—and the winner inflicting one point of damage on an opponent. Combat manoeuvres add greatly to combat, giving more options and adding a dynamism to the action.

In addition, a Seeker and his Familiar has Familiar Points. These are awarded for inventive and descriptive play and enable a Familiar to draw two cards for an action and choose one, to discard and draw cards in combat without losing a turn, to play an extra card for an action or in combat, and to declare combat manoeuvres at the end of a round rather than in order of Agility.

The scenario included in Familiars of Terra – Dissonant Notes is the eponymous ‘Dissonant Notes’. Designed for three to five players, it takes place in the town of Rockingchair where the Seekers and their Familiars are attending Wenlii, a local music festival. Unfortunately, half way through the event there is a stampede and several people and their familiars get hurt. The Seekers and their Familiars have the chance to intervene and save some of those caught up in the stampede, but not stop it. Their bravery and intervention identifies them as Seekers to the Wenlii organisers who hire them to find out why the stampede occurred and to prevent it from happening again. The investigation will see the Seekers and their Familiars looking round the rest of the festival, dealing with rival bands, negotiating with the police, and more, all before solving the mystery. It is a decent scenario and should give the Seekers and in particular, the Familiars, plenty of opportunity for investigation, interaction, and combat.

Familiars of Terra – Dissonant Notes is generally well presented and well written, if somewhat plain. Certainly, illustrations of the provided Familiars would have been a nice addition, but the main problem is that the Seekers do feel somewhat bland in comparison to their Familiars. This is not helped by the fact that some traits are repeated between different Seekers, meaning that they are not really very different at all. A nice touch is that the scenario does include a short glossary, which explains some of its more obscure terms.

Familiars of Terra – Dissonant Notes nicely does what it sets out to do and what a good quickstart should. This is present the setting, the mechanics, and a scenario as efficiently as it can in the space available. The mechanics are simple and playing both Seeker and Familiar provides opportunity to roleplay. Familiars of Terra – Dissonant Notes is a solid quickstart and should provide a good session’s worth of game play.

Sunday, 3 September 2017

Join Us

Cult Following: The One True Game is a storytelling game in which the Cult Leaders use random cards to create cults, potential Recruits ask them random questions about their cults and philosophies, and the Cult Leaders win the game by recruiting the most cultists. Published by Bravely Told Games following a successful Kickstarter campaign, Cult Following: The One True Game is an adult themed game for at least three players. Ideally there should be at least five players. It comes as a relatively small, square box containing some three hundred plain cards, which makes it easily portable, whilst the ease of the rules means that a game can be started without any preparation and played through inside thirty minutes.

The cards are divided into two types, both types having two options on them. The first card type is the ‘Sign’ card, which is used to create the cults. The signs on these cards include things such as ‘Social anxiety’ and ‘Everyone needs to calm down’, ‘Talking like a pirate’ and ‘Killing two birds with one stone’, and ‘Having lots of kids’ and ‘Racist Grandmothers’. The second card type is the ‘Question’ card and these are put to the Cult Leaders. Typical questions include ‘Why won’t the cult on your right last the week?’ and ‘Describe the radical wing of your cult.’, ‘What ceremonies do children have in your cult?’ and ‘Where do you see your cult in five years?’, and ‘Explain how the “buddy system” work in your cult.’ and ‘What do your cult members look forward to?’.

A round begins by dividing the players into Cult Leaders and Recruits. There should be three Cult Leaders, but with just three players, there should only be two Cult Leaders. Each Cult Leader receives five Sign cards, whilst the Recruits each receive two Question cards. Then each Cult Leader reads the Signs and selects three of them around which he will create a background about his cult. Each Cult Leader presents this background with as my style and flourish as he can muster. Once done, the Recruits take in turns to pose a Question from their Question cards which the Cult Leaders must answer. Once they have finished, the Recruits selects their favourite answers and presents their Question cards to the successful Cult Leader of their choice. Once one Cult Leader has accrued two Question cards, the round ends, everyone changes roles, and a new round begins.  Throughout, both Cult Leaders and Recruits are expected to heckle and interject to add some energy to the recruiting drive. The game ends after an agreed number rounds, a time limit has been reached, and so on, at which time, well, the game is not exactly sure who has won—though perhaps it is the player who has won the most Question cards wins.

For example, Louise, Dave, and Alex are playing Cult Following: The One True Game. Louise and Dave will be the Cult Leaders attempting to recruit Alex.

Louise has the following Signs cards: 

  • ‘The lesser of two evils’ and ‘Angry seniors’
  • ‘Tight fitting clothing’ and ‘It gets better’
  • ‘Happily ever after’ and ‘Tavern wenches’
  • ‘A very special rock’ and ‘Legal in twelve states’
  • ‘Looking on the bright side’ and ‘They’re not really dead’

 Dave has the following Signs cards: 

  • ‘The pointlessness of it all’ and ‘Willful ignorance’
  • ‘Never admitting you’re wrong’ and ‘Well, this explains everything’
  • ‘Fish people’ and ‘We don’t care’
  • ‘Violent video games’ and ‘Halloween candy’
  • ‘Nap time’ and ‘Abandonment issues’

 Louise reads the Signs and explains, “As society seems to be getting worse, there is only one group to blame—‘Angry seniors’. They are responsible for the bad things that happen because politicians are either ‘Angry seniors’ or they only listen to them. We say ignore them and wait until the time when you can transmogrify into one of the ‘Angry seniors’. Then you will have the influence and power. Until then, there is something that you can worship who will bring you happiness and make you forgot your cares—‘Tavern wenches’. Worshipping as a member of ‘The cult of she who brings you beer’ ensures that you will be ‘Looking on the bright side’ until you are ready to join the ‘Angry seniors’.”

Dave reads the Signs and explains, “The end is nigh. We are not sure how and we are not sure why. We are sure that it is. Until the time when it is nigh, we want to shield you all from the ‘The pointlessness of it all’ through ‘Willful ignorance’ and ‘Nap time’. By ensuring a plentiful supply of both, we can keep you from worrying and wondering… The ‘Cult of the pointlessness of it all’ is here to protect you from knowing too much.”

Having heard the descriptions Alex has two Question cards: 

  • ‘Why doesn’t my cat like your cult?’ and ‘New cults are full of passion. Describe the middle aged version of your cult.’
  • ‘What behaviours clearly identify your cult members?’ and ‘How does your cult stay on good terms with groups that have different values?’

 Alex is a cat lover and so asks, “Why doesn’t my cat like your cult?”

Louise answers, “Probably because our members are too busy worshipping Tavern wenches to remember to feed and water them.” Dave explains that, “Cats know that the end is nigh and resent us hiding it from their human servants. They want to be the ones that induce ‘Nap time’ in humans and keep them in ‘Wilful ignorance’.  Taking a moment to think about the answers, Alex decides that she would rather be recruited by a cult that does some of the tasks that cats do rather than one which neglects them. She decides that The ‘Cult of the pointlessness of it all’ is the better choice and awards Dave with the Question card.

Physically, Cult Following: The One True Game is a square box containing some three hundred odd cards and a small rulebook. The latter is a quick and easy read and contains both advice and options for game variants. The cards themselves are plain and simple and easy to read. A nice touch is that the box does include six Practice Cults, extra cards that provide fully worded example cults that a player could use if he new to this type of game or shy.

As a game, Cult Following: The One True Game is a bit too simplistic and underwhelming. The lack of an objective in terms of winning the game points to that, but… As a social game and a storytelling game, Cult Following: The One True Game is pleasingly themed, with a decent variety given in the Question cards and even more in the Signs cards to generate ideas and stories and interactions between Cult Leaders and Recruits. This capacity for storytelling combined with the spurs for player creativity in the cards is where Cult Following: The One True Game shines and what it makes a good social game.

Saturday, 2 September 2017

Wreck on the Borderlands

Borderlands Adventure 1: Wreck in the Ring is a Science Fiction adventure for three to five players published by Stellagama Publishing. Designed for use with the Cepheus Engine Core Rules and other 2D6 OGL SciFi mechanics, what this means is that it can be run using any version of the Science Fiction roleplaying game published by Game Designers’ Workshop in 1977, from Classic Traveller and MegaTraveller to Mongoose’s Traveller and Traveller 5. Although the plot of the scenario can be stripped out and run using Science Fiction roleplaying game where space travel is common, Borderlands Adventure 1: Wreck in the Ring is set in Stellagama Publishing’s These Stars Are Ours! campaign setting. This is a near-future setting which begins in 2260 AD in the aftermath of Terran Liberation War against the occupying Reticulan Empire. A cold war exists between the new United Terran Republic and the Reticulan Empire, played out in the badlands between their territories, home to client states, pirates, petty warlords, rogue colonies, greedy merchants, brave explorers, and more. It is in these badlands that Borderlands Adventure 1: Wreck in the Ring takes place.

Almost a quarter of a century ago, the interstellar transport Tallmadge’s Splendor was lost, fate unknown. Now, a belter has located her, on an asteroid moonlet of a remote gas giant in a barely-explored frontier system, and wants to hire a team of adventurers—preferably with a ship of their own—to help him salvage the ship. This is a challenging task and ideally, the player characters should possess a variety of shipboard skills, in particular, the Mechanical, Engineering, and Zero-G skills. Getting to the wreck of the Tallmadge’s Splendor—located in the Parvati system on the very edge of Terran space—is the easy part, getting the salvage out is the difficult part. This definitely requires the characters’ technical skills as they will be operating in micro-gravity and the ship is shattered and open to the vacuum of space. 

The technical aspects of the adventure are not its only challenge. There is at least one NPC who has ulterior motives and two NPCs who have motives other than salvage. In fact, one of the interesting NPCs is a member of the Brothers of St. Cuthbert, which is dedicated to recovering the bodies of those lost in space and returning them home for proper burial. This nicely adds a degree of faith and purpose not always present in adventures for the Cepheus Engine Core Rules and other 2D6 OGL SciFi mechanics. There is one other danger in Borderlands Adventure 1: Wreck in the Ring, one that suffuses both the ship and adventure with a sense of unease. Now, in scenarios like these, the cause of this unease, perhaps paranoia, might be some alien thing or crazed survivor, either ready and hungry to stalk and slaughter first the NPCs and then the player characters. And so it is here, but in Borderlands Adventure 1: Wreck in the Ring it does not feel like a cliché because it does not have to play out like a survival horror movie in space. Only if the player characters make every effort to interfere will the scenario turn into one of survival horror in space rather than one of salvage and recovery.

Borderlands Adventure 1: Wreck in the Ring comes as a full colour, twenty-page, 1.91 MB PDF document. Besides the adventure itself, basically the wreck of the Tallmadge’s Splendor and its environs, the scenario provides some background detail to the These Stars Are Ours! campaign setting, stats and write-ups for its NPCs, and a description and a full set of deckplans for the ship. It also includes a glossary. 

Physically, Borderlands Adventure 1: Wreck in the Ring is decently written and presented, although the editing could have been better as it does feel a bit tight in places. The artwork is decent, though not wholly necessary. The deckplans are good, though perhaps they could have been larger.

Borderlands Adventure 1: Wreck in the Ring is not quite perfect though. If the player characters lack a ship, it would have been nice if more detail had been provided about the ship belong to the belter who hires them. It would also have been to seen the NPCs given a little more development perhaps to make them easier to roleplay by the Game Master. That said, what Borderlands Adventure 1: Wreck in the Ring lacks are two vital player handouts—both showing the ship’s manifest. One for the passengers and one for the cargo. Both would have been great handouts and both would really act as good cues for both the players and their characters as well as providing possible plot lines for the Game Master to develop. The inclusion of some NPCs on the nearest planet or space station would not have gone amiss either and their use would have fleshed out the scenario just that little further. 

A nice, little adventure, Borderlands Adventure 1: Wreck in the Ring should provide two good sessions of play, whatever game system the Game Master runs it in. It has a pleasing workmanlike, blue collar sensibility which should make for an interesting and low key change of pace. Even when the ‘monster’ does appear, it is done in a low-key fashion such that it feels like one possible consequence of the players’ actions rather than the whole point of the scenario. Not every Science Fiction adventure needs to feel as if the crew are just going to work, but when the Game Master knows that it is what his campaign could deal with, Borderlands Adventure 1: Wreck in the Ring is a good choice.

Friday, 1 September 2017

Free RPG Day 2017: The Ninja Crusade, Second Edition QuickStart

Now in its tenth year, Saturday, June 17th was 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 or a quickstart. One of the regular pieces of support for an existing roleplaying game in 2017 is The Ninja Crusade, Second Edition QuickStart. Published by Third Eye Games, best known for roleplaying games such as Apocalypse Prevention, Inc. and Mermaid Adventures, The Ninja Crusade, Second Edition is a game inspired by anime and movies such as Naruto and Kung Fu Hustle in which the Emperor of Izou has declared war against the ten Ninja clans, forcing once rivals to co-operate as the Lotus Coalition to ensure their survival. Players take the role of these ninja, whose role in this setting is as honourable if stealthy warriors, since this is not a world with samurai.

Characters in The Ninja Crusade belong one of the ten ninja clans, each of which has its own speciality. So the Blazing Dancers are performers and acrobats, the Pack of the Moon are farmers and herders known for their specially bred ninja-dogs, and the Living Chronicle are historians who keep stories and knowledge on their bodies and in their minds. Besides a Clan, a Ninja is defined by twenty or so skills, plus an Element, Profession, Tragedy, Wartime Role, Clan, Contacts, Martial Training, and two ‘Ways of…’, the latter paths of training. Each of the Element, Profession, Tragedy, Wartime Role, and Clan provides a Gift and a Trigger. The Gift grants a bonus, whilst the Trigger gives Karma under certain conditions. For example, the Water Element with its Devious Temperament gives an underhanded Ninja a bonus to his Fighting when attacking in unsportsmanlike way and earns him Karma when he cheats the wrong person and it comes back to haunt him. 

To undertake an action, a character combines two skills appropriate to the action and then rolls a number of ten-sided dice equal to the combination. For example, to go on a lengthy journey a Ninja might need to roll a combination of his Travel and Fortitude skills, to quickly draw and throw a blade, he would roll a combination of Speed and Marksmanship skills. Rolls of seven, eight, and nine count as successes, whilst rolls of ten count as two successes. A simple task requires the one success, a moderate task two successes, and so on all the way up to five successes for a legendary task. If three or more successes are rolled above the difficulty, then a boost is gained, which can be a damage bonus, extra opponents being targeted, bonus information being earned, halves a task’s time, complete a task with style, trigger a weapon’s condition—for example, a brutal weapon inflicts extra damage whilst a piercing weapon ignores a level of armour—and so on. A critical failure appears to be any failure in which ones are rolled, the more ones rolled, the worse the result, though neither is clearly explained in The Ninja Crusade, Second Edition QuickStart.

In combat, a Ninja gets one action plus one for each success rolled on his dynamic dice. These can then be spent to conduct various dynamic actions—inflict harm (make an attack), plan an attack (aid a friend), increase damage inflicted, knock an opponent back or down, mold Ki to regenerate it, dodge or block an attack, and so on. Ki can be spent as part of dynamic actions to do various things to temporarily gain certain effects, for example, counter attack, deeper cuts, deflect attack, and thicker skin. Now exactly how much Ki a player begins play with is not made clear in The Ninja Crusade, Second Edition QuickStart as none of the pre-generated ninja have any. Perhaps a ninja needs to mold his Ki to generate it before it can be used? Attacks appear to be resolved as opposed rolls, for example, an attacker’s Perception plus Marksmanship versus a defender’s Athletics plus Speed, but again, this is not spelled out in The Ninja Crusade, Second Edition QuickStart.

The basic damage inflicted in any attack is modified by the number of successes rolled, the weapon used, and any dynamic or boost damage. It can be quite deadly given that the sample pre-generated Ninja have a Health of between five and eight. To forestall a ninja taking too much damage, whether this is to their Health or their Pysche, a Ninja can instead suffer a Condition, equal to the value of the damage taken. This might be Bleeding, Bruised, Burned, Slowed, Afraid, Confused, Scarred, and so on. There is a limit to the level of these Conditions and how many a Ninja can have, so it is not possible for a Ninja to accumulate Condition upon Condition—eventually he will suffer actual damage, whether physical or mental. Each Condition has, of course, a negative effect, and depending on its severity, it may take a scene, days, or even weeks to recover from a Condition.

Accompanying the rules is a scenario, ‘Trial of the Lotus’, and six pregenerated Ninja.This sees them sent on a mission under of the guidance of MasterDaiku, whose approval they need to work for to successfully complete the mission. This is to infiltrate a neighbouring region, get past various guards and soldiers, and then sneak into the Autumn Brand Festival. It includes lots of tests of skill as well as of character and should provide a good session’s worth of play, if not two.

Technically, ‘Trial of the Lotus’ requires four Ninja, not six. Which begs the question as why there are six pre-generated Ninja included in The Ninja Crusade, Second Edition QuickStart. The given answer is so that the adventure can be played again, but with different characters. This is problematic since it is unlikely to happen and because although it showcases more character types, they take up extra space that could have been better devoted to explaining the rules, because ultimately, it is the rules that suffer in The Ninja Crusade, Second Edition QuickStart. Or rather their explanation does. Another page or two, perhaps including an example of play, a fuller explanation of the core mechanics, an explanation of Ki, and so on, would not have gone amiss.

Well presented, if not well developed, The Ninja Crusade, Second Edition QuickStart is not as good as it should be. The essential problem is that it is ill suited for beginning players and game masters alike because it does not explain enough of the rules or guide them through how the game should be played. This should not be as much of a problem for the experienced player or game master who will be able to make the connections between the rules given in The Ninja Crusade, Second Edition QuickStart and so be able to play or run the given adventure. Another two pages—or rather, two fewer pre-generated Ninja—and The Ninja Crusade, Second Edition QuickStart could have been the quickstart it should have been.