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

Sunday, 22 April 2018

Retrospective: Broken Tree Inn

As one of the first licensees, Judges Guild was in its heyday, a highly prolific publisher, releasing not only scenarios and supplements for Dungeons & Dragons and Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, but also Traveller, Chivalry & Sorcery, DragonQuest, Tékumel: Empire of the Petal Throne, Tunnels and Trolls, RuneQuest, Superhero 2044, and Villains and Vigilantes. Since its heyday of the late 1970s and early 1980s, quite a few of those products have remained held in high regard, such as City State of the Invincible Overlord, Tegel Manor, Dark Tower, and so on, these titles often being brought back into print by other publishers. That said, given the sheer number of titles published by Judges Guild, the truth is that the quality of a very great many of them was far from being professional by the standards of the day, let alone by those of today. Nevertheless, there are many that are worth examining almost four decades after they were first published and many worth bringing to your table almost four decades after they were first published. One of these is Broken Tree Inn.

Broken Tree Inn is a scenario written for use with RuneQuest, Chaosium, Inc.’s roleplaying game of myth, faith, and heroism set in Glorantha. That said, it is not specifically set in Glorantha, but uses a lot of details which would otherwise be found in Dragon Pass—the Aldryami, Trollkin and Zorak Zoran, Issaries, and so on. Notably, Broken Tree Inn is written by Rudy Kraft, the co-designer of RuneQuest, and with Greg Stafford, the co-author of Snakepipe Hollow. Indeed, it is from this last scenario that the contents of Broken Tree Inn were cut and semi-deGlorantha’ed.

Instead, Broken Tree Inn is set in a disputed area, an area which was only relatively recently occupied by The Human Empire which established a series of forts to protect itself against a perceived threat from Tall Seed Forest, home to many thousands of Aldryami and Elves. Tensions of late have risen between the Aldryami and The Human Empire because the forts were built from wood cut from Tall Seed Forest, but the magical protections woven into the forts during their construction means that the Elves cannot attack them. Enter the player characters…

Designed to be played novice adventurers as well as Rune level adventurers, Broken Tree Inn essentially presents two locations and three factions in quite some detail. They include the Broken Tree Inn of the title, a wayside inn noted for the twisted and bent tree outside its doors, which stands amidst farmland on the frontier with The Human Empire and a fairly rough fortress garrisoned by soldiers of The Human Empire. The factions include the owners of the Broken Tree Inn, the garrison at the fort, and just some of the Aldryami and Elves of Tall Seed Forest. In the case of the first and the third, the author presents quite a lot of detail about them, their background and history, and what they might do should they be attacked.

In terms of scenarios, Broken Tree Inn offers three hooks. In the first, the Aldryami of Tall Seed Forest hire mercenaries to help destroy the forts and so take revenge upon The Human Empire. In the second, the player characters are spending the night at the fort when the Aldryami attack, whilst in the third, The Human Empire is looking to hire mercenaries to capture one of the Aldryami and return them for questioning. Of the three hooks, the first has the most gaming potential as written, but all three options are supported with extensive stats for the various factions as well as the staff of the Broken Tree Inn and various wandering monsters. There are also a few suggestions as to what to do with the setting beyond the gaming possibilities of the three scenarios.

Physically, Broken Tree Inn is surprisingly impressive. Not fantastic necessarily, but not as rough and rushed as other titles from Judges Guild. The maps are clear if a little bland in paces; the cover by Paul Jaquays is good; the internal artwork—some of it by Kevin Siembieda—is also fairly good; and the writing is generally good. Overall, the production values of Broken Tree Inn are pretty good given its publisher.

The one significant review of Broken Tree Inn at the time of its release, appeared in The Space Gamer No. 30 (August 1980). Forrest Johnson wrote, “Unfortunately the designer spends a lot of time giving elaborate histories and details which give more depth than variety.” before concluding, “BROKEN TREE INN will work for almost any GM, but it could be a dull adventure in the hands of a novice.” This is a fair assessment, and it certain goes against the publisher’s description of the book as a ‘RuneQuest Gateway Adventure’, because the designer never really presents an adventure in the sense of plot, events, and above all, story. Now Broken Tree Inn is of course, a product from a time when such things relatively new and novel, but within a year or two of this supplement’s release they would be standard with modules such as U1 Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, First Edition. What this means is that the Judge—or Game Master—will have some story development or improvising to do of her own to effectively run these adventure ideas, and that is before she develops further adventures around the region.

By modern standards, Broken Tree Inn is more of a sourcebook than an adventure and so a little underwhelming. In some ways, there is more scope for development in the material presented in its pages than this than there is roleplaying to be gamed off the page. A good Judge could certainly develop further the region and more adventures, whilst a good Game Master could take the contents of Broken Tree Inn and slip back into Glorantha where it belongs. Whilst it may be no Dark Tower, or indeed, Duck Tower, overall, Broken Tree Inn is a good example of a supplement of its time.

Saturday, 21 April 2018

Fantasy LAW Starter

A Wedding in Axebridge is a scenario for use with High Adventure Role Playing or HARP, Ice Crown Enterprises’ percentile fantasy roleplaying system descended from Rolemaster. It is designed for use with between four and six characters of between First and Fourth Level and should provide two or three sessions’ worth of play. It offers a mix of roleplaying and intrigue encounters as well as combat and exploration in a forest and a dungeon. It takes place in and around the village of Axebridge which sits on the River Clearwater across from the extensive forests of the Alfwood. The village is not far from the Free City of Lochdomhan in the Aeden Isles which lie off the coast of the Tyrisian lands, the most remote of the Shatterings on the world of Mithras. The Aeden Isles are mostly settled by Humans, their having driven the Sidhe—or Elves—out long ago, such that both the Sidhe and the Fae are no longer trusted. More recently, the peoples of Aeden Isles have converted to the church of Caerwyn, Lord of All, and as benevolent as the new faith is, it does not sit well with many who remember the old gods of the Gael. As the adventurers come to Axebridge, it seems that a celebration is in full swing. 

A Wedding in Axebridge opens with the adventurers arriving in the village and being invited to attend the forthcoming wedding that everyone is celebrating. They have an opportunity to mingle and perhaps participate in a competition or two—there are some decent prizes on offer—and perhaps gain an inkling of their immediate future. Unfortunately, the bride falls ill on the morning of her wedding day with no obvious cause, and with her condition worsening daily, the adventurers are asked to investigate. Then, just as the adventurers discover the cause, they are accused of being involved in the disappearance of another villager, the daughter of a local hunter. Are the two connected? Is the village under a curse? Or is something else at work in bringing woe to Axebridge?

The plot does indeed involve a curse, but it also involves a clash between religions old and new, ancient and new, ghosts, and a dungeon. Consisting of three quite small levels, this is where the climax of the adventure will take place in a series of quite challenging fights. It is also here that they will discover—amidst the ruins of an ancient site of druidic worship—what lies behind the events that have befallen the village of Axebridge in the last few days. The climax of the scenario involves a fair bit of combat, but before that it presents some good opportunities for the players to roleplay and for their characters to take the high ground. If they do, then they will have the opportunity to earn more Experience Points than if they rush straight into combat. The epilogue to the scenario is also very nicely played out.

The plot itself is relatively straightforward, and if truth be told, more experienced players may figure some of what is going on relatively quickly. If they do, then they probably need to roleplay around that until the scenario presents them with the clues to put the plot together. To an extent, the Game Master will also need to work this out himself as the exact details of the plot are not given in one place, but scattered throughout the book. As with experienced players, an experienced Game Master will be able to connect the dots anyway. What this means though, is that a less experienced Game Master might not find the adventure quite as easy to run, especially given that the scenario is overwritten in places.

Beyond the adventure itself, there are some suggestions as to what the adventurers might do next. This would require some development upon the part of the Game Master, but the area around the village of Axebridge certainly has potential.

One problem with the scenario is that the dungeon maps, although done in full colour, are not all that easy to read because they are a bit too fussy. Black and white, line drawn maps might have been a better, clearer option than ones here which were drawn on a computer. That said, the area maps are much clearer and easier to read. Otherwise, A Wedding in Axebridge is a well-presented book illustrated with some decent pieces of black and white artwork.

A Wedding in Axebridge is not a great scenario, but it is a reasonable scenario. 
Although let down by two issues—fussy cartography and a slightly too familiar plot—it is well written, it presents a decent challenge, and it works as first scenario for use with HARP. Although not quite suited to the beginning Game Master, A Wedding in Axebridge is a good adventure with which a Game Master can introduce HARP to her players.

Friday, 20 April 2018

Friday Filler: 5-Minute Dungeon

The problem with Dungeons & Dragons is that it takes too long to play. S1 Tomb of Horrors? Too long to play. I6 Ravenloft? Too long to play. Rappan Athuk? Too long to play. Dark Tower? Too long to play. All of them, all of those dungeons… Just too long to play. Plus, not everyone does roleplaying, so the dungeons, let alone the dragons, are right out. So what if you had a dungeon bash card game which could be played in real time, against the clock, in five minutes? Would that be short enough a playing experience? What if it threw in silly voices as a countdown? And had you beat a Baby Barbarian. Well, now you are talking.

All this is possible with 5-Minute Dungeon.

Published by Wiggles 3D, following a successful Kickstarter campaign, 5-Minute Dungeon is a real time co-operative dungeon bash played against the clock in which the players defeat monsters, overcome obstacles, get past people, and finally stick it to the end of dungeon boss—or fail and die in the process. All in five minutes. Designed for two to five players, aged eight and up, 5-Minute Dungeon is both quick and easy to teach, fast to play—because otherwise you will lose, and can played as a five minute or so filler, or as a longer thirty-minute filler for the full game.

Inside 5-Minute Dungeon’s box can be found five Hero cards each colour-paired to an associated fifty-card deck; five Boss cards; and forty Door cards and ten Challenge cards. Each Hero card represents an adventurer—Barbarian, Paladin, Ranger, Thief, and Wizard—and a good cartoonish illustration, has space for a Draw Pile and a Discard Pile. Each also has a special ability. For example, the Barbarian has Slay, which allows him to discard three cards to Defeat a Monster, whilst a Wizard can Stop Time to Pause time until someone plays a card. What is great about these Hero cards is they can be turned over to show their female equivalents—Gladiator, Valkyrie, Huntress, Ninja, and Sorceress—and they each have different abilities.

Whichever side of a Hero card a player decides to play, he gets the same deck of cards. The decks mostly show symbols—Arrow, Run, Scroll, Shield, and Sword—but each also contains a mix of special cards. The Paladin-Valkyrie includes Smite (Defeat a Monster), Heal (Choose a player to put their discard back on top of their draw pile), and Holy Hand Grenade (Defeat any card). Whilst each deck contains all five symbols, each deck has more symbols of one type. So the Wizard-Sorceress has more Scroll symbols and the Ranger-Huntress has more Arrow symbols.

Each Boss card depicts the Boss and the number of Symbols needed to defeat it. It also gives the number of Door cards which will form the basis of the dungeon which the Heroes will play through before facing the Boss. The Door cards can be Monsters, Obstacles, and Persons, and each indicates what Symbol cards need to be played to defeat or overcome it. So the Monster card ‘Shark with Legs’ requires a Sword and two Arrow symbols to defeat; a Scroll and a Run symbol is needed to overcome the ‘Just a Bunch of Stairs’ Obstacle; and the ‘Barber-Arian’, a Person, needs two Swords and a Shield to defeat. The ten Challenge cards represent greater dangers that the Heroes must overcome and can include Events as well as monsters. So ‘Confusion’ causes all players to pass their hands to another player and with Ambush!, two more Dungeon cards are drawn and have to be defeated before Heroes can move on.

Lastly, there is the Timer. Although you can set the stopwatch on your mobile or tablet to run for five minutes, a Timer is available to download as an app. It handles the five minutes for you perfectly in one of several voices. It really does add quite a bit to the game.

To set up 5-Minute Dungeon, everyone selects a Hero and its associated Deck and draws a hand of cards. The first Boss card is put down at the top of the table and the Dungeon deck is created by mixing the right number of Door and Challenge cards as indicated by the Boss card. When everyone is ready, the Timer is set running and the top card from the Dungeon deck is turned over and then—

PLAY A CARD TO MATCH THE SYMBOLS!

DO IT NOW.

NOW!!

Why haven’t you refreshed your hand?

Done? YES!

Why haven’t you refreshed your hand? Why?

Get rid of the cards you played. They are done.

Quick-quick-quick. No time. Draw the next Dungeon deck card.

Repeat.

…and so on. The point is, 5-Minute Dungeon has a five-minute time limit and must be played as quickly as possible—with lots of shouting and throwing down of cards—with the Heroes still having enough cards to defeat the Boss once the Dungeon deck has been worked through. If the Heroes can do this, they win. If the Timer runs out before the Boss can be defeated, all of the Heroes run out of cards, or no-one can play cards to defeat a card, then they have lost!

What is important here is that once cards have been played, they are swept out of the way and are not used again. Each Hero only has a limited supply of cards, so has to be careful in their use. Some cards, if they have gone into a player’s discard pile due to their Hero’s special ability or because of a card played, can come back into play if a Hero is healed for example.

All of which takes place in five minutes. But then, once one Boss has been defeated, there is another Boss to defeat after that, and then again—and then again. In fact, the game comes with a total of five Bosses to defeat, each one having to be defeated in the five-minute time limit. At the end of which you are exhausted because 5-Minute Dungeon has become five×5-Minute Dungeon plus set-up and clean-up time. Set-up is faster than clean-up because you have to sort the big pile of discarded cards. You are also hoarse from all of the shouting required to tell everyone what everyone needs to do.

Physically, 5-Minute Dungeon looks great. Both the Hero and Boss cards are done on thick cardboard and everything is done in full colour with very cartoony artwork. All of the game’s text is also really easy to understand. The Hero, Dungeon, and Challenge cards probably need to be put in sleeves as they do get handled and shuffled quite roughly quite often. The rulebook is also easy to read.

5-Minute Dungeon is a fun game. In fact, it is a blast to play. Yet it really is a filler, whether for just five minutes or the whole thirty or so minutes. It is does not offer a lot of depth in its game play and it is all reaction rather than action, so it is not a game requiring a lot of thought or indeed any strategy. So the replay value is not all that great even with some variety in the Dungeon cards. Plus it is a pain to have sort through the cards and put them back into their respective decks before playing again. One other actual playing issue is the Paladin-Valkyrie’s Holy Hand Grenade card, which is the only card that can defeat Bosses, whatever their size. This gives the players a very big advantage if the Paladin-Valkyrie’s player can keep hold of it until the Boss is faced. In fact, it is a bit of a game breaker because it negates the difficulty of defeating a Boss. That said, other cards do let the players stop the clock, consider their actions, and then start play, so there are powerful cards in each Hero deck—just not as powerful as the Holy Hand Grenade.

Nevertheless, 5-Minute Dungeon scales well. With more players, the game adds more Challenge cards to the play and decreases the size of each player’s hand, but it also means that the players have access to the widest variety of cards. So the more the merrier and the more the chaos—and more importantly, the more the fun. Fun which is only exacerbated by the use of the Timer app. 5-Minute Dungeon is a blast to play, really easy to teach, and really forces you to work together. You may not want to play too often, but when you, get a damned move on!

Sunday, 15 April 2018

Petersen's Pentacular

It is rare that you get to see new scenarios from the designer of Call of Cthulhu, but that is what you get with Petersen’s Abominations: Five Epic Tales of Modern Horror. Published by Chaosium, Inc., this new anthology brings together five scenarios set in the here and now that have been designed by Sandy Petersen and run by Sandy Petersen at conventions. Each has been developed from Petersen’s notes and written up by Mike Mason—the Line Editor for Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition—so that any Keeper can now run them as one-shots or at conventions. In turn, they take the Keeper and his players to Canada, the Atlantic Ocean, a research facility, a North Sea oilrig, and inner-city Dallas. Each comes with enough pre-generated investigators for six players and sufficient horror and danger to put them in fear of their sanity and their lives, for as Sandy Petersen makes clear, the scenarios in this book, ‘…[A]re usually horrendously violent because people seem to expect and look forward to “being killed by Sandy Petersen in Call of Cthulhu.”’ Also included with each are notes for running the scenario with existing investigators and extending the scenario so that it can played with a normal gaming group as part of an ongoing campaign. It should also be pointed out there is a ‘haunted house’ aspect to three of these scenarios and that not all of the scenarios involve the Mythos—others are simply horror scenarios—but when they do involve the Mythos, they are really are quite horrifying!

Petersen’s Abominations opens on a lighter tone, with Petersen explaining how and why the anthology came about and Mason explaining the process of how they worked together. It gives the book a rather personal touch which is continued with a foreword for each scenario. Each scenario is neatly organised with everything needed to run it, plus advice on running it and events to stage as it is being run. All five scenarios are rounded out with six all but ready to play investigators (they just require the distribution of a few points). One issue with these investigators is that in some scenarios, they are not given backgrounds, which is a shame because for one-shots and convention scenarios pre-generated investigators really do need hooks.

‘Hotel Hell’ is the first scenario. It is set in British Columbia, Canada where one of the investigators has inherited an old run hotel out in the middle of nowhere and decides to take his wife and friends there to do it up and run it. From nothing, this is a slow-build affair as strange things begin to happen and escalate—birds flying into windows, strange smells occur without apparent sources, strange paintings are found, and so on—as the investigators look over the hotel and begin work on its renovation until it is very obvious that something really weird is happening. In the main the Keeper will be reacting to what the investigators do and say as they wander around what is a mini-sandbox, because he has few NPCs of his own to roleplay and push and pull the investigators in certain directions. Although there is a link to outside world, it really only serves to emphasis the horrific situation the investigators are in. ‘Hotel Hell’ does live up to its name though and serves as a dependable opener for the anthology. That said, experienced players may find it a little familiar in its structure, so it may not be as enjoyable for them to play through. Once thing the scenario is missing is an image of the hotel that the Keeper can freely use. There is one, but it does depict an event which occurs later in the scenario.

If the structure of ‘Hotel Hell’ feels familiar, then the likelihood is that players will have the same feeling with ‘The Derelict’. Devotees of Call of Cthulhu may well be familiar with this scenario as well, as it appeared in print for Free RPG Day 2017. In this scenario, the investigators are passengers aboard a yacht crossing the Atlantic when they come across the wreck of another ship. By law, they are bound to investigate to see if anyone is still alive, but what they find is an abandoned ship and bodies and blood. The question is, what happened aboard this ship and will it now happen to the investigators? If ‘Hell Hotel’ was a haunted house in a hotel, then ‘The Derelict’ is a haunted house aboard a ship—or is it Jaws or Alien aboard a ship? Soon the investigators find themselves being hunted by something faster and stronger than they are and if they are to defeat it and escape, they are going to be inventive! ‘The Derelict’ is nicely appointed with some ship’s deck plans and probably the easiest scenario in the anthology to run as the Keeper only needs to handle the monster. 

If there has been little to no Mythos in Petersen’s Abominations in the first two scenarios, it makes up for it in the third, ‘Pancea’. The investigators all have connections to or an interest in a pharmaceutical development company called ZyMedBio Corp which recently began conducting tests on human subjects of a new drug called ‘Zylactis’ and the results are looking near miraculous. Yet the strange behaviour of one of these subjects at a party suggests that something else might be going on and so ZyMedBio Corp might warrant an investigation. This scenario has more scope for an investigation—with potentially more clues to find—especially if the Keeper wants to open it up to run longer scenario. It also feels much more traditional in terms of Call of Cthulhu even as Petersen takes a creature drawn from Greek myth and twists it to fit the Mythos. The result may not please purists, but if the result is at least goofy, it is actually a lot of fun. If the Keeper does not open up the scenario, then it feels rather linear, especially once the investigators get into the ZyMedBio Corp building. Of all the scenarios in the anthology, this one has the most potential to develop or be worked into a campaign should the Keeper so desire.

Petersen returns to a haunted house situation in ‘Mohole’, but instead of a ship or hotel, the haunted house is on an oilrig in the middle of the North Sea. This has a sort of dated British feel, drawing as it does quite heavily from the Doctor Who of the Jon Pertwee era (there are some very obvious Doctor Who references in here) and Nigel Kneale’s Quatermass, as a scientific team is sent to conduct an audit on a government-backed Top Secret project to drill into the earth’s crust to tap into a new energy source. This situation has it all—weak-willed bureaucrats, obsessed scientists, twitchy security, and bolshie workers as well as machines in danger of overheating and going bang, plus an Old One—and it is the situation into which the investigators are thrown. This scenario has the greatest potential to tip over into chaos as there are a lot of NPCs for the Keeper to handle, especially everything starts to go wrong (and it will!). This scenario very much feels as if it was written to actually go ‘boom!’. A more immediate problem is the lack of backgrounds for the investigators who feel very flat otherwise.

It is clear that the scenarios in Petersen’s Abominations have been increasing in their complexity from the first to the fourth, and now the fifth, ‘Voice on the Phone’. Here author brings the Mythos to inner city Dallas and its gang culture, combining a classic H.P. Lovecraft story with the Crawling Chaos for an interesting timed effect. It casts the investigators as members a gang who ordered to deal with a splinter gang which has been making moves recently, expanding quickly and bloodily, with no-one it seems being able to take them down. Alternatively, the investigators might actually be investigators—or rather policeman, part of a taskforce assigned to deal with the increase in gang violence, but no pre-generated investigators are provided for this option. Now investigating as gang members makes for an interesting set-up and roleplaying challenge and as much as it allows the investigators to legitimately get away with applying more direct methods as part of their investigation, it forces them to be subtler in other ways in order to avoid the notice of the police. The other danger in that is that the players are asked to play Hispanic gang members and violent ones at that, so this might not sit well with some players. In fact, this probably the most violent scenario in the anthology, involving as it does a lot of ‘body horror’. The scenario is also quite complex in terms of its timing, so the Keeper really needs to maintain a track of things as the investigators work out what is going on. Get this timing right and the Keeper gets to escalate the Mythos elements in this scenario to great effect. Overall, this is a very good one-shot and should be huge fun to play.

Physically, Petersen’s Abominations is well presented in what is now the publisher’s house style. Which means that it is clean, in full colour, has great artwork, and lots of attention has been paid to the player handouts. This is all behind a decent cover which features mugshots of both Petersen and Mason! The book is well written, but it does need another edit and feels slightly rushed in places. One notable omission is the use the NPC collages which put all of their thumbnail portraits in single pieces of artwork thus rendering them utterly useless as props to show the players. This is an enormous improvement over recent books for Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition and let us hope that this is a sign that Chaosium has dropped that practice for good. Otherwise, Petersen’s Abominations is an attractive, sturdy hardback which looks great and feels good in the hand.

Of the five scenarios in Petersen’s Abominations, the last three scenarios are better than the first two, which feel rather workmanlike in comparison. In particular, both ‘Pancea’ and ‘Voice on the Phone’ stand out as effective pieces of weird body horror and if you get a chance to play these, then you really should. If you are a Call of Cthulhu devotee, then you are of course, going to want to have copy of Petersen’s Abominations on your shelf. After all, this is an anthology from the designer of Call of Cthulhu and they do not come along every day. Fortunately, you do not just get the name with the supplement, but a good set of one-shot scenarios each of which will deliver a sharp, short horrifying gaming experience—even if Mister Petersen is not running them. Petersen’s Abominations: Five Epic Tales of Modern Horror delivers some impressive horror one-shots and some fun twists upon the Mythos and shows how the creator of greatest horror roleplaying game can still scare us decades later. Can we have Petersen’s Abominations II, please?

Saturday, 14 April 2018

Low Lovecraftian Fantasy

In a hobby rife with fantasy roleplaying games—from Dungeons & Dragons to Symbaroum, not to forget the Old School Renaissance, the question is, what sets Shadow, Sword, & Spell apart from all the rest? Published by Rogue Games, Shadow, Sword, & Spell primarily does two things. First, it does is humanocentric fantasy, that is, fantasy sans Elves, Dwarves, Halflings, and so on. Second, it does Pulp Fantasy, that is, fantasy in the vein of Robert Howard, Clark Ashton Smith, and H.P. Lovecraft. It is gritty, often grim, but invariably low in magic, high in adventure, wide of vista, and simmering with secrets, horror, and mystery. This is a roleplaying game in which men are men, women are women, and neither are necessarily truly heroic.

Within the setting of Shadow, Sword, & Spell, players are free to design the characters they want to play—this is very much a skills and spells, guts and sanity type of roleplaying game. This can be for a setting of the Game Master’s own creation or the two sandboxes provided in the rulebook. Thus tundra-born barbarians, crafty bureaucrats, astute merchants, curious scholars, stealthy hunters, shadowy thieves, louche gamblers, secretive sorcerers—all these are possible and more. Characters are defined by five Abilities—Brawn, Quickness, Toughness, Wits, and Will, plus Vitality and Sanity, two derived factors which represent a character’s physical and mental damage capacity respectively. A character can have any number of skills or spells, the only limitation being their cost to purchase. Both Abilities and the ranks for a character’s spells and skills range between one and twenty-four. A character also has several Hooks, descriptors which help pull the character into the story and the action and which can be used as negative factors to earn a character Action Points and then used as positive factors to allow a player to spend his character’s Action Points to get various benefits. Bonuses and penalties come from a character’s Background or culture and a Modifier, the latter qualifying the Background and pointing towards a character’s attitude.

To create a character, a player divides forty-five points between the five Abilities, with seven being average and Abilities above nine granting a bonus. Then he has forty points to divide between his skills and spells, the latter because each spell is treated as a skill in itself. After selecting a Background and Modifier, a player chooses two Hooks. For our character, the Civilised Background is appropriate since she grew up in the city-port of Bluff. This gives her +1 Rank in Bureaucracy, Diplomacy, and a non-native language. It also penalises her with -1 Survival and Subterfuge. Now for her Modifier, there are none that seem really suitable given in the book, since Jessen’s player wants her to have grown up on the streets. Advice is given in Shadow, Sword, & Spell on how to create your own. So, Jessen’s player creates a Modifier for her—Bluff Street Rat. This grants the following bonuses and penalties to various skill rolls—Subterfuge +2, Streetwise +1, Observe +1, Diplomacy -2, Empathy -2, Socialise -1 and Survival -1.

Jessen the Quick
Background: Civilised
Modifier: Street Rat
Brawn 08 (+0) Quickness 12 (+2) Toughness 08 (+0) Wits 09 (+1) Will 08 (+0)
Vitality: 40
Sanity: 40
Initiative: 11
Actions: 4 Action Points: 5
Skills: Acrobatics +2, Bargain +2, Bureaucracy +1, Defend +2, Diplomacy -1, Gaming +1, Languages (Street Argot) +1, Melee +2, Streetwise +1, Subterfuge +2, Survival -1

Hooks
You can take the Street Rat off the street, but not the street…
My brother is missing

Creating a character is relatively easy, but takes a bit of time as a player divides up the various points and makes a few choices. The resulting character will be quite focused in what he can do, at least if a player wants him to be competent in what he does. The resulting character also does not feel overly competent, but with a few adventures under their collective belts, that should change. Like character creation, , the core mechanic—the 12° System, also used in the publisher’s Colonial Gothic roleplaying game—in Shadow, Sword, & Spell is relatively easy. To undertake an action, a character’s player rolls two twelve-sided dice and adds the character’s Ability bonus and Skill values. The aim is to beat a Target Number, a Standard target number being twelve, a Challenging target number being eighteen, a Daring target number being thirty. Rolls above the Target Number generate Degrees of Success, whilst rolls below generate Degrees of Failure. In combat, Degrees of Success add to damage rolls, but out of combat they can be used to reduce the amount of time a task takes, improve its effectiveness, and so on. The effect of both Degrees of Success and Failure should not have too great an influence on a game and their exact effect is up to the Game Master to decide. One example of how Degrees of Failure is in measuring how scared a character is. Should a character fail a Fear Test, then the Degrees of Failure indicate how many points of Sanity a character loses. (It should be noted it is just as easy to recover Sanity as it is Vitality, and do so daily, so the tone is more Pulp than Purist in terms of the approach to Lovecraftian horror in Shadow, Swords, & Spell.)
For example, Jessen the Quick, Hifgrirr the Silent, and and Utolin the Learned have been hired to take an item from the tomb of Wuqor the Black. Utolin has found the location of the tomb in some old records and together they have broken into the tomb and located the sarcophagus chamber. Jessen has picked the lock to a rusty iron gate and as Utolin is about to step into the chamber, the Game Master calls for Observe Tests—Utolin first and then Jessen. Utolin’s player fails his, so it is Jessen’s turn. Jessen does not have the Observe skill, but it is an Untrained skill, so there is a -4 penalty on the roll. The Game Master sets the Target Number at Difficult or fourteen. Jessen’s player rolls the two twelve-sided dice, adds Jessen’s Wits bonus and bonus from her Cultural Modifier and deducts the penalty. The result is 4 and 12 on the dice, plus Wits bonus of +1, a modifier of +1, and a penalty of -4, to give a result of 14. Jessen succeeds, but only just! The Game Master states that Jessen just manages to spot and warn Utolin just in time.
In addition to a character’s skills, he also has Action Points. These can be spent to gain a Degree of Success, gain a +1 bonus to a roll, to edit and change aspects of a situation, and regain Vitality in an emergency. On top of these Action Points, a character also has Hooks, aspects which can be invoked along with an Action Point to gain a +2 bonus instead of the usual +1. For example, ‘I earned my freedom, none shall take it from me.’ might be used to gain a +2 bonus on an escape attempt. Hooks can also be used to earn a character Action Points, whether through good roleplaying upon the player’s part or the Game Master invoking the Hook.
Continuing the example, Jessen the Quick and Utolin the Learned have entered the sarcophagus chamber of Wuqor the Black. The sarcophagus appears to be sealed and Utolin is pouring over the seal wondering whether he can break the seal. The Game Master suggests that this will be a Lore Test with a Target Number of 22 or Formidable. Utolin’s Wits bonus is +1 and he has a skill of Lore +2, but his player asks if he can invoke of his Hooks—‘My Future Lies in the Past’—to gain a +2 bonus instead of +1. Utolin’s player describes this as having spent all of those hours in the archives researching Wuqor. The Game Master agrees, giving a total of +5 to the roll. Utolin’s player rolls 9 and 9, which together with the bonuses is enough for Utolin to work how to break the seal. Unfortunately, Wuqor left one last trap. As the seal breaks with a cracking sound, there is a shifting of rock both in front of and behind Jessen and Utolin—the iron gate comes sliding back down into position as on the other side of the chamber, two sections of wall slide into the floor revealing two alcoves. Out of both steps a warrior figure, wielding sword and shield, but devoid of flesh—skeleton guardians!
Combat uses the same mechanics, and whilst it allows for a variety of manoeuvres, such as bull rush, called shots, dirty fighting, and so on, it is designed to be reasonably quick and dramatic. Damage in particular can be highly deleterious and have an effect beyond that of simple Vitality loss. With weapon damage being determined by adding the Degrees of Success generated on the attack roll to the weapon’s damage value, high damage can be inflicted and with it penalties to all of a character’s actions—including attacking and defensive actions—until he is healed. There are two ways of avoiding damage. One is to wear armour, which soaks up the damage from blows until it falls apart, the other is for the target to avoid the attack. This is done by making Defend Tests against Melee attacks—the use of shields add to this and making Dodge Tests against Ranged attacks. Each Degree of Success rolled reduces the attacker’s Degrees of Success and if they can be reduced to zero, then the attack has successfully been dodged or defended against. One thing to take into account here is how many Actions a character has each round. Derived from the Quickness Ability, it is always a fixed amount which cannot be carried over to subsequent rounds. Actions are primarily used to make attacks, usually with the Melee or Ranged skill, but they are also needed to make Dodge or Defend Tests, so it is always a good idea to keep an Action or two in hand to ward off attacks.

Hifgrirr the Silent
Background: Barbarian
Modifier: Northern
Brawn 12 (+2) Quickness 09 (+1) Toughness 09 (+1) Wits 05 (-2) Will 09 (+1)
Vitality: 40
Sanity: 45
Initiative: 7
Actions: 3 Action Points: 5
Skills: Athletics +2, Defend +2, Diplomacy -2, Melee +3, Stealth +1, Survival +3, Tactics +1, Track +3
Modifiers: Illiterate

Hooks
Better to say nothing than say something foolish
The land speaks to me, I pray to the land
In the Sarcophagus Chamber of Wuqor the Black, the skeletons have stepped out of their alcoves and in the low light cast by Utolin’s luminescence spell, each looks at the three intruders who can see the strange green gem glowing on their foreheads—these can be no ordinary skeletons. The Game Master calls for a Fear Test from each of the three characters. The Target Number for this is Challenging or 18. Each player will add his character’s Will bonus to the roll to beat the Target Number, but unfortunately the Skeleton has a Trait of Fear -1 which is applied to each character’s roll. With rolls of 20 and 18 respectively, both Utolin and Hifgrirr pass, but with a roll of 6, Jessen fails miserably and worse, the twelve Degrees of Failure the roll generated has to be deducted from her Sanity. This is a lot and means that Jessen will suffer a -2 penalty to all actions for the day.
Now combat starts. Both the players and the Game Master rolls for initiative, equal to their Initiative Rating plus a roll of one die. The results are Hifgrirr 18, Jessen 14 (this includes the -2 penalty), Utolin 16, the Skeletons 6, so Hifgrirr is going first. The character with the highest Tactics skill gets to make a Tactics Test. Hifgrirr has Tactics +1, but a Wits penalty of -2. If his player makes the roll, then the Degrees of Success can be distributed to the other characters as an act of leadership. Unfortunately, Hifgrirr lives up to his sobriquet and is all too silent when it comes to giving commands—just at a time when Jessen could really do with some directions. In the meantime, the Northern Barbarian has three actions versus the Skeletons’ two each. His player decides that Hifgrirr will attack twice and use one to defend against the Skeleton’s attack. Hifgrirr’s player will add Hifgrirr’s Brawn bonus of +2 and Melee +3 to beat a Target Number of 18. He rolls 9 and 12, which with the bonus comes to total of 26. This is a good hit, giving Hifgrirr 8 Degrees of Success, but the Skeleton has to defend. Unfortunately, the Skeleton does not have the Defence skill, but it does have a shield, so the Game Master will be adding -2 for the Skeleton’s Quickness modifier, +1 for the shield, and -4 for the Untrained skill use, but even after rolling 10 and 12, the final result of 17 means that it cannot defend itself. Hifgrirr’s player add the Damage Value of 6 for the barbarian’s broadsword to the Degrees of Success for a total of 14 damage! This over half of the Skeleton’s Vitality!
The Game Master rolls for the Skeleton’s Melee +8, again to beat 18 and bash Hifgrirr with its sword. She rolls 2 and 9 to get a total of 19, which is two Degrees of Success. Hifgrirr’s studded leather armour gives him an Armour Value of 25 and so will protect him, but Hifgrirr is going to try and protect himself anyway. His player rolls the dice to get 7 and 9, and adds Hifgrirr’s Defend +2 and Quickness modifier of +1 as well as the +1 bonus for the barbarian’s shield for total of 20—two Degrees of Success. This will be deducted from the skeleton’s damage roll of a die roll and Brawn of 5 (a normal skeleton uses Quickness and the die roll, but remember that green glowing gem!), so that in the end, Hifgrirr’s Armour Value takes 9 points of damage…
Hifgrirr then gets to attack again as his third Action. In the meantime, Utolin prepares a spell and whilst she is much quicker than the skeleton she is facing, Jessen is still scared of the skeleton attacking her. This means that she just about manages to defend herself, but her shortsword seems no match for the skeleton’s shield blocking…
Magic in Shadow, Swords, & Spell comes in two flavours—Common and Arcane. Essentially, basic and advanced spells, the latter being more powerful. It takes the Magic skill to cast spells and there is no limit as such on how many times a spell can be cast, although Arcane spells do scrape at the caster’s Sanity. The primary limitations upon a mage’s ability to cast spells is that they are treated like skills, so need to be purchased and improved Rank by Rank and that Common spells take two whole rounds to cast. Arcane spells require more time to prepare and cast as some do require a ritual circle. The Common spells include Burn, Cause Gloom, Healing, Sleep, and so on, whilst the Arcane spells include Bring Forth Elemental, Contact (as in Elder God!), Destroy the Dead, Ward, and so on. There is not a huge number of spells, but starting wizards do not start the game with many spells anyway and one of their aims is find other spellcasters willing to teach them. The other form of magic in Shadow, Sword, & Spell is Alchemy, which allows a practitioner to create Ability boosting elixirs, create homunculi and manticores, brew poisons, and transmute things, and so on. It is a far more studious and less flashy than standard magic.

Utolin the Learned
Background: Advanced
Modifier: Sorcerous
Brawn 08 (+0) Quickness 08 (+0) Toughness 08 (+0) Wits 09 (+1) Will 12 (+2)
Vitality: 32
Sanity: 45
Initiative: 11
Actions: 2 Action Points: 5
Skills: Diplomacy -1, Empathy -1, Lore +2, Magic +2, Resist +1, Sense +1, Socialise +0, Study (History) +4, 
Spells: Ball/Bolt +2, Healing +2, Magic’s Luminance +1
Modifiers: -1 on social tests with ‘inferiors’

Hooks
My manners might be alien, but they are at least manners
My fortune lies in the past
Meanwhile in the sarcophagus chamber of Wuqor the Black, Jessen is just about managing to hold off the skeleton attacking her and Hifgrirr has smashed the skeleton he was to bits, including the green and glowing gem which was in its forehead. He has also come up behind the skeleton facing Jessen and thwacking it hard. The skeleton has taken a lot of damage, but is determined to continue attacking Jessen. After two rounds of concentration and recitation of the formula, Utolin is at last ready to cast his one offensive spell—Bolt. The Target Number is again Chalelnging or 18, so Utolin’s player rolls the dice to get 10 and 8, to which he adds Utolin’s Magic of +2 and Will modifier of +2 to get a total of 22. This gives him four Degrees of Success to add to the Rank of his Bolt spell, for six damage. The skeleton cannot resist this damage and Utolin’s player describes this as Utolin suddenly shouting out for everyone to duck as he unleashes a shard of ice that pierces the skeleton’s skull and sending it crashing to the floor.
Beyond the mere character, Shadow, Swords, & Spell provides rules for mass combat, including sieges and then for what it calls the ‘Endgame’. This is part in Advanced Dungeons & Dragons where the Fighter has reached high enough Level to build a stronghold and attract some followers, a thief to establish a Thieves Guild and recruit more thieves, or when Conan has become king and rules a country. It is the point when the characters become too capable to really go adventuring. It looks at three options—building and managing a domain, becoming a merchant princess or prince, and setting up a criminal gang—and covering retainers, morale, events, trade, terrain, and so on. It very nicely both extends the campaign and life of a group’s characters and covers the more mature aspects of the source material—settling down, politics, family matters, and so forth. It is supported by decent advice for the Game Master, which looks a little more at the genre inspiring Shadow, Swords, & Spell and how to create a setting. This is backed up with ‘The World’, a sample setting, essentially a large land mass to the south of which lies the mysterious island of Atlantis. The larger land mass is described in broad detail before the description switches to focus on a smaller region, the League of Merchants. Notably this includes the various gods worshipped by the inhabitants of the region, many of them of an elder nature. This provides something that the Game Master can use, take inspiration from, and so on.

Rounding out Shadow, Swords, & Spell is a lengthy bestiary, covering both threats and creatures. The former are men, ranging from bandits and barbarians to muggers and raconteurs, with many taken from ‘The World’. The creatures include demons, elementals, dinosaurs, and ordinary animals, as well as Lovecraftian things such as deep ones and serpent people. Between them are rules for the Game Master to design monsters of his own. Rounding out the book is a good reference section and a set of enjoyable designers notes.

Physically, Shadow, Swords, & Spell is a sturdy, digest-sized book. It is decently illustrated in a range of styles, but all black and white. Although it needs an edit in places, the writing is engaging and it lays the groundwork for playing the game with an explanation of system and how its works up front before delving into detail. It perhaps could have done with a few example player characters and perhaps an example scenario to really get the game going.

Of course, the obvious issue with Shadow, Swords, & Spell is the 12° System which looks a little odd with its use of pairs of twelve-sided dice. This oddity actually hides a solid set of mechanics which have been nicely developed to handle the Swords & Sorcery genre, especially in their push into the ‘End Game’ and the player characters’ later careers. Also, although pulp fantasy, the system allows for the effects of fear and encountering threats, and this pleasingly pushes the fantasy of Shadow, Swords, & Spell away from the type of fantasy atypical to roleplaying as does the focus on a humancentric feel rather than allowing a myriad of player character races. Overall, Shadow, Swords, & Spell presents the means to play in a lost age, a darker age, when gods and things stalked the shadows and from beyond, but an age when men and women had the skills and spells, guts and sanity to search out secrets, confront horrors—and if they survive, stake a claim to their own kingdoms.

Friday, 13 April 2018

Friday Filler: The Fighting Fantasy Co-op

Funded via Kickstarter, Escape the Dark Castle: The Game of Atmospheric Adventure is a grim co-operative dice game which echoes the Fighting Fantasy series of solo adventure books from the nineteen eighties. Published by Themeborne, Escape the Dark Castle is designed to be played by between one and four players, aged fourteen plus, so just like those Fighting Fantasy books, it can be played solo. It can be played in thirty minutes or less—probably less because Escape the Dark Castle is a brutally challenging game to beat and offers plenty of replay value because of the number of cards it comes with and the random set-up each time it is played.

In Escape the Dark Castle, each player controls a prisoner who has been wrongly incarcerated below Dark Castle for more years than he or she can recall. Now there is an opportunity to escape and take up their old lives again, but between them and freedom stands some fifteen encounters or locations, as well as a boss responsible for their imprisonment. They will face traps, monsters, choices, and more, all of which they must work together to overcome if they are to escape. For if one of their number dies in the process, then they all fail. So, in Escape the Dark Castle, it is a case of ‘together or death!’

Escape the Dark Castle comes decently appointed. This includes six Character Cards, fifty-three Chapter Cards, five Boss Cards, and a Start Card, all of which are A6 in size. The thirty-five Item Cards are standard sized cards. The fifteen, large six-sided dice are divided between the nine black Chapter Dice and the six white Character Dice. A scorepad and several pencils are included to track the escapee’s Hit Points. The black and white rule book is just twelve pages long.

The Character Cards depict an Abbot, a Cook, a Miller, a Smith, a Tanner, and a Tailor. Each has ratings in three Traits—Cunning, Might, and Wisdom. The ratings each Character has in these Traits indicates how many times they occur on their Character die. So, the Smith has four in Might, three in Wisdom, and one in Cunning, and the corresponding number of symbols appear on the Smith’s Character Die. Some of the symbols appear twice on the face a Character Die and in shield. When rolled, this means that a Character is twice as effective, whilst the shield indicates that all damage has been blocked. The Chapter Dice simply show the three symbols twice.

The Chapter Cards depict monsters and challenges the Characters have to overcome and the horrors and choices they will face. Each Chapter Card clearly indicates what the Characters have to do, how many Chapter Dice need to be rolled if required, and how much damage the Characters will suffer if they fail. For example, the Characters might encounter a putrid captain sitting at a table, his face shrouded in shadow. He will suddenly rise and attack if the Characters try to get past him. They have two choices. They can flee, but suffer three Hit Points of damage in the process, if they fight, they must each roll their Character dice to try and match the symbols rolled on the Chapter Dice in order to beat the Captain. Each round the Captain remains standing, he inflicts two Hit Points of damage on all of the Characters.

The Item Cards are a mix of consumables, equipment, and relics. So, the Cunning Concoction is drunk to apply an extra Cunning result in a Chapter, the Infested Cheese Wheel is eaten to restore a Hit Point for everyone, the Rotten Shield reduces damage taken by one point, and the Decayed Blade allows a player to reroll his die once per round if he rolls Wisdom and choose the best result. None of the Characters have bags or pockets, so they can hold two items or a single two-handed item. Lastly, the rulebook is a quick read and the rules are easy to learn. (In fact, Escape the Dark Castle can be played within ten minutes of opening the box as it is very easy to teach.)

At the start of the game, each player chooses a Character, which should be done to ensure that together the players have a good mix of Characters favouring the three Stats. Fifteen Chapter Cards are selected at random and shuffled to form the Castle Deck. The Start Card is placed atop the Castle Deck, whilst a Boss Card is placed at the bottom. Everyone takes their Character Die and the game is ready to play. All this takes a couple of minutes to set up.

The game starts with a player turning over the Start Card and reading it. Then the first Chapter Card is turned over and play proper begins. There is no turn order, the players deciding who will turn over each Chapter Card and what they will do to overcome them. It can be important who turns over a Chapter Card as some have conditions which apply only to that player. From one Chapter to the next, the Characters might have to hack their way through thorny vines, fight a ghoul, aid or rob a nobleman, make a deal with a trader, steal from an empty guard room, avoid a set of three swinging axes, and so on. Along the way they will find items which will help them and if they are lucky, they will be strong enough to face the Boss at the end of the dungeon and defeat him to escape.

All this plays in thirty minutes. Which when combined with the quick set-up time makes for a quick playing experience. More importantly, it is a very luck-based experience. Not just the roll of the dice to determine the outcome of Chapters and combats, but also what Chapter Cards and Item Cards will be drawn. It is also a brutal playing experience as there are few easy Chapters and combat can be really nasty if the players do not roll the dice they need to defeat a foe. This also makes it tense experience as from one Chapter to the next, as the players are forced to make choices, balance their need to defeat foes to find Items versus their remaining Hit Points, and try keep their Hit Points high enough to survive facing the final Boss—if they get their far…

Physically, Escape the Dark Castle is really well produced. The Chapter, Boss, and Character Cards are large and really easy to read and understand. Each one is illustrated in Black and White, in a style which echoes that of the Fighting Fantasy series and Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay last seen in the nineteen eighties. There really is a rich seam of nostalgia running through this game right down to the illustration of the Dark Castle itself, which echoes the castle of Citadel Miniatures. (That said, it is very, very British nostalgia, so it may not appeal to all gamers.)

Which all sounds well and good. Unfortunately, Escape the Dark Castle feels as if it should offer more complexity than it actually does. With just fifteen Chapter Cards each game and the choices limited to events described on those Chapter Cards, it never feels as if the Characters have any choice as to where they go—it is always forward, forward, forward to escape and the next Chapter Card. Similarly, none of the Characters really feel different to each other. Only the Stats differentiate between them and this makes them feel a bit flat. A special ability for each of the Characters might have been enough for them to stand out from each other. Nor are there any rules for scaling the game up and down to make it easier or more difficult to win. (The solution would be to decrease or increase the number of Chapter Cards.) Hopefully an expansion will add these options and so offset the game’s simplicity, making it a bit more appealing to a wider audience.

Despite these issues, Escape the Dark Castle is still fun and still challenging to play. Indeed, overcoming the challenges of the Chapter Cards and defeating the final Boss really does feel as if the players and their Characters have achieved something. It is quick to set up and play through, making it a good filler. It is also possible to tell a story of desperation and heroism as Characters progress further towards the exit from under the castle—it is here that that the game really begins to echo the solo adventure books. Overall, this is a brutal filler which offers plenty of choices and challenges to face and plenty of cards to make you want to return to see if you can Escape the Dark Castle: The Game of Atmospheric Adventure once again.

Monday, 9 April 2018

Miskatonic Monday #9: An Invitation in Yellow

Between October 2003 and October 2013, Chaosium, Inc. published a series of books for Call of Cthulhu under the Miskatonic University Library Association brand. Whether a sourcebook, scenario, anthology, or campaign, each was a showcase for their authors—amateur rather than professional, but fans of Call of Cthulhu nonetheless—to put forward their ideas and share them with others. The programme was notable for having launched the writing careers of several authors, but for every Cthulhu InvictusThe PastoresPrimal StateRipples from Carcosa, and Halloween Horror, there was a Five Go Mad in EgyptReturn of the RipperRise of the DeadRise ofthe Dead II: The Raid, and more...

The Miskatonic University Library Association brand is no more, alas, but what we have in its stead is the Miskatonic Repository, based on the same format as the DM’s Guild for Dungeons & Dragons. It is thus, “...a new way for creators to publish and distribute their own original Call of Cthulhu content including scenarios, settings, spells and more...” To support the endeavours of their creators, Chaosium has provided templates and art packs, both free to use, so that the resulting releases can look and feel as professional as possible. To support the efforts of these contributors, Miskatonic Monday is an occasional series of reviews which will in turn examine an item drawn from the far reaches of the Miskatonic Repository.

—oOo—

NameAn Invitation in Yellow: A Call of Cthulhu Scenario for 3-4 players
Publisher: Chaosium, Inc.
Author: Patrick Viggo Moeller

Setting: Jazz Age
Product: Scenario
What You Get1.3 MB, 14-page black & white PDF
Elevator Pitch
Friends, Romans, countrymen, don't come to dinner.

Plot Hook: The investigators are invited to dinner by an old acquaintance who has scientific discoveries of a medical nature to share.
Plot Development: A bad dinner, madness, missing folk, and a frienemy.

Plot Support: Six NPCs; Six good handouts.
Production ValuesNeeds a edit.

Pros

# Short, self-contained investigation 
# Limited number of NPCs
# Simple, but weird plot
# Only one major NPC for the Keeper to portray

# Adaptable to the period of the Keeper’s choice# Good scenario for a Doctor investigator
# Adaptable to the Mythos entity (Yog-Sothoth?) of the Keeper’s choice
Cons

Sanity rewards slightly high
Sanity losses slightly high
# Fails to take advantage of the Sanity depleting effects of being under the influence
Fails to take advantage of the horror effects of being under the influence
Only one scenario hook given

Conclusion

# Decent one-session scenario
Suitable for the new Keeper

Sunday, 8 April 2018

Narcofiction Roleplaying

Cartel: Mexican Narcofiction Powered by the Apocalypse is a roleplaying game inspired by the television series Breaking Bad and The Wire and the film, El Mariachi. As its name suggests, it draws heavily on the stories about the manufacture and trafficking of narcotics—cocaine, crystal meth, and heroin—in Mexico and north across the border into the USA. It sets up archetypes, known as Playbooks—‘el concinero’, ‘la esposa’, ‘el halcón’, ‘el narco’, ‘la polizeta’, and ‘la sicaria’—who share one or more connections with each other and who is each involved somehow in the Sinaloa Cartel. A combination of these connections, the characters’ agendas, their obligations to the Cartel, and the Cartel’s agenda serves to drive the drama of the roleplaying game. These also serve to replace the set-ups or scenarios which might be found in traditional roleplaying games, as well as establishing tensions and hooks aplenty. Which with all of that money, power, and obligation on the line, means that Cartel has potential for some great roleplaying.

Published by Magpie Games, Cartel is ‘Powered by the Apocalypse’. What this means is that it uses the mechanics first seen in Apocalypse World, the 2010 roleplaying game which won the 2010 Indie RPG Award and 2011 Golden Geek RPG of the year and is from the designer of Dogs in the Vineyard. The core of these mechanics is a roll of two six-sided dice, with results of ten or more counting as a complete success, results of between seven and nine as a partial success—or ‘yes, but’, and results of six or less counting as a failure with consequences—or ‘no, but’. The dice are rolled against actions or ‘Moves’. For example, ‘Propose a Deal’. When ten or more is rolled for this Move, the other person accepts the terms of the proposed deal or suffers Stress, but if seven, eight, or nine are rolled, then the other person either accepts the offer and declaims authority for doing so, accepts and adjusts the price, or suggests another interested party. To this roll is added a stat, which typically ranges in value between -2 and +2. The four stats in Cartel are Face (social influence), Grit (tenacity and good fortune), Hustle (fast talk and persuasion), and Savagery (violence and reading others).

In a game ‘Powered by the Apocalypse’, what a character knows or can do—their Moves—are defined by their archetype or Playbook. Cartel itself gives six Playbooks. These are ‘El Concinero’, who cooks or manufactures the drugs; ‘La Esposa’, the spouse entangled in the lies of their partner; ‘El Halcón’, the ambitious young gang member; ‘El Narco’, the local boss in charge of an area or la plaza; ‘La Polizeta’, the cop corrupted by the cartel as much as he is trying to bring it down; and ‘La Sicaria’, the cartel veteran enforcer or killer who has managed to survive thus far. All six Playbooks have access to a number of basic Moves, including Justify Your Behaviour, Propose a Deal, Push Your Luck, Get the Truth, Pressure Someone, Turn to Violence, Size Someone Up, Strain Your Finances, and Help/Interfere. The majority of the Moves unique to a Playbook provide bonuses or enhancements to other Moves. So for example, La Esposa’s ‘Amor y Matrimonio’ grants them a +1 bonus when persuading a member of la familia to do the right thing. Others work more like the basic Moves, such as ‘Hermano’ for El Halcón. This gets El Halcón’s ‘Pandilla’ or trio of cohorts to follow his lead and do something dangerous. On a roll of ten plus, the Pandilla agrees to go along with El Halcón’s, following his instructions precisely without demanding cash or drugs; on a roll of seven, eight, or nine, they only agree to one of these conditions; and on a miss, the Pandilla simply argues amongst themselves and screws up El Halcón’s plans before they can be acted upon.

Besides Moves, each Playbook has Extras and Llaves—or Keys. Extras represent a Playbook’s connections or resources, essentially their support. So El Concinero has a lab where the drugs are cooked, La Esposa a family and obligations, El Halcón his loyal Pandilla or gang, El Narco a Plaza through which drugs are moved and sold, La Polizeta connections to an anti-cartel taskforce, and La Sicaria his weapons and gear, which represent how they carry out his tasks. Each Key or Llave represents a means of a character gaining Experience Points. Thus El Narco has Dirty Hands, Family, and Paranoia. The first grants him Experience Points when he personally gets involved in a messy situation; the second when he violates the members’ boundaries to protect them; and the third when he gets the truth out of someone about their true loyalties. Earned Experience Points are spent on Advances which range from improved Stats and support options to new Moves and resolving support issues.

Character creation in Cartel is in part a collaborative process. Each player selects a Playbook—ideally Cartel should be played by six roleplayers as well as the Master of Ceremonies (as the Game Master is known)—and works through the options it gives, deciding on a name, look, and gear as well as adjusting a Stat and deciding on Moves, Llaves, and connections or resources. Each player also establishes ‘Los Enlaces’ or links with other characters, ideally other the player characters, but NPCs are acceptable too. Guiding the players through this process is the Master of Ceremonies—as the Game Master is known in ‘Powered by the Apocalypse’ Games—who will be asking questions and helping to build the relationships and backgrounds to each of the player characters.

In play, this is the primary role of the Master of Ceremonies, to ask questions, push and prompt the players, and build their characters’ involvement in the setting. For this she has the Moves of the NPCs and for an explanation of those she will need access to a copy of Apocalypse World. The advice in Cartel is short and to the point, covering her role and notably, what each of the Playbooks is looking for in play and providing an example of actual play.
For example, El Coninero, Yolanda, has problem—the shipments she is sending out are arriving short, so she wants to ask El Halcón, Pepe, if he knows anything about this. Having cornered Pepe, Yolanda says to him, “Hey, Pepe, my last shipment came up short. This is isn’t the first time. What do know about it?” The Master of Ceremonies says that this is a ‘Get the Truth’ Move. Yolanda’s player has to roll the dice and add her Hustle, which is +1. Her player rolls six, but the +1 makes it a seven. This is not a complete success, but it is a hit and Yolanda does get to reduce her Stress (well, she is going to get some of the truth after all). The options are that Pepe can not mislead Yolanda with the truth, confuse her with falsehoods, or stonewall her with silence. If Yolanda’s player had rolled ten or more, her player could have selected two of these options, but can only choose one because of the roll. Yolanda’s player opts for Pepe not confusing her with falsehoods, which means that Pepe cannot lie. He responds with, “Look Yolanda, it was me, okay? I’ve been selling it on the streets. I had too though… there’s some dumbass cop taking a bigger cut of my pandillo’s money. He’s not one of ours, so…”
Damage in Cartel—and other ‘Powered by the Apocalypse’ games—is handled as either Stress or Harm. The first represents mental damage, whilst the second is physical damage. Both are greatly deleterious to a character’s wellbeing. Interestingly, whilst the outcome of the ‘Turn to Violence’ Move will inflict Harm on the intended victim, it also inflicts Stress on the person doing it. Should a character suffer from too much Stress or Harm, then a player can clear by undertaking certain related Moves. For example, ‘Verbally Abuse or Shame’ or ‘Lose Yourself in a Substance’ as Stress Moves and ‘When You Get Fucking Shot’ as a Harm Move. Most damage-related Moves inflict Stress though and when a character suffers enough Stress, a Stress Move is obligatory. Stress Moves invariably have negative consequences as much as they relieve a character of Stress and further add to the drama of the game.

In terms of background, Cartel offers details of the city of Durango in Mexico, located between Mexico City and the US border, near the Pacific coast. This is part of the Sinaloa Cartel’s territory, although there are rival cartels working the area. It is here that the player characters are supplying, working, operating, and protecting a plaza, essentially a personal territory they are responsible for. Both the cartels and the law are covered as well several examples of life living under the cartels.

Physically, Cartel is tightly written with a strong focus on its genre. The artwork available has a slightly cartoon quality, but works nonetheless. Notably, the book is written to represent a Latino view of the drug culture by being set south of the border and so uses a lot of Hispanic slang (which may not be familiar to every reader).

As it currently stands, Cartel is a game with a number of issues. The only versions available are the quick-start and the Ashcan. The former is a full-colour PDF, whilst the latter is a black and white booklet without the art. With either version, Cartel is not complete and the Master of Ceremonies at the very least should have access to a copy of Apocalypse World and some experience in the role. Also, as much as the game is inspired by the television series Breaking Bad—it is actually very easy to map the characters of that series onto the Playbooks of Cartel—it is not written to emulate that series. It is specifically written with Mexico and the Latino experience in mind, and that may well be alien to some of the game’s audience. Plus of course, the subject matter and the dramatic turns which the play of the game is likely to take, mean that Cartel is very much a game for a mature audience.

As written though, Cartel is rich in possibilities and drama. The tensions and obligations leap off the page and beg to be played, the quick-start or ashcan edition providing material enough for a short, if intense campaign.


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The full version of Cartel: Mexican Narcofiction Powered by the Apocalypse is currently being funded via Kickstarter.