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

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.