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

Friday, 17 August 2018

Friday Filler: Pocket Mars

Mars—and the colonisation of Mars—has been the theme du jour for board games of late, with Terraforming Mars from Stronghold Games being premier treatment of said theme. It is a big game and has a playing time of two or more hours, so bringing it to the table can be a challenge in itself, let alone learning and teaching to play it. So for some groups, a shorter, simpler treatment of the theme might be more accessible. Pocket Mars is such a treatment, a ‘heavy weight filler’ from Polish publisher, Board & Dice, designed for two to four players, aged ten plus, and to be played in fifteen to thirty minutes. The card game combines area control, area influence, and hand management mechanics with pleasing components and constant player choice.

The aim in Project Mars is to get as many of your colonists from Earth to Mars via your Spaceship and occupy as many of the Buildings there. This is done by playing Project cards—either as snap or prepared actions—to move your colonists and manipulate your level of energy. The game ends on the round in which a player has managed to get all seven of his colonists to Mars at which point, the player with the most Victory Points is the winner.

Pocket Mars consists of forty-nine cards, twenty-eight colonist markers, four energy markers, and a rulebook. The latter is well written, does a good job of explaining the game and includes a number of play examples. The energy markers are used to track each player’s energy on their spaceship and the colonists are divided in four, giving each player seven colonists. The cards are divided into five Building cards, four amusingly named Spaceships and four Reference cards, and thirty-five Project cards. Four of the Building cards—Water (blue), Ecosystem (green), Science (maroon), and Energy (orange). Each has a starting Value, equal to three, and two spaces for colonists. One space can hold unlimited numbers of colonists, whilst the other can only hold limited numbers. Each colonist in the first space is worth two Victory Points at the end of the game, whilst each colonist in the second is worth four Victory Points. The fifth Building, Construction (black), has no spaces for colonists. All five Buildings have special actions. For example, the special action for Ecosystem (green) allows a colonist to be moved from space to another on any Building card. The colonist can belong to any player, so it can be used to benefit a player or hinder an opponent. These special actions are triggered when a Project card with a greater value than the Building value is played on it under certain circumstances.

The Project cards are divided in five suits of seven cards each, their colours corresponding to the Building cards. All of the cards have a value. This is zero for the Construction suit, but the numbers for each suit run from one through seven. Each Project card has two actions—the upper one for when it is played from a player’s hand and the lower one for when it is played from his Prep Module. For example, the six Project card for Ecosystem (green) enables a player to move a colonist between spaces in the Building of his choice and grants him four Energy. If played from the Prep Module, a player can move one colonist from his Ship to a Building of his choice.

At the start of the game, each player has one colonist on his Ship and one Energy. He receives four Project cards. Two of these are kept in his hand, but two are placed face down in his Prep Module. Each player always has four Project cards—two in his hand and two in his Prep Module.

On his turn, a player can take one action from a choice of five. He can play a Project card from his hand, play a Project card from his Prep Module, play a Project card from another player’s Prep Module, take one colonist from Earth and put it aboard his Spaceship, or discard a Project card—from either his hand or Prep Module to gain one Energy. When playing a Project card from his hand, the card is discarded. When playing a Project card from his Prep Module, it is placed underneath the corresponding Building and can trigger both the Project card’s lower action and the Building’s special action. If the value of the Project card is higher than the value of the Building or the current Project card on it, the player can also place a colonist on the Building card. When playing a Project card from a rival player’s Prep Module—this is drawn blind, although a player will know which suit the Project card comes from—it is placed underneath the corresponding Building as normal. This activates the lower action for the player whose Prep Module the Project card is taken from, but allows the player who played the card to trigger the Building’s special action.

Play continues until a round ends with one player having transported all seven of his colonists to Mars. Then each player totals his Victory Points. These are earned for each colonist he has aboard his Spaceship, each colonist he has in a Building—each space has differing Victory Points, for having colonists in all four Buildings, and for having four colonists in a single Building. Another Victory Point is earned for having the most Energy at game end. Colonists on Earth are worth no points.

Physically, Pocket Mars is nicely designed. A lot of thought has been put into making both the rulebook and the cards clear and easy to understand. The artwork is good, but perhaps a bit bland on the Project cards, showing just blueprints. It does not help that these are unnamed, so it never feels as if you are building an actual thing rather just an anonymous upgrade. This means that the game feels rather abstract in play. Nor does it help that none of the Building cards are named—at least on the cards, as they are named in the rulebook.

There is an element of card counting in the game’s play. Because the Project cards for all Buildings bar those for the Construction Building, are numbered from one to seven, players can track them as they enter play, so that as they are put down on Building cards, the range of numbers available decreases and a player can attempt to work out where each Project card is.

Surprisingly for a filler, Pocket Mars presents a player with a lot of choices. Most obviously, does he choose to use the upper action of a Project card by playing it from his hand, or does he use the lower action by playing from his Prep Module? Then again, where does he place his Project cards? Which ones does he keep in his hand and which ones does he place in his Prep Module to take advantage of their more advantageous lower actions, knowing that an opponent might steal and use those Project cards? It might even be worth seeding your Prep Module with weaker Project cards perhaps to lure rival players into using them…

On the downside, all of this decision making can lead to analysis paralysis, which is compounded by the fact that a player can find one of his Project cards in his Prep Module being used by a rival player and thus suddenly find himself having to decide which Project card to replace the just used one. This is in addition to the somewhat abstract nature of the design—the Building and the Project cards, in particular—and perhaps a lack of variety in the play to support multiple replays.

The number of choices Pocket Mars presents the players with certainly mark it out as a ‘heavy weight filler’. Surprisingly, the depth and range of choices is not quite managed by the theme, which feels somewhat light. Overall, Pocket Mars is a tightly designed game which offers choice, but not quite enough variety. The number of choices means it is slightly heavy for casual players and the lack of variety means that it does not offer enough replay value for more dedicated players.

Sunday, 12 August 2018

The Other Arthurian Roleplaying Game

It is an indisputable fact that when it comes to Arthurian era roleplaying, there is no greater roleplaying game than Pendragon – Chivalric Roleplaying in Arthur’s Britain. Originally published by Chaosium, Inc. in 1985, it was at the time a radical design, including as it does, personality traits and passions which influence each player character’s actions and attitudes. The most recent edition was published Nocturnal Media and even today, it remains the pre-eminent roleplaying game of its genre and a piece of classic roleplaying design. What is even more amazing about Pendragon – Chivalric Roleplaying in Arthur’s Britain is that its designer—Greg Stafford, also the creator of the Glorantha setting and many of its associated games—would tackle the genre a second time five years later. Although it would involve much the same cast of characters and much the same setting, this second roleplaying game approached Arthurian legend from a specific, but no less heroic or chivalric angle. This would be Prince Valiant: The Storytelling Game, based on Prince Valiant in the Days of King Arthur, the long running comic strip written and drawn by Hal Foster.

Prince Valiant in the Days of King Arthur tells the story of Prince Valiant, a Nordic prince exiled to Arthurian Britain where his adventures see him become a squire and eventually a knight in the service of King Arthur. He will travel across the country and more, sailing to both Byzantium and Africa and as far away as America. The period for the setting is the fifth century, but not the historical fifth century. Rather it is an ahistorical setting, notably drawing very much upon the arms, armour, and castles of the Middle Ages for its look. That said, the comic maintains a strong sense of history and realism with less of an emphasis on the fantastic and the magical as found in other retellings of the Arthurian legend. Thus, whilst Merlin and Morgan le Fay both scheme and conspire, they do not rely as much upon magic as they do in other versions of the tales.

All of this is reflected in Prince Valiant: The Storytelling Game, wherein the players take the role of knights aspiring to King Arthur’s Round Table—at least in the Basic Game, and whilst the Advanced Game offers more options in terms of characters possible, none of them have access to magic. It is possible acquire magical artefacts, such as Prince Valiant’s Singing Sword, but they are rare. In addition to offering more character options beyond knights, the Advanced Game provides the means for all of the players to take a turn as a Storyteller by interjecting small encounters and so gain Special Effects which can be used to influence the narrative. At its heart though, Prince Valiant: The Storytelling Game remains a very simple game mechanically, designed to be easy to learn and play.

The simplicity of the mechanics in Prince Valiant: The Storytelling Game start with the fact that it does not use dice, but rather coins. Whenever a player wants his knight to undertake an action he throws a number of coins, typically equal to a knight’s Brawn or Presence, plus an appropriate skill as necessary. Head results on the coins count as successes, with two heads being required for an easy difficulty factor, three for a normal difficulty factor, four for a difficult difficulty factor, and five or more for a very difficult difficulty factor. A complete success is counted as being one where all of the coins come up heads and grants a player another success. So, if a player throws three coins and they all come up heads, then the result counts as four coins! 
So, for example, Sir Miles is riding through the forest when he comes upon some bandits. At the sight of the knight, they make a run for it and he gives chase. Sir Miles is making good progress when he spies a fallen log in his way. The Storyteller says that Sir Miles needs to jump the log to keep up with the bandits. From the character stats below, we can see that Sir Miles has a Brawn of 3 and a Riding of 2, which means that his player has five coins to throw. The Storyteller sets the difficulty factor at normal, which is three. Sir Miles’ player throws the coins and gets three heads. The knight is successful and can continue the chase. 
Opposed throws come down to whoever throws the most heads. This can be done quickly as one-off throws for Simple Opposed Resolution or as a series of opposed throws in extended contests for Extended Opposed Resolution. From one round to the next, the results are not only compared, but the difference between the winning and losing throw is subtracted—temporarily—from the number of coins the losing player must throw in the next round. Although this reduces the potential number of heads a player can throw, it also makes it slightly easier to throw a complete success, representing perhaps the desperation upon the part of the losing character and a chance that he might just get an unexpected edge on his opponent. Combat itself is not necessarily lethal, fights typically ending when a character’s or an NPC’s Brawn is reduced to zero and no more coins can be thrown by either player or Storyteller. Yet being violent, it is dangerous, and characters can be wounded, and deaths can and do occur, though really only to serve the needs of the story rather than an arbitrary throw of the coins. 
So, for example, having caught up with one of the bandits, Sir Miles dismounts and challenges the miscreant to give himself up. The Storyteller asks Miles’ player to make an opposed Presence plus Fellowship test versus the bandit’s Presence of 2. The Storyteller throws one head for the bandit, whilst Miles’ player throws no heads! The bandit yells, “I ain’t gonna!” and with a snarl rushes the knight with his simple wooden shield and axe in hand. Perhaps foolishly, Sir Miles is not wearing any armour—it is being strapped to the back of his horse—but he has his sword and shield in hand. The Storyteller will throw four coins for the bandit’s Brawn of 3 and Arms skill of 1. Miles’ player will throw coins for the knight’s Brawn of 3 and Arms skill of 2, plus another for his shield, for a total of six coins. In the first round, both throw two heads, Sir Miles getting his shield up just in time to block the bandit’s snarling attack. On the second round Sir Miles is unable to withstand the persistence of the bandit as the Storyteller throws three heads versus the player’s total of one. Subtracting the one from the three means that Sir Miles’ player will be throwing only three coins next turn. Fortunately, his luck is in, for Storyteller throws no heads for the bandit whereas Sir Miles’ player throws three heads—a complete success! This means that he has the equivalent of four successes. Since the Storyteller did not throw any heads for the bandit, he suffers four damage, reducing the number of coins the Storyteller can throw to zero! The bandit is out of the fight and Storyteller describes how Sir Miles determinedly knocks the bandit’s axe aside and forces him against tree, where he has no choice but to yield to the knight. 
Character generation itself is an easy process, as in the Basic Game, everyone plays knights. All a player has to do is give his knight a name, divide seven points between his Brawn (his physical attribute) and his Presence (intelligence, wisdom, perception, charisma, and so on), divide nine points between six skills, two of which have to be Arms and Riding. A knight also gets some possessions and a degree of Fame.

Our sample knight is Sir Miles, who is, in fact, my character from our current Pendragon game, in which we are playing through The Pendragon Campaign. He is a very average knight, best noted for his incredible ability to compose songs and poetry. Hence this simplified version of him, he has a slightly higher Courtesie skill.

Sir Miles
Occupation: Knight
Fame: 800
Brawn: 3 Presence: 4
Skills: Agility 1, Arms 2, Battle 1, Courtesie 2, Fellowship 1, Riding 2
Possessions: Sword, lance, dagger, ordinary horse, medium armour, 5 gold pieces, 1 suit of fine clothing

Of the stats a character has, only Fame needs explanation. The easy answer is that this is the equivalent of Glory in Pendragon – Chivalric Roleplaying in Arthur’s Britain, a measure of how well known a knight or character is—whatever the deeds he has done for good or ill. That though, would be a glib answer, since it does not explain enough. Fame does indeed indicate how well known a knight is in Prince Valiant: The Storytelling Game, but it also measures two other factors. One is his progress and advancement. Each time a knight accumulated a thousand points of Fame, his player is awarded a point of skill. This can be used to increase an existing skill or be used to purchase a new one, the maximum skill a character can have being six. The other is his social standing—the knight with the highest Fame has precedence. For example, Prince Valiant himself only has a Fame of 47,000, whereas King Arthur has a Fame of 60,000, Sir Lancelot a Fame of 50,000, Sir Mordred a Fame of 37,000, and so on.

Characters acquire Fame by participating in adventures and battles and succeeding in adventures and battles—preferably with witnesses. Typically, a hundred Fame is awarded for each, plus outstanding acts of bravery, nobility, good roleplay, and so on. The maximum Fame a knight can be awarded for an adventure is five hundred points.

From the start, the Basic Game is designed as an introduction to roleplaying games, the author taking the time to explain not just how to play Prince Valiant: The Storytelling Game in terms of its mechanics, but also how to be an adventurer, what freedoms a player has in playing the game, and the goals for the players—including acting in character and how the game should proceed. Then it does the same for the Storyteller, examining her rights and responsibilities as well as learning how to be the Storyteller and how to make an adventure. As well as advice on Storyteller tricks such as visual and auditory aids and handling monsters and magic, it introduces ‘Special Effects’. These provide the Storyteller with automatic narrative effects or events rather than relying wholly on a throw of the coins. Some thirteen are listed, from TERRIFY and SAVE IN COMBAT to CONFUSE OPPONENT and AROUSE PASSIONS OF CROWD. These are intended to be used sparingly and it is advised that no more than three be used in any one adventure, these being attached to a specific NPC or NPCs. For example, a villain might have ESCAPE BONDS with which to free himself after being captured by the player characters, a fair maiden in distress could use ‘INSPIRE INDIVIDUAL TO GREATNESS’, or a fair maiden with ill intent might deploy INCITE LUST.

The Advanced Game adds numerous character options beyond mere knights—Vikings, monks, merchants, hunters, peasants, and more, including thieves. That said, thieves are an option that require the Storyteller’s permission to play. The same goes for female adventurers, primarily because they present a much greater roleplaying challenge in what is a male dominated setting—both in terms of history and Hal Foster’s Prince Valiant in the Days of King Arthur. This does not mean that female characters are impossible or that as a game, Prince Valiant: The Storytelling Game is chauvinist.

Along with new character options, the Advanced Game adds new or advanced skills. They include Alchemie, Bargaining, Disguise, Gaming, Stealth, and more. They also add Traits, psychological strengths and faults, which a newly created character can have up to three of. Traits remain hidden until they come into play and when they do, the Storyteller can reward a character with Fame if they used in a dramatic and interesting fashion which adds to the game. Traits can be targeted, such as Cruel to Horses (25), and they can be taken twice to become an obsession. So Sir Miles under the Advanced Rules appears as follows.

Sir Miles
Occupation: Knight
Fame: 800
Brawn: 3 Presence: 4
Skills: Agility 1, Arms 2, Battle 1, Courtesie 1, Poetry/Song 2, Riding 2
Traits: Modest
Possessions: Sword, lance, dagger, ordinary horse, medium armour, 5 gold pieces, 1 suit of fine clothing

The other example character is an ex-knight who has travelled widely and served the king. He has since retired and taken up the tonsure, preferring to study and aid rather than fight.

Brother William of Baskerville
Occupation: Monk
Fame: 800
Brawn: 3 Presence: 4
Skills: Alchemie 2, Arms 1, Lore 2, Oratory 1, Read/Write (Latin) 2, Speak (Arabic) 1
Traits: Honest
Possessions: Heavy staff, worn monkish habit, 10 copper coins, half a chicken, bottle of red wine

In terms of rewards, the Advanced Game offers two other options beyond Fame. One is Gold Stars. These are rewarded for good roleplaying by the Storyteller, with the Gold Stars being affixed to the character’s Adventurer Card (or sheet). For each Gold Star awarded to his character, a player can throw an extra number of coins once per game. The other is Storyteller Certificates. These are earned by taking turns being the Storyteller. The Storyteller in charge remains the Chief Storyteller, but each player can interject at an appropriate time in the game and introduce a scene or episode—as an adventure is known—of his own, adding to the ongoing game. This can be an interruption, a flashback, and so on, either of the player’s devising or one of the very many at the back of Prince Valiant: The Storytelling Game. Ideally, these should be prepared ahead of time and ideally, the prospective Storyteller should have read through the roleplaying game’s rule and the guidelines on being a Storyteller.

In return for acting as a Storyteller a player will earn himself a Storyteller Certificate. (They can also be awarded for exceptional roleplaying too.) At any time, the player can turn in his Storyteller Certificate to gain a Special Effect. This is a one-time narrative effect. Beyond adding Gold Stars and Storyteller Certificate, the Advanced Game offers an array of optional rules, such as being able to increase Brawn and Presence and adjusting Fame to allow for non-knightly characters who will never be as famous as knights.

Prince Valiant: The Storytelling Game is rounded out with plenty of Episodes for Storytellers—both Chief Storyteller and Storytellers—to narrate, with several being variations upon a story. There are full write-ups of many of the characters from Prince Valiant in the Days of King Arthur, a description of both Prince Valiant’s world and his journeys, and an appreciation the world created by Hal Foster.

Physically, Prince Valiant: The Storytelling Game is handsome hardback with a striking cover. It uses lots of Hal Foster’s terrific illustrations, the use of white, glossy paper showcasing his artistry and use of colour. It is also very well written, with lots of clear examples and dedicated advice for both player and Storyteller, especially about learning the game and what is expected of them. That said, the lack of an index is inexcusable, and it could have better edited in places.

Unfortunately, back in 1989 when Prince Valiant: The Storytelling Game was first released, it paled in comparison to Pendragon – Chivalric Roleplaying in Arthur’s Britain. After all, its older brother had only been out five years and Prince Valiant: The Storytelling Game looked simplistic and lacked the support or depth. Indeed it would never receive any support beyond the core rules. Thirty years on and with the opportunity to re-examine the roleplaying game with the advent of the re-release, such concerns look misplaced. Certainly, Prince Valiant: The Storytelling Game is simplistic in terms of its mechanics, but that simplicity combines with two other factors to ameliorate those concerns. First in combination with the extensive advice to make Prince Valiant: The Storytelling Game a very well written and designed introductory roleplaying game. Second in combination with the shared narrative mechanics of Storyteller Certificates to make Prince Valiant: The Storytelling Game suddenly look like a very contemporary game design. A contemporary design with more than a nod to the narrative designs of the Indie roleplaying game movement. Yet this roleplaying game was released in 1989, so Prince Valiant: The Storytelling Game is arguably as radical and innovative as Pendragon – Chivalric Roleplaying in Arthur’s Britain was before it.

As much as Prince Valiant: The Storytelling Game is Greg Stafford’s second approach to Arthurian, chivalric roleplaying, it is also his love letter to Hal Foster and Prince Valiant in the Days of King Arthur. It is a lovely treatment of the source and this is so much better reflected in the beautiful new presentation of the second edition of Prince Valiant: The Storytelling Game. This combined with the simplicity of the mechanics and what you have in Prince Valiant: The Storytelling Game is the perfect introduction to Arthurian roleplaying and Prince Valiant in the Days of King Arthur.


Saturday, 11 August 2018

Down these weird streets...

Hydra Collective LLC is best known for its weird and wonderful fantasy ‘pointcrawl’ adventures such as Slumbering Ursine Dunes and Misty Isles of the Eld, but Weird Adventures presents a different fantastical setting, a Strange New World influenced by Raymond Chandler and Robert Chambers, E. Gary Gygax and H.P. Lovecraft, Fritz Leiber and Dashiell Hammett, amongst others. It presents a world close our own in the 1930s, an America worn down by depression and isolated following a Great War twenty years before, and an America in which technology is booming and crime is rife. Yet this is a world in which the Ancients were real and knew great magics, greater than the magics of today. In the modern era, magic is commonplace and put to ends both good and evil. This is a Pulp setting which combines Noir and Fantasy, but despite the fact that Weird Adventures is an Old School Renaissance title, it is not written for any specific Old School Renaissance roleplaying game. So for example, whilst magic is described as following two separate paths—the academic and scientific approach of  thaumaturgy versus the intuitive nature of mysticism—what this means mechanically is left up to the Game Master to decide. Similarly, the Old Time Religion accepts the use of folk magic, whereas the Oecumenical Hierarchate only accepts the study and use of the divine theurgy in certain religious orders, and again, it is up to the Game Master to decide what this means. In fact, the only real use of game mechanics is in the supplement’s bestiary, which really supports the utility factor to Weird Adventures.

The setting for Weird Adventures is the New World of Zephyria, divided into two continents, Septentrion to the north, Asciana to the south. Septentrion is dominated by The Union with countries of Borea and Zingaro to the north and south respectively. Long before colonists from the nations of Ealderde and populated the continent, the Ancients—perhaps from lost, fabled Meropis—arrived bringing the Black Folk with them. The Ancients, thought to be giants, their descendants said to be the Hill-Billy Giants now found in the Smaragdine Mountains, were displaced by the arrival of the people now known as the Natives, who were in turn displaced by the Ealderish colonists. Immigrants from the Far East, known as Yianese have also settled in The Union’s major cities. Currently, the nations of Ealderde are struggling to recover from the effects of the Great War in which acidic fog, artillery shells filled with alchemical solutions, zeppelins armed with rays of fire, cold, and fear flew over battlelines and cities, and constructions that look like children’s toys struck at midnight. The Union has distanced itself from Ealderish affairs as an economic downturn spreads worldwide and drought and over-farming have caused a dust bowl in the elemental fields.

Weird Adventures does touch upon some of the other countries of Zephyria. Notably, Zingaro to the south of The Union and Freedonia, a land of perpetual revolution and civil where the people venerate the Barren Madonna, Our Lady of the Grave, ‘Sainted Mother Death’, a saint unrecognised elsewhere by the Oecumenical Hierarchate. The primary icons in Zingaro are the Crystal Skulls each of which possesses a strange power. The overall description of Zingaro runs only to three pages—leaving the reader to want more—and the lands of Borea to the north and Asciana to the far south are given a similar treatment. The bulk of the content in Weird Adventures can roughly be divided in two. The first half, entitled ‘On the Weird Road’ in a prescient nod to Kerouac’s On the Road, is devoted to The Union, from the city of New Lludd in the northeast to New Ylourgne in the south on the Zingaran Gulf and from Phratropolis in the east to San Tiburon in the west on the Tranquil Ocean coast via Lake City in the midwest. Each of the eleven areas is accompanied by descriptions—but not stats—of various individuals, aspects, and things associated with the regions. So, for the Smaragdine Mountains, there is a discussion of the Bootleg Alchemicals the region is famous for; of the holy swords the great families of New Lludd pass down to their paladin sons and daughters who hunt monsters in the name of the Old Time Religion; and ten rumours about the Red Dwarf, the besuited ill omen who invites people to tea in a red velvet room in the city of Motoron.

The other half explores the City of Empire, or The City, and its forty or so districts, plus the Five Baronies of Empire Island, Shancks, Rookend, Marquesa, and Lichmond, though they are not as well detailed as Empire Island, the heart of The City  is. The City is a constant mix of the mundane and the weird, whether that is the mysterious ethnic enclave of Little Carcosa and its exotic markets and street festival, and Grimalkin Village, home to thaumaturgical dilettantes, free thinkers, and lots of cats. These are lovely touches of the Lovecraftian, as are the Ghouls of Undertown, mostly reviled for their dietary habits. Elsewhere, The City is beset by more obvious horror, such as Mister Scratch—who has offices on the sixty-sixth floor of a downtown skyscraper and who might have connections with the Hell Syndicate—seen about town with the rich and the poor, offering favours and tidbits in return for something else much later on… From time to time individuals are possessed by the Lord of the Cleaver, an obscure ‘eikone’ or personification of a concept, and driven to maniacally kill in bloody fashion. Other strange elements of The City include an elusive phantom automat which never appears in the same place twice and which dispenses odd, but useful things as well as the usual coffee and sandwiches; the exterminators of the Municipal Department of Animal and Pest Control who have to clean out the tunnels—or is that the dungeons?—beneath The City; and the sorry lives of The City’s vampires, more addicts than predators…

Rounding out Weird Adventures is ‘Weird Menaces’, a short, nicely themed bestiary. It is here that the only game stats appear in the otherwise systemless supplement to detail Black Blizzards, para-elemental dust storms; Living Houses and Ghost Towns; Murder Ballads which induce homicidality; Pink Elephants, astral invaders which cause the inebriated to hurt themselves; and the Reds, agents of an underground civilisation which want to stamp out all free thought and individuality. Many of these monsters are huge fun and really fit the setting.

Physically, Weird Adventures is a nicely presented book, decently illustrated and written in an engaging style. Some of the best illustrations are actually for adverts, such as those for Djinn Cigarettes and the classified adverts at the back. One thing that very much lets the setting book down is the lack of an index. Finding anything without it is a real challenge. 

The question is, what could you do with Weird Adventures? The most obvious is to take it as is, find an Old School Renaissance roleplaying game of your choice, find some suitable firearm rules, and away you go. It is entirely up to the Game Master and her players whether or not to add the traditional races of Dungeons & Dragons, but there is room enough to add any or all of them. Yet the setting of Zephyria and The City are so rules-lite that Weird Adventures could easily be adapted so that they can be run with a variety of other roleplaying games. Combine Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition with Pulp Cthulhu: Two-fisted Action and Adventure Against the Mythos and The Grand Grimoire of Cthulhu Mythos Magic, and what you have with the Lovcraftian elements in Weird Adventures is something akin to Cast A Deadly Spell.  Alternatively turn up the action and use it as a precursor to Goodman Games’ Xcrawl; turn it down for more scholary adventures with Night Owl Workshop’s Raiders of the Lost Artifacts: Original Edition Rules for Fantastic Archaeological Adventures; unplug the cyberware from Catalyst Game Labs’ Shadowrun roleplaying game and just use the races and magic; or simply take your pick of Steve Jackson Games’ GURPS books, starting with GURPS Basic Set: Characters and Campaigns plus GURPS Fantasy and GURPS Magic. Then again simply combine the Fantasy AGE RPG with the Modern AGE RPG, both from Green Ronin. 

One thing that any of these rules systems would provide is suggestions as to what to play. This is something that Weird Adventures does not do and as a supplement is very much a sourcebook for the Game Master rather than the player. It is also a pulp fantasy/horror supplement, so one aspect of Old School Renaissance fantasy it does not address is Tolkienesque fantasy, so there are no Elves, Dwarves, or Halflings in the New World of Zephyria. Their inclusion would probably change the setting in radical ways, but it would be interesting to what the ramifications would be. Were Weird Adventures to have a sequel or a companion, perhaps their inclusion, as well as those of suggested roles or Classes for the player characters. Certainly, a sequel would explain the effect of the illegal alchemical bootlegs or the powers and abilities of The City’s urban druids are, rather than leaving it up to the Game Master to decide and develop.

If you were looking for a pulp setting, then Weird Adventures is a fantastic choice, one which is easily adapted to the rule system of the Game Master’s choice. It is thoroughly impressive, not just in the level and richness of its detail, but also in the pulp, pulp, and pulp—fantasy, horror, and weird—it injects into the setting to bring the new World New of Zephyria, The Union, and The City to life. 

Friday, 10 August 2018

Free RPG Day 2018: A Cable’s Length from Shore/On a Bank, by Moonlight

Now in its eleventh year, Saturday, June 16th was Free RPG Day  and with it came 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 quick-start. Traditionally, what Pelgrane Press offers for Free RPG Day is not one, but two adventures combined in the one book. For Free RPG Day 2018, the two adventures are for the GUMSHOE System—Pelgrane Press’ clue orientated investigative mechanics—and both are Lovecraftian themed. The book is Free RPG Day – A Cable’s Length from Shore/On a Bank, by Moonlight. Both are quick-starts. One of these, ‘A Cable’s Length from Shore’, is for Cthulhu Confidential and thus designed as a GUMSHOE One-2-One Adventure to be played by the one player and a Game Moderator. The other is ‘On A Bank, By Moonlight’, which is a mission for the recently released The Fall of Delta Green.

As well as being written for use with Cthulhu Confidential, ‘A Cable’s Length from Shore’ is also set in another of Pelgrane Publishing’s settings, that of Bookhounds of London, in which the investigators attempt to keep the wolf from the door by tracking down the right books and finding the right customers for them. As a  GUMSHOE One-2-One Adventure, ‘A Cable’s Length from Shore’ comes with a single pre-generated character, Phyllis Oakley, a dealer in rare books. When not in the slightly odd bookshop she owns, Miss Oakley scours second-hand stalls, private auctions, secret bibliophile clubs, and more to find the special titles her clients want, sometimes turning to her contacts—lesser book-hunters and traders and barrow-rummagers—who might put a book her way. In return for a few quid that is… One of her best contacts was Alf Fulbrow. Unfortunately, he died six months ago, having drowned according to his daughter. Yet who left a rare occult book on Phyllis Oakley’s doorstep as the scenario opens?

What follows is a solid, well done plot, one that will not be unfamiliar to devotees of Lovecraftian investigative horror. This is no criticism though, for both said plot and the investigative process are presented with exceptional clarity and aplomb. Not just in the presentation of the scenario’s scenes—both core and alternate—but also the character of Phyllis Oakley, the challenges she might face, and the Problems and Edges she might acquire in the process. For the most part, an investigator in Cthulhu Confidential looks very much an investigator in Trail of Cthulhu, possessing a mix of investigative and general abilities. Her investigative skills allow her player to search for and discover core clues, whilst her general abilities represent more physical actions. Besides these, she also begins the scenario with four ‘Pushes’, each Push representing effort to gain more information, manipulate others, apply her knowledge, or change the narrative to her benefit. In addition, she can also call upon a Source, a NPC or acquaintance, upon whom she call for help and information. Though this can cost her a Push, it enables Phyllis to access a skill or knowledge she lacks. She has a handful of Sources, which nicely add to her background, as does the Problem she is suffering from. This might be debt or it might be a poltergeist haunting her shop, there being four to choose from at the start of the scenario.

Throughout the scenario, there are opportunities aplenty for Phyllis to gain more Problems as well as Edges, the latter being temporary advantages. These might last the entire scenario or they might last a scene or two. They are typically gained as the outcome of facing a challenge. These require dice rolls using Phyllis’ General Abilities and typically give three results—Advance (success), Hold (success, but), or Setback (failure). Sometimes there is a choice of Problems, but overall, the number of Problems that Phyllis can gain over the course of her investigations far outweigh the number of Edges she might gain.

‘A Cable’s Length from Shore’ consists of some twelve core scenes and some seven alternate scenes which together provide numerous paths of investigation and intrigue. Together they should offer one or two sessions of good roleplaying for Game Moderator and player alike. There are some nicely done creepy encounters too, which are only exacerbated by the fact that the Game Moderator and player are playing one-on-one, which makes for a more intense playing experience. Overall, ‘A Cable’s Length from Shore’ is a well-structured, well-written scenario that is easy to run and which deserves a sequel. In fact, Phyllis Oakley deserves an anthology of further adventures.

—oOo—

Where ‘A Cable’s Length from Shore’ is a quick-start for Cthulhu Confidential, ‘On A Bank, By Moonlight’ is a scenario for The Fall of DELTA GREEN, which adapts Arc Dream Publishing’s Delta Green: The Role-Playing Game to the GUMSHOE system. This is set in the 1960s when as the USA sends troops into Indochina and men to the moon, an authorised but unacknowledged national security black program known as Delta Green is tasked to hunt and destroy the Cthulhu Mythos. It might be the summer of love, but Delta Green agents must face unimaginable horror, learn things beyond the ken of man, and take actions which would damn their nonexistent souls, all to keep their family and their country from discovering the truth. What this means is that the investigators have more authority than in other roleplaying games of Lovecraftian investigative horror, but they have to be judicious with their use of that authority, primarily to ensure that their missions and the nature of the threats they uncover remain unknown to the public at large.

The quick-start includes an explanation of Delta Green and the GUMSHOE System in just five pages. It also includes six pre-generated investigators—two FBI Special Agents, a Treasury Department investigator, a Department of Veteran Affairs surgeon, a US Marine, and an archivist whose researches were just a little too left-field. One thing the players may need to do is define their investigators’ immediate family, but that is really only for roleplaying purposes in this quick-start.

The bulk of the quick-start is devoted to ‘On A Bank, By Moonlight’, a scenario which takes place in upstate New York in 1968. In the small town of Milltown two members of the same hippie commune die on the same night, one shot in self-defence by the police, the other in a car accident. Recovered from the scene was an idol similar to those found on previous Delta Green missions. The question is, how did they come to die, what were they doing with the idol, and does it have anything to do with the commune?

The investigation itself is not too complex and putting the clues together should not prove all that much of a challenge to the players and their investigators. Acting upon the information is more of a challenge—some of the commune members are surprisingly militant for hippies and there are other organisations with an interest in the commune too. Ideally, what should happen is that the investigators discover some of what is going on at the commune and infiltrate it just as whatever that is is coming to head and everything goes to hell in a hand-basket. And if the Game Moderator is not playing In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida as the investigators storm the compound, then she is not doing it right…

‘On A Bank, By Moonlight’ is written as an introductory scenario, designed to showcase the domestic—that is, the US mainland—side of Delta Green operations. Yet as a quick-start, it also introduces players to the investigative process and to the difficulties of handling the clean-up process, as well as introducing them to the true villains of the setting. It does a good job of all four.

—oOo—

Physically, Free RPG Day – A Cable’s Length from Shore/On a Bank, by Moonlight is well presented. In comparison, ‘On a Bank, by Moonlight’ feels more cluttered than ‘A Cable’s Length from Shore’, but it is given fewer pages. Thus, ‘A Cable’s Length from Shore’ feels more open and easier to run, certainly helpful given how the Game Moderator has to focus upon the one player. Of the two, ‘On a Bank, by Moonlight’ is let down by a couple of pieces of terrible artwork.

Free RPG Day – A Cable’s Length from Shore/On a Bank, by Moonlight presents two good scenarios and thus two good quick-starts. Both scenarios, and thus the book itself is worth getting even if you do not intend running either of them as quick-starts. In other words, Free RPG Day – A Cable’s Length from Shore/On a Bank, by Moonlight work as great additions to your campaign as well as a means to introduce their respective settings.

Friday, 3 August 2018

Free RPG Day 2018: James Raggi IV’s Eldritch Cock

Now in its eleventh year, Saturday, June 16th was Free RPG Day and with it came 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 quick-start. Then there is the release 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 Doom, A Red and Pleasant Land, and Bloodmother Skyfortress. Famously—or infamously—the publisher releases titles mature, if not strong, of content, designed to be used with the Old School Renaissance. In 2016, the Free RPG Day released was Slügs!, which asked the question, ‘Do you need a cornucopia of Slügs!?’, which was followed for Free RPG Day 2017 by Vaginas Are Magic!, a book devoted to magic that can only be cast by mothers. At the time, the publisher joked that his release for Free RPG Day 2018 would be a book called ‘Eldritch Cock’, which would be the masculine counterpart to Vaginas Are Magic! Despite it being a joke, it was what everyone wanted… So for Free RPG Day 2018, we got James Raggi IV’s Eldritch Cock. Make of the title what you want, but as my partner said, “I can’t believe they did a whole book about a knob joke.”

Well, here is the thing. The ‘knob joke’ comprises the back cover blurb, which consists not so much of double entendres, but single entendres, one after another. That out of the way, what the author makes clear is that he got bored with what he originally intended to write and that he wanted to write mature and interesting content accessible to anyone that he would enjoy writing. This is all explained in the forward, along with a commentary about society’s attitudes to such content. Given the nature and content of some of the books which Lamentations of the Flame Princess releases, the attitude which the author takes should be no real surprise and there can be no doubt that he backs up his slightly rambling polemic with content which is designed for use by adults. So instead of publishing a masculine magic system and a selection of masculine-based spells in the vein of Vaginas Are Magic!, what does Eldritch Cock deliver?

First, if not foremost, it presents the same magic system as first presented Vaginas are Magic! This is a stripped down magic system for Magic-users, one that 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 him 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. All this is contained on the two pages inside the front cover, just as in Vaginas Are Magic!


The remainder of Eldritch Cock is devoted to some twenty or so spells, from Anywhere Out of This World and Arguments Against Design to The Voyagers Beneath the Mare Imbrium and You’re Just a Dream. Each is named after a song by a heavy metal band and each provided with a full page, full colour illustration and a full description. Roughly a third to half of each spell’s description is given over to its very own miscast table. Not surprisingly, the spells are weird. For example, Anywhere Out of This World transforms the caster’s torso into negative space where things and people can be stored for the duration of the spell and drawn out by the caster with a bit of fumbling around in the void so created. The duration ends when either when the caster loses consciousness or decides to end it. At which point everything is regurgitated back into the real world after having been in a timeless void. There is a chance of objects or persons being lost in the process. If miscast, the caster might connect to the anti-matter universe, be possessed by one of the people inside him, and so on, but a player can be quite inventive with this spell, whether that is having his Magic-user use his torso void to capture enemies, hide friends, store items, and so forth. ‘Saturn and Sacrifice’ is a more traditional defensive and offensive spell, surrounding the target with the same rings which encircle celestial  bodies like Saturn. The target gains a bonus to his Armour and Saving Throws, the rings will strike back at anyone who makes a mêlée attack against the target, can extend the rings to attack someone else, and if all of these benefits are given up, then the rings can be used to entrap another target. If miscast, the rings might not be stable, they might attract enemies, or even protect an attacker rather than the target of the spell.

Given the title of the supplement, it should be no surprise that the some of the spells are of an adult tone and have artwork to match. So Curses Scribed in Gore allows the caster to pull his own intestines out with a loss of most of his Hit Points and in return, the caster is harder to hit, takes minimum damage, and always makes Saving Throws. If miscast, the spell might have the opposite effect, might cause all of the caster’s guts out of his abdomen, to have the cut made to the abdomen never heal heal, and so on. The accompanying illustration is suitably gory. Similarly, there is some ‘eldritch cock’ in Eldritch Cock with The Thrash of Naked Limbs, which causes any male member within the vicinity of the caster to extend several feet with all of the downsides and none of the positives, to somewhat flaccid, demoralising effect. If miscast, the spell might have a positive effect rather than a negative effect, the members separate and become dangerous, they permanently gain a mouth and report on the owner’s emotional state, and so on.

Rounding out the hardback book is a set of playtest notes. Slipped inside the back cover, these are rules being considered for the next edition of Lamentations of the Flame Princess Weird Fantasy Roleplay. They are very different to those typically used in Old School Renaissance roleplaying games, but are designed to be backwards compatible with the current versions of the rules.

Physically, James Raggi IV’s Eldritch Cock is well written, well presented, and well illustrated. Some of the artwork may be in questionable taste, let alone the design of the spells, but they are good illustrations nonetheless.

So the question is, have the joke of Vaginas Are Magic! and Eldritch Cock! worn thin? Probably, but the provocation has not. The content in both books is strong and mature, such that it is likely to find its way into only a few campaigns, but it at least is available to peruse and for a gaming group to decide whether or not to use it in their games. Of course, the author and publisher pushes the tone of spells and pushes the magnitude of the spells and their effects, but that is to be expected. Yet peruse these pages and there are spells which are useful, let alone weird. They may not be quite at home in your campaign, but James Raggi IV’s Eldritch Cock may be worth look nevertheless. Just like almost any other spell book.