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Saturday, 10 November 2018

Five Rings Get Their Fifth

It is a curious thing, but the latest iteration of the Legend of the Five Rings roleplaying game is as much a descendant of John Wick’s 1997 adaptation of the collectible card game as it is the Fantasy Flight Games boardgames, Descent and Doom. Of course, as soon as it was announced that Fantasy Flight Games was going to be publishing the new edition, we all knew that it would be a major redesign rather than a re-implementation of the mechanics seen in the First, Second, Third, and Fourth Editions and we all knew that it would eschew standard numerical polyhedral dice in favour of a proprietary design marked with symbols particular to the roleplaying game, not just in terms of its mechanics, but also as an intellectual property. After all, it is exactly what the publisher did with both Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, Third Edition and all three iterations of its Star Wars roleplaying games—Star Wars: Edge of the Empire, Star Wars: Age of Rebellion, and Star Wars: Force and Destiny, as well as a Beginner Game for Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Thus, Legend of the Five Rings, Fifth Edition does use proprietary dice and it is a thorough redesign, but the setting remains very much the same, the five elements—or Rings—have been more tightly integrated into the mechanics, and the core ‘Roll and Keep’ mechanic remains.

The setting for Legend of the Five Rings, Fifth Edition is Rokugan. It is similar to feudal Japan, but with influences and elements of other Asian cultures, as well as magic and mythical beasts. Known as the Emerald Empire, it has been ruled for a thousand years by the Hantei emperors—the current emperor is Hantei XXXVIII—who have divided it between seven Great Clans. These are the Crab, Crane, Dragon, Lion, Phoenix, Scorpion, and Unicorn clans. Although each is comprised of Samurai—the bushi warriors, mannered courtiers, and shugenja, priests who pray to the kami, or spirits, for aid, each is different in character. The Crab Clan use its strength to man the wall that protects the Empire from the Shadowlands, but its members are regarded as uncouth and ill mannered; the Crane Clan is known as the Left Hand of the Emperor and has many wealthy and influential politicians; the Dragon Clan remains aloof from most affairs in its mountain fast, but has sallied forth to aid the empire several times; the Lion Clan is the Right Hand of the Emperor, being devoted bushi; the Phoenix Clan is known for its shugenja and primarily concerns itself with spiritual matters; the Scorpion Clan is the Emperor’s Underhand and revels in its villainous status and reputation; and lastly, the Unicorn Clan is Rokugan’s cavalry, having spent several centuries in the Gaijin lands to the West. Notably missing from this list is the Mantis clan, which was a Great Clan in some previous editions of the roleplaying game, but essentially, Legend of the Five Rings, Fifth Edition resets the timeline to before it was promoted from a minor to a Great Clan.

Our first taster of Legend of the Five Rings Roleplaying—the fifth edition of the roleplaying game—was a ‘beta’, followed by the Legend of the Five Rings Roleplaying Beginner Game, a well-appointed starter box designed to introduce players to both setting and mechanics through ‘The Topaz Championship’, a new version of the classic scenario which had been used to introduce players and Game Masters to Rokugan and roleplaying samurai in previous versions of Legend of the Five Rings. This boxed set provided an explanation of the rules as well as several sample player characters, but only to a limited extent. With the release of the Legend of the Five Rings Roleplaying Core Rulebook, both players and the Game Master have access to the full rules and the means to create and develop the Samurai—the Bushi, Courtiers, and Shugenja (plus Monks in some cases)—who the players will be roleplaying as they explore Rokugan, fulfilling their duty to their clan, their daimyo, and the emperor, all whilst adhering to the tenants of Bushidō and at times being torn between their Giri (duty) and their Ninjō (desire). This all takes place in a setting that is inspired most obviously by medieval Japan, but also by the China and Korea of the period.

A character in Legend of the Five Rings is defined by his Rings or core attributes—Air, Water, Earth, Fire, and Void; skills, organised into five categories in order of precedence—Artisan, Martial, Scholar, Social, and Trade; and Endurance representing his stamina and willingness to fight and Composure his capacity to endure mental and emotional pressure. Attached to Composure is a character’s ‘Personal Unmasking’, essentially his reaction after having suffered too much stress—or in game terms, ‘Strife’. For example, when Strife exceeds a bushi’s Composure, he might see the cause of it as a loss of face and demand an honour duel. A character’s standing in the world is represented by his Honour, Glory, and Status stats, whilst his Clan and Family represent his background and his School is his career.

Character creation is structured around ‘The Game of Twenty Questions’. This has always been part of character creation in Legend of the Five Rings. In previous editions of the roleplaying game, it has felt supplemental to the process, but in Legend of the Five Rings Roleplaying it is integral to the character creation process. So in turn, the questions ask what clan and family a character belongs to, what his role and school are and what he was like at school, who his lord is and what his duty is to him, relationship to his clan, what he thinks of Bushidō, his greatest accomplishment, what holds him back, what he does to feel at peace, what his troubles are, who he learned from the most, what is most noticeable about the character is, how he reacts to stressful situations, his relationships, what his parents think of him, who was he named to honour, the character’s personal name, and how he should die. Although lengthy, answering these questions will help a player determine his character’s core identity, role and school, honour and glory, strengths and weaknesses, personality and behaviour, ancestry and family, and death.

In addition to determining a character’s Rings, Skills, Advantages and Disadvantages, Honour, Glory, and Status, the process gives a character his School and first School Ability. It also gives several Techniques which a player can choose from, further special abilities appropriate to his character’s school. These are categorised into Kata, Kihō, Invocations, Rituals, Shūji, Mahō, and Ninjutsu. Kata are combat techniques; Kihō are used by monks to align their ki with the elements and the universe; Invocations are prayers used by shugenja to speak to the kami and engage their aid; Rituals are lengthy ceremonies conducted by priests and spiritualists for various esoteric effects, such as sanctifying a group or person; Shūji are the social and verbal equivalent of Kata; Mahō is blood magic employed by the evil followers of of Fu Leng; and Ninjitsu are the secret techniques of the honourless Ninja. Although these Techniques use the same mechanics, what matters are their differing effects and opportunities they provide a character with when they use them.

Our sample character is Doji Maruko, a loyal and honourable member of the Crane Clan. Known for his creativity at school, he is currently in the service of Lady Doji Fujie as a scribe. His duty is to write the letters she is no longer capable of due to the arthritis in her hands. He dreams of becoming an artist renowned for both his brushmanship and his poetry. There are some who say he is attempting to make up for his short stature, whereas he is actually overcompensating for a childhood fall which left him partially deaf. It did not help that his father, the poet Doji Rhihito, pushed him with little regarded for his lack of hearing. He is always finely dressed, but sometimes there are ink stains on his clothing and his grandfather’s calligraphy set is never far from his possession. Maruko is named for your grandfather, who was a famous poet in his day.

Doji Maruko, Crane Courtier
Clan: Crane Family: Doji 
School: Doji Diplomat Rank: 1
Air: 3, Earth: 1 Fire: 2, Water: 3 Void: 1
Endurance: 6 Composure: 8 Focus: 5 Vigilance: 3
Honour: 60, Status: 35, Glory: 49
School Abilities: Lady Doji’s Decree
Techniques: Speaking in Silence, Shallow Waters
Distinction: Small Stature
Adversities: Deafness
Passions: Brushwork (Air)
Anxieties: Perfectionism
Relationship: Rhihito (father, poor)
Distinctive Features: Ink stained clothing
Unmasking: Breaks into tears when overly criticised
Skills
Artisan: Aesthetics 1, Composition 3, Design 1
Martial: Martial Arts (Ranged) 1
Scholar: Culture 2
Social: Courtesy 2
Trade:
Equipment: Ceremonial outfit, wakizashi, yumi, calligraphy set, travelling pack, attendant

Mechanically, Legend of the Five Rings Roleplaying uses a ‘Roll and Keep’ system. What this means is that when a player character takes an action, his player rolls a number of dice—typically equal to a Ring and Skill or just a Ring—and keeps a number of dice equal to the Ring. For this, Legend of the Five Rings Roleplaying uses two types of dice. One type is the six-sided, black Ring dice, the other is the twelve-sided, white Skill dice. Both are marked with a mix of four symbols. These symbols are ‘Success’, which indicates a character’s effective at an action or skill; ‘Explosive Success’, which counts as a ‘Success’ and enables another die of that type to be rolled if the ‘Explosive Success’ is kept; ‘Opportunity’, which provides positive, incidental benefits; and ‘Strife’, which are primarily negative effects on a character’s emotions. Where Strife can be accumulated until a character suffers an unmasking and shows his inner emotional turmoil, Opportunity can spent to remove Strife, to spot a particular detail, to perform the task in a pleasing fashion, and so on.

Yet it is not merely a case of rolling the dice. To undertake an action, a player needs to set three things for his character. The first action is to set an Approach—or ‘Stance’ in combat—but which one is determined by a character’s Rings. An Air Approach is graceful, cunning, and precise; an Earth Approach is steady, grounded, and thorough; a Fire Approach is direct, ferocious, and inventive; a Water Approach is balanced, flexible, and perceptive; and a Void Approach is enlightened, centred, and mystical. Each Approach indicates the Ring to use as well as provide certain advantages with conflict Stances. The second is to select the skill and the third is for the player to roll the dice and decide which to keep—preferably those with the most Successes and Opportunities. If the number of Successes exceeds the Target Number, two being the average Target Number, then the character has succeeded. After that, the player spends any Opportunities rolled and totals up any Strife rolled.

This is simple enough, but it is not merely a matter of a player selecting their character’s best Ring and rolling that in combination with the skill, for although that may have advantages in terms of the more Successes and Opportunities that can be rolled, it may not be the right Approach. Thus, if a samurai needs to get across a river via a rotten log, the skill to be used would be Athletics. Using a Fire Approach would enable a character to run across quickly without any danger of it collapsing under him, but with the possibility of his slipping off into the river. Alternatively, an Earth Approach is slower and more measured, with little likelihood of the character slipping off the log, but with the possibility of the log splitting under his weight.
For example, Doji Maruko is at winter court and is engaged in a poetry competition with Ikoma Jun’ai, an Ikoma Bard of the Lion Clan. The competition involves taking it in turn to refine each participant’s composition through the turn of the season as well as assessing each refinement. Ikoma Jun’ai has already composed the first poem and Lady Fujie turns to Maruko to ask what he understands of the composition. The Game Master rules that the first is a Void or Attune Approach if Maruko is to understand Jun’ai’s deeper meaning. The Target Number is two and Maruko’s player will roll one Ring die for Maruko’s Void and three Skill dice for his Composition, but only keeping one for his Void. The results of his roll are an ‘Explosive Success’ and a ‘Strife’, a ‘Success’ and an ‘Opportunity’, a ‘Success’, and a blank. Since Maruko needs two Successes, he keeps the ‘Explosive Success’ and the ‘Strife’, and rolls another Ring die for the ‘Explosive Success’. He gets the same result—an ‘Explosive Success’ and a ‘Strife’, enabling to roll a third Ring die. This gives him an ‘Opportunity’, the final result is two Successes, two Strife, and an Opportunity. Maruko’s player notes down the Strife and the Game Master explains that Jun’ai’s winter composition has subtly alluded to the chilly reception extended to the Lion Clan at this year’s winter court. Maruko’s player says that the Strife represents Maruko’s learning of the subtle insult and that he will use the Opportunity to lower the Target Number of Maruko’s next task as it will use a Ring other than Void. 
Now it is Maruko’s turn to compose a piece of poetry, one derived from Jun’ai’s winter composition, but adapting it to the theme of Spring. This is an Adapt Approach and so will use Water. This means that his player will be rolling three Ring dice and three Skill dice as Maruko has a Water of three and a Composition skill of three. The Target Number would normally be two, but this is lowered to one by the Opportunity from the previous roll. He rolls an ‘Explosive Success’ and a ‘Strife’ twice, a ‘Success’ and a ‘Strife’ twice, and two ‘Opportunities’. From these, he elects to keep both of the ‘Explosive Success’ and ‘Strife’ results, plus a ‘Success’ and a ‘Strife’ result. He can roll more dice for the ‘Explosive Success’ and ‘Strife’ results. These generate another ‘Success’ and ‘Strife’ result plus an ‘Opportunity’ and a ‘Strife’ result. Altogether, Maruko has the following results—four successes, five Strife, and an Opportunity.
Maruko has successfully adapted Jun’ai’s winter composition into a spring poem and works in meaning that the Lion should be more energetic in his hunt for a warming welcome. Since Maruko has now accumulated a total of seven Strife through the effort, his player is concerned that Maruko will accumulate too much in the next exchange and under the critical eye of Lady Fujie and Jun’ai’s implied criticism of the Crane Clan, Maruko’s Composure will be compromised and he be unmasked. He thus decides to use the Opportunity to take a calming breath and negate some of the Strife.
In comparison to previous editions of the Legend of the Five Rings roleplaying game, the one skill missing is that of ‘Investigation’. This is covered every aspect of conducting an enquiry or spotting things and because it was coupled with the Awareness and Perception stats, it was representative of how particular Rings were attached to certain Skills. In Legend of the Five Rings Roleplaying, the old Investigation skill is replaced by a derived value, Vigilance. This becomes a Target Number for others to roll against when trying to avoid a character’s attention. Meanwhile, actual investigative actions carried out by characters are rolled for by their characters using an appropriate skill. So to determine the extent of a criminal’s crime, a bushi might roll an Earth and a Skulduggery check, but to work out why someone at court might be flustered, a courtier might roll Water and Sentiment. What this represents is the uncoupling of Rings and Skills for a more flexible approach to actions in the game. 

Another aspect of Legend of the Five Rings Roleplaying is that in terms of design and mechanics, it does not fundamentally differentiate between its types of conflict scenes. Although there are technical variations, Social conflicts or intrigues, duels between individuals, skirmishes between small groups, and mass battles are all handled by the same core rules. The participants roll initiative, then from round to round, they set their stance which will determine how they will engage in the conflict and what Ring dice they will roll, and then roll for their action and resolve its outcome. Throughout, it is not necessarily enough for a player to roll the required number of successes to equal or exceed the given Target Number—either one, two, or three—but often he needs to roll Opportunities in order to gain extra benefits. These include working as a descriptor to show how a character does something, such as Air for doing it with precision, stealth, or subtlety, or as a narrative device, to add further details, such as with Fire to discern the motivations of others, gain insight, or notice absences. Now despite Legend of the Five Rings Roleplaying employing a standardised set of mechanics and rules, supported by the Techniques which nicely provide each type of character—bushi, courtier, shugenja, and monk—with their own special abilities, it is with Opportunities where the mechanics get slightly more complex. This is because there is a plethora of different types of Opportunities to found in the mechanics, especially once the Techniques come into play, because every Technique is different.

Character progression is built around the expectations of the character’s School. A player is free to spend his character’s Experience Points on whatever Rings, Skills, and Techniques he wants for the character. The character’s School expects him to learn particular Skills and Techniques though, so if he instead learns Skills and Techniques outside of that curriculum, the Experience Points spent on those only count as half their value towards the total required to attain the next Rank in the School. For example, a Lion bushi is expected to train in Martial Arts (Melee) and particular Kata rather than the Courtesy and Sentiment skills and whilst he will gain the skills, he will not not have improved himself enough to further advance to the next Rank. The Rank by Rank—up to Rank 6—curriculum feels reminiscent of an earlier roleplaying game from Fantasy Flight Games, Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, Third Edition, which used more complex, but not dissimilar mechanics and a progression curriculum organised career by career.

Beyond the mechanics themselves, Legend of the Five Rings Roleplaying provides a full list of equipment with which to arm and equip the player characters and their enemies. The Game Master is given good advice on her role and on running the game, with a particular focus on using social abilities—honour, glory, and status—in play. There are also suggestions as to alternative campaign styles, including campaigns where the players roleplay non-samurai or are samurai on great quests with the fate of the realm at stake. The former provides rules for creating characters of a Peasant origin, whilst the latter gives rules for creating Nemurani, the arms, armour, and artefacts infused with the kami. Lastly, there is a good bestiary of creatures, men, and monsters, both mundane and supernatural.

Understandably, much of the core rulebook for Legend of the Five Rings Roleplaying is going to focus on the rules, especially given the intricacy of those new rules in terms of narrative rather than in absolute results. As well presented as those rules are, this does not leave a great deal of room for background to the Rokugan and the setting in general. What there is, is quite broad, such that anyone new to the game and setting may have difficulty knowing where to start. Of course, this will not be an issue for anyone familiar with the setting and anyway, a playing group could play through ‘The Topaz Championship’ from Legend of the Five Rings Roleplaying Beginner Game and its sequel scenario if it has not already done so. That said, it would have been nice if Legend of the Five Rings Roleplaying had acknowledged those familiar with the setting via earlier editions of the roleplaying game, since they are actually more likely to be coming to this edition of the roleplaying game than fans of the associated card game or samurai drama. Especially as Legend of the Five Rings Roleplaying is not written as roleplaying game for anyone new to the hobby.

Another issue is that for anyone coming to Legend of the Five Rings Roleplaying from either the Legend of the Five Rings Roleplaying Beginner Game or the preceding beta version of the rulebook is that there are changes between them. Now this is to be expected, but some of those changes to the rules are between Legend of the Five Rings Roleplaying and the Legend of the Five Rings Roleplaying Beginner Game rather than the beta. This makes adapting from the latter to the former not as smooth as perhaps it should have been.

Physically, Legend of the Five Rings Roleplaying is a lovely hardback. It is clearly written and it is illustrated with some excellent artwork which captures both the serenity and the strife intrinsic to the setting of Rokugan.  One absolute well-chosen touch is that the Ninjutsu Techniques are presented not on the standard buff-coloured pages, but across a two-page spread depicting city rooftops at night. It is such a perfect touch. Another useful element to Legend of the Five Rings Roleplaying is the character sheet, which although not included in the core rulebook, is designed so that all of a character’s core stats and narrative information is recorded on the front, whilst all of the conflict information is recorded on the back, so that when the game switches to a conflict scene, all a player has to do is flip the sheet over and everything necessary is there right in front of him.

For anyone who has played a previous edition of Legend of the Five Rings, they will find a great deal that is familiar in terms of setting, background, and what they can play in the new addition. They will also find a new set of mechanics that at their core are simple and standardised across the various aspects of Legend of the Five Rings Roleplaying. The new element of being able to combine any Ring with any Skill depending on the Approach—or how a samurai wants to do something—is not quite as simple, but it does give both characters and the game great flexibility, whilst the use of Strife and Opportunities allow for narrative elements to be more emphatically brought into play via the mechanics. Although the new rules are intricate in terms of the narrative elements they are bringing into play, Legend of the Five Rings Roleplaying explains them well and does a good job of establishing the mechanics in support of the supplements and scenarios to follow.

RuneQuest VII

It is with sadness that the passing of its creator, the late Greg Stafford, came just as his first great creation was published by Chaosium, Inc. and released to the public at large in an all new edition which successfully combines his classic mechanics with a ‘holy’ original setting which has been a fan favourite for the last forty or so years. The mechanics are at their core RuneQuest 2, recently reprinted as RuneQuest: Classic Edition, along with additions from roleplaying games such as Pendragon – Chivalric Roleplaying in Arthur’s Britain and HeroQuest Glorantha. The setting is Glorantha, the second great setting to come to roleplaying. It is a Bronze Age land rich in myth and legend in which heroes enter into strong relationships with their gods via the Runes—the fundamental building blocks which the universe and Glorantha are constructed from—that these deities embody. Then through these Runes they continue to embody and confirm the legends and stories of the gods by enacting them in great Hero Quests. The new roleplaying game is RuneQuest: Roleplaying in Glorantha, in which the players will roleplay these heroes at a time of great change.


RuneQuest: Roleplaying in Glorantha is set in a specific time and place. It is the year 1625. For years, the region known as the Dragon Pass has been rent by rebellion and unrest as the nation of Sartar and peoples of Old Tarsh attempted to drive out the occupying troops and proselytising red priests of the Lunar Empire, which views them as being home to barbarians. The conflict has escalated and spread, involving the Lunar client state of Tarsh, the neighbouring matriarchal nation of Esrolia, the nomadic tribes of Prax, and others. It has come to a head with a heroquest which saw the successful summoning of a True Dragon under the Temple of the Reach Moon just as it was about to be consecrated. This event, known as the Dragonrise, disrupted Lunar efforts in Dragon Pass and triggered an uprising across the region and the beginning of the long foretold Hero Wars. It is this conflict that the player characters will set out to join as Heroes.

RuneQuest always was original, both in terms of its setting and its mechanics. As a roleplaying game, it was the first fantasy roleplaying game to eschew Class and Level, opting instead for mechanics that focused on skills. Characters were not confined to what skills they could learn and what weapons they could wield, and magic was such a fundamental part of the setting that anyone could learn to use it. The combat mechanics were detailed and brutal, involving individual hit locations and Hit Points, armour was worn location by location, and it was possible lose limbs and suffer impalements. As much as magic was woven into the setting of Glorantha, so too were the gods and the cults devoted to them. It was expected that player characters would become initiates of one or more of these cults and perhaps advance enough to become Rune Lords or Rune Priests of these cults. Unfortunately, the information about the cults, how to join them, the duties required of being members, their aims, and how they interact was not always readily available nor was information about Glorantha and Dragon Pass itself.

RuneQuest: Roleplaying in Glorantha not only very much retains this originality, but it builds on it. At its core are the same solid mechanics more recently seen in RuneQuest: Classic Edition. It remains a skills focused system with detailed rules for combat and characters being allowed to learn what skills they want, cast what magic they want, and wield what weapons they want. It remains set in Glorantha, but it integrates the world that the characters will adventure in into the rules, tying character and family background into the setting and its recent history, giving characters ready access to magic—both Spirit and Rune magic, and adding new rules for Passions, Reputation, and Runes, augmentation of abilities of abilities with Runes and Passions, and both Sorcery and the Spirit World.

It should be made clear though, what RuneQuest: Roleplaying in Glorantha is not. It is not a complete roleplaying game in the sense that it does not include a bestiary or advice for the Game Master. Primarily, it introduces the world of Glorantha and the region of Dragon Pass, provides rules for character creation, cults, magic—Spirit, Rune, Shamanism, and Sorcery, with spell listings for all four, and a season-based campaign structure. The character generation rules are humanocentric and highly Dragon Pass focused, with players being able to create characters from Sartar, Esrolia, the Grazelands, Prax, Lunar Tarsh, and Old Tarsh. Gloranthophiles will have to wait for rules to create characters from other regions and of the Elder Races (as well as Ducks). It is also tightly focused on a setting and a time period—the run up to the Hero Wars and 1625—and it is also no longer a ‘generic’ fantasy roleplaying game. Changing either of these may be something of a challenge for the Game Master.

RuneQuest: Roleplaying in Glorantha begins with an introduction to both RuneQuest and Glorantha, emphasising what makes it different, before going into more depth about Glorantha and the Runes which are its building blocks. This is quite a light introduction, more information being available in The Glorantha Sourcebook, the systemless supplement which supports HeroQuest Glorantha and 13th Age Glorantha as well as RuneQuest: Roleplaying in Glorantha. That said RuneQuest: Roleplaying in Glorantha does include some background on the various homelands in Dragon Pass that a player can select from during character creation.

Character generation in RuneQuest: Roleplaying in Glorantha is an eight-step process. It begins with a player selecting a Homeland for his character, which suggests common Occupations, Cults, and Passions, and Rune affinities. Then he creates some history for the character, his parents, and his grandparents, rolling on series of tables which will determine their involvement in events in Dragon Pass from 1561 until 1625, shortly after the Dragonrise. The character at this point will be twenty-one years of age and from this history will know whether his grandfather was at the Battle of Grizzly Peak, if his mother was involved in the Second Invasion of Prax, and if he himself actually saw the Dragonrise. The process will add more Passions and may add skills, reputation, and even some loot.

The third step is to create the character’s connections or Affinities to the Runes. These enable a character to use magic, join a cult, and so on. They also affect a character’s personality and physical build by adjusting his attributes slightly. Runes are divided into two types, Elemental Runes and Power/Form Runes. The Elemental Runes—Air, Earth, Darkness, Water, and so on, are separate Runes, but Power/Form Runes are arranged into pairs such as Harmony/Disorder and Fertility/Death. Now where the Elemental Runes have their percentile values, the Power/Form Runes percentile values are paired and must total one hundred percent for both. If a character has Harmony 45%, then its opposed pair, Disorder is 55%. When one changes, the other also changes. This reminiscent of the personality traits in Pendragon – Chivalric Roleplaying in Arthur’s Britain.

A character’s attributes—Strength, Constitution, Size, Dexterity, Intelligence, Power, and Charisma—are rolled on three six-sided dice to get a result between three and eighteen, apart from Size and Intelligence which are rolled on two six-sided dice to which six is added, plus modifications from a character’s Homeland (if any) and Rune Affinities. Various characteristics are derived from these attributes, including skill modifiers, damage modifier, spirit damage modifier, and so on. Skills and skill bonuses are granted by a character’s Homeland and Occupation, being added to their base values. Choice of Occupation also determines a character’s source of income, standard of living, and equipment as well as suggesting appropriate cults. It also suggests a suitable ransom value should your character ever be captured—a viable alternative given the lethality of the combat system. Some seventeen Occupations are listed, from Assistant Shaman, Bandit, and Chariot Driver to Scribe, Thief, and Warrior. They include mundane Occupations such as Farmer and Herder as well as oddities like Philosopher, which actually turns out to be the equivalent of a sorcerer.

The last major step is to choose a cult devoted to a particular god. A characters needs fifty percent in one of the Runes associated with the god and cult in order to join, for example, Earth, Fertility, or Harmony for Ernalda. (A value of ninety percent in a Rune Affinity is required if a character to become a Rune Lord or Rune Priest in his cult). As an initiate of the cult—and every player character in RuneQuest: Roleplaying in Glorantha begins play as an initiate of a cult—a character gains further training in cult related skills, but more importantly he gains access to both Rune and Spirit magic related to the cult. These are separate and where a character will find himself casting Spirit magic on a regular basis, once Rune magic is cast, a character will need to participate in cult worship and ceremonies, often supported by sacrifice, in order for it to be granted again.

The end result of the generation process is a character with a decent array of skills and typically two or three high value skills as well as high Rune Affinities. He will be tied into the setting via his and his family’s history and the magic and myth of the setting via his cult. The process is not complex, but it does take some time and it does result in quite a dense character sheet. The result though, is more readily and far more capable than beginning characters in previous iterations of RuneQuest, reflecting an empowerment of the player characters to prepare them for the coming Hero Wars.


—oOo—

Oriane
STR 13 CON 13 SIZ 15 INT 09
POW 11 DEX 17 CHA 16
Hit Points: 14 Move: 8
Dex SR: 1 Siz SR: 1
Runes: Air 70%, Earth 60%, Darkness 20%; 50% Harmony/Disorder 50%, 10% Stasis/Movement 90%, 50% Truth/Illusion 50%, 50% Fertility/Death 50%, 10% Man/Beast 90%
Rune Points: 3
Rune Spells: Bear’s Skin, Bear’s Strength, Claws.
Spirit Magic: Detect Life (1), Heal (1), Mobility (1), Speedart (1)
Magic Points: 11
Passions: Love (Family): 70%, Loyalty (Clan): 60%, Loyalty (Shaker Temple): 70%, Passion (Honour): 80%, Loyalty (Queen Samastina): 60%, Devotion (Odayla): 80%
Reputation: 24%
Ransom: 250 L.
Damage Bonus: +1d4
Spirit Combat Damage: 1d6+1
Healing Rate: 2
Armour:
Skills: Agility (Bonus: +10%); Dodge 44%, Ride (Horse) 25%; Communication (Bonus: +05%): Dance 20%, Orate 20%, Sing 45%; Knowledge (Bonus: 00%): Animal Lore 60%, Battle 30%, Cult Lore (Odayla) 20%, Customs (Tarshite) 25%, Farm 25%, Homeland Lore (Old Tarsh) 40%, Peaceful Cut 55%, Survival 30%; Magic (Bonus: +05%): Meditate 10%, Spirit Combat 40%, Worship (Odayla) 30%; Manipulation (Bonus: +10%): Conceal 25%; Perception (Bonus: +00%): Listen 60%, Scan 25%, Track 70%; Stealth (Bonus: +05%): Hide 25%, Move Quietly 40%
Languages: Speak Own Language (Tarshite) 55%, Speak Other Language (Tradetalk) 25%

Oriane’s Attacks
Dagger 25%, 1d4+2, SR 6, HP 6
1H Axe 35%, 1d8+2, SR 5, HP 8
1H Spear 15%, 1d6, SR 4, HP 8
Broadsword 20%, 1d8+1, SR 6, HP 6
Composite Bow 70%, 1d8+1, Rate S/MR, HP 7
Javelin 20%, 1d10, Rate 1/MR, HP 8
Medium Shield 30%, 1d4, SR 5, HP 12
Large Shield 25%, 1d6, SR 5, HP 16

Hit Points: 14
Left Leg: 5, Right Leg: 5, Abdomen: 5 Chest: 6, Left Arm: 4, Right Arm: 4, Head: 5

Standard of Living: Poor.
Base Income: 40 L.
Equipment: Bow, 1H Axe, Shadowcat, snares, furs worth 120 L., ancient gold serpent armband (two point spirit magic matrix) (worth 900 L.), 

History
Homeland: Old Tarsh
Date of Birth: Air Season, Beast Week, Wildday
Grandparent: Grandmother, Durlindia (Warrior)
Parent: Father, Arim (Farmer)
Family History: The family is descended from Oriane, a famous member of the Odayla cult for whom Oriane is named. Oriane’s grandmother, Durlindia fought at the Battles of Grizzly Peak and Alda-Chur in 1582, before retreating to the foothills of Mount Kero Fin. She came forth again to fight in the Boldholme Campaign of 1602, but was forced to flee to New Pavis for two years. Resettling in Old Tarsh again, she would die in a skirmish with the Lunar Tarsh in 1608. Her son, Arim, Oriane’s father, a farmer, died in the Grazeland Campaign of 1615. During the second year of the Great Winter, Oriane fled to Esrolia where she participated in the Civil War, famously fighting the Red Earth Assassins targeting Queen Samastina. At the 1623 Siege of Nochet she served alongside King Broyan with great glory and then again fought with distinction at the Battle of Pennel Ford in 1624. Returning home she witnessed the Dragonrise and the Shakar Priestess appointing the new king, Unstey, at Wintertop.


—oOo—

Mechanically, as with previous iterations of the roleplaying game, RuneQuest: Roleplaying in Glorantha is a percentile system, with a character’s skills, Rune Affinities, Passions, and Reputation all being rated between one and one hundred and a player rolling against them on percentile dice. Rolls can also be made against a character’s attributes which are multiplied depending upon the difficulty. A roll generates five results—Fumble, typically 96% or above; Failure, a result above the skill value; Success, a roll equal to or under the skill value; a Special Success, a roll equal to one fifth or less; and Critical Success, a roll of one twentieth or less of the skill value. Of these, a Critical Success provides a better outcome, for example, a Noble might exhort more members of a crowd to action with a Critical Orate roll, a Farmer might have a more successful harvest with a Critical Farm roll, and a Critical roll ignores armour when rolled in combat. These results are also important in opposed rolls where a better result trumps a worse one, typically using the familiar Resistance Table.

RuneQuest: Roleplaying in Glorantha adds two interesting developments to these core rules. First, it handles skills of more than 100% a simple fashion. It is impossible to roll more than 100% and as rolls of 96% or above are always failures any excess value over the 100% is instead deducted from any skill or ability opposing it. Second, a skill, Passion, or Rune roll can be augmented by another skill, Passion, or Rune roll. This generates a one time bonus which is added to the skill to be checked. 
For example, a farm near Oriane has been plagued by wolf attacks and she sets out to drive them off. Her player decides to use her Track skill of 70% to locate the wolves, but will augment it with a roll against her Beast Rune Affinity of 90%, explaining that this is her innate connection to the animal world. Her player rolls 02—a critical success, which means that Oriane is granted a +50% bonus to her Track skill, which is now 120%! Instead of attempting to rolling this, the Game Master deducts excess the 20% from both Oriane’s skill and the Stealth skill of the wolves which are trying to avoid the huntress. Oriane’s player now rolls against a temporary Track skill of 95%, whilst the Game Master rolls against the wolves’ Stealth skill, which is now 40% rather than 60%.
This augmentation mechanic—taken from HeroQuest Glorantha—does two things. Obviously mechanically, it allows characters with lower value skills to be temporarily better, but in terms of roleplaying it enables a player to colour his character’s actions with Passions and Rune Affinities. To explain what his character is doing because of how he feels and because of his connections to the universe via the Runes.

Like the pairing of the Power/Form Runes, Passions are drawn from Pendragon – Chivalric Roleplaying in Arthur’s Britain. They include Devotion—to a deity, Hate, Honour, Loyalty, and Love, and like skills and Rune Affinities, they are percentile values. They represent how a character is feeling and can be used to influence a character’s behaviour and actions, as well as to augment his actions. Another new mechanic is Reputation. Again, a percentile, this indicates how well known a character is. It is improved by great deeds, such as swearing an epic oath or defeating an enemy of divine nature.

Combat in RuneQuest: Roleplaying in Glorantha is designed to be detailed and deadly. Distinctly simulationist in design, it is handled in twelve second rounds broken down into twelve Strike Ranks, with a character acting according to his own Strike Rank, determined by his Dexterity and Size, whatever weapon he is wielding, and what action he wants to undertake. In general, wielding longer weapons, such as spears, mean that a character can attack first. Although a character has a pool of Hit Points from which all damage is taken, damage is also taken from individual locations which have their own Hit Points. In addition to these locations taking damage, a Special Success on an attack roll means that they can suffer impale, slash, or crush effects, depending on the weapon. A Critical Success is even worse, because it means that the attack roll ignores armour before the impale, slash, or crush effects are applied. As a consequence, armour is important for stopping this damage, as is learning the Dodge skill, parrying with weapons, and blocking with shields.

Offsetting this though, is the common availability of magical healing. Spirit magic healing is fairly common and many cults provide access to better healing spells. In extreme circumstances, it is possible for a character to appeal for divine intervention on behalf of someone who has been recently killed, but this is not without its consequences and it can take time for the deceased’s spirit to return… Alternatively, knowing when a fight is going against you and surrendering yourself for ransom is sometimes a wise decision. Overall, combat will be familiar to anyone who has played RuneQuest before. True to its Bronze Age milieu, it includes rules for mounted combat—important for many of the Praxian nomads with their riding beasts, chariots, and fighting in phalanx formation.

Magic has always been a part of RuneQuest and characters have always had access to magic in form or another. In RuneQuest: Roleplaying in Glorantha there are three types of magic—Spirit, Rune, and Sorcery. (Note given the focus of RuneQuest: Roleplaying in Glorantha upon playing characters antithetical to the Lunar Empire, Illumination is not mentioned or covered in these rules). As initiates, player characters have access to the first two through their cult and begin play with the basic Spirit and Rune spells known to their cult. Spirit magic involves communication with the spirits in the world’s natural energy currents for simple effects like Bladesharp, Detect Life, and Heal. In game terms, they require nothing more than a focus—typically an item or tattoo, a POW attribute check, and the expenditure of Magic Points. In general, Spirit magic is straightforward and easy to use.

Whilst Spirit magic is taught by both cults and shamans, the latter are deeply committed to Spirit magic, combining it with a knowledge of both spirits and the Spirit World. Primarily concerned with the spiritual protection and knowledge of their kinsmen, Shaman regularly journey into the Spirit World from the Middle to deal with spiritual threats and bargain for spiritual aid and services. As well as rules for Shamanism and becoming a Shaman, RuneQuest: Roleplaying in Glorantha covers Shamanic abilities and spirit combat, explores the nature of the Spirit World and even presents a couple of spirit cults, including the notorious Black Fang Brotherhood!

The third type of magic is Sorcery. This is designed to be a flexible, logical approach to magic, with a sorcerer not only being able to cast spells, but through Techniques can manipulate the intensity, strength, range, and duration of these spells. A sorcerer attunes himself to not just the Runes, but also six Techniques—Command, Combine, Separate, Summon, Dispel, and Tap—which when combined together form the logical formulae that allow the sorcerer to cast his spells. So the spell, Finger of Fire, which produces a tendril of fire that the sorcerer can move around, requires him to be attuned to the Fire/Sky and Movement Runes and the Combine Technique. On the downside, as flexible as Sorcery is, it takes longer to cast—whole rounds rather than in terms of Strike Ranks within a Round.

One issue with Sorcery is its availability. Culturally, Sorcery is a tradition followed by monotheistic cultures—the Malkioni and the Aeolians being given examples, but neither are detailed in the homelands presented earlier in RuneQuest: Roleplaying in Glorantha. Alternatively, initiates of Lhankor Mhy are taught a limited amount of Sorcery, but can learn more. In general, Sorcery is the hardest type of magic to learn and master in RuneQuest: Roleplaying in Glorantha—in game and out! Given the focus upon God Learners, cults, gods, and Rune magic in the game, Sorcery feels a bit of an afterthought.

The second type of magic—and the most significant addition to RuneQuest: Roleplaying in Glorantha—Rune magic. As the fundamental building blocks of the universe, Runes lie at the heart of all magic, but Rune magic not only specifically enables an initiate to use the power of his chosen deity and act like that god, it also allows the god to act in the confines of Time. This fulfills RuneQuest: Roleplaying in Glorantha’s description of magic as being… “(T)the interaction of mortals existing within Time with the timeless and eternal powers of the God Time.” This though, requires sacrifice upon the part of the initiate, represented by points of POW, enabling him to forge a link with his god. These points of POW are converted to Rune points which form a separate pool of points used to power the Rune spells which each cult teaches their initiates. By sacrificing yet more POW as Rune points, an initiate can learn more Rune spells, and further, by becoming an initiate in an associated cult and sacrificing POW points, he can learn the Rune spells of that cult too. These new Rune spells are separate, as is the pool of Rune points used to cast them, that is, an initiate of multiple cults maintains a pool of Rune points for each cult. Once a player declares his character’s intent to cast one of the Rune spells, a successful roll against one of the Rune Affinities associated with the cult is required to cast it.

Unlike Spirit magic, which powered by Magic Points can be cast from one day to the next because they regenerate, Rune magic and Rune points are a limited resource. Once an initiate has cast a Rune spell and used Rune points, they do not regenerate. They can be replenished though, this requiring the initiate to participate in an act of worship at a temple, sanctified area, or other holy place on a holy day. This is for initiates though, and Rune Priests and Rune Lords of a cult can lead religious ceremonies and make sacrifices to more readily replenish their Rune points. What this means is that Rune magic is a powerful, but finite resource and should not be readily squandered.

RuneQuest: Roleplaying in Glorantha presents some twenty-one different cults, from Argan Argar, Babeester Gor, and Chalana Arroy to Yelm, Yelmalio, and Yinkin, including the Seven Mothers of the Lunar Empire. Their descriptions include their holy days, requirements to become an initiate, cult skills, Spirit magic, and Rune magic, as well as enchantments and associated cults. There is of course, much more to be written about each and every one of these cults—at least for these new rules—but there is more than sufficient information here to ground a player and his character into the cult and put said character on the path to becoming either a Rune Priest or Rune Lord, should that be his wish.

Behind all this are the Runes themselves. Besides powering a character’s Rune magic, Runes—the Elemental Runes—have a strong influence upon both character and game. They influence a character’s personality, so that a character with a high score or affinity in the Air Rune is “…(P)assionate, violent, proud, and unpredictable.”, all common personality descriptions of natives to Sartar because of their worship of Orlanth. They also augment particular skills, in this case, the Sense Assassin, Sense Chaos, and Smell skills, as well as the Manipulation skill category and the Sword skill. Each Rune also has colours, organs, metals, and animal types associated with it, though these are more for roleplaying purposes than direct mechanical benefit. Particular Runes are also required to join particular cults—for example, Harmony and Movement for Issaries, the God of Communication and Trade and Air and Beast for Yinkin, the Shadowcat God, and then once a character is an initiate, the associated Runes are rolled to cast Rune magic.

Lastly, besides equipment, RuneQuest: Roleplaying in Glorantha discusses what a character can do between adventures. This is not a game or world in which a character is necessarily going to be going on adventure after adventure. They may perhaps adventure once per season, with like the Winter Phase in Pendragon – Chivalric Roleplaying in Arthur’s Britain, period when the characters have a chance to rest, reflect, and undertake other duties. In Glorantha, this is the Sacred Time at the end of the year. Mechanically, a player will be rolling for his character’s Experience Checks for Skill, Rune, and Passion rolls made on adventures throughout the year, but the character will be participating in holy ceremonies, collecting the harvest, attending to family matters, awaiting the omens for the coming year, and even going on a Heroquest. The latter though, is the subject of another supplement. It is also the time when mundane skills like Manage Household and Farm come into play—as well as those other skills key to a character’s Occupation—as they help determine the family income for the year to come. These rules serve to push a campaign onwards, to give it and the world of Glorantha the sense of Time which separates it from the Gods.

Physically, RuneQuest: Roleplaying in Glorantha is a well written, easy to read set of rules. There are lots of rule examples throughout the book, but as we move from chapter to chapter, rule to rule, the game is brought to live by Vasana’s Saga, a first-person telling of the Hero Wars, as told by Vasana Emaldoring, a Wind Lord companion of Prince Argrath. Famously, RuneQuest 2—or RuneQuest Classic—did this through Rurik Runespear, but Vasana’s is a longer tale, more involving and enjoyable. Plus, they do an entertaining job of showing off the rules too.

In terms of presentation, RuneQuest: Roleplaying in Glorantha is an imposing book right from the start with the cover, which depicts Vasana and her companions in the company of Orlanth himself! Inside though, the art direction is somewhat uneven. Some of the older, black and white art looks a little out of place, but the full colour illustrations are excellent, nicely conveying the fact that the world of Glorantha is anything other than that of Western Europe—in places it feels Ancient Greek, in others Middle Eastern, and in others Indian. The artwork also does a nice job of depicting both the magical and the mundane, as well as showing how people accept magic as part of their world. Unfortunately, there is the matter of the book’s cartography, which though pretty, is often indistinct and difficult to read. Hopefully, a future supplement will rectify this with better maps.

RuneQuest: Roleplaying in Glorantha feels as if the designers have gone back to the source—in this case, RuneQuest 2—and developed it, updating it and presenting it anew into RuneQuest 2.5. Their labour of love has thrown out over thirty years of RuneQuest history whilst still incorporating some of the better advances from its design descendants and associated family of games. The result is that unlike in previous iterations of RuneQuest, where the objective of the game, often implied rather than explicit, was to quest for Runes and so gain access to the gods, the objective in RuneQuest: Roleplaying in Glorantha is to quest with Runes and to confirm and strengthen the existence of the gods. RuneQuest: Roleplaying in Glorantha is the definitive set of mechanics for playing ‘RuneQuest’ and using its Runes to explore both the myths and world of Glorantha during the Hero Wars—and it is great see it at Chaosium, Inc. where it began.

Friday, 9 November 2018

Friday Filler: To Catch a Thief

Although the ‘Choose Your Adventure’ style of gamebooks had been around by the time The Warlock of Firetop Mountain was published in 1982, the first Fighting Fantasy title was groundbreaking. It allowed gamers to play in their own time, complete with a solid set of rules so that it felt like a roleplaying adventure, and the success of the series meant the adventures were readily available in bookshops and high street shops rather than in just speciality shops. In comparison, the Endless Quest series, published by TSR, Inc. were no match, for whilst their stories took place in the worlds of the publisher’s various settings, they were all text, did not come with any mechanics, and so did not feel like a game. TSR, Inc. published two series of the books and its successor, Wizards of the Coast also published its own beginning in 2008. Now the publisher has returned to the series with a new quartet of titles, all tied with Dungeons & Dragons and all set in its default setting of Faerûn in the Forgotten Realms.

Written by Matt Forbeck—best known as the designer of the roleplaying game, Brave New World—each of the quartet focuses upon a core Class and a core Race found in Dungeons & Dragons. So there is a title involving a Cleric, a Fighter, a Rogue, and a Wizard and a title involving a Dwarf, an Elf, a Halfling, and a Human. These are combined into the classic pairings found in Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition, so the four books in turn tell of the adventures of a Dwarf Cleric, an Elf Wizard, a Halfling Rogue, and a Human Fighter. Each comes as a sturdy little hardback, illustrated in full colour with artwork drawn from the current version of Dungeons & Dragons, including lots and lots of monsters. Each book contains some sixty or so entries and is written for a young teenage audience, so they are suitable for those coming to Dungeons & Dragons for the first time. This does not mean that there is nothing of interest for veteran players of Dungeons & Dragons to be found in the pages of these solo adventures. Being set above, below, and across Faerûn, the protagonists of each book will have the opportunity to visit various locations familiar from both the novels set in the Forgotten Realms and the game supplements too.

Having explored the adventures of the Human Fighter in the underworld in Escape the Underdark and the adventures of a Dwarf Cleric in Into the Jungle, you follow the adventures of a Halfling Rogue in To Catch a Thief. As the protagonist, you are an independent thief working the streets of the city of Waterdeep, but tonight you have overreached yourself and attempted to pick the pocket of Laeral Silverhand, the Open Lord of Waterdeep. Caught red handed, you are given a choice. One is to suffer the consequences of your actions and be thrown into gaol, the other is to undertake a difficult and probably dangerous task for Laeral Silverhand. This is to recover a baby griffon which has been stolen from her and not just by any thief. No, the thief in question is the Xanathar, the leader of the city’s powerful Thieves’ Guild, and right now, the Xanathar just happens to be none other than a Beholder!

To Catch a Thief sets up an entertaining challenge, one that is played out over what will be familiar territory to many a fan of the Forgotten Realms. They will recognise various locations around Waterdeep, notably the Yawning Portal Inn and likewise, the teeming hive of evil that is the Port of Shadows which lies below the city in Undermountain. There are encounters too with some of the famous inhabitants of Waterdeep, plus a very cleverly done encounter with the most famous figure in the Forgotten Realms. Thus, To Catch a Thief is tied in with a pair of books for Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition. One is Tales from the Yawning Portal, the other is the more recent Waterdeep: Dragon Heist, but then given the wealth of support for the Forgotten Realms setting over the years, To Catch a Thief is full of nods to lots of books.

Of course, before our Halfling Rogue gets to rush off and search for the Xanathar and the missing Griffon, there is a decision to be made—will she do the task or not? A good part of the first half of the book is devoted to her doing other things in order to avoid doing the job. This leads to the happy-go-lucky protagonist of To Catch a Thief doing a lot of running around and giving her prospective ‘employers’ a great deal of run around, which for the most part, results in her wriggling out of her newly acquired task and leaving Waterdeep. Which feels perfectly in keeping with the roguish nature of the character and story and which actually feels different to the previously reviewed new Endless Quest titles where there is a greater chance of the protagonist meeting an unfortunate end. This is not to say that she never dies in To Catch a Thief, it is just not as frequent.

Once the reader and the Halfling Rogue decide to undertake the task, the action switches as you attempt to find out where Xanathar might be holding the stolen baby griffon and how to get there. The trail leads downwards and will see the protagonist running into pirates, slavers, and worse. Getting back out thankfully, is not as challenging as getting in and there are some enjoyable scenes with the baby griffon along the way. In general, To Catch a Thief is tonally not as grim as either Escape the Underworld or Into the Jungle. This is not to say that it avoids dealing with grim subjects, where the tone of Into the Jungle was Dwarven and dour, this is much lighter, reflecting the happiness of Halfings and the devil may care attitude of the Rogue Class. As a Rogue, the protagonist is never portrayed as being totally amoral or lacking in conscience, though the later may take a nudge or two to actually work!

One issue with To Catch a Thief—and thus the Endless Quest series—is the lack of replay value. Once read through, the lack of variability that a set of rules or mechanics, means that there is no longer the challenge to be found in the book and thus a strong issue to read it again. To be fair, mechanics or rules were never a feature of the Endless Quest series and so there is no expectation that they should be in this new series. Just that in comparison with other solo adventures, they are not as sophisticated and so are suited to a younger audience. 

To Catch a Thief joins Escape the Underdark in being quite familiar in terms of its settings, Waterdeep being one of the most visited cities in fantasy roleplaying and fantasy fiction. The familiarity means that the older reader will get a strong sense of nostalgia from this solo adventure, whilst for anyone new to the Forgotten Realms it serves as a good introduction—to Waterdeep in particular, as well as perhaps, inspiration for when they get to the gaming table and play Dungeons & Dragons for real.

Sunday, 4 November 2018

Video Call of Cthulhu

From Infogames’ 1992 Alone in the Dark to Bethesda Softworks’ 2005 Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth, there have been plenty of computer games which have drawn upon the works of H.P. Lovecraft for their inspiration. Now, there is a computer game based not directly on that author’s works, but upon the premier tabletop roleplaying game based upon said works, Call of Cthulhu, as published by Chaosium, Inc.. Published by Focus Home Interactive, Call of Cthulhu: The Official Video Game is a first-person computer role-playing game of survival horror and psychological horror available for PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and Windows platforms. Although inspired by Lovecraft’s famous short story, ‘The Call of Cthulhu’, Call of Cthulhu: The Official Video Game shifts the action to closer to home—somewhere off the coast of Boston, Massachusetts in the year 1924.

You play as Edward Pierce, a down-at-heel private investigator, whose experiences in the Great War have left him prone to dark dreams and driven him to drink (and at the height of Prohibition too!) and drugs. Suffering from an existential crisis and at the point of being fired by his employers, Pierce grabs at the one straw which might save both him and his job. Noted artist, Sarah Hawkins and her family died in a fire in their home which the police claim she started because she was crazy. Her father, rich philanthropist and art collector, Stephen Baxter, thinks otherwise and so hires Pierce to investigate the death of his daughter, her husband, and their son, out on Darkwater Island, home to a whaling community which Pierce will discover has secrets to hide… This case might really be his last!

The ensuing investigation evolves over the course of several chapters which will take Pierce to Darkwater Island, around its harbour, and to various locations above and below the island. At each, Pierce will interact with the island’s inhabitants and discover clues that will first reveal the strange and unhappy life of Sarah Hawkins and her son, and then the deeper, darker secrets behind that strangeness and unhappiness. The investigation is conducted in three ways. First is in clues to be found—typically indicated by magnifying glass icons; second, in interacting with the island’s inhabitants; and third, in flashbacks. The latter represent Pierce putting together clues and interpreting them to reveal previous events.

The design of Pierce and how he improves from chapter to chapter is simply, but nicely handled. Pierce has just seven broad skills— Eloquence, Investigation, Medicine, Occultism, Psychology, Spot Hidden, and Strength, each defined as a percentage and competence rating, Novice, Amateur, Professional, and so on. Of these, Medicine and Occultism can only be improved by making discoveries within the game, whilst the others require Character Points, earned chapter by chapter. An improved skill enables Pierce to take a particular approach to the investigation. Obviously, a good Spot Hidden enables Pierce to find more clues, but a high Investigation lets him pick a lock which alternatively, he could just smash with a high Strength. Higher skills will also unlock more options when interacting with the game’s cast of characters, enabling Pierce to ask them questions related to that skill.

Overall, devotees of the roleplaying game, Call of Cthulhu, will recognise much of this skill system, which offers a degree of versatility in choosing how Pierce approaches the mystery in the game. Noticeably absent are any combat skills and whilst there are combat encounters to be had in certain chapters of Call of Cthulhu: The Official Video Game, they are very much not its focus, and really, they do not quite fit its dour slow-paced investigation.

In addition, Pierce has a Sanity tracker. Unlike the skills, this is not represented by a number, but by series of incidents and encounters that he will have as he delves deeper into the mystery. As he has more of these, the more icons on the Sanity tracker are unlocked and the more that Pierce has suffered Mental Trauma. He begins the game with one—a dream which you play through at the very beginning of the game—and he will definitely acquire more, especially as he comes to encounter the Mythos later in the game.

As you play through the Call of Cthulhu: The Official Video Game, what becomes apparent are two things. First, the pace of the game is measured, perhaps even slow, so there is a lot of moving about to find clues before moving on to the next chapter. This is very much in contrast to the Call of Cthulhu tabletop roleplaying game where a lot the time spent in detection and gathering clues is truncated and handled as a narrative. Here, the investigation is played out, the moving from room to room, the looking at one bookshelf or under a table, so in comparison it feels much slower. That said, this allows the mystery and atmosphere to slowly build and the horror to be more effective when it does appear.

Second, there is a strong sense of confinement to the game. Now some of this is due to the linear nature of the game and its storyline, and in some chapters, where Pierce is confined to a cave system or an asylum, for example, this works in its favour, but in other chapters, it feels enforced and artificial. For example, the opening scenes on Darkwater’s harbour feel as if there should be more to them, as if you should be able to wander off into the town itself, but everything is blocked off. There are reasons for this in the story, yet it feels very much as if your progress and your ability to roam are being constrained.

In terms of game play and presentation, the Call of Cthulhu: The Official Video Game is slightly underwhelming. Beyond the versatility of the skills system, the game never quite feels as if a player has to do very much to carry out Pierce’s investigation and whilst stealth and combat scenes add some variety they do not add greatly to the game play. Really, it feels more like Pierce is just collecting clues rather than collecting clues and interpreting them. This is because for the main part, despite being able to re-examine the clues, there are no further clues to be had about anything that Pierce picks up in the game and the game will do the interpreting for you anyway. Similarly, there is relatively little in the game for the player to deduce, little in the way of the puzzles to solve, the game play’s investigative aspect really being quite simple. Further, whilst the presentation of the game is suitably grim and murky, the graphics are often to be found wanting, especially in the portrayal of the game’s cast. There is a certain slack-jawed mannequin quality to many of them, which again gives the game a feel of artificiality in places.

The game is also designed to be replayed, having more than one ending, depending upon Pierce’s discoveries as part of his investigation throughout the mystery and the various insanity inducing encounters he has had along the way. Unfortunately, the linear nature of the game’s plot and play-through means that the variations are fairly limited, so it is questionable whether you would want to replay the game any time soon after having completed it.

As a game, the Call of Cthulhu: The Official Video Game cannot match the quality of the best games to be released in 2018, whether in terms of game play, look, or replay value. It certainly feels as if it should play better, look better, and offer more replay value. As an adaptation of the tabletop version of Call of Cthulhu, the Call of Cthulhu: The Official Video Game is not and cannot be its equal. The tabletop roleplaying game offers greater depth and flexibility, wider originality and more variety, and both extended play and repeated play, but that is what it is designed to do, whereas the Call of Cthulhu: The Official Video Game is not. There is some flexibility in the skills system in the computer though, a flexibility that devotees of the tabletop version of Call of Cthulhu will recognise and appreciate. 

It might not be the greatest computer game or the greatest computer horror game, but what the Call of Cthulhu: The Official Video Game does offer is an interactive, if linear, story of lurking fear and growing dread, one that will take several hours to fully explore and experience. There is enough horror and enough Mythos present for the Call of Cthulhu gamer, the Lovecraft devotee, and computer horror game player to appreciate and enjoy the Call of Cthulhu: The Official Video Game as long as their expectations are not raised too high.

Saturday, 3 November 2018

Overmind, Undermind, Mutating Free...

Mutant Crawl Classics #1: Hive of the Overmind is the first release for Mutant Crawl Classics Roleplaying Game – Triumph & Technology Won by Mutants & Magic, the spirutual successor to Gamma World published by Goodman Games. Like ‘Assault on the Sky-High Tower’ to be found in the back of the Mutant Crawl Classics Roleplaying Game, it is a Level 0 MCC RPG Adventure which provides a Rite of Passage for many Zero Level characters or a suitable encounter for Level One characters. One of the features of the Mutant Crawl Classics Roleplaying Game–and the Dungeon Crawl Classics Role Playing Game it is mechanically based upon–is that initially, a player is expected to roll up three or four Level Zero characters and have them play through a Character Funnel. This is a generally nasty, deadly adventure, which surviving will prove a challenge. Those that do survive receive enough Experience Points to advance to First Level and gain all of the advantages of their Class. In terms of the setting, this is a’ Rite of Passage’ and in Mutants, Manimals, and Plantients, the stress of it will trigger ‘Metagenesis’, their DNA expressing itself and their mutations blossoming forth.

Originally released as a Stretch Goal for the Kickstarter campaign for the Mutant Crawl Classics Roleplaying Game, opens with a cliché, one that echoes A4: In the Dungeons of the Slave Lords. The player characters are underground, in the near dark, do not know where they are, and do not have any equipment. What they do know is that they are on their ‘Rite of Passage’, sent out from the tribe to recover and return with artefacts of the Ancients and so prove their adulthood. Unfortunately, something has happened in the meantime and they find themselves amidst a battle between a troop of Devils and a Buzzer (or rather, a troop of Ant Men and a Giant Bee!).

The oddness of the battle and its set-up continue in the aftermath, the Devils returning to their duties and letting the player characters begin to investigate their surroundings and situation. They find themselves in the hive, looking for a way out as well as their equipment, but there are deeper mysteries beyond the hive itself. Mutant Crawl Classics #1: Hive of the Overmind is combination of insect hive and strange complex across two levels, with less than ten locations on each level. The two levels are very different, the upper hive level earthy and organic, the lower complex artificial and clinical.

In general, the lower level is far more interesting than the upper level. There are more things to be found and interact with, more exploring to be done, and whilst there are combat encounters to be had, there are fewer of them and they are slightly tougher than those on the upper level. That is in addition to the dangers of interacting with the complex’s environment, with there being a chance that the player characters might make things worse or get themselves killed, but that is part and parcel of the danger in Terra A.D., the setting for the Mutant Crawl Classics Roleplaying Game.

There are a number of issues with the design of the adventure, especially the upper level. One is that the design of the upper level is linear in nature, counter to its description as being mazelike. The Game Master may want to alter the plans of the hive to make them more maze-like. Another is that the design includes a chokepoint –a bridge over a lava filled chasm–which may prove to be something of a challenge for the player characters as it relies too much on their Strength. Once past that, the adventure can continue unabated, though another issue is that the plot needs a bit of work if it is to be a bit more apparent to the players and their characters. This would help the Game Master better roleplay the few NPCs there are for the player characters to interact with.

Nevertheless, there are plenty of artefacts for the player characters to find and interact with, many of them much more useful in terms of adventuring and exploring the world of Terra A.D. than those found  in ‘Assault on the Sky-High Tower’ to be found in the back of the Mutant Crawl Classics Roleplaying Game. The number present more than makes up for the loss of items at the start of the scenario. There are also several opportunities for mutagenesis, the chance for Mutants, Manimals, and Plantients to evolve and devolve, as well as change into species from wholly different genre! There are also links to be found to future scenarios for Mutant Crawl Classics if the player characters go looking for them and the possibility that any of the Pure Strain Humans present might come to the attention of a Patron AIs in the Terra A.D. setting which the Shaman Class serves. Lastly, the scenario includes several options for how the player characters might escape from both the hive above and the complex below.

Physically, Mutant Crawl Classics #1: Hive of the Overmind is just sixteen pages in length. The writing is generally good, whilst the artwork has the weird and wacky feel that the mixed up world of Terra A.D. needs to have. The map at the centre of the booklet is a lovely piece of cartography, given lots of space and is very easy to read.

Mutant Crawl Classics #1: Hive of the Overmind can be used in several ways. The first is of course, as a Character Funnel for Level Zero characters. For that, it is deadly enough and dangerous enough, but with the capacity for the player characters to offset this lethality with handy artefacts. The second is as an adventure for First Level characters. It is not specifically written for characters of this Level, but it is possible that it could be run as such, the Player Characters having an edge in terms of their powers and abilities. The third is as a sequel to ‘Assault on the Sky-High Tower’, the surviving Player Characters ending up in the hive following their encounters in the strange building during their Rite of Passage. Certainly returning home with the artefacts and items from both locations would mark them as worthy members of the tribe.

However it is run, Mutant Crawl Classics #1: Hive of the Overmind should provide at least a session or two’s worth of exploration and combat, with a modicum of roleplaying on the side. It needs a little effort upon the part of the Game Master to bring out that roleplaying and its associated plot, but there is a solid, entertaining adventure to be had in the pages of Mutant Crawl Classics #1: Hive of the Overmind.