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

Monday, 14 October 2019

#WeAreAllUs: The Rattling Wind

October 10th marks the first anniversary of Greg Stafford’s passing. To both commemorate that date and celebrate Greg’s contribution to the roleplaying hobby, Chaosium, Inc. is publishing not just one free scenario, but five. One for each of the major roleplaying games published by Chaosium, Inc. Either designed or influenced by Greg, they include RuneQuest: Roleplaying in GloranthaKing Arthur PendragonHeroQuest in GloranthaCall of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition, and 7th Sea. The aim of these releases is twofold. One is to showcase each of these worlds and roleplaying games, typically with a scenario that can be brought to the table with relative ease, whether that is your own or at a convention, but primarily the purpose is to get everyone sat round the table and playing since we are all roleplayers. In Greg’s words, that #WeAreAllUs.

The Rattling Wind is a scenario for RuneQuest: Roleplaying in Runequest. Designed for between four and six characters of low to medium experience, and takes place in the lands of the Antorling Clan of the Colymar Tribe in the aftermath of the occupation by the Lunar Empire. It is thus suitable to be played after the events of ‘The Broken Tower’ from the RuneQuest: Roleplaying in Glorantha – QuickStart Rules and Adventure using the pre-generated characters from that scenario or perhaps added to a campaign in and around Apple Lane as detailed in the RuneQuest Gamemaster Screen Pack. The scenario could even be used as a one-shot using the pre-generated characters from the RuneQuest: Roleplaying in Glorantha – QuickStart Rules and Adventure as with a bit of pace, it could be completed in one good session. The scenario itself is a preview chapter from The Pegasus Plateau & Other Stories, a forthcoming adventures anthology.

The remote Antorling Clan hamlet of Farfield in the foothills of the Quivin Mountains near the Dog-Rat Valley is beset by the ‘Rattling Wind’, a ‘monster in the night’ that has attacked and killed locals once a week for the last three weeks. The adventurers may have been sent by their tribe, clan, or cult superiors, or be simply passing through, but either way, the villagers will beg for their help in dealing with the threat whose arrival is heralded by thunderous cadence and the shaking of shutters and windows as it passes. Each of the victims was found crushed. The villagers are desperate, but can only say that everything was fine until the Ducks moved into the area.

The Rattling Wind is an action-horror-mystery that uses a well-worn plot, but uses it to good effect. It comes with secrets and consequences and a handful of not always likeable NPCs, including a grumpy Duck! The adventurers will need to poke around a bit in order to uncover the first of the clues that will eventually reveal what is going on, but there are some fantastic action scenes too, especially as the threat comes rattling out of the night to take its victims. The solutions to the situation are straightforward, enabling the adventurers to tackle with either brains or brawn. The former will be required early on in the scenario and perhaps later on if the clues are not necessarily found. There is no right way to address the situation in The Rattling Wind and the adventurers are pleasingly not penalised for choosing one means of resolution over another.

Physically, The Rattling Wind is a twenty-one page, 7.33 MB full-colour PDF. It is well written and nicely illustrated with images that the Game Master will want to show her players during the scenario. The maps are decent. The main issue is that the scenario does need another edit.

The Rattling Wind makes for a decent one-shot, but it really works as an interlude scenario, one that is easily inserted into an ongoing campaign. It nicely brings into play the recent history of Sartar and confirms in the adventurers’ minds the prejudices they have about the Lunar Empire. The Rattling Wind is a rollicking good scenario that nicely fits into Chaosium’s family of scenarios involving the Colymar Tribe.

Sunday, 13 October 2019

#WeAreAllUs: Highwall Inn

October 10th marks the first anniversary of Greg Stafford’s passing. To both commemorate that date and celebrate Greg’s contribution to the roleplaying hobby, Chaosium, Inc. is publishing not just one free scenario, but five. One for each of the major roleplaying games published by Chaosium, Inc. Either designed or influenced by Greg, they include RuneQuest: Roleplaying in GloranthaKing Arthur PendragonHeroQuest in GloranthaCall of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition, and 7th Sea. The aim of these releases is twofold. One is to showcase each of these worlds and roleplaying games, typically with a scenario that can be brought to the table with relative ease, whether that is your own or at a convention, but primarily the purpose is to get everyone sat round the table and playing since we are all roleplayers. In Greg’s words, that #WeAreAllUs.

Highwall Inn is a scenario for HeroQuest Glorantha, the narrative-driven roleplaying set in the world of Greg Stafford’s Glorantha. It is set in the area of Dragon Pass detailed in The Coming Storm: The Red Cow Volume I, but is not part of The Coming Storm campaign. Nor is is designed to be played as part of an existing campaign—though there are some decent notes to run the scenario with existing characters, but is instead a one-shot or convention scenario. To that end, it comes with seven pre-generated player characters divided into three factions which will drive a lot of the action and tension in the scenario. It also comes with an actual plot, some villains that everyone can agree upon, and peril by the barrel-load.

The scenario begins with several groups on the road between Alone and Herongreen. It is deep in Dark Season and as the differing groups thread their way between the Ghoul-infested Woods of the Dead, a biting blizzard descends upon them and howls are heard from the trees on either side—they will all need to find refuge, and soon. On the high road there is only one place of safety lest the travellers want to end up as Ghoul fodder or in the Ghoul herds—Highwall Inn. Here in this isolated location, they will find both warmth and welcome, but also enemies, marks, and potential converts. This will initially drive the tension in the common room as everyone sups warm wine and eats the filling stew, eyeing each other, waiting, waiting, waiting… The outside will intrude though, as Ghouls come in search of food in a particularly horrific scene.

Although Highwall Inn does include a plot, much of its tension comes from the seven pre-generated player characters divided into three factions. The first faction are the Moon Dogs, who consist of Ralda Red-Hands, a Sartar rebel with a bloody and murderous reputation and leader of the Red-Hand Gang, and Pharanda Glittering-Eye, an actual Moon Dog, one of the Lunar Empire’s bounty hunters who go out and capture Sartar rebels. Noted for having one eye and the Glittering Eye which replaced the lost eye, the Moon Dog has captured Ralda Red-Hands and is taking her in to collect the bounty on her head. The Rebels consist of Barnakt Two-Swords, Ralda Red-Hands’ loyal and wise lieutenant and Koschei the Beardless, a perhaps all too keen recruit to the rebel cause, both of whom have come to rescue Ralda Red-Hands. The Thieves are Orgorvale Horseface, a Sartarite street bravo, and Valmir Dances-On-Water, a Tarshite knife fighter turned Irripe Ontor-worshipping thief, who together who have designs on Goldentongue merchant Griselda Far-Walker, a successful trader who has also been forced to stop at Highwall Inn. Lastly, Palashee the Lantern is the Pilgrim, a zealous preacher of Yelmalio who wants to bring his cold light to these dark, dark times before the Hero Wars…

As is standard for other HeroQuest scenarios, the pre-generated player characters that come with Highwall Inn are not complete. They are ready in that they can be played straight from the off, but do come with a pool of further character creation points ready to spend as needed, whether that is to improve existing abilities or purchase new ones—even during play of the scenario.

What this all means is that numerous contrasting and conflicting views and objectives are thrown into a melting pot and brought to the boil against the backdrop of a horrific corner of Dragon Pass. Of course, the horror intrudes more than once before… Although in terms of plot, Highwall Inn is straightforward enough, in terms of its staging with tensions coming from the interplay between the player characters and between the player characters and various NPCs, it looks to be much more complex than any of the other scenarios released by Chaosium, Inc. for the inaugural #WeAreAllUs day. The author adroitly counters this not once but several times, by breaking down each scene into the dilemma faced by the player characters, the choices they have, and the consequences they might suffer, making them much easier to run than the scenario at first looks. Further, there is solid advice on handling the player character versus player character interaction which forms much of the scenario, as well as running each of the different stages of the scenario. Plus there are notes throughout on various aspects of the setting of Glorantha that are relevant to the scenario. Lastly, there are notes on the inspirations for Highwall Inn, one of which is fairly obvious.

Physically, Highwall Inn is a twenty-five page, 3.17 MB, full colour PDF. It is lightly, but decently illustrated and comes with three good maps. Sadly, none of the NPCs are really directly illustrated and neither are the pre-generated player characters. Perhaps the biggest issue is that the pre-generated player characters are not best organised so that the Game Master can print them out and give them to her players.

As good as Highwall Inn is, there are a couple of potential issues though. One is the structure of the relationships between the pre-generated player characters, so that two of the pairs are natural allies—the Thieves and the Rebels, whereas the Pilgrim is a loner , and the Moon Dogs are at odds with each other. This means that the player of the actual Moon Dog will have to work harder in order to gain allies at the inn. This may well be compounded by the other potential issue which is that this scenario is fairly complex in terms of its background and may well require a player to have more information than is necessarily given to get the fullest out of their characters.

Although it may not look like it, Highwall Inn is a horror scenario. A really tense horror scenario that harries the player characters up against each other and pushing, pushing them into confrontations with each other before ratcheting up the horror again. Its potential complexities are offset by some excellent staging advice for the Game Master, though players less familiar with Glorantha may want some more advice and information with their pre-generated characters. Overall, Highwall Inn is an excellent demonstration or convention scenario for both HeroQuest Glorantha and Glorantha, and of the five titles released for #WeAreAllUs, the perfectly tense—if surprising—choice to run on Halloween.

Saturday, 12 October 2019

#WeAreAllUs: The Sword of Kings

October 10th marks the first anniversary of Greg Stafford’s passing. To both commemorate that date and celebrate Greg’s contribution to the roleplaying hobby, Chaosium, Inc. is publishing not just one free scenario, but five. One for each of the major roleplaying games published by Chaosium, Inc. Either designed or influenced by Greg, they include RuneQuest: Roleplaying in GloranthaKing Arthur PendragonHeroQuest in GloranthaCall of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition, and 7th Sea. The aim of these releases is twofold. One is to showcase each of these worlds and roleplaying games, typically with a scenario that can be brought to the table with relative ease, whether that is your own or at a convention, but primarily the purpose is to get everyone sat round the table and playing since we are all roleplayers. In Greg’s words, that #WeAreAllUs.

The Sword of Kings is a scenario for 7th Sea, the preeminent roleplaying game of swashbuckling action, adventure, and storytelling in Théah, an alternate and fantastical version of Europe and beyond in the seventeenth century. Written by the game’s designer, John Wick, it is a one-shot, one-session adventure that can be run as a demonstration scenario, a convention scenario, or a scenario that dropped into an ongoing campaign with relative ease. It is thus quite short, consisting of three scenes and is relatively easy to prepare, but on the downside, as a demonstration or convention scenario, The Sword of Kings is lacking pre-generated player characters. The Game Master will need to prepare these prior to running the game. On the plus side, the scenario comes with staging advice aplenty such that the designer’s voice is strong throughout.

The Sword of Kings begins in medias res—two ships, one of them on fire (the one the heroes are on, of course), a raging storm, and a sea battle—as the stalwart heroes withstand assault after assault from brute squads and a villain bent on getting his hands on the one half of the McGuffin that the heroes have in their possession. The player characters are not meant to know what is going on, but a quick flashback reveals that they are off the Highland Marches having been ashore in Avalon where a woman wearing the symbol of the Explorer’s Society not only told them of a legendary sword that could ruin the reign of Queen Elaine of Avalon, she also gave them half of a map that would lead to its location. Guess who has the other half and happens to be aboard the sailing ship that is not on fire and that the heroes not aboard?

The subsequent acts get the heroes onto the island where clues to the location of the sword might be discerned and from there to its actual location. The simplicity of the set-up and the scenario—which are all but clichés—means that it is not heavily plotted, but instead focuses more on staging its various scenes, such as things that can occur aboard the burning boat, what happens should the heroes be captured, and both who the player characters’ patron might be and who the villain might be. A sample villain is included, but the Game Master is free to create one of her own or simply bring a recurring villain from her own campaign. The plot is definitely more spine upon which the Game Master can hang contingencies and the like in reaction to the player characters’ actions. Adapting to such contingencies likely means that the scenario will never quite turn out the same way twice if run as a demonstration or convention scenario.

The ending in which, of course, the heroes find the sword of the title, may well be slightly downbeat following the excitement of the opening scenes, especially if the Game Master is running it as a demonstration or convention scenario. Perhaps she may well want to add one last confrontation with the villain of the piece, if only to show off what the newly found sword can do. For an ongoing campaign this is less of an issue as ownership of the sword is likely to cause the heroes further complications.

Physically, The Sword of Kings is an eleven page, full-colour, 5.20 MB. Behind its full colour cover, the scenario tidily laid out and written in an engaging style. The scenario comes with a decent map and a decent handout (also a map).

The Sword of Kings is relatively easy to pull and run with a minimum of preparation, that is, if using it in an ongoing campaign. As a demonstration or convention scenario it will need pre-generated characters and those will need preparing ahead of time. Otherwise, The Sword of Kings comes with everything necessary to provide a 7th Sea Game Master and her players with a session’s worth of swashbuckling and sorcery—more than mild peril, a dastardly villain, a McGuffin, and a mystery.

Friday, 11 October 2019

#WeAreAllUs: The Quest of the Red Blade

October 10th marks the first anniversary of Greg Stafford’s passing. To both commemorate that date and celebrate Greg’s contribution to the roleplaying hobby, Chaosium, Inc. is publishing not just one free scenario, but five. One for each of the major roleplaying games published by Chaosium, Inc. Either designed or influenced by Greg, they include RuneQuest: Roleplaying in GloranthaKing Arthur PendragonHeroQuest in GloranthaCall of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition, and 7th Sea. The aim of these releases is twofold. One is to showcase each of these worlds and roleplaying games, typically with a scenario that can be brought to the table with relative ease, whether that is your own or at a convention, but primarily the purpose is to get everyone sat round the table and playing since we are all roleplayers. In Greg’s words, that #WeAreAllUs.

The Quest of the Red Blade is an unpublished scenario by Greg Stafford, written for King Arthur Pendragon and set during the reign of King Arthur, at any time after the founding of the Round Table, though most probably during the Romance or Tournament Periods. This makes it easy to set during the events of The Great Pendragon Campaign. A Game Master does not need access to The Great Pendragon Campaign in order to run The Quest of the Red Blade, but may find access to the classic King Arthur Pendragon supplement, Savage Mountains useful depending upon how the adventure plays out… The Quest of the Red Blade is set in the wilds of Cambria—or Wales—and involves a classic quest in the romantic tradition.

The scenario opens with the player characters as guests of Sir Gregor de Stafford, an aging Round Table knight, at Castle Terrabel. When discussing the nature of adventures and quests, he tells them of the Quest of the Red Blade. In the wilds of Cambria, beyond the brooding kingdom of Powys lies the cursed kingdom of Meirionydd, home to King Cadwalader, said to use evil magic to maintain his youth. He is also said to possess a great sword known as the Red Death Blade, and according to Sir Gregor de Stafford, “Whoever gets the sword would benefit greatly, and the world would be a better place without this vile king.”

Sir Gregor urges the knights to swear to undertake a quest to journey to the Castle of the Kite, home to King Cadwalader, and there bring an end to his evil reign and then take the Red Death Blade. Should they do so, unlike an adventure upon which Glory comes as it may, success ensures that the knights gain extra Glory once the quest is completed. This is because they swore to it beforehand and they are expected to succeed. Of course, failure comes with a potential loss of honour and Glory…

To undertake ‘The Quest of the Red Blade’, the knights must ride south to Shrewsbury and from there west into the wilds of Cambria, where knights of Logres—that is, the player characters—are not always welcome. There are opportunities to enjoy the hospitality of another local king and learn more information about what lies ahead. With his aid, the knights will finally reach the kingdom of Meirionydd, which they find to be at war with a rival kingdom, and then the Castle of the Kite. King Cadwalader proves to be old and stout, ill-tempered and suspicious, who offers the knights his hospitality—as is custom—with some churlishness.

With the knights at the Castle of the Kite for at least one night, they are free to proceed as they want in obtaining the Red Death Blade. This may involve a classic heist, a direct confrontation with King Cadwalader, entering his service in his war against a rival kingdom, and so on. Numerous options are detailed, including the confrontation, fleeing the kingdom—a challenge in itself as both terrain and rival kingdoms are hostile, and discovering the vile secret of Cadwalader’s longevity, a young man known as Pig Boy. There is even a lovely moment when it discusses the option of the knights getting the local serfs to rebel and points out how anachronistic that is! Throughout, there are numerous opportunities for the players to test their knight’s Traits, particularly as the actions necessary to complete the quest may not always be honourable and certainly push at the limits of the custom of hospitality. All with the intention of doing the right thing.

The Quest of the Red Blade comes with six ready to play pre-generated knights. They include a Valorous if Selfish Roman Christian knight, a Trusting Irish Christian knight, and a Prudent Aquitainian Arian Christian knight, as well as a Forgiving and Valorous Cymric Christian Dame and a Valorous if Vengeful Cymric Pagan knight, and a Valorous and Honest Saracen knight. This is a good mix, providing a range of backgrounds and genders, though in keeping with the scenario, this very much reflects the background of The Great Pendragon Campaign rather than that given in King Arthur Pendragon 5.2.

Physically, The Quest of the Red Blade comes as sixteen-page, 8.91 MB full-colour PDF. Although a little tight in places, it has a handsome layout which includes a lovely portrait of Sir Gregor de Stafford and two good maps. One is of the route to the Castle of the Kite, the other is of Castle of the Kite itself. The Quest of the Red Blade does require an edit in places though and perhaps one or two portraits of the NPCs could have been included.

The Quest of the Red Blade is essentially Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness for King Arthur Pendragon, a journey into dangerous and contested territory, at the end of which is confrontation with an evil personified. What this means is that there is an obvious solution to the scenario, especially when its core secret is revealed, but this being a scenario for King Arthur Pendragon, the knights may well find their good intentions waylaid as their players either succeed or fail at various Trait checks and so influence their behaviours. There is no little shame and dishonour in failing ‘The Quest of the Red Blade’, but this being a quest, there is no reason why the knights cannot attempt it again. Indeed, the shame and loss of honour may well drive the knights to repeat the quest again in order to assuage both. Unfortunately, there is no advice to that end, but repeating the quest is likely to be more difficult if the knights confronted King Cadwalader on the first attempt. That may not happen though, as there are situations where the knights may leave the quest early.

As a scenario to run using the set-up in King Arthur Pendragon 5.2—the latest edition of the roleplaying game—The Quest of the Red Blade takes place several decades after said set-up. It is thus suited to a campaign set later, either using The Great Pendragon Campaign or not. The Quest of the Red Blade might be a bit long to run as a demonstration scenario in a four-hour slot, so the Game Master might want to cut short the journey and get the knights to the Castle of the Kite. As a demonstration scenario, or a one-off, The Quest of the Red Blade presents a challenging quest which effectively showcases how knightly virtues can clash with knightly customs and the moral choice. It is great to see this unpublished delight from the pen of Gregg Stafford.

Thursday, 10 October 2019

#WeAreAllUs: The Lightless Beacon

October 10th marks the first anniversary of Greg Stafford’s passing. To both commemorate that date and celebrate Greg’s contribution to the roleplaying hobby, Chaosium, Inc. is publishing not just one free scenario, but five. One for each of the major roleplaying games published by Chaosium, Inc. Either designed or influenced by Greg, they include RuneQuest: Roleplaying in Glorantha, King Arthur Pendragon, HeroQuest in Glorantha, Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition, and 7th Sea. The aim of these releases is twofold. One is to showcase each of these worlds and roleplaying games, typically with a scenario that can be brought to the table with relative ease, whether that is your own or at a convention, but primarily the purpose is to get everyone sat round the table and playing since we are all roleplayers. In Greg’s words, that #WeAreAllUs.

The Lightless Beacon: When the Lights Went Out is the scenario for Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition, either using the core rules or the Call of Cthulhu Starter Set, for #WeAreAllUs. It is is a demonstration scenario, a one-shot, designed to be played by four players in an hour from start to finish, and to that end comes with four pre-generated investigators. There is scope for flexibility though, as it can be played through with as few as two players, but with the addition of some extra investigators, could be played with more. It is perhaps a little awkward to fit into an ongoing campaign because of its set-up—in being both very specific and a cliché in terms of Call of Cthulhu—but The Lightless Beacon could serve as an introductory scenario to a Call of Cthulhu campaign. Especially if that campaign is set in Lovecraft Country.

The Lightless Beacon opens with a disaster. The investigators are aboard the SS Essex County bound for Rockpoint, Massachusetts, when the light from the Beacon Island lighthouse went out. Without the guidance of the warning lights, the mixed cargo and passenger vessel founders and the crew quickly puts the passengers into a rowing boat and tells them to make for Beacon Island—the nearest and safest land. As the wind whipped and sea sodden investigators make their way ashore their first thoughts are likely to be survival rather than wondering why the light was out. On dry land though, the discovery of strange footprints in the mud and then signs of a struggle in the lighthouse cottage suggest that cause might have been anything other than mundane. All too quickly, the investigators make grisly discoveries, some too close to home before…

To support the scenario, The Lightless Beacon comes with six excellent handouts, including maps and clues. Then there are the four pre-generated investigators, which include an antiques dealer, a Bureau Agent, an Artist, and a Marine Biologist. All four are ready to play, complete with notes on the significant people, meaningful places, traits, and so on, as well as background and motivation to be aboard the SS Essex County. The only thing left blank on the investigator sheets are their names and sexes, each player being left to decide on these himself. (It is notable and welcome that the scenario’s excellent artwork suggests a diversity of genders and backgrounds.) Once done, the scenario can begin...

The situation in The Lightless Beacon is one that will be familiar to veteran Keepers and players of Call of Cthulhu, involving as it does shipwrecks—see On the Trail of the Loathsome Slime and ‘Naufractus’, the prequel to The Legacy of Arrius Lurco; lighthouses—‘The Lonely Point Lighthouse’ from Island of Ignorance – The Third Cthulhu Companion and ‘The Occulted Light’ from Before the Fall; and the denizens of certain town called Innsmouth. For such jaded players though, The Lightless Beacon offers pacy play, some solid roleplaying hooks, an unexpected twist upon “It’s behind you”, and a punchy scenario that should provide an hour’s worth of play.

Of course, The Lightless Beacon is not written with the veteran player or Keeper in mind. They can still play it, but really, it is designed to be run by the novice Keeper and played by novice players. To that end, the scenario includes quite a bit of advice for the beginning Keeper. This covers the scenario structure, the nature of the four pre-generated investigators—including the insanities they might suffer should (and ideally they should) be driven mad, how the players should spend their investigators’ Luck, timing, maintaining tension, and more. The inclusion of the insanities that might be suffered is a nice touch, something that might be useful for similar scenarios with pre-generated investigators. This is solid advice that should help the novice Keeper run her first scenario (or serve as a useful refresher course for the veteran Keeper).

The timing of the scenario means that it needs to be run at some pace. Roughly two thirds of its hour long playing time are dedicated to getting ashore and exploring it to find and examine clues and present its mystery. This gives time to showcase the primary form of play in Call of Cthulhu, the investigation of the mystery, before the physical showdown with the culprits in the last third. 

Physically, The Lightless Beacon is full colour, forty-two page, 12.07 MB PDF. It is also richly appointed. The fully painted artwork, including the cover and the few internal illustrations are excellent, whilst the maps are clear and easy to use, and were a Keeper to need a lighthouse again, then the floor plans given here could easily be used again. The scenario is nicely edited and well written throughout.

The relative ease of the set-up to The Lightless Beacon makes it a good choice for a gaming group to have and pull out when another game is needed in an emergency, whether because the group is short of players or time. Veteran Keepers of Call of Cthulhu will be able to run this with ease, but the advice for the novice Keeper is really very helpful, making it easy for her to set up and then run the scenario. Overall, The Lightless Beacon: When the Lights Went Out is an excellent demonstration scenario. It is particularly direct in its pacing and its horror, but for an hour long horror scenario that is exactly what you need.

Monday, 7 October 2019

Cannibals & Colin

Originally published by Nightfall Games in 1993, SLA Industries is a roleplaying game set in a far future dystopia of corporate greed, commodification of ultraviolence, the mediatisation of murder, conspiracy, and urban horror, and serial killer sensationalism. The player characters are employees of the eponymous SLA Industries, undertaking missions and assignments across the many sectors of Mort City, into Downtown, and even into the five Cannibal Sectors beyond. They will hunt down serial killers, search the sewers for monsters, prevent terrorist attacks by rival corporations, silence dissenters, and more, not just taking the pay for each mission, but hoping to be caught on camera and the action footage be good enough to get them noticed, get them sponsorships and contracts, get them on the first rung to fame, fortune, and being media darlings. Over the years, the roleplaying game has been through the hands of several publishers—for good or ill—which means that it has not been as well supported as its devotees would like. Now back in the hands of the original publishing team, Nightfall Games, the core rule book for game has not only received a new printing, but following a successful Kickstarter campaign, it has released a major new supplement.

Cannibal Sector 1 is the first and worst of the Cannibal Sectors, the model for the other four, so it is no surprise that it should be the subject of its own supplement. Yet SLA Industries: Cannibal Sector 1 is not just a supplement for SLA Industries, it is also a whole new campaign framework and a set of miniatures combat rules. As a supplement it opens up a vast region abutting Mort City for examination, infiltration, and invasion; as a campaign framework, it provides a new point of view from which to roleplay SLA Industries; and as a set of miniatures combat rules, it provides a new way in which to play in the World of Progress. It comes packaged in a handsome, sturdy hardback that showcases some of the best art seen for the World of Progress, in turns grim and grimy, weird and horrifying, cartoonish and toothsome—all of it in full glorious colour. 

After opening with an overview over the five Cannibal Sectors, SLA Industries: Cannibal Sector 1 dives into the history of Cannibal Sector 1. Once called the Central Outskirts and home to millions, in the year 300sd, Salvation Tower, the great hope for solving Mort City’s epidemic unemployment, plunged several storeys into the ground. In the chaos that followed, millions of civilians rioted and looted, then fled towards the city walls, seeking refuge in Mort City proper. But unable—or unwilling—to deal with the wave of refugees. In the six centuries since, the descendants of the Central Outskirts civilians turned to cannibalism to survive and as it became acceptable evolved into tribes of what SLA Industries now consider to be an entirely new species. As the Central Outskirts decayed and crumbled, other factions used the ruins as a vector to get closer to Mort City. These include the strange antler-skulled Carrien with their hockey-stick-like clubs and DarkNight, which set up bases from which to launch terror strikes inside the city; the gasmasked, trenchcoat wearing, chain wielding Scavs appeared from nowhere to smash at all other factions; whilst the otherworldly, Dream Entities seem to come from somewhere else to tempt and taunt the weak and the unwary before sending them mad. SLA reacted to these threats first by constructing the impregnable, 207 km long Sector Wall and dispatching Digger, the great Manchine to track down the leaders of those who had rioted following the collapse of Salvation Tower. Digger went rogue and haunts Cannibal Sector 1 even now. Although Sector Rangers have long been slipping into Cannibal Sector 1 to map and scout its furthest reaches, it was not until three years ago that SLA decided to take back Cannibal Sector 1. Project Red Sky sent thousands of Shiver Units—the mostly Human urban pacification and police—into Cannibal Sector, but poorly supplied, the operation was a disaster and most of the Shivers died under waves upon waves of Cannibal attacks. As SLA suffered from the recriminations and fallout from the failure of Project Red Sky, another plan, the Bellwood Campaign, has been put into operation—establishing bridgeheads. Better armed and armoured Shiver Units, Sector Shivers, would establish forward bases from which to patrol the immediate surrounds and curb the activities of the denizens of Cannibal Sector 1. Naturally, this renewed effort has been heavily mediatised with shows like the popular Sector 1: Life on the Wall which became the highly popular Shivers Fuck Shit Up.

This sets up a detailed exploration of Cannibal Sector 1, which itself consists of some seventeen regions across twenty thousand square kilometres bounded on one side by the Sector Wall, pierced by just six Sector Wall Holes. Much like the rest of the World of Progress, Cannibal Sector 1 is poisoned by pollutants and lashed by near constant rain, but this varies region by region. Each is detailed in terms of its area and level of pollution, weather, terrain, resources, logistics, and notable inhabitants. So the war zone Southern Front consists of two thousand square kilometres, suffers from low (relatively) pollution and intense rainfall as well as flash floods, resulting in mud fields where Shiver forces are engaged in trench warfare with DarkNight. Its most notable resource is a rich copper mine, which the terrorist organisation uses for weapons manufacture. In comparison, the Northwest Compact is three times the size and suffers from greater pollution, and its main threats are Carrien, followed by Cannibals and 9th Division—the remnants of Project Red Sky turned rebel. Beset by torrential rainfall, it consists of a tightly-built grid of office tower blocks and civilian apartment highrises, many of which have collapsed into piles of rubble. Its most notable inhabitants include Klip-Klop, a Greater Carrien who leads a conclave on deadly sweeps of his territory; Jordy, the murderous offspring of the largest Cannibal clan in the region, The Bloody Bones, who only lives to kill those his mother dislikes; and of course, Digger, the largest and most notorious of the Manchines.

Across the seventeen regions, SLA Industries: Cannibal Sector 1 as a setting offers a huge range of terrains and threats. It means that the player characters could have to hunker down in the Western Front-style trenches of Southern Front, get stuck in the weird post-apocalyptic suburbia of the Tabor Projects—home to The Homespun Cannibal clan, and perhaps monitor the marshlands of the McGill Valleys, at the heart of which are the almost-luxury hotels and complexes where the 9th Division has its headquarters. 

Some nine factions are to be found in Cannibal Sector 1, most of them inimical to SLA Industries. They include the Cannibal clans, which have long feuded with each other for food and territory, but some now fight over whether or not they believe in their deity, Rawhead. Four Cannibal clans are described—The Bloody Bones, The Gartaks, The Homespun, and The Black Shucks. The strange alien origins and biology of the Carrien are explored, as are those of the Scavs, genetic experiments from two centuries ago who have come back to plague SLA Industries. DarkNight and its operations are detailed, as are the Dream Entities which cause fear in their opponents, affecting them with horribly realistic illusions or their worst phobias. Some take the form of tortured Shivers expressly to prey upon their victim’s survivor’s guilt, whilst the child-like Titters use their supposed innocence to lure their victims in before distorting their realities. In presenting all of these factions, it should be noted that a lot of teeth are on show and for an SLA Operative—or more likely Shiver trooper—there is a strong likelihood of their being torn apart, if not simply eaten. This is horrifying, but as much as SLA Industries: Cannibal Sector 1 focuses on physical and body horror, with the Dream Entities it does not ignore mental horror either.

In its campaign to occupy, pacify, and reclaim Cannibal Sector 1, SLA Industries send innumerable men and women into the different regions on a variety of missions. First and foremost—at least recently—are the Shivers, previously assigned to patrol the streets of Mort or man the sector walls looking over each of the five Cannibal Sectors, but following a massive recruitment drive, sent into Cannibal Sector 1 to establish bridgeheads. Sector Rangers are SLA Operatives trained to scout the far reaches of the sector on six month-long tours, whilst SLA Operatives, the company’s elite, undertake missions to look good on television as much as they are to fulfill their objectives. Lastly, NAGA 7 Division protects Mort from the unknown and the unseen, primarily the Dream Entities.

These faction descriptions are not just simple write-ups of their history, their organisation, and so on. Every description is accompanied by write-ups of typical roles within the factions. So for the Shivers, there are stats and descriptions of Troopers, Pacifiers—close combat specialists, Sergeants, Breachers—defensive specialists, Medics, Shiver Dogeybone—heavy armour suits, and Shiver Elite. These are accompanied by write-ups of notable figures, in the case of the Shivers, Sergeant Rooker, a famed squad leader, and then notable squads. Similarly, the description of the Cannibal clans goes into their culture and daily routine, as well as their worship of Rawhead, before detailing the four clans and their organisation. These include their Matriarchs, Butchers—the prized sons of the Matriarchs, Wranglers—who raise and herd carnivorous pigs for feast, fighting, and fun, Runts—the not-so prized sons of the Matriarchs, and the Mastiffs—the Cannibal clans’ prized hunting beasts. This is followed by a full write-up of the aforementioned Jordy.

In all of this, SLA Industries: Cannibal Sector 1 presents the Game Master with NPCs and threats to bring to her SLA Industries game, but that is not all. Another more chapter follows, detailing the flora and fauna of the sector—from the Arachnostalker, the armoured spiders known to lay massive webs and stalk its prey to exhaustion, and the disgusting Fleshworms which strike from cadavers to the annoying Clinger Algae, which degrades ceramics and so has to be scraped from the fortress walls of the Shiver Bridgeheads, and White Queen Lichen, the most poisonous substance in Cannibal Sector 1 which is harvested by Carrien to smear on their antlers and by Cannibals to coat their blades. Later on, full descriptions of the weather, toxins, diseases, and other environmental hazards to be found in Cannibal Sector 1 are given—and vile they are too! Lastly, Digger, the most feared thing in Cannibal Sector 1 is given stats and a write-up. The stats are all but superfluous since no player characters—whatever their skills or equipment—is ever going to take him down.

Equipment details are provided for all of the factions operating in Cannibal Sector 1. So the arms and armour of DarkNight as much as the Shivers, plus the bizarre things used by and against the Dream Entities. Not just the manufactured equipment of DarkNight and SLA Industries, but also the hand-built Scrap Armour, Punch Dagger, Ripper Gauntlet, Slingshot, and more used by the Carrien and Cannibals. The hardware section covers mundane equipment too, like the MT04 Trencher Shovel, the Piggy Wiggy easy-to-open meat tin, and Spritzcleen Sanitiser, the latter vitally important for operating in a sector that is redolent with disease and crud. Every item is given a full colour illustration, every gun, every melee weapon, every armour, every thing. Previous supplements for SLA Industries have not been able to do this, but it is important for two reasons. There is a strong military aspect to roleplaying and gaming in Cannibal Sector 1, so what a character takes beyond the city walls and might help ensure his survival is important, but also, SLA Industries is a game of commodification and mediatisation of violence and survival, so what you are equipped with matters… Lastly though, there is one vital piece of equipment that every Shiver squad will not go without—Colin the Teddy Bear. The surrogate squad member in case any one of their number is lost, Colin the Teddy Bear staves off any fall in morale which might come with the loss of a squad member, preventing their number falling the standard ten to the dreaded nine…

In terms of roleplaying, SLA Industries: Cannibal Sector 1 adds a range of new skills, from Animal Husbandry—essentially Pigotry and Bridgehead Construction to Gristle—the Carrien language and Sector Lore. It provides rules for creating Shivers, the recruits currently being sent out to establish and hold Bridgeheads from to patrol and pacify, including various training packages. These are supported by a guide to building Bridgeheads and everyday life within them, as well as five scenario outlines. What SLA Industries: Cannibal Sector 1 presents in terms of a campaign, is military-themed, a low intensity conflict that can be best described as a ‘Police Action’, with the ‘alien’ environment as much a danger as the inhabitants. There is scope also for long range patrols as Sector Rangers, as well as standard BPN missions for SLA Operatives, but the focus in SLA Industries: Cannibal Sector 1 is on the Shiver set-up.

Lastly, SLA Industries: Cannibal Sector 1 includes a set of skirmish rules for handling tactical situations between the various factions within the sector, each player controlling a patrol from one of these factions. Each player is given a pool of points or Creds, with which to design his patrol, whilst the Threat Level of any one model will determine how many can be in a patrol. These are clear, simple wargames rules for handling small engagements in 25 mm scale on an area roughly three by three feet. Rather than the standard roleplaying mechanics of SLA Industries, it uses a dice pool of ten-sided dice, with the best result counting. This being for SLA Industries, the rules also cover the use of Ebb—the strange power harnessed by Ebons and Brainwasters, as well as the various abilities of the Factions, like Juggernaut or Terror, fear being a possible response to many of the things found in the sector, plus the equipment. Several scenarios are given as are optional rules which cover vehicles and denizens.

The skirmish rules being for SLA Industries means that it is not just about defeating your opponent, but looking good on camera whilst doing it. Success in the rules means generating Ratings Points, the better the success, the greater the number of Ratings Points. A higher kill count will generate more, as will melee attacks. This modelled by the Bullet Tax, which encourages SLA Operatives (at least) to forgo the use of guns in favour of melee weapons. Overall, this is a solid subset of rules, offering an alternative to roleplaying in the World of Progress, though one that requires some investment in terms of the necessary figures.

Physically, SLA Industries: Cannibal Sector 1 is a well-presented book. The layout is simple and clean and profusely illustrated. Every thing, every creature, and every one to be found in Cannibal Sector 1 is given a full colour, fully-painted illustration, and barely a page goes by without an image. And the artwork is all  very good. The writing throughout, is engaging and in many cases, entertaining, the pieces of in-game text in particular, whether it is jingles for Spritzcleen Sanitiser or Shiver Sergeant Raymonde Giles’ prologue to episode 238 ‘Jimmy’s Release Party’ of Shivers Fuck Shit Up. Note that the language is of an adult nature throughout, but that is in keeping with SLA Industries.

On the downside, of course, SLA Industries: Cannibal Sector 1 is written for use with the first edition of SLA Industries rather the forthcoming SLA Industries: 2nd Edition, which is currently on Kickstarter. This means that its content are not easily compatible and so will need a conversion document. Another issue might be the lack of maps of individual locations, such as the Bridgeheads. 

The anticipation among fans of SLA Industries for Cannibal Sector 1 has been long and not without its difficulties. That anticipation, that wait though, has been worth it. The interesting fact about SLA Industries: Cannibal Sector 1 is that were it to come with a set of rules of its own, it could have been the ‘Cannibal Sector 1 Roleplaying Game’. There is enough content and gaming material for it to have stood on its own and not as just a supplement for SLA Industries. It is no mere supplement though, for it extends and deepens the World of Progress like no supplement before it, at its core, pitting the ordinary lives of the Shivers against the outlandish—in all senses of the word—environments of Cannibal Sector 1, as well as offering other options. In addition, the effort made to show what the world of Cannibal Sector 1 looks like, from the mundane to monstrous is amazing, helping to bring the vision of the authors and artists to life.

SLA Industries: Cannibal Sector 1 literally opens up a whole new sector for a SLA Industries campaign to play in, whether that is as a Shiver squad assigned to a Bridgehead or a team of SLA Operatives sent on a particular assignment. It presents threat after threat, danger after danger, and mystery after mystery in a wealth of detail which will fuel a SLA Industries Game Master’s campaign for months and months of play—if not more. Cannibal Sector 1 is a testament to the perseverance of its authors and artists, that despite the difficulties faced, they have produced such an impressive supplement. Overall, Cannibal Sector 1 adds so much to the World of Progress and in such a simple and stunning fashion, that every SLA Industries Game Master will want SLA Industries: Cannibal Sector 1 the way a Shiver wants a Colin.

Sunday, 6 October 2019

Review 1000: King Arthur Pendragon

Much like the return of Glorantha to Chaosium, Inc. with RuneQuest: Roleplaying in Glorantha, the return of King Arthur Pendragon felt like a long lost roleplaying game finally coming home. Originally published by Chaosium, Inc. in 1985, it was never really a case of King Arthur Pendragon of actually being lost, for other publishers, most recently Nocturnal Media, had published highly regarded editions of the classic, most recently King Arthur Pendragon 5.2, but the award-winning roleplaying game—including the 1991 Origins Award for Best Roleplaying Rules for King Arthur Pendragon, Third Edition, and the 1987 Origins Award for Best Roleplaying Adventure and the 2007 Diana Jones Award for Gaming Excellence for The Great Pendragon Campaign—was first published by Chaosium, and so feels at home with the publisher.

King Arthur Pendragon 5.2 would suggest that it is a relatively minor update to King Arthur Pendragon, Fifth Edith, but those changes are significant. Most obviously, in the new layout and full colour upgrade, which results in a stunningly clean looking book, but also in minor tweaks to the mechanics. Less obviously, but in hindsight, more importantly, in the addition of a set designer’s notes from the late Greg Stafford. These place King Arthur Pendragon in context and explain Stafford’s reasons for his design decisions, his love of Arthurian legend, and more. That they are his final words on what he clearly states he considers to be his masterpiece, is sad but fitting. So the question is, is King Arthur Pendragon Greg Stafford’s masterpiece? Instead of making you wait until the end of the review to answer that question, that question will be answered here and the review will instead be used to explain why.


King Arthur Pendragon is Greg Stafford’s masterpiece and he was right to make such a claim.

King Arthur Pendragon is as the title suggests an Arthurian roleplaying game. Drawing from sources as diverse as the Welsh The Mabinogion, Sir Thomas Malory’s fifteenth century Le Morte D’Arthur, and T.H. White’s The Once and Future King, it presents a melange of the legends that compacts a thousand years of history and French and British culture into just eight decades. It begins in the ‘Dark Ages’ of the Fifth Century with native Britons holding off the Saxon invaders, sees the discovery and rise of King Arthur, inaugurating a golden age of chivalry, Christianity, and feudalism, and of honour, romance, and great quests, before the death of Arthur ushers a return of the Dark Ages with greater Saxon successes…

Players will explore this not through one character, but several, as their characters first try to protect Britain’s surviving kingdoms against the encroaching invaders, and then their characters’ sons will see the rise of Arthur, and their sons will aspire to become members of King Arthur’s Roundtable. This generational play is just the first of King Arthur Pendragon’s innovations. They will do this as one character type—the Knight. And even then only as one type of Knight—the British Cymric Knight. They may be British Christian Knights, Roman Christian Knights, or Pagan Knights, but they are British Knights. Each begins the game as a squire, before being knighted and serving Sir Roderick, Earl of Salisbury in the south of England. Now previous versions of the roleplaying game have allowed other character types, such as Pictish and Saxon Knights, even characters capable of casting magic, but King Arthur Pendragon 5.2 saves Knights from other lands for future supplements and magic for use by NPCs and as narrative devices and effects for the Game Master. This focus on a single character type is indicative of King Arthur Pendragon 5.2’s tight focus.

One issue with this character type is it is primarily a male one. As both historical and ahistorical as King Arthur Pendragon is with its feudal society, it should be no surprise that Knights are male, and that to be faithful to the history and the sources, the roles of women are limited in the roleplaying game. This does not mean that there are not important and influential women in the setting—notably Queen Guenever and Queen Morgan le Fay—but they do not necessarily ride into battle or go on quests. King Arthur Pendragon though, does not limit player choice and not only provides a list of historical examples who did, it also gives guidelines for creating female knights.

As a Knight each character is defined by Homeland, Culture, and Father’s Name, then Father’s Class, Son Number, Liege Lord, Current Class, Current Home, Age, and Year Born. All this before we even get to the numbers, which start with Traits and Passions—which define a Knight’s personality, then continue with Attributes—Size, Dexterity, Strength, Constitution, and Appearance—which are rated between three and twenty-one. Notably, there is no Intelligence attribute, that being left up to the player rather than the character. Skills are roughly divided into combat skills and ordinary skills. They range between one and twenty, but can go higher. Every Knight has Glory, a measure of his renown and his actions, the higher it is, the greater the chance of his being recognised.

Character generation is dedicated to creating such a Knight. Much of the background information is designed to support the set-up in Salisbury and is thus set in stone. The player has a choice in how he assigns points to his Knight’s attributes and skills, although the base skills are the same for all Knights. A Knight also has a coat of arms that a player is free to design and he also receives a Family Characteristic which all members of his family share. The last step in Knight generation is to develop his family history in and around Salisbury. This is a step-by-step process which charts the events in the lives of the Knight’s grandfather and father in the forty or so years before the player character Knight enters play. One thing thing a Knight inherits from his father is Glory, reflecting the renown his father achieved. Of course, the Knight will go on to greater Glory...

Our sample Knight is Sir Miles the Modest, a Christian Knight, whose outstanding Trait is his self-effacement and his ability to compose songs and poems. His grandfather fought with great distinction defending King Constans and he hopes to be as valorous.

Sir Miles the Modest
Homeland: Salisbury Culture: Cymric
Father’s Name: Melion Father’s Class: Vassal Knight Son Number: One
Liege Lord: Sir Roderick, Earl of Salisbury Current Class: Vassal Knight 
Current Home: Cholderton
Age: 21 Year Born: 464 AD

Glory: 1,196

Size 12
Dexterity 12
Strength 12
Constitution 15
Appearance 12

Damage: 4d6
Healing Rate: 2
Movement Rate: 2
Total Hit Points: 27
Unconscious: 6

Distinctive Features: Green Eyes

Good with Words (+15 Compose)

Chaste 10 | 10 Lustful
Energetic 10 | 10 Lazy
Forgiving 09 | 11 Vengeful
Generous 10 | 10 Selfish
Honest 10 | 10 Deceitful
Just 10 | 10 Arbitrary
Merciful 10 | 10 Cruel
Modest 16 | 04 Proud
Prudent 10 | 10 Reckless
Spiritual 10 | 10 Worldly
Temperate 10 | 10 Indulgent
Trusting 10 | 10 Suspicious
Valorous 16 | 04 Cowardly

Loyalty (Lord) 15
Love (Family) 15
Hospitality 15
Honour 15
Hate (Saxons) 11
Hate (Picts) 11

Combat Skills: Battle 15, Horsemanship 10, Sword 15, Lance 10, Spear 6, Dagger 5
Awareness 10, Boating 1, Compose 25, Courtesy 10, Dancing 5, Faerie Lore 1, Falconry 5, First Aid 10, Flirting 3, Folk Lore 2, Gaming 3, Heraldry 3, Hunting 2, Intrigue 3, Orate 10, Play (Harp) 3, Read (Latin) 0, Recognise 5, Religion (Christianity) 2, Romance 7, Singing 5, Stewardship 2, Swimming 2, Tourney 2

Chainmail and shield, two spears, sword, dagger, fine clothing (worth £1), gear (personal, travel, war), four horses (charger, two rouncys, sumpter), engraved silver ring (heirloom, worth £2)

Miles’ grandfather fought at the Battle of Carlion in 439 AD and served as a garrison knight for several years before dying trying to protect King Constans in 444 AD. Miles’ father, Melion, fought at the Siege of Carlion in 466 AD and then as a garrison knight for many years, withstanding many Saxon raids. He fought in the Battle of Salisbury in 480 AD and was present at the funeral of High King Aurelius Ambrosius and the election of Uther as the new Pendragon. He was killed at the Battle of Eburacum in 484 AD.

Mechanically, King Arthur Pendragon 5.2 is simple. A player rolls a twenty-sided die, the aim being to roll equal to under the skill, Trait, or Passion. Rolls of twenty are always a fumble, whilst rolls equal to the value of the skill are always critical rolls. Critical rolls grant an experience check. For example, when attempting a Recognise check for Sir Miles to see if he recognises a fellow knight by his coat of arms, results of one to four would be a success, but a result of a five would be a critical success. In opposed rolls, the participant who makes a successful roll, but rolls highest succeeds better than his opponent. For example, in a Gaming contest, Sir Miles’ player succeeds, but only rolls a two. His opponent, with a higher skill of 6, rolls a five and wins. If a Knight has a skill over twenty, then the value over twenty acts as a bonus to his player’s roll, with results over twenty counting as a critical success. For example, Sir Miles has a Compose skill of 25. This grants his player a +5 bonus to the roll, with any roll of 20 or more counting as a critical success. When it comes to making Experience Checks, a player simply has to roll over the value of the skill, Trait, or Passion to increase it, but for skills over twenty, a straight roll of twenty is required to improve it.
For example, Sir Miles wants to write a song dedicated to the widow of his liege lord, extolling the virtue of her loyalty to her late husband and duty to see to the care of his children. He believes that having lost his own wife, he should marry the lady and the song he believes is appropriate means of wooing her. His player rolls 17, scoring a critical success. Later on, when it comes to rolling the Experience Check for Sir Miles’ Compose skill, his player rolls only a 12 and so does not improve the skill.
Combat essentially uses the opposed roll mechanic. In a Melee Round, rolls are made for each combatant’s combat skill. If both combat skill rolls are successful, but the higher roll means that participant wins the exchange and inflict damage, whilst the defender can use his shield to defend himself. If the roll is failed for a combatant and his opponent’s roll is a success, then the defender cannot use his shield. Damage in general, is not done by weapon type—though some weapons, like a dagger, will reduce the number of dice rolled for damage—but by the damage rating of the Knight or NPC.

Typically, a player will be rolling four six-sided dice for damage for his Knight. If ready for a fight, a Knight will be wearing Chainmail which provides ten points of protection, and if his player rolls well enough, wielding a shield that provides another six. If not, even an average damage roll for a Knight will inflict damage and if a player makes a critical roll in combat, then the damage is doubled. What this means is that combat in King Arthur Pendragon has the potential to be incredibly deadly, the rules also allowing for knockdown, being knocked unconscious,  inflicting wounds, and breaking weapons.

After a Knight has suffered from damage or wounds, first aid can be applied in order to keep him from death’s door, but in the long term, a Knight will need the application of Chirurgery—an ‘non-knightly’ skill that no honourable Knight will know. Otherwise, there is rest and recuperation, but what there is not, magical healing, and what there is, is the chance of a wound deteriorating and should a Knight not rest, of aggravating it. What this highlights is that the life of the Knight might be glorious, it might be honourable, but it can also be nasty, brutal, and short. The time needed for healing should a wound be suffered is also one reason why adventuring opportunities are so limited in King Arthur Pendragon.

As simple as the mechanics are in King Arthur Pendragon, they are not what the roleplaying game is known for. That honour goes to its system of Traits and Passions. Traits represent a Knight’s personality, consisting of thirteen opposite pairs. So Chaste and Lustful, Honest and Deceitful, Valorous and Cowardly, and so on. Each Trait in a pair is assigned a value, the two values together adding up to no more than twenty. So, a Trusting of ten and Suspicious of ten, an Energetic of fourteen and Lazy of six, and so on. During a game, a player can look to the values of his Knight’s Traits to determine how he might act, but if unsure or wanting guidance, the player can roll against one of them, and the Game Master can also direct a player to roll against one to see how his Knight will act in a particular situation.
For example, Sir Miles is attending a feast at which his lord has an entourage of Saxon warriors as guests. During the evening, a Saxon knight, Cuthred, boasts of his prowess at the battle of Ebacurum against the less than worthy Christian knights. Good manners forbids the hosts rising to the bait, but Sir Miles’ father was killed in the battle and so he has a hatred of Saxons. Looking at Sir Miles’ personality Traits, he has a Vengeance of eleven and a Forgiving of nine. Sir Miles’ player could just say that the knight leaps to his feet and demands satisfaction or that Cuthred apologises, but instead decides that he will roll for it to determine what Sir Miles will do.
If Sir Miles’ player rolls against the Knight’s Vengeance of eleven, then Sir Miles will be angered to act against Cuthred, leading to an exchange of words, possibly a fight with Cuthred, and a rebuke from his lord. If though, that roll is failed, his player will roll against Sir Miles’ Forgiving of nine. Again, if Sir Miles’ player rolls under that, Sir Miles will not act vengefully, but demur, being prepared to forgive Cuthred for his boasts. No fight ensues and his lord might give Sir Miles an approving nod for his keeping his temper. Of course, if both rolls are failed, Sir Miles is free to act as his player decides. 
If the player successfully rolls against a Trait, then like skills, the Trait can be improved, even if that Trait is seen as a negative one. What this means is that the values of Traits can change over time, reflecting how a Knight’s personality can change when he is pushed to act one way or another. At the same time, a Knight should also be working to find opportunities to raise certain Traits. These are seen as virtuous Traits—for example, Chaste, Energetic, Generous, Modest, and Temperate for Sir Miles as a British Christian Knight—and if their combined is high enough, he will be renowned for his virtue and gain Glory for it. In this way, King Arthur Pendragon encourages a player to roleplay his Knight aspiring to be the best knight that he can.

The personality Traits in King Arthur Pendragon are an incredible piece of design, subtle and elegant, and doing so much more than you think. Obviously, they guide and direct a Knight’s behaviour and decisions, at dramatic moments deciding how a Knight will act and they push a player toward roleplaying an ideal, that is, an Energetic, Generous, Just, Merciful, Modest, and Valorous knight, the very model of Christian chivalry which lies at the heart of the genre that King Arthur Pendragon is all about emulating. Yet, they also serve as the equivalent of the game’s mental advantages and disadvantages, either hindering or benefiting a knight depending upon the situation. In the given example, Sir Miles’ Vengeance of eleven works as a slightly stronger disadvantage, whilst his Forgiving of nine is a weaker advantage. Given another situation, his Vengeance might be the advantage and his Forgiving the disadvantage. In other roleplaying games, such advantages and disadvantages are cut and dried absolutes, known quantities. In King Arthur Pendragon 5.2, they are not. They are flexible, they have the capacity to change over time, and so they reflect a character’s growth and change more readily and easily, with there being no possibility of a character simply and absolutely buying off a disadvantage, for personality Traits can just as easily swing back the other way.

In addition, a Knight’s Passions, like Loyalty (Lord), Love (Family), and Hate (Saxons) which represent strong emotional and psychological tendencies. When a player rolls against one of his Knight’s Passion, it can grant inspiration and a bonus for a task, but should it fail, it can leave the Knight disheartened and suffering a penalty to a task.
For example, at the feast where a Saxon knight, Cuthred, boasted of his prowess at the Battle of Ebacurum against the less than worthy Christian knights, Sir Miles’ player made a successful roll against Sir Miles’ Vengeance of eleven. Instead of striking at the uncouth Saxon, Sir Miles’ player decides that the Knight will rebuke Cuthred and speak vehemently of the British knights at that battle. This will be an Orate check, but Sir Miles’ player decides that he will invoke Sir Miles’ Passion of Hate (Saxons) of eleven. He is fortunate and rolls ten—a success. Sir Miles is inspired, gains +10 to his Orate skill for the one roll. Sir Miles’ player rolls twenty, which would normally be a fumble, but is here a critical result, and Sir Miles gives an impassioned speech about the prowess of his father and his fellow knights at the Battle of Ebacurum, which has the Christian knights around the table cheering.
What is so surprising is that given the flexibility of the Traits and Passions in King Arthur Pendragon, that they have not been used elsewhere—until recently that is. Most obviously in the Paladin: Warriors of Charlemagne, but also in the way that Runes and Passions are used in RuneQuest: Roleplaying in Glorantha, both published by Chaosium. Imagine how Traits and Passions could be used in a roleplaying set in feudal Japan or even somewhere as alien and baroque as Tékumel?

Another innovation in King Arthur Pendragon is its highly structured, generational play. Knights will generally go on an adventure just once a year, typically in the summer when it is easier to travel. This might be as simple as attending court, but it might also be a raid on the neighbouring Saxons, going on a quest, participating in a campaign, and so on. Once that is over, a Knight will engage in training, family matters, and see to his manor, all during the Winter Phase. In game terms this is when a player rolls for any Experience Checks that his Knight has accrued during the summer adventuring phase, but equally as importantly, it is when a Knight and his family age. When a Knight reaches the age of thirty-five, there is a chance that he will suffer random reduction to one or more attributes. This will carry on until either one of the Knight’s attributes is reduced to zero or he retires from play. When he does so, ideally, his oldest surviving son will step into his shoes and become the player’s new Knight. The son has to be a minimum of twenty-one to do that, and even before that, the player has to be rolling each year to see if his Knight’s wife gives birth, and then each year to see if the child survives. This generational play should ideally see one Knight succeed his father and then be succeeded by his son, but the constant need to check to see if each child survives further enforces the perilous times in which King Arthur Pendragon is set.

King Arthur Pendragon 5.2 includes a great deal of information about its setting. This covers not only Salisbury and notable places and personages, but also a guide to the Britain of the time, the customs of Knighthood and laws of the land, both Paganism and Christianity, before moving forward to explore the chivalrous and romantic future of King Arthur’s reign. As well as a relatively short bestiary, a complete battle system is provided for handling combat between hundreds and thousands of men. Then  of course, there is the scenario, which sees the player characters a squires on their last day before being knighted. There is very much a step-by-step process to the scenario, the squires undergoing some training in order to show their players how the mechanics work, and so on. The scenario will be familiar to anyone who has played previous editions of King Arthur Pendragon, but it does a fine job showing how the roleplaying game works.

Physically, King Arthur Pendragon 5.2 is a fine looking book. The full colour, stained-glass window illustrations which preface every chapter are excellent, capturing the high medieval idealism of the Arthurian setting, whilst the sepia illustrations elsewhere depict the romance, the mystery, and the brutalism of the setting. The book is well written and quite easy to read and digest, although a few game examples, more clearly marked would have nice additions.

It would be easy to simply describe King Arthur Pendragon as the greatest Arthurian roleplaying game ever published. Easy because it would be true. It is a fantastic design and it superbly invokes its sources. Yet as a roleplaying game, King Arthur Pendragon is all but without peer, indeed the second greatest Arthurian roleplaying game ever published, Prince Valiant: The Storytelling Game, is also designed by Greg Stafford. As to the others, the third best, Age of Arthur: Heroism in the Dark Ages eschews the romanticism of the first two, whilst Legends of Excalibur: Arthurian Adventures from RPGObjects is the best d20 System option for Arthurian roleplaying, Once and Future King, published by TSR for the Amazing Engine rules, the best Science Fiction interpretation, Corporia the best dystopian interpretation, and Steve Jackson Games’ GURPS Camelot offered the most comprehensive overview of the genre. Of I, Mordred: The Fall and Rise of Camelot from Avalanche Press, the less said, the better…

Yet, King Arthur Pendragon 5.2 is not quite perfect. The problem is that its focus is too much on set-up for the period in the Dark Ages of its history, prior to the rise and reign of King Arthur. There are notes on this, but they are relegated to an appendix, almost like an afterthought. So anyone coming to the roleplaying game wanting the grandeur and romance of that period may well be disappointed by what they are given in the pages of King Arthur Pendragon 5.2. Similarly, some may be disappointed by the lack of character options, but to be fair, the combination of character Traits and skills allow for more diversity in terms of character personalities than is obvious at first glance. Further, the focus on Salisbury means that there is not a huge amount of scope to take a campaign and its player Knights beyond that and the scenario only gets the player characters to knighthood, with nothing really for them to play as knights, although the Game Master could perhaps adapt one of the solo adventures included. Now there are supplements which will address these issues, most notably The Great Pendragon Campaign, the astonishingly grand campaign which will take a band of Knights and their descendants right through the eighty year time frame of King Arthur Pendragon. As for further character options, there is the Book of Knights and Ladies supplement. Certainly though, an anthology scenarios showcasing just what King Arthur Pendragon 5.2 is capable of would be perfect, but in the meantime there are older supplements available—such as  Tales of Mystic Tournaments and Tales of Chivalry and Romance—which are compatible with King Arthur Pendragon 5.2.

Reviewing the first edition of King Arthur Pendragon—a rather lovely boxed set—in White Dwarf 72 (December, 1985), Graeme Staplehurst said that it “…[L]ooks like being one of the best systemised roleplaying games around.” before concluding that, “Overall, I would not hesitate to recommend the game to any roleplaying aficionado who is looking for inspiration . . . were it not for the dreadful price.” (It was then priced at £25.95—approximately £78 today). Nevertheless, Staplehurst awarded King Arthur Pendragon nine out of ten. In Dragon #107 (March, 1986), Ken Rolston concluded that, “Pendragon’s Arthurian matter and its masterful treatment commends itself highly.” and that, “In presentation, Pendragon is attractive and pleasurable reading. serious fantasy role-playing gamer’s shelf. The Pendragon boxed set is an excellent value, certainly one of the most important RPG releases of 1985, and belongs on every serious fantasy role-playing gamer’s shelf.” Anthony Fiorito, writing in Different Worlds Issue 42 (May/June, 1986), said, “In summation, King Arthur Pendragon is a straightforward, uncomplicated attempt at recreating the atmosphere of Arthur’s Britain. It is easy to understand and extremely playable. The rules flow smoothly and although they do not cover every possible situation, are structured to give a general idea of what to do in any reasonable case.” before highlighting what he saw as weaknesses—the lack of a magic system and the background knowledge required by the Game Master in order to create scenario. (Arguably, the first of these is not really a weakness, but the second may still be an issue.) Fiorito awarded King Arthur Pendragon four stars out of five and finished by saying, “But even with these few drawbacks, Pendragon has turned out to be one of the most enjoyable new role-playing games that I’ve played in a long time. It was definitely worth the money spent. I recommend this game to everyone who has ever dreamed of being a knight in shining armor or pulling the sword from the stone.”

At the top of this review, I stated that Greg Stafford is right to regard King Arthur Pendragon as his masterpiece. Not just a masterpiece, but a design classic, a master class in using mechanics to both model its Arthurian genre and to encourage its players to roleplay its knightly character types. Those mechanics are all but peerless, beautifully elegant, but flexible in how they push a Knight to act and his player to roleplay and explore Arthurian Britain not through the player’s eyes, but through those of his Knight. Then there is that setting, brought to life as a labour of love upon the part of the author, ready to be explored and experienced. Put it in your top ten, your top five, or your top three, King Arthur Pendragon is one of the greatest roleplaying games ever published, the perfect combination of mechanics and theme.