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

Sunday, 27 January 2019

The Other OSR: Forbidden Lands

The Ravenland was once ours, lands beyond the mountains which represented virgins ripe for expansion and settlement, but then the savagery of the Orcs was unleashed on the settlers, forcing their leader, Zygofer the Spellbinder to turn to foul means to drive them back. He opened dark gates to let in the demon help he sort and set himself up as king of Ravenland, but in response the wise king walled off the lands and forbade all to talk about the Spellbinder’s domain which became known as the Forbidden Lands. For centuries, they have been under the demonic control of both Zygofer and his daughter, as well as under the curse of the Blood Mist, which sucks the life out of anyone who strays too far from their door. Yet now, even while Zygofer and his daughter remain still on the throne of the Forbidden Lands, the Blood Mist has lifted and men and women of all races have flooded into a realm untouched by their hands for centuries. They are not valiant souls, but scoundrels, treasure hunters, vagabonds, adventurers, fortune seekers, setting out to make their mark on the new land—there are dungeons to be plundered, great treasures to be found, and strongholds to be claimed!

This is the set-up for Forbidden Lands – Raiders & Rogues in a Cursed World, a fantasy roleplaying game published by Free League, following a successful Kickstarter campaign. It comes as an imposing boxed set which contains two hardback books with faux leather covers—the Player’s Manual and the Gamemaster’s Guide, a large full colour map of the Forbidden Lands, and a sheet of stickers. The roleplaying game is described as a ‘Retro Open-World Survival Fantasy RPG’ and designed to be played in the style of the fantasy roleplaying games of the seventies and early eighties, with the player characters free to roam as they will across the Forbidden Lands as a sandbox. The stickers play a role in this too, for they can be applied to the map to mark the location of sites across the Forbidden Lands, whether they are villages, strongholds, or dungeons. In this way, Forbidden Lands becomes a legacy game, in that playing through a campaign means that both map and campaign will be unique to each gaming group, the same as playing through board games like Pandemic Legacy or Gloomhaven.

Forbidden Lands is a roleplaying game of exploration, in which the player characters, like others, set out to see a land which has long been forbidden to them, to escape the bonds placed upon them by the deadly effects of the Blood Mist. In doing so, the player characters will discover adventure sites—villages, castles, and dungeons. To varying degrees, at each of these will be found intrigue, horror, and treasure. Initially, villages will bases of operation for the player characters, but in clearing out both castles and dungeons, they can be turned into strongholds and developed into long term bases for the player characters. As they find more treasure and develop sources of income, this can be spent to restore and rebuild facilities that have fallen into disrepair, to build new facilities, and to staff the new stronghold. In the process, the player characters will discover both the history and the secrets of the land, revealing legends and investigating them further, perhaps ultimately to find one of the great artefacts that have been lost during the centuries in which the land was covered by the Blood Mist.

A character in Forbidden Lands is defined by his Kin, Profession, age, attributes, skills, talents, Pride, and Dark Secret. There are seven Kin—or Races—Human, Half-Elves, Dwarf, Halfling, Wolfkin, Orcs, and Goblins. Of these, Wolfkin are a bipedal wolf-like species who have a pack mentality and love the hunt and the wilderness. Each Kin has a key attribute, a talent, and typical profession, though when creating a character a player does not have to adhere to this. For Humans, the key attribute is Empathy; the Kin talent is ‘Adaptive’, which enables a player to substitute another skill in a situation by spending a Willpower point; and typical professions are essentially any… There are eight Professions—Druid, Fighter, Hunter, Minstrel, Peddler, Rider, Rogue, and Sorcerer. Each also lists a key attribute as well as skills; suggestions for a source of pride, a dark secret, and a relationship. A character has four attributes—Strength, Agility, Wits, and Empathy. There are just sixteen skills to choose from, but a player will begin play with either eight, ten, or twelve points depending upon his character’s age. 

Talents are tricks and abilities which give a character an advantage in play. Each Kin has its own talent, which has just the one rank, but the other two types, professional and general, have three ranks each. Each Profession has three talents given, except for the Sorcerer, which has four.  For example, the Fighter’s Path of the Blade enables a character to spend a Willpower point to bypass armour during an attack at Rank 1, spend a Willpower point to gain another attack at Rank 2, and multiple Willpower points to increase damage inflicted at Rank 3. A character begins play with a Kin talent, a Rank in a Profession talent, and a Rank in up to three general talents, depending on age, of course.

Lastly, each character has a Dark Secret and a source of Pride. The former is primarily a narrative aspect for the Game Master to work into the play of the game, earning the character Experience Points when it comes into play, whereas the latter can be invoked once per game session after a player has failed a roll—even if he has Pushed the roll—to roll a twelve-sided die and hopefully get some or more Successes. The larger die types have more Success symbols on them, including multiple Success symbols on some faces. However, should a character still fail after his Pride is rolled, he loses that Pride and must come up with a new one in a later session.

To create a character a player selects a Kin, Profession, age, talents, Pride, and Dark Secret and assigns points to the character’s attributes and skills. The process is relatively quick, a matter of making a few choices. Our sample character Solga, a Goblin who got thrown out of her tribe for her snide remarks and being suspected of poisoning her husband. She helped Gaverin escape when she made a run for it and they have travelling together ever since. He is interested in uncovering the legends and secrets of the Forbidden Lands, whereas Solga is along for the company.

Name: Solga ‘the Rat’
Kin: Goblin Age: 26 Gender: Female
Profession: Rogue
Strength 2 Agility 5 Wits 4 Empathy 3
Skills: Melee 1, Stealth 3, Sleight of Hand 2, Move 1, Manipulation 2, Scouting 1
Talents: Sneaky (Kin), Path of the Poisoner (Rank 1), Fast Footwork (Rank 1), Sharp Tongue (Rank 1)
Willpower: 0
Pride: No one has a softer step than you
Dark Secret: You compulsively steal valuables you catch sight of
Reputation: 1
Relationship: Gaverin treats you like a child to be chastised . Very annoying.
Gear: Dagger, grappling hook, lockpicks, 3 silver
Resource Dice: Food d6, Water d6

Mechanically, Forbidden Lands uses the same mechanics as Mutant: Year Zero – Roleplaying at the End of Days, Coriolis: The Third Horizon, and Tales from the Loop – Roleplaying in the '80s That Never Was. Called the Year Zero Engine, which uses a dice pool system based on six-sided dice. These dice are divided into three types—Base, Skill, and Gear (or Weapon) Dice—and coloured white maroon, and black respectively in the custom set available separately for Forbidden Lands. Alternatively, a playing group can substitute dice of three different colours. Sixes—or crossed swords on the custom dice—are counted as Successes, whilst ones—or skulls on the custom dice which appear do not appear on the Skill Dice—are counted as Banes.

What matters is that when a player rolls dice for his character’s action, he needs to roll at least one Success to succeed. Successes rolled greater than those needed can used to achieve further effects, such as fully repairing gear back up to the number of dice they add in any action. If the dice are rolled and there are no Success, then this is considered to be a failure. Alternatively, a player can decide that he wants to push his character’s action. In this case, he reroll any dice that have not rolled Successes or Banes in the first roll. Even if a roll is successful, any Banes a player has rolled from either the first or second roll, are triggered and will damage or exhaust either the attribute used if rolled on the Base dice or the gear used if rolled on the Gear dice. Rolling Banes has a positive side though. For every Bane rolled on the Base dice after a roll has been pushed, a character receives one Willpower Point, which can then be spent to fuel a character’s Kin and Professional Talents.

What the Game Master does not do is set a difficulty number or target in terms of the number of Successes a player needs to generate in order for his character to succeed—one is enough, and of course, any extra go towards effects that benefit the characters. Intead, the Game Master can modify the number of Skill dice a player rolls, for example, a Hard task levies a -2 modification, reducing the number of Skill dice a player has to roll by two.
For example, Solga and her companion, Gaverin, were ambushed by bandits and Gaverin was captured. Solga managed to escape the ambush and has tracked the bandits to the ruined tower they are based and are holding Gaverin. After some hours, Solga has found a way into the tower—an embrasure high up on the wall. The Game Master states that this will not be a test to see if Solga can climb the tower, but to see if she can do it silently. Otherwise, this might be a Move check, but Solga’s player states that the Goblin will be taking her time. Solga’s player assembles his dice pool, which will consist of five Base dice for her Agility, three Skill dice for her Stealth, and one Gear die for her grappling hook. This gives Solga’s player nine dice to roll, but the Game Master states that this task is Demanding and modifies the number of Skill by one, so now Solga’s player only rolls eight dice. Unfortunately he only rolls one Bane on the Gear die and no Successes, so Solag’s player decides to Push the roll. Taking up the seven dice which came up blank—the Gear die cannot be rerolled because it rolled a Bane—he rolls again and gets two Success and another Bane, this one on a Base die!
To sum up, Solga’s player has rolled enough Success to succeed, but has rolled two Banes, one on the Gear die and one on a Base die. The Game Master rules that the Bane on the Gear die means that one of the tines on Solga’s grappling hook has broken, meaning that it cannot be used effectively until repaired. In other words, it will not grant the +1 bonus to all climbing rolls until then. The Bane on the Base die temporarily reduces Solga’s Agility to 4 and gives her a Willpower Point, but at least the Goblin has succeeded and is inside the bandit’s tower.
Combat uses the same core mechanics, but adds tweaks to both initiative and actions. Initiative is handled by both players and Game Master drawing from a ten-card deck, numbered one to ten. Initiative then proceeds in ascending order, though some Talent allow Initiative to be changed and players can swap initiative cards if one character needs to act before another. Otherwise it remains the same throughout a fight. In combat itself, a character can perform two actions—a Fast Action and a Slow Action. The first might be a dodge, a parry, a swing of a heavy weapon before an actual attack with a heavy weapon, run, aim, and so on, whereas the second might be a slash with an edged weapon, stab with a pointed weapon, a taunt or persuade attempt, and so on. Fast Actions typically do not require dice rolls, whereas Slow Actions typically do.

Advanced combat in Forbidden Lands makes use of the combat cards from the Forbidden Lands: Card Deck to bring a tactical element to the game with hidden combinations. Essentially the combat cards give manoeuvres and actions that a character might take his combat attacks and before each attack, both defender and attacker take two and decide in what order they will be played, so not only does this add a degree of tactical back and forth to a fight, it also adds a degree of uncertainty. (The Forbidden Lands: Custom Deck also adds Artifact Cards, Mount Cards, and a Reference Card as well as Combat Cards and Initiative Cards.)

When an attack is successful, the attacker inflicts damage equal to the weapon, plus any extra Successes rolled. Damage can be blocked by both armour and cover, the defender rolling a number of dice equal to the armour or cover value, with every Success rolled blocking a point of damage. Weapon damage typically affects a character’s Strength Attribute, but other forms of damage can affect the other Attributes. Notably, in social situations, characters can use their Manipulation skill against an opponent’s Insight; damage to Agility represents physical fatigue and exhaustion; damage to Wits represents fear, confusion, and misjudgement; and damage to Empathy represents callousness and distrust. Damage has two effects. First it reduces the number of Base dice a player can roll for the damaged Attribute, and second, if reduced to zero, it means that the character is Broken, the exact effects of which vary from attribute to attribute, but essentially it means that a character cannot act. In combat, it means that an enemy can attempt to deliver a coup de grâce.
Continuing the example, Solga has successfully climbed the tower where the bandits are holding her companion, Gaverin. She sneaks down a corridor, checking several rooms and eluding the guard before finding where the bandits are holding the prisoner.  Slipping into the room, the goblin grins at the bound and gagged Half-Elf, and quickly goes to work, loosening the ropes and the gag that hold him silent and immobile. Almost as she finishes the task, Gaverin snaps a warning to his liberator—the guard has swung back on his rounds and discovered the escape attempt. Solga has her blade drawn, but the Guard does not. Both react at the sight of each other and a fight ensues.
Everyone involved draws an Initiative card—the Game Master draws a 9, Gaverin’s player draws a 7, and Solga’s player draws a 4. This means that of the player characters, Gaverin will go first, but all the Half-Elf can do is escape his bonds, which means that the Guard could attack him before Solga can act. So, before the round begins, the players swap their Initiative cards, making the order now the Guard, Solga, and Gaverin. The Guard’s first action is ‘Draw Weapon’, a Fast Action which enables him to attempt a Slash’ with his axe as his Slow Action.
The Game Master rolls three Base dice for the Bandit’s Strength, two Skill dice for his Melee skill, and two Gear dice for the attack. She rolls two Successes and one Bane on the Base dice, though the latter does not count because the roll has not been Pushed. The hand axe inflicts two bonus Success, so Solga is about to take four damage to her Strength. This is a lot of damage, but Solga has the Fast Footwork Talent which gives her a Dodge beyond any Reactive action. Solga’s player rolls four Base dice for her Agility—it should be five, but she took damage during the climb into the tower—plus a Skill die for her Move. Since this is a ‘Slash’ attack, Solga’s player would two extra dice, but Solga wants to remain standing, which would penalise her by two dice, it simply negates the bonus. Solga’s player has to Push the roll, but eventually gets two Success and a Bane on a Base die. Since the two Success are equal to what the Game Master rolled for the Guard, Solga avoids the attack. In the process though, she bangs an elbow and reduces her Agility to 3. She also receives a single Willpower Point.
Now it is her turn to act. Solga’s first act is a ‘Feint’, a Fast Action which will allow her to exchange Initiative cards with the Guard. So on Round 2, Solga’s Initiative will be 9 and she will act first! Then her Slow Action is to ‘Stab’ the Guard with her dagger. Solga’s player rolls two Base dice for her Strength, one Skill die for her Melee, and a Gear die for the dagger. Her two Success are enough to hit and as the Guard has already acted, he cannot take a Reactive action. With the bonus damage from the dagger, this would inflict a total of three hits on the Guard, but the Game Master rolls for the Guard’s armour and gets a single Success. This means that Solga’s blade slips past the Guard’s armour and inflicts two hits. His Strength is reduced from three to two. As the Goblin darts in with the blade, Gaverin behind finally frees himself from his bonds and readies a spell…
Magic in Forbidden Lands – Raiders & Rogues in a Cursed World is organised into Talents and like other Talents, is organised into three ranks. A Sorcerer or Druid who knows one of these Talents at Rank 1 is able to cast all of the Rank 1 spells in that Talent. This is in addition to a number of general spells that all spellcasters know which typically have to do with the general manipulation of magic itself. Mechanically, a player never rolls a skill check for his spellcasting character to cast a spell, as it is automatic. Instead, he spends Willpower Points to charge the spell and then rolls to see if the spell can be overcharged. For each Willpower Point so invested, the player rolls a base die. Each Success rolled overcharges the spell, whilst each Bane indicates a magical mishap. Now this is open to abuse, the player of a Druid or Sorcerer attempting to Push every roll in order to generate Willpower Points, so a Game Master does need to keep a check on this as really, whilst magic is not a one-shot thing, it is powerful and it does take effort and its use should reflect this.

Name: Gaverin 
Kin: Half-Elf Age: 106 Gender: Male
Profession: Sorcerer
Strength 2 Agility 3 Wits 5 Empathy 3
Skills: Crafting 2, Melee 1, Sleight of Hand 2, Lore 3, Insight 2, Manipulation 2
Talents: Psychic Power (Kin), Path of Signs (Rank 1), Fearless (Rank 1), Incorruptible (Rank 1), Lucky (Rank 1)
Willpower: 2
Pride: Whoever threatens you will die a painful death
Dark Secret: You are haunted by visions of the world beyond the veil
Reputation: 1
Relationship: Solga doubts your magical powers. The fool!
Gear: Knife, crystal ball, 7 silver
Resource Dice: Food d6, Water d8
It is now Gaverin’s turn to act. Not wanting the Guard to cry out or alert his fellow bandits, he casts the spell, Paralyse. This is a Rank 1 spell which causes a target to lose one or more of his next actions. Gaverin’s player decides to invest two  Willpower Points into the spell, but his Pyschic Power Talent adds another Willpower Point to the total, giving Gaverin’s player three Base dice to roll. He rolls two Successes and one Bane. The Successes increase the Power Level of the spell to three and prevents the Guard from taking his next Fast Action and Slow Action. The Bane though means that Gaverin’s player must roll on the Magic Mishap table. The result of this is that casting the spell causes the Half-Elf pain, his losing a point of Strength. As the guard suddenly finds himself unable to move, Solga looks back at the Half-Elf who is now slightly wincing in pain, and says, “Well, ‘e ain’t mivin’, we betta do though.” The two quickly move to tie the Guard up and make their escape.
Overall mechanically, characters in Forbidden Lands are not incompetent, but they do often have push themselves in order to succeed and that increases the possibility of a player rolling Banes. As deleterious as Banes are, they have a positive effect in also generating Willpower Points, which are necessary if a magic using character wants to cast spells or to activate some Talents. Thus, this is not forgiving system and it is one that reflects the harsh nature of the Forbidden Lands.

Two big aspects of Forbidden Lands are Journeys and Strongholds. Journeys covers not just travel, but also exploration. Each character on a journey undertakes a particular part of the trip, such as ‘Lead the Way’ or ‘Keep Watch’. All characters undertake the ‘Hike’ action. In keeping with the dangerous nature of the Forbidden Lands, there are plenty of mishaps that can befall travellers should the roll be failed for any one of the journey’s parts, though no rolls are necessary for the simple ‘Hike’ action. Strongholds are bases that the player characters find, clear out of foes, rebuild, defend, and improve. At its most basic, a stronghold provides a place to rest and sleep in relative comfort and safety to the point where a character can gain a Willpower Point, but different facilities provide different benefits. So a Bakery provides food if there is flour, a Library a bonus to Lore rolls, a Shooting Range somewhere to practise Markmanship and so gain Experience Points towards that skill, and so on. Instead of being a game of exploration and discovery, the addition of strongholds add economic, planning, and battle elements to Forbidden Lands as well as further opportunities for roleplaying. It enables a campaign to develop, the players and their characters to have a stake in the world, and because funds are needed to build more, provides further reason to go out and adventure.

All of this so far, has been in the ‘Player’s Handbook’ for Forbidden Lands. The ‘Gamemaster’s Guide’ essentially gives the deeper secrets and background to the setting. As well as advice on running the game right from the first session, it gives the history of the Forbidden Lands and how they gained such a name, presents the gods and faiths of the region, and provides more information about the Kin, much of which will only become apparent during play. The bestiary includes lots of classic fantasy monsters, from Death Knights and Dragons to the Undead and Wyverns, although there are plenty of monsters unique to the Forbidden Lands. Every monster gets a table of six attack actions which the Game Master can choose from or on roll on. In terms of treasure and loot, most of the time, the player characters will find coins and things that they can sell. Magic items are extremely rare, but can be very powerful. These are artefacts, of which there are eighteen described in the book, each with illustration, an associated legend, and a suggested location where they might be found as artefacts are not just some random loot drops. Many have drawbacks, but all have an associated Artifact die. This is a dice type larger than a six-sided die, with the faces higher than six being marked with Success symbols or even multiple Success symbols. When a character uses an artefact, his player gets to roll its associated die instead of any Gear dice. (All of the game’s artefacts, including those associated with the Raven’s Purge campaign, appear on the Artifact cards in the Forbidden Lands: Custom Deck.)

In addition to extensive and detailed encounter lists and tables for creating adventure sites, which a Game Master could use to create locations and adventures on the go if she wants to run her game like that, the ‘Gamemaster’s Guide’ describes three adventure sites in detail—a village, a castle, and a dungeon. The Hollows is a village which is just opening itself up to trade and the wider world, which has divided the villagers; the castle of Weatherstone stands atop a rock promontory that stands separate to the walls of the gorge it is in and is said to hide the war chest of its last lord; and the Vale of the Dead is said to be where Zygofer the Spellbinder practised his necromantic arts! Together these provide multiple sessions of play, the player characters first exploring the village and then going out to explore the other locations, perhaps claiming Weatherstone as their own as their first stronghold. Each location has their own plots, but much of the action and roleplaying will be very player-led. They also work as a campaign’s first adventure sites before a group beings playing the Raven’s Purge campaign itself.

Physically, Forbidden Lands is very presented and put together. Both books are presented as old tomes on off-white paper and illustrated in pen and ink throughout, which given that most modern roleplaying games are presented in full colour, gives Forbidden Lands the look and feel of a roleplaying game from decades ago. The artwork, primarily drawn by one artist, is excellent and helps give both the books and the setting a very uniform look. One lovely touch is that the same weapons are redrawn again and again, each time to illustrate the types typically used  by the different Kin in the setting. There are no mechanical effects to this—an Orc sword works exactly the same as an Elf sword—but it adds a degree of verisimilitude. The cartography, more illustrations than maps, is also good. Lastly, the game’s box is deep enough to hold both the Forbidden Lands: Custom Dice Set and the Forbidden Lands: Custom Deck as well as the two books, should the Game Master purchase them.

From the start, Forbidden Lands has certain ‘Old School’ feel. It comes in a box, like all good games of yore did and the look of the books similarly echo an old style look. The fantasy of Forbidden Lands also echoes that of the traditional fantasy of the first roleplaying games in the types of player characters, the monsters to be faced, and in the exploration of dungeons—though it expands that to take in exploration of the lands too. Mechanically, Forbidden Lands has an ‘Old School’ feel too in that the Year Zero engine is far from forgiving, enforcing the fact that life in the Forbidden Lands is cruel, and that any attempt to explore and claim them involves danger and the possibility of both failure and death. Yet while there is still room for heroism and even quests too given that artefacts in the setting are unique things of legend and grant their wielders great power, the tone of this game is not heroic fantasy, but rough, gritty, and bloody with more than a lingering sense of menace.

Superbly packaged, Forbidden Lands is a pleasing combination of ‘Old School’ nostalgia and fast, simple mechanics with unobtrusive narrative elements designed to bring aspects of the character into play. Its setting offers scope for the player characters to develop not just personally, but also in terms of their place in the world. Overall, Forbidden Lands – Raiders & Rogues in a Cursed World is a brutal and modern take upon ‘Old School’ play in a land still under the influence of a great evil.

Saturday, 26 January 2019

The Star Trek X Starter

Over the past thirty years, the Star Trek franchise has been visited again and again, from Heritage Models’ Star Trek: Adventure Gaming in the Final Frontier in 1978 and FASA’s highly regarded Star Trek: The Role Playing Game, the original Star Trek RPG in 1982 to 1993’s Prime Directive from Amarillo Design Bureau, Inc. and published by Task Force Games and 1998’s well received Star Trek: The Next Generation Role-playing Game from Last Unicorn Games. The very latest entry in the Star Trek roleplaying canon is Star Trek Adventures: The Roleplaying Game. Published by Modiphius Entertainment in 2017, this focuses on the Star Trek: the Next Generation era and employs the 2d20 System previously used in the publisher’s Mutant Chronicles: Techno Fantasy Roleplaying Game and Robert E. Howard’s Conan: Adventures in an Age Undreamed Of. Although the roleplaying game has been supported with a number of supplements and miniatures and dice sets, until now, the entry point for Star Trek Adventures has always been the core rulebook, but that changes with the release of the Star Trek Adventures: The Roleplaying Game Starter Set.

The Star Trek Adventures Starter Set is designed to get a game and running with relatively little fuss. Open up the box—and it is a proper box rather than a tuck box—and you will find a set of dice, a set of three types of tokens, several poster maps for use with the campaign, six character sheets, and two booklets. The dice consist of two twenty-sided dice and four six-sided Challenge dice, the latter being marked with a star on one face, two stars on another, blank on two faces, and the Starfleet insignia on two faces. These are primarily rolled for damage in both personal and starship combat. The tokens consist of Threat and Momentum tokens, the former used by the Game Master to grant NPCs advantages and the latter by the players to grant their characters advantages, plus tokens for each of the player characters, the NPCs, and the starships used in mini-campaign which comes in the box. The two mini-poster maps are double-sided and depict areas aboard starships and on planets and are designed to be used in conjunction with the tokens.

The character sheets are double-sided, the character being on the front, the reference for what the character can do being on the back. The sixth character is actually the party’s starship, the USS Magellan, a Galaxy class explorer. The actual player characters consist of a male Bajoran First Officer, a female Human Conn Officer, a male Trill Chief Engineer, a female Andorian Chief of Security, and a female Vulcan Medical Officer. This is a good mix, but were a sixth character be needed, then there is room for a Science Officer. From the characters available, it should be obvious that the default setting for Star Trek Adventures: The Roleplaying Game Starter Set is late season Star Trek: The Next Generation.

The first booklet in the Star Trek Adventures: The Roleplaying Game Starter Set is ‘Star Trek Adventures: The Roleplaying Game Starter Rules’. The slimmer of the two books in the box and intended to be read by both the players and the Game Master, this explains a little of the background, what a roleplaying game is, the basics of characters, how to roll tasks and handle conflicts, including starship combat. A character is defined by Attributes, Disciplines, and Focuses. The six Attributes are Control, Daring, Fitness, Insight, Presence, and Reason, and these range between seven and twelve. The six Disciplines correspond to the six areas of training at Starfleet Academy and these are Command, Conn, Security, Engineering, Science, and Medicine. They range between one and five. Focuses, such as Quantum Physics, Warp Field Dynamics, Helm Operations, and Xenobiology, represent areas of specialised knowledge or expertise.

To undertake an action, a character’s player rolls two twenty-sided dice, aiming to have both roll under the total of an Attribute and a Discipline. Each roll under this total counts as a success, an average task requiring two successes. Rolls of one count as two successes and if a character has an appropriate Focus, rolls under the value of the Discipline also count as two successes. For example, Lieutenant M’kress, a Vulcan-Klingon hybrid Science Officer needs to take control of the Conn of a shuttlecraft in an emergency. The Game Master decides that this is a Daring+Conn check, so with a Daring of 9 and Conn of 2, M’kress’ player needs to roll 11 or less to get any successes. Later on, when Lieutenant M’kress needs to analyse some spectral phenomena, her player will roll 16 or under as her Reason is 11 and her Science is 5. She has the Astrophysics Focus, which means that rolls below her Science Discipline count as two successes.

Whilst rolls of 20 add complications to a situation, excess successes add to the Momentum pool shared by the players. Momentum can be spent to create an Opportunity and so add more dice to a roll—typically needed because more than two successes are required to succeed, to create an advantage in a situation or remove a complication, create a problem for the opposition, and to obtain information. It is a finite ever-decreasing resource, so the players need to roll well and keep generating it, especially if they want to save for the big scene or climatic battle in an adventure. Conversely, the Game Master has Threat which can be spent on similar things for the NPCs as well as to trigger their special abilities.

Combat uses the same mechanics, but offers more options in terms of what Momentum can be spent on. This includes doing extra damage, disarming an opponent, keeping the initiative—initiative works by alternating between between the player characters and the NPCs and keeping it allows two player characters to act before an NPC does, avoid an injury, and so on. Damage in combat is rolled on the Challenge dice, the number of star symbols and Starfleet insignia symbols rolled determining how much damage is inflicted. A similar roll is made to resist the damage, and any leftover is deducted from a character’s Stress. If a character’s Stress is reduced to zero or five or more damage is inflicted, then a character is injured. Any Starfleet insignia symbols rolled indicate an effect as well as the damage. In keeping with the tone of the various series, weapon damage can be deadly, melee or hand-to-hand, less so. Rules cover stun settings and of course, diving for cover.

Starships are treated in a fashion similar to characters, but have Systems and Departments instead of Attributes and Disciplines. The ‘Star Trek Adventures: The Roleplaying Game Starter Rules’ covers common starship actions like piloting and scanning, whilst starship combat is similar to that of personal combat. Instead of injuries for taking five damage in one hit, a ship suffers breaches which can knockout a ship’s systems. Her crew or a player character can repair them, but too many breeches and ship is disabled or even destroyed.

Overall, the ‘Star Trek Adventures: The Roleplaying Game Starter Rules’ gets through the rules at a fair pace, in just twenty or so pages, with an example or three. There is a handy reference guide to the mechanics on the back page and each of the character sheets has further reference tables on its reverse. 

The second booklet is ‘A Star Beyond the Stars’, which is a three-act scenario set in late season Star Trek: The Next Generation. It begins with the player characters’ ship, the USS Magellan being assigned to locate a missing Starfleet vessel. This is the USS Alcubiere, an Oberth-Class vessel testing a new Warp engine. The crew discovers the vessel adrift amidst subspace interference, so an away team has to go aboard and determine what has happened to both crew and ship. The plot of the adventure takes the crew of the Magellan along the frontier of Federation space and beyond, confronting foes that figured prominently in Star Trek: The Next Generation. As well as presenting both plot and NPCs, it takes its time to explain what rolls by the players need to be made and when, these increasing in complexity until the climax of the scenario which brings starship combat into play.

Overall, the scenario is well written, but if there is an issue, it is that is perhaps a little too much of an emphasis on combat. Now this is due to it being written more as a roleplaying scenario rather than as an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, and this is not to detract from it as a scenario. Rather that a Star Trek devotee coming to the scenario may find the emphasis to not quite what they were expecting, especially given the lack of a Science Officer player character. Nevertheless, approach this as an action mystery taking into account the Prime Directive and Starfleet’s ‘shoot last, ask questions first’ attitude and ‘A Star Beyond the Stars’ should provide between three and four good sessions’ worth of play. There is even room for a expansion here and there for the experienced Game Master should she want to expand it.

Physically, Star Trek Adventures: The Roleplaying Game Starter Set is an attractive looking package. Everything is done in full colour, whether it is the LCARS interface on deep black in the two booklets or white on the character sheets, the illustrations and the tokens, and of course, the mini-maps. The tokens are done on thick card and the dice are nice and sturdy. Of course, two twenty-sided dice are not quite enough, but more of these are easily obtained. All of which is packed into a sturdy box which has room for the Game Master’s notes. If there is a physical issue with the Star Trek Adventures: The Roleplaying Game Starter Set, it is that the two booklets are slightly flimsy and could have done with some proper covers.

As a product, Star Trek Adventures: The Roleplaying Game Starter Set has problems at the beginning and at the end. At the end, there is a missed opportunity for the publishers to really point out to the Game Master and her players where to go next, what to look at next, and so on, essentially to help them both take their next steps into playing Star Trek Adventures: The Roleplaying Game. At the beginning though, the stepping on point for Star Trek Adventures: The Roleplaying Game Starter Set is not quite low enough. In other words, the Star Trek Adventures: The Roleplaying Game Starter Set is better suited to those who have had some roleplaying experience under their belt—especially the Game Master—rather than those who have had none. This is not to say that somebody new to the hobby could not pick this up and run it, but it would be a challenge. In the hands of an experienced Game Master, both the running of ‘A Star Beyond the Stars’ and the teaching of the rules to Star Trek Adventures: The Roleplaying Game as presented here should proceed at a handsome pace.

For Game Master who is already running Star Trek Adventures: The Roleplaying Game, the Star Trek Adventures: The Roleplaying Game Starter Set is far from a pointless purchase. To support her existing game, it will provide her with dice, tokens, maps, and the character sheets. The ‘Star Trek Adventures: The Roleplaying Game Starter Rules’ can serve as a quick reference guide to the rules at the table, whilst ‘A Star Beyond the Stars’ provides a scenario which would work in most campaigns focussing upon Starfleet. The scenario is also adaptable to other time periods with some adjustments.

The Star Trek Adventures: The Roleplaying Game Starter Set is an attractive, solidly designed boxed set with decent production values. Although not written as an introduction to roleplaying in general, the Star Trek Adventures: The Roleplaying Game Starter Set, with its exciting adventure and supporting material, is the perfect package with which to introduce a group and get them playing the Star Trek Adventures: The Roleplaying Game.

Sunday, 20 January 2019

Ave Britannia

Over the years, there have been plenty of roleplaying games set in the Roman Empire, from TSR, Inc.’s Glory of Rome supplement for use with Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, Second Edition and Deep7’s entertainingly simple Pax Gladius 1PG to Golden Goblin Press’ excellent The 7th Edition Guide to Cthulhu Invictus: Cosmic Horror Roleplaying in Ancient Rome and Thyrsus Games’ sublime FVLMINATA: Armed With Lightning. To this cohort of titles can be added 43 AD - Invasion & Insurrection - Roleplaying in Roman Britain. Published by Zozer Games, this is roleplaying game set in the first century AD during the invasion and subsequent pacification campaigns by the Roman Empire right up to the campaigns in the Caledonia in the early third century. The players take the role of members of the Legions, soldiers ordered to conduct special missions in order to further Rome’s right of conquest, but doing so far from home, in a hostile land full of natives ready to kill you and druids determined to curse you with their magic, a land said to be on the edge of the world, and a land so cold and wet that socks are a really good idea.

43 AD is thus a historical military roleplaying game set in a world of gods, magic, and the unknown and the untrustworthy, and which is dark and horrible because Britannia is a thoroughly unpleasant place. Yet for all of the actual horror of being assigned to the edge of the world, there may be a truth to the dark magic of the Druids and the tales of witches and monsters which lurk out in the thick forests and the stinking bogs. For there is option for the Game Master to run 43 AD not as a straight historical military game, but as a historical horror military game. So then there really is truth and substance to the folktales about the Flayed Man, Hunting Crows, and the Cauldron Born, and there are Dark Druids who have turned to magics of the blackest kind to drive out the invaders.

Characters in 43 AD are members of a legion, from relatively raw recruits to experienced veterans. They come from all across the empire and from all backgrounds, and whilst they may be simple legionaries, they might also be scouts, accountants, scribes, and more. A character is defined by five Attributes—Might (physical and combat prowess), Fate (luck and the will of the gods), Hits (health and endurance), Craft (construction and repair tasks), and Learning (education and social skills); Cultural Origins, which provides a bonus and base language; Character Type, like coward, veteran, or hero, which provides another bonus; Social Class, from Landless Poor to Noble; and Events. Each character has four of these, one explaining why they joined up and the others detailing things that have happened they enlisted. A character also has Allies & Enemies, Background Details, and Wealth & Equipment.

To create a character a player can roll dice—just one six-sided die for his character’s Might and Fate, with more dice rolled to determine his Hits, and both Learning and Craft being set at 1 each. Alternatively, a player can divide twelve points between Might, Fate, and Hits. Two six-sided dice are rolled on various tables to other aspects of the character, whilst a percentile dice roll is needed to determine the various events which have befallen him. Various bonuses from this may increase a character’s attributes as well as grant him skills.

Might 6 Fate 5 Craft 1 Learning 3
Hits 17 Combat/AV 9/2
Legionary Age 19
Character Type: Thinker
Origins: German Craftsman
Appearance: Blond and stocky with thick fingers and a winning grin
Sestertii: 80
Background: From near the Rhine where his family are potters, Aulus—Germanic name being Folcher before enlisting—joined the Roman army to prove to his brother that he could be something better as he was no potter. Having training with the tribal warriors, he was already a capable fighter and an ability to learn Latin easily got him noticed and a head for numbers got him assigned as a clerk to the legion’s offices by a friend in the staff section. He is currently having a secret affair with another soldier’s woman, a member of a local tribe and her brother and his wife are currently spreading scurrilous rumours about him. Aulus’ centurion is looking to promote him to actuarius in the future. 
Skills: Warcry!, Evaluate, 
Kit Choice: Spearman

Mechanically, 43 AD is fairly simple, using a roll of two six-sided dice plus an Attribute—Might, Fate, Craft, or Learning to beat a difficulty number. This is usually ten, but can be higher. The use of skills, from Acting, Carry Burden, and Detect Lies to Two Attacks, War Cry, and Work Horse enable a character to do something without the skill he would not be able to. There is no skill roll as such, although knowledge and use of a skill might grant a character a bonus on an attribute roll. In general, Might is used for combat and physical actions; Fate is used a a luck saving throw, for example to survive a poisoning attempt, spot an ambush, and so on, but can also be expended to call for divine aid and automatically succeed at an action; Craft is used for construction and making repairs; and Learning for knowledge and social actions.

Combat uses the same mechanic and has a brutal quality to it. Opponents make opposed rolls of two six-sided dice plus their Combat value, which is equal to their Might plus the killing efficiency of their weapons. Results of zero mean a draw; if one opponent rolls higher than the other by one, two, or three points, then he inflicts that many number of points in terms of damage; if he rolls four or higher, then he inflicts a Crippling Blow—attacker’s choice; and if he rolls eight or higher, then he can inflict a maiming blow. It is possible to roll this by one of to means. First by rolling a natural twelve, which enables a player to roll and add another six-sided die. Second by saving the bonus one, two, or three points rolled higher than an opponent, the character making a feint maneuvre rather than an attack. These can be saved up and used in a later combat round, but are lost if the character suffers any damage.

Fate can be spent to fight on despite having suffered a Crippling Blow, but armour can stop damage also. For each point of armour worn—one for a helm or mail, two for a breastplate, and three for segmented armour—a defender rolls a six-sided die. If a six is rolled on any of them, then the attack is negated! First aid is available and turns out to be quite effective, though combat is brutal and likely to leave scars. As well as tables for Crippling Blows and Maiming Blows, there are tables for Stunning Blows for unarmed combat too.
For example, Aulus has heard some of the rumours that Cunittos, the brother of the girl he has been seeing, has been spreading about him. He goes to see him to persuade him to stop, but instead Aulus annoys Cunittos, who calls the German, “A Roman lackey, a Rhine ox yoked to the legions!” Aulus yells back that he will have no choice but to point out that the Briton has been cheating on his taxes—and whether or not this is true—Cunittos is angered enough to grab a sword and swing it at the stocky German. Cunittos is a trained, but not seasoned warrior—the local tribe has gone soft under Roman occupation— and has a Might of 3 and a Long Sword of +2 to give a Combat value of 5. It would be higher, but Cunittos only grabs has sword, not his sword and shield. He is, however, wearing some protective magic in an amulet, which which has a Armour Value of 2 and works in a similar fashion to armour. Aulus has his dagger and his gladius, is wearing mail, but not carrying his shield. So this gives him a Combat value of 8.
In the first round, the Game Master rolls 11, plus Cunittos’ Combat value of 5 for a total of 16. This must have been a surprise attack! Aulus’ player can only manage a total of 14, meaning that Aulus would suffer 2 Hits of damage, but he is wearing mail, so his player gets to roll a single six-sided die. Unfortunately, he does not and Aulus’ Hits are reduced from 17 to 15. In the second round, the Game Master rolls just 10 for Cunittos, whilst Aulus’ player rolls 12. Instead of inflicting damage, Aulus’ player decides to save the to hits over Cunittos for the next round and describes how the legionary backs up, fending off the Briton’s attack, but is already looking for an opening. On the third round, the Game Master rolls just 12 for Cunittos, but Aulus’ player rolls 14, which with the addition of the two saved, becomes 14 and that is more than four points greater than his opponent. Aulus’ player gets to choose a Crippling Blow to inflict on the Briton and selects an arm hit, leaving Cunittos’ sword arm bloodied and unable to hold a sword…
The combat is not over though, as Cunittos’ wife, Una, comes upon the fight and with a scream charges at Aulus. Una has a Might of 2 and is using a dagger, so has a Combat value of 3. Aulus’ player decides that he is not even going to use his sword and just punches her… The Game Master rolls a lowly 7 for Una, whereas Aulus’ player—using only the German’s Might of 6—rolls a natural 12, so rolls an extra die for another 3 and then adds Aulus’s Might for a total of 21. This is 14 more than Una’s attack and so Aulus can do an Advanced Unarmed Move. In this case, Strangle! as Aulus’ player describes this as the stocky German reaching out and grabbing Una by the throat before she can really get close to stick him with her dagger… Aulus then turns to Cunittos and says, “Your move, shithead?”

In terms of character improvement, 43 AD provides two tracks. These are based on character action from assignment to assignment rather than on nebulous experience points. First, for participating and succeeding on missions, characters earn Glory which not only earns them awards, but also gets them noticed. Once their superiors recognise them, might be appointed to a junior position like Optio (deputy to the centurion), Artificer (military engineer), or Actuarius (military scribe). Once a character has held four of these positions, then he is eligible to be promoted to centurion. These positions each grant a skill, but some also have requirements, typically Latin literacy. To improve his attributes—and also to restore any fate expended on calling for divine aid or using certain skills—a character will need to make sacrifices to his god. He can also join a collegium, which grants him access to a brotherhood and a skill. Both sacrifices and collegium membership costs sestertii, so legionaries will need a way to make money, either through promotion, loot, gambling, or awards. All together, this makes progression more of a thoughtful process with the greater opportunity for roleplaying away for missions.

43 AD provides a great deal of background about the Roman legions—operations, daily activities, campaigns, and fortifications; the Roman occupation and pacification of Britannia; and the tribes of the newly conquered province. There is a lot of information presented here, all of it useful and all of it content that the Game Master could bring to his campaign. Yet, there is a fair degree of repetition in that information, especially in terms of what the Legions and the Legionaries do.Included in all of this information are maps of the province, fortification lines, tribal hills forts and duns, plus NPC stats for locals and legionaries, and a starting location. This is Danum Fort, located on the River Don, currently manned by the First Cohort of Morini, all from a tribe in Belgica province. It includes more NPCs and several adventure ideas, one of which is inspired by the work of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and another which involves a Night Hag. This is in addition to the plethora of adventure and campaign ideas which can be found throughout the book, enough to keep a campaign going for multiple sessions. Rounding out the book is a reference section and decent bibliography.

Much of the focus of 43 AD has been on the horror in a campaign involving the invasion, occupation, and pacification of a foreign land, including references to the Vietnam War. An option is given though, to add both the supernatural and horror to a campaign. In this, it takes its inspiration from films such as Aliens, Dog Soldiers, The Bunker, Predator, and others. The horror though is used to explain why the Britons do what are to Roman eyes, certain barbaric things—cutting off the heads, the throwing of human sacrifices into peat bogs in particular ways, tying victims to posts at the bottom of deep pits, and so on. 43 AD is relatively light on advice for the Game Master on running a horror campaign, so she may have to look elsewhere should she want such advice. Of course, there are plenty of supernatural threats detailed, from Cave Crawlers and Hunting Crows to the Invisible Hound and Vengeful Spirits, plus several individuals of a supernatural nature. A number of quite dark and twisted spells are included, but these are only available to Druids and Witches and they are both NPC types.

What is missing from the rules are any means of handling the response to the horror inherent to a 43 AD campaign, whether it involves the supernatural or not. So no sanity or shock rules, which given the emphasis on both types of horror in the setting, is disappointing.

Physically, 43 AD is generally tidy and decently illustrated. Much of the art depicts the brutality of Roman occupation, and whilst it is not explicit, it is not pleasant either. Whilst the maps are easy to read, they are not necessarily as crisply presented as they could be. The main problem with 43 AD is that it could be better organised so that the rules sections could be together and it does need another edit to excise the repetition.

One issue that 43 AD does not address is that of playing female characters. Now it is a military roleplaying game and a historical roleplaying game, so the playing of male characters only is very much part of its set-up. Yet despite that, some ways around it could have been suggested, perhaps by allowing native characters to included as guides? It remains though a very male-orientated game, but that is very much in keeping with the setting and not the fault of the game itself. And anyway, the set-up allows for a diverse range of character types and backgrounds—from all over the Roman Empire.

The biggest disappointment with 43 AD is the lack of rules for handling horror and its effects, but a good Game Master and players happy to roleplay this should be able to sidestep the issue. That aside, 43 AD - Invasion & Insurrection - Roleplaying in Roman Britain does a fine job of bringing the horror of campaigning in a foreign land—one we are all familiar with—to life.

Saturday, 19 January 2019

Screen Shot VII

How do you like your GM Screen?

The GM Screen is a essentially a reference sheet, comprised of several card sheets that fold out and can be stood up to serve another purpose, that is, to hide the GM's notes and dice rolls. On the inside, the side facing the GM are listed all of the tables that the GM might want or need at a glance without the need to have to leaf quickly through the core rulebook. On the outside, facing the players, is either more tables for their benefit or representative artwork for the game itself. This is both the basic function and the basic format of the screen, neither of which has changed very little over the years. Beyond the basic format, much has changed though.

To begin with the general format has split, between portrait and landscape formats. The result of the landscape format is a lower screen, and if not a sturdier screen, than at least one that is less prone to being knocked over. Another change has been in the weight of card used to construct the screen. Exile Studios pioneered a new sturdier and durable screen when its printers took two covers from the Hollow Earth Expedition core rule book and literally turned them into the game's screen. This marked a change from the earlier and flimsier screens that had been done in too light a cardstock, and many publishers have followed suit.

Once you have decided upon your screen format, the next question is what you have put with it. Do you include a poster or poster map, such as Chaosium, Inc.’s last screen for Call of Cthulhu, Sixth Edition?  Or a reference work like the GM Resource Book for Pelgrane Press’ Trail of Cthulhu? Or scenarios such as ‘Blackwater Creek’ and ‘Missed Dues’ from the Call of Cthulhu Keeper Screen for use with Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition? In general, the heavier and sturdier the screen, the more likely it is that the screen will be sold unaccompanied, such as those published by Cubicle Seven Entertainment for the Starblazer Adventures: The Rock & Roll Space Opera Adventure Game and Doctor Who: Adventures in Time and Space RPGs.

So how do I like my GM Screen?

I like my Screen to come with something. Not a poster or poster map, but some form of reference material. Which is why I am fond of both the Sholari Reference Pack for SkyRealms of Jorune and the GM Resource Book for Pelgrane Press’ Trail of Cthulhu. Nevertheless, I also like GM Screens when they come with a scenario, which is one reason why I like the Game Master’s Kit for Fantasy Flight Games’  Legend of the Fifth Rings Roleplaying. As the name suggests, this is the Game Master’s screen and pack for use with the roleplaying game set in a fantasy version of feudal Japan, but also heavily influenced by other Asian cultures. For what comes with the screen in the Game Master’s Kit is a scenario which builds on the campaign begun with the Legend of the Five Rings Roleplaying Beginner Game, focusing on a very different part of Rokugan.

The Game Master Screen is a four-panel affair in portrait format—as opposed to the trend for Game Master Screens to be in landscape format—done in sturdy cardboard. On the front is a panorama of a landscape, set before a wide mountain range. In the centre is a manicured garden a lake and islands connected by a bridge, whilst on the lakeshore stands a pagoda. To the left the lands become black and blighted, whilst to the right, the lands and mountains are covered in snow. What this actually depicts is Rokugan in its entirety, from the twisted Shadowlands beyond the Wall in the south to the mountains in the far north of Rokugan and the Phoenix Clan lands. In between are the delicate, almost pastoral lands of Rokugan itself. Altogether, this is a lovely illustration, if not necessarily an exciting one.

On the other side, what is clear about the layout of the screen is that despite there being a lot of information the designers could have put on here, they have opted for an open layout, so that the content is easy to read. It is also very clearly marked with the page references for when the Game Master needs to look something up in the core book. The basics of Legend of the Fifth Rings Roleplaying’s mechanics are summarised on the left-hand panel, including an explanation the five Rings, dice symbols, turn structure, how to make a check when performing an action, and skill groups, skills, and approaches. Some of this information is perhaps a little basic, but the table of skill groups, skills, and approaches is perfect. The inner left-hand panel gives sample tasks and task numbers, summarises the game’s stances for when a character is in a skirmish, duel, or intrigue, common conflict actions, silhouette sizes, unarmed combat damages, advantages and disadvantages, range bands, and examples of spending Opportunity in play. This last section feels a bit truncated and as if more explanation and examples were needed. After all, this comes up quite a lot in play and there is a whole page devoted to it in the core rules. The inclusion of the whole table would have been more useful.

On the inner right-hand side, the page numbers for commonly referenced rules are listed, along the initiative rules, NPC demeanours, the use of Void points, and Critical Strikes. On the right-hand side are explanations of common item qualities and common conditions. Overall, it is a useful and easy-to-read screen, but with a couple of issues. One is the aforementioned brevity of the Opportunity spends table and the other is that perhaps the combat information could have been better grouped together. 

The booklet which comes in the Game Master’s Kit is a sourcebook and scenario called ‘Dark Tides’. It describes a mysterious minor clan, its major holding, its strange mission, and provides a scenario set in that holding. The minor clan is the Tortoise clan, who turn out to be very un-samurai-like in comparison to the other Rokugani clans. They have regular dealings with peasants, with outsiders, and they can obtain things that other clans cannot and would consider dishonourable to do so. The Tortoise clan, its Kasuga family, and its Kasuga Smuggler School are provided should a player want to play one. In terms of design the school offers a variety of skills, both Social and Martial, but it places an emphasis on Trade skills above all else.

The clan holding is Taimana Choryū or Slow Tide Harbour, a swampy backwater port just north of the imperial city of Otosan Uchi. It is rife with crime, ships from all over dock here, and Gaijin walk the streets, but the Tortoise clan seem to give this no heed. All this will be a shock to any samurai which come to the port, which player characters will do as part of the scenario, ‘Dark Tides’. They are asked to find an imperial nobleman—described as a ‘wastrel’—who was last heard of in Slow Tide Harbour and has not been heard from recently. They will find the port bustling with commerce and business, but otherwise a sleepy little affair, the Tortoise clan content to let matters continue as they are without the need to rock the boat.

The adventure consists of three parts, each being quite different in tone. The first focuses on investigation and intrigues, the player characters discovering and following up on clues that point to various witnesses and potential suspects and attempting to get information out them. This is quite lengthy section and comprises the bulk of the scenario and may be a bit frustrating for players wanting a little more action. That all comes in the second and third parts as first the player characters track down the villains of the piece and final confront them. As well as well being a solid investigative scenario, ‘Dark Tides’ grants the Game Master the freedom to choose the villain of the piece, from a choice of three. Reasons are also given as to why they are involved and what clues point to their involvement.

The other thing that ‘Dark Tides’ does is continue from ‘The Topaz Championship’ from Legend of the Five Rings Roleplaying Beginner Game and its donload sequel, ‘In the Palace of the Emerald Champion’. Thus the player characters are expected to be Emerald Magistrates and if they are, then ‘Dark Tides’ can be their first assignment. Alternative suggestions are given if they are not though, but that will make the scenario slightly more difficult since they will not actually hold any authority when conducting the investigation. Of course, neither the Tortoise clan nor the criminal fraternity in Slow Tide Harbour will go out of its way to be too helpful.

As well as being solid investigative scenario, ‘Dark Tides’ also does the ‘fish out of water’ aspect very well too. Any overly mannered or cultured samurai is going to find themselves very much out of their depth in the skeevy little port where peasants rub shoulders with samurai who rub shoulders with Gaijin. And despite the obvious disparities between the social orders in Rokugan, there is a nod in the scenario—a simple mention, nothing more—to the equality of genders and sexual preferences. It is not necessarily part of the scenario, but it is there.

Physically, the Game Master’s Kit is nicely produced. The screen is sturdy and accessible. The booklet is done on glossy paper with full colour illustrations just as the core book. Overall, an attractive package.

Any Game Master for Legend of the Fifth Rings Roleplaying will find the Game Master’s Kit in her game. The screen itself is useful and helpful in play, the scenario is excellent, and it introduces aspects of Rokugan not seen in Legend of the Fifth Rings Roleplaying—Slow Tide Harbour could become the basis for a campaign of its own were the Game Master to develop it and the players decide to play ‘less honourable’ characters. Besides dice, the Game Master’s Kit is going to be what the Legend of the Fifth Rings Roleplaying Game Master wants at her table.

Sunday, 13 January 2019

A Mythic Primer

The Glorantha Sourcebook is an important companion to the three roleplaying games set in Greg Stafford’s world of Glorantha—HeroQuest Glorantha, RuneQuest: Roleplaying in Glorantha, and 13th Age Glorantha—all three of which are, like The Glorantha Sourcebook, published by Chaosium, Inc.. It is a systemless sourcebook which introduces the mythic and mythological underpinnings of Glorantha, taking us from the creation of the universe and God Time to the Gods War that introduced Death to the world, the Compact that ended it and introduced Time to the world, and beyond... It is the story of gods and heroes, kings and prophets, and more, but it is not though, the definitive work on Glorantha as a whole. There is the massive eight-hundred page, two-book The Guide to Glorantha for that. Instead, The Glorantha Sourcebook focuses very much on the myths and pantheons of the peoples who will ultimately come to clash in one geographical area—that of Dragon Pass, the region which allows egress north to to south through the mountains which divide the northern continent of Genertla. All this telling will come to a head in the year 1625, at the beginning of the Hero Wars—the starting point for both RuneQuest: Roleplaying in Glorantha and 13th Age Glorantha.

The volume begins with a short description of Glorantha’s geography, before diving into a history of Dragon Pass. This literally sets everything up for what follows in the book, being a annotated explanation of the feud between the House of Sartar and the Red Emperor, between the Lunar Empire and the peoples of Dragon Pass. It is written as a gift from a scholar to the queen in Nochet, the City of Queens, so much like the rest of The Gorantha Sourcebook, it is no dry, objective text, but subjective and opinionated. As well as giving the history, it gives the details and family trees of the dynasties that have shaped the region, notably the Feathered Horse Queens, the Lunar Kings of Tarsh, and the various Sartar Dynasties. Although their involvement in the events of Dragon Pass has waxed and waned over the centuries, the Elder Races are not ignored and are described in turn. Of these, the write-up of the Aldryami is somewhat brief in comparison of those given for the Dragonewts, Mostali, and of course, Uz. 

At the heart of the supplement though are two lengthy and opposing set of chapters, which together continue the explanation of the feud between the House of Sartar and the Red Emperor. Where this explanation has been historial, here it is very much concerned with the gods. The first set  consists of ‘Theogony’ and ‘Time’. ‘Theogony’ presents the stories and creation myths of Glorantha’s gods, element by element, in turn Darkness, Water, Earth, Fire, and Air. Each is accompanied by a family tree that depicts the element and his or her descendants in their classic iconic forms as well as maps of their associated realms. Thus Darkness is accompanied by a map of the the Underworld, Water by a cross section of the oceans, Earth by a map of the realms of the Green Age, Fire by a map of the realms of the Golden Age, Air by a map of the Storm Age or Lesser Darkness, and so on. From the creation of the universe and the world, the chapter takes the reader through God Time and the events of the God’s War that ultimately would lead to the events of the second of these chapters, ‘Time’. What is notable about ‘Theogony’ is that is not written from the point of view of these pantheons’ contemporary worshippers in Dragon Pass, but from the God Learners of the Second Age. Although initiates of the cults dedicated to these deities might not necessarily agree with the interpretations of the God Learners, their attempts to rationalise myths actually serve to make them accessible for the reader. ‘Time’ actually presents the actual history of Dragon Pass from the end of God Time through the First, Second, and Third Ages up until the beginning of the Hero Wars. This is a relatively short chapter, but it is important because it what keeps the mortal world separate from God Time and it is the compact that created it that is so threatened by the contents of the opposing two chapters.

The opposing set of chapters are ‘Gods of the Lunar Way’ and ‘The Redline History of the Lunar Empire’. Together these describe the deities, heroes, goddess, empress, and emperor who will fight on the opposing side in the Hero Wars. Of these, the goddess—the Red Goddess—is the most significant because she is a goddess reborn in Time, who lived as a mortal and became a goddess once again, thus threatening the compact that brought Time into the world and separated it from God Time. It is her son, the Red Emperor, who will be born again and again over the course of the history detailed in ‘The Redline History of the Lunar Empire’. It is the Red Emperor’s decision to expand the Glowline, the magical border of the Lunar Empire, into Dragon Pass and the differing nature of their religions—the Lunar Empire accepts Chaos as part of natural order of things, whereas the people of Sartar and its surrounds see Chaos as a threat, that will see the two cultures and peoples clash again again culminating in the Dragon Rise ceremony which triggers the Hero Wars.

Beyond these lengthy chapters, The Glorantha Sourcebook essentially looks at the nature of the forces arrayed against each other in the run up to the Hero Wars and beyond. ‘Gloranthan Magic’ explains the Runes and their relationships, the latter nicely depicted and explained with a series of diagrams. This and the discussion of the types of magic will likely be amongst the most familiar content in the book. ‘Gods and Mortals’ notably details the leading heroes of the Hero Wars, including Harrek the Berserk, Jar-eel the Razoress, Delecti the Necromancer, and of course, Argrath Whitebull, who will lead the rebellion against the Lunar Empire. Lastly, the shortest chapter is ‘Startar Magical Union’, which introduces the Warlocks who combine a number of magical disciplines in serving Argrath Whitebull. The description of the Warlocks are quite brief, but their inclusion, like much of the supplement, sets the stage for the Hero Wars.

Physically, The Glorantha Sourcebook is a highly attractive hardback. It is clearly written, with a strong sense of story, though in places the style is a little heavy going, but then that is sometimes the way of such mythologies. The book is liberally illustrated though, with great depictions of the gods, heroes, and myths discussed in the text. A lot of the artwork is not new though, but it is used effectively and more than serves the text to support the differing points of view presented throughout the book. In particular, the stone reliefs taken from Sartar’s Palace, which depict the history of Dragon Pass up to the Dragon Rise, are wonderfully evocative and echo those of the Assyrian Empire. The Kyger Litor temple friezes of the Uz are also good. 

The Glorantha Sourcebook is not quite perfect. There is an instance of incomplete text and perhaps it could have done with clearer maps of Dragon Pass and the surrounding area to help the reader gain an easier grasp of the flow of events of the region’s history. Certainly the maps of the growth and fluctuating fortunes of the Lunar Empire from Wane to Wane help with its history and it would have been nice to have seen something similar done for Dragon Pass. Another issue is that because much of the content is written from differing perspectives, it can sometimes be a little awkward to put the various stories, histories, and events in context with each other, so certainly for the period of Time, an actual timeline might have been a useful addition. In comparison, the write-up of the Lunar Empire is much easier to follow because of timeline.

Drawing on diverse sources, such as Wyrm’s Footnotes, for both its text and illustration, there is certainly much here that Gloranthaphiles—devotees of Greg Stafford’s world—will find familiar in the pages of The Glorantha Sourcebook. To be truthful, the supplement is not quite aimed at them, although there is much in its pages that they will useful in terms of easy reference, especially given that its contents have been updated. Rather The Glorantha Sourcebook is intended as an introduction to specifically Dragon Pass and an exploration of the events leading up to the Hero Wars, framing the conflict not so much as between dynasties, but as between myth and magic. What this means is that The Glorantha Sourcebook is an excellent companion volume to The Guide to Glorantha, but an even better companion to both RuneQuest: Roleplaying in Glorantha and 13th Age Glorantha, serving to introduce, support, and frame the conflicts that those two roleplaying games open with.

Saturday, 12 January 2019

What Are Your Ages?

One of the questions raised about 13th Age might be, “What were the other ages?”. Published in 2013 by Pelgrane Press, 13th Age distilled the best features of the then two previous editions of Dungeons & DragonsDungeons & Dragons, Third Edition and Dungeons & Dragons,Fourth Edition—and added elements which made each player character unique, emphasised narrative game play elements, and upped the action. In the Dragon Empire of the 13th Age, thirteen great Icons—kings and queens, princes, emperors, creatures, and more—work together, feud, and fight in order to hold onto power and to take it, sometimes to maintain the greater good, sometimes not, as the great and the good theorise that the age might be on the wane... The player characters each have two or three links to these icons and it is these that push and pull the characters into their adventures. In the 13th Age the thirteen icons are the Archmage, the Crusader, the Diabolist, the Dwarf King, the Elf Queen, the Emperor, the Great Gold Wyrm, the High Druid, the Lich King, the Orc Lord, the Priestess, the Prince of Shadows, and the Three—the latter being ancient evil Dragons. But were they icons in the previous age and in the ages before that? If not, who did they replace? And just what exactly, is an ‘age’?

Of course, to play 13th Age, none of these questions need be asked, but the Book of Ages certainly asks them and answers them too. In doing so, it gives suggestions as to what an Age might be and how old the icons might be, the means to define the Ages, and thirteen sample Ages (plus one more). Plus, buried in all of that content are new character Races, magic items, spells, and monsters—and some suggestions as to how all of this content might be used from the perspective of the 13th Age.

Basically, an Age is a period of time with a specific influence or arc in terms of events, which begins and ends with tumult and catastrophe. The most well-known in the Dragon Empire being of course, being the 1st Age, marked by its founding following the defeat of the Wizard King and its ending with the destruction of the city of Axis by the giants. The Book of Ages suggests that an Age might be defined by later historians or according to Icon insight, their being best placed to understand when an Age begins and when it ends. These two options are given by the book’s author and the game’s designer respectively and as with the rest of Book of Ages, the Game Master is free to pick and choose the options that she likes. As to the nature of the Icons, three types are given. The first are Eternal Icons, these having always existed, either because they are immortal or because the Icon is held as a very important office. The second are Age-Defining Icons, ones which heavily influence an Age, but then disappear. The third are Recurring Icons, which appear for an Age or two, disappear, but reappear later on, again and again. In the default setting of the Dragon Empire, it is suggested that the Emperor and Great Gold Wyrm are eternal, the Crusader and Orc Lord age-defining, and High Druid and Prince of Shadows recurring.

These suggestions are not set in stone of course, and exactly in which Age the Icons appear, dominate, rest, or disappear can either be defined by the Game Master ahead of time, or alternatively, turned into a collaborative exercise in history creation by both Game Master and her players. To do this, the Book of Ages provides an ‘Engine of Ages’. To use this, both Game Master and players take control of various factions and link Icons to them—these need not be the Icons present in the 13th Age, but can be created specifically for the particular Engine of Ages. So it might be Lady Lamia associated with serpent-sorcerers, the Tallest Ent with living forests, and so on. Each faction is assigned a number of anchor points—Zeniths when the faction is at its highest point, Nadirs when it is at its lowest, Crossovers when they interact with other factions, and Iconic when a faction’s Icon changed—and these are sown across history by rolling dice. The higher the die type rolled, the further back in history the Age when the anchor is placed. Then for each anchor placed, the player gets to define an associated Legend—essentially a tale still told about that Age, Legacy—an enchantment, group, or structure that survives to the current Age, or a Lair—a dungeon or other problem that dates back to the Age. Lastly, the catastrophe which ended the Age should be defined. Any gaps, that is, undefined Ages, are left for the Game Master to fill in the details. This is all noted down on a matrix so that everyone can see the ebb and flow of the anchor points and begin to build a history.

So for example, Helena is controlling Lady Lamia and the serpent-sorcerers. She has rolled a Zenith in the 3rd Age for her faction and describes this as the serpent men’s attempt to bind their future with sorcery, a period known as the Age of Serpents. It is agreed that the Age of Serpents comes to an end because the sorcerous ritual fails and unleashes demons upon the world. The Legacy for this Age is the Crown of Time, said to be able to control the passage of time. The 4th Age is marked by a Crossover by Jeremy’s Tallest Ent and Living Forest, which Dave as the Game Master, suggests is with the Elves because they have not appeared in the history. Jeremy agrees and describes how the Ents and Elves joined together in order to end the threat represented by the serpent men. This Age of the Green Alliance ends with victory over the serpent men and their imprisonment in the City of Serpents, the Lair rolled at the end of the Age. The Nadir in the 5th Age for the Living Forest and Tallest Ent is described as their having spent much of their effort to stop the Serpent Men and so go into decline. It is known as the Age of Sorrow.

The result is a broadly sketched history, one which both Game Master and her players can their link their characters to via the Icons. It is intended to be a collaborative process, roleplayed out over a session with the Game Master primarily serving as the chronicler and noting everything down, whilst asking the players to explain what happened—and perhaps why. To aid both, the Book of Ages includes a list of prompts and suggestions to get everyone’s creativity going… What this creates is not the history of the Dragon Empire, but ‘a’ history of the Dragon Empire, one that is unique to the playing group.

There are though, two Ages which are not defined using this process. The first is the 1st Age, which defines the Dragon Empire as it is known in the 13th Age, whilst the second is the 12th Age and when that is defined using the Engine of Ages, it is with the intent that it sets up the situation in the 13th Age as outlined in 13th Age. The process is accompanied by both prompts and an extensive example.

The remainder of the Book of Ages—some four fifths of it—are devoted to detailing thirteen different Ages, from ‘The Age of Founding’ to the ‘Age of Balefire’. The primary use of these Ages is to fill in the blanks after running the ‘Engine of Ages’, but in play, they can be kept as a mystery or fully realised, visited via portals or even time travel. Another option is taken from 13th Age Glorantha and makes the previous Ages accessible via heroquests. Each Age is given a rough period when it should happen; a summary, overview, the Icons associated with the Age; its Legends, Legacies, and Lairs; End Times—how it ended; as well as notable Races, Spells, Powers, and Items. So ‘The Age of Founding’ describes the chaos after the death of the Wizard King, how the Emperor tamed the land, and the Giants came to destroy the city of Axis. The Emperor, Great Gold Wyrm, and the Three figure strongly during the Age, as do the Hooded Woman ruled over the unquiet dead before the Lich King, the Spelljack who sowed magical chaos, and of course, the Chieftain of the Giants. One Lair leftover is the Spelljack’s Citadel, stolen flying realm which might be found flying somewhere, and a Legend concerns the fate of the Wizard King, who has never returned despite being known to renew his youth. Monsters include Skeletons of Giant Ancestors, Snapping Skulls, and the Wizard King’s Servants, post-human Arcanites transformed by too much exposure to his magic. Besides being monsters, they can also be a player character Race. As such, an Arcanite can better recharge spells or magical items after a battle and as they gain in experience, can better protect themselves against magic. Like the other races in the supplement, the Arcanites can be added to a campaign as is or treated as a player character’s one Unique Thing—survivor, time traveller, and so on. Besides this, some of the other interesting Ages include ‘Age of the Blazing Meteor’ in which a starship explodes over the Dragon Empire disrupting magic and the survivors ally with Hobgoblins, the Age of the Howling Moon in which the Emperor becomes a werewolf and lycanthropy becomes noble, and the Age of the Terrible Emperor in which he becomes tyrant, destroys all opposition, makes himself immune with astrological magic, but forgets about the monks, who dethrone him with a killer punch. 13th Age kung-fu, anyone?

Physically, the Book of Ages is an attractive supplement illustrated with excellent pieces of black and white art. It is well-written, and the content is ably supported with suggestions and extensive reference lists for ease of use. Although there is no index, these do a decent job instead.

The Book of Ages probably does more to expand a 13th Age campaign than any previous supplement, opening up the history of the Dragon Empire, not only for play, but for set-up too, so that like every player character, every Dragon Empire is unique. This is a book of ideas and campaign themes as much it is history, so that campaign could become a time-hopping, theme-hopping game, where instead of finding somewhere to find and fight pirates in the Dragon Empire, it becomes a case of when, as in the Age of Corsairs. And of course, any one of the Ages could be expanded upon by the Game Master to run a campaign in, were she so inclined. A really ambitious Game Master could run a 13th Age campaign built around Age hopping, almost like the adventures of a well-known time traveller on the television. Certainly, the Book of Ages demands its own anthology of scenarios set in the different Ages, if not that very campaign!

It is difficult not to be thoroughly impressed by the Book of Ages. This is a fantastic book of campaign ideas and options that every 13th Age Game Master should have.