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

Sunday, 24 March 2019

The Symbaroum Campaign II

Karvosti – The Witch Hammer is ‘The Second Episode in the Chronicle of the Throne of Thorns’, the campaign for Symbaroum, the near-Dark Ages fantasy roleplaying game from Swedish publisher, Free League, distributed in English by Modiphius Entertainment. Having been successfully funded via a Kickstarter campaign, it follows on from Thistle Hold – Wrath Of The Warden, taking the player characters deeper into the great Davokar forest. With the inaugural part being set in and around Thistle Hold, the northernmost outpost of Ambria, from where a great many expeditions set out into the Davokar Forest just a few hundred yards from its palisades and which has grown rich on the finds that some survivors bring back, with the second part, the campaign’s focus switches to Karvosti, the great cliff settlement which rises from the forest. This is home to the High Chieftain of all of the barbarian clans and chief witch or Huldra, the site of the twice-a-year market or Thingstead, and which worryingly for both the High Chieftain and the Huldra, has more recently become an important site for the Church of Prios.

The format for Karvosti – The Witch Hammer is the same as Thistle Hold – Wrath Of The Warden. It is divided into three sections, the first is background, the second expanded background and rules for the Game Master, and the third, the campaign itself. The first part is ‘The Explorer’s Haven’, which presents what is generally known about Karvosti, a refuge against the darkness of the Davokar forest whose inhabitants agree on the need for a united front against the threats from the surrounding area, but cannot agree on much else. It takes us from the great entrance onto the plateau, topped with a pair of boar statues, guarded by the ever-vigilant Wrathguard which patrol the settlement, and at which everyone is checked before being allowed to enter. Some history of Karvosti is given; as are plenty of places to eat and drink at, how its inhabitants—both permanent and the many transients in their tent city—entertain themselves, most notably the well-attended story nights held at the market; places to shop at, such as Crueljaw’s Traps where items needed for monster hunting can be purchased and Vearra’s Outpost, an outlier settlement serving those who prefer not to go up onto Karvosti; places to go for information—much in demand by explorers and fortune hunters; and the most notable figures on the plateau. Lastly, the two barbarian clans whose lands surround Karvosti, the Baiaga and the Odaiova, are also detailed, again examining their histories, culture, settlements—including notably, Arch Bridge, the Odaiova stronghold built around an ancient and massive bridge which spanned a river that has since moved several hundred metres away, their leading figures, and their response to the growing darkness from Davokar.

As with Thistle Hold – Wrath Of The Warden all of this initial information in Karvosti – The Witch Hammer is intended for both players and the Game Master. It is designed as either widely known information or easily researched information, but either way, readily available. It is a lot to take in for the players and it might well be worth the Game Master preparing a set of cheat sheets for her players. Ideally, these should be targeted at the type of character each player is roleplaying. So Barbarians, fortune hunters, Witches, and so on are likely to know more than Ambrians, Templars, and the like. This would give pointers for both that would serve as hooks to draw the players and their characters further into life on Karvosti.

The second section is the ‘Game Master’s Section’, which is divided into two parts. The first, ‘In Darkness’, builds on the preceding section, revealing the actual history of Karvosti and its current, fraught political situation, with rising tensions between High Chief Tharaban, the Iron Pact, House Kohimoor and Queen Korinthia, the Sun Church, the Barbarian clans, and the Witches. There is a lot of rich detail here and it is nicely supported with a dozen adventure seeds, ranging from disappearances on the plateau and a rescue mission to free two trapped fortune hunters to dealing with bandits on the road between Thistle Hold and Karvosti and an outbreak of Black Plague Termites, which can be used to add depth to ‘The Witch Hammer’ campaign itself or used in general as part of a Game Master’s campaign.

‘New Mechanics’, the second part, provides rules for creating ruins and detailing their original purpose, inhabitants, features, and so on. This set of tables can be easily used to generate a location—even mid game—and set up a small encounter. This can be during ‘The Witch Hammer’ campaign as there are opportunities for this, but the tables can also be used in general in any campaign. The rules for Scheming can also be applied to any campaign, setting up Symbaroum’s various factions, their likes and dislikes, and establishing the relations between them, before presenting a simple means to track the player characters’ interactions with each of them and how the player characters’ actions change their relationships with them. In general, the rules are quite simple, but the complexity comes in Game Master needing not only to track the relationships and effects of the player characters’ actions as a whole, but also do it for each individual player character because each player character will be different and how each faction views them will be different. As useful as this is, it does add to the task of being the Game Master. In addition, ‘New Mechanics’ gives new rituals and monstrous traits, artefacts, elixirs and diseases, and several new monsters all of which can appear in ‘The Witch Hammer’ campaign.

‘The Witch Hammer’ campaign itself takes up more than half of Karvosti – The Witch Hammer. It gets the player characters involved in the politics on Karvosti itself, between the Barbarian clans, and between Ambria and the Barbarians, as well as sending them out into Davokar and back again to investigate various leads and explore various locations—some of the latter being almost dungeon-like. Notably, it does require the use of the Advanced Player’s Guide and it is designed for a group of experienced player characters with roughly a hundred Experience Points each, with at least one player character being able to speak the Barbarian language, and with the group having a reputation for bold and capable. Guidelines are given for creating new characters of sufficient capability as well as some incentives to get them involved.

Yet those incentives are in a way a stronger means than the default means of getting the characters involved in the campaign. This has them at tavern where they—and everyone else—overhear the maudlin outburst of an NPC about how the authorities treated a friend, an explorer, who was suffering from Blight and who had with her a great artefact. Now this gets the interest of everyone in the tavern, then on Karvosti, and eventually, but all too quickly, across the region. Yet is it enough for the player characters to be involved? Well, yes and no. Yes, because each player character should have motivations enough and faction links enough to get involved on one side or another, but no because it is all too for any of the player characters to decide that their characters have no interest and walk away, leaving the Game Master with more work to do in order to get them involved in the campaign. Nor is this helped by the fact that there are no obvious links between Thistle Hold – Wrath Of The Warden and Karvosti – The Witch Hammer, so that the Game Master will need to develop those before running this part of the campaign.

Once the player characters engage with ‘The Witch Hammer’ campaign, they will find themselves on massive McGuffin hunt—first for the friend of the NPC, second for what she knew, and third, for the artefact. Divided into three acts, this continues with their searching for further clues on Karvosti, before going out to three very different locations where the explorer was last seen—a settlement of religious zealots, a ruined palace, and an island on the brink of the spirit world. Each of these has a different atmosphere and feel, the latter in particular feeling ancient and desolate, and more than a little creepy in places. The difficulty in visiting any one of them is compounded by the interest of rival groups and factions who are after the same information, but often for very different reasons. The three locations can be tackled in any order, not just by the player characters, but also by the other groups. Good advice is given here for the Game Master as to the status of each group at each of the locations in whatever order the player characters tackles them. The likelihood is that the player characters will need to ally with one or more of these groups if they are to succeed and this is where the Scheming mechanics come in because the player characters’ actions will influence these factions’ opinions of them. It all comes to a head as the player characters race back to find the final McGuffin. 

Rounding out ‘The Witch Hammer’ campaign is a discussion of its aftermath. Again, this is organised faction by faction depending upon what the characters do. Much like the involvement of the factions throughout the campaign this feels messy and devoid of any easy outcome, just one more sign of how nothing is easy in Symbaroum. There is also some advice on further leads and stories and potential rewards for the characters.

Like Thistle Hold – Wrath Of The Warden before it, there is a good mix of roleplaying and action involved in Karvosti – The Witch Hammer, especially in the second act where the player characters need to balance their need to find the information they want with having to negotiate with others in order to get it. The Game Master is again given a great cast of NPCs with which to roleplay and there are some decent handouts for the players. Yet Karvosti – The Witch Hammer also suffers from having a lot of information that first the Game Master needs to process and then get the relevant parts to her players and their characters, especially at the beginning where the player and their characters are expected to know a great deal about life on Karvosti. It does not help that the campaign does not make enough of that information itself to provide a really good hook to get the player characters involved at the start, especially given that the player characters are supposed to know it.

Physically, this being a book from Free League and for Symbaroum, there can be no doubt that Karvosti – The Witch Hammer is going to be a fine-looking book—and it is. The layout is clean and tidy, and the artwork is fantastic. Putting aside the repeated use of artwork—less of a problem here than in other books—the artwork could have been better used, for example as a set of portraits to show the players of the campaign’s very many NPCs. Especially given the number of factions involved in the campaign that both the players and the Game Master has to keep track of. One big issue is that the book does lack an index, potentially something that will slow play down if the Game Master needs to look something up. Lastly, Karvosti – The Witch Hammer comes with some great maps, but it also comes with some bland ones too. The one of Karvosti itself is particularly uninteresting and given how time the player characters will be spending there, it is a shame that a better one could not have been provided.

The Symbaroum core rules focuses on three important settlements. Two are Thistle Hold and Karvosti, the third, Yndaros, the capital of Ambria, the young kingdom set up in the wake of the fall of the Kingdom of Alberetor. With Thistle Hold – Wrath Of The Warden and Karvosti – The Witch Hammer, the ‘Chronicle of the Throne of Thorns’ campaign can be seen to expanding upon those locales and their immediate environs. So it good to see that the publisher is expanding upon these locations as well as providing adventuring material built around them.

In addition to presenting more information on Karvosti and the surrounding area, Karvosti – The Witch Hammer does a good job of involving the player characters in the politics of the region and bringing to a head the political tensions that have been simmering at the heart of the game. Yet as content rich as the book is, it is difficult to bring much of that information into play and it makes preparing the campaign that much more difficult—and that is for player and Game Master alike. At the same time, it provides a disappointing hook to get the players and their characters involved and does not tie this, ‘The Second Episode in the Chronicle of the Throne of Thorns’, back into the first, Thistle Hold – Wrath Of The Warden. There undoubtedly some decent gaming to be got out of this part of the Chronicle of the Throne of Thorns, but bringing Karvosti – The Witch Hammer to the table will be a challenge for any Game Master.

Saturday, 23 March 2019

A Weird Day at Someone Else's Office

Mutant Crawl Classics #3: Incursion of the Ultradimension is the third release for Mutant Crawl Classics Roleplaying Game – Triumph & Technology Won by Mutants & Magic, the spiritual successor to Gamma World published by Goodman Games. It is the second adventure to be designed for use with player characters who are not Zero Level, being instead designed for player characters of Second Level. What this means is that it is not a Character Funnel, one of the features of both the Mutant Crawl Classics Roleplaying Game and the Dungeon Crawl Classics Role Playing Game it is mechanically based upon–in which initially, a player is expected to roll up three or four Level Zero characters and have them play through a generally nasty, deadly adventure, which surviving will prove a challenge. Those that do survive receive enough Experience Points to advance to First Level and gain all of the advantages of their Class. In terms of the setting, known as Terra A.D., or ‘Terra After Disaster’, this is a ‘Rite of Passage’ and in Mutants, Manimals, and Plantients, the stress of it will trigger ‘Metagenesis’, their DNA expressing itself and their mutations blossoming forth. Rather Incursion of the Ultradimension is designed for characters of Second Level, so each of the player characters will have a range of powers and abilities as equipment and artefacts scavenged after two or three adventures out in Terra A.D.

Written by Michael Curtis–the author of Stonehell Dungeon: Down Night-Haunted Halls and The Dungeon AlphabetIncursion of the Ultradimension begins with the player characters on their way somewhere when they have stopped overnight at the jungle village of Glazhaus. This makes it easy for the Judge to slot the scenario into an existing or ongoing campaign. Yet during their stay, disaster strikes and everyone, including the player characters, have to scramble to safety. In the wake of the disaster an old horror appears, one that has not been seen for generations and one that the villagers are ill-equipped to deal with given the all too recent disaster, but guess who is?

Going out to the starkly empty island off the coast and the adventurers find a strange building and inside that, an even stranger complex. This is a scientific research facility which has been invaded by, guess what, an Incursion of the Ultradimension. It has a highly regular design, an industrial design, with a high degree of interconnectivity, it being essentially an unfolded tesseract rendered into two dimensions rather than multiple dimensions. What this highlights is a feature crucial to Mutant Crawl Classics and to its genre in general, its adaptation of contemporary or near-future facilities into dungeons that the characters of Mutant Crawl Classics can then explore. This brings in a certain ‘blue-collar’ feel to the Sci-Fi of Incursion of the Ultradimension which is further increased by the nature of the threat that echoes that of the 1979 movie, Alien.

The complex is full of strange creatures and weird growths, most of which are either dangerous or inimical to the player characters. The scenario does include opportunities for roleplaying though. Initially in the village following the disaster, but also inside the complex itself. As expected, some of this is with the complex itself. After all, no self-respecting Sci-Fi scientific research facility would be complete without an intelligent computer to talk to, but not all of the inhabitants of the complex are necessarily hostile towards the player characters. In fact, some of them will probably be happy to see them and given how cute they are, the player characters will doubtless be pleased to see them.

In general, Mutant Crawl Classics #3: Incursion of the Ultradimension is well-written and easy to grasp. Its tone is weird rather than wacky or gonzo, but that should not be held against the scenario. It very much needs another edit and to fair, whilst the artwork is really good, it good have been better used. In particular, it would have been nice if the images of monsters had been matched with the monster stats. This would have made them easier to vizualise by the Judge and thus easier for her to describe them to her players.

If there is an issue with Incursion of the Ultradimension, it is really how it deals with any aftermath. In the long term, it has the potential to link to further sequels based at other research sites and to that end describes a map that the player characters might see, although it does not actually provide such a map as a handout. This is not necessarily a bad thing as it allows the Judge to place any such sequels anywhere in her own campaign world, and anyway, Mutant Crawl Classics is not a roleplaying game with a tightly defined setting. Yet in the short term, the scenario could have explored the possible outcomes in more depth, in particular what might happen to the potentially non-hostile race to be found in the complex, because as with other aspects of the scenario, they have the potential to change the Judge’s campaign world. It would have been nice if guidelines had been included for members of this race had replacement player characters been needed. The likelihood is that any player will enjoy roleplaying one of these creatures with cute, twitchy noses.

In comparison to previous scenarios, Mutant Crawl Classics #3: Incursion of the Ultradimension feels nicely compact rather than sprawling. Like previous entries in the series, this is only twenty pages long, which together with its set-up, makes it easy to bring to a campaign. Mutant Crawl Classics #3: Incursion of the Ultradimension should provide two or three good sessions’ worth of play with a strong emphasis on claustrophobic horror and weirdness.

Friday, 22 March 2019

Friday Fiction: Freeway Fighter vol. 1

Friday Fiction is a series of reviews which focus upon fiction which will be of interest to roleplayers and gamers in general. These can be novels as much as they can graphic novels, which is the case with Freeway Fighter. Older gamers will recognise this as the title of the thirteenth entry of Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone’s Fighting Fantasy series—the history of which is detailed in You Are the Hero—and this graphic novel not only shares the same title, but also the same world. As the title suggests, this world is a post-apocalyptic future in the vein of the Mad Max films—three of which, Mad Max, Mad Max 2, and Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, had been released by the time of Freeway Fighter’s publication in 1985.

Freeway Fighter is set in a post-apocalyptic United States, after some eighty-five percent of the world’s population have been wiped out by a plague. As civilisation collapsed, the survivors divided into two groups. Most have fortified themselves in isolated towns and settlements, huddled together for protection and husbanding and trading for what few resources they could, whilst the second, roam from settlement to settlement, stealing and raiding, and killing who refused to submit to their demands. The gangs drive heavily modified vehicles, souped up, fitted with spikes, their crews armed with a variety of arms and armour. After all, there is no-one to stop them from taking it now.

In the Fighting Fantasy book, the player takes the role of a citizen of the town of New Hope. The settlement is in desperate need of a fresh supply of petrol and so send out the protagonist in a Dodge Interceptor motor car across the wastes in order to procure a tanker filled with the needed fuel. Published in 2017, the graphic novel, which collects the four-issue comic series written by Andi Ewington, drawn and inked by Simon Coleby, and coloured by Len O’Grady, is a prequel, set some twenty-four months after the spread of the virus which killed most of humanity. As the story opens, Former I-400 Driver Bella De La Rosa is driving and surviving, remensising of the days when she was a hotshot rookie racing driver and set to make a big name for herself. She is skilled enough to outdrive most nomads, but when she runs into the marauders known as the Doom Dogs, she and her recently joined passenger face a much more dangerous challenge as they attempt to reach New Hope, for her car itself becomes the subject of the Doom Dogs’ leader’s desire. This is no surprise, since the car plays a major role in the storyline and will go on to literally drive the storyline in the Freeway Fighter solo adventure book.

Freeway Fighter—both the Fighting Fantasy solo adventure and the graphic novel—wear their influences on its sleeve. Lonely stretches of highway, abandoned cars, empty towns with just about enough to picked over and scavenged from, protagonists hardened to the disaster which has fallen humanity and prepared to do almost anything to survive, and villains who believe that might means right and who will do anything to survive. The story it tells is also fairly straightforward, perhaps verging on the familiar, essentially setting everything for the reader to go and play Freeway Fighter as the sequel. Andi Ewington’s script is sparse, leaving room for art, inks, and colours of Simon Coleby and Len O’Grady to shine through and atmospherically depict the ruin that the world has fallen to and capture the action of car-on-car combat. Indeed, the look of Freeway Fighter feels not dissimilar to the Mad Max computer game of 2015.

Beyond the story itself, the Freeway Fighter collection includes a history of Fighting Fantasy and the Freeway Fighter solo adventure book in particular as well as a tribute to Kevin Bulmer, the artist on the Freeway Fighter solo adventure book. Both serve as a nice adjunct to You Are the Hero, as author of both that and the history here is Jonathan Green. Casual readers who have picked up Freeway Fighter because it looked interesting will find these extra pieces infomrative enough, but really they are aimed at the Fighting Fantasy fan who will appreciate the extra background and detail.

Published by Titan Comics, Freeway Fighter is an enjoyable, if slight post-apocalyptic tale of survival and car combat. The art is excellent and the action nicely captured, and the story, if somewhat light, sets the reader up for his playthrough of the Freeway Fighter solo adventure book. Fighting Fantasy fans will enjoy this in particular and will want to have it alongside You are the Hero on their shelves.

Sunday, 17 March 2019

An Ashen Stars Quartet

Ashen Stars is Pelgrane Press’Science Fiction roleplaying game of investigation and action. Using the investigation-orientated Gumshoe System RPG written by the Gumshoe System’s author, Robin D. Laws, it takes the idea that Space Opera stories, especially those screened on television, are essentially mysteries to be solved and adapts it to an interesting frontier setting. This is the Bleed, a rough, wild fringe of space that barely twenty years ago was the enticingly glamorous frontier of The Combine, a two-hundred-year-old interstellar, culture-spanning government dedicated to peace, understanding, and self-determination. The Combine was an idealistic utopia that enabled numerous races and peoples to live happily under its governance, but then the Mohilar attacked, and employing technologies unknown to The Combine their vast war fleets stormed system after system until The Combine’s heart, Earth itself, was devastated. Then following an unexpected defeat at the hands of a last-ditch effort by what remained of Combine forces, they vanished. That was a decade ago and yet, due to an effect known as the Bogey Conundrum, memories of the Mohilar race have become hazy and inconsistent. Try as they might, no one call recall exactly what the Mohilar were, and certainly, no one has any idea where they are now…

In the wake of the Mohilar War, both the interstellar economy and government have collapsed and whilst The Combine exists, its reach has been pulled back from the Bleed. Thus, the worlds the Bleed, many scorched and blasted by war, have been left to their own devices, bound only by a common currency and cultural ties. Where Combine patrols once kept the peace, peacekeeping missions and criminal investigations are now put out to private tender and assigned to independent ship operators known as ‘Licensed Autonomous Zone Effectuators’ or ‘Lasers’. As Lasers, the player characters will crew and operate a ship on a tight budget, hoping to pick up assignments that if completed will enhance their reputation and so lead to better and more profitable assignments.
The first release is the scenario anthology, Dead Rock Seven. This is a collection of four, dirty, detailed, and involving mysteries to be investigated that can be run singly or in sequence as a loose campaign. The links between the four scenarios are quite light, although they build to a denouement in the final scenario. Certainly, the links are light enough that the Game Master can slot scenarios in between them, whether those of her own design or published by Pelgrane Press—though sadly, there are few of those. These links run in two strands throughout the four scenarios. One is the Restreamers, a nufaith which believes that history in the wake of the Mohilar War has run in the wrong direction and that through their efforts that the current universe can be ended and restarted again to follow the correct path. The other is the appearance of ‘CKEMGMCs’—or ‘Class K Entities of the Game Master’s Choice’, Class K entities being the deadly and implacably hostile aliens who may or may not be the Mohilar. They appear throughout the anthology in various ways and the Game Master is free to select either the Class K entities given in the Ashen Stars core rule book or the three news ones given in the Dead Rock Seven.

All four scenarios in Dead Rock Seven follow the same format. The ‘Contract’ provides the Lasers with the details of their next job; the ‘Twist’ explains the basic situation for the Game Master, whilst the ‘The Backstory’ goes into it in more detail, including the NPCs and their connections, and ‘The Investigation’ outlines the general outline of the core spine upon which the scenario is hung. ‘Complications’ add red herrings, other suspects, and corollary lines of enquiry, all culminating in ‘The Choice’ which gives the choices that the player characters are likely to have to make once their investigation is complete. Together this sets up the scenes which make up the bulk of each scenario, all given in the general order that a team of Lasers will investigate. The degree of organisation here is excellent and helps to make the quartet here very easy to run.

In addition, Dead Rock Seven comes with a set of six ready-to-play Lasers—including character sheets—and their ship. The six are a good mix of character types and include heroes as well as war criminals, with all six including some excellent roleplaying links and hooks. All six though require a little customisation before play, but that should not take too long.

The quartet opens with ‘The Pleasure Bringers’. The Lasers are hired by a corporation to find one of its executives who has gone missing on the pleasure planet of Andarta. Now this is the same corporation as appeared in the introductory scenario, ‘The Witness of My Worth’, in the core rulebook, so that the Game Master could easily this scenario as sequel to it. What follows is a murky tale of greed, criminality, sex, and more, all against the neon backdrop of world which specialises in sex and carnality. Although not explicit, this means that the scenario has a strong adult tone, so it may not be suitable for all gaming groups. As well as introducing the Restreamers, the scenario explores issues of immigration in the wake of the Mohilar War, of sexually transmitted diseases, and exploitation, but really building upon them and using them in interesting ways to create a sordid and nasty mystery with an air of grim desperation.

The second scenario is the eponymous, ‘Dead Rock Seven’. The Lasers are hired to investigate a suspicious death aboard a mining asteroid which is in the process of being decommissioned. Where ‘The Pleasure Bringers’ took place planetside and across a major city, this scenario is really confined to just two locations—the asteroid and its labyrinth of hand-dug tunnels and a tethered habitation module. This is much more claustrophobic affair, echoing both the horror and the Blue-Collar Sci-Fi of films like Aliens and Outland (such that it could well with the recently released Mothership Sci-Fi Horror RPG [http://rlyehreviews.blogspot.com/2019/03/blue-collar-sci-fi-horror.html]. The enclosed nature though, does make the cast of NPCs feel bigger and more difficult for the Game Master to handle, as does the intensity of relations between them. This is intentional though, as really what the Lasers are investigating is the labyrinthine nature of the relationships, although this is not to say that there is not the wealth of physical evidence for them to find too. It also means that the Game Master has good cast of NPCs for her to roleplay. ‘Dead Rock Seven’ also introduces ‘CKEMGMC’ for the first time and does so in a clever fashion which initially appear confusing to the Lasers.

‘Period of Tyranny’, the third scenario begins almost en media res, with the Lasers racing to answer the distress call from a stricken passenger starship, the Beatrix. Along with the distress call is a clause that gives the right for the Lasers to investigate the cause of the accident aboard the vessel and arrest those responsible—if anyone is, of course. Then again, this being a scenario for Ashen Stars, there is. After a harrowing rescue mission aboard the Beatrix, the trail leads to the nearby synthculture planet of Pioneer. Now in Ashen Stars, a planet with a synthculture is one which has adopted a culture other than the one that the colonisers originally from, often a historical one. In the case of Pioneer, it is of the frontier drive to settle America, but when the Lasers arrive, they discover that it has been subverted into a fascist, xenophobic regime that echoes an earlier period of Earth’s future history. So essentially it allows the Lasers to explore a bit of history as well as getting involved in pro-Combine and pro-Bleed politics as they attempt to work out who was behind the destruction of the Beatrix and why. It also gives the Lasers a definitive enemy in the form of Pioneer’s secret police as their constant presence and surveillance works to hamper their investigation.

Lastly, ‘The Anaitis Gambit’ adds a degree of silliness and levity before the action kicks in and brings the quartet to a close. Located at a nexus of several translight corridors, Anaitis Station is hosting a cooking contest—essentially ‘The Great Galactic Bake-off’—as a publicity stunt and hires the Lasers to handle the security. This gives an excuse for the Game Master to roleplaying lots of outrageously over the top NPCs before things get nasty as first someone lobs a gigantic heap of star junk at the station and then the dead bodies start piling up. The question is, is this all an attempt to sabotage the cookery contest or is there something to it? Well, yes and yes. The cookery contest is important, but clues from that will lead to an encounter with some strange aliens, reveal just what the Restreamers want and are prepared to do it in order to achieve it, and more… This is fun, fast, and furious adventure which nicely brings the quartet to a close, leaving the Lasers with having saved both the Bleed and the Combine, or having started a whole new war…

Physically, Dead Rock Seven is a clean looking, greyscale book printed on glossy paper. It is only lightly illustrated, but the artwork is excellent. Unfortunately, it is not in colour, which much of this artwork should be to show of how it actually is. As well organised as the book is, Dead Rock Seven does need another edit, which is disappointing.

There is a surprising degree of adaptability to these scenarios, so that they would work in other Science Fiction roleplaying games. They do require of diversity in terms of their aliens and their worlds, so that they would work better in Traveller or Star Trek Adventures: The Roleplaying Game, for example, rather than Firefly Roleplaying Game. Indeed, it could be argued that ‘Dead Rock Seven’ is not unlike ‘The Devil in the Dark’ and ‘Period of Tyranny’ is not unlike ‘A Piece of the Action’ and ‘Bread and Circuses’, all three Star Trek: The Original Series episodes. All of them would work well with the Doctor Who: Adventures in Time and Space roleplaying game too (thank you, Dave Lai). It would take some effort to adapt them to the system and setting of the Game Master’s choice, but the option is there.

Dead Rock Seven presents four good Science Fiction mysteries that are detailed, murky, and convoluted—for the players and their Lasers, for the Game Master they are efficiently explained and organised—and thus exactly what an Ashen Stars Game Master needs. They are also mature of tone and successfully show off aspects of the Ashen Stars setting, whether that is its politics or its recent history as well as gently exploring some timely themes. Worth getting to peruse for ideas for any Science Fiction roleplaying game, Dead Rock Seven is simply excellent support for Ashen Stars.

Saturday, 16 March 2019

A Samurai Hack

Published by Thunderegg Games following a successful Kickstarter campaign, Kaigaku is a roleplaying game which uses the mechanics of The Black Hack to present an ahistorical take upon a feudal Japanese style setting. This is the Empire of Kaigaku, a giant peninsula ruled by alternating emperors—Hidari no Daiten in the West, Migi no Daiten in the East. The lands are administered in his name by eight clans over the farmers, artisans, merchants, and untouchables. These are the Atsumichi or ‘Iron Flowers’, the founders of the imperial court; the Chisaten or ‘Lesser Imperials’, those of the Imperial house who do not ascend to the throne; the Kakujima or ‘Wily Traders’, island merchants who have maintained their independence; the Kondo or ‘Forest Wardens’, who remain isolated in their woodland home; the Morimoto or ‘Snakes’, manipulative sailors who maintain good relations with Southern gaijin; the Shirai or ‘Keepers of Wisdom’, scholars and Imperial archivists; the Toguchi or ‘Hidden Blade’, fabled duelists and vitriolic demagogues; and the Watanabe, the ‘Vigilant Sentries’ who stand guard on the great western wall against invasion by foreigners. 

Kaigaku is rent by internal strife as the clans feud with each other for power and influence over both the current and the next Emperor. Each of the eight clans has its own Bushi who come together in great clashes on the battlefield or great duels of honour; Courtiers who engage in matters of etiquette and politics at court; Ninja who spy and strike from hiding; and Ascetics who learn aid others and study the Kiseki, the stones which fall from the sky and which give great power. All though, must contend with the Gaijin who sailed from faraway empires to trade with Kaigaku and those who live nearby. They include the Albar, wily traders and excellent sailors; the Cordova, religious zealots; the Kherin, horse lords and raiders from beyond the Western Wall; and the mysterious Uriwane. Of these, the Albar and the Cordova have brought with them gunpowder, which the clans willingly purchase to get the edge over their rivals. The Gaijin strictly control the sale of the black powder whilst none of the clans have been able to replicate it or the weapons that use it.

This all roughly analogous with the Japan of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, roughly when the Portuguese and the Dutch were in contact with the island during the Shogunate. Indeed, the Albar and the Cordova can be seen as the equivalent of the Dutch and the Portuguese. In the Empire of Kaigaku though, there is no Shogun, only alternating emperors.

Kaigaku is a Class and Level roleplaying game, which using The Black Hack mechanics, is ultimately derived from the d20 System. The mechanics are player-facing in that a player makes the rolls rather than the Game Master, so as well as rolling for his character to hit a target, a player rolls for his character to avoid being hit by his opponent. These rolls are typically made against a character’s attributes, so against Strength to make and avoid a melee attack roll, Wisdom to spot an ambush, Intelligence to win a game of Go, and so on. Unlike other Old School Renaissance retroclones, Kaigaku does not use Armour Class, but armour points, and uses the Advantage and Disadvantage mechanics of Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition—two twenty-sided dice are rolled and the best used if a character has the Advantage, or the worst used if the character is at a Disadvantage. Kaigaku also adds a few tweaks of its own. One is Intensification. By reducing the target a player has to roll for his character by two for each level of Intensification, the amount of damage a character can do in combat is increased, the more impressive the action being rolled for turns out to be. The maximum level of Intensification a player can select is equal to the character’s Ryu tier level. Much of a character’s actions in the game will focus on rolls to check whether they are at Advantage or Disadvantage, for example in mass combat, in duelling, and so on, and the level of Intensification his player wants to apply. Another is in duels when both participants center themselves with rolls against Wisdom or Intelligence in order to see whether they are have at Advantage or Disadvantage in the subsequent strike. A third is the use of Honour, which enables a character to act with Advantage when invoked, but at a Disadvantage when acting dishonourably. 

One element common to fantasy interpretations of feudal Japan is some kind of magic. Kaigaku does not have magic, although there is a supernatural element which is just hinted at in the rulebook, so no spellcasters, whether sorcerers or priests. Instead it has Kiseki. These are gems, jewels, and precious stones infused with elemental power—Air, Earth, Fire, Water, and Void—which fall from the sky in great meteorite strikes known as seirakka and can harvested to be worked into the great arms and armour and other items to have impressive effects or implanted in the bodies of Ascetics for command over the elements. The downside is that the seirakka can send the local fauna mad and if an Ascetic implants too many, he too may be driven mad by the Kiseki.

Creating a character is a matter of rolling dice to determine the values for his six attributes—Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, Intelligence, Wisdom, and Charisma—and selecting a Class, a Clan, and a Ryu (or school). The four Classes are Ascetics, Bushi, Courtiers, and Ninja, and each of the eight Clans has a Ryu or school for each of the four Classes. A Class determines a character’s Hit Points, arms and armour use, standard attack damage, a special feature or two, and starting equipment. Choice of Clan provides a character with some general background, but primarily dictates which Ryu the character will train in depending upon their Class. Each Ryu grants five abilities ranked into five Tiers. A character receives three skills. One for his Station or upbringing, one for his Passion or hobby, and one for Duty or job. One of these begins at +2, the other two at +1. In play they add to a character’s attributes and will rise in value as a character rises in Level and Tier.

Aki
Level 1 Courtier
Clan: Kondo
Ryu: Watchful Owl

Strength 08 Dexterity 13 Constitution 16
Intelligence 12 Wisdom 15 Charisma 10

Hit Points: 8
Weapons: Wakizashi, knife
Attack Damage: 1d6 armed/1d6 armed/improvised

Skills
Station: Samurai Farmers
Passion: Animal Husbandry
Duty: Go Champion

Special Features
Advantage on Charisma tests to influence people/resist influence
Level 2 Contact in the clan

Tier 1: First Observation
Advantage when playing Go (Wisdom or Intelligence check). Intensify on the roll to inflict a penalty on opponent’s Go roll.

The focus in Kaigaku is very much upon the eight clans, their Ryu, their notable people, their relations with others—both of the empire and Gaijin, and an adventure hook or two for each of them. Together with the secrets of the clans and the factions, this takes up roughly half of the book. The rest covers the mechanics—old and new, character generation, some details on creating monsters and threats, although no specifics are given, all of which is drawn in fairly broad detail. There is potential in the interesting Kiseki, but 

Physically, Kaigaku is underwhelming. The full colour layout is clean and tidy, but the artwork tends towards a cartoon style and is pedestrian rather inspiring. Worse though, is the cartography which is so bland as to represent something that the Gaijin might know rather than the natives of the empire. The single map of Kaigaku might as been a blank page for all it serves the setting, forcing the Game Master to draw her own.

Now the first issue with Kaigaku is the opening sentence on the back cover blurb which states, “Kaigaku brings dramatic samurai action to your tabletop!” This is quite simply marketing hyperbole—or twaddle, because fundamentally, ‘dramatic samurai action’ never went away from your tabletop. There are roleplaying games which offered this before Kaigaku was published and after… What the author should have written is something like “Kaigaku brings dramatic samurai action to the Old School Renaissance!” and that would have been more accurate. The second issue is with another sentence on the back cover blurb with states, “This book presents you with a fully fleshed-out game setting that’s detailed enough to jumpstart your imagination, but light enough so you can make stories that you want to tell.” The second part of this sentence is true exactly because the first part of the sentence is not true. In no way, shape, or form can Kaigaku be described as a “fleshed-out game setting”. In fact, Kaigaku is incomplete. There are no monsters or beasts given; there are details of the foreigners or Gaijin either, despite their being constantly mentioned throughout the book; there is no history, not even a list of major events, and deliberately do so that the Game Master can write her own; and lastly, there is no geography, the map of Kaigaku being so bland and boring in its lack of detail that again, the Game Master would better off drawing her own. Arguably Kaigaku should not have come with a map just as it does not come with a history so that the Game Master can write and/or draw her own.

And yet, Kaigaku is a mechanically sound roleplaying game for anyone wanting a retroclone with samurai and ninja. Indeed, it is actually far superior to the woefully underwritten Ruins & Ronin [http://rlyehreviews.blogspot.com/2011/03/west-is-still-best.html]. Certainly, The Black Hack is a more than serviceable set of mechanics and just as it works in standard fantasy roleplaying, it works in samurai fantasy too. The design of the Classes are decent too and so are the mechanics new to The Black Hack core rules. And therein lies Kaigaku’s real problem.

For as playable as Kaigaku is, it looks and feels familiar to another Asian fantasy roleplaying game, Legend of the Five Rings. Now of course, when writing a roleplaying game based on feudal Japan there are going to be similarities between it and any other roleplaying game based on feudal Japan. There will be samurai, courtiers, and ninja, there be an emperor, and possibly, there will be Gaijin. Given that Kaigaku is an Asian fantasy roleplaying game, it mixes in China too so that there is a wall which protects the empire from dangerous foreigners looking to invade. So far, so expected.

But compare the new mechanics of Kaigaku with Legend of the Five Rings and the Intensification mechanic looks similar to making Raises in Legend of the Five Rings. In the latter roleplaying game, a player or the Game Master raises the target number the player has to beat in order to have his character do something with style or with greater accomplishment or overcome a greater challenge. For example, a player may only have to beat a target number of twenty for his character to strike a bandit, but if the player wanted his character to hit with more damage, then he might would raise the target number to twenty-five, thirty, or more, depending upon the number of damage dice the player wanted to roll. In Kaigaku, a player is doing the reverse, that is, lowering the Target Number, by a factor of two for each degree of Intensification, for exactly the same aims.

Similarly, the use of the elements in Kaigaku, are not the traditional five of Shintoism, Yin and Yang philosophy, and Daosim—Wood, Fire, Earth, Metal, and Water—as used in other roleplaying games set in ancient Asia, such as Cubicle Seven Entertainment’s Qin: The Warring States, but Air, Earth, Fire, Water, and Void. And Air, Earth, Fire, Water, and Void are the elements intrinsic to Legend of the Five Rings. Indeed, they are the five rings of the game’s title. Now in Kaigaku, they do not play as prominent a part, but they are present and one of the Ascetic Ryu, the Heavenly Fist of the Shirai clan, actually trains in their use to make elemental strikes with them.

Further, when comparing the Ryu for the ascetics, bushi, courtiers, and ninja in Kaigaku with the schools for the bushi, courtiers, and shugenja (priests) of Legend of the Five Rings, both consist of five levels, or Ranks in Legend of the Five Rings and Tiers in Kaigaku. When it comes to the individual Tiers versus Ranks, they also bear comparison. For example, ‘Dew on the Web’, the Tier 1 ability of  the Island Spider courtier of the Kakujima Clan...
“Make a Wisdom roll when you or someone you’re speaking with needs something material, such as a bottle of fine sake or an exotic perfume. The GM determines how many, if any, Intensifications you need to find the nearest source of that resource.”
...versus Rank One: The Way of the Carp, the first Technique for the Yasuki Courtier family of the Crab clan (all quotes from Legend of the Five Rings, Fourth Edition):
“The Yasuki are masters of commerce and practice far more openly than other samurai families; they do not consider it to be a breach of etiquette to engage in open commerce. You gain a free Raise when using the Commerce skill even in public. Also, Yasuki are taught from youth to be adept at sizing up their potential customers. When speaking with someone you may make a Contested Roll of your Commerce/Perception to discern some material object or service they want to desire.”
...and then, Rank Three: Treasures of the Carp:
“Your contacts in the merchant and commercial circles of Rokugan make it possible for you to acquire almost anything you might need to satisfy a customer. You may roll Commerce/Awareness at TN 20 to locate a rare or useful item, subject to GM discretion, for someone else. You may track down higher-quality or rarer items by calling Raises.”
Now neither of these are exact copies of each other. However, they do feel similar in design and intent. Another example is the Tier 1: Sure Positioning of the Frenzied Shark Ryu from Kaigaku, who are described as “...marines, sailors or just busi; their enemies call them pirates.”:
“You never suffer Disadvantage for fighting on boats, horses, or any other uneven or moving terrain.”
…in comparison with the Rank 1: The Way of the Mantis technique of the Yoritomo Bushi school of the Mantis clan:
“Mantis bushi learn to fight on the pitching decks of ships and to use anything within reach to as a weapon. You suffer no penalties to movement or attacks for rough or uneven terrain. You do not lose Glory or Honor when using improvised weapons, or weapons with the Peasant keyword, in combat. You suffer no penalties for fighting with a Small or Medium weapon in your off-hand if that weapon has the Peasant keyword. Finally, you gain bonus of +1k0 to all attack rolls.”
Now it is obvious that there is more detail to the techniques of Legend of the Five Rings, but within all that detail, there is content that is similar to that of Kaigaku. Perhaps some of the similarities between Kaigaku and Legend of the Five Rings are due to the author having contributed to the supplements Enemies of the Empire, Strongholds of the Empire, and The Great Clans, and therefore knows the fourth edition of Legend of the Five Rings. Given that degree of familiarity, the degree of similarity between Kaigaku and Legend of the Five Rings are undoubtedly striking. What can be drawn from that is another matter. The opening of the author’s introduction reads, “Kaigaku was a long time coming. I wanted to make a game system that captured the feel of other samurai RPGs without being a simple copy.” Which of course is not only a laudable aim, but exactly what you would expect from the design of a roleplaying game. Yet it does not feel as if the author has avoided Kaigaku “being a simple copy.” Rather it feels as if the inspiration of another game weighed too heavily upon the author when it came to designing his own game.

Friday, 15 March 2019

Roleplay Relief I

Since 1985, Red Nose Day has been a biennial fixture here in the United Kingdom, a telethon originally set up to support famine relief in Ethiopia. In the almost thirty-five years since, it has raised over £1 billion, but in general ignored by the roleplaying industry. In 2019, that changes thanks to Simon Burley. Best known as the co-creator of the first British superhero roleplaying game, 1984’s Golden Heroes and a dedicated attendee of gaming conventions up and down the country—as evidenced in Conventional Thinking, Simon Burley has got several of United Kingdom’s gaming luminaries who together contribute to Role Play Relief. This consists of a two volume set. One is Role Play Relief: The Beginners Book, subtitled ‘For those who know NOTHING about Table-Top Role-Playing Games (but would like to know more)’, the other is Role Play Relief: The Experts Book, subtitled ‘For those who know EVERYTING about Table-Top Role-Playing Games (or THINK they do!’, and the proceeds from the sales of both will be donated to Comic Relief.

As the title suggests, Role Play Relief: The Beginners Book is designed as an introduction to the hobby and to roleplaying for anyone who is interested and knows nothing about either. As well as providing said introduction, it comes with three complete roleplaying games, three adventures, a history, a ludography, a glossary, and more. All of this content comes in a thick paperback and is donated by Simon Burley, JPete Cakebread, John Dodd, Ed Jowett, A. J. Kear, Paul Mitchener, Epistolary Richard, and Baz Stephens, with art by Claire Peacey, Jonny Gray, C. Michael Fanning, Sophia Michailidou, Rick Hershey, Storn Cook.

Role Play Relief: The Beginners Book gets off to a jaunty start with Simon Burley introducing the concept of roleplaying and smartly leading the reader, step-by-step, into their first roleplaying game. Simon’s voice shines through here, the jolly patter of a man who attends convention after convention—not all of them dedicated gaming conventions—and encourages members of the public to play in his games. The game in question is Simon’s own d6 Hack. This is a fantasy roleplaying game a la Dungeons & Dragons, but one based upon The Black Hack. Thus, this is a Class and Level with four Classes—Warrior, Thief, Priest, and Conjurer—with character actions being decided by rolls against the character’s attributes. Now where The Black Hack and its derived roleplaying games employ a twenty-sided die for this process, d6 Hack uses a roll of three six-sided dice. This makes the game easier to pick up and less obtuse in its obvious use of funny shaped dice.

Very quickly, the rules cover actions, combat, and magic in as straightforward a manner as possible. A character sheet is provided for each Class as well as a ready-to-play example, so that the Referee can provide sheets for the players to roll up characters of their own or just grab one and play. This leads up to ‘One of Clerics is Missing’, a short rescue mission the type of which veterans will be familiar with. It amounts to no more than a ten-location dungeon which should provide between a hour and two hours’ worth of play. Certainly a veteran will pick this up without any difficulty, whereas although a neophyte Referee will be slightly more challenged, the author leads him through the process and gives him advice and pointers along the way. Beyond the adventure, the d6 Hack comes with some advanced rules, including monsters, more spells, and rules for experience and going up in Level. Overall, this is a nicely done start to the book, although perhaps a short solo adventure could have been included to get the reader playing and help him learn the rules?

Having given the reader his first roleplaying game, Role Play Relief: The Beginners Book delves into the history of the hobby with John Dodd’s ‘In the beginning…’ It is a brief introduction, before exploring a few games to choose from, all of them in print. It is very light with just a few choices being highlighted across a few genres. Fantasy is the main focus here, which is understandable given the popularity of the genre, but it is at the cost of other games being included. ‘RPG Genres’ by Paul Mitchener follows a similar pattern, but provides the reader with a slightly deeper examination of how roleplaying presents certain genres, but with less of an emphasis on particular roleplaying games. ‘How Actual Play came to shine a light on the hobby’ by Baz Stevens explores how a relatively recent development in the roleplaying hobby—the recording of roleplaying sessions and campaigns for viewing or listening by the general public—has become both its flagbearer, to the point that the recordings are listened to by people with no interest in actually playing and people are coming to playing their first roleplaying game after listening or watching them being played. It is a good introduction to the movement, but perhaps could have made clearer some sample shows for easy reference by the reader.

Donated by Ed Jowett of Shades of Vengeance, the second of the roleplaying games in Role Play Relief: The Beginners Book is Era: Lyres. This is a fantasy game in which the players take the roles of barbarians, bards, rogues, and warriors in a traditional medieval setting, that of the city of Yarnolth. Known for its innumerable number of taverns and city squares where the practitioners of Lyres’ arts, that is, the player characters, can pitch up and spin their yarns for potential profit. They must dress the part; they cannot profess to using magic—divine intervention is believable, but arcane arrows are not; avoid being found lying lest they ruin their reputations and end in barroom brawls; and lastly, not be seen committing acts of murder or theft. Okay, so far, but instead actually going on adventures, the player characters will spin stories of they slew great dragons, battered bandits, obliterated ogres and trolls, and more. The more successful they are, the more they will increase their party’s Confidence Rating and thus be able to ‘perform’ at bigger and more prestigious venues.

Era: Lyres is a brilliantly clever set-up. Essentially, it has the players roleplaying characters who are telling stories about their adventures, the types of adventures which characters in a fantasy roleplaying game go on. Unfortunately, neither the mechanics—dice pools with multiple attributes—fit the setting or Era: Lyres fit the Role Play Relief: The Beginners Book. Essentially both are too complex, the first mechanically for its concept, the second conceptually for what is meant to be an introduction to roleplaying. Had Era: Lyres been included in Role Play Relief: The Experts Book, its conceptual complexities would not have been an issue.

The third roleplaying game in Role Play Relief: The Beginners Book is Cakebread & Walton’s OneDice. Again, this uses a roll of a six-sided die, typically with the addition an attribute and a skill, to handle most of a character’s actions. In comparison to the earlier two roleplaying games, OneDice is very much stripped back, being a simpler game with just three attributes and a handful of skills. It adds the complication of Stunt Points, which when spent allow a character to get out of scrapes or survive a perilous situation, but provides some good examples of their use. There is a fairly knockabout feel to the rules, especially in the example of play. Accompanying the game are two scenarios. The first is a ‘The Hollow Horror’, a short fantasy adventure which is little more than a trek to face a big monster, whilst the second is ‘Raid on Graxlek 5’, a solo Science Fiction adventure. Consisting of just twenty-three entries, this has a security officer investigating a strange facility planetside and is a whole lot more interesting than ‘The Hollow Horror’. It is a pity though, that the reader has to get so far into Role Play Relief: The Beginners Book without being given an opportunity to play like this.

Rounding out Role Play Relief: The Beginners Book is A.J. Kear’s ‘What does that mean? A glossary of jargon and abbreviations used in roleplaying games’. From AC and Action to Worldbuilding and XP, this provides an explanation of the many terms we use regularly in the hobby. Helpful of course, but useful should anyone want to look up a term.

Physically, Role Play Relief: The Beginners Book is a a thick, digest-sized paperback, lightly illustrated and done in black and white throughout. It does need another edit and the layout is somewhat scrappy around the edges. So it feels slightly rough in places and has an amateur feel to it.

There is a lot to like to like about Role Play Relief: The Beginners Book, whether that is two good roleplaying games, the scenarios, the history, explanations, the fact that its proceeds go to charity, and so on, but there are disappointing aspects to the book too. Era: Lyres has already been mentioned as being unsuitable for a book intended to be read by anyone new to the hobby, but another is the fact that the book does not reflect the diversity of games that its various articles mention. Thus, there are is no horror roleplaying game or a Science Fiction roleplaying game—though there is a Science Fiction scenario—in the book, which is disappointing given that it would have broadened its appeal and better showcased what the industry and the hobby is capable of. Instead, what you have is three fantasy roleplaying games and two fantasy adventures when really only the one of each was needed.

In reading Role Play Relief: The Beginners Book, it feels reminiscent of a much earlier introduction to roleplaying, 1982’s Dicing with Dragons. It is not as polished of course, and in not offering a solo adventure at the start, it does not offer quite as easy an introduction to the hobby. Yet Role Play Relief: The Beginners Book provides a broader outlook on the hobby and provides more options in terms of play and so provides a solid introduction to the hobby in 2019.

Role Play Relief: The Beginners Book is available for purchase here.

Sunday, 10 March 2019

Batrachian Horrors & Tumorous Tubers

As the title suggests, What Ho, Frog Demons! – Further Adventures in Greater Marlinko Canton is a scenario set in the Hill Cantons, a region described as, “A Slavic-myth inspired, acid fantasy world of Moorcockian extradimensional incursions and Vancian swindlers and petty bureaucrats.” Previous releases—Slumbering Ursine Dunes and Misty Isles of the Eld—have focused on specific places in the region, not forgetting of course, Fever-Dreaming Marlinko, the city at the heart of the Cantons. Published by Hydra Collective LLCWhat Ho, Frog Demons! expands greatly upon these specific adventure locations by presenting the wilderness which surrounds all of them, that is Marlinko Canton, as a bucolic yet weird, mini-hexcrawl, infested with neatly trimmed, but sleepy villages and hamlets inhabited by smiling rustic yokels who adamantly adhere to customs, practices, and beliefs that are probably weirder than the last settlement you passed through.

Designed for a group of four to seven player characters of between Second and Fourth Level, What Ho, Frog Demons! is written for use with Goblinoid Games’ Labyrinth Lord, but of course is easily adaptable to the Old School Renaissance retroclone of your choice. It details a region roughly twenty-eight by forty-eight miles, with some fourteen fixed sites of interest; thirty-six random encounters encompassing ‘Road Riff-Raff and Other Personages’, ‘Creatures Fell and Less Fell’, and ‘Sites of the Weird’; ‘Rumours, Hearsay, and Gossip of the Rankest Sort’ and ‘Weighty Conversation’; a pair of Adventure Sites; and a bestiary and a ‘Bucolic Village Generator’. Together this gives the Labyrinth Lord the means to run the journey between adventure locations like Slumbering Ursine Dunes, Misty Isles of the Eld, and the two described within the pages of What Ho, Frog Demons!, as well as a hexcrawl-style campaign fuelled by rumours and random encounters.

Of course, What Ho, Frog Demons! can be run in multiple different ways, whether as a standalone wilderness region or as source of scenarios, encounters, rumours, and monsters to be taken apart and added to a Labyrinth Lord’s existing campaign. Really though, it is designed to be combined with Slumbering Ursine Dunes, Misty Isles of the Eld, and Fever-Dreaming Marlinko to give the Labyrinth Lord a campaign for low to mid-Level characters set in the Hill Cantons. There are numerous links to all three locations in the pages of What Ho, Frog Demons!, primarily in the rumours and conversations it gives to help the Labyrinth Lord present engaging NPCs and give hooks for her player characters to follow up. At the heart of What Ho, Frog Demons! though—and what several of the hooks point to, are its two adventure sites.

The first adventure site is ‘The Frog Demon Temple’, what the author call a ‘Saturday Night Specials’, a small dungeon designed to be played between larger, longer adventures. Running to just eleven locations, this is a damp, foetid, batrachian hell hole sitting awfully close to a Hot Hell and which suggests further dangers to be found lurking under the Hill Cantons and which is probably too tough a dungeon to throw at characters of the lower Level range that What Ho, Frog Demons! is written for. 

Where ‘The Frog Demon Temple’ is likely to offer one or two sessions’ worth of play—less if the player characters realise that it is just too tough and decide to make a run for it, the second adventure site presents a much longer, more traditional scenario in the vein of Slumbering Ursine Dunes and Misty Isles of the Eld. ‘Beets for the Beet God’ takes place in the village of Ctryri Ctvrt where rumour has it that a local farmer has dug up a giant beet—or beetroot—allegedly marked with a strange, face-like blemish. Other hooks are given to get the player characters there, but whatever the reason for their visiting, it really is not too far for them to go from anywhere in the Marlinko Canton. What the party will find is yet another sleepy village, one full of nicely drawn NPCs, each with their own motivations which will change over the course of the adventures. The player characters are free to wander as they wish, interact with the NPCs as they wish, and in doing so, they will discover the weirdness at the heart of the adventure. There is the possibility that they will stop the weirdness early on, but player characters being player characters…

The primary similarities between Slumbering Ursine Dunes and Misty Isles of the Eld and ‘Beets for the Beet God’ are structural. All three are ‘pointcrawl’ adventures—consisting of connected adventure nodes rather than a hex grid of locations and wilderness spaced in between—but where Slumbering Ursine Dunes and Misty Isles of the Eld are regional in size, ‘Beets for the Beet God’ is limited to just Ctryri Ctvrt and its manor house. All three use an index—or clock—to track the progress of elements or forces at the heart of the scenario. In the previous two scenarios, this was a ‘Chaos Index’, which tracked the response of those elements or forces to the player characters’ actions, but here it is an ‘Infection Index’ which tracks the progress of its threat if the player characters decline to act. Ultimately, if they decline to act, the threat escalates into one that infect the whole of the Marlinko Canton… and beyond.

‘Beets for the Beet God’ is the highlight of What Ho, Frog Demons! It is a delightfully playful satire upon the conspiracy/zombie infection genres, but one that perfectly suits the bucolic weirdness that runs throughout Marlinko Canton.

Physically, What Ho, Frog Demons! is a well-presented book. It is profusely illustrated, not quite as archly styled as Misty Isles of the Eld, but nevertheless weird, rife with rustic insularity and bucolic resentment, and involving lots of frog demons. Many of the latter verge on the adorable, possessing an almost Muppet-like cuteness, but others are twisted and freaky, infusing the canton with batrachian horror. The cartography is also good and the writing is engaging and enjoyable.

What Ho, Frog Demons! is something of a contrast to the previous two adventures, Slumbering Ursine Dunes and Misty Isles of the Eld. With their use of the ‘Pointcrawl’, both are tightly focused in their design to enable the Labyrinth Lord and her players to concentrate on adventuring rather than having to travel. So it feels a little odd to have what is a hexcrawl rather than a Pointcrawl for the Hill Cantons, but What Ho, Frog Demons! – Further Adventures in Greater Marlinko Canton brings the Marlinko Canton to quiet life with its parochial oddities and bucolic weirdness that together hide the horrors that lie in the garden shed and in the earth below.