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

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.

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