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Monday, 30 December 2019

1979: Adventures in Fantasy

1974 is an important year for the gaming hobby. It is the year that Dungeons & Dragons was introduced, the original RPG from which all other RPGs would ultimately be derived and the original RPG from which so many computer games would draw for their inspiration. It is fitting that the current owner of the game, Wizards of the Coast, released the new version, Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition, in the year of the game’s fortieth anniversary. To celebrate this, Reviews from R’lyeh will be running a series of reviews from the hobby’s anniversary years, thus there will be reviews from 1974, from 1984, from 1994, and from 2004—the thirtieth, twentieth, and tenth anniversaries of the titles—and so on, as the anniversaries come up. These will be retrospectives, in each case an opportunity to re-appraise interesting titles and true classics decades on from the year of their original release.


—oOo—


Adventures in Fantasy is the only roleplaying game to be designed by Dave Arneson, the co-creator of Dungeons & Dragons following his leaving TSR. Inc. in 1976. Co-designed with Richard L. Snider, who would also designed Avalon Hill’s Powers & Perils—and who like Arneson, passed away in 2009—Adventures in Fantasy was first published in 1979 by Excalibre Games Inc. and then by Arneson’s own Adventure Games in 1981. Adventures in Fantasy is a classic Class and Level roleplaying which draws from the Medieval period for its inspiration rather than Tolkien—though monsters and magic are a mainstay—which comes as a boxed set. Inside can be found three books. These are the fifty-eight page ‘Book of Adventure’ and the ‘Book of Faerry and Magic’ and ‘Book of Creatures and Treasure’, both fifty-six pages.

Adventures in Fantasy opens with this forward (sic): 

“Many years back Dungeons & Dragons by Gygax and Arneson first appeared on the gaming scene and a veritable revolution took place. Soon dozens of supplements and imitations were also on the scene, vying for the ever growing attention of gameplayers throughout the world. Yet throughout this I have felt that the original spirit of the Role Playing Fantasy game has not been well looked after and that there have been few real improvements to that less than perfect original system. To this was added dozens of additional rules in a chaotic jumble of that buried the original structure under a garbage heap of contradictions and confusion. Any person without the aid of an experienced player was hard pressed to even begin to gain an understanding of the rules and even with aid it sometimes still proved to be impossible.”

The authors continued by hoping that Adventures in Fantasy would be as understandable to the novice as it is to the experienced player. Thus they threw down a gauntlet for themselves and potential players and set the standard by which Adventures in Fantasy—and to be honest, any roleplaying game—should be gauged. The unfortunate fact is though, that Adventures in Fantasy failed to meet that bar. From the outset, Adventures in Fantasy suffers from an unnecessary complexity in its design, one which apparent just four pages in, with the player needing to apply the following formula to generate a character’s Hit Points.

((Strength÷2)+(Stamina÷3)+(Dexterity÷4))÷5

A character in Adventures in Fantasy is defined by his Class, six attributes—Strength, Dexterity, Intelligence, Charisma, Stamina, and Health, Social Status, Starting Age (with a chance of natural death before play has even begun!), and Education. The Attributes are straight percentile rolls—though Adventures in Fantasy being from 1979 means that these are rolled on two twenty-sided dice marked ‘0’ to ‘9’ twice, whilst Social Status and Starting Age are rolled on the given tables. Education is represented by a number of courses of instruction that a character has taken. To determine how many, first a player works how months his character spent being educated or trained and then spends the months learning various packages. 

Adventures in Fantasy offers just the two character types, Warrior and Magic-User. Neither can be called a Class in the Dungeons & Dragons sense. A Warrior simply gains a 1% bonus to hit at each Level, whilst a Magic-User it increases the number of Magic Points he has. (That said, Adventures in Fantasy appears not actually define what the Levels actually are, so the Game Master will probably need to define them herself).

Our sample character is Edgar Smith, a simple townsman who was conscripted into the local liege lord’s army before he could undertake an apprenticeship. Once that war ended, rather than coming home, he sort service elsewhere and has fought in many battles as a swordsman since. He is physically fit, but lacks stamina.

Edgar Smith
Class: Warrior
Social Status: Tradesman/Man-at-Arms (Rank 6) Age 28

Strength 96
Dexterity 65
Intelligence 74
Charisma 48
Stamina 31
Health 20

Hit Points: 15

Education
Physical Training I, Physical Training II, How to use a shield, How to use a sword, How to use a club

Key to creating a character and what he can do is the roll for Social Status (modified by the Starting Age). This determines the number of years of education he has and thus what courses he can learn. Any character who wants to use his full physical attributes will need to take ‘Physical Training I’ lest he only be able to use them at three quarters of their value. Similarly, unless a character has been trained in the use of a weapon, any time he attacks with it, his player will be rolling against a third of the base skill. An average character should be able to enter play with an occupation, for example, blacksmithing or huntsman, and some physical and weapons training. Yet roll well in terms of Status and Starting Age, and the character created is highly capable with a wide range of skills and training packages, a member of the nobility, and even perhaps a Magic-User. Conversely, roll poorly and a player character is essentially a peasant levy who has been drilled to use a pike. Lastly, this does not take into account the fact that a player might fail the course and literally waste the time devoted to it.

As this point, you would expect ‘Book of Adventure’ to start discussing the rules to Adventures in Fantasy, but the middle third of the volume takes a sudden swerve into Game Master territory with advice on how to set up a campaign, an adventure, and laying out and designing the underworld, plus random encounter charts. These include the chances of a party being detected or evading another group of individuals or monsters in an area. It supports this with a sample dungeon, ‘The Dragon’s Lair’, and the wilderness location of the Bleakwood Fief, including the tower of a sorcerer. This is a serviceable set of examples with rather plain maps, though the hex map of the Bleakwood Fief is decent enough.

Mechanically, Adventures in Fantasy uses percentile dice, rolled for most situations against a character’s attributes—with no obvious modifications. Combat though, is more complex. It involves comparing body types, so Human versus Human, Human versus Snake, Lion versus Human, and so on to provide a base attack value. This is modified by the combatants’ Dexterity values, size, and comparative Experience Levels. Damage inflicted is determined by a six-sided die roll—no matter what the weapon—with no damage modifiers. Alternatively, an option allows for a straight percentile roll to be made against the body type of the defendant, which determines the type of die rolled for the damage, which could be a four-sided die or it could be two ten-sided dice, whilst special results inflict damage directly against the defendant’s Dexterity attribute. Other optional rules take the effects of terrain on combat into account, provide an armour saving throw—shields block damage, but armour reduces it, and allow a Strength bonus to damage. Throughout though, both Game Master and players need to keep track of their combatants’ Stamina, as it is possible to fight until exhausted. 

Combat in Adventures in Fantasy is a wonky mix of the simplistic and the complex. The damage mechanics are either too basic or too complex, neither effectively modelling character skill or attributes unless the Game Master includes the various options. Further, none of the options would be regarded as options in any other roleplaying game, including Dungeons & Dragons. Similarly, the rules for Experience Points for both Warrior and Magic-User require yet more arithmetic which only gets more complex the more player characters are involved in defeating an opponent.

Magic in Adventures in Fantasy uses Magic Points, a Magic-User gaining more Magic Points as he rises in Level. Spells are divided into non-alignment spells and three alignments, Law, Neutral, and Chaos—with no real explanation of what these alignments are—and once a Magic-User has selected a spell of a certain alignment, he cannot select those of the others. The spells are a mix of the usual, like Light, Fly, and Open Door, but also the odd like Insolence—which forces the target to be rude, Abandon—the target gives up all actions and devotes himself to cavorting about as if in an idyll, and Persecution—the target feels constantly persecuted by invisible demons. The target of a spell always has a saving throw against any spell, this being a percentile based on the number of Magic Points the spell cost to cast.

As well as normal spells, a Magic-User can cast permanent magic, typically on buildings, statues, swords, rings, and so on. This takes weeks of time and a Magic-User has a limited lifetime supply of Permanent Magic Points which rises slightly as the Magic-User gains Levels. Magic-Users can also enter into sorcerous combat, another complex sub-system which echoes the Psionics mechanics of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. Then again, Faerry Magic, the magic of Dwarves, Trolls, the Faerry, and Elves is a simpler and flavoursome, divided between songs and runes, but essentially a reinterpretation of the spells for Magic-Users.

Besides the details of Dwarves, Trolls, the Faerry, and Elves, Adventures in Fantasy provides a wide range of creatures and monsters. Quite possibly the best done book of the three in Adventures in Fantasy, ‘Book of Creatures and Treasure’ is comparatively simple and accessible, with fun rules for creating quite varied Dragons, and a decent mix of creatures and monsters familiar and unfamiliar. The treasures and various artefacts are of a similar nature.

Physically, Adventures in Fantasy is decently presented, each book on a heavy buff paper. It needs editing in many places, as the writing is often clumsy, but the artwork is simple and clear enough throughout, having what would be called an ‘Old School’ look and feel. On the downside, the decision to colour-code the books and use colour rather than plain black text has repercussions. The use of red text in the ‘Book of Creatures and Treasure’ makes its content all but unreadable.


—oOo—

Unfortunately, Adventures in Fantasy received mixed reviews at the time of its publication. Writing in Ares Nr. 4 (September, 1980), Eric Goldberg wrote, “The design of Adventures in Fantasy is, in every way, a direct lineal descendant of D&D, and is, in many respects, superior to its forebear. The resemblance unfortunately applies to the massive disorganization and frequent incoherency of the rules. Given the success of D&D, perhaps this is a good marketing strategy; it does, however, make the rules slightly indigestible.”, before concluding that, “AIF would seem to have many things against purchasing it. The price, the graphics are terrible, the rules are worse, and many of the systems are overly complicated, However, when played, the game is a lot of fun. Of course, some of the burdensome rules must be streamlined, but that work is not excessive.” (Note that Adventures in Fantasy cost $20 in 1979.)

Clayton Miner, in Pegasus #01 (1981), said, “Admittedly, this game does have its fascinations, especially to those who are interested in running a game with the flavor of medieval tales, rather than as Middle Earth. This is a game that should be avoided by those people who derive enjoyment from running a wide variety of character classes, as the only ones available are Warrior and Magic User. It is unfortunate that what could have been a superior project has turned out to be a disappointment in terms of playability and quality.”

Referring back to the introduction to Adventures in Fantasy in Space Gamer Number 30 (August, 1980), Ronald Pehr  commented that, “D&D might had ‘contradictions and confusions’ as Mr. Arneson points out on page 1 of ADVENTURES IN FANTASY, and he may be correct that ‘Any person without the aid of an experienced player was hard pressed to even begin to gain an understanding of the rules…’ However, we now have other games which aren’t full of confusion, offer some excellent role-playing, and can be handled by beginners, and don’t cost $25!”


—oOo—

Adventures in Fantasy is all but forgotten today, but its legacy is ever so slightly interesting. Most obviously, co-designer Richard L. Snider would go on to design Powers & Perils for Avalon Hill, but Adventures in Fantasy influenced other designers too. Notably, Jonathan Tweet took the concept in Adventures in Fantasy that a character marking a magical item would pay a permanent cost to do so and applied it to Dungeons & Dragons, Third Edition. In Adventures in Fantasy, the cost is paid from a limited supply of Magic Points, in Dungeons & Dragons, Third Edition, it was paid in Experience Points.

Adventures in Fantasy is a mess of complexity and simplicity with uneven explanations. It is not hard to see what the designers are trying to do, but all too often they make the game inaccessible and unnecessary hard work. They would go on to release a second edition in 1981, but how many of the issues in Adventures in Fantasy were fixed or addressed is another matter.

Ultimately, Adventures in Fantasy is more curio than roleplaying game. Essentially what Dave Arneson did next after Dungeons & Dragons and what he designed in response to what he saw Dungeons & Dragons had become. Unfortunately, the result is dense and fiddly, and hard work, in places incomplete, and undoubtedly not what either of the authors intended, at best a set of their house rules, at worst, a sideswipe at Dungeons & Dragons.

Sunday, 29 December 2019

1974: Warlord

1974 is an important year for the gaming hobby. It is the year that Dungeons & Dragons was introduced, the original RPG from which all other RPGs would ultimately be derived and the original RPG from which so many computer games would draw for their inspiration. It is fitting that the current owner of the game, Wizards of the Coast, released the new version, Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition, in the year of the game’s fortieth anniversary. To celebrate this, Reviews from R’lyeh will be running a series of reviews from the hobby’s anniversary years, thus there will be reviews from 1974, from 1984, from 1994, and from 2004—the thirtieth, twentieth, and tenth anniversaries of the titles—and so on, as the anniversaries come up. These will be retrospectives, in each case an opportunity to re-appraise interesting titles and true classics decades on from the year of their original release.

—oOo—


Image result for Apocalypse board game games workshopIf you are of a certain age, then you will remember Apocalypse. Not the ‘Apocalypse’, but Apocalypse: The Game of Nuclear Devastation, a board game published by Games Workshop in 1980 in bookcase format along with Valley of the Four Winds and Warlock. It saw generals fighting for territory in a near future Europe in conflicts that would quickly escalate into nuclear confrontations and inevitably, nuclear devastation. The rules were simple and to our fourteen-year-old minds, the fun thing about the game was that every time you won a conflict, you were awarded a stage for your nuclear missiles. The game included little plastic missile stages that clipped together to form slightly wonky nuclear missiles and when you fired them, each missile devastated several regions on the board and destroyed whole armies. It was in my late English teacher Mister Peter Rolfe’s opinion, when we explained it to him, very poor taste.

The truth of it was that Apocalypse was produced on a low budget. The map was quite small, the missiles were of cheap plastic, the armies of thin card, and the six-sided die included in the game was arguably the worst die I have ever seen. Fortunately, this did not matter. The die was never intended to be rolled in Apocalypse. A couple of years later I got to play again, but not Apocalypse, but The Warlord, the original version of the game that was not quite as simplified as Apocalypse and had better components—although the copy I was playing used Lego blocks as missile stages. What was interesting was that I was playing with the designer’s nephew. I never did get to meet the designer—Mike Hayes—then, but by chance I met him at UK Games Expo 2013 where he had a new edition of the game available. Not of Apocalypse: The Game of Nuclear Devastation, but Classic Warlord – The Holy Grail of Wargaming, a new version of the original game first self-published in 1974.

Classic Warlord, a game of bluff, conquest, and nuclear confrontation, is designed for two to seven players—Apocalypse was for between two and four. Classic Warlord retains the same simplicity of rules as Apocalypse and is designed to be modular. Its eight map boards sit together to cover Europe, the Near and Middle East, and North Africa. What this means is that a short game can be played out over a small theatre over two maps—for example, the Madrid and Rome maps to form a Western Mediterranean theatre—in an hour or two with two, three, or four players. With all eight maps and all seven players, a game could last several hours.

Classic Warlord comes richly appointed. In addition to the eight full-colour map boards—each marked with mega-cities, key urban areas, rural regions, mountains, deserts, and sea regions, the big box includes two sets of the three-page rules sheet, seven separate red cloth bags full of small coloured discs—these represent the players’ armies, a black bag of thick squares used to mark irradiated regions, two sets of missile stages—red for A-Bombs, white for H-Bombs, and a large die. Also included in the box is a twenty-four page combined FAQ and set of Designer’s Notes. What is missing from the box is a cup under which to hide the die during battles, but that is easily supplied.

Once the map boards have been selected, players take in turn to place a single army on an unoccupied and unconnected mountain region until they have all been filled. What this means is that the players begin the game with unconnected forces, each conducting the near-future conflict in a balkanised fashion as a mini-empire of its own. Then on his turn, a player conducts three phases. The first phase consists of firing and detonating missiles—this occurs later in the game after a player has won a few battles against his opponents. In the second phase, a player receives more armies, the number based on the number of separate empires he owns, as well as the number of mega-cities, key areas, and rural regions he controls at the start of his turn. These are placed within the empires they are generated from.

In the third phase, he can move his armies to occupy empty regions and he can also attack enemy-held regions. Classic Warlord’s combat mechanics are where the game begins to shine. The attacker selects a number on the die not greater than the number of armies he is attacking with and hides it under a cup. The defender now has to guess the number selected. If he does so, the attacker loses that number of armies from his attacking forces.  Essentially, the attacker is staking a portion of his forces on the defeat of the defender. If on the other hand, the defender fails to guess the number correctly, he loses one of his armies and the attacker gains a single A-Bomb missile stage that he can place anywhere within his empire that he attacked from, to be launched in the first phase of subsequent turns. Attacking mega-cities, mountains, and from sea onto the land are difficult to stage.


For example, it is Dave’s turn. He has already reinforced the Apennines in Italy so that it has six armies. He wants to capture Milano to the north which Niamh defends with just two armies. Dave as the attacker takes the die, selects a number between one and six, and hides it so that the number cannot be seen or changed. Niamh has to guess the number, which must be between one and six. She selects three, but Dave chose two, so Niamh loses an army. Dave also gains an A-Bomb missile stage to place anywhere in his empire in Italy. He also continues the attack. He again selects three, thinking that Niamh will not choose that, but she does! Dave loses three armies from his forces and decides not to press his attack.

Once a player has a missile, he can launch it during the first phase of his turn. A missile’s range is determined by the number of its stages. When it strikes, the targeted region is irradiated—marked with one of the game’s black squares—and rendered unsafe for the rest of the game. In addition, all of the adjacent regions are devastated and any armies in them destroyed. These regions can be reoccupied. H-Bombs are more effective. They not only irradiate the targeted region, but also all of the adjacent areas. Of course, all of the regions adjacent to the irradiated regions are devastated.

If any missile—A-Bomb or H-Bomb—is stationed in an area that is devastated, it will also detonate, having the same effect as if it had been launched at a region. It is thus possible to set off a chain-reaction of missiles is they are placed too close to each other. (It should be noted that our fourteen-year-old selves would look upon this with unbridled glee!). Although missiles do permanently remove territory from the game, their devastation effect is an efficient means of removing enemy armies from the map.


For example, Niamh wants to stop Dave from staging further attacks from the Apennines, so on a later turn she launches a two-stage A-Bomb from the Tyrol on the Apennines. It irradiates the Apennines and devastates Emilia, Milano, Torino, the Ligurian Sea, Toscana, Umbria, and Marche. In the next phase, Niamh will receive more armies and not only reinforce her armies in the Alps, but march south into northern Italy. For launching an A-Bomb, Niamh also receives an H-Bomb to place in her empire in northern Italy...


Play continues like this until there one last survivor who is declared the winner of the game.

In the process, irradiated and devastated areas will ripple and grow across the map. This will affect further battles as players’ forces are channelled around irradiated areas. H-Bombs exacerbate this issue.  As this happens and players are eliminated from the game, battles are likely to become bigger and bigger, but more tightly focused on certain terrain.

By modern standards, Classic Warlord shows its age—after all, it is more than forty years old. It is a brutal wargame in which no prisoners are taken; it is not a balanced Eurogame in which the play is competitive rather than combative; and it is a game in which the players are eliminated from play one after another. Its subject matter has also dated—we no longer live in fear of imminent nuclear annihilation. That said, there is a simple elegance to the design of this game and there is a complete absence of luck—Classic Warlord is not Risk with its reliance on dice rolls. The mechanics in Classic Warlord rely purely on player decision, bluff, and deduction. Selecting how many armies to commit to a battle is a tough decision for the attacker and deducing how many the attacker is prepared to risk lies at the heart of the game. A larger number of armies means that the attacker has greater choice in how many he can risk, but risking too many means that his attack can fail more spectacularly. The defender of course, has to gauge just how many the attacker is prepared to risk…

In comparison to the earlier Apocalypse, the new edition of Classic Warlord is bigger, bolder, and better presented. It has been streamlined in places—there are fewer mega-cities and it is not possible to reconstruct irradiated areas. As much as they are destructive in their effect, the addition of H-Bombs from earlier iterations of the game—they do not appear in Apocalypse—actually speeds play because they knock territories out of the game and reduce the need to battle over them.

In larger, multiplayer games, one issue is that the players are sat around doing nothing when it is not their turn. Of course, there is nothing to stop them enjoying the tension of the confrontation between the current combatants or indeed involving themselves in attempts to form or break alliances. This diplomatic aspect to the game is not discussed in the rules, but it is implicit with this kind of multi-player wargame.

What then of Classic Warlord as a simulation? It certainly does not simulate actual warfare, its scope and mechanics being too broad and too abstract for that. In a sense, it is more like Diplomacy or Risk in terms of its scope and mechanics, but given that its setting is that of a then near-future post-Cold War conflict (the game having been long developed and published before the end of the Communist Bloc at the end of the 1980s), what it does simulate is a conflict that never came to pass. It is thus a ‘what if?’, although loose parallels can be drawn to certain post-Cold War conflicts in Classic Warlord’s set-up of small empires jockeying for power and territory combined with the post-Cold War fear of post-Soviet states and factions gaining control of nuclear weapons. Certainly though, it models the brinkmanship of nuclear conflict.

Given its set-up and its expanded playing area with the extra maps, it is disappointing that Classic Warlord does not entertain the possibility of scenarios to simulate possible conflicts. Given the game’s age, the obvious would be a Warsaw Pact/NATO confrontation in Germany, but the collapse of the Balkans could also be played out, as could numerous conflicts in the Middle East.

Physically, Classic Warlord is nicely presented. The maps are well down and mounted on sturdy cardboard. The plastic pieces are sturdy, though the armies are a little fiddly to handle. Although a nice touch, the inclusion of bags for all of the plastic pieces does seem a little redundant given that they come in ziplock bags. Lastly, the rules sheet is nicely done. At just three pages in length, it points to the game’s simplicity and elegance.

There is no denying that the premise behind Classic Warlord is unwholesome. Indeed, it may even be unpalatable to some, yet there is an undeniable pleasure—a guilty pleasure perhaps—in seeing the game back in print, but a pleasure nonetheless. Even though its premise has dated, there is no denying the sheer brutality and elegance of Classic Warlord’s design. 

Saturday, 28 December 2019

1979: Bushido

1974 is an important year for the gaming hobby. It is the year that Dungeons & Dragons was introduced, the original RPG from which all other RPGs would ultimately be derived and the original RPG from which so many computer games would draw for their inspiration. It is fitting that the current owner of the game, Wizards of the Coast, released the new version, Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition, in the year of the game’s fortieth anniversary. To celebrate this, Reviews from R’lyeh will be running a series of reviews from the hobby’s anniversary years, thus there will be reviews from 1974, from 1984, from 1994, and from 2004—the thirtieth, twentieth, and tenth anniversaries of the titles—and so on, as the anniversaries come up. These will be retrospectives, in each case an opportunity to re-appraise interesting titles and true classics decades on from the year of their original release.


—oOo—


Bushido is significant for being the very first Samurai role-playing game set in Feudal Japan. Designed by Robert N. Charrette and Paul R. Hume—who would go on to design the highly regarded Shadowrun in 1989—and originally published in 1979 by the short-lived Tyr Gamesmakers Ltd., it is best known from the 1981 boxed set published by Fantasy Games Unlimited, so it this version that is being reviewed here. Drawing upon the Japanese film genre of ‘sword fighting’ or samurai cinema known as ‘Chambara’, it is set in a semi-historical heroic, mythic, and fantastic version of Japan, in which Bushi, Budoka, Yakuza, Ninja, Shugenja, and Gakusho seek to serve their liege lords or masters, and do so with honour and loyalty. Notably, as much as there is an emphasis in Bushido on sword-fighting and magic, myth and history—almost like any other roleplaying game—the roleplaying game places a strong emphasis upon the player characters’ honour and social position.

The 1981 boxed set comes with two thick books, a map of Nippon marked with its provinces, a Game Master’s Screen, and a character sheet. The books consist of ‘Book I, The Heroes of Nippon’, which provides rules of play and the players guidebook, and ‘Book II, The Land of Nippon’, a Gamemaster’s Guidebook. Both are black and white books, lightly illustrated, but filled with dense text. ‘Book I, The Heroes of Nippon’ covers characters, skills, the core mechanics, and spells, whilst ‘Book II, The Land of Nippon’ covers NPCs, battles, treasure, places of Nippon, non-adventuring activity, and a scenario.

A character in Bushido is defined by six Attributes—Strength, Deftness, Speed, Health, Wit, and Will; Saving Throws—derived from the Attributes to determine the success of an action using a particular Attribute; Abilities—derived factors such as health and learning; Capabilities and Skills. The Classic Man in Bushido has a value of ten in each of the Attributes, which can actually range between one and forty. A character will also have a Profession and a Level—Bushido being a ‘Class and Level’ roleplaying game, although with just the six Levels of Experience. The six Professions are Bushi—honourable warriors, the classic samurai, Budoka—martial artists, Yakuza—gangsters and folk heroes, Ninja—status-less, dishonourable thieves, spies, and assassins, Shugenja—Taoist-style wizards, and Gakusho—either Buddhist or Shinto priests. Each Profession provides a character with Attribute bonuses and has its own skills as well as Ki powers, each fuelled by a character’s inner spiritual reservoir. Notably, the skills are divided into Bugei or combat skills, Fine Arts, Practical Arts, Ninja skills, and Magical and Mystical skills with a lot of attention paid to each. Lastly, a character has On, a measure of the respect that the character has for himself, gained by winning contests, battles, and duels, being heroic, going on pilgrimage, and so on, but lost for acts of cowardice or dishonesty, rashness, and the like. On is necessary—though not for Ninja—when gaining Levels in a Profession, but if too much On is lost, a character can lose Levels. Lastly, Status represents a character’s standing in society.

Now creating a character in Bushido is not an easy process, primarily because it is not presented in what would be regarded as a logical order. The actual explanation of the process does not come until half way through the eighty pages of ‘Book I, The Heroes of Nippon’. The first forty or so pages of the book are devoted to explaining the stats, skills, Ki powers, and Professions, basically everything to do with the make-up of character, but without a starting point. So it feels backward because essentially, a player has to read so far into the book in order to actually begin the creation, but then go back to the beginning of the book to continue it, plus there is a lot of flipping back and forth as part of the process.

To create a character in Bushido, a player rolls to determine his character’s caste, which determines the Professions open to him, his initial On, and starting funds. If he rolls low he will be of Samurai class, but if he rolls high, he will be of the Eta caste and can only be a Ninja. Otherwise, a player is free to choose whatever Profession he wants for his character, though there are social and other consequences, for example, a Samurai who chooses to become a Yakuza , loses half of his On. The character’s caste will provide some initial skills, whilst his Profession will add more plus Attribute modifiers, starting goods, and Hit Points. A player also needs to distribute sixty points to his character’s Attributes. Numerous factors, including skill values, are then derived from all of this.

Name: Eiichi
Caste: Heimin (Farmer, Low)
Age: 20 On: 5
Profession: Yakuza Level: 1
Status: 10

Strength 10 ST: 4 Enc. Cap: 20 lbs. Dam: 0 Unarmed: 1d3
Deftness 20 ST: 7 BAP: 10
Speed 15 ST: 6 MNA: 1 BMA: 5
Health 15 ST: 6 HPT: 20
Wit 20 ST: 7 FIS: 20 Per: 6
Will 20 ST: 7 Power: 20

Learning Rate: 2 Zanshin: 1

Capabilities
Brawling: 6 Climbing: 10 Leaping: 7 Magic: 40 (8) Swimming: 5

Skills
Commerce 40 (9), Fishing 60 (13), Gambling 60 (13), Katakana 70 (14), Massage 40 (9), Popular Dance 55 (12), Sumai 50 (11), Tantojujitsu 55 (12), Yakuza Dialect 70 (14)

Goods
Dice, aiguchi (d3), 4 silver

Mechanically, Bushido uses a twenty-sided die for its resolution system. Originally, this would have been in the days of twenty-sided dice with the numbers zero through nine marked on it twice, so players and Game Masters alike would have needed to mark their dice accordingly. To have his character undertake an action, a player rolls against the Saving Throw of an appropriate Attribute, Capability, or Skill. The Saving Throw of any Attribute is approximately a third of its value, the value of a Capability an average of three different Saving Throws, and the Base Chance of Success or BCS of a skill equal to a fifth of its value, skills being rated as percentiles. If the skill is a bonus skill for a Profession, then the character’s Level is also added. Critical successes are possible on a roll of one and failures on a roll of a twenty. The quality of any skill test can be determined how much the result is under the adjusted Base Chance of Success.

Combat uses the same mechanics with a character being able to do between one and three actions depending on his Speed Attribute and taking into account the character’s combat awareness or Zanshin. Combat takes into account various types of attack, including bash, butt stroke, disarm, strike, thrust, and more, but ultimately it involves the player rolling against the weapon or Bugei skill being used, its BCS adjusted by the opponent’s Armour Class, which ranges from zero for ordinary clothing up to ten for master heavy samurai armour. Damage is inflicted directly from a character’s Health with a critical success in combat potentially causing double or triple damage, and a high chance of a special effect which might be the loss of a limb or even death. Conversely, a critical failure might see a character might injure himself. Overall, combat in Bushido is potentially really quite deadly, especially against unarmoured combatants.

Magic in Bushido is used by two different Professions. The Shugenja knows a number of basic spells or powers, like Magic Detection and Astral Senses, but his more powerful spells come one of the five schools based on the elements—Water, Fire, Wood, Metal and Soil, plus some common spells. Every spell has a minimum in terms of the knowledge of the school required as well as the Level of the character. The other Profession is the Gakusho or priest, whose powers vary according to whether he is a Buddhist or Shintoist. Instead of the five schools of magic, the Gashuko studies the Five Yoga—each of which corresponds to one of the five elemental schools—and sacred texts, ‘Sutras’ for Buddhists or and ‘Norito’ for Shintoists. Both Shugenja and Gakusho take a degree of commitment upon the part of the player and the Game Master to play. Ninja in Bushido possess the expected mix of stealth and combat skills, but can also manufacture Gimmicks like flash grenades, blowguns, blinding powders, and so on.

Apart from the initial selection determined from a character’s caste and Profession, a player is free to choose the skills he wants for his character, that is, if he can find a school and a teacher which will accept him. Certain Professions provide bonuses to learning certain skills, but there is a certain emphasis on combat skills in Bushido, only exacerbated by the inclusion of Okuden, secret combat skills or manoeuvres such as Piercing Thrust or the Lightning Stroke. All six Professions also have their own Ki powers—focussed and unfocussed—the former requiring concentration, the latter not.  So for the Bushi, that might be Damage Focus, Distant Death for the Budoka, and Lore Master for the Shugenja, but all enable a character to do amazing feats.

To progress, a character needs to earn experience points or Budo and have a minimum level of On. On though, can go down as well as up, so what this means is that as much as it is gained by winning contests, battles, and duels, being heroic, going on pilgrimage, and so on, but is lost for acts of cowardice or dishonesty, rashness, and the like. So characters are encouraged to roleplay the positive aspects of the setting and so will be rewarded for it. Besides this, progression is not just a matter of adventuring, but studying and learning too.

In addition to the mechanics of the roleplaying game, Bushido includes background on Nippon, the structure of its society, customs, religious beliefs, the place of women in society, and details of weaponry—including a good illustration of them all together on the back cover of ‘Book I, The Heroes of Nippon’. ‘Book II, The Land of Nippon’ covers creating NPCs as well as a bestiary of creatures mythic—legendary and supernatural—and mundane, a discussion of events the player characters can get involved in, places in Nippon, jobs they can take in addition to adventuring, and the benefits and duties of being in particular groups, such fiefs, schools, ninja clans, yakuza gangs, and so on. The advanced game covers founding and running these as the player characters gain status. Lastly there is an adventure, ‘An Evening at the Inn of Restful Sleep’, a fairly simple affair in which the player characters are victims of skulduggery when they stay at an inn. It is at least a good reason to introduce the characters and get them working together. Overall, the setting of Nippon manages to be just about fantastic enough without detracting from its not too historical feel and flavour—it is not strictly speaking a completely historical treatment of feudal Japan, but then neither is it wholly fantastic either. Bushido owes this to its Chambara origins as much as it does the authors. 

Physically, Bushido is a densely presented pair of books. The layout is generally tidy, but the editing is wanting. If there is a real issue with Bushido, it is that there is no index for either book, whilst a glossary would have been useful. The roleplaying game could have done with more examples, but above all, it needed better organisation and more clearly separated sections of rules. The result is often a frustrating mess, as players and Game Master alike are forced to search for a rule or other content. There is a solid game here, the organisation is a hindrance to that aim.


—oOo—

Bushido was reviewed extensively at the time of its publication—by all three of its publishers. Steven L. Lortz reviewed it in Different Worlds Issue 3 (June/July, 1979), comparing it to the leading roleplaying games of the day, “RuneQuest and Dungeons & Dragons typify two styles of role-play which are very different in mechanics and philosophy; specific expertise versus general experience levels, character specialization versus character classes, spell points versus Vancian magic, and static versus dynamic hit points. In Bushido, Hume and Charrette have produced a well-knit integration of elements from each of these styles and provided a fairly complete and playable social milieu for the characters to operate within. For these reasons, I highly recommend Bushido to people who are interested in running a fantasy campaign based primarily on the Japanese mythos and to people who are interested in the art of RPG design. However, the Basic Chance of Success mechanism is a reversal of the die rolling conventions of both RuneQuest and Dungeons & Dragons, so some work would be required before a person could adapt from Bushido into a campaign based on either of these two systems.”

In Dragon #34 (February, 1980), D. Okada noted that, “With the exception of M.A.R. Barker’s Empire of the Petal Throne, virtually every game that comes out has a common outlook. Each game is based on a view of life (whether in fantasy or science fiction) that draws its roots from Western culture. This is to be expected. The largest, if not only, market for games is found in the Western world. But now the gamer is offered a new choice.” Which of course is Bushido. He commented though, that, “...[T]he game is not perfect. There are a horrendous amount of typographical errors in the rules. While the game does not always suffer from these errors, there are times when they do hamper understanding of what is supposed to be going on.” before concluding that, “Despite these faults, the game is worth the price to the person interested in developing a more cosmopolitan outlook. After all, while it’s fun to be Conan or Gandalf in D&D, there is also a time to try and be Miyamoto Musashi seeking perfection in the use of the sword, don’t you think?”

Conversely, writing in The Space Gamer Number 29 (July, 1980), Forrest Johnson was distinctly dismissive, stating that, “Students of Japan may be irritated by such things as misspellings, the translation of “on” as face and the omission from the map of the island of Hokkaido. The metaphysics seem more Hindu than Japanese and some of the monsters (trolls, vampires, ogres) are distinctly round-eyed.” before concluding, “Karate fans and samurai fans may dig this one. Serious students will just have to wait for something better.” 

Similarly, in Ares Nr. 7 (March, 1981), Eric Goldberg was critical of the character generation method, saying that, “The mechanics for character generation represent two contradictory theories. The point distribution system is intended to promote equality among the characters. The caste and rank system randomly creates great disparities between them. There is a logical argument for both methods – even in conjunction – but one’s purpose defeats the other’s. Furthermore, restricting one profession (ninja) to those who are of that caste (a 15% chance) limits those unfortunate characters who cannot be a ninja to four professions. (Also, a character who is of the ninja caste is almost forced to be a ninja, unless he feels no qualms about throwing away an advantage.) I am surprised the designers did not extend their point assignment system to that the players could “buy” caste and rank, thus ensuring that everyone would have free choice.” It is notable that this is exactly what the designers did with Shadowrun.

Nevertheless, Eric Goldberg was slightly more positive in his conclusion, saying that “Bushido’s strong points are the inventive game mechanics (for the time), the “feel” of Japanese culture, and the tentative emphasis on playing a role. Most FRP games rely on the players to determine in which direction their characters will go, and often force them into stereotyped roles. Hume and Charette were players turned designers, and remained aware of the difficulties they had met in previously published games.” and “A quest for knowledge about Japanese culture would not begin with Bushido, partly because of the interpolation of mythic beliefs into the background. However, the players of the game do not wish to know all the ins and outs of that country, however interesting they may be. Bushido is a nice enough meld of a surrealistic and D&D-style flavor, and has a game system sturdy enough to support this impression.” 

Reviewing Bushido in White Dwarf Issue No 32 (August, 1982), Mike Polling was wholly more positive, exclaiming that, “If you’re for the ultimate Fantasy Role-Playing Game, look no further. This is it.” before awarding both Bushido and the separate adventure, Valley of the Mists, a score of ten out of ten.

Bushido has also been the subject of a number of retrospectives. In Dragon #134 (June, 1988), it was reviewed again, this time by Jim Bambra and alongside reviews of Land of Ninja, a supplement for RuneQuest III and Oriental Adventures, the supplement for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. In light of the other two supplements being reviewed, he was more guarded in his praise, stating that, “The BUSHIDO game was the first game to open up the mysterious East to roleplayers  –  but at a cost. While admirably capturing the flavor of medieval Japan, the BUSHIDO game is densely written and difficult to grasp. It is a game for dedicated gamers who, in their pursuit of Oriental action, are willing to struggle with rule books that make advanced nuclear theory texts seem like light reading by comparison.” before concluding that, “If you’re looking for a stand-alone system, then check out the BUSHIDO game. But if accessibility and ease of use are your primary requirements, stay well away.”

In ‘The Way of the Warrior, The Way of Bushido’ in The Last Province Issue 1 (October, 1992), Paz Newis said, “Ah, the early eighties when a game system said complete rule system, by jingo, it meant it... However the initial rush of joy is likely to be short lived. Upon opening one of the books the level of undertaking becomes apparent. You want to authentically simulate feudal fantasy Japan? It might be quicker to move there and join their Sealed Knot equivalent.” The reviewer was otherwise positive about the game. Similarly, Bushido was described Arcane issue 6 (May, 1996) as having, “...[C]aptured the spirit of the  Samurais’ [sic] greatest era: feudal Japan.” and that, “Politics and action went hand in hand with Bushido and the game had an innately epic scale.” Editor Steve Faragher’s obvious enthusiasm should be tempered by the fact that he had been part of the Games of Liverpool team which published the scenario, Takishido’s Debt, for Bushido in 1983.


—oOo—

As the first roleplaying game set in feudal Japan, Bushido is groundbreaking, providing a lot of information about the setting, the types of characters which can be played, and what they can do. There is a lot of flavour and detail in Bushido, especially so in the descriptions of the various types of skills—Bugei or combat skills, Fine Arts, Practical Arts, Ninja skills, and Magical and Mystical skills—but also in the explanations of society and customs, and of course, in the On or personal honour rules which encourage roleplaying and immersion in the setting. Yet as much as it set a standard in terms of background for the characters, who they and what they do, Bushido got just about everything wrong in terms of how a roleplaying needs to be presented. The density of the text, the explanation of terms before they are needed, and the dreadfully poor organisation of the rules—exacerbated by a lack of index—made Bushido inaccessible. Instead of needing to be read, Bushido needed to be studied, its textbook-like layout and structure also making the game difficult to teach.

Bushido had the potential to be a good roleplaying game and a great treatment of its genre. Yet from the start, Bushido needed a second edition of the Fantasy Games Unlimited version to rip the organisation of its contents apart and put it back together to make it accessible. It is a shame that this never happened, for it let other Oriental-set roleplaying games shine in its stead.


—oOo—

With thanks to Steven Ward for granting me last minute access to The Last Province #1.

Friday, 27 December 2019

1959: Risk

1974 is an important year for the gaming hobby. It is the year that Dungeons & Dragons was introduced, the original RPG from which all other RPGs would ultimately be derived and the original RPG from which so many computer games would draw for their inspiration. It is fitting that the current owner of the game, Wizards of the Coast, released the new version, Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition, in the year of the game’s fortieth anniversary. To celebrate this, Reviews from R’lyeh will be running a series of reviews from the hobby’s anniversary years, thus there will be reviews from 1974, from 1984, from 1994, and from 2004—the thirtieth, twentieth, and tenth anniversaries of the titles—and so on, as the anniversaries come up. These will be retrospectives, in each case an opportunity to re-appraise interesting titles and true classics decades on from the year of their original release.


—oOo—

1959 marks the publication of two classic wargames. One is Diplomacy: A Game of International Intrigue, Trust, and Treachery, the other is Risk: The Continental Game. Although they are both set in past times, one Napoleonic, one Edwardian, they could not be more different. One is card and dice driven and has been hugely successful, probably the most successful mass market wargame ever published, but the other is entirely trust and decision driven. The former is Risk, the latter Diplomacy. Both are sixty years old in 2019.

Risk was originally invented and released in France in 1957 as La Conquête du Monde—The Conquest of the World—by French film director Albert Lamorisse. It was then bought by American publishers Parker Brothers and released as Risk: The Continental Game in 1959, later as Risk: The Game of Global Domination. Today, it is published as Risk: The Game of Strategic Conquest by Wizards of the Coast as part of its Avalon Hill brand. Although the game has seen numerous variations and alternative settings, such as the acclaimed Risk Legacy or Risk 2210 AD, the core game remains much the same as the original. Two to five players (although it comes with six armies), aged ten and up, attempt to defeat each others’ armies and conquer the world.

Risk is played on a map of the world, each of the six continents colour-coded and divided into separate territories, for a total of forty-two. Some of the continents are connected by sea routes, for example, Brazil to North Africa or Iceland to Greenland, allowing sea travel between territories, but otherwise, Risk entirely concerns itself with land battles. There is a card corresponding to each territory and these forty-two territory cards are used to determine the initial placement of the players’ troops. The cards are also marked with one of three symbols—infantry, cavalry, or artillery—and when collected in suits of three (one of each, three of the same, or two of the same and a wild card), they can be turned in to gain a player new troops. To gain new territory cards, a player will need to attack the territories of his rival players, defeat their troops, and capture them.

Game set-up is simple. Each player receives his army and is dealt a random set of territory cards. These indicate where his troops start, the player placing one or more troops in each of these starting territories. The cards are then handed back to form the deck from which a territory card is drawn when a player captures one or more territories on his turn. On his turn a player receives new troops according to the number of territories and any whole continents he holds, makes as many attacks against his rivals as he wants, and then moves any of his troops to adjacent territories as long as there is always one unit left in each territory. Each army consists of infantry, cavalry, and artillery, with the cavalry pieces being used to represent five infantry and artillery used to represent ten. Neither cavalry and artillery have any other role in the game bar to make mass troop handling easier.

Battles are handled simply enough. The attacking player makes his attack with between one and three troops, whilst the defending player defends with between one and two troops. The attacking player rolls a single red six-sided die for each of his attacking troops, whilst the defending player rolls a blue die for each of his defending troops. The highest die rolls from each side are compared with each other, the higher result of a pair defeating the other and resulting in removal of the defeated enemy troop unit. Ties are awarded to the defending player, but where the defending player can only defeat a maximum of two attacking troops in an exchange, an attacking player can defeat both defending troop units with a good roll. The attacking player can continue attacking until he runs out of troops or he captures the territory he is attacking. If the latter, then he draws a new territory card.

Play continues like this until one player has defeated his rivals and conquered the world. This then is Risk, a game about the ‘risk’ of attacking the enemy, defeating them, and capturing their territory. It is not a game about defence or withstanding your opponents’ attacks—although that will happen in the game—but a game which rewards the attacking player who is successful in capturing territories. The rewards are always more troops and come in various ways. Capture and hold more territories and a player will be rewarded with more troops at the start of his turn; capture and hold a continent and a player will be rewarded with more troops at the start of his turn; and capture more territories and a player will be rewarded with a territory card each turn, which suites of three can be turned in at the beginning of his turn for more troops. Notably, each time a player hands in three territory cards, he is rewarded with more troops than the last player who did so, whether that was himself or a rival.

Famously, Risk is more a game of luck than skill or strategy. It rewards success or luck by giving the winner more troops with which to defeat his rivals. Of course, his luck can change and go the other way, but the result either way is a fairly long game, especially the more players who are involved, with not a great deal for the players to do when it is not their turn. On the plus side, the simplicity of the rules make Risk easy to teach and learn, then set up and play.

This though is Classic Risk, a game of global domination played until one player resoundly defeats the others. In today’s version, Risk: The Game of Strategic Conquest, it is only one of game types suggested—and not even the first. ‘Game 1: Secret Mission RISK’ is the first and the default game in Risk: The Game of Strategic Conquest and sees each player assigned a secret mission card from the twelve included in the game, for example, ‘Destroy all ORANGE  troops’ or ‘Conquer the continents of EUROPE and AUSTRALIA’. Should a player meet all of the conditions of his secret mission card, then he wins the game. This can happen even if another player unintentionally helps him out, for example, if a player defeats all of the orange troops, then the player with the ‘Destroy all ORANGE  troops’ secret mission wins.

‘Game 1: Secret Mission RISK’ counters one of the criticisms of Risk, providing more focused objectives for a shorter game. ‘Game 2: Classic RISK’ is what the standard game of Risk was before the introduction of secret missions and will be the version remembered by many when they recall the game. ‘Game 3: RISK for 2 Players’ requires one player to defeat the other, but adds a neutral army which can both players can attack, yet when one player does so, the other player rolls for its defence. Otherwise, this two-player variant plays the same as the classic variant. Lastly, ‘Game 4: Capital RISK’ gives each player a headquarters located in one of their territories. This version is won by capturing all of your opponent’s headquarters.

Physically, Risk: The Game of Strategic Conquest looks, feels, but is not as cheap as it  should be, given the quality of its components. The armies included in the game—the infantry, cavalry, and artillery—are of cheap plastic, the cards of thin card, and the game board, although illustrated with an attractive map, on slightly thick card rather than being mounted. The map board does not quite sit flat and will need to be weighted down. Fortunately, the rulebook is neatly laid out, easy to read, and comes with a little playing advice, making it the best produced item in the less than sturdy box.

Many will claim that Risk: The Game of Strategic Conquest is a classic game. This is undeniably true, but not because it is a good game. It is not a good game because it takes too long to play, because it luck based, because it favours the victor and so often leaves the other players with long periods with nothing to do. All of these are acknowledged issues with the game, some of which are addressed by the different game types in the current version. Yet this does not mean it is unplayable nor inaccessible, but does often mean that other games are designed as the anti-Risk, just as some games are designed as the anti-Monopoly.

Rather Risk: The Game of Strategic Conquest is a classic game because it is the most mass-produced and most sold wargame of all time, having been on sale in toy shops, department stores, game shops, and on-line for sixty years, and thus been on our shelves for just as long. Where games like Monopoly, Cluedo, and Scrabble are the games of our childhood, acceptable to all of the family, Risk: The Game of Strategic Conquest is one step away from those, acceptable still, but not to all of the family because of its subject matter and playing time. Like those other games it benefits from simple rules that everyone can understand and quickly master, so can be played by anyone, no matter what their skill level is. Indeed, despite it being a confrontational wargame, such is the element of luck in the game, the losing players can blame invariably part of their loss down to the dice rather than their lack of skill or their opponent’s greater skill. 

Ultimately, Risk: The Game of Strategic Conquest is our first experience with wargaming, an acceptable introduction to the hobby and a childhood classic worth revisiting out of nostalgia rather than because it is a good game. Accessible, playable, but at best a stepping stone to better and more interesting games. 

Thursday, 26 December 2019

Your Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay IV Starter

The hobby seems sadly lacking without the definitive British fantasy roleplaying game being available on the shelves of your local gaming store, but the good news is that Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay returned in 2018—and from a British publisher to boot. Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, Fourth Edition is published by Cubicle Seven Entertainment and the good news that this new edition is a return to something akin to the original design and mechanics of the first two editions rather than the third. Inspired by the fiction of Michael Moorcock and the Lovecraftian investigative roleplaying of Call of Cthulhu, as much as by Tolkien, and all taking place in the Old World, a fantasy inspired by the Europe of the Thirty Years War and the Holy Roman Empire, it is a roleplaying game in which minor nobles, dwarf slayers, witch hunters, ex-soldiers, merchants, road wardens, petty wizards, priests to Sigmar and Ulrich, and of course, rat catchers—plus little dog, hold back incursions by the forces of Chaos, run scams, uncover cults and conspiracies, and more, all in the face of intransigence and callousness upon the part of the ruling classes and the churches. It remains still ‘A Grim World of Perilous Adventure’, with mud, blood, excrement, and worse, underfoot.

The starting point for Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, Fourth Edition is not necessarily the Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, Fourth Edition core rulebook, but the Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay Starter Set. Like any good starter set, this is designed to introduce the roleplaying game and its setting, and provide everything necessary to give a gaming group several hours’ worth of play. This it does in handsome fashion, right from the moment that Game Master or player open up the box. The first thing that you find is a set of percentile dice under which can be found seven portfolios—one ‘Read This First’ and six character portfolios; a double-sided map of the town and map of Ubersreik, a combat and injury reference sheet, an attributes and skills and tests reference sheet, An Introduction to Ubersreik and the Empire and a Conditions reference sheet; two books—The Adventure Book and A Guide to Ubersreik; and handouts sheets and a set of Advantage tokens. All of which is done in full colour on heavy stock—both paper and cardboard. The reference sheets are intended for both the Game Master and her players, to be accessed during play.

Having unpacked all of this, it should be noted that the production values of Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay Starter Set are such that the inside of the box and the lid are no mere ordinary, plain cardboard. The inside of the box is a full colour map of The Empire, whilst the inside of the lid is designed to work as a Game Master Screen. The latter is a rather nice touch, but perhaps it could have been better placed in landscape rather than portrait format for greater stability.

Each of the seven portfolios is a gatefold leaflet on stiff paper, a format which gives more space which is used well on all seven. So in the ‘Read This First’ portfolio, the main page is given over to an introduction to Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, whilst the wings serve as full-length sidebars either side of the main page on which descriptions are given for each of the various items in the Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay Starter Set. For the character portfolios, the character sheet and illustration is on the main page, whilst an explanation of various aspects of the character sheet is given on the left and the character’s background on the right. The latter includes possible motivations, group ties, and secrets, tying the character into the setting and adventures further detailed in The Adventure Book and A Guide to Ubersreik. An explanation of who each character is and why you would play them. Notably, there is advice here not to open a character portfolio until a player has decided that it is the one that he wants to play. Each character is given a full illustration on the back of the portfolio.

The six pre-generated characters include a noble turned soldier, a witch hunter dedicated to Sigmar, a High Elf merchant, a distrusted wizard (all wizards are distrusted), a joyful Halfling thief, and an honourable Dwarf slayer. There is much that a veteran player of Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay will recognise. So a familiar characteristics—Weapon Skill, Ballistic Skill, Strength, Toughness, and so on, skills like Charm and Consume Alcohol—with skills and characteristics being rated as percentages, and Talents such as Luck, Sixth Sense, and Warrior Born, which will all be familiar.  In addition, a character has a number of other attributes. Fate can be spent to have the character avoid death, Fortune to reroll or improve a Test, Resilience to set the result of a Test, and Resolve can be used to remove or negate conditions like Fear.

The mechanics themselves, essentially a qualitative percentile system, are explained in The Adventure Book, a combination scenario and rules book. So when a character wants to do something, his player rolls percentile dice and attempt to get equal to or under the characteristic or skill being used for the Test. That though is a Simple Test. When a player needs to know how well his character did, he rolls a Dramatic Test. This is slightly more complex in that the ‘tens’ value on the dice roll is subtracted from the ‘tens’ value of the skill. This determines the character’s Success Level, which can be positive or negative. The higher it is, the better the outcome, the lower—or more negative—it is, the worse the outcome. So for example, Wanda wants to distract the town watch patrol whilst her compatriots get away, so uses her Blather skill of 45. The Game rates this is as Challenging, so there is no modifier to the skill. Wanda’s player rolls 29. Deducting the tens result of the roll (2) from the skill (4), gives a Success Level value of 2, which is a successful outcome. 

Opposed rolls generally compare Success Levels, the character or NPC with more succeeding over the other. Melee combat also uses opposed rolls—Weapon Skill versus Weapon Skill if parrying or the Dodge Skill if trying to get out of the way, whereas missile attacks, rolled on Ballistic Skill are Simple Tests. Success Levels not only determine if a character manages to strike his opponent in combat, but also the amount of extra damage inflicted. If a double is rolled—eleven, twenty-two, thirty-three, and so on—then a critical hit has been made. This can be made when attacking or parrying, and it can even be made when an opponent has rolled more Success Levels than the character’s player. So a character can lose an exchange of blows, but still inflict an effect. In addition, the combat mechanics in Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, Fourth Edition are designed to have a character build upon success, gaining Advantage when attacking an opponent who is surprised, charging into combat, defeating an important NPC, and so on, gaining a +10 bonus to combat actions each time. This is lost if a character loses an opposed roll or suffers a wound, but is designed to give a character an edge as he gains momentum in a fight. Both players and Game Master can keep track of characters’ Advantage using the tokens which come in the box.

All of these mechanics are explained over the first ten or so pages of The Adventure Book, not in one go, but as they are needed in the first scenario. The aim here is for the Game Master to teach her players on the go and in this they are successful. There is probably slightly too much text for the Game Master to teach them unprepared, but a single read through should be enough otherwise. The adventures in The Adventure Book consist of one main scenario and ten detailed seeds. The main scenario is ‘Making the Rounds’ and consists of five parts. It starts innocently enough with a shopping trip before exploding into a big set piece which first lands the player characters in hot water and then with unexpected duties. Episodic in nature, it is solidly plotted, and there is scope for the Game Master to expand it with scenarios of her own or mixing in the ten seeds that follow ‘Making the Rounds’, many of which are written for each of the pre-generated characters. In addition to the rules, there is advice on playing all of the NPCs, when to run certain scenarios, and so on, for the Game Master throughout The Adventure Book. For the most part, ‘Making the Rounds’ is fairly straightforward, but the latter two acts will need a little more preparation than the earlier three, being more open in nature than the other parts.

The second, thicker book, is A Guide to Ubersreik. It describes Ubersreik, the fortress-town in the south of the Reikland, noted for the great Dwarf bridge across the river, which sits at the mouth of the Grey Lady Pass, the only reliable trade route south to the Bretonnnian duchy of Parravon. The town and its surrounding duchy are in turmoil after the ruling House Jungfreud was unseated by the emperor. The book gives a history of the town, reasons to visit, and the various places and districts of the town. They include the various guilds, shops, and places of the artisan’s quarter, such as the Locksmith’s Guild—with its pathological hatred of illegal locks, Satrioli’s Sausage Shop—known for its Tilean food and the gaggle of Halflings employed there, and Wandiene Rookery—the largest and worst of the town’s slums. The guide also covers Dawihafen, the Dwarf Quarter, home to the town’s many Dwarves, Ubersreik Bridge itself, temples to the various gods, Von Holzenaur’s Potion Shop, Wahlund’s Rat Catchers, and more. The sewers are also detailed, as are several cults devoted to the Chaos gods—Khorne, Nurgle, Slaanesh, and Tzeentch, and the Yellowbellies, the Faceless Ones, and the Cult of the Bog King, a number of local cults which may or may not be fronts for the other cults… Along the way, there are lots of inns and taverns described too—which seems befitting any town or city in the Old World—as well as yet more scenario hooks to bolster the adventures given in The Adventure Guide. If there is an issue with A Guide to Ubersreik, it is that only a single building is given a map. The book could certainly have done with more.

The Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay Starter Set is not a good introduction to roleplaying and nor is it designed to be. It just does not start from the first principles to do that, but that is fine, because as an introduction to Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, Fourth Edition, it does a very good job and does so in an attractive package. In the main, the designers keep the rules to a minimum, allowing the Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay Starter Set to focus on the story, the setting—and importantly, room for the Game Master to expand upon its content. There are of course the extra scenarios in The Adventure Book and the hooks in A Guide to Ubersreik, but the publisher has published further material set in and around the fortress-town, including several scenarios. Ultimately, the Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay Starter Set and its expansions are designed to set up the classic The Enemy Within campaign for the new edition.

As written, the contents of the Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay Starter Set can be played straight through and should provide multiple sessions of gaming. All of which can be done without the Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, Fourth Edition core book, but if the Game Master and her players want their characters to progress, then they will need access to that book. The Adventure Book in Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay Starter Set does provide the experience point awards for playing through its scenarios, but not the means to apply them. Conversely, a group with access to Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, Fourth Edition core book could simply create their own characters and play through the content of the Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay Starter Set without any problem, although some of the nuances of the pre-generated characters and their ties to Ubersreik may be lost. 

Although not quite suited for a beginning Game Master, for the experienced roleplayer or the veteran player of Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay wanting a first taste of the new edition, the Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay Starter Set is the perfect jumping on point. Overall, the Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay Starter Set is something that every Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay devotee will want, offering high production values, excellent value for money, and all that a gaming group will need for several sessions of grim and perilous adventure.