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

Monday, 28 December 2020

Ticket to Ride?

When it comes to horror, you can have two things which are haunted—houses and lighthouses, obviously, but in the modern age, there is the third. This is the railway train, and when it comes to haunted trains—or trains best by horror in Call of Cthulhu, it seems like there is only one train which matters, and that is the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express, as in Horror on the Orient Express. Yet there is another train which deserves to be haunted—in fact, it deserves to be haunted or best by horror infinitely more than the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express. This is the London Necropolis Railway, which between 1854 and 1941, ran from Waterloo in the heart of London to the Brookwood Cemetery in Brookwood, Surrey, ferrying the capital’s dead for burial. Given the London Necropolis Railway’s obvious connection to the dead and to cemeteries, it seems surprising that in the thirty-five years since the publication of Cthulhu by Gaslight, there has been no scenario for the roleplaying game set aboard the London Necropolis Railway.

Nightmare on the Necropolis Express is a scenario for Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition published by Stygian Fox Publishing. It is set during the last years of the nineteenth century, so is suitable for use in the Cthulhu by Gaslight setting, or the publisher’s own Hudson & Brand, Inquiry Agents of the Obscure campaign setting. It is short, playable in a single session—two at most, and could be played with a single Investigator and the Keeper, though it would probably work better with a few more. The scenario does not require any of the Investigators to possess a particular Occupation to complete, though perhaps a Priest might be of use.

Nightmare on the Necropolis Express begins with the Investigators being hired by a number of workers on the London Necropolis Railway to investigate a number of unholy apparitions and unsettling occurrences aboard night runnings of the train. The London Necropolis Railway does not normally run at night, but is currently ferrying bodies exhumed from the West Norwood Cemetery in Lambeth in south London to the more capacious Brookwood Cemetery. That is when the incidents began and the train crew, led by the lugubrious Tommy Thompson are worried about them continuing and spooking everyone.

The investigation process in Nightmare on the Necropolis Express is simple, a mere matter of finding out more about the London Necropolis Railway and potentially visiting the West Norwood Cemetery. Armed with a few clues then, the Investigators are expected to join Tommy Thompson and friends aboard the late running of the London Necropolis Railway. Very little happens until the return when quite literally an Abomination appears at the rear of the train—in one of the hearse carriages—and begins to rampage back up the train, moving towards the locomotive in what is a timed event. Can the Investigators stop it and can they discover what is really going on?

Nightmare on the Necropolis Express is a short scenario, ultimately built around an ‘unstoppable’ monster and involving quite slight investigation. The four handouts, detailing various newspaper reports about the London Necropolis Railway and the London Burial Crisis are interesting, but ultimately have little impact upon the events of the scenario. In fact, there is really only the one clue which is pertinent, but it does not really matter if the Investigators discover it or not, because the clue does not really help them or provide a means to deal with the final confrontation. Either way, the events of the scenario will play out and the Investigators will still face the problem on the train.

However, Nightmare on the Necropolis Express does present the Keeper with some fun NPCs to portray—including samples of dialogue which will help her portray them immensely. The floor plans of the London Necropolis Railway are decent and the unique nature of the setting very much stands out.

Physically, Nightmare on the Necropolis Express is a neat, nice little digest-size hardback done in full colour. The illustrations are decent and the inclusion of photographs of Brookwood Cemetery a nice touch. The handouts are disappointingly plain.

Ultimately, the shortness of the scenario and the relative lack of meaningful investigation makes it debatable as to whether or not Nightmare on the Necropolis Express was quite worth publishing as a standalone product. Further, the fact that the scenario and its primary solution comes down to a single skill check—although one that all of the Investigators can make—means that in terms of the story, Nightmare on the Necropolis Express does feel as if the Investigators are along for the ride.

Sunday, 27 December 2020

Blood, Blades, & Booze

Out beyond the reach of the Emperor is a world of martial arts practitioners, bandits, criminals, and gangs, prostitutes and brothels, secret sects and societies, inns and teahouses, tales of heroism and notoriety, and more. It is a place of corruption and lawlessness and unbridled consumption of alcohol despite the best efforts of the Emperor and his officials, but it is also a place of wandering ‘knights errant’, martial artists, court officials, pursuivant detectives, and the ‘greatest’ swordsmen of the age who right wrongs, feud with rivals and lovers, dedicate themselves to their arts and their crafts, engage in fierce, determined battles with their enemies, compete in tournaments for great prizes and reputation, enter into duels for reputation and face, and more… This is the Jianghu, not so much a place as a culture, and also the setting for Ruthless Blood, Ruthless Blades – Wuxia Roleplaying, published by Osprey Games—the imprint of Osprey Publishing best known for its highly illustrated military history books. It is the fourth roleplaying game from the publisher after Paleomythic, Romance of the Perilous Land, and Those Dark Places.

Ruthless Blood, Ruthless Blades – Wuxia Roleplaying is not designed as a sourcebook on historical China, but rather presents a romanticised, even ahistorical version ancient China, one drawn from the Wuxia novels of Gu Long and the darker films of the Shaw Brothers Studio of the 1970s and 1980s to create a grimmer, more brutal, and more dangerous take upon the Wuxia genre. It comes complete with rules for both martial arts and character creation, a discussion of the genre, a lengthy reading and watching list, notes aplenty on Chinese culture for the Game Master and player who is new to it, and an extensive sample Jianghu, a sandbox with tens of NPCs, organisations, locations, and potential plots, as well as a scenario. The focus is entirely upon Wuxia and martial artists. There is no magic—except for astrology and similar forms of divination and an option allowing the Magical Arts skill to launch attacks, which requires Game Master approval, and there are no supernatural creatures—so there is scope for the Game Master to create her own or for the authors to write a supplement. Instead, players take roles such as Brave Archer, Daoist priest, Master Swordsman, Palm Master, Unarmed Boxer, and others, who all study and practice some form of martial arts.

A character in Ruthless Blood, Ruthless Blades – Wuxia Roleplaying is defined by his Signature Abilities, Counters, Special Resources, skills, eccentricities, and an occupation. A Signature Ability represents martial arts styles or talents, for example, ‘Butterfly Sword Expert I’, which means that the martial artist fights with grace and skill to easily deflect blows and slide in strikes to improve his Evade ability, or ‘Breath of Fire’, with which the martial artist can channel the fire element to scorch all of enemies around him. A Counter is a means of defence against a particular type of attack, such as ‘Bending Reed Defence’, with which a martial artist can lean out of the way when his head is targeted, and then snap back to deliver a sharp blow, or ‘Water Torrent’ with which the martial artist splashes water onto the floor and uses it to slide behind an opponent to attack with a bonus on the next round. Special Resources can be wealth and property or social resources. So an illicit business, landed gentry, or a manor, or a loyal friend, devoted ex-lovers (who feud and bicker when they meet—brilliant for roleplaying potential and comedy there), or an official post and title—though sometimes this prevents the martial artist from leaving the post, so he can send a loyal servant instead, in which case, the servant transmits the Experience Points earned to his master in his reports! Skills fall into five categories. These are Defences, Martial Arts Skills, Specialist Skills—such as Medicine and Alchemy or a particular talent like painting or poetry, Unorthodox skills such as Disguise and Drinking, and Mental Skills such as Command and Reasoning. Eccentricities are quirks and flaws, from Absent-Minded and Beautiful to Persistent Smile and Scars. They can also include Deep Eccentricities, which represent recurring problems for the Martial Artist, such as Bad Breath, In Love, or Social Climber. 

A martial artist also has a Max Wounds value—typically three for a starting martial artist, representing the amount of damage a martial artist can take before rolls on the quite nasty ‘Death and maiming’ Table, a Resist Value—the ability to absorb wounds before taking damage, and Fire Deviation and Killing Aura. Fire Deviation represents an internal imbalance in the martial artist’s Qi energy and is gained by failed meditation rolls or can even be selected to gain an extra Signature Move. However, suffering from Fire Deviation also means gaining a Fire Deviation Eccentricity, such as suffering from delusions of grandeur or your hair or eye colour changing. Killing Aura is measure of how powerful or capable a martial artist is and is equal to his Level. It can easily be detected by other martial artists. In addition, for each NPC or Player Character a martial artist kills, he increases his Killing Aura Darkness, which hangs over the martial artist like a cloud and again, is an indication of how powerful he is and to an extent, his reputation.

To create a martial artist a player chooses a Signature Ability, a Counter, a Special Resource, assigns points skills—this is done by skill type and is standard for all martial artists, an eccentricity, and an occupation, before defining a backstory and filling out secondary details. If the martial artist qualifies for it, he can also select an occupation. This primarily determines his income. The process primarily involves making a fair number of choices and is simple enough, and notably, the deadliness of the setting and rules is foreshadowed in the suggestion that a player create a backup martial artist! However, the process is hindered by the wealth of choices and everything that a player needs being spread out over eight chapters—almost half of the book—and not necessarily in the order that the checklist gives.

Wang Yimu, the Widow of the Needle is the daughter of a wealthy merchant who was forced to marry beneath her status when her father’s business collapsed. Her husband was a tailor and his mother taught and scolded her over her lack of skill as an embroiderer and seamstress. She did not love her husband, but when he was killed by bandits, she first escaped their ambush and then set out to kill them one by one, tracking them down and enticing them in her company before sewing them up and leaving them behind her… When she returned, she told her mother-in-law that she was in charge now and would be taking over the business. Free of the scolding, she flourished and her skill grew and grew until she is one of most talented women in the Jianghu with a needle.

Wang Yimu, the Widow of the Needle
Signature Ability: Needle and Thread Expert
Counter: Steel-Shattering Finger
Eccentricity: Beautiful
Special Resource: Prosperous Business
Occupation: Artisan

Max Wounds: 3
Resist: 1
Fire Deviation: 0
Killing Aura: 1
Killing Aura Darkness: 0
Drinking Limit: 1

Skills
Defences: Evade 2 (7), Hardiness 1 (6), Wits 2 (7)
Martial Arts: External 0, Internal 3, Lightness 1
Specialist Skills: Medicine and Alchemy 1, Meditation, Survival, Talent (Seamstress) 3, Trade 2
Unorthodox Skills: Disguise, Drinking 2, Gambling 2, Magical Arts 2, Theft
Mental Skills: Command, Detect, Empathy 2, Persuade 2, Reasoning 2
Physical Skills: Athletics 2, Endurance, Muscle, Ride 1, Speed 3
Knowledge Skills: Institutions 2, Jianghu 2, Peoples and Places 2, Religion, Scholarly Arts

Ruthless Blood, Ruthless Blades – Wuxia Roleplaying is a Level and skills roleplaying game. A martial artist will start play with one Signature Ability and one Counter, but will gain more, plus increases to his skill as he goes up in Level. The rate at which he rises is determined by the length of the campaign—the shorter the campaign, the faster the improvement rate, up to maximum of Level Nine, whatever the campaign length.

Mechanically, Ruthless Blood, Ruthless Blades – Wuxia Roleplaying uses pools of ten-sided dice. Typically, this will be one, two, or three ten-sided dice, depending upon the level of the skill. Rolls are made again a target number—typically six—and the single highest die is counted. If it equals or succeeds the target number, the martial artist has been successful. A Roll of ten counts as total success and gives a more specular result. In opposed rolls, the single highest die rolled is compared to the opponent’s roll, the highest roll succeeding. Penalties and bonuses subtract or add dice respectively, as do many Signatures Moves, although there is a soft skill cap of a maximum of seven being rolled for any one action.

For example, Wang Yimu, the Widow of the Needle has tracked down one of the bandits who killed her husband and attempts to seduce him. Her player declares that she will not actually seduce him, but lull him into a false sense of security and to do that, Wang Yimu will use her Persuade  skill, which gives her two dice. The Game Master gives her a bonus die because the bandit is drunk. This gives her player three dice to roll and he rolls two, six, and seven. The latter is the highest result and is definitely higher than the bandit’s Wits of six. Wang Yimu, the Widow of the Needle has him where she wants him.

Combat revolves around six skills. The three Martial Arts—External, Internal, and Lightness, and the three Defences—Evade, Hardiness, and Wits. Evade is the ability to avoid being hit, Hardiness to withstand damage, and Wits a martial artist’s mental strength. They are not rolled, but provide the target numbers when a martial artist is attacked. External Martial Arts combines physical force and explosive damage, employing a martial artist’s bodily might with either weapons or unarmed; Internal Martial Arts is fighting with internal energy or inner force, to be able to emit energy blasts, fight with energy-based weapons-play or unarmed combat; and Lightness Martial Arts is about a martial artist’s control of his body weight and speed to be able to do all of the signature man oeuvres that the Wuxia genre is famous for—running up walls, hopping over rooftops, and balancing on treetops.

Combat involves three phases. In the ‘Talking and Analysis Phase’, opponents attempt to bluff or out talk their way out of the fight, psych them out to impose a penalty, assess them to gain bonus, or learn about a Signature Ability or Counter. In the ‘Roll Turn Order Phase’, the players roll their martial artist’s Speed to determine who goes first, and in the ‘Move and Perform Skill Action Phase’, the martial artists attack each other using a combination of Martial Arts skills, Signature Abilities, and possibly weapons. If appropriate, a Counter can be used in response to an attack. Notably though, the mechanics are deadly, so the Game Master will want to be careful as to what level of opposition she wants to pitch against the martial artists.

Continuing the example, Wang Yimu, the Widow of the Needle has tracked down one of the bandits who killed her husband and has him in her sights—she is ready to strike. . In the ‘Talking and Analysis Phase’, she definitely wants to analyse the bandit for the bonus. Her player two dice for her Empathy, getting a nine and five, the nine again being higher than the Bandit’s Wits of six. This grants her a bonus dice to the attack roll and bonus to the damage done if any wounds are inflicted on a Total Success or roll of ten. In the ‘Roll Turn Order Phase’, the player rolls three dice for Wang Yimu’s Speed, getting a one, three, and seven, the latter higher than the Bandit’s four and five. Wang Yimu, the Widow of the Needle will now use her Signature Ability of Needle and Thread Expert, making an Internal Martial Arts roll against the bandit’s Evade of six. Wang Yimu’s player has four dice to roll, three for the skill and one as a result of  the successful assessment. His roll of three, seven, eight, and eight indicates that the needles hit and Bandit is snapped out of his lascivious designs upon her by the sharp points imbedding themselves in his skin. Wang Yimu’s player rolls for damage, inflicting a single wound. The bandit responds by pulling out a knife and throwing it at her. The Game Master rolls two dice for the bandit’s External Martial Arts of two, attempting to beat Wang Yimu’s Evade of seven. He rolls ten and ten, which if successful is going to hurt her. Her player declares that Wang Yimu will Counter with Steel-Shattering Finger, which requires her player to roll a success and with a five, six, and seven, she gets her fingers in the way and stops the blade dead. At the end of the round, Wang Yimu has the bandit impaled on the needles and thread and the bandit needs to find another weapon.

In the second round, the bandit attempts to Psych Wang Yimu out, telling what he has planned for if he catches her. This is a Command roll, but with a score of one, the Game Master rolls the one die and on a five, does not best her Wits. Wang Yimu responds by telling the bandit what she did his comrades and with a roll of four and eight on her Persuade, it works—the bandit will be a penalty of one die to attack. However, the bandit first has to get a weapon, so the Game Master states that this will become a bonus die on the damage roll as he moves away from the pull of Wang Yimu’s needle and thread. This is automatic since the needles are embedded and the bandit is moving. Wang Yimu’s player rolls a seven and a ten. The latter inflicts two wounds, reducing the Bandit’s wounds to zero and necessitating a roll on the ‘Death and Maiming Table I: External Injuries’. A roll of ten indicates that the Game Master needs to roll on the ‘Death and Maiming II: Internal Injuries’ and the result of four is an intestinal injury which levies an Endurance penalty. The needles are free though and the bandit is armed, but is badly torn up by the said needles…

Beyond the rules, Ruthless Blood, Ruthless Blades – Wuxia Roleplaying provides the Game Master with swathes of information, ranging from overland travel, poisons and antidotes, rare and prized objects and weapons, rules for handling alcohol—it is possible play a drunken master with some effort, and more, even before she gets to the second half of the book, which is solely for the Game Master. This covers how to referee the Jianghu and run the roleplaying game, it includes an introduction to the Wuxia genre and a good bibliography, and a discussion of various scenarios and campaign types. There are also rules for handling fated destinies, calamities, secret histories and the like for martial artists in campaigns with bigger, bolder fates.

Aspects of Chinese culture in the Jianghu are also covered, including Face—earned, lost, given, or taken, various religions, philosophies, and beliefs, the drinking culture—inhabitants of the Jianghu, especially martial artists, are renowned for capacity to drink alcohol, the imperial bureaucracy, and more. As well as suggesting ways for Game Master to create her own Jianghu, Ruthless Blood, Ruthless Blades – Wuxia Roleplaying comes with its own. From the Top Ten Fighters and Top ten Weapons to the twenty locations and organisations and ninety-five NPCs—all nicely detailed and given stats and relationships with each other, this is a rich, Soap Opera Wuzia-style sandbox of a setting with a huge wealth of information for the Game Master to delve into and draw out ideas for scenarios and encounters from. This Jianghu could keep a campaign playing for a few months, there is so much information there. To help get a playing group started, ‘The Obsidian Bat’, a short scenario is also included, which has plenty of action and doublecrosses to keep the martial artists happy. Details of another scenario, free to download from the Osprey Games website, is also included.

Physically, Ruthless Blood, Ruthless Blades – Wuxia Roleplaying is a sturdy, glossy little hardback, done in the simple style seen in other titles from Osprey Games. It is well written and both illustrations and maps are excellent. However, Ruthless Blood, Ruthless Blades – Wuxia Roleplaying is simply not as well organised as it could be. Essentially chapters feel like they are out of order and they present the reader with such a deluge of information that it is at first difficult to take in and then it is difficult to work with. The index is decent, but finding things is not easy in the book and for example, creating a character takes a lot of flipping back and forth through its first half. 

Ruthless Blood, Ruthless Blades – Wuxia Roleplaying really is a simple, straightforward Wuxia roleplaying game, one that is easy to learn and easy to play. However, its organisation hampers both that and learning the game, there being nothing wrong with the organisation of individual chapters and their content, but rather the order in which the chapters are arranged. It also does not introduce the genre and what to watch or read for the player at all, let alone before leaping into the rules and the generation of martial artists. And for that, it presents the player with such a wealth of options, it is difficult to know where to start, such that it might have been useful if some ready-to-play archetypes had been included. There are pointers to that end, but they are just that.

Ultimately just hindered by its odd organisation, Ruthless Blood, Ruthless Blades – Wuxia Roleplaying is a gritty martial arts fantasy roleplaying game which plays fast and light, if not more than a little deadly, all backed up with plenty of well written background and advice for the Game Master and a fantastic Jianghu, or sandbox, of its very own. With a little bit effort to get past its organisational issues and Ruthless Blood, Ruthless Blades – Wuxia Roleplaying is a great introduction to roleplaying in the Wuxia genre.

Saturday, 26 December 2020

1980: Dallas: The Television Role-Playing Game

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. 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—

Dallas: The Television Role-Playing Game was published in 1980—and published by SPI or Simulations Publications, Inc., a publisher better known for its many, many wargames. Indeed, it was designed by James F. Dunnigan, the founder of SPI himself and a noted designer of wargames such as Jutland and PanzerBlitz, both for Avalon Hill. Dallas: The Television Role-Playing Game is significant because not only was it the first licensed roleplaying game, it was the first licensed roleplaying based on an intellectual property that was not based on a genre such as fantasy, science fiction, or horror. It was also a flop, and infamously, would contribute to SPI’s financial woes and ultimate takeover in 1982 by TSR, Inc. Fellow designer at SPI, Redmond A. Simonsen, later explained in Why Did SPI Die?, “As to DALLAS: we didn’t print 250,000 of them. More like 80,000 (in two runs). That was about 79,999 more than anyone wanted. DALLAS didn’t kill SPI, but it didn’t save it either (as some had vainly hoped). Essentially, anyone who is wired on DALLAS (the TV show) is not also wired on games.” However, there are some interesting elements to Dallas: The Television Role-Playing Game that would prefigure later roleplaying game designs.

Of course, Dallas: The Television Role-Playing Game is based on the Soap Opera, Dallas, which ran from 1978 until 1991, and at the time of the roleplaying game’s publication was hugely popular around the world. It revolved around the affluent and feuding Texas family, the Ewings, who own the independent oil company Ewing Oil and the cattle-ranching land of Southfork. Its most notorious character is the Ewings’ oldest son, oil tycoon J.R. Ewing, who was renowned for schemes and dirty business practices in his effort to control the family business. In Dallas: The Television Role-Playing Game, players take the roles of members of the cast from the television series, including J.R. Ewing, his wife Sue Ellen (Sheppard) Ewing, his younger brother Bobby Ewing and his wife, Pamela (Barnes) Ewing, J.R. and Bobby’s parents, Jock Ewing and Ellie (Southworth) Ewing, Jock Ewing and Ellie Ewing’s granddaughter, Lucy Ewing, Ray Krebbs, the foreman of the Southfork Ranch, and Pamela (Barnes) Ewing’s brother, Cliff Barnes. In each Episode, nine members—nine!—of the cast have their own objectives and over the course of five acts, they will negotiate with each other to achieve them, before persuading, coercing, or seducing their rivals to get what they want, or even investigating them to bring the law down upon them. At the end the five acts, the character who achieves his or her given aims, will have won the Episode, or alternatively the character with the most Victory Points wins, the latter coming into play if more than one character has achieved his or her given aims.

Dallas: The Television Role-Playing Game comes a slim box containing three booklets, fifty-six cards, and two six-sided dice. The three books consist of the Rules of Play—just sixteen pages in length, barely five of which cover the rules, the rest being devoted to the three ready-to-play Original Episode scripts, ‘The Great Claim’, ‘Sweet Oil’, and ‘Down along the Coast’; the Scriptwriter’s Guide, also sixteen pages in length, with notes on running and teaching the game for the Director, writing scripts or Episodes, plus background on the cards and Texas, and a sample of play; and the Major Characters booklet. This consists of twenty perforated sheets, one a cheat sheet for the Director, and then a character sheet for each member of the cast. Each character sheet includes full stats for all of the cast, some background, and an explanation of how Dallas: The Television Role-Playing Game is played. Each character includes some minor modifiers for affecting or resisting certain other members of the cast. The fifty-six cards consist of minor characters, organisations, and objects—the latter typically Plot Devices in the hands of members of the cast, such as Alexis Blancher, an employee of Ewing Oil, the Texas Railroad Commission, and a Saddlebag of Krugerrands. Many of these will come into play during an Episode and are essentially what the characters will be feuding for control over. The minor characters have the same stats as the members of the cast. 

Each character has four Abilities, and Power and Luck attributes. The four Abilities are Persuasion, Coercion, Seduction, and Investigation, and are divided into pairs, one to Affect another character, the other to Resist another character’s attempt to Affect them with that Ability. Power is a general measure of a character’s strength, whilst Luck is their good fortune—or lack of it—and is generally used as a last resort. The Abilities range in value between eleven and twenty-four, depending upon the cast member, and tend to be less for NPCs and organisations. Power ranges from one to nine for the cast members, or from Lucy Ewing to J.R. Ewing. Luck ranges between one and eight.

To play Dallas: The Television Role-Playing Game, the Director—as the Game Master is known—selects or writes an Episode and the players select their characters. They also receive the Plot Devices they start with at the beginning of the Episode. An Episode consists of five Acts and each Act consists of three phases—the Director Phase, the Negotiation Phase, and the Conflict Phase. In the Director Phase, the Director provides the players with new information and plot devices, and then in the Negotiation Phase, the players trade cards, information, and promises to support each other in preparation for the Conflict Phase. The Conflict Phase is the meat of the mechanics.

The core mechanic involves the Affecting (attacking?) character using the active value for an Ability, modified by the Affecting character’s Power and any relevant factors for their relationship against the Resisting character’s defending value for the Attribute, plus modifiers. The Resisting value is subtracted from the Affecting value and if the result is twelve or more, the Affecting character succeeds. If the result, or spread, is between two and eleven, the player of the Affecting character rolls the two six-sided dice and if the result is less than the spread, the Affecting character succeeds. If the Affecting character has succeeded, then the Resisting character can make a Luck check and if his player rolls under the Resisting character’s Luck, he successfully resists the Affecting character’s attempt at Persuasion, Coercion, Seduction, or Investigation.

A successful attempt at Persuasion or Seduction will provide the Affecting character with information from the Resisting character, force the Resisting character to relinquish control of an NPC or Plot Device, control of an NPC if they are uncontrolled. Seduction attempts can only be made against members of the opposite gender who are not related to the Affecting character. Instead of providing the Affecting character with control of an NPC if they are uncontrolled, a successful attempt at Coercion can force another character to make his Affect attempt immediately. If against an NPC and unsuccessful, there is the possibility of Revenge, in which every other member of the cast can make a Persuasion attempt to control the NPC, with the players rolling to see who makes the attempt first. Lastly, a successful Investigation attempt forces the Affected character to reveal information, including the identity of NPCs and Plot Devices which are face down on the table. If a character has committed an Illegal act, another character who controls a legal authority, such as the FBI or Texas Rangers, can use Investigation to identify the suspect officially, and subsequently, use Persuasion combined with control of a legal authority to obtain an arrest, an indictment, and lastly, a conviction. Each of these steps scores a player an increasing number of Victory Points. A convicted character loses all of his Power, but is still in the game, as his conviction is, of course, being appealed.

Physically, Dallas: The Television Role-Playing Game is cleanly and tidily presented. It is clearly written, but written in the style of a set of rules for a wargame with numbered and sub-numbered sections—just as SPI would do for its other roleplaying games, DragonQuest and Universe. Internally, none of the roleplaying game’s three booklets are illustrated. All of the illustrations appear on the cover of the box—in colour, and then in black and white on the front cover of the Rules of Play. So none of the character sheets are illustrated. Overall, the black and white production values—some spot colour is used on the cards—are underwhelming and lack the glossy sheen that a product or game based on a television series like Dallas really calls for.

The rules to Dallas: The Television Role-Playing Game are decently explained and they do come with an example of play. The three pre-written episodes are also decent and the advice on creating scripts and other characters is workable. The advice on creating scripts is backed up by a list of Plot Devices and biographies of the various NPCs, all of which can be used by the Director to write her own scripts. There is also a lengthy, and quite detailed history of Texas. However, there is no background or information to the television series of Dallas itself, beyond that of the little information given on each of the character sheets. Essentially, to play a game of Dallas: The Television Role-Playing Game, the designers expect the participants to rely upon their own knowledge of the series and its characters.

As a design, Dallas: The Television Role-Playing Game is not a traditional roleplaying game and nor does it feel like one. There are no rules for creating new members of the cast, no rules for gaining experience, or improving a character as you would find in almost any other roleplaying game. And despite the fact that infamously, a big storyline revolved around the identity of who it was who shot J.R. Ewing, there are no rules for physical conflict or combat—the roleplaying game is all about verbal conflict. Then although it has a Game Master or a Director and everyone sits round the table just as in a traditional roleplaying game, the fact that a game can involve nine players and the Director, makes it feel more like a party or social game. Of course, party or social games were not a category of games as they are today, so the nearest equivalent at the time of Dallas: The Television Role-Playing Game publication would be the ‘How to Host a Murder’ type games which were popular then.

As clearly and as simply as the rules are explained, anyone coming to them without a background in wargames or roleplaying—essentially the fan of Dallas picking up Dallas: The Television Role-Playing Game on a whim or because it is clearly connected to the soap opera, is likely to feel intimidated by the procedural nature of its play and the stolid nature of the mechanics. Nor is this helped by the grey, even boring production values that might have made the roleplaying that much more enticing , something that another publisher of the time, Yaquinto Publications got right with its own TV’s Dallas: A Game of the Ewing Family board game, part of its Album series.

As much as it states that it is a roleplaying game—and a ‘family’ roleplaying game at that, Dallas: The Television Role-Playing Game lacks an explanation of what roleplaying is and an explanation of how the Director narrates the beginning of each act. Nor is there a sense of the NPCs, the minor cast members, being characters in themselves, merely pawns for the main cast to control. There is also a sense of misogyny to the roleplaying game, one that admittedly it inherits from the television show, in that the male members of the cast are more powerful than the female ones. The character sheets though advise that the male characters should not necessarily throw their weight around and that they generally have more challenging victory conditions than the female characters who instead should be working together.

—oOo—

Dallas: The Television Role-Playing Game was not well received at the time. The single notable review appeared in The Space Gamer Number 42 (August, 1981). Reviewer David Ladyman asked, “Is DALLAS a useful bridge between gaming and your “real world” friends? That might depend on how many DALLAS freaks you know that you would want to introduce to gaming. Hard core RPGers will probably want to add the game to their collection; characters' attributes and the conflict resolution system are novel enough, even if you have no interest in the television series. I wouldn’t suggest it, though, if you buy your games for long-term playability – DALLAS just doesn't have lasting entertainment value.”

—oOo—

However, as underwhelming as Dallas: The Television Role-Playing Game is in terms of presentation, theme, and rules, it is in its own way innovative. As the first licensed roleplaying game, it showed the possibility of obtaining licences based on mainstream intellectual properties and the potential of drawing the fans of those properties into gaming. Within a matter of years, for example, FASA would produce The Doctor Who Role Playing Game and Star Trek: The Role Playing Game, both well received. Most licensed roleplaying games continue to be based on fantasy, horror, or science fiction properties rather than mainstream ones—Leverage: The Roleplaying Game being a rare and more recent example, as well as a good example of how to design a roleplaying game around a television show. Which of course, Dallas: The Television Role-Playing Game was not, but it also prefigured adversarial roleplaying, that is a roleplaying game in which the Player Characters are against each other as often as not, and that there can be a clear winner in playing the game. This would really come to the fore in Phage Press’ 1991 Amber Diceless Roleplaying Game and would subsequently be seen in any number of indie roleplaying games.

Another aspect to Dallas: The Television Role-Playing Game is that in hindsight, as perhaps as underwhelming as the design is, there is huge potential for roleplaying in the game. It is not the mechanics which entice, but the opportunity to dig into the members of Dallas’ cast, a great many of them signature characters that are familiar even decades on and roleplay them around the table. Although, whether you would roleplay all nine at the same time is is another matter. Of course, Dallas: The Television Role-Playing Game does not support this, and it is only with hindsight and the experience of roleplaying that the potential can be seen. Anyone coming to Dallas: The Television Role-Playing Game without that experience or that hindsight, will ultimately be daunted by what they find in the box. 

Forty years since the publication of Dallas: The Television Role-Playing Game and the hobby is better served by roleplaying games which would emulate its genre. Dog Eared Designs’ Primetime Adventures: a game of television melodrama is an obvious choice, but Fiasco could also do it, as could Pasión de las Pasiones, the telenovela tabletop roleplaying game Powered by the Apocalypse published by Magpie Games. Further, all three of those roleplaying games would have the advice and guidance that Dallas: The Television Role-Playing Game lacks.

Dallas: The Television Role-Playing Game is significant as the first licensed roleplaying game, but not necessarily as a design. It can be seen as a venture or experiment, that in 1980, would have made commercial sense for SPI to pursue and publish because the crossover potential between fans of Dallas the television series and the roleplaying hobby could have been significant. Certainly, within a family it could have served as a means for a roleplayer to show his parents or other family members who were fans of Dallas, but likely mystified by his hobby, what roleplaying was like and how it could be fun.  Of course, it was not to be. Few in the roleplaying hobby would have been interested in a roleplaying game based on Dallas and anyone outside of the hobby would be daunted by the design of Dallas: The Television Role-Playing Game, which is more of a card game than a roleplaying game.

Dallas: The Television Role-Playing Game is an interesting, even important, curio from the dawn of the commercialisation of the roleplaying hobby. Its design though, is a hangover from the dusk of another hobby—wargaming, and that meant that Dallas: The Television Role-Playing Game was not the family-friendly—even if its cast of characters were anything but—introduction to roleplaying games it was intended to be. 

Friday, 25 December 2020

2010: Leverage: The Roleplaying Game

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. 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—


Published by Margaret Weis Productions in 2010, Leverage: The Roleplaying Game is a licensed roleplaying game based upon the television series which ran from 2008 to 2012. In the series, a Crew of con artists—a mastermind, a grifter, a hacker, a thief, and a retrieval specialist—take on a series of heists in order to fight injustices inflicted upon ordinary citizens by corporations and the government. Each of the episodes follows a set story structure. A Client comes to the team with a problem that only its members can find a solution to. This involves researching the villain or Mark and finding a weakness which the Crew can use to undermine him, and then formulating a plan which will make use of both the weakness and the skills of individual team members. As the plan goes into action, the Mark and his henchmen will seem to gain the upper hand, but ultimately, the Crew will outwit them all. Flashbacks will reveal further clues and improvisations that helped them overcome certain complications, and so ultimately, bring justice for the Client. This is the exact format that 
Leverage: The Roleplaying Game follows to provide not only an excellent adaptation of its source material, but also arguably, the purest treatment of the heist genre in any roleplaying game.
 
From the outset, Leverage: The Roleplaying Game is a simple sell. It is modern day, it is set in the real world, and the Player Characters, though highly skilled, are all easy to grasp and understand. They are all ‘crooks with a heart of gold’ or Robin Hood-types, rather than out and out criminals. The tone of the series and thus the roleplaying game is also family friendly—although there is action and there are fights, there is never gunplay, at least not on the part of the Crew. (The lack of gun play will also have an impact on game play, making carrying out a heist that much more challenging and thus more satisfying when pulled off because brute force or threat is not an option.) Plus, even if the players have never seen Leverage the television series, then they might have seen its BBC forebear, Hustle, or films such as Ocean’s 11 and the other entries in the series. Lastly, despite the fact that Leverage: The Roleplaying Game follows the formula of the television series, the formula and thus its set-up means that as a roleplaying game—especially a licensed roleplaying game—Leverage: The Roleplaying Game has not actually dated in the ten years since it was published.
 
Leverage: The Roleplaying Game is one of five roleplaying games from Margaret Weis Productions to use Cortex Plus, the others being the Smallville Roleplaying Game, the Marvel Heroic Roleplaying, the Dragon Brigade Roleplaying Game, and the Firefly Role-Playing Game. It is both a roleplaying game and a roleplaying game, a roleplaying game in that each player is roleplaying a character and each character is playing a Role. There are five Roles—a Mastermind, a Grifter, a Hacker, a Thief, and a Hitter—and Leverage: The Roleplaying Game works best when there are five players, each of whom takes one of the five Roles and so forms a Crew. The Mastermind specialises in plans and coordinating the Crew’s activities on the Job; the Grifter gains and use people’s trust through disguises and roles; the Hacker gains, supplies, and denies information, typically using technology; the Thief steals or plants things by stealth and foiling security systems; and the Hitter supplies force and a tactical edge. There is some crossover between Roles for the Crewmembers, so the roleplaying game can be played with fewer players, but its optimal number is nonetheless five. A Crewmember also has six Attributes—Agility, Alertness, Intelligence, Strength, Vitality, and Willpower; two Specialities, each one associated with a Role, such as Driving for Hitter and Piloting for Hacker; three Distinctions or personality quirks or traits, which can work to a Crewmember’s disadvantage as much as they do advantage; and Talents, essentially tricks which related to particular roles and when activated grant a Crewmember an advantage. Roles and Attributes are rated by die type, the larger the die type, the better the ability of the Role or Attribute, both being defined by ten-, eight-, six-, and four-sided dice. A Speciality is valued as a six-sided die, whilst a Distinction can be rated as an eight-sided or a four-sided die depending whether it is in the Crewmember’s favour or not.

To create a Crewmember, a player selects a Primary Role and a Secondary Role, assigning a ten-sided die to the former, an eight-sided die to the second, and decides on two Specialities, attaching each to a particular Role. A six-sided die is assigned to a third Role, and four-sided dice to the remaining two. The size of dice types assigned to the attributes will vary depending upon if the Crewmember is focused or versatile. Lastly, the player selects three Distinctions and two Talents.
 
Winston Moran
Winston Moran used to work in financial security, preventing banks and other institutions from being robbed. He was injured in a car crash which also left his wife in coma and due to the injury was forced to take early retirement. Unfortunately, his employers defaulted and left him without pension, forcing him to turn to ‘crime’ to pay for his wife’s medical bills.
 
Roles
Grifter d8, Hacker d6, Hitter d4, Mastermind d10, Thief d4
 
Attributes
Agility d8, Alertness d8, Intelligence d10, Strength d6, Vitality d8, Willpower d8
 
Specialities
Bank Fraud, Games
 
Distinctions
Voice of Authority, Walks with a Cane, Industry Veteran
 
Talents
Slip of the Tongue (Grifter)
Sea of Calm (Mastermind)
 
This though, is the quick and easy version—but not the fun version. The suggested version—the fun version—is ‘The Recruitment Job’. Each player partially defines his Crewmember and together the Crew play through a simple Job designed to showcase what each Crewmember can do and define and bring into play the other undefined aspects of each Crewmember. Essentially, this is the playing group’s pilot episode or ‘Zero Session’ for their Leverage series. There are one or two quirks about Crewmember generation. The first is that a Crewmember’s Secondary Role will define how he approaches his primary Role. For example, the Grifter whose Secondary Role is Hitter, is a ‘Swashbuckler’, aggressive and challenging  with a Mark, but uses lots of misdirection and quips in a fistfight, whilst the Hitter whose Secondary Role is Grifter is a ‘Duellist’, a quick, deceptive combatant who uses feints and distractions to bait his opponents. The second quirk is that there is no Charisma attribute and this is by design. Rather, the Attributes of Intelligence, Strength, Vitality, and Willpower all assume aspects of a Crewmember’s charisma and how he uses it on the Job. Essentially, every Crewmember is charismatic, but exactly how will vary from Crewmember to Crewmember—just like the cast of a television series.
 
Mechanically, Leverage: The Roleplaying Game uses the Cortex Plus system—in 2020 revisited with new core rulebook, Cortex Prime. The basics revolve around two opposed dice rolls, one by the player, one by the Fixer—as the Game Master is known in Leverage: The Roleplaying Game. Each dice roll consists of two dice. For the Crewmember, the dice roll will consist of a die from one Attribute and a die from one Role, both of which will vary from situation. For example, when his Crewmember is chasing a potential Mark, the Fixer might call upon the player to roll his Crewmember’s Alertness plus Hitter, or if a Crewmember is being chased by security guards and he wants to hide, perhaps on the ceiling, the Fixer would ask his player to roll Agility plus Thief. The Fixer will in turn be rolling dice which might be for the environment, such as ‘Ten Stories Up d6 plus Vibration Sensors d8’ or an NPC, which for most NPCs, such as the Client, a simple Mark, Extras, and so on, will have no more than a handful of traits, such Wannabe Hacker d4 or The Best Golfer d6. Other NPCs, including Marks, Foils, and Agents—the latter typically out to capture or beat the Crew or a particular Crewmember, can be as complex as actual Player Character Crewmembers.
 
Although just two dice form the core of the basic roll, other dice can be added to it. The use of Specialities, Distinctions, Assets, and Complications can all add dice to the roll. In most cases, these require the expenditure of Plot Points. Plot Points—of which a Crewmember starts with one—can also be used to activate Talents and create new Assets, which last for the scene (or the whole Job for two Plot Points). Ultimately, only the two highest dice are counted and added together. This sets the stakes for the Fixer to roll her dice and attempt to roll higher. If she does, she ‘Raises the Stakes’, and it is up to the player to reroll the dice, and if add in more dice, to gain a score higher than that rolled by the Fixer. Alternatively, whomever rolled lower can back down and decide not to roll to beat the other. In which case, the Crewmember or Mark has given in and taken down, the winner of deciding the outcome. If however, one side rolls five higher than the stakes are currently set at, then they have achieved an Extraordinary Success and an automatic takedown of their opposition.
 
Where Cortex Plus gets interesting is in the generation of Plot Points. Whenever a one result is rolled on a die by a player, it is not counted towards the two dice he keeps as his Crewmember’s total, but it does generate or improve a Complication, which adds another die to the Fixer’s dice roll. When that happens, the player receives a Plot Point. When the Fixer rolls a one on any of her dice, it generates an Opportunity and the player can bring in one of his Crewmember’s Talents, if appropriate. The fact that rolls of one generate Plot Points and Plot Points can be used to create Assets, add dice to a roll, and so on, means that players will want to be rolling ones almost as much as they high results, and the best way to roll ones, is to roll lower value dice, such as six-sided- and four-sided dice. Both of course, have higher chances of rolling ones. A Crewmember starts play with a Role set at a four-sided die, but the other way to bring in a four-sided die is to add a Distinction to the roll. If the Distinction works in the Crewmember’s favour, then it is rolled as an eight-sided die, but if it is to his disadvantage, it not only adds the desired die, but also the reviled four-sided die. Either way, rolls of one represent the type of setbacks that might be seen in an episode of Leverage, but at same time generate the Plot Points that will ensure already expert Crewmembers complete the Job and take down the Mark. 
For example, the Crew managed to plant a bugging device in the Mark’s office. However, the Mark’s security ensured it was not able to broadcast what it downloaded from his computer, so the Crew needs to get it back. Winston Moran has already been into the Mark’s office, ostensibly to talk about a bank fraud, but that was to give the bug time to work. Now he needs to get it back. He tells the security guard that he dropped his wallet in the office, so the guard lets him go and get it. The guard is diligent and comes to check on Winston. To see if Winston grabs the bug before the guard becomes suspicious, the Fixer asks his player to roll Winston’s Alertness plus Thief. Unfortunately, this is a d8 for Alertness and a d4 for Thief—the latter is so low because Winston is not as young as he was.
 
Winston’s player rolls an eight and a one! This sets the stakes at eight because the one is set apart and further, it generates a Complication. The Security Guard has Security Guard d6 and Really Doesn’t Want Any Trouble d6, but since Winston rolled a one and generated a Complication, it adds another die to the Fixer’s roll, in this case, Suspicions Aroused d6. She rolls a four, a five, and a two! This Raises the Stakes to eleven. Winston’s player states that he is going to roll d8 for Alertness and a d4 for Thief again, but spend a Plot Point to bring in a Distinction, in this case, Walks with a Cane. As this is being used to Winston’s benefit, it adds a d8 rather than a d4. His player rolls a three, a four, and a six to give a final result of thirteen. This beats the Fixer’s stakes and she backs down as Winston allays the security guard’s suspicions with, “Found it! Sorry for being so slow—old man with a cane, you know?”
Beyond the simple mechanics, Leverage: The Roleplaying Game introduces numerous elements which model the television series. For example, all of the Crewmembers are Experts and as in classic episodic television, they do not really improve, or at least if they do, it is at a very slow rate. Instead of the classic Experience Points, a Crewmember records each of the Jobs he completes. During a future Job, a player can have his Crewmember make a ‘Callback’ to the previous events of another Job to gain a bonus eight-sided die. This provides the Crewmember with a ready pool of bonus dice, but alternatively, a player can improve an Attribute or Role die, or purchase further Specialities or Talents by permanently marking off the Job titles.
 
Where the television series is really modelled is in the use of Flashbacks. In an episode of the television series, the focus of the Job is all on the Mark and how he is affected by the Crew’s efforts to scam him. They come in two forms. Establishment Flashbacks add an element to a Crewmember’s backstory to bring an Asset into play, whilst Wrap-Up Flashbacks establish Assets which can aid in turning the tables on the mark and go towards the finale and Mastermind’s final roll against him. They are both a narrative device to further showcase the various Crewmembers’ Roles and other traits and a means to overcome a Job’s final hurdles.
 
For the Fixer, there is a deep discussion of the heist genre as seen in Leverage, taking her through the process of constructing a Job—from the Client and his Problem to the Mark, a discussion of a traditional three-act structure versus the five-act structure of a Leverage episode, twists to use and twists to avoid—the latter primarily to prevent the players and their Crewmembers getting to bogged down in planning, taking inspiration from news stories, and even a ‘Situation Generator’ for creating a random Job. The Fixer can also make use of the example Clients, Foils, Agents, Locations, and more, though Locations are relatively easy to come up with given that the Leverage: The Roleplaying Game is set in the modern day and the Fixer can draw inspiration from around her. The world around the Crew is explored in broad detail, whilst the criminal and the Crew’s place in it is given more detail. With advice on subjects such as ‘Thinking Like a Criminal’, ‘Violence’, and the nature of ‘Cons’, including long, short, and classic cons. This last part is a solid introduction to grifting and running con games, and much like the rest of the chapters intended for the Fixer can just as easily be read and perused by the players. Rounding out the Leverage: The Roleplaying Game is an episode guide for the first two seasons of the television series. This either works as inspiration for the Fixer or it feels a lot much like filler content, but either way, it would have been nice to have some ready-to play-Jobs alongside it.

One issue with Leverage: The Roleplaying Game is the same as the Leverage television series. It is fundamentally episodic in nature, such that there is relatively minimal character or on-going development from one episode to the next. This is partially reflected in the slow growth and improvement of the Crewmembers through the Jobs recorded and spent as Experience Points. What this means is that the Leverage: The Roleplaying Game is not necessarily a game to play on an ongoing or even a long term basis, but since every episode of the television series and every Job is more or less self-contained, it works well for one-shots, for short seasons, and even pickup games with minimal preparation time if the Fixer uses the tables provided in the book to create a situation.

In terms of play, Leverage: The Roleplaying Game is a game which encourages player input, whether that is in the expenditure of Plot Points to add Assets to a Job or be inventive in how each player brings his Attribute and Role combinations into play. The Fixer will probably suggest combinations most of the time, but there is scope for a player to suggest his own too. This though, is also open to abuse, but a good Fixer should be able to nix that in the bud and encourage her players to play in the spirit of the Leverage television series.
 
Physically, Leverage: The Roleplaying Game is a really clean, bright looking book decently illustrated with stills from the television series. It is both engagingly and well written, and although it lacks an index, the table of content does a reasonable job of making up for it.
 
Neither the mechanics nor the genre of Leverage: The Roleplaying Game have dated and both are as comfortable to run in the here and now of this year or any other year, as much as they were in 2010. The focus of the design on emulating its source genre however does date it to its publication era, that of the storytelling game/indie roleplaying game movement which dominated the late 2010s, but of course, designed to a far more commercial end. As much as it is designed to emulate the Leverage television series, its treatment of its genre means that it can do other heist or con game set-ups just as easily as it can Leverage the television series. Nominated for the 2011 Origins Award for Best Roleplaying GameLeverage: The Roleplaying Game is an elegant, well-designed treatment of not just the Leverage television series it is based upon, but also of the heist and the con game genres in general.

Sunday, 20 December 2020

Jonstown Jottings #34: Remembering Caroman

Much like the Miskatonic Repository for Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition, the Jonstown Compendium is a curated platform for user-made content, but for material set in Greg Stafford’s mythic universe of Glorantha. It enables creators to sell their own original content for RuneQuest: Roleplaying in Glorantha13th Age Glorantha, and HeroQuest Glorantha (Questworlds). This can include original scenarios, background material, cults, mythology, details of NPCs and monsters, and so on, but none of this content should be considered to be ‘canon’, but rather fall under ‘Your Glorantha Will Vary’. This means that there is still scope for the authors to create interesting and useful content that others can bring to their Glorantha-set campaigns.

—oOo—

What is it?
Remembering Caroman presents a scenario for use with RuneQuest: Roleplaying in Glorantha.

It is forty-nine page, full colour, 25.75 MB PDF.

The layout is clean and tidy, and many of the illustrations good. It needs an edit.

Where is it set?
Remembering Caroman is set in Sartar in the lands of the Orlmarth, Ernaldori, Enjossi, and Sambari clans.

Who do you play?
Player Characters should be Sartarites or their in good standing. Members of the Orlmarth or Ernaldori clans will have strong ties to the plot and several of its locations. A shaman, or any character capable of talking to the spirits of the dead will be very useful. A Humakti will also be of use.

What do you need?
Remembering Caroman requires RuneQuest: Roleplaying in Glorantha. The RuneQuest: Glorantha Bestiary may be useful for details of spirits, and both the RuneQuest Gamemaster Screen Pack and The Smoking Ruin & Other Stories will be useful for information about ClearwineThe Pegasus Plateau & Other Stories may also be useful for information about the Locaem tribe.

What do you get?
Remembering Caroman is a scenario set in and around the lands of the Colymar tribe after the events of the Dragonrise and the Lunars have been thrown out of Sartar. The Player Characters attend the funeral of a local homesteader and discover that not are only the ancestor spirits in attendance, they are also unhappy, primarily a holdover from the disruption caused by the occupation of much of Sartar by the Lunar Empire. Discussion with the other funeral attendees reveals that there may be spirits still to be laid to rest at nearby farm on Little Starfire Ridge.

Further investigation reveals that the farm has fallen into neglect following the death of its owner, that it is haunted by her spirit—she cannot rest or cross over until she sees her son who has been missing for almost a quarter of a century, and that it is a potential source of friction between the nearby clans as to which of them will inherit once the issue at hand is settled. Essentially, what the Player Characters have to do is locate her son and return him home. This requires no little investigation, the Player Characters needing to travel to first Clearwine, then to the shores of Kjartan’s Lake, and from there by one or two different routes into Sambari tribal lands. Their primary sources will be survivors of the first few battles during the Lunar invasion of 1602.

Remembering Caroman involves plenty of travel and besides one or two given encounters and situations, has scope for the Game Master to add details and events of her own. The initial setting on the Little Starfire Ridge makes the scenario easy to tie into a campaign in and around Apple Lane, such as that established in the RuneQuest Gamemaster Screen Pack, and then via both the RuneQuest Gamemaster Screen Pack and The Smoking Ruin & Other Stories to Clearwine. With some effort, the locations for the scenario could easily be adjusted to elsewhere. Along the way, there are some great scenes, such as coming to the help of workers at a collapsing salmon leap and running into a band of Trollkin who have got the wrong idea. 

The scenario will more challenging for a group whose number does not include a Shaman. The scenario is also quite linear, but then the Player Characters are following a trail of clues. This trail does diverge though, providing two routes to its dénouement, but that said, if the Player Characters take one route, they will avoid the interesting encounters on the other. Which is a pity, because the the likelihood is that the Player Characters will learn more from one path than the other. The scenarios initial set-up may a require a bit of push to get the Player Characters involved, so the Game Master should ideally dig into their backgrounds to tie them into the set-up and thus get them involved. 

Is it worth your time?
YesRemembering Caroman presents an enjoyable exploration of how the magical and the mundane worlds of Glorantha come together in a scenario that can easily be slotted into an ongoing campaign set in Sartar.  
NoRemembering Caroman is probably best avoided if the campaign is not set in Sartar and the Player Characters do not include a Shaman.
MaybeRemembering Caroman is strongly location specific, but has some entertaining scenes which could be adapted elsewhere.

Horror House Hell

The careers of Delta Green agents tend not to go well—they dabble in the secrets of the Unnatural or they become so obsessed with a mystery or a case that they lose perspective, threaten their very sanity, and even the secrecy of the conspiracy itself. This is certainly the case in scenarios such as Delta Green: Need to Know and Delta Green: Kali Ghati, so it is with Delta Green: Music From a Darkened Room. Also available in the anthology, A Night at the Opera: Six Terrifying Operations for Delta Green: The Role-Playing, this is essentially a haunted house scenario, but done in the style of Delta Green rather than another horror roleplaying game, such as Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition.

Delta Green: Music From a Darkened Room, published by Arc Dream Publishing, takes place in the small town of Meadowbrook, New Jersey. The Agents are directed to investigate and determine the cause of the death of FBI Special Agent Arthur Donnelly who was found dead at 1206 Spooner Avenue, his throat and his blood sprayed around the room where he was found dead. Although his death has been ruled as a suicide, Delta Green suspects that there is more to it because the previous owner was also found dead under the exact same circumstances. Although the FBI considers the matter closed, Delta Green does not, and that will both drive and possibly hamper the Agent’s investigative efforts. The Agents are tasked with determining whether or not the house is tied to the deaths—and if so, how, and then if the house remains a threat to the public at large.

Effectively, what this means is that Delta Green: Music From a Darkened Room is divided into two halves—much like its precedent, ‘The Haunting’ for Call of Cthulhu. In the first half, the Agents investigate the history of the house, its occupants, the reasons for their selling up, and in all too many cases, the terrible things which happened whilst they were in 1206 Spooner Avenue. The Agents will have to work hard to dig into the history of the house, and even harder to avoid arousing the suspicions of the proper authorities, but there is a richness of clues for the Agents to uncover. Beginning with a couple of local contacts as well as a local Green Box—a repository of equipment, clues, records, and leftovers from previous other investigations, the trail of clues leads through the records of the ownership of the house, death certificates, surviving past occupants, and more. As well as warning the Agents not to alert the authorities, Delta Green also notably warns the Agents that they should take extreme care in investigating the house, suggesting that it may have had an influence upon the deaths which took place within its walls. Hopefully, this will be strong enough of a warning for the Agents to do their due diligence, rather than rushing off to physically examine the house (though there is nothing to stop them from doing so if they wish).

In the second half of the scenario, hopefully forewarned by discoveries made during their investigations in and around Meadowbrook, the Agents enter the house and explore its confines. The descriptions of individual rooms and what is in them feel quite lightly drawn—the Handler may well want to add a little more detail here, whereas the descriptions of what might happen in each of the house’s rooms and when, is highly detailed by comparison. The encounters and experiences to be had  from room to room in the house play are a major factor in the scenario’s second half, many involving flashbacks and pleasing in places, all five senses, and the investigation of the actual house, the majority of them varying according to the Agents’ Will Power stat. This enables the Handler to tailor the encounters and experiences to the players’ Agents, enabling her to start with a sense of unease during the first few scenes in the house and then build up through creepy to weird and then outright bloody confrontations. Although this needs to be handled with some care lest it be overplayed, there are some entertaining shocks to throw at the Agents and their players. The Handler may want to pick and choose which of these to use lest the horror becomes too sudden, too often.

Although there one or two nods in Delta Green: Music From a Darkened Room to its forebear, ‘The Haunting’ for Call of Cthulhu, most notably the two act structure of the investigation and the inclusion of a family from Quebec, Delta Green: Music From a Darkened Room is very different. Not just its modern milieu, but also because it is creepier, the whole house seemingly haunted and potentially a source of scares and threats to the Agents. The secrets of the house and its past occupants are also not as obviously found, and the Agents will have to work increasingly hard to discover a great many, if not all, of the scenario’s clues. If the scenario’s investigative process is also challenging—more so if the Agents are trying to conceal their interest in the house, let alone their investigations, then determining and potentially applying a possible solution that will solve the mystery is extremely difficult. In fact, so difficult that some players may even come to see Delta Green: Music From a Darkened Room as a no-win scenario.

Physically, Delta Green: Music From a Darkened Room is a well-presented scenario. It is well written, but the Handler will need to read it carefully as there is a lot of information that she will potentially have to impart to her players and their Agents. The single set of floorplans is clear, but perhaps a little plain and could have done with a few internal details added to help the Handler describe each room. The few handouts could also have been collected at the end of the book for easy use by the Handler. Given the wealth of clues to be found in the scenario, the players should be prepared to take a lot of notes for their Agents.

Delta Green: Music From a Darkened Room is a dark foreboding scenario, one with a strong sense of claustrophobia, both within of the walls of 1206 Spooner Avenue and in the town itself—especially if the Agents’ activities come to the notice of the townsfolk of Meadowbrook and they begin to gossip and take an interest in them. The Agents’ investigative efforts also have potentially disastrous consequences if they are not careful. Overall, Delta Green: Music From a Darkened Room is an enjoyable mix of challenging, but rich investigation and spine-chillingly unpleasant, often macabre atmosphere and encounters in a haunted house.

Saturday, 19 December 2020

The Other OSR—Warlock!

At first sight, Warlock! looks like just another Old School Renaissance Retroclone—and it is, but not the sort you might be thinking of. Published by Fire Ruby Designs—previously best known for Golgotha, the Science Fiction retroclone of far future dungeon scavenging in shattered battleships—Warlock! quickly makes its inspirations known with the strap line, “A Game Inspired By The Early Days Of British Tabletop Gaming”. As much as Warlock! is a fantasy roleplaying game replete with Dwarves, Elves, and Halflings, warriors and wizards, and so on, it only draws upon Dungeons & Dragons as far as that, and no more—just as inspirations for Warlock! did. Instead, Warlock! has Careers—Careers such as Agitator, Boatman, Grave Robber, and Rat Catcher; it has two attributes, one of which is Luck; and it has a Warlock! running around an unnamed, humancentric kingdom causing mayhem. The inspiration for Warlock! is thus Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay and Maelstrom as well as the Fighting Fantasy solo adventure books which began with The Warlock of Firetop Mountain. However, Warlock! is very much lighter than Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, at least mechanically, though mechanically more complex than Fighting Fantasy. In tone though, Warlock! is intended to be grim and gritty, a world of adventure and peril, but with mud aplenty—or worse—underfoot and a certain, sardonic sense of humour.

Warlock! is a Career and Skills driven game rather than  a Class and Level game. A Player Character has two attributes—Stamina and Luck, as well as a Community. This can either be Human, Halfling, Elf, or Dwarf. These grant societal benefits rather than mechanical ones. He also has thirty-two base skills, ranging from Appraise, Athletics, and Bargain to Survival, Swimming, and Throw, and all of which range in value from one to twenty. To create a character, a player rolls dice for the two attributes, selects a Community, and sets ten skills at a base level of six and another ten at level five. The rest are set at a base level of four. The player then rolls four six-sided dice. These generate the four choices he will have in terms of Basic Career for his character. Once selected, a Career provides four things. First a quintet of skills which can be increased during play whilst the Player Character remains in that Career and a maximum level to which they can be improved, either ten or twelve. For example, the Pedlar receives Ostler 10, Streetwise 10, Appraise 12, Bargain 12, and Repair 12. The player divides ten points between these skills up to their maximum given values. Second, it provides a sixth skill, named after the Career itself, the level for this Career skill being the average of the other skills the Career grants. Third, it provides some standard equipment, and fourth it gives a pair of background elements specific to the Player Character’s time in that Career, both of which are generated randomly. For example, a Pedlar’s two die rolls would determine what he sold and where he has been. Lastly, a player picks three personality traits for character.

Name: Gottschalk Einstein
Community: Human
Career: Raconteur
Past Careers:

STAMINA: 17 LUCK: 13

ADVENTURING SKILLS
Appraise 07 (12), Athletics 05, Bargain 06, Blunt 05, Bow 04, Brawling 06, Command 04, Crossbow 04, Diplomacy 05, Disguise 04, Dodge 09 (10), Endurance 06, History 07 (10), Incantation 04, Intimidate 04, Language 06, Large Blade 04, Lie 08 (12), Medicine 04, Navigation 05, Ostler 05, Persuasion 06, Pole Arm 04, Repair 05, Sleight of Hand 04, Small Blade 05, Spot 06, Stealth 05, Streetwise 06 (12), Survival 05, Swimming 06, Thrown 04

Career SKILLS
Raconteur 7

POSSESSIONS
6 silver coins, backpack, three days’ foods, waterskin, eating knife, jaunty clothes, and boots.
A bottle or two of something strong and a few ‘relics’ of your past exploits, impressive but worthless.

WEAPONS
Arming sword

TRAITS
Charming, Enthusiastic, Lazy

SPELLS
None

NOTES
What tales do you tell? – The latest tales from the capital.
Where have you been? – Here and there. Buy me a drink?

Character generation is for the most part straightforward, as is character progression. A Player Character should receive one, two, or three advances per session. Each advance will increase one of a Player Character’s Career skill by one level, up to the maximum allowed by the Career. As a Player Character’s Career skills rise, so will his Stamina, representing him becoming tougher and more experienced. When a Player Character reaches the maximum skill level, he can change Careers—this will cost him a total of five advances. Whilst this grants him access to other skills, it will not increase the cap on the ones he already has. For that, he needs to enter an Advanced Career, such as Assassin, Bravo, Merchant, or Wizard. This raises the maximum skill levels to fourteen and sixteen rather than ten and twelve for Basic Careers. There are sixteen Advanced Careers in Warlock! and twenty-four Basic Careers. In general, a Player Character will be undertaking two or three Basic Careers before entering an Advanced Career—probably ten or fifteen sessions of play or so, before a Player Character is in a position to do that.

Mechanically, Warlock! is simple. To undertake an action, a player rolls a twenty-sided die, adds the value for appropriate skill or Career and aims to roll twenty or higher. More difficult tasks may levy a penalty of two or four upon the roll. Opposed rolls are a matter of rolling higher to beat an opponent. Luck is also treated as a skill for purposes of rolling, and rolled when a character finds himself in a dire or perilous situation where the circumstances go in his favour or against him. Combat is equally simple, consisting of opposed attack rolls—melee attacks versus melee attacks and ranged attacked versus the target’s Dodge skill. Damage is rolled on one or two six-sided dice depending upon the weapon, whilst mighty strikes, which inflict double damage, are possible if an attacker rolls three times higher than the defender. Armour reduces damage taken by a random amount.

Damage is deducted from a defendant’s Stamina. When this is reduced to zero, the defendant suffers a critical hit, necessitating a roll on a Critical Hit table. Warlock! has five, for slashing, piercing, crushing, and blast damage. Of course, roleplaying games like Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay had more, and more entries on them, but for a stripped back game like Warlock!, they are enough—and they are brutal. Damage below a defendant’s Stamina acts as a modifier to the roll on the table, so once dice are rolled on the critical damage tables, combat takes a nasty turn.

For example, Gottschalk Einstein is heading to his lodgings after a night on the town when he is attacked by a couple of thugs—Wilmar and Bruna, thinking that the worse for wear gentleman will be an easy mark. Both have clubs, 14 Stamina, and a Blunt skill of 3. The Game Master states that in his inebriated state, Gottschalk will be surprised. This means that the thugs can act first and have a +5 bonus to their rolls. Gottschalk’s player will roll normally, but will be using his Dodge skill of 9. Against Wilmar’s roll of 10, Gottschalk’s player’s roll 13 is good enough—the raconteur sees the attack coming and just steps out of the way. Bruna is more successful though, as the Game Master rolls a total of twenty against Gottschalk’s 15. The Game Master rolls 1d6-1 for her club and inflicts four points of Stamina damage, which Gottschalk suffers because he is not wearing armour—a poor way to impress the ladies! On the next round, the Game Master has everyone roll for initiative, a simple roll of a six-sided die. Gottschalk’s four beats the thug’s two, and drawing his arming sword, he swings at the nearest thug, which is Bruna. Unfortunately, Gottschalk is slightly drunk and the Game Master levies a -2 penalty to his Large Blade skill—reducing it to two (who said Gottschalk was a fighter?). His player rolls a total of 12 versus Bruna’s 8, and so hits. Gottschalk slashes at his assailant and inflicts nine damage on her, reduced by one for her padded jerkin. Bruna now has six Stamina. Wilmar attempts a second attack, and whilst Gottschalk is at a penalty on his Dodge roll, his player rolls 16, three times Wilmar’s roll of 1 which means not only that he misses, the Game Master rules that he falls flat on his face!

On round two, Gottschalk continues slashing at Bruna, his player rolling a total of 21. The Game Master rolls 18, which is not good enough and his drunken swings are enough to inflict another eight points his blade slashes open her padded jerkin. This reduces Bruna’s Stamina to -2, necessitating a roll on the Slashing Critical table. Gottschalk rolls two six-sided dice and adds two to the result for an average result of seven—which means that he has sliced at least one of her fingers off! She drops her club and clutches her hand in pain. She thinks better of her action and dashes for the alley. Meanwhile, her cohort, Wilmar manages to get to his feet and hefting his club suddenly realises he is facing a drunk with a bloodied sword in hand and his cohort has scarpered! Wilmar has a moment to think about his current Career choice…

Magic in Warlock! can be cast by either priests or wizards, but both use Incantation skill to cast, have to be cast from scrolls, and require the expenditure of Stamina to power. Spells can thus be cast so long as the caster has Stamina. However, a caster will suffer ‘Wrath of the Otherworld’ should his player roll a one, followed by a second failed Incantation test. This results on a roll on the Miscast table, leading to results such as the caster’s skin being bleached white or their face frozen in a grimace for several days. It is even possible for non-priests or non-wizards to cast spells, that is, read them off the scrolls. However, the likelihood of such spells being successfully cast is relatively low given that every Player Character will have a four in his Incantation skill… Some thirty-six or so spells are listed, from Alarm and Banish to Swarm and Unseen. Magic items in Warlock! essentially model the effects of spells, either without the need for an Incantation check, or with the Incantation check, but without the Stamina cost.

Warlock!’s bestiary includes all of the usual suspects, from Chimera, Dire Wolves, and Demon to Wight, Wraith, and Wyvern. Advice for the Game Master highlights the deadliness of the combat, the low power of the magic and its potential accessibility by everyone, and whilst the monsters are not necessarily evil, they may act as such. It also states that the way to become powerful in terms of magic is to specialise, but there are no rules for that. The major piece of advice for the Game Master is that Warlock! is designed to be hackable, and given how light the mechanics are, that is certainly the case. There is advice too, on handling the expectations that the players have in coming to a scenario and building an adventure around those. However, there is no scenario included which would showcase what the designer expects to see, and this is not helped by the lack of background to Warlock!. What there is, is very lightly sketched out. There is a marauding Warlock! of course, and the gods, such as the beloved Thrice Blessed, the bloody Red King, and the reviled Dragon, but nothing beyond that... 

Warlock! is a buff little book, starkly laid out and illustrated in a suitably rough style which feels suitably in keeping with the period inspiration. It is very handy and especially combined with the lightness of its mechanics, makes it easy to reference and to run from the book.

The danger of being inspired by Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay and Fighting Fantasy is that Warlock! could have been fairly complex, but in taking concepts and structures from both—the Careers in particular of Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay and the simplicity of Fighting Fantasy, the result is something that is leaner, faster, but still as brutal and as grim. Plus it is light enough for the Game Master to easily develop her own content. Overall, Warlock! is easy to pick up and play, presenting a quick and dirty fantasy roleplaying game that will tick many a gamer’s sense of nostalgia.