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

Saturday, 28 March 2020

Brave New Mutant: Year Zero

At the end of the fourth and most recent campaign and campaign set in Free League Publishing’s Mutant: Year Zero post-apocalyptic future, there remained one big question, “What happens next?” Since 2014, the publisher has been exploring the place of mutants with Mutant: Year Zero – Roleplaying at the End of Days, anthropomorphic animals with Mutant: Genlab Alpha, robots with Mechatron – Rise of the Robots Roleplaying, and Mutant: Year Zero – Elysium, and by with each release revealing a bit more the world and the disaster which brought it to its current state. Each release also saw the four different groups encountering one or more of the other groups for the first time, if only fleetingly, in the wake of the events which played out in Mutant: Year Zero – Elysium, all four groups are together and interacting with each other. This is the new world of Mutant: Year Zero presented in a mini-campaign for setting, Mutant: Year Zero – The Gray Death.

Mutant: Year Zero – The Gray Death takes place in the Zone, the region first explored in Mutant: Year Zero – Roleplaying at the End of Days. The default Zone is The Big Smoke—essentially bombed out, flattened, and ravaged London—but it can easily be moved to the Game Master’s own Zone. All that it requires is a long body of water which boats can easily travel up and down. Advice is given on how to run it as a stand-alone adventure, but really Mutant: Year Zero – The Gray Death is designed to be run as part of campaign, specifically after Mutant: Year Zero – Elysium, and ideally after Mutant: Year Zero – Roleplaying at the End of Days, Mutant: Genlab Alpha, and Mechatron – Rise of the Robots Roleplaying. In addition, to get the best out of Mutant: Year Zero – The Gray Death, the Game Master should also have run Mutant: Year Zero Zone Compendium 5: Hotel Imperator. Since the campaign takes place after the events of Mutant: Year Zero – Elysium, there no restrictions on what type of characters the players can roleplay—be mutants, animals, robots, or humans. This is one of the features of the brave new Mutant: Year Zero world.

As Mutant: Year Zero – The Gray Death opens, the world has changed. There is more trade and interaction between the different groups, there are more boats on the river, and so on, but there are ominous signs. In the depths of a snowy winter, there are disappearances around the Ark, including of people important to the Player Characters, and there are shadows in the sky—vehicles which float in the air and move fast. The Player Characters come across a Zone Rider—one of the couriers who carry messages back and forth across the Zone—under attack by a band of orderly and well-equipped soldiers. If they come to the Zone Rider’s rescue, or from a contact later on if they decide not to intervene, they learn of a mysterious new organisation known as the Army of the Dawn. It has recently taken over a wretched junktown to the west and renamed it Dawnville. The Player Characters are tasked with travelling to Dawnville, which is shortly to stage a wrestling tournament, to find out more information. To prepare themselves for that, it is suggested that the Player Characters visit two other places to conduct some investigation and learn what they can about the Army of Dawn. The first is a trading post run by Oscar Battenburg, an enclave Human from Elysium I known to trade slaves to the Army of Dawn, the second is the Showboat Saga, which travels up and the river putting on entertainments and which recently visited the Dawnville.

The Player Characters are also given a deadline—the wrestling tournament takes place in a week. To get them across the Zone in time, the Player Characters are lent a big-wheeled all-terrain robot vehicle and given some equipment. It is also likely that they will have been able to scavenge the guns and the armour of the Army of Dawn soldiers who attacked the Zone Rider—in particular, the tin helms which give the Army of Dawn soldiers the look of Great War soldiers. In comparison to a normal Mutant: Year Zero campaign, the Player Characters will be able to zip across the Zone, and with initially three locations—or as Mutant: Year Zero terms them, ‘Special Zone Sectors’—there is scope for the Game Master to run random encounters and ‘Special Zone Sectors’ of her own in between these three.

Mutant: Year Zero – The Gray Death actually consists of five ‘Special Zone Sectors’, not three, although the first three can be run in any order, followed by the fourth and fifth in that order. Each of these locations is nicely detailed and includes full stats for each of the NPCs, clear maps—both full illustrations of the locations and floorplans where needed, and events which play out when the Player Characters visit them. The five ‘Special Zone Sectors’ are all different in scope and theme. So ‘The Showboat Saga’ has a certain extravagance to it with its comparatively lavish performances and restaurant which becomes a mini-murder mystery, whilst ‘Dawnville’ is essentially ‘Bartertown’ from Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome—complete with the equivalent of its own ‘Thunderdome’, which of course is where the wrestling tournament takes place. For the most part, the encounters involve a fair degree of stealth and subterfuge as well as combat. Certainly, the wrestling tournament will appeal to characters and players who like physical combat.

So what is going on in Mutant: Year Zero – The Gray Death? Well, its events do stem from what happened at the end of Mutant: Year Zero – Elysium and the fact that it involves an army—the ‘Army of Dawn’—points towards a new force wanting to conquer the whole of the Zone. This is a genre staple, a new military arising to threaten the fledgling communities working to survive in the weird world order of the post-apocalyptic planet, but it well handled in Mutant: Year Zero – The Gray Death

Now Mutant: Year Zero – The Gray Death describes itself as a campaign, but at best it is a mini-campaign. With just five ‘Special Zone Sectors’, this is really more of scenario than a campaign and the first few, ‘The Showboat Saga’ and ‘Battenburg’s Trading Post’ in particular, are short, playable in a single session, two at the very most. The later ‘Special Zone Sectors’ are longer and more involved, and it will probably run to two or three sessions. Fortunately, the fact that the first few ‘Special Zone Sectors’ can be run in any order provides the Game Master with room to add her own content and perhaps bulk up Mutant: Year Zero – The Gray Death a little.

Physically, Mutant: Year Zero – The Gray Death is well written, nicely presented in full colour with excellent cinematic-style artwork. Some of the illustrations show scenes that can happen in the campaign and the likelihood is that the Game Master will really want them to happen—such as a gunfight aboard an airship—because they look fun! However, it does need an edit in places and some of the artwork still has Swedish signs and writing on it. The campaign also comes with some good handouts, including newspapers and event posters, both a sign of the growing new civilisation of Mutant: Year Zero. These handouts though, are not collated at the end of the book.

As a campaign—or really a scenario—Mutant: Year Zero – The Gray Death begins to show what the new world of Mutant: Year Zero is like, the beginnings of new civilisations.  It returns to the openness of Mutant: Year Zero – Roleplaying at the End of Days after the closed and confined worlds of Mutant: Genlab Alpha, Mechatron – Rise of the Robots Roleplaying, and Mutant: Year Zero – Elysium, and of course, it brings each of the inhabitants of the four campaign settings together much post-apocalyptic roleplaying games of old, such as Gamma World.  In fact, with the new set-up, a Game Master with access to those old post-apocalyptic scenarios written in the early 1980s could actually adapt them to the world of Mutant: Year Zero. Overall, Mutant: Year Zero – The Gray Death shows us what the new world of Mutant: Year Zero is like and has the Player Characters confront the first threat to it in an action-packed scenario. It is though, just the next chapter. 

Friday, 27 March 2020

Friday Filler: D-Day Dice

D-Day was a momentous event at the end of War World 2, marking the major assault by the Allies on a Europe which has been under occupation by the Nazis for four years. This single combined forces action has been the subject of numerous books and memoirs over the years, as well as films such as D-Day and Saving Private Ryan, television series like Band of Brothers, and boardgames such as D-Day and Axis & Allies: D-Day, both from Avalon Hill Games, Inc. Many of the board games which explore D-Day are simulations, typically hex and counter wargames. This means that they will only appeal to a certain type of gamer, the wargamer, and typically, they can only be played by two participants, each of whom commands numerous units, which depending upon the game can be squads, platoons, squadrons, battalions, regiments, and more. Yet modern gaming can and often does approach its subject matters with different mechanics and ways of playing. So it is with D-Day Dice, which combines co-operative play, dice mechanics, and a timing mechanism, all played against the board rather than another player. Originally published by Valley Games, Inc. in 2012 following a successful Kickstarter campaign, in 2019, Word Forge Games published D-Day Dice, Second Edition, again following a successful Kickstarter campaign.

Designed to be played by between one and four players, aged fourteen and over, D-Day Dice, Second Edition can be played in roughly forty-five minutes, or less once the players get used to the mechanics or lose. In the game, each player controls a Unit of soldiers assaulting one of the beaches fortified by the Nazis as part of their Atlantic Wall. These Units come from one of four Allied nations—the USA, the United Kingdom, France, and Canada—and will be represented by a single die on the map and supported by a Reference Card and a Resource Tracker. Each turn the players will roll dice to generate resources and use to be able to survive on the battlefield whilst supporting each other and building up a force strong enough to get up the beach and breach the bunker. All this is against the clock and difficult odds. To win, every Unit must assault the bunker and survive—that is, have at least one soldier alive at the end, but if all of the soldiers in a Unit are killed or a Unit cannot advance up the beach before time runs out, then everyone loses and the Nazis win!

Open up the box for D-Day Dice, Second Edition and you will find an eighteen-page rulebook and a twenty-page scenario book; four Reference Cards and four Resource Trackers—one for each nation; six double-sided map boards providing twelve different scenarios; over one hundred cards, representing Specialist soldiers, items, vehicles, and award; thirty tokens; and thirty-two dice. Each of the map board represents a particular historical target, starting with Exercise Tiger, the Allied rehearsal for D-Day, through Omaha Beach and Pointe Du Hoc, up to Pegasus Bridge. Divided into various Sectors, they are marked with obstacles such as land mines and barriers. Many have certain conditions, such as Sectors where there is just room for a single Unit, have requirements to enter, and certain loses which need to be met—for example a Specialist or an Item—before they can be entered. Matching these conditions and maintaining enough Soldiers to keep going will challenge the players throughout D-Day Dice.

Of the thirty-two dice in D-Day Dice, Second Edition, four are black and are rolled when German weapons inflict damage on a Unit. Four are Unit Markers, used to track each Unit’s movement on the map and how much time the Unit has before it must move—either to an adjacent Sector or forward into a Sector closer to the bunker. These is a Unit Marker for each of the Units in the game. The other twenty-four—six per Unit and player—are ‘RWB’ or ‘Red-White-Blue’ dice and lie at the heart of the game. These dice are red, white, and blue, and each player has two of each colour. Each die is marked with six symbols that represent the resources in the game. Star symbols are used to Rally Specialists to a player’s Unit; Soldier symbols—single and double—add Soldiers to a Unit; medal or Courage symbols are used to draw Awards which grant various bonuses or to advance a Unit up the map; and Tool symbols generate Item Points with which to purchase Items. Lastly, Skull symbols cancel other die results if they appear in a player’s Final Tally.

On a turn, each player will roll his six ‘RWB’ dice. He must keep and lock two of them, but can reroll or keep as many of the other dice as he wishes. After the second roll, he must keep and lock another two, but can keep more if he wishes. After the third roll, all of his dice are locked. This is his Final Tally used to generate the resources for that Turn, which are recorded on the Resource Tracker—which requires a little assembly before first game—and spent in that same Turn. Resources are not kept from Turn to Turn.

This is simple enough, but D-Day Dice adds a couple of twists to the dice mechanic. One is that is if a player rolls a ‘Straight’—one of each symbol on every die, he earns a free Award rather than purchasing it with multiple Award symbols. The other is if he rolls three identical symbols on different dice, so the same symbol on a Red, a White, and a Blue die. This grants a ‘RWB’ bonus. So three Skulls or ‘Dead Man’s Gift’ has a player’s Unit finds equipment on a dead soldier’s gear bag; three single Soldiers grants ‘Reinforcements’ which join a Unit; and three Medals or ‘Battle Cry’ inspires a Unit to go above and beyond the call of duty. Now it is not merely a matter of each triple combination granting a ‘RWB’ bonus, because the actual bonus is different for each nation. So for ‘Battle Cry’ for the USA either grants two Stars or enables a Unit to advance into a new Sector without meeting its requirement, but for the United Kingdom, it grants three Soldiers or it enables a Unit to advance into a new Sector without meeting its requirement. These little variations add flavour and variation to each of the Units.

A Turn consists of six phases. In Phase One, the players roll the dice and then do the Upkeep—recording resources generated in Phase Two. In Phase Three, they adjust Unit Markers, turning the die each Turn until the fifth face shows an arrow indicating that the Unit must move in the next phase. In Phase Four, each player can Rally a Specialist, Find an Item, or Draw an Award, depending the results of the ‘RWB’ dice that Turn. A Specialist adds an ability to a Unit, such a Runner which enables a player to give another Unit resources and Items no matter where they are on the map—otherwise they need to be in the Sector to either give or trade resources. Specialists are also important in the game because some maps require them to be sacrificed in order for a Unit to be able to advance. Such Specialists cannot be rallied again, that is, there are no replacements. Items are single-use items of equipment like the Flamethrower which reduces the Defence value of the bunker or the Despatch Case which lets a player copy the Final Tally of another Unit. Awards are again one-use cards and add a great effect to play, for example, the Bronze Star enables a Unit to stay in a Sector for one Turn longer, whilst the amazing Victoria Cross enables a player to determine every player’s Final Tally that Turn.

In Phase Five, each Unit which wants or to Move must do so. This is to a new Sector—either to the side or forward. A Unit cannot retreat or revisit a Sector. In Phase Six, Combat, each Unit takes damage according to the Defense value of the Sector it is in. Damage reduces the number of Soldiers a Unit has and if reduced to zero means that the Allies have lost. If a Unit can get into the Bunker, it will take a lot of damage, so a Unit will need to find Items which reduce its Defense value sufficiently for the Unit to survive assaulting it and so help win the game. This does not have to be done simultaneously, one Unit can successfully assault the Bunker and its player wait for the others to arrive. Once every Unit has attacked and held the Bunker, then the game is won. 

Physically, D-Day Dice, Second Edition is very well produced. Everything is done in full colour, the card stock is good, everything is readable in the Rule Book and the Scenario Book, and the dice feel good in the hand. Perhaps the map boards are a little small and they do not quite sit as flat as they should, but really, these are minor niggles. A better explanation of how the Bunker is assaulted might have been useful for less experienced players.

The rulebook for D-Day Dice, Second Edition also includes notes for solo play as well as adding Victory Points to the game. It ends with some advice on how to play too. The Scenario Book comes with three training missions on Tiger Beach as well as the other eleven maps. Pleasingly, each scenario comes with a dedication to the men and units who fought there along with the specific details about the map.

The twelve map boards and the four different nationalities—and then the addition of the Victory Point rules—give D-Day Dice, Second Edition a lot of replay value. As does its short playing time. It is also easy to set up again, so if one game is lost, it is not difficult to set up another and start again. Whether playing solo with a single Unit or multiple Units—which will take longer to play, but does keep the game’s co-operative element, D-Day Dice, Second Edition is tense and challenging to play. This is especially so on the later maps as you would expect, but it is not just because the players are relying on random dice rolls to determine how they plan and what they can do.

Throughout the game, the players are forced to think ahead and plan what they need on the route they are going to take up the beach, but this changes from map to map. Get that wrong and the game will be lost. So having learned one set of conditions to advance on one map, the players have to learn to prepare for a whole new set of conditions on another map. This is in addition to the game’s co-operative element which will often force Units to congregate in order to swap the game’s various resources. This may be an issue for the more casual player, but not for the experienced board or wargame player.

The ‘RWB’ dice and mechanics are not only clever, they also add some pleasing theme and variation to the different nationalities, though sometimes you wish that there was a little more of this national flavour and theme. That said, they form the foundation upon which a narrative can be told as D-Day Dice is played, as Specialists are Rallied, Vehicles and Items found, and Awards won, and a Unit makes its assault on the Bunker.

D-Day Dice, Second Edition is a clever implementation of modern game mechanics—dice rolling, co-operative play, timed play, and against the clock—to explore an old theme in a new way. 

Monday, 23 March 2020

Retrospective: Plunder

By 1980, RuneQuest had begun to mark itself as a roleplaying game and setting in the form of Glorantha, which was very different in comparison to other fantasy roleplaying games. It was skill-focused and emphasised every player characters’ faith and belief system and world view in the context of the world of Glorantha, especially in the form of the superlative Cults of Prax. Then came along Plunder, a supplement detailing some six-hundred-and-forty pre-generated treasure hoards and forty-three magical treasures of Glorantha. Plunder does not add as much to the world of Glorantha, but it does support it, both in terms of the mechanics and the background.

The first half of Plunder consists of ten tables, each an eight-by-eight grid, thus providing sixty-four results in each table. In each space is the listing for a treasure hoard that the player characters might be found in their intrepid adventures in Glorantha. This might be nothing; 38 Clacks; 406 Clacks, 364 Lunars, 30 Wheels, and a single gem or piece of jewellery; or 1068 Clacks, 1383 Lunars, 332 Wheels, four gems or pieces of jewellery, and a special item. When the Game Master needs to determine the contents of a hoard, he turns to a table and rolls two eight-sided dice to get a result. Two further tables enable the Game Master to determine what the gems and jewellery are if there are any and what the special items are if there are any. So the gems and jewellery might be an excellent gemstone worth 900 Lunars or costume jewellery worth 45 Lunars, and special items might be a scroll written in Stormspeech which grants a +5% bonus to the Dagger skill if studied, an eleven-point Power storage crystal, or a wand with the Glamour matrix on it.

Mechanically, this all ties into the use of Treasure Factors from the second edition of RuneQuest, recently republished as RuneQuest Classic. Treasure Factors are are means of determining how much loot a monster or an NPC might. The Treasure Factor for any one creature derived from its Hit Points, combat skills, how many extra dice are rolled when it inflicts damage, armour, combat spells, special powers, any poison used, and any extra attacks. If there is more than one monster or NPC, their individual Treasure Factors are added together, and the final value broken down into groups of a hundred. When it comes to using Plunder, the Treasure Factor is used to determine which table the Game Master will roll on when it comes to generating the hoard for a monster or an NPC. So for a single Trollkin with a Treasure factor of six, the Game Master would roll on the very first table in Plunder, but add a whole lot more Trollkin and mix in a Dark Troll or two, and the Treasure Factor rises rapidly so that the Game Master will be rolling on a table later in the book. In general, if the Game Master knows the Treasure Factor, she can generate a treasure hoard with just a handful of rolls.

The second half is dedicated to just some of the magical devices to be found on Glorantha. These range from the marvellously mundane, such as the Golden Torches which never go out, even underwater or in great darkness or Soup Bones which can always be boiled to provide soup, to amazingly magical, like Tora’s Hammer, a stone Warhammer wielded by a hero during the Dawn Ages who slaughtered untold numbers of Mostali with it and which returns to the hand if thrown, and Glass Butterflies, tireless magical messengers which will deliver a spoken phrase anywhere in the universe! Many are very particular in terms of who can use them, such as Morokanth Thumbs, black lumps of thumb-like flesh which when Power is sacrificed, the thumbs can attach to a Morokanth’s hands and enable him to be as dextrous as any human, whilst others are tied to a particular cult. For example, the Lightning Bands once worn by the bodyguards of a high priest of Orlanth Thunderous, which when imbued with Power, enables the wearer to blast out a bolt of lightning via a spear. There are treasures from the Aldryami and the Mostali, Chalana Arroy, Chaos, Kyger Litor, Dragonewts (and from Dragonewts), Waha, Stormbull, and more. Some have more generic links such as Fire or Sky cults.

Every item follows the format. A description, followed by a listing of the cults associated with the item as well as those friendly, hostile, or enemy to it; a discussion of how common knowledge of the item is, ranging from common to one of a kind or owner only; its history and the procedure required to use it (and sometimes make it); and lastly powers and value. The latter should one come up for sale. For example, Bajora’s Shield is a large iron shield with a glowing Death rune on it. It is associated in friendly fashion with Humakt and knowledge of it is automatically known to Humakt’s cult, though it is a cult secret, it is famous and one of a kind. Its history is that it was originally carried by Bajora, a friend of Humakt who sacrificed his life to save Humakt from a thing of Chaos. All that was left of Bajora was his shield, which Humakt carried for the rest of Godtime in his honour. Humakt refused to use it though and so since time began, none of his followers can either. They do know of the shield’s powers, so anyone wielding it and wanting to use if to its fullest powers needs to be on good terms with Humakt’s cult.

The procedure to use it requires the wielder to be a Rune Lord of a cult not an enemy of Humakt. He must then sacrifice a point of Power. Once attuned it grants a +20% bonus to the wielder’s Shield skill, the same effect as the Shield 4 spell when in melee, Light spells on command with no expenditure of Power, and immunity to Sever Spirits when cast anyone other than a Humakti. The value 120,000 Lunars and selling it would offend any Humakti (although buying it to donate to the temple is fine).

One issue perhaps is that a few of the items are unlikely to come into play, for example, the Aluminium Tridents of various sea cults, and of course there are some treasures which are unlikely to fall into the hands of the player characters—mostly Chaos related. Plenty of the others though will be desired by the player characters and some will certainly be subject of great hero quests. If there is an issue with the selection it is that there are few treasures related to the Air and Earth cults, but that is likely due to the contents of Plunder, like Cults of Prax before it, being set in Prax rather Sartar and its surrounds.

Physically, Plunder is again a book of two halves. The first is tables—large, open, and easy to read tables, but tables nonetheless. The second is more open, with one or two entries per page. Some are illustrated, some not, but the artwork is decent, if a little ‘Swords & Sorcery’ in style in places. If any of the artwork is disappointing, it is the cover, which comes from the ‘chainmail bikini’ school of female depiction in fantasy. The skull panties are a notable feature.

At the time of its release, critics could not agree about Plunder. In Space Gamer Number 33 (November 1980), Forest Johnson said that, “About half this book is not very useful. It consists of a shorthand method for generating treasure. (This does nothing to lighten the real work – adding up all those cursed treasure factors.)”, but ended on a positive note, concluding that, “The lack of exotic magic items has heretofore been a weak point in RuneQuest. These items have authentic Gloranthan flavour, complete with history and cult affinities. The discreet use of these items will add spice to a campaign without reducing it to Monty Haul.” Conversely, writing in The Dungeoneer’s Journal Issue: 25 (February/ March 1981), Clayton Miner said, “The variety of the items, and the detailed information included with the great treasures is sure to make this book very useful to Judges. Of more use to a Runequest Judge is the first section of Plunder, which presents easy to use tables for determining that value of a lesser treasure…” and that, “…[T]his book would make a welcome addition to a Judge’s stock of Runequest items. Plunder is definitely a useful piece of work and shows a great deal of imagination, and the only question I had with the book as a whole is, why so none of the items listed under Treasures of Glorantha have a negative side effect on the user.”

Other reviews were more balanced. Oliver Macdonald, reviewing Plunder in White Dwarf No. 25 (June/July 1981) awarded the supplement just five out of ten, adding that, “All points considered Plunder is an interesting but by no means essential RuneQuest play aid, certainly not worth buying if you have a limited budget.” Plunder was reviewed by John Sapienza, Jr. in Different Worlds Issue 12 (July 1981). Of the first half, he wrote that, “I think that a bit of reflection will let the GM realize just how dull it is putting treasure descriptions together, particularly those that get improvised during gaming. Once you realize this, the usefulness of this play aid makes it attractive.” He was more positive about the second half, saying that, “…[T]he treasures are, by and large, not out of balance, and most of them come complete with cult associations that provide effective limits on their use. Other limits are the tendency of certain races to take offense and kill the wearer, such as a suit of dragonewt skin armor. Use this at your own risk, in other words. Neat.” before concluding that, “Plunder is a useful idea, and well done. I recommend it to all RQ GMs.”

Plunder is a curio from a bygone age and another style of play. That style of play is one in which plunder is important. In Dungeons & Dragons, it was treasure and it would directly count towards the number of Experience Points a character gained in addition to that gained from killing monsters. In RuneQuest and Glorantha, the plunder paid first for any dues you owed to your cult and temple, second any monies owed to a cult, temple, or guild for prior training, and third for any skill or spell training undertaken with your cult, temple, or guild. Certainly in RuneQuest II, all of this would cost a character thousands of Lunars. Not so in the latest iteration, RuneQuest: Roleplaying in Glorantha, which presumes that a character’s training has already been paid for, though a character still owes his tithes to his cult and is encouraged to purchase further training. So there is less of an emphasis today on plunder when roleplaying and exploring Glorantha, as evidenced by advice given in the back of the core rulebook to cut the value of the treasure found when playing classic scenarios. 

So, forty years ago in Glorantha, the need for treasure was greater. Player characters had debts. Thus, the Game Master had to seed his scenarios with plunder aplenty—well not too aplenty because the characters had to have a reason to be coming back for plunder and the peril which went with it—and that took time and effort. Forty years ago then, the tables in the first half of Plunder were useful as they helped speed the process. Not so now when they feel redundant. Similarly, the second half of Plunder with its listing of forty-three magical treasures was useful forty years ago because so few of them had been then detailed in the early days of RuneQuest. So the forty three were useful, many of them tying into the cults described in Cults of Prax and so helping to build the world of Glorantha just a little further. 

Conversely, at this point in the history of RuneQuest: Roleplaying in Glorantha, the current iteration of the roleplaying game has the same problem—few if any treasures of note have been detailed. There is background and detail to many of these forty-three items that the Game Master could bring them to her Glorantha today and they would still work. Doubtless, new supplements will appear detailing new treasures of Dragon Pass, but the conversion process is anything other than challenging. Until such a supplement is published, Plunder is actually more than a curio.

There can be no doubt that Plunder is no Cults of Prax, for it is very much a curate’s egg. Its dual focus and character—divided equally between the mundane and magical—mean that one half is at best utilitarian, at worst bland, whilst the other by comparison rich in detail and flavour. Conversely, the Game Master is likely to have got more use out of the Treasure Tables than the individual items, even if they are mundane, but nevertheless, the actual treasures in Plunder further showcase the more fantastical nature of Glorantha.

Sunday, 22 March 2020

Disappearing a Disappearance

In classic Lovecraftian investigative horror roleplaying, news of the weird and the unnatural is spread by letter, by newspaper, and by word of mouth. Information spreads slowly. Not so in the modern age. Information spreads as fast as social media picks up on it. So when an Internet video of woman, crying and shouting about a community that does terrible things, including taking women and children, whilst society takes its money and looks the other way, before suddenly vanishing, screaming in agony, goes viral, it is sufficient to attract the attention of Delta Green. In response, the highly secret government agency assigns a cell of agents to investigate and establish what happened in the video, but not only investigate. If there are any signs of continuing danger, the agents need to save lives; if there are indications that this was an incursion of the Unnatural, they need to locate its source and stop it; and if this was due to an incursion of the Unnatural, they need to establish a mundane narrative for the video, make sure that nobody suspects Unnatural phenomena to be the cause; but above all, they need to make sure that nobody learns of Delta Green.

This is the set-up for Delta Green: Hourglass, a short investigation for Delta Green: The Role-Playing Game and Lovecraftian investigative horror published by Arc Dream Publishing. It can be played using the roleplaying game’s full rules or those from Delta Green: Need to Know. It also includes notes for running the scenario with agents who members of the Program—and thus members of Delta Green, and those who are Outlaws—thus not members of Delta Green. Like Ex Oblivione before it, Hourglass is another slice of horror which explores the subjugation and corruption of the innocent—though in not quite as brutal or obvious a fashion—and like Ex Oblivione before it, Hourglass also has links back to the very foundation of Delta Green, though not as obvious. In fact, the agents will probably have to dig deep into the scenario in order to find them, but their very presence suggests both a greater framework for both Hourglass and Ex Oblivione—though one that it not necessarily obvious—and the far wider influence of the peoples and things which drew the attention in 1928 of what would one day become Delta Green to the unnatural.

Were it not for the video, the community of Hourglass would be unremarkable. In fact, the only thing of note is the Church of the Twelve Martyrs, a staunchly conservative and insular commune of Christians with grounds just outside the town. A commune which the woman who disappeared belonged to. Could this be the community that woman was raging about before she disappeared? That the woman was a member of the Church of the Twelve Martyrs is easy enough to determine, learning more than this will prove to be a challenge for both the agents and their players. Although insular, the Church of the Twelve Martyrs is an accepted part of the Hourglass community, it pays its taxes, and if its interpretation of Christianity is counter to that of the town’s devout Catholics or evangelical Christians, then it is at least Christian. So the town authorities are reluctant for any agents—if they become aware of their presence—to investigate either the disappearance of the women, believing the video to be a fake, or the Church of the Twelve Martyrs.

Most investigations by Delta Green require a degree of delicacy and so it is here. Agents who jump readily to conclusions or run headlong into examining the Church of the Twelve Martyrs may quickly find their efforts blocked or even themselves reassigned and under investigation. If they take a more systematic approach and dig into the clues and evidence before they approach the church’s compound, they will be better prepared. Even so, getting anything more than hints that there might be something weird going on with the Church of the Twelve Martyrs is going to be difficult for the agents. The compound seems to be normal enough, including a ranch and a farm as well as the church, but there is tension and a sense of paranoia in the air. Hopefully this should be enough to persuade the agents to tread carefully, for if they do not, the members of the Church of the Twelve Martyrs will react in an all too paranoid a fashion. There should be no doubt that its members will go to almost any lengths to protect the church’s secrets—with any luck the agents will have picked up on this after investigating the video. When the members of the Church of the Twelve Martyrs do react, the Handler is given some fun—sorry, I mean nasty—ways in which to mess with and torment the agents. Some of these are quite subtle, but others are enjoyably weird and brutal. These though will need careful staging by the Handler since the players may feel like she is messing with their characters. It is here perhaps that Hourglass could have done with some staging advice on how to handle that. (I would suggest taking the player aside to explain the situation and then letting him roleplay it out.)

Just as it is difficult for the agents to investigate the Church of the Twelve Martyrs, it is equally as difficult for the Handler in two ways. First in maintaining a balance between the paranoia of the various NPCs and their unleashing all hell on the agents, and second, in supporting the investigative efforts of the players and their agents without frustrating them in the face of some very careful and very paranoid NPCs. Another problem with the scenario is that it does have a high number of NPCs for the Handler to deal with. The difficulty of the investigation in Hourglass is really highlighted by the fact that resolution deals more with what could wrong and the subsequent repercussions than with effect of a successful outcome, though of course, the odds are against this. 

Physically, Hourglass is a slim, cleanly presented book. As ever, the artwork is excellent, but the area map feels as if it should have more detail and although there are floorplans of the church on the Church of the Twelve Martyrs, there is no map of the compound itself. It needs a slight edit, but the scenario is otherwise well written.

Delta Green: Hourglass showcases how far the forces of the Unnatural will go to work themselves into society, how far they will go to prey upon the weak, and how willing they are to corrupt the innocent. Coming to this realisation will be undoubtedly be horrifying for the agents and their players, but getting to it is not easy. Delta Green: Hourglass presents a challenging scenario for both Handler and players alike, and with its potential for frustration, is best suited to an experienced gaming group.

The Other OSR: Death Test

It is impossible to ignore the influence of Dungeons & Dragons and the effect that its imprint has had on the gaming hobby. It remains the most popular roleplaying game some forty or more years since it was first published, and it is a design and a set-up which for many was their first experience of roleplaying—and one to which they return again and again. This explains the popularity of the Old School Renaissance and the many retroclones—roleplaying games which seek to emulate the mechanics and play style of previous editions Dungeons & Dragons—which that movement has spawned in the last fifteen years. Just as with the Indie Game movement before it began as an amateur endeavour, so did the Old School Renaissance, and just as with the Indie Game movement before it, many of the aspects of the Old School Renaissance are being adopted by mainstream roleplaying publishers who go on to publish retroclones of their own. Dungeon Crawl Classics Role Playing Game, published by Goodman Games is a perfect example of this. Other publishers have been around long enough for them to publish new editions of their games which originally appeared in the first few years of the hobby, whilst still others are taking their new, more contemporary games and mapping them onto the retroclone.

Yet there are other roleplaying games which draw upon the roleplaying games of the 1970s, part of the Old School Renaissance, but which may not necessarily draw directly upon Dungeons & Dragons. Some are new, like Forbidden Lands – Raiders & Rogues in a Cursed World and Classic Fantasy: Dungeoneering Adventures, d100 Style!, but others are almost as old as Dungeons & Dragons. One of these is The Fantasy Trip, published by Metagaming Concepts in 1980. Designed by Steve Jackson, this was a fantasy roleplaying game built around two earlier microgames, also designed by Steve Jackson, MicroGame #3: Melee in 1977 and  MicroGame #6: Wizard in 1978. With the closure of Metagaming Concepts in 1983, The Fantasy Trip and its various titles went out of print. Steve Jackson would go on to found Steve Jackson Games and design further titles like Car Wars and Munchkin as well as the detailed, universal roleplaying game, GURPS. Then in December, 2017, Steve Jackson announced that he had got the rights back to The Fantasy Trip and then in April, 2019, following a successful Kickstarter campaignSteve Jackson Games republished The Fantasy Trip. The mascot version of The Fantasy Trip is of course, The Fantasy Trip: Legacy Edition

The Fantasy Trip: Legacy Edition is a big box of things, including the original two microgames. So instead of reviewing the deep box as a whole, it is worth examining the constituent parts of The Fantasy Trip: Legacy Edition one by one, delving ever deeper into its depths bit by bit. The first of these is Melee, quick to set up, quick to play game of man-to-man combat. It is designed to be played by two or more players, aged ten and over, with a game lasting roughly between thirty and sixty minutes. The second is Wizard, which brings in more options in terms of tactical play because it introduces magic to the arena. Although the two integrate well, Wizard is more complex and harder to learn, yet offers more for a player to get into. The third is Death Test.

Death Test actually consists of two adventures—‘Death Test’ and ‘Death Test 2’—both originally published as MicroQuest 1: Death Test and MicroQuest 1: Death Test 2 in 1980. The new, combined edition comes in a box which contains the two adventures and some sixty-six new counters. Both require the map from Melee and can either be played using just Melee or a combination of Melee and Wizard. Both can also be played in a number of ways. They can be played solo, one player or several players against the adventure, instructions being included in the text as to how any monsters or NPCs will react to the player characters. They can be played with a Game Master controlling and rolling for the monsters and NPCs, whether is with just one player or several. They are designed to be played by between one and four characters. Ideally, these should not be beginning characters, but unfortunately ‘Death Test’ does not say how experienced the player characters should be. In addition, although having more characters in play will provide more tactical options—especially if they include a wizard, they do reduce each character’s final score at the end of the test. If they get to the end of the test, that is. In this way, ‘Death Test’ sets its own difficulty. It is easier with more characters, but the rewards will be less.

The background to ‘Death Test’ has the character—or characters—travelling to the city of Ardonirane, which is ruled by the famous and powerful war leader, Dhallak m’Thorsz Carn. He is once again hiring mercenaries, but will accept only those that pass a test—enter the labyrinth beneath his palace and there fight animals, monsters, prisoners, wizards, and rival would-be employees—and survive! Although there is treasure to be found, what matters to Thorsz is the mercenary’s or mercenaries’ performance. The more foes they defeat or kill, the more they will rank in his estimation and the higher position they will attain in his army.

The labyrinth consists of twelve colour coded rooms connected by a series of corridors. There are no doors, but entrances and exits are marked by black curtains, or rather black magical illusions which the player characters can sometimes pass through and others not, but which they can never see through. This means that in order to find out what is in a room, one or more of the player characters must enter said room. Most of the time, they can leave the way they came. Each room then is its own discrete encounter and with just a dozen of them, it allows for variety of denizens and challenges. ‘Death Test’ is not a dungeon in the traditional roleplaying sense though, the focus being more on combat—as the background suggests—than exploring, finding traps, and so on. Nor is it really a roleplaying adventure, a ‘programmed adventure’ certainly, but not a roleplaying adventure as there is very little, if any, roleplaying involved. That said, run ‘Death Test’ with a Game Master and one or more players and then there are opportunities for the Game Master to roleplay and bring some of the NPCs to life and thus for the player characters to interact with them rather than fighting them.

Consisting of one-hundred-and-sixty-seven entries over seventeen or so pages, there is a greater physicality to ‘Death Test’ in comparison to other solo adventure titles. This not surprising though, for Death Test is an expansion for a man-to-man combat game. So instead of sitting down and reading through a book and rolling dice as necessary, this is definitely an at the table affair with the map, the counters, and the dice in front of you. In further comparison with those other solo adventure books, ‘Death Test’ has a greater replayability factor. Only score enough points to get hired as a recruit? Well, why not try again to see if you can attain a better position or try it with a different mix of characters?

‘Death Test 2’ is double the size of ‘Death Test’. Again, it can either be played using just Melee or a combination of Melee and Wizard, but it can also be played using Into the Labyrinth, which covers roleplaying, character creation and experience, and advanced magic and combat rules for Melee and Wizard. Like ‘Death Test’, it can be can be played solo, one player or several players against the adventure, instructions being included in the text as to how any monsters or NPCs will react to the player characters. They can be played with a Game Master controlling and rolling for the monsters and NPCs, whether is with just one player or several. This is certainly the case if ‘Death Test 2’ is run using the rules from Into the Labyrinth. Unlike ‘Death Test’, ‘Death Test 2’ is intended for a party of four characters rather than between one and four, and it includes advice as how experienced the player characters need to be, for like ‘Death Test’, it is not designed for beginning characters. ‘Death Test 2’ can also be run like a traditional dungeon adventure, and this is supported with advice on adding it to a campaign and on expending gained Experience Points.

The background to ‘Death Test 2’ is that Dhallak m’Thorsz Carn is unimpressed with the candidates to join his army who succeeded at getting through the labyrinth in ‘Death Test’. So he has another built, one which is more involving and more challenging. Consisting of some two-hundred-and-eighty-seven entries over thirty-six pages, ‘Death Test 2’ only adds a few more rooms in comparison to ‘Death Test’. The increased number of entries allow for more detail, more things to happen, and more things for the characters to do. There are traps and puzzles, a greater range of monsters to encounter and magical items to find, players will find their characters tested in other ways than combat—‘Death Test 2’ includes the need to make Saving Throws. This is a richer environment for them to explore and no mere complex of arenas to enter and fight in. This does not mean that ‘Death Test 2’ is not a combat focused adventure—it very much is—but it is written far more like a traditional solo roleplaying adventure and presents a richer playing environment, so is far more engaging. 

Physically, both ‘Death Test’ and ‘Death Test 2’ are plain, simple booklets with paper covers. Behind the full colour covers, they are black and white throughout. Each is lightly illustrated, but the artwork is excellent throughout.

Of course, of the two, ‘Death Test 2’ is better than ‘Death Test’. It is more detailed and offers more options than just combat, plus it supports more roleplaying, especially if Into the Labyrinth is being used. On the downside, because it has more secrets to be found, it is not as readily replayable. In other words, there is less of the simple board game to its play than there is in ‘Death Test’. Yet ‘Death Test’ should not be discounted. Its simplicity means that it can more readily be replayed, and it is easier to both set up and play. At its very simplest, ‘Death Test’ provides a reason to play Melee and/or Wizard than just fights in an arena.

Death Test is a good combination boxed set, presenting two solo adventures of differing complexity and detail that offer a great deal of flexibility in terms of their set-up and play options. More so than traditional solo adventures. If you have Melee and/or Wizard, then you should put yourself through the Death Test—both of them.

Saturday, 21 March 2020

Telegraphing Ticket to Ride

Since 2007, the 2004 Spiel des Jahres award-winning board game Ticket to Ride from Days of Wonder, has been supported with new maps, beginning with Ticket to Ride: Switzerland. That new map would be collected in the Ticket to Ride Map Collection: Volume 2 – India & Switzerland, the second entry in the Map Collection series begun in Ticket to Ride Map Collection: Volume 1 – Team Asia & Legendary Asia. Both of these have proved to be worthy additions to the Ticket to Ride line, whereas Ticket to Ride Map Collection vol. 3: The Heart of Africa and Ticket to Ride Map Collection: Volume 4 – Nederland have proved to add more challenging game play, but at a cost in terms of engaging game play. Further given that they included just the one map in the third and fourth volumes rather than the two in each of the first two, neither felt as if they provided as much value either. Fortunately, Ticket to Ride Map Collection Vol. 5: United Kingdom + Pennsylvania came with two maps and explored elements more commonly found in traditional train games—stocks and shares in railroad companies and the advance of railway technology. The next map collection in the series, Ticket to Ride Map Collection Vol. 6: France + Old West, explore a common theme, but each offers very different game play.

As is standard with the Map Collection series, both maps in Ticket to Ride Map Collection Vol. 6: France + Old West will require the use of the train pieces and train cards from a Ticket to Ride core set. Designed for between two and five players, it includes fifty-eight Destination Tickets cards, two Bonus cards, and sixty-four Track Pieces. The map board is played vertically rather than horizontally and depicts the rail routes across France. The very first thing that strikes you about the France map is that nearly all of the routes are blank—not grey, but blank. Single routes are coloured as standard, nearly all of them running west from Paris to Nantes on the Alantic coast and from Paris north to Le Havre on the English Channel. Besides the city to city routes, the map has links to four countries—Belgium, Germany, Switzerland, Italy, and Spain, and grey ferry routes to the island of Corsica. The routes on the Destination Tickets include the standard city-to-city routes as well as city-to-country and country-to-country routes. The bonus cards are the Globetrotter card for the most Destination Tickets completed and the Longest Route card for the longest continuous route. The Track Pieces come in the standard colours of the Train Tickets from a Ticket to Ride core set and are either two, three, four, or five sections long.

At the start of the game, each player receives eight Train Cards and five Destination Tickets—of which a player must keep three. He also receives forty Train pieces rather than the standard forty-five. On his turn, a player can do one of three things as per Ticket to Ride. Either draw two Train Cards, play Train pieces and claim a route, or draw new Destination Tickets. What prevents a player from claiming most of the routes is that they are blank, so before a player can claim a route, he must lay the track first. After a player draws two Train cards, he also takes one of the Track Pieces and places it on one of the blank routes. That route can now be claimed by anyone, including the player who placed it. When the route is claimed, the player places the requisite Train pieces, claims the points, and removes the Track Piece which goes back into the regular supply from where it can taken on any of the players’ subsequent turns.

There are also routes which cross over other routes. When a Track Piece is laid over one of these, it renders all of the other blank routes it is played inaccessible and means that nobody can claim them. It is possible that when a player does this, he will block shorter routes to cities that another player might want to get to, forcing him to take a longer series of connections that he had originally intended. And in a game where a player has forty Train pieces rather than the standard forty-five, this may well mean that a player will finding himself running out of Trains if this happens too many times.

So, in order to connect the cities or countries on the map, a player has to build the routes first. Fundamentally, what this means is that when a player lays a Track Piece, he is signalling to the other players where he intends to build. Sometimes the other players can use this against him, for example, by claiming the route before him or by placing a Track Piece of a colour on a connecting route which they think he does not have Train Cards for. A player could also place a Track Piece elsewhere on the map completely away from where he actually needs to build as a means of misdirection. As the game progresses, there will be more and more Train Pieces on the board, which will often limit what and where a player can place a Track Piece. In these later stages of the game, the placement of Track Pieces is not always relevant and does feel like an unnecessary step, slowing the flow of the game down.

At its heart, the France map for Ticket to Ride adds another set of choices for the players to make, not just what routes they claim, but what routes to lay first. So, it is more complex whilst at the same time the colour of the routes change from game to game. Overall, the France map is more complex to play and so not quite as light as other Ticket to Ride maps, and longer to play because more decisions need to be made. So the France map is definitely one for Ticket to Ride devotees rather than a family audience.

Designed for between two and five players, it includes fifty-eight Destination Tickets cards, two Bonus cards, and sixty-four Track Pieces. The map board is played vertically rather than horizontally and depicts the rail routes across France. The very first thing that strikes you about the France map is that nearly all of the routes are blank—not grey, but blank. Single routes are coloured as standard, nearly all of them running west from Paris to Nantes on the Alantic coast and from Paris north to Le Havre on the English Channel. Besides the city to city routes, the map has links to four countries—Belgium, Germany, Switzerland, Italy, and Spain, and grey ferry routes to the island of Corsica. The routes on the Destination Tickets include the standard city-to-city routes as well as city-to-country and country-to-country routes. The bonus cards are the Globetrotter card for the most Destination Tickets completed and the Longest Route card for the longest continuous route. The Track Pieces come in the standard colours of the Train Tickets from a Ticket to Ride core set and are either two, three, four, or five sections long.

At the start of the game, each player receives eight Train Cards and five Destination Tickets—of which a player must keep three. He also receives forty Train pieces rather than the standard forty-five. On his turn, a player can do one of three things as per Ticket to Ride. Either draw two Train Cards, play Train pieces and claim a route, or draw new Destination Tickets. What prevents a player from claiming most of the routes is that they are blank, so before a player can claim a route, he must lay the track first. After a player draws two Train cards, he also takes one of the Track Pieces and places it on one of the blank routes. That route can now be claimed by anyone, including the player who placed it. When the route is claimed, the player places the requisite Train pieces, claims the points, and removes the Track Piece which goes back into the regular supply from where it can taken on any of the players’ subsequent turns.

There are also routes which cross over other routes. When a Track Piece is laid over one of these, it renders all of the other blank routes it is played inaccessible and means that nobody can claim them. It is possible that when a player does this, he will block shorter routes to cities that another player might want to get to, forcing him to take a longer series of connections that he had originally intended. And in a game where a player has forty Train pieces rather than the standard forty-five, this may well mean that a player will finding himself running out of Trains if this happens too many times.

So, in order to connect the cities or countries on the map, a player has to build the routes first. Fundamentally, what this means is that when a player lays a Track Piece, he is signalling to the other players where he intends to build. Sometimes the other players can use this against him, for example, by claiming the route before him or by placing a Track Piece of a colour on a connecting route which they think he does not have Train Cards for. A player could also place a Track Piece elsewhere on the map completely away from where he actually needs to build as a means of misdirection. As the game progresses, there will be more and more Train Pieces on the board, which will often limit what and where a player can place a Track Piece. In these later stages of the game, the placement of Track Pieces is not always relevant and does feel like an unnecessary step, slowing the flow of the game down.

At its heart, the France map for Ticket to Ride adds another set of choices for the players to make, not just what routes they claim, but what routes to lay first. So, it is more complex whilst at the same time the colour of the routes change from game to game. Overall, the France map is more complex to play and so not quite as light as other Ticket to Ride maps, and longer to play because more decisions need to be made. So the France map is definitely one for Ticket to Ride devotees rather than a family audience.

If the France map from Ticket to Ride Map Collection Vol. 6: France + Old West is different to Ticket to Ride, the Old West map is really different. First, it is designed for two to six players, something that rarely features in a Ticket to Ride game. To support this, an extra set of Train Pieces—in white—is included in Ticket to Ride Map Collection Vol. 6: France + Old West, along with a white scoring marker. It also comes with fifty Destination Tickets, two Bonus cards—Globetrotter and Alvin, eighteen City Markers, and the Alvin the Alien Marker. The map is again played vertically and looks like a standard Ticket to Ride map, that is, a mix of coloured and grey routes (rather the blank ones of France map). It depicts the western half of the United States of America, from Roswell and Wolf Point in the east to Seattle and San Diego in the west on the Pacific coast. A single ferry route runs from Los Angeles to San Francisco.

At the start of the game, each player receives five Destination Cards and must keep three. He also receives three City Markers to match the colour of his Train pieces. As part of the set-up, each player places one of his City Markers in the city of his choice. This is important because when a player begins claiming routes and placing Train pieces, he must start from the city where his City Marker is placed. And then when he next claims a route and places Train pieces, it has to be connected to a route he has already claimed. He cannot claim a route that is not connected to a route he has already claimed. So just like the France map, players on the Old West map are telegraphing where they are building to, if not more so!

When a player claims a route, he can also place one of his City Markers in the city he is building to if the city does not have one already. This costs two extra cards of the same colour as the route just claimed. Or a player can use Locomotive (or wild) Train cards.

The placement of City Markers not only affects what routes a player can claim, it can also affect what points he will score for claiming a route. If the route claimed is connected to a city with a City Marker, the points go to the player who owns the City Marker—even if that is another player! If the route connects two cities which both have City Markers, then the two who own the City Markers score the points score the points. If it happens that the player owns both City Markers at either end of the route being claimed, then he scores twice—one for each for City Marker—even if the route is being claimed by another player!

What is interesting here is that play on the Old West map—like the France map—involves the players signalling to each other where they planning to build next. On the France it is with the Track Pieces and not always quite as obvious, but on the Old West map is more obvious because each player must claim routes which connect to his existing network. The addition of the City Markers brings an element of area control to the game because players will want to avoid connecting to cities which have other players’ City Markers in them as it costs them points to connect to them. Conversely players who have City Markers will want other players to connect to these cities for exactly the same reason. Of course, the likelihood is that the players will have to connect to cities with other players’ City Markers in them in order to complete their Destination Tickets. This is especially so with more players as they compete for the same routes.

The Old West map includes a variant. This involves Alvin the Alien, a character from the Ticket to Ride: Alvin and Dexter expansion released in 2011. Fortunately, that expansion is not required to play this variant as a cardboard counter is provided to represent Alvin the Alien. In this variant, the Alvin the Alien counter is placed—naturally, or unnaturally, enough—in the city of Roswell. The first player to claim a route which connects to Roswell also captures Alvin. This scores him an extra ten points and he has to move the Alvin the Alien counter to a city which he controls, including his starting city. If another player then connects to the new city where Alvin the Alien is now located, then he scores ten points and has to move Alvin the Alien to a city that he controls, and so on, and so on. This can occur multiple times, but the player who has control of Alvin the Alien at the end of the game scores another ten points.

The effect of this variant is to counter the inclination for players to not want to connect to cities already connected to by other players, especially if that city contains a City Marker. This is because connecting to a city with Alvin the Alien in it will score the player points and score him more if one of his cities contains Alvin the Alien at the end of the game.

Thematically, the Alvin the Alien variant does not really suit the Old West map. Of course with the inclusion of Roswell on the map it does, but this is a map of the Old West and not the modern west of the post-Roswell alien saucer crash.

Physically, Ticket to Ride Map Collection Vol. 6: France + Old West is for the most part, the same high-quality product we have come to expect for the Ticket to Ride line. Both maps are large, mounted, and clear and easy to use, both sets of cards are easy to read and orientate to the board, and the rulebooks again, clear and easy to read and understand. The new plastic Train pieces are serviceable, but the cardboard Track Pieces do feel somewhat cheap in comparison. They are not done on thin cardstock, but not thick cardstock either. They are also a little fiddly in play. Thematically both maps and cards match their settings, so there is a richness of colour and style to the France map and cards, whilst those for the Old West are dusty and dry. Certainly the Old West map feels as if you are playing the expanded half of the North America map from the original Ticket to Ride (which leaves one to wonder if there might be the equivalent of an Old East map covering the eastern half of the United States, and if there were, could the Old West and Old East maps be joined and played together?).

So both maps in Ticket to Ride Map Collection Vol. 6: France + Old West are about telegraphing to your fellow players where you intend to claim routes next. Each map presents a different solution though and thus different challenges for the players. Of the two, Old West is the easier, even more direct when it comes to claiming routes and so will be easier to play by the more casual audience, whereas France includes a greater complexity which forces every player think about the routes they need to claim, not once, but twice—once to build and once to claim. Overall, the combination of new mechanics and challenges serve to make Ticket to Ride Map Collection Vol. 6: France + Old West a solid expansion which will definitely appeal to the Ticket to Ride devotee.

Friday, 20 March 2020

An Early Modern Retroclone Anthology

17th Century Minimalist from Games Omnivorous is an Old School Renaissance roleplaying game of small-time tricksters, conniving thieves, stalwart ex-soldiers, swashbucklers with panache and gambling debts, and minor physicians, banding together out of necessity and the need for coin (glory optional). The rules-light Class and Level roleplaying game set in the seventeenth century which features firearms, no magic, a task-based experience system, and a fast, deadly combat system, was introduced in 17th Century Minimalist: A Historical Low-Fantasy OSR Rulebook, and whilst it was complete in terms of rules and mechanics, what it lacks is a scenario. One issue with the 17th Century Minimalist: A Historical Low-Fantasy OSR Rulebook is that it lacks an adventure, but fortunately, its setting and its mechanics are compatible with any number of Old School Renaissance scenarios set in the Early Modern period, of which many of those published by Lamentations of the Flame Princess, including the author’s own The Squid, the Cabal, and the Old Man as well as No Better Than Any Man, Scenic Dunnsmouth, or Forgive Us, would be suitable. In addition, 17th Century Minimalist has its anthology of adventures with the 17th Century Minimalist: Mini Adventure Folder.

One of the physical qualities of 17th Century Minimalist: A Historical Low-Fantasy OSR Rulebook is that it feels handmade, or at least, artisanal. This continues with 17th Century Minimalist: Mini Adventure Folder, which comes as a sturdy card folder which contains five separate adventures, each presented in its own folder in an almost postcard format on the same cardstock as the folder for the full set. Each presents a relatively short adventure, more of a detailed outline rather than a full scenario, which can be run as a one-shot or a convention scenario. The format means that each is easy to handle, although in some places, the text is perhaps a little small and cramped to read with ease.

Opening up the 17th Century Minimalist: Mini Adventure Folder, the first adventure is ‘Hedge Death Maze’. As the player characters are passing through remote, but mid-sized town, they learn of a challenge extended to anyone by a local noble. He has grown a fiendishly difficult hedge maze on his estate and promises gold to anyone who can defeat it. After showing off his estate—a zoo of exotic animals, Greek statuary, a gallery of paintings depicting scenes of slaughter, and a library of diverse, often macabre books—and thus his enormous wealth, he blindfolds them, deposits them in the centre of the maze, and challenges them to find their way out.

‘Hedge Death Maze’ has physical component in that each player is given a map of the maze and then thirty seconds to draw his route out of the maze. Then the Game Master collects these and plots each player’s and each group of players’ routes of the maze, placing four or five encounters along the route of each player or group. All of these encounters have a Greco-Romano theme, drawn from both myth and history, and grow in increasing difficulty from the first to the fifth. As the name suggests, this is a ‘death maze’, quite possibly the closest that 17th Century Minimalist will get to an actual dungeon, which throws challenge after challenge at the player characters—singly or in groups, all for the entertainment of the sponsoring noble.

‘Hedge Death Maze’ highlights not just the differences in wealth between the nobility and the peasantry, but also the arrogance of the nobility in what is a lavishly wasteful display of money. It also highlights the place of the player characters somewhere in between, but at the same time at the beck and call of the nobility. This is a theme that 17th Century Minimalist: Mini Adventure Folder will return in later adventures, including the next adventure, ‘Ticking Time Bomb’.

In ‘Ticking Time Bomb’, the player characters are hired by a merchant to transport a locked chest to another merchant in a town roughly a week or so away. This is a more straightforward scenario, an on-the-road adventure of encounters ordinary and odd, capped off with a run-around to try and make the delivery. Nominally set in Italy and parodying the mercantile wars between conflicting city-states of the period. There is scope here for the Game Master to expand this into a mini-campaign, slotting adventures—for example, ‘Hedge Death Maze’—along the route as well as the given encounters.

‘Black Plague Now’ is the first of the five adventures which runs to a six-page folder rather than four and the first to be really player character led rather than the motivation being provided by an NPC. The player characters arrive in a river port struck down by the bubonic plague with the aristocracy having fled, people dying, and no one in charge. With the townsfolk in disarray, this is perfect opportunity for chancers like the player characters—but for what? ‘Black Plague Now’ is sandbox situation which asks the player characters what they will do in the face of a naturally occurring horror and allows them to go where they want and do what they want. Bring aid to the town and its current population? Slaughter everyone just to make sure and take over? Set up a haven for robbers and bandits? The adventure suggests all of these and their possible outcomes, supporting them with a good map of the town marked with places of note and rules for just what happens if one of the player characters happens to come down with the plague…

Similar in length to ‘Black Plague Now’, ‘Cluster Fuck Inn’ is an event driven scenario in which the player characters are hired to rob an inn. This inn is run by a member of the Rosicrucian order who is rumoured to possess an important alchemical formula. Unfortunately, the rumours mean that other parties are interested in obtaining the formula and it just happens that the night on which the player characters execute their planned heist, so does everyone else! Mixing secret societies, science and alchemy, double-cross, and more, as the title suggests, ‘Cluster Fuck Inn’ quickly descends into a fun farce as the Game Master piles event upon event. The scenario’s initial encounter, which turns out to be with a black cape wearing man whose name just happens to be Oliver Reed (!), sets the tone. One issue with ‘Cluster Fuck Inn’ is that the Game Master will need extra dice to add to the Initiative bag used to determine order in 17th Century Minimalist.

‘Wild Witch Chase’ takes place in a town beset by a series of tragedies and odd events, none of which can be put down to nature. And if they cannot be explained by nature, then something unnatural must be responsible. Which means witchcraft! The mayor asks the player characters to investigate. Armed with a map of the town, the player characters will need to investigate and interview the townsfolk if they are to gather clues and evidence—the latter needing to be solid enough to send any accused to be burnt at the stake. This will be against a background of a town rife with paranoia and distrust and continued daily events. Some twenty-five or so NPCs are provided as potential suspects and hooks for the investigation as well as the map, the structure of the scenario being freeform and player character led. One issue with the scenario is that it does not list any of the uncanny events prior to the player characters’ arrival and another is that there are elements from the backgrounds of the NPCs which the Game Master will need to set up prior to the arrival of the player characters, both of which would help her build the sense of moral panic and suddenly fervently religious beliefs that the scenario demands. In general, there is no right way to solve this ‘Wild Witch Chase’ and there is the distinct possibility that the chase may all be for nothing…

Physically, the 17th Century Minimalist: Mini Adventure Folder is very well presented. It is a gorgeous little artefact, employing the same art style as 17th Century Minimalist: A Historical Low-Fantasy OSR Rulebook, so has illustrations suited to a child’s all too dark storybook, as well as solid maps by Dyson Logos. As good as it looks and as good as it feels in the hand, the 17th Century Minimalist: Mini Adventure Folder does need another edit and all too often it feels just a little cramped, as if it is pushing against the limits of the format.

The 17th Century Minimalist: Mini Adventure Folder contains five solid scenarios, each of which explores aspects and themes pertaining to the seventeenth century—alchemy and science, secret societies, witchcraft and paranoia, the effects of disease, and more. The one issue it does not touch upon is the religious schism which runs throughout this period, hopefully that will be explored in a future scenario. The themes also make the scenarios adaptable to other roleplaying games set during the period. The scenarios do require a little more preparation than the format suggests, but once done, the Game Master can run these more or less straight from the folders. Also, with some effort, the five could be strung together to form a campaign, perhaps with ‘Ticking Time Bomb’ as the framing device. The Game Master may want to write an encounter or other small scenario or two to flesh out such a campaign, but the 17th Century Minimalist: Mini Adventure Folder has the potential to support a complete campaign of 17th Century Minimalist, its five adventures matching the five Levels attainable by the player characters.

The high-quality nature of both 17th Century Minimalist: A Historical Low-Fantasy OSR Rulebook and 17th Century Minimalist: Mini Adventure Folder does actually make you wish that they were available together. They deserve a ‘white’ box—or rather a blue box given the eggshell blue of both 17th Century Minimalist: A Historical Low-Fantasy OSR Rulebook and 17th Century Minimalist: Mini Adventure Folder—of their own, along with a set of dice and of course, a 17th Century Minimalist Initiative bag. Which only goes to showcase how much the two go together and if have one, you want the other. Much like 17th Century Minimalist: A Historical Low-Fantasy OSR Rulebook, the 17th Century Minimalist: Mini Adventure Folder is not perfect, but it not only ably supports and matches the brutal charm and flavour suggested in 17th Century Minimalist: A Historical Low-Fantasy OSR Rulebook, but highlights them and enables the Game Master and her players to explore them.