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

Sunday, 17 February 2019

Friday Filler: Deep Sea Adventure

Deep Sea Adventure is tiny game of desperate survival in which a disparate diving team make a series of dives on a wreck despite a lack of air. Published by Oink Games, it follows in a wave of Japanese games that began with Love Letter and continues to this day. Designed for two to six players, aged eight and over, it combines themes of nautical exploration and treasure hunting with pick up and deliver, resource management, and push your luck mechanics. The story is that several rival poor divers want to dive on some underwater ruins, but individually lack the means. They have banded together, shared their budget, rented a rickety submarine—including just the one air between them, and have three attempts to bring up as much treasure as they can. The deeper they dive the more valuable treasure they will be able bring up, but should they run out of air, they will drop their treasure, and have to try again on the next dive. The diver with the most treasure at game’s end is the winner. For a tiny game, Deep Sea Adventure comes well appointed. The components include a wooden Explorer or each player and an Air Marker to indicate how much air is left in the tank; a Submarine Board with twenty-five spots showing how much air there is left in the tank; sixteen blank tokens; thirty-two Ruins tokens divided into four Levels of eight each, from low to high; and two six-sided dice, each numbered one to three twice. The Ruins tokens vary in value from zero to fifteen and at the start of the game are laid out in a line, starting with Level One and ending with Level Four. This ensures that the more highly valued Ruins tokens are to be found at a greater depth. Each players’ Explorer starts on the Submarine. Starting with the player who has been in the ocean most recently, a game turn consists of four steps. First a player reduces the amount of Air in the Submarine by the number of Ruins tokens his Explorer is holding, then he decides whether he will continue onwards into the depths or turn back and return to the Submarine. Then he rolls both dice to move his Explorer, the number rolled being reduced by the number of Ruins tokens he is carrying, and lastly, an Explorer can Search, which means he can do one of three things. Either do nothing; pick up a Ruins token and add it to the ones he is already carrying, replacing it with a blank token; or place a Ruins token on a blank token, typically to drop a Ruins token that has a low or no value. The players continue taking turns until either everyone has made it back to the Submarine or the air in the Submarine runs out. The round is then over and a new one can begin. Any Ruins tokens an Explorer has successfully brought up from his dive are kept by his player and added to their score for the end of the game. If however, the Submarine runs out of Air, any Explorers still in the water have to drop whatever they are carrying and make a mad scramble back up to the Submarine. Any Ruins tokens so dropped, sink to the ocean floor where they accumulate in piles of three Ruins tokens each. In subsequent turns, each pile of Ruins tokens counts as one for carrying purposes. Any blank tokens added to the line of Ruins tokens are removed and the break in the closed up—the Explorers know not to search there. Play continues like this for a total of three rounds, at the end of which the players count up the value of the Ruins tokens hauled up from the bottom of the sea and the player with highest total is declared the winner. Now the Air in the Submarine does not start being used up until the first Explorer picks up a Ruins token. So the Explorers are encouraged to go deep in order to get the most valuable Ruins tokens, but go too deep and the rival Explorers may be able to return with Ruins tokens that are less valuable than the deepest ones which you are diving for, potentially using up all of the Air before you do. What starts out as a gentle fall into the ocean depths rapidly changes character as soon as someone picks up a Ruins token, then it becomes a desperate bid to get some treasure and get back to the safety of the Submarine. Hindered of course, by the weight of whatever Ruins tokens have been picked up which reduces his movement. The heart of the game is not just the ‘push your luck’ element, but also holding one’s nerve. Just how far down do you send your explorer before you or someone decides to grab a Ruins token—more later in subsequent rounds if one or more Ruins tokens have been dropped—and decide to return to the Submarine. This will trigger a mad dash as the other Explorers grab their own Ruins tokens and attempt to rise to the Submarine before the Air supply is depleted. Physically, Deep Sea Adventure is nicely appointed. The Explorer pieces are done in wood, whilst the Ruins tokens, done in cardboard, are clearly differentiated in terms of colour and shape. So the Level 1 Ruins tokens are done in light blue and triangular, the Level 2 tokens are square and marked in a slightly darker blue, and so on and so on. What this means is that they are easy to identify and whilst their exact value will not be known until picked up, players will be able to tell which Ruins tokens are of a greater value. The rules themselves are clear and simple to read, such that the box can be opened and a first game played in five minutes. If there is a downside to Deep Sea Adventure, it is that there is relatively little variety to its game play—go as deep as you can before you or another player make a mad dash scramble for the sanctuary of the Submarine. What this means is that you are not going to bring Deep Sea Adventure to the gaming table too often, but it adds variety and well done theme in terms of its design and its play.

Saturday, 16 February 2019

Star Trek X's First Eight

These Are the Voyages: Mission Compendium Vol. 1 is an anthology of eight ready-to-play adventures for use with Modiphius Entertainment’s Star Trek Adventures: The Roleplaying Game. Like the core rules, this octet provides adventures set during the periods of Star Trek:Enterprise, Star Trek: The Original Series, and Star Trek: The Next Generation, but which the Game Master can easily adapt to the period she is setting her campaign in. Notes are included exactly for this purpose at the beginning of each scenario, so that with a little bit of effort upon her part, the Game Master can run all of these scenarios without the need to switch time periods. In terms of setting, several of the scenarios involve the Romulans, so they are easy to set in a campaign near or along the Neutral Zone between the United Federation of Planets and the Romulan Star Empire. This includes Modiphius Entertainment’s Star Trek Living Campaign set in the Shackleton Expanse.

The eight scenarios in These Are the Voyages: Mission Compendium Vol. 1 are ‘A World with a Bluer Sun’, ‘Border Dispute’, ‘Entropy’s Demise’, ‘Forests of the Night’, ‘Biological Clock’, ‘Plague of Arias’, ‘That Which is Unknown’, and ‘The Shepherd’. Besides confrontations with the Romulans, they provide encounters with strange anomalies, scientific mysteries, conflicts with the Prime Directive, incomprehensible aliens, distress calls, and more. Each is broken down into three acts, comes with an ongoing captain’s log, a synopsis, suggestions as to which of Starfleet’s directives apply, and advice on running the the scenarios. Every scenario ends in suggestions as how its events might affect an ongoing campaign.

The anthology opens with ‘A World with a Bluer Sun’ by Marco Rafalá in which the player characters’ ship goes to answer an old style distress call and discover an old Starfleet vessel trapped in a wormhole. Aboard, they find many of the crew still alive, desperate to survive, but now divided into factions which fear each other. This has a slightly more muscular feel of a Star Trek: The Original Series episode, and whilst it has an interesting set-up, the motivations of many of the NPCs do feel forced. Andrew Peregrine’s ‘Border Dispute’ sees the player characters come to the rescue of a Federation science vessel which has drifted into the Romulan Neutral Zone, a situation which could lead to a diplomatic incident, or worse, a war with the Romulan Star Empire. There are nice opportunities here for roleplaying, both amongst the crew of the stricken ship and the Romulans in a scenario which focuses on interstellar relations.

Anthony Jennings’ ‘Entropy’s Demise’ takes the crew to Carina VII, a world which highlights the post-scarcity aspect of the Star Trek setting. The colony makes wine, which it successfully exports to the Ferengi. Unfortunately, grapes, the buildings, and some of the inhabitants are aging rapidly, and in the case of the buildings, nearly collapsing. This adventure brings to the fore Starfleet’s duties to the Federation’s colonies and gets to show the player characters a little of the colonists’ lives, but whilst its set-up is intriguing, its follow through is not as much, feeling a bit too similar to that of ‘A World with a Bluer Sun’. It would also have been nice if some of the locations in this scenario had been given maps. In ‘Forests of the Night’ by Darren Watts, the player characters’ ship is exploring a new sector when it encounters a strange ship adrift in space, which the crew will discover is home to a massive forest eco-system. This is an object as mystery adventure and it feels like the sequel to another Science Fiction movie, right down to the little robots (there are big ones too) though not a Star Trek one.

‘Biological Clock’ by Fred Love presents the player characters with a Prime Directive dilemma—should they come to aid of a species which is being exploited by another without revealing themselves and the Federation. This also involves a possible first contact situation with plenty of room for misunderstandings. This scenario also has the best title of the eight in the anthology. Alasdair Stuart’s ‘Plague of Arias’ takes the player characters and their vessel away from the frontier to join a celebration of Starfleet’s medical progress, giving the chance to possibly meet Star Trek canonical characters and solve a medical mystery too. There are possible nods here as well to the Doctor from Star Trek: Voyager’s love of opera. The adventure also nicely brings some minor antagonists in Star Trek into play.

Joe Rixman’s ‘That Which is Unknown’ echoes elements found in earlier scenarios in the anthology—‘Border Dispute’ and ‘Entropy’s Demise’—to not too dissimilar effect. This is a more action-orientated scenario in which the player characters must pursue thieves who have stolen an experimental torpedo and ultimately, work out why. There is also an element of realpolitik to this scenario, one that some players may find at odds with the idealism of both Starfleet and the Federation. Lastly, ‘The Shepherd’ by Oli Palmer sees the player characters come to the rescue of a mining colony in revolt. This has strong echoes of the episode, ‘The Devil in the Dark’ from Star Trek: The Original Series, but takes that set-up in another direction.

Physically, behind the lovely cover, These Are the Voyages: Mission Compendium Vol. 1 has some of the same problems as Star Trek Adventures: The Roleplaying Game core rulebook—the use of the LCARS—Library Computer Access/Retrieval System—operating system as a style template. Again, the mix of white text and pastel colours on black is not easy to read. Nor do the maps look very good on the black background and they not particularly interesting maps at that. The real issue with the look of the supplement is the lack of art. Now there is some good art present, but unfortunately, none of it is used to illustrate a single NPC. This just leaves the Game Master with the unnecessary task of supplying them herself and it really is not necessary.

In general, the adventures are well written and well designed, the various tasks specific to the situations that the player characters will encounter clearly laid out. In places the Game Master will need to pay attention to the connections between various scenes if the scenarios are to flow easily.

These Are the Voyages: Mission Compendium Vol. 1 supports the emphasis of the Star Trek Adventures: The Roleplaying Game core rulebook, that of the player characters as members of Starfleet, and that again, is no bad thing. It is after all, the default setting and set-up in Star Trek. All have a race against time element, reminiscent of television stories, but all should provide at least two, if not more, sessions’ worth of play. The mix is good, although there is at least one case where a plot device is used in more than one scenario. So a Game Master might not want to run those too close together if they are used as part of a campaign. These Are the Voyages: Mission Compendium Vol. 1 is a solid set of scenarios for use with Star Trek Adventures: The Roleplaying Game, especially for the Game Master running a campaign on the final frontier.

Friday, 15 February 2019

A BattleTech Starter

BattleTech is thirty-five years old. Originally called BattleDroids, in the decades since, BattleTech, both as a game and a setting has been supported by numerous games and expansions, miniatures and rulesets, a collectible card game and a television series, computer games and novels. At its heart though is BattleTech the game, a game of combat fought between humanoid bipedal robots, each standing between seven and seventeen meters tall, massing between twenty and one-hundred tonnes, and armed with a mix of weaponry including lasers, particle projection cannons, autocannons, and missile launchers. In combat, pilots will manoeuvre around each other and through various types of terrain to get the best shot, to first destroy armour, and then weapons and other parts of the battlemech with internal damage. It is not just a matter of blazing with all weapons, for every action a battlemech takes in terms of movement and firing weapons, generates heat. Generate too much heat and a battlemech’s fusion engine will shut down or even explode. Fortunately, every battlemech is fitted with several heatsinks which bleed off the heat generated through battle, but a mechwarrior—and thus the player—will still need to manage his battlemech’s heat to fight efficiently on the battlefield.

BattleTech is a roughly 1/285 scale wargame played out on a hex-map, between two or more players, aged twelve and up. Each player can control just the one battlemech, but games are typically played with each side fielding one or more lances, each consisting of four battlemechs, at a skirmish level. Other games and expansions added armour and other vehicles, infantry, air and space assets, and increased the scale of the conflict, but the core of the game is still about battlemechs.

The setting for BattleTech is the Inner Sphere in the thirty-first century. Humanity has developed a means of Faster-Than-Light travel and settled some two thousand worlds within a radius of about five hundred light years of Terra. Although mankind established the Star League as a governing interstellar council, its collapse led to centuries of warfare between five great houses—the Free Worlds League, the Federated Suns, the Draconis Combine, the Lyran Commonwealth, and the Capellan Confederation--that continue to its day. The ongoing series of conflicts, known as the Succession Wars, has led to a loss of technology and limited advances in terms of science and technology, though there are rumours of caches of Star League technology and knowledge still to be found. Players typically field units serving one of these great houses, but they can also field mercenary units which sign contracts with the great houses. There is even scope for players to create and field their own mercenary units and whole campaigns can played around them. Essentially, BattleTech is a wargame set in a militarised Science Fiction universe involving futuristic weaponry and multiple factions, which despite having the feel of Space Opera in its storyline, is quite hard in terms of its Science Fiction.

Originally published and developed by FASA, it is currently published by Catalyst Game Labs who in order to celebrate its thirty-Fifth anniversary have released a new edition of the game, starting with the BattleTech Beginner Box. This is designed as an introduction to the game and the setting for two players aged twelve and up—though there is the capacity for as many as four to play. Skirmishes can be fought between single battlemechs and between lances of battlemechs if there are just two players, or with a player controlling one or two battlemechs each if there are four players.

The BattleTech Beginner Box is a light, but sturdy package illustrated with an eye-catching picture of a battlemech in action. Inside the contents are divided by a deep plastic insert. On top, the first things that catch your eye are the two grey plastic miniatures, assembled, but not painted, both ready to bring to the battlefield. These are of a Griffin and a Wolverine respectively, both medium battlemechs. Alongside them are the novela, ‘Golden Rule’, a set of eight record sheets, four pilot cards, and two six-sided dice. Below the tray is a small punchboard of additional BattleMechs and terrain, one double-sided map, a rulebook, and a Universe Primer.

‘Golden Rule’ is written by William H. Keith, the author of Decision at Thunder Rift, the first BattleTech novel published in 1986. Where the novel was set in the year 3024 and told the story of Grayson Carlyle’s attempts to resurrect his father’s mercenary regiment and following its destruction at the hands of pirates, ‘Golden Rule’ takes place in 2290 and concerns a mission undertaken by Grayson’s father when he was serving with Colby’s Commandos. It is an entertaining introduction to the setting and the type of situations that might be encountered in a BattleTech game. Although it comes to a natural pause, it is not complete. The reader will need to purchase BattleTech: A Game of Armored Combat boxed set, the full rules for the game and continue reading it there. Overall, it is nice to see Keith return to write a piece of introductory fiction just as he did over three decades ago.

The eight full-colour record sheets provide the full stats—’mech data, including Movement Points, weapon stats and location, and armour arrangement—along with an illustration. Full write-ups are given on the other side of many, whilst others have illustrations from the setting. The write-ups will be familiar from the game’s technical readouts. The battlemechs include a Locust LCT-1V, a Wolverine WVR-6R, a Locust LCT-1E, a Wolverine WVR-6M, a Griffin GRF-1N, a Thunderbolt TDR-5S, a Griffin GRF-1S, and a Thunderbolt TDR-5SE. This is a good mix of design types and the background on the reverse side adds plenty of flavour and detail to support the stats. The four pilot cards are also done in full colour and are double-sided. Each describes a pilot and his or her background as well as indicating which battlemech they pilot and a special ability or two. For example, Lance Sergeant Jia Yawen is the pilot of a Thunderbolt who has the ‘Sandblaster’ and ‘Weapon Specialist (Large Laser)’ special abilities. The first grants a bonus when determining the number of LRM (long range missiles) missiles that hit in clusters with a successful hit, the latter grant a ‘to-hit’ bonus when firing a large laser. The dice are a pair of plain white six-sided dice.

The punchboard contains eight battlemech standees which match the eight record sheets as well as seven pieces of terrain, both light and heavy and of varying size, which can be added to the maps provided in the BattleTech Beginner Box to modify the terrain. The map sheet itself measures 18” by 22” and is marked in 2¼” hexes. One side depicts arid terrain marked with the occasional stand of trees, whilst the other side shows grassland broken up with more forested areas.

Below this are the BattleTech Beginner Box Quick-Start Rules and An Instant Guide to the Inner Sphere, both of which are done in full colour. The BattleTech Beginner Box Quick-Start Rules provide the rules to play with plenty of examples and some simple scenarios as reference tables on the back page in just twelve pages. The ‘An Instant Guide to the Inner Sphere’ is just four pages in length and details the five great houses involved in the ongoing Succession Wars as well as Comstar, the quasi-religious organisation which provides Faster-Than-Light communication across the Inner Sphere. Description of both battlemechs and mechwarriors are also included. It is perhaps a bit basic and does not really provide much in the way of the setting’s flavour—the pilot cards, the battlemech descriptions, and the novella all do a better job of that.

The rules themselves cover initiative, movement, and attacking with everything rolled on the two dice as needed. Whichever side wins the initiative goes second, allowing them to react to the actions of the loser. Each side then takes it in turn to move their battlemechs, each having a different number of Movement Points depending upon whether a battlemech is walking, running, or jumping. Movement is done hex by hex, Movement Points being paid to enter a hex—the heavier and more difficult the terrain, the greater the cost—and to change facing. Once movement is done, attacks can take place. This is done by taking the attacking pilot’s Gunnery skill and adding modifiers for his movement, the target’s movement, any intervening terrain, and range. This generates a number between two and twelve. If the roll is equal to the number or over, then the attack is successful. Hit location is then determined randomly and damage applied.

Included in the Quick-Start Rules are a few simple scenarios. These go from from one-on-one battles to adding terrain and additional battlemechs and a pair of battlemechs attempting to break out from behind enemy lines. There is some variation here, especially in mixing and matching the battlemechs fielded against each other. An experienced wargamer will probably be able to add more, but players new to the game and the hobby may have greater difficulty.

Overall, the rules are clear and easy to understand, and ably supported by some good examples. That said there are a couple issues with both them and the BattleTech Beginner Box. One is the use of the dice. The rules suggest using black, red, and hite dice to indicate the type of movement each battlemech has made on a turn, but there are just a pair of white dice in the box. This is obviously not enough. Now of course, dice are expensive and would have added to the cost of the set, but some movement tokens could have been included by increasing the size of the punchboard. The issue is what the rules do not cover and this is quite a lot in terms of BattleTech as a game. This includes piloting skills, critical hits, additional terrain, firing arcs and attack direction, more weapons and equipment, and so on… Again, to be fair, the BattleTech Beginner Box introduces the game’s rules, but arguably, some of these are so integral to the game of BattleTech—the rules for heat in particular—it would have nice to have seen them included in some advanced rules. 

From the design of a starter set or a beginner box, the BattleTech Beginner Box does also miss a trick. There is no, ‘What’s in this box’ sheet, explaining the box’s content and pointing out where start. There is a description of the box’s content in the Quick-Start Rules, but that is probably the sixth or seventh thing someone opening the box is going to look at, and even then, really only when they sit down to read the rules.

Physically, the BattleTech Beginner Box is an attractive box, well presented, the rules clearly written, and nicely illustrated. It is though, too basic a game for anyone with any experience with wargames and definitely too basic for anyone who has played BattleTech before. They will probably want to go straight onto BattleTech: A Game of Armored Combat. Nevertheless, BattleTech Beginner Box is still a good introduction to both the rules and the setting, decently priced, and attractive.

Friday Fantasy: Shadowbrook Manor

If Idol of the Orcs, the first official scenario to be published by Goblinoid Games for use with its retroclone, Labyrinth Lord, was disappointing and familiar in both its set-up and execution, then the good news is that the second adventure is a huge improvement. Marked ‘Module 2’, Shadowbrook Manor is another low level adventure, designed for characters of between First and Third Levels, but that does not mean that it is not without its problems. The set-up is simple enough. The Archamage Tazimack the Red was a mighty champion of Law, renowned for his exploits across the realm and beyond, but in old age—just like every other NPC wizard—he became obsessed with thwarting death. Using elixirs, sorceries, and more he managed to stave off death’s dark touch, but finally it claimed him, so leaving behind a legend, a mystery, and a lair. That lair is Shadowbrook Manor. It is set-up straight out of E. Gary Gygax’s 1978 S1, Tomb of Horrors and feels all a bit drearily familiar.

The player characters are introduced to Shadowbrook Manor in one of several fashions—by simple luck, by waking up in its grounds with no memory of how they got there, by being sent there to recover an ancient tome, or as beneficiaries of the late Tazimack’s will. All options are simple enough, but with the latter two, the Labyrinth Lord will probably need to add rumours and develop its surrounds in order to flesh the adventure out a bit more just as she may need to create stronger hooks should she want to fit the scenario into her campaign. Unless of course, she is running the adventure en media res. What the player characters find themselves in is a garden filled with demonic topiary, which are actually the least weird thing in the grounds of the house. Although there are odd things to be found in the garden, the Shadowbrook Manor’s centrepiece is of course, the house itself.

The house in Shadowbrook Manor consists of sixteen locations on the ground floor—pleasingly referred to as the ground floor rather than the first floor—and seventeen locations on the second floor—oddly and consistently referred to as the second floor, plus a cellar and an attic. The design is a classic American great house, replete with Widow’s Walk, so it is large, open, airy, and very much the Victorian ideal rather than a medieval house. Every room is detailed and every room is clean and mostly in working order as if this were not some abandoned country home. There is good reason for this in that whilst the master of the house may be long dead, his staff are not—well, technically they are, but you get what I mean—and so they are still seeing to the upkeep of the house. The lived in feeling of the house is evidenced by the wealth of detail given to every room and a large number of the rooms still being occupied and many of them containing magical items. In fact, there are lots of magical items to be found in the adventure, from simple potions and things that work like potions such as a can labelled ‘Whupass’ containing spinach-like material which works like a Potion of Superheroism to Oil of O’Lay which takes years off a character when applied and Eleanor, a fantastic sword who also happens to be jealous, insecure, vain, and insecure—and they are the least of her personality quirks. (It should be noted that the scenario includes some terrible puns, but this is a roleplaying scenario, so they should be par for the course.) Although many of the items found are single use only, there are a lot of them.

There are some brilliant touches to the adventure. Such as Banshee working in the library and a withdrawing room which does exactly that. There is depth and detail to some of the puzzles, so the players will need to be inventive in what their player characters can do. Yet, there are are also very deadly encounters which seem somewhat out of place given the Level of characters for which the scenario is written. From the start, it includes a nasty door trap that could turn everyone blind if they do not mind their manners, the aforementioned banshee in the library, a potential demon in the summoning room, and more, but the most dangerous has to be the soul of a necromancer, at least six Levels higher than any of the player characters, stuck in a cookie jar. Should he possess any of the player characters, then several deaths are likely to occur. 

Shadowbrook Manor is not a long book at a mere sixteen pages and the actual description of the house and the maps just about run to half of that. The rest is given over to a couple of pages or so’s worth of new monsters and new magical items. Of the former, the Grue is an odd inclusion since it does not appear in the scenario, whilst the latter are a good mix of one use items or powerful items each with a downside.

Physically Shadowbrook Manor is a slim, black and white booklet. It is cleanly presented, the cartography is clear, and what little artwork there is, is okay. That said, the picture of the nude demon feels a little out of place. It might be argued that the one issue with the scenario is that it is really a little too tough for characters of First to Third Level and that perhaps it could be upgraded to mid-Level characters. Another issue is that none of the mundane items are priced and for a dungeon with a degree of naturalism as this, it feels as if there should be more valuables, more jewelry, and so on. There are also very few NPCs for the Labyrinth Lord to handle, so this is primarily an adventure hose focus is on exploration and examination rather than on roleplaying.

Shadowbrook Manor is a not a deathtrap dungeon, so much as a funhouse dungeon, in which the player characters are allowed to wander round and pick and poke at whatever they want; and certainly, there is plenty for them to pick and poke at in the house. As weird as the ‘dungeon’ is, with its undead staff and its Banshee in the library, there is a delightful naturalism to the scenario, both in the fact that they are going about their jobs and working to keep the mansion a home and in that every room is described in detail. Although not perfect and perhaps just too deadly and too generous, Shadowbrook Manor is an impressive dungeon in terms of its feel and tone.

Sunday, 10 February 2019

Star Trek X

Since 1978 and the publication of Heritage Models’ Star Trek: Adventure Gaming in the Final Frontier, there have been ten roleplaying games that have visited the world’s largest Science Fiction franchise that is Star Trek, notable titles being FASA’s highly regarded Star Trek: The Role Playing Game, the original Star Trek RPG for many in 1982 and 1998’s well received Star Trek: The Next Generation Role-playing Game from Last Unicorn Games. The tenth is Star Trek Adventures: The Roleplaying Game, published by Modiphius Entertainment in 2017 of which Star Trek Adventures: The Roleplaying Game – Core Rulebook provides a full introduction to both the setting and the rules. (A shorter introduction is provided in the Star Trek Adventures: The Roleplaying Game Starter Set.)

As an introduction to the setting, Star Trek Adventures has a big job to do, because with six television series, thirteen films, hundreds of books, and numerous games to draw from, there is a lot for it to cover. Not just in terms of scope, but also in terms of time, for Star Trek’s timeline runs from the twentieth to thirtieth centuries. So at least in the core rulebook, Star Trek Adventures focuses on a particular time period and a particular set-up as a default. The setting is of course, the United Federation of Planets and its cosmic neighbours, primarily the Romulan Star Empire and the Klingon Empire. The United Federation of Planets consists of innumerable planetary members who uphold the principles of universal liberty, rights, and equality, and who co-operate in terms of sharing knowledge and resources. The United Federation of Planets’ primary service is Starfleet, an organisation which operates along military lines with a huge fleet of starships and starbases, whose primary missions are deep-space exploration, research, defence, peacekeeping, and diplomacy.

The particular time period is the late twenty-fourth century, late in the period of Star Trek: The Next Generation, at the beginning of Star Trek: Deep Space 9, and before Star Trek: Voyager. The specific year is 2371. War with the Cardassian Union has ended, but the Maquis continue its campaign against the Cardassian-Federation peace treaty, keeping tensions high in the region of Bajor and Deep Space 9. In response, USS Voyager, under the command of Captain Janeway, is preparing for a mission into the Badlands where the Maquis is primarily based. Meanwhile, Commander Sisko has discovered a wormhole near Bajor which leads to the Gamma Quadrant and there identified a major new threat to the Alpha Quadrant in the form of the Dominion.

This is the default set-up for Star Trek Adventures. The players take the roles of the best that Starfleet and thus United Federation of Planets, has to offer, crewing a starship or a starbase. They are members of the starship’s or starbase’s senior crew—though there is scope in the game for players to regularly roleplay members of the supporting cast—who will undertake missions for Starfleet and fulfil its directives. Mostly obviously, these are exploration missions, but other missions can be ones of scientific research, disaster relief, diplomacy, patrols, peacekeeping, rescue, and more. What is important to note here is that what the players do not roleplay are characters from any of the television series, so not Kirk or Spock, Data or Worf, Garak or Quark, the Doctor or Seven of Nine, Archer or T’Pol, or Michael Burnham or Sylvia Tilly—though many of the characters are used in the game’s rules examples. It is possible to create characters like that, but not stats or write-ups for any of the cast.

Instead, what Star Trek Adventures offers in terms of characters are the Andorian, Bajoran, Betazoid, Denobulan, Human, Tellarite, Trill, and Vulcan species. These represent the default for the roleplaying game’s default time period of 2371, but guidance is given as to which species are known and serve in Starfleet in the time of both Star Trek: The Original Series and Star Trek: Enterprise. Characters are themselves defined by Attributes, Disciplines, Focuses, Values, Traits, Talents, and Values. The six Attributes—Control, Daring, Fitness, Insight, Presence, and Reason—represent ways of or approaches to doing things as well as intrinsic capabilities. They are rated between seven and twelve. The six Disciplines—Command, Conn, Engineering, Security, Science, and Medicine—are skills, knowledges, and areas of training representing the wide roles aboard a starship. They are rated between one and five. Focuses represent narrow areas of study or skill specialities, for example, Astrophysics, Xenobiology, or Warp Field Dynamics. Traits and Talents represent anything from what a character believes, is motivated by, intrinsic abilities, ways of doing things, and so on. They come from a character’s species, upbringing, training, and life experience, for example, Trill (representing their ability withstand parasites and serve as a host to Symbionts), a character having undertaken the Kolinahr, his approach to Science (Cautious), and so on. A character’s attitudes, beliefs, and convictions are represented by their Values, such as Kirk’s ‘Doesn’t believe in a No-Win Situation’, which can be triggered to provide various benefits by spending a character’s Determination points.

To create a character, a player puts him through a lifepath—much like previous Star Trek roleplaying games—the seven stages of which encompass his species, home environment, upbringing, Starfleet training, career length and its events, and current status. At each stage, a player adjusts Attributes, selects and adjusts Disciplines, and picks Focuses, Traits, Talents, and Values. Some of these elements a player has to select, but he can choose to roll for them and determine randomly. Our sample character is a Starfleet brat, the son and grandson of a Starfleet Admiral who joined Starfleet to prove himself and out of tradition. He wants to be the best pilot anywhere and led Nova Squadron whilst at the academy. As fighter pilot assigned to the USS Dakota, an Akira-class vessel patrolling the Cardassian Demilitarised Zone, he became involved in the Nivoch Incident in which Cardassian vessels attacked the world in search of the Maquis. When the commander of his fighter squadron was killed as it tried to defended fleeing evacuating vessels, Kingsley took command. Only after ramming the Cardassian command vessel with his fighter shortly after beaming out, did the Cardassians withdraw. Kingsley was captured by the Cardassians and was held by them before a prisoner exchange. He has only just returned to active duty.

Thomas Kingsley III
Race: Human 
Department: Command Rank: Lieutenant (J.G.)

Attributes
Control 10 Daring 11 Fitness 8
Insight 9 Presence 10 Reason 8

Disciplines
Command 2 Conn 4 Engineering 1
Security 1 Science 1 Medicine 0

Focuses
Astronavigation, Diplomacy, Helm Operations, Lead by Example, Small Craft, 

Traits
Human

Values
Serving Starfleet is a Family Tradition, Fast Ships and Strange New Worlds, Nothing Ventured, Nothing Gained

Talents
Bold (Conn), Precise Evasion, Resolute, Untapped Potential

Homeworld: Starship
Upbringing: Starfleet (Rebel)
Starfleet Academy: Command Track (Conn)
Career Events: Required to Take Command

The result is a Starfleet officer of varying though still competent experience, but Star Trek Adventures provides three other options. First, a player can play an enlisted character, one who did not attend Starfleet Academy, but was trained elsewhere. Enlisted characters cannot take Command roles. Second, a player can create a character in play, creating the basics before play and defining further elements during play. The third, is to play Supporting Characters. These represent other members of the crew and although not as detailed as full player characters—essentially members of the main cast—they enable players to roleplay other types of character, to be involved in scenes their main character would not, and to provide support where there are relatively few players in a game. Supporting characters can be fully played, but are not fully developed, having neither Talents or Values. These will come up in play as the Supporting Character reappears again and again, meaning that the players will learn more about him as the campaign goes on and he slowly grows from a Supporting Character to a Main Character. So for example, T’Peen might first appear as a member of the ship’s Emergency Medical Response Team, and her Focuses reflect that, but later on, the players might learn that she is studying Virology, has undertaken the Kolinahr, and so on… This is a nice reflection of how a Star Trek television series works, how lesser characters are elevated to a bigger role.

T’Peen
Race: Vulcan
Department: Medical Rank: Petty Officer (3rd Class)

Attributes
Control 9 Daring 8 Fitness 7
Insight 9 Presence 8 Reason 10

Disciplines
Command 1 Conn 1 Engineering 2
Security 2 Science 3 Medicine 4

Focuses
Emergency Medicine, EVA, Trauma Surgeon 

Traits
Vulcan

In terms of progression, a character does not earn Experience Points as he might in other roleplaying games. Instead, to reflect the fact that the characters on screen in Star Trek grow and change only periodically, player characters in Star Trek Adventures achieve Milestones. Only Main Characters can achieve and receive Milestones, of which there are three types—Normal, Spotlight, and Arc, representing both when they occur in a series and their impact. In general, Milestones are used to change aspects of a character or the characters’ ship, rather than improve them, although they can be used to improve a Supporting Character. It takes Arc Milestones, essentially Milestones which come at the end of a story arc, for a player to make improvements to his character. A player character can also improve his Reputation, which is the main means representing his progress in Starfleet and getting promoted.

Star Trek Adventures employs the 2d20 System previously used in the publisher’s Mutant Chronicles: Techno Fantasy Roleplaying Game and Robert E. Howard’s Conan: Adventures in an Age Undreamed Of. To undertake an action, a character’s player rolls two twenty-sided dice, aiming to have both roll under the total of an Attribute and a Discipline. Each roll under this total counts as a success, an average task requiring two successes. Rolls of one count as two successes and if a character has an appropriate Focus, rolls under the value of the Discipline also count as two successes. 

For example, Lieutenant Kingsley is piloting a shuttle when it is chased by Maquis raiders and wanting to put some space between himself and his pursuers, pushes the shuttle to thread past a pair of plasma blumes in the Badlands before they coalesce. This will be a Daring + Conn check. So Kingsley’s player will be rolling under a total of fifteen. Kingsley also has the Small Craft focus, so any roll equal to or less than his Conn will generate two successes. If Kingsley had to make a delicate landing, his player would roll Control + Conn. Rolls of twenty generate Complications for the given situation, but in the main, because a typical difficulty will only be a Target Number of one, players will find themselves rolling excess Successes which becomes Momentum. This is a resource shared between all of the players which can be spent to create an Opportunity and so add more dice to a roll—typically needed because more than two successes are required to succeed, to create an advantage in a situation or remove a complication, create a problem for the opposition, and to obtain information. It is a finite ever-decreasing resource, so the players need to roll well and keep generating it, especially if they want to save for the big scene or climatic battle in an adventure.

Main characters like the player characters possess Determination, which works with their Values. A Value can either be challenged once per session in a negative or difficult situation to gain Determination or invoked once per session to spend Determination to gain an extra die for a check (a ‘Perfect Opportunity’), to get a reroll of the dice in a check (‘Moment of Inspiration’), to gain a second action when time of the essence (‘Surge of Activity’), and to create an Advantage (‘Make It So’). They also have Talents and Traits which will grant a character an advantage in certain situations. So Bold (Engineering) enables a player to reroll a single twenty-sided die for his character if he has purchased extra dice by adding to the Game Master’s Threat pool or Dauntless, which allows a player to roll an extra twenty-sided die for his character to resist being intimidated or threatened.

Now where the players generate Momentum to spend on their characters, the Game Master has Threat which can be spent on similar things for the NPCs as well as to trigger their special abilities. She begins each session with a pool of Threat, but can gain more through various circumstances. These include a player purchasing extra dice to roll on a test, a player rolling a natural twenty and so adding two Threat (instead of the usual Complication), the situation itself being threatening, or NPCs rolling well and generating Momentum and so adding that to Threat pool. In return, the Gamemaster can spend it on minor inconveniences, complications, and serious complications to inflict upon the player characters, as well as triggering NPC special abilities, having NPCs seize the initiative, and bringing the environment dramatically into play. 

What the Momentum and Threat mechanics do is set up a pair of parallel economies with Threat being fed in part by Momentum, but Momentum in the main being used to overcome the complications and circumstances which the expenditure of Threat can bring into play. The primary use of Threat though, is to ratchet up the tension and the challenge, whereas the primary use of Momentum is to enable the player characters to overcome this challenge and in action, be larger than life.

Combat uses the same mechanics, but offers more options in terms of what Momentum can be spent on. This includes doing extra damage, disarming an opponent, keeping the initiative—initiative works by alternating between between the player characters and the NPCs and keeping it allows two player characters to act before an NPC does, avoid an injury, and so on. Damage in combat is rolled on the Challenge dice, the number of star symbols and Starfleet insignia symbols rolled determining how much damage is inflicted. A similar roll is made to resist the damage, and any leftover is deducted from a character’s Stress. If a character’s Stress is reduced to zero or five or more damage is inflicted, then a character is injured. Any Starfleet insignia symbols rolled indicate an effect as well as the damage. In keeping with the tone of the various series, weapon damage can be deadly, melee or hand-to-hand, less so. Rules cover stun settings and of course, diving for cover, whilst a lovely reinforcement of the genre is that killing attacks generate Threat to add to the Game Master’s pool.

The rules themselves in Star Trek Adventures do not take up a huge amount of space in the core rulebook. They are clearly written and supported with a lot of examples. The core rules themselves, the 2d20 System, are easy to pick up and play, with of course, the rules for combat—especially starship combat—adding a bit more complexity. That said, the version of the 2d20 System used in Star Trek Adventures is a streamlined one comparison to the heavier mechanics of Mutant Chronicles: Techno Fantasy Roleplaying Game and Robert E. Howard’s Conan: Adventures in an Age Undreamed Of.

The rest of the core rulebook is dedicated to the setting and the background of Star Trek. Much of this is given as Starfleet Command briefings, backed up with communiques, letters, and reports from the Obsidian Order of the Cardassian Union, Vulcan High Command, the Tal Shiar of the Romulan Star Empire, the Klingon High Council, and so on. Many of these are linked to particular events depicted in both the Star Trek series and films, such as Colonel Worf’s report to the Klingon High Council following the Khitomer Accords, a letter from a certain Edith Keeler in the Desperate Decade, and a message to the Vulcan High Command about the imminent launch of the Enterprise NX-01. These take the place of a traditional timeline, providing a good overview of the Federation both from within and without. They are rich in the details that Star Trek fans will enjoy recognising, but anyone less familiar with Star Trek canon may find themselves somewhat adrift without a proper timeline which might have put the history in context.

Beyond this, Star Trek Adventures presents Starfleet’s ongoing mission and explores the Final Frontier and what might be encountered there, from World Classifications and alien encounters to stellar phenomena scientific discoveries and developments. Chapters on technology, equipment, and starships covers everything that the player characters might find useful in successfully fulfilling their mission, in particular focusing on how Starfleet personnel can adapt their equipment to the situation, often in the desperate situations that they sometimes face. In terms of starships, Star Trek Adventures provides models from Star Trek: The Original Series and Star Trek:Enterprise as well as Star Trek: The Next Generation, at the beginning of Star Trek: Deep Space 9, and before Star Trek: Voyager. The vessels include the Constellation, Constitution, Defiant, Galaxy, and Intrepid Classes as well as others, various alien vessels are also given. There is some room for customisation too.

Starships are treated in a fashion similar to characters, but have Systems and Departments instead of Attributes and Disciplines. Star Trek Adventures covers just about everything that a crew might do with their ship, from general operation to going toe-to-toe with a Klingon D7M Cruiser in starship combat. The latter works in a similar fashion to that of personal combat, except that as Department Heads, the player characters are in control of different aspects of the ship. Instead of injuries for taking five damage in one hit, a ship suffers breaches which can knockout a ship’s systems. Her crew or a player character can repair them, but too many breeches and ship is disabled or even destroyed.

For the Game Master, there is good advice on running Star Trek Adventures and handling various aspects of the rules, including character creation and advancement, creating encounters, missions, NPCs, and locations, and so on. This is backed up with stats for various NPCs and adversaries that the player characters might encounter. These include members of the major interstellar states that are not listed as player character species earlier in the book, from members of Klingon Empire and the Romulan Star Empire to the Cardassian Union and the Dominion. Three sample characters are given—minor, notable, and major—for each state, the major NPCs each representing recurring characters that the player characters might encounter. Also given are sample alien artefacts and various types. (Long time fans will enjoy the inclusion of the Planet Killer from The Doomsday Machine should they ever want to run the classic FASA adventure, A Doomsday Like Any Other.)

Lastly, ‘The Rescue at Xerxes IV’ is a short introductory scenario which takes the player characters on to their new posting at Narenda Station in the Shackleton Expanse. This is the opening part of Modiphius Entertainment’s Star Trek Living Campaign. This sees them come to the aid of a science outpost which has just put out a distress call. It is decent and should provide two good sessions’ worth of play.

Physically, Star Trek Adventures is superbly presented. It is laid out in the style of the LCARS—Library Computer Access/Retrieval System—operating system used by Starfleet. So everything is laid out over a rich black with the text done in soft colours. This is very in keeping with the theme and period setting of Star Trek Adventures, but it is imposing, even intimidating in its look, and it is not always easy to find things on the page because of the book’s look. The other issue is that the none more black pages are easy to mark with fingerprints. Alongside the LCARS, Star Trek Adventures is illustrated, not with photographs from the films and television series, but fully painted depictions of Starfleet and its personnel in action. These are absolutely great, capturing the strange new worlds visited and duties undertaken by Starfleet in equal measure. In addition, some thought has gone into organising the book’s content thematically, so the ‘Operations’ chapter covers the basic rules and ‘Reporting for Duty’ covers character creation, for example. The book could have done with a tighter edit in places though.

There can be no doubt that Star Trek Adventures feels like Star Trek, not just in its look, but also the type of characters you play and the adventures you play. Indeed, it does a very good job of explaining both, but unlike previous roleplaying games based on Star Trek, there is less granularity to character design and a greater similarity between one character and another. At least in the Star Trek Adventures: The Roleplaying Game – Core Rulebook, since the player characters are all serving in the same organisation and are expected to be able to take positions in different departments as necessary. Once Star Trek Adventures begins to cover situations like that in Deep Space 9, there may be more variety available in terms of character options. Star Trek Adventures also feels like Star Trek because it enforces aspects of the series, such as enforcing the policy against shooting to kill by having it trigger a Threat point and by using the television series structure to model character advancement. The inclusion of Supporting Characters though, nicely balances the slow progression of the Main Characters, their being able to improve more quickly as well providing more roleplaying opportunities for the players.

Anyone coming to Star Trek Adventures wanting to player characters other than Starfleet officers and crewman will probably be disappointed, at least until other sourcebooks open up the game’s scope. This though is not a criticism of the core rulebook, since it models where Star Trek itself started and what the core setting is for the franchise. It is after all, what the core rulebook should do and it is a roleplaying game about the best that the Federation has to offer. Star Trek Adventures: The Roleplaying Game presents in a highly attractive and solidly written core set of rules that are ably supported with decent background and good advice.

Saturday, 9 February 2019

Catch a Fallen Star

Mutant Crawl Classics #2: A Fallen Star for all is the second release for Mutant Crawl Classics Roleplaying Game – Triumph & Technology Won by Mutants & Magic, the spirutual successor to Gamma World published by Goodman Games. It is the first adventure to be designed for use with player characters who are not Zero Level, being instead designed for player characters of First Level. What this means is that it is not a Character Funnel, one of the features of both the Mutant Crawl Classics Roleplaying Game–and the Dungeon Crawl Classics Role Playing Game it is mechanically based upon–in which initially, a player is expected to roll up three or four Level Zero characters and have them play through a generally nasty, deadly adventure, which surviving will prove a challenge. Those that do survive receive enough Experience Points to advance to First Level and gain all of the advantages of their Class. In terms of the setting, known as Terra A.D., or Terra After Disasterthis is a Rite of Passage’ and in Mutants, Manimals, and Plantients, the stress of it will trigger ‘Metagenesis’, their DNA expressing itself and their mutations blossoming forth. So as A Fallen Star for all begins, each of the player characters will likely have their mutant powers, their Class abilities, and some equipment scavenged from their previous adventures.

Originally released as a Stretch Goal for the Kickstarter campaign for the Mutant Crawl Classics Roleplaying Game, the scenario does share something in common with ‘Assault on the Sky-High Tower’ in that the player characters are directed by their tribe to go out and scavenge an Ancients site for the artefacts that might still remain despite the effects of the apocalyptic event that destroyed the Ancients' world and society. This though, should be no surprise, since the player characters, having completed their Rite of Passage have been designated the tribe‘Seekers’, those who go to find the technology of the Ancients which would both protect and make the life of the tribe better. As A Fallen Star for all begins, scouts have returned to the village with reports of a meteor strike to the north in the taboo crater country. The strike has opened up a huge chasm within which stands what could be the largely intact city of the Ancient Ones. If so, there will be more than one tribe or group interested in combing the site for old tech, so the player characters–the Seekers–need to get a move on.

After a short introductory scene, the scenario proper begins with the Seekers approaching the crater site. The scenario consists of two areas, the first a wilderness around the crater and the second the crater itself and the complex below the crater. The wilderness area consists of just five locations or encounters that the Seekers should run into on their way to the crater. These are all pleasingly straightforward and simple encounters that reflect the damage that the meteor did in the wake of it crashing to Earth. There is room here too for the Game Master to add encounters of her own, especially if the player characters have rivals or their tribe has a rival tribe. There is room here too for encounters with members of rival or even similar Archaic Alignment, the  semi-secret organisations with common belief systems, interests, and goals found in the world of Terra A.D. This is because they too would have an interest in what might be found in the crater.

The encounters with rival groups continue once the Seekers enter the complex, a mix of room and wandering encounters. Yet where the number of encounters outside of the complex felt reasonable, inside they feel cramped in just the fifteen locations described in the scenario. Indeed, the complex itself feels quite small, not large enough for the plot at the heart of A Fallen Star for all that the author is trying to tell. The plot of the scenario itself–essentially children wanting revenge–feels just a little similar to the plot of ‘Assault on the Sky-High Tower’, the scenario to be found in the back of the Mutant Crawl Classics Roleplaying Game, to be run quite so soon after completing that Character Funnel. Ultimately, what the scenario really needed is the space to develop the plot and perhaps expand the size of the complex, as after all, the Seekers are expecting to discover a whole ancient city. It is though, something for the Game Master to think about in preparing to run A Fallen Star for all.

Although there is not a great deal to be found in terms of loot to be taken away, the scenario presents plenty of opportunity for the players to make Artefact Checks for their characters and so work what the complex is and how it works. There are also quite a few NPCs for them to interact with rather than just fighting them, giving both them and the Game Master opportunities to roleplay. In particular, the Game Master has one NPC that she should really nanny up–whether that is a la the films Mrs Doubtfire or Mary Poppins is up to the Game Master to decide–to get the most out of. Indeed, she should be the most memorable of all of the NPCs to be encountered in A Fallen Star for all.

Ultimately, the biggest issue with the scenario is that it explains the plot as it goes along. As with any scenario there is the plot that the players and their characters are aware of at the begining and then there is actually what going on–the true plot. A Fallen Star for all never gives the latter as a whole, but rather in a piecemeal fashion as the Game Master is expected to learn it at the same time as her players and their characters. It is a very frustrating way of learning said plot because it makes it all the more difficult for the Game Master to prepare the adventure. An experienced Game Master should not struggle with this, but an inexperienced Game Master may well do so.

Physically, A Fallen Star for all is nicely presented. The artwork is mostly good and does a decent job of imparting the weirdness of Terra A.D. The map of the complex is a little awkward to grasp in places, but a careful read through of the text should help the Game Master prevent that from becoming a problem.

As with Mutant Crawl Classics #1: Hive of the Overmind before it, A Fallen Star for all is a short adventure, running to just twenty pages in length. This should provide a playing group with two or three sessions worth of gaming, but A Fallen Star for all does feel as if it should have been longer, with a better explanation of what is going on and of what the plot is as well as room to develop the complex and perhaps plant more clues as to what the nature of the plot is. Perhaps it is because the plot is not explained as well as it should be that Mutant Crawl Classics #2: A Fallen Star for all feels underwhelming. Despite this, the scenario includes some decent enounters and opportunities for some fun roleplaying and in the hands of a good Game Master, Mutant Crawl Classics #2: A Fallen Star for all should provide a decent adventure.

Friday, 8 February 2019

Friday Filler: Action Cats!

Action Cats! – Spin Tales From the Secret World of Cat is a game in which the players take it in turn to be the Judge and pose questions to which the other players will provide answers from which the Judge will chose the most appropriate, the funniest, or simply the one that she likes. Now that means that it sounds like Apples to Apples or like its more adult and better-known cousin, Cards Against Humanity. Now whilst Action Cats! employs similar mechanics it does not have the often in poor taste humour of Cards Against Humanity, but it does have theme where Apples to Apples does not. That theme is cats, specifically the cats we keep as pets—or is that the cats that keep us as pets?—and the things they get up to that we have no idea about. Published by Twogetherstudios.com following a successful Kickstarter campaign, Action Cats! is designed to be played by three to six humans, aged nine and up, in no more than thirty minutes. 

Action Cats! consists of one-hundred-and-seventy-five full-colour cards. Four of these are rules cards, each of which explains how the game is played, but the bulk of the cards consist of the ‘Action/Cats’ cards. On the front of each of these is a photograph of a cat, each contributed by a Kickstarter backer, and they are in turns inscrutable, cute, majestic, funny, ugly, pretty, silly, surprised, but all individuals. The back of each ‘Action/Cats’ card is divided into a white section and a black section. The white section gives the first half of a sentence, the black section, the second half. The white section describes who the cat is, for example, “This cat is an innovator who “poops outside the box”… or “This cat is having a really bad…”. The black section describes what the cat does or how it reacts, for example, “…And they believe gravity must be constantly tested.” or “…And they just destroyed your favourite chair.”

To play the game, each player receives four cards. The Judge—the first Judge being determined by the amount of cat hair they are covered in*—draws the top card from the deck and shows the photograph of the cat on the front to the other players. The Judge then introduces the cat and asks each of the other players to tell a story about this cat. They then combine the white section and the black section from two of their cards to create a complete sentence, and when it is their turn, they tell a short story about the Judge’s cat based on that sentence. Once everyone has presented their Action cat story, embellishing and adding flair as necessary, the Judge picks the one that she liked. The winner receives cat card that the Judge drew and that everyone told stories about. Then the next player becomes the Judge and a new cat is drawn and new stories told, and so on and so on, until of course, nine cats have been played. The player with the most cat cards as trophies is the winner.
For example, as the Judge, Niamh introduces Trevor, a black and white cat with combination brush moustache and soul patch, who notably, is wearing a faux Viking helmet, complete with horns. She asks everyone to tell her something about Trevor. Alex explains that, “This cat is a heartbreaker… …And they’re always looking for a new challenge.” Louise says that, “This cat is a renowned expert on quantum mechanics… …On the sofa.” Dave explains that, “This cat makes the best biscuits in the county… …And has already sold the movie rights.” I say that, “This cat invented Dungeons & Dragons… And went directly to Gen Con.” Niamh replies, “Yeah… I can see Trevor having invested D&D. It’s the Viking helm.” She gives me Trevor as my trophy card.
Action Cats! is of course, simple to play, but it adds a tweak or two to the format. The first is that it uses both sides of the cards—essentially the front of each card and its photograph serves as the question, whilst the back provides the answers. The second is it provides a space—literally a grey space—for the players to improvise. In some card games like Action Cats!, spaces are left blank, typically in the questions, for the players to fill in. In Action Cats! the space to improvise is on the cards that the players give as answers, but they are not left blank. Instead, they are already filled in with a noun or term, such as “viking raider”, “the future”, or “kittens”, which is printed in grey rather than black or white. A player is free to use these as given, of course, but he is equally free to change them to fit the story he is telling. For example, in the winning story above, “This cat invented Dungeons & Dragons… And went directly to Gen Con.”, “Dungeons & Dragons” was in grey, as was the word “bank”, which I replaced with Gen Con in order to tell a better story. This is a nice feature, one that allows for player improvisation when they want to, whilst still leaving something there for players less comfortable with doing so—and of course, it enhances the storytelling aspect of Action Cats!

Physically, Action Cats! is nicely presented. The photographs of the cats are crisp and clear, the text on the cards is easy to read, and the rules are simple enough for the game to be pulled from the box and everyone to being playing in two minutes. The design of the answers on the back of the cards is obviously intended to make the players think about their stories as often the combination of the white section and black section on a card work better as an answer than does combining two cards. For example, “This cat was an infamous viking raider…” and “…But hates water.”. Which is a very good description of Trevor, but it never came up in play and nor can it because the answers are on the same card.

If there is an issue with Action Cats!, it is that it is very American in its terminology. Thankfully, the grey text provides room for a player to come up with something else, to adapt as well as to improvise. Otherwise, Action Cats! – Spin Tales From the Secret World of Cats is a fun, family game of feline fictions and fables with the right amount of pointers for both improvisation and simple storytelling.