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

Sunday, 24 January 2021

From Tales to Things

Out of Time is the first campaign for Tales from the Loop – Roleplaying in the ’80s That Never Was –and quite possibly the last. With Out of Time, Free League Publishing brings the award-winning roleplaying game based on the paintings of Simon Stålenhag to a close. Throughout this alternate childhood of the 1980s, young teenagers have explored rural small-town Sweden, but a rural small-town Sweden in which its streets, woods and fields, and skies and seas are populated by robots, gravitic tractors and freighters, strange sensor devices, and even creatures from the long past. To the inhabitants of this landscape, this is all perfectly normal—at least to the adults. To the children of this landscape, this technology is a thing of fascination, of wonderment, and of the strangeness that often only they can see. In Tales from the Loop, it is often this technology that is the cause of the adventures that the children—the Player Characters—will have away from their mundane, often difficult lives at home and at school. Taking place at the end of the decade, Out of Time takes place over the course of year, but has potential to be something more—and all because the campaign involves time travel…

Out of Time begins with a rash of pets and farm animals going missing, followed by flyers asking for information about lost pets going up across the neighbourhood, then rumours of a mechanical contraption seen roaming the fields outside the small communities of the Mälaren Islands. When the Player Characters investigate, they discover the first of many strange experiments taking place, experiments which get stranger and stranger as the campaign progresses. Later, their summer takes a decidedly strange, literally ‘Out of the Body’ turn, which reveals more of the Mystery, before the weather gets randomly worse and storms threaten to shut the region down. Ultimately, to solve the Mystery and even save the world, the Player Characters must sneak out during a lockdown and break into the Facility for Research in High Energy Physics—or ‘The Loop’—the world’s largest particle accelerator, constructed and run by the government agency, Riksenergi. There at last they can discover what links the storms out of nowhere which bring strange mud and sand, the repeated crashes of the magnetrine ship Susi Talvi, the weird flashbacks at their summer camp, and the 1969 moon landing.

The campaigns consists of a trilogy of scenarios—‘The Animal Ark’, ‘Summer Camp’, and ‘The Storm in the Hourglass’. The first takes place just before Christmas, 1988, which only serves to heighten the fractious state of their home lives, but at the same time, there are reports of missing animals, strange devices can be found scattered throughout the area, and a magnetrine ship appears out of a rip in the sky to crash again and again. ‘The Animal Ark’ is quite a short scenario, but does a good job of setting up the campaign, whilst giving the players scope to develop their characters’ home lives. There is advice for the Game Master and suggestions as to what can be added to reflect the heightened anxiety and emotions which seem to occur at Christmas, but many players will have had experiences of their own and can make suggestions of their own too. Essentially setting the scenario at Christmas serves to strengthen the two contrasting strands of a Tales from the Loop game, one being the Game Master presenting the weirdness of its alternative setting and the Mysteries of The Loop, the other being the players exploring the emotional, but mundane complexities of their characters’ home lives.

‘Summer Camp’ moves the time on to the summer of 1989 and the tradition of children being sent to summer camp. Here the Player Characters and other local children are kept busy with a range of outdoor activities, from hut building and gymnastics to orienteering and telling ghost stories round the fire. Things get strange though, when each of the Player Characters wakes up to find that not only is he not in his own body, but he is not in his own time—it is 1969! This presents a challenge for both character and player, as he must negotiate life in an unfamiliar period and negotiate unfamiliar relationships. This is in addition to the ups and downs of life at the summer camp, a strange old man in the woods, and weird dreams… Although replacement characters are provided for the players to roleplay in 1969, one of the options is for the Game Master to create the parents of the Player Characters from back in 1989. Here is a fantastic opportunity for the players to roleplay their characters’ parents and what they were like as children. However, this will take some extra effort upon the part of the Game Master to set up and develop, but the emotional payoff, as the Player Characters realise that their parents had Mysteries of their own to solve and weirdness going on around them just as their children do in 1989, is a great piece of storytelling…

‘The Storm in the Hourglass’ brings the campaign and the 1980s to a close. Set in the autumn of 1989, the storms back in ‘The Animal Ark’ appear again and begin to escalate, forcing the authorities to declare an emergency as the weather worsens. ‘Men in Black’ are seen around the Mälaren Islands as ‘time bubbles’, which when the Player Characters investigate, turn out to be unstable, appear across the region. There are indications too that the technology which has been a fixture of the Player Characters’ childhood is malfunctioning, including the Loop itself. The climax of the campaign will see the Player Characters hopping from time bubble to time bubble and breaking into the Graviton at the heart of the Loop, there to confront their antagonist and the threat she has created.

Of the three scenarios in Out of Time, ‘Summer Camp’ is the longest, mainly because there is a large number of camp activities and events to involve the Player Characters in before anything strange happens. Potentially, this may unbalance the tension between the ordinary and outré strands of a typical Tales from the Loop scenario. Probably the best solution would be for the Game Master to tailor the camp activities and events to the Player Characters to avoid this. As the campaign progresses though, it does grow in complexity, especially in the finale with all of the hopping from time bubble to time bubble.

As a campaign, Out of Time introduces an aspect intrinsically excluded from TTales from the Loop, and that is the potential death of a Player Character. In 1969, the Player Characters are threatened by the campaign’s antagonist with a gun—and she is not afraid to use it. Now in this sequence, it is not as much of an issue, since the Player Characters are not in their bodies, but it highlights the greater peril they face in the campaign. Of course, if the Game Master has decided to port the Player Characters back into their parents, it amplifies the peril, even threatening a Grandfather Paradox should one of the parents be shot and die… Back in 1989, there is the possibility that the Player Characters will fail and unlike in previous scenarios for Tales from the Loop, that has world-ending consequences…

The possibility of the Player Characters facing their death in Out of Time foreshadows another possible option for the campaign, which is to run it as a link between Tales from the Loop and its nineties sequel, Things from the Flood, where death for the Player Characters is a possibility. The authors suggest that the final part, ‘The Storm in the Hourglass’ be shifted forward to 1994 when the ‘Mälarö Leak’ occurred, hot, brown liquid bubbling up out of the ground, forcing an evacuation that would last for years, flooding the Loop, and precipitating to a scandal that would force the Swedish government to shut down Riksenergi and sell the Loop. The advice on this is perhaps somewhat underwritten and it does mean that there is a much longer gap between the events of ‘Summer School’ and ‘The Storm in the Hourglass’, during which time events will have moved out of the framework for Tales from the Loop. However, Out of Time does provide options which would bridge this gap.

The first option is a nonet of ‘Secret Places’, a Mystery Landscape which fits both the 1980s of Tales from the Loop and the 1990s of Things from the Flood. These range from the strange platforms, mechanical marvels, and scrap ships being seen throughout the area of ‘Castle in the Sky’ to the lone concrete foundation with a single hatch which appears having thrust up from the ground in ‘Extra Life’. All of the Mysteries come with an explanation as to the Truth, Hooks, Countdown, and the Antagonist, and can be easily slotted into a Game Master’s campaign or expanded as necessary. The second option is ‘The Mystery Machine’, a set of tables for inspiring and generating Mysteries of the Game Master’s own design, whilst the third, ‘The Mix-CD of Mysteries’ presents an octuple of Mysteries based on eight classic CD tracks from the nineties, such as Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit and Pulp’s Common People. Again, these come with an explanation as to the Truth, Hooks, Countdown, and the Antagonist, and can be easily slotted into a Game Master’s campaign or expanded as necessary. Again, just like the Mystery Landscape of ‘Secret Places’, they will need some development upon the part of the Game Master. However, most of the tracks listed come from the mid to late nineties and so thematically, do not quite bridge the gap between Tales from the Loop and Things from the Flood as well as a wider selection might do. In many cases, the mature nature of the lyrics and the Mysteries they inspire better suit the nineties and thus Things from the Flood than they do Tales from the Loop. Nevertheless, thematically they can be used to foreshadow the nineties and events of Things from the Flood and of course, inspire the Game Master to write her own using other lyrics.

Physically, Out of Time is as well presented as you would expect for a Tales from the Loop title. Of course, it highlights Simon Stålenhag’s fantastic artwork, but the writing is also good and the layout is clean, tidy, and accessible. All three scenarios follow the same format, making them easy to access and relatively easy to run.

It is great to finally have a campaign for Tales from the Loop, even if it is bringing the decade and the roleplaying game to a close. It should be no surprise that the campaign is challenging given it involves time travel, and although the plot is given a clear diagram for the Game Master to follow, it is complex and will require her to read through the plot with some care. With that preparation, Out of Time is a fantastic campaign, presenting the Player Characters with a challenging and enjoyably complex mystery, a mystery which brings Tales from the Loop to the conclusion it deserves.

Saturday, 23 January 2021

Hylophobia Horror

The Dark Forest – A Call of Cthulhu Scenario Set in the Modern Day is a scenario for Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition. Published by Stygian Fox Publishing, it is the second release from the publisher as part of its Patreon programme. The scenario is a missing persons case—that of a child at a detention and rehabilitation centre for youth offenders—which takes the Investigators to Michigan state’s Upper Peninsula and deep into the Hiawatha National Forest where they will confront ancient gods and the pernicious influence of the Mythos, all hiding behind a façade of corporate greed and child rehabilitation. The set-up of the scenario means that The Dark Forest could easily be run using Delta Green: The Roleplaying Game as it can Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition, although it introduces an agency of its own, The Advocacy, an independent consultancy which takes U.S. government contracts and investigates unusual events. However, the scenario does carry a ‘Contains Explicit Content’ warning and the advice that some players might find its mature themes disturbing, dealing as it does rape, molestation, and institutional violence against defenceless teenagers. 

The Dark Forest – A Call of Cthulhu Scenario Set in the Modern Day begins with the Investigators being contacted by Martina Love. Her son, Donte, is nearing the end of his sentence at the P.J. Nelson Training School for Boys in Michigan state’s Upper Peninsula, but she has not heard anything from him, the staff say that he is at an external facility, and she is becoming increasingly worried. She asks the Investigators to find her son for her, but when the Investigators begin to make enquiries, they quickly learn that the youth correctional facility is currently in lockdown because several of the boys have absconded. All this and more will need to be determined before the Investigators arrive in northern Michigan, where the mobile phone network is unpredictable and connection to the Internet even worse. Beyond this however, there is relatively little to be learned through the research methods traditional to Lovecraftian investigative roleplay and consequently, the scenario has just the single handout. An alternative set-up for The Dark Forest is to have the Investigators be teachers at the P.J. Nelson Training School for Boys. This is a stronger set-up if the Keeper wants to run the scenario as a one-shot, but does require the Keeper to prepare and present a lot of information that the teachers would know upfront because they work at the facility, rather than delivering them piece by piece as Investigators coming from the outside conduct their enquiries. 

Once the Investigators get to Hiawatha Township and the P.J. Nelson Training School for Boys, the investigation takes place in three stages—interviews at the prison, at the prison’s work camps where the boys undergo vocational training for life beyond their sentence, and with the prison’s de facto warden, Bill Nelson. The Investigators are likely discover that the staff and inmates have grown used to the oddities of life in and around the Hiawatha National Forest, and are not necessarily hiding anything sinister, but simply corrupt. (Well, the scenario is set in a privatised prison system after all.) A radically transformative and horrid encounter with one of the missing boys definitely points to the former though, that is, if the Investigators survive the encounter, as it comes at a moment when they are unaware of what is to come and thus unprepared. The scenario does not deal with the fallout from this, but it will point towards something going on deep in the forest. 

Initially, there is an ethereal feel to the Investigators’ incursions into the forest, but as their search for answers continues and takes them it deeper and deeper, the feel becomes darker and darker, as well as literally as the foliage and canopy thickens, and the light fades… Ultimately, the Investigators will confront the evil at the heart of the scenario, a confrontation which will take them into the Finnish equivalent of the ‘Upside Down’. The change from the here to the ‘Upside Down’ is nicely handled, but the confrontation itself, although climatic, is one note—a fight. No other means of defeating the threat are suggested and the likelihood is that the antagonist will defeat the Investigators unless they are forewarned and thus well-armed. Unfortunately, that is not necessarily likely since Investigators do not have the opportunity to learn very much about what it is that they are facing, and less so if the Investigators are teachers at the P.J. Nelson Training School for Boys. The advice is that the Keeper should allow the Investigators to retreat and make a plan, before coming back to face the threat. Notably, at the end of the scenario, there is a Sanity reward for retreating from the threat, which is only slightly less than for defeating it. 

Physically, The Dark Forest – A Call of Cthulhu Scenario Set in the Modern Day needs an editor. 

Yet in other ways, The Dark Forest is a superbly presented book. It is done in quite a rich palette of earthy colours and the artwork is, for the most part, excellent. Besides the absence of editing, the book could have been better organised in places, but that is something that the Keeper can easily adjust to. 

As interesting as The Dark Forest is in reinterpreting the forces and influence of the Mythos through another mythology and pantheon, that of Finnish myths of the Kalevala, the execution is ultimately underwhelming. The Investigators are never quite able to prepare for, or understand, what they will face in the Finnish equivalent of the ‘Upside Down’, and the singular solution of violence is disappointing. The Dark Forest – A Call of Cthulhu Scenario Set in the Modern Day starts strong with an intriguing mystery and its presentation of mature themes is well-handled and there are some creepy scenes, but its dénouement leaves much to be desired.

Friday, 22 January 2021

Blue Collar Sci-Fi Horror III

It has been almost thirty-five years since the publisher of Britain’s longest running Science Fiction comic, 2000 AD, dabbled in the field of roleplaying. Both times, it was with solo adventure books, first with the Diceman comic, and then with You are Maggie Thatcher: a dole-playing game, but that changes with the initial release of a new publication from Rebellion. This is Adventure Presents, essentially a complete roleplaying game and scenario in a magazine format. The first issue is Tartarus Gate – A Roleplaying Game of Sci-Fi Horror, from the designers of Spire: The City Must Fall. This consists of a simple roleplaying game and a full, three-session scenario designed for up to six players and the Game Master for which everyone will need three six-sided dice and some pencils. The Game Master will need to do some careful preparation, but Tartarus Gate – A Roleplaying Game of Sci-Fi Horror comes with everything necessary to play—six ready-to-play pregenerated Player Characters, a handful of NPCs, and some absolutely gorgeous cartography and art.

The setting for Tartarus Gate is the year 2130. For years, Earth has been dominated by the OBOL Corporation and in search of a better future—or at least proper employment, the Player Characters have taken positions as unpaid interns aboard the transport ship Charon, entrusted with shepherding cargo from Earth to the Tartarus Gate Waystation. Six months into the journey, they are awoken from their Deep Sleep Pods and after recovering from the process, they are given their first task. Visual feeds from the lower decks have gone down, but before they did, the computers registered that something was moving. All the interns have to do is descend to the lower decks, restore the visual feeds, and ensure that there is nothing moving down there that there should not be… The Charon is six months’ travel from the nearest help, so it is down to the interns. With luck, they can impress their employer and make their temporary employment permanent.

The format of Tartarus Gate is important. The centre twenty-two pages are intended to be pulled out. They start with the six four-page character sheets, each of which includes a briefing, the character description, equipment list, and deck plans of the Charon. Then they followed by the various map handouts, all done in three dimensions and full colour, the four-page explanation of the rules for Tartarus Gate, and the eight-page GM Reference Book. This leaves the other twenty-two pages of Tartarus Gate devoted to the actual scenario.

A character or intern in Tartarus Gate is simply defined. He has four Abilities—Toughness, Agility, Smarts, and Wits—each ranging in value between one and four. He has a value for his Health and his Resolve—his willpower, the former as high as twenty, the latter as high as twelve. He also has three Drives, for example, Hasty, Selfless, and Haunted. Each character has a background and a given role, such as Veteran or True Believer, and an excellent illustration. It is left up to the player to name the character.

Mechanically, Tartarus Gate is simple and straightforward, its key mechanic, known as the ‘Adventure system’, best described as ‘roll three and keep two’—mostly. For his character to undertake an action, a player rolls three six-sided dice and removes one die. Which die depends upon the rating of the Ability being tested. If the Ability has a value of one, the highest die value is removed; if two, the die with the middle value is removed; if three, the lowest die value is removed; and if four, no die is removed, and all are counted. Either way, the total value of the remaining dice needs to equal or exceed the value of a Target Number to succeed, the Target Numbers ranging from six or doable to twelve or extremely difficult. The Game Master can adjust the difficulty of a task by temporarily increasing or lowering the Player Character’s Ability value. A supporting Player Character can help another and so temporarily increase the supported Player Character’s Ability, whilst the acting Player Character can spend Resolve to also increase his Ability value. Resolve can be regained by a Player Character pursuing one or more of his Drives and in Tartarus Gate, and may be reset at the beginning of some chapters, as can Health.

Combat in Tartarus Gate consists of opposed rolls. The lower roll is subtracted from the higher roll and the remaining value deducted from the losing combatant’s Toughness. Combat is designed—much like the rules in general—to be fast and in the case of combat, potentially deadly.

Tarsus Gate as a scenario is broken down into three chapters. In the first chapter, the Player Characters will waken from their Deep Sleep Pods and put through their paces as a ‘recovery process’, much like the first though steps of a video game as a player is taught the controls and what each button does. Given their assignment by Assisti, the ship’s AI, they make their way to the engine room and there they have their first and then second strange encounter—the former with a bloodless, mangled corpse, the latter with a figure from Earth’s recent and wrought past… This figure will come to dominate the mystery which lies in the bowels of the Charon and will be revealed as the Player Characters moves from one chapter to the next.

It should be no surprise that the plot and structure to Tartarus Gate is linear. After all, the Player Characters have been tasked with going from one end of a spaceship to another and the scenario is quite short. However, there is still plenty for them to do and explore, and interact with the handful of NPCs the Game Master has to portray. As well as the detailed NPCs to run, the Game Master also has events to throw at the Player Characters in every location.

The chapter breaks are also used as moments of reflection, for the players to check how the game is going and perhaps a chance for them to change their characters’ Drives if necessary. Tartarus Gate also makes clear that its play is meant to be fun—for everyone, and that if anyone is made uncomfortable, then he should raise his hand and say so. 

Physically, Tartarus Gate is very nicely presented. It is well written, but what really stands out is the artwork—which is as good as you would expect from a publisher which puts out 2000 AD each week. If the illustrations are good, then the maps are even better. Overall, the production values, for what is just a ‘magazine roleplaying game’ are stunning.

Adventure Presents Tartarus Gate – A Roleplaying Game of Sci-Fi Horror is intended as a first roleplaying game and for the most part succeeds. Its combination of a simple, straightforward plot, set-up, and quick mechanics certainly supports that, as does the vibrantly exciting presentation. However, whilst it works as a first roleplaying game for those new to roleplaying, it is a slightly different matter for the prospective Game Master. If the Game Master has played a roleplaying game or two before, then not as much of an issue, but if the Game Master is coming to this totally anew, it will be more difficult for her. For the experienced Game Master, readying and running Tartarus Gate is relatively easy.

Adventure Presents Tartarus Gate – A Roleplaying Game of Sci-Fi Horror is an impressive first issue, an attractive package that is easy to pick up, prepare, and run—it could be done in thirty minutes!

Monday, 18 January 2021

Jonstown Jottings #35: The Quacken

 Much like the Miskatonic Repository for Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition, the Jonstown Compendium is a curated platform for user-made content, but for material set in Greg Stafford’s mythic universe of Glorantha. It enables creators to sell their own original content for RuneQuest: Roleplaying in Glorantha, 13th Age Glorantha, and HeroQuest Glorantha (Questworlds). This can include original scenarios, background material, cults, mythology, details of NPCs and monsters, and so on, but none of this content should be considered to be ‘canon’, but rather fall under ‘Your Glorantha Will Vary’. This means that there is still scope for the authors to create interesting and useful content that others can bring to their Glorantha-set campaigns.

—oOo—


What is it?
The Quacken presents a leviathan monster and associated scenario for use with RuneQuest: Roleplaying in Glorantha.

It is forty-five page, full colour, 3.29 MB PDF.

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

Where is it set?
The Quacken is set in any coastal area or sea area around Genertela, although the default location for the associated scenario, ‘Clash with the Quacken’, is Mirrorsea Bay, off the coast of Esrolia.

If the Game Master really wants to play up the inspiration for ‘Clash with the Quacken’, it could easily be moved to the coast of Prax and involve the members of the Sun County Militia from Tales of the Sun County Militia: Sandheart Volume 1 and its sequels.

Who do you play?
No specific Player Character types are required to play ‘Clash with the Quacken’, although sailors, fishermen, and anyone with the Darkness or Water Runes may have an advantage. A Shaman or anyone with Spirit Sight will also be useful and any good Orlanthi should relish the opportunity to confront the sea again.

What do you need?
The Quacken requires RuneQuest: Roleplaying in Glorantha. The RuneQuest: Glorantha Bestiary may be useful for details of Ducks.

What do you get?
The last in the ‘Monster of the Month’ series, The Quacken presents a terrible creature, one which brings the land and the sea together, created during the War of the Gods when the Sea Tribe invaded the Earth, Magasta and an unnamed goddess. Essentially, giant squid with the beak and head of a duck, including feathers, and potentially, the bad temper of each. They notoriously aggressive, especially the females after they have come onto land to lay their eggs. Such females enter a state called ‘stupmi’ and vigorously drive off or consume anyone or anything which they see as a threat. Where females die after suffering through ‘stupmi’, males do not and may undergo bouts of it again and again. Males under its effects have been known to attack ships. However, the dead body of a Quacken can be harvested, its flesh sweet and best fried, the beak as a mild stimulant for Newtlings, the eyes for their oils, and their teeth as Death talismans!

In addition to fully detailing what is, really, a weird leviathan, The Quacken includes a scenario ‘Clash with the Quacken’. This is coastal set scenario in which the Player Characters are hired to come to the help of Stone Dock Village. The village chieftain has been having terrible dreams of the ocean depths, merfolk, and a crimson, and this comes at time when the fishermen of the village are bringing in reduced catches. He fears that worse is to come and wants the Player Characters to discover the cause of what has beset the village. This will see the Player Characters going to sea, dealing with a very grumpy and direct shaman, and protecting Stone Dock, the huge slab of primordial rock  that is the village wyter.

The inspiration for the scenario is obvious, and whilst it does draw from Clash of the Titans, ‘Clash with the Quacken’ is very much its own, making it an epic confrontation between the land and the sea. It does need some careful staging in certain scenes—especially in the spirit world, but the scenario is well supported with some solid NPCs for the Game Master to roleplay. Although, multiple versions of the Quacken are provided in order to scale the final confrontation to the power levels of the Player Characters, ‘Clash with the Quacken’ is still a challenging scenario.

Is it worth your time?
YesThe Quacken is a ridiculous idea. I mean, whoever would have thought of combining a Duck and a Squid? And yet... and yet, you know you are just waiting for someone to yell, “Unleash the Quacken!”
NoThe Quacken is a ridiculous idea, like the ‘surf and turf’ equivalent of a Turducken
. I mean, no. Really no. Let’s not even go there.
MaybeThe Quacken definitely falls under ‘Your Glorantha May Vary’. In fact, it probably strays into your ‘Your Glorantha DOES Vary’, but Glorantha has Ducks, so why not Duck-Squids (or Squid-Ducks)?

Sunday, 17 January 2021

Whimsy and Wonder, and Yet?

Neverland is that faraway land where Peter Pan and the Lost Boys frolic and play, fairies gather in revelries, Captain James Hook connives and seeks vengeance against Peter Pan for cutting off his hand, the mermaids croon and scheme—and of course, children never grow up. As told in J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan; or, the Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up, it is also the island and land to which Peter Pan brought the Darling children—Wendy, John, and Michael—to be the family that he never had. It is a story of growing up and accepting the responsibilities of becoming an adult, and putting childish things behind you, that is, part from Peter Pan himself. In the process, they lose the way to Neverland. In other tellings of the tale, Peter Pan becomes a story about what is lost—which of course, is childhood—and then reclaiming it. Yet what if the adults could find their way to Neverland, three adults in particular, and grow old? What if Wendy, John, and Michael Darling found their back to Neverland? What would they become? Would their presence change the island? Would Peter Pan notice? These are some of the themes explored in Neverland: A Fantasy Role-Playing Setting, a hexcrawl designed for use with Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition.

Neverland: A Fantasy Role-Playing Setting is published by Andrew McMeels Publishing—best known for publishing ZWEIHÄNDER Grim & Perilous RPG—and features a roleplaying interpretation of Neverland, richly detailed across twenty-four hexes, over one hundred monsters, creatures, and NPCs, fourteen or factions, and numerous locations. The latter includes coral caves, Gnome hamlets, the Home Underground where Peter Pan and his Lost Boys have made their hideout, an inverted home to a lich, an amphitheatre dedicated to mermaid performances, Captain Hook’s ship the Jolly Roger, and the very Crocodile who hunts for the rest of Captain Hook, which can actually be explored as if it was an actual dungeon!

From the outset, Neverland: A Fantasy Role-Playing Setting is very much a book for the Dungeon Master, beginning with a very clear explanation of who’s who on Neverland and the various factions on the island. They include all three of the Darlings—all grown up, Peter Pan and his Lost Boys, Captain Hook and his crew, and much more. There is a wide array of factions on the island, all of them drawn from Peter Pan; or, the Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up, but many of them unlikely to be unfamiliar to the players since they are more likely to be familiar with works based on the play rather than the play itself. It should be noted that in drawing from the original source, Neverland: A Fantasy Role-Playing Setting also updates one or two of them, since attitudes towards certain groups and words have changed in the century or so since the original play was performed.

Rules also cover travelling and exploring across the island—including, if the Player Characters can get sufficient fairy dust, the ability to fly, and using the Mermaids’ secret whirlpools and the Lost Boys’ hollow trees, the island’s daily cycle and movement of the Crocodile. Fun and recreation includes games of Hurling, Gnome Fairs, and Pirate Parties, whilst advanced rules cover chase sequences, and the dangers of harvesting from the dead—also pointing to a scarcity of resources on the island, and of harnessing the powers of a star, which can be used by non-spellcasters to cast spells appropriate to their personality. The huge Cast covers numerous monsters and creatures, as well as the various characters from Peter Pan, including the eponymous hero, the Darlings, Captain Hook and his crew, and more…

In comparison, the section devoted to the island of Neverland feels a little short, with just the one page devoted to each of its twenty-four hexes. Each page includes a larger view of the hex in question—taken from the larger isometric map of Neverland, a short description, a note of the timed events which occur twice daily, and a quintet of tables which can be used to generate encounters. These can occur every hour, and since it takes four hours—or a Clock in ‘island time’—to cross a hex, every hex can be very busy. Many of the hexes are also the locations of key places on the island, and whilst these are mentioned, they are not cross-referenced, making the flipping between the two in the book that little bit awkward. The various locations, whether a dungeon or a ship or an inverted tower or a mine, and so forth, are each given a page each, so feel a little more expansive than the pages devoted to individual hexes.

Besides various tables which provide adventure hooks, animals, fairy trades and tricks, locations, loot, Lost Boy traps, Mermaid games, objects, trinkets and trophies, and more, the book comes with ‘Tales from Neverland’, a set of eight short stories presented as extra chapters to the original Peter Pan story. They are each a very quick read, and can serve as inspiration, hooks, clues, and the like. They do add some flavour and perhaps a little context for the Dungeon Master, but nothing more. Rounding out Neverland: A Fantasy Role-Playing Setting is not only a bibliography, but also a sketchbook. This collection of sketches, finished pieces, and notes nicely charts the development of the look of the book and its art. Its inclusion undoubtedly adds to the charm of Neverland: A Fantasy Role-Playing Setting.

However, as rich and as well-presented as Neverland: A Fantasy Role-Playing Setting actually is, there is a handful questions that it does not effectively address. These include, “What do I do with this?”, “How do I get there?”, and “What do I play?”. There is some initial discussion of the book’s themes, but it is all too brief. Then, at the end of the book, the author provides six ready-to-play pre-generated Player Characters, ranging from a Big Game Hunter or Ranger and Child Pickpocket or Thief to Holy Orphan or Cleric and Stranded Pirate or Fighter. All of these are done as Humans and all have reasons for being on the island, and together the hextet feel just a very little like the adventurers from the Dungeons & Dragons cartoon in being from the ordinary world and cast into the land of dreams that is Neverland. They also suggest reasons why Player Characters might end up in Neverland, but beyond this, there is a lack of advice for Dungeon Master on what Classes and types of characters the players might play, how they might get to Neverland, and what they do when they get there. To some degree this is offset with tables of random and specific adventure ideas, plot hooks, and rumours, but whilst the author states that they are there if the Dungeon Master is stuck as to what to do next, what if the Dungeon Master is stuck at the start?

Another issue is with the monsters. Including variations, there are over one hundred of them, and whilst that gives Neverland and the Dungeon Master variety aplenty, it does feel like a lot for a twenty-four hex hexcrawl and the likelihood is that many of them the Dungeon Master may never bring into play. Now that is not necessarily a bad thing, but with that many entries in the bestiary or cast list as Neverland: A Fantasy Role-Playing Setting terms it, not all of them are given the descriptions that they deserve, forcing the Dungeon Master to rely upon their illustrations to describe them. Which is disappointing.

Physically, Neverland: A Fantasy Role-Playing Setting is a beautiful book, done in rich blocks of greys and blacks, reds and green. The layout is crisp and clean and the book itself is an easy read. The cartography is also good. However, the book could have been better organised, especially when it comes to cross referencing the locations in the text and the placement of the random tables which come in the middle of the book rather than at the end where again they might be easier to find.

Neverland: A Fantasy Role-Playing Setting is a rich and detailed setting, one which takes the whimsy and wonder of the source material, Peter Pan; or, the Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up, and makes it somewhere that the Player Characters can explore and perhaps discover the darker secrets of the island. It is beautifully presented, but ultimately, it needs more effort upon the part of the Dungeon Master to bring to the table and to draw her players in than perhaps it should.

Saturday, 16 January 2021

An Alpha Primer

The Alpha Quadrant Sourcebook is the second setting supplement for Modiphius Entertainment’s Star Trek Adventures roleplaying game following on from the Beta Quadrant Sourcebook. It is home to Federation member worlds such as Betazed and Tellar Prime, but its dominant powers are the Klingon Empire and Romulan Star Empire. However, these are not the focus of the Alpha Quadrant Sourcebook, which pushes out to the frontier where fractious borders exist between the Federation and the Cardassian Union, the Breen Confederacy, and the Tholian Assembly, whilst the Ferengi Alliance pursues between them all. Further, the Alpha Quadrant Sourcebook pushes out to the nexus of the conflict in the region—the planet Bajor, Deep Space 9, and the Wormhole (although the supplement is not a Deep Space 9 sourcebook)—and on a further year into 2372 from the 2371 of Star Trek Adventures and the Beta Quadrant Sourcebook. Although there are mentions of them here and there, the Alpha Quadrant Sourcebook is not a sourcebook for a campaign setting during the periods of Star Trek: The Original Series or Star Trek: Enterprise.

The slimmest book to date for Star Trek Adventures, the Alpha Quadrant Sourcebook is essentially a series of briefings given by Benjamin Sisko, the commander of Deep Space 9, to a Starfleet starship captain assigned to the quadrant. In turn, it covers the recent history of the quadrant with the recent liberation of Bajor from Cardassian occupation by the Bajoran Resistance, the discovery of the Wormhole through to the Gamma Quadrant, incursions by the strange forces of the Dominion from the other side of the Wormhole, and the Klingon Empire’s withdrawal from the Khitomer Accords which have maintained peace between the Klingons and the Federation for decades. Three worlds of the Federation are covered in some detail, Betazed, Denobula—probably the prime section of information for a Star Trek: Enterprise campaign in the Alpha Quadrant Sourcebook, and Tellar Prime, the latter completing coverage of the founding members of the United Federation of Planets. These are presented in some detail, not just Betazoid physiology, but also their political structure, legal system, culture, important locations, and more. There is a lot of nice background here, such as the Temple of the Great Houses where information about the no longer existing Great Betazoid Houses is kept, but which can be restored if descendants can be found; Quok’lox Trash Island on Denobula where everything on planet that cannot be recycled is kept and is rumoured to be home to Denobulans living apart from the rest of the planet; and the difficulties of Tellarite-Andorian relations, the former with their love of antagonistic debate, the latter with their propensity for martial action. Bajor, the Cardassian Union, the Ferengi Alliance, the Tzenkethi Coalition, the Breen Confederacy, and the Tholian Assembly are all given similar treatment, so for Bajor it looks at the effects of the Cardassian Occupation, the Provisional Government, Bajoran spirituality, whilst Deep Space 9 and the Wormhole are detailed under Places of interest. Full stats are given for Starbase Deep Space 9 as well. Included in the background to the Cardassian Union are details of Maquis, the resistance movement that resulted from the Federation-Cardassian treaty of 2370 which created the DMZ and saw some colony worlds transferred to the Cardassian Union, whilst the Rules of Acquisition are discussed in the section on the Ferengi Alliance. Various worlds of the Cardassian Union and the Ferengi Alliance are also described.

From the Arbazan and the flight-cable, bewinged Aurelians—complete with rules for flight—to the Ktarians and the Zaranites, the Alpha Quadrant Sourcebook introduces eleven new species available as playable options, including the Ferengi, whilst the inclusion of the feline Caitains and the tripedal Edosians are sure to please fans of the Star Trek: The Animated Series. Some ten starships are detailed for the Cardassians, the Ferengi, the Breen, the Talarians, and the Tholians. These range from the Cardassion Hideki-Class Corvette and Keldon-Class Heavy Cruiser to the Spinner and Weaver vessels of the Tholian Assembly. As in other supplements for Star Trek Adventures, these are poorly illustrated, or not all, and as with the Beta Quadrant Sourcebook, there are no starships given for the Federation, but again, this is less of an issue.

Rounding out the Alpha Quadrant Sourcebook, its ‘Encounters and Adversaries’ explore some campaign ideas and present various NPCs across the Demilitarized Zone, the Badlands, and the Federation Border. As well as background they come with encounter seeds and campaign ideas, such as a Maquis-themed campaign and a Federation Border campaign, and write-ups of major NPCs such as Gul Dukat, Ro Laren, Michael Eddington, and Thomas Riker. These are all useful and the campaign ideas point towards the potential of the Alpha Quadrant and the Alpha Quadrant Sourcebook.

There is a wealth of detail in the Alpha Quadrant Sourcebook, especially when it focuses upon the various polities at the far reaches of the quadrant and their particular worlds. The write-ups of the Betazed, Denobula, and Tellar Prime are all decent, as are those of the Cardassian Union and Ferengi Alliance, and the campaign ideas and adversaries all support the material in the supplement. Yet, the Alpha Quadrant Sourcebook is far from perfect. Its problems are fivefold. First, it is not the Alpha Quadrant Sourcebook, but the ‘Alpha Quadrant Sourcebook in 2372’, so there is no timeline and no sense of history to the region as if nothing really happened until recently. Second, it covers just a handful of worlds and third, whilst it gives numerous new species to play or use as NPCs, it does not give them a great deal of background or details of their worlds. In many cases, they are not illustrated either, leaving the Game Master to work with some really underwritten descriptions—for example, the reader is left with no idea what the Tzenkethi look like. Fourth, there is an avoidance of the technical elements that a Science Fiction setting and roleplaying game would seem to want. So, in addition to the lack of a timeline and the lack of illustrations for certain species, starships are not illustrated when detailed, worlds are pictured, but not mapped, and so on. Fifth, the writing is often unengaging, especially in the case of the sidebars, which all too often add flavour but not substance.

Physically, the Alpha Quadrant Sourcebook is a decent looking book. There are some inconsistencies in the layout, but otherwise the book is generally well-written and decently illustrated—though not always effectively—with a fully painted images. The layout is done 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 background 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.

Ultimately, just like the Beta Quadrant Sourcebook, the Alpha Quadrant Sourcebook has much to cover—and it is a lot—but it is not quite up to the job. Again, there are whole sections, like the Cardassian Union and the Ferengi Alliance, the Badlands and the Demilitarised Zone, which could have had whole sourcebooks and campaigns of their own devoted to them, and as good as the information is on say, the Cardassian Union and the Ferengi Alliance, the Alpha Quadrant Sourcebook does not feel comprehensive. Further, the focus on the one period of Deep Space 9 and relations with the Cardassian Union and Bajor, do leave the treatment of both the rest of the Alpha Quadrant and its history lacking by comparison. The Alpha Quadrant Sourcebook is interesting and informative, but it never gets away from feeling like an introduction to a sourcebook on Deep Space 9 or the Cardassian Union, and again, the Game Master is left wanting more.

Friday, 15 January 2021

Friday Fantasy: The Coral Tower of Naaman al-Raman

The abandoned wizard’s tower is almost as much a cliché for Dungeons & Dragons as the dungeon below ground is, but the joy of coming to an abandoned wizard’s tower (or indeed, a dungeon) in Dungeons & Dragons is seeing what the author has done with it to make it is own, to make it stand out, and to make it different. The Coral Tower of Naaman al-Raman is an adventure designed for Player Characters of Fifth Level by Louis Counter for use with Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition which involves an abandoned wizard’s tower. It scores points for originality by not being just another run-of-the-mill abandoned wizard’s tower ready to be dropped into the cod-medieval setting of the Dungeon Master’s choice, but by being set in Zakhara, the Land of Fate, from TSR, Inc.’s setting inspired by One Thousand and One Nights and the Hollywood cinema which drew from it, as detailed in Al-Qadim: Arabian Adventures and Al-Qadim: Land of Fate. This places it to the southeast of Faerûn, the Forgotten Realms, with the Coral Tower of the title being specifically in the foothills of the Furrowed Mountains southwest of the village of Talv, some days travel to the southeast of Muluk, ‘The City Of Kings’. Of course, the scenario can be moved elsewhere in Al-Qadim, and even elsewhere bearing in mind that the scenario involves Djinn, Efreet, Dao, and Marid—as well as their rivalries, relationships, and politics, which firmly place the scenario in Al-Qadim, or at least settings with similar Arabic elements.

The Coral Tower of Naaman al-Raman is designed for Player Characters of Fifth Level and does not require any characters of specific Classes. That said, The Coral Tower of Naaman al-Raman is an abandoned wizard’s tower, so arcane spellcasters will be useful and since the scenario involves Djinn, Efreet, Dao, and Marid—as well as their rivalries, relationships, and politics, a Sha’ir will be useful. Three adventure hooks are given to get the Player Characters involved. Two involve the Player Characters being hired to recover a gem known as The Liquid Heart, one by a Marid, Oshaba Abu Zobaah, the other by a Dao, Ynadin. The third suggests that the Player Characters are attracted by the possibility of the treasures to be found in the Coral Tower of Naaman al-Raman. These do feel underwhelming, especially the third, and especially given that the hook does not suggest or hint as to what treasures might be found within.

The Coral Tower of Naaman al-Raman of course stands alone. Its lower floors have been occupied by an evil shepherd and his guard ‘dogs’ and both they and one or two middle floors have suffered from being exposed to the elements. The lower floors because the shepherd and his guard ‘dogs’ do not care and the middle floors appear to have suffered some kind of explosion. Could that have been the cause of Naaman al-Raman’s disappearance? The explosion has also caused a break in the tower—which is still standing despite the break—and this likely to initially impede the Player Characters’ progress until they can find a way up. Fortunately, the means is provided for them to bridge the gap. It is worth the effort, for this is where the tower gets interesting and more detailed. There is a strong sense of the elements and the elemental races native to Al-Qadim to the descriptions given of various rooms and locations, with paintings which appear to give off the natural light of the elemental regions they depict. It has a slightly weird, almost ethereal feel to it in one or two of the rooms, and whilst there are monsters, the Player Characters will find themselves being faced with puzzles just as much fights. There is also plenty of treasure to be had, though none of it comes in the form of coins and indeed, very little of it in the form of traditional magical items. That may be disappointing to some players and their characters. It would have been nice if a few more the books to be found within the tower had been given titles.

Ultimately, The Coral Tower of Naaman al-Raman is lacking a climax. Not necessarily a final boss battle, but at least the option for the Dungeon Master to stage one. With a Marid and a Dao both wanting The Liquid Heart, a standoff between the two seems like a great way to end the Player Characters’ explorations. Plus, The Liquid Heart is also underwhelming in the sense that it is at best a MacGuffin—but it could have been more, perhaps with its own power and then the opportunity for the  Player Characters to wield some of that power (or even The Liquid Heart to wield one of them!). 

Physically, the layout for The Coral Tower of Naaman al-Raman is basic, but tidily presented. It does need an edit and behind its decent cover, the scenario is unillustrated. Instead, it is left up to the floor plans of the tower to break up the text. These are drawn by the ever-dependable Dyson Logos and so are good as you would expect. However, the floor plans for his ‘shattered wizard tower’ are released under a free, royalty-free, commercial licence which does mean that they are not original and they will be used elsewhere (such as ‘The Tower of Jayúritlal’ in The Excellent Travelling Volume Issue No. 11). There is thus, a certain familiarity to them, a chance—a slim one, but a chance that they might be recognised. However, what is interesting about their use here and elsewhere, is just like the very nature of the abandoned wizard’s tower, seeing how another author approaches them and details them.

Where The Coral Tower of Naaman al-Raman really works is its use of themes and setting, the elements and the elemental races native to Al-Qadim, to detail the various rooms and locations of the Coral Tower. It enforces that setting as does the author’s tying in of Dao and Marid rivalries, relationships, and politics, and suggested link to the the Ruined Kingdoms campaign. It suffers though in terms of Player Character motivations and potential storytelling elements, but a good Dungeon Master can address those. Overall, The Coral Tower of Naaman al-Raman is a thematically enjoyable take upon the traditional abandoned wizard’s tower that needs a little more development in places.