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

Friday 26 March 2010

Dead Dull Game. Dead Dull Publisher.

In some strange compulsion, every few years I buy myself an RPG published by Palladium Books. It is not even as if I really like the publisher’s titles anyway. Oh I do like some of its games – Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Other Strangeness and Systems Failure, the bug invasion millennium RPG for example, but several factors about each of Palladium Books’ other titles irritate me intensely.

The lack of an index is not only an irritant; it also shows that the publisher fundamentally does not know what a roleplaying game actually is. As an artefact itself, an RPG is two things – a work of fiction and a technical reference manual, so in an ideal world it needs to be easily and quickly referred to whilst at the game table. Which would then take something as easy as an index and some kind of logical layout. Unfortunately we do not live in an ideal world, because in nearly thirty years of publishing, Palladium Books has yet to release an RPG with either.

The very latest RPG from Palladium Books adheres to these, self imposed low standards. The layout might be clean and tidy, but the contents are organised according to some form of logic only understood at Palladium, because no other publisher employs it. The effect of which, when combined with the absence of an index renders the task of finding anything in Dead Reign: Zombie Role Playing Game with any semblance of haste akin to… well if Heracles had been given a thirteenth labour, this would be it. Further to keep Dead Reign to Palladium’s undemanding standards, it also does not come with a character sheet – oh wait – it does come with a character sheet. Now that is an improvement. An unexpected improvement. Pity though about the lack of advice for the GM about running the game, but to expect too many improvements… Anyway, this is a zombie game and we have all seen a zombie movie or two, so who needs advice about running a zombie game?

So yes, Dead Reign is a game set in a post apocalyptic America – and only a post apocalyptic America – following the rise of the dead. These are not the traditional brain munching zombies that spread their love through a bite, but rather they feed on the spark of energy that makes the living human. Should a victim fall prey to their clutches, the zombies will kill them and feed on this energy, released when the victim dies, the new dead victim rising moments later as a member of the corpse cortege. For most of the time, the typical zombie remains dormant, but noise and irregular activity will attract them, and once a zombie can sense that spark, he will let out a moan that will awaken other undead to join the hunt.

The majority of the zombies encountered in Dead Reign are “Slouchers,” shambling and mindless bar the call of the hunting moan. Other more rare types include the limbless “Crawlers,” “Fast Attack Zombies,” and “Flesh Eating Zombies,” for those that like their more traditional shambling undead. Some mimic what they did before they rose, the “Pattern Zombie,” which constantly repeats actions it performed in life, whilst the “Mock Zombie” not only clings to some semblance of its former life, but also believes itself to be still alive. Lastly the “Thinker Zombie” is self aware and capable of using tools including firearms. What these offer is variations upon a theme, and what connects them is not just their collective desire to feed on that special energy that makes us human, but also the fact that you can bash, hack and shoot the crap out of them.

And this being a Palladium Books title, then there are rules and rules, and then some more rules for bashing, hacking and shooting members of the cadaver cavalcade. With the SDC (Structural Damage Capacity) or hit points that don’t matter given for every location coupled with rules for called shots (not sure where they are exactly, because there is no index, but I know I read about them) and lengthy weapon lists and everyone can get really particular about where exactly they want to bash, hack, and slash. Of course this is necessary because the zombies are difficult to stop, the easiest method being to take out the brain.

Zombies are not the only dangers that survivors face in the Zombie Apocalypse. Aside from the obvious – death, disease, and dog packs, Retro Savages are survivors who believe that the Zombie Apocalypse is the wrath of god and spurn their use of modern age technology. Worse still, they consider the zombies to be “God’s Children” and willingly sacrifice survivors who do not hold to their creed to the undead. Even worse are the Death Cults that actually worship the zombies themselves, not only sacrificing to them, but interacting with and controlling them also.

For players, Dead Reign offers seven O.C.C.s or Occupational Character Classes. The Hound Master uses loyal dog companions to hunt, forage, search, and fight and defend, whilst Reapers are bikers who are expert zombie killers. Both Scroungers and Shepherds of the Damned are hunters. The first does so for useful items that he can use or trade, while the second sneaks into towns and cities in search of survivors who can be guided back out to Safe Havens. Where the Reaper is dedicated to hunting and killing zombies, the Soldier is defender first, zombie killer second, and lastly, the Survivor represents the ordinary person who has to fight in the world of the Zombie Apocalypse.

Perhaps the most interesting of the seven O.C.C.s is the Half Living – someone who has survived a near-death encounter with zombies and in the process loses some of his former personality and skills. Although most zombies will ignore a Half Living, he much prefers the company of humans and actually hates to be away from them. The Half Living, although very loyal to humans, is not always trusted as once killed he will rise up as a full zombie. The Half Living is available as a full O.C.C. that can be rolled up at game’s start or as a new O.C.C. that can be adopted following an already existing character’s all too close encounter with death via zombie.

The process of creating a character is cumbersome – after all, the last thing a Palladium Books RPG is known for is its finesse – and is hampered by the idiotically illogical layout. The actual rules for character creation are on pages 146 to 159, the actual O.C.C. descriptions on pages 70 through 96, the skill descriptions between pages 189 and 218, and the equipment descriptions start on page 107 and end on page 126. So no logic applied there.

For the player short of time - for the page flipping back and forth does take its time – quick character creation rules are provided. It advises that this should cut the process down to between ten to fifteen minutes. Which begs the question, why does it have to take so long in the first place? After all, a player is merely creating a character through which he beats up the undead, not crafting something via Method Acting. The other benefit of using the quick character creation rules is that they will provide a character with at least one attribute high enough to grant a bonus. An attribute has to be 16 or higher to give any kind of a bonus, and well if an attribute is 15 or below, it really doesn’t have all that much of an influence or use in the game… If you consider the cartoonish nature of the game and the low possibility of high attributes with the normal generation method being to roll three six-sided dice, and there is a disconnect between what the characters are and what they represent in the setting.

There is also something of a design disconnect between the character types. Several of the Zombie Apocalypse O.C.C.s clearly state that what a character did prior to the rise of the dead no longer matters, whereas the Survivor O.C.C. only concerns itself with the skills gained prior to the apocalypse. Which begs the question, to become one of the Zombie Apocalypse O.C.C.s, does a character have to suffer from memory loss?

In terms of support Dead Reign provides a big list of equipment, one hundred encounters, and one hundred things that could be found on a corpse. The encounters do suffer from repetition, but they are nevertheless useful. Before it dives into its extensive equipment list, Dead Reign gives reasonable advice on useful resources, including the use of the telephone directory and maps as well as vehicles and various places in towns and cities.

In terms of background though, Dead Reign is unfocused and underwhelming. It begins by suggesting various reasons behind the rise of the undead -- through biological means, the Wrath of God, and dark magic. In the aftermath of the risen dead, American society (Dead Reign only deals with the USA and even then barely) has collapsed and left the survivors coping in the best way that they can. One group that has survived the Zombie Apocalypse are the Reapers, a biker gang that fought its way into Chicago, earning the reapers both notoriety and respect, although not enough for such a well known event as the “Battle of Chicago” to be mentioned until page 75. Since then the Reapers have been using printing presses to publish and distribute the “Reapers Survival Guide,” a survival handbook and guide to destroying zombies. Extensive excerpts from this Reapers Survival Guide are interspersed between the rules, including advice on fighting zombies, (and repetitively so), choosing the right equipment, and so on. The problem is that this is more advice than it is setting or background material, and coupled with a lack of GM advice, and Dead Reign is all so underwhelming…

Physically, Dead Reign is neat and tidy, inside the artwork is mostly cartoonish in style, though some of it is moody and effective. The cover though, is very good.

Lastly in his afterword, Kevin Siembieda decries he fact that some people’s response to zombies would be to claim that everything has already been done with them. Well Mr. Siembieda might disagree with them, but they are in fact correct. Everything has been done with zombies before, and whilst the publisher might deny this, the fact is that Dead Reign offers nothing either new, or beyond that anything that might attract the fan of zombie gaming is proof of that. Were Dead Reign to come with some kind of background and some kind of advice for the GM then it might have been different, but what Dead Reign offers – as written – is the cartoonish slaughter of the undead and no more.

And that cartoonish nature is why I keep coming back to titles by Palladium Books. Not because I want to be playing in that style, but because I want to discover that the latest title is a sign that Palladium Books has grown up. Unfortunately, Dead Reign is not just cartoonish, but immature, and a sign that whilst I might have grown up, Palladium Books and its books have not. 

Friday 19 March 2010

The L Team

Now let state up front that I am not a fan of The A-Team. By the time it made it to these shores, I was too old for it, and what episodes I saw played up to its reputation for cartoon violence and formulaic storylines. I know enough about it to understand and spot the culture references when they are made, but the likelihood is that I will not be going to see the new movie. Nevertheless, what The A-Team provides for me is the template for putting together a team of archetype characters for roleplaying, each member of the team possessing a particular role within the team. These roles can be roughly defined as the leader, the brains, the tech, the face, and the wheels, to which can be added the brawn, the gun, and the thief, all depending upon the particular type of the game being played. Of course, just as the template applies to teams in roleplaying games, it also applies to teams on television.

One such team currently on television appears in Leverage, in which a former insurance fraud investigator, Nate Ford (played by Timothy Hutton), leads a team of scam artists pulling off stings against the greedy, primarily in corporations, but sometimes in the government or the criminal underworld. They do this on behalf of the ordinary citizen who has otherwise little recourse to justice. Essentially, this is a modern retelling of the Robin Hood legend, with the merry men replaced by a team of crooks who do good, and who consist of a mastermind, a con artist, a thief, a hacker, and a personal security expert. In the United Kingdom, the BBC shows a similar series called Hustle, which for the ladies stars Adrian Lester and Robert Vaughn. It is also filmed locally, including doing location work in the underground carpark of the building where I work. Conversely, Leverage is not filmed locally, so has never made use of the underground carpark of the building where I work, but it does star Gina Bellman.

So the point of this meandering is that Margaret Weis Productions, best known for publishing the Serenity Role Playing Game and Supernatural Roleplaying Game is to publish an RPG based on the series, Leverage and has released The Quickstart Job as a taster. It comes as an eighteen page, full colour, 9.7 Mb PDF file that contains a short introduction to the rules, write-ups for the series' five main characters, and a complete scenario with any extra rules are explained as and when they are needed.

What The Quickstart Job showcases is the game’s narrative structure, one that models what is seen in an episode of the television series. It opens with the set up, telling you who the mark is and what wrongs he has committed that need correcting. The Quickstart Job omits the planning session, but doubtless it will be detailed in the actual rulebook, and then we are into the action. This is done in a number of scenes that allow the characters in turn to shine, showing off his or her weaknesses. These scenes also build up to the episode’s twist and climax all before cutting to the wrap up scene. During this scene, each of the characters has to shine one more time as they star in their own little flashback scene that when all are combined explains how the scam was pulled off.

The target for the scam in The Quickstart Job is one Dennis Holland, who is using a series of shell companies to not only defraud a bank, but in the process also drive the occupants out of an old people’s home. In addition, he collects kitsch from the 1970s – and not the good stuff either. One of the occupants of the old people’s home, Helen Erdman, hires the Leverage team to help her and her fellow retirees out of their predicament. All the team have to do is grab the ownership papers of Holland’s holding company. Fortunately, Holland’s name is not on the papers, so whoever has the papers owns the company. Unfortunately, it looks like Holland is about to skip the country, though he is holding one last party at his office. This is where the scenario starts, in media res, with Hardison providing support from in the van outside, Parker ready to break into Holland’s safe, and everyone else casing the party. The aim in The Quickstart Job is simple enough – give Parker enough time to break into the safe, but of course, nothing goes quite to plan. It would hardly be entertaining if it did...

Since this is a game from Margaret Weis Productions, Leverage the Roleplaying Game uses the publisher’s house mechanics, CORTEX System Role Playing Game, which defines its attributes, skills, and traits – assets and complications (or advantages and disadvantages), for characters, monsters, and vehicles by die type: two, four, six, eight, ten, and twelve-sided dice, with a rating of d6 being considered as average. Attributes -- Agility, Strength, Vitality, Alertness, Intelligence, and Willpower; and Traits -- Assets and Complications such as “Rank and Privilege” and “Traumatic Flashbacks” are measured by just a single die type, whereas skills work slightly differently in that above a d6 rating a character must specialise and so gets a higher die type.

Leverage the Roleplaying Game uses the CORTEX System in a slightly easier, more streamlined way. The attributes are still there, but instead of skills, each character is rated by die type in five Roles, each Role being what the character does in the series. The five are Grifter, Hacker, Hitter, Mastermind, and Thief, again each defined by die type and each corresponding to one of the characters on the television series, who will have the highest die type in his or her Role. This is a d10 for each character, so Parker has a d10 in Thief, Hardison a d10 in Hacker, Nate a d10 in Mastermind, Eliot a d10 in Hitter, and Sophie a d10 in Grifter. Each character is also rated in the other Roles, a d8 in his next best Role, a d6 in the next, and lastly a d4 in his two worst Roles.

A character also possesses three Traits and three Talents. When brought into play, the Traits can act in a positive or a negative fashion. If positive, the character gets an extra d8 to roll. If negative, he only gets a d4, but he also is given a Plot Point. Talents are positive rather than negative and add a bonus to the play in some way. Let us look at Hardison, the show’s tech as an example – I would have suggested taking a look at Gina Bellman’s character, Sophie, but let us not go there... He has the Traits of Cocky, Computer, and Geek – none of which are described meaning that are open to interpretation by both player and GM – and the Talents of “Do You Have That Thing I Gave You?” and “Opportunist.” With the first Talent, Hardison can spend a Plot Point to pass another team member an extra d8 by reminding them of a handy device he gave to them earlier. Better still, if it can be done via a flashback, the extra die improves to a d10! The second Talent lets Hardison turns setbacks when rolling his Hacker Role in potential opportunities.

What is interesting in terms of character design in Leverage the Roleplaying Game is that while the Roles define what a character does and can do, and his primary task within the team, that primary task being what the character is, they do all this is done with just five Roles, almost like a piece of Indie game design. The Talents also define what a character can do, but the simplifying of the skills into the five Roles does one more thing. It moves the emphasis of who a character is onto the Traits.

The other difference between the mechanic used in the Leverage the Roleplaying Game and the standard CORTEX System is the player’s roll, as usual a combination of a character’s attribute plus an appropriate Role. So most of the time Hardison will roll 1d10 for his Intelligence and 1d10 for his Hacker Role, combining the results. In most CORTEX System games, this roll is made against a standard target that varies according to the difficulty of the task. Here the roll is made against a target determined by the GM or Guide rolling two dice. A character can sometimes roll more than the two dice, either because he spent a Plot Point to add another, or from another character – as in Hardison’s “Do You Have That Thing I Gave You?” Talent. Whatever the source of the extra die, only the two highest dice count towards the end result. The mechanics are all relatively straightforward, with the effects of failed rolls adding only a little more in terms of complexity.

All right, so I have spent an awfully long time writing about the introduction package for a game that is not even out yet, and will not be out for over a month, so it is time to tell you what I think about Leverage the Roleplaying Game and The Quickstart Job. Of the former, I wonder how big an audience it will find outside of the USA, if only in the U.K. where the series is not shown on one of the major channels, but I am hoping that it will do a good job of helping to guide a GM and his players through the set up and the running of the scam. After all, it is the sort of task that happens often enough in RPGs, but rarely receives much in the way of an explanation. Plus the television format, which when adapted to the roleplaying game will encourage the creative participation upon the part of the players, usually in turn and usually through the format’s heavy use of flashbacks.

The Quickstart Job showcases all of that, and does so in handy little package. It probably does not have quite enough information in it to make easy to run if you are not an experienced GM, and if you are not fully conversant with the television series, then a little background might have been helpful, both for the series and each of the characters. Other than that, The Quickstart Job provides a solid taster for the forthcoming RPG and a couple of hour’s worth of entertaining play. 

Friday 12 March 2010

Do You Have Time For Serpents?

Last Saturday I participated in a demonstration game of Dragon Age – Dark Fantasy Roleplaying Set 1: For Characters Level 1 to 5, the new roleplaying game from Green Ronin Publishing based on Dragon Age: Origins, the computer game from Bioware. Our GM, Dickie, ran the scenario that comes with the game, “The Dalish Curse,” for myself and two other players. I played a Surface Dwarf Warrior called Gorim, and armed with a two-handed axe proceeded to cut a swath through a lot of the opposition, which is not to belittle the efforts of my fellow Mage and Rogue, but boy did Gorim tank his way through the scenario! Everyone said that they not only enjoyed themselves, but that they would play it again. I certainly would, as I really enjoyed myself! While it was fun dishing out lots and lots of damage, what really made it exciting was the game’s Stunt Points and Stunt Point system. Make a really good roll in combat, whether casting a spell, shooting an arrow, or striking with an axe, and a character gets to pull off spectacular manoeuvres. For example, I made a good roll when we were being attacked by three possessed wolves and choose to do Mighty Blow followed by Dual Action, which meant that Gorim could not inflict extra damage on the beast in front of him, but swing his axe with such force that he could strike at an adjacent beast. This means of handling Stunts added a dynamic aspect to the play of Dragon Age.

The first thing that you need to know about Dragon Age is that you do not need to have played the computer game to enjoy the RPG. For example, I have not, although I do want to try the game at some point. If you happen to have played the computer game, then you need to know that Dragon Age is set about the same time as the computer game. The second thing that you need to know is that the game is written to be played by both experienced players and those new to roleplaying, such that learning the game is really easy for the experienced player, and relatively easy for the neophyte player. The third thing that you need to know is that Dragon Age is a Class and Level game, one that comes with three races, three classes, and only covers levels one through five. Further boxed sets will detail five levels each up to level twenty, much like the 1983 version of Basic Dungeons & Dragons did with its Basic, Expert, Companion, Master, and Immortal Boxed Sets (though they actually took Basic Dungeons & Dragons from level one up to level thirty six rather the levels one through twenty of Dragon Age).

What you get in the Dragon Age box set is two books, one for the players, and one for the GM; plus a large full colour map of the game’s beginning setting, Ferelden. Lastly, the box contains three six-sided dice, two of one colour, and one of another colour. Both of the Player’s Guide and the GM’s Guide are sixty-four pages in length, in full colour, profusely illustrated, easy to read, and each come with their own index. The Player’s Guide gives the background for the setting, along with rules for character creation, magic, combat, and equipment, as well as how to play the game. The GM’s Guide gives the rules in detail, describes how to run the game, and gives both plenty of adversaries along with the beginning scenario, “The Dalish Curse.” Both books are also written with the neophyte in mind, so that the Player’s Guide has advice on how to be a good player and the GM’s Guide, advice on how to be a good GM. If a player reads through the Player’s Guide, he will have a good idea of how the game plays, and to be honest, the GM does not have that much more to learn from the GM’s Guide.

The setting for Dragon Age is the world of Thedas, with the first boxed set focusing on Ferelden. This is a nation of humans descended from barbarian tribes that has not long achieved independence after suffering invasions from other nations and darkspawn incursions known as Blights. Each Blight was brought about by a mage who grew too hungry for power, and for this reason, the use of magic is distrusted. Hence every mage must be a member of the Circle of Magi, or he will be hunted down as an apostate. Even Circle mages are monitored by Templars of the Chantry, watching for the use of blood magic or for signs of demonic possession. Any mage not part of the circle is known as an Apostate and is in danger of being hunted down. The Chantry is a powerful influence in Ferelden – and elsewhere – such that when the newly formed second Elven nation of the Dales refused to worship the Maker, the Chantry declared an Exalted March, resulting in the sacking of the Dales and the scattering of the Elves. Today, most Elves live as second class citizens, free though quartered in Alienages in Ferelden, but live as slaves elsewhere. Still some Elves choose to follow their own gods and live independently, but these Dalish Elves are even more distrusted. The only contact with the Dwarves is with the surface houses, which act as middlemen between those Dwarves that live underground and the surface nations, and so have got rich in the process. While other nations might regard the Ferelden people as barbarians, to the West lie the Frostback Mountains, home to the Avvar Hillsmen, tribes people who refused to join with what they see as the old and corrupt folk of Ferelden.

The setting of Ferelden is described as Dark Fantasy. It has neither Unicorns nor Pegasi, and it is rare for anyone to be of pure heart. It feels reminiscent of Saxon Britain, having been invaded many times, including by a once mighty but now fallen empire, and is still threatened today, while holding numerous superstitions and prejudices. Mechanically, it can be quite lethal for the player characters. In one encounter in our demonstration game, the rogue was cut down very quickly by an opponent as the mage held off another and I ran round the room smashing the other opponents down. Fortunately healing is freely available, usually from a party’s Mage, either from his Healing Focus, Chirurgy Talent, or Heal spell, but also from resting after a combat encounter.

For its mechanics, Dragon Age uses what it calls the “age” or “adventure game engine.” To undertake an action, a character rolls three six-sided dice – two of one colour and one of another colour, this single die being known as the Dragon Die – adding the result to an appropriate ability (or attribute) and if the character has one, an appropriate Ability Focus (or skill). For example, Gorim (see below) attacks a Genlock, a humanoid type of Darkspawn, with his two-handed axe. He rolls a total of ten (three, three, and then four on the Dragon Die), adds his Strength (three) and the bonus from his Strength (Axes) Focus (two) to get a total of fifteen. This is enough to hit the Genlock and Gorim can roll his damage.

Yet before Gorim can roll this damage, he gets to perform one or more cinematic stunts. This is because he rolled doubles on two of the dice. When this happens in combat, a character gets to spend Stunt Points equal to the number rolled on the Dragon Die, choosing Stunts from one of two tables. One table covers Stunts for melee and ranged attacks, while another covers spell combat. In our example, Gorim has four Stunt Points to spend. He selects Pierce Armour for two Stunt Points, which halves the Genlock’s armour, and then Mighty Blow, allowing him to deliver an extra die’s worth of damage. It is not possible to take a Stunt more than once in a combat round, but in this instance, it is enough for Gorim to inflict a mighty twenty six points of damage on the Genlock, killing the creature straight off!

Essentially, the Dragon Die works as an “Effect Die.” In combat it allows a character to undertake dynamic and exciting actions, while out of combat it works as a tie breaker in opposed rolls, as means to determine the length of time an action takes, and as a means to determine the quality of an action. We found that when playing, rolling four or more on the Dragon Die gave us lots more options than when we rolled under four. In addition, if you have a good GM, he will also let you suggest ways in which you can spend the Stunt Points to gain visually exciting effects.

The method of creating characters is primarily random. Three six-sided dice are rolled in turn for eight Abilities (or attributes) to generate numbers between -2 and 4. A 1 in an Ability is average with the Ability table weighted towards results of 1 or above. Abilities are rolled in order, but a player can swap one Ability result with another. Next a Background is chosen. Each Background – there are seven given in the Player’s Guide – determines a character’s culture, upbringing, and race. The seven available are Apostate, Avvar, Circle Mage, City Elf, Dalish Elf, Ferelden Freeman, and Surface Dwarf. In game terms, a Background also provides one Ability increase and one Ability Focus (or skill), but can provide one or more of either depending upon rolls made against a benefit table given for each Background.

Each Class determines a character’s starting Hit Points, Talents, and Weapon Groups besides the Powers that each Class grants. A Mage knows Arcane Lance, a free magical attack projected through a wand or staff, Mana Points, plus spells. Only seventeen spells are described, but these are enough for the moment. A nice touch is that several different sets of beginning spells are suggested to help a player get going with his Mage. The rules suggest that a starting Mage take the Heal spell and after our demonstration game, this is good advice. The Mage only knows the Brawling and Staves Weapon Groups, and will probably refrain from wearing armour as casting spells in armour costs more Mana points. In comparison, the Rogue knows more Weapon Groups, all of them light, and is trained in wearing light armour. He can also Backstab, an attack from an unexpected direction, so a Rogue cannot be adjacent to the target at the start of a combat round. A Rogue also has one of the Contacts, Scouting, or Thievery Talents. Lastly, a Warrior knows more Weapon Groups, wear better armour, and can specialise in various Weapon Styles, such as Archery Style, Dual Weapon Style, or Weapon-and-Shield Style.

Lastly, a player can choose his character’s name, purchase equipment – this in addition to the basic gear that each class receives, work out the game’s few derived stats, and set the character one short term and one long term goal. The character creation process is actually pretty quick and once familiar with it, a player could create his character in about five minutes. To prove it, and because I like the game so much, I include not one, not two, but three sample characters.

Name: Gorim of House Strakan
Race: Dwarf Background: Surface Dwarf
Class: Warrior Level: 1
Communication: 1 Constitution: 4 Cunning: 0
Dexterity: 2 Magic: -2 Perception: 0
Strength: 3 Willpower: 1
Defence: 12 Speed: 10 Hit Points: 37 Armour: 4 (Heavy Leather)
Foci: Constitution (Stamina), Cunning (Engineering), Strength (Axes)
Talents: Armour Training, Dual Weapon Style, Two-Hander Style
Weapon Groups: Brawling, Axes, Bludgeons, Bows
Languages: Trade Tongue (Speak and read), Dwarven (Speak and read)
Attacks: Battle Axe (2d6+3), Crossbow (2d6+1), Two-Handed Axe (3d6+3)
Money: 59 silver pieces

Name: Adanna
Race: Elf Background: Circle Mage
Class: Mage Level: 1
Communication: 2 Constitution: 1 Cunning: 2
Dexterity: 3 Magic: 3 Perception: 2
Strength: -1 Willpower: 1
Defence: 13 Speed: 15 Hit Points: 21
Mana Points: 17 Spells: Arcane Bolt, Heal, Rock Armour
Foci: Cunning (Arcane Lore), Cunning (Historical Lore)
Weapon Groups: Brawling, Staves
Languages: Trade Tongue (Speak and read), Ancient Tevene (Read)
Attacks: Arcane Lance (1d6+3), Quarterstaff (1d6+1)
Money: 58 silver pieces

Name: Blaen
Race: Human Background: Ferelden Freeman
Class: Rogue Level: 1
Communication: 2 Constitution: 3 Cunning: 1
Dexterity: 2 Magic: 2 Perception: 1
Strength: 1 Willpower: 1
Defence: 12 Speed: 12 Hit Points: 28 Armour: 2 (Light Leather)
Foci: Communication (Animal Handling), Willpower (Courage)
Talents: Backstab, Rogue’s Armour, Contacts
Weapon Groups: Bows, Brawling, Light Blades, Staves
Languages: Trade Tongue (Speak and read)
Attacks: Long Bow (1d6+3), Short Sword (1d6+2)
Money: 59 silver pieces

Character progression, made by being awarded Experience Points and gaining levels (Experience Points are awarded according to the difficulty of an encounter), grants a character increases to his Abilities, new Talents and Focuses, increases in his Talents – from Novice to Journeyman, and if a Mage, new spells. Of course, this boxed set only takes a character up to fifth level. Future boxed sets will add more.

The base set for Dragon Age only gives three races – Dwarf, Elf, and Human; and three Classes – Mage, Rogue, and Warrior. Depending on the Background selected, Elves and Humans can be of any Class, but Dwarves cannot cast spells and so can only be Rogues or Warriors. To an extent, this does limit choice, and hopefully, future sets will provide new Backgrounds and Classes, such as Chantry Clerics and Templars. Another problem with character generation is that despite the fact that the game describes the Classes as being quite broad, this not quite true. The starting Talents available to the Rogue – Contacts, Scouting, or Thievery, of which he can have just the one, do define his role. He either knows people, can act as a scout, or as a burglar. Thus the choice of Talent defines the Rogue’s role, but there are fewer obvious choices when it comes to the other two Classes. With the Chirurgy Talent a Mage can be a healer, but he is otherwise a scholar of some kind. With the Warrior, what defines his role is the choice of Weapon Groups and Style Talents known, and there is not enough of a difference between these to define an actual role beyond fighter.

Another problem with the random creation method used in Dragon Age is that a roll earlier in process will often determine what a character can select later. For example, if a Mage wants to be a healer and take the Chirurgy Talent available to him as a Mage, the requirements for the Talent are that the Mage have the Cunning (Healing) Focus, and this is only available on the Human benefit table for the Apostate Background and on the Elf benefit table for the Circle Mage Background. This also occurs in other cases because a character does not match the Ability requirements and so limits a player’s choice. Also, this is not obvious in the rules and can only be found out by actually creating a character.

In addition to the advice on being a GM and a more detailed explanation of the combat, the GM’s Guide provides a bestiary of some twenty or so adversaries. Most monsters and adversaries can make use of the same Stunt Tables as the player characters, with many entries listing the preferred Stunts. In addition, many creatures have their own Stunts, such the Black Bear’s Quick Bite Stunt. While advice is given on making these creatures tougher, there are no rules for the GM who wants to create his own. It also includes a detailed scenario, “The Dalish Curse.” This has the player characters come upon a farm that has been attacked and its inhabitants killed. Amongst the bodies, they discover a wounded elf, who when taken to the nearby village, arouses the suspicions of the villagers that an Elven curse has befallen them. This follows on from an altercation that the villagers had with some Dalish Elves that attended the village’s harvest festival. Worse still, the wounded Elf manages to tell the heroes that her fellow Dalish Elves were abducted and begs for their aid. This begins a scenario that should played through in a session or two, or just the one long session. It is quite detailed, and focuses upon two elements of the setting mentioned elsewhere in the two books – the prejudice against the Elves and the chance of demonic possession and transformation into a Darkspawn of some kind. It does lack advice for staging each scene though, which is pity given that Dragon Age is designed for the new GM as much as the experienced one.

From having played through “The Dalish Curse” I would recommend that the game be played with a minimum of three players plus the GM. And if there is just the three players participating, then they should play one each of the classes. Plus the mage should absolutely take the Heal spell.

Dragon Age is a lot of fun, but it is not quite perfect. One problem is with the map, which though very nice, is marked with the locations and their names for the scenario. I would have preferred a map that was more neutral in this regard. I also would have liked more background, if only to help me create more scenarios, and as much as I like the random method of character generation, it is disappointing that all too often it limits character choice. 

Interestingly, on the back of Dragon Age’s box, it claims to offer “A New Age of Fantasy Roleplaying!” whilst at the same time describing it as “old school roleplaying.” Which begs the question, is such a combination possible? The mechanics in Dragon Age certainly look back to the Old School Renaissance with their simplicity, with their lack of explanation for every eventuality, and for the room they make for the GM to interpret and apply them. As does the format with its multiple boxed sets designed to take a character from first to twentieth levels. It would have been interesting for the rules to have explained this use of the term “old school roleplaying” and in doing might have made it more attractive to players with an interest in that style, let alone explain its claim to herald a “New Age of Fantasy Roleplaying!” This I am less convinced about, and without the words to back it up upon the part of the author, it reads as hyperbole.

What is so refreshing about Dragon Age, is that it runs counter to the current trend in fantasy roleplaying games for complexity, for overburdening the players with choice, for the absolute need for playing boards and miniatures, and for making fantasy roleplaying games more like board games than actual roleplaying games. If you happen to be looking for a beginning RPG, then Dragon Age – Dark Fantasy Roleplaying Set 1: For Characters Level 1 to 5 happens to be an excellent choice. The basic rules tend towards the simplistic, but that also means that they are very straightforward, very easy to grasp, and in play the game proceeds at pace. On top of that, the Stunt Point system is a delight, being so easy to use, and will have players begging to roll doubles just so that they can use it. For experienced roleplayers, Dragon Age is very easy to pick up and play, and once the game gets going, playing is not just fun, it is a blast!

Friday 5 March 2010

Not Wearing Me Down...

It is 2010 and while Dungeons & Dragons is alive and well, and the Old School Renaissance keeps a bullseye lantern shone firmly on the game as it was played more than thirty years ago, the “Deathtrap Dungeon” as a concept is dead and gone. Written to test the players’ ingenuity and resourcefulness to the point of death and beyond, the “Deathtrap Dungeon” is filled with puzzles and traps which when combined with a seeming random factor makes it a challenge that is almost impossible to beat. Almost as soon as the first “Deathtrap Dungeon” appeared, it reached its apotheosis in the form of S1, Tomb of Horrors, a 1978 dungeon from the pen of Gary Gygax. In the years since, this module has been reprinted several times, received a boxed sequel in the form of Return to the Tomb of Horrors, achieved legendary status, and appeared at number three in Dungeon #116’s “30 Greatest D&D Adventures of All Time” (November, 2004). Its reputation though, remains that of a “Killer” dungeon, an “Unfair” dungeon, an “Unplayable” dungeon, so why would anyone want to visit the concept thirty years on?

The simple answer is because they believe that there is blood still to be got from the concept, if not from the adventurers. Such a believer is James Raggi IV, who already having received much acclaim with his last scenario, Death, Frost, Doom, has turned his attention to the Deathtrap Dungeon. Published through Raggi's own Lamentations of the Flame Princess, the result is The Grinding Gear, a sixteen page affair designed not for tenth to fourteenth levels as was S1, Tomb of Horrors, but for a party of between three and eight characters of first through fourth levels. Let me make that a little more explicit. The Grinding Gear is a Deathtrap Dungeon that can be played by first level characters.

With The Grinding Gear, Raggi has set himself one heck of a challenge if only because it is designed for first level characters. The point is that it is all too easy to design a dungeon that will kill anyone exploring it, especially if they are first level, and even easier if the dungeon has been laced with deadly traps and puzzles. It takes ingenuity to design not just a Deathtrap Dungeon, but a Deathtrap Dungeon that with some cunning, skill, and resourcefulness upon the part of the players their first level characters will survive.

That The Grinding Gear manages to pull this is tribute to the author’s design. The dungeon’s traps are deadly, not always lethal, and there is not the sense of random malice that pervades the typical Deathtrap Dungeon, including the original S1, Tomb of Horrors. Indeed, many if not most of the puzzles and traps found within the confines of The Grinding Gear can be avoided or circumvented by the wary player. As with any Deathtrap Dungeon, it pays to take care when playing through this “Little Tomb of Horrors,” but this has to be the very first dungeon for which it pays to take notes when playing!

The scenario begins with the adventurers on the road when they come across a strange tableau. Three abandoned and dilapidated buildings – an inn, some stables, and a chapel – stand around a statue itself completely surrounded by the bodies of Orcs and Goblins. This scene marks the first of many traps laid for the adventurers by the absent innkeeper, whose high regard for the courage and cleverness displayed by their kind in dealing with the unorthodox threats to be found in the average Dungeons & Dragons world is only matched by his disdain for their obvious greed, and more recently by his desire for revenge. His daughter fell in love with an adventurer and eloped, the pair of them dying a few later months while exploring an ancient tomb. The innkeeper’s revenge would be pure artifice, would allow him to indulge his penchant for engineering, and would play upon what he saw as the greatest strengths and the greatest weaknesses of the adventuring party. He would design a dungeon purely to test both and reward the clever and the careful, but punish the foolish and the unwary. And when one party had explored the extent of the labyrinth he built below his old inn – or died in the process – he would return, reset the complex, and await the entrance of another set of adventurers...

What lies below is a two level dungeon, consisting of twenty-five locations on the upper level and twenty on the lower. The adventurers will find few monsters, but clues and hints aplenty, almost as if the builder is taunting them. Which he is.

Physically, The Grinding Gear is an attractive package. It comes as a sixteen page digest booklet with not one, not two, but three cardboard covers! Inside the outer cover can be found the map of the inn and its immediate environs. The maps for both levels of the dungeon are done white on black on the outer side of the middle cover, while on its reverse can be found a discussion of the reasoning behind some of the dungeon’s locations. Essentially the equivalent of the dungeon designer’s notes, and by that I mean James Raggi IV, not the ex-innkeeper. The outer side of the inner cover shows a cratered landscape and has a player handout on the inside. The booklet itself only has the one piece of interior art, a rather effective illustration of a dungeon room. The writing is more technical and thus drier than Death, Frost, Doom, but that can be explained by the need to explain all of those traps and puzzles.

The Grinding Gear is lacking in two ways. The first is in the absence of back cover blurb. It is available at more than one friendly local gaming store after all, and a blurb would help sell it to the casual browser. The second is in the form of a sequel. Raggi states that there will be no “official” sequel detailing the activities of the ex-innkeeper behind the dungeon, which is not only a pity, but also a missed opportunity. The fact that the scenario’s antagonist is kept entirely off screen for the whole of the adventure is sure to annoy the average player who will want to find out who was behind it all and then take his revenge. It begs a sequel and I beg Raggi to change his mind.

There is no denying just how clever and how concise Raggi has been with The Grinding Gear. To create and fit a complete Deathtrap Dungeon in sixteen pages, to refresh and enliven a moribund concept not just for low level characters, at all takes both an economy of the imagination and an economy of the technical. The technical nature of the scenario does bleed over into the background, so that the adventurers’ motives for exploring the complex are actually those for playing Dungeons & Dragons in the first place. The result is that as assured a piece of design as The Grinding Gear is, it lacks the mood and the flavour seen in the author’s previous scenarios. Nevertheless, The Grinding Gear is a delightful design that lets the Dungeon Master spill fresh blood over an old concept.