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

Sunday 30 May 2010

Three by Three

While the bulk of campaigns and scenarios published for Call of Cthulhu are set during its Classic period of the 1920s – and to a lesser extent in the contemporary period of Cthulhu Now, the growing number of scenarios set outside of those two periods are indicative of both the malleability of the Mythos and the ability of authors to set it elsewhere and else when. The first scenario anthology to showcase the possibilities of both was Strange Aeons, a trilogy that explored the Mythos in Elizabethan London, Inquisition era Spain, and on a United Nations Moon base in the near future, but it has been followed by numerous MULA monographs doing the same thing, and now, it has a sequel. As its subtitle suggests, Strange Aeons II: Nine Forays into Unusual Times & Places ups the ante by three. With Chaosium’s newest anthology, the Keeper and his players get to experience the Mythos in the prehistoric past, the Far East, the Classical World, both the English and the American Civil Wars, plus the far future. And after all of that, everyone gets to go to Woodstock.

This is another anthology of one-shots then, but the theme connecting all of them is that they are all set in different eras. All can be played in about an evening or in one good session, perhaps two at the very most. Each one comes with not only six ready to play pre-generated investigators, but the rules to create more and an introduction to the setting itself. Thus with some effort upon the part of the Keeper, the players could continue playing within the setting described in any one of the scenarios given in
Strange Aeons II, either with the pre-generated investigators or newly generated characters. The quality of the pre-generated investigators varies from scenario to scenario with the best having characters who are just slightly at odds with each other.

One issue with the collection is that few if any of the scenarios come with female investigators, but this is more a reflection upon the attitudes of the periods portrayed than those of the authors. The scenarios vary in structure between traditional linear affairs and more freeform affairs that provide a set up, various locations and events, and advice on how the scenario can be concluded. In general, the more linear scenarios will easier to run than those with more open structures. Another issue is some of the scenarios can involve massed combat and no rules are given to allow the Keeper to handle such a situation.

The nine scenarios in Strange Aeons II are not presented in chronological order, so while the last scenario is set in the 1950s, the first is actually set in Ancient China, not the prehistoric past. That first scenario is “Master Wu’s Marriage” by Alessandro Mana, in which the characters have been sent by Master Wu to escort his bride to his home. Nothing can go wrong of course, but when the party is forced to take shelter in an ancient monastery, people start disappearing. In tone, this has the feel of the film Alien, but with a hint of the Wuxia genre. It does not help that some of the skills necessary to complete the scenario are misspelled and misnamed – “natural philosophy” versus “philosophy” – but this gets the anthology off to an entertaining start.

This is followed by Christopher Smith Adair’s “Children of a Starry Heaven,” which is set in the Ancient Greek world and involves the characters being initiated into a Mystery Cult. Of course, there is much more to the cult’s mysteries than the mere esoteric, and there is something horribly inevitable about the final initiation rites. The initiates must brave the cult’s inner secrets ahead of time if they are to avoid these rites, but there is a danger that they will fail in this and bring the scenario to a hurried close. Apart from this, “Children of a Starry Heaven” is a good investigative scenario with an interesting background.

Cursed Be The City” by Davide Mana is described as “cavemen versus Cthulhu,” but this is something of a simplification. Yes, it does involve the players taking the roles of cavemen, but not against Cthulhu, but another Mythos entity. It drifts back into the very ancient past and into the future, and in doing asks the players to roleplay against their own knowledge as their tribesmen characters must first find their lost tribe and then bring their strange behaviour to a stop. “Cursed Be The City” nicely asks for some clever roleplaying upon the part of both the Keeper and his players and is probably the most challenging scenario in the book because of that.

With “To Hell Or Connaught,” Eckhard Huelshoff takes us to the Ireland of 1649, just after the end of the English Civil War and during Cromwell’s invasion. This pitches the Protestants against the Catholics, the English against the Irish, and Christianity against the old ways, and so is perhaps the most controversial scenario in the book. That it also frames a murder mystery against this backdrop and adds in legends of both Saint Patrick and “Little People” and it all feels as if the author has over egged the pudding. Likewise, the plotting of the scenario feels heavy handed and overall, “To Hell Or Connaught” is just a little too rich for my tastes.

Adam Crossingham’s “They Did Not Think It Too Many” is not set in Ancient Rome, but in the Roman province of Britannia with the players cast as Roman envoys negotiating the entry of a minor into the Empire. The talks do not go well though, as not everyone in the tribe wants join the Empire under the current king and the players could be allies with either side... This nicely portrays the clash of two cultures with not just the fate of the characters being at stake, but also the future of the Empire. Make the wrong choice and the Empire might adopt a terrible goddess... There are no character rules or campaign guidelines included with this scenario, so a Keeper will need to refer to
Cthulhu Invictus. This is the one scenario that could be easily be worked into an existing campaign world.

In “The Iron-Banded Box,” Michael Dziesinski -- the author of
Secrets of Japan – attempts to show what would have happened if Akira Kurosawa had directed an adaptation of a H.P. Lovecraft story. Despite being set in the Sengoku “warring states” Period, the scenario makes repeated reference to Secrets of Japan, which given that enough necessary information is included and that Secrets of Japan is really for Cthulhu Now, such references seem like advertising. Anyway, in “The Iron-Banded Box,” the players are ronin who come to the aid of a town threatened by more than gangsters... Since the release of Secrets of Japan, the concept of a Call of Cthulhu campaign set in Feudal Japan has remained a fascinating possibility, but the scenario does not live up to the opportunities that such a possibility suggest. More Chambara or “Samurai Cinema” an exploration of the Mythos, this is the least interesting scenario in the collection.

Despite its excellent title, “Three Days Of Peace, Music, And Tentacle Love,” Shannon M. Bell’s scenario does not have any tentacle love on offer, or indeed much in the way of the promised sex either. Set at the Woodstock Music Festival in 1969, it instead offers drugs, rock ‘n’ roll, and black magic with the players as Miskatonic University students trying to track down both a bad batch of drugs and a missing friend. Given as a framework with the characters free to roam the festival over the whole three days, their failure at Woodstock to prevent a very dangerous performance could derail history... Although the threat is in keeping with the setting, it never quite feels real or demands all that much of the players. Perhaps I am influenced by my lack of interest of Woodstock, but this is the scenario I would be least likely to run.

Set during the American Civil War, the characters are Union cavalrymen sent to round up deserters in “A Hard Road to Travel.” Gary Sumpter’s scenario takes the player characters into a blighted Arkansas valley where they must face a foe that has sadly been used in a similar fashion in other scenarios, most notably in the excellent monograph,
Machine Tractor Station Kharkov-37.

The last scenario in the book is “Time After Time” by the collection’s editor, Brian M Sammons. It opens in splendid fashion, with the players as FBI agents in 1954 sent in to a seaside town to deal with a Communist plot, before everything takes a turn for the weird. It is a pity that the paranoid muscularity of the opening scenes had to be ditched for the turn to take effect, but the characters have plenty of potential still as they explore their strange new environment. This scenario also provides a potential framework for all nine scenarios.

Strange Aeons II
is a decently presented book. It needs an edit here and there, but the layout is clean and unfussy. David Lee Ingersoll’s cover is eye catching as is some of the internal artwork, though some of it is a little too dark and inconsistent in terms of tone and feel. That said, a thumbnail portrait of each of the pre-generated investigators in all nine scenarios would have been both useful too. The cartography also suffers from being too dark in places, but is otherwise well done, the best of it having an architectural feel.

Of course, the scenarios given in this collection need not quite be standalone affairs. There are Mythos entities aplenty who could pitch the investigators through time in space, having them bounce from scenario to scenario. Indeed, one of the scenarios actually hints at such a possibility. If the collection has a theme beyond that of “the Mythos through time on Earth,” it is “Melee versus the Mythos,” since few of the scenarios include the use of firearms, and where they do, such firearms are not capable of automatic or even semi-automatic fire.

All right, so
Strange Aeons II is yet another collection and I have said in the past that something with more meat and depth to its bones is wanted, but in truth the diverse nature and the short length of the scenarios in Strange Aeons II means that it is relatively easy for a Keeper to pick one its nine to run. Quality varies between the scenarios and some are probably too obvious in their plotting and choice of Mythos threat for Call of Cthulhu veterans, but the better adventures are at their best when in exploring a well realised historical period they make you want to play in that time again. Certainly, the scenarios “Master Wu’s Marriage,” Children of a Starry Heaven,” “Cursed Be The City,” “They Did Not Think It Too Many,” and the start of “Time After Time” make me want to do that. It would be interesting to see these periods portrayed developed into something more, or at revisited in a third volume.

Overall, the better scenarios in
Strange Aeons II: Nine Forays into Unusual Times & Places far outweigh the less interesting ones making this a worthwhile addition to your Call of Cthulhu library.

Saturday 29 May 2010

500 Word Review Two

Just when we had one dice game from Steve Jackson Games, another follows closely on its heels. Thus following on from Cthulhu Dice, we have Zombie Dice. This though, is not a “take that” game, but a “push your luck” game. Its rules are just as simple and easy to learn, it plays almost as fast, but it comes better packaged with its own means of storage. Designed for two or more players, aged ten and up, in Zombie Dice you are a zombie out for braiiinnsss...

The game comes in a short thick tube that also doubles as the rolling cup. Inside can be found the rules leaflet which takes a minute to read and just as long to teach – we had a quick game whilst Dave set up Battlestar Galactica for a two hour marathon. Also inside the tube are thirteen six-sided dice. These come in three colours and are marked with three symbols: “Brain,” “Shotgun (Blast),” and “Footprints.” Each die represents a human victim. Some dice represent harder victims and have more “Shotgun (Blast)” than “Brain” symbols on them – these are the red dice. The green dice have more “Brain” than “Shotgun (Blast)” symbols on and indicate easier victims. The yellow dice are more balanced, but all dice have two “Footprint” symbols.

When rolled the “Brain” symbol indicates the successful munching of a victim’s noggin. The “Shotgun (Blast)” indicates that he fought back and the “Footprints” that he got away from a zombie’s clutches.

 On his turn a zombie rolls all thirteen dice in the cup and draws the first of three dice. He rolls these and puts aside any that roll “Brain” or “Shotgun (Blast)” symbols. If any “Footprints” symbols are rolled, the zombie he can top these dice back up to a total of three and re-roll them. He can keep doing this until he accumulates three “Shotgun (Blast)” symbols, in which case he is driven off and his turn is over. Accumulating three “Shotgun (Blast)” symbols also means that the zombie loses all of the “Brain” symbols rolled on his turn and he scores nothing! If after any dice have been rolled and counted and the zombie has less than three “Shotgun (Blast)” symbols before him, he can choose to end his turn and add any “Brain” symbols rolled to his total. Play passes to the next zombie with all of the dice returned to the cup.

Once a zombie has accumulated a score of thirteen brains, he wins.

Zombie Dice is not entirely luck based as a zombie can decide when to stop rolling, based on either his number of “Shotgun (Blast)” symbols or the dice colours already rolled. It does lack mechanical interaction, but the personal interaction comes from watching or egging your fellow zombies in to pushing their luck and rolling more dice. From its rules Zombie Dice is obviously simple enough, but that it is more fun the rules suggest is a surprise. Zombie Dice is a fun filler. 

Sunday 23 May 2010

...and not a codpiece in sight

I have already opined that the focus for the Old School Renaissance is perhaps a little too tight, upon iterations of the Dungeons & Dragons of any when from 1974 to 1981 and on the relatively few genres that appeared in roleplaying during that period over the limitless possibilities that we have been available since. So what this means is that we have fantasy roleplaying in form of Goblinoid Games’ Labyrinth Lord and Swords & Wizardry from Mythmere Games, plus the many other variants of Dungeons & Dragons, whilst Science Fiction is covered by Grey Area Games’ X-plorers: The role playing adventures of Galactic Troubleshooters! and the forthcoming revised Starships & Spacemen from Goblinoid Games, leaving Mutant Future – also from Goblinoid Games, to do does the weird post-apocalyptic setting we remember from Metamorphosis Alpha and Gamma World – both from TSR. All right, so this is a generalisation, but it does leave an awfully large and diverse number of genres yet to be explored in the retro fashion of the Old School Renaissance.

So Backswords & Bucklers: Adventuring in Gloriana’s Britain from the amusingly named British publisher, Tied to a Kite, is something of a curiosity as far as the Old School Renaissance is concerned. Powered by the same rules as to be found in Swords & Wizardry: Whitebox – available to download from here – and as its subtitle suggests, Backswords & Bucklers is a game set in Elizabethan England that is slightly more fantastic than our own. Not fantastic enough that it trips off into the faerie realms and back again – at least not in Book One: Basic Rules, the first book to be published, which only hints at the dangers of dark magic, with supplements to come set to cover the alchemical, the sorcerous, and the demonological arts in actual detail.

So the first question in any RPG is, “What can I play?” Backswords & Bucklers offers three classes, the Fighting Man, the Scoundrel, and the Cunning Man or Wise Woman. The first of these can be anything from hired muscle to professional soldier, whilst the second is more of a rogue, making his living any way other than what others would call honest toil. The last of the three classes is a country bred cross between an apothecary and a private eye, able to heal with his knowledge of herbs and chirurgy, but also able to find things through dowsing. The effects of both herbalism and chirurgy will vary from one Cunning Man to another, as a player is free to select from various choices as he gains levels. Of course, let us not forget the dangers of playing a Wise Woman – “And how do you know she’s a witch?”

The sample character is Edmond Treves, a ne’er do well who resides in Southwark. By night he is an actor, part of the company at the Globe theatre, but by day, he does odd jobs for Sidney Moulson, a local smuggler. This is always in the company of a strong arm called Harry Pleasance. Of the two, Harry is the brighter, but likes to keep this fact hidden. So when the two are together, Harry never speaks, except to whisper his thoughts into Edmond’s ear.

Edmond Treves
1st Level Scoundrel
Strength: 10 Dexterity: 13 Constitution: 9
Intelligence: 12 Wisdom: 14 Charisma: 15
Defence Rating: 10 Saving Throw: 14 Hit Points: 3
Class Abilities: Information Gathering, Picking Locks, Moving Silently
Equipment: Cloak, Clothing (including boots and hat), Satchel, eating knife, dagger, lock picks, broadsword; 1 Shilling

Harry Pleasance
1st Level Fighting Man
Strength: 16 Dexterity: 12 Constitution: 12
Intelligence: 16 Wisdom: 12 Charisma: 10
Defence Rating: 11 Saving Throw: 15 Hit Points: 5
Class Abilities: Cool Under Pressure, Saving Throw (+1 vs. Death & Poison), Experienced Eye
Equipment: Cloak, Clothing (including boots and hat), Backpack, whetstone, eating knife, dagger, leather jack (Armour Rating 1), falchion, buckler; 3 Shillings

Most of the time, a character can carry out such abilities without problem, but where it does matter, the referee decides on the chances of success to be rolled on a six-sided die. Combat of course, uses the standard twenty-sided die, but is slightly more complex than that of most “Edition Zero” RPGs in that it takes into account the type of damage, especially when “downright” blows are inflicted, which happens when someone runs out of Hit Points. Armour reduces damage whilst shields make an opponent more difficult to hit. As written, most weapons do just one six-sided die’s worth of damage per hit, but whether that is a straight die’s worth per hit or a number of dice equal to the success roll is unclear. It is probably the former as the latter seems like an awful lot, but even then, just rolling one die for each weapon’s damage is uninteresting, and this only looks all the more odd given that missile weapons do damage equal to a single six-sided die per level of the bowman, the pistoleer, or the musketman. So as everyone gains levels, they become deadlier shots, but not deadlier swordsmen, except for the Fighting Man who gains extra attacks per turn as he gains levels.

The reason for this is that attacks by missile weapons are one time, skill based attacks, whereas a melee presents multiple opportunities to successfully strike an opponent and inflict damage. This is a reasonable enough argument I suppose, but if every weapon inflicts just one die’s worth of damage, it not only makes them all a bit flavourless, with the only reasons for a player to choose one weapon over another is cost and the type of damage it does for “Downright Blows,” which are inflicted when an opponent is reduced to zero Hit Points.

The other odd issue is how the classes gain Experience Points. The Fighting Man gains his by fighting others. He does not have to defeat his foe, but if he wins, a Fighting Man gains double the Experience Points. In contrast, the Scoundrel gains them by expending money at a rate of five Experience Points per Penny spent, and the Cunning Man for helping others. These are a means by which the rules encourage or enforce roleplaying within the setting.

The last issue with the classes is the lack of choice within them. The Cunning Man does not suffer from this to the same extent, but the differences between one Scoundrel and another or one Fighting Man and another will entirely be down to the players rather than any mechanical element built into the rules. To be fair, this is an issue with any “Edition Zero,” but it would have been nice to have some means to differentiate between characters of the same class. One means for example, might have been to make the game’s weaponry more individual and more flavoursome, and were I to run Backswords & Bucklers this is something that I might do.

The “Edition Zero” game has any number of clichés, one of which is having a party assemble at “ye humble olde tavern” for a drink and a rumour prior to the start of their next dungeon delve. Backswords & Bucklers cuts out the delve and instead of the “Dungeon Bash,” has the “Tavern Trawl.” Actually, the rules for “Tavern Trawling” are a means by which a referee can create a base of operations for the player characters and using that generate rumours and employment for them. To that end, Basic Rules: Book One comes with a sample tavern, The Duck & Drake complete with clientele and rumours. The given sample adventure, “The Unfortunate Spaniard,” is more of a thumbnail than a full adventure.

Aside from the issues already raised, Backswords & Bucklers as seen in Basic Rules: Book One, suffers from several problems. The first of these is that the book lacks background. It needs to have more historical information than it does, necessary because not everyone is going to be familiar with the late Tudor period. Second, there is no referee or campaign advice on running the game beyond particular situations, such as combat. One combined effect of both of these is to leave the referee wondering what sort of tone the game should have. Should the tone be the tragic farce of Blackadder II? The romantic comedy of Shakespeare in Love? Or the high drama of Elizabeth? It does not help that the lack of a spellcasting class in the game also means that the magic is barely touched upon beyond listing some sample magic items that might be the subject of possible jobs to be found in the “Tavern Trawling” tables.

Physically, Book One: Basic Rules for Backswords & Bucklers: Adventuring in Gloriana’s Britain is reasonably laid out with suitable public domain artwork used well to break up the text. A slight edit is needed in places, but this a readable and easily used little book.

Ultimately and as given in Book One: Basic Rules, the real issue with Backswords & Bucklers is that it is too basic and does not really have enough information – it needs more of the Gloriana. There are issues with the rules too, mostly in terms of balance, between the classes and in the combat mechanics. Nevertheless, all of these issues can be fixed and the game is playable as is, should you so desire, especially when coupled with a knowledge of the period. It might not be perfect, but Backswords & Bucklers: Adventuring in Gloriana’s Britain is certainly playable and it shows promise aplenty. If Tied to a Kite can deliver on that promise with future supplements, it will have given the Old School Renaissance a solid little addition.

Friday 14 May 2010

From One Path To Many

I miss having a gaming magazine that I can buy off the shelf at my local newsagents. I miss being able to buy Dragon and Dungeon magazines and being able to read them on the bus, in bed, or wherever. Now in Kobold Quarterly – of which I recently reviewed #13 – we do have a replacement for Dragon, but what we do not have a replacement for is Dungeon, a magazine that provided a steady diet of adventures and dungeons for Dungeons & Dragons and other games. Since the demise of Dungeon and Dragon magazines, Paizo Publishing has picked up the Dungeon baton, publishing in its place the Pathfinder Adventure Path, a monthly publication dedicated not scenario anthologies, but to complete mini campaigns contained in six month arcs with each arc being one “Adventure Path.” There is a sense of continuity between the two magazines, as James Jacob, the last Editor in Chief for Dungeon magazine holds the same position for Pathfinder Adventure Path. To date, there have been five “Adventure Paths,” published in thirty issues. All five have been solid, if straightforward adventures, but that changes with Pathfinder Adventure Path #31 Kingmaker: Stolen Land.

Whilst the Kingmaker Adventure Path happens to be the first Adventure Path written expressly for the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game – a fantasy RPG that can be best described as a development of Dungeons & Dragons 3.5, which this Adventure Path also works with too – it so happens that it is also the first arc to deviate from the straightforward campaign. Where each Adventure Path has explored parts of Paizo Publishing’s house setting of Golarion, with Kingmaker: Stolen Land it lets the player characters do the exploring. It introduces not just a wilderness campaign for the setting, but a “sandbox campaign.” For those of you not in the know, the “sandbox campaign” is one in which the players are free to roam a setting, exploring where and when at their whim in a non-linear fashion. It is a term that has been imported from the video games industry where it is best exemplified by games such as 1984’s Elite and more recently, Grand Theft Auto IV. In terms of our hobby, the “sandbox campaign” is a relatively rare creature, with perhaps the merchant trader style of play across subsectors in the Science Fiction RPG Traveller probably being the purest form.

As with other Pathfinder Adventure Arcs, Kingmaker: Stolen Land is set on the world of Golarion, but more specifically in a tract of lawless, untamed wilderness lying between the Kingdom of Brevoy and the River Kingdoms. Both nations claim the region as their own, but it is the Kingdom of Brevoy that sends emissaries into an area of the Stolen Lands known as the Greenbelt answering a plea for aid in dealing with an outbreak of banditry. This comes from Oleg’s Trading Post, the last point of civilisation on the edge of the Greenbelt. The emissaries, who are of course the player characters, have a charter not only to investigate and put an end to the banditry, but also to explore the region immediately to the south of the trading post.

Designed for a party of at least four first level characters, though I would suggest that it would play easier with more – the initial focus in Kingmaker: Stolen Land is and will continue right until the very end of the adventure, to be upon dealing with the bandits that have been plaguing the area. Unfortunately, the adventurers have no idea where the bandits’ headquarters is to be found, so finding it requires no little exploration, which fortunately, also happens to lie within the remit of their charters. Exploring the Greenbelt throws up all sorts of encounters, from mischievous fey and forgotten shrines to restless dead and fractious Kobolds, but discovering these takes multiple trips out into the wilderness, the party returning to Oleg’s at the end of each foray.  Sometimes when they do return, the adventurers find that things have changed back at the trading post, perhaps as a result of their action, other times not. Individual adventures and rewards will come as a result of encounters out in the wilderness and as a result of mini missions and mini quests that can be found at Oleg’s over the course of the adventure. Eventually though, the adventurers locate the bandits’ base and will be ready to face them...

Although Kingmaker: Stolen Land claims to be a free roaming sandbox campaign and to some extent it certainly is, these quests and missions actually provide a sense of structure to the beginning of the campaign, pushing and pulling the adventurers hither and thither. In this, the quests together emulate a sandbox campaign style computer game, in particular, the MMORPG, World of Warcraft. Of course, in an actual RPG campaign like Kingmaker: Stolen Land there is room and time to develop a story and have the players form a sense of attachment to the Oleg, his wife, and the Greenbelt. Indeed, whilst there are plenty of combat encounters to be found in the campaign, there are also many encounters that will best resolved via other means...

The start of the campaign is nicely supported with detailed locations and NPCs, rumours particular to the Greenbelt, a guide to the geography of the Stolen Lands, and a guide to Brevoy. The latter can be used to provide the background for any player characters, although it has not been put to that use with the four pre-generated adventurers given in the book. Whilst there are some rules for handling exploration, there are no guidelines for running this style of games, which would no doubt have been useful given the differences between this style of game and more straightforward adventures. The bestiary describes five monsters, of which too few appear in this actual adventure. Whilst some of them, like the Tatzlwyrm, a sort of proto-dragon, are interesting, the inclusion of all five seems more like space filling. As does the inclusion of the short story, “Death at the Swaddled Otter,” which whilst readable, has no bearing upon the adventure.

Such issues are minor, but that does not mean that Pathfinder Adventure Path #31 Kingmaker: Stolen Land is without more major problems. The first of these is that from the maps, it is difficult to relate the Greenbelt and the Stolen Lands together, and then to relate the Stolen Lands and the Kingdom of Brevoy together. Given that this is meant to be an exploration campaign and thus have a strong cartographical bent, I would have expected this aspect to have been better handled. On a more minor note, it is irksome to have the main reference map for the DM in the middle of the book rather than inside the front or back covers, which are instead given over to highlighting the scenario’s various quests. The main reference map really needs to have been better placed for ease of use.

The other problem is the lack of advice for the DM on running a sandbox campaign and the lack of advice on running an exploration focused game. It obviously different to running a city or dungeon-based adventure and there is certainly room enough in Pathfinder Adventure Path #31 Kingmaker: Stolen Land to include such advice if extraneous content such as the extra monsters and the short were to be excluded. If not the advice then, it would have been nice to have been given pointers to such advice, but like the advice itself, such pointers are absent.

Physically though, Pathfinder Adventure Path #31 Kingmaker: Stolen Land is up to the publisher’s usual standards. It feels more like a mini-supplement than a magazine, having been done on glossy paper in full colour, including the artwork and the maps, both of which are excellent. The writing is also good, making Kingmaker: Stolen Land very readable.

In presenting a sandbox campaign, Pathfinder Adventure Path #31 Kingmaker: Stolen Land provides an opportunity for the players and their characters to bring a lawless region to heel and in doing so, stamp their presence on the region. It lays the ground work for the next five parts which will hopefully see the adventurers establish their own community and eventually, their own kingdoms – hence the arc’s title. There is enough here for a gaming group to be kept playing for several sessions, though the good news is that the second part, Pathfinder Adventure Path #32 Kingmaker: Rivers Run Red, is already available. If you have not been tempted by the Pathfinder Adventure Path series, then Pathfinder Adventure Path #31 Kingmaker: Stolen Land is an excellent jumping on point, with a well presented, nicely written, starter scenario. 

Can I Dice With Madness?

The latest game from Steve Jackson Games is insanely silly, and that is the point. Cthulhu Dice – or rather Cthulhu “Die” because you only get the single die, but then how can “Cthulhu Die” since he is both alien and immortal – is a dice game in which the aim is to drive your fellow servants of Cthulhu completely mad. It is a game about losing Sanity, sometimes gaining Sanity, and when the tentacles are really on the line, summoning Great Cthulhu himself. This is really bad for everyone!

Designed for two to six players aged ten and up, Cthulhu Dice comes as a blister pack containing one large “Cthulhu Die,” a ziplock bag containing eighteen green glass beads or Sanity Tokens, and a full colour rules sheet. The “Cthulhu Die” is actually a twelve-sided die that is marked with various symbols. Most of these are Tentacle and Yellow Sign symbols, with the rest being made up of single Cthulhu, Elder Sign, and Eye symbols. The “Cthulhu Die” is available in various colours, including some glow-in-the-dark variants that are exclusive to Warehouse 23, but being traditional, I chose the green die (and will probably buy the purple die for a certain perky Goth that I live with).

Game set up is simple. Each servant of Cthulhu receives three Sanity Tokens. Then the servants take it in turns to be the Caster, choosing a victim from amongst their fellow servants to curse, with the victim allowed to counter cast against the Caster who then becomes the victim. Once this Casting exchange has been completed, the next servant of Cthulhu is given the opportunity to target a fellow cultist.

To target or curse a victim, all the Caster has to do is roll the Cthulhu Die, apply the effects of the symbol rolled. The true nature of the metaphysical universe means that casting Mythos spells or at least summoning Mythos entities can have fickle outcomes or at least wildly misunderstood ones. Most of the results on Cthulhu Dice – represented by the Yellow Sign and Tentacle symbols – have the Caster stealing Sanity from the victim and keeping it or stealing Sanity from the victim and giving it to Cthulhu, in which case the Sanity Token is placed in a pile in the middle of the table. The more rarely rolled symbols result in the Caster gaining Sanity from Cthulhu (yes, really!), in the Caster picking the symbol of his choice, or horror of horrors, in the successful summoning of Cthulhu. In which case, everyone loses a Sanity Token to the Great Old One.

If as a result of all of this die rolling, a servant of Cthulhu loses all of his Sanity Tokens he goes Mad. A Mad Servant of Cthulhu cannot lose any more Sanity nor can he gain any unless he rolls the Elder Sign symbol. Even then, he is not exactly sane. After all, not only has gone insane after prolonged exposure to the Mythos, but even after regaining a semblance of humanity, he is still willing to dabble in things that Man Was Not Meant To Know. That really is madness...

Play proceeds like this until there is just the one just about sane servant of Cthulhu left. In other words, the one servant of Cthulhu who has not gone mad. He wins the game. It is entirely possible for everyone to go Mad, though this happens rarely. Anyway, if everyone goes Mad, it is Cthulhu who wins rather than one of his servants. Which he will anyway, come the End Times and it is just the meddling of his servants that hastened his victory...

All of which takes about five minutes to play. During which time, none of the players have done anything more than choose a victim, roll a big fat die, and hope for a really nasty outcome. Which is odd, because Cthulhu Dice is a “take that” style of game, and you would expect to have more choice in the game than you actually do. In fact the only choice available in the game is in choosing your victim with perhaps a slim chance of the servant of Cthulhu rolling an “Eye” symbol and getting to select the symbol and its effects that he wants. Nevertheless, Cthulhu Dice is fun. It can got out of its pack and the rules read through in about a minute with another minute needed to teach your fellow servants of Cthulhu.

Although Cthulhu Dice is designed for two to six players, the game has a problem that it shares with various others in that the two-player option is just not as fun as it is with more than two players. The two-player variant suggests that each player control more than one servant of Cthulhu with players taking alternate turns rather than rolling in for each servant of Cthulhu. I suspect that the primary reason for the two-player variant not being as fun is that it lacks the player interaction and the table talk that you get with more servants of Cthulhu.

Obviously, Cthulhu Dice is very pocket friendly, both in terms of actually fitting in your pocket and in terms of being friendly to your wallet. That said, I would have liked it to have been even more pocket friendly. Carrying the Cthulhu Die, the rules sheet, and the eighteen Sanity Tokens in the ziplock bag is not the best option as there is likely to be wear and tear on all three just through this carrying. For a few dollars more, what I would have liked to have been given is a cloth bag to store all three components in, perhaps marked with a Cthulhu symbol? Does this mean that there is room for a deluxe version of the game?

If you put aside the fact that it is possible to gain Sanity from Cthulhu, then Cthulhu Dice succinctly models the Sanity loss that we know and love all so well from Call of Cthulhu. Of course, in being so absolutely succinct it loses all of those fruity, soggy, squidgy, and squishy bits you get in between the Sanity loss in Call of Cthulhu, but in so cutting to the chase Cthulhu Dice becomes an excellent filler game. There is nothing wrong in that, because Cthulhu Dice is silly, insane fun, and who would not appreciate five minutes of that?

Saturday 8 May 2010

Naughty Boys Before D-Day

You get trends in gaming. For example, after the release of Pirates of the Caribbean back in 2003, there was a rash of piratically themed RPGs, and before that in 2001, there was a number of World War II themed RPGs, inspired of course, by the sixtieth anniversary of the USA’s entry into the conflict. Trends come and go, so it is no surprise that few of those games for either print remain in print, although many of them are available as PDFs. In fact, until the publication of Weird Wars: Weird War 2 – the Savage Worlds and thus better redevelopment of the Weird War II: Blood on the Rhine RPG for the d20 System – the only survivor from that spate of World War II themed RPGs was Godlike: Superhero Roleplaying in a World on Fire, 1936-1946 from Arc Dream Publishing. As its title suggests, this was an alternate take upon the war, one in which super powered individuals participated on all sides. The designer’s approach saw the player characters not as traditional superheroes, all spandex and gung ho, but as ordinary soldiers and civilians who through some stressful situation, were granted a power of some kind. Such powers might be the traditional ones of speed, flight, invulnerability, and so on, but they really could be anything. Sample powers or “Talents” as they are known might include being able to tunnel through rubble unimpeded, to fire your fingernails to deadly effect, to turn into a circus gorilla, to fall asleep and be able to send your skeleton to fight for you, and to able to open any lock. All it takes is willpower. The Allies organised their super powered soldiers or Talents into small units and gave them commando training – soldiers first, Talents second, whilst Nazi Germany “recruited” its Übermenschen into the SS and focused on their powers. Lastly, Willpower plays an important role because normally one Talent can spot another using his abilities and if they can see each other, one can contest the other’s use of his power on the strength of his will alone.

The other thing that Godlike introduced was the “ORE” or “One Roll Engine” system, which has since powered games such as Reign, Wild Talents, and Monsters and Other Childish Things. At its heart, the rules are simple. Roll handfuls of ten sided dice and hope to get matches, the result being read with both height and the width. The height being the highest number rolled in the match, the width being the number of matches. Thus if a player rolled seven dice and got a result of one, three, three, three, three, eight, and nine, the result would be four (width) by three (height). In combat, the result would be interpreted as, for example, a shot to the target’s left leg (determined by the height) with a base damage of four (the width) plus whatever damage bonus the weapon provides. In Godlike, two extra dice types are added. The first type is Hard Dice, which are always equal to ten, while Wiggle Dice, the second, can be set at any number. Other ORE games use different dice types, but whatever the game, these dice are more expensive to buy for attributes, skills, and powers.

The point of this lengthy explanation of Godlike and how it works is to give you some background for the review in question, which is of the latest release for the game. Despite the game being nearly a decade old, there are only a few of these, so the release of Operation Rascal is all the more welcome. The fact that Operation Rascal is a scenario is all the more welcome. Coming as a 2.23 MB, thirty-nine page PDF, Operation Rascal takes place during the run up to D-Day in 1944 and details one of those clever stratagems with which the Allies were able to pull the wool over the Axis’ eyes.

Although we know where D-Day landings took place – on and behind the beaches of Normandy – the point is that Germany did not, and that was how the Allies wanted to keep it. To that end, Allied intelligence ran all sorts of intelligence operations to persuade the Germans that they would land anywhere other than in North West France. “Operation Rascal” is one such stratagem. Through the use of Talents, the Allies plan to pull off an operation that would have been very difficult otherwise – to teleport Talent squads deep into northern France where they can attack specific targets, disrupt the activities of the occupying forces, and otherwise draw attention to themselves and their activities and so away from the actual landing sites.

The scenario lays the ground work for an attack on one such target in northern France, describing the location, the forces guarding it, and their response – including Übermenschen – to the attack by the player characters and their Talent squad. In fact, the scenario describes in detail the one night. First, the set up in which numerous Talent squads are assembled, briefed, and prepared; then transportation to France and the getting to the target; and lastly, the actual attack. Each of the steps is gone into in detail, the detail managing to provide the GM with just about everything that he needs to know, but also giving him quite a lot to keep track of. This issue is exacerbated later in the scenario as the GM has to control an increasing number of NPCs. Fortunately, the tactics employed by each group is clearly explained and where necessary, is supported with a round by round breakdown of their actions.

The location in question is a munitions factory. Initially it is lightly defended, no surprise given the number of other Talent squads sowing discord across northern France. This will change though, and this being a scenario for Godlike, the new opposition will involve Übermenschen. Though the player characters will not be facing a complete squad of the Nazi supermen at any one time, they will be dealing with some very nasty customers. It is always interesting to see what someone else comes up with in terms of Übermenschen as the game demands a inventiveness upon the part of the GM to design something more than a series blue-eyed, blonde Aryan clones. Curiously, the author of Operation Rascal has hewn towards that cliché just a little, with perhaps the slight overuse of Talents involving either strength or teleportation. Fortunately, this overuse is leavened with some interesting creations that will present a real challenge to the Allied Talents.

Where Operation Rascal really shines though, is in the opening scenes and in later scenes that present the Talents with a moral dilemma. Its opening scenes not only nicely capture the hurried feel of the mission to a tee, but they also provide the player characters with the opportunity to interact and shine. The nature of Talent abilities in Godlike is that while they will be regularly used in combat, they are not necessarily combat orientated and to get the most out of his powers, whether in combat or not, a player will have to be inventive. If his powers are not combat orientated, then a non-combat scene is exactly one place they can shine. The moral dilemmas come during combat and present the players with some tough choices, ones that are likely to be deleterious to their Talents’ Willpowers. In this the situations make use the rules from the supplement, Will to Power, but the guidelines given are enough for the GM to handle the situation.

Physically, Operation Rascal is well presented with nicely done maps, although a larger area map would have been helpful. It needs a little editing here and there, but the writing is never less than clear and there is advice aplenty for the GM on staging the adventure and how to handle certain Talent types. Lastly, fine use is made of the interactive PDF functions. If there is an issue, it is that the stats for the NPCs could have been more fully written out including their point costs as they are a little too abbreviated in the form given here.

Although it covers just the events of the one night, Operation Rascal should give a couple of good sessions of play, and hard ones at that. It is also open ended, with room for the player Talents to continue sewing discord and dissension behind enemy lines until they can link up with the advancing Allied lines in the weeks following D-Day, or if the GM so desires, room to get them home to prepare for a mission on D-Day itself. Modesty forbids my suggesting that he run my own scenario in such a case. Even if the GM does not run the scenario, it is decent enough for a GM to plunder for ideas and Übermenschen. Overall, Operation Rascal provides solid support for Godlike, a challenge for the GM, and an even bigger challenge for his players and their Talents.

Equine Dreams Are Bad Dreams

You can never have too many monsters for your game. If you never use all of the monsters you have at your disposal – go on, go look at how many books of monsters you have on your shelf, just the ones for Dungeons & Dragons mind, because if you start looking at monster books for other RPGs, you will never come back to read this review – then they are there at least to use as background, as the spurs for ideas, and so on. After all, the best thing about those monster books is the ideas that they contain, that and the serendipitous nature of finding a monster you want to use when you were looking for another monster that you were planning to use. Part of the reason that you need new monsters is the fact many can only be used so many times before your players know about them and so know how their characters should deal with them. In which case you either need new monsters or you need a new take on an old monster. Which is where the Monster Chronicles series comes in handy.

From the publisher behind Kobold Quarterly, the well received quarterly magazine that has taken up where Dragon left off, Monster Chronicles is a new PDF series of mini supplements that sets out to provide ecologies and variants for some of the lesser-known, and the well regarded, monsters to be found in Dungeons & Dragons and its many variants. In presenting it as a series, a DM is free to pick choose the monsters that he wants to look at rather than having to flick through the pages of a big fat tome. All right, so no serendipity, but direct and to the point and the DM’s choice. There are already two titles available, the first of which is Monster Chronicles: Nightmare, co-authored by Dungeons & Dragons luminary, Ed Greenwood with Rob McCreary from Paizo. This is good because Monster Chronicles: Nightmare is compatible with the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game.

We all know of the Nightmare as being a giant black horse, its flanks and hooves aflame, its eyes red and flaming, and its all too sharp teeth a sign of its preference for the flesh of the living. We also know that if alone it is often found along roads, otherwise this demonic creature of the outer planes is to be found as the chosen steed of many a great villain – remember “Venger, Force of Evil” from the Dungeons & Dragons cartoon? Pretty sure that he rode a Nightmare. Monster Chronicles: Nightmare builds on the entry to be found in the Pathfinder Bestiary and adds a fair amount of detail to the basic information that we know, covering its basic habitat, an extraplanar “world” where the creatures roam as packs; its physiology and the nature of its flames; its reproductive cycle – this information not entirely suitable for a younger audience; how it fights in battle; the relationship between Nightmare and rider, both willing and unwilling; and its possible progression from mere Nightmare into Elder Nightmare, or worse, a Vampire Nightmare!

The description is full of little bits of information that a DM might let find their way into his campaign. For example, it is possible for an alchemist to collect and store the sweat from a Nightmare, since this is what ignites upon contact with the air; that victims who have felt a Nightmare’s flame will suffer from actual nightmares, or bad dreams; and that it is actually possible for someone to take a Nightmare as a very exotic mount. And by someone, we mean a player character, because you just know that someone is going to want one, whatever his alignment.

Rounding out Monster Chronicles: Nightmare is a variant upon the Nightmare. This is a Karabasan, a Critical Rating eleven crimson equine inhabitant of the Elemental Plane of Fire that on the mortal plane is found in desert regions.  Also known as a fire mare, the creature reeks of brimstone and can freely create a cloud of blinding, nauseating sulphur around itself. The favoured mount of Efreet and with its desert theme, the Karabasan is a suitable addition for any campaign that takes place in a desert, perhaps with an Arabian or Egyptian theme.

As the first release in the Monster Chronicles series, this PDF does not quite get it off the excellent start that you might expect from a publisher such as Open Design. At just eight pages in length, you feel that it should be providing more information and that feeling is compounded by the fact that there are no adventure seeds as promised. There are ideas within its contents that will no doubt inspire a DM, but as to actual seeds, the PDF is bare. Then of course, there is the issue of price, which does feel a little too expensive for you are given. That said, as one off purchase that price is nothing to really gripe about, but get into the habit of collecting the series and it could get a little more expensive than you imagined.

If you happen to want to add the details of Nightmare to you game, then Monster Chronicles: Nightmare is exactly what you want. It nicely develops a classic creature from Dungeons & Dragons as promised adding quite a few juicy little details and so fleshing it out. In doing it gets the series off to a promising start. All that needs done is to add in the promised adventure seeds and the series will make a useful resource for many a DM.

Thursday 6 May 2010

Who'd Be A Merchant Banker?

Best known for War on Terror, the boardgame, TerrorBull Games has followed up that controversial yet critically acclaimed combination of world politics with satire with another snarky poke at our contemporary international state. Not about its politics, but about its economic state as everyone from the banks down to the potential house buyer overextended themselves and so caused the world’s financial systems to wobble, wobble some more, and then collapse. Those institutions that managed not to collapse all too often went to their respective governments and asked for help in bailing them out, and in too many cases, the men at the top of those intuitions walked away with millions in their pockets. In the latest game from TerrorBull Games, you play one of those greedy fat cats.

Designed for two to four players aged twelve and up, Crunch: The Game For Utter Bankers is the game in which as banking executives they try to keep their bank afloat whilst embezzling their bank’s assets and paying themselves enormous bonuses. When the “Credit Crunch” comes all they have left to survive on is the use of government bailouts that might just extend the financial life of their banks. The object of the game though, is not to be running the last bank afloat, but to be the banker who has walked away from the Credit Crunch with the biggest personal fortune.

The game is divided into four colour coded decks of cards. The first are the orange-backed Workforce Cards which represent a bank’s ability to process debt. The type of debt that they can process can be low (green), medium (orange), and high (red). Each Workface Card has one number – in millions – indicating how much it costs to run per turn and another number to indicate how many Asset cards can be lent against that Workface Card. The higher the type of Debt that a Workforce can process, the greater the number of Assets it can hold onto.

The pink-backed Asset Cards make up the largest deck and can be played either as Asset Cards or as Action Cards, but not both. All are marked with a monetary value – again in millions – with some marked as being cash or gold, or shares in arms, oil, or reconstruction companies. Primarily, such Asset Cards are lent out as Debt on Workforce Cards, but they can also be kept in a player’s Bank – represented by his hand of cards, or stashed away in his personal fortune – the point of the game. If an Asset Card can be played as an Action Card, it has some extra text to indicate what it can do. For example, “Portfolio Shake-Up” allows a player to rearrange all of his Assets lent to his Workforce, “Hedgefund” lets a player bet his Assets to gain more, whilst “Government Investigation” lets you pat another player down looking for hidden Assets that have been stashed away.

The purple-backed Trust Cards represents the faith that the government and the public at large has in a Bank. They remain face down for most of the game, but can be turned over at any time – usually when the Bank is running short of Assets – to receive a Government Bailout Package represented by a number on the back, between two and five new Assets. At worst, this Bailout Package can be useless and offer “No Help!” whatsoever.

Lastly, the blue-packed Event Cards mainly provide a means to gain income, represented by Asset Cards paid out as interest on Debts held – the higher the risk, the greater the payoff. They also have other effects such as “Bonus Time,” which has all of the CEOs voting to reward themselves a bonus of extra Asset Cards; “Bad Debt,” which forces every CEO to discard an Asset; and “War,” which grants a CEO more Assets if he holds shares in arms, oil, or reconstruction companies. The Event Cards also includes the dreaded “Crunch” Card which forces every CEO to show that he can cover the Debts he has with the Assets held. One Event Card is drawn at the end of each player’s turn and it affects every player.

Game set up is simple. Each player receives one Workforce Card, placed face up on the table; a number of Trust Cards, placed face down on the table; and several Asset Cards, held in a player’s hand as his Bank. The number of Trust and Asset Cards vary according to the number of players – fewer players mean more of each. The top card from the Workforce deck is placed face up.

On his turn a player can do four things. First he manages his Workforce, either increasing it and so gaining both a Trust and a Workforce Card; liquidating it and so losing all Debts attached to the Workforce Card as well as losing a Trust Card; or doing nothing. Then he pays his Overheads, covering all of the Debt he has attached to his Workforce Cards with Asset Cards from his hand. Then he can loan out any remaining Asset Cards as he wants, placing them on his Workforce Cards as he chooses. Lastly he turns over a new Event Card, the details of which apply to every player.

In addition, a player has a number of options that he can do at any time. These include flipping Trust Cards to gain a Government Bailout and thus more Assets; swapping, lending, or selling Assets with another Bank; playing an Action Card; and Embezzling Assets. To Embezzle an Asset a player must get its card from his Bank – or hand – and hide it somewhere. If the Embezzler is caught in the act, then the Asset is returned to his hand and he loses a Trust Card. A successfully Embezzled Card is added to the player’s personal fortune and counts towards the winning conditions at game’s end.

Lastly, if a player is subject to Audit or a “Crunch” Event Card, he must show that he has enough Assets in his Bank to cover the Debt lent out on his Workforce. When this happens and player does not have enough Assets in his Bank he either goes Bankrupt or he goes to the Government for a Bailout. The latter involves a player turning over one or more of his Trust Cards, receiving the indicated number of Asset Cards until he can cover his Debt. Should a player have neither enough Asset Cards nor enough Trust Cards, then the Bank is Bankrupt, and the player is knocked out of the game. The failed Bank is then put up for auction by the remaining Banks.

Play continues until all but one Bank has failed. The CEO of this surviving Bank receives a bonus to his personal fortune with extra bonuses received for any Trust Cards still held, but he is not necessarily the game’s winner. The actual winner is the CEO who has managed to accrue the largest fortune, this fortune being a combination of bonuses awarded – for example, by the “Bonus Time” Event Card, and whatever Asset Cards a CEO has managed to embezzle.

There are a couple of odd rules about the game. The first is the means of determining the starting player – whoever is the richest goes first. Which is a bit of a rude question. The second is not really a rule, but a suggestion that the players all wear three piece suits just as a fat cat banker would, the reason being that it provides more sleeves and pockets into which Asset Cards can be embezzled. Even considering the fact that not everyone owns such apparel, embezzling cards and getting them into pockets with everyone else watching is actually pretty difficult.

Embezzling though, is not the only means to win the game, though a CEO could just go for broke, embezzling as many Assets as he can before his Bank goes bankrupt. Crunch can be won by remaining solvent and gaining bonuses in play and at game’s end as the surviving Bank, maintaining one balance between Assets lent out as Debt and those in the Bank and another balance between Assets in play and his greed and thus need to embezzle. This is not easy as the game is meant to emulate the spiral into bankruptcy that sees Asset after Asset pass through the hands of the CEOs as they lends them as Debt, uses them to pay Overheads, and lastly to prove that can cover those Debts, all the while hoping for interest payments that will help finance their Banks. Getting to the end does mean knocking other players out of the game and that is one unfortunate aspect to Crunch because it does leave any such players with nothing to do until the end. Even so, the game is more interesting when there are more players because more Event Cards are turned over and a CEO has to survive longer between the periods when he can act.

What is interesting about Crunch is that as each Bank overextends itself and spirals into inevitable collapse, it is possible to create a narrative that apes the story of the financial crisis of the past two years. For example, if a CEO decides to reduce his Workforce and so discard the Assets loaned on that card, he must also discard one of his Trust Cards as both government and the public loses faith in the Bank. The CEO could avoid this by playing the “Bury the Story” Asset/Action Card, but equally another player could counter this with the “Investigative Journalism” card. This gives you a story or narrative, and there are any number of Action Cards that interact during the game like this, all modelling the flux and flow of the financial events of recent times.

Physically, Crunch is a nicely done card game, the cartoon illustrations done in full colour with each sharply catching the flavour of the card it illustrates, usually to humorous effect. That said, some of the illustrations and thus the humour are slightly adult in nature, so Crunch might not be a game to play with a younger audience or at school. This is not say that the cards in question are anything more than mildly offensive, but in such situations, it would be better to remove the less tasteful cards in question. Slightly more problematic are the rules which are perhaps a little too concisely written for easy and quick understanding of how the game is played. This makes it a little difficult to impart the game to others because the game itself looks more complicated than it is. At least one good play through is required to understand how the game flows and plays.

What strikes you first about Crunch is its theme, which is very well done and to very humorous effect. It is not a design in which theme overly dominates as the game’s mechanics do support the theme very well. Coming a close second to the poking fun at our current fiscal state and how got into said state, Crunch: The Game For Utter Bankers also explains and illustrates how we got here, which is where it might have an educational use. The contemporary nature of the game and its knock-out style play may well mean that in the future it does not come off the gaming shelf all that often, but this does not mean that Crunch is a bad game. Crunch: The Game For Utter Bankers is a solid design, its satire is to the point, and its play perfectly illustrates its theme.

What's Your Stand?

@ctiv8 is the result of a challenge made to the designer, James “Grim” Desborough. It is not his first, but where Hentacle - The severely adult card game for hentai-loving reprobates came out of being challenged to create a game based on that most outré of Japanese anime genres, the challenge here was to create an overtly political game. Not political in terms of politicking and jockeying for power, but in taking a stance that is explicitly political and expressing it within the game.

Published by Postmortem Studios, in @ctiv8, that stance is best described as “militantly liberal;” and if not anti-political, it is both anti the current state of both politics and democracy. It takes the idea that both have failed the electorate, and because of this, many have turned to other means. In an age of single issue politics, when all politicians seem alike and never seem to listen to the voice of the voters, these means take the form of activism. Primarily radical activism, in which the activists take the law into their own hands, deciding for themselves the rights and wrongs of an issue. Whatever the cause in question -- an anti road protest, free trade, anti-corporate, anti hunt, green issues, race rights, animal rights, and so on, ordinary (and not so ordinary) members of the public have had enough and are taking direct action. Their point of congregation is “@ctiv8.”

Inspired by the dispersed nature of online communities and file sharing software, “@ctiv8” is both one of these communities and a piece of software. Once downloaded and installed, it gives the surveilled, vetted, and profiled new member access to this self-regulating community which comes together over an issue and organizes a group of individuals best suited to dealing with it. Sometimes this may mean co-operating with other groups and parties that may have the resources to help and agree with the issue, but might hold to less palatable politics. The dispersed nature of “@ctiv8,” which operates on a high degree of trust, makes it difficult to infiltrate.

Set if not in the here and now, then this evening after you have finished work, @ctiv8 casts the players as members of this global anarchist conspiracy willing to do what it takes to make the world a better place. Not just the one member, as @ctiv8 uses troupe play, with it being suggested that a roster of characters be created from which the most suitable activists can be drawn. This can be as Experts, Sponsors (providing both equipment and money), Placements (whose position helps get a task done), or Volunteers (who have nothing but enthusiasm to add). Besides the use of multiple characters, @ctiv8 is radical in that character cannot earn experience or improve, and is wholly intended to be disposable.  To further support the use of multiple, different characters, it is suggested that the game be run as a series of episodes.

Rather than beat you over the head with its political stance, @ctiv8 points the reader towards its inspirations -- the comic book (and television pilot) Global Frequency, internet communities, the act of filesharing, and particularly, the news. Indeed, the 10 adventure seeds were all mined from the BBC news site from a single day in August, 2005. Of course, both players and GM are free to interpret these stories as they want, especially if they disagree with the game’s political stance. It is also entirely possible to play @ctiv8 as a more traditional conspiracy RPG, and there is already a “them versus us” structure built into the game.

Mechanically, @ctiv8 uses the “Xpress System,” a new set of rules that will appear in future Postmortem Studios releases. They may also include the experience point system missing here. A dice pool system, six-sided dice are rolled to score successes. The pool size is determined by one of ten paired attributes, the target by the skill value which lowers it from a default level of six. The range of both attributes and skills is between one and six. Any successes rolled can be re-rolled once and counted towards the total, with three successes being counted as an average result. The difficulty or ease of a task will lower or increase the target, and even add or subtract dice if particularly easy or difficult. Dice can also be added for skill specializations (for example, Guns/Pistol) and skill focuses (Guns/Pistol/Glock 17). The accompanying combat system is short, bloody, and brutal, emphasizing in particular, the time it takes to heal.

Character generation consists of purchasing ten paired attributes made up of active and passive statistics, buying skills, and finally creating merits and flaws. There are different pools for both attributes and skills, and points from either can be spent on merits and flaws. Both of the latter need be designed by the player and agreed upon by the GM, and can be fairly expensive. Alternatively, a quick play method is given, which includes the numbers for attributes and skills. They only need to be assigned. The Xpress System is rounded out with rules for vehicle chases, and a short equipment list.

Physically, @ctiv8 is decently presented, its activism given a nod in the front and back cover, a collage made up from LiveJournal icons, and in the method of introducing “@ctiv8,” as a chat room discussion. The internal artwork is reasonable, but one problem is the book’s last two pages. They are blank. Room then, for the character sheet which is absent, and maybe even some more seeds or a fuller scenario. Perhaps even similar to the support already provided weekly for @ctiv8 in form of a news story expanded and developed into a gaming friendly format. GM advice is present, and fundamentally addresses the problem of running a game in which making a change or difference is the objective. How far can changes be effected before the world is no longer our own? Even despite this advice, finding a balance between an immutable world and a thoroughly altered world, is a hard task.

In examining @ctiv8 you have to answer a single question. Has the author created a political game in answer to the gauntlet thrown down before him? Well, yes, but not unconditionally so. The problem is still that beyond taking the stance, the game cannot follow through on it without veering away from its core concept of making a change. How often can a change be made before the world itself becomes unrecognisable? If making the big change is unrealistic then, perhaps the steps need to be much, much smaller -- deal with the big issues at the heart of the game in increments. Such increments would correspond to the suggested episodic structure of the game. At this level, then the players can execute change and be political, making @activ8 is a political game about small changes.