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

Friday 27 August 2010

I Got The Altered Morphology Blues

Next January 12th, something strange is going to happen. People around the world start suffering from a flu strain, bad enough that they have to go Casualty. Thankfully, the pandemic proves not to be fatal, and on January 23rd, the symptoms all but vanish. The first manifestation of strange and wonderful abilities will occur several months after the disappearance of the “Ghost Flu.” People are suddenly able to fly, move objects with their minds, and more. It will take a while for people to tie these manifestations back to the “Ghost Flu,” but when they do it will become known as the “Sudden Mutation Event” or “SME.”

In the next ten years approximately 1% of the population will SME. There will be no outbreak of costumed heroes, but the most photogenic of SME suffers will become celebrities, sportsmen, TV and film stars, or politicians. Others will find jobs related to their new found powers, whilst others will just get on with their lives as just members of accepted minorities. Which includes the criminals; because 1% of the population also means 1% of the criminals, and that means that some kind of task force is going to be needed to deal with their crimes. To that end, most big city police forces will have a Heightened Crimes Investigation Unit (HCIU) or similar within a decade after the events of January 12th, staffed by the super powered and tasked to investigate and solve SME related crimes, whether committed by or against SME sufferers. The HCIU also serves as a combination liaison/bulwark between the mutants and ordinary folk.

The decade spent assimilating the super abilities of the SME suffers also gave time for the legal ramifications of Power use to be considered. Not just using them to rob a bank, but using them in the course of an investigation. For example, Technopathy allows someone to extract information from digital storage devices, but you need a Search Warrant for it to be admissible in court. Some powers have side effects too. For example, X-Ray Vision lets you see through objects, but because it admits small amounts of radiation, users have been sued because they are thought to cause cancer. In addition, this radiation can wipe camera film, much to the consternation of the paparazzi. Some powers, such as Radiation Projection, are considered illegal and anyone possessing has to be registered under “Article 18,” though not necessarily monitored. The study of superpowers and SME expressive is known as Anamorphology, while members of the HCIU are trained in Forensic Anamorphology.

This is the setting for Mutant City Blues, a super powered investigative RPG by Robin D. Laws that is published by Pelgrane Press and which uses the author and publisher’s GUMSHOE System as seen in The Esoterorists and Trail of Cthulhu. The emphasis on investigation makes Mutant City Blues more of a Police Procedural than a traditional superhero RPG, more NYPD Blue, C.S.I. , or Southland with powers rather than the comic book Gotham Central or the Special Crimes Unit from Superman’s home town, Metropolis. Of course, both cities and their respective versions of HCIU would serve as excellent sources for a Mutant City campaign, and there is nothing to stop the inventive GM running an unpowered game set in either Gotham or Metropolis, but really the focus of Mutant City game is on superpowered cops in a real city. This could be Chicago, Toronto, or the GM’s home city. That said, the feel of the book is very much upon North America, so any GM wanting to set his game in the UK or Europe will have to put a little extra effort in getting the feel right.

For ease of play, Laws provides a complete set of elements that can be added to any large city to push it forward the decade into the world of Mutant City Blues. This includes a look at sport and the arts, a timeline for the GM’s “Mutant City,” new slang and jargon, and new institutes and businesses. The most well known new institute is The Quade Institute, the world’s foremost Anamorphological research centre, run by the renowned geneticist, Lucius Quade. The Quade Institute is also where members of the Heightened Crimes Investigation Unit are trained in Forensic Anamorphology. A complete Heightened Crimes Investigation Unit is described, ready for the player characters to be slotted into. Although many of its members tend towards being clichés, this is a police procedural game after all, and the various HCIU officers are more interesting than some of the NPCs described elsewhere. Lastly, there is “Food Chain,” a complete scenario ready to play, an against the clock race to stop a murder cult. Again, this all feels very North American.

As with other GUMSHOE System games, characters are defined by various abilities, each a pool of points that is spent throughout the game. These abilities are either Investigative or General, with Investigative Abilities divided into Academic, Interpersonal, and Technical. Mutant City Blues being a superhero game, characters also receive points to assign to various Mutant Powers, which are again split between Investigative and General Powers. What defines the split between Investigative and General Abilities and Powers is how they are used.
An HCIU officer is an experienced detective and he knows what to look for at a crime scene. If he has a relevant Investigative Ability or Power, such as Forensic Psychology or Translation, he gets the basic or Core clue. If he wants further information, he can spend points from the Ability or Power’s pool, usually one or two points. What the GUMSHOE System is doing with its Core clues is moving the emphasis to be found in most investigative games away from finding clues to analysing them.
General Abilities and Powers, such as Infiltration or Fire Projection, are more proactive in nature, requiring that their points be spent and added to a roll of single six-sided die against a target if the officer is to be successful. It should be noted that both Health and Stability – the RPG’s equivalent of a character’s mental health, are General Abilities, and so need to be bought. They also need to be spent to withstand some attacks and effects.

The points given for General Abilities and Mutant Powers do not vary. The number of points a player has to assign to Investigative Abilities will vary according to the number of players. Choosing General and Investigative Abilities is straightforward, choosing your Powers is not. What limits them is the fact that certain Powers appear in the same cluster, so that if a mutant has the Powers Invisibility and Light Control, he is likely to have Light Blast, X-Ray Vision, Illusion, and so on, but not Radiation Immunity or Cure Disease since they do not appear in the same cluster of genes. The dispersal of Powers is tracked by a Quade Diagram, and this is used out of the game to help a player select his Powers and the GM to choose the Powers for his NPCs. It is used within the game by the HCIU officers to determine The Powers used at a crime scene, as many of them leave some form of residue. It can determine the involvement of one Mutant if the residue is clustered, more if there are several clusters.

The point is that in the world of Mutant City Blues, Powers are not gained randomly and they are not the typical abilities of the tradition “Four Colour” game. Most Power use is taxing and there will be a limited number of times that a mutant will be able use his power before they are exhausted.
The sample character is Detective Devon Garkovich, 2nd Grade. He is a reluctant investigator who prefers to go over clues and background in the squad room, where he is known for his appetite and his delight in taking mandated department courses, in particular health and safety and fire safety. Were it not for his way around departmental paperwork and his ability to analyse situations, he would be dismissed as the HCIU boss’ stooge.

Detective Devon Garkovich, 2nd Grade
General Abilities: Athletics 3, Driving 2, Health 15, Infiltration 2, Mechanics 2, Medic 5, Preparedness 6, Scuffling 3, Sense Trouble 6, Shooting 3, Stability 10, Surveillance 4
Investigative Abilities: Bullshit Detector 4, Bureaucracy 4, Cop Talk 2, Data Retrieval 2, Evidence Collection 2, Flattery 2, Interrogation 2, Law 4, Negotiation 2, Reassurance 2
Powers: Cognition 3, Detect Influence 4, Precision Memory 4, Read Minds 5, Telepathy 4
Defects: Erotomania

One drawback or roleplaying opportunity – depending upon how you look at it and I look at it as a roleplaying opportunity – to selecting Powers is that in associating certain Powers and a mutant will suffer from a Defect. For example, if a mutant has Lightning Decisions and Speed he will be prone to Attention Deficit Disorder, while anyone who has Natural Weaponry and Limb Extension is likely to suffer from Arthritis. If a player character begins the game with a Defect, it is only latent. It will express itself or grow worse if the character is placed under stress, after having either failed a Stability check or suffered from a Forced Refresh for a Power that he has exhausted and really needs to use again, straining himself in the process. Defects can also be the subject of a campaign’s sub-plots, these being used in a scenario as a secondary plot that can keep everyone involved in the scenario.

While the police procedural will be familiar to many, how to combine with the superhero genre will not. Fortunately the author addresses this combination in no little depth. There is advice about playing a cop and on being a stand up cop, on HCIU procedures, how to handle interrogations, and a short analysis of the police procedural in comparison to real investigations. In particular, the latter looks at the speed of forensic analysis on the television versus the real world, on certain cops always getting high profile cases, and so. Of course, the world of Mutant City Blues is not meant to be the real world. There is also good advice on structuring a mystery story, needed in part because a GUMSHOE System is structured around a story’s clues more so and more obviously than in other RPGs. Finally, there are several more case seeds beyond the scenario included, and beyond that, there are sources aplenty as far the police procedural genre goes. A pity though, that no bibliography was included, for the police procedural or the superhero genre.

Physically, Mutant City Blues is a pleasing looking book. It has been given a blue wash throughout, including the artwork of Jérôme Huguenin. My initial reaction to that artwork was that it was nowhere near as good as his artwork for the excellent Trail of Cthulhu. Upon reflection this is still the case, but this due to the fact that the artwork in Trail of Cthulhu is just so damned good. Which makes the artwork here decent enough.

Mutant City Blues is not quite perfect. It suffers from being, if not too American, then too North American in its take upon the genre, and some players might find its superpowers to be too low powered to their tastes, but this is purely intentional. Mutant City Blues is a police procedural with superpowers, more than it is a superpowered police procedural. The players have to solve the crime using their Investigative Abilities and Powers before confronting the perpetrators.

Three questions have to be answered in summing up Mutant City Blues. First, has Robin D. Laws created a plausible police procedural? In other words, could you run this game without the superpowered aspect? The answer to that is yes, even though much of the advice is geared towards the staging and solving of superpowered crimes. The second question is, has he created to a good superhero RPG? If you wanted a relatively low powered system, then yes. The emphasis though, is very much on the police procedural. The last question is, has he successfully brought the two genres together? The answer to that is an unqualified yes. Mutant City Blues is a successful melding of two genres without one overpowering the other.

White Box Fever I

The imminent launch by Wizards of the Coast of the Dungeons & Dragons Essentials line with the release of the Dungeons & Dragons Red Box Set has peaked the interest of many a gamer. Especially the older gamer who recalls Frank Mentzer's red box version of Basic Dungeons & Dragons from days of yore, looking back upon the core set as a standard by which many an introductory RPG can be measured. After all, for them it was their introduction to the hobby, just as it was mine. If the original Red Box set is remembered with such fondness, it begs the following questions. Does the hobby twenty five years on have its equivalent, an introductory RPG that can invoke the same sense of wonder? That can do as good a job of introducing a new player to the hobby? Over the next few weeks, in the lead up to the release of the new Red Box Set, Reviews from R'lyeh will take a look at what is available, beginning with the Dungeons & Dragons Roleplaying Game Starter Set for Dungeons & Dragons Fourth Edition.

The publication of Dungeons & Dragons Fourth Edition back in 2008 was highly anticipated. It saw a major redesign and change in playing philosophy from what had gone before for the last thirty years. Yet it appeared that Wizards of the Coast was marketing this redesign with a surprising indifference and bar picking up a copy of the Player's Handbook, there was no easy way in which to start or learn the game. This remained a problem until the publication of the Dungeons & Dragons Roleplaying Game Starter Set a few months after the release of the three core books, the Player's Handbook, the Monster Manual, and the Dungeon Master's Guide. What you find in the box are a sixteen-page “Dungeons & Dragons Fourth Edition Quick-Start Rules,” a sixty-four “Dungeon Master’s Guide;” a sheet of over fifty double-sided counters; three sheets of double-sided dungeon floor tiles; and a set of polyhedral dice. Everything is done in full colour and illustrated with that muscular style of artwork that has come to dominate the hobby's leading Dungeons & Dragons variants.

There not being one of those handy sheets that explains what is inside the box, the starting point is the Dungeons & Dragons Fourth Edition Quick-Start Rules or player's book. More of a booklet, being staple bound, than a book, this very efficiently explains the game's rules and mechanics, focusing as the current version of Dungeons & Dragons does, on combat. It is rounded out with five pregenerated characters, a Dwarf Fighter, a Halfling Rogue, an Eladrin Wizard, a Human Cleric, and a Dragonborn Paladin. These are fully detailed, and each of them includes the extra feats, powers, and hit points to be added at second and third level. What this booklet omits are rules for character generation, though this is to be expected, since the Starter Set is intended to be a stepping stone onto the player's handbook. Also omitted are descriptions of the classes, the roles, and the races of these characters, though the races are described in the Dungeon Master’s Guide in terms of being monsters.

Much of the same rules and details are repeated from the Quick-Start Rules in the Dungeon Master’s Guide, but this book expands on this information to guide the DM through the process of running the game. There is advice in sidebars on being fair and a detailed breakdown of what goes into making up a monster in Dungeons & Dragons Fourth Edition. This is all in preparation for the book's scenario, “Beneath the Village of Harken: An Adventure,” which looks to be set in the same location as the scenario, H1: Keep on the Shadowfell. The scenario makes use of most of the included dungeon tiles and a few of the tokens. At just three encounters in length, it can be completed in an evening and is enough to give everyone involved a taste of what Dungeons & Dragons Fourth Edition is like. Reading closely, the mini adventure includes some pointers to the DM to help him run the scenario, and in some ways, these are the most useful feature in the Dungeon Master’s Guide. The second half of the book guides the dm through the process of Building Encounters and adding traps and hazards to an encounter. This only takes up a few pages as the rest of the Dungeon Master’s Guide is devoted to a bestiary. Nearly thirty pages of monsters!

Physically, both booklets are presented on the same slick, glossy paper used throughout the Dungeons & Dragons Fourth Edition. Without a card cover, both booklets feel flimsy and not as hardwearing as I would like. One issue with both booklets is the lack of index, the inclusion of which would have aided the prospective player or DM wanting to look up a particular term or rule. Both the tokens and the dungeon tiles are much better done, having been printed on sturdy cardboard. The tokens include lots and lots of monsters as well as those for the pregenerated characters. There is actually quite a lot of variety in the tiles and beyond the confines of the Dungeons & Dragons Roleplaying Game Starter Set a group is likely to get quite a lot of use out of them.

The awful truth is that the Dungeons & Dragons Fourth Edition Starter Set is not very good, and not very good for two reasons. The first reason is that it does not explain enough. Its explanation of roleplaying is cursory at best, wholly inadequate at worst, and neither booklet gives a single example of play anywhere. There should have been at least two pages devoted to this, just as there should have been another two pages devoted to a detailed example of how to referee a session. Also, where is example of solo play? And while that make look like a cliché to our jaded eyes, it would get a player going as soon as he opened the box.

The second reason is the inclusion of just a single, very short adventure that can be completed in one evening. After that, the DM is expected to write the next adventure. Really? After running a single session of three encounters? In a product that is meant to get the characters from first to third level? Writing an adventure is an incredibly daunting prospect especially if all that you have seen and run is just three encounters. There should have been at least one more adventure in the box, if not more, these additions serving as examples as well as the opportunity for the players to experience the feeling of their characters going up a level or two.

If you want an introduction to Dungeons & Dragons Fourth Edition, then H1: Keep on the Shadowfell does a better job. All right, so it does not include the character and monster tokens, but it offers more extensive play and the possibility of the characters rising in level.

The terrible truth is that Dungeons & Dragons Fourth Edition Starter Set feels like an afterthought, something put together in a hurry to have a product aimed at the younger market in time for Christmas. Worse, it feels like the designers have just cut and pasted large chunks of material from elsewhere without consideration for box's intended audience. Indeed, the only time that this audience is directly addressed is in the little pieces of advice in the all too short scenario.

As an introduction to roleplaying, the Dungeons & Dragons Fourth Edition Starter Set is useless. As an introduction to Dungeons & Dragons, the Dungeons & Dragons Fourth Edition Starter Set is little better. Both because of the lack of examples and the all too cursory explanations. The result is a product with which you cannot get playing out of the box with any ease and a product that needs an experienced player to help teach the game to the neophyte player. In which case, why not buy a copy of the Player's Handbook and H1: Keep on the Shadowfell instead?

The Dungeons & Dragons Fourth Edition Starter Set should have made the prospective new player go "Wow!" and want to make him play. It does nothing of the sort and with the release of the Red Box Essentials set is going to be relegated to gaming history as a disappointing and missed opportunity. If you consider that Dungeons & Dragons is the world's biggest and most popular RPG, it almost behoves Wizards of the Coast to have a product available that effectively and easily introduces players to the hobby. We can only hope that the Red Box Essentials will do exactly that, because Dungeons & Dragons Fourth Edition Starter Set does anything but...

Friday 20 August 2010

Five Rings Get Their Fourth

The year 2010 marks the fifteenth anniversary of the Legend of the Five Rings Collectable Card Game from Alderac Entertainment Group. To celebrate that fact, the publishers released a new, fourth edition of the roleplaying game based on the Collectable Card Game that was originally designed by John Wick in 1997, and to be honest, it was needed. Both the Legend of the Five Rings Third Edition and Legend of the Five Rings Third Edition Revised Edition had suffered from secondary mechanics that were too complex, from a lack of balance between the character types and their abilities, and physically, from the need for extensive errata. It was also tied to quite a tight timeline that meant that some of its background and its players options were different at different times during that timeline. The effort to rectify all of these issues has resulted in Legend of the Five Rings Fourth Edition.

Physically, the result is a quite lovely hard back with a nice simple cover and a clean layout inside with everything easy to find. The contents are also well organised, as in previous editions, into books or chapters that follow the game’s five rings theme. Thus the Book of Air details the setting; the Book of Earth the core rules and mechanics; character creation is covered in the Book of Fire; the Book of Water provides optional and more advanced elements that a GM can add to his game; while the Book of Void contains more background as well as advice for the GM. The artwork is excellent, split equally between ethereal pieces that capture the meditative tranquillity of life in the setting, and high action pieces that portray the harsh brutality of war and strife in the setting.

That setting is Rokugan, a land inspired primarily by feudal Japan but also by China and Korea. It is a land dominated by eight great and many minor Clans that vie for control and influence on the battlefield in Summer and at court during Winter, all the while still owing fealty to the Emperor. Below the Emperor are the samurai and below them, the many peasants that they govern. Samurai are what the players will roleplay in Legend of the Five Rings, but more specifically, they can play bushi, which are the warrior samurai that we think when we think of samurai; shugenja, priests who pray to the kami or spirits to cast spells; or courtiers, the politicians, civil servants, and diplomats of Rokugan who serve their clans’ needs at court. Whatever his role, a samurai adheres to the tenets of Bushido, though which tenet he favours will vary according to his clan.

The eight great clans vary quite widely, each having its own theme and attitude towards the other clans. No surprise there, since this is an update of a 1990s design. The Crab Clan use their strength to man the wall that protects the Empire from the Shadowlands, but are regarded as uncouth and ill mannered; Crane Clan are known as the Left Hand of the Emperor and are wealthy and influential politicians; The Dragon Clan remain aloof from most affairs in its mountain fast, but have sallied forth to aid the Empire several times; and the Lion Clan are the Right Hand of the Emperor, being devoted warriors. The Mantis Clan is the only clan to have been raised to major clan status and is known for its sailors; where the Lion Clan is known for its bushi, the Phoenix Clan is known for its shugenja; the Underhand of the Emperor are the Scorpion Clan, which revels in its villainous status and reputation; and lastly, the Unicorn Clan are Rokugan’s horsemen, who spent several centuries in the Gaijin lands to the West.

Characters inLegend of the Five Ringsare defined by the five attributes or Rings: Air, Water, Earth, Fire, and Void. Apart from Void, each Ring is comprised of two traits. For example, the Water Ring is made up of Perception and Strength. The value of a Ring is equal to the lower of its two traits. For example, Nioko has Perception 3 and Strength 2, so her Water Ring would be 2, equal to her Strength. If she undertook regular exercise and spent the appropriate Experience Points, she could raise her Strength and thus her Water Ring to 3. A character will also be defined by various factors such as Glory, Honour, and Status, but primarily by her clan, her family and her school. Apart from the minor clans, each clan has several families, one bushi, one courtier, and one shugenja school, plus a more specialised school such as the Lion Clan’s Matsu Berserker School.

To create a character, a player selects a clan, a family, and a school. Both family and school grant a trait bonus each, while the school will teach the character a number of set skills plus the first of several techniques that enhance a character's abilities and reflect the school's teachings. At this point, a character will be like any samurai who has attended that particular school, but each player receives a number of points with which to customise the character. These can be spent to add advantages and disadvantages, and add and improve skills to personalise the character, whether that is making a samurai a better swordsman with Kenjitsu, adding a hobby skill like Poetry, or having him Haunted by an ancestor. Some skills, especially those that will find favour with players in other games such as Ninjitsu or Anatomy, are regarded as being dishonourable skills and a samurai will lose honour if he is seen using them.

The following three characters model the three character types in the game. Apart from equipment – and Legend of the Five Rings is not a game in which money matters very much, they are ready to play.

Tsuruchi Tsuru, Mantis Bushi
Air: 2 (Reflexes 3), Earth: 2 Fire: 2, Water: 3 Void: 2
Honour: 3.5, Status: 1.0, Glory: 1.0, Insight: 132
School/Rank: Tsuruchi Archer, Rank 1
Technique: Always Be Ready
Advantages: Absolute Direction, Daredevil, Touch of the Spirit Realm (Chikushudo)
Disadvantages: Phobia (Fire) 2, Sworn Enemy
Skills: Animal Handling 2, Athletics 2, Craft (Bowyer) 2, Battle 1, Defence 2, Etiquette 1, Hunting 2, Investigation 2, Kenjutsu 2, Kyujutsu (Yumi) 3, Medicine 1, Lore (Bushido) 1, Sailing 1

Yasuki Oguri, Crab Courtier
Air: 2 (Awareness 3), Earth: 2 Fire: 2 (Intelligence 3), Water: 2 (Perception 3) Void: 2
Honour: 2.5, Status: 1.0, Glory: 1.0, Insight: 118
School/Rank: Yasuki Courtier, Rank 1
Technique: The Way of the Carp
Advantages: Voice
Disadvantages: Bad Eyesight, True Love
Skills: Artisan: Poetry 1, Athletics 1, Commerce (Appraisal) 2, Courtier 2 (Manipulation), Defence 1, Etiquette (Bureaucracy) 3, Intimidation (Control) 1, Investigation (Notice) 1, Jiujutsu 1, Kenjutsu 1, Lore: Bushido 1, Sailing 1, Sincerity (Deceit) 2

Kitsu Rihito, Lion Shugenja
Air: 2 Earth: 2 Fire: 2 (Intelligence 3), Water: 3 Void: 2
Honour: 6.5, Status: 1.0, Glory: 1.0, Insight: 133
School/Rank: Kitsu Shugenja, Rank 1
Technique: Eyes of the Ancestors
Affinity/Deficiency: Water/Fire
Spells: Sense, Commune, Summon; Path to Inner Peace, Reflections of Pan Ku, Reversal of
Fortunes; To Seek the Truth, Yari of Air; Jade Strike
Advantages: Inner Gift (Lesser Prophecy), Precise Memory
Disadvantages: Doubt, Epilepsy, Haunted
Skills: Battle 1, Calligraphy (Cipher) 1, Defence 2, Divination (Astrology) 2, Games (Go) 1, Etiquette 1, Kenjutsu 2, Lore: History 1, Lore: Spirit Realms 2, Lore: Theology 2, Meditation 2, Spellcraft 3, Tea Ceremony 1, War Fan 2

For its mechanics, Legend of the Five Rings still uses the "Keep and Roll" system. For any action this has a character roll a number of ten sided dice, select the ones that he wants to use and then add them up. The number rolled is usually equal to the governing trait or Ring plus skill with the number kept being equal to the attribute or Ring, expressed as “xky,” where x is the number to roll and y the number to keep. For example, Tsuruchi Tsuru our Mantis Bushi above is out hunting when he is ambushed by a trio of Bakemono or goblins. He already has his Yumi or bow to hand and quickly notches an arrow as the creatures scamper towards him. He has to roll three dice for his Reflexes and three for his Kyujutsu skill, but can only keep the governing trait value or three for his Reflexes. This is expressed as 6k3.

The total rolled is compared to a TN or Target Number, which in the case of the Bakemono is 15. If Tsuru wants or needs to do something more than achieve this target, he can make Raises, adding five to the TN for each Raise declared before the roll. The limit on the number of Raises is a character’s Void Ring. In combat, Raises can add to the damage dice rolled or kept, depending on the number of Raises. If a character has an appropriate emphasis for a skill, he re-roll any ones rolled, and if just has the skill, then results of ten can be rolled again and added to the total. Tsuru thinks he has a good chance of hitting one of the goblins and declares two Raises, increasing the TN to 25. Rolling the dice, he gets 1, 5, 6, 7, 8, and 10. Since he has the Yumi Emphasis, he re-roll the 1 and gets a 3. Of the six dice rolled, he selects the 7, 8, and 10, re-rolling the 10 to add another 10, followed by another 10 and lastly a 1 to get a total of 56. This is well above the TN of 25, but since he only declared two Raises, he does not get the benefit of that really high roll! The Raises gets him an extra die to keep for damage, which is determined by the type of bow and arrow used. His yumi gives three dice, the willow leaf arrow gives 2k2, to which is added the bonus keep die to give a total of 5k3. The result is 3, 4, 8, 8, and 9, of which he keeps the last three and adds for a total of 25! This is enough to skewer one of the charging goblins who flops to the ground. Now for the last two...

Of course this in combat where you want to roll as high possible. Would there be situations when you might want to keep the lowest dice rolls? Possibly, such as when you are in a duel to first blood and want to pull the blow rather than deliver a killing strike. Although the mechanics get a little more complex with the secondary rules, they are at their heart easy to grasp, and in combat, they enforce just how deadly Legend of the Five Rings can be.

Beyond the character section, the book presents one other “major” clan and several minor clans that can be included in a campaign. The Spider Clan has not been recognised as a major clan by Emperor and its members are reviled for their devotion to the fallen Kami, the dark lord Fu Leng. Most of the minor clans do not amount to more than a single family and associated school, most being allied to a major clan. What is interesting in the treatment of the minor clans is that some of those listed have since become part of major clans, such as the Tsuruchi family of the Mantis Clan which was once the Wasp Clan. This supports one of the changes to Legend of the Five Rings in the Fourth Edition – keeping the core rules timeline neutral. Also detailed are the Imperial families and ronin, though the latter are only given cursory detail. Anyone wanting to play a ronin will have to wait for Enemies of the Empire for further information. Other optional rules cover mass battles, complete opportunities for heroic action; clan ancestors that can guide a character; alternate progression paths and advanced schools for characters; crafting rules; and Kiho, the sometimes near superhuman abilities of the monks.

Unless he is running a very strange game, the rules for Maho and Shadowlands Taint are really for the GM’s eyes only. Maho is the dark magic employed by the Spider Clan and other creatures of the Shadowlands, while the insidious and corruptive Taint seeps directly out of Jigoku, the Realm of Evil. Both are powerful and seductive, and the more you subject yourself to both the more likely that Jigoku will tempt you with interesting powers and mutations.

More specifically for the GM is the Book of Void. Much of this chapter is given over to describing the geography of Rokugan itself, detailing the places marked on the map inside the front and back covers. Flipping back and forth between this section and the end of the book is a pain, but this is a good read, full of interesting little particulars. The rest of the chapter is devoted to actually running the game, and includes an excellent section on storytelling that highlights the differences between Western and Eastern heroic stories; looks at possible campaign times, such as the ever reliable Imperial Magistrate based campaign to a Bushido orientated Band of Brothers style game; discusses how to run two player games – very useful in these difficult days of getting players together; and examines the thirty six plotlines used by some writers. These are supported with scenario seeds and plenty of good advice throughout. The bestiary itself is relatively short, no surprise given all of the possibilities and the lack of space in this core book.

Lastly there is the scenario, “Tournament of the Samurai,” a political and investigative affair set at a Winter Court. I am of two minds about this scenario, despite not having read it (and not wanting to read it since it might be run for me). In part I miss the original scenario from the game’s first edition, as that was a very good showcase of the game’s mechanics and setting. Yet that led off to the characters being appointed magistrates, and this scenario is more neutral in its conclusion. That said, something that shows off the setting’s political aspect and its very different approach to dispensing justice – Rokugan’s legal system favours testimony rather than evidence – is more than welcome.

So that is Legends of the Five Rings, but what are the changes between this the Fourth and the previous Third Edition? Thankfully these have been summarised at the book’s start for returning players and while my comments will be based upon that summary, they will be influenced by my own experience playing the game. The most notable are that skills have been streamlined, with Emphases no longer adding to a roll, but allowing rolls of one to be re-rolled. “Defence,” which allows spells to be cast and skills to be used in combat while still avoiding trying to be hit, and “Centre,” for preparing yourself for a duel have both been added to the Stances available in combat. Also, there are no Techniques that allow an extra attack per round, though some do change attacks from Complex to Simple Actions, allowing extra attacks to be made if desired. The main change though, lies in a general streamlining and balencing of the schools available to the characters. This has allowed the flavour of the school to be got to very quickly and very easily.

Legend of the Five Rings is a very different game to most available today. It is a “Culture” game, one that rewards the GM and his players immersing themselves in a setting that is unlike medieval fantasy. This is not a setting that favours the individual, a samurai being expected to put the Emperor and his clan before himself. This can be a challenge for anyone coming to Rokugan having been influenced by Hollywood, but if he can think outside of the western traditions, this a fascinating world. Above all, what Legends of the Five Rings Fourth Edition does is make both the game and Rokugan itself far more accessible. The rules have been made easier and in doing so, have allowed the setting to come to the fore.

Hommlet's Broken Eggs?

It is rare that you will find me writing a review of something for Dungeons & Dragons Fourth Edition. In comparison to other versions of Dungeons & Dragons, the latest edition does not offer me quite the type of gaming that I want, its focus being too much upon the miniatures skirmish play and the investment necessary to set up and get going. Nevertheless, of late Wizards of the Coast has released several products that I am interested in looking at, and they will be releasing more in the near future. One I have already reviewed is Bloodsand Arena, the Free RPG Day release that previewed the just released Dark Sun Campaign Setting, which I plan to review as I do the recently released Tomb of Horrors hardback. The other book to arouse my interest is The Village of Hommlet, a scenario only available if you participate in the Wizards of the Coast’s DM Rewards programme. Or of course, on eBay, which is where I obtained mine. There is also edition of Tomb of Horrors available via the DM Reward programme, but I have yet to obtain a copy of that.

What the release of all three of these titles indicates is an acknowledgement of the history and the back catalogue of Dungeons & Dragons by Wizards of the Coast. Which beyond the pages of the 2001 Monte Cook authored sequel, Return to the Temple of Elemental Evil, never seemed to occur when it was Dungeons & Dragons Third Edition that Wizards of the Coast was publishing, even with titles such as Expedition to Castle Ravenloft which completely ignored the history that stretched back to 1983 and I6: Ravenloft. The history of The Village of Hommlet goes all the way back to 1979 and the TSR module T1: The Village of Hommlet written by a certain E. Gary Gygax. Set in The World of Greyhawk, this adventure describes a small village that has grown prosperous in the years since it was threatened by dark forces from the Temple of Elemental Evil, which itself would be the focus of the 1985 sequel and super module, T1-4: The Temple of Elemental Evil. In recent months the long vanquished forces have begun to scout the village again looking for weaknesses while bandits have been preying on merchants travelling to and from Hommlet. In response, the Viscount of Verbobonc has authorised the building of a guard tower to help protect both the village and the roads. Still, the villagers have become a little wary of strangers. Not necessarily hostile, but just a little more careful.
The original module was designed as a novice adventure suitable for first level characters that would provide more than just a dungeon experience for both characters and players. Both were expected to interact and make friends with the inhabitants of Hommlet, gaining their trust and support before setting off to confront the immediate source of evil at a nearby Moathouse. To support this, both the village and villagers were highly detailed given that it was written in 1979. In comparison, the version of The Village of Hommlet for Dungeons & Dragons Fourth Edition is written for a group of fourth level characters and designed to take them to fifth. Despite both versions being the same length at twenty four pages, in the new version less of the village itself is detailed, just seven locations in seven pages, including  a single encounter area. Of the remaining sixteen locations marked on the village map, all are given no more than the simplest of descriptions, such as village hall or potter. While this harks back to the titles given on the village map from T1: The Village of Hommlet, the original adventure at least devoted a paragraph to describing the aforementioned potter, his family, his faith, his business, and his monies. The version of The Village of Hommlet does not.

Much of this has to do with the differences in format between Advanced Dungeons & Dragons and Dungeons & Dragons Fourth Edition. To wit, the whole of the Moathouse location and the twenty four areas in its dungeon below can be described in just three pages, but the shift in emphasis to the skirmish style of play and the Encounter format that supports it means that today almost half of the booklet is devoted to its combat situations.

This being an update for a modern game, it is no surprise that the scenario includes rewards for doing more than just killing monsters. The Village of Hommlet includes seven minor quests, one per major location in the settlement. They range from finding a stolen consignment of brandy to passing a love message on and completing any one of them will gain the characters a small Experience Point bonus.

The other major difference between the two is in the maps. T1: The Village of Hommlet has its maps as detachable maps at the back of the main booklet, while The Village of Hommlet includes a separate foldout double sided map as is standard for Dungeons & Dragons Fourth Edition. On the one side of this map is a full plan of the Moathouse, the above ground level of the dungeon, while on the other side are the ground floor plans of the village’s inn, the Inn of the Welcome Wench. As far as the actual scenario is concerned, the latter floor plans are irrelevant. Not just because including the cellar, the inn is a three storey building, but also because while the player characters are expected to stay at the inn, none of the action of the scenario takes place there. The action is more likely to take place at another location in Hommlet, the one that is described in the actual Encounter described for the village. It is perhaps the one location that has undergone a major redesign, because back in T1: The Village of Hommlet such encounter would have had characters of essentially first level facing off against opponents of tenth and seventh level. In The Village of Hommlet both are of fifth level – just one level higher than the player characters, but they are supported by several third level guards.

Thankfully, the floor plans of the Moathouse make up for the irrelevancy of the inn’s floor plans. These are nice and clear and easy to use with the miniatures of your choice. As to the dungeon below the Moathouse, little has been changed with this update. Some of the encounters look to be tougher than in the previous version, mainly because of the various abilities that the enemies in question have at their command. This is probably only relative though, as the characters for this edition of the scenario are of a higher level.

One thing that the author does address in more detail is what happens next. In T1: The Village of Hommlet, Gygax simply has an assassin hunt the players characters down. Andy Collins suggests four options that the cult behind the forces at the Moathouse might take in enacting retribution upon the player characters. He also discusses possible play beyond the confines of The Village of Hommlet, this being the investigation of first the bandit town of Nulb, and then the Temple of Elemental Evil itself. Does this mean that The Temple of Elemental Evil might return as a campaign in its own right for Dungeons & Dragons Fourth Edition? It is a possibility, especially when you consider that Wizards of the Coast are moving back to an easier means of introducing the game with its Dungeons & Dragons Essentials line and the more recent and more obvious acknowledgement of the game’s past. Now if only it were to come in a boxed set all of its very own...

So what do I think of The 
Village of Hommlet? In part it misses the point of the original, the provision of a fully detailed base from which the adventurers can sally forth from as well as destination to which they can sally. In not detailing the village it means that this version of the adventure loses much of the naturalism of the original. The shift between the editions from a broader roleplaying focus to the skirmish style play has not been supported to the utmost either with the inclusion of the irrelevant floor plans. The Moathouse and the dungeon though are given a more appropriate and detailed treatment, and this is where the scenario is at its best. In fact to get the best out of this adventure, I would actually combine the details of the village of Hommlet as described in T1: The Village of Hommlet with the details given here in The Village of Hommlet.

Sunday 15 August 2010

When Two Became One

With just a few releases – Death Frost Doom and The Grinding Gear being the most notable of these – James Raggi IV has made something of a name for himself in the Old School Renaissance. His scenarios in particular are exercises in atmosphere and pseudo-naturalism over numbers and mechanics, each possessing a reason for being rather than just being places for the adventurers to go adventuring. The latest scenario to be published via Raggi’s Lamentations of the Flame Princess is Hammers of the God. Designed for characters of third to fifth level, this relatively short adventure has the characters delve back into the dark history of the Dwarves, one that they would best have you forget. It is written for the “Retro Clone” of your choice, including of course, Raggi’s own recently released Weird Fantasy Role-Playing Game.

Hammers of the God takes place in a dungeon that is one part shrine, one part tomb, all part Dwarf, which because it is all but forgotten about, can easily be placed anywhere in a campaign. What brings the party to the complex’s location is a map, which they can find as treasure, a purchase, or as something in the church archives, and because they know that something is there, the characters can gain entrance. Inside they find the remnants of a great architectural marvel, a series of vaulted rooms, perfectly preserved with their walls decorated with layers of ancient runes, the halls roamed by exactly preserved dwarf sentinels.

There are also not one, but two mysteries present in the adventure. To unravel both, the party need to penetrate further into the twin depths of the ancient complex. Actually penetrating down one of the branches has the possibility to be a frustrating experience, especially if the players are adverse to dealing with more technological features than might be found in other adventures. Such near technological elements though, are in keeping with the ancient, but somehow advanced nature of the civilisation the complex is a relic of and their presence should be thought of as being like larger puzzles than actual devices.

As with the previous Death Frost Doom and The Grinding Gears, this dungeon is relatively light in terms of monsters, there being more traps than puzzles. This is no doubt due to its age, but one of these puzzles has features beloved the Death Trap Dungeon, complete with random effects, some of which left me scratching my head at just how odd they were. For example, a glowing butterfly appears and follows the player characters until they encounter the first person after leaving the complex, whereupon the strange creature settles on this poor unfortunate and explodes! That certainly fits the “weird” aspect of the author’s Weird Fantasy Role-Playing Game.

The dungeon is also light in terms of traditional treasure. Much of what can be found has a certain sting in the tail, while other items could land the adventurers in trouble if shown to any knowledgeable dwarf. Even knowledge of what lies inside the complex could land the adventurers in trouble and if the DM wants it, have repercussions upon his campaign. Then again, I suspect that treasure is hardly a motivating factor for the characters in a Raggi run campaign in comparison to the spur that is curiosity.

Physically, Hammers of the God is as atmospheric as the earlier Death Frost Doom and The Grinding Gear. Laura Jalo’s heavy black and white illustrations in particular convey the gloom of the tomb and shrine, complementing Raggi’s own descriptions. One issue with previous scenarios is the lack of blurb and trade details on the back cover. Hammers of the God has them both, but much of their text sits over the back cover illustration making it very difficult to read the information there. Something to look at for future reprints and releases.

Interestingly, James Raggi himself lays down what he values the most in purchasing a commercial adventure: atmosphere and flavour. A view that he validates in Hammers of the God, an atmosphere laden adventure that is ripe with detail, especially historical detail. The latter as evidenced by the two appendices that account for two thirds of the booklet and describe all of the books to be found in the adventure, complete with a recipe for Apricot and Oat biscuits. All said though, Hammers of the God is more of an interesting adventure than a good adventure. This is not to say that it is unplayable – this is a Raggi design after all, but rather that once you take a step back from Hammers of the God, it feels a little odd. First because the two branches of the dungeon originated as two separate adventures and have been melded together, and you know this because the author tells you. Second because the complex just exists, it is isolated from the outside world and would exist were the party never to darken its doors, and for whatever reason, this feels odd though it does make the complex easy to add to a campaign. The GM of course, will just have to get around this, because the dungeon will eventually take notice of the intrusion.

If The Grinding Gear is Raggi at his most mechanical and Death Frost Doom at his most atmospheric, then Hammers of the God lies somewhere in between. Hammers of the God is more of a traditional dungeon, though no less eerie and atmospheric.

Pre-American Gothic

I owe an apology to Richard Iorio II and James Maliszewski at Rogue Games. I have had a copy of their Colonial Gothic: A historical supernatural role-playing game for far too long and not reviewed it. There is no excuse, but the sad thing is that this happens. Trying to keep up with the flood of releases while not letting books slip you by is not as easy as it should be. I could complain about having to fit a real job around writing these reviews and there not being enough time, and while I might think there to be some truth in both of those excuses, this misses the point. Sorry Richard and James (and Monica and Matt, the other authors of the game), I should have reviewed this sooner. I let you down. Sorry.

So to the review itself, which is of Colonial Gothic: A historical supernatural role-playing game published by Rogue Games, an RPG set in the new world during the eighteenth century on the eve of the American Revolution. Although this game is strong in terms of pre revolutionary history, it is not a wholly historical game. True the cries from the colonists for liberty grow in volume, but the future of America and her independence are threatened by something much, much darker and more secret, and as the colonists move against their British masters, other forces are at work. Cabals, cultists, and sects seek to aid these forces, some from the old world, others native to the new, while others attempt to stop them. This then, is a game about two conflicts. The second to decide the future of the Thirteen Colonies, but the first to determine the course of the Secret History that will affect outcome of the first...

Originally published in 2007, but revised in 2009, Colonial Gothic is a cinematic horror inspired by Rip van Winkle and the Legend of Sleepy Hollow as much as Last of the Mohicans, that pitches a new Age of Science and Reason against the insidious influence of the supernatural, various mysteries, and the occult. Magic is real, but a barely understood mysterious force, more likely to be commanded by cultists, occultists, and witches. Meanwhile creatures out of folklore and legend stalk the shadows, ghosts, spirits, and vampires being familiar to the colonists while the natives will know more of the capricious, but informative Chepi, and the feared Wendigo. The setting is a combination of the historical and the fantastical, with both supported by lots of history and plenty of background, and all supported by a light, quick rules system.

Character creation is a point buy system that requires a little thought. First, a player selects a Background – Colonist, Freeman, Immigrant, Military, or Native American. It should be noted that the Freeman Background covers both the Freed Slave and the Former Indentured, and the Native American Background covers several different tribes. Each one indicates a character's past and provides two free skills and a language. He assigns forty five points between five attributes – Might, Nimble, Vigor, Reason, and Resolution, and then spends another fifty five points on skills. Skills are relatively expensive, the first Rank for any skill costing the same as its associated attribute, with further ranks costing half the value of the associated attribute. Thus Robert Webster, a militiaman with a Nimble score of 12, must spend twelve points to get the Shoot skill at Base Rank of 1, and then a further six points to raise it to 2, and again to rank 3. In general most characters will start off with relatively few skills.

In addition a character has five Hook or Fate Cards. On each of these a player writes an interesting fact about the character whether that be a quality or aspect about the character, or a link to a noteworthy person, event, location, or object. For example, "I possess the claw from a gigantic bear that I hunted, but did not kill. He left me scarred and wants his claw back" or "My Mother was driven to drown herself by secret voices. The spirits that spoke to her were evil." In the original version of Colonial Gothic, Fate Cards were revealed at an appropriate moment during the game to “edit” events, to add a new plot element or aid the current plot, but did not grant any sort of mechanical benefit. In the revised edition, Fate Cards are more flexible. Their use allows a player to spend Faith Points, of which a character has five. Normally, spending a Faith Point grants the character a +1 bonus to a roll, but that becomes +2 when used in conjunction with a Fate Card. They can also be used “edit” the game as before, but the big change is that Fate Cards can be tagged or compelled by the GM to bring an adverse element into the game. When this happen to a character, he receives a Faith Point. This is a nice addition, allowing Fate Cards to be brought more readily into play and the elements that a player describes for his character to be added to the game.

For example, Enola is a Native American, a Tribe Adopted member of the Shawnee tribe. She regularly joins trading between the tribe and the colonists.

Enola, Tribe Adopted Native American.
Might 8 Nimble 10 Vigor 9 Reason 8 Resolution 10
Vitality 40 Resolve 45 Sanity 50
Languages: English (Fluent), Wakashan Algonquin (Fluent)
Skills: Archery [12], Bargain [12], Observe [10], Stealth [11], Tracking [10]
Fate Cards: My fair hair marks me as different; The colony’s merchants will not cheat the tribe because we are natives; I cannot recall what happened to my parents, but I know that it ended in fire; I will be worthy of this bow, a gift from my foster father; Silence is golden, use it to your advantage.

For its rules, Colonial Gothic employs the 12° system. It requires two twelve-sided dice rolled under an attribute or a skill rank plus attribute with critical successes and failures possible. Dramatic successes are possible on a roll of two, while a roll of twenty four indicates a Dramatic Failure. The degree by which a character succeeds or fails – hence the name for the mechanics – is also important, determining the outcome in an opposed roll for example, or working as the multiplier for determining damage in combat. For example, our militiaman, Robert Webster with his skill of Shoot 14 responds to attack on his parents’ farm and opens fire at a fleeing target. He hits with a roll of six, indicating that he has scored eight degrees of success. This is multiplied by the Damage Value of his Pennsylvania Long Rifle, which is 7 (75), to give a result of fifty six damage. Whatever the degree of successes rolled, a character cannot inflict more damage than any weapon’s maximum, which in the case of Robert’s rifle, is 75, the number in the bracket. On the whole, combat can be deadly, a person able to withstand at best a couple of shots from a "Brown Bess" musket, or even one when a Critical Success is rolled and the damage doubled.

One set of rules imported from Thousand Suns, Rogue Games’ RPG of Imperial Science Fiction, is for social interaction. Where physical damage reduces a character’s Vitality, in social contests a character’s Resolve is reduced. Instead of the results of a weapon attack determining damage, in Social Contests, social skills such as Bargain, Diplomacy, and Intimidation are used instead. Reducing a character’s Resolve and his attitude towards you will change, the aim usually being to reduce to make the character friendlier towards you. In most games these rules would work against just the NPCs, but under the 12° system an NPC can affect a player character in the same way. This can be a problem for the player who does not like to lose control of how his character feels, but these rules actually makes social interaction more combative, strengthen the role of NPCs, and presents a player with more of a challenge in roleplaying his character, because the character is being influenced rather than the player.

Since Colonial Gothic is a horror game, it needs a sanity mechanic. A Fear Test requires an opposed Resolution Test, one by the character and the other by the cause. If the player fails this test, he loses a point of Sanity and suffers a penalty on his actions for a day. Lose ten points of Sanity and a character might gain a permanent Disorder. Sanity can also be lost for casting spells. The problem here is that it is incredibly difficult to lose enough points to gain a Disorder as a character regains Sanity equal to half his Resolution per day.

Although fundamental to the game, Colonial Gothic keeps magic quite low key and difficult to acquire. Beyond its occult skills of Astrology, Divination, Lore, Magic, and Sense, each spell or ritual is treated as an individual skill, one that can be learnt by a shaman, a sorcerer, or a witch. Finding someone to teach you or a book to learn from is a difficult undertaking, purely because all magic is regarded as evil, whatever the caster’s intent. This is of course, less difficult for a Native American who is studying under a shaman. Numerous common spells are described as well as the more powerful arcane spells, all of them in quite a lot of detail, including a lot of background and history when compared to the original rules. Casting magic breaks natural law which has the side effect of leaving a magical trace or trail that someone with the Sense skill can detect and recognize.

The second example character reflects some of this. Thaddeus was apprenticed by his parents to a printer who also happened to be a mage. He proved to be a harsh taskmaster, Thaddeus being forced to ward blows when he did not take to his lessons as easily as his master wanted. One day his master disappeared and when inquiries were made, the authorities discovered his occult activities. At first Thaddeus was accused of murdering him, but was forced to flee after he too was accused of being a warlock.

Thaddeus Arkwright, Former Indentured Freed Slave.
Might 7 Nimble 8 Vigor 9 Reason 10 Resolution 11
Vitality 40 Resolve 50 Sanity 55
Languages: English (Fluent)
Skills: Defend 8, Divination 11, Magic 13, Profession (Printing) 11, Spell (Guidance) 12, Study (Optics) 11
Fate Cards: I do not know where my master is; Flee before facing a fight; Magic is dangerous, knowledge is not; Make yourself useful, but not noticed; Without my glasses...

The bulk of the background details the historical elements of the setting, primarily the Thirteen Colonies and the Native American tribes. All of which is particularly helpful if you happen not to have the grounding in early American history that the authors do. This though is information for both the players and the GM, whereas the game’s Secret History is the subject of the Game Master Advice, which is much expanded in this Revised Edition. Its focus is how a GM needs to weave his campaign between a Secret History game where the characters can affect, but not alter history, and an Alternate History game, where change can be made. In intent though, Colonial Gothic steers towards the former rather than the latter. The GM is also supported with good advice on running the game, an explanation of its secret history, and new for the Revised Edition, an expanded chapter devoted to the game’s monsters. In the previous edition, there were few if any full write-ups for monsters in the setting. Instead there was simply advice on designing them with the traits listed. The Revised Edition includes this advice and the traits still, but includes a full bestiary that covers unnatural creatures native to both the new and the old worlds. This has come at the loss of an adventure, but the expanded information more than makes up for that loss.

Physically, Colonial Gothic is a little bland looking by contemporary standards, yet the choice of buff coloured paper and lots and lots of suitable clip art lends it a certain charm and enforces the period feel. The writing is good too, and if the book lacks an index, it is at least well organised and everything is easy to find.

Where Colonial Gothic is flexible is in how it is played. It can be in a High Action Style, like Last of the Mohicans; in an Occult & Mystery Style akin to Call of Cthulhu; or in a Supernatural Style much like Brotherhood of the Wolf or Pirates of the Caribbean. The choice is up to the GM and his group to decide, the first style downplaying the outré elements of the occult and emphasising the action, the third downplaying the physical elements in favour of high magic. The default setting is that of the middle option, Occult & Mystery, and the GM will need to decide if the other styles change any of the game’s rules.

Whatever the style of play, Colonial Gothic brings a pleasing degree of grittiness to a slightly cinematic game. It is strong on its period and history (a good thing given this reviewer’s nationality), but keeps its more fantastical elements quite restrained, emphasizing the dangers represented by not just the creatures and cultists, but also in learning and knowing magic, particularly if known to society at large. The Revised Edition expands greatly upon those fantastical elements, adding details to the spells and adding actual monsters along with more advice. It is thus a more rounded core rulebook with everything that the GM needs bar a scenario. In achieving a fine balance between the history and the supernatural, Colonial Gothic: A historical supernatural role-playing game brings reason to play that history.

Saturday 7 August 2010

Arkham Country Six, Sanity Zero

One of the strongest of debut books for Call of Cthulhu since Chaosium, Inc. began letting others publish for the game was New Tales of the Miskatonic Valley from Miskatonic River Press. Conceived the late and much missed Keith “Doc” Herber, this anthology took us back to Lovecraft Country for the first time in a decade with six enjoyably callous scenarios for Call of Cthulhu’s classic period of the 1920s. For its third release – following on from Our Ladies of Sorrow, a classic in the making for Cthulhu Now – Miskatonic River Press goes back to draw from the same source as its debut. As its title suggests, More Adventures in Arkham Country provides further adventures for Call of Cthulhu’s only campaign setting, itself the creation of Keith “Doc” Herber back in 1993. It contains six more scenarios, some authored by Miskatonic River Press stalwarts such as Tom Lynch and Oscar Rios, but perhaps the most notable of contributors in this volume is Scott David Aniolowski. “Shades of Tomorrow Lost” is his first published scenario in fifteen years and comes seventeen years after his contribution to that first Lovecraft Country volume, Adventures in Arkham Country.

Now with just three titles under the Miskatonic River Press belt, it is easy to track the improvements made to the style and look of the publisher’s books. The internal illustrations have been consistently good across the three books – my favourite here being best described as “Bonnie & Clyde & Deep Ones” – but with More Adventures in Arkham Country, the layout has been tightened up and although still kept relatively clean and simple, feels that little more assured. This shows in the use of the illustrations, the maps, and the plentiful handouts to break up the text and so all but avoid the solid pages of text that might have made the book harder to digest. As an editor, I would have liked the book to have been given one more pass, but those issues are unlikely to get in the way of running its contents

The book also highlights Miskatonic River Press’ ties with other publishers. First in the inclusion of a twenty page appendix that provides conversion notes by Christopher Smith Adair for each of the six scenarios for Pelgrane Press’ Trail of Cthulhu, and second, in the twenty four pages of fine handouts once again done by the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society, which has also made them available separately and in colour. In addition, the book includes another six pages of nicely done maps by Steff Worthington.

Eschewing the need for a formal introduction, the book is instead topped and tailed with a pair of short vignettes that echoes both Lovecraftian fiction and the play of Call of Cthulhu in portraying the high regard with which those at Miskatonic River Press hold their founder and their determination to do as good as if he were still here. After that the book wastes no time at all in moving on to the scenarios themselves. They include Scott David Aniolowski’s “Shades of Tomorrow Lost,” which takes us back to Kingsport and a plan to spread its dreaming; “Ghosts of the Florentina,” a ghost tale in an old theatre by Bret Kramer, also set in Kingsport; and the hunting of strange beasts in Foxfield in Brian Courtemanche’s “The Crystal Cav-ern.” Meanwhile, Tom Lynch turns a bad trip into the drive from hell in “Engine Trouble;” Adam Gauntlett makes the children suffer in Arkham in “Spare the Rod;”and lastly, in “The Hopeful,” Oscar Rios reveals the true nature of a young man’s benefactor.

Each of the six scenarios is roughly twenty or so pages long and comes complete with its own excellent handouts. It should be noted that whilst some of the scenarios refer to various sourcebooks in the “Lovecraft Country” line, including H.P. Lovecraft’s Kingsport: The City in the Mists, H.P. Lovecraft’s Arkham, Escape from Innsmouth, and Miskatonic University, none of them are essential for running any of the scenarios they can be used to add detail as required.

“Shades of Tomorrow Lost” opens the collection. This Kingsport set scenario by Scott David Aniolowski sees the town beset by an outbreak of narcolepsy, with at least one of the investigators being amongst the afflicted. Quarantined at the local hospital in a group that becomes known as the “Kingsport Sleepers,” this investigator has the opportunity to interview his fellow sufferers whilst the other investigators search for a cause elsewhere. The scenario contains sinister, though much underplayed Pulp elements including masked figures and strange Asians both reminiscent of the Sandman and The Shadow. Despite potential staging issues in having the investigators divided, “Shades of Tomorrow Lost” is relatively straightforward affair, lethal in places, but with some high rewards. It is also well supported with background information and a handy list of mental illnesses that an investigator might suffer from after its play through.

We remain in fog-bound Kingsport for Bret Kramer’s “Ghosts of the Florentina,” a ghost tale that hides strange things behind more mundane goings on. The owner of the dilapidated Florentina Theatre wants to renovate the building and turn it into a modern picture house, but there are rumours that it is haunted. Finding themselves attending a séance at the theatre, a town landmark, the strange events that bring it to an end should be enough to peak the interest of any red blooded investigator. Any player with a penchant for investigative research will relish the opportunities afforded him here, the clues eventually revealing the presence of creatures from one of Lovecraft’s most well known stories. For a Mythos threat they prove to be very knowable, enabling the investigators numerous options in terms of dealing with them and the danger that they represent, all of which are supported and detailed by the author. This is a more free-form scenario, its events primarily led by the investigators’ actions.

Brian Courtemanche’s “The Crystal Cavern” takes us to Foxfield, a town invented by Lovecraft, but never the setting for one of his stories. An out of town developer recently bought land outside of the town and wants to mine the extensive quartz deposit located there, but progress has been halted after a spate of vandalised machinery and a death at the hands of a large bear or wolf. Wanting work at the site to continue apace, he hires the investigators to determine the cause of both. Their efforts though will be hampered by the scared and jumpy townsfolk, furtive locals, and a pompous big game hunter wanting to bag the “Beast of Foxfield.” Again, this is a straight forward, uncomplicated adventure, but one who’s ending is not actually determined by the investigators, which some players may be adverse to...

“Engine Trouble” by Tom Lynch is designed to run between other adventures in Lovecraft Country, beginning in media res with the investigators having got lost and discovering their way blocked by a crashed truck. With the driver and one passenger dead at the scene, and their cargo missing, where exactly do the tracks lead to in the surrounding woods? All too quickly the investigators will find themselves facing the Mythos equivalent of velociraptors, and what is the likelihood that the investigators are travelling armed for bear, let alone velociraptor? The shortest scenario of the six, this has the potential to get very, very bloody... It is stated that the author channelled his “inner slasher-film monster” to create “Engine Trouble,” and this shows. The scenario feels at odds with the bulk of the others in this collection, and despite the strong set up, it will only find favour with those who prefer their adventures Pulpy

Adam Gauntlett brings us home to Arkham itself for another ghost story in “Spare the Rod.” A New York author of supernatural fiction – the author giving one Eric Adams, but suggesting that he could be replaced another, including our good friend Jackson Elias of Masks of Nyarlathotep fame – to conduct some research on New England folklore. At the height of heat wave, the investigators are tasked with following down the author’s leads and in doing so, determine that there might more than a grain of truth to one of them. Has a vengeful ghost returned to exact bloody revenge, or is it a simple case of children having run away? If there is an issue with “Spare the Rod,” it is that it involves a nearly unstoppable foe, but there is at least more than a single solution to this problem if the investigators look hard enough. Otherwise, this makes excellent use of its source material to present a chance for the investigators to explore Arkham.

Rounding out the collection is Oscar Rios’ “The Hopeful,” a scenario that will take the investigators from Arkham to shunned Innsmouth in search of a young man’s benefactor. Andrew Fisher is a swimming sensation, certain to represent the USA at the Amsterdam Olympics, but a background check might reveal the unknown source of his trust fund, and so jeopardise his chances of making the team. With clues pointing towards Innsmouth, “The Hopeful” serves as an excellent means to introduce the investigators to the town and its batrachian inhabitants, giving them a crash course in its secrets via a well realised set of mundane clues that point the investigators in the direction that they need to go rather than simply informing them. Once in Innsmouth there are opportunities aplenty for the Keeper to roleplay some of its inhabitants and thus make it a worthy prequel to the events described in Escape from Innsmouth. In comparison to the other scenarios in the collection, the Sanity rewards for successfully completing “The Hopeful” feel a bit light, but this is another fine piece of work from the prolific Rios.

When Miskatonic River Press’ first book, New Tales of the Miskatonic Valley, was released, it was an impressive debut. As follow up to that anthology, the truth is that More Adventures in Arkham Country does not quite match its standards, the book lacking just a little of that debut’s drive and energy. This does not mean though, that any one of the six scenarios can be considered as bad, the least interesting being merely average. They are all at least, solid affairs, with “Shades of Tomorrow Lost” marking the welcome return of Scott David Aniolowski to the Call of Cthulhu fold with an eerie visit to Kingsport and Bret Kramer providing a pleasingly low key investigation in “Ghosts of the Florentina.” The stand out scenarios both come at the end. Adam Gauntlett’s “Spare the Rod” would stand out in any collection, being an excellent introduction to Arkham and exploration of its history, but it is eclipsed by “The Hopeful.” Oscar Rios’ scenario is a delight, edging us ever closer to Innsmouth, but without revealing its full horrors. Despite reservations about some of the scenarios herein, More Adventures in Arkham Country is a decent collection and solid support for Lovecraft Country.

Definitely Bigger Than #13

Just in time for Gen Con 2010, Kobold Quarterly #14 hits our virtual door mats bigger and bolder than before. At one hundred pages, Open Design’s magazine continues its support for the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game and Dungeons & Dragons Fourth Edition, along with articles aplenty that have a wider, though still no less specific application. By which I mean that the articles in question are specific in their contents, but can be applied to most Dungeons & Dragons variants. What you have in issue #14 then is another trove of advice, ideas, and support, which happens to be appropriate given that its theme is “treasure”!

Support for the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game begins with James L. Sutter’s “Prince of Wolves,” a full write up of Radovan, the Hellspawn Bodyguard who makes one half of the central duo from the novel Prince of Wolves, the first in the Pathfinder Tales line that will make its debut at Gen Con 2010, and also happens to be reviewed in the “Books Review” column. To be honest I am more used to seeing such a write up after a book has appeared, so this is more advertising than a preview – since there are no excerpts from the book itself. The write up is not badly done though, especially as it includes one or two nice spells and magical items, and it would be nice if we could see it joined by an equally full write up of Radovan’s charge, the half-elf, Varian Jeggare.

This is issue’s “Ecology of...” article by R. William Thompson is devoted to the Tengu, the avian humanoids inspired by the Japanese monster-spirits. It’s an enjoyable read, full of little ideas that can be added to a game, the article being accompanied by a sidebar that discusses their place in Golarion, the default setting for the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game, from their home in Tian-Xia to around the Inner Sea, where they are found as thieves, mercenaries, and piratical mascots. They retain an oriental feel and can be excellent mimics – which is exploited by the Tengu Streetsinger Prestige Class which replicates the sounds around him to distract his opponents, both features that the GM can use to make memorable NPCs, and if the GM allows it, a player to create a memorable character. For devotees of the Free City of Zobeck setting, Wolfgang Baur devotes his regular column to the Tengu in the world of Midgard, providing a broad overview of where they can be found.

Paladins receive a double feature in Kobold Quarterly #14, first with James Graham’s “Healing Hands,” several new feats for the class that work with the Mercy class feature in the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game to enhance his Laying on Hands feature such that he can cure anything. Then with Dan Voyce’s look at alternative Paladin Codes in “Men of Honor,” that like the Paladin role itself, draws from history to provide codes of conduct drawn from Norse, piratical (!),ancient Chinese, and duelling traditions. Pure role-playing inspiration for anyone who likes to play a Paladin in any fantasy RPG.

The issue’s theme gets underway with “Perfumes of Bourgund” by Stefen Styrsky with another feature for the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game. Set in the same world as Zobeck, with the appropriate feats an alchemist can become a Perfumer, capable of creating and identifying particular scents, whether to hide a stink, enhance a charisma, or create an allure or a lure. Michael Furlanetto’s “Hoard Magic” might be written for Dungeons & Dragons Fourth Edition, but the numbers are not all that far away from the Dungeons & Dragons variant of your choice that you could just as give that dragon or dwarf lord the enhancements that having a big stash of coins, jewellery, and other treasures would grant, such as a Liche Lord’s hoard enhancing necrotic damage and reducing the effect of healing magic. Just in their respective lairs of course, but it gives a hoard just a little more meaning than just being pretty.

With “Paper Treasures” John Baichtal gives us not just books, but a quintet of adventure seeds, while Adam Daigle gets all bourgeois with the type of “Middle Class Magic” favoured by the merchants of Zobeck. Want to enhance the flavour of your drink? Then the Spicebox Spoon contains the condiments you need, while a Tailor’s Clasp will scuttle across your clothing tightening buttons, repairing fraying hems, and so on, being just one the various little knick knacks that make the upwardly mobile man’s life that little bit easier.

Lastly, Phillip Larwood takes a big step up from the more mundane magical items to provide us with new “Figurines of Wondrous Power” each a small statuette of an animal that contains the bound spirit of the depicted animal. When summoned the creature faithfully serves you, usually as a mount or in battle. From the Citrine Toad (mobile storage device and battle toad) to the Tourmaline Crab (a battle mount that grants water breathing) the ten on show here could easily become objects of veneration or desire with a little effort upon the part of the GM.  An aid towards this is inclusion of Maker’s Marks that can add an extra power or a curse to the figurine.

Perhaps the least immediately useful article in issue #14 is Sigfried Trent’s “How to Create Feats” dissecting as it does what makes a good Feat. Unless getting under the hood of the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game is something that you like to do, the likelihood is that the contents of this piece will be too dry. It is at least worth reading the once, if only to gain an insight into the designer’s theories and practice on Feats.

From industry stalwarts Monte Cook and Ed Greenwood, there is excellent advice. The former discusses how randomness can improve your storytelling in “Dice versus Story” while the latter talks about “How to Create Memorable Characters.” It would be churlish of me to say that there little that is really new in either of these articles because the advice given in both is worth saying again. Another stalwart, John Wick gets together with Jesse Heinig to reinvent the last of the core races in the “Wicked Fantasy” series.  Here the race in question is us, the Humans. In this reinvention, the humans are the first race, a species predicated not on looking to the gods for their inspiration and insight, but on themselves and the human spirit, on learning, philosophy, and so. What is interesting here is that the authors pick up the explanation of a gaming element often used to balance the human race against the extra abilities of other player races and actually develop it into flavour and mechanics. So there is a reason for the human drive, resilience, and flexibility. Not only do the authors support it with a new racial profile, but with new racial Feats and an ideal or philosophy rather than a god. This ideal is the “Elevation of Man,” which for human clerics adds the Humanity and Philosophy domains. This might well be all too radical for some, but it nicely fits in with the previous three entries in the series and just what you would expect of Wick.
For Dungeons & Dragons Fourth Edition, the focus in issue #14 is skills. “Skill Battles” by Matthew J. Hanson shows you how to add skill checks to a battle or to make skills the focus of a battle, supported by examples that have the heroes attempting to preventing the opening of a dimensional rift, hunting for golden hares, and so on. Although they will not have the same name, “Skill Battles” are regular features of other RPG adventures, so their discussion here is a welcome addition to Dungeons & Dragons Fourth Edition and shifts its focus slightly away from one skirmish after another. Scott A. Murray finds new ways to use a character’s skills in “Art & Expertise.” He gives two or three suggestions for each skill, such as using the Acrobatics skill to determine the slight angle of a floor or to locate perfect vantage points for observation with the Perception skill. Most come with little pieces of flavour text that nicely enhance the suggestions just as these new skill challenges would add to a game.

Both articles could complement Mario Podeschi’s “Courtly Games of the Wizard Prince,” which looks at the types of games and competitions that a noble wizard would hold. Whether participating in Basilisk Baiting (played with mirror shields), the competitive weaving of illusions in Glamers, or Shoves, a ball game played with an adamantine ball and spells, these courtly games could add much to a game, whether that be simple competition, rivalries, or intrigue, with all fitting into a high magic setting.

Also for
Dungeons & Dragons Fourth Edition is “Aasimar: You Can’t Keep a Good Aasimar Down” by Kolja Raven Liquette which presents a new divine race descended from angels native to the Supernal Realms. It comes complete with the three Tier Feats and Path Features and should appeal to anyone who wants to play a character of divine origins with strong religious inclination. Lastly for fans of the game, issue #14 includes an enjoyable interview with its lead designer, Rob Heinsoo.

Of note is Jeff Tidball’s “Moral Choices That Matter,” an article not for Dungeons & Dragons, or variant thereof, but for Green Ronin Publishing’s Dragon Age: Origins. The latter game happens to be one of the better introductory RPGs to appear of late, and this article is certainly welcome. Although its subtitle is “Creating Serious Dilemmas for your Dragon Age Campaign,” the author is essentially using that game’s setting as the basis for his examples, because setting up situations in which a player’s decision has repercussions – whatever his choice – is just as applicable to Dungeons & Dragons or the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game. This should be excellent food for thought for any GM and done right, will add depth to both his game and the player characters.

Rounding out Kobold Quarterly #14, as is traditional, is a short scenario. This is “Amber Heart” by Tim and Eileen Connors, an adventure for third level characters that ties in with Open Design’s forthcoming Tales of the Old Margreve supplement. Just as easy to drop into any setting with a forest inn during the depths of winter, this sets up a fight for survival in a locked room situation with a nasty, gooey monster.

My grumbles about Kobold Quarterly still stand. A longer scenario, a Sterling price on the cover, no game reviews, and so on. Also, and given that it describes itself as “The Switzerland of the Edition Wars,” should it not also be devoting a few of its pages to “Edition 0” too? Grumbles aside – and they are just exactly that, because I just checked and I am repeating myself – issue #14 of Kobold Quarterly is another good read. Of this issue’s theme, the best of the treasure articles is “Middle Class Magic,” full of little items that add to the game, yet there are better articles still. “Ecology of the Tengu” is excellent, making me want to play one or add one as an NPC to my own game, while both articles on the Paladin make me want to play that class again. Once again then, Kobold Quarterly delivers lots of good articles, even the ones that are not written for the game that you play, that are all well written and all food for thought.