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

Friday 24 September 2010

Daft Insidious?

New publisher Die Cast Games recently caused no little controversy in August of 2010 with the publication of its first module, TSR1 Insidious. Not because of its content, though I shall of course come to that, but because of its “trade dress.” By that I mean the physical elements of a product’s design, packaging, and labelling that identify a product and make it recognisable to the purchaser. With TSR1 Insidious, what Die Cast Games has done is not create a trade dress of its own, but rather ape that of the scenarios published in early to mid 1980s for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons First Edition, best typified by the Desert of Desolation series or I6, Ravenloft. Although it is not an exact copy, this aping also includes the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons logo of the period, the main element missing being the use of an ordinary ampersand rather than the dragon-headed ampersand that we know of old. It continues on the inside of the card cover with its blue on white cartography, and while the layout of the booklet is more open than the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons modules of the mid to late 1980s, it certainly evokes a sense of nostalgia.

The issue is whether or not the use of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons in this manner violates the terms of Wizards of the Coast’s Open Gaming License, and if so, does it jeopardise the future of OGL upon which the Old School movement depends? On this point I am not qualified to comment – my qualification not being in the law and definitely not Intellectual Property law, but the publisher certainly compounds the look with the “TSR” code and front cover illustration, which happens to be by artist Jeff Easley, who contributed innumerable covers to titles published by TSR. The controversy was such that for subsequent printings the module has been re-coded as DCG1-Insidious.

The matter of its appearance aside, TSR1 Insidious or rather DCG1-Insidious, is a standalone module designed for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons to be played by party of three to six characters of between first and third level. It is set in the small town of Sheridan Springs, whose peace has been shattered by strange goings on. Creatures have been seen moving in the woods; townsfolk have gone missing; and weird sounds have been heard coming from its cemetery and the ruins of the manor that stand to its North. Answering a call for help from the local sheriff, the party quickly arrives in Sheridan Springs and soon learns more from its inhabitants. That the townsfolk has not elected a mayor since he blew himself and part of his manor up, that the evil is growing, and that it all could have something to do with a stone obelisk recently installed at the centre of the village.

Apart from encounters with orcs and undead around the village, the characters will soon find themselves moving onto the manor itself. Each of the twenty-five locations that make up the manor are all well described, each entry being neatly laid out with the descriptive text clearly marked. At this point it is difficult to write any more about the adventure without anything being given away, but then again, there is very little in the way of secrets to be revealed. There are creatures in the woods; strange things are going on in the cemetery; the manor does need investigating; and the obelisk does have something to deal with it all.

Physically, apart from the obvious “trade dress” issue, DCG1-Insidious is a nice looking book. It benefits from being on brilliantly white paper and from Jeff Easley’s artwork throughout. The text also benefits from a slightly more open layout, although that does mean that at thirty-two pages, the module is longer than it needs to be. The module as a whole needs another edit too.

One interesting design aspect of DCG1-Insidious is that it is written “Ready-to-Roll.” What this means is that you get the full stats for each and every creature, including their THACO and XP values, as well as page references for abilities, spells, and more from the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons rulebooks. This is all indeed very useful, and is bound to make the running of the scenario much easier and with relatively little preparation. The module also comes with eight ready to play adventurers, although half of them are of third level, while only one of them is of first level.

There is no denying that DCG1-Insidious looks good. Yet all that pales into insignificance when the module itself cannot match the appearance and style that the publisher aspires to. The issue with the adventure is that it is neither all that interesting nor all that inspiring. We have seen this set up time and time again, and DCG1-Insidious never comes within sight of its most obvious inspiration, the classic U1 Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh. Where that adventure had atmosphere and depth to its story, DCG1-Insidious has none. Worse, it sets up a situation in the form of the mysterious obelisk, and never addresses how this situation could be resolved. Certainly, there is room in the booklet for the author to do so, but that page is wasted to a quarter page’s list of common abbreviations.

To be fair, Die Cast Games has done a good job on the look of its first module. It only needs to be tightened up slightly for the next one. The concept and the writing for that next module not only needs to be tighter, it needs to be if not original, then at the very least, more interesting and more thoughtful. There are just too many good Old School Renaissance scenarios for DCG1-Insidious and Die Cast Games to rest on good looks alone.

White Box Fever II

We come to the end of September and already we are in a new age of Dungeons & Dragons, one of the Dungeons & Dragons Essentials line that began with the publication of the publication of the Dungeons & Dragons Red Box Set by Wizards of the Coast. To celebrate that fact, Reviews from R'lyeh is running a series of reviews devoted to RPGs that aim to bring new players into the hobby. I began with the original Dungeons & Dragons Roleplaying Game Starter Set for Dungeons & Dragons Fourth Edition before getting up to date with the latest releases – Tower of the Stargazer and New Weird World – for one of the mostly highly anticipated retroclones, Weird Fantasy Roleplaying. This week I go back in time to just after we got Dungeons & Dragons. Not to do a review the original Dungeons & Dragons or an “Edition 0” version thereof – though I will come to at least one of those in the next few weeks – but a review of something that came hot on its heels, Tunnels & Trolls.

Tunnels & Trolls is thirty five years old in 2010. Which means it was published in 1975, a year after Dungeons & Dragons, and in the same year as Boothill, the first non-fantasy RPG to be published; and Empire of the Petal Throne, the third fantasy RPG to be published and the first to come with a setting. I mention the latter because Tunnels & Trolls was written by its author, Ken St. Andre in response to not only the complexity of Dungeons & Dragons, but its expense. This at a time when Empire of the Petal Throne was considered to be quite expensive at $20! The resulting game was lighter, faster, came with a universal mechanic for everything bar combat, used only six-sided dice and as evidenced by spell names such as Cry Baby, Cry Baby! and Take That, You Fiend, a healthy dose of humour. In the first decade of its publication, Tunnels & Trolls was very well supported, primarily in the form of scenarios and well regarded solo adventures. One title of note during this period was Monsters! Monsters!, a variant of Tunnels & Trolls that let the players be the monsters. In the years since, there has been less and less support for the game, but it has never quite gone away. Thus we have Tunnels & Trolls 7.5, published by Fiery Dragon.

The first thing that you notice about this version is that the box is very full. Inside can be found three spiral bound books, three much smaller staple bound booklets, three character sheets, three sheets of counters, a map, and four six-sided dice. The three spiral bound books are the rulebook, the Codex Incantatem, and the Monstrum Codex, while the staple bound books are the Monsters & Magic Book Special Edition, and two scenarios. For the GM there is Hot Pursuit, while Strange Destinies is a solo dungeon.

Everything you need to know to play is in the rulebook. It covers character creation, combat, and magic, and it is here that some significant changes to the original rules appear. These are not new to Tunnels & Trolls, having previously appeared in the seventh edition that came out for the game’s thirtieth anniversary. The first of these are two new attributes – Speed and Wizardry that join the traditional Strength, Constitution, Dexterity, Intelligence, Luck, and Charisma. Speed is a character’s reaction time, while Wizardry is a character’s ability to cast spells or use magic in general. A spellcaster’s Wizardry score also represents the number of points that he has to spend on casting spell.

Likewise, many of the game’s character classes remain, including the Warrior, the Wizard, and the Rogue. It should be noted that the Rogue is not so much the Thief we know and love of Dungeons & Dragons, but more of a “rogue Wizard,” who have limited spellcasting abilities and access to spells, but not the same restrictions in terms of arms and armour as the Wizard. To these are joined the Citizen, the ordinary person of a GM’s Trollworld or campaign world; the Specialist, which comes in three flavours – Specialist Mages (who focus on one type of spells such as combat, healing, or communication), Rangers (superb archers), and Leaders (who are very persuasive); and lastly, the Paragon, which replace the Warrior-Wizards of previous editions.

All characters have an additional new feature: a Talent. This is a skill or ability that adds a bonus to an attribute when it applies. It might be Persuade +4 or Pottery +3, but it will go as a character goes up in level. It is added when a character is required to make a Saving Roll to which it applies. It should be noted that a character’s level is no longer dependent upon a character having acquired a set number of Adventure Points. Rather these are spent to raise a character’s attributes and when the highest rises to twenty or more, he is second level, and so on.

Character generation is still relatively easy. Roll three six-sided dice for each attribute – it should be noted that rolls of triples add and roll over, choose a class, a Talent, a Kindred (or race), and buy equipment. That said, a full example of character generation would have been useful. So looking at Gomol the Small, our sample Dwarf Warrior, we see that he is incredibly fast for a Dwarf – I rolled three sixes, followed by seventeen, but his Luck always, always, lets him down. Perhaps his Speed can be accounted for by his small size? In all likelihood, Gomol is often mistaken for a Hobb – what Tunnels & Trolls calls Halflings or Hobbits – who is wearing a false beard. Anyway, Gomol is not much of miner – he specialises in breaking rocks very, very quickly, so has probably decided to try his terrible luck out in the whole wide Trollworld.

Gomol the Small, Dwarf, Level 3 Warrior
Strength: 26 Constitution: 18 Dexterity: 8 Speed: 35
Intelligence: 12 Wizardry: 5 Luck: 3 Charisma: 10
Height: 3’ 2” Weight: 160 lbs.
Talent: Appraisal (Intelligence +1) Drinking (Constitution +2), Mining (Constitution +3)
Combat Adds: +30
Equipment: Sledgehammer (4d), Dwarven Mask (1 Armour), Leather Trousers (1 Armour), Hard Boots (Ankle High); 1 silver piece.

Tunnels & Trolls is not a game that relies heavily on skills and skill checks. What the game has instead is Saving Rolls, usually made against a set attribute, for example, Luck or Dexterity. Simply, two dice are rolled – doubles roll over and add – and added to the attribute in question to beat a set target. For a Level One Saving Roll or “L1SR,” this target is twenty, and then goes up by five for each level. So Gomol would really be in trouble if he had to make a L1SR on Luck, but would walk it if it was on his Speed.

Combat in Tunnels & Trolls has changed relatively little in thirty five years. Each side involved rolls up their dice and adds the results to get a total. This total is compared with the opponent’s, the highest winning that round. The difference between the two rolls is inflicted on the loser! In fact, this was always so easy that it was very straightforward to write computer programmes that would handle the process for you. Then again, rolling the dice was always much more fun.

While monsters can have full statistics similar to that of player characters or NPCs, they can also be simplified to a Monster Rating or MR. A creature’s MR is rounded by the nearest ten to get the number of dice rolled each round, while half the MR is the value added to the roll as its “adds.” So a Smudgebrow Orc with an MR of 64 rolls 7d6 and adds 32.

There are two significant changes to combat. The first is that damage inflicted on a monster is not deducted from its MR, but only from its “adds.” This means that a monster’s MR never changes, thus avoiding the spiral effect of previous editions in which damage reduces a monster’s MR, thus reducing both the number of dice it rolls and its “adds,” and thus its effectiveness in combat. The second change is the “Spite Damage” rule in which any six rolled in combat inflicts a point of damage on an opponent, ignoring armour in the process. This nicely allows a character to inflict damage even if he misses!

So for example, Gomol has been surprised by a Smudgebrow Orc, his terrible Luck letting him down. With an MR of 64, we already know that the Orc rolls 7d6+32 in combat, while Gomol rolls 4d (for his sledgehammer) and adds 30. The Orc rolls 2, 3, 3, 3, 4, 4, and 6, to which its adds 32, for a total of 57, with one point of definite Spite Damage for the 6 rolled. In response, Gomol rolls 5, 5, 6, and 6, to which he adds 30 for a total of 52, and two points of definite Spite Damage for the 6s rolled. So deducting the Orc’s hit from Gomol’s, we see that Gomol takes five damage and another point of Spite Damage. Some of this stopped by his armour, but only the one point, so his Con is reduced by five! The Orc takes two Spite Damage, reduces its “adds” by two, meaning that it rolls 7d6+30 next round... Looks like Gomol has a tough fight on his hands...

What is exceptionally good about the core rulebook is the number of examples of combat. We get to see combat between monsters and monsters, between two characters, and between two groups of characters. All of the examples nicely showcase a combat system that is relatively quick and easy with lots of dice to throw. The rest of the Rulebook is devoted to a discussion of how magic works and a grimoire of spells. Spellcasting uses the Saving Roll system, based on the caster’s Intelligence and limited by his Wizardry attribute which he spends on “Kremm,” the energy that fuels magic.

More spells are added in the Codex Incantatem, while more monsters appear in both the Monstrum Codex and the Monsters & Magic Book Special Edition, the latter having appeared in the game’s Thirtieth Anniversary Edition. All three books are useful and should extend the life of the game, whereas the two scenarios should be there to get both the GM and the players started. “Strange Destinies” is the solo adventure, one that casts either a fairly tough Warrior or a troll or Ogre into the Fungus Forest beneath Troll World. It contains over two hundred entries and is a fairly grim, nasty affair that should be completed in an hour or so. The standard adventure, “Hot Pursuit,” should last about three hours or so, and sees a party of adventurers coming to the aid of a village beset by Scorpion Men raiders.

Both adventures are decent enough, but they do not feel quite suited for use with someone who is either new to Tunnels & Trolls or to roleplaying. They are essentially too deadly for first level characters. Another issue is with the lack of a setting. One is suggested with the map of the World of Kaball. This “Troll World” is also given a chronology which runs from its creation to its destruction mere millennia later. The GM is free to set his game anywhere along this timeline, but as to when and how, he is on his own. The Tunnels & Trolls boxed set comes with neither background nor advice on running the game. Neither is not going to be a problem for the experienced GM, but for a new player, this is a major omission.

Ken St. Andre does not know me from chocolate digestive, but he once suggested that I review Tunnels & Trolls. I never did. Not because I did not want to, but because I never had the time or the reason. There was always something more immediate that needed a review and who wanted a review of a game that was over thirty years old anyway. This does not mean that I did not want to review Tunnels & Trolls, but rather that I was waiting for the time to do it, and this series of reviews is that perfect time and place. The other reason for my reviewing is that I have not touched Tunnels & Trolls since I was fourteen and was at grammar school and twin brothers in the year below me would run me through some of the dungeons available back then. It was fun, there was a lot of rolling rather than roleplaying, but this was at lunchtime.

Coming back to Tunnels & Trolls and it still feels fun. There is a slight gonzo feel to the game that plays fast and easy. It is just a pity that this could not have supported except through mechanical means with more spells and monsters. Advice on playing and running the game should have replaced the extra monster and spell books, along with a dungeon specifically written for rank one characters. The inclusion of the Codex Incantatem and the Monsters & Magic Book Special Edition feel out of place given what was already in the box, almost as if they were put in as afterthought to fill up the box. A little thought could have gone into making this is much rounder, more fully formed boxed set.

The point of the “White Box Fever” series is to look at games that should serve as solid introductions to the hobby that is roleplaying, that should make the purchaser or receiver go “Wow!” upon cracking open the box or the book. So does Tunnels & Trolls achieve either of those goals? And the answer to that question is, not quite. The sheer amount of contents in the box is impressive, and they include everything necessary to play. Plus if there is a GM who knows how to write his own material, there is enough here to support his game mechanically for some time. Yet, the lack of an example of character creation is a hindrance, and the lack of a setting and GM and player advice works against anyone new to the game and hobby.

Tunnels & Trolls v7.5 certainly hits the nostalgia button and it is fun to play. Yet it still needs an experienced GM if someone new to the hobby is going to play it.

Friday 17 September 2010

Pacific, But Not Peaceful...

Back in May of 2010, I talked about how you get trends in gaming with a review of Operation Rascal, a scenario for Godlike: Superhero Roleplaying in a World on Fire, 1936-1946 from Arc Dream Publishing. This time in a review of another supplement for Godlike, I am going to start with trends in history, or rather trends about history. Right now here in the United Kingdom, the trends have been about World War II, specifically the Blitz and the Battle of Britain, both of which took place seventy years ago this year. If you follow these anniversaries, then there are going to be a lot of them about World War II in the next few years, just in time for the seventy-fifth anniversary to be celebrated. It should be pointed out that Godlike itself came out in an anniversary year, 2001, the sixtieth anniversary of the USA’s entry into World War II. As did a number of other World War II themed adventures.

Not all of these trends are dictated by anniversaries, some are determined by other media sources. One such was The Pacific, the HBO television series that followed the story of three marines as they fought against the Empire of Japan from basic training right up to the Battle of Iwo Jima. Accompanying the broadcast were several books on the history of the conflict, yet in gaming, the war in the Pacific rarely receives any attention. Not so in the miniatures or board wargaming hobbies, but certainly when it comes to roleplaying. This is due to two reasons. The first being that when most people think of World War II, they think of the war in Europe and against the Nazis, and if ever there was an easier enemy to beat up it, it was the Nazis. Second, the Japanese as an enemy are not as well known and not as knowable. Then there is the danger that in portraying the Japanese adversely you stray dangerously close to racism.

Fortunately, this does not happen in Combat Orders No. 2: Saipan, a scenario for Godlike that takes place during the Battle for Saipan in mid 1944. It is part of the Southern island hopping campaign through the Marianas that will drive the Japanese back across the Pacific to their home island. Two Marine divisions and one Army division have been assigned to take Saipan, with one of the ten USMC Talent squads being assigned to the Army division on Saipan to support its efforts during the invasion and beyond. This is the players’ squad, Combat Orders No. 2: Saipan providing SIS 308, a complete, ready-to-play nine member set of player characters.

If the players decide not to use the squad provided in Combat Orders No. 2: Saipan, then in order to create their own marines, they should have access to Talent Operations Command Intelligence Bulletin No. 3: Marine Talents in the Pacific. This specifically describes USMC operations Talent operations in the Pacific Theatre and gives the rules for creating marines who become Talents or Talents who become marines. Either way, the USMC talents who graduate from the Corps’ Special Instruction School -- “Hell’s Motel” – are a cut above most soldiers.

All nine members of SIS 308 were born south of the Mason-Dixon line, so its new commanding officer has nicknamed the squad, “The Confederacy.” All nine are nicely detailed, and all of their talents are built using the standard twenty-five point allocation for characters. This allocation showcases both the limits of the superpowers that can be built for the characters and a certain mechanical artifice to design the powers in question. It also demands a degree of inventiveness, to come up with interesting powers, and while the author is inventive in terms of character background and history, the powers he has created not necessarily so. Most of them are very physical in nature – hyperskills, hyperbody, heavy armour, and so on, though some will have to call upon a certain degree of inventiveness upon the part of the player if they are to use them during the game. Especially the Talent with the ability break anything with his teeth.

The scenario starts with the squad aboard the USS Fremont, the only marines attached to the 27th Army Division awaiting deployment while the landing takes place. Very quickly the Talents find themselves ashore and supporting the Marines and later the Army as their units got bogged down. Initially, their opposition will be ordinary Japanese Imperial soldiers, but as the Americans advance across the island, the situation for the Japanese grows ever more desperate and members of the Japanese Imperial Army manifest as Talents or Gaki. There are plenty of opportunities for heroics, but the adventure is not all combat.

There is at least one moment of quiet terror where the best thing that the Squad can do is nothing. There are opportunities for roleplaying and character interaction, and although not many of them, they are a welcome diversion from the dangers of the fight. There is also a particularly nasty morale conundrum at the scenario’s end, which is something of a grim anti-climax, but then this is in keeping with the whole of Combat Orders No. 2: Saipan. The GM will be kept busy throughout the adventure. Not just in running the scenario itself, but also in running innumerable enemies, the US squads, the Gaki, and the NPCs.

It might well be just coincidence to note that the climax to the scenario is similar to that of Combat Orders No. 1: Donar’s Hammer. In that scenario an Allied ship is threatened by an Axis Talent and it is up to the player Talents to stop him. In Combat Orders No. 2: Saipan, an American ship is threatened by a Gaki and it is up to the Player Talents. The nature of the Allied Talent or Gaki is different in both cases, but given the number of supplements and scenarios for Godlike, or rather the lack of, it seems an odd coincidence.

Physically, Combat Orders No. 2: Saipan is a well presented book. The text is easy to read, the choice of photographs is decent, and the maps and tables of organisation are all very clear. If I have a complaint here it is that the non-historical elements are not illustrated. In general the house style for Godlike avoids the use of illustrations over the use of period photographs that are often reworked to add a Talent element. What this is means is that there are no illustrations of the members of SIS 308 or the Gaki, and in the case of the latter, they might have helped.

Combat Orders No. 2: Saipan should provide at least two good sessions of tense play. Even the non-combat scenes are tense, and it is in these scenes where this scenario shines. World War II scenarios are never easy to write, but Combat Orders No. 2: Saipan is an example of how to do it well and is an excellent addition to the Godlike: Superhero Roleplaying in a World on Fire, 1936-1946 line.

White Box Fever I.II

New Weird World is the second item to be included in Weird Fantasy Role-Playing boxed set from Lamentations of the Flame Princess and also made available separately. This is something of departure for the designer, James Raggi IV, as it is not adventure, but a sandbox setting, a region that can be freely explored or roamed by a party of adventurers. Not a departure in the sense that it is without a plot, because most of Raggi’s scenarios are location based and without plot, but rather a departure in that the author cannot bring his customary attention to detail to every element of the region described in New Weird World.

Inspired by Raggi’s adopted home in Finland and his reading about the search for the Northwest Passage, the setting for New Weird World is the frozen North. These are not the only inspirations for this setting. The more obvious ones being H.P. Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, but there are possible nods to two classic modules for First Edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons as well, S2, White Plume Mountain and S3, Expedition to the Barrier Peaks. Much like Tower of the Stargazer, the other adventure included in the Weird Fantasy Role-Playing boxed set, New Weird World is designed for use by someone new to running a wilderness campaign, but where Tower of the Stargazer is written for first level characters, New Weird World is written for more experienced characters of fourth to seventh levels.

Where another adventure from Lamentations of the Flame Princess would come in a simple card cover, the cover for New Weird World folds out to show a full colour map of Raggi’s sandbox. The region comprises almost three million square miles of territory, primarily marked by climate. Also marked on the map are the forty or so locations described in the adventure’s twenty-four page booklet. The maps for two of these locations are given on the inside of the cover, a truly “Great Shipwreck” and a “Pirate Treasure Cove.” Included in the booklet are plain, unmarked copies of the maps for the referee to use and the players to mark up as they explore.

If Raggi cannot bring his customary attention to detail to the region as a whole, he can at least apply to aspects of the setting. Primarily these are its weather, its exploration, and its random encounters, the latter both befitting New Weird World’s clime and the darker, more sinister feel of Weird Fantasy Role-Playing. Thus you have encounters as mundane as a herd of caribou and arctic wolves, but also strange encounters with a crazed whale, tribespeople with a severe hatred of demihumans, and a Living Aurora – surely a Colour Out of Space by any other shade? Raggi never lets up in his weirdness, but where he can carry this off effectively in the space of a full adventure where he has room to develop his ideas, here all too often, he can only just present a thumbnail snapshot and no more. Part of this is intentional, the author wanting the referee to explain and expand upon these phenomena himself, but almost as soon as the referee starts thinking about one, then he is looking at the next one on the page. Nor does it help that the adventure lacks advice on developing the author’s ideas, especially after the luxury of the author’s thoughts in Tower of the Stargazer.

Two locations are expanded in detail, each running to roughly three pages in length. They serve up a slice of the author’s trademark oddness, but given their isolated location, it is doubtful that the players will ever get out that far. At least not without some kind of hook, and that is main problem with New Weird World. The lack of hooks, of an obvious starting point, and even a table of rumours leaves a lot of work to do for an experienced referee, let alone a neophyte one. The inclusion of a starting point would also provide a place of refuge for the characters away from strangeness of the region.

In the hands of an experienced referee, New Weird World will provide the basis of a dark and curious campaign. It is not written to that end though, and is just a little too arch for the new referee. Ultimately, the issue is not weirdness of New Weird World – that is its point, after all, but its size. The region is too big for the new referee, too big for Raggi to detail beyond its weirder features, and too big for the player characters to explore fully. A smaller area would have allowed the author to present some of the ideas here to the level of detail we have seen elsewhere, while leaving room for the referee to add details himself.

As the first attempt to create a wilderness adventure, New Weird World is an interesting read, full of ideas ready to be expanded upon. Yet it is too big and ambitious to pull off successfully, and the author will need to rethink his scale for his next attempt.

Friday 10 September 2010

White Box Fever I.I

Among the Old School Renaissance movement, one of the most highly anticipated releases of 2010 is James Raggi IV’s Weird Fantasy Role-playing. Included in this boxed set is the setting, Weird New World and the scenario, Tower of the Stargazer. Both are written to support the new rules and the author’s design aim to present a setting with more sinister, slightly horrific feel, and go towards making Weird Fantasy Role-playing a complete package, but both are also available separately.

Tower of the Stargazer is an adventure designed for a party of four to eight characters of first level. It describes an isolated wizard’s tower, standing at the centre of a lightning blasted circle. The building appears abandoned, but it holds more than its fair share of puzzles and secrets. This all sounds like a cliché, and to extent it is. One of the aims in this introductory is to present the cliché of the abandoned wizard’s tower, but in Raggi’s hands it comes alive through almost nothing happening. Combat encounters are few and far between, the emphasis being on the puzzles, the secrets, and the traps. This still leaves plenty for the players to explore and interact with, the one lesson they will learn is that too much curiosity can be a dangerous thing. The lack of combat encounters, the emphasis on traps and puzzles, and the lack of treasure are all trademarks of Raggi’s naturalistic dungeon design.

The overall design consists of just twenty-six locations, comprising of the area immediately outside the tower, the tower itself, and a small dungeon beneath the tower. It is intended to be placed in a relatively remote area, allowing to be added to almost any campaign. Playing through should take no more than one or two sessions. Mechanically is written for Weird Fantasy Role-playing, but it can just as easily be run for any “Edition 0” RPG.

What sets Tower of the Stargazer apart is that it is written as a “Tutorial” module. As such it is not only is it designed to be played by those new to gaming, but it also is designed to be run by someone new to refereeing. To that end, almost every location described in the adventure is accompanied by a separate box of text wherein Raggi himself steps forth to discuss the elements of the adventure he has written. Primarily, these sections explore what the players might do; the significance of the items to found in each location – of books, in particular; the author’s thoughts in designing and writing; as well as giving staging advice. All of this advice should be useful for the neophyte referee, but some of it should also be useful to someone more experienced, and all of it makes for an interesting read around the adventure. So rarely do we get the chance to hear an author’s thoughts about the module he has written in media res, rather than as designer’s notes in an afterword. On one level, the advice is not quite enough of a tutorial, but the danger in that is that it could turn into preaching.

Physically, Tower of the Stargazer is not quite up to the standards of previous releases from Lamentations of the Flame Princess. The use of a heavy black border and artwork as watermarks on several pages make for quite an oppressive reading experience, very much at odds with sixteen page length of the scenario. The maps inside the folder though, are very clear and well done. True, it would have been nicer if they had been larger as they do feel slightly cluttered. Another issue with the booklet is the lack of artwork except that in the background, as any such artwork could have been used to illustrate some of the locations in the adventure.

What is surprising for what is an introductory designed for new players is that experienced players are just as likely to enjoy it. Primarily because of the attention to detail that the author has brought to what would otherwise be a cliché, making feel Tower of the Stargazer fresh and part of any setting. Although designed for first level characters, it could easily be played using characters of second or third levels, and given the lightness of the mechanics, be scaled up for higher levels, just as easily as it could be run for the Dungeons & Dragons variant of your choice. The combination of the advice and the attention to detail serve to bring Tower of the Stargazer to life and to make it very playable. Another fine design from James Raggi IV.

When Boulders Roll...

The Adventurers is a push your luck, race against the clock, memory based and luck based board game from Alderac Entertainment Group heavily inspired by the exploits of Indiana Jones. Twelve adventurers have journeyed deep into the South American jungle and now stand at the entrance to the Temple of Chac, the Mayan god of Rain and Thunder. Once inside they have choices aplenty. Do they stop and look for treasure as the walls close in? Do they stop and look for clues that might get them across the lava pit? Do they stop and attempt to unlock the vaults that continue valuable treasure? As the giant rock rolls faster and faster towards them, do they leap into the river and swim in hope that they can get out before being swept into the abyss below? Or do they rush across the rickety bridge and make that final run for the exit before the giant rock reaches the end and seals everyone in? The player will face all of these choices during a game of The Adventurers. With the right decisions and a little bit of luck, an adventurer will get out alive and with some treasure. The wrong choice and bad luck will cast the intrepid adventurers to an eternal entombment, or hopefully a quick death...

The Adventurers is played out on a square board that depicts the Temple of Chac. The route from the entrance is linear, beginning in the Walls Room and winding its way past the Lava Room and the minor vaults to the Underground River and the rickety Wooden Bridge, past the main vault, before reaching the exit. Each player controls a pair of adventurers who will enter the Temple one at a time and move towards the exit, making decisions based upon the adventurer's skill and the number of action points he has from turn to turn. There are six skills in the game: Leap, Linguistics, Lock Picking, Sprint, Stamina, and Swimming. Each of these skills is a one shot affair and are divided between those that can be used in specific circumstances and those that have a general application. Leap, Sprint, and Stamina can be used anywhere, while Linguistics can only be used determine if a glyph indicates an unsafe tile in the Lava Room; Lock Picking to open one of the treasure vaults; and Swimming to get out of the river more easily. In general, the specific a skill’s application, the more likely that it will affect a player’s tactics. For example, a character with the Lock Picking skill is more likely to try opening a treasure vault, while a character with the Swimming skill will probably try to swim the Underground River.

The Adventurers comes with lots of cards, cardboard tiles aplenty, and numerous bits of plastic. There are Treasure Cards for each of the main locations on the board, including the Walls Room, the Lava Room, the Treasure Vaults, and Underground River. Each of the Treasure Cards has a value ranging from one to six. In general, the more difficult a Treasure is to obtain, the higher its value. Some Treasure Cards depict a casket and a die symbol, meaning that their value must be rolled for at the end of the game. There are also the twelve character cards. These depict each of the adventurers in full colour along with an icon indicating his skill, plus charts for determining his Load Level on the back along with his Action Points.

There are two sets of corresponding tiles, the Lava Room Glyph tiles and Glyph Clue tiles. The former are placed Glyph face down on the Lava Room and covered with the Dark Masking Card, a square of black that hides the tiles until someone enters the Lava Room. Four of the Glyph Clue tiles are randomly drawn and placed alongside the Walls Room where they can be examined by an adventurer and committed to memory ready for when he tries to cross the Lava Room. These four Glyph Clue tiles indicate the unsafe tiles in the Lava Room.

The plastic starts with the twelve adventurer pieces. These are sculpted to match the images and are very nicely detailed. Unfortunately, they are all uniformly grey and can be a little difficult to tell apart when placed on the colourful board. The other pieces of plastic include the two walls that will the Walls Room, the Boulder that will chase the adventurers to the exit, and the rickety bridge for the Wooden Bridge. The Boulder is flat bottomed, so it slides rather than rolls, and the Wooden Bridge has several planks that are likely to be knocked loose into the abyss below as a procession of the overly laden adventurers race over it.

The mechanics from turn to turn are relatively simple. Starting with the Dicekeeper, a role that will pass around the table, the players take it in turn to roll for the number of Action Points they have to spend on their turn. To do this, each player rolls five six-sided dice, and for each die that rolls above a threshold determined by his adventurer’s Load Level, he gains an Action Point. For example, if an adventurer is carrying up to three Treasures, his Load Level is two and he has to roll two and over on each die. Carry between four and six Treasures, and the Load Level is three and he has to roll three and over on each die. An Action Point can be spent to move – walk, sprint, leap, or swim – one square; to examine any square for treasure, in the Walls Room, Lava Room, and Underground River; to examine a Glyph tile in the Walls and Lava Rooms; to make a single attempt to unlock a Treasure Vault; and to use any adventurer’s Skill. Once everyone has had their turn, the Dicekeeper draws cards to determine the movement of the Walls in the Walls Room and rolls dice to see if the Boulder moves. It moves one square for each result of three or more rolled. On the first turn, only one die is rolled, but this increases by one die each turn as the Boulder games speed until all five are being rolled at the end of the Dicekeeper’s turn.

In effect, the movement of the Boulder becomes the game’s timekeeper. As it moves faster and faster towards the exit, the Boulder closes in on the adventurers’ tail and they will find themselves having less and less time to act. At best the adventurers can hope for low rolls by the Dicekeeper when rolling for the Boulder movement, but it will definitely catch up with them. If the Boulder catches up with an adventurer, it will kill, as will falling into the lava of the Lava Room or into the abyss that the Underground River flows into, either by being swept in by the river or having the Wooden Bridge collapse under after attempting to carry too much across. It should be noted that an evil adventurer can jump up and down on the Wooden Bridge to make it more dangerous to cross for later adventurers. This can of course, go wrong for the malicious adventurer as the Wooden Bridge collapses under him...

A dead adventurer loses all of his treasure gained so far. If the player still has an adventurer waiting outside, he can enter the Temple of Chac through entrances created by the Boulder passing the Lava Room. As the adventurer is entering further onto into the Temple, there is less opportunity for him to gather treasure and he will need to find his way past the Boulder in front of him. Probably by swimming the Underground River and searching its bed for treasure. If this second adventurer is lost, then his player is out of the game.

The winner is of course, the player who gets one or more of his adventurers out of the Temple with the most treasure as determined by the value of the Treasure cards. It is entirely possible for nobody to get out of the Temple of Chac, and thus for everyone to lose.

For some, The Adventurers will be too much of a luck based game. True, what a player can do from turn to turn is determined by a roll of the dice, but it is up to the player to decide what he does with the results of the dice roll. One issue is the relative complexity of determining the safe Glyph Tiles in the Lava Room. While perfectly in keeping with the game’s theme, it can detract from an otherwise fast paced game and will probably be too complex for younger players. Also, once a player has lost one adventurer, he will find himself playing catch up with his competitors. That said, a game of The Adventurers can be completed in as little as thirty minutes and the likelihood is that you will get another game in before ninety minutes is up.

One factor limiting an adventurer’s choice is the number of players. More players mean more adventurers competing for the options in the Temple of Chac. It also means that the Boulder will move more often...

There is also the matter of cost. Given its plastic components and large number of cards and tiles, The Adventurers is by no means an inexpensive game. It gets even more expensive if the owner decides to add the painted plastic pieces that the publisher also sells. These are very nice though, the full colour adventurers in particular, which make the playing pieces far easier to distinguish than the grey of the set that comes in the game. Nevertheless, the core set feels a little overpriced given the lightness of the game play.

That game play is strong in terms of theme, and the players will soon find themselves invested in the exploits of their tomb raiding adventurers. It can be a lot of fun to see them pushing their luck in an effort to get that extra piece of treasure. It is even more fun when they fail and fall under the path of the rolling Boulder or burn to a crisp in the Lava Pit. Victory in getting out of the Temple of Chac is ever so sweet...