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

Saturday 29 January 2011

Sweet Kobold 16

Almost as soon as I review one issue of Kobold Quarterly, another one appears ready for me to read. Then again, I should be reading and reviewing them – and the host of other books to hand – a whole lot faster. Then again, that is by the by, because what you really want to know about is the latest issue of Kobold Quarterly #16. The most curious thing about this issue is the strap line, which reads “Digging Deathtraps All Winter” rather than the usual “The Switzerland of the Edition Wars.” Not curious because it means I have to find something else to make an aside about other than chocolate and cuckoo clocks, but rather because the last issue was the one with the traps theme. So if the theme of this issue is not traps, what is it? Well, in continuing to provide support for both Dungeons & Dragons, Fourth Edition and the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game, its theme is that of artifice and magic, in particular the artifice that is clockwork. In addition, this is the issue that announces Open Design’s forthcoming Midgard Campaign Setting, which was begun with the Zobeck Gazetteer, and Kobold Quarterly has visiting again and again in its various issues. This provides the background for many of the magazine’s articles and serves to give the issue a more cohesive feel.

The Midguard based articles begin with the first article, Henry Brooks’ “Ecology of the Gearforged.” We have seen a mechanically bodied player character race before, in the form of the Warforged from Dungeons & Dragons, Fourth Edition, but the Gearforged are different. Clockwork driven, each Gearforged possesses a soul which passed into it via a ritual from the elderly, the dying, the dedicated, and the convicted crook, which means that a player character can live on if he purchases the materials and undergoes the correct ritual to become a Gearforged. Gearforged are revered in Zobeck for their aid in defending the city, but there is nothing to stop a DM adding them to his own game. A nice touch is that this article is for both game systems, Dungeons & Dragons, Fourth Edition and the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game, potentially making it useful to every reader rather than dividing and disappointing them by being for one game rather than the other. As much as I am not all that much of a fan of Dungeons & Dragons, Fourth Edition, covering both games in one magazine is a clever, more inclusive move.

The second article is specifically set in the Midgard Campaign Setting, but again, its contents can be transplanted elsewhere. “Odalisques and Concubines: Courtesans of Zobeck” by Stefen Styrsky expands on a “Free City of Zobeck” column from an earlier issue of the magazine and gives rules and support for the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game. Apart from forcing me to look up the meaning of one of the words in the title because I had forgotten it – you can guess which one – this details an interesting variant of the Bard class complete with Conversation and Storytelling as alternative Perform skills, new spells that charm and entice the victim, and new magical items like the Pillow Book which collects salacious details about the high and mighty. Although written for the Midgard Campaign Setting, this class can easily be put into any game that primarily takes place in large towns and cities, or that has an Arabic feel. Although this type of character has been seen in other RPGs and settings, its potentially prurient nature has kept it out of Dungeons & Dragons since the appearance of the Houri character class back in White Dwarf #13. Of course, that was not an official character class, but this one is and is all the better for being tastefully done.

The third article written for the Midgard Campaign Setting is for Dungeons & Dragons, Fourth Edition, and is the shortest of the pieces for it. Russell Jones’ “The Royal Order of the Golden Fox” examines an ancient, but secretive organisation that dedicates itself to the hunt, sometimes of dangerous animals, but sometimes of more dangerous foe, such as murderers, necromancers, and so on. It is useful as potential patron, especially for Druids, Rangers, and similar classes. One reason to accept the invitation to join is the Order’s treasury of magical items that it rewards members for completing quests.

The clockwork theme begun in “Ecology of the Gearforged” is continued in “The Clockwork Adept: A Prestige Class of Mechanical Precision” by Jason Sonia. This details a new Arcane Prestige Class that is capable of commanding, crafting, and understanding clockwork mechanisms. This works very well with the earlier “Ecology of the Gearforged” and it would have nice this had been worked into the Midgard Campaign Setting as well. In “Clockwork Monsters,” David Adams continues the theme for Dungeons & Dragons, Fourth Edition with rules and guidelines adding clockwork and steam driven technologies to a trap or creature.

As to artifice, Michael Kortes’ “Dancing Brooms, Skittering Sconces: Animated Mayhem” provides an entertainingly obvious use for the animate objects spell in the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game – bringing to life the mundane contents of the room around you, just like Micky Mouse did in Disney’s Fantasia. More artifice comes with “Magic Items of Golarion,” though all of them complete and in working order. The twelve on show here all come from Paizo Publishing’s RPG Superstar Contest of 2010 and are inventive and clever. My favourite is the “Vessel of the Deep,” a squid shaped submarine that is stored as a bottle of ink, but others will enjoy the “Tankard of the Cheerful Duellist” and the “Goblin Skull Bomb.” Lastly, the dangers of artifice are explored in Scott A. Murray’s “Potion Miscibility” for Dungeons & Dragons, Fourth Edition, which looks at the potential perils and benefits of mix potions.

In what is a nice change, the issue comes with not one, but two short scenarios, both for the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game. Christina Styles’ “Beer Run! An Adventure in the Northlands” uses material from the forthcoming Frozen Empires supplement to present and has the heroes raiding a giant’s mead hall to get back two casks of ale, and not just any ale, but ale that heals! The other scenario is more demanding and will require some roleplaying and investigation upon the part of the players. By Willie Walsh, “The Curse of The Blue Titchyboo” begins with one of the characters having his pockets picked and the culprit appearing to have run into a school. Not just any school, but a school for turning out Tengu! This is a pleasing change of pace after “Beer Run!” with the characters trying to determine feathered friend from feathered foe.

Elsewhere, Jonathan McAnulty explores and expands upon “Places of Sanctuary” for the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game, while monsters for Dungeons & Dragons, Fourth Edition get a tune up in two articles. In Raymond D. Falgui’s “The Minion Academy: Making the Most of Your Minions” the mooks of the monster world get a last hurrah that will make player characters give them ever so slightly more consideration. When a minion dies – easy enough given that most possess a single Hit Point – it grants a one-shot combat to an ally, usually the minion’s lord and master. With “True Hit Locations: Monsters with Weak Spots and Tactical Combat” Matthew J. Hanson makes monsters more challenging with abilities and powers that can also be targeted by the heroes to negate them and weaken the creature.

As ever Kobold Quarterly#16 is rounded out with cartoons and comic strips, the Book Reviews column, a column of Ask the Kobold – this one devoted to illusions, and of course, Free City of Zobeck, the regular column that ends every issue, this time devoted to Zobeck’s armies. In addition Monte Cook tells you how he handled a really powerful magical item in “The Ring of Rule-Breaking” and in “If You're Having Fun” game designer Robin D. Laws is interviewed about his Gumshoe RPGs from Pelgrane Press; his guide to storytelling, Hamlet's Hit Points; and his Pathfinder fiction.

If truth be told, Kobold Quarterly #16 feels a much better issue than the last. There is much more of a focus to its themes and they are well served in all of the articles. There is more energy to the issue as well, partly due to the focus, but also to the fact that the Midgard Campaign Setting is announced and then supported to a greater length than has been the case in the past. I can only hope that this focus is maintained in future issues that will also further illuminate Open Design’s house campaign. The news that Green Ronin Publishing’s "age" or "adventure game engine" mechanics – used in the publisher’s Dragon Age – Dark Fantasy Roleplaying Set 1: For Characters Level 1 to 5 – has polled well with the patrons of the Midgard Campaign Setting, also signals the possibility that we will see more articles for that system in Kobold Quarterly. In the meantime, an excellent issue and Kobold Quarterly certainly deserves its sweet sixteen.

A Supplement To Treasure II?

How detailed does your fantasy game get? When playing Dungeons & Dragons or the Retroclone of your choice, does your group prefer to grab the treasure and sell it without a thought? Or does it take the time to sift through the hoard and take notice of every single item, perhaps admiring a piece or two for their beauty, while still appraising each for their value and potential provenance? If your group happens to sway towards the latter style of play, then perhaps the latest pair of supplements from Faster Monkey Games – whose scenario, Wrack & Rune I reviewed last year – might prove to be useful tools to that end. All the Treasures of the World: Gems and All the Treasures of the World: Jewels are each written as resources that can be used to add detail to your game world. Both are designed specifically for use with Labyrinth Lord, the Retroclone from Goblinoid Games, but as with so much of the scenarios and support available for the Old School Renaissance, they can be used with the “Edition 0” RPG of your choice. This time around, having reviewed the first in the series last week, All the Treasures of the World: Gems, I will review the second, All the Treasures of the World: Jewels, this week.

The first question about All the Treasures of the World: Jewels is what is the difference between gems and jewels? After all, are they not the same, and if so, why does the All the Treasures of the World series need a second supplement devoted to the subject? Well, a gem can be cut and polished and so turned into a jewel, and gems and gemstones can be worked into a setting or piece of jewellery, usually to increase its value or significance, if not both. Such items are the subject of this supplement, and while there is a means given to determine the number and value of gems of on any one piece included in its pages, the details it gives about those gems is cursory in comparison to that found in All the Treasures of the World: Gems. Thus the two supplements are designed to work together.

Since both All the Treasures of the World: Gems and All the Treasures of the World: Jewels are designed to work together, they work in a similar fashion. Where the former presented a series of tables via which a GM could determine the type and value of one gem over another, the latter provides a series of tables that will determine the type of jewel, its base material and value, and lastly, its style, and any patterns and motifs worked into it. In addition to the table devoted to gems, another details nonpareils, jewellery that has been enhanced by smaller gems, along with an explanation.

So for example, rolling on the Common Item table tells that a particular piece of jewellery is an earring. My roll on the Materials and Value table determines that it is made of gold and has a base value of 10 gp and a Décor Class of V. This table lists both precious metals and other materials, so that piece of jewellery could also be made of bone, ceramics, tin, and so on. Rolling on the Style, Patterns, and Motif table further tells me that the earring is engraved worth a further 5 gp and also patterned. That pattern is artistic and skilful, that of a beer stein. Its value is also increased eightfold. Given that its base value is 15 gp, its actual value is 120 gp, and since this is of a beer stein, it is probably of dwarven workmanship.

The supplement is rounded out with two fully worked examples. The first is of a simple piece of jewellery, while the second describes a more valuable work, one befitting a treasure hoard. In comparison with All the Treasures of the World: Gems, this supplement is much shorter, being two thirds of the length. What this means is that this supplement contains less background detail than All the Treasures of the World: Gems and is thus less informative. There is some information on coinage and heraldic jewellery, but what there is does leave you wanting more. Perhaps there is room for a further supplement that explores heraldic jewellery and its place in your gaming world.

Despite there being fewer tables in All the Treasures of the World: Jewels than All the Treasures of the World: Gems, it is a more complex affair. The results require the user to think more about the results created than All the Treasures of the World: Gems and the lack of background detail, does make this supplement more a utilitarian affair than the first in series. Not that having to think about the results of using the table is a bad thing, and whatever the outcome of the tables in All the Treasures of the World: Jewels, there is always the potential for it to be interesting, for the chance that it might add detail to the DM’s campaign, and even the possibility that it might be the basis for an adventure. Despite it not being not quite as interesting, All the Treasures of the World: Jewels is the more useful of the series to date and the one most likely to add facets to your campaign.

Friday 21 January 2011

It's a Corpse Cavalcade

Remember back in 2010 when zombies were hot? It was all down to the continuing comic book series The Walking Dead, which under the guidance of the film director Frank Darabont made it onto our television screens. It proved what genre fans always knew, that unlike stories about vampires, those about zombies are never about the monster, but always about the survivors. After all, zombies are nothing more than a nameless, unthinking threat with no other motivation than to eat your brains or your flesh, and thus spread the love. The survivors in such situations are invariably ordinary folks pushed to the extreme by growing number of ever hungry dead. It is a situation that has often been explored in gaming, usually by the king of the zombie pile, Eden Studio, Inc.’s All Flesh Must Be Eaten and its range of genre twisting supplements that have done everything from Dungeons & Zombies to Zombies in Space. That said, All Flesh Must Be Eaten has never been supported by a fully campaign that takes the likes of you or I – if you or I were American – from the point before the first appearance of the corpse cortege through a full blown outbreak and into a post-apocalyptic world where the need to survive is utmost in everyone’s mind. Complicated of course, by the constant threat of the walking dead.

Thanks to Daring Entertainment, we now have that campaign, though not for All Flesh Must Be Eaten. Published via Cubicle Seven Entertainment, War of the Dead: Chapter One presents the first thirteen parts or weeks, of a campaign written for Pinnacle Entertainment Group’s Savage Worlds. The whole campaign is fifty-two weeks in length, so there are another four parts to come, at least in book form. Individual chapters are available as PDFs and it is possible to subscribe to the series. Chapter Two is already available in PDF.

As the campaign opens, the player characters find themselves on holiday, aboard the Pinnacle, one of those massive cruise ships on its maiden voyage. Although they need not know each other, the player characters find themselves together more and more as strange events, and then stranger events take place. As it becomes apparent that there is some kind of contagious disease is spreading throughout the ship and then that the dead are coming back from, well, being dead, they come to the attention of vessel’s head of security, Jason Kirkman. He soon comes to rely upon them as the situation deteriorates and the survivors are forced to abandon ship. When they make it to land, the heroes find that there is no respite. Whatever affected the crew and passengers of the Pinnacle is not confined to the liner and society is already crumbling…

Structurally, War of the Dead: Chapter One quickly takes on a familiar feel. Each “week” does not represent a week of game time, but rather a single session of game play, each consisting of three acts and ending a cliffhanger type of situation. Thus, the campaign as whole is intended to take a year to play, though this will vary from one group to another. War of the Dead: Chapter One represents just two weeks of actual game time. Most weeks consist of the survivors getting to a location, establishing some kind of relationship with various NPCs, and then the living dead, or another threat, arriving to upset this new found situation. It is not until the last three weeks that there is any change in this format, when the survivors have an opportunity to rest and as these last three chapters progress learn something about the new world that they find themselves in. It these three weeks together with the three weeks at the start of the campaign where the player characters are confined to the ship, that the most interesting and the least problematic in terms of running the campaign.

The problem with the campaign is that it is entirely reactive in nature. The players and their characters are constantly being forced to react to events and there is never any let up from this. This issue is part of the genre, but players being players, they do like to have sense of autonomy over their characters, and the constant push, push of the cadaver cavalcade will probably grow wearisome quite quickly. This issue is exacerbated by the fact that on more than one occasion the player characters are captured and forced to do something against their will, and while this might work once or twice, it becomes wearisome very quickly. As do the scenes of confrontation in which the NPCs face off, guns drawn, against the players characters, who still have them holstered or shouldered.

The point is that a tightly scripted campaign such as War of the Dead: Chapter One might not be to the liking of everyone. Nevertheless, the campaign provides some creepy moments, such as being hunted by baby zombies – or is that zombie babies? There are also situations when the player characters are presented with tough choices, for example, between rescuing a mother and child and thus possibly alerting the dead and expending ammunition, and leaving them in favour of survival.

For the most part, the threat faced by the survivors will be “shamblers,” the slow, stumbling type of zombie that will use its hands and teeth to claw and bite at its prey, and which is usually dangerous when in a mob or in an enclosed space. They can be outrun and outwitted, but are attracted by noise, their own moans that indicate that they are on the hunt, also attracting other dead. Of course, the likelihood is that once a survivor, player character or NPC, has been bitten, then he has been infected and will rise again as a zombie. This is something that the player characters will soon learn themselves, as well as the need to take action accordingly. Later on in the campaign, other types of zombie will appear, all of them familiar to the genre.

In terms of rules, Savage Worlds seems a slightly odd choice for this type of setting. War of the Dead: Chapter One is a gritty setting with the only outré element being the zombies. Savage Worlds tends towards being more pulp action in style that allows for player heroics. Players in War of the Dead: Chapter One are expected to create ordinary folk as characters rather than zombie killing machines, and given that they are on holiday at the start of the campaign, are likely to have spouses, children, and other members of the family with them. Having a dependent or as the campaign puts it in the new “Responsibility to Others” Hindrance, is not mandatory, but it does provide a source for character motivation. The campaign also includes several situations where such a dependent can replace a given NPC and tie the responsible player character into its story. A list of suggested character types is given as well as a new Edge and several Hindrances.

The campaign does provide one new rule that allows for player character heroics. Under the terms of the “Heroic Determination” rule a player can expend a Benny – the equivalent of luck or action points in Savage Worlds – to gain the temporary effects of any Combat Edge that his character qualifies for. This only lasts a single round, and should be used sparingly given that Bennies are also used to soak Wounds that otherwise might infect a character. Other rules cover survival, food, and ammunition, as well as a detailed look at the living dead and the threat they represent. There is at least an avenue for heroics in the campaign then, and given the fact that Savage Worlds handles vehicular and mass combat with relative ease, then its use for this campaign is less questionable.

Perhaps the biggest problem in War of the Dead: Chapter One is one of player awareness. There cannot be a gamer alive who does not know what a zombie is, even if he has never seen a film by George A. Romero or more recently, watched The Walking Dead on television. He knows that zombies spread the love by biting their living prey and the likelihood is that he knows that the only way to stop a zombie is to shoot it in the head. In War of the Dead: Chapter One, nobody knows this. In the setting for War of the Dead, George A. Romero never made Night of the Living Dead, and in fact, nobody has ever made a film about zombies. Further, comic book series, The Walking Dead was never written or drawn, so never published, and thus never turned into a television series. In War of the Dead: Chapter One, the players are expected to roleplay the fact that their characters do not know what a zombie is, or the fact that the best way to kill one, is to shoot it in the head. The player characters have to learn this, either from an NPC doing or through random headshots. This is asking a lot of the players, who essentially need to suspend their own knowledge, which is not exactly helped by the fact that two prominent NPCs have the surnames, Kirkman and Romero…

Physically, War of the Dead: Chapter One is disappointing. While the artwork is suitably gruesome, the greyscale book as a whole looks scruffy, and really the book is in need of another edit. Preferably from a professional. If the book lacks for anything, it is maps. Their inclusion might have helped the GM visual and describe several of the campaign’s locations to his players.

To successfully run War of the Dead: Chapter One, the GM needs to ensure that the players and player characters alike are kept motivated. In a setting that is as tightly plotted and as deadly as this, this is not going to be an easy task, one that is complicated by the fact that the campaign initially asks the players to forget a lot of what they already know. Nevertheless, War of the Dead: Chapter One is not without some horrifically horrible scenes of horror and some opportunities to roleplay. For the GM wanting to run a whole campaign based around the rise of the ravaging revenants, War of the Dead: Chapter One is good choice, though not a perfect one.

A Supplement To Treasure?

How detailed does your fantasy game get? When playing Dungeons & Dragons or the Retroclone of your choice, does your group prefer to grab the treasure and sell it without a thought? Or does it take the time to sift through the hoard and take notice of every single item, perhaps admiring a piece or two for their beauty, while still appraising each for their value and potential provenance? If your group happens to sway towards the latter style of play, then perhaps the latest pair of supplements from Faster Monkey Games – whose scenario, Wrack & Rune I reviewed last year – might prove to be useful tools to that end. All the Treasures of the World: Gems and All the Treasures of the World: Jewels are each written as resources that can be used to add detail to your game world. Both are designed specifically for use with Labyrinth Lord, the Retroclone from Goblinoid Games, but as with so much of the scenarios and support available for the Old School Renaissance, they can be used with the “Edition 0” RPG of your choice. This time around, I will just review the first in the All the Treasures of the World series, which is devoted to gems.

All the Treasures of the World: Gems is a short, twelve page PDF. Upon first sight, it appears to be just a series of tables devoted to its subject, and for the most part it is. From the initial table which establishes a gem’s Base Value, subsequent tables determine its type, size, and quality. For example, having rolled a Base Value of 25 gp, rolls on the other tables tell me that this is a green Tourmaline with a cat’s eye. Although slightly smaller than average, this Tourmaline is flawless, thus offsetting its smaller size and keeping its value at 25 gp. A much larger table gives me the basic information about every type of gem that appears in All the Treasures of the World: Gems. Under the entry for Tourmaline I discover that stones of this type are translucent and are polished rather than cut, usually into spheres. Noting that my Tourmaline has a cat’s eye, the author also explains that this is actually an optical effect called “chatoyancy” and is brought to best effect when by polishing the gem.

Simple rules are provided under Labyrinth Lord to allow a player character or NPC to appraise any single gem whether he wants to compare, identify, or evaluate a gem, or simply spot a fake. Jewellers, fences, and merchants all have an advantage in this, as do rogues and thieves. It is up to the GM to decide if Dwarves and Gnomes also do. The attempt to spot a fake is supported with a table of random fake gems and another of easily misidentified gems. The supplement is rounded out with a guide to buying and selling gems, including a discussion of how jewellers’ appraisal documents work, giving potential for any rogue worth a victim’s purse to run a con game of some kind. That rogue of course, being an NPC or a player character.

Given the number of tables contained in the pages of All the Treasures of the World: Gems, this supplement looks a whole lot more complex than it actually is. The GM only has to consult a few of those tables to determine the nature and value of any gem, and that only if he wants to. The contents of this supplement are designed to modular, so that he could just roll on the two tables to determine a gem’s Base Value and its type, and nothing more. The combined effect of using all of the tables and the new rules and guidelines is nothing more than one of extra added detail without overwhelming the user. To sum up with a little cliché, All the Treasures of the World: Gems is a neat little gem of a tool for your Dungeons & Dragons game.

Friday 14 January 2011

Keeping Fantasy Dark And Low

If you happen to have an interest in the post-Dungeons & Dragons Fourth Edition movement that embraces the play of “Edition 0” games that hark back to the game as it was back in the 1970s, the likelihood will be that you read James Maliszewski’s blog, Grognardia. For several years he has been providing a commentary on the movement as well contributing to it himself in the form of The Haunted Chateau, but his first fantasy RPG is anything other than a “Retroclone.” Except that is, for the fact that the first book is subtitled the “Basic Core Rulebook.” Co-authored with regular collaborator, Richard Iorio II, Shadow, Sword, & Spell: Basic Core Rulebook is a human centric fantasy RPG in the pulp mode of Robert E. Howard as well as Clark Ashton Smith and H.P. Lovecraft. What this makes Shadow, Sword, & Spell is a fantasy RPG without playable fantasy races – so no Dwarves, Elves, or the like; with magic having a potentially deleterious effect upon the caster; and its more outré elements tend to be dark and dangerous. In general this is “low fantasy,” though not gritty as the rules have a capacity for action and heroics, and its focus is upon character and foibles as much it is on dark mysteries.

Anyone familiar with other 12° System RPGs from Rogue GamesColonial Gothic and Thousand Suns, will recognise much in Shadow, Sword, & Spell. The core mechanic is simple, roll and add the results of two twelve-sided dice to try match or roll lower than a Target Number. Most tasks will be determined by adding an attribute and a skill together. For example, our barbarian from the North below, has been employed as a caravan guard and has to defend it against a bandit attack. Hefting his trusty axe, Hafnyr must roll against a Target Number of fifteen, equal to the total of his Brawn and his Melee skill with battle axes, in which he has specialised. Had Hafnyr only had time to draw his knife, then the Target Number would have been lower, just thirteen. Fortunately for Hafnyr, his player rolls low, getting a result of six. On most skill rolls, a player only needs to know whether he fails or succeeds, but in combat, whether physical, mental, spiritual, or verbal, the number by which he succeeds, or rolls under the Target Number is the “degree of his success.” This value will determine how much damage is inflicted. In Hafnyr’s case, his degree of success or nine, is multiplied by his battle axe’s Damage Value, which is six, to give a result of fifty four. Sadly, the bandit fails his Defend roll. Even after deducting twenty points for the Armour Value of the bandit’s leather jerkin, this is enough to kill the raider stone dead.

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, strengthens 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.

Shadow, Sword, & Spell being a dark and dangerous fantasy game, it requires a Sanity mechanic. A character’s state of mind is measured by his Sanity, which he loses points from when he casts spells or when he fails a Fear Test, which is made against his Will. Fear Tests are made for certain situations – the GM will have to decide what as no real guidelines are given, as well as for encountering certain creatures, such as a Giant or a Mummy. Just a single point is lost when a Fear Test is failed or a spell is cast, but the latter sounds somewhat lenient, especially when you consider the grasping nature of a spell like “Eldritch Tendril.” In addition, if a Fear Test is failed, a character suffers a penalty to all Target Numbers for that day. Should a character ten points of Sanity then he might gain a Disorder, such as an Obsession or a Phobia. Should a character’s Sanity ever fall to zero, it resets at its original value, but at one point lower. So example, the first time that Hafnyr’s Sanity falls to zero, it resets at thirty four. In addition, the character also gains a permanent Disorder.

Sanity is regained at a rate per new day equal to a character’s Wits. What this means is that unless a game is being run that is heavy on fear and fright, a character is unlikely to suffer too greatly from Sanity loss and its effects. Spellcasting characters are more likely to suffer Sanity loss as they will be readily drawing upon powers from beyond to cast their spells and so placing their minds in danger. This seems in keeping with the genre, but it still feels to a softer approach to sanity than to be found in most RPGs. The entry for every spell gives a Sanity cost, suggesting that they should be different for each spell, but they are all listed at zero. Is there something missing here? (Personally, I would have expected to see the “degree of failure” rules used with Fear Tests to determine how many points of Sanity are lost, though this is a much harsher approach then the game’s pulp underpinnings call for).

In addition, every character begins the game with five Hooks and five Action Points. Each Hook is an interesting aspect or detail about the character, "I possess the tusk from a gigantic walrus that I hunted, but did not kill. He left me scarred and wants his tusk back." If relevant to a scene, a Hook can be brought by the character into play and combined with an Action Point for various effects. Conversely, the GM can also bring or compel that Hook into play during that scene, usually to a more negative effect. When this happens the player receives an Action Point to spend immediately. At their simplest, an Action Point can be spent to gain a small bonus to a roll, but when combined with a Hook, this bonus increases, a roll can be remade, or it can be used to “Edit” the game in small ways to the character’s benefit.

Character generation in Shadow, Sword, & Spell is a matter of deciding a Background and Background Modifier; assigning forty five points to five attributes – Brawn, Quickness, Toughness, Wits, and Will; spending a further forty five points on skills; and choosing Hooks that a player can bring to the game. A Background usually describes a character’s original culture and homeland, such as Barbarian or Civilised, and grants a language and two skills. A Modifier simply colours the selected Background, emphasising what it is best known for and providing some simple skill modifiers. The combination of Background and Modifier can give a variety of results, each a thumbnail portrait of a character’s origins, such as Barbarian and Maritime for the Vikings; Civilised and Martial for a Samurai-like culture; Civilised and Bureaucratic for Chinese-like culture; and Civilised and Decadent or Sorcerous for the Melnibonéans.

My first sample character is Hafnyr, a warrior and hunter from the icy climes of the North who has left his tribe to come South. He will not talk about why he left, though he pines into his cups about how much he misses the sharp cold, the blue skies, and the familiar warmth of the furs. He earns his keep as a mercenary, hoping one day to return.

Hafnyr, Mercenary from the North.
Brawn 11 Quickness 8 Toughness 11 Wits 7 Will 8
Vitality 55 Resolve 40 Sanity 35
Background: Barbarian Culture, Northern
Language: Words of the Eohiric [7], Trader’s Tongue [7],
Skills: Animal Handling [7], Athletics [11], Brawl [11], Defend [8], Dodge [8], Observe [7], Melee 2/4 (Axe) [13/15], Survival 3 [10], Throw [8], Track 3 [10]
Hooks: Suspicious of fancy words; Men of the South are weak; Women of the South are exotic and mysterious; My axe can speak for me; I will return to my tribe to claim my rightful wife

Magic in Shadow, Sword, & Spell is divided between Alchemical Arts and spellcasting. Each Art, from Acids and Alkalis to Elixirs of Health and Transmutation, is treated as a separate skill. While each Art takes a great deal of time use, Spellcasting is a matter of a few actions, plus of course, the loss of both Vitality and Sanity points. Less than twenty spells are given, but this is only the Basic Core Rulebook and more are likely to be found in future supplements. Anyway, these are enough to get a game going and keep it going unless every player wants his character to be able to use magic. The spells themselves are well explained and easy to use in the game. Some, like “Floating Disc” are reminiscent of classic Dungeons & Dragons, while others, such as “Eldritch Tendril,” hint at the game’s weird horror elements.

Our second example is Amaya, a young woman who has devoted herself to the goddess of healing. She was taken in as an orphan, though she grew up in the service of a sorcerer. Ill treated and ill trained, she has forgotten what magic she was taught, but learnt one spell since, that of healing. Last month she was bitten by what she thinks might have been a wolf, but she is not sure...

Amaya, Lay Sister of Adonael
Brawn 9 Quickness 7 Toughness 7 Wits 11 Will 11
Vitality 40 Resolve 55 Sanity 55
Background: Civilised Culture, Sorcerous
Language: Fleamish B [11], Trader’s Tongue [11],
Skills: Bureaucracy B [11], Diplomacy B [10], Divination: Augury B [11], Dodge B [7], Empathy B [11], Heal B [6], Resist U [8], Socialise U [6], Study U [8]
Spells: Healing B [11]
Hooks: Was it a wolf that bit me?; I am not pretty enough to attract a man; I will only use magic for good, never ill as my master desired; The church is my Mother now; I must never travel by the light of the moon

That said, buying spells in Shadow, Sword, & Spell is expensive, double the cost of buying skills. In addition, because both skills and spells are derived from a character’s attributes, the higher the attribute, the higher the base cost of the spell. In the example above, any spell that Amaya wants will cost eleven points, the same value as her Wits, while the base cost for any Wits skill is six. On the one hand, this means that any spellcasting character sacrifices at least one skill per spell known, hence the fact that in this case, Amaya only has skills at basic rank, and knows several skills while untrained in them (marked with a “U”). Had her Wits been set at ten rather than eleven, then her skills would be a little cheaper (basic rank cost of five versus six), her spell cheaper (ten versus eleven), and thus her player would have had a little more flexibility in creating her. The issue here is not with cost so much as the fact that anyone choosing to take spells needs to little more careful in how and on what he spends his skill points and in at what value he sets his Wits value.

Despite this being the Basic Core Rulebook, the rules do include options, usually ones that make the slightly grittier than its standard pulp style. They include making weapon damage more deadly, Sanity loss permanent, and allowing the sacrifice of all Sanity points to enter a berserk rage. There is also advice for the GM, primarily on the what makes the pulp fantasy genre of Shadow, Sword, & Spell different to that of any other fantasy RPG. The author provides a setting, a collective of trading cities that were once part of a whole nation. It comes complete with history and secrets, and its own pantheon of deities that include Azathoth, Cthulhu, and Shub-niggurath. This use of these Weird Fantasy elements is reinforced by the inclusion of Ghasts, Ghouls, Gugs, and Serpent People in its bestiary. It would have been interesting to see the use of the Backgrounds and Modifiers in conjunction with the provided setting though. The book also comes with a scenario, “It’s in the Wine,” a nice mix of mystery, madness, and action.

Shadow, Sword, & Spell does come with a final nod to the infamous “Appendix N” from Dungeon Master’s Guide for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, First Edition which provided the reader with a list of inspirational fiction. This game’s Basic Core Rulebook does come with its own Appendix N, a list of that has here been expanded from fiction to include non-fiction and gaming material too. This though, is a list that only someone of a certain age and pocket would enjoy, there being some quite obscure titles, certainly amongst the gaming entries. Of course, it would be interesting to see each of these entries discussed, but that might take up more space than there is here.

Physically, Shadow, Sword, & Spell is neatly, tidily laid out with plenty of art. While it decently written, the issue is one of editing. If there is one thing that Shadow, Sword, & Spell needs is another edit. The issue is never enough to render the book unreadable or the game unplayable, but it is disappointing.

Despite that disappointment – the next printing will be corrected – Shadow, Sword, & Spell is a pleasingly complete package. The rules for character generation manage to be simple, but even with Background and Modifier options given, they should spur a player’s imagination just working through the possible combinations. The rules themselves manage that fine line between having just about enough detail and too much without being too mechanically demanding, and whilst some might decry the lack of traditional fantasy elements, Shadow, Sword, & Spell is not intended to be played in the traditional high fantasy style. While there is just a single scenario for it at the moment, this game is simple enough to adapt other material to it. For example, if you also liked pirates you could take Green Ronin Publishing’s Freeport Trilogy, strip out the archetypal fantasy races, and run it with all human characters.

Ultimately, Shadow, Sword, & Spell is unfussy fantasy that focuses on the characters and their foibles in an earthier setting with dark secrets.

Sunday 9 January 2011

Ghosts Not At Their Most

Since 2003, the Miskatonic University Library Association series of monographs has been Chaosium, Inc.'s way of making other works available to players of both Call of Cthulhu and Basic Role Play. Bar the printing, each monograph’s author is responsible for the writing, the editing, and the layout, so the quality of entries in the series varies widely and has led to some dreadful releases. Fortunately, The Ghosts in the House is not amongst those releases.

What marks this monograph for Call of Cthulhu as being different is that it is a campaign designed for beginning investigators set in the contemporary period. Its emphasis is upon data collection and interaction, rather than on going mad and running way. Thus it is written to be a gentle introduction to the game and to facilitate that, has a thoroughly modern set up and familiar setting. This is the Oak Grove Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in northern Wisconsin. Its administrator has hired the investigators to debunk the rumours of ghosts that Oak Grove is plagued with. As “ghost hunters” the investigators might be graduate students doing Summer work for their anthropology or psychology department; work for certain television series about “ghost hunting;” or simply be just professional “ghost hunters.” Given the theme and period, the most obvious option would be for the investigators to be employees for “Saucer Watch” or “Phenom X” from Pagan Publishing’s Delta Green.

The campaign is divided into four parts, beginning with the longest, “The Man in the Hat.” This takes place over the course of three weeks in which the investigators must conduct their activities without alerting the authorities beyond the confines of Oak Grove, provide a daily report to the nursing home’s administrator, and deal with Oak Grove’s decidedly cantankerous residents. It is also the most detailed scenario in the book, complete with particulars about the local accent; possible ghost hunting gear, though a Keeper will probably want more detail than is given here; information that can be researched with varying degrees of difficulty; and a number of events that will be triggered by the investigators’ actions. The bulk of the scenario is devoted to describing the nursing home, its residents and staff, and events day by day. Although designed for beginning characters, this is not a scenario bested suited for the neophyte Keeper, there being a fair number of NPCs and events to keep track of. Nevertheless, the Keeper should have fun with this lengthy affair, there being numerous NPCs for him to get his roleplaying teeth into.

Yet so far, so good. Running the first scenario is hampered by several problems. The first of which is the nature of the haunting. If it has a Mythos explanation, it is never fully explained. There are references and in particular, page numbers, to particular spells and entities of the Cthulhu Mythos, but none of them tie up with the copy of Call of Cthulhu, Sixth Edition that I own. The second is the way in which the campaign is presented. Everything seems to going along swimmingly until the campaign appears to a completely unexpected turn with events described that appear of the blue. This is on page forty-six. Fortunately, what exactly is going on is explained on page forty-seven. Up until this point, which is that the scenario should be written so as to surprise the investigators and their players and not the Keeper, the campaign appears to completely lack any Cthulhu Mythos elements, and even when the background is explained it never quite rings true. The actions of the campaign’s villain and the reasoning behind them are essentially undeveloped and ill thought through. Not that it is a case of the Cthulhu Mythos being subject to reinterpretation, but rather that the interpretation here, the one that explains the villain’s motivations, just does not work.

Similar issues occur in the subsequent scenarios. For example, the third scenario, “The Hole in the Attic” explains and wraps up elements hinted at, but not explained in the campaign’s first and main scenario. Worse, the fourth scenario, “The Last Gasp” has another element turn up out of the blue – again. This time it is a group of cultists that turn up, threaten the investigators, and then leave. Some of them appeared in previous parts of the campaign, but their true intentions are only revealed in this last part. And then they go away again leaving the Keeper, let alone his poor players, none the wiser.

In terms of structure, the campaign is unbalanced. The first part takes place in September over the course of three weeks, while second takes place a month later, the third in the following Spring, and the fourth a year after the first. It does not help that each of the subsequent parts is more than a single session scenario, but none of these later scenarios have been afforded the same degree of detail as the first.

As with any monograph, The Ghosts in the House needs another edit, but what is actually a solid investigative scenario is hampered by issues with its structure and background, most of which could have been addressed had guidance been given. Given some effort upon the part of the Keeper and it would actually be suitable for beginning investigators and possibly, beginning players too. Part of that effort would also include more information on modern day ghost hunting, though The Parapsychologist’s Handbook might be of use in that. One interesting option for The Ghosts in the House would be to downplay its Mythos aspects and use it as the lead into Miskatonic River Press’ Our Ladies of Sorrow, a fully fledged campaign that also does not involve the Cthulhu Mythos.

In its current state, The Ghosts in the House is not entirely ready to be run, not without the aforementioned effort upon the part of the Keeper. Not enough explanation, not enough explanation in the right places, and not enough background, but not without promise.

Baby's First Outside

The Old School Renaissance is still something of a niche interest, despite some of its leading titles, Labyrinth Lord and Swords & Wizardry having appeared on the shelves of your local gaming store. Even with those two titles freely available, the biggest “Edition 0” title to have reached the notice of the roleplaying hobby at large is The Dungeon Alphabet: An A-Z Reference for Classic Dungeon Design from Goodman Games, though that might well change with the release of that publisher’s Dungeon Crawl Classics Roleplaying Game in late 2011. What The Dungeon Alphabet provided was some twenty-six entries that in turn examined a particular element to be found in the classic Old School dungeon, each with a table of random explanations, additions, and further inspiration. Oddly, Goodman Games have not yet followed this tome up with a sequel that took the idea outside. James Pacek has though, with The Wilderness Alphabet: A Collection of Random Charts, Tables, and Ideas for use with various Games of Imagination.

The Wilderness Alphabet does not come as a hardback, but as a slim, A5-sized paperback. It too comes with some twenty-six entries comprised of themed tables full of appropriate, but still random elements. It is a self-published affair, so is never going to be as professional a product as its inspiration. Even so, The Wilderness Alphabet is heavily illustrated, primarily with publically available artwork, and it is neatly laid out. Not all of the artwork is appropriate, particularly the author’s own. Much of the choice of artwork though, does give the book a more classical, romantic look and feel, rather than the “Old School” stylised Dungeons & Dragons look we saw in The Dungeon Alphabet.

The book’s tables to roll on are not just confined to the entries given for each letter of the alphabet. They start with the Table of Contents, so that a DM with his handy percentile dice can randomly determine what table to roll if he is short of inspiration. Of course, he could just flick through the pages... The actual lettered entries go from the obvious “A is for Archway” and “B is for Barrow” to “W is for Waterfall” and “Z is for Ziggurat,” but the author has to work hard for some of the other letters, or rather be “inventive.” Thus we have “J is for Jousting,” “K is for Krokus,” “X is for X Marks the Spot,” and “Y is for Yangtze.” Of these, “K is for Krokus” is actually devoted to trees as “T is for Tower” and “Y is for Yangtze” covers rivers because “R is for Ruins and Residences.”

Appropriately, most of the tables have twenty or so entries, with the minimum being eight. Many of the entries have subsidiary tables. For example, rolling on “T is for Tower” I can determine its construction, colour, surface, style, size, occupant, and oddities, if any. Thus the Bone Tower is a hexagonal shaped structure built of iron, but tiled in ivory. It is relatively short, with just three levels, and its primary denizen is actually a vampire! It should be noted that rolling for the tower’s colour is one of the few times that I have had to roll a thirty-sided die.

Most of the table are simple and straight forward. “R is for Ruins and Residences” is the one exception. It first determines the sub-type, each entry referring to a sub-table; then its condition and the nature of its corruption. The complexity comes in working out the inhabitants of the ruin or residence, their shops, businesses, guilds, and other structures, the DM purchasing them using a pool of points derived on the place’s population size. This process actually takes more time than the primary point of The Wilderness Alphabet, the quick creation of outdoor elements during play.

The Wilderness Alphabet though, is not limited to its alphabeticised tables. The Bonus Tables cover adventurers and NPCs, magic and powers, curses and the undead, other places, strange sounds, mines, and gods. Amongst their number is a double entry, this for “L is for Labyrinth.” None of these extra tables come with the book’s most interesting aspect – the author’s voice. At the end of some entries, he discusses how each element figured in his own “Queston Campaign.” For example, under “A is for Archway,” he describes how the ancient wizard Urk built and left archways that enabled instant travel across the land, but with the unfortunate side effect of partially draining the traveller’s life, his magical items of their power, or having some otherworldly creature travel with him. These asides are not only entertaining, but they are just a further little bit of inspiration for the reader.

Whilst it is definitely “Systems Neutral,” the feel to The Wilderness Alphabet is not particularly “Old School.” Part of that is due to the choice of artwork; another part being due to its content which by its very nature is more expansive and devoted to creating and exploring the world at large; and one last part due to the need to fit the weirder elements into a more natural setting, that of the world at large. Nevertheless, The Wilderness Alphabet: A Collection of Random Charts, Tables, and Ideas for use with various Games of Imagination is one of those books that is best described as “handy.” It sits as easily alongside the DM at the table, its contents ready to be rolled on when he needs to fill in certain details of his campaign world when his player characters are out and about, as it does ready to be pulled off the shelf when the DM is preparing his next session and wants inspiration.