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

Sunday 27 March 2011

Retrospective: Return to the Keep on the Borderlands

Having taken you back thirty years for a retrospective of B2, Keep on the Borderlands, it all but behoves this reviewer to move on two decades to examine that classic module’s sequel. Published in 1999, Return to the Keep on the Borderlands was released at time when TSR was still TSR, but had by that time been owned by Wizards of the Coast for two years. With its all silver trade dress, Return to the Keep on the Borderlands was part of a series of modules that included Against the Giants: The Liberation of Geoff, Dragonlance Classics, and Return to White Plume Mountain, which were in turn, revisited, revised, and updated. This time frame firmly places all of the modules in the era of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, Second Edition, never the most popular of Dungeons & Dragons’ iterations, and being so late in that game’s era, it means that there is a degree of detail not to be found in the module’s forebear. In fact, if there is one element that stands out in Return to the Keep on the Borderlands, it is its degree of detail.

Beyond the silver trade dress, what strikes you first about Return to the Keep on the Borderlands is its comparative physicality. At sixty-four pages, it is double the length of the original, its front cover is not only in full colour, but done in a more realistic style. Inside the cover folder, the original map has been upgraded to full colour with more detail, and as to the booklet, not a single page is wasted. There is information on every page. That said, the cover artwork looks odd, and the internal artwork is variable in quality.

Like the original though, Return to the Keep on the Borderlands is still designed for a party of first through third level characters. Instead of updating the setting so that higher level characters could return to the scene of their first forays as adventurers – and that remains an untapped possibility, and would in a sense have been an actual sequel – it has been updated and reworked to take account of twenty years of in-game history. In other words, it presents the titular Keep and the nearby Caves of Chaos twenty years after adventurers first struck at the evil residing just beyond the border of civilisation, so giving it time to recover and make plans anew for the inhabitants of said Keep. The idea at the heart of Return to the Keep on the Borderlands is that its player characters have journeyed to the area to make names for themselves after having heard of the legends created from the play through of B2, The Keep on the Borderlands. This possibility lends itself to the idea that the original adventurers would be the parents of the new.

Return to the Keep on the Borderlands is structured much in the same way as B2, The Keep on the Borderlands. It opens with a few pages of advice aimed at the novice DM, the most notable of which suggests that the DM hand out Experience Points for treasure gained, a rule to be found in Basic Dungeons & Dragons and Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, First Edition rather than Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, Second Edition, and so at odds with emphasis placed on story awards in the latter game. The issue here is that it is also at odds with the intent behind Return to the Keep on the Borderlands. Is it an exercise in nostalgia or a module written for the beginning DM? If the former, then the inclusion of this rule is acceptable, but if the latter, then the rule is for the wrong game system as opposed for the one it is written for. In either case, it would have been better if story awards had been included as well.

The second section details the Keep itself, and it is here that the module first shows the wealth of development that comes after twenty years. The most obvious change is that every single one of the NPCs that inhabitant the Keep is named, whereas in B2, The Keep on the Borderlands this was not the case. From this naming process, we learn who founded the Keep and its history, and what has changed since the last time adventurers passed through the region. The political situation is also very different. In B2, The Keep on the Borderlands, the Keep was obviously part of a feudal and mercantile system, but here in the sequel, it can become more commune-like, and more democratic. In addition to naming every NPC, the module details their motivations and aims; goes into detail as who knows about the Caves of Chaos and what they know; gives plots or storylines that play out as the player characters return to the Keep after each foray out into the surrounding wildness; and NPCs that the player characters can hire as henchmen, become replacement player characters, or form a rival party of adventurers. What is interesting about the design of these NPCs is that they each have flaw written into them which means that as henchmen makes them unsuitable to lead the party, and if properly played, from the DM dominating the player characters.

What is implicit in the description of the Keep is that the Keep and its inhabitants are under threat from the denizens to be found at the Caves of Chaos in the surrounding areas. A slow growing threat to be sure, but a threat nonetheless, and if the player characters fail to thwart the evil efforts of the Caves of Chaos, then the likelihood is that the clerics there will eventually amass enough undead to overwhelm the meagre defences of the Keep.

The wilderness beyond the Keep has also undergone a redesign and a restock. Many of the previous inhabitants of the forests, river, and swamp that either side of the road that the Keep stands on have retreated, smarting at the efforts of the adventurers in B2, The Keep on the Borderlands. To these are added refugees from the Caves of the Chaos, encounters with the undead and variations upon classic Dungeons & Dungeons creatures, and many of the previous inhabitants of the forests, river, and swamp that either side of the road that the Keep stands on have retreated, smarting at the efforts of the adventurers in B2, The Keep on the Borderlands. To these are added refugees from the Caves of the Chaos, encounters with the undead and variations upon classic Dungeons & Dungeons creatures, and then actual encounters tied into what is going on at the Caves of Chaos. Some of these encounters quite deadly, even for third level characters, let alone for new player playing through his first game of Dungeons & Dragons. That said, not every encounter has to end in a fight, and the region is home to potential allies in addition to its many foes.

One significant change to the surrounding area is the removal of the “Cave of the Unknown,” an unmapped area that was left up to the DM to create and develop. Here it has been turned into simple alternative entrance to the nearby Caves of Chaos.

As with B2, The Keep on the Borderlands, the description of the Caves of Chaos makes up the bulk of Return to the Keep on the Borderlands. As with the rest of the module it has undergone a major redesign, though not in layout. Barring a labyrinth that runs around and connects each of the individual cave systems, nothing has been added to the physical layout. Instead, the inhabitants and contents of the caves have been greatly changed. The most obvious effect of this is to break up the artificiality of Caves of Chaos in B2, The Keep on the Borderlands that had innumerable humanoid tribes crammed into this small area. The original module never explained the reasons for this, but its sequel uses it as the basis to present both the changes and evidence of the plot being worked from within The Hidden Temple.

What is again evident in every entry for the caves is the wealth of detail that the author has brought to them. In comparison, the write up of these locations in the original B2, The Keep on the Borderlands are starkly empty, barely described, and all but bland. Similarly, every creature or group of creatures is brought to life with fears and motivations as well as courses of action that you wish had been present in B2, The Keep on the Borderlands. For example, the reactions of the Kobolds in the original are barely described, but in the sequel, their tactics are given in detail, including the traps and tricks that they will use against any intruders. Both traps and tricks are highly inventive; for the players and their characters, cruel; and for the DM, actually cruel and funny, such that it is clear that the author had fun writing them. Similarly, there is an obvious ghoulish delight in describing some of the new denizens, all of which fit in with the plans hatched within the corridors of The Hidden Temple.

Perhaps the oddest factor about Return to the Keep on the Borderlands is its choice of placement and its gods. The module’s back cover clearly states that the Keep is located in the World of Greyhawk, but B2, The Keep on the Borderlands was never placed there, so why the change? And if so changed, why not state where the Keep is actually located? All of which should have been irrelevant because B2, The Keep on the Borderlands was always intended as a generic module. None of this confusion is helped in the choice of the gods worshiped by the clerics in the Hidden Temple – Erishkigal and Nergal, both of which are Babylonian gods and not from the World of Greyhawk.

There is a lot to like in Return to the Keep on the Borderlands. It does an excellent job of updating the original, fleshing it out a great deal, and adding innumerable story elements. Yet despite its intentions, it fails to be a suitable adventure for the beginning DM. There is just too much detail contained in its pages such that it could overwhelm the neophyte. Yet if the DM can handle the degree of detail, this can be an excellent adventure and one that will take the adventurers beyond third level.

Saturday 19 March 2011

Retrospective: B2, Keep on the Borderlands

That B2, Keep on the Borderlands is perhaps, one of the most famous modules ever released for Dungeons & Dragons is hardly a surprise. For gamers of a certain age, for those that began play with the Basic Dungeons & Dragons box set, it was their introduction to both the game and gaming. For three years, between 1980 and 1982, it appeared in that boxed set, providing the base template for adventures to come as well as hours of play. Gary Gygax’s module holds a certain place in many a gamer’s heart, and has since been celebrated with a sequel, Return to the Keep on the Borderlands – released for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, Second Edition as part of TSR’s 25th Anniversary; a reprint as one of the modules included in the TSR Silver Anniversary Collector's Edition boxed set; and a revisit for Wizards of the Coast’s Dungeons & Dragons Essentials line as part of its in-store “Encounters Programme.” In addition, B2, Keep on the Borderlands appeared at position number seven on “The 30 Greatest D&D Adventures of All Time” in issue one hundred and sixteen of Dungeon magazine – as described here.

Like those gamers, B2, Keep on the Borderlands was my starting module. I am not sure that I ever played it, but I certainly ran it, and it is the chance that I might run again – one player in my Monday night group not having played it, and neither has my partner, Louise – that spurred me to take another look at the module. So thus I dug out my copy of the adventure from the battered box that is my copy of Basic Dungeons & Dragons and found it to be in almost as worse a state as the box and rulebook are. It was definitely used, full of pencil marks, some of its pages separated, but everything was there. Whether or not I get a chance to run the scenario is moot, but in the meantime, I can at least give it my best thoughts and a review.

The setting for B2, Keep on the Borderlands is stated as simply and as clearly as possible in the title. It is set in a Keep – or castle, and said Keep does stand on the borderlands, in this case on the borderlands that lie between the civilised lands that comprise the Realm of Man and the wilderness beyond. Just as the Realm of Man has its bastion of civilisation in the region – in the form of said Keep, the forces of Chaos have their own stronghold, a network of caves and tunnels – the Caves of Chaos, dominating a ravine lying just two miles and over a hill away from the Keep. The intention is that young adventurers will travel to this border region, and using the Keep as their base of operations, strike out into the untamed wilderness beyond the walls of the lawful redoubt. Already, the adventurers know of the Caves of Chaos and armed with a rumour or two about the area, and have merely to finish equipping themselves and perhaps hire a henchman or two, before sallying forth.

The Caves of Chaos are almost literally up the road from the Keep. They consist of eleven cave complexes of varying size and complexity overlooking a steep ravine dotted with barren trees. The caves are themselves home to a variety of monstrous humanoids, from Kobolds and Goblins up through Orcs and Hobgoblins to Gnolls and Bugbears. At the rear of the ravine lies the Shrine to Evil Chaos, from within which the forces of, well Evil and Chaos, plot the downfall of the Realm of Man. The wilderness surrounding both the Keep and the Caves of Chaos is also home to numerous inhabitants, some of whom if encountered, will be as deadly a threat as any to be found in the Caves themselves.

Written for characters of first through third level, B2, Keep on the Borderlands is designed to work as an introductory module for both DM and players. It is for this reason that so much of the module is devoted to advice for running and playing the adventure. Naturally, the bulk of this advice, five-and-a-half pages of it, is for the DM’s eyes, whilst just half a page is given to the players. The focus of the advice is very much on running the mechanical elements of Dungeons & Dragons (be it Basic or Advanced, because B2, Keep on the Borderlands can easily be run with either version, and its simplicity does allow it to be run with most Retroclones too) – handling combat, time, the division of treasure and Experience Points, and so on.

As presented, the Keep is a microcosm of the society that it stands as the last bastion of civilisation. It has a bank, a guild house, a tavern, an inn, provisioners and traders, a chapel, and so on. The most noticeable fact about the Keep and its inhabitants is that none of them are named. They are purely known by their role – the barkeep, the smith, the priest, the clerk, and so forth. Almost as noticeable is that none of the rooms are described effectively or clearly, and it is up to the DM to extract and create these descriptions as much as it is up to him to supply the names of the men and women living at the Keep.

The Caves of Chaos possess the same problem, but the issue at the heart of this module’s design is its artificiality. The odd thing is that initially, the Caves of Chaos do not feel artificial. Whereas a dungeon is artificial because the deeper a party ventures, the greater a challenge it offers, B2, Keep on the Borderlands foregoes that in the sense that while the more challenging caves lie at the rear of the ravine, the party is free to wander into any cave mouth that it wants. So that a fearless party – or is that foolish? – could make its way up the ravine and enter the caves home to the Gnolls, the Hobgoblins, or the Shrine of Evil Chaos itself!

Yet the set-up of having the various humanoid races all crowded in on each other is artificial. Although the module suggests relationships between some of the tribes – an alliance between two and one stealing from another, for example, how the tribes came to be living in such close proximity and why they never turn on each other is never discussed. Similarly left undiscussed are the plans that the priests resident in the Shrine of Evil Chaos have on the Keep and its inhabitants. Nor does Gygax suggest what the inhabitants of the Caves of Chaos do on a day-to-day basis beyond going out hunting; what they do as a whole in reaction to any incursion by marauding humans – the reactions of individual tribes are discussed, but not the faux community that is the Caves of Chaos; and what the Keep knows about the Caves of Chaos and it intends to do about them – after all, if the player characters know about them, why not the Castellan of the Keep?

Whilst the advice given for the DM is excellent by the standards of the time, by today’s standards it is lacking. What it ignores is story. There is very little atmosphere or plot to be found within the pages of B2, Keep on the Borderlands, though there are story and roleplaying hooks, such as a merchant being rumoured to have missing in the area scattered throughout the module. The lack of plot means that B2, Keep on the Borderlands is a very static affair, there being nothing to drive the adventurers deeper into the Caves of Chaos apart from the prospect of further treasure and Experience Points. Yet while some might decry the lack of plot and story, this absence leaves room aplenty for the DM to set up more of a story for his players and also leave room for him to have the inhabitants of the Caves of Chaos react against the party’s incursions. Similarly, the scenario has abundant room for the DM to expand on the environment surrounding the Keep and the Caves of Chaos and so create his own material, and that is in addition to the Cave of the Unknown which is included in B2, Keep on the Borderlands and left up to the DM to develop. The question is, does the advice included in B2, Keep on the Borderlands help the DM deal with either issue? By the standards of either today or thirty years ago, the answer would be barely.

In recent months, I had to re-read William Gibson’s Neuromancer as part of a book club. What is so readily apparent in that novel is how so much of the genre it engendered has since been adopted and subsumed into the mainstream such that for even readers new to the novel so many of its elements were familiar. In looking back at a module like B2, Keep on the Borderlands, there is a similar feeling. Its set up of a village – in this case, a Keep – threatened by an uncivilised peril is exceedingly familiar, and if you look at the adventures that have appeared since, from U1, Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh and “The Halls of Tizun Thane” in White Dwarf #18 through to Scourge of the Howling Horde for Dungeons & Dragons, Third Edition and H1 Keep on the Shadowfall for Dungeons & Dragons, Fourth Edition, then you will see it appear again and again. Whilst some might suggest that the earlier Gygax authored T1, The Village of Hommlet set this archetype up in 1979, the exposure to Dungeons & Dragons through the Basic Dungeons & Dragons set and its adventure, B2, Keep on the Borderlands, surely cemented it in gamers’ minds.

In truth, B2, Keep on the Borderlands is not my favourite module, but I have a certain regard for it as much as I consider its faults. Its set up is clear, simple, and familiar, to the extent that its challenge is not running the scenario, but in getting a story from its content with which the player characters can interact with. That challenge is born of the fact that ultimately, B2, Keep on the Borderlands is perhaps just a little too shallow. It needs depth and it needs explanation of its set-up, and as much as I want to run it as is, I would appreciate it all the more with more contemporary advice. I would like to see a version of B2, Keep on the Borderlands that updates and develops its set-up in this way, but that is unlikely to happen. Nevertheless, if I am given the opportunity to run the module, I will probably do it as is, in part because the players mentioned at the top of this piece should experience it that way as the author intended.

Retrospective: Suppressed Transmission

Of course, you know about the Suppressed Transmission?

If you do, then go make a cup of tea and put your feet up with a copy of Foucault’s Pendulum, you know the one with annotations from the Pope. In mean time, come a little closer and I will put you in the picture. Back in 1998, Steve Jackson Games’ Pyramid magazine began publishing a series of columns by Ken Hite entitled Suppressed Transmission.

Following Lovecraft’s dictum that “…piecing together of associated knowledge” opens up “terrifying vistas of reality” each Suppressed Transmission is an essay that placed subjects as diverse as the Roswell landings – all six of them, Shakespeare as well as his plays, variations upon Spring Heeled Jack, Antarctic Space Nazis, and the many colours of the elixir vitae that is Cocoa-Cola under a lens that not only revealed Hite’s mind map, but also his reading habits of the then previous twenty years. With each essay he spins a web of horror, conspiracies, secret histories, alternate histories, and high weirdness that makes connections hither and thither. Hite’s aim is never to validate the pseudoscience, conspiracies, fallacies, and slapdash scholarship that he bases these essays on – and which I suspect he finds to be endearingly risible – but rather to give the reader concepts, ideas, and set-ups that he can base a whole game on.

For example, in “The Sky is Falling,” Hite goes from discussing what the 1908 Tunguska incident was and what it might have been – including the coming to Earth of a Colour Out of Space or the attempted summoning of Azathoth (really? Not seen that in a Call of Cthulhu adventure), to moving the incident to Moscow rather than Siberia and seeing what could happen. Which includes no World War I and a race to Mars between the Red Baron and Eddie Rickenbacker amongst other things… Elsewhere, Hite plays the Kevin Bacon game with Sir Francis Bacon rather the actor in “Six Degrees of Sir Francis Bacon,” explores what happened to Roanoke in “Croatoan or Bust: Finding the Lost Colony,” and gives us the A to Z of all things conspiratorial in “A Conspiratorial Alphabet,” all before leaving us with his “Top Ten Books for High Weirdness in Your Campaign.”

To date, of the three hundred written, Steve Jackson Games has only published the first sixty-eight in two volumes, Suppressed Transmission: The First Broadcast and Suppressed Transmission: The Second Broadcast. Both books are now only available in PDF, but in each case they allow Hite to revisit and reorganise each of the first year’s columns and annotate and cross reference every one. Then apply an index, which means that can you look up something like H.P. Lovecraft (fifteen entries), penguins (four entries), or the Templars (also fifteen entries), just to see how Hite uses them and the places that he takes them to.

In their time, Hite’s columns were a constant draw to Pyramid magazine and ensured that readers would renew their subscriptions time and again. They were considered to be that good and many subscribers felt them to be the best articles to appear in the magazine. Even at their most basic, every Suppressed Transmission is immensely readable. At just three or four pages long, they are easy to read just about anywhere, and they are even just about the right length to read aloud. Their use though is as a veritable well spring of ideas.

Perhaps too many GURPS books are referenced, but most GURPS books are good reference guides too. Sometimes its feels as if Hite is channelling one too many Illuminati games, but then he is saving you an awful lot of research and entertaining you at the same time.

About as fruity a cabinet of cocktails of insanely weird ideas as any gaming reference work deserves to be, Suppressed Transmission never fails to be entertaining and interesting. It is a resource that should be on the shelf of any good referee and just be glad that Hite was channelling this insane weirdness so that you never had too.

Saturday 12 March 2011

West is Still Best

Having an interest in the Old School Renaissance and currently being engaged in an ongoing Legends of the Five Rings campaign, I was more than interested to take a look at Ruins & Ronin, a supplement from sword+1 productions based on the Swords & Wizardry White Box rule set that sets out to use the samurai movie as the basis for swords and sorcery adventure in a mythical, medieval culture that is almost like Japan. Its aim is not to create a culture game like the aforementioned Legends of the Five Rings or the classic Bushido, but one full of adventure and mystery in which Bujin, Shugenja, and Sohei explore strange ruins out in the wilderness and delve into deep dungeons below crumbling pagodas, encountering strange spirits and creepy monsters, and finding fantastic artefacts of great power. The idea behind Ruins & Ronin is that samurai should be allowed to go dungeon delving just as much as his Western fantasy counterpart. Unfortunately, Ruins & Ronin fails to live up to all of those aims.

As with Swords & Wizardry’s core rules, Ruins & Ronin presents just the three classes. In Swords & Wizardry, they are the Cleric, the Fighter, and the Magic-user. In Ruins & Ronin, their analogues are the Sohei or warrior-monk, the Bujin or samurai or ronin, and the Shugenja. The bujin can perform a “Follow Through” manoeuvre, striking at another opponent delivering a killing blow, and is unrestricted in terms of what arms and armour that he can use, though the shield is not found in this setting. The Shugenja can cast spells, and like the Magic-User cannot wear armour and is restricted to using Tanto (daggers), Uchi-ne (throwing blades), or Bo (staves) only. Sohei can cast divine spells and turn undead, and cannot wear very heavy armour, or use a katana or a bow.

The playable races to be found in Swords & Wizardry, the Dwarves, Elves, and Halflings, are not present in Ruins & Ronin. Instead, it has the single playable race, Half-Ogres. As with the races to be found in Swords & Wizardry, Half-Ogres advance as Fighters or Bujin, and as you would imagine, Half-Ogres are very strong, do extra damage in combat, and resist disease and poison better. Similarly, neither Swords & Wizardry nor Ruins & Ronin have a Thief-like player class. Now while this is understandable given that Swords & Wizardry draws for its inspiration from the earliest of Dungeons & Dragons books that lacked the Thief class, surely in a game inspired by samurai movies, you would want to have the Ninja as a class? Were Ruins & Ronin to be a culture game based on Japan in which the role of the ninja is downplayed, its absence would be far from objectionable. Here, the lack of the ninja feels like a major omission. After all, the ninja is very much part of the genre.

In general, as can be seen from the example below, characters in Ruins & Ronin do not look very different those from Swords & Wizardry. Very simple and very easy, but lacking in flavour.

Megumi the Pious, Level 1 Sohei
Str: 6 (-1) Int: 14 Wis: 15 (+1)
Con: 12 Dex: 6 (-1) Chr: 4 (-1)
Hit Points: 4 Save: 14 (+2 vs. Death & Poison)
Armour Class: 5 Ascending Armour Class: 14
Masakari (1d6); Haidate, Hara-ate, Jingasa; 17gp

In terms of support, Ruins & Ronin comes with a complete spell list for both the Shugenja and the Sohei character classes; a complete set of monsters; and an array of magical items. Unfortunately, the spells on both lists appear to have been lifted wholesale from the lists for the Cleric and the Magic-User classes from Swords & Wizardry without either a single re-design or single re-naming. So another opportunity to add flavour to the game has been lost. That changes though, when it comes to the monsters and the magical artefacts. Classic monsters from Dungeons & Dragons, such as Black Puddings, Gelatinous Cubes, Hell Hounds, and Treants are joined by an Oriental bestiary that includes Bakemono-Toro, Fox Monks, Kyonshi (Hopping Vampires), Oni, and Tengu. Some classic Dungeons & Dragons monsters have been altered, such as the Lizard Samurai and the Naga, but on the whole, the number and type of monsters listed is impressive, even if it feels odd to mix them up so. The magical items are more straightforward. Basic weapons, wands, scrolls, potions, and so on, work in Ruins & Ronin just as well as they do in Swords & Wizardry, but the author adds items such as the Brush of Translation, which allows the wielder to understand any spoken language; the Dancing Fan, which gives the user a Charisma of 18 when dancing; and the Scholars’ Fan, which automatically swats flies, shields the owner from the sun, and flutters gently to provide a breeze. Thee really do add touches of detail and flavour to the game, and hint at the potential in a samurai themed Retroclone.

So far then, that is what is to be found in the pages of Ruins & Ronin. This leaves what is not to be found between its covers. The first of these is an adventure, so we have no idea how the game is meant to be played, an adventure being perhaps, the best way of showcasing this aspect of the game. The second of these is advice for the GM. Well, to be fair, Ruins & Ronin does include some advice for the GM. Yet that advice amounts to barely more than a page, and the rest that takes the advice for the GM up to a page and a half is a guide to when and how to hand out Experience Points. The actual advice though, can be best summed up as, “Make it up yourself.” Or rather, “Make everything up yourself.” Even then, it is not original, being another section reprinted from the Swords & Wizardry White Box rule set.

Now that advice would have been fine in 1974 and Ruins & Ronin was my first RPG. Plus the fact that I had grown in Japan, and was well steeped in the chanbara movie genre. None of this is true, nor was it true for anyone in 2009 when this book was first published, and nor is it true for anyone reading this review right now. What is also true is that Ruins & Ronin is not trying to be a medieval Japanese culture game, a game of high honour in which tea ceremonies and the composing of haiku figure prominently, so the omission of such details are understandable. Yet the truth is that Ruins & Ronin is actually doing a genre, the chanbara movie genre, and the author omits any discussion of that genre. In doing so, he undermines his own work, because a discussion of the genre, and that would include a list of its inspirations much like Advanced Dungeons & Dragons’ Appendix N, would have explored the very point of Ruins & Ronin. That its fantasy is oriental in origin, and so is very different to the Western fantasy of Dungeons & Dragons or Swords & Wizardry. The difference between the two is why anyone would want to play Ruins & Ronin.

Physically, Ruins & Ronin is decently put together. The cover is excellent, but while the internal layout is clean and tidy, there is not another single piece of artwork in the book. None of the book’s new creatures are illustrated and neither are the new magical items. Which is a pity given how spacious the book is and how much of the book is devoted to the creatures, monsters, and spirits of the Orient, and that is before you get to the magical items.

Ultimately, Ruins & Ronin is a great title, but a wasted opportunity. It is a pity that this title has already been taken because it deserves more than what it been given here. It needs more development so that it has some kind of background beyond the mere suggestion that it is inspired by samurai movies; so that it has classes and rules that reflect that background; so it has a discussion of the genre that inspired the author which would then inspire the reader; and so that it has advice for the GM as to how to make a game of Ruins & Ronin different to that of the Swords & Wizardry White Box rule set.

Right now, Ruins & Ronin is a reprint of the Swords & Wizardry White Box rule set with renamed character classes and an extra set of monsters and magical items, and nothing more. Absolutely nothing more. The lesson of Ruins & Ronin is that if you want to present something different to a sector of the gaming hobby, even a sector that is inspired by stripped down Old School play, it should never be left up to the purchaser to do all of the work to explore your game’s differences.

Green Box Fever

Has Wizards of the Coast lost its ways with the regards to the future of its RPG properties? It seems that of late the publisher has done an about face in delving back into the back catalogue and history of those properties, and that after years of all but ignoring them. Thus we have seen the release of the Dungeons & Dragons Essentials line and the Castle Ravenloft Board Game within the last year, and these have been followed by the D & D Gamma World Roleplaying Game, the very title of which begs at least two questions. The first of which being, “Gamma World, really?” After all, Gamma World as a game is over thirty years old, the First Edition having been published in 1978, and that ignoring the publication of its antecedent, Metamorphosis Alpha, two years before. Plus this makes for a second stab at the Gamma World setting after the release of the very modern 2004 take upon the setting from Sword & Sorcery. Well, this new version, the Seventh Edition, is Wizards of the Coast’s first attempt at the setting and describes itself as “A Wacky, Wiley Game of Postapocalyptic Peril;” the clue in the description being the word, “Wacky.” So this is a return to the goofy craziness of editions long past. Second, what is the “D & D” appellation doing in front of the game’s title? What it indicates is that the game uses the same mechanics as Dungeons & Dragons, Fourth Edition, although a much more streamlined version. Not so streamlined as to no longer require maps and counters, but still streamlined all the same. Which is just the first of many changes to Gamma World in its Seventh Edition.

The second of those changes is the setting. Previous versions of Gamma World have been set centuries after a nuclear, biological, and chemical exchange – add to that nanotechnology warfare in more recent editions, leaving a world barely recognisable from our own, populated by strange mutated animals, humans, and plants, with Cryptic Alliances warring still for the future of this new Earth. In D & D Gamma World Roleplaying Game, the Big Mistake lies one hundred and fifty years in the past. In 2012, an experiment by the Big Hadron Collider causes the collapse of universe after universe upon one another to create the world of Gamma Terra and instil this future post-apocalypse with strange energies that fuel the Alpha Flux that randomises mutations and leaves this nu-Earth littered with Omega Tech sourced from untold collapsed other Earths. Welcome to the year 2162 or as some call it, “Six Monkey Slap Slap.”

Character generation is also a bit different over previous editions. Rather than selecting from a race or class such as Mutant, Mutated Plant or Animal, or Pure Strain Human, a player rolls randomly for everything because essentially, every character is a Mutant. This starts a character’s two Origins, such as Giant and Rat Swarm, or Mind Controller and Yeti. The combination of the two provides a character’s primary and secondary ability scores – the rest being rolled as per normal, various Traits, and his basic At-Will Powers. In addition, each receives a randomly determined skill bonus and randomly determined equipment beyond the basics. The process is meant to be quick – and it is, but what takes the time is noting everything down again, because there are still lots of little details that a player has to note down. It is intended to be quick because to an extent, characters are meant to be disposable. The interesting aspect is that a player is meant to reconcile his two Origins for his Mutant. So for the Giant Rat Swarm, our Mutant is exactly that, while the Yeti Mind Controller is actually a bio-engineered pet bear who wants you to love him.

Vern; Giant Rat Swarm
Level 1
Str: 18 Con: 6 Dex: 16
Wis: 7 Int: 16 Chr: 10
Hit Points: 10
Fortitude: 17 Reflex: 14 Will: 11
Armour Class: 21 Speed: 5 Initiative: +4
Powers: Brickbat (Close Burst Attack), Swarm
Giant Traits: Just Tough (+2 Fortitude), Encumbered Speed
Rat Swarm Traits: Swarm Defense (Resist 5 versus melee/ranged attacks; Vulnerable 5 to area attacks); Crawling Mass (Cannot be knocked prone)
Skills: Athletics +9, Mechanics +8, Stealth +8
Equipment: Heavy Armour (Riot Gear), Heavy Weapon (Parking Meter, Attack: +7, Damage: 2d8+5), Explorer’s Kit, Tent, Wagon, Heavy Flashlight, Riding Horse

Apart from his intrinsic Traits, what the character obvious lacks are his Mutations. In previous editions of Gamma World, a character with mutations began the game with a mix of the good and the bad. He could gain more later on, perhaps if he was exposed to a Mutagen. In this edition of Gamma World, a character’s Alpha Mutations are represented by individual cards that will change between encounters, which means that a player character’s Mutations will rarely stay the same. Each individual Alpha Mutation on a card lists its source – Bio, Dark, or Psi, these sources being tied into a character’s Origins, and what it can do. They range from Accelerated Reflexes and Empathic Healing to Shaggy Pelt and Venomous Spurs. As each Mutation can only be used once per Encounter – unless a character manages to Overcharge the Mutation, which also has a 50% chance of having a temporary deleterious effect, what the Alpha Mutations are providing is the game’s equivalent to Dungeons & Dragons, Fourth Edition’s Encounter abilities.

At Encounter’s end, a player’s current Alpha Mutation is discarded and he draws a new one at the start of the next Encounter. These come from the GM’s Deck and there are just forty of these in the core box for the D & D Gamma World Roleplaying Game. So a scenario such as the one included in the Rule Book, which is designed for five players and has eight Encounters, will exhaust the GM’s Deck through a single play through. A group will go through the GM’s deck even faster when the characters’ have more Alpha Mutation cards at fourth and eighth levels. Wizards of the Coast’s intention is that the GM purchase D & D Gamma World Booster Packs to supplement his Alpha Mutation deck, and that each player purchase them too so that he can create a Player’s Deck of his own and draw from that during the game instead of the GM’s Deck.

What is interesting in the creation of a Player’s Deck is that because it has to have a minimum of seven cards and cannot contain more than two cards of the same name, a player can effectively tailor his deck as is his wont. All it takes is four cards that a player likes and he has a good chance of drawing the Alpha Mutation cards that he wants at the beginning of each Encounter. Thus he has negated the random mutation effect at the heart of Gamma Terra, and thus Gamma World. Conversely, a GM can create miniature decks of his own to simulate the effects of certain areas, and thus add flavour and effect to his game.

The counterpart to the Alpha Mutations are the Omega Tech cards, which serve as the main means of reward for the player characters. In other words, not magic, but tech. Each Omega Tech card represents pieces of super-science that come from the Alien Grays’ technology held in vaults at Area 52, the photonic devices of the Empire of Ishtar, and the nano-tech of the machine-like Xi. The items range from Unstable Vibroblades and Flash Neurojacks to Dim Photonic Spears and Headmounted Lasers. A character can have as many Omega Tech cards in play as he wants, and just like the Alpha Mutation cards, each can only be used the once during an Encounter. After an Omega Tech card has been used, there is a chance that its power source or Omega Charge will be depleted and it be rendered useless. If not, it can be used again in a later Encounter. Depending upon the Omega Tech card, once a character reaches a certain level, he scavenge it and turn it into a weapon that is not as good as the Encounter Power given by the Omega Tech card, but is better than the basic melee and missile weapons given in the Rule Book.

Just like the Alpha Mutation cards, there are forty Omega Tech cards in the D & D Gamma World Roleplaying Game boxed set and more are available in the D & D Gamma World Booster Packs. So both core aspects of the game are, to put it simply, collectible. In truth, there is no need for either the GM or a player to purchase extra cards, but without them, the game play is to a certain extent, limited. Further, without them, a design element cannot be brought into the game, that of creating GM’s Decks for certain situations and of creating Player’s Deck tailored to their characters. In truth, while the cards themselves might not be collectible, the means of buying them is. There is no way of obtaining them otherwise, and with eight cards per pack, and another forty cards beyond those in the core set, at $5 per pack or so, fulfilling either design aspect could get expensive very quickly. Especially since you are not guaranteed to get the cards that you want.

If you have played Dungeons & Dragons, Fourth Edition, then playing D & D Gamma World Roleplaying Game will be very familiar. To achieve anything, a player rolls a twenty-sided die, adds any bonuses, and tries to beat a target set by the GM. The game is played in the same style as Dungeons & Dragons, Fourth Edition, with encounters intended to be run on maps marked with grids and a character’s powers to be using during these encounters. The focus of the game, as evidenced by the scenario included in the Rule Book is on combat, as much as it is exploration, if not more.

The advice for the GM is kept fairly light, as is the background for Gamma Terra itself. Various locations are described that can be added to a GM’s campaign, their descriptions quite lengthy compared to those given to Gamma World’s classic Cryptic Alliances. The best advice is to keep it fun and to keep it wacky, as well as for the GM to base his home campaign his home town, now altered by the effects of the Big Mistake. Unsurprisingly, a large chunk of the GM’s section in the Rule Book is devoted to describing the creatures to be found abroad Gamma Terra. Many of Gamma World’s classic creatures make a return, including the badger-like Badders, mutated leptoid Hoops, and the infamous Sep, or Land Shark. Every creature has been given a new illustration, some of which feel more cartoon-like in style, and also a piece of text that can be read out to the players when their characters encounter it for the first time.

The adventure given in the book, “Steading of the Iron King,” is to blunt, terrible. It amounts to an eight Encounter slog through a post-apocalyptic dungeon that has the player mutants investigating the source of a number of robots that have rolled down out of the hills and blown themselves up on the outskirts of the village. The adventure makes full use of the maps and the counters included in the box, but none of the advice on “Good Adventure Design” given in the section on Creating Adventures. In particular, that an adventure should “Provide Multiple Paths to Success,” give “Clear, Limited Choices,” and “Embrace the Weirdness.” “Steading of the Iron King” certainly does not do the first, the adventure being absolutely linear; nor does it do the second, the choice only being forwards; and as to the third, that is debatable. Lastly, for a piece of writing designed for a roleplaying game, why is there so little roleplaying involved in “Steading of the Iron King”?

Given all that the D & D Gamma World Roleplaying Game consists of, it comes in a surprisingly empty box and feels very over packaged. What accounts for the size of the large square box that the game comes in are the two sheets of counters for use with the maps. Not the maps themselves, which are simple posters folded down to a size much smaller than digest size. Had the maps been mounted or done in a heavy cardstock, or there been some miniatures included, then the size of the box would have been warranted, but the box could have been half the size it is. Plus, why not include some dice in the box too? After all, there is bags of room.

The contents of the box also vary in quality. The Rulebook, roughly the same size as one of the Dungeons & Dragons Essentials, is bright, breezy, and colourful, whereas the Alpha Mutation and Omega Tech cards are bland by comparison. Why were these not illustrated in some way, especially given their supposed collectable factor? And if they are meant to be collectable to help play the game, why not go that extra and make them also “cool” too? Plus, if you design the cards as two separate decks, then go the effort of making the backs different. Otherwise, it is difficult to tell which from which. The maps are serviceable, as the counters, but why not go that extra step and provide terrain counters too, so that the maps can be modified and their usefulness extended so that the GM can use them with the scenarios of his own design? Oh, and putting in just four character sheets for a game that contains a scenario designed for five players…?

As to the Rule Book itself, it would have been nice if it had included better examples. The play example is far too short, and there is no example of either character generation or of combat. It certainly would have been good to see the game’s random elements in play rather than merely be told about them in the rules. Also missing from the Rule Book is much of the background from previous editions, and if the GM wants to create more interesting adventures than that provided, then more background should have been provided. Another aspect is that it really is aimed at those who have already played Dungeons & Dragons, Fourth Edition, yet still contains explanations aimed at the neophyte role-player. So if it is designed for them too, why is it not with them in mind throughout, such as having those examples, I mentioned?

So the question is, where does the wackiness of the D & D Gamma World Roleplaying Game come from? Obviously from the combination of character Origins, from the constant flow Alpha Mutations that pass through the players’ hands as a scenario progresses, and from the weirdness of the monsters that this Seventh Edition has inherited from the First Edition onwards. It also comes from the weirdness of the different types of technology to be found in the game, but not from actually discovering the technology of the Ancients and determining how it works. That element has been lost from earlier Editions of Gamma World, because if a piece of technology has a direct in-game effect, such as those given on the Omega Tech cards, then a player character automatically knows how to use them.

It is difficult to really damn the D & D Gamma World Roleplaying Game. The game captures much of the feeling of its forebears, yet keeps everything light and fast when with the use of the Dungeons & Dragons, Fourth Edition core mechanics, it could have a whole lot more cumbersome. There is no denying that Alpha Mutation and Omega Tech rules as implemented through the cards a is clever way of handling their impact on characters in the Gamma Terra setting, but even putting aside the collectible aspect of their purchase, denying both GM and players an aspect of the game without further purchase, is at the very least, anything other than endearing. Ultimately, for all the cleverness of the design, D & D Gamma World Roleplaying Game falls down on supporting the design with the lack of background material and a scenario that is shallow and unimaginative. Had there been more background detail and a better scenario, D & D Gamma World Roleplaying Game would be a better package and provide more of a pull towards purchasing the D & D Gamma World Booster Packs that Wizards of the Coast want you to.