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

Sunday 31 July 2011

The Curse of Chaosium

Imagine you have an anthology of scenarios for Call of Cthulhu that has not been in print since 1984 and as a publisher you decide to reprint the book. When choosing what to do with the book, you decide that the only changes necessary are several bits of new artwork, not all of it in keeping with the style original artwork; the changing of any references to other campaigns and anthologies to take account of the fact that some of those originally referenced are no longer in print; and the doubling the size of the fount to ensure that the new book is double the size of the original book. What you do not do is examine the scenarios to ensure that they have stood the test of time or to check that they are entirely playable by contemporary standards. Nor do you edit the book or even mention the name of the artist whose new work graces the pages of your substantially fatter book.

Such is the case with Curse of the Chthonians: Four Odysseys Into Deadly Intrigue, a collection of scenarios that has not seen the light of day as a whole in almost thirty years. Released at a time when scenarios for Call of Cthulhu were few in number, the four were described as being the “most detailed scenarios ever published for Call of Cthulhu.” They take the investigators to Rhode Island, New York, Egypt, and deep into the Empty Quarter of the Arabian Peninsula for confrontations with the Mythos, common and uncommon. By contemporary standards, the common include Ghouls and Nyarlathotep, whilst the uncommon include Chthonians and the Horror from the Hills, Chaugnar Faugn, as well as a once in a life time opportunity to visit, Irem, the City of a Thousand Pillars.

The quartet opens with David A. Hargrave’s “Dark Carnival.” This describes an amusement park in Rhode Island that is not only home to any number of oddballs and freaks, but is also plagued by strange incidents and deaths over the years that despite having been investigated remain unsolved. It is these incidents and deaths that are supposed to draw the investigators to the amusement park, but after that, the Keeper is left to his own devices. The problem is that “Dark Carnival” is all setting with neither narrative nor background; the setting populated by a gallery of grotesques devoted to an unexplained cult – the Society of the Great Dark – and sitting over what is essentially a dungeon. Without advice or a suggested narrative, the Keeper is left with a lot of work to do in order to make this into something playable.

If “Dark Carnival” is lacking in narrative, it could be said that “The Curse of Chaugnar Faugn" by Bill Barton has too much. It is an ambitious affair that relies upon a player character accepting a previous relationship between his character and an ex-girlfriend, the beautiful Violet Staunton, the latter very much wanting to re-establish the relationship. She fears for the safety of her father, Henry, a famous anthropologist who is not only ill, but was attacked by a strange oriental. The author warns the Keeper that he will be leading his players through the scenario by the nose and the warning is not unwarranted as there is little room for the investigators to deviate from the given plot. Plus there is a grating moment at which the Keeper is told to tell his players what their investigators think in order to meet a particular NPC so that they can obtain a potential means of defeating the threat at the heart of the scenario. There are some nice moments in “The Curse of Chaugnar Faugn," but for the most part this is so heavy-handed and needs so much effort to work.

The last two scenarios in Curse of the Chthonians are by William Hamblin and can be run singly or as a pair. The first is "Thoth's Dagger" which begins with an auction and a murder before getting bogged down in three-week trip during which time the Keeper takes a brillo pad to the Sanity of one investigator. This is essentially Masks of Nyarlathotep in miniature, taking the investigators from Boston to Egypt as they attempt to remove a curse from one of their number. The Keeper advice suggests that he should avoid having the end of the scenario end in a “Dungeon Crawl,” but in some cases this is unavoidable. The scenario has its moments of horror and intrigue, most notably a blistering and probably not survivable encounter with the Crawling Chaos, but overall feels like the end of a campaign rather than a standalone scenario.

Nevertheless, "Thoth's Dagger" is followed by a sequel, "The City Without a Name." It can be run as a standalone, but really requires that the investigators be staying with their allies from the first scenario. In a process of delivering a package to a Rabbi in Jerusalem, one of their number suffers a vision, which the Rabbi tells him can only be explained through Gematria, a form of occult arithmetic associated with the Kabbalah. Then he drops dead, leaving the investigators to do the numbers themselves and hopefully determine the threat that the vision hints at. This should lead them to Yemen and from there into the Empty Quarter to discover what lies in Dread Irem. This unfortunately, is another dungeon. Like "Thoth's Dagger," this scenario has its moments, but is hampered by the need for the dull arithmetic exercise of decoding the vision – itself supported by the article “The Occult Science of Gematria” at the end of the book – in the middle of the scenario.

By modern standards, these scenarios are definitely detailed, sometimes overly so. By modern standards though, they are too linear and too heavily influenced by a style of adventure that predates the publication of Call of Cthulhu. By modern standards, their means of delivering information is woeful, constantly having to rely on turgid exposition rather than hand-outs. Ideally, part of making this a second edition, would have not only involved these scenarios being edited, but also being given both some hand-outs and some advice on how to deal with the issues with each.

Physically, the changes made to Curse of the Chthonians are minor, though they have major ramifications. Most obviously, the size of the fount has been changed from the original book, which at best has made it easier to read for anyone with visual difficulties whilst also doubling both the length and the cost of the book. New artwork has been added, all by the unaccredited Bradley K. McDevitt, and whilst it is not bad work, in the scenarios where Lisa M. Free’s original artwork remains, the two styles clash. Worse, in one scenario, a major NPC is illustrated by both artists, neither image alike. Where the book has been edited, it is only to update the suggested scenarios that could be run during an interlude rather to correct the errors that have been introduced with the new version of the book. Further, Curse of the Chthonians has not been edited to enable the correction of mechanical and rules errors, leaving the Keeper to make the corrections, usually to the impossible numbers assigned to the NPCs.

If you already own a copy of Curse of the Chthonians, and you are not a completest, there is no need for you to own a copy of this reprint. For it is a reprint and not a second edition, as a second edition implies that some changes have been done to the book, and whilst changes have been made, all are minor, ineffectual, and pointless. Even if you do not have a copy of this anthology, none of its scenarios are wholly worth your attention without an awful lot of effort upon the part of the Keeper. They either lack narrative, have too much narrative, or possess moments that suspend the narrative, and all four are too brutal in their approach to gaming the Mythos.

Ultimately, for Chaosium, Inc. to have re-released this collection unedited and with no major change having been made except to increase the fount size, and so increase both the length of the book and its price is both shameful and disrespectful to any Call of Cthulhu gamer. Right now, copies of the original version are cheaper than this reprint on e-Bay – and a lot more attractive than this charmless reprint. The reprint of Curse of the Chthonians not only feels cheap, but makes you wonder if Chaosium, Inc. has the interests of both its customers and fanbase at heart. Did either really want to see this book come back into print? Lastly, Chaosium, Inc. needs to realise that it takes more than the tawdry effort done here to call a book a second edition.

Saturday 30 July 2011

A Batrachian's Evening Play

Kiss of the Frog God is several things. First, it is the first Third Party support to appear for Lamentation of the Flame Princess’ Weird Fantasy Roleplaying Game. Second, it is the first scenario to be written and published for the game that has not written by the game’s designer, James Raggi IV. Third, it is part of Postmortem Studios’ “6-Pack Adventure” series, each designed with a “pick-up and play” functionality, which in the case of Kiss of the Frog God includes pre-generated characters, a battle mat, and tokens for use with the battle mat as well as the scenario itself. The aim of the “6-Pack Adventure” series, just like that six-pack of cans of your favourite beverage, is for it to be consumed or rather played through in a single session.

Designed for a party of four to six characters of third level, Kiss of the Frog God finds the adventurers on a pilgrimage, each of the six pre-generated adventurers possessing a reason to seek religious atonement. One of the stops along the way is the village of Morbury, which sits atop a hillock amid a festering swamp. Morbury was once a reasonably wealthy village, its income coming from farming, hunting, and logging, but the curse of a swamp witch and the near constant rain has turned the surrounding fields and forest into a sodden quagmire. With a down turn in the village’s fortunes, the outlook of the villagers has turned inward and insular.

The adventure itself is quite simple. The visiting pilgrims are asked to find two girls that have gone missing, the village priest suspecting that their sinful ways have lead them into the forest. Within a matter of hours their bodies will be found mutilated at the forest’s edge and blaming the swamp witch, the villagers will ask the pilgrims to seek her out deep in the forest and revenge not only the deaths of the girls, but end the curse.

Despite its simplicity, there is quite a bit of detail to Kiss of the Frog God. The backgrounds and motivations of the various NPCs are well drawn as are all six of the adventure’s encounters. Plus there is room enough for the GM to add more if needed. In terms of rules, it is simple enough to run for other Retroclones such as Labyrinth Lord or other Old School Renaissance style games, although it is specifically written for use with the Grindhouse Edition of the Weird Fantasy Roleplaying Game. If there is anything lacking in the book it is overall advice on running the adventure and perhaps advice on adding to it or scaling to different numbers or levels of characters.

Physically, Kiss of the Frog God is decently put together. The full colour card cover provides a map of Morbury and the battle map, but because both replace the front and back cover, as a product it lacks the title to tell the potential purchaser what the book is called and a blurb on the back to explain what it is, what game it is for, and what level characters the adventure is designed for. Indeed, there is no indication of what level the scenario is designed for until the reader examines the pre-generated adventurers. Inside, there is a lot of white space, but this means that each of the pre-generated adventurers has its own sheet for easy copying, as do the scenario’s monsters and the tokens for both with use of the battle mat. The internal artwork is also good, it being a pity that it appears only in black and white.

In terms of editing, Kiss of the Frog God is a little disappointing. There is a certain degree of repetition and whilst I can agree with the author and publisher’s attitude towards homosexuality, I do think that it could have been better handled with a degree of subtlety that should have been applied throughout. The issue here is that in dealing with the sexuality of two of the pre-generated adventurers, the tack taken by Kiss of the Frog God is to preach at both the GM and the potential players. In comparison, almost nothing is said regarding the relationship between the missing girls bar the fact that the village priest considers it to be unclean and unholy.

There are plenty of Dungeons & Dragons style adventures that deal with the village in peril to the point at which the format is a cliché. Kiss of the Frog God gets away from the cliché by depicting a low fantasy setting in which the grot has set in and have the adventurers face a very grimy foe perfecting in keeping with the “Weird Fantasy” of the Weird Fantasy Roleplaying Game that it is written for. Pocket friendly and session friendly, Kiss of the Frog God is straightforward and enjoyable.

Monday 11 July 2011

Apes and Dragons, Oh My!

Last year’s award-winning All For One: Régime Diabolique from Triple Ace Games – it won the award for the Best Roleplaying Game at the recent UK Games Expo – marked a new direction for the British publisher. In particular it marked a switch in rules systems. The majority of its publications – some of which I have had the pleasure of editing – are written for use with the slightly cinematic, slightly pulpy Savage Worlds, of which there will be a new edition this year, but the new RPG, a combination of magic and horror set in the swashbuckling age of romance, adventure, and derring do that is seventeenth century France, uses the Ubiquity System. First seen in Exile Game Studio’s Hollow Earth Expedition and since used in Greymalkin Design post-apocalyptic fantasy, Desolation as well as the German version of Space 1889 from Uhrwerk Verlag, the Ubiquity System is again pulpy in feel, with relatively straight forward mechanics designed for fast play.

Triple Ace Games continues in this direction with its next RPG, Leagues of Adventure. Subtitled as “A Rip-Roaring Setting of Exploration and Derring Do in the Late Victorian Age!”, this is yet to be released, but whilst at UK Games Expo, we did get a taster with Plateau of the Ape Men & The Dragons of London. This combined an introduction to the Ubiquity System with two adventures – one short, one long, and six example characters. Essentially enough for a group to play through both adventures and get a feel for what the game promises once it is released.

The rules are covered in just four pages, highlighting the relative simplicity of Ubiquity System. Dice pools are rolled to gain successes, each even result on the dice being counted as a success. What this means is that any dice can be used, and you could even flip coins, to roll for actions. Of course, Exile Studio does its own dice for the Ubiquity System, but it is possible to get by with a handful of ordinary six-sided dice. Of course, it is all a matter of the number of successes rolled. A task’s Difficulty determines the minimum number of successes that have to be rolled for someone to achieve it. Any successes rolled above that improve the result. The rules also allow a character to “Take the Average,” meaning that if the average number of successes that he would roll is equal to, or greater than a task’s Difficulty, then the player does not have to roll. In addition, every player character has Style Points, which are spent to add bonus dice, boost the level of some Talents, and reduce damage. They are gained for pursuing a character’s Motivation and playing to his Flaw, for being heroic and being in character, as well as for out of game actions, such as writing gaming reports, hosting the game, and so on.

The first scenario is short, and if not sweet, at least combative and mechanical. It casts the player characters as members of the Society of Aeronauts, currently aboard an experimental flying machine traversing the continent of Africa. With a snap or two of a giant monster’s jaws, the machine and her crew are sent plummeting towards the ground and thus find themselves marooned on the titular “Plateau of the Ape Men” high above the jungle. Running to just four pages, the short scenario can be completed in an hour or so.

The second scenario is much meatier, being a fuller affair some fifteen pages in length. As its title suggests, “The Dragons of London” is set at the heart of the empire, the capital awash with news of its streets being awash with plagues of rats, a theft of a manuscript from the British Museum, jewellery store thefts, electrical power cuts, a most vicious attack upon cab driver, and more. The player characters are hired by a curator at the Natural History Museum to track down a mythological beast that he believes to have once been in his possession and now loose, to have been possibly responsible for the death of the cabbie. The adventure mixes monster hunting, weird science, and mystery into a suitably frothy mix with an emphasis on pulp action. So in keeping with the genre then. The adventure should take a session or two at the very most to play and provides a much wider scope for player action.

The six provided adventurers are a gluttonous Big Game Hunter, an aloof Consulting Detective, a female Hard-Working Reporter, an ex-military Explorer, a Crackpot Antiquarian, and a Pioneering Aviatrix. Obviously, some of these are better suited to one adventure than the other, with each scenario suggesting those suitable, such as the Crackpot Antiquarian and the Pioneering Aviatrix for “Plateau of the Ape Men,” whilst the Big Game Hunter, the Explorer, and the Hard-Working Reporter for “The Dragons of London.” Most of the characters are well designed, the Consulting Detective being particularly Holmesian, and most are familiar enough types that they should be easy to play. Of the six, the Crackpot Antiquarian feels the least interesting and has the weakest feel. It should be noted that should the GM already possess a copy of Hollow Earth Expedition, then he can take inspiration from the player characters given in Plateau of the Ape Men & The Dragons of London to create his own or at least help his players create their own.

Physically, Plateau of the Ape Men & The Dragons of London is well produced and for the most part clearly written, becoming a little cluttered in dealing with the investigative aspects of the second scenario. As to the RPG Leagues of Adventure, it looks to be a less strait laced approach to the genre, mostly obviously dispensing with the Victorian attitudes towards women and taking a more enlightened view of the world. That though is an impression and we will have to wait until the release of the RPG.

With luck, Triple Ace Games will make this available to download or have it on show at their next convention appearance. I am looking forward to seeing the full game and will give it a review when it appears. In the meantime, check Plateau of the Ape Men & The Dragons of London as soon as you can.

Saturday 9 July 2011

Traveller's Swansong

Rare is it that I review a book from Mongoose Publishing and rarer still is it that I review a book for Traveller. Now do not get me wrong, I like Traveller and have had the pleasure of playing and reviewing many of the PDF releases of the last decade. For me Traveller is intimately entwined with the setting of the Third Imperium and its history, and as much as I want to revisit the game and its supplements, the one thing that prevents me from doing is its current publisher. If I am honest, I do not feel that this publisher does full justice to the game or its setting, they do not give it the love that another publisher might. Which begs the question, what I am doing reviewing a Traveller book if the last one that I read was infuriatingly dreadful? First off, I borrowed the book from a diehard Traveller devotee – thank you, Dave – and second, the reason that I am really reviewing it is because of its author, Martin J. Dougherty.

As head of the collective that is Avenger Enterprises, Dougherty has written and published numerable titles for the various incarnations of Traveller, including scenarios, settings, and sourcebooks, through various publishers. In nearly all cases, the material has been interesting, entertaining, and when played, challenging and fun. Four of Dougherty’s scenarios have been brought together in the anthology, Crowded Hours, which it turns out to be the last book that Avenger Enterprises will be releasing for Traveller through any publisher. Which is a pity.

The four scenarios are in order, “Type S,” “The Windermann Incident,” “Crowded Hour,” and “Fiddler’s Green.” All are written around a disaster of some kind, with “Type S” and “One Crowded Hour” being more rescue orientated and “The Windermann Incident” and “Fiddler’s Green” being more combat orientated. Now whilst none of these scenarios are bad, each being highly detailed with plenty of background information, I will be reviewing them in ascending order of preference.

So we start with “The Windermann Incident,” a convention style adventure set aboard an airship that gets hijacked. This is a cross between the movies Die Hard and Snakes on a Plane – or in this case, “Ferrets on an Airship” – and that about sums the scenario up. It comes with a set of pre-generated Travellers, all of them inspired by one action movie or another, some daft puns, and fifteen pages of quite possibly the worst deck plans ever published. The problem with the latter is that in their current condition, they in no way support the amount of space given over to describing the airship.

“Fiddler’s Green” takes place on the Third Imperium client world of Bularia in Darrian subsector of the Spinward Marches which has been identified as the source of a new drug which is farmed there. The Travellers are employed to visit the world and sound out some farmers about the possibility of their dealing direct with an offworld pharmaceuticals manufacturer. This is a simple enough job, but it turns nasty when malcontents in the outback decide to take up arms and literally run everyone out of the region. Very quickly, this turns into a running gun battle as the Travellers, their hosts, and the surviving inhabitants make a run for it in the face of an enemy.

“Type S” takes the Travellers to the world of Walston in the Bowman Arm of the District 268 subsector in the Spinward Marches where they are to locate, repair, and return a Type S Scout Cruiser, the appropriately named, Highndry. Getting there is easy, as is getting the location of the ship out of Walston’s recalcitrant inhabitants. They are happy enough for the Travellers to collect the ship, but first they must complete the task assigned to its previous crew – survey the volcano whose caldera it currently sits in! Getting to the ship means climbing the volcano in Walston’s thin air, but fortunately repairing the ship and carrying out the survey turns out to be reasonably straightforward and easy. Which should lull them into a false sense of security, because the volcano is far from extinct. Just being very, very quiet – but not for long… Just think Dante’s Peak with a spaceship, and you would not be all that far from the feel of this adventure.

Top of the quartet in Crowded Hours is the scenario it draws its name from, “One Crowded Hour.” This is the only ship-set scenario and begins with the Travellers aboard a merchant liner heading for their next destination. In true roleplaying adventure fashion something goes wrong, in this case, the liner misjumps, and misjumps badly. In Traveller, a misjump is what happens when an interstellar journey goes bad, and usually it just means that the starship has travelled to somewhere other than the intended destination. In “One Crowded Hour” the situation is worse as both the crew and the Travellers must work fast to repair the ship, placate the passengers, and get everyone to safety in literally an hour. This is an intense scenario that is playable in an evening and delivers a fantastic playing experience.

In terms of characters and skills needed, a good range is required. Mostly technical and ship-based in “One Crowded Hour” and “Type S,” but combative for “Fiddler’s Green” and “The Windermann Incident,” though a general range of skills would be useful for the last two also. Pre-generated Travellers are provided for use with “One Crowded Hour” and “The Windermann Incident,” though not the others, and in the case of “The Windermann Incident,” the pre-generated Travellers are cinematic in tone and feel.

All four scenarios are highly detailed with full write-ups of their NPCs and come with plenty of background material – including Traveller’s traditional Library Data. Where necessary, they are also accompanied by appropriate deck plans, but in some cases more maps would have helped. For example, “Fiddler’s Green” is completely without maps and their inclusion would help a GM run the scenario.

That all said, Crowded Hours is far from a perfect anthology, and the reason for that is due entirely to the physical appearance of the book. There is exactly one piece of artwork in the book, an illustration of an armoured car, which does no more than take up space in the book. This though, is not an issue with the book. It has plenty of space left over. The organisation of the book is dreadful essentially because all that the publisher has done is take the original scenarios as they appeared as PDFs, and place them one after the other, renumber the pages, and bound them in the hardcover format. Beyond, there has been no attempt to edit this book. So you get the same introduction to Avenger Enterprises four times and the same background to the Third Imperium four times. Worse, nearly all of the maps and deck plans have been very poorly reproduced, in the case of the airship in “The Windermann Incident,” to the point at which they are useless. The result of this is twofold. First it makes Crowded Hours feel cheap. Well actually cheaper, because being a black and white hardback book for $40 actually makes Crowded Hours feel cheap already. Second, everything bar the contents of each scenario, everything about Crowded Hours feels unprofessional.

Crowded Hours ends with an epilogue in which Martin J. Dougherty announced that the anthology would be the last Traveller title from Avenger Enterprises. This is a shame, because not only is this an excellent collection of adventures, but because the collective has released some very good titles over the years. Yet it is understandable. After all, if your writing was being so poorly treated as shown in this book, would you continue working with a publisher that has so little regard for your work?

Still if you are looking for four detailed and well written scenarios for Traveller, this anthology would be an excellent choice. Indeed, any of the four scenarios in Crowded Hours would work with almost any Science Fiction RPG, from the Margaret Weis Productions’ Serenity Role Playing Game and Rogue Games’ Thousand Suns to the FATE powered pair of Starblazer Adventures: The Rock and Roll Space Opera Adventure Game from Cubicle Seven Entertainment and Diaspora from VSCA Publishing.

Saturday 2 July 2011

You Signed Up For This...

So you signed the Official Secrets Act (Section III) in blood. You have done the right courses in everything from “Introduction to Applied Occult Computing” and “Basic Computational Theory” to “Surveillance and You: A Field Guide” to “The Paper Clip Audit Procedure.” You got cleared for field duty so now you get to protect the United Kingdom plus her dependencies (and the European Union and the USA and the rest of the world in that order) from the filth of the multiverse. Except that does not happen every day, thankfully. So most of your day means a commute into the centre of London, logging on and starring at your computer screen dealing with one dull memo after another in between attending even duller meetings before trudging back home. It is all go for the life of an agent of The Laundry, the United Kingdom’s most secretive agency tasked with protecting the country from entities from beyond. Okay. Mostly it is not, but being a field agent means that you are likely to receive telephone calls at four in the morning. Which probably means overtime and expenses and paperwork, and overtime and expenses means that the country is in danger. Paperwork the Laundry does all the time even if the end of the world is nigh… Still a 4am “Black Bag Job” means fun and excitement and a chance of death and a chance that the world might end if you fail. No pressure then. Still your healthcare plan is up date – isn’t it?

Black Bag Jobs, the first supplement from Cubicle Seven Entertainment for The Laundry, its RPG based on the “Laundry Files” series by Charles Stross, brings together six scenarios designed to scare the field agents with the fundamental truths about the universe. Each of the six can be run as single scenarios or one-shots, or be run as a part of an on-going campaign, one that exposes the player characters or agents to The Laundry’s darker secrets and its darker fears. Any one of the six can be run in a single long session or perhaps two.

It opens in rip-roaring fashion with “Case: Lambent Witch” which has the agents sent out to a North Sea oil rig that has gone silent. Somebody might be drilling in the wrong place and thus broken the terms of the treaty with a certain ocean floor dwelling species. The scenario has the feel of the film Aliens, but requires more than firearms to solve. It is followed by “Lost and Found,” which has the agents dealing government bureaucracy and inter-departmental politics when they have to find a lost laptop – which has all of the wrong software on it (Mythos tomes in PDF, anyone?) – and deliver a briefing to a new Parliamentary Private Secretary.

The third scenario, “The Shadow Over Kafiristan” takes its cue from Kipling’s The Man Who Would Be King and the Great Game as much as it does the current situation in Afghanistan. The agents are sent out into the field to ascertain whether or not a local warlord would make a good ally after he is spotted sporting an occult tattoo. Is he a mere worshipper or an actual practitioner of sorcery? After all the stress of the previous missions, the agents get to relax and go on a retreat, except that whilst there, they are to run a discreet security check upon the new facility. Given that the title for the scenario is “The Wild Hunt” and that it is set in the West Country, this is probably not the getaway that the Med & Psych Department promised you.

In “Secret Agendas,” the sextet mixes up the occult with the classic paranoia of the espionage genre as the agents are tasked with ferreting out a potential traitor. The job is made all the more interesting because the agents get to investigate the suspects in both the waking and the dreaming world, all three of which will be placed under a Truth Compulsion Geas. The last scenario in the book, “The Signal,” provides the agents with a glimpse of the much feared CASE NIGHTMARE GREEN as the agents have to follow a strange signal that comes from off world, much in the same manner as the ending of The Atrocity Archives. If used as a campaign, this scenario brings the anthology to something of a downbeat ending rather than a climax. This should not really surprise the characters, who after all, are not going to receive much in the way of plaudits (there is though, always the index linked pension) and should still realise that the end of the world with the advent of CASE NIGHTMARE GREEN is nigh.

Physically, Black Bag Jobs is well put together. It uses the same layout as The Laundry RPG, but the tighter page count means that there is more artwork and other features that break the text up. The interior artwork itself is also good. In addition, all of the scenarios come with their own handouts, all of them nicely done. I would recommend a buff folder or two in which to present them to the players at the appropriate time.

The highlight of the book is the author’s successful effort to capture the feel of the bureaucracy, the politics, and attitude of British government institutions with their weariness, small mindedness, and stubborn natures. These are all very English scenarios, ones that draw heavily from the United Kingdom’s relatively recent political and geo-political concerns, whether it is Afghanistan, North Sea Oil, and civil servants losing laptops. A vein of knowing humour runs throughout the six, some of which is laugh out loud funny, and much like the novels themselves, is very British in tone and feel.

Were I to select a favourite scenario from the collection, it would be the first, “Case: Lambent Witch.” It starts the collection with a bang and is the one that feels the most similar to Stross’ fiction. Others like “Lost and Found” and “Secret Agendas” explore the paranoia that come with the espionage world before giving the occult twist, while “The Wild Hunt” plays off some of the fiction’s more absurd elements. The last scenario “The Signal” is perhaps the least pleasing and the least interesting. In part because it takes the agents away from The Laundry and its internal bickering, and because it takes the GM’s game towards the forthcoming apocalypse that is CASE NIGHTMARE GREEN, and preventing that is more interesting than actually having it occur.

Although the six scenarios are written for The Laundry RPG, there is material here that a Call of Cthulhu Keeper could use in his campaign. Perhaps the easiest scenario to adapt is “The Wild Hunt” because its set up involves The Laundry the least, so that could easily be removed. Conversely, the more that the scenarios are written around The Laundry, the harder they are to adapt, at least for Call of Cthulhu. Running some of them for Delta Green might be possible.

If you already have a copy of The Laundry RPG and want more, then Black Bag Jobs is an obvious purchase. If the GM makes that purchase, then he will a solid set of six scenarios that are in turns engaging, exciting, and entertaining – and sometimes funny too.

Friday 1 July 2011

What Price Dice?

It seems that all of the classics are getting dice games. First it was Mayfair Games’ Catan Dice Game and then it was Days of Wonder’s Ticket to Ride: The Dice Expansion, and now as part of the game’s tenth anniversary, Rio Grande Games has released Carcassonne the Dice Game. I have been a fan of Carcassonne for several years now, it not only being my introduction to Euro games, but also my means to introduce several other players as well as my daughter to the hobby. Carcassonne the Dice Game is a filler of a dice game for between two and five players designed to be played in ten minutes, the winner being the first person to gain forty-two points by rolling and building complete cities.

The game comes in a Carcassonne blue meeple-shaped tin that contains nine Carcassonne Dice, a small pad and pencil, and an eight-page meeple-shaped foldout rules sheet. Of these, the best description of both the dice and the pencil is that they are functional and nothing more. The nine dice though, are done in black and white plastic, each of them the same. On four of its faces, each die is marked by black city sections, whilst the other two are marked with a catapult and a meeple or knight.

The players take it in turns to roll the dice, up to three times on a player’s turn. If he rolls city sections, he can use them to create a city, the aim being to build a complete, closed city by the end of his turn. If he rolls any catapult symbols on the dice, he must pass them to the next player to roll and so cannot roll them again this turn. If he rolls three meeples or knights over the course of the three rolls, a player gets to keep one of them and passes the remaining eight dice to the next player. The player holding the knight does not score anything this round, but gets to keep it for his next turn when he can score double points for completing a closed city. So in effect, keeping a knight back is a means of reducing the number of dice that the other players get to roll on their next, just as rolling catapults on a player’s denies him the opportunity to score points that having more dice available on re-rolls would allow.

A game is won by the first player to score forty-two points. The other way is for a player to roll nine catapults over the course of the three rolls of his turn. This immediately wins him the game.

Physically, Carcassonne the Dice Game is well presented, if you ignore the bland functionality of the pad and pencil. The rules are nicely done and they are easy to read. The dice themselves are solid and feel good in the hand. It is a pity that they have been done in black and white though as opposed to the brown of the cities and green of the farms in Carcassonne itself.

Carcassonne the Dice Game is light and fast to play. As a quick filler it will probably keep everyone involved for its suggested playing time. If there is an issue with the game, it is the cost. Some of that cost is understandable. After all, it consists of three non-standard items – the dice, the rules leaflet, and the tin, and these are going to be costly. Yet the problem here is political. The retail price for this game in the USA is $17.50, which is roughly £11 here in the UK. Even when V.A.T. is added on to make it £13, the actual retail price is £14.99. This is certainly not the fault of Carcassonne the Dice Game itself, but ultimately it pushes what is a pocket friendly game too far away from having a pocket friendly price.