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

Sunday 28 August 2011

A Gothic Lay of the Land

Two conflicts lie at the heart of Colonial Gothic: A historical supernatural role-playing game, Rogue Games’ RPG set in the new world during the eighteenth century on the eve of the American Revolution. The second decides the future of the Thirteen Colonies, but the first determines the course of the Secret History that will affect outcome of the first... With the release of the Colonial Gazetteer, one of those two conflicts is supported and developed a little further with both background detail and a scenario.

More specifically, over the course of sixteen chapters, the Colonial Gazetteer presents a history of the Thirteen Colonies, details each of the Thirteen Colonies in turn, and describes the various native tribes and their relationships present in and around the Thirteen Colonies, all before giving a scenario, "A Surprise for General Gage," that can be run as a one-shot or as an introduction to Rogue Game’s campaign, Flames of Freedom. It is primarily a historical supplement; although the setting’s supernatural elements are not ignored. This is not to say that the history is unwelcome, for as much I have a love of history, pre-revolutionary American history is not something that I know a great deal about.

The supplement opens with an overview of the Thirteen Colonies, covering their history from early attempts by the English and the Dutch to establish colonies right up to the break down in relations with England. After that, it explores each Colony chapter by chapter, from New Hampshire and Massachusetts and the Province of Maine to North and South Carolina and Georgia, the youngest of the Colonies. Each chapter opens with box of key facts – each Colony’s First Settlement, Capital, the main source of its Economy, Native Tribes, and Governor as of 1775; followed by a more extensive timeline than was given in the first chapter, plus sections detailing the Colony’s geography, society and politics, major locations, and lastly, some of its “Mysteries.” This is a lot to cover in the five or six pages allotted to each chapter, but there is enough information here to make each of the Colonies feel distinctive and there are plenty of details included that the GM can use to add flavour to his game or a player to add flavour to his character.

Every Colony has local associated Mysteries, from the New Castle Lithobolia or stone-throwing devil of New Hampshire to The Lost Mission somewhere south of Georgia. Included amongst them are not only many Mysteries of native origin, but also many that are more modern and contemporary in origin, such as The Mothman of Virginia and Maryland’s Cumberland Bone Cave. These might sound anachronistic, and the author says as much, but their inclusion provides more options for the GM and none are so anachronistic as to not fit in with the period.

The penultimate chapter is devoted to the natives of the Thirteen Colonies. It gives the culture and history of the Algonquian and Iroquian tribal groups, plus a more detailed history for each of the individual tribes within each group. It feels a little too brief in places, but is nevertheless very welcome information for both the GM and the player with a Native character.

The scenario, "A Surprise for General Gage," opens with the player characters on the road to Boston in 1775, the American Revolution already having begun and the city being besieged by the Revolutionary forces. It is a short affair, and should take a session or so to play through. Once played, the heroes will be in the Boston area and have made the contacts necessary to begin playing the Flames of Freedom campaign.

Physically, the Colonial Gazetteer is a nicely presented booklet, one that makes excellent use of clipart. The maps are also decent, and everything on the whole is well written. If there is an issue with the book it is the editing, which is not quite as sharp as it could be.

If you to be running or want to run a Colonial Gothic campaign, then the Colonial Gazetteer is a useful supplement to have to hand. It provides plenty of historical background, if not in any great depth, then at least in enough detail to provide the GM with the basic information and a little more. Fortunately, a bibliography lists ready avenues for further research. In addition to the scenario included, the individual Mysteries particular to each Colony serve as both extra adventure hooks and as counterparts to the occasional dryness of the history. That history though, nicely imparts the feel of a society struggling with political and religious issues. Overall, the Colonial Gazetteer is decently researched, informative, and useful.

Saturday 27 August 2011

Kobold Comes of Age

Another three months and another issue of Kobold Quarterly reaches the shelves of your friendly local gaming store to provide the reader with more support for Dungeons & Dragons in the form of the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game and Dungeons & Dragons, Fourth Edition, as well as Open Design’s house setting of Midgard, best typified by the Free City of Zobeck. This issue – number eighteen – brings the magazine to its “Age of Majority” and in doing so, devotes itself to the themes familiar to players of both games, that of adventurers, flaws, dragons, and magic, supporting them with the usual mix of articles and columns as well as three whole scenarios.

Unfortunately, Kobold Quarterly #18 begins with some bad news. Its first article is the only one for use with the AGE System, the mechanics seen first in Green Ronin’s highly regarded Dragon Age: Dark Fantasy Roleplaying – Set 1: For Characters Level 1 to 5, and then more recently in Open Design’s Midgard Bestiary Volume 1. Fortunately, Steve Kenson’s “Gifts of the Gods: Divine Talents for the Adventure Gaming Engine RPG,” plugs a hole that opens up as soon as you move the AGE System into any setting that resembles a Dungeons & Dragons style campaign setting. Which is that it does not delineate between the divine and the arcane roles in the same way or as clearly as Dungeons & Dragons does, but by allowing the Divine Gift to be attached to each of the AGE System's three classes – Mage, Rogue, and Warrior – Kenson enables a player to create a scholar-priest, proselytizing preacher, or crusader type character. Taking the Divine Gift also allows a character access to miraculous abilities and divine stunts tied into the Domain of the god worshipped. Of course, the Domains of the Gods of Zobeck are listed. This is an excellent means by which divine characters can be added to an AGE System game without resorting to the less flexible option of adding a whole new Class.

The class options continue not for the AGE System, but for the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game. Ryan Costello, Jr. offers us “The Savant: Master All Trades as a Universal Hero,” a Class that writes down things that he sees and hears about as Knacks and Trades in a Notebook and then is able to recall them and bring them into play. The idea is one day he might see how a wizard casts Magic Missile or an Orc wield a double-headed axe, and then on another day he can do both or any of an array of abilities and powers that taking a single Class would not allow him to do. It presents a very flexible Class concept, though one that is not straightforward to play.

More straightforward is Tracy Hurley’s “Ecology of the Minotaur: Children of the Moon,” which describes the Minotaur for the Midgard Campaign Setting. It does a good job of mixing the race’s bloodlust and love of mazes whilst also making them an honourable people. Mike Welham and Adam Daigle provide another character option and add to the issue’s dragon theme with “The Dragon Hunter: Taking Down the Titans,” a ten-level Class focused entirely on taking down dragons, whilst “Beast Masters: Why Should Humanoids Have All the Fun?” by Marc Radle gives an alternative to the Leadership feat in the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game. With the Beast Leadership feat a character can take fauna as followers rather than fellow men, a useful expansion for Druid or Ranger characters.

More feats are added to the issue’s draconic and magic themes with David Schwartz’s “Into the Dragon’s Den: Lair Feats and Auras.” Written for both the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game and Dungeons & Dragons, Fourth Edition, it allows the GM to add spell effects to the lairs of his dragons. For example, with Inspiration [Lair], a Bronze Dragon would let its servants and visitors breathe in its aquatic environment, whilst a White Dragon might cast Fickle Flurries [Lair] to impede the movement of any intruders in its lair. This is a nice combination of colour with rules effect. Two further articles carry on the draconic theme. These include Adam W. Roy’s “Cavaliers of Flame and Fury,” which add two knightly orders to the Midgard Campaign Setting, one of which rides dragons; and Wolfgang Baur’s regular Free City of Zobeck column which also looks at dragons in the Midgard Campaign Setting.

The other magic article in the issue is Phillip Larwood’s “Synergistic Magic: Combining Spells for Twice the Power,” which does exactly what says on the tin and has the potential to add the most fun in the game. Again written for the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game, it allows a wizard to combine two of his spells or his spells with another wizard to get extra effects. For example, combining the Maze and Summon Monster V spells gets you Claw Maze which allows the caster to not only trap an opponent in a labyrinth, but subjects them to claw attacks from the walls of the maze too!

The flaw theme comes in three flavours. It gets very personal in Anthony W. Eichenlaub’s “Soul Broker,” which details a type of contract that once signed, lets a character borrow either rare or magical items in return a temporary portion of the character’s soul. Another option allows for a player character to actually offer these contracts instead of taking them, this it suggests as being a task favoured by Tieflings. Either way, the inclusion of this in a game gives it a diabolic tinge.

Situational flaws come with a discussion of “10 Reasons Why Your Characters Should Be in Jail” for both Dungeons & Dragons, Fourth Edition and the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game. Written by Russell Jones, it is really more of a generic fantasy piece that explores how to use these suggestions to create adventures rather than to punish the player characters. Philippe-Antoine Menard gives us the type of flaws that every player character wants in “The Heroic Flaw.” An actual generic article, players of other more progressive RPGs will be familiar with its concept of a player character having a personal flaw such as a Code of Honor, Vow, or Personality Quirk, and in return for bringing it into the game, the GM will reward the player with a point that can be used for a variety of effects. Familiarity should not breed contempt though, as this is good way to encourage roleplaying.

The first two of the issue’s three scenarios are written for the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game. Matthew J. Hanson’s “Silus and the Red Dogs” is a solo adventure that comes with a ready-to-play character, a Halfling Thief, and in just forty paragraphs sees Silus attempt to escape his current life as a member of a street gang. This is enough to show how the basic combat rules work and tell a decent little story, though it would have been more interesting if Silus could have been allowed to make use of his Thieves Skills. It is followed by “The Exorcists,” a scenario that combines the themes of dragons, flawed characters, and magic. Written for four characters of first level by Tim and Eileen Conners, it begins with the adventurers waking up to find themselves having been resurrected by mistake and trapped in a monastery by a rampaging, possessed Gold Dragon! This is a single-session adventure that can either be run as a one-shot or the start of a new campaign, and is a clever, well thought out little affair.

The third scenario, by Jonathan Roberts, is for use with Dungeons & Dragons, Fourth Edition. Designed for a party of four characters of fifth level, “Who Watches the Watch Fires?” opens with the adventurers discovering not only the dead bodies of some border guards, but their watchtower still manned and foreign troops making their way beyond the border. Can the adventurers find out who now mans the watchtower and ensure that the fires are lit to warn of the impending invasion? This is an efficient, short adventure whose focus is primarily upon the Skill Test, which only serves to highlight one of the reasons why I dislike Dungeons & Dragons, Fourth Edition, that skills are a feature of the game, sort of a bonus to all that combat. (Open Design is to be commended for having Josh Jarman, author of the Midgard Bestiary, Volume 1, do a conversion of this scenario for the AGE System and make it available for download on its website).

Of the other articles, Paul Baalham’s “Elementary, My Dear Wizard: How to Build a Rock-Solid Mystery” works as well for other fantasy RPGs as much as it does for Dungeons & Dragons, Fourth Edition which it is written for. “Tools of War – Siege Weaponry” by Matt James is also for Dungeons & Dragons, Fourth Edition, adding these weapons of war to work with the rules given in Open Design’s Soldiers of Fortune supplement.

All of which of course, is supported by the usual selection of cartoons, advice columns, book reviews, and more. Amongst the assortment is “Battle Wizards & Sword Maidens: Essential Asian Movies for Gamers” by David Gross, which provides a nice introduction to the Wuxia genre.

If there is a downside to Kobold Quarterly #18, it is there are fewer articles for use with Dungeons & Dragons, Fourth Edition. That is subject of course, to Dungeons & Dragons, Fourth Edition being the game of your choice. Not so this reviewer, but it seems only fair that said reviewer point that out. That aide, this is another fine issue, the mix of articles achieves a pleasing balance and the inclusion of three scenarios makes the issue all the better.

Sunday 21 August 2011

7 Wonders

Every so often there comes along a game that acquires the status of being the new “hotness,” a game that has acquired such a cachet all by word of mouth. The latest title to do so is the board game 7 Wonders. Released by the French publisher, Asmodée Éditions, this card/board game hybrid has the distinction of being the winner of the first "Kennerspiel des Jahres" award. This is a companion honour to the “Spiel des Jahres,” the German “Game of the Year” award, and roughly translates as "Connoisseur-Enthusiast Game of the Year." So what has got everyone, including a committee of German board game critics, so excited by 7 Wonders?

Designed to be played by three to seven players – though a two-player variant is included in the rules – 7 Wonders is a card drafting, resource management, simultaneous play card game with a Civilisation theme that can be played in thirty minutes from start to finish. All of which is done without the use of maps or extensive conflict, the heavy reliance on cards serving to simplify and ease the handling of elements that might otherwise be relatively complex in other games. The aim of game is to score the most points and 7 Wonders provides multiple means of scoring so that a player can win by being the greatest cultural, economic, military, or scientific power, or a combination of all of these.

Each player controls an ancient civilisation attempting to prove itself to be the greatest by building one of the great wonders such as the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, the Lighthouse of Alexandria, or the Pyramids of Giza. Every civilisation is represented by a rectangular board. An icon in the top left hand corner indicates the resources generated each turn, while three boxes along the bottom mark the three stages of the civilisation’s wonder. Completing each stage grants a benefit to the player, usually Gold that can be spent or saved, or Victory Points that go towards a player’s total at game’s end. Other Civilisation Boards grant simple scientific or military benefits, but some allow a card to be played for free or a card to be played from the discard pile. Every Civilisation Board is double-sided, marked (A) and (B). The (B) side is harder to complete then the (A) side.

The cards in 7 Wonders come in seven types. Brown cards provide basic resources like brick, ore, stone, and wood, whilst Grey cards give the advanced resources of cloth, glass, and paper. Red cards are military facilities and fortifications, whilst Yellow cards are economic, either generating an array resources or making them cheaper to buy from your neighbours, or simply granting a civilisation more Gold. Blue cards are cultural, representing buildings such as alters, baths, palaces, and theatres. Each is worth a straight Victory Point value at the end of the game. Green cards are scientific and marked with one of three symbols. At game’s end the number of Green cards with the same symbol that a player has before him is squared and the total added to his final score. Points are scored for sets with one of each symbol that a player has. Lastly, the Purple cards are Guilds that each score in particular ways. For example, the Strategist’s Guild grants a Victory Point for every defeat inflicted upon your neighbours, whilst the Philosopher’s Guild gives Victory Points for every Green or science card that your neighbours have played.

The cards are also divided into one of three Ages – I, II, and III, each more advanced than the previous one. The third Age is the most advanced and is the only one in which the Purple or guilds cards appear.

At heart, play in 7 Wonders is very simple. It is played in three rounds or Ages. At the beginning of each Age, each player receives a hand of seven cards. Simultaneously, every player selects one card and plays it at the same time. When done, a player passes his hand to his neighbour, while receiving a new hand from his other neighbour. Everyone selects a new card and again, passes on the hand. This is done until each player has played six cards in each Age. The seventh card is discarded. At the end of an Age, military conflicts are resolved. This involves each player comparing the size of his military – shown on the Red cards – against that of his neighbours’, with the winner gaining Victory Tokens and the loser, Defeat Tokens. Both Tokens contribute to a player’s Victory Point total at game’s end. This all happens once for each of the three Ages at the end of which Victory Points are totalled and a winner declared.

On each turn a player takes his chosen card and does one of three things with it. He either brings it into play, if necessary checking that he has access to the necessary resources, either on the cards before him or from his neighbours’ cards. If gained from a neighbour, these resources have to be purchased with Gold. Every player starts with three Gold, but can gain more from playing certain cards or from sales made to neighbours. Such sales are automatic and cannot be stopped. Some cards are free to play, either because they are a basic type or a player has a card in front of him that allows him to play the new card for free. Instead of bringing a card into play, a player can discard it from the game in return for three Gold. Lastly, if he has access to the necessary resources, a player can build the next stage of his civilisation’s Wonder, indicating that it has been built by sliding it under the bottom of the Civilisation Board where the stage is marked.

In playing a card a player has three things to consider. If he plays the card will it grant him the resources necessary to build his civilisation’s Wonder? If short of Gold, can he discard it for more? If he does not play it or discard it, will it benefit another player? For example, if you have played a lot Blue or cultural cards and the Magistrates’ Guild, one of the Purple guild cards, comes into your hand, you might want to play it, discard it, or use it to build a stage of your Wonder in order to prevent a neighbour from playing it. If he does, you know that it will score him a point for each of the Blue cards that you have played. It should be noted though, that sometimes a player will have little choice in what he can play, and his choice will be reduced as an Age progresses, and more and more cards are played, thus lowering the hand size. Essentially, a player is always attempting to make the best of his current and immediate situation, or rather of his current and immediate hand of cards.

The first interesting point about 7 Wonders is that you only ever interact with your direct neighbours although every player’s Victory Point total is compared at game’s end. The second is that often a Civilisation Board will influence a player’s strategy. For example, if the stages of a Wonder on a Civilisation Board grant a scientific bonus, then a player might want to play Green or science cards. The third is that the game plays slightly different the more players that there are. With fewer players, the hands of cards in each Age will come through a player’s hand more than once. While with seven players, each hand of cards will be seen by a player just the once. The clever thing is that 7 Wonders scales, the number of players determining the number of cards to be added to the game, but every player always starts each Age with a hand of seven cards.

The fourth interesting point about 7 Wonders is that there is no one way in which to win. I have won by acquiring lots and lots of Gold; by having the most successful military – although the maximum number of Victory Points to be gained this way is limited; by having the most cultural Victory Points from Blue cards; and by scoring Victory Points from others via the Purple or guilds cards. No card type is necessarily more valuable than any other, although the Purple or guilds cards and the Green or science cards can score a player lots of Victory Points. For example, I have seen my friend Dave score a total of forty-eight points from Green or science cards – which is a lot. (This was done with three Green cards for each symbol, for a total of nine cards. For each set of three symbols the same he scored nine points – for a total of twenty-seven points, plus for each complete set comprised of one of each of the three symbols, he scored an additional seven points. Altogether, forty-eight points. Again, a lot of points). The fifth interesting point about the game is that it is difficult to see exactly who is winning until scoring happens at the end of the game, although it is obvious who is doing well in each area.

Physically, 7 Wonders is very well done. The Civilisation Boards are of sturdy card with excellent artwork that matches the theme, while the various card tokens are clearly marked and easy to handle. The cards are all attractive and of a slightly larger size, so are easy to read. It should be noted that this means that slightly larger card sleeves are required to protect the cards. This is recommended because the cards will get a lot of handling. The cards are also illustrated with suitable art that matches the theme. The rules booklet is actually as large as the box and is not only easy to read, but also well laid out with plenty of examples.

Since my friend Dave bought a copy we have played lots and lots of games of 7 Wonders. After all, it is easy to do given that once a game has got going, it only lasts thirty minutes. Trying it with new players has never failed to leave them intrigued and wanting to play more, a situation that I found myself in upon the first few plays. I even went through a stage of disliking the game, but actually still being intrigued enough to keep playing. Now I find it an easy game to play and do so at some pace. If there is an issue to the game it lies in the difficulty of teaching it to new players. Not that the basic rules are difficult to grasp, but what it is difficult is gaining an understanding of how the cards interact and work with each other. On our initial play throughs this meant that games were lasting more than an hour, but with practice and an understanding of the game’s card interaction this dropped to the listed playing time of thirty minutes or less. Plus we have guided a group of seven players, only three of which have played it before, through a game in an hour.

Once the hurdle of grasping how the cards work is passed, then 7 Wonders turns out to be an excellent game, one that it is going to receive a number of expansions, with the first of these, 7 Wonders: Leaders already being available. Rare is a game that offers this level of complexity for its suggested range of players, in particular seven players. It offers thoughtful play and thoughtful replay value, and while competitive is rarely adversarial. 7 Wonders manages to achieve a nice balance between the light filler game and the massive Civilisation style game without bogging a player down in a welter of options.

Saturday 20 August 2011

Dae ya ken Cthulhu?

From “The Coven of Cannich” in Shadows of Yog-Sothoth to “The Horror of the Glen” in Green and Pleasant Land, Scotland has figured not infrequently in scenarios for Call of Cthulhu. Yet despite being mentioned in the unfortunately out of print Green and Pleasant Land, it has never received the attention it deserved, for the country north of the border is very different in character and culture to the England that usually predominates in any supplement devoted to the United Kingdom. Fortunately, the latest supplement in Cubicle Seven Entertainment’s Cthulhu Britannica series, Shadows Over Scotland: Call of Cthulhu Roleplaying in 1920s’ Scotland sets out to remedy this lack of attention.

Shadows Over Scotland comes as a sturdy hardback, done in greyscale throughout with excellent artwork and a tidy layout. The book is divided equally in two sections. The first provides a detailed description of Scotland’s culture and history, geography and major cities, and major Mythos dangers, whilst the second gives six ready to play scenarios. The geography sections are very well organised, being divided into three regions – the Lowlands, the Highlands, and the Islands. Each section details the people and culture, flora and fauna, climate, Mythos Threats, and major cities. These are all very informative, but the highlight in each of the three sections is the descriptions of the Mythos Threats to be found in each region. No mere thumbnail descriptions, these portrayals are highly detailed, presenting for each four subsections comprised of Intrigue, Introduction, Investigation, and Revelation, the result being that for each Mythos Threat the Keeper has the outline of a scenario that has everything bar a narrative structure.

The treatment of the Mythos in Shadows Over Scotland in both its outlined Threats and in the scenarios keeps itself to a narrow range of entities and species. Deep Ones, Ghouls, Mi-go, Serpent Men, and Shoggoths all make an appearance, as do a number of unique creatures. Rare is it that a Great Old One or Elder God makes an appearance, and for the most part, the more immediate Mythos dangers come in the form of cultists rather than the unknowable, although there is plenty of that also. In keeping with Scotland’s urban/rural divide, the creatures to be found in Scotland’s towns and cities differ greatly from those to be found across its varied countryside.

Scotland itself is described as country whose inhabitants are still reeling from the loss of life in the Great War and are yet to recover from the economic downturn that was a result of the Great War. With so many of her people impoverished, the country finds her masters in London to be wanting and seeks answers in radical politics of the Left, with both the Labour and the Communist Parties. This is in addition to a growing sense of nationalism. There is also a growing artistic movement and of course, Highland culture continues to be popular. From this a Keeper should be able to inject plenty of period and national details into his game, while a handy guide to the phrases and expressions of the period should allow him to add colour to many of the NPCs, if not mystify the investigators and players at the same time!

The first of the six scenarios in Shadows Over Scotland’s second half takes the investigators to Glasgow for “Death and Horror Incorporated.” Scotland’s second city is beset by a previously unknown plague and a rash of deaths culminating in the discovery of a sloop from Ireland with her hold full of corpses. Designed for experienced investigators, this requires plenty of detective work, some ferreting around underground, and probably the creation of some more newspaper hand-outs by the Keeper at the scenario’s start.

This is followed by “The Hand of Abyzou,” which changes locations to Edinburgh and the vaults below the city with the investigators being asked to determine how a friend came to be near comatose in an asylum. The friend happens to be an expert on cults, so what was it that left him in this state? Like “Death and Horror Incorporated” before it, “The Hand of Abyzou” takes the investigators underground, though, much, much deeper this time.

The introverted nature of village inhabitants is brought to the fore in “Uisge Beatha” or "The Water of Life.” They are as unwelcoming to the investigators as they are to the new Laird, the reason being relatively easy to uncover, but probably beyond the scope of the player characters to wholly deal with. This has a well done atmosphere to it supported by a cast that the Keeper can get his teeth into portraying.

The death of a famed Norwegian deep sea explorer brings the investigators to Inverness to discover clues that will take them down the Great Glen and along Loch Ness. “Heed the Kraken’s Call” has a slightly pulpy feel to it with an action-packed finale that will need careful handling given the number of participants beyond the investigators.

Privately owned by Sir George Bullough, the Western Isle of Rum has an increasingly dreadful reputation with its inhabitants either having disappeared or left all too suddenly. Few now are prepared to step ashore even the owner is paying high wages as part of his effort to turn it into a haven for the rich and famous. Members of Bullough’s new staff have begun disappearing and he wants to know why. It is up to the Keeper to build a sense of isolation and possible paranoia as the investigators uncover the cause. Suitable for investigators of any experience, this is relatively straightforward affair that should last a single session or two.

“Star Seed,” the last scenario, takes the investigators to the archaeological dig of Skara Brae on Orkney, where a colleague from Miskatonic University has uncovered a strange artefact. They need to determine the nature of the threat it represents and find a way to stop it before it is too late. This is the shortest of the six scenarios and perhaps the most mechanical. It is also least interesting, and perhaps the best candidate for being replaced with more background material on Scotland.

All six scenarios are of a uniformly decent standard, such that it is difficult to really distinguish between them in terms of highs and lows. Of the six, “Death and Horror Incorporated” is enjoyable for the investigative process; “Uisge Beatha” or “The Water of Life” for brooding sense of paranoia; and lastly, “Heed the Kraken’s Call” is enjoyable for its slightly pulpy feel.

The Keeper will need to be inventive if he wants to involve the investigators in any of these six scenarios. The issue is not with the scenarios themselves, but with the given means of involving the investigators – too often they are introduced to the problem via a letter from a friend or someone wanting their help having heard from “somewhere” that they are capable of dealing with strange matters. While the inclusion of Plot Maps that list each scenario’s locations, personas, relationships, motivations, and clues is more than welcome, each would be easier to run if the attribute, skill, and Sanity checks given in each scenario was clearly marked for the Keeper to pick out of the page.

One of the aspects that Shadows Over Scotland shares with Cubicle Seven’s earlier Avalon: The County of Somerset – A 1920s’ Reference for Call of Cthulhu, is that every explanation it has for a legend or folktale involves the Mythos. This includes not only the infamous cannibal, Sawney Bean, and the shipwrecking Blue Men of Minch, but also why so many clansmen failed to get away from Culloden and what might actually be in Loch Ness – though this is Scotland, so giving a Mythos explanation for the Loch Ness monster is a given. Where this aspect felt cloying in Avalon: The County of Somerset, in Shadows Over Scotland, it never feels oppressive because the book’s Mythos elements are spread out over a wider canvas, not crammed into a limited space. Further, because they are separate rather on top of each other, the Keeper is better able to choose the ones that he wants to include in his game.

Similarly, while it is hinted at that the Mythos is the subject of scholarly research, Shadows Over Scotland never makes it the feature that Avalon: The County of Somerset did. Again, the Keeper is free to embrace or ignore this, but unlike Avalon: The County of Somerset, it never threatens to overpowerShadows Over Scotland.

Whilst Shadows Over Scotland is a possible definitive sourcebook for the Mythos in Scotland in Call of Cthulhu, it is not the definitive sourcebook for Scotland in Call of Cthulhu. The distinction is important, because the sourcebook does not fully deal with the mundane Scotland. It covers Scotland effectively both in cultural and physical terms, but ignores it in legal terms (important because the legal system differs greatly from English law), in terms of how to get to the country, and in terms of the media. Further, in terms of the game, it utterly ignores the player. There is no advice on how to create and play an investigator from Scotland. So whilst Shadows Over Scotland has been written with Keeper alone in mind, it still leaves him with a certain amount of mundane research to do.

Physically, Shadows Over Scotland is a well-produced hardback. The writing is clear, the content is nicely organised, and the artwork is well done. The cartography is unfortunately in places disappointing and indistinct, the latter usually down to the choice of fount. Also, none of the larger scale maps reflect the physical geography of the country as described in the text, so that the reader is only able to gain a limited grasp of Scotland’s geography. Also disappointing is the editing, which in places feels rushed towards the end, and shows a lack of understanding of the Call of Cthulhu rules.

One fact not mentioned so far is that Shadows Over Scotland is the work of a first time author, and then a resident, rather than a native of Scotland. Although this needs to be taken into account, the fact that it is the work of a first time author does not show. Indeed the errors and issues with the book do not lie with the writing, but with the book’s editing and intent, for Shadows Over Scotland is packed with informative background, details about the Mythos, and material that can be played, whether it be the scenarios or the Mythos Threats. It is these that are the strengths of this supplement, so whilst it could have been just ever so slightly better, Shadows Over Scotland: Call of Cthulhu Roleplaying in 1920s’ Scotland gives decent support in properly introducing Scotland toCall of Cthulhu.

Saturday 13 August 2011

AGE'd Creature Feature

While we await the publication of Wolfgang Baur’s own campaign of Midgard into a full blown campaign setting, we continue to be fed little morsels of information about the setting, most notably about the Free City of Zobeck, through issues of Kobold Quarterly and other supplements. That changes a little with the publication of the Midgard Bestiary Volume 1, a collection of monsters for the setting that adds lots of little details and plenty of threats. What is significant about the supplement is that it not written for Open Design’s traditional choice of systems, Dungeons & Dragons, Fourth Edition and the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game, but for the AGE System or the Adventure Game Engine System. First seen in Green Ronin’s highly regarded Dragon Age: Dark Fantasy Roleplaying – Set 1: For Characters Level 1 to 5, the RPG based on the popular Dragon Age: Origins computer game, the AGE System is also the same system that will be used for the Midgard Campaign Setting. In presenting some fifty of the creatures, peoples, and threats to be found in Midgard, the Midgard Bestiary Volume 1 has to answer two questions. First how does it hold up as a monster collection for its intended setting; and second, will its contents be of any use for the GM who runs a Dragon Age: Dark Fantasy Roleplaying game?

The book is very cleanly presented. Each entry gets its own page with a paragraph or two of flavour text, two or three paragraphs or so of background, a full illustration, and a full stat box for the AGE System. The latter includes its Abilities and Focuses, Combat Ratings, Attacks, and Powers along with associated Stunts. The range of artwork is generally excellent, some of it in colour, some of it not, the worst of the pieces echoing a style found in Advanced Dungeons & Dragons thirty years ago and which feels at odds with the rest of the book.

The Midgard Bestiary Volume 1 reflects the setting’s mid-tech, low fantasy feel with its heavy use of both clockwork and the undead. Clockworks in Midgard are not mere devices, but sentient constructs, each often fused with the soul who gains a certain immortality within the mesh of gears and iron. Most of these, such as the Clockwork Myrmidon, Steam Forged, and Zobeck Legionnaire, are constructed in Zobeck and continue to serve the Free City to this day as its watch and soldiery, while the Clockwork Hound is a holdover from before the rebellion against House Stross. Similarly, many of the undead to be found in Midgard are equally as sentient, including the Ghost Knight of Morgau, Imperial Ghast, and the Bone Collective. All three serve the Ghoul Imperium in one fashion or another, the first two as part of its military, whilst the Bone Collective is actually a created swarm of mini-skeletons that ride ghouls or zombies and serve as the Imperium’s spies and assassins. These two elements come together in the Fellforged, a castoff clockwork automata whose device that normally house the soul of a volunteer has been occupied by a Wraith instead!

Away from the clockwork and the undead, the Midgard Bestiary Volume 1 gives a variety of creatures such as the cowardly fire elementals that hide in smoke, the Firegeists; Goblin Sharks, previously described in the Sunken Empires supplement for the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game; Kyprion Deckclearers, Minotaur sailors that specialise in boarding actions; and Merrow, cannibalistic river trolls. Nor is the sentience of the creatures in the Midgard Bestiary Volume 1 restricted to the clockwork and the undead with several examples of several intelligent species given. Examples include Neiheim Enchanters, the charming Gnome prestidigitators with diabolic secrets; Harem Assassins, courtesans with the ability to entertain and then take a life suddenly and swiftly; and the Kobold Slyblade, thuggish Kobolds who work as hired muscle and prefer to strike from ambush rather than directly and openly.

In keeping with the AGE System, every creature described in the Midgard Bestiary Volume 1 includes a list of its preferred Stunts, the special manoeuvres that give it an edge over its opponents. In the case of some entries, they rely entirely upon those given in Dragon Age: Dark Fantasy Roleplaying, an example of this being the Kobold Slyblade, with its preferred Stunts of Lightning Attack, Pierce Armour, and Skirmish. Others add new powers to this list of Stunts. A prime example of this is the Harem Assassin, whose preferred Stunts are Lightning Attack, Seize the Initiative, and Skirmish, but in addition can Backstab as per a Rogue, and also perform a Garrotte Strike with her necklace and deliver Poison, either by blade or in food.

If there are any issues with regard to the Midgard Bestiary Volume 1, they are born of the issue that have always plagued the setting. The lack of an overall background to which the reader has easy access without which he cannot place each of the entries in this volume in context, for example, the entry on the Imperial Ghast mentions the Imperium. Yet without access to other supplements the reader is left wondering about the nature of the Imperium, and perhaps a page or so of background would have been useful to that end and also as a taster to anyone coming to the Midgard Bestiary Volume 1 with an interest in it as an AGE System supplement rather than as supplement for the Midgard setting. Of course, this will change come the release of the Midgard Campaign Setting, but nevertheless, such a page would have served as a possible enticement.

So how to approach the Midgard Bestiary Volume 1? If coming to it as the GM for a Dragon Age: Dark Fantasy Roleplaying, then it will be of limited use. This will be mostly due to the flavour and nature of the monsters it describes, they being more fantastical and traditional in their origins, such as the Goblin (Shark), or have their origins routed in Dungeons & Dragons, such as the book’s various Ghouls and the Derro Fetal Servant and the Kobold Slyblade. Whilst the setting of Ferelden of Dragon Age: Dark Fantasy Roleplaying is dark – well, it is in the title, after all, that darkness is unique to the setting and very different to that found in Midgard, which is drawn from the “Mittel-European traditions” with their heavy focus on the undead. Also, Ferelden lacks the heavy use of clockwork seen in Midgard. Nevertheless, careful poking around the contents of the Midgard Bestiary Volume 1 will reveal several singular creatures that can be added to Ferelden without disrupting the feel. Typical of these are the Cave Dragon, the blind, ever-hungry, draconic creatures that sometimes work as mercenaries underground; the Death Butterfly Swarm, fey insects that feed on life energy; and Putrid Haunts, moss and detritus filled corpses of those that came to a sticky end in swamps.

For the Midgard devotee, many of these creatures will not be new, their having appeared before in previous supplements; but nevertheless, it is good to have them all in one place. Whether or not he wants the Midgard Bestiary Volume 1 will be purely down to his like or dislike of the AGE System. For anyone running a campaign using the AGE System, but not necessarily in either Midgard or Ferelden, the Midgard Bestiary Volume 1 represents an imaginative collection of monsters, each with a dark edge.

Saturday 6 August 2011

Wild, Yet Not Without Focus

Back in 2001 there was a rash of RPGs devoted to World War II, of which my favourite was GODLIKE: Superhero Roleplaying in a World on Fire, 1936-1946 from Arc Dream Publishing. It presented a desperate time of men at war wielding small, focused, even odd talents or powers through Will alone, such as being able to open any lock by pointing at it, falling asleep and having your bones go fight for you, or being able to fly, but only whilst praying. Allied characters or Talents, were soldiers first, because whilst every Talent was amazing in some way, unless he had armoured skin or was invulnerable in some way, bullets could still kill him. Worse a Talent’s super abilities could be literally switched off if he lost a battle of will with another Talent or a German Übermenschen.

In addition to being an interesting setting, GODLIKE also introduced what would become known as employ the ORE or “One Roll Engine” System. With a single roll of a pool of ten-sided dice, it determined both how fast and how well a character performed, whilst in combat it also determined where he hit his target and how hard. All this could be drawn from the value (Height) and number (Width) of just matched results. For example, Private Maxwell takes a shot at a German soldier. With Body 2 and Rifle 3, Maxwell rolls 5d or five dice. His results of 1, 3, 5, 10, and 10 reads as Width 2, Height 10, or 2x10. The Width of 2 means that it was not a very quick shot, but the Height of 10 means that the German has been shot in the head and will suffer Width+2 or 3 killing damage.

Larger dice pools increase the possibility of rolling matches in what is otherwise a gritty set of mechanics. Where the ORE System gets interesting is in the addition of two extra dice types. The first is Hard Dice, which always have a value of 10. Any Hard Dice represent both the maximum of any skill or ability and an unconscious inflexible action. It would mean for example, that if Private Maxwell had any Hard Dice in his Rifle skill, say 5d+2hd, he would instinctively aim for the target’s head every time. In the encounter above, the result would be 1, 3, 5, 10, and 10, plus the two Hard Dice of 10 each, which would read as Width 4, Height 10, or 4x10. With the rifle inflicting Width+2 in Killing Damage, the likelihood is that the German is dead, even with protection of his steel helmet.

The second type is Wiggle Dice. Instead of always being set at 10, a Wiggle Die can be any value as determined by the player, and represents more carefully judged skill or ability use. If Private Maxwell had a single Wiggle Die in his Rifle skill, say 5d+1wd, he would have made the roll above and could have attached the Wiggle Die to any of the results, so that he could shot the German in the left foot (2x1), left (2x3) or right (2x5) arm, or head (3x10). Further, if Maxwell had been using a Thompson SMG, he could have used the 2x10 and whatever number the Wiggle Die was attached to in order to achieve multiple hits. Either way, with a Wiggle Die, Maxwell has greater control over where his shot goes and can fire with intent to wound rather than kill.

Mere humans under the ORE System are rated between one and five, but it is possible to have stats or Hyperstats and skills or Hyperskills above this – as high as ten. With a Rifle skill of 5, any dice of any type – ordinary, Hard, or Wiggle Dice – would make Maxwell’s skill a Hyperskill. In addition to these, the ORE System has Miracles, the term it uses for superpowers. Character creation under the ORE System involves buying dice for the Stats, Skills, and Miracles, with Hard and Wiggle Dice being progressively more expensive.

All right, so far it has been all about the ORE System. This is intentional as it is its mechanics that really do set the feel of any game they are used for. They are designed to be fast – “ORE” does stand for “One-Roll Engine” after all, but they are also gritty, not to say dangerous. This was certainly the case with GODLIKE: Superhero Roleplaying in a World on Fire, 1936-1946, and it is so with Wild Talents: Superhero Roleplaying in a World Gone Mad, the RPG that let gamers do more with superheroes and the ORE System than have them participate in World War II.

Originally published in a limited run in 2007, but now available in an expanded Second Edition from Cubicle Seven Entertainment, Wild Talents was always more than just a set of detailed superhero RPG rules. As with the original, Wild Talents Second Edition provides a guide to creating superhero worlds based on our own; pushes the world of GODLIKE into the twenty-first century; and presents a scenario to a low-powered Wild Talents game. There are also one or two additions that I will come to in a bit.

In presenting a “generic” superhero RPG, there are a number of differences between GODLIKE and Wild Talents. The first of these is what powers a character’s super abilities. In both RPGs, it is Will, which when lost in both games means that a character cannot use his super abilities. In GODLIKE, it is usually won or lost following contests of wills with opposing Talents or Übermenschen to try and negate his power. In Wild Talents, Willpower use is more flexible providing a range of benefits when spent and can be more easily gained or lost, ranging being Heroic and rolling matching 10s to suffering failure or tragedy. Underlying a character’s Willpower in Wild Talents are his Motivations, the Loyalties and Passions that drive him. Playing to and against these Motives will usually have a role in how many points of Willpower a character possesses at any one time.

The second difference is the amount of points a player has to spend on his character. The GODLIKE base character, a trained soldier, is worth one hundred points in Wild Talents, on top of which his player has another twenty-five points to spend on his actual Talent. The result is invariably a relatively powerful, narrowly focused ability. In Wild Talents, a player has a total of between two hundred and five hundred points to spend, the suggested total being two-hundred-and fifty points. The third difference is that characters now have one or more Archetypes, each the source of a character’s powers and also defining what he can have. The samples given include Adept (essentially Hypertrained), Alien, Artificial, Mutant, and Mystic.

Guidelines allow a GM or player to not only create his own Archetype, but also his own Miracles. Miracles are built with up to four Qualities -- Attacks, Defends, Robust (Miracle works regardless of distraction), and Useful Outside of Combat. The number of Qualities sets a Miracle’s base dice cost to which can be assigned cost increasing Extras like Locked On and Radioactive, and Flaws such as Attached and Touch Only that decrease it. Dice pool size determines range, spread, and capacity, so Flight 6d gives a flight speed of 64mph, whilst Body 6d lifting power of 1,600 pounds. Power Stunts can also be bought for most Miracles, for example Barnstormer adds dice to roll when maneuvering through a city skyscraper canyons. Other Miracles are straight level based, for example Heavy Armor and Immunity.

Wild Talents includes the usual superpowers, from Absorption to Unconventional move, the player having to the exact nature and parameter of each Miracle, the point being that a power is not going to be the same for every hero. Sidebars suggest how Miracles might be used to simulate powers of the comics, such as using Containment and Attach with Heavy Armor to create Force Fields, or Extra Tough, Flight, Harm, Hyperbody, and Immunity all Attached to Heavy Armor to do Power Armor.

Wild Talents introduces several Miracles not found in GODLIKE -- Telepathy, Cosmic Power/Spell Casting and Gadgeteering/Enchanting. These last two work to simulate other Miracles and can be very expensive in terms of Will. Although the designers go to great lengths to explain how each works, some examples would have helped. This is an issue throughout the book, but primarily with character generation which is not a simple process. To some extent, the selection of pre-built Miracles eases it a little, but Wild Talents is not a game in which a character can be created on the fly.

Except in the Second Edition, such a character can be. In an idea first seen in Reign, the ORE System fantasy RPG in which the players played not just characters, but organisations too, Wild Talents includes a “One-Roll Talents” set of tables. With the roll of nine dice a whole character can be created in a few minutes. For example, a roll of 1, 2, 2, 2, 2, 5, 5, 7, and 9 gives the following results, with the matched sets deciding the Miracles and the single dice his Events or backgrounds.

Arkadi Quayn
Body 2 Coordination 2 Sense 2
Mind 2 Charm 2 Command 1
Base Will:
Willpower: +1
Skills: Athletics 1d, Brawl 1d, Endurance 1d, Intimidate 1d, Knowledge (Engineering) 4d, Perception 2d, Research 3d, Scrutiny 1d, Stability 1d

Flight 8d+1wd with Power Booster/9; Light Armour 4hd; Immunity (high altitude and suffocation) +2hd
Power Blast (Defends) 10d
Precognition 8d

Events: Librarian, Stranded Time Traveller From The Future, Unjustly Convicted

Now this character is far from complete, a few details are needed here and there, primarily his Archetype. As to Quayn’s background, the Events suggest the following. Quayn was a technician working on a time travel program led by Doctor Tempuso, who was using the technology to his own ends and set Quayn up to take the blame. He was convicted of the crime, but escaped and attempted to stop Doctor Tempuso. Although successful, Quayn was flung back into the past with a device that that Doctor Tempuso had stolen from the future. This is what gives Quayn his powers.

Given the complexity of building characters in Wild Talents, it is pleasing that the section on creating worlds is as elegant as the ORE System mechanics. In “Building Superheroic Histories” Ken Hite starts with one simple question – “How much do you want the existence of superheroes to change the world?” Then with four design axes, he takes the GM through how to set the parameters for his campaign. The Axes are Red, Historical Inertia measuring how much Talents can change history; Gold, Talent Inertia or how much the Talents change themselves; Blue or how much paranormal and alien influence there is; and Black, Moral Clarity, is the world morally black and white, or does it contain shades of grey? Push all four to the maximum to get a Four Color world. The essay also discusses the nature of realism in a Talent setting and how Talents fit into it before exploring common trigger points for Alternate Histories, coming right up to date with 2001.

The setting for Wild Talents is “A World Gone Mad,” a development of the history first seen in GODLIKE. Whilst it parallels our own modern history, it makes a number of switches to the politics of the Cold War, with the Soviets and the Americans backing different nations in the Middle East -- Israel is Soviet backed, Syria U.S. backed, and so on. In this history, Talents were used in a militarized Space Race, reaching Mars in 1969; and it culminates in secret interstellar in the first decade of the twenty-first century. Other notable differences include a united India as a world power that leads the computer industry, and the Talent volunteers, a non-political organization that helps worldwide. Campaign suggestions are given throughout the history, decade by decade.

Wild Talents is rounded out with four appendices. The first of these gives the full stats for many of the Talents that have appeared elsewhere in the book. The second and third appendices present well-written guides to both roleplaying and how to be a GM, whilst the last looks at adventures, scenes, and challenges. At just two pages in length, it is a bit too short to be anything more than a cursory look at all three.

When I originally reviewed the First Edition of Wild Talents it included a complete adventure. The Second Edition does not, and is the better for it. The issue was that the scenario was not set in the Wild Talents setting “A World Gone Mad,” which meant that the book contained a set of rules, a guideline to superhero setting creation, a given setting, and a generic scenario, four elements that did not sit well together. Had the scenario been set “A World Gone Mad,” then the book would have been more cohesive and more focused.

The same effect, that of being more focused, is achieved in the Second Edition of Wild Talents with a set of detailed, gritty rules; a superb essay on setting creation; and an interesting setting itself. While the rules for running the game are simple, those for character creation are excellent for anyone wanting to detail their superhero’s powers in exact terms. These are rules in which you can get under the hood and tinker, but this demands time and effort upon the part of both and GM. Wild Talents is not necessarily a casual superhero RPG.

The effect of the rules though, is fantastic, and particularly so in genres other than the Four Colour of mainstream superhero comics. This is not to say that Wild Talents cannot do Four Colour, but it has to work harder to do so. Where its strengths lie is portraying grittier settings such as The Dark Knight Returns, Top 10, The Ultimates, Watchmen, and even the Wild Cards setting. In doing so, Wild Talents: Superhero Roleplaying in a World Gone Mad brings a harsher edge to roleplaying the superhero genre, yet still has room aplenty to be flexible.