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

Sunday 25 September 2011

Curse of Chaosium II

It has been a while since there has been a Keeper’s Screen for Call of Cthulhu. Well, now there is, and it has two problems. First, it is French. Second, it is from Chaosium, Inc..
Now it should be made clear that this is anything other than a case of Francophobia. I neither possess nor can I profess any bias against the French. Not so, Chaosium. I do possess and I profess a bias against Chaosium. Perhaps then, I suffer from a case of “Chaosiumophobia”? All of which requires an explanation, and at that, I promise that you will get one. Just not quite yet.
The Call of Cthulhu Sixth Edition’s Keeper’s Screen is based on a screen originally published by Éditions Sans Detour, the French publisher of Call of Cthulhu or rather, l’Appel de Cthulhu. It comes as a three-panel affair in landscape format on thick, glossy hardcover stock, the type of card stock used for book covers of most RPG hardbacks that is now industry standard. The front of the screen shows a muted colour panoramic photograph from the archives of Miskatonic University that depicts three investigators surveying a strange site. It is a nicely done illustration, but somewhat lacking in atmosphere. It seems unfair to do so, but it does draw comparison with the Keeper’s Screen for Trail of Cthulhu, the front illustration of which is dark, atmospheric, and evokes a sense of dread.
The reverse of the Keeper’s Screen, or rather, inside it, is done in black, white, and grey. Running across the top of the Screen is an “Indefinite Insanity Gauge” which indicates exactly how much Sanity needs to be lost in an hour for an investigator to go indefinitely insane. The left hand panel gives charts for “Skills And Base Chances,” “Quick NPC Statistics,” “Sample Sanity Losses,” “Sample Phobias,” and “States of Sanity.” The centre panel gives “Prevailing Rules In All Situations,” “Characteristics And Attributes,” “Damage Bonuses,” the “Resistance Table,” and “Physical Injuries.” The right hand panel gives “Qualification Levels,” “The Order of Attack,” “Quick Weapons, Ranges And Modifiers,” “Combat Summary,” “Grapple Results,” “Skill Roll Results,” “States of Injury,” “Selected Weapons Notes” (which encompasses improvised, hand-to-hand, and natural weaponry as well as firearms, explosives, and armour), “Healing,” and “Attack Modifiers For Cover.” In many cases, the various tables and charts come with page references to the Call of Cthulhu Sixth Edition rulebook.
At first glance, it would appear that the Keeper’s Screen has everything that the Keeper needs to run a game and that all of the various tables and charts are very useful. At second glance, the page references in nearly all cases are very broad, referring to whole sections of the rulebook, rather than the specific pages from where the rules are taken for this Screen. For example, the “Physical Injuries” chart refers to pages 51 to 65 of the Call of Cthulhu Sixth Edition rulebook when in fact, the actual Spot Rules from which they come is on page 57. Another oddity occurs with the “Quick Weapons, Ranges And Modifiers” which handily gives the range modifiers for the various weapon types against creatures of varying Sizes indicated by silhouettes. Alongside the silhouette of a man, the chart uses those of a cat, a dog, an elephant, and a horse. Which begs the question, how many times are the investigators going to be shooting against creatures as ordinary as this, as opposed to Ghouls, Mi-go, Shoggoths, and so on? Alright, so the use of ordinary creatures is a handy reference to gauge the size of a foe in game terms, but not exactly relevant in the game itself.
Besides this, while the “Grapple Results” chart is useful, the Keeper is still required to refer to the Call of Cthulhu Sixth Edition rulebook – page 68 for the actual skill of Grapple – in order to actually find out how the skill works. It would have helped if there had at least been a reference to that page, but either way, the omission actually negates the point of the Screen – to make the game easier to run.
Beyond a glance, and perhaps with a successful Spot Hidden roll or two, it becomes apparent that the Keeper’s Screen hides some inconsistencies. So on the left hand panel, the “States of Sanity” lists effects from the loss of Sanity that are not described in the Call of Cthulhu Sixth Edition rulebook, namely social effects that decrease an investigator’s Credit Rating skill. On the right hand panel, the “Qualification Levels” for skills at 25% (Amateur), 50% (Professional), 75% (Expert), and 90% (Master) make sense, but are not found in the Call of Cthulhu Sixth Edition rulebook, though something similar is found in the Keeper’s Companion. Similarly, “The Order of Attack” chart states that firearms that can be fired three times in a round can be fired that third time in order of the combatants’ DEX, whereas in the Call of Cthulhu Sixth Edition rulebook, it is based on half of the Combatants’ DEX. Then the “Selected Weapons Notes” suggests that for natural weapons such as fists, kicks, and headbutts, possess a “knockback” effect. Nowhere in Call of Cthulhu Sixth Edition is this ever discussed…
Accompanying the Call of Cthulhu Sixth Edition’s Keeper’s Screen is a large poster done by the artists Christian Grussi and El Théo that explores the possible relationships between the various deities, entities, and minions of the Cthulhu Mythos. It is done as a kind of chart, complete with annotations in Gothic script and various anatomical sketches. The question that the poster raises is, “What’s it for?” Is it an in-game artefact, meant to be found by the investigators? Or just a free poster to be hung on the purchaser’s wall? If the former, then it hints at too much knowledge. If the latter, how many purchasers will actually hang it on their wall? The likelihood is that this poster is destined to get lost in a purchaser’s gaming collection, a creased or scuffed frippery, because it is not something that the Keeper needs to take to his game. Ideally, the Keeper should have had something that could have been useful for his Call of Cthulhu game, and if the poster is a bonus, then that exactly is what it is and absolutely no more and no less.
The design and content of the Call of Cthulhu Sixth Edition’s Keeper’s Screen begs two questions, both asking what exactly it is. Given its suggested rules changes, is it intended as a preview of the proposed Call of Cthulhu Seventh Edition? Or rather is it simply a translation of the Call of Cthulhu Sixth Edition’s Keeper’s Screen published by Éditions Sans Detour? As much as many devotees of Call of Cthulhu – including this one – would wish the former question to be true, for the latest version of the game from Éditions Sans Detour is not only beautiful, but actually progressive in terms of its rules in comparison with Chaosium’s conservatism, it is very unlikely to be so.
Which leaves the purchaser of the Call of Cthulhu Sixth Edition’s Keeper’s Screen to wonder why Chaosium did nothing more for what is a major aid for its game than the literal translation of the French l’Appel de Cthulhu Keeper’s Screen? In doing that nothing more, it shows both a lack of attention to detail and a lack of understanding of the latest version of the rules that it has been publishing for thirty years.
As an aside, if Chaosium can simply translate l’Appel de Cthulhu Keeper’s Screen, is there any reason why it simply could not just translate and publish the latest version of l’Appel de Cthulhu and in doing so, give Call of Cthulhu not only the update and rewrite it needs, but also make it a more appealing product? That in truth, would have been a better celebration of the game than the Call of Cthulhu Thirtieth Anniversary Edition which was just not that special…

Penultimately, Call of Cthulhu Sixth Edition’s Keeper’s Screen is a “curate’s egg,” an object that is in parts good and in parts bad, but as a combined result is entirely spoilt. Physically the Keeper’s Screen is sturdy and it has many charts on its reverse that will be useful when running the game, but enough of them are substantially different to the rules currently and easily available – unless you read French, that is – to make its use problematic to say the least. The simple is this: in publishing a product for its game line that is not compatible with said game line, but rather compatible for another game line in another language, Chaosium, Inc. got it wrong.
Lastly, I should address two issues raised at the top of this review. First is my possible Francophobia. Having already denied either possessing or professing this, I would go further and express Francophilia when it comes to the latest edition of l’Appel de Cthulhu from Éditions Sans Detour. I would like to see that translated into English and published in colour. Then there is the matter of my “Chaosiumophobia,” of which I leave you the reader to diagnose. I will though, leave you with a definition:
cha•os•ium•o•pho•bi•a [kay-ozy-um-o-foh-bee-uh]
an abnormal fear of a publisher shooting itself in the foot by not paying enough attention to detail to a long running and popular application of its intellectual property

Saturday 24 September 2011

A Third Savage Start

With the release of Savage Worlds Deluxe, it does two things. First, it provides a full update to give a Third Edition of the Origins Award winning game. Second, it provides fans of the game with something that has been missing for almost five years now – a single core rulebook that provided everything necessary to play a game and run a game of Savage Worlds. Now in that time, the Savage Worlds Explorer’s Edition has always been available, and in that time, it has been a very handy, pocket friendly introduction to the game, but in that slim book, there were things missing, most notably the rules for creating characters that were not human. In the cases of these missing rules, players and GMs had to turn to the various setting and campaign books for these additional mechanics. Which to be fair is no bad thing, as Savage Worlds is both supported by, and supports numerous settings and campaigns such as dark fantasy across islands in the sky (Triple Ace Games’ Sundered Skies), Victorian Imperialism and adventure on Mars (Pinnacle Entertainment Group’s Space 1889), and investigation into dark nihilistic horror (Reality Blurs’ Realms of Cthulhu), as well as many, many more. In fact, in terms of single different settings and campaigns, Savage Worlds is one of the best supported available.

What these settings have in common is the “Fast! Furious! Fun!” of Savage Worlds. The RPG focuses on action orientated, cinematic style play, with the player characters able to take down mooks or Extras with ease, but always having a fight on their hands when they face any villains, either minor or major. The system is also designed to handle skirmishes between multiple opponents, so that the players can easily engage in small scale wargaming as part of a campaign. In fact, Pinnacle Entertainment Group’s Weird Wars series, as seen in Weird Wars: Weird War II and Weird Wars: Tour of Duty, each of which takes place during World War II and the Vietnam War respectively, are written with this feature in mind as are many of the game’s Edges or advantages that a player can select during character creation or as part of experience gained during play.

Nevertheless, Savage Worlds is an RPG, so the focus is always on the player characters. Each is comprised of his Attributes, Skills, Edges, and Hindrances (disadvantages), with both Attributes and Skills defined by die type – four, six, eight, ten, or the twelve-sided die. The bigger the die type the better the Attribute or Skill. Human characters start with a free Edge, whilst to play a Dwarf or an Orc or an Android, the player has to select a Race package that comes with its own benefits.

Our sample character is from the setting of Tékumel: Empire of the Petal Throne and is a scholar-priest in the service of Thúmis, Lord of Wisdom, Knower of Arts, Hidden Seeker of Eternal Knowledge, and Sage of the Gods. Besides studying history, theology, and the ancient language Engsvanyáli, Uchang is trained as Dedaratlkoi, a bodyguard for the High Priests who knows how to fight unarmed and react instantly in times of danger. He wears form-fitting vambraces with which he can parry blows and even block arrows.

Uchang hiKharsan, Dedaratlkoi of Thúmis
Attributes: Agility d8, Smarts d6, Spirit d4, Strength d6, Vigour d6
Skills: Fighting d8, Gambling d4, Investigation d4, Knowledge (Engsvanyáli) d4, Knowledge (History) d8, Knowledge (Theology) d8, Notice d4, Persuasion d4
Charisma: 0
Pace: 6” Parry: 6 Toughness: 4 (+1) Bennies: 3
Hindrances: Loyal, Stubborn, Vow (Serve the Temple of Thúmis)
Edges: Martial Artist, Quick, Scholar
Gear: Vambraces

To do anything, a player rolls the die associated with his character’s Attribute or the Skill as well as an extra six-sided Wild Die because the heroes – and some villains – are Wild Cards and thus unique in the Savage Worlds setting. The highest result of either die is chosen by the player as his result, with the maximum result or Ace on either die allowing a player to reroll and add to the total. The base target for most rolls is four, but can be higher depending on the situation. Rolling Aces usually enables a player to roll higher than the target, with results of four higher than the target providing Raises that give extra benefits. Every Wild Card has one or more Bennies, these used to get re-rolls or to soak damage.

Combat uses the same mechanics with initiative being determined by an ordinary deck of cards. In general, Wild Card characters have the edge over their opponents, able to shrug off damage or soak it with the expenditure of Bennies before they start suffering Wounds. The combat rules in Savage Worlds cover not just man-to-man, man-to-Orc, or man-to-Xenomorph combat, but mass combat and vehicular combat too. The rules for mass combat lend themselves towards to the use of miniatures, either actual miniatures or counters, and the book comes with effect templates that can be copied and used with them.

The treatment of Powers, whether they be Magic, Miracles, Psionics, Superpowers, or Weird Science, is kept very uniform in Savage Worlds. Each is fuelled by Power Points, each has an associated Arcane Background Edge and Skill, and each of the Powers can have an associated set of Trappings. So for example, the common Bolt Power could have different Trappings depending upon its source. Thus a wizard’s fire Bolt spell could have the flammable Trapping, potentially causing materials to catch alight, whilst a Gadgeteer’s Bolt Power could be an Electro-Zapper that with the Electricity Trapping causes target’s to spasm. What this provides is a flexible set of rules that are really only let down by the Superpower option, which feels underpowered and clumsily implemented. Were I to run Savage Worlds, it would not be in the Superhero genre.

So for the second sample character, a spellcaster, we have a slightly reluctant agent who investigates the Occult for Crown and Country. His spells are geared towards to detecting and dispelling the arcane rather the zap-bang-pow type of magic.

Tim Dudley, Occult Agent for The Service
Attributes: Agility d6, Smarts d8, Spirit d6, Strength d4, Vigour d6
Skills: Guts d4, Investigation d8, Knowledge (Computers) d6, Knowledge (Occult) d6, Notice d4, Shooting d4, Spellcasting d4, Streetwise d8
Charisma: 0
Pace: 6” Parry: 2 Toughness: 5 Bennies: 4
Hindrances: Bad Eyes (Minor), Quirk (Cracks Jokes) (Minor), Vow (Reveal No Secrets of The Service)
Edges: Arcane Background (Computational Sorcery), Investigator, Luck
Spells: Detect/Conceal Arcana, Dispel, Divination
Gear: Apple spellPAD

One interesting point about the character is that he has the Guts Skill, which is no longer standard within the Savage Worlds rules, but rather found in particular settings or campaign worlds. This is one of several changes made, and features included, with the Third Edition of Savage Worlds, such as providing ready-to-play archetypes; allowing character to select Background Edges, such as Arcane Background and Linguist, at any stage rather than only during character generation; and the aforementioned removal of the Guts skill from most Savage Worlds settings. Throughout the book, the authors step in to give “Designer Notes” on these changes and other subjects from roleplaying, healing and “the Golden Hour (a term for the first hour of treatment when the injured have a high chance of survival), to the naming conventions of Powers and keeping design setting simple.

Beyond the game’s core rules, Savage Worlds Deluxe covers everything from chases and dramatic tasks to mass combat and “Interludes.” The rules for the latter set up simple scenes between the action in which a player gets a chance to relate something from his character’s past to the rest of the group, a nice new means to encourage roleplaying. Further, new Setting Rules allow a GM to tweak his game world, such as Fanatics, which has overly loyal goons leap into the path of damage that would otherwise hit a Wild Card villain – great for Pulp-style games with “larger-than-life” bad guys and High Adventure, in which player characters can spend Bennies to temporarily gain an Edge that they do not possess.

The “Designer Notes” and new Setting Rules are supported by a solid chapter on how to be a GM. This covers everything from getting a group together and group etiquette to running the game and creating game worlds. Much like the rest of Savage Worlds Deluxe, there is no great depth here, but the advice given is never less than friendly and helpful.

Savage Worlds Deluxe is rounded out with five “One Sheet Adventure,” short scenarios that can be played in a session or two. None of them are particularly sophisticated or complex and include a Viking mini-saga, a horror investigation, and a creepy zombies in space encounter. In several cases, the One Sheets make use of the Setting Rules given earlier in the book. In all cases, the adventures could easily be expanded upon, perhaps with sequels or even into campaign worlds with some effort upon the part of the GM.

Physically, Savage Worlds Deluxe is a slim hardback done in full colour throughout. Its larger fount size makes it easy upon the eye and the book has quite a light feel. All of the art is in full colour with not a single bad piece amongst them. If there is an issue, it is that because the art is illustrating a set of generic rules, it does not give the book a cohesive feel. This though, is not entirely fair, because what the art is illustrating is the action that should be at the heart of every Savage Worlds game.

Now what is important to note with Savage Worlds Deluxe is that it is backwards compatible. Every Savage Worlds title would run as easily with the version of these rules as you would in those found in the Explorer’s Edition. That compatibility is one of the great aspects of Savage Worlds, this one set of rules giving access to numerous settings and campaign worlds. Another is the simplicity of the rules, which are quick and easy to play, and support cinematic, action-orientated play. All of which are presented in this very accessible hardback that should serve Savage Worlds for some time yet.

Saturday 10 September 2011

Who's Got Zeus?

Sometimes a game just lands in your lap. In my case it was a copy of Zeus on the Loose: A Card Game of Mythic Proportions, a new card counting game from Gamewright. I was on Twitter and Coiled Spring announced a simple competition for the game and I won. Once it dropped through my letterbox, I opened it up and read through the rules, ready to take it along to Afternoon Play, a regular monthly boardgame meet at a coffee shop in the city centre. I got the game out and we played it a couple of times in between longer games, in this case Ghost Stories (a very difficult co-operative game about Chinese monks ridding a town of ghosts and monsters), Railways of the World: The Card Game (laying tracks, connecting cities, and transporting goods using cards rather than lengths of track), and Red Empire (my favourite game of Soviet Politburo Politics). It was agreed that it was indeed a nice little filler. So I will probably take it along next time.

The idea in Zeus on the Loose is that the Greek god has gone missing from Mount Olympus and it up to you to grab him and return him to the summit. This is done by playing numbered cards – bringing the card total to a multiple of ten (ten, twenty, thirty, forty, and so on) means that can grab Zeus and getting to the summit (represented by the card total getting to a hundred or more) with him in tow will win a player the round. In addition, Zeus’ fellow gods – Aphrodite, Apollo, Ares, Artemis, Athena, Hera, Hermes, and Poseidon – will sometimes help you out in your efforts over your competitors. The winner of each round is awarded a letter. The first letter won by a player is a “Z.” On later rounds a player will be awarded the letter “E,” and then a “U,” and then an “S” for winning. The first player to win enough rounds to spell out “ZEUS” wins the game.

Designed for two to five players aged eight and up, Zeus on the Loose consists of sixty cards, a Zeus figure, and a foldout rules leaflet. Two thirds of the cards are numbered between one and ten, whilst the remaining cards depict the various gods and their special abilities. Each player starts with a hand of four cards and can only play one card per turn, which is placed face up on Mount Olympus card pile. If a numbered card the new number is added to the total of the cards so far, the players keeping a running total from turn to turn.

If a player brings the current total to a multiple of ten, he gets to grab Zeus and place the Zeus figure in front of him. If when a player puts a number down and another player has the same number on a card in his hand, he can immediately take his turn by playing the card in his hand. Sometimes this means that other players will miss their turns because turn order continues normally from the interrupting player. For example, the turn order consists of Dan, Geoff, and Paul. If Dan plays a seven card and Paul has a seven card in his hand, he can immediately play it with play order continuing normally – that is, to Dan rather than Geoff who misses his turn.

Alternatively, a player can play a God card. There are eight types of these, each of which provides a particular effect. These either alter the current total value of Mount Olympus, let the player steal Zeus from another player, or a combination of both. Lastly, a player has to draw his hand back up to four cards at the end of his turn or he must play with fewer cards until the end of his next turn.

Physically, Zeus on the Loose, is very nicely put together. The number cards are clear and simple, whilst the God cards are done in an attractive cartoon style. The rules leaflet is easy to read and in addition to the rules, contains a description of each of the Greek Gods that appear in the game.

Like many games from Gamewright, Zeus on the Loose has a strong educational aspect. The most obvious one being the arithmetic necessary to play, but there is also the information about the Greek pantheon in the rules and what it teaches about game play – that you need to pay attention to play well. Otherwise, a player will find himself losing turns as his competitors steal turns from him.

As intended, Zeus on the Loose is a well-designed educational game. Its designers have got the age range about right, making the game suitable for the classroom or for families with children of that age group. Adults will find the game play a little limited, more so if they are practised gamers. Nevertheless, Zeus on the Loose: A Card Game of Mythic Proportions is a nice little game that is great for families and great as a gift for families.

Sunday 4 September 2011

Prometheus Bound

What if Victor von Frankenstein’s scientific endeavours came to fruition? What if he really could revive the dead, and how would he develop and use his new found knowledge? What if both he and his “creation” escaped their fates in the frigid wastes of the far North to return to Europe and alter the fate of a continent? These questions are answered in Dark Harvest: The Legacy of Frankenstein, a new setting from Cubicle Seven Entertainment that presents an alternate history of science perverted to the darkest of ends.

One thing that’s needs to be made clear is that whilst it says that Dark Harvest is “Compatible with Victoriana Core Rulebook” on the front cover, this is not a supplement for the RPG of magic, clockwork, and horror, Victoriana. Rather, it is an RPG all of its very own, one that uses a streamlined version of the Heresy mechanics first seen in Victoriana. Other differences – a shift from the 1860s of Victoriana to the 1910 of Dark Harvest and involving science more than fantasy – also mark it as a standalone RPG. Dark Harvest is not just an RPG, but also a sourcebook and an anthology of fiction for its setting – Promethea.

Having freed itself from the shackles of the Ottoman Empire in the mid-eighteenth century, the newly independent country of Romania forged ahead, flexing its muscles to assert her borders and territorial claims and sponsoring scientific and engineering learning even as the nobility balked at political and social reform. Amidst growing political tensions at home and abroad, ruler of Romania declared martial law, revealed himself to be none other than Victor Frankenstein, and renamed the country, Promethea. In the opening years of the nineteenth century, the new nation would transform itself into a scientific utopia and militarised state that would become both the wonder and the mystery of the age, its borders closed to prying eyes that speculated at the advances made by the new nation.

Behind Promethea’s fortified and patrolled frontier, King Victor hides a dark, dark secret. The country’s elite consent to his rule in return for incredible benefits that come with the Harvest, whilst the peasantry is kept downtrodden by the effects of this Harvest. This Harvest is not of crops in the traditional sense, but of the very body parts of the member of the lower castes of Promethean society. Organs, limbs, and facial features are “donated” by the peasantry, not just to enhance the physical capabilities of the Promethean Military Forces’ soldiery through Augmentation, also known as Frankenstein’s Gift, but also to enhance the beauty, the longevity, and the vitality of elite such that the rich need never grow old or die, but remain young and beautiful forever.

The lower castes have not wholly acquiesced to this state of affairs. It is not unknown for mothers to deliberately scar their children to prevent their being taken in the Harvest, and then there is the Resistance. Lead by the Creature itself, the original creation of Victor Frankenstein, who wishes not only to overthrow his creator and end the practice of the Harvest, but also to prevent his creator’s dark sciences falling into the hands of rival nations. Were they to come to master the knowledge of Augmentation, he fears that they would be barely as scrupulous as Promethea in the implementation of the new biology. Under the watchful eyes of the Promethan Military Forces (PMF) and the Domestic Security Forces (DSF), perhaps the greatest fear of any who defy the absolute monarchy of Promethea is not that their bodies be Harvested for the Augmentation of others, but that they be subject to Evisceration, a terrible punishment that sees their flesh and bone worked out into artistic tableaus hung on wire racks and kept alive by Promethean science despite their impossible agonies. It takes a great artistry and skill to pose each Evisceration for all to see…

In addition to being a more horrifying, less fantastical setting, Dark Harvest is also a humanocentric one. The only player option is that of human characters, but the setting and range of Augmentations available suggest numerous character concepts such as Augmented PMF soldier on the run, spy for a foreign power, huntsman augmented to sniff out his quarry, itinerant peddler who acts as a courier for the Resistance, or a wealthy socialite appalled by the nature of the Harvest who is caught between wanting to aid the Resistance and needing the latest fashionable facial sculpt in order to keep an ear on the comings and doings of the upper classes… (This is the sample character below).

Character creation is a mix of player choice, assigning points, and spending points. A player chooses his character’s social class, and then assigns a handful of points to his characteristics. These can be negative as well as positive, but player characters all start with a score of one in each characteristic. A larger pool of points is available to spend on Skills (divided between ordinary skills and speciality skills), Traits (or advantages), Privileges (social advantages), Augmentations, and Assets, while a few more points are available if a player decides to take some complications.

Name: Monica Flurinescu
Social Class: Upper
Age/Gender: 24/Female Vocation: Socialite
Build: Slim Hair/Eyes: Black/Green

Strength -2 Dexterity 1 Fortitude 1
Presence 3 Wits 2 Resolve 1

Derived Attributes
Initiative 5 Health 3

Common Skills
Act 2, Charm 4, Dance 3, Dodge 1, Empathy 4, Etiquette 3, Firearms 1, General Knowledge 2, Intimidate 2, Perception 2, Streetwise 1

Conversation 2, Cryptography 1, Fashion 2, High Society 2, Interrogation 1, Language (French) 1, Politics 1

Complications: Annoying House Mate, Glassjaw, Proper Sensibilities
Traits: Beautiful/1, Deduction/1, Drink Like a Fish, Natural Charisma/1
Privileges: Society Friends, Theatrical Patron
Assets: Wardrobe
Augmentations: Augmented Beauty/2

Some of the Augmentations available in the setting replicate Traits already, such as (Augmented) Beauty/Handsome and Mere Flesh Wounds, and so are slightly cheaper to purchase during character generation, whilst others are more outré, like All-Round Vision (eyes in the back of the head), Elongated Neck (works great for looking around corners or with the Bite Augmentation), and Webbed Digits. When a character has Augmentations installed, even during character generation, the GM has to roll a Surgery Test for each Augmentation, the skill of the surgeon being determined by the character’s social class. If this Test is failed, it can lead to medical complications, such the patient suffering from Tremors or Crossed Signals, the latter meaning that the Augmentation works, but its use triggers another involuntary action. If made successfully, it can mean that the result is Flawless – ordinarily no Augmentation can be grafted onto a patient without scars.

Beyond the actual surgery involved in their grafting, Augmentations involve other complications. The first is physical, in that they can suffer from Stress through extreme exertion, while the second is social, each class having a different attitude to the type and quality of Augmentations installed. For example, the lower castes despise the more frivolous types favoured by the elite whilst the elite revile the scarring associated with the quality of surgery available to the peasantry. Overall, the Augmentations have grotesqueness to them that comparable Steampunk devices never could.

Dark Harvest uses the same Heresy Game Engine first seen in Victoriana. It is a dice-pool system that uses both black and white dice, the pools usually created from adding an attribute and a skill together. Any roll that comes up a one or a six counts as a success, while any roll of a six can be re-rolled to generate yet more successes. The primary method of setting difficulty is by adding black dice to the pool, three black dice for a difficult task, six for a very difficult task, and so on. Any roll that comes up a one or a six on a black die reduces the total number of successes rolled. Fortunately, rolls of six on a black die do not get rolled again. The other method of setting the difficulty of a task is by modifying the total number of dice in the pool. Anyway, a single success rolled counts as a partial success, two rolled successes as an adequate success, three rolled as a good success, and so on.

The setting itself is supported with a full gazetteer for Promethea, which breaks country down region by region complete with a map for each region. It is a pity that these smaller regional maps could not have been in colour as the full map inside the front and cover. This full map is very nicely done, though I suspect that it is based upon a more contemporary map as Promethea’s neighbours include Yugoslavia, Slovenia, Ukraine, and others. For more flavour the RPG includes an anthology of five short stories that capture the desperation of the setting and some of key moments, horrid as they are. Mechanically, the setting is supported with details of creatures particular to Promethea (after all, how likely was it that her surgeons would place Augmentations in just humans?), plus a plethora of NPCs each accompanied by a story hook and a series of “Untold Tales” or scenario ideas.

Despite possessing a rich and evocative setting, Dark Harvest is not quite the fully rounded RPG that perhaps it should have been. Certainly there are more than enough hooks to overlook the lack of a scenario, but the lack of advice for the GM is more of issue as Dark Harvest is different from the atypical horror RPG, its gothic horror being born of scientific endeavour rather than from superstition and folklore. Some guidance towards that end would have been helpful as would a discussion of campaign ideas beyond the obvious one of having the player characters be members of the Resistance. Just as for the players, some character ideas and perhaps some sample characters might have also been useful.

Another issue not addressed the setting of Promethea is that of technology other than Frankenstein’s Gift. The DSF is given two signature weapons, but other weaponry is kept generic and so uninteresting. Other technologies are not even mentioned, leaving the GM to wonder if the setting is primarily one of early twentieth century biowear rather than the Steampunk so attached to the period – and to a certain extent to Victoriana itself. The option of course would for the GM to check out Victoriana for rules compatible ideas and its excellent supplement, Faulkner’s Millinery and Miscellanea, for possible equipment, but both of course have a fondness for fantasy and magic rather than the purely scientific pursuits to be found in the pages of Dark Harvest. Both of course, are also set in 1867 and not 1910… Indeed money is barely even mentioned in the setting and it seems odd that the prices for the weapons listed are given in sterling.

Physically, Dark Harvest is a nice looking book. The layout is kept clean and simple with some excellent illustrations, especially the pen and ink pieces that you just wish were accompanied by the full stats for each one as an NPC. If I have to quibble about the layout it is that the use of a non-serif fount looks anachronistic in places…

Now the idea of combining the biopunk genre in an altogether more mannered age is not new. Rippers for use with Savage Worlds explored some of the same elements, but to a pulpier, more simplistic end, that of monster hunting. Dark Harvest has its failings, most of which could be fixed with a companion volume, but otherwise, it is more interesting than Rippers, primarily because it draws from a deeper, more profound source. Ultimately, Dark Harvest: The Legacy of Frankenstein presents a grim alternate history, one born of pure scientific ambition perverted by vanity.

Saturday 3 September 2011

Tea, Taxes, & Terror

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... Flames of Freedom: Boston Besieged explores both of these conflicts by bringing the heroes to the city where the American Revolution began, presenting both a sourcebook for the city of Boston and a complete scenario set there.

In a way, Flames of Freedom: Boston Besieged is a sequel to game’s Colonial Gazetteer in that it presents both an area in greater detail previously explored in that a supplement and the first part of a campaign that is a sequel to the scenario presented in Colonial Gazetteer, "A Surprise for General Gage." It moves on the game’s timeline from 1775 into 1776, and thus deep into the efforts by the Colonists to throw of the over taxing yoke of the British Crown. The split between the source material and the scenario is one third for the former, two thirds for the latter. As ever the book lots of excellent period artwork that nicely captures the feel of the setting and while the writing is good, the book could have done with a closer edit. If there is a real issue with the book it is that the city map of Boston is too dark, especially the one given for the scenario, making the pertinent locations hard to find.

The section on Boston opens with a history that expands upon that given in the Colonial Gazetteer for the colony of Massachusetts, going from the area’s first colonial settlements in the 1620s up to the city being besieged. There is an understandable focus on the events that lead into the American Revolution, with the timeline projected through to the end of 1775 and into early 1776, so that once the scenario is begun, the GM can involve the player characters in future events, or at least keep informed as adventure progresses. The description of Boston itself covers not just every important or interesting location with the city, but also the fortifications that General Gage has ordered to be erected along her shores and the numerous islands within Massachusetts Bay.

Throughout this section many of the events and places are accompanied by one or more Adventure Seeds. For example, the player characters might have the opportunity to prevent the Boston Massacre with some adroit oratory, get involved in the Boston Tea Party, protect an occultist’s corpse, and encounter some very odd side effects of Smallpox. There are almost forty Adventure Seeds in Flames of Freedom: Boston Besieged, with about the right mix between the straight historical and the outré, that all together nicely extend the usefulness of the book and with some effort upon his part, can be used by the GM to add adventures aplenty between the parts of the campaign provided. These are in addition to the suggestions on how to carry on the included scenario.

The short scenario given in the Colonial Gazetteer, "A Surprise for General Gage," was designed to get the player characters to Boston. The adventure in Flames of Freedom: Boston Besieged, “The King’s Gambit,” begins with them in Boston itself, so the GM will have to find a way of getting them through the lines as it were. Through contacts the heroes learn that one Henry Jones wishes to hire true Patriots to help with the cause, leading to the first of several tasks and several encounters that increasingly involve the adventurers in the Secret History that will determine the future of the Colonies. More specifically, the scenarios will involve them in the Secret War that will determine the future of Boston, with the efforts of the heroes if successful, helping to bring about the taking of the city by Continental Army. In the process, they have to smuggle some leverage out of Boston; uncover some strangeness at a cemetery; and encounter both malign natives and a White Witch!

Each of the four individual scenarios in “The King’s Gambit” should take a session or two to complete. They focus very much on the game’s Secret History and that is no bad thing, as in the process they expose the player characters to both the good and the bad aspects of magic. The adventures are primarily combative and interpersonal in nature, but there are horror elements too, and over all they have a grim edge to them.

Flames of Freedom: Boston Besieged does a good job of getting what is the signature campaign for Colonial Gothic, off to start. It would be great to have a companion to this volume – perhaps a set of ready-to-play player characters and single, shorter scenarios to complement this first part of the campaign, but in the meantime, I am already looking forward to the next part, Flames of Freedom: The Philadelphia Affair.