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

Friday 30 December 2011

Quest for a Story

The traditional generic or multi-genre RPG is an attempt to provide an all-encompassing set of rules and mechanics that allow a GM to create and run, and the players to play, a roleplaying scenario or campaign in a setting of their choice. It can be set in any time, any place, and any genre, and the rules will often reflect this. This is either by trying to cover every detail or by trying to cover everything in broad swathes; the former approach often threatening to overwhelm the game in those details, whilst the latter can lose flavour as the details are glossed over. HeroQuest is a generic RPG with a difference. Published by Moon Design Publications, its approach is anything other than traditional, for it does not approach roleplaying in any genre mechanically, but instead approaches it narratively. At its heart is not the question,”Can I roleplay in this genre or setting?” Rather it is, “Can I tell a story through roleplay in this genre or setting?”

Designed by Robin D. Laws, HeroQuest originally appeared as Hero Wars and then HeroQuest, each in their own way strongly tied to the Glorantha of the RuneQuest setting. Indeed, this version of HeroQuest continues this association by including a “genre pack” for Glorantha – a genre pack being an information kit for the players about the setting or world that they will be gaming in – as an example. For the most part, this version of HeroQuest is divorced from Glorantha to give a generic set of rules, or as the rules state explicitly, a set of tools to tell a story.

HeroQuest’s primary means of approaching storytelling is changing how everything is defined. Although numbers do play a part of this definition, they only come after the important aspects of a character, a thing, or other part of the world is described in words. Just about anything can be described in this way and not necessarily in absolute terms, as in HeroQuest a player is encouraged to be more imaginative in terms of what his hero can do. So instead of “Fight with Sword,” a hero might have “Flashing Blade” or “My surroundings are my weapon.” During the game, the player is free to use the abilities however he wants if his GM accepts that his suggested use is applicable. So instead of the player saying, “I hit him with my sword,” he might instead say, “I try to impress Lady Beatrice by defeating Captain Raymond with a display of swordsmanship that humiliates him rather than hurts him, using my Flashing Blade ability.”

Also important here is the fact that the player explicitly states what he wants to achieve before his character attempts the action. This can be as simple as climbing up a rock face, as lengthy of setting out to woo the governor’s daughter, or as complex as “banging the bodyguards’ heads together before drawing their guns and emptying each weapon into their gangland boss.” All can be settled with a roll of the dice that quickly help both GM and player determine the outcome and move on. Relatively slight steps up in terms of complexity enables both GM and player to determine the degree of failure or success in Simple Contests and then Extended Contests, the latter actually a series of Simple Contests.

Once a player has set his objective, he decides upon the ability he will use and the GM will choose what will resist it. Both player and GM will each roll a twenty-sided die and compare the results to their respective abilities, results of 20 being a fumble and 1 being a critical success. For example, Gordon is playing “Delaware” Miller, archaeological adventurer, who is chasing his rival, the Belgian treasure hunter, Bernard Monami, and got aboard his lorry. Next he wants to reach around to the cab, pull open Monami’s door, and sock it to the Belgian across his smug jaw. “Delaware” is using his ability of “Determined Action” 3W – actually an ability rating of 23, but each point above 20 represents a level of Mastery – whilst the GM, Stef, decides that Bernard’s ability of “Escape the Clutches…” 1W is suited to the situation.

Both Gordon and Stef roll the dice. “Delaware” Miller gets a result of 5 and Stef a result of 11. Both rolled Successes, but although neither rolled a 1, “Delaware” Miller rolled lower than his rival and thus achieved a marginal victory. With this result, the GM could say that although has managed to swing into the cab, he did not land his wanted blow on Monami. Such a result is not good enough for “Delaware” and so Gordon brings into play the levels of Mastery that “Delaware” has in “Determined Action” 3W. Since Bernard also has a level of Mastery in “Escape the Clutches…” it cancels a level of Mastery that “Delaware” Miller has in “Determined Action,” reducing it to “Determined Action” 2W.

With the first level of Mastery, Gordon raises his result from a Success to a Critical Success, but with the second, he lowers Bernard’s Success to a Failure. With that result, the GM agrees that “Delaware” Miller has achieved his aim and narrates that into the story. Similarly, a character can use Hero Points to alter contest results in the same fashion.

If this was an Extended Contest, then this might just have been the first exchange, the aim for both “Delaware” and Bernard being to take control of the lorry and drive off with the artefact. In this case, Successes and more would gain each participant Resolution Points, the exchanges continuing until one side had acquired five or more and won the Extended Contest. As a general rule, the more interesting a contest is and the greater its importance as part of the story or scenario, the more the need for the more complex contests.

As in any RPG, in HeroQuest the loser in a Contest takes damage. It is usually expressed as levels of Impairment, and depending upon the nature of the Contest, this Impairment can be physical, mental, and social. Impairment can also affect a character’s relationships, whether that is romantic, business, political, criminal, and so on. Further, Impairment can have an effect on not just the relationship that a character has with his Community, but with the Community itself. HeroQuest goes into some detail about the creation and running of Communities, the creation process usually being conducted by the players collectively. Primarily, a Community is a resource that the characters can add to and draw upon, but it has a life of its own and if the characters use its resources badly, the characters can fall out of favour and have to find their way back into its good graces.

So far, so good. HeroQuest is clearly geared towards both imaginative play and players, and this continues with character generation. Three methods of character generation are given: Prose, List, and “As you go,” each one being easier than the former. Under the Prose method, a player writes a hundred word statement and underlines his character’s abilities and keywords; under the List method, the player chooses his character’s keywords and abilities; and with “As you go,” the player adds keywords as play progresses.

Of his character’s starting Abilities, a player choses one as his best and assigns it a score of 17, with the rest being set at 13. A player can then divide further 20 points between these abilities. It is possible to raise an ability’s rating above 20. In doing so, for each point above 20, the ability gains a level of mastery, represented by a notation using an orthogonal “W.” In fact, this symbol is the Mastery Rune from Glorantha. So if a player gave his character the ability Flashing Blade 23, he would actually have Flashing Blade 3W.

Our sample character is my current one from the Legends of the Five Rings campaign I am playing in, called The Silken Knot. To give you some comparison, I include his Legends of the Five Rings stats for comparison.

Yasuki Kiosho, Crab Courtier
Air: 3 (Awareness 3, Reflexes 3), Earth: 3 (Stamina 3, Willpower 3)
Fire: 2 (Intelligence, Agility), Water: 3 (Strength 3, Perception 3), Void: 2
Honour: 2.3, Status: 0.8, Glory: 1.0, Infamy 1.0 (Mantis), Insight: 157
School/Rank: Crab Courtier, Rank 2
Advantages: Clear Thinker (3), Forbidden Lore: (Cult of Ruhmal) (5), Inner Gift: Empathy (7), Language: (Rhuumal) (1), Seven Fortunes’ Blessing: Daikoku’s Blessing (4) Disadvantages: Black Sheep: Crab Clan (3), Black Sheep: Mantis Clan (3), Hostage (3), Lechery (3), Lost Love (3), Pyrophobia (1)
Skills: Art: Painting 1, Athletics 1, Calligraphy 1 (Crab Cipher), Commerce 3 (Appraisal), Courtier 3 (Manipulation), Defense 3, Etiquette 2, Intimidation 2 (Control), Investigation 1, Jiujitsu 1, Knives 1 (Kukri), Lore: Ivory Kingdoms 1, Lore: Mantis Clan 1, Lore: Cult of Ruhmal 1, Lore: Underworld 1, Sailing 1, Sincerity 2 (Deceit), Temptation 1 (Seduction)

As part of the campaign set up, it was necessary to create a background that in part explained his current situation. Some of this is implied in the character’s advantages and disadvantages, but to make it more explicit and to get his keywords and abilities for HeroQuest, I describe him in exactly one hundred words. As part of the process I underline the important aspects of him, thusly:

Yasuki Kiosho, Crab Clan courtier, is a mannered, but wily, sharp tongued and perceptive merchant. A Mantis Clan hostage, he sailed to the Ivory Kingdoms, there learning to use the flexible steel sword, the Urumi, and the Kukri knife to defend himself, and of the evil Cult of Ruhmal, a new threat to Rokugan. Back home, his lechery almost dishonoured him and Sayomi, his host, Yoritomo Chikao’s daughter, resulting in his being cast out. Now he works the underworld as a smuggler and hunts for the cult to redeem himself. Sometimes controlling, he can easily lie or spot a lie.

From this I derive his abilities and assign the points as described above. His key ability is “perceptive merchant,” which is set at 23 or 3W. The remaining fourteen points are distributed to reflect what the player feels to be important about Kiosho.

Yasuki Kiosho
The Job: mannered Crab Clan courtier 1W
Doing Stuff: perceptive merchant 3W, sailed to the Ivory Kingdoms 13, works the underworld 15, hunts for the cult 13, can easily lie or spot a lie 15, redeem himself 13
Social: Mantis Clan hostage 13, smuggler 13, lechery 13, almost dishonoured 13
Knowing Stuff: evil Cult of Ruhmal 13, Rokugan 13, Sometimes controlling 13, wily & sharp-tongued 13
Stuff I Own: flexible steel sword, the Urumi 13, Kukri knife to defend himself 15
People: Yoritomo Chikao 13 and Kisosho’s lost love daughter Sayomi 13

Despite HeroQuest’s simplicity, the rules that support that simplicity are explored in some depth. Whether this examining how modifiers work with character abilities, how healing works, or how to bring relationships into a game, the rules never really stray from helping the reader how they affect both the core Contest mechanic and the story. In fact, the author and thus HeroQuest is at its best when it discusses how the game should be played and how it should be narrated.

What HeroQuest does is make clear the differences between the story found in literature and that found in roleplaying. With a single controlling author, the story in literature rarely veers away from being a direct series of obstacles that the protagonists either overcome or fail to overcome. Whereas because the story in roleplaying has several authors, in other words, the fickle players, and because the use of dice to resolve obstacles, it can split away from the direct series of obstacles into branches of them. To counter the fickle nature, HeroQuest suggests adjusting the difficulty of the Contests according to the number that the characters have overcome so far. So the more Contests that they fail, the easier the GM needs to set the difficulty of the next Contest.

The concept that the story in roleplaying has multiple authors is continued in HeroQuest’s approach to narration. As is traditional in storytelling games – traditional in the sense that they have been around for more than a decade – HeroQuest suggests that narration should be a collaborative process involving the players as well as the GM. He is encouraged to look for opportunities to involve his players to the point of actually leaving gaps in the story so that the characters can pursue their own agendas. The advice takes a further step in suggesting that the GM be prepared to break the narration to rewind and re-interpret the outcome of a Contest if the players are unhappy with it. This is possibly narrative roleplaying at its more radical, and it is open to abuse by a domineering player. Still, as a means of re-writing the outcome of overcoming an obstacle is in keeping with the story based nature of HeroQuest.

Unfortunately, for a generic or multi-genre RPG, HeroQuest is disappointing in its treatment of actual genres. It discusses how to create the technical elements that would go into a genre pack for any setting, the ones that you would find in many roleplaying settings – occupations, creatures, cultures, magic, powers, religions, species, technologies, and so on. This is done through keywords, under which can be grouped a number of abilities. Keywords can also be used during character generation if the GM allows players to select cultures, occupations, and species. In each case, a fully worked sample is provided. Powers and magic require extra explanation for each genre pack, this explanation being organised into a framework that neatly sums the origins, limitations, and requirements of each power or type of magic. Whilst this is all technically useful, it still does not address any one particular genre.

Similarly, when it comes to the Glorantha genre pack, HeroQuest comes up short. The problem is that it focuses entirely on the magic of Glorantha and how the runes associated with that magic are interpreted along with a description of the various deities in Glorantha’s pantheons. Since many inhabitants of Glorantha understand these runes and many of them can cast magic, this is useful. Yet it does not offer any information beyond this. Which for an information kit that a genre pack is meant to be is decidedly disappointing.

The reason for the inclusion of the the Glorantha genre pack is to provide a means for players of Hero Wars and the previous edition of HeroQuest, which were both specifically tied to the Glorantha setting, to convert their games to the new edition and thus the more recent HeroQuest sourcebooks for Glorantha. Which is laudable, but it does not offer any information beyond this and that means that the last thing that anyone can do with this genre pack is start playing.

And the fact that neither the GM nor the players can get playing very quickly with a copy of HeroQuest is its main problem. For a generic or multi-genre RPG, the lack of sample genre packs that showcase how the game can do various genres seems an odd omission. Whilst HeroQuest has an abundance of examples throughout its pages, fully worked up genre packs in say the Fantasy, Horror, and Science Fiction genres would have helped cap all of those examples for the GM and given him something that he could have worked with right away.

Physically, HeroQuest is well written and in general, simply and clearly laid out. If there is a problem with the presentation it is in that some of the artwork is disappointing. Still, it is the writing that shines and that is profusely supported with innumerable and always useful examples.

At the heart of HeroQuest is the art of telling stories, an art that it supports with simple rules and mechanics that are illustrated with copious illuminating examples. In return, it asks more of both GM and players alike, not just in the act of telling a story, but also in trusting each other when the focus of the game is the narrative rather than absolute numbers. In removing those absolute numbers, HeroQuest is more flexible and more encompassing in the genres that it could tackle, and even though the genre support in this rulebook is itself weak, the rules themselves are pleasingly clear and easy to grasp. HeroQuest gives you the rules to which you only need to add your imagination to roleplay the story that you want to play.

Sunday 25 December 2011

The Ogrecave.com Christmas List

It has been vaguely traditional for the past decade that in the first weeks of December, OgreCave.com runs a series lists suggesting not necessarily the best board and roleplaying games of the preceding year, but the titles that you might like to receive and give. Breaking with that tradition – in that the following is just the one list and in that for reasons beyond our control, this list is not appearing at OgreCave.com – Reviews from R’lyeh would like present its own list. Further, as is also traditional, Reviews from R’lyeh has not devolved into the need to cast about “Baleful Blandishments” to all concerned or otherwise based upon the arbitrary organisation of days.

Nevertheless, Happy Gaming and enjoy the suggestions. Consider them perfect for purchase for yourself. If the world is to end in 2012 – and the denizens of Reviews from R’lyeh doubt that the stars have come right as yet – then at least enjoy a few last rolls of the dice with a favourite new game…

Elder Sign (Fantasy Flight Games), $34.95
For its third game of Lovecraftian investigative horror, Fantasy Flight Games brings us a co-operative dice game of battling the Mythos, monsters, and madmen at Arkham Museum where a concentration of eldritch artefacts have weakened the barriers that prevent the return of an Ancient One. Designed for between one and eight investigators, they must make the best use of their tools, allies, spells, and clues to locate Elder Signs if they are to re-seal the barriers between worlds and so prevent the Ancient One’s return. Fail to find the Elder Signs, and the Ancient One and his minions grow stronger until the investigators must face the Ancient One armed only with their stamina and their sanity. With sixteen investigators to choose from and eight different Ancient Ones to face, Elder Sign offers plenty of replay value as well as a challenge every time. Also available as an App.

Pathfinder Roleplaying Game Beginner Box (Paizo Publishing), $35
With this weighty box, Paizo Publishing enables you to get playing one of the most popular and certainly best supported of fantasy RPGs of recent years. Not only is it designed to get you playing quickly by letting you play one of the four pre-generated adventurers and reading up on them while the GM reads the first few encounters, but in the long term, it provides the rules needed to create a human, dwarf, or elf cleric, fighter, rogue, or wizard character and then take that hero from first up to fifth level. The GM gets just as much support, first with an introductory adventure, and then with advice on creating your own in a variety of environments, plus there are maps and tokens for both the characters and the monsters to help bring your adventurers to life on the table. With its slightly streamlined rules and some great art work, the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game Beginner Box is an attractively easy way into the hobby.

7 Wonders (Asmodée Éditions), $49.95
If there was one game that deserved to win the “Spiel des Jahres” (German “Game of the Year”) award in 2011, it was 7 Wonders, a civilisation themed card game that can be played with as many as seven players in forty-five minutes. It did not win the “Spiel des Jahres,” but it did win its new bigger brother award, the "Kennerspiel des Jahres" (roughly "Connoisseur-Enthusiast Game of the Year"). Played one card at a time over the course of three ages with players passing their card hands to their neighbour after every turn, 7 Wonders tracks up to seven ancient civilisations as they attempt to establish and trade for resources, build their militaries, enhance their cultures, advance their scientific knowledge, and of course, complete one of the wonders of the age. Not only is 7 Wonders a lovely looking game, its multiple paths to victory give it a high replay value.

Abney Park's Airship Pirates RPG (Cubicle Seven Entertainment), $49.99
In the Neo-Victorian era of 2150 AD, America has become a great wilderness, home to mammoths and sabre-toothed cats, criss-crossed by the tracks of the armoured railroads that connect Emperor Victor III’s walled cities within which nothing ever changes and within which his clockwork policemen ensure nothing ever changes. Freedom can only be found with the Neobedouins who cross the wilderness and aboard the vessels of the airship pirates that sail the skies ready to pounce from behind the clouds. Based on songs of the Seattle Steampunk band, Abney Park, in Airship Pirates the player characters take to the skies in command of a skyship, perhaps as a band or merchants or mercenaries, setting to discover the secrets of this Steampunk, Post-Apocalypse, Pirate, Time Travel RPG!

Paris Connection (Queens Games) $62.99
A surprisingly light game from hard core train game designer/publisher, Winsome Games, Paris Connection has been given an attractive new look by Queen Games. It is a track and share game played across France, the players building six networks out from Paris, connecting to the nation’s various towns, cities, and ports to increase the share value of each network. Every player begins with a hidden allotment of shares, but cannot hide the shares they pick up during the game, often necessary if they are to acquire any shares that are increasing in value. The clever, but still simple aspect of Paris Connection is that its wooden train pieces represent both track pieces and shares in each network, so eventually, every player must ask themselves, at what point do share/track pieces become more valuable as shares than as track? Answering that question will keep this lovely looking, light and quick filler game coming back to the table.

Bookhounds of London (Pelgrane Press), $34.95
The book has always been important to Lovecraftian investigative horror, but Bookhounds of London, written by Ken Hite for Trail of Cthulhu, brings it to the fore like never before. This is a campaign setting in which the investigators are bookhounds in Depression Era London, working the book trade for the “squiz” (an exquisite item in bookseller’s slang) that will keep the doors of their “fine books” shop open. With debts and death duties to pay, England’s finest families have ransacked their extensive libraries leading to the market being flooded with both mundane and esoteric titles. Are the bookhounds willing to make money on these, even if it means selling a copy of Unaussprechlichen Kulten to some all too ambitious occultist? These are the choices faced by the book sellers, all played out against fog bound haze of a city full of ancient secrets behind its bureaucratic indifference and metropolitan façade. Bookhounds of London is another seedily evocative campaign from the pen of Ken Hite and another fine book for Trail of Cthulhu.

Discworld: Ankh-Morkpork (Treefrog Games), $60
Lord Vetinari is dead! Or on holiday. Either way, this is your chance to take control of Ankh-Morkpork in what is Martin Wallace’s most a commercial game yet, being based on Terry Prachett’s Discworld novels. Designed for two to four players each with a secret personality and a secret aim – are they Chrysophrase the troll (who wants money), the Dragon King of Arms (who wants to be king again), Sam Vimes of the Guards (who literally does not want any trouble), or Vetinari himself (secretly returned to sniff out his rivals) – Ankh-Morkpork is an area control game in which every action is card driven with every card and its actions being designed around the Discworld personality on each card. Another great looking game, Discworld: Ankh-Morkpork has enough game play for the dedicated gamer and enough theme without too much complexity to be enjoyed by the Discworld fans too.

The One Ring: Adventures over the Edge of the Wild (Cubicle Seven Entertainment), $59.99
With Smaug and the Battle of Five Armies won, a kind of peace has come to the peoples of Northern Middle Earth. Dangers still lurk beyond the borders of civilisation, whether from the Orc-holds of the mountains or the deepest recesses of Mirkwood where a corrupting foulness resides to reach out again and taint the hearts of the free peoples… This is the setting for The One Ring, the latest RPG based on the works of J.R.R. Tolkien that focuses on character and culture, and on the fellowship that the characters form and becomes a character of its own as they progress. Notably, this is a fantasy RPG that does not include any magic casting player characters, but that is perfectly in keeping with Tolkien’s setting. Lastly, it comes as a beautiful rule set complete with maps and dice, all within a sturdy slipcase.

Ticket to Ride Map Collection: Volume 1 - Team Asia & Legendary Asia (Days of Wonder), $30
It has been a long wait since Switzerland for what the Ticket to Ride fan really wants: more maps with destinations to reach and routes to claim. With Ticket to Ride Map Collection: Volume 1 - Team Asia & Legendary Asia, you get not only two maps – on a double-sided board, but two different ways to play. François Valentyne's Legendary Asia map lets you take the long Silk Road or climb the high passes of the Himalayas with the new mountain routes. With Ticket to Ride’s designer Alan R. Moon's Team Asia map, you can add a sixth player by playing in teams of two working together to claim routes. Neither member of a team is allowed to talk strategy with the other, but they can hint at it by playing destination and train cards from their hands to a wooden card holder that both can see. With six of these card holders in this expansion, they can just easily be used in other Ticket to Ride titles or even other games!

The Legacy of Arrius Lurco (Miskatonic River Press), $29.95
In an age when the appearance of a campaign for Call of Cthulhu is a rare occurrence, 2011 brings us a campaign not for Call of Cthulhu, but for its Ancient Rome setting, Cthulhu Invictus. The investigators are asked to look into why wealthy patrician, Arrius Lurco, went missing in Crete years before and why he cannot recall what he did. Uncovering this mystery and the mystery of Lurco’s strange behaviour will take the investigators across the Empire to reveal an ancient horror behind a creature born of legend and a cult prepared to move against the investigators as they uncover its secrets. This is a very different Call of Cthulhu campaign, involving more classic detective work than sifting through dusty libraries, and some quite, quite horrible moments for investigators and players alike. Not a campaign for the timid or anyone looking for an easy game, The Legacy of Arrius Lurco is not only the best campaign for Call of Cthulhu for years, but it also sets the standard by which all future Cthulhu Invictus titles will be measured.

Stars Without Number Core Edition (Mongoose Publishing), $39.99
One of the very few Science Fiction RPGs to come out of the “Old School Renaissance,” Stars Without Number is far from an old school RPG. Rather it is an “Edition Zero” tool kit that comes with everything necessary to both play and build a campaign of the GM’s creation, whether that is set within one of his devising or the setting provided. This is set in the far future in an age of recovery following a long collapse. There are old worlds to be re-discovered, new dangers that have taken advantage of the chaos to be faced, and secrets of the pre-Scream Golden Age to be revealed. Supported by extensive advice and ideas, Stars Without Number is the perfect RPG for exploring a Science Fiction “sandbox.”

Cosmic Patrol (Catalyst Game Labs), $24.99
Inspired by the Golden Age broadcast Science Fiction of Tom Corbett, Space Cadet and X MINUS ONE as well as the writings of Robert A. Heinlein, Poul Anderson, and E.E. “Doc” Smith, Cosmic Patrol is a light storytelling RPG in which the characters are stalwart members of the Grand Union’s last line of defence against a dangerous universe. As Patrolmen, they crew rocketships sent out to explore the galaxy, to investigate its strange phenomena, protect the Solar System, and respond to emergencies as necessary. The mechanics are kept light with everyone taking it turn to narrate scenes in the current adventure with heroics being encouraged. Plus the little rulebook is a work of art itself, looking exactly like a handbook for the Cosmic Patrol itself.

Saturday 24 December 2011

The Indigo Ivory Depths

Tony Dowler is best known as the cartographer who developed, How to Host A Dungeon, a toolkit that enabled the GM to create an ancient dungeon complete with history, inhabitants, denizens, treasures, and more. He also draws micro-dungeons along a series of different themes, each a quirky little affair often drawn in both two dimensions and three isomorphic dimensions. Now he an actual dungeon adventure that you purchase: The Purple Worm Graveyard.

Published through his Planet Thirteen Games, The Purple Worm Graveyard is a mini-dungeon of just fifteen locations designed for a party of first through third levels. It is written for use with Labyrinth Lord, but can just as easily be used with other “Edition Zero” fantasy RPGs. Equally, it can be dropped easily into most worlds and even added as easily to most dungeons, and presents a thoughtful challenge that should provide an evening’s worth of interesting play, either as part of a campaign or as a one-shot.

The purple worm graveyard of the title is said to lie below the barren Rockspyre Mountains. It is thought to be where the largest and most ancient of purple worms go when they approach the end of their lives. Commonly thought to be a legend, it is rumoured that the graveyard itself holds an untold treasure of purple worm ivory. Now, a sage has discovered its location and hired the adventurers to travel there, confirm its location, and explore its limits.

The purple worm graveyard actually turns out to be located beyond another underground complex, this one a temple devoted to an ancient worm god. Its influence spreads outside of the temple, such that at certain times, the players can commune with it, fall under its spell, and of course, be driven to madness. The god itself does not make an appearance in the scenario, but its presence adds a pleasing eldritch element to the proceedings.

In addition, The Purple Worm Graveyard adds a set of “Dungeon Moves” mechanics. This provides a table that the DM can roll against to gain a die modifier for a particular situation. As is traditional, the scenario adds a new monster and a new treasure or two. The monsters are variations upon creatures that we have seen before, are but feel perfectly suited to the dungeon, whilst the new treasures are thoughtful if simple little affairs.

At just twelve pages long, The Purple Worm Graveyard is a quick and easy read. In places it takes a moment to ascertain exactly what a certain rule is for or how it pertains to the adventure, but this becomes clear relatively quickly. The booklet is nicely illustrated, and the map feels pleasingly heavy. That said, the map, located on the inside of the card sleeve, could have done with more detail, but what detail there is, is excellent.

Ultimately, The Purple Worm Graveyard is an entertaining, pocket friendly dungeon. It would work well with most “Edition Zero” fantasy RPGs, but given its eldritch feel, then it would work well with Lamentations of the Flame Princess’ Weird Fantasy Role-Playing. Nicely themed, requiring just a little thought or so to overcome its challenges, The Purple Worm Graveyard is a charmingly petite adventure.

Saturday 17 December 2011

Threatened Empires

Ruined Empires: An Adventure for Abney Park’s Airship Pirates is the first release for Abney Park’s Airship Pirates RPG Based on the Songs of “Captain” Robert Brown, Cubicle Seven Entertainment’s Steampunk, Post-Apocalypse, Pirate, and Time Travel RPG. This is a scenario in three parts designed for three to six players which can be completed in two good sessions, or three if your players like to take their time. It involves an assignment with menaces, a treasure hunt, ravenous beasts, a stylish MacGuffin, a chase, a betrayal, and more!

It opens with the player characters in the Skyloft known as “Jewel of the Skies,” Isla Aether, dining upon the best deep fried that money can buy! They are approached by an aide to the Skyloft’s dissolute governor and asked politely and pointedly if they would like to go on a treasure hunt for him. He needs funds and he has a genuine treasure map. Getting to where “X Marks the Spot” is nary a challenge, but once on the ground, the player pirates must deal with wild and hungry beasts; rival, if not potential allied treasure hunters; and the somewhat soggy nature of the site. There is a decent amount of treasure available if the characters decide to stick around and search.

Once back in the air there is opportunity for an aerial fight, but this is against a difficult foe and the inference is that they should run for it. Having returned to Isla Aether, they discover that the fortunes of the employer have been reversed and their own with it. All too quickly, they find themselves slung behind bars and having to engineer not only their escape, but also having to engineer a change of government.

Ruined Empires is for the most part a fairly straightforward adventure. The authors give advice here and there as to how to stage various scenes and give pointers as to where a GM might insert a scene or encounter of his own devising. There is also an opportunity for the GM to place in the hands of the player pirates the MacGuffin of all MacGuffins, if he has not yet done so. That given that this is the first title released as support for Airship Pirates and the supplement supporting said use of the MacGuffin of all MacGuffins is yet to be released, it well be a bit early in a campaign for the GM to introduce that…

Physically, Ruined Empires is a nice looking book. The cartography is clear and simple, and the artwork attractive. The writing is good and is more than flavoursome in places, especially when adding colour and detail to the adventure’s setting and personalities. If there is an issue with Ruined Empires, it is that its starting and ending location could have been more detailed so that a GM could have used it beyond the length of the adventure.

If all goes well, at the end of Ruined Empires the pirate characters should have added a little to their coffers and made an ally or two. Of course, it could go the other way and they be rewarded with enemies and penury for their failures. Along the way it will have further shown how the rules work and given the GM some colourful NPCs to add to his game. Whilst a book of adventures, a campaign, or some other support would have been welcome, Ruined Empires: An Adventure for Abney Park’s Airship Pirates is a solid, uncomplicated affair that should slot into most Airship Pirates campaigns.

Wednesday 14 December 2011

Freeport in Peril

Freeport: City of Adventure, the very setting that heralded the arrival of the d20 System and third party support for Dungeons & Dragons, Third Edition is over a decade old now. We saw our very first glimpse of this pirate island nation back in 2000 with the release by Green Ronin Publishing of the classic scenario, Death in Freeport, and in the decade since, the city and its environs has been supported with sourcebooks and scenarios, and a campaign, as well as companion guides for running the setting using a variety of different rule sets, including Savage Worlds, Dungeons & Dragons, Fourth Edition, Castles & Crusades, the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game, and True20. All of these, bar Savage Worlds, it should be noted, being variants of Dungeons & Dragons in one form or another. Of late, the Freeport: City of Adventure setting has received little in the way of support, but since it is a personal favourite, it was pleasing to note that there has been one scenario for it this year, Peril in Freeport.

Published by Adamant Entertainment through Cubicle Seven Entertainment, Peril in Freeport is for use with the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game. It is written for a party of characters of between sixth and eighth level, each of whom should get a level’s worth of experience from playing through the adventure. To get all of the details of the monsters that appear in Peril in Freeport, the GM will need access to a copy of the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game Bestiary as the main villains of the piece are fully described there. He will also find a copy of the Freeport Companion: Pathfinder Edition useful, although it is not totally necessary as much of the action in the adventure actually takes place away from the city itself. Indeed, this is such that a GM could easily place the events and plots of this scenario around any island chain or archipelago within his own campaign world. Of course, as a setting, Freeport: City of Adventure is designed to be dropped into most fantasy worlds. The scenario does not specify that any particular class is needed to play through it, but the player characters will find the Perception, Profession: Sailor, and Swim skills to be useful. Of course, this being a Freeport adventure, the adventurers are more than likely to end up under water and so will need a means of breathing once submerged.

Peril in Freeport opens with a bang, or rather a wave! The city being struck by tidal is a sign that it is in danger again, but a more insidious threat appears when the adventurers come upon a Halfling, desperately in need of a good cup of tea, who has been shipwrecked after the vessel he was travelling aboard was attacked. He suspects that both his family and the ship’s crew have disappeared and offers a reward for their safe return. Tracking the culprits down puts the adventurers on the track of a conspiracy to sink ships sailing in and out of Freeport, and then a slaving ring, and then eventually a really big bad!

As an adventure, Peril in Freeport involves lots of sailing and swimming and sneaking and fighting. In fact, this is a more physical adventure than a cerebral one, but given the piratical nature of the setting, an action orientated adventure is fitting. During the first few chapters there are plenty of breaks during which the GM could insert adventures of his own devising. In fact, it might be a good idea for the GM to add them as the scenario’s plot could be a little linear in nature.

Physically, Peril in Freeport is good in places and bad in others. Certainly both the art and the cartography are good, while the editing veers towards the bad in places. Also, presenting the book using a serif rather than a sans serif fount might have made it easier to read. Similarly, some GMs might object to having the adventure’s monsters all in one place in a large appendix at the back of the book due to the need to flip back and forth between the adventure’s text and its monsters.

Lastly, given the fact that much of the scenario takes place away from the city of Freeport, its title of Peril in Freeport does not feel wholly apt. Now, the convention when naming scenarios for Freeport: City of Adventure is to use some kind of threat word followed by “…in Freeport.” Hence, Death in Freeport, Crisis in Freeport, and of course, Peril in Freeport. Yet, the nature of the scenario means that “Freeport in Peril” feels far more appropriate.

Over all, this is a solid affair that should present no difficulty to the GM in adapting to the other RPG rules that support Freeport: City of Adventure. Once under way, Peril in Freeport should provide a gaming group with several solidsessions of straightforward action and adventure – more if the GM adds his own adventures.

Friday 9 December 2011

Old School Distilled

Originally published by Fantasy Games Unlimited in 1977, Chivalry & Sorcery was written as response to the medieval fantasy of Dungeons & Dragons. Instead its focus was medieval chivalry and roleplaying in a feudal society, though one that did not wholly ignore fantastic elements such as magic and non-human races. Since then, the game has gone through a number of editions, never quite losing its reputation for possessing complex rules, but now it has been out of print for almost a decade. Almost thirty-five years on from its original release, Brittannia Game Designs Ltd. is re-releasing Chivalry & Sorcery Essence, the revised introduction to the game.

Available as a forty-five page, 6.78 Mb PDF, Chivalry & Sorcery Essence comes with everything necessary to play. This includes rules for character generation, combat, and magic, equipment, skirmishes, a setting, and an introductory scenario. The rules themselves are supported with examples throughout.

Character creation in Chivalry & Sorcery Essence involves rolling dice to generate the numbers to assign to attributes, and then choosing a Social Class and a Vocation. A character’s Social Class provides some base skills, some skill points to spend on skills, one or more attribute bonuses, and some equipment and money. His Vocation will grant extra skills. The process is quick and easy, with the five Social Classes given – Serf, Freeman, Townsman, Guildsman, and Noble combining easily with the eight Vocations, Warrior, Forrester, Bandit, Thief, Friar/Priest/Shaman, Mage, Physician, and Mountebank to give the players plenty of choice. For example, Wilf of Gotham is a serf who had to fight for his lord in France. He was injured in battle and lost his right ear. The injury denied him the opportunity to loot the enemy and he has returned to England almost as penniless as when he left. Not wanting to return to the farm, he still knows that he has little choice but to continue serving his lord. Wilf is renowned for his prestigious strength.

Wilf of Gotham
Social Class: Serf Vocation: Warrior
Strength 20 Constitution 15 Agility 15
Intelligence 8 Wisdom 13 Discipline 13
Appearance 6 Bardic Voice 8 Piety 10
Body Points 35
Fatigue 35
Skills: Bargaining 1, Brawl 2, Craft (Carpentry) 1, Craft (Farming) 2, Detect 1, Dodge 2, Flail 2, Language (English) 1, Language (French) 1, Knife 1, Willpower 1
Equipment: Threshing flail, clothes he is wearing, and two days’ worth of food

Mechanically, Chivalry & Sorcery Essence relatively straightforward. To do anything, a character needs to roll under a target number with a twenty-sided die. The target is invariably the total of an appropriate attribute plus any suitable skills, bonus, or penalties. Higher rolls are better than lower ones, and a critical result is scored if a character rolls the target number exactly. The penalties are quite harsh though, running from -1 for even a “Very Simple” task up to -24 for a “Seemingly Impossible” task. These penalties are worse if a character does not have the required skill for a target and will vary according to how much it costs to buy a level in that skill. For example, if Wilf had to swim across a still pond on a warm day, a “Very Simple Action,” he would suffer a -2 penalty to his Constitution before he rolled against it. The Swim skill is cheap to buy though, a much harder task such as identifying even a relatively common poison for someone without the skill would face a -9 penalty.

Combat uses the basic mechanic, but adds a number of factors in. The number of attacks or Blows a character can make per round or minute is determined by the Weapon Class of his chosen weapon and his Agility. Lighter weapons are much faster. So for example, if Wilf attacked with a knife, he could attempt to stab his opponent five times in a minute because it is classed as a Light weapon. Wilf’s threshing flail is much heavier and thus much slower, so he can only make three Blows with it. Critical Successes with swung weapons or a defensive manoeuvre such as Dodge, weapon parry, or Shield use cause an opponent to be bashed backwards with the chance that he might fall over. Making a defensive manoeuvre requires the expenditure of a Fatigue point or the foregoing of the defender’s next Bash.

Damage inflicted is determined by the weapon type, half of a character’s Strength, and by how well he rolled. Both armour and shield reduce this damage, with any leftover being deducted from an opponent’s Fatigue and then his Body Points. Critical successes on an attack mean that the damage is deducted from the Body Points instead. For example, Wilf, facing a French knight in combat, must roll under his Strength plus Flail skill, plus a bonus from his Craft (Farming) skill, for a target of 23. He rolls 19, getting a Critical Success (target numbers over 20 grant better Critical Success ranges), whilst the knight chooses to try and get his small reinforced shield in the way of the farmer’s weapon and does so with an 11. Wilf inflicts a maximum damage on the knight, some 24 points! Fortunately, the knight’s shield and coate of plates armour stops 13 of that, but the remaining 11 points are deducted from his 30 Body Points. In addition, Wilf’s Critical Success inflicts extra damage which is not stopped by the armour, losing him another 8 points from his Body Points. Lastly, the knight was hit by a swung weapon on a Critical Success and must roll against his Agility to remain standing. On a result of a 16 he fails and is knocked to the ground, losing another horrible 10 points from his Fatigue. At this point, the knight is down, has lost half of his Body Points and a third of his Fatigue. The knight might not be out of the fight, but he is at a serious disadvantage!

Magic use in Chivalry & Sorcery Essence varies according to the type. Prayer and Shamanism both use the Piety attribute and the Prayer skill as the basis for the Target, with the actual Difficulty Factor being determined by the prayer being made. In addition, any Prayer attempt also costs a priest Fatigue which increases for each extra Prayer made. In general, Prayers are low and supportive in nature, such as Bless, Lay on Hands, or holding a Mass. Shamanistic prayers are not regarded as being civilised and let a shaman Converse with Spirit, Purify Blood to remove disease or poison, or Animate the Dead, for example.

Magic itself is more complex, each mage having a limited number of Spell Points with which to spend on spells that he knows. Actually casting a spell will cost him Fatigue – and even Body Points if he casts too many, modified by his Magic skill and his Spell Focus. This Spell Focus, a device such as a ring, staff, or wand, also allows a Mage to store fatigue for use in spell casting. In addition, extra Fatigue can be spent to enhance a spell’s range, duration, intensity, and the number of people affected. The mage also receives the longest list of spells, from which he must choose carefully. Further spells can be purchased with Experience Points.

Alternatively, a mage could use the Enchant spell to implant other spells into devices. This is expensive, not only in terms of the materials required – which can actually resist the enchantment attempt, but also in terms of the mage’s Magic Skill. The mage actually expends Magic Skill levels to carry out the enchantment.

Our sample mage is an itinerant book binder who travels from court to court repairing books. This enables him to look for interesting works, not only to read, but also to copy for their spells. He also works as a tutor and translator when his book binding are not required. He learned his magic from his first master with whom he travelled to Paris.

Richard le Lieur
Social Class: Guildsman Vocation: Mage
Strength 10 Constitution 10 Agility 11
Intelligence 18 Wisdom 10 Discipline 14
Appearance 10 Bardic Voice 8 Piety 6
Body Points 25
Fatigue 20
Spell Points 18 (9)
Spells Known: Charm, Light, Sense Magic, Strike
Skills: Craft (Book Binding) 2, Detect 2, Dodge 1, History 1, Language (English) 2, Language (French) 1, Language (Latin) 1, Lore (Astronomy) 1, Magic 2, Read/Write (English) 2, Read/Write (French) 1, Read/Write (Latin) 1, Sword 1, Willpower 1
Equipment: Suit of clothes, two shillings, a sword, book binding tools, and spell focus ring

The GM receives little advice in Chivalry & Sorcery Essence bar some suggestions as to alternative skill use. He does get though, a short bestiary and a set of ready-to-play heroes and villains, both of the latter with a set of adjustments to make any one of them more of a challenge. There is also a setting in the form of “Darken Expansion,” which is taken from the publisher’s The Dragon Reaches of Marakush campaign setting. The nation of Darken is ruled by the Great Queen Dragon Shugaloth, who is attempting to establish a feudocracy despite the temples devoted to her wanting to maintain a theocracy in her name. Shugaloth’s chancellor, the lich known as Ingravain funds the “The Queen’s Falconeers,” not to support a sport that she has no interest in, but as his personal spies and enforcers. Used to check the efforts of the temple, it is suggested that the player characters be members of this group.

Darken is also home to other races including Orcs, Goblins, Hobgoblins, and Dark Elves. These are available as player character races. Two new Social Classes are available, the Darken Warrior, more slave and militia overseer than true warriors; and the Mystic, which combines elements of the Priest and the Mage Vocations. This is continued with the Shaman Vocation, which gives a character access to both prayers and spells.

Chivalry & Sorcery Essence also includes a scenario, “The Serpent Of Paun-I-Tawe,” which takes place in a village in a border region recently annexed by Darken. Its set up is that the player characters are forced to stop at the village due to bad weather and must find shelter either with the villagers who resent being occupied by Darkic soldiers or with the soldiers who prefer to be stationed elsewhere. Into this situation will enter a thief prepared to take advantage of the tensions between the soldiers and villagers.

The problem with the scenario is that it is entirely possible for the player characters to wander through unaware of what is really going on. Now this intentional, the idea being that the characters should be the stars of their own particular stories and that often, there will be events going on in which they are only marginally involved in, and never get to see the whole picture. Whilst this is laudable in a longer campaign, in a short scenario, especially in one designed to introduce and showcase the new edition of your RPG, this is a mistake. The GM needs to get his players involved in the scenario as quickly possible and then keep them involved. Otherwise the likely result is that the players will not have been involved enough to play again.

The other reason why this was the wrong scenario to include is that it has very few ties to setting background given in Chivalry & Sorcery Essence. Had there been a scenario included that involved members of “The Queen’s Falconeers,” then the player characters would have had more of a drive to explore this or any other scenario.

Rounding out Chivalry & Sorcery Essence is a quick and dirty means of handling skirmish combat, plus a character sheet, a guide to character generation, and a sample character. Surprisingly for a supplement of this size, Chivalry & Sorcery Essence actually comes with an index!

Physically, Chivalry & Sorcery Essence is nicely illustrated and generally well presented. It could have been slightly better organised though, as some of the elements of the game are explained before the rules for them. For example, how arms and armour work is explained before combat. It does need a closer edit too.

Putting aside the poor choice of scenario – and it should be made clear that it is not necessarily a bad scenario, but rather not a suitable for either an introductory product or the background given – there is much to like about Chivalry & Sorcery Essence. Neither the rules nor the mechanics suffer from the complexity that Chivalry & Sorcery is supposed to suffer from. They are instead a nicely balanced mix of simplicity and brutalism, with a magic system that firmly and successfully aims for low fantasy rather than high. Overall, Chivalry & Sorcery Essence is a pleasing introduction to the game’s mechanics.

Sunday 4 December 2011

An Electronic Elder Sign

If you play board games, owning a good smart phone or a tablet is an excellent device to add to your games collection. Although neither will replace the social aspects of playing a board game nor the pleasure of handling a game’s physical components, a good version of a board game adapted to either device will capture exactly the feel and tactics of its play whilst handling the game’s mechanics. Such a good version should also offer solo play as well as play against other opponents, or if a co-operative game, allow the participants to play together. The version of Rio Grande Games’ Carcassonne adapted by exozet games is excellent example of the former, whilst Elder Sign: Omens is an excellent example of the latter. It is available on the Android and iOS platforms, this review having been done on an Android tablet.

As the title suggests, Elder Sign: Omens is the electronic adaptation of Elder Sign, the third co-operative board game of Lovecraftian investigative horror published by Fantasy Flight Games. Where Elder Sign has up to eight investigators exploring Arkham Museum to prevent the strange goings on that herald the coming of an Ancient One such as Azathoth, Cthulhu, or Yog-Sothoth, Elder Sign: Omens has a team of up to four investigators exploring Arkham Museum to prevent the strange goings on that herald the coming of the Ancient One known as Azathoth.

The game has the intrepid investigators visiting the various parts of the museum, some of which might lead to other dimensions, and casting glyphs that will counter to stop the strange goings on in each location. The investigators will each have their own special ability that will help them in this casting as various spells, items, and clues that in turn enable then investigators to hold onto glyphs between castings, add more glyphs, and re-cast the gylphs. If successful, the investigators can gain more spells, items, and clues as well as the all-important Elder Signs that they need to accumulate in order to prevent the coming of Azathoth. If unsuccessful, the investigators can suffer deleterious effects to their health and sanity; have monsters appear particular locations that need to be dealt with before the tasks there can be attempted; and let Azathoth gain more of the Doom Tokens that mean that the Outer God is closer to Earth.

Elder Sign: Omens begins by asking the players to assemble an investigation team, either by selecting from one of the sixteen available or by taking a random team. Each of the investigators is illustrated and is accompanied by a description of his or her ability. For example, Harvey Walters can alter Terror glyphs to Lore glyphs, whilst Carolyn Fern is a Psychologist who can help restore her own Sanity or that of another investigator. From there, the investigators can proceed to the Museum itself, shown by a map upon which are marked the first of the game’s many bizarre incidents. These can be scrolled through and examined before going there, enabling the players to make a choice as to which ones they tackle.

At each incident, an investigator will be confronted by one or more tasks. Sometimes these have to be done in a certain order, but most can be completed in any order. Either way, only a single task can be completed with a single casting of glyphs. These are cast to match the symbols on each task, the glyphs either being used to match the symbols or re-cast to get the ones needed. Re-casting the glyphs is usually done at the cost of losing a glyph on the next casting. Consistent quickly leads to the investigator failing to deal with the incident and suffering various effects as described above.

The players need to accumulate fourteen Elder Signs if they are to prevent the coming of Azathoth, who only needs to gain twelve Doom Signs. This is not an easy task, especially if monsters appear that make tasks more difficult or even prevent glyphs from being cast until they are dealt with. In addition to the growing number of Doom Tokens, a sense of urgency is built into the game with a clock that regularly strikes midnight and heralds further terrible effects such as more monsters appearing or Azathoth acquiring yet more Doom Tokens. The players’ choice of investigators will ease or hinder this task, with investigators who can re-cast glyphs tending to be easier to use, if not being more useful. With sixteen investigators to choose from, Elder Sign: Omens has the capacity for the players to experiment to get the right combination of investigators that they are happy to explore the museum with.

Physically, Elder Sign: Omens is very well presented. The artwork, much of it seen in previous games of Lovecraftian investigative horror from Fantasy Flight Games, is used to great effect with some of it animated as certain events occur. In fact, on a tablet device, the artwork is better presented than in the actual Elder Sign board game, where the artwork, although very good, is too small to be really appreciated. Elder Sign: Omens also handles the physical mechanics of the game, such as the clock striking midnight and the appearance of new incidents, with a pleasing deftness that makes the game flow uninterrupted. Together, the removal of these mechanical processes away from the players’ gaze and the removal of the clutter of components that can be an issue in Fantasy Flight Games titles, combined with the use of the map to guide the investigators around the museum serve to give Elder Sign: Omens something akin to a narrative flow, which unfortunately, is somewhat lacking in the board game itself.

If anyone has played the Elder Sign board game, they will notice certain differences between it and Elder Sign: Omens. Most obvious is that fact in casting the glyphs to attempt tasks, the players are not actually rolling dice as they are in the board game, but the removal of the dice gives the play of the game much more an immediacy. The other noticeable differences between Elder Sign and Elder Sign: Omens are that only the one Ancient One is ever faced in the current version of Elder Sign: Omens and that it is not possible for the investigators to have Allies in Elder Sign: Omens as they can in Elder Sign. Neither of these should be seen as actual omissions, but rather as a streamlining that eases the flow of the game.

The final major difference is that in Elder Sign it only matters whether the investigators prevented Azathoth from coming to Earth or not, whereas in Elder Sign: Omens, not only does that matter, but so does how well they did. At the end of each game, the performance of the investigators, and thus the players, is scored. The game keeps a record of the scores, so everyone can check to see how well they have done.

For anyone new to the game, Elder Sign: Omens comes complete with a tutorial that guides you through the game with the aid of a nicely ominous voiceover – this voiceover also narrates various events throughout the game. To chilling effect. The tutorial itself needs careful attention to fully grasp how the game is played, and is probably worth watching again after at least one full play through of the game. Fortunately, the tutorials can be reset to watch again. Overall though, anyone who has played Elder Sign will have an easier time in playing Elder Sign: Omens than someone who has not.

As a playing experience, Elder Sign: Omens is an excellent solo experience. It also plays well with two participants, their discussing various courses of action and deciding what each investigator will do and what each will do with their glyphs. With more players, the game slows a little essentially because everyone is sat around a small screen and the decision making process takes a little longer. Nevertheless, having the tablet makes the game feel faster and slicker, as well containing everything needed in one easy to hold package.

Just like the board game it is based on, Elder Sign: Omens offers a pleasing balance between decision making and luck, the latter in the form of the casting of the glyphs. As an adaptation, it is a polished and assured version of Elder Sign, one that every fan of Lovecraftian gaming should enjoy. Is Elder Sign: Omens a sign of things to come that other Fantasy Flight Games titles might be appearing in electronic format?

Saturday 3 December 2011

A Cthulhu Christmas

So let me open up with a confession. I am not fond of Christmas. I do not enjoy Christmas. I never want to hear a Christmas carol or a Christmas song ever again. I do not believe that there is anything special about Christmas dinner. Now, having confessed all of that, I would expect that you, my gentle and occasional readers, to apply to me the appellation of “Scrooge.” Whether or not I am deserving of such a label is for you to decide, but what I do like about Christmas is giving gifts. The wrapping of gifts is another matter, but I like taking the time to choose the right gift and hoping that I get it right. So, what exactly am I doing writing a review of an advent calendar?

The clue is in the name – the Cthulhu Christmas Calendar.

Now this is not the traditional type of advent calendar constructed of card with twenty-five little doors to open and reveal both a pretty picture and a piece of chocolate to consume, and not always a good piece of chocolate at that. Instead, the Cthulhu Christmas Calendar is an App, an application such as a small, dedicated program that can be downloaded and run on the smart mobile device of your choice. Which explains in part why the Cthulhu Christmas Calendar does not come with chocolate, because after all, anyone who had worked how to do digital chocolate would not be producing weirdly themed Christmas Apps and would instead have either sold the rights to digital chocolate for big money, or be selling digital chocolate and making even bigger money. In the meantime, the publishers of this App, Red Wasp Design, are designing Call of Cthulhu: The Wasted Land, a turn-based strategy/role-playing video game set during the Great War and based on Call of Cthulhu. That though, is by the by…

As an App, the Cthulhu Christmas Calendar is available for your iPhone, your iPod, your iPad, and your Android device. I bought and downloaded mine to a pair of devices, both for the Android platform. First my smart phone, an HTC Wildfire S, and then my tablet, a Motorola Xoom. Both downloaded readily and installed without any problem. The interface will need to be stretched in order to be viewed on a tablet, but this affects the resolution of the calendar only ever so slightly. Having it two devices means that both myself and my girlfriend can enjoy this in cackling competition.

So, having installed it, what then is the Cthulhu Christmas Calendar?

It is both an advent calendar and a quiz. Touching great Cthulhu’s looming head reveals a swirl of numbers, running as you would expect from one to twenty-five. These of course match dates of your traditional advent calendar and on each new day, touching the appropriate number reveals a new piece of artwork and a related question with three answers. So for the accompanying artwork, the question is “This hopeful beast is posting a letter to Santa, but who created it and its ilk?”

Select the right answer and you will score a point. Come December the 25th and all of the points are tallied to get your Mythos Rating. Every good Cthulhu Cultist should get twenty-five out of twenty-five, but the Cthulhu Christmas Calendar lets the user reselect his answer until he gets the right one. Which to be fair makes getting an enhanced Mythos Rating in the Cthulhu Christmas Calendar a whole lot easier for the Cthulhu Clot!

So what is there to like about the Cthulhu Christmas Calendar if you are more the Cthulhu Clot than the Cthulhu Cultist? That question is simple to answer – the artwork. Which is not to say that the Cthulhu Cultist will not enjoy the art work, as he will. Red Wasp Design has taken all of the Christmas imagery that people seem to like – Christmas pudding, Christmas trees, mistletoe, and more, and through a process of coagmentation, coalescence, and commingling has intermingled them with the Mythos of author, H.P. Lovecraft – tentacles, cultists and cultist celebrations, a gibbous moon, eldritch entities, and more… All to be revealed as the season progresses. The result is that every day, the Cthulhu Christmas Calendar adds a joyous subversive slithering and an ichorously interesting anomaly to the baleful blandishments that blight the season.

Merry Christmas? I think not.

Rocket's Red Glare!

There is something just so cool about strapping on a jet pack, putting on a be-finned faceless helm, grabbing your Mauser C-96 automatic pistol, and once dressed, leaping into the air on a jet of flame. Whether it is the Republic serial, King of the Rocket Men or its graphic novel adaptation from Innovation Comics, or the late Dave Stevens’ The Rocketeer, both the comic book and the movie, the “rocket man” is one of my favourite Pulp action archetypes. It is so iconic of the two-fisted, Pulp action genre that it appears again and again in numerous Pulp genre RPGs, so it is no surprise that it gets a supplement all of its very own for Triple Ace Games’ Daring Tales of Adventure line. True, Daring Tales of Adventure: Rocket Rangers is a short supplement at just ten-pages, but it includes just about everything that a GM needs.

Triple Ace Games’ Daring Tales of Adventure line is a series of mostly scenarios leavened with the occasional supplement – like this one – that are set against a pre-World War II background of two-fisted, heroic action. They are written for use with Pinnacle Entertainment Group’s Savage Worlds, which handles Pulpy, slightly cinematic action rather well, but Rocket Rangers is available not just for Savage Worlds, but also for the Ubiquity System, which makes it compatible with Exile Game Studio’s Hollow Earth Expedition.

Rocket Rangers presents the story of how with US government backing, Professor Alexander MacDonald developed the technology behind the rocket-packs that enable the wearer to fly and how they were used to equip the Rocket Rangers Corps which operated during World War II and beyond. Commanded by Colonel William “Goat” Gruff, the handpicked and highly trained members of Rocket Rangers Corps are organised into squads of eight, each squad being deployed on fast strike missions, usually deployed in bombers and transports. Arriving near the target, the Rocket Rangers would either jump out of their transport or be dropped from their bomber to fall almost to the ground before igniting their rocket-packs and leaping back into the air. Although the use of the Jetpacks allow cruising at high altitude, their limited fuel supply usually means that the Rocket Rangers have enough to perform their current mission, but no more and thus need to find their own way home.

Highly trained, strongly motivated patriots, and upright, moral characters, each squad consists of Commander, Heavy Support trooper, Medic, Scout, and Technician. The Technician not only doubles as the mechanic for his squad’s equipment, he also handles all of its demolitions needs. Given their role as a fast strike unit and the low load capacity of the rocket-packs, the Rangers travel lightly armed, usually only a handgun or an SMG. Indeed, even the Heavy Support trooper does not carry anything heavier than a Browning Automatic Rifle.

In addition to describing the formation of the Rocket Ranger Corps, Rocket Rangers also gives the rules using their rocket-packs in a game, complete stats for all of the positions in a Rocket Ranger Corps squad, and an enemy to fight. In keeping with the period setting of the supplement – primarily World War II, and the classic Rocket Man sub-genre, it is no surprise that this enemy consists of the Nazis. In particular, SS-Raketentruppen (SS-Rocket Troops), which with the outbreak of war would be reformed as the 1st SS Totenkopfraketentruppedivision (SS Death’s Head Rocket Troop Division).

Unlike the Rocket Ranger Corps, this unit is not kept secret, it first having been seen at the Berlin Olympics of 1936, and unlike the Rocket Ranger Corps, this unit goes into battle using advanced weapons, most notably, their “Gyro-Jet”-like Raketengewehr or “rocket rifle” and “electricity rifle” or Spannungsgewehr. Stats are given for both of these weapons, a typical SS-Raketentruppen trooper, and Doctor Werner Schmutzig, the inventor of Germany’s rocket-pack technology.

Rounding out the supplement is a sextet of adventure seeds. These, just like the rest of the content in Rocket Rangers, are the same between the two versions of the supplement for Savage Worlds and the Ubiquity System, except that is, for the last scenario seed. In the Ubiquity System version, the last scenario seed gets the Rocket Rangers to the Hollow Earth, whereas for the Savage Worlds version, several Daring Tales of Adventure scenarios are suggested as being suitable for being adapted to a military style campaign.

Given that Rocket Rangers focuses on a “Special Forces” hit-and-run style American unit, it is no surprise that it is suitable for use with Weird Wars: Weird War II, Pinnacle Entertainment Group’s setting for Savage Worlds that combines World War II with weird science and the occult. In fact, it is a perfect plug in. The supplement also makes suggestions as how its contents can be shifted back from the 1940s to the 1930s, the GM using the material to run a more Pulp Adventure style game, or even as an aside, to use the material in the Victorian era, with Red Coats as Rangers rather than Americans. In this way, the contents of Rocket Rangers could be used in conjunction with Pinnacle Entertainment Group’s Space 1889: Red Sands.

Our sample is perfect for a Pulp style campaign set during the 1930s. Jimmy’s Uncle Albert used to do work out his family’s barn and when his chores and homework was done, and sometimes even when they were not, Jimmy would go out and help him. Whatever Uncle Albert was working on, it involved a lot of bangs and whooshes, and Jimmy was pretty sure that involved a rocket of some kind. Jimmy had always been fascinated by anything that flew and was happy to help out. Whoever wanted Uncle Albert’s project wanted it bad enough to blow up the barn and seriously injure him, but Jimmy managed to get away with his Uncle’s latest invention. Currently he hunts for whomever it was who attacked his Uncle, armed with a pair of guns he got from his Uncle’s attackers and a store of rocket-pack fuel that his Uncle had elsewhere.

Jimmy “Kid Rocket” Coltrane
Attributes: Agility d8, Smarts d6, Spirit d4, Strength d4, Vigor d4
Skills: Fighting d4, Healing d4, Notice d6, Piloting d8, Repair d6, Shooting d4, Stealth d4
Charisma: 0
Pace: 6 Parry: 4 Toughness: 4 (+3/+1) Bennies: 5
Hindrances: Loyal, Stubborn, Youth
Edges: Ace, Luck, Two Fisted
Gear: Helmet (+3), flying suit (+1), rocket pack, paired Walther PPKs (Range: 10/20/40, Damage: 2d6–1, ROF 1, Semi)

Similar shifts in setting can be made with the Ubiquity System version of Rocket Rangers. It is already compatible with Exile Game Studio’s Hollow Earth Expedition which is set during the 1930s, both on and under the surface of the Earth. Rocket Rangers includes one suggestion as to how the American unit it describes could be brought to the Hollow Earth and the enemies it presents are Nazi villains, and since there are Nazis already in the Hollow Earth… Lastly, Triple Ace Games has its own Victorian era RPG, Leagues of Adventure, which describes itself as “a rip-roaring setting of exploration and derring-do in the late Victorian Age!” So more than suitable then.

Physically, both versions of Rocket Rangers are well done. A nice touch is the use of fully painted miniatures as illustrations, these figures actually having inspired the supplement’s additional, Patriotic rule about carrying and planting the Stars & Stripes to inspire members of Rocket Rangers Corps. Of course, the source of the miniatures is mentioned at the end of the supplement. If there is an issue with both of the supplements it is that they both need an edit and a fact check – Yale is not in Boston, but Connecticut!

At its heart, Rocket Rangers is a wargaming supplement, one describing a unit best suited for use with Savage Worlds’ skirmish rules. After all, the use of miniatures as illustrations does more than imply the fact. Yet there are plenty of roleplaying elements in there too, so a Rocket Ranger Corps squad could easily be run as a roleplaying party performing small scale operations. Plus, the supplement includes a suitable enemy to fight and there is a companion piece available for both rules systems in the form of Elite Nazi Units. Short and sharp, Daring Tales of Adventure: Rocket Rangers has everything you need to strap on a rocket-pack and launch your Rocket Rangers game.

Friday 25 November 2011

Tome Team

As the effects of Depression spread across England, the great families of the land, the aesthetes, and the bibliophiles have fallen on hard times. Turning to assets of least consequence, they ransack their libraries to pay the bills or death duties, resulting in a flood of horrid heirlooms and terrible tomes on the book trade. Ready to pick up the rarest and hopefully the most profitable of the titles are the Book Scouts, Book Sellers, and Catalogue Agents, working to get a cheap price and a high sale, no matter the book’s title, content, or provenance, let alone the nature of the purchaser. If it happens that this means that there is one more copy of William Pynchon’s 1539 “Monstres And Their Kynde” on the streets of London by their hand – the hand of an “artist” rather than a forger – what matter? And if the latest sale involves knowledge that no man should ever hunger for, what matter that either?

This is the set up for Bookhounds of London, Kenneth Hite’s new campaign setting for Pelgrane Press’ Trail of Cthulhu, the GUMSHOE System powered, clue orientated RPG of Lovecraftian investigative horror. As a setting, it brings to the fore one of the major elements of the genre, the Mythos Tome and all of the eldritch innards that lie between its covers. Not that books will be the only dangers faced by the bookhounds of the game’s title – there are rivals after the same books for sale; forgers are all too willing to “find” them the exact title that they are after; “occult” collectors equally as willing to do more (or even less) than pay to obtain certain titles; and of course, some of the all too dark secrets bound up in London’s history that might be revealed in the hunt for one book or another.

In Bookhounds of London, the player characters take the roles of the titular bookhounds, looking to make ends meet under the fog bound haze of smoking chimney stacks in the heart of an empire that has forgotten so many of its ancient secrets. This is a London that hides a rot behind a metropolitan façade and a bureaucratic indifference, a setting inspired by Alan Moore’s From Hell and the Roman Polanski film, Ninth Gate.

For its Occupations, Bookhounds of London suggests Antiquarian, Criminal, Dilettante, and Tramp (known as the Hobo in other campaign frames) as being suitable, whilst adding several new, altered, and particularly English Occupations suited to the setting: Book Scout, Book Seller, Catalogue Agent, Forger, and Occultist. Greed is added as a new Drive along with new abilities, including Auction, Bibliography, Document Analysis, and The Knowledge (of London).

So far, so English, but what is more interesting about the default Bookhounds of London campaign framework is that its set up provides the investigators with a base of operations – their shop. Best created collectively by the players, it becomes almost a character in itself, granting not just investigative points for the investigators to spend on clues, but also a means to create scenario hooks in the game. A really nice touch is that Hite acknowledges that the idea for the book shop did not come from him, but from a playtest group and was incorporated into the framework.

Naturally, the Book Trade is explored in detail, including ordinary titles and Mythos Tomes as well as the libraries of London and how to handle an auction in dramatic fashion. The latter, as with the running of the investigators’ bookshop, handled in such a way as to avoid their getting bogged down in the minutiae of half-crowns and ha’pennies. Libraries and in particular, the libraries of London are covered in some detail, including what they stock, how an investigator can gain access, and what bonuses such an access might grant.

Pride of place naturally goes to an exploration of the book, detailing in turn their format and condition, and both Occult and Mythos Tomes. Surprisingly, just seven Mythos Tomes are described in detail, but using the earlier detailing of the book formats and their conditions together with his knowledge of the genre, a Keeper should come up with more. Failing that, Trail of Cthulhu has more information on Mythos Tomes as does the Keeper’s Companion for Call of Cthulhu.

Beyond the shelves of the investigators’ bookshop, Bookhounds of London takes the reader on a flavoursome exploration of London in Thirties. This is broken down by area and supported by detailed contact types and rumours plus asides for various topics such as legendary London, law enforcement on the streets, the Underground and London underground, and London’s clubs. London’s physicality is delightfully captured with a stunning set of period maps, not just of her streets, but of her major buildings also. Many of them are done in full colour and like much of the material in Bookhounds of London, will find a use in Trail of Cthulhu in general as well as other RPGs set within the period.

As the heart and crossroads of the Empire, it is no surprise that London is home to numerous cults and secret societies. The presence of many of these, like the Ahnenerbe operating out of the German Embassy and the infamous Brotherhood of the Black, are no surprise, Bookhounds of London expanding upon their descriptions given in Trail of Cthulhu. Added to the expected cults and secret societies are the Hsieh-Tzu Fan, a network of terrorists, smugglers, slavers, and rebels headed by “The Scorpion,” which based out of a Limehouse opium den is most certainly a nod to the Si-Fan of Doctor Fu Manchu fame; and the Keirecheires, an insidious and highly placed cult devoted to Y’golonac. In each case, how the cults and organisations might be encountered in the book trade is discussed as well as how they might react to the investigators’ meddlings.

In addition to the London’s cults and monsters – the emphasis with the latter as is traditional in Trail of Cthulhu being upon their description more than their game stats -- the Keeper can further bring out the strangeness of London with “Megapolismancy,” a magic that uses the city itself as an engine to fuel its sorcery. Inspired by Fritz Leiber’s novel Our Lady of Darkness and developing from the rules given in Hite’s Rough Magicks, it is also a means by which the investigators can involve themselves in the ancient architecture of the city – if they possess the right Lore – or a means by which a Megapolismancer “madman” can turn the city against them.

Where Trail of Cthulhu offers two campaign styles – Pulp and Purist, Bookhounds of London, as part of its campaign advice, introduces three that they can be combined with. The “Arabesque” gives London a Dreamlands-like quality, described as “Baghdad on the Thames;” the “Sordid” offers a city of sin at its worst; whilst the “Technicolour” brings out London’s vibrancy, offering a hyperrealism that owes as much to Hammer Horror movies as it does the works of Dennis Wheatley and Sax Rohmer. Curiously, of the three, it is the Technicolour that is the most easily expanded upon within Trail of Cthulhu, its lurid colours easily bleaching away as the investigators journey into Shadows Over Filmland, a dream-like world merely a penny away. The Keeper is under no obligation to adhere to just the one of these new styles and can easily slip between the three depending on the nature of the dangers that the investigators face. Either way, these options enable the Keeper to flavour his game and serve to mark a Bookhounds of London campaign as being very different to a standard one.

The three campaign styles are supported with a hextet of ready-to-play NPCs. These include rivals and connections both, each including notes that enable the Keeper to configure them not only to the three campaign styles, but also to re-configure them so that they can be reused under different names and slightly different personalities. Each of their descriptions includes a singular element, that of how they might be tainted by through contact with the Cthulhu Mythos. It is a commendable method of presenting NPCs and the format begs, if not for the inclusion of more NPCs within this book, then for a sourcebook all of its very own.

Beyond the three new campaign styles, Bookhounds of London brings a new style of campaign to Trail of Cthulhu. In traditional Lovecraftian investigative horror, the Keeper presents the clues to the threat and the players react to it with their investigators. Here, with the placing of the campaign within a geographical location, it means that the investigators can literally go out and find the adventure. After all, the bookhounds do have to go out in search of a “Squiz,” and who knows what else they might turn up? Bookhounds of London explores this through its advice on running player driven campaigns in relatively short a fashion. Essentially it is a collaborative process, but if that fails, the advice comes down to aping Raymond Chandler’s suggestion of having “two men (or Things) with wavy daggers burst through the window.”

Rounding out Bookhounds of London is “Whitechapel Black-Letter,” a scenario that naturally has the investigators on the trail of a particular book. At the Keeper’s option, it can be tinged with the Ripper murders, but primarily it is a sandbox scenario in which the characters can explore an Occult London and uncover some of its dreadful secrets.

If there is an issue with Bookhounds of London, it is that in places it feels concise. For the most part, this leaves the reader wanting more rather than feeling that the author has not given him enough, except that is, for the somewhat mechanistic Megapolisomantic workings. The section feels as it does need more flesh, though the scenario does include a fully worked through example. Physically, the book is beautifully done, with Jérôme Huguenin’s artwork being excellent as ever.

Given the lack of a sourcebook detailing London within the genre of Lovecraftian investigative horror, Bookhounds of London is a much, much needed resource. Although its focus is primarily the book and the booktrade, the information on outré tomes is equally as relevant to Call of-, Realms of-, and Shadows of Cthulhu as they are Trail of Cthulhu. The background to London is equally as relevant and useful to all of these games.

To draw an analogy, Bookhounds of London is to Trail of Cthulhu as Star Trek: the Next Generation is to Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. It gives the campaign and its investigators a base of operations, in the form of their bookshop, so that adventures and characters can legitimately come to them as much as they can go to the adventures, whether those created by the Keeper or driven by the investigators in a Sandbox style campaign. The book itself brims with detail that supports the setting and brings it alive, though in places it feels perhaps a little too concise, as if it needs just a little more information. Otherwise, Bookhounds of London is another beautiful book for Trail of Cthulhu that brings the Old Smoke and its dissolution to life with the investigators on its intellectual coattails.