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

Tuesday 31 January 2012

Green & Unpleasant Land

Ian Edginton is no stranger to the Cosmic Horror that is the hallmark of the Cthulhu Mythos, his most notable contribution (with artist I.N.J. Culbard), being the graphic novel adaptation of Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness. With his latest stories, Ampney Crucis Investigates…, he dabbles and hints at the Mythos rather than drawing directly from Lovecraft’s works, just as he did with 2003’s Leviathan. As with Leviathan, these new tales originally appeared in the British weekly comic, 2000 AD and are now collected into volume of their own.

Ampney Crucis Investigates… Vile Bodies introduces us to Ampney Crucis, upstanding member of the British nobility (and not a small village in the Cotswolds) and Eddie Cromwell, Crucis’ stalwart man servant. Once tipped for high things, a strange otherworldly encounter in No-Man’s Land during the Great War, tipped him into temporary madness from which he has since recovered. The encounter has also left him with both a sense for the outré and a certain strength to withstand its malign power. A decade onwards and Lord Crucis is drawn to investigating the occult as its insidious influence infects dissolutely the Green and Pleasant Land that he holds so dear.

Ampney Crucis Investigates… Vile Bodies contains two cases, the titular story being the first in which Crucis must come to the aid of Lady Calliope Wykes, once his fiancée, but now driven from her home by the overripe advances of her husband. The second story, “The End of the Pier Show,” sends Crucis to a Northern seaside resort gone all to hell after his Lordship’s man Crowell, receives a postcard from a friend he saw shot dead during the Great War. Of the two stories, “Vile Bodies” feels very much the pilot, being a straightforward horror tale whose apian fecundity suggests at the influence of Shub-Niggurath. “The End of the Pier Show” is where the author and artist, Simon Davis, begin to really enjoy themselves, whether it is Crucis’ quartet of maiden aunts being depicted as the United Kingdom’s leading acting dames of the twenty-first century or hinting at the seediness underlying the polite façade of a seaside town with an artistic nod to the saucy postcards of Donald McGill. The threat faced is less obviously Lovecraftian, much more open to interpretation, but far more grounded in the woes of the period.

As the hero of the piece, Ampney Crucis draws from a familiar British archetype – the upper class twit with his resourceful servant. He is in part Dorothy L. Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey and P.G. Wodehouse’s Bertie Wooster, but Crucis is no fool, and Cromwell no urbane Jeeves, but rather more akin to Parker of Thunderbirds. Initially and outwardly, the pair do feel like the stereotypes that the author draws from, but by placing them in dire circumstances, their polite façade drops and they become more comradely with each other, lifting their portrayal out of caricature.

Simon Davis’ rich illustrations capture the delineation between the threats and the threatened. The inhabitants of dissolute England are pallid and wain, whilst the threats that Crucis and Cromwell must face are painted in swathes of rich colour.

The characters and situations of Ampney Crucis Investigates… would work as easily in print as on the radio – the latter perhaps the only other medium where its colours could be as rich – helped as much by our familiarity with its characters as its situations. There are certainly and hopefully, more of his Lordship’s investigations to be told of and collected, as the tales in Vile Bodies are most entertaining. That they are not overly Lovecraftian should not dissuade the reader, for these delightfully place manners against monstrosities.

Monday 23 January 2012

New Train Challenges in the Orient

2011 was a good year for Ticket to Ride, the introductory railway themed board game from Days of Wonder that won the Spiel des Jahres and the Origins Award for Best Board Game in 2004, as well as the 2005 Diana Jones award. In its closing months, the publisher inaugurated a new line of expansions in the form of the Map Collection series. Each title in the series features two new maps – on a double-sided map board – as well as new tweaks to the core rules that provide new challenges and playing experiences. The first of these is Map Collection Vol. 1 – Ticket to Ride Asia, and it was quickly followed by Map Collection Vol. 2 – Ticket to Ride India, each of which requires the use of the Train Cards and Trains from Ticket to Ride or Ticket to Ride Europe to play. It is the first of these, Map Collection Vol. 1 – Ticket to Ride Asia, which is being reviewed here.

So in keeping with the series, Map Collection Vol. 1 – Ticket to Ride Asia contains two maps. The first of these is the Team Asia map, which introduces two elements that sell the Map Collection. One is team play, the other is the addition of another player, increasing the number of maximum players in Ticket to Ride from five to six, but requiring four or six players only. The second map, the Silk Road themed Legendary Asia, is more of a traditional affair designed for two to five players that harks back to Ticket to Ride Europe, but which adds a tweak of its very own. Team Asia was designed by Alan R. Moon, who also designed Ticket to Ride, whilst Legendary Asia was François Valentyne's entry in a competition to design and have published a new map for Ticket to Ride.

Each of the entries in the Map Collection series comes in a two-inch deep album sized box. Inside Map Collection Vol. 1 – Ticket to Ride Asia can be found the new double-sided map, forty-five Trains (nine for each of the Train colours to be found in Ticket to Ride and Ticket to Ride Europe), thirty-six Destination Tickets for Legendary Asia, sixty Destination Tickets for Team Asia, six wooden card holders, and two full-colour rule books. There is one each for Team Asia and Legendary Asia, and both are twelve pages long with the rules for each map being just a page long and given in ten languages. All of these components are nicely done and nicely packaged in the box with the two maps, one per side, being very attractive. If there is an issue with either map, it is that neither clearly state which variant they are for. Whilst the graphics for each map and accompanying Destination Tickets are similar, so is the geographical region that both maps cover, and it would have been simple enough for the designers to put the name of the variant on its map. This would make game choice and set up just that little more easier, and that much quicker.

Of course, there is the usual problem of learning the geography to be found in Map Collection Vol. 1 – Ticket to Ride Asia, but there is plenty of similarity between the two maps in this expansion, and anyway, not only do the mini-maps on the Destination Tickets help, but learning about geography as basic as this and whilst playing Ticket to Ride, is after all, fun.

The changes in the Legendary Asia variant begins with its Destination Tickets. There are thirty-six of these, of which six are Long Route Tickets, such as Moscow to Calcutta and Khabarovsk to Karachi, that are worth sixteen, seventeen, or eighteen points. At game’s start, each player receives a single Long Route and three normal Destination Tickets of which he must keep at least two. Later in the game he can choose to draw three Destination Tickets of which he must keep at least one.

Opening up the map for Legendary Asia and it looks not unlike the map for Ticket to Ride Europe. There several ferry Routes which require the expenditure of wild or Locomotive Cards to complete in addition to the usual Train Cards, but there are also several where the one or two spaces on a Route are marked with an “X” such as between Kathmandu and Mandalay, a two-space Route with an “X” on both spaces. These are Mountain Routes, which when claimed, require a player to not only expend the Train Cards of the appropriate colour, but for each “X” on the Route, to also expend one of his Trains! This represents the wear and tear on the trains that traverse these Routes and is not as bad as it sounds, because for each Train discarded, he scores an additional two points. So to claim the purple Kathmandu-Mandalay Route, a player has to discard two purple Train Cards and two of his Trains, but scores two points for the Route claimed and another four points for the Trains discarded.

In addition some double Routes, such as that between Perm and Omsk has one Route that does not require the discarding of a Train Card and one that does. In other words, one Route does not go through the mountains. In most, but not all cases, the non-Mountain Route is a grey Route, meaning that any Train Card colour can be used to complete them.

The effect of the Mountain Routes is twofold. First, it increases the completion value of some of the map’s shorter Routes. Compare a three-space Route, like that between Moscow and Astrakhan, which would score a player a simple four points for completing, and the two-space Mountain Route between Agra and Kathmandu which has one space with an “X” and which would score a player a total of four points to complete, two points for the Route itself and another two for the Train discarded. Second, the expenditure of Trains to complete Mountain Routes can be used to speed play towards the moment when a player has four Trains or less and thus trigger the game’s round of last turns.

The other additional rule in Legendary Asia is that of the Asian Explorer Bonus. This is awarded for the highest number of cities connected rather than the Longest Route as on many other Ticket to Ride maps. This encourages the creation of a network of Routes rather a single long Route and emphasises the value of the shorter Routes as they are generally easier to connect to and thus create a network with.

Overall, Legendary Asia feels like a traditional Ticket to Ride board. It offers a new map, but not a radically different playing experience. It is the easiest to adapt to, and in terms of complexity, sits nicely alongside Ticket to Ride and Ticket to Ride Europe.

Team Asia though, is a different experience. It offers complexity via a radical means of play that also restricts the number of players. It is played with teams of two players, with space for either two teams or three teams. Which means that there must be a minimum of four players if there are two teams playing, and a maximum of six players if three teams are playing. During the game the members of a team have to sit together with two of the wooden cardholders sat in front of them. These cardholders are used to store the team’s shared Destination Tickets and Train Cards, this sharing being the only means that the members of a team can communicate. In other words, during play, a team cannot talk about the Destination Tickets that either has to complete nor about what Routes that either wants to complete.

At game start, each team receives its cardholders and a total of fifty-four Trains in the same colour, the extra ones being provided with Map Collection Vol. 1 – Ticket to Ride Asia. The Trains are divided equally between the two members of a team so that they have a pool of twenty-seven each. During play, a player will draw only from his supply of Trains and just like standard Ticket to Ride, when their combined supply of Trains reaches four or less, the end game rules are triggered in which everyone has one last turn, including his teammate. So a player has to keep an eye on his supply of Trains as well as those belong to everyone else, including that of his teammate.

Then the secrecy begins. Each player receives four Train Cards as normal and a total of five Destination Tickets, of which he must keep three. Out of the kept Destination Tickets, a player must take one and simultaneously with his teammate reveal it and place it in one of the shared cardholders. When a player later draws additional Destination Tickets, he must not only keep one of the new Tickets, but also place one of the Tickets in his team’s cardholder used for their Tickets. Similarly, when a player draws Train Cards, he draws two as normal, but one of them has to go into his team’s cardholder used for the Train Cards. This must be done as they are drawn – a player cannot draw two and decide which of these Train Cards to share.

One additional option that a player has during play is that he can choose to share two of the Destination Tickets in his hand with his teammate by placing them in their shared cardholder. Whilst this can be helpful, it does deny that player the opportunity to pick up new Train Cards or claim a Route.

During the game, play order is by team. Both players on a team will take their turn one after another, then the players on the next team will have their go, and so on. Players in a team always take their turns in the same order.

At game’s end, the members of a team scores together. A ten point Asian Express bonus is awarded to the team with the Longest Continuous Path on the board whilst a ten point Globetrotter bonus is awarded to the team who has completed the most Destination Tickets.

Looking at the Team Asia map, it looks quite open, if not similar to the layout of the Ticket to Ride map of the USA with its long Routes over the top in the North, and shorter Routes to East and South. Three triple Routes run the length of the Chinese coast. In a two-team game, two of these triple Routes can be claimed, possibly by both players on a team, thus wholly blocking that Route to the other team. The map also contain two unnamed destinations – they cannot be cities as neither is named – that are black instead of the grey of the map’s actual cities. Being close to Kathmandu and Lhasa, they are probably the peaks of Everest and K2 in the Himalayas.

The other addition to the Team Asia board is not a new type of Route, but a variant upon a type of Route – the Tunnel. On maps with Tunnels, such as Ticket to Ride Switzerland and Ticket to Ride Nordic Countries, if player wants to claim a Tunnel Route he has to draw three more Train Cards from off the top of the draw deck, and if any of the drawn cards match the colour of the Route, that player must pay an extra Train Card for each extra drawn. If he cannot, he forfeits that turn. In Team Asia, the number of extra Train Cards varies, being determined by the number of the Route. For example, the yellow Route between Lhasa and Cawnpore is one space long, but is marked with a six, meaning that it requires a player to draw another six Train Cards and hope that he does not draw any yellow Train Cards and so have to pay extra Trains Cards. As with Ticket to Ride Switzerland and Ticket to Ride Nordic Countries, a player could also use Locomotive Cards to complete a Tunnel Route in this fashion. Overall, this makes Tunnels a much riskier affair and more difficult to complete.

In purely mechanical terms, Team Asia is not a complex addition to the Ticket to Ride family. In play style, it is much more complex, not just for the fact that the players within a team have to keep quiet about strategy, but also for the fact that Team Asia is not a five, or indeed, a six-player board. Rather, it is a two or three player board that it is as tight as Ticket to Ride Switzerland and Ticket to Ride Nordic Countries before it, though with more trains between the members of a team than is the norm.

Another factor in Team Asia that is similar to Ticket to Ride Switzerland is the high number of Destination Tickets. There are sixty in this set, and like Ticket to Ride Switzerland, once a player has completed his current Destination Tickets, there is the chance that a player will draw new Destination Tickets that he has already completed. It should be made clear that this is not as extreme as in Ticket to Ride Switzerland, which many players of Ticket to Ride consider to be broken for this reason. In our playing experience, this is less of an issue in Team Asia as there is less replication of Routes.

Team Asia feels almost, but not quite as tight as the other two or three player options, Ticket to Ride Switzerland and Ticket to Ride Nordic Countries because its tight play is offset by the higher number of Trains that each team begins play with. The co-operative, though silent play, adds another level of enjoyable challenge to the game and means that this variant requires a bit more thought than is the norm with Ticket to Ride. The means of adding a sixth player is innovative for Ticket to Ride, and the fact that it involves team play means that it still leaves room for someone to design a Ticket to Ride board for use with six players rather than three teams of two. Similarly, the addition of Team Play raises the question of how many other Ticket to Ride maps would its rules work with, something for the game’s fans to experiment with.

For years now, Ticket to Ride has not been receiving the support that it should have been. It did not need dice or a card game variant, nor did it need kaiju themed bits of plastic that were never in keeping with the line’s late nineteenth century, early twentieth century style. What it needed was new maps. Ticket to Ride is a train game. A very light train game it must be said, but train games are all about connecting Routes to new places, whether familiar or exotic. Every single other train game series does this and it works because gamers like new maps and the new challenges that they present. It has been three years since the release of a new map expansion in the form of the two-three player base game, Ticket to Ride Nordic Countries. It has been four years since the release of Ticket to Ride Switerland, the map expansion that sets the pattern for the Map Collection series, which appears in Map Collection Vol. 2 – Ticket to Ride India.

Hurrah! And “Hurrah!” again, because the wait has been worth it. Map Collection Vol. 1 – Ticket to Ride Asia is an excellent expansion that really does add to the Ticket to Ride family. The Team Asia gives a clever means of adding a sixth player to Ticket to Ride combined with a nice hidden objective dynamic between the members of each team. Despite it being a four or six player game, the organisation into team actually turns it into a tight two or three player board. Lastly, the six wooden card holders are nice additions can actually be used in Ticket to Ride game to hold and organise each player’s cards. The Legendary Asia is a more traditional board that offers less radical play than in Team Asia and is the easier option to get out and play. Together, Legendary Asia and Team Asia combine to make Map Collection Vol. 1 – Ticket to Ride Asia a great start to a new series of expansions and a cleverly designed challenge for the Ticket to Ride fan.

Friday 20 January 2012

Medical Malpractice

Invasive Procedures is a scenario written for use with Fear Itself, Pelgrane Press’ RPG that pitches ordinary folk into a disturbing contemporary world of madness and violence. Like the majority of the titles published by Pelgrane Press, it uses the Gumshoe System, and so is compatible with its other two horror RPGs, Trail of Cthulhu and Esoterrorists. More particularly, Invasive Procedures includes notes that the GM can use to adapt the scenario so that it can be run specifically for Trail of Cthulhu. What helps with this is the fact that the scenario can easily be set during any period within the last one hundred years or so such that it could be run in the contemporary here and now of Delta Green, the 1890s of Cthulhu by Gaslight, the 1920s for classic Call of Cthulhu, the 1930s for Trail of Cthulhu, or indeed, any when in between. The scenario itself makes use of a foe first described in the publisher’s excellent supplement, The Book of Unremitting Horror, the details of which are included in Invasive Procedures. In the version that Pelgrane Press was kind enough to provide for the purpose of this review, the foe is described in a nine-page booklet that comes in an envelope glued inside the back cover. Later printings of scenario will have the description and motivation of this foe written in as part of the book.

Invasive Procedures works best as either a one-shot or as the opening chapter of a campaign. Its set-up is very specific, making it difficult to run as part of an on-going campaign. A quintet of pre-generated characters/investigators is included, and these can either be used as is, or as the models for characters of the players’ own creation. Using the provided characters as models is necessary, not because the characters are in any way special, but because of both how and where they are.

As the scenario opens, the player characters find themselves in hospital. They are each patients who have been moved from a county hospital to older facility where they are to recover from recent surgery. Our Lady’s Hospital was meant to have been closed down years ago, but despite its crumbling façade and obsolete infrastructure, it has been kept open in order to handle patients who need rest and observation rather than actual treatment. Thus freeing up much needed beds at the more modern hospital nearby.

The medical condition of the investigators has a marked effect upon the scenario and just what they can get up to. For much of the scenario, they will be restricted to their beds by the nurses, as they are expected to rest after all. This does not mean that the investigators cannot conduct any actual investigation, but rather that they will have to have to work hard to get around the nurses. When they do though, their efforts will be hampered by the state of their health. In game terms, an investigator literally must expend points from his Health Ability in order to conduct certain actions, points that can only be restored through bed rest. In effect in Invasive Procedures, each investigator’s Health Ability has a reduced and more temporary feel to it, and this, combined with the reduced number of points assigned to all of the investigators’ Abilities, places an emphasis on the resource aspect of playing a Gumshoe game.

This might be frustrating for some players, as might the fact that escaping Our Lady’s Hospital is intentionally difficult. Not just due to their investigators’ weakened health, but also later in the scenario as the forces they face isolate the facility. Nevertheless, this is intentional; Invasive Procedures is all about isolation and claustrophobia, as much as it is about medical malpractice and the classic duality of the medical practitioner. Despite the constraints placed on the investigators by their status and their situation, they do have room to manoeuvre and explore their environment, the nature of which changes between night and day. These elements are actually tools to help the GM run what is not necessarily an easy scenario to run if he is to both maintain its atmosphere and handle the flow of clues.

The difficulty that a GM might have in running Invasive Procedures is not helped by the pre-generated investigators, which feel underwritten; the lack of a timeline that could help him handle its flow of effects; and a simple map that could help him visualise Our Lady’s Hospital quickly and easily – both for himself and for his players. That aside, the scenario is nicely produced, and the writing excellent. Pasqual Quidalt’s illustrations are all suitably dark and makes for a moody change over the art usually seen in Pelgrane Press’ titles.

Lastly, there is the matter of Invasive Procedures and Trail of Cthulhu. The scenario is clearly written for Fear Itself, which shows in its choice of true foe and its feel as more a traditional horror scenario than a Lovecraftian investigative horror one. Mechanically, there is little that a Keeper needs to do in order to adapt Invasive Procedures from Fear Itself to Trail of Cthulhu. Thematically, he needs to work elements of the Mythos threat into the body of the scenario, the suggested threats being the Mi-go or Elder Things, the former being more appropriate and easier to work in than the latter. This, like the running of the actual scenario, is best done by an experienced GM or Keeper.

As a one-shot horror adventure, Invasive Procedures is a close, claustrophobic, and challenging affair. The challenge rises exponentially for the GM or Keeper if he wants to run this scenario as part of a campaign, though it would make for an atmospheric and scary start for a campaign.

Sunday 15 January 2012

Where's My Mummy?

At the heart of The Marylebone Mummy, a scenario published by Cubicle Seven Entertainment for Victoriana, its nineteenth century set RPG of Victorian action, adventure, mores and magic, is a fascination with collecting objets-orientalle. As the scenario’s title suggests, the particular fascination in its case is with Ancient Egypt and Egyptology. The actual fascination is that of Doctor Reginald Cantwell. A noted amateur archaeologist, the good doctor has recently returned from holiday in Egypt and brought back with him an array of artefacts. These include papyrus scrolls, wall carvings, and jewellery, but pride of place goes to an ornately decorated sarcophagus, still sealed and thus intact. Of course, the Doctor is immensely proud of his latest acquisition and plans a public unveiling to which the adventurers are invited – or hired to attend and protect if they are of insufficient social class.

This being a scenario, Doctor Cantwell’s plans soon go awry. Too many other parties have an interest in the mummy and what starts as a genteel soiree breaks into an uproar after a break in! With adventurers being adventurers, of course they are soon on the chase for the thieves, quickly leading to the scenario’s denouement and its twist in the tail. As to that, it lies more with the events of another scenario, Rise of the Red God, than with this one.

Indeed, The Marylebone Mummy could be run as a prequel to Rise of the Red God, as there are links in both terms of theme and characters. In relationship with other adventures available for Victoriana, it also works well as a sequel to “Spiritual Matters,” the scenario found in the core rulebook as it also shares an NPC, and whilst it could be run after the events of The Dragon in the Smoke, it works better as a prequel, as NPCs from that scenario also appear in The Marylebone Mummy, though no more than as cameos.

Although The Marylebone Mummy is divided into five acts, in dramatic terms, it is actually comprised of three progressively longer acts. Act one is investigative, act two is social and interactive with roleplaying opportunities aplenty, and act three is combative. At best, the GM and his players should get three sessions’ worth of play out of this scenario, but are more likely to complete it in two sessions. Whilst it is a quick affair, it is detailed, providing not only a plethora of nicely detailed NPCs with which the player characters can interact and the GM will enjoy portraying, each of which is further supported with a thumbnail hook that the GM can develop into something more.

Physically, The Marylebone Mummy is a slim affair. It is cleanly laid out and illustrated with a mix of original art and publically available art. It needs an edit, but is otherwise readable. It would have been nice to have had maps of the scenario’s various locations, but they are reasonably well described such that the GM should be able to draw them himself.

A quick short affair, The Marylebone Mummy is a solid adventure with a surprising number of plot hooks and elements that the GM can add to his campaign.

Saturday 14 January 2012

Roll Me A Story

Rory’s Story Cubes is a set of dice that, as the game’s title suggests, can be used to tell stories. Created by The Creativity Hub and published most places by Gamewright, the set is designed to spur a roller’s imagination by giving him a set of elements to include in his story. As a game, it is at best “rules lite,” coming more with guidelines than actual rules, such that it might be better classed as a tool or a toy.

Rory’s Story Cubes comes in a sturdy little box that opens up to reveal nine cubes or dice. Each die is a chunky 19mm to a side and contains six images, such as an “Apple,” an “Evil Shadow,” a “House,” a “Lightning Strike,” a “Lock,” a “Parachute,” a “Question Mark,” a “Tower,” and a “Wand.” None of the symbols are replicated, so with nine dice in the set, there are a total of fifty-four symbols to roll, which promises several million different combinations. The idea is to do “Once Upon a time” with these symbols, incorporating them into a story as the roller fancies. So for example, I roll an “Abacus,” “Flames,” “Happiness,” a “Magnifying Glass,” a “Mobile Telephone,” a “Parachute,” “Sleeping,” a “Tepee,” and a “Tower.” So my story might go like this…

Once upon a time, there lived a man called Dave, who could never get a full night’s sleep. He had a really dull job that involved him using an “Abacus” and never gave him time to examine how dull his life was. News that his life was to change came with a call on his “Mobile Telephone” and a dull monotone voice explaining how both the job and the ivory “Tower” of a life he had built around his job had gone up in “Flames.” This gave him the opportunity to examine his life using a “Magnifying Glass” and thus decide to use a “Parachute” to jump from the top of the “Tower.” Dave did. Now Dave does not have an “Abacus,” a dull job, a “Mobile Telephone,” or the need to visit an ivory “Tower.” Instead, every night he can be found “Sleeping” in a “Teepee.” Dave has found “Happiness.”

Now doubtless, you can do better. And you are welcome to try with your own set of Rory’s Story Cubes. How you do that is entirely up to you, as the extent of the rules in the “game” merely suggest that the stories can either be told solitaire or co-operatively. The problem with this is that it means that as a game, Rory’s Story Cubes lacks the structure that would make it game, because this is essentially not only “use the dice to make up the stories you want,” but also “make up the rules to how you tell those stories.” Arguably then, not sufficient enough to make it a game given its need for further input from the participants. Plus, the clue is in the title – Rory’s Story Cubes, not Rory’s Story Dice. After all, “Dice” infers a game, whereas “Cubes” do not.

As a tool or a toy, Rory’s Story Cubes is much better. The images on the dice are large, friendly, and universal. Although due to their size, the dice feel a bit too much to all together fit in the hand, they possess a satisfying weight and heft. They would work well as an educational tool, whether that is in an education establishment, or simply as a means to spur your child’s imagination and thinking.

There is much to like about Rory’s Story Cubes. The dice are themselves physically pleasing and the concept sound. More rules would have made them even more pleasing, but as long as the users or players are happy to agree on the rules as to how they can tell their stories, then they are ready to roll their imaginations with Rory’s Story Cubes.

Sunday 8 January 2012

The 1980s RPG Undead?

With the “Old School Renaissance” barely five years old, the question is, has it grown too old for its inspiration? In those five years, the movement has been exploring fantasy roleplaying as it was played back in the early days of the hobby, but with the hindsight of over thirty years’ worth of gaming experience. In 2011 though, Goblinoid Games, the publisher of one of the major “Edition 0” RPGs, Labyrinth Lord, not only obtained the rights to a game published during the 1980s, but also its associated mechanics. The 1980s publisher in question is Pacesetter, the game is Timemaster, and the Action Table system. Now Goblinoid Games could have just simply republished Timemaster, and whilst it still intends to do so, the publisher has waited to do so in favour of applying the Action Table system to a more modern subgenre derived from the horror movie. The result is Rotworld: A Game of Survival Horror Against Undead Flesh Eaters.

Inspired by Michael Jackson’s Thriller as much by the films of George A. Romero, Rotworld is a roleplaying game of the apocalypse and its aftermath, in which the dead rise as “rotters” and seek to spread their infection with a single bite. Light in terms of advice for the referee or Corpse Master, the game is essentially a tool kit with which to run a zombie apocalypse campaign. To that end, it includes all of the basics needed for both an RPG and for its subgenre – characters and combat, and then the apocalypse, supernatural abilities for both humans and zombies, locations, and of course zombies.

At the heart of Rotworld, and of course, its raison d'être, is its Action Table. With a roll against this table, a player or the Corpse Master can reasonably quick discover the result and effects of a roll. The system uses ten-sided dice, with percentile rolls for all actions. In most instances, a character can get away with simply rolling under the value of his attribute or skill, but if he needs to know how well he did, he simply deducts the number rolled from his skill to get a Margin of Success. In combat, this Margin of Success becomes his Attack Margin, the result cross referenced against the difficulty or Defence Column. This gets a result ranging from a simple scratch to a crushing or crippling blow that knocks the defendant down.

For example, the first of our sample characters, Ulises, comes to the rescue of our quivering second, Otterlie. She is being menaced by Zak the Zombie and has already failed her Fear check. Ulises attempts to sneak up on Zak, but knocks something over and alerts the menacing member of the corpse cortège. Our hero is weaponless, so must rely upon his superior fists to get the damsel out of distress. Fortunately, he has the initiative. He uses his Boxing skill of 81 which is compared with Zak’s Unskilled Melee Skill of 33. This gives the column upon which Ulises’ player will roll. In this case, column 3, a relatively easy column, the columns starting at 1 and rising in difficulty to 10. Ulises’ player rolls 21 and subtracts this from his Boxing skill of 81 to get his Margin of Success to get a result of 60. Cross referencing on the Action Table, this gives “C” as a result; which for unarmed damage, is a crushing blow that delivers between six and sixty points of Stamina damage. In Ulises’ case, this is 42 points of damage. Although Ulises did not get a “CK” result, which would have indicated that he would have knocked the zombie down as well as delivered a stinging blow, he has inflicted damage equal to almost half of the zombie’s Stamina. So the Corpse Master rules that Zak the Zombie is staggered and cannot attack until the next round.

The mechanics, with their use of the Action Table, look more complex than they are in practice. The problem with both the mechanics and their use of the Action Table is twofold. First, there is an almost bewildering number of conditional rules that apply to the various situations and skills that can come up in play. Second, the Action Table is essentially focused on combat. It is meant to, and it does, work with the use of skills, but to actually interpret the results of any skill role the Corpse Master has to look elsewhere in the book. Which can only slow game play down…

That said, when it comes to combat, perhaps the aspect that players today will find the oddest is that mechanically, no weapon in the game does any damage. Rather, the damage is essentially derived entirely from the results of the skill roll. Thus the weaponry tables in Rotworld are all about range modifiers (which do affect skill), reload time, and rate of fire. One interesting mechanic using the Action Table involves a defendant’s action when being fired upon. When this occurs, the defending character has to roll a ten-sided die to determine the Defence Column that the attacker is rolling against, but can influence this by expending Luck to make it a higher Defence Column and thus make himself harder to hit. This is a pleasing way of handling a character’s attempt to dodge.

Character generation in Rotworld again looks more complex than it is, in part because it involves a degree of arithmetic. Eight attributes, each ranging in value between twenty-six and eighty, are rolled for randomly, with a number of factors being derived from these attributes. These factors include secondary factors such as Penetration Bonus and Wounds, and also the unskilled values for various skills. The most jarring aspect of character creation is that the number of skills a character starts the game with is randomly determined, so that one character might start the game with three skills or as many as six. Like attributes, skills expressed as percentiles, with the unskilled value for any skill being equal to the average of two or three attributes.

The majority of the skills listed would cover any time within the last fifty years, but with the inclusion of the Beam Weapons skill could enable a Rotworld campaign to be set in the future, whilst the inclusion of the Horseman’s Lance, Mounted Melee, and Bow skills mean that it could easily be set in the past. From the skill list there is the one odd omission – that of a Drive skill. Every character has base chance when driving – equal to the average of his Agility and Perception attributes, yet in order to improve upon that, a character has to purchase the Stunt Driving skill.

Our sample character is a Hispanic-American ex-army mechanic who worked in Hollywood as an actor and stuntman. He used to run a boxing gym, but when that went out of business, he became a truck driver. He is used to standing up for himself, but even though he learned how to use guns in the army and then point them menacingly on camera, he does not like them.

Ulises Romero
Strength 70 Dexterity 68 Agility 58 Personality 58
Willpower 52 Perception 61 Luck 58 Stamina 60
Unskilled Melee: 64
Penetration Bonus: +15
Wounds: 14

Boxing 81, Equestrian 78, Mechanics 70, Language (Spanish) 72, Stunt Driving 75

As an option, characters can also possess Paranormal Talents such as the predictable “Precognition,” “Distance Viewing,” and “Telepathic Sending.” These are joined by the Rotworld particular “Corpse Visage,” “Empathy with Undead,” and “Sense Undead.” Unlike skills whose number is randomly determined, the number of Paranormal Talents that a character can have is determined by his Perception and Willpower, up to a maximum of three. It costs Willpower to use Paranormal Talents, and although a character’s Willpower will refresh, the relatively high cost will preclude their being over used.

Our sample character with Paranormal Talents is Otterlie Rios, a doctoral student, who worked in a funeral home to pay her way through college. Her abilities manifested for the first time when the dead rose, enabling her to walk amongst them and survive. She is still shaken by the experience and is reluctant to use either Talent again.

Otterlie Rios
Strength 48 Dexterity 42 Agility 48 Personality 66
Willpower 72 Perception 80 Luck 66 Stamina 60
Unskilled Melee: 45
Penetration Bonus: None
Wounds: 14

Investigation 88, Social Sciences: Anthropology 91, Social Sciences: Psychology 91

Paranormal Talents:
Corpse Visage 73, Sense Undead 71

For the Corpse Master, Rotworld provides a discussion of the cause of the dead rising – from chemicals or toxic waste to radiation or the supernatural – and the effects that these have on a campaign. Similarly, it gives a range of ideas and options for how the zombies work in a Corpse Master’s campaign. Beyond the base corpse chassis, the Corpse Master is free to choose how lifelike or not his members of the corpse cavalcade are, their attacks, their weakness, what they hunger for, and how intelligent they are. If the campaign allows player characters to possess Paranormal Talents, then zombies can also have their equivalent, known as Zombie Talents. Some, such as “Living Visage” and “Sense Living,” correspond to Paranormal Talents, whilst “Absorb Vitality” enables a zombie to repair itself by draining life from the living.

Actual campaign advice examines the practicalities of having civilisation collapse around you, before describing a trio of places of refuge. These consist of a corner grocery, a county airport, and a shopping mall, each essentially a subgenre staple. Each one is fitted into a page and includes a nicely done map. Of course, the survival horror subgenre being what it is, it is relatively easy for the Corpse Master to find other maps or simple enough to set his campaign just in his group’s neighbourhood.

Similarly, the survival horror genre being what it is, Rotworld does not really suffer for its lack of advice on running the game. Certainly, the subgenre should be familiar to almost anyone who purchases Rotworld. If there is an issue with the game, it is that it really could do with an index given both the relative complexity of the rules and the likelihood that the Corpse Master will flipping back and forth through the book. The book also needs another edit and it could do with a re-organisation, as certain elements appear before they need to or away from the sections that they should be in.

Physically, Rotworld is decently written and is infrequently illustrated with some quite heavy art. Another physical problem with the game besides the lack of index is the frequent need to refer to the Action Table as part of playing Rotworld. Such that it really needs to be on the back cover, not just for ease of use, but also because it could have been in colour (which would also be for ease of use). Much of the flipping back and forth will involve looking up the rules that relate to the particular situation, so that the Corpse Master needs to refer to pages twenty-eight through thirty-six as well as the Action Table, and that mostly for combat and actions not directly related to a character’s attributes.

Rotworld feels very much like the archetypal RPG of its period. It obviously moves away from the class and level structure that dominated the decade before and continues to dominate the “Old School Renaissance;” it clearly pushes towards the use and application of a universal mechanic in the form of the Action Table; and its starting point is not necessarily the heroic protagonist, but the protagonist who has the potential to be heroic. Yet it is also archetypal in that its use and application of the universal mechanic is hampered by numerable situational rules and the need to reference individual rules for far too many things. As with so many RPGs of the period, in Rotworld the result is far from perfect and far from perfectly easy to run for the reasons already given, and ultimately, all it would have taken to address this problem is the actual page opposite the Action Table being devoted to notes and references that covered situations outside of combat and the character sheet being moved on a page or so.

Yet for all of its failings, Goblinoid Games should be praised for possessing the drive and desire to look beyond the boundaries of the “Edition 0” movement. Similarly, the publisher deserves praise for doing something more with the Action Table system than just releasing the RPGs that used it back in the 1980s, and whilst the truth is that the game and its treatment of its subgenre is hardly radical by anyone’s standards, its pages do contain a solid survival horror toolkit. Once you get past its all too close an emulation of the 1980s RPG, Rotworld: A Game of Survival Horror Against Undead Flesh Eaters is quite possibly the start of something new and interesting – the next period of gaming history for revival. Post-"Old School Old School Renaissance," anyone?

Sunday 1 January 2012

Tales of the Star Guard

In many reviews an RPG’s designer rarely gets a mention, and even if when he does, it invariably comes a long way into the review and even then not by name. His contribution usually gets mentioned in passing or obliquely, but for this review I am going to mention a name. Matt Heerdt. It is not a name that I have encountered before, though it has to be said that I rarely check those details, and to be honest, that is unlikely to change. Nevertheless, that name is Matt Heerdt. His design for Cosmic Patrol, the latest RPG from Catalyst GameLabs of which he is also the author, captures its genre to perfection with just seventeen words and one image. Done in a simple two tone design, the front cover looks exactly the manual that every good Cosmic Patrol cadet should have in his locker, whilst the back cover looks exactly like a recruiting poster for the Cosmic Patrol. It is also beautifully simple.

Anyway, Cosmic Patrol, of which Matt Heerdt is also the author. Thirty years ago in the Pre-Cosmic Era, the Earth was hit by the fragments of a comet that upon impact disgorged a horde of alien “lizardmen” known as the “Uth.” It took a united effort to wipe out the rampaging raiders who in their wake left not only a united Earth, but also a cache of advanced, disparate, but stolen technology. In order to both study this and protect the Earth from further cosmic threats, the united world government forms scientific space program known as the “Cosmic Patrol.” Within a decade, Cosmic Patrol expeditions to Mars and Venus discover humans on both worlds; within two decades, the governments of Earth, Mars, and Venus would agree to form a single organisation known as the Great Union; and within three decades, Cosmic Patrol rocketships, equipped with the revolutionary “Fractum Drive” would not only explore the outer reaches of our Solar System, but also far out into the cosmos itself, quickly discovering an on-going intergalactic war whose sides it cannot quite yet determine.

This is the setting for Cosmic Patrol, a story-telling RPG of “Rockets and Rayguns!” set in a retro future based on the Golden Age of science fiction. Inspired by the covers of classic science fiction pulp magazines, the works of E.E. “Doc” Smith, Harry Harrison, Robert Heinlein, and Philip Francis Nolan, and classic science fiction radio series like X Minus One and Dimension X, Cosmic Patrol with its mantra of “Rockets • Rayguns • Robots” is not the Buck Rogers RPG, but it could be. Nor is it the Flash Gordon RPG or the Tom Corbett, Space Cadet RPG, but again, it could be. As the Grand Union’s first and last line of defence against a dangerous galaxy, the players take the roles of Patrolmen of the Cosmic Patrol crewing rocketships that set out to explore the galaxy, investigating its strange phenomena, and responding to emergencies as necessary. They could be cocky, stalwart heroes from Earth; Red Amazon warriors from Mars armed with their infamous red steel axes; or high thinking Venusian scientists, but whatever their origins, they are not only members of the Grand Union, but as members of the Cosmic Patrol, they are its first line of defence against the universe.

Cosmic Patrol is played in a series of Mission Briefs, each beamed to the characters’ rocketship from Cosmic Patrol headquarters. It might be that a ship has gone missing in the asteroid belt or that a survey team is under attack on the surface of Venus, but in game terms each Misssion Brief consists of a setting and one or more scenes that present the patrolmen with a series of enemies and obstacles. Each scene is further down into a number of turns, the number of turns depending upon the number of players. This is because each player will undertake the role of the Lead Narrator once during a scene. As Lead Narrator, a player not serves as the GM and presents the NPCs and environment just as you would expect in most RPGs, he also ensures that each of the characters has a chance to act in the turn. In serving as the Lead Narrator, a player does not ignore his own Patrolman, but allows him to act, though he always goes last in a turn. This completes the turn and narration passes to the next player, who then becomes the Lead Narrator and sets the scene for the new turn.

Narration can be taken from events in previous Turns, but also from “cues,” little suggestions and descriptions that the Lead Narrator can take inspiration from. Cues are given for Mission Briefs as well as Patrolmen and NPCs of all stripes. Narration can also to an extent be co-operative in that a player can turn to his fellows if he is bereft of inspiration and ask for advice. If a player wants to grab the narration then he can spend a Plot Point, which can also be expended by a player to modify dice rolls – either way, regain health points, and of course, to add a plot twist! The role of Lead Narrator also has its own pool of Plot Points, which passes from player to player as the role does. A Lead Narrator can only spend Plot Points to aid the NPCs and add plot twists, but not to impede the Patrolmen. Players earn their Plot Points through good narration, whilst the Lead Narrator earns one whenever a player expends one.

Player character actions that require dice come in two types. A Challenge handles actions against an inanimate object, while a Test is against another person, be it another player character or an NPC. To undertake a Test or Challenge a character adds the results of a twelve-sided die, an appropriate attribute die, plus modifiers to beat a target roll determined by a twenty-sided die. The modifiers are set by the Lead Narrator. For example, “in a blizzard” (-1), “Experienced” (+1), “the right tools” (+1), “already performed a scan” (+1), and so on, which with the character below having to perform emergency field surgery on an important NPC, might give the result of D12 + Medicine D10 + modifiers of +2 against the Lead Narrator’s roll of a D20. The end result of 1 (D12) + 6 (D10) +2 versus 4 (D20) means that the character has succeeded.

Character creation involves assigning various dice types to four attributes – Brawn, Brains, Charisma, and Combat; a Special Die or a D10 to something that the character is particularly good at; and determining his Luck. The latter is not a Die type, but a number between one and twelve, which when rolled on any die during any test or challenge means that a character always succeeds. Perhaps the most difficult aspect of character generation in Cosmic Patrol is the creation of a Patrolman’s Cues, and Disposition. The first are prompts from which a player can draw inspiration when it comes to his narration, whilst the latter more describe his manner. “Doc” Mulligan only has thirteen Cues, leaving room for a player or Lead Narrator to add more. This Patrolman also has Tags, essentially descriptors that give the Lead Narrator the gist of the character were he to be used as an NPC.

Name: Reginald “Doc” Mulligan Age: 29
Homeworld: Earth Rank: Doctor
Tags: > Earthman > Friendly > Curmudgeon
> Brilliant > Medicine > Manners > Scottish
Brawn: D6 Brains: D8 Charisma: D10 Combat: D8
Medicine D10 (SPECIAL) Luck: 11
Armour: 17
Health: 3/3/3/2/1
Equipment: antique Webley Revolver, Install MK. VII anatomical scanner, classic doctor’s black bag, and bottle of 13 year old single malt
Cues: Och no! I am just a country doctor; Quiet! I’m trying to think!; This thing isn’t even a sasanach – I need time to analyse it; I’ll drink to that; Yes Ma’am; There are things that an Autosurgeon will not repair; This might not be a single malt, but she’ll do; My word as a gentleman; Captain, you just can’t blow it to bits; It’s a man’s place to grumble – it proves he’s alive; As my old aunt Jenny would say…; By Jupiter’s Trojans!
Disposition: Trustworthy, Ever the Gentleman, Exasperated at the lack of scientific training in the Patrol, Cautious

The setting for Cosmic Patrol is sketched in broad detail from the inner most worlds of the Solar System to the Outer Planets and beyond into the Deep Black with its Coalsack Dead Zone, some twenty astrons in diameter; the Eiger Empire with its army of triple-eyed clones; and the rumoured meddling of the cosmic beings that the Patrol has named the Metatherions. Whilst there are mysteries and intrigues galore to be placed by the Lead Narrator and unravelled by the player Patrolmen, there is still room aplenty for those and more within the Solar System itself. To support the setting, the Lead Narrator is given an array of pre-generated characters, some of whom can be used as player characters, the rest being a set of entertaining NPCs that should keep a game going for a while. An octet of Mission Briefings of increasing difficulty is certainly more than enough to get a game and thus a season of Cosmic Patrol going. Rounding out the book is a good, though unexplored, bibliography of suggested reading and viewing.

Perhaps if Cosmic Patrol as a game has a weakness, it is that the advice for the GM or Lead Narrator is underwritten. Which in what has leanings towards being a storytelling game, does seem odd. Yet whilst those leanings are present, this is not an RPG that focuses like so many storytelling RPGs on handing the players narration rights in order to tell a particular type of story. Nor should that be taken as a criticism of that type of game. Rather, Cosmic Patrol is all about a lightness of touch that encourages the players to work together to tell of adventures of “derring do” against a backdrop of Golden Age Science Fiction. It does include suggestions as to how it could be run using a single Lead Narrator, but to be fair, the narration duties in Cosmic Patrol are far from onerous, especially given how those duties are about everyone taking responsibility for telling a good story.

As has already been pointed out, physically, Cosmic Patrol is well done. The book is cleanly laid out and the artwork thoroughly excellent. The lack of an index is irksome.

Cosmic Patrol has three paragraphs devoted to the Theremin. That is enough for me to recommend this RPG. The fact that this game made me want to read some of the fiction suggested in the bibliography is also indicative of how much I like Cosmic Patrol, despite the fact that the book I re-read after some thirty years was Robert Heinlein’s Space Cadet, which is not in the bibliography. Having re-read it, I would suggest that it should be. In truth, I have wanted a good Golden Age Science Fiction RPG for a long time. Cosmic Patrol is not that RPG – it is better. Rather Cosmic Patrol captures its genre of Golden Age Science Fiction to not just perfection; it does so with charm and gusto.