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

Wednesday 29 February 2012

Pathfinder Basic?

In 2010, I wrote the White Box Fever series of reviews that in turned looked at the then available titles that would serve as an introductions to our hobby and to fantasy roleplaying. In turn, I reviewed Wizards of the Coast’s 2008 Dungeons & Dragons Roleplaying Game Starter Set for Dungeons & Dragons Fourth Edition, Fiery Dragon’s Tunnels & Trolls v7.5, Swords & Wizardry: White Box Edition from Brave Half Publishing, Wizards of the Coast’s Castle Ravenloft Board Game, James Raggi IV’s Lamentations of the Flame Princess Weird Fantasy Roleplaying, and Ancient Odysseys: Treasure Awaits! An Introductory Roleplaying Game from Precis Intermedia. The purpose of this? All as a lead in to a review of the Dungeons & Dragons Fantasy Roleplaying Game Starter Set, the very first release in Dungeons & Dragons Essentials line that was Wizards of the Coast’s re-launch of Dungeons & Dragons Fourth Edition. Yet when it came to fantasy roleplaying, there was one title missing from this series – the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game.

The reason for that is simple. At the time of the launch of the “Red Box” styled Dungeons & Dragons Fantasy Roleplaying Game Starter Set, there was no introductory set for the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game. Now there is, and of all of the available introductory sets for fantasy roleplaying game, the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game Beginner Box is the heaviest, the most attractive, the most well put together, and the most expensive of them all. This set is designed for use by between two and five players aged thirteen and up, and take their adventurers from fist to fifth levels.

Opening up the box reveals two sealed packets, the first containing a set of polyhedral dice, the second a set of twenty stands for use with the eighty counters included further into the box. Below this sits the “Welcome to a World of Adventure” sheet that guides the player through the rest of the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game Beginner Box. This sheet asks what role the reader wants to take – solo player, playing as part of a group, or Game Master and then directs them to the appropriate starting point. For example, if the reader wants to get started without the need to read the rules, then he is directed to the “HERO’S HANDBOOK” and play through the adventure that teaches him the game.

Underneath is there are four expanded and pre-generated character sheets, one for each of the Classes given in the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game Beginner Box. Each sheet explains what the Class is good at, describes each of the elements on the sheet and how they work in the rules, and gives some background on the pre-generated character. The four include a Human Fighter, an Elf Rogue, a Human Wizard, and a Human Cleric. The four are reasonable creations, although it is a pity that no Dwarf character is included in the four.

The game is explained in two rule books. The first of these is the sixty-four page Hero’s Handbook, the second the ninety-six page Game Master’s Guide. Both of these slim volumes are cleanly laid out and very nicely illustrated. They are also easy to use, each including not just an index, but also several pages of references at the rear of the book.

Rounding out the contents of the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game Beginner Box are a double-sided Flip-Mat and a set of counters each of which can slot into the plastic stands provided. One side of the Flip-Mat displays a map of “Black Fang’s Dungeon,” the adventure described in the Game Master’s Guide, whilst the other side simply contains a plain grid pattern. Both dry-erase and wet-erase write pens can be used with the Flip-Mat. Lastly, the eighty full colour card counters are easy to punch and depict both the characters that the players can make using the rules in the Hero’s Handbook and the monsters in the Game Master’s Guide. A nice touch is that every combination of Class and Race possible using the rules in the Hero’s Handbook is covered in the counter mix. So, for the Cleric, there is a Human Cleric, an Elf Cleric, and a Dwarf Cleric, one male and one female for each Race. The last item in the box is a flyer for the next step to take once the GM and players want to go beyond the contents of the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game Beginner Box.

Open up the Hero’s Handbook and the reader is quickly thrown into “Skeleton King’s Crypt,” a short twenty-three entry solo adventure that guides a character into a small underground complex that is thought to be one of the many sources of monsters that threaten the town of Sandpoint. It is a simple affair that easily demonstrates how the rules work. What it is not is a demonstration of how the different characters, or rather how the different Classes work, something that Wizards of the Coast’s Dungeons & Dragons Fantasy Roleplaying Game Starter Set demonstrated very effectively, though it should be pointed out the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game Beginner Box does a better job of creating character generation than Wizards of the Coast’s Dungeons & Dragons Fantasy Roleplaying Game Starter Set did.

After an all too short explanation of what a Roleplaying Game is followed by a similarly short example of play, the Hero’s Handbook gets down to the basics of how the game is played (mechanically, this would be roll a twenty-sided die, add any bonuses from the attributes, skills, or saving throws that apply and get as high a result as possible) and then onto character generation. Here is where the design of the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game Beginner Box really begins to shine – and all it takes is cross-referencing. For example, letters corresponding to the sections and their explanations on the four expanded pre-generated character sheets as well as on the sections on the standard character sheets correspond to the relevant sections throughout the character creation process in the Hero’s Handbook.

By working through the corresponding sections, a player can quickly create a character. Each section gives aspects that a player needs to note down on the character sheet, most of them mandatory, some of them giving the player several options to choose from. For example, a Wizard must choose his Arcane School. If he chooses the Evocation School learns attack rather than defence or trickery spells and can cast the spell Burning Hands one per day and Force Missile several times a day. The Hero’s Handbook gives just the Universalist and the Illusion Schools in addition to the Evocation School. In comparison to earlier versions of Dungeons & Dragons, one pleasing aspect of the spellcasting Classes in Pathfinder Roleplaying Game is that they get features that they can do all of the time. For example, the Wizard can freely cast the Cantrips Detect Magic, Mage Hand, Ray of Frost, and Read Magic without using up a spell as he would in other RPGs that feature Vancian magic. The Cleric has similar features, but they are called Orisons rather than Cantrips.

To offset the lack of Dwarf characters amongst the given pregenerated quartet, our sample character is a Dwarf, and rather than the traditional Fighter, this one is a Cleric. He is devoted to Gorum, God of Strength and Battle. Had there been a Dwarven god given in the Hero’s Handbook…

Holmin Quarrysmasher
Class: Cleric Level: 1 Race: Dwarf
Alignment: Lawful Neutral
Strength: 14 Constitution: 16 Dexterity: 13
Intelligence: 13 Wisdom: 19 Charisma: 7
Armour Class: +5 Speed: 20
Hit Points: 8 Surges: 13
Fortitude: +2 Reflex: +0 Will: +2
Attack Bonus: +1
Racial Traits: Dark Vision (60 Feet), Hatred (+1 VS. Goblins and Orcs), Hardy (+2 VS. Poison and Spells), Weapon Familiarity (Battleaxes & Warhammers)
Class Features: Channel Energy (11/times per day) for damaging the undead and healing
Feats: Weapon Focus (Longsword)
Deity: Gorum, God of Strength & Battle (grants Battle Rage 20/times per day; Strength Surge 20/times per day)
Orisons: Detect Magic, Light, Read Magic, Stabilise
Prepared Spells: Cure Light Wounds, Divine Favour
Skills: Diplomacy, Heal 5, Knowledge (Arcana), Knowledge (History), Knowledge (Religion) 5, Sense Motive, Spellcraft 5
Equipment: Longsword, Scale Armour, backpack, adventurer’s kit, sling, sling bullets (10), candles (10), 60gp

All four of the Classes provide everything that a player needs to know make his character second, third, fourth, and fifth level. Again these guidelines are easy to work through and apply to a character sheet. Equally, the guidelines to completing a character are easy to work through, being organised by Class and giving several suggestions as to what a player should select from the following lists of Skills, Feats, and Equipment. One issue is that the number of Feats is limited, especially if the character is a spellcaster. A nice touch is that every single piece of equipment is accompanied by an illustration.

The Hero’s Handbook is rounded out with an explanation of how the game is played. The rules cover everything that a player needs to know in terms of exploration and combat. In keeping with the rest of the volume they are an easy read, and the rules are themselves supported with a glossary of terms and a Combat Reference Guide, the latter on the back cover of the Hero’s Handbook.

Just like the Hero’s Handbook, the Game Master’s Guide gets down to the play of the game straight away. “Black Fang’s Dungeon” is just ten entries long, and although only a basic scenario, it presents a good mix of encounters. Not just combat, but also traps and puzzles as well as a little roleplaying. As written, the GM could begin running this with fifteen or so minutes’ worth of preparation – the same time that the players would need to devote to reading and understanding their character sheets. For anyone new to roleplaying, there is probably a good session or two’s worth of play in the scenario.

If the GM has more time, then the following section on Gamemastering is worth reading as preparation for running the scenario. The remainder of the Game Master’s Guide is devoted to “Building an Adventure.” The advice is good, explaining how the GM should start with the story and build up from there. Some of it is geared towards the GM creating the “Ruins of Raven’s Watch,” the first dungeon of own design, for which a map and some background is provided. To support the advice, the Game Master’s Guide explores how different environments, from the dungeon and the forest to the desert and the city, can be used to enhance a game, coupling each different environment with a lengthy list of monsters that could be encountered within each setting. In terms of rewards, hundreds of magical items are not only described, but also illustrated, these ranging from simple scrolls and potions to wondrous items like Bandages of Rapid Recovery and Slippers of Spider Climbing.

Some forty monsters and enemies are described in the Game Master’s Guide. They range from the lowly Dire Rats, Goblins, Orcs, and Skeletons, each with a Challenge Rating of 1/3, up to creatures with a Challenge Rating of 7, such as the Ghost and the Medusa. Top of the heap though, at least in the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game Beginner Box, is the fiercesome Black Dragon, with its Challenge Rating of 8. All of these are represented by the counters also found in the box. Rounding out the Game Master’s Guide is a description of Sandpoint, the coastal town introduced in Pathfinder #1—Rise of the Runelords Chapter 1: "Burnt Offerings", the inaugural entry in Paizo Publishing’s Adventure Path series, which the player characters can use as their base of operations.

It should be made clear that the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game Beginner Box does not present a full version of the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game. It is a streamlined version of the game, which shows in the limited choice of character Classes, Races, Skills, Options, Feats, and spells, as well as simplified combat rules – no rules for “Attacks of Opportunity” or the capacity for characters to “Take 10” or “Take 20” for example. None of these omissions should be counted against the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game Beginner Box as it is designed to introduce new players without burdening them with the complexity to be found in the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game or facing the daunting prospect of opening up what is a weighty tome.

There are only just a few issues with the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game Beginner Box. Ideally, the dice should not have been one colour, but each in the set a different colour to help easy identification and use during the game. The given example of play included in the Hero’s Handbook could have been longer and thus done a done a better job of showing how the game is played. The box could also have done with another scenario. The one in the Game Master’s Guide does a good job of presenting an introductory adventure, but it lacks the sophistication to be found in the scenarios available from Paizo Publishing for the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game. A more sophisticated adventure would also have presented the GM with an example when it comes to writing his own in addition to giving more of a challenge to the players.

As much as the red box styling and the Larry Elmore artwork of Wizards of the Coast’s Dungeons & Dragons Fantasy Roleplaying Game Starter Set delivers a one-two punch to the nostalgia nerve point, the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game Beginner Box honestly delivers so much more. And, not just because it allows characters to go from first to fifth level. It provides more options, more ideas, and more for both the GM and the players to play and work with. You simply get more for your money!

The other thing that the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game Beginner Box has over the Dungeons & Dragons Fantasy Roleplaying Game Starter Set is that despite the name change, it will still be familiar to anyone returning to the fantasy roleplaying fold after being away for a while. After all, the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game is a direct descendant of Dungeons & Dragons, and even if this Beginner Box is essentially the “Basic” Pathfinder Roleplaying Game, it still makes it very easy for anyone familiar with Dungeons & Dragons to pick this up and start playing.

Of course, the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game Beginner Box is really aimed at the new player. Any new player who opens this box will find an attractive set of contents that present the game’s rules in an easy to read and learn fashion, all accompanied by artwork that exemplifies the feel and action that those rules want to impart. The truth is, out of all of the introductory fantasy roleplaying games currently available, the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game Beginner Box is the most comprehensive, the most accessible, and the most enjoyable. And an excellent introduction to Pathfinder Roleplaying Game to boot.

Monday 27 February 2012

Love, Hate, & Survival

Gorilla Games publishes a couple of games that I like. BattleStations manages a rare combination of light roleplaying and space combat against a Star Trek-like background that has a darker side to it than is usually hinted at in Gene Roddenberry style setting. Who Would Win? is a silly game of ridiculous comparisons. Whereas the latter is a light social game that works with both parties and families, BattleStations is very much a gamer’s game with several supplements supporting its setting and the capacity for a GM to create his own material. Lifeboat is the third of Gorilla Games’ titles that I have tried and liked. It is another card game, and although not necessarily a family or a party game, it is actually far more social than Who Would Win? with a strong emphasis on interaction, diplomacy, negotiation, and treachery.

Designed for four to six players, aged twelve and up, the theme in Lifeboat is very simple. The players are survivors aboard a Lifeboat rowing to safety after their vessel has sunk. Tensions between the survivors are high. Not only do they possess few resources between them, they also each have a secret love aboard whom they want to see survive as well as a secret enemy whom they would like to see go aboard and be left behind as shark bait. In the days it takes to row to shore, the survivors will squabble over who will be Quartermaster and thus control the resources, who will be Navigator and thus steer the boat closer to shore, whilst the stress of the near constant squabbling and the near constant threat of thirst and dehydration takes its toll. If a survivor can make it ashore alive, he scores Victory Points, and he can score more if his Secret Love also survives, his Secret Enemy dies, and for bringing loot such as jewellery, paintings, and money with him. A game should last no more than an hour.

The game consists of forty-two Provisions cards, six Character cards, six Placeholder cards, six Hate cards, six Love cards, twenty-four Navigation cards, three wooden Seagull meeples, twenty Wound Markers, plus the rules sheet. The six Character cards are Lady Lauren, Sir Stephen, the Captain, the First Mate, Frenchy, and the Kid, each of which is illustrated in an Edwardian or 1920s style, and is marked with values for their Size (a measure of their strength in combat and their capacity to take damage, ranging between three and six) and Survival Value at game’s end (ranging between four and nine). Each character also has a Special Ability. Lady Lauren, Sir Stephen, and the Captain value jewellery, paintings, and money respectively, and get extra Victory Points for smuggling them ashore. Whilst the First Mate is “…JUST PLAIN BIG,” Frenchy is an excellent swimmer and never takes damage for being knocked overboard and the Kid is a Pickpocket who can steal Provisions cards from other survivors. There is a Placeholder, a Hate, and a Love card for each character.

The Provisions cards consist of various different items. They include weapons such as Gaffing Hooks, Knives, and Oars – the latter can also be used to row the boat; bottles of Water to stave off thirst and Medical Kits to provide healing; and Life Preservers to help a survivor endure going overboard without suffering injury amongst others. Our favourite was the Bucket of Chum, which ensures that sharks attack anyone or everyone who has gone overboard. The Navigation cards determine at the end of each round if the boat is any closer to shore – indicated by the appearance of seagulls on the card; if any characters are knocked overboard, thus loosing anything that they are holding and possibly suffering an injury into the bargain; and if any characters suffer from thirst after rowing the boat, fighting, or just because…

At game’s start, each player receives a Character card, plus a Hate and a Love card to indicate their Secret Love and Secret Enemy. It is possible for a character to love himself, which makes him a Narcissist who will score double Victory Points for surviving, though of course, it means that no one else has him as his Secret Love and so will not willingly support him. Similarly, a character can hate himself, making him a Psychopath who will score Victory Points for the deaths of anyone else aboard… Everyone receives a single Provisions card with the rest of the Provisions deck placed at the boat’s prow. Then the Placeholder cards for the characters are placed in the following order: Lady Lauren, Sir Stephen, the Captain, the First Mate, Frenchy, and lastly the Kid who sits in the boat’s stern. Behind sits the Navigation deck.

Each turn represents a day spent at sea by the survivors. Each day begins with the survivor in the bow of the boat doling out the Provisions as the Quartermaster. Cards are drawn equal to the number of survivors and first the Quartermaster chooses one before passing the remaining to the next survivor in the boat, who again selects one before passing on the remaining cards. Then beginning with the Quartermaster, each survivor takes a single action. This can be to “Do NOTHING,” “ROW” the boat, “CHANGE SEATS” with another survivor, “MUG SOMEBODY” for a Provisions card, or “TAKE A SPECIAL ACTION” as allowed by a Provisions card.

To “ROW” the boat, a survivor draws two Navigation cards, chooses one to add it to the Rowing Stack whilst the other goes at the bottom of the Navigation deck. To “CHANGE SEATS” with another survivor, a survivor simply swaps places with another in the boat, changing the seating order in the boat. If the other survivor refuses, a fight can ensue. Survivors usually attempt to “CHANGE SEATS” to gain control of the important seats at the bow and stern of the boat, the Quartermaster position allowing a survivor access to the Provisions cards first whilst the Navigator position has control over who takes or avoids injury and thirst at the end of the day as given on the Navigation cards.

Similarly, a fight can ensue if a survivor refuses an attempt by another to MUG him and take a Provisions card. SPECIAL ACTIONS let a survivor use and open the Parasol, which staves a survivor’s thirst, remaining in play until lost overboard; or use a Flare Gun to get closer to the shore or use a Medical Kit for healing. Provisions cards like the Parasol or the Flare Gun are used just the once before being discarded.

A fight is a simple matter of comparing the combatants’ Size values against each other, the higher Size always beating the lower. Stalemates are always resolved in favour of the defendants, but both attacker and defender can boost their respective Sizes by using weapons like the Knife or Gaffing Hook and by getting allies to aid them. The looser, or losers, if allies are involved all take a single Wound. A survivor can take damage equal to his Size before being knocked unconscious. If he takes another Wound or is knocked overboard, he is killed. A survivor who is successfully mugged must give up a Provisions card or if he was attacked over his seat, he must swap places with his attacker.

At the end of the day, the survivor who is in the boat’s stern serves as the Navigator. He gets to choose a single Navigation card from the Rowing Stack and carry out its effects. This can include a Seagull appearing to indicate that the boat is closer to the shore – four of these needed before the survivors are rescued and the game ends; if any survivors are knocked overboard, their being injured in the process and losing any Provisions cards that they have on the table; and if any characters suffer from thirst after rowing the boat, fighting, or just because… It is possible for a character to be thirsty a total of three times if his name is listed on the Navigation card and they also rowed the boat and was involved in a fight. A survivor can use any bottles of water Provisions cards to offset the effects of thirst.

A game of Lifeboat ends once four seagulls have appeared on the Navigation cards and the survivors are rescued. A player then scores Victory Points if his Survivor made it, his Secret Love survived, his Secret Enemy died, and for any loot he brought ashore. The player with the most Victor Points wins.

Physically Lifeboat is nicely done. The art on the cards has a charmingly period feel. The rules are simply explained, but they are perhaps a little too plain.

One of the interesting aspects about the design of Lifeboat is how the survivors are balanced. They are balanced in that the higher their Size value, the lower their Survival value at game’s end. For example, the First Mate has Size 8 and Survival 4 versus the Size 3 and Survival 9 of the Kid. Similarly, the survivors with lower Survival values tend have more powerful Special Abilities. For example, the First Mate has no Special Ability, but the Kid is a Pickpocket who can Mug other Survivors without the need to fight them. It is one reason why the Kid is such an annoying character!

The other balancing factor between the strong and the weaker survivors is that the names of the stronger Survivors appear on the Navigation cards more often and thus suffer from thirst or are knocked overboard more often. The best balancing factor are the players themselves, who will each have different motivations depending upon the Love and Hate cards that they drew at game’s start. These will drive their survivors to support or attack different survivors each time the game is played, rather than necessarily team up on the same players each time, which can be an issue in others that have a “take that” style element to their play.

Despite the balancing factor of the Navigation cards, the high Size values of survivors like the First Mate or the Captain might be difficult to assail, or at least seem so. Either though, can be defeated through a combination of allies and weaponry, and making these alliances – often temporary – is the fun part of playing Lifeboat as is working out who a survivor’s Secret Love and Secret Enemy are, and then using them to your advantage, whether that is to gain support or to stab him in the back. This aspect will certainly appeal to the player who likes to engage in table talk or roleplaying a little in order to form or prevent alliances. Overall, Lifeboat is well designed, fun to play, and comes without the survivor guilt.

Sunday 19 February 2012

Retrospective: English, Grim, and Obscure

When it comes to obscure adventures for Dungeons & Dragons, then there is perhaps no more obscure a title than No Honour in Sathporte to have made it into print. In the early twenty-first century it is sometimes hard to recollect how few scenarios there really were for Dungeons & Dragons before the advent of the d20 System. Between them the market was dominated by TSR, Judges Guild, and Mayfair Games, but there were other publishers, such as Daystar West Media Productions (which would actually be bought out by TSR) or Phoenix Games, Inc. Yet, switch to TSR’s only other arm to publish in English, TSR (UK), and not surprisingly, there were even fewer publishers than in the USA. Best known was Northern Sages, which published the highly regarded Starstone, but there was another publisher, Chaotic Intellect Products, and just like Northern Sages, it too only produced the one product – No Honour in Sathporte.

Published in the same year as Starstone – 1983 – No Honour in Sathporte describes itself as “A fantasy role-playing scenario for priests, curates, initiates of the 1st and 2nd circles, swordsmen, heroes, protectors, defenders, scouts, courses, conjurers, theurgists, tricksters of all kinds, cutpurses, robbers, waghalters, murderers, initiates, brothers and you!!!” In other words this is a scenario for characters of first and second level in an Advanced Dungeons & Dragons campaign. It does not say this on the cover, but inside it mentions not only Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, but also the Dungeon Master’s Guide and Deities & Demigods. Perhaps the most interesting fact is that it specifically thanks Don Turnbull, a notable figure in the British gaming scene, not only as the Managing Director of TSR (UK), but also as the editor of the fabulous Fiend Folio and co-author of the most highly regarded of Dungeons & Dragons scenarios, U1 Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh. It says much for the man reputation that he is particularly thanked for taking a “non-monetary” interest.

Written by Christopher Read with artwork by Stephen Ball, Liz Martin, and Pete Sharpe, No Honour in Sathporte comes as a twenty-eight page adventure in a card folder. The inside of the folder contains maps of two of the scenario’s major locations. In addition to the main booklet, pullouts provide with several pages of blank NPC forms, the stats for all of the scenario’s NPCs, and a set of geomorphs that can be cut out and used with miniatures. Altogether, it is quite a sturdy package, but does it live up to the claim on its front cover – “THIS IS A GREAT BRITISH PRODUCT!!”?

The plot to No Honour in Sathporte is a simple one of double cross. The adventurers are hired by the wife of a wealthy merchant to rescue her son who has run away to join the local Thieves’ Guild. He is hiding deep within their complex under the city which their patron wants the adventurers to penetrate the headquarters of the Thieves' Guild and persuade her son to leave with them. If this is not possible, and she informs them that he is a pathological liar, she provides the party with a poison that will drug him and put in a deep sleep for several hours. Not wanting to reveal her son’s activities to her husband or the world at large, she provides a safe house where he is to be delivered.

Of course, none of this is true. The wayward son is anything but. Rather he is a renegade assassin who has fled his guild and taken up refuge with the Thieves’ Guild in Sathporte. He has taken with him poisons and monies that his Guild Master want returned, but this is not the Guild Master’s only motive, he also wants revenge for the loss of face. For the player characters, the difficulty comes not only in getting into the underground headquarters of the Thieves’ Guild, but also in getting their recalcitrant target back out (of course he has no desire to return to the bosom of his former masters) and collecting their payment afterwards. Whilst their true patrons wants the job done, they have no intention of paying for it nor do they want any loose ends left, and that includes the player characters.

Whilst each of the scenario’s four locations – the shop and warehouse run as a cover by the Thieves’ Guild, the Guild’s underground complex, and the safehouse where the party’s patron wants their package dropped off – are fully detailed, the GM is still left with some work to do beyond the simple process of preparing the scenario to run. None of the NPCs are named for example and the locations of the thieves within the complex itself needs to be determined as it varies according to the time of day.

In terms of background, the setting for the scenario is lightly sketched out. This is because the publisher planned to produce a supplement devoted to the City of Sathporte itself. What is given is that Sathporte is a town located on the south coast of the country it is located in, that it is home to some five thousand souls, that it is a major port importing from far and wide, that it is home to several mysterious sects, and that it is ruled by a City Council of three comprised of one fighter, one druid, and one merchant. The predominant faith is Celtic. This lack of detail allows a GM to drop this scenario into any port in his campaign, but it is not difficult to infer what sort of Southern coastal town that the author had in mind. After all, the publisher was based in the English city of Winchester, and the major ports of Southampton and Portsmouth are only twenty miles away or so. That said, there is a seaside town on Merseyside called Southport and it is not impossible to imagine the name “Sathporte” as corrupted version of the name Southport spoken in less than Queen’s English. Of course, we shall never know any more than this, for the promised supplement detailing the City of Sathporte never appeared. As an aside, it should be noted that Chaotic Intellect Products would publish one other scenario, Takishido's Debt for Fantasy Flight Games' highly regarded Oriental RPG, Bushido, and that the owner of Chaotic Intellect Products, Steve Faragher, would go on to become the editor of Arcane magazine, one of the last few attempts to do a general gaming magazine in the UK.

Actual advice for the GM is light, but running No Honour in Sathporte should be a straight forward affair. Perhaps though, it is too straight forward given the slightly linear nature of the complex below the Thieves’ Guild. In addition, the player characters’ progress in getting to their quarry might be hampered if they fail a roll or two, so the GM might want them ensure that their way is not blocked.

Physically, No Honour in Sathporte feels well put together. It is done in black and white throughout and what art there is, is dark and grim if a little heavy in places. It does echo the look and feel of a Judges Guild scenario, but more attention to detail has been paid to this scenario and it has also been better supported than might be found with the average Judges Guild title. If the layout is a little plain, then in hindsight, the designers of No Honour in Sathporte should be forgiven for its slightly amateurish feel. After all, it was the first release from a new publisher in the years before the ready availability of computers and Desk Top Publishing software that would revolutionise and professionalise the hobby industry.

One reason for the obscurity of No Honour in Sathporte is that it was little discussed at the time of its release, though this was in the pre-Internet age and in 1983, there were fewer avenues for public discourse than we have today. Indeed, No Honour in Sathporte was only accorded the one review that I know of, which fittingly appeared in issue #12 of Imagine, TSR (UK)’s house magazine that ran for thirty-one issues in the early to mid-1980s. The review, for which I am indebted to Owen Cooper (whose own blog, Fighting Fantasist, is worth reading by anyone with an interest in British gaming), summed up No Honour in Sathporte with the following:

Chaotic Intellect have put together a good product in Sathporte. The adventure is interesting and challenging, and the various play aids provided show some originality as well as being useful. I think a little more could have been done to provide the DM with some pre-play advice about running the adventure and the size and strength of a suitable party. Finally, the layout could be a bit slicker, perhaps using the system pioneered by TSR which clearly delineates in the text information that the DM should give the players from that which should not be divulged.

It is hard not to disagree with the assessment of the reviewer. No Honour in Sathporte is certainly well supported and has a grimmer tone than most Dungeons & Dragons scenarios of its period. It does lack polish though, its plot and structure are too simple, and it could have done with more advice for the GM on running the scenario. For that, it is not the “GREAT BRITISH PRODUCT!!” as claimed by the publisher on the front cover, but back in 1983, when it would have cost you £3.95, it was worth your curiosity. Nevertheless, No Honour in Sathporte is a well-appointed curiosity from a bygone age that is easily worked into urban based campaigns with a grimmer tone.

Saturday 18 February 2012

Trains, Chocolate, & Curry

Hot on the heels of one expansion for Ticket to Ride, Days of Wonder brings us another. First Map Collection Vol. 1 – Ticket to Ride Asia and now Map Collection Vol. 2 – Ticket to Ride India, the second in the series that provides the Ticket to Ride fan with more pairs of maps to explore and play on. The maps themselves each come on a double-sided boards and are accompanied by new tweaks to the core rules that provide new challenges and playing experiences. Like the first Map Collection, it requires the Train Cards and Trains from either Ticket to Ride or Ticket to Ride Europe to play. Where Map Collection Vol. 1 – Ticket to Ride Asia had a theme – both of its maps present different ways in which to play the game over the continent of Asia, Map Collection Vol. 2 – Ticket to Ride India does not have a theme. Yes, one of its maps depicts India, but the other it depicts Switzerland, and that might be a bit of problem.

The problem with Map Collection Vol. 2 – Ticket to Ride India is that its Switzerland map is not new, but instead a reprint of Ticket to Ride Switzerland which appeared in 2007 before quickly going out of print and becoming just a little bit collectible. Now if you are a Ticket to Ride devotee and do not own Ticket to Ride Switzerland, then its inclusion in Map Collection Vol. 2 – Ticket to Ride India is to be welcomed. If you happen to already own a copy of Ticket to Ride Switzerland, then in buying Map Collection Vol. 2 – Ticket to Ride India, you in effect buying something that you already have in order to gain access to the board that you do not have. Or indeed, effectively doubling the price you pay for the India map.

In addition, its inclusion means that I have to review Ticket to Ride Switzerland once again. Now, having just written a review of it, I am not going to do a full review again, but rather an overview and a summary. The Switzerland map is the first two to three player variant for Ticket to Ride that makes extensive use of tunnels and adds a new type of route card that connects cities to Switzerland’s neighbouring countries or Switzerland’s neighbouring countries to each other. The map’s routes are tight with high scoring opportunities being offered through Destination Tickets that replicate parts of longer Destination Tickets. Now, the Switzerland map is not the most popular of maps with many Ticket to Ride devotees. Some consider this map to be broken.

They could not be more wrong if they tried. The aspect of the replicated Destination Tickets is a design feature. It is not a flaw. The Switzerland map is designed with a focus on Destination Tickets. It presents a challenging playing experience that plays well with either two players or three and I recommend it. In the meantime, check out my full review of Ticket to Ride Switzerland here.

So that leaves the India map for which Map Collection Vol. 2 – Ticket to Ride India is named. Where Ticket to Ride has for the most part thematically set in the 1890s, the theme being inspired by Jules Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days, the India map moves the game on another decade or so from the end of the Victorian era onto the end of the Edwardian period. The year is 1911 and in playing the India map, the players are undertaking a Grand Tour of the subcontinent.

The India map is designed for between two and four players. The map, like the map in Ticket to Ride Nordic Countries, is vertical rather than horizontal. The area encompasses the whole of British India, including areas that are now Pakistan and Bangladesh. The island of Ceylon – now Sri Lanka – sits off the Subcontinent’s South East coast, but is not part of the map’s playing routes. The India map, unlike the maps in Map Collection Vol. 1 – Ticket to Ride Asia, does not introduce any new types of routes. Instead it keeps things very simple with its standard routes supported by a quintet of ferry routes as seen in Ticket to Ride Europe and Ticket to Ride Nordic Countries amongst others.

Indeed, the India map introduces just the single new mechanic: the Grand Tour of India bonus. This awards a player a bonus for building continuous routes between the cities on his Destination Tickets. For each Destination Ticket whose cities are connected by two or more continuous paths of the player’s Trains the player is granted a Grand Tour bonus. This bonus rises as more of player’s Destination Tickets are connected by continuous paths, up to a total of five when a player will be awarded forty points!

Essentially, players on the India map are trying to build Mandalas – “Circles” in Sanskrit – as well as completing their Destination Tickets. This takes careful planning upon the part of the players and in comparison with some Ticket to Ride maps, the India map is prone to players spending no little time mulling over their Destination Tickets before play actually starts as they try and work out what routes and Mandalas they can complete. Of course, this is further hampered by everyone trying to work where their Destination Tickets start and finish, but then Ticket to Ride has always been a fun way of introducing players to foreign and sometimes, historical geography.

In play, claiming routes and building Mandalas will be hampered by your fellow players. The author of the India map advises players to claim routes early and be careful about colour Train Cards that they draw. Good advice for any Ticket to Ride map, but on the India map, there is a plethora of short coloured routes that need to be claimed to complete Destination Tickets and if necessary, Mandalas. During play it is not only easy to find your much needed routes claimed by the other players, but also to find access to cities blocked by the other players. Both of these sometimes frustrating elements are exacerbated depending upon the number of players. They are not so vexing with two players as they do not need to be quite so competitive over the claiming of routes, nor as maddening with four players, because then the map’s double routes are open and can be claimed. Yet with three players, the map’s double routes remain closed and the competition for routes is much, much harder.

The building of Mandalas though, offers a new path to victory in Ticket to Ride. It is possible to score a lot of points at game’s end if a player has created several Mandalas. If a player attempts to score points by this means, it pays to focus on the shorter Destination Tickets as these are easier to complete than the more likely to be blocked longer Destination Tickets. Alternatively, a player can still opt to focus on completing Destination Tickets, and there a lot of them provided for the India map. At game’s end, a ten-point Indian Express bonus is awarded to the player or players who have created the Longest Continuous Path on the board.

As with Map Collection Vol. 1 – Ticket to Ride Asia, the new mechanics given in Map Collection Vol. 2 – Ticket to Ride India can be applied to other maps available for Ticket to Ride. Not those in the Switzerland map, as these require an alternate type of Destination Ticket, but the new rules for the India map could be applied to other maps. Offhand, the Mandala mechanic would probably work with the Switzerland map and the map from Ticket to Ride Nordic Countries.

Map Collection Vol. 2 – Ticket to Ride India is difficult to recommend. Not because of the quality and design of the maps themselves, but because it includes the Switzerland map. If you already have the Switzerland map, then it is an expensive purchase, even though the quality of the map and its cards has been improved for this expansion. If you want another challenging map, and do not mind purchasing a map that you already have, then the India map offers that. It is challenging because of the tight layout of the routes on the map and the lack of short double routes in addition to the difficulty of the new scoring method with the Mandalas.

If you do not own the Switzerland map, then Map Collection Vol. 2 – Ticket to Ride India is another excellent purchase. It offers two good maps, both of which work well with smaller groups of players and which offer challenging and competitive play. Neither of the two maps is suited for players unfamiliar with the game, but for Ticket to Ride veterans, Map Collection Vol. 2 – Ticket to Ride India offers new complexities and new challenges.

Sunday 12 February 2012

Efficiency & Trains. What Else Did You Expect?

Originally released in 2007, Ticket to Ride: Switzerland was the first expansion for Days of Wonder’s Ticket to Ride that was not a full game all by itself. Previously available only as part of the Ticket to Ride: The Computer Game, it provided a whole new board or country to play across. Most importantly, it required a full set of Train Cards, scoring markers, and Train pieces from Ticket to Ride or Ticket to Ride: Europe is needed to play. The cards from Ticket to Ride: 1910 can also be used, but the Train pieces will have come from somewhere else. Because its distribution of Train Cards is different, Ticket to Ride: Märklin is not considered compatible with Ticket to Ride: Switzerland. So what do you get with this board? Simply, the board, the rules, and a new set of Destination Tickets.

What really set Ticket to Ride: Switzerland apart – and still does – is that it is designed for either two or three players only. Which was long before Ticket to Ride: Nordic Countries. Of course, in addition, Ticket to Ride: Switzerland adds a new type of Destination Ticket and a new way to play the Locomotive (or wild) Train Cards, all tied into the numerous tunnel routes which were first seen in Ticket to Ride: Europe.

Yet the first thing you notice about this expansion is the board. It a gorgeous piece of work, depicting Switzerland and its cities and routes, surrounded by the nations of Deutschland, Österreich, Italia, and France. These are not mere window dressing, but destinations in themselves that the players can connect to by claiming routes across their respective borders. The new cards are as equally nice, although everything does feel a little too like a chocolate box.

The simplest new rule for Ticket to Ride: Switzerland is a reduction in the number of Train pieces each player starts the game with – forty instead of the usual forty-five. A player also receives more Destination Tickets – five as opposed to three. Of these he must keep two. Any rejected Destination Tickets, including those rejected after drawing more during play are discarded from the game completely, thus making it possible to run out of Destination Tickets during a game.

Of the forty-six Destination Tickets, thirty-four connect two cities. The remaining twelve connect a city to another country or one country to another. The points scored for either of these new types of Destination Tickets varies and depends upon the country connected to. For example, completing the Zürich-to-country Destination Ticket scores a player just three points if he claims a route connecting to Deutschland, seven points to either France or Österreich, but eleven points if claims a route between Zürich and Italia. If a player does not connect either destination then he loses only the lowest point value for that Destination card, so in the previous example, only three points. Harder and longer routes of course, score more points, but these new city-to-country and country-to-country Destination Tickets make it easier for a player to score points, especially later in the game when a player draws extra Destination Tickets.

The way in which the Locomotive Train (or wild) cards are used in Ticket to Ride: Switzerland is radically different to that of the standard game. In ordinary Ticket to Ride, only one face-up Locomotive card can be drawn per turn and it is the only card that can be drawn on a turn. Here they are drawn as standard cards, so two Locomotive Cards can be picked up on a turn. Once in a player’s hand, Locomotive Cards can only be played to claim tunnel routes, either using all Locomotive Cards or combining with Train Cards matching the tunnel’s colour.

The last rule previously appeared in Ticket to Ride: Europe and concerns the tunnel routes, which are clearly marked with dots along their sides. To claim a tunnel route a player first pays the correct number of Train Cards, either in the matching colour, in Locomotive Cards, or a mix of both. He then draws the top three cards from the draw pile. For each of these three that match the colour of the cards used to claim the route, the player must an extra Train card of that colour. If the player has no extra cards of this colour, he receives his original cards back and his turn ends. He or another player can claim this tunnel route on subsequent turns, but either is still subject to what is the chance of having to pay a tunnel tax.

The first challenge with playing this expansion is answering the question, “Where the heck is…?” After all, Swiss geography is not going to be familiar to everyone and learning the routes is a whole new challenge by itself. Looking at the board it is clear that this geography is dominated by tunnels (well, this is Switzerland), mostly in the South and East. About a quarter of the tunnels are grey, meaning that any colour can be used to claim them, and the majority of grey routes are tunnels.

The second challenge is one that only happens in Ticket to Ride with five or six players – competing for routes. In a game with two or three players, there is usually very little competition and the game can feel as if everyone is playing alone. Not so with Ticket to Ride: Switzerland, where there are not only fewer routes, but everyone has fewer Trains to place. Within the borders of Switzerland each city is usually connected by at least three routes, but most routes are quite short so it is easy to block access or at least force a player to find another route. This is slightly offset by the city-to-country and country-to-country Destination Tickets which provide multiple choices in terms of routes and scoring.

Initially, a game of Ticket to Ride: Switzerland lasts about an hour, but with practice our games now last less than this. What we did find is that routes were harder to claim and that there was more competition for them, and because Locomotive Cards are no longer available for use as wild cards (except in tunnels), we accumulated fistfuls of Train Cards as we waited to get the ones we needed. In fact, we wanted a means of displaying Train Cards as easily they are in the computer game, ideally some sort of display tray. The other issue we have is one of packaging. The new slimmer box is a great idea, but there is actually very little room in the bottom of the box for the new Destination Tickets. The need for components from another game in the series also adds to the set up time, but this is a minor inconvenience.

There are two problems with Ticket to Ride: Switzerland. The first is minor, and a matter of geography. Any player receiving Destination Tickets following the board’s North-South axis and thus crossing the Alps via the many tunnels will find this game much more challenging. Of course, a player is free to discard these Destination Tickets and pick up new ones. The second is more of problem. It is possible for a player to complete the routes on his Destination Tickets and then when he takes new ones to find that the routes on these have already been completed or partially completed by the player. Essentially, this is free points for the player with no effort upon his part, and often, this can be done turn after turn by a player and this can be a game winning tactic with Ticket to Ride: Switzerland. For some players this might not be within the spirit of the Ticket to Ride family, and to be fair, this is not an unreasonable point of view.

Given how tight the routes are on Ticket to Ride: Switzerland, my partner and I found it to be play a good, competitive two-player game. This is where this expansion primarily succeeds – making the smaller and shorter game more competitive and more of a challenge. The other area where it succeeds is in format, offering a new play area without making the purchaser buy a whole new version of Ticket to Ride. In fact, my partner commented on this at the time and suggested that it would be even better if future expansions in this format could have a double sided board and offer two countries to compete over. After all, other train games have done it. There are of course, problems with such a format, in particular the need for two sets of Destination Tickets, but it is an idea…

Packaged in a flat album-sized box, Ticket to Ride: Switzerland set the format for a pair of releases for Ticket to Ride in late 2011 – Map Collection, Vol. 1 – Ticket to Ride Asia and Vol. 2 – Ticket to Ride India. Indeed, the latter includes the Ticket to Ride: Switzerland board, itself long out of print, much in demand, and its second hand price often reflecting that. Fortunately, both volumes of the Map Collection come in deeper boxes and thus avoid the packaging error of Ticket to Ride: Switzerland. That said, whilst the re-release of Ticket to Ride: Switzerland is far from unwelcome, it is annoying that in order to get the India board, it necessary to buy it again.

There is a school of thought that believes that Ticket to Ride: Switzerland is broken and that it needs fixing. The fault being that the replication of routes on some Destination Tickets within other Destination Tickets results in there being an easier method of scoring. The fault being that some routes are replicated in the country to country Destination Tickets, so that a player could score for completing a France to another country Destination Ticket and then score for completing another country to country Destination Ticket with the same route back to France. Such a belief is absurd, as nothing could be further from the truth. Neither of these are faults. They are design features on what is a Ticket to Ride map that focuses heavily on Destination Tickets.

The tightness of the routes and the new country-to-country and city-to-country Destination Cards make Ticket to Ride: Switzerland a challenging and interesting board. It offers all of the competition previously only found in a four or five player game of Ticket to Ride, but just for two or three players. The board itself is stunning and the routes it gives the players to take make for what is arguably the most efficient Ticket to Ride expansion to date.

Wednesday 8 February 2012

The Generic Grit RPG

The CORTEX System Role Playing Game is a set of generic rules first seen in the Serenity RPG, and since used in the Battlestar Galactica, Demon Hunter, and Supernatural RPGs. It comes complete, bar the dice, and is designed to handle most genres short of the more fantastic – so no high fantasy, no superheroes, and no ultra-tech. What it can do is fantasy with magic, science fiction with psionics and cyberware, and more modern set and near future set games, all with a gritty edge. The book also includes some decent GM advice, three sample settings, and even an index.

There are numerous sets of generic rules for roleplaying currently available and the difference between one and any other, comes down to the level of detail it provides, the lightness of its rules, and quite simply the feel of the game. The CORTEX System Role Playing Game compares well with any of its competitors, sitting at the low end of the detail spectrum, its rules being moderately light, and possessing a feel that is grittier and grainier than other “light” generic rules. The core rules are slightly let down by their window dressing – more “pick ‘n’ play” elements could have been included to get a game set in a specific genre going faster, and the sample settings do undersell themselves. Nevertheless, the CORTEX System Role Playing Game is a good package for the GM who wants a light, gritty rules set with which to create his own games.

The system is relatively straight forward. Attributes, skills, and traits – assets and complications (or advantages and disadvantages), for characters, monsters, and vehicles are measured by dice type: two, four, six, eight, ten, and twelve-sided dice, with a rating of d6 being considered as average. Attributes – Agility, Strength, Vitality, Alertness, Intelligence, and Willpower; and Traits – Assets and Complications such as “Rank and Privilege” and “Traumatic Flashbacks” are measured by just a single die type, whereas skills work slightly differently. Above a rating of d6, all skills must have a speciality. So a character can have a skill in Drive of d2, d4, or d6, but beyond that he needs to specialise in Bus, Car, Truck, or something similar, in which he would have a rating of d8 or more. This would be expressed as Drive d6, Truck d8 and the character could easily buy specialities beyond that.

To do anything a character rolls against a target difficulty, three for easy, seven for average, right up to 31 for impossible. Any result of seven or more above this target is counted as an extraordinary success. Skill checks involve both an attribute and the skill, but the attribute will vary depending upon circumstances. For example, to successfully strike a target a character would roll his Agility and his Unarmed Combat d6, Tae Kwon Do d10, but to analyse and assess his opponent’s skill, he would roll his Intelligence and his Unarmed Combat d6, Tae Kwon Do d10. Rolls involving attributes either mean rolling it twice, for example, when making a strength check to force open a door, or two different attributes.

A character also receives Plot Points, used to modify his skill rolls, to reduce damage suffered, and to manipulate the game in small ways in his favour. He earns them not just for good roleplaying and achieving goals, but also for bringing his Complications into play.

Character creation uses a standard point buy method. A player is given points to spend on his character’s attributes, skills, and traits, the amount varying according to how experienced or how heroic the GM wants his player characters to be. The book also includes bundles that a player can buy, packages of attributes, skills, and traits representing racial or experience backgrounds, such as (UFO) Abductee or Elf. There are only a few sample such Bundles, and while it is easy enough to create more, it would have been nice to have been given a few more, perhaps categorised by genre so that a GM and his players could just pick and play.

The system is well supported with solid rules for handling combat and vehicles – anything from a minivan to a scout starship, and a decent equipment list that includes robots and androids (with rules to play both). The GM is given advice on creating and running games, with attention paid to the genres supported elsewhere in the book – crime, fantasy, and galactic fantasy.

Part of the problem with the CORTEX System Role Playing Game is that it draws strong comparison with the Savage Worlds RPG, primarily because the mechanics of both look vaguely similar and cater to not dissimilar markets. There are plenty of differences and similarities though. Both are quick games, but CORTEX is more straight forward in play compared with the slightly more complex Savage Worlds with its use of cards; CORTEX is a grittier, grainier game than the pulpier, more heroic in feel Savage Worlds; and lastly CORTEX gives the GM and player alike something less proscriptive to work with in terms of its mechanics and character advancement when compared to the tight framework of Savage Worlds. The other advantage that Savage Worlds has is that gives access to a wide range of settings (and it handles miniatures skirmish games better, but CORTEX was not written with that in mind), but CORTEX is better toolkit in terms of mechanics for the GM to create his own setting or game. That said, the similarities are enough that you could run a Savage Worlds setting with relatively little difficulty using the CORTEX System.

The other problem that the CORTEX System Role Playing Game has is in its choice of window dressings and sample settings. The primary window dressing elements provided are magic, cybernetics, and psionics, each including just about enough samples to show the reader how they work and then leave you really wanting more. The other piece of window dressing is a set of mechanics describing how the U.S. court procedure works, which seems an odd choice that only makes sense when you discover that one of the three sample setting is a cop show.

The first of the three sample settings is “Star of the Guardians,” a Star Wars-like space opera based on the books by Margaret Weis (whose company, Margaret Weis Productions, Ltd. publishes this book), in which the Guardians, members of the genetically bred Blood Royal who are trained to use the Bloodsword energy weapons and other technology, feud over the fate of the galactic Republic and the safety of the heir to the monarchy that the Republic overthrew. The second is “Trace,” a contemporary set police procedural inspired by the C.S.I. and Law & Order franchises that suggests that the players take multiple roles, from investigative to support to technical, and play troupe style. The third of the settings is “Arcady,” based in a southern gothic novel by Michael Williams about a family and their house, both of which are capable of slipping through the Borders into a dream-like world.

Of the three, “Star of the Guardians” and “Arcady” suffer from a lack of information and if the reader is not familiar with nor a fan of the books that they are based on, the likelihood is that the reader is not going to be grabbed by either. “Trace” has the advantage of familiarity – how many of us have not seen a police procedural? It also benefits from the fact that the CORTEX System is designed to handle exactly this kind of genre, the rules being an easy match, whereas in the other settings, the GM only receives sample window dressings to use with them.

Physically, the CORTEX System Role Playing Game is neatly laid out, lightly illustrated (with the silhouettes actually being better than some of the artwork), and clearly written. Its coverage of the possible genres is perhaps a little too cursory, but these rules are not really aimed at the inexperienced GM.

So the question is, do I like the CORTEX System Role Playing Game? The answer is, yes I do. I would probably turn to Savage Worlds for its settings – too many good ones to mention here – but the CORTEX System Role Playing Game is there for when I want something with a slightly harder edge.

Tuesday 7 February 2012

A Hero's Every Day

Come the end of a hard day’s adventuring and every good hero will want to gather at The Hero’s Return and boast of the fantastic deeds that he performed that day. You are not a hero, but as a regular at The Hero’s Return, you like to get drunk and regale your equally drunken and equally unheroic friends of the great feats you certainly did not do that day. Sometimes your friends believe you, other times they call you “Liar” and tell you what really happened. This is the set up for Braggart – A game of heroes, lies, and unfortunate fish, a humorous card game that won the UK Games Expo award best card game in 2011.

Published by Spiral Galaxy Games, Braggart is designed for two to six wannabe heroes, and ten and up, and consists of one hundred and twenty full colour cards divided into five types. These are six Summary cards, a My Round card, ninety-two Boast cards, ten Liar! cards, and eleven Ploy cards. The Boast cards are further divided into four types – blue bordered Scene cards, green bordered Deed cards, red bordered Foe cards, and red bordered Result cards. The Boast cards each have a Brag Value at the top, a Victory Point value at the bottom, and a slightly cartoonish illustration with a short piece of text underneath. The black bordered Liar! cards are accusatory and force a bighead to change the details of his Boast, whilst the purple bordered Ploy let a show-off steal cards from a rival or change the cards in his hand.

The aim of Braggart is to score the most Victory Points at game’s end. This is done by creating the biggest Boast in a round as determined by the highest total Brag Value of each player’s Boast. At its most basic, a Boast consists of a single Deed card and a single Foe card. Optionally, a single Scene card and a single Result card can be added to a Boast, but either way, the Boast cards must be in the following order: Scene, Deed, Foe, and Result. This is so that the text on the cards forms a complete sentence. For example, the text from the following cards, “While wearing nothing more than my boots and a smile…” (Scene card), “I woke up next to…” (Deed card), “…a rogue magician of dubious morals” (Foe card), and “…and now barmaids all over town are unable to resist me!” (Result card) when read together forms a whole sentence.

The game starts with each player receiving a hand of four cards and is played in a series of rounds until the deck is exhausted and the game ends. Each round consists of two phases, a Draft Phase and a Boast Phase. In the Draft Phase a number of cards equal to the number of players is drawn from the deck and laid out face up where everyone can see them. Starting with the player with the My Round card in front him, everyone takes one of these face-up cards each.

In the Boast phase, a player has a number of options. He can “Go to the Bar” and draw three more cards in the hopes of gaining to a maximum hand size of eight, thus ending his turn. Or he can he play any number of Ploy cards to take cards from his fellow braggers before actually making a Boast. This consists of placing a single Deed card and a single Foe card with a single Scene card and a single Result card as optional extras, down on the table face-up and reading out the cards in as heroic or as boastful a fashion as possible. In response, the other blowhards round the table can call the swellhead out on the details of his deed by calling him a “Liar!” or an “Outrageous Liar!” and playing the appropriate cards. With these cards the accuser can replace one or two of the Boast cards in the windbag’s Boast with Boast cards of his own, the aim being to force the blusterer to reveal what really happened and reduce the Brag Value of his Boast.

For example, Anthony plays a seven-point Scene card, a four-point Deed card, an eight-point Foe card, and a six-point Result card. All together this has a Brag Value of twenty-five and reads as follows: “While possessed by the spirit of a long dead warlord…” “I opened a crate and was surprised to find…” “…a necromancer and her legions of the damned” “…and now a painting of these exploits hangs above the King’s fireplace!”. Naturally, Anthony reads this out in as heroic a voice as possible and looks around the table to see if any will challenge him as to the veracity of his claims.

With a cry of “Liar!” and a point of his finger, Dave to his left plays a “Liar!” card on Anthony’s Boast and replaces his seven-point Scene card with a four-point Scene card from his hand. Similarly, Michelle calls Anthony an “Outrageous Liar!” and replaces two of his Boast cards with a three-point Deed card and a two-point Foe card so that Anthony’s Boast now reads “In the Queen’s bedchamber…” “I was beaten and robbed by…” “…the vicious village cat” “…and now a painting of these exploits hangs above the King’s fireplace!” and has a Brag Value of fifteen rather than twenty-five. Of course, Anthony is still expected to read out his amended, but now a bit more truthful Boast, in as a heroic a voice as possible.

A round ends once every player has managed to either “Go to the Bar” or make a Boast. The player who made the Boast with the highest Brag Value wins the round and gets to keep all of the cards from his Boast in his score pile for game’s end. Any other player who managed to make a Boast gets to keep one of the cards from his Boast to add to his score pile. All other cards from played Boasts are discarded. Then a new round begins with the My Round card going to the player who scored the least or nothing in the previous round. The game continues round by round until the deck is exhausted and then everyone totes up the Victory Points scored from their Brags. The winner – the player with the highest total – is awarded the title of Lord Braggart.

Braggart is not a game that calls for much in the way of tactics. After all, all that a player is trying to do is get his best Boast out on the table whilst ensuring that his rivals make poorer Boasts by calling them Liars. The only real tactic is watching the cards that each player draws in the Draft phase, whether that is high value Boast Cards to play Liar! Cards on them or Liar! Cards to avoid having them played on your Boast. After that though, it is simply a matter of doing the dirty on the other players. For the most part, this is a random card game and the players have to make the best of their hands.

Lastly, there is the matter of the game’s full title: Braggart – A game of heroes, lies, and unfortunate fish. The “heroes” and “lies” aspects are obvious, but the “unfortunate fish”? Well, there is a single Foe Card worth exactly a Brag Value and a Victory Point total of one for which text on the card reads, “…an unfortunate trout.” This is not the only Foe Card of this value in the game, but when this is played in the designer’s own playing group, it is known as being “trouted”!

Braggart is a fun, silly, take that style game that serves as a good filler to play whilst waiting for more players or a longer game to start. It should appeal to gamers who like to tell a story, even if only very silly stories and it will really appeal to gamers who have played fantasy roleplaying games such as Dungeons & Dragons. It is also a suitably light game to play socially, be that with a drink in your hand or not, though it would be fitting as you do “Go to the Bar” in the game! Every gamer should have a selection of filler games and Braggart – A game of heroes, lies, and unfortunate fish is an entertaining game that deserves to be in your selection.

Saturday 4 February 2012

A Kobold's Score

As Kobold Quarterly #20 attains its score, its coverage of Dungeons & Dragons – and its primary variants, continues to maintain a high standard with its mix of articles, advice, and scenarios. As with Kobold Quarterly #19, this latest issue from Open Design continues to move away from its previously self-avowed tag line – “The Switzerland of the Edition Wars” – with more coverage for Paizo Publishing’s Pathfinder Roleplaying Game than Wizards of the Coast’s Dungeons & Dragons, Fourth Edition. This is not to say that Dungeons & Dragons, Fourth Edition receives less coverage than in the previous issue, but the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game definitely gets the most space. In addition there are articles for the Adventure Game Engine, the mechanics that power the Dragon Age – Dark Fantasy Roleplaying from Green Ronin Publishing.

So if being neutral is not what Kobold Quarterly #20 is all about, what then, does it have as its theme? Again, the clue is in the tag line: “A Strong Bow and a Full Quiver,” for its theme is all about archers and archery, arrows and quivers, hunters and the hunted. Kicking off this theme is John E. Ling, Jr.’s “The Elven Archer: For Some Heroes, the Arrow Strikes Swift and True” which provides a Racial Class for the player who wants to play a character akin to Legolas. The Class is essentially a variant of the Ranger Class, but a pleasing touch is that it includes notes on how to adapt the Class to other races, roles, and missile weapons, as well as how the Class fits into the publisher’s Midgard Campaign Setting with a discussion of the Arbonesse Exiles and Daughters of Perun.

Thus “Arrows of the Arbonesse” by Jarrod Camiré can be seen as a companion piece, describing as it does the deadly and varied arrows of the Elves known as the Arbonesse Exiles. Again for use with the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game, it offers arrows that splash acid on a target, that release an obscuring fog, that leave a trail of razor wire, and need to be fired in pairs to create the anchoring points for the equivalent of the Web spell they release. The theme continues with Christopher Bodan’s “Fey Hunters & Shadow Hounds: Hunting PCs in the Margreve and the Shadow Plane,” which delves into the dangers of the hunt in the Old Margreve Forest in Open Design’s Midgard Campaign Setting. The region itself is described in more detail in the supplement, Tales from the Old Margreve, but this article looks at one particular aspect – how the Shadow Fey use the forest to hunt their prey. Their prey being the player characters… Discussed are the shadow fey’s tactics, devices, and servants, the latter possibly being the heroes’ fate if they fail to escape the shadow fey’s predations. It is perhaps not as punchy as the previous articles in the theme, but instead provides a greater depth.

Nicholas L. Milasich adds a mucky element to the art of Alchemy in the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game with “Derro Ooze Magic: New Discoveries and Archetypes for Alchemists.” It introduces the Ooze School of magic, a variant of the Transmutation school, the most notable features of which includes the ability to turn your arm into a slimy pseudopod and attack with its acidic touch and even temporarily transform into an Ooze! Similar abilities are available to the Sorcerer who selects the Ooze Bloodline, whilst adherents of the Ooze School who can take an Ooze familiar! Naturally, the article includes a list of oozy spells, but it is also much more than its mechanics as there is plenty of detail to be found here that can be added to a game, whether for player characters or NPCs.

A regular contributor to Kobold Quarterly, for this issue Mario Podeschi offers “Servants from Beyond: Lesser Planar Allies that are Ready to Summon,” a quartet of servants that the heroes could summon to their aid by casting the lesser planar ally and lesser planar binding spells. All four come with motivations as well as their stats and a list of negotiation mechanics that help bring them alive. The best of the four is Kaliskaria, an ambitious Fire Mephit whose jealousy and arrogance will surely try the patience of anyone who summons her. More obviously dangerous creatures are on show in Jack Graham’s “Night Terrors: Four Creatures to Truly Terrify.” They include the Chrysalis of the Changeling Moth, which charms groups of humanoids to care for it to the detriment of their own well-being and the haggard Pishtaco, a form of undead that butchers the living for their body fat and are reputed to be Alchemists or Gunslingers. Each of the four threats comes with a corresponding adventure hook and should present an interesting challenge to the heroes. Both articles are for the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game.

Of a similar nature is “Small Spirits: 5 Nature Spirits for Any Campaign” by Matthew J. Hanson, which is written for both the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game and Dungeons & Dragons, Fourth Edition. Each of the five is powerful force of nature within a localised area and whilst capable of granting a boon will not always do so readily. Each comes with an adventure hook or two that the GM can develop. My favourite of these is the “String of Grandfathers,” a necklace of teeth from a lost tribe’s shaman that will offer the wearer the toothy advice of the ages if he can win the shamans’ approval.

Christina Stiles makes two contributions to Kobold Quarterly #20. First, she authors the issue’s single scenario, “Captured in the Cartways.” Designed for use with fifth level characters for the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game, it is an entertaining side trek adventure set in the tunnels under the Free City of Zobeck that sees the adventurers captured and given a small task before they can progress with their current task. Quite literally a mucky adventure, it throws the adventurers into the murk of the city’s underworld politics as well as providing a set of NPCs that can be added to a GM’s campaign. Written to support the release of Open Design’s Streets of Zobeck, to get the fullest use out of the scenario a GM will need access to the recently published Zobeck Gazetteer and the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game Bestiary 1. For her second contribution to this issue, Christine is interviewed as part of the magazine’s regular “Kobold Diplomacy” feature. This is a thought-provoking article because the interviewee has been involved in various aspects of the industry that are rarely considered by the gaming public at large. As an editor myself, it was interesting to read her thoughts on the process.

Although the idea of old heroes coming out of retirement to perform one last deed is not new – it certainly gets used in books and movies aplenty – it is rare that such a narrative device gets used in roleplaying. Stefen Styrsky remedies this with “Putting the Band Back Together Again” for the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game, supporting it with examples and a full set of age related Feats. This has everything bar the plots specific to the GM’s campaign, but it could spur a great campaign and be a chance to bring back old, retired player characters that could revisit the sites of their former victories. (As an aside, an existing example of how this could be done would be with B2, Keep on the Borderlands followed by Return to Keep on the Borderlands).

Kobold Quarterly #20’s single article for the Adventure Game Engine is Randall K. Hurlburt’s self-explanatory “AGE of Specialization: Five New Character Options.” This presents five new Specialisations, one for the Warrior class, one for the Mage class, and three for the Rogue class. These become available once a character in Adventure Game Engine reach sixth level – as detailed in Dragon Age – Dark Age Roleplaying Set 2: For Characters Level 6 to 10, with the selection here providing some alternatives to the limited number given in that set. The number assigned to the Rogue class is indicative of the class’ flexibility, with the inclusion of the Marksman Talent covering for an odd omission in the rules given in the box.

“The Bardic Arts” by Aaron Infante-Levy is the first of the issue’s few articles written solely for Dungeons & Dragons, Fourth Edition. It provides a set of new Class features that expand obvious features of the class, whether that is its use of magic with “Cantrip Study;” interaction with “Carousing,” “Etiquette,” “Seduction,” and so on; and study with “Polyglot” and “Student of Human Nature.” Over the course of a Bardic character’s career he gets to choose four of these and they nicely add non-combat aspect to the Class and the game. This is followed by the second article, Jerry LeNeave’s “Unearthed Ancestry: Racial Utility Powers for Gnomes, Tieflings, and Minotaurs” which provides five new Utility Powers for these three species that do add more flavour to them in play.

The last article for Dungeons & Dragons, Fourth Edition is actually for the Adventure Game Engine and Pathfinder Roleplaying Game as well. “Make Haste! How to Design an Adventure with Time Pressure” by Ron Lundeen is really a generic article that provides a simple set of mechanics handling adventures that are a race against time. It is well explained and its mechanics are so light that it would work with many other RPGs too.

Rounding out Kobold Quarterly #20 is perhaps the issue’s oddest article, “Fish of Legend: Magical Seafood for Fighters & Wizards Alike” by Crystal Frasier. The idea is that in a world of magic that fish can provide more than the mundane – dyes, food, medicine, cosmetics, leather, and so on. This adds magical elements to fish and gives them innate abilities and secondary abilities to anyone who consumes or uses them. For example, the abaia has the knack of creating small rainstorms, but when eaten, renders a person impervious to dehydration and able to drip water from his skin for a day. In addition, it can be used as a material component doubles the duration of the control water and control weather spells. As the article explains, this is a means of recreating magical items in a different form, and a clever one it is too. Its contents should be used sparingly, but there is detail enough to add flavour and feel to a game.

For his regular Game Theories column, Monte Cook offers “The Power of the Game Master,” an exploration of the “GM as God,” the “GM as a Player,” and how this affects the group. All told its conclusions might be obvious to anyone with an interest in some of the theory behind roleplaying, but this is a well thought out piece. Of the other regular columns, Skip Williams answers questions about disease and poisons in “Ask theKobold,” Jeff Grubb explores “The Ruins of Arbonesse” in the “Free City of Zobeck” column, plus there are the usual cartoons and book review column.

Physically, Kobold Quarterly #20 is an improvement over Kobold Quarterly #19. It feels far less rushed, the art is more appropriate, and there are fewer editorial problems. The issue also feels as it has much more in the way of content. Similarly, the inclusion of more content, even if only a slight increase, for Dungeons & Dragons, Fourth Edition makes the issue feel more balanced. Anyone who wants to play a character akin to Legolas will get a lot out of the issue, but equally, the article on Ooze magic begs to be added to a campaign (now can I persuade my GM to me play a Kobold Sorcerer with the Ooze Bloodline?). There is material aplenty in Kobold Quarterly #20 that can be added to a campaign, with the detail galore present that add flavour and feel.