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

Sunday 29 April 2012

Voyages with his Mummy

With the centenary of her foundering fresh in our collective consciousness, the fact that the latest scenario from Pelgrane Press for its RPG of Lovecraftian investigative horror, Trail of Cthulhu, nothing less than well-timed. Written by Adam Gauntlett, whose previous contributions to titles published by Miskatonic River Press, Pagan Publishing, and Pelgrane Press, have all been well received, The Millionaire’s Special is a mini-adventure set on the RMS Titanic, in which several First Class passengers – or is that player characters – must face a threat already aboard the luxurious liner, whilst their players know that they will face certain death by adventure’s end.

Both the tragedy and the mystique of the Titanic figure strongly in all of our minds, and it is no surprise that they are a looming influence upon The Millionaire’s Special. For in setting it aboard a doomed ship – and no, that is not a spoiler (unless of course, you have not seen either the film directed by James Cameron or the recent television series written by Lord Fellowes; and curiously, I have steadfastly seen neither, so I had no idea that the ship sank) – Gauntlett not only faces a challenge, but has to set one too. The challenge he faces is one of presenting an adventure in which there is an unavoidable deadline, one that neither he (as the author) nor the players (as the protagonists) can avoid. The challenge that he has to set is making the adventure interesting enough to divert the attention of the players away from the impending disaster.

Gauntlet begins by having the player characters cast as First Class passengers, each with a minimum of Credit Rating 5 – with the hextet of pre-generated investigators provided being all respectable personages in good standing. These come complete with backgrounds, and include the usuall array of archaeologists, artists, dilettantes, and occultists along with some slightly more inventive creations. If the players wish to create their own, then they need to be of a similar standing, although another option would be for a player to take the role of the personal servant to another character.

It begins with their attendance at a soiree hosted by the newspaper mogul and noted amateur spiritualist and archaeologist, Jefferson Shaw. As his guests, they have to listen to him expound upon his recent archaeological exploits in the Valley of the Kings and his theories upon the subject of parapsychology, before revealing his pièce de résistance. This is not the fact that luncheon is provided by Café Parisien, the a la carte restaurant and a haute cuisine establishment run as a concession aboard the RMS Titanic, but is instead the fact that Jefferson Shaw will unveil his latest and greatest find from Egypt – a Mummy – before donating it to the Metropolitan Museum of Art when the ship docks in New York.

This being a game of Lovecraftian investigative horror, the unveiling, and worse, the unwrapping of Mummies is never a good thing, and so it proves. (Then again, in what roleplaying scenario is it ever a good thing?). As the investigators travel obliviously on towards their potential doom, they find themselves, along with everyone who attended the unveiling, beset by deadly caresses, paralysing gazes, strange dreams, and worse… The fact that the players have some idea as to the nature of this “worse” when so encountered is all the more effective, because the characters can do nothing about it!

Given the constrained nature of the scenario’s set-up, both in terms of time and place, there is a surprising amount that the player characters can do. There is the means and capacity to investigate, just as if they were ashore, and perhaps the opportunity to prevent one of the disasters that will befall them rather than the ship. Of course, they cannot avoid the iceberg, nor its disastrous effect upon the Titanic, and the two hours in which it takes the ship to sink forms the scenario’s climax. If the fact that the ship is sinking is not enough to trigger the investigators’ survival instincts, then the fact that they are being hounded by something outré really ought to…

Curiously, The Millionaire’s Special is not the first that Lovecraftian investigative horror has boarded the RMS Titanic. In 1986, Fantastische Spiele GbR published Titanic Inferno, a scenario for Call of Cthulhu that involves the investigators hunting for a murderer who become a passenger aboard the ill-fated liner. Of course, it being in German, I have not read it, and it has never been translated for the English speaking market. It would seem that the subject of the RMS Titanic’s sinking could make an interesting scenario for a time travel RPG, but this does not seem have happened either (if it has, then please point me in its direction, for I could not find any mention of one). This despite the fact that such a game would obviously provide a means of getting off the ship and surviving, whereas with The Millionaire’s Special, there is every possibility that not all of the player characters will do so. Which explains why this scenario is really a one-shot, but then again, it would make for an interesting flashback to run for character that had survived and was now investigating the outré in the 1930s…

The author goes some way to providing some background about the Titanic, but the information provided is not exhaustive, and is not intended to be. After all, it would merely replicate information readily available. The GM is given enough to help impart the atmosphere and feel of the ship, and there are plenty of little details included that can help bring to the fore the foibles and idiosyncrasies of the investigators’ fellow passengers. Amongst all of the given information is an amusing nod to both the author’s televisual consumption and Lord Fellowes’ more well-known work. If there is an issue with the given investigators, it is that they feel too isolated from the setting and have little in the way of attachment to it. The dramatic potential of The Millionaire’s Special would be greater if the pre-generated investigators had persons or belongings that were important to them, perhaps even as Pillars of Stability, so that their survival was as important as their own.

Coming as a twenty-five page, 9.55 Mb PDF, The Millionaire’s Special is short, sharp, and sweet. Released to coincide with the centenary of the Titanic’s tragic sinking, the proceeds from the sale of this very reasonably priced scenario go towards the charity, Heroes in the Dark, which creates audio comics to be enjoyed by the blind and sight-impaired. Nevertheless, the scenario does need a second edit and does have the feeling of having been rushed. To that end, it probably requires a little more careful handling by an experienced GM, especially during the scenario’s unstructured climax.

Overall, RMS Titanic: The Millionaire’s Special has the feel of a very traditional scenario for Lovecraftian investigative horror. Both its plot and its antagonists are variations upon a theme, and of course, the dangers of meddling and revenge from beyond the grave are well explored themes. That said, what sets it apart from its fellows is that its setting is unique – unique for all of the wrong reasons as far the players are concerned. For what the scenario really is, is a locked room affair, initially one without an exit, but when that exit appears… Thus, a unique setting serves to tighten a well-worn plot and so make RMS Titanic: The Millionaire’s Special a memorable one-shot.

Tuesday 17 April 2012

Roleplaying Before A Game of Thrones...

Despite the fact that there has been a copy of A Game of Thrones on the bookshelf for a good decade or more, I have never found the time to pick it up and start reading George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice & Fire series. Nor did I pick it up and start reading it when the television series was made or when Green Ronin Publishing released A Song of Ice and Fire Roleplaying: Adventure, War, and Intrigue in George R. R. Martin’s World of Westeros. In this last week or so, I have however engaged in a marathon one-day viewing of A Game of Thrones, Season One and finished reading through A Song of Ice and Fire Roleplaying: A Game of Thrones Edition released by Green Ronin Publishing. So now, I at least feel qualified to review what in effect, is the game’s second edition, updated and revised from its original release in 2009 and now including not one, but two full scenarios that had been previously available as separate adventures.

What should be made clear about A Song of Ice and Fire Roleplaying: A Game of Thrones Edition is it is not a roleplaying game about playing the events of the novels or the television series. In fact, none of the signature characters appear, or are described, in its pages. Nor is it set at the time of the novels, but rather, before the chaos of the events that they describe. That said, some spoilers are contained within its pages. Anyway, instead of portraying the signature characters, the players of A Song of Ice and Fire Roleplaying work together to create a minor noble house and attempt to control not just its fortunes, but also those of the members of its household, as roleplayed by the players, either nobles or retainers. This can be through allegiances, war, and intrigue, but ultimately, the fate of the house is tied to one of the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros. These kingdoms vary in nature and tradition as much as the continent of Westeros does, from the sparseness of the North dominated by the three hundred mile long, seven hundred foot high Wall of ice and magic that has protected the lands to the south for millennia, to the rocks and mountains of Dorne in the far South.

Whilst the setting of the series and the RPG is one of High Fantasy, it is not one necessarily of great magic. Magic has existed in its past, but exists only in small ways within both the setting and the RPG, mostly as omens or dreams. This is reflected in what is available as characters to the players. They can be warriors, whether Anointed Knights of the nobility or Hedge Knights who have risen from the common folk to sell their service to the nobility; heirs and nobles intriguing for their house; the learned Maesters who wear chain necklaces with each link indicating an area of their learned knowledge and advise the houses on a range of subjects, except for faith, as this is provided by the Godsworn; and any number of retainers and experts that a house might employ, from a bard to a scout. Within the limits of game’s setting, the players are free to create any characters that they want.

The process though, starts with House creation – this despite the fact that the rules for this are placed after those for character creation in A Song of Ice and Fire Roleplaying. The players work to create the house together, deciding which of Westeros’ Seven Kingdoms it lies, before rolling handfuls of dice to determine its Resources in terms of its Defense, Influence, Lands, Law, Population, Power, and Wealth. These are influenced by a House’s history and the events that have taken place since. Whilst these are also randomly rolled for, the players are free to decide the exact nature of these events. Once the Resource levels are finally determined, they are then used as points to purchase a House’s castle, hall, or tower; how many children its current Lord has; the features of its lands, basically its terrain types and communities; any lesser or Banner Houses that swear fealty to it – each Banner House can also be created using these mechanics – and what military units it commands; and lastly, features born of wealth, like a marketplace or port. The players also decide what their House’s motto is and with rolls of even more dice, its coat of arms. Lastly, the players decide upon the members of the household, many of whom will become player characters.

The creation process is entertaining and will probably take a session in its own right. Beyond the creation process itself, the House needs to be run from one month to the next. This can be as simple as making a House Fortune roll, which provides a random event such as a plague that reduces a House’s Population Resource or an increase in its Influence Resource with the blessing that the Lady of the House is with child. The Lord of a House can also undertake an action each month, managing Resources, adding new features to his lands, waging war, or even host a tournament. Beyond the mere mechanics, the House serves as a character in its own right, from which the Narrator can derive events and challenges to present to his players.


House: Install of the Iron Islands, Lords of the Ladder
Defence: 36 (Small Castle [30])
Influence: 26 (First-born son [20])
Lands: 22 (Wetlands [3], Hamlet [10], Coast [3], River [3], Ruin [3])
Law: 19 (House Fortunes -5)
Population: 33 (House Fortunes +3)
Power: 48 (Banner House Mohr – Defence: 18, Influence: 22, Lands: 21, Law: 12, Population: 9, Power: 20, Wealth: 15), (Banner House Lassen – Defence: 15, Influence: 14, Lands: 20, Law: 18, Population: 19, Power: 18, Wealth: 20), (Trained Sailors: Discipline Routine [6], Agility 3/Awareness 3/Fighting 3, [Power 7]; Fleet: Trained Warships: Discipline Routine [6], Awareness 3/Fighting 3/Marksmanship 3, [Power 10]; Green Peasant Levies: Discipline Routine [9], Animal Handling 2/Awareness 3/Fighting 2, [Power 1])
Wealth: 45 (Artisan, Maester, Port, Sept)
Heraldic Device: Sanguine over Azure Per Chevron with a Ladder Or centre
Motto: We Climb to Honour

Family legend says that the founder of House of Install helped the Grey King of the Iron Islands to climb from the sea and was the first to kneel before him. In return for his fealty, the first Install was given the right to take an island by blood and conquest. He choose Harlaw and in a campaign that lasted a hundred years, the first Install claimed the island in the name of the Grey King, and from there would lead many raids upon the West coast of Westeros. The family’s fortunes fell during the Targaryen conquest. Aegon the Conqueror and his Dragons drove the Ironmen of the River Lands out and forced them to return to the Iron Islands, where their jealousy of the then Lord Install’s holdings weakened the response to the Targaryen invasion. Despite the niggardly attacks upon his estates, Lord Install stood with House Greyjoy throughout the assault on the islands, and when the Greyjoys were chosen by the Iron Men to become the Lords Paramount of the Iron Isles, the Installs swore their allegiance to them. Their loyalty was not forgotten and whilst Lord Greyjoy was forced to grant lands to House Install’s leading detractors – Lassen and Mohr, it was as Banner Houses to Lord Install.

In more recent times, Lord Gregor Install forged greater links through trade with the mainland and supported Robert of House Baratheon in his overthrow of Aerys II Targaryen, "the Mad King." He gained great favour with the new king, but the division to his loyalties drove him mad when his liege lord, Balon Greyjoy, openly rebelled against King Robert Baratheon. Although the rebellion failed, Lord Gregor’s indecision lost the house favour with both Houses Greyjoy and Baratheon and many of his decisions in the last decade have further weakened the family’s status. As has Lord Gregor’s conversion to the faith of the Seven, which resulted in him allowing the establishment of a Sept on his lands. His wife, Elana, persuaded her husband to acquire the services of a Maester in response, so as to reduce the influence of her husband’s madness on her children.

House Install’s holdings consist of the entire length of the River Piddle that divides the island of Harlaw and the wetlands that run along its banks. Castle Install stands several miles up the navigable river over the island’s major port, Harlaw’s Foot. The Installs tax the trade that passes through the port onto the market in Lassen and back out again.


  • Lord Gregor Install, Lord of Harlaw’s Foot, an old man of nearly seventy 
  • Lady Elana, Lady of Harlaw’s Foot, formerly of Banner House Mohr and aunt of Kyle, current head of House Mohr, a middle-aged woman of thirty-eight 
  • Ser Aubran Pyke, bastard son of Harlaw’s Foot, an adult man of twenty-five years 
  • Lady Ingirun Install, daughter of Harlaw’s Foot, a young woman of eighteen years 
  • Lord Stefan Install, heir of Harlaw’s Foot, a young man of thirteen 
  • Duncan Lassen, Squire to Ser Aubran, Ward of House Install, a young man of twelve years 
  • Mace Weller, a Bravoosi Water Dancer and Swords Master, tutor to Lord Stefan Install and Duncan Lassen, an adult man of thirty years 
  • Maester Gilbert, a middle-aged man of forty-one years, once of the Riverlands


Creating a character in A Song of Ice and Fire Roleplaying involves choosing a place within a House. This should not be the head of the House, but can be his heir or his heir’s siblings, wards from other Houses, or any number of loyal retainers. Once selected, a character’s age is either chosen or rolled, and this determines how many points he has available to spend on Attributes, Bonus Dice, and Destiny Points, as well as any Flaws or Drawbacks. The older a character is, the more he has to spend on Attributes and Bonus Dice, but the less he has to spend on Destiny Points as they have already experienced much of his life. Younger characters receive fewer points to spend on Attributes and Bonus Dice, but have more Destiny Points to spend because they have their life yet to lead.

Although not a “class or level” game, A Song of Ice and Fire Roleplaying does suggest what character Abilities fit certain Roles and illustrates it with characters from the book. For example, Eddard Stark is listed as a Leader, and the Cunning, Endurance, Fighting, Persuasion, Status, and Warfare Abilities are suggested for that role. The other Roles are Expert, Fighter, Rogue, and Schemer. Of course, a player is free to combine whatever role and take whatever Abilities he wants for his character. There are a total of eighteen Abilities, from Agility and Awareness to Warfare and Will. They are as much skills as they are the attributes to be found in other RPGs, and range from between one and eight, with an Ability starting at two and rarely going six or above. All of the Abilities are important, but within the setting of Westeros, Persuasion is useful in intrigues; Status represents the circumstances of your birth and station, as well as your skill at governing your House; and Warfare lets you take command of your House’s troops – if it has any! In addition, a character has a number of Specialities attached to his Abilities, such as Climb or Swim for the Athletics Ability, Bluff or Cheat for the Deception Ability, and Axes or Spears for the Fighting Ability.

During his creation, a character also begins with a number of Destiny Points, the amount varying according to his age. In game, they can be used to gain bonuses and control of the narrative, but more importantly, if the character is defeated – whether due to intrigue or open combat – they allow him to choose his fate. Otherwise, it lies in the hands of the victor – which is never a good thing! Whilst the game advises that the character keeps some for this purpose, during character creation, they can be used to purchase Benefits. These are the equivalent of Advantages in other games, and fall under several categories – Ability, Fate, Heritage, Martial, and Social. For example, the Guttersnipe Ability Benefit allows re-rolls of one on the results of all Thievery Tests; the Heir Fate Benefit grants no mechanical advantage, but should the head of the House die, then you inherit the Head of House Benefit and control the family’s fortunes; the Bludgeon Fighter I Martial Benefit makes it easier for the user’s weapon to shatter armour; and the Charismatic Social Benefit grants a bonus to Persuasion Tests. Many of the Benefits given in the game directly reflect elements of the setting, such as Brother of the Night’s Watch or Animal Cohort. Many also stack and require previous Benefits, such as Short Blade Fighter I, Short Blade Fighter II, and Short Blade Fighter III, such as the Warg benefit needing Warg Dreams and Animal Cohort.

In addition to these Benefits, older characters tend to suffer from Drawbacks, which inflict penalties on a character’s Abilities, and Flaws, which are like traditional Disadvantages of other roleplaying games. Lastly, a character rolls for his Life Events around which his background can be created, and either chooses, or rolls, for his Goal, Motivation, Virtue, and Vice. Again, these have no mechanical bearing on the game, and are included as roleplaying hooks.

Alternatively, some nine pre-generated characters are included as ready-to-play examples. A player is free to use these, or create his own. The creation process is more fun though.


Lady Ingirun Install
As the eldest legitimate offspring of House Install, Lady Ingirun rages at her situation. She does not wish to be married off to maintain some alliance, but rather to see to her House’s fortunes herself. She is torn between the aims of her parents, rent in twain by her father’s madness. Under his guidance, she would be a warrior and a raider, leading the house’s fleet into war. Only last year she took command of a vessel that was harried by pirates and turned her ship upon the buccaneers, not only capturing its captain in personal combat, but saving both the lives of her mother and younger brother in the process.

Her mother wishes her daughter to marry well and so strengthen House Install in the process. She has been presented at several courts, but as charming and as charismatic as she is, her suitors rarely linger. Vivacious and disarming she can be, but there is something a little odd about both her and some of the things that she says, things that sometimes come to pass. Ingirun is a popular member of House Install, especially with the Iron Men, who see her as a true daughter of the First Install who would be welcome on any of their boats.

Lady Ingirun Install
Athletics 3, Awareness 3, Cunning 3, Deception 3, Fighting 3 (Long Blades 1B), Knowledge, Language 3 (Common), Persuasion 4 (Charm 1B), Status 4 (Breeding 1B, Stewardship 1B), Warfare 2 (Command 1B), Will 4 (Dedication 1B)
Goal: Power Motivation: Hatred Virtue: Courageous Vice: Scheming
Events: Achieved a significant deed
Qualities: Destiny Points 2, Blood of the Ironmen, Charismatic, Third Eye
Awareness 3
Intrigue Defence 10 / Composure 12
Move 3 / Sprint 14
Combat Defence 8 (10 with shield) / Armour Rating 5 / Health 6
Attack Longsword 3+1B (4 damage)
Attack Shield 3 (1 damage; defensive +2)
Personal Gear: Longsword, Mail, Shield, Courtier’s Clothing, 11 Gold Dragons


A Song of Ice and Fire Roleplaying uses what Green Ronin Publishing calls the Chronicle System which only uses six-sided dice. This of course, makes its mechanics easier for anyone coming to the game via the books or the television series rather than another RPG. To undertake an action, a character gets to roll a number of dice equal to the Ability plus any Speciality dice, but he only gets to keep a number of dice equal to the Ability. A Routine Test would be 6, with difficulties rising in steps of three. In certain situations, Degrees of Success matter, each requiring multiples of five above the basic Test value.

For example, Lady Ingirun Install is aboard a ship that has been attacked by a pirate ship. She has prepared for the attack and donned her sword and armour. As the pirate comes alongside, she attempts to leap across. This is an Athletics Test, which the Narrator sets at Formidable or 12. Her player asks that Ingirun receive a bonus for her Blood of the Ironmen Benefit and her Courageous Virtue and the Narrator gives her a +2 bonus. He rolls a 4, 5, and 6, which together with the +2 gives her a total of 17. This also gives Ingirun the equivalent of a Great Success and her Narrator rules that she has landed on her feet in the pirate boat and is ready to fight.

The combat system has a pleasing brutality to it. It makes a strong division between physical defence and physical protection. Thus the lighter the type of armour that a defendant is wearing, the more difficult it is to hit him, but when he is hit, his armour stops less damage. A defendant wearing heavy armour is easier to hit, but his armour offers him better protection. He is also much slower. Weapon damage is not determined by a die roll, by the actual weapon used. For example, a Greatword does damage equal to the wielder’s Athletics Ability +3. Most weapons also have one or more Qualities of their own. The Greatsword has the Qualities of Powerful, Slow, Two-handed, Unwieldy, and Vicious, which means that a wielder can put more effort into a strike and inflict more damage (Powerful), that the wielder cannot divide his attacks against multiple opponents (Slow), requires two hands (Two-handed), is difficult to use on horseback (Unwieldy), and in defeating an opponent, always kills him (Vicious). Whilst a simple hit inflicts a set amount of damage, Degrees of Success multiply the base damage, which when you consider that the base Health rating for a character is 6, means that combat can be very deadly. Combat is not necessarily complex, but it does offer plenty of options, especially once characters start employing manoeuvres.

When a character has his Health reduced to 0, he has been defeated. It can offset though, by taking Wounds or Injuries, which involves taking penalties to Tests until a character is healed. If he is defeated though, the victor chooses what happens to you. Common options include Death, Maiming (with an accompanying reduction in one Ability), being Ransomed (or being held captive until this can be paid), Take the Black (exile and service with the Night’s Watch rangers on the Wall), or Unconsciousness. Alternatively, the Defeated could Yield and negotiate with the Narrator as to his fate; or he could burn a Destiny Point to decide what happens.

For example, having led her troops aboard the pirate vessel, Lady Ingirun has cut her way through several of the pirates, but not without suffering in injury to her arm that imposes a -2 to all Tests in the combat. She finally reaches the pirate captain, Olef the Red, and attacks with the fury of the Blood of the Ironmen, giving her a single extra die to roll and keep. She has Fighting 3+1B with a longsword, so she gets to roll five dice and keep four, deducting two from the final result. She rolls 2, 3, 3, 6, and 6, chooses the highest four results, and deducts 2 to get a final result of 16. The captain is wearing ring mail and has a Combat Defence of 4, so Ingirun has rolled 14 higher than the target. This is three Degree of Success and so Ingirun inflicts 12 points of damage, which is reduced to 8 by his ring mail. The pirate captain cannot withstand this blow and attempts to yield. Ingirun, ever the schemer, demands Olef and his men surrender and enter her service, or die…


Mace Weller
Little is known of Mace Weller’s background and he rarely speaks of it. A trained Water Dancer despite his obviously being from Westeros rather than Bravos across the Narrow Sea, Weller has returned to his homeland where he is currently a sword master in the employ of House Install. If anyone asks, he will state that he was a student of the late Titos Fallelan, famed Bravoosi Water Dancer and nothing more. He denies any knowledge of the rumours surrounding his master’s death, but has been to stare longingly at a small cameo that he keeps in a locket and is never without.

Mace Weller
Agility 4 (Acrobatics 1B, Quickness 1B), Animal Handling 2, Athletics 3, Awareness 3 (Empathy 1B), Cunning 2, Deception 2, Endurance 3, Fighting 5 (Fencing 3B), Healing 2, Knowledge 2, Language 3 (Bravoosi) 2 (Westeros), Marksmanship 2, Persuasion 3 (Charm 1B), Status 2 (Breeding 1B), Stealth 2, Survival 2, Thievery 2, Warfare 2, Will 3
Goal: Revenge Motivation: Peace Virtue: Humble Vice: Cowardly
Events: Travelled across the Narrow Sea; Kidnapped and escaped; Falsely accused of wrong doing
Qualities: Destiny Points 1, Braavosi Fighter I, Water Dancer I, Courteous
Drawbacks: Honour-Bound
Awareness 3
Intrigue Defence 7 / Composure 9
Move 3 / Sprint 14
Combat Defence 10+2 / Padded Armour 1/ Health 9
Attack Bravoosi Blade 5+2B (4 damage, Fast, Defensive +1)
Personal Gear: Bravoosi Blade, Courtier’s Clothing, 5 Gold Dragons


A Song of Ice and Fire Roleplaying includes two other forms of combat. The first is Warfare, which enables the Narrator to play out pitched battles and other military engagements, as well as allowing the player characters to get involved. Not just in fighting alongside the units, but also in joining and leading them. The rules involve units of a hundred foot soldiers or twenty cavalry, which possess Abilities just like characters, most obviously Fighting and Discipline. The latter is important when its commander attempts to give it orders using his Warfare Ability. Just like the rules for combat there several advanced options which allow for particular manoeuvres or formations, such as Pincer or Square. The rules can be used to roleplay out a military engagement, but they can just as easily be used with miniatures to play out as a simple wargame. These rules also allow the players’ House to go to war or defend itself using the military units purchased with the Power Resource.

The second form of combat in A Song of Ice and Fire Roleplaying is Intrigue. Where both melee and missile combat and Warfare handle physical combat, Intrigue is for social combat. Whilst the danger of physical combat in the Seven Kingdoms is an ever present threat, Intrigue is more civilised form of warfare and constantly plays out across Westeros, most notably as the “Game of Thrones.” Where in melee combat a character will enter into the fray with his arms and armour, when entering into an Intrigue, he has Dispositions and Techniques, the first serving as his armour, the latter as his attacks, and will withstand attacks with his Intrigue Defence – and if not, will take “social” damage to his Composure. An Intrigue can be handled in as complex a fashion as the players and Narrator wants. A Simple Intrigue can be handled with a single Test, a Standard Intrigue as a series of Tests, and a Complex Intrigue as a series of Standard Intrigues played out over time.

As with physical Combat, there are consequences to suffering a Defeat during an Intrigue. These though, will vary depending upon the Technique used by the victor. For example, a successful Bargain might gain the victor a reduction in the cost of a service, whilst with a successful Convince, the defeated will agree to support the victor, even if they hate the victor. As with the previous forms of combat, the rules for Intrigue are supported with detailed examples.

Other elements of the setting of A Song of Ice and Fire are supported through the equipment lists, which includes a lengthy section on poisons, and the bestiary. The latter includes a small selection of supernatural creatures, such as the Others and Wights, should the player characters’ adventures ever take them beyond the Wall. The Narrator also receives some expanded rules and discussion of the previous rules as well as the usual advice on running the game, plus advice on handling magic and supernatural events, and running a game set within the Seven Kingdoms not built around the game’s default of running and playing a House. This includes having the players take the roles of the adventurers more typically found in a fantasy RPG, playing Free Folk, getting involved in the Game of Thrones or the events of the books, and of course, having the player characters Take the Black and join the rangers of the Night’s Watch on the Wall.

If there is an issue to A Song of Ice and Fire Roleplaying it is that the background is underwhelming. The almanac at the book’s start gives a good introduction to the setting, but at no point do you get the feeling that you have enough information about Westeros. Much of it comes down to small details, such as names. For example, in creating the sample House, Banner Houses, and characters above, I was left wondering what would be suitable names for the setting. Much of this is addressed in the game’s two main supplements. A Song of Ice and Fire Campaign Guide, for example, provides much more detail about the Seven Kingdoms and Westeros, as well as describing the characters from the books. A Song of Ice and Fire Chronicle Starter also gives six whole Houses in detail, any one of which could become the one run by the players. The others of course, could be their House’s allies, enemies, or rivals – or all six could serve in any of these capacities if the players have created their own House.

Nevertheless, this problem has been in part addressed in A Song of Ice and Fire Roleplaying: A Game of Thrones Edition. This new deluxe version of the RPG has been expanded by a third with the inclusion of two scenarios that had previously been available in PDF. “Journey to King’s Landing” originally appeared in the A Song of Ice and Fire Roleplaying Quickstart, whilst the much, much longer “Peril at King’s Landing,” which appeared as a supplement of its own. Notes are included that allow the scenarios to be run together with the scenario “Wedding Night” which appears in A Song of Ice and Fire Roleplaying Narrator’s Kit. “Peril at King’s Landing” also provides specific information about the Westerosi capital, King’s Landing, and a full set of NPCs and minor houses. Both scenarios make use of the sample pre-generated characters provided at the beginning of the book, specifically adding a background to each to involve them in the adventures.

Physically, A Song of Ice and Fire Roleplaying: A Game of Thrones Edition is nicely presented. The new edition is cleaner and tidier, and it has all of the errata worked in from the original A Song of Ice and Fire Roleplaying: Adventure, War, and Intrigue. New artwork has been added, including the cover, and whilst some of it hints at spoilers, it is generally evocative of the setting.

As an aside, it should be noted that A Song of Ice and Fire Roleplaying: A Game of Thrones Edition bears strong comparison with another roleplaying game, both in terms of setting and mechanics. That game is Alderac Entertainment Group’s Legends of the Five Rings. Both games employ a “roll and keep” core mechanic, using ten-sided dice in the case of Legends of the Five Rings and six-sided dice in the case of A Song of Ice and Fire Roleplaying. Of course, how the results are interpreted is very different, with the Chronicle System being the slightly more complex of the two. In both settings, there is massive wall built through magic that protects the nation. In Westeros, this is of ice and found in the North, in Rokugan, it lies in the far South and is of stone construction. Both constructions are known as the Wall. Similarly, in both settings great clans or houses vie with each for power and prestige before the current holder of the nation’s throne – the Iron Throne in the case of the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros, the Emerald Throne in the case of Rokugan. Parallels aside, there is nothing to stop a GM from the rules given in A Song of Ice and Fire Roleplaying: A Game of Thrones Edition and the Chronicle System in general to run a fantasy campaign in which a family organisation matters. So it would work with the RPGs King Arthur Pendragon and Tékumel: Empire of the Petal Throne, and it would also work with Frank Herbert’s Dune. All it would take is some tweaking upon the part of the GM.

In many ways, the basic rules and mechanics in A Song of Ice and Fire Roleplaying: A Game of Thrones Edition do feel far from original. Yet does something have to be original to work? The Chronicle System is a relatively simple one, and simple for a roleplaying game that has deal with both experienced players and those coming to it anew as a fan of the novels and television series, is nothing but a good design decision. Plus, the one or two steps that the rules take in order to handle the trio of rules sets at the heart of the game and Westeros itself – Combat, Intrigue, and Warfare – are not overly complex ones and they do have enough similarities to go from one to another. In fact, the most mechanically complex aspect of the game is character generation, and that is more a problem of having to flip back and forth though the book to understand how each element of a character works in order to create one suitable for both the game and the setting.

Ultimately, A Song of Ice and Fire Roleplaying: A Game of Thrones Edition is weakest when it comes to the background of the books and the television series, but get past that and the Chronicle System and its implementation here capture the grim, often brutal fantasy as seen in both the books and on screen. The rules allow you to make an interesting House around which to play your characters, and also allow you to create characters that have the potential to be honourable, feared, hated, devious, and even mourned… If a Narrator and his players want to roleplay a campaign set within the Seven Kingdoms and Westeros, then A Song of Ice and Fire Roleplaying: A Game of Thrones Edition has everything that they need to get started.

Sunday 8 April 2012

Brains, Bullets, & Sanity

Guns. Guns. Guns. They are a gamer’s best friend. When it comes to roleplaying in any historical period from the nineteenth century onwards, in the contemporary here and now, or some way into the future, one of the common questions a roleplayer will find himself asking is, “Can I have a gun?” followed by, “What is the coolest gun that I can have?” Never more so than in Call of Cthulhu, a game in which, if set in its classic period of the 1920s, has fewer limitations upon gun ownership and use than there are today. Of course, when it comes to Call of Cthulhu, guns are really only a sort of psychological crutch. Yes, they and the bullets that they fire will work against those insane enough to worship the creatures and entities that lie just beyond the true nature of reality, and it is possible that some of the lesser creatures that the player characters might encounter as part of their investigations, might be susceptible to a case or two of high velocity, hot leading poisoning, but not all. And certainly not the utterly alien, utterly incomprehensible “gods” that threaten to return to our world again.

Still, players do like their player characters to have their guns. Even if it is have one last bullet with which to apply an emergency trepanation so as to save their characters from madness. Which leaves the Keeper with a tiny headache – though not one caused by the emergency trepanation. Rather it is this. The Call of Cthulhu rulebook does not go into a great of depth when it comes to firearms. To be fair, it is not its focus, and when the game’s publisher has addressed the subject, it has all too often, been in a piecemeal fashion. Indeed, the only single supplement devoted to the use of firearms in Call of Cthulhu is Pagan Publishing’s The Weapons Compendium, and that has been out of print for almost two decades. Further, when firearms do appear in scenarios, supplements, and campaigns, they are often glossed over, mentioned by calibre and thus by damage type, rather than make or model. Now some Keepers will argue that such details do not matter. That firearms do not matter. Which is an admirable point of view, and one that could not be more wrong. Firearms do matter because they matter to the investigators. If they matter to the investigators, then the futility of their reliance upon them can be demonstrated in the game. They also matter because if detailed correctly and handled correctly, not only can this futility be demonstrated more readily, their presence can add verisimilitude to a game.

The answer to this omission for Call of Cthulhu comes courtesy of the first release from British publisher, Sixtystone Press Limited. Investigator Weapons, Volume 1: The 1920s & 1930s is written by, Hans-Christian Vortisch, who as a firearms expert has authored Cthulhu – Waffen-Handbuch, the only other firearms supplement available for Call of Cthulhu, but unfortunately only available in German, as well as GURPS High-Tech, GURPS Martial Arts: Fairbairn Close Combat Systems, and GURPS Tactical Shooting for Steve Jackson Games. It carries the subtitle, “the Complete guide to Bean-shooters, choppers, gats, heaters, mohsakas, pieces, rods and roscoes” and describes and gives game statistics for some twenty-five handguns, nine rifles, eight shotguns, two submachine guns, two machine guns, and their variants, as well as explosives, flamethrowers, and grenades. It contains not just these weapons, but also expanded rules for their use, expanded background that examines how to obtain them and the legal aspects of doing so, and in purely game terms, suggests the guns that not only each Occupation would typically wield, but also those that cultists might arms themselves with, continent by continent.

It is specifically written for use with Call of Cthulhu, Sixth Edition, and makes use of the 1920s Investigator’s Companion, the 1990s Handbook, and both the Keeper’s Companion and Keeper’s Companion 2 as well as various other supplements and sourcebooks. That said, this book is compatible with any version of Call of Cthulhu and with any Basic Role Play driven RPG.

Before I continue with the review, it should be pointed out that my name is listed in the credits. My contribution to the book was as part of a Peer Review group that read and reviewed each part of the book as it was written. That said, my influence over and input into this volume bar working through my Call of Cthulhu library in the name of research is minimal, enough such that I am comfortable in reviewing it.

Investigator Weapons, Volume 1: The 1920s & 1930s comes as a one-hundred-and-thirty-two page, 19.06 Mb PDF done in black and white with a colour cover. Chris Huth’s cover feels a little too cartoon-like, but it nevertheless captures the desperate flavour and feel of a Call of Cthulhu shoot out. Inside, the book is cleanly laid out and suitably illustrated with a range of photographs and period adverts. If there is an issue with the writing, it is that it is a little stilted in places, but to be fair, the author’s English is infinitely superior to either my Danish or my German. Nevertheless, the rules write-ups for each weapon and each variant are very clear and easy to read, and avoid any problems that could come with listing one similar firearm after another. A nice touch is that the weapons listed on the contents page are linked directly to their actual entries, so the reader can go straight to them with a simple click.

Every gun is presented in a standard format. Accompanied by an illustration and appropriate quote, each firearm is given a full write-up that covers everything from its history and list of users to its dimensions and suitability as an investigator’s weapon of choice. In addition, a simple guide to using the gun is given along with a discussion of the major variants and a list of films in which it can be seen being used. Each firearm and variant is accorded one stat. A line below this gives the weapon’s appropriate Skill, Base Chance, Damage, Base Range, Rate of Fire, Capacity, Hit Points, and Malfunction. As mentioned above, these lines are very easy to read, even when there are multiple variants, such as the seventeen given for the Mauser Gewehr 98 or the eighteen for the Mauser C96.

As to the guns themselves, the entries include the familiar, from the Colt Government (M1911) and Mauser C96 to the Colt M1918 BAR and Holland & Holland Royal Double (the so-called “elephant gun”) via the Enfield SMLE Mk III and the Auto-Ordnance Model 1921 Thompson. They also include the less familiar Colt Vest Pocket, Nambu Shiki, Remington MK III, Riverside Arms Model 315, and Bergmann M.P.18,I. Call of Cthulhu player favourites are also listed, for example, the Webley-Fosbery Automatic revolver also so beloved of fans of The Maltese Falcon, whilst other more obscure entries, such as the Lebman Machine Pistol, a fully automatic version of the Colt Government (M1911) deserve to become a player favourite.

The mix of firearms listed means that a Keeper should be able to easily arm the antagonists in his scenario wherever they happen to be encountered, whether that be Germany or Canada. This is intentional, not just in terms of actual global geography, but also in terms of Call of Cthulhu’s geography. The USA figures strongly here, since most of the scenarios for the game are set there, but Call of Cthulhu also happens to take the investigators to the United Kingdom, Australia, India, China, Africa, and numerous points elsewhere. In this way, it also supports the various points of call that the typical Call of Cthulhu campaign, such as the Complete Masks of Nyarlathotep, takes its investigators to. Besides the actual guns themselves, this aspect of the supplement is expanded upon with a lengthy section devoted to firearms and the law, detailing weapons permits and how to obtain a gun in various countries, the pitfalls of travelling with a gun, the exchange rates for various currencies in 1925, as well as actually giving the addresses of various major gun dealers from San Francisco to Shanghai and all points in between – in both directions! What this brings to the fore is the fact that buying and obtaining a firearm can actually be very simple or quite difficult, depending upon the desired firearm.

Dotted around all of the weapon entries are separate sections that detail new skills like Craft (Gunsmith) and Demolitions, describe the National Rifle Association in the 1920s – which it turns out, was a very handy place to learn Martial Arts (!), body armour, weapon lights, sound suppressors, and more. Besides all of the background detail, the Investigator Weapons, Volume 1: The 1920s & 1930s addresses the rules for their use in Call of Cthulhu. Primarily these are with a series of optional rules that cover skill competencies, concealment, quick draw, called shots, and automatic fire, as well as rules for shooting under various environmental conditions. All in cases, these rules are clear and simple, and supported with examples.

First though, the author addresses the confusing, frightening, and often deadly nature of gunfights. There are some radical suggestions here, most notably the rules for an investigator being surprised when fired upon from ambush, the likelihood that an investigator will simply fire as many shots as possible in the confusion of a gunfight, and imposing Sanity checks upon an investigator when he shoots someone. These are not unreasonable suggestions. After all, they add to the realism of the game, divorcing it from the concept of the Hollywood shootout, and they add another element of horror to the game.

So far, the Investigator Weapons, Volume 1: The 1920s & 1930s has been useful for both player and Keeper, but the Keeper also receives a section all of his very own. This addresses how guns can be brought to bear on the Mythos and their effects on its creatures and entities, which to be honest, can be best summed up as “woeful.” It suggests that some Mythos creatures should be able to dodge, just as the investigators can, and that any kind of aimed shooting at any Mythos entity, should involve a Sanity check. That is, if the investigator has not made one already. It also looks at how other types of ammunition might affect these beings and how certain types of magic might be applied to firearms. This option though, is really for a more Pulp style game.

Rounding out the supplement is a full set of tables that list every weapon and variant in the game. These are followed by summaries of its new rules and a new investigator sheet specifically designed for use in combat. These also come separately when the PDF version of the book is purchased.

It should be noted that although the Investigator Weapons, Volume 1: The 1920s & 1930s is written with Call of Cthulhu in mind, when divorced of the mechanics, the supplement’s descriptive and background detail should be useful for any RPG set in the period. This of course, includes other games of Lovecraftian investigative horror, such as Realms of Cthulhu, Trail of Cthulhu, or Cthulhu Hero. Perhaps, there is a possibility in there being a version of this supplement for each of these rules?

A perennial problem when it comes to running Call of Cthulhu is how exactly the rules for firearms work. Not that they do not work, but rather that players disagree how they should work. Much of it born of the fact that they have experience themselves with guns, but that is not necessarily the experience of their investigators. Investigator Weapons, Volume 1: The 1920s & 1930s addresses this problem, adding realism and detail in how Call of Cthulhu is played when it comes to guns and in the process adding flavour too. It does so in an immensely readable and informative fashion, and its contents are not only a ready resource for Call of Cthulhu players and Keepers alike, they are also useful for Call of Cthulhu writers and editors too. Whilst not every Keeper’s Call of Cthulhu campaign necessarily focuses on this aspect of the game, without a doubt, Investigator Weapons, Volume 1: The 1920s & 1930s is the definitive sourcebook when it comes to classic Call of Cthulhu and firearms.

Saturday 7 April 2012

Are you Loyal?

This last weekend I was lucky enough to try two games, both of which are semi co-operative. The first was Locke & Key: The Game, Cryptozoic Entertainment’s card game based on the Locke & Key comic book series written by author, Joe Hill. The other was The Resistance: A Game of Secret Identities, Deduction, and Deception, a social game for larger groups published by Indie Boards and Cards. That I played it twice in an afternoon of trying little games is indicative of which one of the two that I preferred. This though, will not stop me returning to review Locke & Key: The Game at some point.

The Resistance is a game of deduction set in the near future when a group of resistance fighters have banded together to bring down a powerful, but corrupt government. Members of the resistance believe that if they are to succeed, the Empire must fall. They are nearing that final objective, and need only to strike at five key bases. If three of these bases can be taken, Imperial strength will be broken, the people will be freed, and the Empire will collapse. Unfortunately for the members of the resistance, the Empire has infiltrated the subversive organisation with spies ready to sabotage the resistance’s efforts. It only takes one spy to pass information to his government masters and prevent one of the resistance’s missions from succeeding. Although the resistance suspects that one or more of its members are spies in the employ of the government, it does not know the true allegiance of every one of its members. So any leader sending members of the resistance out on a mission will have to choose carefully, and learn from the success or failure of the mission as to whose allegiance lies where…

Designed to be played by between five and ten participants, The Resistance shares many features with social games like Werewolf and Mafia, but in either case, it plays quicker, a game rarely lasting longer than thirty minutes, and nor it does involve players being eliminated from the game. It is also more focused, involving just the five missions. All the resistance has to do is successfully pull off three of these missions, whilst the spies need to betray three of the missions.

The game comes in a small box. Inside are several sets of cards, three sets of wooden counters, and a small card board. The cards consist of a Leader Card, plus Identity, Team, Vote, and Mission Cards. The Identity Cards determine which of the players are loyal members of the resistance and which of them are spies; the Team Cards are used to indicate which of the players are going on a mission; the Vote Cards to determine if a proposed team for a mission is acceptable; and the Mission Cards are used to determine the success or failure of a mission. The Leader Card indicates which player currently has the task of nominating the members of a Team that will go on the mission. The game’s board shows how many players of the resistance are actually spies and how many members need to go on each of the five missions. Using the counters, it also tracks the number of successful or failed missions, and the number of failed votes for the nominating a Team for a mission.

At game’s start, each player is dealt an Identity Card. On its reverse, it shows either a person wearing blue, in which case that player is a loyal member of the resistance; or it shows a person in red, which means that he is a spy working for the government. The number of spies will vary according to the number of players. It is never less than two, but in larger groups, it can be as many as three or four. A player’s Identity Card is never revealed, but before play begins, the spies reveal themselves to each other so that they can work together to undermine the efforts of the resistance. Everyone also receives a pair of Vote Cards, one for “Yes” and one for “No.”

Then the first Leader is randomly selected and given the Leader Card. It is his job to nominate the players who are going on the next mission. The number needed for each mission varies according to the number of people playing, but it always starts out at either two or three and grows. So in a five player game, the first and third missions only require two participants, but the others need three. In an eight or nine player game, the first mission needs three participants, the second and third needs four, and the fourth and fifth needs five. What this mechanic does is force the need to find the spies quickly as the requirement for more players increases the possibility that one or more spies will be included on the Team for that mission.

Once nominated, everyone gets to vote on the make-up of the Team. This is done by playing the Vote Cards, either a “Yes” or a “No” card. If the Vote passes, then the Team goes on the mission. If it fails, then the Leader Card is passed to the left and the new Leader gets to nominate the members of a Team for the current mission. If the Vote for a Team fails five times, there is too much dissent amongst the ranks of the resistance and the spies are deemed to have successfully prevented the mission from going ahead.

Should a Team be successfully Voted for, it goes on the mission. Each player on the mission now has the chance to determine its outcome. He receives two Mission Cards, one indicating a Success, the other a Failure. He will secretly play one of these two cards onto a mission pile. If he is a loyal member of the resistance, he must play a Success. If he is a spy, then he can choose to play either a Success or a Failure card. Once everyone on the mission has played a Mission Card, they are all revealed and the mission’s outcome is determined. If they are revealed to be all Success cards, then the mission has succeeded. If only one of them is a Failure Card, the mission has not been a success.

This continues until either the resistance has successfully completed three missions or the spies have successfully stopped three missions. The Resistance is as mechanically simple as that.

Yet, The Resistance is much more than this. Both sides are up against the time limit of five missions. Failure is an option in the game – certainly early on. Failure for the members of the resistance hopefully enables them to identity the spies, but failure for the spies enables them to hide their identities. Neither side can afford to fail more than twice of course… Whilst the primary means of working out who the spies are is deducing who played the Failure cards on a mission, a secondary means is by watching how the players vote for members of a Team.

In addition to the deduction, there is nothing to stop the players from accusing each other of being a spy. This can because one player has an idea that another really is a spy, or it could actually be a spy sowing dissension. In fact, table talk of this kind should be encouraged, and it really works if all of the players participate. Nor is there any reason to stick to the game’s futuristic flavour. Any conflict can be used as a source of flavour when playing The Resistance, whether that is Communist revolutionaries against the military junta of a Banana Republic or the Rebel Alliance against the Empire in Star Wars.

The Resistance is simple. It is quick. It is fun. It is easy to teach. It is a good group game, working well with gamers as well as non-gamers, both of whom will be able to grasp the rules and the theme of the game easily and quickly. The social dynamics will take a little longer, but for the most part, the participants are going to be supplying those themselves. It perhaps works best with six or seven players rather than five, or eight or more. At five players it is easier to identify the spies, whilst at eight players, it becomes harder, and the spies also need more than the one Failure to be played for each mission for it to fail. The Resistance: A Game of Secret Identities, Deduction, and Deception is an excellent social game, a good filler, and just working out who the spies are can be frustratingly fraught!