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

Thursday 31 May 2012

Nazis & Nasties

It is curious to note that even after thirty years of being in print and having innumerable supplements published for it by multiple publishers, Call of Cthulhu has received neither support for it in full colour nor any support that took the RPG into World War II. You might quibble at my assertion, but whilst they are in colour, neither S. Petersen's Field Guide to Cthulhu Monsters: A Field Observer's Handbook of Preternatural Entities nor S. Petersen's Field Guide to Creatures of the Dreamlands can be really called a roleplaying supplement. You might quibble at my assertion because the beautiful Les éditions Sans Détour of Call of Cthulhu is in colour, but that though is in French. You might quibble because there is the scenario “Where Byakhees Dare” from Toying with Humans and another four scenarios in Shadows of War, which are all set during World War II, but all are only available in Monographs and thus only available direct from Chaosium rather than at your local friendly gaming shop. So no, and despite hints from both Cubicle Seven Entertainment and Pagan Publishing, no publisher has gone as far as exploring the place of the Mythos during World War II.

So anyone wanting to see such support will be pleased with Achtung! Cthulhu - Zero Point Part 1 - Three Kings, the first release from new publisher, Modiphius Press. The Achtung! Cthulhu line promises two-fisted, tommy gun toting action against the Nazis in a “Secret War” that will uncover terrifying ancient mysteries, legendary war machines, and ghastly dealings with creatures and entities from beyond. Several campaigns are promised, with Three Kings being the first part of the globe-spanning Zero Point campaign. It is currently only available as a PDF and only for Call of Cthulhu, but versions will be for Savage Worlds, Trail of Cthulhu, and eventually, Modiphius Press’ own new RPG, Expeditions.

Technically, Achtung! Cthulhu - Zero Point Part 1 - Three Kings is not set during World War II, but in the months prior to its outbreak. The British government knows that war with Germany is coming and has not only given sanctuary to the Czechoslovakian government in exile, but begun forging links with the Resistance that has sprung up in the wake of the German occupation of the country and its split into the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia and the near-independent Slovak Republic. Led by the “Three Kings” of the title, the resistance has informed London that the Nazis are conducting some kind of experiments at Castle Karlstein, south west of Prague. A four member team has been assembled by “Section D” of the British Secret Intelligence Service and will be parachuted into occupied territory where they will make contact with the Resistance in order to determine what is going on inside Castle Karlstein.

The structure of the scenario is such that between the briefing in London and the dénouement within the walls of Castle Karlstein, the investigators to act as they wish. The Keeper is provided with enough information to cover whatever course of action that the players might take. This includes plenty of supporting material that details the area around Castle Karlstein, the opposition in and around the castle, and the members of the Resistance. The latter includes the Three Kings of the title, each actually being an actual historical person. Further support comes in the form of the maps and the briefing handouts, both done as beautiful period pieces, as well as a four pre-generated investigators. Additional information details new skills, such as Jury Rig and Scrounging; new occupations, such as the Intelligence Officer (Research) and Intelligence Officer (Field); and new rules which cover the use of torture and interrogation. Lastly, suggestions are given as to how to run the scenario with characters who are not affiliated with British Intelligence.

Available as a forty-four page PDF, either as an 11.69 MB printer-friendly file or a 22 MB full colour file, Achtung! Cthulhu - Zero Point Part 1 - Three Kings is a nicely done document. The artwork though is pleasingly atmospheric, but the handouts and the maps are perfect. If anyone physical aspect of the scenario captures the feel of its setting, then it is those.

Unfortunately, Achtung! Cthulhu - Zero Point Part 1 - Three Kings is not perfect. The plot itself is far from being wholly original, but arguably, the setting and the feeling of the scenario does much to offset this unoriginality. Plus, this is campaign’s introductory scenario and it is designed to get the players and Keeper involved and interested in the next part, and it does that certainly. The real problem with the scenario is that its tone does not fit its rules. As written, it is Pulpy, but the rules for Call of Cthulhu do not match either this tone and are in all likelihood too deadly for the type of action that the scenario’s dénouement calls for. Arguably, Savage Worlds, used in co-operation with Reality Blurs’ Realms of Cthulhu will be a more suitable fit.

Achtung! Cthulhu - Zero Point Part 1 - Three Kings brings together perfect bedfellows – the Nazis and the Mythos. In doing so, it lays promising groundwork that the rest of the campaign will have to work hard to fulfil whilst delivering an exciting thriller of an adventure in the vein of Where Eagles Dare or The Guns of Navarone. Achtung! Cthulhu - Zero Point Part 1 - Three Kings is an impressive first release from Modiphius Press.

Wednesday 23 May 2012

Grim, Gritty, & Detailed

Despite what you might think, we have been able to roleplay monsters long before the advent of Vampire: the Masquerade. Indeed, roleplaying was only two years old when Flying Buffalo Games, Inc. released a variant of Tunnels & Trolls called Monsters! Monsters! in which you could roleplay the creatures that the heroes – or player characters – would normally have to defeat. Over the years there have been various supplements and games that let you play the “bad guy,” from John Wick’s Orkworld to Paul Czege’s My Life With Master, but rarely for Dungeons & Dragons, a typical example being Reverse Dungeon in which the players take the roles of dungeon denizens protecting against an incursion of those grotty adventurers into their home. The opportunity to play monsters returns to Dungeons & Dragons once again with In The Shadow of Mount Rotten, a new Old School Renaissance supplement from Faster Monkey Games.

In The Shadow of Mount Rotten is written for use with Labyrinth Lord, Goblinoid Games’ interpretation of Basic Dungeon & Dragons, though it would work just as easily with other “Edition Zero” RPGs, with some effort upon the part of the GM with Paizo Publishing’s Pathfinder Roleplaying Game. The supplement is very specific in the type of monster that can be played – Goblins, Hobgoblins, or Orcs – all known collectively as “Rotlanders,” as they are all denizens of the Rotlands, the lands that surround the lonely Mount Rotten. This cold, dry wilderness lies to the north of the adventurer’s paradise known as Lesserton and its nearby ruins of Mor (as detailed in Faster Monkey Games’ supplement, Lessterton & Mor: A Complete Guide to the Ancient Ruins of Mor and the Town of Lesserton, Adventurer’s Paradise), and is inhabited by numerous tribes humanoids that in between trying to scratch a living, war on each other, feed on each other, enslave each other, and when the circumstances are right, trade with each other. (Given all that, it is no surprise that the cover carries a warning that the supplement is not for kids).

In the default campaign for the setting, the player characters are members of a Foot Goblin tribe. In attempt to be noticed, they have risen above being a lowly tribe member and become its Warriors, who will fight for and protect the tribe from physical threats; its Shaman, who will implore the spirits to aid the tribe, protect it from malicious spirits, and when the time comes, make parley with other tribes; and its Mongers, who have the “nouse,” the memory, and the ability to count such that they can successfully trade and barter with other tribes for goods and favours. Of course, in between fighting, farting, feeding, and fornicating, a Warrior is not expected to concern himself with money, barter, or negotiation, whilst a Shaman is expected to show wisdom and never to get involved in fights, and a Monger never be a thief or lose money or favours on a deal. Each of the three major races living in the Rotlands also has its concerns and attitudes each of the three Classes. It should also be pointed out that the races have traditional and hidebound attitudes towards the place of females in the tribe, such as females not being Warriors or males being Shaman, but as the supplement suggests, this can be ignored or adjusted according to the tastes of the gaming group.

In The Shadow of Mount Rotten provides rules for creating Goblin, Hobgoblin, and Orc characters as well as each of the three new Classes. Each of these is a five level Class, this limit indicative of the cruel, harsh nature of life in the Rotlands. All are relatively simple, though. Lightly armed and armoured, Warriors learn to command less experienced Warriors and gain further weapon proficiencies, with luck these being the more durable, more effective weapons of Man. Although a spellcaster, Shaman need to invoke their spells through chants and rituals to the ancestors, rather than memorising enchantments or calling upon the divine. A Shaman can also call for a Parley with an opposing side, though they will not always listen, and later on, a Shaman can Rebuke Spirits, the Rotlands being rife with them. The spell list for the Shaman draws from the Cleric, Druid, and Magic User lists. Lastly, Mongers have “Green Hands,” so can count money, do arithmetic, trade his tribe’s excess goods, borrow and lend, and eventually set up or take control of his own merchant house. Merchant houses are usually headquartered in Rot Moot, the permanent community just inside the Rotlands inhabited by a mixed race tribe known as the Mooters. Rot Moot is also where the region’s trade caravans return to and many of its tribes come to each after the harvest for a ten day long festival of trading and bartering known as the Revel. Rot Moot is regarded as neutral territory less a tribe loses access to trade.

At first level, Rotlander Warriors, Shaman, and Mongers have little in the way of standing and with their tribe and beyond. This standing is measured by a Rotlander’s Reputation. Initially equal to a character’s Charisma, it can be earned by successfully completing missions, and acting in manner admirable in terms of both his race and his Class. Goblins as race earn Reputation by successfully carrying out pranks and laying traps; Hobgoblins for defiance in the face of danger and for killing members of intelligent races and eating them; and Orcs for beating up anyone lower than themselves. Warriors gain it for taking trophies and being victorious, but lose it for counting, negotiating, or trading; Shaman gain it for facing threats from the Spirit World and guiding the Warriors; and Mongers for carrying profitable transactions and becoming a shrewd dealer.

Reputation is important because it has effects within the game and without it also. Within the game, unless he accrues enough Reputation, a player character Rotlander cannot advance from one level to the next, so it is possible to accrue enough Experience Points, but not enough Reputation to gain a new level. Equally, when a Rotlander loses enough Reputation, he can also lose a level! In which case, his standing has gone down in the eyes of his fellow tribe members. The out of game effect is that it encourages the players to roleplay the attitudes and the culture of the Rotlanders, and this is necessary because essentially, it runs counter to the usual play style of Dungeons & Dragons, or in this case, Labyrinth Lord.

The setting of the Rotlands is described in some detail. This includes the various tribes other than the Foot Goblins, such as the Goblin Warg Riders and the Ogre Lashers, the Orc tribes that lead chained ogres into battle; its terrain types and typical settlements; its most notable locations; and the many and varied threats that the Rotlanders might encounter. A large portion of the supplement is devoted to the day-to-day survival of the player character Rotlanders and their tribe, as well as the mechanics of trade and barter. The rules for both are highly detailed, and they bring a strong resource management aspect to the game, one that will need careful application upon the part of the GM if they are not to overwhelm a campaign. Nevertheless, with this care, they should work as a spur for adventure and challenge.

For the GM there is not only a set of Encounter Tables, but also a set of table for creating events. This requires the use of a deck of cards, and by drawing a single card, the GM can determine an event that will befall the player characters’ tribe that session, perhaps a fight, or something affects the tribe’s health or wellbeing, or it could just be a random event. Besides the default campaign which has the player characters as Foot Goblins just starting out, the GM’s advice suggests several other campaigns. These include their Mooter Monkeys, staffing and protecting a Moot caravan that weaves it way across the Rotlands, or members of the Mouth Guard, the Goblin retainers who protect the shaman who stand watch in Goblin Knob, the settlement below the Hellmouth of Dristyakul, the passage that leads into the Underdeep… These are just ideas though, and perhaps some actual advice on running a Rotlanders campaign would have been useful, especially given that by its very nature it is different to the classic Dungeons & Dragons campaign of adventurers aplundering. Certainly it would have been useful had some advice been given as to how a campaign might play out.

Physically, In The Shadow of Mount Rotten comes as a 5.96 Mb, eighty-four page PDF, or as an eighty page book. Bar the imposing cover and the colour map inside – which abuts that in Lessterton & Mor: A Complete Guide to the Ancient Ruins of Mor and the Town of Lesserton, Adventurer’s Paradise – the book is done in black and white throughout. What little internal artwork there is nicely captures the scrappy nature of Rotlander life and the book’s maps are nice and clear. Overall, the book is well written and an enjoyable read.

Arguably, the level of detail here would make In The Shadow of Mount Rotten easy to adapt to other RPGs. For example, it would work well with the Savage Worlds RPG, and it would not surprise me to see it adapted so. Or indeed to any other RPG rules system.

The Old School Renaissance has often been accused of looking in only one direction and at only one style of play, and lacking innovation. Given the number of Retroclones available since the Old School Renaissance began, there is some validity in those accusations. In The Shadow of Mount Rotten flies in the face of such accusations, so although its ideas are not necessarily innovative, they are least fresh and they are given a very thorough treatment. With its wealth of detail and grim, grubby atmosphere, In The Shadow of Mount Rotten presents an impressive and entertainingly different campaign setting.

Sunday 20 May 2012

Not Just the Hun in the Sun...

The year 2012 happens to be the centenary of two major events. The first is the more well-known sinking of the RMS Titanic, the world’s first palatial ocean going and proclaimed unsinkable liner. Pelgrane Press has already celebrated that event by releasing RMS Titanic: The Millionaires’ Special, a scenario for its well-regarded RPG of Lovecraftian investigative horror, Trail of Cthulhu. Now it follows it up with a second scenario, one that unknowingly celebrates the other centenary, the founding of the Royal Flying Corps, the arm of the British Army that would support it from the air throughout the Great War, and at war’s end would become the basis for the Royal Air Force. The scenario in question is Flying Coffins, a one-shot affair which for the first time in any scenario for Calll of Cthulhu or Trail of Cthulhu, lets the investigators take to the air. Of course, there have been several scenarios that have involved flying, but in every case, the investigators have been passengers. In Flying Coffins, the investigators take control of their own flying machines, joystick in hand, rudders at their feet, and fingers curved round the triggers. In addition, both scenarios share the same author, Adam Gauntlett.

The setting for Flying Coffins is the Western Front in late 1918. The pilot protagonists or player characters are members of a Royal Flying Squadron serving a sector of the front to which a new enemy squadron has been assigned – Jagdstaffeln or Jasta 32. A specialised fighting squadron of the “Imperial German Flying Corps," Jasta 32 is commanded by the noted ace, Ernst Becker, and it is known as the Lightning Hussars after his old regiment. Sent out on daunting mission after daunting mission, the pilots must conduct bombing strikes, patrols, raids, and reconnaissance, in the face of not just determined German opposition, but also an otherworldly threat, one that willingly strikes at their fragile aerial steeds in an effort to pull them from the sky. With next big Push rumoured to be about to begin, it is vital that the Allies gain control of the sky.

Although Flying Coffins is more of a Purist than a Pulp scenario, its focus is very much on combat, and the edge that the player characters has over the NPCs in this scenario, does it bring back towards the Pulp. This is understandable, in terms of both the scenario’s military nature and the threat faced by the player characters. Obviously, this is an aerial threat, but it is one that is normally seen as a weaker foe in terms of the Mythos. That said, given the fragility of the aircraft of the time, the scenario’s outré antagonists are more than capable of downing the player characters…

With flying and aerial combat being the focus of Flying Coffins, it is understandable that the scenario goes into some detail about how to handle this in Trail of Cthulhu. As such, aerial combat in Flying Coffins is not that much different to the ordinary Firearms and Scuffling combat of Trail of Cthulhu, but with the aggressor attempting to sneak up on the defender so as to get in a burst of fire that the defender cannot avoid. If the defending pilot survives the attack, he can attack himself or flee, but if he enters the fray, a dogfight ensues. Naturally, this involves both participants attempting to outfly each other – handled by the players bidding points from their Piloting skill, with advantages granted from stunts attempted and from both the manoeuvrability and speed of the aircraft being flown. Additional dangers come in the form of Archie and ground fire. These rules are supported with entertaining period examples.

The scenario itself is tightly wound about its “Spine.” This Spine has an opening scene and a closing scene, but between them the Keeper must slot scenes that alternate between combat and investigation or interaction. For the most part, the Keeper will be deciding the nature of the combat scenes, whilst the players have more choice in terms of the investigative and interactive scenes. In fact, there is only the one set scene that does not involve combat, an interesting and unexpected encounter with a notable personage whose appearance is actually foreshadowed through another NPC.

The scenario allows for some flexibility in how the player characters are set up. There is room here for them to be all pilots serving with another nation, not just British or from the Commonwealth. Indeed, it is entirely possible that the player characters could be German! This will require a little adjusting upon the part of the Keeper, as Flying Coffins is written for use with Allied characters. Nevertheless, the scenario includes stats and short write-ups of some fifteen aeroplanes of the late war period. Also included are six pre-generated investigators. Flying Coffins is designed for play with this number in mind, so will need some adjusting if there are fewer players.

Flying Coffins is not the author’s first foray into writing scenarios for Trail of Cthulhu set during the Great War. His “Not So Quiet,” a scenario from the anthology Out of Time set at a field hospital behind the frontlines could possibly form the basis of a sequel to Flying Coffins if any of its protagonists are injured. As with the author’s previous scenario, RMS Titanic: The Millionaires’ Special, this aerial affair could easily serve as a flashback for an investigator in a later campaign. Flying Coffins though, does betray the author’s age and nationality. Certainly there are references in the scenario’s examples that only an Englishman of a certain age will recognise, and will probably do so with wry amusement.

Flying Coffins comes as a thirty-five page, 17.9 Mb PDF that is pleasingly illustrated by Jérôme Huguenin. It does need another edit and perhaps the pre-generated investigators tend towards the bland. Plus it would have been nice if they had been illustrated as that would have accorded them a little more flavour. Then again, inclusion of details of how the players could create their own aerial investigators would have been a nice touch also. Nevertheless, its contents do a good job of supporting the scenario and a good job of providing period detail aplenty, including a set of period photographs. Clearly, the author’s fascination, if not fondness, for the period, is evident throughout.

Surprisingly, given that Flying Coffins is a one-shot, there is the possibility of sequel, one that would involve a certain NPC mentioned in passing. Should any of the investigators survive this aerial affair, then that NPC should certainly have her revenge in later years… Overall, Flying Coffins is a very different one-shot, one that captures both the uncaring nature of the Mythos and the uncaring nature of early aerial warfare.

The Kobold Strips... Divinely

Upon reaching your twenty-first birthday, you are widely regarded as having reached the age of responsibility and acquired not just responsibilities, but also rights and freedoms too. You are at liberty to do what you want and take the consequences of your actions. So the question is, having reached its twenty-first issue, what does Kobold Quarterly, Open Design's roleplaying magazine devoted to the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game, Dungeons & Dragons, Fourth Edition, and the AGE or Adventure Game Engine, do? Well, the first thing it does is take its clothes off and gut a rabbit and play with its entrails, all before discussing religion.

Now that sounds all so terribly rude, not to say dangerously controversial or even dangerous. The truth of the matter though, is that contents of Kobold Quarterly #21 is far from controversial, certainly not rude, and anything other than dangerous. The bulk of the issue is devoted to matters clerical, divine, and religious, all matters which are treated in a mature and reasonable manner. The first “controversy” though comes with Kieran Yanner’s cover, “The Wood Nymph.” Having seen the artist’s work inside the covers of numerous RPG titles, it is a pleasure to see a fully painted cover by him, but the fact that it depicts a semi-clad nymph might not be to everyone’s taste. It is something that is acknowledged by Kobold Quarterly editor, Wolfgang Baur. There is nothing prurient about that cover, and if it can regarded as being art of the cheesecake variety, then its flavour is a tasteful vanilla.

The controversy of the issue’s contents begins with “The Shaman – A Spirit-Based Class for the Pathfinder RPG.” Written by Marc Radle – whose The Expanded Spell-less Ranger I reviewed recently, as its title suggests, this presents the Shaman as a new Class for the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game. At its heart it feels much like a variant upon the Druid Class, but a combination of spells that do not have to memorised to be cast, the ability to heal by touch rather by spell, being able to morph into animal form, and having unimpeded movement through undergrowth gives the Class a wilder, more free spirited feel. The Class also has harder edge as seen in its limited spell choice and the sanguinary start to the augury powers with the Totem Secret, “Blood Divination,” which can provide a Shaman with skill and initiative bonuses. The Shaman has an array of Totem Secrets to choose from, many of which call upon the spirits for healing, protection, warnings, and other aid. In addition, the Shaman possesses a Spirit Guide, with whom he shares an empathic link, deliver touch spells for him and even help him draw spells from the spirit world for him. The Class includes a selection of sample Spirit Guides. At later levels, a Shaman can enhance his magic with a spirit dance and even go on a vision quest. Overall, the Shaman Class has a pleasingly earthy feel, and would make a useful addition to any wilderness set campaign. Where the controversy of the piece comes is in the opening colour text, which has a Shaman casting an augury through the examination of rabbit’s entrails. Perhaps a little too strong to some tastes, but still in keeping with the Class as described.

The sexual tone of the issue’s cover is continued with Sersa Victory’s “Daughters of Lilith – An Ecology of the Succubus.” Written as a piece of academia, this delves into the origins, motivations, life cycle, faith, society, and sexual proclivities (despite most actually being unable to bear children) of a type of devil that is widely regarded as being the ultimate in sexual seductresses and arch manipulators. It also discusses her male equivalent, the Incubus, and presents the Cult of the Succubus Queen, a cabal that in worshiping Mother Lust seeks to undermine the chaste morality underlying civilization’s integrity… Although the article is written for use with Dungeons & Dragons, Fourth Edition, including a new Feat and Powers for both worshippers and Succubae, much of the background presented in the article would work just as well with any fantasy RPG setting that includes seductive devils. Especially an urban set campaign that involves power politics. This is though, an article best suited for a mature audience, as its content does touch on sexual themes. They are well handled and what could have been potentially prurient piece is nicely judged.

The first real discussion of religion in Kobold Quarterly #21 is “It's a Mystery!” by David “Zeb” Cook. This is a generic article that suggests how a GM might make religion in his campaign more interesting by adding Mystery Cults. Drawing from those of Ancient Rome, Greece, and Egypt, it discusses how to design a Mystery Cult and its motivations, how and why you might join such a Cult, and hints at what its secrets might be. This being an article in a roleplaying magazine, your first thought at reading the word “cult” would be that this article is all about cabals bent on evil, but nothing could be further from the truth. As the author makes clear, Mystery Cults are about secrets and the privacy of worship rather than just being evil. A Mystery Cult could just as easily be composed of farmers worshipping for a bountiful harvest as they could “cultists” attempting to learn the secrets of summoning some tentacle creature from the nether regions. With advice on how to get the player characters involved, this is another interesting article that would work in many fantasy RPG settings. If it lacks anything, it is that it would have been nice, given the article’s historical sources, if some references and suggestions as to further reading had been included.

Tim and Eileen Connors continue the divine theme with “Clerical Conflicts – Thy Will Be Done” for the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game. Although its opening paragraphs feel bland, the piece really steps up a pace with the five well-written and colourful examples that support the idea that the faith adhered to by a player character Cleric can the source of character conflict. Essentially, it asks what if a character’s experiences or interpretation of his faith conflict with the dictates of his deity or his church? The examples all use members of the same faith, all sat down to the same meal, and all mulling over questions of faith. Each one comes with a mechanical effect, mostly minor, but some come with major effects instead. For example, a Cleric with the “Forsaken” Conflict has not only lost his direct connection to his god, but also his Domain spells too, and in praying for them he literally steals them from other Clerics around him. These are all interesting and colourfully written dilemmas that could easily adapted to the religions detailed within a GM’s campaign, and whilst the mechanical effects are written for the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game, the dilemmas would work in most fantasy RPGs.

With “Howling Tower: Why No Monotheism?” Steve Winter asks an interesting question. Why do so many fantasy settings have pantheons of gods when most real-world religions are monotheistic and have the single, one god? The article comes up with some good answers and suggests ways in which such a faith can be added to a game. “Divine Archetypes: Angelic Heroes, Holy Traps, and Celestial Fists of Fury” by Stefen Styrsky, details divinely scented Archetypes for the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game, turning the Sorcerer, Fighter, Gunslinger, and Ranger into the Angel Scion, Seraphic Cohort, Peacemaker, and Spirit Hunter respectively. Also for the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game, Christina Stiles’ “Saints of Mavros” describes two saints worshipped in Midgard, either widely in the case of St. Brigantia of Valera, or just in Morgau, Doresh, and the Ghoul Imperium, in the case of Saint Whiteskull of Bratislor. Both include descriptions of each Saint’s worshippers, Domains and favoured weaponry, symbols, noted books, famous shrines and priests, connection to other faiths, and what demands each places upon his worshippers.

As its title suggests, “A Background in Magic – Alchemists, Druids, Illusions, and Seers for the AGE System” by Rodrigo Garcia Carmona gives new magical backgrounds for the magic-using character in Green Ronin Publishing’s AGE or Adventure Game Engine. These are reasonable Backgrounds, but they feel like half an article because there is no information about these forms of magic given for the Adventure Game Engine. With just that half, both GM and player will have to work hard to supply further detail and flavour.

Diverging further from the issue’s divine theme, “The Scriveners of Allain” further develops background and concepts previously described in Kobold Quarterly #8. Written by Brian A. Liberge for Dungeons & Dragons, Fourth Edition, it describes glyph and ink magic and the disparate cult devoted to it in the magocracy of Allain. In a Scrivener’s hands, this form of magic summons deadly glyphs that for a time will obey the summoner’s commands, though their diabolic nature makes them wilful servants. Again, this article contains a nice mix of flavour and mechanics. Also for the wizard or sorcerer is David Schwartz’s “White Tongue, Black Heart,” which describes a literally tongue twisting companion for the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game. Known as a Witch Louse, it replaces the mage’s tongue, as his familiar it can help by maintaining the Concentration required to keep a spell going, deliver a nasty bite, give the mage a really disturbingly intimidating countenance, and because of its duplicitous nature, it can enhance his lies. The article is rounded out with a fully-fledged NPC, the enchanter Kergart, who is commonly known as “the man with the silver tongue.”

More entertaining flavour for the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game comes with Nicholas Milasich’s “Nine Treasures of Deep Midgard” which describes a nonet of goods, treasures, and trophies that might be brought up from the Underdark. Drow Brandy is a euphoric intoxicant whilst Tinned Heads are literally that, each crafted by the Ghoul Imperium to contain a head that will each serve the owner as a fount of certain knowledge… What brings all of these intriguing items together is their unfamiliarity to surface dwellers, that is, the player characters. Everyone requires an Appraisal skill roll to identify and value each item. Lastly, “The Shadow Lodge Insurgency” describes the events surrounding an attempt to subvert the Pathfinder Society of Golarion, the setting for the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game. As recounted by Marius Scipio, it is a lengthy background piece that is interesting enough, but it lacks an immediate use and brings the issue to disappointing close. This is not to say that it is a bad article, but the issue would have all the better had it included a scenario in its stead.

Rounding out the issue is an entertaining interview with Bill Slavicsek, the former Director of R&D for Dungeons & Dragons as well as freelancer and writer on numerous titles for West End Games’ Star Wars and Torg RPGs. This is in addition to the usual “From the Mines...” (letters) section, cartoons, “Ask the Kobold” column that answers questions about being “Flat-Footed in Heavy Armour,” and the Free City of Zobeck column, “Deadly Tolls and Honest Challenges,” which looks at banditry in the Midgard campaign setting. The issue is without its usual book review column, but it promises to return with issue #22.

Available as an eighty page magazine or a 26.69 Mb PDF, Kobold Quarterly #21 is well presented and pleasingly adheres to its theme although it does need an edit in places. Overall, Kobold Quarterly #21 is another entertaining and useful issue, with plenty to say on matters divine whatever your choice of fantasy RPG. That it does so with maturity and a lack of controversy over what could be contentious issues is a sign that it has come of age.

Saturday 19 May 2012

Cold, Grim Fantasy

The truth is that are more games released than I can ever review however much I try. This means that I miss games that I want to review as I never find the time to tackle them. One such game is Hellfrost, a setting published by Triple Ace Games which I had good reason to read this last fortnight or so. Written by Paul “Wiggy” Wade-Williams for use with Savage Worlds – the generic RPG rules from Pinnacle Entertainment Group that handles slightly pulpy, cinematic action – Hellfrost is yet another fantasy RPG setting, but one that is very different to other fantasy RPGs in a couple of important ways. First, whilst it is fantasy RPG that draws on European roots, those roots are not atypical fantasy, for setting can be best described as a pre-apocalyptic, Northern European set fantasy. Second, unlike other Savage Worlds settings, it comes as a typical fantasy RPG rather than a Savage Worlds book. In other worlds, it is not a single book with an included campaign like Triple Ace Games’ Sundered Skies or Pinnacle Entertainment Group’s 50 Fathoms, but rather a true setting in that it is described in three books – the Hellfrost Player’s Guide, the Hellfrost Bestiary, and the Hellfrost Gazetteer, with support in the form of scenarios and supplements sold separately. It is the first of these books, the Hellfrost Player’s Guide, which is reviewed here. As with previously reviewed titles from Triple Ace Games, I should point out that I have worked on several of their titles as an editor, though not specifically on Hellfrost itself.

The setting for Hellfrost is Rassilon, a continent that for centuries has been divided in two by the Ice barrier, a gigantic, mile high wall of ice and cold that rose at the end of the Blizzard War. North of the Icewall, an army of coldfire-breathing Hellfrost dragons, frost giants, coldfire elementals, and orcs swept away numerous, but now forgotten civilisations whose lands lie under deep under snow and glacial ice. As fire as an element diminishes, the newly appeared Coldfire grows in its place, being an element that burns as well as it freezes, such that it can be used to forge arms and armour, especially from the new “black ice.” South of the Icewall, some civilisations held out against the Hellfrost armies, but in the five centuries since, ice and snow has continued to encroach ever further south as the temperatures drop. The forests continue to freeze, coniferous trees replacing deciduous ones, Taiga Elves living amongst the former, whilst their cousins, the hearth elves, reside in the latter. Frost Dwarves now build their cities into the high glaciers as well as the rock of the high mountains, all the whilst mining for precious metals and gems as well as the “black ice” from which they can forge arms and armour. South of the Icewall, three human civilisations can be found – the city-dwelling Anari; the rural and clannish Saxa; the tribal and warlike Tuomi; and the nomadic Finnar. Travelling in great caravans throughout this region are the Engros, a diminutive and distrusted race that has the reputation of being thieves and beggars. Nevertheless, their indomitable spirit sees them withstand all of the jibes that come with such a reputation. Lastly, the Frostborn are a new race, born of other races, which has found a home in the encroaching cold and snow even as their recent appearance is seen as one more sign that the gods have abandoned the peoples of Rassilon to the cold.

All of these races – Engros, Frostborn, Frostdwarves, Hearth and Taiga Elves, and the Anari, the Saxa, the Tuomi, and the Finnar – are available to play. In terms of occupation, both the setting and the Hellfrost Player’s Guide offer numerous options. Elven Bladedancers and Engro Bludgeoners protect their respective races, whilst druids protect both races and also attempt to protect the wilds from the oncoming Ice Age. Elementalists are wizards that work to master the elements one-by-one. Heahwisards work their powerful magics through their staves, but would be lost without them. Hrimwisards, or “Hoar Frost Mages” draw directly from the cold to fuel their spells and the more cold it is, the more powerful their spells are. Meanwhile, the Frost Dwarves remain the last people to retain knowledge of Rune Magic, focusing their magic through carved runes. The tradition of magic, poetry, song, and stories is maintained by the Skalds, entertainers who are welcome in any stead or household.

Several knightly orders are known across Rassilon. Hearth Knights defend directly against the predations of the Hellfrost inhabitants and mostly work along the Icebarrier and beyond. The Order of the Knights Hrafn, or “Order of the Knights Raven,” is dedicated to military leadership and usually serves the nobility as advisors. In addition, protection is provided by various guilds, such as the Iron Guild, which hires out its mercenaries to protect merchants. The Roadwardens are an informal organisation dedicated to protecting travellers on the road, whilst the Elven Woodwardens protect the forests.

Lastly, the Lorekeepers are an informal organisation dedicated to finding lost knowledge and ensuring that it is never lost, whilst the Reliquary is more interested in locating, studying, and protecting magic items. The art of creating magic items is one that has been lost following the rise of the Hellfrost, but the Reliquary would rather ensure that the remaining relics never fell into the hands of the enemy than see it be used against the enemy. Both the Lorekeepers and the Reliquary consist of scholars and tomb-raiders.

Character creation more or less follows the standard pattern for Savage Worlds. Except that there are more options given in the Hellfrost Player’s Guide than in many other Savage Worlds settings, and because a character’s race is important in Hellfrost, a player’s choice of race uses up the Edge (or advantage) that all characters begin with prior to creation. This includes Humans as race, but rather than receiving further Edges and Hindrances as part of a racial package, they instead have a choice of more skills or an extra Edge. The two sample characters below are typical of the setting, a hated Hrimwisard or “Hoar Frost Mage” who searches the Winterlands and beyond for lost secrets, whilst the second is a stalwart Roadwarden, protecting Rassilon’s roads and travellers. Nevertheless, the Hellfrost Player’s Guide is ripe with character options and ideas, and it would be easy to fill this whole review with sample player characters. That would be extra hard work though, in part because the process does flipping back and forth to work out what works with what and what each of the setting’s new Edges requires.

Howell Frostfall – Frostborn Hrimwisard
Attributes: Agility d6, Smarts d8, Spirit d6, Strength d4, Vigor d6
Skills: Climbing d4, Fighting d6, Hrimwisardry d8, Investigation d6, Knowledge (Arcana) d8, Knowledge (History) d4, Lockpicking d4, Notice d6
Charisma: –4
Glory: 0
Pace: 6” Parry: 5 Toughness: 5 (+1) Bennies: 3
Languages: Anari, Classical Anari, Frosttongue, Trader, Selari
Hindrances: Bad Eyes (Minor), Curious, Necromantic Weakness (Minor), Outsider
Edges: Arcane Background (Hrimwisardry), Lorekeeper
Spells – self only: Armor (icy skin), Environmental Protection (against cold only), Smite (icicles grow from hands or a held weapon), and speed (ice-shod feet) – all from Frigid Form
Spells: Burrow, Detect/Conceal
Notes: Frigid Form; Heat Lethargy (Lethargic at temperatures of 53° or higher. –1 to all trait rolls in such temperatures); Winter Soul (+2 to Vigor saves to resist the effects of cold weather, and +2 Armor to resist the effects of cold, coldfire, or ice attacks); Hrimwisardry (permanent environmental protection (cold) spell, but +4 damage from heat and fire attacks)
Gear: Leather Armor (+1), knife (Str+d4), warhammer (Str+d6, AP 1 vs. rigid armour)

Yrsa Skulisdohtor – Saxa Hearth Knight
Attributes: Agility d8, Smarts d6, Spirit d4, Strength d6, Vigor d6
Skills: Climbing d4, Fighting d8, Guts d4, Persuasion d4, Riding d6, Shooting d6, Stealth d4, Survival d6, Tracking d6
Charisma: +2
Glory: 0
Pace: 6” Parry: 6 (+1) Toughness: 5 (+2) Bennies: 3
Languages: Saxa, Trader
Hindrances: Code of Honour, Magic Forbiddance
Edges: Attractive, Roadwarden, Snow Walker
Notes: Roadwarden (+2 to all Survival and Tracking; +2 to Notice rolls to detect ambushes, traps, concealed weapons, and such like)
Gear: Chainmail Hauberk (+2), Medium Shield (+1 Parry, +2 Armour against ranged attacks), Short Spear (Str+d6, Reach 1), Bow (12/24/48, 2d6), winter clothing

Magic, as has already been suggested by the character types earlier, comes in numerous forms in the Hellfrost setting. These are not the only forms of magic in Rassilon, for Alchemy is also studied, as is Hedge Magic and Herbalism. Both are natural magic rather than arcane or divine magic. Herbalism focuses on the creation of poultices and draughts to provide remedies to various maladies, but Hedge Magic draws on natural magic to replicate other forms. In game terms, this requires both the Hedge Magic Edge and a Professional Edge if a character wants to know more than Herbalism. The advantage of both Hedge Magic and Hrimwisardry is that neither is affected by the disturbing phenomenon known as The Siphoning which replaces Savage Worlds’ Backlash rules and which can occur any time that an arcane spell is cast. In game terms, any time that a one is rolled on the arcane skill die, The Siphoning occurs with effects ranging from the caster being simply Shaken – at best, or Fatigued and losing the use of his powers for a day, to at worst, being Wounded and losing his powers for days or even permanently losing part of his magical ability. The latter is represented by a reduction in type of die he rolls for his arcane skill. The effect of The Siphoning is to make casting spells anything other than an easy choice, even though all arcanists are free to cast as many spells as they would want. In game terms, the casting of spells in Hellfrost does not use the Power Points usually found in other Savage Worlds fantasy settings.

Whilst The Siphoning does not affect priests and divine magic, the gods of Rassilon are all the more difficult to contact and they dislike those who abuse their power or call upon it too often. Thus when casting Miracles, a cleric who rolls a 1 on his Faith die, regardless of the Wild die, is automatically Shaken. At worst, he can be Fatigued or even Wounded. Nevertheless, the gods are important and through faith and dedication, it is possible for priests and paladins to become disciple of any one of the twenty-four deities that are recognised – if not always worshipped by the peoples of Rassilon. Each of the gods is fully detailed, from the titles they known as and the aspects they have domain over to the signature Power and Powers granted. More importantly for paladins and priests, the description includes the sins that in committing would cause either to lose their Powers.

For example, Thrym is the god of winter who has risen to prominence as the gods of the fire and sun, Kenaz and Sigel, have disappeared. Also known as the Blizzard Roar or the White King, Thrym’s aspects are cold, ice, winter, blizzards, and icy realms; his symbol is the head of a Hellfrost Dragon’s head; any day that temperature falls below freezing is regarded as being one of his holy days; the duties of his priesthood – the Breath of Winter, and his paladins – the Talons of Winter are to expand the Hellfrost and to destroy servants of fire and heat (including those who worship Kenaz and Sigel, fire elementalists, and fire elementals); and sins against him include lighting a fire, deliberately warming oneself by a fire, eating cooked food more than once a week, slaying any creature with Resistance or Immunity to cold except in self-defence, living in the warmer Hearthlands for more than half a year without permission of a superior, slaying a Hellfrost dragon, and working against the Fimbulvintr. To his worshippers, Thyrm embodies the Hellfrost, and whilst neither a “good” or an “evil” deity, Thyrm is followed by evil races such as Orcs and Frost Giants, though Hrimwisards at least acknowledge him as the source of their spells.

In addition all player characters have a statistic new Savage Worlds – “Glory.” It is like Charisma, but represents a character’s reputation rather than his force of personality. Within the game it is rewarded for undertaking heroic deeds – in addition to Experience Points – and every twenty or so Glory a character gains Connections with certain organisations, greater Combat Prowess, and can even be “Immortalised in Song”! Skalds can tell stories of a character’s deeds and so increase his Glory. Of course, Glory can go down as well as up, and gain such an infamous reputation that he is a Wanted man or even gains an Enemy who wants him dead! Essentially, encourages positive play, though a player could still play a villain if he wanted to.

Although the Hellfrost Player’s Guide provides only general information about Rassilon’s topography – the actual geographical details are described in the Hellfrost Gazetter – it does give plenty of background information and the rules to support this information. This includes not just chapters on gear – from food to fortifications and vehicles to weapons, and daily life on Rassilon – everything from food and funerary customs to calendar and coinage; but also descriptions of many of the continent’s organisations, all of which the player characters could join (if they qualify) or interact with; all before rounding out the volume with a set of setting specific generic rules. These understandably cover the weather and its dangers in some detail as well as the dangers of travelling in cold environments.

Physically, the Hellfrost Player’s Guide is a nicely presented hardback. The book is heavily illustrated, but what there is, does capture the grimmer nature of the setting. In comparison to other Savage World settings, a complaint could be made that the volume is incomplete in that it requires more books and an adventure to play. This though, should not be held against the publisher, for the Hellfrost Player’s Guide is, as with other well-known fantasy RPGs, a book intended for both players and GMs. Further, beyond the Hellfrost Bestiary and Hellfrost Gazetteer, the Hellfrost setting is well supported by the publisher. If there is an issue with the Hellfrost Player’s Guide, it is a lack of map that would give some idea of Rassilon’s geography. That said, a map is available from Triple Ace Games which also gives the breakdown to which of the setting’s areas the various Region Guides describe. Another issue might be the setting’s extensive use of non-English for its terms, such as some of the titles taken by the characters – Hrimwisard or Skald, for example, and names of the gods and Rassilon’s calendar. To be honest, this is just another element that brings Rassilon to life and the book includes a pronunciation guide.

Although the Hellfrost Player’s Guide is not a setting book, it does much to bring the richness and detail of Rassilon to life. Obviously, this is primary through the myriad number of detailed character options available right through character progression, which are tightly tied into Rassilon’s various organisations and elemental adversities and not only give rise to interesting characters, but also interesting character motivations too. The richness also shows in the setting’s inspirations, the cultures of Northern rather than Western Europe, and the extensive use of their languages. Accompanying this richness is a grim and gritty feel, one that again shows in the setting and its encroaching apocalypse, in its character options, and to an extent in the rules for magic and the weather. Above all, the Hellfrost Player’s Guide brings the complexity and detail of Rassilon to life in preparation for the heroic exploits of the player characters.

Friday 11 May 2012

The Cast-Less Ranger

Dungeons & Dragons lends itself to the creation of new character roles or Classes – and it always has. By extension then, the same can be said of any Dungeons & Dragons variant, from Advanced Dungeons & Dragons and Labyrinth Lord to d20 Modern and the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game. Details and descriptions of these new Classes rarely run to more than a few pages long, so they make for excellent magazine articles. They also make for excellent one-shot documents and even a casual browse at sites such as RPGnow.com and drivethruRPG will reveal a myriad number of new classes available to purchase from any number of publishers. All are invariably inexpensive, and because they are available as PDFs, can be with you in mere moments. In fact, there are so many that a reviewer could just dedicate himself to reviewing these new Classes and review nothing else. Fortunately, for the sanity of anyone reading this, that is not going to happen. However, that is not going to stop me from reviewing one of them, which will be The Expanded Spell-less Ranger.

Published by Open Design as part of its “New Paths” series, The Expanded Spell-less Ranger is a fifteen-page, 5.56 Mb PDF which describes a new alternate Class for the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game. Expanding upon an article that previously appeared in Kobold Quarterly #11, its raison d'être is that whilst the Ranger as a Class in Dungeons & Dragons is venerable one and has been with us for some thirty years, it does not emulate its sources. As far as The Expanded Spell-less Ranger is concerned, neither Aragorn nor Robin Hood, as skilled as they were, used spells – and in the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game, the Ranger as a Class casts spells. As its title suggests, The Expanded Spell-less Ranger Class does not cast spells.

Both the Ranger and the Spell-less Ranger share much in common as a Class. They can both Track, possess Favoured Enemies and Favoured Terrain, can specialise via Feats in either archery or two-weapon fighting, form a Hunter’s Bond with an animal companion, and have Endurance and Wild Empathy, Woodland Stride, and Swift Tracker, and so on. What the Spell-less Ranger receives instead of the spells of its Base Class counterpart is a Stealth Attack against Favoured Enemies or in Favour Terrain, and with Nature’s Healing, the ability to heal whilst in his Favoured Terrain. In addition, at fourth and seventh levels, and then at every other level after that, the Spell-less Ranger can take a Ranger Talent. These are similar to Rogue Talents, but of course, have a wilderness rather than an urban theme. These can be as simple as Additional Animal Companion or Combat Trick, which grant an additional animal companion or an extra combat Feat respectively. More complex options such as Favoured Attack and Favoured Enemy Critical improve the Spell-less Ranger’s attacks against his Favoured Enemies, whilst Heel lets him command his animal companion to move to him directly without triggering an Attack of Opportunity on the creature. Others improve the Spell-less Ranger’s senses, stealth capabilities, or skills.

In addition, The Expanded Spell-less Ranger gives a selection of new Feats that work with the Class’ various features. For example, the Additional Favoured Terrain Feat gives the Spell-less Ranger a greater range of terrain to work in, whilst the Extra Ranger Talent Feat allows him to take an extra Ranger Talent. Many Feats, such as Coordinated Companion and Improved Animal Companion, work with a feature only found with one of the supplement’s new archetypes. Two are described, the first being the Dual-Style Ranger, the second being the Companion-Bound Ranger. Whereas both the Ranger and the Spell-less Ranger must specialise in one combat style – either archery or two-weapon fighting – the Dual-Style Ranger archetype studies both, or an alternate combat style if the GM allows. These styles, taken from the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game Advanced Player’s Guide, are detailed in an appendix at the end of the supplement. Adversely, he can only select a single Favoured Enemy.

Similarly, the Companion-Bound Ranger archetype can only select a single Favoured Enemy and he also loses the Endurance Class feature. In its stead, he gains the Animal Companion feature, much like that of the Druid Class. He also loses the Woodland Stride and Hunter’s Bond features as his bond with this single creature increases as he rises in level. Rounding out the Expanded Spell-less Ranger is a pair of forms. The first provides room for a player to record his Spell-less Ranger’s Favoured Enemies and Favoured Terrains, and the bonuses he gains with both, whilst the second is a full sheet for the Companion-Bound Ranger archetype’s Companion. This last sheet can also be used with the Druid Class’ similar Animal Companion.

The Expanded Spell-less Ranger provides options that should satisfy those players and GMs who dislike the fact that the Ranger Base Class casts spells. In providing the two archetypes, this “New Path” gives more options than just the single alternate Class, essentially making it not one alternate Class, but three. Beyond this, the Spell-less Ranger Talents allow decent room for customisation, much as player could customise the Ranger Base Class with spells. Well-written and neatly designed, The Expanded Spell-less Ranger lives up to its claims in giving an alternative Class that will slot into most settings. Either an existing setting or one of the GM’s creation.