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

Friday 29 June 2012

An Elizabethan Whirl's Companion

The classics are not always perfect, and so it is with Maelstrom, the Tudor set RPG published in the United Kingdom by Puffin Books back in 1984. There is much to love about the game, including its period attention to detail, its simplicity, and its two scenarios, one for solo play and the other to be run by the GM. Unfortunately the RPG was lacking in terms of certain rules, for example, those for firearms and for two-weapon fighting, and background and setting detail. None of these issues were addressed when Arion Games released a new edition of the game, but fortunately now they have with the game’s very first supplement, The Maelstrom Companion.

The Maelstrom Companion comes as a slim, oversized paperback that contains an array of additions to the game and setting. In terms of rules, the most obvious and simple additions are the new rules for firearms and two-weapon fighting, which are both so simple and easy that the reader is left wondering why anyone had to wait for so long to get them. The obvious answer is that the original RPG had been out of print for over two decades before The Maelstrom Companion was even considered… That said, none of the firearms are named, being merely listed as having differing Attack Skill modifiers, damage ratings, ranges, and so on according to their size, whether a pistol or a musket. This was an omission when it came to weapons in the Maelstrom RPG, and it is one that is continued here.

One of the best aspects of Maelstrom is its Livings, the equivalent of its Classes in other RPGs. From Architects, Doctors, and Scriveners to Beggars, Blacksmiths, and Traders via Mages, Mercenaries, Priests, and Rogues, each of the game’s numerous Livings was presented in plenty of detail. The Maelstrom Companion adds several new Livings, including the Agent, who serves a political patron and works a network of contacts and informants in his master’s service; Alchemists, capable researching certain recipes, such as that for Aqua Vitae, Blackpowder, and Fireproof Cloth; Barber-Surgeons, capable of treating wounds – unlike Physicians!; law enforcement in the form of Beadles, Constables, and Watchmen; Farmers, who can raise crops and stock, handle and treat animals, and tell the weather; Friars, who are monks that actively spend time amongst the laity, often relying upon them for charity; Hunters, excellent shots and trappers who use their stealth as either game keeper or poacher; Sailors, who not only know how to sail and swim, but climb too; the Tavern Keeper, who in the course maintaining his establishment, gains a nose for food and drink as well as for trouble; and the Witch, who understands herbalism and medicines, but also knows curses.

Many of these are supported with new rules and expanded rules. For example, the Alchemist is supported with rules for Alchemy along with numerous recipes. Likewise, the Witch’s new rules for Witchcraft detail the nature of the Contracts that a practitioner enters with certain intelligences from the Maelstrom, be they “Demons” or “Devils” or not; her healing skills, or rather her “country wisdom;” her ability to make Curses and Charms; and her loyal Familiar. A Witch who pursues a knowledge of Herbalism cannot make Contracts or Curses and vice versa. The expanded rules cover magic, allowing a Mage to specialise as an Astrologer, an Elementalist, or a Skryer (a Mage that specialises in contacting and speaking to spirits and more). They expand and divide healing between the three Livings that become available with the advent of The Maelstrom Companion. Wounds are bandaged, internal bleeding is staunched, limbs splinted, and teeth pulled by a Barber-Surgeon, whereas the superior – in attitude, at least – Physician do not, and instead primarily treats diseases and infections. Overlapping between the skills of both is the Herbalist, who can treat minor wounds and diseases. Similarly, the Weaponsmith Living can now be a Gunsmith rather than a Bladesmith, and thus specialise in the manufacture of the firearms whose rules appear elsewhere in the book. Lastly, the Labourer Living is actually given a full benefit in that he can work for a full day and gain bed and board if not wages. Character generation overall is supported with a list of period Christian names, along with a table of distinguishing features, such as Alcoholic, Disconcerting Gaze, and Tall, that can be used to individualise a character.

Much of the contents of The Maelstrom Companion is for GM and player alike, but the GM is not ignored. He receives a supernatural bestiary, covering an array of unnatural creatures from Black Dogs to Robin Goodfellow; a short, if pertinent history that details the Tudor church and the Dissolution of the Monasteries – useful in particular if the setting provided in The Maelstrom Companion is used; and some actual campaign advice. This explores various campaign styles possible in the Tudor period – political, military, trade, business, criminal, and so on. Some of the descriptions of these styles are longer than others, but they are at least ideas and they are accompanied by sample campaign ideas. The reader though, will be left wanting more, and perhaps they could be expanded upon in future supplements.

Where Maelstrom provided information on the places along the road between St. Albans and London, The Maelstrom Companion gives a whole setting to explore and interact with. This is the Suffolk market town of Bury St. Edmunds in the year 1540 during the reign of Henry VIII. Once the county seat, the life of the town revolved around its powerful abbey, but with the break from Rome, the King’s establishment of the Church of England, and the dissolution of the monasteries, Bury St. Edmunds has lost much of its status. Into this power vacuum have moved various nobles, merchants, and guilds, each vying for influence and prestige, and each perhaps looking for a few good men (and women) who might be able to work behind the scenes to further their employer’s ends. The environs and personalities of the town are described in some detail, that latter organised by Living, and a timeline of events are given for the whole of 1540. Some adventure hooks are also given, though no scenario is included. It would be pleasing to see this further supported with actual scenarios set in the town. The Maelstrom Companion is rounded out with various useful game references, such as the Master Living list and quick guides to running both Basic and Advanced Combat.

Physically, once you get past the front cover, The Maelstrom Companion is disappointing. The layout is unsophisticated, even pedestrian. Where much of the artwork in the Maelstrom core rules conveyed much of the game’s feel, here it is murky and disappointing. For the most part, the book is decently written, but it does need another edit in places. It could also do with a reorganisation, so that the sections for the GM are clearly kept separated from those that the players can read.

The production values are this supplement’s Achilles Heel. They give the book a disparate and unfocused feel, which whilst unfair is not wholly unwarranted. For the most part, the new material is decent, especially that which builds upon the game’s primary highlight – its detailed Livings, whether that be the additional rules or the expanded ones. The supplement though points to the need for further development, whether that is in the form of expanded advice for the GM or scenarios, including those that could be set in Bury St. Edmund. Ultimately, whilst there is a goodly amount of useful and interesting information in The Maelstrom Companion, both the information presented and the book itself is let very much let down by its underwhelming production values.

Sunday 24 June 2012

A Family by Gaslight

There is a pleasing, if personal note to the start of The Havering Adventures, a trilogy of adventures for Cubicle Seven Entertainment’s RPG of manners, magic, and fantasy in the early Gaslight era, Victoriana. Editor and author, Andrew Peregrine, explains how one of the encounters in the first adventure became the combat example in the core book in what was his very first run through of that scenario. That run through was also my first play of the game’s second edition and it was my character, frustrated at the rest of the players’ indecision that initiated that combat encounter. So it was interesting to note these coincidences in returning to the first of these adventures after a decade.

Originally written for convention play to showcase the setting, the three scenarios in The Havering Adventures have been expanded to give more detail and more support for the GM, as well as adding background material for the game in general. The trilogy concerns the doings of an infamous branch of the upper middle class Havering family, best known for its shipping interests. The branch is headed by Nathaniel, an inveterate gambler, and his decidedly improper wife, the beautiful and decadent Eldren, Susanna. Accompanying them is Nathanial younger brother, Jonathan, who is a police detective at Scotland Yard, and his wife, Selina, a woman of improper origins; plus the family servants. These are the Dwarf, Patterson, Nathanial’s loyal manservant who knows how to apply his fists, and sometimes a boot to almost any situation, and Tobin, Gnome wizardly academic who is attempting to teach Nathanial the art of sorcery.

Full write-ups are given for each of these six, and although the three scenarios are written with the sextet in mind, they can be run with the characters of the players’ own creation with relatively little adjustment. There is advice for the GM throughout the adventures. Further, whilst the scenarios are written as and are designed to be played as a trilogy, there is room between them for the GM to add other adventures. In addition, each of the three scenarios adds specific background material to the world of Victoriana, including horse racing, the royal family, and playing poker. This background material is interesting in and of itself.

The Havering Adventures trilogy opens with “Lost Luggage.” The Havering family has returned to England after a trip abroad, but before they have disembarked, the game is afoot. Someone has made off with their luggage and thus, much to Susanna Havering’s dismay, with all of the new dresses she purchased in Paris! In order to track them down, the adventurers must plumb the depths of the capital’s underworld before attending the hottest day out at the races.

Events take an international turn as the Haverings are invited to travel aboard the inaugural voyage of the Valiant Rose, a luxury airship that is set to revolutionise travel across the Atlantic. In "Behold, the Valiant ones shall cry," the family has the opportunity move among very high society. Given its contained location, this is a very much limited adventure, the player characters having fewer options as to what they can. Nevertheless, succeed at this adventure and they can make the highest connections possible!

Where “Lost Luggage” is a chase and "Behold, the Valiant ones shall cry" all but a “ship in a bottle” affair, the third adventure, "Dead Man's Hand" is a more personal, less adventurous affair that has strong horror elements. An inveterate and fortunately successful gambler, Nathanial spends much of the adventure at the gaming tables playing poker with his wife in tow, but the other family members will busy trying to follow up on the effects of a strange artefact that he wins and must eventually play for in the climax to both the adventure and the trilogy in The Havering Adventures.

Although it needs an edit or two in certain places, The Havering Adventures is a well presented book with decent art and reasonable maps. The advice for running the adventures is also good, and suggestions are given as to both possible sequels to the trilogy and how the trilogy could be run without making use of the Havering family. This is necessary as the adventures are written with the family in mind, but the demands required to make the player characters fit the adventure are relatively slight as long as the characters come from all strata of society. That said, one or more upper class characters are absolutely necessary to play The Havering Adventures, which might be an issue with some groups.

If a playing group was looking for adventures to play after that given in the Victoriana core rulebook, then The Havering Adventures would be a good choice. In fact, these are the best scenarios available for the second edition of the game. Overall, The Havering Adventures is an entertaining trilogy of scenarios that pleasingly brings the world of Victoriana to life.

Saturday 16 June 2012

Free RPG Day 2012

Sorry if you have been wondering where the Reviews from R'lyeh have been for the last week. Please check out RPG.net for thirteen reviews of the titles available tomorrow for Free RPG Day 2012: http://www.rpg.net/reviews/ Normal service will return shortly.

Tuesday 5 June 2012

Pitch Me

The Big Idea: The Game of Crazy Inventions from French publisher, FunForge, is not a new game. Rather, it is a new streamlined and re-designed version of a game originally published by Cheapass Games in 2000. As a publisher, Cheapass Games put out titles that focused on game play over components, each design coming with enough components to play the game. This invariably made Cheapass Games exactly that – cheap! Out of all of Cheapass Games’ titles, The Big Idea was always a favourite as it required a degree of inventiveness upon the part of the players, and it is this aspect of the original that the new version focuses upon, dropping the share investment element of the original all together. This very modern update now comes in full colour and is very much a party game rather than a gamer’s game in which the players have to create and pitch the “best” inventions possible. Given that the reality television series Dragon’s Den is broadcast in more than twenty countries across the globe, most people will be familiar with the idea behind The Big Idea.

Designed for play by between three and six players, The Big Idea: The Game of Crazy Inventions comes in a slim box that contains two ninety-two card “Item” and “Description” decks, six “Medal” cards, and twenty-four “Blank” cards as well as a slim rulebook that can be read and understood in a couple of minutes or so. The green-backed “Description” cards give single expressive words such as Bulletproof, Edible, and Exotic, whilst the blue-backed “Item” cards give objects such as Butler, Hanger, and Shades, accompanied on each card by a simple line of text such as “It’s like a stylin’ pair of sunglasses…” for the Shades Item card or “…that bullets cannot penetrate!” for the Bulletproof Description card, as well as a pleasing illustration. The “Medal” and the “Blank” cards are used by the players to vote on the inventions that they like and dislike.

The Big Idea is played in a series of rounds – the number varying according to the number of players – during each of which every player will have the opportunity to create and pitch a new invention. After all of the rounds have been played, the player with the least amount of negative votes is declared the “least worst” inventor and thus the winner.

At the start of a round each player has three “Description” and three “Item” cards in his hand. If a player is unhappy with his hand of cards, he is free to discard as many cards as he wants and refresh his hand of cards before putting together his invention. From these cards, he creates an invention using at least one “Description” and at least one “Item” card, although he is free to use as many cards from his hand as he thinks will be necessary for his invention. Once a player has an invention, he put the cards involved down and essentially pitches, or attempts to sell his invention to the other players. Once everyone has pitched an invention, each player votes on the inventions he has heard described. If a player likes an invention, he gives it a Medal card. To every other invention, he gives a Blank card. Any player who receives nothing but Blank cards keeps a single card from his invention as what is essentially a negative point. It is only possible to score negative points in The Big Idea.

For example, Chris has the “Decoy,” “Secretary,” and “Television” Item cards and the “Cute,” “Extraordinary,” and “Limited-Edition” Description cards; John-Paul has the “Gun,” “Mailbox,” and “Spectacle” Item cards and the “Amusing,” “Instant,” and “Kiddie” Description cards; and Simon has the “Beer,” “Medicine,” and “Plane” Item cards and the “Invisible,” “Sport-Utility,” and “Sweet” Description cards. Chris goes first, followed by John-Paul, and then Simon.

From his cards, Chris uses “Decoy,” “Secretary,” “Cute,” “Extraordinary,” and “Limited-Edition” to create The Limited-Edition Extraordinary Cute Secretary Decoy. He pitches this as…

“For the businessman too busy to see everyone… For the embezzler who needs a quick getaway when the fraud squad comes knocking at his door… For the accountant with an extra happy life love who just doesn’t need his wife to always know where is… The Limited-Edition Extraordinary Cute Secretary Decoy. A secretary who will always decoy or misdirect unwanted attention for her boss. Plus she’s cute.

From his cards, John-Paul uses “Gun,” “Spectacle,” “Amusing,” “Instant,” and “Kiddie” to create the Instant Amusing Kiddie Spectacle Gun. He pitches this as…

“We live in an armed society. A society with guns, but it does not always have to be an unfriendly society. Especially if we have kids, because that is why we have guns – to protect our kids. Sometimes we need a way to keep our kids happy, even if we have guns. Which is why you need the Instant Amusing Kiddie Spectacle Gun. One shot from this gun and your kid will have an amusing spectacle in an instant!”

From his cards, Simon uses “Beer,” “Medicine,” and “Sweet” to create Sweet Medicine Beer. He pitches this as…

“They always said that medicine was good for you and it was. It just never tasted as good as it was. And that remains as true as an adult as it was for you when you were a kid. Now you can have a medicine that tastes as good as the good it is doing to you: Sweet Medicine Beer.”

Once this is all done, each player votes on their favourite inventions created by his fellow players, giving a Medal to their favourite, and a Blank card to the others. In this case, Simon’s Sweet Medicine Beer garners two Medals and Chris’ The Limited-Edition Extraordinary Cute Secretary Decoy just the one. John-Paul’s Instant Amusing Kiddie Spectacle Gun ends up with nothing but Blank cards and so he must keep a single card to indicate the failure of his invention.

As much fun as The Big Idea is, it is not quite perfect. The scoring process could be easier, with players only receiving negative rather than positive points. The current scoring process, with only enough Medal cards for six players, also limits the number who can participate in a game. It would be a simple matter of ditching the current scoring process and allowing the players to give a counter to their preferred invention each round. This would allow more players to participate.

Like many a party game, the success of The Big Idea: The Game of Crazy Inventions depends on its players. Yet its simplicity combined with the entertaining nature of the cards, encourages both participation and invention upon the part of the players. The game can be played by gamers and non-gamers alike, and works just as well as a filler game as it does a party game. The Big Idea: The Game of Crazy Inventions lives up to its title and should prove a source of creative, imaginative fun every time that the box is opened.