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

Monday 25 February 2013

Monster Filler Thriller

Being a city planner in Tokyo must be a thankless task. After all, every few months, the city and its infrastructure gets stomped, disintegrated with blasts of radioactive breath, pulverised with claws and tails, and otherwise converted from town planner’s big dream of city life into dusty piles of rubble. The culprits are Kaiju – big monsters, of which Godzilla is the most famous. Of course, all this is beneath of the notice of the monsters – well, they are big monsters – as King of Tokyo proves.

This is a light dice and resource management game in which between two and six Kaiju battle each other to be the one and only “King of Tokyo.” They include a big ape – “The King”, a giant humanoid crab – “Kraken”, a large lizard – “Gigazaur”, a colossal alien robot – “Alienoid”, an ernormous draconic robot – “Meka Dragon”, and a lapine “Cyber-Bunny”. Suitable for players aged eight and up, the game is quick to teach, looks good, and plays in half an hour or so.

Designed by Richard Garfield – the designer of Magic the Gathering and RoboRally – and published by Iello Games, King of Tokyo consists of a card and a standee for each of the Kaiju; a set of eight custom dice; sixty-six Power Cards; a pile of Power Cubes; plus a board and the rulebook. The latter represents the city of Tokyo and is marked with two spaces, one labelled Tokyo City, the other Tokyo Bay. The space labelled Tokyo Bay only comes into play when there are five or more players. The Kaiju boards are marked with two dials, one for Victory Points, the other for the Kaiju’s Health. The Power Cards grant a Kaiju special powers or bonuses, some of which are discarded after use, whilst others are permanent. Sample permanent powers include Fire Breathing” which lets a Kaiju blast his neighbours with fire each time he inflicts damage, whilst “Giant Brain” allows a Kaiju to reroll the dice four times instead of three. Sample discard powers include “Frenzy” which lets a Kaiju take another turn immediately after his current one, whilst he gains two Victory Points and heals three damage taken with “Nuclear Power Station.” Each Power Card has a cost which is paid in Power Cubes. Some of these Power Cards possess corresponding tokens indicating their use.

At the heart of the game are the dice. There are six of these, in black marked with a lurid green with the numbers one through three, plus a heart, a lightning bolt, and a claw. In addition to these six standard dice, there are another two dice, these in lurid green, but marked in black with the same numbers and symbols. These green dice become available when a Kaiju purchases certain cards.

On his turn a Kaiju rolls the six standard dice. He can roll each die a further two times if he does not like the result, but must keep the rolls after that. For every set of three of the same number, a Kaiju gains Victory Points – more if he rolls sets with more of the same number of them. For each Claw rolled, a Kaiju inflicts a point of Damage; for each Heart rolled he heals a point of his Health; and for each Lightning Bolt, he gains a Power Cube. Power Cubes can be spent to purchase Power Cards.

How a Kaiju inflicts Damage on his fellow Kaiju is where King of Tokyo gets interesting. A Kaiju outside of Tokyo can attack and inflict Damage on the Kaiju who is in Tokyo, but the Kaiju who is in Tokyo can attack and inflict Damage on the Kaiju who are not in Tokyo. Thus the Kaiju who is in Tokyo is likely to be attacked again and again – and worse, he cannot heal himself through the use of dice. So what then, is the advantage of remaining in Tokyo? A Kaiju gains Victory Points by being in Tokyo, but he can leave any time that he takes Damage, his attacker taking his place in Tokyo.

King of Tokyo is won either by amassing twenty Victory Points or being the last Kaiju standing.

Essentially, King of Tokyo is especially luck based, and at first glance appears to involve very little in the way of tactics or decision making. True, there is little in the way of a tactical element to the game – does a Kaiju attack or not? The game does involve more in the way of decision making though, and it all comes down to the dice rolls and whether or not a Kaiju can roll the symbols on the dice that he wants, or as the game proceeds… needs. During the opening stage of the game, a Kaiju will want to inflict as many Claws as he can to inflict as much Damage as possible on his fellow Kaiju, to gain as many Victory Points as possible, and to gain sufficient Power Cubes to gain those all-important Power Cards. As the game progresses and a Kaiju suffers Damage, then he will want to roll Hearts in order to regain Health. Of course, this is what a Kaiju might want to roll on the dice, what he actually rolls and decides to keep is another matter…

King of Tokyo is a simple, throwaway filler of a game. It is easy to learn and play, and it is a fun family game with an obviously joyous love of its theme that shines through in its components and “beat ‘em up” style of play. As much as will enjoy that theme, more serious gamers will quickly become aware of the game’s flaws. First, as much as it is a game designed for between two and six kaiju, it plays poorly with two and it really only plays well when there are four or more involved. Second, the game always comes down to a battle between two Kaiju as it is a knock-out game. Once a Kaiju has been knocked out, he cannot re-join the game and so has to wait for the game to end with nothing to do except cheer for one Kaiju or another. Third, the powers on the Power Cards are far from balanced, and since this is a luck-based game, getting the right combination of Power Cards can make a Kaiju nigh unstoppable…

Ultimately, whether you like King of Tokyo comes down to whether or not you like the theme enough to compensate for the luck factor. If so, then the game is fun, it is easy to teach, and a joyously silly filler thriller.

Sunday 17 February 2013

White Box Fever VII

In coming to a review of HackMaster Basic, I begin with a terrible bias against it. As one of the book’s introductions states, “When HackMaster 4th Edition came out it earned something of a reputation among some gamers as being a ‘silly’ or ‘joke’ game.” I must count myself amongst them. After all, how could I take a game seriously that detailed its monsters in alphabetical order over the course of eight books? My cursory examination of the game along with the reviews suggested that the game was nothing more than the designer’s attempt to create his own fantasy heartbreaker based on Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, Second Edition. Based on that, what made it deserving of the Origins Award for Game of the Year 2001? Certainly when there were more deserving and more interesting games published in that year?

Fast forward six years and Kenzer & Co. published Aces & Eights: Shattered Frontier, an alternate history, highly detailed Western RPG that would win the Origins Award for Game of the Year 2007. And deservedly so. I was impressed by the RPG and I gave it a positive review at the time in Steve Jackson Games’ Pyramid e-zine. It also made me rethink my attitude towards HackMaster 4th Edition such that when the publisher released HackMaster Basic in 2009 I was interested enough to review it. I bought a copy and started reading it, and was pleased to note in the same introduction that as part of the game’s redesign, the designers had “…reeled in and scrubbed the game of much of the over-the-top “silly factor”.” So I set out to read the book with interest, but I got to a certain point in the book and wanted to throw it across the room. Instead I swore, put the book down, and walked away from it. HackMaster Basic had made me angry.

This is one reason why, after almost four years, I still have not reviewed HackMaster Basic. Originally, I had wanted to review it as part of the “White Box Fever” series which reviewed various introductory level fantasy RPGs in the run up to the release of Wizards of the Coast’s Red Box edition of Dungeons & Dragons, Fourth Edition. The other reason as to why I did not review it as part of the “White Box Fever” series was that despite having the word “Basic” in the title, HackMaster Basic is not an introductory RPG. It is to HackMaster 5th Edition what Basic Dungeons & Dragons was to Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, but where Basic Dungeons & Dragons was in essence a simplified version of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, there is a complexity to HackMaster Basic that Basic Dungeons & Dragons never had. Instead, HackMaster Basic is an introduction to HackMaster 5th Edition, one that streamlines rather reduces the complexity of the full game’s rules and mechanics.

That said, HackMaster Basic echoes certain elements of Basic Dungeons & Dragons, though its complexity grants a player choice, detail, and flexibility. It is thus a fantasy RPG, one replete with Dwarves, Elves, Halfings, and Humans and Fighters, Mages, Priests, and Thieves. It has Character Classes – though these only go from first to fifth level; it has a set of character attributes that are rolled on three six-sided dice; and both attacks and Saving Throws are made on a twenty-sided die. The complexity and detail come in the form of the Honor, Quirks, Flaws, Skills, Talents, and Proficiencies that every character has. The choice, complexity, and flexibility gives a player the freedom to select his character’s race and class as he likes; to take the skills he wants; to train in whatever weaponry he wants; Mages get to cast their spells using Spell Points; and so on…

As with other Dungeons & Dragons style RPGs, the Thief is slightly different to the other three. The emphasis with this Class is mobility, reactivity, and stealth, and unsurprisingly, the Thief is also skill orientated. Thus the Thief receives an Initiative Bonus and rolls a lower die type; he can Backstab for more damage and greater weapon penetration; he knows how to avoid blows and can deliver an effective counter-blow; and he receives the base rolls for his Core Skills (Climbing/Rappelling, Disarm Trap, Hiding, Identify Trap, Listening, Lock Picking, Pick Pocket, Sneaking, and Trap Design – only the Thief gains the latter skill). In addition, the Thief begins play with a store of Luck Points, which can be spent to alter rolls ahead of the rolls, including rolls made against the Thief!

For the most part HackMaster Basic does have the feel of an “Old School” style RPG and enforces that with certain limitations on the game’s flexibility. When a player creates his character he receives Build Points (BP) with which to modify his character’s attributes and buy and improve his Skills, Talents, and Proficiencies. He receives more Build Points if he decides not to move his character’s attribute scores around, but keeps the attribute scores as rolled. Also, whilst he is free to select whatever Race he wants for his character, but he must purchase his Class. Here there is a bias that reflects certain expectations of the Dungeons & Dragons fantasy genre. Thus, it is cheaper for a Dwarf to be a Fighter at a cost of 20 BP as opposed to the 75 BP that he must pay to be a Mage. Similarly, the Elf and the Halfling has its bias towards certain Classes – the Mage and the Thief respectively – whilst the Human has no particular bias. Similarly, whilst a character is free to select and train in any weapon that he chooses, it is cheaper to train in certain weapons in some Classes than it is for others. For example, where a Fighter pays half the standard cost to improve his use weapons, the Mage pays double, except for the dagger and the staff.

A character is defined by the six standard attributes of Dungeons & Dragons, plus a seventh, Looks. Each is rolled on three six-sided dice as usual, but in addition, a percentile number is generated for each attribute. The higher the percentile figure, the closer the attribute is to be being raised to the next full number. Then a player receives his Build Points with which to create the character, the amount depending upon whether or not he swapped two or more attributes around. The Build Points are spent to increase the percentile figures attached to the attributes, and to purchase the character’s Class, Skills, Proficiencies, and Talents. Skills are handled as percentiles, whereas Proficiencies and Talents are more like the Feats of Dungeons & Dragons, Third Edition. Proficiencies cover weapons and armour though, and need to be purchased on a weapon-by-weapon or armour-by-armour type basis, although the ability to attack and defend, inflict damage, and the weapon’s speed can all be increased by purchasing the appropriate Talents. This being a Dungeons & Dragons style game, a character also needs to have an Alignment, this adhering to the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons standard, though if a playing a Cleric, a player will also need to select a deity for his character to worship, the choices coming from the house setting for Kenzer & Co, the Kingdoms of Kalamar.

Besides rolling for a character’s Attributes, a player also rolls for a quirk and a flaw, both of which at best can be described as roleplaying features. In fact, whatever the player rolls for his character, both the rolled quirk and the rolled flaw are actually character flaws. Not a single one of the quirks can be described as a positive character feature. Essentially in HackMaster Basic, the only thing that you roll for that might have a positive aspect are a character’s attributes – and then only if a player rolls high. Everything else a player has to purchase with Build Points.

Another oddity of the character in HackMaster Basic is the way in which Hit Points are determined. Initially, they are based on a character Race and Constitution plus a die roll determined by the character’s Class. This though is just for First Level; beyond that, a character only receives another die roll to add to his Hit Points at every odd Level – Third Level, Fifth Level, and so on… At Second Level and at every other even Level after that, a player can choose to re-roll the last roll he made for his Hit Points! He can, of course, choose to keep the higher of the rolls. It should be noted that whilst a character in HackMaster Basic has more Hit Points than a character in Advanced Dungeons & Dragons of equivalent level, the weapons in HackMaster Basic do more damage and the dice rolled for the damage can “penetrate” or as other RPGs would have it, explode to increase the total of the roll.

One last aspect of a character to be determined is his Honour. Its value is equal to the average of the character’s final attribute scores. Once determined, a character can spend it to reroll combat, skill, and attribute rolls, or to increase the type of dice he would roll, such as a four-sided die to a six-sided die, and so on, usually for damage and other effect rolls. Honour is awarded by the GameMaster to his players for good roleplaying, for honourable play, for playing to their characters’ Alignments, and so forth. Honour though, is a relatively scarce resource, so a player should only use it when it really matters.

Although both the process and the end result of character generation will be at least familiar, the means is not actually easy. Two means of creating characters are provided in HackMaster Basic. The first of these is the QuickStart Rules, which by no stretch of the imagination can be described as the QuickStart Rules. The misnamed section comes right at the start of HackMaster Basic and should in fact, have been named the “QuickStart Character Creation Guide” as there is no detail of the actual rules beyond those of character generation. The result of the “QuickStart Character Creation Guide” lacks the detail of the full process, which itself takes no little time spent flipping back and forth. Of course, the lack of an index only hampers the exercise.

Our sample player character is representative of the simplest class in Hackmaster Basic – the Fighter. Eori Prayergem is a grumpy and unpopular Female Dwarf who grew up with a loving father, but a mother who saw her as a burden. Both her parents are alive, but her younger brother and sister are both dead. She is a skilled miner and labourer, but an unpleasant co-worker. She enjoys gambling, but is a poor loser.

Name: Eori Prayergem
Race: Dwarf Age: 59 Gender: Female
Height: 3’ 10” Weight: 121 lbs. Handedness: Left
Class: Fighter Level: 1
STR 16/05
[Damage Mod +3, Feat of Strength +9, Lift 291 lbs., Carry 108 lbs., Drag 728 lbs.]
INT 16/40 [Attack Mod +2]
WIS 11/19 [Initiative Mod +2, Defense Mod +0]
DEX 11/26
[Initiative Mod +2, Attack Mod +0, Defense Mod +0]
CON 18/02
LKS 09/43 [CHA Mod -1, Starting HON Mod -1]
CHA 04/11 [Starting HON Mod -3, Turning Mod -6]
HON 08

Hit Points: 35 (Roll 7) Threshold of Pain: 17
Racial Benefits: Low light vision, Magic Resistance +6, Poison Resistance +6
Proficiencies: Light, Medium, and Heavy Armour, Shield, Weapons (Longsword, Dagger, Javelin, Warhammer), Labourer, Maintenance/Upkeep, Fast Healer
Talents: Swiftblade (Warhammer); Weapon Specialisation (+1 to Attack, Defense, and Damage plus -1 to Speed with Longsword); Weapon Specialisation (+1 to Attack, Defense, and Damage plus -1 to Speed with Warhammer)

Universal Skills: Climbing/Rappelling [DEX] 22%, Fire-Building [WIS] 13%, Observation [WIS] 18%, Recruiting [CHA] 05%
Other Skills: Appraisal (Armour & Weaponry) [INT] 20%, Gambling [CHA] 16%, Geology [INT] 54%, Literacy [INT] 25%, Merchant’s Tongue [INT] 23%, Mining [INT] 41%
Quirk: Superstitious (Mother’s ring)
Flaw: Hard of Hearing

Equipment: 41sp; Clothing (Woollen trousers and tunic, leather boot, linen undershirt, wool cloak, leather belt with two small pouches), wineskin, trail rations (three days), knapsack, warhammer (damage 2d6p, speed 8), dagger (damage 2d6p, speed 7 (jab speed 5)), studded leather armour (damage reduction 3, defense adjustment -3, initiative modifier +1, speed modifier 0, movement class penalty none).

Not surprisingly given its heritage, the mechanical aspect of playing Hackmaster Basic focuses on combat, but for all that heritage, combat is radically different to that of Dungeons & Dragons. Instead of rolling against a fixed number, or Armour Class, determined by the defender’s agility and type of armour he is wearing, the attacker makes an attack roll, whilst the defender makes a defence roll equal to, or better than, the attacker’s roll. Modifiers of course, apply. Armour itself reduces the damage a defender suffers, just as it does impede his ability to move and attack – if it is bulky or heavy enough. Saving Throws work in a similar fashion, with the equivalent of opposed rolls as per attack and defence rolls.

More radical are the means of handling Initiative and time. The former is handled by a die roll as you would expect, but the die varies according to the situation, so for example, the standard roll is a twelve-sided die, but the die type lowers the more aware the protagonists are of the situation, such as a six-sided die for staging an ambush. The result, when added to the character’s Base Initiative determines when he acts. Instead of rolling Initiative and acting from one Round to the next, combat in HackMaster Basic drops the Round as a measure of time in favour of a continuing Count Up. As soon as combat begins, this begins at one and counts up, one by one. When the Count Up reaches a protagonist’s Starting Initiative, he is no longer Surprised and can declare an action, each action taking a number of counts according to the speed of the weapon being employed.

The rules for combat are complex and to an extent, quite detailed, though probably no more detailed than the later versions of Dungeons & Dragons, Third Edition. The Count Up is at heart an elegant means of handling the flow of combat, with an emphasis upon the “flow.” This is supported by a detailed example of combat that is drawn as an episode of Knights of the Dinner Table in which the characters are ambushed by Goblins and then an Orc, using not only the comic book characters, but also a plan of the continuing action and an explanation of the rules, the action, and the dice rolls. It is very good at showing how combat in HackMaster Basic works, yet it is ultimately flawed for three reasons. First, it only shows how a mêlée works, and completely ignores the use of missile weaponry. Second, it does not show how magic works. Not a single character casts a spell despite the fact that two of them are spellcasters – a Cleric and a Mage. Third, and even worse, is the fact that one of the players completely declines to have his character participate in the encounter. That character, the Mage in the party, could easily have thrown a weapon or cast a spell, but instead hides throughout the entire encounter until at the very end, when he steps out of hiding to deal the killing blow to the main opponent in the encounter, the Orc, and loot the body. This despite having contributed nothing to the outcome of the encounter.

So whilst the encounter presents a solid example of a mêlée in HackMaster Basic, it ultimately presents an appalling example of play. In having the Mage act so badly it sets a dreadful example, an example of how not to play. This is only exacerbated when you take into account the Mage’s Alignment which is meant to be Lawful Neutral and the fact that the GameMaster fails to levy any penalty for this poor play.

If the example of combat left a poor taste in my mouth, my reaction to the twelfth chapter left me outraged. The eleven pages of this chapter were what had made me swear, put my copy of HackMaster Basic down, and walk away from the book for three years. The title of the chapter is “On Dice…” and is devoted to the care and use of your dice – dice nomenclature, dice etiquette, choosing/purchasing your dice, dice rolling procedure, dice rolling don’ts, and so on… 

Now there is nothing intrinsically wrong with the writing of the chapter, but there is absolutely nothing right with the chapter. At its most base, it is an asinine piece of pedantry, whose subject matter is inherently immature. Arguably, after thirty-five years of the roleplaying hobby, who needs eleven pages of advice devoted to the care and use of their dice when such advice can be summed up with, to paraphrase Wil Wheaton, “Don’t be a dick with your dice”?

In coming back to write this review I read up on the book and discovered that these eleven pages had been inserted into HackMaster Basic when it was discovered that there were some blank pages. Kenzer & Co filled this blank with a piece that had previously been available to download from the publisher’s website. So it is nothing more than a space filler. What a waste of a space though, because even as a space filler, the “On Dice…” chapter does nothing except fill up what would be blank pages. It not only adds nothing to the game, but it detracts from the book. After all, once read, who is going to want, or need, to read its eleven pages ever again? They serve no purpose except to fill up space, and even if the “On Dice…” chapter is intended as a satire on the mores of Old School style roleplaying, then it ought to have an element of humour to it. Sadly it does not. It is not funny in the slightest, and whilst a page or two might have achieved some satirical point, here the eleven pages just beat both its subject and the reader into submission with its pedantry.

Ultimately, the “On Dice…” chapter was a quick fix made in the face of a publishing deadline. In hindsight, it was the wrong decision because it gives entirely the wrong impression of HackMaster Basic – just as the earlier example of combat does about the play of the game, and because it flies in the face of the statement in the game’s introduction that as part of the game’s redesign, the designers had “…reeled in and scrubbed the game of much of the over-the-top “silly factor”.” Sadly, when a sample adventure or setting, or just more advice or monsters would have both helpful and useful, the decision to include the “On Dice…” just leaves the reader with eleven unfunny pages that serve no purpose in the game and are patronising to the reader.

Much of the section written for the GameMaster’s eyes only is devoted to a useful bestiary of monsters and antagonists plus treasure to be found and looted. Actual advice for the GameMaster comes in the form of a Code of Conduct, more a series of dictates rather than real advice. If taken as advice, it is at least to the point, something that the “On Dice…” chapter fails to achieve. The fact that it reads more as a series of dictates than actual advice is one indication that HackMaster Basic is not a basic, introductory game. Indeed, it compounds the fact that the GameMaster needs to have experience and knowledge of how to run a game before coming to HackMaster Basic.

Physically, the most eye-catching element to HackMaster Basic is its cover, drawn and painted by the doyen of the Old School artists, Errol Otus. It captures the feel of the Old School Dungeons & Dragons very nicely, particularly the Dungeons & Dragons Basic Set, published by TSR in 1981. Though in doing do, it may well mislead the potential purchaser in that HackMaster Basic is anything other than a Dungeons & Dragons Basic Set style game as has already been mentioned. Behind the cover, HackMaster Basic evokes the feel of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons with lots and lots of charts. The illustrations vary in quality, but do much to capture the feel of HackMaster Basic. The writing is generally clear and readable, although its tone does occasionally grate, especially when the fictional personalities behind the game are let off the leash.

As much as HackMaster Basic has the feel of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, it has a feel that is very much its own, one that the seeps from the pores of the pages in HackMaster Basic. It is a combination of complexity and muscularity that makes HackMaster Basic stand out from the rest of the Old School Renaissance. This is no surprise, after all the game’s inspiration is more post Old School than actual Old School. There is even something likeable about this combination, which does give much to lift HackMaster Basic above the ill-advised missteps of the example of combat and the “On Dice…” chapter that threaten to drag the game back into the “over-the-top ‘silly factor’” territory of the game’s previous edition. As long as that element is kept restrained and the muscularity retained, then all bodes well for HackMaster 5th Edition. In the meantime, HackMaster Basic provides decently done introduction to one of the more idiosyncratic approaches to generic fantasy roleplaying. 

Sunday 10 February 2013

Cthulhu Without Cthulhu

It is rare to see a release for Call of Cthulhu from PaganPublishing, and even rarer still to see a release from Pagan Publishing that is not for Delta Green. So it is a pleasure to see Bumps in the Night, an anthology of five scenarios for Call of Cthulhu. Yet this is collection is rarer still – and for two reasons. First, it is a collection of non-Mythos scenarios, and rather than drawing upon the writings of H.P. Lovecraft and his acolytes, it takes as its inspiration the horror of the Americana and the American Gothic to sometimes give a refreshing twist upon traditional horror. Second, all five scenarios are penned by John H. Crowe III, the author of the highly regarded campaigns, Walker in the Wastes and Realm of Shadows. Which as a combination sets the expectations for Bumps in the Night more than a little high.

All five scenarios are suitable for play as one-shots, although one is a sequel to a scenario earlier in the book. At least two would also work as prequel scenarios that could be run to introduce one or more investigators, if not to the Mythos, then at least to the idea that there is something outré out there… All five scenarios take place in the USA, though with some effort upon the part of the Keeper, they could be set elsewhere and possibly else when.

The quintet opens in 1915 with “The Westerfield Incident.” Residents of Westerfield, located in the Adirondack Mountains of New York state, have taken to locking their doors as they fear that the streets of their small town are no longer safe. Three appalling murders have occurred in the past few weeks, the victims having been discovered reduced to nothing but barely identifiable gnawed bones. Local law enforcement believes that a wild animal to be responsible and has placed a sizeable bounty on the head of the predatory creature responsible. Enter the investigators, perhaps as townsfolk not only attracted by the bounty, but gone vigilante to protect their fellow Westerfielders; as county sheriff’s deputies brought into deal with a predator gone rogue; or perhaps even as parapsychologists attracted to the strangeness of the murders.

Much of the pleasure of “The Westerfield Incident” comes from the radically restrained investigative process, the sources of information here in the main not being books and newspapers, but rather local knowledge and gossip. There is a pleasing use of the word of the mouth throughout before the identity of the predator responsible is revealed, this exacerbating the challenge of the scenario in particular if the investigators are not local. As to the predator itself, it is a traditional creature, but provides a refreshing challenge to the players. Given its earlier and mostly isolated setting, “The Westerfield Incident” also works as a good prequel for investigators that will come to be involved in the major Mythos events of the 1920s.

The sense of isolation and constraint continues with the second scenario, “The Vengeful Dead,” which is very much a more traditional horror scenario. The investigators are on holiday, taking a vacation at the rustic retreat of the Grandview Lodge in Virginia. With its numerous outdoor activities – camping, croquet, fishing, hiking, hunting, riding, skeet shooting, swimming, and tennis – this is the chance for the investigators to rest and recuperate, perhaps after some unhealthy investigation into the unknown. Unfortunately, harboured amongst the staff and the guests is a killer whose unwholesome efforts will have consequences for everyone at the Grandview Lodge.

Given the current popularity of its monsters, “The Vengeful Dead” has the feel of a traditional horror movie. It is not all set in stone though, as it is up to the Keeper to decide the identity of the killer from the array of well-drawn NPCs. Further, the Keeper is given room to add the paranormal to the scenario, retroactively prefiguring Pagan Publishing’s non-Mythos, paranormal campaign, Coming Full Circle. There is a certain cosiness to “The Vengeful Dead,” almost like that of a traditional murder mystery set at a country house, but unlike that genre, this scenario is never going to end in a “Tell me Inspector, what I don’t understand is…” moment following its one woeful night.

“The Vengeful Dead” is followed by sequel, “The Bitter Venom of the Gods,” which takes place a roughly a year later and is firmly rooted in the American Gothic. Its set up is more complex though. One of the survivors from “The Vengeful Dead” has accepted the marriage proposal from one Robert Gallery and has even gone so far as to move in with his family in preparation for the marriage. This was of course with a chaperone so as to avoid a scandal, but now she has decided to break off the engagement and wants a friend to go with her to collect some belongings from the Gallery family seat. The friend is there to see her enter, but he does not see her come back out…

“The Bitter Venom of the Gods” is a dense affair, rife with clues, and populated with a gallery of seemingly genial grotesques as well as the actual grotesques. In comparison with the previous scenarios, this is much more of a challenge for the Keeper to run and makes more demands of the players.

The fourth scenario, “Curse of the Screaming Skull,” presents an interesting challenge to the antiquarian and paranormal investigators. They are hired to examine the estate of the late Jacob Withering, an inveterate collector of oddities and curiosities who turned his home into his personal museum. His nephew, John, stands to inherit a great deal of money from his uncle, but only if he maintains his uncle’s house and keeps his collection intact. The collection also needs to be catalogued, but strange events have already driven off one archivist and the current cataloguers are already complaining of odd incidents.

As a haunted house scenario, “Curse of the Screaming Skull” is probably the most traditional of the five scenarios in Bumps in the Night. This is not to denigrate it in any way as it is a worthy addition to the sub-genre; and as an addition to the anthology, it presents a satisfying change of pace in comparison to the other scenarios. Not only is almost languorous in feel, the pacing remaining firmly in the Keeper’s hands rather than with the scenario itself, but the solution to the scenario deliberately flys in the face of player tendencies, there being strong social penalties if they make the wrong choice. In addition to being a well done haunted house scenario, “Curse of the Screaming Skull” is set in Vermont which places it on the border with Lovecraft Country. Thus the scenario makes a suitable excursion from that mouldering corner of New England, and it would also work as fitting addition to Jeffrey Moeller’s Monograph, The Primal State.

Whereas the previous four scenarios had no particular requirements in terms of the player characters needed, the fifth and last scenario makes specific demands. “An Unsettled Mind” is firmly set in Baltimore and casts the investigators as death investigators – homicide detectives and coroner’s personnel – with the Baltimore Police Department. They are tasked to investigate violent and suspicious deaths, in this instance, a fatal car crash. “An Unsettled Mind” is the most modern of the quintet in Bumps in the Night, not just because it a police procedural, but also because it has the feel of an episode of The X-Files. Despite the emphasis on the police procedural, the heart of “An Unsettled Mind” is a moral dilemma that will challenge both the player characters and the players.

The strict requirements of “An Unsettled Mind” make it better suited to play as a one-shot than the other four scenarios in Bumps in the Night. It is the least flexible of the five, and perhaps as a one-shot would have benefited from some pre-generated investigators or some guidance as to creating them. Otherwise, a good one-night one-shot.

Physically, Bumps in the Night is succinctly produced. The layout is clean and tidy, the artwork and the cartography are both excellent. The handouts in particular, are well done and feel in keeping with the periods that the adventures are set in. Overall, this is a book with character, one that is up to Pagan Publishing’s usual standards. If the scenarios lack anything it is the inclusion of playtest notes, only one scenario does when all four would have benefited from the inclusion of such information.

Although Bumps in the Night is not a Call of Cthulhu book as such, but rather a book for use with Call of Cthulhu, it is without a doubt the best book published for Call of Cthulhu in 2012. Each of its five scenarios is well crafted and comes with detail, nicely judged plots, and red herrings aplenty. Of course, it is a pity that Bumps in the Night is not more widely available – it was brought to print via Kickstarter and has not entered distribution outside of the USA and Canada, but hopefully, Pagan Publishing will rectify this. Ultimately, Bumps in the Night is further proof that Pagan Publishing can provide great support for the game, even when not involving the Mythos.

Friday 1 February 2013

Under the Sea RPG

The Walt Disney Company does not do roleplaying games. None of its many and varied properties has ever been licenced as a roleplaying game. Which in some ways is a shame, for the gaming hobby is aging and its adherents have young children or even young grandchildren who do not have an easy way into the hobby or a means of being introduced to the hobby. As much as Fantasy Flight Games’ forthcoming StarWars: Edge of the Empire RPG is effectively the first Disney RPG, the lack of an actual Disney RPG based on its more family orientated properties seems such a missed opportunity. Yet what if there was an RPG that was like a Disney RPG, both in terms of feel and tone? One that would appeal to a younger audience? One whose rules were simple and easy to understand? And one that was easy to run and came with easy-to-use support?

Mermaid Adventures: An RPG of Undersea Fun fits all of those requirements, and more. Plus it comes from an unexpected publisher, Third Eye Games, better known for its more mature themed, action-orientated RPGs, Apocalypse Prevention, Inc. and Part-Time Gods. As its title suggests, Mermaid Adventures is all about the lives and escapades of the seafolk in and around the magical kingdom of Atlantis under the sea. They will help King Neptune and Queen Anastasia as well as their friends and others; take part in the annual Undersea Olympics; explore the Dark Lands that lie beyond the borders of the Kingdom of Atlantis, home to pirates, bandits, and worse; and generally have a fantastic time!

Players in Mermaid Adventures take the roles of these seafolk, all of whom are half-human and half-sea creatures. They include Fishfolk, traditional mermaids known for their curiosity; Eelfolk, who make great friends, but like to play jokes and pranks; Jellyfolk who are almost transparent and are great hunters; Lobsterfolk, hardshelled, but charming; Octofolk, tentacular seafolk with an aptitude for magic; Rayfolk, who can make themselves flat and have a reputation for sneakiness; the big and strong Sharkfolk; and the spiny, Urchinfolk, obsessed with magic.

Characters are easy to create. A player selects the type of seafolk that she wants to play; this sets the base value for the character’s five attributes – Body, Mind, Charm, and Luck – and gives a single positive Quality that all members of the selected species possesses. For example, Octofolk start with the free Quality of Tentacles, which enables them to get things done quickly when using their (hands) tentacles. Five points are assigned to the character’s attributes and then the player rolls on a number of tables to determine hair style and colour, eye and fin colour, some extra details about the character (possessions, clothing, knowledge, features, and so on), and the character’s goal and its accompanying Quality. Lastly, the player selects four more Qualities. These from Artistic and Beautiful to Weapon Training and Writer via Mechanical and Nosy. Additionally, a character can chose Magical Qualities like Healing Touch, Lullaby, and Water Bending. Lastly a character can have an Animal Companion, essentially a second, less capable character that the player controls. This is a slightly more costly option though.

Our sample character is a pretty princess, perhaps a little spoiled, but still generous of heart and ready to go off on adventures. Her nosiness sometimes gets her into trouble, though she will often try and charm her way out of it. If only her parents were not immune to such attempts! She owns a yo-yo, a toy that she found which must have been dropped overboard by a human!

Princess Pandora
Body 2, Mind 2, Charm 3, Luck 3
Hair Colour: Red Hair Style: Bangs 
Eye Colour: Amber Fin Colour: Light Blue
Qualities: Adventurous (Free); Beautiful, Royalty, 
Lullaby Song (Magic), Nosy
Goal: Giving (Take a hit to Luck to let any player make any reroll)
Extras: Yo-yo, Pointy Ears

Mechanically, Mermaid Adventures uses what the designer calls the “PIP System.” It requires a handful of white dice and a handful of black dice (or just dice of two different colours). The white dice are positive, whilst the black dice are negative. To undertake an action, a player rolls a number of dice equal to the appropriate attribute, with results of four, five, or six being counted as successes. A player can roll more white dice if she can involve one or more of her Qualities. The difficulty of the action determines the number of black dice to be rolled, with a Mid-Range Task calling for two black dice to be rolled, a Tough Task requiring three black dice to be rolled, and so on. Rolls of four, five, or six on the black dice count as failures and cancel out any successes rolled.

A player only needs to roll a single success to succeed at a task. If she rolls three successes more than failures, then the result is counted a critical success and she gains a small bonus. Conversely, rolling three failures more than successes results in a critical failure with extra consequences… If a player rolls an equal number of successes and failures, then she succeeds, but with minor consequences. A player can attempt a re-roll for a Task, but must take a “Hit” on the attribute, temporarily reducing it by one.

For example, Princess Pandora wants to hold a midnight feast for her friends and knows that the cook will not give her anything. So she attempts to distract the cook whilst her friends sneak into the larder and pinch some goodies. The Games Master or Navigator sets the difficulty of the Task at Tough as the cook knows what a little madam Pandora is, so Pandora’s player has to roll three black dice. Pandora’s player will use her Charm of 3 of course, but for her Royalty Quality – she swishes her tail a bit! – and Giving Quality – Pandora explains that it is for her friends! – she gets to add two more white dice. On the white dice, Pandora’s player rolls 1, 2, 5, 5, and 6, and 1, 3, and 4 on the black dice, or three successes and two failures. Cancelled out, that just leaves her with a single success, which is enough to distract the cook and Pandora’s friends will be able to get into the larder a whole lot more easily.

The same mechanics are used for combat and conflicts, the rules for both covering not just fights, but also attempts to charm or persuade major NPCs or other player characters, to trick them, or to use magic on them. In these cases, the acting player character always rolls the white dice, while the defender rolls the black dice, essentially serving as the Task’s difficulty. Further, in these cases, if a player character or NPC is successfully attacked, they take damage to the defending attribute. Should a character suffer enough damage to reduce an attribute to zero, then it can no longer be used, and the character will suffer an even worse effect, such as suffering a bad scar for the Body attribute being reduced to zero, or being drained of magic for the Luck being reduced to zero. These effects are rolled randomly.

For the Navigator or Games Master, there is a selection of NPCs, advice to Navigator to keep the game moving and exciting, whilst also allowing the players to add details to make their undersea world as real as they want it. This is as much as the advice really amounts to, but in the hands of an experienced Navigator, this should be no problem. Were this squarely aimed at a neophyte Games Master, then this section would be sorely lacking, and it might be worth addressing if Mermaid Adventures were to be given a second edition. That said, the Navigator also receives a set of tables to roll adventure ideas on and a quintet of ready-to-play adventures. These see the player characters come to the rescue of a sinking ship, enter the Undersea Olympics, get lost in the Dark Lands, and more…

Physically, Mermaid Adventures is not quite perfect. It is engagingly presented, particularly in terms of art, done in full colour by Melissa Gay, in a style that perfectly captures the light hearted nature of the game. That said, the layout is a little rough in places, and the book could really do with another edit to give it a little more of a polish. The book is easy to read and an experienced eye will run through this is in an hour or so and be ready to run it with relatively little preparation.

The inspirations behind Mermaid Adventures are obvious and they show in its lightness of the treatment of its subject matter and its setting, which is very lightly drawn. This lightness is supported by the mechanics, which are easy to grasp, and all together they make the game very accessible. Similarly, the scenarios make Mermaid Adventures easy to run and there are more ideas to be got out of the adventure generator, though more adventures would not be unwelcome. Above all, the illustrations do the most to capture the feel of the game and setting – light, adventurous, and action packed. These serve to make the RPG suited to play by younger players, with the setting particularly orientated to young girls, though there is nothing to stop young boys playing too.

Mermaid Adventures: An RPG of Undersea Fun is a game with charm, one that is nicely suited to be run for a younger audience.