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

Sunday 19 May 2013

Adventure to the MAX!

Over the years the roleplaying hobby has thrown up a number of games specifically designed to be played by kids and in the process, actually introduce them to the hobby. Whether that is uncovering mysteries in PandaheadProductions’ Meddling Kids, exploring the magic of the woods and its denizens in Firefly Games’ Faery's Tale, adventuring in, beyond, and above the Atlantis of Third Eye Games’ Mermaid Adventures: An RPG of Undersea Fun, or protecting society from the dangers of big nature in Mouse Guard RPG from Archaia Studios Press, they invariably combine relatively simple mechanics with a setting that will spark the imagination of the younger, neophyte player. In each case, their aim is to help the parent who wants to introduce his child to his hobby and thus help the child who is curious about the fantastic adventures that he hears about, or sees, his parent playing. 

The latest RPG to aimed at kids is Adventure MAXIMUS!, a traditionally themed game published by Eden Studios, Inc. and set in a fantasy world. This can be the fantasy world of the Game Master or Maximus Master’s own devising, or can be the one lightly sketched out in the pages of Adventure MAXIMUS! This is the world of “Ex-Machina,” once known as Magisterica before the Reign of the Wise Wizard Kings ended. Following this apocalypse is a world in which mythical creatures roam the lands and both food and trees can talk. As much as the setting is traditionally themed in its fantasy, what sets it apart from others is a vein of light-hearted, if not slight silly humour, that runs through it. This shows in the setting, for example, there is a nation called The Take-Out Kingdom, in some of the actions that characters can take, each of which has a card of its own, and in several of the monsters that the adventurers will face. The presence of this light-hearted humour is intentional, as it is designed to engage the younger player’s imagination and to encourage him to think and engage with the world.

For the most part, the elements of the setting that the players and their characters interact with during play are represented by cards which are drawn from several decks. These include a Blue Race deck, a Green Class deck, an Orange Action deck, Purple Spell deck, a Red Item deck, a Black Monster deck, and a Gold Map deck. A character is comprised of a Blue Race card and a Green Class card, and will be equipped with cards from the Orange Action deck, the Purple Spell deck – if the character can cast spells, and the Red Item deck. The cards from the Black Monster and Gold Map decks are used to create adventures in conjunction with the game’s Adventure Sheet. (There are ten cards in the Green Class deck, eight in the Blue Race deck, ten in the Orange Action deck, thirteen in the Black Monster deck, eighteen in the Purple Spell deck, thirty-four in Red Item deck, and fifteen in the Gold Map deck.) In addition, Adventure MAXIMUS! uses its own “Maximus” dice as well as needing numerous tokens to represent Action Points, Damage Points, and Experience points. 

To create a character in Adventure MAXIMUS! a player draws three Blue Race and three Green Class cards, choosing one of each as his character’s Race and Class. Both provide special abilities whilst the Green Class card sets the number of Orange Action cards, RedEquipment cards, and Purple Spell cards – if a spellcaster, that the character can have. These are randomly drawn. The Adventure MAXIMUS! character sheet has specific places for all of these cards.

So for example, Louise creates her first character. She draws three Blue Race cards and gets Elf, Giantkin, and Food-kin. She chooses Giant-kin she wants to play a big fighting type and Giant-kin can use “Close Attacks” at “Far Range.” For her three Green Class cards she draws The Guard (a warrior who protects others), The Officer (a true warrior and leader of men), and The Sparklemancer (who is all about making friends). She decides to choose the latter, if only for the fact that not only is the idea of a Giant-kin running around in a gown and wielding a wand funny, but so is her Class Power, “Jazz Hands” which lets her dazzle her opponents with this dance move. Of course, this is a “Close Attack,” but since she is a Giant-kin, she can do “Close Attacks” at “Far Range” or “Jazz Hands from Afar”! The Sparklemancer also gives her Close Attack +1, Far Attack +2, one Action Card, three Equipment Cards, and three Spell Cards. For her Action Card, Louise chooses one which gives her “Double Flip!”, “The Naked Goblin!”, and “Lippy-Hippy-Shake!”. The first forces her enemies to lose an Action Point if they see her “Double Flip!” with her sword; the second gives her a +3 Scary bonus and if her enemies fail a Fear Test they must flee because of her big armour (or in her character’s case, her big gown as she is a Sparklemancer); and the third forces all of her enemies to dance as Louise actually gets up from the table and dances! These three actions cost her two, three, and three Action Points respectively.

For her spells, Louise receives “Banana Slips” (makes the floor slippery with the essence of banana peel), “Jared's Reducer!” (because she can shrink both herself and others, and sometimes she wants to be smaller), and “Feel the Heal!” (to make her friends feel better if they get hurt). For her equipment, Louise gets a pillow, a pot of super glue, and a length of rubber hose.

Louise the Sparklemancer
Weapon: Wand Armour: Gown
Attacks: Close A­ttack +1, Far A­ttack +2
Class Skills: Fast Talk +3, Notice +2, Crime +4
Willpower 2
Class Power
(1AP) Jazz Hands: +1 Willpower against one target's Willpower, if successful the target is Dazed for one round.
Race: Giant-kin
Giant-kin ability – Reach! You can use Close A­ttacks on things that are in Far range. Big, tough, and kind are words used to describe Giant-kin, but many prejudiced people will run in fear from you.
Action Card:
(2AP) Double Flip!: You can Dazzle your enemies with your sword play, they lose an Action Point if they can see your Double Flip!
(3AP) The Naked Goblin!: Your armour makes you look a lot bigger than you really are, you get a +3 Scary bonus. Enemies that can see you must make a Willpower test or flee in fear. Any enemies who win the test are immune to this effect for the rest of the encounter.
(3AP) Lippy-Hippy-Shake!: You have the uncanny ability to make your enemies dance when you dance. Get up from the game table and dance, enemies dance until you stop.
Spells: Banana Slips (1AP), Feel the Heal! (2AP+), Jared's Reducer! (4AP)
Equipment: Pillow, pot of super glue, rubber hose.

Adventure MAXIMUS! is designed to be an action orientated game. Once the action – or a “Courageous Situation” starts, whether that is getting into a fight, climbing a mountain, or entering a competition to bake a pie, then the Maximus Dice come out. What a character can do over the course of a single Round is determined by the number of Action Points he has, these being set by his Blue Race card. These are spent not only to undertake normal actions such as walking, running, looting, attacking, charging, using a skill, and so on, but also to undertake the options given on the character’s Orange Action cards and his Purple Spell cards – if he has any. A character can spend as few or as many Action Points as he likes and they always refresh from one Round to the next.

When it comes to skill rolls and other actions, a character rolls a number of Maximus dice equal to his skill. Each Maximus die is a six-sided die marked with three blank sides, one side with a single sword, a second with two crossed swords, and a third with a Maximus symbol. Each sword represents a success, so the crossed swords represent two successes. The Maximus symbol also represents two successes, plus it allows a character to roll another die and add its success to his total. As long as a player keeps rolling the Maximus symbol, he can keep rolling and adding successes. 

At its most basic, as a player rolls a single success on the Maximus dice, then his character succeeds at the desired action. Some skills require a player to roll two or more successes to achieve his desired aim. For example, the First Aid needs two successes to be rolled if a character wants to restore healed one dot on his or another character’s Health Track. Opposed skill rolls require one participant to roll more success than the others if he is achieve his desired aim. 

Combat though, is kept even simpler. Initiative is determined by the highest number of successes as you would expect, but only in the first round. In subsequent rounds, initiative order actually passes to the left, so that the player who acts first moves round the table rather than being randomly determined. Simple and for the most part a fair means of handling it, although there is nothing to stop the players rolling for initiative each round as is traditional. Actual combat is a matter of rolling the Maximus dice and rolling as many successes as possible. Armour negates these successes, so whatever gets through is taken as damage to the defender’s Health.

In keeping with the light nature of the rules, the advice for the Maximus Master is kept quick and simple. First and foremost, it adheres to a simple rule that applies to the Maximus Master as much as it does to the players – “Have FUN!” Second, that he should keep the game going by saying “Yes, and…” to all of the impossibly inventive ideas that his players might come up with. For example, heroes have tracked down the thief who stole the Frog God’s favourite jewelled eye and are racing after them along a steep path down the side of a mountain. Louise the Sparklemancer tells her Maximus Master that she wants to cast Banana Slips to make Barry the Burglar lose his footing. Of course, her Maximus Master says, “Yes,” and then describes how Barry the Burglar not only loses his footing, but also loses hold of the stolen jewel which goes flying through the air only to land on the gas bag of the aerial steamship that was passing below…! 

In addition, preparing an adventure is made all the easier for the Maximus Master with the inclusion of the “Who-What-Where-How Adventure Creation System.” By following its simple step-by-step instructions in conjunction with the Black Monster and Gold Map decks, plus some input from the players in form of names and descriptive words – or if preparing the adventure ahead of time these can come from the rulebook’s “Courageous Maxi-Libs List” – the Maximus Master can create a whole adventure. First, he draws a Boss Monster card from the Black Monster deck and equips him with Action, Item, and Spell cards as necessary. This is the “Who” or villain of the “Who-What-Where-How Adventure Creation System,” whilst another Red Item card is the “What” and a Yellow Map card forms the “Where.” Together these elements form the Climax Map of the adventure. These steps need to be repeated two more times to create two more Adventure Maps that the player characters must travel through in order to get to the Climax Map, although neither of the Monsters faced in these Adventure Maps will be Boss Monsters. 

The Maximus Master also needs to fill out the following statement using the players’ suggestions or the “Courageous Maxi-Libs”: “A message has been delivered to your Adventure Call Box. ‘________’ has asked for your help! ‘________’ has the ‘________’, you must travel to the ‘________’ in the “________.’ Bring back the ‘________’ and you will be rewarded!” So for example, “A message has been delivered to your Adventure Call Box. The Wizard Of Zoz has asked for your help! Sweet & Sour and Sweet & Spicy!* have the Clean Underpants, you must travel to the ruins in the Forest of Doors. Bring back the Clean Underpants and you will be rewarded!” In order to get through to the Forest of Doors, the player characters will have to travel through Teddy Bear Junction and then to Gum Drop Falls. 

* Twin chicken chunks from the Take-Out Kingdom that were just born bad. 

What is so good about the “Who-What-Where-How Adventure Creation System” is not just the ease and speed with which the Maximus Master can create an adventure, but also the fact that it can be picked up and used by the very players that the game is written to be run for. In other words, kids can run this as much as adults can. In combination with the card-driven means of creating characters, the “Who-What-Where-How Adventure Creation System” gives Adventure MAXIMUS! a strong capacity for "Pick Up and Play." Not necessarily such that the game can be played straight out of the box – though the RPG is easy to learn in terms of its mechanics, but the preparation time for an adventure is mere minutes rather than the hours it might be with other RPGs. Just as it is for character creation. 

Adventure MAXIMUS! could be run as a fairly straight forward fantasy RPG, but that would be to ignore its potentially rich vein of humour and silliness. This shows more in the decks of cards that support the game – the Black Monster deck, the Purple Spell deck, the Yellow Map deck, and the Red Item deck than the Blue Race deck and the Green Class deck. In fact, with just the one humorous or silly option in each of the latter two decks – the Sparklemancer in the Green Class deck and the Food-kin in the Blue Race deck – the game feels disappointingly traditional in terms of what characters it offers the players to play. In fact, the choices can be best described as “fantasy vanilla” and it would have been nice if some other choices had been included, preferably ones that matched the game’s humour. Yet once past the Blue Race deck and the Green Class deck and the options and choices for the Maximus Master are a lot more varied and mine much more of the vein of silliness. Whether that is the Bunny Mummy!* from the Black Monster deck, the Foothills of Fungus** from the Yellow Map deck, or the Bunny Borough Bow*** from the Red Item deck, they all show that Adventure MAXIMUS! is intended to be anything than wholly serious in its feel and style. 

* My favourite monster! 
** Actual hill-sized feet upon which grows fungi!!
*** Also known as the Velveteen Wackit because an arrow fired from it never inflicts damage, but anyone hit is turned into a bunny!!! 

Physically, Adventure MAXIMUS! is neatly presented in full colour. In its current form it does need another edit, but it has two more pressing problems. The first is that it fails to state up front what it is, not what a roleplaying game is, but what Adventure MAXIMUS! is and how it is intended to work. It becomes apparent after reading through the whole of the short rule book, but this seems at odds with the “pick up, get playing” intent of the design. The other issue is that there is not enough background, though that said, this lack allows plenty of room for the Maximus Master and his players to create as they go. A lesser issue would be that there might not be enough cards for long term play, though there is nothing to stop anyone from creating their own cards. 

As much as the origins of Adventure MAXIMUS! as a fantasy RPG lie in Dungeons & Dragons, its tone and feel have a more contemporary source – contemporary television animation. It recognises that it is silly, but it embraces this aspect in a joyous fashion whilst referencing this, that, and the other in postmodern “reference anything and everything” fashion. Adventure MAXIMUS! is not necessarily the Adventure Time RPG and certainly is not based on the Cartoon Network Studios animated series of the same name, but it is not impossible to suggest it as an inspiration. The combination of the two in Adventure MAXIMUS! results in an RPG that can be played as a traditional fantasy RPG akin to Dungeons & Dragons, but by design is much lighter in tone, with a setting and means of adventure creation that allows room aplenty for player input and player imagination.

Saturday 4 May 2013

On Her Majesty's Adventurous Service

How do you like your Victoriana roleplaying? As with most historically set RPGs, those set during the reign of Queen Victoria bring other elements to the table. For example, Pinnacle Entertainment Group’s Deadlands brings horror to the Wild West, Cthulhu by Gaslight from Chasoium, Inc. brings Lovecraftian investigative horror and the horrors of H.P. Lovecraft’s fiction to the 1890s, and CubicleSeven Entertainment’s Victoriana brings magic and other elements normally associated with the fantasy genre to the 1860s. So the question is, what does the newest RPG to draw up a chair at the roleplaying table of your gentlemen’s club, Leagues of Adventure: A Rip-Roaring Setting of Exploration and Derring Do in the Late Victorian Age!, bring to Victorian era?

Leagues of Adventure is published by Triple Ace Games, the British publisher best known for a number of RPG settings that make use of Pinnacle Entertainment Group’s Savage Worlds rules such as Necropolis, Hellfrost, and Sundered Skies. Rather than employ the Savage Worlds rules, Leagues of Adventure makes use of the Ubiquity System. First seen in ExileStudio’s Hollow Earth Expedition, and since used in Greymalkin Design’s post-apocalyptic fantasy, Desolation, and the German version of Space 1889 from Uhrwerk Verlag, the Ubiquity System has also been previously used by Triple Ace Games’ own award-winning All For One: Régime Diabolique. What the Ubiquity System brings to Leagues of Adventure is a fluid, action orientated set of mechanics that supports a Pulp style of play.

What Leagues of Adventure brings to Victorian era roleplaying is a sense of adventure and mystery. It is specifically set during an age of great exploration in which the boundaries of the known world are only just beginning to be pushed back and many secrets are being revealed. As much as it is set during the history of the period, it draws heavily from the fiction of the period, so that Sherlock Holmes and Doctor John Watson are as much real as Brigadier General Sir Harry Paget Flashman, VC, Phileas Fogg, and Abaham van Helsing. As adventurers or globetrotters, the player characters will travel to the far corners of the Earth, exploring the unknown, making great discoveries, and uncovering mysteries, whether these are the strange Gill Men reputed to live in the Black Lagoon at the head of the Amazon, another plot to overthrow the monarchy in Ruritania, or a rash of stranglings in Shanghai!

Every globetrotter or player character is a member of a “League,” an exclusive or secret—or not so secret—society, such as The Alpine Club, the Epicurean Society, or The Temporal Society. These are the “Leagues” of the game’s title — as much as the multitudes of adventures it also suggests, with each League providing contacts, resources, and patrons that will call on the globetrotters just as the globetrotters can call upon the aid of their Leagues. For the most part, the various Leagues possess a friendly rivalry with each other where their interests conflict, but there exist villainous Leagues whose aims are far from honourable or enlightened. The Thuggee is one such villainous League, as is The Immortals Club, whose members seek ever greater power and the means to keep it for themselves.

Character creation is matter of choosing one of the provided archetypes – Big Game Hunter, Consulting Detective, Diligent Correspondent, Explorer, Crackpot Antiquarian, Pioneering Aviatrix, and Temporal Scientist – each of which is presented in full colour, or assigning a number of sets of points. Fifteen points between six attributes and another fifteen points to skills before selecting a Talent such as Knockout Blow or Well-Educated or a Resource like an Artifact or Rank, and a Flaw such as Flea-Infested or Thrill-Seeker. Another fifteen points are spent to customise the character. A character also needs a Motivation and he also starts the game with a Style Point, the Ubiquity System’s equivalent of hero or luck points.

For the most part, this is standard character creation under the Ubiquity System. To this Leagues of Adventures adds a tweak or two. The first of these are “Zero Level” skills, of which a globetrotter receives four. Two to account for his background and another connected with the League that he belongs to. Truth be told, they do not add all that much to the game, but just enough to add a little depth to each globetrotter.

Our sample character is Lieutenant Henry Rathwell, a member of her Imperial Majesty’s fledging Air Corps. An excellent navigator, he transferred from the Royal Navy because he suffers from sea sickness. Currently he is on detached duty and is willing to join an expedition that needs a good pilot or navigator.

Lieutenant Henry Rathwell
Archetype: Pilot Motivation: Duty
Style: 2 Health: 4
Primary Attributes
Body: 2          Charisma: 2
Dexterity: 3   Intelligence: 4
Strength: 2    Willpower: 2
Secondary Attributes
Size: 0            Initiative: 7
Move: 4          Defense: 5
Perception: 6 Stun: 2
Anthropology 4/0/4/2
Athletics 3/1/4/2
Bureaucracy 4/1/5/2+
Craft (Electrics) 4/0/4/2
Craft (Mechanics) 4/0/4/2
Diplomacy 2/1/3/1+
            Leadership 2/2/4/2
Empathy 4/1/5/2+
Expeditions 4/1/5/2+
Firearms 3/1/4/2/1
Gunnery 4/1/5/2+
Linguistics 4/0/4/2
Pilot (Aerial) 3/3/6/3+
Science (Physics) 4/1/5/2+
Survival 4/3/7/3+
            Navigation 4/4/8/4+
Direction Sense
Rank – Lieutenant

When it comes to the Ubiquity System, it is all a matter of the number of successes rolled. A task’s Difficulty determines the minimum number of successes that have to be rolled for someone to achieve it. Even results equal successes, so any type of die can be used with Leagues of Adventure and the Ubiquity System. Any successes rolled above that improve the result. The rules also allow a character to “Take the Average,” meaning that if the average number of successes that he would roll is equal to, or greater than a task’s Difficulty, then the player does not have to roll. In addition, every player character has Style Points, which are spent to add bonus dice, boost the level of some Talents, and reduce damage. They are gained for pursuing a character’s Motivation and playing to his Flaw, for being heroic and being in character, as well as for out of game actions, such as writing gaming reports, hosting the game, and so on.

What is interesting about Leagues of Adventure is that although it has little in the way of background – the various Leagues, both fictional and historical, along with the various fictional characters mentioned are the extent of its background, it comes with plenty of setting material. The bulk of this comes in the form of an extensive gazetteer that takes the GM around the world in fifty-six pages. Continuing the game’s mix of the fictional with the historical Victoriana, once it has the “ordinary” descriptions of the continents and their constituent countries out of the way, it joyously as many fantastic places, both real and fictional as it can. So it describes the Grand Duchy of Fenwick, the Diogenes Club, King Solomon’s Mines, El Dorado, the Lost World, the Plateau of Leng, and Ruritania as much as it does the Black Museum, the Rookeries, Great Zimbabwe, Timbuktu, Machu Picchu, Ponape, and the Great Wall of China. In fact, it almost seems as if the author cannot wait to get the descriptions of the ordinary places out of the way so that he can concentrate on Leagues of Adventure’s fantastic locations. Further, all of these locations—places already crying out to be visited by the player characters—are accompanied by at least one adventure, usually more than one. All told, this gazetteer of the fantastic is accompanied by over one-hundred-and-thirty adventure seeds!

In addition, Leagues of Adventure comes with a bestiary with which to populate these locations. Again, they include a mix of the fictional and the real, from Amazon Warriors, Giant Apes, Kraken, Tyrannosaurus Rex, Doctor Moreau, and Professor James Moriarty to the Officious Bureaucrat, the French Foreign Legion soldier, the camel, the hippopotamus, and the tiger. Plus guidelines so that the GM can create Villainous Leagues with which to oppose his players and their globetrotters.

In terms of advice for the GM, Leagues of Adventure dispenses relatively little, assuming that the prospective GM is not new to the hobby. Perhaps the most telling advice comes in the form of setting the style that the GM and his players want for their game, essentially by determining the game’s Action Level. The options include “Gritty” like The Man Who Would Be King, “Adventurous” like Around the World in Eighty Days, “Pulp Adventure” such as the Indiana Jones movies, and “Cinematic Reality” like the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. Each sets the number of Style Points and their effect that the players get to use during the game, from the all Style Point free of the “Gritty” Action Level up to the double Style Points of “Cinematic Reality.”

Apart from the rules for setting the Action Level, the major mechanical addition to Leagues of Adventure is the rules for invention. Supported by numerous examples, these are a really easy set of rules to use, and support the creation of fantastic devices and vehicles in the game, whether that is by a gadgeteering player character or a nefarious villain with a penchant for dastardly devices. As written and as evidenced in the examples, these rules are not intended to cover the Steampunk genre, but rather the type of devices drawn from the fictions of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells. That said, these rules would cover the Steampunk genre with relatively little difficulty.

Physically, Leagues of Adventure is nicely put together and pleasingly illustrated. If the book lacks anything it is maps that match the detailed contents of the gazetteer, but this should not held against Leagues of Adventure. Finding maps, or indeed, further details of any one of the locations described in the book is hardly a challenge given access to the Internet. One might quibble at the lack of a pre-written scenario in the pages of Leagues of Adventure, but given that the book is written with the GM who has some experience in mind and the fact that it comes with as many adventure seeds as it does, this is less of an issue than it be with any other RPG. In addition, the QuickStart Rules in the form of Plateau of the Ape Men & The Dragons of London are available from the publisher’s website and they come with two scenarios.

So what does Leagues of Adventure bring to Victorian era roleplaying? In a word, ACTION! Well, actually “action and adventure,” for this is far from being a deep or introspective game – and there is nothing wrong that. To an extent it is something of toolkit, allowing the GM to adjust slightly the tool of action that he wants to present, but with the supplements available from the publisher’s website, such as the Globetrotters’ Guide to Weird Science and the Globetrotters’ Guide to Gothic Horror, the scope of both the game and the GM’s toolkit expands further. There is nothing to stop a GM from running games which focus on those elements just from Leagues of Adventure, but the Globetrotters’ Guide to… series support them better.

Beyond the game’s ACTION!, Leagues of Adventure exudes a sense of wonder and fascination that the possibilities of the unknown in the late Victorian era – whether real or imaginary – present to the GM and players alike. There is certain joy and excitement, almost exuberance in the presentation of Leagues of Adventure’s setting, which it matches well with a set of rules that support its action and adventure.