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

Sunday 23 June 2013

Fighting Fantasy Undead

Nostalgia is a wonderful thing, especially if the things that you love can be brought back. When it comes to being a British gamer of a certain age, there is nothing to be more nostalgic about than the Fighting Fantasy series. Launched in 1982 with the release by Puffin Books of The Warlock of Firetop Mountain, co-authored by the founders of Games Workshop, Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone, this series of “choose your own adventure” books holds a special place in the hearts of British gamers — The Warlock of Firetop Mountain in particular. It would run to some fifty-nine titles in the initial line-up, and in the process, sell millions of copies and popularise the concept of roleplaying, spearheading its presence in bookshops everywhere.

Since 2002, the Fighting Fantasy series has been published by Wizard Books under whose aegis two anniversaries have been celebrated. The first was series’ twenty-fifth anniversary, for which a special hardcover edition of The Warlock of Firetop Mountain was published; the second was the thirtieth anniversary, in 2012, for which Blood of the Zombies was released. This is the first Fighting Fantasy title by Ian Livingstone since 2005’s Eye of the Dragon. It brings the series up to date, not just in terms of mechanics, but also terms of subject matter. After all, no threat is as contemporary and in vogue as zombies were in 2012 – and still are in 2013.

In Blood of the Zombies, the hero – as controlled by the reader – can be best described as “field researcher” with an interest in myths and legends, or at least a student of beasts mythological. As this hero, travelling across Europe in search of one beast after another, you find yourself taken captive in Transylvania and imprisoned in Goraya Castle. Its owner, Gingrich Yurr, is an insane megalomaniac who has plans for both you and the others he holds prisoner – that is, to turn you and everyone held captive into a zombie and then unleash the undead horde on the world. Being the resourceful type you have managed to escape, so all that stands between you and the end of the world are four hundred paragraphs of exploring, gathering the weapons and resources necessary to defeat Gingrich Yurr, and holding off one wave of the corpse cortege after another…

To handle the action, Blood of the Zombies presents a stripped set of rules. In the original Fighting Fantasy titles each hero had three statistics – Skill, Stamina, and Luck. The first of these represented a hero’s fighting ability, the second his health, and the last, his good fortune or otherwise as he proceeded through each adventure. In Blood of the Zombies, the hero has a single statistic – Stamina, essentially the number of attacks the hero can withstand before being overcome and killed. Combat is kept simple with the hero always being able to attack first – zombies after all, are notoriously slow; the hero always hitting and inflicting damage, each hit putting down a zombie, so the better the weapon the more zombies it destroys; and when it is the zombies’ turn to attack, the hero loses a point of Stamina for each zombie he faces – so it is a good idea to find the biggest weapon possible as quickly as possible! The reader will also need to note exactly how many zombies he kills in his escape attempt, otherwise the undead are still a threat to both himself and the world.

Creating a character is simply a matter of rolling two six-sided dice – which is all that a player will need along with a pencil – or flicking through the page and randomly stopping on a page, each of which has dice symbols marked between one and six and adding the result to twelve. This is the hero’s beginning Stamina. Besides the dice and pencil, a player will also need scrap paper, although the book does come with a character sheet.

As much as the adventure has a contemporary setting, in true “Grand Guignol” style, Blood of the Zombies takes place in a castle. Well of course, it is set in Transylvania! As the hero, the reader will find himself working his up from the depths – or the dungeons – of the castle to its living areas to face his gaoler, Gingrich Yurr himself! Along the way, he will encounter members of Yurr’s staff, strangeness and oddities, death-traps, and of course, members of the cadaver cavalcade.

Playing Blood of the Zombies is tough! It is not just a matter of collecting the gear necessary to defeat the zombie threat, but one of collecting the right equipment – though of course, the reader never knows ahead of time what exactly he will need. Beyond the decisions as to what to pick up or leave behind, which door to open and which to ignore, and so on, Blood of the Zombies is all about making the right dice rolls. For combat these are primarily high rolls – the higher the roll, the more zombies are wiped out – but the adventure’s design mixes the rolls up so that the reader never knows the outcome ahead of time. The likelihood is that if the reader manages to survive the rigours of escaping from Goraya Castle and its undead hordes, then it will be by the skin of his teeth.

The downside is that if the reader fails on his first time, then having to play through again is more time consuming than challenging. It does not help that there are moments in the adventure where its linear nature becomes apparent – the preponderance of long corridors makes this unavoidable. Thankfully once the reader towards the end, the various scenes and locations seem to come crashing down onto the reader, one after the other, leading to cinematic ending. The character of the hero is something of an 'everyman', an ordinary fellow, who is driven to undertake extraordinary feats in saving the world and more. He is not necessarily a capable fighter as the human opponents he may well face during the course of Blood of the Zombies are more capable than he is. This should be seen as a reflection of his weakened state as much as it is the fact that he is an ordinary man and not the trained fighter that would instead be treading the caves and passageways of Warlock of Firetop Mountain. He can of course, blast zombies away with the best of them… that is, unless his dice rolls let him down.

Throughout, the design and writing in Blood of the Zombies is decent. It is not overly descriptive, but the tension is kept high at the right points, and the few personalities that the hero meets are more than mere bodies waiting for death at the hands of said hero. In addition there are numerous in-jokes scattered throughout the halls of Goraya Castle, though some of them might be a little obscure to younger readers.

Blood of the Zombies is an enjoyably nostalgic trip back both an older style of game and and older style of adventure. It updates the format to provide a contemporary cinematic blast of an adventure and a few tense hours alone...

Sunday 16 June 2013

Dungeoneering & Dragon Hunting

Roleplaying is all but forty years old, and thus, so is Dungeons & Dragons. As evidenced by the recent number of books that detail the hobby’s history, role playing has become something more than just a silly game. Mongoose Publishing’s Designers & Dragons, MIT Press’ Second Person – Role-Playing and Story in Games and Playable Media, and McFarland’s The Evolution of Fantasy Role-Playing Games are all testament to that. Further, they have also become collectable, and none more so than Dungeons & Dragons. Collecting Dungeons & Dragons has always been something of challenge, for although sites like eBay and The Acaeum have made the task much, much easier, what collecting has always lacked is a guide. That is, until now.

Published by Italian publisher Wild Boar Edizioni srl through Chronicle City, Hunter of Dragons – The Original Dungeons & Dragons Collecting Guide is the complete guide to collecting Dungeons & Dragons. It is important to note this because its focus is entirely on Dungeons & Dragons and what that game became, Basic Dungeons & Dragons, rather than its bigger, bolder, better supported, if not bloated, younger brother, Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. Its time frame is also thus limited to just a nineteen-year time frame from 1974 to 1993. Within that span it not only covers the various editions of the game, adventures and accessories, miscellaneous items and unreleased products, but also titles from Judges Guild too! It is even more important to note that Hunter of Dragons is not a price guide. That would be impossible to accurately report given that such prices are constantly changing. So instead, it gives a rarity value for each entry.

Hunter of Dragons opens with “The History of Dungeons & Dragons” before discussing “The various editions of Dungeons & Dragons.” What is surprising to note is that there are as many editions as there are – six all together. Each edition is given its own entry with each entry giving the book or product name, its publication date, the names of its designers, its contents, its rarity, some notes, and whether there were any foreign editions. These include the Australian and British editions as well as those in French, German, Portuguese, and Spanish, and even the Japanese and Hebrew books! Some entries also include a trivia entry, for example that B3 The Palace of the Silver Princess Orange version is one of the few TSR titles to have been written by a woman and is one of the most sought after items for Dungeons & Dragons – more so than the fabled ST1 Up the Garden Path. Each section ends with a thumbnail illustration of each of the entries it includes.

Although the book has no index, it is neatly organised. Each section is broken down by edition of Dungeons & Dragons. So that for the Accessories section, the entries are from the game’s first through fifth editions, while for the Boxed sets the entries come from the fourth and fifth editions. Some ranges receive a section of their own, for example, that devoted to the Hollow Earth line. The “other products” section covers the 10th Anniversary Products, the Endless Quest books, novels, Calendars, Electronic Games, licensed items, magazines, and more.

Judges Guild receives a section to itself. This is almost a mirror of Hunter of Dragons, including as it does a history of the publisher as well as the listing of products that it released. The trivia sections for each of these entries are consistently more extensive than those for entries elsewhere in the book and makes for interesting reading.

Rounding out Hunter of Dragons is a trio of interviews, each appearing in print for the first time. These are in turn with Gary Gygax, David Arneson, and Larry Elmore. The one with Gary Gygax dates from 2002 and is the more noteworthy of the trio, being a lengthy piece that covers Gygax’s complete history – before, with, and after his time at TSR. Gygax takes the time to answer each and every question, and does not avoid the difficult subject of the financial difficulties and other problems that he had during his time at TSR. In many ways it is actually the most interesting read in the Hunter of Dragons, to an extent because it really offers the book’s strongest narrative, but mostly because five years on from his death, it presents a retrospective on the father of Dungeons & Dragons, if not the hobby itself, one in his own voice. In comparison, there is a certain reluctance to the interview with David Arneson and an obvious ebullience to the one with Larry Elmore, and as a consequence neither is particularly interesting.

As much as Hunters of Dragons describes itself as the “Collecting Guide” to Dungeons & Dragons, one aspect it does not address is the actual “collecting.” To an extent, this is understandable, for just like the notion of including an actual price guide, it can be countered by the fact that either is by their very nature, ephemeral. Prices change and fluctuate just as the sources that a collector goes to for the titles that he is after will also alter and vary. Nevertheless, some general guidance would have been useful.

Physically, Hunter of Dragons comes as a thick digest book, its vibrant red cover evoking Larry Elmore’s illustration for, and the trade dress of, the classic Red Box Edition of Dungeons & Dragons. In addition to the illustrations for each of the book’s entries, Hunters of Dragons is illustrated with a range of surprisingly interesting TSR adverts. It is a pity that that the book’s many illustrations could not been in colour, as that would aided the collector’s visual identification of any of the books that he is after, but the fact that it is not, is understandable. Another issue is the language. Hunter of Dragons is written in English, but he is Italian and it does show in paces. That said, the author’s English is better than this reviewer’s Italian, and this could have been addressed with a closer edit.

The release of Hunters of Dragons is a timely one in light of Wizards of the Coast’s re-release of its extensive back catalogue for both Dungeons & Dragons and Advanced Dungeons & Dragons in PDF and thus making them available to all. That said, the re-release of those PDFs by Wizards of the Coast has to an extent superseded some of the details given in Hunters of Dragons, essentially the history and the trivia, thanks to the efforts of Shannon Appelcline, the author of the aforementioned Designers & Dragons. That said, the focus and remit of Hunters of Dragons is much, much tighter and certainly successfully fulfilled by its author. Hunters of Dragons is a well-written, solidly researched, treatment of what to collect when it comes to Dungeons & Dragons that will with any luck be joined by companion volumes devoted to Advanced Dungeons & Dragons.

Saturday 8 June 2013

A Restricted Dig

The Archaeologist's Handbook: A Guide to Archaeology for Roleplaying Games is a curious beast. It reads in part like a supplement for Call of Cthulhu, but is not written for that RPG despite the significance of that role in both the RPG and the fiction that inspired it. It also reads and feels like one of the Miskatonic University Library Association monographs that Chaosium, Inc. publishes in support of its primary RPG, Call of Cthulhu, but is instead published by Innsmouth House Press, an imprint of the website, yog-sothoth.com, which is specifically devoted to all things Lovecraftian, role playing in particular... Thus it feels like it should be a Call of Cthulhu supplement, but is not, and it feels like it should have been published by Chaosium, but was not.

So the questions arise, just what is The Archaeologist's Handbook: A Guide to Archaeology for Roleplaying Games, and who is it written for? As the title suggests, its presents an examination of the study and practice of Archaeology, its history, notable techniques, a discussion of noteworthy proponents of the science, as well as sites and forgeries, and so on, with the aim of making this information useable by roleplayers. In the main it covers the Victorian period, the 1920s, and the roughly contemporary here and now – the three eras that dominate Lovecraftian investigative horror.

The history begins in the antiquities before coming up to speed with archaeology’s founding as a field of study and its practise since the eighteenth century. Although it comes up to the modern day, it is a pity that it does not cover the rise in popularity for all things archaeological in the wake of television coverage – essentially the Time Team effect. Thus it covers both the Grand Tour and the research conducted in Egypt during Napoleon’s occupation; the archaeological scholarship that would lay the foundations for Darwin’s theory of evolution and the Ordnance Survey work that would reveal much of Great Britain’s hidden history; and how archaeology has moved from the province of the scholarly gentleman and his wealthy patron to the aegis of museum, university, and government. Numerous techniques used to dig and excavate a site are described, as are various means of scientifically dating a site and its finds. This is followed by descriptions and histories of some of the world’s more notable museums along with some of their exhibits. None of these are covered in extensive detail, but the balance is about between having enough information to make use of in-game and having enough to serve as pointers should further research be required. Of more practical use is the guide to actually running an archaeological excavation which gets into the logistics of the affair, period by period.

Up until this point, the tone The Archaeologist's Handbook is a little dry and technical, but this changes with a discussion of infamous fakes and forgeries, such as Glozel and The Cardiff Giant. The lighter tone continues as the book begins to support its roleplaying aspect – for example, each notable site, from Stonehenge and Pompeii to Petra and Great Zimbabwe is accompanied by a juicy plot hook that a referee could easily develop into something playable. It is a pity though, that the array of notable sites and accompanying plot hooks ignores Asia. Rounding out The Archaeologist's Handbook are some diary entries that nicely capture the life of an archaeologist in each of the book’s three eras, a list of notable archaeologists – none are given stats though, and a list of possible equipment for each era.

Although not written specifically for Call of Cthulhu, the contents of The Archaeologist's Handbook are probably more applicable to that game than any other. After all, the archaeologist is one of the game's signature Occupations, which means that Call of Cthulhu players and Keepers alike will probably get the most out of the book’s contents. Plus there is plenty of evidence in the book to suggest that it was written with Call of Cthulhu in mind. In particular, it focuses upon the RPG’s three core eras – the Victorian period, the Jazz Age of the 1920s, and the modern day, plus the sample NPCs its provides for each era are written up in a fashion that apes Call of Cthulhu characters rather than matches them exactly. Thus you have Stamina instead of Constitution, Willpower instead of Power, Library Usage rather than Library Use, Take Notice rather than Spot Hidden, and so on. Adapting any one of the three NPCs to Call of Cthulhu, Cubicle Seven Entertainment’s The Laundry RPG, or any Basic Roleplay RPG is anything other than a challenge. That said, given the fact that both skills and the stats for all three characters are expressed as percentile figures actually makes them more compatible with the forthcoming Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition rather than the current Call of Cthulhu, Sixth Edition. Adapting the characters to Pelgrane Press’ Trail of Cthulhu or RealityBlurs, Inc.’s Realms of Cthulhu is more challenging, but certainly within the bounds of possibility.

The Archaeologist's Handbook comes a seventy-six page A5 sized spiral bound book. This format makes it easy to flip through and read, the former necessary due to the lack of an index. That said, the format does not withstand much in the way of handling, and perhaps a plastic cover could have been included for the back cover as well as the front. The book is illustrated throughout with a range of black and white drawings and photographs, all of them appropriately selected. It is a pity that the book does not come with any maps as subject matter certainly lends itself to those. The writing is a also perhaps a little dry in places, but once the author begins to talk about sites and museums and forgeries, she warms to her subject and is more engaging. Still the book could have done with a closer edit.

More of an issue is that The Archaeologist's Handbook is underdeveloped in places. As a consequence its stance is strongly Anglophile in places. This is understandable given that the author is English, but that does mean that this guide to playing an archaeologist is tailored to English characters. Given that the Call of Cthulhu playing audience for this book is primarily American, it would have been useful if the author had been able to present information on how to play an American archaeologist, let alone say a French or German one.

Where The Archaeologist's Handbook is at its weakest is the fact that it is a generic supplement. Had it been specifically written for Call of Cthulhu then it could have better explored its subject and thus have better applied it to excavating the Mythos. Or least reference any one of the innumerable scenarios written for that the game that involve Archaeology or an Archaeological dig of some kind. Whether that is “The Clive Expedition” from Chaosium, Inc.'s Complete Masks of Nyarlathotep, TOME's Glozel est Authentique, and “Darkness, Descending” from Cubicle Seven Entertainment's Cthulhu Britannia anthology. Of course, it could also have covered how to create an Archaeologist character in each of RPG’s three core eras.

Had it been allowed to develop that much further – with maps and more scope than its current Anglophile stance as well as applied its subject to Lovecraftian investigative horror, then there is no doubt that this supplement could have been a very useful sourcebook for Call of Cthulhu. Despite these limitations, there is no denying that The Archaeologist's Handbook: A Guide to Archaeology for Roleplaying Games is a meaty introduction to its subject – and is thus of use to players and Keeper referee alike.