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

Sunday 28 July 2013

The First Step onto The Game of Thrones

Once you have a copy of A Song of Ice and Fire Roleplaying, the RPG published by Green Ronin Publishing based on the highly popular fantasy novels by George R.R. Martin, the question is, where does a GM go next? Or in other words, what does he purchase next for nascent campaign? Where most roleplaying games focus on a small group of player characters doing relatively small things, A Song of Ice and Fire Roleplaying expands that to have the player characters be in charge of a minor noble house. So they need a larger stage, and if not ‘larger’ foes, rivals, and allies, then ones that are of an equal status and challenge. 

For the GM, there are two choices. One is A Song of Ice and Fire Campaign Guide, regarded as the counterpart to the A Song of Ice and Fire Roleplaying core book, which not only describes Westeros in some detail, but also details the major holdings and major players of the Seven Kingdoms. On the downside, this supplement is not spoiler free, containing as it does details from the first three books in the series – A Game of Thrones, A Clash of Kings, and A Storm of Swords. Also roleplaying on such a ‘grand’ stage can be daunting for both the GM and his players. Perhaps then, a smaller stage is preferred, one that the players and their noble house can make their own? The other choice then is A Song of Ice and Fire Chronicle Starter.

The A Song of Ice and Fire Chronicle Starter is a means by which the player characters can begin the story of their noble house. It presents six houses all located within the rich lands of the Riverlands, each of which whose fortunes is ready to be led by the players, ready to ally with the players’ house, or ready to feud with, if not outright fight, the players’ house. The latter might be one of the six described in the Chronicle Starter, or it could be one of the players’ creation, either replacing one of the houses in the book or slotted in alongside the six given here. However the supplement is used, each house comes ready with an allegiance to one of the great houses, a description of its history and holdings, descriptions of its personages of note, and a means to make each house’s chronicle that much darker by muddying the palette. In addition to an overview of the Riverlands, the Chronicle Starter also gives other interesting locations, places to put a players’ house, and more. Lastly, the supplement is rounded out with ‘The Iron Plot’, a starting scenario that revolves around the six houses described in the Chronicle Starter and which the GM will have to tailor to his players’ choice of noble house.

The supplement opens with House Barnell, a young house founded by a hedge knight and allied to the Starks. Known primarily for its martial prowess, the future of the house rests on its two sons. Garret Snow, the elder, has some of his father’s martial skill, but while favoured by his father, is a bastard with a reputation as a cad. In comparison, Lord Barnell’s step-son, Daveth has none of martial skill, but much of his mother’s courtesy and his own learning. Add to this is the fact that Lady Barnell has yet to give her husband an heir and has a reputation for being cursed – as does the castle itself, several of the previous houses having died out while in possession of it. House Bartheld is an ally of the Baratheons with a colourful reputation for holding lavish parties and having one of the finest wine cellars in Westeros. Unfortunately in the eyes of many of the Bartheld family, the new lord is too sober an influence on the household and thus some scheme to restore the family’s reputation for fun. In the meantime, the young lord is preoccupied by the House’s inability to deal with a bandit threat on its borders.

House Dulver is an ancient Lannister ally whose small holdings go deep underground. In Lord Dulver’s cellars are to be goods and items of all kind, ready to be sold or bartered for other goods or favours. The ambitious, so-called ‘Vulture of Dulver’ greedily eyes the richer commercial possibilities of neighbouring lands, works carefully towards their acquisition. Ill advice though might turn that care to something more impetuous… Newly allied with the Freys, House Kytley is struggling to recover from years of misrule despite a lack of proper family seat and the heir held by another house as a ward.

Situated guarding the western border of the Vale of Arryn, House Marsten is circled by every lord and knight wanting to make an advantageous marriage. The house has neither lord nor a male heir, their having died of the plague. Instead his wife rules and works ensure her husband’s name continues through her daughter. Meanwhile, her husband’s brother, a personal friend to Rhaegar Targaryen, has not been seen since Robert's Rebellion. This house has an interesting link to the events of the novels. Lastly, House Tullison is loyal to the Tullys and would seem secure in its mountain fastness were it not for the gullibility of its young lord who would prefer to be off adventuring and the mountain clans that raid down into the valley.

The Riverlands begins to put the six preceding houses in perspective as well as adding further elements to the region. These include the free community of Market Town, a kind of neutral meeting ground for the nobles of the surrounding houses. They have their designs on the community, but its wily mayor’s schemes have kept it independent so far. Three locations are included where the players can insert their house as a starting position – a bandit beset stretch of dense forest; once plague ridden farm land that needs resettling and redeveloping; and a local port and trade centre where the new lord must choose between coming to an accommodation with the powerful smuggling rings or routing them. Rounding the overview are details of a few other ‘odd’ locations and some regional customs.

Physically, the A Song of Ice and Fire Chronicle Starter is very nicely produced, although it is a pity that it is not in full colour as the art is excellent. It does an admirable job of breaking down and explaining the numbers that make up each house’s stats, bringing them to life. If there is an issue with the A Song of Ice and Fire Chronicle Starter, it is that it could have done with a stronger overview and possibly a better summary of each house for an easy grasp of each. Otherwise, it does take a while for the reader to grasp a feel for each house and how it fits into the Riverlands. Lastly, the ‘muddying the palette’ sections are underwritten and could have done with more development.  

A Song of Ice and Fire Chronicle Starter succeeds at what it sets out to do – provide a well written setting for a beginning campaign. It has links enough to satisfy the A Song of Ice and Fire devotee without such links becoming overbearing. There is plenty of variety in the given six houses and plenty of elements that the GM can develop and bring into his campaign to make it his and his players’ own. Lastly, the A Song of Ice and Fire Chronicle Starter is a pleasurable read as well as a satisfying roleplaying supplement.

Monday 22 July 2013

Once Upon a Card Game

Once Upon a Time: The Storytelling Card Game is twenty years old. Originally published in 1993, AtlasGames released a third edition in 2012 after several years of the game being out of print. This has allowed the game’s designers to tinker a little with the mechanics and Atlas Games to redesign the cards, all the whilst retaining the game’s simple play and theme. As its title suggests, Once Upon a Time is a game about fairy tales, in particular, it is a game about telling fairy tales, one that has both co-operative and competitive elements. Designed to be played by two to six players, Once Upon a Time encourages creativity and collaborative imagination in adults and children alike.

The game consists of three types of cards – Story Cards, Interrupt Story Cards, and Ending Cards. The Story Cards form the basis of each player’s story and each illustrates an element to be found in fairy tales and is further divided into five categories. These five categories are Character – for example, ‘thief’ and ‘child’; Thing – for example, ‘food’ and ‘door’; Place – for example, ‘village’ and ‘garden’; Aspect – for example, ‘disguised’ and ‘frightened’; and Event – for example, ‘fighting’ and ‘falling in love’. The five categories are also colour-coded. Interrupt Story Cards share the same categories and colour coding as the standard Story Cards. Each can be used as a normal Story Card, but each can also be used to interrupt another player’s story when that player plays a story card of the same category and colour coding. Together the Story Cards and Interrupt Story Cards make up the Story Deck. Each Ending Card gives an end to a story, for example, ‘he lived the rest of his life as a beggar … which was perfectly just.’ or ‘the flames rose higher and the wicked place was destroyed.’

At the start of the game each player receives a handful of cards from the Story Deck – the number varying according to the number of players – and a single Ending Card. On his turn each player tells a story, his aim being to mention the elements on his cards and bring them into play. Once a player has brought all of his Story Cards into play, he can play his Ending Card, using its text to complete his story. The first player to do so wins the game.

In the meantime, a storyteller’s fellow players will be listening to the story. If the storyteller mentions an element that another player has a Story Card that matches that element, then he can play it to interrupt the current storyteller and take over. Similarly, a Story Interrupt Card can be played to interject the current storyteller and take over if the category of the Story Card played by the storyteller matches that of the interrupting player’s Story Interrupt Card. A storyteller can also be interrupted when gets stuck, rambles, tells a silly story, fails to properly incorporate the elements on his cards, and so on. A storyteller can also pass the story onto another player, but whenever he passes his story or losses control by other means, he must draw a new card from the Story Deck. 
For example, in a four-player game, each player receives seven cards. Dave receives the Story Cards, ‘beautiful’, ‘window’, ‘book’, ‘key’, and ‘door’, and the Story Interrupt Cards, ‘kitchen’ and ‘treasure’. He also receives the Ending Card, ‘So he told her was a prince and they lived happily ever after.’ Stef receives ‘king’, ‘tree’, ‘making mischief’, ‘sword’, ‘parent’, and ‘journey’, and the Story Interrupt Card, ‘returned’. His Ending Card is ‘and the kingdom at the end of the tyrant’s reign’. Dave begins his story about a girl who is kept locked up by her mother. Dave did not play a Story Card to bring this element into play, but Stef has a Story Card, ‘parent’, which although not an exact match, is a close enough fit to successfully interrupt. Thus Dave not only has to relinquish control of the story, but has to draw another card from the Story Deck. 
Stef’s story is about a tyrant king and towards its end, he tells how the king rushed to get his ‘sword’ in order to defend himself when attacked, but as he plays the ‘sword’ Story Card, Dave interjects with a cry of “Interrupt!” and plays his ‘treasure’ Story Interrupt Card. Thus he regains the control of the story and tells how it was not a sword that the king first ran to when attacked, but his ‘treasure’!
Whenever one player takes over from another as storyteller, he must continue telling the same story. He is free to incorporate new elements from his Story Cards, but he cannot ignore those have already been included as part of the on-going story. This is the game’s collaborative aspect.

Physically, Once Upon a Time is very nicely produced. Everything has been done in full colour, with all of the Story and Story Interrupt Cards each given its own piece of art. The cards are clear to read, as are the rules, which manage to fit everything into four pages, including examples of play and a short discussion of how the game can be included in the classroom. A leaflet available for download from the publisher’s website expands on the information given here. One issue is with the packaging, or rather the lack of internal packaging which means that the cards are left to rattle around in a large box.

It is difficult not to see Once Upon A Time as the spiritual ancestor to co-designer James Wallis’ The Extraordinary Adventures of Baron Munchausen. In that game, the competitive element has been increased and the theme has been matured and broadened, if not made wholly magnificent. To an extent, Once Upon A Time is also the spiritual ancestor to Gloom, also published by Atlas Games, but while that opts for a darker, if not a maudlin tone, it also opts for greater complexity. Once Upon A Time is a much lighter game, both in terms of tone and mechanics, thus making it suited to all ages, though in an adult group, there is nothing to prevent their incorporating some of the darker elements of the original fairy tales, though they are not supported by the game’s Story Deck. One option there would be to use the Create-Your-Own Storytelling Cards expansion to add such elements. Other expansions available include Enchanting Tales – Tales of Enchantment and Magical Adventure and Seafaring Tales – Tales of Pirates and Seafaring Adventure which take the core game in differently themed directions, whilst the Once Upon a Time Writer's Handbook explores how to turn a tale created using the game’s cards into a piece of fiction.

What is surprising is that despite its age and despite the simplicity of its design, Once Upon a Time has never been re-themed. Perhaps with the release of the third edition, this might be a possibility? In the meantime, Once Upon a Time: The Storytelling Card Game is a thoroughly engaging game that combines the charm of fairy tales with simple, elegant rules and lovely production values that spark the imagination. 

Monday 15 July 2013

An Esteren Starter

Just as with everything else, the English language dominates the hobby industry. For the most part this means that most RPGs are translated from English into a nation’s own language, but the passage of RPGs from the English language to another is not wholly one way. Some RPGs do get translated into English, for example, Siroz’s In Nomine Satanis/Magna Veritas was translated by Steve Jackson Games as In Nomine in 1997; Cubicle Seven Entertainment publishes Kuro, Qin, and Yggdrasill, all French RPGs from Le Septième cercle; Ulisses Spiele GmbH’s Adventures in Kaphornia 01 – Draconian Rhapsody: A Fantasy Movie For Your Game Table is a German RPG published by Chronicle City; and Maid the Roleplaying Game is a rare Japanese RPG to be translated into English. What these all have in common is that English language publishers have translated and had them published. Not so Les Ombres d'Esteren or Shadows of Esteren, a new French RPG whose publisher, Agate RPG, is bringing the RPG to the English speaking world following a successful Kickstarter programme.

Shadows of Esteren is a low, dark fantasy RPG set in a world on the edge of great change, but still looking to older traditions and still fearing that something unspoken lurks in the dark beyond man’s understanding… The setting is the Tri-Kazel peninsula, an isolated and hilly, heavily-forested spit of land cut off from the rest of the Continent. It is divided into three countries, all descended from the same tribes, but now following own their paths. Tol-Kaer adheres to the old tribal ways and the Demorthèn spiritual cults; missionaries from the Great Theocracy to the north have converted Gwidre to the Temple of the One God and adopted feudalism; whilst Reizh, fascinated by the machines and ‘toys’ of the Confederation, has taken up the science of Magience, developing and creating devices powered by ‘Flux’, an energy derived from matter itself. Although these ideologies predominate in each of the three countries, they are not exclusive to any of the three countries despite their being inherently antagonistic towards one another.

What is common to all three countries is a fear of the Feondas, an enemy that the Demorthèn consider to be the expression of death and destruction unleashed by chaotic nature spirits; the Temple see as demons; and the Magientists regard as a natural predators to be neutralised. The exact nature of Feondas remains undetermined, but all fear their predations and what their corrupting influence might turn human nature to… It is this, combined with the facts that the rules for Shadows of Esteren do not quantify or necessarily stats for the Feondas, that the rules include a solid Sanity mechanic, and that the rules possess a certain brutalism have led some to describe the RPG as at least being Lovecraftian, if not actually Cthulhu Dark Ages done right.

Shadows of Esteren 0-Prologue is the first title released for the game. It is not the full RPG, but rather an introduction to both the rules and the setting. It comes complete with a description of the setting, a discussion of its themes, an overview of the game system, six pre-generated characters, and ‘Omens’, a trilogy of three complete scenarios that serve as a prologue to the game’s overarching campaign. What strikes the reader first about Shadows of Esteren 0-Prologue is how good the book looks. Eighty pages of full colour, painted artwork that both inspires and awes the reader.

Mechanically, Shadows of Esteren is simple and straightforward, at least in 0-Prologue. The core traits of a character’s personality are defined mentally by five Ways – the Way of Combativeness, the Way of Creativity, the Way of Empathy, the Way of Reason, and the Way of Conviction. Each Way possesses Qualities and Flaws – positive and negative aspects, so for example, possible Qualities and Flaws for the Way of Combativeness include assertive, optimistic, brash, and stubborn if high a high value, but calm, level-headed, pessimistic, and sad if a low value. Each Way is valued between one and five. Similarly, Domains, the system’s broad skills, such as Craft, Close Combat, Erudition, Magience, Prayer, and Science, are also valued between one and five. Beyond a value of five, a character must specialise in one or more Disciplines, each of which is valued between six and fifteen. Thus a character might have a Domain of Close Combat 5 and a Discipline of Bastard Sword 9, meaning that his rating with a knife would be 5 and 9 with a Bastard Sword.

To undertake an action, a character totals the value of an appropriate Way, Domain, and Discipline and adds them to the roll of a ten-sided die to beat a set Difficulty Threshold – the standard being eleven. It should be noted that all six of the pre-generated characters have their values pre-totalled for ease of play. The same mechanic works with both in combat – which is short and brutal, and the Sanity system. Rolls for the latter are made with only the Game Leader – or Game Master – only knowing the Difficulty Threshold. The full rules for Sanity are not presented in Shadows of Esteren 0-Prologue, but rather presented on a case-by-case basis in the three scenarios.

To play through the three scenarios in Shadows of Esteren 0-Prologue, a total of six pre-generated characters are provided. They include a female Varigal, a courier and messenger for hire; a female warrior in training; a male spy turned archer; a male Demorthèn trainee; and a male Adept of the Temple. By playing through ‘Omens’ using these six, the intent is that the players can transition onto ‘Dearg’, the Shadows of Esteren campaign, though the Game Leader could instead have them use the characters given in Shadows of Esteren 1-Universe or have the players create their own. The six in Shadows of Esteren 0-Prologue have ties of varying strength to the region and to each other, though this need not be established before play begins of the three scenarios as if played in order as presented, they begin in media res.

‘Omens’ consists of ‘Loch Varn’, ‘Poison’, and ‘Red Fall’. Throughout, the authors use icons to highlight certain elements of particular moments and scenes – Gore, Psychology, Supernatural, and Suspense, as well as tips for the Game Leader and suggested musical cues. Many of the latter come from Of Men and Obscurities, a CD of music specifically written for use with Shadows of Esteren, but cues are given for other soundtracks also.

‘Omens’ takes place in Loch Varn’s Vale. It opens with a bang in ‘Loch Varn’, the characters under attack and unsure of where they are. The situation is intentionally unsettling for both players and characters, and the aim of the adventure is for them to uncover where they are and how they came to be there. Equally, this is not an easy scenario for the Game Leader to run and quite possibly a frustrating one because the players are not necessarily in full control of their characters. Further, as the initial scenario of the trilogy, it is probably too difficult an affair for the inexperienced Game Master. One suggestion made is that the scenarios of the trilogy be run in a different order, but this feels at odds with the intent of Shadows of Esteren 0-Prologue and certainly defuses the impact of playing ‘Loch Varn’ first.

The second and third scenarios in Shadows of Esteren 0-Prologue are shorter and more traditional affairs. ‘Poison’ sees the characters investigate an outbreak of illness that sees many of its victims sent into a murderous rage before they die. The characters are caught up in this as they investigate and there is even the possibility of their coming down with the illness and suffering its effects. ‘Poison’ is the most straight forward adventure of the trilogy, such that it works as an easier introduction to Shadows of Esteren for both the Game Leader and his players. Initially, the third and final scenario, ‘Red Fall’, feels very similar to ‘Loch Varn’, but rather than every character beginning the adventure in an unexpected situation, it is just the one. Despite the reuse of amnesia to set up a scenario, ‘Red Fall’ is a murder mystery that adds a greater complexity over ‘Poison’.

Physically, Shadows of Esteren 0-Prologue is beautifully presented. At its worst, the book reads a little oddly in places, but that is an issue with the translation. Nevertheless, it is an engaging read.

One complaint about Shadows of Esteren 0-Prologue is the lack of explanation as to its secrets and an explanation of what the Feondas actually are. Certainly there is no explanation in Shadows of Esteren 0-Prologue or indeed in the next book, Shadows of Esteren 1-Universe. Rather the explanation is saved for a later book. Some readers or Game Leaders will be disappointed by this, but for Shadows of Esteren 0-Prologue, this is not an issue. The mysteries presented here have as much explanation as is needed.

There is much pleasure to be had in Shadows of Esteren 0-Prologue. It comes from the obvious love put into its presentation, from the effort put into presenting a world in a relatively small page count, and from the triptych of scenarios that work hard to immerse the player characters in the setting. Lastly it comes in the presentation of the mysteries in Shadows of Esteren 0-Prologue, not just in the individual scenarios, but in the feel that there is more to this RPG. Atmospheric and engaging, Shadows of Esteren 0-Prologue is a well done introduction to the mysteries and setting of Shadows of Esteren.

Friday 5 July 2013

Who's got game RIGHT NOW?

For the most part, roleplaying requires preparation – which can be problem. Roleplayers, just like everyone else, have at their fingertips any number of other forms of entertainment, often quite literally. Whether it is a computer game, a television programme, or a movie, they do all of the preparation for the player, the viewer, and the cinema goer. Roleplaying does not work that way – the referee or Games Master has to prepare the adventure, understand its ins and its outs, and give some consideration to what the players and their characters might do. What though if there was the roleplaying equivalent of the movie? Well, thanks to Chronicle City, there is – Adventures in Kaphornia 01 – Draconian Rhapsody: A Fantasy Movie For Your Game Table.

Originally published in German by Ulisses Spiele GmbH, Draconian Rhapsody is not an RPG, but more of a scenario that comes complete with all of the rules to play it. It promises to have done all of the work for the GM, to provide simple rules, and of course an adventure that everyone can jump straight into. Designed for play by between three and four players, plus the GM, it comes with those simple rules, eight pre-generated adventurers, and an adventure that should provide an evening’s worth of gaming – all for the price of two movie tickets.

Where a traditional RPG starts with the rules for character generation, Draconian Rhapsody starts with an explanation of the sample heroes. Each character is defined by his Skills – of which there are twelve, from Close Combat and Ranged Combat to Strength and Willpower; plus his Special Ability, and his Stamina and Fate Points. For the eight pre-generated adventurers, the Skills range in value between eight and thirteen and have either four or five Stamina points. All have five Fate Points. All have a Special Ability, some more than one. For example, Gragg the Barbarian has ‘Battle Frenzy’, which enables him to roll an extra die in combat if he continues to attack an opponent for more than a single round. Some Special Abilities require a player to expend Fate Points. Flamelet the Fairy, for example, has ‘Flying’, which allows her to circumvent a Climbing or Running challenge by expending a Fate Point and so moving by flying. Besides being expended to activate Special Abilities, a Fate Point can be used to gain a ‘Adrenalin Boost’ to recover in combat from having lost all Stamina and to ‘Raise the Ante’ to gain bonus dice to roll and add the results to a failed challenge.

To undertake a Challenge in Draconian Rhapsody, the Narrator states the Challenge – for example, to out-run a boulder that is rolling down the tunnel towards them, the heroes each face a Running [4] Challenge – which means that each character needs to roll four successes to overcome the Challenge. Everyone then rolls a number of six-sided dice equal to their Running skill. Each five or six rolled counts as a Success. If a character fails to get enough Successes, then he can ‘Raise the Ante’ and try to get more Successes. In combat, successfully overcoming an Attack Challenge and gaining a number of Successes equal to the opponent’s Defence inflicts a point of Stamina loss on an opponent, but it is possible to inflict a Severe hit and thus more damage.

Playing the game is particularly player-facing. In combat, the player characters always act before the opposition; a character never dies, but if down always recovers back up to one Stamina at the end of an Act; and when it comes to the action in each Act, the Narrator presents the various Special Actions that the players can undertake and the Challenges involved. For example, the heroes are being chased through a mine by an Orc horde and have just raced across a rope bridge only to find their way blocked by an Ogre guard and a barred door! Having described the situation, the Narrator reads out the following:

During the combat you may choose from the following Special Actions:
  1. Hack through the ropes supporting the bridge, a Strength Challenge
  2. Face off the horde coming across the bridge to give everyone time, a Close Combat challenge
  3. Swing out on ropes to strike at the horde coming across the bridge, a Reflexes challenge
  4. Get the Ogre to lift the bar on the door, a Persuasion challenge

Not all of the game or its rules favour the players. The Narrator gets his own Fate Points, but he has to earn them by taking his own actions that make things more difficult for the players. For example, in the situation above, the characters might face a Reflexes [4] Challenge as orcs swing out madly on ropes to attack them. In return, the characters will receive extra Experience Points come the end of the adventure for this and any other Narrator Action that gets thrown at the players.

The adventure in Draconian Rhapsody is a five Act affair – or to be fair, a four Act affair and an epilogue. The adventurers arrive in Kaphornia and through circumstances beyond their control discover that Countess Esmeralda of Belzheim needs a dragon, alive and inside of a week. Of course, who gets to go in search of such a beast? The subsequent adventure is humorous, if not silly in places, and very like a movie, is very much a pre-determined affair. That though, should not be held against Draconian Rhapsody, it is the point of the book after all. Were it not as pre-determined, even as heavily scripted compared to the traditional roleplaying scenario, then it would require more preparation time, and that is not the point of Draconian Rhapsody.

In addition that point – the minimal preparation time required to get it ready to play – Draconian Rhapsody can also do something else. It can serve as an easy introduction to roleplaying. After all, the rules are light enough, the adventure is straightforward and intentionally cinematic in tone, and everything is presented and explained to the characters during play. If the adventure proves popular enough, then there is a sequel, Adventures in Kaphornia 02 - The Island of the Piranha Men, already available which uses the same characters. Of course, having done for fantasy, it would be interesting see the format and the simple mechanics used in other genres – could you do A Science Fiction Movie For Your Game Table, A Horror Movie For Your Game Table, or – gasp – A Call of Cthulhu Movie For Your Game Table?

Rounding out Draconian Rhapsody is a nine-page, detailed example of play. It does a good job of showcasing the rules, although it is a pity that it never gets as far as the roleplaying scenes given in the adventure. Physically, Draconian Rhapsody is reasonably well presented with decent illustrations that have a slightly cartoonish feel that matches the tone of the adventure. Although it is readable, Draconian Rhapsody does need another edit as the presentation and the writing is slightly rough in places.

On the back cover of Draconian Rhapsody it suggests that can be prepared and made ready to run within half an hour. This is the case, but an experienced Narrator should be able to prepare this much more quickly. The rules are light and easy to understand, the setting and the adventure are light and familiar, and the whole package has an immediacy that few RPG titles ever achieve. Draconian Rhapsody: A Fantasy Movie For Your Game Table is a nicely done, all-in-one package that delivers a scripted fantasy movie that you play.

Monday 1 July 2013

By the Jaws of the Six Serpents!

Fantasy is well served by the roleplaying hobby. After all, it is the hobby’s premier genre, Dungeons & Dragons being both the first RPG and the first fantasy RPG. Yet some variations upon the fantasy genre – subgenres, if you will – are not quite as well served as others, and that includes the low and gritty fantasy of the Swords & Sorcery genre. This is a subgenre in which the stories are more personal, in which the heroes are anything other than idealistic, in which the heroes must face dangers using their wits and their swords rather than some great magics or enchantments, and in which the threats are not as epic as those of the ‘High Fantasy’ of Dungeons & Dragons and Lord of the Rings.

One RPG that specifically sets out to do the Swords & Sorcery genre is Jaws of the Six Serpents, published by Silver Branch Games. It comes complete with both mechanics designed to emulate the genre, a guide to creating your own games, and a complete setting of its own.

The setting is the lightly sketched World of the Six Serpents. It is a world of humans in a “Dark Age” in which sorcery and alchemy represent the limits of known science. Sorcery though is a dangerous science, and the use of charms and divination are better known and more trusted. The lands – harsh wildernesses dotted with the occasional town or city and bisected by the Blackworm River – are populated by nine Peoples, including the Devilfolk of Ahaan, the Witchfolk of Belimaur, the Earth Tribes of Kalet, the Cliff People of Narrowhome, the Masked Folk of Nilsomar, the Freemen of the River Towns, the Citizens of Sartain, and the Owl-men of Temisarum. Each of these peoples is given a solid description with strong pointers towards playing a member of that culture.

Many of the peoples of the World of the Six Serpents are governed or influenced by the Urges that make up the world. There are six of these – Earth, Fire, Water, and Wind plus Metal and Wood, each represented by a serpent biting the tail of the next in Ouroboros fashion. In addition, each Urge can be called upon for aid whilst sorcerers also draw upon the Urges to fuel their magic. Necromancers and practitioners of the darker magics are suspected of drawing upon a seventh, “Dark” Urge if not actually of consorting with the “Dark Below.”

The system that Jaws of the Six Serpents uses is the PDQ System or Prose Descriptive Qualities System. This is a Fudge-derived set of mechanics that focuses on what a character is capable of and allows a player the room to freely define every aspect of his character, each given as a Quality. The Qualities range from Poor [-2], up through Average [0], Good [+2], and Expert [+4] to Master [+6]. So a character might have the Qualities, Good [+2] Accomplished Thief, Expert [+4] Slippery as a Snake, Master [+2] Venomous Blade, and Poor [-2] Profession – Notorious Assassin. Each Quality acts as a modifier to any rolls – made on two six-sided dice – when a player wants to do something and made against a target between five and thirteen. A player can combine Qualities and a Quality that is a Weakness can work as a Strength and vice versa. For example, Herluin is a notorious thief from the city of Sartain who wants to find out who is trying to sell him out to the authorities. He is interrogating a merchant, who knows that if he tells Herluin anything he will be killed. The GM sets the base target at Good or 7, but Upshifts the difficulty to Expert or 9 because the merchant is frightened. Herluin threatens the merchant with his Venomous Blade, so gets +2 to the roll, and tells the merchant about his reputation arguing that instead of it being a Weakness, it should work as a Strength instead. So this gives him Master [+2] Venomous Blade and Poor [+2] Reputation as a Killer to add to his roll.

Combat in the PDQ System is perhaps its most radical feature. Instead of Hit Points, a character takes damage directly to his Qualities. For each level of Failure Rank or damage done, a character suffers a step loss or Rank downshift to one of his Qualities. Thus if Herluin got into a brawl and takes a rabbit punch to the kidneys, his player decides that he will reduce his Expert [+4] Slippery as a Snake to Good [+2] to reflect a loss to his suppleness. In addition, a Story Hook must be attached to the first Quality that takes damage in a fight. In this instance, Herluin attaches a Story Hook to his Slippery as a Snake Quality called “A need to escape”.

A character who has all of his Qualities reduced to Poor [-2] and then loses another Rank, zeroes out and is out of the scene. Although it has always been a feature of the PDQ System, this means of handing damage intentionally abstract. The attaching of a Story Hook ameliorates this to an extent. Otherwise, the PDQ System is light and easy, suitable for handling narrative orientated action. Further, Jaws of the Six Serpents adds both rules for attacking multiple opponents and for fighting against minions.

Character generation in the PDQ System is a matter of assigning eight Ranks to various Qualities, mostly Strengths, but also a singular Weakness. In the World of the Six Serpents  three of these Ranks must represent a Quality of a character’s people, an innate Faculty or talent, plus a Driver, a motivation. In the setting of Jaws of the Six Serpents, a character can also have an Urge as a Quality. A series of tables provides Occupations, Talents, Skills, and Personality Traits that can either be rolled for or serve as inspiration.

Our sample character is Herluin, a man wanted for killed Jourdain the Jewel Master to whom he was apprenticed. Since that night when he discovered his master’s body, he has been either on the run or been lying low. This has forced him to make an alternative living for himself and that includes stealing things. (Of course, the truth might also be that he really is an assassin and Jourdain was his first, botched mission as he almost got caught…)

People: Citizens of Sartain
Strengths: Good [+2] Streetwise, Good [+2] Urge – Metal, Good [+2] Prove that he is not an assassin, Expert [+4] Slippery as a Snake, Good [+2] Accomplished Thief, Expert [+2] Venomous Blade, Good [+2] Profession – Jeweller
Weakness: [-2] Profession – Notorious Assassin

Magic in Jaws of the Six Serpents comes in four types – Sorcery, Charms, Alchemy, and Divination – and is all about achieving an effect or Quality. Yet where Charms, Alchemy, and Divination all have focused or specific effects or Qualities – for example, a Charm or an Alchemical potion that provides a healing effect, Sorcery can do that and more. Essentially Sorcery is free-form magic in which the caster sets out what he wants to achieve. The more that he wants to do with the spell, the greater the Quality of the desired Sorcery effect or spell—and thus the greater the Quality that the sorcerer has to roll against. It is possible for a player character to be a sorcerer—or know other forms of magic, but the initial Quality level for the magic is always Average [+0] when first bought.

Our sample sorcerer is Arraffa, one of the Masked Folk of Nilsomar. Betrothed to a merchant in Sartain, she is currently on the run after being accused of hiring someone to murder him! Well, she did run off with the suspected murderer!

People: Masked Folk of Nilsomar
Strengths: Good [+2] Inscrutable, Good [+2] Urge – Fire, Good [+2] Sorcery, Good [+2] Knows the healing arts, Good [+2] Urge – Wood, Good [+2] A noble’s daughter, Good [+2] The mask hides a brain as well as looks
Weakness: [-2] Used to the finer things of civilisation

For example, Arraffa and Herluin have been chased into a room. There is another exit, but it will take time for Herluin to pick the lock. In the meantime their pursuers draw near. In order to dissuade them from entering the room, Arraffa decides to heat up the door hand and so stop anyone from entering. The GM decides that this is a small, single target that Arraffa wants to affect, so what really determines the Quality of the spell is the energy that Arraffa wants to impart. Her player decides that it has to be hot, like a forest fire. This makes it an [+4] Expert effect, which gives Arraffa a target of 11 to beat. She rolls two six-sided dice and adds Good [+2] Sorcery and Good [+2] Urge – Fire. In order to ensure that it works, Arraffa also draws directly from one of her Urges and temporarily reduces it to Average [+0] Urge – Wood to gain another six-sided die to the roll. So she gets to roll 3d6 and adds 4. (Alternatively she might get this extra six-side die from spending a Fortune Point, which player characters and some villains get).

The world of Jaws of the Six Serpents also adds another ‘type’ of magic – Intercession. This is practised by the Intercessors who worship the Spirits of the Worthy and who are capable of calling upon these spirits for aid and advice, even drawing them into physical hosts – alive or dead. In addition, the setting includes a more detailed guide to its peoples; a short bestiary* that breaks them down into Strange Peoples, Fierce Creatures, the Unquiet Dead, and Things from the Dark; plus an adventure. The bestiary is more a set of examples to support the guidelines for the GM to create his own, while the short adventure, “The Tower of Emeth Tol” serves as an example for the GM’s advice. It is also, of course, a nod to the classic Conan short story, “The Tower of the Elephant”.

*This includes the best description of a ‘monster manual’ ever – “like a dating agency, but with more gore”.

Physically, Jaws of the Six Serpents is a buff little book illustrated with a range of genre appropriate pen and ink pieces of artwork. The map of the World of the Six Serpents feels somewhat threadbare, but as a setting it leaves plenty of the room for the GM to add his own details.

Jaws of the Six Serpents pleasingly manages to provide the means to emulate the Swords & Sorcery genre. It provides the rules to do so, a setting to do so, and the advice for the GM to do so with a setting of his own creation. The PDQ System supports the means with light mechanics that encourage character design and player input by allowing the players to simply design and define their characters’ abilities or Qualities. Overall, Jaws of the Six Serpents is a light, but gratifying package for anyone wanting to play the Swords & Sorcery genre.