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

Monday 26 August 2013

Triple Ripple Yellow

Since 2003, the Miskatonic University Library Association series of monographs has been Chaosium, Inc.’s way of making other works available to players of both Call of Cthulhu and Basic RolePlay. Bar the printing, each monograph’s author is responsible for the writing, the editing, and the layout, so far the quality of entries in the series have varied widely and has led to some dreadful releases. Fortunately, Ripples from Carcosa: Confronting Hastur Across Time and Space is far from dreadful in terms of both editing and layout, or indeed storytelling and writing.

Ripples from Carcosa dates from 2005 and is Oscar Rios’ first campaign. As its title and subtitle suggests it presents a campaign against a single threat not in single era, but several. More specifically three eras, each of which at the time of publication were supported by Chaosium’s Call of Cthulhu, though not so currently. They include the Ancient Rome of CthulhuInvictus, then a fellow Monograph; the Dark Ages of Cthulhu Dark Ages, only recently translated from the German version; and End Time: Call of Cthulhu Roleplaying At The World's End, a Monograph that detailed a near future in which mankind has fled the Earth as the stars have come right. As of 2013, Cthulhu Invictus is in print as a full book available at your local friendly, gaming store and indeed would be the setting for Rios’ well-received campaign from Miskatonic River Press, The Legacy of Arrius Lurco. Of the other two supplements, Cthulhu Dark Ages remains out of print and End Time is still only available as a Monograph. Fortunately, none of these three supplements are absolutely necessary to running any of the scenarios in Ripples from Carcosa.

The trilogy opens with ‘Adventus Regis’ or “Arrival of the King” in which various Roman citizens have come to Vestalanium to undertake a vacation, some with their children. Treated to every luxury, the highlight of their week’s stay is sure to be the performance of a new play, the first in five years by the famed playwright, Livius Carbo. The town is rife with rumours about the play, which will be staged at the town’s arena the following night and the characters will see the following night. Worse everyone seems on edge, but perhaps once the play has been performed, tensions will lessen? The scenario consists of relatively little investigation, initially there is little for the characters to discover and little for them to put together. Instead, everything is revealed in a bloody climax of madness, mayhem, and murder that interestingly sees the characters coming to the aftermath of a Mythos summoning.

It continues with ‘Herald to the Yellow King’, which is set in the kingdom of Shereborne in Wessex during the Dark Ages. Ten years ago, Lord Boniface made a promise to Wessex’s oldest man not to cut down an ancient oak, but now that has happened and as part of his household, Lord Boniface tasks the characters to ride out to Derek’s Holding and offer an apology upon his behalf. Setting out in the last few days before the Yule festival, what the characters find is a village in disarray, a scene of madness. As the weather draws in, they are sent out again and again in search of answers to what happened in Derek’s Holding, but what they find is more madness, more mayhem, and more murder. As the season draws in, they must return to Lord Boniface’s castle where they find that the answers they seek have arrived before them.

The last scenario in Ripples in Carcosa is ‘Heir to Carcosa’ which takes place in The United Colonial Coalition Asteroid Colonies in 2147. There, four asteroids are home to a secret alliance between humans, Elder Things, and the Great Race of Yith, trying to remain hidden from both an Earth abandoned following the rise of R’lyeh in 2045 and the remnants of mankind on Mars. The characters are the crew of the UCC Gladius, an armed vessel tasked undertaking various missions and with keeping the existence of the colonies a secret. Via a trade with the Mi-go, they learn of another vessel operating near the colonies. The crew is ordered to intercept the ship, disable and board it in order to learn what the crew knows and then repair the ship for UCC use. Repairing the ship and determining the crew’s objective involves an interesting trip into the past.

In addition to the three scenarios, Ripples from Carcosa includes an examination of Hastur, the King in Yellow, and the play of the same name. Initially it only compiles what has been seen before, bearing in mind that this Monograph was published in 2005 and the Great Old, his avatar, and The King in Yellow have been revisited several times since. It expands upon this in supplementary chapters by examining the worship of Hastur in both the Roman Empire and the Dark Ages, including several adventure seeds also. Instead of presenting the worship of Hastur in the period of the End Time, the supplement instead presents enough background to run ‘Heir to Carcosa’ without recourse to owning the End Time Monograph. That said, all three scenarios could be run without reference being made to their setting sourcebooks.

Each scenario in Ripples from Carcosa comes with a set of six pre-generated investigators, and whilst they can be used to play each of the scenarios as a one-shot, they are fundamental to playing the trilogy as a campaign. Variations upon each of the six characters appear in three scenarios and exposure to the Mythos of Hastur allows an investigator to recall dimly the events of a previous scenario to gain insight as to his current predicament. Whilst it would be possible for the Keeper to add further scenarios, these three – and it has to be three with Hastur! Hastur! Hastur! – do intentionally take place a millennium apart and the Keeper would have to develop the characters in each case.

Physically, Ripples from Carcosa is well produced. If the artwork is perhaps a little scrappy, there is at least some effort made to give the book a little style, and there is evidence of some editing. It feels cramped in places, especially the investigator sheets for each scenario.

Campaigns through time and using the reincarnation concept to provide continuity between eras have been done since the release of Ripples from Carcosa, most notably the Dungeons & Dragons influenced Red Eye of Azathoth from Open Design, but arguably Ripples from Carcosa was the first. The three scenarios here show a progressive spiral into madness that are the hallmarks of Hastur’s influences as well as what has become the author’s trademark avoidance of Call of Cthulhu’s traditional investigative methods. As a campaign, Ripples from Carcosa is far from a traditional Call of Cthulhu campaign – it dispenses with the onionskin format and there is no climax to the campaign, instead has the characters face the same threat, or rather variations upon it, again and again. In a sense this is unsatisfying for both the players and the Keeper because of this, but each scenario in Ripples from Carcosa is satisfying enough to stand on its own. Together though, they impart a sense of continuing despair across the ages as Ripples from Carcosa: Confronting Hastur Across Time and Space.

Sunday 25 August 2013

A Timey-Wimey Bradshaw's

Understandably, the focus of the Doctor Who: Adventures in Time and Space roleplaying game in both its core boxed set and the Aliens & Creatures boxed set has been on the modern series and on the adventures of the ninth, tenth, and eleventh Doctors. To an extent, this has been frustrating since there is more to the Doctor Who universe than the series since its re-launch in 2005 – in fact, there is half a century of history awaiting exploration by the game and its authors. Therefore, it seems appropriate that with the latest releases for the game, Cubicle Seven Entertainment has begun to explore that history in what is Doctor Who’s fiftieth year. These releases include Defending The Earth: The U.N.I.T. Sourcebook and The First Doctor Sourcebook – the latter the beginning of a series of releases that will look at each Doctor in turn, but it is The Time Traveller’s Companion that is the subject of this review.

As its title suggests, The Time Traveller’s Companion explores the idea at the very core of both Doctor Who and the Doctor Who: Adventures in Time and Space roleplaying game – ‘time’ itself. Thus it explores ‘Temporal Mechanics 101’ in detail, including its physics and temporal phenomena – such as Temporal Nexus Points, the Blinovitch Limitation Effect, Chronic Hysteresis, and Time Spurs, but it does not limit itself purely to ‘Timey-wimey’ stuff. Rather it delves deep back into the television series’ history to present a history of Gallifrey and the Time Lords, an expanded set of rules for creating Time Lord characters and handling those all-important Regenerations, temporal devices other than TARDISes, expanded rules for crewing and piloting a TARDIS, creating and customising a TARDIS and giving it a personality, and more… That ‘more’ though is a whole separate section for the GM’s eyes only, presenting as it does the ‘Dark Secrets of the Time Lords’; explores the possibility of campaigns set before, during, and after the infamous Time War; and as a companion to the earlier ‘Temporal Mechanics 101’, gives ‘Advanced Temporal Mechanics’, the game rules for said earlier section.

The book begins – where else? – with the ‘known’ history of Gallifrey and its people, both Gallifreyans and the Time Lords, even offering the ordinary Gallifreyan as a player character option as a suitable Companion to the group’s Time Lord. Of course, a focus on the latter understandably underpins The Time Traveller’s Companion, so that the player who wants to play a Time Lord can the Advanced Time Lord Creation rules to add his character’s Chapter House, choose a TARDIS, and choose from a wider array of Time Lord Traits, both Good and Bad. Thus a Time Lord might possess Bio-Rhythmic Control or a Doctorate, be a Celestial Intervention Agency agent or even an Outsider, one of the Time Lords who has rejected life in the Citadel for the wilds of Gallifrey.  Equally, he could have been Bottom of the Class or be a Wanted Renegade, have a Faulty Heart or suffer from Random Regeneration. The process of Regeneration is greatly expanded upon, covering its difficulties and dangers, as well as providing a set of Regeneration Tables to randomly determine what a Time Lord’s new Regeneration is like. It is possible for a Time Lord to have some control over his Regeneration, but only with a good Regeneration roll.

Similarly, the chapter devoted to time and time travel expands upon that given in the Doctor Who: Adventures in Time and Space roleplaying game. Its focus is twofold. First the dangers involved, most notably the Blinovitch Limitation Effect which limits the ability of anyone wanting to interfere with his own timeline, but then the means of time travel, covering the basics of navigation as well as an array of time travel devices other than the TARDIS such as Time Corridors, Time Scoops, and Time Rings. The TARDIS receives a sizeable chapter all of its own, detailing every aspect of the iconic vehicle like never before. This very easily could have been developed into a ‘TARDIS Manual’ supplement for the RPG, but it makes sense to have this material in The Time Traveller’s Companion. With its detailed descriptions of what a TARDIS can do, its features, components, rooms, and more, most notably allowing players and GMs alike to design their own TARDIS. Not just design their own TARDIS, but actually create just as they would a player character, including Attributes, Skills, and Traits. Of course, a TARDIS has access to its own exclusive Traits, including Fast Healing, Psychic, Run For Your Life!, Argumentative, Haunted, Inexperienced, and so on. A last indicator that these rules turn a TARDIS into a character is that there are rules for TARDIS Growth – essentially a TARDIS now has a chance to have its own Experience Points! In particular, these rules pleasingly model the TARDIS as seen in the new series where the Doctor very much has a special relationship with the ‘old girl’.

For each of the chapters in the first half of The Time Traveller’s Companion there is a counterpart in the GM’s Section. Here are revealed the ‘real’ history of Gallifrey and the Time Lords; full Bio-Data Extracts for the numerous renegades who have plagued the Time Lords and the Doctor in the last fifty years; a discussion on setting campaigns in Gallifrey’s timeline, right up to the Time War and beyond; and a look at the ‘Children  of Gallifrey’, those left behind after the Time War, some whom might be Neo-Time Lords – like River Song. The latter allows for the creation of Time Lord-like characters after the events of the Time War and so gets around the idea that the Doctor is the last of the Time Lords. Also discussed are some of the deadliest devices of the Time War, ones that the GM does not want his players to get a hold of, that is, unless they are being used as especially deadly plot devices! If the GM’s Section has a particular focus, it is on the Time War and the events that led up to it, addressing what is otherwise a very touchy subject in the television series itself. Throughout this section, the GM is given numerous Adventure Seeds, though he should be warned that their titles include some of the worst puns ever put to paper…

Rounding out the GM’s Section are the rules for the earlier chapter in the Player’s Section that discussed the nature of time travel. For all the complexity of the subject matter, these do a very good of keeping things relatively simple and straightforward easily supporting the explanation given in the Player’s Section. It also covers time travel by other technologies, and even without a Time Lord, but one possibly very useful section suggests how the GM curb his players from overusing the TARDIS and its fund of Story Points as a means to solve every little problem. One actual very useful element is saved for the appendix. This already includes all of the Traits, Gadget Traits, and Space-Time Navigation Tables given earlier in the book, but to this it adds TARDIS sheets and Expert Cards. The latter are the very useful element, each an informative hand-out detailing a particular temporal phenomena, such as the Blinovitch Limitation Effect or Chronic Hysteresis, which the GM can give his Time Lord player without a lot of parrot-like repetition. Indeed, the Time Lord player is now free to lecture his companions on the subject as much as he likes…

The book is nicely presented and organised. Both the players’ and the GM’s sections come with their own introductions that explain the following contents. The book is illustrated throughout, primarily drawing from the new series, but where appropriate uses illustrations from the game’s last fifty years. It is a pity though that The Time Traveller’s Companion is one whole book – the split between Player’s and GM’s Sections seem like it was intended to be another boxed set. (That said, it should be pointed out that the Player’s Section of The Time Traveller’s Companion is available for use on tablet devices so that the players can access it during play).

For any group playing the Doctor Who: Adventures in Time and Space roleplaying game wanting to expand upon all things ‘Timey-wimey’, The Time Traveller’s Companion is incredibly useful. The expanded information upon Time Lords, Time Lord Society, and Time Lord history, allows the players to create more varied characters, especially with more than one Time Lord or Lady in a TARDIS and the GM to create interesting adversaries, or indeed bring back old ones such as The War Chief or The Rani. Similarly the expanded history gives the GM a whole timeline to explore. The new rules for the TARDIS enable the GM to bring his group’s TARDIS into play as a character all of its very own and the expanded rules on the nature of Time Travel enable him to make it a bigger and more challenging feature of his game. Ultimately, The Time Traveller’s Companion is not a supplement that changes a GM’s Doctor Who: Adventures in Time and Space roleplaying game campaign, but one that lets him expand and develop it.

Saturday 17 August 2013

What killed Dungeons & Dragons?

It is difficult to approach 13th Age without a sense of hyperbole. In effect, Rob Heinsoo and Jonathon Tweet, respectively the designers of Dungeons & Dragons, Fourth Edition and Dungeons & Dragons, Third Edition have backstabbed their respective editions of Dungeons & Dragons, taken the corpses of both and revivified the choicest cuts with action and drama. Where Dungeons & Dragons – and most variants and retro-clones – are perhaps a little staid in their play style, 13th Age is a d20 System variant is written to be anything but that… It employs streamlined mechanics and choices in play to speed the play of the game and it employs mechanics that actively work to engage the player characters in both the setting and the story. In effect it takes the war game simulation origins of Dungeons & Dragons and sacrifices them on the altar of dramatic action and storytelling. Although it very much has the underlying architecture and many of the elements of the archetypal Dungeons & Dragons game, 13th Age is what would have happened if Dungeons & Dragons got its arse handed to itself by Feng Shui and its corpse was stamped on by Dungeon World

Hyperbole aside, 13th Age is a Dungeons & Dragons-style RPG unlike anything that that ‘style’ in gaming has ever seen. What it brings to Dungeons & Dragons are contemporary mechanics that encourage storytelling as part of the game’s play that combine the best features of the last two official versions of Dungeons & Dragons – and it does this before we have the next official version, D&D Next. Published by Pelgrane Press, better known for its GUMSHOE System family of games, including Trail of Cthulhu, Ashen Stars, and Night’s Black Agents, 13th Age just might be everyone’s next fantasy heartbreaker.

At the heart of 13th Age are three core elements that change Dungeons & Dragons as we know it – Icons, “One Unique Thing”, and Backgrounds. The setting does not have gods as such, but thirteen Icons, each a being or personality that shapes part of world. They drive and direct the events of the world, and include the Archmage, the Crusader, the Diabolist, the Dwarf King, the Elf Queen, the Emperor, the Great Gold Wyrm, the High Druid, the Lich King, the Orc Lord, the Priestess, the Prince of Shadows, and the Three – the latter being ancient evil Dragons. In another setting they might be Sauron or Vecna, Elminster or Gandalf, Conan or Drizz’t Do’urden, Orcus or Tiamat, and so on, but either way, each player character has relationship with one, two, or three of the Icons. Each relationship can be Positive, Conflicted, or Negative depending upon how many points are assigned to it and will further vary depending upon if the Icon’s nature is Heroic, Ambiguous, or Villainous. Before each session each player will roll for his Icon relationships to see if one or more will somehow influence the events of the forthcoming session. As a player character progresses from First Level up to the maximum of Tenth Level, the strength of his Icon relationships will also grow, whether becoming an Icon’s champion, enemy, and so on, or indeed as is inferred by 13th Age, eventually supplanting the Icon. The question is, would such a change inaugurate the 14th Age?

One further influence that the Icons have on any setting is that they replace the Dungeons & Dragons sacred cow that is Alignment. Without the presence of Alignment in the game, 13th Age has no need for player characters to select it or to have spells that work with it, such as Detect Evil or Protection from Good. Whether or not an Icon or an NPC is ‘Lawful Good’ or ‘Chaotic Evil’ is down to the story that the GM and his players are gaming. Of course it will be obvious that the Great Gold Wyrm is good, that the Diabolist is evil, and so on, but when it comes to the Ambiguous Icons, such as the Crusader, the Dwarf King, the Elf Queen, the High Druid, and the Prince of Shadows as well as occasionally the Emperor and the Three, there is more flexibility in their attitudes and actions. Thus there is also a greater flexibility to telling stories where they are involved. (Of course, the GM and his players are free to re-adopt Dungeons & Dragons’ Alignment system if they want, and it should be noted that 13th Age actually places all of the Icons on an Alignment diagram for such an eventuality.)

Every player character has One Unique Thing, an aspect of his origins or personality that singles him out in the 13th Age. No other character will possess this aspect, and whilst it cannot confer a mechanical benefit of any kind, including a combat benefit, it serves as one big fat story hook for the GM to play with and give that character his moment in the spotlight. For example, “I hear the Music of the Spheres and sometimes it guides my song” or “My true father was not a blacksmith, but the Prince of Shadows who never stayed to raise me.”

13th Age forgoes traditional skills in favour of Backgrounds. Each Background is essentially a flexible package of skills represented by single catch all phrase or word. How each Background works or can be applied in each situation is determined by the agreement of both player and GM. For example, ‘Lady of the Emperor’s Court +4’ would indicate a person with an understanding of etiquette, a head for court politics and intrigues, and who possesses a certain status. Whereas ‘Bounty Hunter +5’ would be able to investigate where his target is, interrogate suspects, track his target, and so on.

Of course, the Icons, the One Unique Things, and the Backgrounds are not the only changes in 13th Age when compared to Dungeons & Dragons, but these changes escalate aspects of the game and how it is played. They lie at the heart of characters in 13th Age. The game gives nine familiar choices for a character’s Race – Dwarves, Dark Elves, High Elves, Wood Elves, Gnomes, Half-Elves, Half-Orcs, Halflings, and Humans plus some further options if the GM wants to add them to his world. Each Race provides a bonus to one of two characteristics – the player’s choice, though the bonus cannot stack with the one gained from his chosen Class – and a Racial Power that a character can use once per battle. For example, a Dwarf has the choice of +2 Con or Wis and receives the Racial Power of ‘That’s Your Best Shot?’ which lets him heal as a Recovery free once per battle.

Similarly, the choice of Classes available will be familiar, but each is different to the familiarity of Dungeons & Dragons. The differences are given up front in a Play Style section for each Class which describes how easy it is to play, who it would appeal to, and so on. Certain elements of each Class are optimised – Armour Class and choice of armour and weapons and choice of weapons for example. Thus the Rogue can wear any armour, but wearing heavy armour or wielding a shield imposes an attack penalty. His optimal choice of Armour is Light which gives him a base Armour Class of 12. The Rogue can use any weapon, but with Martial or Heavy weapons he again accrues an Attack Penalty, so small, light, or simple are a better option. What is interesting is that weapon damage is determined by how well the Class can use it, so that the Rogue is as deadly with his knives or his shortsword as a Fighter is with his longsword. In effect this is dramatic damage rather than simulationist and this only escalates because a character gets a damage die per Level. So a Third Level Rogue would roll not 1d8 for his knife attack damage, but 3d8! 

Every Class has its selection of Powers and Talents, many of which a player can enhance though his choice of Feats. Both Talents and their accompanying Feats come in three levels – Adventurer, Champion, and Epic – and barring the general Feats, every Feat serves to enhance one of a character’s Powers or Talents. The selection of Powers and Talents available varies in number and complexity from one Class to the next and 13th Age is again quite open about which Classes are more complex than others, from the simple Barbarian and Paladin Classes to the complex Bard and Wizard Classes. At the heart of each Class is a singular feature that only members of that Class can do in 13th Age. For example, the Barbarian can Rage once per day – more if certain Feats are selected – allowing him to roll two twenty-sided dice in combat and if both roll eleven plus and hit, then the attack is a Critical, while the Paladin can ‘Smite Evil’ several times a day to add more damage. In comparison, the Bard sings magical Songs that have initial effects, continuing effects, and a final effect when the song ends. For example, the Song of Spilt Blood levies a penalty against a Bard’s attackers equal to the number of his allies with greater Hit Points than the Bard when first sung and sustained, and then grants the Bard or an ally a heal using a Recovery when it is ended. The Wizard can of course cast arcane spells, whether that is Cantrips, Cyclic spells that can be cast from one battle to the next, and Ritual spells that can take hours to cast, but have a greater effect. The complexity of the Class comes in knowing when to cast what spell and in taking the right Talents and Feats to customise the Wizard according to the player’s design.

Of the other Classes, the Cleric possesses Domains and can modify some of his spells for broad or power effect and the Fighter can use flexible attacks called Manoeuvres that are triggered under certain circumstances, the player selecting which one to be triggered. The Ranger focuses on Talents that might for example make him a better archer, an expert tracker, or give him an Animal Companion, whilst the Rogue has a Sneak Attack and Trap Sense as well as Momentum, which is gained and lost in battle and then spent to fuel the Class’ Powers. Lastly the Sorcerer gets spells, but can also re-use Breath Weapon spells over the course of a battle, chain spells to attack multiple opponents from round to round, and can Gather Power to cast double-strength spells, amongst other Powers. At first it might seem that in creating a character has a lack of choice when it comes to the selection of Talents and Powers, but 13th Age does not so much restrict a player’s choice as focus it, enabling a player to better define the character that he wants and what he wants his character to do.

Our sample player character is a Dwarf and a Barbarian – the simplest of the Classes available in 13th Age. In keeping with that simplicity, his Backgrounds and his One Unique Thing pretty much define Fandor whilst leaving room for further detail to come up in play. Plus whatever the GM comes up with…

Dwarf; First Level Barbarian
Str 18  (+4) Dex 15 (+2) Con 17 (+3)
Int 12 (+1) Wis 08 (-1) Chr 13 (+1)

Hit Points: 30 Armour Class: 15 (Ankheg Hide)
Physical Defence: 14 Mental Defence: 12
Recovery Die: d10 Recoveries: 8
Initiative Modifier: +3
Melee Attack: +5 (Orc F’ckin’ Kleaver 1d10+4 damage)
Ranged Attack: +3 (Orc Bone Bow 1d8+2 damage)
Feats: Barbarian Rage (Adventurer), That’s Your Best Shot?
Talents: Building Frenzy, Unstoppable, Whirlwind

Icon Relationships: The Dwarf King (+2), The Orc Lord (-1)
One Unique Thing: “I am Fangor, son of Fandin the last son of lost Second Host of the Forge; and the adopted son of the Orc Lord, Zildak, and I have fought my way out of the Underhome and  beyond – and will fight my way back in!”
Backgrounds: Master of the Forge +2, Orc Pit Fighter +4, Underhome Refugee +2

Although there is flexibility in designing a character within the limits of his Class, what 13th Age does not allow a character to do is Multi-Class. This is not a wholly slaying of a classic Dungeons & Dragons sacred cow, for a future supplement will give the rules for it, plus some Class’ Talents allow the Class to use certain aspects of another Class. For example, the Paladin can select one of the Domains from the Cleric Class, whilst the Sorcerer has access to lower Level Wizard’s spells.

Combat in 13th Age is also streamlined and focused to speed up play. In addition to the simplified choice of weapons and armour per Class and the increased damage a character does as he rises in Level, a character also does damage when he misses – usually half damage, which means that a character is always doing something, just not always effectively! This works well when facing Mooks where their damage is listed as big block for all of them and as damage is done to their Hit Points, a Mook is lost from the pack. Range and position are also simplified; this by abstracting what would be a map in Dungeons & Dragons to three range bands – Engaged, Nearby, and Far Away. Characters are more freely allowed to move around the battlefield, with some Talents and Feats, such as the High Elves’ ‘Highblood Teleport’ Racial Power almost encouraging it. 

As well as simplifying combat, 13th Age also intensifies it with the Escalation Die. This is a six-sided die placed in the midst of the table on the second round of a combat. It is initially set at one and on each subsequent round it is increased by one until it reaches six. What the Escalation Die represents is the momentum of a battle, driving it forward to a climatic outcome. It can be de-escalated if the player characters do not really engage with the enemy, but as long as the Escalation Die keeps rising, the player characters receive a number of benefits from it. First, a player character always receives a bonus to his Attack roll equal to the value on the Escalation Die, but second, the Escalation Die can trigger certain Powers. For example, as a Barbarian, Fandor can Rage once per day, but because he has the Barbarian Rage Feat at Adventurer level, he can Rage for free if the Escalation Die is four or more – and this gets better if he takes the same Feat at Champion and Epic levels!

13th Age takes two approaches to magic. First it divides magic items into two types. One-use items that a character purchase, such as potions, oils, and runes, and ‘true’ magic items that are amazing and rare and therefore special. The latter are not only special, but like the intelligent swords of Dungeons & Dragons, actually have an influence over the wearer or user, particularly if the character wields too many items. For example, the Boots of Ferocious Charge has the quirk of “You like to start fights as much as you like to finish them”. Simply, a character can own and use one ‘true’ magic item per level. Beyond that and the character is in trouble… Second, just as each Class has a limited range of Talents to choose from, so all spell casters have a limited number of spells to choose from, but their spells get better at higher level as they learn to cast the higher Level versions rather than the lower ones. So at First Level, a Wizard can cast five First Level spells, and then six at Second Level, but at Third Level, he can cast three First Level spells and four Third Level spells. This progression continues as he rises from First to Tenth Level, so that at Tenth Level, he can cast three spells of Seventh Level and nine of Ninth Level.

One effect of the limited number of spells available to the Wizard Class is that it loses a lot of the spells from Dungeons & Dragons that do not inflict damage, for example, Feather Fall, Hold Portal, and Levitate. What 13th Age does instead is amalgamate all of these spells into one single Utility Spell. This gives the Wizard access to a number of non-combat spells that grow with the Level of the caster and further, the Wizard chooses the effect that he wants when he casts the spell rather than when he takes the spell. Similarly, the Wizard’s cantrips and rituals are intended to be as versatile in their use, this being limited by the player’s imagination and the GM’s agreement.

Roughly half of 13th Age is devoted to supporting the GM. This includes advice and rules on handling the storytelling elements of the Icons; building battle encounters – at higher levels, they are intentionally unfair, or ‘challenging’; and handling healing. Characters can take a quick rest after a battle to heal using Recoveries and even recharge some Powers, but more dramatically, the GM decides when a Full Heal-Up occurs and everything is restored and if the players demand one, the GM can impose a Campaign Loss, the latter something that will hinder the player characters in some way… 

It should be noted though that the fact that the player characters can heal themselves with the use of Recoveries divorces 13th Age of the need to construct the player character party along traditional lines. No longer is there the need to have a party consist of a Cleric, a Fighter, a Thief (or Rogue), and a Wizard. Thus it also divorces it away from the obvious need to have four players or more in a party, so 13th Age has the capacity to work with smaller as well as larger groups.

Another sacred cow that 13th Age sacrifices is Experience Points. Indeed, the authors’ opinions are that XP are better left to computer games! Instead, the characters should ‘Level Up’ when it is dramatically appropriate, plus they should each receive an Incremental Advance at the end of each successful session, such as a bonus to an attribute, a new Feat, or a new or altered Icon Relationship.

Characters in 13th Age need something to fight and unsurprisingly, they come in the form of monsters. There are no surprises when it comes to the choice of monsters included and to be honest, there is no reason for there to be. The monsters are all very traditional – dragons, goblins, skeletons, what have you, but all are presented with the minimum of fuss and the minimum degree of detail. More detail would just have got in the way… Every monster though is associated with one of the Icons, which enables the GM to tailor his choice of monsters to the Icon Relationships selected by the players and to the Icon Relationships that come up in play. The sparse simplicity of the monster stats in 13th Age make them easy to use and customise as well as prepare for an adventure.

The setting of 13th Age – The Dragon Empire, is given in broad swathes, leaving room aplenty for the GM to add his details. What is given in terms of setting tends towards the dynamic, for example, gladiatorial games regularly take place in the Dragon Empire’s capital, Axis, City of Swords, including a boardgame played with living pieces; there are numerous flying realms in the overworld above The Dragon Empire and demon-infested Hellholes transformed by the Diabolist that beg to be explored; and a ruined coastline of castles, cities, and villages that are regularly assaulted by tsunamis and inhuman aberrations coming in from the Iron Sea. What matters here is not the day-to-day lives of the natives of The Dragon Empire, but where the player characters can adventure. Rounding out 13th Age is an adventure, ‘Blood & Lightning’, which is specifically designed to introduce the players to Icon Relationships and combat 13th Age style.

Physically, 13th Age is a full colour hard back, neatly illustrated and laid out. The writing style is again unlike any Dungeons & Dragons rulebook that you can think of; it is light, conversational, and throughout takes time to step away from the rules to talk directly not only to the GM, but also the players about various elements of the game. Further, where another rulebook would maintain a single voice, 13th Age allows both authors to speak about how each approaches each rule or how they run it in their campaigns. Overall, whilst you might not want this with every RPG, here it is engaging and often it gives a slight alternative to a given rule. One final, very pleasing touch is the combination of the index and the glossary into one and it is very effective, quickly recapping the rule and giving its page number elsewhere in the book.

Given all of the hyperbole so far placed at the 13th Age’s feet, it is really quite difficult to identify issues that count against it, but in the interests of some semblance of balance, here goes… Whilst 13th Age is very much written for anyone who is familiar with Dungeons & Dragons and the d20 System, such that it is very easy for them to pick this game up and play, it does not serve those who are less familiar or even new to roleplaying as well. Primarily this shows in the lack of an example of character generation and in an example of play, though there is an example of combat given somewhat later in the book. Mechanically, it seems rather odd for a classic Dungeons & Dragons-style game not to include the Druid Class, especially given that one of the Icons is the High Druid. Another Class not present is the Monk, but this is less of an issue, and anyway, both Classes will be presented in a future supplement. That said, once the Monk is presented it would be nice to see it accompanied by some cinematic style rules or mechanics, perhaps in the Wuxia style, to reflect the Class’ Oriental origins; and if so accompanied, perhaps such rules could be expanded to cover the other Classes in 13th Age too?

13th Age can be best described as the first post Dungeons & Dragons, Fourth EditionDungeons & Dragons’-style RPG. It is a Dungeons & Dragons-style RPG that looks to contemporary sensibilities rather than looking back to 1974 and it does so in three primary ways. First, it takes account of the fact that most roleplayers have less time to play, offering optimised character design, easier encounter and monster design, and faster, much faster combat. Second, it takes account that in playing a roleplaying game we are telling stories, with the Icon Relationships that tie the characters to the setting and their use to improvise elements of the on-going story, and the use of the familiar advice to ‘Fail Forward’ and reinterpret a character’s near failure as a success with consequences. Third, the game wants the characters to be ‘great’, not necessarily to be heroic, but to have their moment in the spotlight, and this again is supported by the Icon Relationships as well as the mechanics that escalates both what each character is capable of and the challenges that he will face. The resulting combination of these three ways is a game that is AD&D – ‘Action Dungeons & Dragons’ or perhaps DD&D – ‘Dramatic Dungeons & Dragons’, but whatever you call it, in summing up 13th Age it is difficult to avoid the clichés; so I am not going to… Thus Dungeons & Dragons and its staid playing style is dead, because in taking the familiar architecture and elements of Dungeons & Dragons Pelgrane Press’ 13th Age not only makes them its own, it also energises fantasy roleplaying up to eleven.

Monday 12 August 2013

Four for War

Since 2003, the Miskatonic University Library Association series of monographs has been Chaosium’s way of making other works available to players of both Call of Cthulhu and Basic RolePlay. Bar the printing, each monograph’s author is responsible for the writing, the editing, and the layout, so far the quality of entries in the series have varied widely and has led to some dreadful releases. Fortunately, Shadows of War: Four Scenarios Set In and Around the Second World War is far from dreadful in terms of both editing and layout, or indeed storytelling and writing.

World War Two would seem to be ripe ground upon which to roleplay games of Lovecraftian investigative horror so it is surprising that no publisher has released either scenarios or a campaign during that period. Yet despite there being three supplements forthcoming that support for Call of Cthulhu campaigns during World War Two – Achtung! Cthulhu from Modiphius Press, World War Cthulhu: The Darkest Hour from Cubicle Seven Entertainment, and Pagan Publishing's Our Darkest Hour, it is oft forgot that the premier RPG of Lovecraftian investigative horror actually has already visited the world's biggest conflict – five times. Not though in the form of something that could be purchased via your local friendly gaming store, but in Monograph format. One is in the obvious ‘Where Byakhees Dare’ from Toying with Humans, the other is in the form of Shadows of War, a quartet of scenarios that comprise the longest Monograph to date.

The anthology opens with a crisis before quickly coming, quite literally down to earth. ‘Goodnight Vienna’ begins aboard a B24 Liberator, its crew being forced to bail out over North Africa after getting lost and running out of fuel on the return leg of a mission to bomb Italy. Initially the crew’s focus will be on their survival in the harsh desert environment and on their drive to get to somewhere safe. Along the way though, evidence begins to mount that they are following in another group’s footsteps and that at least one member of that group suspected that something was amiss. Are the downed airmen destined for the same fate?

Once past the heavily scripted opening, care needs to be taken that the characters do not wander off and die in the desert – that would make for a dull game. Designed to be played by as many as eight participants, a smaller group is catered for with a smaller bomber and a set of British characters. If the characters can be kept on track, then ‘Goodnight Vienna’ is a pleasing slow burn survival horror one-shot.

‘No Pasaran!’ turns the clock to 1938 and the later stages of the Spanish Civil War. The characters are radicals and idealists serving with the International Brigades against the Fascists. They are stationed in Barcelona, members of the Friederich Engels Brigade, ill-equipped, but welcomed and saluted by the local populace, the characters get to experience life in the barracks, in a city under war time, and on check point duty. The city is rife with rumours about the war, about the political situation, and about the recent murder of a much respected bookseller. Eventually, the characters get what they want – a posting to active duty!

Sadly the posting is not to the front, but to a backwater region known as the Sierra Verde. The journey up country begins a descent into hell that intensifies and mirrors the horrors of war that have been visited upon the region in the past, leading to a confrontation with both the natives and those who have gone native! That this has a cinematic feel to it is no surprise given its primary sources of inspiration – Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now. ‘No Pasaran!’ suffers from the lack of a map or two and some will decry that it is all too obvious in its inspiration, but is otherwise an effective homage adapted to a usually ignored period of history.

‘Thracian Gold’, the third scenario, turns the clock forward towards the end of the war. It is 1944 and news has come to Allied intelligence of an incredible archaeological find in Bulgaria, a country which though nominally allied with the Axis powers, is likely to tip into anarchy as partisans, monarchists, and the invading Soviet army vie for power. Were any one of these factions to gain possession of these artefacts, the possibility that they might never be seen again represents a terrible cultural and scientific loss to both the world and Bulgaria. Fortunately, the Area Head of Intelligence for Allied Command is an archaeologist and expert on the region so wants to lead a mission to snatch the artefacts before anyone else can. 

The resulting scenario has some parallels with the Balkan section of Horror on the Orient Express in that it concerns eyes, multi-angular viewing, and caves, but here the characters find themselves chasing a Great Old One’s thralls out of Bulgaria in order to prevent its summoning – and that in the midst of a war zone. Initially, the scenario feels vague, but this is in part intentional and it takes a shock or two to pull events and the investigators together.

The last scenario in the book is set after the war and has the most traditional Call of Cthulhu feel of all of the scenarios in the book. ‘Isle of Lost Souls’ is set in 1952 and casts the investigators as a relief team sent by the University of Bristol to determine both the fate of, and continue the work of, an archaeological expedition it sent to a Greek island. Although much of the investigators’ efforts will be spent in continuing the dig, the scenario also presents them with a greater freedom than in the preceding three scenarios. The scenario is also the most complex of the four, requiring careful staging upon the part of the Keeper as he places one strange incident after another, often repeating and building on those that occur before. The latter serve to build a strange almost ghostly atmosphere towards the scenario’s potentially bloody climax.

Although events in World War Two have a bearing on ‘Isle of Lost Souls’, its post-war setting mean that it feels a little out of place as part of the Shadows of War. Its inclusion is in keeping with the other three scenarios in the anthology in that they all have a Mediterranean setting, but the truth is that ‘Isle of Lost Souls’ could have been included in any ‘general’ anthology and not felt out of place. 

Physically, all four scenarios are well presented, well written, and come with reasonable hand-outs and pre-generated investigators. That is, for a Monograph. Some of the artwork has not been reproduced as clearly as it could have been and the maps are muddy in places. Like nearly every Monograph, Shadows of War does need an edit in places.

One criticism of this anthology is that the first three – ‘Goodnight Vienna’, ‘No Pasaran!’, and ‘Thracian Gold’ all suffer from being too linear, but in their defence, the situations they describe do limit the actions of the characters. Another would be the lack of investigation involved in the first three – hence the use of ‘character’ over ‘investigator’ in this review, but again the situations do not allow for much in the way of investigation in the classic Call of Cthulhu sense. Of the four, ‘Goodnight Vienna’ provides a short, sharp effective shock, but ‘Isle of Lost Souls’ is probably the best of the four, which being the most traditional scenario in terms of play and setting is at odds with the war settings of the previous three. Otherwise, Shadows of War is a solid anthology of one-shots for Call of Cthulhu.

Saturday 10 August 2013

Think Fluxx

As many copies as have been sold in the fifteen years – almost a million according to publisher Looney LabsFluxx the Card Game is divisive a design. The problem for many players is that the game is purely random, is too chaotic, and can last anywhere from two minutes to sixty minutes… That there is no way in which any one can win other through random chance. To an extent, this is true, but Fluxx the Card Game is a game about change and adapting to that change, from one turn to the next. Personally, I quite like playing Fluxx, although I prefer the versions without the Creeper mechanic unless thematically appropriate as in Martian Fluxx or Zombie Fluxx, because otherwise, the Keepers slow the game down. Now Looney Labs has turned Fluxx into a board game, and the question is, will Fluxx the Board Game be as good or as bad some think that the card is?

Designed for between two and four players, aged eight and up, Fluxx the Board Game uses much of the same mechanics as the card game, but as its title suggests, it uses a board and playing pieces. What the board represents are objectives to be reached – such as Cookies, Money, the Rocket, Dreams, and so on – and matched to the Goals given on the Goal cards. These objectives can be reached by moving a player’s pieces around. A player simply has to have his pieces on these objectives to gain a Goal, and where in Fluxx the Card Game a player only needs to have his Keeper cards match one Goal card in order to win, in Fluxx the Board Game, a player has to match and win multiple Goal cards in order to win. This being a ‘Fluxx’ game though means that everything is subject to change. Just as in Fluxx the Card Game, the number of a cards a player must draw, play, and discard fluctuates during Fluxx the Board Game, but being a board game, the number of times a player can move his pieces, the actual colour of the playing pieces he can move, the number of Goals he needs to acquire in order to win, the board layout, and the rotation of the tiles are all also subject to change.

The board consists of nine square tiles. One of these is the Start Tile, the other eight represent the playing area. Each of the eight tiles is divided into four spaces, three of which are objective spaces for Goals and one of which is either where there can be more than playing piece or portal that links to a portal on another tile. Together these nine tiles are arranged into a square with the Start Tile at the centre. Two additional tiles serve as the Control Boards. One for the Goal cards, five of which are randomly placed face up in a stack; the other a peg board used to indicate how many cards a player draws, plays, pieces he moves, and his hand limit as well as if he rotate and move tiles, and move off the edge of the board and onto the other edge. A set of pegs are slotted into the spaces.

The cards are also divided between the familiar – to anyone who has played Fluxx the Card Game, and those new that take account of the new playing area. Action cards will be familiar and do various things such as ‘Taxation!’ which forces rival players to each give you a single card or ‘Discard and Draw’ which lets a player effectively change his hand. New Action cards interact with the board and playing pieces. For example, ‘Back to Square One’ forces the playing pieces of every other player back to the Starting Square and ‘Rotate Colours’ forces players to change the colour of the playing pieces they control. New Rule cards like ‘Hand Limit’ will be familiar although instead of the limit being set by the card, the player now shifts the appropriate peg on the board, whilst ‘Rotate On’ and similar cards turn the board movement on or off. Goal cards remain unchanged from Fluxx the Card Game except for setting the objectives that the players need to move to claim each Goal card. The new Leaper cards send playing pieces to a particular Objective, like ‘Music’ or ‘The Eye’, or to any ‘Octagon’ or ‘Portal’ space. Lastly, the Color cards determine which playing pieces a player currently controls.

At the start of the game each player gets to adjust the control pegs up once and receives a hand of three cards and a color to determine his initial playing pieces. Five Goal cards are placed on the Goal Control Board all face, the uppermost one setting the initial objectives.

On his turn each player draws a number of cards, then plays cards and moves pieces, and then discards cards, all according to the positioning of the pegs on the Control Board. A player is free to play cards and move pieces in any order that he wishes, and this is where the game begins to get interesting. To start with, if a player moves a playing piece into a space already occupied, it bumps the playing piece already there into an adjacent space – except for Octagon spaces which can hold more than one playing piece. That is the least of it because a player can also examine the cards in the Goal stack, though not change their order, so thus he knows what Goals and what Objective spaces he needs to reach throughout the game. Plus a player may also have Goal cards in his hand and these can be played onto the top of the Goal stack to claim. What having this knowledge of the Goals and their Objectives throughout the game means is that a player can actually plan both his card use and his moves. If he is clever, it is possible for a player to use his cards and move his pieces to gain more than a single Goal in just one turn.

What these together add is a strategic element to Fluxx the Board Game that is not present in Fluxx the Card Game. They also serve to counter the random element so often criticised in Fluxx the Card Game. Not completely though, as the cards drawn and the actions of rival players still effectively have a randomising effect. The great thing is, is that it does all this without adding anything in the way of complexity.

If there is anything disappointing about Fluxx the Board Game it is the Control Boards and the pegs. The latter do not always sit easily in their holes and it is sometimes difficult to keep track of which peg is meant to sit in which hole. That said the other components are decent enough and the playing pieces are pleasingly differentiated by both colour and shape. The rules are clearly written, but another  pleasing touch is the inclusion of a box that explains the differences between Fluxx the Board Game and Fluxx the Card Game.

In developing Fluxx into Fluxx the Board Game, the designer has created a game that is more thoughtful than Fluxx the Card Game. Still a light game though, so suitable for a family audience, but still just enough of a challenge so as not to bore a gaming audience. 

Sunday 4 August 2013

RuneQuest VI

The place of RuneQuest in the history of roleplaying cannot be underestimated. Originally published by Chaosium, Inc. in 1978, it was the first fantasy RPG to be more of a simulation than a game in its depiction of characters, to focus on skills as a primary means of handling actions and character advancement, rather than the wargames orientated “Class and Level” method of Dungeons & Dragons. It was one of the first fantasy RPGs to written for its own specific, accessible setting, that of Glorantha – the first RPG to come with its own setting was TSR’s Tékumel: Empire of the Petal Throne, which though glorious was hardly ever accessible. In years to come, the mechanics underlying RuneQuest would give birth to Basic RolePlaying and from there to at least ten other RPGs, of which Chaosium, Inc.’s Call of Cthulhu is the most notable. Over the years, RuneQuest has had almost as many publishers as it has had editions. The Design Mechanism is the game’s fourth publisher, and its version, is the game’s sixth edition.

It is important to note what RuneQuest Sixth Edition is and what it is not. As a roleplaying game it is a development of the RuneQuest rules, using the same percentile mechanics as did the game in 1978, but what it is not is a game with a setting and certainly not Glorantha, the setting that has been bound up with RuneQuest for much of its history. Indeed, RuneQuest Sixth Edition does not actually come with a setting, but rather hints at one in the various examples that illustrate the game’s rules. This the city-state of Meeros, a late Bronze Age culture beset by barbarian warlords. It would not be unfair to suggest that this late Bronze Age culture is a hangover from previous editions of the game and from the setting of Glorantha itself, which was built around various Bronze Age cultures. Nevertheless, a competent GM should be able to build something of Meeros from the hints given in these examples, but with the rules and mechanics presented in RuneQuest Sixth Edition he should also be able to set his game anywhere from the late Bronze Age up through to the Dark Ages. That said, The Design Mechanism has provided a GM’s Pack that gives both a scenario set in and more details of Meeros.

Written by the same team behind RuneQuest II for Mongoose Publishing, RuneQuest Sixth Edition comes as a slab-like black and white softback book. At its core it is a book of mechanics and rules built around a percentile skills system, a fairly deadly combat system, a focus on character culture and affiliations, and of course, a set of integrated magic systems. In retaining all of these fundamental aspects what The Design Mechanism has done with RuneQuest Sixth Edition is make relatively minor adjustments to the rules and mechanics. These will be highlighted as and when they come up in the review.

By default, all characters in RuneQuest Sixth Edition are human – guidelines in the Creatures chapter provide means to create centaur, dwarf, elf, and Halfling characters. The process of character generation begins by rolling dice to determine base attributes – Strength, Constitution, Size, Dexterity, Intelligence, Power, and Charisma. From these are derived several factors. These include the expected Damage and Experience Modifiers, Healing Rate, Height and Weight, Hit Points, Strike Rank, and so on, but to these are added Action Points, spent to act in combat, and Luck Points, used to give a character an edge, whether a dice roll, the mitigation of damage or unfavourable circumstances, or a vital advantage in combat. Each character also receives the same set of standard skills, the base value for each one determined adding two attributes or doubling a single attribute.

With the base character in hand, a player takes his character through three steps. The first is to select the character’s Culture – Barbarian, Civilised, Nomadic, or Primitive; the second step his Career, the third his Development. At each step a character receives a set number of points to assign to skills, either to a character’s standard skills or his professional skills, the latter type of skill, such as Commerce, Gambling, and Mysticism, gained after years of practice and learning. Some professional skills come from a character’s Culture; the others come from his choice of career. A character’s choice of culture also sets the careers available to him. For example, Crafter, Fisher, and Hunter are available to all four cultures; Herder to all but Civilised; Merchant and Scholar to all but Primitive; and Courtesan and Sorcerer to Civilised only. Although the base values for both types of skills are determined by a character’s attributes, the granting of the same number of skill points throughout the process serves to balance character generation.

In addition, a character has several Passions – loyalties, beliefs, and feelings towards someone or something, that are again measured as percentiles and which work in a similar fashion to the Personal Traits of the King Arthur Pendragon RPG. They also do something more though in that they can serve as a resisting value or to give a bonus to an action if said action is dramatically appropriate to the Passion. For example, a character who is subject to a seduction attempt could use the love of his wife to resist the attempt, whilst later he might use the same Passion to grant a bonus to a bow shot to strike a villain who has his wife in grasp and is threatening to kill her. Passions though, are an optional extra, but they do add a depth to a character. A character also rolls for his Background events – he has more of them the older that he is, his social class, his family, and any allies, contacts, and rivals. 

Our sample character is Hesione, a courtesan in the city-state of Meeros. Originally a slave, she owes her position and freedom to the company that she entertains. Of late, she has also served as an envoy for the lords of Meeros, delivering messages to other city states whilst appearing to be the companion of a merchant leading a caravan to the destination city-state. She is always well dressed and knows how to use her appearance and words to impress and entice. She hides a knife amidst her jewellery and knows how to use the pins in her hair and her clothes to defend herself.

Age 21

STR 10 CON 15 SIZ 08 DEX 14 INT 14 POW 11 CHA 18

Action Points: 3 Damage Modifier: -1D2 Experience Modifier: +1 Healing Rate: 3
Build: Heavy Height: 152 cm Weight: 67 kg
Hit Points
Head 5 Chest 7 Abdomen 6 L. Arm 4 R. Arm 4 L. Leg 5 R. Leg 5
Luck Points: 2
Magic Points: 11
Movement Rate: 6
Strike Rank: 14

Standard Skills:
Athletics 24%, Boating 25%, Brawn 18%, Combat Style (Desperate Houri) 44%, Conceal 30%, Customs 72%, Dance 57%, Deceit 52%, Drive 25%, Endurance 30%, Evade 28%, First Aid 28%, Influence 76%, Insight 65%, Locale 33%, Native Tongue 72%, Perception 55%, Ride 25%, Sing 54%, Stealth 28%, Swim 25%, Unarmed 24%, Willpower 32%

Professional Skills:
Art 42%, Courtesy 62%, Gambling 57%, Language 37%, Musicianship 62%, Seduction 57% 

Loyalty to Town/City (Meeros) 55%
Love (Sister) 55%
Hate (gang) 55%

Background – Civilised
Social Class: Gentile
Family: Parents dead, three siblings, grandmother, one aunt, one uncle, one cousin 
Reputation: Family has a good reputation – one contact/ally
Connections: Family is well-connected; one ally, one contact, two enemies
Background Event: You have a Rune-shaped birth mark.
Money: 1725 silver

Looking at the sample character, there appears to be a major omission – the lack of weapon skills. One fundamental change in RuneQuest Sixth Edition is that it discards individual weapon skills, but instead groups them under ‘Combat Styles’. Each Combat Style is a single skill, but each covers the use of three or four weapons, their grouping determined by training or cultural origins. So for example, the Combat Style (Meeros Militia) might cover the use of shield, spear, and short sword, whilst a barbarian horseman’s Combat Style (Steppe Wolf Pack) would cover scimitar, shield, and short bow. In the case of Hesione’s Combat Style (Desperate Houri), the GM allows her to include dagger, knife, club, and improvised weapon.

As much as this negates the number of skill points that a player has to assign to individual weapon skills, it raises a number of questions. First, does it really make sense for a character who successfully uses his shield to have a weapon in the same Combat Style also improve at the same time with an Experience Roll? To an extent it does if they are used in concert together, for example, the sword and the shield. Yet what if the other weapon in the Combat Style was a bow – how would that be improved by a character successfully using his shield? In terms of previous versions of RuneQuest this does not make sense because skills under that system were improved through use – use a skill, gain an ‘Experience Check’, and there was a chance that a character would improve the skill. In RuneQuest Sixth Edition, characters receive ‘Experience Rolls’ rather ‘Experience Checks’.

Essentially, ‘Experience Rolls’ are reflective in nature, a player taking stock and appraising his actions from the previous adventures. Handed out by the GM a few at a time, they can be used to improve existing skills, increase characteristics and Passions, and to learn new skills and new magical abilities and spells. In terms of improving a seemingly disparate set of weapon skills such as the scimitar, the shield, and the short bow of the Combat Style (Steppe Wolf Pack), it begins to make sense that all three are improved as a character is unlikely to practice in one over the others. In addition, a character could actually go and purchase training for any one of his skills. A nice touch is that characters can also learn a little from making fumbles under circumstances.

Another question is , what happens if a character learns two Combat Styles both of which have weapons in common? The advice to the GM is to avoid this occurring, and if it does, to go with the obvious higher skill. As a concept, Combat Styles feels a bit dry, but the later rules expand upon the basic concept to add traits such as ‘Intimidating Scream’ and ‘Shield War’. These add flavour and feel, and give more variety.

RuneQuest Sixth Edition is a percentile skill system. At its most basic, a character just needs to roll under the skill, but various difficulties are listed. These range from Very Easy (double skill value) and Easy (add half the skill value) to Hard (reduce skill by one third), Formidable (half skill value), and Herculean (half skill value), which all feels a little complex. An alternative and simplified set of modifiers is also given, but even so, a GM’s screen would make their use easier. Overall though, the number of skills available have been streamlined, giving the game a less cluttered feel.

That said, one element that has been removed from RuneQuest Sixth Edition is the use of attributes in play. No longer are there raw Strength or Constitution tests, opposed or unopposed, which also means that the Resistance Table is also no longer present. In their stead are skills such as Brawn and Endurance for example, with players needing to make those skill rolls rather than rolls on the Resistance Table with the degrees of success determining how well a character does. To anyone familiar with the RuneQuest mechanics, this may seem an odd choice, since the Resistance Table has been part of the rules for numerous editions and also the system’s later games. It is an elegant solution to using the Resistance Table though, which can be a little fiddly to use in play, but at the same time, it does reduce the use a character’s attributes bar the determining a lot of other factors.

The changes to the combat rules for RuneQuest Sixth Edition continue with the adoption of a freer flowing feel. This begins with a more traditional initiative system, now a simple roll of a ten-sided die plus the character’s Strike Rank. What a character can do and how many times in a round is determined by how many Action Points he has. This includes having to take defensive actions, such as parrying, so players are probably going to learn to spend their Action Points wisely. The combat rules are detailed in that they allow for the effect of weapon sizes and reach, and they also allow for a certain degree of tactical, if not cinematic, action. Essentially, rolls are differential in that the degrees of success between an attacker’s roll versus the defender’s grant certain ‘Special Effects’ that replace the old Impale and Critical effects. The combatant with the greater differential, that is, has rolled more degrees of success actually chooses what ‘Special Effects’ he wants. This includes defensive rolls such as Parry, so if a defender rolls better than his attacker, he can generate Special Effects to his benefit. Over all, this allows for more interesting combat than in previous versions of RuneQuest.
For example, Hesione is travelling with a merchant caravan that has been attacked by Orc bandits. Alaric, the Shaman in training, is out with a scouting party that comes across this scene and with the rest of his fellow riders charges down the marauding Orcs, marking one Orc as his intended target. Both make Initiative rolls. Alaric rolls a 10 and adds it to his Strike Rank of 10 (normally 15, but adjusted for the scale armour he wears) to get 20; the Orc rolls a 3 and adds it to his Strike Rank of 8 (also adjusted for his armour, in this case, furs) to get 11. Obviously, Alaric is going first and uses the first of his 3 Action Points to ‘Change Range’ and charge the Orc down. The Orc is not surprised – the sound of horses’ hooves is not something he can ignore – and first uses a free action to ‘Ward Location’ and lift his target shield so that it covers his head and upper body where he thinks that Alaric will try and strike with his scimitar. He then uses a Delay to hold his Parry until Alaric attacks. This costs him the first of his 2 Action Points. With his second Action Point, Alaric attacks, using his Combat Style (Barbarian Horse Warrior) 48%, whilst the Orc will defend himself using his Combat Style (Orc Raider) 62%. Alaric rolls 03%, whereas the Orc rolls 56%. Both are successful in their actions, but because Alaric has rolled a Critical versus the Orc’s ordinary Success, he gets to select a Special Effect in addition to any damage done.
Both Alaric’s scimitar and the Orc’s short sword are medium-sized weapons, which means that the Orc can block all of the damage that Alaric would otherwise inflict. Nevertheless, there is the matter of the Special Effect to take into account yet, for which Alaric selects ‘Disarm Opponent’. Although the Orc blocks Alaric’s blow, he cannot stop the scimitar from sliding down to catch his fingers and force him to drop his short sword. Alaric still has an Action Point to spend and decides to attack again, this time rolling 16%, whilst the Orc uses his last Action Point to try and block the blow with his shield, rolling 80% and failing! This grants Alaric another Special Effect, which his player decides will be ‘Choose Location’, meaning that Alaric can strike somewhere not covered by the Orc’s shield, in this case the Orc’s right or weapon arm. He rolls 1D8 damage minus his Damage Modifier of -1D2, for a total of 6 points of damage. The Orc’s fur armour stops 1 point of this, but 5 points get through, reducing the Orc’s Hit Points in this location to -1 and inflicting a Serious Wound – the Orc is in trouble!
One issue that the example does illustrate is the importance of the Action Point economy. Whilst it works well, it illustrates the difference between having three Action Points per round and two. Arguably this is a balance issue and it may not be to everyone’s tastes as every player character either begins the game with two or three. This issue is discussed in the GM’s chapter, but ultimately it is one mechanic that the GM will have to address.

One quarter of RuneQuest Sixth Edition is devoted to magic, or rather, to the basic concepts of magic followed by five types of progressively more complex magical disciplines – Folk Magic, Animism, Mysticism, Sorcery, and Theism. Folk or ‘Common’ Magic is the simplest, and is the magic of simple cantrips to aid in daily tasks and of hedge wizards and witches. It includes classic spells such as Bladesharp and Deflect, Light and Glue, representing widely available if low-powered spells. Animism covers how to contact, negotiate, combat, exorcise, and bind spirits, using the skills of Trance and Bind. The former skill allows the user to enter and move around the spirit world, while latter allows the user to persuade or force a spirit to act for him to grant various spell-like effects. Mysticism employs Meditation and Mysticism to learn and employ Talents such as Astral Projection, Life Sense, Attribute Enhancement, and so on in very personal form of magic that feels akin to traditions of the Far East. Sorcery is the direct casting and manipulation of magical effects and thus to an extent reality using Invocation and Shaping, and is perhaps the most studious of the five discipline. Lastly, Theism employs the skills of Devotion and Exhort to call upon a god or gods for magical aid.

Although magic in RuneQuest Sixth Edition is fundamentally derived from the Runes, there is a clear effort with the five disciplines to present very different approaches to magic. Conceptually, they are perhaps the most complex aspects of the new rules, but these rules work hard to keep them as simple as possible whilst still retaining a great deal of flavour in their details. The toolkit aspect of RuneQuest Sixth Edition means that by choosing the types of magic available in his game, a GM can actually define much of the flavour or feel of the setting he is creating.

Our sample magic using character is Alaric, shaman in training to his tribe. He is unsure of his calling, but he is his grandmother’s choice to become the tribe’s shaman after his father dies. Indeed, his grandmother’s spirit is bound into a fetish that he wears around his neck. His next task is to find a wolf spirit, wolves being held in high regard by his tribe and learn to become one with his spirit.

Age 17

STR 09 CON 08 SIZ 10 DEX 14 INT 15 POW 16 CHA 14

Action Points: 3 Damage Modifier: -1D2 Experience Modifier: +1 Healing Rate: 2
Build: Lithe Height: 161 cm Weight: 47 kg
Hit Points
Head 4 Chest 6 Abdomen 5 L. Arm 3 R. Arm 3 L. Leg 4 R. Leg 4
Luck Points: 3
Magic Points: 16
Movement Rate: 6
Strike Rank: 15

Standard Skills:
Athletics 23%, Boating 17%, Brawn 19%, Combat Style (Barbarian Horse Warrior) 48%, Conceal 30%, Customs 70%, Dance 38%, Deceit 29%, Drive 30%, Endurance 16%, Evade 28%, First Aid 59%, Influence 53%, Insight 60%, Locale 55%, Native Tongue 69%, Perception 41%, Ride 60%, Sing 30%, Stealth 29%, Swim 17%, Unarmed 38%, Willpower 47%

Professional Skills:
Binding 60%, Healing 61%, Lore (History) 42%, Oratory 24%, Survival 34%, Track 33%, Trance 54%

Loyalty to Clan Chieftain 56%
Love (Friend) 60%
Hate (Clan) 56%

Social Class: Freeman
Family: Parents dead, six siblings, one grandparent, four aunts and uncles, three cousins
Reputation: Family has a good reputation – one contact/ally
Connections: Family is well-connected; one contact, one rival
Background Event: I am under a divine curse… I will moan, groan, and whinge at every opportunity, or remain completely stoic at every misfortune that befalls me. 
Money: 800 silver

If character generation made much of a character’s Culture and Community, essentially his background, then the rules for organisations – ‘Cults and Brotherhoods’ – develops it for use in play. Cults have always been part of RuneQuest, but in previous editions of the game they were tied to its original setting of Glorantha. Here they are expanded to cover organisations of all kinds, ones that characters can join and progress through the ranks of, gain training and gifts from, and work for. Primarily they consist of cults attached to one of the magic disciplines, but they could be military units, criminal gangs, and so on. Numerous examples are given, these nicely providing in-game physical support for the GM and players alike and further strengthening the role of magic in any setting that the GM creates.

More specifically for the GM are the last two chapters. The first of these is a bestiary which includes a range traditional fantasy RPG creatures, such as Dragons, Ghouls, Ogres, and more. Many also have come straight out of Greek Mythology – Cyclops, Gorgons, Harpies, and so on, which further supports the implied setting of Meeros and the Bronze Age setting as well. Other creatures are oddities, such as the Acephali, headless and neckless humanoids that have their in their chest; Bonacons, bull-like creatures with horses’ heads that excrete a nasty poison; and Slargr, intelligent, bipedal lizards that are highly territorial and eat anything. The creatures are supported by excellent guidelines on using in the game and how to turn them into player characters.

The last chapter is dedicated to ‘Games Mastery’. This covers everything from general Game Master advice to actual advice particular to RuneQuest Sixth Edition. In places it answers the queries raised through reading the rules, but for the most part it addresses elements of the rules from the Game Master’s perspective. Although there is useful material here, it does feel underwritten and what it really lacks are guidelines on setting creation, or at least a sketched out sample setting. That way, a GM could see how the rules in RuneQuest Sixth Edition could be applied. This would not be an issue if RuneQuest Sixth Edition was just a set of rules – there is an implied setting in the book and it is a pity that there is not more of it, although the GM’s Pack available to download from the publisher’s website for free goes some way to address the lack of a setting.

Physically, RuneQuest Sixth Edition is decently produced. The cover is particularly good, showing a Greek hoplite warrior facing some giant creature – actually a Slargr – and is reminiscent of the cover to the original RuneQuest cover from 1978. The internal illustrations, all black and white, are not all as good as the cover. The layout is clean and tidy though, and the book for the most part is well written. In places the book could have been better organised, for although there is an index, having to flip back and forth during play may be an impediment to play. Also, some of the examples given do feel more like narratives rather than full rules explanations which are disappointing.

With a game as old as RuneQuest, it is no surprise that there is a sense of nostalgia in coming to RuneQuest Sixth Edition. Yet whilst RuneQuest Sixth Edition retains much that made the original so very different from RPGs of its era, The Design Mechanism has streamlined the rules and worked hard to make the game easier to run. It has adopted more modern sensibilities by including more modern rules to strengthen each character’s drive with the rules for Passions and by giving a means to cement each character’s place in the world with the rules for ‘Cults and Brotherhoods’. The combination is a tried and trusted RPG that has been updated without the need for radical change, a combination that long time RuneQuest devotees will recognise and enjoy playing, and a combination that anyone new to RuneQuest will not be overwhelmed by the game’s past. Either way, what shines through in RuneQuest Sixth Edition is a feeling that the RPG is whole once more and in the hands of a publisher that loves the game.