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

Sunday 29 September 2013

An Afternoon Tea Game

Lords, ladies, gentlemen, and other yet to be enlightened folks, there is an Empire – an Empire of Steam! – to be upheld and protected. Founded on Her Majesty’s faith in the computational advancements of Charles Babbage and Ada Lovelace, in the engineering developments of Isambard Kingdom Brunel and Robert Stephenson, and in the technological travel possibilities of Henri Giffard’s steam powered dirigibles, all culminating in the creation of Her Majesty’s Flying Steam City Atlantis in the midst of the Atlantic, this Empire of Steam is a wonder of the age! It is an age that the Ministry of Computational wish to uphold – and who knows to what ends its Ministry Men will go? Whilst Great Britain enjoys her ‘Steam Age’, Europe is undergoing La Belle Époque, France recovering in the wake of Bismark’s unification of the German States and the Americas has entered a Gilded Age that see the USA’s North American Space Exploration Board in a race for the Moon with Canada’s Hudson’s Space Company – as advised by Jules Verne! This is the setting for Cogs, Cakes & Swordsticks: Cracking Adventures in the Empire of Steam, a roleplaying game of Steampunk pulp published by Modiphius Entertainment through Chronicle City.

This is a polite little game intended to be played and run with the minimum of fuss and the maximum of manners, preferably in the comfort of the sitting room with tea served in bone china, a neatly filled cake stand, and the company of like-minded friends. The game is light enough that in the absence of character sheets – sadly something that the game does indeed lack – and dice, a gaming group could use as something as simple as napkins and a suitably marked sugar cube! Alternatively, simple paper, a pen, and a single six-sided die per person are sufficient.

As much as Cogs, Cakes & Swordsticks is the game title, each element is an Attribute integral to a character in the game. ‘Cogs’ covers a character’s technical, mental, and knowledge skills; ‘Cakes’ his personality and social skills as well as your social standing; and ‘Swordsticks’ his physical and combative skills. For each Attribute a character possesses a single descriptive trait as well as a value at +2 or +3. Two are set at +2, the other at +3. A character also has a Foible, not a flaw in game terms, but certainly something that might get the character in trouble or provide a plot hook for the GM to use. 

‘Derby’ Ned Billingsgate
Cogs: Fast Hands (Can empty a pocket in a thrice; open a lock just like that; and fan the Aces!) +3
Cakes: East End Urchin (Knows his way around the rougher parts of London; sometimes mistaken for other urchins; knows how to charm the charitable) +2
Swordsticks: Slippery as an Eel (Can get out of trouble if he has to and avoid blows; slips easily into buildings) +2
Background: Ned Billingsgate is an orphan, abandoned on the steps of Mrs. Miggins’ College for Wayward Foundlings, a baby farm and orphanage. Eventually it turned out that the education in the orphanage was less about books and more about thievery and burglary. Ned became adept at both, yet like his brothers and sisters, he would be beaten by  Mrs. Miggins if he did not bring enough home. So he ran away to make his own life. He acquired the nickname ‘Derby’ from the hat he wears.
Foible: Cares for his brothers and sisters at Mrs. Miggins’ College for Wayward Foundlings

Cogs, Cakes & Swordsticks is mechanically very simple. To undertake an action the player and the GM agree as to the appropriate Attribute and applies its modifier to the result of a single six-sided die. If the result beats a given target, two for Very Easy, three for Easy, four for Medium, and so on, then the character will have succeeded. A roll of one is an automatic failure, a roll of six is an extraordinary success. If a character lacks an appropriate Attribute, then he always has a +1 modifier. The system is simple and fast as is combat which uses opposed rolls for most situations, the loser has to reduce one of his Attributes by one.

As written, Cogs, Cakes & Swordsticks is designed to be picked up and played with the minimum of fuss. Within a page or three, the game has explained the basics to the rules, and within five pages has presented three ready-to-play characters and a scenario to run for them in a single afternoon’s tea. In ‘Time Flies By’ the staff of the Bedfordshire Gentleman’s Parcel & Post must deliver a package to St. Pancras Station via the Midland Railway. It would appear to be a simple enough task were it not for the dread Steam Train Pirates! The book also includes several scenario seeds as well as a lengthier scenario, ‘Devices & Designs’, in which the adventurers must track whoever broke into the British Museum.

Physically, Cogs, Cakes & Swordsticks is a slim black and white volume illustrated in an engagingly mannered style by Geof Banyard. The book is solidly written and has a certain homespun quality to it. There is good advice for the GM, the background is nicely thematically presented, and there are lots of examples in terms of characters and actually Cogs, Cakes, and Swordsticks Attributes. Yet, as a game, Cogs, Cakes & Swordsticks is lacking something, and that something is a menace, a threat, and perfidy even… It is perhaps a little too polite.

Politeness counts for a great deal though and Cogs, Cakes & Swordsticks: Cracking Adventures in the Empire of Steam is delightfully easy to pick up and play possessing manners and elegance in its lack of complexity. Above all, it is a charming and proper little game that deserves a little more background and a lot more danger!

Sunday 22 September 2013

United We Stand

Earth has a problem. As good as the Doctor and his companions have proven to be in defending the planet from numerous threats, from the Daleks and the Cybermen to dinosaurs and demons, the travellers aboard the TARDIS cannot always be present. Fortunately, when the good Doctor goes off gallivanting around the universe and back, there is a single agency that stands against all of the aliens that would threaten humanity and has done for the last fifty years and will do so for decades to come – UNIT. Originally the ‘United Nations Intelligence Taskforce’, but since renamed the ‘Unified Intelligence Taskforce’, UNIT is the ultimate in NGOs, an international agency backed by every nation on Earth that commands regular military units, scientific research teams, and investigative teams. Its remit is to locate and identify alien threats; to study their biologies and technologies – and reverse engineer said technologies to further benefit Earth’s defences; and to take command of the militaries of Earth in order to defend the planet. Now you too can be part of UNIT – if you have the best to offer the Earth’s defences then you might be what UNIT is looking for!

Or rather, now you can roleplay a member of UNIT with Defending the Earth: The UNIT Sourcebook, which offers an whole new campaign type to GMs and players of the Doctor Who: Adventures in Time and Space roleplaying game. In keeping with The Time Traveller’s Companion and The First Doctor Sourcebook, the other recent sourcebooks for the game, Defending the Earth: The UNIT Sourcebook comes as a solid hardback, fully illustrated and engagingly written. It presents a complete history of UNIT, rules for creating UNIT characters and facilities, expanded rules for guns and combat, data files on innumerable memorable members of UNIT, and of course two adventures.

The history starts out with UNIT’s pre-history, discussing particular incidents before UNIT’s foundation such as the efforts of the Intrusion Countermeasures Group against the Daleks in 1963 and the Great Intelligence’s occupation of the London Underground in the late 1960s. Once founded, the history canters along touching upon all of the televisual appearances of UNIT, from its countering of The Invasion attempt by the Cybermen to the ‘Year That Never Was’ under the regime of The Master. The book as such does not directly mention particular Doctor Who stories; references are instead made enough that a GM in the know should be able to identify them with ease. It comes up to date with a complete description of the modern UNIT and its facilities, equipment, security clearances and document classifications. Pages are devoted to a description of the Valiant, the aerial aircraft carrier funded by the British government and of course, UNIT HQ UK.

Along with various UNIT developed gadgets and new gadget Traits, the sourcebook allows the GM and his players to create a base of their own. This of course, begins by describing the base’s purpose and description so as to have some idea as to what sort of missions its staff, and thus the player characters, will undertake. Depending upon on the desired size, a base receives a number of points to spend on Good Base Traits, which of course can be added to by giving the base, Bad Base Traits. 

Ever since its foundation UNIT has had something of a rivalry with Torchwood, and one area where the two organisations have always clashed is Cardiff, specifically over who got to monitor the Cardiff Rift. In the end, Torchwood stood firm and maintained a base in the city specifically to keep an eye on the space-time rift and anything that came out of it. UNIT though, was still determined to monitor the Cardiff Rift and if it could not do so from within the city itself, it could from one of the points where the ‘end’ of the rift would frequently anchor itself – Glastonbury.

OUTPOST MENDIP-1 is located beneath the offices and warehouses of Esoteric Supplies Direct, a wholesale supplier of all things ‘magical’, from dowsing rods and crystal balls to Tarot decks and wands. Its primary remit is the monitoring of the Cardiff Rift, but also monitors the comings and goings of various inhabitants and visitors to Glastonbury for anything ‘odd’. Given the nature of the things that might come out of the Rift, it was decided that the outpost needed access to UNIT’s database, a laboratory to study whatever it was that came out, and somewhere to hold them. Given the effect that the Cardiff Rift sometimes has on the local power infrastructure, the outpost has its own power supply.

Currently, Commander Wyndham is the chairman of Esoterica Direct Supplies and head of OUTPOST MENDIP-1. It is his first assignment to UNIT and he is finding having to adapt to being both a civilian and a military man something of a challenge, let alone commanding scientists rather than military men and directing the delivery of magical gewgaws rather than Her Majesty’s naval assets. Nevertheless, he believes himself up for the job and this posting a stepping stone to a better role, if not promotion. 

Database Access (Good Base Trait)
Holding Cells (Good Base Trait)
Internal Sensors (Good Base Trait)
Laboratory (Good Base Trait)
Secret (Good Base Trait)
Space-Time Rift (Bad Base Trait)
Reactor (Bad Base Trait)

Fundamental to UNIT are its staff and Defending the Earth: The UNIT Sourcebook gives the data files for a wide array of NPCs. These include typical members, from UNIT Privates and UNIT Privates (Experienced) right up to the Brigadier, the ranking officer in the United Kingdom. These are accompanied by data files for UNIT’s most notable members, starting naturally with Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart, the Third Doctor, Liz Shaw, Jo Grant, Sergeant Benton, and Sarah Jane Smith, and coming right up to date with Professor Malcolm Taylor and Captain Erisa Magambo. Guidelines are included that players to create their own characters. These still use the rules from the Doctor Who: Adventures in Time and Space roleplaying game to which are added a selection of new Traits, of which the inclusion of Five Rounds Rapid (Major Good Trait) is obligatory. It enables a character to leap to up the initiative order and attack when ‘Talkers’ or ‘Doers’ act.

Our sample character is Flight Sergeant Brian Beasley, a UNIT veteran who has spent his career shuffling back and forth between assignments with the RAF and UNIT. In over thirty years he has seen everything and faced down numerous alien threats – Daleks, Cybermen, the Slitheen, the Korasterack Incident, and more… Along the way he has lost friends and colleagues, and he now approaches the job with a sense of weary necessity. He has lost his sense of wonder at the universe and what it has to offer, and is really beginning to look forward to a happy retirement. So he was pleased to be assigned to the quiet OUTPOST MENDIP-1 where he could spend his last few years in relative peace – well, relative for UNIT that is… His relatively easy going approach is unfortunately at odds with the more forward thinking attitude of his new commanding officer, Commander Wyndham.

Flight Sergeant Brian Beasley
Awareness 4 Coordination 3 Ingenuity 3
Presence 3 Resolve 4 Strength 3
Athletics 1 Convince 2 Craft 0 Fighting 3
Knowledge 3 (History of UNIT) Marksman 3 Medicine 0 Science 0
Subterfuge 0 Survival 1 Technology 3 Transport 4
Traits: Brave (Minor Good Trait), Five Rounds Rapid (Major Good Trait), Hot Shot (Minor Good Trait), UNIT Veteran (Special Good Trait), Rank (Minor Good Trait), Voice of Authority (Good Minor Trait); Eccentric (Minor Bad Trait), Obligation (UNIT) (Major Bad Trait)
Home Tech Level: 5 Story Points: 8
Motivation: To retire safely!

In comparison to normal games of the Doctor Who: Adventures in Time and Space roleplaying game, a campaign involving UNIT will have a more ‘bullish’ approach to it and this is reflected in the new rules for combat. These expand upon the details for firearms and their use, for explosives, and for handling battles. In comparison with other RPGs, the new rules for firearms are not as detailed, but they do add rules for range and gun types. This being the Doctor Who: Adventures in Time and Space roleplaying game, guns are still deadly, but they are a necessity in a UNIT game. The new Mass Combat rules handle the type large engagements that UNIT is expected to handle in the twenty-first century and as you would expect allows for the involvement of player characters and keeping everything dramatic without overcomplicating things.

One last issue that UNIT has to deal with is that of ‘Public Relations’, or rather covering up the fact that a local Job Centre has been infiltrated and is a front for a Zygon operation. Mechanically, this is about coming up with a good cover story that will counter the various sources of exposure, and in keeping with the game, the rules are kept simple.

As noted earlier, campaigns involving UNIT are more bullish than is standard in the Doctor Who: Adventures in Time and Space roleplaying game. It being a more team based RPG and a military themed RPG means that a UNIT campaign deals with themes of loyalty, bravery, and morality. Several campaign types are suggested, such as exploring off-world, First Contact, artefact recovery, conducting research, and more. These can be built around a single type of character, such as soldier or scientist; around UNIT Freelancers who investigate small incidents, but on a casual basis; or around UNIT CRASH (Critical Response and Special Handling) Teams, that respond to emergencies and secure sites of alien incursion. These ideas are accompanied by scenario seeds in addition to the UNIT Crisis Generator! Rounding out Defending the Earth: The UNIT Sourcebook is a pair of mixed group adventures.

Physically, Defending the Earth: The UNIT Sourcebook is very nicely presented with plenty of photographs taken from the television series. It does need an edit in places, but overall the book has an engaging tone and throughout there are some jolly little touches – the list of UNIT briefing documents is ever so slightly tongue in cheek as is the section on Britishness.

Sooner or later, Cubicle Seven Entertainment had to publish a sourcebook for UNIT for the Doctor Who: Adventures in Time and Space roleplaying game and in Defending the Earth: The UNIT Sourcebook, the ‘sooner’ has been worth it. Although its primary focus is on playing UNIT during its more modern incarnation, the inclusion of stats and write-ups of the Third Doctor and the Brigadier – the latter both for when he was in command of UNIT in the United Kingdom and after he retired – enables a campaign to be set in the past, or at least pay it a visit. This is an engaging sourcebook that does a good job of developing the material presented on the television screen without overdeveloping it whilst presenting a book full of ideas and possibilities. Together these can take a Doctor Who: Adventures in Time and Space roleplaying game in a whole new direction – the defence of the Earth.

Monday 16 September 2013

Post Space Opera

We have been roleplaying Space Opera for over thirty-five years, ever since the release of Star Wars and the publication of GDW’s Traveller. In that time the genre has either gone high and fantastic, arguably right out of the Science Fiction genre all together, typified by the four Star Wars RPGs; enlisted in the semi-military, as typified by the five Star Trek RPGs; or let the player characters go independent with their own ship, as typified by the archetypal Traveller campaign and more recently by the Firefly Role-Playing Game: Gaming in the 'Verse, published by Margaret Weis Productions. What Ashen Stars does is set course between the semi-military and the independent ship operator and make every trip into an investigation.

Ashen Stars is the investigation-orientated Gumshoe System RPG written by the Gumshoe System’s author, Robin D. Laws, and published by Pelgrane Press. It works from the idea that the idea that Space Opera stories, especially those screened on television, are essentially mysteries to be solved. ‘The Devil in the Dark’, an episode of Star Trek from 1967 is a classic example of a Space Opera investigation in which the crew of the USS Enterprise must find out who is killing the workers and destroying their machinery on a mining planet. Further, the episode and others like it, give a chance for each of the series’ stars to shine. It is this model that Ashen Stars adopts before going on to build a unique setting all its very own.

That setting is the Bleed, a rough, wild fringe of space that barely twenty years ago was the enticingly glamorous frontier of The Combine, a two-hundred year old interstellar, culture-spanning government dedicated to peace, understanding, and self-determination. Ready access to starship travel enabled colonists to transverse the FTL corridors to settle the region then known as the Wave, safe in the knowledge that Combine patrols kept the peace, confronted anomalies, and solved any problems. The Combine was an idealistic utopia that enabled numerous races and peoples to live happily under its governance. Then the Mohilar attacked, and employing technologies unknown to The Combine their vast war fleets stormed system after system until The Combine’s heart, Earth itself, was devastated. Then following an unexpected defeat at the hands of a last ditch effort by what remained of Combine forces, they vanished. That was a decade ago and yet, due to an effect known as the Bogey Conundrum, memories of the Mohilar race have become hazy and inconsistent. Try as they might, no one call recall exactly what the Mohilar were, and certainly, no one has any idea where they are now…

In the meantime, the stars in the sky flicker and turn grey, and then revert to normal. The reason is unknown, but it is a suspected side effect of Mohilar weaponry. These are the Ashen Stars of the title…

In the wake of the Mohilar War, both the interstellar economy and government have collapsed and whilst The Combine exists, its reach has been pulled back from the Bleed. Thus the worlds the Bleed, many scorched and blasted by war, have been left to their own devices, bound only by a common currency and cultural ties. Where Combine patrols once kept the peace, peacekeeping missions and criminal investigations are now put out to private tender and assigned to independent ship operators known as ‘Licensed Autonomous Zone Effectuators’ or ‘Lasers’. As Lasers, the player characters will crew and operate a ship on a tight budget, hoping to pick up assignments that if completed will enhance their reputation and so lead to better and more profitable assignments. Each crewmember will undertake a role aboard ship and off ship for efficiency’s sake.

Although most Lasers are Human, a typical player character crew will consist of several members of ‘The Seven Peoples’ of The Combine. The seven include the uncannily beautiful Balla who love nature, but fear all emotions; the Cybes, former humans whose bodies and minds have been radically altered through cybernetic and genetic science; and the Durugh, short alien humanoids that can phase through solid matter who were once the enemy of The Combine. The Kch-thk are a warrior locust-like race that used to have a reputation for eating other species and can transfer to new bodies when their old ones die; the armadillo-like Tavak are placid warriors with strong ethics who fear falling into a battle rage; and the Vas Mal are a new Grey-like species given physical form following the Mohilar War from their former existence as near-omniscient energy beings. Lastly, Humans, as expected of the genre, are adaptable, resourceful, and numerous.

Each Laser undertakes two roles as part of a crew. One is Warpside, that is, aboard ship; the other is Groundside, that is, off ship. The former are Communications Officer, Pilot, Strategic Coordina¬tor, Systems Officer (engineer), and Weapons Officer, whilst the latter are Cultural, Operations, Survey, Security, and Technical. The Medic occupation is a mixed role that is important to both Warpside and Groundside, and rarely doubles up with another role. In selecting one from each category a player creates a character that has a role to fulfil or something to do when aboard ship or when conducting investigations off ship, and this is one of several balancing mechanics established in the game. Another is the number of points that each player receives to assign to his character’s Abilities. A player receives two pools of points, the smaller one to assign to his Laser’s Investigative Abilities, which are used to gather clues; the larger number to his General Abilities, which represent his physical skills. A player has to assign points to certain Abilities as these represent his Warpside and Groundside roles, plus if he is playing an alien species, then there a number of special Abilities that he has access to. For example, the Vas Mal are capable of Consciousness Simulation which enables them to interrogate the recently dead through their brain wave traces, whilst the Durugh can Phase and pass through objects.

Rounding each Laser is his Drive – what motivates him to serve, like Bleedism (the Laser believes that the Bleed should be independent of The Combine) or the Hunger Tourism of the Kch-Thk (the Laser likes to go places and eat new foods). Together as group, the player Lasers select a ship, of which there are ten Classes to choose from, including the balanced Runner, the offense heavy Hammer, and the Sherlock, which bristles with sensors and laboratories. Whilst this ship is free, the Lasers must pay for any extra gear beyond their standard equipment as well as any personal cybernetic and viroware enhancements. An array of both is available for purchase, some of which the various races of the Combine have an affinity for, while others are incompatible. All cyberware and viroware are incompatible to the Vas Mal. The Lasers will have a budget for this, out of which they must also pay for any ship bolt-ons like cargo modules or a Peacefist which enhances attempts to disable the weapons of enemy vessels. 

In addition, each player needs to decide what his Laser did in the Mohilar War, and then as part of the Laser team, decide how they came to possess their ship. Every character also has a personal development arc, such as identify the Mohilar or return to my home dimension – this latter particular to the Vas Mal. Each arc represents a story that a player wants to explore and see developed through the B-Story presented in each episode or scenario.

Our sample character was a scout for The Combine Colonial Administration surveying new worlds for on-going colonial expansion into the Bleed. He was caught behind enemy lines at the outbreak of the Mohilar War and was injured during the initial attacks. He would have died from his injuries had not a Cybe enclave rescued him and ‘upgraded’ him to help him survive, though his injuries left him with memory loss about his time before the war. He fought in a guerrilla war against the invaders until the Mohilar disappeared. He signed on as a Laser to find out who he was and to further the Cybe cause. His Cyberware and Viroware were installed to improve his survival chances and holding extra data. 

Race: Cybe
Groundside Position: Survey Officer (Mapper)
Warpside Position: Communications Officer (Hailer)
Drive: Integrationist (Cybe).
Personal Arc: Discover where my family is.

Cybernetic Enhancements: Dataloader, Episealant, Headdisk, Internal Rebreather
Viroware Enhancements: Regenerate

Investigative Abilities 
Academic: Botany 1, Cybe Culture 1, Geology 1, History, Cybe 1, Linguistics 1, Zoology 1
Interpersonal: Bullshit Detector 2, Flattery 1, Reassurance 2
Technical: Astronomy 1, Bio Signatures 2, Chemistry 1, Data Retrieval 2, Decryption 2, Energy Signatures 2, Evidence Collection 1, Explosives Devices 2

General Abilities
Communications Intercept 10, Enhancement Integration 4, Groundcraft 4, Health 20, Infiltration 5, Neural Rewiring 4, Scuffling 6, Sense Trouble 8, Shooting 6, Surveillance 9 

Mechanically, Ashen Stars uses the Gumshoe System and therefore deviates little from the previous titles that Pelgrane Press has published – Trail of Cthulhu, Esoterrorists, Mutant City Blues, and so on, and has used since in Night’s Black Agents. The Gumshoe System has the ratings in Investigative Abilities being spent to gain extra clues during the course of an adventure or investigation – if a Laser has a rating in any one Investigative Ability, then he can always gain the base clues related to that Ability, whereas the ratings from General Abilities are spent to modify dice rolls. Beyond the investigative nature of the rules that is particular to the Gumshoe System, what Ashen Stars brings to the game are rules for running a Space Opera style game, most obviously those for spaceships, space travel, and space combat. The rules for the latter initially appear to be quite complex in comparison with the rest of the rules in the book, and it takes the full example of space combat given in the book’s second appendix – the first consists of a list of sample names for each of the seven races in The Combine – for the reader to grasp how they work. They are designed to handle a more cinematic style of spaceship combat rather than a realistic one, though a no less gruelling one.

The background to Ashen Stars – The Combine and the Bleed and how they interact; the major cultures of the Bleed; and a history of The Combine are given in detail. Also presented is a more detailed discussion of how Lasers go about obtaining and fulfilling contracts as well as how the Lasers can go about making extra money beyond their contract. In particular this focuses Reputation as a mechanic, this being both the standing by which the player group of Lasers is held and the modifier that will affect how often they will be assigned contracts and how good they are. It also lies at the heart of the game theme, that of the balance between altruism and self-interest. Building a positive Reputation primarily means often having to go beyond the exact terms of a contract – for example, in the aforementioned episode of Star Trek, ‘Devil in the Dark’, Kirk, Spock, and McCoy discover who has been killing the miners and destroying their machinery, but make first contact with the culprit and come to an accord with it. In addition, it often means presenting a positive spin upon the events of the investigation and their outcome, which is why the Public Relations General Ability is of importance to Laser teams.

For the GM there is an array of particularly nasty semi-sentient and sentient alien threats to throw at the Lasers, as well as good advice on running a game. This being a Space Opera game, then the advice is build investigations not around problems, but around worlds as these will be unique from episode to the next, and then of course around cases, as after all, Ashen Stars is an investigative game. Both aspects readily lend themselves to the episodic nature of genre television that the RPG is based up, and it should be pointed out that the genre television that inspires Ashen Stars is the more modern and grittier take upon the genre – often seen in reboots. Rounding Ashen Stars is an introductory scenario, ‘The Witness of My Worth’, in which the Lasers are contracted to respond to a distress call to a survey team stationed on planet severely damaged in the war. It does a good job of introducing the rules and the setting whilst also pleasingly putting a twist or two upon various Space Opera staples.

Physically, Ashen Stars is a well laid and fine looking book, all done in full colour. If there is an issue, it is that the book is in places slightly intimidating to read, this down to the use of a sans serif font. Further, the use in places of a serif font – which is more legible – actually clashes with the look of the book. 

Where the earlier Trail of Cthulhu allowed the GM to set the campaign styles to either Purist or Pulp and the more recent Night’s Black Agents let the GM set the mode of his campaign – Burn, Dust, Mirror, or (High) Stakes Mode – to determine the tone of its espionage and the nature of its vampiric threat, Ashen Stars does not allow such options. In fact, in comparison with other Gumshoe System RPGs, Ashen Stars is fundamentally straightforward and unfussy. Were it not for what the RPG does to the genre it is emulating, that is rework it as an investigation game, Ashen Stars would be considered to be a very traditional RPG. Instead it highlights and makes its focus upon the usually ignored investigative nature of the genre, the feature of Ashen Stars and so refreshes the genre.

Friday 13 September 2013

Heavy Metal Chanbara

Two decades ago the last Empress of the Bright Empire vanished, possibly spirited away by the darkness that literally spread from the coronation gift presented to her by her uncle, the Witch-King. The Empress' Honour Guard stepped forward to govern the regions of the empire in her stead, but as the darkness spread so it seemed did a madness… It warped the land of Konoyo and isolated her peoples, disrupted the social order, and drove each ruling member of the Honour Guard, now calling themselves the Lord Generals to push for their territories’ independence. New technologies, once the province of the Onji-Kaji, the craftsmen of the gods, further weakened the social order. The Witch-King had already commanded Kikai, the machines known as war-walkers in battle, but engineers developed black powder and from there, bombs and grenades, repeating pistols and rifles, placing great firepower within the ownership of the peasant and noble alike. In the Age of the Akigara, that of the Empty Throne, there is opportunity aplenty for samurai and scholar, noble and peasant, ronin and ninja, kensei and kikai driver, onmyoji and yakuza alike to make a name for himself, even as the world seems to be turned upside down…

This is the setting for Iron Dynasty: Way of the Ronin, an RPG published by Reality Blurs, Inc. Employing the Savage Worlds rules published by Pinnacle Entertainment Group, it promises “Oriental Action! Savage Style” and ‘heavy metal chanbara’, something that the slightly cinematic mechanics of Savage Worlds can deliver. It combines Japanese style fantasy with its myth as well as a fantasy take upon a classic element of Japanese anime – mecha. It offers numerable character options – Artisan, Ashigaru, Bandit, Bodyguard, Entertainer, Kensei, Ninja, Noble, Priest, Ronin, Scholar, and Yakuza will be familiar to most gamers. New to Iron Dynasty are the ganso, masters of machinery; kikai driver, war walker pilot; makoto, chosen by the kami; onmyoji, capable drawing and commanding the energies from the around them; and yamabushi, mountain warriors who have come down from remote temples. 

Character creation is a simple process, adhering to the given rules for Savage Worlds. A player purchases dice levels to assign to his character’s Attributes and Skills, selects his Defining Interests and Languages as well as Edges (advantages). If he wants more Attributes, Skills, or Edges, he selects Hindrances (disadvantages). All characters are human, so all characters receive a free Edge. The process is easy, but this being a Savage Worlds setting, the best way to create a character is to select a character type and any associated Edges and work backwards to ensure that the character qualifies. (It should be pointed out that this is common of many RPGs, but is particularly so of Savage Worlds because the Edges define a character so). So for example, the Geisha requires a character to be female and have Smarts d6 and Persuade d6, whereas Close Fighting requires Novice, Agility d8, and Fighting d8. 

Our first sample character is closest to what most people would think fits the Chanbara genre. She is a Ronin, an honourless swordswoman forced to take up her father’s katana after he is killed in a border skirmish that became an invasion from a rival region. Rather than be captured by the invaders, Tsutaro fled and has been wandering the land ever since.

Tsutaro, Ronin
Attributes: Agility d8, Smarts d6, Spirit d6, Strength d6, Vigor d4
Skills: Fighting d10, Climbing d6, Notice d6, Persuade d6, Stealth d6, Survival d4, Tracking d4
Defining Interests/Languages: Classical Literature, Etiquette, Folklore 
Charisma: +1
Pace: 6; Parry: 7; Toughness: 5
Hindrances: All Thumbs (Minor), Hero (Major), Loyal (Minor)
Edges: High Born, Quick, Signature Moves (Katana)
Gear: Katana (Str+d8)

In supporting both roles traditional to the chanbara genre and newly presented to this setting, Iron Dynasty introduces innumerable Edges as well as a few Hindrances. Many of these are combat related, for example, ‘Arrow Cutting’ enables a character to block missile weapons, ‘Empty Hands’ makes a character’s unarmed attacks deadlier, whilst ‘Shadow Arts’ grants a bonus to tricks when using the interplay between light and dark. The latter of course is perfect for ninja characters. Others also support the traditional elements necessary to a Japan-like RPG setting, such as ‘Geisha’, ‘Disgraced/Dishonourable’, and ‘Cultured’. Many of the new Edges support aspects particular to the setting, including Arcane Background (Ganso), which enables a Ganso to craft wondrous devices capable of simulating the effects of Powers such as armour, bolt, fly, healing, and stun. In addition to selecting more Powers to emulate, a Ganso could select other Edges and take Craft Device to grant a bonus to one of his Attributes or Gadget to simulate another Edge. For example, the Ambidextrous Edge could be simulated with a Gadget called ‘A Two-Handed Approach’, the character being free to name the device as he wishes. Plus a character can lend his devices to the other player characters.

Both Arcane Background (Makoto) and Arcane Background (Onmyojio) are supported in similar fashion with further Edges that enhance their effects. Where those effects are primarily external, those for Ki Control are internal as the character exerts control over his own life energy. These include armour, boost trait, deflection amongst others, and again, there are further Edges that enhance the core Edge. Unlike Edges like Arcane Background (Ganso), Arcane Background (Makoto), and Arcane Background (Onmyojio), the Ki Control Edge is not an Arcane Background and cannot be combined with an Arcane Background. That said, the Sensei (or GM) can allow a character to select the Ki Control Edge after character creation as a result of play. Combining the Ki Control Edge with other Edges, for example, with ‘Shadow Arts’ to make an interesting Ninja or ‘Signature Moves (Katana)’ to create a Wuxia style samurai.

Our sample Ganso is a peasant miner who discovered his ability to work with machines after helping the mine’s engineer. He dreams of building his own kikai, but so far he has only managed to build a rope launching device that allows him to climb up and down and because the rope can be stiffened, to launch himself into the air. The rope can also be launched to entangle others. 

Bachida, Peasant Engineer
Attributes: Agility d4, Smarts d8, Spirit d6, Strength d6, Vigor d6
Skills: Climbing d4, Fighting d4, Gearcraft d8, Notice d8, Repair d8, Persuade d4, Shooting d4, Survival d4
Defining Interests/Languages: Lantern Making, Kikai Lore, Mining
Charisma: -2
Pace: 6; Parry: 4; Toughness: 5
Hindrances: Clueless (Major), Combat Novice (Minor), Low Born (Minor) 
Edges: Apprentice Engineer, Arcane Background (Ganso), Student of the Way
Powers: entangle, fly
Gear: Katana (Str+d8)

Characters are supported by setting appropriate Defining Interests, as well as a nicely done and nicely illustrated armoury. New rules allow existing skills to be used in new ways – Intimidation as Interrogation and Persuasion as Seduction, for example, whilst Reputation rules provide a means of measuring character standing and progression within the setting. Within the setting it replaces the Honour System that was broken when so many noble houses collapsed and many of those remaining used the new technology to make themselves independent. A character’s Reputation starts at zero and can go down to -100 and up to +100. There are benefits to be gained, not all of them positive, as a character alters his Reputation. Despite the loss of the Honour System, the Caste System persists. Rules for Duelling also work in conjunction with the Reputation rules and they work whatever form of duelling the character engages in – swordsmanship, firearms, or other…

For the most the rules and character generation in Iron Dynasty are well done. One issue is that character generation does not tie characters into the setting as well as it should. Each player is expected to select a home province for his character. It would have been nice if there had been small mechanical benefit to help a player make this selection. One obvious omission from amongst the numerous Edges and options is that of Legendary Edges. What this means is that progression for the characters is limited and they cannot be truly heroic within the setting, at least not mechanically. Another issue is that it is all too easy to be overwhelmed by these options, but the rulebook handily suggests the roles that a party in Iron Dynasty should fulfil – Healer, Infiltrator, Talker, Thinker, and Warrior. 

For the Sensei, Iron Dynasty gives a more detailed examination of Konoyo and its nine provinces. This includes places of interest and whispers and rumours. There is also a guide to creating monsters and the corrupted – men who have been tainted by mad kami or the land itself. This is in addition to the bestiary, but idea here is that the true threats and enemies faced by the player characters should be truly unique. Along with the very useful set of Plot Generation tables, the Sensei is given not just one, but seven Campaign Frameworks that in turn deal with different aspects of the setting. Just because the author can, the first of these is a ‘Heroes of the People’ style campaign entitled ‘The Seven, Oh, Y'Know…’, in which our heroes help defend a village against ever more dangerous foes… Rounding out the book is a description of three of the setting’s legendary Kakai and descriptions of various mystical artefacts.

Physically, Iron Dynasty: Way of the Ronin is well presented and nicely illustrated. The setting of Konoyo feels underwritten though and it does not help that the book itself could have been better organised. The issue is that the author does not pitch the book and the setting as clearly and successfully as he could have done. It needed to be more up front about what the book and the setting is about. Nevertheless, once the reader gets into the book the setting, at least in terms of character options and the adventuring possibilities as presented in the Campaign Frameworks, more than make up for the lack of a pitch upfront. 

The elements that Iron Dynasty introduces to feudal Japan may prove to be unpalatable to the purist, the player or GM that does not want their Far East to be quite as fantastical as that presented in Iron Dynasty: Way of the Ronin. Nevertheless, what the rules do is provide for some great character concepts and the means to play them as well as foes and stories that the Sensei can present to the players and their characters. The result is that Iron Dynasty: Way of the Ronin is a very playable fantastical version of chanbara Japan.

Sunday 1 September 2013

Game Like It's Another 1974

In January 2012, Wizards of the Coast announced that it was working on the next version of Dungeons & Dragons and that it would take two years’ worth of development time. So whilst the hobby waited to see what D&D Next or ‘Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition’ would look like, it left a gap at the top of the hobby because for intents and purposes, the game, in the form of Dungeons & Dragons, Fourth Edition,  was redundant. This is not to say that the style of play that Dungeons & Dragons offered went away. After all, PaizoPublishing’s Pathfinder Roleplaying Game was and continues to be popular, and there are of course any number of ‘Retroclones’ that Dungeons & Dragons style play based on older variants of the rules, most notably Labyrinth Lord and Lamentations of the Flame Princess Weird Fantasy Roleplaying. More recently Pelgrane Press has given the style of play a contemporary update with 13th Age. In 2012 the update to this style of play was offered by Goodman Games in the form of the Dungeon Crawl Classics Role Playing Game, an ‘Old School’ style nod to the literary sources for the original Dungeons & Dragons.

By 2012, Goodman Games was no stranger to the ‘Old School’ style, having published in nine years some fifty or so titles for its Dungeon Crawl Classics line, starting in 2003 with Dungeon Crawl Classics #1: Idylls of the Rat King. What each entry in the series provided was a scenario in the classic sense, as published by TSR in the first ten years of its history, scenarios in which the adventures itself mattered more than the setting and the NPCs were primarily there for the slaughter than the scintillating socialisation. Yet by 2012, the series had stalled, its quality suffering primarily from a new rules system that seemed ill-suited to its intended style, but then by 2012, critics had long been wondering what type of game Dungeons & Dragons, Fourth Edition was suited to. The Dungeon Crawl Classics Role Playing Game offered a chance to reinvigorate the line and the concept. The resulting game was and is not a ‘Retroclone’ in the classic sense – one that sets out to emulate a particular set of rules; it is instead a d20 System RPG that goes back to the inspirational source for the original Dungeons & Dragons – the legendary ‘Appendix N’. Penned by Gary Gygax as part of the Dungeon Master’s Guide for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, First Edition, ‘Appendix N’ was a list of Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror authors that inspired the innumerable elements that made up Dungeons & Dragons, whether it was Fritz Leiber’s thieves or Jack Vance’s magic and spells, or Robert E. Howard’s corruptive influence of magic. From this basis, author Joseph Goodman has developed an RPG that uses the same basis for its rules as the d20 System, but one that sits somewhere between Basic Dungeons & Dragons and Advanced Dungeons & Dragons in terms of its complexity.

To get into what the Dungeon Crawl Classics Role Playing Game is about, you need to start at the beginning and in the Dungeon Crawl Classics Role Playing Game, that means playing Zero Level characters. Playing characters of Zero Level in Dungeons & Dragons is nothing new. It was done by TSR in 1986 with N1, Treasure Hunt and then again in 1987 with N5, Under Ilefarn, and then in 2005 by Goodman Games in Dungeon Crawl Classics #0: Legends are Made, not Born. Here each player takes the role of not one Zero Level character, but several, each a serf or peasant looking beyond a life tied to the fields and the seasons or the forge and the hammer, looking to prove themselves and perhaps progress enough to become a skilled adventurer and eventually make a name for themselves. Unfortunately, delving into tombs and the lairs of both men and beasts is a risky venture and death is all but a certainty for the lone delver… In numbers, there is the chance that one or more will survive long enough to go onto greater things! This is what the Dungeon Crawl Classics Role Playing Game terms a ‘Character Creation Funnel’.

Characters in the Dungeon Crawl Classics Role Playing Game, just like in Dungeons & Dragons, have six Abilities – Strength, Agility, Stamina, Personality, Intelligence, and Luck, each rolled on three six-sided dice. These are rolled in strict order, because after all, life in the world of the ‘Known Realms’ or Aéreth, that of the Dungeon Crawl Classics Role Playing Game, is something of a lottery. That includes not just his basic Hit Points – rolled on a single four-sided die, but also the Zero Level character’s occupation, which will also determine his race, a weapon, and a possession related to his occupation. For example, this could be a cheesemaker with his cudgel and stinky cheese or an animal trainer with his club and pony, but it could be an Elven navigator with his bow and spyglass or a Dwarven chest-maker with his chisel and his 10 lbs. weight of wood. For in the Dungeon Crawl Classics Role Playing Game, just as in the original Dungeons & Dragons and Basic Dungeons & Dragons, the races Dwarves, Elves, and Halflings are Classes as much as they are species.

Our sample character is a Halfling Gypsy who seeing no future in reading fortunes has run away from the circus. He is a healthy fellow somewhat lacking in the wits or nimbleness that marks out many of his race. Sadly, his grandmother has read Milo’s fortune, but his Luck may still out…

Milo Tosscobble
Zero Level Halfling Gypsy
STR 12 AGL 7 (-1) STM 15 (+1)
PER 12 INT 7 (-1) LCK 15 (+1)
Hit Points: 5
Saving Throws
Fortitude +1 Reflex -1 Willpower +0
Birth Augur: Four-leafed Clover
Luck Benefit: Secret Doors
Weapon: Sling (1d4)
Equipment: Hex Doll

Of the six core Abilities, Luck is the one that needs the most explanation. It is used for various different skill checks and rolls, for each character’s single Luck Benefit – for example, in the case of Milo, to find Secret Doors – and can even be burned to gain a one-off bonus. The latter though is a permanent use and any Luck lost in this fashion can only be regained by a player roleplaying his character to his Alignment. The Luck bonus also applies to critical hit, fumble, and corruption rolls as well as various Class-based rolls. For example, the Elf receives it as a bonus one single spell and a Warrior to a single weapon such as a longsword or a war hammer. Further, both the Thief and the Halfling Classes are exceptionally lucky. Not only are their Luck bonuses doubled when they burn Luck, they actually regain Luck each day equal to their Level. In addition, if a party has a Halfling amongst its numbers that Halfling can pass his expended Luck to other members of the party!

So once a Zero Level has been on an adventure or three and acquired enough Experience Points, he can advance to First Level. It only takes ten Experience Points, with an average of two points being awarded per encounter, rather than per monster killed or item of treasure being looted. It should also be pointed out that the Experience Points progression needed to reach Second and subsequent Levels has been substantially streamlined and simplified for ease of play. Human characters can advance from Zero Level into one of the four Classes – Cleric, Thief, Warrior, and Wizard, whilst the demi-humans advance into the Class appropriate to the Occupation rolled during character creation, the Elf Class for Elves, the Dwarf Class for Dwarves, and the Halfling Class for Halflings. Each Class feels very much the Classic version seen in, for example, Basic Dungeons & Dragons, but with sufficient tweaks that make each – and thus the Dungeon Crawl Classics Role Playing Game – more interesting to play than those of Basic Dungeons & Dragons.

The Cleric must choose a god and matching Alignment and weapons training – which includes the Neutral deity Cthulhu if the player wants his character to be a Priest of the Old Ones! – and in return gains clerical or Idol Magic, can Turn creatures unholy to his god, and can Lay on Hands. The latter includes the ability to heal broken limbs, organ damage, disease, poison, and more – rather just heal Hit Points. It is possible for a Cleric to gain the disapproval of his god and even sin, this including the healing of a character of an opposing Alignment or faith. Thieves are relatively little changed, although their skills – Backstab, Sneak Silently, Hide in Shadows, and so on – are done as a bonus to the RPG’s universal d20 System skills mechanic rather than as percentiles. The skill values and their progression also vary depending upon whether the Thief is Lawful, Neutral, or Chaotic. The Warrior receives one single new ability, that of being able to undertake ‘Mighty Deeds of Arms’. Need to sweep an opponent off the stairs or swing on a chandelier to kick a mob down or throw a flask of flaming oil into the eyes of a basilisk? With the simplicity of the Mighty Deed of Arms mechanic, a Warrior can. Wizards of course cast magic spells, but their initial spells are randomly known and they also are encouraged to take a patron, like Bobugbublilz, demon lord of amphibians or Sezrekan the Elder, the wickedest of sorcerers, whom they can also invoke to gain powerful, but dangerous magic.

The Dwarf is like the Warrior and can match that Class’ Mighty Deed of Arms, but in addition gains a random bonus to each attack and do a bash attack with his shield. The Elf is susceptible to iron and so must use mithril arms and armour, and can use many martial weapons as well as cast spells, but must work closely with an extra planar patron to do so. Lastly, the Halfling, as well as being intrinsically lucky, is also stealthy and capable of using two weapons together in a fight. There are lots of elements in these takes upon the classic character Classes that add both a mechanical benefit and flavour. The addition of the Mighty Deed of Arms not only gives the Warrior an edge, but also gives the player room to develop his character’s style of play and match it to his weaponry; the Cleric gets to both role-play and ‘roll-play’ his faith; and in both cases, the Dwarf and Halfling Classes are far more capable than the classic versions of either Class. In addition, each of the Human Classes, bar the Wizard since the pursuit of magic is a solitary affair, are each given a pair of pages devoted to suggested backgrounds and organisations for those Classes that add further flavour.

To undertake an action, a player rolls an Action Die and adds to the result any of his character’s Attribute bonuses, Luck bonus, and Level bonuses that apply. This is usually against the base Difficulty Class of ten, with difficulties raising or falling by five. This also applies to Spell Checks for Clerics, Wizards, and Elves, and also to combat, although the target in combat in the Dungeon Crawl Classics Role Playing Game is an ascending Armour Class. In most cases, the Action Die is a twenty-sided die, but this can change. For example, as a gypsy, Milo might have a way with ponies that allows him to make a skill check using a twenty-sided die as his Action Die to determine the health and value of any pony that he wants to purchase. Were he to attempt to illuminate a forged manuscript, he would only roll a ten-sided die as his Action Die – and that is in addition to the penalties he would suffer to the roll for his lack of skill!

Where Dungeons & Dragons and other games of its ilk use the usual polyhedral panoply – the four, the six, the eight, the ten, the twelve, and the twenty-sided die, the Dungeon Crawl Classics Role Playing Game employs another seven in addition to those standard six. These are the three, the five, the seven, the fourteen, the sixteen, the twenty-four, and the thirty-sided dice. These are arranged in a ladder or ‘dice-chain’ that goes up from the twenty-sided die to the twenty-four-sided die and then to the thirty-sided, and down from the twenty-sided die to the sixteen-sided die and then to the fourteen-sided die and so on. Different Action Dice are rolled when a Warrior or Dwarf makes his second attack which he gains at Fifth Level and also when a Dwarf rolls his Attack Bonus.

Suggestions are given if the Judge and his players lack these different sided dice. If the Judge does want them, they are only available from Gamescience. None of these are inexpensive dice and that is just ordering them within the United States. International orders are another matter… This is an issue with the Dungeon Crawl Classics Role Playing Game, but how much of an issue will vary between one Judge and his players and another Judge and his players.

Combat in the Dungeon Crawl Classics Role Playing Game is relatively little different to that of d20 System. Bar the use of a second Action Die type to grant certain Classes second actions in combat – the Warrior and the Dwarf gain a second attack and the Wizard and the Elf gain a second spell to cast at higher levels, the extra combat rules add rules for Fumbles, Critical Hits, and expanded details for Mighty Deeds of Arms. In each case these are accompanied by tables and charts, which in the case of Critical Hits is varies according to a character’s Class and Level, so there are several of them.

Magic in the Dungeon Crawl Classics Role Playing Game is no longer a matter of casting a spell and forgetting about it. Instead magic is deadly and dangerous, sometimes corrupting, but it can be very powerful. A Wizard can enter duels with enemy Wizards and Clerics to counterspell their spells and a Wizard can also Spellburn points in his Abilities to gain temporary bonuses to regain lost spells. This is only temporary – rest and recuperation will let the Wizard regain these Ability points. Spell duels increase the capabilities of both Classes, although the rules do add a degree of complexity and time consumption not readily found in the rest of the game. Within the game itself, there is the danger of the spells perfectly countering each other and setting up a ‘Phlogiston Disturbance’ that might cause the spells to merge, the summoning of supernatural creatures, or set up a backward time loop! In addition, whenever a Wizard learns a spell, he learns it in a slightly different way to any other Wizard and that means that the spell has a slightly different extra effect that varies from one Wizard to another. This mercurial nature means that when the Wizard casts one spell, he might suffer the Sleep of Ages, whilst with another he might gain a temporary Psychic Shield. A Wizard’s Luck bonus applies to the roll to determine this effect whenever he gains a new spell.

Over a third of the Dungeon Crawl Classics Role Playing Game is devoted to one thing – spells for both the Wizard and the Cleric. Each receives roughly a page each that details how the spell works, what its effects are, and what can go wrong with said spell; in other words, an effect chart. For example, the classic standby of First Level Wizards everywhere, Magic Missile, might manifest as a meteor, a screaming, clawing eagle, a ray of frost, a force axe, and so on. When cast, a Wizard might throw a single Magic Missile that only does a single point of damage; one that might normal damage; multiple missiles or a single powerful one; and so on. Alternatively, the Wizard’s casting might result in a Misfire, which for Magic Missile might cause the caster’s allies or himself to be hit by multiple Magic Missiles, or to blow a hole under the caster’s feet! Worse, the casting of the spell might have a Corrupting influence upon the caster, which for Magic Missile might cause the skin of the caster’s hands and forearms to change colour to acid green or become translucent or to become invisible every time he casts Magic Missile! This is in addition to the chances of the Wizard suffering from Major or even Greater Corruption…

Rather than listing magic item after magic item, the Dungeon Crawl Classics Role Playing Game presents both a discussion of their nature in the ‘Known Realms’ and the means for the Judge to create them. Magic items in the Dungeon Crawl Classics Role Playing Game are rare and of a singular nature and purpose. They may even be of such power as to arouse the ire of a demi-god! In keeping with the sources within ‘Appendix N’, the creation of swords receives particular attention, whilst guidelines are also given for the creation of wands, rods, rings, and other items. The mixing of potions is covered by the Make Potion spell. Monsters are treated in a not too dissimilar fashion. Although standard versions of each are included, from the Basilisk and Bugbear to the Wolf and the Zombie, there are rules and suggestions as to how to make them mysterious, if not necessarily unique, essentially to spice them up a little, and so ensure that they are not simply generic. The monsters have access to broad set of their own Critical Hits table to roll on when fighting against the player characters.

The last fifty or so pages are devoted to a series of appendices that cover everything from languages and poisons to names and the fabled ‘Appendix N’, as well as two short scenarios. ‘The Portal Under the Stars’ is designed for Zero and First Level characters and sees them enter a supernatural portal and delve into the burial tomb of an ancient war-wizard. It is followed by ‘The Infernal Crucible of Sezrekan the Mad’, an adventure for Fifth Level characters in which the experienced player characters enter one of the workshops of the notorious sage, diabolist, and warlock, Sezrekan, who was obsessed with attaining immortality. Both scenarios are relatively short if deadly affairs that that are accorded plenty of detail and flavour. They also previously appeared in the DCC RPG Free RPG Day Adventure Starter released for Free RPG Day 2011 and reviewed here. In addition, certain editions of the game have a copy of Dungeon Crawl Classics #66.5: Doom of the Savage Kings inserted inside the front cover. Designed for First Level characters, this has them visit the village of Hirot which of late has become besieged an immortal hound, a devil-beast that hunts the inhabitants of the settlement. It can be played by Zero Level characters, but will be even deadlier than the ‘The Portal Under the Stars’. Unlike ‘The Portal Under the Stars’ and ‘The Infernal Crucible of Sezrekan the Mad’, Doom of the Savage Kings is much more of a full scenario than a simple dungeon delve and serves as a good adventure for First Level characters and the Judge new to the Dungeon Crawl Classics Role Playing Game.

Physically, the Dungeon Crawl Classics Role Playing Game, despite being almost five hundred pages long, is surprisingly light in the hand. A wholly black and white hardback, what strikes the reader about the volume is that it is profusely illustrated, not quite one illustration per page, but certainly not far off. Every one of these illustrations is drawn by artists familiar to the Old School Renaissance – Jeff Dee, Jeff Easely, Jim Holloway, Erol Otus, Jim Roslof, and more. Many of the pieces delightfully illustrate the text and all of them invoke not just the Old School style, but also the look of the core three books of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons – the Monster Manual, the Player’s Handbook, and the Dungeon Master’s Guide; the latter in particular with its little cartoons that dig at the mores of Dungeons & Dragons. In addition, the cartography for all three adventures is excellent.

On the downside, the book lacks an index and that is inexcusable in this century and age, especially given how often a Judge needs to refer to the contents of the book. The Dungeon Crawl Classics Role Playing Game is not a complex game by any means, but it makes heavy use of charts – and often, especially if one of the player characters is a Cleric, an Elf, or a Wizard when every casting of a spell requires the consultation of a particular chart. This is more an issue than the need to purchase special dice in order to get the most out of the Dungeon Crawl Classics Role Playing Game, but there are ways around this whereas there are no means given to play the game without the charts. Nor though, would you want to. The charts and the tables are fundamental to handling both the high and the low points of combat and both the high and the low points of casting spells. Nor are the charts just mechanically important, as they add both flavour and feel aplenty to the game’s play.

Whilst the Dungeon Crawl Classics Role Playing Game is not an Old School Retroclone per se, it is a love letter to the Old School. This shows in the choice of artists, the use of the fundamentals of Dungeons & Dragons’ architecture – the character Classes, the spells, and so on, and in what by modern standards is an imbalance between one character and another. This imbalance can be as simple as better core Abilities for one character and not another, but it also shows up in the differences between the Classes. For example, the Warrior is a consistently powerful Class with its Mighty Deed of Arms capability, whereas the spell casting Classes are powerful, there are also debilitating constraints to the use of magic, whether it is the chance of mishaps and Corruption for the Wizard or the possibility of disapproval by his deity for the Cleric. That said, when roleplayed, these are entertaining aspects of the Dungeon Crawl Classics Role Playing Game.

As the first major publisher to delve into the Old School Renaissance with the Dungeon Crawl Classics line, Goodman Games was best placed to publish a roleplaying game like the Dungeon Crawl Classics Role Playing Game. There is no doubting that it would have been easy for Goodman Games to publish just another Retroclone, but in the Dungeon Crawl Classics Role Playing Game, Goodman Games did something different. It designed and published an Old School style RPG that draws on the same sources as Dungeons & Dragons, but yet stands on its own mechanically, thematically, and tonally. As much as there is the familiarity of both Dungeons & Dragons and the d20 System to the Dungeon Crawl Classics Role Playing Game, the differences in terms of its mechanics, its themes, and its tone all serve to give the Dungeon Crawl Classics Role Playing Game an engagingly brutal charm.