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

Tuesday 29 July 2014

Once and Future Dystopia

Mike W. Barr’s Camelot 3000 meets Joss Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer in Neal Stephenson’s Snowcrash. This is the elevator pitch at the heart of Corporia, an urban fantasy RPG that was originally funded via Kickstarter, but is now published by Brabblemark Press via Chronicle City. Its setting is The City in a near future in a post-Cyberpunk corporatized world in which the social order is increasingly disturbed by strange events that see the near omnipresent Augmented Reality network disrupted and citizens suffering from sudden mutations, cause unknown—officially that is… What is actually responsible is Flux, a chaotic energy leaking in from a parallel dimension that is returning magic to the world as well as strange monsters known as Cryptids. At the same time, the Knights of the Round Table of Arthurian legend are being reborn to fight both these incursions and for justice alongside their newly appeared supernaturally-powered allies in world beset by otherworldly Chaos magics and the stiflingly oppressive regime of mega-corporate rule. Plus of course, Morgan Le Fay has returned as well…

In the default set-up for Corporia, the players take the role of these reborn Knights of the Round Table and their supernaturally-powered allies as members of Knightwatch. This is an elite unit of Watchmen, one of several Private Military and Security Companies (PMSCs) that have contracts to police the various districts of The City. The Watchmen are owned by Valyant, the CEO of which is Lance Martin—the reborn Lancelot, and it is to him that members of the Knightwatch report directly. Aiding both the Knightwatch and Lance Martin are an A.I. called M.E.R.L.I.N. (Master Eye Registrar and Logistical Intelligence Network) and Nimue, Merlin’s apprentice reborn. Most missions assigned to the Knightwatch come about because of M.E.R.L.I.N. monitoring the net or Nimue’s prescience. Knightwatch operatives are expected to act covertly and nearly all have lives other than their Knightwatch assignments.

Corporia is specific about the types of characters it wants the players to take, listing some thirteen archetypes. These are Badges (PMSC operatives or private investigators), Hackers, Headhunters (assassins or recruitment specialists), Journos, Knight-Errants (knights of King Arthur reborn, melee specialists), Listers (celebrities), Radicals (opponents to corporate rule), Runners (couriers that combine parkour with wuxia-style martial arts), Sorcerers (techno-mages), Suits (corporate executive), Thinkers (doctors, scientists, experts), Witchers (traditional magic), and Zeroes (labourers and manual service workers). Once this archetype is selected, a player also needs to choose a second, his character’s astrological sign. Fortunately, this is only to define the personality traits rather than as a means of prediction. 

Each character has four personality traits—three public and one private. For a character born under the sign of Aries, his Public Traits might be Aggressive, Generous to Friends, and Viionary, and his Private Trait might be Addict or Orphan. Essentially, Public Traits can be seen as advantages and the Private Trait as a disadvantage. Either way, roleplaying either type will earn a character Flux Points, the GM being expected to tempt a player with Flux Points to encourage him to give in to his character’s Private Trait. Flux Points can then be spent to improve dice rolls when acting or to shrug off damage. Whenever a player receives or spends Flux Points, he also receives Build Points with which to improve his character.

A character also has a ‘Core Competency’, which determines his focus during character generation. ‘Touched’ characters get more to spend on attributes and skills, whilst ‘Fluxed’ characters get less to spend on attributes and skills and more to spend on Supernatural Assets. ‘Gifted’ characters receive a balanced mix of points. All characters receive the same number of points to assign to General Assets. Sorcerers and Witchers must have the ‘Fluxed’ Core Competency in order to possess the Spellcaster asset and be able to learn and cast all spells. ‘Gifted’ characters can have limited spellcasting or psionic ability, or be Hackers capable of immersing themselves fully in the Augmented Reality.

Our first sample character is a Knight-Errant, or at least a Knight-Errant to be. Norman Cheeseman, a low level enforcer for the Oseku cartel, an Albanian crime ring that currently runs several district franchises. An ex-prizefighter, Cheeseman was never more than a journeyman fighter and now makes most of his monies doing using his fists and Com/Bat melee weapon. Of late, he has begun to have second thoughts about his choice of career and is beginning to develop a conscience.

Norman Cheeseman
Archetype: Knight-Errant
Sign: Aries
Public Traits: Aggressive, Generous to Friends, Optimistic
Private Traits: Gambling Problem
Core Competency: Touched

Strength 3 Deftness 2 Mettle 3
Knowledge 2 Wits 3 Magick 1

Valour: 1

Athletics 3, Business 1, Crime 2, Firearms 1, Fisticuffs 4, Getting Medieval 2, Humanities 0, Influence 3, Instinct 4, Sciences 0

General Assets
Fortitude, Knight’s Prowess (6), Lionheart/1 (2), Prudent (2)

EyePhone, Hardened (Subdermal)/1

Com/Bat (1d8+STR), Hand Axe (1d4+STR), Short Sword (1d6+STR); Light Modern Body Suit

The mechanics in Corporia use the Flux System. Whilst other dice in the game might be used for rolling damage or other effects, when a character wants to do something, he adds the relevant attribute and skill to a Flux Dice roll—a roll of two six-sided dice, of which he chooses the higher result. Rolls of six enable a player to roll and add, including both dice. Target Numbers range from Easy (5) and Average (7) to Difficult (9) and Hard (11), and beyond… A result of five or more than gains a player a Raise, which gives an additional degree of success. 

Combat uses the same mechanics, but attacks are rolled against the target’s static Defence Check, for example, versus the target’s Deftness plus Getting Medieval. Damage is rolled according to the weapon used, armour and protection reduces this, and if the result exceeds the target’s Mettle, then damage is inflicted. This is not expressed in the number of points inflicted, but rather as a Wound and hit location penalties in the particular hit location. Optionally, the Director may allow Raises on damage to inflict more Wounds. A character can suffer a number of Wounds equal to twice his Mettle.

A range of weapons are included in Corporia. Most of them are fairly generic, though the Raypier is an energy for your Knight-Errants who want to wield lightsabers! It should be noted that even though Corporia is a post-cyberpunk urban fantasy, melee weapons are just as important as firearms, if not more so, as there are Cryptids that are only vulnerable to cold iron. As a post-cyberpunk setting, numerous augmentations are available to purchase, both legally and on the black market. EyePhones and EyePads are legal, whilst Cloak, which inserts nanoprojection units onto the epidermis to distort the visual signature and so fool robots and holographic sentries is not. Augmentations, both physical implants and ingested are part of the setting of Corporia, but not its focus—magic though, is.

The magic rules in Corporia are designed to be simple and flexible. There are two types of magic—Sorcery and Witchcraft—and each of these has its own quartet of skills and associated spells. Sorcery has Holography, Kinesis, Metamorph, and Technomancy, whilst Witchcraft receives Charm, Elemental, Perception, and Spiritism. It is possible for a Sorcerer to learn Witchcraft spells and vice versa, but it costs more to purchase ranks in the other type of magic. To cast a spell, a Sorcerer or Witcher adds his Magick and his Sorcery or Witchcraft skill to a standard roll, the Target Number being determined by the spell itself. For example, the TN for the Mindtrick spell from Witchcraft’ Charm Discipline, which allows the caster to make a victim believe a simple suggestion for a few rounds, is 3, whereas the TN for the Sleep spell is 5. If the caster wants to increase the range, duration, or number of targets for a spell, then he only has to increase the TN of any spell by two and he can do this as many times as he wants.
For example, the Witcher Elspeth Stephens is attempting to get into a freight holding area. The area outside is being patrolled by a pair of augmented guard dogs and Elspeth wants to put them to sleep. The TN for the Sleep spell is 3, but this is two targets, so the difficulty goes up by two. The spell will last three hours—equal to her Witchcraft (Charm) Discipline—but wants it to last longer. So she also doubles the time and increases the TN by two for a total of 7.
In addition to modifying existing spells, a spellcaster can also create new spells in addition to the few listed for each discipline. Unfortunately this section is somewhat underwritten and could have done with an example or two. There are limitations on a caster using magic. Primarily on the number of spells that he can cast per day—equal to his Magcik attribute—before he has to cast with penalties.  Both types of spellcasters can use wands, made of artificial materials for Sorcerers and natural materials for Witchers. There are various types of wand available—which feels very Harry Potter-ish—and all can do ranged damage equal to the caster’s Magick attribute. This damage ignores armour, but again, the number of times a caster can do this is limited to his Magick.

Our sample Witcher is Elspeth Stephens, a recently divorced mother of two who has moved into a townhouse with her children. Her ex-husband is a corporate suit and continues to pay alimony. She recently re-examined some old books that her mother had left her, but she forgotten about and rediscovered on moving out of her husband’s house. Along with discovering the wand in the trunk with the books, Elspeth found that the books were interesting and teaching her things, magical things…

Elspeth Stephens
Archetype: Witcher
Sign: Cancer
Public Traits: Dependable, Loves Family, Nostalgic
Private Traits: Clinging to a Past Trauma, Formerly Fat
Core Competency: Touched

Strength 1 Deftness 1 Mettle 2
Knowledge 2 Wits 2 Magick 3

Valour: 0

Skills 113
Athletics 0, Business 1, Crime 0, Firearms 0, Fisticuffs 1, Getting Medieval 1, Humanities (Perception) 0, Humanities (Antiques) 2, Humanities (Arts—Painting) 2, Influence 3, Instinct 2, Sciences 0, Witchcraft (Charm) 3, Witchcraft (Perception) 3

Supernatural Assets
Spellcaster (10)

General Assets
Bloodline (Theurgic) (2), Funding ($55.3k) (3), Influential (2), Safehouse (Townhouse) (4)


The default setting for Corporia is The City, to which a whole chapter is devoted—though it would be easy enough for the Director to set his game somewhere of his choosing. With just under a page devoted to each of its Districts, including a general description, a few places of interest, and its government, The City is described in fairly broad details. Broadly based on Tokyo, The City nevertheless feels North American if it has a feel at all. Nevertheless, the differences between Districts will come into play, especially if the Director is running the default Watchmen campaign. Security and policing is contracted to different corporations in different Districts, which can make matters of jurisdiction an issue if Lance Martin wants the player characters to be discreet. An overview of Corporia’s eighteen corporations adds a bit more flavour that the District descriptions might be seen as lacking.

For the Director, the author includes a good chapter on both running Corporia and presenting some of Corporia’s deeper background. The general advice on running the game is solid, if familiar to anyone who has read an RPG of late, but a nice touch is that the author actually recommends Robin D. Laws’ Robin’s Laws of Good Gamemastering amongst others. To help create adventures, Corporia provides the G.R.A.I.L. (Goal, Recon, Assault, Infiltration, and Liquidation) model as a structure in which the player characters are briefed or informed of the mission, examine the mission’s initial or primary scene, assault or infiltrate their target, and lastly deal with, or liquidate, the threat. Although the name of the model befits the game, it does feel as if the author is trying just a little too hard. Despite this, there is good advice in this chapter, along with a set of scenario outlines , various adventure hooks, write-ups of the most important NPCs, some example Cryptids—some of them quite creepy, and a guide for the Director to create his own.

Physically, Corporia is a small hardback book done in full colour. Overall, it is well written and profusely illustrated, not with artwork though. Rather, the author has used specially posed photographs throughout, with the models using various props. This works for the most part, but in places the art feels a little forced and somewhat generic. This is an extension from the equipment list which itself is also generic. Nevertheless, the writing is light and the RPG is easy to pick up and grasp.

Corporia feels like three things. First it feels like a UniSystem RPG as published by Eden Studios with its various archetypes; second, it feels very much like an elevator pitch developed for television; and third, it feels a little like a computer game. Although there is an interesting elevator pitch at its heart, that of post-cyberpunk Once and Future King meets Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the setting itself does not quite do justice to the concept. The City feels slightly too generic, a little too bland, and this undermines the feel of the game. Nor does it help that the equipment list is also bland, which means that it only adds function when it should also be adding flavour and verisimilitude to the game and setting. 

Although underdeveloped in terms of world building, Corporia is strongest when directly addressing its elevator pitch concept. This it does with a solid set of rules and a set of interesting character options.

Friday 18 July 2014

Storytelling Dungeons & Dragons

In the absence of an actual Dungeons & Dragons RPG between January 2012 and July 2014, between Dungeons & Dragons Fourth Edition and the recently released Dungeons & Dragons Fifth Edition there leapt into void not one but two contemporary takes upon traditional fantasy roleplaying. Of course, the term ‘void’ is relative, since Paizo Publishing’s Pathfinder Roleplaying Game is still available, as are any number of Old School Renaissance titles, from Labyrinth Lord to Lamentations of the Flame Princess Weird Fantasy Roleplaying. The first of these is 13th Age, Pelgrane Press’ action-orientated RPG that energised the Dungeons & Dragons style of play. The second is the Monsters & Magic Roleplaying Game. Published by Mindjammer Press, unlike the other Dungeons & Dragons style RPG, it is not a d20 System derived RPG, but uses its own Effect Engine mechanics to bring in storytelling mechanics that sit upon the architecture of nearly forty years of roleplaying that is Dungeons & Dragons. It has been described ‘Dungeons & Dragons meets FATE’, in that it employs descriptors—in Evil Hat Productions’ FATE called Aspects, in Monsters & Magic called Traits—that can be invoked to grant a benefit to the players’ adventurers. The result is that each and every adventurer brings more of his character to the play of the game and to the game world—more so than traditional Dungeons & Dragons. Further, it is possible to take characters from your existing Dungeons & Dragons game and slip them into a Monsters & Magic game, and in the process bring the characters alive.

Coming with the tagline, “Old School Fantasy, New School Play”, Monsters & Magic is still a classic Class and Level RPG. The classic races are present—Dwarf, Elf, Gnome, Halfling, Half-Orc, and Human, as are the classic Classes—Cleric, Fighter, Thief, and Wizard. The other classic Classes are treated as sub-Classes, so Druid and Monk are sub-Classes of the Cleric Class. In this way, the Paladin, Ranger, Illusionist and Specialist Wizard, and Assassin and Bard are all present. If there is an edition of Dungeons & Dragons that Monsters & Magic is based upon, it is certainly Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, First Edition. (It should be noted that the Berzerker Class is present as an example of how to create a new sub-Class, but it is not included in core set of Classes). Further, the classic six attributes—Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, Intelligence, Wisdom, and Charisma are rolled on three-six-sided dice and the Classes function as you would expect. So the Cleric Class can Turn Undead, cast Clerical Magic, Wear Light and Medium Armour and use Shields, and so on, whilst the Ranger can Wear Light and Medium Armour and use Shields, use Bows and One-Handed Swords, is an Enemy of Humanoids and Giant-kind, can Follow the Trail, is Solitary, and is skilled in Woodcraft and Scouting and Spying.

High Elf; First Level Magic User
Str 09 (-0) Dex 15 (+1) Con 10 (+0)
Int 16 (+6) Wis 13 (+1) Chr 14 (+1)

Physical Hit Points: 14
Mental Hit Points: 25
Armour Class: 13
Hero Points: 1

Alignment: Neutral
Alignment Focus: Bring the balance to all things
Alignment Drift: People must have the freedom to choose

Background Traits
My family was dishonoured for its dealings with the Dark

To restore the family honour

Elven Traits
Graceful and Mysterious, Excellent Perception, Speak Elven, Extremely Long-lived, Infravision, Resist Charm, Elf Weapons, The Rising of the Dark, From an Ordered Society

Magic User Traits
Magic, Magical Lore, Read & Write, Use Quarterstaff & Daggers, Perform Rituals, Intimidate the Ignorant, Scribe Scrolls

Charm Person, Comprehend Languages, Detect Magic, Identify, Light, Magic Missile, Sleep

As can be seen from this sample, a character in Monsters & Magic looks very much like a character from almost any Old School roleplaying game, though there are notable differences. A character has both Physical Hit Points and Mental Hit Points—so he can take both mental and physical damage—and Mental Hit Points means that characters can suffer sanity inducing shock and engage in social conflicts; he has Hero Points to help him get out of bad scrapes; and an Alignment Focus which helps him roleplay his Alignment and an Alignment Drift which represents the temptations that will push him away from his current Alignment towards another. Playing to either his Alignment or his Alignment Drift will gain a character Experience Points for good roleplaying.

One major notable difference between a character in Monsters & Magic and another Old School RPG is that each Class has a primary attribute, the modifier for which is doubled. Thus if a Cleric and a Magic User both had an Intelligence of 16, the modifier for the Cleric would be +3, but doubled to +6 for the Magic User as Intelligence is the Primary Attribute for the Class. What this does is empower each Class through the Primary Attribute.

At the heart of the character and of Magic & Monsters are Traits, each “a single word or short phrase describing something crucial about your character, like an ability, background story detail, or personality aspect”. In play, they enable a character to bring one or more of these into play and have it directly affect the game in play. Most of a character’s Traits will come from his Race or his Class, but they will also come from a come from a character’s Alignment and from his Background Trait—such as Ex-Royal Courtier or Grew up an urchin on Swill Lane. He could also take a special item, perhaps an heirloom. As a character gains a Level, he can gains more Traits. Some of these will come from his Class, others from his Background and his adventuring life, or indeed, he could discover more of the capabilities of his heirloom and give it another Trait.

Both the Attribute Modifiers and the Traits play a major role in Monsters & Magic’s mechanic, known as the ‘Effect Engine’. To undertake an action, a character rolls not a twenty-sided die, but three six-sided dice. To this roll the character adds an attribute modifier, but if the situation warrants it, a character can add not just one, but various Traits up to a certain limit. The first Trait is equal to the character’s Level, but any subsequent ones are worth a simple +1. Rolls can be made against set difficulties—Average is 10, Tough, is 15, Difficult is 20, and so on—or against static values such as Armour Class or the resistance values derived from a character or an NPC’s attributes. All a player has to do is describe how his character uses each Trait and it is allowed by the GM.

The result of a roll in the Effect Engine is where Monsters & Magic gets interesting. If the result of the roll exceeds the difficulty, Effect Points are generated and these can be used in a variety of different ways. At the most basic, if a character targets an NPC or a monster, then the Effect Points can be turned into points of damage, these in addition to the damage rolled for the weapon or the spell. Generate enough Effect Points and they can be used to generate ‘Minor’ Effects (5 Effect Points), ‘Major’ Effects (10 Effect Points), and ‘Extreme’ Effects (15 Effect Points), that are placed on the target. A ‘Minor’ Effect would be to gain a +2 bonus or impose a -2 penalty, move a Range Band, mount or dismount a horse, sheath or draw a weapon, change stance, use up a minor resource such as an arrow or a dropped item, and so on. A ‘Minor’ Effect can be used to negate a ‘Minor’ Consequence that has been imposed on a character. Both ‘Major’ Effects and ‘Extreme’ Effects work in a similar fashion. 
For example, Laurenel is travelling at dusk in the Mountains of the Neck when he is ambushed by an Orc Warrior. Unlike his peers, this Orc likes to hunt his prey using a bow and arrow rather than just his cruel sword. Fortunately for the Elf, the Orc misses, but Laurenel needs to spot where the ambusher is. Spotting the ambusher is a Wisdom check, so that adds +1 to the roll, and his player suggests that both of his Excellent Perception and Infravision Traits will help him. The GM agrees, which adds a further +1 for each Trait. Laurenel’s player rolls 15 and adds the +3 to give a result of 18.
The Orc Warrior has a Dexterity Resistance of 12, so the result of 18 is not only a success, it also gives Laurenel 6 Effect Points to spend.  He spends it on a Minor Effect he calls ‘Obvious’, which he describes as the Orc having camouflaged himself poorly. It grants the Elf a +2 bonus to hit.
Having spotted the Orc Warrior, Laurenel lets fly with a Magic Missile spell.  He will add +6 to this roll for his Intelligence modifier, +1 for his Magic Trait, and of course, +2 for the ‘Obvious’ Minor Effect. In total, he as a +9 modifier to the roll. The Orc Warrior’s Armour Class is 20. Laurenel rolls 14 and adds the 9 to get a total of 22. This generates 2 Effect Points—not enough to buy a Minor Effect, so Laurenel decides to inflict 2 more points damage and rolls 1d4+1 and adds another 2 points to the total to get 6.
If a roll is failed, a character can suffer Consequences. Essentially, these work just like Effects, but with a negative result rather than the positive ones of Effects. Should a character suffer any Consequences, then they can be negated by purchasing counter Effects. 
For example, in a later round, Laurenel decides to push forward to attack the Orc Warrior with his quarterstaff. So he rolls three six-sided dice, adds his Strength modifier (0), his Use Quarterstaff & Daggers Trait (+1), and the ‘Obvious’ Minor Effect (+2). The difficulty for the roll is the Orc Warrior’s Armour Class, which is 20. Unfortunately, Laurenel rolls a total of 15, which is under the target. The GM uses these points under the target to impose a Minor Consequence (-2) on Laurenel, which is ‘Twisted Ankle’ as the Elf gets caught up in the undergrowth.
With its Consequences and Effects, the Effect Engine can be a whole lot deadlier than the standard play of a d20 System fantasy RPG, especially as characters progress in Level and the rules for Scale come into play. At 5th Level, a character gains access to the Heroic Scale, at 10th Level he gains access to the Epic Scale, at 15th Level he gains access to the Legendary Scale, and at 20th Level he gains access to the Mythic Scale. At the Heroic Scale, a character can build himself a Reputation, build a community or gang around him, or put together a ship’s crew; at the Epic Scale a character can build strongholds or domains, and engage in politics, diplomatic, or courtly actions; at Legendary Scale, a character is capable of working at the level of kingdoms; and at Mythic Scale, he can influence the fates of nations, peoples, and even whole worlds! As a campaign grows in Scale, so does the level of Effects, from Heroic (+8) on upwards.

Another area in which the players have input during play is when it comes to determine treasure. A GM can define what loot a monster might have or what exactly is held in a hoard’s horde, but he can award the players Treasure Points. These can be spent to purchase types of coinage, gems and jewellery, and special items. More of the former have to be purchased using these Treasure Points before the latter.

To this point Monsters & Magic is decently supported with some excellent full examples of play that show how the Effect Engine works. These are necessary because the book in places lacks that clarity that it needs to impart the differences between traditional fantasy roleplaying and the narrative demands of Monsters & Magic. The support provided elsewhere in Monsters & Magic is disappointing—only First and Second Level spells are listed and only a handful of monsters are included. This has a number of consequences. First, any spell casting character must have access to the core rules or player’s rule book for another fantasy RPG if he wants spells of a greater level. Second and likewise, the GM will access to the core rules or a bestiary for another fantasy RPG if he wants more monsters. In either case, they will want access to these books, and as a third consequence, in the long term Monsters & Magic is not a wholly standalone RPG.

On the plus side, converting spells and monsters from other fantasy RPGs is not all that challenging. Guidance is included to help a player convert his character from that other fantasy RPG into Monsters & Magic, and the monsters included showcase how they should look after conversion. Just like characters, monsters in Monsters & Magic have their own Traits. This also points to another possibility. That of adapting and running other Old School fantasy RPG settings to run using Monsters & Magic. Want to use these rules to run a Dragonlance campaign or a Dark Sun campaign? Such a conversion could be done because Monsters & Magic would simplify the abilities and backgrounds found in the character types and monsters those settings into Traits.

Rounding out Monsters & Magic is a scenario. ‘Silvermoon’ describes a village wrapped and cowed in the mists known as ‘Moonbreath’ that waft their nightly way down from the craters of Moon Moor. It is a fairly short if detailed affair, and should provide two or three sessions of play.

Physically, Monsters & Magic is decently illustrated in an Old School style. The cartography, what little there is of it, is excellent though. The writing is generally clear, but in places it could be better and the examples of play often do a better job how the rules should work.

Monsters & Magic is not a fantasy RPG designed to introduce new players to the hobby. In places, it is too complex for that, and in others it does not explain the rules quite as well as it should. Rather it is a fantasy RPG in the classic mode of Dungeons & Dragons designed to appeal to more contemporary mores that want a player to have greater narrative input into the play of the game. The Effect Engine and its use of Traits brings in a mechanical and narrative flexibility not present in Old School fantasy RPGs, but builds it around the structure of the Old School fantasy RPGs to make Monsters & Magic accessible and familiar to gamers of all preferences.

Tuesday 15 July 2014

2014: White Box Fever VIII

Friday, July 4th 2014 was a special day for gamers everywhere. It saw the release of the Dungeons & Dragons Starter Set for the new version of Dungeons & Dragons—that is Dungeons & Dragons Fifth Edition. This is the introduction to the finished version of Dungeons & Dragons Next which has been through several rounds of development and public play-testing by Wizards of the Coast over the last two years. The deep box for this Dungeons & Dragons Starter Set includes a 32-page rulebook, a 64-page adventure book, five pre-generated characters, and a set of polyhedral dice. The Dungeons & Dragons Starter Set is designed to take a group of four or five adventurers from First Level up to Fifth Level using the given pre-generated characters. 

At the same time, Wizards of the Coast also released Basic Dungeons & Dragons, a PDF version of the rules that includes the rules for character creation as well more detailed rules on how the game is played and magic is handled. The fact that Basic Dungeons & Dragons has only been released as a PDF and is labelled as being ‘Version 0.1’ means that it can be updated freely and easily without the need for a new print run. Its release also means that more experienced gamers could take the rules from Basic Dungeons & Dragons and use them to run the material presented the Dungeons & Dragons Starter Set. This includes the creation of their own adventurers as it includes rules for the Dwarf, Elf, Halfling, and Human races as well as the Cleric, Fighter, Rogue, and Wizard Classes. The problem is that in order to get the fullest experience out of the Dungeons & Dragons Starter Set, a group will need to download the Basic Dungeons & Dragons PDF, and that undermines the point of the Dungeons & Dragons Starter Set. Which is to provide a complete playing experience and that includes the creation of characters.

The rules present in the 32-page rulebook will be familiar to anyone who has played Dungeons & Dragons. An adventurer (and each monster, when you get to the adventure book) has six Abilities—Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, Intelligence, Wisdom, and Charisma—each of which can provide an Ability Modifier used throughout the game. The core mechanic is still the roll of a twenty-sided die against a Difficulty Class or an Armour Class. Apart from Constitution, all of the Abilities have associated skills. For example, the Athletics skill is associated with Strength, whilst the Animal Handling, Insight, Medicine, Perception, and Survival skills are associated with Wisdom.

The most notable change to the core rules is that a character can have an Advantage or Disadvantage in situation. When he has an Advantage, the character’s player rolls not one twenty-sided die, but two, and then uses the best result. Conversely, if he is at a Disadvantage, he rolls two twenty-sided dice and uses the worst result. For example, a character is defending against an Orc that is climbing up a ladder to attack him. The character would be at an Advantage when attacking the Orc. When the Orc comes to attack the character, then he would be at a Disadvantage.

The other change is that each character has a Proficiency bonus, initially equal to +2. Whenever a character uses either a skill or a set of tools with which he has a Proficiency—for example, one of the two pre-generated Human Fighters in the Dungeons & Dragons Starter Set has the Proficiencies of all armour, shields, simple weapons, martial weapons, carpenter’s tools, and vehicles (land). The Proficiency bonus applies to weapons as well as skills and tools—though this is not obvious from the paragraph devoted to the Proficiency bonus in the rulebook, but is explained in the combat rules—and some monsters can have a Proficiency bonus.

Initiative in combat is handled by a Dexterity check and when a character acts, he can move and undertake one action. This can be a combat action or something else, but a character can also gain bonus actions or reaction actions under certain circumstances. For example, one of the two pre-generated Human Fighters in the Dungeons & Dragons Starter Set has a Trait called ‘Second Wind’ which gives him the opportunity to recover some Hit Points as a Bonus action. The most obvious type of Reaction is an opportunity attack.There must be others, but they are not given in either the Dungeons & Dragons Starter Set or Basic Dungeons & Dragons.

Characters begin play with the maximum number of Hit Points possible, equal to the Hit Dice for their Class, plus Constitution modifier. In addition, for each Level a character also has a Hit Die, equal to that of his Class. Whenever he has taken damage and takes a Short Rest—equal to an hour or so—he can expend these ‘temporary’ Hit Dice to heal Hit Points. Once expended, most of these Hit Dice and a character’s full Hit Points can be recovered with a Long Rest of eight hours or more.

As a party goes on adventures, it will gain Experience Points which will go towards each character’s next Level. Only 300 Experience Points are necessary for a character to go from First Level to Second Level, then 900 Experience Points for Third Level, and so on. Killing a Goblin is only worth 50 Experience Points, a Hobgoblin or Orc is worth 100 Experience Points, and a Bugbear is worth 200 Experience Points—and this is typically divided amongst the party. In comparison with previous iterations of the game, this version of Dungeons & Dragons does lend itself to faster progression at the lower Levels.

In terms of arms and armour, everything that you would expect to be present is in the equipment lists (the Morningstar is present, though no flail). The weapons list includes some interesting weapon properties. ‘Light’ weapons such as club or scimitar are used with the rules for fighting with a weapon in each hand; ‘finesse’ weapons like the dagger or rapier can be used with either the user’s Dexterity or Strength modifier for attack and damage rolls; and ‘versatile’ weapons, such as the quarterstaff or warhammer, can be used one- or two-handed and get a correspondingly bigger die for damage when used two-handed. The rule for the latter is really simple—light weapons only and only one of the weapons benefits from the Attack and Damage Modifier.

Armour is classed as being either light, medium, or heavy. Only light armour, leather or studded leather, grants the wearer full use of his Dexterity modifier to his Armour Class. Medium armour grants a maximum Dexterity modifier of +2 and heavy armour negates the use of the Dexterity modifier altogether. What this does is flatten Armour Class inflation. Even the most agile of characters, with Dexterity of 18 (+4 modifier) and wearing studded leather (AC 12) is never going to have an Armour Class of more than 16 without magical aid. Compare that to a fighter in medium armour like scale mail (AC 14), maximum Dexterity modifier of +2 and carrying a shield (AC +2) for a total AC 18 or in a heavy chainmail suit (AC 16) and carrying a shield (AC +2) for a total AC 18 for similar total AC 18, and it is obvious that the advantage goes to the wears of medium and heavy armour, but not by much. Further, the medium and heavy armours are obviously more expensive. 

The last part of the rulebook is devoted to spells. The first thing to note is that both Clerics and Wizards get cantrips—spells that can be cast as often as a character likes. Otherwise, spellcasters still have a number of spells and spell slots per day that they can cast. Some spells can be cast Rituals—this takes longer and does not expend a spell slot, but again, none are listed in the Dungeons & Dragons Starter Set. More interesting is the fact that lower level spells can be cast in higher level slots for greater effect. So for example when a cleric casts the Bless spell in a second level or higher slot, it affects more people.

What this means is that each and every spell will always have a standard effect unless the spellcaster decides to improve it. In other words, a spell does not get better the higher the Level of the caster. Thus the Magic Missile spell will always launch three magical darts that inflict damage unless the caster casts in a higher level slot.

The five pre-generated adventurers in the Dungeons & Dragons Starter Set consist of two Human Fighters, a High Elf Wizard, a Lightfoot Halfling Rogue, and a Hill Dwarf Cleric. Notable additions on each of the five pre-generated characters include not just a Background, but also Personality Traits, Ideals, Bonds, and Flaws. For example, one of the Fighters is a Human with the Background of Folk Hero; the Personality Trait of ‘When I set my mind to something, I follow through. Also, I use long words in an attempt to sound smarter.’; the Ideal of ‘Sincerity. It’s no good pretending to be something I’m not.’; the Bond of ‘One day, Thundertree will be a prosperous town again. A statue of me will stand in the town square.’; and the Flaw, ‘I’m convinced of the significance of my destiny, and blind to my shortcomings and the risk of failure.” All of these are a character’s personality characteristics and when a player roleplays his character according to one of them, the DM can reward him with Inspiration.

There are two things that a player can do with his Inspiration. First, he can expend it to gain an Advantage when his character has to make an attack roll, saving throw, or ability check. Second, he can reward another player for good roleplaying, clever thinking, or doing something fantastic in the game by giving him the Inspiration. Whichever character it ends up with, this Inspiration is all that a character can have until he uses it—that is, he cannot Inspiration stacking up. He must use it before gaining more. Whether this will encourage him to hold on to it or expend it and play well enough to gain some more will depend on the player. What you have here is a mechanic and a rule—in Dungeons & Dragons—that specifically encourages roleplaying for the first time in forty years! This is highly laudable, especially given the singular failure to support roleplaying in the previous edition of Dungeons & Dragons

Annoyingly, the rule for Inspiration is not in the rulebook, but in the adventure book presented for the GM—not the players. This highlights an issue in the Dungeons & Dragons Starter Set, that of not being as good an introduction to roleplaying as it should be. This is only compounded by the other omission in the Dungeons & Dragons Starter Set—the lack of a decent example of play. The rulebook includes a very cursory example of an exchange, but this lack in intentional. As explained here, the idea is that the Dungeons & Dragons Starter Set should provide long-term value and not contain material that would become irrelevant once the full version of the game was released. So notable examples of this intent is the lack of a tutorial explaining what roleplaying is and the lack of a scripted adventure that would teach the rules. The suggestion is that an online video would be a better means of providing that tutorial.

This fundamentally undermines the point of a Dungeons & Dragons Starter Set. It should be complete, it should introduce the game to prospective players, and it should help get them playing. Pointing a prospective player to an online video rather have him play through a tutorial means that he is going away from the Starter Set he just bought not to learn how to play, but to be told how to play. A tutorial with a programmed means of play would get the player immediately involved in the game and rolling dice. Further, it would show him how to play and not just tell him.

Fortunately, the DM is not treated in quite so underwhelming a fashion. Unfortunately, the initial impression is that he is going to be, as it appears that the adventure book is only going to give the basics of how to be a good referee and no more. Once you get into the adventure, advice is present on how to handle different scenes, NPCs, and so on. The adventure itself is ‘Lost Mine of Phandelver’, a lengthy four-part affair set firmly in the Forgotten Realms, south-east of the city of Neverwinter that is designed to take the characters from First Level up to Fifth Level. It begins in somewhat of a clichéd fashion—the characters are escorting a caravan to a town called Phandalin when they are ambushed by goblins. All right, it does get them involved and if the party deals with the goblins they will uncover the first of many clues that will lead to the adventure’s denouement. Of course, the next cliché is that Phandalin is a village under threat, but the adventure obscures the external threat with an internal threat. This internal threat, a gang of ruffians, in the village feels rather forced, even unsubtle, but that is the point, as it focuses everyone’s attention on them rather than on the external threat, whomever it is they are working for. 

Not only do the adventurers need to deal with this internal threat, but they also have the opportunity to adventure elsewhere. Many of the inhabitants have tasks and jobs that they will want done and in doing them, not only will the characters be rewarded, but they will learn more about the external threat to the village. There is no set order in which to run these ‘side quests’, giving this second part of the adventure something of a sandbox format. Some of these small encounters are excellent, not all of them involving combat. Indeed, if the party leaps into the fray every time, they are not likely to get anywhere…

None of the adventure’s major encounters is particular large—most consist of little more than fifteen encounters, though the end dungeon consists of twenty encounters. For the most part, the encounters are well designed and nicely detailed, but the end encounters with the main villains often feel underwritten and lacking somewhat in flavour and detail. There are some great encounters here, but the motivations of these characters are not always obvious. Nevertheless, this is a good adventure that presents a solid mix of combat and roleplaying encounters.

Rounding out the adventure book are two appendices. Appendix B is devoted to the monsters that appear in the adventure, a good mix of the Dungeons & Dragons standards—Orcs, Goblins, Owlbears, and so on—and the slightly more outré—Gricks, Nothics, Twig Blights, and the like. In terms of information and stats, the monsters here lack the density of information that previous versions of Dungeons & Dragons possessed, but they still have the same six Abilities that player characters have in addition to whatever powers and special moves and capabilities they may have. More interesting is Appendix A, which is devoted to magic items. It discusses how to use them and identify them. The latter is easier than before, requiring concentration and a Short Rest, or a taste in the case of potions, so no longer is there the pot luck aspect of testing devices and potions. There is no advice on cursed items, as the magic items listed are all from the ‘Lost Mine of Phandelver’ and no such items appear in it. It takes a character a Short Rest to attune himself to a device and he cannot be attuned to more than three items at any one time.

Of the magical items present in the adventure—and there are a relative few, the rest being potions and scrolls—the most interesting are the staves and wands. Just as in previous editions of Dungeons & Dragons, they have charges that expended for various spell-like effects. They only have a few charges, but they recharge daily! There is a chance that they might stop working if all of the charges are expended, but this empowers the users of these magical items. No longer are they devices to be husbanded carefully because they take so much effort to recharge such that it is easier to purchase or find a new one. Overall, the magic items in ‘Lost Mine of Phandelver’ tend to favour the spell-using characters than the Fighter or the Rogue.

Physically, the Dungeons & Dragons Starter Set is nicely put together. The books are solidly written, barring an issue or two that needed to be checked in the Basic Dungeons & Dragons PDF and the adventure is entertaining. The illustrations are also good and the cartography very nice. Sadly both the rulebook and adventure book are misnamed—neither is a book. They are magazines or even booklets, but not books. For that, both need to have covers. They lack them though and the result is that as glossy as both are, neither stands up to much in the way of punishment.

Two physical omissions from the Dungeons & Dragons Starter Set are a map and a set of counters for the adventure’s monsters. This is either annoying or a good idea—if not both. It is annoying because the map and counters would have helped spur the imagination of the prospective player during the game, but a good idea because it enforces the concept that Dungeons & Dragons is a game of the imagination, one in which maps and figures are not necessary. Further, it divorces Dungeons & Dragons Fifth Edition from the skirmish battle format of the previous edition.

So far, so good. If you have read this far and have played Dungeons & Dragons in the last forty years, then the Dungeons & Dragons Starter Set is easy to pick up, start reading, and then start playing. It may be necessary to refer to the Basic Dungeons & Dragons PDF, but for anyone who has roleplayed, whether they have roleplayed or not, this is a good introduction to Dungeons & Dragons Fifth Edition.

If you have not roleplayed before, then the Dungeons & Dragons Starter Set is not quite what you are looking for. The sad fact is, as an introduction to the hobby, the Dungeons & Dragons Starter Set is not everything that the introduction to the world’s premier roleplaying game should be. The problem is very, very simple. It fails to address the question, “What is roleplaying?” in as an adequate a fashion as it should. The introduction to roleplaying is not detailed enough—and neither is the introduction to being a Dungeon Master, although it is better than that of the introduction to roleplaying. The box fails to include a stepping stone between opening the box and delving into Dungeons & Dragons which a simple programmed adventure and a good example would have provided. The sad fact is, the red box Dungeons & Dragons Essentials Starter Set for Dungeons & Dragons Fourth Edition did that and it did a good job too—just not to a good version of Dungeons & Dragons. Similarly, the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game: Beginner Box does a good job too, but that is to a more involved version of Dungeons & Dragons than Dungeons & Dragons Fifth Edition. The point is this. Just because an item might not be used again, it does not mean that it is a waste of time including it in the box, especially if that item is not just an introduction to the very hobby, but a show and tell for that hobby that your product is intended to be the point entry to the premier game in that hobby.

So the question is, what do I think of Dungeons & Dragons Fifth Edition as presented in the Dungeons & Dragons Starter Set? Its simplicity is impressive, the rules feel cleaner and streamlined in comparison to previous editions, and the addition of Personality Traits, Ideals, Bonds, and Flaws pull the game away from its wargaming roots, especially when combined with the rules for Inspiration. This is not to say that previous editions of Dungeons & Dragons have not been roleplaying games—though if you were being generous, then the jury has yet to come back in Dungeons & Dragons Fourth Edition—but these additions mark Dungeons & Dragons Fifth Edition as so being. In some ways, Dungeons & Dragons Fifth Edition is a streamlining of Dungeons & Dragons Third Edition, one that moves it back towards the Basic Dungeons & Dragons Cyclopedia in terms of ease of play. At the same time—and this is without seeing the full rules yet—those in the Dungeons & Dragons Starter Set suggest that Dungeons & Dragons Fifth Edition will maintain a compatibility with forty years* of Dungeons & Dragons titles, so that it will be possible to use them to play U1 The Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh or Dark Tower or indeed, any of the titles published under the Old School Renaissance movement. 

*Except of course, all Wizards of the Coast Dungeons & Dragons titles published between 2008 and 2012. Well, all right. You could adapt them, but not without considerably more effort involved than with any other title published between 1974 and 2008 or after 2012…

Overall, the Dungeons & Dragons Starter Set is a good introduction to Dungeons & Dragons Fifth Edition, but only if you roleplayed before or are experienced with previous editions. If you have never roleplayed before, then the Dungeons & Dragons Starter Set might not be strong enough an introduction, at least not without the help of a more experienced player or Dungeon Master. It just needed that extra stepping stone and the Dungeons & Dragons Starter Set for the world’s premier roleplaying game would have been the introduction that both Dungeons & Dragons and the hobby needed.

Tuesday 8 July 2014

Comedy & Games

Comedy takes effort and it takes practice. At this time of year, numerous practitioners of the art up and down the country are preparing for one event—the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. Which according to Wikipedia is the world's largest arts festival, and for comedians it is a chance to bring an act to a larger audience that if successful will see them take it around the country for the next year. Plus of course, a good review from The Scotsman can really help a comedian’s career.

In order to prepare for the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, comedians put on preview shows where they work out and practice their act beforehand.  Thus, these are not fully polished acts, so they may not quite work or they may not be quite funny enough. So that was why I attended the Jewellery Quarter Comedy Edinburgh Previews on Sunday July 8th with some trepidation and then some more trepidation for another reason. That second reason was because one of the acts would be about board games. The danger being that the comedian would be making fun of my hobby at the expense of my fellow gamers.

That the title of the show was ‘Always Be Rolling: How board games can change your life and save the world’ bode well for the evening. As did the fact that the comedian, James Cook, was a fan and player of board games, and was enough of both to have attended UK Games Expo, this country’s biggest games convention, held back at the end of May.  So at least he was going to know what he was talking about and from the title of the show, he was going to be positive about playing games.

As it turned out, Cook was positive about games, though not always quite so about gamers, though none of his comments were really unfair. At the core of the act was the hypothesis that as children our enjoyment of games was ruined by having to play bad games—BuckarooGuess Who?Hungry (Hungry) Hippos, Monopoly, and so on. The solution of course, and despite all of our foibles—our love of accuracy, zombies, being inside on a hot day, putting medieval merchants on the front of game boxes—was to play the games that gamers like. This would teach us that games could be fun to play even if you did not win. So games like Carcassonne and Settlers of Catan.

Now to be fair, to many of those in the room, he was preaching to the converted, and whilst what he was saying was not wrong, it was obvious. Then again, unless he is going to perform the act at next year’s UK Games Expo, James Cook is unlikely to be performing to more than a dice roll’s worth of gamers at any one time. In addition to the thesis about the benefits of playing board games, there were interactive games and audience participation. I now know that it really helps to have facial stubble if you are going to be playing a live action version of Hungry Hippos with marshmallows instead of little plastic spheres.

Ultimately, the main criticism that can be levelled at ‘Always Be Rolling: How board games can change your life and save the world’ is that James tells you how bad games can be and he tells you why, but he does not effectively tell you how good they can be. If Carcassonne and Settlers of Catan are as good as James tells you that they are, then we never learn why. The issue there of course, is that James does not have five minutes or a thousand words to explain why they are good. He has to get on and be funny at the same time, and whilst he is, by not telling us how good the games are, he never quite sells the idea that they can change your life or save the world.

Wednesday 2 July 2014

1974: Kingmaker

1974 is an important year for the gaming hobby. It is the year that Dungeons & Dragons was introduced, the original RPG from which all other RPGs would ultimately be derived and the original RPG from which so many computer games would draw for their inspiration. It is fitting that the current owner of the game, Wizards of the Coast, will releasing the new version, Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition, in the year of the game’s fortieth anniversary. To celebrate this, Reviews from R’lyeh will be running a series of reviews from the hobby’s anniversary years, thus there will be reviews from 1974, from 1984, from 1994, and from 2004—the thirtieth, twentieth, and tenth anniversaries of the titles to be reviewed. These will be retrospectives, in each case an opportunity to re-appraise interesting titles and true classics decades on from the year of their original release.

It would seem fitting that in 2014, the fortieth anniversary of Dungeons & Dragons—the game that would inaugurate roleplaying as a social pastime, that would inaugurate roleplaying and gaming as an industry, and that would influence the multi-million dollar computer games industry—that the first review in this series be of the original Dungeons & Dragons boxed set. Sadly I do not have a copy of this in my collection, though the year is only half done and there is time for me to obtain such an item yet. Thus the inaugural entry in the anniversary series will be of a grand, classic board game—Kingmaker!

Kingmaker is a simulation of the Wars of the Roses, the period of sporadic Civil War in England between 1450 and 1490 that saw the two rival branches of the Royal House of Plantagenet—the houses of Lancaster and York—and their supporters vie for dominance, and ultimately, the English crown. Each player will take control of one the factions of Noble families aiming to use their influence and military forces to manoeuvre a claimant to the throne and into power whilst preventing rival factions from doing the same. Thus the players are not the claimants and heirs to the throne of England, but potential powers behind the throne, each the very ‘kingmaker’ of the game’s title, itself taken from the nickname for Richard Neville, 16th Earl of Warwick, the most powerful noble of his age.

The game is designed for two to seven players—though as many as twelve could play—and takes anywhere from two to six hours to play. The ultimate aim is for one faction to control and have crowned a claimant to the throne after all of the others have died or been killed.

The Kingmaker board; a fabulous jumble
of irregular geography.
Kingmaker is played out over a map of the Wales and England of the 15th Century—with the port of Calais to the southeast on the corner of northern France across the English Channel—that is marked with the two countries’ various castles, royal castles, towns, fortified towns, ports, and major geographical features. Broken down into irregularly spaced and sized squares, the map is a messy jumble that is often difficult to navigate or find anything on.

The heirs over which the player factions will feud over are comprised of seven Royal Pieces. The Lancastrians consist of Henry of Lancaster—actually Henry IV of England at the start of the game, plus his wife, Margaret of Anjou, and his son, Edward of Lancaster, the Prince of Wales. Another Lancastrian heir is the noble, Beaufort, but his claim can only be pressed once the other Lancastrian heirs have died. The Yorkists consist of Richard, Duke of York, and his three sons, Edward, Earl of March, George, Duke of Clarence, and Richard, Duke of Gloucester.

Crown Pack cards, from left to right (upper row): a Noble, a Noble with
a Title, a Title, an Office; (lower row) a Mercenary Unit, a ship, an
ecclesiastical office, and a town
Each of the nobles that form a player’s faction is represented by a card and a counter, both marked with the noble’s coat of arms. A noble’s card also indicates which castles he holds and the number of men-at-arms he commands. Most nobles are knights and barons, but some also have a title. For example, Percy is the Earl of Northumberland, owns the castles of Alnwick and Cockermouth, and commands one hundred men-at-arms, whereas Audley owns Tickhill castle and commands just ten men-at-arms.

Titles are important—and others may be awarded throughout the game, like the Earl of Worcester or Duke of Exeter—because they also make a noble eligible to be appointed to an office, for example, Marshal of England, Warden of the Cinque Ports, or Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster. Each of these offices grants the holder further men-at-arms and in most cases, extra benefits. For example, the holder of the Warden of the Northern Marches gains fifty men-at-arms, plus a further one hundred troops when he is north of the River Tees and the towns of Bamburgh and Berwick, while the Admiral of England also gains fifty men-at-arms, two ships, and the towns of Southampton and Lynn. With most offices come certain responsibilities. For example, the Warden of the Northern Marches might find himself sent to Berwick if the Scots launch a raid and the Marshal of England to Bodmin to put down a peasants’ revolt. A noble can also hold ecclesiastical office, for example, Archbishop of Canterbury or Bishop of Norwich. They each grant control of a town with a cathedral, but more importantly, they enable a faction to hold a coronation and crown an heir—an Archbishop can do this as can a pair of Bishops.

At the start of the game, the seven Royal Pieces are placed in their starting locations and the game’s two decks—the Crown Pack and the Event Pack are shuffled. From the Crown Pack each player is dealt a certain number of cards, the number dependent on the number of players. From these cards, a player sorts his nobles and assigns them titles, offices, and ecclesiastic positions, plus mercenary units (for example, Company of Flemish Crossbowmen or Company of Saxons), towns (Shrewsbury or Ipswich), and ships (Le Rose, Ship of Plymouth or Le Michael, Ship of Bristol). Any titles and offices that cannot be assigned go into second deck known as Chancery. They can only be reassigned when the faction controlling the sole crown king can summon Parliament during play.

Kingmaker set up for four players.
Once everyone has formed their faction and placed their nobles’ counters on the board, play begins. On his turn a player draws from the Event Pack, moves his pieces and engages in any battles, and then draws from Crown Pack. The card drawn from the Event Pack might grant a noble a Free Move or the faction a Writ of Summons to Parliament, which the player can keep until used. Other Event Cards are potentially more interesting. Each of these is divided into an upper and a lower half. The upper half presents an event, the lower half the victory odds used in battle. Events can include a French Raid, an Embassy, or a Plague. The first of these sends the Warden of the Cinque Ports to Pevensy with one ship—though similar events will send other Office holders and nobles to various places. The second sends the King to a particular location to receive the ambassador, whilst the third causes the death of anyone in the named location, for example, Lincoln or Newark.

Cards from the Event Pack.
Movement is simple—all units can move five spaces per turn. Sea movement is greater because the squares are larger and it possible to transport troops by sea. Battles—and there can only be land battles—are handled not by rolling dice, there being no dice in the game, but by odds. When two factions engage in battle, each side totals the men-at-arms it has at its command—derived from titles, offices, mercenaries, and so on, and the ratio between the two sides determined. An Event Card is drawn and the ratio on the card compared with the ratio of forces involved in the battle. If the ratio of the forces is greater than that on the card, the lesser side has been defeated, its nobles killed and stripped of their titles and offices. Both titles and offices go into the Chancery deck, while the nobles go onto the bottom of the Crown Pack, where their heirs will be drawn later in the game to declare for one faction or another.

Although battles come down to which side is larger, they are all the more interesting for two factors. The first is that bad weather can delay an attack, enabling one side to escape from the other. The other is that each battle result is accompanied by one or more names of nobles. If they are part of either side in the battle, then whatever the outcome, they are also killed.

For example, an Event Card has been drawn that brings down the Plague! upon London, resulting in the death of Henry of Lancaster. In response, Neville, the Earl of Warwick (50) and Archbishop of York in command of a Company of Burgundian Crossbowmen (30) is racing north to capture the leading Yorkist heir, Richard, Duke of York. His aim is to crown Richard and proclaim him king. He has a total force of 80 troops.

To prevent Neville from gaining an important lead, two other nobles move to counter him. Clifford (10), the Earl of Westmoreland (40), in command of a Company of Scots Archers (20), Stafford, the Duke of Buckingham (30) and Warden of the Cinque Ports (50) together have a total force of 150 troops.

Neville versus Stafford and Clifford with the Battle Card
that determines the results between them.
This pits 150 versus 80, giving a 3/2 odds of Neville being defeated. An Event Card is drawn which gives the desired result—Clifford and Stafford are victorious and Neville is captured. Unfortunately, the card also states that Stafford and Greystoke are killed. Greystoke was not involved, but Stafford was and so is killed. His card is removed from play and added to the bottom of the Crown Pack, whilst his office, Warden of the Cinque Ports goes into Chancery. Meanwhile, Clifford, having captured Neville, can ransom him or kill him. He does the latter, sending Neville to the bottom of the Crown Pack. Clifford also takes command of Neville’s Company of Burgundian Crossbowmen (30) and takes over as Archbishop of York. His plan now matches that of the late Neville—get to York and capture and crown the leading Yorkist heir, Richard, Duke of York.

Under certain circumstances, Parliament can be called. Primarily this can be done with a Writ of Summons to Parliament by whichever faction is control of the sole crowned king. If one of the nobles in a faction is the Chancellor of England, then he may also summon Parliament under certain circumstances. Doing so enables the summoning faction to reassign many of the titles and offices that have been lost to Chancery through previous events. It is a means for the summoning faction to bolster its standing.

The last action a player does on his turn is draw from the Crown Pack. This may give him a new noble, ship, town, or company of mercenaries to add to his faction. It may also give him a new title or office—one that has not entered play yet and thus is not in Chancery. The player may add this to his faction immediately if he can, but he can also choose to keep it secret. In this way, the true strength of a player’s faction can be kept hidden until revealed at the right moment—perhaps a noble declaring for one faction or another, a faction making a propitious hiring of a company of mercenaries, and so on.

This then is the core of the game. Once past the set-up, Kingmaker proceeds with most factions trying to build their power and bringing their nobles together. This will be hampered by events drawn from the Event Pack. Too often a faction will find its forces riven by the effects of events. This occurs to nobles, to office holders, and to the King. So the noble Douglas will be forced to return to Douglas in the Isle of Man due to piracy; a peasant revolt will oblige the Duke of Exeter to return to Exeter, the Chancellor of Duchy of Cornwall to Plymouth, and the Marshal of England to Bodmin; and the King must go to Preston to receive an Embassy from the King of Scots, and whichever faction holds the King has to decide whether or not to accompany him. This has a number of effects. First, it splits the forces and nobles of factions apart and weakens them. Second, it makes these nobles vulnerable to attack by factions which would otherwise be too weak to attack the combined faction that the nobles were split from. Third, it slows the game down as factions try again and again to bring their nobles together. Fourth, it adds a sense of verisimilitude to the game.

The aim of this power build-up is two-fold. First, it gives a faction sufficient combat strength with which to defend itself. Second, it gives a faction sufficient combat strength to capture claimants. Initially, there are one or two ways in which a claimant can be captured. One of these is for a noble to hold an office which grants him the town where the claimant is. For example, Constable of the Tower of London grants a noble the deeds to London, so is a powerful office at the start of the game because that is where the King, Henry of Lancaster starts the game. Similarly, the office of Marshal of England grants the holder the town of Harlech where Edward of March, a Yorkist claimant is found. In other cases, simply receiving the town, for example, that of Coventry where Edward of Lancaster begins the game, will grant a faction access to a claimant. A faction can only hold claimants from one house, not both, and a faction is free to do with the claimants with what it wants—it can exchange them, give them to other factions, or simply have them murdered.

This highlights the role of the Royal Pieces in the game. They are a resource, a possible bargaining chip, and a means to an end. It is necessary to have one in order to win the game, but if a claimant stands in a faction’s way, then he is disposable, and similarly, if a faction stands to gain by giving a claimant to a rival faction, he is also disposable. In all three roles, the use of the Royal Pieces becomes part of another aspect of Kingmaker—diplomacy. The players are free to engage in alliances and deals throughout the game. Doing so is one means for weaker factions to harass and even destroy stronger factions by working together, and of course, breaking a deal and betraying your allies is perfectly in-keeping with both the game and the Wars of the Roses.

Physically, Kingmaker is very nicely presented for a game published in 1974. The map is large and colourful and the pieces are equally colourful. In most cases, they are easy to identify, but some are identical bar their different colours. The game’s cards feel a bit soft and flabby, but they are large and easy to read. What was surprising on returning to the game was that the rulebook, though done in black and white without any illustrations, was well written. Despite it being over thirty pages long, it is easy to read, the rules come with plenty of examples, and it ends with a lengthy discussion of how the game should be played.

One issue with the game is when it runs into a stalemate. Typically, the factions have built themselves up as powerful as possible and retreat to their power bases, regions where they have extra troops because of an office. For example, the holder of the Chamberlain of the County Palatine of Chester has two hundred extra troops whilst he is in Wales. When this happens, it will take an Event Card to drive them from their refuge and leave them vulnerable to attack by a rival faction. In the meantime, not a lot may happen… Which given the potential playing time of the game, it can make the game a little dull. Another issue is that combat is simplified by modern standards, with little chance of a smaller force surviving an attack. The best it can hope for is bad weather and the chance to escape—there is no chance of it snatching victory from the jaws of defeat.

Originally published in 1974, Kingmaker would receive the Charles S. Roberts Award for Best Professional Game of 1975—these awards being given annually for excellence in the historical wargaming—and be republished in 1975 as a second edition by Avalon Hill. A later Expansion would add new Event Cards, but the second edition added a more complex means for handling Parliament, bringing voting into the process—a discussion of which can be seen here—as well as adding Ireland and parts of Europe to the game. It was certainly popular enough to be the subject of numerous articles in The General, Avalon Hill’s house magazine and it was turned into a computer game by Avalon Hill in 1994. Much like the earlier Diplomacy—a game that itself is sixty years old in 2014—Kingmaker has the capacity for player negotiation away from the board and thus could be played over time by post as a PBM or ‘Play-By-Mail’ game rather than face-to-face with everyone sat round the table. It has though, been out of print for several years, although the Wars of the Roses have been revisited more recently in game like Columbia Games’ Richard III: Wars of the Roses and Z-Man Games’ Wars of the Roses: Lancaster vs. York. Further, its influence can be seen in Games Workshop’s Warrior Knights and more obviously in Fantasy Flight Games’ A Game of Thrones—but then that is a given since the George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire novels are themselves inspired by the Wars of the Roses.

Revisiting Kingmaker satisfies a sense of nostalgia for the game and the chance to revisit it as an adult rather than the teenager I was when I was first playing it. When I was originally played, it was out of an enjoyment of the game’s sense of history. That history—even though that history is ahistorical rather than absolutely faithful—is still much present in coming back to the game. As is its pageantry and its theme, all of which is very well handled in the game. As a game design though, Kingmaker does show its age, it is perhaps too slow in places and too basic in others, but the pageantry, the theme, and the history more than make up for the deficiencies in the design.

Kingmaker is rightfully regarded as a classic boardgame and there can be no doubt about that. The question is, forty years on from its original release, is it time for a redesign and a release?