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

Tuesday 30 September 2014

1984: Squadron UK

2014 is the thirtieth anniversary of one of the few home-grown RPGs to be published by Games Workshop. Originally self-published in 1982, Golden Heroes was a British take on the superhero genre and the superhero roleplaying game. Although very much of its time, the 1984 edition from Games Workshop brought innovations and concepts to the genre that emulated the comic books it drew from, particularly in its combat system and in its campaign ratings which were used to track a hero’s place in society and how he engaged with it. The RPG would receive two good scenarios—Legacy of Eagles and Queen Victoria & The Holy Grail. It was also supported with a number of scenarios and articles in Games Workshop’s house magazine, White Dwarf. Unfortunately, the game would go out of print in 1986 and receive no further support, but it has always been remembered with a certain fondness.

Squadron UK: The British Superhero Role-Playing Game is by the same designer and is essentially the sequel to Golden Heroes, but is once again self-published. It also remains unashamedly old-fashioned in its design. The core of every character is rolled up rather than designed using points as in almost every other superhero RPG—this includes rolling for powers, backgrounds, and skills; its uses lots of different types of dice; and damage is divided between dice rolled to inflict killing damage and dice rolled to inflict stunning damage. Despite remaining unashamedly old-fashioned in its design, it also retains three interesting innovations. The first is that its method of character creation, one that combined random elements with the dedicated design input from the player. The second is that time is handled in panels, as in comic book panels. Plot panels handle scenes and montage panels handle training scenes, whilst combat panels handle the knockabout action seen in Four Colour comics. The third are its derived characteristics—Esteem, Sleuthing, and Fate—that reflect how a player and his hero plays Squadron UK, and thus his place in the campaign that the GM is running.

Perhaps the most radical of the three innovations in Squadron UK is that first. Character creation involves the rolling of random elements—a superhero’s powers, background, and so on—before his player explains where the hero got his powers from and how they work—essentially designing his origins and his abilities. This forces a player to give his character no little thought in coming up with a rationale for him. At the start of the process, a player receives eight points—at least in the Basic Game, it may vary according to a GM’s campaign; these are spent on rolls on the Superpower Table and to upgrade powers already rolled for, plus a Background, such as Magical, Rich—Inherited, or Psionic. The system eschews the usual lists of disadvantages, but allows a character a small bonus to a power if his player decides to have his powers come from a device or unnatural means rather than be innate or be as a result of the superhero being a mutant. Four core attributes—Strength, Endurance, Dexterity, and Agility—are rolled on four six-sided dice, the lowest being dropped. Note that there is no Intelligence attribute. A hero’s IQ or brilliance can be measured by backgrounds such as Brilliant Scientist, but is otherwise down to the player to portray.

The powers themselves are broad in nature rather than being specific, a player being expected to define the exact details of his super abilities. A player cannot have more than three levels in a power at game’s start, but there is room for a character to develop. Every power comes with a list of suggested gimmicks—a player can select one for each level his hero has in the power. For example, with the Marksmanship power, a hero receives a bonus to hit and to the damage roll if he spends time aiming. This increases each level. Gimmicks for Marksmanship include reducing a targeted opponent’s Dodge roll and bouncing missiles off other surfaces. It is also possible for a character to take a power at a ‘Half Level’, meaning that he does not get its full effect, but it does have plenty of potential for development. For example, the ‘Half Level’ for Marksmanship simply adds a small damage bonus. All of the powers in Squadron UK are described in an appendix at the back of the book; this makes them easy to find.

Every character receives five Common skills and several Trained skills. The number and levels of the latter depends on how good his attributes, as does another derived attribute, Psyche. The lower the levels of a hero’s attributes, the more points he has to assign to Trained skills and the better his Psyche, that is, his mental fortitude. Essentially, the level of a hero’s Trained skills and Psyche both serves as a balancing mechanism and an emulation of the genre. That is, physically weaker or less capable heroes tend to be better skilled and possess a greater mental fortitude.

Lastly, a player really needs to define his hero’s origins and how his powers work. This is an exercise in player creativity and rationalisation, and whilst it may run counter to the design of other superhero RPGs in which points are spent to design the character that the player wants and wants exactly, it has always been a core feature of Golden Heroes and this sequel. The aim is to include all of the hero’s powers in the origin story, otherwise the hero loses unused powers.


Tonbogiri is the living embodiment of an ancient Japanese spear and the dragonfly that landed upon its blade and was cut in two.  He is a fearless warrior and an honourable opponent, charged to live up to all of the ideals of the Japanese Samurai. Not only is he agile, but he can also fly while gripping the spear. In battle he can throw the spear or engage in melee with an opponent, as well as use it to parry attacks. Currently, his ordinary identity is that of Michael Kurita, a student studying English.

Strength 10 (+5) Endurance 15 (+7)
Dexterity 07 (+3) Agility 13 (+6)
Psyche 12 (+6)
Kill Points 56 Stun Points 61
Knockback 25
Move 5

Esteem: 10; Legality 2, Memorability 2, Heroism 3, Relationships 2, Success 1
Sleuthing: 5; Powers 1, Detection 1, Contacts 0, Exposure 2, Accessibility 1
Fate: 9; Scruples 2, Victories 1, Public Reaction 2, Extrovert 2, Home Life 2

Background: Immortal—Legendary
Acrobatics (+3 to Dodge rolls, +5 to Agility rolls)
Energy Blast (Thrown spear)
Flight/2 (Movement 10 per panel; no visible means, can strike a blow in passing)
Protection (All damage divided by 2; -3 to Agility rolls; automatic change)
Weapon/2 (Tonbogiri, +4 to Dexterity rolls, +2D10 damage; missile/melee weapon, indestructible)

Common Skills:
Etiquette 10, Language—Japanese 11, Literacy 11, Negotiation 10, Swimming 11
Trained Skills:
History—Japanese 12, Language—English 12, Mythology 12, Occult Knowledge 12, Weaponsmith 12, Weapon Skill—Spear 11

Light Costume (+1 to Dodge rolls), Tonbogiri (spear)


Mechanically, Squadron UK starts out simple, but in places does get a little complex. It starts with the basic mechanic, which involves rolling a twenty-sided die to get higher than 18 for a complete success, or 15 to 17 for a partial or minor success after adding suitable modifiers. When applied to damage, a hero or a villain rolls ten-sided dice if the roll was a success and six-sided dice if it was a partial success. Before damage—and with most attacks, this includes killing and stunning damage in the same attack—is rolled, a target has a chance to dodge or parry the attack, but if he fails, he takes the damage, but the damage can be subject to dividers that reduce it. Which means that the game play can be a little fiddly in parts.

One genre fitting aspect of combat in Squadron UK is its use of ‘Panels’ as a means of handling time in combat or action scenes. How many Panels the characters have each round depends on their Initiative rolls, but their use is quite flexible in that a character can use future Panels in order to make Dodge attempts or in some cases, attempts to Parry. Overall, combat is otherwise is very knockabout, back and forth, nicely handling the feel of combat seen in comic books.

To support what has so far been the core rules, Squadron UK includes a short adventure, ‘Consequences’ as well as some fairly broad advice. The adventure itself serves as a decent introduction to superhero roleplaying and playing Squadron UK, although it needs a careful read through as it is written in an almost stream of consciousness style, the story developing as it goes along. The adventure is nominally set in the English city of Birmingham and whilst it can be set in almost in any twenty-first century modern city, residents of Birmingham may spot a satirical dig at the city here and there. That said, very little of the city is present in the adventure.

The advanced rules in Squadron UK opens up a whole host options. These include dedicated superpower tables so that players can create particular archetypes such as the Blaster or the Brick and suggestions for achieving balance in character creation, plus suggestions as to how the game system can adjusted. The advice is more detailed; covering as it does campaign set-up and play, adventure design, and the game after the campaign has ended. This is supported by a mini-campaign entitled ‘Squadron: Birmingham’, which takes place in the same city as the earlier ‘Consequences’. It showcases an example of a campaign with its settings adjusted, in particular characters begin play with six powers rather than the usual eight; it is a campaign of fixed length; and is intended to take novice heroes and push them towards becoming members of the local superhero team—Squadron: Birmingham. The campaign consists of a mixture of adventures and sections where the GM is expected to develop adventures of his own. There is a certain pleasure in this campaign in that makes fuller use of the city of Birmingham—on a personal note, two of the notable scenes in the campaign can be seen from my bedroom window!—and while a series of photographs are used to illustrate the campaign, the city is relatively easy to research and find both further illustrations and inspiration. One downside for the GM is that like ‘Consequences’, ‘Squadron: Birmingham’ does suffer from being written in a stream of consciousness fashion, so it does need a careful read through. Here is a sample character for a Squadron: Birmingham campaign.


‘Girl Power’
Henrietta ‘Harry’ Fawcett is a driven woman, attempting to live up to her father’s high standards. He expected little of his daughter, but much of his sons, and so ‘Harry’ Fawcett has striven to outdo her brothers at every turn, becoming not only a better athlete and sportsperson than them, but also better academically. She enjoys sports of all kinds, has obtained her pilot’s license and enjoys skydiving and judo. She is also a noted biochemist, currently having developed a formula that gives the subject great strength and endurance which she hopes will find a use medically. Currently she is on her way to the University of Birmingham to begin studying a Master’s Degree. She carries several doses of the formula and it takes roughly a minute for it to have an effect once injected. So far, she is the only subject of the formula.

Strength 16/37, (+8/+18) Endurance 16/36, (+8/+18)
Dexterity 09/(+4) Agility 16 (+8)
Psyche 09 (+4)
Damage Bonus +4/+25
Kill Points 69/138 Stun Points 64/132
Knockback 32/83
Move 6

Esteem: 10; Legality 2, Memorability 2, Heroism 3, Relationships 2, Success 1
Sleuthing: 5; Powers 1, Detection 1, Contacts 0, Exposure 2, Accessibility 1
Fate: 9; Scruples 2, Victories 1, Public Reaction 2, Extrovert 2, Home Life 2

Background—Brilliant Chemist (+15)
Endurance/2 (+5 to Knockback, 50% less sleep)
Martial Arts (+1 damage on natural attacks, +2 to hit, Judo Throw)
Strength/2 (+5 to Knockback, does not appear strong)

Common Skills:
Computer Use 9, Literacy 9, Negotiation 10, Swimming 13, Weightlifting 13
Trained Skills:
Computer Programming 8, Driving 8, Electronics 7, Pilot 8, Sky Diving 16

Protective Costume (Kill Divider/2)


One of the more notable features of the original Golden Heroes was its Campaign Ratings. In Squadron UK, these are replaced with three derived characteristics—Esteem (charisma), Sleuthing (crime detection), and Fate (luck). They are each made up of several other factors which are not set during character creation, but after the end of the first scenario as they reflect a hero’s performance and his deeds, rather than straight numbers. Initially this is slightly problematic as there are some skill values derived from them, but once a scenario or two has been played this is not an issue. One new feature is the use of montage panels that enable a player to describe how his hero is improving himself and so increasing his skills and—ever so slowly—his powers also.

Physically, Squadron UK is available in various formats—black & white or colour, softback or hardback. In black & white at least, its images are poorly reproduced and typically too dark. The writing also lacks polish and the layout is scrappy in places. Certainly a second edition would require a good edit.

There is an undeniable sense of nostalgia in returning to a game like Squadron UK. It is an undeniable improvement upon its forebear; streamlining many of the rules whilst retaining the best features—character generation that combines random elements with the need for a player to create a rationale, the use of the derived characteristics, and the knockabout combat system. Its improvements include a simple experience system with the use of montage panels, solid advice in terms of campaigns, and a decent mini-campaign. Squadron UK: The British Superhero Role-Playing Game might not be as slick as more modern superhero roleplaying games, but it makes up for that in terms of its charm and character.

Sunday 21 September 2014

Your Manhattan Project

The main problem with The Manhattan Project is its theme. As its name suggests, that theme has to do with the design and building of the atom bomb. For some, this may be in poor taste. Which of course means that any board game or indeed computer game, like say, Civilisation, in which nuclear weapons are deployed and detonated, is in equally poor taste—if not more so. That said, no nuclear weapons are detonated in The Manhattan Project and nobody dies, either through atomisation or radiation poisoning. Some of your workers may get sent to the mines though…

Originally launched on Kickstarter and published by Minion Games, The Manhattan Project is a worker placement game for two to five players, aged thirteen and up. They each take control of a country’s atom bomb project and attempt to build the most effective program. Starting with a few workers and a small amount of money, they train engineers and scientists; construct buildings—universities, factories, mines, and reactors; build up their air forces—bombers and fighters; research bomb designs; and conduct espionage against each other, all in a race to see who can build the biggest bombs (and score the most Victory Points).

All of which is built around a simple mechanic—worker placement. Each turn a player must either place his workers on the board or retrieve them. When placing them, a player must place one worker on the main board, but can place as many workers as he likes on buildings of his own. When retrieving them, he must remove all of those he has placed.

The game revolves around the Main Board. This has spaces for the Building Cards—six initial cards followed by the regular buildings; spaces to place workers to gain money, engineers, scientists, workers, fighters and bombers, and yellow cake—which is turned into Uranium and Plutonium; conduct airstrikes and repair buildings; and fuel tracks to monitor how much Uranium and Plutonium each player has, as well as how many spies he can send to make use of other players’ empty buildings.

Each player has a Player Board. Here he tracks the number of fighters and bombers he has and places any buildings he has purchased. A player also has four labourers, but will gain up to four engineers and four scientists as play progresses. If these are not enough, he can hire contractors, but they will not stay under his control for long.

Initially, each player has limited options. He can only place a single worker—which has to be on the Main Board—and needs not only scientists and engineers, but also buildings of his own if he wants to place more workers on subsequent turns. As the game progresses and he gains more workers and buildings, he will have more options for placing his workers—and even more if he has invested in espionage and can send his workers to the other players’ buildings. A player does not have to place all of his workers on a turn, but he must place one on the Main Board at the very least.

When a player runs out of workers or because he wants to, he can retrieve all of his workers. He can start placing them again on later turns, but part of playing The Manhattan Project is knowing when to retrieve and when to place them. It is a matter of timing, more so when espionage is an option and other players’ buildings are available.

Each building gives its benefit as soon as its requirements are fulfilled. This might be as simple as one or two workers or specific worker types to get their output, which can be more workers (including contractors), money, fighters, bombers, or yellow cake. Alternatively, a reactor might require several engineers and scientists and several pieces of yellow cake in order to produce the Uranium or Plutonium. These have to be placed in one turn rather than added bit by bit.

Eventually a player will want to build a bomb. This works the same as any other building, but requires Uranium or Plutonium as well as engineers and scientists. Once built, a bomb adds to a player’s Victory Point total, but he could also load it onto one of his bombers for more Victory Points. Alternatively, if it was a Plutonium device, a player could implode it. This would destroy the bomb, but any subsequent Plutonium device the player builds will be worth more Victory Points.

Apart from espionage, another way of a player interacting with his rivals is to attack them using his air force. To attack another player, he sends his fighters to attack his target’s fighters and then his bombers to target and damage his rival’s buildings. This stops his rival from using them until they are repaired.

Physically, The Manhattan Project is nicely and engagingly presented in a style that apes the look of government style art of the 1940s. The rulebook is also well written and easy to read and understand.

Unfortunately, The Manhattan Project is not perfect. Arguably, the use of espionage is too powerful—though it is a great way to win—and cannot be blocked or stopped, except by the targeted player placing and keeping his own workers on this buildings for as long as possible. The Air Raid mechanic is either too powerful or not powerful enough, as any attempt to destroy another player’s fighters leaves both sides vulnerable to bombing raids. Lastly, the appearance of the building cards is too random; beyond the first six, any card can appear in any order and this can all too often affect the flow of the game. Less effective buildings will sit on the board because no one wants to buy them, whilst a slew of good buildings will force a flurry of activity to buy as quickly as possible. Perhaps a more structured draw could have been included, so that the buildings get progressively better and better as the game progresses?

Put these issues aside, for this is an excellent game. The game play is very tight, with almost no luck involved. Above all, The Manhattan Project is a pleasing meld of theme with mechanics that reward efficiency. 

Friday 12 September 2014

Board of the Dragon Queen

Hot on the heels of the Player’s Handbook comes the first adventure for Dungeons & Dragons Fifth Edition. Written by Wolgang Baur and Steve Winter—the ‘Kobold-in-chief’ for Open Design LLC and TSR and Wizards of the Coast veteran designer respectively—Hoard of the Dragon Queen is the first part of the Tyranny of Dragons campaign that will be completed with the publication of The Rise of Tiamat. It comes as a slim ninety-six page hardback that in eight chapters takes the adventurers from First Level up through Seventh Level.

At the time of publication, with just the Player’s Handbook available, it might seem that it would be impossible to play or run Hoard of the Dragon Queen. This could not be further from the truth. To begin with, the rules presented in the Player’s Handbook are more than sufficient to run the campaign. After all, if the rules presented in the Dungeons & Dragons Starter Set were enough to run ‘Lost Mine of Phandelver’, the scenario in box, then those given in the Player’s Handbook will more than suffice for Hoard of the Dragon Queen. One thing that the DM will need is the campaign’s online supplement—available here because whilst some are given in the book itself, the online supplement contains all of the magic items, monsters, and spells referenced in Hoard of the Dragon Queen

The setting for the Hoard of the Dragon Queen is the Forgotten Realms, specifically the Sword Coast, thus in keeping with recent releases from Wizards of the Coast, including the Dungeons & Dragons Starter Set. The Cult of the Dragon, ever a pervasive and pernicious influence in the region, has decided that it has tired of skulking in the shadows and is in the process of bringing an audacious plan to fruition. Drawing on its alliances with its draconic brethren and the Red Wizards of Thay, it seeks to free Tiamat from her infernal prison in the Nine Hells and bring her to Faerûn. 

Which is fair to say, sounds awesome! After all, this looks like a campaign that throws the adventurers up against the signature bad guy (sic) of Dungeons & Dragons—Tiamat herself. She was after all, the villain of the Dungeons & Dragons cartoon series, and thus will be familiar to many players of the game. The other villains of Dungeons & Dragons are probably the devil Asmodeus, the demon Orcus, and of course, Count Strahd von Zarovich of Ravenloft fame, but going up against a villain like Tiamat should whet the appetite of any Dungeons & Dragons player. Of course, that will not happen in Hoard of the Dragon Queen, but will no doubt be saved for The Rise of Tiamat, but investigating her cult should set everything up for a confrontation of memorable proportions. Unfortunately, as evidenced by Hoard of the Dragon Queen, getting to that confrontation may not be as memorable as it should be…

The campaign begins with a cliché as its solution to how to get the characters involved—the party is working as guards for a caravan that is travelling to the starting location for the campaign. Which is the same set up as that for ‘Lost Mine of Phandelver’, the scenario in Dungeons & Dragons Starter Set, but fortunately, this is countered somewhat by the first of the book’s appendices, which gives options to adjust any Background that a player chooses for his character to fit the setting. These can be rolled for, but it would make as much sense for the GM to assign these to the player characters according to suitability and their Class. Had much more this been done to involve the characters in the adventure in this way, it would have greatly strengthened the start of the campaign.

Once they get to the outskirts of Greenest, the characters discover that it is under attack. Fighting their way in, they are given refuge in the town’s keep, but being the town’s best hope, the governor asks the adventurers for help. This sets up a number of mini-missions that will see them help protect and rescue the townspeople and begin learn what the attackers want. These are nice way of getting them involved, sneaking out of the town’s keep again and again to help save the townsfolk, but it culminates in rather a disappointing encounter. The problem is not the encounter itself, but rather its effect—or lack thereof—upon the campaign. In this, one of the player characters has the opportunity to face the leader of the raiding party in duel, arguably a rousing climax to the chapter. It is a tough encounter, but if the player character is particularly successful, the campaign has the leader either ferreted away or simply replaced by with another NPC with exactly the same stats. Surely this undermines the players’ agency by making their efforts have no effect?

In the days to come, the adventurers will be asked to follow the raiders and scout out their nearby base, first to conduct a rescue mission and then return again to investigate what turns out to be the first dungeon in Hoard of the Dragon Queen. It is an unimpressive affair that feels flat and featureless, but whatever they find in the dungeon, the adventurers’ information will bring them to the attention of interested parties opposed to the Cult of the Dragon and they will be asked to undertake increasingly dangerous missions in the name of the safety of Faerûn.

In some ways, the first of these marks the highlight of Hoard of the Dragon Queen. Working for their patrons, the party is tasked with joining a caravan train that is travelling north along the Sword Coast and which is suspected of having been infiltrated by the Cult of the Dragon. The DM is presented with plenty of material to work with—numerous NPCs and encounters, both random and planned. There are opportunities aplenty for roleplaying and interaction throughout this section, but its primary purpose is to bring the adventurers to the attention of the cultists—and then earn their ire. One question not addressed is what would happen if the adventurers managed to stop this, another incidence of player agency being stymied. 

Whilst there are opportunities to roleplay later in this first part of the campaign, they grow fewer and fewer in number as Hoard of the Dragon Queen drives towards its climax. There is a marked shift in emphasis upon roleplaying and interaction towards infiltration and combat—typically with the adventurers disguising themselves in cult clothing—as the party follows the trail of the cult’s loot. The best of these opportunities is the potential for the adventurers to turn the various humanoid groups at the cult’s base in a swamp against each other. Which works in the one instance, but the campaign returns to it not once, but twice more, and once in mufti, the adventurers are expected to do no more than sneak in amongst the cultists, salute them, and then with a cry of “Surprise!”, draw their weapons and attack. It becomes all too one-note. Only the scenery changes…

In the last part of Hoard of the Dragon Queen, the party needs to board a Cloud Giant’s castle—before it flies away! The opportunity to do so is fleeting and the DM may well need to make some adjustments if the adventurers are in danger of missing their flight. Which is a distinct possibility given that it comes down to some difficult skill rolls involving the handling of wyverns… The consequences of failure are not really covered either. Once aboard the castle, the design never quite comes alive, again expecting the player characters to sneak in and divide the factions found therein. A  Cloud Giant’s castle should be amazing, a memorable experience, but again it just seems to fizzle out. 

Some players maybe disappointed at the dearth of treasure available in this campaign. Indeed, the adventurers may well rise through several levels before they acquire any magical items. The clue though lies in the title—Hoard of the Dragon Queen, for in truth, this is intentional. The point is that the villains of the campaign are hoarding the treasure—hence the title of this first part—rather than leaving it lying around for the player characters to find… What treasure there is though, is often generic and uninteresting. Indeed, the hoard itself is little more than a pile of coins.

Physically, Hoard of the Dragon Queen is unimpressive. The writing often feels flat and the tan colouring throughout does not help. In particular, all too many of the campaign’s minor NPCs are left for the DM to develop and bring to life, which although allows him to add his personal touch, does him more work to do and as written, hardly serves to make the campaign memorable. The illustrations are decent enough, but whilst pretty enough, the cartography thoroughly undermines the book. Too often the maps are murky and featureless, but worse, in they lack a key to their locations, whilst in others, they are too small, switch scales, and even orientation. Worse, in places, they do not have places marked upon them that are discussed in the text, leaving the DM to place them. Essentially, the book’s maps force the DM to do an awful lot of unnecessary work when they should be aiding him.

Although Hoard of the Dragon Queen is not the first scenario to be released for Dungeons & Dragons Fifth Edition—that honour goes to ‘Lost Mine of Phandelver’ from the Dungeons & Dragons Starter Set—it is the first to be released in the wake of, and to require the use of, the Player's Handbook. It is thus Wizards of the Coast's flagship campaign for the RPG, showcasing how the new edition of the game should be played, what a scenario looks like for Dungeons & Dragons Fifth Edition, and  of course, how much fun it offers.

Unfortunately Hoard of the Dragon Queen does none of that. The truth is that it is not a good scenario, it is not a well written scenario, and it is not a well presented scenario. The scenario is just not exciting, it lacks atmosphere—though not tone, which is grim; it fails to bring the NPCs to life or give the player characters enough options; and it just does not provide enough support for the DM despite the fact that he really, really needs it. Hoard of the Dragon Queen is not a scenario suited to first time DMs, whereas ‘Lost Mine of Phandelver’ from the Dungeons & Dragons Starter Set is and it is also much, much more fun. There is no doubt plenty of material for the DM to work with in Hoard of the Dragon Queen, but he will have to work unnecessarily hard to bring it out.

Wednesday 10 September 2014

Into the Vortex...

Vortex is a scenario for Monte Cook’s Origins award winning Numenera RPG originally used to launch and showcase the setting and RPG at  GenCon 2013. It is designed to challenge three to six characters who should be of either First or Second Tier and is flexible enough to be used as either a demonstration adventure, an introduction to the setting, or as part of an on-going campaign. Available as a 13.42 MB, thirty-page PDF, it includes not only an eighteen-page adventure itself, but also a dozen pre-generated adventurers all ready to play, the latter being available as a 24 MB,  twelve-page PDF.

Written in two acts, Act I of the adventure, ‘The Temple’, mostly takes place in a wilderness area. The player characters are exploring the region when they come upon a strange structure outside of which be-robed figures are conducting a ritual. Before the characters can interact with the figures they disappear into the structure, but not before leaving behind some food and a notebook. The structure then rumbles into the ground and disappears, but fortunately for the player characters, the notebook contains details as to when and where the structure will reappear. What do the player characters do?

Curiosity should be enough for the player characters to follow up on the clues in the notebook. After all, this is the Ninth World and exploring the technologies of the past should be the motivation for many, if not all of the characters in a party.  Following up on the clues will bring the characters through a nearby village and present a minor encounter. It is a decent little encounter that given that Vortex is a demonstration scenario serves to show how the Cypher System, the mechanics for Numenera, work in play and give the opportunity for the players to try out their characters’ abilities in a fight. 

Beyond that, the characters should eventually make their way to the point where the structure is supposed to reappear and when it does, the first person to exit begs for their help—she and her brother have been kidnapped by a cult and they want out! Here begins the real meat of the adventure, the opportunity not only to help out a damsel in distress, but also explore the mysterious disappearing and reappearing structure. It is also here where the adventure picks up and gets a little more interesting. The cult itself should not trouble the player characters unduly, though the cult leader may be a bit of a challenge.  Once he has been dealt with, Vortex changes tack and gets a whole lot more interesting.

Act II, ‘Through the 'Vortex' draws the characters deeper into the secrets of the Vortex—and beyond! Where the first Act focused on combat and interaction—in the village and then in the strange structure, here the emphasis changes to exploration and examination. If Act I felt a little too much like the traditional start of a Dungeons & Dragons style scenario, then Act II is where Vortex really begins to feel like a Numenera scenario in its Science Fiction. For the switch in emphasis in Act II is ably supported by the weirdness of the setting and the destination that lies ahead of the player characters—if they prevail and uncover the right clues that is. Not that the weird is not present in Act I, for in addition to its combat encounter there are a number of smaller locations to explore and experience, but it comes to the fore in Act II. This is the ‘Citadel of Radiance’, a thoroughly fantastic setting in the truest sense of the word. 

Vortex can be used as is, or split into two parts, but Act I should only take a session or two to play through at most, whilst Act II will probably take two or three. There is advice on running it as part of a campaign game or a convention scenario, and also on what might happen afterwards, although the given suggestions are a bit slight. There is though, a slightly disjointed feel to the scenario. The whole affair is written more as a pair of sandboxes—one for each act—that the players and their characters are expected to explore and interact with. The issue though is that there is a strong plot that runs through Vortex whilst there really is little for them to just explore and interact at random in true sandbox style. More encounters around both the village and in the strange structure would have supported the sandbox format. Nevertheless, Vortex is a well written, detailed scenario.

Vortex also comes with a set of six pre-generated characters. They include two characters of each type and the six do a decent job of showcasing some of the character types possible using the rules in the Numenera core rules.

Vortex is an excellent scenario. It can also be a deadly scenario, but without the risk, where is the fun or the reward? Vortex does a very good job of showcasing the strange and wondrous nature of the past some nine billion years from now…