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Friday 27 February 2015

The 13th Age's Companion

Back in August, 2013, I wrote a review entitled ‘What killed Dungeons & Dragons?’. It was a review of 13th Age, Pelgrane Press’ freewheeling redesign of Dungeons & Dragons-style roleplaying with a focus on action and storytelling. The title of the review proved somewhat controversial, but it was chosen to make a point—that the game changed the way in which Dungeons & Dragons-style roleplaying is played, more so given that since the publication Dungeons & Dragons, Fourth Edition in 2008, the emphasis had been wholly on the action at the expense of any other style of play. Almost two years later and there is a new version of Dungeons & Dragons available, inarguably a better one, one that focuses on roleplaying as well as the action. Even better,  Dungeons & Dragons Fifth Edition included an actual roleplaying mechanic, and that too, changed how Dungeons & Dragons is played. The point was—and is—that both games made us rethink the standard roleplaying style that has been with us for some four decades.

13th Age is now supported by several supplements, of which 13 True Ways is the second. Funded via Kickstarter, 13 True Ways is a bit of a miscellany of new things for 13th Age that includes six new Classes and new Class rules, descriptions of the Cities and Courts of the 13th Age, a bestiary of new monsters, an examination of devils of 13th Age, and lastly, a chapter of bits and pieces. Not possessing the focus of the 13th Age Bestiary, this then is a companion volume with support for both the players and the GM.

Diving straight in, 13 True Ways gives updated rules for summoning—useful for both the Ranger and the Druid as well as several other Classes—before presenting six new Classes, the Chaos Mage, the Commander, the Druid, the Monk, the Necromancer, and the Occultist. The first of these, the Chaos Mage brings an arch-randomness to spellcasting. Each time a Chaos Mage tries to cast a spell, he initially does not know actually what spell he is going to cast only its type—attack, defense, or Iconic. Ideally the type is determined the round before by drawing stones from a bag, with Iconic spells be rolled for to determine which Icon they are related to. Talents enable a Chaos Mage to use spells from other Classes and grant extra random effects through Warp Talents, whilst the Chaos Mage’s ‘High Weirdness’ can be unleashed on himself, his allies, or the enemy, and the effect may not always be beneficial. This is the very opposite of the Commander which enters battle to earn Command Points which are spent to issue Commands to the other player characters, enabling them to move, rally, reroll attacks, attack an enemy together, and so on. In addition, the Commander can use Tactics that work as quick or interrupt actions that typically grant another character more attacks.  More straightforward than the Chaos Mage, the Commander gives other characters the chance to more effective, but does require that a player keep an eye on the whole of any battlefield.

Where the Commander was straightforward, the Druid is a complex Class that has to encompass a lot of options. Essentially, a player designs the type of Druid he wants to play by selecting a Talent from a set of six—Animal Companion, Elemental Caster, Shifter, Terrain Caster, Warrior Druid, and Wild Healer. He could pick three of these and be an Initiate in all three, but he could instead pick two of them, becoming an Initiate in one, and by picking the same Talent twice, becoming an Adept in a second. Adepts are more powerful than Initiates. For example, an Animal Companion Initiate can only call his companion every other battle, but an Adept gets a companion that he can cast spells on and enhance. Every Druid has some features in common—being able to talk to plants and wilderness survival, and so on—but what this means that no Druid is likely to be the same as another and it means that a player can customise his Druid to fit his conception of the Class. The Monk is also similarly complex, bringing flavour and feel to unarmed combat as well as making it effective. The Class’ core concept is that whether armed or unarmed, a Monk uses forms in combat that consist of an opening attack, a flow attack, and a finishing attack. So a Monk can follow the Claws of the Panther form from start to finish, but should he know other forms, he can freely switch between as the situation dictates. So for example, a Wizard has been set upon by a pair of orcs and his Monk comes to his aid by using  ‘One must be Free’ from the ‘Dutiful Guardian’ forms as his opening attack to deliver a jab and help his ally—the Wizard—disengage from one of the orcs, then switches to to the ‘Cats cut between Hounds’ flow attack from the ‘Claws from the Panther’ form in order to punch both orcs, before ending with the ‘General slays the Hordes’ finishing attack from the ‘Way of the Metallic Dragon’ form to deliver a kick to one target and a punch to another. The Monk can back these attacks up with Ki points, spent either to adjust attack rolls or activate Ki powers such as ‘Leaf on Wind’ to gain flight for a turn or ‘Diamond Focus’ to gain a save against being dazed, stunned, or weakened. Clearly the Monk has been designed to emulate the Wuxia style, which may not necessarily quite fit the setting of the 13th Age. Fortunately some notes are included to help the Gamemaster decide the role of the Monk in  his game.

In Dungeons & Dragons, the Necromancer has never really worked as a playable Class, but the version presented in 13 True Ways certainly is and it can be so because 13th Age eschews the binary absolutes of Dungeons & Dragons’ Alignment system. Having been replaced by a character’s relationships with the Icons of the setting and to an extent by a character’s One Unique Thing, the how and why of a character Necromancer becomes a story in itself, though of course, every Necromancer has some kind of relationship with the Lich King. Further every Necromancer is wasting away, so here the Necromancer with a positive Constitution modifier has that as a penalty against his casting spells, whilst a negative Constitution modifier has the potential to act as a bonus. A Necromancer’s Talents are delightfully thematic, such as ‘Cackling Soliloquist’ that grants an extra benefit to a daily spell and the chance of a recharge to that spell if the Necromancer spends extra time maniacally cackling and soliloquising about his plans and the weakness of his enemies; kill and suck the life force from enemy  to heal with ‘Deathknell’; or summon undead to fight for him, but release their spirits afterwards in a burst of holy energy with ‘Redeemer’. A Necromancer can also have his own skeleton minion and comes with a selection of spells to summon the undead. As written the Necromancer makes a great NPC villain, but at the same time there are options that shift it away from the archetypal skeletal summoner and the story of a Necromancer's redemption—whether as player character or NPC—has the potential to be interesting, if not great, in the telling. The last of the six Classes in 13 True Ways is the Occultist, a very singular Class in that there can only be one in the 13th Age, which of course be addressed by the character’s One Unique Thing. As a spellcaster, the Occultist peers through reality to warp to the benefit of his allies and the detriment of enemies. For example, an Occultist with the ‘Otherworld Shadow’ Talent has a shadow self that will take the damage and effects from an enemy once per day, whilst the ‘Icon Envoy’ Talent lets him set one of his ally’s relationship dice and so gain the benefit from it. The Occultist is the least straightforward Class in 13 True Ways, being slightly off centre and arguably not immediately obvious as to what it can do. Definitely a Class for the experienced player.

If the Druid and Monk were missed by their absence from 13th Age, then equally as missed were rules for Multiclassing, but 13 True Ways addresses this by essentially offering an option for dual-classing. Simply combining one Class with another would make a very powerful character, so instead 13 True Ways goes for a diversity rather than potency in terms of abilities by a making multiclassing character effectively one Level lower than his actual Level. For example, a Second Level Ranger/Druid would have the powers and abilities of a First Level Ranger and the powers and abilities of a First Level Druid. In addition, a multiclassing character will also have a reduced Armour Class, reduced Hit Points, and so on. Further, what this means is that a First Level multiclassing character is sort of between Zero-Level and First Level character, though not necessarily a weak one. Still, plenty of combinations present themselves with these rules. Monk/Fighter or Monk/Rogue for even more wuxia or ninja-style action, a Paladin/Necromancer seeking redemption, the Barbarian/Commander at the head of a horde, and so on. Plus the 13 True Ways also discusses how each of the game’s Classes works for Multiclassing, which should spur further character concepts and ideas.

Almost half of the book is taken up by the new Classes, but there is still plenty for the DM to get his teeth into, starting with detailed descriptions of five of the ‘Cities & Courts’ of the 13th Age—Axis, the Court of Stars, Drakkenhall, Horizon, and Santa Cora. Much of the description given is not set in stone, presenting the Gamemaster with plenty of choices, and this is in addition to the thirteen rumours for each location. Of the five, Horizon—home to the Arch Mage and high, high magic, and Drakkenhall—the domain of the Blue Dragon and a city of ‘orderly-ish’ monsters receive the most attention, detailing how each of the Icons is connected to the two cities and how the adventurers can become involved when they roll for their Icon influence from one session to the next. All five of these locations are nicely done, full of ideas and details that the DM can add to his campaign to bring it to life.

The monsters in 13 True Ways are a mix of the old—Cloud Giants, Metallic Dragons, Gnolls, Mummies, and so on, and the new—Bat Demons or ‘squishies’ that mob single targets, the tentacular Soul Flensers that steal powers from its targets, and the Flowers of Unlife that never seem to die. Like any Dungeons & Dragons-style game, more monsters are always welcome and these are useful additions, but like the 13th Age core rules, many of these creature are underwritten in terms of description and background. Others though, get fuller treatment elsewhere in 13 True Ways. So the nature of the Devils described in the bestiary gets a full description in a chapter of its own, the powers of many Devils revolving around an ability called ‘Devil’s Due’. This forces a player character to make a choice when attacking a Devil: does he take the bonus granted from the Escalation Die when he rolls to hit or not? If he does, there are dues to be paid, all negative and  all different from one Devil type to another. For example, using the Escalation Die against an Ice Devil causes an adventurer to be stuck, whilst that of a Horned Devil causes him to be weakened. The origins, purpose, and hierarchy of Deviltry is discussed in its own chapter and there is not one answer, but twenty-nine. Unsurprisingly, thirteen of these are tied into the Icons, the others being Icon neutral. With so many options available there is potential here to add Devils to one campaign with an option or two and still come back to them in a wholly separate or different campaign.

13 True Ways is rounded out with its own miscellany, the ‘Gamemasters’ Grimoire’. There are artefacts whose abilities are unlocked the longer they are worn or wielded and magic items—the cursed items being perhaps the most interesting here, plus thirteen dungeons and ruins, thirteen flying realms, and thirteen taverns and inns. Not all of the locations are immediately useful, the dungeons and flying realms most likely requiring development, but the taverns and inns are of course, easy to drop into a game. There are also three monastic tournaments, specifically for use with the Monk Class, and lastly a set of six entries provided by Kickstarter backers of 13 True Ways. These include four NPCs described in detail that are designed to be scaled to the player characters, as contacts, allies, rivals, or even enemies. To that end, each of the four will need stats created by the Gamemaster,  but the four are each accompanied by a set of thirteen facts about each NPC, which of course, may or may not be true. The fifth and sixth entries are descriptions of two living dungeons—Underkrakens and the Wild Garden. Both are home to creatures described in the Monsters chapter, the Soul Flensers in Underkrakens and the Flowers of Unlife in the Wild Garden. Underkrakens might be city-sized creatures, vehicles, or colonies from beyond and learning what might have dark consequences for the soul of too inquisitive an adventurer. Call of Cthulhu is a direct nod here with rules for Terrible Enlightenment that send a 13th Age campaign into the horror genre. Where Underkrakens is mostly an unknown, the Wild Garden is more of a known quantity, a sunlit temple that was assaulted by the forces of the Lich King, but fell into the hands of a recently undead druid. The description of the Wild Garden is much of that of a dungeon write-up, but both of these living dungeons will need much more development upon the part of the Gamemaster. They are intriguing, but not quite fully formed.

Physically, 13 True Ways is a lovely looking hardback. The artwork is all good quality and the writing is engaging, full of detail and flavour that the Gamemaster can bring to his game.  Like the core rules, it comes with a good index and glossary. It is difficult to really find fault with the supplement, but there are perhaps two. One would be the underwritten monster descriptions which are disappointing after the fulsome write-ups given in the 13th Age Bestiary. The other is the difficulty of the new Classes. Now assuredly, they are the highlight of 13 True Ways—well, five of the six anyway. Two of these—the Druid and the Monk—seemed oddly absent from 13th Age, so their inclusion is more than welcome. These new Classes may well not be suited for all, the randomness of the Chaos Mage may be annoying to other players; the Commander has to keep an eye on his fellow player characters to be truly effective rather; and a group may not want the Necromancer as one of their number because anyone who summons the undead must be ‘evil’; and well, as to the sixth, the Occultist is just odd and unlikely to work in the hands of very player. They are undoubtedly as much complex and as they are flavoursome and are in a way, ‘advanced’ Classes that will fare better in the hands of the more experienced player and with a more experienced Gamemaster.

So, five good, new Classes. Setting descriptions and options. New monsters and over a dozen options for one new monster type. Magic items, artefacts, dungeons, and more. 13 True Ways packs an awful lot of new material into its pages. Whilst the new Classes are its highlight, the material for the Gamemaster is almost as good if not all of it is actually true—until the Gamemaster chooses an option or two and makes it true.

Wednesday 25 February 2015

Cosmic Numenera

The Ninth Age, the setting for Monte Cook Games’ Origins award-winning RPG, Numenera is already weird. Its combination of Science Fiction and Fantasy set a billion years in the future brings together all manner of strange devices and uncanny wonders, both great and small. Such devices and wonders may well be ‘magic’, but they may also be technologies, relics of the past ages or civilisations. They all but litter the landscape, from small artefacts known as ciphers to great edifices that hang in the sky without rhyme or reason, whilst creatures unknown to our distant age—alien species, newly evolved animals, bioengineered things, and more, lurk just beyond the edges of the civilisation, just as that current civilisation lurks in the shadows of those past... Which all seems perfectly suited to one further ingredient—Lovecraftian horror!

In Strange Aeons: Lovecraftian Numenera is a mini-supplement designed to add the Cosmic horror of author H.P. Lovecraft to Numenera, to make it even more uncanny, even stranger, and further, unfathomable. Unfathomable to the point where the mental fortitude of the adventurers is threatened and undermined. It describes how to elements of Cosmic Horror to adventures and campaigns set in the Ninth Age, including rules for handling the loss of sanity and its effects, reskinning creatures with Cthulhoid tags, and of course, certain creatures of the Mythos. The supplement comes as a full colour, twelve-page PDF, just 0.9 MB in size.

Divided into three parts, In Strange Aeons: Lovecraftian Numenera begins with ‘Bringing Lovecraft to the Ninth World’. Here author Monte Cook gets to play a little further with the Arthur C. Clarke Third Law that states that ‘Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic’, for although much of the numenera or devices of the Ninth Age may look like or work like magic, they are actually scientific or technological items, though ones created using knowledge that is now lost. In a Ninth Age lost to the baleful effects of Cosmic Horror, such scientific or technological items are just as likely to be ones created by a science never fathomed by man. Thus the discovery of Lovecraftian Numenera is likely to have unheralded effects and influences. A Lovecraftian Ninth Age will  not only be weirder, but will also push the setting away from exploration and adventure, to one of exploration and horror. Overall, this is a solid introduction to combining the genres.

Of course any encounter with the Cthulhu Mythos requires a sanity check and thus a means to handle sanity loss. Numenera being a simple system means that the new mechanics for are just as simple. Saves against sanity are done as Intellect defence rolls. Should a character’s Intellect be driven to zero, the excess is not passed onto another attribute, but simply lost, whilst the maximum size of the Intellect pool is reduced by one. Should his Intellect pool be permanently driven to zero, then he gains the Mad descriptor. A further means of the effect of sanity can also be effected through GM Intrusions—the latter being one Numenera’s more interesting storytelling mechanics.

The second part of the supplement, ‘Lovecraftian Descriptors and Skins’, gives mechanical means to handle the Mythos. The two Descriptors—descriptors describing how a character does something—are ‘Mad’ and ‘Doomed’. Both suit the additional genre and both have their advantages and disadvantages, but mostly the latter. For example, the ‘Doomed’ Descriptor grants a bonus to a character’s Speed pool as well as skills in perception and Speed defense tasks, plus Intellect defense tasks related losing your sanity. All this because the character is jumpy, wary of danger, defensively minded, and both cynical and pessimistic. Yet the character is also Doomed, so whenever the GM uses an Intrusion on him, the character refuse it nor does he receive XP for accepting it. Now that is undoubtedly harsh, but hey, the character is doomed…!

The Skins are equally simple matters. The three—Non-Euclidian, Squamous, and Unnamable—provide means to adapt the creatures of the Ninth Age to a Lovecraftian horror setting. For example, Non-Euclidian creatures are not only more skilled in Speed defense and in stealth tasks, they can also slip between the spaces to seemingly teleport short distances. Again, useful and simple.

The third and final part of the supplement is devoted to Lovecraftian Creatures. These are few in number, being just four. Which is somewhat disappointing. The four are Deep Ones, Great Race of Yith, Mi-Go, and Shoggoths. Given a page each, these are rather nicely written up, in particular the Great Race of Yith and the Mi-Go, both of which are highly suited to the Numenera setting as they are noted for their scientific, if alien bent. Nevertheless, four such creatures is not enough—and surely Nyarlathotep could have made an appearance!

Physically, In Strange Aeons: Lovecraftian Numenera is well presented. The artwork is very good and the writing clean and simple. If there is an issue with the supplement it is not the uninitiated—the GM will still need to know his Mythos. Either through reading the fiction or having played any one of the Lovecraftian horror RPGs available, it helping that a mix of both is listed in the supplement’s bibliography.

There is almost nothing wrong with In Strange Aeons: Lovecraftian Numenera. It provides a GM with just about everything needed to add the basic elements of Cosmic Horror to his game, and what does being evocative and interesting. What is wrong with In Strange Aeons: Lovecraftian Numenera is the feeling that there should be more. In fact there should be a full Lovecraftian RPG using the Cypher System—the supplement certainly hints at the possibility. As a side note, this supplement would also work with The Strange, Monte Cook Games’ other RPG.

In Strange Aeons: Lovecraftian Numenera is a pleasingly simple and straightforward supplement. It might well, very much, leave you wanting a lot more, but what it does give is evocative and embodies the weird side of the Mythos.

Monday 23 February 2015

Aargh! Thar be brains!

The fact is, I have been waiting for years to write that title. I have always liked All Flesh Must Be Eaten, Eden Studios, Inc.’s RPG of horror and surviving the zombie apocalypse—and in particular, its many supplements. From Enter the Zombies and Pulp Zombies to Fistful O’ Zombies and One of the Living, each offered interesting zombified twists upon classic genres—even Zombie Smackdown, a supplement that actually managed to make the subject of wrestling not only interesting, but also palatable and fun. So the news that the publisher would be releasing a pirates and zombies supplement was most welcome indeed—and not only because I could use this particular title.

Unfortunately, by the time Aargh! Thar be Zombies! was published in 2010, it felt as if the premier zombie roleplaying game had missed the boat. After all, the mini-craze of piratically-themed roleplaying games, arguably initiated after the release of the film, Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl in 2003, had sailed by 2010, no doubt spurred by that film’s decidedly dull sequels. And whilst Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl certainly had a dead hand in raising zombies to the mainstream, it was followed by dull sequels that added nothing to the genre whilst other media has had a stronger, more recent hand in making zombies popular. This is not say that Aargh! Thar be Zombies! is a bad supplement as there are some good ideas within its pages, but the truth of the matter it is not good one either. Which to be honest, is disappointing given the quality of the publisher’s previous support for All Flesh Must Be Eaten.

The main problem with Aargh! Thar be Zombies! A Pirate Sourcebook is the writing. Or rather, not with the writing, but with the editing. In terms of its actual writing, it is overwritten; in terms of if its ideas, it is often underdeveloped; and if anachronisms do not quite abound, they are certainly present. This supplement could have been a solid, if not a stand-out addition to the All Flesh Must Be Eaten line, but fundamentally it never got the edit it deserved or needed. The result is somewhat frustrating book, knowing it could have been just that little bit better.

Roughly half of the book is devoted to the subject of piracy. The history of piracy— including its Golden Age that lasted from 1680s to the 1720s; a discussion of why someone might go on Account—that is, become a pirate; life in the Age of Piracy, including death, disease (nasty they are too!), women pirates, the Pirate Articles, pirate punishments (the latter noting that being made to ‘walk the plank’ was a myth, though a good one), and more. Perhaps the most interesting section here is that devoted to Asian Piracy, which revolved the dynastic wars in Vietnam and the wars between Vietnam and China. This is interesting of course because it is unfamiliar, but it nicely dovetails into the supplement Enter the Zombie. At two pages long it feels a little short and perhaps deserves a chapter of its own, especially as it feels out of place amidst the traditional pirate history.

Mechanically,  Aargh! Thar be Zombies! works around three character types—the Norm, the Survivor, and the Inspired. This of course determines how much a player has to spend on his character’s stats, skills, and Qualities. Most player characters are expected to be Survivors, but the Zombie Master can allow the Inspired if he wants his game to include Vodou. In addition, the Silver Screen Swashbuckler is available if the Zombie Master is running a pulpier, more action orientated game. The supplement gives an array of Qualities and Drawbacks—advantages and disadvantages—to help create all four character types. For example, the ‘Born for the Sea’ and ‘Sea Legs’ Qualities and the ‘Landlubber’ Drawback are there as you would expect, as is the discussion of using the Physical Disability Drawback from the All Flesh Must Be Eaten for doing peg-legs and hooks for hands. Also included are rules for fighting Florentine style, that is with two weapons in true classical style. What is odd here, is that the history of duelling feels out of place in what is otherwise a very mechanical section and it does not help that the history is very Anglo-centric in that it does not present options for learning the art outside of London. 

Rules are included for the creation of ‘Zombie Swashbucklers’ player characters or NPCs. Essentially, these are a cut down version from those given in full detail in Enter the Zombie, though with a piratical slant. Thus the ‘Billy Bones’ Aspect allows for the creation of a fleshless zombie (or skeleton)whilst the ‘Ghostly Form’ Aspect allows for the creation of zombies that can walk through the bulkheads of ships or even a sword blow. As well as full equipment lists, the supplement of course handles ships and their crews in detail, including sample ships such as the galleon, the junk, and the viking longship! The equipment chapter also covers both experienced and cursed ships—plus ghostships, gives Qualities and Drawbacks to  individualise both ships and crews, and of course,  ship-to-ship combat, the latter a solid set of rules.

Aargh! Thar be Zombies! mixes both authenticity and Hollywood in its treatment of the magic and religion of the period. Not ‘Voodoo’, but ‘Vodou’, in which practitioners can invoke and entreat the Loa to gain the benefit of various miracles and rituals. These are powerful without being flashy and go all the way up rituals involving zombies. There is plenty of opportunity here for roleplay by any character who is practitioner, and similarly, for the GM to portray the Loa whom the character may need to do favours for.

Aargh! Thar be Zombies! includes several campaign settings or Deadworlds, just as you would expect with any supplement for All Flesh Must Be Eaten. There are three fully described ones, plus two shorter ones, followed by some scenario ideas. The five begin in somewhat mundane fashion, with ‘Voodoo Queen of the Shrouded Isles’ in which a Vodou Mambo calls for vengeance after she has been wronged and so unleashes a zombie plague from the Caribbean upon the rest of the world. ‘The Black Fleet’ is equally as mundane, having an Aztec curse unleash a plague of black ships upon the world. Both of these Deadworlds feel as if the author was obliged to include because after all, you have to do something based upon a certain series of pirate films. Given just how ordinary they are, it is a pity that so much space was devoted to them.

Fortunately, both are followed by the third, fuller Deadworld, ‘Islands in a Dark Sky’. This is the absolute highlight of Aargh! Thar be Zombies! and describes a Deadworld in which Galileo uses Da Vinci’s flying machine to leave the Earth and sail ‘the Dark Sea’ between the worlds. By 1643 pirates, national navies, and merchantmen now sail ‘the Dark Sea’ in Essence-powered ships, whilst their crews know not to fall overboard lest their Essence is leached out… Another threat are the Necronian Corsairs, fearsome skeletoid humanoids that hover near death and who augment themselves with horns, spines, wings, and more to further instil fear in their continuing drive to drain Essence from other worlds and other species. It is also possible to create Essence-powered devices and weapons, such as flintlocks, lightning swords, and air masks. This is an engaging mix of the Fantasy and Science Fiction genres that transplants all of the piratical elements to between worlds, whilst adding the unknown and the chance to explore new ‘seas’ and ‘strange new worlds’ to the mix. This could almost have been a whole setting all on its own, and certainly more space could have been devoted to it in favour of some of the less interesting Deadworlds.

Of the lesser Deadworlds, ‘Tay Son Rebellion’ draws heavily on the section describing Asian Piracy to give something interesting, a big civil war that spreads beyond the borders of Vietnam to involve China and eventually armies of thinking zombie! There is potential here to mix in Enter the Zombie and thus add in Wuxia zombies, just as there is potential here for something exotic and more flavoursome than the first two Deadworlds. So it is a pity that this is as short as it is. Lastly, ‘The Aztec Lord’s Curse’ is as the title suggests another take upon the Aztecs and curses, and again is more interesting than ‘The Black Fleet’, though not by much. 

Physically, Aargh! Thar be Zombies! feels rushed and not quite up to the standard of previous supplements for All Flesh Must Be Eaten. As has already been mentioned, the editing is lacklustre at best, woeful at worst, whilst an actual feature of Eden Studios, Inc.’s house style actually leads to an annoying anachronism. The publisher alternates gender in terms of ‘he’, ‘she’, and so on, from one chapter to the next. The problem is that in a semi-historical book like Aargh! Thar be Zombies! this just looks anachronistic. Another annoyance is the use of the piratical vernacular. It works in the sections of colour fiction that precede each chapter, but not in the main text where it it is at odds with technical context of the book.

If you were looking to run a game set in the Age of Piracy using the UniSystem, then Aargh! Thar be Zombies! would be a good place to start—and if you wanted to add zombies and Vodou, then again Aargh! Thar be Zombies! would be a good place to start. Yet were you looking for inspiration, particularly from its Deadworlds, then whilst Aargh! Thar be Zombies! is not without its flavoursome and inspiring settings, the majority are uninspiring and uninteresting at worst, at best, just flat—or is that becalmed? The overall effect is to undermine the solid content to be found within the pages Aargh! Thar be Zombies! whose parts are better than the sum of its whole.

Thursday 12 February 2015

Kick the Bucket

In writing a review of Bucket of Doom: Death Dodging Party Game it would tempting to simply take my review of Cards Against Humanity and literally reskin it with the review of Bucket of Doom. Both use the same mechanic in that each turn one player has to match answers from each of the other player's hand to a given question and chooses the winning answer. Which makes both very similar to Apples to Apples, but what Bucket of Doom and Cards Against Humanity have in common is a mature subject which means that they are games for adults. Such a reskinning though, would be simplistic and unfair to Bucket of Doom.

Funded through Kickstarter and published by Big Potato, Bucket of Doom is a game in which you find yourself in incredibly dangerous or awkward situations and the only thing that you have to hand is very probably utterly useless. Like Cards Against Humanity, the packaging of Bucket of Doom is quite striking. Where Cards Against Humanity makes use of stark black and white throughout, Bucket of Doom actually comes in a bucket—a bright ‘toxic’ pink bucket. Inside can be found some five hundred cards, of which one hundred are Doom cards and four hundred are random Object cards. Also included in the box are the rules sheet, two voting pads, and two pencils.

The full colour Doom cards each give situation that it is deadly, or least perilous—and quite possibly controversial. For example, the simply perilous include ‘You’re an intrepid archaeologist and a giant boulder is chasing you down a dead-end tunnel’, ‘You’re James Bond strapped to a table. A redhot laser is burning a path towards your ‘bits’.’, or ‘Darth Vader senses that you did the ‘wanker’ sign behind his back. He starts suffocating you with his death pinch.’, whilst ‘You’ve been nailed to a cross for being nice to people.’ and ‘You are Edward Snowden and you’ve inadvertently boarded a flight to America.’ are certainly bordering on the controversial. The various Object cards range from ‘Record-breaking paper aeroplane’, ‘Hi-Vis Jacket’, ‘Bowl of Egg Whites’, and ‘Feather Pillow’ to ‘Justin Bieber’s Brain’, ‘A Grumpy Gnome named Gary’, ‘Full Colostomy Bag’, and ‘Number for a very prompt taxi service’. The Object cards are double-sided, white on one side, black on the other, and in a nice touch, have an object on each—thus giving not just four hundred objects, but eight hundred!

At the start of the game, each player receives eight Object cards. One player draws and reads out a Doom card and gives a few moments for the other players to look through their hands. Each will select one Object and think up a way of his using it to help his escape from the situation described on the Doom card. Everyone then takes it in turn to explain how the item described on their Object helps in their escape. Once the explanations are given, everyone gets to vote on the answers—of course you cannot vote on your escape plan—and the player with the most votes is awarded the Doom card. The next player reads out Doom card and so on and so on. The first player to garner three, five, or seven Doom cards—depending upon the length of the game—wins the game.
For example, it is Debbie’s turn to read out the question on a Doom card, which is, ‘Walking home after a night out wearing Lady Gaga’s meat dress you are attacked by militant vegans.’ Peter, Stef, and I select what we think are suitable Object cards from our hands and concoct our explanations. So Peter grabs ‘Harry Potter’s owl, Hedwig’ and sends the bird off to get help from the wizard, who will either save me or resurrect him should the vegans pulp him. I pull out a ‘10m roll of turkey foil’ and wrap it around myself so that not only is the dress hidden, but what the vegans see I am wearing is their own clothes reflected in the foil—thus I am one of them! Stef grabs a ‘Pregnancy test kit’ and with a shout of “Don’t hit me! Think of the baby. I’m only wearing the dress to satisfy my pregnancy cravings!” Everyone takes a moment to consider their vote, but it is unanimously in favour of Stef’s escape plan and he gets the Doom card.
Of course, that was a mild example, but both the Doom cards and the Object cards are likely to engender much stronger, if not viler escape plans. Physically, Bucket of Doom is as simple as its game play. Its production values feel do slightly cheap, in particular the quality of the cards meaning that that they are not as durable as they could be.

Although there is much that is similar between Cards Against Humanity and Bucket of Doom, the play of the former is absolute in terms of its results and is less inventive. This does not mean it no less fun, but in comparison, Bucket of Doom is more flexible in terms of its results and is more inventive because it requires a greater input upon the part of the players. In this it shares more in common with Mad Science University from Atlas Games—both it and Bucket of Doom involve storytelling, and this aspect of the game is dependent upon the players. Which means that the humour of the game is also dependent upon the players. If that does not work, then the game is no fun.

The similarities between Cards Against Humanity and Bucket of Doom: Death Dodging Party Game are undeniable, but Bucket of Doom is is just different enough to provide a slightly different playing experience to Cards Against Humanity. In the right group, in the right frame of mind, Bucket of Doom: Death Dodging Party Game is a fun, light, and probably offensive party game.

Probity & Purges

With Call of Cthulhu Seventh Edition not quite with us, its publisher, Chaosium, Inc. has instead been tempting us with number of scenarios that are compatible with the forthcoming rules update. Part of the publisher’s ‘one night of horror’ series, they include the toothlessly lacklustre Canis Mysterium: A Scenario With Bite and the much, much better Dead Light: Surviving One Night Outside Of Arkham, which is now joined by Cold Harvest: Roleplaying during the Great Purges of Stalin’s Russia. Written by Chad J. Boswer, the designer of Cthulhu Invictus, Cold Harvest lets the players be members of the Narodnyy Komissariat Vnutrennikh Del or the People's Commissariat for Internal Affairs. In other words, the NKVD!

In Cold Harvest the loyal officers of the NKVD are sent to a remote collectivised farming commune or sovkhoz, where there have been reports of anti-Soviet activity and a fall in the production of its main crop, flax. The investigators are surprised to find that many members of Krasivyi Okatbyr, the sovkhoz, all seem to be suffering from a strange lassitude that prevents them from working as hard as loyal Soviet citizens should. Others are violent, while some seem to be suffering from malignant deformities. Worse, by the time the investigators arrive there has been a murder. All this in a sovkhoz that was the previous year a model of Soviet activity and production. What has gone wrong?

Although the NKVD investigators come armed, Cold Harvest is not really a combat-oriented scenario. Its primary focus is upon investigation, even interrogation, but either way, still detective work—even if that detective work is backed by threats of deportation or death. Now whilst oddities abound throughout the scenario, the Mythos threat is underplayed and so is more effective for it. Mostly we see the effects of the Mythos and the advice for the Keeper all but states that he should keep the Mythos threat offstage. In the hands of a good Keeper this allows the oddness and the disturbed humanity of the sovkhoz to unnerve the players and their investigators. Though options are given to increase the Mythos activity, they threaten to push the scenario away from its weird atmosphere and its Purist sensibility. Anyway the challenge in Cold Harvest lies not in facing and defeating the cause of the weirdness, but in making the choices that decide the fate of the members of the sovkhoz—death or deportation.

One suggested option for playing Cold Harvest is one-on-one, that is, one Keeper and one player/investigator, which would work with the scenario’s toned down, Purist leanings. It does not work though with the historical details given in the scenario about how the NKVD operated. Essentially they were so feared and hated, that agents did not work alone.

Support for Cold Harvest includes plenty of historical detail, a set of eight pre-generated investigators, and a conversion guide so that the scenario can be run using Call of Cthulhu Sixth Edition or earlier incarnations of the game. One pleasing touch is the appendix acknowledging the existence of other scenarios for Call of Cthulhu set in Stalinist Russia. Not only does it list Bret Kramer’s Machine Tractor Station Kharkov-37 and Troy C. Wilhelmson’s The Terror, both Miskatonic University Library Association monographs published by Chaosium, Inc., it also lists Mike Ferguson’s Age of Cthulhu III: Shadows of Leningrad and E.S. Erkes’ ‘Secrets of the Kremlin’ from the TOME title, Glozel Est Authentique!. Further, it discusses how these four scenarios can be run as an intermittent campaign set during the Desperate Decade of the 1930s. This is a useful inclusion, though only for those of us who own a copy of Glozel Est Authentique! as it has long been out of print.

If there is an issue with Cold Harvest it is that it does not provide enough support for the players. The scenario does include a section on roleplaying investigators who are members of the NKVD. It is a useful section, even helpful, but the question has to be asked, why was it not included as a handout rather than being stuck in the middle of the book? After all, roleplaying a member of the NKVD is a markedly different challenge to that of playing a Private Eye or a dilettante. Further, this support is not carried on to the suggested campaign in that there are no guidelines for creating investigators who are members of the NKVD, surely something that would help the players identify with investigators who are alien twice over, that is Russian and members of the NKVD.

A minor niggle would be the keeping of the skill ‘Credit Rating’ rather than something more appropriate to the period and setting. It feels like an anachronism when like ‘Party Standing’ could have been substituted instead, especially when the scenario goes to the length of describing how the Credit Rating skill works in the Soviet Union.

Another niggle may be the similarities between it and Machine Tractor Station Kharkov-37. Yes, both take place on collective farms where there has been a drop in productivity, but there the similarity ends. The investigation process is different, the Mythos threat is different, and Cold Harvest possesses a moral aspect that Machine Tractor Station Kharkov-37 does not. In many ways, this makes Cold Harvest the more interesting of the two scenarios. After all, do the investigators have the ‘strength’ of character to participate in the Purges?

What is interesting in Cold Harvest is not necessarily its Mythos menace, but rather that it involves multiple menaces. Obviously the Mythos is one menace—and in terms of Call of Cthulhu, self-evident—but there are two other menaces present in the scenario. The first is distant, but is one that the investigators must answer to—their superiors in the NKVD. They will decide the investigators’ final fate should they survive the scenario, this decision looming over all of the investigators’ actions in Cold Harvest, should they fail in their assignment. The third menace in Cold Harvest is actually the player characters, the investigators. They are a danger to the residents of the Sovkhoz for they hold their fates in their hands as they have the power of life and death over them. They are also a danger to themselves, always looking to forward or bolster their standing with both the Party and their superiors. After all what better way to cement your loyalty than denounce the disloyal actions of another officer? Not since the days of the Judge Dredd RPG have the players so much power, whether it is to have someone sent to a labour camp for correction or simply executed for being ‘anti-Soviet’. This already instils paranoia and fear in anyone not associated with the NKVD, so why not the agency’s members?

Ultimately, there is no easy outcome to Cold Harvest. Though a Mythos threat hovers in the background throughout, the true monsters in Cold Harvest: Roleplaying during the Great Purges of Stalin’s Russia may be the player characters themselves. This is a pleasingly atmospheric affair which asks the question, ‘Can monsters make moral choices in an immoral system?’

Tuesday 10 February 2015

The Call of Cthulhu

H.P. Lovecraft’s stories are notoriously difficult to adapt to other media, but Michael Sabbaton manages to take the author’s signature short story, The Call of Cthulhu, and deftly distil it down to its malign influences in his one man stage adaption. At its heart is a compelling if plain wooden box that sits on pedestal at the left of the stage, exerting its influence to pull the audience back and forth through the madness, the paranoia, and the despair of those whose possession it falls into. The box is said to contain the ‘Horror in Clay’ that we learn depicts something beyond the comprehension of man, though mercifully the box is never opened* and we never see its contents.

*I had the opportunity to open the box but resisted… Laying my hand upon it was mercifully enough.

Beginning with Francis Wayland Thurston, Sabbaton slips back and forth to the characters in the story, first sculptor Henry Wilcox, then Thurston’s granduncle Professor Angell, followed by Inspector John Legrasse, and lastly, to the cultist, ‘Old Castro’. Each of these changes in personality and fragility is achieved with the simple adjustment of costume or the picking up of a prop, occasionally supported by a drop into darkness or crash of sound. In some cases, these changes actually mark the switch from one participant of a conversation to another. This is at first disconcerting, but as the story progresses, it serves to take us back from the Roaring Twenties through the characters to Legrasse’s fateful encounter with the strange, writhing , cavorting degenerates before the corpulently alien statuette deep in the New Orleans swamps. Before we know it, we come hurtling back through the lives of those that the ‘Horror in Clay’ has touched and disturbed, catching up on the fates of each the cast...

The play is staged very closely, with the small audience mere feet from the singular cast, their entering to find Sabbaton seemingly dozing, awaiting impervious to their arrival. With a bang—quite literally—Sabbaton stirs into action and is into the first of his sanity-deprived characters. From here, it is a fifty-minute tumble through near insanity into the utter absence of sanity. It is though, not a staging for the uninitiated, the audience needing to have an understanding of Lovecraft’s short story if it is grasp the finer points of the author’s intent. Fortunately for the aware, Sabbaton brings The Call of Cthulhu to life most effectively, ably supported by a well put together soundscape that works to open up the horror beyond the stage to somewhere behind the audience—especially during Legrasse’s assault on the cult.

Engrossing from start to finish, Sabbaton’s staging of The Call of Cthulhu is a blisteringly wrought affair, pleasingly focusing upon the effects of ‘Cthulhu’ and the Mythos, rather than directly on ‘Cthulhu’ and the Mythos.

Friday 6 February 2015

A Wilderness Expanded

All good RPGs need a campaign—and none more so than The One Ring: Adventures over the Edge of the Wild, the Middle Earth-set RPG from Cubicle Seven Entertainment. After all, this is the RPG set between the events described in The Hobbit and The Fellowship of the Ring, there is a known time line and thus a framework for a campaign. So we want to see how the ‘events’ of the future after the Battle of the Five Armies play out. Now The Heart of the Wild is not that campaign, but it is a companion to The Darkening of Mirkwood, which is that campaign. It is also a standalone supplement that details two thirds of the wilderland that is the focus for The One Ring—the Vales of Anduin along the banks of the Great River and the trackless forest of Mirkwood.

In detailing such a vast area, it expands upon the information given for the Loremaster in The One Ring, particularly the lands of the Elves of Mirkwood, the lands of the Woodmen, and the lands of the Beornings. As well as detailing the homes of the cultural origins open to player characters, they are also potential Sanctuaries for all player characters. Thankfully they are not the only ones described in The Heart of the Wild. Conversely, the supplement also describes some of the worst places in Middle Earth, none no worse of course—in Mirkwood at least—than Dol Guldur, the ‘Hill of Sorcery’ that for centuries was the refuge for the Necromancer. The supplement also includes an expanded bestiary and several new options for player characters.

After giving a history and an overview of the region, The Heart of the Wild takes the reader through the regions of the Vales of Anduin one by one and then it does the same for Mirkwood. For each region it gives a more detailed overview, a description of its typical wildlife, some notable characters, presents its notable places, and lastly presents various supplementary facts and relevant game information in sidebars.  So for the Vales of Gundabad where the waters of the Anduin rise, we are told that it is home to goats, rabbits, wild horses, and cattle—all hunted by hungry goblins when the heavy fogs roll in; the sparsely populated region is primarily home to goblins and orcs underground, and to wildly savage Hill-men of Gundabad above ground; and it is also home to trappers like Amfossa whilst with the death of Bolg, son of Azog, there is at last a new Orc prince—Gorgol, son of Bolg. The notable places in the region include the City of the Éothéod, the most northern outpost of the ancestors of the Rohirrm, now hollow ruins occupied by Orcs and Trolls; a secret outpost of the Dwarves, Hidden House, originally built to spy on  the Éothéod, but still used as a waystation by the Dwarves; and the Hill of Skulls, a lonely mound surrounded by stakes upon which rest the skulls of Orcs and Wargs, Dwarves and Men, and others, though no-one knows why… Sidebars cover the Hill-men of Gundabad and their sorcery, a Fellowship Phase undertaking, and the origins of the grudge that led to the construction of the Hidden House. From this, the Loremaster can draw out details as well as adventure and encounter ideas. 

Naturally, more attention is paid the settled areas around the Halls of Thranduil, the house of Beorn, and the three Woodmen settlements in the eaves of Mirkwood as well as to a certain extent, Dol Guldur. Notably, the Loremaster is directed to the core rules for more information on Beorn and whilst some may find this irksome, there really is no need for the repetition of information from the core rules. The book does suffer a little from repetition from one region to another, mostly in terms of the mundane details—the wildlife and the weather. This though is more of an issue if you read the book from start to finish, when really The Heart of the Wild is a reference work meant to be dipped into as needed. Such as for example when preparing to run and then running The Darkening of Mirkwood.

In terms of character options, The Heart of the Wild offers variations upon existing Cultures rather than new Cultures. This makes sense, since there are few Cultures and few Races in Middle Earth, at least in terms of those that can be played. The two Cultural variants are  the Wild Hobbits of the Anduin Vales and the Woodmen of Mountain Hall, both of which feel somewhat underwritten. The Wild Hobbits in particular probably could have warranted with their own Backgrounds as the ones given in the core rules are rather bucolic and cozy which is at odds with the reserved and secretive nature of the Wild Hobbits—Sméagol was after all a Wild Hobbit. For the Woodmen there is the Cultural Virtue of ‘River-blooded’, meaning that they have River Maiden ancestry, whilst ‘The Call of Mirkwood’ is for those Elves who have taken a greater joy in life and in doing so have accepted that they will fade rather than go into the West.

Rounding out The Heart of the Wild is a short bestiary. This adds new foes that are particular to areas presented in the supplement—Basilisks, Forest Goblins, Grim Hawks, Hunter Spiders, and so on. It also includes the stats and short write-ups for the individual foes described earlier in the text.These include Gorgol, Son of Bolg, Maghaz, Orc-Captain, the New Great Goblin, and the Children of Shelob. These are all useful additions to a game and setting that really does not need much in the way of monsters. After all, slaying monsters is rarely the point of The One Ring.

Physically, The Heart of the Wild is well presented. Just like the core rules for The One Ring, this supplement is done in earthy tones, both the graphical design and the illustrations that do much to capture the feel of Tolkien’s Middle Earth. The maps are decent, being mostly simple affairs. The map of Dol Guldur though is done as an illustration and has a pleasing air of menace to it.

The Heart of the Wild is of course the companion to The Darkening of Mirkwood and throughout the supplement references are made to the campaign. These are not overdone, though doubtless there may be more information contained within the campaign’s pages about specific locations. Yet it is also a companion to Tales from Wilderland, the anthology of scenarios for The One Ring, since The Heart of the Wild covers much the same area.

Whilst The Heart of the Wild is disappointing in one place—in its treatment of its new character options—it is a well written supplement. Where another publisher might have overwritten this and swamped the reader with unnecessary details, The Heart of the Wild feels appropriately sparse and light. After all,  it has to cover swathes of wilderness where there is little in way of civilisation or notable features, and this The Heart of the Wild does well.