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

Sunday 29 March 2015

An Esteren Mystery

The Monastery of Tuath is the fourth book for the French RPG, Les Ombres d'Esteren or Shadows of Esteren, published by Agate RPG. What has been so pleasing about this low dark, fantasy setting with Lovecraftian overtones is that these four releases have provided both plenty of background material as scenarios that part of the RPG’s campaign. This began with the very first release, Shadows of Esteren 0-Prologue which provided us with an introduction to the setting as well as a set of player characters/NPCs and three ready-to-play scenarios and was continued with the third release, Shadows of Esteren 2-Travels, which included a set of five extended encounters—not all of them of the highest quality, but some of them very good. Now those scenarios are joined by a full length affair, The Monastery of Tuath.

Like previous books in the line, The Monastery of Tuath was funded via Kickstarter. It comes as slim, fifty-page hardback accompanied by a folder of handouts and clues, all in gorgeous full colour. The book itself is divided equally into two sections, the first providing both background material on monasteries in Esteren and the particular monastery where the contents of the second half is set. That second half is ‘Vengeful Words’, a murder mystery inspired by—what else?—Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose. Now this could be terribly trite, even clichéd, both as a murder mystery and as a murder mystery in which magic and horror—Esteren of course being a dark, fantasy setting with Lovecraftian overtones—play a part, but fortunately, the authors have not only firmly based ‘Vengeful Words’ in the setting of Esteren, they have lifted it above being a cliché.

The Monastery of Tuath begins with an examination of monasteries and monastic life on the Tri-Kazel peninsula and the nation of Gwidre in particular as part of worship of the One. Essentially it covers how one can become a monk or nun—six years as an Adept before taking one's vows—and then the life and duties afterwards. The vows, and there are six of them, is where monastic life gets interesting. They include Frugality, Abstinence, Anonymity, Temperance, Abstention, and Obedience, and a newly sworn monk is expected to choose several of them to makes vows of, though not necessarily all of them as that can seem as if the monk is too ambitious, too career minded. Not very order of monks swears to the same vows, which can add a degree of politics and doctrinal interpretation to the game. Further, even when they do, the duties of the monks may mean that a monk cannot observe them all of the time—and that applies equally to religious life beyond the confines of monastic ground. So for example, members of all religious orders are expected to attend six masses per day, but the duties of a herbalist or physician may mean that he cannot attend all six and a party of Temple’s Blade knights on patrol could not interrupt their patrol to make their religious observances. Similarly, the ordinary followers of the One are expected to acknowledge the six daily masses if not strictly observe them as they go about their daily life.

As well as the title of this supplement, the ‘Monastery of Tuath’ is also a location on the Tri-Kazel peninsula and the location of the scenario, ‘Vengeful Words’. So the supplement also describes  the history, layout, and current staff and guests at the monastery. Indeed, part of the supplement’s colour fiction is devoted to that history—the story of the famous monk, Beren, canonised for his selfless healing work during a great plague. The isolation of the monastery in the Vale of Thoir and the veneration in which Saint Beren is held has meant that there is a danger of a doctrinal split as one as the monks at the Monastery of Tuath comes to favour the Saint over the One. The various NPCs at the monastery are described in some detail, especially their motivations, which are of course, vital in explain what is behind the events in ‘Vengeful Words’.

Getting to the truth of the events in ‘Vengeful Words’ is as tricky as you would imagine, with red herrings and misdirection aplenty—and that is before the Leader incorporates some of the suggested staging and gamemastering advice given in the adventure. While the Leader will need to make a careful read to keep on top of everything, the players are given help of a sort through their own efforts with a set of full colour clue cards. These come in their own little folder and add a certain verisimilitude to the play of the scenario, which should last one good session or two shorter ones. Now as solid a scenario as ‘Vengeful Words’ is, there is one issue with it. This is the fact that although it is a minor part within the larger Shadows of Esteren campaign, it takes place within this campaign’s environs and there is every danger that the player characters might go rushing off to deal with an aspect the campaign that they are neither ready to, or capable of, dealing with, and that The Monastery of Tuath does not address in any detail. Thus the Leader will needs to take care in steering his player characters away from a course of action that might get them killed.

Physically, The Monastery of Tuath is beautifully presented. Although the book needs an edit here and there, the artwork and illustrations are beautiful, fully painted pieces that are well used in the book. The scenario is well organised and again makes use of icons—‘Gore’, ‘Suspense’, ‘Psychology’, and ‘Supernatural’ to indicate its various elements as advice and important pieces of information—to help the Leader. Apart from the already mentioned issue with the scenario, one other grumble with The Monastery of Tuath is it could have included more information on the various monastic orders to be found on the Tri-Kazel peninsula.

As many scenarios as we have had for—to which ‘Vengeful Words’ is fine addition—it would be nice to have something longer and a bit meatier for both the Leader and his players to get into. The scenario also makes for an excellent destination for the player characters to be going to when the Leader runs the minor encounters to be found in Shadows of Esteren 2-Travels. Coupled with the solid source material on monasteries to be found in the other half of the book and The Monastery of Tuath is a short, if decent addition to Shadows of Esteren.

Saturday 21 March 2015

Supernatural Secrets of the Sands

Achtung! Cthulhu: Guide to North Africa opens up the core focus of Modiphius Entertainment on the war in Europe and brings Lovecraftian investigative horror in World War 2 to a whole new theatre—the desert war. In doing so it explores two wars and just a limited time frame. The first is of course between the Desert Fox and the Desert Rats, between Field Marshal Rommel and ultimately General Montgomery, fought with tanks, minefields, and men across the burning sands that stretch from Morocco in the West and Egypt in the East. The second is the hidden war, a ‘game’ of cat and mouse as more secret than secret organisations on both sides try to ascertain and thwart each other’s plans. The period for this setting is little more than two years, between 1941 and 1943, during which time battle will ebb and flow across harsh sands…

As with the core books for the line—Achtung! Cthulhu: Keeper’s Guide to the Secret War and Achtung! Cthulhu: Investigator’s Guide to the Secret WarAchtung! Cthulhu: Guide to North Africa is written for use with both Call of Cthulhu, Sixth Edition and Savage Worlds. It perhaps gets a little busy in places where the writing has to switch between explaining the rule systems, but overall the supplement is well written. The supplement’s single map of North Africa is also done in full, vibrant colour, actually cover all but the south of the continent. The book itself is done in full colour, but in muted shades as is standard for the line, with decent, if stylised artwork, the layout done as a burgeoning sheaf of documents.

The supplement begins by setting the scene, with both an extensive chronology of the war fought, month by month from May, 1939 until November, 1943 and an extensive gazetteer of North Africa. Both it should be noted also cover East Africa and to an extent, the Middle East, and then to a lesser extent West Africa, because battles were also fought there. Primarily against the Italians in the Horn of Africa, but also against the Axis backed insurgents in Iran and Iraq and the activities of Vichy France in her colonies. The discussion of SOE’s fractious operations that also hamper the American  amateurs of the OSS against the Abwehr’s extensive network sets the background for intelligence operations in the region. Further chapters detail the arms and armour, equipment and other vehicles fielded throughout the conflict with a particular emphasis upon the Italian armed forces as Mussolini's imperial ambitions mean that North Africa is a major theatre of operations for them. Interesting points here note that all sides would often issue and reissue similar uniforms and the lack of armour early in the war mean that some Allied forces field Italian tanks! Of course, fighting in the hot and arid environment of North Africa brings its own dangers, so full rules are provided for dehydration, heat stroke, sunburn, and sunblindness as well as scavenging in the desert.

In terms of characters, Achtung! Cthulhu: Guide to North Africa provides a surprising array of new options. These include a new version of classic Call of Cthulhu Occupation, the Archaeologist, as well as the expected Occupations for members of the Long Range Desert Group, Special Air Service “Jeep Raider”, and Privateer, No. 1 Demolition Squadron (Popski’s Private Army), there are some interesting additions. These include members of the 28th Māori Battalion, Greek Sacred Band, Askari (tribal soldiers), and more. These are supported by new Background and other Edges such as National Identities for India, New Zealand, and South Africa, and Comfortably Numb—that is, inured to the mental trauma of combat.

Achtung! Cthulhu: Guide to North Africa being a supplement for a game of Lovecraftian investigative horror means that the Mythos is not ignored. There are two strands to this in Achtung! Cthulhu: Guide to North Africa. The first is what the Nazi secret organisations of Achtung! Cthulhu—Black Sun and Nachte Wölfe—are up to, which primarily consists of long range expeditions deep into the desert and learning of these will probably result in the player characters making equally long trips accompanied by the Long Range Desert Group or Special Air Service. The other strand develops the Mythos indigenous to the region, in particular expanding upon the origins of the Necronomicon, upon the history and inhabitants of the Lost City of Irem, and upon the worship of Sebek. All three are solid additions to the Call of Cthulhu canon, that upon Irem in particular, expanding as it does in a more interesting fashion than has been done for Call of Cthulhu previously. 

Yet despite describing various other locations and adding an array of artefacts, spells, and tomes—many of them new to Savage Worlds if not Call of Cthulhu—the section on the Cthulhu Mythos does feel underwhelming. For what it does not do is develop or update any of the Mythos threats or entities known to be at large in Egypt. For outside of New England, Egypt is and always has been, a most notorious hotbed of Mythos activity, whether that is with the Brotherhood of the Black Pharaoh, the Brotherhood of the Beast, or the worshippers of Bast—discussion of the former being an especially odd exclusion given the inclusion of Masks of Nyarlathotep in the bibliography. Now this exclusion may be down to the limits of the license and it may well be down to the space limitations of the book, but either way, this exclusion is definitely a pity, because it would miss out on the other opportunities and adversaries already present that have to be doing something during World War 2.

The Keeper is ably supported by new spells and Mythos tomes as well as a Mythos bestiary and a ‘who’s who’ of the conflict. These include ordinary NPCS—both civilians and soldiers, such as Arabic Museum Director, Society Matron, Sonderkommando Dora, and Polizia Dell’ Africa Italiana—and the leading figures of the conflict, such as Rommel and Montgomery, Mussolini and Bradley, and King Farouk I and Haile Selassie. Now none of these leading figures are given stats, but that is intentional and none of them really need the stats. A number of examples of the Mythos entities and creatures described earlier in the book are also given stats, whilst rounding out the supplement is a trio of adventure seeds. These are not all that interesting, especially given that the book contains better hooks for ideas elsewhere in its pages. 

Of course Achtung! Cthulhu: Guide to North Africa has a lot to cover and cannot be expected to cover everything. It certainly covers the mundane side of the North African war in an engaging and informative way, and were the Keeper to want to run ordinary missions and operations, then he will find just about everything he would want in the pages of this supplement. Further, he will also find lots of extra details, colour information and descriptions of interesting personalities and places that he can bring to his game. Where it feels underdeveloped is not in terms of the material new to the Mythos, but in terms of the greater Mythos, which means that the Keeper will have to develop this material himself. Yet despite this disappointment, Achtung! Cthulhu: Guide to North Africa is a solid supplement providing plenty of material for the Keeper to take the secret war into the harsh sands of North Africa.

Friday 20 March 2015

Whither the Indies?

What is remarkable about Sail to India is that it packs an incredibly big game in tiny box, both in terms of its theme and its sometimes harshly efficient Euro style game play. From the designer of String Railways and the Origins award winning Trains, Hisashi Hayashi, and published by Alderac Entertainment Group as part of its Big in Japan line, it is a game of mercantile exploration and adventurism. Designed for three to four players, aged twelve up, it is a game of resource management and worker placement, that sees the participants attempt to sail to the orient in search of glory and riches.

Sail to India is set during the Age of Discovery. The Mediterranean is under Osman Turk control and the great empire of Portugal seeks trade routes to the East. To do so, its merchants and nobles are dispatching explorers to sail south along the coast of Africa and round the Cabo da Boa Esperança in search of a route to India. Each player must manage his resources, and know when to invest in his ships and technological advances, when to discover new ports and establish facilities, and when to reap the riches and the glory.

Thus Sail to India has big themes, but where a classic board game might come with a big board and counters to represent the ships and various goods and buildings. The little box that is Sail to India does it all with just twenty-eight large cards plus thirteen wooden cubes per player. Of these cards, three are given to each player. These are a Domain card, used to track a player’s wealth, the speed of his ships, and his technology; a Historian card, used to track a player’s Victory Points; and a Reference card. He also receives three cubes to invest in technology, one to track his ships’ speed (initially one, but can be bought up to three), and starting wealth (varies upon starting order). This leaves eight cubes, which essentially represent investments that a player can make as ships, goods, buildings, wealth, and glory (Victory Points).

Of the remaining cards, they form the route to India, consisting of coastal towns along the coast of Africa. Each Coastal Town consists of two buildings—churches, markets, and strongholds—which grant Victory Points when built, trade goods that can be sold for wealth, potential Victory Points at game's end, and the sea. They are laid out in a line, with Lisboa at one end, followed by the coastal towns, of which three start face-up. They are known destinations. The others will be revealed as ships sail further and further round the coast of Africa and beyond until the last, India, is reached. At game's start each player also places one of his cubes as a ship on Lisboa.

On his turn, a player has several options, but can only do two of them. These include employing markers, moving ships, selling trade goods, constructing buildings, acquiring technology, and increasing ship speed. Employing ships means taking a cube from a player’s stock and paying one wealth to turn it into a ship in Lisboa. Moving ships involves a player moving any or all of his ships in any direction, up to his ships’ speed. If he moves his ships into a new coastal town, it is turned over and he earns Victory Points. To sell trade goods, a player moves his ships from the sea into the trade good spaces on the coastal towns. These are sold for wealth and Victory Points, the greater the number of types of good, the greater the reward. The markers for the trade goods are returned to Lisboa. For two wealth, a player can turn a ship into a building which now belongs to that player—churches give two Victory Points; markets only give one, but serve as a permanent trade good; and strongholds also only give one, but also serve as a starting point instead of Lisboa. To acquire technology, a player pays the coast and places a technology marker on the correct space on the technology cards. There are three of these cards, giving a total of twelve technologies. They have various effects, such as Printing Press giving a Victory Point when a technology is acquired, the Factory giving extra wealth when trade goods are sold, or Mission Church giving extra Victory Points for churches built. A technology can only be purchased once. Lastly, a player can increase his ships’ speed, first to two, and then three.

Play lasts an hour. It ends when the last coastal town is turned over and India is discovered, or when two players have run out of cubes. After that, everyone gets another turn and the game ends.

What makes Sail to India challenging is three factors. First, a player only has eight cubes to use as ships, trade goods, buildings, and so on. Second, they are interchangeable—ships can become trade goods which become ships, ships become buildings, and so. Third, a player needs to use some of these cubes to track his wealth and Victory Points, and since the tracks for both only go up to five, if a player earns enough to have six or more wealth or Victory Points, then he needs extra cubes—which have to come from those in play and not from those in stock. If a player has no cubes in play available, then he cannot track this extra wealth or Victory Points. Essentially, keeping track of his wealth and his glory (Victory Points) takes effort as reflected by the need for the extra cubes.

Sail to India is nicely presented. The cards are easy to use, the reference cards are very handy, and the rules clearly written. The artwork is in keeping with the game’s enjoyable theme, which is elegantly implemented in the game play. Similarly elegant is the balance between taking actions and using cubes and using cubes to keep track of a player’s wealth and Victory Points. Above all, Sail to India packs a lot gameplay and choices in quite a small box.

Friday 13 March 2015

For Cultured Friends II

Following on from the near sellout success of The Excellent Travelling Volume #1, James Maliszewski publishes the second issue of this fanzine that provides direct support for Empire of the Petal Throne: The World of Tékumel, TSR Inc.’s second RPG published, as well as indirect support for any RPG set on Tékumel, including the very latest, UNIgames’ Béthorm: Tabletop Role-Playing on the Plane of Tékumel. Despite it being just twenty-eight pages in length, there was a lot to like about The Excellent Travelling Volume #1, in particular its patron descriptions and the included adventure. The good news is that The Excellent Travelling Volume #2 is equally as likeable and provides even better support for ‘Petalheads’ as Maliszewski terms them in his introduction to this issue.

Again, The Excellent Travelling Volume #2 comes as a twenty-eight page, digest-sized booklet, illustrated with greyscale pictures. Inside are just seven sections. All but two of them focus on a single location—Sokátis, the City of Roofs, the Tsolyáni city close to Salarvyá and Pecháno in the far east of Tsolyánu. We are given a detailed history and description of the city, a list of its notable clans and temples, plus customs and features. Of course, the most obvious of the latter is the fact that the city is virtually roofed over, resembling a Salarvyáni city rather than a Tsolyáni one, but in addition, the city possesses extensive ‘Tsuru’úm’ or underworlds beneath the city and is located near a valley said to house one of the keys to the prison that holds Ksárul, Ancient Lord of Secrets, Doomed Prince of the Blue Room, Master of Magic and Sorcery. This makes the city important to worshippers of Ksárul, but it is important to worshippers of Sárku, the Five-Headed Lord of Worms, Master of the Undead, Guide into Darkness, the Demon-Lord of Decay. This is important because of when The Excellent Travelling Volume is set. This is firmly in the 2350s before the death of Emperor Hirkáne and Prince Dhich’uné’s coup and so the relationships that the various clans and temples have with both Sárku and Prince Dhich’uné colour the description of the city.

A decent map of Sokátis is given, along with a key, whilst a second map details part of the underworld under the city. Simon Forster’s maps possess an old fashioned quality, rough enough to impart a sense of the city having grown rather than been designed. The map and description of the underworld is only a snapshot, so it does feel somewhat lacking in focus. Further support for Sokátis comes in the form of more Patrons—arguably one of the best features in The Excellent Travelling Volume #1—and there are another five given here. As before, they  are done so in the format of Patrons a la Traveller, that is, an NPC and four to five options as what might be really going on. The five NPCs are very different, what they want is very different, and each of these Patrons is essentially the outline of a mini-scenario that the GM needs to develop. Any one of the five will tie the player characters into events in and around Sokátis and they are easily adapted to the Tékumel RPG of the GM’s choice and it is good to see their being retained for this issue.

The scenario in The Excellent Travelling Volume #2  is ‘Lost and Found’. It is more of a situation that the player characters—who might be foreigners or nakomé—can stumble into and perhaps come out not smelling of chlén dung. The problem with this detailed situation is that there perhaps too much potential for the player characters to wander in and then wander out of the scenario, missing parts of the scenario in the process. The GM may well need to nudge his players back on track more than is necessary. Nevertheless, this is decent support for the setting of Sokátis, if not quite an actual scenario.

Rounding out The Excellent Travelling Volume #2 are two articles that bookmark the Sokátis content. The first of these is ‘The Adventurer’, a new character Class that has been adapted from an article that appeared in The Dragon #31. Written by Victor Raymond, well-known ‘Petalhead’ and the first contributor to the fanzine, it describes what is essentially a non-specialist who can know a little bit of everything, from Courtesan/Don Juan and Alchemist to swordsman and a little magic, but never master anything. Essentially, it is a catchall type of character, though it has the potential to become an ‘agent’ for one faction or another. The second is a simple set of tables for ‘Random Tsolyáni Faction Names’, which is essentially a filler article, but it is just a page and it does add flavour.

Physically, The Excellent Travelling Volume #2 is better than the first issue. The writing is more focussed and the physical presentation is cleaner and clearer. If there is a physical issue with the issue, it is that the cover is not as interesting or flavoursome as that of the first issue.

The Excellent Travelling Volume #2 is a better issue than The Excellent Travelling Volume #1. There is more flavour and more detail in its pages, though if you have no interest in Sokátis, then this issue is not for you. If you are interested in Sokátis, then this issue is excellent, though annoyingly, some of the material does send the characters away from the city, leaving the GM to develop the surrounding area himself—more details on the surrounds in the next issue perhaps? It is perhaps let down by a slightly weak scenario, but the attention to Sokátis is good and hopefully, it will become the house setting for The Excellent Travelling Volume.

Wednesday 11 March 2015

Age Past: The Incian Age

Age Past: The Incian Sphere is a self-published, ambitious fantasy RPG designed by Jeff Mechlinski as Strangelet Machine Games. It comes as sturdy, full-colour hardback. lavishly illustrated in bright colourful artwork. The backcover blurb makes much of the fact that it has been designed to allow player to create the ‘archetype’ characters they want, its high number of spells and powers, cinematic combat, the number of monsters, its art and setting, and the options for adjusting the style of play. All of which are laudable goals, but whether it quite achieves them is another matter.

Age Past: The Incian Sphere is set on Terres, a world of magic, mechanisms, and heroics where the continents are separated by great water, mountains, or crevasses—of which the Incian Sphere is one. Home to eleven different races, the Incian Sphere is where magic is strongest on Terres and is also where worship in the gods is greatest and they at their strongest. Magic is commonly practised and many possess magical powers even if they do not cast spells, although in the Incian Sphere, the practice of ‘werking’, that of fusing the soul with magic—often creating undead in the process—is outlawed. Whilst magic is prevalent, gunpowder and firearms are common and great machines are often used as weapons of war.

The eleven races of the Incian Sphere are the Asuri Tal, nomadic gypsy-like trolls known for their charisma; the Guun Inci, four-eyed, odorous and unreliable if resourceful goblins; Hammer Dir or rock dwarves; the Mechari Clans, clockwork-Terres hybrids; Orkis or orcs; Silpen Kai or mana-fused elves; Straad, the four-armed wood folk that possess thick bark-like skin; Theros Breeds or half-beasts that are either dog-like (Wolva) or cat-like (Fexi); and the Terres Incian, split between the Altrins, the men of the Great Republic, the Fringe Walkers, men of the frontier, and the Noquin Caste, men of the desert. All eleven are the creation of one or more of the gods of the Incian Sphere and each of the eleven is available to play as a player character.

A character in Age Past: The Incian Sphere is defined by four Heroic Traits—Reaction, Brawn, Charisma, and Intellect—that set the base line for the character and how he is played. Grouped under the Heroic Traits is a number of Talents, which seem to be divided between purchased Attributes—Agility, Endurance, Influence, Mind, Spirit, and Strength—and other factors (though whether these other factors are ‘skills’ is unclear). In addition, a character may have spells, powers, and professions, the latter being an area of training that the character either does or not have. If he has, then he can roll for using the combination of Traits and Talents. A character also has to have a background story and a randomly designed Godmark—the latter an arcane symbol like a birthmark that indicates the character’s destiny. Creating a character is quite involved and has the player assigning points to his character’s Heroic Traits from one pool of points and to his Talents from another before using one pool of Build Points to buy Powers such as Apprentice Spellcaster, Acrobat, Danger Sense, Finesse Fighter, Professor, Taunt, and so on. The player then selects his character’s Race, Professions, Languages, and Morality and Flaw, before penultimately customising the character with one last pool of Build Points. Lastly, each character receives a pool of Gear Points and Gold to spend on equipment.

Our sample character is a knight from the Republic of Altrinaer. He currently serves the merchant house his father heads and has been assigned to guard a caravan that is taking a shipment of goods from the port of Halfar to Logher.

Name: Ronald Erisbot
Level 1 Altrins Might 2

Wounds: 7 Luck: 1
Actions: 4 Toughness: 5
Mana: 18 Speed: 25’ (5”)

Core Morality: Heroic
Moral Drive: Gallant
Demeanour: Brash


Destiny: Leader
Personal: Adventurer
Prime: Warrior
Drive: Glutton

Racial Traits

Reaction: 0; AGL: 1; Initiative: 2; Stealth: 1; Subterfuge: 1
Brawn: 1; Athletics: 2; Combat: 3; END: 2; STR: 2
Charisma: 1; Entertain: 1; Etiquette: 2; Guile: 0; INF: 3
Intellect: 0; Awareness: 1; Insight: 1; MND: 1; SPR: 2

Politician, Scribe

Relicword, Western Speak


Armour Expertise (1), Captain (1), Combat Master (1), Diplomat (1), Heroic Actions (1), Legacy (5), Nobility (1), Racial Weapon (Shortsword), Shield Blow (1), True Seeing (1)

Mail Armour & Round Shield, Halberd, Shortsword, Crossbow (20 bolts)
Traveller’s Clothing, Noble Clothing, Horse

One obvious area of confusion in the character design process is the use of the word, ‘archetype’. In Age Past: The Incian Sphere describes itself as an ‘archetype based system’, which it suggests is a way to eliminate the need for a Class based system—as per Dungeons & Dragons, et al—by allowing the player to create a character of his own specific design using the rules given. The question is, are players meant to be designing characters that are archetypical of the setting or not, because an archetype in this instance would be a character that is typical for the setting, as in the Street Samurai for Shadowrun or the Ratcatcher and his dog in Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay.

Age Past: The Incian Sphere compounds this confusion by listing multiple archetypes and giving numerous sample characters, which are probably archetypes too. Further, according to the ‘Rule of the Archetype’, when a character performs a task that symbolises his archetype, his player can call for an Archetype Roll, which will turn a failed roll into a success and a success roll into a critical success. Now this probably works if a player has selected an archetype, but surely the point of the character creation process in Age Past: The Incian Sphere is not to build archetypes?

Conversely, whilst Age Past: The Incian Sphere is not a Class system, it is a Level system. Upon reaching a new Level, a character will receive more Might—this being a measure of a character’s reputation—and more Build Points. These can be spent to improve the character as per the customisation stage of the creation process. Interestingly, not every Power is available to purchase at every Level. For example, the Precise Strike Power is only available at Levels one, four, eight, and twelve, so a character can select it at First Level and then not again until he is Fourth Level. Of course if it was not selected at First Level, a character could still purchase it at Second or Third Level before doing so again at Fourth Level. What this does is prevent a player from making his character overly specialised too quickly.

Mechanically, Age Past: The Incian Sphere uses its own mechanics called the ‘Elegant10’ system. It is a dice pool, roll and keep system that uses only ten-sided dice. To attempt an action, a player selects a Heroic Trait and a Talent to form a pool of dice. When rolled, the highest result counts, but it is not quite as simple as that. For each ten rolled, a player can add +2 to the result, but he can also hold dice back to add an automatic +1 to the end result for each die held back. An easy difficulty is eight, moderate difficulty is ten, hard is twelve, and so on. A roll of under half the difficulty is a fumble, whilst rolling double the difficulty is a critical success. 
For example, the caravan that Ronald is guarding is attacked by a band of Guun Inci and one of them has got under the hooves of his horse and stabbed it in the leg! In response, the horse has reared and fallen, not only throwing Ronald to the ground, but trapping his foot. As the four-eyed and green Guun Inci advances, Ronald’s player must roll to get free. The GM sets the difficulty at Moderate and so the player takes up three dice—one for his Brawn and two for his STR—and decides that he really needs to get out, so puts one die aside to get a +1 bonus. With the other two, he rolls an 8 and a 9. Fortunately, he held a die back and uses its +1 to get a total of 10 and succeeds.
 On one level, everyone can cast spells in Age Past: The Incian Sphere—or at least they can use spell-like Powers that are fuelled by Mana, such as Arc Shot, which enables a character to shoot or throw a missile weapon around corners and obstacles. This uses two Mana. Normally though, a spellcaster needs to purchase the Apprentice Spell Caster Power, which gives a character access to one or several schools of magic, of which there are fourteen. Initially with Apprentice Spell Caster, the magic user will know all of the spells in his chosen schools up to certain. Later on, a character can increase the level of all spells known just like any other Power. Alternatively, a character could take the Psionic Power and learn how to learn a very limited number of spells through force of will alone. This allows a character to back up his Talents with magical support—for example, Heal Gash will be useful to any character, Shape Stone would allow a thief to manipulate stone walls, and Recall would allow a bureaucrat or researcher to remember that useful little detail. It is costly for a Psionic character to cast spells and he can cast fewer of them, but they are cast silently and without any gestures.

Our sample spellcaster is Mog Banag, a vicious little Guun Inci who was the concubine of the tribal shaman. She learned to cast spells from him before murdering him and the chief of the tribe in a coup. After demonstrating her power to the tribe they were in awe of her, especially as she seemed to know when they plotting against her. This was due to Oogie, her tarantula familiar. Mog now leads attacks on passing caravans, using her magic to support the raids.

Name: Mog Banag
Level 1 Guun Inci

Wounds: 5 Luck: 1
Actions: 3 Toughness: 6
Mana: 18 Speed: 25’ (5”)

Core Morality: Selfish
Moral Drive: Treacherous
Demeanour: Callous


Destiny: Defeated
Personal: Antagonist
Prime: Thief
Drive: Dishonest

Racial Traits
Elusive, Evade 1, Physical Integrity, 50% immunity versus blind

Reaction: 1; AGL: 1; Initiative: 1; Stealth: 2; Subterfuge: 3
Brawn: 0; Athletics: 1; Combat: 2; END: 1; STR: 1
Charisma: 1; Entertain: 1; Etiquette: 0; Guile: 1; INF: 1
Intellect: 1; Awareness: 1; Insight: 1; MND: 4; SPR: 3

Alchemist, Chef, Tailor, Trapper

Greenskin, Western Speak

School of Blood, School of Mind & Memory, School of Necromancy, School of Shadow

Apprentice Spell Caster Power (1), Familiar (1), Ghoul Tongue (1), Link Eyes (1), Poison Master (1), Taunt (1)

Casting spells involves rolling a pool formed from the caster’s Intellect and MND. For the most part, this roll is unnecessary except where the spell’s effect will be opposed. This will be the caster’s Intellect and MND versus the target’s Intellect and MND. Combat works in a similar fashion, with opposed rolls of the attacker’s Brawn and Combat versus the defender’s Combat and Parry bonuses from shield or weapon if parrying, or the defender’s AGL and dodge bonuses if dodging. Damage rolls are based on the attacker’s STR plus bonuses from his weapon, the resulting roll having to overcome the defender’s Toughness and armour. The number of dice rolled depends on whether the attacker is making a Swift Attack—which only takes one Action, but halves the attacker’s STR for the damage roll, or a Strong Attack—which is at full STR for the damage roll, but takes two Actions.

Full combat rules are provided to run Age Past: The Incian Sphere using miniatures as well as critical hits and advanced combat tactics. One element that feels odd is the use of Actions in that on his initiative order a character uses his Actions, whilst everyone else—including allies and enemies—stands around. Either is still free to defend themselves by parrying or dodging, but otherwise it seems odd that they can do nothing. One option here would be to count down through initiative Action by Action rather en bloc initiative by initiative, which would give combat more of a flowing feel. 
In our sample combat, the knight, Ronald Erisbot has managed to free himself from his fallen horse, whilst its attacker, the Guun Inci, Mog Banag, has danced to the other side of the fallen mount. Combat now ensues with both Mog Banag and Ronald Banag rolling two dice (Reaction and Initiative). The result is 1 and 9 for Mog and 4 and 5 for Ronald, so with a 9 for Initiative, Mog acts first. The Guun Inci leaps over the body of the thrashing horse—the GM says that this will take two Actions from Mog’s three—and attempts a Swift Attack with his dagger. For this Mog rolls one die (Brawn, Combat, but loses a die because of his dagger) and gets a 10. Ronald does not yet have a weapon drawn, but is wearing a round shield on his arm, so attempts to parry as a reflexive act that costs him no Actions. For he rolls three dice (Brawn and Combat with no modifiers for the shield) and gets 5, 9, and 9. This would be a failure, but he uses his Combat Master Power to add add +2 to the 9 and beat attack roll with an 11. It is now Ronald’s turn. First he gets up and draws his shortsword—this takes two Actions—before delivering another Strong Attack with his newly drawn blade for another two Actions. For this he rolls four dice (Brawn, Combat, plus a die for his shortsword), but decides to hold two of them for a +2 bonus. The rolls are 9 and 10, so Ronald selects the 9 and adds the bonus for the kept dice and the 10 for a total of 14. This is not looking good for Mog, who again tries to dodge, but the best he can roll is 6 and 7. Since this is half of Ronald’s hit, this is a critical hit. For his damage roll Ronald rolls three dice (Brawn and STR) and gets a result of 4, 8, and 9, the 9 overcoming Mog’s Toughness. The shortsword inflicts 1 Wound as it slashes at the Guun Inci’s arm muscles, forcing Mog to lose 2 STR and drop his dagger. Things are not looking good for Mog… 
When the Guun Inci responds, it is with a spell. First Mog checks with the GM that the horse is dead, before casting Explode Corpse. For this she rolls five dice (Intellect and MND) against which Ronald will roll just one (Reaction and AGL) in order to save for half damage from the blast of tooth and bone. Mog would also have to save, but her Elusive Racial Power grants her a 25% chance to avoid blast attacks and she rolls 19%, so she does. So Mog rolls three dice and keeps two. The rolls are 2, 4, and 9, to which Mog adds +2 for a total of 11. Unfortunately Ronald only rolls a 2, meaning not only a failed save, but a critically fumbled save. So he suffers two extra damage on top of the three that he suffers for standing over his horse when it exploded, but then the GM allows him some protection from his ring mail, so he only suffers four Wounds—ouch! With her last Action, Mog lashes out with her Ghoul Tongue, a Power that grants her a poison strike with her tongue! Things are not looking good for Ronald... 
To support the setting, Age Past: The Inician Sphere gives lists of interesting magic items; rules for crafting—important for poisoners and alchemists, but covers also traps and Werking; monsters from angelis and demenos to clockworks and shadows; and a set of tools for the GM. The latter includes advice and reference tables, but also a short adventure. ‘Horror Crawl’ is a one-night affair that is decent enough, but really does not quite bring out what sets Age Past: The Inician Sphere apart from any other fantasy RPG

Physically, Age Past: The Inician Sphere actually looks good. The layout is clean, the artwork is vibrant and striking, though the layout is dense. Where it suffers is in the writing and the editing, particularly in the background material, where often the language and style is stilted. Fortunately, the writing settles down once it gets into the rules, but still it does need an edit.

Being self-published and ambitious, Age Past: The Incian Sphere suffers from a number of problems. One of these is the aforementioned writing and in parts, poor editing, but there are at its core two fundamental design problems with it. First, it is too ambitious, setting itself an objective that it cannot achieve—being suitable as a RPG for anyone who has never played one before. Second, it fails to inspire. There are no hooks or suggestions as to what the adventurers do or are trying to achieve and the background lacks the dynamism that might inspire the GM to write scenarios. Indeed, the game as a whole has no elevator pitch that sums up what Age Past: The Incian Sphere is. For example, the elevator pitch for Pinnacle Entertainment Group’s Deadlands might be ‘Confronting horror in the Weird West’ whilst that of Shadowrun could be ‘Fantasy and magic return and tries to survive in a cyberpunk future where corporations and dragons rule’. The reason why Age Past: The Inician Sphere needs such an elevator pitch is because it needs a good hook—a good hook that will set it apart from other fantasy RPGs. The overall effect of which is likely to make it difficult for the GM to impart the setting to his players.

There is no denying the ambition and love that has gone into creating Age Past: The Incian Sphere. In the hands of an experienced GM, there the tools here to run a game, but it is still too complex for a beginning GM. Unfortunately, it needs more of a professional touch and development, in particular to bring the world alive and to give the player characters a sense of purpose. Age Past: The Incian Sphere is at best something to work with, but it needs development and probably a second edition.

Saturday 7 March 2015

The Fifth Doctor

The hallmark of each and every regeneration is that Doctor Who got a makeover—a different Doctor, often different companions, a change in tone, and a change in the type of stories told. This was certainly the case from the Fourth Doctor to the Fifth Doctor. Where Tom Baker’s Fourth Doctor was bohemian, brooding, and alien, yet also whimsical and charming, the Fifth Doctor was empathetic, trusting—often too trusting, and possessed a vulnerability not seen in the Doctor before. The choice of casting was a marked difference too. Where Tom Baker had been a relative unknown, Peter Davison was a household name, having played the role of Tristan Farnon in the popular television version of James Herriot's All Creatures Great and Small, which bought a lot of new fans to Doctor Who. Whilst the Fifth Doctor inherited most of his companions from the Fourth Doctor, he actually traveled with a greater number of them, typically three at any one time. More time was given to the companions too, their stories driving the show rather than the Doctor’s, though this was not always popular as one or two of the companions were not liked. Lastly, where the Fourth Doctor’s adventure had involved humour, horror, and pastiches such as The Brain of Morbius and The Talons of Weng-Chiang, the adventures of the Fifth Doctor were primarily Science Fiction stories, many of which involved returning villains.

Thus is set the stage for The Fifth Doctor Sourcebook, the fifth entry in Cubicle Seven Entertainment’s celebration of the series’ fiftieth anniversary for the Ennie-award winning Doctor Who: Adventures in Time and Space roleplaying game. Where The Fourth Doctor Sourcebook had understandedably been the largest in the series to date, having had to cover some forty stories, The Fifth Doctor Sourcebook only has to cover half that number, so is a shorter book by far, much like the earlier sourcebooks for the Second Doctor and Third Doctor.

Yet from the very start, The Fifth Doctor Sourcebook seems somewhat lacking… The very subject matter of the first chapter, ‘Playing in the Fifth Doctor’s Era’ merits two pages. Given the radical switch in tone and type of story in the Fifth Doctor's period, this seems barely adequate. Instead, bulk of the chapter is devoted to the Doctor, his TARDIS, and his companions. The latter of course does make sense—the Fifth Doctor inherited three of his companions from the Fourth Doctor and there was not really sufficient room to detail them in The Fourth Doctor Sourcebook, so it is understandable that they are here given, solid write-ups. Including their character sheets, all of them are given a page each and deservedly so given how much the companions drive the narrative during this period.

Where previous supplements in the series have looked at particular rules suited to running a campaign during their respective periods, The Fifth Doctor Sourcebook forgoes this except for a mechanical means of handling the Black Guardian. Using this the players have free access to a pile of Story Points, but when a player uses one, he also acquires a Black Guardian point and when appropriate the GM as the Black Guardian can collect them to take control of the effect of the player’s die rolls. It is a simple, suitably double-edged mechanic. To be fair, beyond this, The Fifth Doctor Sourcebook really does not need anything more in the way of mechanics, so unlike previous books in the series, there are no new Traits.

Perhaps the oddest omission from The Fifth Doctor Sourcebook is any discussion of recurring villains. After all, the Master returned again and again in the Fifth Doctor’s adventures, as did both the Black Guardian and the White Guardian. Plus, old foes such as the Cybermen, the Daleks, Sea Devils, and Silurians all returned. So where is the guide to these recurring monsters and villains? Certainly the Master, who appeared in four of the Fifth Doctor’s adventures deserves an entry in the index, let alone a page or two of his own?

All of this is done in just eleven pages, just over five percent of the book. So what of the remaining ninety or so percent? Well, it is devoted to detailing each and every one of the Fifth Doctor’s stories, from Castrovalva to The Caves of Androzani. Of course, it begins with the former, Castrovalva, a direct sequel to the Fourth Doctor’s last story, Logopolis. The Fifth Doctor spends much of the story ill, recovering from his regeneration and oft times seems ineffectual, and to be honest, this sort of sets the tone for the stories to come. Now in most of the stories—there being two very notable exceptions—the Doctor does triumph, he does overcome adversity, he does deal with the threat, and so on. Yet everything seems more difficult for him, perhaps because he has to contend not only problems from without, but also problems from within. For throughout much of the Fifth Doctor’s era, the TARDIS was not home to a happy family—in other words, the Doctor’s companions were against him. The unpopular Adric was a stroppy teenager who wanted to be with the Doctor, Tegan was a stroppy Australian who did not want to be with the Doctor, and Turlough ‘wanted’ to kill the Doctor. So the Doctor had his problems and he was not always good at dealing with them.

Much of this is reflected in the stories, like Adric being difficult in Earthshock, Tegan’s efforts to get back to Earth in Timeflight, and Turlough in just about every story he was in. Which made for some dramatic stories, such as Earthshock and some less memorable stories such as Timeflight or The King’s Demons. Now this is beginning to read as if a judgement is being made on the Fifth Doctor’s stories when it should be a review of The Fifth Doctor Sourcebook. The problem is that the sourcebook should be a reflection of the stories it is telling and so it is. Yet The Fifth Doctor Sourcebook exacerbates this reflection of the stories in their retelling, often their over-telling. The write-ups of the twenty stories of the Fifth Doctor’s era vary widely in length, from the two or so pages of The Awakening and Frontios to the almost seven pages of 
Enlightenment! The majority of them are some four to six pages in length.

There can be no doubt that these write-ups are too long, but the treatment of the supporting material—the notes on Continuity, Running the Adventure, Further Adventures, and stats for major devices and NPCs—feels out of proportion with the length of the write-ups. So The Awakening and Frontios are both given a two-page write-up, but three pages of supporting material; The Five Doctors is given a three-page write-up, but five pages of supporting material; Mawdryn Undead is given a six-page write-up, but two pages of supporting material; and Enlightenment is given all but a seven-page write-up, but two pages of supporting material. Of course the supporting material is always going to vary from one story to another; after all, it has to do with the needs of the GM and the RPG. Yet there are too many long write-ups accompanied by too short a section of supporting material. The supporting material itself is decent enough, it is the write-ups that are the problem.

Physically, The Fifth Doctor Sourcebook is well presented. On a purely writing basis, the book needs a further slight edit, but in terms of the content it needs a longer edit. Too many of the story write-ups are unnecessarily long and unnecessarily detailed, when there could have more supporting material given in the first chapter, ‘Playing in the Fifth Doctor’s Era’. What actual supporting material there is, either in the first chapter or given for each story, is decent enough, but ultimately, this information cannot save The Fifth Doctor Sourcebook from feeling flaccid in places and underwhelming overall.

Sunday 1 March 2015

Load the Train

It is no secret that I like train games. When my friends and I get together and I pull out a train game, the reaction is not always a positive one. Typically anything beyond Ticket to Ride, for example Canalmania or Railways of the World is perhaps a bit too much for them. I got exactly the same reaction when I pulled Yardmaster out of my bag. After a play or two, they changed their minds—Yardmaster proved to be a likeable hit.

Published by Crash Games—whose Where art thou, Romeo? proved to be a decent five-minute ‘Nano’ game—after a Kickstarter campaign, Yardmaster is a quick playing card game—roughly twenty minutes in length—for two to five players, aged thirteen and up. In the game, each player is working the train yard, trying to organise freight cars as they roll into the yard and load them onto their trains ready for departure. Unfortunately, the freight cars have to be attached to the locomotive in the right order—determined either by colour or value—or they cannot be attached. So essentially, players of Yardmaster just need to get their cards in order…

Inside Yardmaster’s sturdy little box can be found one-hundred-and twenty-five cards, six tokens, and a twelve-page rulebook. The cards consist of three types: fifty Railcar Cards, seventy Cargo Cards, and five Engine Cards. The Railcar cards and most of the Cargo cards consist of matching types. So there are Automobile (purple), Coal (blue), Livestock (red), Oil (yellow), and Timber (green)  Railcars, which need to be loaded with Automobile (purple), Coal (blue), Livestock (red), Oil (yellow), and Timber (green) Cargo cards. The Railcars are numbered from one to four, the number indicating both the number Cargo cards they need to be loaded with and the value that they add to a player’s train. So an Oil Railcar with a value of two needs to be loaded (or purchased) with two Oil Cargo cards before it is ready to be attached to a player’s train. Ten of the Cargo cards are actually Bonus cards which grant a player various extra actions. The Engine cards are used to indicate the start of a player’s train. In addition, the game comes with six card tokens—five Exchange Rate tokens, and one Yardmaster token. There is an Exchange Rate token for each type of Cargo, enabling a player swap two of a particular Cargo card type for one of another. So for example, the Coal Exchange Rate token can be used to swap two Coal cards for a Cargo card of another type, say Livestock or Timber. The 'Yardmaster' token grants the holder an extra action.

At the start of the game, each player receives an Engine card, a random Exchange token—if there are fewer than five players, then the spare ones sit in the middle of the playing area where they can be swapped for during the game, and five Cargo cards. Four Railcar cards are placed face up in the Arrival Yard and one Cargo card is drawn and placed face up as the start of the Discard pile. The player to the right of the starting player receives the 'Yardmaster' token.

On his turn a player can conduct two actions out of a choice of three. He can draw a new Cargo card—either from Cargo deck or the Cargo Discard pile; buy a Railcar from the Arrival Yard; or swap his Exchange Rate token with one held by another player. To buy a Railcar, a player must discard a number of Cargo cards equal to the number on the Railcar. If the Railcar matches the type/colour or the number of the last Railcar a player has in his train, a player can immediately add it to his train. For example, the last Railcar in a player’s Train is a Timber Railcar with a value of one. He can add any other Timber Railcar to his Train, no matter what its value, or any other type of Railcar if its value is also one. If a player has purchased any other card , that is, not another Timber Railcar or any Railcar with a value of one, he cannot add it to his train, but instead must store it in his Sorting Yard until he can add it—and that is a free action.

Swapping Exchange Rate tokens is simple matter. Once a player has one, he use it on his turn—or a subsequent one—to swap two Cargo cards of one type for one that he wants when making a purchase. 

This continues until one player manages to build a train of the required length—this varies depending upon the number of players—and wins the game. So far, so simple, and that is Yardmaster at its most basic. It is quick and easy, but Yardmaster has some interesting mechanics that adds a wrinkle or two to the game play. 

The first of these is the Yardmaster token. This allows a player to take three actions on his turn rather than two, but instead of passing round the players in a clockwise direction, it goes the other way, anticlockwise. This means that only one person can benefit from the extra action per round. The second is the bonus cards, which grant bonus actions, such as drawing extra Cargo cards, paying less for a Railcar card, gaining an extra action (which can mean a player has four actions if he also has the 'Yardmaster' token!), and so on. Third, whilst a player can take a Cargo card from the top of the Cargo deck or the Discard pile, the latter can be blocked if a player uses a Bonus card and places it on top of the Discard pile as Bonus cards cannot be drawn from the Discard pile. Fourth, swapping Exchange Rate tokens can be an effective means of acting against another player, though this requires a player to keep a careful eye on what Cargo cards his rivals are drawing.

Physically, Yardmaster is very well produced. The box is small, but sturdy and has a nice heft to it. The cards are all good quality, the rulebook is clearly written, and if you have the Kickstarter version, then the tokens are chunky pieces of wood rather than cardboard. 

Unfortunately, Yardmaster is not as pleasant a playing experience with just two players. Essentially, the 'Yardmaster' token is swapped between the players, but they only get to use it on every other turn and remembering this is a bit of a chore. The rules state that the token should be turned over a reminder, but again, this is a bit of a chore.

Not too complex, Yardmaster is a nice little game, more than suited to a family audience. It may not quite offer depth that hardened gamers might want, but it is still a solid filler.