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

Sunday 29 November 2015

The Esoteric War in the East

Achtung! Cthulhu: Guide to the Eastern Front is one of three supplements that each focus on one of the three main theatres of World War 2 for Modiphius Entertainment’s Achtung! Cthulhu campaign setting which pitches the stalwart men and women of the Allies against the outre and the occult being harnessed by the Axis powers to win the war. The first, Achtung! Cthulhu: Guide to North Africa, explored the conflict back and forth across the sands against the Germans and the Italians, whilst the third, Achtung! Cthulhu: Guide to the Pacific Front, looked at the war in the Far East against the Japanese Empire. Achtung! Cthulhu: Guide to the Eastern Front examines the war between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, primarily from the opening salvos of Operation Barbarossa in 1941 until almost the fall of Berlin in 1945. This is a massive conflict that will see the German war machine invade on a thousand mile long front and get almost to the gates of Moscow, besieging great cities in the process, only to be thrown back first by the dreaded Russian winter, but then by a combination of the Soviet Union’s huge armies, an economy that is eventually harnessed for war, and the fierce patriotism of the Russian people. It is no wonder that the war becomes known as the Great Patriotic War.

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 the Eastern Front 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 Russia and Eastern Europe is also done in full, vibrant colour, actually covering Eastern Europe and the Baltics as well as the Soviet Union.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 a chronology that runs up to early 1945. Although the primary focus of this chronology is the war itself, it actually begins in 1831 with the birth of Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, the occultist and founder of the cult Theosophical Society whose writings would influence numerous esoteric societies in the century following her death in 1891. Its runs up to the start of World War Two, charting the rise of the Bolsheviks and the Communist Party as well as the founding of various occult societies such as the Theosophical order, ‘Spirit is Life’, and their eventual suppression by the Soviets. It is accompanied by an overview of the Soviet state and an extensive gazetteer of the Eastern Front—and regions beyond! For not only does Achtung! Cthulhu: Guide to the Eastern Front have to cover the thousands of miles long battle front from Leningrad in the north to the Caucasus in the south, it has to cover the Winter War in Finland, the Arctic convoys from Great Britain to Archangelsk and Murmansk, Tito’s Communist insurgency in Yugoslavia, and of course, the inhuman treatment by Nazi Germany of many of the peoples it conquers. In the process it examines the defence and in some cases, virtual destruction of various cities, Leningrad and Stalingrad obviously, but also Kharkov, Minsk, Sebastopol, Warsaw, Kraków, and more...

The makeup of, and the influences upon, the Soviet military and war machine is covered in some detail. At its most basic, this details its military structure and its arms and equipment. Primarily, the former looks at just the Soviet army, but it does include the air force. Notably it also includes units of the infamous NKVD, which serve as the USSR’s internal military consisting of troops that run the GULAGs, prisons, railways, factories, and more; border troops that protect her borders; and of course, national security units that root out spies and traitors and guard Soviet and party officials. It also highlights the lack of experience of Soviet forces early in the war—primarily due to Stalin’s pre-war purges, and the lack of sophisticated radio equipment that hampers Soviet military operations; Order 227 which directs troops never to retreat; the use of both penal military units and women on the battlefront; and last, but not least, the role of political commissars.

Secondly, the very many various pieces of equipment that the Soviet Union fields are listed. This includes the personal arms, such as the Mosin-Nagant rifle and the PPSH-41 SMG and vehicles like the T-34 tank and the ZIS-5 truck. Since the Soviet Union runs desperately short of vehicles early in the war, American vehicles like the P-39 Airacobra and Studebaker US6 truck, supplied under the terms of the Lend-Lease are also listed. Axis vehicles are not ignored, though they tend to towards to the more extreme tanks like the Elefant and the Jadgpanther. Overall, this is a good mix, though perhaps the one omission is the aerosani, the propellor-driven snowmobiles used by the Russians for reconnaissance across areas of deep snow. Perhaps the oddest of the mundane pieces of  equipment fielded by the Soviets is the protivotankovaya sobaka, the anti-tank dog, trained to crawl under  a German tank and detonate the mine strapped to its back. Unfortunately, the use of dogs in this fashion proves unreliable, particularly as they attack Russian tanks because of poor training.

In terms of character options, Achtung! Cthulhu: Guide to the Eastern Front provides information for a Soviet investigator’s background nationality and Occupations for Cavalry soldiers, NKVD Agent, and Osobist SMERSH or military counter-intelligence agents as well as the Kinolog, the Vor, and the Zek. A Kinolog is a dog trainer and handler, a Vor is a career criminal whose only loyalty is to his fellow criminals, and a Zek is a GULAG prisoner, anything from an actual criminal to a discredited and purged poet, physicist, or soldier. The only new training package available is for the NKVD, but for Savage Worlds the supplement gives new Hindrances and Edges such as Under Suspicion and Hot Blooded, the former for politically unreliable characters, the latter enabling a character to withstand the terrible low temperatures of the Russian winter. Now in comparison to either Achtung! Cthulhu: Guide to North Africa or Achtung! Cthulhu: Guide to the Pacific Front this feels like fewer choices. This is understandable given that most of the options are covered in Achtung! Cthulhu: Investigator’s Guide to the Secret War, but nevertheless, these new options do lend themselves to interesting roleplaying possibilities, the Vor and the Zek in particular given their outsider status in what is a totalitarian state. 

In Soviet Russia, the existence of the occult—and worse—is a state secret, but knowledge of it has only been reluctantly accepted by the state in the face of its use by the Nazis. Various aspects of it is studied by a number of sometimes rival Soviet organisations. The Brain Institute of the VKP (B) is a scientific agency answerable to the Communist Party which exploits technology looted from the Mi-go; staffed by occulist and sorcerer zeks, Institute 21 is an arm of the NKVD that brings its outré methods to counter-intelligence; and Otdel MI or Bureau of Extraplanar Research, which has scoured the world for ancient books, relics, and artefacts, and also controls the Tunguska site. The Otdel MI is the only agency likely to co-operate with Allied agencies and whilst all three agencies are opposed to the German agencies of Black Sun and Nachte Wölfe, only  Institute 21 and Otdel MI are likely to oppose them directly. There is of course much more to all three organisations and there are of course Mythos threats to the USSR beyond Black Sun and Nachte Wölfe, such as the Nochnyye Ved’my, the Shantak-riding Night Hags that are the Mythos counterpart to the famed female bomber pilots, the Night Witches; worshippers of the charnel god, Mordiggian, beneath Leningrad and other besieged cities; and the sprinkling of Ithaqua cultists from Finland to Siberia.

The various occult organisations have fielded various pieces of equipment. The most notable of these are the unreliable energy weapons designed by Otdel MI, but the most absurd are the Bomb Wraiths, Institute 21 bombs with the means to summon fire vampires embedded in the bomb casings! The majority of the new tomes listed originate in the Far East, reflecting the interest in Tibet and other Asian countries by Helena Petrovna Blavatsky and other occultists. A solid grimoire adds an interesting mix of spells, whilst the bestiary adds the Insects from Shaggai and the Krysoluds (or rat-things) for Savage Worlds as well as various new creatures and races.

Two things are apparent from the treatment of the Cthulhu Mythos in Achtung! Cthulhu: Guide to the Eastern Front. First is that it is disparate and dispersed. Second is that this feels right for the setting. After all, both the occult and occultists have suffered decades of disruption and destruction. Initially by the Soviet government, but then more recently by the Nazis. The Soviet Union is also a vast territory, so it is highly unlikely that one ‘hidden’ cult could arise to really threaten the cult that is the Communist Party. More importantly, the treatment of Russia in terms of the Mythos has always been light—especially for Call of Cthulhu. Beyond ‘Secrets of the Kremlin’ from T.O.M.E.’s Glozel est Authentique; Cold Harvest, and the Miskatonic University Library Association Monographs Machine Tractor Station Kharkov-37 and Terror; and Pagan Publishing’s GRU SV-8 and the Skoptsi from Delta Green: Countdown, there has been very little for the authors of Achtung! Cthulhu: Guide to the Eastern Front to go on. So where Achtung! Cthulhu: Guide to North Africa and Achtung! Cthulhu: Guide to the Pacific Front have to cover hotbeds of Mythos activity and the activities of major entities and their cultists, Achtung! Cthulhu: Guide to the Eastern Front only has to really address the one single issue in terms of the Mythos—what caused the Tunguska Explosion of 1908? The answer here is of course, Azathoth, but not quite and that feels perfectly in keeping with the underplayed treatment of the Mythos for Russia for Achtung! Cthulhu.

As with the other two theatre of war supplements, Achtung! Cthulhu: Guide to the Eastern Front is rounded out with listings of NPCs and some adventure seeds. The former are divided between important people for whom no stats are given and the ordinary men and women who fight on the battlefront for whom stats are given. The adventure seeds focus on mysteries for Allied investigators to look into and perhaps a second for Russian characters would have added a little balance.

Achtung! Cthulhu: Guide to the Eastern Front is well presented and decently written. If there are issues with the presentation, it is with the book’s treatment of its new esoteric equipment. First, none of them illustrated, which might well be a problem for the Keeper should his investigators get hold of them. Second, their descriptions are given in the mundane equipment listings where they feel out of place and hint too much at secrets explored in more detail in chapters devoted to the Mythos. The writing itself is good and does not shy away from ignoring the atrocities enacted throughout the conflict—by both sides.

As with Achtung! Cthulhu: Guide to North Africa and Achtung! Cthulhu: Guide to the Pacific Front, this supplement has vast swathes of territory to cover and detail. Much like those books, it covers the mundane side of the war on the Eastern Front—and other areas, in an engaging and informative way, and the Keeper is also provided with plenty of extra details, colour information, and write-ups of interesting personalities and places. Its treatment of the Mythos feels fresh and balanced, primarily because it does not have to ignore the development of previously published Mythos elements for Call of Cthulhu. Above all, Achtung! Cthulhu: Guide to the Eastern Front does a good job of capturing the dark and driven desperation of the war in the East and whilst the addition of the Mythos makes the war even darker, the Mythos in Achtung! Cthulhu: Guide to the Eastern Front kept suitably and thematically underplayed.

Friday 27 November 2015

Monsters for the 13th Age

It is in the nature of the beast that RPGs such as Dungeons & Dragons are supported by bestiaries, supplements that provide beasts, monsters, and things for the player characters to kill and loot. Indeed the very first supplement and the very first release for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons was the Monster Manual! So it is no surprise that 13th Age, the story-driven action fantasy Dungeons & Dragons-style RPG published by Pelgrane Press has received its own monster book in the form of the 13th Age Bestiary. This builds upon the few creatures included in the 13th Age core rules to present some fifty-two creatures—a number that quickly rises to over two hundred once you figure in the very many variants in its pages—that are primarily new takes upon old, familiar foes, though a few new monsters are included too.

The old ranges from the Basilisk, the Bat, and the Black Dragon to the Stirge, the Tarrasque, and the White Dragon, whilst the new includes the Jorogumo, seductresses and seducers with the upper body of a human or an elf, but with the lower body of a spider; the Saved, demon-wracked escapees from Hellholes; and Wibbles, the spontaneous bubble-like creations of fumbled spell castings that like to congregate and then randomly attack spellcasters. Some are particular to The Dragon Age, the setting of 13th Age. For example, Zorigami are intelligent clockworks that serve as the timekeepers for each Age, Dawn Zorigami appearing at the dawn of the Age with an insatiable curiousity before building themselves into the bold brotherhoods of Apex Zorigami, and finally battling as Dusk Zorigami to be the last of the Age.

For the most part, each entry dispenses with background and gets to the point. Instead each entry is about how to use that monster and its variants, most obviously, but not always, in battle and how they are tied into the 13th Age’s Icons—and thus to a certain extent, the player characters since they also have relationships with the Icons. Things found with the creature or in its territory are also listed, even their very mention being more interesting than conventional treasure types. Rounding out each entry is a number of adventure hooks. For the most part, the monster write-ups in the 13th Age Bestiary feel stripped back and to the point.

Despite this sparse style, the 13th Age Bestiary does interesting things with familiar monsters. For example, it takes the Stirge, a fairly simple creature that is the bane of low level player characters and ups its game by adding variations that give it a fairly simple ecology. Beyond the basic bloodsucking insectoid it and adds the Archer Stirge that can attack at range—but not blood let—and the Cobbler Stirge that does not drain blood to feed, but secretes instead secrets it to build a hive of coagulated blood. The authors then turn this hive into a sanguinary structure, slippery and coppery sweet, the drained bodies of the Stirges’ victims sealed into the walls, their treasure scattered across the floor beneath them… If an encounter in a Stirge hive such as this is not a way to run something akin to the films Alien and Aliens, but for low-level characters, then the GM is missing an opportunity. In the process, the book also makes some creatures more playable. For instance, the Basilisk has always been a difficult monster to use given that its primary form of attack is petrifying its victims, but the 13th Age version turns the Basilisk into elementally aligned creatures whose poisons once inflicted upon a victim, enable a Basilisk’s stare to trigger various effects such as liquefying, igniting, or evaporating the victim, or even coagulating his blood. It takes a number of failed saves to get this stage, but it is no longer a case of a failed save hindering play. It is still nasty, but now unhindered…

One aspect that runs through many of the creatures in the 13th Age Bestiary is that of horror. A very many of its monsters are horrifying and that is how it should be. Rarely though do the fifty-two here touch upon the Lovecraftian, upon the Cthulhu Mythos. The most obvious are the Shoggoth-like Chaos Beasts and Elder Beasts, whilst the Sahuagin might just have the Innsmouth cast to them… On occasion, it feels as if the authors are having a joke at our as well as their expense. The most notable entry for that is the Gelatinous Cube, which appears alongside variants that take its its shape and up the ‘Platonic Solid’ count to give us the Gelatinous Tetrahedron, the Gelatinous Octohedron, and the Gelatinous Dodecahedron.

As full of invention as the 13th Age Bestiary is, it would seem impossible to find fault with it. Yet it does have one single fault, which is that it is not an enjoyable read. In fact, in places it is almost boring. Now bestiaries like the 13th Age Bestiary, and of course, the Monster Manual, are not really designed to be read from cover to cover in linear fashion.* Rather, they are lists—and technical lists at that—designed to be dipped into and consulted for ideas and prompts by the GM and the DM to add things to his game. The 13th Age Bestiary performs this function just as you would want it to, but is still far from an entertaining read. There have been monster books which are good reads, for example, the Monsternomicon, Privateer Press’ bestiary for its Iron Kingdoms setting originally published for the d20 System and more recently for its own Iron Kingdoms RPG. What is important here though is the term ‘setting’. The Monsternomicon and its ilk, add to the setting, both in terms of flavour and background. The 13th Age Bestiary does this, but only to an extent and really only for those few monsters that are new to 13th Age, which leaves many entries bereft of background and thus something other than the technical. Yet this actually supports one of the aims of the 13th Age Bestiary. It enables the GM to take any one of the classic monsters listed in the supplement, from the Orc and the Kobold to the Lich and the White Dragon, and apply the supplement’s mechanics to support those creatures in the setting of his choice. Thus you can take the Lich and drop it into any setting that has Lichs and include the variants given in the 13th Age Bestiary along with its Parliament of Lichs. This works again and again for the entries in the 13th Age Bestiary.

*It should be made clear that books of spells are even worse.

Physically, the 13th Age Bestiary is cleanly and neatly presented. The most notable aspect of its presentation is its illustrations by Rich Longmoore. These nicely capture the menace and horror of the monsters and things depicted in this supplement. Rounding out the book is a short chapter on monster creation, and an appendix of random features and abilities, plus a uniform list of the entries herein and those in the 13th Age core rules.

If you liked the way in which the monsters in the 13th Age core rules were treated, then the 13th Age Bestiary does more of the same and then does some more on top. Not only does it provide interesting and hopefully challenging takes upon old classics, it also includes new monsters too. The result is a thoroughly flexible collection, useful and applicable whether the GM wants it for The Dragon Empire or another commercially available setting or one of the GM’s own devising.  

Monday 23 November 2015

Necromancy for Beginners

Cadaver: A Game of Lighthearted Necromancy is the latest game to be released by Triple Ace Games via Kickstarter. This follows on from Rocket Race: A Steampunk Rocket Building Card Game and Halfling Feast: a card game of competitive eating for 2-4 players. It is a card game in which the players—prospective necromancers all—compete to reanimate a series of cadavers. They must gather the right Corpses, Resources, and Diabolical Accomplices, whilst denying them to their rivals, if they are to prove themselves to be the most prestigious necromancer!

Cadaver is designed to be played by players aged thirteen plus, the number of players determining how many Cadaver decks are needed. One Cadaver deck is needed for two or three players, whilst two Cadaver decks are needed if there are four or more players. Each deck consists of fifty-four, brightly coloured, nice illustrated cards. Two of these give the rules, but the remainder come in three categories. 

The first category is Corpses. Each Corpse—James Darkwell, Priscilla Deravin, Jebidiah Whateley, or The Abomination—has certain Resources that it needs if it is to be reanimated. For example, Jebidiah Whateley needs two Spells and a Potion, whereas James Darkwell needs one Brain and two Potions. Resources are the second category and come in three types—Brains, Potions, and Spells. The third category consists of Diabolical Accomplices and enables a player to perform special actions. The Witch Doctor enables a player to gather Brains, Professor Victor Drax helps a player get Potions, and The Blind Scholar lets him gather Spells. A Coffin Lid is used to close access to a Corpse, but can be unlocked by a Coffin Key, whereas a Ghoul can be spent to steal Corpses from rival Necromancers.

At game start, a Resource Pile consisting of two cards is set up for each Resource, the deck is shuffled, and each player receives five cards. During his turn, a player can lay down or place up to two cards, then draw back to five cards, and lastly trade with the other players. Once a Corpse card has been laid down, a player can lay Resources on it. A player can lay a Coffin Lid on another player’s Corpse to prevent him from laying Resources on it and thus from successfully reanimating it. A Key card can be laid to unlock and remove a Coffin Lid from a Corpse. A Ghoul can be laid down to steal a Corpse from another player. Lastly, a Diabolical Accomplice, such as The Witch Doctor, Professor Victor Drax, and The Blind Scholar can be laid down so that a player can draw from the Resource Piles as well as the deck. For example, laying The Blind Scholar enables a player to draw Spells from the appropriate Resource Pile.

Play is simple enough in Cadaver. Each player is trying lay Corpses and then lay Resources on the Corpses in order to reanimate them. He can prevent another player from laying Resources on one of his Corpses by laying a Coffin Lid on the Corpse, but he can steal a Corpse from another player by using a Ghoul. Lastly, a player can guarantee access to certain Resources by laying down a Diabolical Accomplice.

Cadaver comes to an end once the last card has been drawn from the deck. Players are allowed one last turn before their Corpse are scored. Points are awarded for sets of Corpses—a set of three difference Corpses is worth seven points, whereas a set of the three same Corpses is worth five points. A Corpse is worth one point, whilst the Abomination is worth three points. The player with the most points is the winner.

Cadaver is a lovely looking game. The cards are beautiful, but the lack of text on them does mean that the game is initially confusing and heavy reference needs to be made to the albeit simple rules. Once the use of the different cards is mastered, then play proceeds apace. 

In comparison to earlier card games from Triple Ace Games, Cadaver: A Game of Lighthearted Necromancy is very light and does not have their depth. This is not to demean Cadaver, which is a pleasing if simple game. It does play better with more players and with more cards, so that it is a better game with two decks even if there are two or three players, but four players seems a good number.

Friday 20 November 2015

Roleplaying Magic Items

The latest RPG from John Wick, the designer of Legend of the Five Rings and Houses of the Blooded, is WIELD: Chronicles of the Vatcha. This is an RPG in which the destinies and histories of great and powerful artefacts are told. It is a game in which valiant heroes wield great swords, ambitious men command the powers of ancient rings, mighty kings crown themselves with bejewelled coronets to control the fates of others, and potent mages brandish arcane staves to draw upon the forces of magic and manipulate creation itself… The obvious inspiration for WIELD then, is the One Ring from Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings or the sword Stormbringer in Michael Moorcock’s Elric novels. Yet in WIELD, the players do not roleplay these heroes, Frodo Baggins in the case of the One Ring or Elric in the case of Stormbringer, but rather they roleplay the artefacts themselves; and the heroes? For despite the power and the ambitions of these powerful artefacts, not a single one can apply its great abilities, for it takes a great ‘hero’—or ‘pawn’ as the Vatcha call them to wield the powers of a Vatcha, for they are but a means to an end to bring about the destinies of the ‘Vatcha’ or ‘wilful weapons’…

Actually, in WIELD, the players not only roleplay the Vatcha, they do play the heroes who wield them. Except that whilst a player roleplays a Vatcha, he does not roleplay the hero wielding that Vatcha, but roleplays a hero wielding another player’s Vacha! Now this reminiscent of another design by John Wick, the RPG Enemy Gods, in which each player took on the role of a hero during the Bronze Age whose destiny would be influenced by the gods—gods roleplayed by all of the players. Further, the idea behind WIELD: Chronicles of the Vatcha is also reminiscent of Bloodlust, the French sword and sorcery role-playing game originally published by Asmodée Éditions which is yet to see an English language translation. In that RPG, the players take on the roles of living god-weapons that fell from the stars and are wielded by mighty thewed warriors who hew across an ancient jungle continent that looks not unlike Antarctica. WIELD though, has no such setting and much like Enemy Gods—though it should be noted that Enemy Gods did include sample settings—its setting is implied, being an archetypal fantasy setting of some kind.

Funded via Kickstarter, WIELD has been brought to print with surprising speed in comparison with some Kickstarter projects. Unfortunately, this has meant that the book feels rough and incomplete in places. Had there been an editor involved then the reader might not have needed to make several obvious assumptions. Now this does not mean that WIELD is either incomprehensible or unplayable. It just feels rushed.

The set-up in WIELD is simple. Each player controls a Vatcha, a wilful weapon, which will grant its great powers to a hero, who will in return act as the Vatcha’s agent in bringing about the Vacha’s destiny because the Vacha cannot wield its own power—only a hero can. The hero who wields the Vatcha is not controlled by the same player, but the player sat next to him. Further, since a Vatcha must grant some of its power to its wielder there is plenty of potential for tension between Vatcha and hero and for storytelling as the last thing that a Vatcha wants to do is give its hero too much power and become subservient to him.

To create a Vatcha a player selects an item, which can be anything from a sword, boots, or a chair to a coin, item of luggage, or Police Box!* Each Vatcha has one, two, or three Dominions over which it has power, including elements like Air, Earth, Fire, and Water, or Creation, Destruction, Life, and so on. Every Vatcha has a goal, for example, ‘Become the true ruler of Kuritana’ or ‘Destroy the Dark Blade’, the latter another Vatcha. For every goal there are four steps that need to be defined. Then a history for the Vatcha is created by building connections with those of the other players. Penultimately, a player needs to decide how his Vatcha can be destroyed—this should be epic, but not impossible—and decide on a name.

*The latter two are simply included on the list. WIELD has nothing whatsoever to do with either the Discworld or Doctor Who, but their inclusion both suggests possibilities and hints at the relationships between Rincewind and the Luggage and the Doctor and the TARDIS.

Gauntlet of Life
Domains: Creation, Life, Light
Goal: Restore the Theocracy of the White God
Identify the Pietist of the White God
Bear witness to a miracle of the Pietist of the White God
Keep the Pietist of the White God alive against heresy
Proselytise the Piety of the White God
Connections: Singe, the Shotel of the Ashes (Helped rescue the Gauntlet from Foice the Sheer, Black Ice Demon); Lyre of the Bard Lord (Worn by the same wielder); The Ring of Fire (A previous wielder attempted to destroy the Gauntlet of Life); The Golden Veil of Houri (Co-operated together to hobble Menorenth the Bloody)
Means of Destruction: Worn by Black Ice Demon for a 100 years and then burnt in a hellforge

Then Fate—as the GM is known in WIELD—steps in and creates the Heroes that will wield the Vatcha. This includes the Hero’s name, Background (what the hero was doing before picking up the Vatcha), Destiny (what Fate had in mind for the hero before he picked up the Vatcha), personality traits, and any equipment. It is implied that Fate should create a deck of Heroes and assign them randomly and then assign a Vatcha a new one when the previous Hero dies. The dead Hero is shuffled back into the deck. Each time a Hero is draw and assigned to a Vatcha, the Hero acquires a new personality trait.

Verinor the Sailor
Destiny: Sail to the ends of the world and return
Personality Trait: Charming
Wounds: (1) (2) (3)
Equipment: Sword, coil of rope

Lastly, the Vatcha’s player assigns some of his powers to the Hero. These come from the Domains selected during the Vatcha’s creation. There is a limit to how many Powers a Vatcha can bestow; too few and the Hero cannot do great things, but too many and the Hero may wrest control of over all of the Vatcha’s powers and the Vatcha itself. A Vatcha has ten points of Control to assign and the more Powers he assigns, the more Control he loses… A quarter of WIELD: Chronicles of the Vatcha is devoted to listing the powers Domain by Domain.

It should be noted that like most storytelling roleplaying games, the only form of progression in WIELD is narrative based—there is no form of mechanical progression, such as Experience Points. Thus progression solely rests on the Goal of the Vatcha and the Destiny of one Hero after another.

To undertake an action, a player has to ‘take a chance’. This involves rolling two six-sided dice and adding the result to beat a target—‘Easy’ (no roll required), ‘Hard’ (six or more), ‘Heroic’ (twelve or more), ‘Epic’ (eighteen or more), and ‘Impossible’ (twenty-five or more). Bonus dice can be added to the pool for a Hero’s Background, for any of a Hero’s Personality Traits, if the action furthers his Destiny, and if any of his equipment is pertinent. Even if the player rolls the dice and fails to beat the target, he does not necessarily fail at the task. Rather, he succeeds with Complications, one for every target threshold missed.

For example, Verinor the Sailor is aboard his ship when it is caught in a ferocious storm and one of his passengers—who happens to be young and pretty—is swept overboard. He leaps to the rescue. Fate decides that this is a Epic action, setting the target at eighteen. Verinor’s player takes up two dice to which adds another die for his ‘Sailor’ Background and another for his equipment, the coil of rope. He rolls four dice, but only gets a result of fourteen, so fails the roll. This is enough to obtain a Heroic result, but not an Epic, so his player has to choose a Complication, which in this case is that the young passenger is betrothed to another man.

Alternatively, a Hero might offer a Fate a geis—or geas—so that he can automatically succeed at a challenge. This would require the Hero to undertake a particular action—or not, of course. A small geis might be not to look at another woman for a week, or a year for a large geis, or forever for a major geis. The exact terms of the geis is open to negotiation, but a geis cannot be offered if the Challenge is a conflict between the heroes. Breaking a geis allows Fate to force failures upon a Hero.

Combat is where WIELD gets odd. A Hero can either attack or defend—not both, or he can use a power. Each round Fate counts to five and if a Hero wants to attack, his player points to the intended target, holding out the number of fingers to indicate the amount of damage he wants to inflict. This can be against another Hero or Fate if fighting an NPC. Conversely, if a Hero wants to defend himself, his player holds a number of fingers against his chest to indicate how many wounds he wants his Hero to protect himself against. The number of fingers in either case corresponds to the five target levels—Easy, Hard, Heroic, Epic, and Impossible—that a Hero rolls against when taking a chance. If any Hero uses a Power, then it activates before any combat, but again the player needs to indicate the rank of the Power used using his fingers and with higher ranked Powers going before lower ranked Powers.

Apart from Powers taking effect first, combat is meant to be resolved simultaneously, but as a mechanic it feels rough and incomplete. It does not help that Fate also has to handle any NPCs, having to decide and note down what they are doing from turn to turn as this disrupts the physicality of the rest of the combat mechanic. Ultimately, this leaves WIELD too readily open to disagreement at the table and it will need Fate to have a very steady hand at the tiller if a game is not going awry…

Then is of course the tension at the heart of the game—that is, between a Hero and his Vatcha—or is it a Vatcha and his Hero?—and the players for each. A Hero is capable of free action, but his Vatcha is not, despite the Vatcha granting the Hero some of its Powers. There is of course, nothing to stop a Hero from doing what his Vatcha wants and if so, it is a simple matter of their respective players coming to an agreement. If a Hero does not want to do what a Vatcha wants, then the Vatcha can call for a Control Risk. This is an opposed roll, the winner deciding the course of an action.

Although WIELD includes guidelines for groups and monsters, and some notes for adjusting some of the game’s parameters, it feels rather light in terms of advice for the GM—or rather, Fate.  It also leaves Fate and his players to their own devices when it comes a setting, though the WIELD Companion does provide several, including a Cyberpunk setting and settings in both the Old West and Old Japan.

WIELD: Chronicles of the Vatcha is a game that almost does nothing except present challenges. The first is in the players having to portray two characters, one of which is not their own. Admittedly this will not present too much difficulty for anyone who has experience playing storytelling games, but having to differentiate between the two does not make it any easier—though it should be pointed out that solutions to this are discussed in the book. The second is overcoming the natural inclination for a player to make his current Hero his primary character, when in fact it is the Vatcha that is a player’s primary character. In fact, the Hero is the Vatcha’s tool (and Hit Points), not the other way around. The third challenge is set of rules that are underwritten, that feel rough and ready, and which are not helped by the slim advice for the GM or Fate. Lastly, WIELD leaves all of the challenge and effort of world building to Fate and his players—there is no advice in WIELD, no discussion of WIELD on other genres, and no example settings. Again neither will too much of a challenge to experienced players and players of storytelling games, but a page of advice devoted to each of the possible genres would have been reasonable inclusion.

Yet despite the challenges in WIELD, there is no denying that there is a gem of an idea at its heart and that gem is its greatest, and best, challenge, that of roleplaying two different characters with different agendas linked to separate players. It sets up tensions between the linked players that are rife with potential and playability. WIELD: Chronicles of the Vatcha is a great idea that is not as well supported or developed as it could have been.

Sunday 15 November 2015

Big Book o' Badduns

Things Don’t Go Smooth is a supplement for the Firefly Roleplaying Game, the RPG based on Joss Whedon’s 2002 ‘space western’ television series that aped the aftermath of the American Civil War. Published by Margaret Weis Productions, in this ‘space opera’, the crew of the Serenity try to make living, not always legally, on the fringes of both society and a massive star system far from the aegis of the controlling central government, the Alliance. This is not a ‘clean’ space opera—making a living in space can be hard and is often dangerous work; high technology rarely makes it as far as the outer planets and their moons; and the preferred technology is stuff that works, so for example, firearms rather than lasers and on many planets, horses rather than vehicles.

Things Don’t Go Smooth is all about helping the GM make the lives of his Crew—that is, the player characters—just that bit more awkward. It presents a host of antagonists with which to confound, confront, and confuse the Crew, including spies and crime bosses, rival crews and gangs, and the unexplained and the miscellaneous; presents their spaceships and space stations, gives narrator advice for running them, and introduces an array of new triggers; and lastly, provides two scenarios with which the GM can showcase the antagonists of his choice. The supplement comes as a full colour book, illustrated with a mix of photographs and grayscale art, which comes with solid cartography. 

The bulk of the supplement is devoted to its antagonists. The first five are spies and crime bosses; the second four are rival crews and gangs; whilst the last four are oddities and the unexplained. Each of the first heads an organisation with men at their command and plots of their own backed up with knowledge, favours, ambition, and a more than healthy dose of paranoia. They include a freelance spy with a taste for the highlife who trades in information and more; a mercenary queen with an axe to grind against both men and the Alliance; a Moon Boss who will do anything to protect the independent sanctuary he has established; a mercenary commander who trades on her corporate links; and an ex-Browncoat who continues the fight behind the façade of a successful waste management company. Where they possess plots of their own that can see them hiring a Crew or working at odds with a Crew’s aims, the rival gangs and crews are designed to be going after the same jobs as a Crew, and as the competition may be as good as a Crew, perhaps aping their skills and attitudes, perhaps reflecting them. The four rival gangs and crews include smugglers forced to shift unpalatable cargoes, a crazy pirate crew high on adrenaline and alcohol, an information broker backed up by assassins and thieves, and a family of junkers on the make. The oddities and the unexplained are designed to add a degree of mystery to the ‘Verse with legends and rumours that include software that checks for, and shuts down, Browncoat technology; a completely innocent Alliance agent, a wealthy CEO obsessed with ‘saving’ Earth-That-Was, and a ‘ghost’ with gifts to give.

In each case, a full character write-up is given for the primary NPC, who is then backed up with a supporting cast and a description of any bases or equipment. Encounters suggest how the antagonists might be used whilst new Signature Assets are listed and explained for use with both the NPCs here and those of the GM’s own design. Or of course, use by a player character. The thirteen represent a good mix and none of them are quite out and out villains, there being some nuance to their aims and motivations. For example, Zaine Alleyne is a medic who takes too much pride in his skill with a scalpel to quite see the immorality of the work that his Triad bosses have him do, but still has morals enough to undertake acts of philanthropy elsewhere…

Further support for these NPCs comes in the form of write-ups of their boats, thus expanding upon the list of spaceships given in the Firefly Roleplaying Game core rules. They range from an Aegis Class Alliance Battlesphere and Keying Class Medium Transport to a Nanjing Class Yacht and a Sunslinger Science Vessel, altogether adding thirteen new ship classes, along with an array of new Distinctions—Background and Customisation—as well new Signature Assets. These enable the GM to design and build boats for his own NPCs as well as use those for the NPCs presented in Things Don’t Go Smooth.

The last of the NPCs offered are not so much NPCs as elemental forces out of the Black—‘Reavers’! Oddly absent from the Firefly Roleplaying Game core rules, in Things Don’t Go Smooth the Reavers are described as an unstoppable moving force that cannot be reasoned with, fought against, or even defeated. At least not with dice rolls, but rather they can be escaped or avoided. Thus there is no write-up for Reavers in the traditional sense of NPC stats, but several scenario hooks are given along with an example of how to use them.

The GM also receives advice on running antagonists, backed up with three thorough—and entertaining—examples of play that showcase the threats they represent. The advice also covers the creation of lairs and hideouts, and quick NPCs and plots, but most notably Things Don’t Go Smooth gives the GM a set of new triggers, not to add to Distinctions and Signature Assets, but rather to scenes and locations. This is in addition to any Traits they may already have. Location triggers are specific to a place, typically one that a Crew visits regularly, whilst scene triggers are tied to particular scene in an adventure. 

Rounding out Things Don’t Go Smooth are two adventures, ‘Merciless’ and ‘Thieves in Heaven’. The former is a heist movie set in a museum in which the Crew needs to case the joint before making a run on its security, whilst the latter dumps the Crew into the middle of a medical mystery and one company’s desire for a monopoly when they suddenly need a spare part for its boat—one that the ship’s mechanic cannot simply fix. In both cases, suggestions are given as to which of the villains listed earlier in the supplement are best suited to use in order to make either scenario more awkward and thus more entertaining for the players.

Overall, Things Don’t Go Smooth is neatly presented supplement. It is well written and decently illustrated. What stands out though in comparison with the earlier Echoes of War, are its maps. They are a huge improvement, being reasonably detailed and helpful. One interesting aspect to the supplement is that it is not as tightly tied into the crew of the Serenity as Echoes of War was. This does not mean that the contents of Things Don’t Go Smooth cannot be used with the Serenity crew, but it does feel as their importance is downplayed.

Things Don’t Go Smooth very much feels like a companion volume to the Firefly Roleplaying Game core rules. It provides the means for a Crew to have memorable and meaning adventures by giving the GM not just interesting and memorable villains to put them up against, but villains who are antagonists with interesting and memorable motivations. This is backed up with solid advice and support and two good adventures. Things Don’t Go Smooth lets a GM get enjoyably villainous for the Firefly Roleplaying Game.

Saturday 7 November 2015

A Jewel of a Filler

The award winning Splendor is a simple game of card drafting and set collection from French publisher, Space Cowboys. Designed for two to four players, aged ten and up, they take the roles of merchants during the Renaissance who are competing to build the most successful jewel emporium. They will invest in mines and transportation, and then employ artisans who can turn raw gems into beautiful jewels, in the process hopefully attracting the attention of the nobility and acquiring their patronage. A game takes no longer than thirty minutes and scales easily from two to four players.

Splendor consists of seven sturdy Gem tokens of each gem colour—Diamond (white), Emerald (green), Onyx (black), Ruby (red), and Sapphire (blue), plus five Gold or ‘wild card’ tokens. Ninety Development cards are divided into three decks consisting of forty Level 1 cards, thirty Level 2 cards, and twenty Level 3 cards. There are ten Noble tiles. At game start, Noble tiles equal to the number of players plus are randomly drawn and placed face up; each Development card deck is shuffled and four cards drawn from it and laid in a line, so that there is grid of three by four cards.

Each Development card is marked with a gem representing its value and a cost that must be paid in gems. So one Development card might cost one Emerald, Onyx, Ruby, and Sapphire gem each, whilst another might cost two Ruby and two Sapphire gems. In addition to the gem granted by a Development card, others are marked with Prestige points. Level 1 cards are easier to purchase than Level 2 and Level 3 cards. Each Noble tile is illustrated with a portrait and a player needs to own three Development cards of three colours or four Development cards of two colours—for example, three Diamond (white), Emerald (green), and Sapphire (blue) each or four Onyx and four Ruby Development cards, if he is to qualify to gain that Noble’s patronage.

Each player starts with nothing and on his turn can do one action. This can be to take Gem tokens (three of different colours or two of one colour); reserve one Development card and take a gold token; or purchase a single Development, either face up from the table or a previously reserved one. A player cannot have more than ten Gem tokens. A player needs to spend the correct number of Gem tokens to purchase a Development card—as indicated on the card—to purchase it. Gold tokens count as any Gem token. Purchased Development cards act as bonuses in future purchases. For example, a Development card costs two Diamond, four Onyx, and one Ruby Gems to purchase. If a player already has two Onyx and one Ruby Development cards, then they act as bonuses and cut the cost to just two Diamond and two Onyx Gem tokens. If a player has enough bonuses to purchase a Development card for free, then he can. Purchased cards are replaced from their respective Development decks until that deck runs out. At the end of a turn, if a player purchased Development cards with gems equal to those on a Noble tile, then he is awarded that tile.

Play continues until one player has acquired fifteen Prestige points. Then the current round is completed so that everyone has played the same number of turns. The player with the most Prestige points is the winner.

Splendor is a simple game. Players try to collect Gem tokens to buy Development cards. This is not only to gain the bonuses that will reduce the cost of purchasing further Development cards, but also to qualify for the Noble tiles. As players collect more Development cards, they gain more bonuses and thus buy better cards.

In fact, Splendor sounds too simple, but it gets tactical when play turns competitive. Players are competing for the same resources, so a player can block another player’s actions—taking the Gem tokens another player wants, purchasing or reserving a Development card another player wants, and getting a Noble card first. This forces players to change plans from one turn to the next, so players have to watch what each other does and what cards and tokens each player has. Thus play is more challenging with more players.

As much as Splendor is physically well done—the Gem tokens are hefty, the cards attractive, and so on—the game’s theme is very light. In fact, the concept of investing in mines and transportation and employing artisans to turn gems into jewels never even enters play. It could even have a whole new theme—or none at all—and game play would be unaffected.

Splendor is not quite a light filler—it is slightly more complex than that in terms of what a player needs to think about from one turn to the next. Nevertheless, the game is enjoyable and worth replaying as a solidly designed filler.

Space Swords & Wizardry

The Old School Renaissance has always been about one thing—aping a version of Dungeons & Dragons from the days of yester yore. Whether Swords & Wizardry, Labyrinth Lord, or Lamentations of the Flame Princess Weird Fantasy Roleplaying, the focus has been on the Tolkienesque swords and sorcery of Dungeons & Dragons. There are of course exceptions, notably Backswords & Bucklers: Adventuring in Gloriana’s Britain and X-plorers: The role playing adventures of Galactic Troubleshooters! Science Fiction is also the genre of choice for the latest Old School Renaissance RPG. White Star: White Box Science Fiction Roleplaying from Barrel Rider Games is based on Swords & Wizardry for it mechanics and draws on the Space Opera sub-genre, as typified by Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe, John Carter of Mars, and Star Wars, for its inspiration. These though are not the only inspiration and given their presence, it should be easy enough for a Referee to do a number of different Science Fiction settings using these rules.

Swords & Wizardry employs four core classes and White Star does exactly the same. They are Aristocrat—Star Wars’ Leia Organa, Firefly’s Inarra Serra, Blake 7’s Roj Blake; Mercenary—Star Wars’ Bobba Fett, Firefly’s Zoe Washburne or Jayne Cobb, Blake 7’s Olog Gan; Pilot—Star Wars’ Han Solo, Firefly’s Wash, Blake 7’s Jenna Stannis; and Star Knight—Star Wars’ Luke Skywalker or Obi-Wan Kenobi, Firefly’s River Tam, and Blake 7’s Cally. Aristocrats are powerful speakers, capable of inspiring others to give To-Hit and Saving Throw bonuses, charming others as per Charm Person, and acquiring a retinue of assistants. Mercenaries get extra attacks against foes of 1 Hit Dice or less, whilst Pilots possess an Initiative bonus in space combat, assign bonuses to their ship’s statistics in combat, and once per day, can carry out a temporary repairs to their ships. Lastly, Star Knights can activate Meditations like Charm Person, Detect Life, and Dark Vision, and are renowned as Star Sword duellists.

Of the four core Classes, the Star Knight is the most obvious in its inspiration, their being cast as wandering protectors of the galaxy. Much like other retroclones, the Fighter-type Class, in the case of White Star, the Mercenary, is the least interesting and the least developed. A number of House Rules are given throughout the book, including Strength bonuses for combat and damage, Wisdom bonuses for the Star Knight’s Meditations, Dexterity bonuses for Armour Class, and so on. One possibility to address the weakness of the Mercenary Class would be to let it have the Strength bonus, but a better alternative might be to give it a simple bonus with a single selected weapon as a specialisation.

Besides the four core Classes, White Star includes three optional character races as Classes. These are the Alien Brute—Star Wars’ Chewbacca or Stargate SG-1’s Teal’c; Alien Mystics—Star Wars’ Yoda or Star Trek’s Spock; and Robot—Star Wars’ C-3PO and R2-D2 or Star Trek’s Data. The Alien Brute is a combat specialist like the Mercenary, but is better in hand-to-hand combat and has keen senses. Alien Mystics tend to be peaceful and introspective and can use Gifts such as Light, Phantasmal Force, and Alter Time, and also have keen senses. Lastly each Robot must be of a specific model, either Combat, Diplomacy, or Mechanical. This does mean that they replicate some of the abilities of White Star’s other Classes, for example, the Mechanical model of Robot can repair starships and vehicles and can assign bonuses to a starship’s statistics much like the Pilot Class.

Pooma Mupoo, Level 1 Star Lord
Str: 10 Int: 13 (+1) Wis: 17 (+2)
Con: 13 (+1) Dex: 15 (+1) Chr: 12
Hit Points: 7 Save: 15 (+2 vs. Meditations & Gifts)
Armour Class: 7 Ascending Armour Class: 12
Experience Bonus: +20%
Languages: 3
Equipment: Star Sword (+1), Light Armour, Energy Shield, 60 Cr

For the most part, running and playing White Star: White Box Science
Fiction Roleplaying is much like running and playing Swords & Wizardry or any other retroclone. The equipment list includes a mix of medieval and advanced devices and weaponry; there are rules for concealed and secret doors; experience Points are gained for uncovering treasure or advanced technology as well as defeating opponents and advancing the story of the current game; and whilst White Star uses a descending Armour Class mechanic, it also includes rules for ascending Armour Class as another house rule.

Although the list of advanced equipment pushes White Star into other Science Fiction sub-genres, most notably Cyberpunk with cyberware, but it includes a good mix of items that sort of get treated like ‘magic items’, rewards for the player characters to find. Fun items include a LASER Attraction Gauntlet for that Han Solo shot at Darth Vader deflection moment, Star Sword Gems because Star Wars: Force Unleashed is fun, Jet Boots, well, because, and Warp Gates, because only good things can come out of them… Now White Star is not a dark and gritty game, so there is no penalty for having cyberware fitted, though a house rule does suggest a limit on the number that can be fitted.

The biggest addition to White Star are the rules for starship combat. Starships themselves are simply defined by Armour Class, Hit Points, Shield Strength (which reduces damage). Movement, Targeting bonus, weaponry, and modifications. The rules are nicely kept simple and streamlined, much in keeping with the rules for standard melee and ranged combat. Characters are expected to work together to operate a starship in such circumstances and any Experience Points earned is divided between the party. Various starship types are included, ranging from ‘stunt’ fighters, light transports, and blockade runners up to dreadnoughts, gunships, and star cruisers.

As to be expected with a retroclone based on Swords & Wizardry, the Gifts and Meditations in White Star are essentially spells from Dungeons & Dragons and both work as per Vancian magic. That is, learn, cast, and then forget. Both lists of Gifts and Meditations are actually a mix of Magic-user and Cleric spells, so you have Charm Person and Heal Other included in the list of Meditations and Hold Person and Fly in the list of Gifts. This divide between Gifts and Meditations seems odd given the obvious inspiration for White Star, even arbitrary. Surely the Star Lord and the Alien Mystic should be able to learn both?

Of its alien species, White Star draws from Battlestar Galactica, Doctor Who, Firefly, Flash Gordon, Guardians of the Galaxy, Star Trek, and Star Wars for its inspiration. For the most part, the inspiration for its non-sentient species is less obvious, though Dune is one of the more obvious ones. Of course, a capable Referee could easily adapt any of the creatures or monsters that appear in other Swords & Wizardry compatible material. Overall, these inspirations are fun to spot, most being fairly obvious, like the Void Knight, the dark counterpart to the Star Knight Class.

One of the highlights in White Star: White Box Science Fiction Roleplaying is its discussion of campaigns and campaign types. It neatly dissects and summarises several different familiar Science Fiction and space opera campaign types. These include ‘Rebels Against the Regime’, ‘Explorers Amongst the Stars’, ‘Invasion!’, ‘Brothers in Arms’, and ‘Just Keep Flying’. So that list covers Star Wars, Firefly, Blake’s 7, Starship Troopers, Star Trek, and obviously, much, much more. These discussions are very nicely done, exploring each Class’ role in each campaign type in a very helpful fashion.

To get a  campaign started, White Star is rounded out with the ‘Interstellar Civil war’ campaign setting and a description of the Kelron Sector, a region isolated behind several asteroid belts.It is broadly drawn and described, leaving room for the Referee to develop more. To support the setting, ‘The Second Battle of Brinn’, an adventure for six to eight characters of First to Third Levels, takes the heroes to an asteroid mining station to retrieve some data. Although it does feel undeveloped in places, it is a reasonable introductory adventure that is really a dungeon in space in which the heroes must race to achieve their objective before the situation goes sour on them. 

If there is an issue with White Star, it is that there are not enough character classes. Notably, there is no scientific or technical classes, so it is not possible to create Spock, Scottie, McCoy, Avon, and so on. To an extent, the Pilot and Robot classes can cover elements of this, but it does not quite feel right. Similarly there is no equivalent of the Thief class, so it is not possible to create Vila, for example. The problem is that without these additional Classes, White Star cannot quite do the types of Science Fiction that it is clearly inspired by, which is a shame because there is a great deal to like about the RPG. In addition, it would have been nice if the house rules had included options for skill use and some rules and guidance for creating planets and solar systems rather than just leaving it up to the Referee.

Physically, White Star is nicely presented. The artwork looks good and much effort has gone into the book’s graphic design feel futuristic as per 1977. That said, another edit would not have gone amiss.

There is great deal to like about White Star: White Box Science Fiction Roleplaying, a game that  very obviously wears its influences on its sleeves. The rules are simple and the game has a clean, stripped back style that together nicely models those inspirations and their genres. The good news is that the designer has bowed to demands from his customers and thus has made ita available in print. That said, it is surprising that it has not yet appeared in its own ‘White Box’. It could do with a companion volume though as there is slightly too much missing for it really to be fully capable of doing its inspirations justice. Certainly if White Star included the two or three extra Classes  it so needs, it would realise its aim of being a superb Science Fiction retroclone. As it is, White Star: White Box Science Fiction Roleplaying is the charming, fun Space Opera RPG that we never had in 1977.