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

Sunday 27 March 2016

Secret Terrors

To date the focus of Achtung! Cthulhu, the World War 2 setting of Lovecraftian investigative horror published by Modiphius Entertainment has primarily been upon the human participants, that of the Allies against the Nazis and the uses to which secret enemy organisations harness knowledge. What this has meant is that the place of some of the more traditional forces or elements and some of the major figures of the Mythos has really been absent in the Achtung! Cthulhu setting. Now this is not necessarily a bad thing, since it leaves room for the dedicated Keeper of Call of Cthulhu lore to draw upon upon other sources and other histories to develop them for himself. Nevertheless, the Achtung! Cthulhu Terrors of the Secret War actually address some of these concerns and does so in an interesting fashion. For although Achtung! Cthulhu Terrors of the Secret War looks very much like a manual of Mythos Monsters, it is much more than that. Achtung! Cthulhu Terrors of the Secret War is a manual of Mythos Monsters with an application!

Indeed, for whilst Achtung! Cthulhu Terrors of the Secret War does indeed include some twenty or more major entities of the Mythos—known as Terrors in this supplement—and their servants, it includes the means to combat them too. From Abhoth and Arwassa to Yegg-ha and Y’golonac, not forgetting Cthulhu himself, the investigators can take the battle directly to the Great Old Ones and Outer Gods, all with units of infantry, tanks, and even artillery in support of their efforts. In order to do this, Terrors of the Secret War presents a new and simplified set of rules for handling mass combat; descriptions of various Great Old Ones and Outer Gods, their attacks and weaknesses, and the means to banish them; a grimoire of new spells; and an armoury of new weapons, including some for the Allies—that is, the player characters to wield! As with other titles in the Achtung! Cthulhu line, Terrors of the Secret War is written for use with both Call of Cthulhu, Sixth Edition and Savage Worlds.

The ‘Simple Mass Combat System’ introduced in Terrors of the Secret War is designed as a faster, easier alternative to that presented in Acthung! Cthulhu Keeper’s Guide that also keeps the players and their investigators involved. It first organises everything into units, including regular military forces, Great Old Ones, any servitors—whether summoned by the Great Old Ones or the Nazis, and so on. Even advantages are treated as being the equivalent of units, although they are ‘virtual’ units. So units in cover or that are considered to be elite units, have a Combat Advantage, each Combat Advantage considered to be a virtual unit. The number of units on both sides are compared and any losses deducted—one side needs to have a three-to-one majority over the other in order to inflict losses without suffering any itself. Achieve a three-to one-ratio and the side with the greater advantage can knock out one enemy unit, if they have a two-to-one ratio, then both sides lose a unit, and if the ratio is just one-to-one, then there is stalemate.

For example, Unit 242 is a platoon of commandos assigned to Department M to strike at Nazi activities involving the Mythos on mainland Europe. There is intelligence that the Nazis are summoning Deep Ones off the coast of France and Unit 242 is ordered to ambush both whilst Department M agents attempt to grab the lead Nazi cultists involved. It also has the support of a squadron of three Motor Torpedo Boats that will provide supporting fire. Unit 242 is an elite unit, has done this task before, is attacking from cover, and has the element of surprise, plus it can call on a strafing run from the Motor Torpedo Boats. The Keeper decides that this is equivalent of five extra Virtual Units—on the first round at least—to give the Allies a Combat Advantage of six. Arrayed against them are the Nazi sorcerers and the Deep Ones. They are equivalent of two units and receive no other benefits, both being distracted by the summoning. This gives the Allies the three-to one-ratio for a successful mission.

The first round begins when a Department M agent fires a flare over the summoning site. Immediately, the Motor Torpedo Boats roar into attack, their heavy guns opening up on the Batrachian humanoids wading through the surf. The Deep Ones are cut down, their bloodied corpses splashing into the water. At the same time, the British commandos target the Nazi sorcerers, not to kill, but to pin in place. Under the hail of bullets the agents rush forward to snatch their targets... 

Initiative in the ‘Simple Mass Combat System’ is equally as simple. The investigators and any NPCs act first, followed by the military forces on both sides, and then the Terror itself. What this and the ‘Simple Mass Combat System’ is designed to do is keep a game moving at the same speed as normal play. It is also designed to keep the players and their investigators involved, the players directing the Allied forces and their investigators acting to thwart both the enemy NPCs and the Terror.

The bulk of Terrors of the Secret War is devoted to descriptions of the twenty or so Great Old Ones and Outer Gods. None of them are new to Lovecraftian investigative horror or to Call of Cthulhu, though many are new to Savage Worlds and many, especially the avatars of the various deities, are little known. What is immediately obvious about the write-ups for each is that not one of these Mythos entities is accorded any stats. Instead, taking a leaf out of Trail of Cthulhu, it presents the ways in which the investigators and others interact with the particular Mythos entity, primarily during the use of the ‘Simple Mass Combat System’. These are Investigator Actions, Military Actions, and Terror Actions; that is, actions that can be undertaken by the investigators, by the military forces, and by the terror itself against the investigators and military forces arrayed against before it. So for example, in the entry for Cthulhu, Master of R’lyeh, the possible Investigator Actions include ‘Evasive Manoeuvres’ (successfully avoid his claws whilst driving or piloting a vehicle) and ‘Psychic Chain’ (work with allies to withstand some of the Great Old One’s psychic attacks); whilst possible Military Actions include ‘Diversionary Fires’ (distract Cthulhu with firing patterns or types of attacks) and ‘Drive Him into the Sea’ (sufficient attacks will force him back underwater). In turn, the Master of R’lyeh’s Terrors include ‘The Stuff of Nightmares’ (affect the dreams of the sensitive) out of combat, but in combat he can of course make a ‘Claw/Tentacle Attack’ as well as both ‘Blessing of Cthulhu’ and ‘Blight of Cthulhu’ (gives a bonus to forces opposing the Allies and inflicts a penalty upon the Allies respectively). In addition, each of the entries includes plot hooks, possible servitors, victory conditions, and some commentary and evidence. The commentary takes the form of advice from an expert who consults for Department M, whilst the evidence comes in form of newspapers, letters, after-action reports, and so on. They add colour to Terrors of the Secret War, but of course can also be used as handouts.

The primary aim in encountering any one of these Terrors is for the Allies to banish it—of course there is no question of being able to kill it—and there is a means provided for each Terror described. As much as Terrors of the Secret War ups the scale of these encounters by involving military units and taking it a step towards being a  wargame, it never gets away from the individual scale of the players and their investigators. Whilst the players will be rolling dice for the Allied military forces and even directing them, it is their investigators who will be running about the battlefield, trying to get closer to the Terror in order to banish it.

In technical terms, Terrors of the Secret War offers new options for both the Allies and the Nazis. For the latter, it packs the already horrifying Shoggoth into various advanced pieces of technology for monstrous effect, whilst for the former, the Allies get arms and armour created in response to the Nazi use of Mythos-enhanced technology. They include the Blevins Steam-Assisted Enzymatic Carbine and Pistol, Electric Discharge Weapons like the ‘Crackler’  M5-1 Bazooka, the Eastin-Bakhaus Arclight Rifle, and the ‘Prometheus’ Lightning Cannon. In the main, these are bulky, unwieldy weapons, and it should be rare that the investigators be assigned them, though knowing that they have to face a Terror is probably reason enough.

Rounding out Terrors of the Secret War is a short grimoire of spells. From the semi-absurd Attract Fish—it does of course, have its uses—to Wave of Oblivion, the majority of these spells will be familiar to anyone who has played a lot of Call of Cthulhu, Sixth Edition. Rather than presenting new spells, the grimoire, much like the descriptions of the Terrors earlier in the book, is actually providing details of these spells for use with Savage Worlds for the first time. Given that the focus of Terrors of the Secret War is upon the Great Old Ones and Outer Gods, the bulk of these spells are summon/dismiss and contact spells. Pleasingly, page references are given for Call of Cthulhu, Sixth Edition for all of these spells.

Physically, Terrors of the Secret War is well presented and well written. There are some great illustrations too with everything being in full colour. The content is backed up with a short, but decent index.

There is a lot of information in Terrors of the Secret War, but it is not necessarily information that is easily or readily applied to a campaign. Whilst it is definitely written for use with the Achtung! Cthulhu setting, some of its content—the various descriptions and details of the Terrors and in particular the spells in the grimoire, will be of use to a Keeper who is running a game of Lovecraftian investigative horror using Savage Worlds. For the Keeper who is running a Call of Cthulhu campaign that does not take place in the Achtung! Cthulhu setting, there is less that is useful here. Yet even then, the bulk of the contents have limited application given that facing the Terrors described herein tends to occur as the climax of a campaign. Or at least they do if the Keeper is running his Achtung! Cthulhu campaign in a style akin to a traditional Call of Cthulhu campaign, but the Achtung! Cthulhu setting takes place during a global conflict that escalates everything. In the real world, this was primarily technological progress, but in Achtung! Cthulhu, the rate of technological advancement is matched by mankind’s growing knowledge of the Mythos and by the frequency with which contact is made with the entities of Mythos. This is mostly by certain agencies of the Axis powers, who desperate for great power have turned to ever more summonings of great powers… So it makes sense for there to be more encounters with Terrors in Achtung! Cthulhu, but the Keeper should probably avoid using too many of these Terrors lest their impact is lost.

Overall,  Achtung! Cthulhu Terrors of the Secret War provides lots of information for the Achtung! Cthulhu setting. More importantly though, Achtung! Cthulhu Terrors of the Secret War does a solid job of upping the scale of the conflict against the Mythos.

Monday 21 March 2016

Your First Miniatures Wargame

Best known for its well-researched, fully illustrated military sourcebooks, Osprey Publishing has in the past few years been expanding into rules for wargaming with Osprey Wargames; into more esoteric sourcebooks with the Osprey Adventures line, including books like Knights Templar: A Secret History and Steampunk Soldiers: Uniforms & Weapons from the Age of Steam; and boardgames like They Come Unseen and the forthcoming new edition of Escape from Colditz. Its newest set of rules for fantasy wargaming is designed for short, small battles with a set-up and background that is reminiscent of Games Workshop’s Mordheim: City of the Damned, the skirmish set of rules set in the same world as Warhammer Fantasy Battles.

Frostgrave: Fantasy Wargames in the Frozen City is a set of fantasy skirmish wargaming rules in which rival wizards, each accompanied by a wizard's apprentice and leading a band of stalwart followers, venture into an icebound, long-abandoned city in search of ancient secrets, magical knowledge, and arcane artefacts as well as simple gold. The site is the ancient city of Felstad, once the heart of a great and powerful magical empire, but due to some kind of magical error was lost to the ice a thousand years ago. This though, is about as far as the background to Frostgrave goes, though an anthology of fiction, Frostgrave: Tales of the Frozen City, adds more. Nevertheless, this is sufficient to see rival players battling it out for possession of treasure after treasure in Frostgrave’s icy ruins.

To play, each player will require ten miniatures to represent his party of plunderers and a twenty-sided die, plus a playing area roughly three foot square and plenty of scenery and terrain to fill the playing area. The default scale for the game is in inches, but the figure scale is 28mm, so finding miniatures should not be a challenge, but North Star Military Figures produces a range of miniatures specifically for use with Frostgrave: Fantasy Wargames in the Frozen City.

Essentially in Frostgrave, each player is given the same budget to design a warband or party of ten miniatures. This party will be led by a wizard and his wizard’s apprentice, the remainder of its members being whatever soldiers the wizard has hired—hounds and dog handlers, thugs, thieves, treasure hunters, soldiers, templars, barbarians, apothecaries, and more. Each figure is defined by six stats—Move, Fight, Shooting, Armour, Willpower, and Health. In addition, every soldier is armed and armoured in some fashion and can carry a single extra item as well as his standard equipment, typically a piece of treasure that he will try and carry off the battlefield. The apothecary, for example, begins play carrying a single item, a healing potion. Both the wizard and his apprentice can carry more, reflecting one of the several ways  in which they are the focus of the game, the others being that they can suffer injury, gain experience and can go up in level, and of course, cast spells.

Frostgrave comes with some eighty spells divided between ten schools, each school being aligned with three other schools and opposed to one school. Thus wizards can be a Chronomancer, an Elementalist, an Enchanter, an Illusionist, a Necromancer, a Sigilist, a Soothsayer, a Summoner, a Thaumaturge, or a Witch. A starting wizard picks three spells from his chosen school, one from each of its three aligned schools, and two from neutral schools. Spells from aligned schools and neutral schools are more difficult to cast than those from his own school. So a Thaumaturge, who draws his powers from positive energy—perhaps even a deity of some kind—casts spells from his own school without any penalty; at a +2 penalty when casting spells from the aligned Illusionist, Sigilist, and Soothsayer schools; at a +4 penalty when casting spells from the neutral Chronomancer, Elementalist, Enchanter, Summoner, and Witch; and at a +6 penalty when casting spells from the opposed Necromancer school. In the campaign game a wizard can learn more spells from any school.

Cedric the Seer
Move 6
Fight +2
Shooting +0
Armour 10
Willpower +4
Health 14
Soothsayer (+0): Awareness, Mind Control, Reveal Secret
Aligned (+2): Crumble, Heal, Invisibility
Neutral (+4): Absorb Knowledge, Summon Demon

Lastly, every warband should have a wizard’s apprentice. Of course he is not the wizard’s equal and only knows the same spells as the wizard, but even so, he does bolster a warband’s magic capability. Should a wizard be killed, then the apprentice will step up and replace him.

Once the players have created their warbands, a game can be prepared. This is a simple matter of putting down terrain and scenery on the playing area and adding objectives. In the basic game, these objectives will just be treasure tokens, but a scenario—like the ten given in Frostgrave—may have other objectives. 

Actual gameplay in Frostgrave is very simple. Each turn the players roll for initiative and then play through four phases—Wizard, Apprentice, Soldier, and Creature phases—with everyone conducting each phase before moving onto the next. When a figure is activated in its phase, it has two actions. One action must consist of movement, but the other can be fighting, shooting, spellcasting, collecting treasure, or even a second movement action. Combat, whether fighting or shooting, is a simple matter of opposed rolls and adding the appropriate stat—Fighting in melee, and Shooting for the attacker and Fighting for the defender in missile combat. Whoever rolls the highest determines the outcome. In melee combat, one combatant has successfully hit the other, whilst in missile combat, the shooter misses if the defender rolls higher. If a figure is hit, then his Armour value is deducted from the attacker’s roll to determine how Health is lost. A figure reduced to zero Health is killed.

Spellcasting is a matter of a wizard—or his apprentice—rolling a die and attempting to beat a spell’s Casting Number. Failing to cast a spell can inflict damage on the caster, but a wizard can ‘empower’ a spell, spending Health on a one-for-one basis to gain a bonus to the roll. This will be either to successfully cast the spell or to make it more powerful to resist. In general, there is no limit on how many times a spell can be cast during a game, though this may vary from spell to spell.

Play proceeds like this until either one warband has defeated the other or has fled the board. The warband with the most treasure is the winner. Up until now, Frostgrave: Fantasy Wargames in the Frozen City is a straightforward set of skirmish rules that are clearly written and nicely work as an introduction to the hobby or the equivalent of a palette cleanser between longer and more complex games. Where Frostgrave: Fantasy Wargames in the Frozen City goes beyond this is in its campaign rules.

The campaign rules in Frostgrave allow for figure survival, their merely being taken out rather than dying if all Health is lost. They can still die, but they may instead have to rest up for one treasure hunt, or in the case of a wizard or his apprentice suffer a crippling injury like lost toes or psychological scars. During a game, a wizard can gain Experience points and for every one hundred gained, he goes up a Level. Each time he gains a Level, a wizard can improve a stat, reduce the Casting Number of a spell, or learn a spell. Of course, when a wizard improves, so does his apprentice.

In the campaign game, treasure becomes more important. It can take the form of potions, scrolls, grimoires, magical arms and armour, magical artefacts, or just gold crowns. Whilst a wizard can buy many of these items, he also can spend his gold on healing or replacing members of his warband, or he can establish a base. Each type of base grants a special bonus. For example, an Inn enables a warband to have eleven rather than ten members, whereas a Library can be searched for scrolls and grimoires. Establishing a base is free, but money can be spent to modify it with resources like a Kennel—enables a wizard to keep an extra war hound in his warband, Giant Cauldron—grants +1 bonus on all Brew Potion spells, or Celestial Telescope—confers a +2 bonus to one initiative roll in game via divination.  

Optional rules allow for critical hits and for random encounters with some of the creatures that inhabit the ruins of the city. To that end, the book includes a selection of creatures, such as giant rats, white apes, frost giants, and various types of the undead. Another optional rule enables a wizard to achieve ‘transcendence’ after learning all of the spells in the game. In effect, the wizard leaves the game, but has won the campaign. Alternatively, a campaign might end once a wizard has learned all of the spells in his school or after a number of games have been played. In addition, Frostgrave comes with ten scenarios, each a variation upon the game’s treasure hunt set-up, such as exploring a museum of living statues and being hunted by giants whilst searching for treasure. Rounding out the book is a set of spell cards, one per school, that can be photocopied and used as a ready reference per play.

Physically, Frostgrave: Fantasy Wargames in the Frozen City is sturdy hardback done in full colour. The writing is clear and simple and it is illustrated throughout with a mix of full colour fantasy artwork and colour photographs of warbands exploring and fighting.

As good as it is, Frostgrave: Fantasy Wargames in the Frozen City is not quite perfect. One issue is that of balance. Not initially because each player has the same budget with which to build their warbands, but as a campaign proceeds, it will become more and difficult to determine how balanced one warband is against another because no two players are going to spend their gold and their wizard’s Experience points in the same way. Other issues with the game are more subjective in that an experienced wargamer may find the rules in Frostgrave: Fantasy Wargames in the Frozen City a little simplistic and that the game as a whole lacks depth. Arguably, the rules in Frostgrave are never going to be more than simple—and that really can only be seen as a good thing—but there is no doubt that there is room for expansion. For example, whilst the various types of soldiers are never going to gain any experience, they could have more defined special abilities, such as war hound being able to track, a thief being able to sneak, and a treasure hunter granting a bonus to treasure rolls. Rules for different races could also be added. Right now, a player could easily use Elf miniatures to represent his warband, but there is no way to differentiate between warbands in this way in the rules. After all, who can deny the fun of sending an Orc shaman or a Dwarf runesmith into Frostgrave with their warbands? Further, whilst this is a set of fantasy wargaming rules, it does not mean that the use of gunpowder and early firearms would not be out of place in the game. Lastly, Frostgrave: Fantasy Wargames in the Frozen City could benefit from a set of rules and guidelines for creating scenarios. Perhaps these and other rules might appear in a Frostgrave Companion? It should be noted that the publisher has already released a campaign, Thaw of the Lich Lord, which is fully supported by figures from North Star Military Figures.

Another issue is the terrain needed to play. The playing area is quite small and it is supposed to represent the ruins of a city. So what it needs is a lot of terrain to reflect the compact, built-up nature of the ruins of Felstad. This terrain also needs to be fairly tall, not only to model the various high buildings, but also to break up lines of sight for both Wizards and Apprentices casting spells as well as any marksmen. Tall buildings also allow better use of the Push action. Unfortunately the need for all of this terrain does increase the outlay. It is not likely to trouble an experienced wargamer with plenty of pieces of terrain to hand, but it might offput someone new to the hobby.

Frostgrave: Fantasy Wargames in the Frozen City has many things going for it. First off, its rules are clearly written and presented—and above all, not complex. Secondly, both the setting and its treasure hunting set-up are easy to grasp and should a player want to do so, easy to develop and add to. Thirdly, the level of investment for the game is relatively low by the hobby’s standards—just ten figures per warband plus the terrain and scenery. All of these serve to make Frostgrave: Fantasy Wargames in the Frozen City a very accessible game, suitable as an introduction to the hobby as much as it is a lighter alternative to more formal and heavier battles.

A Box of Delights

Although there is no scenario in the rulebook for Shadow of the Demon Lord, the first RPG released by Schwalb Entertainment following a successful Kickstarter campaign, one of the excellent decisions upon the part of the designer has been to release support—and release it early—in the form of scenarios for the game. This way a gaming group can get playing quickly, even if they are just using the core rules presented in Victims of the Demon Lord: Starter Guide and an adventure. In addition, the publisher has also released Tales of the Demon Lord, a complete mini-campaign that takes a party of characters from Zero Level up to Eleventh Level. In the meantime, the fourteenth adventure is Oblivion’s Edge.

Oblivion’s Edge  is the fourth adventure written for characters who have entered the Master Path, that is of Seventh Level or higher. It is written by Stephen Radney-MacFarland, the author of various supplements for Dungeons &
A Box of Dragons, Fourth Edition, as well as a regular contributor to Dungeon and Dragon magazines, and comes as a six page, 23.05 MB PDF. Physically, Oblivion’s Edge is decently presented.

The scenario is designed to mark the end of a campaign or at least, the end of a major chapter in a campaign. It brings the player characters perhaps the closest to the walls at which the Demon Lord rends in order to free him from his prison in the Void. The strain of his rending has caused the Void to bulge into our reality and this bulge stretches and weakens, coming ever closer to thinning the walls of reality and bursting. Although the peoples of the mortal world do not know it, they are in greater danger than ever before. Fortunately, there exists the means to remedy the threat, but this is fraught with dangers of its own. Members of the Esoteric Order of Kyth have prepared a ritual for a decade that will repair the porous walls of reality and sure up the walls against the coming of the Demon Lord. The decade-long ritual requires a relic sacred to the order, the Puzzle Box of Saint Barbatros, and somehow this is where the player characters come in.

The scenario starts with the Esoteric Order of Kyth asking the player characters to deliver the Puzzle Box of Saint Barbatros to Oblivion’s Edge, an ancient monastery standing on the edge of reality. How exactly the the monks come to hire the player characters is up to the Game Master to decide—and the scenario at least bold about this—but the likelihood is that by what is the now player characters’ seventh adventure, the probability is that they will have some connection with the Cult of the New God and these can be used to hook them into the adventure. Once they agree to the task, their problems are unfortunately, just starting. The player characters will have to traverse Umbra’s Path, a route through a landscape rent and warped by the Void. This is a relatively minor issue compared to their real problem—the Puzzle Box of Saint Barbatros. There is something aching to get out of the Puzzle Box, inveigling into the characters’ minds, pushing them to touch the Box, to solve the Puzzle, and...

Once the player characters reach Oblivion’s Edge, the scenario’s challenge switches from one of willpower to a series of escalating combat challenges as they various demons of increasing difficulty. Now there is nothing wrong with that, but it does feel somewhat disappointing given the creepy nature of the Puzzle Box of Saint Barbatros and the sanity inducing nudges it gives the characters as they journey to Oblivion’s Edge. Ultimately, it feels like an ‘end of level boss’ encounter and perhaps that is what it is.

Oblivion’s Edge is essentially one encounter with room for the Game Master to expand it slightly. It is a difficult encounter, it is a one note encounter, and by the standards of previous scenarios released for Shadow of the Demon Lord, a somewhat underwhelming encounter. Yet if you are looking to bring your Shadow of the Demon Lord campaign to a close, then Oblivion’s Edge is as good a place as any.

The Monster Manual

In some ways, the Monster Manual is one of the cornerstones of the roleplaying hobby—and has been for almost forty years. The original Monster Manual, published in 1977, was the first hardcover title for Dungeons & Dragons—and quite possibly any RPG—and the first release for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. Even before the Player’s Handbook and the Dungeon Master’s Guide. It presented some three-hundred-and-fifty monsters for the game, monsters that are now standard in Dungeons & Dragons. In the decades since, each of the subsequent iterations of Dungeons & Dragons has received its own version of the Monster Manual and in many cases received multiple bestiaries from the famed Fiend Folio and Monster Manual II for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons and the Monstrous Compendium for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, Second Edition to the Monster Manual II and Fiend Folio for Dungeons & Dragons, Third Edition and Monster Manual 2 for Dungeons & Dragons, Fourth Edition. Then of course there are the multiple bestiaries released by third party publishers for Dungeons & Dragons, Third Edition, such as the Monsternomicon from Privateer Press, Sword & Sorcery’s Creature Collection series, The Tome of Horrors series from Necromancer Games, and Pelgrane Press’ recent 13th Age Bestiary.

So we come to 2014 and the Monster Manual for Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition. The second release for the latest iteration of the game, it comes with some four hundred or so individual monsters each with a streamlined, easy-to-read stat block, as well as a superb full colour illustration. The book is decently organised and easy to use—once you get used to the idea that monster types are organised under that type, so that all of the Dragons are under the Dragon entry, the Demons under the Demon entry, and so on, and that many of the creatures given in previous iterations of the Monster Manual are listed with the more mundane creatures. 

The supplement’s introduction explains the stats used for its contents, but before it does this, it asks some two good questions—’What is a Monster?’ and ‘Where do Monsters Dwell?’ The first question is simply answered as being  “...[a]ny creature that can be interacted with and potentially fought and killed.” The latter question is answered with a plethora of ideas where monsters can be found and encountered—“A ruined wizard’s tower atop a lonely hill riddled with goblin-infested tunnels”, “A chain of rocky islands on a vast, sunless sea that’s home to aboleths and insane kuo-toa”, and so on. There are thirty of suggestions that each evokes a potential adventure idea and from the outset enforces the importance of the location in the game.

Many of the Monster Manual’s stats will look familiar bar one—Challenge Rating. This is a measure of determining which monster is suitable to be used as a challenge to the player characters. Simply, a Challenge Rating 1 monster, such as a Bugbear, a Harpy, or a Lion, represents a difficult, but not deadly Challenge to a party of four First Level characters. The same again at Challenge Rating 2, Challenge Rating 3, and so on. Some creatures have a Challenge Rating of less than 1, so for example, a  Kobold is Challenge Rating ⅛, so eight represents a challenge to a First Level party. This scales as a party acquires Levels, so that at higher Levels, monsters go from challenges with fewer numbers to challenges in mobs. This seems simple enough, but it does feel as if limits the use of a particular monster in the long term. Now there are rules for adjusting a monster’s Challenge Rating in the Dungeon Master’s Guide, but not in the Monster Manual. Which means that if the group just has access to the Player’s Handbook and the Monster Manual, there is no means for monster to grow and change as there was in Dungeons & Dragons, Third Edition.

Every monster, including its variants, gets stats and a description. The latter always covers the key points  about each creature or monster. A physical description, some history, where it lives, its habits, and so on. Over the years these monsters have been presented over and over again, not just in the pages of the different Monster Manuals, but also the pages of Dragon magazine and numerous supplements. In this Monster Manual these descriptions feel like succinct, but well written bullet points. In addition, there are nods to Dungeons & Dragons history throughout the Monster Manual. Every good player of Dungeons & Dragons should know the meaning of “Bree-Yark!”, while the inclusion of Strahd von Zarovich’s history adds substance to the entry for the Vampire.

Going through the Monster Manual it is clear that the designers have delved deep into Dungeons & Dragons’ weighty back catalogue of bestiaries to bring this collection to Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition. So of course the classic, signature creatures are here—the Beholder, the Lich, the Stirge, and the Gelatinous Cube, as well as old standbys like Orcs and Goblins, Ghouls and Gargoyles, and so on. Of course this includes Dragons—some thirty pages are devoted to both the Chromatic and Metallic Dragons—and almost as many are devoted to Demons and Devils. The latter are presented free of the controversy that affected previous iterations of the Monster Manual and includes a discussion of the notable demonic and devilish figures, such as Orcus and Asmodeus. No stats are given, but then again at the starting Levels for most campaigns their stats are not really required. Plus stats for Tiamat, Dungeons & Dragons’ signature monster can be found in The Rise of Tiamat.

As much as the design of the individual monsters feels streamlined, many of the more powerful creatures possess both extra powers and abilities that hint at their great power. These Legendary Creatures have Legendary Actions—Lair Actions and Regional Abilities. The former are typically three actions that a creature can use to defend its lair. For example, the Beholder can make the ground around it slimy and slippery, cause grasping appendages to sprout up from nearby walls, and an eye to appear in a nearby wall and shoot out a random ray. The latter are Regional Effects that presage a monster’s influence and hold over an area. For example, anyone within a mile of a Beholder’s lair feels as if he is being watched and whilst the monster sleeps, reality within that mile is warped from one day to the next. Lair Actions and Regional Effects are also given for the Chromatic Dragons, Mummy Lords, and Vampires as well as Good-aligned creatures such as the Metallic Dragons and Unicorns. This is a fantastic pair of new mechanics that brings the power and influence of such creatures to bear far earlier than just the monster’s lair and makes encounters within the lair much deadlier where the creature should indeed should have the advantage of home ground.

Monsters from other Dungeons & Dungeons also make their way into the Monster Manual. So it includes the Bullywug, the Githyanki, and the Githzerai from the Field Folio and the Fomorian and the Gibbering Mouther from the Monster Manual II for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, First Edition; the Crawling Claw from the Monstrous Manual for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, Second Edition; the Chuul and the Grick from the Monster Manual for Dungeons & Dragons, Third Edition; and the Nothic from the Monster Manual II for Dungeons & Dragons, Fourth Edition. This makes sense, after all a new edition gives a chance for the designers to examine the game and each of its iterations and take the best from each. Thus the Monster Manual feels very much like Dungeons & Dragons’ greatest monster hits.

Three individual creatures stand out—the Cockatrice, the Ghoul, and the Wight—because of how their powers work now. In previous editions of the game, all three had powerful attacks that were essentially game disrupting. So the Cockatrice could turn a character to stone, the Ghoul could paralyse you, and the Wight made you lose Levels. Certainly in the case of the former, once turned to stone, there was nothing that your character could do unless the other player characters had the right spell or scroll. The Cockatrice can still petrify a player character, but the victim of the petrifying bite gets two turns before being petrified and it only lasts twenty-four hours. Likewise the Ghoul’s claws can still paralyse a player character, but it only lasts a minute, and the Wight can still do Life Drain, but rather than draining whole character Levels, it drains a character’s maximum Hit Points (as well as his Hit Points) and this lasts until the character has had a Long Rest. One might look at this design aspect of the game and suggest that its effect is to declaw Dungeons & Dragons, to make it not as challenging as it was in previous editions. Now that point of view may have some merit—and if you feel that it does, it is not as if there are not enough alternatives to Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition to find the fantasy RPG that suits your ‘Iron RPG’ preference—but the design choice is to make the game playable by adjusting elements that in previous editions would have brought play to a halt.

Rounding out the Monster Manual is a pair of appendices. The first lists Miscellaneous Creatures and it is here that you will actually find some creatures that in previous editions would have appeared in the main listings. While many of the creatures listed are mundane—the Badger, the Constrictor Snake, the Horse, the Poisonous Snake, and others—many like giant versions of those creatures plus the Blink Dog, the Phase Spider, the Worg, and so on, have their entries here. This may well be disconcerting to Dungeon Masters and players of previous versions of Dungeons & Dragons and it does mean that many of these more ‘mundane’ creatures come without descriptions. 

If there is an issue with the Monster Manual, it is that this edition lacks lists. There is no list of entries by Challenge Rating and there are no lists of entries by terrain type. This undermines the utility aspect of the Monster Manual, making it less easy to use when setting up and writing an adventure. Fortunately, Wizards of the Coast has since released this list as a PDF.

The Monster Manual is a fine looking book. Of course as the cornerstone of the once-again best selling RPG in the world, it is a fundamental book for running Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition. Even if the Dungeon Master does not buy the Dungeon Master’s Guide, he at least needs the Monster Manual. The Monster Manual is an essential supplement and gives the Dungeon Master the best monsters to play with.

Saturday 19 March 2016

Indecent Exposure

Although there is no scenario in the rulebook for Shadow of the Demon Lord, the first RPG released by Schwalb Entertainment following a successful Kickstarter campaign, one of the excellent decisions upon the part of the designer has been to release support—and release it early—in the form of scenarios for the game. This way a gaming group can get playing quickly, even if they are just using the core rules presented in Victims of the Demon Lord: Starter Guide and an adventure. In addition, the publisher has also released Tales of the Demon Lord, a complete mini-campaign that takes a party of characters from Zero Level up to Eleventh Level. In the meantime, the twelfth adventure is The Measure of a Man.

The Measure of a Man  is the second adventure written for characters who have entered the Master Path, that is of Seventh Level or higher. It is written by Scott Fitzgerald Gray, a regular contributor to both Dragon and Dungeon magazines, and comes as a six page, 12.28 MB PDF. Physically, The Measure of a Man is decently presented and whilst the scenario is decently written, the GM will need to give it a very careful read through as the situation it sets up is adult in tone. Not just because it is a bloody horror scenario, but because it is also flagrantly misogynistic—arguably to a farcical degree—and its bloody horror does focus upon one single body part.

The scenario is setting neutral and can be placed in any relatively remote location. Wherever the location, it is the site of the Vault of Hope, a depository of knowledge, art, and culture built in the face of the growing influence of the Demon Lord as his arrival draws near. As the museum’s collection has grown, so has its reputation, making it attractive to both scholars and thieves. The former for its research possibilities, the latter for its riches, though the museum’s clockwork guardians are more than a match for would-be thieves.

As The Measure of a Man opens, the player characters are making their way to the Vault of Hope. Perhaps they need to visit it to conduct research, to deposit an important artefact , or even request the use of one, and this can be either for themselves, or behalf of a patron such as a sage or a noble. En route they are beset by a band of ridiculously attired cultists—and this in age of impending decline, dissolution, and doom when perhaps for many of the rich and the nobility, getting dressed up in ridiculous attire and living it up, seems the only thing to do. In fact the cultists are ridiculously unattired, but nevertheless fanatically keen on pressing their beliefs upon the party. The resulting bloodbath is ridiculously pointless… 

Unfortunately, things are only going to get worse, for once the party reaches the Vault of Hope, it finds the museum in disarray, its rooms and purpose suborned and twisted by sybaritic misogynists. The underground facilities are home to more dangerous threats than those cultists, including their leader, a camp creation more akin to a super villain of an underground comic. To say more would ruin the scenario.

The Measure of a Man is a dungeon-bash through and through, though one with adult themes and imagery. It is also somewhat silly. Now there is nothing wrong in that and there will be playing groups who will find this adventure to be fun. After all, how many adventures are there in which the primary enemies will literally be waving their members in the air? There is no doubt that this will make The Measure of a Man a more than memorable adventure, but its adult themes and silliness do mean that it might not be for the right reasons.

Saturday 12 March 2016

Cthulhu Classics V

From one week to the next, Reviews from R’lyeh writes reviews of new games and supplements with an emphasis on Call of Cthulhu and other games of Lovecraftian investigative horror. The Cthulhu Classics series concentrates on Call of Cthulhu and other games of Lovecraftian investigative horror, but not those recently released, but those of the past. There have been innumerable titles published over the years and this is an opportunity to appraise them anew, often decades after they were first released.

For the fifth entry in the Cthulhu Classics series, Reviews from R’lyeh continues its examination of titles released by Games Workshop, this time the scenario duology, The Vanishing Conjurer & The Statue of the Sorcerer. Published in 1986, The Vanishing Conjurer & The Statue of the Sorcerer presented the eponymous scenarios, back-to-back, in the one book. Thus the book had two front covers, one for each of the scenarios. ‘The Vanishing Conjurer’, written by Mike Lewis and Simon Price runs to twenty pages, whilst ‘The Statue of the Sorcerer’ by Chris Elliott and Richard Edwards is thirty-one pages in length. Between the two scenarios are eight pages of nicely done handouts.

The first of the two scenariosand because the scenarios in The Vanishing Conjurer & The Statue of the Sorcerer are presented back-to-back rather than sequentially, the use of the term ‘first’ is somewhat arbitraryis ‘The Vanishing Conjurer’. This is set in the early 1920s in London. The investigators are contacted by a theatrical agent friend who is concerned that, Phillip LeClair, a promising young magician on his books has disappeared and it appears that another magiciana German, no lesshas stolen his act! Both men were members of the Inner Brotherhood of Magic, a relatively recent society headed by the inscrutable Chinaman, Ching Lung Soo. In order to determine LeClair’s fate, the investigators will need to enrol in the Inner Brotherhood of Magic themselves and to do that, they need to be able to perform a magic trick or two. The authors even suggest that the players learn a card trick or two and perform it in character. To that end, the scenario gives several that they might perform.

Once they are members, the investigators can explore the society’s headquarters and search for clues, in the process discovering the possible fate of LeClair and Ching Lung Soo’s dastardly plans. These are surprisingly ambitious, but on a small scale. Ching Lung Soo and his fellow cultists worship not a Great Old One, but a Star Vampire! His ultimate plan is to summon it at a charity theatre performance that will be attended by members of both the government and royalty.

The obvious problem with ‘The Vanishing Conjurer’ is what happens if none of the investigators get into the Inner Brotherhood of Magic? Well, the Keeper will just have to arrange so that they do, but in the meantime, what do any female investigators do? It turns out that the Inner Brotherhood of Magic does not accept women as members and there are limited avenues for investigation outside of the Inner Brotherhood of Magic itself. The primary avenue of investigation is not straightforward and the investigators will find their path blocked at various times, especially as the climax of the scenario approaches. Further, ‘The Vanishing Conjurer’ feels like a campaign in miniature, or rather one collapsed into a single scenario with a heavy nod to ‘The Hermetic Order of the Silver Twilight’, the first part of the campaign, Shadows of Yog-Sothoth. The overall effect is somewhat underwhelming as if there should be something more to the scenario, especially given that the fate heads of government and the state are threatened by something bordering on trivialat least in Mythos terms.

There is some saving to ‘The Vanishing Conjurer’ in its slightnessit is easily adapted. Obviously back to the 1890s for Cthulhu by Gaslight and thus to an era where its inherent misogyny is more in keeping with the society of the day. Keep it in the Jazz Age of the 1920s though and ‘The Vanishing Conjurer’ has the potential to slide easily into the London chapter of the Masks of Nyarlathotep campaign. There perhaps its plot works as a chaotic distraction from the activities of the Brotherhood of the Black Pharaoh. Of course, were a Keeper to do so, then perhaps the guests at the Royal Charity performance would best be limited, say perhaps the Prince of Wales, rather the whole of the British government. 

Fortunately, the second scenario, ‘The Statue of the Sorcerer’ is a much better affair, although it has a less flexible lead in. Set in San Francisco in 1925, one of the investigators, a student of paleolinguistics at the University of San Francisco, is contacted by no less a person than Dashiell Hammett over the strange death of an ex-colleague. What caused him to explode on the streets of downtown San Francisco and what is the strange puzzle found on his person? From this promising set-up, the investigation leads from a case of alleged plagiarism to the doors of a theologosophical society, its charismatic head, and the pre-American history of California.

One would think that with the appearance of Dashiell Hammett in its opening scenes, that ‘The Statue of the Sorcerer’ would be a pulp affair, all two-fisted action and excitement. Nothing could be further from the truth. The scenario is heavy on research and investigation rather than anything else. The scenario is quite tightly structured, switching back and forth between sections involving research and those involving more physical investigation. It does this by having the villain of the piece adhere to a strict timeline, a timeline that gives plenty of room for the investigators to follow up on their leads. The adventure is odd in that it does not come with any stats, but then it really does not need them and once the players realise the inspiration for the scenario, it will be obvious why. There is only one moment where the scenario stalls and that is in the preparation for the final denouement. Much more of this could have been made of this in the scenario.

Unlike ‘The Vanishing Conjurer’, ‘The Statue of the Sorcerer’ is less flexible and less easily adapted to other settings or periods. It is very much tied to San Francisco, although it could be shifted to Los Angeles with a little effort. This means that Secrets of San Franciscoor Secrets of Los Angeles as the case may bemight useful in running the scenario, as might ‘Ghost Jackal Kill’, Graeme Davis prequel to ‘The Statue of the Sorcerer’ which appeared in White Dwarf #79. It is very much the case that ‘The Statue of the Sorcerer’ is the better scenario of the two, better plotted and better written, with an almost dreamy quality that requires much more of the investigators than its opening scenes would suggest.

Whilst both scenarios require an edit, they are chalk and cheese in terms of artwork. Where the illustrations for ‘The Vanishing Conjurer’ are scruffy, even scrappy, they are of a much better quality for ‘The Statue of the Sorcerer’, in places possessing a dreamy quality. The handouts though, are excellent. A more pressing issue is the way in which both scenarios are written. They are written in linear fashion, so that their plots are not readily apparent until much near the end of the scenarios in either case. Which is one reason to adhere to both sets of authors’ advice to read through each scenario thoroughly before running either.

Writing in White Dwarf #82, Richard Meadows said of ‘The Vanishing Sorcerer’, “The plot is tight and a little linear, but on the whole this is an ideal adventure to introduce players to the game.” Of ‘The Statue of the Sorcerer’, he wrote, “The plot runs between a good mix of research and action, with very many subtle leads requiring some careful thought by the investigators. Everything is handled with a subtlety I’ve not seen in a CoC adventure for some time, and in a way that rewards intelligent deduction and penalise the usual blundering idiocies of  poorer players.” This is a fair assessment, though more so of ‘The Statue of the Sorcerer’ than ‘The Vanishing Sorcerer’. 

Much like the rest of Games Workshop's published scenarios, The Vanishing Conjurer & The Statue of the Sorcerer feel much like magazine scenarios like that seen in White Dwarf. ‘The Vanishing Sorcerer’ is the lesser of the two, underwhelming despite its odd ambitions, whereas ‘The Statue of the Sorcerer’ feels rightly fogbound in the ‘City by the Bay’, hardboiled, if underplayed. As a pairing though, The Vanishing Conjurer & The Statue of the Sorcerer is more a title to add to the collection than to be run readily and willingly.

Friday 11 March 2016

Carry on Screaming

Although there is no scenario in the rulebook for Shadow of the Demon Lord, the first RPG released by Schwalb Entertainment following a successful Kickstarter campaign, one of the excellent decisions upon the part of the designer has been to release support—and release it early—in the form of scenarios for the game. This way a gaming group can get playing quickly, even if they are just using the core rules presented in Victims of the Demon Lord: Starter Guide and an adventure. In addition, the publisher has also released Tales of the Demon Lord, a complete mini-campaign that takes a party of characters from Zero Level up to Eleventh Level. In the meantime, the eleventh adventure is With My Last Scream.

With My Last Scream is the first adventure written for characters who have entered the Master Path, that is of Seventh Level or higher. It is written by Miranda Horner, a regular contributor to both Dragon and Dungeon magazines, and comes as a six page, 13.16 MB PDF. Physically, With My Last Scream is decently presented and notably, the  cartography is excellent. The adventure is decently written, but the GM will need to give it a very careful read through as the situation it sets up and the foe that the adventurers face is more complex than in previous scenarios released for Shadow of the Demon Lord.

The scenario is written to be location neutral, that is, it can be set anywhere. Good settings might be an isolated hilltop or amidst a built up urban area, but either way, the GM is free to set this wherever he wants making the scenario easy to add to an ongoing game. It begins with the player characters being accosted by a well-dressed young woman on the street or road who all but tearfully asks for their help at a nearby house, where her friend, Noira, has been trapped in the house by a demented and abusive spouse, and she needs the group to help her free Noira. 

If they go to the young woman’s aid, the player characters find themselves in a locked room mystery—in a locked room with a murder mystery that needs to be solved before they can leave. The mystery is made all the harder because With My Last Scream is also a ghost mystery—and a murderously hysterical ghost at that… To solve both mysteries, the player characters needs to investigate the house from top to bottom, room by room, all the whilst encountering the ghost again and again. In this With My last Scream is not a subtle scenario, the player characters being expected to survive against a wailing ghost that whales on them over and over, all the whilst suffering both a loss of sanity and some nasty incidents of spousal abuse. The latter are underplayed, perhaps a little too underplayed, but nevertheless, there may be some players who will be very uncomfortable when exposed to these experiences, whilst others may not get their subtlety.

With My Last Scream is a nicely detailed scenario, a piece of ghostly investigative horror which should provide a solid session’s worth of play. It may not provide though enough depth or playing time to really warrant the player characters gaining a new level out of it, but as side quest, it is a pleasingly  piece of melodrama.

Sunday 6 March 2016

Lyre! Lyre! There are no Pants to Set on Fire.

There are some reviews that I want to write and some reviews that I do not want to write. There are plenty of the former, but fortunately fewer of the latter. The reasons why I typically do not want to review a game or supplement are either because the subject matter does not interest me or because the item in question merits a negative review. Sometimes giving a product a negative review can actually be a cathartic process or an exercise in writing skill because it takes greater skill to write a negative review than write a positive one. On the whole though, it is rare that I write a truly negative review, notable examples being of R. Talsorian Games, Inc.’s Cyberpunk 203X and of Goodman Games’ Age of Cthulhu Vol. II: Madness in London Town. At other times, giving a negative review of a book can be an uncomfortable exercise, because after all, you are criticising a publisher’s labour of love. Unfortunately to this list of the latter must be added Era: Lyres - Deluxe Rulebook.

Published by Shades of Vengeance* following a successful Kickstarter campaign, the setting for the Era: Lyres - Deluxe Rulebook is an interesting twist upon the fantasy roleplaying game. What if the adventurers possess ‘nearly’ all of the skill to go on brave adventures, set out on extreme expeditions, face down dangerous beasts and monsters, steal their treasure, and return again to tell the tale, but none of courage to do so? What if instead, they possessed chutzpah enough to convince everyone of their bravery and of their adventures, and in the process of doing so, have drinks and meals bought for them, have their praises sung from one end of the kingdom to the other—and back again, and eventually become famous to court the attention of the nobility (even royalty). It is a great set-up for an RPG. The players take on of the role of failed adventurers/con men, telling the tales of their derring do and rolling when necessary to determine the outcome of an action or interaction within said tale, with the GM taking the roles of everyone that they face—in and out of the tale, as well as taking the roles of the player characters’ audience.

*Yes, there is an irony to writing a negative review for a game from a publisher with this name.

Unfortunately, the Era: Lyres - Deluxe Rulebook does it very, very best not fulfill the possibilities of a set-up that is rife with tension and humour. To start with, it is not very clear as to exactly what the GM and his players are doing in the game. Well, it is sort of clear. It is heavily inferred throughout the first half of the book, but it is not stated outright until three quarters of the way into the book at the beginning of the GM’s section—and even then, not fully. (Which may mean that I have got the description of the game and how it is played almost, but not entirely wrong.) This lack of explanation of how the game is played is ably supported by a lack of any kind of example in the book. So there is no example of character generation in the game. There is no example of actual play in the game. There is no example of combat in the game. Now there are example characters given as filled out character sheets, but these are far from the easiest of things to read.

None of this helped by the organisation of the Era: Lyres - Deluxe Rulebook. It opens with pages and pages of fiction, describing the non-adventures of adventure avoiders telling the tales of adventures that they never had in return for fame and fortune—and lunch. This amounts to over a quarter of the book and it is followed by ten pages of descriptions of monsters, so the reader is half way through the book before he begins to look at the rules or character creation or even how the game is played. Lastly an explanation of the book’s title, Era: Lyres - Deluxe Rulebook, is needed. ‘Era’ is the name of the game system, whereas ‘Lyres’ is the name of the game and the role taken up by the player characters.

In Era: Lyres, the players take the roles of barbarians, bards, rogues, and warriors in a traditional medieval setting, that of the city of Yarnolth. Known for its innumerable number of taverns and city squares where the practitioners of Lyres’ arts, that is, the player characters, can pitch up and spin their yarns for potential profit. They must dress the part; they cannot profess to using magic—divine intervention is believable, but arcane arrows are not; avoid being found lying lest they ruin their reputations and end in barroom brawls; and lastly, not be seen committing acts of murder or theft. Instead of actually going on adventures, they will spin stories of they slew great dragons, battered bandits, obliterated ogres and trolls, and more. The more successful they are, the more they will increase their party’s Confidence Rating and thus be able to ‘perform’ at bigger and more prestigious venues.

Creating a character using the Era: Lyres - Deluxe Rulebook first involves assigning three sets of points—four, three, and two points respectively—to three different Attribute groups (Potence, Defence, and Reaction) and spending the points to improve the attributes within each group. These points are not assigned on a one-for-one basis, but each attribute needs to be bought up. Since it costs four of these points to improve an attribute to a score of two, every character will start the game with one attribute set at a value of two at the utmost. Similarly, three more sets of points—nine, five, and three points respectively—need to be assigned to the three Skill groups (Personal, Technical, and Interpersonal) and their points divided amongst the skills within the Skill group. Skills are on the same scale as attributes, but are more expensive because unlike attributes which start at one, they start at zero. The end result is that again, a character might start play with a single skill with a rating of two.

The sample character—and this is probably right given examination of the sample character sheets at the back of the Era: Lyres - Deluxe Rulebook rather than any explanation or worked examples—is a student turned adventurer, or rather student turned Lyre. He ran out of money to pay for his studies and turned to other means—adventuring! Or not...

Sagacious Sam
Strength 1 Intelligence 1 Charisma 1

Stamina 1 Willpower 1

Dexterity 2 Wits 1 Luck 1

Personal Skills
Brawl 1, Investigation 1, Larceny 2, Melee 1, Stealth 1, Survival 0

Technical Skills
Alchemy 1, Archery 0, Blacksmithing 0, Drive 0, Lore 1, Medicine 1, 

Interpersonal Skills 
Commercial 1, Esteem 1, Instruction 0, Intimidation 1, Persuasion 1, Seduction 1

Derived Stats
Notoriety 0, Size 5, Encumbrance 2, Speed 4, Defence 2, Wound & Kill Modifiers 0, Health & Pain 6

The rules presented in the Era: Lyres - Deluxe Rulebook are known as the Era d10 rule set. Era as a set of mechanics uses dice pools comprised of an Attribute plus Skill or an Attribute doubled. To undertake an action, a character rolls the dice pool and attempts to gain successes. Successes are measured against a threshold that may vary according to the difficulty of the action—five to play a tune on your own musical instrument, seven when attempting to persuade a barmaid that you are a hero, nine to pick the pocket of a guard you are talking to, and so on. Rolls of ten allow re-rolls to get more successes and the circumstances of the action may allow the GM to grant a player more dice. Even so, with just a value of one in most Skills and most Attributes, a beginning character is not going to be particularly competent and rarely succeed at anything more than simple actions, except in a very few cases. For example, Sagacious Sam rarely gets to roll more than two dice unless it involves Dexterity and Larceny.

Now the clever use of skills in the Era: Lyres - Deluxe Rulebook is that although in telling their tales the Lyres are using their charisma and their persuasion skills, they are backing it up with their knowledge and other skills. So it is not just a matter of a Sagacious Sam telling his audience that in order to escape the ogre’s kitchen by using his alchemical knowledge to concoct something so noxious so as to distract the ogres—which is saying something, let us be clear—he has to demonstrate said knowledge. Or rather convince the audience that he can. Which means that players are effectively playing a game within a game, but how that game within a game is played is never really explained. There are some pointers in that the combat rules are not there necessarily for handling fights within the tall tales, unless of course, the players want their characters to be fighting the monsters and have the monsters fight back, but even then there are no monster stats to fight against, just their descriptions for the characters to work off. No what the combat rules are there are for when the audience does not believe the tale being spun and a brawl breaks out. Unfortunately there are no stats for NPCs.

Physically, the Era: Lyres - Deluxe Rulebook is decent looking book. The full colour artwork is excellent and the writing is acceptable. The issue is simply the design and the lack of development in the RPG.

Era: Lyres - Deluxe Rulebook is a game about the non-adventures of non-adventurers describing their adventures—or it should be. As written, it almost is. Whilst there is nothing fundamentally wrong with the game’s Era mechanics—though some might argue that they are too heavy and cumbersome for what the game is trying to do—the design of the book itself, the Era: Lyres - Deluxe Rulebook, goes out of its way to be unhelpful in any way that it can. It is not organised for ease of play or ease of learning, it lacks sufficient explanations or examples, and it lacks the equivalent of a good elevator pitch. At the heart of the Era: Lyres - Deluxe Rulebook is a clever, fun idea. As designed, the Era: Lyres - Deluxe Rulebook does its very best to be anything other than that.

Currently the Kickstarter campaign ‘£1 Tabletop RPG Rulebook: Era: Lyres - Pocket Edition’ is coming to an end. For that price, the Era: Lyres - Pocket Edition is worth your time for something to tinker with and perhaps get right as the designer intended.

Friday 4 March 2016

Kaves of Karshoon

Although there is no scenario in the rulebook for Shadow of the Demon Lord, the first RPG released by Schwalb Entertainment following a successful Kickstarter campaign, one of the excellent decisions upon the part of the designer has been to release support—and release it early—in the form of scenarios for the game. This way a gaming group can get playing quickly, even if they are just using the core rules presented in Victims of the Demon Lord: Starter Guide and an adventure. In addition, the publisher has also released Tales of the Demon Lord, a complete mini-campaign that takes a party of characters from Zero Level up to Eleventh Level. In the meantime, the tenth adventure is Beware the Tides of Karshoon.

Beware the Tides of Karshoon is the fourth adventure written for characters who have entered the Expert Path, that is of Third Level or higher. It is written by T.S. Luikart, author for such diverse supplements as Ruins of the North, published by Cubicle Seven Entertainment for The One Ring RPG and the Dragon Age: Dark Fantasy Roleplaying Set 2 from Green Ronin Publishing. It comes as a six page, 11.99 MB PDF. Physically, Beware the Tides of Karshoon is decently presented. Notably, the cartography is excellent, done in the same three dimensional style as The God Below, but here to much better effect. The adventure is decently written, although it does feel as it comes to an abrupt halt without the ramifications really gone into.

The adventure is set in Gateway, the oldest city in the Northern Reach. Here a dead
pirate’s vengeful curse has seized a poor, ramshackle neighborhood in a fearful grip, the denizens of Bilgewater having been beset by a rash of mysterious thefts and incidents. These include the destruction of a school, its teacher, and its students by  a rogue wave, as well as people being torn apart in broad daylight into bloody gobbets of flesh by things unseen. The people of Bilgewater believe that a ‘pirate’ curse has been placed upon for their failure to maintain an ancient monument in black basalt carved with symbols of the sea and dedicated to ‘Karshoon’. The local councilor hires the player characters to investigate, pointing them towards ‘Obsidian Triumph’, a shrine below ‘Karshoon’ that is said to be home to a giant pearl called the ‘Ocean’s Tear’. She believes that if the pearl can be retrieved and returned to the monument, then the curse will be ended.

This is, of course, only partly true... Beware the Tides of Karshoon is essentially a mini-dungeon that is more straightforward than the plot at first appears. As a dungeon, it has an aquatic theme, one that has been taken advantage of by the scenario’s actual antagonist. As a result, the scenario feels much like it could be set in Freeport, the pirate city setting published by Green Ronin Publishing, but then the writer did coauthor Skull & Bones, the same publisher’s pirate sourcebook for the d20 System and  did contribute to Buccaneers & Bokor, Adamant Entertainment’s d20 System magazine devoted to the Golden Age of Piracy. The scenario really does not have a piratical element, but it merely has that feel.

What this means is that the scenario has some nicely done monsters for the player characters to face and it makes good use of the aquatic environment. Though not necessarily spectacular, Beware the Tides of Karshoon is a solid enough  adventure. 

Love, Hate, & Survival II

If you have been wondering about the crew and passengers of HMS Arden, cast adrift in a lifeboat in the Atlantic Ocean in 1913, then doubtless you have been playing too much Lifeboat. Published by Gorilla Games, best known for the rare combination of light roleplaying and space combat against a Star Trek-like background that has a darker side to it than is usually hinted at in Gene Roddenberry style setting that is BattleStations—just finishing up its Kickstarter campaign for its second edition—Lifeboat is darkly humorous, social game of survival and inter-party rivalry in which the survivors must steer their way to land all the whilst fighting for the contents of the boat’s locker, for food, and for water as well as trying to avoid being knocked overboard and placed at the mercy of the circling sharks. If the Lifeboat could make it to land, then one of the survivors might have accrued sufficient loot, ensured that his Secret Love also survived, and his Secret Enemy died enough that he score enough Victory Points to win!

The good news is that the survivors of the sinking of the HMS Arden have made it to shore—even if it is in the South Pacific rather than the Atlantic and a desert island rather than the mainland. Now Lady Lauren, Sir Stephen, the Captain, the First Mate, Frenchy, and the Kid must start all over again, surviving the dangers of island and scrounging not only the jetsam washed ashore from the wreck of the HMS Arden, but also the pirate loot to be found on the island. Which should keep them busy until a passing ship spots their signal fire and everyone—still alive that is—can be rescued. This is the set-up for Desert Island, Gorilla Games’ sequel to Lifeboat, which is designed to be played by between four and six players, aged thirteen and up.

Funded following a successful Kickstarter campaign, Dessert Island consists of fifty Food Cubes (forty brown cubes and ten yellow four-cube cubes), twenty black skull-shapped Fate Tokens, three Ship Tokens, thirty red Wound Tokens, the rules sheet, and one hundred cards. The latter includes six Character cards, six Character Location cards, six Love and six Hate cards, six Location cards, thirty Fate cards, and forty Scavenge cards. The six Character cards are Lady Lauren, Sir Stephen, the Captain, the First Mate, Frenchy, and the Kid, each of which is illustrated in an Edwardian style, and is marked with values for their Size (a measure of their strength in combat and their capacity to take damage, ranging between three and eight) and Survival Value at game’s end (ranging between four and eight). Each character also has a Special Ability. Lady Lauren removes Fate Tokens from herself whereas Sir Stephen can add them to anyone, the Captain removes Fate Tokens from others, the First Mate can forage for more Food, Frenchy gains Fate Tokens back from a fight, and the Kid can steal Food from his neighbours. There is a corresponding ‘I Hate...’ and ‘I Love…’ card for each character. The Location cards are numbered from one to six and each grants a special action. The Beach (1) enables a Character to distribute Scavenge cards; when hunger strikes, there is always extra Food to be found in the Jungle (2); Food is lost in the Swamp (3); there is always extra Food to be found in the Spring (4) when foraging; there is more likelihood of the signal fire being seen from the Hill (5); and the Cave (6) is a safer place to hide.

The Scavenge cards consists of food, loot, and tools. For example, Sardines are equal to five Food and a Coconut just one; a Chamber Pot is worth five Victory Points, whilst a Chalice is worth seven; and a Blunderbuss +10 to any fight or turns any Boar or Monkey Event into three Food. The Fate cards represent events such as animal attacks—Boars (Lose Two Wounds), Monkeys (Lose A Card), or Rats (Lose All Food); Illnesses (Lose A Wound); and Tsunami (scour the island of Food and Signal Fire Tokens, and inflict a Wound on everyone). In addition, each Fate card gives the ‘Wood’, ‘Torch’, and ‘Ship’ icons that indicate whether or not the signal fre has been lit and spotted, as well as a number and character name that indicates who might be the subject the event on the Fate card.

Game set up on the Desert Island is similar to that aboard the Lifeboat. Each player randomly receives a Character card and an ‘I Hate...’ and an ‘I Love…’ card each. t is possible for a character to love himself, which makes him a Narcissist who will score double Victory Points for surviving, though of course, it means that no one else has him as his Secret Love and so will not willingly support him. Similarly, a character can hate himself, making him a Psychopath who will score Victory Points for the deaths on the island… Everyone receives a single Scavenge card with the rest of the Scavenge deck placed off the Beach. The Location cards are laid out in order, from one to six and the Characters are randomly placed in the Locations.

Each turn represents a week spent on the island. Each week begins with the Character drawing Scavenge cards equal to the number of survivors and deals them out as he wants. Of course this allows him first choice and to assign a good Scavenge card to the Character he secretly loves and a bad one to the Character he hates. Then everyone draws two Fate cards and plays one as part of an action, discarding the other. In addition, one Fate Token is placed on the Location corresponding to the number on the Fate card and another on the Character who is named on the Fate card. The Character with the most Fate Tokens at the end of the round will be subject to the event on the first Fate card played (or the most if multiple Fate cards of one type are played). Again, this enables a Character to protect the Character he secretly loves and target the Character he hates. 

Each Character now takes a single action. This can be ‘Forage’ (gain Food indicated on the Fate card), ‘Signal Fire’ (add to the Signal Fire), or Steal. When a Character decides to Steal, it can be to take Food or a Scavenge card from another Character or it can to be to force to exchange Locations. Now a Character can accept this and take the consequences—lose Food or a Scavenge card, or his Location, otherwise a fight ensues. A fight is a simple matter of comparing the combatants’ Size values against each other, the higher Size always beating the lower. Stalemates are always resolved in favour of the defendants, but both attacker and defender can boost their respective Sizes by using weapons like the Spear or Shovel and by getting allies to aid them. The attacking Character also gets to add the number on the Fate card played. The loser, or losers, if allies are involved, all take a single Wound. Should a survivor suffer wounds equal to his Size, he dies, and blocks the Location he is on.

In addition, the Characters who initiated the fight each receive a Fate Token as do any allies who joined on either side. So joining fights increases the chance of an event affecting a Character. The Characters are of course free to negotiate deals for their aid in helping one side out or another, but all deals are final and a Character cannot withdraw from a fight.

In the Lookout phase, the Characters check for Wood and Torch icons to see that the signal fire has been lit and for Ship icons to indicate that their signal fire has been spotted. This needs to happen four times for the Characters to be rescued. Lastly, the event indicated by the Fate cards occurs and everyone needs to consume Food equal to their Size. Then all of the Fate tokens are removed and a new round ensues…

Desert Island ends if everyone dies, in which case everyone loses. If the survivors are spotted enough times, they will be rescued and they can total their Victory Points, whether from Loot, keeping the Character they love alive, or killing the Character they love. The player with the most Victory Points is the winner.

Physically Desert Island is nicely done. The art on the cards has a charmingly period feel and both the Ship and skeleton-shaped Wound tokens are a nice touch. The rules could be a little clearer in places, but they are readable and after a play-through or two of the game, easy to understand. A set of ‘Sequence of Play’ cards would have been nice, rather than just the one.

Like Lifeboat, this is another nasty, cutthroat social game that is quite finely balanced. In both games the balance is between the need to gather resources or Water/Food, attempting to steer closer to land/attract ships, and protecting and killing the other Characters for Victory Points. Desert Island is not quite the same game as there is more of means to direct the action or events through the Fate cards against a Location or Character. So to an extent the players have the ability to influence where the events are going to happen. Another balancing point in the game is between the need for somebody to survive in order to avoid everyone losing against the drive for everyone to kill the Characters that they hate. In this, Desert Island is a semi-cooperative design.

Above all, the best element in Desert Island is going to come from the players. The Characters they play will influence their actions, but their ‘I Love…’ and ‘I Hate…’ will ultimately drive their actions. This will be coloured by the Characters that they play, which will allow them to bring some roleplaying elements into the game. Desert Island is a terrifically themed game of survival and infighting.