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

Sunday 26 June 2016

Crow's Black Agents

Things have been very quiet for over the last two years for A Song of Ice and Fire Roleplaying, the RPG based on the fantasy works of George R.R. Martin published by Green Ronin Publishing. Indeed there have been two whole series of the television adaptation, A Game of Thrones, broadcast since the release of the last supplement, A Song of Ice and Fire Roleplaying: Night's Watch, back in 2012. This being the last supplement to be released—though more have been promised, including a full adventure, Dragon’s Hoard—is not its only distinction. One is that A Song of Ice and Fire Roleplaying: Night's Watch won the 2013 Origins Award for Best Roleplaying Supplement, whilst another is that the supplement is the first to take A Song of Ice and Fire Roleplaying into the unknown and beyond the lands of the Seven Kingdoms.

A Song of Ice and Fire Roleplaying: Night's Watch can roughly be divided in half, each half devoted to a campaigns equally divided by the Wall, the gigantic structure of ice, stone, and ancient magic that separates the warm lands of lords and kings of Westeros to the south from the frozen and brutal wilderness to the north. the Wall protects the Seven Kingdoms from ancient dangers—many considered to be no more than the stuff of legend—and the Wildlings, the free folk who kneel to no king and constantly work to bypass or ascend the Wall to raid lands beyond. the Wall is constantly manned by the men of the Night’s Watch, thieves, murderers, and members of the nobility who have forsworn their previous lives and pledged their loyalty to the only independent military force in Westeros. On the other side of the Wall the many tribes of the Wildlings live independently, surviving off the land, feuding with each other, but always with an eye to the rich, warmer lands to the south—if they can find a way past the Wall.

Both of the campaign options suggested in Night’s Watch are markedly different to the default given in A Song of Ice and Fire Roleplaying, although the same mechanics are used. That default involves the player characters creating their own noble house and its leading members and attempting to navigate its and their military and political fortunes in the ‘Game of Thrones’ that dominates Westeros as best typified by A Song of Ice and Fire Roleplaying Chronicle Starter—and of course, both the novels and the television series. When they ‘Take the Black’, whether low born or high born, the player characters will forget their pasts and former ties and pledge their allegiance and loyalty to the Night’s Watch—for life. Having done so, they will become Rangers who regularly guard the Wall and conduct missions to the north known as ‘Rangings’; Builders who patrol the Wall and the castles along it, making repairs and maintaining the structure of both; or Stewards, who keep the Night’s Watch organised and supplied. By the reign of Robert Baratheon, these tasks have become increasingly difficult as the stories of the dangers from other side of the Wall have become legends rather than history and the Night’s Watch has become more of a dumping ground for criminals, ne’er do wells, and those nobles who have lost in the constant feuding to the south than a duty to be fulfilled. This does not mean that the men of the Night’s Watch do not hold their duty and their oath to be unimportant, as after all, they face execution should they desert the Wall. Nevertheless, as their numbers and the number of castles on the Wall fully manned dwindle, only they suspect the growing threat as Winter draws near and Mance Rayder is said to have united all of the tribes of the Wildings as the King-Beyond-the Wall.

Creating a character for a Night’s Watch campaign uses the standard rules from A Song of Ice and Fire Roleplaying, but where a player character would usually select a House and a Bloodline, here the Night’s Watch replaces both. Characters will also lack the Status they once had in the Seven Kingdoms. Whatever their role in the Night’s Watch, a character also starts with one less Destiny point with which to purchase Benefits, but in its stead starts with the Brother of the Night’s Watch, which comes with three options, one per branch of the Night’s Watch. In addition to Brother of the Night’s Watch, the supplement introduces a number of new Benefits and Drawbacks, such as Defensive Engineer, Favoured of Wildlings, Convict, and Kneeler. There is still room for the various Roles in A Song of Ice and Fire Roleplaying—Expert, Fighter, Leader, Rogue, and Schemer—but they do not figure quite as prominently as they do in a standard A Song of Ice and Fire Roleplaying Game. Certainly the Night’s Watch is intolerant of active thieves and there is less scope for a Schemer to intrigue, though rivalries between castles of the Wall are not unknown. 

Our sample character is Endrew Waters. He can barely remember his mother, but he recalls her death and he recalls that on her deathbed, she drew a promise from the local septon that her son would be accepted as a novice of the Faith of the Seven. Orphaned, he began training as a novice, but he found another calling—entertaining. Endrew ran away to join an acting troupe and for over a decade he travelled the Seven Kingdoms, performing before audiences both low born and high born. Two years he performed before House Bracken in the Riverlands and struck up a friendship with the heir that blossomed into an affair. This lasted a few months during which Endrew became a favourite in the Bracken Household, but it was brought to an end when the heir’s mother came to him and told him to leave. Her son she said, was besotted with Endrew and she knew him well enough that he would never consent to marriage and children if Endrew did not leave—and if there was any possibility that Endrew might return, she knew her son might follow him. She gave him a choice… Hunted down like a deer in the woods or the Night’s Watch. Endrew left for the Wall the following morning.

Endrew is a reluctant member of the Night’s Watch. He hates fighting and he hates the cold. He is beginning to find a place with his ability to entertain, but his primary duties involve the repair of other brothers’ clothing and equipment.

Endrew Waters (Adult Schemer)
Agility 3, Animal Handling 2, Athletics 3, Awareness 3 (Empathy 1B), Cunning 3 (Memory 1B), Deception 4 (Bluff 1B), Endurance 3, Fighting 3 (Long Blades 1B), Healing 3, Knowledge 4 (Education 1B), Language 3 (Common, High Valyrian, Valyrian), Marksmanship 2, Persuasion 5 (Charm 1B, Seduce 1B), Status 1 (Steward 1B), Stealth 2, Survival 2, Thievery 3, Warfare 2, Will 3

Social Background: Lowborn
Background Event: You had an affair with a member of the nobility
Reason for Taking the Black: You are avoiding a scandal
Reasons for Desertion: You cannot tolerate callous cruelty
Goal: Fame Motivation: Love Virtue: Devoted Vice: Cowardly
Qualities: Destiny Points 1, Brother of the Night’s Watch (Steward), Charismatic (Charm +2), Mummer, Trade (Tailor)
Awareness 3
Intrigue Defence 7 / Composure 9
Move 4 (3) / Sprint 16 (14)
Combat Defence 8 (10 with shield) / Armour Rating 4 / Health 9
Attack Longsword 3+1B (3 damage)
Attack Shield 3 (1 damage; defensive +2)
Personal Gear: Longsword, Ring Mail, Medium Shield, Warm Clothing, Black Cloak

Night’s Watch campaigns primarily involve guarding the Wall, but there are plenty of other options for adventures and campaigns. There are Rangings north of the Wall, tracking down Wildlings who have made it into the Gift—the lands immediately south of the Wall, racing after a deserter before he can get too far and there is reason enough for him to be executed, and travelling south to petition for more money and men for the Wall. Most of these will involve the player characters serving at one of the few castles stilled manned, most likely Castle Black, but another option given sees the player characters being given a command of their own and assigned to castle. During the reign of Robert Baratheon, this is likely to be one of the many abandoned castles along the Wall, but during an earlier period of the eight thousand history of the Wall, it might be a new castle. Restoring and managing a castle is the equivalent of running a house in a standard A Song of Ice and Fire Roleplaying campaign, except that it is more challenging, the upkeep is harder, and the player characters are not trying to promulgate their family by creating an heir…

Now there is one very obvious issue with a Night’s Watch campaign. Despite its egalitarian leanings in that all men are more or less equal amongst the Night’s Watch and most positions of authority are held on merit, it does lack female roles. Now there is no reason why they cannot be included should the GM allow them in his game, but the presence of women amongst the Night’s Watch, which is after all, a brotherhood, is neither canon to the novels or the television series. This may well be an issue in some campaigns, but not if the GM takes his campaign north of the Wall and sets it amongst the Wildlings.

The life of a Wildling—Wildling being the derogatory term used by the peoples of Westeros for those who live north of the Wall—is quite possibly nasty, brutal, and short, but it is free. Unlike the soft men of the south, a Wildling does not kneel. For he is a member of the Free Folk. Further, a Wildling must be able to survive and contribute to his tribe, hunting for food and resources, protecting the tribe and keeping it strong. Raids on rival tribes are common—more common than raids south of the Wall—and whilst most of these will be for food and other resources, it is common practice for men of a tribe to raid another for wives. Most women of the Free Folk, known as Spearwives, are as tough as the men. Most tribes are nomadic, but some have formed permanent settlements around important resources. Their technology is roughly that of the Stone Age, primarily making use of wood, bone, and stone, though some tribes have the means to make bronze and most tribes make use of arms and armour that they can take from the Night’s Watch or trade with merchants from across the sea in Essos.

Like creating a member of the Night’s Watch, creating a member of the Free Folk uses the standard rules in A Song of Ice and Fire Roleplaying. Similarly, the various Roles—Expert, Fighter, Leader, Rogue, and Schemer—exist, but those of Fighter, Leader, and Rogue tend to dominate. Where a brother of the Night’s Watch replaces his House and Bloodline with the Night’s Watch, a Wildling replaces them with Tribe and Lands. Like the Night’s Watch, the Free Folk also place a similar lack of value upon Status as well as a lack of value on Knowledge and both are likely to start at lower values. They also have access to a host of new Benefits. Many of these relate to a particular tribe, like ‘Born of the Thenn Tribes’ or ‘Born of the Nightrunners’, but others include ‘Giant Friend’, ‘Spearwife’, and ‘Winter-Touched’. It should also be noted that the Free Folk possess a greater awareness of the old ways and Greensight, Skinchanger, Warg, and Warg Dreams are far common than they are in the south.

Our sample character is Tsersi, though not born of the Ice Wives was found and raised by them. She has worked hard to be as good as any natural-born Ice Wife, but in her heart she she does not quite feel one of them. Thus she strives to be better whilst being tolerant of her fellow tribe members, but known to be intolerant, if not outright cruel to outsiders.

Tsersi (Young Adult Fighter)
Agility 3, Animal Handling 4 (Ride 1B, Train 1B), Athletics 3, Awareness 3, Cunning 3, Deception 2 , Endurance 4 (Stamina 1B), Fighting 4 (Spears 1B), Healing 2, Knowledge 1, Language 2 (Common, Old Tongue), Marksmanship 2, Persuasion 3, Status 1 , Stealth 3, Survival 4 (Hunt 1B), Thievery 2, Warfare 3, Will 4 (Dedication 1B)
Social Background: Free Folk
Background Event: Stolen from another tribe 
Goal: Security Motivation: Excellence Virtue: Magnanimous Vice: Cruel
Qualities: Destiny Points 2, Animal Cohort, Blood of the Wildlings, Born of the Ice Wives
Awareness 3
Intrigue Defence 7 / Composure 12
Move 4 (3) / Sprint 16 (14)
Combat Defence 9 / Armour Rating 4 / Health 12
Attack Spear 3+1B (3 damage)
Personal Gear: Spear, Furs, Warm Clothing, Black Cloak, Bear

Multiple tribes are described, from the Cannibal Clans of the Ice River and the Cave Dweller Clans to the Ice Wives and the Walrus Men. All of these tribes are available to play in a Night’s Watch campaign and part of playing a Wildling campaign will typically involve the players creating and directing the fate of their characters’ tribe. This is more of a requirement than it is in a campaign where the player characters are sworn brothers of the Night’s Watch, where creating and running a castle is just an option, and is much like the requirement in a standard A Song of Ice and Fire Roleplaying campaign for the players to create their characters’ noble house. Like a castle on the Wall, the lands of a Wildling tribe will have access to fewer resources and have a hard time surviving, but depending on the tribe may be able to field a number of new military units, including Bear Riders, Dog Runners, Giants, and Mammoth Riders.

Being descended from the First Men, the Wildlings not only have more legends about the Others, the creatures of extreme cold from the far north, they also know them to be real rather than mere legends as the men of the south believe. A Song of Ice and Fire Roleplaying: Night’s Watch not only details these legends, it also gives stats and write-ups for many of these inhuman creatures. This includes the infamous King of Winter and the White Lady—the lesser, though no less dangerous White Walkers and Wights, being described in the core rules for A Song of Ice and Fire Roleplaying—and it is here that Night’s Watch departs from canon. The authors explain that their new material is based upon what details are given in the books and to not include more information about the Others would have been a missed opportunity. To be honest this material is likely to be used rarely in a GM’s campaign and even then, not used directly, but rather to hint at the threat coming from the north as part of build towards a final confrontation.

As well as the detailed descriptions of the Gift, the Wall and it castles, and the lands beyond the Wall, various notables from the source material are given full write-ups. North of the Wall, these include Mance Rayder and his lieutenants, such as Tormund Giantsbane, Alfyn Crowkiller, Harma the Dogshead, and Lord o’Bones; on the Wall itself, they include Small Paul, Cotter Pyke, and Ser Denys Mallister. A notable and pleasing inclusion is that of Dolorous Edd Tollet, a fan favourite character. Notable absences include Ser Jeor Mormont and Maester Aemon. Lastly, supporting each of the book’s three sections—on the Night’s Watch, the Wildlings, and the Others, Night’s Watch gives over thirty adventure seeds and stories. These include a set of five adventure seeds for each branch of the Night’s Watch; eight fully detailed story hooks for Rangings; and another seven for the Wildlings and six involving the Others. All of these are excellent scenario ideas and nicely illustrate many of the ideas discussed elsewhere in the book. In particular there is one scenario hook where a Ranging comes across what looks to be an orphaned Wildling. This is a simple enough idea, but the authors then turn round and present the situation from the Wildlings’ point of view as a separate scenario, essentially abling a group of players to play through it twice, but each time with a different approach.

Of course, the obvious way in which to use the Night’s Watch sourcebook is as setting supplement to run campaigns either involving the men of the Night’s Watch or the Wildlings. The supplement offers plenty of scope and ideas for both options, but this does not mean that the two cannot interact. Plenty of members of the Night’s Watch have deserted and fled north to live amongst the Free Folk, whilst the Night’s Watch does take in Wildlings orphans and raise them to serve on the Wall. After all, Mance Rayder, the King-Beyond-the-Wall, was both, a Wildling foundling adopted by the Night’s Watch who later deserted. Further, the supplement could be used to create characters from beyond the Wall who now live south of it, such as Osha, who is a member of the Stark household.

Physically, Night’s Watch maintains the standards set for the A Game of Ice and Fire Roleplaying line. The writing is excellent, the artwork good, and the book is well presented.

Taking A Game of Ice and Fire Roleplaying campaign to the Wall and beyond frees it from the constraints of a standard A Game of Ice and Fire Roleplaying campaign and its focus upon the player characters’ noble house and its and their future. There are still constraints, in particular the oath sworn by the brothers of the Night’s Watch, but the focus in a game set on the Wall and beyond is more on survival and fighting rather than intrigue and deception. Although a Night’s Watch campaign has an understandably military bent, both Night’s Watch and Wildling campaigns feel freer and much more like traditional fantasy campaigns. Plus there are actual monsters to encounter and confront, much like a traditional fantasy campaign.

However it is used, A Song of Ice and Fire Roleplaying: Night’s Watch offers plenty of scope for the campaigns it sets up and backs this up with detail and solid story hooks. It is a well written supplement that combines great source material with well realised application.

Saturday 25 June 2016

Pulp Space Wizardry

When you are at an international gaming convention and an Italian man comes barrelling at you in order to thrust a copy of his book into your hands in order to review it, then it would seem churlish not to review said book. The book in question is Dare the Stars! The Future as it Once Was, a Sci-Fi RPG based upon the Pulps of the 1930s and 1950s. Thus with Dare the Stars! we are firmly in the territory of Buck Rogers, Flash Gordon, et al. Published by Wild Boar Games, LLC, it is a retroclone based on the Old School Renaissance RPG, White Star: White Box Science Fiction Roleplaying published by Barrel Rider Games, which means that Dare the Stars! is not only compatible with White Star: White Box Science Fiction Roleplaying, it is also compatible with the recently released White Star Companion.

In presenting an Old School Renaissance take upon the all-action prewar and postwar Sci-Fi of the last century it provides six new Classes, rules for assistants and followers, Insights and Alien Powers, as well as a setting. In addition it also includes complete rules based on Swords & Wizardry so it can be played complete as is or expanded with other White Star compatible supplements. The six Classes are Adventurous Noble, Android, Brave Soldier, Clever Scientist, Daring Explorer, and Wise Spacer. Each Class has ten Levels and various more abilities. So the Adventurous Noble can persuade others to do his bidding with ‘Let’s Talk This Out’, inspire others with Initiative and To-Hit bonuses by leading the way ‘To the Breach’, and later gain a retinue of Brave Soldiers as bodyguards and normal humans as personal servants. The Android differs in that it is only an eight-Level Class rather than the standard ten Levels. Otherwise, the Android has high Intelligence, but low Charisma. Low-Level Androids cannot initiate combat, but every Android has ‘Keen Senses’, and is both a ‘Living Computer’ and a ‘Walking Cyclopedia’. The Brave Soldier is one of a ‘Band of Brothers’ and can organise allies to grant a To-Hit bonus, can use weapons of any type—including alien weapons, knows how to use ‘Camouflage’ to hide himself and others so that the negative To-Hit numbers for targeting with long range weapons are doubled, and as ‘War Driver’ is skilled enough to improve the Armour Class of any vehicle he drives. 

The Clever Scientist can use ‘Science!’ to repair tools, machinery, and the living as well as to build devices; temporarily fix things with ‘Jury Rig’; and as a ‘Gimmick’, disassemble two similar items of technology and reassemble them to create better, if irreplaceable prototype. For example, a Clever Scientist might redesign two pieces of armour as one to improve the new armour’s Armour Class or the wearer’s Saving Throw, or two weapons to improve the new design’s damage or rate of fire. The Daring Explorer can once per day withstand deadly damage with ‘Man of Steel’, reroll a single failed roll with ‘Hero’s Luck’, and with ‘Jack-of-all-Trades’, make a single roll with +4 bonus. He also has a ‘Signature Weapon’ that he can use faster than anyone else. The Wise Spacer is all about his prior experience, so can lend a ‘Helping Hand’ to grant another character a bonus to his roll, and once per day draw upon his ‘Secret Stash’ for that piece of equipment you really need in a tight situation and because we are all ‘Brothers and Sisters’, can persuade other not to attack him or even to become an ally. More importantly, a Wise Spacer trusts his instincts and can provide Insights into whatever situation he and his companions find themselves. The Wise Spacer has access to a wide range of these, for example, ‘As a Sibling to Me’ let's him persuade an NPC that they are friends, whilst ‘Find the Way’ means that he can always successfully plot a Jump between star systems. There are over twenty Insights given in Dare the Stars!, enabling a Wise Spacer to bring wisdom aplenty into the game as well as offering some fun roleplaying opportunities for his player. All that player has to do now is channel his inner Walter Houston.

In the basic version of Dare the Stars!, the RPG does not offer anything in the way of Race options, so effectively, a player cannot create a Alien character. As an option though, rules are provided to enable a player to create his own. Two methods are provided, one more complex than the other. The more complex method enables a player to create a variety of Races, for example, the Hawk-Men and the Lion-Men from Flash Gordon

The equipment list is kept relatively short, but covers most things that a Pulp Sci-Fi RPG will need. Of course it includes the Raygun, something that every good Earthman—and Earthwoman—will want to equip themselves with. It also includes the Atomic Grenade, which is of course ludicrous, but perfectly in keeping with the genre. This being a Sci-Fi RPG, Dare the Stars! gives various types of starship and vehicle, the latter including the aircar and the moon buggy, the former, this being is a Pulp Sci-Fi RPG, the atomic warship, the exploration rocket, and the gunship rocket. The various vehicles feel more workmanlike than exciting though, perhaps not helped by their bulky rather than sleek-looking appearance.

If there is a real issue with the spaceships in Dare the Stars! it is the inability of the player characters to get hold of, and crew, one. It would probably take ten player characters to roll enough starting credits to purchase their own ship and that is before they even think of purchasing their personal equipment. Really though, owning a spaceship in a Pulp Sci-Fi RPG should not be a matter of having enough money and Dare the Stars! needed to address this problem.

The combat rules covers the usual melee and missile combat common to all OSR retroclones, but it also details combat between vehicles and starships. These rules are compatible with White Star: White Box Science Fiction Roleplaying, so the spaceships and vehicles nicely integrate between the two systems. More interesting though are the rules for Followers and Assistants. These enable the player characters to hire anyone from an animal trainer or assassin to starship repairman or translator, or alternatively any of the Class-based Assistants. This is in addition to the Followers that every Class in Dare the Stars!—except the Android Class—gain as they go up in Level. Whilst a Follower is essentially a member of one of the RPG’s Classes, but of a lower Level, each type of Assistant is nicely described as what he can do and what equipment he has. These not only serve to provide the means to crew a player character spaceship, for example, they also provide a ready supply of NPCs.

The setting detailed in Dare the Stars! posits a galaxy populated by races seeded in the past by the mysterious Progenitors who have long since disappeared. Their interaction with the Space Shadows, spurred the Space Shadows to attack our galaxy just as humanity took its first footsteps beyond the Solar System. The resulting War of Shadows only ended when the Space Shadows mysteriously disappeared. Earth and the nations of the Solar System have since formed the Solar Compact to protect humanity’s colonial expansion against the predations of space pirates, the Aleph Theocracy, and the Empire of the Wolf. Various alien species, such as the (prairie) Dogs of Venus, the insectoid Moonfolk, and the blue-skinned, nomadic Truggen, all native to the setting, are also given as NPCs.

Beyond some decent advice for the GM, Dare the Stars! goes further in its appendices by detailing some of the alien races native to the RPG’s setting as playable Classes. They include the Kheethee Warrior, jolly if naive warrior reptiles allied with mankind; the four-armed, short tempered green Martian Brawler and the red Martian Nobles known for their psychic abilities and thus make use of the Alien Powers rules included in Dare the Stars!; and the cat-like Taucetian Rogue, forced to leave his homeworld. These nicely expand the options available to the player characters and showcase what can be done with RPG’s alien creation rules.

Now as much as Dare the Stars! presents the means to run a Pulp Sci-Fi game, it's content is let down in terms of its presentation. The fundamental problem is that it suffers from issues that plague too many first books from new publishers. It needs another edit. Another good edit. The problem is not necessarily the writing, which given that it is not in the author’s native tongue, is decent enough, but rather the inconsistent formatting and some of the phrasing. Worse though, it needs more development, first and foremost to make the RPG’s default background more coherent and accessible, but then to give reasons for the player characters to go adventuring. That and the means for the player characters to gain a spaceship and start adventuring. The last thing that Dare the Stars! is missing a bibliography, which is disappointing.

That said Dare the Stars! includes some a good range of artwork. Some of it nicely evokes the genre it is seeking to emulate, while other illustrations are quite creepy. Others though, are a bit bland and at best merely okay.

Where White Star: White Box Science Fiction Roleplaying very clearly drew upon Star Wars for its inspiration, Dare the Stars! draws from the very same source as did Stars Wars for its inspiration—the Pulp Sci-Fi stories of the thirties and fifties. Dare the Stars! provides the means to run an RPG game in that genre, not quite as effectively as it could, but the Classes it provides to that end are solid and the setting is not without potential, but the presentation and the lack of development undermines much of that designer’s efforts. At the moment, Dare the Stars! feels like a late draft. Neither unplayable or unuseable, Dare the Stars! The Future as it Once Was is just not quite as polished, quite as professional as the designer would have intended.

Monday 20 June 2016

Whip-Crack-Away! Whip-Crack-Away!

Published by Asmodee and now over twenty five years old, Ave Ceasar is a quick-playing game in which the players compete to win a chariot race in the famous Circus Maximus in Ancient Rome. Designed for three to six players, they must complete three laps of the circuit and stop in the Imperial Alley to proclaim “Hail Ceasar!” using a limited supply of movement cards.

The board is double-sided, with a track for three to four players on one and a track for five to six players on the other. Each player receives a chariot, a coin (to pay as tribute to Ceasar), and a deck of cards (consisting of the numbers one through six, four times for a total of thirty-six cards). It is from his deck of cards that each player will draw a hand of three cards that will give his movement options each turn.

This being a chariot racing game, the players can only move forward, either straight or diagonally. This is done by playing a card and moving the exact number of spaces indicated on the card. It must be exact, because if a player does not have a card that will move him the exact number of spaces ahead of him, he cannot move. This happens often because only one player can occupy a space and it is part of the game that one player can block another, both maps being designed with several chokepoints. At other times, a player will find himself forced to play a card and make an unintended manoeuvre because it is the only legal move that he can make.

It is also vital to grab the inside lane on either of the circuits. This is because a player has just sufficient cards to get his chariot round the course three times and salute Caesar the once—and no more. If a player spends too long in the outer lane, then he will run out of cards and with his horses exhausted, be out of the race.

Although it would appear that the race leader has all of the advantages with the open track ahead of him, this is not always the case. He cannot play a ‘6’ card, so cannot not easily pull away from those behind him. This means that the others can catch him up if they have ‘6’ cards to hand.

Lastly a player must pay tribute to Ceasar. This means that he actually has to stop in Imperial Alley after the first or second circuit of the track. This can really limit his movement options if another player blocks Imperial Alley, forcing him to go around and try again on the next circuit. Of course, should a player fail to pay tribute, then he cannot win the game.

A race in Ave Ceasar is three circuits of the course. The game is a good filler, but can be played as a league and once the basic game has been played, the game does include several variant rules.

Ave Ceasar plays quickly and easily. It is enjoyably frustrating and its simplicity means that younger gamers will enjoy it as a good, quick race game; but seasoned gamers will enjoy turning Ave Ceasar into a cut-throat affair as they whip the horses and attempt to block each other.

Sunday 19 June 2016

Space Wizard's Companion

This last year has proved to be a highly successful for White Star: White Box Science Fiction Roleplaying. Based on Mythmere Games’ Swords & Wizardry and published by Barrel Rider Games, the Science Fiction RPG has constantly remained in the top twenty best selling titles at RPGnow for the last twelve months. Successfully combining a clean, stripped back style and a set of influences clearly worn on its sleeves, White Star: White Box Science Fiction Roleplaying is the charming, fun Space Opera RPG that we never had in 1977. Yet it was not quite perfect, since its lack of technical and scientific character Classes meant it could not be quite the encompassing and flexible Science Fiction RPG that it had the potential to be. The good news is that Barrel Rider Games has published the White Star Companion that sets out to rectify this lack and provide much, much more.

The White Star Companion includes eight new Classes, rules for vehicle combat, new vehicles and spaceships, a skills system, new equipment, new alien races and creatures, a whole new setting, and more. The eight new Classes include the Bounty Hunter, a capable combatant and tracker who can also subdue a target; the Deep Space Explorer possesses good survival skills and can identify the basic features of any newly encountered species; the Freed Assimilant has several innate pieces of cyberware, never sleeps, and can block incoming laser fire; a Man of Tomorrow is a good in a brawl, can shrug off Critical Hits, and once per session, has Uncanny Luck; and the Novomachina are robot survivors of a civil war each capable of of transforming into a particular vehicle. The Plucky Kid takes Inspiration whenever another player rolls a natural twenty to hit in combat, can inspire others when they attempt Saving Throws, and can mimic the ability of another character if he sees them use it; the Two-Fisted Technician is good at destroying robots, can quickly learn to use alien technology, perform temporary percussive maintenance, and temporarily improve a weapon’s damage; and Yabnabs are cute, adorable, and typically underestimated. For the most part, the inspiration for these Classes are obvious, Transformers for the Novomachina, the Ewoks for the Yabnabs, Seven of Nine from Star Trek: Voyager for the Freed Assimilant, and so on. Others are less obvious.

This octet of new Classes is a nice addition to those in the core rules, expanding the range of choices available to player and GM alike. The choice enables the GM to better tailor the Classes to his campaign. So for example, if the GM does not want to run a Star Wars-like campaign, then he might not include the Star Lord or the Yabnab. Notably, all of the eight new Classes are given as Classes rather than Races, though this is what the Yabnab really are. Accompanying the eight are rules for Multi-Classing, which allows a player to pick multiple Classes and their features but at a cost of having a acquire a whole lot more Experience Points per level.

New rules in the White Star Companion add vehicles and vehicular combat, so that the player characters can now travel and fight down the gravity well as well as up. Essentially the new rules for vehicular combat are the same as those for starship combat, but with a couple of extra options, including vehicles being immobilised if their Hit Points are reduced to zero rather than being destroyed and allowing the Pilot Class to add its Level when determining the number of points of damage repaired. The new rules are supported by a selection of new vehicles, the inspiration for which, much like many of the character Classes, are fairly obvious. So the Assault Springer, Assault Strider, Skybike, and Yabnab Glider are inspired by Star Wars. Others like the Hover Tank are more generic in origins. To this are added new starships, including the Orbital Battle Station, Orbital Shuttle—whose illustration looks like the Far Merchant from Traveller, the Scout Ship, and the Stunt Bomber. There are also cinematic rules for inflicting the effects of minor, moderate, and major damage when a vehicle or starship is reduced to three-quarters, half, and a quarter of its Hit Points as well as details of the Ion Grappler and Planetary Laser, new modifications to fit onto the Orbital Battle Station and other larger vessels.

The White Star Companion also provides a simple skill system using just Athletics, Interaction, Knowledge, Larceny, Medicine, Navigation, Survival, and Technology. Each is rated between one and five and associated with an attribute and one or more Classes, such as Interaction with Charisma and the Aristocrat and Star Knight Classes and the Navigation skill with Intelligence and the Pilot Class. Each character starts with three skills, one of which must be an associated skill, and they can be modified by attribute modifiers also. These rules are quick and dirty, but cover most situations, for example the Technology skill covers computers, Faster-Than-Light engines, robotics, and more, including hard science. So now a player can create scientist character or a better engineer for example. By broadening the types and proficiencies of characters that White Star: White Box Science Fiction Roleplaying allows, it also widens the types of Science Fiction that the RPG can do.

Likewise, the new rules for Serials enables the players to flesh out their background by rolling for their Homeworld, Family, Youth, First Adventure, Allies, Adversary, and Critical Event, though the latter is optional. Just six options are given for each, so similarities in terms of results between player characters could be used to forge links between members of a party. Our sample character originally appeared in the review of White Star: White Box Science Fiction Roleplaying and is here further developed with the new rules in the White Star Companion.

Pooma Mupoo, Level 1 Star Lord
Str: 10 Int: 13 (+1) Wis: 17 (+2)
Con: 12 Dex: 15 (+1) Chr: 13 (+1)
Hit Points: 6 Save: 15 (+2 vs. Meditations & Gifts)
Armour Class: 7 Ascending Armour Class: 12
Experience Bonus: +20%
Skills: Interaction 3, Medicine 4, Athletics 2
Languages: 3
Equipment: Star Sword (+1), Light Armour, Energy Shield, 60 Cr

Homeworld: Cosmopolitan (+1 Charisma, -1 Constitution); Family: Most of your family is dead or missing; Youth: Delinquent (Successfully pickpocket on a roll of 1-2 on a 1d6); First Adventure: Captured by Outlaws (Pick mechanical locks on a roll of
1-2 on a 1d6); Allies: Street Rat—A street urchin in a major metropolitan planet calls
you his friend (Automatically know the criminal activity on one specific sector of a planet in the galaxy.); Adversary: Void Knight (A terrible Void Knight is searching the galaxy for you); Critical Event: Located a previously undiscovered hideout, known only to you (You now have a secret base that no one else knows about, such as an abandoned space station or undiscovered planet.)

There is also new items of equipment—weapons and armours mostly—and new aliens and creatures. The White Star Companion continues its plundering of the genre, for example, Wellsians are floating tentacled brains who arm themselves with death rays; Alureans are green skinned and charismatic, so very Star Trek-like; and the Rawrarr are tall, lean, and fur covered who use a mix of technologies and live in treetop cities, so very Wookie-like. Then there are the Space Ducks…

Random Encounters provides the means for the Referee to create star sectors and planetary systems, to create the backdrop for a game. The rules are designed to be quick and easy and to provide cinematic, somewhat pulpy settings, particularly in the form of Exotic Traits, such as abandoned societies, crystal landscapes, flying islands, and so on. The suggested natives are drawn from both White Star: White Box Science Fiction Roleplaying and the White Star Companion. The chapter finally lives up its title with a set of tables for rolling up encounters in both space and on planet.

Rounding out the White Star Companion is a description of the Sterling System. It expands upon the setting of the Kelron Sector described in the White Star: White Box Science Fiction Roleplaying, but where that was set on the frontier and full of mining space stations, abandoned planets, and stellar dangers, the Sterling System lies at the heart of the Galactic Consortium, full of secrets and mysteries. Divided by Adlar’s Wall, a dense belt of asteroids, the sector is ruled with an iron fist by Supreme Lord Adlar, and might be ripe for rebellion…  This setting is not as interesting as that of Kelron Sector and does feel as if the author is trying just a bit too hard. Of all the entries in the White Star Companion, the description of the Sterling System is ever so slightly disappointing and not quite so useful in comparison.

White Star: White Box Science Fiction Roleplaying was one of the best Retroclones released in 2015, being a great toolkit for running a Science Fiction genre Old School Renaissance game. Nevertheless, there were tools missing from that kit that meant that it was not the all encompassing treatment of the genre that it could have been. With the release of the White Star Companion, the absence of those tools—of technological and scientific abilities for characters, there was no skill system, and no means to create planets, all things that a good, generic  Science Fiction RPG needs—has been addressed. Which means that  the White Star Companion makes White Star: White Box Science Fiction Roleplaying the superb Science Fiction retroclone and toolkit that it was meant to be.

Friday 17 June 2016

Fromage Affray

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 plus the 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 nineteenth adventure is The Demon’s Wet Nurse.

The Demon’s Wet Nurse is written by Stan!, best known as a co-author of titles such as Urban Arcana for d20 Modern and author of Call of Cthulhu scenarios like Midnight Harvest and Murder of Crows. It is the fourth adventure written for characters who have entered the Novice Path, of First and Second Level and then selected their first or Novice Path—Magician, Priest, Rogue, or Warrior. It comes as a nine page, 14.50 MB PDF and is designed as a standalone adventure that slots easily into a campaign as an encounter when the player characters are travelling between more important destinations. 

The setting for The Demon’s Wet Nurse is Ephraim’s Fork, a small trading town that stands at the intersection of three well travelled roads. Initially, the player characters find it to be healthy and thriving, but after interacting with both the townsfolk and fellow travellers it becomes apparent that the town is beset by a flux that causes sufferers to evacuate themselves, sometimes bloodily, at both ends. Is Ephraim’s Fork subject to an outbreak of dysentery, the bloody flux, or something worse? Well… Of course, it is something worse—this is a scenario for Shadow of the Demon Lord after all.

Essentially, The Demon’s Wet Nurse is divided into two parts. The first involves the player characters traipsing back and forth across Ephraim’s Fork, interviewing locals and visitors alike in search of clues. Once the adventurers have found enough information, then they have reason to track the origins of the disease to its source and there have a vilely lactosed encounter with the real villain of the piece. This is a horrid, fecund encounter and might just put the player characters off child care, let alone the players…

The Demon’s Wet Nurse is a longer, more detailed adventure than the others released for Shadow of the Demon Lord. This is because it more details the town of Ephraim’s Fork for future use than it does provide a convoluted plot, which is really quite straightforward. The details though should help the GM given description to some messy encounters and nicely serve to dish up another slice of body horror, all blood and bodily fluids.

Sunday 12 June 2016

Suitably Unqualified

In the wake of Cards Against Humanity, there has come a slew of party games designed primarily to be played by adults, such as Bucket of Doom, or at least by an older audience, such as Love 2 Hate. What these games have in common is that they have one player asking a question to which the other players supply the answers from which the asking player makes a selection, typically for comedic effect. In this they follow a design first seen in the highly popular Apples to Apples party game, but other designs have since taken the design and begun to do more with what amounts to a big, fat box of question and answer cards. For example, The Metagame from Local No. 12 uses the format to build not just one game, but several, all within the one box; Gorilla Games’ Who Would Win? has the players not only select an answer card, but also justify said card; and Funemployed has the players not only select an answer card, but use four answer cards and then justify them.

Recently republished by Urban Island Games following a successful Kickstarter campaign, Funemployed: The party game of real jobs and unreal qualifications. is a game in which the players are the Applicants for a job for which they are highly unqualified for, but are forced to apply using the Qualifications they have on the cards they hold. For example, the players have to apply for the role of a Gangster, for which one player has the Qualifications ‘Ambidextrous’, ‘Drive’, ‘Handlebars’, and ‘Loose’, another has ‘Crack’, ‘False Teeth’, ‘Gluttony’, and ‘Scalpel’, and ‘Excuses’, ‘Online Degree’, ‘Poker Face’ and ‘Red Sea’.

Designed to be played by between three and twenty potential Applicants, Funemployed comes as a box containing seventy-two Black Job Cards, three-hundred-and-twenty Green Qualification Cards, and a rules sheet. Each Black Job Card is headed with the term ‘Help Wanted’, below which is a job title, such as ‘Used Car Salesman’ or ‘Dominatrix’. One is marked with the phrase, ‘My Job’. This Black Job card is always included in a game and when drawn indicates the last round of interviews. Each Green Qualification Card is marked with a tick or check-mark and a Qualification, like ‘Day Job’, ‘Italian Accent’, ‘Lisp’, ‘Night Terrors’, ‘Scented Candle’, ‘Time Machine’, and ‘Trench Coat’.

At the start of the game, a deck of sixteen Black Job Cards is drawn, shuffled, and the ‘My Job’ Job Card is inserted into the lower half of the Black Job Card deck. Each player or Applicant receives four Green Job Cards as his Resume, whilst another ten are placed out, face up, where everyone can see them.

One player is chosen to be the Employer. He turns the first Black Job Card over and reads it out. Each Applicant has a minute to work out how to use his Resume to apply for the Job, but he can also rebuild his Resume by swapping Qualification Cards from his hand with those on the table.
For example, Ruth is the Employer and turns over the Job Card, ‘Competitive Eater’. Louise has the Qualification Cards, ‘Dirty’, ‘Hook’, ‘Red Panda’, and ‘Room to Grow’ as her Resume, whilst Theresa has the Qualification Cards, ‘Beefcake’, ‘Pathological Liar’, ‘Recess’, and ‘Utterly Adorable’ as her Resume. First Ruth turns to Louise and asks her to explain why she is qualified to be employed as a ‘Competitive Eater’. Louise answers, “As a Competitive Eater, I am quite prepared to get my face down onto the plate and thus ‘Dirty’, where I can use my ‘Hook’ for a hand to scoop food into my mouth. Further, my time spent training with a ‘Red Panda’ family means that I can digest almost anything, including bamboo leafs and because a lot of leafs are needed to in order to get a square meal, I have ‘Room to Grow’ and eat prodigious amounts. Ruth mulls this over before proceeding to Theresa and asking the same question. Theresa responds with “My Beefcake’ figure hides a ‘Recess’ for putting away the food from the competition, but if you do not believe me because I am a ‘Pathological Liar’, then I am sure that neither you nor the judges will find this to be a problem because I am of course, ‘Utterly Adorable’.” Ruth decides that while Louise’s ‘Hook’ will be useful, it might be too sinister and decides that although Theresa might not have the right Qualifications to be a ‘Competitive Eater’, being ‘Utterly Adorable’ more than makes up for it and awards Theresa the ‘Competitive Eater’ Black Job Card as the ‘Most Qualified’.
At the end of the round, all of the used Qualification Cards are discarded and new ones drawn. The next player to the left becomes the Employer, a new Black Job Card is drawn, and play proceeds as normal. The game continues until the ‘My Job’ Black Job Card is drawn. It is up to the Employer who drew this to decide if the Applicants are applying for his real life, actual job, or a job of his choosing. At the end of the round, the Applicant with the most Black Job Cards in front of him is the winner.

Physically, Funemployed is a plain and simple looking game. The cards are all of a good quality and having the names on each Qualification Card printed twice, once upside down, is a nice touch as it makes them easy to read from either side of the table. The rules are also simple and once the box is open, a game can be started in a few minutes. The game though, does have three problems. The first is its audience, as not everyone likes this kind of party game and the creativity and humour that it engenders. So sometimes a game can be dull because of this. The second is that it is an American game, so some of the Jobs and the Qualifications may not be familiar to everyone despite the ubiquity of American culture. Third and lastly, the game states that it is for players aged thirteen and up, but a minority of both card types are of a sexual or adult nature, and that in addition to the cards that can be interpreted as such, which means that out of the box, Funemployed is not suitable as a family game or a game suitable for players that young.

Nevertheless, Funemployed is a fun game, one that requires the players to be inventive and clever in how they explain the usefulness and applicability of their Qualification Cards. In fact, having to use all four cards forces each Applicant to be inventive and to think about their explanation to the Interviewer. Now having to use the four cards in his hand might mean that a player could be stuck with something unsuitable for the current Job or something that he just cannot quite explain how it applies, but having the ten Qualification Cards out on the table and being able to swap them to build a Resume means that a player can alleviate this problem by replacing one bad Qualification with one better. 

Despite the problems with this game and with this type of game, Funemployed: The party game of real jobs and unreal qualifications. is nice addition to the Apples to Apples style of party game. It requires the players to think about how they use their cards and gives everyone the opportunity to be creative rather than just give an answer card.

Saturday 11 June 2016

A Treasure's Treasury Trove

The first point to be made about the Book of Loot is that it is a dull read. The second point to be made is that it is not a dull book. The distinction needs to be made because it is not written to be read from end to end, which is the dull way to read it, but rather referred to and dipped into for ideas and inspiration—and those ideas and inspiration are anything other than dull! In fact, the ideas and inspiration to be found in the Book of Loot are not only great, but they have the potential to be great fun.

The Book of Loot is a supplement for 13th Age, the dramatic Dungeons & Dragons-style RPG published by Pelgrane Press. It presents a hoard or thirteen’s worth of treasures, each individual item linked to one of the thirteen Icons, the archetypal gods and major NPCs, in the game’s default setting of the Dragon Empire. The items are further categorised into further fourteen types with one, two, or more entries for each type. The types are in turn Armour, Robe, Shirt, and Tunic; Arrow, Crossbow Bolt, and Sling; Belt, Swordbelt, Kilt, and Girdle; Book, Scroll, Tome, and Grimoire; Boots, Shoes, and Slippers; Cloak, Mantle, and Cape; Glove, Gauntlet, and Mitt; Helmet, Circlet, Crown, and Cap; Necklace and Pendant; Ring; Staff; Wand; Weapon; and Wondrous Item. What this means, with thirteen Icons and fourteen types, is that the Book of Loot describes at least one-hundred-and-eighty-two items of treasure—and the true figure is closer to two hundred!

The Book of Loot is neatly organised with chapters devoted to each of the thirteen Icons and then each detailing the various items under each of the fourteen types. Each chapter opens with a description of where items related to the Icon might come from and what they form they might take. So for example, those items related to the Elf Queen tend to be either well made, if ordinary looking, or simply beautiful works of art, whilst those of the Archmage can be showy, whimsical, devastating, or all three, since they serve to showcase his power to both his allies and his enemies. Then it proceeds through the types, one by one, giving in many items that can in varying forms. For example, under the ‘Armour, Robe, Shirt, and Tunic’ type for the Dwarf King two items are described, ‘Solidity’ and ‘Thrice-Forged’. So these might be ‘Armour of Solidity’, ‘Robe of Solidity’, ‘Thrice-Forged Shirt’, and ‘Thrice-Forged Tunic’. What this means that in a very many great instances, the actual form that a magical item comes in is not important and that a wider array of Character Classes will be able to make use of them. Rounding out each of the chapters is a trio of adventure hooks, each involving a magic item, for a total of thirty-nine, plus another six involving magical items in a more generic sense, for a total of forty-five in the supplement.

Each magic item is accorded a paragraph or two, each comes with a quirk, and many are written with a sense of humour. For example, “Swift Shot: Once per battle, if you’ve got elven grace, and you get an extra action, and you use that standard action to make a ranged attack with this ammo, then the size of the die rolled to determine whether or not your elven grace triggers doesn’t increase. If you’re not playing a wood archer, your eyes probably glazed over two clauses back.” Of the quirks, the ‘Armour of Darkness’, tied to the Prince of Darkness and which grants an Armour Class bonus in darkness (at night, underground, or indoors), but a penalty in sunlight or bright light, also leaves the wearer finding bright light painful, increasingly pale skin, and sadly, allergic to garlic; the Emperor’s Spellbreaking Ring, a chunky affair that enables a user to use an opportunity attack triggered by a spell to counter the actual spell, but the wearer no longer respects personal space; and The Three’s Weapon of Feinting gives the wielder an Armour Class bonus if he misses an attack, but makes him blurt out lies when put under pressure. In this way not only does each magical item give a player one or more powerful abilities, they also alter his character’s behaviour and so give the player role-playing challenges.

Topping and tailing these thirteen chapters is the book’s introduction and a chapter on Treasure Troves. The former sets out what the Book of Loot is for and how it works, but notably it panders to the 13th Age’s love with a set of lists. So you have lists of ‘Items that Demand a Story’, ‘Relentlessly Practical Items’, ‘Unforgivable Puns’, and more. The latter explores what else might be found in a treasure trove beyond magical items—coins, gems, jewels, and actual treasures. This nicely ables the GM to design interesting hoards for his players to loot. Rounding out the supplement is set of tables that addresses a problem in the Book of Loot—finding anything. As everything in the supplement is organised by Icon rather than type, finding anything by type is a bit more awkward than normal. So a set of tables for each type of magical item lists everything in the previous pages, as well as summarising each item’s power, tier in the game—Adventurer, Champion, or Epic, Icon, and of course, page number. So the tables work as a set of indices too.

Physically, the Book of Loot is far from perfect. It needs another edit in places and the layout is scruffy in others. Over all, in places it does feel a bit rushed. The book is lightly illustrated, but all of the illustrations nicely capture the feel of one magical item or another. Nevertheless, the book is well written and it is clear that the author had fun writing it.

As much as the Book of Loot is a chore to read from start to finish, each individual entry is actually a pleasure to read because it is invariably clever and interesting and does so much more than your run of the mill +2 Sword of Giant Slaying or Ring of Invisibility. Arguably this is one of the most inventive and interesting hoard of magical items ever to grace a d20 System supplement and it almost deserves to be on the shelf of any GM or Dungeon Master who creates his own adventures and dungeons. The only reason why it should not be is that a great many of the items in the Book of Loot are more complex than those typically found in Dungeons & Dragons because they have to take account of the greater complexity, often dramatic complexity, such as the relationships between each player character and the Icons, to be found in the 13th Age. That said, there is nothing to stop the DM from adjusting any of the items in the Book of Loot to suit the mechanics of his choice.

The Book of Loot is quite possibly one of the best treasure books ever written for Dungeons & Dragons—it is unsurprisingly, the best ever treasure book written for use the 13th Age RPG. Inventive, fun, and full of clever creations, the Book of Loot is an excellent addition to the 13th Age line and a hoard of treasures worth looting for just about fantasy RPG.

Wednesday 1 June 2016

Fanzine Focus III: The Blasphemous Tome #1

On the tail of Old School Renaissance has come another movement—the rise of the fanzine. Although the fanzine—a nonprofessional and nonofficial publication produced by fans of a particular cultural phenomenon, got its start in Science Fiction fandom, in the gaming hobby it first started with Chess and Diplomacy fanzines before finding fertile ground in the roleplaying hobby in the 1970s. Here these amateurish publications allowed the hobby a public space for two things. First, they were somewhere that the hobby could voice opinions and ideas that lay outside those of a game’s publisher. Second, in the Golden Age of roleplaying when the Dungeon Masters were expected to create their own settings and adventures, they also provided a rough and ready source of support for the game of your choice. Many also served as vehicles for the fanzine editor’s house campaign and thus they showed how another DM and group played said game. This would often change over time if a fanzine accepted submissions. Initially, fanzines were primarily dedicated to the big three RPGs of the 1970s—Dungeons & Dragons, RuneQuest, and Traveller—but fanzines have appeared dedicated to other RPGs since, some of which helped keep a game popular in the face of no official support.

In the years since, fanzines have appeared to support various RPGs, such as tHE bIG pICTURE for S.L.A. Industries, Warpstone for Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, and Sholari for SkyRealms of Jorune. In many cases, such fanzines became a vehicle for the RPG itself when there was no official support or even an actual RPG in print. Yet barring Carl T. Ford’s Dagon, which ran from 1983 to 1990 and Mike Mason’s The Whisperer from the turn of the millennium, fanzines devoted to Call of Cthulhu have been few and far between. The publication of The Blasphemous Tome does not change that, for although it is about horror and horror roleplaying, Lovecraft and Lovecraftiana, it is about the Call of Cthulhu RPG, but not for Call of Cthulhu RPG. In other words, it is not an official licensed Call of Cthulhu publication, although fans of the RPG will find much to interest them within its pages.

The Blasphemous Tome is published by The Good Friends of Jackson Elias, an English podcast dedicated to horror and horror roleplaying, Lovecraft and Lovecraftiana, and the Call of Cthulhu RPG. Indeed, of the three hosts of the podcast and thus the three authors of the fanzine, one co-designed Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition, another edited it, and all three write Call of Cthulhu scenarios. Available only to Patreons of the podcast, the inaugural issue of The Blasphemous Tome is a humorous affair, much of it drawing upon the authors’ experiences co-hosting the podcast.

So in ‘A Memoir of the Shed’ looks back to original recording location for the podcast—a potter’s shed, ‘Cocktail Corner’ explores the hosts’ love of cocktails and includes recipes, one author reviews a Mythos-themed plush despite his dislike of such things in ‘Plush of the Month’ whilst having fun poked at him in ‘A Guide to Beard Care’. Perhaps more interesting in terms of the podcast, its history and its links to Call of Cthulhu is ‘The Secret History of Attract Fish’. One host’s rabid dislike of what is perhaps the least liked, if not the most useless, spell in Call of Cthulhu, is examined to explain how it went from a simple dislike to a tee shirt and an internet meme.

Neither games nor horror are ignored in this mix. There are reviews of RPGs that they have played in ‘The Ludomancer’—a rare occurrence since the trio prefers to referee than play, notably that of A Red and Pleasant Land, as the trio are fans of Lamentations of the Flame Princess: Weird Fantasy Roleplaying and have interviewed the RPG’s designer; the hosts’ favourite Lovecraftian films in ‘The Popcorn Resonator: Our Top Three Lovecraftian Films’; a retrospective of 2015 horror films in ‘2015: A Year of Horrors’; and more. Perhaps though, the highlight of this first issue is ‘The Horror from the Shed’, a system-less scenario with an easy to adapt setting. Inspired by the history of the original recording location of The Good Friends of Jackson Elias podcast, the scenario combines grief, gossip, and something nasty in the woodshed for a tale of small village horror and misguided hope. It Lovecraftian in tone and although system-less, it is easy to see where the numbers and the stats have been filed off, such that a Keeper could easily run it without the need to add them back in. Although set in Buckingham, England, ostensibly in the here and now, it would be easy to relocate the scenario both in terms of time and place. So it would work in the 1890s of Cthulhu by Gaslight, the 1920s of classic Call of Cthulhu, and the 1930s of Trail of Cthulhu, just as it would in USA or Sweden. It would work easily as well under other rules. The authors suggest using it with a weird fantasy RPG and give a note or two to that end. So it would easily work with Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, though perhaps what the authors really mean is Lamentations of the Flame Princess: Weird Fantasy Roleplaying… However the Keeper—or GM—uses ‘The Horror from the Shed’, it serves up a rich breakfast of spores and fungal horror.

At forty-two pages, The Blasphemous Tome #1 is longer than most fanzines. On the whole, it is a clean, unfussy affair. It is though a little scrappy and rough around the edges, but this is intentional, the design being meant to invoke nostalgia for the fanzines of before the advent of desktop publishing.

Definitely a horror and a Lovecraft fanzine, The Blasphemous Tome #1 is not really a gaming fanzine despite its gaming content. It is though much more of chat fanzine, a collection of thoughts and reminiscences of the hosts of The Good Friends of Jackson Elias that is in parts informative and in parts silly, but mostly fun (especially if you like the podcast).

Fanzine Focus III: The Undercroft #3

On the tail of Old School Renaissance has come another movement—the rise of the fanzine. Although the fanzine—a nonprofessional and nonofficial publication produced by fans of a particular cultural phenomenon, got its start in Science Fiction fandom, in the gaming hobby it first started with Chess and Diplomacy fanzines before finding fertile ground in the roleplaying hobby in the 1970s. Here these amateurish publications allowed the hobby a public space for two things. First, they were somewhere that the hobby could voice opinions and ideas that lay outside those of a game’s publisher. Second, in the Golden Age of roleplaying when the Dungeon Masters were expected to create their own settings and adventures, they also provided a rough and ready source of support for the game of your choice. Many also served as vehicles for the fanzine editor’s house campaign and thus they showed another DM and group played said game. This would often change over time if a fanzine accepted submissions. Initially, fanzines were primarily dedicated to the big three RPGs of the 1970s—Dungeons & Dragons, RuneQuest, and Traveller—but fanzines have appeared dedicated to other RPGs since, some of which helped keep a game popular in the face of no official support.

Since 2008 with the publication of Fight On #1, the Old School Renaissance has had its own fanzines. The advantage of the Old School Renaissance is that the various Retroclones draw from the same source and thus one Dungeons & Dragons-style RPG is compatible with another. This means that the contents of one fanzine will compatible with the Retroclone that you already run and play even if not specifically written for it. Labyrinth Lord and Lamentations of the Flame Princess Weird Fantasy Roleplay have proved to be popular choices to base fanzines around, such as The Undercroft and Vacant Ritual Assembly.

Published by the Melsonian Arts Council—also the publisher of he recently released Something Stinks in Stilton—in July, 2014, issue #1 of The Undercroft was an engaging initial issue, full of intriguing and useful material. It was followed in September, 2014 with issue #2  and as with many second efforts, especially after successful first efforts, it proved a less than satisfying mix of content. Issue #3 does not have either that problem or indeed as much content as issue #2. In fact it only has three articles in comparison to the multiple published in issue #2.

It opens with Barry Blatt’s ‘van Steen’s Company’, which describes a well drilled and highly disciplined, if odd company of Dutch mercenaries fighting for the Parliamentarians in the English Civil War. On the surface they would appear to be an efficient military unit, but of course there is more to them than that. They turn out to be automata created from soldiers whose creator wants to plunder England’s secret magics that might have survived Henry VIII’s separation of the Church of England from Rome and the subsequent Dissolution of the Monasteries. There is a bit more going on this this, involving both Jewish legends of Mitteleuropa and the Crusades, but for a campaign set during the English Civil War, it would make for an interesting addition. It could even be slotted in England Upturned, the recently released scenario for Lamentations of the Flame Princess Weird Fantasy Roleplay. There is even reference of sorts to said scenario in the contents listing on the back cover of the fanzine.

Although the various members of the company are described in detail as is how the company works, what the piece lacks is a scenario seed or two. Now there are hooks that a Referee can extract from the text, but the inclusion of a scenario seed or two would have topped the piece off nicely.

The second article is ‘The Cunning Men of the Fern Court’. It is written by Daniel Sell, the editor of The Undercroft. This presents an alternative take upon the Magic User, one closer to the Druid, but much earthier, loamier, and bloodier. More an NPC Class than a Player Character Class, the Cunning Men of the Fern Court move through the deep forests from settlement to settlement, blessing children and crops, bringing and collecting news, and being seen as a beneficial presence. The near naked Cunning Men record their knowledge and their spells not in great books that could easily molder away in the damp of the forest, but directly on their skins via scarification. These skins are collected and stored by the Fern Court upon a Canning Man’s death lest his knowledge is lost, though knowledge of a spell can be lost if a Cunning Man is also severely wounded.

The bulk of ‘The Cunning Men of the Fern Court’ is devoted to the spells known by the Cunning Men. There are over twenty of these, highly detailed and clearly laid out, ranging from First Level to Seventh Level. They range from the relatively simple, like Babble, which makes a victim unable to speak clearly, and The Spleenful Led, which causes the victim to lose his way in the woods, to the complex, like The Subtle Heart, which sear curses and sickness from everyone around the caster, though may also die, and A Black Sun Climbs the Ladder to the Heavens, in which the Cunning Man makes the victim believe that the Sun has been replaced by a pus-dripping black and shaken to the core, possibly kill him and those around him. All of these spells are described in some detail and many have a dark and gruesome tone.

There is a certain vagueness to ‘The Cunning Men of the Fern Court’, so that it is never wholly clear what and who they are. Part of this is due to their not being presented as an actual Class in game terms, but more NPCs of near myth and superstition that might be encountered in the woods. The vagueness is nicely counterpointed by the detail, feel, and effect of their spells, so that whilst they have an often horrible, but still concrete effect, the Cunning Men themselves still remain a sense of mystery and legend.

Rounding The Undercroft #3 is ‘The Bridge’ by Alex Clements. It is a short effective piece of fiction that plays upon the encounter with the Black knight in Monty Python & The Holy Grail. Fortunately it is not as silly as that, being more Pratchett-like in tone.

Physically, The Undercroft #3 is neat and tidy with some decent illustrations. Overall, despite there being just three articles in the issue, they are different enough and detailed enough to be as the editorial puts it, “...[A]ll elbows and knees.” with each other. This works very well and gives The Undercroft #3 a pleasing and distinctive mix.

Fanzine Focus III: Mystic Pangolin #2

On the tail of Old School Renaissance has come another movement—the rise of the fanzine. Although the fanzine—a nonprofessional and nonofficial publication produced by fans of a particular cultural phenomenon, got its start in Science Fiction fandom, in the gaming hobby it first started with Chess and Diplomacy fanzines before finding fertile ground in the roleplaying hobby in the 1970s. Here these amateurish publications allowed the hobby a public space for two things. First, they were somewhere that the hobby could voice opinions and ideas that lay outside those of a game’s publisher. Second, in the Golden Age of roleplaying when the Dungeon Masters were expected to create their own settings and adventures, they also provided a rough and ready source of support for the game of your choice. Many also served as vehicles for the fanzine editor’s house campaign and thus they showed another DM and group played said game. This would often change over time if a fanzine accepted submissions. Initially, fanzines were primarily dedicated to the big three RPGs of the 1970s—Dungeons & Dragons, RuneQuest, and Traveller—but fanzines have appeared dedicated to other RPGs since, some of which helped keep a game popular in the face of no official support.

Since 2008 with the publication of Fight On #1, the Old School Renaissance has had its own fanzines. The advantage of the Old School Renaissance is that the various Retroclones draw from the same source and thus one Dungeons & Dragons-style RPG is compatible with another. This means that the contents of one fanzine will compatible with the Retroclone that you already run and play even if not specifically written for it. Labyrinth Lord and Lamentations of the Flame Princess Weird Fantasy Roleplay have proved to be popular choices to base fanzines around, such as The Undercroft and Vacant Ritual Assembly. Similarly, Goodman Games’ Dungeon Crawl Classics Roleplaying Game has proved to be popular choice for fanzines. Mystic Pangolin though, is written for use with Swords & Wizardry, Mythmere Games’ interpretation of the original Dungeons & Dragons.

Published by Blackie Carbon/Cloudstepping Media, Mystic Pangolin #1 was released  in the Autumn of 2014, but beyond its vibrant cover, the contents never quite succeeded in being all that interesting. The second issue, published in February, 2016, promises “...a terror bird’s ton of treats”. The question is, does it deliver on that promise? Further, does it improve on the underwhelming first issue?

Well, behind what is a fantastically good cover, Mystic Pangolin #1 is initially unpromising. The first article is part of the Down ‘n’ Dirty Dungeon Dozens series, which presents short, sharp lists of useful information for world-builders and GMs. Now the inaugural entry in the series, ‘Casks & Barrels – terminology and definitions’, from Mystic Pangolin #1, suffered from a surfeit of facts and a lack of application, or at least suggested application. Not so, ‘Textile Treasures’, which at cloth in all forms and fashions, from simple bolts of cloth and tapestries, carpets, and rugs, to mummy wraps and human skin suits. There is not only description here, there is history and there is usage. In other words, there is application. So we learn what tabards are and why they were worn, what not to do with an altar cloth, and so on. This absolutely the right amount of detail and depth for an article like this, with the author’s going beyond mere description to explain each item’s use being both helpful and suggestive to the GM. It is a solid, thoughtful article and shows off the potential of the article series that ‘Casks & Barrels – terminology and definitions’ did not.

‘All the Fun of the Fair’ details a small troupe of travelling entertainers comprised of two Thieves, a Cleric, and a Fighter, all of Third Level. Although nicely nicely detailed with a background fully worked out, what sets these NPCs apart from the similar offerings is that none of them are interested in theft, that is they prefer to use their thievery skills for the purposes of entertaining the crowd rather than robbing them. So no pickpockets working the crowd then… Although there is nothing wrong with this, it begs the question, how do you use these NPCs? It is not a question that the article sets out to, or indeed, actually answers. It is a solid piece of writing, but a scenario hook or two would not have gone amiss here.

Big, mostly flightless, but definitely predatory birds are the subject of ‘Terror Birds’. It describes and gives stats for a selection of real world, prehistoric birds such as the Phorusrhacos, the Kelenken, the Anthropornis Penguin, Haast’s Eagle, and more. These are great for ‘Lost World’ and primordial settings and really should inspire terror. After all, the Phorusrhacos is ten feet high, and can claw and kick its prey before delivering a downward death strike with its beak.

Designed for characters of between Fourth and Seventh Level, ‘The Haunting of Kilderkin Fell’ is cliché, but a well done cliché. Lord Doric of Kilderkin Fell has fallen ill, bedridden with some kind of living death, further threatening the decline of the family estate. Can the player characters determine the cause and restore Lord Doric to the land of the living? There is a lot that will be familiar to the plot of this scenario—a worried family, an isolated and moldering castle, and dark secrets. This is less fantastical than a typical Dungeons & Dragons-style adventure, owing much more to the gothic stories of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and perhaps even just a little to Shakespeare. Despite the familiarity of its plot, ‘The Haunting of Kilderkin Fell’ is well written, solid scenario.

Rounding out Mystic Pangolin #2 is another entry in the fanzine’s ‘Ports of Call’ series. This describes ‘Walrus Bay’, a way station and refuge in the far north that can provide warmth and safety should a passing ship and her crew be forced to winter there. It is customary for passing ships to carry enough wood and provender to restock any of way stations should they be forced to winter at one of them. Walrus Bay is a rough hewn place, home to territorial walruses, predatory white bears, and perhaps a man eating wendigo… Stats are provided for the various creatures and a new magic item, but no NPCs are given, but really none are needed. Where the description of the port of Haeford in Mystic Pangolin #1 was overlong, this is about the right length and feels complete without meandering…

Physically, Mystic Pangolin #2 is cleanly, tidily presented. There are nice pieces of artwork and each of the articles is pleasing to read. It does need a tighter edit in places though.

If Mystic Pangolin #1 proved disappointing, promising ill for the next issue, Mystic Pangolin #2 is a revelation. A small revelation to be clear, but all the more welcome for it, for Mystic Pangolin #2 is a huge improvement over Mystic Pangolin #1. The content is a good mix, each of the articles is interesting and readable, and above all, good enough that you would want to use it in a campaign. Behind its great cover, Mystic Pangolin #2 hides some solidly useful and gameable material.