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

Sunday 29 January 2017

Stamping a mark on your campaign

At the heart of Broodmother Skyfortress is one question. When you run an adventure does it have it lasting effects and so change elements of your campaign world? If the answer is no, then Broodmother Skyfortress may not be the adventure you are looking, but if the answer is yes, then get ready to run Broodmother Skyfortress and kick over the proverbial ant’s net. In this adventure, unimaginably alien creatures anchor their ship to the ground and descend from their sky to plunder and pillage, rampaging across the land. There are reports of an anchor dropping from the sky and ripping through buildings, of villages smashed, of centaurs, of strange boulders appearing from nowhere in formation, and more… From the first report, a trail of destruction can be tracked across the land and eventually to a cloud topped with a gold dome. What exactly is going on?

It turns out that a brood of near-godlike beings that have the bodies of elephants and the heads of hammer head sharks have taken control of a giant magical fortress and have just enough brains to pilot it from one spot to the next where they descend to eat or take anything that they want. Can the adventurers ascend to the strange world above and discover what these creatures are and stop them? Funded by an IndieGoGo campaign and published by Lamentations of the Flame Princess, Broodmother Skyfortress is an adventure written by Jeff Rients—best known for Jeff’s Gameblog—for use with Lamentations of the Flame Princess Weird Fantasy Roleplay, released at DragonMeet, 2016, alongside the scenario, Blood in the Chocolate*. Actually getting there is not really the issue, although the Referee is free to throw in what encounters he likes along the way—especially encounters where the player characters’ favourite watering hole is found smashed—as they chase down the chaos and destruction that the fortress leaves in its wake… Once aboard, the adventurers need to sneak around both on and in the cloud to ferret out the cloud fortress’ secrets. Be warned, this is a tough adventure, suited to high level characters, although Broodmother Fortress does not specify any particular Levels.

*Which for professional reasons I cannot review.

Before the adventure begins though, the Referee needs to make two choices. The first is deciding what the brood giants are—space aliens? Angels? Mutants? Or actual shark-elephants? Then, who built the cloud-fortress—titans? Angels? Space gods? Real gods? These options are explored in some detail and their consequences examined, and this in addition to presenting each of the brood as an individual with different personalities, motivations, attacks, and more. All seven though—and there are just seven, which is enough!—share more or less the same stats and attack. They are the equivalent of twenty Hit Dice Fighters! Much like there is a Lamentations of the Flame Princess Weird Fantasy approach to firearms—once fired there is not enough time to reload in a melee, there is also a Lamentations of the Flame Princess Weird Fantasy approach to fighting giants. Simply, they have no Armour Class and there is no need to roll to hit to attack a giant as any missile or melee attack will always hit. The problem is getting past the giants’ damage reduction! Alternative stats are provided if the Referee really, really wants to make them dangerous.

The dungeon consists of less than thirty locations divided between three areas, the fortress proper, the tunnels below the fortress, and the outbuildings. The fortress is home to the brood and means to power and steer the fortress; the tunnels to humans known as wretches who have been caught by the brood and despite having escaped have reverted to a primitive state; and the outbuildings to various ruins and features left behind by the skyfortress’ original builders and mostly ignored by the brood since. Each of the thirty or so locations is described in more than enough detail to intrigue the players and their characters, but even so, this barely takes up twenty pages. There are some fascinating things for them to find and play with—the Angry Brain of a Sky King, strange machinery, the nearly dead bodies of titans, and more. Besides the brood, the adventurers are likely to have difficulties with spider swarms, brood hatchlings, and spectral malevolences, things excreted by the Angry Brain, and possibly the Wretches, though there is also the possibility that the adventurers might form an alliance with them instead.

Physically, Broodmother Skyfortress is stunning. Most of it is done in black and white, but where colour is needed, it is put to good effect. Such as the very nicely done maps positioned in the book’s endpapers along with the appropriate random encounter tables. The artwork though is fantastic, Ian MaClean’s illustrations not only being done in the style of Jack Kirby, but in some cases actually aping some of the great covers that Kirby drew for both Marvel and DC. In many cases, these star Jeff Rients and some may not be all that tasteful... In other places, the artwork is simply good, such as that depicting the Brood looting the Pyramids of Egypt or snapping off the head of the Statue of Liberty. Jeff Rients’ writing is also engaging and enjoyable, maintaining a light tone throughout.

If there is an issue with Broodmother Skyfortress, it is that we do not have the medieval (or Early Modern) mind-set to play it effectively. Our contemporary exposure to the weird—whether from nature or from fiction a la H.P. Lovecraft—means that we have the means to categorise the weird and in doing so lessen its inherent difference. This starts with the cover. We look at the cover and we identify the scenario’s primary monster as being half-elephant, half-hammerhead shark and so we already know it and reduce the threat it represents. Nevertheless, Rients’ choice in combining elephants and hammerhead sharks is a nod to the medieval understanding of the world around them and how utterly alien and weird such creatures would be to them. Of course, Rients presents options in deciding what the Brood are, but part of the challenge in running and playing Broodmother Skyfortress is making that sense of the alien and the weird very much part of the scenario and the player characters.

Broodmother Skyfortress is a great adventure in the mode of the G Series of modules of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons fame, but it goes beyond that series simply because it is not served up in aspic. If the adventurers do not stop the Brood, then they will go on looting and pillaging with abandon. This is a grand affair that brings a grandeur to the weird in Lamentations of the Flame Princess Weird Fantasy Roleplay and amongst the best releases for the retroclone to date.

Just like the description of the skyfortress and its environs barely takes twenty or so pages, so the adventure Broodmother Skyfortress barely takes up more than half of the book. The other half reprints the very best of the articles and advice for the Referee that the author posts on his blog. There are fourteen of these in the book’s lengthy appendix, covering such diverse subjects as ‘What’s My Motivation?’ for recalcitrant players; ‘Twenty Quick Questions For Your Campaign Setting’ and ‘Old Schoolin’: How To Get Started’ for addressing the starting point for the Referee’s game; and ‘Grimoires of Wessex’ and ‘Wessex Henchmen/Hireling Rules’ for ideas from the author’s own campaign. There are also various rules variants and discussions of how to handle various aspects of the rules. Each is essentially a short article and worth reading whatever your level of experience in running Dungeons & Dragons and similar RPGs. In fact, Lamentations of the Flame Princess could have released Broodmother Skyfortress on its own and then a separate compendium of Rients’ posts and advice and that would have been good too. Perhaps there is still material enough for a Rients Compendium?

If Broodmother Skyfortress is a very good adventure on its own, then the appendix of Jeff Rrients’ writings is a most welcome bonus. Together, they make Broodmother Skyfortress an impressive package that combines the weird with the old school.

Sunday 22 January 2017

A Numenera Mistarter

Numenera was the hit RPG of 2013. Published by Monte Cook Games, it describes a world a billion years into the future in the Ninth Age, drastically changed by huge advances in science, but whilst the evidence of those changes is all around, the understanding of the science has long been lost. This does not mean that it cannot be regained and Numenera is all about discovering the great secrets of the past and using them to make a better world. Examples of this technology include Cyphers, one-use devices that the player characters can freely find and use for strange magical-like effects and there are lots of Cyphers to find and use, so the player characters are encouraged to use what they find—there will always be more. In essence, Numenera re-invented Dungeons & Dragons-style play, but in a Science Fantasy setting and combined it with accessible, player facing mechanics that allowed the GM to focus on storytelling. With the inclusion of some fantastic artwork—and every release for Numenera is superbly illustrated in full colour—that beautifully portrays the far future world of Numernera, you have an RPG setting with both scope and grandeur.

Now, some three years after it was launched, the Numenera line has an introduction to the RPG. The Numenera Starter Set comes richly appointed with a rulebook and an adventure book—both thirty-two pages long, five pre-generated characters, two dice, ten XP cards and twelve GM Intrusion cards, and a cheat sheet. Everything is presented in full, vibrant colour, with both the books and the cards being on high quality paper or card.

‘Numenera Starter Set Book 1’ is for both the players and the GM. It explains about the world of Numenera, about your character and how to play the game, combat, and how the focus of the game is on exploration and discovery versus combat. Essentially it condenses the first part of the core rulebook and the only thing that it is lacking is a good example of actual play. ‘Numenera Starter Set Book 2’ is the GM only and explain more detail about mastering the game, cyphers—including twenty examples, how to be a Game Master, as well as giving a monster or two, mostly as examples. Oddly it places the scenario ahead of everything in the book bar mastering the game—and that is only a page long. All of the advice comes after the scenario, which seems strange.

The production values of both books are undeniably nice, yet so far, so good, because the real oddity is the scenario. In ‘Vortex’ the player characters encounter members of a religious sect who pray before a strange structure and then disappear inside before it too disappears. Afterwards, the player characters do find clues as to where the structure will reappear and following a encounter or two on the way, can find it again. At which point one a woman rushes out and begs for their aid. She wants to escape the sect, but her brother is still inside. The rest of the scenario involves exploration of the structure and confronting the other members of the sect as well as its leader. This is where the scenario ends. The second part can be downloaded from the Monte Cook Games website and played through to its conclusion.

Now if you are thinking, that scenario sounds awfully familiar, then that is because it is. ‘Vortex’ in the Numenera Starter Set actually turns out to be the first half of Vortex, the scenario that Monte Cook Games used at GenCon 2013 to launch the game. It is a good scenario that works if the player characters can be enticed to follow it through, the main problem being having reason enough to follow the clues to the strange structure’s second appearance. Perhaps the women wanting help could leave a note the first time?

The five pre-generated characters are also printed in full colour and reflect a good mix of the games charatcter types—Glaives, Jacks, and Nanos—essentially the equivalent of warriors, thieves, and wizards. They are a Strong-Willed Jack who Commands Mental Powers, a Strong Glaive who Wears a Sheen of Ice, an Intelligent Nano who Leads, a Stealthy Jack who Explores Dark Places, and a Swift Glaive who Wields Two Weapons at Once. Each character comes with a background so that there are connections between them, explanations of the core mechanics, what each can do in terms of skills and special abilities, and the cyphers owned. Each is simply and cleanly laid out, easy to read, and much easier to use than the character sheet in the core book.

The dice consist of a twenty-sided die—for handling actions, and a six-sided die—for handling effects and levels of Cyphers and so on. There is nothing more to say about the dice except that the twenty-sided die is not a Numenera twenty-sided die. Which is a pity. The cheat sheet is the only thing not printed in colour and oddly is printed on relatively thin paper compared to the thick card of the ‘Before You Start…’ card that explains the contents of the Numenera Starter Set. It is absurd that the thing you going to look at once is printed in a more durable and prettier format than the thing that you are going to handle again and again as you play the game. Plus, why not do one of these for each of the players? The XP cards and the GM Intrusion cards are both nice and simple, the GM Intrusion cards nicely providing ideas to complicate the lives of the player characters and so earn them XP.

Physically—apart from the Cheat Sheet—the Numenera Starter Set is nicely presented. It is well written, although perhaps one piece of largish art could have been replaced with a good example of play to show prospective GM and player alike how the game works.

So the first question is, should you buy the Numenera Starter Set? The answer to that question revolves entirely around the scenario, ‘Vortex’. 

If you have never played Numenera and do not want not to pay the full price for the rulebook, but do want to get playing quickly, then yes, the Numenera Starter Set will be of use. Be aware though, that you only be getting one half of a three year old scenario in high quality and with a poster map. The other half you will need to print out yourself. Also be aware that for just a little more than the cost of the Numenera Starter Set, the Numenera core rules and the full scenario, ‘Vortex’, can be purchased as PDFs.

If you have played Numenera or own the Numenera core rules, then no. Perhaps the pregenerated characters and the extra XP cards and GM Intrusion cards might be useful, though not at the given price for Numenera Starter Set. Perhaps the Numenera Starter Set might be worth adding if you are a completist, but it really does not add anything to anything you probably already have in your Numenera collection. That said, if  you do not have ‘Vortex’, then spend your $5.99 on that. It is after all, a good scenario.

If you own or have played ‘Vortex’. Definitely not. Especially since the version of ‘Vortex’ in the Numenera Starter Set is only half of the scenario.

Which begs the second question, who exactly is the Numenera Starter Set aimed at?

Essentially it is for people who have not played Numenera, whether they have roleplayed or not. Which is fine except that why include half a scenario? Why not include the whole scenario and put its map on the other side of the poster map included in the Numenera Starter Set. Then include another scenario as the follow on to download from the publisher’s website. That would extend the play capacity of the Numenera Starter Set beyond the couple of session’s worth just in the box. 

Indeed, why include a three year old scenario in the Numenera Starter Set at all? Let alone split in two and half the production values on the second half? Why not include a new scenario, one that would could better serve players and GM alike who are new to the RPG and then another that could be downloaded? Or perhaps include a series of short adventures or encounters as in the supplement Weird Discoveries: Ten Instant Adventures for Numenera and then include a longer adventure as the download? Do that and not only do you serve the new players that Monte Cook Games so clearly wants to attract with the Numenera Starter Set, but you give a reason for veteran players to look at the Numenera Starter Set rather than ensuring that they have no reason whatsoever to do so.

Now one of the tenets of writing reviews is not telling the publisher how it should be done or how the reviewer would do it. In the case of the Numenera Starter Set it is so very difficult not to do that because it is such an odd product of such a restricted market and use. Especially when there are examples of beginner boxes for RPGs which do this better and a veteran publisher like Monte Cook Games should know better. Ultimately the choice of scenario in the Numenera Starter Set undermines its value and restricts its potential audience; more so when there better value for money options available for Numenera.

Saturday 21 January 2017

A RuneQuest Dungeon Bash

Originally published in 1978, RuneQuest Scenario Pack 1: Balastor’s Barracks was the first scenario published for the seminal RPG. In 2016, it was made available again as part of The Old School RQ Source Pack, funded by the Kickstarter campaign for RuneQuest: Classic Edition, the reprint of RuneQuest II. The other parts of The Old School RQ Source Pack include RuneQuest Source Pack Alpha: Trolls and Trollkin, Creatures of Chaos 1: Scorpion Men and Broos, Militia & Mercenaries, and the previously unpublished Scenario Pack 3: The Sea Cave.

Nearly four centuries ago, the city of Pavis fell to Troll assault and a great hero, Balastor Brightaxe, the last defender of the Pure Horse dynasty, and Rune Lord and High Priest of the Cult of Pavis, died to allow the escape of a great many people. As much as he is known for his bravery, Balastor is known for his mighty axe which went missing after his death. New Pavis is now occupied by the Lunar Empire and the Imperial government has learned of the axe’s existence and wants it to cement its spiritual hold over the city. Forces fomenting for Pavis’ independence also want the axe and maybe the trolls in the old city want it for their own ends or to stop anyone else from finding it. Anyone who can find the axe will certainly make a name for themselves! 

This sounds like the set up for an interesting adventure, but Balastor’s Barracks actually turns out to be a fairly light dungeon crawl. The dungeon itself is the underground ruins of the barracks, occupied by mix of the undead, creatures of Chaos like Broos, Gorps, and Scorpionmen, and oddly, Trolls. The latter have set up a base of operations in the barracks in a number of rooms that are quite close to those occupied by creatures of Chaos. What seems odd here is that the Trolls are a tough bunch and it seems unlikely that they would stay there and leave their traditional enemies unmolested. That said, the Chaos opposition is equally as tough and perhaps as yet, the Trolls are not ready to attack?  What this does mean though, is that the scenario as a whole is very tough with even the weakest of opposition, the Trollkin, wearing heavy armour. There is no denying that Balastor’s Barracks is a tough adventure ill-suited to beginning characters, which is a little odd given that this is the first scenario released for RuneQuest.

The design of the dungeon is relatively light with not a great deal of detail. Where Balastor’s Barracks actually shines is in the design of the treasure to found in its rooms. Not just Balastor’s Axe, which is randomly located in the dungeon, but also a number of other items. These have ties to various cults and factions outside of the dungeon and all will make the player characters’ lives interesting beyond the confines of the adventure. Balastor’s Axe itself will definitely complicate their lives.

Physically, Balastor’s Barracks is a plain affair. The writing is clear if plain and the layout tidy enough.

RuneQuest Scenario Pack 1: Balastor’s Barracks is not a great scenario nor all that interesting as a dungeon bash. It is typical of its time though, so its flaws should be seen in that context. That said, Balastor’s Barracks is not without possibilities, for in the hands of a good GM who can develop the motivations of the factions involved in the race to get to Balastor’s Axe and so tie it further into the setting and politics of Pavis.

Sunday 15 January 2017

The Classic RuneQuest

2017 looks to be a good year for the seminal roleplaying game, RuneQuest. First published by Chaosium, Inc. in 1978, RuneQuest and its associated setting of Glorantha, remained the hobby’s second favourite fantasy RPG for many years to come. It introduced innovative mechanics that focused on character and skill use rather than Class and Level as per Dungeons & Dragons, it allowed everyone access to magic rather than just Clerics and Magic-users, it allowed progression through skill and attribute use and training rather than the accumulation of nebulous Experience Points, and it showed how character and mechanics could be integrated into a setting—in this case, Glorantha. In the form of Dragon Pass, this would remain the default setting for RuneQuest in all of its iterations, a Bronze Age setting in which the player characters aspired to join the great religious cults of the Lightbringers and become heroes in the war to come against the invading Lunar Empire. The inspirations for Glorantha are drawn from traditional myth and legend rather than the traditional European fantasy of a great many other fantasy roleplaying games. In the decades following it release, the mechanics in RuneQuest would go on to support numerous RPGs, classics and otherwise, such as Stormbringer, Call of Cthulhu, and Pendragon

After over three decades away, RuneQuest returned to Chaosium in 2016 and Chaosium brought back the classic second edition of the rules in a hardback volume following a successful Kickstarter campaign and not only that, but Chaosium is planning to release RuneQuest 7 in 2017 and Rob Heinsoo Games will be publishing 13th Age in Glorantha following its own successful Kickstarter campaign. This review though, is of RuneQuest: Classic Edition.

RuneQuest: Classic Edition is a reprint of the game’s second edition, originally published in 1980. It comes as a handsome hardback, with a clean layout, some fairly scrappy internal artwork versus a decent cover, and an excellent map of Dragon Pass. Indeed this map is still being used today. The reprint though, has been amended with queries and answers taken from Wyrm’s footnotes, the magazine that Chaosium published before Different Worlds, which was primarily devoted to Glorantha and RuneQuest.

RuneQuest: Classic Edition opens with an introduction to Glorantha and Dragon Pass, providing a description and a history as well as an explanation of the region’s technological, sociological, and monetary basis. The history covers both the mythology and history—some sixteen hundred years—in just under a page, but it sets everything up for the background and setting elements throughout the book, particularly faith and religion and how the player characters will engage in them as they rise from novice adventurers and join a cult to become Rune Lords and Rune Priests, and perhaps, participate in the Hero Wars. Creating a character in RuneQuest is a matter of rolling dice for the seven attributes and deriving various skill category bonuses and damage bonus from them. This is followed by two more rolls, one to determine a character’s social background, the other to determine how much money he starts with. 

STR 15 CON 13 SIZ 11 INT 15
POW 09 DEX 15 CHA 13

Attack Bonus +10% Parry Bonus +05%
Defence +10% Hit Point Bonus +0
Damage Bonus +1d4 Perception Bonus +05%
Stealth Bonus +10% Manipulation Bonus +10%
Knowledge Bonus +05%

Background: Townsman Money: 127L 

At this point the character is incomplete, but also at this point, there is no immediate idea of what to do about the character in terms of skills—combat, non-combat, and spells—and prior experience. RuneQuest: Classic Edition at this point starts talking about the game system rather than the next steps you would expect in terms of character generation. Yet reading on—and it takes some further reading because the options are spread out over the course of several chapters—what becomes clear is that characters are not necessarily meant to possess prior experience and that they should be going on adventures with just the basic skills as adjusted by their modifiers. After all, this is what you did back in the 1970s—you sent player characters out to undergo a baptism of fire in their first adventure and those who survived, well they earned experience and went out to adventure again.

The options in RuneQuest: Classic Edition—which are very much contained deep into the text—though, offer alternatives, the first of which is to approach a cult or guild and purchase training on credit. This leaves any character who takes this option indebted to the cult and needing to adventure in order to recover money to pay off this debt and have yet more funds to pay for further training. The second is actually to gain some prior experience, perhaps with the militia, in an apprenticeship, in a mercenary company, or riding with the tribe if you are a barbarian. This also ages the character five years. The problem with this option is that it is one hundred pages away from the chapter on character generation in the RPG’s appendix. What this means is that by modern standards, there is a very obvious disconnect in RuneQuest: Classic Edition in terms of character generation. Unfortunately it is not the only one, for even finding the skills is an impediment to character creation. The issue is that they are organised not in a skills section, listed skill by skill, but rather by the guilds that teach them. So Acid Making, Antidotes, Blade Venom, and so on is listed and explained under the Alchemists Guild; Evaluate Treasure, Map Making, Oratory, and so are listed and explained under the Sages Guild; and Climbing, Hide Item, Lock Picking, and so on are listed under Thieves Associations; and so on.

Overcoming both impediments allows us to return to Heidrik and present him in a more rounded fashion. Heidrik is a native of New Pavis, the son of jeweller who is wealthy enough to sponsor his son’s entry into the Sages Guild. Over the course of the five year apprenticeship, Heidrik gains much from his studies, specialising in the skills Evaluate Treasure and Map Making plus some languages; from prayer at the local sun temple (he gained +2 POW) and from becoming more personable (he gained +2 CHA); and from time spent in the militia training in the use of spear and shield. He also had to fight on occasion, so knows how to use his spear and shield, but not well. After completing his apprenticeship, Heidrik decides that he wants to go out and adventure like those that used to come into his father’s premises to have the gems, jewellery, and other items to have appraised and evaluated upon returning from their excursions. In order to prepare himself, he approaches a local cult and takes credit in order to train in the use of battle magic. He cannot learn much, but hopefully it will be enough to help him when he really needs it. Now Heidrek is ready to offer skills that most adventurers lack—appraisal of treasure and making maps. He spends the majority of his money on linen and cuirboilli armour.

STR 15 CON 13 SIZ 11 INT 15
POW 11 DEX 15 CHA 15

Attack Bonus +10% Parry Bonus +05%
Defence +10% Hit Point Bonus +0
Damage Bonus +1d4 Perception Bonus +05%
Stealth Bonus +10% Manipulation Bonus +10%
Knowledge Bonus +05%

Background: Townsman Money: 7L 

Knowledge Skills (+05% Bonus)
Evaluate Treasure 55%, Map Making 60%, Read Other Language (Lunar) 25%, Read Other Language (Old Pavic) 25%, Read Own Language (Sartarite) 65%, Speak Own Language (Sartarite) 80%, Speak Other Language (Draconic) 06%, Speak Other Language (Stormspeech) 08%, Other Language (Lunar) 25%, Other Language (Old Pavic) 25%

Manipulation Skills (+10% Bonus)
Climb 25%, Hide Item 20%, Jumping 25%, Lock Picking 15%, Map Making 20%, Riding 15%, Swimming 25%, Set Trap/Disarm 15%

Perception Skills (+10% Bonus)
Listen 35%, Spot Hidden Item 15%, Spot Trap 15%, Tracking 20%

Stealth Skills (+10% Bonus)
Camouflage 20%, Hide in Cover 15%, Move Silently 15%, Pick Pockets 15%

Oratory 10%

Attack Bonus +10%,  Parry Bonus +05%, Defence +10%, Base SR 4
Spear, One-Handed 30%, 1d6+1, HP 15, SR 5
Dagger 35%
Medium Shield 25%

Battle Magic
Healing (2), Detect Traps (1)

Hit Points 13
Hit Points/Armour per Location
Left Leg: 5/3, Right Leg: 5/3, Abdomen: 5/3, Chest: 6/3, Left Arm: 4/3, Right Arm: 4/3, Head: 5/3

In terms of rules and mechanics, RuneQuest: Classic Edition now looks very familiar. It uses a universal percentile mechanic that is used for nearly every roll—damage in particular is rolled on other dice, in particular skill and attack rolls. The game has multiple skills, including those for the various weapons, and essentially every character, player character or NPC, has access to them and can learn them. In effect this makes every character an individual and this is carried over into combat, where a fight between somebody wielding a broadsword and a shield versus someone with a maul will feel different to someone armed with a two-handed spear against an opponent with a flail. Every weapon is different, in terms of damage, speed, and the damage it can take, so that lighter weapons are faster, heavier weapons slower, and so on. Notably, the speed adjusts each combatant’s Strike Rank, this being when they attack in a round. It is determined by a character's attributes, choice of weapon, and encumbrance, rather than the roll of the dice. 

The individualism is furthered by the breakdown of every character’s Hit Points—player character, NPC, or monster—into hit locations in addition to a character's main Hit Point total. The only time that ever increases is through physical training or the odd spell—there is no automatic acquisition of Hit Points as a character gains experience. To protect himself, a character improves his weapon and shield skills, buys better armour, learns protective spells, and so on. Yet however good a character gets, combat in RuneQuest never stops being personal and dangerous, like no other fantasy RPG before and there is no abstraction to combat as there is in Class and Level games.

So for example Heidrik and his companions are returning from their first expedition, having found some decent plunder. Unfortunately a band of Trolkin has decided to take its chances and prove its worth by taking back this plunder to the other trolls. The Trolkin ambush the adventurers with a hail of stones before charging. Heidrik heard the warning and not only managed to raise his shield to ward off the stones, but ready his spear as one of the attacking Trolkin singles him, thinking him an easy mark. This is Deg, who besides being armed with a sling, carries a light mace and a small shield. As the two maneuvre around each other, the GM compares their respective Strike Ranks. With his spear, Heidrik’s Strike Rank is five, but because Deg decides to attack with his mace, his Strike Rank is seven. In this situation, Heidrik’s spear is longer and faster. Heidrik has a skill of 40%, but Deg has a natural Defence of 5%, so his skill is reduced to 35%. (Defence can be best described as the equivalent of a Dodge skill that does not need to be rolled.) Fortunately, he rolls a 32 for a hit. Intent on smashing Heidrik with his mace, Deg tries to parry the attack with this shield. This requires a roll of 30% and Deg rolls 23, so the attack is parried. However, the shield can only block so much damage, just eight points, so Heidrik still needs to roll his damage. This 1d6+1 for the spear and 1d4 for Heidrik’s damage bonus. Heidrik rolls six for the spear and a maximum of four for the damage bonus for a total of ten. This is a good hit that would probably seriously injure Deg. Fortunately for the Trolkin, eight points are stopped by the shield and another one by his thick skin. Still, one point gets through to location ten, his abdomen. 

Now it is Deg’s turn to attack. Deg has a skill of 30% with his light mace, but Heidrik’s Defence is 10%, so Deg’s attack is actually 20%!. Unfortunately for Heidrik, Deg rolls 12 and hits. Worse when Heidrik tries to parry with his shield, he rolls 100—a fumble! A roll on the Fumble Table determines that Heidrik falls to the ground and loses his next parry. Plus it will take between one and three rounds for him to get up. Deg smiles toothily as his mace catches Heidrik’s leg and inflicts 1d6+2 damage or six points of damage. Fortunately, three of those points will be stopped by Heidrik’s armour, but that is still a good thwack to the shin.

From where he is on the ground with a Trolkin looming over him, Heidrik needs to act fast. He rolls over and grasping his spear firmly he thrusts up at Deg. The GM rules that this is equal to moving around, increasing Heidrik’s Strike Rank by one. He also rules that Deg is harder to hit and doubles the Trolkin’s Defence to 10%. So Heidrik needs to roll 30% or less. He rolls 15% and hits. Deg tries to parry it and with a roll of 42%, fails. Heidrik rolls 12 for the Location, the abdomen, and inflicts another seven points of damage! One point is stopped by Deg’s thick skin, but the remaining six points get through and this is very bad news for Deg. This exceeds the number of Hit Points he has in the abdomen and is more than enough to floor Deg, his legs useless and his wound bleeding out heavily. Unless Deg gets some healing, he is going to be dead in a turn or two… In the meantime, Heidrik scuttles back and watches in surprise as the first enemy he has killed dies before his eyes.

Just as RuneQuest makes combat more personal, it also makes magic personal. Although later versions of the RPG would add Sorcery, RuneQuest: Classic Edition offered three types of magic. Two are basic magic, Battle Magic and Spirit Contacts. The first type, Battle Magic, spells that can be quickly and as needed, can be learned by anyone, each type of spell being rated between one and six, the number reflecting its effectiveness. So when cast on a weapon, Bladesharp 2 means that it increases the attack by 10% and the weapon does two extra points of damage; Healing 3 heals three points of damage done to a location; and Protection 1 adds a point of armour to each location. Other spells have simple one-off cost, such as Detect Life, Light, and Silence. All of these spells can be learned, the only limitation being their cost and the caster’s capacity to learn them, represented by his POW. A character can go beyond this by finding spell matrices which contain spells and magic crystals, the latter usually containing either more POW or a spirit that will grant the owner its POW. The second type, Spirit Contacts, involves the locating and binding of spirits, usually to a crystal for its POW or a familiar. Spirit Contacts is also the province of shamans and they will often enter into pacts with multiple spirits.

The third type of magic in RuneQuest: Classic Edition is perhaps its signature magic—rune magic! This is the province of the various cults and each cult is associated with certain runes. These runes come in four types, the fundamental elements of Glorantha—like Darkness, Air, Earth, and Water—of Glorantha; the powers—like Harmony, Stasis, and Movement; the forms—such as Beast, Man, and Chaos; and the conditions, mastery, magic, and infinity. The type of rune magic learned depends upon the particular cult a character belongs to, each rune spell being more powerful than simple battle magic. Rune spells are just one benefit to joining a cult, the least of which is aid, board, and succour, but also links to associate cults, reduced training costs for certain skills and spells, and of course, being able to call upon your god for divine intervention when your life really is on the line. There are greater benefits to becoming a Rune Lord or a Rune Priest in a cult, but there are responsibilities too.

Now where these benefits and responsibilities come into play is in the descriptions of cults included in RuneQuest: Classic Edition. Three are described. These are of Orlanth Adventurous, the air and storm god widely worshipped throughout Dragon Pass; Kyger Litor, a Darkness god revered by the Trolls; and to a much lesser extent, the Black Fang Brotherhood, a reviled and feared if small cult of assassins and cutthroats. All three are described in detail and give flavour aplenty to the Glorantha setting and how the characters can both involve themselves in Dragon Pass culture and politics, in cult culture and politics, and advance themselves at the same time. Together with the responsibilities involved in belonging to a cult, these are good storytelling and roleplaying hooks. In both cases of Orlanth Adventurous and Kyger Litor, they also make you want to play characters in those cults, even in the case of the Kyger Litor cult, whose membership consists primarily of trolls. The upshot of that is that the write-up of the Kyger Litor cult makes the playing of trolls not only palatable, but also enticing. In comparison, the Black Fang Brotherhood is presented more as a threat than something that the player characters might join. Yet as good as the descriptions of both Orlanth Adventurous and Kyger Litor are, they are insufficient to really support getting characters involved in the Dragon Pass setting because just two cults do not provide enough options. This is the next disconnect in RuneQuest: Classic Edition, that there is not enough material, not enough options to pull the players and their characters into the Glorantha setting. What there is, is good, but there is just not enough of it.

In terms of monsters, RuneQuest: Classic Edition provides a good mix of fantasy classics—basilisks, centaurs, ghouls, minotaurs, skeletons, and so on, adding to them a range of creatures and monsters particular to RuneQuest. These include the goat-headed Broo, the weird Ducks, and the various types of Trolls that are more interesting than presented in other RPGs. In each case, the monsters are, like all NPCs, treated as individuals and in that, they are both more dangerous and more vulnerable. They have skills like the player characters, and should the GM choose to all it and they survive long enough, they too will be able to progress much like the player characters. In comparison to the weirdness in some of these creatures and to other fantasy RPGs, treasure in RuneQuest feels constrained in nature, being primarily coinage, jewellry, and gems, plus potions and magic crystals. Magic items in the traditional fantasy sense are rare, powerful, and not detailed here, but their absence and the prevalence of coinage, jewellry, and gems further underpins the need to support each character’s need for training for their skills and spells and the importance of both versus owning a handful of magical items.

Lastly, RuneQuest: Classic Edition covers a myriad of subjects in an extensive set of appendices. These include weapon descriptions, optional combat rules, rules for handling fire, goods lists and prices, rules for handling prior experience, and so on, as well as referee advice. Other appendices cover elements specific to Glorantha and Dragon Pass—rune identities, languages, and encounter charts. A number of short essays detail minotaurs, divine intervention and divining, ghosts and spirit combat, and so on more deeply. These are taken, as the new notes are elsewhere, from Wyrms Footnotes.

Physically, RuneQuest: Classic Edition comes as handsome hardback, and whilst the artwork can at best be described as being somewhat scrappy, the layout is clean and tidy. The writing is clear and readable, with the gaming examples of Rurik Runespear and his colleagues that run throughout the book a delight. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of the organisation. In fact, RuneQuest: Classic Edition is poorly organised in parts, in particular with regard to skills and creating characters. Finding certain rules and aspects of the rules in RuneQuest: Classic Edition is awkward and counterintuitive. Once you get used to it, it is less of an issue, but upon first read through and first useage, this rulebook is unhelpful.

RuneQuest: Classic Edition is a reprint of a seminal RPG and a reprint of a revered classic. There is no denying that. Yet, RuneQuest: Classic Edition is also a reprint of a flawed rulebook—flawed in a number of the ways. The first flaw is the disconnect in terms of skills and prior experience for character creation. There is no easy connection between them in the rules and they could have been better laid out and organised. The second flaw is the lack of a next step from character generation into play and this feeds into the third flaw, the lack of a step into Glorantha and Dragon Pass. Taking either step requires more information than is given in the book and this in the face of decent background about Glorantha and Dragon Pass that is in the book (though it is not enough). In particular, the details of the three given cults—Orlanth Adventurous, Kyger Litor, and even the Black Fang Brotherhood—are tantalisingly playable and really leave both player and GM wanting more. In fact, there should have been more of these cults described in RuneQuest: Classic Edition.

Obviously this review was written with the benefit of hindsight and with the benefit of hindsight and the benefit of another thirty years’ worth of designing RPGs and rulebooks, these flaws do look bad and they are bad. Yet in 1980 when this version of RuneQuest was originally released, they were not so obvious and whilst creating a character with experience was clumsily done, in fact, the amount of background in this version of RuneQuest was good for the time. Nevertheless, the fault was still present and it would take additional supplements like Cults of Prax and Cults of Terror to really address the problem. (Let us hope that this is not the case when Chaosium publishes RuneQuest 7.)

The rules though, in RuneQuest: Classic Edition, are great. They focus on character without the abstraction of other RPGs of its time and without the wargaming heritage of other games. They encourage character engagement and growth because there are no limitations on how a character and what a character can do, whether that is training in a particular weapon, learning a skill, or casting a spell. At the same time, they make combat personal and deadly and thus more involving. It is not surprising that through the derived Basic Roleplaying that so many RPGs would go on to use these mechanics.

Ultimately—and despite its flaws—RuneQuest: Classic Edition is still playable after thirty-five years. It is not perfect, but the rules are solid and the background information is enticing enough to want to play the RPG and play in Dragon Pass. RuneQuest: Classic Edition is proof, despite its imperfections, of how seminal a design it was in 1978 and 1980.

Saturday 14 January 2017

The Demon Stones

Originally published in 2015 for use with Paizo Publishing’s Pathfinder Roleplaying Game—the descendant of Dungeons & Dragons, Edition 3.5—in June, 2016, the adventure The Demon Stones – A medieval-fantasy roleplaying adventure for 4 characters of levels 4 to 5 was re-published for use with Mythmere Games’ retroclone, Swords & Wizardry. It comes courtesy of Glynn Seal, better known for his artwork and cartography, and is published through his own company, Monkey Blood Design. It is an adventure for a party of four or more characters of Levels Four and Five. It combines investigation with wilderness adventure and a decent dungeon and comes more than very well appointed with counters to use on the tabletop and players’ maps as well as for the DM.

It begins with the player characters being approached by a dwarf, Rhuin Graystone, and hired to travel to Hoarwych Valley and the village of Gravencross. Once there, they are to protect some stones that have ‘fallen from the sky’. What the player characters will have already heard is that the stone are said to be demonic in nature and the valley is said to be suffering some sort of curse as a result. Nevertheless, the dwarf is paying handsomely and these are only rumours. Travelling to Gravencross, the party discovers that the curse is actually a disease called ‘Wychblight’, that is afflicting crops and animals alike. They will also learn the location of the first ‘demon stone’ and upon investigation in the village, what the inhabitants think about this and that. Following up on these opinions and rumours leads the adventurers to one or two oddities in the village, though what they mostly learn is the location of the first of the fallen stones. This leads to the next stone and the next, hinting at something else going on in the valley, and eventually to the true source of evil in Hoarwych Valley.

The Demon Stones feels more northern European in tone and style. This is no surprise given that the author is English, but this tone and style also echoes the dungeons and adventures published by TSR UK as the UK series of modules, in Imagine magazine, and subsequently GameMaster Publications magazine. There is a also a vein of horror running through parts of the scenario, though one that owes just a little to the Hammer horror movies. So there is a grimness to the scenario and there is also a decent bait and switch to its plot. The plot itself is essentially straightforward enough and not necessarily all that interesting.

This carries over in terms of design as the scenario does feel fairly traditional and its mix of treasure feels more randomly placed than by design. Further, and despite it having been rewritten for use with a retroclone like Swords & Wizardry, it still feels like an adventure written for a more complex iteration of Dungeons & Dragons. Which given the tone and style, would be Advanced Dungeons & Dragons rather than the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game. This really comes to the fore in situations where certain actions are described, but not given rules for and the sense is that a more complex game system, like the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game, would have the rules to handle them. That said, the advantage of the scenario being written for use with a retroclone like Swords & Wizardry means that The Demon Stones is accessible by any retroclone.  

Given the artistic and cartographical skills of the author, it not surprise that physically, The Demon Stones is a very well presented book. The artwork is good, though not always relevant to text where it is used, but the cartography is excellent, really very nicely done. The biggest problem with the text is the use of a stylised, serif font, which makes it a little difficult to read. A lesser problem is that it is overwritten in places and some of the text could have been tightened here and there.

The Demon Stones is not a great adventure, but that should not be taken as a criticism. Rather, it is a good solid adventure, perhaps with too ordinary a plot, but this means that it is accessible and easily dropped into most campaigns. This is helped by the high standard of the maps, which are very good indeed. As first published adventure, The Demon Stones – A medieval-fantasy roleplaying adventure for 4 characters of levels 4 to 5 is a more than creditable attempt.

Sunday 8 January 2017

Extracurricular Esoteric Endeavours II

The publisher 12 to Midnight has developed its horror setting of Pinebox, Texas through a series of single scenarios written for use with Savage Worlds, the cinematic action RPG rules from Pinnacle Entertainment Group. In July, 2014, following a successful Kickstarter campaign, the publisher released the setting through a particular lens and timeframe, that is as students at East Texas University. Over the course of their four-year degree courses, the students undertake study and various academic activities as well as having a social life, a job, and even an annoying roommate. Then of course, there is the weird stuffs—ghosts, werewolves, vampires, and more… The challenge of course is that the students have to deal with both, but need to grow into being able to cope with both.

The publication of East Texas University was followed by something to really challenge the students—a whole plot point campaign that builds and builds over the course of their four-year degree courses. A plot point campaign differs from a standard campaign in that it is a framework of scenarios that advance the plot around which the GM can fit and run single scenarios not necessarily pertinent to the campaign’s core plot. These can be of the GM’s own design or bought off the shelf. The plot points are triggered under certain circumstances; it might be because the player characters visit a particular location or because of an action that they have taken. In Degrees of Horror—the campaign funded by the same Kickstarter campaign as East Texas University, the plot points are also built around areas of academic study and the year in which the player character student—or study group—are currently in. What this means is that in Degrees of Horror, the Study Group will encounter the first notions of the outré things to come in the first term as Freshmen and both the campaign and the Study Group’s investigations will come to fruition as Seniors at their graduation.

From their very first week, the Freshman Study Group at East Texas University will begin encountering the supernatural. First a ghost, then more hauntings, and finally monsters, so that by the end of their first year, the students will be relatively experienced investigators into the supernatural, have gained a mentor, and got hints as to the mystery at the heart of both East Texas University and Pinebox. As they progress from their Freshman to Sophomore year and then to Junior and Senior years, the students will investigate more and more of the mystery and the conspiracy at the heart of the campaign. This involves both magic and science, a failed attempt to stop a previous threat, a mix of legends and monsters old and new, and a visit to Pinebox’s singular geographical feature, a permanently fire-ravaged area known as the Burn. There are twelve plot points or scenarios to this campaign, organised into three per year. They follow one after another, so what triggers them is time and having played the previous part.

Now at just twelve parts and at just past fifty pages in length in a ninety-six page book, the Degrees of Horror campaign feels a little short. Indeed, if you were to play through the campaign in order straight at between one and two sessions per plot point, with a session per week, the campaign would last no more than between three and six months. Fortunately, this issue is addressed with another twenty Savage Tales. These include encounters with vampires, weird insects, zombies, curses, ghosts, and more. They also have more stringent requirements that must be met before the Dean—as the GM is known in East Texas University—can run them. These include the year that the Student Body is in, activities such as those involving a fraternity or sorority, a character’s Major like Science or Literature, and so on.  Some are also sequels, not just to Savage Tales given in Degrees of Horror, but also to separate Savage Tales available from 12 to Midnight. This includes a sequel to ‘Last Rites of the Black Guard’, the very first adventure from 12 to Midnight, so the Study Group can go right back to where the story of Pinebox began in gaming terms and and explore that.

To be fair though, the fact that some of the extra adventures that can be run as part of the Degrees of Horror campaign have to be purchased, is not all that much of an issue. Not not only does the book itself contains plenty of adventures, but there are also several short adventures available for free for the East Texas University setting and that in addition to the shorter adventures generated using the rules in the East Texas University sourcebook. So essentially, the Dean does not necessarily need to buy the other adventures as there are plenty available between those in East Texas University and Degrees of Horror as well as online, though if he wants to get the fullest out of the campaign, he may want to purchase the others. Either way, what the Dean has between the three sources is a good mix of adventures that provide variety in terms of both actual threat and degree of threat. Any or all of these adventures are easy to slot into the Degrees of Horror campaign around its plot points and give the campaign a nicely episodic structure that will build story and campaign over time.

Rounding out Degrees of Horror are the full write-ups and stats for the major NPCs in campaign as well as various monsters that the player characters might encounter. Physically, Degrees of Horror is a full colour hardback like East Texas University. It is well written, comes with an index, and is an easy read. The artwork is good, but perhaps rather cheesy in places—the cover in particular. If there is an issue to Degrees of Horror it is that an extra map or two would not have gone amiss, particularly of the base of operations that the Student Body acquires during the campaign and some handouts would have been nice too.

East Texas University presented all of the rules and background to run a campaign at an American university in which the students have to cope with the academic and social life as well as having to face the horror of the supernatural. It should be pointed out that the horror and the supernatural in Degrees of Horror—and thus East Texas University—is fairly vanilla. It involves ghosts—lots of ghosts, vampires, spirits, possession, demons, as well as a local legend or two, and whilst this may not be most radical treatment of the horror genre, the scenarios are varied, fun, and well crafted. Above all, Degrees of Horror shows the Dean—or GM—how to put rules and background of East Texas University into practice with a well structured and enjoyably fun campaign.

Saturday 7 January 2017

A Desert Diversion

Ghost Ship of the Desert Dunes is an adventure for Astonishing Swordsmen & Sorcerers of Hyperborea, the Old School Renaissance emulation of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons that mixes ‘Swords, Sorcery, and Weird Fantasy’ published by North Wind Adventures. It is designed for four to six players of between Second Level and Fourth Level. Set in the game’s default world of Hyperborea, it concerns the fate of Ymir’s Serpent, a legendary Viking longship commanded by Sigtrygg Forkbeard that sailed up the River Æolus where its crew is said to have discovered a mine rich in green diamonds. Before the Ymir’s Serpent and her crew could return with their riches, the river dried up and the ship and her crew were never seen again. In the years since, tales have grown of a shimmering Viking ghost ship gliding across the dunes… This is a popular and well-known legend, one that continues to attract the interest of thieves, prospectors, treasure hunters, and others, so it should be no surprise to the player characters when they learn of a wizard with flowing coffers claiming to have the means to locate both the wreck of the lost ship and its cargo of green diamonds. Not only that, but he is also hiring expedition members to help him prove his claims. Thus there is a chance for the adventurers to be rich, very rich…

The adventure begins in the City-State of Khromarium where the heroes are hired by Vul Kovtu, a wizened, peg-legged wizard who has the knowledge, but wants to the help of able-bodied men. They are to sail with him to Cape Calencia and from there to the mouth of the extinct River Æolus where they will disembark and make their way up its dried up course to locate the wreck of the Viking ship and its treasure hoard. Throughout they are to provide Vul Kovtu with both aid and protection. The adventure is divided into two parts,the first ‘The Cursed Amphora’ is suitable for characters of Second and Third Level, the second part, ‘Diamond Desert’ suitable for characters of Third and Fourth Level.

The first stop in the adventure is ‘The Cursed Amphora’, set on Cape Calencia and in and around Calencia Village, built on stilts at the rear of Lith Fjord’. The village is known for the high quality of its canoes; the Brotherhood of Khalk-Xu, the monks devoted to the octopus-like ‘The Dimensional Dweller’; and the witches of Calencia’s Peculiar, one of whom is a noted oracle. What Vul Kovtu wants do here to investigate the story of a man who went mad, supposedly as a result of being in contact with ‘green glowing glassware’. After they disembark, there is plenty for the player characters to do here—eating and drinking, shopping (of course), visiting the Oracle, and more. There are though, plenty of rumours to learn and follow up on, as well of course, the tale of the ‘The Cursed Amphora’. Following up on both these rumours and the tale is where the adventure really begins to come alive, drawing the players and their characters deeper into village life and rivalries and then out onto the cape itself. The area around the village is a thickly wooded wilderness, mostly known for being the source of the wood for the village’s canoes and home to the ape-men that occasionally attack the village. It is also home to an abandoned temple complex and dungeon, actually quite small, but it makes for a solid payoff to the player characters’ efforts in Calencia Village.

The second stop takes the adventurers to the mouth of the River Æolus and from there a trek inland and across the desert. Here the scenario not only plays up its pulp roots, but also harks back to the B Movies of the fifties too in its monster selection as well as some standard Dungeons & Dragons monsters. Besides wandering monsters there are some fun encounters with a hermit and a band of hyaena-men riding giant chameleons and this together with the radioactive ants sends the adventure veering awfully close to Gamma World in tone and feel, though it still retains a ‘sand, swords, & sorcery’ feel.

The last stop of course takes the player characters and their patron to not only the wreck of the lost ship and its cargo of green diamonds, but also the source of the diamonds—a mine! Just like the lost ship, this mine has long been abandoned, but this does not mean that it is no longer occupied or worked out. This is a nicely detailed mine, full of weirdness and creepy touches.. The villain in this last part is particularly pulpy in nature and it is perhaps a pity that his backstory is never given space for the player characters to explore it. At end of it, of course, there is treasure to be found. Not just green diamonds, but oddities like a +2 boomerang and a string of knots that when activated, will cause the wind to fill the sails of a ship. There is also a fantastic treasure to found, one that will greatly benefit the player characters, in the long term adding to their legend as ‘great heroes’, but one that will also make them the targets of attempts by kings and queens, let alone other adventurers, to take it from them.

What is pleasing about the adventure is the way in which the main NPC, Vul Kovtu, is handled. Typically in such scenarios, the adventurers’ patron—in this case, Vul Kovtu—inevitably turns on them and betrays them. Now Vul Kovtu is portrayed as a driven and ambitious wizard and during the course of the adventure, the consequences of his ambitions may well be revealed, but at no point is he intending to betray the player characters. That said, as written, he is likely to be driven mad by the end of the adventure, but the GM is given pointers as to how handle him and this need not involve betrayal or turning on the player characters.

Physically Ghost Ship of the Desert Dunes is very nicely presented. Although it needs a close read through in order to grasp all of the details—especially with regard to the relationships between the inhabitants of Calencia Village in ‘The Cursed Amphora’—the scenario is well written. Whilst the front cover is excellent, the internal artwork does vary somewhat in quality. The cartography is consistently good throughout, though the map of Calencia Village and Lith Fjord is reminiscent of Blackwater Cove and Booty Bay from World of Warcraft. That said, a map of Cape Calencia would have been a welcome inclusion.

Now although Ghost Ship of the Desert Dunes is written for a retroneclone and a retroclone based on Advanced Dungeons & Dragons at that, it is does not overly feel like a typical Dungeons & Dragons-style adventure. Then again it does not quite feel quite like a Swords & Sorcery adventure either. Yet as a combination of the two, Ghost Ship of the Desert Dunes is an effective and well crafted adventure. Although its final encounters are very much a mystery until the player characters come to them, getting there, the process of the journey that makes up the first two thirds of Ghost Ship of the Desert Dunes is well handled with the party being given plenty to do and involve itself in.

Monday 2 January 2017

Fanzine Focus V: The Undercroft, No. 5

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 in May, 2015, The Undercroft, No. 5 follows on from engaging initial issue with its intriguing and useful material; the less than satisfying mix of content that constituted second issue; the decent medly that made up issue three; the solidly done issue four; and the entertaining scenario, ‘Something Stinks in Stilton’, that made up issue eight. Unlike these previous issues, The Undercroft, No. 5 comes with a definite theme—magical artefacts.

Now this being written for use with Lamentations of the Flame Princess Weird Fantasy Roleplay, what this means is that these are not the magical artefacts of traditional sense of Dungeons & Dragons. None of the five items in the thirty-one pages of The Undercroft, No. 5 are safe. They do not simply provide some great magical bonus, but instead both great power or advantages as well as great disadvantages. There is a downside to each and every one of these five items. Further, their being written for use with Lamentations of the Flame Princess Weird Fantasy Roleplay means that they are truly great and powerful artefacts, ones that will not have an effect on the Referee’s campaign, but also upon the world that is his campaign. This effect may be weird, horrific, or both… Rest assured that these items are going to mess with your players and their characters.

The issue begins with Chris Lawson’s ‘Smiling Goat Horn’. Formed from the mummified skull and horn of goat, when blown it drives all farm animals to acts of larceny for the horn-blower and acts of constant and incessant praise of the horn-blower, all the whilst being stalked by timber wolves. This is an absurd, not to say insane object, best added to only the weirdest of campaigns. This is followed by ‘The Washer Woman’ by Oliver Palmer. This appears to be a simple piece of statuary depicting a woman washing laundry, but where the Smiling Goat Horn will instantly irritating, this ornament will at first appear innocuous, but then odd and eventually irritating. Wherever the owner put it last, it will always turn up about his person or nearby; it will even replace an item he has about his person. The owner will soon regret taking it as the statue will do its very best to prevent it being left somewhere or being passed to someone else, some of them quite disturbing… That said, there is neither any advantage nor any disadvantage to owning the statute, just as long as the owner definitely decides to keep it upon his person.

The second entry from Chris Lawson is actually useful. ‘The Opticaphobicascope’ is a monocle that enables the wearer to discern another’s true intent, reveal details about the wearer’s surroundings, and even glance at the notes of the wearer’s Referee! The downside is that it screws itself into the wearer’s eye socket and cannot be removed as it essentially replaces the wearer’s eye. That is of course, if he can follow the instructions and install it correctly. Then again, this is not the only downside, but that should be no surprise to anyone familiar with Lamentations of the Flame Princess Weird Fantasy Roleplay—there is no such thing as a free lunch! In being able to see more than he usually can, the wear of ‘The Opticaphobicascope’ comes to feel that there is still things that he cannot see and even things that are being hidden from him. This feeling will grow and grow, the rules for the device providing for this escalation.

The centrepiece to The Undercroft, No. 5—and at eleven pages out of the issue’s thirty-two, also the longest—is Frank Mitchell’s ‘The God of Seven Parts’. This details the seven parts of a deity known as the ‘Sundered God’ that perhaps may have been Baphomet, which is said to have been worshipped by the Knights Templar. The seven parts are the head, the left and right arm, the left and right leg, the phallus, and the torso. As well as providing advice on how to succeed in all of his endeavours, the Head of the Sundered God will urge its owner to seek out the other parts of its body, all missing and scattered across the world. Looking for each of these parts can be an adventure in itself and even be something that a campaign can be built around. Each of the parts is individually described and detailed, each having its own powers and abilities. For example, ‘The Left Arm of the Sundered God’ can be wielded as a club and inflicts both damage and a save versus Poison to the target, but wielder has to save versus Poison in order to wield the Left Arm and again if the target is successful in making the save. Further, each of the parts can be grafted onto the body of anyone missing said body part. For example, when grafted onto the stump of a severed arm, ‘The Left Arm of the Sundered God’ grants the wearer all of its abilities, all of the time. So the wearer has to wear a glove to stop involuntarily using its Poison effect…

Each of the seven parts is an artefact in its own right which can be wielded on its own, grafted on to replace a body part of any humanoid, or it can be combined with other parts to reform as the Sundered God. Much like a ‘Gattai Robot’ of Japanese Anime, when the seven parts of ‘Baphomet’—if that truly is his name—come together, he has greater control of each of the parts powers. He also turns into a nigh unstoppable world conqueror. Stopping him would be a campaign in itself, but should the player characters actually assemble the Sundered God, then the consequences are entirely their fault… 

‘The God of Seven Parts’ is a grand artefact in the mode of Eye of Vecna and Hand of Vecna, though not quite the Head of Vecna. It will have a profound impact upon any campaign that it is added to.

Lastly, Daniel Sell’s ‘The Precocious Abundance of Holy Mountain’ is a twist upon  Arthur C. Clarke’s adage that “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” The sacred mountain is actually an ancient war fortress of the Ven and is the source of ‘Aqua Gravis’, the heavy water that fuelled the Ven war machines as well as the fortress itself. Other technological devices described include the Ven worker Custodians, the gates through which the Ven may return from the end of time, things constructed by those that came immediately after the Ven, and even the ‘Slaughtergrid’, the Ven warmachines buried and concealed where they might need them again. ‘The Precocious Abundance of Holy Mountain’ is not just a selection of artefacts, but also a framing device for a campaign, suggesting both an ancient history and a future history. That said, of all the artefacts in The Undercroft, No. 5, these have the least sting in the tail.

Physically, The Undercroft, No. 5 is a neat and tidy affair. The few illustrations are excellent, though perhaps the issue could have benefited with a few more.

The Undercroft, No. 5 is the most coherent issue of the fanzine reviewed to date. Of course, that is because it has a singular subject matter and the artefacts in question all possess a sting in the tail particular to such devices in Lamentations of the Flame Princess Weird Fantasy Roleplay. The downside to this is that not all of the five items in the issue are necessarily going to see play because of the potential havoc they have to wreak on a campaign. Of course, the Referee is free to pick and choose, and of course, take the consequences of the stings in these tails.