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

Sunday 26 February 2017

A Treasury Relic

As one of the first licensees, Judges Guild was in its heyday, a highly prolific publisher, releasing not only scenarios and supplements for Dungeons & Dragons and Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, but also Traveller, Chivalry & Sorcery, DragonQuest, Empire of the Petal Throne, Tunnels and Trolls, RuneQuest, Superhero 2044, and Villains and Vigilantes. Since its heyday of the late 1970s and early 1980s, quite a few of those products have remained held in high regard, such as City State of the Invincible Overlord, Tegel Manor, Dark Tower, and so on, these titles often being brought back into print by other publishers. That said, given the sheer number of titles published by Judges Guild, the truth is that the quality of a very great many of them was far from being professional by the standards of the day, let alone by those of today. Nevertheless, there are many that are worth examining almost four decades after they were first published and many worth bringing to your table almost four decades after they were first published. One of these is The Book of Treasure Maps.

The Book of Treasure Maps was designed, written, and illustrated by Paul Jaquays, the designer best known for the dungeons Dark Tower and Caverns of Thracia. Published in 1979, The Book of Treasure Maps was a first in two ways. The first and obvious is its cover, which is not an illustration, but a photograph, this of the author and his friends engaging in a LARP. The second is that The Book of Treasure Maps contains not one, but five adventures or dungeons. Since the publication of G1, Steading of the Hill Giant Chief by TSR, Inc. in 1978, dungeons or adventures had been singular affairs, but The Book of Treasure Maps is an anthology, a quintet of mini-dungeons, the only connection between the five being that they are set in the Wilderlands of High Fantasy, Judges Guild’s campaign world. Of course, the DM need not set any one of the five dungeons in the Wilderlands of High Fantasy, but he will need to adjust their accompanying clues to fit the campaign world of his choosing.

It is a format that Judges Guild would return to with the publication of The Book of Treasure Maps II and The Book of Treasure Maps III, and TSR, Inc. would visit the concept itself in 1992 with the release of GR3 Treasure Maps for use with Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, Second Edition. The origins of the concept lie in the fact that in the 1970s, treasure in Dungeons & Dragons did not consist of just jewels, gems, and coins, but would often include a treasure map. This would be lure enough for the players and their adventurers to follow the clues that such a map would present to an adventure that the DM had prepared. What The Book of Treasure Maps contains then, are treasure maps and their associated dungeons. The treasure maps in this anthology include not only maps but scrolls and book excerpts, notably with permission given to photocopy them and use them as handouts for the players to pore over. Of course the fact that the players were being given a handout in 1979 was rarity enough to ensure their interest. The dungeons themselves are designed for characters of medium to high level, so roughly Sixth, Seventh, and Eighth Levels.

The Book of Treasure Maps begins with ‘The Lost Temple’. Located on a map in The Fantastic Wilderlands Beyonde supplement, the clue to this dungeon comes from a journal entry describing a long and ultimately failed journey. Its thirteen room complex details an abandoned oracle, rumoured to be home to a demon. It is a relatively straightforward affair, but what it illustrates is that there is still plenty of play to be got out of a dungeon even if the players and their characters have been already been given most of its locations on the map. Despite the book being written for use with Dungeons & Dragons, there is a nice nod in the adventure to David A. Trampier’s iconic cover for the Player’s Handbook which was published the year before and depicts the attempted theft of the giant gems used as eyes in the statue of a demon. Although ‘The Lost Temple’ harks back to an era when a dungeon was a dungeon for a dungeon’s sake, it is nevertheless a short and serviceable affair.

There is no lack of purpose to ‘The Tomb of Aethering the Damned’. It is as the title suggests, a tomb, this of an evil lord and it is said, the members of his family. As with ‘The Lost Temple’ it consists of relatively few locations and its map can be found in The Fantastic Wilderlands Beyonde supplement. The tomb is home to lots of the undead and some rather cruel traps. In fact, the traps feel just a little cruel by modern standards, but by the conventions of the day and given the fact that this is the tomb of an evil tyrant, they are more than fitting. This being a tomb and there being a mummy that makes an appearance there is a slight Ancient Egyptian feel to this adventure, the focus of which is on the encounters with Lord Aethering, his wife, and his son. Though all of the locations of in the tomb are quite detailed, particular attention is paid to the encounters with these three NPCs and the DM should have some fun with them and the curses involved in two of them. In particular, the possible change in gender and character following the encounter with Athering’s wife will be a challenge for the DM and player alike, but a memorable one at that.

The highpoint to The Book of Treasure Maps is the third scenario, ‘The Lone Tower’. Where the previous two scenarios have been a little pedestrian, this leaps out and buries its fangs into gothic horror in the best style of Hammer Horror. Located on a map from the Wilderlands of High Fantasy, ‘The Lone Tower’ consists of a gothic tower mansion that is home to the Lady Clearmoon and which can only be accessed on nights of the full moon. Further, the clue to its location is inscribed on a round, magical shield and is only revealed in the moonlight. From all of these references to the Moon it should be clear what the threat is in this adventure actually is—werewolves! And this is the case, the chateau-style mansion being infested with them. Although the forty or so locations in the chateau are in effect a dungeon, its design and layout as a chateau gives it a naturalism that adds to the horror themes. The adventure includes a plot or three, though the DM will need to give the adventure a thorough read through since they are not discussed up front. These involve the adventure’s main NPCs and any DM will relish getting to roleplay them.

At fifteen pages long, with more artwork and cartography, both of which fit the genre, ‘The Lone Tower’ is the longest adventure in The Book of Treasure Maps, but it does feel as if it should be longer and further developed. It feels not a little reminiscent of I6 Ravenloft, the classic Gothic vampire adventure published by TSR, Inc. in 1983—or rather, I6 Ravenloft feels not a little reminiscent of ‘The Lone Tower’. Of all the adventures in The Book of Treasure Maps, this feels like the one that the designer loved the most. 

After ‘The Lonely Tower’, the other two mini-dungeons in The Book of Treasure Maps feel somewhat underwhelming, but rather that is indication of how good ‘The Lone Tower’ is in comparison. The clue to ‘Willichidar’s Well’ is in a history book which describes a smoking well found atop a bald hill. Located on a map in Wilderlands of the Magical Realm supplement, ‘Willchidar’s Well’ consists of five locations and is just six pages long. Its design is that of a dungeon as a trap for the all too curious. Investigate too far, get just a little too greedy, and the player characters will unleash a demon lord that could very well defeat them if they do not act quickly. Perhaps the fun at this point will be when the player characters find themselves fighting alongside demons as they try to defeat the unleashed demon lord. ‘Willchidar’s Well’ is a nasty one-session adventure, but fighting alongside demons—and possibly some divine beings from other factions—will make this an epic encounter.

The fifth and final dungeon is ‘The Crypts of Arcadia’. Unlike the other mini-dungeons in The Book of Treasure Maps, this dungeon does not have a specific location, but the DM is encouraged to read through it carefully and select a place to locate it based on the background given. In fact, this background or backstory is probably more interesting than the dungeon itself. The crypts are actually the burial vaults for the Church of Arcadia, a faith that promised eternal life and flourished many years ago before being discovered that it was an inadvertent front for a deity building an army of the dead and so the faithful sealed the vaults, smashed the temple, and went back to worshipping whatever god they had been worshipping before their conversion to the now false faith. Unfortunately the vaults still exist, the local thieves guild knows of them, but not their location or that of the only map ever made. The player characters are of course, about to come into possession of the map. Thus it should be a race to get into the vaults, past the endless hordes of the undead, get the treasure, and get out again.

The design of the dungeon is such that both its key encounters and content can be placed randomly, whether by DM decision or his making rolls on the provided tables. The aim being to ensure that no two playthroughs of the dungeon would ever be the same, but the result is that the DM does need to work that little extra to make it live up to the backstory.

Physically, The Book of Treasure Maps is printed on cheap paper and so feels cheap. Yet it is well written, the artwork is good, the maps are clear, and at worst, it needs another proofreading.

By the standards of 1979, all five dungeons in The Book of Treasure Maps are solid pieces of design and writing. They are all good dungeons and with a little adjustment here and there could be run using Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition or the retroclone of your choice. Indeed these are exactly the types of dungeon that the Old School Renaissance harks back to, stripped back, deadly dungeons. Yet there is atmosphere and even plot here too in one or two of the adventures and there is no reason why a group could not be challenged by or enjoy these mini-dungeons after all this time.

As good or as solid pieces of dungeon design as the five mini-dungeons are in The Book of Treasure Maps, there is one very good dungeon in the anthology. This is ‘The Lone Tower’, an entertaining slice of horror gaming that leaves this reviewer wishing that it could have been longer and that the author would come back and write some more.

Friday 24 February 2017

Because... Just because...

If the Nazis cannot have their Antarctic base at the end of World War II, then they will they will have their base on the Moon! Unfortunately the Nazis like to keep their secrets, so what you need is a guide. Fortunately, there is such a thing! Nazi Moonbase is a complete guide to, and history of, Walhalla, the base established in the Moon in the aftermath of World War II, and the war against it in the second half of the twentieth century. Published by Osprey Publishing as part of its Osprey Adventures line, our guide in this matter is Graeme Davis, the author of several previous titles in the range, including Knights Templar: A Secret History and Werewolves: A Hunter’s Guide, as well as being the co-designer of the seminal British fantasy RPG, Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay.

Nazi Moonbase is a sequel of sorts to the first entry in the series, The Nazi Occult by Ken Hite. In both, the Order of the Black Sun plays an important role, in The Nazi Occult, driving the rise of the Nazis, but then in Nazi Moonbase, pushing first for a way to save Nazi Germany, but in the face of certain defeat at the hands of the Allies, for a way to survive beyond that defeat. Essentially, this is done by taking control of Germany’s advanced weapon programs such as the vehicles of Projekt Saucer and then initiating Protokoll Bifrost first to escape to the Antarctic and then to Walhalla on the Moon using the Haunebu IV saucer where it would form the centre of the base. No Swastika-shaped moonbase for the Nazis! There they survive, repairing and upgrading their ramshackle facilities, even developing technologies, all in readiness to strike back at those that defeated them.

In response, the Moon Race of the 1960s was as much designed to confirm and monitor Walhalla as it was a scientific program. Indeed, the near destruction of Apollo 13 was Walhalla’s response to these endeavours. The American response to this was Operation Lyre, a direct assault on the base which would end in all but total disaster. Only in the last few years has the USA decided to attack the last of the Nazis once again after decades of failed Lunar probes and satellites from various nations.

Ending with a detailed timeline, Nazi Moonbase goes into detail about all aspects of Walhalla and the response to it. This includes its location and layout, how it operates, and the development of technologies such as the Eisenmänner (‘Iron Men’) labour and combat androids and the Mensch-Maschinen androids that could pass for perfect humans or as duplicates for world leaders. The response, primarily by the USA and the USSR, is a more measured and less fantastical in tone—lunar probes and rovers, satellites and manned stations. It does end on a note saying that Boeing is developing a space-plane capable of ferrying six astronauts plus equipment… (or is that a squad of US space marines or six player characters?)

The history lends itself to numerous campaign frameworks and set-ups. So in the 1940s, it might be chasing advanced Nazi technological development to the Antarctic and beyond; in the 1950s, it might be fighting the strange attacks and scouting missions by flying saucers on the Earth or the secret infiltration of replicants from the Moon; in the 1970s and 1980s, it could involve the US and Soviet manned assaults on the moon base; and perhaps in 2010s, the final strikes using remote warfare. The obvious starting point for such campaigns—especially given the links in Nazi Moonbase to The Nazi Occult with the Order of the Black Sun—is Modiphius Entertainment’s Achtung! Cthulhu, but Cubicle Seven Entertainment’s Cold War Cthulhu may open various elements later in this future history.

From a gaming standpoint, it is good to see Nazi Moonbase include a list of games that would work well with this system-less sourcebook. Previous entries have always included a bibliography, but never included games that could be used with such material or reference similar material. There is no RPG that does so directly—though with its depiction of United States Space Command special forces fighting terrorism, Fantasy Games Unlimited’s Year of the Phoenix, might be the nearest—so these are pointers and the GM will need to develop the ideas and background in Nazi Moonbase himself. The bibliography covers fiction and non-fiction, comics, games of all types, and movies and television programmes.

Physically, Nazi Moonbase is very nicely presented. The artwork is excellent and the book is an engaging read. Nazi Moonbase is not so much one campaign idea, but several, spread over a secret history lasting over seven or so decades. As a secret history, it gives you enough details and pointers to take away and develop into your own game, whether that is a war game or a roleplaying game, though there is an obvious inclination towards the latter rather than the former. Either way, Nazi Moonbase provides an engaging alternate background around which a GM can develop a campaign against the evil space Nazis from the Moon!

Saturday 18 February 2017

An Unpublished Gem

The publication of The Old School RQ Source Pack, funded by the Kickstarter campaign for RuneQuest: Classic Edition, the reprint of RuneQuest II has provided both support for the reprint and a snapshot of the type of support that was being published for it in late 1970s. RuneQuest Scenario Pack 1: Balastor’s Barracks provided a base dungeon, whilst RuneQuest Source Pack Alpha: Trolls and Trollkin, RuneQuest Source Pack Beta: Creatures of Chaos 1: Scorpion Men and Broos, and RuneQuest Source Pack Gamma: Militia & Mercenaries between them provided a mix of enemies and allies for RuneQuest: Classic Edition as well as background and supporting material to varying degrees of interest and usefulness. The fifth and final entry in The Old School RQ Source Pack is SP8 The Sea Cave and is perhaps the most interesting.

SP8 The Sea Cave is the second scenario included in The Old School RQ Source Pack after Balastor’s Barracks. Originally written in 1979, it has sat in Chaosium’s archives since then and is now only being made available ‘incomplete and unfinished’ as a ‘work in progress’. Now this is something of a misnomer, since ‘The Sea Cave’ actually contains a complete adventure and the only ‘incomplete and unfinished’ aspects are the caves and dungeon complex beyond this adventure, the hand drawn maps, and the handwritten entries and notes on the monster sheets for ‘The Sea Cave’. The former is only detailed in map of the greater complex—‘The Cave of the Wyrm’—which is marked up with notes and annotations enough that a GM could further develop the adventure himself. ‘The Sea Cave’ adventure itself is designed for use with between four and eight medium level player characters, that is, those with a weapon skill of at least 50% and three points of armour. Now this does highlight an issue with both RuneQuest: Classic Edition and The Old School RQ Source Pack, which is that there is no support for the beginning GM and players straight out of the book.

‘The Sea Cave’ is set east of Corflu on the coast of Prax where the men of a fishing village have been attacked by some kind of sea monster. The local priest blames this on the village not having built a new temple to the sea god, Magesta, but the head fisherman thinks otherwise and hires the adventurers to investigate the attacks. He believes that the creature responsible has its lair in the nearby sea cave. Getting into the cave is a challenge in itself, given that the tide can hamper or even block access. This also affects the conditions within the caves nearer the sea, perhaps meaning that adventurers will need to row or wade through sea water, or just be careful of their footing on the slippery cave floors, all depending upon the height of the tide. The complex consists of just nine areas—caves and tunnels—mostly inhabited by a mix of cave trolls and sea creatures.

Each location is described in some detail, providing the GM with notes as what the adventurers will see upon first glance and a closer look, what hidden spots that may be found, any denizens, and so on. These notes nicely pull the GM into understanding each area, each also having the chance of being the location where a major piece of treasure might be found—this in addition to any already there. There is also a pair of plots running through the adventure, one set against the other and the other a decent bit of bait and switch. These though are written up at their respective locations rather than in the introduction, so the GM will need prepare these before running ‘The Sea Cave’.

What is notable about ‘The Sea Cave’ is how sophisticated it is in comparison to Balastor’s Barracks. As well as the aforementioned plots, there is a greater depth and detail present here in just nine rooms than there is in the twenty or so rooms to be found in Balastor’s Barracks, and as a result, The Sea Cave has flavour and atmosphere where Balastor’s Barracks is lacking. Nevertheless, this is still a challenging adventure and an adventuring party may want to make one or two attempts in exploring the far reaches of the caves in order to complete it. Notably, the GM is given advice that, “When adventurers are slaughtered or run screaming, the Monsters get experience rolls too.”

Beyond the adventure itself, SP8 The Sea Cave provides further background to the setting of Glorantha, this time details of the Cult of Cacodemon, the chaos and death cult dominated by Ogres. This was included since the greater part of ‘The Cave of the Wyrm’ complex mapped but not detailed in SP8 The Sea Cave is dominated by a hidden temple to Cacodemon. In addition, SP8 The Sea Cave also lists a number of scenario packs promised, but never released. These include The Howling Tower, Expedition to Miskander’s Tower, and Illyssia’s Grove.

Physically, SP8 The Sea Cave is decently presented. It is not illustrated, but the maps are charming and the one of ‘The Cave of the Wyrm’ can spur a GM to develop the SP8 The Sea Cave further.

SP8 The Sea Cave is a good scenario and without doubt, the best entry in The Old School RQ Source Pack. This is despite its ‘incomplete and unfinished’ aspects and its rough edges, but says much about the simple strengths of ‘The Sea Cave’ scenario—the two plots, the detailed descriptions, and the sense of the environment.

Battleships with Words

Codenames is the Spiel des Jahres—or ‘Game of the Year—award winner for 2016 and that is probably enough of a recommendation to try it and add it to your games collection. Published by Czech Games Edition, it is an espionage-themed word game that works as a party game and which can be played by between two and eight players. The players are split into two teams and one person on each team takes the role of their team’s ‘Spymaster’. His mission is to communicate the code names of his spies to his fellow team members; it is their task to understand the clues given by the spymaster and identity the spies. It is designed to be played by players aged fourteen and over and a game should last no more than twenty minutes.

Codenames consists of several decks of cards. These are the Codename cards (double-sided with a word like tube, bugle, Jupiter, palm, and so on); sixteen Agent cards in two colours (red and blue, used to identity Codenames by each side); a red/blue Double-Agent card (used to indicate the starting team); seven Innocent Bystander cards (used to indicate non-Agents); one Assassin card (used to indicate the Assassin who if identified by a team means that the identifying team loses the game); forty Key cards (these determine the location of the Agents, Innocent Bystanders, and Assassin on the grid); plus a rulebook and timer.

To set up the game, twenty-five Codenames are randomly drawn and arranged in a five-by-five grid. A Key card is drawn and shared between the two Spymasters. It shows them where their Agents, Innocent Bystanders, and Assassin are on the grid. On a team’s turn, its Spymaster gives a clue to the rest of his team. This clue consists of one word and one number. The word must be associated with—but not the same as—one or more of the Codename cards in the grid. The number indicates the number of Codename cards that the clue is associated with. So for example, a Spymaster has the following Codenames that need identifying: ‘America’, ‘Cap’, ‘Disease’, ‘Ham’, ‘Horn’, ‘Mail’, ‘Spring’, and ‘Whip’. So the Spymaster decides to give the clue ‘Supersoldier Two’ to indicate ‘America’ and ‘Cap’, hoping that his team knows its superheroes (or movies). 

The team now tries to guess the Codenames from this clue. If the team picks an Innocent Bystander instead of a Codename, its turn ends. If the team picks a Codename belonging to the other team, its turn ends. If the team picks the Assassin instead of a Codename, it has lost and the game is over. A team must make one guess on its turn and can choose to make fewer guesses than the number given by its Spymaster. A team that correctly guesses Codenames equal to the number given by its Spymaster can take an extra guess. This is useful if a team wants to return to a clue given in previous turn.

The first team to identify all of its Codenames wins the game.

At the heart of Codenames are two asymmetrical challenges. For the Spymaster, the challenge is, “Can I give clues to my team members that they will understand?”, whilst for the team members the challenge is, “Can we interpret and understand our Spaymaster’s clues?”. This requires no little thought by both sides, hampered of course, by the timer. 

On the downside, the game’s theme is a bit too light and if you do not like word games, then Codenames is not something that you will necessarily enjoy. If you do like word games, crossword puzzles, and so on, then Codenames’ simple design is both a delight and challenge. The game is also simple enough to work as a party game, but still be challenging without being overwhelming in its mechanics or appearance. The fact that it is a word game means that it is approachable and accessible to a non-gaming audience, a la Scrabble (yet better). Of course, it also works as a good filler game. The high number of Codename cards and Key cards (the latter for determining Codename location on the grid) means a wide variety of Codenames and grid layouts and thus a high replay value.

My gaming group described Codenames as being ‘Word Battleships’. The fact that there is a hidden grid involved and the game involves finding things on said grid and it easy to see the comparison. That said, Codenames is a light and clever game that will challenge groups large and small again and again.

Friday 17 February 2017

For Imperial Friends

In more recent years, James Maliszewski has become known for his championing of the ‘Old School Renaissance’ via his blog, Grognardia and of TSR Inc.’s Empire of the Petal Throne: The World of Tékumel via his House of Worms campaign and his fanzine, The Excellent Travelling Volume, but before that, he was an author and designer of RPGs and supplements. One of these is Thousand Suns, the RPG published by Rogue Games that was the author’s love letter to the ‘Imperial’ Science Fiction of the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s written by authors such as Poul Anderson, Isaac Asimov, Alfred Bester, Gordon Dickson, Larry Niven, H. Beam Piper, Jerry Pournelle, and A.E. van Vogt. This is not the Science Fiction of Space Opera, it is much dryer and harder edged than that, though it is no less fantastic. In later 2016 the designer decided to return to Thousand Suns and support the RPG if not necessarily the ‘Thousand Suns’ meta-setting with new material via a new fanzine, Imperio.

Imperio #1 comes as a twenty-eight page black and white A5-sized fanzine that is very professionally presented with fine artwork and decent writing. It includes contributions from other writers besides James Maliszewski, in particular from Greg Videll, the author of Starships, the Thousand Suns supplement. The inaugural issue contains adventures, a new species, description of a spaceship, some NPCs, and more. Which is quite a lot to pack into just twenty-eight pages.

The fanzine opens with ‘Deep Background’, the first of two adventures by Greg Videll. In ‘Deep Background’, the characters are hired to check the background and bona fides of the man his daughter is to marry. Six options are given, ranging from the prospective son-in-law having a few debts to unsavoury types to his being a deep cover agent for the Terran State, plus variations. These variations include the need to visit a second world and the involvement of a major arms manufacturer, and both the two worlds and corporation potentially involved in this adventure are detailed such that they can be added to a GM’s campaign. To be fair this is not so much an adventure as a Patron encounter a la Traveller, but with greater detail and more options. In fact, there are almost too many options since the GM is unlikely to use all of them here, although there is room to mix and match them a little, or indeed adapt them for use elsewhere.

Greg Videll’s second adventure is ‘Runaway’. This touches to a varying degree upon Asimov’s Robot stories and takes place at a deep space refinery in an asteroid belt. A runaway maintenance robot has forced the shutdown of all traffic in and out of the station and the Portmaster hires the characters to chase it down. Again some six options are given, including there something being found with the robot, the characters being used as decoys or patsies, and the robot being operated by someone other than the Portmaster. There are also fewer variations given with this adventure and while this means that it is is not as sophisticated as ‘Deep Background’, it means that it is much more direct and easier to use.

In ‘The Ĉaristoj: Nomads of the Thousand Suns’, Robert Saint John describes a strange bio-mechanical alien species that travels individually travel in sealed,  upright, floating, sea-turtle-like suits. Collectively, the species is currently fleeing a disaster in its home sector towards the galactic centre. They are designed in the main for use as NPCs, although stats are given so that they can be used as a player characters. Both player and GM alike can have fun playing these species as all of the Ĉaristoj knowledge of Humanity comes from Terran pre-starflight broadcasts. Admittedly, it is something of a cliché, but this does the Ĉaristoj fun to portray and it does take the Ĉaristoj away from feeling just a little too much like the Puppeteers from Larry Niven’s Known Space tales. It also adds some colour to an otherwise slightly difficult to use or play species, which is indicated by the underwritten adventure seeds.

James Maliszewski’s first contribution to Imperio #1 is ‘The Fast Freighter’. This describes in further detail, the Bizono-class freighter, previously described in the Thousand Suns: Starships supplement. The stats remain in the book, but here the ship is given a full deck plan—it only has the one deck—and a description of how it is by its operators, its interior, and its armament, plus slight variants. In Traveller terms, it feels like something in size between the Type-S Scout ship and the Type-A Free Trader, although the cargo capacity is tiny at just under eight tons.  In some ways it feels more like a courier vessel than a freighter. The combination of a description of a spaceship and its deck plans is a always a plus because it always a great tool to add to a Science Fiction game. Certainly the players always want to to know what their spaceship looks like and what its layout is, and ‘The Fast Freighter’ is a good combination. The Bizono-class freighter is a good fit for most groups and suitable for four or five players.

‘Random Name Generation’ is James Maliszewski’s second contribution. It is simple set of tables for creating names. Now what makes this is interesting is that it draws from the positive, even utopian elements of Imperial Science Fiction and from its explicitly non-American, multi-cultural vision of the future. This is because Thousand Suns uses Esperanto as the universal Terran language in its future. The tables allow the creation of names that feel different, yet familiar. Just exotic enough to enforce that the world of Thousand Suns is set far into the future.

Rounding out Imperio #1 is ‘Allies and Antagonists’, James Maliszewski’s third contribution. One of the highlights of The Excellent Travelling Volume is the ‘Patrons’ section, presenting NPCs that the player characters could encounter or be employed by. The author repeats the exercise here with three such patron or NPCs, but simplifies the format so that each can be an ally or an enemy for the player characters. They include the hereditary ruler of a planet who wants to regain her throne, a belter who is an amateur archaeologist, and an ESPer for hire. Each has full stats, some background, and options to use him or her as a friend or foe. Each is also useful and a solid addition to the fanzine.

Physically, Imperio #1 is presented to a high standard. It is well written and the artwork is excellent. The deck plan of the Bizono-class freighter is nicely done too.

James Maliszewski has had six issues of The Excellent Travelling Volume to get the format of his fanzines right and this shows in Imperio #1. Of course, Imperio #1 is much more of a traditional fanzine in that it is written by others as well as the publisher, but that does not detract from the quality of the writing or presentation. A good first issue and a good issue, one that provides excellent support for Thousand Suns—as well as certain other Science Fiction RPGs—Imperio #1 is as professional a fanzine as you can get and still be a fanzine.

Tuesday 14 February 2017

The Pony Game

Rest assured that when I write that the My Little Pony RPG is a reality, it is not a sign of the impending apocalypse. Mostly because what we actually have is Tails of Equestria – The Storytelling Game, a light, family-friendly RPG that is based upon My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic, the cartoon in which anthropomorphic ponies with bright, pastel coloured bodies, manes, and ‘cutie’ marks have adventures in the magical land of Equestria and learn all about friendship. Originally, both the cartoon and My Little Pony were aimed at young girls, but in more recent years it has been adopted by an older audience, including boys and men who are known as ‘bronies’. It should be made clear that primary reason that Tails of Equestria – The Storytelling Game is not the My Little Pony RPG is because players do not take on the roles of the characters from the cartoon—Twilight Sparkle, Rainbow Dash, Fluttershy, Pinkie Pie, Applejack, Rarity, Spike the Dragon, Princess Celestia, Princess Luna, and so on—but rather create a pony and then take them on magical adventures of their own and learn about friendship through the roleplaying rather than through just watching the cartoon.

Published by River Horse Games, Tails of Equestria – The Storytelling Game is a Class and Level game which uses simple mechanics and the full set of polyhedral dice. It comes as a very bright and very breezy hardback that is written in a light and easy style such that an experienced roleplayer can read through it in a couple of hours or so and be ready to run the adventure included in the book, ‘The Pet Predicament’, with ease.

So what can you play in the Tails of Equestria – The Storytelling Game? Ponies of course, but the choices are Earth Ponies, best known for their Stout Hearts; Unicorns, best known for their horn which grants them Telekinesis; and Pegasi, who with their wings can Fly. The fourth type of Pony, the Alicorn, is not available to play, but might be something that a Pony can aspire to become. Each Pony is aligned with one of the six Elements of Harmony, “…the most powerful magic known to ponydom.” These are Honesty, Laughter, Generosity, Loyalty, Kindness, and Magic. This alignment has no particular in-game effect, but rather it reflects a dominant aspect of a Pony’s personality.

Each Pony has three Traits—Body, Mind, and Charm—and each Trait is rated by a die type, typically a four or six-sided die at game’s start. Similarly, each Pony will have one or two Talents, one related to the type of Pony he is and one related to his Cutie Mark that he is very good at. So this includes the Stout Heart, Telekinesis, and Fly Talents of the Earth Ponies, Unicorns, and Pegasi, as well as Creative Flair, Healing Touch, Pony Sense, Speak with Animals, and so on. Such Talents are also rated by die types, typically a six-sided die at First Level. As a Pony gains new Levels, he can increase the die for the Traits and Talents he has or choose a new Talent. Every Pony has a Quirk like Bossy or Too Silly. Pony creation is very quick and easy.

Pook the Pony
First Level Pegasi
Element of Harmony: Loyalty
Body d4 Mind d6 Charm d6
Stamina 10
Cutie Mark – Book
Tokens of Friendship 2+ 
Fly d6, Keen Knowledge (History) d6
Quirk – Needs Glasses

Mechanically, Tails of Equestria – The Storytelling Game continues this simplicity. To undertake a task, a Pony rolls the die type associated with a Trait, aiming to beat a Difficulty set by the GM. So a very easy task has a Difficulty of two, a Quite Easy task a difficulty of four, and so on, all the way up to ‘Has anyone ever done this?’ with a Difficulty of anywhere between thirteen and twenty. A roll of a one is always bad news, whilst rolling double or more the Difficulty of a task is counted as an Amazing Success! Further, if a Pony has a Talent appropriate to the Task, he gains an extra die to roll or the Trait die is upgraded to the next die type depending upon the Talent. Similarly, a Pony can gain extra dice for a task if other Ponies help him and working together like this might even lower the Difficulty of the task. However many dice are rolled, the highest result rolled determines the success or failure of a task.

A Pony always has a chance at succeeding at an impossible task because of a technique called the ‘Exploding Hoof!’. This is a variant of the exploding die mechanic found in other RPGs. In the Tails of Equestria – The Storytelling Game, when the maximum on a die is rolled, then a Pony gets to roll the next highest die, and if he rolls the maximum on that die, then he gets to roll the next highest die, and so on. Only the single highest die is kept—the dice are not added together.
So for example, Pook the Pony has an important editing task to undertake which the GM sets at a Difficulty of Very hard, which is seven. Of course Pook the Pony will use his Mind Trait and because the editing involves something historical, the GM allows him to use his Keen Knowledge (History) Talent, which gives him another die. So Pook the Pony’s player has two six-sided dice to roll, but the Difficulty is still seven, so he is going to rely on the ‘Exploding Hoof!’ technique in order to succeed. Pook the Pony’s player rolls both dice, getting a result of one and six. This is good news because it enables Pook the Pony to use the ‘Exploding Hoof!’ technique, which in this case means that his player can roll an eight-sided die. This he does and not only does Pook the Pony’s player succeed, he rolls an eight and activates the ‘Exploding Hoof!’ technique a second time. This allows the player to roll a ten-sided die, but this time he rolls only a one. This means that the result of the eight-sided die, an eight, is the best result and this is what the player keeps and means that Pook the Pony succeeds and manages to successfully edit the document.
Of course a big factor in My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic is the importance of friendship and so it needs to be a major factor in Tails of Equestria – The Storytelling Game. One way in which the game addresses this is with the possible lowering of the Difficulty of a task when Ponies work together to complete or overcome a task. The other way is through the use of Tokens of Friendship. Every Pony begins with a number of these equal to the number of players round the table, including the GM. These can be spent to reroll a die, reroll a die, but use a twenty-sided die instead, or to automatically succeed. This costs one, two, or three Tokens of Friendship respectively. If the GM allows it, they can also be spent to change minor aspects of the story.

This though, is just the effect of one Pony using his Tokens of Friendship. If two or more Ponies mix their Tokens of Friendship, then the effect of these Tokens of Friendship can be increased. For example, two Ponies might expend a Token of Friendship each and the GM could rule that instead of this allowing a task to be rerolled using a twenty-sided die, which costs Tokens of Friendship, the Ponies automatically succeed at the task, which normally costs three. Presumably, this increased effect applies to possible changes made to the story, but this is not developed.

The downside to using Tokens of Friendship is that once used, they are gone and cannot be used again. The primary way of a regaining Tokens of Friendship is to gain a new Level which typically happens at the successful completion of an adventure. Ponies can also acquire new Tokens of Friendship when another Pony and his player joins the group, but the primary in-game method of regaining them is through roleplaying great acts of friendship. It is up to the GM to decide what such acts are.

Once the GM is ready and the players have created their Ponies, Tails of Equestria – The Storytelling Game includes a lengthy scenario, ‘The Pet Predicament’, which takes up a fifth of the book. In this the Ponies are visiting Ponyville when they rescue a pet belonging to one of the characters from the cartoon, Fluttershy. This leads to the Ponies being asked to pet-sit not only Fluttershy’s pet, but also to look after all of those belonging to the Mane Six from the cartoon series, as they go to investigate a threat to Equestria. Of course this does not go as well as expected and the Ponies need to make every effort together to locate and rescue these pets when they escape. Their efforts will be hampered by the personalities and abilities of the pets, but everything should work out in the end. The scenario could have been slightly better structured to make it easier to run, but it should last one or two sessions of play.

Tails of Equestria – The Storytelling Game ends with the stats for not only the characters and animals involved in ‘The Pet Predicament’, but also the members of the Mane Six and other characters from My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic. The book also includes a good index and a set of die charts. There is one for each die type and allows the game to be played if a group lacks polyhedral dice, by having the players close their eyes and then point at a number on the chart. It is a solution, but it is a somewhat clumsy one.

The roleplaying game includes advice for players on creating their Ponies and for playing Tails of Equestria – The Storytelling Game. There is also advice for the GM on how to run game. All three sections of advice are in the same chapter and in each case the advice is good enough. Yet there is an issue with Tails of Equestria – The Storytelling Game and that is that the authors are not quite sure who the target audience is for the game—or if they are sure, it certainly is not clear in the book itself. Is it for the original audience for My Little Pony, that is, young girls? Is it for traditional roleplayers? Is it for bronies? The subject matter and background material will probably not interest the majority of traditional roleplayers, so not them. This does not mean that experienced roleplayers could not play Tails of Equestria – The Storytelling Game and enjoy it. 

That said, there is a box of advice aimed at older readers (or roleplayers) about running Tails of Equestria – The Storytelling Game for a younger audience. Again, the experienced roleplayer will have no difficulty running Tails of Equestria – The Storytelling Game for a younger audience. For the inexperienced roleplayer or anyone new to roleplaying, it is another matter—and that no matter if the prospective GM is an adult, a young fan of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic, or a Brony. In other words, they all need to have roleplayed before if they are to get the most out of Tails of Equestria – The Storytelling Game, because as much the game uses simple rules, it is not as good an introductory game as it could be. One problem is that the use of polyhedral dice could be confusing to an audience being more used to dice being ‘square’. The charts help somewhat, but they are cumbersome. Another problem is that as an introductory roleplaying game, what it really lacks to that end, is a thoroughly good example of play that would illustrate how both the game and roleplaying works. Had that been included, as well as a guide to rolling the funny shaped dice, Tails of Equestria – The Storytelling Game would be a much stronger introductory roleplaying game.

Certainly a further challenging issue for the inexperienced GM is handling Tokens of Friendship when the players decide to mix them up. This could have been given much more attention, especially when it comes to altering the story. The experienced GM will probably be able to find advice elsewhere or know how to handle such situations, but not the inexperienced GM.

Physically, Tails of Equestria – The Storytelling Game is big, bold, bright, and breezy. It is illustrated with lots images from My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic and once you get past compound words such as ‘anypony’ and ‘somepony’, the book is also well written.

Where Tails of Equestria – The Storytelling Game really comes into its own is as game for the traditional roleplayer to run for younger players. The rules are simple and very easy to pick up and within an hour or two of picking up the book to read, an experienced GM will be ready to run the scenario in the book. The player new to being a GM might want to play Tails of Equestria – The Storytelling Game first with another GM to learn the rules before running it himself, but again, the rules are simple and easy to learn, such that they would not impede initial refereeing efforts. Not the perfect introductory roleplaying game that it could have been, Tails of Equestria – The Storytelling Game is nevertheless, a nice, familiar way to many with which to introduce certain audiences to the hobby.

Sunday 12 February 2017

A Horrific Incursion

The setting for Mutant Chronicles: Techno Fantasy Roleplaying Game is a near-future Solar System rent by inter-corporate rivalry and war in the face of a horrifying darkness that sows fear and chaos wherever mankind steps. Its insidious reach undermines the greatest of mankind’s advances and forces a technological regression that sets up the combination of horror and science fiction in the diesel punk sci-fi roleplaying game, now in its third edition, which was published by Modiphius Entertainment in 2015. Since then Modiphius Entertainment has published numerous sourcebooks for the setting, covering both factions and the setting, but only the one campaign, consisting so far of Dark Symmetry and its sequel, Dark Legion. As these titles suggest, their events play out against the backdrop of the RPG’s three different eras. Thus the events of the Dark Symmetry Campaign Book take place against the backdrop of mankind’s Golden Age as it collapses through the Fall and beyond as the Dark Symmetry is freed and unleashed, whilst the Dark Legion Campaign Book is set a thousand years after the Fall. Presumably the third part of the campaign, the Dark Eden Campaign Book will take place during the time of high conflict that is only barely touched upon in the core rulebook.

In fact, the events of the Dark Symmetry Campaign Book take place in two separate periods. The first period is a prelude to the second period and is set right at the start of the Dark Symmetry Era, mere days after the Imperial Conquistadors discover and touch the strange tablet that unleashes the Dark Symmetry on the Solar System and is explored in two connected scenarios, ‘Straffar Gatan 39’ and ‘The Fall of von Hölle’. The second period comes near the end of the Dark Symmetry period after the end of the First Corporate Wars and is explored in the Dark Symmetry Campaign itself, which takes up three quarters of the Dark Symmetry Campaign Book. Both the prelude and the campaign proper have the same set-up of the player characters being detectives with, or freelancers working for, Luna PD, and to that end, pre-generated characters are provided. Unfortunately, only the one set of pre-generated characters is provided, which is something of an issue given that they can only be used with one or the other. So the players will need to generate their own characters if they are to play the Dark Symmetry Campaign and when they do so, their choices will be limited to the character types that are only available during that era.

The prelude opens with ‘Straffar Gatan 39’ in which the player characters, as detectives assigned to, or freelancers working for, Luna PD 32nd Precinct Homicide Division, are assigned a call-out to a tenement block, the eponymous ‘Straffar Gatan 39’, where the residents have reported screams and other strange sounds. The investigation takes place entirely in the environs of the tenement block, which becomes very much a character of its own as the scenario proceeds and the influence of the Dark Symmetry seeps into its walls and ducts until the point that the building turns against the investigators as they race to uncover what is going on in Straffar Gatan 39, rescue those still living there, and then get out. The latter is itself a challenge and for much of the scenario, the player characters will find themselves locked in, which may be a frustrating experience for some players. That said, there is a way out that becomes apparent towards the scenario’s end. The building is nicely detailed and its dilapidated state is reflected in it having been chopped open as a train tunnel has been driven past it. The scale of ‘Straffar Gatan 39’, which is relatively small and self-contained within the building itself, makes it a good starting scenario, exposing the players and their characters to the first signs of the Dark Symmetry.

Where ‘Straffar Gatan 39’ begins in a relatively benign fashion and lets the effects of the Dark Symmetry build towards the horror that comes to pervade the future of Mutant Chronicles, ‘The Fall of von Hölle’ exposes the player characters to the effects as they spread throughout the Solar System. Its tendrils reach out and affect pieces of high technology at random, corrupting it and setting it against its creators and users, and as the detectives are told to follow up the leads from their call out at Straffar Gatan 39, it begins to hamper their investigation. This is a much more of a traditional investigation in roleplaying terms and is thoroughly playable, but its best scenes are not the ones that really involve investigation. Instead, they are those that bring the detectives face to face with the effects of failing technology—out of control spaces plummeting to the Lunar surface, oil pipelines rupturing and their content threatening to immolate all and sundry, and so on. There are a couple of oddities in the scenario too, a pirate broadcast station that constantly plays across screens, but how it works is never quite explained and a building with a floor that it is not supposed to be there.

What is noticeable about ‘Straffar Gatan 39’ and then ‘The Fall of von Hölle’, is that there is a step up in sophistication from the first to the second scenario, and similarly there is another step up in sophistication as the Dark Symmetry Campaign begins. Divided into six parts, it opens with ‘Appetite for Destruction’, which concerns itself with the day-to-day, shift-to-shift life of being a detective for the Cheapside Division of the Luna PD. The Mutant Chronicles: Luna & Freelancers Sourcebook is likely to be useful here as it lets the GM do ‘Luna Street Blues’, throwing lots of little situations and cases at the player characters whilst laying the foundation for the campaign’s main plot and the seeds for the climax to ‘Appetite for Destruction’, which occurs in the next part of the campaign, ‘Going Underground’. This second part is much shorter and sees the detectives delve into the sewers, tunnels, and ruins beneath Luna City. This is a good contrast to the hustle and bustle of Luna City above and both reveals the plot and brings the campaign to natural break. What is revealed is that a cult has been using the rampant drug trade and culture in the Cheapside sector to seed and implant humanity with alien horrors, this setting up the body and birthing horror themes a la the film Alien that runs rampant throughout the Dark Symmetry Campaign.

Completing ‘Appetite for Destruction’ and ‘Going Underground’ should give the players and their characters a sense of achievement and victory, but there is a greater plot to the Dark Symmetry Campaign that comes to the fore with its inter-corporate rivalry and corporate malfeasance in the third part, ‘Journey to Mars’ and beyond. When their corporate masters learn of what they encountered in and under Luna City, they task the player characters with transporting it to Mars—in complete and utter secrecy of course. It is on this journey that the campaign has the capacity to most closely emulate the film Alien, though there is respite of a sorts if the GM uses the various events that can happen to drive the player characters and their ship, The Pandora, to call in at Fuji Station, a space station between planets.

Unfortunately, if The Pandora does need repairs, the player characters certainly do not have the funds to pay for them. The only option presented is to use their precious, ‘secret’ cargo as some form of payment and there are factions aboard Fuji Station that will be interested in it. No other choices are suggested and as much as it is designed to put the player characters in an awkward situation with their employer, the campaign could have handled it better. Certainly the consequences of the player character actions could have been better explored before they arrive somewhat abruptly on Mars.

If the world of Mutant Chronicles is dominated by corporate interests, then in ‘The Deregulation Zone’, the fourth part of the Dark Symmetry Campaign, both they and capitalism, are allowed to run rampant. Dumped in this free for all zone following their arrival on Mars, the player characters need to navigate this capitalist paradise, following leads up the corporate ladder if they are to gain enough clues to be able to confront the villain of the piece. Where the start of the campaign, ‘Appetite for Destruction’, was free form in its structure, allowing the GM to direct its events, ‘The Deregulation Zone’ is free form in structure, but driven by the decisions and actions of the player characters. There is room here to expand the campaign should the GM decide to do so, but eventually, the detectives should have gained enough information and clues to able to approach the mastermind behind the plot.

‘The Deputy’, the fifth part of the campaign, is almost a slice of light relief after the events of the previous four parts. Essentially, the player characters get to audition for the new series of Don Stevia’s television show, jumping through a series of hoops in order to get to the ‘great’ man. Otherwise, the three scenes here are inconsequential, staged affairs, just as you would expect for reality television. In the final and sixth part of the campaign, ‘The Citadel’, the player characters get to assault the horrors that the all too human evil at the heart of the scenario is protecting. All that the player characters need are guns and the willpower to survive.

Much like certain adventures for Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, the Dark Symmetry Campaign does suffer from some terrible wordplay in Swedish and German. So the ‘Straffar Gatan’ of ‘Straffar Gatan 39’ actually means ‘Penalties Way’ in Swedish and the ‘von Hölle’ of ‘The Fall of von Hölle’ means ‘of Hell’ in German. This is not so much of a feature in the Dark Symmetry Campaign itself, although wordplay does abound. For example, the name of a hot-dog seller who is an ardent and vocal supporter of capitalism, is Milton Feedman, whilst the name of the reality television series that the player characters participate in is The Deputy rather than The Apprentice.

As good as the Dark Symmetry Campaign Book is, it is not without its issues. The first is the disconnect between the prelude—‘Straffar Gatan 39’ and ‘The Fall of von Hölle’—and the Dark Symmetry Campaign itself. Essentially there is no way for the characters from the prelude to go on to the campaign and perhaps it would have been better had a second set of pre-generated characters been provided to play with the full campaign. Perhaps though, the two scenarios could have been released in a book of their own and that would have allowed room for pre-generated characters in each book. The second issue is that although the campaign has some good set scenes, such as having to rescue the children from imminent immolation and having to ascend a building in a malfunctioning lift in ‘The Fall of von Hölle’ and having to repel a pirate boarding attempt in ‘Journey to Mars’, too often these set scenes, especially the climaxes are predicated on combat over other solutions. There is a lot of investigation to be conducted, but all too often the solution to any problem is a fight. The third issue is that whilst the first two scenarios do come with good handouts, there are almost none in the Dark Symmetry Campaign itself and what there is is instead, is several sections of heavy information that needs to be read out to the players. There is a lot to digest in these pieces and they could have been better handled and presented.

The fourth issue is the weakness of certain parts of the campaign, in particular aboard the space station in ‘Journey to Mars’ where they need to acquire repairs to their ship if they are to continue with their mission. The consequences of the player character actions are not really explored to any great depth in this chapter and the GM is essentially left on his own to handle the various possible outcomes—primarily what happens if the player characters lose their alien cargo?—on his own. Similarly, what happens when the player characters confront the villain of the piece, Don Stevia, is not fully explored. For example, does anything happen if they shoot him?

Lastly, there is the portrayal of Don Stevia himself. Essentially, he is a Donald Trump-like figure—very Donald Trump-like. This is obvious in his portrait in the book and in the name of his television show, The Deputy. Yet, for all his power and wealth, when the player characters do confront him, it is an anti-climax and likely to be unsatisfying. Of course, there is a satirical aspect to this portrayal, but in light of more recent events, there is the possibility that some players and GMs may be offended at such a portrayal.

Physically, the Dark Symmetry Campaign Book is nicely presented in full colour with a lot of visceral artwork. The book does need an edit in places though, and whilst there is a lot of information packed into the book, it means that the text itself is quite small and not always the easiest to read.

Whilst ‘Straffar Gatan 39’ and ‘The Fall of von Hölle’ together provide a decent introduction to Mutant Chronicles, the Dark Symmetry Campaign provides a good, if not perfect campaign for the game. It will require a GM with some experience to run properly as some elements of the campaign are not as fully developed as they could have been and so they are not as interesting as others. While it does well in delivering up the body horror and the corporate shenanigans, where the Dark Symmetry Campaign really shines is in the expansive sections that let the GM and player alike explore the world of Mutant Chronicles and allow it to breathe.

Friday 10 February 2017

A RuneQuest Bestiary III

Originally published in 1978, RuneQuest Source Pack Gamma: Militia & Mercenaries was the third sourcebook 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 Scenario Pack 1: Balastor’s Barracks, RuneQuest Source Pack Alpha: Trolls and Trollkin, RuneQuest Source Pack Beta: Creatures of Chaos 1: Scorpion Men and Broos, and the previously unpublished Scenario Pack 3: The Sea Cave. Notably, Apple Lane: Two Beginning Scenarios - Gringle’s Pawnshop & The Rainbow Mounds (Scenario Pack 2) was not included as part of The Old School RQ Source Pack.

Just as RuneQuest Source Pack Alpha: Trolls and Trollkin and RuneQuest Source Pack Beta: Creatures of Chaos 1: Scorpion Men and Broos are by modern standards odd products, the same can be said of RuneQuest Source Pack Gamma: Militia & Mercenaries. All three are books of monsters, but not bestiaries in the traditional sense. Not one of the three is a Monster Manual, no collection of beasts, creatures, fiends, and more from a variety of environments and settings a la Dungeons & Dragons. Rather each is a collection of two types of monster particular to RuneQuest. Where RuneQuest Source Pack Alpha: Trolls and Trollkin focused on Dark Trolls and Trollkin and RuneQuest Source Pack Beta: Creatures of Chaos 1: Scorpion Men and Broos focused on Scorpion Men and Broos—all typically the foes of Man—RuneQuest Source Pack Gamma: Militia & Mercenaries differs in that it presents a book of stats of individuals that can be used as enemies, allies, or even player characters.

What RuneQuest Source Pack Gamma: Militia & Mercenaries contains are the stats of soldiers. These number some six officers, some seventy-nine soldiers—consisting of a mix of foot soldiers and foot archers, and some eleven warhorses. These are divided into seven companies. So the militia include Felton’s Loyal Farmers, whilst the mercenaries include the Thorns of Thalba-wak, Hygélac’s Hotshots and Foli’s Volleys (both all archers), Windyman’s Wonders, Roontin’s Reluctants, and Kozak’s Clans. Now none of these militiamen or mercenaries are particularly competent, most having skill ranges between 30% and 55%. Like RuneQuest Source Pack Alpha: Trolls and Trollkin and RuneQuest Source Pack Beta: Creatures of Chaos 1: Scorpion Men and Broos, this supplement is part “...of a series of pre-rolled monster books, each monster different, and each generated by computer to eliminate any conceivable bias.” Similarly, there is no backstory, no context, no characterisation. Just the stats. This reflects a number of facts. First, how much RuneQuest individualises its monsters and characters. Second, how basic a supplement RuneQuest Source Pack Gamma: Militia & Mercenaries actually is.

In fact, there is some context to these seven companies, but it amounts to no more than their names. These should spur the GM to create some background to the companies when bringing them into his game at the very least. When it comes using them, the eighty-five fighters on display can be used as NPCs or even player characters. They could even be used in teams perhaps to play through tough adventures like Balastor’s Barracks.

The previous entries in this series have both provided further support material for RuneQuest II in their back pages. RuneQuest Source Pack Alpha: Trolls and Trollkin provided a history of the Trolls, whilst RuneQuest Source Pack Beta: Creatures of Chaos 1: Scorpion Men and Broos gave ‘Geedunk Dungeon’. What RuneQuest Source Pack Gamma: Militia & Mercenaries provides is a number of new character sheets and a discussion of their design. These include a full new character sheet, plus sheets for major monsters, minor monsters, and identical monsters, plus a reference sheet for various elements of character generation and development. All are clear and easy to read, as well as of course, being serviceable.

Physically, RuneQuest Source Pack Gamma: Militia & Mercenaries is a product of its time. The dot matrix printing of the stats is slightly faint, so not necessarily the easiest of text to read. Elsewhere, the book is more than easy to read.

Of course, RuneQuest Source Pack Gamma: Militia & Mercenaries is a product of its time, much like the rest of The Old School RQ Source Pack. Yet RuneQuest Source Pack Gamma: Militia & Mercenaries is a product which the GM would really need to work at in order to get a lot of use from and of all the entries in The Old School RQ Source Pack it is the least interesting.

Sunday 5 February 2017

Piety & Profit

Given the degree of Medievalism present in a great many fantasy RPGs, especially those of the Old School Renaissance, it is often forgotten or ignored the importance of faith, worship, and religion in the lives of all and sundry, from kings and queens to servants and serfs. Even the role and Class of the Cleric in such games ignores this to a certain extent, but a new supplement focuses very much on this importance and shows how it can become a major aspect of a campaign. Burgs & Bailiffs: Trinity – The Poor Pilgrim’s Almanack, or, The Handbook of Pilgrimage and Relic Theft examines the role and importance that going on a pilgrimage, relics, and thus relic theft, including as it does the adage, “Pilgrimages in the Middle Ages were some kind of extremely hardcore live RPG that went on 24 hours a day”. Published by Lost Pages, Burgs & Bailiffs: Trinity is the third in the series of supplements, the previous having been Burgs & Bailiffs: Warfare Too and the next will be Burgs & Bailiffs: For King & Country. This third supplement though is a historical sourcebook that covers the Middle Ages, roughly from the Fifth Century until the Fifteenth, though there is no doubt that its contents would apply much, much later. It is compatible with most Retroclones, but its focus on history and relatively limited number of rules mean that its content could prove useful in any number of RPGs, whether that is Atlas Games’ Ars Magica, Arion Games’ Maelstrom, Games Workshop’s Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, Green Ronin Publishing’s Medieval Player’s Manual, and even Pelgrane Press’ Bookhounds of London.

What Burgs & Bailiffs: Trinity – The Poor Pilgrim’s Almanack covers is travel in the Middle Ages, the Medieval approach to death and beyond, relics and their theft, catacombs, and pilgrimage destinations. It also provides a new spell system structure for the Cleric Class and a new Class in the form of the Palmer. It is nicely illustrated with period artwork and some interesting maps, though the lack of an index does impede its use as an easy reference.

Travel it seems in the Middle Ages was a lot more common than most realise. Mostly obviously travel was for military and mercantile reasons, but men and women from all classes also travelled for religious purposes, often as far as the Holy Land and back. They were going on pilgrimage to sites of religious worship as signs of their devotion, prestige, to give thanksgiving, to find a cure, to make a penance, and even to escape a debt or go as someone else’s proxy. In addition to their destination, pilgrims would stop off at other sites along the way—shrines, churches, catacombs, and more. Not only would these sites be associated with particular saints, for example, the tomb of St. Chad in Lichfield or the Basilica of St. Madeleine with Mary Magdalene and John the Baptist in Burgundy, but as the Middle Ages progressed, they came to house holy relics. These consisted of not only clothing and other possessions belonging to the saints, but their body parts too—hair, teeth, nails, and bones!—and even the milk and tears that such relics wept. Praying to, or touching, such relics could grant healing and even miracles, so they became venerated for this as much as their holy providence. The degree of providence was classified into three Classes, ranging from Class III, oil poured over an actual relic and collected or a cobblestone from a street in the Holy Land, up to Class I, such a piece of the True Cross or a bone or body part of an actual saint.

Money though, came to play a great role in the relics and pilgrimage business. There was money to be made in providing travel and shelter to pilgrims and pilgrims made offerings  to shrines—peasants perhaps a votive offering or a coin or two, whilst the rich donated great sums, which in turn could be used to erect and decorate great churches and cathedrals around relics and further enhance the shrines. Since there was money involved, everyone wanted to get in on the game and since not everyone had access to a holy relic, they had two choices. Steal one—either from a holy site or from a tomb or catacomb, or make one. So relics were traded back and forth, stolen or subject to ‘Furta Sacra’ as the theft of relics was known, and manufactured just so that a ‘new shrine’ and its surrounding businesses could get in on the action.

Essentially, this is what Burgs & Bailiffs: Trinity is all about. The player characters are pilgrims, travelling from one end of Christianity to the other, visiting shrines and praying as penances or simply as signs of their devotion. Alternatively, they might be thieves or forgers, plundering tombs and catacombs or faking relics to sell to needy churches or credulous pilgrims. Campaigns built around pilgrimage and relics would involve a lot of travel and the difficulties involved in it, piety or least displays of it, and brigandage and other forms of extortion. Pilgrimages can involve any kind of character, but Clerics might need to pray before a particular relic, Fighters to guard the large groups in which pilgrims travelled, and Thieves because they can steal from both the pilgrims and pilgrimage sites.

Given the subject matter of Burgs & Bailiffs: Trinity, it is no surprise that the one Class it focuses us on is the Cleric. It alters the clerical spell system by making spells require relics as their material component. Two options are given to that end. The first suggests that a Cleric need to possess a relic to cast spells or miracles beyond First Level spells. Similarly, relics can also be used to Turn the undead and aid in healing, the more powerful the relic, the more effective it is. Such relics are not consumed in the casting of spells, but the more powerful the spell, the higher the class of relic required, for example, a Class I relic would be required to cast a spell of Fifth Level and above. In the second option, the Cleric needs to visit particular shrines to learn certain spells and apart from First Level and Second Level spells, a Cleric will need to pray before an altar or shrine in order all other spells. To that end Burgs & Bailiffs: Trinity amends the Clerical spell list to include shrines where they can prayed for and learned. In both options, the Cleric Class is now driven to travel in order to learn his miracles or spells.

The Palmer is a new Class that can work miracles and eventually establish shrines. Yet where the traditionally ordained Cleric gains his spells through divine favour, the Palmer must actually pray at specific shrines to gain spells or miracles. Further, he can Busk through storytelling, the selling of indulgences, and the giving of sermons to make a living, as well as eventually, to establish a shrine to further support himself and have somewhere to pray. The Referee will need to seed a campaign with shrines in order for the Palmer to travel to. This Class is intended to replace the traditional Dungeons & Dragons-style Cleric, perhaps in a dryer, more historical campaign.

A good fifth of Burgs & Bailiffs: Trinity is devoted to shrines and pilgrimage sites from England and Ireland to the Mediterranean and the Levant, though relics and shrines in Near East and Asia are also discussed. The relics themselves are described in some detail, while tables allow the Referee to create his own. A similar treatment is accorded catacombs, with attention paid to actual historical sites, such as those of Rome and Malta, whilst tables enable the Referee to again create his own. Further tables give encounters to have whilst on pilgrimage, boons to be granted pilgrims, and more, while the book ends with tables of adventure seeds.

As good as the material is in Burgs & Bailiffs: Trinity, the book is perhaps lacking in a couple of areas. There is no real discussion of the role of the other traditional Dungeons & Dragons-style Classes in a campaign that focuses on pilgrimages and relics and nor is there any discussion of actual campaigns that focus on pilgrimages and relics. This means that the supplement lacks a certain degree of application.

Burgs & Bailiffs: Trinity feels thoroughly researched and is full of rich detail. How useful a supplement it is, depends upon the role of faith and religion in a campaign, but there is content here that can be simply used to flavour a campaign or used as the basis of a campaign. Burgs & Bailiffs: Trinity – The Poor Pilgrim’s Almanack, or, The Handbook of Pilgrimage and Relic Theft might not necessarily be the most immediately useful supplement, but it is quite possibly the definite supplement on relics and pilgrimages for Dungeons & Dragons or the Retroclone of your choice.

Saturday 4 February 2017

A RuneQuest Bestiary II

Originally published in 1978, RuneQuest Source Pack Beta: Creatures of Chaos 1: Scorpion Men and Broos was the second sourcebook 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 Scenario Pack 1: Balastor’s Barracks, RuneQuest Source Pack Alpha: Trolls and Trollkin, Militia & Mercenaries, and the previously unpublished Scenario Pack 3: The Sea Cave. Notably, Apple Lane: Two Beginning Scenarios - Gringle’s Pawnshop & The Rainbow Mounds (Scenario Pack 2) was not included as part of The Old School RQ Source Pack.

Just as RuneQuest Source Pack Alpha: Trolls and Trollkin is by modern standards an odd product, the same can be said of RuneQuest Source Pack Beta: Creatures of Chaos 1: Scorpion Men and Broos. Both are books of monsters, but not bestiaries in the traditional sense. Neither one is a Monster Manual, no collection of beasts, creatures, fiends, and more from a variety of environments and settings a la Dungeons & Dragons. Rather each is a collection of two types of monster particular to RuneQuest. Where RuneQuest Source Pack Alpha: Trolls and Trollkin focused on Dark Trolls and Trollkin, RuneQuest Source Pack Beta: Creatures of Chaos 1: Scorpion Men and Broos looks at two of the foes of the Trolls—Scorpion Men and Broos. The book contains the stats for some forty-five Scorpion Men and fifty-four Broos—in RuneQuest terms, the base creatures of Chaos. Like RuneQuest Source Pack Alpha: Trolls and Trollkin, this supplement is part “...of a series of pre-rolled monster books, each monster different, and each generated by computer to eliminate any conceivable bias.” Similarly, there is no backstory, no context, no characterisation. Just the stats. This reflects a number of facts. First, how much RuneQuest individualises its monsters. Second, how the stunty Trollkin would die in droves. Third, how basic a supplement RuneQuest Source Pack Beta: Creatures of Chaos 1: Scorpion Men and Broos actually is.

Yet RuneQuest Source Pack Beta: Creatures of Chaos 1: Scorpion Men and Broos actually is more sophisticated than RuneQuest Source Pack Alpha: Trolls and Trollkin. There are actual notes on how to use each of these types of creature which also describe how they are organised in the supplement. In particular, they are broken down into small bands suitable as foes for beginning player characters, then there are tougher foes with a leader, and lastly, particularly tough leaders. In each case, with both the Scorpion Men and the Broo, this provides a means for the Game Master to scale them appropriately as opponents for his player characters. It also points a little towards the mentality and activities of such creatures, collecting around sources of food and stronger leaders. With both sets of creatures, what gives them their edge is a chaos feature. Not all of them possess this, but others can absorb or reflect the power of spells, have a confusing appearance that aids their defence, thick skin, spit acid, regenerates damage, and more. These scale with the power of the creature.

Rounding out the foul chaos of RuneQuest Source Pack Beta: Creatures of Chaos 1: Scorpion Men and Broos is an interesting piece of RuneQuest history. This is ‘Geedunk Dungeon’, which describes itself as ‘RuneQuest Scenario Pack #0’. Originally intended to be included in the RuneQuest core rules, it was not quite ready at the time of printing. What it describes is a set of rooms—just five—located within a larger complex. It has not been explored in some time, but is said to be the lair of some Trollkin. Now this is true, but what the interconnected rooms are also home too are Zombies, a Jack O’bear, and a Gorp. Which seems an odd conjunction of creatures in such a tiny space—Trolls and Chaos so close together? This was an issue in Balastor’s Barracks and so it is here. Another issue that ‘Geedunk Dungeon’ and Balastor’s Barracks share is that both are not written for beginning adventurers. They need to possess a weapon skill of at least 50% and more.

‘Geedunk Dungeon’ is however, almost too basic a scenario and feels unlike a RuneQuest scenario. It even goes so far as to explain what a ‘Scenario Pack ‘ is and how it is used. It is certainly unlike the more sophisticated scenarios that RuneQuest is better known for. Nevertheless, it harks back to an age when the only type of adventure was the dungeon adventure.

There can be no doubt that both RuneQuest Source Pack Alpha: Trolls and Trollkin and RuneQuest Source Pack Beta: Creatures of Chaos 1: Scorpion Men and Broos are very much period pieces and of their time. Yet the latter showcases a growing sophistication and with its few words of help and advice, it was better support for RuneQuest II.