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

Monday 27 March 2017

Cthulhu Dice Go Metal

For as long as there has been gaming, there has dice and every gamer has a set that he loves, loathes, and places the fate of his characters upon. A gamer’s dice can be as simple or as sophisticated as he wants, whether that is a set of dice that he can use with any roleplaying game or a set of dice particular to a specific roleplaying game, for example, the dice for Cubicle Seven Entertainment’s The One Ring RPG or any one of the Star Wars RPGs published by Fantasy Flight Games, such Star Wars: Edge of Empire, because their mechanics and their dice warrant it. Of course, this does not stop publishers and manufacturers creating and publishing dice for specific games which are themed around said games rather than mechanics. Chaosium, Inc. is one such publisher, working with Q-Workshop to create several dice sets for Call of Cthulhu, including for Call of Cthulhu, Seven Edition. The very latest dice set for Call Cthulhu from Q-Workshop makes the dice go heavy metal.

The Call of Cthulhu Metal Dice Set is a complete set of polyhedral dice—one four-sided, one six-sided, one eight-sided, one twelve-sided, and one twenty-sided die, plus one ordinary ten-sided die and one ten-sided die marked in tens so that percentiles can be rolled. Altogether, the complete set weighs just under six ounces. Each die is roughly two thirds of an inch high and is sculpted with a tentacular theme along the edges with the corners on some dice ending in toothy, gaping, sphincter-like  maws. The faces are etched and inked in black so that the numbers stand out. Bar the four-sided die, the highest face on each die has been replaced with an Elder Sign—star not tree!

In practice, each of the dice in the Call of Cthulhu Metal Dice Set is a hefty gaming accessory. They feel sturdy in the hand and they do roll with solid thunk upon hitting the table. The fact that they do land with said solid thunk is a possible issue with these dice. They are not dice that you want to roll on a glass surface or any one that would be damaged or scratched. A tough plastic surface, a table cloth, or a dice tray is recommended if you want to roll these dice in anger. The other issue is one of legibility. The numbers on the twenty-sided die are small, especially in comparison to the numbers and faces of the six, eight, and twelve-sided dice. This makes them hard to read—the Elder Sign in particular—under low light conditions. So a good strong light is equally as recommended, though good strong light is not always inducive to the atmosphere of a horror roleplaying game like Call of Cthulhu. Though, that said, the twenty-sided die is relatively little used in Call of Cthulhu.

Ultimately as beautiful as the dice are in the Call of Cthulhu Metal Dice Set and as much as a presence as they can have on the gaming table, they are not absolutely necessary to your play of Call of Cthulhu—or other roleplaying game of choice (mine is currently King Arthur Pendragon, published by Nocturnal Media), but they work well for either. Except of course where you roll double Elder Sign on the percentile dice; that is very Call of Cthulhu! The Call of Cthulhu Metal Dice Set is a very nice set and if you like nice dice and you like Call of Cthulhu, then the Call of Cthulhu Metal Dice Set is a fetching accessory.

Sunday 26 March 2017

Movie Dominoes

Published by Cinelinx Media, LLC  following a successful Kickstarter campaign, Cinelinx - A Card Game For People Who Love Movies is a light, movie trivia card game that essentially plays like a cross between classic Dominoes and Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon. Rather than asking questions about what you know about the movies—film titles, actors, genres, movies, directors, scenes, quotes, and characters—it asks you what you know about the movies and then make connections between them.

Designed for two to six players, aged thirteen plus, the game consists of two hundred and twenty-four cards. These are broken down into four rules cards, eighteen Directors cards, eighty-six Actors cards, sixty-two Movie cards, sixteen Double Feature cards, four Quotes cards, four Character cards, four Scene cards, and fourteen Genre cards, plus twelve Director’s Cut cards. Each of the game cards comes with two pieces of text on it. One indicates the type, for example, Movies or Actors, while the other gives the text to connect to. So, for example, a Movies card might be ‘Star Wars’, a Actors card might be ‘Morgan Freeman’, a Genre card might be ‘Science Fiction/Fantasy’, and a Directors card might be ‘Christopher Nolan’. All four sides of each card are marked by film reel halved. These are lined up to form the connections from one card to another.

The rules come on four cards. One of the four gives the rules, one a guide to making connections, one to card types, and one to game variations. The rules to Cinelinx are simple. One card is placed in the centre of the table, typically a Genre card and the Director cards, which allow a player do things like swap cards with another player or allow a player to play two cards. Each player receives a hand of ten cards. Then on his turn he plays a card from his hand, placing it down so that it forms a connection with a card on the table. So for example, with the ‘Horror/Thriller’ Genre card down on the table, a player might place the ‘Interview with the Vampire: Chronicles’ next to it, the ‘Kiefer Sutherland’ Actors card (because Flatliners is a horror movie), and so on. Play continues until one player has played all his cards.

If a player cannot place a card, he must draw two cards and miss a turn. Alternatively, a player can swap up three cards from his hand and miss two consecutive turns. A player’s choice of card and connection can also be challenged and if proven invalid, he loses a turn.

And that is that… Physically, the cards in Cinelinx are decent enough if slightly rough to the touch. The rules themselves are perhaps slightly succinctly done on the cards and they are also a bit too small read. This being a trivia style game and a movie buff is going to have a big advantage with Cinelinx. The Dominoes-style game play is probably a bit too simple for anything more than casual play and a bit too simple for anything more than repeated play, whilst its age limits means that it is not really a family game either. Cinelinx - A Card Game For People Who Love Movies is a simple game for movie buffs that is not quite worth a rerun.

Saturday 25 March 2017

The Zone Quartet II

Mutant: Year Zero – Zone Compendium 2 – Dead Blue Sea is the second supplement for Mutant: Year Zero – Roleplaying at the End of Days, the post-apocalypse set RPG based on Mutant - År Noll, the Swedish RPG from Free League Publishing released in English by Modiphius Entertainment. As with the first, Mutant: Year Zero – Zone Compendium 1 – Lair of the Saurians, Mutant: Year Zero – Zone Compendium 2 – Dead Blue Sea is a slim thirty-two page supplement that presents various scenario set-ups and situations as well as new rules, but where in Mutant: Year Zero – Zone Compendium 1 – Lair of the Saurians these scenario set-ups and situations and new rules could be quickly and easily dropped into a GM’s campaign and the sectors of his Zone map, this is not quite the case with Mutant: Year Zero – Zone Compendium 2 – Dead Blue Sea. This is not actually a criticism of the supplement, but rather a reflection of its content and the changes it will make to a campaign, for as its title suggests, Mutant: Year Zero – Zone Compendium 2 – Dead Blue Sea takes the Mutant: Year Zero RPG to sea.

What Mutant: Year Zero – Zone Compendium 2 – Dead Blue Sea does share with Mutant: Year Zero – Zone Compendium 1 – Lair of the Saurians is impressive productions values. They are the same as those of the core rulebook. The supplement is done in full colour, the illustrations are good, and the maps—more exploded diagrams than two-dimensional maps—are nicely done. True, they do not show every detail, but they show enough and from their overall descriptions, the GM will be able to describe the rest of the location with ease. Overall, this is a sturdy little book that feels good in the hand.

In taking Mutant: Year Zero to sea, Mutant: Year Zero – Zone Compendium 2 – Dead Blue Sea sets up two options and supports them with various chanes. The first is taking an existing Mutant: Year Zero campaign onto the water, the second is having a campaign start there. To do this, it gives a whole zone to explore, much as Mutant: Year Zero did for the Big Apple and Big Smoke in the core rule book; replaces inappropriate mutations that do not work at sea; and adds new rules for running a game at sea, setting up an Ark at sea, and handling boats and travel. It adds rules for zones at sea as well as threats and artifacts plus four Special Zone Sectors—‘Cage Island’, ‘Oilfields of the Ancients’, ‘Drifters from Afar’, and ‘Ghost Ship’.

The changes start with two Mutations, ‘Cryokinesis’ and ‘Human Toad’, being given to replace two Mutations, like ‘Frog Legs’ and ‘Tracker’, which do not work so well at sea. The first enables a Mutant to freeze an opponent, water, or a fire, whilst the latter lets a Mutant catch objects and creatures with his tongue, secret a poison through his skin, and hibernate. Rules for conflict at sea cover swimming and its dangers, whilst those for weapons note that bullets are not popular as they are on land, either for firing from guns or for use as currency, because gunpowder gets wet. Instead, harpoons are employed because they can be used on and under the water, and once fired, their lines can be hauled back and the weapons reloaded.

Various places are suggested to place the player characters’ Ark, such as a lighthouse, an oil rig, or the top of a skyscraper protruding from the water. New projects for a water-based Ark include a Distillery—since potable water is scarce at sea, a Sail Loft for sewing sails for boats and ships like the Scrap Sloop, Scrap Ship, Sail Catamaran, that an Ark can also build. The dangers and difficulties of a Sea Zone are also highlighted, not just how the weather and night can affect travel, but also how the seas and winds are in constant motion, which means that the Rot—the nuclear, biological, and chemical after effects of whatever it was that caused the Apocalypse and which can accumulate in a Mutant’s body and mutate him further if not outright kill him—is constantly churning and moving, dispersing and accumulating.

Given the change in environment and its dangers that the supplement describes, it should be no surprise that Mutant: Year Zero – Zone Compendium 2 – Dead Blue Sea gives new and numerous threats that the player characters might encounter. These include merchant convoys, whalers, slavers, and castaways as well as menagerie of waterborne monsters, such as Steel Sharks that chew and eat everything, Strangle Weed that ensnares and strangles, and legendary things like Rotzilla and the Kraken, which ascend from the depths to rampage or fight each other, and so cause great waves to crash across the zone.

The first of the four Special Zone Sectors is ‘Cage Island’. Located on a heavily fortified scrap island, this trading post is a home to exiles from across the zone and is a growing and well-organised mercantile nexus. It is also a slave-trading centre, but goods of all sorts, including artefacts, can be found here too. Plot hooks suggest that colleagues of the player characters have disappeared there, that the merchants at ‘Cage Island’ are spying on the player characters and the Ark, and more. The second, ‘Oilfields of the Ancients’ describes a quartet of four oil rigs that are still operating, their lights are on, flames still soar into the air, and oil is still being pumped from the depths. Half-staffed by clones, the oil rigs, being from before the apocalypse, contain a hoard of artefacts and are rumoured to hold large stockpiles of food. Plot hooks include a civil war aboard the rigs, the rigs taking an interest in the Ark, an attack by a rival energy concern, and more. The drifters in ‘Drifters from Afar’, the third Special Zone Sector, live aboard a floating village, part of fleet that has split up and sailed away from the Mothership. The villager aboard are looking to trade and more as the player character may get caught up in strange customs or a war between rival floating villages. The last of the four Special Zone Sectors is ‘Ghost Ship’, an immense luxury cruiseship long abandoned and given over to the Rot and other things. This is essentially a floating dungeon to explore and loot, but can be used in other ways, perhaps as point of conflict between rival groups, the site of a rescue mission, and so on.

All four of these Special Sector Zones are decently done, but they are not quite as interesting as those given in Mutant: Year Zero – Zone Compendium 1 – Lair of the Saurians. Further, they are more difficult and challenging to use primarily because the environment they are set on—the ocean—is difficult and challenging to run and play. This is difficulty is present from off if the GM is setting his campaign and the Ark on the water, but the challenge and difficulty are added to game if the GM switches his campaign from land to water. Of course, should the GM set his campaign on the water, Mutant: Year Zero – Zone Compendium 2 – Dead Blue Sea does not neglect the campaign at the heart of Mutant: Year Zero, explaining how the metaplot can be adapted to life on the ocean waves.

The problem with Mutant: Year Zero – Zone Compendium 2 – Dead Blue Sea is that you have Mutant: Year Zero then Mutant: Year Zero – Zone Compendium 1 – Lair of the Saurians is an obvious first choice as a purchase because it more obviously expands on the starting Zone and extends it play area than does Mutant: Year Zero – Zone Compendium 2 – Dead Blue Sea. That said, if you want to start your Mutant: Year Zero campaign at sea or take it to sea, then Mutant: Year Zero – Zone Compendium 2 – Dead Blue Sea is what you need—it is a specialist supplement, but its speciality is decently done.

Monday 20 March 2017

A Planetary Romance Starter

A Festival of Blades: A Cavaliers of Mars Jumpstart is the quick start rules for the forthcoming RPG of swashbuckling action and planetary romance in the last great days of Mars. As swords flash, courtesans give their most seductive smiles, princes slip into decadence, and revolutionaries plot their downfall, sands blow into canals and further the fall of the once great cities of the Red Planet. It provides a simple introduction to the background, the basic rules, four pre-generated characters, and a three-act adventure. All the players and Game Master will need is a full set of polyhedral dice each and a copy of A Festival of Blades and they will have everything necessary for an enjoyable session or two’s worth of gaming. Published by Onyx Path Publishing, A Festival of Blades: A Cavaliers of Mars Jumpstart is available here as either a twenty-seven page, 4.3 MB or a twenty-eight-page booklet.

 A character in Cavaliers of Mars looks like this. This is an approximation given that I only have A Festival of Blades: A Cavaliers of Mars Jumpstart to hand, but it serves to illustrate and explain the game’s mechanics. Characters are defined by their Motivations—why they do things; Methods—how they do things; and Traits—motivations, methods, origins, careers, and relationships. These are all rated by die types. Lastly each character has several Talents that create exceptions to the rules.

Nerusk – Wily Thief

For Honour: d8
For Love: d6
For Self: d10

With Cunning: d8
With Force: d6
With Grace: d10

Thief d10 (What I take is mine); Slum Rat of Vance d8 (I fished the docks for rich men’s trash, but now I take it); Patience d6 (Without patience a plan is nothing and the dangers cannot be seen); Entertainer d8 (Sing the songs of the city as you steal from its pockets); Gambler d8 (When the dice are in your favour…)
Trouble: Selfish (When push comes to shove…)
Equipment: Multiple knives, harp, dark clothing, rope

Speed: 3 (roll 3 dice per round)
Weapons: Knives of every size and quality taken from his victims
Damage: 1

Distraction, Invisible Blade, Slip the Knife Deeper, Keeping up with the News

Cavaliers of Mars uses the DEIMOS System for its mechanics. This a dice pool system in which to undertake an action, a player rolls several dice and adds the two best results to beat a target rolled by the GM. A character’s pool is typically formed from a Motivation, a Method, and an appropriate Trait. Another character might be able to help by contributing an appropriate die. If the character’s total is higher than the GM’s total, then the GM narrates the outcome. If the GM’s total is higher than the character’s total, then the character has failed and the character’s player narrates the outcome.

So for example, Nerusk has to sneak past a guard to get into a merchant’s house. His player decides that Nerusk’s Motivation is Self—he is being paid to steal some papers; his Method is Grace—he is a burglar after all; and his Thief Trait—this is his job. So the player has three ten-sided dice to roll. If Nerusk had an accomplice, then perhaps she could distract the guard and add a Cunning die to the pool. The GM rolls two dice, one for the NPC’s Resolve and one the NPC’s most relevant Trait. So this gives a six-sided die for the guard’s Resolve and an eight-sided die for the guard’s ‘Alert to the Hoi Polloi’ Trait. Nerusk’s player rolls one, five, and eight, giving the Thief a total of thirteen. Fortunately, the GM rolls a two and a three and so narrates how Nerusk slips into the shadows as the guard merely yawns and wishes he was elsewhere.

Where an action has lasting consequences, it can earn extra dice, typically four-sided dice, depending on the outcome of the roll. If beneficial to a character, this is a Windfall die and it can be rolled and added to an action or combat roll after a player has selected his two dice. This allows a player to keep a Windfall die until he really needs it and it means that at least in mechanical terms he never wastes it and his character gets to be that little more capable and dramatic. For example, Nerusk’s accomplice might have encouraged the guard to take a sip of drugged wine that slows him down and will help the thief get back of the merchant’s house, whether unnoticed or not.

If a character fails an action, then the GM earns a Misfortune die. The GM can add this to a player’s dice pool at any time. If the result of the Misfortune die matches a die result in the player’s pool, then something bad happens and the Misfortune die is used up. If there is no match, then the GM keeps the Misfortune die. This means that when Misfortune dice enters the game, everyone knows that something bad—and dramatic—is going to happen, just not when.

A character also has Talents and whilst these grant a character special abilities and actions, they require another Trait, Method, or Motivation to be exerted or exhausted. Exerting a die steps it down one step, for example, from an eight-sided to a six-sided die, whereas Exhausting a die mens stepping it down to a four-sided die. For example, with his Keeping up with the News Talent Nerusk can exert his Entertainer Trait to pick up the latest rumours and news, but he can Exhaust the Trait to use his Distraction Talent. An Exhausted or Exerted Trait lasts for the remainder of a session.

Lastly, a character begins play with three Drama Points. These can be spent to count three dice rather than two in an action roll, recover Strain—the equivalent of damage in Cavaliers of Mars, to gain a rumour or other piece of information that the player is encouraged to create, to add a plot twist, to rally and improve a combat die, and to gain an extra die to add to a Motivation die. They are gained when a disaster befalls the player characters that they could not cannot stop, good roleplaying, making a self-sacrifice of note, and whenever a character’s Trouble causes him difficulty.

Combat can be run in simple fashion using the basic DEIMOS System for quick resolution, but a more complex system is provided. Each character has a number of action dice equal to his Speed rating. At the start of the combat round they can be rolled as red Strike dice for attacks and aggressive actions, black Parry dice for blocks and dodges, and white Stunt dice for manoeuvres and other actions. All of these are ten-sided dice, whilst the additional blue four-sided dice represent bonuses from Drama Points and scenery. 

At the start of a combat round, in the Taking Up Dice phase, each player decides how he will roll the dice pool derived from his Speed rating—as red Strike, black Parry, or white Stunt dice. Once the dice have been rolled, the Clash of Steel phase begins and the GM counts down from ten to one, a character being able to act with a Strike or Stunt die when the GM calls out the number rolled on them. When a Strike die is called out, it is compared to the target’s Parry. If higher, the Strike lands and the Parry die is discarded, whereas if the Parry is higher than or equal to the Strike die, the attack is blocked or dodged and both dice are discarded. Stunt dice are used to grant a bonus to the Strike and Parry dice of other player characters or to move. Beyond the basic Strike and Parry maneuvres, characters can use various combat manoeuvres, such as Lunge which changes a Parry die into a Strike die or a Sweep Attack which exerts a character’s Force and penalises his highest Parry die, but allows him to attack multiple foes. One combat manoeuvre can be carried out per character per turn. Damage is inflicted on characters and NPCs as Strain or conditions like Trapped or In love that will work like Trouble to earn a character Drama Points when they impede a character, though Mook generally take a single hit to take down. In the Break at the end of a round, a character makes a resolve test—rolling a die equal to an appropriate Motivation—and if the result is higher than the character’s Strain, he can continue fighting in the next round.

Now the combat system in Cavaliers of Mars works well enough, in effect combining an initiative mechanic and a resolution mechanic in one. The problem though is that the mechanic is entirely random without any real skill involved and at least in A Festival of Blades: A Cavaliers of Mars Jumpstart, none of a character’s Motivations, Methods, or Traits play a role in combat. If it did, then the different dice types from the Motivations, Methods, or Traits would have a significant influence on combat, with experienced combatants having an edge, whilst less experienced needing to opt for Parries and Stunts. Without this influence, there is a certain flat quality to the combat mechanics—at least in this quickstart.

In the middle of A Festival of Blades: A Cavaliers of Mars Jumpstart are the four pre-generated characters. They include a scholar-assassin, an astrologer with telekinesis, a soldier-thief, and a desert-noble. Their character sheets are clearly laid out and easy to read. None of the quartet come with a background, but there is enough information stated and implied between each character’s Motivations, Methods, Traits, and Talents that a roleplayer can get his teeth into.

The second half of A Festival of Blades: A Cavaliers of Mars Jumpstart is devoted to the adventure included in the quickstart. It takes place at the Festival of the Small Moon being held at a plaza in Vance, a city standing at the intersection of several canals and thus rich in water. All four characters are attending the festival as is  prince from another city, but as the party proceeds black-cloaked assassins cut him down and the plaza erupts into chaos. This assassination gives the characters their motivation or hook to act—the GM should read these out or give them to the characters’ players—and thus propel them into the action. It is a three act affair, one that takes them from the swirling action across the plaza and onto the murky canals of the Dredge quarter, their investigations eventually leading to the tower crypts high above the city. It involves lots of action, whether that is jumping from statue to statue to cross the plaza, dodging upturned vendors’ carts in the plaza, or balancing on the ropes and bridges between the tower crypts, but there is investigation too. It is a good mix and not only does it contain scenes where each of the characters has the chance to shine, it includes hooks as to what each character knows or can do to continue the investigation. It is a solid adventure and should give the players and GM alike a taste of the setting and the mechanics.

Physically, A Festival of Blades: A Cavaliers of Mars Jumpstart is well written, well laid out, and well presented. The rules themselves—at least the basic rules where the players are rolling based on their characters’ Methods, Motivations, and Traits—nicely encourage both the ways and whys of a character’s actions and how they are being roleplayed. It is unfortunate that the combat rules—as workable as they are—do not encourage this. Now to be fair, this is just in the quickstart, so the rules are not fully explained and the likelihood is that they will be in the full rules, but here they feel flat and disconnected from the primary DEIMOS System mechanics. Another issue perhaps is that there could have been a little more background to the Cavaliers of Mars setting. There are hints in the text, but imparting these to the players is another matter. 

This all sounds as if A Festival of Blades: A Cavaliers of Mars Jumpstart is poor product. This is not the case. It is at worst an imperfect product, the issue being the underwritten background and the issue with the combat rules. It is though, a good introduction to A Cavaliers of Mars and its mechanics, and supports it with a fun adventure of planetary romance and swashbuckling action.

Sunday 19 March 2017

Your Gateway to Japon Games II

It is difficult to say what exactly Machi Koro: Bright Lights, Big City is. Based on the award Japanese Machi Koro published in English in 2015 by IDW Games, it is not an expansion to the original game, but a standalone game. Yet nor is it a redesign of the original game as it includes almost no new cards, but instead includes cards and rules from the core set as well as from Machi Koro: Harbor Expansion and Machi Koro: Millionaire’s Row. The end result is slightly more accessible and streamlined, but the play remains the same.

In Machi Koro: Bright Lights, Big City, each player takes the role of Mayor of a small Japanese town whose citizens are demanding landmarks to make their hometown equal to any great city. Starting off with a Wheat Field and a Bakery as his Establishments plus City Hall as his first Landmark, each player will race to build six other Landmark buildings—a Harbour, a Train Station, a Shopping Mall, an Amusement Park, a Moon Tower, and an Airport. The first mayor to do so is the winner!

Play itself is very simple. On his turn, a player will roll one or more dice and compare the result to the numbers at the top of his Establishment cards. If the number rolled matches the number on an Establishment card, it will generate money for one or more players to spend on their turns. If the current player has sufficient money he can spend it to purchase an Establishment or a Landmark. A player can have multiples of most Establishment cards (and gain all of their effects when rolled), but can only buy one card per turn. Where Machi Koro gets interesting is how the cards generate money. There are four types. Blue cards pay out to everyone when their numbers are rolled; green only pay out on a player’s turn; red cards take money from other players when they roll their  numbers; and purple Major Establishment cards provide an action rather than a pay-out. Note that red and blue cards pay out even when it is not a player’s turn. For example, the blue Ranch cards pay everyone one coin when anyone rolls a result of a two. The green Bakery pays out one coin on a roll of two or three on the current player’s turn only. The red Café allows a player to take a coin from the current player when the current player rolls a three. The purple Business Centre allows a player to swap one of his buildings with that of another player.

Initially a player will be only rolling one die. If he purchases the Station landmark, he can roll one die or he can roll both dice. This means that range of results is no longer one to six, but two to twelve, and it means that as soon as they are built, a new range of buildings and their dice results are available to him. The cards with ranges above five tend to be more expensive and have more complex effects, especially results for six, seven, and eight. For example, the green Cheese Factory, which costs five coins, pays out three coins for each card the current player has with a cow symbol on it—currently only a Ranch—anytime he rolls a seven. Building the landmarks will also give a player a benefit. The Station allows him to roll two dice; the Amusement Park lets him roll again if he rolls doubles, and so on.

In comparison to the original game, Machi Koro: Bright Lights, Big City is designed for between two and five players rather than two to four. It reorganises the Marketplace from where Establishment cards can be purchased, dividing the Establishment cards into three separate decks: one for Establishment cards numbered six or less; one for Establishment cards numbered seven and over; and one for the Major Establishment cards. Only five types of Establishment cards are available to purchase in the Marketplace from each deck at any one time and only two Major Establishments. When one type of Establishment card is exhausted in the Marketplace, new cards are drawn until the limits are reached. Machi Koro: Bright Lights, Big City also replaces the Radio Tower Landmark with the Moon Tower, which allows a player to roll three dice and choose the most favourable two.

Physically, Machi Koro: Bright Lights, Big City is up to the same standards as the other Machi Koro titles.

Machi Koro: Bright Lights, Big City plays quickly and easily, though not as quickly as the suggested thirty minute playing time. Perhaps ninety minutes is a more accurate playing time. The primary changes from Machi Koro to Machi Koro: Bright Lights, Big City are the streamlining of the Marketplace and allowing five players rather than four. It also mixes in, but does not allow to dominate, the effect of the fish-related Establishment cards from Machi Koro: Harbour and the knocking down of Landmarks from Machi Koro: Millionaire’s Row. The result is a good game and a good jumping on point for the Machi Koro line, suitable for players aged ten and over. It is a bit light for seasoned gamers and for owners of Machi Koro and its expansions, it does not offer anything new. 

Friday 17 March 2017

Charting the Unchartable

Ostensibly, From Unformed Realms is a supplement for Cthulhu Hack, the stripped RPG of Lovecraftian investigative horror published by Just Crunch Games that is based on The Black Hack, the equally back-to-basics RPG inspired by Dungeons & Dragons. In fact, it is a systems neutral supplement that can be used with just about any RPG of Lovecraftian investigative horror or any RPG that deals with the weird, in just about any genre or time period. Well, that is except for a couple of pages at the back that are more period and element specific, but neither of those pages are the supplement’s raison d'être, which is essentially, rugose and squamous. What it is, is a means to throw something unexpected and unknown into the path of the investigators, adventurers, or misfortunates…

With a matter of rolling three six-sided dice, the GM can determine a significant feature of something unspeakable. The first die determines the type of traitextremities, senses, skeleton, fluids, appearance, and other features; the second a category, so for example, under fluids the options are voluntary and involuntary (plus tables for nature, neurotoxins, and unclean as needed); and the third die, the specific detail, which might be spittle, ink, sweat, vomit, bile, pus, and so on, all depending upon the rolls made.
Trenton ran. Behind him he could hear Dawson’s cries for help, but it was too late for Dawson, held as he was behind the bar-like ribs of the thing’s chest cavity. It was the first life-form that they had encountered on this planet, its sibilant wheezes, rising and falling making it sound like the wind that should have rolled between the towers of this ancient city of yellow metal. It was not they had they not heard these sounds, it was why they they were just not wary enough until Dawson noticed that there was no wind. Then the sibilance stopped and the shout came. It staggered his companion and before he could react something lumbered out of the shadows with its impossibly tall jaw wide open and snapped shut on the exo-archaeologist. 
Dawson had yelled and banged to get free. It took no notice. Trenton took no notice. All he saw were the multiple legs and then the spinning inside the cavity. Dawson rolling and rolling as a secretion was spread from front to back, howling in fear as he tried to work out what was happening to him. It was not going to happen to him though. Trenton had to get back to the landing ship. Then the thing began to pipe a pulsing sound and as it bounced off the yellow metal walls around him, Trenton knew he was being hunted.
So with a matter of three rolls of the dice, it was determined that with these monsters, its senses involve sound, specifically a shout or whisper; that it has a skeletal adaptation in the form of a cage; and that its form is arachnoid. Anything else is all terrible imagination. Of course, these are just three options and the GM is free to roll as many or as few times as he wants, but this is where From Unformed Realms works best, as a spur upon which the GM can hang his imagination and develop something more from the dice results.

Where From Unformed Realms does not quite work is going from first questions, such as “‘What does this thing look like?” and “What is the role of this thing?”. It is not a means to create monsters and other things in rational means since it neither sets out with those questions in mind nor places the tables and their answers in anything other than a random order. Now there is nothing to stop a GM consulting a particular sub-table to obtain such directed answers, but in some cases there is only a limited number of answers. Which means that such cases, for example ‘form’ and ‘specialist’, do not offer as many variations in comparison to other categories.

Rounding out From Unformed Realms is the two-page ‘The Obligatory Appendix’ in which a GM can roll up a mission statement or plot for his next scenario. These include tables for ‘The Hook?’, ‘Organisation’, ‘Reason?’, ‘Location?’, ‘Horror’s Motivation?’, ‘Nightmares?’, and ‘Strange Discovery?’. Unlike the various tables given in the rest of the book, none of the entries come with an explanation, but to fair, this is not really needed as the various entries are all self-explanatory. Further, these tables are organised in a logical fashion so as to help the GM set up the bare bones of a plot ready for him to flesh out. Further they are really only suited for use in the modern era, so the 1890s of Cthulhu by Gaslight, the Jazz Age of the default period of Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition, or the contemporary period of the here and now.

Arguably, From Unformed Realms could benefit from clearer advice on how to use the tables, that is, more directed advice on how to use the tables. Equally, the appendix could be expanded into its own book and there can be no doubt that this would also be very useful. As it is, From Unformed Realms is the sort of book you want to have on your shelf when short of ideas and short of time and browsing for inspiration.

Sunday 12 March 2017

Pulp Cthulhu II

Fifteen years after it was first announced and released as part of the successful, if protracted, Kickstarter campaign for Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition, Pulp Cthulhu: Two-fisted Action and Adventure Against the Mythos finally saw print and was in our hands in 2016. Although two previous roleplaying games stole the march on it—Trail of Cthulhu in 2008 from Pelgrane Press with its Pulp mode and the 2009 Realms of Cthulhu from Reality Blurs with its use of the inherently Pulpy Savage Worlds mechanics—Pulp Cthulhu is the first supplement to really give rules and guidance for running Pulp actions games for Call of Cthulhu, even if for Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition instead of the original Call of Cthulhu, Fifth Edition. It is also the first supplement for Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition, following on from the two scenario anthologies, Doors to Darkness: Five Scenarios for Beginning Keepers and Nameless Horrors: Six Reasons to Fear the Unknown.

Pulp Cthulhu is a supplement designed to bring the action and the tone of the Pulps to Lovecraftian investigative roleplaying. It provides rules and mechanics for enhanced investigators and gives both them and the villains they face access to psychic powers, weird science, and even magic in their dealings with the eldritch horror of the Cthulhu Mythos. It also gives a guide to the Pulps and the means for the Keeper to set the degree of Pulp that he wants in his game. Notably, it moves Call of Cthulhu out of its traditional setting of the Jazz Age of the 1920s and into the Desperate Decade of the 1930s. Besides all this, Pulp Cthulhu includes four scenarios ready to drop the Pulp investigators into the action (and the investigation)!

The starting point for Pulp Cthulhu is of course, the Pulps, the cheap magazines of the 1920s and 1930s that contained fast and spicy tales of adventure and mystery involving bigger-than-life heroes, pretty girls and femme fatales, far away exotic places, and strange and mysterious villains who could cheat death as often as the heroes. Such heroes, whether adventurers, detectives, cowboys, explorers, guns-for-hire, or spacemen were at least stalwart men and women, if not out and out gifted with strange powers that would give them the edge necessary to defeat their foes. They at least had to be able to take a punch or two, be able to survive the odd death-trap, and have their fair share of luck… Which is very much a challenge in Call of Cthulhu—even in Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition where an optional rule allows investigators to spend Luck points to succeed and push their skill rolls and attempt an action again with possible consequences shifts the game towards a Pulp sensibility and enhances the possibility of investigator success (and potentially, the possibility of their survival). Despite this, Call of Cthulhu is still very much an RPG in which the investigators are ordinary men and women confronting the true nature of the universe and perhaps holding it at bay—if only temporarily.

Throughout Pulp Cthulhu, the Keeper is given option after option to adjust just how much Pulp he wants in his game. By turning up or down the ‘Pulp-o-meter’, the Keeper can determine if the investigators are heroes, have access to Talents, how much a player can spend in terms of his investigator’s Luck points—and on what. The ‘Pulp-o-meter’ has three basic settings—Low, Mid, and High Pulp. The Low Pulp setting is on par with the default mechanics in Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition (thus confirming its slight Pulp leanings with the addition of the optional Luck spend rule); the Mid Pulp setting is the default setting for Pulp Cthulhu; and High Pulp turns on every option in Pulp Cthulhu for high drama and action.

The starting point for the players is of course their characters or investigators. Below is what an investigator looks like in standard Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition. In fact, this is my last investigator. Designed as dilettante, he is not intended to be a particularly good at anything, oblivious, and well-mannered. Essentially, he wandered into the scenario because it seemed rude to say no.

Bartholomew ‘Chudders’ Herman Chudwell,
age 28, Dilettante (Something in the City)

STR 65 SIZ 70 CON 65 DEX 75
APP 75 INT 50 POW 75 EDU 90
SAN 68 Luck 75 Damage Bonus +1d4 Build 1
Move 7 HP 13

Firearms (Rifle/Shotgun) 45%
Brawl 45% (22/11), damage 1D3+db, or by weapon type
Dodge 47% (23/11)
Skills: Art/Craft (Dancing) 25%, Charm 65%, Climb 30%, Credit Rating 80%, Drive Auto 60%, Fast Talk 55%, First Aid 40%, History 45%, Mechanical Repair 30%, Navigate 20%, Ride 15%, Stealth 30%, Swim 25%, Throw 40%
Languages: Other Language (German) 41%, Other Language (Latin) 41%, Own Language (English) 90%

Investigator generation in Pulp Cthulhu is based upon the same mechanics as given in Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition, but adds several steps to the process. This process involves not the creation of investigators, but of heroes, for player characters in Pulp Cthulhu are intended to be exactly that—heroic, larger-than-life, and this is reflected in the rules. The first of these is to have the player choose an Archetype, such as Adventurer, Bon Vivant, Dreamer, Egghead, Hard Boiled, Mystic, Sidekick, Thrill seeker, and so on. Each Archetype defines a core attribute which will always be fourteen or more, grants points to spend on a set pool of skills, and suggests the number of Talents and suitable personality Traits that the archetype can possess. The other noticeable changes to hero generation include the effective doubling of Hit Points, the selection of Talents, and the possibility of an investigator possessing Psychic powers and skills. Divided into four categories—Physical, Mental, Combat, and Miscellaneous—Talents can be selected or rolled for, but they are all fairly simple in their effect. For example, Quick Healer improves a hero’s natural healing rate by three Hit Points per day; Arcane Insight halves the time required to learn spells and grants a Bonus die to spell casting rolls; Rapid Attack can gain a hero an extra attack if he spends ten Luck points; and Shadow reduces the difficulty or grants a Bonus die to Stealth rolls as well as allowing the hero to make two surprise attacks before his location is discovered if he is currently unseen.

So for example, in the case of Bartholomew ‘Chudders’ Herman Chudwell—“Yes, Herman is my middle name. Pater could have married a rich American, bagged himself a bally German instead. Sorry.”—as a Dilettante, an appropriate Archetype is the Dreamer. The core attribute for this is Power, he can have two Talents, one of which it is suggested should be Strong Willed. This grants him a Bonus die on all Power rolls. Since ‘Chudders’ has had to take a pre-set Talent, his player’s Keeper lets him choose one of his own. In this case, his player gives ‘Chudders’ the Lucky Talent, which means that he gains an additional +1D10 Luck points when Luck Recovery rolls are made.

Bartholomew ‘Chudders’ Herman Chudwell,
Age: 28
Archetype: Dreamer
Occupation: Dilettante (Something in the City)

STR 65 SIZ 70 CON 65 DEX 75
APP 75 INT 50 POW 90 EDU 90
SAN 90 Luck 75 Damage Bonus +1d4 Build 1
Move 7 HP 27

Firearms (Rifle/Shotgun) 55% (22/11)
Brawl 45% (22/11), damage 1D3+db, or by weapon type
Dodge 47% (23/11)
Skills: Art/Craft (Dancing) 45%, Charm 80%, Climb 30%, Credit Rating 85%, Drive Auto 65%, Dodge 47%, Fast Talk 25%, History 40%, Mechanical Repair 55%, Natural World 30%, Ride 15%, Stealth 30%, Swim 25%, Throw 40%
Languages: Other Language (German) 41%, Other Language (Latin) 41%, Own Language (English) 90%
Talents: Strong Willed, Lucky

So having adapted a previously played investigator, here is a hero who has been created with the Pulp Cthulhu rules in mind. This a combination of the Mystic Archetype with the Occultist Occupation, which gives a hero access to the Psychic Talents and if the Keeper allows it, to the Cthulhu Mythos skill—and this during investigator generation. Swami Hrishikesh is not a genuine Swami—or Hindu scholar—but a fake, an ex-British Army deserter turned con man who discovered that he has a real gift when it comes to the occult and the unknown. Hence the Disguise skill as well as the high Persuade skill. What this shows is how a combination of Archetype, Occupation, and Talents can be used to build classic Pulp character types. So combine the Outsider Archetype with the Drifter or Tribal Member Occupation and the Animal Companion and you can do a Tarzan-style hero or the Swashbuckler Archetype with the Aviator Occupation plus the Gadget Talent and you have Cliff Secord (with a rocket pack!).

Swami Hrishikesh
Age: 28
Archetype: Mystic
Occupation: Occultist

STR 50 SIZ 65 CON 40 DEX 80
APP 45 INT 70 POW 85 EDU 80
SAN 85 Luck 65 Damage Bonus None Build 0
Move 8 HP 27

Brawl 55% (27/11), damage 1D3+db, or by weapon type
Dodge 50% (25/10)
Skills: Anthropology 36%, Credit Rating 20%, Disguise 45%, History 55%, Hypnosis 21%, Occult 60%, Persuade 70%, Psychic Power (Medium) 65%, Psychology 40%, Psychoanalysis 31%, Science (Astronomy) 56%, Sleight of Hand 30%, Stealth 40%
Languages: Other Language (Hindi) 56%, Own Language (English) 80%
Talent: Psychic Power (Medium), Shadow

Pulp Cthulhu makes some changes to how certain skills work. It allows scientist and inventor characters to take the Computer Use skill, though the exact function of the skill will need to be determined by the Keeper. Notably, it gives more proactive ways in which the Cthulhu Mythos skills can be used, whether that is causing direct harm to another (essentially imposing your knowledge of how the universe actually works on someone), banishing monsters, communing with the dead, creating a physical ward, or temporarily understanding a Mythos language. Both Hypnosis and Psychoanalysis become means of alleviating emotional and mental trauma in others, while Hypnosis can be used to implant post-hypnotic suggestions, aid recollection or concentration, alleviate pain, and even freeze a target. What this represents is a broadening of these skills to reflect a Pulp sensibility whereas a Purist setting would adhere to more strictly defined applications of such skills.

In terms of the game system, Pulp Cthulhu remains a percentile system derived from RuneQuest and the Basic Roleplay System, but it pushes certain elements already present in Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition to achieve its intended Pulp sensibility. Most of these involve the expenditure of Luck. In previous editions of Call of Cthulhu, Luck was a derived value, but in Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition it became an attribute all of its own and as an option, could be spent to ensure that player could make a roll. In Pulp Cthulhu this is a standard rule rather than an option, and further, a player is free to expend his investigator’s Luck on an array of effects. These include ‘Adjusting Weapon Fumble or Firearm Malfunction Outcomes’, ‘Avoiding Certain Death’, ‘Avoiding Unconsciousness’, ‘Halving Sanity Loss’, and ‘It’s Only a Scratch’. This is in addition to the various Talents that cost Luck to use. The combination of more skill points during hero generation and being able to spend Luck points increases a hero’s success rate in any action. Of course, Luck is only a finite resource, but whereas in standard Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition, it is a finite resource from scenario to scenario, in Pulp Cthulhu, it is a finite resource from session to session because Luck can be recovered at the beginning of each gaming session rather than possibly at the end of a scenario.

Combat in Pulp Cthulhu begins with the removal of Major Wounds in Pulp Cthulhu and a faster healing rate, further indication of investigator resilience. In Pulp Cthulhu, heroes can more easily knock out an opponent, while if all else fails, they can go out in Blaze of Glory when faced with certain death. Their opposition receives some changes too. Mooks can be taken down with ease allowing the heroes to focus on the villains, but some NPCs can spend Luck just like heroes can. Theirs is a finite resource though and the most notable thing a villain can spend it on is ‘Look Out Master!’ in which he can sacrifice a mook in order to avoid taking damage that would kill him. Further options for action and combat and so adjusting the ‘Pulp-o-meter’ include more detailed Dodge rules, dual-wielding weapons, being able to recover from Indefinite Sanity, fighting under the influence of alcohol, and so on.

At their most base, the Sanity mechanics in Pulp Cthulhu remain the same as Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition. Heroes can still go indefinitely insane and before will suffer a bout of madness, followed by an extended period of latent insanity. A hero can still suffer a bout of madness if he suffers further sanity loss whilst insane, but in Pulp Cthulhu, such bouts of madness are larger than life. Further though, and if the Keeper allows it, a hero might gain an Insane Talent, a Talent triggered by the circumstances that cause the Bout of Madness. These Insane Strength, Insane Driver, Insanely Intimidating, and so on. In each case the investigator gains a Bonus die to the appropriate action, but there are often severe consequences if the hero fails. Whilst there is no penalty to using such Talents whilst insane, using them when actually sane incurs a sanity loss.

When it comes to magic in Pulp Cthulhu, Mythos tomes are easier to read, it takes hours rather than weeks to learn a spell, and once an investigator has successfully cast it once, he need never roll to cast it again. (Magic casting investigators will probably come into their own with the release of The Grand Grimoire of Cthulhu Mythos Magic, a collection of every spell and spell name published since 1981.) As an option and with the right Talents, some characters—hero, NPC, or villain—can possess psychic powers. The five given include Clairvoyance, Divination, Medium, Psychometry, and Telekinesis. All five require the use of Magic Points to use. Other Pulp roleplaying games allow weird science, but Pulp Cthulhu gets to do Mythos-weird science, but how it works is best decided upon by the Keeper according to how the ‘Pulp-o-meter’ is set. The Weird Science Talent is really needed to get the most out the otherwise straightforward rules for gadgeteering, but the rules allow the Egghead and Grease Monkey Archetypes to build gadgets and several examples and what is needed to create them are given.

To support Keeper and player alike, Pulp Cthulhu provides a good introduction to the Pulps, devotes a whole chapter to detailing the thirties, and gives three sample hero organisations, including the Vanguard Club, a society of explorers and adventurers with a branch in Arkham, and Department 29, a fledgling office of the Bureau of Investigation that looks into cult activities. Three evil cabals are detailed for the Keeper’s eyes and these are supplemented by a dozen Pulp villains and their entourages. These include a mix of Pulp standards—criminal mastermind, ancient oriental criminal mastermind, inhuman scientist, and so on, but they have been given a Mythos twist, whether they are secretly cultists or things of the Mythos. Accompanying the villains is a small grimoire of spells, including Cloak Of Fire, Deflect Harm, and Vanish, specifically for their use and so give them a few powers that put them further apart from the heroes.

Pulp Cthulhu gives the Keeper a whole chapter of advice of his own. This examines Pulp plots in light of Lovecraft’s fiction, for example, exploring ‘At the Mountains of Madness’ as an Adventure/Quest plot, as well as Pulp themes, scenario hooks, reoccurring villains, cliffhangers, MacGuffins, and more. It makes an important point that with the strengthening of the investigators into heroes with more Hit Points, higher skills, Talents, and the encouragement to spend Luck points, then the opposition, including Mythos opposition should likewise be strengthened to present more of a threat and more of a challenge. That said, even the most Sanity-sapping of encounters still present a major threat to the heroes and the Keeper is encouraged to grant greater rewards in terms of Sanity gain if the heroes are successful.

Rounding out Pulp Cthulhu are four scenarios. These begin with ‘The Disintegrator’, written as an introductory Pulp Cthulhu scenario. Set at lonely coastal hotel in New England, the heroes are hired to gatecrash the auction of a potentially deadly device that could upset the post-Great War balance of power. As interested parties—both mundane and otherworldly—express a desire to obtain the device and it is seen in operation, fog falls and mayhem ensues. This can either be a showdown, a brawl, or more likely, a shootout in the mist. What ‘The Disintegrator’ showcases is the lack of subtlety to Lovecraftian investigative horror in Pulp Cthulhu and really the heroes should be throwing themselves into both the story and the action to get the most out of the scenario.

Where ‘The Disintegrator’ traps everyone onsite with the fog, ‘Waiting for the Hurricane’ does it with a tropical storm, though this time in Key West rather than New England. This scenario ups the action with the heroes having to race back and forth across the island as cultists use the cover of oncoming storm to go about their murderous purpose. This scenario does not quite run on rails, but its plotting is linear and there is relatively little room—in terms of plot and geography—for the heroes to manoeuvre. Plus, the Keeper is encouraged to bring the action to the heroes if they try to avoid it or take other actions.

Both ‘The Disintegrator’ and ‘Waiting for the Hurricane’ have plots that take place along relatively straight lines, but the third scenario, ‘Pandora’s Box’ opens up into more of a sandbox. Like ‘The Disintegrator’ it involves a MacGuffin with multiple interested parties, this time all wanting to take possession of what is rumoured to be the actual Pandora’s Box of legend. Not only are the heroes free to go where they want, they are also free to follow up the clues as they want, ‘Pandora’s Box’ involves more clues and investigation than the previous scenarios. In fact, it is much less action-orientated and potentially even involves a visit to a library. It even plays out a little like a murder mystery as a rash of disappearances and deaths run throughout the scenario, but above all the MacGuffin plays a big role in scenario and the Keeper will have some fun with said MacGuffin as well as the meaty cast of Pulp NPCs.

The last scenario is ‘A Slow Boat to China’, which takes place aboard the SS President Coolidge as it sails between San Francisco and Shanghai. Unfortunately, instead of travelling far away to confront the Mythos—though the scenario could well be used for that purpose, that is, to get the heroes from A to B—the Mythos is already aboard when the heroes set sail. Depending upon their social class, the heroes get to travel in style, but may need to step back and forth across the strict class segregation lines aboard ship as they investigate a disappearance and a possible suicide. This scenario is primarily event driven, these pushing both the heroes’ investigation and the plot towards its climax.  There are notes on how to turn the scenario up high on the ‘Pulp-o-meter’, but again there is not much room for deviation from the plot, but it is more understandable given that the scenario mostly takes place aboard a ship in the midst of the Pacific.

What marks all four scenarios out as different to traditional Call of Cthulhu scenarios is how they emphasis action over investigation. This is no bad thing since it is a hallmark of the Pulp genre, but three of the four scenarios feel constrained by their design that sets them in limited areas and two involve MacGuffins that everyone wants, so it does not feel as if the four are presenting the full possibilities of the Pulp genre. Further, in and of themselves, they do not feel particularly Pulpy. In the main, it will be up to the heroes to really bring the Pulp genre to them beyond the degree of action each scenario involves. That said, they are decent scenarios and with some effort they could be dialed back down to run with standard Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition.

Physically, Pulp Cthulhu matches the quality of the recent published scenario anthology, Doors to Darkness: Five Scenarios for Beginning Keepers. It is full colour, the layout is clean, the range of artwork is good, and above all, it looks professional. That said, the book could have been slightly better organised to keep the material suitable for the players and the material for the Keeper’s eyes apart. As it is, the order of the book’s content does not necessarily flow from one chapter to another. Another issue is with the artwork is in the scenarios, which places the thumbnail portraits of the NPCs in each scenario all together in a box. This hampers their use as handouts—single portraits would be much easier for the Keeper to use.

The publication of Pulp Cthulhu allows something else beyond pushing Lovecraftian investigative horror into the Pulps and the 1930s. It allows a Keeper to re-examine some of the great Call of Cthulhu campaigns of the past in light of Pulp Cthulhu. Classic campaigns such as Masks of Nyarlathotep and Day of the Beast are renowned for their Pulp leanings. Even though both are set in the 1920s, there is nothing to stop the Keeper running both using the Pulp Cthulhu rules. Doubtless there are others suitable for such an adaptation.

What is clear from Pulp Cthulhu is that it is an extension of the Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition mechanics given how Pulp Cthulhu places Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition akin to the Low Pulp setting on the ‘Pulp-o-meter’. Further, it suggests how much effort would have been needed to push Call of Cthulhu, Sixth Edition—and earlier editions—up on to even the lowest rung of the ‘Pulp-o-meter’. Even so Pulp Cthulhu does still have to do some work in order to push Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition even further up the ‘Pulp-o-meter’ and although it is the Keeper who sets the ‘Pulp-o-meter’, the players will be ones applying it through their Luck spends. The result of that work is as effective as it could be without radically redesigning Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition. Pulp Cthulhu provides the means for investigators to be bigger-than-life, withstand a punch or six, withstand a shot or three, even cheat death as they go fist to tentacle, spell to spell, and mind against the unknown in confronting the Mythos. In doing so, Pulp Cthulhu: Two-fisted Action and Adventure Against the Mythos turns up the action and the threat to turn Lovecraftian investigative horror into Lovecraftian heroic horror.

Saturday 11 March 2017

A Vileness in the Village

Villagers and Villains is a card game in which rival Mayors attempt to build the best village. They compete to build the most impressive Buildings and to attract the most useful Citizens and Heroes—the latter to help drive off Challenges that will detract greatly from a village’s prestige. Designed for play by between two and five players, aged nine plus, Villagers and Villains is published by Studio 9 Incorporated. The base game takes between thirty minutes and an hour to play, but two expansions, Villagers and Villains: City Builder and Villagers and Villains: The Borderlands, expand both the core game and its play length.

The game primarily consists of one hundred cards. These are divided into four types—Buildings, Challenges, Citizens, and Heroes. The purple-coloured Building cards are each marked with a cost in gold, a Victory Point award for the game’s end, the title of the Villager it can be paired with for more Victory Points, and in some cases, some special text. The pairing and the special text is for the Advanced Rules. For example, the Farm costs three Gold, awards three Victory points, and can be paired with the Farmer for more Victory Points. In comparison, the Castle costs six Gold, awards four Victory points, is paired with the Lord, and grants a bonus to recruit rolls. The red-coloured Challenge cards are marked with a Defeat Value that needs to be rolled for a Mayor to defeat it, a negative Victory Point value that is deducted at game’s end, a negative Gold value which is deducted from a Mayor’s current Gold until the challenge is overcome, and a positive Gold value, awarded for overcoming the Challenge. Some also have special text. For example, the Witch has a Defeat Value of four, loses a player two Victory Points at game’s end and two Gold every turn if not dealt with, but earns a player two Gold if overcome. In comparison, the Murder Bats have a Defeat Value of two, loses a player two Victory Points at game’s end, but no Gold per turn if not dealt with. It does earn a player one Gold if overcome, but it needs three successful rolls against the Defeat Value on one turn to overcome the Challenge. The Green-coloured Villager cards are each marked with a cost in gold, a Victory Point award for the game’s end, and the amount of Gold he earns each turn. For the Advanced Rules, each also includes the title of the Building it can be paired with for more Victory Points, and in some cases, some special text. For example, the Trader costs four Gold to recruit, gives one Victory Point at game’s end, and earns a Mayor two Gold per turn. The Trader can be paired with the Market. The Miner only costs two Gold to recruit, gives one Victory Point at game’s end, and earns a Mayor one Gold per turn. He can be paired with the Mine, but during the game, he allows a Mayor to pay three Gold to draw another card. This can be the Mayor who owns the Mine or it can be a rival Mayor, in which case, the owning Mayor earns one Gold. Lastly, the Grey-coloured Hero cards have a cost to recruit, a Victory Point award for the game’s end, and the Defeat bonus added to any roll to overcome Challenges. For the Advanced Rules, each also includes the title of the Building or other Hero he can be paired with for more Victory Points, and in some cases, some special text. For example, the Guard only costs one Gold to recruit, grants no Victory Points at game’s end and no Defeat Bonus, but can be paired with the Prison or the Captain. In comparison, the Warlord costs three Gold to recruit, grants no Victory Points at game’s end, and grants a Defeat bonus of two. He can be paired with either the Warrior or the Dwarven Warrior.

There are three other cards types in the game. The Deputy Mayor is a Citizen card that can be discarded for a one-time chance to Build or Hire a second card in a turn, whilst the Angry Mob can be discarded to gain a one-time bonus to a Defeat roll. Both cards can be played or kept to gain Victory Points at game’s end. A Reference Card explains the game’s cards and the Phase Order. Every Mayor receives all three of these cards, the Deputy Mayor and the Angry forming their initial hands. It should be noted that every card is attractively and colourfully illustrated with an amusing cartoon style that echoes that the comic book, Groo the Wanderer. In addition, every Mayor receives six Gold.

At game’s start, the game’s cards are shuffled and six are drawn—seven if there are five players—and placed face up in a line to form the Recruitment Pool. Each Turn consists of six Phases which starting with the Starting Mayor—the game includes a Starting Player Token—every Mayor must complete before moving on to the next. In the Recruit Phase, a Mayor chooses one of the cards he wants in the Recruitment Pool and rolls the die to get that card. So if a Mayor wants the fourth card, the Gladiator, he must roll four or more to get it. If he fails, then he must take the card in position one—whatever it is. A Mayor can spend Gold to buy Recruitment rerolls, but must do this in advance. In the Defend Phase a Mayor rolls to Defeat any Challenges. As Mayor he can only do this once, but for each extra Hero he has hired, he can reroll. In the Pillage Phase, each Mayor loses Gold for unresolved Challenges, whilst in the Earning Phase, each Villager in his Village earns him Gold. In the Building/Hire Phase, a Mayor can build one Building or hire one Citizen or Hero, paying the cost in Gold as necessary. Newly added cards are placed face up in front of the Mayor. Lastly, in the Reset Phase, all cards except Challenge cards are removed from the Recruitment Pool and discarded. The remaining Challenge cards are shuffled along to the end and then new cards are drawn from the deck to bring the Recruitment Pool back up to six (or seven if there are five Mayors). The Start Player Token moves onto the next Mayor.

Play proceeds like this until one Mayor has nine (or ten if a two-player game) cards—including Building, Challenge, Citizen, and Hero cards—in his village. The Mayor with the most Victory Points is the winner. This is just the basic game, but the Advanced Rules allow the use of all text on the cards, plus a King’s Favour Marker. It can be used to add a bonus to the roll in either the Recruit or Defend Phases, to counter the loss of Gold in the Pillage Phase, to gain one Gold in the Earning Phase, or to allow a Mayor to add an extra card in the Build/Hire Phase. A Mayor can also use King’s Favour Marker to decide who gets the Start Marker next and thus who goes next. Once the King’s Favour Marker has been used, its next recipient is randomly determined with a die roll.

Villagers and Villains is a nice looking game. Its cards are attractive and humorously illustrated, the cardboard pieces thick, and the rules are well written if plainly presented. The Basic Rules are exactly that—basic—and best suited to younger players or at best, the first play through. The Advanced Rules provide a bit more choice and depth, especially with the various special text on the cards that allow for the cards to interact. This makes the game more fun, but at the same, it lacks player interaction barring the competition over cards—and it does get very competitive as you add more players—in the Recruitment Pool and then those cards that allow one Mayor to buy actions from another. The rules state that the owning Mayor can block another from doing this, but that seems churlish.

Although light enough to be a filler, but perhaps a little long for that role, Villagers and Villains is nevertheless a bright, fun game, suitable for teenage players as well as adults.

Friday 10 March 2017

Make a Home Your Own

The combination of a slick set of rules in the form of Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition and the generosity of Wizards of the Coast has led to the establishment of the Dungeon Masters Guild, a platform that allows creators to write and publish material of their to support the world’s pre-eminent roleplaying game. This is in addition to Wizards of the Coast making available Dungeons & Dragons supplements and scenarios of ages past in both PDF and print, providing access to some classic titles. In choosing new titles, like any marketplace, it pays to pick and choose what you purchase, to find the wheat from the chaff, the useful from the useless. So the question is, is Homeward Bound - simple rules for player-owned base worth a Dungeon Master’s time and worth a Dungeon Master adding it to his campaign?

Written and published by Jan Sielicki, the concept behind Homeward Bound - simple rules for player-owned base comes straight out of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons and previous editions of the game, that eventually an adventurer will establish a base of some kind. So, a Cleric will establish a place of worship, a Fighter a freehold, a Magic-User a stronghold, a Thief a headquarters, and so on. Homeward Bound takes this idea and develops it even further so that once added to a campaign, such a base becomes a refuge, a home, a development property, and more, but there is the one expectation that this supplement never meets and expectations that this supplement more than exceed.

The first expectation that Homeward Bound is designed not to meet is that it is a supplement about the player characters setting up home late in their careers, the types of home they can set up and develop, their gaining a place in society and the effects that can come from that, their putting down roots and the effects that can come from that, and the effects that this can have on a campaign. Homeward Bound is not that supplement, but rather a supplement that details one single home that the player characters can call their own, how it comes to be in their possession, the income to be made from this home and its surrounding lands, possible upgrades that can be made to the home and their effects, how it works in a campaign, who lives nearby, and the threats nearby that can be used to construct a campaign framework. So what Homeward Bound is not, is a generic supplement that details how to provide the player characters with a base and use it as a means to further develop a Dungeon Master’s campaign. Which is slightly misleading because from the outset, Homeward Bound - simple rules for player-owned base gives every indication that this is exactly what it is. So if Homeward Bound is not a generic supplement—and arguably that supplement is still awaiting publication—then what is it?

Homeward Bound describes the one location, the Sleeping Manor, named for the unusual nature of its windows—they show the view outside, but how it was twelve hours earlier, not as it is now. Nominally located in the classic Dungeons & Dragons setting, the Forgotten Realms, the default look for the Sleeping Manor is that akin to a French chateau, but it could be a classic castle, a wizard’s tower, and so on. To support this flexibility, the supplement does not include floor plans, but given how specific the rest of the supplement is, it seems slightly odd to keep this so generic and not include them. Of course, this does allow room for the Dungeon Master and his players to imagine the Sleeping Manor how they want. Various rooms are detailed, from the entrance hall and solar to a sample bedroom and the trophy room, with options for utilitarian or lavish outfitting and description depending upon how the players see their characters living.

Of course, once the Sleeping Manor is in their possession—perhaps as a reward for heroic deeds, an inheritance, or through simple right of possession—the player characters can start earning money from the surrounding lands and spending it to upgrade their manor. For example, ‘Land Improvement’ increases the monthly income from the lands belonging to the Sleeping Manor, a ‘Laboratory’ enables potions to be mixed and stored in a vault, and a ‘Shrine’ allows a divine spellcaster to prepare an extra spell. None of the mechanical benefits granted by these upgrades are powerful enough to unbalance a campaign, but they are strong to encourage the players to have their characters build them. Further, they give somewhere for the player characters to invest their ill-gotten gains acquired whilst adventuring.

Whilst the player characters are away adventuring, life continues back at the Sleeping Manor and perhaps something interesting might happen that will be revealed when they return, for example, a competitor might undercut the trade deal they made with the local merchants or an annual folk festival takes place and each player character gains an inspiration point because everyone is so happy. A table gives roughly twenty each of these dangers and blessings that can the player characters can come home to. There is a good mix and they do help bring the Sleeping Manor and its environs to life. If there is an issue with the table, it should be that the table should be full of events rather than including the occasional ‘nothing happens’, which could have been better handled by a roll separate to the table to determine if anything occurs.

Homeward Bound also expands on the lands surrounding the Sleeping Manor, nearby towns and villages—it is here that the player characters will engage in negotiations with local merchants to sell the produce of the Sleeping Manor; a cantankerous clan that farms the lands adjacent to the Sleeping Manor; a a strange temple and a vast swamp; rival nobles and more. Numerous NPCs are described for these locations, often with varying options and questions that allow the Dungeon Master to tailor them to his campaign. Rounding out Homeward Bound is a campaign outline that details not only a threat to the Sleeping Manor and its surrounds, but also the lands beyond… The Dungeon Master will need to provide the stats for all of these NPCs and the villain at the heart of the campaign, but this allows them to be tailored to match the Level of the player characters.

So if Homeward Bound is not a generic supplement for building a campaign around the homes that the player characters establish, it is actually more than the means to build a campaign around a single home and its surrounds. It is a campaign framework, one that provides a structure into which the Dungeon Master can slot the player characters’ adventures, whether down a dungeon or not. At the end of these adventures the player characters will return to the Sleeping Manor to play out what would otherwise be their downtime and as they return again and again the significance of the Sleeping Manor will grow and grow—especially if the Dungeon Master runs the campaign outlined in Homeward Bound. Of course, the Dungeon Master need not do that, but with or without the campaign, the Homeward Bound framework provides opportunity aplenty for roleplaying and  gaming.

Homeward Bound is a twenty-four page, 6.02 MB PDF. It is cleanly and tidily presented in full colour with a good mix of clip art, though the map depicting the area around the Sleeping Manor is disappointing. As a supplement, Homeward Bound does need another edit, but this does not mean that it is poorly written. Rather that it needs to be localised to read more easily for a native English speaker, but it should be made clear that the author’s English is anything other than poor.

There are two fundamental issues with Homeward Bound. The first is that it needs an editor or edit. The second is that it needs to make clear what it is and is not—and do so upfront. From the outset it appears to be generic supplement, then in its initial pages, it appears to be just about adding a single specific dwelling and gaming around that, but read to the end and it turns out to be something else, a campaign framework. Ideally, the supplement should be obvious about what it really is and be obvious upfront.

Yet despite the slightly obtuse nature of how its purpose is presented, Homeward Bound is a good supplement. By keeping everything simple in mechanical terms, it very nicely expands and develops the Dungeon Master’s campaign in a relatively short number of pages whilst also packing in a lot of gaming potential. Homeward Bound - simple rules for player-owned base is great add-on to the later stages of a Dungeons & Dragons campaign that will add depth to both the campaign and its player characters.