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

Saturday 30 September 2017

Wolves on the Border

As its title suggests Time of the Wolves: An epic saga for the Age of Arthur roleplaying game is a campaign for the Age of Arthur roleplaying game. Published by Wordplay Games, Age of Arthur – Dark ages roleplaying powered by Fate—though written for use with an earlier itteration of the rules, both Time of the Wolves and Age of Arthur can work with FATE Core—is a gritty, Dark Ages-set Arthurian roleplaying game which presents a more historical approach to the Arthurian legend in comparison to the romantic approach taken by the classic King Arthur: Pendragon roleplaying game. Both are equally valid approaches to the Arthurian legend, but King Arthur: Pendragon is—and remains—the preeminent roleplaying treatment  of the genre, and rightly so. The historicity of Age of Arthur means that it does not quite have the grand sweep that King Arthur: Pendragon and The Great Pendragon Campaign together possess, but it does mean that there is greater scope for player character action and influence over a campaign.

Set in the Kingdom of Ebrauc—roughly equivalent to Yorkshire—Time of the Wolves presents four linked adventures which see a band of heroes attempt to stave off an invasion by Angles which threatens the kingdom. Ebrauc is not the only place facing the threat of invasion. King Wehha of the Wuffingas, ruler of the recently founded Kingdom of the Angles, has designs on the nearby city of Lindum as much as he does Ebrauc and has set a competition for his sons to impress him by capturing both. In the course of the campaign, the heroes will encounter treachery and greed, honour and ambition, Fae magic and Saxon magic, and more. The fate of Lindum and Ebrauc lies in their hands.

It opens with ‘Hammer to Fall’, in which the heroes are in Lindum, a city whose strategy in dealing with the threat of the Angles is to hire mercenaries—including Angle mercenaries—for protection and pay tribute to King Wehha. This has only put a temporary hold on the Angles’ ambitions and perhaps an opportunity has arisen with the news that pay for the mercenaries in Lindum’s employ has gone missing. The heroes are asked to investigate the loss and the process must deal with mercenary bands, hold off the approaching Angles, and somehow find a way of funding the city’s defence.

Yet as the heroes work to save Lindum, the Angles make a move elsewhere. In part two, ‘Play the Game’, news comes to them that the heir to Ebrauc has been struck down and lies dying whilst the command of his troops has passed to a cousin. He proves ill-suited to command and even when it becomes apparent that the heir has been poisoned, he inadvertently impedes the heroes’ search for a cure. This takes the heroes off into Britain’s wilder realms where the GM gets to portray some fun NPCs and the heroes get to step up to the stage. They should earn a favour by the end of the scenario, but also owe one in readiness for ‘Put Out the Fire’, wherein the heroes must travel north to pay it back. This third part is mostly a journey, but it does present the heroes with a question of honour when they return.

The last part is ‘Friends Will Be Friends’. Ebrauc’s situation looks perilous. The Angles have finally gathered enough enough forces to make their attack and the kingdom just does not enough men at its command to withstand their onslaught. The heroes must make one last desperate effort to bolster their forces before the invaders attack. This involves negotiation with an Angle Thane and his fearsome bodyguard and is a good opportunity for some roleplaying prior to the campaign’s climatic showdown between Ebrauc and the Angles. This allows the GM to bring all of the Angles’ forces to bear, including great magic and skin changing warriors, but there are opportunities for the heroes to counter these aspects and make the situation just a little less challenging… This is a suitably rousing climax to the campaign and hopefully, a chance for the make Lindum and Ebrauc safe for a few more years...

Although Time of the Wolves can be played with characters of the players’ design, it really benefits if these characters have ties to Ebrauc and Lindum as this will mean that they can better interact with the Aspects for both the campaign’s locations and NPCs. To that end, the campaign provides four pre-generated heroes. They include an illegitimate prince of Ebrauc and war leader, a druid in service to Ebrauc, the ambitious daughter of the Prefect of Lindum, and an ex-bandit in the permanent service of said daughter of the Prefect of Lindum. The characters are nicely tied to each other and the setting, so that they really have a stake in the future of the region. Of the four, the bandit has the weakest ties to the campaign, but they are all four very playable with Aspects that will bring the campaign to life.

One issue with the campaign is the problem with travelling. Time of the Wolves does involve quite a lot of travel and on almost every journey the heroes are attacked or ambushed by bandits or Angle warriors. The GM may want to vary these a little.

Physically, Time of the Wolves is a digest-sized hardback, done in full colour. It is lightly illustrated, but the artwork is excellent, being full colour paintings. The pre-generated hero portraits are particularly good. Likewise, the maps are done in full colour and very attractive pieces. The writing is clear, but perhaps it could have been slightly better organised within the various chapters so that some of the plot information could have been made a little more obvious. Some of it does appear after the NPC it relates to is presented. That said, the plots are not that complex anyway, but it makes finding the information not quite as easy as it should. Overall, Time of the Wolves looks great and it looks far more professional than a small press release has any right to do.

If you already have a copy of Age of Arthur, then Time of the Wolves is a perfect addition. It showcases the perilous situation in which post-Roman Britain finds itself and the efforts its peoples are making to hold off the impending threat from across the North Sea. It also showcases how to bring forth the storytelling possibilities of the setting and the Aspects of both this setting and the characters. It is also a good showcase for Fate and how it works, so if you wanted to try Fate, then Time of the Wolves with Age of Arthur is a really strong combination. Time of the Wolves is a good campaign, but it gets better when the character Aspects involve them in the narrative.

Sunday 24 September 2017

Cthulhu Classics VII

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

Having looked at the releases from Games Workshop, culminating with Green and Pleasant Land: The British 1920s-30s Cthulhu Source Pack, Reviews from R’lyeh now moves on to another early licensee for Chaosium, Inc. This is T.O.M.E. or Theatre of the Mind Enterprises, a publisher best known for the five titles it released for use with Call of Cthulhu and Gardasiyal: Adventures in Tékumel, the 1990s roleplaying game set in the world of Tékumel: Empire of the Petal Throne. Between 1983 and 1984, T.O.M.E. would publish five collections of scenarios—The Arkham Evil, Death In Dunwich, Pursuit To Kadath, Whispers From The Abyss And Other Tales, and Glozel Est Authentique!—for use with Call of Cthulhu, Second Edition. The first release though, and the subject of this review, is The Arkham Evil.

From the outset it is difficult to determine what The Arkham Evil actually is. The extent of the back cover blurb runs to, “THE STAGE IS SET… THE CURTAIN RISES… ON A MACABRE MYSTERY FROM THEATRE OF THE MIND ENTERPRISES, INC.” So there is no suggestion as whether it is an anthology of scenarios, a series of linked scenarios, or a campaign. In fact, it is actually more the latter than either of the former, a campaign to prevent the creation of a bridge into the physical world which will enable Nyarlathotep to enter our world. It is divided into three scenarios or acts—‘Act I: Into the Throat of the Beast’, ‘Act II: The Wanderer’, and ‘Act III: And the dogs shall know you’. The campaign also requires the players to use the pre-generated characters, a team of geologists, mining engineers, palaeontologists, cavers, and so on, who work for the College of Sciences at Miskatonic University.

The campaign begins with ‘Act I: Into the Throat of the Beast’, which is set in 1919. The team is asked to go to Gibsville, an Appalachian coal town in Pennsylvania where a strange crystal cave has been found inside of which are several sets of bones. The team is to investigate and survey both the caves and the bones, for both scientific and commercial reasons—the mine owners want the miners’ fears about the bones allayed so that coal can continue to be dug. The task is hampered by three factors. First is the political situation in the region, with the Molly Maguires conducting armed operations against the mine and its owner, whilst the owner has employed a detective agency to protect the mine, the miners, and suppress the Molly Maguires’ insurrection. Second are the suspicions of the miners themselves—the team works for the mine owner, so they are not to be trusted. Third is the worry amongst the community at the recent rash of disappearances of young girls from the surrounding area, each at the new Moon.

Over the course of a fortnight or so, the team will survey the cave, perhaps get involved in a local romance, and even get caught up in the local politics. At the end of this, the player characters are likely to come away with some knowledge of the weird crystal cave and the bones there, but it is unlikely that they will learn very much about the ghastly and inhuman plot that swirls about the region. ‘Act I: Into the Throat of the Beast’ keeps a great number of its outré events off camera—something which will become a feature of the campaign—and whilst it is possible to find evidence of them, the scenario makes it very difficult to do so. This is done to further the campaign’s and the cultists’ greater plot which the player characters will not really be facing until ‘Act III: And the dogs shall know you’. What this means is that there is very little threat to be faced in ‘Act I: Into the Throat of the Beast’, certainly in terms of the Mythos, and thus little in the way of Sanity loss or reward.

If the campaign at least starts well with ‘Act I: Into the Throat of the Beast’, then it seems to take a tangent—or possibly a nosedive—in terms of both tone and quality with ‘Act II: The Wanderer’. This second part of The Arkham Evil is notorious for the fact that it takes place in 1923, some four years after the first part. This is not its only problem. ‘Act II: The Wanderer’ sees the team being sent to Arizona to collect fragments of asteroid which have fallen to the Earth after its brush with with the Earth’s atmosphere on its highly unusual orbit. First the team will need to purchase—and even design as the fragments are likely to be highly radioactive—the equipment it will need to collect the fragments. In the process, the player characters are likely to come to the attention of—and learn of—others who are interested in obtaining the fragments. Who these others are is where 'Act II: The Wanderer' gets silly. One is a German Baron who is a member of the Bavarian Illuminati leading a force of ex-Great War Storm Troopers along with a circus of Fokker aeroplanes; one a French sorcerer-count of dubious reputation; and one a Serpent Man. It all seems a bit much, more so when the text states that the Baron, whose father served at Castle Zenda, learned of the coming of the asteroid from the mad ravings of one Professor Moriarty. None of which is relevant to the plot of The Arkham Evil, which itself of course, does not provide a means of the player characters finding this out.

At the end of ‘Act II: The Wanderer’, the player characters are likely to have got their chunks of highly radioactive rock and have managed to transport it back to Miskatonic University. They are not the only ones. Having acquired a chunk or two, the Baron now exits The Arkham Evil with the authors’ promise that he will return in a future supplement. The Count will also acquire his own chunk, but in the process will leave the team with a terrible gift—a traitor amongst their midst, which will have repercussions in the third act. What purpose either of them intends to use their chunks for is left undeveloped. Unfortunately, ‘Act II: The Wanderer’ feels little more than an excuse to present the player characters with a race and an excuse to have a fight. It does at least include an encounter with the Mythos and at least that Mythos threat has a credible motive compared to the human opponents in the act.

‘Act III: And the dogs shall know you’ at last brings The Arkham Evil and the player characters back to Arkham and Miskatonic University. A great scientific symposium is to be held about the returned radioactive rocks complete with prizes for the best papers presented during the event. With fierce competition for the best scientific papers, the player characters are encouraged to research and write an anthropological and historical paper on the rocks. Which would be okay except that none of the player characters are anthropologists or historians and their having to write a paper on those subjects undermines both their role in the campaign and their backgrounds. This is the initial focus of the scenario, but it quickly becomes a murder mystery as victim after victim is found dead on the streets of Arkham, having died of old age—despite the very youth of many of the victims. The number of murders will escalate, with the player characters possibly becoming suspects themselves, impeding their progress on their paper. There is little investigation to be had in ‘Act III: And the dogs shall know you’ despite it being a murder mystery and ultimately, the title of the act gives it all away in preparation  for showdown with the perpetrator.

The Arkham Evil has a reputation for not being a very good book. One definite issue with each of the three scenarios is their organisation. Each is roughly divided into two sections. The first section provides a rough timeline of scenes, whilst the second, actually an appendix—a very full appendix—contains descriptions of the NPCs and the locations. It also contains further details about background and the other storylines to each scenario. This not only gives The Arkham Evil three appendices, it also sets up the need to flip back and forth between the two sections for each and every scenario, making each awkward, if not outright difficult, to run.

Another issue is that the three scenarios and the role of the player characters in them are very much underdeveloped. This leaves the Keeper with a great deal to do in order to involve them in the events of each scenario and even despite that effort, the trilogy of scenarios keep their Mythos elements so much off stage that the player characters are unaware of them, let alone be placed in a position where they can thwart them. There is also relatively little investigation to be found across the three acts, such that for the most part, the player characters are called ‘Players’ through most of the book rather than the Investigators of traditional Call of Cthulhu, let alone player characters. Lastly, there is no advice for running the campaign with Investigators of the players’ own creation and the included pre-generated investigators are severely under-designed.

Physically, The Arkham Evil is disappointing. It needs editing, the organisation is terrible, and the artwork scrappy at best.

Yet The Arkham Evil is not without its merit. The campaign includes rules for improving skills in between scenarios, for suffering severe wounds, and for suffering the effects of radiation. The latter, in all likelihood, for the very first time—Cthulhu Now would not be released until 1987. Further, in ‘Act I: Into the Throat of the Beast’ there is the basis of a not unreasonable, even decent scenario. If a Keeper were to develop the missing girls plot strand further, setting both it and the Molly Maguires plot up with newspaper handouts and some clues and encounters, then the investigators could have stronger reasons to follow this up when the next girl is abducted. This could lead to showdown with the perpetrators of the plot and potentially, a chance that the player characters might defeat them and save the girl. Of course, this would as the scenario makes clear, thwart the plot which continues in ‘Act II: The Wanderer’ and ‘Act III: And the dogs shall know you’ and therefore negate the need for either act to be run. To fair, this would no bad thing as it at least involves the player characters in the plot and it highlights the best means of getting anything out of either ‘Act II: The Wanderer’ or ‘Act III: And the dogs shall know you’. Which would literally be to rewrite them.

Reviewing the campaign in Space Gamer #64 (July, 1983), William A. Barton—notable as the designer of Cthulhu by Gaslight—wrote, “The main problem I find in The Arkham Evil is with its organization. Too much important information is placed at the end of each scenario, requiring a lot of page flipping.” and “Some of the literary and historical references seem thrown in as references…” Despite describing it as not being as “well conceived or executed” as Shadows of Yog-Sothoth, Barton was positive about The Arkham Evil and the “sanity-threatening sessions” it could offer in the hands of a competent Keeper. Similarly, Jon Sutherland, reviewing both The Arkham Evil and Death in Dunwich in Open Box in White Dwarf #48 (December, 1983), was not wholly taken with the campaign. He highlighted the tendency of the campaign’s second act to lapse into farce with “…[T]he idea of cavorting across Arizona avoiding German stormtroopers is pretty hard to swallow.”, describing the fact that it takes place four years after the first as awkward. Ultimately, Sutherland concludes that, “Arkham did not really live up to the expectations or the quality of the first part of the adventure.”, but despite this, he did award The Arkham Evil seven out of ten.

By the standards of the time—1983 with Call of Cthulhu just barely two years old—it is not difficult to see The Arkham Evil as a decent little mini-campaign. In fact, it might very well have been the first from a third party publisher for Call of Cthulhu. Yet even by the standards of the day, The Arkham Evil feels very much like the first release from a new company. Which it is. In  ‘Act I: Into the Throat of the Beast’ can be seen the beginnings of an ambitious campaign idea, supported by a scenario that it is not without promise. Yet it never delivers on that promise, primarily because it does not develop the hooks that would lead into a proper confrontation with the Mythos and worse, it shunts any confrontation with the Mythos as far from the investigators as it can, all in the service of a plot that the players and their characters are essentially kept away from until the ‘Act III: And the dogs shall know you’. And the less said of both ‘Act II: The Wanderer’ and ‘Act III: And the dogs shall know you’, the better.

It would be easy to wholly write The Arkham Evil off as an early, failed exercise in scenario and campaign writing. Which it is… Yet there is a kernel of something in there that could have been decent, even by the demanding standards of the here and now. It would though, take a great deal of effort upon the part of the Keeper to really develop that kernel into something more memorable for the better, rather than for the worse as The Arkham Evil is now.


With thanks to Soren Boye Petersen for his aid in tracking down the review of The Arkham Evil from Space Gamer #64.

The Spice Must Flow

Published by Plan B Games, Century: Spice Road is a light, easy board in which the players are spice merchants on the spice road who trade spice back and forth in order to make the right sale. Each merchant begins play with some turmeric and the means to harvest more turmeric as well the ability to trade this turmeric up into other spices—safran, cardamom, and cinnamon. Eventually they will have the right combination of spices to make the right sale and thus acquire gold.

In fact, this is the very light theme to Century: Spice Road, a well-appointed game designed to be played by between two and five players, aged eight and up, which takes no more than forty-five minutes to play. The spice itself is represented by wood cubes, which are in ascending order of scarcity and value are yellow (turmeric), red (safran), green (cardamom), and (brown) cinnamon. The game comes with a plastic bowl for each of the four spices and the four bowls are placed in this specific order of scarcity and value. The game’s cards, all large, with full colour illustrations, and easy to hold in the hand, are divided into two categories. The first category of cards consists of Point Cards, which are purchased with the right combinations of spice and score a player Victory Points. The more difficult the combination of spices a Point Card requires to be purchased, the greater the number of Victory Points it awards a player. The second category of card is the Merchant Cards. These are broken down into further types—Spice Cards generate spice for a player; Upgrade Cards enable a player to change spice into a better spice, for example, turmeric to safran or safran to cardamom; and Trade Cards that enable a player to trade in spice for more or better spice, for example, two turmeric for two safran or one cardamom for two safran.

Game set up is simple. Each player receives some spice—the amount varies according to turn order—and the same two Merchant Cards. Each player also has a Merchant Caravan card where he can store his spice. The bowls of space are arranged in ascending order of value and scarcity. Five Point Cards are laid out face up in a row, with the game’s gold coins placed above the first Point Card in the row and its silver coins placed above the second card in the row. Six Merchant Cards are placed in a row below the Point Cards. Each time a Point Card is purchased or Merchant Card is taken, the line of cards is shuffled down and a new card is drawn to replace it.

On a player’s turn, he can take a single action, which can be one of four things. He can play a Merchant Card from his hand. This can be to generate more spice with a spice Card, to improve his spice with an Upgrade Card, or get more and better spice with a Trade Card. He can acquire a Merchant Card from the row. This can be any Merchant Card in the row, but on each of the Merchant Cards to the left of the one he wants to acquire, he must place a spice cube. The leftmost card is always free to take, but as players acquire the Merchant Cards they want to the right of this card, they fill the other cards up with spice and make them attractive options to acquire. He can claim a Point card by paying the right combination of spices. If there is gold or silver coin above the Point Card, the player also gets that. Lastly, he can rest. When a player plays a Merchant Card from his hand, it goes into his discard pile. By resting, a player can take the Merchant cards in his discard pile and put them back in his hand.

A game of Century: Spice Road lasts until one player has claimed his fifth Point Card—sixth in a two or three player game—and the round is completed. The player with the most points from a combination of Point Cards, gold and silver coins, and spice cubes other than turmeric wins the game.

Century: Spice Road is a very simple game and that simplicity gives it some interesting twists. By acquiring Merchant Cards, what each player is doing is building his own deck, but as a deckbuilder, Century: Spice Road is a very, very slow deckbuilder, with just one card being played from one turn to the next. It means that any engine to generate and improve spice a player develops ticks simply round whilst still giving him the flexibility to change his next action, whether that is to acquire a new Merchant Card or change his current objective because another has claimed the Point Card he wanted.

The limited number of possible actions and only having the one action per turn means that a player’s turn is short. Especially if a player spends his downtime working out what he wants to do. Ultimately, this makes a game play quickly and means that it is not a complex game.

Game play of course revolves around the Merchant Cards. Of these, the most popular type of Merchant Cards are the Spice Cards which generate spice and the Upgrade Cards which change spice into better spice. Yet they are not the most prevalent type of Merchant Cards. These are the Trade Cards that enable a player to trade in spice for more or better spice. Whilst some of these do help improve the types of spice a player holds, a great many allow the player to effectively trade down to give him more spice of a more common type. And more spice means that a player has more with which to Upgrade or Trade up. What this also means is that Trading down is as important as Trading up because having more spice gives a player more options and always ensures that he has spice to do things with. 

Physically, Century: Spice Road is handsomely presented. The cards are bright and colourful, the inclusion of plastic bowls to hold the spice cubes is nice, the wooden spice cubes and the gold and the silver coins in metal give the game a pleasing physicality, and the rules are covered on two sides of a smallish sheet of card. They are easy to read and pick up, so Century: Spice Road can be unpacked, the rules read, and a game begun in a surprisingly short amount of time. The simplicity of the rules also makes the game easy to teach.

Now Century: Spice Road has been compared to Splendor, published by Space Cowboys. The comparisons are not unfair, since they have similar mercantile themes and the need to collect resources to then trade up for better resources. Yet Century: Spice Road is not as cutthroat a game, not as tight, and a much more sedate game, even forgiving since it is easier to adjust to the changing strategies and objectives of your players. Whereas in Splendor, the players will often be competing for the same resources. This is not to say that Century: Spice Road cannot be like that—veteran gamers are likely to play it like this than family gamers are—but it is easier and more forgiving.

As easy a game as Century: Spice Road is, there are complexities to the play—the need to Trade down as much as up, for example—that do not quite make it suitable as a gateway game, like Carcassone, Settlers of Catan, or Ticket to Ride. It is not too much more complex than either of those three games, so it is perhaps a game to be played after a gateway game like one of them. 

Century: Spice Road offers solid play and challenges as a slightly longer filler for veteran players, but for a family audience or players looking for a lighter option, it is a thoroughly pleasing and enjoyable game. Either way, Century: Spice Road deserves a place on your gaming shelves and space on your table. 

Sunday 17 September 2017

Down the Rabbit Hole

To get the obvious out of the way, the supplement, Kefitzah Haderech: Incunabulum of the Uncanny Gates and Portals has absolutely nothing to do with the ‘Kwisatz Haderach’, the Bene Gesserit programme in the Dune series of novels by Frank Herbert to create a male capable of bridging time and space that would inadvertently culminate in the form of Paul Atreides. Although both ‘Kefitzah Hadereach’ and ‘Kwisatz Haderach’ both derive from the same Hebrew phrase, ‘Shortening of the Way’, Kefitzah Haderech: Incunabulum of the Uncanny Gates and Portals is actually a supplement for the Old School Renaissance which explores and presents ideas on how to use portals to other places in your Dungeons & Dragons-style game. Published by Lost Pages, responsible for the excellent Burgs & Bailiffs fanzine, it is a systems neutral supplement, which means that its contents can be used with most fantasy roleplaying games, although that fantasy is essentially the high fantasy of Dungeons & Dragons.

Kefitzah Haderech: Incunabulum of the Uncanny Gates and Portals begins by stating what portals are and the role that they play in a game, that is, as plot points. They are a means to ‘cut to the chase’, to get to the next chapter without the need for all that necessary mucking about with time, travel, encounters, and so on. Of course, they also allow connections to be made between distant points in a game world or setting. The supplement quickly runs through the  various types of portal and portal networks, what might be perceived on the other side of a portal, and how much is known about them and how access to them is gained about them. Thus it covers one-way portals and portal relays; how knowing what is on the other side is safer than not; and whether portals are a secret or widely known and part of the world. There is some discussion of the potential dangers in their use for the player characters, but on the whole this feel like a bit of a gallop to get to where the author really wants to go…

Which is to the ‘PORTATRON: Holistic Portal Opening Generator’, which can be best described as the supporting structure to the point of Kefitzah Haderech, which is to present ‘The Infamous d666 Quick Portal Destination Table’. To get there the Referee needs to roll a few dice first, these determining the portal form, the keys—if any—to the portal and their names, and how and where they are constructed. Once done, the Referee can roll on the PORTATRON for what the portal looks like, where it can be found, what makes it unsafe, what makes the key special, and then… The Referee can roll three six-sided dice and so generate any one of over two hundred destinations (in addition to those in his own campaign). So roll the dice or pick an entry and the Referee can send his players to a hidden treasure room via a one way portal; on to the main table at a cannibals’ banquet; or somewhere in deep space, in a halfling village inside a giant flying penguin golem. So almost anywhere and everywhere. At which point, the ‘PORTATRON: Holistic Portal Opening Generator’ becomes an ideas generator for adventures and the Referee has a bit more work to do if he wants to develop the adventure from there...

Rounding out Kefitzah Haderech: Incunabulum of the Uncanny Gates and Portals is an equivalent of ‘Appendix N’, the section at the rear of the Dungeon Master’s Guide for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons devoted to its literary inspirations. In this supplement, ‘Appendix N’ is devoted to inspirations for portal use drawn from computer games, roleplaying games, and other media. It is engaging read to round off the supplement and just like the contents of ‘Appendices N’ contains further entertainment and inspiration for the Referee. Doubtless there are other sources not listed here, but it is a decent start.

Physically, Kefitzah Haderech is a slim, digest-sized paperback. It is very lightly illustrated and although it needs an edit here or there, is decently written. 

Unfortunately, Kefitzah Haderech: Incunabulum of the Uncanny Gates and Portals feels a little too light. It does not go into as much depth about its subject as said subject deserves, a mere four pages or so before the Referee is expected to get the dice out and start rolling on tables. It feels as if a small article for a magazine has been abutted to the reason for Kefitzah Haderech—the ‘PORTATRON: Holistic Portal Opening Generator’. This sounds like Kefitzah Haderech is a bad supplement, but it is not, it is just that it is a light treatment of it portals and portal travel and it may not have the detail that some Referees might be looking for. Kefitzah Haderech: Incunabulum of the Uncanny Gates and Portals is a good introduction to the use of portals in fantasy gaming and the ‘PORTATRON: Holistic Portal Opening Generator’ is useful as an adventure generator too.

Cards Against Culture

The Metagame looks a lot like Cards Against Humanity. It comes in a similar sized box, it contains lots of cards, and it is a social game. There is a good reason for this. An early version of The Metagame was played by the designers of Cards Against Humanity and so inspired them to bring out their very popular game. There the comparisons end for The Metagame is very different in many ways to Cards Against Humanity. First, its subject matter eschews the tastelessness and sheer indecency of Cards Against Humanity, taking as its subject matter culture and pop culture and getting us to express our opinions about them. Second, it includes not one game, but six! Some are designed for two players, some for three players, some for three or more, some for between three and seven, some for five or more, and some for between five and thirty-three—or more! Third, it comes in a big white box, not a big black box.

Published by Local No. 12The Metagame consists of three hundred cards—of which one hundred are Opinion cards and two hundred are Culture cards. The Opinion cards ask questions like “Which would Freud want?” and “Which is the most useful on a desert island?” or gives statements such as “The Gold Standard for BLANK” and “More Myth Than Fact”. The Culture cards are white, nicely illustrated, and come with a short paragraph of descriptive text and range from Enron, Brie Cheese, and World of Warcraft to The Vagina Monologues, Riverdance, and Romeo and Juliet. Notably, all of the Culture cards include a date. The rules come on several pieces of stiff card and are succinctly written with no rules card being longer than four sides long.

‘Matchmakers’, designed for three or more players is the recommended starting game for The Metagame. Each player begins play with a single Opinion card paced face up in front of them as well as a hand of four Culture cards. Then everyone puts all of their Culture cards face down next to the Opinion cards that they think are good matches, though not next to their own Opinion cards of course. Each player picks up the Culture cards in front of them and shuffles them before choosing the one he thinks best matches his Opinion card. The player who played the Culture card receives it back along with the Opinion card and all Culture cards played on it. After three rounds the player with the most cards wins. There is nothing to stop a player playing multiple cards on an Opinion card and so can try to stack the match in his favour. ‘Matchmakers’ is the nearest game to Cards Against Humanity, but of course lacks its indecency. 

Designed for two or more players, ‘History 101’ is the simplest game. It starts with a Culture card being placed face up on the table. This is the starting point for the timeline. Then on each player’s turn, the player to his left draws a card and reads it aloud without mentioning any dates. He can also be shown the card—with any dates kept hidden. The player whose turn it is has to decide where it goes on the timeline. If successful, the Culture card is added to the timeline, but if not the player has to keep card. If a player accrues three Culture cards, he is eliminated. The last un-eliminated player is winner.  ‘History 101’ is a simple general knowledge, one that nicely gets more complex as more cards are added to the timeline.

‘Head to Head’ is a three-player game. Two of the players each start with stack seven Culture cards, whilst the third, known as the Critic, begins with seven Opinion cards. The Critic begins placing the Opinion cards in a column, face up, and as he does, the two players draw their Culture cards and place them beside the Opinion card that they think is the most appropriate. A player is free to move his Culture cards to a more appropriate Opinion card if he wants, but ‘Head to Head’ is is played as a race  with each player holding a hand behind his back! As soon as one player has played all of his Culture cards, the round ends, the slower player only being allowed to play six of his cards. The Critic then collects each Opinion card and the Culture cards beside it, mixing them up and then deciding on the winner, who is awarded that Opinion card. Play continues until everyone has been the Critic and at the end of the three round, the player with the most Opinion cards wins. ‘Head to Head’  is stripped down, speed version of ‘Matchmakers’ that is fast and fun.

Designed for three to seven players, ‘Metaquilt’ is a tile laying game in which the Culture cards have to ‘match’ or answer the questions on the Opinion cards they are placed next to and vice versa for the Opinion cards. Each player begins with five Opinion cards and five Culture cards, the aim being to successfully play their last card—of either type. When a card is played, if another player thinks that he has a better card, then he can challenge the first player. Both players have an opportunity to debate the suitability of their cards, but the winner is decided by the vote of the other players. The winner gets to add his card to the ‘Metaquilt’, the loser gets to draw a new card—or two cards if the challenger lost. Whomever gets to play their card can reduce their hand by the number of cards their newly added card is adjacent to. In this way, the game speeds up as more cards have been played. Overall, ‘Metaquilt’ is a neat spin on the tile laying game.

‘Debate Club’ is a game for five or more players. One player is the Critic, who receives three Opinion cards, whilst everyone else is given five Culture cards. Each round, the Critic reads out one of his Opinion cards and each of the players selects the Culture card that best matches the Opinion card. In turn, they reveal their Culture card and explain why they think it matches in sixty seconds. Once everyone has had a chance, the Critic chooses the best and worst cards. The player with the best card draws a new card and continues onto the next round, but the player with the worst card discards all of his cards and becomes a Critic! Play continues from round to round until the last remaining player wins. ‘Debate Club’ feels like another game, but then there is a lot of debating style games. Thankfully there are plenty of cards in The Metagame to keep this reasonably fresh.

Finally, ‘Massively Multiplayer Metagame’ is the big game, designed for five or more players, up to thirty-three or more. Everyone starts with six Culture cards and three Opinion cards. Their aim is to win debates and collect the most Culture cards. At any time, anyone can instigate a debate by revealing an Opinion card and saying, “DEBATE THIS!” The first two players to show a Culture card debate the Opinion card with the instigator moderating. Anyone nearby can vote on the debate. The winner gets to keep the loser’s Culture card. Play continues until an agreed time is up or the event—‘Massively Multiplayer Metagame’ is designed to be played over dinner, at parties, or at conferences—has ended, at which time, the player with the most Culture cards is the winner.

Two expansion packs—Film 101 and Science Fiction—previously only available to backers of the Kickstarter are now available. Each includes forty Culture cards and fourteen Discussion cards and is a fun addition to the game, especially for film fans.

The Metagame looks like Apples to Apples and Cards Against Humanity, but is a more social game, a more accessible game, and literally, a more Culturally interesting game. The Culture cards are well chosen, for they are thoughtful and engaging—engaging enough to draw players into the debates that most of The Metagame’s games revolve around. All of this makes The Metagame a good party game, but with six good games inside the box, The Metagame offers more than the average party game.


A Kickstarter campaign, The Metagame: The Games Expansion w/ Shut Up & Sit Down! is currently underway, seeking to fund a new expansion.

Friday 15 September 2017

The Professional Traveller

Although it was not the first Science Fiction roleplaying game—that distinction would fall to Flying Buffalo Incorporated’s Starfaring, published in 1976—Traveller was the first popular Science Fiction roleplaying game. Published in 1977 by Games Designers’ Workshop, it began life as a set of generic rules which could be used to run a science fiction game. These rules would go on to exhibit a number of key features influenced by the Imperial Science Fiction of Poul Anderson, Isaac Asimov, Andre Norton, H. Beam Piper, EC Tubb et al of the 1950s. These features are a focus on human characters, though with capacity for alien species; Faster-Than-Light travel via ‘jump space’ of limited number of light years per jump, but with the same duration per jump; no Faster-Than-Light communication—the speed of communication is limited by the time taken by each jump; no Prime Directive—planets conduct internal wars, whilst capitalism is engaged in on every level; a stratified, almost feudal society, with the nobility—from baron, marquis, and viscount to count, duke, and archduke all the way up to emperor—governing continents, planets, star systems, sub-sectors, and sectors; materialism in that rewards are physical and social rather than mechanical, so no Experience Points, Leveling Up, and so on; an array of options in terms of career, ship, and subsector design to create diversity; and mortality—characters are normal and skilled rather than superpowered, and can die even with the huge advancements made in medical science, even during character generation. For Traveller, these would find expression in The Third Imperium, perhaps the greatest of the Science Fiction settings for any roleplaying game, which projects a future history across millennia and thousands upon thousands of systems and worlds, involving true heroes and villains, hundreds of sophonts—both major and minor, and deep, interesting secrets. 

In the four decades since its original publication as ‘Little Black Books’, Traveller has appeared in numerous versions from various publishers, including Traveller, MegaTraveller, and Traveller: The New Era from Game Designers’ Workshop, T4: Marc Miller's Traveller from Imperium Games, GURPS Traveller and GURPS Traveller: Interstellar Wars from Steve Jackson Games, Traveller D20 from QuikLink Interactive, and Traveller Hero from ComStar Games. In its fortieth year, Traveller is published by two companies. Traveller 5 is published by Far Future Enterprises, whilst Traveller, now in its second edition, is published by Mongoose Publishing.

First published in 2008, what is so amazing about the second edition of Mongoose Publishing’s Traveller: Science Fiction Adventure in the Far Future is that the core rulebook is in full colour throughout. This includes the artwork, some of which is good, but quite a lot of which is awful. What is also amazing is that the layout is clean and tidy. What is really amazing is that the editing is of a professional standard. In other words, the Traveller: Science Fiction Adventure in the Far Future core rule-book is a product that looks and feels professionally done—barring some of the art-work—which is not something that could always be said of previous books from Mongoose Publishing, especially those released for Traveller.

It is important to note what the Traveller core rulebook is not and that is, a complete toolkit for creating and running a science fiction campaign. If a Game Master wants a complete toolkit for his Traveller game, then Traveller 5 is perhaps a better choice. What the Traveller core rulebook does include is rules for character generation and combat, operating vehicles, spaceships, and starships in and out of combat, trade, psionics, and world creation, but it does not include rules for creating or designing spaceships and starships. This is covered in the High Guard supplement. Instead, details are given—including deck plans—of some nineteen starships and smallcraft plus variants common to the ‘Official Traveller Universe’ of The Third Imperium. What this means is that long time devotees of Traveller and The Third Imperium could switch to these rules and continue playing without any problem. It also means that the Game Master could create a Traveller-like setting and run a game in that setting, but the technical aspects of his setting would still be those of Traveller rather than those of his design.

The starting point in a great many roleplaying games are neophyte characters, barely teenagers, armed, armoured, and possessing just enough skill-at-arms, magical knowhow, divine grace, and slippery stealthiness to get into trouble. Traveller changed that by introducing a form of lifepath to create a character and his back-ground. Characters in Traveller instead spent years in a career, learning skills, gaining promotions, and so on, before leaving the service with a bonus, perhaps a pension, and either possession of, or shares in, a starship. Notoriously, there was always the possibility of a character dying during the character generation process. This still forms the basis of character generation in Traveller, but with several differences, one of which is that characters no longer die during the creation process, though they can be wounded.

Characters are defined by six characteristics—Strength, Dexterity, Endurance, Intellect, Education, and Social Standing—each rolled on two six-sided dice and expressed as line of numbers and letters called UPP or Universal Personality Profile. After acquiring some base skills at level zero, a character can attempt higher education—either university or a military academy before entering a service. Five of the original six that appeared in the Little Black Books—Army, Marines, Merchant, Navy, and Scout—are joined by a further seven—Agent, Citizen, Drifter, Entertainer, Nobility, Rogue, and Scholar—representing the sixth of the original careers, Other. Two further careers, Psionicist and Prisoner, are also available, depending upon the results of certain dice rolls during the character creation process. Each career provides three branches or variations. So for example, the Navy career lists the Line/Crew, Engineer/Gunner, and Flight assignments, the Entertainer career lists Artist, Journalist, and Performer assignments, and the Drifter career lists the Barbarian, Wanderer, and Scavenger assignments, and so on. A character can change assignments within a career, this is easy within a service like the Navy or Scouts, but is treated like changing careers for some like the Merchants and Citizens.

From one term to the next, events are also rolled for the character. Tables for both events and mishaps are given for each career and there is also a table of life events. These add colour and detail to a character’s background and can grant benefits as well as penalties. Players can also link their characters by sharing an event and are encouraged to do so by being granted an extra skill each. At the end of the process, a character receives benefits ranging from money, characteristic increases, weapons, and equipment to contacts, ship’s shares and mortgages, and actual ships, all depending upon the career. The last two steps in the character generation process are rolling for aging and taking a skills package. Aging is inevitable and will eventually result in the reduction of a character’s characteristics, and though it can be forestalled with the use of anagathics, this is hazardous to the health, expensive, and potentially illegal. The skills package is selected as a group, each package representing the type of game that a group wants to play. So there is a general Traveller skill package, a Mercenary skills package, a Trader skills package, and so on. What it means is that between them, the characters in a campaign will have the right skills.

The default species for characters in Traveller is Human, but it also offers two other options from the Third Imperium setting. These are the leonine Aslan and wolf-like Vargr. These are the most accessible of the alien species from the Third Imperium setting and their inclusion comes with just about enough information to play them. Their inclusion does not add any further complication to the process of character generation, but character generation is relatively complex anyway and takes a bit of time and a lot of dice rolls, so it is essentially all random. It is also made longer by needing to be a social process in order to form the social connections. The sample character failed to get into university and so instead decided to see the galaxy by signing on with a free trader. Originally learning to handle and trade cargo, she become a pilot and navigator before war broke out between two minor states outside the border of the Third Imperium and the Third Imperium stepped in to enforce a peace. Driven to trade beyond the war zone, the free trader’s fortunes took a turn for the worse and she and her crew were forced to turn to piracy. 

Anged Jonett, Age 46
Merchant/Free Trader 3/Experienced Trader
Rogue/Pirate 3
Admin 0, Astrogation 1, Broker 1, Deception 0, Drive 1, Electronics (Computers) 0, Engineer (J-Drive) 2, Flyer (Grav) 0, Gambler 1, Gunner (Turret) 0, Jack-of-all-Trades 1, Melee (Unarmed) 1, Persuade 1, Pilot (Spacecraft) 2, Pilot (Spacecraft) 0, Steward 0, Streetwise 1, Vacc Suit 2
Benefits: Free Trader (owned), Cr110,000, Body Pistol
Events: Travel, War, Forced Out of Business, Enemy, Criminal Activity, Gambling Ring

Overall, characters in Mongoose Traveller look pretty much like those of previous editions. Notably, there is a slimming down of both the number of skills in the game and the skill points a character can gain during the creation process. The former is achieved by subsuming a lot of the skills in previous editions of the roleplaying game into specialities, so that Computers is part of the Electronics skill along with Comms, Sensor Ops, and Remote Ops, and Battledress is part of the Vacc Suit skill. The latter is achieved by it being possible to have a level of zero in a skill and the upper value of any skill rarely needing to be above two or three. This is offset by bonuses granted by a character’s attributes.

The core mechanic in Traveller remains effectively the same as in the previous editions. To have a character attempt an action, a player rolls two six-sided dice, aiming to roll a set Task Difficulty or higher. An average Task Difficulty is eight or higher, but can drop as low as two and rise as high as fourteen. Modifiers for a roll can come from a character’s attributes and skills. In addition, a character can gain a boon or a bane die to add to the roll, depending upon the circumstances. So, a boon might come from a good set of tools, whilst a bane might come from an inferior set of tools. A boon or a bane die adds a third die to the two rolled for an action, but only two are counted. In the case of a boon die, the highest two are counted, whereas a bane die means that the lowest two are counted.
So, for example, Anged Jonett’s ‘merchant’ ship is ambushed by Vargr pirates and it suffers a hit that causes the bridge to suffer decompression. She and her fellow bridge crew need to suit up as fast as possible. Anged is not in her spacesuit, but since she captains a ship that is involved in situations where combat might ensue, she ensures that vacc suits are kept at duty stations. The Game Master sets the Task Difficulty at Average or eight. Anged’s player will roll two dice and two for Anged’s Vacc Suit skill and two for her Dexterity. Anged’s player suggests that since Anged has run drills for this, she should have a boon die. The Game Master agrees.
Anged’s player rolls 3, 5, and 6. The boon die means that she keeps the best two, which are the 5 and the 6. With the addition of the modifiers, Anged’s player rolls a total of fifteen and succeeds.
Sometimes, it is not enough to succeed, but necessary to know how well. The difference between the Task Difficulty and the number rolled gives an Effect value which measures how well a character has succeeded or failed. Using this Effect Value, it is possible to actually fail the roll with a marginal failure which can be turned into a success with consequences.  An Effect value of six or more below the Task Difficulty results in an ‘Exceptional Failure’, whilst an Effect value of six or more above the Task Difficulty results in an ‘Exceptional Success’. Continuing the previous example, the Effect Value would be seven, the equivalent of an Exceptional Success, which the Game Master rules that Anged manages to suit up without any difficulty and also manages to help her crew suit up without any difficulties so that can respond to the attack unhindered!

Notably the Effect value is added to damage inflicted in combat, the rules for which are explained in just a few pages, much like the rules for skills. In fact, the rules for personal combat are simple and straightforward with a concise set of modifiers so as not to hamper play. This being Traveller, it should be noted that any damage suffered is deducted from a nebulous set of Hit Points, but directly from a character’s physical attributes, first Endurance, then Dexterity, then Strength. Players should be aware though, that weapons, especially guns—slugthrowers, energy weapons, and heavy weapons—can be very deadly. An autopistol will inflict up to fifteen points of damage, a laser rifle up to thirty points, and a Plasma Gun, Man Portable—which is particularly deadly—as much as sixty points! Put that in the context of an average human having attribute values of seven each and it is easy to see how deadly weapons are in Traveller. Armour is therefore vital equipment.

Equipment in Traveller is presented like a catalogue as much as it is a set of mechanics. So not just an indication of average standards of living per Social Standing, but also armour, communication gear, computers and software, medical gear, sensors, survival gear, and of course, weapons. All of the items are illustrated to give some idea what they look like in The Third Imperium. In comparison to previous editions of Traveller, the equipment here is not so obviously dated. In particular, the computer technology of Traveller was always stuck in the period of the 1960s and 1970s, but here it has been updated to reflect what contemporary computers are like. To that can be added rules and devices for personal augmentation or augments. So characters can improve themselves with Cognitive, Dexterity, Endurance, or Strength Augmentations, improve their senses with Enhanced Vision, armour themselves with Subdermal Armour, and gain access to improved or other skills with Wafer Jacks. This reflects a change in the Imperial Science Fiction of Traveller to the Cyberpunk fiction of the 1980s, but their inclusion will not necessarily overpower a Traveller game as they are expensive to purchase. So, in a Traveller-style game, player characters with extensive cybernetic augmentation are likely to be rare.

Combat in Traveller scales up to encompass vehicle combat and space combat. Much like the rules for skills and personal combat, these opt for a certain concision. So in just eight pages, rules are presented for movement, combat, maneuvering, vehicle weapons and equipment, damage, repair, and collisions. These are supported with seven sample vehicles, from ground cars to G-Carriers and Grav Bikes. What is clear from the rules is that are they are designed for small engagements, rarely more than one-on-one, rather than mass battles. The aim here is personal, or rather, character involvement and roleplaying rather than simulation. This is more explicit in the explanations of spacecraft operations and spacecraft combat, where Traveller has a number of specific skills that needed to successfully operate a spaceship. In combat, though, a character will have a very specific role, depending on his skills. So a Captain will make rolls on Leadership and Tactics (Naval), an Engineer might prepare the Jump Drive or repair a system, a Sensor Operator will engage in electronic warfare or try and gain a sensor lock, a gunner will fire weapons or reload, a Pilot will evade or maneuver for advantage, a marine will conduct or repel boarding actions, and so on. 

Just as the chapter on vehicle combat is supported by a selection of sample vehicles, the chapters on spaceship operations and spaceship combat are supported by some nineteen starships and smallcraft plus variants common to the ‘Official Traveller Universe’ of The Third Imperium. These all come with full colour deck plans, though in the larger ships these are a little difficult to read. They range from the one-hundred-ton Scout/Courier and two-hundred-ton Far Trader—both staples of a Traveller campaign—up to the six-hundred-ton Subsidised Liner and the eight-hundred-ton Mercenary Cruiser. The selection enables the Game Master to run a variety of campaign types, a tramp freighter type campaign could be built around the Scout/Courier or Far Trader; a mercenary campaign around a Mercenary Cruiser; a Yacht or Safari Ship for a more leisurely style of campaign, and so on.

More setting rules cover encounters with animals and NPCs, some encounter tables, trade between star systems—which supports merchant campaigns in particular, and the creation of the setting itself and worlds. The latter focus on the creation of single worlds rather than actual systems and their stats can be expressed just like the UPP as a Universal World Profile. The process is quicker and simpler than the creation of player characters and the process includes some cultural differences to differentiate between other worlds. Our sample world is Clora 63, a small, low-g (0.25 G) water world with a diameter of 4,800 km, standard atmosphere which is home to roughly seven million inhabitants. It is an icy world with extensive ice caps and little standing water. A rich, non-industrial world, it is a retreat world governed from neighbouring Foastea which makes its money catering to all year-round winter sports.

Clora 63 B369667A Ni Ri

Although they are outlawed in the setting of the Third Imperium, Traveller includes the rules for psionic abilities. These are organised into five Talents—Awareness, Clairvoyance, Telekinesis, Telepathy, and Teleportation—under which there are activities a psion can use. So, Telepathy includes Life Detection, Mind Link, Telempathy, Read Surface Thoughts, and so on. Each Talent is treated like a skill and each activity a skill check, much in line with the Task Difficulty mechanics. The core modifiers to any roll will be a character’s modifier from his PSI stat and the level of the Talent it-self. Although Psionics can be powerful, what limits their use is the number of points of psionic power a character has to use and by their use being illegal in the default setting. Plus, gaining access to the Psion career requires certain Life Events to be rolled for during character generation, the same as the Prisoner career. Ultimately, whether or not psionics play a role in a campaign is up to the Game Master to decide, but if allowed, the Psion career is not one that can be freely chosen.

Our second example character is a corporate manager and leader whose long-term career was hampered by his poor social standing. Instead he took a sabbatical to join a secret psionic study institute he had been in contact with since his days at university. Unfortunately, the institute was unmasked and he was forced to go on the run before being captured and imprisoned for crimes against the Imperium.

Hary Grownes, Age 54
University Graduate (Honours)
Citizen/Corporate 4 (Senior Manager)
Psion/Adept 3 (Acolyte)
Crime/Fixer 1
Admin 3, Advocate 3, Carouse 1, Deception 1, Diplomat 2, Flyer (Grav) 1, Gambler 2, Gun Combat (Energy) 1, Jack-of-all-Trades 1, Melee (Unarmed) 2, Persuade 2, Science (Psionicology) 1, Vacc Suit 1

Psionic Strength 7
Talents: Telepathy 2, Awareness 2, Clairvoyance 1

Events: Psion Group, Befriended a Superior (Ally), Romantic Relationship (Ally), Business Expands, Political Upheaval, Psionic Strength, Specialist Training, Crime, Back Breaking Labour

TAS Membership, Ship Shares (5)

Rounding out the Traveller rulebook is a description of a complete subsector. This is the Sindal subsector in the Trojan Reach located between the Third Imperium and the Aslan Hierate. Just seventeen worlds are described in a mostly empty subsector of space, each with a patron who might hire a player character group. It contains a good mix of worlds and is decidedly rough and ready section of space where the player characters can act with impunity.

As pleasing as the relative simplicity and concision of the rules in Traveller are, they are lacking in two ways. One is the lack of reference or flow charts, both of which would have been helpful for running combat at all levels—personal, vehicular, or space—of the roleplaying game. There is one for character generation, but nothing else. The other is a lack of examples. There are examples in the book and they are useful, but there are no extended examples. So, no example of play, of combat, of vehicle combat, or spaceship combat. Which is such a shame and such a missed opportunity, as they would have helped bring the game come to life and the rules easier to understand through seeing them in action.

At the start of the review, I stated how much of a revelation the corebook rulebook for Traveller: Science Fiction Adventure in the Far Future was and that remains true. As physically decent as the book is, what strikes you about this version of Traveller is the efficiency and concision with which the rules are presented and written. This in turn makes them accessible and easy to understand—especially for anyone already familiar with Traveller—though the lack of worked examples may hinder players new to the game and the setting. Above all, the Traveller Core Rulebook is a competent, accessible set of rules for playing in the Third Imperium and playing Imperial Science Fiction.

Monday 11 September 2017

The Voodoo that Huhu do

Now in its tenth year, Saturday, June 17th is Free RPG Day and with it comes an array of new and interesting little releases. Invariably they are tasters for forthcoming games to be released at GenCon the following August, but others are support for existing RPGs or pieces of gaming ephemera or a quickstart. One of the regular pieces of support comes once again from Lamentations of the Flame Princess, the Finnish-based publisher best known for Lamentations of the Flame Princess Weird Fantasy Roleplay and its scenarios like Death Frost DoomA Red and Pleasant Land, and Bloodmother Skyfortress. Following on from last year’s release for Free RPG Day in 2016, Slügs!, which asked the question, ‘Do you need a cornucopia of Slügs!?’, as well being controversial for it political sliming, Lamentations of the Flame Princess brings us Vaginas Are Magic!

Vaginas Are Magic! is designed to be provocative. It is a gaming supplement and it does material that a Dungeon Master could bring to his gaming table, but it is designed to be provocative. After all, it has the word ‘vaginas’ in the title. It is not designed to be offensive, though there is certainly capacity for some to take offence at its tone and content. For as a book, Vaginas Are Magic!—sometimes known as ‘VAM’, but honestly(!)—is mature in tone and content and two or three pieces of its artwork are of an adult nature. Some might even say pornographic. There is also the fact that what Vaginas Are Magic! is, is a sourcebook of magic and spells that can only be cast by women who can have children. This again is something that some may take offence at. So the question is, is Vaginas Are Magic! offensive? Arguably no, since there should be room in the hobby for what is mature, adult material, as the majority of gamers are adults—and in comparison to some material published by Lamentations of the Flame Princess—this is much more measured, adult gameable content. Now when it comes to the illustrations, then arguably, two or three pieces are strong in nature and probably stronger than is necessary. The rest of the content though, is definitely designed to provoke a reaction, but how much of a reaction will be down to the reader.

So what of the content and the book itself? Essentially, Vaginas Are Magic! presents two things. One is a stripped down magic system for Magic-users, the other is a grimoire. The former does away with spell levels and the need for the Read Magic spell. Instead, a Magic-user has potentially access to any spells and can cast any spell that she knows at whatever Level she wants. So, a Fifth Level Magic-user could cast Magic Missile as a First, Second, Third, Fourth, or Fifth Level Magic-user. A Magic-user has a number of spell slots equal to her Level, but this limit is only for casting memorised spells safely. Once these slots have been exhausted, she can cast as many slots again, but with the chance that she might miscast them and thus have to roll on the Miscast Table each time she casts again. After that, a Magic-user must rest and memorise her spells again. A Magic-user at First Level knows three randomly determined spells and since spells have no Level limit, there is is no limit to how many can be learned. This then presents a very quick and easy magic system that expands a Magic-user’s choice of spells and has the potential to make her very powerful even at First Level. A First Level Magic-user with Cloudkill or Fireball or Teleport, anyone? Of course, there is little to stop a Games Master from adapting these rules to the other spellcasting Classes.

This new magic system is spelt out inside the book’s front cover, leaving the actual book to be devoted to the contents of Vaginas Are Magic! This consists of a primer on magic in the author’s campaign—essentially how dangerous magic is physically, mentally, and socially, and how it should be taken out of the hands of grey-bearded old men—and a grimoire of some twenty spells, from A Blaze in the Northern Sky and Chaosgoat Law to Triumph of Death and Volcanic Slut. These names though, are the song titles of classic black metal tracks which the author has deemed suitable enough to work as the names of interesting spells. In keeping with the magic system presented at the front of the book, each of the actual spells given in Vaginas Are Magic! comes without Level, spell components, range, and so on. 

What each spell does come with though, is a full-page illustration, a description, and a miscast table, and the result for each is a stripped back, self-contained feel. So, for example, A Blaze in the Northern Sky weakens a planet’s inherent defences such that a meteor is able to enter the atmosphere and indeed, blaze a light across the sky. This turns night into day, affecting nocturnal and diurnal creatures alike, and inspiring sheer terror or loyalty out of sheer terror for being to summon this object from the heavens. Should this spell go awry, possible effects include the meteor impacting on the ground, odd radiation, temporary banishment of night as the meteor burns up very slowly, driving the local inhabitants insane, and so on. It is illustrated with an image of a meteor lighting up a landscape as it blazes across the sky. 

What A Blaze in the Northern Sky showcases is the greater ramifications a spell can have on a campaign. This is applied again and again throughout the twenty or so spells, so not one can really be cast without consequences. In other words, there are ‘no fire and forget’ spells a la traditional Dungeons & Dragons in Vaginas Are Magic! 

Some of the spells in Vaginas Are Magic! are not all that interesting or useful. For example, Sepulchral Voice allows the caster to steal and use the voices of those she has killed, whilst Raise the Dead enables her to do that from the walls, floors, and ceiling of wherever the caster is, but the dead do not obey her. Rather they fixate on others around her—which includes other player characters! It has potential as a barrier perhaps, but the danger to others… This does not mean that these spells are wholly useless, but rather that their utility is not wholly immediate and really, it will be down to player ingenuity to get the best use out of them. Other spells though, can have lasting effects—effects with ramifications for a campaign. For example, Chaosgoat Law can be cast to summon the Chaosgoat which settle an argument, a dispute, and so on, the resulting ruling once the cases of either side have been put, being binding—whatever the consequences and whether one side is ‘right’ or not. Into the Crypts of the Rays brings the Magic-user into astral contact with an old master—possibly Gilles de Raiswho will answer one question, but in return ask the caster to become the vessel for his return to the world for he is currently trapped in his old chateau. Is this too strong a price to pay, bearing the essence of the old master and bringing to term, not quite knowing what the caster might have unleashed on the world—once again? On a more mechanical basis, My Journey to the Stars transports the caster into a stellar garden, deconstructs them, and then recreates her anew, but with one attribute physically rolled and assigned the new value. This can be done over and over, but there are diminishing returns…

Physically, Vaginas Are Magic! is a cleanly laid out book in black and white behind a full colour photo cover that has the potential for provocation. Inside, the book is professionally presented, the artwork is good, and the writing good.

So what you have in Vaginas Are Magic! is a magic system and some new spells accompanied by reasons to limit their use and by reasons to provoke a negative reaction. It should be made clear that there is some validity to that reaction, if only for the choice of adult artwork rather than in writing a book for spell-casting women in your favourite retroclone. What you also have though, is some interesting spells and the point that magic is not the sole province of grey bearded old men and that women can be as powerful and have access to potentially as powerful and as interesting spells as those grey bearded old men—if not more so. This may limit its use by some gamers, but that does not negate its point and it does not limit the use of these spells by female player characters. Vaginas Are Magic! may not be quite at home in your campaign, but it may be worth look nevertheless.