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

Monday 27 November 2017

Coils Around the World

The Two-Headed Serpent: An Epic Action-Packed and Globe-Spanning Campaign for Pulp Cthulhu is pretty much up front about what it is. With a swagger and a quick swig from the hip flask, it swings into action, punches a Serpent Man firmly on the snout, and smashes its way through the Cthulhu Mythos—and out the other side in a campaign which will take the investigators around the world and back again. Written for use with Pulp Cthulhu: Two-Fisted Action and Adventure Against the Mythos, the supplement for Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition which combines Lovecraftian investigative horror with two-fisted adventure, weird science, dark deeds, and brave heroes, The Two-Headed Serpent takes its cue from classic campaigns of the past—Shadows of Yog-Sothoth and Masks of Nyarlathotep, in particular—in that its globe-spanning trek will see the heroes uncover and confront the forces of the Mythos, culminating on a tiny island. In doing so, they will travel from Bolivia, New York, Borneo, and Oklahoma to the Belgian Congo, Iceland, and Brazil—and beyond!

Published by Chaosium, Inc.The Two-Headed Serpent is upfront about what it is in three ways. The first way is Pinturero’s great front cover which shows you what campaign is about. Yes, it does involve entwined snakes—in more than the one sense; yes, it does involve a volcano—in more than the one sense; and it does involve all of the characters shown on the cover—in more than the one sense. The second way is the title, involving as both it and the campaign does, a lot of snakes. The third way is the set-up. The set-up is that the investigators—or heroes—are employees of Caduceus Foundation, a medical aid organisation with global reach and remit. The organisation employs all sorts of people, not just nurses, doctors, and scientists, but also those with social skills to talk to the people who can help Caduceus, those with the underworld or criminal skills and contacts to get people and supplies where they are needed, and of course, guides, drivers, mechanics, and so on. This allows a wide range of possible heroes (the pre-generated heroes include a Chinese medical doctor who is a quick study and who does not believe in the Mythos; a quick-witted, fast on the draw private investigator; a strong-minded archaeologist with fast reactions; a resourceful Sikh scientist with a knowledge of weird scientist; a strong-willed gun moll with a knack for disguise; and an expert big game hunter and explorer). This all sounds like a not unreasonable set-up for a campaign, but the authors of The Two-Headed Serpent actually state upfront in the player introduction that the Caduceus Foundation is a front for an organisation dedicated to fighting elements of the Cthulhu Mythos.

Such a set-up is not only brave, but also radical in comparison to every other campaign for Call of Cthulhu, wherein the set-up is that the investigators are unaware of the Mythos or the mystery at the start of these campaigns. Nor is this set-up really a spoiler, because the heroes will pretty quickly learn the same facts in-game as the players have just learned them out of game. The set-up to The Two-Headed Serpent also both prepares the players and their player heroes for what is come and establishes the tone for the campaign before throwing the heroes into the action. Fundamentally, The Two-Headed Serpent is not a dour, methodical, investigative procedural, but a fast-paced, action-orientated jaunt to some Mythos hotspots old and new, and this frankly jaw-dropping set-up gets player and hero alike ready for it. 

The campaign opens in 1933 in the midst of the Chaco War between Bolivia and Paraguay with the heroes ostensibly delivering fresh supplies to an aid camp. Then they are ambushed, and so The Two-Headed Serpent is off to the races. Over the course of the campaign, the heroes will find themselves undertaking a wide variety tasks, whether it is uncovering an ancient temple from Earth’s ancient past whilst fending off strangely determined military intervention in Bolivia; investigating the Mafia’s interest the Caduceus Foundation in New York; researching the cause of an outbreak of a deadly disease in North Borneo and coming face to face with some very weird flora and fauna; or investigating a newly arisen snake handling Christian preacher in the Oklahoma dustbowl. There are nine chapters in The Two-Headed Serpent, each named after a location and each actually quite short. In fact, the majority of the chapters are really only going to take a session or two to complete, so the whole campaign can be played through quite quickly.

For the most part, the chapters are straightforward and the campaign fairly open in terms of the order which its chapters can be tackled. Initially, this will see the heroes’ employers revealing just a little more about their actual aims and sending them back out to a hotspot to investigate something strange going on. The New York chapter differs from this in that the Caduceus Foundation having its headquarters in the city means that the heroes will return there again and again, each time having learned something new about their mission and their employer. The likelihood is that events of the New York chapter will play out over several chapters as the heroes get distracted by other missions and lines of investigation. What they learn is that Caduceus Foundation is facing an enemy race from Earth’s long prehistoric past which wants to retake the planet which was once theirs and if it has to be rid of some jumped up, primitive monkey-descendants, then so be it! As the heroes delve deeper into the campaign, they discover that the remnants of this enemy race are not united in their aims and ultimately, they may need to side with one faction or another—if not play the factions off against each other—in order to prevent the end of the world.

Along the way, the heroes will uncover conspiracies, get involved in organised crime, encounter the dark secrets of a benevolent preacher, find themselves dodging dinosaurs deep in the jungle, sneaking into volcano lairs, experimenting with ancient advanced technology, engaging in a MacGuffin hunt in the ‘City of Joy’, possibly undergoing a transformative experience, racing across an old, old continent to save the world, and of course, cheating certain death. The Two-Headed Serpent is after all, a campaign for use with Pulp Cthulhu, and such a campaign should include such mainstays of the Pulp genre.

The campaign itself is well supported. Not only does it come with six ready-to-play, pre-generated heroes for the players, but it comes with decent handouts and appendices detailing the major NPCs, spells, technology, and tomes to be found in 
The Two-Headed Serpent. Alongside the staging and other advice on running the campaign for the Keeper, the campaign includes reports from its three playtests. These are highly entertaining because each playtest group approached the campaign in a different way, whether that is cautiously a la a standard Call of Cthulhu style, in a Pulp style with lots of action and danger, or embracing the weird aspects of the campaign. This is a great touch as it helps prepare the Keeper for how his players with approach the campaign themselves. The Keeper will need to carefully read the campaign for although it is straightforward enough, the aims and objectives of the various NPCs are not always so and the Keeper will need to handle some of them just as carefully as to when and how they interact with heroes. There is also advice for running the campaign using the standard rules for Call of Cthulhu, but that would take some effort upon the part of the Keeper and it would need scaling back a very great deal if the investigators involved are to have a decent chance of survival.

Physically, The Two-Headed Serpent is nicely laid out and done in the now Chaosium house style. This both a good and a bad thing—mostly good. On the plus side, the book is done in full colour, is decently illustrated in both sepia and full colour, and the layout is clean, tidy, and accessible. In fact, some of the artwork is excellent, the image of a sea serpent crunching down on a seaplane is terrific, as are the illustrations of the campaign’s major NPCs. The maps are slightly variable in quality, the maps of countries possessing a little more character than those of the more fantastic locations, which feel slightly bland. On the downside, the book needs another edit in places, especially towards the end where there is an amount of repeated text.

There are unfortunately two issues with the artwork. One is the lack of it in that none of the pieces of the technology presented in The Two-Headed Serpent are illustrated. This is such a shame and such a missed opportunity. The other is an ongoing issue which has been an annoyance and a blight upon previous releases for releases published for Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition. This is with the portmanteau galleries of each chapter’s NPCs’ portraits, which collect them together rather than placing them with their relevant stat write-ups at the end of each chapter. Putting aside the fact that some of the portraits do not fit the description, placing the NPC portraits together only benefits the Keeper, because they cannot be used as handouts. In other words, the Keeper cannot simply show one portrait to his players without their seeing the other portraits.

The absurd lack of utility to this design choice is completely compounded by the decision not to use it elsewhere in the book. It is not used for the campaign’s major antagonists. Neither is it used with the given pre-generated investigators, so the question is, why is it used for the lesser NPCs? It adds nothing to the campaign and is instead, an actual hindrance to the easy running of the campaign. It is such a simple matter to change and one really has to hope that the forthcoming reissue of Masks of Nyarlathotep will not suffer from the same issue.

In concentrating on the action, one thing that is lost in The Two-Headed Serpent is verisimilitude. From Bolivia and Borneo to the Belgian Congo and Calcutta, the campaign visits exotic location after exotic location, but it feels just a bit too fleeting and there is never the chance to add much in the of local colour and detail. This is more of an issue in later chapters, but it does lend the campaign a certain superficiality. It also explains why one of the better chapters is actually Oklahoma because it involves more roleplaying and interaction and investigation than the other chapters sometimes do, and because its emphasis is on that rather than action, it serves as a breather in the campaign, a change of pace. This is not to say that the other chapters are not fun—the volcano scenes in Iceland are certainly that, as are the scenes involving the Mafia in New York. What it does mean is that The Two-Headed Serpent needs to be carefully paced to allow time for the players to take in what their heroes have learned and for their heroes to investigate the various tomes and technological gewgaws they are likely to recover.

The arrival of a new campaign for Call of Cthulhu is always welcome and none more so than The Two-Headed Serpent. Obviously in this case because it is the first campaign for use with Pulp Cthulhu and it sets the standard for future campaigns, but it also showcases the style and mechanics from that supplement. Which includes facing down Mythos threats rather than running away, shrugging off hits and Sanity losses, and spending a whole lot of Luck to escape by the skin of a hero’s proverbial teeth. The Two-Headed Serpent: An Epic Action-Packed and Globe-Spanning Campaign for Pulp Cthulhu is big, is bold, and lets hero and heroine alike stand tall and laugh in the face of the Mythos. Then punch it right on the snout and run away as the volcano explodes behind them.

Sunday 26 November 2017

Proper Paw & Pack Play

When mankind is long gone, popular wisdom has it that the cockroaches will survive and inherit the Earth. Not so according to the Pugmire Fantasy Tabletop Roleplaying Game. In the far future, long after an apocalypse that led to the disappearance of Man, it is his best friend that inherits the Earth. That is, dogs! Long uplifted to use tools, read, and improve the world around them, dogs have founded the Kingdom of Pugmire and now strive to live up to the ideals of their long-gone masters—the Code of Man. These are Be a Good Dog, Obey the Master, Bite only those who endanger you, Defend your home, Stay loyal to those that are true, Protect all from the Unseen, and Fetch what has been left behind. Currently, the Kingdom of Pugmire is roughly equal to a medieval world, but Mankind also left behind caches and troves of ‘magical’ artefacts which the dogs constantly search for. After all, the fact that dogs can use them is surely a sign of Man’s faith in them. Of course, Dogs are not the only species to have been uplifted by Man or the Old Ones. Only decades ago, the Kingdom of Pugmire fought a war against the Monarchies of Mau—a confederation of Cats, whilst tribes of Badgers, Rats, and Lizards can be found inside and outside of the kingdom’s borders. Indeed, the Monarchies of Mau is the subject of its own roleplaying game. Besides sharing a setting, Monarchies of Mau and Pugmire both have the facts in common that they were funded via Kickstarter and both are published by Onyx Path Publishing.

Now anthropomorphic, post-apocalypse roleplaying games are nothing new. See Mutant: Genlab Alpha and After the Bomb, the supplement for Palladium Books’ Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles & Other Strangeness, as well as Metamorphosis Alpha, originally published by TSR, Inc., but most recently reprinted by Goodman Games. In comparison to the earnestness of the first and the wackiness of the latter two, Pugmire is different in that it is essentially Dungeons & Dragons, but ‘Dungeons & Dragons with Dogs’ because it employs the Open Game Licence for Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition. This makes Pugmire easy to pick up and play, which should be no surprise given the delightful accessibility of Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition. There is more to Pugmire than ‘Dungeons & Dragons with Dogs’ though…

Dogs in Pugmire have a Calling, a Breed, and a Background. A Calling is what a Dog does and is the equivalent of a Class. Six are given—Artisans (Wizards), Guardians (Fighters), Hunters (Rangers), Ratters (Rogues), Shepherds (Clerics), and Strays (Barbarians). Notable of these are the Artisan and Shepherd Callings. The Artisan specialises in the use of artefacts for magical effects, whilst the Shepherd belongs to the Church of Man, both spreads and uses the word of the Code of Man to guide others, and generally espouses being a good dog. A Breed is essentially a Dog’s Race. These are grouped into six types—Companion, Fettle, Herders, Pointers, Runners, and Workers, plus Mutts. The Breeds are more generalised than specific breeds of dog, but within each Breed there are several notable families, such as the Pug for Companions, Corgis for Herders, Greyhounds for Runners, and so on, which more correspond to the specific breeds of today. This neatly avoids Pugmire having to detail each and every contemporary breed and also establishes the various noble families within the kingdom. A Background is what a Dog did before becoming a hero and answering his Calling. Just eight are given, ranging from Acolyte and Common Folk to Sage and Soldier.

A Dog’s Calling will provide him with a view on other Callings, on the Code of Man—each Calling favours a different part of the Code, his Stamina Points, skills and rucksack (equipment), plus his first Tricks. The latter are of course, a Dog’s special abilities and powers and are akin to the proficiencies or feats of Dungeons & Dragons. More skills, rucksack contents, and another Trick will come from a Dog’s Background, whilst his Breed provides another Trick and an Ability (attribute) bonus. Running through the Callings ad the Breeds is the ‘Rule of Six’, lists of six aspects about the Breed or Calling. So there are six families per Breed and six views on the other Callings, six Calling types, and six unusual circumstances by which a Dog acquired something in his rucksack.

Creating a Dog involves selecting a Calling, a Breed, and a Background, plus skills and Tricks. Artisans and Shepherds also have spells. Unlike in other roleplaying games, the core abilities are not rolled for, but assigned from a given set of values. The creation process is generally straightforward and a player is nicely guided through the process, step-by-step.

Our sample character is Rupert Dachshund, an Artisan Pointer who has recently finished his apprenticeship to his uncle who owns and runs the family business, Object d’artefact, which trades in, and auctions, artefacts. He also sends out packs of adventurers to search for and recover artefacts. Now that Rupert Dachshund has completed his training, he wants to see more than just artefacts under glass, being evaluated, or going under the hammer. He wants to see artefacts in the wild! He wants some experience and perhaps he might even join the Royal Pioneers.

Rupert Dachshund
Level 1
Calling: Artisan
Breeding: Pointer
Background: Sage
Proficiency Bonus: +2
Stamina dice: d6
Stamina Points: 7
Defence: 13
Initiative: +2
Speed: 30
Abilities: Strength -1 (08), Dexterity +2 (14), Constitution +1 (12), Intelligence +3 (17), Wisdom +0 (10), Charisma +1 (13)
Skills: Know Arcana, Know History, Perform, Search
Tricks: Simple Weapons Aptitude, Light Armour Aptitude, Focus Magic, Voracious Learner
Spells: Elemental Ray, Feather Fall, Magic Missile, Magic Paw, Smell Magic Rucksack: Spear (1d8), padded light armour, masterwork artisan focus (googlepixle), bottle of ink, ink pen, parchment, books

View on the Code: Fetch what has been left behind
Idea: What is most important to me is finding the secrets of the Old Ones
Bond: I am inspired by my bond to Pugmire
Flaw: No matter what, I just can’t resist my insatiable curiosity

Given its Dungeons & Dragons-derived mechanics, it should be no surprise that Pugmire is Class and Level system. Unlike Dungeons & Dragons, the Levels only go up to Tenth Level, at which point a Dog is considered an Old Dog and cannot advance any further, although he can still go adventuring. Unlike Dungeons & Dragons, a Dog who goes adventuring in Pugmire does not earn Experience Points, but is awarded a new Level after a few good stories and when the Guide—as the Game Master is known in Pugmire—decides is appropriate. When he does go up a Level, a Dog gains both Stamina and Stamina dice, spellcasters—Artisans and Shepherds gain more spells and spell slots, and at every other Level, a Dog’s Proficiency Bonus increases. Every Level, a Dog gains an Improvement, which can be to improve an Ability score; take a new Calling, Breeding, or Aptitude Trick; or refine an existing Calling or Masterwork Trick. The latter is possible because beyond the basic effect of a Trick, it can be refined or upgraded. For example, Focus Magic is a Calling Trick for the Artisan which allows a Dog to cast spells via a focus. One refinement allows the Artisan to select four more spells from the spell levels that he knows, whilst the other enables him to choose spells from the next spell level. The Archery Trick for the Hunter Calling gives a Dog a bonus on ranged attacks, whilst refinements can give him the Advantage on ammunition saving throws, allow him a bonus attack on the same target, and reroll damage rolls if a one is rolled. These tweaks and refinements give Pugmire a sense of the cinematic and heroic action as well as providing some variability in terms of Dog design.

Mechanically, Pugmire looks much like Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition, but on a closer look, there are tweaks and refinements to the rules too. The most notable addition is that of Fortune and the Fortune Bowl. A session begins with the Dogs in an adventuring party having two Fortune in the Fortune Bowl. A player can earn more Fortune for the Bowl by roleplaying to his Dog’s personality traits in a way that makes the game interesting, by being an entertaining player, coming up with a good plan, and by playing a ‘Good Dog’. Much of this is up to the discretion of the Guide, but a player can force the Guide to add Fortune to the Bowl by having his Dog intentionally fail. Fortune in the Bowl can be spent—and this is a permanent spend—to gain a reroll on any dice roll and keep the higher result, to allow a spellcaster to cast a spell if he has run out of spell slots, and to interrupt the initiative order and take their turn now. Further, some Tricks require Fortune to be activated, for example, ‘Nearby Expert’, a Background Trick, allows a player to spend Fortune for his Dog to know someone close by who has the knowledge or expertise that his Dog needs.

Again, magic in Pugmire looks like Dungeons & Dragons, but with a tweak or two. One is a matter of flavour or two, which has a canine cast to it. So, Magic Paw instead of Mage Hand, Smell Magic instead of Detect Magic, and so on. Basic spells like this—there are three each for both the Artisan and the Shepherd, can be cast freely by a Dog of the correct Calling. Spells of Level One and above cost a caster Slots to cast, equal to the Level of the spells. Thus, one Slot for a Level One spell, two Slots for a Level Two spell, all the way up to Level Five. Fitter Artisans and Shepherds—those with a higher Constitution—have more Slots. What this means is that a spellcaster is free to cast what he wants and however many times he wants as long as he has Slots left.

The setting for the roleplaying game is Pugmire, both a kingdom and a small city, the latter built around a castle and on what was once swampland. The kingdom is currently ruled by King Puckington Pug with the support of the Church of Man and dominated by great breeds and families who each own an ancient relic as indication of their nobility. One relic of Man is used as currency in the kingdom—plastic! It is literally dug from the ground and melted into coins. It is also useful in the construction of the plastic hulls needed for any ship wanting to sail the Acid Sea, although the kingdom’s access to the sea is limited. The kingdom maintains a testy relationship with the Monarchies of Mau; dislike the Rats—which include Rats and Mice—as they covet the same relics or ‘shinies’; and hate the Badgers—which include Otters, Polecats, Weasels, Ferrets, and Wolverines, as well as Badgers—for the raids they carry out on the kingdom and relic caches. The nomadic Lizards are tolerated for the stories and goods from foreign lands they trade in. Within the kingdom, the Royal Pioneers of Pugmire is an organisation of adventurers, whose members are Pugmire citizens—so it accepts strays, criminals, and bandits—and who are dedicated to protecting the kingdom, recovering relics, and uncovering knowledge. It is organised into parties who report to and are assigned tasks by a trustee. One of the benefits of being a Pioneer is that a Dog gets to keep and use whatever relics he recovers. Essentially, the Royal Pioneers of Pugmire is the default organisation for the player characters or Dogs to join and serve in, and so go adventuring.

One of the reasons that the Dogs are adventuring is relics. These include items which Dogs call ‘Masterworks’; consumable oils, dusts, and potions they call ‘Fixes’; and bizarre items such as a Bowl of Endless Water or the Ticking Rose, they call ‘Wonders’. From the Amulet of Health and the Bag of Holding to the Ring of Resistance and Robe of Scintillating Colours, these do look standard magical items a la Dungeons & Dragons. Yet Pugmire being a post-apocalyptic world, what they really are, is items of Old World technology. Some of the items are easy to map back onto items of contemporary technology, for example, a Lantern of Revealing could be some kind of scanner, Boots of Silence actually rubber-soled shoes, and a Potion of Heroism, some kind of drug. Others though are less obvious and may take some imagination to determine.

A Dog does not just own a relic. In the case of some Masterworks, a Dog not only has to attune himself to an item, he can also refine it with an improvement when he acquires a new Level. So the Gauntlets of Power raises a wearer’s Strength to 20 instead of 18 if attuned and refined and a Ring of Protection provides a +1 bonus to Defence and saving throws, but can be refined twice to increase the bonus for each to +2. The list of Masterworks, Fixes, and Wonders is limited, but beyond Pugmire, the number of magical items and sourcebooks thereof for the various iterations of Dungeons & Dragons is all but inexhaustible.

Like its treatment of magical items, Pugmire presents its monsters and enemies in a different fashion. There are of course other animals—Dogs, Cats, Rats, Badgers, and Lizards, but these are joined by more traditional monsters like Giant Ants and Zombies as well as some quite odd particular to the world of Pugmire. This includes the Kapatapa, a metallic thing with wheels which drags unaware Dogs into rivers and lakes it hides in; the Two-Headed Giant, which has the head of a Dog and the head of a Cat, which argue with each other, but hate their parent species; and the Mementomorian, a Dog-like creature which constantly harvests the memories of Dogs dead in the graveyard and on the battlefield. The most interesting monsters in Pugmire are the demons. They are also the most terrifying, for they are the demons of the Unseen, the demons that only Dogs can see and the demons that the Dogs warned Man about. Which of course Man took no heed of, for Dogs can only bark. Which is a lovely conceit.

For the Guide there is a well written chapter of advice and suggestions for running Pugmire. This covers everything from hosting the game to running it and more, including helping with character generation, being a storyteller and pacing scenes, handling the rules and creating a Chronicle—a campaign, ideas for Chronicle types other than the Royal Pioneers of Pugmire, and even suggestions for other game systems that the setting of Pugmire could be run under.

Rounding out Pugmire is a short adventure, ‘The Great Cat Conspiracy’. Designed for beginning characters, in which the Dogs are hired by the Doberman family to rid its iron mines the cat bandits which have raiding them. Involving a good mix of social interaction, wilderness adventure, and dungeoneering, the scenario is a fairly straightforward affair. It nicely introduces the players to the setting and its social mores as well as giving them a good taste of the mechanics.

One aspect where Pugmire definitely differs from Dungeons & Dragons is that of Alignment. In Dungeon & Dragons there are various Alignments or ethical and moral outlooks on life, such Lawful Good, Neutral, and Chaotic Evil. Pugmire does not have such varied outlooks or Alignments and it is in fact much more like the Code of Bushido in Legend of the Five Rings. In the setting of that roleplaying game, Rokugan, every samurai believes in the Code of Bushido, but each clan values a different tenet of the code more highly over the others. So it is with the Callings in Pugmire, and thus in effect, what you have is the single Alignment, but with variations. That said, the approach to the Code of Man, although important to just about every Dog is not as earnest as that of a samurai to Bushido—unless of course you are devout worshipper of the Church of Man.

In embracing the Code of Man, Pugmire is positive roleplaying game about bettering the lives of every Dog and safeguarding the kingdom, if not making it better for your pups. It is about doing this together, since Dogs are pack animals and like to work together. What this means is that Pugmire is not really a game about the divisive individual. As written, there is no element in Pugmire of, “I can do anything I want, so my character is going to go off and do this—and screw you!” as was in your early games of Dungeons & Dragons. This is not say that there is  or was this element in Dungeons & Dragons necessarily—but again, remember that game back in the day where the Thief betrayed you, stole all of your loot, and got you all killed?—and it is not to say that this could not happen in Pugmire, but rather that Pugmire makes it implicit that it is game of cooperation and working together. Of course, being a post-apocalyptic fantasy game, Pugmire is also a game of exploration and mystery. Exploration because the kingdom does not know what lies beyond its borders and mystery because who knows what lies out there and who knows what happened to Man?

Physically, Pugmire Fantasy Tabletop Roleplaying Game is a lovely book. The slightly undersized hardback is done in full colour and the artwork is absolutely great. If you want pictures of Dogs in medieval armour and wielding swords and fighting monsters, then this book is perfect for you. A slight edit is needed here and there, but the writing is light and engaging, with the rules being very well explained. One nice touch is the inclusion of advice in separate boxes, both from characters within the setting. One provides further explanation, whilst the other gives advanced options.

As much as it employs the mechanics of Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition, what Pugmire is not, ‘Dungeons & Dragons with Dogs’. One reason is the (fantasy in a) post-apocalyptic setting, but really it is the positive nature of the character or Dog design and their embracing of the Code of Man and the cooperative style of play that it encourages which pulls it away from Dungeons & Dragons.

One thing Pugmire is not, is an introductory roleplaying game. As well written as it is, it is perhaps a bit too dense a book to serve as that. One element that it does lack to that end, is an example of play. On the downside of course, you almost wish that Pugmire had been written as an introductory roleplaying game, perhaps a boxed set. (In fact, it would be nice to see an introductory boxed set written using the same mechanics and in the same tone as Pugmire, but perhaps with three different settings a la Chaosium’s Worlds of Wonder roleplaying game.) Now what Pugmire works better as, is a first roleplaying game, a roleplaying game that the Guide can run for others who are new to roleplaying, whether they are younger players or adults. For either age, both the tone and the setting of the game are positive and inclusive, and the idea of playing anthropomorphic Dogs is fun and engaging, which is refreshing and something that more experienced players are likely to enjoy too.

Inspired by his own dog—the late and much-loved Pug, Murray—the author of Pugmire Fantasy Tabletop Roleplaying Game brings a canine cast to roleplaying fantasy and does so in a well written, beautifully presented, and engaging fashion. Pugmire is the roleplaying game for Good Dogs everywhere.

Sunday 19 November 2017

An Original RPG

First published in 1975, Empire of the Petal Throne was the second roleplaying game published by TSR, Inc. and the third fantasy roleplaying game to be published, yet it was the first in so many ways. Mechanically, it might have introduced the concept of critical hits, but it was the first roleplaying game to come with a setting, the first roleplaying game to come with its own languages, the first roleplaying game not to be based upon West Europe mythologies but rather Asia, Central America, and Egypt, and the first to come with a campaign concept. That setting is in the very far future on Tékumel, a metal poor planet which has been isolated in a pocket dimension for at least fifty thousand years. Societies on Tékumel are culturally sophisticated if very tradition-bound, but technology has regressed to medieval levels, although relics of the past, notably the metallic, gem-shaped ‘Eyes’, can be found and used, some emitting healing rays, others destructive or freezing beams. Knowledge of their manufacture has long been lost, but Magic is known, its Sorcerer practitioners drawing upon dimensions beyond for its energies or Priestly practitioners petitioning the gods directly, for on Tékumel, the gods are very real and any disbelief in them is viewed as an aberration. In the five human empires—Livyánu, Mu′ugalavyá, Salarvyá, Tsolyánu, and Yán Kór—there are ten gods and ten cohorts, divided equally between the Tlomitlányal, the Gods of Stability, and the Tlokiriqáluyal, the Gods of Change, their followers constantly jockeying for power and influence.

Tékumel is the creation of M.A.R. Barker, a professor of Urdu and South Asian Studies and as much as it is a fantasy world, Tékumel is an exercise in linguistics. The designer created numerous languages for the world, Tsolyáni, for example, being inspired by Urdu, Pushtu, and Mayan. It should be noted that although knowing how to speak Tsolyáni has never been required to roleplay in the Empire of the Petal Throne, knowledge of some of the terms is useful. That said, the linguistic adjustment necessary to pronounce a great many of these terms has always proved to be off-putting for some gamers.

The campaign concept is that of ‘Fresh Off the Boat’. The player characters are the equivalent of ‘country bumpkins’, distant cousins who sail ashore at the great Tsolyáni port city of Jakálla and set out to find a place in civilised society. At first they are confined to the Foreigners Quarter, but sooner or later, one of the great clans of Tsolyánu will seek to employ them, sending them off on deniable tasks, perhaps down into the Underworld of built over ruins located under the city. Eventually, their efforts will be recognised and the patron clan will sponsor them for membership of a clan and so allow them to gain citizen and value in the Five Empires. This is very different to the simplistic campaign concepts of the period, which amounted to little more than going down a dungeon, killing the inhabitants and taking their treasure. If such games were about going off and being outsiders, Empire of the Petal Throne was about outsiders earning acceptance and recognition.  

As a campaign concept,  ‘Fresh Off the Boat’ is a clever set-up. It introduces everyone—Referee and players alike to the setting of Tékumel without overloading them with its complexities and subtleties, pulling them both into the society rather than excluding them. Of course, in later iterations of the setting, roleplaying on Tékumel focused on playing citizens and clan members, but in Empire of the Petal Throne, none of these clans are specifically named.

Now Empire of the Petal Throne has been out of print since 2001, but in 2017, the Tékumel Foundation has reprinted it. Unlike the original edition from 1975, it does not come as a thick spiral bound book in a colourful box, accompanied by vibrantly coloured maps and high production values. Instead it comes a single volume which reproduces everything from that version in black and white. In addition, it includes introductions from both creators of Dungeons & Dragons—E. Gary Gygax from the 1975 edition and Dave Arneson from the 1987 reprint from Different Worlds. In all other ways, the Tékumel Foundation edition of Empire of the Petal Throne is a perfect facsimile of the original edition. This includes crisp reproductions of the heavy line art and the accented language and terminology. Amounting to more pages than original 1975 version, its slim size is indicative of just how thick the paper and how high the production values were in that edition!

Once past the introductions by the hobby’s leading lights, Empire of the Petal Throne leaps into a description of Tékumel and its history, ultimately focusing on Tsolyánu and its current political situation—internally and externally. Primarily this is that the current incumbent of the Petal Throne, Hirkáne Tlakotáni, is old and the various political parties and temples are already attempting to manoeuvre their preferred candidate—each one fathered by the emperor—in readiness for the competition to see who will succeed him. Meanwhile, to the north, the Baron Áld, commander of the forces of Yan Kor and Saa Allaqi, has sworn revenge upon Tsolyánu for the death of his mistress and is said to have in his possession an ancient and unstoppable weapon. (Much of this is detailed in the novels, Man of Gold and Flamesong.) Of course much of this will be of little import to characters who are just Fresh Off the Boat, but to the Referee this will be information that is probably going to be important to the patrons who might hire the player characters.

Empire of the Petal Throne is a Class and Level game with just three character professions—Warrior, Priest, or Magician. All are Human. Just as in Dungeons & Dragons, they have an Alignment. This is either Good or Evil—there is no Neutral—and reflects their loyalty to either the Tlomitlányal or the Tlokiriqáluyal. Now it should be noted that unlike future presentations of Tékumel, here the Tlomitlányal are termed the good gods and the Tlokiriqáluyal the evil gods, rather than the gods of Stability and Change. A character has six talents or attributes—Strength, Intelligence, Constitution, Psychic Ability, Dexterity, and Comeliness. These are rolled as percentiles in order and this being an old school roleplaying game, are kept and kept in order, no matter the result. Fortunately, as a character goes up in Level, he will be able to improve his stats. In addition, a character has two types of skills. His Original Skills are background skills, like perfumer, slaver, or orator. These are grouped into Plebian, Skilled, and Noble skills and a player simply rolls for the number his character knows. The results can be very random, but the player chooses what they are. Professional Skills are rolled for and selected in a similar fashion. Like Dungeons & Dragons, characters in Empire of the Petal Throne have Hit Dice and this is the same for each profession—the six-sided die.

Trasune the Butcher
Warrior Level One
Hit Points: 6
Armour Class: 6 (Leather Armour & Shield)

Strength 82 (+1 to hit and damage)
Intelligence 58
Constitution 75 (+1 Hit Points; 60% revivification chance)
Psychic Ability 76 (Somewhat Psychic, +5% chance of spell working)
Dexterity 77 (Clever, +1 to hit)
Comeliness 38

Original Skills

Professional Skills
Spearman, Mace/Flail User, Axeman

Wizard Level One
Hit Points: 3
Armour Class: 7 (Leather Armour)

Strength 21 (Weak, -1 to hit)
Intelligence 94 (Brilliant, +1 to hit and damage, 40% to detect secret doors)
Constitution 67 (Healthy, +1 Hit Points; 60% revivification chance)
Psychic Ability 95 (Quite Psychic, +10% chance of spell working)
Dexterity 45
Comeliness 69 (Good looking)

Original Skills
Paper-ink maker, merchant, scribe-accountant, bird-trainer, scholar

Professional Skills
Control Self, Telekinesis, Illusion, Clairaudience

Priest Level One
Hit Points: 5
Armour Class: 7 (Leather Armour)

Strength 58
Intelligence 63 (Smart, +1 to hit)
Constitution 80 (Healthy, +1 Hit Points; 60% revivification chance)
Psychic Ability 62 (Somewhat Psychic, +5% chance of spell working)
Dexterity 82 (Dexterous, +1 to hit and damage)
Comeliness 99 (Wildly Handsome)

Original Skills
Barber, perfumer, tailor, jeweller-goldsmith, animal-trainer, dancer, don juan

Professional Skills
Cure Light Wounds, Production of Light, Detect Good/Evil, Know Two Modern Languages, Know Two Ancient Languages

Overall, character generation is quick and easy, taking a few minutes per character. One thing that hampers this is actually a lack of Tékumeli or at least Tsolyáni names. By modern standards, this is a very odd omission, and even by the standards of 1975, a disappointing omission. Fortunately, these days a list of common names found in Tsolyánu is easily found on the Internet.

Although there are skills, there is not a skill system as such. Really it is up to the Referee to determine the outcome or allow a roll against an attribute. For the Wizard and the Priest, many of the professional skills are actually spells and work like they do in Dungeons & Dragons. The magic system is ostensibly Vancian, cast and forget, again like Dungeons & Dragons, but some spells can be cast more than once per day and there is a chance of a spell not working when cast. The latter though lowers as a Priest or Wizard progresses in Level. Some spells look like spells from Dungeons & Dragons, such as ESP and Light, but others, such as The Grey Hand (instant death, no saving throw) and The Silver Halo of Soul Stealing, are more interesting and particular to the setting. When a character acquires a new Level, he gains more skills—both Original and Professional, and in the case of the Wizard and the Priest, bonus spells. In comparison, the skill gains for the Priest and Wizard roles are much more interesting than those for the Warrior.

Combat in Empire of the Petal Throne looks very much like Dungeons & Dragons. Characters wear armour and have Armour Class, against which a twenty-sided die is rolled. Damage is rolled using six-sided dice, no matter the weapon used. Higher Level characters roll more dice against lower Level characters or opponents. Combat is fairly deadly, especially with the double damage rule for rolls of a natural twenty, as well as the vicious nature of some of the creatures found on Tékumel. Empire of the Petal Throne includes an extensive bestiary—backed up by various sets of encounter tables, covering creatures found on the Sakbe roads (the road-walls which divide and connect Tsolyánu), at sea, in the air, and in the Underworld. They include the horrid Ssú, which hate mankind and which smell of cinnamon and often have the ability to hypnotise mankind; the dragon-like Sérudla with their acid spittle; and the crab-like Ngrútha, which likes to insert its eggs in its prey. The majority of the creatures in Empire of the Petal Throne are illustrated in a heavy pen and ink style, which serves to give the book a very singular look.

In terms of magic items and treasure, Empire of the Petal Throne takes its cue from Dungeons & Dragons, whether that is money, arms, armour, gems, jewellery, and so on. Yet it adds its own items with the inclusion of Eyes, amulets, books, and scrolls. These and their effects are highly detailed and really add flavour and bring out the weirdness of Tékumel, whether it is the Eye of Departing in Safety or The Eye of Ruling as a King in Glory, The Amulet of Perceiving the Scintillation of Metals, and Jnéshtlaq Kéq Yóssu or The Tome of Black Mold. The inclusion of scrolls and books highlight how important knowledge of the past is on Tékumel. One type of magical item that is absent is the potion, although alchemy is available as a skill.

The rest of Empire of the Petal is not really a hodge podge of rules and discussion, but rather it just seems that way. There is everything present for a Referee to run a game—and more. Various sections cover detailed descriptions of both the Tlomitlányal and the Tlokiriqáluyal; taxes, relatives and bequests; building in Tsolyánu; and advice for the Referee, including developing scenarios and a sample snapshot of a section of the Underworld and an example of play. The ‘Fresh Fresh Off the Boat’ campaign is also discussed. These all feel as if they should in different places than where they are in the book, so the discussion of the ‘Fresh Fresh Off the Boat’ campaign comes before the encounter tables and not in the advice section for the Referee. Likewise, the map of Jakálla and its key of interesting place names is placed at the book, but does make for easy reference during play. It is not an insurmountable issue, but it would be something that a prospective Referee should get used to when running the game.

Rounding out Empire of the Petal Throne are appendices that cover pronunciation, the Tsolyáni script, the words and script of the citizen document—a fine reward for any character in the long term, and a map and its key to Jakálla, plus the reference sheets included with Empire of the Petal Throne in 1975.

Physically, for a forty-year old roleplaying game, Empire of the Petal Throne is well presented. The layout style is very much that of a set of wargames rules, but then that was the style of forty years ago—the industry does things differently now. It needs an edit in places, but the writing is assured and interesting. The artwork may look somewhat amateurish by modern standards, but it is striking throughout and some of the scenes depicted really help impart the rich and baroque nature of the setting that the game itself quite cannot. For the problem with Empire of the Petal Throne is that it is an Old School roleplaying game and it is predicated on dungeon—or Underworld—delving just like its mechanical forbear, Dungeons & Dragons. As much as the Underworld is an important feature of the setting, there is more to Tékumel than that. Of course, it would take later roleplaying iterations of the setting to bring that out and it really is unfair to criticise the design for not yet being what it become. This is after all, the starting point.

Empire of the Petal Throne is not perfect, but those imperfections are but three in number. The first two are the aforementioned lack of personal names and Clan names. The inclusion of both would support the game in the long term and support the given campaign outline without the Referee needing to look elsewhere for more information. If there is anything that the Tékumel Foundation could have added to Empire of the Petal Throne, it would have been these names. The third is the description of the Tlomitlányal and the Tlokiriqáluyal as the gods of good and evil respectively. This simply wrong, but again an issue caused by the game’s development from Dungeons & Dragons.

Of course, Empire of the Petal Throne is a piece of nostalgia, but it is surprising that this game is playable despite being rough around the edges, both in terms of the setting and the mechanics. A more modern gamer might want to look at other means of visiting and playing on Tékumel, rather than using this ‘relic’, but Old School players and referees will relish the slightly rough and ready feel of Empire of the Petal Throne. More support for this introduction to Tékumel would certainly be appreciated—perhaps a scenario or two, even a ‘Fresh Off the Boat’ campaign, if not a supplement discussing other ways to approach playing and running Empire of the Petal Throne. Of course, for Petalheads—as Tékumel fans are known—who do not own an original copy of Empire of the Petal Throne, then this reprint represents a chance for them to visit it for the first time, whilst for those that do, it provides a means for them to reference it without having to open their original copy.


A discussion of the ‘Fresh Off the Boat’ campaign can be found in episode #1 of The Hall of Blue Illumination podcast. Empire of the Petal Throne is available in print as a hardback or softback, or as a PDF, from DriveThruRPG.

Saturday 18 November 2017

A Science Fiction Past

It is almost four-hundred-and-fifty years since the Kuramaja, a sleeper ship from Earth is crash landed on the newly discovered world of Taranis. It is almost four-hundred-and-fifty years since memories of Earth and the location of Earth were lost. It is four-hundred-and-twenty years since the Big Seven—C&C: Colonisation & Construction, Hardcastle Haulage, Hayden Bank, the Mining Conglomerate, Moritasgas Pharmaceuticals, Open Technology, and Smertios Security—took control of their respective monopolies and gained the power as the Consortium that they continue to wield today over colonised space. It is almost three-hundred-and-fifty years since the first wormhole was discovered and opened to exploration. It is three-hundred-and-forty-years since first contact is made with the tentacular, amphibious species, the Eulutians, in the neighbouring Damara System. It is two-hundred-and-sixty-three years since wormholes are stabilised as Jump Gates and two-hundred-and-sixty-two years since first contact is made with insectoid Ximians and ends disastrously, beginning the Bug War which will last for almost two decades. It is sixty-four years since contact is made with the tree-like Vilithi, who subsequently rebel violently against their god-leader and request permission to join the Consortium. It is almost forty years since the former CEO of Hardcastle Haulage led an open rebellion against the Consortium for their having sanctioned him and his company for its extensive smuggling operations. It is almost thirty years since the first cranial implant was developed and a little more than twenty years since the first neurally-controlled limbs were developed. It is only a year since the Resistance revealed plans by members of the Big Seven to wipe open the non-human races in the Consortium. It only this year that Gaia Adaptation and Adjustment, the Eulutian-led company which developed Enviromorphic Fungi, the edible fungi capable of growing anywhere, is invited to join the Big Seven—which becomes the Big Eight. This is despite several assassination attempts on its CEO, Gueya.

This is the history and setting for Era: The Consortium, a Science Fiction roleplaying game released by English publisher, Shades of Vengeance. It is set in the far future and takes place across twelve planets and moons spread across three systems connected by Jump Gates. It is dominated by the major corporations of the Big Seven—later the Big Eight—and despite the influence of the Senate, political body consisting of representatives from the other corporations, is a ‘corporatocracy’. Throughout its history, the Consortium has been beset by two tensions. The first is between the Big Seven and the Senate, the malfeasance of one leading to the dominance of the other, but in the case of the Senate, never for very long. The second is racial tension, in turn against the Eulutians, the Ximians, and the Vilithi, the Big Seven often extorting them for their labour. Even as each of the new species is accepted into the Consortium as citizens equal to Humanity and the Big Seven and other corporations employ them on an equal footing—though this often appears to be for publicity purposes than anything else, factions within the Big Seven are formulating and executing terrible plans of extermination against them. The setting is supported with an extensive equipment section, which covers weaponry, spaceships, cybernetics, and more, including personal shield technology.

The major point of Era: The Consortium and its history is that the Game Master and his players can drop into key points along the timeline and play out the events at each of those points. To that end, the core rulebook gives six campaign concepts set at these points. These include a multi-character exploration of the founding of the Consortium in ‘The Origin of the Consortium’; a multi-team military campaign against the Ximians in ‘The Bug War’ a la Starship Troopers, including the use of armoured battlesuits; and ‘The Resistance Begins’ explores the rise of the rebellion against the Big Seven that would eventually see the elevation of the Gaia Adaptation and Adjustment corporation. Each campaign concept is broken down into two, four, six, or eight sessions, each session being outlined with the events that should occur during that session. Both the length of these outlines and the level of detail they contain varies from campaign concept to campaign concept, but there is enough in each, backed up with the descriptive content contained in the lengthy history, for the Game Master to extract multiple sessions of gameplay.

The setting and campaign concepts allow for a wide variety of character concepts, whether that is a sharp pilot, bodge-it engineer, studied scientist, determined soldier, crafty corporate officer, learned scholar, sneaky spy, radical revolutionary, dogged investigator, slippery lawyer, and so on. Most of these are familiar from any other Science Fiction setting or roleplaying, but what marks the character options out as different are the alien races in Era: The Consortium. Humans dominate, but Era: The Consortium does a good job of presenting its alien races as being different, but having integrated themselves into Consortium space. So for example, the Eulutians wear thought-controlled exosuits that resemble human bodies to survive outside of water and better interact with Humans. The suits though, allow the Eulutians to continue expressing their emotions as shifts in colour and even have interfaces through which they can extend one or more tentacles. The insectoid Ximians, consisting of three castes—Worker, Brain, and Politician—and each of these has adjusted to roles within the many corporations of the Consortium, such as Politician negotiators or lawyers, Brain engineers and scientists, and Worker soldiers and labourers. The tree-like Vilithii can actually physically adapt to the desired form. As a consequence, they tend to be humanoid in shape, but multi-armed, multi-legged, and no-limbed forms are common. It is also possible for a Vilithii to change shape, though this takes time.

To create a character in Era: The Consortium, a player selects a concept, a race, and backstory, assigns attribute points and skill points, and then selects skill specialities, implants, and equipment. A character has eight attributes, divided into three groups: Potence (Strength, Intelligence and Charisma), Defence (Stamina and Willpower), and Reaction (Dexterity, Wits and Luck). Each group is assigned a pool of points—six, five, or four—which are then divided between the attributes in the group. Similarly the skills are divided into three groups of six—Personal, Technical, and Interpersonal. Each group is assigned a pool of points—eleven, seven, or four—which are then divided between the six attributes in a group. If a character has a value of three or more in a skill, he can select specialties related to that skill. Specialities are also available that are related to derived stats and from a character’s species. A character begins play with a maximum of three specialities. In recent years, it is standard practice in the Consortium to be fitted with a cranial implant to enhance the memory and allow easy computer interface, but other implants are available and a player character begins play with one of these. 

Numerous suggestions are included in Era: The Consortium, for both Consortium characters and Resistance characters. They include a C&C: Colonisation & Construction Engineer, a Hardcastle Haulage Pilot, and an Open Technology Hacker for the former, and a Resistance Defector, a Resistance Face, and a Resistance Forger for the latter. Our sample character is a Consortium corporate accountant specialising in fraud detection.


Concept: Forensic Accountant
Race: Eulutian
Backstory: Hayden Bank Accountant
Quirk: Obsessive

Strength 2 Intelligence 4 Charisma 3

Stamina 3 Willpower 3

Dexterity 3 Wits 3 Luck 3

Personal Skills
Brawl 3, Investigation 4, Larceny 3, Melee 0, Stealth 1, Survival 1

Technical Skills
Computer 3, Drive 0, Engineering 0, Explosives 0, Gunnery 0, Medicine 0, Pilot 1

Interpersonal Skills 
Commercial 3, Esteem 0, Instruction 1, Intimidation 0, Persuasion 3, Seduction 0

Investigation (Thorough); Computer (Knowing the Back Doors); Persuasion (That was Convincing).

Derived Stats
Size 4, Health & Pain 7, Initiative Modifier 6, Speed 9, Defence 3, Encumbrance 9, Damage & Kill Modifiers 0

Morality: Straight Arrow
Exosuit: Kirii Suit
Implants: Neural Interface

Mechanically, Era: The Consortium uses the Era d10 ruleset. This is a dice pool system, with a player a number of dice equal to his character’s attribute plus skill. Specialities, Quirks, instructional help, and situational bonuses will add dice, whilst situational penalties will reduce the number of dice. A Success is scored for each result that exceeds the Threshold, this varying according to the difficulty of the task—Very Easy (two or three), Easy (four or five), Medium (six or seven), Hard (eight or nine), or Very Hard (ten). Tens explode, allowing more dice to be rolled, but rolls with more ones than Successes result in a fumble. This can be as mild as a weapon jamming or as bad as the character losing a limb, depending on how many ones are rolled. Likewise, the number of Successes rolled will determine the effect, from a minor success for one or two successes rolled to an extreme success for seven or more Successes being rolled. Unskilled rolls instead rely upon a combination of the selected attribute and the Luck attribute. In general, the fewer the number of dice a player has to roll, the greater the likelihood of any roll resulting in a fumble of some kind. Players also have access to Luck Points, which can be used to add Successes to their rolls or deduct them from the opposition’s rolls. Conversely, the Game Master has access to Bad Luck points to spend on the opposition.

The mechanics in Era: The Consortium cover personal, vehicle, and spaceship combat. Combat is notable in Era: The Consortium in that although a character can suffer pain and loss of health incrementally over the course of a fight, it is possible for weapons to exceed a character’s Kill Threshold, which will result in the character’s death. Era: The Consortium is not a space opera, but is much grittier as well as much deadlier. Armour, personal shields, hitting first, and of course, avoiding combat in the first place will all help counter this likelihood. Running combat is aided by the inclusion of several flowcharts, whilst ‘Hardcore Rules’ enable the Game Master to adjust his game if he and his players want it to be more challenging.

The bulk of the advice for the Game Master is devoted to the aforementioned campaign outlines. What advice there is, really amounts to a page of bullet points. Physically, Era: The Consortium is a thick and sturdy book (both softback and hardback copies are available). Notably, it is profusely illustrated in full colour and these illustrations are never less than decent. The layout is cramped though, with the timeline often seemingly hidden in the timeline fiction, and the editing often underwhelming. The history in particular suffers from this and is in places, laborious going.

There is no denying the ambition and effort which has gone into Era: The Consortium. The idea of being able to go into its history timeline and play out its events is interesting, but this may not be to everyone’s liking and the advice for the Game Master does not explore what happens if the players and their characters change the course of events and so change the course of the history of the Consortium. What this feels like is as if the Game Master is expected to run the author’s campaign rather than his own. It does not help that the fiction illustrating the various scenes throughout the history is often just a bit obtuse and either gets in the way of the facts being given by the timeline or in effect, simply replaces the timeline. The author also leaves the Game Master on his own if he wants to explore the future of the Consortium rather the past. Another issue is the xenophobia that runs through that history as not every group is going to want to explore or play that through. 

Despite these issues, there is an interesting setting at the heart of Era: The Consortium for the Game Master to develop and it comes with a solid, if deadly and not unlike the Storyteller System used by White Wolf, Inc., set of mechanics. There is capacity to do a variety of different games and genres, including cyberpunk, military, espionage Science Fiction as well as others. The setting is also supported with a number of supplements. So there is room for the Game Master to run the Era: The Consortium as he wants rather than adhering strictly to the timeline.


Era: The Consortium - A Universe of Expansions 2 is currently being funded on Kickstarter.

Sunday 12 November 2017

A Taste of the Far East

The setting for 7th Sea, the roleplaying game of swashbuckling and sorcery published by John Wick Presents is the land of Théah. Yet there are lands beyond Théah, which the publisher is only beginning to address with the supplement, 7th Sea: Crescent Empire, which explores the lands immediately to the east of Théah. Yet there are lands beyond this, far to the east—Khitai. Although Khitai marks the return of the designer to the same genre as his highly regarded Legend of the Five Rings, that is, Asian fantasy, 7th Sea: Khitai is different in that it does not dwell solely on its Japanese and Chinese influences and sources. Instead, it encompasses numerous sources and influences and encompasses numerous nations and cultures, from China, Japan, and India to Cambodia, Australasia, and Oceania. Much of the pleasure of seeing these nations and cultures included is that many of them are rarely visited by roleplaying.

The first taste of Khitai comes in the form of 7th Sea: Khitai Quickstart, which includes an overview of the setting and its themes along with a complete adventure. On a very personal level, the difference in themes between Théah and Khitai is twofold. The first is that the heroes—or player characters—are not driven to adventure, but pulled by the Call to Adventure, a very real, spiritual urge to fulfill their destiny. This call is made by the Song of the World and places a duty upon the heroes that is much greater than their personal desires. The second is that in Khitai, honour is supernatural rather than personal.

7th Sea: Khitai uses the same mechanics as 7th Sea. These are essentially ‘roll and pair’, the players and the Game Master rolling pools of ten-sided dice to create ‘pairs’ of one, two, three, or more dice that each add up to ten or more. Each ‘pair’ is a Raise, which are spent to carry out actions in Action and Dramatic scenes. For the player characters, these pools are created from a combination of a character’s trait plus skill, for example, Honesty + Convince or Peace + Brawl. These combinations are called Approaches, which define how a character will do something. For example, Joy + Weaponry if a character wants to smash his way through a Brute Squad—the equivalent of a band of minions or goons or guards in Khitai—using her tetsubo or Wisdom + Mysticism if a character wants to search his memory for what he knows of a particular Kamuy or nature spirit. Bonus dice are rewarded for varying a character’s Approach from action to action and for providing an engaging description of said Approaches. In comparison, the Game Master rolls a pool of dice equal to the Strength of the Villain or Brute Squad.

In a scene, Raises are then spent to inflict or block damage, to avoid Consequences—bad things that might happen to a character, to purchase Opportunities—advantages and bonuses that a character can find or gain in a scene, and to discover clues in a scene. Although the dice rolling mechanic is very much that of the traditional roleplaying game, the application is much more akin to that of a storytelling roleplaying game.

There is one change in the rules between 7th Sea: Khitai and 7th Sea, a rule that the Game Master can import back to 7th Sea if he so desires. This is how Brute Squads work and the rule change makes them much more of a challenge. In combat in 7th Sea, a Brute Squad inflicts wounds, one wound per Raise, which a character counters with his Raises also on a one-for-one basis. In Khitai, when the Game Master spends Raises for a Brute Squad, it does not inflict Wounds on a one-for-one basis, but rather inflicts Wounds equal to the current Strength of the Brute Squad. The character can still counter this attack with a Raise and so block the Wounds.

The 7th Sea: Khitai QuickStart introduces the setting and its rules in smart fashion. Barring the change in how Brute Squads work, the Game Master and his players will have no issue with the rules if they have played 7th Sea. Likewise, someone new to both 7th Sea and Khitai may not adjust as easily to the roleplaying game’s more storytelling rules if they are used to traditional games. Even though there is a limited amount of space in 7th Sea: Khitai Quickstart, it could have done with deeper examples of play, especially given the switch it makes from traditional to storytelling roleplaying games. This is because it makes a radical change in the names it gives the player characters’ Traits. In 7th Sea, these are Brawn, Finesse, Resolve, Wits, and Panache—a very traditional set of characteristics and easy to apply. In Khitai, the Traits are Compassion, Honesty, Joy, Loyalty, Peace, Respect, and Wisdom. Now a character only has five of these seven, these five being the ones they value, but they are more conceptual in nature and not as easy to apply on a case by case basis.

There are seven nations described in Khitai, but only two are detailed in the 7th Sea: Khitai QuickStart and visited in the adventure, ‘Life-Giving Sword, Death-Giving Sword’. The first nation is the island archipelago of Fuso, known for the rift between its traditional shaman-chieftains and the upstart warlord leaders, or daimyos, the most ambitious of which would rule not just Fuso, but all of Khitai. The shaman-chieftains are also capable of talking with the kamuy, which are natural spirits, guardian angels, ancestor spirits, and so on. In this, Khitai draws from the Ainu mystical tradition rather than from the Kami and mystical traditions of Japan. The second nation is the Kingdom of Han, noted for its scholastic and artistic excellence—as well as the literacy of its people—though riven by nepotism and corruption, including in its military.

‘Life-Giving Sword, Death-Giving Sword’ is a three act scenario, a tale of love, greed, and revenge. The heroes are travelling when they realise that they are close to a monastery where they sheltered before, but upon arriving at its doors, they find that it has literally just burned down. Investigation reveals that it was no accident and worse, an ancient and mystical blade is missing. Duty bound, the heroes must follow the thief across Fuso and beyond, harried by assassins and bandits along the way. Alongside the combat, there are scenes involving investigation, persuasion, and negotiation, so there is plenty of opportunity for the heroes to exercise their skills and do so creatively. Overall, ‘Life-Giving Sword, Death-Giving Sword’ is a very straightforward scenario, almost linear, and presented in a step-by-step fashion. This makes it easy to run and the Game Master should have no issues running the scenario.

Rounding out 7th Sea: Khitai QuickStart are five player characters, ready to play ‘Life-Giving Sword, Death-Giving Sword’. They include a female mystic and clan heir, a male samurai advisor and duellist, a female warrior monk, a male courtier from Han, and a male spymaster, exiled from another nation, Shenzhou. This is a good mix and they are clearly presented and laid out, with clear explanations of their abilities and their advantages.

Physically, the 7th Sea: Khitai QuickStart is a well presented and easy read. The writing needs an edit here and there, but this is a minor issue. Much like 7th Sea, the 7th Sea: Khitai QuickStart is superbly illustrated in full colour with great artwork that captures some of mysticism and action of the setting.

If the 7th Sea: Khitai QuickStart has an issue, it is that it does not address the honour as supernatural aspect of the setting as well as it does the Call to Adventure. This though, will not stop the Game Master from successfully running the scenario and the players from enjoying it. This is an excellent scenario and should provide an engaging session or two’s worth of roleplaying and excitement. Not too complex and with the right mix of ingredients and challenges, 7th Sea: Khitai QuickStart is an excellent introduction to Khitai and a good option for a group looking for a one-shot or a taster.


7th Sea: Khitai is currently funding on Kickstarter.

Saturday 11 November 2017

de Harken Inheritance II

MontiDots Ltd. publishes both horror and fantasy scenarios. The former, The Fenworthy Inheritance and The Smoking Mirror, are set in the Jazz Age of the 1920s and written for use with the GORE™ Open Game Content Rules published by Goblinoid Games—best known for the Old School Renaissance Retroclone, Labyrinth Lord—means that they are surprisingly compatible with the mechanics of Call of Cthulhu. The latter, consisting of the trilogy, MD2 The Curse of Harken Hall, MD3 Necromancer’s Bane, and MD5 Tantulus, are written for use Knights & Knaves’ OSRIC™ System (Old School Reference and Index Compilation) for its mechanics. This means that it is roughly compatible with Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, but the advantage of this and many other Old School Renaissance roleplaying games, scenarios, and supplements is how compatible they are with Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition.

This trilogy takes place in and around the village of Highcliff Gard, located at the heart of Highcliff Gard Vale in the south of Fiefdom of Kaldemar. Insular and isolated, there are major differences between the world of MD3 Necromancer’s Bane and that of standard Dungeons & Dragons-style fantasy. Both the people and the valley are, in particular, this showing in their attitude towards Dwarves, Elves, Halflings, and the like. Locally, they are known as the ‘Erle Folk’ and possess the ‘Fae Sight’ to one degree or another. Notably, the peoples of Highcliff Gard Vale are ill disposed towards them. This means that all player character ‘Erle Folk’ will have the Fae Sight and if they Elves, suffer some prejudice, so the players do need to know that their characters are going to be subject to xenophobia and be okay with that before play starts.

The reasons for the prejudice lie at the heart of the trilogy, but are fully explained in the scenario’s appendix, as are the changes to both the Cleric and Magic-User Classes. Clerics in Highcliff Gard are polytheistic, worshipping a pantheon rather than a single god and making offerings to each of the gods of the pantheon as necessary. This gives Clerics access to a wide range of spheres and thus spells, the given pantheon for Highcliff Gard suggesting a Norse influence—no surprise given that the designer is from Yorkshire. Magic-Users can brew potions with the aid of a liquid known as Aqua Conjurum, which is brewed by alchemists typically of higher Level.

Designed for First Level and Second Level characters, MD2 The Curse of Harken Hall brought the adventurers to Highcliff Gard and had them investigate the strange curse which beset the valley’s rulers, the de Harken family. This saw them investigate a recently discovered complex of rooms and tunnels below Harken Hall. The relatively small dungeon revealed the nature of the curse and pointed towards to a possible cure. Locating this cure lies at the heart of MD3 Necromancer’s Bane: An Adventure for characters of 3rd to 5th level and the catacombs cut in the south cliff face of Highcliff Gard Vale. It is here that the peoples of the valley inter their dead—and it is from here that knocking sounds have been heard…

What lies beyond the doors leading into the catacombs is a good-sized dungeon, with its sixty-six halls, tombs, crypts, and shrines split across two levels. Just as in the dungeon in MD2 The Curse of Harken Hall, this dungeon is rich in funereal, memorial, and sepulchral detail, almost Victorian in its oppressiveness. There are rooms and locations here whose description are a page or more in length and the players are likely to want to take notes as their characters explore its furthest reaches. Given that this is a catacomb, it should be no surprise that the dungeon is rife with the undead, not all of it inimical to the player characters, but as they advance into its depths, it should become apparent that some demonic presence is working against them. Although the adventurers can withdraw once their objective is complete, that is finding the means to a cure to the de Harken family curse, confronting this presence will both ease their exit and help their efforts in future scenarios.

Given the nature of foes faced in MD3 Necromancer’s Bane, the party will definitely require a Cleric as well as the usual Fighters, Magic-Users, and Thieves. They will also need magic and magic items capable of working against the undead. Certainly, blessed weapons are the bare minimum. Fortunately, the scenario provides multiple means and weapons, though they will have to search for them, so it pays for the characters to be methodical in their exploration. Another aid that the party will have is a set of keys to the catacombs, lent by the Keeper of the Catacombs, which will grant them access to the majority of the complex. Actually obtaining these keys is handled in a delightfully macabre scene that the Game Master will enjoy roleplaying. In fact, this scene is probably the scenario’s best roleplaying moment, as the rest is mostly exploration and combat.

One idea presented in MD3 Necromancer’s Bane is that since the adventurers are exploring a catacomb where the dead of lawful, abiding citizens are interred, looting their final resting place may not exactly be, well, lawful, and further, it may be aiding the demonic presence at the heart of the dungeon. Conversely, lawful acts may hinder him. Unfortunately, this is left undeveloped and up to the Game Master to work out how this would be applied in game. This is such a shame as this could have rewarded the players and their characters in ways other than treasure as well as giving opportunities to roleplay their characters’ Alignments. Further, it comes after MD2 The Curse of Harken Hall went to great lengths to reward the characters for doing more than just killing creatures and taking their treasure—so this is even more of a missed opportunity.

As with MD2 The Curse of Harken Hall, the format for MD3 Necromancer’s Bane is that of a spiralbound book. This allows it to sit flat on the table and easy to flip through. Again, as with MD2 The Curse of Harken Hall, the author has done the illustrations in MD3 Necromancer’s Bane and they are very good indeed. It is a pity that there is not a booklet of pictures illustrating both rooms, foes, and objects, as they would make for excellent handouts. The cartography is decent, much better than in MD2 The Curse of Harken Hall, the dungeon being done in quite a bit of detail. What lets the book down is the editing, which could be tighter, suffering from self-edited as it does.

Being quite so tightly tied to the events of MD2 The Curse of Harken Hall, the Game Master will need to work hard if he plans to run MD3 Necromancer’s Bane as a standalone adventure rather than as a sequel. In fact, it would be easier to run MD2 The Curse of Harken Hall than all of that effort!

Where MD2 The Curse of Harken Hall focused on investigation and exploration, MD3 Necromancer’s Bane shifts its focus to exploration and combat. It is very much more of a classic dungeon and thus a classic dungeon adventure, so will be much more of change if the Game Master is running it as a sequel to MD2 The Curse of Harken Hall than if run as a standalone. Overall though—and despite missing a trick or two—MD3 Necromancer’s Bane is a good dungeon and a decent adventure.


MontiDots Ltd does not currently have a website. Copies of MD3 Necromancer’s Bane and other scenarios are available direct from the author.