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

Sunday 29 July 2018

Little Ship Lost

Reach Adventure 4: Last Flight of the Amuar is an adventure for Traveller set in the ‘Official Traveller Universe’ of the Third Imperium. Published by Mongoose Publishing, it is specifically set in the Egryn and Pax Rulin subsectors of the Trojan Reach sector, a sparsely settled region between the Third Imperium and the Aslan Hierate. The set-up is simple. Two years ago, the Amuar went missing. She is a Leviathan-class merchant cruiser, an 1800-ton, long-range design intended to carry out speculative trade and trade prospecting missions. This makes the design perfect for the Trojan Reach where ships capable of Jump-3 are required to cross the wide gulfs between star systems. Although the Amuar has been declared lost and her crew dead, not everyone believes this to be case. An ex-merchant, a former employee of the Amuar’s owners, and relative of one of the Amuar’s missing crew, is looking for a ship’s crew to pilot his vessel beyond the borders of the Imperium in search of the missing ship and her crew. Alternatively, the ex-merchant will hire the player characters and their ship if they own one capable of Jump-3. The scenario provides a capable ship if the player characters do not have one.

This set-up draws from a scenario hook published in Adventure 4: Leviathan, a supplement for Classic Traveller published by GDW in 1980. As written, Reach Adventure 4: Last Flight of the Amuar needs no more than the core rules to run, but it is recommended that the Game Master have access to the High Guard supplement, since there are likely to be a lot of ship encounters during the course of the adventure. That said, the Game Master may want access to other supplements detailing the region should she want to fully develop the adventure to its full potential. Some of these may be written for previous iterations of Traveller.

As much as the adventure requires a ship’s crew, the adventure is really one of investigation and interaction. The player characters will encounter a number of different cultures and attitudes—although in general, the inhabitants of the Egryn and Pax Rulin subsectors are wary of strangers. They not only have the chance to learn more about the fate of the Amuar and her crew at each stop, they also have the opportunity to make contacts, build relationships, and discover information which will help foster trade links. Some of this the player characters may be able to take advantage of themselves, but both military and mercantile interests will be willing to pay good money for solid information. There is even the possibility that such interests will hire one or more of the player characters to pass this information on without telling their new employer.

Unless the characters interact appallingly with the various inhabitants of the worlds they visit—or they encounter a pirate vessel—combat is an unlikely occurrence in Reach Adventure 4: Last Flight of the Amuar. Good manners and good roleplaying, should in general, prevail, but that said, the scenario does climax aboard the lost vessel in the dark with the player characters being stalked by strange aliens and deranged denizens. At this point, some combat training will be useful as it has the feeling of the film Aliens and it should be pointed out that the scenario even goes so far as to suggest that the player characters’ ex-corporate patron might not be trustworthy…

To support the scenario, Reach Adventure 4: Last Flight of the Amuar comes with a lot of supporting material. This includes maps of both the Egryn and Pax Rulin subsectors, details of two polities or pocket empires the player characters will visit—the Senlis Foederate and the Belgardian Sojurnate, details and deckplans of the Leviathan-class merchant cruiser, stats and write-ups for the player characters’ patron and his small entourage, and a description of the Voidskipper, the vessel provided by their patron. This is a Far Trader adapted to have a Jump-3 range and being of a certain age possesses a number of quirks which will endear the ship to the player characters or drive them up the wall.

One new mechanic that Reach Adventure 4: Last Flight of the Amuar does include is for handling crew fatigue. This models the stresses of shipboard life and being kept cramped in a small tin can in space without sight or sound of being on planet or having the feel of ground and proper gravity beneath your feet. This is a particular problem for the Voidskipper as although it carries the fuel to make Jump-4, this requires two Jumps and thus longer time in space and aboard ship. This will have a deleterious effect upon the player characters and their skills and it will get worse as they spend more time aboard, to the point where they acquire annoying quirks and habits. The only real solution to this is to spend time groundside, which essentially means that not only does Reach Adventure 4: Last Flight of the Amuar come with a narrative reason to investigate the loss of the merchant cruiser, it comes with a mechanical one too.

Physically, Reach Adventure 4: Last Flight of the Amuar is well presented in full colour with some excellent illustrations. It does however feel underwritten in places—the individual worlds and their associated adventures rather than the supporting material. Certainly, there is space in places for more information and more detail and more ideas. The illustrations are good, but not always pertinent to the plot and sometimes feel like space fillers rather than anything useful.

Unfortunately, as written, Reach Adventure 4: Last Flight of the Amuar has one fundamental flaw. The flight of the Amuar and the trail of clues as to its fate it leaves, follow a certain route, but half way through the adventure it is possible to find clues which lead straight to the end and the fate of the Amuar. Now this would be fine, if the player characters find these clues. If they do not, or they decide to continue following the trail of clues along the Amuar’s route, then this is a very big problem indeed. This is because it effectively truncates both the route and the trail of clues. Further, the adventure does not support the players and their characters following the trail of clues in the second half to the same degree that it does in the first half. Where in the first half, the stops along the route are given two or three pages of detail each, in the second half, they are accorded little more than a paragraph each. Unfortunately, this leaves the Game Master with a lot of research and development to do to turn these paragraphs and planetary systems in proper encounters and so present the clues for her player characters to find. This is likely to be a challenge for anyone coming to Traveller and the Third Imperium afresh, lacking the wealth of information available from previous editions of the game. Ultimately, this comes down to a lack of space in the book—had it been a ninety-six-page book, there would have been room to bring these locations and their possible encounters to life instead of leaving the Game Master to do all of the work.

On the plus side, what this means is that there is plenty of room for the Game Master to take Reach Adventure 4: Last Flight of the Amuar and develop as is her wont, adding more adventures and developing the plot. This should not be a problem if the Game Master has access to further information about the Trojan Reach, but will certainly be a challenge if not. There is certainly a good adventure to be had in the scenario, involving exploration, speculative trade, diplomacy, and more with a little combat on the side, but as written, Reach Adventure 4: Last Flight of the Amuar is more of a well written adventure outline rather than a full adventure itself.

Saturday 28 July 2018

Free RPG Day 2018: Warhammer 40,000: Wrath & Glory – Blessings Unheralded

Now in its eleventh year, Saturday, June 16th was Free RPG Day and with it came 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 quick-start. Warhammer 40,000: Wrath & Glory – Blessings Unheralded is an introductory scenario for the new roleplaying game to be published by Ulisses North America. The anticipation for this release echoes that of Shattered Hope, the introductory scenario for Dark Heresy released by Fantasy Flight Games in 2007 for Free RPG Day. Warhammer 40,000: Wrath & Glory – Blessings Unheralded is perhaps the best appointed of any of the releases for Free RPG 2018, its folder including a map inside its cover, a set of counters for use on that map, the rules and a scenario in thirty-two pages, plus four pre-generated characters on four-page character sheets.

In the dark and terrible era of the forty-first millennium, the God-Emperor continues to sit immobile upon the Golden Throne of Earth, ruling over a galaxy plagued by the plans of the Dark Gods and rent by the Great Rift, an Imperium of Man tempted by corruption and chaos, and a civilisation rife with the violence and oppression necessary to stamp out the corruption, the chaos, and the temptation. This is the basic situation in Warhammer 40,000: Wrath & Glory which will be familiar to fans of Warhammer 40,000 going all the way back to 1987. In Warhammer 40,000: Wrath & Glory, players will roleplay members of a warband, not just members of an Imperial warband—though that is the obvious default and is the one provided in the scenario, Blessings Unheralded. The full game will offer a variety of roleplaying set-ups and options, from an unruly Ork mob battering and bruising its way to be top Ork to Eldar bands striking at chaos operatives to stave off the encroaching forces of the Dark Gods.

Warhammer 40,000: Wrath & Glory employs a dice pool mechanic which requires six-sided dice, one of which must be a different colour. This other die is known as a the Wrath die. A typical dice pool consists of a character’s attribute and a appropriate skill. For example, the Agility attribute and the Ballistic skill to shoot a gun or Willpower and Intimidation to aggressively persuade someone to do something or answer some questions. A character has seven attributes—Strength, Agility, Toughness, Intellect, Willpower, Fellowship, and Initiative—and eighteen broad skills, from Athletics, Awareness, and Ballistic Skill to Survival, Tech, and Weapon Skill via Insight, Pilot, and Psychic Mastery.

When the dice are rolled, results of four, five, and six are counted. Results of four and five are called ‘icons’, whilst sixes are called ‘Exalted Icons’ and count as two icons. Each task has a difficulty number indicating the number of icons a player has to roll in order to succeed. A standard difficulty requires three icons, a challenging difficulty requires five, and so on. Icons can be rolled on the Wrath die, but when a six is rolled on the Wrath die, it generates a point of Glory. When a one is rolled on the Wrath die, the Game Master can add a complication to the game. The effects of the Wrath die always count, no matter the outcome of the other dice rolled.

If after succeeding at a die roll, a character has any ‘Exalted Icons’ left over, his player can ‘Shift’ them. An Exalted Icon can be Shifted to gain a point of Glory, but a Shift can be spent to increase damage in an attack roll, gain information, improve the quality of an outcome, reduce the time a task takes, and so on. As befits, the title of the roleplaying game, each character also has Wrath and Glory points. Wrath represents a character’s inner fire and resolve and each character has two Wrath points per session. They can be spent to re-roll failures, restore shock (damage) taken, or gain narrative declaration. They are gained through good roleplaying and accomplishing objectives. Glory represents the characters’ collective will to win and is a group resource. Gained by Shifting Exalted Icons or by rolling six on the Wrath die, Glory is spent to increase a character’s dice pool, increase damage, or seize the initiative. The Glory pool has a maximum depending upon the number of players and once this is reached, it cannot be added to, so the players have to spend Glory in order to make room for more.

Where the players have Wrath and Glory, the Game Master has Ruin. It is gained anytime a character fails a Corruption test or a Fear test, or when the Game Master rolls a six on her Wrath die. She can use Ruin to interrupt the player characters in combat—the player characters always act first—by just one NPC, to seize the Initiative Order and have the NPCs act before the player characters, to re-roll failures, restore Shock, or soak wounds. Ruin can also be spent to activate the Ruin abilities possessed by many NPCs, so for example, the NPC villain of the scenario possesses ‘Kneel Before the Dark Gods!’ which force others to fall prone before him.

The explanation of the core mechanics run to just five pages, whilst those for combat are nearly double that. The rules for combat cover are straightforward, though Initiative is always in the player characters’ favour, one player character acting and then an NPC; both minor monsters and NPCs can operate and attack as mobs, so that individually they are not so much for a threat, but together…; and suggestions are given for using an interaction attack rather than a melee or ballistic attack. So a character might intimidate the enemy, flip acrobatically to distract them, and so on. There is room here for the players to be clever with their characters. Much like the miniature rules that Warhammer 40,000: Wrath & Glory – Blessings Unheralded are ultimately descended from, when characters suffer damage, they can attempt to ‘soak’ and slough off the damage they would otherwise take.

The last third of Warhammer 40,000: Wrath & Glory – Blessings Unheralded is devoted to the scenario, ‘Blessings Unheralded’. This is designed for four players, who are members of the same Imperial warband, currently assigned to assist to a Rogue Trader. A few months ago, another member of the warband was grievously  injured and sent to St. Deploratus’ Sanatorium on the world of Enoch for medical treatment. Unfortunately, not all is well at the facility, for something is turning patients and visitors alike into Poxwalkers, whilst others are suffering from Abacys Syndrome, which causes them to chant random numbers. Are the two outbreaks connected? Can the warband determine the cause and perhaps save the reputation of the St. Deploratus’ Sanatorium? At just three acts, ‘Blessings Unheralded’ is quite short, offering no more than a single session’s worth of game play, but that session includes a mystery, Chaos splurgy bits—and plenty of them, a threat to Enoch, decent interaction, and of course, combat. The Game Master will need to check the Difficulty Numbers of the various tests as they look to be a little low, but otherwise it a nicely done adventure, worth playing with the pre-generated characters or characters of the players’ own creation once the Warhammer 40,000: Wrath & Glory roleplaying game is released.

Four pre-generated characters are provided, each detailed on a full colour, four-page character folder. They include a fearless, heretic-hating Ministorum Priest, a fearsome and intimidating Imperial Commissar, a hardy Imperial Guardsman armed with a trademark lasgun, and a tactical space marine.

Physically, Warhammer 40,000: Wrath & Glory – Blessings Unheralded is best appointed release of any of the titles published for Free RPG Day 2018. It is professionally presented, well written with plenty of full colour artwork. The separate pre-generated character are a very nice touch and make the adventure much easier to run. It even comes with a sheet of counters to use on the map inside the card cover for the adventure’s climatic battle.

Warhammer 40,000: Wrath & Glory – Blessings Unheralded presents everything needed—bar dice—to try out the mechanics and setting of the new roleplaying game. The rules are clearly explained, the pre-generated characters nicely presented, and the adventure a decent introduction to desperately dark and corrupt world of Warhammer 40,000: Wrath & Glory in which the heroes go to war. Overall, Warhammer 40,000: Wrath & Glory – Blessings Unheralded is a great package and a solid introduction.

Friday 27 July 2018

Free RPG Day 2018: Midnight Legion – Last Recruit

Now in its eleventh year, Saturday, June 16th was Free RPG Day and with it came an array of new and interesting little releases. Invariably they are tasters for forthcoming games to be released at GenCon the following August—or later, but others are support for existing RPGs or pieces of gaming ephemera or a quick-start. Then there are outliers, something unexpected from a new publisher and something a little different. Midnight Legion – Last Recruit, which describes itself as ‘An Interactive Adventure Where You Decide What Happens Next’, is an introduction to a new roleplaying game, but not designed for a Game Master and her players, but just the single player. Published by Studio 9 Games, Midnight Legion – Last Recruit is a solo adventure book in which you train to survive the end of the world!

Essentially, Midnight Legion – Last Recruit is a prequel to Book 1: Operation Deep Sleep, itself an interactive story designed for solo play, but with a two-player option. That opens with the character waking to find himself on a medical bed, hooked up to a number of tubes, but with no idea where you are, how you got there, and worst of all, who you are. Midnight Legion – Last Recruit provides some of that information. You control the fate of a young man or woman who has been recruited into the Midnight Legion, a clandestine organisation dedicated to preserving human civilisation after its inevitable collapse. As a recruit, you have learned that the Midnight Legion has been preparing for years, laying plans, building fortified bunkers, and so on. Having recently been fired from your last job, you have signed up, knowing that it is a one-way mission. This is seen as crazy by the world at large and the Midnight Legion itself is seen as a cult rather than as an organisation offering a last chance to survive the coming disaster.

The adventure begins with the unnamed character on his last night before he joins. Depending upon the player’s decisions, a couple of seemingly random events occur—perhaps they might be connected to the wider storyline, perhaps not—and then it is onto Alpha Base for the character’s training and eventual graduation as an agent. Here there is opportunity for a little intrigue, this definitely tying in with future events, and a secret or two to be revealed about the setting. It does not make clear what the nature of calamity is, although it hints at some kind of ongoing war. 

Midnight Legion – Last Recruit amounts to just forty-one entries. It can be played through in about ten minutes—longer if a player decides to explore the other avenues presented in the story, although these are relatively few in number. The complexity is further reduced by there being no real mechanics or an action resolution mechanic. The one point where a character is tested, success or failure is measured on how well he has improved his few stats in previous encounters. This makes Midnight Legion – Last Recruit more akin to the ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ series rather than a Fighting Fantasy adventure a la The Warlock of Firetop Mountain. Anyway, this is what the  character I played looks like having gone through the events of Midnight Legion – Last Recruit.

Skills
Physical Conditioning 7
Stealth 5
Sixth Sense 7
Memory Points 10

Vitality Points 10
Energy Points 10

Physically, Midnight Legion – Last Recruit is decently presented. There is a character included inside the front and back cover, but it really is not needed unless the player is going to play beyond this prequel. The layout inside is clean and the sparse artwork is decent with a cartoon quality.

As well as introducing—or at least hinting at—the setting of Midnight Legion, there are a couple of things that Midnight Legion – Last Recruit also does. One is to serve as means of character generation. Each of the books in the Midnight Legion series provides rules for character generation, but Midnight Legion – Last Recruit also provides some past experiences too. The second is to provide some insights which may affect the events described in those subsequent books. Completing the story also unlocks an otherwise hidden scene in the last book of the Midnight Legion trilogy.

As an introduction to the Midnight Legion setting, Midnight Legion – Last Recruit is slightly underwhelming. The lack of mechanics mean that it does not feel as dangerous as you think it should and the lack of background sort of places it in a bubble. There is an explanation for this, but before then it does leave the player with a sense of helplessness. Nevertheless, Midnight Legion – Last Recruit is enjoyable to play and its hints are intriguing enough for the player to want to look at Midnight Legion further.

Thursday 19 July 2018

Conspire Like Its 1992

It is interesting to note that the three great modern roleplaying games of the 1990s—a decade dominated by fear of the New World Order, the belief in UFOs and UFOlogy, and the birth of the digital age—are all conspiracy roleplaying games. Two of these, Pagan Publishing’s Delta Green for use with Call of Cthulhu and Conspiracy X from first New Millennium Entertainment and then Eden Studios, Inc., published in 1997 and 1996 respectively, are post-Magic: The Gathering, digital age settings of global scale. The other is none of these. Over the Edge: the Role-playing Game of Surreal Danger, published by Atlas Games by 1992, is set on a single island that almost nobody has heard of and is rife with not with just a few conspiracies as Delta Green and Conspiracy X are, but a multitude, involving altruists, extra-dimensionals, extraterrestrials, mad scientists, mobsters, religious cults, street gangs, and of course, traditional conspiracies a la the Illuminati. All this takes place on Al Amarja, an obscure island off the coast of Italy in the Mediterranean, liberated from Mussolini by president for life, Her Exaltedness Monique D’Aubainne and transformed into an independent state which steadfastly refuses to join the United Nations or any other international body and does not maintain an embassy anywhere in the world. Here, where English is the official language and the American dollar is the official currency, the discerning businessman can trade unencumbered by copyright and trademark laws and safety regulations, and law enforcement resistant to bribery. Worshipers are free to follow what faith they like as they do not disrupt the peace, so Christian Scientists, Scientologists, and Satanists can be found on the island as can ‘Sommerites’, religiously oriented fans of rock star Karla Sommers. There are no churches or other official places of worship on Al Amarja, except for The Temple of the Divine Experience, a combination of multi-religious worship centre and dance club. Colonised and in turn conquered Greeks, Romans, North African Muslims, Catalans, Castilians, various Italian states, and ultimately, the newly unified Italy, Al Marja is a crossroads in the Mediterranean, through which smuggled ivory and other forbidden animal products can be trafficked, legal and illicit business can be conducted, and persons of all kinds and come and go—if the right palms are greased that is… Meanwhile the discerning tourist can find all manner of pleasures illegal elsewhere, or in the case of narcotics, illegal, but not policed by the Peace Force. Though not guns, private ownership being extremely frowned upon and strictly policed by the only armed body on the island—the Peace Force.

There are many reasons to come to Al Amarja. Off the beaten track tourism or to take up a business opportunity are obvious draws, or perhaps you are looking for someone. Perhaps you want to conduct scientific research or medical experiments unhindered by ethical guidelines, then Doctor Chris Seversen or Doctor Fürchtegott Nusbaum might be interested in your work or maybe D’Aubainne University might offer you a grant. Perhaps you want psychic powers? Either way, there is nowhere better to study fringe science than Al Amarja where scientists are known as Oppenheimers. Perhaps you are a devotee of rock star, Karla Sommers, then Al Amarja is home to her true fans. Or is there some secret organisation you want to track down, whether to expose or join? Then according to some conspiracy theorists that organisation—be they secret masters, lizardmen, aliens from outer space, and so on—operates on Al Amarja.

All of these character concepts—and more—are supported by the simplicity of the rules for character generation. A character is defined by four traits, three positive and one a flaw. The first of the positive traits is a character’s central trait, which essentially describes what he is, for example, ‘Baltimore Homicide Detective’ or ‘Avenging Mother’. Where the central trait can be fairly broad, the other two positive traits have to be more specific. They are side traits and they define either a particular skill or aspect of the character, for example, ‘Good Behind the Wheel’ or ‘Charismatic’. One of these three traits is a character’s superior trait, one his good trait, and the third an average trait. All traits and flaws are rated in a number of six-sided dice, so the superior is assigned four dice, the good trait three dice, and the average trait just two dice. The fourth trait is a character’s flaw, for example, ‘Obsessed with the New Age’ or ‘Speed Junkie’.In addition, every trait—including the flaw—has a ‘sign’, something that can be noticed by others, for example, ‘Jittery’ for ‘Speed Junkie’ or ‘Always looking to frame a shot’ for ‘Photographer’.

Beyond the traits, a character also needs a motivation, a secret—preferably a dark secret, and someone they hold to be important, whether someone they know or someone they hold to be an ideal. Lastly, each character needs an illustration, hand drawn by the player, no matter how bad. 

The character creation process is mechanically very quick. Coming up with a concept and appropriate traits is necessarily as easy because of the freedom for a player to create what he wants, but the process is partly collaborative because the Game Master has to work with each player to define their character to help bring out what is interesting about the character and what will make a good story. The process is slightly easier in that there is a set way of interpreting a particular trait, so that two characters might have the same trait, but describe them differently. The process is also very open, so whilst some sample traits and flaws are listed, a player does not have to choose from them and can build almost any type of character, from the most mundane to the most powerful. The rules though specifically advise players against power gaming when designing their characters since it is likely to garner their characters greater attraction and greater trouble.

Vittoria Oborín

  • The ‘perfect’ housewife

Languages: English, Italian, Russian
Attacks: 2d (knitting needles)
Defence: 2d (Sometimes Oleg threw crockery!)
Hit Points: 14
Traits

  • Mother knows best (Superior) 4d: “Whatever the situation, whatever the drama, whatever the danger, I am sure that we can find a way to deal with and learn how to be better people.”
  • Prim & Proper 3d: Always looks her best, no matter the situation. The right outfit for the right occasion.
  • Intuition 2d: “Sometimes I just get a funny feeling about someone…” (Sign: a twitch of the nose.)
  • McMafia Widow (Flaw): “I can’t help what my husband and my father were, and I never knew anything about their criminal enterprises. It was also so shocking when I found out. No, really…”

Secret: Serial Killer
Motive: To find her backpacking son, Daniel

Mechanically, Over the Edge employs simple dice pools rolled to exceed a task number—4 for a very easy task; 7 for an easy task; 11 for a moderate task; 18 for a difficult task; 18 for a very difficult task; and 21 for a nearly impossible task. The difficulty for an opposed task is the opponent’s roll. A player simply rolls the dice for the appropriate trait to beat the target difficulty. The more a result exceeds the target difficulty, the greater the success, whilst equaling the target difficulty results in a draw and the more a result is lower than the target difficulty, the worse the outcome. If a character has an appropriate trait, then his player rolls the dice for that trait, otherwise he rolls two dice if an average person could do it. If a character has an advantage, then his player gets to roll a bonus die and drop the lowest die from the roll. Conversely, a penalty die means that the highest die is dropped. Bonus and penalty dice cancel each other out, whereas a flaw reduces the number of dice a player will roll.

In addition, a character also has dice in his experience pool, beginning play with one. They are earned for good play by the Game Moderator and can be used for two purposes. The first is to add to a character’s dice pool, just a single die for each action. Once used, an experience die is spent for that session and cannot be used until the next, but the reason for their use has to be justified in narrative terms. The other use is to improve a character, to improve an existing trait or taking a new one. This costs five experience dice and again needs to be reflected in terms of the narrative.

All this covered in a chapter of less than thirty pages, including ten pages for character generation, four pages for the base mechanics and optional rules, and eight pages on combat, which is outcome based. Combat is handled as opposed rolls, with the difference between a successful roll and the failed roll being multiplied by the weapon type to determine the amount of damage inflicted. Combat can be very deadly, especially when firearms are involved. The Game Moderator has her counterpart to this chapter, which is of roughly the same length. This gives her advice aplenty, starting with how to edit a player character to help it fit in with the player group and not be too powerful, and how to handle both money and the mechanics. Its focus is twofold. The first is on fringe powers, encompassing magic spells and psionic powers, with some twenty of the latter being listed, such as Automatic Writing, Hunches, and Sub-Vocalisation. Only a few magic spells are listed, leaving the Game Moderator and player to work together to create what the player wants his character to learn (unfortunately, there is little advice to that end). Learning either takes a lot of effort and experience dice and there is a chance that all that effort is for nought and the dice are wasted.

The other focus is on running Over the Edge, covering starting the series, how to use the setting and keep track of everything, handling the weird and the remarkable, designing and running adventures, how to screw with the player characters, and so on. It is a really good section, backed up with an example of how and how not to run a session, and how to adjust for errors and so on.

The opening players’ chapter and the Game Moderator’s chapter together amounts to a quarter of the Over the Edge, leaving the rest to what is essentially background to Al Amarja. This begins with an ‘Overview’, an introduction to the island intended for those native to Al Amarja—or at least have lived there for a while—and are familiar with the basics of living and getting by there, including geography, climate, politics and power groups, law and order, economics, population and customs (including why the noose is a fashion item), language—primarily English, but with five different ways to say yes, hot spots and places to avoid, drugs, and media. This runs to just six pages and really amounts to sets of pointers. They are points to start from for the Game Moderator, for whom the rest of the book is designed for.

This begins by building on the ‘Overview’ with a ‘Deep Overview’, expanding on the basic information presented so far before subsequent chapters deal with specific aspects of Al Amarja. So ‘The Edge’ presents the premier city on the island, whilst ‘At Your Service’ details various businesses in the city. ‘Forces to be Reckoned With’ presents the aliens, artists, bureaucrats, conspiracies, cults, gangs, individuals, politicians, rubbish collectors, scientists, students, vigilantes, and more who have a hand, an interest, and some influence in what goes on on the island of Al Amarja. Every place, every establishment or institution, every organisation is accompanied by a Game Moderator character and a story hook, giving the Game Moderator numerous ideas and suggestions for her game. The number of power groups and conspiracies on the island, ranging from inner and outer aliens, organised crime, and religious cults to politicians, weird scientists, and occultists could be seen as a problem when running Over the Edge, threatening to overwhelm a campaign, but the point is clearly made that the Game Moderator should really only concentrate on a few rather than all of them, leaving some to become interested in the player characters’ activities later on. One very useful addition here is a table listing all of the organisations, groups, and cults and their relationships with each other which nicely helps the Game Moderator begin to grasp the web of conspiracies which covers Al Amarja.

To support the running of the roleplaying game, the Game Moderator is provided with three scenarios or plots to get her player characters involved in the wonder and weirdness of Al Amarja. The three are designed as one-shots, intended to be played each time with different characters before the players create the characters that they want to play in a full campaign. As a means to showcase the rules and also the three styles of play in Over the Edge—espionage, supernatural mystery, and partying over the Edge—this is fine, but it feels like a waste of three decent scenarios with which to feed the characters into that campaign. The first scenario, ‘Contact on Al Amarja’, casts the characters as bodyguards for a courier delivering a message on the island, which in true espionage style turns into a MacGuffin hunt. In the second scenario, ‘The Bodhisattva’, the characters are fringe scientists on an information exchange in and of course it goes weird, whilst in the third, ‘Party on Al Amarja’, the players are free to create a group of friends, colleague, or family members, who go on vacation on the island. None of the three is really that straightforward, the second being event and time driven, whilst the third is much more of a freeform with greater capacity for the input of the Game Moderator. Given how weird Al Amarja is meant to be—and is—it is strange that the first scenario misses out on the opportunity for the characters to enjoy all of the delights of the airport, literally the first port of call for travellers coming to the island. Rounding out the three out is another trilogy, this time of detailed campaign outlines, each basically given two pages for the Game Moderator to build from and each really very good. 

Physically, Over the Edge is well presented for a book of its time—the second edition was released in 1997—and is certainly well written. It is entirely black and white throughout, clean and tidy, with some decent pieces of artwork, though some of it is underwhelming by modern standards. One issue with the content is the plea made to reviewers not to reveal the roleplaying game’s secrets and even over thirty years later that is difficult adhere to. That said, the setting of Al Amarja is so dense with secrets it is difficult to know where to start.

Over the Edge: the Role-playing Game of Surreal Danger is a toolkit. The tools are inspired by the works of William S. Burroughs, Philip K. Dick, David Lynch, and Robert Anton Wilson, amongst others. The result is Interzone meets Mulholland Drive, a hive of wretched scum and cultists, a kitchen sink of conspiracies put through a surreal blender, strange tourism on the American dollar, the weird accepted by the ordinary, and the player characters confronting this mess and getting used by it. Plus there is still room for the Game Moderator to add her own conspiracies and cults. Yet as much as the conspiracies have their plots, Over the Edge is not necessarily intended to be a plotted roleplaying game, but rather more a freeform, improvised style of game, with the Game Moderator having a idea of the antagonists’ plots whilst reacting to the actions of the players and their characters. This is something that would have been quite radical in 1992 when the first edition was published and is thoroughly supported by the simple, but solid mechanics which although designed to accommodate innumerable concepts and ideas, do not impede the narrative. The essays on narrative and storytelling are groundbreaking and lay the groundwork for the roleplaying games that the designers would create in the years to come and doubtless would influence game design in the late 1990s (after the Collectable Card Game craze) and the early 2000s.

Above all, what shines through in Over the Edge: the Role-playing Game of Surreal Danger is the setting. Al Amarja is a Game Moderator’s dream, rich in detail and rife with ideas, populated with plots which will fuel a campaigns for months and months. Over the Edge: the Role-playing Game of Surreal Danger is as fresh and as modern as it was in 1992—add protagonists and let the weirdness begin.

—oOo—

In 2012, Atlas Games published a twentieth anniversary edition of Over the Edge—and it is this version of the roleplaying game that is being reviewed. Aside from the fetching blue leatherette hardcover, it includes a sixteen page full colour insert that consists of five mini essays from the publisher, the designers, and subsequent contributors. These explore the game’s origins in the APA, Alarums & Excursions, and beyond, placing Over the Edge in context and grounding it in the early nineties—and even the eighties. These even the suggestion that Over the Edge could be shifted back into the Reagan era along with a list of suitable props. This would firmly place it before the Information Age, but the Over the Edge 20th Anniversary Edition was published in 2012, a decade or so after the start of the Information Age. The game’s designer comes firmly down on the side of the argument that the two do not mix and if they did, on Al Amarja, it would not be so much the Information Age as the Misinformation Age.

Given how light the rules are in Over the Edge, it is surprising that they get revisited in these essays. In 1992, those rules were radically light and fast, designed to facilitate the narrative rather than simulate a story, but as radical as the storytelling mechanics were over twenty five years ago, the design of mechanics has moved on. In fact, they moved on a decade after Over the Edge was published, emphasising the same types of storytelling as the roleplaying game did. So the designer examines the new mechanics of the past decade (this was 2012, remember) and suggests ways in which to incorporate them into Over the Edge. These include ‘Fail Forward’, the ‘Kicker’ from Ron Edwards’ Sorcerer for starting each session with something compelling, the ‘Beliefs’ system from Luke Crane’s Burning Wheel, and running short campaigns a la Paul Czege’s My life with Master. In turn, these feel like a natural fit for Over the Edge and its storytelling style.

—oOo—

Over the Edge: the Role-playing Game of Surreal Danger only received two editions and bar the Over the Edge 20th Anniversary Edition from 2012, has been out of print for several years. Between those two editions there was very little change to the setting of Al Amarja and given that the second edition was published in 1997, the setting has not been updated in some twenty years. All that changes with Over the Edge: A Roleplaying Game of Weird Urban Danger, a third edition of the roleplaying game currently being funded on Kickstarter campaign, which will see changes to the setting and the mechanics, taking account of the changes in game design and storytelling games that Over the Edge: the Role-playing Game of Surreal Danger helped start.

Under the End of the World

In classic post apocalypse gaming, players get to roleplay Humans, Mutants, Mutated Animals, and Androids. So far, in the Swedish roleplaying game, Mutant: Year Zero – Roleplaying at the End of Days, players have got to play Mutants, leaving the Ark that is their home to explore the Zone beyond and the metaplot which underlies the setting—a search for Eden and perhaps the fate of the Ancients. Then with Mutant: Year Zero – Genlab Alpha, they got to play mutated animals, living in Paradise Valley under the careful eye of the metallic Watchers from their base in the Labyrinth. Its standalone campaign, ‘Escape from Paradise’ could be played as precursor to, or could lead into, ‘The Path to Eden’, the campaign in Mutant: Year Zero – Roleplaying at the End of Days. In addition to introducing Mutated Animals, one thing Mutant: Year Zero – Genlab Alpha also did was provide the setting with its first look at robots! Now, with the release of Mutant: Year Zero – Mechatron – Rise of the Robots Roleplaying, robots come to the fore, with complete rules for creating and roleplaying them as player characters, plus a setting and a campaign.

As with Mutant: Year Zero – Roleplaying at the End of Days and Mutant: Year Zero – Genlab Alpha, this new supplement and roleplaying game was originally published in Swedish by Free League Publishing, before being released in English by Modiphius Entertainment following a successful Kickstarter campaign. The setting for Mutant: Year Zero – Mechatron – Rise of the Robots Roleplaying is Mechatron-7, a sub-sea manufacturing and supply base for Noatun, one of the three Titan powers which fought the apocalypse. The last order its central mainframe, NODOS was to continue manufacturing materiel in support of the war, and this it has done for decades—at the very least—and the giant undersea dome’s facilities have long begun to deteriorate. With contact with the outside world long lost, the facility is no longer receiving supplies or raw materials, leading to an inability to conduct repairs or conduct maintenance, even generate power. Yet NODOS has its orders and continues to manufacture what it can, filling warehouses in readiness for shipment, but in reality just crushing previously manufactured goods. In the years since the Humans left, the robots have continued their assignments as well as emulating Human activities more and more, including eating grease puddings and drinking oil drinks, and enjoying robot entertainment like Pong. Other robots have simply worn out and been broken down into scrap, but with no robots being manufactured, some new robots have been put together from the scrapped parts, although none of these ‘new’ robots can access the Collective or are recognised by NODOS as being part of the Collective. It is into this bubble of advancing decrepitude that the player character robots suddenly achieve self-awareness…

The character creation in Mutant: Year Zero – Mechatron – Rise of the Robots Roleplaying is most complex of the three when compared with Mutant: Year Zero – Roleplaying at the End of Days and Mutant: Year Zero – Genlab Alpha. Each robot is constructed first from three parts—head, torso, and undercarriage—which determines not only what a robot looks like and its primary means of movement, but also its core attributes, armour, and the number of modules it can have installed. The four attributes are Servos (Strength), Stability (Agility), Processor (Wits), and Network (Empathy). A player also needs to assign points to his robot’s programs, including the special program unique to each robot model. There are six robot models—Battle Robot, Cleaning Robot, Companion Robot, Coordination Robot, Protocol Robot, Scrap Robot, and Security Robot—and like the roles in Mutant: Year Zero – Roleplaying at the End of Days and Mutant: Year Zero – Genlab Alpha, a model provides an appearance, personality, and so on, as well as a robot’s relationships, its  gear and its big dream. It also provides a rank number, representing a robot’s place in the Hierarchy of Mechatron-7. What is interesting about this design process is that players are encouraged to min-max their robot designs, to get the best of their robots. Further, as the campaign progresses, a robot may also be able to find scrap parts and so replace its head, torso, and undercarriage and so possibly improve its attributes, armour, and the number of modules it can mount. That said, during robot creation, no player character robot can have the same head, torso, or undercarriage as any other. Eight of each are provided to choose from.

Edsel WST-242
Model: Security Robot
Hierarchy: 4
Chassis Parts:
Head: Kordura Mod 022
Torso: Modessi RK ‘Uni’
Undercarriage: LBM Terra 004

Description:
Colour: White with black markings
Voice: Firm and serious
Features: Jackey marked ‘NoPol’
Metalic head with human-like features, lightweight barrel torso with thin arms, and thick robot legs with heavy feet.

Personality: Patient Chatterbox

Attributes
Servos 4, Stability 3, Processor 3, Network 3
Armour: 5
Modules 1 (Head:1, Torso: 0, Undercarriage: 1)
Secondary Function: Command Override

Skills
Protect (Servos) 2, Overload (Servos) 0, Force (Servos) 0, Assault (Servos) 1, Infiltrate (Stability) 0, Move (Stability) 1, Shoot (Stability) 2, Scan (Processor) 2, Datamine (Processor) 0, Analyse (Processor) 0, Question (Network) 0, Interact (Network) 2, Repair (Network) 0

Modules
Interrogator, Riot Control

Relationships
Niamh BWR-508 (PC) does not respect the laws of the Collective. You will have to take action.
You hate… The cleaning droid Dusty BPD-857, who always triggers the alrm when it’s cleaning restricted areas.
You need to protect… The Coordination droid Rufaro DYM-097, who has helped you many times with difficult tasks.

Your Big Dream
To break a difficult case and be celebrated as a hero of the Collective

Gear
Stun gun, lock bolt

Mechanically, Mutant: Year Zero – Mechatron – Rise of the Robots Roleplaying uses the same system as Mutant: Year Zero—a mix of specialised dice and cards, also published by Free League Publishing and Modiphius Entertainment. The content of cards though, representing Chassis parts, Modules, and Artefacts are reproduced in the pages of Mutant: Year Zero – Mechatron – Rise of the Robots Roleplaying and so are not absolutely necessary to play game. The dice are another matter. All six-sided dice, they are divided into three types—the yellow Base dice, the green Skill dice, and the black Gear dice. In addition to the number six all dice are marked with the radiation symbol on that face. This indicates a success when rolled. On the 1 face of the yellow Base dice there is a biohazard symbol, whilst on the 1 face of the black Gear dice, there is an explosion symbol. Rolling either symbol is counted as a failure. The green Skill dice do not have an extra symbol of their 1 faces. Now a game of Mutant: Year Zero – Mechatron – Rise of the Robots Roleplaying can be run without using the specific Mutant: Year Zero dice, but it does at least require pools of the three different coloured dice to represent the Base, Gear, and Program dice.

To undertake an action, a robot’s player assembles a dice pool consisting of Base, Gear, and Program dice. These should be yellow Base dice equal to the attribute used, black Gear dice equal to the Bonus for the item of any Gear used, and green Program dice equal to his skill. A roll of six (radiation) on any of the dice rolled counts as a success, but rolling more successes are better as these can be spent on stunts. The types of stunt available are listed skill by skill. So with the Assault Program, you might inflict extra damage, grab an opponent’s weapon, or knock it over, while with Analyze, you would not only work out what a creature or phenomenon is, but also whether or not it could hurt you or you could hurt it. If no sixes are rolled, then the action is a failure. The results are even worse if ones or biohazard symbols on the yellow Base dice or explosion symbols on the black Gear dice are rolled. If a player fails to roll any radiation symbols—or not enough, he can push the roll and reroll any dice that did came up as Biohazard, Explosion, or Radiation symbols. Even if a player makes a successful roll, his robot can still suffer damage for any Biohazard symbols rolled.

Instead of Mutant Points or Feral Points, a robot has Energy Points. They work as a power source to fuel devices, as currency, and as Experience Points. Inside Mechatron-7 and a robot can freely charge its batteries at its charging station, though there will be some sectors of the facility where it has no access or there are none working. One use of Energy Points is to power Modules. There is the danger though, when a robot uses a Module that it will overheat, draining further power, cause a memory wipe, and so on. Another use for Energy Points is to buy off damage, on a one-for-one basis, whether suffered as a result of Biohazard symbols rolled, accident, or combat.

For the most part, combat in Mutant: Year Zero – Mechatron – Rise of the Robots Roleplaying works in the same way as it does in Mutant: Year Zero – Roleplaying at the End of Days and Mutant: Year Zero – Genlab Alpha, with one major exception. Robots can engage in Logic battles as well as physical battles. These require a logical argument and the use of the Interact Program. A robot’s place in the Hierarchy can provide a bonus to the robot which has a higher rank in Mechatron-7’s structure. Another thing is that robots can also suffer from viruses and there are programs too available which a robot can become addicted to in Mechatron-7.

As well as detailing Mechatron-7 and providing artefacts and various robots and monsters, Mutant: Year Zero – Mechatron – Rise of the Robots Roleplaying includes quite a lengthy campaign in the form of ‘Ghosts in the Machine’. This begins with each of the player character robots becoming self-aware and being detected as defective and sent to the Turing Robot Sanatorium. There they are assigned to the Quality Assurance Program and then given work orders as Error Eliminator Unit #457. What this means is the robots are going to be sent out to deal with difficult situations and robots—some of whom may also be self-aware, which may be the cause of their problems—despite the fact that the player character robots are also self-aware. So there is an element of satire here, much like the roleplaying game Paranoia or many of the works of author Philip K. Dick.

The campaign is a mix of Work Order missions and events and roughly be divided into two parts. The second half pushes the campaign out of Mechatron-7 and back again, essentially plugging Mutant: Year Zero – Mechatron – Rise of the Robots Roleplaying into Mutant: Year Zero – Roleplaying at the End of Days and Mutant: Year Zero – Genlab Alpha. Overall, the campaign is excellent, but it definitely feels like the half in Mechatron-7 should be longer and that there should be more Work Orders.

What is interesting is that in Mechatron-7 and in ‘Ghosts in the Machine’ the Development Levels—Food, Culture, Technology, and Warfare—of both Mutant: Year Zero – Roleplaying at the End of Days and Mutant: Year Zero – Genlab Alpha are inverted. The aim in those settings is for the player characters to increase their Ark’s Development Levels and so improve the technologies they have access to. In Mutant: Year Zero – Mechatron – Rise of the Robots Roleplaying, the Collective is measured by a different four—Energy, Production, Defence, and Information. Instead of working to improve them, the player characters are working to prevent their decline. They can improve the ratings in each, but cannot prevent their decline. So essentially, as the campaign progresses, the level of technology and facilities they have access to also declines. Eventually, just like the plot of the campaign, this will push the player characters out of Mechatron-7 and out into the wider world, following the pattern set by ‘Paradise Valley’ in Mutant: Year Zero – Genlab Alpha.

Both the campaign and the game in general is supported by some excellent advice for the Game Master. This consists of a series of short pointers—‘Robots are Machines’, ‘The Collective Means Safety and Control’, ‘Robots are Individuals’, ‘The Decay is Inevitable’, ‘There Is Never Enough Energy’, ‘The Outside Is a Threat’, ‘Let the PCs Become Scrap’, and It Can Be Funny Too. The ‘Let the PCs Become Scrap’ is interesting as a foil to the earlier advice to letting the players min-max their robots, essentially advising the Game Master not to hold back in order to demonstrate that their robots are at risk, whether in Mechatron-7 or outside.

Physically, Mutant: Year Zero – Mechatron – Rise of the Robots Roleplaying is as impressive as the previous two volumes. This is grim, but not without a sense of humour. That said—and despite the satirical edge to the world of Mechatron-7 and the Collective—Mutant: Year Zero – Mechatron – Rise of the Robots Roleplaying is a not a game to be played for pure laughs. The book even warns against this. Any humour present is sardonic at most, for neither the setting nor the campaign never let the Game Master or the players forget the grim nature of the robots’ predicament. The book is also very nicely illustrated, but the cover by Simon Stålenhag is particularly good, neatly encapsulating the themes at the heart of the supplement.

Mutant: Year Zero – Mechatron – Rise of the Robots Roleplaying is a mix of Judge Dredd meets Blade Runner meets Paranoia all built into the nicely detailed location of Mechatron-7 whilst still leaving room for the Game Master to add her own places and Work Orders. If there is an issue with Mutant: Year Zero – Mechatron – Rise of the Robots Roleplaying is that the first half of the ‘Ghosts in the Machine’ is over too soon, not giving the Game Master and her players time to explore the complex and the Collective. That said, this supplement does a fantastic job of expanding upon the greater setting of Mutant: Year Zero and like Mutant: Year Zero – Genlab Alpha before it, can be used as a roleplaying game in its own right, or used to plug into an ongoing campaign run by the Game Master and so can be used to introduce both new characters and new character types. It is the most complex of the three books to date, in terms of character design, of its Energy Point economy, and its core concepts. It enables the players to explore new characters—only physically complete—as they become aware of what they are and who they are, essentially from the point of their birth. Mutant: Year Zero – Mechatron – Rise of the Robots Roleplaying is a dark satire upon robotic identity and robots finding their place in a ‘brave new world’.

Free RPG Day 2018: Fifth Edition Fantasy: Beneath the Keep

Now in its eleventh year, Saturday, June 16th was Free RPG Day and with it came 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 quick-start. As well as providing support for Dungeon Crawl Classics Roleplaying Game  with the Dungeon Crawl Classics Roleplaying Game Quick Start Rules & Intro Adventure, Goodman Games also provided support for Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition with the scenario, Beneath the Keep as part of its Fifth Edition Fantasy line.

Fifth Edition Fantasy: Beneath the Keep is a ‘Level 1 Adventure Module’ meaning that it is designed to be played by First Level characters. The only requirements are that there should be a Cleric in the party and that the party should have access to silvered or magical weapons as some of the monsters are invulnerable to ordinary weapons. The adventure takes place in a keep on the frontier, home to a thriving community, but beyond its walls lies wilderness where agents of evil operate in secret from out of a hidden temple of unspeakable, well, evil. All of these features—the keep, the temple, and so on—are unnamed, making it easy for the Dungeon Master to add it to her campaign. The plot begins with the death of Garan—who is named as is the scenario’s antagonist!—a trader who is found dead in his shop. The keep’s watch has little capacity to really investigate, so enter the player characters, whether they are simply curious, employed by Garan’s family to investigate, or shanghaied by the watch into investigating.

This is a simple set-up which leads to an eight location dungeon. It is fairly linear in nature and contains a mix of quite detailed locations, some of which revolve around investigation rather than combat, but many of the many minor encounters involve traps which is slightly tedious and puts a bit too much of a focus on the Thief in the party. The adventure is quite tough in place, especially if the player characters are unprepared, but plenty of clues have been written into the plot to keep everything moving, in particular maps marking some of the dungeon’s secret doors. This keeps the adventure nicely moving along and prevents it coming to an impasse because the party cannot find a secret door. Beyond the adventure itself, there are links to the antagonist’s allies, but the Dungeon Master will have to develop that herself.

The adventure provides quite a tough opponent—who really deserves to make a comeback as a recurring villain, some fun little monsters, and a little treasure. Perhaps the best thing it provides are rewards for doing things other than killing monsters. Yet it has the potential for providing much, much more in terms of its story.

On one level, Fifth Edition Fantasy: Beneath the Keep is just a simple scenario, easy to run in the one session and easy to drop into a setting of the Dungeon Master’s choice. Yet, the inclusion of an unnamed keep located in the wilderness on the frontier with bandits, not too far from a temple of chaos suggests another use and another setting. Especially in light of the fact that in 2018, Goodman Games also published Original Adventures Reincarnated #1: Into the Borderlands Hardcover. This volume collected and provided updates of two classic scenarios for Basic Dungeons & DragonsB1: In Search of the Unknown and B2: The Keep on the Borderlands—and it is the latter scenario which is important to Fifth Edition Fantasy: Beneath the Keep. For in B2: The Keep on the Borderlands there is a Keep, or castle, which stands on the frontier, not far from which can be a locus of evil, the infamous Caves of Chaos. There are bandits operating in the area too, just as there are in Fifth Edition Fantasy: Beneath the Keep, providing a link between its antagonist and her masters in the temple of chaos. 

Physically, Fifth Edition Fantasy: Beneath the Keep is nicely presented. The layout is clean and tidy, the map is clear, and it is all very readable. The only issue is the lack of handouts. The Dungeon Master should definitely take the time to drawn some handouts.

Fifth Edition Fantasy: Beneath the Keep is a nice little adventure for Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition. It has combat, it has action, it has a mystery, and it has a little investigation. The roleplay is another matter, so the Dungeon Master may want to work on that with some extra NPCs. Overall, it should provide a good evening’s worth of dungeoneering. Yet, Fifth Edition Fantasy: Beneath the Keep really comes into its own not as a dungeon, but as a plot and a story to add to B2: The Keep on the Borderlands. If you as a Dungeon Master is looking to run the updated version of B2: The Keep on the Borderlands from Original Adventures Reincarnated #1: Into the Borderlands Hardcover, then Fifth Edition Fantasy: Beneath the Keep is a must.

Sunday 15 July 2018

Call of Cthulhu Chronicles

One of enjoyable things about owning a smartphone or tablet are the opportunities for playing games and reading. Both types of devices are capable of handling both, whether that is downloading and reading Dickens on Kindle or playing a game of Ticket to Ride, for example (other apps, authors, and games are available). Some apps combine both–reading and gaming—just like a gaming format from the 1970s and 1980s did, the ‘solo adventure’ or ‘chose your own adventure’ books. The advantage of the platform means that the story can be presented in an easy to read and navigate fashion, whilst the page flipping and any mechanics can be handled by the app. The result is intuitive and interactive and all but a natural fit for such devices. One company which is going back to that format of the 1970s and 1980s is MetaArcade. In 2017, the publisher teamed up with Flying Buffalo, Inc. to present Tunnels & Trolls Adventures on its RPG platform, enabling gamers to play and replay some of the classic adventures from one of the most prolific publisher of solo fantasy adventures. Now MetaArcade is teaming up with another venerable roleplaying game publisher to bring not more fantasy adventures to its platform, but horror adventures. Specifically, confrontations with cosmic horror!

Together, MetaArcade and Chaosium, Inc. are bringing Lovecraftian investigative horror to your tablet or smartphone with Cthulhu Chronicles. This interactive fiction horror mobile game enables the player to play through Call of Cthulhu adventures—old and new—that provide a narrative-driven, immersive campaign experience. The initial campaign is titled ‘Investigations in Lovecraft Country’ and consists of five stories set in the Jazz Age of the 1920s with a promise of more to come for a total of nine episodes. Some of them, veteran players and Keepers of Call of Cthulhu will recognise, others are new. Some of them are adaptations of existing solo adventures, but given how few of those there actually are for Call of Cthulhu, ‘Investigations in Lovecraft Country’ also includes several classic scenarios which have been adapted for solo play. So in ‘Investigations in Lovecraft Country’, the first scenario, ‘Alone Against the Flames’ is an adaptation of Chaosium, Inc.’s first solo adventure for Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition, ‘Paper Chase’ is adaptation of the one-on-one scenario published in The Call of Cthulhu Companion in 1983, ‘Edge of Darkness’ is an adaptation of the highly regarded scenario from the Call of Cthulhu, Fifth Edition and Call of Cthulhu, Sixth Edition rulebooks, and ‘Dead Boarder’ and ‘Eyes of the Law’ are new. They are designed to be played in order, beginning with ‘Alone Against the Flames’, followed by ‘Edge of Darkness’, ‘Dead Boarder’, ‘Eyes of the Law’, ‘Paper Chase’, and so on, forming a campaign which takes the player and their investigator to Arkham and its environs. Once played through, they can be played in any order. The reason to play them again being to explore other lines of enquiry and acquire more clues.

Download Cthulhu Chronicles and what you will be presented with is Lobby with the five initial scenarios, in order and with each looking like the cover of a book. A menu at the top of the screen provides options for the Shop where tickets can be purchased, a ‘How to Play’ which takes you to the publisher’s website, and the Settings. The Shop is important because if you want to play a scenario at your whim, then it needs to be purchased and that requires tickets. A Small Ticket Bundle of ten Tickets costs just $0.99, but purchasing a scenario costs twenty, so the cost of purchasing and being able to play a scenario at your whim is essentially $2. A Large Ticket Bundle of one-hundred-and ten Tickets is sufficient to buy all five of the initial scenarios and will cost just $9.99.

Alternatively, you can use Trials to play for free. These are limited in number, just three per day and they only allow you to play a scenario once per day.

Once you decide upon a scenario, the first thing you will be asked upon opening it is to select a character. There are six to choose from and they include an antiquarian, two police officers, a librarian, a socialite, and a dilettante, with a good mix of genders and ethnic backgrounds for the period. Each character in Cthulhu Chronicles is defined by three attributes—Athleticism, Intelligence, and Appearance. Athleticism combines physical strength, coordination, and overall fitness, and is used for physical actions and combat; Intelligence combines mental acuity, wit, and problem-solving abilities, and is also used for Sanity checks; and Appearance combines physical beauty and the forcefulness of the character’s personality. Each character has one attribute at sixty-five, one at fifty, and one at thirty-five, this varying from one character to another. To represent the effects of the trials and tribulations a character will doubtless suffer, each has an additional pair of attributes—Health and Sanity. The first represents how much physical harm a character will suffer and is the most varied between the six characters, whilst the second how much mental stress a character can suffer after having witnessed the strange and the supernatural. It is always starts at fifty for all characters.

Each character has his or her own page, upon which there is a portrait as well as a memorable quote to bring them to life, a background or Bio, and a piece of equipment, a handgun of some type or another. In general, the make will not matter in an adventure, but it adds a little detail. In addition, a second page lists all of the clues a character has found for each scenario. They range in number between six and eleven for each adventure and enable you to track what you have learned as part of your character’s investigative efforts. To discover them all will require multiple playthroughs and this can be done for each of the six characters.

The adventures themselves follow the structure you would expect for solo adventures. You follow the story, continuing from one page to the next until you are given two or three choices. Select a choice and that will take another branch of the story or scenario, opening up further lines of enquiry. At certain points you will asked to test one of your character’s three attributes—Athleticism, Intelligence, and Appearance—typically when you want to persuade someone in the story, to avoid taking damage, whether physical or mental, to spot a clue, and so on. Then a spinner, divided into two sections, will appear. One section will indicate if you have succeeded, the other if you have failed. The difficulty of the task being checked will determine the size the two sections, the harder the difficulty of the task, the greater the size of the red or fail zone. The consequences of failure may be that a character suffers losses to his Health or Sanity, or simply does not find a clue.

As you progress through a scenario, your character will also discover clues, which will measure the character’s progress in investigating each the scenarios. All this is done to a nicely eerie soundtrack and some decent illustrations. Each of the five initial scenarios takes about ten minutes to play through, though this time will be drop as you flip through pages to get to a branch unexplored… Of course, one of the advantages—or disadvantages—of this form of interactive fiction over the pen and paper ‘choose your own adventure’ books is that you cannot stick your finger into the book at a certain point whilst you go off down another branch of the story. If that leads nowhere useful or your character dies, then you can flip back to the page where your finger is. In Cthulhu Chronicles this option is unavailable…

‘Investigations in Lovecraft Country’ opens with the character wanting to travel to Arkham, with each of the six having a different reason which influences how they become involved in each scenario. ‘Alone Against the Flames’ sees each character travelling from their hometown to Arkham and learning something of the horrors to be found in Lovecraft Country. Once in the university town, it becomes the character’s base of operations and from there they explore events in and around Arkham or go slightly further afield. Although the five scenarios give the ‘Investigations in Lovecraft Country’ campaign a nicely episodic feel, there is the hint towards the end of the five that the story is building towards something much greater and much more of a threat in terms of the Mythos.

As a side note, it should be pointed out that three of the scenarios in ‘Investigations in Lovecraft Country’—‘Alone Against the Flames’, ‘Edge of Darkness’, and ‘Paper Chase’ will appear in the forthcoming Call of Cthulhu Starter Set. So it will be interesting to see if the remaining four scenarios in the campaign will be all new or updated versions of classics from Call of Cthulhu.

There are but two niggles with Cthulhu Chronicles. One that it is not possible to examine any of the characters without actually playing through a scenario—it is not possible click back from character selection. The other is the lack progression in terms of characters. They seem to re-set at the end of each scenario with no continuity, so there is not that sense of investigator progression you have in Call of Cthulhu. That said, Cthulhu Chronicles is not an emulation of Call of Cthulhu and so is not designed to reflects its mechanics.

Currently only available for the iOS platform—with others to be supported soon—what Cthulhu Chronicles does is bring both cosmic horror and Call of Cthulhu to interactive fiction in an easy-to-play and read fashion. Cthulhu Chronicles provides an opportunity for long time devotees to revisit old classics and play new scenarios in a new format, whilst new players can experience the feel and flavour of cosmic horror for the first time—perhaps as taster for what Call of Cthulhu feels like.

Saturday 14 July 2018

Free RPG Day 2018: Unknown Armies: Maria in Three Parts

Now in its eleventh year, Saturday, June 16th was Free RPG Day and with it came 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 quick-start. Atlas Games rarely contributes to Free RPG Day, but for 2018 offered us Unknown Armies: Maria in Three Parts. This is a quick-start for the 1998 roleplaying game of power and consequences in which broken and obsessed people risk everything to change the world. That world is just like ours, but Magick is real and essentially willpower multiplied by understanding equals what you wished for. Designed as an introduction to the Unknown Armies Third Edition Roleplaying Game funded on Kickstarter in 2016, explains the game’s concepts and rules, gives a short scenario to play through, and four pre-generated player characters to use with the scenario.

The Occult Underground can be found anywhere and is populated by all manner of fantastic and fearsome persons. Some of these creepy weirdos are Chargers capable of altering the world in ways no human can and so hold positions of power, whilst others are Checkers, those who seen the weird and the wonderful and are drawn to ‘check’ it out some more… Most player characters are Checkers, capable of performing certain magicks. Notable amongst these are Avatars and Adepts. The former aspire to become Archetypes—such as the Mother, the Naked Goddess, and the Mad Scientist—and the more like an Archetype an Avatar acts or imitates, then the greater his magic and the more he can bend reality. The latter can Do Stuff, but getting to Do Stuff relies upon an Adept’s obsession with something like sex, cars, guns, cleanliness, and so on. For example, of the four pre-generated player characters in the adventure, two are Avatars and two are Adepts. Vince Kirkland is an Avatar of The Guide and can always send someone in the right direction or give good advice, whilst Jada Parker is an Avatar of The Warrior and can pursue a purpose without suffering stress and inspire those around her. Ellen Kaloudis is a Fulminturgy Adept, a gunslinger who knows spells such as Serious Demeanour and .45 Caliber Exorcism, whereas Greg O’Neil is a Cinemancy Adept who can enforce cliches with spells like Stock Wardrobe and What Could Go Wrong? Their spells require Charges which can be generated by wearing a totem, like a gun for lengthy periods for the Fulminturgy Adept, and enacting movie cliches for the Cinemancy Adept. Essentially the differences between Avatars and Adepts are that Avatars have fewer magickal powers, but can use for free, whereas Adepts have more, but need to power them with Charges.

Characters are defined by what they have seen—Shocks; what they can do—Abilities; what drives them—Passions and Obsessions; who they are—Identity; and who they know—Relationships. Shocks represent the mental trauma a character has suffered from the worst effects of Helplessness, Violence, the Unnatural, and so on. Measured on a set of meters, they track how a character reacts to them, the possibility being that they will become hardened to them and callous or burn out from the stress. Abilities are broad talents like Dodge, Knowledge, Notice, Pursuit, Secrecy, and so on. There are just ten of them. A character has three Passions—Fear, Rage, and Noble, as well as an Obsession, the latter typically tied to his Identity. This Identity is what the character does, typically a role like Police Detective or Taxi Driver. Identities can substitute an Ability where appropriate. So in a car chase, a character with the Police Detective Identity might use it to substitute the Pursuit Ability. Similarly, a character’s Relationships—Favourite, Guru, Mentor, Protégé, and Responsibility—can substitute an Ability or identity where appropriate. Abilities, Identities, and Relationships are all measured as percentiles, typically in the range of 20% to 60%.

Mechanically, Unknown Armies uses a percentile system. Rolls of 01 are critical successes, 00 of critical fumbles, whilst matched successes—successes in which doubles are roll—are unusually good, and matched failures—failures in which doubles are roll—are unusually bad. On occasion, such as when acting in accordance with a character’s Passion or rolling as part of his Identity, a player can flip-flop result, either to get a successful result or to get a better success. Beyond this, Unknown Armies: Maria in Three Parts covers the rules for Stress checks, coercion, combat, medicine, and therapy. Of these, Stress checks are a little like Sanity rolls in Call of Cthulhu, but designed to account for more types of shock and to have a more immediate effect upon what a character can do. The explanation for how the mechanics work are not as clear as they could be and Game Master will need to give them a very careful read to understand and be able to impart that to her players. Nevertheless, it is clear from the rules that Unknown Armies is a fairly brutal system and the setting quite harsh.

In comparison, the explanation of the abilities of the two Avatars and the two Adepts are much more clearly written and it is here that Unknown Armies: Maria in Three Parts begins to be more flavoursome. Good explanations of all four are provided as well as backgrounds for each of the Cabal, the quartet who make up the quick-start’s pre-generated characters. Character sheets are provided for each.

The flavour and detail continue in ‘Maria in Three Parts’, the scenario in Unknown Armies: Maria in Three Parts. It opens with all four characters receiving a text from Detective Renee Jefferson, a shared contact, requesting their aid. The local police department has come across the weirdness of the occult underground before and in response, which has led to the establishment of ‘Blue Line’. This is an unofficial network of law enforcement officials set up to help each other when dealing with the occult, which includes Detective Renee Jefferson. Contact has been lost with one of Blue Line’s more reliable consultants, so she wants the player characters to go check on her. The resulting scenario involves a good mix of investigation and manic action, hopefully culminating in confrontation with an entertainingly snazzy antagonist. It should provide a good or two’s worth of gaming, though part of the first session will taken up by a fair amount of explanation.

Although Unknown Armies: Maria in Three Parts is attractively presented, it is not as well organised as it could be. The problem is that the backgrounds for each of the four pre-generated characters are separate to their character sheets, and this is compounded by the fact that the magickal abilities for each of them is again presented separate to them. This means that the Game Master needs to do some physical printing and separating out, and then collating of the sheets. Certainly the layout of the booklet could have been better organised.

Of all the releases for Free RPG 2018, Unknown Armies: Maria in Three Parts is perhaps the most difficult and the most challenging to both run and play. The rules are quite intricate and need a careful read through as the concepts behind both feel underwritten and are far from easy to grasp, let alone pass onto the other players. Yet both rules and concept support a fun quartet of pre-generated characters and an engaging scenario, and this is where Free RPG 2018, Unknown Armies: Maria in Three Parts really shines.