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

Wednesday 31 October 2018

Horrors for Halloween

S. Petersen’s Field Guide to Lovecraftian Horrors: A Field Observer’s Handbook of Preternatural Entities and Beings from Beyond The Wall of Sleep begins with a lovely conceit. Its foreword bemoans the lack of readily available and credible information—such as that supplied by the original, classic Petersen Field Guides—has adversely affected the current crop of preternaturalists in their field studies and acknowledges that those same original Petersen Field Guides have become collectors’ items. Which is sort of true twice over. Originally published in 1988 and 1989 respectively, S. Petersen’s Field Guide to Cthulhu Monsters and S. Petersen’s Field Guide to Creatures of the Dreamlands presented various entities—gods, races, servitor species, and creatures—of the Mythos and of the Dreamlands in full colour, with scientific notes on their habitat, distribution, and life cycle as well as annotations and commentaries. Famously, they each included easy identification means for each every one of their entries, such that a user could ask himself a series of simple questions and within moments identify the ‘thing’ before him and so determine whether he was facing a Byakee or an Elder Thing. (Unless of course, the field researcher has gone mad before he had time to answer all of the questions…)

With both S. Petersen’s Field Guide to Cthulhu Monsters and S. Petersen’s Field Guide to Creatures of the Dreamlands long out of print—and as suggested in the foreword, now collector’s items (in-game and out)—Chaosium, Inc. has taken both and collated them as one single hardback volume, S. Petersen’s Field Guide to Lovecraftian Horrors: A Field Observer’s Handbook of Preternatural Entities and Beings from Beyond The Wall of Sleep. Originally published as a Stretch Goal as part of the Kickstarter campaign for Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition, the supplement covers Azathoth and Byakhee to Tsathoggua to Yog-sothoth, Abhoth and Atlach-Nacha to Wamp and Zoog, and more, some fifty or so entries cataloguing the monsters of the Mythos and the Dreamlands.

The volume is divided into two halves, one dealing with the Mythos, the other with the Dreamlands, with following the same format. There is a questionnaire for identifying the monsters of each, the answers quickly leading to an identification and a page reference. Every entry consists of a two-page spread which includes an appropriate quote from H.P. Lovecraft, followed by a description of the creature or monster and entries which in turn detail its habitat, life and habitats, and what distinguishes it from similar things. In the majority of the entries, a besuited, behatted sometimes armed, sometimes somewhat relaxed silhouette of a male figure is seen alongside smaller illustration of the monster, echoing perhaps the silhouette cutouts included with the first, second, and third edition boxed sets of Call of Cthulhu. Amusingly, the entry for the Byakhee shows this figure actively running away, being chased by the monster, so perhaps that encounter was one too many for said silhouette?

This is opposite a full illustration of the entry. These are done in full colour, muscular and imposing, weird and unearthly, strange and shocking… Some of the smaller images come from the Call of Cthulhu Keeper Rulebook, but the main illustration of each entry is new. Thus S. Petersen’s Field Guide to Lovecraftian Horrors: A Field Observer’s Handbook of Preternatural Entities and Beings from Beyond The Wall of Sleep is the ‘colour supplement’ to ‘Monsters, Beasts, and Alien Gods’, the fourteenth chapter of the Call of Cthulhu Keeper Rulebook. Here, the illustrations are clearer and more fearsome, and of course, even more horrid. Plus there are no game stats to break the mood.

Rounding out the supplement is a size-comparison chart, in sepia tones, which captures the scale of these entities, the lone silhouette all but lost in the corner of the two-page spread. This is followed by a list of Recommended Reading. It starts with what you would expect—works of fiction by H.P. Lovecraft and gaming supplements by Chaosium. Inc., but then it wanders into the realms of scientific fiction, such as Ivan Mustoll’s ‘Emergency Procedures During Controlled Obsession of Yog- Sothoth’, published in the Annals of the Innsmouth Society and The Natural History of the Leng Spider by Rondo Meeb. None of these books are real of course, but you wish that they were—at least in the context of the Call of Cthulhu game world. (Certainly, one idea for Chaosium would be to develop these titles into Mythos tomes, which themselves would be the subject of their own gaming supplement, in this case, an academic companion to S. Petersen’s Field Guide to Lovecraftian Horrors: A Field Observer’s Handbook of Preternatural Entities and Beings from Beyond The Wall of Sleep.)

Physically, S. Petersen’s Field Guide to Lovecraftian Horrors is a lovely hardback. It is beautifully illustrated, the imagery a worthy accompaniment to the text even thirty years on after this content first appeared.

Of course, there is the question of what to do with S. Petersen’s Field Guide to Lovecraftian Horrors. Is it an in-game source? If so, then perhaps it is better suited to a setting where the entities, races, and entities have been more studiously categorised and are thus more of a known quantity and threat? Thus, the Keeper is likely to be happy with the players and their Investigators having ready access to it at the table. Is not an in-game source? Then the Keeper is less likely to want to have it at the table and to have her players readily perusing its pages lest they learn something their investigators are not ready for. Certainly, having it as an in-game resource will change the tone and feel of a Call of Cthulhu campaign.

The supplement lends itself to other options though. Most obviously, as an enticement to play, to show off to prospective players of the roleplaying game some of the mysteries to be encountered in doing so. The other option is as inspiration for the Keeper. Careful reading of the fiction of this as a real-world reference work and certainly of the entries in the bibliography may serve as hooks or ideas source for the Keeper to develop into encounters with the forces of the Mythos of her own design.

On the downside, this supplement is not comprehensive, it does not include every monster that has appeared in a Call of Cthulhu supplement or indeed, every entry in the Call of Cthulhu Keeper Rulebook. Nor could it, for that would result in a tome of massive proportions—and arguably, since S. Petersen’s Field Guide to Lovecraftian Horrors is a meant to be field guide, were it to be so large a book, it would be impossible to effectively use it and refer to it in the field. Instead it only touches upon the most commonly encountered creatures and monsters, although the Dreamlands entries are perhaps more obscure, being less well known. For that, the Keeper will have to wait for a second edition of the Malleus Monstrorum. Despite that, one of the most obvious entries a reader, player, Keeper, or investigator would expect to find in the pages of this supplement is an entry for Cthulhu itself, but it is not here—despite there being an entry for Star Spawn of Cthulhu. This then is most disappointing thing about S. Petersen’s Field Guide to Lovecraftian Horrors.

S. Petersen’s Field Guide to Lovecraftian Horrors: A Field Observer’s Handbook of Preternatural Entities and Beings from Beyond The Wall of Sleep is a lovely reprint. Devotees of Call of Cthulhu—old and new—who lack copies of either S. Petersen’s Field Guide to Cthulhu Monsters or S. Petersen’s Field Guide to Creatures of the Dreamlands will doubtless enjoying having access to this supplement for the first time. Veterans will appreciate it best for having the two original volumes in one and in a sturdier, prettier package. It is not essential to own this supplement in order to run Call of Cthulhu, but S. Petersen’s Field Guide to Lovecraftian Horrors: A Field Observer’s Handbook of Preternatural Entities and Beings from Beyond The Wall of Sleep is something attractive to own, sometimes to peruse, sometimes to show off, sometimes to inspire. 

Sunday 28 October 2018

Stressful Sedition

Two centuries ago, the Aelfir—or ‘High Elves’—invaded the Spire, a mile-high tower city in the land of the Destra, the Drow, and subjugated the Dark Elves. Whether the Spire is a fossilised tree of flesh and bone, the larval form of a deity, or a vast consensual hallucination accepted by all as real, the Aelfir forced the Drow into the city’s lower levels and destroyed their temples. Where they had once worshipped all three facets of Damnou, the moon goddess, the Drow are only allowed to venerate the one, Limyé, Our Glorious Lady and the Light Side of the Moon, by their Aelfir masters. All Drow are expected to enter a four year period of indentured service, known as ‘Durance’, with the Aelfir, some hauling raw materials to the furnaces in the Works, harvesting fruit or tending algae vats in the Garden, some swathed in protective clothing against the sun in as soldiers in the Allied Defence Force, and others entering personal service of some Aelfir Lord or Lady as a personal assistant, pet, duellist, emissary, and so on. The Aelfir, creatures of great beauty and colour and magic, enjoy lives of luxury in the Spire’s higher levels and although do run the Spire or undertake great acts of art or study, most spend in the pleasure domes. Yet from amongst the drudgery and poverty of the Works and the Garden Districts has arisen a threat to this order, The Ministry of Our Hidden Mistress, or simply, the Ministry. Its members venerate the dark side of the moon, the goddess of poisons and lies, shadows and secrets, her worship outlawed on pain of death, and they are sworn to destroy and subvert the dominion of the Aelfir over the Drow and the Spire.

This is the setting for Spire: The City Must Fall, a roleplaying game published by Rowan, Rook, and Decard Ltd. following a successful Kickstarter campaign. It is a roleplaying game of secrets and lies, trust and betrayal, violence and subversion, conspiracy and consequences, and of committing black deeds for a good cause. It is for want of a better description, a roleplaying game of fantasy- or Elf-punk, one which combines Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast with Gareth Evans’ The Raid, William Gibson’s Neuromancer with the television series, Peaky Blinders, and China Mieville’s Perdido Street Station with Blade Runner. There is technology and there is magic, but neither influence the ‘Punk’, the attitude of the Spire’s protagonists, who are rising up from the streets as the cell of a rebel movement to overthrow their High Elf masters. It is these protagonists that the players will roleplay, Drow who have completed their Durance and who in the eyes of the state have joined an illegal organisation and engaged in an outlawed practice. They are resistance fighters with a righteous cause, but to the state, they are rebels, criminals, and worse, terrorists. The question is, how far will they go to bring about the change they desire, what acts will they commit, and what are the likely consequences?

In comparison to other roleplaying games, the fantasy of Spire: The City Must Fall is a low fantasy. Divine magic, the magic learned from the church or temple is weak compared to occult magic, but occult magic is potent, unreliable, and likely to fry your brain, whilst magic items are rare. Similarly, there are no monsters—both protagonists and antagonists are people, although the protagonists are Drow, whereas the antagonists might be Drow, Aelfir, or Humans. Also, there are morality mechanics, rather the morality comes the choices that the player characters make and the actions they take, all of which take place within the urban and industrial confines of the Spire.

A character in Spire: The City Must Fall is defined by his Durance, what he did before being recruited by the Ministry, and his Class, what he does now. Together, these grant Skills, Domains, Abilities, Resistances, and Bonds. Skills are what he can do such as Compel, Fight, or Steal, whilst Domains are areas of knowledge and expertise like Crime, High Society, or Religion. Abilities are things a Player Character can do granted by a Class, such as the ‘Cut a Deal’ of the mercantile Azurite Class, some granted by the Class, others a player must select. Resistances—Blood, Mind, Silver (money), Shadow (secrecy), and Reputation—represent a character’s capacity to withstand Stress in particular categories. Suffer too much and a Player Character will be subject to fallout, which can be Minor, Moderate, or Severe. Whilst fallout reduces a character’s Stress from a particular Resistance, it has consequences. For example, a Minor Fallout for a character’s Reputation might be that he tells a lie which will cause a problem later on, whilst a Moderate Fallout for Blood could be a broken arm. Bonds are connections to NPCs who can help or hinder a player character and if they suffer Stress, then the potential Fallout will affect the relationship.

To create a character, a player selects a Durance and a Class. From the Class a player needs to choose two Low Advances—essentially two minor improvements to the character, pick some equipment, and name some Bonds. The Durances range from Acolyte and Agent to Sage and Spy, options are included should a Drow manage to have avoided his Durance. The Classes include the Azurite, wheel-dealer and hustler; the Bound, acrobatic vigilante; the Carrion-Priest, heretical death-worshippers who believe that the dead should be eaten by holy hyenas to ensure the safety of their solus; the Firebrand, rabble-rousing revolutionary; the Idol, artist-sorcerer and revolutionary; the Knight, ancient order fallen into criminal dishonour; the Lajhan, priests of Our Glorious Lady, the Light Side of the Moon; the Masked, who know the ways of Aelfir society at the top of the Spire; the Midwife, arachnid defenders of the Drow who tender to their young; and the Vermissian Sage, Drow historians who hide their research in an abandoned, non-Euclidean, maze-like, mass transport network that runs throughout the Spire. All eight Classes are interesting and nicely pull each character type into the setting of the Spire.

Our sample character is Yashek. He served his four years as a scribe and then sage to an Aelfir lord who was attempting to write a history of the Drow. His own researches eventually lead him to the strange network of tunnels and corridors beyond and inside the Spire and to learning some Occult magic.

Yashek
Durance: Sage
Class: Vermissian Sage

Skills: Compel, Fix, Investigate
Domains: Academia, Occult, Technology
Abilities: Back Door (to the Vault), The Vault, Obsessive Researcher
Advances (Low): That Didn’t Happen, Mental Directory
Resistances: Blood, Mind 6, Silver, Shadow 1, Reputation

Refresh: Uncover hidden information.

Bonds: Herik, researcher in the vault; Player Character with a Secret

Equipment: Dagger (concealable)

It is interesting to note that Spire: The City Must Fall there is no experience point system. Instead, player characters are rewarded for making a change—for good or ill. Make a small change and a character will gain a Low advance, make a moderate change and he can choose a Medium advance, and so on. What you have here then, is an experience system driven by the ends not the means, the narrative rather than the mechanics.

Mechanically, Spire: The City Must Fall uses dice pools of ten-sided dice. Whenever a character wants to undertake an action, his player rolls a ten-sided die. A result of a one is a critical failure, two to five is a failure, six and seven is a success at a cost, eight and nine a success, and ten is a critical success. A player can add more dice to the roll if his character has an appropriate Skill, Domain, or Mastery over the Skill or Domain. For example, Yashek’s would only roll one ten-sided in combat because he does not have the Fight skill; two dice for Yashek to persuade someone using the Compel skill; and three dice if he was attempting to mend a scanning device using the Fix skill and the Technology domain. No more than four dice can be rolled for an action and only the highest counts. The Game Master can adjust the difficulty by removing one or two dice from a player’s dice pool.

Unless a player rolls eight or more, the result of an action will inflict Stress upon the Player Character, the type depending upon the nature of the action—the more stressful the situation, the greater the die type the Game Master rolls to determine the Stress suffered. For example, using Compel to persuade a watch patrol to let you go might inflict Minor Stress or a three-sided die, Moderate Stress or a six-sided die if the watch captain is present, or Severe Stress or an eight-sided die if the watch commander is involved. Taking Stress can result in a character Fallout, actual consequences of his actions. In some situations though, a character can withstand Stress because of a high Resistance. So a character with a high Blood Resistance is tough or can parry blows; a high Mind indicates strength of will; a high Silver is wealth and resources; a Shadow is a good cover or well-kept secrets; and a Reputation is good standing with a group. Some equipment, such as armour for Blood, can enhance a Resistance. 

Once a character starts taking Stress, the Game Master keeps track of both the type and the total for all of a character’s Stress. If she rolls under that total on a ten-sided die, then the character loses Stress, but gains Fallout, effectively injuring something related to the Resistance. It is also possible to remove Stress by laying low—but essentially, this takes the character out of the story for a scene; by using a Class Refresh Action; or by undertaking an action that remove stress, for example, borrowing money to reduce Silver Stress or going to a doctor to reduce Blood Stress.
For example, Yashek borrowed a scanner from the Vault without permission, but it got broken on a mission. He needs to repair it before he can return it. His player rolls three dice—one plus one each for Yashek’s Fix Skill and Technology Domain. He rolls 1, 4, and 6. The highest result is a six, meaning that he succeeds, but at a cost. The Game Master rolls a three-sided die for Stress, inflicting three points of Stress. The Game Master now rolls for Fallout and rolls a one, indicating a Minor Fallout and a reduction his Reputation Stress by three points. Since this is against Yashek’s Reputation, the Game Master decides that this will result in his committing a Lie about how the device got damaged.
Both Combat and Magic—whether Divine or Occult—uses the same mechanics, the Stress from their outcomes will primarily affect the Blood Resistance or the Mind Resistance respectively. The magic itself is represented by various Class abilities and advances, rather than a separate set of mechanics. Similarly, Bonds can also suffer Stress, so a Player Character’s connection can degrade too. Overall, the fact that Fallout is rolled against a Player Character’s total Stress means that the mechanics in Spire: The City Must Fall have a really brutal feel to them (though alternative rules are provided should a group decide they are too brutal). The players will need to move carefully if their characters are to avoid accumulating Stress, but as stories and plots ramp up, the more their actions should have consequences and the greater the Stress involved.

A good two fifths of Spire: The City Must Fall is devoted to the setting and background the tower city. What is interesting about the descriptions is that they are tied thematically to several of the Domains—Academia, Commerce, Crime, High Society, Low Society, Occult, Order, and Religion, though not Technology. The districts and factions related to these domains are rich in detail and hooks for the Game Master to build her campaign around. There is a lot here for the Game Master to bring out and the density of the material may be a hindrance for the Game Master in setting up her campaign.

That said, there is good advice for the Game Master on how to run Spire: The City Must Fall. This includes general advice as well as examining the game’s themes and in turn, the three stages of a revolution in the Spire—the Gathering Storm, the Strike, and the Aftermath. It also includes a discussion of what makes a good villain and how to make the city the Game Master’s own. A nice touch that it examines what players are expecting when they select a particular Class. It is followed by seven appendices, in turn describing the new gods and cults to be found in the Spire, giving tables of random events and things, providing a Drow glossary, describing the ‘Rumoured Goats of Spire’(!?), hinting at the arcologies of ancient race known as the Prokatos to be found far beyond the walls of Spire, adding tables of antagonists, and listing suggested media. The contents of the latter is helpful to get the feel and tone of Spire: The City Must Fall beyond the rich description given earlier.

Physically, Spire: The City Must Fall is an attractive hardback, cleanly laid out and sturdily illustrated in an imposing style. The writing is also enjoyable, but not always clear where it needs to be. For example, it is not readily apparent that the mechanics are primarily player facing, that is, the players do the majority of rolling the dice with the Game Master only really rolling for Fallout and its effects. Which very much changes how the game is run by the Game Master. What is also missing is a starting point for the player characters and their revolution, is an easy hook to get a campaign begun. Now, arguably Spire: The City Must Fall is not designed to played or run by players or Game Masters new to roleplaying, but that starting point would nevertheless have been useful.

Spire: The City Must Fall inverts traditional fantasy, making the traditional enemy in fantasy—the Drow—into the victim. It makes the enlightened golden boys of fantasy—the High Elves—into the enemy. Yet, it does not make the Drow the heroes, freedom fighters with whom we can easily identify with. Rather, it pushes them towards ends justifying the means and into a moral grey area where they might actually be the terrorists that their Aelfir subjugators claim them to be. Spire: The City Must Fall is a superb dark fantasy roleplaying game where the overthrow of the state is ultimately attainable and good, but the consequences of the actions taken to get there are the point of playing.

Saturday 27 October 2018

Undeveloped Territory

Following a successful Kickstarter campaign, in 2017, Dark Cult Games published The Star on the Shore, an attempt to write a sandbox for Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition. The  resulting scenario was not without potential, but was ultimately undone by a lack of development and editing which got in the way of the Keeper actually running it. Now following a rebranding as New Comet Games, the publisher has returned with Devil’s Swamp – Encountering Ancient Terrors in the Hockomock, its second scenario for Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition.

Published following a successful Kickstarter campaign, Devil’s Swamp – Encountering Ancient Terrors in the Hockomock, is like The Star on the Shore before it, set in New England and so within the reach of Lovecraft Country. It centres on the Hockomock Swamp, Lake Nippenicket, and the bordering town of Bridgewater, all in south east Massachusetts in an area known as the Bridgewater Triangle. Thus Devil’s Swamp will encompass ghosts, strange lights, giant beasts, Bigfoot, ‘Puckwudgies’, and the legends of the Wompanoag tribe as well as elements of the Mythos. That is in addition to the dangers of the swamp itself—sinkholes, quicksand, snakes, leeches, mosquitoes, bears, lions, and more…

Devil’s Swamp – Encountering Ancient Terrors in the Hockomock consists of eight scenarios, which will present mystery after mystery that will again and again draw the investigators into Hockomock Swamp abutting the town of Bridegewater in south east Massachusetts. It opens with a set of encounters to be rolled for whenever the investigators are in the swamp and a description of various establishments in and around Bridgewater. Each of the thirteen locations detailed, from the Bridgewater Public Library and the Coroner’s Office to the Train Station and both of the town’s newspapers, is given a slightly odd box of text. It is difficult to determine whether these are sections of prose to be read out to the players or reminders for the Keeper’s benefit because their text wanders back and forth between information which would be obvious at first sight of the establishments and information which would only readily apparent should someone enter and interact with the owners or the staff. The description of the town is accompanied by a pair of maps, one for the players and their investigators, of the town, and similarly, there is also a similar pair of maps of Hockomock Swamp.

All but three of the eight scenarios in Devil’s Swamp are written by Ben Burns. The anthology opens with his first, ‘Lost’, in which a twelve-year old boy has gone missing in the swamp. Locating him will be hampered by some strange encounters in the swamp and recalcitrant parents, but help comes from a decidedly strange quarter. Accepting this help is really the only method to resolving the scenario, which involves an ophidian twist upon the changeling myth. It also sets up an NPC or two who could be of use to the investigators, though one of these will not reappear in the collection until much, much later. ‘Lost’ is a straightforward and linear affair which lacks a hook to get the investigators involved unless they happen to be in Bridgewater.

Similarly, Christopher Smith Adair’s ‘Deeper Than Skin’ has no hook unless the investigators happen to be in Bridgewater and good terms with the town’s lackadaisical police department, which would rather have them investigate the circumstances of a death than have its officers do it. The body is that of the town banker and clues point to his wife, recently sent to the Danvers State Hospital, and her circle of friends, and then to a local spa which they frequented. Although this ultimately involves fighting monsters, there is a lovely genteel feel to the scenario combined with some refreshing ideas.

More youngsters in peril are the subject in ‘Where the Spirits Dwell’ by Ben Burns, when the town is beset by a rash of suicides. This brings legends of the Wompanoag tribe to the fore and the investigators will probably need to enlist their help in stopping the menace. Again a straightforward enough scenario, it is followed by the more complex ‘Canned Articles’. Written by Brian Courtemanche, veteran players of Call of Cthulhu are likely to recognise the Mythos entity involved, the scenario being about another missing person, this time a professor of anthropology whose latest writings hint at mad discoveries… This is a reasonable scenario which feels a bit stodgy in places (its own encounter table feels redundant) and could have done with a better map. Unlike the other scenarios, this is likely to have long term consequences for the investigators.

A farm attacked by strange hounds again sends the investigators into the swamp in Ben Burns’ ‘Hockomock Hounds’. The clues from the farm leads back to strange goings on at the local college and of course, someone meddling with things best left alone. It is a reasonable scenario, though its ending has the potential to be confusing for the players and their investigators as well as annoying since one of them may be forced to make the ultimate sacrifice. ‘Terror in the Swamp’ is Ben Burns’ next scenario and despite feeling a bit like Stargate, is definitely the best in the anthology. Another beast is attacking farms on the edge of the swamp and whilst that it is where the threat emanates from, clues point to a case previously investigated by the Bridgewater Preservation Society. Pleasingly, there is little if any combat in the scenario and though short, presents the investigators with an interesting situation.

The penultimate scenario is Jonathan Bagelman’s ‘The Recluse’. A local newspaper posts a reward for a missing journalist who went to interview a reclusive scientist who resides in the swamp. There is little investigation involved in the scenario and again, it comes down to a monster fight in what feels like a cross between Frankenstein and Grapes of Wrath. The anthology closes with Ben Burns’ ‘A Cry for Help’. Another missing person, this time a Professor at MIT with links to Nikola Tesla, again leads the investigators into the swamp. Unfortunately, the scenario has choke point, narratively and literally, which may impede the investigators’ progress and so bring both scenario and the anthology to an unsatisfying conclusion. Once past this, the scenario again ends in a fight and is probably not as interesting as it could have been.

In coming to the final scenario, ‘A Cry for Help’, there is actually a callback to the very first scenario in the anthology, ‘Lost’. It is not developed though, but it is almost as if the eight scenarios in Devil’s Swamp could be run as a campaign. Unfortunately, whilst the suggestion that Devil’s Swamp can be run as a campaign is certainly a possibility, it is all but completely ignored by the authors. There is no advice to that end and whilst there are sort of hooks which can pull the investigators into exploring the strange incidents in and around Hockomock Swamp again and again, they are barely touched upon in the anthology. For example, the investigators could be students or staff at Haynes College, members of the Bridgewater Preservation Society which investigates the strangeness which seems to seep from the swamp, or they could just be residents of the town concerned at the lack of action by the local police. Any one of these would work, but it is very much left up to the Keeper to develop these because the authors have not. Further, the inclusion and discussion of any one of these would have countered the weakness of the introductions to the scenarios in this collection, which do not work if the investigators are not local to the town.

Were Devil’s Swamp to be run as a campaign, it would be as a loose collection of scenarios and encounters rather than an investigation into one singular overarching threat or antagonist—essentially monster or mystery of the week rather than going up against a ‘big bad’. Arguably, Hockomock Swamp is the ‘big bad’ here, one that of course, cannot be defeated, but that is more ‘man against nature’ than ‘man against the Cosmic Horror’. 

What is so disappointing about this is the fact that Kickstarter explicitly states that the investigators are members of the Bridgwater Preservation Society, looking into the mysteries and situations which local law enforcement refuses to and which seems to emanate from the Hockomock. The question is, why was this not included in the final book?

Physically, Devil’s Swamp – Encountering Ancient Terrors in the Hockomock is a handsome hardback. The layout is clean and tidy, though somewhat cramped in place. The artwork is a mix of the good and the merely okay, but a lot of it gets used again and again, so distracts from its impact. The maps of Hockomock Swamp and the town of Bridgewater are decent enough, but a regional map would have been useful too, especially since the investigators are likely to want to go further afield. Plus several lines of enquiry in the scenarios do take the investigators away from the Hockomock Swamp and the town of Bridgewater.

Unfortunately, the writing is all too often undone by the editing, leading to two problems. One is a lot of repeated text—for example, the information about various locations such as Carson’s Outfitters and the Public Library in Bridgewater, and Danvers State Hospital elsewhere—when the Keeper could refer to the descriptions given in the write-up of the town at the start of the book. The other is a case of the Keeper sometimes having to make the connection between clues and plot in the scenarios herself and facts being revealed to the Keeper at the last minute rather than at the start of the scenario. This is in addition to details being included in one scenario and not in another.

The previous scenario from the publisher, The Star on the Shore, was let down by combination of too much of a focus on making the book look good and a lack of development and editing. With its second Call of Cthulhu scenario, there are hints that New Comet Games has tried to address those issues, but unfortunately it has not been successful in that aim. In failing to achieve that aim, it has not really succeeded in creating a campaign built around a location—in this case Hockomock Swamp—either. Whilst the scenarios themselves are reasonable enough, they are not supported by either the underwritten description of the town or a campaign framework. In the hands of an experienced Keeper, there is no reason why this anthology would not work, but it would take some effort upon her part to build a campaign around them. Ultimately, Devil’s Swamp – Encountering Ancient Terrors in the Hockomock is better than The Star on the Shore, but it still needs more editing and more development time. It is a sincere wish that the third supplement for Call of Cthulhu from New Comet Games gets both.

Friday 26 October 2018

Friday Filler: Escape the Underdark

Although the ‘Choose Your Adventure’ style of gamebooks had been around by the time The Warlock of Firetop Mountain was published in 1982, the first Fighting Fantasy title was groundbreaking. It allowed gamers to play in their own time, complete with a solid set of rules so that it felt like a roleplaying adventure, and the success of the series meant the adventures were readily available in bookshops and high street shops rather than in just speciality shops. In comparison, the Endless Quest series, published by TSR, Inc. were no match, for whilst their stories took place in the worlds of the publisher’s various settings, they were all text, did not come with any mechanics, and so did not feel like a game. TSR, Inc. published two series of the books and its successor, Wizards of the Coast also published its own beginning in 2008. Now the publisher has returned to the series with a new quartet of titles, all tied with Dungeons & Dragons and all set in its default setting of Faerûn in the Forgotten Realms.

Written by Matt Forbeck—best known as the designer of the roleplaying game, Brave New World—each of the quartet focuses upon a core Class found in Dungeons & Dragons. So there is a title each involving a Cleric, a Fighter, a Rogue, and a Wizard. Each comes as a sturdy little hardback, illustrated in full colour with artwork drawn from the current version of Dungeons & Dragons, including lots and lots of monsters. Each book contains some sixty or so entries and is written for a young teenage audience, so they are suitable for those coming to Dungeons & Dragons for the first time. This does not mean that there is nothing of interest for veteran players of Dungeons & Dragons to be found in the pages of these solo adventures. Being set above, below, and across Faerûn, the protagonists of each book will have the opportunity to visit various locations familiar from both the novels set in the Forgotten Realms and the game supplements too.

In Escape the Underdark, the protagonist is a Fighter. Within a page of reading the first entry, you as the Fighter find yourself duped, drugged, and chained in the Underdark. Over the next sixty entries, you will make every attempt to escape to the surface. There are two main strands to the story, one towards the great Drow city of Menzoberranzan, the other away from it. Both have diverging strands, just as you would expect, and what this means is that once you have read through the entries down the one story path, you can literally turn back to the first entry and go down the other. Along the way, you get make friends—some quite unexpected, forge and break alliances, make and break promises, go boating, get into fights, and more. There are plenty of choices to be made, some of them leading very quickly to certain death or fates worse than that.

Within half an hour of cracking open the Escape the Underdark, the reader will probably have died a few times, but by going back and exploring the other lines of adventure, will probably have made their escape to the Surface too. Within an hour, a reader is likely to have explored all of the possible storylines and outcomes. Of course, it will take a little longer for a less experienced or practised reader.

One issue with Escape the Underdark—and thus the Endless Quest series—is the lack of replay value. Once read through, the lack of variability that a set of rules or mechanics, means that there is no longer the challenge to be found in the book and thus a strong issue to read it again. To be fair, mechanics or rules were never a feature of the Endless Quest series and so there is no expectation that they should be in this new series. Just that in comparison with other solo adventures, they are not as sophisticated and so are suited to a younger audience. 

Escape the Underdark really works as an introduction to adventuring in the world of Dungeons & Dragons as much as it does the Forgotten Realms. It is a good read with some exciting scenes and includes some nice story twists that an older gamer will enjoy too. For the older the gamer there is a sense of nostalgia to Escape the Underdark, but the teenage reader and gamer there is an adventure—or few—to be had here, as well as perhaps, inspiration for when they get to the gaming table and play Dungeons & Dragons for real.

Sunday 21 October 2018

Weirdness and Wonder

The Hydra Cooperative, LLC is best known for its artfully curated and themed trilogy of scenarios set in the Hill Cantons, a world of Slavic myth, Moorcockian extradimensional intrusions, and Vancian swindlers and petty bureaucrats. They are Fever-Dreaming Marlinko: A City Adventure Supplement for Labyrinth Lord, Slumbering Ursine Dunes, and Misty Isles of the Eld. Although set in the same world, each of a quite singular nature and very different to each other in tone and feel. The latest release from The Hydra Cooperative, LLC is yet again, another scenario of a singular nature. Published following a successful Kickstarter campaign, Operation Unfathomable is an adventure unlike any other, in an underworld unlike any other, and unlike any other adventure, it is one-part sandbox, one-part high Level scenario for First Level characters.

Developed from a convention scenario published in Knockspell #5 and designed for use with Swords & Wizardry rather than the usual Labyrinth Lord of other Hydra Cooperative, LLC titles, the set-up for Operation Unfathomable is quite simple. The player characters are at Fort Enterprise in Stonespear Province, the northernmost outpost of the Murian Empire where they are conscripted by the local government for a mission of the utmost importance. Recently, the gallant Prince Eyraen, brave warrior son of Syantides, Sorcerer-King of Mur, led a band of men through a nearby entrance to the Underworld and descended into its depths to find and take revenge upon a minor chaos godling known as Shaggath-Ka. He has not returned and is presumed lost. Soldiers under the command of Fort Enterprise’s captain went after the prince, but they too failed to return and are presumed lost. Now it is the turn of the adventurers, for it is hoped that a smaller party, one better suited to stealth (or even diplomacy!), might succeed where the troops failed. Not necessarily to find the probably fallen prince, but to return a great magical artefact that he stole from his father’s treasury before he left for the north.

So that is that, then. On a mission they cannot refuse and equipped with the odd magical item or two, and forewarned by a map of the prince’s progress recovered from the depth, the player characters have to descend—quite literally down a thousand foot ladder—into the Underworld and go chasing after a McGuffin. And to be fair, as far as the plot is concerned, that really is all there is to Operation Unfathomable. Yet there is a whole lot more to the scenario than this all too simple plot and it all comes down to one simple idea: the journey is better than the destination.

This journey is built around two, rich, meaty strands. The most obvious of the two consists of the Underworld’s encounter areas. There are barely more than twenty of these, such as a ‘Beetletown Welcome Centre and Dwellings’, long abandoned outpost of the extinct Beetle Empire with its wheezing beetle statue and strange hamster ghosts; ‘Science Fungoid Experimental’, manned by the joyfully happy Science Fungoids; and ‘Local Franchise Temple of Nul’, regional church of the Cult of the Mindless God, whose priests transform its most willing worshippers into loyal, headless antenna-necked soldiers. Each one of these locations is detailed and interesting, but where Operation Unfathomable really comes alive is with the other strand—the ‘Encounters & Other Random Weirdness’ on the ‘Master Event Table’. From this one table, a total of some forty-four entries are further divided into three sub-categories/tables, ‘Underworld Phenomena’, ‘Competing Parties & Underworld Travellers’, and ‘Wandering Horrors’. So for example, a party of adventurers might have to run lest they be engulfed in ‘Mutagenic Cloud’ and have their lips gain tentacles, they grow a Moustache of Chaos, or their blood becomes flammable; get to trade with a Slugman on a business trip, or engage in a metaphysical debate with a Woolly Neanderthal on a spirit quest; and take pity on Flaming Hounds or be boggled by the rope tricks of the Cave Swallows. The Game Master is expected to throw these encounters at her players and their characters with some regularity in order to drive the story of their Underworld excursion onwards.

Intrinsic to the setting is the fight between Law and Chaos, this being more apparent in the Underworld as it is closer to the seething mass of mindless Chaos to be found at the centre of the planet. One of the new Classes, the Underworld Ranger, is tightly involved with the ongoing conflict between the two. Similarly, the need for player and player character maturity is also intrinsic to the scenario. The set-up for Operation Unfathomable is that the low level party is following in the wake of a high level party, and although the latter is still missing, presumed lost, it has cleared many of the more dangerous threats along the route marked on the players’ map. This does not mean that the player characters can wander along in the wake of the previous party’s progress, heedless of all possible danger. They will face both high-level and low-level threats, the author making no effort to create a dungeon full of balanced encounters. This gives the limited section of the Underworld described in Operation Unfathomable a naturalistic feel and consequently, the adventurers will need to know what fights to pick and what fights to avoid. This is offset though, by the number of encounters in which the monsters and persons encountered will want to engage in and encourage conversation with them. Not all of them to the player characters’ advantage, of course, but whatever their intentions, this is supported by some great NPCs for the Game Master to portray.

Rounding out Operation Unfathomable is a set of seven appendices. In turn, these describe the Chaos at the heart of the world and short histories of both the Underworld and the Beetle Empire; give a description of the Cult of the Mindless God, a quartet of hirelings, and the means to bring new player characters into play; a whole new Class in the form of the Underworld Ranger, descriptions of monsters, treasures, and spells; and a set of ten pre-generated adventurers (or alternatively, a rival adventuring party). The Underworld Ranger is a member of an organisation dedicated to fighting Chaos in the Underworld who equips him with light-intensifying goggles, an anti-Chaos shortsword, and eventually a Zaracanth Industries ZR-1 ‘Dissuader’ sidearm which shoots a ball of electricity and which must be wound up between shots! The monsters range from the Two-Headed Ape Mummy and the Firebomb Beetle to the Worm Soldier and Worm Surgeon, and include the Blind Antler Man, Chaos Flies, and Bat-Winged Dwarves. Items like the Zaracanth Industries ZR-1 ‘Dissuader’ sidearm and the Science Fungoid’s Death-Ray Revolver have a Science Fantasy feel to them, but most of the Underworld’s treasures simply have a weird feel to them, like the Potion of Advantageous Decapitation which grants the imbiber’s head the ability to separate and float of on its own or the Fizzy Drink of Ocular Autonomy which lets the imbiber’s eyeballs to float off for a while… For the most part, the spells have a fairly workmanlike aspect suited to casting in the Underworld.

Now it should be pointed out that some of the content from the appendices is included in a separate book, the Operation Unfathomable Player’s Guide. This gives the Underworld Ranger Class and its associated equipment as well as the various spells from Operation Unfathomable. It also includes some background for Operation Unfathomable along with the party map and some facts and tips, which are of course, thoroughly useful. It opens with an entertaining cartoon strip which depicts just a little of the oddness to the be found in the Underworld, but its primary new content consists of three new Classes not to be found in the pages of Operation Unfathomable. These Classes are the Underworld Otter, a Fighter or Thief with limited weapon use, oily fur which protects them against oozes, jellies, and the like, and an embarrassing sense of frivolity; the Woolly Neandertal, hairy Fighters with great Strength, but limited vocabulary; and the Citizen Lich, a Wizard who attempted to transform himself in a full Lich, but failed and instead became a minor Lich who is still undead and so is hard to kill, but can be Turned by a Cleric. Raise himself to high enough a Level once again and a Citizen Lich can eventually become a full Lich.

It seems odd not to have three of the Classes from the Operation Unfathomable Player’s Guide in Operation Unfathomable. Nevertheless, these four Classes all suit the setting, the Underworld Ranger Class adding a Science Fantasy element, the Underworld Otter and the Woolly Neandertal adding a primal element, and the Citizen Lich adding a baroque, civilised feel.

Outside of the map of the route taken by the Prince and his entourage, Operation Unfathomable is relatively limited sandbox. There are few places that a wandering party of player characters might actually go, but they are included on the Game Master’s map, even if descriptions of them are not. This is the problem if the adventurers go off piste as it leaves the Game Master to develop these locations on her own. There is certainly the feel that more needs to be written about this region of the Underworld, though the next supplement in the series will be Odious Uplands, which details the region above the Underworld.

Physically, Operation Unfathomable is a striking volume. The writing is engaging—particularly the colourful commentary from Bardolph the Beer Hound, Underworld Ranger, which runs throughout the book, but also each the many encounters and the various locations. The map of the Underworld is both fantastic and fussy, perhaps a bit too fiddley to handle easily at the table. What strikes the reader first about Operation Unfathomble though, is its artwork, somewhat cartoonish, but heavy and imposing, capturing the grandeur of this section of the Underworld.

Operation Unfathomable does a superb job of describing a fantastical environment of the world below as various factions attempt to take control of the area. At times it feels baroque, at times simply natural, but never, ever far from the weird, whether that is in the descriptions of the locations or of the many encounters. And although the scenario’s tone threatens to tip into out and out silliness, it never quite does. The scenario’s plot feels fresh and clever, which when combined with an underground environment detailed as never before, serves to give Operation Unfathomable a singular feel. Imagine Quentin Tarantino got together with Ralph Bakshi to make a Saturday morning cartoon in which the dirty half dozen were sent down a dungeon on a McGuffin hunt and the network refused to broadcast it because it was too weird, and that captures the feel of Operation Unfathomable.

Saturday 20 October 2018

Courting the Other Arthurian Roleplaying Game

Originally published in 1989, Prince Valiant: The Storytelling Game is the late Greg Stafford’s second approach to Arthurian, chivalric roleplaying and his love letter to Hal Foster and Prince Valiant in the Days of King Arthur. At the time, it was as simple as it was groundbreaking and even three decades on, its combination of simple rules, excellent storytelling advice, and shared narrative mechanics serve to make it look like a very contemporary game design and a perfect introduction to Arthurian roleplaying, Prince Valiant in the Days of King Arthur, and storytelling roleplaying. Unfortunately, Prince Valiant: The Storytelling Game never received any more support beyond the core rules, but with the republication of the roleplaying book following a successful Kickstarter campaign, the publisher, Nocturnal Media also released the Prince Valiant Episode Book.

The Prince Valiant Episode Book consists of some thirty-four episodes—or short scenarios—contributed by a who’s who of the gaming hobby. They include Shannon Appelcline, Emily Care Boss, Ed Greenwood, Jeff Grubb, Will Hindmarch, Ken Hite, Chris Klug, Robin D. Laws, John Nephew, Chris Pramas, Mark Rein•Hagen, Monica Valentinelli, John Wick, amongst others. Each episode is typically two or three pages in length and each follows roughly the same format. This includes the episode type—such as Assistance, Attack, Mystical, or Nuisance; the Situation, the Name of the primary NPC and who they are accompanied by; their Long and Short Term Goal; their Planned Activity and Personality; the scenes for the episode; and lastly the stats for Characters involved in the episode. The format is easy to follow and makes each of the episodes easy to prepare and run. In general, it is assumed that the player characters are all knights at the court of King Arthur, but some episodes do demand that at least one player character be a knight.

The thirty-four episodes include bandits, Saxons and treachery, bandits, jealousy and deceit, bandits, a Kraken—or three, bandits, wreckers, the fae, bandits, pride and poverty, bandits, scoundrels, and of course, bandits. Despite their involving an awful lot of bandits, there is not a bad episode amongst their number. Some good ones include ‘ First Flower of Spring’ by BJ Hensley, in which the knights get to hunt for the first flower of spring for King Arthur so that he might present it to his wife, Guinevere. This provides an opportunity for the player characters to interact with the other knights of King Arthur’s court as well as undertake some travelling across the land. In Epidiah Ravachol’s ‘A Wedding in Green’, the travelling adventurers get dragged into a wedding along with a reluctant abbot, but with an enthusiastic would be bride and groom, whilst in Sage La Torra’s ‘No Traveler Returns’, the player characters have decide what exactly the motives of a group of raiders are—are they really trying to give themselves up? In the main, the episodes involve a mixture of combat and action and intrigue, so if there is anything lacking it is courtly doings. The one exception to that is ‘Marriage, but Only for the Right Reason’ by Robert Schroeder in which romance is matter of debate and determination.

Physically, the Prince Valiant Episode Book is as handsome a hardback as the Prince Valiant: The Storytelling Game. Again, it uses lots of Hal Foster’s terrific illustrations—typically one per Episode—on white, glossy paper which showcases his artistry and use of colour. Each episode is neatly organised and easy to read and use and some do come with suggestions as to Experience Point awards, but others do not.

Unfortunately, the Prince Valiant Episode Book is not very well organised—in fact, it is not organised at all. The problem here is that it is presented episode after episode, neatly and tidily, but that is all. There is no index, and no table enabling prospective Storytellers to select an episode by type, location, and so on. This makes the episodes difficult to find and difficult to determine their suitability for the Storyteller’s campaign and use as episodes for players to run should they want to take a turn being the Storyteller and so earn themselves the Storyteller Certificates that give their characters an advantage in the game.

Barring the unhelpful organisation, the Prince Valiant Episode Book is both lovely and helpful—and not just for the Prince Valiant: The Storytelling Game. Of course, the various storylines in the Prince Valiant Episode Book will run fairly easily with Pendragon – Chivalric Roleplaying in Arthur’s Britain and with further adjustment, with Age of Arthur. With even more of an adjustment, though not necessarily a great adjustment, the contents of this supplement would also work well in Legend of the Five Rings. After all, duty and hour are integral to the settings of both roleplaying games. For the Storyteller who wants to something to run for her Prince Valiant: The Storytelling Game, whether it be inspiration for a plot or a full episode, the Prince Valiant Episode Book is not just lovely and helpful, but definitely useful too. Of course, the fact that it gives a array of industry luminaries the space to visit of the world of Hal Foster and Greg Stafford’s grounding breaking roleplaying game is both a bonus and a feature—a highly fitting feature.

Friday 19 October 2018

The Art of Symbaroum

Artwork and illustrations alone cannot sell a roleplaying game, but whether great art or signature art, it can help sell a roleplaying game. From Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay and SkyRealms of Jorune to Legend of the Five Rings and Mouseguard as well as supplements such as The Book of Unremitting Horror and Green and Pleasant Land, the artwork in these roleplaying games supplements do more than illustrate places, people, monsters, and things. They capture the feel and tone of their respective settings, they impart a sense of wonder or of horror, and they entice the reader—or viewer—into wanting to explore their respective settings as described in the accompanying text. One recent roleplaying to be lauded for its consistently evocative artwork is Symbaroum. Originally published by Järnringen, but now published by Free League, and distributed by Modiphius Entertainment, this Swedish roleplaying game takes place on the edge of civilisation and beyond. The civilisation is the young kingdom of Ambria, barely two decades old, it was founded on the ruins of the ancient and long-lost empire of Symbaroum as the refuge for the survivors fleeing north over the mountains from the Kingdom of Alberetor as it fell to an onslaught from the necromantic Dark Lords. The edge is where the barbarian tribes and goblins make their lives, the beyond is the Davokar Forest, an endless tract of thick woodlands into which treasure hunters venture, hoping to learn its secrets, locate long lost ruins of Symbaroum, and perhaps return with treasures of the past that will make them rich.

From the core rulebook and The Copper Crown to the more recent Thistle Hold – Wrath Of The Warden and Karvosti – The Witch Hammer, the Symbaroum line has been greatly praised for its artwork. Whether it is illustrating the majesty and mystery of the forest under the eaves, the dark and desperate nature of life in Thistle Hold—Ambria’s primary frontier town, the magnificence of the Titans, the mountain range which divides Ambria from Alberetor, the great elemental beasts and the Elves of the season that step out of Davokar to attack and menace Thistle Hold, and the characters—the various types that the players will roleplay in the game, what comes across in Symbaroum is its dark and brooding atmosphere, its fear of the unknown, and the fraught nature of life on the frontier. Fully painted by artist Martin Grip, now much of that artwork has been collected in The Art of Symbaroum.

The Art of Symbaroum comes as a handsome cloth-bound square hardback, just eight-and-a-half inches square, its content printed on glossy paper against a rich black background. It contains just four chapters—the numbers subtly matching the runes on the front cover—‘Symbaroum’, ‘Ambria & Davokar’, ‘Creatures’, and ‘Covers’, across which are presented some seventy or so paintings. Images in ‘Symbaroum’ hint at the grandeur and scope of the ruins of the fallen civilisation and the strange threats that linger, such as the noble spiders and their master, the ruthless warlord known as the Spider King. ‘Ambria & Davokar’ takes the reader from the civilisation of as yet unexamined Ambria, via the rude settlement of Thistle Hold with its infamous arena—as detailed in Thistle Hold – Wrath Of The Warden—out under the fecund eaves of the forest. It includes images of the Titans, the mighty mountains that provided an escape route out of fallen Kingdom of Alberetor, as well as those of the stronghold of the High Chieftain—inside and out—which counter any suggestion that the barbarians are uncultured. ‘Creatures’ includes not beasts and monsters, but also persons. Rounding out the seemingly slim volume—at over hundred pages, it is not actually all that slim—is ‘Covers’, which presents the covers used to grace the front of various sourcebooks and supplements for Symbaroum. Of course, they are what attracted us to the game in the first place and so it is good to see them here, free of titles and logos.

Many, but not all of the paintings are accompanied by short pieces of text. These include snatches of poetry and portents as well as anecdotes from treasure hunters and adventurers who have ventured into Davokar and elsewhere. These add a little flavour and complement the artwork without getting in the way of it.

Other artbooks for roleplaying games might have gone large, but the small square format for The Art of Symbaroum actually works in its favour. It works as both an illustrative primer for the setting and as a handy reference at the table when the Game Master wants to show her players what their characters are seeing in game. Here its small size means that it takes up little room at the table or when being handed round. So there is a practicality to the tiny tome. It should not necessarily be consulted freely, for as the blurb on the back cover states, “When journeying through the pages of this book, remember the warnings spoken by the wardens of Davokar: tread carefully and do not disturb the ruins of old, for the darkness of Symbaroum is about to awaken.”

Above all though, The Art of Symbaroum is a lovely art book, full of evocative, brooding, beautiful artwork. The paintings of Martin Grip do not just showcase the setting of Symbaroum, they are a part of Symbaroum, and it is a delight that the publishers should recognise this by releasing The Art of Symbaroum.

Monday 15 October 2018

Too Early to Judge

The Judge Dredd & The Worlds of 2000 AD Quick-Start is an introduction to the Judge Dredd & The Worlds of 2000 AD Roleplaying Game currently being funded on Kickstarter. Published by EN Publishing, it includes a simple explanation of the mechanics, four pre-generated Judge player characters, and a complete scenario which can be played through in a session or two. The setting for this quick-start and the Judge Dredd & The Worlds of 2000 AD Roleplaying Game is the future depicted in the stories starring Judge Dredd in the long running British weekly comic, 2000 AD. This is a post-apocalyptic dystopian future in which the populations of the world are crammed into mega-cities where unemployment and crime are rife, such that the home city of Judge Dredd,  Mega-City One, is governed by the Justice Department and its lawmen, the Judges, are charged with the conviction, sentencing, and possible execution of criminals. In Judge Dredd & The Worlds of 2000 AD Quick-Start, the players will roleplay Judges—the Judge Dredd & The Worlds of 2000 AD Roleplaying Game provides rules for playing Judges, Perps (criminals), or citizens as well as for playing in the other settings explored in 2000 AD.

A character in the Judge Dredd & The Worlds of 2000 AD Roleplaying Game is defined by ten attributes: Strength, Agility, Endurance, Intuition, Logic, Willpower, Charisma, Luck, Reputation, and Psionics. Each has a basic attribute score and a derived value which indicates how many dice are rolled when a character wants to take an action. In the Judge Dredd & The Worlds of 2000 AD Quick-Start the basic attribute score is not used and in the four pre-generated Judges provided, the derived values are typically two or three. In addition, skills such as dodging, law, medicine, perception, and so on, provide a character with further dice, usually one or two for the given pre-generated Judges.

In addition, Judges—and other characters—also have Exploits, the equivalent of advantages. For example, ‘Voice of the Law’ enables a character to make an attack against the Mental Defence of those within hearing distance and if successful, give them one command, whilst ‘Achilles Heel’ allows a character to analyse target and ignore its Soak value, but only once per target. This bonus can also be granted to an ally. The four pre-generated Judges each have two or three such Exploits. Oddly, none of these Exploits are listed on the pre-generated Judges’ character sheets, so the players or Game Master will need to note them down on the back of each sheet.

The mechanic in the Judge Dredd & The Worlds of 2000 AD Roleplaying Game uses a dice pool assembled from six-sided dice, the number a combination of a character’s derived attribute value, skill value, and equipment. Essentially, a player rolls the dice pool and attempts to beat a target number, including Routine (ten), Challenging (fifteen), and Difficult (twenty). Characters also have Defences—Melee, Mental, Ranged, and Vital—which act as target numbers when they are attacked. Judges have a uniform and helmet which provides a Soak value against any damage they might suffer.

The four pre-generated Judges include a Psi-Judge, a Med Judge, a Street Judge, and a Tek Judge. Each character sheet also lists all of the equipment a Judge will need when on foot—Lawgiver (pistol) and its various types of ammunition, Daystick, Bootknife, Judge Uniform and helmet, Handcuffs, and Birdie Lie Detector. Also on the character sheets are minor nods to the characters’ personalities and history.

The scenario is called ‘State of the Empire’. In what is a pleasing touch, it takes mere days after the events of the very first Judge Dredd story which appeared in the second issue of 2000 AD. In that, a Perp known as ‘Whitey’, hiding out in the derelict Empire State Building, kills Judge Alvin and in response, Judge Dredd volunteers to go in and apprehend him. In ‘State of the Empire’, the player characters, all rookie Judges are tasked with clearing the lower four floors of Perps, gangs, and vagrants. It is possible to obtain some further information, but very quickly the Judges are sent out to conduct their assignment. Overall, this set-up is a nice nod to the history of the Judge Dredd comic strip.

Unfortunately, ‘State of the Empire’ is at best adequate, at worst, uninspiring. The problem is threefold. First, every other scenario written for the previous versions of a Judge Dredd roleplaying game has taken its cue from the comic book and included a streak of dark satirical comedy to its storyline, accompanied by puns and wordplay. There is none of that present in ‘State of the Empire’, meaning that it is quite literally, witless. Second, given that the characters are law enforcement officers and there are crimes being committed, there is no investigation involved in the scenario—it is essentially a raid and a series of fights. Such that the player character Judges could be replaced by a Cleric, Fighter, a Thief, and a Wizard, and the criminals by Orcs and you would be hard pressed to tell the difference. Third, and worst of all, ‘State of the Empire’ does not provide for the player character Judges to do what they are meant to be doing and that is, ‘judge’. There are no guidelines in the quick-start for sentencing criminals, which really misses the point of what a Judge in the setting of Judge Dredd and Mega-City One does. The scenario focuses all too much on the execution duty of the Judges when it should have given equal focus to the conviction, sentencing, and execution of criminals.

The doubly sad news is that ‘State of the Empire’ is the adventure from Judge Dredd & The Worlds of 2000 AD Roleplaying Game core rulebook. Doubly sad because gaming groups are likely to have played it by the time the core rulebook is released and because it is not a good adventure. A not unreasonable ‘dungeon bash’, but as a scenario for a roleplaying game based on the Judge Dredd comic strip, it fails to get across any of the flavour, feel, or tone of what a Judge Dredd story is.

Now ‘State of the Empire’ is not without merit. Besides the primary set-up of Judges going into clean up a building after Judge Dredd himself has been in there, two other options are given. One is to play as citizens going into the ruins of the Empire State Building in search of a missing boy, the other is as Perps—criminals—going in after some loot. Hooks are provided to that end, but not pre-generated player characters. A group will have to wait for the Judge Dredd & The Worlds of 2000 AD Roleplaying Game core rulebook to be able to play either, which is a pity, because as a scenario for either, ‘State of the Empire’ works as a combat-focussed session’s worth of play.

Physically, Judge Dredd & The Worlds of 2000 AD Quick-Start is a twenty-nine-page, 12 MB, full colour PDF. Its layout is tidy, it uses some illustrations from 2000 AD, and the maps clear enough. It does need another edit in places though.

As a quick-start, Judge Dredd & The Worlds of 2000 AD Quick-Start comes with everything a gaming group needs to try the roleplaying game out. It does need more preparation than it should, that is, it the player character sheets need some extra information they lack, and the scenario at best, works as a showcase for the mechanics, if not the setting. In fact, it would be better if the Game Master was to go and track down any one of the scenarios published for any other Judge Dredd-based roleplaying game, adapt it to the rules for the Judge Dredd & The Worlds of 2000 AD Roleplaying Game, and run that rather than ‘State of the Empire’. Ultimately, the best thing about the Judge Dredd & The Worlds of 2000 AD Quick-Start is that it is free. It is just a pity that ‘State of the Empire’ is not because you will have pay for it when purchasing Judge Dredd & The Worlds of 2000 AD Roleplaying Game core rulebook.

Sunday 14 October 2018

Conan III

Given their influence over the hobby with the publication of Dungeons & Dragons in 1974, it is no surprise that over the last thirty-five years, there have been some five roleplaying games—or supplements and scenarios—based upon the stories of Robert E. Howard. From CB1 Conan Unchained! published by TSR. Inc. in 1984 for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, First Edition to the latest from Modiphius Entertainment, Robert E. Howard’s Conan: Adventures in an Age Undreamed Of, published in 2017, many are held in high regard, others less so. What they share in common is that they draw upon the life of Conan the Barbarian, the eponymous larger than life character whose adventures would take him across the ancient lands of the Hyborian Age would take him from uncivilised warrior to king. Except in CB1 Conan Unchained! and its sequels, CB2 Conan Against Darkness! and RS1 Red Sonja Unconquered, players do not take the roles of Conan and his companions, but create archers, barbarians, knights, mercenaries, nobles, nomads, priests, pirates, scholars, scoundrels, shamans, witches, and more, who will explore the lands of Hyborea in the long years following the fall of Atlantis. They will fight mighty battles, delve into dark ruins, put a sword to dire sorcery, and more.

Now where previous roleplaying works based upon the Conan stories have drawn from the wider canon, Robert E. Howard’s Conan: Adventures in an Age Undreamed Of draws specifically upon the works of Robert E. Howard only. Published following a successful Kickstarter campaign, the roleplaying game uses the 2d20 System, first seen in Mutant Chronicles: Techno Fantasy Roleplaying Game. This is a relatively straightforward set of mechanics which here allow for ‘larger-than-life’ characters and heroic action with an emphasis on that action. Its genre is soundly ‘swords & Sorcery’, but with an emphasis on the swords versus the sorcery. This is because sorcery in the Hyborian Age ultimately involves pacts with dark and evil gods and demons and its practitioners being cursed. In Robert E. Howard’s Conan: Adventures in an Age Undreamed Of it is possible to play a sorcerer, but it takes a great deal of effort and great promises made to often malign intelligences upon the part of the wouldbe sorcerer in his search of power and knowledge.

A character in Robert E. Howard’s Conan: Adventures in an Age Undreamed Of is defined by seven attributes—Agility, Awareness, Brawn, Coordination, Intelligence, Mental Strength, Personality, and Willpower. They typically range between six and twelve with higher values being better, but it is possible to have an attribute as high as fourteen. This indicates that a character is a member of an Ancient Bloodline and thus descended from the sunken isles of Atlantis or ruined empires of Acheron. It also marks him out as a potential exemplar—of excellence or depravity. He will also have any number of skills, each defined by two factors, Expertise and Focus. Expertise represents general training, whilst Focus is the disciplined practice necessary to get the most out of a skill. At the end of character generation, skills can have a maximum Expertise and Focus of five each. In addition, every skill has a set of associated Talents, each set arranged in a mini-talent tree. There also are several Talent Trees which are not attached to particular skills. For example, the first Talent in the Melee Talent tree is ‘No Mercy’, which allows a player to reroll damage dice equal to the number of Melee Talents his character has. After ‘No Mercy’, the Melee Talents branch into three options—‘Deft Blade’, ‘Grappler’, and ‘Blood on Steel’—each of which has a Talent after that which a character can eventually have. In some cases, Talents have ranks can be selected multiple times.

To create a character in Robert E. Howard’s Conan: Adventures in an Age Undreamed Of, a player takes his character through a lifepath of ten steps, at each step either rolling randomly for or choosing attributes, skills, and Talents. The ten steps are Homeland, Attributes, Caste, Story, Archetype, Nature, Education, War Story, Finishing Touches, and Final Calculations. From his Homeland, a character gets his first language and talent from the choice of thirty available, whilst his Attributes are set at a base of seven, which can then be adjusted according to rolls which determine those which are mandatory or optional. From these a player pick his character’s best or worst attributes. Caste, from Crafter and Escaped serf/Slave to Priest and Warrior, determines a character’s social background, whilst Story—there are six of these for each Caste—starts building a character’s history. Archetype—Archer, Barbarian, Mercenary, Noble Warrior, Nomad, Pirate, Priest/Priestess, Scholar, Scoundrel, and Witch/Shaman—is the nearest that Robert E. Howard’s Conan: Adventures in an Age Undreamed Of gets to the concept of Class a la Dungeons & Dragons, but really are just character types. Nature indicates a character’s personality, Education continues a character’s history, as does the War Story. Finishing Touches enables a player to make some small adjustments, whilst Final Calculations determine various derived values. Throughout, each stage provides various bonuses—Attribute, Expertise, and Focus adjustments as well as Talents—with a player being free to roll for a random result at each stage, choose freely, or mix the two. Of course, most of the stages give a player options to choose from, so the process is not entirely random.

The process is of a moderate complexity, but it allows players to create characters which fit particular archetypes or are a mix of skills and talents, that are skilled and capable, and can take action. Advice and suggestions are included though on how to create player characters not quite so over the top and how to bring a diverse group of characters together. This is further supported in the Game Master’s section which examines keeping the player characters together as various group types, like troops or pirates.

Our sample character is Sigrid Sharp-Eyed, a Nordheimer whose family was outcast for reasons her parents never told her and whose childhood was one near brush with death after another. Conscripted into one army and mercenary company after another, Sigrid survived battle after battle because she had any skill, but because she had an unnatural awareness of where the safest place on the battlefield might be. After one last bloody one-sided battle, she fled south and has found where she can—thief, thug, guard, and lookout. She has a reputation for being eagle-eyed and a known hatred of authority and military leaders.

Name: Sigrid Sharp-Eyed
Homeland: Nordheim (Vanaheim)
Languages: Nordheimer, Cimmerian
Class: Outcast Social Standing: 0
Story: One of the Rabble (Betrayed)
Archetype: Barbarian
Nature: Practical
Education: Family Footsteps
War Story: Survived a Massacre
Fortune Points: 2

Attribute Aspects
Acute and Aware, Warrior-Born

Attributes
Agility 9 Awareness 13 Brawn 10 Coordination 10
Intelligence 7 Personality 8 Willpower 6

Vigor 11 Resolve 8 
Melee Damage Bonus 2
Ranged Damage Bonus 3
Mental Damage Bonus 0

Talents
Winter-born, Ancient Bloodline, Embittered, Survivor, No Mercy, Thief, Sharp Senses

Skills
Acrobatics (Expertise 2, Focus 2), Animal Handling (Expertise 3, Focus 3), Athletics (Expertise 1, Focus 1), Craft (Expertise 1, Focus 1), Discipline (Expertise 2, Focus 2), Healing (Expertise 1, Focus 1), Melee (Expertise 3, Focus 3), Observation (Expertise 2, Focus 2), Resistance (Expertise 1, Focus 1), Stealth (Expertise 2, Focus 2), Survival (Expertise 3, Focus 3), Thievery (Expertise 2, Focus 2)

Equipment
Furs & Pelts, Ragged Furs (Heavy), Spear decorated with polished stones, Axe, Family Heirloom, 8 Gold, Ring of Semi-Precious Stone

Robert E. Howard’s Conan: Adventures in an Age Undreamed Of uses the 2d20 System, also used in several of Modiphius Entertainment’s other self-developed roleplaying games, such as Star Trek Adventures and Mutant Chronicles, plus the forthcoming John Carter of Mars and Dune. Simply each time a character wants to take an action, his player rolls two twenty-sided dice, aiming to roll low. This roll is made against an Attribute or against an Attribute plus the Expertise value of a skill. Each roll under this value generates a success. Further successes can be generated if the roll is also under the Focus value of a skill. The number of successes are measured against the Difficulty Rating of the task, one being average. Any successes generated above the Difficulty Rating are counted as Momentum and these can be spent for various effects. These include ‘Create Opportunity’, to provide a bonus die for a subsequent skill test; ‘Create Obstacle’ to increase the difficulty of an opponent’s skill test; ‘Obtain Information’ at a rate of one question per point of Momentum; ‘Improve Quality of Success’ and so more more stylishly; ‘Increase Scope of Success’ to increase the number of targets or area of effect the action affects; and ‘Reduce Time Required’. In combat, Momentum can be spent to gain another action, gain bonus damage, make a called shot, recover from damage, and so on from quite a list of possible actions.

When rolled, Momentum need not be spent, but can be saved into a communal pot that any player can dip into. The pot size is limited though, and goes down by one at the end of each scene. So there is an incentive to spend it or lose it. In addition, each character has several Fortune Points. These can be spent to gain automatic successes, additional actions, to overcome Stress or Weakness, or to influence the story. Fortune Points are refreshed at the start of each session, but can be regained for good play, clever plans, teamwork, overcoming challenges, and so on.
For example, Sigrid Sharp-Eyed has eventually drifted south where her reputation has found her work in Zamora the Accursed, the city of thieves. She is employed as a guard on the night watch at the fortified villa of Tolmos Gem-Fingered. Of course, she is casing the joint in readiness for a heist of her own, but in the meantime another thief has broken into Tolmos’ vault and is making his escape attempt past near where Sigrid is patrolling. The Game Master asks Sigrid’s player to make a Difficulty 2 Observation test, the difficulty of the task reflecting the skill of the thief. Sigrid has an Awareness of 13 and an Observation of Expertise 2, Focus 2. This means that her player only needs to roll under 15 to gain a Success. Her player rolls a 4 and a 16, giving Sigrid only one Success. Fortunately, Sigrid has the ‘sharp Senses’ Talent, which allows her player to re-roll a die on an Observation test. Her re-rolls the 16 and rolls a 2. This is under Sigrid’s Focus for Observation and so gains her two Successes, for a total of three. Having succeeded at the test, the Gamemaster tells Sigrid’s player that she sees someone slip out of Tolmos’ villa and across an adjacent roof. For the moment, Sigrid’s player decides to keep the Momentum and puts it into the communal pot.
Now where the players have Momentum to spend, the Game Master has Doom. She begins each session with her own pot of them, but can gain them through player character actions. These include a player purchasing extra dice to roll on a test, rolling a natural twenty and so adding two Doom (instead of the usual Complication), attempting a Reaction in combat, and voluntarily failing and gaining a Fortune Point in return. ‘Threatening Circumstances’ of the situation and any unspent Momentum rolled by an NPC. In return, the Gamemaster can spend it on minor inconveniences, complications, and serious complications to inflict upon the player characters, as well as triggering NPC special abilities, having NPCs seize the initiative, and bringing the environment dramatically into play. 

What the Doom and Momentum mechanics do is set up a pair of parallel economies with Doom being fed in part by Momentum, but Momentum in the main being used to overcome the complications and circumstances which the expenditure of Doom can bring into play. The primary use of Doom though, is to ratchet up the tension and the challenge, whereas the primary use of Momentum is to enable the player characters to overcome this challenge and in action, be larger than life.

In addition to the standard twenty-sided dice, Robert E. Howard’s Conan: Adventures in an Age Undreamed Of uses Combat dice. These are six-sided dice where only the rolls of one, two, five or six count. In general, they are used as effect dice, for example, in the included scenario, ‘Vultures of Shem’, for every Success rolled for an Observation test when looking for loot on the battlefield, a player gets to roll a Combat die. Primarily though, they are used to roll damage in combat, which can be physical, mental, or social, with characters suffering damage to their Vigour or their Resolve. Here rolls of one and two represent extra damage and rolls of five and six—marked with an eagle—trigger special Effects. So for example, a Farming Flail has four Combat dice for damage and the Qualities, Improvised, Knockdown, and Piercing 1. Improvised means that it does no damage when Effects—or fives and sixes—are rolled, the Effects still count; Knockdown means that a opponent is knocked down if Effects are rolled; and Piercing 1 means that any damage ignore s an opponent’s Soak.
Continuing the example above, Sigrid has spotted a dark swathed figure leaving her employer’s villa and making off across the roofs of Zamora the Accursed, the city of thieves. She assumes that the figure is a thief and gives chase, managing to catch up within a moment or two, her aim being to capture the miscreant. As a player character, Sigrid has the Initiative—the Game Master could spend a point of Doom to seize the Initiative, but decides not to—and her player declares that her attack will be to subdue as Sigrid wants to capture the thief. This will cost one Momentum from the group pot. Sigrid’s player declares that he wants her to succeed and in return for adding two Doom to the Game Master’s pot, will roll two more twenty-sided dice. He will be rolling against Sigrid’s Agility and Melee (Expertise 3, Focus 3) skill for a target of 12. The Thief will attempt to Parry using his Coordination and Parry (Expertise 1, Focus 1) skill for a target of 10. This turns it into a struggle.
Sigurd’s player rolls 1, 3, 6, and 20! This counts as a total of five Successes, but the 20 adds a Complication (…more of that in a bit!). The Game Master rolls just two dice and only gets 10 and 18, for one Success. Clearly, the thief has failed to parry Sigrid’s strike with her spear and her player spends two Momentum to disarm the thief, knocking his knife from his hand. The other three Momentum are saved to add to the damage roll. Sigurd’s player rolls four Combat dice for the spear’s damage, for a result of 2, 3, 5, and 6. The 2 gives one damage, the 3 does not, and both the 5 and the 6 add further damage as well as two Effects, which with the Piercing Quality of the spear means that the blow will ignore the Soak of the armour worn by the thief. Even if the thief was wearing armour, this would negate its effect and so the thief takes 4 damage plus another 3 from the extra Momentum, which translates as Harms. The 7 Harms are enough to inflict a Wound to the thief—5 Harms are enough—and since Sigrid’s player has had her disarm the thief, the Game Master declares that it is to the thief’s right arm rather than roll for it…
Lastly, there is the 20 that Sigrid’s player rolled! The Game Master could simply add two Doom to the Doom pool, but decides that the roof that the fight is on is weak. So as Sigrid and the thief manoeuvre, the roof under their feet shifts and suddenly collapses under their feet and they find themselves falling into the building below amidst a shower of tiles and wooden beams…
Sorcery covers various traditions, such as Eastern Sorcery, Shamanism, and Witchcraft, but only gives thirteen spells, from Astral Wanderings and Atavistic Voyage to Summon Horror and Venom on the Wind. For the most part, these are not the ‘fire and forget’ dweomers of other fantasy roleplaying games. They take time and effort and great study as well as pledging oneself to a patron. The difficulty of casting spells and the fact that sorcerers are not necessarily immune to the spells they cast means that they turn to other means to build their magical reputations, notably alchemy and animal handling. The first to create petty enchantments such as exploding or blinding powers, talismans, and so on, the second to befriend beasts to aid a sorcerer rather than actually summon one. Overall, Sorcery in Robert E. Howard’s Conan: Adventures in an Age Undreamed Of is challenging and dangerous, but still playable.

Our sample sorcerer is a priest of Mitra from Koth, accepted into the priesthood from childhood despite being born under an ill omen. He has been pushed and trained under a rigorous regime, but ostracised and mistrusted. In response, Maurus trusts few people and sought out forbidden areas of research and alternate knowledge. He does not know if this is in response to the poor portents of his birth or fulfilling them. 

Name: Maurus
Homeland: Koth
Languages: Kothic, Aquilonian
Class: Priesthood Social Standing: 2
Story: Ill Omens (Cursed)
Archetype: Priestess
Nature: Learned
Education: Elder Mentor
War Story: Survived Sorcery
Fortune Points: 3

Attribute Aspects
Charismatic

Attributes
Agility 6 Awareness 8 Brawn 6 Coordination 7
Intelligence 11 Personality 11 Willpower 13

Vigor 6 Resolve 15
Melee Damage Bonus 0
Ranged Damage Bonus 0
Mental Damage Bonus 2

Talents
Cosmopolitan, Courageous, Patron, Priest, Quiet Wisdom, Scribe, Subject

Skills
Alchemy (Expertise 3, Focus 3), Animal Handling (Expertise 2, Focus 2), Counsel (Expertise 3, Focus 3), Craft (Expertise 1, Focus 1), Discipline (Expertise 2, Focus 2), Insight (Expertise 1, Focus 1), Lore (Expertise 4, Focus 4), Observation (Expertise 2, Focus 2), Persuade (Expertise 3, Focus 3), Society (Expertise 1, Focus 1), Sorcery (Expertise 2, Focus 2)

Petty Enchantments
Atavistic Voyage

Equipment
Staff, Scroll of Mitra’s Teachings, Oils, Herbs, Religious accoutrements, alchemical kit, Sorcery kit, Personal library

In terms of background, Robert E. Howard’s Conan: Adventures in an Age Undreamed Of provides an introductory gazetteer of the Hyborian World. This is written as if taken from the academic papers that Howard based his stories upon, and as much it introduces the setting, it sets up each of the setting and character supplements to come, so that the section on the lands of the north will be explored in the supplement, Conan the Barbarian, which also explore in detail campaigns built around the barbarian archetype. Altogether, some nine regions and thus some nine supplements and campaign types are prefigured here. A lovely touch is the inclusion of a boxed section of ‘Hyborian Shorthand’, which suggests the historical influences on Howard’s Conan stories. These very simply allow the Game Master and her players get a handle on what each of the various nations in the setting are like.

These boxed sections continue throughout the ‘Gamemastering’ chapter, which make the connection between writings of Howard and the writings of H.P. Lovecraft as well as constantly ask what would Howard do if writing a Conan story as much as running Robert E. Howard’s Conan: Adventures in an Age Undreamed Of. From handling the rules to telling stories, player character motivation to environments, elements of Conan adventures to life between adventures—with a particular focus on carousing, the advice impressively thorough and helpful. It is supported by a good range of encounters or mortal foes, wild beasts, monstrous foes, and otherworldly horrors for the Game Master to use in her campaign, plus write-ups of some of the major characters from Howard’s Conan stories including the eponymous protagonist himself. The encounters are categorised as minions, toughened foes, nemeses, and horrors, and should provide plenty of opposition for a Game Master in the initial stages of her campaign. As should a sample set of NPCs, though they can also work as allies or even sample player characters. Rounding out the roleplaying game is the adventure is ‘Vultures of Shem’, which starts with the player characters standing in the middle of a battlefield after their side has been defeated and goes from there. It is a good set-up, gets the characters and their players involved quickly and should provide a couple of good sessions worth of play.

Physically, Robert E. Howard’s Conan: Adventures in an Age Undreamed Of is a sturdy hardback, liberally illustrated throughout with scenes from Conan’s adventures and the Hyborian Age. For the most part, it is very well written, the section on gamer mastering in particular, being very good. There are sections in the gazetteer which feel horridly overwritten and there is nothing to really ground either player or Game Master in the setting after the introduction before the writers start on character generation and the rules.

At its heart, Robert E. Howard’s Conan: Adventures in an Age Undreamed Of is quite a simple game, the 2d20 System being relatively straightforward and easy to understand. Unfortunately, with the addition of the rules for Momentum and Doom, the complexity of the rules ramps up. The problem with this is adjusting to and learning just what the Momentum mechanics can deliver and enable the larger than life style of play which Robert E. Howard’s Conan: Adventures in an Age Undreamed Of is designed to deliver as a roleplaying game. The learning curve feels greater than it really should be and that may be off-putting for some players. There is a focus upon combat in these rules, particularly for Momentum and Doom, but that is to be expected for what is to be designed to deliver a larger than life, pulpy, action-orientated roleplaying experience. Robert E. Howard’s Conan: Adventures in an Age Undreamed Of promises lurid sensationalism, exotic locations, bold adventure, weird menace, fearless action, and more. It certainly delivers on that promise and the 2d20 System certainly feels suited to the stories of Robert E. Howard’s Conan.