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

Sunday 31 March 2019

Retrospective: Apple Lane I

It is not just a player’s first roleplaying game which makes an impression, it is also their first adventure. For many of a certain age, this would be B2 Keep on the Borderlands, the introductory adventure which for many years appeared in the Basic Dungeons & Dragons boxed set. For others it would be Apple Lane, the scenario first published for RuneQuest in 1978 as Apple Lane: Two Beginning Scenarios - Gringle’s Pawnshop & The Rainbow Mounds (Scenario Pack 2). This would be revised as a second edition in 1980 and then again in 1987 by Avalon Hill for use with RuneQuest III. The second edition would be further revised again in 2016 for a PDF as part of the Kickstarter campaign for RuneQuest: Classic Edition and it is the second edition which had the most impact, having appeared in the Runequest, 2nd Edition Boxed Set—both the American and British editions—and so was not only the first scenario for RuneQuest that many played, but the first chance to play in the world of Glorantha. With the release of the RuneQuest - Gamemaster Screen Pack and its ‘Adventures Book’ set in and around Apple Lane,  it seems as perfect a time as any to examine the original scenario.

Apple Lane is set in the heart of Sartar, somewhere in the hills to the west of Jonstown on a minor, but busy trade route. At first sight, the hamlet looks to have too many facilities for its number of inhabitants—the Sheriff’s House, a temple to Uleria, a Weaponmasters Guild Hall, the Tin Inn, a Horsemasters Guild Hall, a Temple to all Deities, a Smithy and Armoury, and of course, Gringle’s Pawnshop. Yet if you consider that Apple Lane is on a trade route, that there are numerous surrounding farms, and that it is meeting point for the various clans and tribes—which explains why the player characters are in the village—and it makes more sense and it feels more natural. What comes across from the nicely detailed inhabitants is that Apple Lane is a quiet place, a sleepy little village where many of its inhabitants have retired and settled down to raise families after lives elsewhere or adventuring. Each is detailed enough and fully statted out—this is RuneQuest after all—for the Game Master to roleplay each of them.

As its subtitle suggests, there are two scenarios in Apple Lane, ‘Gringle’s Pawnshop’ and ‘The Rainbow Mounds’, but there is also a set-up. This is ‘The Tribal Initiation’, primarily a primer for both Game Master and her players as to how combat works in RuneQuest and how deadly combat is. Simply, the player characters have to fight each other, not to kill each other, but to prove that they can defend themselves, be trusted with their weapons, and thus become proper adults. This is as much ceremony as it is a deadly lesson and to help enforce the feeling of ceremony and enforce the culture of the tribespeople, there being a piece of poetry given that should be read out after the initiation.

‘The Tribal Initiation’ is designed for new and beginning characters and this continues with both ‘Gringle’s Pawnshop’ and ‘The Rainbow Mounds’. As well as introducing the players and their characters to RuneQuest and its combat mechanics, ‘The Tribal Initiation’ also brings the player characters to the attention of Gringle, a Rune Lord-Priest of Issaries, a wily old coot who runs a pawnshop in Apple Lane. He has a slightly mysterious reputation—some actually think that he is a werewolf!—not helped by the fact that he disappears into his fortified premises once a month for a whole night. The events of ‘Gringle’s Pawnshop’ takes place on one of these nights, the night of the full moon and on this particular night, Gringle has a problem.

Gringle expects his pawnshop to be attacked and he needs someone to protect the building whilst he and his assistant are busy. And indeed, Gringle’s Pawnshop is attacked and the player characters have to defend it in what is essentially a reverse dungeon, their having to prevent the attackers from entering and ransacking the building in search of treasure. The attackers themselves are an odd bunch, an alliance formed of some angry baboons and some other non-human outlaws, the former after an item which they say was stolen from them and which they say Gringle has. Anyone coming to RuneQuest new is likely to find the mix somewhat strange, but it serves to mark the setting of Glorantha as different, and anyway, once you get into the play of the adventures in Apple Lane, it does not really matter. Again, all of the attackers are fully statted out, and not only that, given personalities and motivations which enable the Game Master to help bring them to life rather than having them be no more than fodder to be butchered. The player characters are free to hide the item the baboons want wherever they want, take what security precautions they want, and so on. (An option here is for the players to agree where their characters have hidden it, but not tell the Game Master, so that she is in as much of the dark as to its location as the attackers.)

Although there is a little roleplaying to be had with Gringle and some exploration of the inside of the pawnshop, in the main this is an extended combat encounter, one with a highly tactical element to it. In fact, the scenario lends itself to being run as a full tabletop encounter complete with miniatures and a map of Gringle’s Pawnshop. (Indeed back in 1986 when I ran this, it was with miniatures on a 25 mm scale plan of the building done on a sheet of A2 architect’s trace paper.) Some preparation is needed, certainly the players need their own copy of the floorplans to Gringle’s pawnshop and the Game Master will probably find it easier to have copies of all of the attackers to hand, but seperate to the Apple Lane book itself. 

Playing through ‘Gringle’s Pawnshop’ will probably take two sessions, perhaps one long one at the very least, but either way it will involve a lot of combat. Overall, ‘Gringle’s Pawnshop’ is a lot of fun, an intense introduction to the combat mechanics and the need for tactical thinking in combat as well as a little of the stranger elements of Glorantha.

Apple Lane’s problem with attackers continues with the second scenario, ‘The Rainbow Mounds’. Bandits have been preying on the area and the Sheriff has determined that they are a bunch of Trolkin led by a Whiteye, a Dark Troll who recently returned to the area. For the most part, the inhabitants of the region get on reasonably well with trolls, but have offered a reward for Whiteye’s head and those of any bandits. The sheriff has also determined that the gang is hiding out in a cave system known as the Rainbow Mounds. At first, this seems like a simple raid on a cave system, but there is a bit more to it than that.

‘The Rainbow Mounds’ is a very different adventure to ‘Gringle’s Pawnshop’, not only being longer, but also more complex. This is no mere dungeon bash, a hack and slash through the cave complex’s twenty-four locations, but rather a combination of three elements. First is the raid to bring the Trollkin and their Dark Troll leader to justice, a pretty straightforward story were it not for the fact that the Trolls are not idiots and have prepared for the possibility that they might be attacked. Again, it helps that attention is paid to each of them so that they are not faceless idiots. Second, there is the exploration of the caves, in all their multi-coloured hues and with their secrets to be discovered. Third, there are the other inhabitants of the caves, the Newtlings, who for most part will react with curiosity towards the player characters and perhaps persuade them to come to their aid. Now here is where the scenario gets a little weird, the player characters being asked to get involved in an almost timeless war with their greatest of enemies. Players may balk at it, but what this does is reflect the magical nature of the world around the player characters and it presents an opportunity for them to become involved in Glorantha’s greater mysteries, even if this one is quite small in the scale of things…

Physically, Apple Lane is a plain and simple book. It is lightly illustrated in a cartoon style, including the cover. The writing is good and includes useful advice as to what the NPCs in both scenarios will do, whether attacking the player characters or responding to their actions. The maps though, are at best serviceable. Gringle’s Pawnship, for instance, is renowned for its architectural oddities, such as oddly long hallways.

Of course, Apple Lane could still be run today and without any real adjustments—especially if the Game Master has a copy of RuneQuest: Classic Edition (or her original copies of the rulebook). Yet, the similarities between RuneQuest: Classic Edition and the recently released RuneQuest: Roleplaying in Glorantha mean a Game Master could easily run Apple Lane with very little adjustment. Now to get the most out of both ‘Gringle’s Pawnshop’ and ‘Rainbow Mounds’, the Game Master will need to have access to the RuneQuest - Glorantha Bestiary for details that her player characters will face and the RuneQuest - Gamemaster Screen Pack for background about Apple Lane, its surrounding area, and the three adventures given in the ‘Adventures Book’ which is included in RuneQuest - Gamemaster Screen Pack. The one issue here is that the events of Apple Lane take place several years before RuneQuest: Roleplaying in Glorantha is set. So the Game Master will need to adjust when she runs the two scenarios in Apple Lane, perhaps in a flashback prior to running the three adventures in the ‘Adventures Book’.

It is easy to dismiss ‘Gringle’s Pawnshop’ as little more than an extended combat encounter and ‘The Rainbow Mounds’ as a dungeon done RuneQuest-style, but neither description is appropriate. Most obviously, both are populated by a cast of well drawn characters who all have their own motivations and fit the setting, even the ones who are barely competent. Both also possess elements which highlight aspects of both RuneQuest and Glorantha, whether that is the lethality of combat—showcased first in ‘The Tribal Initiation’ and then later on when NPCs are ready to surrender rather than fight to the death; in the importance of faith and ritual—again in ‘The Tribal Initiation’ and then with Gringle’s need to perform a ritual on the night of the attack; and then the mythic nature of Glorantha with the encounter with the Newtlings in ‘The Rainbow Mounds’. Together they mark the world and the fantasy of Glorantha as being different—definitely more different than the fantasy that was more readily available for the hobby when Apple Lane was first published in 1978, and still different today.

Although it was not released as part of it, it is clear that Apple Lane: Two Beginning Scenarios - Gringle’s Pawnshop & The Rainbow Mounds (Scenario Pack 2) is better than anything in the The Old School RQ Source Pack—although SP8 The Sea Cave has the potential to come close. Sparse by modern standards, Apple Lane: Two Beginning Scenarios - Gringle’s Pawnshop & The Rainbow Mounds (Scenario Pack 2) was an excellent introduction to roleplaying in Glorantha in 1978 and like any good classic, it remains still very playable today.

Saturday 30 March 2019

I am Jim Wampler and I am ATOZ

Mutant Crawl Classics #4: Warlords of ATOZ is the fourth release for Mutant Crawl Classics Roleplaying Game – Triumph & Technology Won by Mutants & Magic, the spiritual successor to Gamma World published by Goodman Games. It is the fourth adventure to be designed for use with player characters who are not Zero Level, being instead designed for player characters of Third Level. What this means is that it is not a Character Funnel, one of the features of both the Mutant Crawl Classics Roleplaying Game and the Dungeon Crawl Classics Role Playing Game it is mechanically based upon–in which initially, a player is expected to roll up three or four Level Zero characters and have them play through a generally nasty, deadly adventure, which surviving will prove a challenge. Those that do survive receive enough Experience Points to advance to First Level and gain all of the advantages of their Class. In terms of the setting, known as Terra A.D., or ‘Terra After Disaster’, this is a ‘Rite of Passage’ and in Mutants, Manimals, and Plantients, the stress of it will trigger ‘Metagenesis’, their DNA expressing itself and their mutations blossoming forth. Rather Incursion of the Ultradimension is designed for characters of Third Level, so each of the player characters will have a range of powers and abilities as equipment and artefacts scavenged after two or three adventures out in Terra A.D.

Written by Jim Wampler–the author of ‘Assault on the Sky-High Tower’, the character funnel designed for Level Zero characters found in the Mutant Crawl Classics core rulebokWarlords of ATOZ is designed to be played by between six and eight player characters of Third Level. At just twelve pages long, it is a short adventure, but one which has the potential to make profound changes to a Judges campaign. The set-up and the structure to Warlords of ATOZ is also very different to previous scenarios for Mutant Crawl Classics, being more of classic roleplaying adventure. In the other adventures for Mutant Crawl Classics, the adventures have strong exploratory elements to their play, the player characters searching for artefacts of the Ancients as well as overcoming whatever challenges the scenario entails. In Warlords of ATOZ, the player characters and the tribe they belong to, the Tribe of the Cog, face an encroaching threat and have essentially to perform a strike mission against this threat.

The scenario opens with news of refuges fleeing from the north from a conquering horde armed with 
‘magic boom sticks’, known as the Warlords of ATOZ. They have been wiping out whole villages and enslaving their inhabitants, all in the name of a surviving Ancient One whom they worship as a god. With the other Seeker groups in the tribe–Seekers being those members of the tribe who protect the tribe and go out to investigate sites of the Ancients–being busy, the player characters are tasked with assessing the nature of the threat and if necessary, impeding its progress south. What is interesting here, if not a little amusing, is that the player characters are essentially the ‘C’ team and that there are other Seeker teams in the tribe dealing with other, more pressing issues. The question is, what could those issues be and why are they so important that the ‘A’ and ‘B’ Seeker teams are dealing with them rather than the player characters? There are no answers forthcoming to this question in Warlords of ATOZ, so it will be up to the Judge to decide what they are.

Setting out on their newlly assigned mission, the player characters will soon encounter some refuges and then a Warlords of ATOZ raiding party, followed by their encampment located out on the plains far from the mile-high jungle home of the player characters. The Waarlords of ATOS are garbed in twin red bandoliers, red-furred cloaks, and metal helmets bearing the likeness of their god, the raiding party, whilst at the centre of the encampment stands a golden temple, which again bears the likeness of their god. To get in, the player characters will have to sneak past the encampment and literally climb into the open mouth of the temple. Inside, they find themselves yet again in another home of the Ancients, but this one has been taken over by a zealous cult. The temple itself is actually quite small, just three locations, but all quite detailed. It is thus no surprise that the scenario is linear in structure, pushing the characters along to the final ‘boss’ fight, during which the whole adventure takes off and chaos ensues...

One thing that distinguishes Warlords of ATOZ from other scenarios for Mutant Crawl Classics, is its inspiration. As soon as I saw the artwork on the frontispiece, the inspiration was obvious, and quickly confirmed by the twin red bandoliers, red-furred cloaks, and metal helmets bearing the likeness of their god worn by the Warlords of ATOZ, and then again by later events in the scenario. Now you have to be of a certain age or you have to have a love of films of the seventies or a love of obscure Science Fiction movies to get the reference, but when you, it gives Warlords of ATOZ a certain weirdness all of its very own. Now Warlords of ATOZ does not follow through on this inspiration or its weirdness, which is a shame, but to be fair, Mutant Crawl Classics is bit more waahoo, gonzo and less adult in its tone than said inspiration.

Another distinguishing factor in Warlords of ATOZ is that it does not end so much as send the player characters hurtling into another set-up. A set-up that the Judge will have to develop herself and that is the biggest problem with the scenario. It is a fun scenario, but it changes the campaign a Judge is running or sets one up whilst leaving the Judge to do all of the work. There are a few notes to help her, but if any of the scenarios published for Mutant Crawl Classics deserves a sequel, or even a campaign, it is this one.

Physically, Warlords of ATOZ is a slim book. It is well written, the maps are clear, but the artwork is really good. The cover has a nicely done pulp Sci-Fi sensibility, whilst it is clear that some of the artists on the internal artwork have had a lot of fun drawing from the scenario’s inspiration.

Just like the Dungeon Crawl Classics Role Playing Game, the Mutant Crawl Classics Roleplaying Game has its appendix of inspiration, in this case, ‘Appendix M’Warlords of ATOZ is definitely drawing upon ‘Appendix M’ more than any other scenario published to date for Mutant Crawl Classics and is a rather knowing ‘wink and a nod’ to said inspiration. Intense fun, a decent challenge for characters of Third Level, but all too short, Mutant Crawl Classics #4: Warlords of ATOZ deserves a sequel, if not a short campaign, devoted to dealing with the threat it introduces and leaves undeveloped.

Friday 29 March 2019

Friday Fantasy: A Delve in the Cave

A village in peril.

An ancient legend. 

A mystery.

If you were told that these were the elements of a set-up to a First Level adventure for Dungeons & Dragons and any of the roleplaying games derived from it, then your reaction might be to roll your eyes and move on, because what this sounds like is a set of clichés. And to be fair, you would be right given that this set-up goes all the way back to classic adventures like T1 The Village of Hommlet and U1 Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh. It is a set-up that designers return to over and over, so that sometimes the result can be less than satisfying, such as Idol of the Orcs. What this means is that designers have to go that bit further in order to make their First Level adventure—or dungeon—stand out from the rest. The good news is that the designer of A Delve in the Cave, an adventure requiring four or five characters of First Level and written for use with Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition, has done that.

Published by Signal Fire Studios, the set-up for A Delve in the Cave is simple. The town of Shadowhaven has of late been beset a dark mood as its inhabitants have suffered from sleeplessness, a rash of minor misfortunes and incidents, food tasting of ash, wine of vinegar, and so on. The townsfolk believe that their misfortunes are linked to the hill that overlooks Shadowhaven, known as Bren Brenin. The hill is known to have an extensive cave system and to be where a great wizard named Brenin was interred many years ago. This was after he spent years exploring the region and then together with some friends, putting an end to the Shadow Fey threat said to be emanating from the hill. The question is, could the Shadow Fey have returned, and if so, what of the protections that Brenin put in place?

The dungeon under the hill consists of just twenty-four locations. For the most part these are of natural cave system, nicely detailed and with a sense of naturalism influenced by the outré, rather than having the outré run amok. Make no mistake though, its influence permeates the caves. In the main, the player characters will be facing a mix of natural threats and an environment which has been strewn with traps to deter their progress. This is because there is a timed mechanism to the scenario, one that the player characters will be unaware of and the fact that they are unaware of it, is really the scenario’s only real weakness. In order for the timing mechanism to work, one of the adventure’s two NPCs will lead the player characters on a merry dance through the caves. This is nicely handled with advice and tactics throughout on his actions and is really what marks A Delve in the Cave as different to other Dungeons & Dragons adventures with a similar set-up. Yet this also the adventure’s primary problem, that some signal or clue could have been given as to the fact that there is a timing mechanism and that there is something going on under Bren Brenin other than the obviousness of their being attacked, at least for those new to adventuring… Veterans are likely to ask themselves why they have been attacked and why they are chasing their attacker round the cave complex, and perhaps go looking for a reason… but those new to playing Dungeons & Dragons, less so.

A Delve in the Cave can be run with varying degrees of set-up. It be run with little preparation, the game beginning with the player characters standing outside of cave entrance, ready to venture forth. Alternatively, the Dungeon Master can simply give the player characters the hooks to pull them into the scenario or have them visit the Shadowhaven and roleplay interacting with the townsfolk to learn more about what is going on, pick up rumours, and so on…  To that end, there are some good hooks to pull the player characters into the scenario and its events.

In addition to the adventure itself, A Delve in the Cave includes a couple of new magical items, a new monster or two, and a pair of detailed NPCs. It uses a monster from the Tome of Beasts, a bestiary published by Kobold Press, but that supplement is not necessary to run the adventure.

Another issue with A Delve in the Cave is that the connections between the given rumours and hooks and what is going on in Bren Brenin are not clearly stated upfront. Now they are there and they are obvious, but the Dungeon Master will need to read through the whole of the scenario with care to make them. Not that she is not going to, but the links and information could have been made more obvious.

Physically, A Delve in the Cave is cleanly laid out and presented in a large font, making it easy to read. The map is also nicely done. There is just the one piece of art though, but that is by design. This is because there are two versions of the scenario. This, the ‘Early Access Edition’, has no art beyond a single piece and the development of the scenario’s background has been kept to a minimum, though a very playable minimum. Indeed, there is enough information for the Dungeon Master to create the town of Shadowhaven and its surrounds if she so desired. The other version has been funded via a Kickstarter campaign, which adds much more art and more information about the town.

A Delve in the Cave is a simple, straightforward adventure with a couple of slightly undeveloped hooks that the Dungeon Master will need to work on (but only a little) and a nice means of pulling the adventurers deeper into both the adventure and the cave system. Veteran players may find it a little unsophisticated, but it is easy to prepare and it is easy to bring to the table. For those new to playing Dungeons & Dragons though, A Delve in the Cave is a decent first adventure which should provide a session or so’s worth of play—and perhaps a bit more if the Dungeon Master develops the town.

Sunday 24 March 2019

The Symbaroum Campaign II

Karvosti – The Witch Hammer is ‘The Second Episode in the Chronicle of the Throne of Thorns’, the campaign for Symbaroum, the near-Dark Ages fantasy roleplaying game from Swedish publisher, Free League, distributed in English by Modiphius Entertainment. Having been successfully funded via a Kickstarter campaign, it follows on from Thistle Hold – Wrath Of The Warden, taking the player characters deeper into the great Davokar forest. With the inaugural part being set in and around Thistle Hold, the northernmost outpost of Ambria, from where a great many expeditions set out into the Davokar Forest just a few hundred yards from its palisades and which has grown rich on the finds that some survivors bring back, with the second part, the campaign’s focus switches to Karvosti, the great cliff settlement which rises from the forest. This is home to the High Chieftain of all of the barbarian clans and chief witch or Huldra, the site of the twice-a-year market or Thingstead, and which worryingly for both the High Chieftain and the Huldra, has more recently become an important site for the Church of Prios.

The format for Karvosti – The Witch Hammer is the same as Thistle Hold – Wrath Of The Warden. It is divided into three sections, the first is background, the second expanded background and rules for the Game Master, and the third, the campaign itself. The first part is ‘The Explorer’s Haven’, which presents what is generally known about Karvosti, a refuge against the darkness of the Davokar forest whose inhabitants agree on the need for a united front against the threats from the surrounding area, but cannot agree on much else. It takes us onto the plateau via the great entrance topped with a pair of boar statues and guarded by the ever-vigilant Wrathguard which patrol the settlement, and at which everyone is checked before being allowed to enter. Some history of Karvosti is given; as are plenty of places to eat and drink at, how its inhabitants—both permanent and the many transients in their tent city—entertain themselves, most notably the well-attended story nights held at the market; places to shop at, such as Crueljaw’s Traps where items needed for monster hunting can be purchased and Vearra’s Outpost, an outlier settlement serving those who prefer not to go up onto Karvosti; places to go for information—much in demand by explorers and fortune hunters; and the most notable figures on the plateau. Lastly, the two barbarian clans whose lands surround Karvosti, the Baiaga and the Odaiova, are also detailed, again examining their histories, culture, settlements—including notably, Arch Bridge, the Odaiova stronghold built around an ancient and massive bridge which spanned a river that has since moved several hundred metres away, their leading figures, and their response to the growing darkness from Davokar.

As with Thistle Hold – Wrath Of The Warden all of this initial information in Karvosti – The Witch Hammer is intended for both players and the Game Master. It is designed as either widely known information or easily researched information, but either way, readily available. It is a lot to take in for the players and it might well be worth the Game Master preparing a set of cheat sheets for her players. Ideally, these should be targeted at the type of character each player is roleplaying. So Barbarians, fortune hunters, Witches, and so on are likely to know more than Ambrians, Templars, and the like. This would give pointers for both that would serve as hooks to draw the players and their characters further into life on Karvosti.

The second section is the ‘Game Master’s Section’, which is divided into two parts. The first, ‘In Darkness’, builds on the preceding section, revealing the actual history of Karvosti and its current, fraught political situation, with rising tensions between High Chief Tharaban, the Iron Pact, House Kohimoor and Queen Korinthia, the Sun Church, the Barbarian clans, and the Witches. There is a lot of rich detail here and it is nicely supported with a dozen adventure seeds, ranging from disappearances on the plateau and a rescue mission to free two trapped fortune hunters to dealing with bandits on the road between Thistle Hold and Karvosti and an outbreak of Black Plague Termites, which can be used to add depth to ‘The Witch Hammer’ campaign itself or used in general as part of a Game Master’s campaign.

‘New Mechanics’, the second part, provides rules for creating ruins and detailing their original purpose, inhabitants, features, and so on. This set of tables can be easily used to generate a location—even mid game—and set up a small encounter. This can be during ‘The Witch Hammer’ campaign as there are opportunities for this, but the tables can also be used in general in any campaign. The rules for Scheming can also be applied to any campaign, setting up Symbaroum’s various factions, their likes and dislikes, and establishing the relations between them, before presenting a simple means to track the player characters’ interactions with each of them and how the player characters’ actions change their relationships with them. In general, the rules are quite simple, but the complexity comes in Game Master needing not only to track the relationships and effects of the player characters’ actions as a whole, but also do it for each individual player character because each player character will be different and how each faction views them will be different. As useful as this is, it does add to the task of being the Game Master. In addition, ‘New Mechanics’ gives new rituals and monstrous traits, artefacts, elixirs and diseases, and several new monsters all of which can appear in ‘The Witch Hammer’ campaign.

‘The Witch Hammer’ campaign itself takes up more than half of Karvosti – The Witch Hammer. It gets the player characters involved in the politics on Karvosti itself, between the Barbarian clans, and between Ambria and the Barbarians, as well as sending them out into Davokar and back again to investigate various leads and explore various locations—some of the latter being almost dungeon-like. Notably, it does require the use of the Advanced Player’s Guide and it is designed for a group of experienced player characters with roughly a hundred Experience Points each, with at least one player character being able to speak the Barbarian language, and with the group having a reputation for bold and capable. Guidelines are given for creating new characters of sufficient capability as well as some incentives to get them involved.

Yet those incentives are in a way a stronger means than the default means of getting the characters involved in the campaign. This has them at tavern where they—and everyone else—overhear the maudlin outburst of an NPC about how the authorities treated a friend, an explorer, who was suffering from Blight and who had with her a great artefact. Now this gets the interest of everyone in the tavern, then on Karvosti, and eventually, but all too quickly, across the region. Yet is it enough for the player characters to be involved? Well, yes and no. Yes, because each player character should have motivations enough and faction links enough to get involved on one side or another, but no because it is all too for any of the player characters to decide that their characters have no interest and walk away, leaving the Game Master with more work to do in order to get them involved in the campaign. Nor is this helped by the fact that there are no obvious links between Thistle Hold – Wrath Of The Warden and Karvosti – The Witch Hammer, so that the Game Master will need to develop those before running this part of the campaign.

Once the player characters engage with ‘The Witch Hammer’ campaign, they will find themselves on massive McGuffin hunt—first for the friend of the NPC, second for what she knew, and third, for the artefact. Divided into three acts, this continues with their searching for further clues on Karvosti, before going out to three very different locations where the explorer was last seen—a settlement of religious zealots, a ruined palace, and an island on the brink of the spirit world. Each of these has a different atmosphere and feel, the latter in particular feeling ancient and desolate, and more than a little creepy in places. The difficulty in visiting any one of them is compounded by the interest of rival groups and factions who are after the same information, but often for very different reasons. The three locations can be tackled in any order, not just by the player characters, but also by the other groups. Good advice is given here for the Game Master as to the status of each group at each of the locations in whatever order the player characters tackles them. The likelihood is that the player characters will need to ally with one or more of these groups if they are to succeed and this is where the Scheming mechanics come in because the player characters’ actions will influence these factions’ opinions of them. It all comes to a head as the player characters race back to find the final McGuffin. 

Rounding out ‘The Witch Hammer’ campaign is a discussion of its aftermath. Again, this is organised faction by faction depending upon what the characters do. Much like the involvement of the factions throughout the campaign this feels messy and devoid of any easy outcome, just one more sign of how nothing is easy in Symbaroum. There is also some advice on further leads and stories and potential rewards for the characters.

Like Thistle Hold – Wrath Of The Warden before it, there is a good mix of roleplaying and action involved in Karvosti – The Witch Hammer, especially in the second act where the player characters need to balance their need to find the information they want with having to negotiate with others in order to get it. The Game Master is again given a great cast of NPCs with which to roleplay and there are some decent handouts for the players. Yet Karvosti – The Witch Hammer also suffers from having a lot of information that first the Game Master needs to process and then get the relevant parts to her players and their characters, especially at the beginning where the player and their characters are expected to know a great deal about life on Karvosti. It does not help that the campaign does not make enough of that information itself to provide a really good hook to get the player characters involved at the start, especially given that the player characters are supposed to know it.

Physically, this being a book from Free League and for Symbaroum, there can be no doubt that Karvosti – The Witch Hammer is going to be a fine-looking book—and it is. The layout is clean and tidy, and the artwork is fantastic. Putting aside the repeated use of artwork—less of a problem here than in other books—the artwork could have been better used, for example as a set of portraits to show the players of the campaign’s very many NPCs. Especially given the number of factions involved in the campaign that both the players and the Game Master has to keep track of. One big issue is that the book does lack an index, potentially something that will slow play down if the Game Master needs to look something up. Lastly, Karvosti – The Witch Hammer comes with some great maps, but it also comes with some bland ones too. The one of Karvosti itself is particularly uninteresting and given how time the player characters will be spending there, it is a shame that a better one could not have been provided.

The Symbaroum core rules focuses on three important settlements. Two are Thistle Hold and Karvosti, the third, Yndaros, the capital of Ambria, the young kingdom set up in the wake of the fall of the Kingdom of Alberetor. With Thistle Hold – Wrath Of The Warden and Karvosti – The Witch Hammer, the ‘Chronicle of the Throne of Thorns’ campaign can be seen to expanding upon those locales and their immediate environs. So it good to see that the publisher is expanding upon these locations as well as providing adventuring material built around them.

In addition to presenting more information on Karvosti and the surrounding area, Karvosti – The Witch Hammer does a good job of involving the player characters in the politics of the region and bringing to a head the political tensions that have been simmering at the heart of the game. Yet as content rich as the book is, it is difficult to bring much of that information into play and it makes preparing the campaign that much more difficult—and that is for player and Game Master alike. At the same time, it provides a disappointing hook to get the players and their characters involved and does not tie this, ‘The Second Episode in the Chronicle of the Throne of Thorns’, back into the first, Thistle Hold – Wrath Of The Warden. There is undoubtedly some decent gaming to be got out of this part of the Chronicle of the Throne of Thorns, but bringing Karvosti – The Witch Hammer to the table will be a challenge for any Game Master.

Saturday 23 March 2019

A Weird Day at Someone Else's Office

Mutant Crawl Classics #3: Incursion of the Ultradimension is the third release for Mutant Crawl Classics Roleplaying Game – Triumph & Technology Won by Mutants & Magic, the spiritual successor to Gamma World published by Goodman Games. It is the second adventure to be designed for use with player characters who are not Zero Level, being instead designed for player characters of Second Level. What this means is that it is not a Character Funnel, one of the features of both the Mutant Crawl Classics Roleplaying Game and the Dungeon Crawl Classics Role Playing Game it is mechanically based upon–in which initially, a player is expected to roll up three or four Level Zero characters and have them play through a generally nasty, deadly adventure, which surviving will prove a challenge. Those that do survive receive enough Experience Points to advance to First Level and gain all of the advantages of their Class. In terms of the setting, known as Terra A.D., or ‘Terra After Disaster’, this is a ‘Rite of Passage’ and in Mutants, Manimals, and Plantients, the stress of it will trigger ‘Metagenesis’, their DNA expressing itself and their mutations blossoming forth. Rather Incursion of the Ultradimension is designed for characters of Second Level, so each of the player characters will have a range of powers and abilities as equipment and artefacts scavenged after two or three adventures out in Terra A.D.

Written by Michael Curtis–the author of Stonehell Dungeon: Down Night-Haunted Halls and The Dungeon AlphabetIncursion of the Ultradimension begins with the player characters on their way somewhere when they have stopped overnight at the jungle village of Glazhaus. This makes it easy for the Judge to slot the scenario into an existing or ongoing campaign. Yet during their stay, disaster strikes and everyone, including the player characters, have to scramble to safety. In the wake of the disaster an old horror appears, one that has not been seen for generations and one that the villagers are ill-equipped to deal with given the all too recent disaster, but guess who is?

Going out to the starkly empty island off the coast and the adventurers find a strange building and inside that, an even stranger complex. This is a scientific research facility which has been invaded by, guess what, an Incursion of the Ultradimension. It has a highly regular design, an industrial design, with a high degree of interconnectivity, it being essentially an unfolded tesseract rendered into two dimensions rather than multiple dimensions. What this highlights is a feature crucial to Mutant Crawl Classics and to its genre in general, its adaptation of contemporary or near-future facilities into dungeons that the characters of Mutant Crawl Classics can then explore. This brings in a certain ‘blue-collar’ feel to the Sci-Fi of Incursion of the Ultradimension which is further increased by the nature of the threat that echoes that of the 1979 movie, Alien.

The complex is full of strange creatures and weird growths, most of which are either dangerous or inimical to the player characters. The scenario does include opportunities for roleplaying though. Initially in the village following the disaster, but also inside the complex itself. As expected, some of this is with the complex itself. After all, no self-respecting Sci-Fi scientific research facility would be complete without an intelligent computer to talk to, but not all of the inhabitants of the complex are necessarily hostile towards the player characters. In fact, some of them will probably be happy to see them and given how cute they are, the player characters will doubtless be pleased to see them.

In general, Mutant Crawl Classics #3: Incursion of the Ultradimension is well-written and easy to grasp. Its tone is weird rather than wacky or gonzo, but that should not be held against the scenario. It very much needs another edit and to fair, whilst the artwork is really good, it good have been better used. In particular, it would have been nice if the images of monsters had been matched with the monster stats. This would have made them easier to vizualise by the Judge and thus easier for her to describe them to her players.

If there is an issue with Incursion of the Ultradimension, it is really how it deals with any aftermath. In the long term, it has the potential to link to further sequels based at other research sites and to that end describes a map that the player characters might see, although it does not actually provide such a map as a handout. This is not necessarily a bad thing as it allows the Judge to place any such sequels anywhere in her own campaign world, and anyway, Mutant Crawl Classics is not a roleplaying game with a tightly defined setting. Yet in the short term, the scenario could have explored the possible outcomes in more depth, in particular what might happen to the potentially non-hostile race to be found in the complex, because as with other aspects of the scenario, they have the potential to change the Judge’s campaign world. It would have been nice if guidelines had been included for members of this race had replacement player characters been needed. The likelihood is that any player will enjoy roleplaying one of these creatures with cute, twitchy noses.

In comparison to previous scenarios, Mutant Crawl Classics #3: Incursion of the Ultradimension feels nicely compact rather than sprawling. Like previous entries in the series, this is only twenty pages long, which together with its set-up, makes it easy to bring to a campaign. Mutant Crawl Classics #3: Incursion of the Ultradimension should provide two or three good sessions’ worth of play with a strong emphasis on claustrophobic horror and weirdness.

Friday 22 March 2019

Friday Fiction: Freeway Fighter vol. 1

Friday Fiction is a series of reviews which focus upon fiction which will be of interest to roleplayers and gamers in general. These can be novels as much as they can graphic novels, which is the case with Freeway Fighter. Older gamers will recognise this as the title of the thirteenth entry of Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone’s Fighting Fantasy series—the history of which is detailed in You Are the Hero—and this graphic novel not only shares the same title, but also the same world. As the title suggests, this world is a post-apocalyptic future in the vein of the Mad Max films—three of which, Mad Max, Mad Max 2, and Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, had been released by the time of Freeway Fighter’s publication in 1985.

Freeway Fighter is set in a post-apocalyptic United States, after some eighty-five percent of the world’s population have been wiped out by a plague. As civilisation collapsed, the survivors divided into two groups. Most have fortified themselves in isolated towns and settlements, huddled together for protection and husbanding and trading for what few resources they could, whilst the second, roam from settlement to settlement, stealing and raiding, and killing who refused to submit to their demands. The gangs drive heavily modified vehicles, souped up, fitted with spikes, their crews armed with a variety of arms and armour. After all, there is no-one to stop them from taking it now.

In the Fighting Fantasy book, the player takes the role of a citizen of the town of New Hope. The settlement is in desperate need of a fresh supply of petrol and so send out the protagonist in a Dodge Interceptor motor car across the wastes in order to procure a tanker filled with the needed fuel. Published in 2017, the graphic novel, which collects the four-issue comic series written by Andi Ewington, drawn and inked by Simon Coleby, and coloured by Len O’Grady, is a prequel, set some twenty-four months after the spread of the virus which killed most of humanity. As the story opens, Former I-400 Driver Bella De La Rosa is driving and surviving, remensising of the days when she was a hotshot rookie racing driver and set to make a big name for herself. She is skilled enough to outdrive most nomads, but when she runs into the marauders known as the Doom Dogs, she and her recently joined passenger face a much more dangerous challenge as they attempt to reach New Hope, for her car itself becomes the subject of the Doom Dogs’ leader’s desire. This is no surprise, since the car plays a major role in the storyline and will go on to literally drive the storyline in the Freeway Fighter solo adventure book.

Freeway Fighter—both the Fighting Fantasy solo adventure and the graphic novel—wear their influences on its sleeve. Lonely stretches of highway, abandoned cars, empty towns with just about enough to picked over and scavenged from, protagonists hardened to the disaster which has fallen humanity and prepared to do almost anything to survive, and villains who believe that might means right and who will do anything to survive. The story it tells is also fairly straightforward, perhaps verging on the familiar, essentially setting everything for the reader to go and play Freeway Fighter as the sequel. Andi Ewington’s script is sparse, leaving room for art, inks, and colours of Simon Coleby and Len O’Grady to shine through and atmospherically depict the ruin that the world has fallen to and capture the action of car-on-car combat. Indeed, the look of Freeway Fighter feels not dissimilar to the Mad Max computer game of 2015.

Beyond the story itself, the Freeway Fighter collection includes a history of Fighting Fantasy and the Freeway Fighter solo adventure book in particular as well as a tribute to Kevin Bulmer, the artist on the Freeway Fighter solo adventure book. Both serve as a nice adjunct to You Are the Hero, as author of both that and the history here is Jonathan Green. Casual readers who have picked up Freeway Fighter because it looked interesting will find these extra pieces infomrative enough, but really they are aimed at the Fighting Fantasy fan who will appreciate the extra background and detail.

Published by Titan Comics, Freeway Fighter is an enjoyable, if slight post-apocalyptic tale of survival and car combat. The art is excellent and the action nicely captured, and the story, if somewhat light, sets the reader up for his playthrough of the Freeway Fighter solo adventure book. Fighting Fantasy fans will enjoy this in particular and will want to have it alongside You are the Hero on their shelves.

Sunday 17 March 2019

An Ashen Stars Quartet

Ashen Stars is Pelgrane Press’ Science Fiction roleplaying game of investigation and action. Using the investigation-orientated Gumshoe System RPG written by the Gumshoe System’s author, Robin D. Laws, it takes the idea that Space Opera stories, especially those screened on television, are essentially mysteries to be solved and adapts it to an interesting frontier setting. This is the Bleed, a rough, wild fringe of space that barely twenty years ago was the enticingly glamorous frontier of The Combine, a two-hundred-year-old interstellar, culture-spanning government dedicated to peace, understanding, and self-determination. The Combine was an idealistic utopia that enabled numerous races and peoples to live happily under its governance, but then the Mohilar attacked, and employing technologies unknown to The Combine their vast war fleets stormed system after system until The Combine’s heart, Earth itself, was devastated. Then following an unexpected defeat at the hands of a last-ditch effort by what remained of Combine forces, they vanished. That was a decade ago and yet, due to an effect known as the Bogey Conundrum, memories of the Mohilar race have become hazy and inconsistent. Try as they might, no one call recall exactly what the Mohilar were, and certainly, no one has any idea where they are now…

In the wake of the Mohilar War, both the interstellar economy and government have collapsed and whilst The Combine exists, its reach has been pulled back from the Bleed. Thus, the worlds the Bleed, many scorched and blasted by war, have been left to their own devices, bound only by a common currency and cultural ties. Where Combine patrols once kept the peace, peacekeeping missions and criminal investigations are now put out to private tender and assigned to independent ship operators known as ‘Licensed Autonomous Zone Effectuators’ or ‘Lasers’. As Lasers, the player characters will crew and operate a ship on a tight budget, hoping to pick up assignments that if completed will enhance their reputation and so lead to better and more profitable assignments.
The first release is the scenario anthology, Dead Rock Seven. This is a collection of four, dirty, detailed, and involving mysteries to be investigated that can be run singly or in sequence as a loose campaign. The links between the four scenarios are quite light, although they build to a denouement in the final scenario. Certainly, the links are light enough that the Game Master can slot scenarios in between them, whether those of her own design or published by Pelgrane Press—though sadly, there are few of those. These links run in two strands throughout the four scenarios. One is the Restreamers, a nufaith which believes that history in the wake of the Mohilar War has run in the wrong direction and that through their efforts that the current universe can be ended and restarted again to follow the correct path. The other is the appearance of ‘CKEMGMCs’—or ‘Class K Entities of the Game Master’s Choice’, Class K entities being the deadly and implacably hostile aliens who may or may not be the Mohilar. They appear throughout the anthology in various ways and the Game Master is free to select either the Class K entities given in the Ashen Stars core rule book or the three news ones given in the Dead Rock Seven.

All four scenarios in Dead Rock Seven follow the same format. The ‘Contract’ provides the Lasers with the details of their next job; the ‘Twist’ explains the basic situation for the Game Master, whilst the ‘The Backstory’ goes into it in more detail, including the NPCs and their connections, and ‘The Investigation’ outlines the general outline of the core spine upon which the scenario is hung. ‘Complications’ add red herrings, other suspects, and corollary lines of enquiry, all culminating in ‘The Choice’ which gives the choices that the player characters are likely to have to make once their investigation is complete. Together this sets up the scenes which make up the bulk of each scenario, all given in the general order that a team of Lasers will investigate. The degree of organisation here is excellent and helps to make the quartet here very easy to run.

In addition, Dead Rock Seven comes with a set of six ready-to-play Lasers—including character sheets—and their ship. The six are a good mix of character types and include heroes as well as war criminals, with all six including some excellent roleplaying links and hooks. All six though require a little customisation before play, but that should not take too long.

The quartet opens with ‘The Pleasure Bringers’. The Lasers are hired by a corporation to find one of its executives who has gone missing on the pleasure planet of Andarta. Now this is the same corporation as appeared in the introductory scenario, ‘The Witness of My Worth’, in the core rulebook, so that the Game Master could easily this scenario as sequel to it. What follows is a murky tale of greed, criminality, sex, and more, all against the neon backdrop of world which specialises in sex and carnality. Although not explicit, this means that the scenario has a strong adult tone, so it may not be suitable for all gaming groups. As well as introducing the Restreamers, the scenario explores issues of immigration in the wake of the Mohilar War, of sexually transmitted diseases, and exploitation, but really building upon them and using them in interesting ways to create a sordid and nasty mystery with an air of grim desperation.

The second scenario is the eponymous, ‘Dead Rock Seven’. The Lasers are hired to investigate a suspicious death aboard a mining asteroid which is in the process of being decommissioned. Where ‘The Pleasure Bringers’ took place planetside and across a major city, this scenario is really confined to just two locations—the asteroid and its labyrinth of hand-dug tunnels and a tethered habitation module. This is much more claustrophobic affair, echoing both the horror and the Blue-Collar Sci-Fi of films like Aliens and Outland (such that it could well with the recently released Mothership Sci-Fi Horror RPG [http://rlyehreviews.blogspot.com/2019/03/blue-collar-sci-fi-horror.html]. The enclosed nature though, does make the cast of NPCs feel bigger and more difficult for the Game Master to handle, as does the intensity of relations between them. This is intentional though, as really what the Lasers are investigating is the labyrinthine nature of the relationships, although this is not to say that there is not the wealth of physical evidence for them to find too. It also means that the Game Master has good cast of NPCs for her to roleplay. ‘Dead Rock Seven’ also introduces ‘CKEMGMC’ for the first time and does so in a clever fashion which initially appear confusing to the Lasers.

‘Period of Tyranny’, the third scenario begins almost en media res, with the Lasers racing to answer the distress call from a stricken passenger starship, the Beatrix. Along with the distress call is a clause that gives the right for the Lasers to investigate the cause of the accident aboard the vessel and arrest those responsible—if anyone is, of course. Then again, this being a scenario for Ashen Stars, there is. After a harrowing rescue mission aboard the Beatrix, the trail leads to the nearby synthculture planet of Pioneer. Now in Ashen Stars, a planet with a synthculture is one which has adopted a culture other than the one that the colonisers originally from, often a historical one. In the case of Pioneer, it is of the frontier drive to settle America, but when the Lasers arrive, they discover that it has been subverted into a fascist, xenophobic regime that echoes an earlier period of Earth’s future history. So essentially it allows the Lasers to explore a bit of history as well as getting involved in pro-Combine and pro-Bleed politics as they attempt to work out who was behind the destruction of the Beatrix and why. It also gives the Lasers a definitive enemy in the form of Pioneer’s secret police as their constant presence and surveillance works to hamper their investigation.

Lastly, ‘The Anaitis Gambit’ adds a degree of silliness and levity before the action kicks in and brings the quartet to a close. Located at a nexus of several translight corridors, Anaitis Station is hosting a cooking contest—essentially ‘The Great Galactic Bake-off’—as a publicity stunt and hires the Lasers to handle the security. This gives an excuse for the Game Master to roleplaying lots of outrageously over the top NPCs before things get nasty as first someone lobs a gigantic heap of star junk at the station and then the dead bodies start piling up. The question is, is this all an attempt to sabotage the cookery contest or is there something to it? Well, yes and yes. The cookery contest is important, but clues from that will lead to an encounter with some strange aliens, reveal just what the Restreamers want and are prepared to do it in order to achieve it, and more… This is fun, fast, and furious adventure which nicely brings the quartet to a close, leaving the Lasers with having saved both the Bleed and the Combine, or having started a whole new war…

Physically, Dead Rock Seven is a clean looking, greyscale book printed on glossy paper. It is only lightly illustrated, but the artwork is excellent. Unfortunately, it is not in colour, which much of this artwork should be to show of how it actually is. As well organised as the book is, Dead Rock Seven does need another edit, which is disappointing.

There is a surprising degree of adaptability to these scenarios, so that they would work in other Science Fiction roleplaying games. They do require of diversity in terms of their aliens and their worlds, so that they would work better in Traveller or Star Trek Adventures: The Roleplaying Game, for example, rather than Firefly Roleplaying Game. Indeed, it could be argued that ‘Dead Rock Seven’ is not unlike ‘The Devil in the Dark’ and ‘Period of Tyranny’ is not unlike ‘A Piece of the Action’ and ‘Bread and Circuses’, all three Star Trek: The Original Series episodes. All of them would work well with the Doctor Who: Adventures in Time and Space roleplaying game too (thank you, Dave Lai). It would take some effort to adapt them to the system and setting of the Game Master’s choice, but the option is there.

Dead Rock Seven presents four good Science Fiction mysteries that are detailed, murky, and convoluted—for the players and their Lasers, for the Game Master they are efficiently explained and organised—and thus exactly what an Ashen Stars Game Master needs. They are also mature of tone and successfully show off aspects of the Ashen Stars setting, whether that is its politics or its recent history as well as gently exploring some timely themes. Worth getting to peruse for ideas for any Science Fiction roleplaying game, Dead Rock Seven is simply excellent support for Ashen Stars.

Saturday 16 March 2019

A Samurai Hack

Published by Thunderegg Games following a successful Kickstarter campaign, Kaigaku is a roleplaying game which uses the mechanics of The Black Hack to present an ahistorical take upon a feudal Japanese style setting. This is the Empire of Kaigaku, a giant peninsula ruled by alternating emperors—Hidari no Daiten in the West, Migi no Daiten in the East. The lands are administered in his name by eight clans over the farmers, artisans, merchants, and untouchables. These are the Atsumichi or ‘Iron Flowers’, the founders of the imperial court; the Chisaten or ‘Lesser Imperials’, those of the Imperial house who do not ascend to the throne; the Kakujima or ‘Wily Traders’, island merchants who have maintained their independence; the Kondo or ‘Forest Wardens’, who remain isolated in their woodland home; the Morimoto or ‘Snakes’, manipulative sailors who maintain good relations with Southern gaijin; the Shirai or ‘Keepers of Wisdom’, scholars and Imperial archivists; the Toguchi or ‘Hidden Blade’, fabled duelists and vitriolic demagogues; and the Watanabe, the ‘Vigilant Sentries’ who stand guard on the great western wall against invasion by foreigners. 

Kaigaku is rent by internal strife as the clans feud with each other for power and influence over both the current and the next Emperor. Each of the eight clans has its own Bushi who come together in great clashes on the battlefield or great duels of honour; Courtiers who engage in matters of etiquette and politics at court; Ninja who spy and strike from hiding; and Ascetics who learn aid others and study the Kiseki, the stones which fall from the sky and which give great power. All though, must contend with the Gaijin who sailed from faraway empires to trade with Kaigaku and those who live nearby. They include the Albar, wily traders and excellent sailors; the Cordova, religious zealots; the Kherin, horse lords and raiders from beyond the Western Wall; and the mysterious Uriwane. Of these, the Albar and the Cordova have brought with them gunpowder, which the clans willingly purchase to get the edge over their rivals. The Gaijin strictly control the sale of the black powder whilst none of the clans have been able to replicate it or the weapons that use it.

This all roughly analogous with the Japan of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, roughly when the Portuguese and the Dutch were in contact with the island during the Shogunate. Indeed, the Albar and the Cordova can be seen as the equivalent of the Dutch and the Portuguese. In the Empire of Kaigaku though, there is no Shogun, only alternating emperors.

Kaigaku is a Class and Level roleplaying game, which using The Black Hack mechanics, is ultimately derived from the d20 System. The mechanics are player-facing in that a player makes the rolls rather than the Game Master, so as well as rolling for his character to hit a target, a player rolls for his character to avoid being hit by his opponent. These rolls are typically made against a character’s attributes, so against Strength to make and avoid a melee attack roll, Wisdom to spot an ambush, Intelligence to win a game of Go, and so on. Unlike other Old School Renaissance retroclones, Kaigaku does not use Armour Class, but armour points, and uses the Advantage and Disadvantage mechanics of Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition—two twenty-sided dice are rolled and the best used if a character has the Advantage, or the worst used if the character is at a Disadvantage. Kaigaku also adds a few tweaks of its own. One is Intensification. By reducing the target a player has to roll for his character by two for each level of Intensification, the amount of damage a character can do in combat is increased, the more impressive the action being rolled for turns out to be. The maximum level of Intensification a player can select is equal to the character’s Ryu tier level. Much of a character’s actions in the game will focus on rolls to check whether they are at Advantage or Disadvantage, for example in mass combat, in duelling, and so on, and the level of Intensification his player wants to apply. Another is in duels when both participants center themselves with rolls against Wisdom or Intelligence in order to see whether they are have at Advantage or Disadvantage in the subsequent strike. A third is the use of Honour, which enables a character to act with Advantage when invoked, but at a Disadvantage when acting dishonourably. 

One element common to fantasy interpretations of feudal Japan is some kind of magic. Kaigaku does not have magic, although there is a supernatural element which is just hinted at in the rulebook, so no spellcasters, whether sorcerers or priests. Instead it has Kiseki. These are gems, jewels, and precious stones infused with elemental power—Air, Earth, Fire, Water, and Void—which fall from the sky in great meteorite strikes known as seirakka and can harvested to be worked into the great arms and armour and other items to have impressive effects or implanted in the bodies of Ascetics for command over the elements. The downside is that the seirakka can send the local fauna mad and if an Ascetic implants too many, he too may be driven mad by the Kiseki.

Creating a character is a matter of rolling dice to determine the values for his six attributes—Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, Intelligence, Wisdom, and Charisma—and selecting a Class, a Clan, and a Ryu (or school). The four Classes are Ascetics, Bushi, Courtiers, and Ninja, and each of the eight Clans has a Ryu or school for each of the four Classes. A Class determines a character’s Hit Points, arms and armour use, standard attack damage, a special feature or two, and starting equipment. Choice of Clan provides a character with some general background, but primarily dictates which Ryu the character will train in depending upon their Class. Each Ryu grants five abilities ranked into five Tiers. A character receives three skills. One for his Station or upbringing, one for his Passion or hobby, and one for Duty or job. One of these begins at +2, the other two at +1. In play they add to a character’s attributes and will rise in value as a character rises in Level and Tier.

Level 1 Courtier
Clan: Kondo
Ryu: Watchful Owl

Strength 08 Dexterity 13 Constitution 16
Intelligence 12 Wisdom 15 Charisma 10

Hit Points: 8
Weapons: Wakizashi, knife
Attack Damage: 1d6 armed/1d6 armed/improvised

Station: Samurai Farmers
Passion: Animal Husbandry
Duty: Go Champion

Special Features
Advantage on Charisma tests to influence people/resist influence
Level 2 Contact in the clan

Tier 1: First Observation
Advantage when playing Go (Wisdom or Intelligence check). Intensify on the roll to inflict a penalty on opponent’s Go roll.

The focus in Kaigaku is very much upon the eight clans, their Ryu, their notable people, their relations with others—both of the empire and Gaijin, and an adventure hook or two for each of them. Together with the secrets of the clans and the factions, this takes up roughly half of the book. The rest covers the mechanics—old and new, character generation, some details on creating monsters and threats, although no specifics are given, all of which is drawn in fairly broad detail. There is potential in the interesting Kiseki, but 

Physically, Kaigaku is underwhelming. The full colour layout is clean and tidy, but the artwork tends towards a cartoon style and is pedestrian rather inspiring. Worse though, is the cartography which is so bland as to represent something that the Gaijin might know rather than the natives of the empire. The single map of Kaigaku might as been a blank page for all it serves the setting, forcing the Game Master to draw her own.

Now the first issue with Kaigaku is the opening sentence on the back cover blurb which states, “Kaigaku brings dramatic samurai action to your tabletop!” This is quite simply marketing hyperbole—or twaddle, because fundamentally, ‘dramatic samurai action’ never went away from your tabletop. There are roleplaying games which offered this before Kaigaku was published and after… What the author should have written is something like “Kaigaku brings dramatic samurai action to the Old School Renaissance!” and that would have been more accurate. The second issue is with another sentence on the back cover blurb with states, “This book presents you with a fully fleshed-out game setting that’s detailed enough to jumpstart your imagination, but light enough so you can make stories that you want to tell.” The second part of this sentence is true exactly because the first part of the sentence is not true. In no way, shape, or form can Kaigaku be described as a “fleshed-out game setting”. In fact, Kaigaku is incomplete. There are no monsters or beasts given; there are details of the foreigners or Gaijin either, despite their being constantly mentioned throughout the book; there is no history, not even a list of major events, and deliberately do so that the Game Master can write her own; and lastly, there is no geography, the map of Kaigaku being so bland and boring in its lack of detail that again, the Game Master would better off drawing her own. Arguably Kaigaku should not have come with a map just as it does not come with a history so that the Game Master can write and/or draw her own.

And yet, Kaigaku is a mechanically sound roleplaying game for anyone wanting a retroclone with samurai and ninja. Indeed, it is actually far superior to the woefully underwritten Ruins & Ronin [http://rlyehreviews.blogspot.com/2011/03/west-is-still-best.html]. Certainly, The Black Hack is a more than serviceable set of mechanics and just as it works in standard fantasy roleplaying, it works in samurai fantasy too. The design of the Classes are decent too and so are the mechanics new to The Black Hack core rules. And therein lies Kaigaku’s real problem.

For as playable as Kaigaku is, it looks and feels familiar to another Asian fantasy roleplaying game, Legend of the Five Rings. Now of course, when writing a roleplaying game based on feudal Japan there are going to be similarities between it and any other roleplaying game based on feudal Japan. There will be samurai, courtiers, and ninja, there be an emperor, and possibly, there will be Gaijin. Given that Kaigaku is an Asian fantasy roleplaying game, it mixes in China too so that there is a wall which protects the empire from dangerous foreigners looking to invade. So far, so expected.

But compare the new mechanics of Kaigaku with Legend of the Five Rings and the Intensification mechanic looks similar to making Raises in Legend of the Five Rings. In the latter roleplaying game, a player or the Game Master raises the target number the player has to beat in order to have his character do something with style or with greater accomplishment or overcome a greater challenge. For example, a player may only have to beat a target number of twenty for his character to strike a bandit, but if the player wanted his character to hit with more damage, then he might would raise the target number to twenty-five, thirty, or more, depending upon the number of damage dice the player wanted to roll. In Kaigaku, a player is doing the reverse, that is, lowering the Target Number, by a factor of two for each degree of Intensification, for exactly the same aims.

Similarly, the use of the elements in Kaigaku, are not the traditional five of Shintoism, Yin and Yang philosophy, and Daosim—Wood, Fire, Earth, Metal, and Water—as used in other roleplaying games set in ancient Asia, such as Cubicle Seven Entertainment’s Qin: The Warring States, but Air, Earth, Fire, Water, and Void. And Air, Earth, Fire, Water, and Void are the elements intrinsic to Legend of the Five Rings. Indeed, they are the five rings of the game’s title. Now in Kaigaku, they do not play as prominent a part, but they are present and one of the Ascetic Ryu, the Heavenly Fist of the Shirai clan, actually trains in their use to make elemental strikes with them.

Further, when comparing the Ryu for the ascetics, bushi, courtiers, and ninja in Kaigaku with the schools for the bushi, courtiers, and shugenja (priests) of Legend of the Five Rings, both consist of five levels, or Ranks in Legend of the Five Rings and Tiers in Kaigaku. When it comes to the individual Tiers versus Ranks, they also bear comparison. For example, ‘Dew on the Web’, the Tier 1 ability of  the Island Spider courtier of the Kakujima Clan...
“Make a Wisdom roll when you or someone you’re speaking with needs something material, such as a bottle of fine sake or an exotic perfume. The GM determines how many, if any, Intensifications you need to find the nearest source of that resource.”
...versus Rank One: The Way of the Carp, the first Technique for the Yasuki Courtier family of the Crab clan (all quotes from Legend of the Five Rings, Fourth Edition):
“The Yasuki are masters of commerce and practice far more openly than other samurai families; they do not consider it to be a breach of etiquette to engage in open commerce. You gain a free Raise when using the Commerce skill even in public. Also, Yasuki are taught from youth to be adept at sizing up their potential customers. When speaking with someone you may make a Contested Roll of your Commerce/Perception to discern some material object or service they want to desire.”
...and then, Rank Three: Treasures of the Carp:
“Your contacts in the merchant and commercial circles of Rokugan make it possible for you to acquire almost anything you might need to satisfy a customer. You may roll Commerce/Awareness at TN 20 to locate a rare or useful item, subject to GM discretion, for someone else. You may track down higher-quality or rarer items by calling Raises.”
Now neither of these are exact copies of each other. However, they do feel similar in design and intent. Another example is the Tier 1: Sure Positioning of the Frenzied Shark Ryu from Kaigaku, who are described as “...marines, sailors or just busi; their enemies call them pirates.”:
“You never suffer Disadvantage for fighting on boats, horses, or any other uneven or moving terrain.”
…in comparison with the Rank 1: The Way of the Mantis technique of the Yoritomo Bushi school of the Mantis clan:
“Mantis bushi learn to fight on the pitching decks of ships and to use anything within reach to as a weapon. You suffer no penalties to movement or attacks for rough or uneven terrain. You do not lose Glory or Honor when using improvised weapons, or weapons with the Peasant keyword, in combat. You suffer no penalties for fighting with a Small or Medium weapon in your off-hand if that weapon has the Peasant keyword. Finally, you gain bonus of +1k0 to all attack rolls.”
Now it is obvious that there is more detail to the techniques of Legend of the Five Rings, but within all that detail, there is content that is similar to that of Kaigaku. Perhaps some of the similarities between Kaigaku and Legend of the Five Rings are due to the author having contributed to the supplements Enemies of the Empire, Strongholds of the Empire, and The Great Clans, and therefore knows the fourth edition of Legend of the Five Rings. Given that degree of familiarity, the degree of similarity between Kaigaku and Legend of the Five Rings are undoubtedly striking. What can be drawn from that is another matter. The opening of the author’s introduction reads, “Kaigaku was a long time coming. I wanted to make a game system that captured the feel of other samurai RPGs without being a simple copy.” Which of course is not only a laudable aim, but exactly what you would expect from the design of a roleplaying game. Yet it does not feel as if the author has avoided Kaigaku “being a simple copy.” Rather it feels as if the inspiration of another game weighed too heavily upon the author when it came to designing his own game.