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

Sunday 28 April 2019

Mutants & Masterminds' Basics

Originally published in 2002, Mutants & Masterminds is one of the few roleplaying games and the only superhero roleplaying game to survive the d20 System boom of the first decade of the new millenium. Published by Green Ronin Publishing and now in its third edition, it is grounded in the Four Colour subgenre and Silver Age of superhero comics, so that its tone is positive and uplifting with some wackiness and weirdness thrown in. There is room, of course, for it to be tweaked to fit other genres and comic book ages, and over the years, such as Golden Age and Iron Age, as well as setting supplements like Freedom City and Wild Cards. The Basic Hero’s Handbook is designed as an introduction to Mutants & Masterminds, streamlining the mechanics, simplifying character creation, and providing the Game Master with a handful of adventures, decent advice, and a half dozen adversaries, all ready to run. 

Now the Basic Hero’s Handbook is a complete roleplaying game and a complete superhero roleplaying game, but it is incomplete. The players can create their heroes and they can get roleplaying with fairly quickly and the Game Master can create villains—or use the ones in the book—as quickly and run the adventures in the book, but what neither the players nor the Game Master can do is create characters from scratch, from first principles. Instead, the process for creating a hero—and thus a villain—is done by selecting options in an ‘identikit’ fashion to build a character. The first choice a player makes is his hero’s archetype. There are eight given: Crimefighter, Energy Controller, Gadgeteer, Mystic, Paragon, Powerhouse, Primal, and Speedster. Each archetype provides a hero with his Ability Ranks, modified by the archetype type, of which three are given. So a Crimefighter would be Brooding, Clever, or Observant, a player selecting just one. A hero is automatically given some skills, but five or six areas of study provide the hero with further skills, for example, Academics gives Perception 8, Technology 8, and Treatment 4, whilst Investigation provides Expertise (Streetwise) 4, Insight 5, Investigation 6, and Perception 5. A player selects two of these. Similarly, a hero is automatically given several Advantages, but his player selects two or three keywords—depending upon the archetype—each of which grants two further Advantages. For example, Fortunate gives Connected and Luck, whilst Shadow grants Hide in Plain Sight and Skill Mastery (Stealth). Next, the player chooses a Power Suite, essentially his hero’s superpowers, from the three given. In the case of the Crimefighter Archetype these are Archer, Detective, and Martial Artist. Penultimately, a player selects two or three Complications, one of which has to be a Motivation, Complications earning a hero a Hero Point when they come into play. Lastly, a player can adjust his hero to make him more fun to play, swapping Skill Ranks, Advantages, and so on.

The result of the hero creation process is not to create something that is necessarily fresh or original, but rather build variations upon the familiar. So working backwards from the Power Suites for the Crimefighter and the Martial Artist might be a character like Ironfist, the Detective a masked vigilante like Batman or The Question, the Archer a hero like Hawkeye or Green Arrow, and so. These are only approximates, but select Martial Artist and then the Athletics and Larceny skill packages, the Defensive, Shadow, and Squirrely Advantage packages and a player or a Game Master has a Ninja character. Although limited, this flexibility is present in each of the eight Archetypes, giving some variety to the twenty-four Power Suites given. On the downside, it means that some superpowers are missing, for example, Intangibility or Stretching. That said, most commonly appearing powers are detailed, including gadgets, it covers several easy to identify with superhero archetypes, and it avoids the decisions and arithmetic usually required with Mutants & Masterminds and other roleplaying games of its ilk which use a point buy system for character generation.

Our sample superhero is a Powerhouse, Lionel Morgan, former American Football player who won championships, made millions, and acquired fame before notoriety as a drug addict and a prison sentence for manslaughter. In prison he received a radical new treatment for his addiction, but he reacted poorly to the cocktail of drugs intended to wean him off drugs and instead he gained great strength, endurance, and toughness. Since being released Lionel has gone public about his new-found powers and dedicated himself to using them for good to atone for his crimes.

Character Name: Lionel Morgan
Character Type: Powerhouse
Personality: Gentle Power Suite: Brick

Strength 4 Stamina 4 Agility 0 Dexterity 1
Fighting 6 Intellect -1 Awareness 2 Presence 3

Toughness 4 Dodge 8 Parry 10 Fortitude 4 Will 7

ADVANTAGES (Lucky, Protective)
Beginner’s Luck, Interpose, Luck, Power Attack, Teamwork

SKILLS (Piloting, Sports)
Athletics 6, Close Combat (Unarmed) 6, Perception 4, Ranged Combat (Throwing) 2, Vehicles 8

Invulnerability: Enhanced Stamina 8, Immunity 15 (Cold Damage, Heat Damage, Fatigue), Toughness 12 (Impervious), Regeneration 5
Leaping: Leaping 9
Strength Powers (Array)

  • Extraordinary Strength: Enhanced Strength 7, Enhanced Strength 6 (Limited to Lifting)
  • Groundquake: Affliction 10 (Vulnerable, Prone, Resisted by Fortitude, Burst Area, Limited Degree)
  • Thunderclap: Damage 10 (Cone Area)

Fame, Motivation: Doing Good

The core mechanic in Mutants & Masterminds is simple enough. Roll a twenty-sided die against a Difficulty Class, adding in any appropriate modifiers to succeed.  If it is necessary to know how well a character does, then simply succeeding at a task counts as one Degree of Success, and for every five-point threshold on the roll after that, a further Degree of Success is achieved. Conversely, failed rolls under the Difficulty Class generate Degrees of Failure.

Overall, mechanically, Mutants & Masterminds is derived from the Open Game Licence, itself taken from Dungeons & Dragons, Third Edition, but it uses a very much a pared down version of it. Most obviously, it is not a Class and Level system, although Mutants & Masterminds does measure characters by their Power Level. (Characters created using the Basic Hero’s Handbook are set at Power Level 10, but Power Levels in Mutants & Masterminds typically range between five and twelve, depending upon the style of game being played.) Nor does it use traditional attributes like Wisdom, Charisma, Dexterity, and so on, on the three to eighteen scale. Obviously, there are more attributes, but here they are straight modifiers which can be added to dice rolls, rather than modifiers which have been derived from attributes. So rather than the average person having a Presence of ten and thus a bonus of zero, in Mutants & Masterminds, a character has straight value of three. 

Similarly, the roleplaying game eschews the traditional use of Hit Points. Instead, when a character would suffer damage, his player makes a Toughness Save against the damage that the attack would do. Succeed and the attack has no effect and no damage is inflicted, but fail the Save and the character suffers an effect rather than losing Hit Points. The effect is dependent upon the Degrees of Failure rolled. Thus, one Degree of Failure and the character suffers a -1 penalty Hit to further Toughness Save rolls; two Degrees of Failure and the character suffers another penalty Hit and is Dazed; three Degrees of Failure and the character suffers a further penalty Hit and is Staggered; and four Degrees of Failure and the character is incapacitated. So essentially there is a slow spiral effect to taking damage which then ramps up, a player likely to accrue a number of Hits which penalise his character’s Toughness Save sufficiently enough to roll worse Degrees of Failure. This means that just as in the comics, superheroes in Mutants & Masterminds can withstand a lot of damage, but still be floored by a lucky punch or strike.

There are also two ways in which a superhero can push himself. One is Extra Effort, used to overcome great difficulties, use a superpower in a new way, push himself just that little bit further, and so on. This causes the character to become Fatigued, a Fatigued character to become Exhausted, and an Exhausted character to pass out. The other is Hero Points, which represent his good fortune and capacity for him to overcome both crime and evil. These can be used to gain a re-roll, edit a scene, gain a flash of inspiration or an Advantage, instantly counter another power, or recover from a condition like Dazed or Fatigued. A character starts play with one Hero Point and can earn more his Complications make his life more difficult.

Superhero roleplaying games have a reputation for complexity, in some cases, well deserved. The Basic Hero’s Handbook works very hard to avoid this, with clear examples and explanations of the mechanics, including Challenges like facing an ‘Aggressive Interview’ or making a ‘Deathtrap Escape’. Right from the start, the player is guided through the game with sections on ‘How to Play’ and examples of play both drawn as a comic strip and written up, whilst the Game Master is guided through how to run the game and how to create and run the game’s various types of scenes—Challenge, Conflict, Investigation, and Roleplay. The Game Master is further supported with five ‘Adventures to Astonish’, from ‘The Doom Room!’ and ‘The Heist’ to ‘Disaster Strikes’ to ‘Shadow of the Past’. These grow in length and complexity, but nicely showcase archetypal superhero adventures just as the character Archetypes showcase how Mutants & Masterminds does familiar superheroes. Lastly, there is advice on handling villains and a ‘Rogues Gallery’ of villains, including thrill seekers, mercenaries, villains, and masterminds. There are just seven here, fully stated out and given full write-ups, but of course, the Game Master can create more using the Archetypes given earlier in the book.

Physically, the Basic Hero’s Handbook is bright and breezy in its style and colour palette. The artwork is excellent throughout depicting a wide variety of heroes and villains in action, and the book’s three double-spread cartoon strips are actually nicely done. The writing is clear throughout and the book is easy to read.

Although the Basic Hero’s Handbook does not include the full Mutants & Masterminds rules—the Deluxe Hero’s Handbook is needed for that—it does provide a complete superhero roleplaying game. It is also very much more than a ‘Quick-Start’ introduction, offering a solid, if familiar, set of options in terms of what players can roleplay accompanied by a solid, if familiar, set of adventures ready for the Game Master to run. This familiarity does mean that the Basic Hero’s Handbook does not offer the full scope (or indeed, the full complexity) of Mutants & Masterminds, but it does still provide plenty of opportunity for superhero roleplaying and serve as an excellent introduction to one of the best superhero roleplaying games available. 

Saturday 27 April 2019

Extermination Exercises

Originally published by Nightfall Games in 1993, SLA Industries is a roleplaying game set in a far future dystopia of corporate greed, commodification of ultraviolence, the mediatisation of murder, conspiracy, and urban horror, and serial killer sensationalism. The player characters are employees of the eponymous SLA Industries, undertaking missions and assignments across the many sectors of Mort City, into Downtown, and even into the Cannibal Sectors beyond. They will hunt down serial killers, search the sewers for monsters, prevent terrorist attacks by rival corporations, silence dissenters, and more, not just taking the pay for each mission, but hoping to be caught on camera and the action footage be good enough to get them noticed, get them sponsorships and contracts, get them on the first rung to fame, fortune, and being media darlings. Over the years, the roleplaying game has been through the hands of several publishers—for good or ill—which means that it has not been as well supported as its devotees would like. Now back in the hands of the original publishing team, Nightfall Games, the core rule book for game has not only received a new printing, but the first new supplement in many years has finally seen print.

Previously only available as a series of PDFs—or data packets, Hunter Sheets Issue Two brings together twenty ‘Hunter Sheets’ that SLA Industries has issued to be taken by Contract Killers and Contract Hunters and fulfilled in return for an agreed payment. In the World of Progress that is SLA Industries, standard Operatives are assigned BPN or ‘Blue Print News’ sheets, tasks that require a mix of investigation and combat to fulfill, but Hunter Sheets detail threats, problems, and difficulties that SLA Industries wants dealt with by freelancers with more combat experience. They include serial killers, escaped experiments, aliens, rogue operatives, gang leaders, and more.

In game terms, these are assignments suited to experienced player characters and as such, are not fully fleshed out scenarios, but more slightly detailed outlines. Each target is accorded a description of his criminal portfolio and an actual Hunter Sheet which could be copied and handed to the players prior to their undertaking the assignment. This Hunter Sheet lists the target’s name and description, crime, and the department issuing the Hunter Sheet and the amount of the bounty to be paid upon its completion. Each Hunter Sheet also gives a Criminal Profile, Last Known Location, and Method of Attack for the target as well as headshot photograph. All together, the twenty of these take up the first half of the supplement. The second half of Hunter Sheets Issue Two provides the game stats for all twenty targets as well as some notes for the Game Master on using each target in the game.

The subjects of the Hunter Sheets include Rover, an Advanced Carrien trained by SLA Industries, but since gone rogue and become a business suited executive in Cannibal Sector 4 where he leads a very well organised carrien pack of his own. Suzi Tic-Toc is the last of the Tek Trex employees whose knowledge and ability to build and command drones is keeping her alive, but who SLA Industries wants dead—as well as her knowledge destroyed. Socko is the latest serial killer on Mort to break through the thirteen victim threshold and so come to the attention of the media, despite the fact that he is uncharismatic, inept, and ripe for the takedown by SLA Operatives or even civilians wanting to make a name for themselves. On the plus side, Socko is very good at making a getaway and he even has his own fan club!

Baba Naga is an incredibly old Ebon—a bag Ebon—who has the ability to use Glyph Cards to powerful and seemingly effect. Known as the ‘Blind Witch’, she is also known to cast fortunes using these Glyph Cards and the Department of Ebb really wants her and her knowledge off the streets of Mort City. Criss Cross is a preteen gang leader and visionary whose gang members have engaged in petty crime across Sector 45 of Downtown just as she has been indoctrinating them in anti-SLA propaganda. The Hunter Sheet for Sidi Gejkta is one the few to take the Operatives offworld. The Wraithen has gone rogue on an alien home world of Matanwa and dedicated himself to protecting the planet from further incursions by SLA Industries military forces. The change here takes SLA Industries as a roleplaying game and the player characters out of the Urban Horror genre which lies at its heart and ‘up country’ rather in the style of Apocalypse Now.

Each of these is then given game stats—though not Baba Naga—and notes and suggestions for their use in a game for the Game Master. For example, the notes for the serial killer, Socko, highlights what a sad individual he is with a domineering sister and a slew of wouldbe vigilantes and bounty hunters on his tail, whilst those for Criss Cross are surprisingly short and focus on the importance of her visions to certain departments within SLA Industries. Rounding out the section for the Game Master are details of the Root Dogs, one of the most vicious of the Conflict Races who used science and advanced technology to wage war rather than fight face-to-face, including releasing random herd creatures on target worlds to simply test them as much as defeat their enemies.

At the start, Hunter Sheets, Issue Two  suggests that Hunter Sheets are a fairly recent new innovation, one that has been taken advantage of by certain  combat focused operatives who have been forming ‘Death Squads’ and then going deep into Downtown. Not to go rogue as such, but to take advantage of their power to set up small fiefdoms lording it over civilians far from the reach, let alone the oversight, of SLA Industries. Consequently, opinion within the company is currently divided as to what to do about this situation, either seeing the use of Hunter Sheets and Death Squads as a necessity, but wanting to curb and control their excesses, or simply wanting to stop them all together. The twenty Hunter Sheets presented in this supplement represent reactions to them so far—as experiments, as necessities, as exercises in power, as the means to clear up embarrassments, and so on.

Physically, Hunter Sheets Issue Two is a slim hardback nicely presented full colour, although primarily using an olive or khaki-based colour range. Every target of one of these twenty targets is given a full illustration by Dave Allsop and these are all fantastic. Unfortunately, the editing leaves something to be desired. Almost every ‘fi’ or ‘fl’ letter combination is missing, making the book challenging to read in places, though the reader should be able to adjust.

If you run a SLA Industries campaign or are a devotee of the roleplaying game, then ownership of Hunter Sheets Issue Two is a must. It provides a score of combat-orientated missions and more than a score of potential foes, the player and their characters having some leeway in how they approach each, the Game Master being free to develop the specifics of each mission from the information given. Hunter Sheets Issue Two does need a tighter edit, but the Game Master can work around that to further develop its content for more experienced players and more experienced player characters of SLA Industries campaigns.

Friday 26 April 2019

Friday Filler: The Fighting Fantasy Co-op III

Escape the Dark Castle: The Game of Atmospheric Adventure brought the brutality of the Fighting Fantasy solo adventure books of the eighties to co-operative game play for up to four players in which their characters begin imprisoned in a tyrant’s castle and must work together to win their freedom. Published by Themeborne, with its multiple encounters, traps, monsters, objects, and more as well as a different end of game boss every time, Escape the Dark Castle offered a high replay value, especially as a game never lasted longer than thirty minutes. That replay value was enhanced with the release of Escape the Dark Castle: Adventure Pack 1 – Cult of the Death Knight, the game’s first expansion. It added new threats, new potential escapees, and more. 

The replay value of Escape the Dark Castle is further enhanced with the completion of the Escape the Dark Castle: The Legend Grows… Kickstarter campaign. This produced two new expansions, Adventure Pack 2 – Scourge of the Undead Queen and Adventure Pack 3 – Blight of the Plague Lord as well as a big box into which to store them along with the core game. The first of these introduces a whole a new Boss, fifteen new chapters which the escapees must face before they successfully flee the Dark Castle, two items to find and use in the process, and a new mechanic. The new Boss is the Undead Queen, a foul necromancer who wants to enslave the escapees’ souls and who is capable of spawning a horde of undead against them in order to prevent them from exiting the castle. The fifteen-chapter deck will see the escapees facing skeletal hordes, grasping zombies, listless spirits, and more, culminating of course, in a final encounter with the Undead Queen herself who can spawn spirit after spirit… A nice touch is that this fifteen-chapter deck can be played straight out of the box with the chapter cards in order as they come packed. After that, this new deck can be replayed by shuffling the fifteen cards in random order and the players having their attempt to escape again. Then, after that, these new cards can be shuffled in with the chapter cards from the Dark Castle: The Game of Atmospheric Adventure, Adventure Pack 1 – Cult of the Death Knight, and Adventure Pack 3 – Blight of the Plague Lord, and the game played as normal.

The new mechanic which Adventure Pack 2 – Scourge of the Undead Queen adds to Escape the Dark Castle is that of Companions. There are three of these—the ‘Spirit of the First Prisoner’, ‘The Defecting Guard’, and ‘The Witch Hunter’—each of which joins the escapees when their associated Event card is drawn. Each Companion is treated like a player character and so fight and face challenges like ordinary player characters  and so each has their own die to roll. On their dice, there is an ‘explosion’ like symbol which counts a double the rolling player’s choice of symbols when rolled out of combat, but triggers each Companion’s Special Abilities in combat. So the ‘Spirit of the First Prisoner’ has a limited number of actions she can do before she disappears, but her event card is then reshuffled back into the Event deck to enable her to reappear again and again in the course of the players’ escape attempt. Her Special Ability is ‘My Spirit Joins With Yours’ which grants each player a Hit Point or item when triggered. Her card is then discarded and cannot return to the game.  ‘The Defecting Guard’ is a Spearman who can prevent an enemy attack and in combat open a ‘Secret Passage’ to both end the combat and end the chapter as well as avoiding the next chapter too! . ‘The Witch Hunter’ can carry items for the players in his pack, but in combat can shout ‘Leave This To Me’ and launch himself at the enemy, enabling the players to escape the to the next chapter. Again, both ‘The Defecting Guard’ and ‘The Witch Hunter’ are discarded from the play once their Special Abilities are triggered and used.

These Companion rules are a nice addition, adding depth and mood to the grim fantasy of Escape the Dark and giving more dice for the players to roll from chapter to chapter. The act of ‘The Witch Hunter’ sacrificing himself is pleasingly cinematic, whilst ‘The Defecting Guard’ gives a little more character to the castle, no longer are the players faced with a series of monolithic foes, chapter after chapter… Hopefully the publisher will add more, perhaps with something like Escape the Dark Castle: Expansion Pack 1 – The Companion Pack?*

* Note: This does not exist.

Lastly, Adventure Pack 2 – Scourge of the Undead Queen comes with two new Item cards. The ‘Ritual Chalice’ enables the use of the blood ritual where the players can donate their blood—or Hit points—to give another player Hit Points it needs. The ‘Spell Book’ grants three spells—Obliterate, Revive, and Manipulate—which anyone can cast. Unfortunately, none of the players have true spellcasting ability and so the spells have as much chance of failing and inflicting damage as much as they do of being successfully cast. To that end, an item die is included in the pack.

Physically, Escape the Dark Castle: Adventure Pack 2 – Scourge of the Undead Queen is as well produced as the core game. The Chapter, Boss, and Companion Cards are large and really easy to read and understand. Each one is illustrated in Black and White, in a style which echoes that of the Fighting Fantasy series and Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay last seen in the nineteen eighties.

At its most basic, Adventure Pack 2 – Scourge of the Undead Queen adds a whole new story and more challenges which extends the life of Escape the Dark Castle and means that players will bring back to the table on a regular basis. The Companions rules though, add more mechanics yes, but also bring character to the game and give someone for the players and their characters to care about and interact with and even tell the story of their escape about. Adventure Pack 2 – Scourge of the Undead Queen gives you good companions and is a good companion to Escape the Dark Castle: The Game of Atmospheric Adventure.


Thenborne will be at UK Games Expo which will take place between May 31st and June 2nd, 2019 at Birmingham NEC. This is the world’s fourth largest gaming convention and the biggest in the United Kingdom.

For Cultured Friends IX: The Excellent Travelling Voume Issue No. 9

Following in the footsteps of took the author and publisher’s House of Worms campaign, The Excellent Travelling Volume Issue No. 8, ‘A fanzine of M.A.R. Barker’s World of Tékumel’, went in a very different direction to previous issues, far across the southern ocean to ‘Linyaró, Outpost of the Petal Throne’, a small city located on the Achgé Peninsula. Written for use with TSR Inc.’s Empire of the Petal Throne: The World of Tékumel, it detailed the city itself, its inhabitants and clans, as well as the native peoples, the local flora and fauna, and more. It explored—unofficially—a region not visited within Tékumel canon, as well as showcasing the possibilities of opening up regions well away from the familiarity of the Five Empires on the northern continent. The Excellent Travelling Volume Issue No. 9 returns home to the northern continent, but geographically at least, not to the Five Empires.

The issue opens with an editorial as usual. Here James Maliszewski recounts his experiences attending conventions and essentially how the smaller the convention, the more enjoyable they are. There is certainly a truth to this, as the smaller events tend to be less commercial, less frenetic, and friendlier. What is also true is that such event are about as much socialising as they are about play and smaller events tend to be focused on play. They are also a chance for players to try games they might not at home and as James highlights, the chance to meet others you might only know online or through the pages of a fanzine. Anyway, it is nice to that he is enjoying this aspect of the hobby.

The first of the two ‘Additions and Changes’ in The Excellent Travelling Volume Issue No. 9 is ‘Pygmy Folk and Swamp Folk Characters’, which provides rules for playing either race in Empire of the Petal Throne: The World of Tékumel. Notably drawn from Swords & Glory, Vol. 1: Tékumel Source Book, this details the Alignment, Choice of Sex—the Pygmy Folk have three as opposed to the two of Swamp Folk, Profession—the Swamp Folk can only Warriors as they cannot cast spells of any kind, Hit Dice, their unique racial abilities, and what gods and their cohorts they worship. There are also notes on possible names, their homelands, and what legions they might serve in. Together this draws a great deal of playable information about both races that can be used to help create player characters or NPCs. Of course, the Five Empires being humanocentric in their outlook to one degree or another does mean that Pygmy Folk and Swamp Folk player characters will some social stigma.

The second is ‘Expanded Original Skills’. This revises the three lists of skills—Elementary, Intermediate, and Advanced—to fill in some of the omissions in terms of skills for as society as baroque and as complex as the Tsolyánu Empire and those of the Five Empires. Primarily, it adds Ancient Language and Modern Language, Entertainer, Etiquette and Courtly Manners, Lawyer, and Moneylender.  Of the two new additions, Ancient Language and Modern Language and Entertainer require further definition when selected. So acrobat, juggler, puppeteer, and so on for Entertainer, but languages like Engsvanyáli and Llyáni, Mu’ugalavyáni and Yan Koryáni for Ancient Language and Modern Language. To that end, the article includes a long list of languages. Now none of this has been playtested, but overall this looks like a reasonable revision.

The issue’s main focus is the Ni’ikmá Valley. As detailed in ‘The Ni’ikmá Valley’, this is a small area within the Plain of Towers, lying to the west of Mu’ugalavyá. By the standards of the Five Empires, it is a sparsely settled region, its peoples primitive, and notably, sits on the edge of a ‘barren zone’ as far as the use of magic and technological devices are concerned. It introduces the local inhabitants, the Nixkámi, details their faith and culture, and describes some of the places of note within the valley. One of these is ‘The Sunken Sanctum’, a subterranean ruin in the Qelqái Range of mountains on the southern edge of the valley. Rumoured to be haunted, this complex is actually a very minor facility from the Latter Times. Consisting of just seventeen locations, it is nicely detailed and has a slightly weird feel which echoes that of playing Gamma World or Metamorphosis Alpha. The Game Master though, will need to develop a reason or hook for her player characters to visit the site—and to be fair, the Ni’ikmá Valley.

Two other articles further develop the Ni’ikmá Valley. One is a full hex map of the valley, whilst the other is a ‘Bestiary’, the first of two Additions in The Excellent Travelling Volume Issue No. 9. The size of Tékumel and the isolated nature of places like the Ni’ikmá Valley mean that all manner of strange and different creatures can be found. So it is with the Ni’ikmá Valley, the article adding just four creatures native to the area, like the Jálu or ‘Prowler’, a large, four-limbed predator which stalks its prey through the Qelqái Range and is capable of bursts of unexpected speed. The other Addition to the issue is ‘New Eyes’. The article adds a further thirteen to the many listed in Empire of the Petal Throne: The World of Tékumel, including ‘The Eye of Ineluctable Verity’, which prevents the subject from telling falsehoods and inflicts agonising pain if they do, and ‘The Eye of Immediate Encapsulation’, which imprisons the target in stasis, in a pocket dimension. Unfortunately, there are only six such pocket dimensions, so when one target is popped into one, another one pops out… That lends itself to some interesting adventure possibilities and showcases the invention displayed in the creation of these Eyes.

Perhaps the oddest article in the issue is ‘The Undying Wizards’. In Professor M.A.R. Barker’s fiction we see characters like Prince Dhích’une visiting other planes to converse and consort with his allies, but in this article we have characters coming from these planes—and elsewhere—to the ‘current’ time period. Primarily based in the far future of Tékumel, these characters make up a cabal of wizards of great knowledge and power who essentially police its timeline. Their methods, ideologies, and personal histories may vary, but they do care. None of the quintet described are given any stats, but they are of such power that in all likelihood they do not need any, although there is nothing to stop the Game Master from providing them.

Most campaigns set on Tékumel take place in its here and now, roughly conversant with the civil war following the usurpation of the Petal Throne by Prince Dhích’une and its aftermath, but with ‘The Undying Wizards’, we step outside of that to look at the planet’s long history and long future, whatever that may be… The article provides a set of NPCs to use as potential patrons, threats, a conspiracy from outside of time, and more. Ultimately, it hints at a bigger picture to the setting and adds yet another layer of mystery to it, whilst also providing a solid set of NPCs for the Game Master to roleplay.

Lastly, ‘The Temple of Lord Aridzó’ adds a location, a ruined structure in the Dry Bay of Ssu’úm previously detailed in The Excellent Travelling Volume Issue No. 6. It is a short location one-page piece which really just adds a little more detail to the content in the previous issue.

It almost goes without saying that The Excellent Travelling Volume Issue No. 9 is physically up to production standards set by previous issues. The writing is engaging, the illustrations all excellent, the cartography clear and easy to read, and it feels professional despite being put together by fans. Much of the issue’s content is taking the reader and thus the Game Master away from the Five Empires, so it may not be of use for everyone’s campaign, but the content in The Excellent Travelling Volume Issue No. 9 is an interesting read and some of it even has the potential to change a campaign.

Friday 19 April 2019

[Fanzine Focus XIV] MR-KR-GR The Death-Rolled Kingdom

On the tail of Old School Renaissance has come another movement—the rise of the fanzine. Although the fanzine—a nonprofessional and nonofficial publication produced by fans of a particular cultural phenomenon, got its start in Science Fiction fandom, in the gaming hobby it first started with Chess and Diplomacy fanzines before finding fertile ground in the roleplaying hobby in the 1970s. Here these amateurish publications allowed the hobby a public space for two things. First, they were somewhere that the hobby could voice opinions and ideas that lay outside those of a game’s publisher. Second, in the Golden Age of roleplaying when the Dungeon Masters were expected to create their own settings and adventures, they also provided a rough and ready source of support for the game of your choice. Many also served as vehicles for the fanzine editor’s house campaign and thus they showed another Dungeon Master and group played said game. This would often change over time if a fanzine accepted submissions. Initially, fanzines were primarily dedicated to the big three RPGs of the 1970s—Dungeons & Dragons, RuneQuest, and Traveller—but fanzines have appeared dedicated to other RPGs since, some of which helped keep a game popular in the face of no official support.

Since 2008 with the publication of Fight On #1, the Old School Renaissance has had its own fanzines. The advantage of the Old School Renaissance is that the various Retroclones draw from the same source and thus one Dungeons & Dragons-style RPG is compatible with another. This means that the contents of one fanzine will compatible with the Retroclone that you already run and play even if not specifically written for it. Labyrinth Lord and Lamentations of the Flame Princess Weird Fantasy Roleplay have proved to be popular choices to base fanzines around, as has Swords & Wizardry.

MR-KR-GR The Death-Rolled Kingdom is a little different. First, it is systemless, and second, it is the first setting detailed under the A Thousand Thousand Islands imprint. Based in Malaysia and penned by Zedeck Siew and drawn by Munkao, this is a Southeast Asian-themed fantasy visual world-building project, one which aims to draw from regional folklore and history to create a fantasy world truly rooted in the region’s myths, rather than a set of rules simply reskinned with a fantasy culture. The result of the project to date is four fanzines, each slightly different, the first of which is marked with a ‘1’ and is MR-KR-GR The Death-Rolled Kingdom.

Up a lush river lies a lake accessible via a gateway consisting of the grand, gaping maws of two crocodiles. This is the entrance to MR-KR-GR The Death-Rolled Kingdom, or the Dismembered Land, which sits on the lake and was once the site of a great city said to have been drowned by a thousand monsters. Beyond lies the wooden port of Singga, its banks crowded with boats and its skyline crowded with vine and silence-wrapped temples. Here merchants come to trade in coin, grain, honey, and forest goods, such as ‘Spirit Mango’ fruit from trees pollinated in the spirit realm; ‘Corpse Honey’, health-giving honey harvested from hive-zombies; and ‘Snake Stone’, ruined stonework containing trace magics which can be reworked into minor amulets. Downlanders may trade in the Singga, but they require a permit to stay. Otherwise, they must retreat at night to Trader’s Island where tea shops and lodging houses are built across the cheeks, nose, and forehead of a giant, fallen statue.

Crocodiles rule MR-KR-GR The Death-Rolled Kingdom in a lazy, benign fashion. They police the river, their decrees outlaw the exploration of the ruins of MR-KR-GR, they are patrons, and more. AR-YM-SR the famed crocodile and archaeologist who has lost too many to the demon idols MR-KR-GR’s interior will hire adventurers to locate books and artefacts, but not to study them, but ensure that rot in the river; GR-RM-DR, a crocodile so obese she has to be carried on a litter owns many businesses and is owed much monies; and only the crocodiles can grant Downlanders citizenship, but this requires their being drowned—twice.

Another difference with MR-KR-GR The Death-Rolled Kingdom is that its setting, its peoples and personalities, its places, and its strangeness are described with a very simple economy in terms of its words. Its absolute minimum of description is paired with utterly delightful artwork, which ranges from strange vistas and ports teeming with activity to demon idols that were fashioned as walking prisons for the old kingdom’s gods and a duellist whose father was actually a sword. Drawn by a single artist, Munkao, the profuse number of illustrations in this forty page fanzine would put many a gaming supplement to shame and do a superb job of bringing the author’s text to life. One issue perhaps is that some of the artwork is a little light and perhaps not quite as well produced on the pages here as it is in Drawings, Part One, another fanzine-style booklet published by the A Thousand Thousand Islands project.

Although MR-KR-GR The Death-Rolled Kingdom is systemless, it does require a number of dice as there several tables to be found within its pages. These include encounter tables, demon idol tables, crocodile tables, and more, but using these tables and just by taking a cue from the simple descriptions given, a Game Master could easily create encounters and scenario ideas, even straight from the page during play. Besides being easily adapted to the rules system of the Game Master’s choice, the setting described in MR-KR-GR The Death-Rolled Kingdom is also easily adapted to the campaign of the Game Master’s choice. Of course it would fit into any campaign based on south-east Asia, but doing so might mean that distinctiveness of MR-KR-GR The Death-Rolled Kingdom might be lost amongst all of the other ‘exotic’ surrounds. One possible setting is that of Tékumel, perhaps on a far distant coast from the Five Empires and with the crocodiles having six legs instead four, but it would also work in H.P. Lovecraft’s Dreamlands; as a strange port of call in a planetary romance campaign; and even as somewhere in the far distant future or past for the Doctor to visit in a Doctor Who: Adventures in Time and Space campaign.

As has already been mentioned, there is a lovely simplicity to MR-KR-GR The Death-Rolled Kingdom, both in terms of the words and the art. It would be amazing to see this developed into a game of its own, but perhaps that would spoil what the writer and artist have already done—evoke visions of a very different world and of a very different fantasy to which a Western audience is used. 

[Fanzine Focus XIV] Midderzine Issue 1

On the tail of Old School Renaissance has come another movement—the rise of the fanzine. Although the fanzine—a nonprofessional and nonofficial publication produced by fans of a particular cultural phenomenon, got its start in Science Fiction fandom, in the gaming hobby it first started with Chess and Diplomacy fanzines before finding fertile ground in the roleplaying hobby in the 1970s. Here these amateurish publications allowed the hobby a public space for two things. First, they were somewhere that the hobby could voice opinions and ideas that lay outside those of a game’s publisher. Second, in the Golden Age of roleplaying when the Dungeon Masters were expected to create their own settings and adventures, they also provided a rough and ready source of support for the game of your choice. Many also served as vehicles for the fanzine editor’s house campaign and thus they showed another Dungeon Master and group played said game. This would often change over time if a fanzine accepted submissions. Initially, fanzines were primarily dedicated to the big three RPGs of the 1970s—Dungeons & Dragons, RuneQuest, and Traveller—but fanzines have appeared dedicated to other RPGs since, some of which helped keep a game popular in the face of no official support.

Since 2008 with the publication of Fight On #1, the Old School Renaissance has had its own fanzines. The advantage of the Old School Renaissance is that the various Retroclones draw from the same source and thus one Dungeons & Dragons-style RPG is compatible with another. This means that the contents of one fanzine will compatible with the Retroclone that you already run and play even if not specifically written for it. Labyrinth Lord and Lamentations of the Flame Princess Weird Fantasy Roleplay have proved to be popular choices to base fanzines around, as has Swords & Wizardry.

Midderzine, which promises ‘More green for your game’, is a fanzine devoted to The Midderlands, the horror infused, green tinged interpretation of the medieval British Isles flavoured with Pythonesque humour and an Old School White Dwarf sensibility, published by Monkey Blood Design and first detailed in The Midderlands - An OSR Setting & Bestiary. Also published by Monkey Blood Design and like The Midderlands, this fanzine is written for use with Swords & Wizardry and adds new flora and fauna, locations, oddities, and more. This is much more of a house publication and so is cleaner, tidier, and more consistent in style than the average fanzine. This includes the artwork and cartography of designer Glynn Seal as well as the artwork of Jim Magnusson.

Midderzine Issue 1 opens with ‘Meet the Midderlander’, an interview with one of the contributors to The Midderlands, in this case, Swedish artist, Jim Magnusson. This is nice and short, but to the point, doing something that a house organ should do, that is, highlight those involved in the creative process. Actual content for The Midderlands begins with ‘The Haven Gazette’, three pages of expanded rumours and news sheets entries which the Referee can expand upon for her campaign. For example, ‘The Leper Knights of Saint Corrobin in Helm’s Ford’ were recently granted the right to establish a monastery in Helm’s Ford despite local objections; Edmund Fester won the deeds to an old keep near Darlow as told in ‘Gambler Priest ‘Wins’ Keep’; and Mulch Fertwiddle gives his best tips on growing turnips slug free in ‘Garden Goblin’s Corner’. There lots of these and if perhaps the gardening tips are really filler, they do add colour and flavour, whereas the rest work as good hooks for the Referee to develop and help draw her players further into the setting.

‘Hexes & Unique Locations’ detailed several new places. They include the ‘Plinth of Dullen Fields’, a strange set of grave markers at the site of a battle six hundred years ago; ‘The Ruins of The Cock & Pocket Inn’, now a sinkhole and the last known sighting of a missing tax inspector as mentioned in ‘The Haven Gazette’; and ‘Ratdog Tor’, a monster-infested rock outcropping previously mentioned in The Midderlands. More detailed is a new village, ‘Stonecastle’, which is surprisingly quiet, but of course hides a secret or two. Interestingly, neither the local lord—Sir Uriah Fellchurch—nor the villagers are aware of them, so it will be down to the player characters to become aware of them. ‘The Eyeless Harrowers’ details a New Cult of monastic brewers, all blind and eyeless, whose beers and ales are brewed in secret, but sold across the Midderlands. Again, this is something for the Referee to develop from the description given here.

Fully written up are the two entries in ‘New Non-Player Characters’. The first of these ties back to the rumours and news given in ‘The Haven Gazette’, being a write-up of the gambling priest, Edmund Fester, whilst the second links to the setting of Stonechurch and the issue’s ‘New Class’, the Crowmaster. ‘Corlin Lackcraw’ is a Crowmaster who quietly serves Sir Uriah Fellchurch by collecting the news brought by the crows across the Midderlands and beyond. The Crowmaster is even quieter about the fact that he serves more than the one master… ‘New Monsters’ describes three new creatures, the Gloomrat, a dog-sized, three-eyed creature with a poisonous bite and possibly a nasty sting/mace/claw in the tale; the Catvile, a hairless, black cat whose skin can be cured to make light absorbing cloaks; and Devil’s Goat, a vile goat’s head thing with tentacles that spreads nasty rumours!

The Crowmaster is a new Class which is based on Druid, but which specialises in communications and dealings with corvidae of all types out on the moors and in the forests. They can understand and speak with crows and will come to build a network of corvidae spies, fly like a crow, and even take one as a steed. This is a nicely avian-themed variation of the Druid Class which lends itself to fun roleplaying. The two entries in ‘New Spells’ are self explanatory, Cover in Shit doing that to a Magic-User’s target, whilst Bag of Crap summons a bag containing ‘Crap You Find on Folk’ as detailed in The Midderlands - An OSR Setting & Bestiary, which the caster can pull things from. Hopefully the caster might something useful, but this does feel like a slightly silly, slightly useless spell. Rounding out Midderzine Issue 1 are ‘New Oddities’ and ‘New Flora & Fauna’. So the former includes a ‘Catvile Cloak’, which as the description of the creature details earlier, improves the wearer’s ability to Hide in Shadows, whilst the latter gives a range of minor creatures and plants.

Physically, Midderzine Issue 1 is very nicely produced with excellent artwork and cartography. In terms of its production values, it feels a bit tight in its binding and so is not quite as easy to reference.

Initially, it feels as if Midderzine Issue 1 spreads its focus far and wide, but delving into the fanzine and there is a pleasing number of connections between the articles and the content so that the Referee does not need to refer to other supplements to make use of its contents. This gives the issue a sense of cohesiveness that enforces the sense of Midderlands as a place even if the Referee was to take that content out of the setting and use it in her own. In fact, extracting this content would be quite easy. Overall, Midderzine Issue 1 is a solid first issue with gaming content that any Referee running a campaign set in The Midderlands will want to add and develop for her game.

[Fanzine Focus XIV] Megadungeon #2

On the tail of Old School Renaissance has come another movement—the rise of the fanzine. Although the fanzine—a nonprofessional and nonofficial publication produced by fans of a particular cultural phenomenon, got its start in Science Fiction fandom, in the gaming hobby it first started with Chess and Diplomacy fanzines before finding fertile ground in the roleplaying hobby in the 1970s. Here these amateurish publications allowed the hobby a public space for two things. First, they were somewhere that the hobby could voice opinions and ideas that lay outside those of a game’s publisher. Second, in the Golden Age of roleplaying when the Dungeon Masters were expected to create their own settings and adventures, they also provided a rough and ready source of support for the game of your choice. Many also served as vehicles for the fanzine editor’s house campaign and thus they showed another Dungeon Master and group played said game. This would often change over time if a fanzine accepted submissions. Initially, fanzines were primarily dedicated to the big three RPGs of the 1970s—Dungeons & Dragons, RuneQuest, and Traveller—but fanzines have appeared dedicated to other RPGs since, some of which helped keep a game popular in the face of no official support.

Since 2008 with the publication of Fight On #1, the Old School Renaissance has had its own fanzines. The advantage of the Old School Renaissance is that the various Retroclones draw from the same source and thus one Dungeons & Dragons-style RPG is compatible with another. This means that the contents of one fanzine will compatible with the Retroclone that you already run and play even if not specifically written for it. Labyrinth Lord and Lamentations of the Flame Princess Weird Fantasy Roleplay have proved to be popular choices to base fanzines around, as has Swords & Wizardry.

Megadungeon is a fanzine of a different stripe. Published by Hack & Slash Publishing, it is designed for use with Basic Dungeons & Dragons and Expert Dungeons & Dragons as well as Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition. This marks it out as being unlike many other fanzines, but further, Megadungeon is different because it is devoted to the design and philosophy of the huge, expansive dungeons integral to some Dungeons & Dragons settings and Dungeons & Dragons-like settings. In particular, it is devoted to the author’s own megadungeon, Numenhalla. Fundamental to the design is the expansive nature of the megadungeon—it is not finite like dungeons such as Dwimmermount, Rappan Athuk, or Stonehell—and so Numenhalla is found everywhere beneath the Soma of the Gis, the author’s campaign world. Megadungeon #1 introduced the setting, its races, and its gods—essentially a combination of the Greek and Norse pantheons—as well as giving several playable nodes within Numenhalla. Megadungeon #2 continues in the same vein, developing further the philosophy behind the megadungeon’s design, adding nodes for the player characters to explore, new monsters, things to do away from the dungeon, and more.

The issue opens with ‘How Do You Use A Megadungeon?’, which explains the publisher’s approach to running and playing a megadungeon. Fundamentally, they are not adventure paths or sandboxs, but expeditions in the truest sense wherein the limits of encumbrance, time and light, movement and vision, all matter. They are expeditions into the unknown to gain knowledge, to probe the megadungeon’s empty spaces in search of areas occupied by threats, rivals, and other dangers. As interlopers the player characters should be in danger from the inhabitants of the megadungeon as much as the inhabitants are from the player characters—if not more so. In other words, the megadungeon should be a place of fear and it should able to bite back.

This is followed with ‘Tethys’, an addition to Numenhalla’s pantheon of gods. Mother-daughter to Hera, she is the goddess of the sea, mother of rivers and clouds, who angered her father for her betrayal with her mother and who consequently hid her sword deep in the oceans. This sets up the first node in Megadungeon #2, ‘The Hunting Halls of Tethys’, a maze-like complex built to trap the player characters and confound most attempts at logical exploration. The connection between the two articles is not immediately obvious, but at the heart of the complex lies a shrine to Tethys and it is rumoured that she walks the halls herself, seeking her lost sword. The complex is quite compact, but with almost fifty locations, there is a great deal of gaming to be got out of exploring its tight and twisting halls and rooms. Its write-up includes a handful of rumours and quests to use as hooks to get the player characters to enter its confines and once the player characters have figured how to get out and back in again, for them to return once again to fulfil other quests.

Like all of the nodes detailed in the Megadungeon fanzine, the actual descriptions of individual locations are written in a very terse style, which may well be off putting for some readers. Of course, this allows for easy adaptation to other retroclones and easy elaboration by the Dungeon Master. The compact and concise design of ‘The Hunting Halls of Tethys’ also makes it easy to pull from the pages of the fanzine and add it to a megadungeon of the Dungeon Master’s own design.

Where ‘The Hunting Halls of Tethys’ is a traditional Dungeons & Dragons-style fantasy location, the second node in Megadungeon #2 has a Science Fiction flavour a la Metamorphosis Alpha or S3 Expedition to the Barrier Peaks, full of strange machinery and technology. Despite its anachronistic trappings, ‘Fatal Dark Iron Horror’ is a much more straightforward node to play through, one whose atmosphere echoes that of Alien, but the shift in genre and technology makes the location not as straightforward to adapt or run elsewhere.

‘Town Activities’ explores what characters might do away from the dungeon. This takes place in Arclight above and presents a number of downtime actions that can take months at a time. This includes weapons training, proficiency training (for Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition), training and re-rolling Hit Points, and even their core attributes. They can purchase spell scrolls, retainers,hirelings, and Gorth—the semi-slave race native to this world. Player characters can also groom a protégé, essentially setting up a replacement character in the event of their death, and they can spend out on carousing. This will grant them Experience Points, but such events can go wrong and land them in serious trouble. They can study and conduct research too, but perhaps the most interesting activating is undertaking any one of the quests available at the Guild Hall. These are strictly controlled, so only one can be undertaken at a time and it can only be conducted in the dungeon. When a party returns to the surface, it is deemed to be no longer on the quest, but is free to choose the quest again or another at the Guild Hall. Another party might even select that quest in the meantime. This adds some interesting storytelling and adventuring possibilities, structuring quests episodically, having rivals go on quests that the party has not completed, and so on.

The four ‘Treasure Maps’ enable the Dungeon Master to add links to the nodes given in the issue, whilst the ‘Non-Player Characters’, Professor Snorly, a Third Level Frogling, and Roxby the Lancer, field researcher and Fifth Level Lancer, can be encountered or hired in or outside of Numenhalla. Roxby the Lancer is certainly a spellcaster, one specialising in ray-type spells, but what Professor Snorly is, is unclear. Unfortunately what either is, is not explained and quite what are they is left for the Dungeon Master to develop. ‘Non-Player Character Parties’ details a complete party of NPCs, one of high Level and written somewhat tongue in cheek, so not possibly of immediate use to a Dungeon Master. ‘Dragons’ details two of these creatures. Quexgor Salmagar the Infamous is as much NPC as he is a monster, shapeshifting into a potentially a useful hireling, but not necessarily to be trusted.  Madamagor is more of a traditional creature.

The dragons are not the only creatures described in Megadungeon #2. These include ‘Grey Ranadin’, toad-like abominations considered by some to be gods; ‘Androphagi’, barbaric and nomadic cannibalistic savages whose heads are where their chests should be; the ‘Brutal Beast of Mogyosth’, part-lion, part-bull, part-man, all hunter; and all more. ‘Hengormoth’ are sort of amorphous creatures wanting to change their forms, cruel and militant slavers who welcome mutations to their bodies. Numerous variations are given, but they despite this, their description feels underwritten and lacking in context.

Two authors other than the publisher contribute to Megadungeon #2. John Bell suggests a new design of the venerable wandering monster table in the eponymous ‘Wandering Monster Tables and their (Re)Uses’. Starting from the limitation of the single axis monster table, he suggests adding a second, horizontal axis to turn the table into a grid. This second axis would allow column headings for ‘Lair’, ‘Monster’, ‘Noises’, ‘Tracks’, ‘Spoor’, and ‘Traces’ to be added and the resulting entries enabling the player characters to encounter evidence—indirect and direct—of the monsters in the dungeon or region long before they might run into the creatures themselves. This adds depth to the dungeon or region, but the author also suggests other ways to use it, including building quests, creating a dungeon with minimal effort, or restocking a cleared out area. Overall, a clever idea that warrants further development.

The other contributor to Megadungeon #2 is the player, Chris H. His ‘Tales from the Underground’ rounds out the issue, recounting one of his experiences playing online in what is an odd ending for the fanzine since it means that it steps away from its focus and its remit, that is, the megadungeon and Numenhalla in particular. Here he describes a raid into the castle of the Heart Queen as detailed in A Red & Pleasant Land, the beyond-the-mirror setting which is part Dracula’s Adventures in Wonderland, part Alice’s holiday letters from Transylvania. Nevertheless, it is an enjoyable read and interesting to see other groups play and run a setting.

Physically, Megadungeon #2 is cleanly and neatly presented. It needs an edit in places and the issue is illustrated with a lot of publically available artwork. The issue’s writing is problematic though, the publisher's terse style working for the megadungeon node write-ups, but not for the monster or NPC descriptions, many of which leave the reader wanting just a little more context and background.

As much as Megadungeon is dedicated to Numenhalla, the publisher’s megadungeon, not all of Megadungeon #2 is devoted to it. Yet those articles which are devoted to it are undeniably the best of the entries in Megadungeon #2—‘The Hunting Halls of Tethys’ and ‘Town Activities’ in particular—and equally the easiest to pull from the issue and use elsewhere. The other articles in Megadungeon #2 are not as interesting or as useful, several being underwritten and lacking easy application. Overall, Megadungeon #2 is something to dip into and take from rather than use as a whole.

Sunday 14 April 2019

The Other OSR: Raven's Purge

One of the greatest artefacts of the Forbidden Lands is Stanengist, the royal crown known as ‘The Hanging Stones’. In this crown were mounted six rubies, each the elf stone of the first six elves of the Forbidden Lands who planted its trees, cut the beds through which the rivers flowed, and gave homes to its animals. From their position upon the crown, these elves could maintain a watch over what they had wrought and give advice to their descendants who wore the crown and so keep the lands intact. When several of the rubies were stolen, the land was weakened and with the coming of mankind to Ravenland, the land would ultimately be sundered with the rise of the Orcs and the unleashing of demons by the arch-sorcerer, Zygofer the Spellbinder. Walled off for centuries, the Blood Mist that has long settled upon these Forbidden Lands has recently lifted and men and women of all races have flooded into a realm untouched by their hands for centuries. They are not valiant souls, but scoundrels, treasure hunters, vagabonds, adventurers, fortune seekers, setting out to make their mark on the new land—there are dungeons to be plundered, great treasures to be found, and strongholds to be claimed!

The starting point for such expeditions are the legends, the lore, and the rumours that weft their way across the land, from ear to ear, and so it is with new word of Stanengist. It is said that visions have been seen of the lost rubies and where they lie. Locate these rubies and Stanengist itself and then remount them in the crown and it is said that whomever places it on her head shall according to legend gain the power to rally all kin and rule over the Forbidden Lands. There is truth in every legend, so is there a band of adventurers and fortune hunters brave enough, resourceful enough, foolhardy enough to locate all of the lost elf stones and so claim the crown of the Forbidden Lands?

This is the set-up for Raven’s Purge, the first campaign for Forbidden Lands – Raiders & Rogues in a Cursed World, the ‘Retro Open-World Survival Fantasy RPG’ published by Free League. Published as part of the roleplaying game’s Kickstarter campaignRaven’s Purge is an epic eight-part campaign with an open structure built around eight locations and a finale at a last, ninth location. The player characters are free to visit any of the first eight locations in any order—and need not even visit them all—in order to gain sufficient information to go to that last location. This reflects the open play style of Forbidden Lands, in which the players and their characters are explorers, travelling across territories which have been cut off for centuries and of which they know little except legends. Such legends serve as hooks, pushing the characters to visit the setting’s adventure sites—villages, castles, and dungeons—and pulling them into the region’s history and secrets, often revealing the dark truths of lands that have been under a blood mist and demon-infested for centuries.

Raven’s Purge is presented as a toolkit to run its campaign as much it is a campaign itself. This is because the campaign is freeform in structure rather than linear, so the player characters are free to roam where they will, visiting which of the eight locations they want, and in what order they want. Now this means that the campaign is more of a challenge for the Game Master to prepare to run because it is primarily player directed. To offset this, the Game Master can nudge the player characters in certain directions, using the legends given for each of the artefacts which appear in the campaign and the various NPCs who have an interest in Stanengist.

As a toolkit, Raven’s Purge gives a complete history of Stanengist, including its missing rubies and details the nine key players from the Forbidden Lands with an interest of obtaining  in gaining the missing Elf Stones and Stanengist, before detailing the eight (plus one) locations which make up the campaign. Now the Game Master should be aware that the nine key players are not just the key players particular to this campaign, but the setting for the roleplaying game itself. Once the player characters get involved, their actions, the alliances they forge, and the enemies they make will have a profound effect upon the Forbidden Lands. Some of those effects, the consequences of the player characters’ actions across the campaign, are discussed in the book’s last chapter, ‘Aftermath’. This capacity to fundamentally change the political landscape ties back into the ethos of the designers of Forbidden Lands—that each Game Master’s campaign is going to be different and that the outcome of the player characters’ actions will be different in each campaign, essentially stamping their combined ‘legacy’ upon the Forbidden Lands.

The campaign’s adventure locations include the centre of the region’s slave trade, a party venue for ogres, an orc city, an abandoned mine, and more. Each location is accorded a chapter of its own and organised into the same format. This begins with a description of what the player characters see before detailing the location’s background, how to get there, the legends associated with it, its locations, monsters and NPCs, and possible events that might play out there once the player characters arrive. The ‘Getting There’ section typically gives two or three ideas, many of them NPC encounters before reaching the location itself that are tied into possible storylines given in the ‘Events’ section. If there is a weakness to the ‘Getting There’ section, it is that across the eight locations, the ‘encountering an NPC just outside a location who wants you do something in said location’ does become something of a cliché and the Game Master may want to adjust as necessary. That said, all of the given NPCs should be fun for the Game Master to roleplay and the events themselves are varied.

The Game Master can also expand upon Raven’s Purge by adding two of the adventure locations from the roleplaying game’s ‘Gamemaster’s Guide’—Weatherstone and Vale of the Dead. These can either simply be added to the eight given in Raven’s Purge, or if the Game Master has already run them, use them as a springboard into this campaign. Either way, they could be used as the starting point for playing Forbidden Lands – Raiders & Rogues in a Cursed World. The structure of the Raven’s Purge campaign—a series of nodes linked by legends at the centre of which is the finale—is also open enough such that a Game Master could design locations and adventures of her own to run in addition to the campaign itself.

Physically, Raven’s Purge matches the style and quality of both the ‘Player’s Manual’ and the ‘Gamemaster’s Guide’ for Forbidden Lands. Although it does not have the faux leather covers of the two core rulebooks, this is another sturdy hardback done in black and white on buff pages. Again illustrated in pen and ink throughout, it has the look and feel of a roleplaying game supplement from decades ago. The artwork, primarily drawn by one artist, is excellent, as is the cartography, again more illustrations than maps, is also good. It should be noted that the fantasy of Forbidden Lands is definitely grim and gritty with a mature tone.

In a great many ways, Raven’s Purge is the companion to the boxed set of Forbidden Lands. Together, the ‘Player’s Manual’ and the ‘Gamemaster’s Guide’ for Forbidden Lands – Raiders & Rogues in a Cursed World set up the Forbidden Lands as they are now, with Raven’s Purge expanding up that. Raven’s Purge though then provides the means for the player characters to not only interact with the great and the good—actually, mostly not good as there are shades of grey in every NPC—of the Forbidden Lands, but also truly change its political landscape. Raven’s Purge is a grim, gritty open campaign in which the future of the Forbidden Lands is placed in the player characters’ hands and what they do and what they decide will be their legacy in the Forbidden Lands.

Saturday 13 April 2019

The Rokugani Register

Emerald Empire – The Essential Guide to Rokugan is the second supplement to be published for the fifth edition of the Asian fantasy roleplaying game, Legend of the Five Rings, now published by Fantasy Flight Games. Its release offsets an issue with the core rulebook, the lack detail in terms of the roleplaying game’s setting of Rokugan. This supplement greatly expands upon what was given in the core rulebook, not only examining particular elements of Rokugan—geographical, political, cultural, and philosophical—but also supporting these aspects with examples, rumours, NPCs, and scenario hooks. Over the course of six chapters—‘Strongholds of Power’, ‘Centers of Trade’, ‘Heart of the Empire’, ‘Sacred Spaces’, ‘Paths to Enlightenment’, and ‘Wilds of Rokugan’—it looks at the Emerald Empire’s customs and social structure, its politics and arts, how it maintains law and order, its religion, how it educates its people, its attitudes towards money and how it conducts commerce, how it goes to war, and its attitude towards and what little it knows about the various Gaijin peoples beyond its borders. Plus a seventh chapter gives new player character options.

Emerald Empire – The Essential Guide to Rokugan opens with an extended timeline covering the time before history and then the first thousand years of Rokugan’s history. A more detailed history than that found in the core rulebook, this is not a year-by-year guide with a list of all of the emperors, but more of a story told. This is followed by the seven chapters, each a lengthy essay which covers various facets of its subject. For example, the first chapter, ‘Strongholds of Power’ explores castles in Rokugan, what daily life is like in a castle for inhabitants, guests, staff, and servants; their construction, typical buildings, and where they might be found; and what role they play in Rokugan. The latter covers lordship and governance, a lord’s duties, as well as courts, their inhabitants, and more. This also includes marking the difference between shiro and kyūden—castles and palaces—the primary difference being that kyūden are capable of hosting the hugely expensive, annual winter courts traditionally attended by the emperor, but of course, the line between the two has blurred over the centuries. Castles are typically the place where a samurai’s gempuku—his coming of age ceremony—is typically held, so this is also detailed, as is the role of jesters at court, the duties of the all but invisible servants, and private speech. Besides examining strongholds as places of power, the chapter looks at how power itself is projected through war and diplomacy, the latter tying back to the discussion of how courts are organised and run, the former also looking at specific conflicts and how each clan handles war.

The detail and background in ‘Strongholds of Power’ is supported with game specific content. This includes descriptions of particular shiro and kyūden, such as Toshi Ranbo, a site of major Lion-Crane conflict; Kyūden Bayushi, the home of the Scorpion clan’s ruling family with its infamous Traitor’s Grove; Kyūden Doji, the seat of the Crane clan’s ruling family, famous for its plateau-by-sea location and gardens; the Imperial Palace itself; and more. In each case, the locations are accompanied by sample rumours, NPCs, and detailed adventure seeds, which the Game Master can bring to her campaign. This is in addition to the ideas in the background content which could easily be developed into scenarios and campaigns. For example, the description of the Imperial Palace includes the detail that whilst the emperor is away at a Winter Court, a group of samurai is accorded the honour of serving as caretakers whilst the Imperial Court is elsewhere. This lends itself to a duty to be assigned to the player characters and indeed, the adventure seed supports this campaign set-up.

This format is followed through the rest of the supplement. Thus ‘Centers of Trade’ covers Rokugan’s economy and commerce, towns and cities and the lives of those who reside there, harbours and lighthouses, crime and punishment, and so on. As well as some interesting examples, such as the City of the Rich Frog, contested by the Dragon, Lion, and Unicorn clans whilst the Dragonfly minor clan looks on, it also looks at the lives of those outside of the Samurai class. Not just the peasantry, but for the first time, the reviled gaijin or foreigners. It includes notes on playing both Emerald magistrates and Clan magistrates, and to that end, how Rokugani investigate crime and view evidence versus testimony.

Having visited Rokugan’s towns and cities, ‘Heart of the Empire’ takes the reader beyond them along the roads and rivers of the empire to wider settled areas, mostly held in higher esteem by the samurai class because this is where the peasantry carries out the honourable task of growing the rice that the empire lives on. Notably this highlights the relationship between the peasants and their samurai masters, subservient but rarely having to interact with them and rarely wanting to. 

 ‘Sacred Spaces’ and ‘Paths to Enlightenment’ are really paired chapters, as both explore the sacred, religious, and cosmographical aspects of Rokugan. The first chapter takes the reader from ‘Ningen-dō’, the physical Rokugan, to the spiritual realms that sit above, below, and contiguous with the land, visiting each one in term, as well as examining the Kami and the Fortunes, shrines, religious practices and festivals, and sacred sites. The section on forbidden religious will probably receive particular attention by the Game Master, covering as it does corrupted shrines, curses, the practice of Mahō, and more. This is only an introduction of course and likely receive a fuller description in another supplement. The second chapter pays particular attention to the Emerald Empire’s two Imperially mandated combined faiths—Shinseism and Fortunism—and the lives of the monks who worship each. This will be of particular interest to players who wish to roleplay monks.

Penultimately, ‘Wilds of Rokugan’ goes beyond the civilised regions of Rokugan and the empire and into untamed nature. It gives reasons for going there—the coasts, forests,and mountains—and who might be found there, including gaijin as well as samurai. Notable locations include the great Kitsune and Shinomen forests, the former home to the Fox minor clan and famous for its fox spirits, the latter for its violent spirits. Lastly, the ruins section introduce the reader to some of the remnants of the civilisations which existed before the descent of the Kami to ‘Ningen-dō’. Again, this waits to be expanded upon.

Rounding out Emerald Empire is ‘New Player Options’. This introduces the Imperial Families, those which serve the Emperor directly, as player characters. They include the Miya, Otomo, and Seppun families along with the Miya Cartographer, Miya Herald, Otomo Schemer, Seppun Astrologer, and Seppun Palace Guard schools. For the most part their roles are obvious, but the Otomo Schemer actually works to maintain the power and authority of the Emperor, even at the cost of the great clans. These options tie back into the ‘Strongholds of Power’ chapter, as does the inclusion of new Titles—essentially new positions of power and influence—like Advisor, , Daimyō, and Gunsō (commander of a unit of soldiers); whereas Clan Magistrate and Yoriki (deputies to magistrates) link back to the ‘Centers of Trade’ chapter and the Monastic Acolyte and Priest (who unlike Shugenja cannot cast spells) are nods to the ‘Sacred Spaces’ and ‘Paths to Enlightenment’ chapters. Other titles, like Spy and Yōjimbō work across all of the chapters, as do two news schools which also break the rules in their own way. In Legend of the Five Rings and Rokugan, schools are well-practiced training paths and philosophies, but the two given at the end of Emerald Empire present outsiders trying to fit in for their own purposes. These are the Kitsune Impersonator Tradition and the Kolat Saboteur Conspiracy. Both require careful play if they are to be added to a campaign with any player taking either ‘school’ needing to work closely with the Game Master to make sure their roles are kept hidden. Rounding out ‘New Player Options’ is a wide range new advantages and disadvantages.

Packaged as a handsome hardback, physically, Emerald Empire is another stunning looking book, in keeping with the rest of the line. Although the book needs a much closer edit in places, the layout is clean, tidy, and attractive, and the artwork, which is excellent throughout, never feels less than appropriate. In places, there is some very clever use of the background artwork, much like the Ninjutsu Techniques being presented in the core rulebook across a two-page spread depicting city rooftops at night. So the section on mountains in the ‘Wilds of Rokugan’ is set against high, dark peaks, and the section on the coast in the same chapter is set against the rich blue of the sea sky over the sky. These are lovely touches that contrast with the standard buff-coloured pages.

As useful as the information is in Emerald Empire, some Game Masters may find it lacking in places. The timeline given at the start of the book is rather broad and any Game Master wanting specific dates will have to wait for another supplement. Similarly, elements such as lists of what major castles, cities, ports, shrines, and towns are to be found in what Clan lands will again have to wait for another supplement. Another issue is with the placement of the map in the book, just a few pages into the supplement rather than inside the front and back cover, makes referring to the map a little awkward.

Emerald Empire contains a wealth of information and background about Rokugan that the Game Master will find useful in bringing her Legend of the Five Rings campaign to life. Not just setting details, but scenario seeds and rumours, cultural mores and outlook, all of which will add flavour and feel to a campaign. Yet there is so much more to Rokugan that in places Emerald Empire can only hint at what is known about a particular location or a particular subject, so the Game Master will need to consult other supplements and sourcebooks that at time of publication are yet to see print. Nevertheless, Emerald Empire – The Essential Guide to Rokugan is solid introduction to the setting of Legend of the Five Rings and an integral companion to the roleplaying game.