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

Monday 29 July 2019

Miskatonic Monday #22: The Wernicke Boxes

Between October 2003 and October 2013, Chaosium, Inc. published a series of books for Call of Cthulhu under the Miskatonic University Library Association brand. Whether a sourcebook, scenario, anthology, or campaign, each was a showcase for their authors—amateur rather than professional, but fans of Call of Cthulhu nonetheless—to put forward their ideas and share with others. The programme was notable for having launched the writing careers of several authors, but for every Cthulhu Invictus, The Pastores, Primal State, Ripples from Carcosa, and Halloween Horror, there was a Five Go Mad in Egypt, Return of the Ripper, Rise of the Dead, Rise of the Dead II: The Raid, and more...

The Miskatonic University Library Association brand is no more, alas, but what we have in its stead is the Miskatonic Repository, based on the same format as the DM’s Guild for Dungeons & Dragons. It is thus, “...a new way for creators to publish and distribute their own original Call of Cthulhu content including scenarios, settings, spells and more…” To support the endeavours of their creators, Chaosium has provided templates and art packs, both free to use, so that the resulting releases can look and feel as professional as possible. To support the efforts of these contributors, Miskatonic Monday is an occasional series of reviews which will in turn examine an item drawn from the depths of the Miskatonic Depository.


Name: The Wernicke Boxes

Publisher: Chaosium, Inc.
Author: Rob Leigh

Setting: Modern Day
Product: Scenario
What You Get: 5.35 MB, 24-page full colour PDF
Elevator Pitch: A locked box, locked room mystery across Europe.

Plot Hook: A friend’s ‘suicide’ behind a locked door leads to a multiple MacGuffin hunt to save lives.
Plot Development: Multiple boxes, multiple museums, multiple visions, and rival sorcerers.
Plot Support: Solid plot, three maps, six handouts, one new spell.
Production Values: Decent beyond a slight edit.

# Good MacGuffin hunt
# Good conspiracy scenario
# Excellent floor plans
# Decent handouts
# Easy to add to a modern campaign
# Easy to adjust to earlier time periods

# Detective needs anglicising
# No Hound of Tindalos
# No House of Ausberg

# Solid conspiracy horror scenario
# Lamentable inspirations

Sunday 28 July 2019

1989: Shadowrun

1974 is an important year for the gaming hobby. It is the year that Dungeons & Dragons was introduced, the original RPG from which all other RPGs would ultimately be derived and the original RPG from which so many computer games would draw for their inspiration. It is fitting that the current owner of the game, Wizards of the Coast, released the new version, Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition, in the year of the game’s fortieth anniversary. To celebrate this, Reviews from R’lyeh will be running a series of reviews from the hobby’s anniversary years, thus there will be reviews from 1974, from 1984, from 1994, and from 2004—the thirtieth, twentieth, and tenth anniversaries of the titles—and so on, as the anniversaries come up. These will be retrospectives, in each case an opportunity to re-appraise interesting titles and true classics decades on from the year of their original release.


Shadowrun: Where Man Meets Magic is thirty years old. Released in 1989 by FASA Corporation—a publisher then best known for its roleplaying games based on licensed properties such as Star Trek: The Role Playing Game and The Doctor Who Role Playing Game—it can be seen as the first great mélange roleplaying game, the first great roleplaying to successfully combine genres in one setting (much like Pinnacle Entertainment Group did with the Deadlands: The Weird West Roleplaying Game did almost a decade later with the Wild West and horror). This was a mix of the fantasy with the Science Fiction, specifically the Cyberpunk subgenre. The Cyberpunk genre had been popular ever since the publication of William Gibson’s novel Neuromancer in 1984 and the roleplaying hobby had been looking for a cyberpunk roleplaying game ever since. The publication of Cyberpunk 2013 by R. Talsorian Games in 1988 had fulfilled that demand and certainly throughout the early nineties, following the release of Cyberpunk in 1990, would continue to do so with a series of supplements. Cyberpunk 2013 and Cyberpunk would continue a straightforward exploration of a future which combined lowlife and high tech, the latter often put to uses their inventors or intellect property owners never imagined by those forced to live on the streets by radical breakdown or changes in society. The antagonists armed themselves, modified themselves with cyberware, replacing and enhancing limbs and senses, even directly linking themselves into Cyberspace, a planet-wide computer network, a virtual space where they could continue the same protests and fights against the encroaching power of the corporations as they did in the real world or ‘meatspace’. Shadowrun would do the same, but the antagonists did not just have access to cyberware and cyberspace, they had access to magic, for theirs was a world inhabited by Dwarves, Elves, Orks, and Trolls—and more—as well as Humans, and they faced not just the corporations, but Dragons too! In time, the Dragons grew to be powerful, personifying corporations and becoming media personalities, even running for President. It would be glib to describe Shadowrun as Dungeons & Dragons meets Cyberpunk, but it is a start and it might be a selling point, though more importantly, it would grow to become something much more. 

The setting for Shadowrun—the Sixth Age—is specifically tied to one date, December 24th, 2011. This marked the end of the five thousand year Mayan calendar and the beginning of the next. The change would see the appearance of dragons and the rise in magic until it would be recognised as a science. Then with U.G.E., or ‘Unexplained Genetic Expression’, mutant and changeling children began to be born, children who eventually recognised as Elves, and this would be followed by ‘Goblinisation’, in which a tenth of the population mutated into hideous forms, forms which would become known as Orks and Trolls, their appearance triggering global race riots. Together with the Dwarves, these new races or members of Metahumanity became known as the Awakened. Politically, the United States would be weakened as corporations were recognised as extraterritorial and Native Americans’ demand for recognition turned into an armed struggle that would eventually force Canada, Mexico, and the United States to recognise the Native American Nations under the terms of the Treaty of Denver. Worse was to follow with the data Crash of ‘29 as a killer virus destroyed data and systems worldwide, toppling governments and threatening to destroy the USA. In response, operatives co-opted by the US government and using advanced cybertechnology entered cyberspace and fought the virus. Not all survived, but several of those who did took that technology to market, ultimately leading to personal cyberdecks which allowed individuals to easily access cyberspace and travel anywhere from the comfort of their own homes. In the wake of the Crash of ‘29, what remained of the United States merged with Canada to form the United Canadian and American States in order to save both their economies and resources. It was followed by the secession of the Confederated American States four years later.

This is the set-up for Shadowrun, the Sixth World in 2050. The roleplaying game itself would be set in the Seattle metroplex, a UCAS enclave isolated on the West Coast by several members of the Native American Nations, including Tir Tairngire, the major Elven realm on the North American continent. Its rain-soaked skyline is still dominated by the Space Needle, joined now by the Aztechnology Pyramid and the Renraku Arcology, but away from the bright corporate lights, the city is surrounded by the Barrens, an urban slum-like wilderness that the city mayor never mentions—unless he has too. The likelihood is that the player characters make their home in the Barrens, surviving as best they can, undertaking runs in the shadows on behalf of corporate Mister Johnsons. Such runs are likely on rivals of Mister Johnson’s employer, easily deniable attempts to extract or destroy data or technology, extract persons, and so on. As shadowrunners they will face corporate security, corporate mages, and corporate deckers all attempting to stop their intrusion with the legal right to use lethal force, so they had better bring protection!

In Shadowrun, the players roleplay these Shadowrunners. In terms of characters, players have a wide choice of Races, members of Metahumanity—Dwarves, Elves, Orks, and Trolls—as well as Humans. They have an even wider choice when it comes to what it is their characters do. Primarily, these are presented as Archetypes, each with a full colour illustration and ready to play. The sixteen given include Elven Decker, Former Wage Mage, Ork Mercenary, Rigger, Rocker, Shaman, Street Mage, Street Samurai, Street Shaman, and Tribesman, all of which have been iconic roles within the roleplaying game. There are omissions from the list of archetypes, there being no Dwarves or Trolls, so archetypes like the Dwarven Rigger or Troll Street Samurai would have to wait for future supplements and editions of the roleplaying game. Each of the sixteen comes with background and commentary, followed by attributes, skills, contacts, and gear as well as cyberware and spells, depending upon the Archetype.

Characters are defined by nine attributes, divided into three groups, Physical, Mental, and Special Attributes. The Physical are Body, Quickness, and Strength; the Mental are Charisma, Intelligence, and Willpower; and the Special are Essence, Magic, and Reaction. Of these, Essence is a measure of a character’s nervous system and spirit, Magic is a measure of a character’s magical energy, and Reaction measures how quickly and how often a character can act under pressure. Notably, both Essence and Magic are depleted by invasive cyberware, so spellcasting characters tend not to augment themselves with such technology. Attributes range between one and six for Humans, but can be much higher for Metahumans, Trolls for example, can have a Body as high as eleven! Skills do not have such limits and notably include magical skills such as Conjuring for the calling and banishing of spirit powers and Sorcery for the casting of spells, and various aspects of Etiquette, such as Etiquette (Street), Etiquette (Media), and Etiquette (Corporate), for knowledge of and how to deal with particular subcultures. Skills can also have concentrations, like Firearms (Pistols) or Interrogation (Verbal), which improves the rating of the concentration, but reduces the rating of the core skill. So the character with Firearms (Pistols) 3 actually has a rating of 4 with pistols, but 2 with other firearms.

The primary means of creating a character in Shadowrun is to choose an archetype and get playing. There are guidelines for modifying the Archetypes, but they more showcase how fiddly it is modify an Archetype rather than build one from scratch or simply grab one and start playing. Part of the issue here is the priorities inherent to character generation. Creating a character begins with a player actually setting priorities in terms of what he wants to play out of Attributes, Magic, Race, Skills, and Tech. The stronger the priority, the more it plays a role in the character and for Attributes, Skills, and Techs, how many points a player has to assign in those areas or money his character has to spend. Importantly, if a player wants to play a Metahuman character then he places his top priority in Race, followed by the next priority in Magic if he wants his character to cast magic, whereas a spellcasting Human would need to have to make Magic his top priority. So a Dwarf Shaman would have the priorities Race-4, Magic-3, Attributes-2, Skills-1, and Tech-0; a Human Mage would have Magic-4, Attributes-3, Skills-2, Tech-1, and Race-0; and an Ork Rigger would have Race-4, Tech-3, Attributes-2, Skills-1, and Magic-0. Essentially, the priorities are a nice balancing mechanism, but they do force particular aspects of a character to be emphasised, whether that is Magic and Race over Attributes, Skills, and Tech or vice versa. Humans have the most options though, since they can place priorities in Attributes, Skills, and Tech rather than Race or Magic. On the downside, it means that it is very difficult to create a character who is good—or at least not bad—at everything, as all characters are specialists in one way or another.

Overall Archetype creation from scratch is not easy. Setting the Priorities is perhaps the easiest part, because after that a player needs to delve deeper into each Priority. Assigning Attribute and Skill points is straightforward enough, but deciding upon spells if a Magic using character, what Contacts to buy, and what gear to buy is not. Especially if in terms of gear, a character has a lot of cyberware or equipment, for example a Decker with his cyberdeck and its programs or a Rigger and his drones. This all takes time and really, the first edition of Shadowrun hints at the possibilities of character generation rather than fully supporting it. To fair, other roleplaying games had previously focused on playing archetypes rather than players creating characters, most notably Star Wars: The Roleplaying Game from West End Games, but Shadowrun does not adhere to the Archetype only option, instead hinting at the possibilities of character generation without fully supporting them, such as saying what the step-by-step process is for each character type.

The sample character is a Troll Shaman. His player has given him the Priorities Race-4, Magic-3, Attributes-2, Skills-1, and Tech-0. This means that he is a spellcasting Metahuman with little tech—certainly no cyberware—and little NuYen or money. The lower priority on Attributes is balanced by the modifiers for his being a Troll, but he is incredibly brainy for a Troll, whilst also being nowhere near as strong as the average Troll.

Troll Shaman
Body 5 Quickness 2 Strength 4
Charisma 4 Intelligence 4 Willpower 4
Essence 6 Magic 6 Reaction 3

Armed Combat 2, Conjuring 5, Etiquette (Street) 2, Etiquette (Tribal) 2, Negotiation 2, Sorcery 5, Magical Theory 2

Analyse Truth 3, Heal Moderate Wounds 4, Sleep 3

Dice Pools
Astral 15 Defence 2 Dodge 2 Hacking 0 Magic 5

Knife, Medicine Lodge Materials

Snake Totem; +1 reach for Armed/Unarmed Combat, Thermal Eyes, Dermal Armour (1); Allergic to Sunlight, Mild reaction

Mechanically, Shadowrun begins simply enough. It is a dice pool system, using six-sided dice. To succeed at a Success Test, a player rolls a number of dice equal to the appropriate attribute or skill for his character. Rolls of one always mean that a Success Test Fails, with rolls of all ones mean that the character has made a disastrous mistake. Conversely, rolls of six explode, letting a player roll again and add the result to the six. A simple Success Test would have a Target Number of two, a Routine would have three, an Average would have four, and so on. If a character rolls one or two success, then he has barely succeeded, three or four and he has achieved a noteworthy success, and so on.

Yet beyond these base mechanics, Shadowrun adds layers complexity with its different subsystems. Combat is not particularly complex, with players rolling successes to hit after adjusting for various targeting modifiers and then applying damage, the amount being determined by the means of attack’s damage code. So a light pistol has a damage code of 3M1. This means that it would inflict a wound with Power Level of 3 (against which the target makes a Resistance Test to withstand the damage), of Moderate Wound Category, and for each Success rolled above the first, would raise the Wound Category by one. Damage can be reduced in the same way, a player rolling his character’s Body Attribute and adding to the number of Successes to reduce the Wound Category as much as possible. Combat tends to be quite dynamic with characters being able to rely on their Dodge and Defence Pools—which renew each round—to get them out of trouble. That said, once vehicles come into play, a likelihood if a Rigger is being played, combat becomes more complex.

Similarly, Magic is not too complex. At its core, it is broken into two traditions, Shamanic and Hermetic. There is good advice on playing, a Shaman each having a  Totem, like Eagle or Wolf, which the Shaman’s player will roleplay his character acting like lest he lose access to his magic, whilst the Hermetic Mage is much more like a traditional magic-user. The two primary skills for magic are Sorcery, which allows for the casting of spells of all sorts, whilst Conjuring covers the summoning of spirits. The danger in any spellcasting is that it is fatiguing. A spellcaster can cast as many spells as often as he likes, but the more powerful a spell, the more likely it will leave him fatigued, even inflicting physical damage upon himself if he fails to resist the draining effects of the spell. Again, Shaman and Mages have their own dice pool to draw from, this time the Magic pool to support their actions, as well as a similar for use on the Astral Plane. The magic chapter includes a good grimoire of spells to choose from, though at the beginning of play a Shaman or Mage is unlikely to know more than two or three (though exactly how many is not actually that easy to determine).

The last of the subsystems in Shadowrun concerns the Matrix or the Grid. Here Deckers plug straight into cyberspace using cyberdecks and explore the virtual world, making hacking runs on corporate mainframes and datastores, dodging or neutralising the Intrusion Countermeasures or IC mounted by the corporations, including right up to the Black IC that will actually target and damage the intruding Decker’s own body. Decker characters needed to be equipped with cyberdecks and programs, the Game Master needs to create a network of nodes for the Decker to penetrate and explore, quite literally a separate play space designed for one character. Now whilst the actions of the Decker take place in the same timeframe as those of other characters, a combat turn the Matrix being equal to one in the real world, the character is nevertheless taking up a lot of game play, but then it was ever thus for such characters in Cyberpunk roleplaying games.

In terms of support for both characters and setting, Shadowrun provides a lengthy list of equipment, including a lot of guns and cyberware, plus a lot of lifestyle options such as music and simsense. The coverage of lifestyles continues with the advice for the Game Master, from the Streets to Luxury—something perhaps for the Shadowrunners to aspire to. She also receives some advice on how to handle various aspects of the rules, but really little in the way of advice for creating the type of adventures that Shadowrun is designed for. It does not help that the scenario included in the book, ‘First Run’, has nothing whatsoever to do with making the characters’ first run in the shadows…

The setting for Shadowrun is further supported with lengthy lists of contacts and NPCs for the player characters to run into, as well as a good bestiary of critters. The region around the Seattle Metroplex is also detailed as well what it is like inside it. Rounding out the book is ‘First Run’, the aforementioned scenario, which is more of an extended encounter in which the characters have their late night visit to a Stuffer Shack supermarket interrupted by a robbery.

Physically, the first edition of Shadowrun was an impressive looking book for 1989. The colour plates—for both the character Archetypes and the critters—are vibrant and eye catching, but a lot of the black and white artwork is exciting and dynamic too, capturing the exciting, if often grim nature of life as a shadowrunner in 2050. In general, the writing is also good, much of it full of flavour and detail which serves to build the world of the Sixth Age and engage the reader, whether it is in-game slang or the names of corporations and particular objects, their makes and models. The rules are also supported with decent examples of play, in many cases helping the Game Master to learn the not always easy mechanics for any one situation. Yet there is still the problem that the advice on what the player characters are meant to be doing is sorely lacking…

Reception of Shadowrun was mostly positive. Writing in Challenge #41 (1989), Julia Martin began an extensive review with “When I heard that FASA was working on a cyberpunk genre roleplaying game incorporating magic, I, “Oh no, this is going to be sickeningly cute or too strange to be believed.” But now that Shadowrun is out, I must admit that they’ve convinced me. The background for the game develops a plausible reason for the existence of magic in cybertech times.” before concluding that, “Shadowrun is a truly hot game.” and that “I highly recommend it to anyone looking for something really new.” Stephan Wieck gave Shadowrun an equally lengthy review in White Wolf Magazine #17 (August/September, 1989), his conclusion being a positive, though qualified one, that, “The largest problem with the game is that it has an ambivalent theme. The gamemaster is handed a setting filled with proud Indians, corrupt corporations, and nasty critters. But, after being handed all of this information, you’re left saying “Now what? What do I have the characters do?”. Plus, the fiction with the book is darkly humorous, whereas the artistry and background of the game lend towards a more serious, action drama theme. These problems won’t hinder an experienced gamemaster who can choose his own direction, but others could have a rough time getting their campaign off the ground. The introductory combat encounter helps a bit, but more information and ideas on running a campaign in Shadowrun should have been included in the gamemaster’s section of the book. For this reason, I would recommend Shadowrun to experienced or older gamers. To these players I give it a very high recommendation.” In Space Gamer Vol. II No. 2 (October/November 1989). Lester W Smith began his review by saying, “I have to admit that when I first heard that FASA was coming out with Shadowrun, a roleplaying game that combined cyberpunk and fantasy, I groaned out loud. The thought of elves, orks (FASA’s spelling most of the time), trolls, and sorcerers rubbing elbows with cyber hackers, corporate samurai, and biker gangs seemed just too silly to believe. But when FASA’s sixteen-page promotional booklet became available, I gave it a read and I was immediately glad that I did. In the booklet, FASA managed to make the promise more than just plausible; they made it exciting.” He concluded that, “In all Shadowrun is a very visual game system. That is, it encourages imagery and role-playing, without bogging down in overly dry rules.”

In comparison, William Gibson, when asked about cyberpunk and roleplaying games in The Peak issue 7, vol 100 (June 27th, 2007) acknowledged the appropriation, but was otherwise dismissive, saying, “[W]hen I see things like ShadowRun, the only negative thing I feel about it is that initial extreme revulsion at seeing my literary DNA mixed with elves. Somewhere somebody’s sitting and saying ‘I’ve got it! We’re gonna do William Gibson and Tolkien!’ Over my dead body! But I don’t have to bear any aesthetic responsibility for it. I’ve never earned a nickel, but I wouldn’t sue them. It’s a fair cop. I’m sure there are people who could sue me, if they were so inclined, for messing with their stuff. So it’s just kind of amusing.”

Yet, what is apparent from the reviews—two of them by industry professionals—is that initial reaction was one of disbelief, even incredulity. The idea that fantasy could work with cyberpunk seemed implausible, even cheezy. Upon seeing Shadowrun though, they were won over by the background which deftly explained how the two radically different genres could work together. This first response highlighted the strength of Shadowrun—its background, its mix of magic and machine, and more importantly how they work together in the Sixth Age. That background has advanced as many years, from 2050 to 2081, as Shadowrun has been in print. Now published by Catalyst Game Labs, it is currently in its fifth edition and about to receive its sixth, and in that time, the roleplaying game has received almost a hundred supplements, as well as being developed across almost fifty novels and a handful of computer games. The setting has gone through numerous storylines, including the election and subsequent assassination of Dunkelzahn, a Great Western Dragon as President of UCAS, the return of Hally’s Comet, a civil war between the dragons, and more. What is clear from the continuing storyline and the range of media across which Shadowrun can be found is the skill of its developers in not just making the Sixth World a living place for its fans and their characters to game in—especially in the Shadowrun Missions series, but also making it a franchise, an intellectual property that exists beyond its core format as a roleplaying game. Thus someone could be a fan of the setting without having played the roleplaying game at all, but instead read a novel or played a computer game. The likelihood of course is that fans of Shadowrun will read the novels and play the computer games too, but it broadened the appeal of the setting. This is not surprising of course, FASA Corporation, Fantasy Productions, and Catalyst Game Labs have all experience doing exactly the same with the BattleTech franchise.

The first edition of Shadowrun packs a lot of flavour and feel in depicting the Sixth World. From the outset it presents cool Archetypes that you want to play—even if you cannot really quite create your own from guidelines given with any ease—and paints a world divided by the haves and havenots, the bright neon lights of the former casting deep shadows on the latter, enabling them to operate with hopefully stealth or subtlety against the former. In comparison to later editions of Shadowrun, in the first there is a conciseness to the rules and the background, even if the rules are not always quite as robust as they could be. Above all, Shadowrun delivers its promise of magic and machine, of the arcane and the apparatus, of conjury and computing, and makes them work in a setting that is deftly built and explains why they do. It also explains why the Sixth World has been visited again and again, and expanded upon in multiple editions of the roleplaying game, in numerous supplements, novels, and computer games, to create a setting rich in detail and depth, and ultimately why it has remained a fan favourite.

Lost in Limbo

There have been roleplaying games and scenarios where the player characters start off in the grave and go to explore their lives after their deaths—such as James Wallis’ Alas Vegas: Flashbacks, Blackjack and Payback—but Limbus Infernum ups the ante by leaving each character bereft of name, identity, skill, memory, or any vestigial legacy of they once were… Instead of climbing out of their shallow graves and going somewhere to find out what happened to them, who they are, what they did, and so on, as in most such set-ups, they are instead climbing out of their shallow graves and going somewhere to find out they are. They may find out what they were—and what they were is player characters in traditional Dungeons & Dragons-style. They may be the players’ own characters or just adventurers who died and ended up in Limbus Infernum. They may recover memories of what they were, but more likely they will recover memories of others—and whilst they may not be their own memories—such memories will profoundly influence who they will become and what they are capable of.

Limbus Infernum is published by Montidots Limited, a publisher best known for its Old School Renaissance scenarios for use with OSRIC™ System (Old School Reference and Index Compilation), starting with MD2 The Curse of Harken Hall: A MontiDots Adventure for early versions Fantasy Role-playing games and its Lovecraftian investigative horror scenarios using the GORE™ Open Game Content Rules, being with The Fenworthy Inheritance. Written for use with the OSRIC™ System, the set-up in Limbus Infernum is so stripped back and bare—intentionally so—and the succeeding story purposefully constructive, that the choice of retroclone to run it under is all but irrelevant. With some adjustment Limbus Infernum could be run using Swords & Wizardry as much as it could be run using Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition.

Like many another supplement, Limbus Infernum begins with character generation, or rather character building. The difference is important because every player begins with the same character, a grey, dessicated husk with a value of seven in each ability, no Class, and no skills or features, called a Seeker. They are still Dungeons & Dragons-style characters, but not competent ones. In fact, a Dungeons & Dragons peasant might be more preferable to play, a la the ‘Character Funnel’ of Goodman Games’ Dungeon Crawl Classics Role Playing Game. Yet character abilities begin fixed in Limbus Infernum and where in Dungeon Crawl Classics there is a definite objective for the players and their Seekers, that is, survive the adventure and acquire the ten Experience Points necessary to attain First Level. In Limbus Infernum, players characters start play not even knowing what they need to do to survive or what their objectives are.

What the Seekers are looking for is Essence, a vaporous radiance which can be consumed and which comes in several different colours and comes from different sources, but ultimately from actual corpses… When consumed, it can grant a character Experience Points, a one-off spell to cast, an ability increase, a skill or proficiency, a memory, and so on. There are numerous ways in which Essence can be found and consumed, but what is interesting here is that what a player character is gaining when consuming Essence, is not his own Experience Points, spells, ability scores, skills, proficiencies, et cetera, but those of the corpses he scavenges the Essence from.

Against all of this gain, there is the danger of a Seeker being forced from the situation too soon. As a character acquires Experience Points, his skin will lose its grey pallor and begin to flesh itself out, he will improve his Charisma ability, but acquire too many and a character is likely to be reincarnated. This though is being reincarnated in a body that matches the ability values of the character currently has, so he may not necessarily be much more capable than the starting point for Limbus Infernum. So in effect, a player needs to stave this off for his Seeker, trying to improve his Seeker in other ways as well as exploring the grey and ashen, overcast and dreary world in which he finds himself.

At the same time, there is an option for the Game Master to track the Seekers’ Alignments. A grid is provided for this as well as list of actions that a character might do, starting at the center Neutral square. So aiding or serving a demon will shift a character’s Alignment to Evil on the Evil-Good axis and to Chaos on the Chaos-Law axis, whilst aiding someone selflessly shifts it towards Good on the Evil-Good axis. Nicely, this grid is included on the character sheet for Seekers in Limbus Infernum. Its inclusion on the sheet though, really pushes for its inclusion in play.

What the Seekers can find is listed in a set of extensive tables. Numerous items, both magical and mundane, are described which can help the Seekers find and harvest Essence and interact with the strange environment they find themselves in. Even the mundane ones are weird though, but is down to the nature of said environment. New spells like Detect Essence will help the Seekers, whilst there are numerous types of flora and fauna to be found, fought, and scavenged, from Dead Man’s Fingers and Soul’s Tear fungi to Hivers and Penitent Bugs. One particular type of creature of interest to the Seekers is the Vermus, a flying maggot-like creature which feeds on Essence and which can be harvested by the Seekers. Another threat are the demons of Limbus Infernum, many of which seek out the souls of humans and other mortals as playthings and possessions. This has lead to souls being enslaved or traded by soul traders, often in return for protection or power.

Roughly half of Limbus Infernum is dedicated to ‘Surviving Limbus Infernum’, the campaign proper which opens with the Seekers waking up and exploring their grey, sunless, moonless world. This is a world beyond their understanding—the Game Master is encouraged to describe everything in terms that take into account the Seekers’ ignorance—but ‘born of the grave’, the Seekers will eventually come to apply meaning to and gain a grasping understanding of the world around you. Initially, there are towers, tombs, settlements, and more to be found, but then the campaign set-up takes a swerve to the left… The Seekers encounter not something born of the fantasy genre or medieval period, straight out of classic Americana, and the scenario drives forward—quite literally if the Seekers manage to learn to drive the 1957 Chevrolet—into the modern genre, and beyond… All without magic of course, since there is none of that in 1950s America.

Physically, Limbus Infernum is decently presented. Black and white throughout, like all Montidots Limited titles, it benefits hugely from the author’s fantastic artwork, whilst its maps benefit feel just a little tighter than in previous books. The writing is also decent, really only requiring a slight edit here or there.

Limbus Infernum presents a fascinating set-up to a survival horror fantasy campaign which rewards careful play. Where it misses an opportunity is later in the campaign where its encounters ramp up through successive modern periods, ignoring earlier time frames which would be just as alien to the Seekers as a midwest main street or an Ancient Greek agora. The finale of the campaign also feels slightly rushed and not always quite clear what it is that the Seekers should be doing, so the Game Master will need to make a close read of this. Another question is, what happens after the campaign and what the Seekers now that they are characters with knowledge of a possible future—a future without magic which they currently possess—and an array of abilities, features, and skills that may reflect multiple Classes.

Another issue with Limbus Infernum is that it is not freely available. Montidots Limited does not have a website, which is a shame because as a publisher, it releases some interesting titles. Montidots Limited does need a website, but in the meantime, Limbus Infernum is available at DrivethruRPG.com.

As much as Limbus Infernum begins with a cliché, it takes that cliché and drives it in an expected direction, a fresh, hellish take upon both survival horror and character generation. It is in effect, character generation as campaign play, clever and original, also weird and alien in the way it undoes character generation and has the whole process played out across an unforgiving, post-death, post-apocalyptic world.

Saturday 27 July 2019

Boardgame Bonanza

Published by Clyde & Cart Press following a successful Kickstarter campaign, The Board Game Book: The essential guide to the best new games is a new publication dedicated to showcasing the best that the tabletop gaming has to offer, primarily in terms of board games and card games, but also with a nod to roleplaying games and miniatures wargames. Every entry gets a page of its very own—if not three or four—containing a write-up, an interview (though not all), and lots of gorgeous photographs. There are almost one-hundred-and-forty entries in this book, covering the years 2017 and 2018, and all penned by a professional team of writers.  

The Board Game Book opens with two sections designed for those new to the hobby. The first is a potted history of tabletop gaming, somewhat slight in comparison to other treatments and in need of a slight reorganisation. That said, if you are new to the hobby, it is informative and it does lay the groundwork for the rest of the book. The second section, actually the first chapter, is titled ‘Get Into Gaming’ and describes almost thirty games, from Ticket to Ride and Machi Koro to Santorini and Takenoko, many of them considered classics, but all considered to be good first games to play. Then, it delves deep into the board games of the last two years, first with ‘Family, Casual and Party Games’, and then chapters dedicated to games of increasingly complex strategy. 

Every entry follows the same format which informs the reader of the game’s designers and artists, its category, the number of players it supports, playing time, suggested playing age, and price in both pounds sterling and US dollars. This is followed by a review and then an interview with the designers, both half a page in length. The reviews are quite light and positive, but give a good idea what playing each game is like and what their good and bad points are, but again mostly good. The interviews are also quite light, but are in a way more informative because in general many of the interviewees in the pages of The Board Game Book are not interviewed all that often. What is clear from these interviews is that some designers are prolific and have multiple entries and thus interviews, for example Matt Leacock with the entries from the Pandemic family and Matt Wallace with games such as Brass Birmingham and Wildlands, and that the designers come from around the world, though many are from Germany and Italy, and that being a game designer is not solely a male preserve. Of course they dominate the hobby, but there is still diversity on show here, whether it is the husband and team of Inka and Markus Brand behind Word Slam and EXIT: The Game or Nikki Valens, the queer and non-binary designer of Legacy of Dragonholt. Hopefully this is only a start and a greater diversity will be reflected in subsequent issues of The Board Game Book.

Not every entry in The Board Game Book benefits from an interview, but as the book progresses through its chapters, the entries grow in size to match the complexities of the games being described, both in terms of both the review and the interview. This is not always successful, as some entries do feel padded out in comparison to their content—the review of Crystal Clans is a noted offender here—but for the most part, the longer, more complex games deserve the greater page count.

The chapter on Storytelling Games such as Fog of Love and Stuffed Fables nicely dovetails into the chapter on Roleplaying Games. Sadly though, both roleplaying games and miniature wargames in the next chapter only receive a slight treatment in The Board Game Book in comparison, just a titles for each in comparison to the number of boardgames covered in the book. Now, obviously this is The Board Game Book and so board games are its focus, but really in covering just Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition, Pathfinder Roleplaying Game, Forbidden Lands – Raiders & Rogues in a Cursed World, Star Trek Adventures: The Roleplaying Game, and Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, Fourth Edition, it all feels rather obvious, with the exception of the interesting inclusion of Star Crossed, the roleplaying game of unlikely romances from Bully Pulpit Games. Worse, the coverage of Indy style roleplaying games is more photographs than content and feels like an afterthought.

It is possible that titles like the Call of Cthulhu Starter Set, Art & Arcana: A Visual History , RuneQuest: Roleplaying in Glorantha, Masks of Nyarlathotep: Dark Schemes Herald the End of the World, and Prince Valiant: The Storytelling Game were all released after the deadline for inclusion in The Board Game Book, but the renaissance of Chaosium, Inc. would have been worthy of inclusion as would the best horror roleplaying game supplement of the last two years, Harlem Unbound: A Sourcebook for the Call of Cthulhu and Gumshoe Roleplaying Games. Another issue is that roleplaying games are not treated in the same way as the board games in the book. They do not get the same listing of information at the start of their entries as do board games. The chapter on wargames is likewise brief and suffers from the same lack of information as well as being dominated by entries from Games Workshop.

Rounding out The Board Game Book is a listing of some twenty or board games which have been adapted to apps. This is useful because it provides another easy way into the hobby, enabling players to pick and choose games at home, trying them before investing in physical copies. That and a decent glossary nicely bookend the ‘Get Into Gaming’ chapter at the start of the book, helping prospective players get a start in the hobby.

Physically, the presentation of The Board Game Book is crisp, clean, and highly professional. There is almost a foodie cookbook-like quality to The Board Game Book in its efforts to present each and every game in lovely detail, to make each and every game look intriguing and eye-catching. This book is simply pretty. The presentation extends to the text too, with nice use of colour for the interviews. The book could do with an edit here and there, but is otherwise very readable.

The Board Game Book does several things. First, as an ‘annual’—a once-a-year publication—it serves as a snapshot of the tabletop gaming hobby in 2019. Second, as a showcase, it shows off the best of the games which have been released in the last year in a bright, easily accessible form. Third, it serves as a coffee table book that you, a friend, or a member of your family can browse to get some idea of what the games look like and just a little of what the hobby is like rather than a collection of boxes. Fourth, it serves as a reference guide, though one given more to breadth rather than depth, and fifth, it works as a catalogue of games to try, no matter whether you are new to the hobby or are a veteran.

At its best when focusing on board games and thus living up to its title, The Board Game Book: The essential guide to the best new games is an attractive introduction to the tabletop gaming hobby, one that illustrates the best of hobby in 2019 for those new to it and those who are old hands. It deserves to sit alongside your games collection whether you are just starting out or already have shelves full of games.

Shrouded in the Mists

Aram’s Secret is a scenario for use with the Middle East-influenced Science Fiction roleplaying game, Coriolis: The Third Horizon. Originally published in Swedish by Free League Publishing, it has since been published in English, presenting a setting and a half for the player characters to explore and then a complete three-act scenario which takes place in the full setting rather than the half-setting. The setting is Jina, known for its acid-atmosphere and its hardy mining colony of Aram’s Ravine; the half-setting is the corporate luxury resort moon Cala Duriha; and the scenario is a job and a mystery set in and around Aram’s Ravine for the crew of a ship.

If Jina is a hellhole, then Aram’s Ravine is its armpit. Home to a few thousand who prefer  to spend as little time outside in the acidic swirling air, the colony makes its money from its bauxite mines and the mineral salts sifted and filtered from the nearby delta and baked and collected. Prospectors do venture far beyond the limits of the town, but the dangers of the environment are compounded by the Kalite natives who hate all outsiders. Jina is barely self-sufficient, but there are few reasons, if any, for traders or other ships to visit the world. Rather, traders and other ships would prefer to visit Cala Duriha, the nearby moon which is home to the corporate headquarters of those companies unwilling to take facilities as part of the Consortium aboard the Coriolis, the giant space station that is the heart of the Third Horizon, or denied the right to. As a corporate haven, it has become for its competitive displays of wealth and thus a destination for ships and their crews of all types. Although the player characters and their ship may also be one such visitor to Cala Duriha, but this is not where Aram’s Secret is set. That is Jina and Aram’s Ravine.

So although there is some description of Cala Duriha, Aram’s Secret gives plenty of detail about the town of Aram’s Ravine, including its major locations and factions, and its NPCs. The look of the town, shrouded in the acidic green fog, is very nicely captured in the scenario’s illustrations and the three dimensional map in the book’s centrespread. Reasons are given for visiting both Jina and Cala Duriha, enabling the Game Master to tailor the reasons to her player characters and the type of ship they are operating, whether that is as free traders, mercenaries, explorers, agents, or pilgrims. These are tied into the start of the scenario, but they can be modified and used again should the player characters return to Jina, which given that it is designed as a scenario location, they help the Game Master use Aram’s Secret again.

The scenario itself begins en media res, with the player characters’ ship spiraling down into Jina’s atmosphere, barely in control, just about able to land in the spaceport. There it quickly becomes apparent that the crew are stuck on the planet because their ship is in need of repair, and of course, the parts that they need to carry out the repairs are unavailable. Except that someone does have them and in return for the parts, hires the player characters to do a job. This is to protect an archaeologist who is conducting a one-man dig on the edge of the town. It quickly becomes apparent that he needs protection whether he wants it or not, as there are those interested in stopping him digging. This includes rival factions in the town, who will make an alternative offer of employment to the player characters. No matter which offer of employment the crew takes up, the archaeologist uncovers a strange temple which will lead to a dark secret that Jina has been hiding for many years…

The scenario is fairly straightforward, playable in two or three sessions. It should also provide reasons for the player characters to return to Jina as the likelihood is that the rivalries between the factions are unlikely to have been settled by the end of the scenario and the secrets the player characters are likely to have wider ramifications. Unfortunately, there are two main problems with Aram’s Secret. The first is that those ramifications are not necessarily clear to the player characters and imparting their significance to them without resorting to heavy dose of exposition is going to be difficult. The other issue is with the scenario’s puzzle. The problem is that the description in the text does not match the image. The image appears to be correct where the text is not.

Physically, Aram’s Secret is impressive. Like the core rules, it is done in full colour, with decent art and well done maps. The writing does suffer a little from poor localisation in places, but not to the extent that it is unclear in meaning.

Where the previous adventure, The Dying Ship, was set aboard a spaceship and has the Game Master mostly reacting to what the players and their characters do, Aram’s Secret is a planet bound and more plot driven adventure. It thus makes for good contrast with the earlier adventure and can easily be run after The Dying Ship or easily slotted into a campaign. Overall, Aram’s Secret is solid adventure for players and Game Masters with slightly more experience of the setting, revealing as it, if not necessarily easily, a little more of the secrets and horrors to the Third Horizon.

Friday 26 July 2019

Free RPG Day 2019: Land of Myth: Age of Palaces

Now in its twelfth year, Saturday, June 15th is Free RPG Day and with it comes an array of new and interesting little releases. Invariably they are tasters for forthcoming games to be released at GenCon the following August, but others are support for existing RPGs or pieces of gaming ephemera or a quick-start. Land of Myth: Age of Palaces  –  A Fantasy Setting in Mythical Greece provides an introduction to a new setting based on Greek Myth and history and a scenario for four to six players. Published by Seven Thebes, Land of Myth: Age of Palaces is a Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition-compatible roleplaying game set two decades after the Trojan War in an Age of Heroes and in an Age of Palaces, the latter being the centres of power in Mycenaean Greece. 

Land of Myth: Age of Palaces is designed as the roleplaying game’s PLAYTEST MODULE Vol. 1, so from the start sets out to explain what it is and how it differs from Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition. That setting is Ancient Greece, in a mythic age when the worshippers of the Olympian pantheon have the opportunity to gain glory and be great heroes, perhaps even achieve Apotheosis and so be granted divine status by the gods. It takes place in a world watched over by the gods of the Olympian pantheon, a world not made for man—forcing him to struggle to survive and make a home for himself, and a world full of the supernatural, peril, and the unknown for those who step beyond the walls of the settlements and enclosures where it is safe. Beyond that lies the Wilderness, an enchanted and supernatural land of thick forests and remote mountains which leads into the Shadow Meadows, which lie on the edge of the Underworld and are Hades’ attempt to expand his influence into the world of the Olympians. Those do step forth beyond the walls, in the name of the kings in their palaces and the gods on Mount Olympus and for glory, are of course, the player characters.

In terms of mechanics, it highlights the differences between the System Reference Document for Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition and Land of Myth: Age of Palaces. It supports its humanocentric setting with several new Classes drawn from both historical and mythological Greece. The six on show in Land of Myth: Age of Palaces include the Hoplite, a skilled heavy infantryman capable of wearing bronze plate and wielding a heavy shield; the Black Hunter, trackers, scouts, and hunters who revel in the worship of Dionysus; the Trickster, a skinchanger and spy who can alter reality, life, and death; the Myrmidon, skilled fighters able to challenge and focus on individual targets; the Hieria, itinerant priests who serve as intermediaries between man and the gods and are granted theurgist magic in return; and the Theban Magus, whose Phoenician origins enable him to cast the sorcery forbidden in Athens. Land of Myth: Age of Palaces also downplays the use of the Proficiency bonus in favour of Skills, adding in a ‘By More Than 5’ rule, which allows for a better or worse result on a skill if a player rolls five more or five less than the Difficulty Check, but as good as if a player rolled a ‘20’ or a ‘1’. Group skills are handled by each player rolling against a Difficulty Check and then each successful result adding towards the value of a Group Difficulty Check. So each individual Difficulty Check might be a ‘12’, but the Group Difficulty Check might be ‘60’, so every roll above ‘12’ goes towards the total.

Although Land of Myth: Age of Palaces is Class and Level setting, it places less of an emphasis on each character’s Level and Experience Points. Characters are not actually considered to be professionals until they are Third Level. Glory is actually more important for characters in Land of Myth: Age of Palaces and reflects their standing and fame. Characters also have Divine Favour, given as gifts by the gods and used to ensure automatic success on Attack, Saving Throw, Death Save, and Ability check rolls. These are earned during the Winter Phase when the player characters will typically spend in and around the Palaces, perhaps having urban rather than Wilderness adventures. There is the possibility to use Define Favour as a roleplaying tool, but that is only mentioned in passing in Land of Myth: Age of Palaces  –  A Fantasy Setting in Mythical Greece.

Combat in Land of Myth: Age of Palaces makes radical changes to initiative. Instead of rolling a twenty-sided die, each player rolls one or more six-sided dice depending upon the actions his character wants to undertake. So using a light weapon or casting a Zero Level spell only requires one six-sided die to be rolled, two six-sided dice for medium weapons and spells of First through Third Level, and so on. Movement adds further dice. The aim is to roll as low as possible and then count up from one. Further rules cover simple chases, whilst others allow for the Morale of NPCs to be broken, especially if the player characters possess Glory. Lastly, Magi in Land of Myth: Age of Palaces do not have spell slots, but Sorcery Points. In a somewhat complex set of rules, Sorcery Points are divided into different pools for a Magus’ Apprentice spells, Adept spells, Master spells, and so on. Sorcery Points are used to fuel and improve the power of a spell, as well as Metatropic effects like subtle casting and extra damage, but use too many Sorcery Points and a Magus will suffer from fatigue and exhaust himself. The complexity here provides the player of any Magus with choice of how his character casts spells, but it is not straightforward especially after coming from ordinary Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition.

The second part of Land of Myth: Age of Palaces  –  A Fantasy Setting in Mythical Greece presents ‘The Palladium of Troy’, a six-chapter scenario. Designed for between four and six players, it takes place not after the Trojan War, but during it. The six included with Land of Myth: Age of Palaces  –  A Fantasy Setting in Mythical Greece for use with the scenario are all Seventh Level and are all serving with the Achaean army which has been laying to Troy for many years. Now there is an opportunity for the Achaeans to bring the war to an end and defeat the Trojans as foretold in the prophecies. Acting on information provided by the spymaster Odysseus, the player characters are tasked with making their way beyond Troy to capture a prince who has gone into exile and then later make their into Troy itself. Drawing from Homer’s Iliad and later stories, ‘The Palladium of Troy’ is a mix of wilderness and urban adventures, the latter involving a delve into the city’s plumbing. It is solidly good adventure, a decent mix of roleplaying, exploration, and combat, the exploration in particular, taking place in a really well drawn dungeon. Rounding out PLAYTEST MODULE Vol. 1 are the six pre-generated heroes, all Seventh Level and clearly detailed.

Physically, Land of Myth: Age of Palaces  –  A Fantasy Setting in Mythical Greece is handily presented. It is all neat and tidy and easy to read, with good use of spot colour to highlight parts of the text as necessary. It is  not illustrated, but the cartography is really nicely done in both two and three dimensions.

Being based on the System Reference Document for Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition means that the PLAYTEST MODULE Vol. 1 for Land of Myth: Age of Palaces has an accessible starting point, since its base game play barely differs from Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition. Nevertheless, it is different and Land of Myth: Age of Palaces  –  A Fantasy Setting in Mythical Greece takes it time to patiently highlight and explain those differences before showcasing in ‘The Palladium of Troy’. The only issue is perhaps the complexity of having to play characters of Seventh Level and thus deal with all of their abilities, especially if playing a Magus. Nevertheless, Land of Myth: Age of Palaces  –  A Fantasy Setting in Mythical Greece is a good introduction to the setting, highlighting and showcasing differences between it and other fantasy roleplaying games.

Free RPG Day 2019: Outbreak: Undead 2nd Ed - Intro Manual

Now in its twelfth year, Saturday, June 15th is Free RPG Day and with it comes an array of new and interesting little releases. Invariably they are tasters for forthcoming games to be released at GenCon the following August, but others are support for existing RPGs or pieces of gaming ephemera or a quick-start. Outbreak: Undead 2nd Ed - Intro Manual is, as the title suggests, an introduction to the Zombie Survival Simulation roleplaying game published by Renegade Game Studios. The roleplaying game is designed as a toolkit to create a horror setting themed around zombies and have the player characters suffer psychological terror when confronted with the undead. Outbreak: Undead 2nd Ed - Intro Manual introduces the roleplaying game’s mechanics, including combat, morale, damage, and healing, plus equipment, pre-generated Player Characters, and an introductory scenario.

From the outset it is clear that Outbreak: Undead and Outbreak: Undead 2nd Ed - Intro Manual needs a lot to support it. Not just the percentile dice required for core mechanic, but six-sided dice in four colours—blue Speed dice, white Depletion dice, red Damage dice, and black Difficulty dice—as well as tokens of two different colours to represent Degrees of Success and Degrees of Failure. The Outbreak: Undead 2nd Ed - Intro Manual does not waste any time in explaining how the mechanics work. Basically, Outbreak: Undead uses a percentile system, but modifies the roll of the six-sided dice. Thus blue Speed dice are rolled and added to a player’s initiative roll if their character is undertaking a complex action; the white Depletion dice are rolled to see if a piece of equipment with finite uses is exhausted—the battery for a torch or ammunition for a gun, for example; the red Damage dice inflict injury upon an opponent; and the black Difficulty dice are rolled to increase the character is undertaking a complex action. The blue Speed dice, white Depletion dice, red Damage dice, and black Difficulty dice all have a Wild Face where the ‘6’ would be, which when rolled have a unique effect which the Game Master narrates or the die simply explodes and can be rolled again.

Now in general what a player is trying to do with any roll of the percentile dice is not just succeed or fail, but generate Degrees of Success and Degrees of Failure. For each full ten points rolled under a skill check, a Degree of Success is generated, and for each full ten points rolled over the skill check, a Degree of Failure is generated. A Degree of Success can be interpreted for a narrative effect, used to trigger an effect, such as the Slashing effect of a knife or Healing effect of a first aid kit, and so on. Degrees of Success and Degrees of Failure do not cancel each other out, but Degrees of Success cancels out an opponent’s Degrees of Success and Degrees of Failure cancels out an opponent’s Degrees of Failure. Generating Degrees of Failure does not necessarily mean that an action fails. It might mean that it succeeds, but takes longer, is not as good, or has consequences. Upon initial examination, whilst it appears that player characters have relatively low skill and attribute values—typically between twenty and fifty—these represent the chances of a complete success, rather than a success with consequences. 

Unfortunately, as simple as that sounds, Outbreak: Undead 2nd Ed - Intro Manual adds degrees of complexity to game play and combat. With multiple dice being rolled in a situation and being rolled by each player, it takes time for each player’s dice roll to be interpreted. The Degrees of Success and Degrees of Failure are perhaps the easiest to interpret, but all of the blue Speed dice, white Depletion dice, red Damage dice, and black Difficulty dice have to be understood and applied too. Then, once combat has been resolved, damage is worked out, and then applied. It is not immediately obvious how this works and the Game Master really needs to pay close attention to the page of rules dedicated to healing in Outbreak: Undead 2nd Ed - Intro Manual, let alone the mechanics of the rest of the roleplaying game.

Just eight pages of the forty of Outbreak: Undead 2nd Ed - Intro Manual are dedicated to the mechanics. The remainder is comprised of the scenario, ‘The Tri County Precinct’ and the seven pre-generated player characters , each of which is given a two-page spread. The scenario does not even get started before it introduces another complex mechanic, this time, for ‘Encounters’. Then it gets into the scenario itself, set in and around the police precinct of a small American college town following the student body’s traditional Halloween Parade which degenerated into a riot and finds the police precinct under siege by the undead. It begins on Day Two—each character has a number of flashbacks to choose from which can be assumed to have happened or roleplayed out—with the trapped characters attempting to find a way out of their situation.

‘The Tri County Precinct’ is a decent scenario, setting up some nice situations as the player characters attempt to find a way, recover some resources, and so on, all without attracting the attention of the undead outside. There are some optional scenes and the Game Master could expand upon the vignettes given for each of the characters for Day One. Based on simple game play, ‘The Tri County Precinct’ probably offers two or three sessions’ worth of play, but the complexity of the Outbreak mechanics is likely to add to that. A map of the police precinct would have been a useful inclusion.

To support ‘The Tri County Precinct’, Outbreak: Undead 2nd Ed - Intro Manual includes seven pre-generated characters, all of whom begin play trapped in the police precinct. They include a Rookie Cop with a discipline issue, a Trucker in the tank after a drunken brawl, an easy-going Correctional Officer transporting an inmate, the Inmate who has so far refused to give his identity, a Veteran Police Officer kept off the streets by the loss of his leg, a Nurse attending to the brawlers in the tank from the night before, and a Retiree. All seven are fully detailed with a biography, personal equipment, a list of potential events which can take place on the scenario’s first day, and full S.P.E.W.—Strength, Perception, Empathy, and Willpower—attributes, skills (basic, trained, and expert), and training value bonuses.

Physically, Outbreak: Undead 2nd Ed - Intro Manual is a well presented, attractive booklet. The artwork is good too, but its layout as a notebook is cluttered and littered with icons. Icons for each of the dice types, for Degrees of Success and Degrees of Failure, for weapons, for Time and Survival, and so on. Gear adds even more icons and a full list of all of the symbols and their explanations would have been useful.

Outbreak: Undead 2nd Ed - Intro Manual is not a quick-start. Its set-up and base concepts are simple enough—the undead arise in a zombie apocalypse—and so the elevator pitch for it is likewise simple enough. Even the core mechanics of a percentile system combined Degrees of Success and Degrees of Failure are easy to grasp. Nothing else is in Outbreak: Undead 2nd Ed - Intro Manual though… It feels as if it has too many dice types to roll and too many icons to interpret, making it a challenge for the Game Master to learn, and doubling or tripling that challenge when it comes to trying to teach the mechanics and what the icons all mean to the players. 

There is a possibility of a good game in Outbreak: Undead 2nd Ed - Intro Manual, but the Degrees of Complexity it adds to the simplicity of its core rules make both learning to play and actually playing challenging. It takes dedication to run and play Outbreak: Undead 2nd Ed - Intro Manual, probably too much dedication.