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

Saturday 29 February 2020

A Scion Starter

A Light Extinguished: A Jumpstart For Scion Second Edition is a quick-start for Scion: Second Edition, the contemporary roleplaying game of modern myth and epic heroism in which not only do the gods walk amongst us, they often have children too. These children, the Scions of the gods, born to the magic of yesterday and the promise of tomorrow, are caught up in a war with the Titans, elder beings who rage against the human world and its wayward gods. As children of the gods, the player characters protect the interests of their parents on Earth whilst protecting humanity against the ravages of the Titans. Like other Jumpstarts from Onyx Path Publishing, A Light Extinguished is designed as an introduction to the setting and the mechanics. It includes an overview of the Storypath system, a three-act scenario, and five pre-generated player characters—or scions.

The Storypath system can be best described as a distillation of the Storyteller system—the mechanics of which date all of the way back to Vampire: The Masquerade—and certainly anyone familiar with the Storyteller system will find that it has a lot in common with the Storypath system, except that the Storypath system is simpler and streamlined, designed for slightly cinematic, effect driven play. The core mechanic uses dice pools of ten-sided dice, typically formed from the combination of a skill and an attribute, for example Pilot and Dexterity to fly a helicopter, Survival and Stamina to cross a wilderness, and Persuasion and Manipulation to unobtrusively get someone to do what a character wants. These skill and attribute combinations are designed to be flexible, the aim being any situation is to score one or more Successes, a Success being a result of eight or more. Rolls of ten are added to the total and a player can roll them again. 

To succeed, a player needs to roll at least one Success, and may need to roll more depending upon the Difficulty of the task. Should a character succeed, he can increase the number of Successes with an Enhancement, such as having a fast car in a race or the favour of a particular god or goddess, but he needs to succeed in order to use the Enhancement. Any Successes generated beyond the Difficulty become Threshold Success and represent how well the character has succeeded. These can be spent by the player to buy off Complications, for example, not attracting the attention of the Police in a car chase, or to purchase Stunts. These can cost nothing, for example, the Inflict Damage Stunt, whereas the Disarm Stunt costs two and the Critical Hit Stunt costs four. Characters in Scion: Second Edition often have Stunts due to their birthright, such as Loki, which grants the ability to positively influence someone, but only when the character lies.

Under the Storypath system, and thus in A Light Extinguished, failure is never complete. Rather, if a player does not roll any Successes, then he receives a Consolation. This can be a ‘Twist of Fate’, which reveals an alternative approach or new information; a ‘Chance Meeting’ introduces a new helpful NPC; or an ‘’Unlooked-for Advantage’, an Enhancement which can be used in a future challenge. Alternatively, a character gains Momentum which goes into a collective pot and which can be spent to add extra dice to a dice pool or used to fuel various Knack that the pre-generated characters possess (other options are available in the full rules). 

A Light Extinguished: A Jumpstart For Scion Second Edition focuses on three areas of action—Action-Adventure, Procedurals, and Intrigue. The first covers combat and is fairly straightforward. The second handles information gathering, which is divided into two categories. Leads start or continue the plot and so do not have to be rolled for by the players, whereas Clues provide extra information, are more challenging to find, and do require a roll. Intrigue covers social interaction and the reading and shifting of the attitudes of both NPCs and player characters.

The scenario in the Jumpstart is ‘A Light Extinguished’. It is a three act investigative scenario structured around the three areas of action—first Procedurals, then Intrigue, and lastly, Action-Adventure. In the first act, the player characters will investigate the crime scene, in the second they interrogate the witnesses, and in the third, they confront the culprit. It opens with the news of the murder of Bai Amari, the Luminary, the beloved Scion of Ra. Although the mortals are already investigating via the Supernatural Crimes Unit, the various parents of the player characters want to know more and send them to aid the detectives already on the case. Someone very powerful—or with powerful backing—must have carried out the deed and the gods are concerned that the unfortunate death is another omen hinting at the rise of the Titans and the coming war. 

The three acts are neatly organised and presented for ease of play and very much to showcase the three areas of action. There is advice for helping new players too, such as using the NPCs to help with the investigation, and the set-up scenes for each of the pre-generated characters are nicely personalised. If there is an issue with the scenario it is that as written the Storyteller learns the truth of the plot at the same time as the players and their characters. There is no explanation as to who or why until the third act and the confrontation. Essentially, there is no real overview of what is going on, and this lack of overview is a problem throughout the Jumpstart.

A Light Extinguished: A Jumpstart For Scion Second Edition comes with five pre-generated Scions. They include a gifted surgeon, the son of Loki, who works as a cab driver; a resilient huntress and archer, also the daughter of Loki; a scientist who is also a crack shot, the daughter of Agni; a tough firefighter and Emergency Medical Technician, the daughter of Brigid; and a rich wheeler dealer who prefers to talk rather than fight, the son of Xiuhtechutli. All come with backgrounds, playing tips, knacks, boons, and birthrights. Although each of these is explained individually, again there is no overview of how these works, which really leaves the Storyteller and his players to muddle through to some extent.

Physically, A Light Extinguished: A Jumpstart For Scion Second Edition is nicely presented. Everything is in full colour, the artwork is decent, and the layout neat and tidy. Unfortunately, there is a sense that it has been put together from parts rather than written from beginning to end, so there is a slightly rushed feeling to it and a lack of explanations in certain places. So not every aspect of the character is covered, the plot is not fully explained without the Storyteller reading through the whole thing, and the rules do feel out of order in places. What this means is that the Storyteller will need to thoroughly prepare ‘A Light Extinguished’ before she runs it, not only to grasp the plot, but also the rules so that she can explain them to her players. Since she will probably need to prepare separate sheets for each player character to explain their knacks, boons, and birthrights, an explanation of the rules would also be useful.

A Light Extinguished: A Jumpstart For Scion Second Edition should provide sufficient roleplaying and action for the group of five pre-generated Scions for a single long session or two or three shorter ones. It is not the easiest of jumpstarts to run or set-up, primarily because it does not give enough of an overview—in terms of the rules and the plot—to really help either the Storyteller or her players. This does not mean that the Storyteller cannot run ‘A Light Extinguished’, but some preparation is required and having access to Scion: Second Edition may prove useful. Once past these issues and with a little effort, A Light Extinguished: A Jumpstart For Scion Second Edition is a serviceable introduction to the roleplaying game demigods and mythic action in a contemporary setting.

Friday 28 February 2020

Friday Fantasy: The Teuthic Temple

As much as we get out of our hobby and as much fun as we have, it is often the case that it does not support its creators as well as it should. So when disaster or tragedy strikes, it places the creators in positions of unexpected financial difficulties above and beyond the difficulties caused by the disaster or tragedy itself. Such is the case with Sarah Newton, the author and publisher of Mindjammer – The Roleplaying Game: Transhuman Adventure in the Second Age of Space, Capharnaüm – The Tales of the Dragon-Marked: Fantasy Roleplaying in a World of Arabian Nights, Argonauts, and Adventure!, and Monsters & Magic Roleplaying Game. This is in addition to the numerous supplements and scenarios she has written over the years.
Unfortunately, and sadly, Sarah lost her husband of thirty years last year and as her many friends can attest, this has understandably affected her a great deal. In terms of the industry, it has hampered her ability to write, develop, and publish the imaginative and interesting gaming content which she is known for. In order to help support Sarah continue writing and creating the games we love, as well as support her through this difficult time, Solipsist RPGs has published a scenario from which all monies raised will be given to her.

The scenario is The Teuthic Temple. It is a one-page, molluscular scenario being sold ‘pay what you want’ and written for use with Sarah’s own Monsters & Magic Roleplaying Game. This is a retroclone which combines classic Dungeons & Dragons-style play with its Effects Engine to essentially bring narrative elements into the Old School Renaissance, almost as if it was ‘Dungeons & Dragons does FATE’. Despite the presence of these narrative elements, they do not mean that The Teuthic Temple cannot be run using the retroclone of the Game Master’s choice. To that end, notes are included to help the Game Master adapt the scenario and even add Squid or Octopus characters to a game. Certainly the squid and octopus-themed scenario should find a home in any aquatic or weird setting. So Green Ronin Publishing’s Freeport: City of Adventure or some link to The Squid, the Cabal, and the Old Man for Lamentations of the Flame Princess Weird Fantasy Roleplay from Lamentations of the Flame Princess. And given the nature of the scenario in The Sea Demon’s Gold from Arc Dream Publishing, it would certainly work as an equally odd companion to that too, and so bring it up to date for Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition. Alternatively, rend it into the past and add it as an underworld location in the D1 Descent into the Depths of the Earth, D2 Shrine of the Kuo-Toa, and D3 Vault of the Drow trilogy of modules for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, First edition.

Designed for a party of characters of First to Third Levels, The Teuthic Temple is built around a dungeon, the Teuthic Temple of the title. It is stunningly presented in full colour, just nine locations, but laid out like a squid and given a suitably crustacean, aquatic environment. It is an ancient ruined shrine, once a place of worship for the now dead Octopoi gods—who are definitely molluscular and octopoidal rather than Cthulhoid in design. Nevertheless, fanatical Octopoi priests and their Teuthic followers now guard the site, rather than going out and prothletising. Given the size and shape of the temple complex, it should be no surprise that it is fairly linear, but each location has a purpose and there are opportunities for both roleplaying and combat. As written, priest and wizard type characters are likely to get the most out of the adventure, it being a temple, but there is plenty of treasure to be plundered as well as Octopoi secrets.

As well as providing the dungeon itself, The Teuthic Temple provides six motivations or hooks to involve the player characters. These range from seeking an ancient artefact, such as the Sceptre of Fish Control or the Crown of Aquatic Command (possibly complete with Summon Fish spell?) and rescuing an abducted child to hoping to discover knowledge within the temple which help against a greater evil or needing to appease the spirit of the long dead god.

Physically, The Teuthic Temple is a five-page, 2.72 Mb, full colour PDF. The page count suggests that the scenario breaks its ‘One-Page’ concept, but this is not the case. Rather that it devotes one page to describing the dungeon itself, one page to map and scenario hooks, and one page to describing Teuthic characters—both Octopi and Sepoi (or squid)—in terms for both Monsters & Magic and other Old School Renaissance roleplaying games. It should be noted that both the front cover and the map are gorgeous pieces of work.

The Teuthic Temple is a simple straightforward adventuring site with plenty of gaming potential. Built around a pleasingly thematic dungeon, it comes with plenty of hooks to get the player characters involved and is perfectly setting neutral that the Dungeon Master can add it wherever she wants. Lastly, The Teuthic Temple is available as ‘Pay What You Want’, but best of all, all monies raised from its purchase go towards helping Sarah Newton make more games.

Monday 24 February 2020

Vamped Up Science Fantasy

Heart of Atom Isa: A Short System Neutral Adventure in a Science Fantasy Future of Old is a scenario for Hypertellurians: Fantastic Thrills Through the Ultracosm, the roleplaying game of retro-Science Fantasy inspired by the artwork of Frank Frazetta and Roger Dean, the adventures of John Carter of Mars, Buck Rogers, and Barbarella published by Mottokrosh Machinations. Unlike the previous A Bride for a Vampire, which was a blend of the Gothic horror with the Science Fantasy, Heart of Atom Isa is very much grounded in classic Science Fantasy. It mixes Planetary Romance with a B-Movie supervillainess worthy of the Pulps of the twenties and thirties.

Heart of Atom Isa is written with Hypertellurians: Fantastic Thrills Through the Ultracosm in mind, it is all but systemless, and so like A Bride for a Vampire, it can be adapted to almost any set of mechanics. This extends to the four given pre-generated Hypertellurians, who come with strengths and weaknesses, plus a drive, all ready for the Game Master to adapt to the roleplaying of her choice. Hypertellurians: Fantastic Thrills Through the Ultracosm is of course, an Old School Renaissance Science Fantasy retroclone, so there are plenty of other retroclones which Heart of Atom Isa could be adapted to, but then again, it would equally work as well with Evil Hat Productions’ FATE Core. The given pre-generated player characters include a Victorian-era Ultranaut adventuress, a fez-wearing formless alien green blob fascinated by magic, a greedy ex-Pharoah, and a beetle-man general cut off from his Hive. The playing group is free to adapt these or use the the versions provided by the publisher.

As written, Heart of Atom Isa is designed to be played by four players in just one or two sessions. The scenario is thus relatively short, consisting of three scenes, but with plenty of scope for player input. The player characters are ultracosmic explorers, discovering the wonders of the multiverse aboard their silver bullet rocket, the Atom Isa. Unfortunately, when visiting the desert world of Sonnos, the ‘heart’ of the Atom Isa is stolen. It can still travel through space, but not with any sense of finesse, but it can no longer traverse across or through the Ultracosm. The culprit is Argencia, the feared Silver Sorceress known to crush men. As the scenario begins, they have discovered where the archvillainess lives—or hides depending upon your point of view—and that is amongst the nomadic tribe of Zelteens, who live and travel on gargantuan hermit crab-like beings, known as Tremendostaceans.

In the first part of the scenario get to visit the Zeldeens amongst their walking village of connected Tremendostaceans with their tremendous conical shells upon which stand the Zeldeens’ houses and connecting bridges, and visit one of their famous markets where traders from all over the Ultracomos come to deal. This can be in anything from strange paints (Dulux is not going to be offering these paints any time soon) offered by Magnus the Paint Seller and explorer’s gear from Taque’s Emporium for Explorers & Fortune Hunters such as a breathing bowl helmet to Lomarc’s Fashionistas of Tomorrow at which can be found figure hugging, shrink-to-fit Helix second skin onesies and Extra Teeth and Nanny Nontyvia’s Reclaimed Relics where you can find Relic-shards of the A.I. saints. Add in a table of random events, whatever the player characters want to do, and the opportunity to do some shopping, should provide plenty of opportunity for some fun gaming and roleplaying.

The second part sees the crew of the Atom Isa chase Argencia off Sonnos to her secret lair on a distant, icy moon. (Of course it has to be an icy moon, the player characters have been on a desert planet!) Naturally—or rather unnaturally (which is perfectly natural when you are dealing with a feared archvillainess like Argencia)—Argencia’s lair is just a little bit weird and a whole lot creepy, including keeping a harem of physically fit and attractive men and women for pleasure and decoration because, well because… In addition, Argencia has actual minions at her command, so if the player characters want a fight, then they will give it to them. Conversely, Argencia herself is intended to be sexy and slinky, preferring to use her charisma, bargains, and seduction to get what she wants. Or get away with what she wants. Ideally, she should give the Game Master plenty to get into in terms of roleplaying, but the sex appeal of the character may not be to be the taste of every playing group. Now Argencia is designed as a B-Movie, Pulp villain, and so this does fit the archetype, but the Game Master needs to be aware of this prior to play and may want to take her players’ sensibilities into account. Of course, like any good Pulp villain, there is a means for her to make her escape and be ready to make a comeback in a future scenario.

Physically, Heart of Atom Isa is a slim,digest-sized book. Done in full colour throughout, the artwork has a pleasing cartoonishly pulp look to it. In particular, the thumbnail portraits of the pre-generated player characters are really good. The adventure is mostly presented in an almost bullet point style, making it easy to pick up off the page.

Heart of Atom Isa is really easy to pick up and run and easy to adapt to the roleplaying game mechanics of the Game Master’s choice. A minimum of preparation is required and the Game Master could easily run Heart of Atom Isa as a completely systemless adventure with even less preparation. Whether running as a one-shot or as part of an Ultracosmic Saturday morning style serial, Heart of Atom Isa: A Short System Neutral Adventure in a Science Fantasy Future of Old is a tongue-in-cheek, pulpy, fun scenario.

Sunday 23 February 2020

Abnormal Once Again

Like any roleplaying game with its own set of monsters, familiarity breeds contempt. One exposure to them too many and they become less impressive, less of a threat, and so they lose their impact. So it is with Dungeons & Dragons and the contents of the Monster Manual and so it is with Call of Cthulhu and Trail of Cthulhu and other roleplaying games of Lovecraftian investigative horror. Now for Dungeons & Dragons the common solution is to provide an ecology guide to a particular monster or a whole new bestiary, but for roleplaying games of Lovecraftian investigative horror there is less obvious scope for creating and adding more monsters to the canon of the Cthulhu Mythos. There is though, plenty of scope for variation, reinterpretation, and making connections, which is exactly what Hideous Creatures: A Bestiary of the Cthulhu Mythos does.

Published by Pelgrane Press, it should be made very clear from the start that whilst the mechanics of Hideous Creatures are designed for use with the Gumshoe System of Trail of Cthulhu, the rest of the supplement’s content will work with just about any roleplaying game of Lovecraftian investigative horror. And even then, adapting the mechanics of 
Hideous Creatures to any other roleplaying game of Lovecraftian investigative horror should not present too much of challenge given that for the most part the creatures and monsters it presents and re-presents are already present in those other roleplaying games of Lovecraftian investigative horror. So whether for Call of Cthulhu or Cthulhu Hack, Delta Green or FATE of Cthulhu, this is a supplement which should prove useful to the Keeper or Game Master of those games, not just Trail of Cthulhu.

As the title suggests, Hideous Creatures: A Bestiary of the Cthulhu Mythos examines the creatures of the Mythos—not the gods and deities, but the various races, beasts, things, and horrors. It builds around some fifteen or so such examinations previously available as single write-ups, all written by Kenneth Hite, to which Gareth Ryder-Hanrahan, Becky Annison, Helen Gould, and Ruth Tillman have added another sixteen. So some thirty-one of them, from Bat-Things, Bholes, and Black Winged Ones to Wendigo, Worm-Cultist, and Y’m-Bhi. Many of them will be familiar, such as Byakhee, Deep Ones, Ghoulds, or Shoggoths, but others are new. Yet whether old or new, all draw inspiration from and are described to some degree in some of the writings of H.P. Lovecraft, August Derleth, Robert Bloch, and others. Each entry comes with an overview of the hideous creature, accompanied by its stats in the game. After that, each and every entry in the book gets a whole not more interesting, for overview and the stats mere serve as the chassis upon which is mounted various ideas, developments, and suggestions. They include possible alternative abilities; variations upon the explanation and interpretation of what each hideous creature is; Mythic Echoes draw parallels between the hideous creature and monsters and creatures of various myths around the world; the ‘Investigation’ second provides clues for each and every one of Trail of Cthulhu’s investigative abilities; ‘Scenario Seeds’ are adventure ideas; and lastly, the Bibliography provides a thumbnail description of the hideous creature’s source in the Mythos fiction as well as other works of note in which it—or an alternative version—has appeared over the last century. 

So, what Hideous Creatures provides is not just thirty-one horrible monsters and alien races, but over three hundred possible extra abilities across the thirty-one entries, over three hundred variations, over one-hundred-and-fifty parallels and connections with the Mythic Echoes, over nine hundred clues tied into Trail of Cthulhu’s Investigative Abilities, ninety or so scenario seeds, and thirty-one bibliographies and sample clues. It should be noted that the variations are designed to be ‘intentionally self-contradictory’, whilst the scenario seeds are based upon the classic or baseline versions of the Mythos creatures and monsters. It seems churlish to reduce the supplement to just numbers, but what it showcases is the scope of the supplement’s imagination and just the sheer number of ideas on show. 

So for example, Night-gaunts, the winged creatures with barbed tails, prehensile paws, and inward horns upon their heads, traditionally known for their blankness of their faces and their predilection for tickling their victims are suggested as having a face like a roiling storm, a shifting plasticity, or a void which opens onto a Great Abyss. They might not be slender, but as their name suggests—gaunt, with wings like a moth or a flying squirrel or… Instead of simply tickling to make a victim laugh, a Night-gaunt’s barbed tail renders him agonizingly breathless or recoiling in helplessness as spiders scuttle over the skin. New possible abilities include Chest Crunch as a Night-gaunt lands upon a victim’s chest and crushes his lungs, or Tracking, enabling a Nigh-Gaunt to track a victim it has already touched via its sense of smell, whether on the Earth, the Moon, or in Dream. Variations include Night-gaunts capable of assuming the faces of those it has killed or of anyone currently dreaming, actual investigation of or curiosity about Night-gaunts enables them to filter into the dreams of the foolish and so attract their attention, and Night-gaunts themselves are immune to the most harrowing of Mythos manifestations or locations. Mythic echoes draw parallels between the Night-gaunt and the legend of the Night Hag, amongst others… Amongst the Clues, Anthropology links cultures around the world with traditions of dark shapes crushing or tickling their victims, whilst Cop Talk reports many people hearing the missing girl laughing ‘from upstairs’, but can she have been upstairs from everyone on the whole block? Of the three scenario seeds, ‘Precious’ looks to be highly entertaining, as the 1928-1929 archaeological dig at Lydney Park by Tessa Wheeler and Mortimer Wheeler unleashes something which haunts and hunts those associated with the dig, including one J.R.R. Tolkien! The bibliography starts with H.P. Lovecraft’s ‘The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath’ before suggesting authors as diverse as W.H. Pugmire, Brian Lumley, Gene Wolfe, and more. Lastly, the handout takes the form of a flyer put out by a husband whose wife disappeared upon Silverstrand Beach, warning others and calling for the attention of the authorities.

As well as examining many of the familiar, Hideous Creatures examines nine new creatures—Bat-Things, Black Winged Ones, Gaseous Wraiths, Medusas, Raktajihva, Ultraviolet Devourer, Vampirish Vapour, Worm-Cultist, and Y’m-bhi. Of these, Raktajihva actually comes from a letter written by H.P. Lovecraft and is interpreted as an avatar of the Bloody Tongue, whilst for Call of Cthulhu purists, whilst the Worm-Cultist may not necessarily be new. Something similar, named the Crawling Chaos, does appear in Shadows of Yog-Sothoth, the very first campaign for Call of Cthulhu.

Physically, Hideous Creatures is as well laid out and as well written as you would expect for a book from Pelgrane Press. If there is a downside in terms of the presentation, it is that the artwork is not quite as good as in other supplements for Trail of Cthulhu. That said, the handouts for each and every one of the entries in the supplement are excellent.

Ultimately, Hidden Creatures takes its inspiration from H.P. Lovecraft’s own assertion that stories of vampires, werewolves, and even ghosts had become too familiar and too formulaic to evoke true horror—“Horrors, I believe, should be original – the use of common myths and legends being a weakening influence.” Unfortunately, with the proliferation of the Mythos in fiction, games, and other media, the authors of Hideous Creatures suggest that, “Almost a century after he wrote, his own monstrous races have likewise begun to seem like comfortable story furniture rather than unnerving signals that the world is horrible and wrong.” Hideous Creatures: A Bestiary of the Cthulhu Mythos is a counter or solution to this problem, presenting a plethora of ideas and variations which successfully makes the familiar unfamiliar, and providing inspiration upon inspiration for the Keeper or Game Master—whatever the roleplaying game of Lovecraftian investigative horror.

Saturday 22 February 2020

Cultural Conflict

Hearts and Minds: Saving a World on the Brink of War! A Mindjammer Adventure is a sourcebook and scenario for Mindjammer – The Roleplaying Game: Transhuman Adventure in the Second Age of Space, the Space Opera setting with a harder, more contemporary Science Fiction edge published by Mindjammer Press. Set some fifteen thousand years into the future during the Second Age of Space, it takes place on the world of Olkennedy whose society stands on the brink of civil war. Originally settled eight thousand years ago during the First Age of Space, like so many planets settled then, the original colonists were forced to survive with no contact from Old Earth, a local astronomical event forcing some into stasis, the others to survive as best they can. When the surviving original colonists awoke, their reappearance led to tensions between them and the society which had survived, regressed, and was building anew. These tensions have been exacerbated in the last two decades when long spread rumours of aliens were confirmed with the arrival of the Commonality.

In the Second Age of Space, the New Commonality of Humankind presides over an expanding sphere of influence and control, seeking to maintain and protect its culture as it maintains and protects those of other worlds through the offices and agents of the Security and Cultural Integrity (SCI) Instrumentality. Yet not every world wants or is ready to accept the influence of or integration into the Commonality. So it is with Olkennedy. There are many on the world who do not believe that the Commonality when it says it protects the rights and cultures of those worlds it adopts and in particular, they fear the loss of individuality should they accept implants which grant them access and membership of the Mindscape, the virtual world which connects the Commonality. There are a great many who would take up arms to protect the loss of such rights and culture, and there even more who could be persuaded to join them. Opposing views clashes, tensions rise, and civil war  looms. It is into this febrile situation that the player characters step.

The first half of Hearts and Minds is devoted to detailing and describing the world of Olkennedy, its people, history, and culture. Or rather it focuses on the area which can support life, a crater deep enough to hold an oxygen-rich atmosphere and which has a subtropical climate, including a sea, with snow layers to the north. The planet has a high gravity, is subject to high winds and storms, and has a short day. The generally self-reliant inhabitants have had millennia in which to adapt to this. The planet is home to five distinct nations. Columbiana is youngest, but the most advanced and most dominant, its citizens mostly descended from the colonists—known as the Awoken—who emerged from stasis a millennia ago, whilst Van Kuvrai is home to the descendant of the colonists who did not enter stasis. Nwasha and Omianto are home to the Nwasha pithecines who were originally developed as labour by the original colony. Nwasha is primarily an arboreal culture whilst Omianto is more industrialised. Lastly, Akantack hominids, similarly developed as a labour force by the original colonists are nomads who live in the Snow-Layer which runs around the rim of the Crater or the Akantack Sanctuary. Although the five nations of Olkennedy have existed peacefully for a century, now their planet’s membership of the New Commonality of Humankind threatens to bring them into conflict once again.

As well as the inhabitants and cultures of Olkennedy, Hearts and Minds details the colony’s ecology, flora and fauna, major cities such as Craterport Down, technology, and more. Scenario hooks and random events are provided for both wilderness and urban settings, such that there is more than enough information here for the Game Master to run her own adventures. Together with the Genotype for the Akantack hominids, there is also information enough to create characters native to Olkennedy and perhaps explore some of its history, for example, why the Awoken emerged from stasis when they did or what were conspiracy theories surrounding the Commonality’s presence prior to the Disclosure, the traumatic event which revealed the existence of the New Commonality of Humankind to the Olkennedians. 

Of course, Hearts and Minds is designed to explore a clash of cultures, that is between the Commonality culture and a relatively newly found culture, that of Olkennedy. Whilst some Olkennedians accept the presence of the Commonality, many do not and they have coalesced around the Fiver separatist movement, named for the five nation on Olkennedy. In the years prior to the arrival of the player characters, its activists have been actively attacking the Commonality presence on planet, fomenting riots, causing unrest and engaging in acts of ‘terrorism’ or ‘freedom fighting’—depending on your point of view. This is not helped by factionalism within the Commonality itself. Two factions are detailed. The Integrator faction want to bring newly discovered planets into the Commonality, whilst the Dialogic faction wants to maintain a conversation with each newly discovered world rather than simply bring into the Commonality.

The second half of Hearts and Minds is the adventure itself. The most obvious role for the player characters will be SCI Force agents, sent to Olkennedy because of the deteriorating political situation, but they might also be diplomats, soldiers of the Armed Forces Instrumentality, merchants, scientists, or a mix of all six. Their roles of course will colour their approach to handling the situation on Olkennedy. For example, soldiers of the Armed Forces Instrumentality are more likely to commit to a military solution, whilst diplomats will seek a more conciliatory solution. Whatever their roles, throughout the scenario the Game Master will be tracking the effects that their actions have using Mindjammer’s Plot Stress mechanics. Essentially, through their actions, it is entirely possible for the player characters to sway the opinion of the Olkennedians towards or away from accepting the presence or membership of the Commonality—or somewhere in between.

The adventure is played out over four episodes and an epilogue, the latter being when the Game Master will assess the actions of the player characters and determine the ultimate outcome of events on Olkennedy based on them. There are plenty of opportunities for both roleplaying and conflict, but Mindjammer being a Transhuman Space Opera roleplaying game, there are lots and lots of opportunities for action. Now much of the action may well look a little like a cliché in places, but the action scenes are well handled and once the player characters get involved, with their wide array of Aspects being brought into play, the action will be anything but. If there is an issue with Hearts and Minds, it is that running it is a challenge. This is because it explores numerous options and their consequences as the scenario proceeds, and it is all too easy for the Game Master to get lost in them. The likelihood is that the Game Master will need to work harder to keep track of everything, especially of the consequences of the player characters’ actions and decisions, and when combined with having to present the scenario and roleplay its many NPCs, she may well find she has a heavier workload than is the norm.

Physically, Hearts and Minds is well presented behind its Eugène Delacroix’s ‘Liberty Leading the People’ inspired cover. The book is mainly done in black and white, but touches of colour are used to bring out its maps. The artwork is excellent, although a little dark. The writing and editing are well done, but if there is one thing that the book lacks, it is an index. Although less than a hundred pages in length, there is a lot of information in Hearts and Minds and having a better means of finding things would make it easier for the Game Master to run.

Originally published in 2015, the politics present in Hearts and Minds, although set on a Science Fiction world in the far future do feel relevant today. The adventure and situation explores deeply polarised political views, threats to cultural identity, loss of status, and so on, which escalate into civil unrest, acts of violence, and even terrorism. Of course, Hearts and Minds is a fiction, but undeniably there are parallels with contemporary politics, whether in the United Kingdom, Europe, the USA, and elsewhere. How much a gaming group wants to read into the scenario is another matter. It can be played with or without the group drawing the parallels.

Hearts and Minds can be played as one-shot or a convention scenario, and there are guidelines given to that end. Yet to do so, would be to miss a lot of the depth and nuance to the scenario’s set-up, to all too easily and quickly side with one polarised faction or another. Played as a full scenario, and what Hearts and Minds does is present an exploration of Mindjammer’s core themes—cultural conflict, the rediscovery of strange new worlds, and the personal conflicts which arise from them, all played out against an advanced Space Opera background. Simply, Hearts and Minds: Saving a World on the Brink of War! A Mindjammer Adventure is the ideal first scenario to showcase what the roleplaying game is all about.

Friday 21 February 2020

Friday Fantasy: Lorn Song of the Bachelor

Published by Hydra Cooperative, LLC, Lorn Song of the Bachelor is an Old School Renaissance fantasy scenario for the roleplaying game of your choice. If choosing a retroclone, it works with any that use ascending Armour Class, and in terms of setting, it would work with any which involve elements of colonialism, imperialism, and mercantile adventuring companies, such as the East India Company or the Dutch East India Company. So it would work with Arion Games’ Maelstrom as much as it would Triple Ace Games’ Leagues of Adventure: A Rip-Roaring Setting of Exploration and Derring Do in the Late Victorian Age! or the same setting as Hot Springs Island or that of Crypts of Indormancy. It would also work as far off location in Empire of the Petal Throne: The World of Tékumel. The scenario does also mention the use of firearms, but they are not integral to its play and the Game Master can easily ignore their inclusion.

Obviously, the scenario’s themes of colonialism, imperialism, and mercantile adventuring companies are contentious issues, even difficult ones for some, but the author of Lorn Song of the Bachelor makes clear that they are unavoidable given the legends and history of the region that the scenario is based upon, and that they are open for the players and their characters to explore and make choices about. To that end, no obvious incentive is provided to involve the characters in the situation detailed in Lorn Song of the Bachelor.

Although it is a sandcrawl of sorts, Lorn Song of the Bachelor is quite different to the previous sandcrawls published by Hydra Cooperative, LLC, such as Slumbering Ursine Dunes and Misty Isles of the Eld. It is as far away from the Hill Cantons as can be imagined, being a riverine and dungeon crawl inspired by a story from the island of Borneo. It shares much with the lovely fanzine, MR-KR-GR The Death-Rolled Kingdom—crocodilian gods, forgotten monkey-empires, dangerous waters, and exotic fantasy—and indeed, they share the same author, Zedeck Siew. And just like MR-KR-GR The Death-Rolled KingdomLorn Song of the Bachelor feels humid, sweaty, and sun-drenched, strange, and exotic.

In essence, Lorn Song of the Bachelor is all set-up. At the far reaches of a river, in the lands of the tribe known as the Gleaming Fins, grow great trees from whose heartwood can be extracted a valuable incense, Dreaming Agaru, which aids divination of all sorts with flashes of true inspiration. So the Company sends trade factors and loyal mercenaries—all bad teeth and bad breath—up river to trade and harvest the heartwood of these trees. Yet that trade is threatened by the Bachelor, a giant albino crocodile, which has been the scourge of the river for centuries, having killed all of the other crocodiles. Long has it preyed upon the boats of the Gleaming Fins tribe, upending them and tipping the men into the water to be snapped up. Many times the tribe has hunted the great riverine beast, even killing it, but always it returns. Is the Bachelor a god? Is he immortal? Now it takes the Company’s boats too and so threatens its investments and revenues.

The most obvious way into this for the player characters is to be hired by the Company—akin to Conrad’s Heart of Darkness—but what they will discover is faction upon faction within the lands of the Gleaming Fins. The one-armed, silver painted Vartu Si Sartu, Gleaming Fins chief wants the Company gone; the untattooed, jade finger-nailed and abacus-wielding Company merchant, Machivir Sanna Krau, wants the Bachelor dead; and the wrinkled, incense-infused, firefly surrounded witch and midwife, Sati Wu Sati, wants the curse of the Bachelor on the river lifted and the breaking up of the crocodile cult dedicated to him. These are not the only factions and not the only motivations threading their way through Lorn Song of the Bachelor. The player characters will need to weave their way through these to learn the secrets that lie at the literal heart of the Gleaming Fins territory.

Lorn Song of the Bachelor is presented in a sparse fashion. Descriptions are kept to a minimum, often supported with a table or two of further elements waiting to be found and interacted at each location. There is often a bullet-point or list-like quality to the writing, making it accessible and easy to work with. In terms of scale the adventure really only consists of eight locations, each roughly a half day apart, and a small dungeon of just seven locations, a ruin left over from the Monkey Empire. Here the descriptions are richer and weirder, perhaps even more wondrous.

Of course, the presence of the Bachelor, the albino god-crocodile, lurks throughout the scenario and will become an active threat whenever the player characters are on or by the water. Unsurprisingly, this is very likely to occur given the location of various places in Gleaming Fins territory, and ideally it should, since the Bachelor is mystically linked to parts of this land and should he be hurt, there are repercussions for these locations. This perhaps one of the two weakest parts of the scenario in that it does not seem quite strong enough in effect and will need to be carefully worked in by the Game Master. The other is that the solutions to the scenario, there being several given the number of different factions present in the region, are not clear. Now part of this is intentional, as after all, they should not be obvious, but the players will need to work as hard to get at them as the Game Master will in presenting them.

Physically, Lorn Song of the Bachelor is a lovely little book. It is well written with its peoples and personalities, its places, and its strangeness being described with a very simple economy in terms of its words. Whilst the cartography is clear and strong, the minimum of description in the writing is paired with utterly delightful artwork, light, if not ethereal, ranging from the inhabitants of the Gleaming Fins lands and the weird objects found there to the strange vistas of the Monkey Empire ruin and the bestiary found at the back of the book.

The isolated and exoticism of Lorn Song of the Bachelor does mean that it may not be easy to add to an ongoing campaign, since it may well be far away from the campaign’s main locations. However, that does not stop it from being a lovely little adventure, a mini-sandbox into which the player characters can come and explore and perhaps aid one faction or another. It is simply presented with artwork which evokes so much of the strangeness and exoticism of the Gleaming Fins lands. Although the formatting means it looks simple, there is a lot of detail and flavour to Lorn Song of the Bachelor which together evoke visions of a very different world and of a very different fantasy to which a Western audience is used.

Friday Fantasy: Slaves to Fate

From Chaosium, Inc. with the Miskatonic Repository for Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition and the Jonstown Compendium for RuneQuest: Roleplaying in Glorantha and HeroQuest Glorantha (Questworlds) to Wizards of the Coast with the DM’s Guild for Dungeons & Dragons, publishers are seeing the benefit of fan-based content. Free League Publishing, the Swedish publisher best known for roleplaying games as Mutant: Year Zero – Roleplaying at the End of Days, Coriolis: The Third Horizon, Tales from the Loop – Roleplaying in the '80s That Never Was, Forbidden Lands – Raiders & Rogues in a Cursed World, and Symbaroum, has its own platform for user-made content in the form of the Free League Workshop.
Slaves to Fate: An Adventure of Endless Winter
 is a short scenario for the near-Dark Ages fantasy roleplaying game, Symbaroum. Published by Earl of Fife Games, it is a focused affair actually intended as an introduction to a new campaign, Forever Winter. Consequently, it is linear in structure, it requires a particular set-up, and places a big responsibility with one player. The set-up is quite simple. The player characters are slaves. Mostly Ogres and Goblins, but also a mix of other races and occupations, so the player characters then. They should all be beginning characters and their players should decide how and why they ended up enslaved in the first place—captured by slavers, sold into slavery, to pay off a debt, and so on. One of the player characters should be a Changeling, and whilst Slaves to Fate provides enough in terms of motivation and background for this character, his player is free to create whatever character type he likes and there is still room for him to add elements to his backstory if he so desires. Alternatively, the Game Master can simply create this character as an NPC.

As the scenario opens, the player characters, as part of the slave coffle, have been taken north into the Davokar Forest where they are being worked all but to death felling trees and preparing lumber for shipment south. As the temperature drops and the player characters try and cope with exhaustion and not enough food and water, there is opportunity for them to escape. Several methods are discussed, but whatever the means, the player characters find themselves hounded from their camp by marauding beasts. Ultimately, they will find refuge, but all too quickly it becomes a prison and again they must escape to confront the forest itself…

The scenario does call for a degree of buy-in upon the part of the players, not least of which upon whoever will be playing the Changeling. Some players may object to being pushed from pillar to post, and may just simply refuse to the trust the Changeling, whether a player character or an NPC. To an extent the scenario includes advice on what happens if either the Changeling or the player characters die, but to get the fullest out of Slaves to Fate, the Game Master may want to talk to her players about the expectations of the scenario before play begins. Certainly she will need to do that with whomever is playing the Changeling.

Physically, Slaves to Fate is a 4.63 Mb, fourteen page, full colour PDF. The layout is clean and tidy and the illustrations are good, and generally well written even if it needs an edit in places.

In fact, Slaves to Fate is not a new adventure, it having been adapted to Symbaroum from previous versions for Zweihänder – Grim & Perilous, Shadow of the Demon Lord, Demon Gate, and the Genesys roleplaying game. The grim, near apocalyptic nature of the scenario though, fits the Dark Ages feel of Symbaroum as much as it does Zweihänder – Grim & Perilous and Shadow of the Demon. The scenario can only work as a prelude, the set-up for the campaign to come, Forever Winter, it otherwise being too linear and too bleak to really work as a one-shot. As the set-up to a campaign, Slaves to Fate works well enough and will hopefully lay the groundwork for the Forever Winter campaign.

Monday 17 February 2020

Miskatonic Monday #34: A Fossil

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 InvictusThe PastoresPrimal StateRipples from Carcosa, and Halloween Horror, there was a Five Go Mad in EgyptReturn of the RipperRise of the DeadRise 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 Repository.


Name: A Fossil

Publisher: Chaosium, Inc.
Author: Sean Monaghan

Setting: Modern Day

Product: Scenario
What You Get: 1.69 MB twelve-page, full colour PDF
Elevator Pitch: A lost auction is too heavy a price to pay. 
Plot Hook: A second chance to own the one book you really must have.
Plot Development: A dead rival, scales before the eyes, and a festering town...
Plot Support: Nine plain as they can be handouts and monster and creature stats.

# Open, flexible set-up
# Scope for player input

# Solid hook for the antiquarian investigator
# Potentially interesting setting
# Bullet point format eases Keeper’s job
# One-shot or one-session scenario
# Period neutral
# Creeping body horror

Needs editing
# Underdeveloped, murky setting
# Too much festering?
# Plot strands kept apart?

# No ACTUAL Sanity losses

# Underdeveloped 
# Needs editing
# Seaside body horror for one?

Sunday 16 February 2020

Not to be Forgotten

Latin for ‘from among (the) forgotten’ and sharing its name with a poem by H.P. Lovecraft, Ex Oblivione is a scenario for Delta Green: The Role-Playing Game, the roleplaying game of conspiratorial and Lovecraftian investigative horror published by Arc Dream Publishing. It can be played using the roleplaying game’s full rules or those from Delta Green: Need to Know. Be warned though, this is a brutal, bloody affair involving mass violence and absolutely not for the faint of heart. In fact, Ex Oblivione is not a subtle affair in terms of its horror or its violence, but although the scenario will not mark the end of Delta Green as an organisation—after all, that has already happened with the original iteration of Delta Green, and it came back—but it very much mirrors the very first encounter with the Unnatural by the agency which would one day become Delta Green. A horror out of the agency’s deep past is about to take its very bloody revenge.

Agents of Delta Green—whether of the Program or the Outlaws—get involved when ‘HOME DAGON HOME HOME YHANTHLEI SEA TO THE SEA.’ is found graffitied on the wall at a gruesome crime scene. A family of five in Mustang, Arizona, a remote town originally founded to support the long since shutdown nearby U.S. Navy base have been ritually butchered and whilst the local police force suggest that ‘Dagon’ might have occult links, given that it is mentioned in the Bible as the name of a god worshipped by the Philistines, its investigators have no clues as to the motives or perpetrators of this heinous act. Delta Green knows otherwise and strongly suspects the involvement of the Unnatural in the crime. Consequently, a team is dispatched to Arizona to investigate, identify, and nullify the threat.

Unless complicated by setting up (or even breaking) cover identities, the initial investigation in Mustang is quite straightforward—the crime scene, local witnesses, and so on. Clues though, point towards the ruins of the old Naval base, little more than a hangout for the local teenagers, drifters, and the homeless, and from there to New England. This will likely confirm the suspicions of veteran players of Lovecraftian investigative roleplaying, but Ex Oblivione does not go in that direction. Certainly, it draws heavily from that direction—or source material—for inspiration… What Ex Oblivione does instead though…

What Ex Oblivione does instead though, is something unlike almost any other ending to a Call of Cthulhu or Delta Green scenario. First, there is the creeping realisation as to who the murderers are, and that is shocking enough, but then there is climax itself, which will require careful staging upon the part of the Handler. It is brutal, it is violent, and the horror of it is exactly that—horrifying. To say anything more would be to reveal too much about what is a monumental confrontation with the Unnatural.

Physically, Ex Oblivione is well presented, the illustrations and cartography as you would expect. Although decently written, the scenario does feel rushed in places and could have done with another edit.

It is almost traditional for scenarios of Lovecraftian investigative roleplaying to involve a threat to humanity or the world, a threat of immense scale. Here the threat is far, far smaller, but still of a staggering scale that Ex Oblivione is likely to remain a memorable scenario for the players and their Delta Green agent characters. Unlike the meaning of title, the final confrontation in Ex Oblivione is not going to be forgotten for anyone who plays it.

Saturday 15 February 2020

Mutant Magic Eight Ball?

Mutant Crawl Classics #8: The Data Orb of Metakind is the eighth release for Mutant Crawl Classics Roleplaying Game – Triumph & Technology Won by Mutants & Magic, the spiritual successor to Gamma World published by Goodman Games. It is also radically different to all of the previous releases for Mutant Crawl Classics Roleplaying Game. The previous seven releases for the post-apocalyptic roleplaying game have all been scenarios. These have either been standard scenarios like Mutant Crawl Classics #6: The Apocalypse Ark or Mutant Crawl Classics #4: Warlords of ATOZ, or scenarios designed for use with player characters who are Zero Level. Such scenarios, like Mutant Crawl Classics #1: Hive of the Overmind and Mutant Crawl Classics #7: Reliquary of the Ancient Ones are known as Character Funnels, one of the features of both the Mutant Crawl Classics Roleplaying Game and the Dungeon Crawl Classics Role Playing Game it is mechanically based upon—in which initially, a player is expected to roll up three or four Level Zero characters and have them play through a generally nasty, deadly adventure, which surviving will prove a challenge. Those that do survive receive enough Experience Points to advance to First Level and gain all of the advantages of their Class. In terms of the setting, known as Terra A.D., or ‘Terra After Disaster’, this is a ‘Rite of Passage’ and in Mutants, Manimals, and Plantients, the stress of it will trigger ‘Metagenesis’, their DNA expressing itself and their mutations blossoming forth. Mutant Crawl Classics #8: The Data Orb of Metakind is not a scenario, but a supplement—and a supplement dedicated to just the one artefact.

That artefact is the most holy of ancient relics, the Data Orb of Metakind, a device which has been handed down from shaman to shaman, from mystic mutant to mystic mutant for generations. Only Shamans, Mutants, Manimals, and Plantients can use the hand-sized golden orb—Purse Strain Humans cannot—and they need to be intelligent to do so. Once the user has understood and bonded with the device, what he gains access to accumulated knowledge of everyone who has ever handled and used it. So thousands of memories and experiences, knowledges, skills, and more. Though usually only a few times a day. Each time the character interfaces with the Data Orb, it is usually to extract a specific piece of information or answer to a particular question, but every time the character does so, his player has to make a roll to determine the character’s success. Now the likelihood of a player character extracting the information he is after is quite low, but it is possible.

Now the fun of the Data Orb and Mutant Crawl Classics #8: The Data Orb of Metakind is when the player fails the roll. Then the player character’s request might be misinterpreted, partially interpreted, or simply ignored, but if misinterpreted or partially interpreted , then the Game Master gets to roll on the indicated table. Most of the supplement is dedicated to the various tables representing the various categories of information contained within the data matrices of the Data Orb. Five of these deal with various types of technology to be found in Terra A.D.—including power sources, medical, arms and armour, and artificial intelligences. This grants a player character a bit of new information, generally helpful, for example, on the Weapons & Armour Technology Table, if the player rolls Dazer Pistol, the player character learns a new setting for the weapon.

The other tables send the player character off in another direction, all of them providing them a benefit in some way, either permanent or temporary. So from ‘Voices of the Past’, accessing Bulbar the Odd’s “When confronted by an unknown creature, it is far better that you assume that it is poisonous, blindingly fast and utterly ferocious. This attitude does not condone mindless extinction of the new and the novel, but it does lessen the chance of your corpse looking surprised.” will grant the user a temporary bonus to his attack rolls. Whereas accessing the Thought Records of the Ancients, “It is by will alone I set my mind in motion. It is by the juice of Sapho that thoughts acquire speed, the lips acquire stains, stains become a warning. It is by will alone I set my mind in motion.” grants the character a permanent bonus to his Personality attribute. Mutant Crawl Classics #8: The Data Orb of Metakind includes lots of fun quotes like this and back them up with juicy benefits.

On the one hand, the Data Orb of Metakind essentially acts as a Patron AI, the means by which a Shaman gains his Patron AI Bond wetware programs—the nearest thing that the Mutant Crawl Classics Roleplaying Game has to spells. It does not though, actually grant wetware programs as having a Shaman praying to his Patron AI would. On the other hand, it grants access to knowledge, typically random knowledge (because the player character has failed to access the specified information he was looking for), and that is where the fun comes in. When that happens, the Data Orb becomes a source of random knowledge and benefits—tables and tables of them—much like the famed Deck of Many Things of Dungeons & Dragons. In comparison though, a Shaman can access the Data Orb again and again, several times a day.

Of course, none of this is without its dangers. Roll poorly and the user may simply get an electric shock from attempting to use the Data Orb. Roll really poorly and—well, why spoil it for the user? The Data Orb of Metakind is brimming over with secrets and dangers, all of which are best learned through play and discovery. If there is an issue with the supplement, it is that there is no scenario detailing where it might be found, but the Game Master will have to write one.

Physically, Mutant Crawl Classics #8: The Data Orb of Metakind is somewhat unprepossessing. It is fundamentally, one big set of tables, but they are all neatly laid out, well written, and easy to use. The supplement uses a range of artwork, including a fun one of the publisher himself on the back page.

The Data Orb of Metakind is the equivalent of a Magic Eight Ball in the post-apocalyptic world of Terra A.D. Think of a question, shake the Data Orb of Metakind, and see what answers, secrets, or dangers it gives. Mutant Crawl Classics #8: The Data Orb of Metakind provides a big artefact with plenty of potential for fun and failure, plus there is lots of gaming life to it, for once found, a Shaman is going to consult this again and again, making this a supplement for the whole of a Mutant Crawl Classics Roleplaying Game campaign.

Friday 14 February 2020

Friday Filler: Never Bring a Knife

So the heist went like clockwork. You got in, emptied the safe, grabbed the jewelry, and filled all of the holdalls with cash. Now all you need to do is get it back to the rendezvous point and divide the loot. Except… you know that the gang has been infiltrated by undercover cops, either because of an informant or because you are one of the undercover cops. Unfortunately, you only know what you are—a loyal Hardened Criminal or a sneaky Undercover Cop, or a villainous Hardened Criminal or an upright Undercover Cop enforcing the law. Anyone else could be either… And as questions are asked, protestations of loyalty and honesty are made, tempers flare, and the only way the matter is going to be settled is with a showdown shootout!

And if that sounds like the plot of almost any ‘Heist Gone Wrong’ film, from Rififi to Reservoir Dogs, you would not be wrong. It is also the set-up to Never Bring a Knife, a social deduction game from Atlas Games which can be best described as Reservoir Dogs meets The Resistance. Accusations and bullets will fly in this game until one of the gang goes down in a hail of lead and loyalties are revealed, betrayals are suffered, and either the Hardened Criminals are arrested by the Undercover Cops or make their escape from the police. Designed for four to eight players, it should be no surprise that the adult and violent inspiration and game play of Never Bring a Knife means that it carries a minimum playing age of seventeen years old and over. Now this does not mean that younger participants cannot play Never Bring a Knife, the rules being simple enough, but parental permission should be sought. That said, not every game needs to be designed with younger players in mind, and that is certainly the case with Never Bring a Knife.

Besides the short rulebook, Never Bring a Knife consists of sixty two cards. Eight are handy Reference cards, though all of the cards used in play have clear instructions on their use on them. Ten are Role Cards, divided between five Hardened Criminal and five Undercover Cop cards. Sixteen are Wound Cards, used to track each gang member’s Wounds as he suffers them. The first gang member to suffer three Wounds triggers the end of the game. The rest of the cards form the play deck.

The Gun cards inflict Wounds, a gang member suffering a Wound for every two Gun cards which end up in his stack at the end of a round. Armour cards cancel out Gun cards, but only the one each. If this reduces the number of Gun cards in a gang member’s stack at the end of a round, he suffers one less, or even no Wounds. Money cards in a player’s stack at the end of a round can be kept and banked and is expended to heal a Wound or to be able to look at another gang member’s Role card. Crime cards are used to force a gang member to discard Money cards, which will prevent him from paying for healing or to look at other gang members’ Role cards. A Hit can be purchased using Money cards and used to inflict a Wound on a gang member or banked for later in the game, so great for that last inevitable betrayal so in keeping with the game’s genre. An Intel card enables a gang member to examine, but not reveal, another gang member’s Role card. The Mole card forces a gang member to swap his Role card with that of the Boss, which may or not change the gang member’s allegiance.

Game set-up is simple. Each gang member receives a Role card and can look at it. One last Role card is placed in the middle of the table to represent the Boss. He will come into play when the Mole card ends up in a gang member’s stack. The Hit card and the Mole card go into the discard pile and so will come into play in later rounds, hopefully when dramatically appropriate! Each gang member not only gets to look at his own Role card, but also of that to gang member to his left. This is each player’s initial clue as to the true identities of his fellow gang members.

Never Bring a Knife is played over a series of rounds. At the start of each round, each gang member receives four cards. They then take it in turn to play one card at a time. The first card a gang member plays must be on another gang member and the first card played on a gang member must be face up. After that, a gang member is free to play his cards on anyone, including himself, but all cards are now played face down. Obviously, a gang member will want to play Gun cards on his rivals—especially if he knows them to be of an opposite Role, but keep the Armour and Money cards for himself. The former as protection, the latter because they can be used to purchase further actions. Once a gang member has had four cards played onto his stack, he cannot receive any more, but play continues until each gang member has had four cards played on him.

Once done, each gang member reveals the four cards in his stack and resolves them. This can be done in any order and may involve spending Money cards saved from earlier rounds. Wounds will be suffered, Money cards will be used heal Wounds or examine the Role cards of other gang members or the Boss (in the middle of the table, so this is useful if the Mole card is played at any time), Armour cards to stop Gun cards, Intel cards to examine the Role cards of other gang members or the Boss, and so on. Money cards and Hit cards can be kept to be used in subsequent rounds. At the end of the round, each gang member keeps any Wounds he suffered during the round which he could not heal by spending Money cards or stop with an Armour card. If at the end of a round, any gang member has three Wound cards in front of him, then he has fallen, and not only does the game end, but everyone on his team—either Hardened Criminals or Undercover Cops—loses and everyone on the other team wins.

Mechanically, play is quick, and the four-card hand combined with the four-card limit on each gang member’s stack keeps everything simple and elegant. A gang member might be killed in a couple of rounds, but a game will probably last a round or two longer than that. Physically, Never Bring a Knife is nicely presented. The rule book is easy to read, whilst the cards themselves are clear and easy to understand. A nice touch is that the artwork varies on each of the Role cards and different designs are used on the Gun cards. This gives the game a little more variety in its look. 

What is interesting in Never Bring a Knife as a social deduction game, is not just that each gang member will need to identify the Hardened Criminals and Undercover Cops in the gang, but will need to keep himself and his fellow team members alive. So the Money cards play as big a role in the game as the Gun cards. Initially each gang member will know about himself and the gang member to his left, whilst also wondering about the gang member to his right who knows whether he is a Hardened Criminal and a Undercover Cops. This is each gang member’s initial clue, the second being the first cards played on each gang member, which may or may not suggest their allegiance. After that, gang members will have to rely on Money and possibly Intel cards to discover who their friends and enemies are.

Throughout the game though, gang members are free to say whatever they want to each other, so they can agree to work together, issue threats, spread lies, debate about the Roles of their fellow gang members, share information, and even outright lie. A gang member’s role will only be revealed to everyone at the end of the game. It is here that gang members are free to roleplay too and given the genre which inspired it, Never Bring a Knife is ripe for film quotes and film-inspired roleplaying, which adds to the flavour of the game. Or, of course, a gang member might have enough of all the talking, cajoling, and threatening, lose his temper and just blaze away with his Gun (cards). Lastly, both the Hit and Mole cards have the capacity to add last minute twists to the outcome of the game if played at the right time, further emulating the genre that the game is inspired by. 

Never Bring a Knife is a fun stand-up, shootout showdown, which fans of heist films will enjoy roleplaying their way through. Its simple rules enable gang members to play out the story of heist gone wrong in hail of bullets, desperation, and recriminations.