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Friday 18 September 2020

[Free RPG Day 2020] Keyforge: Secrets of the Crucible – Maw of Abraxas

Now in its thirteenth year, Free RPG Day in 2020, after a little delay due to the global COVID-19 pandemic, took place on Saturday, 25th July. As per usual, it came with an array of new and interesting little releases, which traditionally would have been 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. Again, global events meant that Gen Con itself was not only delayed, but run as a virtual event, and likewise, global events meant that Reviews from R’lyeh could not gain access to the titles released on the day as no friendly local gaming shop was participating nearby. Fortunately, Reviews from R’lyeh has been able to gain copies of many of the titles released on the day, and so can review them as is the usual practice. To that end, Reviews from R’lyeh wants to thank both Keith Mageau and David Salisbury of Fan Boy 3 in sourcing and providing copies of the Free RPG Day 2020 titles.

The contribution to Free RPG Day 2020 from Fantasy Flight Games is Keyforge: Secrets of the Crucible – Maw of Abraxas. This is a quick-start for use with Keyforge: Secrets of the Crucible, the roleplaying game based on the setting for Richard Garfield’s KeyForge: Call of the Archons, the world’s first Unique Deck Game. It uses the Genesys Narrative Dice System—first seen in Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, Third Edition—but ultimately derived from the original Doom and Descent board games. 
Keyforge: Secrets of the Crucible – Maw of Abraxas comes with everything necessary to play—an explanation of the rules, four pregenerated characters, and an exciting, action-packed scenario for the Game Master to run. What it does not come with is dice and the fact that both the Genesys Narrative Dice System and Keyforge: Secrets of the Crucible—and therefore Keyforge: Secrets of the Crucible – Maw of Abraxas—use propriety dice is a problem. Not an insurmountable one, but a problem, nonetheless.

Keyforge: Secrets of the Crucible – Maw of Abraxas opens with a rules summary. The core mechanic requires a player to roll a pool of dice to generate successes and should the roll generate enough successes, his character succeeds in the action being attempted. The complexity comes in the number of dice types and the number of symbols that the players need to keep track of. On the plus side, a player will be rolling Ability dice to represent his character’s innate ability and characteristics, Proficiency dice to represent his skill, and Boost dice to represent situational advantages such as time, assistance, and equipment. On the negative side, a player will be rolling Difficulty dice to represent the complexity of the task being undertaken, Challenge dice if it is a particularly difficult task, and Setback dice to represent hindrances such as poor lighting, difficult terrain, and lack of resources. Ability and Difficulty dice are eight-sided, Proficiency and Challenge dice are twelve-sided, and Boost and Setback dice are six-sided.

When rolling, a player wants to generate certain symbols, whilst generating as few as possible of certain others. Success symbols will go towards completing or carrying out the task involved, Advantage symbols grant a positive side effect, and Triumph symbols not only add Successes to the outcome, but indicate a spectacularly positive outcome or result. Failure symbols indicate that the character has not completed or carried out the task, and also cancel out Success symbols; Despair symbols count as Failure symbols indicate a spectacularly negative outcome or result, and cancel out Triumph symbols; and Threat symbols grant a negative side effect and cancel out Advantage symbols. Only Success and Failure results indicate whether or not a character has succeeded at an action—the effects of the Advantage, Triumph, Despair, and Threat symbols come into play regardless of whether the task was a success or not. Task difficulties range from one Difficulty die for easy tasks up to five for Formidable tasks, and in addition, certain abilities enable dice to be upgraded or downgrade, so an Ability die to a Proficiency die or a Challenge die down to a Difficulty die.

In general, the dice mechanics in the Genesys Narrative Dice System—and thus,
Keyforge: Secrets of the Crucible – Maw of Abraxas—are straightforward enough despite their complexity. They are perhaps a little fiddly to assemble and may well require a little adjusting to, especially when it comes to narrating the outcome of each dice roll.

Combat is more complex. Initiative is handled by a skill roll—using Cool or Vigilance, and attack difficulties by range and whether or not the combatants are engaged in melee combat. Damage is inflicted as either Strain, Wounds, or Critical Injuries. Strain represents mental and emotional stress, Wounds are physical damage, as are Critical Injuries, but they have a long effect that lasts until a Player Character receives medical treatment. When a Player Character suffers more Wounds than his Wound Threshold, he suffers a Critical Injury, and when he suffers Strain greater than his Strain Threshold, he is incapacitated. The various symbols on the dice can be spent in numerous ways in combat to achieve an array of effects. So a Triumph symbol or enough Advantage symbols could inflict a Critical Injury, allow a Player Character to perform an extra manoeuvre that round, and so on, whilst Threat and Failure symbols inflict Strain on a Player Character, three Threat symbols could be spent to knock a Player Character prone, and so on. 
Keyforge: Secrets of the Crucible – Maw of Abraxas includes a table of options for spending Advantage, Triumph, Threat, and Despair in combat, as well as a table of critical Injury results. It does not, however, include a table for spending Advantage, Triumph, Threat, and Despair out of combat—a disappointing omission for anyone wanting to do a bit more with their character’s skills. That said, the Game Master should be able to adjust some of the options on the table to non-combat situations.

Lastly, the rules in 
Keyforge: Secrets of the Crucible – Maw of Abraxas cover NPCs and Story points. Apart from nemesis-type NPCs, most NPCs treat any Strain they suffer as equal to Wounds, and Minions work together as a group. In Keyforge: Secrets of the Crucible, there are two pools of Story Points—one for the Player Characters, one for the GM. They can be used to upgrade a character’s dice pool or the difficulty of a skill check targeting a character—NPC or Player Character in either case, or to add an element or aspect to the ongoing story. The clever bit is that when a Story Point is spent, it does not leave the game, but is shifted over to the pool of Story Points. So if the Game Master spends a Story Point to increase the difficulty of a Player Character’s Perception check to determine the motives of an NPC, she withdraws it from her own Game Master pool of Story Points and adds it to the players’ pool of Story Points. As a game proceeds and Story Points are spent and move back and forth, it adds an elegant narrative flow to the mechanics and will often force the players to agonise whether they should spend a Story Point or not as they know it is going to benefit the Game Master and her NPCs before it comes back to them.

A character in Keyforge: Secrets of the Crucible has six characteristics—Agility, Brawn, Cunning, Intellect, Presence, and Willpower, plus a range of skills from Charm, Computers, and Cool to Ranged (attacks), Skulduggery, and Vigilance, as well as range of special abilities. The four pregenerated Player Characters include a Saurian Crœniac with a Cybersensor Implant for better perception and a hacking rig; a Human Discoverer whose Zoomclaw is a rocket-propelled grappling hook that both climbing tool and weapon; a Spirit Arbitrator, an incorporeal being clad in containment armour who was exiled from his knightly order for bounding with a sentient sword called Vizer; and an Elf of the Shadowws whose faerie companions aid him in mechanical tasks and acts of skulduggery. All four Player Characters are nicely presented in a busy, but easy to access character sheet.

Each Player Character also has a way to use Æmber, the golden, glowing substance found only on the Crucible—the setting for Keyforge: Secrets of the Crucible—which is often processed to perform a single, specific function, such as currency. In its raw state it can be used to do strange and wondrous things. For example, Saurian Crœniac uses it to fuel a hazard field which makes attacks against more difficult, the Human Discoverer to make attacks with Zoomclaw jet-propelled, and so on. These are all one-shot abilities until the characters can obtain some more raw Æmber.

The setting for ‘Maw of Abraxas’, the scenario in
Keyforge: Secrets of the Crucible – Maw of Abraxas is Crucible, the ‘Impossible World’, a Jupiter-sized world made up of innumerable different zones, each a different environment or climate. In effect, it is a multiverse in one place, a multi-genre setting made up of multiple settings. In ‘Maw of Abraxas’, the Player Characters will see just a few of them—a glass jungle, a tightly regulated agrisector, a lake wrought with multiple storms, and the ancient ruins of a lost civilisation. In the scenario, the quartet of heroes have been asked by their boss, the tentacular Fixer, to recover the Cube of Realities, a weird artefact with the capability of warping the world around its user. He wants to ensure that it does not fall into the wrong hands. Unfortunately, the militant, xenophobic Martians already have it, but to prevent it being stolen or falling into the hands of their enemies have hidden it aboard a prototype saucer ship which even they cannot track or scan for! However, contact with the saucer has been lost, but fixer has learned that its designer created a device, the Vez Q-37 Scanulator, which can detect where the saucer is. So all the Player Characters have to do is steal the Vez Q-37 Scanulator from a Martian base and fight their way out, get across several sectors by Teleporter Cannon and then a couple more by whatever means necessary, find the lost saucer ship and grab the Cube of Realities. Easy, right? Of course not!

Consisting of just three acts, ‘Maw of Abraxas’ begins by dropping the Player Characters in media res and never lets up on the action or pacing. It should provide a session or so’s worth of play and comes with suggestions as to what each Player Character could do in a scene, and showcases a little of the diversity of the Crucible as a setting. The Player Characters all feel very different and the adventure should give them each a chance to shine.

Keyforge: Secrets of the Crucible – Maw of Abraxas is very nicely presented, in full vibrant colour. The artwork is excellent, if a little busy in places, and the book is well written and easy to understand.

The one downside to 
Keyforge: Secrets of the Crucible – Maw of Abraxas is that it uses the Genesys Narrative Dice System and that means using propriety dice. Now on the weekend of Free RPG Day 2020, the dice app for Genesys was available for free and that was very generous of the publisher. Of course, if a group is already playing Genesys or Keyforge: Secrets of the Crucible, and has either the dice or the app, then Keyforge: Secrets of the Crucible – Maw of Abraxas is easy enough to run and play, whether that is as extra scenario for an existing Keyforge: Secrets of the Crucible campaign or as an introduction to the setting. If not, then Keyforge: Secrets of the Crucible – Maw of Abraxas is unplayable, which is a pity because it is a fun scenario, though of course, a Game Master might be inspired to get either dice or app after reading though it so that she can run the scenario.

That issue aside, 
Keyforge: Secrets of the Crucible – Maw of Abraxas is an entertaining and fun introduction to Keyforge: Secrets of the Crucible. As a quick-start to both rules and setting, it is exactly the type of thing you want to pick up on Free RPG Day.

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