Saturday, 17 April 2021
Tales of the Demon Lord is a campaign for Shadows of the Demon Lord. It consists of eleven adventures set in the lands of the Northern Reach, the far-flung province of a dying empire, whose capital is Crossings, a city perched on shores of the island-strewn and fae-inhabited lake known as Dark Waters. The city is best known as a fishing port and for its Academy of Engineers established by the Empire long ago and the six faerie spires which have stood since long before the city was built. Originally founded by exiles, refugees, and bandits from the Empire, but since subsumed into its borders before being ignored as a distant province, the council rather than governor-led Crossings acknowledges Sixton as the capital of the province, but otherwise ignores it and decides what is best for the citizens of Crossings. However, as the Shadow of the Demon Lord looms over the Empire, Crossings is not immune to the impending doom, an ancient cult with a branch in the city, the Brotherhood of Shadows, scrambles to find a way to bore a hole into the Void that is home to the Demon Lord, and so release both him and hordes of demons intent on destroying the world. As the Player Characters undertake one task or mission after another, they will cross paths with not only these cultists, but also rival cultists who want to take control of the Brotherhood of Shadows and so claim the glory of successfully summoning their master and doom the world…
Tales of the Demon Lord provides several reasons why the Player Characters might be in Crossings according to their Profession—Academic, Common, Criminal, Martial, Religious, or Wilderness—and quickly lays out the basics of the plot and details Crossings and various NPCs. Some of the city is described in detail, including its government, various districts, and important NPCs. The description is accompanied by a decent map and is enough for the Game Master to run the Tales of the Demon Lord campaign or any other scenarios set within its walls, whilst still leaving plenty of room for the Game Master to add her own content. Very quickly though, Tales of the Demon Lord gets into the first part of its campaign.
The first of the eleven adventures in Tales of the Demon Lord is ‘Harvester of Sorrows’. A priest from Crossings’ poorest district, Grievings, has gone missing following a series of disappearances he was investigating himself, and the Player Characters are asked to find him. A little investigation will reveal that the priest was enquiring about a nearby dilapidated house, once home to an infamous demonologist, and after a run-in with a local gang, there the Player Characters will discover that someone else also has an interest in the house and accidentally released a dread creature that is preying on the inhabitants of the surrounding the district. This is a common aspect of the scenarios which will follow inTales of the Demon Lord. ‘Harvester of Sorrows’ gets the campaign off to a grim start just as you would expect for Shadow of the Demon Lord, but is not too challenging.
‘Born to Die’ is the first of two scenarios for Novice-level characters. The gang encountered in ‘Harvester of Sorrows’ has kidnapped the daughter of a local merchant and is holding her for ransom, and her father engages the Player Characters to see to her safe return. However, the Player Characters are not the only ones looking for the daughter and will need to deal with at least one other faction to get to her. Mostly set on an island in Dark Waters lake, the first of several scenarios which will take the Player Characters out of Crossings, this is a hostage rescue scenario, which of course, will go wrong. The second scenario for Novice-level characters, ‘The Curious Case of the Errant Swine’, takes the Player Characters truly out of the city to the farm of Farmer Ham, who recently had one of his fine hogs stolen. He wants the thieves caught and his hogs returned, if possible. Signs point towards the nearby Sentinel Wood and investigation there will locate both the culprits and the reasons behind the abductions, but has horrid secrets of his own he wants kept hidden. This scenario has a nice mix of interaction, investigation, and exploration, in particular into a partially-flooded Elvish underground shrine.
‘Temple of Shadows’ sees the Player Characters back in the city as a vile plague sweeps through Purse, Crossings’ wealthiest district, its victims descending into gibbering madness before dying and rising as demon-possessed animated corpses! In this first scenario for Expert-level characters, the fact that house of Pentachus Katandramus, a wealthy aristocrat, has ben destroyed in a recent surely cannot be a coincidence and Inquisitor Randolfus and his henchmen, but have not returned. When the Player Characters get past the cordon and descend into the house, they discover another factional feud, this time for control of the vile temple under the remains of the house and what might be hidden there. ‘Temple of Shadows’ is followed by ‘The Moon Spire’, which will take the Player Characters away from Crossings again, this time to the hamlet of Carbuncle, infamous for the physical oddities and infirmities of its inhabitants, and the strange Moon Spire, an elvish tower which appears at the full moon. This is a strange exploration of an even stranger building, the Player Characters needing to find portal after portal to work their way up the tower without being kicked out. Again, this is another search for a relic which needs to be denied to the enemy, but one which will require the Game Master to track carefully where the Player Characters are as there is a high chance of their being separated.
Another theme in Tales of the Demon Lord, that of others uncovering things best left covered, continues with ‘Mines of Madness’. The third scenario for Expert-level characters, this has the Player Characters sent into the Black Hills west of Crossings, where the Dwarf, Gundren the Ironmonger, operates a mine. Ore shipments have stopped coming and he wants to know why. Arriving at the mine, the Player Characters discover that the miners are missing and must descend into the mine to find out what has happened. This scenario is incidental to the campaign, as is the next, but ‘Mines of Madness’ is a decent enough dungeon-bash. The fourth, and last scenario in the campaign for Expert-level characters is ‘In the Name of Love’, which takes place in the rapidly declining town of Verge. This is a more sophisticated piece, one-part sandbox, one-part character study, in which rumours of missing villagers and strangers seen about the place should drive the Player Characters to investigate. A combination of good roleplaying and investigation will reveal that not all is well in Verge as anger has awoken a demon-tree, strangers predate on victims’ tears, and brigands pick at the bones of the settlement in this bloody tragedy.
If the Player Characters have been working to prevent the coming of the Demon Lord and thus the end of the world, if only inadvertently at this point in the campaign, then they find themselves with a rival in ‘Shadows in the Mist’ in this first scenario for Master-level characters. When they return to Crossings, they hear reports of new-borns having gone missing, a new island appearing in the lake, and then a monster haunted fog rolls in and shrouds the city. The island and its inhabitants prove unwelcoming to visitors and when the Player Characters get to close to the culprit, they become the hunted. The steampunk elements of Shadow of the Demon Lord are played up in ‘Off the Rails’, as the provincial governor recruits the Player Characters to investigate a recent train crash and recover several iron titans, prototype mechanical soldiers which might replace the Empire’s Orc soldiery and which were aboard the train. As the Player Characters are investigating the crash site, they are drawn to a nearby village by the sound of an explosion. If they race to investigate, they discover the village under attack by Orc rebels in command of the iron titans—but the villagers have their own means of defence! The likelihood is that a big battle will ensure, either against the Orcs or villagers, not both, and then there is the matter of the remaining rebels to deal with…
The penultimate scenario in Tales of the Demon Lord is ‘Prince of Darkness which brings the summoning of the Demon Lord one step closer, but the Player Characters, help comes from an unexpected quarter—a reformed demonologist who has escaped Hell! A demon has taken possession of the demonologist’s former stronghold and is tearing open a rift to the Void. With the demonologist’s aid, the Player Characters must enter his stronghold and find a way to defeat the demon or prevent it from opening the Void. The last scenario and campaign finale is ‘The End is Near’ in which the Brotherhood of Shadows moves openly to summon its master as rivals try to take control of the cult’s efforts. The scenario begins with an investigation into the death of Crossings’ mayor, the first of several possible murders in the city, and culminates in the Player Characters confronting several factions in an attempt to bring about the end of the world!
Tales of the Demon Lord is rounded out with ‘Appendix: New Creatures’, which presents several types of an insectoid species encountered in the mines in ‘Mines of Madness’. Physically, Tales of the Demon Lord is well presented, with a decent artwork and some nice cartography. In terms of a campaign, Tales of the Demon Lord lives up the grim and bruising tone of Shadow of the Demon Lord, the Player Characters being constantly assailed by demons, cultists, and other vile threats. It feels compact, there being roughly two or four pages per scenario, each of which should provide two or three secessions’ worth of gaming.
However, Tales of the Demon Lord does not quite work as a campaign as written. Some effort is required by the Game Master to provide monster statistics and magical relics when found, but further, the Game Master will need to set up and provide continuing links between the scenarios, as none are provided. A patron is required for the Player Characters at the very least, and once the campaign gets under way, this should be less of an issue. It does add to the set-up requirements for the Game Master though. Similarly, the Game Master will be on her own when comes to the outcome—successful or failed—of any scenario, plus the outcome, if successful, of the campaign. The effects of failure though, is easier to determine. The lack of connective tissue between the scenarios means that not every scenario is specifically connected to the campaign’s story line as well, and whilst in places this means that the campaign is showcasing the ongoing, dying nature of the world around the Player Characters, it also means that it feels as if they are being shunted off scene whilst other things occur. However, the lack of connective tissue between the scenarios has an advantage too, providing some flexibility in terms of the order in which they can be played—though this would have to be within the confines of the Path the Player Characters are on (Novice, Expert, or Master)—as well as making them easy to extract from the book and either replaced, added to another campaign, or run as a one-shot. With some effort, a Game Master could also adapt the campaign to the roleplaying of her choice, whether grim and perilous, or not.
Tales of the Demon Lord is as dark and twisted and as grim and perilous a campaign as you would want for Shadow of the Demon Lord. It is a solid, intentionally short campaign, which serves up a good mix of horror and insanity, but which will require more development and set-up than another campaign might.
Friday, 16 April 2021
The setting for The Ana-Sin-Emid Report is the Iota Pegasi B System, the site of Grant Stellar Station, a Cambridge-Wallace, Inc. facility. The Player Characters are either stationed there or making a pickup or delivery, perhaps Cambridge-Wallace, Inc. employees, perhaps not. Whatever the reasons for their being on the Grant Stellar Station, a situation has arisen and the station manager grabs the first available crew and assigns them to resolve it. If they are Cambridge-Wallace, Inc. employees, then fine. If not, there is a set of emergency employment mandates written into their contracts—in very small print—which means that they have little choice in the matter. The situation is that in the last hour, the Deep Space Transport Vessel The Ana-Sin-Emid dropped out of FTL and began coasting towards the inner system. If it continues on its current path, it will disrupt operations and present a potential hazard. There has been no communication from the vessel and its current pattern of deceleration suggests that it is under automated piloting. The Ana-Sin-Emid is the property of the Wayne/Tanaka Corporation, but as it is Cambridge-Wallace, Inc. space, Cambridge-Wallace, Inc. has the right to offer assistance, board her and, if the opportunity presents itself, claim salvage. Which is where the Player Characters come in.
The Player Characters are tasked with getting aboard The Ana-Sin-Emid, get to the bridge, and report back to the station manager. If they have their own vessel, they can use that, but if not, the Player Character are assigned the Deep Space Reconnaissance Vessel Grahams, a small starship designed to jump into distant star systems and conduct preliminary survey sweeps and collect information upon which the decision to conduct deeper survey or resource exploitation missions can be made. If the Player Characters lack a pilot amongst their number, then one will be provided. The Player Characters have about twelve hours before another ship can be readied and sent out to The Ana-Sin-Emid, so they are the first response to the emerging situation.
Once at their destination, the Player Characters find The Ana-Sin-Emid under power, but unresponsive. Energy and heat blooms can be detected, there is no sign of damage, and the airlocks are closed. Essentially, the Player Characters are free to explore the two decks of the vessel, and its eighteen locations as is their wont. They will quickly find that it has been abandoned and that there are signs of violence scattered throughout the ship. However, as they explore The Ana-Sin-Emid, the Player Characters—singly or in groups—begin see strange things. Are they hallucinations? Are they something else? And whatever they are, what is causing them? Is there a chemical agent in the ship’s air supply or is it something else? Ultimately, the cause of the problems aboard The Ana-Sin-Emid is relatively easy to determine, but this does not mean that the Player Characters will necessarily solve it. Strange incidents may place them under too much Pressure, and there is scope for both accidents and incidents of violence during their exploration of the apparently abandoned vessel.
In addition to the plot, The Ana-Sin-Emid Report includes for increasing the Pressure upon the Player Characters—either because they knew somebody The Ana-Sin-Emid or due to past experiences of Episodes of Pressure. An option is given for having an NPC Helm Officer, who would of course abandon the Player Characters aboard The Ana-Sin-Emid at the first sign of trouble, and there are clear deckplans given for The Ana-Sin-Emid. There is decent staging advice for the Game Monitor too.
The Ana-Sin-Emid Report is cleanly laid out, though the text needs a slight edit and the labelling on the deckplans is a bit tight in places. The various incidences of Pressure could also have been slightly more clearly marked for ease of running the scenario, especially if the Game Monitor is running with minimal preparation. The scenario does not require a great deal of preparation, but this would have helped.
The lightness of the mechanics in The Ana-Sin-Emid Report means that it is more plot than necessarily stats. This has the advantage of making it not only easy to run for Those Dark Places, but also easy to adapt to almost any Science Fiction roleplaying game. Of course, it is ideally suited to those which already combine Science Fiction with horror, especially Blue Collar Science Fiction, such as MOTHERSHIP Sci-Fi Horror Roleplaying Game or even the Alien: The Roleplaying Game, whether that is to run it straight and as is, or as a training exercise. (In fact, Those Dark Places would work as a training exercise or employment application in the setting of those roleplaying games!)
The Ana-Sin-Emid Report is nasty, weirdly creepy, and short. It is easy to run as a one-shot or add to an existing campaign, and should provide one or two sessions of play. It would also work as a convention scenario and so easily fit within a four-hour slot.
Monday, 12 April 2021
Much like the Miskatonic Repository for Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition, the Jonstown Compendium is a curated platform for user-made content, but for material set in Greg Stafford’s mythic universe of Glorantha. It enables creators to sell their own original content for RuneQuest: Roleplaying in Glorantha, 13th Age Glorantha, and HeroQuest Glorantha (Questworlds). This can include original scenarios, background material, cults, mythology, details of NPCs and monsters, and so on, but none of this content should be considered to be ‘canon’, but rather fall under ‘Your Glorantha Will Vary’. This means that there is still scope for the authors to create interesting and useful content that others can bring to their Glorantha-set campaigns.
What is it?
Vajra of the Skies presents an NPC, his entourage, and associated spirits for use with RuneQuest: Roleplaying in Glorantha.
Where is it set?
Vajra of the Skies is nominally set in the Grazelands to the west of Sartar, home to the Pure Horse People, but the NPC and his entourage could be encountered almost anywhere, though he may also be found in the lands of Prax.
Who do you play?
No specific character types are required to encounter Vajra of the Skies. Shaman characters may benefit from their interactions with Vajra of the Skies.
Vajra of the Skies requires RuneQuest: Roleplaying in Glorantha and Glorantha Bestiary as well as The Red Book of Magic. In addition, The Smoking Ruin & Other Stories may be useful as Vajra is related to some of the NPCs the Player Characters may encounter in the scenario of the same name. The Game Master may need to seek further information about the Pure Horse People.
Lastly, Vajra of the Air describes the ‘Sun Horse’s Mane’, a magic item woven by worshipers of Yu-Kargzant the Sun Horse. This is a seasonal decoration and good-luck charm favoured by adolescents and new adults among the Pure Horse People, which can be woven with different flowers for different effects. It takes much of somebody’s downtime to locate the right flowers and weave them, who must invest Rune Points into the creation, and if successful, grants gifts such as resistance to disease, enhancing the Fertility Rune, and the ability to locate the wearer’s beloved. This is an interesting ‘colour’ item for any member of the Pure Horse People, but perhaps one or two suggestions as to its use could have been included for the Game Master.
Sunday, 11 April 2021
Knock! #1 An Adventure Gaming Bric-à-Brac was published in January 2021, following a successful Kickstarter campaign by The Merry Mushmen. It is a two hundred-and-twelve page 5.9” by 8.25” full colour book containing some eighty-two entries contributed by some of the most influential writers, publishers, and commentators from the Old School Renaissance, including Paolo Greco, Arnold K, Gabor Lux, Bryce Lynch, Fiona Maeve Geist, Chris McDowall, Ben Milton, Gavin Norman, and Daniel Sell, along with artists such as Dyson Logos and Luka Rejec. The content itself is formatted for use with Necrotic Gnome’s Old School Essentials Classic Fantasy, but readily and easily adapted to the retroclone of the Game Master’s choice. Particular attention should be paid to the look of Knock! #1, which employs vibrant swathes and blocks of colour to break up and highlight the text, along with strong use of differing fonts and quotations. It is clear though that the graphic style Knock! #1 has been heavily influenced by the look (though not the tone) of Mörk Borg, but that is no bad thing as the result is eye-catching and distinctive.
Knock! #1 quickly sets out its stall and identifies what the Old School Renaissance is and what it is not. Brooks Dailey presents ‘What I Want In An OSR Game’, whilst in ‘Old – A comparison of old and new D&D’, Gavin Norman examines why he prefers Old School Dungeons & Dragons to the new through his play experiences, so elements such as objective, challenged-based gaming, encounter-based high adventure, the lack of specific rules and reliance on the Dungeon Master to make improvised rulings, rather than relying on pre-defined rules, rules where necessary, and the like. What this highlights is the fact that in places, Knock! #1 does feel as if it is treading old ground, not just that of the Old School Renaissance, but of Dungeons & Dragons itself. For example, Bryce Lynch’s ‘Wandering Monsters Should Have a Purpose in Wandering Around’ and Sean McCoy’s ‘What Do The Monsters Want?’ both address the issue of monsters being more than mere victims of the Player Characters’ weapons and wizardry, whilst Bryce Lynch’s ‘Better Treasure’ discusses why treasure to be found in many an adventure sucks and suggests ways to make it more interesting. The latter is later supported by ‘300 Useless Magical Loot’, Chris Tamm’s cramped table of magical gewgaws and whatnots. ‘The Danger of Skills’ by Brooks Dailey is very much an Old School Renaissance response to modern Dungeons & Dragons and its use of skills in that they restrict play by telling a player what his character cannot do as much as what they can, rather going by a series assumptions, such as that the character can cook and can ride.
Also traditional are the articles in Knock! #1 on dungeon and adventure design, but what is not traditional, is their approach to them, which are theoretical rather than mechanical in nature. Arnold K presents a ‘Dungeon Checklist’ of things which should be in a dungeon, to be read before and after the Dungeon Master has designed her dungeon, whilst Gabor Lux provides two pieces on the subject. The first is ‘The Overly Thematic Dungeon’ which looks at the balance between populating the dungeon in a spirit of almost random, but fantastical whimsy, and does so whilst keeping a sense of fantastic realism in mind. The conclusion is of course, to find a balance which works for you. The second is ‘The Tapestry and the Mosaic Box: On the Scope of Module Design’, which surprisingly, is inspired by my review of Echoes From Fomalhaut #02: Gont, Nest of Spies in which I criticised his scenarios for a lack of hook to involve the Player Characters. The article does not necessarily change my mind, but it does explain the author’s philosophy and that makes it an interesting response.
Knock! #1 offers plenty of new rules and means of handling various rules and rulings in Old School Renaissance play too. In ‘Does Energy Drain Suck?’ Gabor Lux suggests ways to make the attacks of Wights, Wraiths and other lesser undead more of an immediate and less of a long term effect, whilst Eric Nieudan offers alternative ways in Hit Dice might work in ‘Hit Dice Are Meant to be Rolled’, Vagabundork offers ways to avoid Player Character death in ‘Save vs actual Death?’, and Brooks Dailey gives a new rule system for handling the Class’ skills in ‘1D6 Thieving’ (which oddly follows immediately after his ‘The Danger of Skills’ article). Add to all of this are the numerous tables to be found in the pages of Knock! #1. Daniel Sell’s ‘Wizard Weaknesses’ adds multiple secrets to winkle out and undermine a wizard’s magical prowess, whilst his ‘ The village’s local retired adventurer...’ quickly generates a background for that hoary old veteran nursing a pint in the corner of the local tavern. Good-deal Nobboc’s ‘Get your gear!’ provides d66’s worth of starting equipment, Eric Nieudan suggests ‘20 Gunpowders’, Jack Shear asks, ‘What’s the Deal with Igor’s Hump?’ (complete with a picture of Marty Feldman), and Fiona Maeve Geist explains that ‘My Goblins Are…’ in a set of tables which create goblins as more fey creatures, mundane and unnatural, but always with something interesting in their pockets. Chris Tamm also provides a complete set of sewer geomorphs and tables in ‘Sewers of Mistery’ to provide an adventuring environment close to home, under the town or city the adventurers are currently in. It also nicely ties in with James Holloway’s ‘My Aesthetic is PATHETIC And Yours Can Be Too.’ which explores the humble, grubby, and dangerous style of play British fantasy roleplaying and also the Character Funnel of Dungeon Crawl Classics Role Playing Game fame.
Elsewhere Knock! #1 explores some interesting issues and issues from interesting angles. With ‘What Kids’ RPGs are Missing’, Ben Milton analyses a playthrough of roleplaying games designed for play by kids, before suggesting that perhaps the high-risk, high-reward structure would be more to their liking, whilst in ‘The Labors of Hercules as OSR Obstacles’ suggests ways in which each of the twelve tasks might work in Old School Dungeons & Dragons-style games. It is not so much mechanical as much looking whether Hercules’ solutions might be the sort of thing players would come up with. Interesting, nevertheless. One of the criticisms of B2 Keep on the Borderlands is that it lacks names for its NPCs, but Nicolas Dessaux uses that as a starting point to apply anthropology, archaeology, geography, and other fields of study to actually find a place for the eponymous keep and explain its various features. It does get close to being dangerously realistic, but it is a fascinating examination of the module from outside of the hobby.
Knock! #1 showcases a range of maps before presenting the more mechanical content—the type of content you would perhaps expect in an Old School Renaissance fanzine—in the last quarter of the issue. The section includes new Classes such as the Living Harness, a living suit of armour once worn by a hero who died on a dark and moonless night and the Ne’er-do-well, lazy vagabonds and the like, rogue-ish, but not thieves, and very, very Vancian, both by Nobboc. None of the six classes are very serious, or even serious at all, and to a certain extent, the same can be said the monsters in the issue, such as Eric Nieudan’s ‘Thurible Cat’, a cast iron in the shape of a portly feline deity which must be fuelled with coal and incense and guards temples and which is actually based on a tea infuser! Lastly, Knock! #1 concludes with three adventures. ‘Citadel of Evil’ is for Player Characters of First to Third Level and is by Stuart Robertson, and sees them enter a mountain and ascend inside it in order to rescue kidnapped villagers. It is more serviceable and linear than interesting. Graphite Prime’s ‘Praise the Fallen’ is more interesting, a race against time for Player Characters of Second to Fourth Level to cultists from resurrecting a Fallen Angel—an angel of chaos—and whilst relatively small presents more of a challenge and a theme. Chris Tamm presents a wizard’s lair in the ‘The Wizard Cave’, which is more of a location for the Game Master to add to her campaign rather than actual adventure. The other adventure, ‘Zaratazarat’s Manse’ is for Player Characters of First and Second Level and has something strange going on in the swamps around a mouldering village. Could it have something to do with a wizard who lives in a hill in the swamp? Of course, it does, but the adventure nicely makes use of random monsters and gives a solid explanation for their appearance.
Physically, Knock! #1 is impressively bright and breezy. The layout is a little cluttered in places and the text a little too busy, but on the whole, it looks good. It needs an edit in places, but the artwork is good and the cartography excellent, but then with Knock! #1 coming out of the Old School Renaissance, it would be remiss if the cartography was anything else.
Subtitled ‘Being A Compendium of Miscellanea for Old School RPGs’, the truth of the matter is that much of the contents of Knock! #1 is far from new. A great number of the longer essays originated as blog posts, so there is a sense of some of the entries being yesterday’s comments and ideas. Much of what they say is still applicable to the Old School Renaissance segment of the hobby today, just as when they were originally posted, and in some cases, when they were explored and examined back in the ‘Golden Age’ of roleplaying that the Old School Renaissance actually draws from. So, this is not to say that the contents are poor or uninteresting or not useful, but rather that having had them published, to ask, “What next?”. As much as Knock! #1 is full of interesting, thoughtful, and useful stuff, should subsequent issues be relying quite so much on blogposts a few years old?
Knock! #1 An Adventure Gaming Bric-à-Brac lives up to both its subtitle and its own description as ‘Being A Compendium of Miscellanea for Old School RPGs.’ It is both a mishmash and an anthology of articles, essays, monsters, tables, adventures, and more—and it works for any retroclone. There is some excellent content in this inaugural issue too, like the ‘Dungeon Checklist’, ‘What Do Monsters Want?’, ‘300 Useless Magic Loot’, and ‘Borderlands’. However, some of the content does feel staid and some of it feels as if it has already been said, but the great thing about not finding one article or entry interesting, is that with over eighty entries in the anthology, all the reader has to do, is flip the page and the chances are that the next entry will be more to his liking. Ultimately, not only an excellent addition to the shelf of any Old School Renaissance Game Master, but in bringing to print a bundle of blogposts, Knock! #1 An Adventure Gaming Bric-à-Brac captures what the Old School Renaissance is like in terms of its aims and its ideas in 2020.
Saturday, 10 April 2021
The Modern AGE Basic Rulebook is divided into two sections. The first and slightly longer section is for the players, its chapters covering character creation, basic rules, character actions, equipment stunts, extraordinary powers, and so on. The second is for the Game Master and covers her role, mastering the rules, provides an array of adversaries, rewards for the Player Characters, settings, and the scenario. It does not come with its own setting, but explores a number of ideas and genres including historical, steampunk, gothic and cosmic horror, Film Noir, and more. It lists a number of inspirations in each case and together these should provide enough inspiration for the Game Master to conduct further research and come up with a setting of her own.
A character in Modern AGE is defined by Abilities, Focuses, and Talents. There are nine abilities—Accuracy, Communication, Constitution, Dexterity, Fighting, Intelligence, Perception, Strength, and Willpower. Each attribute is rated between -2 and 4, with 1 being the average, and each can have a focus, an area of expertise such as Accuracy (Assault Rifles), Communication (Gambling), Intelligence (Astronomy), or Willpower (Courage). A focus provides a bonus to associated skill rolls and, in some cases, access to a particular area of knowledge. A Talent represents an area of natural aptitude or special training, and is rated either Novice, Expert, or Master. For example, at Novice level, the Burglary Talent provides a Player Character with extra information about a security system or set-up when studied and an Intelligence (Security) test is made; at Expert level, a Dexterity (Sabotage) test to get past a security system can be rerolled; and at Master level, a Perception (Searching) test can also be rerolled. As a Player Character goes up in Level, he can acquire Specialisations, such as Agent or Performer, which grant further bonuses and benefits. A character also has a Background, Social Class, and Profession, plus a Drive, Resources and Equipment, Health, Defence, Toughness, and Speed, and Goals, Ties, and Relationships.
To create a character, a player rolls three six-sided dice for each Ability—assigning them in order, but can swap two, and then rolls for Social Class and an associated Background and Profession. A Background provides an Ability bonus, a choice of a Focus, and a choice of a Talent, plus randomly determined Focus or Talent, whilst a Profession provides a pair of Focuses and a pair Talents to choose from, plus a resources score and starting Health. The player selects a Drive, such as Achiever or Networker, which grants another pair of Talents to choose from as well as an improvement to a Relationship, a Reputation, or Resources. The process itself is fairly quick and results in a reasonably detailed character.
Our sample Player Character is Dominic Grey, a journalist specialising in military affairs. He grew up a military brat and attended military college, but did not serve in the armed forces following a training exercise. Instead he currently combines a part-time junior post at a local university with freelance journalism, both roles specialising in military affairs. Although in good health, his injuries prevent from taking too active a life and he occasionally walks with a cane.
Social Class: Lower (Military)
Communication 2 (Expression)
Fighting 3 (Brawling)
Intelligence 3 (Tactics)
Defence 09 Toughness 3 Speed 10 Health 18
Talents: Expertise (Tactics) (Novice), Knowledge (Novice), Self Defence (Novice)
Resources: 6, Membership (Rank 1)
Mechanically, the AGE System is simple enough. If a Player Character wants to undertake an action, his player rolls three six-sided dice and totals the result to beat the difficulty of the test, ranging from eleven or Average to twenty-one or Nigh Impossible. To this total, the player can add an appropriate Ability, and if it applies, an appropriate Focus, which adds two to the roll. For example, if a Player Character comes to the aid of a car crash victim and after pulling him from the vehicle, wants to render first aid, his player would roll three six-sided dice, apply the Player Character’s Intelligence Ability, and if the Player Character has it, the Medicine Focus.
However, where the AGE System gets fun and where the Player Characters have a chance to shine, is in the rolling of the Stunt die and the generation of Stunt Points. When a player rolls the three six-sided dice for an action, one of the dice is of a different colour. This is the Stunt die. Whenever doubles are rolled on any of the dice—including the Stunt die—and the result of the test is successful, the roll generates Stunt Points. The number of Stunt Points is determined by the result of the Stunt die. For example, if a player rolls five, six, and five on the Stunt die, then five Stunt Points are generated on the Stunt die. What a player gets to spend these Stunt Points on depends on the action being undertaken. In 2010, with the release of 2010 in Dragon Age – Dark Fantasy Roleplaying Set 1: For Characters Level 1 to 5, the only options were for combat actions and the casting of spells, but subsequent releases for Dragon Age – Dark Fantasy Roleplaying expanded the range of options on which Stunt Points can be spent to include movement, exploration, and social situations. This has been carried over into Modern AGE and expanded. Combat covers firearms, grappling, melee, and vehicles, as well as basic combat stunts, whilst Exploration stunts cover exploration, infiltration, and investigation, and Social stunts cover social situations, attitude (of an NPC towards another NPC or Player Character), and membership and reputation stunts.
So, what can stunts do? For example, for one Stunt Point, a player might select ‘Whatever’s Handy’ and grab the nearest improvised weapon, which though clumsy and possibly fragile, it will do; for five Stunt Points, select ‘Break Weapon’, which forces an opposed melee attack roll and if successful, disables the opponent’s weapon; or with a firearm, choose ‘Called Shot’ at cost of four Stunt Points, which turns the damage from an attack into penetrating damage. In an Investigation, ‘Flashback’ costs a single Stunt Point and reminds the Player Character of something he forgot, whilst in a social situation, ‘From the Heart’ costs four Stunt Points and enables the Player Character to express wholeheartedly a belief that it temporarily grants a Willpower Focus.
For example, walking home at night, Dominic Grey is spotted walking with his cane by two muggers, armed with baseball bats, who decide to take advantage of him. Dominic’s player makes an initiative roll for him, whilst the Game Master rolls for the muggers, a straight roll modified by their Dexterity Ability. Dominic’s player rolls eleven, modified to ten, whilst the muggers get a total of sixteen, so the order is the Muggers and then Dominic. The Muggers have Fighting 1, Fighting (Brawling), Dexterity, and Defence 10. Both the Muggers get a Major and a Minor action each round. Mugger #1 makes a Move as his Minor action, followed by a Charge as his Major action, which grants him a +1 bonus to his attack roll. The Game Master rolls three six-sided dice, adds +1 for Mugger #1’s Fighting Ability and +1 for the Charge action bonus, plus the standard +2 bonus for the Short-Hafted Weapon Focus. The Game Master rolls two, three, and five for a result of ten, plus the bonuses for a total of fourteen—enough to beat Dominic’s Defence of nine. The Game Master rolls for damage and Dominic suffers seven damage. The Game Master then rolls for Mugger #2, but rolls one, one, and two, which although it includes doubles, means that he misses.Another use for the Stunt die is to determine how well a Player Character does, so the higher the roll on the Stunt die in a test, the less time a task takes or the better the quality of the task achieved. The main use though, is as a means of generating Stunt Points, and whilst Stunt Points and Stunts are the heart of the action in Modern AGE, there are a lot of them to choose from. Now they are broken down into categories, and that does limit what a player can choose from. Nevertheless, there is potential here to slow play down as players make their choices and work what is best for their characters or the situation. This should lessen as players get used to the system and what Stunts work best with their characters.
The miss by Mugger #2 triggers Dominic’s Self Defence Talent, which allows him to use the Grapple Stunt, which normally costs a Stunt Point, for free. This requires an opposed Fighting (Grappling) test. The Game Master rolls two, four, and six for Mugger #2, plus his Fighting Ability for a total of fourteen. Dominic’s player rolls three, four, and six, plus his Fighting Ability for a total of sixteen. This is more than the Mugger and means that Dominic has a hold of him and he cannot move. It is now Dominic’s turn and his player rolls four, four, and six on the Stunt die. This beats Mugger #2’s Defence and generates six Stunt Points. Dominic’s player first spends two of these with the Hinder Stunt. Up to three Stunt Points can be spent on this, reducing damage taken from your opponent by two for each Stunt Point spent until Dominic’s next action. His player spends two Stunt Points on this. The remaining four are spent on Hostage. This requires another opposed Fighting (Grappling) test and enables Dominic manoeuvre Mugger #2 into a vulnerable position. If the Mugger #2 does anything other than a free action on his next turn, or if Mugger #2 attacks Dominic, he can make an immediate attack with a bonus. The Game Master rolls one, four, and five for Mugger #2, plus his Fighting Ability for a total of eleven. Dominic’s player rolls four, four, and five, plus his Fighting Ability for a total of sixteen. Dominic now has Mugger #2 in his grip and as Mugger #1 moves to attack, he manoeuvres Mugger #2 into the path of Mugger #1’s swing of his bat…
In addition to covering action, combat, exploration, and social scenes, Modern AGE covers rules for handling resources (money), reputation, equipment, and more. In particular, the more is comprised of ‘Extraordinary Powers’, divided into Arcane and Psychic powers, for example, Gremlins and Arcane Hack are effects which are part of the Digital Arcana and Kinetic Strike and Levitation are effects part of the Telekinesis Psychic Power. Each Arcana or Psychic Power is a Talent, which can be swapped out with a starting Talent during character creation or selected when a Player Character rises in Level and is eligible to choose a Talent. Depending, of course, if they are part of the Game Master’s campaign. Each Arcana and Psychic Power has its own Focus and both are fuelled by Power Points, the cost ranging between two and ten Power Points, depending on the effect. Tests are required to use an effect and so can generate Stunts Points just as with any other test. The list of Power Stunts available will be familiar to anyone who has played a mage in Dragon Age – Dark Fantasy Roleplaying. The use of Arcane and Psychic powers is entirely optional, but opens Modern AGE most obviously to the Urban Fantasy genre, but they could be mixed into a variety of different campaign settings.
The second half of Modern AGE is devoted to the Game Master and provides advice on how to run a game, game and scene types, play styles, frame particular tests, and so on. For example, it explores how to frame a breach attempt with various examples, like infiltrating a gang or hacking a computer. It does this for chases and combat as well, along with sample hazards. Other threats are presented in the form of adversaries, ranging from Assassin, Brainwashed Killer, and Cat Burglar to Psychic, Rich Socialite, and Smooth Operator—with lots in between, all of them human. Although most of the discussion of campaign types is in the Game Master section, the actual mechanics for campaigns are back at the beginning of the players’ section and run right through it. This is because they directly affect the roleplaying game’s mechanics. Modern AGE can be set in one of three modes—Gritty, Pulpy, and Cinematic. In Gritty Mode, a Player Character can be almost as easily injured as people in real life and one bullet is enough to put him out of action, and whilst he might get more skilled, a Player Character does not get tougher as he gains more experience. Stories in the Gritty Mode tend towards realism. In Pulpy Mode, the Player Characters are more obviously heroic and grow both tougher and skilled, and stories involve more action. In Cinematic Mode, the Player Characters are tough and heroic and only tougher and more heroic. Throughout the Modern AGE Basic Rulebook there are colour-coded sections which denote which rule applies to which mode, for example, Toughness works slightly differently in each mode, not all of the roleplaying game’s Stunts are available in each mode, and the adversaries have different Health, Defence, and Toughness depending upon the mode being employed. Each of the three modes makes for a different game and type of story, but no less action or success orientated with the generation and expenditure of Stunt Points.
The Modern AGE Basic Rulebook discusses a wide array of genres, from adventure and alternate history to procedurals and urban fantasy, along with various ears, running from the Age of Reason and the Victorian Age to the Cold War and the Present Day (and beyond). It devotes roughly a third to half a page to each, along with suggested further viewing. None of the discussions are overly deep, instead they do serve as a solid starting point for the Game Master, from which she can conduct further research. Rounding out Modern AGE Basic Rulebook is ‘A Speculative Venture’, designed for First Level Player Characters. The latter attend an exclusive party held by the wealthy CEO of a technology giant to remember the legacy of a cutting-edge inventor who died the year before. When a new technological break-through is revealed—the exact nature of which is left up to the Game Master to decide—it all takes a nasty turn as masked gunmen crash the party, take hostages, and it is all up to the Player Characters to come to the rescue. Involving a good mix of social and action scenes, ‘A Speculative Venture’ is a relatively short adventure, but should serve to introduce the players to the rules and what their characters are capable of.
Physically, the Modern AGE Basic Rulebook is cleanly presented, illustrated throughout in full colour, using the same cast of characters, which gives it a pleasingly consistent look. The book is also very easy to read and the rules easy to grasp. In terms of content, it is difficult to find actual flaws in the Modern AGE Basic Rulebook. Although it discusses a lot of settings, these are done in the broadest of terms, so perhaps its might have been useful to have included one or two more detailed and worked out settings, with one of them including the use of the roleplaying game’s Arcane and Psychic powers. Thus, giving the Game Master and her players something a bit more detailed to play in. The Modern AGE Basic Rulebook is designed to cover any period from the Industrial Age to the modern day, and beyond, but what that beyond is, is never really explored. Is it Urban Fantasy, is it something else? It is not Science Fiction, as that is too beyond what the Modern AGE Basic Rulebook covers. To be fair though, these are minor issues, if they are issues at all.
When Dragon Age – Dark Fantasy Roleplaying Set 1: For Characters Level 1 to 5 was published in 2009, it not only presented a setting based on a popular computer game, it also presented a simple, playable set of rules that enabled a group to play straightforward fantasy with cinematic action. For the then Dragon Die and Stunt Points mechanics proved to be both elegant and easy—and above all, fun. In the form of the Stunt Die and Stunt Points, the Modern AGE Basic Rulebook retains these same elements, but expands them to encompass another genre—two including Urban Fantasy, and provide options and actions which allow them to shine in a variety of different situations. It is ably supported by solid advice for the Game Master for both running the game and setting up a campaign. Overall, the Modern AGE Basic Rulebook packs a lot of punch in supporting action aplenty in its mechanics and the chance for the Player Characters to shine.
Friday, 9 April 2021
Down There—subtitled ‘A Fight Against the Shadows of a Sunken Temple from the Award-Winning Maker of Horror RPG Adventures’—is set in Curgir in the northern vales of the Evermoors in north-west Faerûn, a village famous for its apples and its cider, but also for its strange past. The village was once the site of a great temple which was built following the defeat of a cult devoted to the Horned Devil Caarcrinolaas and subsequently swallowed up by the ground, never to be seen again. Inhabited by a mix of Humans, Halflings, and Half-Orcs, the land on which the village sits is owned Greystone Abbey, which has established a Chapter House in the village. The monks of the Chapter House collect rent, settle disputes, and maintain common land. More recently, the monks at the Chapter House have decided to re-establish the temple with the aim of this one not sinking into the ground like the last one. To that end, the head of the Chapter House hired Marin Chain-Breaker, a Dragonborn Exorcist to determine a means of preventing that—and now he has. He plans to hold a holy wedding on the land where the new temple will be, the ceremony aiding in the reconsecration of the ground. Designed for Player Characters of First to Fourth Level, Down There will see them encounter strange creatures of shadow, dark secrets of the past, and Halfling Monks who are not what they seem!
The Player Characters are hired by Marin Chain-Breaker to escort him to Curgir and help him in his plans to re-establish the temple and prevent its disappearance. The story kicks into action when they come across signs of an abduction on the path and a note that should have been taken to Greystone Abbey. It appears that of late, the villagers are upset about the Chapter House’s leadership of Curgir, but do not give specifics as to why. Once the Player Characters reach Curgir, they find its inhabitants slightly subdued, but they can learn more with a bit of gossip. All clues point to the Chapter House, and there the Player Characters will have the first of the scenario’s two confrontations with darkness and evil. The second will likely follow after—though the scenario’s two big encounters can be played in any order—and take place in the remains of the temple that was lost… There the Player Characters will battle for the souls of the bride and groom to be, and more!
Down There involves a good mix of investigation and interaction, as well as the two combative confrontations. It comes very well appointed, as you would expect for a scenario from Stygian fox Publishing. The artwork is excellent and the maps very clear, whether for the players or the Dungeon Master. It does need an edit in places, though. Unfortunately, that is a minor problem when compared to the difficulty that the Dungeon master might have in running Down There. The issue that the contents of the scenario are not very organised. Once past the short introduction, the reader is quickly into a list of rumours and clues relating to the mystery of what is going on in Curgir, followed by an explanation of what Marin Chain-Breaker wants, and then into the scenario itself. Down There simply does not take the time to explain to the reader and potential Dungeon Master what exactly is going on in the village before diving into the plot itself. The result is that Dungeon Master has to learn it fully as she reads and thus everything is at first a surprise followed by a greater effort to pull its various elements into something that she can run.
Despite the issue with the organisation, Down There is a more than serviceable scenario. It is well presented with good maps and nicely done NPCs. It neatly subverts both the jolly image of both the Halfling Race and the reserved characters of the Monk Class, together a default combination in Dungeons & Dragons since Dungeons & Dragons, Third Edition, and turns them into something greedy and venal. There is a strong streak of horror too, with some creepy moments, primarily involving the shadows which permeate the village. Whilst it needs more preparation than it really should, Down There is a good combination of the horror genre with the fantasy and would add a darker, slightly twisted feel to any Dungeons & Dragons setting, not just the Forgotten Realms.
Monday, 5 April 2021
On the tail of the Old School Renaissance has come another movement—the rise of the fanzine. Although the fanzine—a nonprofessional and nonofficial publication produced by fans of a particular cultural phenomenon, got its start in Science Fiction fandom, in the gaming hobby it first started with Chess and Diplomacy fanzines before finding fertile ground in the roleplaying hobby in the 1970s. Here these amateurish publications allowed the hobby a public space for two things. First, they were somewhere that the hobby could voice opinions and ideas that lay outside those of a game’s publisher. Second, in the Golden Age of roleplaying when the Dungeon Masters were expected to create their own settings and adventures, they also provided a rough and ready source of support for the game of your choice. Many also served as vehicles for the fanzine editor’s house campaign and thus they showed another DM and group played said game. This would often change over time if a fanzine accepted submissions. Initially, fanzines were primarily dedicated to the big three RPGs of the 1970s—Dungeons & Dragons, RuneQuest, and Traveller—but fanzines have appeared dedicated to other RPGs since, some of which helped keep a game popular in the face of no official support.
Since 2008 with the publication of Fight On #1, the Old School Renaissance has had its own fanzines. The advantage of the Old School Renaissance is that the various Retroclones draw from the same source and thus one Dungeons & Dragons-style RPG is compatible with another. This means that the contents of one fanzine will be compatible with the Retroclone that you already run and play even if not specifically written for it. Labyrinth Lord and Lamentations of the Flame Princess Weird Fantasy Roleplay have proved to be popular choices to base fanzines around, as has Swords & Wizardry. However, fantasy is not the only genre to be explored in the pages of the fanzine renaissance.
Sunday, 4 April 2021
and Diplomacy fanzines before finding fertile ground in the roleplaying hobby in the 1970s. Here these amateurish publications allowed the hobby a public space for two things. First, they were somewhere that the hobby could voice opinions and ideas that lay outside those of a game’s publisher. Second, in the Golden Age of roleplaying when the Dungeon Masters were expected to create their own settings and adventures, they also provided a rough and ready source of support for the game of your choice. Many also served as vehicles for the fanzine editor’s house campaign and thus they showed another Dungeon Master and group played said game. This would often change over time if a fanzine accepted submissions. Initially, fanzines were primarily dedicated to the big three RPGs of the 1970s—Dungeons & Dragons, RuneQuest, and Traveller—but fanzines have appeared dedicated to other RPGs since, some of which helped keep a game popular in the face of no official support.Since 2008 with the publication of Fight On #1, the Old School Renaissance has had its own fanzines. The advantage of the Old School Renaissance is that the various Retroclones draw from the same source and thus one Dungeons & Dragons-style RPG is compatible with another. This means that the contents of one fanzine will compatible with the Retroclone that you already run and play even if not specifically written for it. Labyrinth Lord and Lamentations of the Flame Princess Weird Fantasy Roleplay have proved to be popular choices to base fanzines around, as has Swords & Wizardry.
Echoes From Fomalhaut is a fanzine of a different stripe. Published and edited by Gabor Lux, it is a Hungarian fanzine which focuses on ‘Advanced’ fantasy roleplaying games, such as Advanced Dungeons & Dragons and Advanced Labyrinth. The inaugural issue, Echoes From Fomalhaut #01: Beware the Beekeeper!, published in March, 2018, presented a solid mix of dungeons, adventures, and various articles designed to present ‘good vanilla’, that is, standard fantasy, but with a heart. Published in August, 2018, the second issue, Echoes From Fomalhaut #02: Gont, Nest of Spies continued this trend with content mostly drawn from the publisher’s own campaign, but as decent as its content was, really needed more of a hook to pull reader and potential Dungeon Master into the issue and the players and their characters into the content. Echoes From Fomalhaut #03: Blood, Death, and Tourism was published in September, 2018 and in reducing the number of articles it gave the fanzine more of a focus and allowed more of the feel of the publisher’s ‘City of Vultures’ campaign to shine through.