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

Monday, 12 April 2021

Jonstown Jottings #41: Vajra of the Skies

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 Glorantha13th 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.

—oOo—

What is it?
Vajra of the Skies presents an NPC, his entourage, and associated spirits for use with RuneQuest: Roleplaying in Glorantha.

It is a twenty-two page, full colour, 3.35 MB PDF.

The layout is clean and tidy, and its illustrations, although sparse, decent.

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.

What do you need?
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.

What do you get?
The second volume of ‘Monster of the Month’ presents not monsters in the sense of creatures and spirits and gods that was the feature of the first volume. Instead, it focuses upon Rune Masters, those who have achieved affinity with their Runes and gained great magics, mastered skills, and accrued allies—corporeal and spiritual. They are powerful, influential, and potentially important in the Hero Wars to come that herald the end of the age and beginning of another. They can be allies, they can be enemies, and whether ally or enemy, some of them can still be monsters.

The third entry is Vajra of the Skies, which details a Vajra, a shaman of the Golden Bow who once led the Four Gifts Clan with his younger brother, Rajhan. Since the tragic death of his brother, he has dedicated himself to his duties as his clan’s shaman and to wandering the skies of Dragon Pass on the back of the great vrok hawk Sunfriend, keeping an eye out for potential threats to the Four Gifts Clan. However, in that time, he has become all but lost in his repeated explorations of the Spirit World and addicted to the intoxicants necessary to enhance and extend those explorations. Consequently, his mind has been damaged and his grasp on the mortal realm has weakened.

Vajra may be encountered in the air astride his constant companion, the vrok hawk Sunfriend—from which he prefers to pepper any foes with magic and missiles, should combat ensue from any encounter—or even in the Spirit World, perhaps lost and in need of the Player Characters’ help. He might even seek to trade with them for any of the intoxicants he requires or ask them to obtain them for him. The two adventure seeds in Vajra of the Skies suggest encountering him in the Spirit World or having Vajra’s nephew and current leader of the Four Gifts Clan request the Player Characters track his uncle down and bring him home safe and sound. There is potential too, for a shaman Player Character to become Vajra’s apprentice, which is likely to be more of a challenge than is the norm for training to become a full shaman, given Vajra’s mentally wounded state. However, he is encountered, it will quickly become clear that Vajra is a broken man in need of sympathy and healing.

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.

Is it worth your time?
YesVajra of the Air presents a difficult, but challenging NPC, who can be used to introduce the Player Characters to the Pure Horse People and serve as potential, very difficult mentor for the Player Character shaman.
NoVajra of the Air presents a difficult, but challenging NPC, who might be too awkward to work into a campaign, especially if the Player Characters who do not number a shaman, as well as exploring a subject matter which not every playing group wants to include in its campaign.
MaybeVajra of the Air presents a difficult, but challenging NPC, who might be too awkward to work into a campaign, especially if the Player Characters who do not number a shaman, as well as exploring a subject matter which not every playing group may want to include in its campaign.

Sunday, 11 April 2021

Magazine Madness 2: Knock #1

The gaming magazine is dead. After all, when was the last time that you were able to purchase a gaming magazine at your nearest newsagent? Games Workshop’s White Dwarf is of course the exception, but it has been over a decade since Dragon appeared in print. However, in more recent times, the hobby has found other means to bring the magazine format to the market. Digitally, of course, but publishers have also created their own in-house titles and sold them direct or through distribution. Another vehicle has been Kickststarter.com, which has allowed amateurs to write, create, fund, and publish titles of their own, much like the fanzines of Kickstarter’s ZineQuest. The resulting titles are not fanzines though, being longer, tackling broader subject matters, and more professional in terms of their layout and design.

—oOo—

From the off, Knock! #1 grabs the reader’s attention and starts giving him stuff. Flip open the book and, on the front folded flap of the dust jacket, there is the beginning of a dungeon adventure, ‘Zaratazarat’s Manse’. Flip open this front folded flap and it quickly becomes apparent that the dungeon is continued on the inside of the dust jacket, all the way to the dust jacket’s back folded flap on which the dungeon’s maps have been reproduced for easy reference. Flip the actual book over and on the rear, under the dust jacket is a drop table of options to determine the stats and abilities of the baboon-like demon illustrating both the front and back covers of Knock #1. Even on the title page there is a table, ‘d12 Pamphlets Found In A Dungeon’, and this continues throughout the issue with nary a page wasted and every page filled with something interesting or useful. Leaf through the pages of the magazine and what you have is a panoply of articles and entries—polemics and treatises, ideas and suggestions, rules and rules, treasures, maps and monsters, adventures and Classes, and random tables and tables, followed by random tables in random tables! All of which is jam-packed into a vibrant-looking book.

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

In the Modern AGE

What has become known as the ‘AGE’ or ‘Adventure Game Engine’ was first seen 2010 in Dragon Age – Dark Fantasy Roleplaying Set 1: For Characters Level 1 to 5, the adaptation of Dragon Age: Origins, the computer game from Bioware. It has since been developed into the Dragon Age Roleplaying Game as well as the more generic Fantasy AGE Basic Rulebook and a more contemporary and futuristic setting with Modern AGE. Published by Green Ronin Publishing, it covers every era from the Industrial Revolution to the modern day and beyond, and able to do gritty action or high adventure, urban fantasy or a dystopian future. In addition to providing a ‘Classless’ iteration of the AGE System, the Modern AGE Basic Rulebook provides sufficient focuses, talents, and specialisations to take the Player Characters from First to Twentieth Level, fast-paced action built around action, combat, exploration, and social stunts, both arcane magic and psychic powers to elements of the outré and so do Urban Fantasy, solid advice for the Game Master—whether new to the game or a veteran of it, and a sample introductory adventure, all ready for play. All of which comes packed into a relatively slim—by contemporary standards—hardback.

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.

Dominic Grey
Race: Human
Social Class: Lower (Military)
Occupation: Professional
Level: 1

Accuracy 2
Communication 2 (Expression)
Constitution 3
Dexterity -1
Fighting 3 (Brawling)
Intelligence 3 (Tactics)
Perception 1
Strength -1
Willpower 2

Defence 09 Toughness 3 Speed 10 Health 18
Talents: Expertise (Tactics) (Novice), Knowledge (Novice), Self Defence (Novice)
Drive: Judge
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.

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…
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.

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

[Friday Fantasy] Down There

With Down There both author and publisher expand their range into a whole other genre, a whole other game system, and a whole other setting. Both Adam Gauntlett and Stygian Fox Publishing are best known for their ventures in Cosmic Horror and titles for use with Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition and Trail of Cthulhu. Adam Gauntlett for titles such as The Man Downstairs and Stygian Fox Publishing for titles such as Things We leave Behind. With Down There, both author and publisher have released their first fantasy adventure, their first scenario for Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition, and their first scenario set in the Forgotten Realms.

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

[Fanzine Focus XXIII] Scientific Barbarian #1

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.

Just as a number of fanzines have appeared to support Goodman Games’ Dungeon Crawl Classics Role Playing Game, such as Crawl!, a number have also appeared to support Mutant Crawl Classics Roleplaying Game – Triumph & Technology Won by Mutants & Magic and the Post-Apocalypse genre. For example, Bunker, Gamma Zine, and Meandering. The latest is Scientific Barbarian, its content written for use with the Mutant Crawl Classics Roleplaying Game and published by Mudpuppy Games. Edited by Jim Wampler, designer of the Mutant Crawl Classics Roleplaying Game, its contents can of course, be adapted to other Post-Apocalypse roleplaying games.

Scientific Barbarian #1 was published in the autumn of 2020 following a successful Kickstarter campaign. As you would expect, it comes full of robots, mutations and maladies, and monsters aplenty, as well as a sizable techno-dungeon. With its excellent cover aping the look of Scientific American, Scientific Barbarian #1 is cleanly laid out, illustrated with a range of decent artwork, and is an easy read. It opens with ‘Bunker Briefings’, an editorial in which Wampler sets out his stall, stating that the fanzine is designed to support the ‘Mutant Murder Hobo’ style of play and welcomes those who have come across the fantasy genre to this one. The latter theme is continued with ‘Apocalyptic Visions – It’s Okay to have 87 Eyes’, in which Tim Kask extolls the virtues of mutations in Post-Apocalypse roleplaying games, particularly the joy of playing and roleplaying defects.

The contents get a proper start with Levi Combs’ ‘Ecology of the Crater Mutant’. This describes the barbarous, hardy mutants who worship and are mutated by a great source of radiation located at the heart of the crater where they live. Their faith in The Gospel of the Glow drives them to kidnap others and expose them to the radiation and so transform them into members of the ‘family’. The Crater Mutants are cross between Orcs and hillbillies and definitely support the ‘Mutant Murder Hobo’ style of play. It does feel overwritten, as if it could have been shorter, but that tends to be the way of such ecology articles. It is followed by ‘S.A.B.L.E. Rangers – Security Automations for Basic Law Enforcement’ by Michael Stewart and Elizabeth Stewart which details a law enforcement initiative begun in the ‘before times’ of the thirtieth century, aiming to combine the impartial judgement of A.I. law enforcement with the moral oversight of a human partner, thus mitigating human prejudices and sympathies. The programme developer, Automates, Inc., built several prototypes before the Great Disaster which buried its manufacturing complexes. Recent tectonic shifting has exposed the complexes, allowing the prototypes, each in the friendly form of a robotic horse, to escape and begin their duties as law enforcement devices. A S.A.B.L.E. Ranger unit—of which three types are detailed in the article—might already be found with a partner sitting astride it, but the obvious option and the one explored more fully is ‘A Sentient and the Horse’, in which the robot teams up with a Player Character. In addition to the obvious nod to A Dog and his Boy, the article nicely explores the idea and sets up great roleplaying potential between the Player Character and the S.A.B.L.E. Ranger unit, effectively giving the Judge a Player Character of her own to play. This would lend itself to play with just the Judge and a single player, but it could also work with another player roleplaying the S.A.B.L.E. Ranger unit too, although that is not supported in the article. Which is a pity as it is a missed opportunity. There is a Saturday morning cartoon and very American Wild West feel to the article, but otherwise an engaging piece.

‘Mutant Maladies’ by Skeeter Green is a preview of a forthcoming supplement of the same name which adds diseases and contagions to the Post Apocalypse. It gives stats and effects for several diseases, including AMD-6 or ‘Marrowblight’, which hardens the bone marrow of Pure Strain Humans, or Ultra-Coagulation or ‘Thickblood’, which turns the liquid blood of its sufferers into goop. The three diseases are described in some detail, but whilst their utility is obvious, it may be limited, since the Judge may not want to expose her Player Characters to such maladies too often, since their debilitating effects may impede game play. This is not to say that the diseases are not well designed or that the article is not decently written, but of limited scope. More useful then, is ‘Glowing Good Looks’ by James M. Ward, the designer of both Metamorphosis Alpha and Gamma World, which presents a set of three tables to be rolled on whenever a saving throw versus radiation is missed or fumbled. There are tables for humanoids, winged-folk, and four-legged mutants, all of which provide minor mutations. As promised, these are quick and easy, and sufficiently utilitarian that they work with any post-apocalyptic roleplaying game.

Pride of place in Scientific Barbarian #1 goes to Jim Wampler’s ‘The Gene Looms of Janeck-Vac’. Designed for Player Characters of Fourth and Fifth Levels, this scenario has a traditional set-up—a village suddenly imperilled by a rash of strange creatures with new mutations appearing from the nearby jungles and the Player Characters ordered by the tribal elders to investigate and put a stop to it. After a few encounters in the jungle with these strange creatures—swarms of Batslugs, Spiderhogs, and Cobrapedes—they come upon a caldera and below that a facility of the ancients full of strange devices the interfering of which will have unfathomable consequences for the Player Characters, but then again, they are Player Characters and this is the Mutant Crawl Classics Roleplaying Game, so of course they will interfere. As the title of the scenario suggests, the underground complex is a genetics laboratory, and if they are careful, there are lots of secrets to be discovered and even the real Janeck-Vac to be encountered. If they are really lucky, there are some singular artefacts of the Ancients which would make fine additions to the Player Characters’ equipment and provide some excellent roleplaying opportunities into the bargain. As well as a decent set of floorplans for the facility, the scenario is accompanied by stats and write-ups for all eight of the weird mutant strains that the genetics laboratory has released to date, which of course, could appear elsewhere in the Omega-Terra of the Judge’s own campaign. The structure of the scenario does feel familiar, having been seen in multiple scenarios for Mutant Crawl Classics Roleplaying Game and other Post-Apocalypse roleplaying games before, but it is nicely detailed and adds a twist or two on the threat from the past coming back to haunt the future.

The monsters found in ‘The Gene Looms of Janeck-Vac’ are not the only ones to be found in Scientific Barbarian #1. ‘Creature Cryptology’ provides a half dozen new creatures which the Judge can include in her campaign. Some, like the ‘Eye-Cap’ is a weird variation upon a Dungeons & Dragons-style monster, the occasionally mobile, sentient fungus covered in chitinous plates and eyestalks which grant it 360° vision and which can launch a cloud of tiny flying eye spores each capable of firing an infrared laser beam! This is a nasty creature whose main means of attack can only be targeted by area effect attacks. Others are particular to the genre and the setting, such as the ‘Gem Thief’, a holographic data crystal which attempts to mind control its current possessor and subtly directs him to where others of its kind might be found. In fact, each ‘Gem Thief’ once belonged to a lost A.I. deity and seeks to find others of its kind to resurrect the A.I. deity. The nature and identity of the lost A.I. deity is left up to the Judge to decide. Overall, the selection to be found in ‘Creature Cryptology’ is variable in terms of quality or usefulness, but that is the nature of the fanzine, plus the Judge can easily adjust any one of the new creatures in the issue.

Rounding out Scientific Barbarian #1 is a ‘Retro-Review’ of Jack Kirby’s Kamandi, the Last Boy on Earth. Written by Scott Robinson, the review focusses mainly on the reviewer’s personal reaction to the collected omnibus—now and original issues when he was thirteen years old. The result is oddly uninformative and so not all that helpful to the reader when determining his interest in Kamandi, the Last Boy on Earth. This could have been addressed by the editor as well. The review is followed by a pair of cartoon strips, one an excerpt from the comic strip, Knights of the Dinner Table, the other entitled ‘Onto the Wasteland…’ Together they bring the first issue of Scientific Barbarian #1 to an entertaining close.

Scientific Barbarian #1 is something of a curate’s egg—partly bad and partly good. Or rather partly merely adequate and partly good. There are perhaps a few too many monsters in the issue, what with monsters in both the scenario and their department, the review could have been much tighter, and other articles shorter. Oddly, for a fanzine dedicated to Mutant Crawl Classics Roleplaying Game, there is a lack of new technology described in its pages. However, the table of new mutations is efficient and useful, the write-up and development of the S.A.B.L.E. Ranger unit concept is nicely done, and of course, ‘The Gene Looms of Janeck-Vac’ is a decent scenario with some hidden depths to it. Overall, the good definitely outweighs the not so good and just like the magazine it pastiches, Scientific Barbarian #1 is the first issue of fanzine which should be worth subscribing to, whatever Post-Apocalypse roleplaying game you already have a subscription for.

Sunday, 4 April 2021

[Fanzine Focus XXIII] Echoes From Fomalhaut #04: Revenge of the Frogs

On the tail of Old School Renaissance has come another movement—the rise of the fanzine. Although the fanzine—a nonprofessional and nonofficial publication produced by fans of a particular cultural phenomenon, got its start in Science Fiction fandom, in the gaming hobby it first started with Chess and Diplomacy fanzines before finding fertile ground in the roleplaying hobby in the 1970s. Here these amateurish publications allowed the hobby a public space for two things. First, they were somewhere that the hobby could voice opinions and ideas that lay outside those of a game’s publisher. Second, in the Golden Age of roleplaying when the Dungeon Masters were expected to create their own settings and adventures, they also provided a rough and ready source of support for the game of your choice. Many also served as vehicles for the fanzine editor’s house campaign and thus they showed another Dungeon Master and group played said game. This would often change over time if a fanzine accepted submissions. Initially, fanzines were primarily dedicated to the big three RPGs of the 1970s—Dungeons & DragonsRuneQuest, 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.

Echoes From Fomalhaut #04: Revenge of the Frogs continues this focus and again keeps the article count down to just four. Published in January, 2019, the issue opens with ‘The Technological Table’, a list of futuristic weapons and gadgets, ranging from laser pistol and laser spear to the God-box and The Dark Eye. Many of these items will be familiar from Science Fiction and other gaming articles, so it is refreshing to see some interesting entries alongside the usual electro-whip and laser sword. For example, Aquastel is a liquid so weighty, that when mixed with other liquids, it separates their constituent parts into layers according to their density, so could be used to neutralise poisons or extract valuable metals. The God-box is a communications link to an information bank located deep underground which can be consulted for information, though it is likely to be out of date or phrased on language that the Player Characters do not understand. This sort of article supports a setting where the campaign planet has links to a star faring civilisation or the various weapons and gadgets are remnants of a prior civilisation, fallen long ago. There are echoes of the lost civilisation set-up in the scenario, ‘Terror on Tridentfish Island’, published in Echoes From Fomalhaut #03: Blood, Death, and Tourism.

The scenario in Echoes From Fomalhaut #04: Revenge of the Frogs is the eponymous ‘Revenge of the Frogs’. The has always been an element of batrachian horror in Dungeons & Dragons, going back to Dave Arneson’s scenario, ‘Temple of the Frog’ and creatures such as the Bullywug, as well as drawing on H.P. Lovecraft’s short story, ‘The Shadow Over Innsmouth’. Frogs can be alien and emotionless creatures, so make a weird, but worthy enemy in any Dungeons & Dragons scenario. Designed for Player Characters of Third to Fifth Levels, ‘Revenge of the Frogs’ maroons them in the mouldering port of Silvash. The winds have ceased and the local high-priest of Murtar, God of Murky Waters hires the Player Characters to locate the means to restore them in the nearby marshland and prevent the rising of a frog-cult and its dread god that in ages past was destroyed by the priesthood of Murtar. The scenario is designed as a sandbox which will see the Player Characters delving deeper and deeper into the marshland, encountering various dank dangers and independently-minded inhabitants, all of whom are nicely fleshed out and bring colour to the region. Originally written as a companion piece to ‘Cloister of the Frog God’, part of Frog God Games’ Rappan Athuk megadungeon, Revenge of the Frogs’ is a bit rough around the edges and underwritten in terms of set-up and its explanation, especially in the placement of one of its magical items needed to complete the scenario. Otherwise, the scenario has a Lovecraftian tinge combined with a pleasing sense of mouldering decay.

Echoes From Fomalhaut #04: Revenge of the Frogs comes with a map which depicts the outline of a city. This of ‘Arfel – City State of the Charnel God’, which is fully detailed in the issue of the fanzine. This is a city dominated by Ozolba the Zombie God from his labyrinth temple-complex and necropolis which overlooks the city. He and his priesthood—both undead and living—can claim what they want and who they want, and to object is a sin. The nobility of Arfel abide by the stifling Necrotic Traditions, rarely if ever leaving their mansions which are perpetually shrouded in mourning, giving parts of Arfel a sepulchral feel. In the absence of civil government, crime syndicates and gangs have stepped in to run the city, though only unofficially. Only the Outer City beyond its walls is free from Ozolba the Zombie God’s reach, though it a lawless, rough place, where protection much be bought. Meanwhile, throughout the city can be found cat after cat after cat, which hunt in packs against the cat-catchers of the Outer City and know its secret ways from one end to the other. Again, there is the sense of the Lovecraftian to Arfel, it having a Dreamlands-like feel, though heavily influenced by Clark Ashton Smith’s Mordiggian, the Charnel God.

As with Echoes From Fomalhaut #03: Blood, Death, and Tourism, the remaining half of Echoes From Fomalhaut #04: Revenge of the Frogs is dedicated to one article. In the previous issue, this was ‘Erillion, East’, in this issue it is ‘Erillion, West’. This is the second half of a gazetteer detailing the island of Erillion, previously described in Echoes From Fomalhaut #02 and for the most part completed here—there are still plenty of locations mentioned here to be fully detailed in future issues. It continues to detail numerous locations and aspects of this end of the island, some forty or more of them. There is a strand of religiosity which runs through the location descriptions, notably the ‘Lunar Path’, a pilgrimage which leads from black lunar stones to black lunar stones and which will grant those successful with access to the world of dreams, but test them mightily in the process, and the ‘Isle of Trials’, an island west of Erillion, but connected by a pirate infested bridge, which is home to numerous persecuted cults and religious movements. Here the thumbnail descriptions never get as far as living up to their promise, since the reader is left wondering more about the cult or the religious movement and what their religious beliefs are. Hopefully, these might be detailed in a future issue. Otherwise, the thumbnail descriptions are decently done, such as the band of Ogre bandits which capture children and fatten them up for the pot, the court of Lord Virguard the Besieger who keeps five chairs empty in memory of his lost adventuring companions and who will reward tales of brave adventuring, and a marble chess high in the mountains, where two legendary wizards, one transformed into a mountain, the other a cloud, play out an endless game with living figures for the Staff of Power. There are also lots of bandits and thieves and berserkers to encounter too. This western half of Erillion is even more lawless than the Eastern half, and like the earlier ‘Erillion, East’, this half consists of many locations that might be passed through or discovered rather than necessarily visited with any purpose and the Dungeon Master will want to create that purpose or use the scenarios published in the earlier issues which are set on the island.

Echoes From Fomalhaut #04: Revenge of the Frogs definitely feels all the better for having just four articles, their content being allowed to breath and not feel crammed in. It is lightly illustrated, but much of the artwork is really quite good, whether it is public domain or commissioned for the issue, it all fits the oppressive ‘Mitteleuropa’ feel of the author’s ‘City of Vultures’ campaign and is well chosen. It needs an edit here and there, but is generally well written. Of the content, ‘The Technological Table’ is the outlier. It is a good article, but it feels out of place with the rest of the content, whilst the enjoyable ‘Revenge of the Frogs’, creepy ‘Arfel – City State of the Charnel God’, and completing overview that is ‘Erillion, West’, all feel as if they are in the same world. And that perhaps is a problem too, because so far Echoes From Fomalhaut is only giving us snapshots of the ‘City of Vultures’ campaign, not quite a partwork, but getting there. Overall, Echoes From Fomalhaut #04: Revenge of the Frogs is sol'd issue of the fanzine, but it is beginning to feel as if something is wanted to begin pulling the ‘City of Vultures’ campaign together.

Saturday, 3 April 2021

[Fanzine Focus XXIII] Delayed Blast Gamemaster #2

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.

Delayed Blast Gamemaster is a fanzine of a different stripe. Published by Philip Reed Games following successful Kickstarter campaigns, Delayed Blast Gamemaster is a fanzine dedicated to supporting roleplaying fantasy games, but a particular style of fantasy roleplaying games—Dungeons & Dragons. Yet the issues are entirely systemless, which means that their contents can be used in Dungeons & Dragons, any of the fantasy roleplaying retroclones you care to name, and most fantasy roleplaying games with a little effort. Published following a successful Kickstarter campaign as part of the inaugural Zine Quest, the first issue of Delayed Blast Gamemaster was published in September, 2019, followed by the second issue a year later in September, 2020, again following a successful Kickstarter campaign.

Delayed Blast Gamemaster #2 is as physically striking as Delayed Blast Gamemaster #1. Its graphical design is all white art and text on matt black pages (a printer friendly version is also available), the effect being striking, almost jauntily creepy and oppressive in its artwork’s depiction of mad mages, wiggle cubes, undying angers, gnashing rock beasts, and more. Again, the text is both heavy and large, so is a lot easier to read than it otherwise might have been.

As to the concept behind Delayed Blast Gamemaster it is simply that of inspiration scattered subject by subject across nine tables. So ‘OneDTen Urban Locations’, ‘OneDSix Forgotten Spellbooks’, ‘FiveDSix Unusual Treasures’, ‘OneDEight Dungeon Oddities’, ‘OneDSix Magic Shields’, ‘TwoDSix Potions’, ‘OneDSix Warped Monsters’, ‘OneDTwelve Adventure Hooks’, and ‘OneDFour Dungeon Doors’. So all that the Game Master has to do is pick a table or subject, roll the die, check the relevant entry, and use it as inspiration to create something of her or adapt the entry to the roleplaying game of her choice. The most obvious choice to adapt the entry to, is of course, Dungeons & Dragons, due to the similarities in language, but other roleplaying games would work too.

The concept behind Delayed Blast Gamemaster and thus Delayed Blast Gamemaster #2 is tables of inspiration accompanied by more tables. There are eleven such tables in the issue, ranging from ‘OneDSix Dungeon Characters’ and ‘FiveDSix Unusual Treasures’ to ‘OneDEight Dungeon Conditions’ and ‘OneDSix Pockets Picked’. Thus, all that the Game Master has to do is pick a table or subject, roll the die, check the relevant entry, and use it as inspiration to create something of her or adapt the entry to the roleplaying game of her choice. The most obvious choice to adapt the entry to, is of course, Dungeons & Dragons, due to the similarities in terminology, but other roleplaying games would work too.

For example, roll a five on ‘OneDEight Adventure Hooks’ and the Game Master has her adventurers encounter a ‘Grizzled Warrior Questioning His Career’. The veteran, the worse for wear from drink readily shares tales of his exploits, the type of exploits that the Player Characters are likely going to want to emulate, though somewhat ruefully since he seems to regret his career choice. However, his ramblings might contain a nugget of truth or two, necessitating a further roll of a four-sided die. For example, a roll of a three determines that he regales the party of the time that he and his companions were attacked by a giant whose mighty Warhammer crushed many of them, and the last time he saw the giant, it was wandering away with the possessions of those he had slaughtered. Could the giant still have their possessions, and just were they?

Alternatively, roll a fourteen on ‘FiveDSix Unwanted Treasures’—a sequel to ‘FiveDSix Unusual Treasures’ from Delayed Blast Gamemaster #1—and the adventurers find a small book bound in metal with pages of thick parchment, half full with the incomplete memoirs of a halfling merchant which tell of his life as a great lover and warrior. Similarly, ‘OneDEight Dungeon Oddities’ is another sequel to a table from Delayed Blast Gamemaster #1. It provides more monstrous encounters, such as the ‘Wizard’s Goblinoid’, a result of a roll of one on the table, which describes a goblin who really, weirdly enjoys being a Wizard’s familiar and knows a few cantrips, whilst a roll of five would give a ‘Wiggle Cube’, a very rare orange gelatinous cuboid with sufficient awareness to track down and take control of other oozes and slimes. Perhaps one of the most engaging table is ‘OneDSix Guards’, which describes the personalities of six town guards so making them more than just the local watch ready to step in when the party causes trouble!

With eleven tables, there are a lot of entries and ideas in Delayed Blast Gamemaster #2, which is the point. In comparison to the first issue, there is a better range of entries in Delayed Blast Gamemaster #2, including oddities, memorable weapons, adventure hooks, magic scrolls, dungeon conditions, and the contents of pockets picked. There are, however, a few tables and entries which are designed for single use only given their suggested rarity. The ‘Wiggle Cube’ from ‘OneDEight Dungeon Oddities’ is one such entry, whilst the ‘OneDSix Goblins’ table gives six strange, even singular goblins that it is advised that the Dungeon Master consult the table rarely lest their overuse lessen their impact. This slightly reduces the utility of Delayed Blast Gamemaster #2.

Rounding out Delayed Blast Gamemaster #2 is ‘Cave of Eyes’, a six-location set of caverns which comes with a background and some broad detail such that it needs to be fleshed out and detailed by the Dungeon Master. It is not a particularly interesting location as written and really needs that input, and perhaps it might have been more interesting if it had included suggestions as to which tables the Dungeon Master could roll on to further develop the cave complex. Otherwise, a table might have been more useful.

Once again, Delayed Blast Gamemaster #2 presents a plethora of things a Game Master can bring to her game. She will need to do some work to bring them into her campaign, but the ideas will work with Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition as much as they would with Old School Essentials Classic Fantasy, Dungeon Crawl Classics, or The Fantasy Trip. Whatever your choice of fantasy roleplaying game, further inspiration is never unwanted and Delayed Blast Gamemaster #2 yet more.

Friday, 2 April 2021

[Fanzine Focus XXIII] Crawl! No. 7: Tips! Tricks! Traps!

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 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. Another choice is the Dungeon Crawl Classics Role Playing Game.

Published by Straycouches Press, Crawl! is one such fanzine dedicated to the Dungeon Crawl Classics Role Playing Game. Since Crawl! No. 1 was published in March, 2012 has not only provided ongoing support for the roleplaying game, but also been kept in print by Goodman Games. Now because of online printing sources like Lulu.com, it is no longer as difficult to keep fanzines from going out of print, so it is not that much of a surprise that issues of Crawl! remain in print. It is though, pleasing to see a publisher like Goodman Games support fan efforts like this fanzine by keeping them in print and selling them directly.

Where Crawl! No. 1 was something of a mixed bag, Crawl! #2 was a surprisingly focused, exploring the role of loot in the Dungeon Crawl Classics Role Playing Game and describing various pieces of treasure and items of equipment that the Player Characters might find and use. Similarly, Crawl! #3 was just as focused, but the subject of its focus was magic rather than treasure. Unfortunately, the fact that a later printing of Crawl! No. 1 reprinted content from Crawl! #3 somewhat undermined the content and usefulness of Crawl! #3. Fortunately, Crawl! Issue Number Four was devoted to Yves Larochelle’s ‘The Tainted Forest Thorum’, a scenario for the Dungeon Crawl Classics Role Playing Game for characters of Fifth Level. Crawl! Issue V continued the run of themed issues, focusing on monsters, but ultimately to not always impressive effect, whilst Crawl! No. 6: Classic Class Collection presented some interesting versions of classic Dungeons & Dragons-style Classes for Dungeon Crawl Classics, though not enough of them.

As the title suggests, Crawl! Issue No. 7: Tips! Tricks! Traps! is a bit of bit of a medley issue, addressing a number of different aspects of dungeoneering and fantasy roleplaying. The issue opens with ‘Lost in Endless Corridors’ by Kirin Robinson. It contrasts the attraction and joy of the maze with the challenge of not making the play of mazes in fantasy roleplaying games, well, boring. What it highlights is the potential frustration of playing through a maze and the loss of player agency. It suggests two solutions to avoid this. The first is to set time limits on resources and character statuses during their exploration of the maze, such as their torches running out or their beginning to feel light-headed after a time. The second is move the exploration of the maze from being procedurally-based to clue-based, and so make the maze more interesting rather than an endless series of empty of corridors. This would need more work for the Judge than simply drawing out a map, but the potential pay-off would be greater and make the maze more memorable than frustrating.

Thom Hall’s ‘Roguelike Fountains’ is inspired by Roguelike computer adventure games, in particular, the fountains with their messages and effects to be found in such games. It comes with a number of tables for determining the nature of any fountain found and what its accompanying message might be. Thus magical or non-magical, and various effects and messages, with even the non-magical fountains often having some kind of effect. The use of the ‘Square’ font for tables, as used in the computer game adds to the nostalgic feel of the piece.

Sean Ellis continues his irregular Monster Column with ‘Consider the Ogre’. It points out the discrepancy between the Troll and the Ogre in Dungeons & Dragons, that the Dungeons & Dragons Troll with its rubbery skin and regenerative health is not the traditional Troll of myth and legend. That role actually falls to the Ogre. Although it does not suggest replacing one with the other, it does offer ways of making the Ogre more interesting than simply as a coarse, chaotic baby-snatching species of humanoids. It suggest the possibility that some might even be repentant and there might be multiple types of Ogre. This possibility is supported by tables for rolling an Ogre’s appearance and how different it is, and a power and a weakness, and then connecting the three together to create a cohesive design. Overall, it is a quick and dirty way of creating more individualistic Ogres.

‘Critical Table T: Traps – Traps and Crits’ by Jeffrey Tadlock details six traps ready to be placed in a Judge’s dungeon. These are simple enough—the spiked pit trap, the poison needle lock, the scythe hall, falling block, and repeating poison arrow trap—and arguably, classics of the fantasy gaming genre. Rather than have the Player Character affected by a trap make a saving throw against the effects of the trap when triggered, the Judge makes an attack roll against the Player Character for the trap. This means that traps, just as other forms of attack in the Dungeon Crawl Classics Role Playing Game, need to have a table for determining what happens when a critical result is rolled on the attack. This is rolled on Critical Table T: Traps, a table of thirty results, the die rolled for any one trap determined by the attack modifier for the trap. So on a roll of one on any die, the trap springs perfectly and inflicts extra damage, but an attack modifier of +10 or +11 and the Judge is rolling a fourteen-sided die on Critical Table T: Traps, which might give the result of eleven, the damage inflicted strikes the target’s spinal area or if poison, overwhelms her central nervous system. Either way, the player needs to make a Fortitude Saving Throw for his character to remain conscious and the character also suffers two five-sided dice’s worth of extra damage. This makes traps even deadlier and makes the Thief Class far more important in disarming traps.

The ‘Shadowsword of Ith-Narmant’ is a write-up of a demonic shadow sword by Jürgen Mayer. It was forged from the demon’s own shadow by bound shadow warlocks and artificers, and like many of their creations may be found scattered across many worlds. It is treated as a longsword, but two six-sided dice are rolled for damage and when doubles are rolled, there is an extra effect, such as on double threes, ‘Taintburst’ inflicts three extra damage on the wielder and target, this damage, if it kills wielder or target, the demonic energies in the sword fuses with them, making them rise as a demon minion of Ith-Narmant. There are six such effects, one each for the six sets of doubles, but the very first, rolls of double ones, ‘Lifesucker’, sucks permanent Hit Points from the wielder and when enough is sucked out, the ‘Shadowsword of Ith-Narmant’ gains a Level. Each Level increases the viciousness and intelligence of the blade and inflict demonsigns on the wielder, which will have deleterious effects on the wielder’s alignment, ultimately turning him into a Champion of Ith-Narmant. The sword, ‘Shadowsword of Ith-Narmant’ is by any other name, Stormbringer from the novel by Michael Moorcock—or at least is inspired by it. Even if it is a bit too obvious, the mechanics are well done and bringing the sword into a campaign should give it an epic feel.

Rounding out the issue is ‘My Gongfarmer Can’t Do Sh*t!’ by Paul Wolfe. It is a call for the Zero Level characters of Character Funnel in Dungeon Crawl Classics to have skills and to be able to do things that reflect their backgrounds and occupations rolled during character creation. Not through an extensive list of skills, but rather through player creativity and narration when his Zero Level Player Character needs to do something which does not involve fighting, running, or screaming (or dying). It will require a little extra adjudication upon the part of the Judge, but the method will add to the background of any Zero Level character who survives a Character Funnel.

Physically, Crawl! Issue No. 7: Tips! Tricks! Traps! is decently put together. The few pieces of art vary in quality, some of it being a little cartoonish. The contents though, vary in quality and usefulness. This is not to say that none of the contents of the issue are useless, but none really quite stand out as being so useful that the Judge has to have access to them. The advice in ‘Lost in Endless Corridors’ and ‘My Gongfarmer Can’t Do Sh*t!’ feels a little obvious, unless of course, the Judge is new to Dungeon Crawl Classics, and whilst ‘Critical Table T: Traps – Traps and Crits’ and ‘Shadowsword of Ith-Narmant’ both add to the game, neither feels vital to a Judge’s game. Crawl! Issue No. 7: Tips! Tricks! Traps! feels like a mixed bag, containing good content, but just not good enough to be a must have.