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

Monday, 23 May 2022

Miskatonic Monday #121: Death is the Final Escape

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

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

Publisher: Chaosium, Inc.
Author: Bryan Rudolf

Setting: Jazz Age Boston
Product: Scenario
What You Get: Fifty Nine page, 8.58 MB Full Colour PDF

Elevator Pitch: Can an escape artist escape his end?
Plot Hook: Murder-suicide lifts lid on vaudevillian villainy.
Plot Support: Staging advice, five pre-generated Investigators, eight 
handouts, one map and three sets of  floorplans, thirteen NPCs, three spells, two Mythos tomes, and Mythos creatures.
Production Values: Professional.

# Great cover and artwork
# Could be adapted to other time periods
# Detailed meaty investigative scenario
# Potential addition to a Lovecraft Country campaign
# Delightfully vile cult ceremony description
# Nuanced depiction of a cult that is more than just evil
# Clearly staged chase resolution
# Interesting, but serviceable way of getting (too) close to the villain

# Needs a slight edit
# Vaudevillian villain

# Classic investigative Call of Cthulhu scenario set in New England
# Well developed professional scenario in which the Investigators encounter a cult that is much more than just evil for the sake of it.

Sunday, 22 May 2022

Operative Orientation

Today you graduated from Meny. Today you graduated as a SLA Operative. A SLA Op. A Slop. Tomorrow you and your squad will take your first job, your first BPN or Blue Print New file, given to you by a BPN Officer at your nearest BPN Hall. You’re pretty sure it’ll be in Downtown, literally down town in the great metropolis of Mort City. It could be a Blue, and you could be exterminating a nest of rats or sewer pigs, doing a gang sweep, or breaking up some upstart soft company. It could be a White and you’ll find yourself monitoring strange activity in a neighbourhood or investigating a murder or even the activities of one of those serial killers that plague the reaches of Downtown. Or it could be Green and you’ll find yourself assigned to one of the bridgeheads out in Cannibal Sector 1, alongside the Shiver who enforce the law in Downtown, or even off planet, though being a greenhorn, that seems unlikely. Perhaps it will be Red, an emergency like a riot or a terrorist attack by DarkNight or Thresher and then you’ll get TV coverage and your chance to look good on camera, catch the eye of sponsor? Maybe. You got your BOSH SLA Blade. You got your FEN 603 Auto-Pistol. You got your ITB Mutilator Fist. You got your PP664.2 Body Blocker armour. It ain’t much, but it’s a start. You got your SLA Ops badge and Security Clearance 10. You paid your Bullet Tax. You’re ready. You’re an Operative for SLA Industries.

However, there are greater dangers which threaten Mort City, home to SLA Industries, the planet of Mort, and The World of Progress which encompasses the whole of the universe and the company’s industrial worlds, home worlds, resource worlds, labour worlds, war worlds, and more. The Grosh, the Krell, and the Momic—previously forgotten and thought lost Conflict Races from the dawn of SLA Industries’ founding, nine centuries ago—have returned from Conflict Space and begun to war against The World of Progress. SLA Industries faces a ‘Great Enemy’, said to be imprisoned on a world known as ‘White Earth’ from where twisted and bitter secret knowledge has leaked. Some of this was learned by an amateur scholar deep in Lower Downtown, the knowledge driving him to first make blood sacrifices to White Earth, and then found the Shi’An Cult dedicated to White Earth. In the decade since its founding, the Shi’An Cult is Downtown’s largest growing religion, its members dedicated to summoning horrifying monsters from White Earth, and whilst probably killing themselves in the process, sowing fear and terror amongst the downtrodden citizens of Mort. However some threats come within. In a company as large as SLA Industries, it is easy to hide corruption; the newly formed Moral Right Division sends out patrols to educate civilians on the virtues of morality, dignity, and civility, but mostly consist of bully boys out to have a good time and repress the populace; and then there is Mr. Slayer, the head of SLA Industries, an undeniably evil megacorporation and government. He has his own secrets. Who he is. Where he is from. What he knows and what he has done to ensure the growth and survival of his company. These secrets and knowing the Truth about The World of Progress? That is the ultimate danger as The World of Progress stands on the precipice of the World of Change.

This is the set-up for SLA Industries, a roleplaying game originally published in 1993 by Nightfall Games. Since its initial release, it has suffered a somewhat peripatetic existence, finding home with publisher after publisher, but receiving relatively light attention from each. However, the roleplaying game finally got attention it deserved in 2016 with the release of the excellent SLA Industries: Cannibal Sector 1, before releasing SLA Industries, Second Edition following a successful Kickstarter campaign. With the publication of the second edition, SLA Industries has been given a major overhaul. This includes an entirely new set of mechanics, the ‘S5S’ System; an updating of the setting from its original year of 901sd to 915sd; and a makeover. Like Cannibal Sector 1 before it, SLA Industries, Second Edition is generously illustrated with gloriously gorgeous and gory artwork. The artwork in the first edition was good, but here, in rich, full colour, we get to see The World of Progress and its splatterpunk, noir horror dystopia like never before.

In SLA Industries, players take the roles of Operatives for the company. A Player Character in SLA Industries, Second Edition is defined by his Species, stats, Ratings Points, skills, and traits. SLA Industries, Second Edition has nine Species. Three are Human-like. These are Humans; Frothers, drug-fuelled and tolerant who go berserk and fight with a power claymore; and Ebonites, who use the mystic power of the Ebb to alter the fabric of reality. They are divided between Ebon and Eban, who embody the positive and negative versions of the Ebb. SLA Industries also bioengineer SLA Operatives, the Stormer 313 ‘Malice’ and the Stormer 711 ‘Xeno’, designed for their speed, ferocity, and their presence in combat and thus on camera. Shaktar and Wraithen, are aliens, Shaktar being honourable warriors with fleshy dreadlocks and a prehensile tail, and Wraithen, feline and reptilian hunters known for their acute senses and response times. Advanced Carrien and Neophron are new additions to SLA Industries and thus as Operatives. Advanced Carrien or ADV Carrien are Carrien Pigs which have survived their litter and raised by SLA Industries to work as SLA Operatives because they are highly adapted to life on the polluted World of Progress. The Neophron are bird-like aliens, known for their grace, charm, and inquisitiveness, who prefer methods other than violence.

An Operative has six stats—Strength, Dexterity, Knowledge, Concentration, and Cool. The sixth is Luck, except for the Ebonite, who have the Flux stat instead. Stats are rated between zero and six, whilst the skills are rated between one and four. Ratings Points represent an Operative’s ratings in various areas, such as televised action, corporate sponsorship, or faith in his own abilities. They are expended to overcome obstacles, perform cinematic feats, or avoid certain death or defeat. They are divided between three categories—Body, Brains, and Bravado. To create an Operative, a player selects a Species, assigns twelve points to his stats, thirty points to skills, chooses traits—positive and negative, and purchases equipment beyond the standard assigned to all Operatives. Skill points also come from the Operative’s Species and choice of Training Package, which include Strike & Sweep, Close Assault, Heavy Support, Scout, Medic, Investigation & Interrogation, Technical, and Bureaucrat.

Tanktop – Stormer 313 ‘Malice’
Close Assault Operative, SCL 10
Strength 6 Dexterity 5 Knowledge 1 Concentration 1 Charisma 1 Cool 3 Luck 2
Hit Points: 28
Rating Points
Body 4 Brains 0 Bravado 2
Initiative Bonus: 6
Species Abilities: Regeneration (2), Physical Favourite
Traits: – 
Strength – Climbing 2, Melee Weapons 3, Throw 1, Unarmed Combat (Brawling) 3
Dexterity – Acrobatics 2, Athletics 2, Pistol 1, Rifle 2, Stealth 2
Knowledge –
Concentration – Detect 1
Charisma –
Cool – Intimidate 3, Survival 1
Luck –
Money: 100c, 100u
Equipment – Boopa CASDIS, Finance Chip, Headset Communicator, Klippo Lighter, Operative organiser & admin kit, Pack of Contraceptives, SLA Industries ID Card, SLL Badge, Two Sets of Cloths and Boots
Armour – PP664.2 Body Blocker armour
Weapons – Stormer Chucklerduster (2), FEN 603 Auto-Pistol (4 clips), SLA Blade, SLA 10-05 Bully Boy Shotgun (4 clips)

Mechanically, SLA Industries, Second Edition uses the ‘S5S’ System. This is a dice pool system which uses ten-sided dice. The dice pool consists of one ten-sided die, called the Success Die, and Skill Dice equal to the skill being used, plus one. The Success Die should be of a different colour from the Skill Dice. For example, if Tanktop needed to make a Stealth check, his player rolls a total of four dice—the Success Die plus two Skill Dice for Tanktop’s Stealth skill of two, plus one. The results of the dice roll are not added, but counted separately. Thus to each roll is added the value of the Skill being rolled, plus its associated stat. If the result on the Success Die is equal to or greater than the Target Number, ranging from seven and Challenging to sixteen and Insane, then the Operative has succeeded. If the results of the Skill Dice also equal or exceed the Target Number, this improves the quality of the successful skill attempt. However, if the roll on the Success Die does not equal or exceed the Target Number, the attempt fails, even if multiple rolls on the Success Dice do. Except that is where there are four or more results which equal or exceed the Target Number on the Success Dice. This is counted as a minimum success though.

Luck can also be spent to reroll dice. This is either a point to reroll the Success Die or any of the Skill Dice, but can also spend them on a one for one basis to improve the result of the Success Die.

For example, Tanktop has captured Angus Ablanko, a suspected Dark Night sympathiser. He has clammed up and refuses to talk. Tanktop looks him over, gives him the once over and promises to drag him down the street and into every single fight by rope with his hands tied… “Think of it like a fight on the telly, but really, really close up.” And then he grins. Tanktop has Intimidate of three, so his player rolls the Success Die and three Skill Dice plus one, for a total of five. He will be adding a total of six—three each for the Intimidate skill and the Cool stat—to each of the for dice. The Game Master has set the Target Number at Complex or ten, because Angus is showing a bit of bravado. However, Tanktop’s player rolls five on the Success Die, and then five, six, eight, and ten on the Skill Dice. This an unbelievable success, and Angus literally collapses blubbing and begging the Stormer not to drag him into any fights. Between sobs, he tells Tanktop’s squad—because he cannot even bring himself to look at the Stormer—who his contact is, where he hangs out, where he lives, and what he thinks he is planning.
Combat uses the same ‘S5S’ System and is in the main relatively simple and straightforward. It can, however, be nasty, brutal, and short. The standard Target Number for combat is ten or Complex and if the attack roll is successful, that is the result of the Success Die is sufficient, any successful results on the Skill Dice either add extra damage or a specific body area being hit. If an Operative’s player rolls four or more successful Skill Dice, the Operative both inflicts extra damage and hits the target’s head. If an Operative’s or target’s Hit Points are reduced to zero, they are dead. They are at critical condition if they have six or less Hit Points left and suffer a wound if they suffer damage which reduces their Hit Points by half.

Against incoming damage or attacks, an Operative has three options—defensive manoeuvres, cover, and armour. In melee, an Operative can assign one or more levels of his skill to defence to reduce his attacker’s roll or actively and solely dodge using Acrobatic Defence to do the same. Similarly, cover makes the target harder to hit, whilst armour reduces damage taken, but at the same time, can damage the armour itself. Different ammunition types inflict different amounts of damage, but SLA Industries impose a Bullet Tax on all ammunition. This is simply because close combat looks better on television and garners higher ratings.
Operatives can look good on camera through the use of Ratings Points, which lend themselves to a cinematic style of play. Ratings Points fall into three categories—Body, Brain, and Bravado, as do their associated Feats. For example, ‘How Did You Hit That?’ and ‘Tear Right Through Them’ are Body Feats, ‘I Just read About That Yesterday!’ and ‘Lucky Guess’ are Brain Feats, and ‘Charming Smile’ and ‘Pure Grit’ are Bravado Feats. They either cost one or two Ratings Points and add a bit more colour and dynamism to what an Operative can do.
Ebonites—and some threats faced by SLA Industries—have access to the mystic power of the Ebb to alter the fabric of reality. Not quite spells, not quite psionics, the study of the Ebb is divided between ten disciplines, ranging from Awareness, Blast, and Communicate to Senses, Telekinesis, and Thermal (Blue/Red). Like skills, each discipline has four ranks, but each rank grants access to a pair of abilities. For example, at Rank 2, the discipline Reality Fold grants ‘Jump Port 2’ and ‘Shared Port’, the ability itself being akin to teleportation. Points of Flux have to be expended to use disciplines, an Ebonite calculating the formulae for each discipline via their Deathsuits, which takes concentration.

The mediatisation of violence within The World of Progress is in part represented by a lengthy list of arms and armour, and other equipment. All of which is very nicely illustrated. This adds to elements of game play as not only do the stats of a weapon or suit of armour matter, but so does their name and look. After all, they are designed to look good on television and if an Operative can get good coverage on camera, then he might gain sponsorship from a manufacturer. The equipment list also includes a lengthy list of combat drugs, one reason the roleplaying game carries a mature warning.

Rounding outSLA Industries, Second Edition is ‘Threat Analysis’ and ‘Web of Lies’. The former presents a wide range of dangers that the Operative might face on the streets of Mort and beyond. These threats range from Carnivorous Pigs, Carrien, and things that seep in from White Earth to rival soft companies such as Dark Knight, Thresher, and Tek Trex, Dream Entities, serial killers, and the freelancer mercenaries and vigilantes known as Props. These are all decently detailed and superbly illustrated.

‘Web of Lies’ is a chapter of advice for the Game Master. It is ultimately where the problems with SLA Industries, Second Edition come to head. What it covers is advice on running the game, in particular, the Blueprint News file types, what they entail, their importance, and what the rewards they pay out to the Operatives. Added to this are Hunter Sheets, essentially bounties on particular targets or persons of interest, which are suggested as being suitable for single sessions or one-shots. The advice also covers handling the game’s mechanics, sponsorship deals for the Operatives, what they might do on their downtime, and more.

The issue with ‘Web of Lies’ is that it suggests something more than it covers, and that feeling pervades SLA Industries, Second Edition throughout. The focus in the roleplaying game is on beginning Player Characters and Operatives, and their taking on Blueprint News file mission after Blueprint News file mission, in order to increase their Security Clearance, climb the corporate ladder, gain sponsorship, and fame and fortune. It does a very good job of explaining what an Operative does in SLA Industries, Second Edition and The World of Progress. From the outset, a player and his Operative knows what he is expected to do… and yet. SLA Industries is roleplaying game and a setting which has secrets—deep secrets. These are hidden behind layers of bureaucracy and conspiracy within The World of Progress, and ultimately, playing the roleplaying game is about discovering or being exposed to them and the consequences of that happening. Yet despite the colour fiction in the pages of SLA Industries, Second Edition hinting at those secrets and conspiracies, none of them are actually explored in its pages or supported with advice on how to include them in play. Which is exactly what a chapter entitled ‘Web of Lies’ suggests it might do, but does not. For the player who has been a fan of SLA Industries since original publication, this is very much less of an issue, but for anyone new to the roleplaying game and its rich setting, they are going to be left mystified as to what the significance of the colour fiction is and likely wondering quite what SLA Industries is ultimately about. This is despite the fact that SLA Industries, Second Edition goes out of the way in places to make itself and The World of Progress accessible, especially with the guide to Operative life which clearly explains what an Operative does on a daily basis.

SLA Industries is a roleplaying game from the nineteen nineties and ultimately, it does something that is so typically nineteen nineties. It hides its meta-plot. Or rather, its backstory. As typified by the superhero roleplaying game, Brave New World, it keeps what is really going hidden from both players and Game Master, even though Brave New World revealed some of its secrets, SLA Industries, Second Edition does not even do that. However, this does not mean that as written, SLA Industries, Second Edition is unplayable, as it still provides the means to explore a very dark corporate dystopia. Perhaps though, a scenario or two would have helped.

Physically, SLA Industries, Second Edition is superbly presented. The layout is clean and tidy, and though it needs a slight edit in places, it is engagingly written with lots of colour fiction. The artwork though, is amazing, and really does a fantastic job of bringing The World of Progress and its rain sodden, polluted, and horror haunted streets (and beyond) to life like never before.

SLA Industries, Second Edition is a great update to the original nineties darkest of dark dystopian roleplaying games. The designers have revisited the setting of The World of Progress and clearly worked hard to update it, to make it more accessible, and represent it in gloriously gorgeous colour. For the most part, they have succeeded, yet so much of The World of Progress is only hinted at and left inaccessible and that can only hamper the Game Master in the long run.

The true nature and secrets of The World of Progress will have to wait for revelations in future supplements, but as an exploration of what Mr Slayer wants you to know, SLA Industries, Second Edition is the ultimate in dark dystopian splatter punk and corporate horror roleplaying. 

Saturday, 21 May 2022

Luna Larcency

Luna-1 is a supplement for Judge Dredd and the Worlds of 2000 AD. Like The Robot Wars before it, it is as different a supplement as there has been for any of the four roleplaying games based on the Judge Dredd comic strip from the pages of 2000 AD, and that is all down to its focus. Traditionally, supplements for a Judge Dredd roleplaying game have concentrated on particular aspects of the setting—criminal organisations, crazes, psi-talents, block wars, and more—but Luna-1 focuses upon the one storyline, examining its episodes or Progs, and exploring their ramifications in detail. In Luna-1, this is the six months in which Judge Dredd is assigned to serve as Judge Marshall of Luna-1, a colony on Earth’s moon governed by judges from all three Mega-Cities. Told in Progs 42-59, this storyline thus takes Judge Dredd off Earth and onto the oxygen-short, crowded, and lawless and often wild frontier of the Moon. Here gangs and perps can escape the Mega-Cities to hide out and continue their criminal activities; corporations shorn of the scrutiny and regulations of Earth, build and hold more power and influence; resources are poor—especially oxygen, which needs to be paid for; even though they might hate each other, the Mega-Cities of North America and the Soviet East-Meg cities, will come together to participate in the Lunar Olympics; and criminal conspiracies work behind the scenes to take over the Moon! The supplement includes a Prog by Prog guide to the storyline with story hooks which the Game Master can develop as part of her campaign; descriptions of the Moon’s most notable locations and events, as well as what it like to both live and enforce the law there; new Exploits and Careers for Judges, Perps, and Civilians; an examination of a Moon-set campaign inspired by the ‘Luna-1’ storyline; stats and write ups for numerous NPCs; and more. 

LUNA-1 opens with a description of the Moon and a history of its settlement, including its important locations, such as the famous Armstrong Monument or Moonie’s Ranch, home to the reclusive corporate boss, C.W. Moonie, where he has ranchers raise genuine protein cake-fed, bio-engineered cattle on actual grass, their meat being highly prized by gourmets. The inhabitants of the Moon reside in domed settlements, ranging in size from urban sprawls to classic frontier towns. The maintenance of these domes is vital to everyone’s survival, as is a supply of oxygen, which of course, the inhabitants of the Moon have to pay for! The Oxygen Board has a monopoly on the supply. So it can be expensive! The Mega-Cities’ Justice Departments sometimes use Safe Houses on the Moon to keep witnesses safe. The Moon is also home to colonies from the other Mega-Cities beyond North America, including Shi-Shen Territories and Sov-Cities Territory, the closest they get to territories of the Mega-Cities. Locations important to the Moon, but back on Earth are detailed too, such as Moonray Tower and Temple of Lunar Light, a cult often described as being full of ‘loonies’. Events, like the Land Race—a race to grab new opened up territory, and the Lunar Olympiad are covered as well. They are all accompanied by adventure seeds.

In terms of mechanics, LUNA-1 provides numerous new options for Player Characters and NPCs of all types. New Judge Careers include Luna Judge, Zero Squad Judge (trained to work in zero gravity), Customs Judge, and more. STAR Judges or ‘Special Target Attack Retaliation’ Judges are drawn from all three North American Mega-Cities and their allies and assigned to police Earth’s off-world colonies, so the Player Characters could actually be a mixed group from various cities, not just Mega-City One. New Civilian Careers include Xenodiplomat, Corporate Executive, and Settler, whilst Perp ones include Luna Raider, Gunslinger, and Smuggler. They all include their own Exploits which can be gained by choosing them as Careers during character creation, and all provide interesting options for both Player Characters and NPCs. As expected, all of the characters from the ‘LUNA-1’ storyline are included in LUNA-1, from simple Badlands Gang Member and Futsie to Deputy Luna Marshal Tex, Judge Mex (complete with lasso for reigning in Perps), Elvis the Killer Car, and Judge Dredd himself. These can be used as is, if the Game Master wants to run the ‘LUNA-1’ storyline for her players and their characters, or simply used as inspiration for a campaign set on the Moon.

The campaign advice for the Game Master examines the how and the why of setting and running stories for Judge Dredd and the Worlds of 2000 AD. This should not just be because the setting itself is cool, but rather because there are particular types of stories which can be set there, which in this case might involve the Lunar Olympics or the looser regulations applied to corporations. It also highlights the differences between Mega-City One and the Moon—as well as colony frontiers, and how that will change game play. Smaller communities means fewer places to hide and everyone knows everyone’s business, including that of Perps, plus colonies like the Moon rely much more on technology for everyone’s survival. Only light synopsises are given for the fourteen Progs which make up the ‘LUNA-1’ storyline, more attention being paid to the whole storyline as a roleplaying campaign with a beginning, middle, and end. There is advice here on how to use Dredd, for it might be that the Player Character Judges are actually seconded to the unrelenting lawkeeper as his deputies.

The full adventure in LUNA-1 is ‘Sundance Rising’, an unashamed space western. It is set further on the frontier of the Moon in the isolated toon of Grey Rock. Inspired by the film High Noon, the town’s Judge, William Kane, is gunned down by the Sundance Gang, led by the vicious Preacher Jackson and the Judges are sent into restore order. The scenario and setting of Grey Rock is nicely detailed and there are notes too to run with Civilians as inhabitants of the town taking the law into their own hands and fighting back and also as Perps attempting to impress Preacher Jackson enough to become members of the Sundance Gang. Either way, this is a good scenario with lots going on that should provide multiple sessions of play.

LUNA-1 does not just cover Judge Dredd’s six-month secondment to the Moon, although that is its primary focus. That is told in Progs 42-59, but there were stories which took place between this and the events of ‘The Robot Wars’—as detailed in the supplement of the same name, and these are detailed in LUNA-1, again Prog by Prog. Each includes a synopsis, settings and locations, villains and bystanders, how the story can be used ‘Outside the Law’ (that is, used with Perp and Civilian Player Characters rather than Judges), and suggested further adventures. Some of these can be used as part of a Moon-set campaign, some not, but either way, the Game Master is given another eleven story hooks! Lastly, an appendix takes the Game Master—and potentially, her player’s characters to Titan. This includes a complete description and history of the penal colony where corrupt Judges are sentenced and again hooks and for the Game Master’s campaign.

Unlike ‘The Robot Wars’ storyline there is perhaps less satire and less social commentary in LUNA-1. Obviously, there is the rampant commercialism, but the Moon-set storyline is more of a means to tell stories away from Mega-City One and on the frontier in the style of the Wild West than anything else. The writing style has settled down a bit and there is more of the comic strip’s humour coming through than there was in The Robot Wars.

Physically, LUNA-1 is a slim, but nicely presented book. It is an engaging read and it is liberally illustrated with artwork from the ‘LUNA-1’ story and the other Progs it details in its pages. This is all black and white artwork and it is drawn from the very early issues of 2000 AD so there is certain quaintness to it since it dates from before the character of Judge Dredd evolved into the way he looks today.

Luna-1 picks up where The Robot Wars left off, continuing its fantastic approach to turning episodic source material into gameable content. The humour is stronger, even if the satire is not, but this is thoroughly excellent sourcebook on ‘LUNA-1’ story, for the stories which can be told in and around it, and of course on the Moon (and other frontier settings) for Judge Dredd and the Worlds of 2000 AD (or in fact, any roleplaying game based on Judge Dredd).

Micro RPG III: Blades & Spells

Lâminas & Feitiços
or Blades & Spells is a minimalist fantasy roleplaying game from South America. In fact, Blades & Spells is another Bronze Age, Swords & Sorcery minimalist fantasy roleplaying game done in pamphlet form from Brazil. In actuality, Blades & Spells is a series of pamphlets, building from the core rules pamphlet to add optional rules, character archetypes, spells, a setting and its gods, and more, giving it the feel of a ‘plug and play’ toolkit. The Storyteller and her players can play using just the core rules, but beyond that, they are free to choose the pamphlets they want to use and just game with those, ignoring the others. So what is Blades & Spells? It describes itself as “…[A] simple, objective and dynamic minimalist RPG game where the Storyteller challenges the Player and not the character sheet.” It is written to pay homage to the classic Sword & Sorcery literature, uses the Basic Universal System—or ‘B.U.S.’—a simple set of mechanics using two six-sided dice, and in play is intended to challenge the player and his decisions rather than have the player rely upon what is written upon his character sheet. Which, being a minimalist roleplaying game, is not much. So although it eschews what the designer describes as the ‘classic restrictions’ of Class, Race, and Level, and it is very much not a Retroclone, there is no denying that Blades & Spells leans into the Old School Renaissance sensibilities.

Blades & Spells: An agile, objective and dynamic minimalist RPG defines a Player Character in simple terms. He is Human and he has a Name, Focus, Background, and Equipment. His Focus is either Fighter, Mystic, Intellectual, Support, or Specialist, whilst his Background includes goals, skills, knowledge, adjectives, and at least one flaw. He also has ten Hit Points. Character creation is a five-minute job and everything can be recorded on an index card.

Ublaf the Unbelievable
Focus: Fighter
Background: Ublaf is a blond, blue-eyed warrior from the frigid north, who has come far south to make his fortune and prove himself to the girl he wants to marry, but who has so far spurned his advances. He is a good hunter, and capable with both axe and spear, but has no tongue for languages. So often others think him a fool—or ‘Unbelievable!’. He is often impulsive, but invariably tries to be helpful and friendly.
Hit Points: 10

Mechanically, the Basic Universal System of Blades & Spells uses two six-sided dice. To undertake an action for his character, a player rolls the dice attempting to equal or beat a difficulty number set by the Storyteller, ranging from Easy at three all the way up to Epic at twelve. Any roll less than this is a failure and also adds a new complication to the plot. If a Player Character can gain an Advantage from either his Background or Focus, the difficulty number is reduced by two, but increased by two if his Background or Focus would impose a Disadvantage (though this would not increase the difficulty number beyond twelve). Ideally, elements of a Player Character’s Background should work as both Advantage and Disadvantage, depending on the situation. For example, Ublaf’s Impulsiveness would be a Disadvantage if there was trap he could have spotted before he acted, but an Advantage in attempting a foil an assassination attempt on a merchant.

Combat in Blades & Spells is deadly, with attacks, whether by a weapon, magic, or a creature, being either light, strong, or fatal. A Player Character could be killed with a couple of strong blows or even one fatal blow as he only has ten Hit Points (monsters can have more), and once they are gone, that is it. Although monsters have a Challenge Rating equal to the standard difficulty numbers, Player Characters do not, so the default is probably Normal or six. However, shields and armour, in whatever form they take, reduces damage and the Storyteller can allow a Player Character to make a defensive or dodge manoeuvre.

Magic and spells are available to all Player Characters. No spells are described in the base rules for Blades & Spells, but instead, the player decides what the aim of the spell is. Is it to Attack, Defend, Create an advantage, or Overcome an obstacle? The Storyteller sets the difficulty number and the player rolls. If successful, the spell is cast and has the desired effect. Failure though means that the Player Character has suffered Arcane Corruption, which might be that the spell effects turn on the caster rather than the intended target or a second grotesque head grows from the caster’s shoulder, which stays for a few days before withering away, in the meantime annoying everyone with its different opinions and ideas.

So that really is it to Blades & Spells: An agile, objective and dynamic minimalist RPG. Or at least the core rules. It fits on two sides of a single sheet of paper. It is cleanly laid out, although it does need an edit in places to account for the translation from Portuguese to English. It has a decent piece of artwork on the front. It is also perfectly playable barring a couple of issues. One is that it does leave the Storyteller to wonder what sort of complications a failure of a dice roll might add to the plot and it does not state what the difficulty number is for hitting a Player Character in combat.

Blades & Spells is a simple, straightforward set of mechanics, but there are numerous optional pamphlets which expand upon its core rules and turn Blades & Spells into a fully rounded roleplaying game rather than just a core set of mechanics. Nevertheless, Blades & Spells: An agile, objective and dynamic minimalist RPG is a solid, serviceable, easy to learn and play, minimalist roleplaying game.

Friday, 20 May 2022

Dee’s Discernments

The Sight: A True & Faithful Relation of Acts of Supernatural Foresight, Uncanny Vision, divers Readings of Occult Tokens: shewing the Particulars of SOME SPIRITS is a supplement of magic for The Dee Sanction: Adventures in Covert Enochian Intelligence. Or rather The Sight is a supplement of alternative and deeper magic for The Dee Sanction. For in The Dee Sanction, all Agents of Dee have magic. For under the terms of the Act Against Conjurations, Enchantments and Witchcrafts, it permitted those with heretical knowledge to work off their sentence in service to, and in protection of, Her Majesty, Queen Elisabeth. This includes the one Favour, the very low key magical, Angelic means of influence that the Agent can bear upon the world, learnt through study of a corrupting tome or tutelage at the hands of a secret society. Theirs is a minor magic, but amongst their number, since after all, the authorities are on the constant lookout for any capable of even minor magics, there will be those capable of more—much more.

The Sight is a short supplement which introduces to four new talents—Aura Reading, Prophecy, Scrying, and Token Reading—to The Dee Sanction. It also provides guidance on visions, communing with spirits, possession, hypnosis, and the miraculous intervention of the Divine Chorus. Potentially, it increases the magical potency of the Player Characters or Agents, as well as adding a degree of uncertainty when using their magic. To determine if an Agent or indeed, an NPC, has the Sight, the supplement uses an expanded table over that given in The Dee Sanction. When a player uses the table, he either rolls larger dice types or draws from a full deck of playing cards to account for the increased number of entries. Standard rolls or number playing cards indicate that the Agent has a Favour, as in the core rules for The Dee Sanction, but here every entry has a list of three options, which the player can choose from or take all three, depending how much magic the Game Master wants her player to know.

Rolls of elven or twelve, or draws of either a Jack, Queen, or King, if using cards, determines whether has the Sight. Aura Reading enables an Agent to view and interpret someone’s supernatural aspects, Prophecy to see the future, Scrying to see things that are unseen, and Token reading to examine the lore and history bound up in objects. They are further divided into three, the die result or card determining which particular one an Agent has. For example, Prophecy includes Danger Sense, Things to Come, and Fortune Telling, whilst Scrying includes Visions, Divinations, and Summoned Advisor. There is some overlap to these, but there is every effort to make them different and feel different in play. Divination, for example, allows an Agent to experience the environment around a specific person, place, or event once a significant connection is established with them, which would require the blood or hair of the person, or an object from the location. Whereas Things to Come gives brief visions or warnings of threat, perhaps upon meeting someone, and is always involuntary.

Use of the Sight requires a player to succeed at a Supernatural Challenge. However, unlike the angelic nature of Favours, the Sight is supernatural in nature and therefore fickle. Which means that even in a player facing roleplaying such as The Dee Sanction, the Game Master gets to roll as well as the player. This elevates what would be a Supernatural Challenge in an Uncertain Challenge. The results of the use of the Sight range from Untruthful to Truthful depending upon whether the player and the Game Master both falter, one succeeds and one falters, and both succeed. The result, especially if the Agent is attempting to see the future, is only a possible future and it need not be easy to understand. In fact, it should be cryptic, and further, it should only told to the player of the Agent with the Sight, and done so in private. Further, the player should not write it down. This accentuates the uncertainty of the Sight. Inspiration for such foretellings is provided in a pair of tables.

The Sight also covers communing with spirits and talking with angels, the former answering a few questions, the latter even performing a miracle. There are rules here as well for possession and exorcism, and for both major and minor miracles. Both lend themselves to story possibilities, and of course, Enochian is the language of the angels, so it seems obvious to have talking with angels included here.

Physically, The Sight is cleanly and tidily laid out. It is lightly illustrated and consequently less obtrusive in comparison to the core rulebook.

The Sight is an excellent expansion to The Dee Sanction: Adventures in Covert Enochian Intelligence. Its rules are all entirely optional, and even if the Game Master decides not to add them to her campaign of The Dee Sanction or does not necessarily want her players’ Agents to possess them, they can remain the province of the NPCs or simply a source of ideas. However it is used, The Sight: A True & Faithful Relation of Acts of Supernatural Foresight, Uncanny Vision, divers Readings of Occult Tokens: shewing the Particulars of SOME SPIRITS still open up further story avenues and ideas as well as making the use of magic uncertain.

Friday Filler: Burgle Bros 2: The Casino Capers

Some games have a table presence as soon as you have them unboxed and everything is out on the table. Others have table presence as soon as you look at them, and that presence follows through from the moment you hold them in your hand to point where you are actually playing them. Colt Express, the 2015 Spiel des Jahres Winner from Ludonaute is an example of the former, taking place aboard a card board train which you set up and attempt to rob. Burgle Bros 2: The Casino Capers is an example of the latter. It comes in a block-shaped box which when you stand it up, looks a cartoonish rendering of a Las Vegas casino. Open—or rather unfold—the box and everything inside comes stored in plastic trays and once these have been removed, a leg is inserted into the receivers in each of the four corners of the box and the box itself is then flipped over to stand on those legs. A playmat, showing a four-by-four playing grid, is placed both on top of the box and under the box. Together these two playmats, when laid out with the rooms and locations of the casino, form the playing surface for Burgle Bros 2: The Casino Capers and the target of the players and their characters and their heists. Add wall sections and playing pieces or meeples illustrated with yet more themed artwork and what you have in Burgle Bros 2: The Casino Capers is a board game with table presence. And yet… Burgle Bros 2: The Casino Capers looks a little rickety. The top of the box is not quite flat. Plus playing under the box is a little fiddly. Which is all a bit of a shame, because Burgle Bros 2: The Casino Capers really does look like a great game, with great artwork that supports its theme. However, Burgle Bros 2: The Casino Capers does not have to be played using this three-dimensional set-up, as clever as it is. It can be played using just the playmats, and it works just as well.

Published by Fowers Games, Burgle Bros 2: The Casino Capers is a sequel to Burgle Bros. and both are co-operative games. In Burgle Bros., between one and four players perform a heist on an office or bank, attempting to locate a safe whilst dodging patrolling guards, all done in the style of a sixties heist. In Burgle Bros 2: The Casino Capers, between one and four players attempt to break into a Las Vegas casino, locate and open a safe, and get away with the loot. However, Burgle Bros 2: The Casino Capers is much more of a challenge than Burgle Bros. This is no night-time burglary—it must be performed during the day. Security is tighter and the safes are tougher, plus there are Bouncers who will follow patrol routes, but who are always on the lookout for any Commotion which they will want to break up. And since this takes place during the day, the casino is thronging with guests. Some are customers, some are not. Some are helpful, most are not. A player might be forced to make a detour to avoid a drunk or get caught up with a saleswoman who never stops talking, be spotted by an undercover member of the casino’s staff or hide from a Bouncer in a crowd. On the plus side, the players are skilled and have gear too, but both only have a limited use. And when the crew manage to get to the safe and crack it open, they have to take the loot and get it out of the casino in an exciting finale!

At the start of the game, the game’s tiles are randomly placed on both floors of the casino, face down. Each floor must have an ‘Escalator’ and a ‘Monorail’ tile. The ‘Safe’ tile is placed on the second floor, whilst the ‘Owner’s Office’ tile is on the first floor. The Patrol Cards for each floor are shuffled and one drawn for each floor to determine where the Bouncer on each floor starts from and where the guests are placed. Guests are represented by poker chips, and these are also placed face down. A second Patrol Card is drawn to indicate where the Bouncer is going to move to, at least initially. Each time a Bouncer reaches his destination, a new Patrol Card is drawn to determine the new destination location, and so on and so on, until the Patrol Card deck is empty. In which case, the Bouncer will start hunting for the nearest player. Eight walls are placed randomly on each floor. These block movement and sight between locations. Then the first—or the next, if Burgle Bros 2: The Casino Capers is being played a campaign—Finale card is drawn out of its envelope, and its text read out. This adds flavour and detail to the heist. The rules on the back will only be revealed and come into play after the players have emptied the safe.

A player receives a character and the character’s three pieces of Gear, either by choice or at random. There are a total of nine in the game. With a maximum number of four players, this adds variety and replay value to the game. For example, Rook is an Elvis impersonator who has an ‘Earpiece’ which enables him to move any player to an adjacent tile, but not through a wall; a set of ‘Facemasks’ which enable two players to swop places; and can ‘Impersonate’ another player to use one of their already prepared items of gear. All great takes an action to prepare, but no actions to use. All have a limited number of uses before they are flipped over granting a last one-shot bonus action before being discarded, and for the most part, an item of Gear affects another player rather than the one using it.

The aim of Burgle Bros 2: The Casino Capers is for the players to enter the casino, locate both the Owner’s Office and the escalator on the first floor and then go up to the second floor. They must find the safe and open it. Not only do the players get the loot, but they also get to turn over the Finale Card and bring its rules into play. The Finale Card also details the players’ means of exit. There nine heists in Burgle Bros 2: The Casino Capers and thus nine different Finale Cards. Initially, Burgle Bros 2: The Casino Capers is designed to played in order, but once they have been played through once, the Finale Cards can still be played again, but in a random order.

A player’s turn consists of two phases—the player phase and the Bouncer phase. On the player phase, a player can take up to four actions from a choice of four. These are ‘Move’, ‘Peek’, ‘Use While Here’, and ‘Prep’. ‘Move’ is to an adjacent tile, revealing any face down poker chip and resolving it, and then resolve any ‘When You Enter’ effect if the tile has one. ‘Peek means to look at an adjacent tile, whilst ‘Use While Here’ is an optional action on a tile, again if it has one. Lastly, ‘Prep’ means to ready a piece of Gear for use.

In the Bouncer phase, the Bouncer on the same floor as the player moves three spaces towards the destination on the current Patrol Card. If the Bouncer moves through any tile occupied by a player, that player gains two Heat. If a player gains six Heat, either from encountering a Bouncer or from particular locations, not only does that player lose, but every player loses! If a Bouncer is hunting after running out of Patrol Cards and their routes to follow, he moves directly towards the nearest player. So it is very much in the best interests of the players to avoid the Bouncers on both floors. Out of the Bouncer phase, a Bouncer will also move towards a Commotion when it is created in a particular tile. When a Bouncer is hunting the players, a Commotion can actually be used as a distraction, which is both helpful and thematically brilliant.

Each of the tile types has particular effects. For example, in the ‘Buffet’ a cube is added to the tile each time a player enters it. When there are three cubes, a Commotion is caused, the cubes are removed, and the Bouncer moves three rather than the standard one space towards it. If a Bouncer enters the ‘Crow’s Nest’, he surveys the adjacent tiles and if there are players on them, they each gain one Heat. At the ‘Table Games’, a player rolls two dice and if he rolls either seven or eleven, he loses one Heat, but causes a Commotion on any other roll. Both the ‘Lounge’ and ‘Pool’ tiles have their own decks of cards for even more random events.

Locating and opening the safe is a multi-stage action. First, the players need to locate both the ‘Owner’s Office’ tile on the first floor and the ‘Safe’ tile on the second floor. They also need to reveal all of the tiles in the same row and column as the ‘Safe’ tile. Second, they need to locate the ‘Moles’ they already planted in the casino ahead of time. There are four of them in the casino and when a player finds one, he can be exchanged for a single die at a cost of two actions. This die is stored on the ‘Owner’s Office’ tile. Third, when a player is on the ‘Owner’s Office’ tile, he can transfer it to the ‘Safe’ tile. A player on ‘Safe’ tile can expend an action to roll the dice. If any of the numbers match those tiles in the same row and column as the ‘Safe’ tile, they are covered up, including multiple numbers. One die is returned to the ‘Owner’s Office’ tile, but a player can continue expending actions to roll the dice as long as one remains on the ‘Safe’ tile. Completely covering all six numbers in the same row and column as the ‘Safe’ tile means that the players have cracked the safe’s combination and triggered the effects of the Finale Card. If the players fulfil the victory conditions on the Finale Card, they have won the game.

At the end of the game, it can all be put away, or alternatively, the players can fill out the Heist Log if Burgle Bros 2: The Casino Capers is being played as a campaign. Successfully pulling off a heist increases their Suspicion value, ranging between one and ten, but failing decreases it. If they were successful they get a sticker to add to the Trophy Case in the bottom of the game’s box, and whether or not they win or lose, they do get an alternative piece of Gear which can be used in future heists. The rulebook also include a variant rules for ‘Dead Drops’, representing randomly distributed pieces of ‘Gear’ that the players must find rather than being assigned everything at game’s start. This makes the game more challenging, whilst the separate ‘Casing the Joint’ makes it less so by reducing the element of randomness in terms both set-up and game play.

Physically, Burgle Bros 2: The Casino Capers is very well produced and it is a great looking game. The rulebook is simple and straightforward to understand, though a lot of the game’s nuances are expected to come out in play rather than be explained in the rules. Some of the Gear cards could have done with clearer explanations though.

Burgle Bros 2: The Casino Capers is a fantastic combination of both theme and random events. The theme is instantly recognisable and playable, the casino heist a la the film Ocean’s 11, only the sixties version rather than the noughties update. It is very much get into the casino, case the joint, avoid the bouncers, dodge the guests, luck out on the Craps table, and slip into the safe room to crack the combination, but it is also another theme present too. One which Burgle Bros 2: The Casino Capers constantly threatens to tip over into—farce! The possibility of running into the wrong guest or Bouncer one too many times or entering the wrong room, and more, all threaten to endanger the heist attempt, and perhaps tip the attempt over into farce and then failure. Burgle Bros 2: The Casino Capers is an easy game to teach and play, but difficult to beat because of random events, and whilst that can be both great and frustrating—it can be a little too random in places, where the game really scores is theme and story. Theme because everyone loves a heist and story because all that randomness can set up great stories as the players run into that drunk one too many times or find a spot to pause whilst the Bouncer moves past or an item of Gear gets a player a out of a tight spot. Plus the Finale Cards simply add more theme, not just with the narrative at the start of the game, but also with the extra rules for the getaway at the end of a heist.

Ultimately, you do need to be lucky to pull of a heist in Burgle Bros 2: The Casino Capers. However, the theme is sheer brilliance, the game is fun to play, and together, everything in the game helps build a great stories.

Monday, 16 May 2022

Miskatonic Monday #120: Into the Unknown

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

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

Publisher: Chaosium, Inc.
Author: Sean Johnston

Setting: Near Future Antarctica & Beyond
Product: Scenario
What You Get: Thirty-Four page, 1.02 MB Full Colour PDF

Elevator Pitch: Atlantis: The Lost Empire meets Pitch Black
Plot Hook: An elevator straight to a hell offers ‘the experience of a lifetime’. 
Plot Support: Staging advice, seven handouts, one map and two sets of  floorplans, 
no NPCs, and nine monsters and Mythos creatures.
Production Values: Underwhelming.

# Science Fiction horror one-shot
# Could be adapted to earlier modern time periods
# Hints at interesting future setting
# Decent descriptions
# Potential for Investigator versus Investigator action

# Needs a strong edit
# Linear and light plot
# No pre-generated Investigators
# More exposition heavy travel log than adventure
# Potential for Investigator versus Investigator action

# Serviceable set-up leads somewhere interesting with a plot that is more story than interactive.
# Into an unknown of what the Investigators are supposed to do.

Sunday, 15 May 2022

Smoke, Shadow, and Subterfuge

The Spy Game: A Roleplaying Game of Action & Espionage
takes the mechanics of Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition into the very modern world of international espionage and intrigue, of stealth and superscience, and of maladjusted masterminds and doomsday devices in which spies, hackers, assassins, femme fatales, and suave secret agents set out to save the world in the name of freedom and democracy! Published by Black Cats Gaming 
following a successful Kickstarter campaignThe Spy Game casts the Player Characters as Agents, members of a spy agency, whether a real-world agency like the USA’s CIA, the United Kingdom’s MI6, or India’s RAW, or a fictional one included in its pages or of the Game Master’s own creation, and undertake assassination, capture, obtain, sabotage, or surveillance missions—or a combination of any five of them. They will attend briefings, gather intelligence, and conduct fieldwork, all before attending mission debriefings. The rules in The Spy Game allows the players to create interesting characters from a diverse range of backgrounds who engage in a range of espionage activities including infiltration and hacking, equipped with a wide array of equipment, and the Game Master to create agencies, missions, enemies and threats. In bringing espionage and modern action to Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition’s mechanics, The Spy Game notes that anyone who comes from that roleplaying game will find a lot of familiarity, but also that it adds Infiltration to combat to expand upon the element of surprise and detection, gadgets which replace magic items—and which have to requisitioned, and hacking which works like magic, but only on computer technology.

Like any good, modern roleplaying game, The Spy Game includes advice on the use of safety tools. Not just on the use of the X-card and lines and veils, but also advice appropriate to The Spy Game and its genre. This includes advice on taking care when involving real world events and politics in the game, and be careful when involving torture as a means of acquiring information. Ideally, if it is used, it would only be a grittier type of game and even then a veil be drawn over it. The Spy Game also notes that whilst sex and seduction have always played a role in espionage, whether fact or fiction, there is no Seduction skill in the roleplaying game and again, all of the players will need to agree to its inclusion in a game.

The Spy Game: A Roleplaying Game of Action & Espionage is a Class and Level game. It has eight Classes—Face, Hacker, Infiltrator, Martial Artist, Medic, Ranger, Soldier, and Technician, each one of which has its own three archetypes, Proficiencies, abilities, and more. Backgrounds such as Academic, Athlete, Civil Servant, Con Artist, Criminal, Diplomat, Motorist, Outdoorsman, and Scientist, all add bonuses in terms of attributes, languages, and equipment, as well as special advantages, proficiencies, and a Feature. Each also gives options for an Agent’s Double Life, Secret—which is initially kept just between the player and the Game Master , Ideal, and Bond, all of which can be used in play to gain Inspiration as per the roleplaying mechanic introduced in Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition. For example, the Motorist increases an Agent’s Dexterity and Wisdom by one, grants Mechanics as a skill proficiency, grants him Advantage on Dexterity Saving Throws when driving or piloting a vehicle, gives special proficiency on motorcycles, cars, heavy goods vehicles, and mechanic’s tools, and provides the ‘Home Behind the Wheel’ Feature, which lets him regain control of a vehicle if he loses control of it as a Bonus Action. This can only be done once before requiring a short or long rest to use again.

To create a character, a player selects a Class and a Background, generates his character attributes—either by rolling or using the point buy option, and adds all of the finishing details you would expect. Multiple dice rolling options are given, but The Spy Game suggests that a player choose his character’s Class and Background first before rolling, or preferably, using the point-buy option. This varies from the ten points of a Gritty campaign to the twenty-five of one involving Super-Spies, but the standard is fifteen.

Rachel Rosen
Nationality: British
First Level Hacker

Str 10 (+0) Dex 12 (+1) 1 Con 10 (+0)
Int 15 (+2) Wis 10 (+0) Chr 16 (+3)

Hit Points: 6
Hit Dice: 1
Armour Class: 13

Class Abilities: Hacking, Personal OS
Skills: Acrobatics (+1), Athletics (+0), Deception (+5), Espionage (+4), Infiltration (+2), Infotech (+4), Insight (+0), Intimidation (+3), Mechanics (+2), Medicine (+0), Perception (+0), Persuasion (+5), Slight of Hand (+4), Stealth (+1), Survival (+0), Tactics (+2)

Proficiency Bonus: +2
Proficiencies: Charisma Saving Throws, Deception, Espionage, Hacking Tools, Infiltration, Infotech, Intelligence Saving Throws, Languages—Spanish and Russian, Light Armour, Motorcycles, Persuasion, Simple Melee Weapons, Simple Ranged Weapons, Sleight of Hand, Thieves’ Tools

Advantage: Dexterity Saving Throws
Feature: Escape Notice
Laptop, taser, padded armour, investigation pack

Background: Criminal
I steal as a form of activism, targeting the ruling classes and the corporate machine (Double Life); My plans for a heist could bring down all the major banks (Secret); I only steal to help the poor, with 50% of the world’s wealth in the hands of the top 3% of people – it’s time to there was some redistribution (ideal); I have a unique relationship with the detective who wants to take me down (Bond)

Mechanically, The Spy Game uses the same ones as Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition, although there are changes. The first major addition is that of infiltration to combat. This expands upon the rules for surprise and detection, accounting for the Agents’ actions round by round whilst they remain hidden from the view of any enemy NPCs. This adds a degree of tension to play prior to combat itself breaking out. The rules for vehicles also cover chases—treated as contests, but complete with manoeuvres like ramming or weaving, and combat, including targeting parts of a vehicle.

One of the major additions to The Spy Game consist of rules for Hacking. Primarily the purview of the Hacker Class who can Bypass protected operating systems or password protected software, Modify software, or Attack. The Hacker can use hacking tools which he can install as executable slots in his operating system, which like physical tools and gadgets have a Calibre rating. Operating Systems have their own Calibre rating, Armour Class, and Hit Points, and thus their own executable slots, and when a Hacker attempts to infiltrate an operating system, his aim is reduce its Hit Points to zero and so corrupt its programming and security features. Although the rules for hacking do feel like another combat subsystem, they are not intrusive in the sense that they do not impede play in the way that they do in other roleplaying games which have rules for them at their core, plus not all of the hacking tools are designed to just do damage. Others map or copy a network, deny access, and so on.

A fifth of The Spy Game is dedicated to equipment. It includes just about every item, device, or gadget that the players and their characters can imagine—and probably more beside. If not given , then the Technician Class can actually build more as gadgets as well as boosting those already in the Agents’ possession. The equipment list also includes Equipment Packs, like a Diplomatic Pack, Investigation Pack, and Wetwork Pack, as well as individual items. Unlike some of the source fiction, The Spy Game does not use brand names, makes, marks, and manufacturers in its descriptions, for example, genericising its weapons. It avoids the designers and the roleplaying game getting bogged down in real world detail, but on the other hand, it does mean that the game loses a degree of verisimilitude.

The list of equipment also encompasses the gadgets beloved of the genre. So it includes Exploding Gum, Palm Flamethrower, Bladed Boots, Garotte Watch, and more, all the way up to close air support! Vehicles are added too, such as drones and buses, all the way up to tanks and ground attack aircraft. Gadgets themselves have a Calibre rating, from one to five, and do need to be requisitioned. The maximum Calibre of the gadgets available is determined by the Mission Calibre, a factor itself based on the average Level of the NPCs the Agents will face and the number an Agent can carry is determined by his Level.

The Spy Game’s ‘World of Spies’ focuses on spying in the early twenty-first century and how espionage has changed from the late twentieth century. Several real-world agencies are detailed, but it really gives space to new and fictional agencies, including their primary locations, agents and activities, and signature devices. These are the Operations Executive, a ‘deep state’ international organisation committed to global co-operation, co-ordination, and contentment; Taga Bunot, a Philippines-based agency which specialises in date recovery and prevention of blackmail, extortion, and smear activities; Streetworks, an agency whose agents consist of those who have been fired or forced into early retirement from other agencies due to injury, incompetence, or office politics, and operate on a lower budget; the Caledonian Spy Group or CSG, the spy agency established in Scotland following a successful bid for Scottish independence; Zodiac, an agency which responds to threats detected by data sifting by artificial intelligence; and the Hive, an organisation of highly distributed digital mercenaries. Some of these agencies do wear their influences on their sleeves, almost literally in the case of the Operations Executive, a very Kingsman-like organisation, whilst Streetworks feels like Mick Herron’s Slow Horses series of novels. My favourite though is the Caledonian Spy Group, a delightfully parochial agency whose creation feels all prescient.

For the Game Master there is solid advice on creating missions and mission types, and running not just the game, but also portraying and roleplaying the Handler, the Agents’ case handler or control. Campaign themes—technology, cyber warfare, and the effects of globalised economies—are discussed and options are given for running The Spy Game during earlier periods, from the Great War and World War II to the Cold War and the War on Terror. However, the roleplaying game does not go into too much detail about those here. Safety tools are again discussed, but backed up here with examples, which are useful inclusions, but a favourite section is ‘The Moscow Rules of Game Mastery’ inspired by The Moscow Rules said to be followed by spies in the Moscow of the Cold War. These are very nicely done and would apply to almost any roleplaying game. There is good advice too on designing traps and encounters, especially to highlight the particular roles of the different Classes, so the Hacker, Medic, and Technician will want to face technical challenges, combat Classes like the Soldier and the Martial Artists combative challenges, and so on. This also gives them time in the spotlight. When it comes to traps, the advice is also to build in vulnerabilities.

Along with really big vehicles like aircraft carriers and space shuttles, The Spy Game includes rules for creating villains and masterminds. These are backed up with both standard NPCs, including stats for the Head of State(!) and Survivalists along with their bunker, and fully detailed villains and masterminds. These include a pair of sisterly assassin, each of whom uses different methods; ‘The Con’, an incredibly lucky conman who fomented war between Andorra and Lichtenstein for profit, though thankfully no shots were fired; and ‘The Count’, a classic European supervillain! Both ‘The Con’ and ‘The Count’ have their own Legendary Actions with which they are likely to thwart any Agents’ attempts to stop them.

Physically, The Spy Game is for the most part, cleanly and tidily laid out, and the artwork excellent. If there is an issue with the layout it is that the section on equipment and gadgets is simply in the wrong place. It comes after the descriptions of the roleplaying game’s eight Classes and how to create a Player Character, but before the roleplaying game’s rules. So there are sixty pages of gear between an explanation of the ability scores and their modifiers, the Proficiency Bonus, skill explanations, and more. Which impedes Player Character creation. And surely the rules for vehicle combat should be in the combat section?

The Spy Game is very much an espionage roleplaying game which focuses on the here and now as well the tomorrow of the spying world in which its Agents are really designed to be capable or super cable. Although it can do campaigns set in the past or ones which are gritty in tone and mechanics, these are really asides and switches which the Game Master will have to make and research and develop on her own. Perhaps for either option, gadgets and equipment could have been listed along with indications as which type of campaign they would be suitable for. Similarly, a bibliography could have included for reference and inspiration—the equivalent of The Spy Game’s Appendix N. That said, the rules of The Spy Game could easily be used to run a game in the style of Leverage or Hustle.

The Spy Game: A Roleplaying Game of Action & Espionage takes the mechanics of Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition and adeptly adapts to an entirely different genre, successfully providing new character types and Classes and unobtrusive genre mechanics. The result is a pleasing slick and modern approach to the high action, Spy-Fi genre.

Saturday, 14 May 2022

Conan & Crime

Conan the Thief is a supplement for Robert E. Howard’s Conan: Adventures in an Age Undreamed Of published by Modiphius Entertainment. It is the first in the ‘Conan the…’ series of supplements which focus on and take their inspiration from Conan himself at various stages of his life and what he was doing. Over this series, the supplements will track our titular character’s growth and progress as he gains in skills and abilities and talents. Thus this second supplement, following on from Conan the Barbarianlooks at Conan as a young man and his life what he did after he left his homeland, at the beginning of his career which will take him from barbarian to king, essentially the equivalent of a Player Character having taken the first steps in his adventuring career. Yet whilst the stats for Conan himself at this stage of his life do appear in the pages of Conan the Thief, they are more a side note than a feature, for the supplement is an examination of the countries of the centre, where East meets West in the Hyperborean Age—Brythunia, Corinthia, Nemedia, and Zamora. It includes new archetypes, talents, backgrounds, and equipment to help players create more varied Thief characters and Game Masters more varied Thief NPCs; a gazetteer and guide to the waning lands where the rule of law and civilisation force the poor and the needy, the greedy and the driven to steal and trade in what is not theirs; an array of detailed NPCs and monsters, including unique nemeses; and mechanics to help bring thievery and other activities and attitudes to your game, including burglaries, heists, assassinations, and more.

Conan the Thief opens by introducing new options for the Thief type character, building upon the content in  the core rulebook for Robert E. Howard’s Conan: Adventures in an Age Undreamed Of. This includes the Outlaw, a new Caste, which gives numerous reasons why a Player Character turned to thievery, such as ‘Nobility in All But Name’, ‘A Victim of Justice’, and ‘An Example Must Be Made’, and presents seven new Thief Archetypes: the Assassin, the Bloody Right Hand, the Fence, the Highwayman, the Master Thief, the Relic Hunter, and the Spy. In addition, there are Thief Educations, like Burglar, Rustler, Lock Breaker, Quack Physician, and Thug, enabling a Player Character Thief to specialise or to add thiefly elements to another character type. To these are added themed War Stories, Thief Talents, and kits and weapons. The latter includes the punching dagger, the katar, the duelling sword, and the garrote, along with the typical tools of the trade such as marbles, tripwires, smoke bombs, and more. Augmenting the core rulebook, this enables a player to create an interesting character or the Game Master interesting NPCs.

Supporting these new character options is a gazetteer of the lands between the East and the West—Brythunia, Corinthia, Nemedia, and Zamora. Zamora is famed for its thieves and for the city of Shadizar the Wicked is infamously home to the most notorious of all assassins’ guild, The Black Hand; Corinithia for its merchants and economic power, as well as its fractious cities cannot agree anything more than mutual self-defence, paying for their mercenary armies; Nemedia for being dominated by the Church of Mitra and being obsessed with the ancient cultures and ruins it is built upon; and Brythunia for being a backwater with its fractious clans, one of which could easily turn on the other at a moment’s notice or slight. The fortunes of all four have fluctuated over the centuries, being both conquers and the conquered. In the main it focuses upon the cities in each of these lands, typically the site of Conan’s adventures. So ‘The Tower of the Elephant’ in the city of Zamora in the land of Zamora and ‘Rogues in the House’ between Zamora and Corinthia (here given as Magyar, the Red City), for example. In each case, the content of Conan the Thief is set before the events of Conan’s stories, enabling the Game Master to run them as adventure for her Player Characters, but there are notes for adjusting them to be used after their events too. The emphasis is firmly on the cities in detailing Zamora, Nemedia, and Corinthia, if not least for the fact that the city is the natural home of the thief, and also because they are on major trade routes which the cities’ thieves can prey upon. However, Brythunia is different, suggesting that the fractiousness between its four kingdoms can be scaled down to the village level, and using ‘Brythunian Village Design’ table, to create a rural campaign which might build into something more political.

If the gazetteer explores the cultures and places where thievery is rife, ‘Events’ goes into the types of occurrences that might beset the Thief or that the Thief might instigate. These include Personal, City and Town, and Kingdom-level events, so go from Rivalries, Framed or Set, and Debt, to Wars and Rumours of War, Steal the Heir, and Plague and Other Such Chaos via Gang War, Watch Crackdown, and The Prince of Thieves is Dead! These joined by Unnatural Events like Just Another Snake Cult or Obtainer of Rare Antiquities, and there are notes on combining them too. Effectively all of them work as potential story hooks.

‘Myth & Magic’ discusses the myth of the thief and thievery, in particular, the myth that all thieves hold to, and that is ‘Honour Among Thieves’. It quickly dispels the notion that it is actually practised, thieves typically owing loyalty and friendship, but being fundamentally selfish. It makes clear that thieves do not necessarily worship a thief deity, but rather their local gods, although several gods of thievery and darkness are given, including Bel, the God of Thieves, and the Cult of the Spider God. Potential boons are given for worshipping both, for example, Bel grants a thief who takes him a patron an extra Talent, but expects the thief to leave stolen goods somewhere where they may be easily stolen on a regular basis, whilst the Cult of the Spider God gifts its followers tokens that will poison any non-believer who touches it, a ghastly object used as a means of assassination. There suggestions here too, for the purposes to which the body parts of thief can be put once he is dead, like the Hand of Glory or rope woven from the hair of dead women. A few examples would have been useful here.

‘Encounters’ details a good mix of generic NPCs, like the assassin or the watchman, and named individuals. Several of these come from Howard’s stories as you would expect, thus Yara from ‘The Tower of the Elephant’ or Demetrio, the Chief of the Inquisitorial Council of Numalia from ‘The God in the Bowl’. There are a lot of nemeses here. They are joined by fearsome creatures like the Giant Rat and the Giant Skeleton Warrior, and worse, Yag-Kosha, from ‘The Tower of the Elephant’. These again enable the Game Master to have her Player Characters encounter then if running her campaign before the events of Conan’s stories.

Rounding out Conan the Thief is ‘Hither Came Conan…’ which places our titular hero in the context of the supplement and provides a playable version of him early in his long career. Thieving and criminal campaigns are explored in ‘The Way of Thieves’, which examines how campaigns built around thieves will be different to other campaigns for Robert E. Howard’s Conan: Adventures in an Age Undreamed Of. It notes that Conan himself was a thief for just two or three years, that thief campaigns should avoid descending into farce as thieving is serious business, and whether the city authorities or the head of the guild, there will be checks and balances on the activities of any Player Character thief. There is solid advice here and it is supported by guidelines and rules for joining and running a thieves’ guild, along with descriptions of the guilds of note in the cities described earlier in the supplement. The ‘Heists’ chapter presents a chapter of tables with which the Game Master can generate potential jobs and targets and then develop to run for her players and their characters. It comes with a fully worked example. Lastly, ‘Heroes of the Age’ add a trio of potential Player Characters NPCs developed by backers for the Kickstarter campaign for Robert E. Howard’s Conan: Adventures in an Age Undreamed Of. Of the three, ‘Jamil the Thieftaker’ is a great addition to any campaign set in Zamora, whilst the boastful Inarus feels out of place, being more pirate than thief.

Physically, Conan the Thief is a slim hardback, presented in full colour, illustrated with an excellent range of fully painted artwork. It is well written, is accessible, and comes with a reasonable index.

Conan the Thief switches in emphasis and feel from Conan the Barbarian, exploring thievery and civilisation at the heart of the Hyperborean Age in lands which though often rich—for some, at least—are in decline. Both depict worlds of cruelty, one of the rough, frontier lands, the other of inequality and poverty in great cities. The advice for running a thief-based campaign is excellent, though perhaps a campaign outline for taking a band of thieves from their lives on the street into the guilds and onwards, encompassing a similar two or three-year period to that spent by Conan himself, would have been useful. Similarly, the advice on adapting the stories which the supplement directly draws upon, such as ‘The Tower of the Elephant’, could have been stronger and done with an outline or something similar to help the Game Master, especially given how pivotal these stories are in the Conan oeuvre.

Conan the Thief opens up whole new possibilities for running and playing Robert E. Howard’s Conan: Adventures in an Age Undreamed Of. It expands upon the options in the core rules for the player who wants to create a Thief character, and thus also for the Game Master to create interesting NPCs  for the Player Characters to encounter in a city, perhaps if they are just passing through on the way to somewhere else, However, what the content of Conan the Thief really lends itself to is entirely city-based campaigns built around thieves and thieving, where the Player Characters can all be different types of thieves and have different roles in the campaign. Such that a whole Robert E. Howard’s Conan: Adventures in an Age Undreamed Of campaign could almost be run without ever leaving that city or even going anywhere near the background and information presented in its other supplements. It is actually a pity that such a campaign does not exist for the roleplaying game.

Conan the Thief is a solid supplement for Robert E. Howard’s Conan: Adventures in an Age Undreamed Of, which really comes alive as a campaign supplement. In fact, Conan the Thief would make a good supplement for any Game Master wanting to run a Swords & Thievery style campaign. is an excellent sourcebook.