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

Friday, 18 March 2022

Apocalyptic Axe Action!!!

It is the year 10,191. Urth, the last refuge of humanity is marked with smoke-filled skies, a fractured surface smashed by centuries of warfare and bombardment, whilst firestorms of pyroclastic heat scour the land in. The planet is orbited by the stone cathedral ships of the Infinitum—the empire known as the ‘War Pigs’—amidst a thick field of debris and broken ships and corpses known as the Death Cloud, which rain down death and destruction, and launch assaults by their Borg battalions. Worse, the constant attacks and bombardments have awoken the forces of Hell and driven literal Hellholes from which legions of demons crawl to seek out the last of mankind. Caught between mighty enemies above and below, humanity hides in the cracks, avoiding conflict apart from the rebel bands known as the Screaming Skulls—and they have pulled off not one coup, but two. The first was through a slave engineer forced to work the War Pig vessels, who managed to persuade some of the Infinitum’s mightiest warriors to join the cause of saving humanity! These are the Immortals, clones of the Viking warriors of old, equipped with mighty blades and wearing massive suits of armour, standing ten feet tall, and imbued with the sense of honour they had in the past. For millennia they have been kept in cryostasis, destined to fight and die, and then return to the Infinitum’s Grave Ships to live and fight again. The second was to permanently disable the Grave Ships. The Immortals can now die, and there are only a few of them left. Only the Immortals are capable of taking the fight to both the War Pigs and Hell itself. Will they save humanity before they all die?

This is the setting for Viking Death Squad, a roleplaying game of Heavy Metal fighting, death, and honour in the very far future, inspired by the song, War Pigs, by Black Sabbath. Published by RuneHammer Games, this is a roleplaying game in which the Player Characters go on desperate missions against dark and dangerous foes, knowing that every hit they take could be their last. No mere human can withstand the damage dealt by weapons in the hundredth century—one blow is enough to kill a man, and no Immortal has been known to survive more than three. So they enter every fray in great layers of armour, and when that is smashed, they scavenge Urth’s seemingly endless battlefield for more! Healers are for the weak and those still in the refuges where mankind skulks—on the battlefield, the Healer scrounges up replacement pieces of armour! In addition, the Screaming Skulls can use spell stones, limited use magic, and even Blood Runes, which they can carve into themselves. This is also a roleplaying game with a built-in end—there are only ten Immortals alive in the hundredth century, and when the last one dies, so does hope for all mankind.

A Player Character in Viking Death Squad has six stats—SPEED, WITS, GUTS, AIM, POWER, and RESOLVE—rated between one and six. He also has a Type, either Human or Immortal, which provides some bonuses to stats, plus some skills, and a Role, which also provides bonus skills and the number and types of gear he begins play with. An Immortal typically only begins play with two skills, whereas a Human typically has three or four. The roles also differ for Immortals and Humans. For the latter, there is Hijacker, Grave Robber, Exorcist, Assassin, Junker, Excavator, and more, whilst for the former, there is the Viking Warrior, Shield Maiden, Visigoth, Mariner, Berserker, Trickster, and so on. There are hints in these, as there is elsewhere in Viking Death Squad, to classic gods of the Norse pantheon, but these flavour the setting rather provide in-game benefits. In terms of background, a Player Character has an Oath which he must fulfil, a Debt owed to an organisation or person, and a Code, something that he will never do, no matter how bad the situation becomes.

Character creation consists of choosing a Type, assigning points to stats, choosing a Role, the Background options, and some gear. Alternatively, a player can roll for some of these, but this is definitely an option. The process, though, begins with a player thinking about his character role in terms of what he will do in play. These are very much informed by MMORPGs, so ‘Defender/Tank’, ‘Slayer/Damage’, ‘Supporter/Healer’, ‘Scout/Control’, and ‘Nuke/Utility’.  These are very base concepts though, and not really followed through in the rules. So there is no guidance on how to create characters based around the concepts. Nevertheless, character creation is straightforward with an interesting range of types.

Ragnar the Rager
Type: Immortal
Role: Berserker

Oath: Destroy the War Pigs entirely
Debt: A human broke you free of your cryo chamber and you owe him
Code: You refuse to use guns


Special Skill: Sunder
Skills: Chains 3 Fearless 1 Whirlwind 2

Gear: Iron Chains, Hag Stones, Thermite Blow Torch, Insect Shield (+1d Surprise), Gorgo Shell (+1d Power, undetected amongst insects), Retread Pauldrons (+1d Surprise), Slip Vest (Immune to blades)

Mechanically, Viking Death Squad uses a dice pool mechanic of six-sided dice. If a player wants his character to undertake an action, he rolls the appropriate stat and attempts to beat a target number. This target number is determined by a similar die roll made by the Game Master, which varies from two to six dice depending upon the difficulty. Alternatively, skills are rolled for their special effects. For example, the Combat Repair skill enables a character to repair a piece of gear for each four, five, or six rolled, whilst for the Chains skill, for each four, five, or six rolled, the character can inflict one hit, grapple a foe, or catch an anchor point to pull or climb.

To augment a roll, a player has two choices. One is to Push his character’s gear. This can add a die to the roll, hit more than one foe with an attack, throw a melee weapon, reduce the target number, narrate an extra effect, or destroy armour completely without rolling a critical result. The other is to expend Resolve to add more dice to the roll. Both have their downsides. Resolve is a limited resource, but is restored after a safe rest, whilst Pushing gear damages the item. Push that piece of gear three times and it is destroyed.

There are a couple of results on a roll other than a simple success. A Critical success is achieved on a roll of twelve higher than the target number. This means that the roll achieves the maximum narrative effect, the character completely destroys a piece of armour worn by the enemy, can take another turn immediately, gain a tick on a Blood Rune, or two on a skill. A Critical success is also achieved if the player rolls six on three dice, but the character also refills his Resolve. Players are also invited to recite Iron Maiden’s Number of the Beast, and the Game Master to bring Lucifer’s influence into play…

Combat is intended to be fast and furious. Speed is rolled to determine who goes first in combat and how hard they are to hit, so is a vitally important stat. Then rolls are made to hit and their effects determined and narrated. Range is either Arm’s Length, Ranged, or Out of Reach, and hits are inflicted to destroy armour. After that, hits are deadly. Although there is no healing in Viking Death Squad, armour can be replaced, repaired, or even scavenged—even on the spot and in the middle of battle.
For example, Ragnar the Rager and his band are on their way to a settlement when they  come across an attack force of twenty-two Borg led by two Hulk Borgs intent on assaulting the settlement. They decide to ambush them. The Game Master rolls four six-sided dice for Hulk Borgs’ Speed, for a total of thirteen. Rager’s player rolls three six-sided dice for his Speed and gets fifteen. First there is the matter of the ambush. Rager’s player assembles his dice pool—three for his Chains skill, three for attacking from ambush, plus two for his Insect Shield and Retread Pauldrons. This gives his player eight dice and he rolls one, two, three, six, six, six, and six, for a total of thirty. So a Critical, but not the Number of the Beast. This means Rager gets another turn and two ticks on his Chains skill. For the six, six, six, and six on the roll, he inflicts one hit each. However, he also has the Whirlwind skill, which is rolled after a successful melee attack and inflicts another hit for each six rolled. Rager’s player rolls the two dice for that and gets a four and six, inflicting another hit. This gives him a total of five hits. Normally, that would be against one target, but Rager’s iron chains attack two targets, so both Hulk Borgs are hit. Hulk Borgs have five Armour and Rager’s player narrates how Rager leaps down into the ravine and with a divine roar, the chain whips back and forth ripping armour from the cyborg monstrosities.

Rager’s turn would end there, but the Critical hit got him a second turn. He does not have surprise though, which means no bonus dice from that, and so is only rolling the three dice for his Chains skill. This time, his player decides to use a point of his  Resolve and adds an extra die to give him four dice. He rolls three, three, five, and five. This is two hits and again, will affect both targets. Rager’s player fails to roll any sixes on his Whirlwind skill, but two hits on the two Hulk Borgs because of his Iron Chains, is enough to shatter them as neither has any armour left. Rager looks up at his fellow members of the Screaming Skulls and roars! It is up to them to take down as many of the ordinary Borg before they swarm him. Above him, they open up with their guns…
Both magic and advancement in Viking Death Squad are simple. Spell Stones can be used by all and each stone has a straightforward effect which can be used three times before it crumbles, like Shield Stone, which absorbs one attack against the caster, or Loki’s Pebble to create illusions for a few turns. The Runes skill also allows a character to carve a one-use Spell Stone effect on a nearby surface. For advancement, successful skill use gets a tick—or two if the roll was a Critical—and five ticks get a skill increase of one die. A Player Character’s Resolve pool is both refreshed and increased by one die after each session, and Critical hits also add a tick towards the three needed to gain a Blood Rune. Blood Runes are engraved on a Player Character’s skin for a permanent, but powerful effect. For example, an increase of the POWER stat, the ability to select an enemy on the battlefield and ignore its armour, or gain three Deaths like an Immortal (if Human) or erase any previous Deaths (if Immortal). A Player Character can have four Blood Runes.

For the Game Master, Viking Death Squad provides quite a lot to play with. The background is sketched out in broad, but flavoursome detail. This includes the twenty or so important locations across the ruined Urth, the great fungal forest across Eurasia; the nature of Hell and its ongoing civil war between Lucifer and Azael the Butcher; and the fact that technology is solid state and weird and alien rather than relying upon electricity or fossil fuels. What new technology there is, or at least new equipment, is made from solid, single materials, for example, an iron helm or a stone maul. ‘Relic Tech’ can be scavenged though, and the Player Characters can expect to find guns which shoot flaming skulls, swords sheathed in ice, and more. Further, in terms of its background, Viking Death Squad does not hide its secrets. All are there for the Game Master to read and then use in her game.

Viking Death Squad also comes with five ready-to-play pre-generated Player Characters—the Moldy Bunch; ‘The Dogs of Leadgrave’, a short adventure in which the Player Characters investigate why the town of Leadgrave is constantly being attacked by cyBorg dogs; and over twenty foes, including various types of Borgs, giant insects, Iron Dragons, the animated dead, sentient and toxic Tar, and gigantic unkillable Tardigrade Beasts. All have a Tactics roll, a table which the Game Master can roll on to determine how the foe acts from round to round. There is good advice too on running Viking Death Squad and the book is rounded out with ‘Blood and Justice’, a complete nine-part mini-campaign.

Physically, Viking Death Squad is well presented, with some fantastically oppressive comic-style artwork which captures the heavy metal style of the game. However, as written it feels slightly fragmented and not as well organised as it should be, plus it is underwritten in places. In particular magic and the general mechanics could have been done with a clearer explanation, plus the underlying concept behind character creation be developed rather than ignored.

With limited lives available to the Player Characters, Viking Death Squad is not meant for long term play, but rather one-shots or mini-campaigns. Indeed, a Game Master could run ‘Blood and Justice’ and be done with the game, though there would still be aspects of Urth in the year 10,191 still to explore—and there is plenty of scope in Viking Death Squad’s setting for the Game Master to develop. These could even form mini-campaigns of their own and companion, perhaps detailing further campaigns and perhaps firming up some of the rules would not be unwelcome.

Viking Death Squad is meant to be played fast and furious, a roleplaying game of bombast and blast, action and adversity, heroism in a far future of hard horror and heavy metal. Unsubtle and unrestrained, Viking Death Squad demands that you rock your roleplaying and swing your mighty axe to smash the future!

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