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

Sunday 25 September 2022

Monarchy & Magic

There has always been a connection between the Crown and the country, a connection that has run through king after king, from King Arthur to now. Through this connection, the bloodline and the Crown have always been the living embodiment of the people and the country. If there was sickness was in the Crown it would be reflected in the nation and vice versa. This connection, this Anima Gentum, ensured that the Crown looked to both the spiritual needs and the physical needs of the country. Until now. There is division between the King and Parliament. There is division between King and country. There is division in faith between the Popery of the King, let alone his Catholic wife, and the Anglicanism, even Puritanism, of the common folk of the country. There is division between the Protestantism of the country and the Catholicism of Rome, a division which divides the country from Europe just as it divides Europe and drives the Thirty Years War. There is division between anyone practicing or believing in Pagan practices, who believe the fae and the spirit world to be real—let alone make contact with either, or practice any kind of magic, and the Protestants and Puritans who would liken it to witchcraft or consorting with demons. In country rent with outbreaks of the Plague, decades of religious and dynastic strife—including the war between the Houses of York and Tudor, international rancour, and more, this will not. King and Parliament will make war on each other culminating in the breaking of the Anima Gentum when King Charles is beheaded. Yet even before then, the Veil has been weakened by this division, giving access to the beyond, the Shadowlands, and the Demonic Realms, and so allowing mankind to entreat with things beyond our understanding. The Anima Gentum will be broken, England will be upturned, and the land will have no king.

This is the setting for The End of Kings: Core Rules for 17th Century Adventure, a roleplaying game from MontiDots Creations, best known for publishing horror scenarios such as The Fenworthy Inheritance and scenarios for the Old School Renaissance such as Limbus Infernum. The End of Kings though is the publisher’s first roleplaying game which extends from his interest in recreating the English Civil War. Thus, it is set during the turbulent years of the reign of Charles I and beyond. It is a roleplaying game in which weaselly Vagabonds, stout Commoners and Yeomanry, and gracious members of the Nobility, as Cunning Folk or Woodkernes, Clubmen or Soldiers, Priests or Witch Hunters, Warlocks or Outlaws seek adventure and perhaps work to protect the realm from creatures from beyond the Veil and machinations of those men and women who would take advantage of the weakening of the Veil.

A Player Character in The End of Kings has six attributes—Strength, Constitution, Dexterity, Intelligence, Power, and Charisma, which vary in value between three and eighteen. Social Status, including Vagabond, Commoner, Yeoman, and Nobility, determines the character Classes a player can choose from. These are Clubman, Cunning Folk, Outlaw, Pagan Priest, Priest, Soldier, Warlock, Witch Hunter, and Woodkerne. Of these, the Clubman is a commoner who has been mustered or press-ganged into fighting and often wields an improvised weapon; the Pagan Priest is like a druid; and the Woodkerne are bandits or light skirmishers who can perform some magic. To create a character, the player rolls three six-sided dice for each attribute, then derives a number of secondary factors from them, rolls for Social Class and selects a character Class, and assigns skills points to skills, the number of points derived from the primary attributes for each Class. A player can also roll on the Family History table to get a little background, such as an ‘Heirloom’, ‘Poverty in the family’, ‘Believed noble blood’, and so on. The table is skewed in favour of the Noble Social Class, but that would make sense, as they are more likely to be better connected, possess wealth and land, and have a longer family history. The process is not difficult, but is not helped by the often-busy layout and organisation of the rulebook. There notes two on creating period accurate female Player Characters, the both players and Game Master are advised to treat these rules as entirely optional.

The sample Player Character is a servant to her richer cousins who are landed gentry in north Cornwall. Although uneducated and illiterate, she is intelligent and if given the opportunity would be willing to learn. She has been taught some knowledge of the ways of the cunning folk by her aunt, mostly spells that aid the injured and the sick.

Name: Isabel Pennix
Social Class: Commoner
Character Class: Cunning Folk
Faith: Catholic
Literate: No
Age: 16

Family History: Property (Fortified country house with outbuildings, four hides of non-arable land, one hide of arable land, six rural dwellings), Catholic Faith/Bloodline, Wealth in the Family

Strength 09 [–] Constitution 16 [+8%] Dexterity 13 [+02%]
Intelligence 18 [+12%] Power 13 [+02%] Charisma 13 [+02%]

Size: 13 Hit Points: 15
Stability Points: 65
Perception: 80%
Spell Casting Speed: 80%
Spell Resistance: 39%
Balance: 65%
Reaction Speed: 65%
Influence: 65%
Damage Modifier: – Armour Modifier: –

Agriculture 62%, Brew Potion 17%, Craft: Magic Item 15%, Divination 15%, Healing 67%, Improvised Weapon 52%, Language Faerie 32%, Local Knowledge 42%, Lore: Animal 62%, Lore: Arcane 22%, Lore: Faerie 52%, Lore: Plant 62%, Merchant/Barter 32%, Pummel 22%, Religion 47%, Short Blade 42%, Spell Casting 17%, Spot Hidden 62%, Tracking 67%

Potion Recipes Known: Cleanse the Heart
Spells Known: Cure Disease, Draw Poison, Heal Wounds

Mechanically, The End of Kings: Core Rules for 17th Century Adventure employs the GORE Generic Old-School Role-playing Engine published by Goblinoid Games. This is a percentile system which means that anyone familiar with a Basic Roleplay mechanics will have no difficulty adapting to The End of Kings. Attribute checks are rolled against the attribute multiplied by the difficulty factor, from one for almost impossible to six for very easy. For skill rolls, any result which is within five percentile points of skill chance is a critical success—for example, a roll of between eleven and fifteen percent would be critical success for Isabel’s Divination skill, whilst a critical failure is ninety-five percent and above. The various skills are described in some detail and each has a Level of Mastery, again a percentile factor, which measures skill rank. Ranging from Novice to Master, skill rank can indicate how many Power Points a spellcasting character might have, how skilled an NPC he would have to find to gain training in a skill, what he is capable of doing in that skill, such as the type of house for the Architecture skill or the Influence modifier gained when making a Dance check, or it can simply indicate professional recognition. In addition, a Player Character has factors such as Influence, which reflects his persuasiveness and replaces most social interaction skills bar ‘Perform: Oratory’.

Combat uses the same base mechanics. The rules cover surprise, order of action—done by Reaction Speed or Spellcasting Speed, movement, movement and actions, and more, just as you would expect. Optional rules cover bludgeoning, blocking, parrying, pummelling, and wrestling. Sneak attacks include quick knockouts and shots from afar, whilst blackpowder weapons and their use are also detailed. Blackpowder weapons are noisy, one-shot affairs, and beyond opening shots, most combats will become physical. Armour is available, but is bulky and does not provide a great deal of protection, especially against firearms whose damage rolls explode. In other words, if maximum damage is rolled, the dice are rolled again and added. Most melee weapon damage is rolled on a four, six, or eight-sided die, whilst blackpowder weapons are rolled on an eight, ten, twelve-sided die. A critical success on an attack always means that maximum damage is rolled and in general, armour is ignored. Thus, a critical success with a firearm is likely to be fatal! The weapons include cannon and the roleplaying game goes into some detail about these and the numerous types of weapons available in the seventeenth century. All useful information for the uninitiated.

Fear and reaction to the horrifying is handled through Stability, with Power representing a Player Character’s ability to cope with shocks and Stability Points his state of mind. The Fear Rating, from ‘Type 1: Mild’ to ‘Type 6: Terrifying’ modifies the Power attribute roll to be made and suggests number of Stability Points to be lost, whether or not the roll is successful. For example, witnessing the violent death of a friend or ally, an angry spirit, phantom hound, or ghost of a dead ancestor, or a coven of witches in flight has a Fear Rating of ‘Type 3: Strong’. The Fear check in this case would be the Player Character’s Power multiplied by three and if successful, the Player Character would lose two Stability Points, but as many as nine if failed. As the Player Character’s Stability Points fall below fifty percent, he becomes first Nervous, then Unstable, and finally Insane. This increases the Fear Rating of any shocking encounter and the likelihood of losing more Stability Points, which is a brutal spiral into insanity. Conversely, Stability Points of above sixty decrease the Fear Rating, and some Classes have immunity to certain sources of fear, such as battlefield trauma for Clubmen and Soldiers, common faerie for Cunning folk, Pagan Priests, and WoodKerne, and so on. Overcoming horrific encounters and routing out their source will restore a Player Character’s Stability Points.

Numerous Classes in The End of Kings have access to magic and can cast spells as well as work other magical effects. Cunning Folk use recipes, brew potions, and can contact both faeries and spirits; Pagan Priests have dealings with faeries and spirits and work with nature; Priests specialise in wards and healing spells; Warlocks explore the physical and spiritual world through science and the esoteric arts learned from ancient texts; Witch Hunters specialise in detection and protection spells; and Woodkerne have knowledge of the faerie and can create charms of various kinds. Spellcasting involves a player rolling against the skill of the same name. The rules cover rituals and incantations and the gaining of a familiar and the gifts that such a companion will provide, as well as a lengthy list of spells. Some are quite detailed, such as the Divination spell. It is also possible to delve into the world of alchemy and the creation of magical items, and numerous example potions and devices are described, including crosses, Cupid’s Kiss, charms and wards, books holy and unholy, and fairy rings—the latter important locations should the Player Characters want access the Glimmering Lands and to communicate with the local sylvan folk. It is possible to create magical blades and bullets, but their inclusion does seem to lessen the effects and influence of magic upon the world if access to them is too easy.

In terms of background, The End of Kings details money and equipment, transport and travel—including by foot, horse, carriage, and ship, as well as the possibilities of flight, though that is reserved for those who have the magical knowledge necessary. Architecture of the period is described, as is the cosmology, primarily exploring beyond the Veil which separates the mundane world from the magical world. Details of numerous creatures are also included, from the mundane to the magical, especially the fairie and their magics. These are decently described, and they all have their own Fear Checks. The same goes for the various visitors from the Veil, including spirits, apparitions, spectres, and vampires, and the demons and devils from Below… The range of creatures and things around which the Game Master can create mysteries and plots is fairly comprehensive. The general background of the period is also covered, ranging from household inventories, the law, and thieves’ cant to superstitions, the Plague, and witch trials. A timeline runs from the late fifteenth century to the late seventeenth century.

The alternative background to The End of Kings links the turbulent history of England to the relationship between the crown and the Anima Gentum. In particular, the Occuli Albionis—also known as the Star Chamber for room where its members met—plays a similarly fluctuating role in this, its wizards, warlocks, alchemists, and priests from the Church and Court College of Alchemy undertaking various tasks depending upon the whim of the monarch and his advisors. Originally assigned protect the country from magic at home and abroad, at times they were disbanded in complete distrust, at others tasked with viciously rooting out Catholics and other heretics and magical practitioners who were a threat to the country, and then shutdown and its members forced to flee or subject to persecution at other times. Extending to take in a history of the Vatican and the numerous Popes, all of whom had a very different attitude to magic, as well as doing the same for the Ottoman Empire, this history does sprawl. There is so much history in the book that it is almost difficult to quite know when the default setting is for The End of Kings.

Rounding out The End of Kings is a full scenario, ‘Five Lords A’leaping’. Set a hundred miles or so north of London in and around the village of Foxton Weir, it sees the Player Characters become involved in the local politics of the area and machinations of the local Catholic lord when one of their number, one of the Cunning Folk, receives a cry for help in a dream. The sender beseeches the Player Character to help protect the village and find out what is going on there, pointing to her croft where help and secrets are to be found. Ultimately, the Player Characters will face bandits, discover that the local lord is up to no good, and hopefully rescue the sender of the dream. It is a short, straightforward enough scenario which should provide a couple of sessions’ worth of play. It does require that one of the Player Characters be a Cunning Folk and another a Priest. Otherwise, it is a decent introduction to The End of Kings.

Physically, The End of Kings is hit and miss. It uses a lot of period artwork as well as many of the author’s own, and even photographs from period re-enactments. However, the cartography is plain at best, uninspiring at worst, and the author never really gets to illustrate anyone of the period. It needs an edit here and there too, but the main issue with The End of Kings is that it is disorganised, with parts not arranged in alphabetical order hen in other sections they are, and that it often overwhelms the reader with its wealth of detail.

The End of Kings: Core Rules for 17th Century Adventure is rough and not quite ready. It provides the Game Master with a wealth of detail, but not a focus or an explanation of quite what it is that the Player Characters are supposed to be doing in the setting. Let alone the fact that it is not quite clear when the default is. That wealth of detail also sprawls across the book, making it difficult to extract information or decide what to do with The End of Kings. There are no campaign frameworks or ideas, and advice for the Game Master is light.

The End of Kings: Core Rules for 17th Century Adventure is clearly a labour of love for the designer and publisher. Far from unplayable, bringing it to the table should prove to be, if not a daunting challenge for any Game Master, then one requiring a bit more effort then it should, 
but perhaps with further development and editing, The End of Kings: Core Rules for 17th Century Adventure may prove to be otherwise.

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