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Sunday 11 September 2022

Pulp Action Year Zero

In the years of the Desperate Decade, adventurers, explorers, soldiers of fortune, spies, journalists, and men of action—heroes all, pushed to the four corners of the Earth and beyond into the darkest of corners! These stalwart men and women heroically overcame great danger and terrible terror to reveal ancient secrets, discover lost civilisations, and find priceless treasures and in the deepest, darkest, wildest reaches of the world thwart the plans of villains and would-be world conquerors. They evaded traps, leaped over pits, dodged bullets and spears, and even punched a Nazi or three, all in the name of fortune and glory. Their exploits would be told in the pulp magazines of the period and form the basis for films such as Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Mummy (from 1999), and Romancing the Stone. And now they can be told again by playing Temples & Tombs, a pulp action roleplaying published by Gallant Knight Games which employs the Year Zero Engine previously seen in Mutant: Year Zero – Roleplaying at the End of Days, the Alien: The Roleplaying Game, and Vaesen – Nordic Horror Roleplaying, all roleplaying games published by Free League Publishing.

Temples & Tombs is designed to accessible, fast playing, with the focus firmly on the Player Characters or Adventurers and their adventures, with the heroes often having to push themselves and raise the stakes in order to succeed. The template of Mutant: Year Zero – Roleplaying at the End of Days and subsequent Year Zero Engine can very much be seen in this pulp-action roleplaying game. It uses six-sided dice in three different colours—for primary or standard dice, Luck Dice, and Hero Dice—with the aim being to roll a single six as a success. Each Adventurer has a Profession, an Age which determines the points to be assigned to the four attributes and skills (younger Adventurers have higher attributes and lower skills, older have lower attributes and higher skills), one or more Talents derived from the Profession (there are other generic Talents available when an Adventurer gains experience), an Ambition which will drive the character to act, and together with other Adventurers, an institution which they all belong to. Each Adventurer will also have Relationships with his fellow adventurers and a Signature Item which will help him in certain situations, such as a bullwhip or a really sparkly red dress. Talents, Relationships, and Signature Items are all suggested by the Professions. The twelve Professions are Ace, Archaeologist, Doctor, Genius, Hunter, Journalist, Outlaw, Professional, Socialite, Soldier, Spy, and Thief.

James McTavish
Age: In Your Prime
Profession: Ace

Grit: 03 Fight 1 Endure 0 Feat 1
Quick: 05 Drive 3 Shoot 1 Stunt 1
Wit: 03 Fix 1 Savvy 1 Lore 0
Style: 03 Scare 0 Sway 1 Trick 0

Gets an additional Hero Die when using a skill to do something life-threatening.
Relive your glory days.

Vehicle (single-propeller plane), pistol, survival gear, bag
Income: 3 (modest)

Signature Item
Lucky deck of cards

Mechanically, the core mechanic in Temples & Tombs is the Year Zero Engine. To undertake an action or skill test, an Adventurer’s player rolls dice equal to the character’s skill and its associated attribute. Any roll of six counts as success. If an Adventurer lacks points in a skill, his player just rolls a single attribute die. Modifiers can adjust the number of dice up and down. For example, a Signature Item can add a single die whenever an Adventurer brings it into play, whilst once per session, an Adventurer can use his Ambition to automatically succeed at any test.

In addition, a player can add Hero Dice to the pool. Each Hero Die is used only the once and always on the next test that the player rolls. They cannot be saved. They earned as an award from the Director for an Adventurer being amazing, for every success rolled over one on a text, and for using specific talents in a Profession. So, when added to a pool and a six is rolled on the Hero Die, they trigger a Heroic Action. These include all Adventurers losing a Catch with ‘Inspire’, give them all a Hero Die for their next test with ‘Strong Presence’, lose all of an Adventurer’s with ‘Rise Up’, clear the Adventurer’s Luck tracker with ‘Persevere’, succeed automatically on the next test with ‘Break Through’, and force an NPC to flee or surrender with ‘Ferocity’.

Temples & Tombs is designed to emulate the great swings in the fortunes of the genre’s protagonists, so failure is as much part of the game as is success—sometimes great success. However, instead when an Adventurer fails, he does not suffer harm or damage. Instead, he takes Catches. These represent the Adventurer being pushed to his limits and potentially being taken out of the action—which happens if he suffers five Catches—rather than being hurt or killed. Ranging from ‘Off Guard’ and ‘Emotional’ to ‘On the Run’ and ‘In need of Rescue’, each Catch has an immediate narrative effect which the player describes and a mechanical effect on the number of dice in an Adventurer’s dice pool. This can be negative or positive and are permanent until the triggering Catches are cleared. Alternatively, an Adventurer can lose all of his Hero Dice instead of taking a Catch.

If a player fails a roll or he wants more than the one success to garner more Hero Dice, he can push his Adventurer’s luck. Pushing an Adventurer’s luck allows a re-roll and adds one to the Adventurer’s Luck Tracker. The re-roll is made with number of dice equal to the Luck Tracker. This increases the Adventurer’s dice pool, but if one of the Luck Dice results in a roll of a one, the Adventurer’s Luck Tracker is cleared, and the Adventurer takes a Catch. The maximum the Luck Tracker can be increased to is five, after which it is cleared, and the Adventurer gains an automatic success on the last roll. What means is that an Adventurer is literally pushing his luck—to gain more dice to roll, with the increased potential for both success or failure—until he either succeeds or fails, so his luck runs out.
For example, pilot James McTavish is racing to get his team out of China where they have acquired some artefacts to bring back to put on display at the museum they work for before a warlord could and sell them to a collector. As he pilots his Beechcraft Model 17 Staggerwing out of the mountains and down river, he is jumped by a pair of Blackburn F.2 Lincock biplanes loaned out to the warlord after a well-placed bribe. The Staggerwing is not armed, but it is fast and manoeuvrable and one of his fellow passengers is armed with a Mauser M712 Schnellfeuer, and if McTavish can manoeuvre just right, then a good burst or three might be enough to drive off the Chinese pilots.

James McTavish’s player starts with a dice pool of eight, derived from James’ Quick of five and Drive of three. To this he adds a Hero Die because James is definitely doing something life-threatening. So, eight standard dice and one Hero Dice. Unfortunately, the player does not roll a single success, and decides to Push James’ Luck. This moves James’ Luck Tracker up by one and gives his player nine dice to roll—eight plus the Hero Die and the Luck Die. This time, he rolls four successes, including one on the Hero Die. One Success means that James succeeds—sliding his aircraft perfectly along one of the enemy aeroplanes, but the other three become Hero Dice he can roll on his next action. The success on the Hero Die gives him a Heroic Action and his player selects ‘Strong Presence’ which gives all Adventurers a Hero Die on their next action. James’ fellow Adventurer draws a bead on the enemy pilot with his machine pistol and her player takes up her dice, which will include a Hero Die thanks to James.
Combat in Temples & Tombs uses the same mechanics, including close combat, ranged combat, and social combat. Damage is inflicted in terms of Catches, reflecting that an Adventurer can be hurt, knocked out, and put out of the action, but not killed. Weapons add only a single die to an Adventurer’s dice pool. An Adventurer cannot take any more than five Catches and are thus ‘In Need of Rescue’ and need to recuperate before he can act again. Gear is broadly handled and includes travel as well as equipment. If an Adventurer wants a piece of gear higher than his Income, his player makes an Income test with any successes indicating that the Adventurer can.

For the Director, there is advice to ensure that there is Never a Dull Moment, that it be made awesome, and to make it wondrous. It suggests using blocks—having bad guys show up, a ceiling collapse, or a trap door shuts—as narrative devices in line with the genre, always presenting the Adventurers with hard choices—equally bad, escalate the situation and more, make it visual, and so on. In terms of storytelling, Temples & Tombs uses the same model or set of story beats to emulate its genre and hang the Director’s plot on. These begin with the ‘Cold Open’, and then go through the ‘Call of Adventure’, ‘The Journey’, and ‘The Dungeon’ to finally get to ‘The Wrap’. These supported by discussions of and table for MacGuffins, set pieces (or archetypal locations), dungeon (or rather tomb), threats, and more. There is only a very broad overview of the thirties—the default setting for Temples & Tombs—which includes a list of the aspects of the period to avoid. This combination of overview and the lists of potential dungeons and treasures does mean that the Director will have to conduct some research to bring these places and MacGuffins to life in her game.

In general, Threats such as NPCs are relatively easy for the Adventurers to deal with and do not have Hero Dice or Luck Dice, although some powerful NPCs might utilise Luck Dice. More powerful NPCs can suffer more Catch conditions, as can beasts. What NPCs and beasts do have is Moments. These can be things like ‘Use a gadget to cause a diversion’ or ‘Dispatch goons’, but are not used to attack or harm an Adventurer directly. Instead, they are NPC or Villain moves which occur when an Adventurer fails a test against a threat, an extra narrative consequence to the Adventurer suffering a Catch. Numerous groups from barons and presidents and blue blood society to heroes gone bad and menacing museums all the way up to mutants and supervillains are examined and given suggested names, aims, set pieces, and more. They do feel undeveloped in places. Temples & Tombs is designed to be “somewhat agnostic”, but a bit more history would not have gone amiss.

Over a third of Temples & Tombs is devoted to three adventures. These are ‘Temple of the Feather of Ma’at’, ‘Sky Zeppelin and the Valley of Yesteryear’, and ‘The Lost Works of William Shakespeare and the Oak Island Mystery’. The first sends the Adventurers after Ma’at’s Feather of Truth from Egyptian mythology across the ancient world from Turkey to Egypt; the second to South America in search of a missing scientific expedition and mixes dinosaurs with lost cities; and the third from Germany to the USA to find a treasure which many have looked for, including Franklin D. Roosevelt. In fact, the president is included as a threat in this scenario which makes for an interesting twist. All three follow the story beats outlined earlier in the book, except for ‘The Lost Works of William Shakespeare and the Oak Island Mystery’ which omits a Cold Open and means the Director will have to add one of her own. Of the three ‘Temple of the Feather of Ma’at’ feels like Raiders of the Lost Ark and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, ‘Sky Zeppelin and the Valley of Yesteryear’ feels like an Edgar Rice Burroughs story, and ‘The Lost Works of William Shakespeare and the Oak Island Mystery’ like Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.

Physically, Temples & Tombs is a plain, greyscale book. It is very lightly illustrated, it does suffer from repetition in places, and it does need an edit in others. There is no index. One oddity is the fact that the name of the roleplaying game is Temples & Tombs, but the generic term used for the roleplaying game’s grand set pieces is ‘dungeon’. Why not ‘tomb’?

Temples & Tombs feels rushed and consequently rough around the edges. Some of the rule explanations could have been clearer, there are no examples of play or Adventurer creation, and it does not help that there is no index. Nor is there a bibliography, filmography, or a timeline. These are all major omissions which make the roleplaying game that little bit harder to grasp or use with each missing element. In addition, the three omissions make it harder for the Director to write her own adventures because she has to look for the starting points which a bibliography, filmography, or timeline would have provided. To some extent the authors are relying upon the familiarity of the Director and her players with Year Zero Engine, the period when the roleplaying game is set, and definitely the genre. If that is the case, then these omissions are less of a problem, otherwise that is not so.

Temples & Tombs has a pick and up feel with its easy Adventurer creation rules and its fast-playing implementation of the Year Zero Engine which emphasises heroic action and firmly places the Adventurers in the centre of both action and story. This is supported by three entertaining adventures which romp around the genre in pursuit of their respective MacGuffins, but beyond these, the Director will need to conduct some research to create adventures of her own. Ultimately, Temples & Tombs is a solid implementation of the Year Zero Engine in the Pulp genre, but remains underdeveloped where it could have been more helpful.

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