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

Sunday 14 July 2024

Old West Wonder

The year is 1860 and the War for Southern Independence has been over for three years. The Confederate States of America won, capturing the thirtieth state, the island of Cuba, and Maryland, forcing the United States of America to move its capital to New York. Yet it could not hold much of Louisiana, which seceded the Republic of Texas, itself an independent bulwark between United States of America and United States of America and the Confederate States of America. The price of a negotiated peace was the gift of New Orleans to France. Mexico is embroiled in another civil war and remains nominally in control of the west and southwest of the North American continent. In the west, California, the thirty-first state, is the only state on the Pacific coast, with large, yet to be admitted territories between it and the rest of the United States of America; the Mormons retained their state of Deseret; and the five ‘civilised’ tribes of American Indians founded their own state, Sequoyah, establishing their independence, but remaining an ally of the United States of America. This is the setting for Aces & Eights: Shattered Frontier, an alternate Old West roleplaying game originally published by Kenzer & Company in 2007. What is notable about Aces & Eights: Shattered Frontier was not necessarily the alternate, though highly historical, setting, but rather that in all other ways it was a straight treatment of the genre. Thus, no undead or horror or steampunk or other outré elements. In fact, Aces & Eights: Shattered Frontier could be shifted to our own history after the American Civil War and you would be none the wiser that its was an alternate history roleplaying, because the rules were that good. Further its treatment of the Old West was not that of the pulp novels or Hollywood per se. You could run a traditional Wild West roleplaying game of ‘white hats’ and ‘black hats’ with it, but in the main, what you roleplayed in Aces & Eights: Shattered Frontier were men and women who have to the frontier to find a new life and establish their own futures. It was refreshingly simple in its set-up, although its mechanics were anything but nevertheless, Aces & Eights: Shattered Frontier would win the Origins Award Roleplaying Game of the Year 2007 and be nominated for the ENnie Award for Best Production Values, Best Rules, Best Game, and Product of the Year. It would win the 2008 Silver ENnie Award for Best Game.

Aces & Eights: Reloaded is the second edition, tidied up and reorganised for better access and ease of play. The main changes involved the removal of four rules subsets—covering in turn cattle drives, chases, frontier justice, and prospecting—and replacing them with expanded rules for horses and skills, and a whole new town with which to start play. Plus, numerous NPCs created via the Kickstarter for the new edition.

Aces & Eights: Reloaded, though, begins just as Aces & Eights: Shattered Frontier did with its Shot Clock. This is a clear plastic overlay, marked with a circular grid divided into four quarters. This is laid over a target silhouette and the attacker’s player rolls a twenty-sided die to hit. If the result of the roll is twenty-five or more—possible if a twenty is rolled, to which the player can add the result of an open-ended six-sided die, the attacker hits that exact spot. If the attack did not hit the targeted spot, and is fourteen or more, a card is drawn from a standard deck of Poker cards. This indicates the direction away from the targeted spot that the attacker fired at, whilst the number rolled determines how far. This can be off the silhouette and indicate a miss or be somewhere else on the target’s body, indicated that the shot still hit. Damage is then rolled. Add in a continuous ‘Count’ up in which the initiative constantly increases as gunfighters move, shoot, and take other actions, and what you have is smooth playing, highly thematic Old West gunfights. Aces & Eights: Reloaded includes Shot Clock overlays for both rifles and revolvers and for shotguns. All this is covered in the basic rules for ‘Scrapes’ which showcase the basic rules and provide a mini-skirmish system should a group want to try before the main game. A Player Character at this stage has Hit Points and two stats. One is Speed for determining how fast the Player Character can act and the other is Accuracy, how good a natural shot he is. In fact, Aces & Eights: Reloaded could actually work as an Old West skirmish rules set.

A Player Character in Aces & Eights: Reloaded has nine abilities—Strength, Intelligence, Wisdom, Dexterity, Constitution, Looks, Charisma, Reputation, and Fame. The first seven are rolled for on three six-sided dice and then amended with a percentile roll. Rolls are also made for a character’s background and family and quirks and flaws. The abilities provide various starting modifiers to other abilities, such as Looks to Charisma and Fame or modifiers to Accuracy and Speed—both important in combat. At each stage, a player can decide to spend Build Points. This can be to adjust Ability scores, allow rerolls when roll for background details, and for quirks and flaws, and so on. Or a player can simply keep the rolls made and, in some cases, receive bonus Build Points. Some Abilities also grant extra Build Points, but the points of those must be spent on skills that are related to the Ability. Thus, any gained from the Intelligence Ability must be spent on Intelligence-related skills. The Talents are mostly combat related, such as Hip Shooter or Quick Aim. The character creation process is not difficult, but it is a lengthy one.

Name: Esperanza Martinez
Age: 15
Place of Origin: Cuba (Rural)
Circumstances of Birth: Legitimate
Parental Status: Mother Deceased
Siblings: 6 (Older sister, died from typhoid fever; older sister, died in infancy; older brother, died in an accident; older sister, died from diarrhoea; younger sister, very close; younger sister, very close)
Upbringing: Abusive (Hardcase)
Social Class: Lower Lower Class (Freed Slave, Farmhand)
Reason To Go West: Establish a Farm
Handedness: Right
Height: 5’ 1” Weight: 122 lbs.

Strength 11/87 (Lift 210 lbs., Carry 52 lbs., Drag 525 lbs.)
Intelligence 14/37 (+1 Accuracy)
Wisdom 8/25 (+3 Speed)
Dexterity 16/98 (-2 Speed, +3 Accuracy, +9 Feat of Agility)
Constitution 8/23
Looks 16/38 (+2 Charisma Modifier, +3 Starting Fame Modifier)
Charisma 16/90 (Max. Compatriots 4, +3 Starting Reputation Modifier)
Reputation 16/28
Fame 3

Hit Points: 20

Quirks: Loco (Royalty – and acts like it), Lusty, Clean Freak
Talents: Dodge

Skills: Agriculture 35%, Animal Husbandry (Chickens) 64%, Art of Seduction 34%, Artistry (Performance) 32%, Baking & Cook 54%, English 34%, Fast Talking 54%, Glean Information 17%, Graceful Entrance/Exit 61%, Idle Gossip 59%, Joke Telling 57%, Listening 42%, Lock Picking 30%, Nursing 28%, Observation 16%, Persuasion 54%, Resist Persuasion 38%, Skilled Liar 36%, Social Etiquette 26%, Slick Talker 55%, Sneaking 37%, Spanish 78%

Reputation is a measure of a character’s standing and the degree of respect in which he is held. It can be gained for actions such as being in a gunfight, taking prisoners, keeping a difficult promise, or paying the funeral expenses of someone you killed. It can be lost by being banished by your family, fleeing a fight with an equal foe, rash or improper social behaviour, and more. Reputation can be spent to reroll combat, skill, or ability rolls. Through play, it is possible for a character’s Reputation to go into negative figures, in which case it becomes Notoriety. Fame, in comparison, is a measure of how widely known a Player Character is known.

Mechanically, Aces & Eights: Reloaded is a percentile system, a player needing to roll under a skill to succeed. The difficulty acts as a modifier to the actual die roll. Only a ‘Difficult’ applies a zero modifier, whilst a ‘Very Difficult’ task adds a positive modifier. Quite a bit of detail is provided as to what a skill can be used at each mastery level.

In terms of progression, Aces & Eights: Reloaded lists numerous Profession Paths. They include the mundane and the extraordinary, ranging from Apothecary, Artist, and Assassin to Wainwright, Weaver, and Whore! Each lists tasks that a Player Character can undertake and when achieved, will earn more him Build Points. For example, a Gun For Hire earns one Build Point for acquiring a signature weapon, five for getting involved in two or more gunfights, two for buying a speed rig, another five for winning a fair gunfight, and two for getting hired for a job, whereas an Undertaker gains one for burying a body, two for acquiring a lot to use as a graveyard, three for opening a parlour, two for operating it for a month, one for holding a wake, three for making an extraordinary coffin, and another three for making an extraordinary marker or headstone. These are in addition to any personal goals that a Player Character might have and there is good advice for the Game Master on giving out awards, both professional and personal.

The full combat rules in Aces & Eights: Reloaded expands greatly upon the basic rules at the beginning of the book. This expands the number of options in terms of actions that combatants can take and how long, the effect of both Fame and Reputation on a fight, the number of gunfights that a combatant has survived, the flinch effect of being shot, the use of the shotgun Shot Clock, and more. The rules also cover tactical and mounted tactical movement, shifting the play of Aces & Eights: Reloaded to more like a Wild West skirmish game. There are even more advanced rules which cover double-action weapons, the use of la reata or lariat, artillery, explosives, and so on. It really does look quite complex, but patience and careful reading proves otherwise. Further, there is an incredibly good example of a gunfight which shows how the rules are supposed to work. Unfortunately, as much fun as the gunfight rules are in Aces & Eights: Reloaded, getting shot is not. There is a chance of infection, there is a chance of bleeding, and there is the physical effect of the wound such that depending upon its Severity, bones will be broken, attributes will be lost, and worse. Then, without access to medical attention, it takes days and days for a Player Character to recover from a wound, and that is even before the possibility of infection is taken into account. Consequently, there is a difference in the way that the players approach gunfights in Aces & Eights: Reloaded. If it is being played as a skirmish wargame, they need not worry about the lethality of the gunfight rules, whereas in a roleplaying game, the players do need to worry about both the lethality and the deleterious effects of being shot. Thus, gunfights are not a casual choice in play.

Unfortunately, if the gunfight rules in Aces & Eights: Reloaded are slick and fun, the same cannot be said of the brawling rules. It requires three types of coloured poker chips. These are red, blue, and white, and correspond to a character’s Strength and the amount of damage he inflict, to his Dexterity and ability to land blows, and to his Constitution and his endurance during a fist fight. Essentially, what each brawler is doing is betting the coloured poker chips in order to act and have an effect. Despite there being another good example of play to accompany the rules for brawling, in comparison to the gunfight rules, the brawling system is ungainly and demanding.

In terms of support and setting content, there are two good chapters on firearms and horses, the latter including rules for creating and individualising horses. The two settings provided in Aces & Eights: Reloaded are a pair of towns, Black Horse and Lazurus. In the ‘Shattered Frontier’ of Aces & Eights: Reloaded, they are located in Alta California, in northern Mexico, close to the borders with the Colorado Territory and the Arapahoe Territory. This is in the San Juan Mountains, in what is today, the state of Colorado. Of these, Black Horse is a backwater settlement, its gold mines on the verge of being played out, intended as a blank slate for the Game Master to develop, whilst Lazurus is a boom town and more fully detailed. This includes a lot of NPCs, many of which are based on the Kickstarter backers for Aces & Eights: Reloaded. Either setting is intended for the Player Characters to settle in and begin playing a role in events and making themselves part of the setting and the town. The actual setting description for the whole of the Shattered Frontier and the history that lead up to the War for Southern Independence and its consequences are detailed at the back of the book along with profiles of the major governments and nations of North America. There are also seven beginning scenarios, such as ‘Showdown!’ and ‘Bank Robbery!’, but these are more skirmish scenarios than roleplaying scenarios. That said, there are lots of adventure hooks that the Game Master can develop into roleplaying scenarios. These are accompanied by excellent advice as to what types of games to run—skirmish, one-shot, or campaign—and how to get the Player Characters involved. There are also stats for some of the most famous and infamous gunfighters and duellists of the period, such as Sam Bass, the Clantons and the Earps, Patt Garrett, the Daltons, and others. These are the bare stats only, best suited to skirmish play and the basic rules for combat given at the front of the book.

The one disappointment in the new edition that is Aces & Eights: Reloaded, is the rules for brawling. They are still cumbersome and do not flow as well as the rules for gunfights. The one thing that perhaps Aces & Eights: Reloaded could have addressed more directly is the playing and portrayal of Indigenous peoples in the setting. There is an absence of reference to safety tools that a more modern audience is likely to find problematic. However, mature players should be able to take these issues into account and be aware of them even when playing an alternate version of the Old West, especially given that slavery still exists in the setting, though not where the focus of play is taking place.

Physically, Aces & Eights: Reloaded is a fantastic looking book, from its faux-leather embossed cover to its use of classic Old West paintings. The cartography is also very good. However, the book could have better organised. The setting material could have been better placed together and the gambling chapter seems to wander in as an afterthought almost at the end of the book.

Aces & Eights: Reloaded is not just a fantastic looking book, it is also a fantastic roleplaying game, a historical treatment—even if an alternate historical treatment—of the Old West genre. Its focus on the ordinary occupations of the Player Characters grounds the setting and helps bring it to life, whilst still allowing room for excitement of the gunfights, the bank robberies, and the jail breakouts that the genre is known for. Yet it counters that excitement with the deadly sobriety of the gunfight rules, making shootouts the last resort in any action. Aces & Eights: Shattered Frontier was good enough to win an Origins Award for Best Roleplaying Game, and Aces & Eights: Reloaded is still very good today. In fact, Aces & Eights: Reloaded is the definitive treatment of the Old West in roleplaying. If you wanted an Old West roleplaying game, Aces & Eights: Shattered Frontier was the best to get in 2007 and Aces & Eights: Reloaded remains the best to get in 2024.

Saturday 13 July 2024

Fear in the Fairelands

The year is 1907. The Last Great War, fought between Hale and Otherwhere after the extreme cold weather of The Shiver gripped the northern nations, was ended when Halen deployed a secret experimental weapon that leashed a ferocious electrical storm in what became known as the ‘Electrical Event’. In the years since, Hale has embraced electrification and steam power and railways, steam powered vehicles, and dirigibles are commonplace, including in the fertile valley of the Fairelands and its capital, Newfaire. Newfaire stands on the ruins of its ancient, alchemical predecessor Oldfaire. With an influx of immigrants following the Last Great War and the increasing mechanisation, Newfaire is rich and prosperous city, its citizens adhering to strict, moralistic values under the governance of the Triumvirate. The Triumvirate consists of the Primacy, the Ascendancy, and the Periphery. The Ascendancy is the official faith of Hale, the Primacy is the regional government whose Premier also serves on the Halen Assembly, the legislative body for the whole country, and the Periphery is its police force, which has adopted the military technology used in the Last Great War and gained a much-deserved reputation for being overly zealous, violent, and militarized.

Yet as the world seems to advance, it has not totally left magick behind. Between this realm and the Beyond stands a barrier, the Flare, and where the Flare is weak, there are ‘thinnings’ through which magick seeps. To the average citizen of the Fairelands, the myths, legends, and folktales of old explain what real magickal phenomena they might have seen. If a thinning is opened wide enough, creatures from the Beyond steal into our realm, whilst powerful magick can result in corruptive Bleed that can twist and kill. Whilst The Office of Unexplained Phenomena of the Periphery will go to any lengths to keep knowledge of magickal occurrences from the public, the Exoteric Order Of New Sciences would seek to harness it as new technology, and the Pyre of the Ascendancy put all knowledge and occurrences of it to the flame, the Candela Obscura investigates such supernatural happenings, studying them, and seeks to protect the world from them. It even has a facility within the Flare itself, the Fourth Pharos, where it stores the most terrible tomes, awful artefacts, and other powerful phenomena, away from prying and greedy eyes. It is organised in circles, each of which has a Lightkeeper, a veteran Candela Obscura investigator who has retired from active investigation and is appointed to advise those who can conduct investigations in the field. The latter, of course, are the Player Characters.

This is the set-up for Candela Obscura, the roleplaying game of paranormal investigative horror published by Darrington Press, part of and showcased by Critical Role. It is an alternate Edwardian era, intentionally so because it avoids the institutionalized racism, homophobia, transphobia, or other forms of prejudice rife in the period of our own history. Players take the roles of members of the Candela Obscura, investigating magical phenomena and horrors, containing them, and keeping the greater world around them safe from their corruptive influence.

A Player Character in Candela Obscura is first defined by a Role and then by nine Actions. The nine Actions are divided into three thematic Drives. Nerve includes the Move, Strike, and Control Actions; Cunning the Sway, Read, and Hide Action; and Intuition the Survey, Focus, and Sense Actions. Each Action is rated between one and three, indicating how many dice a player will roll to have his character an action. Each Drive has its pool of points which can be expended to add more dice to roll for Action under its theme. Then for every three points of Drive, a Player Character has a Resistance, which can be spent in order to gain rerolls on a task. He carries with him three pieces of Gear, although these do not have to be declared until in play. An item of Gear might increase the effectiveness of a task or allow a Player Character to actually attempt a task.

There are five different roles—Face, Muscle, Scholar, Slink, and Weird—each of has two Specialties. The Specialties for the Face Role are Journalist and Magician (as in stage magician); for Muscle, Explorer and Soldier; for Scholar, Doctor and Professor; for Slink, Criminal and Detective; and for Weird, Medium and Occultist. Each Speciality and Role provides the base Action values for a Player Character, whilst each Speciality gives three abilities to choose from and each Role a choice of six to choose from. Abilities give out bonus dice or enable a particular action. For example, the Face Ability of ‘I Know a Guy’ enables a player to ask the Game Master once per assignment if there is someone nearby who can help his character, whilst the Sharpshooter Role Ability for the Soldier grants the Player Character two bonus dice if the player expends a point of his Nerve Drive.

To create a character, a player selects a Role and a Speciality, and then assigns the base Action values. He raises another from zero to one and then another three points to anyway he would like, and then he does the same for his character’s Drives. Penultimately, he selects an Ability for his character’s Role and Speciality. Lastly, he has a set of prompts to answer to help flesh out his character and form relationships with the fellow members of his Circle in the Candela Obscura.

Name: Tabitha Blythe
Role: Weird
Speciality: Medium
Role Ability: Let Them In
Speciality Ability: Cold Read
Nerve: Drive 2 Resistance 0
– Move 1 Strike 0 Control 0
Cunning: Drive 3 Resistance 1
– Sway 1 Read 2 Hide 0
Intuition: Drive 4 Resistance 1
– Survey 1 Focus 1 Sense 2 (Gilded)

In addition, the players, as a group, create their characters’ Circle in the Candela Obscura. There are a series of questions that they need to answer about their Circle, name it, decide on the location of its chapter house, choose a Circle Ability, and assign Resource Points. For example, ‘Stamina Training’ provides three bonus dice during an assignment and ‘Nobody Left Behind’ grants a bonus die on any attempt to help another Player Character who has too many Marks (or damage). There are only six Circle Abilities to choose from, and they include ‘One Last Run’, indicating that the next assignment is the Player Character’s last and they will retire afterwards. This grants the other Player Characters advantages when they next advance, whilst also suggesting that the play of Candela Obscura is intended to be long term. The Resource Points are Stitch, used to reduce the Marks a Player Character has suffered; Refresh, used to regain Drives and Resistances for a Player Character; and Train, used to grant bonus dice.

Mechanically, Candela Obscura uses what it calls the Illuminated Worlds system, a stripped-down version of the mechanics from the Blades in the Dark roleplaying game. When a player wants his character to attempt a task, he rolls a number of six-sided equal to the Action being used. Drive can be expended to add more dice, though loss of Drive is permanent, and the maximum number of dice that can be rolled is six. The highest die is counted. Any result of a six indicates a complete success, whereas a result of four or five is a partial success, and three or under is a failure—essentially, a ‘yes’, ‘yes, but’, or ‘no’ result. If more than a single six is rolled, the result is a critical success. In addition, some Actions may be ‘Gilded’. This means that one of the dice rolled for an Action must be of a different colour. If a player rolls a Gilded die as part of a task, then he can choose between the highest result or the result of the Gilded die. If a player chooses the result of the Gilded die, he gains the benefit of the number rolled and an extra benefit. This is to recover a point of Drive. So, in effect, what a player might do is ignore the complete success he rolled in favour of the four or five he rolled, a partial success, in order to recover a point of Drive. Lastly, Resistance can be expended to gain a reroll.

Conversely, failure can narrative, such as adding a complication or losing an opportunity, but at its worst, it can mean damage. The latter is suffered in the form of Marks to either Body, Brain, or Bleed, representing physical harm, mental strain, or magickal corruption, respectively. A Player Character cannot suffer more than three Marks in any one of the three categories, lest he drops to the ground incapacitated and suffering from a Scar. A Scar both indicates permanent damage suffered by the Player Character and changes how he approaches the world. The latter is reflected mechanically, by the player having shift a point in one Action to another. There is a lot of advice here on how to handle this, especially how to handle Brain and Bleed Scars, Candela Obscura wanting to avoid harmful mental health representation in the horror genre.

In all of this, it is the Game Master who sets the stakes and expectations, explaining what a Player Character has to gain from attempting the task or lose from attempting the task. The Game Master also sets the Action to be rolled for the task that a player wants his character to attempt. This comes back to the ‘fiction first’ ethos of Candela Obscura, that is, the Game Master fitting the right Action to what the player describes his character doing. However, the play of Candela Obscura is still a conversation and the player is always given a chance to adjust, decide on using Drive, and so on.

Candela Obscura provides some details of the supernatural world and of the organisation itself, as well as its enemies. This is where Candela Obscura begins to underwhelm as a horror game. There is more of a focus on the Candela Obscura organisation and its enemies, and an overall description of Newfaire and the Fairelands. The latter is particularly rich and detailed, and accompanied by scenario hooks. Similarly, there is excellent advice for the Game Master on running Candela Obscura, beginning with some core principles, such as ‘Paint the world in darkness and in light. Show the humanity in the horror and the horror in humanity.’, ‘Make the world grounded, dangerous, and terrifying’, and ‘Say “yes,” unless you must say “no.”’. There is also a good guide to how an assignment is constructed, from hook, arrival, and exploration to escalation, climax, and epilogue. Even better is the fact that each of the four example assignments in Candela Obscura, all four of them very good, is accompanied by an example session of what each might look like when played. This is a fantastic extra, really helping the Game Master who is less experienced, whether in running a roleplaying game in general or investigative horror scenarios in particular, to visual the play of an assignment. It also nicely complements the lengthy example of play given earlier in the book.

Physically, Candela Obscura is a lovely looking book. The artwork is suitably art nouveau in style and that very much fits the period setting of the roleplaying game. Plus, the rulebook is lavishly illustrated with documents, letters, diagrams, and the like. It really is a nice-looking book.

Unfortunately, where Candela Obscura underwhelms is in the treatment of its genre—horror. Where there is plenty of support in terms of setting and factions ordinary, there is just not enough of the outré in Candela Obscura, whether that is details of the threats and monsters that the Agents might meet or advice for the Game Master on running a horror game. Consequently, it is nowhere near as easy as t should be for Game Master to create her own threats and in fact, it feels as if there is more advice on avoiding the dangers of running a horror game than there is on actually running one. Consequently, whilst that advice is far from unwelcome and certainly pertinent, the overall result is that the horror aspect of Candela Obscura is actually its weakest.

Ultimately, even if Candela Obscura does keep its horror a little too veiled, there is still a good roleplaying game here. The setting of the Fairelands and Newfaire and the factions present are nicely detailed, the mechanics are geared towards storytelling and the narrative consequences of confronting magick and the supernatural, and there are four good Assignments for a game to get started. Candela Obscura is a very modern horror roleplaying game, despite being set in an alternative Edwardian period, one that the Game Master will need to work a little harder with to bring the horror into play.

[Free RPG Day 2024] Shadow Scar: Eyes in Darkness

Now in its seventeenth year, Free RPG Day for 2024 took place on Saturday, June 22nd. As per usual, Free RPG Day consisted of an array of new and interesting little releases, which are traditionally tasters for forthcoming games to be released at GenCon the following August, but others are support for existing RPGs or pieces of gaming ephemera or a quick-start. This included dice, miniatures, vouchers, and more. Thanks to the generosity of Waylands Forge in Birmingham, Reviews from R’lyeh was able to get hold of many of the titles released for Free RPG Day.

—oOo—

Shadow Scar: Eyes in Darkness is the ‘Easy Mode’ for Shadowscar, a new setting from R. Talsorian Games, Inc., much like The Witcher: Easy Mode – An Introductory Booklet to the Witcher TRPG for The Witcher and Cyberpunk Red: Easy Mode – An Introduction to the Dark Future for Cyberpunk RED. It is a world/parallel Earth hopping setting across what Shadow Scar calls the Mosaic in which modern day Ninja, armed with high tech tools and magical artefacts, leap from one world to the next to defeat the Yokai and other minions of the corrupted Great Mother Spirit Izanami. The Player Characters—or Agents—are these Ninjas, members of the Shadow Scar Agency, a secret organisation dedicated to keeping reality safe. The Ninja must conduct their assignments in secrecy and ‘Maintain the Veil’, both to keep the civilian population safe and prevent any mystical monsters from learning of their presence and activities until they absolutely have to reveal both to the targets of their operations. Shadow Scar: Eyes in Darkness mixes magic, action, and stealth, including not just an introduction to the setting, but also the rules, six pre-generated Agents, and a complete scenario.

The setting is Nakatsukuni, a peaceful land created by the Kotoamatsukami, the First Great Spirits of the Land. When the Great Mother Spirit Izanami died giving birth to the Spirit of Fire, her husband, Izanagi, attempted to retrieve her spirit from Yomi No Kuni, the Afterlife, and appeared to have succeeded when given permission to return her by the Ruler of the Dead. Unfortunately, Izanami has been corrupted by the Ruler of the Dead, and she brought with her an army of twisted souls and horrible monsters and after corrupting the minds of the Yokai, Izanami set out to destroy reality. The war was won by the combined effort of Izanagi and the Kami, but at great cost. Izanami was cast into the Void via a Shadow Scar, but her monstrous minions were scattered across the Mosaic. To counter the Yokai threat, the Kami established the Shadow Scar Agency, an order of Shinobi—or ninja clans—trained by the Six Great Clans of Shadow. The Shadow Scar Agency still fights the Veil War today.

Nakatsukuni remains an archipelago of islands—many floating—shattered by the war against Izanami and her minions. Other worlds of the Mosaic include ‘Steel Court’, a Grand Victorian Empire in which the Stewart Steam Turbine Engine has powered fantastical industrialisation and inventions even as revolt foments the Empire’s ‘Protectorates’; ‘5th Street’, an early twentieth century world recovering from the Great War that would seem to be utterly mundane except the masked vigilantes on the rooftops and the racial inventors working in their workshops; and ‘Refuge’, a world so blighted by the Yokai that humanity has been forced to retreat to a Lunar Colony and massive station orbiting the moon. All three locations will be visited as part of the scenario included in Shadow Scar: Eyes in Darkness. Thumbnail descriptions are given for the three worlds as well as the Shadow Scar Agency and the six Shinobi clans.

An Agent in Shadow Scar: Eyes in Darkness—and thus Shadow Scar—has three stats. These are Mind, Body, and Spirit, and these are rated between one and five. Each attribute has six associated skills, each of which is rated between one and three. He has Techniques, Mikkyo, and Quirks. Techniques are special abilities, such as ‘Nimble & Quick’, which increases an Agent’s speed, whilst Mikkyo are secret techniques taught by the shinobi clans which require an Agent to expend Ki to trigger, such as ‘Duplicates’ which enables the caster to create silent duplicates himself that he can control. All six pre-generated Agents come with background and illustration.

Mechanically, Shadow Scar is a dice pool system that uses six-sided dice. Every roll of a three or more is a success, whilst a roll of six is equal to six successes. If the number of successes is equal to or greater than the Difficulty Value, the task is successful. An average task has a Task Difficulty of two, Challenging has a Task Difficulty of three, Difficult has a Task Difficulty of four, and so on. Bonuses and penalties adjust the number of dice a player has to roll. To reflect that the world of Shadow Scar is pulled in two directions by different forces of nature, an Agent has access to ‘Inyo’—Japanese for Yingyang. If an Agent fails a task by a single Success, he can call upon the power of ‘Inyo’ to gain that much-needed Success. Or he can use to inflict an additional three points of damage upon a target. However, when the Agent draws upon the power of Inyo, he draws only upon one side. In response, the other side draws back and the Storyteller can draws upon the Agent’s Inyo to make him fail a task by one Success or have an enemy inflict three extra damage on the Agent. Once that has happened, the Agent has access to Inyo again. Essentially, the fortunes of each Agent swings back and forth quite literally.

Combat is an extension of the rules, with Initiative Order being determined by an Awareness Check. During a turn, each Agent can conduct two actions. Some fifteen possible actions are detailed as are the conditions and hazards that they might suffer. The hazards covered include environmental, mechanical, and magical. When an Agent is reduced to three points of Vitality or less, he suffers the Grievously Wounded Condition, and when his Vitality is reduced to zero, in combat, he can either be killed or knocked out. The latter reduces his Vitality to one rather than zero. If an Agent’s Vitality is reduced to zero or less, it is possible to become a Wandering Spirit, but an Agent equipped with a Spirit Lantern can collect and protect a Wandering Spirit. At the end of a mission, if the other Agents return with a dead Agent’s body and his Wandering Spirit in a Spirit Lantern, the Agent can be resurrected. Otherwise, a new body has to be created.

In terms of setting, Shadow Scar: Eyes in Darkness covers the means of travel between worlds, the invisible and magical tattoos which enable communication and understanding, arms and armour and other equipment, before leaping into the scenario, ‘Eyes in Darkness’. The Shadow Scar Agency assigns the Agents to investigate a Dodomeki named Kagura, a lieutenant to a powerful smuggler known as the ‘Green Demon’, who runs operations at the ground level of the Green Demon’s Mountain Branch. Two of the Yokai working for Kagura are attending a black-market auction in a makeshift space station called the Scattery in the Refuge. Whatever the Agents do, the Yokai are likely to cause trouble at the auction, meaning that the Agents will have to work hard to protect the Veil. Following the Yokai—or following the clues they leave behind—the Agents jump through a gate or Rift Dive to find themselves at Easy Ray’s Gas Station outside of New Orleans on 5th Street, and when they or their contact make a run for it, it leads to a car chase through the streets of the city. A pair of tables providing random events both outside and inside the city nicely enliven the car chase.

Although this turns out to be a dead end, the Agent’s Handler suggests that a renegade Agent, currently in ‘Steel Court’ might have some information. The renegade Agent is selfish and immoral, but will trade for information—at a price. Which can be money or some entertainment. The information he provides gives the location of Kagura’s hideout in an isolated village in the mountains which she is beginning to fortify. The climax of the scenario is an assault on the village, initially by stealth, helped and then hindered by two of the Kami of the sky having a violent argument over the borders of their territory and causing a severe snowstorm. Success leads provides clues as to the whereabouts of Kagura’s boss, the Green Demon. Locating the Green Demon will be the Agents’ next mission, the details of which are given in Shadow Scar Jumpstart Kit: The Mask of the Green Demon!, the sequel to Shadow Scar: Eyes in Darkness. The bestiary or ‘Rogues Galley’ at the end of Shadow Scar: Eyes in Darkness provides all of the stats and details of the Yokai and other NPCs that the Agents will encounter over the course of the mission.

Although ‘Eyes in Darkness’ does have a sequel in the form of Shadow Scar Jumpstart Kit: The Mask of the Green Demon!, it is complete and can be played on its own without the need to run the sequel. Thus, the Storyteller and her players can get a full taste of what Shadow Scar is like to play and what a mission feels like. ‘Eyes in Darkness’ is a decent scenario, with lots of action and plenty of stealth and combat. It is accompanied by some decent maps as well.

Physically, Shadow Scar: Eyes in Darkness is decently put together. Much of the artwork is anime in style and bright and colourful. The cartography is excellent. Whilst well-written, it does need an edit in places.

Shadow Scar: Eyes in Darkness is a solid introduction to the Shadow Scar setting and roleplaying game. There is good advice for the Storyteller on running the game and everything is clearly explained and easy to understand, and all supporting an exciting, action-packed scenario which can played through in a single session or two.

Friday 12 July 2024

Awful Artefacts

Delta Green: ARCHINT is a supplement, for Delta Green: The Role-Playing Game. Published by Arc Dream Publishing, this is the modern roleplaying game of conspiratorial and Lovecraftian investigative horror with its conspiratorial agencies within the United States government investigating, confronting, and covering up the Unnatural. Delta Green: ARCHINT details some of the the conspiratorial agency’s worst, vilest, deadliest, and most insidious of objects its investigating Agents have discovered, recovered, examined, and in some cases, hidden away lest exposure to or experience of, drive others to kill, simply disappear, and ultimately lose their minds. The world of modern law enforcement and espionage both rely upon intelligence. Some analysts develop signals intelligence or SIGINT. Some develop human intelligence, HUMINT. Delta Green deals in both, as well as a third type of intelligence—archaeological intelligence. Delta Green: ARCHINT is a supplement for the conspiratorial agency’s worst, vilest, deadliest, and most insidious of objects its investigating Agents have discovered, recovered, examined, and in most cases, hidden away lest exposure to or experience of, drive others to kill, simply disappear, and ultimately lose their minds. These are objects which seem to run counter the laws of physics—let alone mathematics, come from beyond history, and defy ordinary classification.

Delta Green: ARCHINT details eleven items, some new to print, others drawn from previous scenarios. Some are modern, some are not.
The collection opens with ‘The Amulet of the Ai-Apa’, one of the two items in the collection seen in an actual scenario for Delta Green: The Roleplaying Game, in this case, Delta Green: A Victim of the Art. Depicting the twin figures of a man and an intertwined flying beast, this is a meso-American artefact that willingly or unwillingly summons a deadly servant. The other is ‘The Stone of Yos’, from Delta Green: Sweetness, a large blob of obsidian which lets the user connected to it to ‘summon’ a shadowy figure. These are not the only commonalities that run throughout the supplement. ‘The Hunahpú Mask’ is also of South American origins, Mayan this time, and shaped like an over-size human skull, which of course, is deadly to anyone who spends tie wearing it. Like ‘The Stone of Yos’, another item which seems to take the user inside itself is ‘The Gowdie Shape’, a green, metal dodecahedron with connections to seventeenth century Scottish witchcraft, that defies mathematical and spatial analysis. Once inside, the user is sorely tested. Similarly, ‘The Mironov Object’ defies analysis, a four hundred pound of unknowable metal that dangerously enhances and energises the user’s mathematical visualisation skills to the point where they begin to resemble reality. Two entries are more modern, one with a shockingly hidden purpose, the other a hidden purpose. Both are constructs of a kind. ‘The Kurville Executable’ is the former, an email-delivered virus that when seen on the screen inflicts what appears to be epileptic seizures so traumatic, that they physically injure the viewer. Their effect is so deadly, the files are physically stored under lock and key with numerous warnings on them. Several artefacts are stored like this by Delta Green, though in some cases the methods of secure storage are laughingly quaint by modern standards. The other constructed item is ‘The Reneteur Device’, an oddly anachronistic computer that tracks the activities of the Great Race of Yith throughout time and space. If only the Agents could decipher the device’s purpose, it could track the Great Race of Yith operatives down and discover what it is they are up to.

Of course, not all of the objects detailed in Delta Green: ARCHINT share such commonalities and where they do, it does not means that they are connected. In fact, as written they are not connected at all. What they do have in common though, is a high level of detail and description that will help the Handler describe them and how they work—or at least what happened when an Agent begins poking around in and about them. The detail and the description includes the known history of each device and how each came into possession of Delta Green. There is more than enough description here to help the Handler bring each and everyone of them into life, whilst also leaving some room for the Handler to add details to the history of each item as she wants. Many of the descriptions, though, will have the Handler repressing a feeling of shock or disgust, whilst also being amazed at how bizarrely inventive they are in detailing each item.

Physically, Delta Green: ARCHINT is well done, although it does need an edit in places. The artwork is as excellent as you would expect for a supplement for Delta Green: The Role-Playing Game.

Delta Green: ARCHINT is a good collection of thoroughly nasty objects and artefacts with histories both fearsome and foul. Yet that is all it is. Despite the rich detail accorded to every one of the eleven entries in the supplement, that is all that Delta Green: ARCHINT is. Of course, a Handler is going to be able to use that detail to create cases for her players and their Agents to investigate, but there are no scenario hooks given that might have helped. Equally, there is no broader background to how Delta Green as an organisation handles objects such as those detailed in the pages of Delta Green: ARCHINT or how its experts go about investigating them. For although the title of the supplement is Delta Green: ARCHINT, there is no discussion of the ‘ARCHINT’—the archaeological intelligence—of the title. That is a bigger missed opportunity than the lack of scenario hooks. Ultimately, though, the Handler is not going to be disappointed with the horrible objets d’art on show in Delta Green: ARCHINT—vile, murderous, tempting, and worse.

[Free RPG Day 2024] Rojo: A Kurosawa Inspired Bloodshed

Now in its seventeenth year, Free RPG Day for 2024 took place on Saturday, June 22nd. As per usual, Free RPG Day consisted of an array of new and interesting little releases, which are traditionally tasters for forthcoming games to be released at GenCon the following August, but others are support for existing RPGs or pieces of gaming ephemera or a quick-start. This included dice, miniatures, vouchers, and more. Thanks to the generosity of Waylands Forge in Birmingham, Reviews from R’lyeh was able to get hold of many of the titles released for Free RPG Day.

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Initially it is difficult to work out whether Rojo: A Kurosawa Inspired Bloodshed is a comic book or something actually RPG-related. It is in fact, an adventure for the Terror Target Gemini RPG, an anthropomorphic anime Wild West-Noir action roleplaying game. Published by Need! Games, best known for the Fabula Ultima TTRPG, this is game in which the Player Characters—or Runners, professional adventurers—undertake dangerous missions in the savage lands known as the Maju. It is designed to be hyperviolent, anachronistic, and wacky, a setting which demonic gunslingers, martial arts witches, and more. The scenario itself comes with six pre-generated Player Characters and each of these comes the ‘Quick Rulez for Terror Target Gemini’ on the back. In fact, these six inclusions of the ‘Quick Rulez for Terror Target Gemini’ are the only explanation of the rules for the Terror Target Gemini RPG, even if only in a much-shortened form. So the Narrator will have to copy one for herself as reference during to play.

The scenario itself, ‘Rojo’, is based upon Akira Kurosawa’s film, Yojimbo, in which a rōnin wanders into a town and gets himself involved in a feud between two rival yakuza gangs over control of the local gambling den. In ‘Rojo’, the town of Dorobnōno Machi is dominated by the Rojo, a family of mobsters which controls liquor in town, and the rival Mengusu, a Yakuza clan which wants to destroy the Rojo. Add into this, rumours of an Imperial convoy having been hijacked and a powerful weapon stolen, bounties having been placed on the heads of both the Rojo and the Mengusu, and the Mengusu not only hoarding gold, but planning to make a big action movie, and what you have is a febrile situation in Dorobnōno Machi. With the sheriff dead and the town run down, there seems to be no hope for Dorobnōno Machi. Even without the intervention of the Runners, the situation is going to escalate. There are even more dire rumours! One is that Dziga Rojo, the son of the Rojo boss who everyone thinks is an arsehole, is missing and has been kidnapped by the Mengusu Clan. The other is that Pa-Lach, the hired killer known as ‘The Hangman of Menaparavda’, reputably unkillable, will be arriving today, sent from the Capital to recover the missing weapon.

The Runners will arrive in Dorobnōno Machi and get the lay of the land in the bar before exploring what remains of the town. This includes getting involved in the film being shot in the streets by the Mengusu Clan, hanging out at the gambling den, and even searching for the location of the stolen weapon. And that really is it to the plot of Rojo: A Kurosawa Inspired Bloodshed. This is all set-up rather than a scenario with a beginning, a middle, and an end. The action will be primarily player-driven with the Narrator adding events here and there in response.

Mechanically, Rojo: A Kurosawa Inspired Bloodshed is straightforward. To have his Runner undertake an action, a player rolls a twenty-sided die and adds his Runner’s Stat and Skill to roll higher than a Target Number. This is either twelve or Simple, fourteen or Standard, eighteen or Tough, and twenty-two or Gruelling. An Edge allows a reroll and the highest value kept, whilst a Snag forces a reroll and the lowest value kept. If the Runner is responding to unexpected event—such as a trap or ambush—then the player only adds his Runner’s Stat. Combat uses the same mechanic, with a Runner having two different actions per Round. Attack rolls are made versus an Enemy’s Defence, whilst rolls to evade are made versus the Enemy’s Attack. Armour reduces damage suffered, a Runner fainting when his Hit Points are reduced to zero, and then dying if more damage is suffered. Magic and the casting of spells requires the expenditure of Ki points.

A Runner in the Terror Target Gemini RPG and thus Rojo: A Kurosawa Inspired Bloodshed has four Stats and four Skills. The Stats are Power, Co-ordination, Intellect, and Charisma, whilst the Skills are Training, Handcraft, Arcane, and Communication. In Rojo: A Kurosawa Inspired Bloodshed, these range between zero and three. They also have a Bloodline and a Class and Feats. The six Runners in Rojo: A Kurosawa Inspired Bloodshed consist of a Felid Hare who is a good Pilot or driver, a Human Hunter who has a Falcon Hunting Partner, an Elf Merchant who is good at Bargaining, a Kru Berserk who can protect others and can attack with his beak, an Imp Martial Artist who is also lucky, and a Human Witch who can drawn an eye on an object to see through it and has a Charm spell.

Physically, Rojo: A Kurosawa Inspired Bloodshed is very bright and colourful. The comic book look is carried out from start to finish, which means that it does look busy and its content is not an easy to grasp as if the layout was more traditional. The style is definitely anime-like, with just a little bit of a nod to the ‘cel-shading’ style of the Borderlands computer games.

Rojo: A Kurosawa Inspired Bloodshed is bright and colourful, but it is deceptive. It is not a fully fleshed out quick-start or explanation of the Terror Target Gemini RPG, and anyone expecting that will be disappointed. It is also not really suitable for anyone who has not run a roleplaying game before—it is just too underwritten for that. However, an experienced Narrator can pick up Rojo: A Kurosawa Inspired Bloodshed, read through in ten minutes and so quickly bring it to the table for single session of hyperviolent action in a Wild West action-fantasy.

Monday 8 July 2024

[Free RPG Day 2024] X-Men Expansion Preview

Now in its seventeenth year, Free RPG Day for 2024 took place on Saturday, June 22nd. As per usual, Free RPG Day consisted of an array of new and interesting little releases, which are traditionally tasters for forthcoming games to be released at GenCon the following August, but others are support for existing RPGs or pieces of gaming ephemera or a quick-start. This included dice, miniatures, vouchers, and more. Thanks to the generosity of Waylands Forge in Birmingham, Reviews from R’lyeh was able to get hold of many of the titles released for Free RPG Day.

—oOo—

Of all the items published for Free RPG Day 2024, the X-Men Expansion Preview is not the shortest—that honour goes to the Lost Tome of Monsters: Free RPG Day Edition from Foambrain Games which consists of a Pinature and an encounter—but it is the release with the lightest of gaming content. It is a preview for the forthcoming Marvel Multiverse Role-Playing Game: X-Men Expansion, which explores and presents the X-Men, their origins, rosters, members, associated teams, events, and threats for the Marvel Multiverse Role-Playing Game. The Marvel Multiverse X-Men Expansion Preview provides a snapshot of what is going to be contained in the supplement and a bit more. The more begins with its opening section, a ‘Rules Primer’, which explains the Marvel 616 System used in the Marvel Multiverse Role-Playing Game. It is quick and simple, but it does not include any examples.

The bulk of the Marvel Multiverse X-Men Expansion Preview is dedicated not to the X-Men, but a team which it always preferred to keep secret—X-Force. As explained in this potted history, X-Force carried out the tasks which the X-Men could not. As the leading protectors of Mutants in the Marvel Universe, the X-men had to be heroic and be seen to be heroic—in all senses of the word. Not so the X-Force. Its members could use force, subterfuge, and militant means to carry out its mission of dealing with threats to Mutant-kind. They could even kill if necessary. A cross between spies, vigilantes, and special forces operatives, they did the dirty work that the X-Men could never do and never sanction. In game terms, this means that members of X-Force are not always heroic and their operations often stray into morally grey areas. The history of the X-Force includes seven different line-ups and details locations important to the team, such as the Xavier Institute for Higher Learning, S.H.I.E.L.D. Helicarrier Pericles, and Cavern-X. Floor plans for the latter, a case base in Arizona, are also included.

There are notes on playing as members of X-Force, noting its darker themes of clandestine action and secrecy, as well as its proactive approach. Joining the team is done by invitation only, based on what the current leader wants. In the case of Cable, frequent leader of X-Force, this means combat skills, discipline, and the ability to undertake dangerous missions. Potential members must be Mutants and they should ideally have some military or espionage background. It also notes that there is sometimes a commonality in terms of powers between team members, such as the health regenerating abilities of Deadpool, Wolverine, and X-23. Rounding out the description of X-Force is a couple of sets of adventure hooks, five suitable for any X-Force roster and five for the Krakaon X-Force, the most recent roster. These are no more than a paragraph in length and will need a fair bit of development upon the part of the Game Master.

Rounding out the Marvel Multiverse X-Men Expansion Preview are stats for the Mutants Bishop, Dazzler, and Gambit. Although nice to see these, only one of them, Bishop, has been a member of X-Force.

Physically, the Marvel Multiverse X-Men Expansion Preview is clean and tidy, and very readable. And that is really the best that can be said about it, since it would actually take quite a bit of effort to really turn any of its content into something playable and ready to be played at the table. Many of the characters across the different rosters are not here or given in the core rulebook for Marvel Multiverse Role-Playing Game, such that it would be difficult to assemble a full team. A team of all-stars—sans Cable—would be possible. Then the Game Master would need to develop one of the adventure hooks included in its pages. Of course, a preview like this, is only designed to give you a snapshot of what in the forthcoming game book and the Marvel Multiverse X-Men Expansion Preview does a good job of that—and actually it is not a bad read either.

Miskatonic Monday #293: The Deeper Arts

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 Invictus, The Pastores, Primal State, Ripples from Carcosa, and Halloween Horror, there was Five Go Mad in Egypt, Return of the Ripper, Rise of the Dead, Rise 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.

—oOo—
Publisher: Chaosium, Inc.
Author: Michael Reid

Setting: San Francisco, 1971
Product: One-Location, One-Hour Scenario
What You Get: Eight page, 1.59 MB Full Colour PDF

Elevator Pitch: “Art is dangerous. It is one of the attractions; when it ceases to be dangerous, you don’t want it.” — Duke Ellington
Plot Hook: What price inspiration?
Plot Support: Staging advice, three NPCs, and four pre-generated Investigators.
Production Values: Decent

Pros
# Short slide into a higher consciousness
# Woozy, louche encounter with the Mythos
# Enjoyable period feel
# Easy to adjust to other eras and locations
# Artpobia
# Melophobia
# Pharmacophobia

Cons
# Too short
# Little scope for investigation

Conclusion
# Queasy, end of an era, anti-climax
# Period feel comes to an end too soon. This should have been longer.

Sunday 7 July 2024

Revenants Return And Return Again

Beyond death there is a place of waiting, somewhere between the world of the living and the afterlife. This is Limbo and were it not for the fact that it is staffed by demons and ghouls, you would be hard-pressed to mistake it for anything other than a dentist’s waiting room, complete with beige walls and magazines and newspapers on the table. You are dead, but according to Greta, the administrative demon working your case file, not ready to pass on to wherever the soul goes to. You have a task to resolve. Perhaps you need to bring your own killer to justice, prevent an unexpected death, or complete some other unfinished business. Doing so will stop a Shattering Event that would otherwise trap you here permanently, and prevent you from passing on. Yet you only have limited time—four nights, each night awaking to find yourself back where you started—before that Shattering Event occurs and when you return you are still dead. Dead as the day your corpse was committed to the grave or left to rot undiscovered and missing. Thus, you must navigate the world of the living in the shadows as the undead, swathed in perfumes to hide the stench of decay and formaldehyde and wreathed in clothes to hide the signs. Worse, your memories have been disrupted and broken by your passing, and only by recovering what you cannot recall will come closer to preventing the Shattering Event. You are a Revenant and you have four nights in which to explore the last days of your life and stop the Shattering Event.

This is the set-up for The Revenant Society: The Endless Loop Beneath the City, a roleplaying game designed by Banana Chan and Sen-Foong Lim—best known for the highly regarded Jiangshi: Blood in the Banquet Hall from Wet Ink Games—and Julie Ahern. Published by Van Ryder Games, a company better known for its Final Girl and Hostage Negotiator board games, following a successful Kickstarter campaign, it is designed to be played by two to four players, plus a Fate Weaver (as the Game Master is known), aged fourteen and over. It is also a storytelling style game, using Powered by the Apocalypse, which can be played as a one-shot or as a mini-campaign of four, up to four-hour sessions. The core rulebook for The Revenant Society: The Endless Loop Beneath the City contains six scenarios that will play out in La Belle Époque Paris at the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth, or in Jazz Age New York, which play out in and around the Paris Métro and the New York Subway.

The Revenant Society: The Endless Loop Beneath the City Deluxe Box Set includes not just the core rulebook, but also a Fate Weaver Screen, maps of both Paris and New York, a Map of Intrigue for tying NPCs together, maps, a Loop Board, and six Playbook Boards. The Fate Weaver Screen lists the Fate Weaver’s Hard and Soft Moves, a Loop Event Generator, an NPC Generator, and a Location Generator. The maps of both Paris and New York are marked with their respective underground stations, whilst the Loop Board tracks the time clocks, events, and questions for the four Loops. It is double-sided, one side for a One-Shot, the other for a Mini-Campaign Loop. The six Playbooks are also double-sided and consist of ‘The Grizzled’, ‘The Compassionate’, ‘The Philosophical’, ‘The Diplomatic’, ‘The Hopeful’, and ‘The Glamourous’. Each of the Playbooks list the stats, Moves, and more, as well as having space for the player to fill out his Revenant’s background. Both the Playbooks and the Loop Board are write on/wipe off and The Revenant Society: The Endless Loop Beneath the City Deluxe Box Set comes with several pens suitable for that purpose. There are also miniatures for the Watchers, the supernatural creatures who will dog the efforts of the Revenants and a Team Miniature used to track the progress of the players and their Revenants across the four Loops. The thirty or so Memory cards, many of them period photographs, will be used by the players to prompt their Revenants’ memories.

A Revenant in The Revenant Society looks similar to other Playbooks in Powered by the Apocalypse roleplaying games. He has four Stats—Resolve, Nerve, Calm, and Vigour—ranging between -1 and +2, and a set of four Moves. For example, ‘The Grizzled’ has ‘Browbeat’ for coercing answers out of an NPC, ‘Supernatural Strength’ when using his extreme physical strength, ‘Body Part Substitution’ for replacing a part of his body with an item to reduce damage taken, and ‘Clumsy Brawler’ for fighting. ‘Body Part Substitution’ is the Undead Move for ‘The Grizzled’ and each Revenant has its own Undead Move. Beyond this, a Playbook has a lot of background details that the player fills in during preparation for play. The only mechanical choice that a player makes is to choose a beginning Move. The other choices he needs to make deal with his background and relationships with the other characters. All six of the Playbooks are built on archetypes and inspired by film and media. For example, ‘The Hopeful’ is either a factory worker, a hairdresser, or a telephone operator, and is inspired by the anti-nihilist and fool tropes, Waymond Wang from Everything, Everywhere, All At Once and Phil at the end of Groundhog Day.

The four Moves inherent to each Playbook are not the only Moves a Revenant has access to. Basic Moves include ‘Investigate’, ‘Blend In’, ‘Persuade’, ‘Struggle’, ‘Flee’, and ‘Dirt Nap’, and ‘Saving Grace’. ‘Dirt Nap’ is used when a Revenant wants to rest, whilst ‘Saving Grace’ is for helping another Revenant. There are also two Team Moves, ‘Burn This City’ and ‘Take Them Out’, which can only be performed when all of the Revenants are in the same location. They are drastic in nature, the first seeing the Revenants create a supernatural fire to disrupt the situation, the latter having the Revenants open a door to Limbo and push an NPC through and so kill them. The Fate Weaver has her own Moves, split between Hard Moves and Soft Moves. Both are designed to push the narrative along and might be to add a Watcher when a player rolls high on a Move, pass out a clue when a player is stumped, restart a Loop, and so on. Like the Revenants, Watchers have returned from Limbo, but they take pleasure in the Revenants’ failure. There can be up to four of these faceless creatures in play, their presence acting as a penalty on all dice rolls made by the Revenants and also highlighting the undead nature of the Revenants to the living.

Mechanically, The Revenant Society works like other Powered by the Apocalypse roleplaying games. A player chooses the Move he wants his Revenant to use, rolls two six-sided dice, and adds a Stat to the result. If a Revenant is at a location where he worked, he instead rolls three dice and chooses the highest results. On a result of six or less, the Revenant fails, and may take damage, but will gain a point of Experience; on a result of seven, eight, or nine, the action is a success and the player can choose one of the options listed for the Move; and on ten or more, the action is a higher success, and the player can select two options. However, a roll of ten or more also adds a Watcher to the Loop. Effectively, failure rewards a Revenant with a chance to learn, whereas a higher success grants greater benefits, but may attract the attention of the Watchers—some Moves include an option to not have a Watcher appear.

Set-up for The Revenant Society sees the Fate Weaver seed the Loops with Events and clues, some of which are Red Herrings, for the Revenants to discover. These can ones of a mystery that the Fate Weaver can create herself or one of the six included in The Revenant Society. Notably, these are seeded across only six locations across the Paris Métro or the New York Subway, the rest marked as under construction and inaccessible. This effectively focuses play, at least in a geographical sense. In Session Zero, the Fate Weaver introduces the game, sets expectations and responsibilities—both of which are neatly set out for Fate Weaver and players alike, sets the scene in Limbo, and then the players introduce their Revenants and fill out their Playbooks.

Play then begins with the Revenants awaking in the Subway or Métro. In the first Loop, the Revenants awake to find themselves in the dirt of a tunnel with a train bearing down on them, armed with only one Memory card. They will also have an Item card, representing an object that they will always wake up with at the start of a Loop. Their reaction, typically to use the ‘Flee’ Move, is designed to teach the roleplaying game’s mechanics. In subsequent Loops, the Revenants will awake in different locations around the underground. The Revenants will then proceed to explore the Location they are in, looking for Clues and responding to Loop Events and Fixed Events. Whenever they employ a Move—either Basic, Undead, or Team—they fill out a segment on the Clock for the Location. The number of segments on the Clock will vary according to the number of Revenants, but when the Clock is filled out, the Revenants move on to a new Location, a two-hour window of time, and a fresh Clock. This is done collectively. The Revenants cannot split up to go to different Locations, but they can split up to explore a Location. When they reach the end of a Loop, whether because time has run out or because a Revenant has taken too much damage, the Loop begins again. Although it starts in a different place under different circumstances, as the Revenants explore this Loop they encounter new Loop Events, but also Fixed Events that do not change from Loop to Loop. In effect, each Loop is a chance to reset the investigation and let the Revenants start again with the information they have found out so far and then go look for new clues. At the start of each Loop each Revenant will also have new Memory cards that will trigger further questions about who they are. As the Revenants explore Locations and look for Clues, the Fate Weaver will be keep track of both them and the connections between the various NPCs, one of whom will be the Culprit. The Map of Intrigue is used to record the connections where everyone can see and ultimately help the Revenants and their players identify the Culprit.

The investigation of a case should ideally culminate in the revelation as to who the Culprit is and the Revenants acting to stop him and so prevent the Shattering Event. Whatever happens, whether they stop either or not, the players have the opportunity to explain what happens to their Revenants. If they succeeded, are they are at peace and do they move on to the Afterlife? If they failed, what happens to them trapped endlessly in the Loop? There is even a possibility of setting up a sequel, so that the Revenants return to Limbo in readiness to go through another Loop, attempting to stop another Shattering Event.

For both players and the Fate Weaver, there is solid advice on safety—particularly at beginning and end of a session, content warnings—in general and for each scenario, and the tools necessary to play. The Revenant Society: The Endless Loop Beneath the City Deluxe Box Set includes an X-Card and an O-Card. The Fate Weaver there is background on both La Belle Époque Paris and Jazz Age New York, including both history and details of important locations in and around the Paris Métro and the New York Subway. There are notes on post-World War I Paris, but sadly not on pre-World War I New York. Over a third of The Revenant Society is dedicated to scenarios or cases, three per city, plus advice for the Fate Weaver on creating her own. They include the Revenants trying to find out how they died and how those deaths are related to a cult, to a fire, to an assassination, and so on. Each case clearly lists the objective for the Revenants, events at the start of each Loop, locations, the identity of the Culprit, the nature of the Shattering Event, and the various Clues and Events particular to that Loop. There is also a good guide for the Fate Weaver who wants to create her own cases, whilst the Appendix contains all of the roleplaying game’s printable content as well as the maps, Memory cards, and various Fate Weaver Moves for easy reference.

Physically, The Revenant Society is a lovely book, illustrated with period photographs and other images combined with an Arts Décoratifs—or Art Deco—style. All of the extras, including the dice—in The Revenant Society: The Endless Loop Beneath the City Deluxe Box Set adhere to this style and are lovely. If The Revenant Society is missing anything it is an index and that is a major omission. A lesser omission, but one that would have been helpful, would have been an example of play.

The Revenant Society: The Endless Loop Beneath the City is a collaborative storytelling game, one of horror and tragedy and contrasts. Contrasts between the Living and the undead nature of the Revenants, and between the joie de vivre swirling around the Revenants and the grim nature of their task, all hidden behind a gilded façade of its very lovely period feel. In prior years, a storytelling game like The Revenant Society might have been self-published as a smaller book, a la indie style, but in this larger format, The Revenant Society has room to breath and cast more light onto the darkness of the Loops that the Revenants find themselves trapped within and what they need to do to escape. The result is that The Revenant Society: The Endless Loop Beneath the City is a rich and grimly atmospheric, yet familiar roleplaying game, telling a type of story we have seen before, but where the players and their Revenants are telling it working together with the Fate Weaver.

Saturday 6 July 2024

Your Walking Dead Guide Book

It seems surprising to realise that The Walking Dead is over two decades old. The comic by writer Robert Kirkman and artist Tony Moore first appeared in 2003 and the resulting television series from AMC first aired in 2010 and has been followed with numerous spin-off series since. Both revitalised the zombie horror subgenre and the television series in particular, made zombies and horror acceptable to mainstream broadcasting like never before. Both comic book and television series tell the story of Rick Grimes, a sheriff’s deputy from Cynthiana, Kentucky, who after being wounded in the line of duty, awakes to find his wife and family missing and the world very much changed. Society has collapsed, the dead walk and hunger after our flesh, a virus means that everyone will rise as a walker after death, and the survivors huddle together, co-operate and scavenge for supplies, and somehow make choices that will keep them alive. The walkers are everywhere, a menace that cannot be vanquished, but they are not the only threat. Some survivors are prepared to kill and steal from other survivors—and worse. It is into this post-apocalyptic world where the dead walk—there are no such things as zombies—that the Player Characters are thrust into The Walking Dead Universe Roleplaying Game.

The Walking Dead Universe Roleplaying Core Rules, published by Free League Publishing following a successful Kickstarter campaign, provides everything that a gaming group will need to roleplay in the world of The Walking Dead. The means to create characters, rules for scavenging and surviving in this post-apocalyptic world, dealing with encounters with the Walkers, building a community and sanctuary, and more. The community and sanctuary rules come into play in the second of the roleplaying game’s two modes—Campaign Mode. Where that is intended for long term play, the other mode, Survival Mode, is designed for one-shots, was presented in The Walking Dead Universe Roleplaying Starter Set. So far, so good, but obvious question that anyone is going to ask is, “What does The Walking Dead Universe Roleplaying Game offer that other zombie-themed roleplaying games do not?” The most obvious answer would be that it offers the opportunity to roleplay in a setting that is not that far removed from our own and one that is familiar to anyone who has watched any of the television series. Much like any other licensed roleplaying game, but in terms of a zombie-themed roleplaying game, what The Walking Dead Universe Roleplaying Game focuses on is survival against threats from without and within. The threats from without can, of course, include the Walkers, but in terms of storytelling, the real threats from without are other survivors outside of the Player Characters’ own group. Examples from the television series include the inhabitants of the town of Woodbury, the group called the Wolves, and, of course, the Saviors led by Negan. The threats from within are, of course, fellow survivors and what they might do to jeopardise survival of the group they belong to. The Walkers do remain an ever-lurking, constant threat, but unless their attention is aroused, they are not an active threat, more a passive one that is never going to go away. To that end, the roleplaying advises that the principles of the roleplaying game be made clear to new players, including, “Do whatever it takes to survive”, “Death is inescapable”, “You are never safe”, and so on. Make no mistake, The Walking Dead Universe Roleplaying Game is not like other ‘zombie’ roleplaying games in which the Player Characters go around slaughtering the undead.

A Player Character in The Walking Dead Universe Roleplaying Game is first defined by an Archetype. This defines what the Player Character did prior to the apocalypse, as well as also
the Player Character’s key Attribute and Skill, possible Talents to choose from, an Anchor, an Issue, and a Drive, plus starting Gear and relationship to other Player Characters. The Archetypes are Criminal, Doctor, Farmer, Homemaker, Kid, Law Enforcer, Nobody, Outcast, Politician, Preacher, Scientist, and Soldier. He has four Attributes—Strength, Agility, Wits and Empathy. These range in value between two and four, as do skills, but the key Attribute and key Skill can be five. Health Points represent a Player Character’s physical health and cannot be higher than three. A Player Character also has an Anchor, an Issue, and a Drive. An Anchor is another person—Player Character or NPC—that the Player Character cares about and who is used narratively to ‘Handle Your Fear’ and when attempting to relieve Stress. The Issue is a roleplaying hook, such as ‘You think you are better than them’ or ‘Unable to sit down and shut up’ that the Game Master can use to create interesting, typically challenging situations. Drive is what pushes a Player Character to grit his teeth and withstand the pain, like ‘You love your mother’ and ‘God put me here to save their souls’. Once a session, a Drive can be invoked to gain extra dice on a test. The Drive can also be lost, which triggers a ‘Breaking Point’ and if not regained or replaced, it can result in the Player Character being ‘Shattered’.

To create a character, a player selects an Archetype, distributes thirteen points between the four attributes, twelve between skills, and choses Issue, Drive, and Anchor.

Name: Brady Ferrell
Archetype: Farmer
Strength 5 Agility 3 Wits 2 Empathy 3
Skills: Close Combat 1, Force 4, Manipulation 1, Ranged Combat 2, Scout 2, Tech 2
Talents: Tough as Nails
Drive: I do what is right
Issue: 
Dogmatist
Gear: Toolbox, Jeep, Survival Equipment
Relationships: You are family

Mechanically, as with other
Year Zero Engine roleplaying games, whenever a Player Character wants to undertake an action in The Walking Dead Universe Roleplaying Game, his player roles a number of Base Dice equal to the attribute plus skill plus any modifiers from gear, Talents, help, or the situation. If a single six, a Success, is rolled on the Base Dice, the Player Character succeeds, although extra Success will add bonus effects. However, if no Successes are rolled and the action is failed, or he wants to roll more Successes, the player has the choice to Push the roll. In which case, the Player Character suffers a point of Stress and gains a Stress Die. The player must also explain what the character is doing differently in order to Push the roll. For the pushed roll, the player will roll all of the Base Dice which did not roll success and the Stress Die. In fact, until the Player Character finds a way to reduce his Stress points, his player will continue to add Stress Dice equal to his character’s Stress Points on every roll. Only one pushed roll can be made per action, but the danger of having Stress Dice is if their results should be a one or ‘Walker’ symbol. It means two things. First, if the player has not yet pushed the roll, he cannot do so. Second, whether or not he has pushed the roll, it means that the Player Character has ‘Messed Up’. Typically, this means that he increased the numbers of Walkers nearby and attracted their attention, turning up the dial on the Threat Meter. In other situations, a ‘Messed Up’ might mean the Player Character has got lost, lost his footing, said the wrong thing in a tense standoff, and so on. Other sources of Stress include being short on food and water, getting shot at, seeing someone in the group get bitten by a Walker, killing someone in cold blood, and so on.

There are several means of getting rid of Stress. Primarily, these consist of a Player Character connecting and interacting with his Anchor, and at the end of the day, simply getting a good night’s sleep and plenty of rest. Whilst interacting with an Anchor can be during play, at the end of each session, a Player Character has to deal with the dreadful things that he has seen and done that session. This is done via the ‘Handle Your Fear’ mechanic and is triggered if the Player Character has suffered a Breaking Point like his Anchor being killed or disappearing, brutally killing or beating someone who is defenceless, is Broken by damage, suffers five Stress Points, and so on. At this point, the player rolls Base Dice equal to either his character’s Wits or Empathy, with a bonus for any Anchors who are still alive. This roll cannot be pushed, needs only one Success to succeed, but if failed, causes the Player Character to become Overwhelmed, meaning that he loses his Drive, becomes mentally Shattered, or his Issue is changed or added to.

Combat scales in The Walking Dead Universe Roleplaying Game depending upon who or what the Player Characters are facing. Duels are one-on-one attacks handled via opposed rolls, each combatant hoping to gain more Successes than the other. Brawls handle combat between multiple participants in which the Leadership skill can be used to hand out bonuses to allies in the fight. Combat is deadly though, a Player Character only possessing three points of Health and once they are lost, the Player Character is Broken, gains a point of Stress, and his player must roll on the Critical Injuries table. The lack of Health in comparison to other roleplaying games is compounded by the limited access to medical care. Make no mistake, The Walking Dead Universe Roleplaying Game is deadly.

A setting which is already deadly due to low health and lack of healing, is compounded by the presence of the Walkers. They are a constant, lurking presence in The Walking Dead Universe, in game terms that presence is typically written into a scenario at a particular location or encounter, as you would expect, but also brought into play randomly whenever a player rolls a ‘Walker’ symbol on a Stress Die. Narratively, this could be as simple as the Player Characters opening a door to discover a room full of Walkers or a Walker bursting out of a bush to attack the Player Characters. The presence of the Walkers is tracked by the Threat Meter, which ranges from zero and ‘You are in a cleared area and safe. For now.’ to six and ‘The dead are in your face, surrounding you.’ The Threat Level is raised by rolling a ‘Walker’ on a Stress Die, failing a skill roll to avoid Walkers, doing something in the game to attract their attention, and so on. Ideally, the Player Characters will sneak around them as they scavenge buildings and search locations, but of course, that is unlikely. At low levels on the Threat Meter, it is possible for the Player Characters to go quiet and wait it out until the Walkers have either wandered off or gone quiet themselves. At higher levels, the Player Characters will need to find a way to distract the Walkers and make them go elsewhere or fight them. Encounters with a few Walkers are possible and these can be engaged in ‘Single Walker Attacks’, but Walkers congregate and then they fight as Swarms. Fights against Swarms are group endeavours, the aim being to roll more Successes than a Swarm to first reduce its size and then escape it. If a Player Character or Player Characters lose against a Walker attack, there is a table of very nasty and brutal ‘Walker Attack’ effects which will have the players wincing when they hear the results. The rules cover sacrificing another, brawling amidst a Swarm, clearing out an area, and lastly, amputation, the latter the last desperate result to resolve after a Walker bite…

One of aspects of The Walking Dead Universe Roleplaying Game that it shares with many other Year Zero roleplaying games, and that is its community rules. In roleplaying games such as Mutant: Year Zero – Roleplaying at the End of Days and Vaesen – Nordic Horror Roleplaying, the Player Characters begin with a community that they can improve through play and so gain rewards and advantages that will benefit both the community and further play. In The Walking Dead Universe Roleplaying Game, the Player Characters have a Haven rather than a community. It is where as survivors, they can live protected from both Walkers and predatory humans, grow food, undertake projects to improve the facilities, and go out on supply and scavenging runs. A Haven is defined by its characteristics, its Capacity and Defence, and its Issues. The characteristics are its description, answers to questions such as “Where can you post lookouts?” or “What characteristics of the haven annoy you or make people irritated?”, whilst Capacity measures the maximum number of people who can live there and Defence its ability to withstand an attack—whether from Walkers or other humans. Within the Haven, both Player Characters and NPCs can pursue projects such as creating an apiary or setting up a simple alarm system, teach skills to NPCs, and build and repair gear. However, all Havens have at least one Issue that will cause problems for the inhabitants, such as “Something regularly draws walkers to this location” or “Rats everywhere”. Worse, some Issues will be secret and can only be discovered during play. Issues will drive some of the story and plot to any campaign of The Walking Dead Universe Roleplaying Game. How these play out will affect the Haven’s Capacity and Defence—for good or ill—and ultimately, whether both it and its inhabitants will fall.

The Walking Dead Universe Roleplaying Game offers two modes of play. One is Survival Mode, suitable for convention play or one-shots. The other is Campaign Mode, further divided into two sub-modes. In Free Play, the game is a played as a standard campaign, dealing with the survival of both the Player Characters and their Haven in the long term over a wide area. Season Mode is designed to emulate the television series more than Campaign Mode, structuring the campaign story around particular threats, locations, issues, and in particular Challenges, all of which will change from one Season to the next. Of course, the Player Characters will face Challenges in all three modes and there is advice for the Game Master on how to create and escalate them as needed. Similarly, there is good advice for the Game Master on running the game, creating factions, handling NPCs, scenes, and the horror at the heart of the game. This is all supported with numerous tables of content and possible encounter ideas, as well as two scenarios.

Both scenarios complete with pre-generated Player Characters, detailed descriptions of their set-ups, and good write-ups of the various NPCs and factions and they want. The Survival Mode scenario is ‘The Golden Ambulance’, which is set between Seasons Two and Three of The Walking Dead. The Player Characters go out in search of much-needed medicine and discover an abandoned ambulance which seems to contain some ready to scavenge medical supplies. Is it too good to be true? Add in the tensions between the pre-generated Player Characters and this is a tight, fraught affair. For the Campaign Mode, the ‘Atlanta Campaign Set-Up’ provides the Game Master with everything she needs for a campaign set after the events of The Walking Dead.

If there is one thing missing from The Walking Dead Universe Roleplaying Game, it is the stats and write-ups of the NPCs from the various television series. Some do appear in The Walking Dead Universe Roleplaying Starter Set, but anyone coming to this roleplaying game from the television expecting to see the heroes and villains from the series will be disappointed. That said, this is a roleplaying about The Walking Dead Universe, not any one television series and its cast. The setting content in the roleplaying game is also post Series Eleven after the protagonists of The Walking Dead have left the Atlanta area.

In addition, there are rules for Solo Play in which the player works to ingratiate himself in a Haven that he has recently arrived at. A Player Character for this is slightly more skilled than standard beginning Player Characters. The Player Character will also be accompanied a Companion NPC. The rules are very serviceable and even suggests that the player play himself as a Player Character, but given the brutality of the roleplaying game, the player had best get used to the idea that he might die in the process!

Ultimately, the issue with The Walking Dead Universe Roleplaying Game is its brutality and the grim nature of the world it depicts. By design, neither this brutality nor the grim nature are wholly externalised as you would expect in a survival horror roleplaying game. They occur within the Haven where the Player Characters have taken sanctuary as well as the outside world. Issues within the Haven—both personal and integral to the Haven—will instigate and drive conflict, not just between the Player Characters and NPCs, but also between Player Characters. This is even shown in the examples of play that run throughout the book, which from a reading standpoint, will make you hate the character of Hannah. In terms of play, it demands a maturity of player to handle that and the necessity of Safety Tools. The discussion of the latter and of the possibility, even likelihood, of Player Character versus Player Character conflict and Safety Tools could have been better handled.

Physically, The Walking Dead Universe Roleplaying Game is a superb looking book, although no photographs are used from The Walking Dead television series, so fans may be disappointed. That said, the artwork, done in the house style for Free League Publishing is very good and fits the world very well.

The Walking Dead Universe Roleplaying Game is a really tight, sparse design, feeling quite light in comparison to other core rulebooks and more so in comparison to core books for other licensed roleplaying games. That though, is really due to the lack of background or setting material, and the need for background or setting material. After all, this is a roleplaying game set in our world just a few months from now and it is both a genre and a setting that we are familiar with. Thus, the Game Master has everything that she needs to run a post apocalypse game, whether that is as a one-shot or campaign, or even a solo game. A gaming group had better be prepared though, for The Walking Dead Universe Roleplaying Game and the world it depicts is bleak, unforgiving, and brutal, forcing the players and their characters to make some very tough choices.