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

Monday, 20 March 2023

Miskatonic Monday #184: The Depths of Bermuda

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

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

Publisher: Chaosium, Inc.
Author: Thomas S. Lawrence

Setting: 1920s Caribbean
Product: Scenario
What You Get: Forty-nine page, 10.85 MB Full Colour PDF
Elevator Pitch: The dangers of the deep will colour this dive.
Plot Hook: The chance to strike it rich is undone when something else is struck.
Plot Support: Staging advice, nine pre-generated Investigators, 
fifteen NPCs, four handouts, one map, four non-Mythos monsters, and two Mythos monsters.
Production Values: Thematically ambitious.

# Winner of a Miskatonic Playhouse Bronze Award
# Engaging set-up and staging for the adventure
# Physical, technical adventure rather than mental adventure
# Lots of pre-generated Investigators, but advice given for players to make their own
# Good scenario for a journalist or author
# Has a Jaws moment
# Aquaphobia
# Thalassophobia
# Claustrophobia

# Needs a strong edit
# Underwritten explanation for the Keeper upfront
# No deckplans
# Has a Jaws moment

# Action-packed one-shot which makes great use of its environment and staging for an enjoyably original encounter with a classic Mythos monster
# Scenario let down by underwhelming set-up and poor editing

Miskatonic Monday #183: Saturday the 14th

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

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

Publisher: Chaosium, Inc.
Author: Sabrina Haenze

Setting: 1980s Maine
Product: Scenario
What You Get: Twenty-Eight page, 9.55 MB Full Colour PDF
Elevator Pitch: Friday the 13th meets Groundhog Day (sort of...)
Plot Hook: How many times can you die before you solve the crime?
Plot Support: Staging advice, four pre-generated Investigators, four NPCs, twenty-five victims, three handouts, and two Mythos monsters.
Production Values: Plain.

# Clever twist upon the repetitive slasher movie horror cliché
# Straightforward and very direct plot 
# Movie night one-shot
# Diokophobia
# Chronophobia

# Clever twist upon the repetitive slasher movie horror cliché
# Straightforward, linear, and very direct plot
# Needs an edit
# This is a cliché 
# Pre-generated Investigators scruffily presented

# Ups the ante on the clichéd slasher movie by making the Investigators relive it multiple times to solve the crimes
# Undemanding movie night horror

Sunday, 19 March 2023

Star Trek XI

Since 1978 and the publication of Heritage Models’
Star Trek: Adventure Gaming in the Final Frontier, there have been ten roleplaying games that have visited the world’s largest Science Fiction franchise that is Star Trek, notable titles being FASA’s highly regarded Star Trek: The Role Playing Game, the original Star Trek RPG for many in 1982 and 1998’s well received Star Trek: The Next Generation Role-playing Game from Last Unicorn Games. The tenth is Star Trek Adventures: The Roleplaying Game, published by Modiphius Entertainment in 2017 of which Star Trek Adventures: The Roleplaying Game – Core Rulebook provides a full introduction to both the setting and the rules. (A shorter introduction is provided in the Star Trek Adventures: The Roleplaying Game Starter Set.) The eleventh roleplaying game based upon the Star Trek universe is different because it is dedicated to the Klingons.

Much like its predecessor,
Star Trek Adventures: The Klingon Empire has a big job to do—perhaps an even bigger one than Star Trek Adventures: The Roleplaying Game. Despite there having been ten roleplaying games set within the world of Star Trek, only two of them have received supplements dedicated to the Klingons, the most notable of which was The Klingons. Written by the late John M. Ford for FASA’s Star Trek: The Role Playing Game, for many years this supplement would heavily influence the portrayal of Star Trek’s second most popular alien race on both screen and in print. However, much of the background the Klingons has subsequently been rewritten and how they are portrayed today differs greatly. The other difference between the previous supplements devoted to the Klingons and Star Trek Adventures: The Klingon Empire is that this book is a standalone roleplaying game, rather than a supplement. Like Star Trek Adventures: The Roleplaying Game, it enables players to create characters and the Game Master to run a game in three different eras of Star Trek. It not only has to do this, but it also to present a culture and an outlook that is the antithesis of both the United Federation of Planets and Starfleet, make both characters and campaigns playable whilst highlighting how both differ from a standard Star Trek Adventures game, and accounting for the differences in the portrayal and appearance onscreen over the course of Star Trek’s history. Further, it updates the core rules for the Star Trek Adventures roleplaying game.

As with Star Trek Adventures: The Roleplaying Game, the default setting in Star Trek Adventures: The Klingon Empire is late twenty-fourth century, late in the period of Star Trek: The Next Generation, at the beginning of Star Trek: Deep Space 9, and before Star Trek: Voyager. The specific year is 2371, but it explores further than this, right up to the end of the war with the Dominion, fought with an alliance with both the Federation and the Romulans. With both rebuilding in the wake of the war and Cardassia much reduced, there is scope for exploration and expansion, for every warrior in the Klingon Defence Force to gain glory and honour for the empire. There is guidance too on the Klingons in the twenty-third and twenty-second centuries, during periods portrayed by the Star Trek: The Original Series and Star Trek: Enterprise respectively. However, of the two periods, it is the Star Trek: The Original Series-era Klingons which get the most attention, since that is when we see them first portrayed on screen, almost piratical in their untrustworthiness and scheming.

Star Trek Adventures: The Klingon Empire—the House of Duras, the House of Mogh, the House of Kor, the House of Kang, and more—as well as the explanation of the High Council is important in game terms because unlike a Star Trek Adventures: The Roleplaying Game campaign, one involving the Klingons is very likely to involve politics as well as exploration, expansion, and war. The chapter on worlds and locations, of course, starts with the Kingon homeworld, Qo’nos, but also an explanation of the Klingon Department of Stellar Records’ system of Planetary Classification. It divides them into three levels— ‘Conquerable’, ‘Exploitable, Of Use’, and ‘Habitable’, given as an in-game rejection of the Federation Planetary Classification System that succinctly sums up the Klingon mindset.

Star Trek Adventures: The Klingon Empire, players take the role of honourable warriors and other members of the Klingon Defence Force, serving aboard a starship. What exactly constitutes honour is neatly summed up not once, but twice. First from the Klingon point of view as you would expect, but then from the Vulcan perspective, which provides another way of understanding it and making it easier to roleplay. Unlike Star Trek Adventures: The Roleplaying Game, where the players have numerous options as to what they can play, Star Trek Adventures: The Klingon Empire only offers two—Klingon or QuchHa’ Klingon. The latter, also known as ‘the unhappy ones’, are the Klingons portrayed on screen during the Star Trek: The Original Series, genetically changed as a result of a cure for a lethal plague that would leave them appearing more Human-like, aggressive and more ruthless in their cunning, along with a reputation for being less honourable and trustworthy. In campaign terms, they best suit the Star Trek: Enterprise and Star Trek: The Original Series periods rather than later periods when medical treatment has restored them to the Klingon norm.

A Klingon in Star Trek Adventures: The Klingon Empire is defined by Attributes, Disciplines, Focuses, Traits, Talents, and Values and Dictates. The six Attributes—Control, Daring, Fitness, Insight, Presence, and Reason—represent ways of or approaches to doing things as well as intrinsic capabilities. They are rated between seven and twelve. The six Disciplines—Command, Conn, Engineering, Security, Science, and Medicine—are skills, knowledges, and areas of training representing the wide roles aboard a starship. They are rated between one and five. Focuses represent narrow areas of study or skill specialities, for example, Astrophysics, Xenobiology, or Warp Field Dynamics. Traits and Talents represent anything from what a character believes, is motivated by, intrinsic abilities, ways of doing things, and so on. They come from a character’s species, upbringing, training, and life experience, for example, the Klingon species Talent is Brak’lul, which is their general physiological hardiness, whilst a security officer might have Warrior’s Strike Talent. Values represent a Klingon’s attitudes and beliefs, whilst Dictates are specific orders which a Klingon must obey. Both can be triggered to provide various benefits by spending a character’s Determination points, but also challenged to gain complications and Determination points. Their use in play can also lead to both gain and loss of honour, depending on the circumstances.

To create a character, a player puts him through a lifepath—much like previous Star Trek roleplaying games—the seven stages of which for Klingons encompass his species, home environment, caste, training, career length and its events, and current status. At each stage, a player adjusts Attributes, selects and adjusts Disciplines, and picks Focuses, Traits, Talents, and Values. Some of these elements a player has to select, but he can choose to roll for them and determine randomly. Our sample character is Kargan, a QuchHa’ Klingon who grew up on a poor frontier world who enlisted in the Klingon Defence Force to prove to the empire that he can be more than a farm labourer. He is ambitious and always on the look out for chances and opportunities that will get him noticed and promoted. This includes undermining his superiors and his fellow soldiers if it will fulfill his ambitions and does not reflect poor on him. So far this has including killing his immediate superior during a boarding action by Romulans and taking command of the engineering department’s defence and being promoted into his position.

Race: Klingon (QuchHa’)
Department: Engineering Rank: Corporal

Control 10 Daring 11 Fitness 10
Insight 9 Presence 8 Reason 7

Command 3 Conn 2 Engineering 3
Security 4 Science 1 Medicine 1

Animal Handling, Lead by Example, Starship Maintenance, Survival

Klingon, QuchHa’

Always the outsider, Worth the risk

Follow My Lead, Killer’s Instinct, Quick to Action, Untapped Potential

Environment: Frontier World
Caste: Agriculture
Training: Labourer
Career Events: Required to Take Command

The result is a Klingon Defence Force member of varying though still competent experience, but Star Trek Adventures provides other options in terms of what can be played and how they are created. One is supporting characters, which are other members of the crew and although not as fully detailed as the Player Characters—essentially members of the main cast—they enable players to roleplay other types of character, to be involved in scenes their main character would not, and to provide support where there are relatively few players in a game. Supporting characters can be fully played, but are not fully developed, having neither Talents or Values. These will come up in play as the Supporting Character reappears again and again, meaning that the players will learn more about him as the campaign goes on and he slowly grows from a Supporting Character to a Main Character. The option for creating is via play rather than at the start of a campaign and so is created in response to the narrative. One issue with character is the lack of ready Values for a player to choose or take inspiration from.

In terms of progression, a character does not earn Experience Points as he might in other roleplaying games. Instead, to reflect the fact that the characters on screen in Star Trek grow and change only periodically, player characters in Star Trek Adventures: The Klingon Empire achieve Milestones and Arcs, which are recorded in a character log, including the Values which came into play. Arcs take longer to achieve through play, but both Milestones and Arcs can reward a Player Character or a ship and its crew. Reputation is also crucial for a Klingon and his family and house. It fluctuates over time, reflecting a Klingon’s actions, meaning it can go up and down. It can can be used to substitute an influence roll over others and it can rolled to generate Glory, which can then be spent on Favours, be granted Awards, given promotion, and so on. However, a poor performance will generate Shame and these can spent to ruin a Klingon’s Reputation, have him demoted, imprisoned, and more. Both Glory and Shame are spent immediately, but if Shame is not spent or expunged with negative consequences, it can grow and grow.

In addition to creating a Player Character, a player can also create a House for his Klingon to below to, each House having its own s
tatus, legacy, and temperament. The Player Characters might be from the same House or different ones, but in play a House can support or aid a Player Character, but is equally expecting the Player Character to bring honour and glory that will last for years to come. The presence and role of the House is to give a wider stage for the campaign, to bring intrigue and politics into play, and thus greater potential for roleplaying.

Star Trek Adventures: The Klingon Empire employs the 2d20 System previously used in the publisher’s Mutant Chronicles: Techno Fantasy Roleplaying Game and Robert E. Howard’s Conan: Adventures in an Age Undreamed Of. To undertake an action, a character’s player rolls two twenty-sided dice, aiming to have both roll under the total of an Attribute and a Discipline. Each roll under this total counts as a success, an average task requiring two successes. Rolls of one count as two successes and if a character has an appropriate Focus, rolls under the value of the Discipline also count as two successes.
For example, during the Romulan boarding action, the engineering section of Kargan’s ship has been breached and he and his superior, Barot, have fought off the invaders. Both are wounded and as they eye each other after the fight, Kargan sees an opportunity to better himself by killing Barot and claiming that his superior died gloriously in the defence of the ship. Barot realises what Kargan is about to do and they both dive for the Romulan disruptor pistol on the floor. Kargan’s player says that he will spend a point of Determination to ignore the injury he suffered in the fight and taps the ‘Worth the risk’ Value to do so. The Game Master states that Kargan’s attempt will have a Difficulty of one, whereas rolling for Borat, she has a Difficulty of two due to the wounds he has suffered. Kargan’s player selects Daring and Security, meaning he has a target of fifteen to roll under and rolls under four will generate extra Successes. A roll of two and nine generates three successes. This gives him two Successes taking into account the Difficulty. With a Control of eleven and Security of three, Barot’s target is fourteen and three if the Game Master wants to generate extra successes. Her roll of four and eleven generates only two Successes, not enough to overcome the Difficulty and get the weapon before his subordinate can. With a grin, Kurgan has the drop on Barot and pulls the trigger. He will tell his superiors that Barot did not die in vain…
Main characters like the player characters possess Determination, which works with their Values. A Value can either be challenged once per session in a negative or difficult situation to gain Determination or invoked once per session to spend Determination to gain an extra die for a check (a ‘Perfect Opportunity’), to get a reroll of the dice in a check (‘Moment of Inspiration’), to gain a second action when time of the essence (‘Surge of Activity’), and to create an Advantage (‘Execute!’). They also have Talents and Traits which will grant a character an advantage in certain situations. So Bold (Engineering) enables a player to reroll a single twenty-sided die for his character if he has purchased extra dice by adding to the Game Master’s Threat pool or Dauntless, which allows a player to roll an extra twenty-sided die for his character to resist being intimidated or threatened.

Now where the players generate Momentum to spend on their characters, the Game Master has Threat which can be spent on similar things for the NPCs as well as to trigger their special abilities. She begins each session with a pool of Threat, but can gain more through various circumstances. These include a player purchasing extra dice to roll on a test, a player rolling a natural twenty and so adding two Threat (instead of the usual Complication), the situation itself being threatening, or NPCs rolling well and generating Momentum and so adding that to Threat pool. In return, the Gamemaster can spend it on minor inconveniences, complications, and serious complications to inflict upon the player characters, as well as triggering NPC special abilities, having NPCs seize the initiative, and bringing the environment dramatically into play.

What the Momentum and Threat mechanics do is set up a pair of parallel economies with Threat being fed in part by Momentum, but Momentum in the main being used to overcome the complications and circumstances which the expenditure of Threat can bring into play. The primary use of Threat though, is to ratchet up the tension and the challenge, whereas the primary use of Momentum is to enable the player characters to overcome this challenge and in action, be larger than life.

Conflict uses the same mechanics, but offers more options in terms of what Momentum can be spent on, which includes both social and combat. Obviously for combat, includes doing extra damage, disarming an opponent, keeping the initiative—initiative works by alternating between between the player characters and the NPCs and keeping it allows two player characters to act before an NPC does, avoid an injury, and so on. Damage in combat is rolled on the Challenge dice, the number of ‘Heart of Virtue’ or ‘tIq ghob’ symbols rolled determining how much damage is inflicted. A similar roll is made to resist the damage, and any leftover is deducted from a character’s Stress. If a character’s Stress is reduced to zero or five or more damage is inflicted, then a character is injured. Any Starfleet insignia symbols rolled indicate an effect as well as the damage. In keeping with the tone of the various series, weapon damage can be deadly, melee or hand-to-hand, less so. Rules cover stun settings and of course, diving for cover, whilst a lovely reinforcement of the genre is that killing attacks generate Threat to add to the Game Master’s pool. Combat of course, has to take into account the fact that Klingons are lot tougher than those puny members of Starfleet!

The rules themselves in Star Trek Adventures are not difficult to understand and in the main they remain unchanged in Star Trek Adventures: The Klingon Empire. However, they are better presented and are better supported with examples, and also cleaner layout. As thematic as the use of LCARS is in Star Trek Adventures, it is not always easy to read. The adjustments to the rules are in some places cosmetic, such as renaming Talents to reflect Klingons rather than Starfleet, but the addition of the Reputation, Glory, and Shame are excellent and will help drive further roleplaying upon the part of the players.

Where Star Trek Adventures: The Klingon Empire cannot ease the complexity of the rules is Star Trek Adventures is starship combat, although it does its best. Details of ships of the Klingon Defence force are provided for all three eras, though sadly no really useful images. Starships are treated in a fashion similar to characters, but have Systems and Departments instead of Attributes and Disciplines. Star Trek Adventures: The Klingon Empire covers just about everything that a crew might do with their ship, from general operation to going toe-to-toe with a Romulan Bird of Prey in starship combat. The latter works in a similar fashion to that of personal combat, except that as Department Heads, the player characters are in control of different aspects of the ship. Instead of injuries for taking five damage in one hit, a ship suffers breaches which can knockout a ship’s systems. Her crew or a player character can repair them, but too many breeches and ship is disabled or even destroyed. As with Star Trek Adventures, the roleplaying game also covers starbases and personalising both starships and starbases.

In terms of threats, again, a wide range of vessels and NPCs are given. These include Starfleet Constitution, Defiant, and Excelsior Class vessels, D’Deridex Class Warbirds of the Romulan Star Empire, Galor Class cruisers of the Cardassian Union, and the Dominion’s Jem’hadar Attack Ships. NPCs include major and minor characters from across the eras, for example, Commander Kang and his wife, Mara; ‘Arne Darvin’, who attempted to poison the grain shipment for Sherman’s Planet and then go back in time to stop his efforts from being thwarted; and Chancellor Gowron of the High Council as well as Worf! The other NPCs, whether from the Romulan Star Empire, Cardassian Union, United Federation of Planets, the Dominion, and the Borg Collective, are more generic in nature, awaiting the Game Master to personalise them to suit her campaign. The ‘Beasts of the Galaxy, does of course, include the terrible Tribbles!

For the Game Master, there is general advice on running Star Trek scenarios and campaign, but also specifically Klingon scenarios and campaigns too. It suggests campaign styles such as ‘Proud Sons and Daughters of Kahless’, ‘The Empire Needs Loyal Soldiers’, ‘Lower Decks’, and more. There are some interesting ideas here, but they are not developed to any real extent, the advice really covering character creation, handling the rules, and the role of the Player Characters aboard a vessel. The latter is specifically from a Klingon point of view, as is the advice for creating Kling campaigns and scenarios. This highlights the expansive nature of the Klingon Empire’s objectives and the use of the Klingon Defence Force as its primary tool. Theatres of operation included are the Klingon-Romulan border, the Klingon-Federation Neutral Zone, and The Shackleton Expanse, the campaign setting for Star Trek Adventures, and even the Officer Exchange Program with the Federation. The plot components are based on the Red, Gold, and Blue components for Command and Conn, Security and Engineering, and Science and Medical respectively, taken from The Command Division, The Operations Division, and The Sciences Division supplements. However, these have been adjusted to include Klingon elements, such as Matters of Honour, Obligations to House, Political Rivalry, and more, as well as Oaths of Vengeance and Espionage Missions. They are primarily pointers here, awaiting development by the Game Master, but they are all good starting points.

In addition to twelve mission briefs, including an adventure where the ship’s cook has to gather and prepare enough food to ensure the crew’s survival following a disastrous battle with the Dominion and the ship has been stranded,
Star Trek Adventures: The Klingon Empire includes an introductory adventure. This is ‘The Oracle of Bar’Koth Reach’, a short affair in which the crew of a Klingon vessel set out to locate and gain the wisdom of the fabled Oracle of Bar’Koth Reach. It is scientifically challenging in places, but involves a lot of combat and opportunities to save the honour of a lost warrior and thus the honour of the empire. The scenario offers perhaps a session or two’s worth of play, but is a good start for a campaign.

Physically, Star Trek Adventures: The Klingon Empire is cleanly presented in a fashion that is much more accessible than Star Trek Adventures. Consequently, it feels and looks more like a traditional roleplaying game than Star Trek Adventures does. The roleplaying game, like the other books in the line, is illustrated, not with photographs from the films and television series, but fully painted depictions of Klingon life and culture, and the Klingon Defence Force and its ships and warriors. Again, some thought has been put into organising the book’s content thematically, so ‘Reporting for Battle’ covers character creation and ‘To Command the Stars’ details starships and starship combat, for example. The book could have done with a tighter edit in places though, but a nice touch is the inclusion of a map of the Klingon Empire marked in both ‘tlhIngan Hol’, the Klingon language and English. The book includes a primer to ‘tlhIngan Hol’ as well.

Star Trek Adventures: The Klingon Empire places the Klingons front and centre in the world of Star Trek Adventures, enabling a Game Master and her players to play out campaigns of aggressive action and intrigue, honourable combat, defending or expanding the empire, and more. It depends on the period when a campaign is set. One set during the period of Star Trek: The Original Series will differ from that of Star Trek: Deep Space-9, but whatever the period there is also plenty of scope for political intrigue as well as the search for honour and glory. This is in addition to the possibilities of crossovers between Star Trek Adventures and Star Trek Adventures: The Klingon Empire—each serves as a supplement for the other! Ultimately, Star Trek Adventures: The Klingon Empire is the definitive guide to playing Klingons and renders them not just glory and honour, but also justice!

Monster Metropolis

Drakkenhall: City of Monsters takes you right into the home of one member of the thirteen Icons of the Dragon Empire of the 13th Age—the Blue, a Blue Dragon also known as the Blue Sorceress. Once it was the city of Highrock, which protected the Midland Sea and the empire from invasion, but four centuries ago it was invaded and reduced to ruins. So, it remained until one hundred years ago, when the Blue Dragon took the city for herself and rebuilt half it, making it a haven within the empire for all of the monsters who would not normally be allowed to reside within other cities. Even as she allows the Goblin Market—famous for its deals, steals, and buyer’s remorse—to operate within the walls of Drakkenhall, an Ogre Mage to head her secret police, and numerous cults to practice their dark faiths in their profane temples—yet denying access to the city by any Orc, the Blue Sorceress serves as the Imperial Governor of Drakkenhall under geas from the Emperor and the Archmage. The question is, has the power of the Blue been constrained within the limits of Drakkenhall by making her part of the Dragon Empire’s hierarchy, or is this part of the Blue Dragon’s plan to subvert the empire from within? Ultimately, this is not question that the supplement will answer, but like other supplements in the line, it is one that is explored and multiple answers suggested.

Drakkenhall: City of Monsters is a supplement for 13th Age, the roleplaying game from Pelgrane Press which combines the best elements of both Dungeons & Dragons, Third Edition and Dungeons & Dragons, Fourth Edition to give high action combat, strong narrative ties, and exciting play. Designed for adventurer and champion-tier campaigns, it explores the various different aspects of a city infested by monsters, run by monsters, and constraining monsters. It is both radically law-abiding and radically criminal, fastidiously good mannered and rudely brutal, a half city built on the shattered remains of an old city, the ruins hiding dungeons and secrets which stretch from the former city walls into the depths of the city harbour waters. Alongside this, ordinary folk of the Dragon Empire get by and know how live alongside the turbulent nature of the city’s other, often unpleasant or difficult inhabitants, and in between New Rat City which provides a safe, if expensive underground route into Drakkenhall, the docks of Saltside where the lowlifes encountered are likely to be tourists as much as other visitors, and the Goblin Market, where getting fleeced is just part of doing business, there are points of goodness and light. The most notable of which is Pleasantville, an old Highrock city block in the rubblehood run by the Halfling, Uncle Papa Brother Knuckles, which is clean and minty fresh, covered in flowers and vines, and even has a supply of good drinking water, as well as the Scales enclave, a place of business barely tolerated by the Blue despite its normality, but such places are far and few between, and very much at odds with the rest of the city.

Drakkenhall: City of Monsters is not a conventional city guide in that it does not explore the city as a whole. Rather, it focuses on particular aspects of the city, with each chapter written by a different author, but it begins with an overview of its power brokers and pawns. It starts by highlighting the huge divide between the manors and estates of the wealthy and the surrounding shantytown ruins, little details such as the city’s odd status and high criminality making food supply and trade highly irregular, that many inhabitants of the city have to swear an oath of fealty to the Blue Sorceress, and instead of having a rat problem, Drakkenhall has an ooze problem! It divides its manors and estates—its ‘Estates of Significance’—between ‘Estates of Decadence’ and ‘Blood Houses’, connecting them to cults, demonic salons of science and discovery, fashion trends, and best of all, a social season with Enchanted Dance Cards each of which tracks the holder’s points with each of the Three. Suggestions are included too for the other Icons, but primarily it is with the Black, Blue, and Red Dragons, and the bearer can possibly earn one-time relationships with each one of them. There are even Fashionista Oozes which accompany their owners to parties and often react badly to fashions and styles their owners hold in poor regard and mechanical barber-surgeons like the Cut Monkey and the Amputation Mechanoid, which partially fill the void left by the lack of ready healing in the city. There are rules too for prosthetic limbs, so if a Player Character needs healing, the party had best keep a healing spell or two in reserve lest one of the automatons comes cutting… Much like the rest of Drakkenhall: City of Monsters, this opening chapter explores various aspects of the city, but in places, such the ‘Estates of Significance’, it leaves the specifics up the Game Master, and so in comparison, there are elements of the chapter that are not as interesting as the rest of the supplement.

‘Welcome to the Rubblehood’ hits some of the highlights of Drakkenhall’s ruins, for example, Hobtown, the fortified compound where the Jagged Company, a Hobgoblin mercenary unit drills daily, or the Float Royale, a pirate haven which floats just offshore, where the best beverages in the city can be found and the worst magical items in the empire go to be lost, whilst the bay itself is protected by a sleepy Dragon Turtle, who just happens to have a tame Kaiju-Shark at its beck and call. Every entry, as with the rest of the book is accompanied by a numerous adventure hooks and links to the Icons. There are more of the latter here than in other chapters, there being thirteen per Icon. ‘The Docks of Drakkenhall’ begins where the previous chapter left off at the shore’s edge, Saltside, the docks that are very much everyone’s idea of what dockside dives should be. There are Drakkenhall touches though, like the Dybbuk Inns, where guests get drugged of a night, their bodies possessed and put to some nefarious task, only to wake up with a terrible headache, but none the wiser or the Drowned District, an underwater remanent of Highrock just off  the coast, where the ghosts of the district’s former inhabitants, known as Lamenters, silently wail on the seabed, when they are not marching on the shore, likely with the aid of the Liche King. Accompanying these are quick and dirty rules for sea travel in the Dragon Empire, essentially handling them as travel montages as per the 13th Age Game Master’s Screen & Resource, whilst the Isles of Doom in the Midland Sea, Omen, which constantly spawns living dungeons that attack ships, and Necropolis, home to a massive army raised by the Liche King to threaten local shipping, are worthy of chapters of their own.

‘The Goblin Market’ is the standout chapter in Drakkenhall: City of Monsters. It describes the structure of the market from its outer Stalls to the deepest sections of Rock Bottom via the Underways; its own argot, a Goblinoid gang cant; and scam after scam, starting with all trades having to be in the market’s Blue Imp coins rather than Imperial coins, meaning currencies have to be exchanged, and then planting items on customers and claiming them to be stolen, drugging unsuspecting tourists and not only relieving them of their valuables, but delivering them ready to fight in the Fighting Pits, escalating a spilled drink into a demand for satisfaction which can only be settled in the fighting pit, and even demanding visitor’s fingers—especially if they are an Elf (such sweet meat)—as compensation for intruding on gang territory. Parts of the Goblin Market shift, but mostly it remains in Rubble City, run by the feudal mafia-like Organisation of goblinoid gangs, the most notable of which are the Rippers who operate the Double Draught speakeasy. This complete with gambling pits, a stage where even the most famous of the Dragon Empire’s entertainers have performed, impromptu blood brawls are set up, and a Halfling chef—so the food is good. Located in the depths of Rock Bottom, the Double Draught is going to be somewhere that the Player Characters are going to have to work to get to and get into, but once there, there are plenty of adventure hooks and ongoing plots to keep them coming back.

Drakkenhall: City of Monsters includes lots and lots of adventure hooks, but one thing it lacks until ‘Smash and Grab’ is a sense of an overarching plot that might keep the Player Characters in the city and crossing back and forth from one location to another. What ‘Smash and Grab’ suggests is a big scavenger hunt, leading to a treasure hunt. The ‘Society of Monster Archaeologists Searching for Hoards’—or ‘SMASH’—a secret society whose members possess a degree of immunity in a city of criminals. This is because members have a reputation for being tough, even mad, having delved into the deepest, darkest, most dangerous parts of Drakkenhall and the former Highrock in search of treasure and returned. Can the Player Characters join? Of course, they can! They just have to find the headquarters first, which is a hunt in itself, then when they have, they have to prove themselves worthy. This provides reasons for longer term play in Drakkenhall as well suggestions as to where to look for treasure worthy of SMASH. There are ideas too, for the Player Character who has SMASH as part of his Background during character creation.

Penultimately, Drakkenhall: City of Monsters presents some ideas as to why exactly, the Blue does not allow Orcs into the city. None of the four options are simple, but all four of them point to the deviousness of the Blue Sorceress. They are useful if the party includes an Orc Player Character. Lastly, there are stats for the Blue Dragon as the Blue Sorceress, though whether this is who she is, is open to conjecture…

Physically, Drakkenhall: City of Monsters is well written. However, the map of the city is not particularly detailed, so not as useful as it could have been, and the artwork does vary in quality.

As written, Drakkenhall: City of Monsters does not feel like a coherent book. There is no overview which might pull all of the book’s content and city description together and its treatment of the city is scattershot. That though is by design. Drakkenhall is far from a cohesive city, raucous and rowdy, lawless until someone steps out of line, order of a sought being maintained by fear, dread oaths of fealty, and the Blue Sorceress’ secret police and Kobold force of the Glinting Legionnaires. The result is that a Player Character is never going to quite get a true grasp of what the city is like and how it really works, and even if he did, there is no knowing quite what would be different if he left and came back. The Game Master is supported with plenty of new threats, a handful of new magical items, and too many adventure ideas and hooks and more to mention, so that each time a Player Character comes back there will be a new scam he has not run into, a new plot to get tied up in, and more. It also means that from one visit to the next, the Game Master never has to keep all of the city in mind, but can rather focus on particular locations and how the Icons might be involved. There are elements which Game Master will need to develop, but with half a city reduced to rubble, there are plenty of places to put them.

Ultimately, Drakkenhall: City of Monsters is a criminally chaotic—to a point—and an evilly entertaining city to visit for a 13th Age campaign. Probably more than once. However, full of malevolent magics and would be marauding monsters, with a government lamentably legitimate, and almost everyone ready to swindle almost everyone else, Drakkenhall: City of Monsters is probably not somewhere to stay for long.

Saturday, 18 March 2023

Quick-Start Saturday: SLA Industries

Quick-starts are means of trying out a roleplaying game before you buy. Each should provide a Game Master with sufficient background to introduce and explain the setting to her players, the rules to run the scenario included, and a set of ready-to-play, pre-generated characters that the players can pick up and understand almost as soon as they have sat down to play. The scenario itself should provide an introduction to the setting for the players as well as to the type of adventures that their characters will have and just an idea of some of the things their characters will be doing on said adventures. All of which should be packaged up in an easy-to-understand booklet whose contents, with a minimum of preparation upon the part of the Game Master, can be brought to the table and run for her gaming group in a single evening’s session—or perhaps too. And at the end of it, Game Master and players alike should ideally know whether they want to play the game again, perhaps purchasing another adventure or even the full rules for the roleplaying game.

Alternatively, if the Game Master already has the full rules for the roleplaying game for the quick-start is for, then what it provides is a sample scenario that she still run as an introduction or even as part of her campaign for the roleplaying game. The ideal quick-start should entice and intrigue a playing group, but above all effectively introduce and teach the roleplaying game, as well as showcase both rules and setting.


What is it?
SLA Industries 2nd Edition: Quick Start is the quick-start for SLA Industries 2nd Editiona roleplaying game of dark dystopian splatter punk and corporate noir horror.

It includes a basic explanation of the setting, rules for actions and combat, details of the arms, armour, and equipment fielded by the Player Characters, the mission, ‘The Cleaners’, and five ready-to-play, Player Characters, or SLA Operatives.

It is a fifty-two page, full colour book.

The quick-start is lightly illustrated, but the artwork is excellent. The rules are a slightly stripped down version from the core rulebook, but do  include examples of the rules which speed the learning of the game.

The themes and nature of SLA Industries and thus the 
SLA Industries 2nd Edition: Quick Start means that it is best suited to a mature audience.

How long will it take to play?
SLA Industries 2nd Edition: Quick Start and its adventure, ‘The Cleaners’, is designed to be played through in one or two sessions.

Who do you play?
The five Player Characters are all SLA Operatives who recently graduated from training and formed a squad called ‘Blistering Rain’
They consist of a Malice Stormer 313 with the Close Assault package, an Ebonite Medic, a Neophron with the Investigation & Interrogation package, a Frother with the Heavy Support package, and a Human with the Strike & Sweep package.

How is a Player Character defined?
An Operative has six stats—Strength, Dexterity, Knowledge, Concentration, and Cool. The sixth is Luck, except for the Ebonite, who have the Flux stat instead. Stats are rated between zero and six, whilst the skills are rated between one and four. Ratings Points represent an Operative’s ratings in various areas, such as televised action, corporate sponsorship, or faith in his own abilities. They are expended to overcome obstacles, perform cinematic feats, or avoid certain death or defeat. They are divided between three categories—Body, Brains, and Bravado—and indicate the ways in which an Operative will perform best on camera. For example, with Body 5, Brains 0, and Bravado 2, the Malice Stormer 313 will best seen performing an ‘Impossible Feat’ or going to ‘Tear Right Through Them’.

An Operative also has various traits such as Anger, Ambidextrous, Drug Addict, Arrogant, and so on. Each Operative sheet includes a thumbnail headshot illustration, some background, and several weapons. Each ‘SLA Operative Security Clearance Card’ or character sheet is clear and easy to read and understand.

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

How does combat work?
Combat in SLA Industries is designed to be desperate and dangerous. It is detailed and tactical. It takes into account offensive and defensive manoeuvres, rate of fire, recoil, damage inflicted on armour, cover, aiming, and so on. The scenario features a lot of combat and the Game Master should pay particular attention to those rules in the quick-start.

All SLA Operatives are combat trained, though some do specialise. The Frother is also addicted to a combat drug which gives him an advantage in combat.

How does the Ebb work?
One of the pre-generated SLA Operative is an Ebonite and can calculate the formulae underlying the Ebb disciplines. In play, each discipline is treated as a separate skill, requires the expenditure of Fluxx points, and can be used in and out of combat. The Ebonite has the Heal, Thermal: Blue, and Communicate disciplines. Thus she is capable of conversing by thought, healing wounds, resisting heat, manipulating the cold, and forming temporary blades of ice.

What do you play?
The SLA Industries 2nd Edition: Quick Start includes 
‘The Cleaners’, a short BPN or Blue Print News file assignment which starts out in intentionally frustrating and dreary fashion with the SLA Operatives waiting around to receive and assignment, before being transported by a squad of Shivers—local law enforcement and occasional riot squad—to the site where strange sounds coming from the sewers are heard. No one is really pleased to see the Operatives, but they are least pleased that someone will deal with the problem. There are some nice opportunities for roleplaying here before the SLA Operatives climb down into sewers.

The BPN involves a sewer sweep and clear of rats and other vermin, such as carrien and carnivorous pig. As the Operatives work their way through the sewers they will find clues suggesting that something else is going on. 

Is there anything missing?
The SLA Industries 2nd Edition: Quick Start is complete and it even comes with a pair of extra BPN files which the Game Master could develop and run if her players want to discover what happens next to the members of Blistering Rain. If there is anything missing which would made the scenario easier to run, it would be a map of the sewers, but this is not absolutely necessary. The Game Master may want to assign some names to the antagonists of the scenario as it is something that the players and their Operatives will ask about.

Is it easy to prepare?
The core rules presented in the 
SLA Industries 2nd Edition: Quick Start are relatively easy to prepare. The Game Master will need to pay closer attention to how combat works in the game as it is the most complex part of the rules and highly tactical in play. There is decent advice for the Game Master on to run the scenario.

Is it worth it?
Although the SLA Industries 2nd Edition: Quick Start does not touch upon the weirdness and true horror that is part of the World of Progress, it  presents a solid introduction to the ‘S5S’ System and the rules for SLA Industries 2nd Edition, as well as to the World of Progress and how it works for Operatives at the bottom of the ladder, being assigned a rotten job and not getting the full recognition for it. This means that it will work as a one-shot as a taster or convention scenario, but can also be added to or used to start a campaign. The scenario has an atmospheric tension from paranoia and the lack of trust that those around have for the SLA Operatives, which will ultimately end in a crescendo of violence down the sewers... 

Where can you get it?
The SLA Industries 2nd Edition: Quick Start is available to download here. 

Friday, 17 March 2023

Friday Faction: Everybody Wins

Board games have got big recently, as just about any newspaper headline on the subject will tell you, so much so that the headline has become a cliché. Yet there is some truth to the headline, for as long as anyone can imagine board games have always been popular, but board games really, really have got popular—and relatively recently. By recently, we mean the last forty years, and definitely the last thirty years as the board game evolved from something played during our childhoods to something that could be played and enjoyed by adults, who happened to be board game devotees. Then from this niche, the playing of board games as a hobby gained wider acceptance and moved into the mainstream to become an acceptable, even normal, pastime. Pioneered by classic titles such as Settlers of Catan, Carcassonne, and Ticket to Ride, board games have got big in the last few years. What these three designs have in common is that they all won the Spiel des Jahres, the German ‘Game of the Year Award’ which recognises family-friendly game design and promotes excellent games in the German market. To win the Spiel des Jahres is the equivalent of winning the Oscar for Best Picture. It is a mark of recognition not just for the game itself, but also for the designer and the publisher, and winning the Spiel des Jahres can mean tens of thousands of extra sales as everyone wants to try out the new critically acclaimed game. So, the question is, “What makes a Spiel des Jahres winner a good game?” It is answered some forty or so times by James Wallis in Everybody Wins: Four Decades of Greatest Board Games Ever Made.

Wallis, has of course, already explored the history of board games in the company of Sir Ian Livingstone with Board Games in 100 Moves: 8,000 Years of Play, but in Everybody Wins: Four Decades of Greatest Board Games Ever Made, published by Aconyte Books, he delves into the more recent forty-three years of the hobby to examine and give his opinion upon every one of the 
Spiel des Jahres winners, from the award’s inception in 1979 to 2022. The majority of them are good, some indifferent, and a few disappointing. Along the way he charts the changes in the hobby over the period as reflected through the awards, although as the author makes clear, this is not an actual history of the Spiel des Jahres award, its jury, and the deliberations it makes each year and the decisions it comes to. Its focus is very much on the games themselves and its tone and style is lighter, more that of a coffee table style book than some dry history. Consequently, this is a book which can be enjoyed by the casual board game player as much as the veteran. Further, the big, bold, bright format means that the book can be put in the hands of someone who does not play board games, and they will not be intimidated by the book itself or the games it showcases.

Everybody Wins is divided up into five colour-coded sections which each explore the different eras of the 
Spiel des Jahres, including the themes, the changes in design, and trends in the hobby in that time, beginning with ‘Opening Moves’ of 1979 to 1985, and going through ‘The Golden Age’ of 1996 to 2004 and ‘Identity Crisis’ of 2005 to 2015, before finding ‘New Purpose, New Direction’ since 2016. Each section opens with an overview of the period. For example, ‘Opening Moves’ explains how the award came to be founded and what it set out to do, which was to highlight, if not necessarily the best game of the year, then the most interesting, the most playable, and the most fun game of year, which had been published in German in the last year, and in the process, to broaden the acceptance of board games beyond just the hobby. Later eras examine the changing fortunes of the award and game design, for example, ‘The Golden Age’ exploring the effect that Settlers of Catan, winner in 1995, had on both hobby and industry, and how the period would not only see the rise of classic game, but also several heavier, more complicated games would not necessarily appeal to a family audience. Each overview is then followed by the winners for that period, every title receiving an essay that details its background, gameplay, the author’s opinion, and more. Notes give both the publisher and current  availability, plus whether or not the game was a worthy winner and is still worth playing now. The occasional sidebar explains particular rule types or gives a thumbnail portrait of a designer and every entry concludes with a full list of the nominees and winners of the various awards the Spiel des Jahres jury has given out over the years, initially special awards, but more recently the Kinderspiel and Kennerspiel awards.

Everybody Wins does not look at the winners of the other two awards that the jury gives out— the Kinderspiel and Kennerspiel awards. Neither are quite as important as the 
Spiel des Jahres, nor do they quite have the same effect on the industry, but where Everybody Wins does come up short is in not looking at the ‘what if’s’ of the Spiel des Jahres. Only once does the author look closely at another nomination for the award, Matt Leacock’s Forbidden Island, a nominee in 2011 when Quirkle won. This is less of an issue when what is regarded as a classic won in a particular year, such as Settlers of Catan in 1995, Dominion in 2009, or Codenames in 2016, but what about in 2002 when the stacking game, Villa Paletti won? Wallis tells the reader that, “In no possible sense was this the game of the year.” It would have been interesting to pull the other nominees out and give them the space to explain why they should have won instead. For example, Puerto Rico and TransAmerica in 2002, but also for Niagara in 2005 and later, Keltis in 2008. Later, Wallis does look at ‘The Ones That Didn’t Win’, but this is only a brief overview, primarily highlighting the commercialism of a game or it not suiting the Spiel des Jahres criteria, but there are games here that do fit those criteria, and would have been worthy winners, such as Pandemic in 2009.

Physically, Everybody Wins: Four Decades of Greatest Board Games Ever Made is lovingly presented, with every entry very nicely illustrated and accompanied with an engaging description. One obvious issue with the presentation is the book’s sidebars. Done in white on colour boxes, the text is not strong enough to read without the aid of good lighting.

The response to Everybody Wins will vary according to how much of a board game player the reader is. If the reader is a veteran, this will send him scurrying back into his collection to pull out titles and try them again, checking them against past plays and the author’s assessment. Or scouring online sellers for the titles that he does not have. The more casual player is more likely to pick and choose from the range of titles discussed in the pages of the book, probably looking for the classics and the titles that the author recommends as worth his time and the reader’s time. Whatever way in which the reader responds to the book, Everybody Wins: Four Decades of Greatest Board Games Ever Made is an entertaining and informative primer on the past four decades of the board game hobby and the winners of its greatest prize.