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

Friday, 15 May 2015

Onslaught and the Occult in the Orient

Achtung! Cthulhu: Guide to the Pacific Front is the third of three supplements for Modiphius Entertainment's World War 2 set RPG of Lovecraftian investigative horror to examine particular theatres of the great conflict. The previous two books examined the Eastern Front and North Africa—in Achtung! Cthulhu: Guide to the Russian Front and Achtung! Cthulhu: Guide to North Africa respectively. Now the line heads to the Far East where the investigators will face foes seemingly inhuman and alien across inhospitable terrain that ranges from the wide stretches of open ocean to the depths beneath fecund, even foetid jungle. From 1932 until 1944, it covers first Japan’s growing dominance of China and then her lightning series of strikes that will see country after country and colony fall as well as the pride of the United States Navy sunk, before the Allies manage to regroup and send their forces hopping from island to the next, driving the resource starved Japanese forces back to their home islands. All this whilst certain races of the Mythos and cults devoted to Alien gods watch and wait to see if they can take advantage of the chaos…

As with the rest of Acthung! Cthulhu line, the Guide to the Pacific Front is written for use with both Call of Cthulhu, Sixth Edition and Savage Worlds. Mechanics for both are clearly marked and whilst the supplement does present a large number of items—tomes and spells in particular—that will be familiar to devotees of Lovecraftian investigative roleplaying, this is primarily because they are being presented for the first time for Savage Worlds.

Before the Guide to the Pacific Front can begin covering the war itself, there are several decades of history to explore. These detail Japan’s meteoric modernisation and rise as a regional power, defeating first China and then Russia, before siding with the Allies in the Great War and capturing several former German colonies. Resentment towards her former allies coupled with rapid militarismthe latter often promoted and encouraged by the numerous secret societies made up of members of both the military and the government, drove Japan to invade China, Korea, and Manchuria before striking at the American Fleet at Pearl Harbour and then invading and conquering colonies and islands across South East Asia and the Pacific. Not is the rise and state of Japan described, but so is the state of the colonies and colonial powers across the region. The latter includes Great Britain, France, and the Netherlands, whilst the former includes India, Burma, French Indochina, Malaya, the Dutch East Indies, and others. The timeline itself only goes as far as 1944 and not to the end of the war—at least in our timeline. This is with good reason, as events in Europe in April, 1944 and the supplements Achtung! Cthulhu: Assault on the  Mountains of Madness and Achtung! Cthulhu: Bye Bye Baby mean that the history in the Achtung! Cthulhu world plays out entirely differently...

As difficult a subject as it is, the Guide to the Pacific Front does not shy away from Japan’s deplorable treatment of her Prisoners of War. In addition to the overview an uncomfortable subject, rules are provided to surviving the harsh conditions imposed by the Japanese attitude towards prisoners as well as a Prisoner of War Hindrance for creating a POW. This lends itself to being part of an Achtung! Cthulhu campaign, but whether the investigators begin or end a game as POWs—or perhaps experience it somewhere between—this would be a harrowing and inhuman experience.

Mechanically, the supplement presents a good range of new character options, both civilian and military. These range from Colonial Settler and Guerilla Fighter to Triad Gang Member to Tribal Member and from Chindits and Codetalkers to Gurkhas and US Marines. Means are provided to create random nationalities and military drafts as training packages for the Australian Coastwatchers and US Marine Raiders. In many cases, the player and Keeper alike will need to refer back to Achtung! Cthulhu: Investigator’s Guide to the Secret War for the other generic, yet still appropriate backgrounds and Occupations. Nevertheless, this is a good mix of options and ideas, that is further supported by a solid list of equipment—primarily Japanese—to support that also given in Achtung! Cthulhu: Investigator’s Guide to the Secret War, and a good guide to fighting and surviving in the harsh conditions of South East Asia and the Pacific Islands. This covers how the war is fought and its difficulties, whether that it is the problem of conducting an amphibious landing past a coral reef, the limited lines of sight beneath the jungle campaign, or simply just trying to keep the front lines supported when they are thousands of miles away. The rules here cover jungle visibility, booby traps, and the dangers of infected wounds in a hot and humid environment amongst others.

Where the Guide to North Africa completely ignored the Crawling Chaos who it would be perfectly unnatural to have present mocking our activities throughout the desert campaign and beyond, the pleasure in the Guide to the Pacific Front is that it does not ignore the Great Old One lurking in the room—or rather in the depths of the ocean. The supplement’s exploration of the Mythos is expansive and detailed, focusing on a limited number of cults, races, and gods, starting of course, with great Cthulhu himself—or rather the cult and the races devoted to him. The focus is upon his servants rather than the Great Old One himself, so this not only includes the Deep Ones, and Mother Hydra and Father Dagon, but also his sons—Zoth-Ommog, Ythogtha, and Ghatanotha. Their inclusion pushes the supplement into some obscure aspects of the Mythos. They and their father and his cult are presented as potential allies rather than as active participants in the affairs of mankind. The Tcho-Tcho are treated in similar fashion, a detailed potential ally, but the Serpent People are not. Rather, in addition to going into detail about their origins and their reawakening, the Guide to the Pacific Front talks about their long range plans and their active interest in the doings of mankind. In fact, they appear to be most active of all the Mythos forces in the theatre and this makes them easier to use then the more passive Cthulhu Cult and Tcho-Tcho. Further, the long range plans of the Serpent People lends itself to a full campaign, one that could take beyond the end of World War 2.

Besides the races, gods, and entities of the Mythos, gives a number new artefacts, spells, and tomes. Most of them—such as the Cthaat Aquadingen and Thaumaturgical Prodigies in the New-England Canaan—are new to Savage Worlds rather than Call of Cthulhu.

What is apparent from the description of the Mythos in the Pacific is—barring the plans of the Serpent People—how little human agency is involved. This is radically different to the war in the West, where the Nazi secret organisations of Achtung! CthulhuBlack Sun and Nachte Wölfe—are actively researching and ‘co-opting’ the Mythos. In the Pacific, neither organisation is particularly active and the Japanese seem to possess almost no knowledge of the Mythos. This seems almost true of the Allies as well, Department M is hardly present and there appears to be no active opposition or investigation of the outré aspects of the war. Of course, this leaves it open for a Keeper to develop this aspect himself, but some direction would have been useful, more so given how good the Mythos material is in Guide to the Pacific Front.

Rounding out the Guide to the Pacific Front are descriptions of numerous NPCs. As with the other supplements, the real world figures are given just a description rather than a description and stats. This understandable, but the descriptions are decent and the stats given to the ordinary NPCs are good. The latter includes NPC versions of the Occupations given earlier, but notably also gives stats for some surprising NPCs—members of the INA, the Indian National Army that fought the British in the jungles of Burma. Lastly, the supplement includes a trio of adventure seeds the send the investigators to some interesting places.

Physically, the Guide to the Pacific Front is well presented, being neat and tidy, and decently illustrated, with a lot of good information. Like the Guide to North Africa, lots of extra information can be found in the boxed text that appears fairly regularly. Yet as presented as the supplement is, in terms of the writing, it is a book of two halves. The first half, which deals with the history of, and the background to, the conflict in the East and how it was fought is simply overwritten and stylistically, often a challenge to read. Now to be fair, I am reading the book as both a reviewer and an editor, and so when it comes to the writing I may be overly sensitive, but there were occasions when I had to put the book down, walk away, and then come back to it later. Fortunately, the second half of the book, the half that deals with the Mythos is infinitely easier to read and thus much more engaging.

Achtung! Cthulhu: Guide to the Pacific Front is not a perfect book. The writing is uneven in places and aspects of the book are underwritten, but it is a good book. It provides an excellent overview of the conflict in the Far East and how it was fought, the rules and armoury are solidly done in supporting the overview, and fundamentally, its treatment of the Mythos is nicely detailed and does not feel as if it sits in isolation from Call of Cthulhu cannon. Achtung! Cthulhu: Guide to the Pacific Front is a solid treatment of the war in the Pacific, whether fighting against the ordinary or the outré.

Monday, 11 May 2015

Foreshadowing The Lord of the Rings

One of the promises of The One Ring RPG, published by Cubicle Seven Entertainment is that the Company—the group of player characters—has the chance to affect the fate of Mirkwood. The Tale of Years, as related in the game’s core book, tells of how in the years following the Battle of the Five Armies and the White Council’s casting out of the Necromancer from his stronghold of Dol Guldur in southern Mirkwood, a shadow fell upon the forest once again and threatened to spread fear and despair amongst all the free peoples of the North. Although the strength of Elves will eventually prevail, many will perish or disappear if those true of heart do not stand against the darkness that has once again returned to cast a pall under the trees…

This section of the Tale of Years is known as the Darkening of Mirkwood, which is also the name of the campaign that details this threat to the northern realms. The Darkening of Mirkwood is the companion campaign to excellent The Heart of the Wild, the supplement that details the lands, peoples, and environs of the river and the forest—the Vale of Anduin and the trackless forests of Mirkwood. It takes place between the years 2947 and 2977, presenting annual opportunities for the heroes to venture forth and explore and adventure, to make names and reputations for themselves, to find both friends and their places in north, to uncover its true secrets, and at the very least, hold back the shadow.

To properly run The Darkening of Mirkwood the Loremaster will also need a copy of The Heart of the Wild, for much of background and setting material relevant to the campaign is published in that book. The Loremaster's Screen and Lake-town Sourcebook  may be of use should the Company travel that far north, whilst the Loremaster can use the scenarios from Tales from Wilderland as extras to those detailed in The Darkening of Mirkwood—at least at the start. As it progresses, the Company will become more involved with the campaign’s events rather than the relatively minor details of the adventures given in Tales from Wilderland.

The campaign is structured into five parts. They are ‘The Last Good Years: 2947-2950’, ‘The Return of the Shadow: 2951-2960’, ‘The Gathering Gloom; 2961-2966’, ‘The Years of the Plague: 2967-2974’, and ‘The Darkening of Mirkwood: 295-2977’. The campaign is then further broken down year by year, with each year organised in similar fashion into three sections—Events, the Adventuring Phase, and the Fellowship Phase. The first of these details events far and wide pertinent to the campaign. Some of these the company will learn about the same year, but others it will not find out about for years, unsurprising given that travel across Middle Earth is primarily by foot and then mostly by traders rather than average farmer or craftsman. This both adds to the sense of isolation of the regions in and around Mirkwood and enforces one of the company’s roles—bringing news.

The Adventuring Phase takes up the majority of each year. They vary in terms of both length and complexity, their possible activities also varying widely. One year the company might find itself hunting with the Elves, another dealing with mad Dwarves, another helping out one of the wizards—typically Radaghast the Brown, and so on. Increasingly, as the campaign progresses, the company will find itself more and more involved in the affairs and activities of the Woodfolk, the politics of the region, and more, missions that take it back and forth across Mirkwood. Given that the campaign covers thirty years of game time, The Darkening of Mirkwood gives some thirty of these adventures, all of them presenting a good mix of roleplaying and gaming challenges.

At the end of each year comes the Fellowship Phase when the Company has a chance to reflect upon the events of the year just gone. Some years nothing special will present itself during the Fellowship Phase and a Companion might simply adhere to Undertakings such as rest, attempt to resist the effects of the Shadow upon his heart, improve his Hope, or perhaps increase a skill. Yet during the Fellowship Phases of other years a Companion might have the opportunity to establish a Holding and thus find a place in a community—typically in one of the Woodfolk settlements, to research the history of certain events, to consult with wizards, to gain a companion, and so on.

Rounding out the campaign is an appendix containing an expanded bestiary. This is in addition to the beasts and foes described in The Heart of the Wild and certainly includes some major additions. Not just Forest Goblins, Hunter Spiders, and Wood-Wights, but also the primary agents of the Necromancerand by this we mean the nazgûl! Theirs is a growing presence throughout the campaign, understandably one that the Company would be wise to avoid.

In addition to the stats for the new creatures, The Darkening of Mirkwood also provides rules for Holdings, properties that a Companion can own and develop. They might be a farm, a tavern, a smithy, or land worked by others. For example, Bilbo Baggins’ Bag End can be treated as a Holding, as can Sam Gamgee’s gardening job. Each of these two Holdings—and every Holding—will typically generate enough income for a Companion to maintain his Standard of Living. Roll high enough though, and a Holding will generate Treasure and even a minor boon! Holdings are yet another means of tying a Companion into the campaign, because they grant said Companion a stake in the fate of the region. Conversely, the growing threat presented during the campaign will impinge on the capacity of Holdings to support the Companion, and indeed, anyone who relies upon it for his Standard of Living.

Physically, The Darkening of Mirkwood is well presented and maintains the standards set by previous books in The One Ring RPG line. As a campaign, The Darkening of Mirkwood starts out slow and builds, nicely presenting an incredibly dangerous threat that creeps into the region and grows ever so slowly until the heroes and armies of the free peoples of the North have no choice but to confront it. This is accompanied by a shift in tone, from relatively low key up to something verging almost on high fantasy in which the player are roleplaying not just Companions, but also heroes. Not of the stature of the Fellowship of the Ring of course, but heroes nonetheless. In doing so the campaign presents some thirty adventures and thus months of potential gaming time. The Darkening of Mirkwood is the campaign that The One Ring has been waiting, ably developing what amount to mere footnotes in Tolkien’s writings and involving  the player characters the holding back of the Shadow until the One Ring can be found.

Wednesday, 6 May 2015

Sweet Charnel Decay

The primary focus of Pelgrane Press’ clue orientated RPG of Lovecraftian investigative horror, Trail of Cthulhu is the desperate decade—the 1930s. Yet it is no stranger to other time periods, in particular, the Great War. Author Adam Gauntlett has penned a number of scenarios set within the four years of the global conflict that took place between 1914 and 1918 that have taken the investigators soaring into the skies in Flying Coffins, diving into the depths in Sisters of Sorrow, and slipping behind the trenches in Not So Quiet, each time to face a strange new sanity searing threat to humanity that is taking advantage of the carnage and chaos of the Great War.

With Dulce et Decorum Est: Great War Trail of Cthulhu, Gauntlett revisits the conflict to further explore the advantage taken by certain entities of the Mythos and in the process present rules for handling the conflict in the air, at sea, and on land in this new mechanical age of war; set out a campaign framework and give scenarios old and new. In previous visits to the Great War by Lovecraftian investigative horror—in particular by No Man’s Land for Call of Cthulhu—the Mythos entities associated with such mass conflict have been the feasters upon the dead, that is, ghouls. Here the author takes this to the next logical step and places the Great Old One, Mordiggian, as the Great War’s darkest celebrant and patron. The Charnel God was not the instigator of the Great War, but it is pleased to participate and further encourage the loss of life on a massive scale—one more sign that the End Times near?

Thus according to Dulce et Decorum Est, the greater the devastation and the greater the scale of death, the more likely that Mordiggian will manifest. This might be as simple as the ghost-like Angel of Mons, but it might a personal manifestation. Either way, the aim of both is to drive men to greater acts of death and destruction. Whilst Mordiggian shares an interest in mankind with Nyarlathotep, unlike that of the Crawling Chaos, he is not malicious and manipulative, but malign and monomaniacal, concerned only with death. Often worshipped by those with an interest in necromancy, Mordiggian rarely dispenses boons, but nevertheless, given the patriotic fervour with which the war is supported at home by both sides, it is no surprise that the Charnel God is worshipped by cultists on both sides. Thus cultists are given for both sides in Dulce et Decorum Est. One, Agathe von Plon, previously appeared as the villain in Flying Coffins, whilst the others, the Balfour sisters, are distant relations to the author of the infamous tome, Cultes des Ghouls and together lead The Order of the White Feather, which actively supports the war and decries any signs of cowardice.

Dulce et Decorum Est offers four campaign settings and three scenarios. The four campaigns start with ‘The Home Front’, amidst the burgeoning feminism and sexuality of women doing men’s job as the popularity of the war grows and grows, before moving closer and closer to the Western Front. This is exacerbated in the second campaign setting, ‘Paris: The city of Tears’, and combined with the whirlwind chaos of soldiery passing through, nightly bombing, and keeping the troops entertained. The third, ‘15th New York Volunteer Infantry Regiment: A Season in Hell’, sees the Charnel God take advantage of, and drive on, the pride of an African-American infantry regiment, whilst the fourth, ‘Sinai and Palestine: Shadows in the Desert’, mixes espionage and guerilla warfare of Lawrence of Arabia with the Mythos.

‘Vaterland’, the first of the three scenarios is a prequel of sorts to Flying Coffins. It is set in 1914 aboard the Vaterland, a German passenger liner that has been chained up in New York harbour to prevent it being used ship supplies in support of the German war effort. The investigators are ‘yellow journalists’ sent to attend a concert being held aboard the Vaterland in support of Germany, one that is being attended by William Randolph Hearst! Is the concert a cover for a German spy ring? If so, could Hearst be German spy! This is why the investigators’ editor sends them aboard the Vaterland, but the truth of the matter is that the investigators are unlikely to uncover exactly what is going before everything goes awry. As the lights go out in the bowels of the passenger liner, the investigators find themselves trapped in the visions of the horrors to come and must find their way out of those as much as the ship itself. A relatively short, straightforward and confined affair, ‘Vaterland’ is a primarily interesting because of its setting, one that plays against our anti-German notions of the period. The inclusion of Hearst as an NPC adds an interesting wrinkle and a certain impetus to the scenario.

The second scenario is ‘Dead Horse Corner’ and fits more readily into our narrative of the Great War. The investigators are soldiers, members of the Royal Engineers, sent up the line to a forward observation post to re-establish contact with the unit assigned there and repair a broken telephone line. Under intermittent shell fire and sniper fire, the investigators find themselves isolated and at first haunted, then hunted by something in the valley. Again a relatively short scenario, it nicely builds on a strong sense of isolation and of the three scenarios in the book, is probably best suited to add to an ongoing campaign set during the Great War.

‘Sisters of Sorrow’ is the third and final scenario in Dulce et Decorum Est. It is also the only reprint and thus has already been reviewed here. Set aboard a German mine-laying submarine,  ‘Sisters of Sorrow’ is all about the infectiousness of paranoia and desperation in confined spaces. After all, nowhere could be more confined than an Unterseeboot in the middle of a Royal Navy blockade in the North Sea when the danger comes from below.

As well as a timeline of the war, the supplement presents a number of new rules. This includes the Military Talk and Battlefield Lore Abilities—the former for interacting with members of the military and its bureaucracy, the latter for knowing about and the way around a battlefield. For the most part the new rules consist of subsets for handling the different physical environments that the war is fought in, that is, on land, in the air, and at sea. The rules for both aerial and naval combat are not new rules, having been drawn from ‘Sisters of Sorrow’ for the naval rules and from Flying Coffins for the aerial rules, but their inclusion here is fitting. The new rules for ground combat cover the digging of trenches and laying of fortifications, trench warfare—including gas warfare, and the first incidences of armoured warfare—including both tanks and armoured cars. Whilst all these rules are appropriate, what is missing is a guide to creating investigators for any of these theatres of conflict, since many of the participants will be new to the military life and had jobs before enlisting.

Physically, Dulce et Decorum Est is solidly presented.The art is excellent, though the writing feels a little rushed in places. If the supplement is lacking, it is in the lack of overarching advice for the Keeper on running a campaign set during the Great War, but as a whole though, Dulce et Decorum Est gives the tools for the Keeper to run scenarios set during the war, plus numerous good ideas and three solid, though all too short scenarios. 

Tuesday, 28 April 2015

More is less

In 2009 James Raggi IV launched Lamentations of the Flame Princess with a very singular calling card—Death Frost Doom. Inspired by the dark imagery of his musical tastes and the horror he liked to read, Raggi’s scenario was unlike anything that the Old School Renaissance had seen, although in the five years since, he has brought numerous weird horror scenarios to the hobby—many of which I have had the pleasure to edit or review. Death Frost Doom was remarkable for its atmosphere, for it was a scenario in which almost nothing happened. Further it could be dropped into almost any setting. It consisted of lonely, snow bound and wind swept mountain, one with a dark, unspoken reputation that means that the local populace of the valleys below avoid it. This is despite their believing that the halls within the mountain are said to hide a great treasure, though one protected by an ancient, slumbering evil.

If the player characters ascended the mountain what they found was a lonely, mad old man, a strangely furnished cabin, and below it an oddly empty dungeon containing almost nothing and no-one to fight. Unfortunately, the locals are correct—the mountain does harbour an ancient evil and if the player characters are too curious, they will let loose not just the ‘Doom’ upon themselves, but upon everyone in the valleys below and beyond.If all goes well, the scenario is designed to end with the ‘heroes’ fleeing down the snowy slopes with an army of the undead hard on their heels, knowing that it is entirely their curiosity that has got them there. Also notable, was what replaced the things to fight and the things to kill of any other Dungeons & Dragons-style scenario were details that added atmosphere and a sense of the weird to the exploration before the ‘Doom’. Death Frost Doom remains a classic scenario, arguably one of the best published as part of the Old School Renaissance.

Arguably though, Death Frost Doom was not perfect. Its elements were disjointed and the only thing that would bring about its deadly denouement was player curiosity. The primary motivation for the players in the scenario—unless the GM added more—was to find out if there was more to the dungeon than was readily apparent. To answer the question, “Is there more to it than this?” It is some of these issues that the new, fifth anniversary edition of Death  Frost Doom addresses as well as answering that question. Co-authored with Zak Smith—best known for Vornheim: The Complete City Kit and A Red & Pleasant Land—the new edition comes as a handsome little hardback, complete with new artwork and new maps. This is a major revision of the scenario, one that does not violate either the scenario’s structure or its story, but adds detail and pacing that makes it much more of a coherent whole.

In fact, this new edition comes with a wealth of detail, begun in the cabin atop the mountain and here continued into the dungeon below. Here every room is fully detailed and many more of the rooms have a purpose, typically to hint at the secrets that lie at the heart of the dungeon. The stand-out room here is the Chapel, which in true grand guignol style includes a giant organ with human finger bones as its keys and human thigh bones as its pipes. The effect of this detail is to intrigue the players and thus push them to investigate further.  This process is also eased by the pacing—there is a timing mechanism, a countdown, that moves events in the dungeon onto its intended  denouement and the secrets themselves are ever so slightly easy to decipher.

Where the original dungeon had almost nothing in the way of NPCs, the dungeon now has a several of them, a set of vile creations that will have the players rueing that they ever encountered them.  They are though, evidence that the new edition there comes with a marked change in tone—twice. The first of these is in the horror, which as the scenario progresses becomes more physical  and sanguinary in nature. The second is Zak Smith’s writing style, which is lighter in tone than that of James Raggi IV and in places does suffer for it, descending as it does into silliness. Fortunately, enough of the Lamentations of the Flame Princess trademark ‘screw the players’ elements are present to keep the tone on track.

Lastly, what has been replaced in this anniversary edition is the secondary adventure, ‘The Tower’. To be honest, it is no great loss, and anyway, the inclusion of James Raggi’s retrospective of the original Death Frost Doom and its art is far more appropriate.

The new edition of Death Frost Doom is physically a far superior book. It comes as a handy little hardback, with better maps and much more oppressive artwork. Its contents are better organised and easier to spot on the page with pertinent facts highlighted in almost bullet point fashion.

There is no doubt that the original Death Frost Doom was a great dungeon. Seeing it back in print was always going to be welcome, but some of the changes in the anniversary are perhaps not so. The addition of the blood and the gore take away from the subtlety of the original, but the wealth of new detail more than makes up for that.  Death Frost Doom was, and still is, a great scenario, strong on atmosphere and rich in detail.

Sunday, 26 April 2015

Load the train—faster! faster!

If you thought that at twenty minutes long that Yardmaster was too long a game, then there is a solution. Funded through Kickstarter and also published by Crash Games, Yardmaster Express is a micro game that can be played in ten minutes however many players you have. Designed for between two and five players, aged thirteen plus, in Yardmaster Express, the players attempt to build the most valuable train in a limited number of turns.

The game consists of one Start Player token, five Engine cards, thirty-two Railcar cards, and four Caboose cards. At the start of the game, each player receives an Engine card to which he will attach his Railcar cards and one player is given the Start Player token. This player draws a hand of Railcar cards equal to the number of players. He then takes his turn.

On his turn, a player draws one Railcar card and adds it to his hand. He then plays one card from his hand. Each Railcar card is two-and-a-half inches square and divided vertically in half. Each half of the Railcar card has a colour and a number on it as well as a Railcar. Both the colour and the  number on each side can be the same or they can be completely different. What matters is that when added to a player’s train, the colour or the number of the new Railcar must match the colour or the number of the last Railcar in the train. So for example, the last Railcar in Dave’s is a Green 2. Thus he can play either another Green card or any card with a value of 2. If a player lacks a card that he can add to his train, then he flip a card and play it as a Wild Card, in which it acts as any colour or number.

At the end of his turn, a player collects up his hand and passes it to the player on his left, who then takes his turn. 

Once a set number of round have passed—seven for two players, six for three players, and so on, then the game ends. The players add up the value of the numbers on the Railcars in his train—that is, both numbers on each Railcar cards—to get a total. The player with the longest run of one colour of Railcars receives a bonus equal to their number. The player with the highest total is the winner.

Now what is clear here is there is only the one hand of Railcar cards. It is this that is passed from one player to next, each time the holding player drawing and playing a Railcar card. The draw, play, and pass mechanic feels not dissimilar to that of 7 Wonders, though of course, there is only the one hand of cards whereas everyone has a hand of cards in 7 Wonders. The same two core choices are offered here as in 7 Wonders—does a player add a Railcar to his train because he needs it, or because it will prevent another player from adding a Railcar that he needs? This choice may not always be there, but it needs to be kept in mind when it is. The game though, is primary luck based, players relying on drawing the Railcar cards that they want to play rather than on cards that they want to prevent another player using..

Yardmaster Express is nicely presented. The cards are of a high quality and a nice touch is the basic rules are printed on the Engine cards for easy reference. The rules are easy to read and learn. The packaging is nicely sturdy. The addition of the wooden Start Player token is nice too as is a mini-expansion and some variant rules.

Given the lack choices and actions—just draw a card, play a card, pass the cards on—Yardmaster Express is suited to a younger audience, rather than the suggested minimum age of thirteen which feels rather high. It also plays better with three or four players as with five players, the number of turns feels far too short. Yet despite its simplicity, Yardmaster Express is reasonable filler, one that fits easily into a bag and carried around.

Friday, 17 April 2015

The Sixth Doctor

“Change, my dear. And it seems not a moment too soon.”

In coming to review The Sixth Doctor Sourcebook, the sixth entry in Cubicle Seven Entertainment’s celebration of Doctor Who's fiftieth anniversary for the Ennie-award winning Doctor Who: Adventures in Time and Space roleplaying game, it is appropriate—surprisingly appropriate—that the review begins with the Sixth Doctor’s most well known quote. For after the somewhat lacklustre tone and content of the previous book, The Fifth Doctor Sourcebook, and given the Sixth Doctor’s abysmal reputation, it may come as a surprise that this supplement is actually good.

For in writing this supplement, the author of The Sixth Doctor Sourcebook has had to overcome three hurdles—one of them very big and two of them not so big. The very big hurdle is that the Sixth Doctor is not popular. In fact the Sixth Doctor is arguably one of the most unpopular of incarnations of the Time Lord, being brash, arrogant, abrasive, petulant, at times callous, and possessing a dress sense that is arguably worse than that of Zaphod Beeblebrox. The first of the not so big hurdles is that the Sixth Doctor’s  stories are generally regarded as being of a poor standard and just like the character of the Sixth Doctor are not popular. In particular, his first full story, 'The Twin Dilemma' is held to be one of the worst stories ever filmed, though 'Time Lash' is not far behind (personally though, I quite like 'Revelation of the Daleks'). The second of the not so big hurdles is that the author has just eleven stories to detail and expand upon and that could have been an excuse to undermine the book’s usefulness and application if he had repeated the design of The Fifth Doctor Sourcebook and overwritten the story descriptions. After all, it would have been the easy thing to do. Fortunately, just like the Doctor and the personality of the Sixth Doctor, Cubicle Seven Entertainment has decided that ‘easy’ was not the best option in overcoming any one of these three hurdles. 

The two lesser hurdles, the unpopularity and the poor quality of the Sixth Doctor’s stories and the fact that there are just eleven of them are dealt within a very simple manner. The author focuses upon what can be done with each story rather than on the story itself. In practice this means that no summary is more than four pages long and whilst these are not always the most interesting of reads, they are at least concise, which is huge improvement over the overwritten summaries in The Fifth Doctor Sourcebook. This leaves more room for the stats and write-ups of the characters and devices in each story as well as advice on running the adventure and further adventure—typically eight pages of useful supporting material and ideas.  Again, a huge improvement over the supporting material in The Fifth Doctor Sourcebook.

Of course, this come with its own problems—stats for everything and I do mean everything! It is arguable, for example, whether stats are really needed for the watching Arak and Etta from the story, 'Vengeance on Varos', but the need for stats for the Varosian Guard Buggy is far less debatable. Or indeed the inclusion of stats for Ruth Baxter and Mr. Kimber from 'Terror of the Vervoids'. Nevertheless, there are lots of nicely write-ups scattered throughout the descriptions of the stories. This includes the obvious such as Gustave Lytton in 'Attack of the Cybermen', Sil in 'Vengeance on Varos', but also George Stephenson from 'The Mark of the Rani', H.G. Wells from 'Time Lash', and of course, Sabalom Glitz and Dibber from 'The Mysterious Planet'. 

The Sixth Doctor Sourcebook actually begins and is organised much like the previous books in the series. It begins with a good overview of the Sixth Doctor’s era followed by character  sheets for the Sixth Doctor and his companions—Peri and Mel as well as a discussion of the Sixth Doctor’s TARDIS. These are accompanied by various new Traits such as Have I been here before?, Positive Outlook, and Time Lord Mentor, plus a number of new Time Lord tricks such as Trance and Completely Impossible Escape. The latter enables a Time Lord to burn all of Story Points to escape certain doom, which whilst seemly appropriate also appears to be somewhat mechanically redundant. 

The bulk of the sourcebook is, of course, devoted to detailing the Sixth Doctor’s adventures. As already mentioned, these are well written and well supported, particularly in terms of further adventures. This continues a trend begun from the book’s outset, where the given further adventures are more akin to scenario outlines, and all of this in addition to the ideas often discussed in detail for each story. It is no surprise though, that 'The Trial of a Time Lord' gets a whole chapter of its own, discussing in detail the purpose of the trial, its location aboard the Time Lords’ Justice Machine, and of course, the Valeyard. In previous stories the supplement discussed both the Master and the Rani in detail, but they are known enemies with aims, advantages, and weaknesses, whereas the Valeyard is very much an unknown. Various ideas are discussed as to where the Valeyard might have sprung from and who he might be working for, some of them stemming from the Doctor recent adventures.

If 'Genesis of the Daleks' is, as discussed in The Fourth Doctor Sourcebook, is the opening shot in the Time War, then by the time of the Sixth Doctor’s stories, as extrapolated by The Sixth Doctor Sourcebook that war is really heating up, with the major powers in the galaxy—the Cybermen and the Daleks in particular—moving to gain the highly advanced technology needed to bring the fight to Gallifrey. An appendix explores how each of the Sixth Doctor’s adventures fits into the framework of the Time War, although of course, neither the Doctor, the Master, the Rani, or the Valeyard are aware of this connection yet. The accompanying adventure seeds do make more of this connection, as does a complete campaign outline that might just see the need for the Time War put on hold…

Physically, The Sixth Doctor Sourcebook is decently done. The use of black and white photographs in places feels jarring (if understandable if that is all that is available). The book feels a little overdone in places in terms of detail, but better to have it than not.

Where The Fifth Doctor Sourcebook was a disappointment, sadly showcasing the undevelopment of decent source material, then The Sixth Doctor Sourcebook is a revelation, showcasing how well disappointing source material can be developed. This development does come with the benefit of hindsight, the Time War being a modern addition to Doctor Who, but what the development means is that not only is the GM given lots of support, ideas, and adventure seeds to work with, but that also all of a sudden, the Sixth Doctor’s adventures look intriguing. Above all, The Sixth Doctor Sourcebook is a good sourcebook for the Doctor Who: Adventures in Time and Space roleplaying game, one that sets high standards for the remaining titles in Cubicle Seven Entertainment’s celebration of Doctor Who’s fiftieth anniversary.

Where wolf?

Given the very modern proliferation of ‘hidden identity and deduction’ games, from The Resistance and Avalon to Nosferatu and Ultimate Werewolf, it is a surprise to see the original game that they are based upon back in print. Of course, Are you a Werewolf? is not even the original version of that game—as the rather interesting  History* of the game will testify—but it is the source from which many other games have sprung. Originally published by Looney Labs in 2001, the question is, can Are you a Werewolf? stand up in the face of so many hidden identity come latelies?

*Did you read the history yet? If not, why not? Personally I think it more interesting than this review.

Are you a Werewolf? is described as ‘A Game of Deception, Paranoia, and Mob Rule’ and is designed for between seven and sixteen players. It takes place in a village at a time when pitchforks and torches are de rigeur fashion items and a lynching is a seen as a good day out, more so because the village is beset by werewolves! The villagers know that there are werewolves amongst their number, but not who they are. Fortunately they have amongst their number an ancient wise woman who is a Seer capable of identifying werewolves. Unfortunately the villagers are stubbornly superstitious and know that the best way of de-werewolving the village is to lynch someone in the morning—and if that just happens to be the wise old woman who is also the Seer, well she deserved it because everyone knew that she could float like a duck, right?

The game consists of twenty cards and a rules leaflet, all done in black and white. Play requires a Moderator who receives the Moderator card and whose job it is to regulate the phases of the game as they pass from Night to Day to Night, and so on. Bar some blank cards, the remaining cards are identity cards consisting of one Seer card and two Werewolf cards with all of the rest being Villager cards. These cards are handed out, one to each player who keeps them secret from the other inhabitants of the village. They will include both the Seer card and the Werewolf cards. The aim of the game for the Villager players is to identify (and lynch) the Werewolf players before the lycanthropes can overwhelm the village and eat everyone, whilst the aim of the Werewolf players is to keep their identities very, very secret, and not so not get lynched whilst snacking on a Villager each and every night. If this involves eating the Seer, then they will have an advantage. Her aim is to help the Villagers identify the Werewolves, but she must  keep her identity secret because if the Werewolves identify her, then she will be the their target on the next night and without her, identifying the Werewolves is a whole lot more challenging!

Are you a Werewolf? is simple to play. Each Night the two Werewolves confer and select a Villager to chomp down on whilst the Seer learns the Secret Identity of one other player, be it Villager or Werewolf. Then in the Morning, everyone in the Village wakes up and discovers the dead player and what his Secret Identity is—that player is also out of the game. The remaining Villagers—which of course include the surviving Werewolves—must vote as to which one of their number they believe to be a Werewolf and needs lynching, and it is here that the mob rules. The victimised player must reveal his Secret identity and he too, is also out of the game.

All of this is monitored and marshalled by the Moderator. He has a little script which he reads out in order to keep the fear and loathing organised and running  along nicely.

Are you a Werewolf? is a light game of bluff and deduction combined with desperate persuasion that is easy enough to throw into a bag when going to a convention or any big social gathering or party. It works equally as well with non-gamers as it does with gamers because its rules are simple, the preparation time is minimal, and its theme is highly accessible—after all, everyone has seen a classic horror movie or two and with Are you a Werewolf?, the players get to be in their own horror movie! Indeed, playing Are you a Werewolf? gives everyone the chance to act (or roleplay) as much as they want and that can be as much part of the game as the deduction and the bluffing.

Physically, Are you a Werewolf? is very simple, being nothing more than a set of black and white cards and a small rulesheet. The latter expands a little upon the game play and gives some advice, but to be honest, the game’s rules would fit on one of its cards.

Playing Are you a Werewolf? is fun and the more you put into it, the more that you get out of it. If it has a fault, it is the elimination aspect of the game, but that is the point of it, plus the Moderator should really keep things moving lest they bog down and drag the game out. 

There is a place on your gaming shelf for Are you a Werewolf? It is simple, it is elegant, and it handles larger groups than most games. Whilst many titles since have offered greater sophistication and re-theming, Are you a Werewolf? offers a stripped back, more desperate playing experience.