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

Sunday, 21 September 2014

Your Manhattan Project

The main problem with The Manhattan Project is its theme. As its name suggests, that theme has to do with the design and building of the atom bomb. For some, this may be in poor taste. Which of course means that any board game or indeed computer game, like say, Civilisation, in which nuclear weapons are deployed and detonated, is in equally poor taste—if not more so. That said, no nuclear weapons are detonated in The Manhattan Project and nobody dies, either through atomisation or radiation poisoning. Some of your workers may get sent to the mines though…

Originally launched on Kickstarter and published by Minion Games, The Manhattan Project is a worker placement game for two to five players, aged thirteen and up. They each take control of a country’s atom bomb project and attempt to build the most effective program. Starting with a few workers and a small amount of money, they train engineers and scientists; construct buildings—universities, factories, mines, and reactors; build up their air forces—bombers and fighters; research bomb designs; and conduct espionage against each other, all in a race to see who can build the biggest bombs (and score the most Victory Points).

All of which is built around a simple mechanic—worker placement. Each turn a player must either place his workers on the board or retrieve them. When placing them, a player must place one worker on the main board, but can place as many workers as he likes on buildings of his own. When retrieving them, he must remove all of those he has placed.

The game revolves around the Main Board. This has spaces for the Building Cards—six initial cards followed by the regular buildings; spaces to place workers to gain money, engineers, scientists, workers, fighters and bombers, and yellow cake—which is turned into Uranium and Plutonium; conduct airstrikes and repair buildings; and fuel tracks to monitor how much Uranium and Plutonium each player has, as well as how many spies he can send to make use of other players’ empty buildings.

Each player has a Player Board. Here he tracks the number of fighters and bombers he has and places any buildings he has purchased. A player also has four labourers, but will gain up to four engineers and four scientists as play progresses. If these are not enough, he can hire contractors, but they will not stay under his control for long.

Initially, each player has limited options. He can only place a single worker—which has to be on the Main Board—and needs not only scientists and engineers, but also buildings of his own if he wants to place more workers on subsequent turns. As the game progresses and he gains more workers and buildings, he will have more options for placing his workers—and even more if he has invested in espionage and can send his workers to the other players’ buildings. A player does not have to place all of his workers on a turn, but he must place one on the Main Board at the very least.

When a player runs out of workers or because he wants to, he can retrieve all of his workers. He can start placing them again on later turns, but part of playing The Manhattan Project is knowing when to retrieve and when to place them. It is a matter of timing, more so when espionage is an option and other players’ buildings are available.

Each building gives its benefit as soon as its requirements are fulfilled. This might be as simple as one or two workers or specific worker types to get their output, which can be more workers (including contractors), money, fighters, bombers, or yellow cake. Alternatively, a reactor might require several engineers and scientists and several pieces of yellow cake in order to produce the Uranium or Plutonium. These have to be placed in one turn rather than added bit by bit.

Eventually a player will want to build a bomb. This works the same as any other building, but requires Uranium or Plutonium as well as engineers and scientists. Once built, a bomb adds to a player’s Victory Point total, but he could also load it onto one of his bombers for more Victory Points. Alternatively, if it was a Plutonium device, a player could implode it. This would destroy the bomb, but any subsequent Plutonium device the player builds will be worth more Victory Points.

Apart from espionage, another way of a player interacting with his rivals is to attack them using his air force. To attack another player, he sends his fighters to attack his target’s fighters and then his bombers to target and damage his rival’s buildings. This stops his rival from using them until they are repaired.

Physically, The Manhattan Project is nicely and engagingly presented in a style that apes the look of government style art of the 1940s. The rulebook is also well written and easy to read and understand.

Unfortunately, The Manhattan Project is not perfect. Arguably, the use of espionage is too powerful—though it is a great way to win—and cannot be blocked or stopped, except by the targeted player placing and keeping his own workers on this buildings for as long as possible. The Air Raid mechanic is either too powerful or not powerful enough, as any attempt to destroy another player’s fighters leaves both sides vulnerable to bombing raids. Lastly, the appearance of the building cards is too random; beyond the first six, any card can appear in any order and this can all too often affect the flow of the game. Less effective buildings will sit on the board because no one wants to buy them, whilst a slew of good buildings will force a flurry of activity to buy as quickly as possible. Perhaps a more structured draw could have been included, so that the buildings get progressively better and better as the game progresses?

Put these issues aside, for this is an excellent game. The game play is very tight, with almost no luck involved. Above all, The Manhattan Project is a pleasing meld of theme with mechanics that reward efficiency. 

Friday, 12 September 2014

Board of the Dragon Queen

Hot on the heels of the Player’s Handbook comes the first adventure for Dungeons & Dragons Fifth Edition. Written by Wolgang Baur and Steve Winter—the ‘Kobold-in-chief’ for Open Design LLC and TSR and Wizards of the Coast veteran designer respectively—Hoard of the Dragon Queen is the first part of the Tyranny of Dragons campaign that will be completed with the publication of The Rise of Tiamat. It comes as a slim ninety-six page hardback that in eight chapters takes the adventurers from First Level up through Seventh Level.

At the time of publication, with just the Player’s Handbook available, it might seem that it would be impossible to play or run Hoard of the Dragon Queen. This could not be further from the truth. To begin with, the rules presented in the Player’s Handbook are more than sufficient to run the campaign. After all, if the rules presented in the Dungeons & Dragons Starter Set were enough to run ‘Lost Mine of Phandelver’, the scenario in box, then those given in the Player’s Handbook will more than suffice for Hoard of the Dragon Queen. One thing that the DM will need is the campaign’s online supplement—available here because whilst some are given in the book itself, the online supplement contains all of the magic items, monsters, and spells referenced in Hoard of the Dragon Queen

The setting for the Hoard of the Dragon Queen is the Forgotten Realms, specifically the Sword Coast, thus in keeping with recent releases from Wizards of the Coast, including the Dungeons & Dragons Starter Set. The Cult of the Dragon, ever a pervasive and pernicious influence in the region, has decided that it has tired of skulking in the shadows and is in the process of bringing an audacious plan to fruition. Drawing on its alliances with its draconic brethren and the Red Wizards of Thay, it seeks to free Tiamat from her infernal prison in the Nine Hells and bring her to Faerûn. 

Which is fair to say, sounds awesome! After all, this looks like a campaign that throws the adventurers up against the signature bad guy (sic) of Dungeons & Dragons—Tiamat herself. She was after all, the villain of the Dungeons & Dragons cartoon series, and thus will be familiar to many players of the game. The other villains of Dungeons & Dragons are probably the devil Asmodeus, the demon Orcus, and of course, Count Strahd von Zarovich of Ravenloft fame, but going up against a villain like Tiamat should whet the appetite of any Dungeons & Dragons player. Of course, that will not happen in Hoard of the Dragon Queen, but will no doubt be saved for The Rise of Tiamat, but investigating her cult should set everything up for a confrontation of memorable proportions. Unfortunately, as evidenced by Hoard of the Dragon Queen, getting to that confrontation may not be as memorable as it should be…

The campaign begins with a cliché as its solution to how to get the characters involved—the party is working as guards for a caravan that is travelling to the starting location for the campaign. Which is the same set up as that for ‘Lost Mine of Phandelver’, the scenario in Dungeons & Dragons Starter Set, but fortunately, this is countered somewhat by the first of the book’s appendices, which gives options to adjust any Background that a player chooses for his character to fit the setting. These can be rolled for, but it would make as much sense for the GM to assign these to the player characters according to suitability and their Class. Had much more this been done to involve the characters in the adventure in this way, it would have greatly strengthened the start of the campaign.

Once they get to the outskirts of Greenest, the characters discover that it is under attack. Fighting their way in, they are given refuge in the town’s keep, but being the town’s best hope, the governor asks the adventurers for help. This sets up a number of mini-missions that will see them help protect and rescue the townspeople and begin learn what the attackers want. These are nice way of getting them involved, sneaking out of the town’s keep again and again to help save the townsfolk, but it culminates in rather a disappointing encounter. The problem is not the encounter itself, but rather its effect—or lack thereof—upon the campaign. In this, one of the player characters has the opportunity to face the leader of the raiding party in duel, arguably a rousing climax to the chapter. It is a tough encounter, but if the player character is particularly successful, the campaign has the leader either ferreted away or simply replaced by with another NPC with exactly the same stats. Surely this undermines the players’ agency by making their efforts have no effect?

In the days to come, the adventurers will be asked to follow the raiders and scout out their nearby base, first to conduct a rescue mission and then return again to investigate what turns out to be the first dungeon in Hoard of the Dragon Queen. It is an unimpressive affair that feels flat and featureless, but whatever they find in the dungeon, the adventurers’ information will bring them to the attention of interested parties opposed to the Cult of the Dragon and they will be asked to undertake increasingly dangerous missions in the name of the safety of Faerûn.

In some ways, the first of these marks the highlight of Hoard of the Dragon Queen. Working for their patrons, the party is tasked with joining a caravan train that is travelling north along the Sword Coast and which is suspected of having been infiltrated by the Cult of the Dragon. The DM is presented with plenty of material to work with—numerous NPCs and encounters, both random and planned. There are opportunities aplenty for roleplaying and interaction throughout this section, but its primary purpose is to bring the adventurers to the attention of the cultists—and then earn their ire. One question not addressed is what would happen if the adventurers managed to stop this, another incidence of player agency being stymied. 

Whilst there are opportunities to roleplay later in this first part of the campaign, they grow fewer and fewer in number as Hoard of the Dragon Queen drives towards its climax. There is a marked shift in emphasis upon roleplaying and interaction towards infiltration and combat—typically with the adventurers disguising themselves in cult clothing—as the party follows the trail of the cult’s loot. The best of these opportunities is the potential for the adventurers to turn the various humanoid groups at the cult’s base in a swamp against each other. Which works in the one instance, but the campaign returns to it not once, but twice more, and once in mufti, the adventurers are expected to do no more than sneak in amongst the cultists, salute them, and then with a cry of “Surprise!”, draw their weapons and attack. It becomes all too one-note. Only the scenery changes…

In the last part of Hoard of the Dragon Queen, the party needs to board a Cloud Giant’s castle—before it flies away! The opportunity to do so is fleeting and the DM may well need to make some adjustments if the adventurers are in danger of missing their flight. Which is a distinct possibility given that it comes down to some difficult skill rolls involving the handling of wyverns… The consequences of failure are not really covered either. Once aboard the castle, the design never quite comes alive, again expecting the player characters to sneak in and divide the factions found therein. A  Cloud Giant’s castle should be amazing, a memorable experience, but again it just seems to fizzle out. 

Some players maybe disappointed at the dearth of treasure available in this campaign. Indeed, the adventurers may well rise through several levels before they acquire any magical items. The clue though lies in the title—Hoard of the Dragon Queen, for in truth, this is intentional. The point is that the villains of the campaign are hoarding the treasure—hence the title of this first part—rather than leaving it lying around for the player characters to find… What treasure there is though, is often generic and uninteresting. Indeed, the hoard itself is little more than a pile of coins.

Physically, Hoard of the Dragon Queen is unimpressive. The writing often feels flat and the tan colouring throughout does not help. In particular, all too many of the campaign’s minor NPCs are left for the DM to develop and bring to life, which although allows him to add his personal touch, does him more work to do and as written, hardly serves to make the campaign memorable. The illustrations are decent enough, but whilst pretty enough, the cartography thoroughly undermines the book. Too often the maps are murky and featureless, but worse, in they lack a key to their locations, whilst in others, they are too small, switch scales, and even orientation. Worse, in places, they do not have places marked upon them that are discussed in the text, leaving the DM to place them. Essentially, the book’s maps force the DM to do an awful lot of unnecessary work when they should be aiding him.

Although Hoard of the Dragon Queen is not the first scenario to be released for Dungeons & Dragons Fifth Edition—that honour goes to ‘Lost Mine of Phandelver’ from the Dungeons & Dragons Starter Set—it is the first to be released in the wake of, and to require the use of, the Player's Handbook. It is thus Wizards of the Coast's flagship campaign for the RPG, showcasing how the new edition of the game should be played, what a scenario looks like for Dungeons & Dragons Fifth Edition, and  of course, how much fun it offers.

Unfortunately Hoard of the Dragon Queen does none of that. The truth is that it is not a good scenario, it is not a well written scenario, and it is not a well presented scenario. The scenario is just not exciting, it lacks atmosphere—though not tone, which is grim; it fails to bring the NPCs to life or give the player characters enough options; and it just does not provide enough support for the DM despite the fact that he really, really needs it. Hoard of the Dragon Queen is not a scenario suited to first time DMs, whereas ‘Lost Mine of Phandelver’ from the Dungeons & Dragons Starter Set is and it is also much, much more fun. There is no doubt plenty of material for the DM to work with in Hoard of the Dragon Queen, but he will have to work unnecessarily hard to bring it out.

Wednesday, 10 September 2014

Into the Vortex...

Vortex is a scenario for Monte Cook’s Origins award winning Numenera RPG originally used to launch and showcase the setting and RPG at  GenCon 2013. It is designed to challenge three to six characters who should be of either First or Second Tier and is flexible enough to be used as either a demonstration adventure, an introduction to the setting, or as part of an on-going campaign. Available as a 13.42 MB, thirty-page PDF, it includes not only an eighteen-page adventure itself, but also a dozen pre-generated adventurers all ready to play, the latter being available as a 24 MB,  twelve-page PDF.

Written in two acts, Act I of the adventure, ‘The Temple’, mostly takes place in a wilderness area. The player characters are exploring the region when they come upon a strange structure outside of which be-robed figures are conducting a ritual. Before the characters can interact with the figures they disappear into the structure, but not before leaving behind some food and a notebook. The structure then rumbles into the ground and disappears, but fortunately for the player characters, the notebook contains details as to when and where the structure will reappear. What do the player characters do?

Curiosity should be enough for the player characters to follow up on the clues in the notebook. After all, this is the Ninth World and exploring the technologies of the past should be the motivation for many, if not all of the characters in a party.  Following up on the clues will bring the characters through a nearby village and present a minor encounter. It is a decent little encounter that given that Vortex is a demonstration scenario serves to show how the Cypher System, the mechanics for Numenera, work in play and give the opportunity for the players to try out their characters’ abilities in a fight. 

Beyond that, the characters should eventually make their way to the point where the structure is supposed to reappear and when it does, the first person to exit begs for their help—she and her brother have been kidnapped by a cult and they want out! Here begins the real meat of the adventure, the opportunity not only to help out a damsel in distress, but also explore the mysterious disappearing and reappearing structure. It is also here where the adventure picks up and gets a little more interesting. The cult itself should not trouble the player characters unduly, though the cult leader may be a bit of a challenge.  Once he has been dealt with, Vortex changes tack and gets a whole lot more interesting.

Act II, ‘Through the 'Vortex' draws the characters deeper into the secrets of the Vortex—and beyond! Where the first Act focused on combat and interaction—in the village and then in the strange structure, here the emphasis changes to exploration and examination. If Act I felt a little too much like the traditional start of a Dungeons & Dragons style scenario, then Act II is where Vortex really begins to feel like a Numenera scenario in its Science Fiction. For the switch in emphasis in Act II is ably supported by the weirdness of the setting and the destination that lies ahead of the player characters—if they prevail and uncover the right clues that is. Not that the weird is not present in Act I, for in addition to its combat encounter there are a number of smaller locations to explore and experience, but it comes to the fore in Act II. This is the ‘Citadel of Radiance’, a thoroughly fantastic setting in the truest sense of the word. 

Vortex can be used as is, or split into two parts, but Act I should only take a session or two to play through at most, whilst Act II will probably take two or three. There is advice on running it as part of a campaign game or a convention scenario, and also on what might happen afterwards, although the given suggestions are a bit slight. There is though, a slightly disjointed feel to the scenario. The whole affair is written more as a pair of sandboxes—one for each act—that the players and their characters are expected to explore and interact with. The issue though is that there is a strong plot that runs through Vortex whilst there really is little for them to just explore and interact at random in true sandbox style. More encounters around both the village and in the strange structure would have supported the sandbox format. Nevertheless, Vortex is a well written, detailed scenario.

Vortex also comes with a set of six pre-generated characters. They include two characters of each type and the six do a decent job of showcasing some of the character types possible using the rules in the Numenera core rules.

Vortex is an excellent scenario. It can also be a deadly scenario, but without the risk, where is the fun or the reward? Vortex does a very good job of showcasing the strange and wondrous nature of the past some nine billion years from now…

Sunday, 31 August 2014

Your Player's Handbook

It seems appropriate that for its fortieth birthday, Wizards of the Coast give Dungeons & Dragons a whole new edition. So it has. After more than a year of public play testing and the input of hundreds of thousands of players, the Player’s Handbook, the first book for Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition has been released. The question is, has both the wait and the very public play testing been worth it? Is this a version of Dungeons & Dragons that you want to play?

The starting point for Dungeons & Dragons Fifth Edition is obviously Dungeons & Dragon Fourth Edition. The sad, but truthful fact is that in the future, Fourth Edition will be the version that nobody talks about. There is no doubt that it got things right about playing Dungeons & Dragons, such as giving each of the Classes something to do on each and every Round, but fundamentally, it did two things wrongs. First, it drew too heavily upon the then contemporary play model of the MMORPG as typified by World of Warcraft, for example, by classifying all of its character Classes into four types—Controller, Defender, Leader, and Striker—and essentially making them feel all the same. Secondly, its adventure format took the two-page encounter format first seen to excellent effect in the Dungeons & Dragons 3.5 adventure, Scourge of the Howling Horde, one step too far, focusing too much on combat and relegating roleplaying and skill use to lesser encounters. The result was a game that in drawing too much from contemporary models pushed it back to its war gaming roots and away from roleplaying. Indeed, an argument could be said that Dungeons & Dragons Fourth Edition remains a good Dungeons & Dragons-themed skirmish game if not a good roleplaying game. Ultimately whilst there will be those that enjoyed Dungeons & Dragons Fourth Edition, that version is no more and will receive no more support.

So what of Dungeons & Dragons Fifth Edition? The good news is that it draws upon all of the best features of the versions that have gone before it and uses them to make it a game that is recognisably Dungeons & Dragons. Yet it also brings in innovations that make it an actual roleplaying game whilst also simplifying the rules and mechanics in order to emphasis ease of play. It also acknowledges that Dungeons & Dragons in the form of this new edition is a game with forty years of history, not a game that has sprung from nowhere… 

The Player’s Handbook is all about character, so the question is, what can you play? It offers the standard mix of Races and Classes, all bolstered by plenty of options. The Races include Dwarf, Elf, Halfling, Human, Dragonborn, Gnome, Half-Elf, Half-Orc, and Tielfling—with both the Dragonborn and Tielfing being retained from Dungeons & Dragons Fourth Edition. The Races are presented in this order because aside from the Dwarf, Elf, Halfling, and Human, the other Races are listed as uncommon and do not appear in every fantasy world. In other words, they are optional. Most Races gain an Ability score increase and various traits, for example, the Gnome has +2 to its Intelligence, Darkvision, and Gnome Cunning (the ‘advantage’ on Intelligence, Wisdom, and Charisma saving throws against magic—see below). Like several of the Races—Humans being a notable exception—the Gnome has two subraces, of which a player must choose one. They grant a further Ability score increase and further traits. The Forest Gnome gains +1 Dexterity, is a Natural Illusionist and knows the minor illusion cantrip, and can Speak with Small Beasts, whilst the Rock Gnome gains +1 Constitution, has knowledge of Artificer’s Lore and gains a Proficiency bonus on Intelligence (History) checks about alchemical, magical, and technological items, and is a Tinker who can make small devices. In comparison, Humans simply gain a +1 bonus to all Abilities. Similarly, the Half-Elf, the Half-Orc, and the Tielfing are singular in the Traits and bonuses granted to them, whilst the Dragonborn vary according to their Draconic ancestry.

The expected Classes are also present—Barbarian, Bard, Cleric, Druid, Fighter, Monk, Paladin, Ranger, Rogue, and Wizard, whilst the Sorcerer is retained from Dungeons & Dragons Third Edition and the Warlock from Dungeons & Dragons Fourth Edition. Like the Races in Dungeons & Dragons Fifth Edition, each of the Classes gives a player a choice of options at Third Level, each option a path that will further define a character as he gains Levels. For example, the Monk Class offers two Monastic Traditions, the Way of the Open Hand and Way of Shadow, while the Rogue Class has the Thief, Assassin, and Arcane Trickster archetypes. The Wizard selects a School of Magic to specialise in. Essentially these will define the type of character and variant upon the chosen Class that a player wants to roleplay in the game.

A character in Dungeons & Dragons Fifth Edition still looks very much a character from Dungeons & Dragons. The six Abilities—Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, Intelligence, Wisdom, and Charisma—are the same; a character has Hit Points and Armour Class and Alignment, and so on. 

Half-Orc, First Level Barbarian
Str 17 (+3) Dex 13 (+1) Con 17 (+3)
Int 11 (+0) Wis 12 (+1) Chr 11 (+0)

Hit Points: 15
Hit Dice: 1

Armour Class: 16

Alignment: Chaotic Neutral

Race Traits: Darkvision 60’, Menacing, Relentless Endurance, Savage Attacks
Class Traits: Rage, Unarmoured Defence

Skills: Acrobatics (+1), Animal Handling (+3), Arcana (+0), Athletics (+5), Deception (+0), History (+0), Insight (+0), Intimidation (+2), Investigation (+0), Medicine (+3), Nature (+2), Perception (+3), Performance (+0), Persuasion (+0), Religion (+0), Sleight of Hand (+1), Stealth (+1), Survival (+3)

Proficiency Bonus: +2
Proficiencies: Athletics, Intimidation, Nature, Perception, Survival; Light Armour, Medium Armour, Shields; Simple Weapons, Martial Weapons; Strength Saving Throws, Constitution Saving Throws; Navigator’s tools, vehicles (water)

Languages: Common, Half-Orc

Battle Axe (+5 Attack), 1d8 damage (1d10 2h)
Javelins (4) (+3 Attack), 1d6 damage
Plank (Shield)

Background: Sailor
My friends know they can rely on me, no matter what (Personality Trait); I’m committed to my crew, not to ideals (Ideal); I’ll always remember my first ship (Bond); I can’t help but pocket lose coins and other trinkets I come across (Flaw)

There are several noticeable details about this character. The first is the lack of Feats. Although that they are not a part of the character, they are part of the Player’s Handbook where they are included as an option. At Fourth, Eighth, Twelfth Level, and so on, a character can increase one of his Ability scores, but if the DM allows the optional rule, a character could instead take a Feat. The second is the inclusion of Proficiencies and the Proficiency Bonus, which are reminiscent of the Proficiencies and Skills rules from Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, Second Edition. In Dungeons & Dragons Fifth Edition they reflect a character’s talents and aptitudes, not just in terms of his skills, but also his armour and weapon use, his saving throws, and the tools and devices he is trained in. These Proficiencies come not only from a character’s Race and Class, but also his Background. The Proficiency Bonus itself is a flat number that rises as a character goes up in Levels.

Perhaps the obvious difference between this and another edition of Dungeons & Dragons is the inclusion of Backgrounds. These are not mere extras that a player adds to round out his character, but an actual part of the character creation process. Further, whether an Acoloyte, a Criminal, an Entertainer, a Guild Artisan, an Outlander, a Sage, or an Urchin, the character gains further Proficiencies and even a special feature. For example, the Sailor possesses’ Ship’s Passage’ by which he can gain passage aboard his old ship wherever it is going. Each of the thirteen Backgrounds has ones of these features as well as tables suggesting appropriate Personality Traits, Ideals, Bonds, and Flaws. A character has one each of these and they are much more than roleplaying hooks.

In play, the core mechanic is still the roll of a twenty-sided die against a Difficulty Class or an Armour Class. Where previous versions of the game gave you a list of modifiers, Dungeons & Dragons Fifth Edition streamlines them down to whether or not a character has Advantage or Disadvantage in a situation. When he has an Advantage, the character’s player rolls not one twenty-sided die, but two, and then uses the best result. Conversely, if he is at a Disadvantage, he rolls two twenty-sided dice and uses the worst result. For example, a character is defending against an Orc that is climbing up a ladder to attack him. The character would be at an Advantage when attacking the Orc. When the Orc comes to attack the character, then he would be at a Disadvantage. In play, this is fast and simple, and reflects the streamlining of mechanics to speed up play. Yet the Advantage and Disadvantage leads to one further innovation.

That innovation is Inspiration. When a player roleplays his character according to its Personality Trait, Ideal, Bond, or Flaw, then the DM can reward him with Inspiration. Once gained, a player can use this Inspiration—or give it to another player character— but when he does use it, he gains the Advantage in a situation of his choice. The player then, is being rewarded for his roleplaying, which means that Inspiration is essentially a roleplaying mechanic. Which is something that Dungeons & Dragons has not had before in its forty year history. This is highly laudable, especially given the singular failure to support roleplaying in Dungeons & Dragons Fourth Edition. Now in truth, this mechanic is hardly new, for example it can be seen in Evil Hat Production’s Fate Core, but it is a genuine innovation for Dungeons & Dragons, a roleplaying game whose design can be best described as staid and traditional.

Initiative in combat is handled by a Dexterity check and when a character acts, he can move and undertake one action. This can be a combat action or something else, but a character can also gain bonus actions or reaction actions under certain circumstances. For example, a common Trait for the Fighter is ‘Second Wind’ which gives him the opportunity to recover some Hit Points as a Bonus action. The most obvious type of Reaction is an opportunity attack, but it could also be a Dash, Disengage, or Hide under certain circumstances.

Characters begin play with the maximum number of Hit Points possible, equal to the Hit Dice for their Class, plus Constitution modifier. In addition, for each Level a character also has a Hit Die, equal to that of his Class. Whenever he has taken damage and takes a Short Rest—equal to an hour or so—he can expend these ‘temporary’ Hit Dice to heal Hit Points. Once expended, most of these Hit Dice and a character’s full Hit Points can be recovered with a Long Rest of eight hours or more.

As a party goes on adventures, it will gain Experience Points which will go towards each character’s next Level. Only 300 Experience Points are necessary for a character to go from First Level to Second Level, then 900 Experience Points for Third Level, and so on. Killing a Goblin is only worth 50 Experience Points, a Hobgoblin or Orc is worth Experience Points, and a Bugbear is worth 200 Experience Points—and this is typically divided amongst the party. In comparison with previous iterations of the game, this version of Dungeons & Dragons does lend itself to faster progression at the lower Levels, the aim obviously being to ensure that characters are being pushed to a level of competency as quickly as possible.

In terms of arms and armour, everything that you would expect to be present is in the equipment lists (the Morningstar is present, though no flail). The weapons list includes some interesting weapon properties. ‘Light’ weapons such as club or scimitar are used with the rules for fighting with a weapon in each hand; ‘finesse’ weapons like the dagger or rapier can be used with either the user’s Dexterity or Strength modifier for attack and damage rolls; and ‘versatile’ weapons, such as the quarterstaff or warhammer, can be used one- or two-handed and get a correspondingly bigger die for damage when used two-handed. The rule for the latter is really simple—light weapons only and only one of the weapons benefits from the Attack and Damage Modifier.

Armour is classed as being either light, medium, or heavy. Only light armour, leather or studded leather, grants the wearer full use of his Dexterity modifier to his Armour Class. Medium armour grants a maximum Dexterity modifier of +2 and heavy armour negates the use of the Dexterity modifier altogether. What this does is flatten Armour Class inflation. Even the most agile of characters, with Dexterity of 18 (+4 modifier) and wearing studded leather (AC 12) is never going to have an Armour Class of more than 16 without magical aid. Compare that to a fighter in medium armour like scale mail (AC 14), maximum Dexterity modifier of +2 and carrying a shield (AC +2) for a total AC 18 or in a heavy chainmail suit (AC 16) and carrying a shield (AC +2) for a total AC 18 for similar total AC 18, and it is obvious that the advantage goes to the wears of medium and heavy armour, but not by much. Further, the medium and heavy armours are obviously more expensive.

Hill Dwarf, First Level Druid
Str 15 (+2) Dex 11 (+0) Con 18 (+4)
Int 12 (+1) Wis 18 (+4) Chr 09 (+0)

Hit Points: 13
Hit Dice: 1

Armour Class: 13

Alignment: Neutral

Race Traits: Darkvision 60’, Dwarven Resilience, Dwarven Combat Training, Dwarven Toughness, Stonecunning
Class Traits: Druidic, Spellcasting (+6)

Cantrips: Druidcraft, Guidance
Spells Known: Longstrider, Speak with Animals

Skills: Acrobatics (+0), Animal Handling (+6), Arcana (+1), Athletics (+2), Deception (+0), History (+1), Insight (+4), Intimidation (+0), Investigation (+1), Medicine (+3), Nature (+3), Perception (+4), Performance (+0), Persuasion (+0), Religion (+3), Sleight of Hand (+0), Stealth (+0), Survival (+4)

Proficiency Bonus: +2
Proficiencies: Animal Handling, Medicine, Nature, Religion; Light Armour, Medium Armour, Shields; Battleaxe, Clubs, Daggers, Darts, Handaxe, Javelins, Maces, Quarterstaff, Scimitar, Spears, Throwing Hammer, Warhammer; Intelligence Saving Throws, Wisdom Saving Throws; Brewer’s tools, Herbalism Kit

Languages: Common, Druidic, Dwarf, Goblin

Stone Warhammer (+4 Attack), 1d8 damage (1d10 2h)
Leather Armour, Shield

Background: Hermit
I am searching for spiritual enlightenment (Life of Seclusion); I’m oblivious to etiquette or social expectations (Personality Trait); ‘Live and let live’—meddling in the affairs of others only causes trouble (Ideal); I entered seclusion because I loved someone I could not have (Bond); I enjoy keeping secrets and won’t share them with anyone (Flaw)

The last part of the Player’s Handbook is devoted to spells and spellcasting. All of the main spellcasting classes—Bards, Clerics, Sorcerers, Warlocks, Wizards—get Cantrips or 0-level spells that can be cast as often as a character likes. Some spells can be cast Rituals—this takes longer and does not expend a spell slot, but what is interesting is the difference between spells known and spell slots. Essentially a spellcaster does not cast spells and forget them so much as he casts spells and uses up the slots for that day. Further, lower level spells can be cast in higher level slots for greater effect. So for example when a cleric casts the Bless spell in a second level or higher slot, it affects more people. Thus certain spells do not get better as a character advances in Level, but rather he chooses to cast them more effectively at the time.

One last addition in the Player’s Handbook is the inclusion of its own version of the Appendix N that first appeared in the Dungeon Master’s Guide for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, First Edition in 1979. This was a list by the game’s designer—E. Gary Gygax—of books that inspired him in creating Dungeons & Dragons that he felt would also inspire his follower gamers (also known as us). Thus with the Player’s Handbook for Dungeons & Dragons Fifth Edition we have Appendix E: Inspirational Reading, an updated list. Inspiration then until the new Dungeon Master’s Guide appears and hopefully thereafter…

The inclusion of Appendix E: Inspirational Reading is a sign that the authors of the Player’s Handbook and thus the designers of Dungeons & Dragons Fifth Edition, which also means Wizards of the Coast, are all prepared to acknowledge the history of Dungeons & Dragons—that it even has a history! Not always a fact that Wizards of the Coast was prepared to acknowledge, but in what is another innovation for the game, that past is pointed out and made clear. Most obviously in the inclusion of excerpts from Dungeons & Dragons’ fiction from the likes of R.A. Salvatore and Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman heading various entries, but a closer read finds mention of specific Dungeons & Dragons settings—Dark Sun, Dragonlance, Forgotten Realms, and so on. Read further and the Player’s Handbook also points each of the Race’s subraces at particular examples. Thus, for the High Elf subrace, the entry suggests that it models the Gray Elves and Valley Elves of Greyhawk, the Silvanesti of Dragonlance, and the Sun Elves of the Forgotten Realms. It does this for several of the subraces, and in doing so, it acknowledges that there have been previous editions of the game and it acknowledges the fact that the game does not exists in a vacuum.

As with previous editions, there is room for expansion beyond what is given in Dungeons & Dragons Fifth Edition. New Races, new Classes, and new spells obviously, let alone the campaign setting books, but the Player’s Handbook gives room anew for areas of expansion. In particular, new subraces, but also new paths within each Class, new Backgrounds, and Personality Traits, and they are also a way in which a world can be created and enforced.

Physically, the Player’s Handbook is a well-written book. In fact, it is an incredibly easy read, such the rules are very easy to understand. In terms of artwork, the Player’s Handbook for Dungeons & Dragons Fifth Edition has a softer, more effusive look. In fact, there is very much less of drive to define things in the artwork, almost as if the designers are trying not to stamp a brand identity on Dungeons & Dragons—as was done with the artwork for Dungeons & Dragons Fourth Edition. If there is an issue with the artwork it lies in the illustrations for Halfings—they are just plain odd… An obvious omission is an example of play, something would have helped those new to the game, but there is at least an example character generated and some example choices are discussed during the selection of character Backgrounds.

Now the Player’s Handbook is not quite perfect. What is missing is a decent example of play. This is an odd omission given that the Player’s Handbook is designed to be complete, for the purchaser and player to need no more than its contents. It is also an odd omission given that this is the first book for the hobby’s only RPG that matters beyond the hobby and an odd omission given that no such example of how to roleplay is given in the Dungeons & Dragons Starter Set either… In fact, this omission from both the Dungeons & Dragons Starter Set and the Player’s Handbook, is not just odd, it is absurd.

There is of course one issue in the writing that needs to be addressed. It is the disclaimer about sex and gender in Dungeons & Dragons, in which it is stated that the player does not need to be bound by binary notions of sex and gender. There have been complaints about its inclusion; there have been complaints about its language. In either case, those complaints and the issues that the complainants have with the disclaimer are their problem and not the problem or fault of Dungeons & Dragons, its designers, or indeed, of the publisher. There is only one response that can be made to the disclaimer. I am glad that it is there. Now move on.

My experience with Dungeons & Dragons Fifth Edition is limited to a single session, and no doubt issues will arise in due course as the game is played at higher and higher levels, but playing the characters that we did—and this was with the scenario, the ‘Lost Mine of Phandelver’ from Dungeons & Dragons Starter Set, we had fun. We enjoyed ourselves and we both roleplayed and gamed the scenario. The game felt like Dungeons & Dragons, it felt like a roleplaying game, and our characters felt capable, even at First Level. From this experience, it is a version of Dungeons & Dragons that I could not object to playing again.

Now the Player’s Handbook is another matter. This is the book to get started with beyond the confines of the Dungeons & Dragons Starter Set, and whilst the Player’s Handbook repeats the rules presented in that box, it gives a whole lot more. Obviously a whole lot more choice in terms of characters—Races and Classes to start with, but also Backgrounds and options for both Races and Classes. All of them are interesting in some way and there is none of them which feels unplayable or like something that you would not want to play. Further, it is possible to see within the rules building blocks for creating certain character types and backgrounds with the rules to fit settings already published or those of the DM’s devising. For example, it would be possible to create a Dedaratlkói* from Tékumel: Empire of the Petal Throne using the Monk Class, whilst the Fighter would serve as a Bushi in Legend of the Five Rings with the right Background. Which points to the potential sophistication of the new edition’s design despite the relative simplicity of the rules.

*With thanks to Simon Taylor for digging this out of the Internet and getting me the right spelling.

Further, the rules in the Player’s Handbook feel as if they are compatible with nearly all of the previous versions of Dungeons & Dragons—‘nearly’ all because there may be some issue with Dungeons & Dragons Fourth Edition… Reading through the Player’s Handbook and it is easy to imagine that the GM could take them and use them to run any number of adventures from the game’s history, whether that is TSR’s U1 Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh or DL1 Dragons of Despair, Judges Guild’s Dark Tower or White Dwarf’s ‘Irillian’, or TSR’s B2 Keep on the Borderlands or Paizo publishing’s The Shackled City Adventure Path, or Lamentation of the Flame Princess’ The Grinding Gear or Grognardia Games’ The Cursed Chateau. Adjustments would need to be made of course, but the familiarity of the rules is present in the Player’s Handbook makes this not as much of a challenge—and that only helps with their accessibility. What this also means is that Dungeons & Dragons Fifth Edition looks like it will be physically easy to write for, unlike the previous edition of the game.

Lastly, in acknowledging its history and in presenting a streamlined, easy to play set of rules, the book feels more welcoming, more inclusive rather than exclusive. Even if there had been no roleplaying mechanic present in the form of Inspiration, it also feels like a roleplaying game again. Experienced roleplayers will pick this up the new rules of Dungeons & Dragons Fifth Edition with ease, whilst anyone new to roleplaying may struggle a little, for although the rules are clear and easy to read, the lack of example of play is fundamental omission. This odd absence aside, this is the Player’s Handbook that the hobby has been waiting for, it feels fresh and light, it feels fun, and it feels like Dungeons & Dragons is our game once again.

Sunday, 24 August 2014

A Norman Whirl

Originally published in 1984, Maelstrom is probably the first British RPG to receive critical acclaim and be successful. It helped that it was published at the height of the Fighting Fantasy craze and that it was released by the same publisher—Puffin Books, an imprint of Penguin Books. The slim paperback offered a semi-historical RPG set in the late Elizabethan Age, one in which nobles, professionals, craftsmen and artisans, tradesmen and labourers, as well as mercenaries, priests, mages, and rogues investigated the supernatural and had other adventures. Although the book went out of print, it was welcome news when it was announced in 2008 that Arion Games would not only be republishing the game, but would be supporting it with supplements such as The Maelstrom Companion and Beggars Companion. In 2013, Arion Games released the second edition of the game.

Maelstrom Domesday is that second edition, but it not a simple reprint of the Elizabethan-era set Maelstrom, but rather a prequel, still set in England, but the eleventh century rather than the sixteenth. Set in 1086, just twenty years after the Norman invasion, it presents a country still recovering repeated invasions—by the Scots and the Danes; from repeated rebellions and suppressions within; and finally from the ‘Harrying of the North’, the violent suppression of not just a series of Anglo-Saxon uprisings, but of the Anglo-Saxon peoples in the region, resulting in the death of tens of thousands. This is the year in which the Domesday Book, a great survey of the men and lands of the King William the Conqueror is completed, even as the king’s attention continues to be divided between consolidating his rule over England and holding off the French king’s designs upon Normandy. Thus the king’s men cannot be everywhere and when his peace is disrupted, the taxes cannot be collected,, there are further signs of rebellion, or things that cannot truly be explained, other powerful men of the kingdom are prepared to step in to support both king and church. Often they cannot act directly and arrange to have their agents act for them—agents such as the player characters, who each have had some kind of encounter with the supernatural that is the Maelstrom…!

Characters in Maelstrom Domesday are ordinary men and women—they can be archers, beggars, craftsmen, huntsmen, knights, ladies, men-at-arms, outlaws, peasants, priests, squires, and wisemen/wisewomen. It should be noted that this is historical game, which means that there are many occupations that will not be available to female characters. Further whilst magic using characters are possible, it is rare that one will be rolled up during character creation and if a player wants to specifically play one, then it should be by design rather than roll of the dice.

The creation of characters—a process which owes much to Traveller via Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay—starts with Attributes such as Attack Skill, Will, and Perception. These start out at the base level bar some minor adjustments for each character’s adolescence. Each player will then roll for his character’s Racial Origins—Norman, Anglo-Saxon, Irish, Welsh, or Dane, and his Social Class—Outcast, Peasant, Townsman, or Lesser Nobility. A character also has three characteristics, such as Education, Strong Grip, or Wise, also rolled for, with most of them being advantages. Then, at the age of thirteen, the character begins his first Career, again rolled for.

The Careers available to a character are dependent on his Social Class. Outcasts have a high chance of being Rogues, Outlaws, or Beggars; Peasants of being Peasants; Townsmen of being Craftsmen or Traders; and the Lesser Nobility of being Squires. Each Career lasts between three and five years, grants bonus points to a character’s Attributes, gives a Rank in two Abilities, the chance of receiving certain resources, some monies, and a table of Career Exits. At the end of each Career, unless the character rolls under his age and brings the creation process to an end, this table is checked to determine what Career the character will take next. Lastly, the Career indicates the table on which the character should roll for a Random Event. For the most part, a character will remain in the same Career for some time.

For example, each term in the Priest Career lasts five years. The character receives dice rolls to add to his Persuasion and Will Attributes, plus a die roll of points to assign to any Attributes; a rank in each of Religion and Literacy Abilities; and a few silver pennies and the chance of being given a Latin Bible. On the Career Exit table, the Priest will probably remain as a Priest, but might be promoted to a Deacon or Chaplain, or become a Monk, Wiseman, Clerk, or even an Outlaw. A slim chance allows a random roll on the First Career table or a player to choose. For that term, the Priest should roll on the Sedentary table for his Random Event, which might give the result that he falls madly in love, finds an ancient tome of knowledge—and improves his Knowledge Attribute, or his house is burnt down and he loses his accumulated possessions.

At the end of the character creation process, a player can freely select a Rank in any Ability for each of the two terms served. The character also ages if over thirty years of age, and can roll his name if so desired. Lastly, he needs to roll for a supernatural encounter that will bring him to the attention of his Patron, which must also be rolled for. Lastly, the player should work his character’s history using the game’s timeline along with the Random Events that have occurred to the character. Lastly, each character two further statistics; one is Favour, a measure of his Patron’s regard for him, the other is Imbalance, a measure of mental well-being.

Thus character creation is quite a lengthy process, with the results ranging from a teenage peasant to a forty year old veteran. Our sample character is Eirik Thorgestson, the son of merchant, a cousin of Sweyn Forkbeard, the first Danish king of England. He grew up strong and arrogant, ugly and ill-liked were it not for his father’s wealth and his willingness to use his fists. Apprenticed to his father’s trading house, a mentor took the young under his wing and managed to smooth some of the rougher edges of his character as well as allowing him to make some interesting contacts. He signed on with one of these contacts, a merchant who made journeys down to London and then beyond to Paris. Not though just as a merchant, for he had to help defend the merchant’s caravans and so he trained as a soldier, first as a mercenary before becoming a sergeant-at-arms. A fall from a horse, caused by the appearance of a fireball in the sky, resulted in his fracturing his right leg. The long months necessary to his recovery led to his being discharged from service.

Eirik Thorgestson is not a good looking man, but he has learned not only to overcome his ugliness, but to use to his advantage. This he can back up with his martial prowess if necessary. Currently he hopes to make more money trading, or at the least gain a better income for his sword skill. If necessary, he can survive off the land. 

Name: Eirik Thorgestson Age: 40 Gender: Male
Race: Dane Social Class: Townsman
Imbalance: 0 Favour: 10

Attack Skill 62
Missile Skill 41
Defence Skill 67
Knowledge 46
Will 44
Endurance 57
Persuasion 61
Perception 50
Speed 46
Agility 51

Hale (+20% to Endurance tests for disease, starvation, & poison), Hog-Head (-10% persuade, +20% intimidate), Well-Born 

Barter II, Combat Training IV, Gossip II, Intimidation II, Riding III, Survival II

Trader (8 years), Mercenary (4 years), Sergeant-at-Arms (15 years)

Resources: Mail Byrnie, Sword, 
Cash: 246 d

Superlative teacher, good contact, physical training, garrison duty, fractured leg

Supernatural Event
Fireball in the sky

Unlike the majority of other RPGs, Maelstrom Domesday is not a skill-orientated game. For the most, to do anything, all a character has to do is make a Saving Throw against one of his Attributes. To swing a sword at a bandit, a character would roll against his Attack Skill, to recall a quote from the Bible would require a Saving Throw against the Knowledge Attribute, and so on. Nevertheless, from one term to the next, a character will acquire Ranks in Abilities, each Ability representing professional expertise and knowledge. For most Abilities, such as Gossip or Stealth, each Rank grants a bonus to a relevant Saving Throw. Initially, most grant the simple permission to use the Ability, for example, Woodlore at Rank I enables a character to perform basic tasks, before granting simple bonuses at greater Ranks. Others grant permissions at each and every Rank. Thus at Rank I, Religion lets a character lead common services, at Rank II have him know specific services and be able to preach, and so on. Combat Training improves a character’s expertise at inflicting damage and withstanding it, whilst Strong Draw increases damage done with the Missile Skill Attribute.

Combat itself maintains the simplicity of rules in Maelstrom Domesday, with characters making opposed Saving Throws of their Attack Skill and Defence Skill Abilities, or alternatively, their Missile Skill. Weapons are quite deadly, with both wounds and blood loss tracked separately—accumulated damage in excess of a character’s Endurance causes unconsciousness and death occurs at twenty points above that. It is possible for a character to inflict Serious and Critical Wounds, their effects being determined by weapon type. It takes time though, for a character to recover from any damage taken and the RPG’s advice is that combat be used sparingly. What combat in Maelstrom Domesday does model is that training will invariably triumph over the unskilled, character creation not allowing easy access to the Combat Training Ability.

Similarly, Magick is treated in a light fashion in Maelstrom Domesday. It is first based first around a Characteristic—either Hedge, Low, or High Magick. This indicates the degree to which a character has a natural link to the Maelstrom and limits the Rank in his Magick Ability. Unlike other Abilities, the Ranks run only from I through V rather than VI, as do the Grades of the desired spell effects, for it should be noted that Maelstrom Domesday foregoes the spell lists of other RPGs. Instead, the Referee determines the Grade of the effect that the mage or wisewoman desires, the Grade depending on its likelihood of occurring. So getting a guard dog to bark would be very likely and thus Grade I, whilst trying to run across a river would be highly improbable and so be Grade V. To cast the ‘spell’, the mage would need to make a Will test to see if he knows the spell and then a Will test for each Grade of the spell. So one Will test for Grade I spell and three for the Grade III spell.

The effect of multiple Will tests is not just that it makes spells of a higher Grade more difficult to cast, it also increases the chances of the caster rolling a ‘0’ on the roll. Each ‘0’ increases the chance of a breach in the Maelstrom, perhaps a foul miasma is released or some horrid creature is able to enter the mortal world. Will is also used to withstand mental shocks such as witnessing a violent death, starving to death, or seeing certain creatures that have from the Maelstrom. Fail these Will Saving Throws and a character acquires Imbalance, which if exceeds his Will Attribute causes him to go insane. Unlike Endurance, Imbalance is particularly difficult to recover from.

In terms of support, Maelstrom Domesday provides a short bestiary that includes a mix of ordinary and outré beasts, appendices devoted to diseases and herbs—the latter in particular a nod to the original Maelstrom, and a complete setting. This is the city of York and its surrounds, the heart of the Harrying of the North, the population still not quite accepting of their new Norman overlords and still subject to the occasional cross-border raid by the Scottish king. Over thirty manors are described, as well as the town of Selby and the city of York itself. York in particular is accompanied by numerous NPCs, 

Physically, Maelstrom Domesday is a simple black and white book, cleanly and tidily presented. Although it needs another edit here and there, the writing is solid and the game is supported with well-done examples of the rules. The sometimes poor handling of the period art is fortunately offset by the new artwork, especially that of the figure work done to illustrate each of the game’s careers and the thumbnail portraits done of the many NPCs in the game’s setting of York. The descriptions of the villages, the town, and the city are accompanied by sections devoted to local folklore as well as an adventure hook. Although there are plenty of these throughout Domesday Maelstrom, they are each quite slight and do not give the Referee all that much to work with.

As simple as the rules are in Domesday Maelstrom, the RPG is neither a simple game nor a game suited to beginners—particularly for players. The background information necessary to play is not as upfront and as accessible as it could be, the result being that some of the nuances of, and the tensions within the setting are not as immediately obvious. Further, although the advice for the GM on the game’s mechanics and on running the game is decent enough, it could have been stronger in terms of handling and running investigations, let alone creating them. Certainly the inclusion of a good scenario as an example would have gone some to alleviate this issue. In the long term, a timeline beyond 1086 would have useful, as would a more extensive and prominent bibliography than the one included.

These all are, it should be noted, relatively minor issues, ones that should impede the creation and running of a good game in the hands of a competent Referee. In presenting a second edition of the original Maelstrom rules, Domesday Maelstrom benefits from a cleaner and tidier ruleset, an engaging means of character generation, and a setting that possesses more depth than the game might suggest at first sight.


The publisher recently made available a Quickstart version of the rules. The Maelstrom Domesday Quickstart can be downloaded for free from RPGnow.

Saturday, 16 August 2014

Big Easy Fears

Tales of the Crescent City: Adventures in Jazz Era New Orleans is the second offering from Golden Goblin Press for Call of Cthulhu, following on from Island of Ignorance – The Third Cthulhu Companion. Again funded via Kickstarter, Tales of the Crescent City is a companion volume to Chasoium, Inc.’s Secrets of New Orleans: A 1920s Sourcebook to the Crescent City and a sequel of sorts to Miskatonic River Press’ anthology of scenarios set in New York, Tales of the Sleepless City. It presents an introduction to, and an overview of, the city of New Orleans; an examination of both a major figure in the Mythos and a major Mythos influence upon the city; and a septet of scenarios, including a revised reprint of a classic adventure. The latter, like the rest of the scenarios in the collection are written for use with Call of Cthulhu, Sixth Edition, though as with all Call of Cthulhu scenarios, they are compatible with the forthcoming Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition.

The first good news about Tales of the Crescent City is that it is a better book than Island of Ignorance. It is physically neater and better designed, the editing is clean and tidy, and of course, the subject matter and setting give the anthology focus. It feels closely modelled upon the aforementioned Tales of the Sleepless City and as a result, is an assured product that bodes well for future releases from Golden Goblin Press.

Although the Keeper and his players will get the most out of Tales of the Crescent City if they have access to copy of Chaosium’s Secrets of New Orleans—previously printed as The New Orleans Guidebook, it is not absolutely necessary for either to own a copy of that supplement. Included in this new anthology is an introduction to the Big Easy, one that nicely sums up the key points that everyone needs to know—the matter of race and colour, the rampant corruption, the endemic presence of crime and gangsters, the importance of civility and thus the Credit Rating skill, and the fact that the city is below sea level. This is accompanied by a thorough overview of the city’s various neighbourhoods and parishes, including floor plans for its typical dwellings. Illustrated throughout with period photographs, there is enough information here that a Keeper need not refer to Secrets of New Orleans when running Tales of the Crescent City.

Readers familiar with H.P. Lovecraft’s fiction will know that New Orleans is home to Étienne-Laurent de Marigny, America’s most knowledgeable mystic, mathematician, and orientalist. It is fitting that he is accorded a lengthy article all to himself, providing an autobiography of the man as well as hinting at what he knows about the Mythos—which is actually quite a lot given that he is not actually insane. There is the danger in having a figure such as de Marigny present in a campaign—and that is what Tales of the Crescent City is really intended to be part of—in that he becomes a crutch the players and their investigators come to rely upon when their investigations fail. Offsetting that possibility is one of the key points raised earlier in the book, that of the need for civility and thus the Credit Rating skill in their dealings with de Marigny. As fascinated as he is with the outré and the occult, he has no desire to be involved in scandal or criminal activities, both of which the investigators are likely to find themselves involved in. Rounding out this short series of articles are some notes on the Yellow Sign and The King in Yellow, yet more support for the scenarios that follow in Tales of the Crescent City

The support is certainly required in the case of said notes on the Yellow Sign, since the septet of scenarios is bookended by appearances of the Yellow Sign and The King in Yellow. The first of these is a reprint and update of Kevin Ross’ classic ‘Tell me, have You Seen the Yellow Sign?’ originally published in Chaosium’s long out of print The Great Old Ones. Like many scenarios that deal with the Yellow Sign and The King in Yellow, at the heart of ‘Have You Seen the Yellow Sign?’ is an attempt to bring to Earth both Hastur and the city of Carcosa; thus it feels like a cliché. Yet that is unfair, as arguably, ‘Tell me, have You Seen the Yellow Sign?’ set the pattern for such scenarios to come and what matters is the story built around the cultists’ plans to bring Hastur to Earth. In this case, ‘Tell me, have You Seen the Yellow Sign?’ draws the investigators into a richly portrayal of New Orleans life and culture, in particular, that of Mardi Gras. This is carnival season, a big celebration, in which it is socially acceptable to join ‘Krewes’ and participate in big masked parades.

The investigators find themselves asked by Étienne-Laurent de Marigny to investigate an occult symbol found clutched in the hand of a recently deceased reporter. The police think it was suicide, but his editor thinks otherwise, especially after the reporter told him that he believed that one of the krewes he was writing about was involved in the occult. De Marigny does not have the time to investigate, which is where the player characters come in. Experienced Call of Cthulhu players will recognise the symbol, but they will enjoy both the investigation into the reporter’s death and into identifying the symbol. Both will take the investigators to the heights of the city’s high society and deep into the sodden wilderness. As the investigators draw ever closer to identifying the symbol, the symbol seems to draw closer to them and the city… This is a richly detailed scenario, with lots of investigation and atmosphere with a pleasingly personal element to the story.

As the title of C. Michael Hurst’s ‘Bloodlines’ suggests, this is a scenario about questionable parentage and the degeneration of the species, classic Lovecratian themes both. The investigators are hired by a researcher to confirm the lineage and wealth of his employer’s fiancée—what the researcher has learned threatens what is his only source of income. By the time they go to meet him, the researcher is dead and his mother begs them to continue the task lest she be made destitute. How did the researcher come to die and did it have anything to do with the family history of Cora DeCroix? Once again, this takes the investigators from the heights of society to swamps beyond the city, though the society is somewhat dissolute… In comparison with the previous scenario, ‘Bloodlines’ is a more restrained affair, the Mythos not as intentionally malign in nature, and morally, more grey than black and white. Indeed, distinguishing the villains of the piece may leave the investigators with a dilemma on their hands. That said, the Egyptian-themed Great Old One feels a little out of place in the city and almost incidental to the plot, although its use explains the supposed ‘monsters’ of the piece, plus of course, it has been used in other scenarios.

By coincidence, the third scenario, ‘Needles’, also has an Egyptian theme. By Daniel Harms, it also begins with the investigators coming to the aid of someone else, though not at his request. Instead, they respond to a scream in the night to discover a local doctor in deadly peril from a trio of dark, surgically masked men. Coming to his aid, they will soon learn that the doctor is a wanted man, but by whom lies at the heart of the scenario. This is not a scenario for anyone suffering from Trypophobia, and makes an interesting use of Glaaki, even though that Great Old One does not make an appearance. The scenario very much has a pulp sensibility, which makes it quite a lot of fun especially in its ‘house of horrors’ denouement, but this also means that some of the cult’s motivation is underwritten rather than being fully developed as it should be. At its heart though is the Mythos fuelled interpretation of the ‘Night Doctors’ of both African American and New Orleans folklore, an aspect that may not necessarily come to the fore as much as it should—unless the investigators have contacts with the Black community of the Crescent City or one of their number is Black.

Almost as if one theme is being carried over from one scenario to the next, there is a medical aspect to Stuart Boon’s ‘The Quickening Spiral’ in which the investigators must race against the clock to prevent a deadly contagion known as Red River Fever from overwhelming first New Orleans, then Louisiana, and beyond! The investigators are asked to look into the possibility that it might have been caused by something unnatural—could it be the result of a Voodoo curse? What is curious about this scenario is that its human plot—a heady mix of small ‘conspiracies’, Voodoo, and revenge—is very much more pulpy than the almost incidental Mythos plot. Nevertheless, this is a pacier affair the presents a potential threat to the world on a relatively small scale.

Oscar Rios’ own contribution to Tales of the Crescent City is ‘Song and Dance’ and concerns the effect of the subversion and its effect by one god of another. The first is the Great Old One is Y’Golonac, who subverts not other figures of the Mythos, but figures from a real world mythology. This is a big audacious piece, assured in its aims, but one that might be seen to veer away from the Mythos in its use of real world mythology figures and perhaps in its tone as the ending feels more like that of a James Bond movie as the investigators have to stage a rescue from the villain of the piece’s lair. Set in 1925, it opens with a wave of depression that sweeps the world, driving artists and performers into depression and then suicide, but then the reverse happens—mania!  This manifests at yet another of New Orleans’ great celebrations, at which the investigators are present, but it works all the better if they become more intimately involved and one of their number be an affected artist. The downside to the mania is not just debilitating, but drives its sufferers to the grave giving the scenario a desperate deadline. To be fair, there is relatively little plot to ‘Song and Dance’, but it oozes atmosphere and at times menace. 

The penultimate adventure in Tales of the Crescent City is Jeff Moeller’s ‘Five Lights at the Crossroads’, which is a much slighter affair then the other six in the anthology. It begins with the investigators’ discovery of the body of a well-dressed black man, seemingly crushed where he lies. If the investigators do the decent thing and go and tell his employer about his death, he is nowhere to be found and his other servants are oddly evasive. Where is he and how did his servant come to die under such odd circumstances? Unfortunately, whilst the scenario does involve a decent amount of investigative legwork to get to its climatic confrontation, at its heart it does something that may frustrate the players—keep them from their quarry until it is all but too late. Given the grave, not to say, deadly consequences of their failure, their efforts may seem out of all proportion to said consequences… Nevertheless, the scenario can be said to be about gathering the clues and information enough to get to its confrontation. It is disappointing though, and the least interesting scenario in the anthology especially given that the author has written better scenarios. 

Rounding out the scenarios is the other bookend to ‘Tell me, have you seen the Yellow Sign?’. Again written by Kevin Ross, ‘Asylum: The Return of the Yellow Sign’ is a sequel of sorts that takes place two years after ‘Have you seen the Yellow Sign?’ and notes are included to that end. Much like in the previous ‘The Light at the Crossroads’, the investigators will find themselves chasing after someone, in this case the strangely pallid figure who gate-crashed the high class soiree, the Disabled Veterans Benefit Ball and confronted swell about town, Alan Leroy. What did the stranger want with the charismatic young man who fled in the turbulent aftermath of the confrontation? As the investigators look for clues, they will also find themselves on Leroy’s trail and as their efforts progress, not only will the stranger come to them, but New Orleans begins to fall—perhaps once again?—under a curious madness…

This is a less heavily plotted affair than the earlier ‘Tell me, have you seen the Yellow Sign?’. It is potentially no less atmospheric, for it is expected that the Keeper build much of the minor, though no less weird or creepy, details around the investigators’ efforts. At its heart the investigators are caught up in the effort by the infamous play, The King in Yellow, to reassert its inevitability. Of course, the outcome of ‘Asylum: The Return of the Yellow Sign’ is not necessarily inevitable, but attempting to achieve any other outcome presents a difficult challenge. Overall, despite it needing careful handling upon the part of the Keeper, ‘Asylum: The Return of the Yellow Sign’ is an excellent scenario that brings Tales of the Crescent City to mature and malign climax.

Physically, Tales of the Crescent City is well presented. The layout is clean and very readable, whilst the book is solidly edited. If there is a downside to the book’s look, it is that the art is perhaps a little too cartoon-like in places. Elsewhere the art is well done, as is the cartography.

Undoubtedly, the material supporting the septet of scenarios in Tales of the Crescent City is excellent given the relatively few pages devoted to the setting. Unfortunately, as a whole, the scenarios are not excellent, being uneven in tone and plot, perhaps even flat in feel in the one case. The septet does have a pulp feel, especially the middle scenarios—and they also have another weakness. As much as the scenarios in Tales from the Crescent City present a broad swathe of challenges and foes to contend with and investigate, what it does not do is present much in the way of depth. It dwells too much upon high society and its mores as well as Voodoo and Mardi Gras, and so never gives the investigators the opportunity to explore a fleshed out view of the city. Nevertheless, the addition of notes in each of the scenarios to help turn the seven into a loose campaign set within the Big Easy are a very welcome addition.

Uneven in places, Tales of the Crescent City does a fine job of presenting the public face of New Orleans and the insidious influences that lurk behind the joyously bravura façade. It brings back a classic scenario and gives it a much deserved sequel—could there be a sequel to make ‘Tell me, have you seen the Yellow Sign?’ and ‘Asylum: The Return of the Yellow Sign’ part of a trilogy? Perhaps in a second volume of scenarios set in New Orleans, one that delves deeper into its secrets and themes…? Tales of the Crescent City: Adventures in Jazz Era New Orleans is a solid anthology that shows Golden Goblin Press' books are getting better and better.