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

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.

Friday, 1 August 2014

1984: DL1 Dragons of Despair

1974 is an important year for the gaming hobby. It is the year that Dungeons & Dragons was introduced, the original RPG from which all other RPGs would ultimately be derived and the original RPG from which so many computer games would draw for their inspiration. It is fitting that the current owner of the game, Wizards of the Coast, will releasing the new version, Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition, in the year of the game’s fortieth anniversary. To celebrate this, Reviews from R’lyeh will be running a series of reviews from the hobby’s anniversary years, thus there will be reviews from 1974, from 1984, from 1994, and from 2004—the thirtieth, twentieth, and tenth anniversaries of the titles to be reviewed. These will be retrospectives, in each case an opportunity to re-appraise interesting titles and true classics decades on from the year of their original release.


For the second entry in Reviews from R’lyeh’s series of anniversary reviews, we look back to the year 1984 and the publication of one of the most radical releases in TSR’s history. That release is DL1 Dragons of Despair, the first in the Dragonlance Chronicles, a series of sixteen scenarios that told of the truly epic tale of the Heroes of the Lance. It would introduce us to the Dragonlance setting and the world of Krynn—a wholly new setting from TSR which was also its first setting to be developed completely in-house—and it marked the first of the industry’s cross media intellectual properties. Beginning with the Margaret Weis short story, ‘The Test of the Twins’, which appeared in Dragon #83 (March 1984), the Dragonlance Chronicles would be developed and supported through novels, comics, miniatures, calendars, and so on. Although the first novel, Dragons of Autumn Twilight, would not be published until a few months later, it would prove to be extremely popular as it allowed the reader to revisit the scenarios of the Dragonlance Chronicles that he had been playing and it would turn TSR into a successful publisher of fiction as well as of games.

All that was to come; in the meantime, it began with DL1 Dragons of Despair. Looking back to 1984, the physical impact of the scenario cannot be underestimated. Although it would use certain aspects of the then Advanced Dungeons & Dragons trade dress for its modules, the Dragonlance logo marked it as being very different as did the fully painted cover. This depicted the adventurers—the Heroes of the Lance—facing down a black dragon, whose name we would learn was Onyx, in a ruined, waterlogged city. It was exciting, it was dramatic, it was eye-catching, and it was unlike almost any module that had come before it. That DL1 Dragons of Despair was written by Tracy Hickman was another selling point—after all, he had co-authored the highly regarded I3-5 Desert of Desolation series and I6 Ravenloft modules. These four modules set a precedent—as did Hickman’s earlier scenario, GB5 Death in Spades for TSR’s Gangbusters RPG—for they possessed an emphasis on storytelling that would come to the fore in DL1 Dragons of Despair and its sequels..

An adventure for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, First Edition designed for characters of between Fourth and Sixth Levels, DL1 Dragons of Despair could be played with characters of the players’ own creation, but that was not the author’s intent. Rather, the players were meant to take one of the eight pre-generated adventurers—the Heroes of the Lance—that came with the module and roleplay his or story throughout the Dragonlance Chronicles. Each of the eight—Tanis Half-Elven, Sturm Brightblade, Caramon Majere, Raistlin Majere, Flint Fireforge, Tasslehoff Burrfoot, Riverwind, and Goldmoon—is accompanied by a paragraph or two of background in addition to his or her stats.

Now pre-generated adventurers were not unknown in Dungeons & Dragons scenarios, whether that is for A1-4 Against the Slavelords or Judges Guild’s Escape from Astigar’s Lair, but in most cases, such characters had actually been used when the scenarios had been played as part of tournament events at conventions. Whilst it was common practice to include them in such tournament scenarios when they were published, it looked very odd to expect the players to take characters that were not their own and play them for a whole campaign.

Further, DL1 Dragons of Despair did not particularly support the creation of player characters. Considering the fact that the scenario introduces a completely new setting in Krynn, it is very light on details. The most notable of those given, are the lack of Clerics and divine magic and healing, the fact that dragons have not been seen in a thousand years, and that steel is far more valuable than gold. It is possible to play a Cleric, but at this point without divine magic, any Cleric is a poor man’s fighter. One oddity given the fact that the steel is more important and valuable than gold in Krynn, is that the many of the pre-generated characters are actually quite wealthy because their arms and armour are of iron or steel. Had this been fully thought out, then perhaps they should have been armed and armoured in other metals—bronze, perhaps? That would have added more flavour to the setting of Krynn.

The very lightly sketched out setting also details the equivalent to Halflings in the setting—the Kenders with their infamous ability to taunt enemies. Although there different types of Dwarves—Hill Dwarves and Mountain Dwarves, and Elves—only Qualinesti are mentioned here, neither their mention or their existence has an effect upon DL1 Dragons of Despair. Indeed, this is the first impression of the contents of the module, that how little of the setting beyond the lack of Clerics and divine magic has on the adventure.

Taking the eight pre-generated character in hand, at the start of DL1 Dragons of Despair, six of them start the adventure as old friends. Tanis Half-Elven, Sturm Brightblade, Caramon Majere, Raistlin Majere, Flint Fireforge, and Tasslehoff Burrfoot set out from the town of Solace five years previously to find any sign of either true clerics or the True Gods. As they come together once again, their joint mission having been a failure, they encounter Riverwind, and Goldmoon, two other potential player characters. Both are exiles from the Que-Shu plainsmen tribe, and notably in this first encounter, she imparts some of the history and nature of Krynn in a song, ‘Canticle of the Dragon’. Oddly, this song, which the players are expected to read out—or even sing, contains more detail about the history of Krynn than does the module for the DM! In addition, Goldmoon also carries a blue crystal staff, which as the adventure progresses, we will learn is capable of true divine magic and which becomes the McGuffin of DL1 Dragons of Despair.

Once the characters are together, there seems to be little that they can do except visit Solace and wander around a bit. Throughout this initial part of the scenario, the player characters are nudged, almost herded, by interaction with the peoples of Solace and beyond, but increasingly by the appearance of masked and cloaked draconians, armies of which are edging ever closer—and they are after a strange blue staff! Eventually, the heroes are expected to go east to the forgotten city of Xak Tsaroth, and it is at its doors and in its depths that the adventure begins to shine.

Perhaps the second physical impression of the module is how good the map of the dungeon is done. The wilderness map is perhaps somewhat bland, but the dungeon is done in isomorphic view to give a fantastic three dimensional view of the dungeon and a sense of its depth. Further, Xak Tsaroth is not a dungeon in the traditional sense, but a former city that has slid into a deep ravine into which the surrounding swamp empties… The result is a slimy, sodden, and mildewed atmosphere to the dungeon, the primary challenge in which is actually getting down to the lower levels as there are no stairs. There is little treasure to be found in the depths, but the Dragonlance Chronicles will prove not to be a setting in which random treasure will prove to be important. What offsets the gloom and doom of Xak Tsaroth are its inhabitants, the guttersnipe Gully Dwarves, there for comic relief and interaction rather than to be fought.

Of course the point of the Dragonlance Chronicles was to showcase one type of dragon in each module and for DL1 Dragons of Despair, that was a black dragon known as Khisanth or Onyx. It makes its appearance in two notable scenes, one a particular showstopper that sees the dragon roar up out of a well and strike before diving back in again. Onyx’s appearance heralds the return of dragons to the world of Krynn after a thousand years and that ahead of a draconic invasion that begins in earnest in the next scenario, DL2 Dragons of Flame.

As has been already mentioned, DL1 Dragons of Despair is a physically impressive module. The layout is neat and tidy, if pedestrian. What lifts it above that prosaic nature is the excellent art and the map of Xak Tsaroth. The art in particular makes for good hand-outs in addition to the song lyrics that the players have to read or perform at the scenario’s start.

DL1 Dragons of Despair starts in an underwhelming fashion, with the player characters feeling as if they are being pushed around. In hindsight, this earlier section could have been better written and tied the pre-generated characters into the story much more strongly. The other weakness of the scenario are those pre-generated characters, which feel too similar and flawless—all but one are ‘Good’ when it comes to their Alignment and the only one who is not, is Neutral. Further that is no capacity in the scenario to deviate from this inherent goodness, making the roleplaying of the pre-generated characters feel strangely challenging but dull.

Ultimately the second, finer parts of DL1 Dragons of Despair do a great deal to lift it to the status of a classic and its position of #25 on the list of ‘30 Greatest D&D Adventures of All Time’ published by Paizo Publishing in Dungeon #116—which is repeated here. Yet it set a precedent that would see scenarios focus on story and as a result become events to be experienced rather than adventures that the players could make their own with their characters. This is not to say that playing this or any other of the Dragonlance Chronicles scenarios would not be fun, but in DL1 Dragons of Despair the pre-generated characters do limit player options.


—oOo—

My copy of DL1 Dragons of Despair was purchased in 1984 on a sunny trip to Bournemouth  from a games mini-stall in an indoor market off Old Christchurch Road. I can recall being highly attracted by the beautiful cover and being disappointed by the initial parts of the adventure, though not by the dungeon. It would not be until a year or so later that I would play it and the rest of the series in a playing group that was so large that we would use characters that appeared in later modules. Thus I played Gilthanus, the Qualinesti princeling who would not appear until DL2 Dragons of Flame. Which is why I can better recall playing that adventure rather than DL1 Dragons of Despair—and yes, at the time I did enjoy playing these adventures.

In hindsight, it would be interesting to revisit DL1 Dragons of Despair. As with adventures of its era though, not with Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, First Edition, as it just does not offer the storytelling mechanics that the setting and the backgrounds of the pre-generated characters would seem to demand. Perhaps Pelgrane Press’ 13th Age or Mindjammer Press’ Monsters & Magic would provide this? Then again, it would be even more interesting to have a more modern designer revisit this series and present the Dragonlance Chronicles anew?

A good history of DL1 Dragons of Despair can be found at DnDClassics.com where it is also available to purchase as a PDF. Although understandable, it seems a pity that Wizards of the Coast could not celebrate the Dragonlance Chronicles in the thirtieth year of their publication. As the history points out, it would save TSR and thus Dungeons & Dragons, because ultimately the Dragonlance Chronicles would bring Dungeons & Dragons to a much wider audience…

Tuesday, 29 July 2014

Once and Future Dystopia

Mike W. Barr’s Camelot 3000 meets Joss Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer in Neal Stephenson’s Snowcrash. This is the elevator pitch at the heart of Corporia, an urban fantasy RPG that was originally funded via Kickstarter, but is now published by Brabblemark Press via Chronicle City. Its setting is The City in a near future in a post-Cyberpunk corporatized world in which the social order is increasingly disturbed by strange events that see the near omnipresent Augmented Reality network disrupted and citizens suffering from sudden mutations, cause unknown—officially that is… What is actually responsible is Flux, a chaotic energy leaking in from a parallel dimension that is returning magic to the world as well as strange monsters known as Cryptids. At the same time, the Knights of the Round Table of Arthurian legend are being reborn to fight both these incursions and for justice alongside their newly appeared supernaturally-powered allies in world beset by otherworldly Chaos magics and the stiflingly oppressive regime of mega-corporate rule. Plus of course, Morgan Le Fay has returned as well…

In the default set-up for Corporia, the players take the role of these reborn Knights of the Round Table and their supernaturally-powered allies as members of Knightwatch. This is an elite unit of Watchmen, one of several Private Military and Security Companies (PMSCs) that have contracts to police the various districts of The City. The Watchmen are owned by Valyant, the CEO of which is Lance Martin—the reborn Lancelot, and it is to him that members of the Knightwatch report directly. Aiding both the Knightwatch and Lance Martin are an A.I. called M.E.R.L.I.N. (Master Eye Registrar and Logistical Intelligence Network) and Nimue, Merlin’s apprentice reborn. Most missions assigned to the Knightwatch come about because of M.E.R.L.I.N. monitoring the net or Nimue’s prescience. Knightwatch operatives are expected to act covertly and nearly all have lives other than their Knightwatch assignments.

Corporia is specific about the types of characters it wants the players to take, listing some thirteen archetypes. These are Badges (PMSC operatives or private investigators), Hackers, Headhunters (assassins or recruitment specialists), Journos, Knight-Errants (knights of King Arthur reborn, melee specialists), Listers (celebrities), Radicals (opponents to corporate rule), Runners (couriers that combine parkour with wuxia-style martial arts), Sorcerers (techno-mages), Suits (corporate executive), Thinkers (doctors, scientists, experts), Witchers (traditional magic), and Zeroes (labourers and manual service workers). Once this archetype is selected, a player also needs to choose a second, his character’s astrological sign. Fortunately, this is only to define the personality traits rather than as a means of prediction. 

Each character has four personality traits—three public and one private. For a character born under the sign of Aries, his Public Traits might be Aggressive, Generous to Friends, and Viionary, and his Private Trait might be Addict or Orphan. Essentially, Public Traits can be seen as advantages and the Private Trait as a disadvantage. Either way, roleplaying either type will earn a character Flux Points, the GM being expected to tempt a player with Flux Points to encourage him to give in to his character’s Private Trait. Flux Points can then be spent to improve dice rolls when acting or to shrug off damage. Whenever a player receives or spends Flux Points, he also receives Build Points with which to improve his character.

A character also has a ‘Core Competency’, which determines his focus during character generation. ‘Touched’ characters get more to spend on attributes and skills, whilst ‘Fluxed’ characters get less to spend on attributes and skills and more to spend on Supernatural Assets. ‘Gifted’ characters receive a balanced mix of points. All characters receive the same number of points to assign to General Assets. Sorcerers and Witchers must have the ‘Fluxed’ Core Competency in order to possess the Spellcaster asset and be able to learn and cast all spells. ‘Gifted’ characters can have limited spellcasting or psionic ability, or be Hackers capable of immersing themselves fully in the Augmented Reality.

Our first sample character is a Knight-Errant, or at least a Knight-Errant to be. Norman Cheeseman, a low level enforcer for the Oseku cartel, an Albanian crime ring that currently runs several district franchises. An ex-prizefighter, Cheeseman was never more than a journeyman fighter and now makes most of his monies doing using his fists and Com/Bat melee weapon. Of late, he has begun to have second thoughts about his choice of career and is beginning to develop a conscience.

Norman Cheeseman
Archetype: Knight-Errant
Sign: Aries
Public Traits: Aggressive, Generous to Friends, Optimistic
Private Traits: Gambling Problem
Core Competency: Touched

Strength 3 Deftness 2 Mettle 3
Knowledge 2 Wits 3 Magick 1

Valour: 1

Skills
Athletics 3, Business 1, Crime 2, Firearms 1, Fisticuffs 4, Getting Medieval 2, Humanities 0, Influence 3, Instinct 4, Sciences 0

General Assets
Fortitude, Knight’s Prowess (6), Lionheart/1 (2), Prudent (2)

Augments
EyePhone, Hardened (Subdermal)/1

Equipment
Com/Bat (1d8+STR), Hand Axe (1d4+STR), Short Sword (1d6+STR); Light Modern Body Suit

The mechanics in Corporia use the Flux System. Whilst other dice in the game might be used for rolling damage or other effects, when a character wants to do something, he adds the relevant attribute and skill to a Flux Dice roll—a roll of two six-sided dice, of which he chooses the higher result. Rolls of six enable a player to roll and add, including both dice. Target Numbers range from Easy (5) and Average (7) to Difficult (9) and Hard (11), and beyond… A result of five or more than gains a player a Raise, which gives an additional degree of success. 

Combat uses the same mechanics, but attacks are rolled against the target’s static Defence Check, for example, versus the target’s Deftness plus Getting Medieval. Damage is rolled according to the weapon used, armour and protection reduces this, and if the result exceeds the target’s Mettle, then damage is inflicted. This is not expressed in the number of points inflicted, but rather as a Wound and hit location penalties in the particular hit location. Optionally, the Director may allow Raises on damage to inflict more Wounds. A character can suffer a number of Wounds equal to twice his Mettle.

A range of weapons are included in Corporia. Most of them are fairly generic, though the Raypier is an energy for your Knight-Errants who want to wield lightsabers! It should be noted that even though Corporia is a post-cyberpunk urban fantasy, melee weapons are just as important as firearms, if not more so, as there are Cryptids that are only vulnerable to cold iron. As a post-cyberpunk setting, numerous augmentations are available to purchase, both legally and on the black market. EyePhones and EyePads are legal, whilst Cloak, which inserts nanoprojection units onto the epidermis to distort the visual signature and so fool robots and holographic sentries is not. Augmentations, both physical implants and ingested are part of the setting of Corporia, but not its focus—magic though, is.

The magic rules in Corporia are designed to be simple and flexible. There are two types of magic—Sorcery and Witchcraft—and each of these has its own quartet of skills and associated spells. Sorcery has Holography, Kinesis, Metamorph, and Technomancy, whilst Witchcraft receives Charm, Elemental, Perception, and Spiritism. It is possible for a Sorcerer to learn Witchcraft spells and vice versa, but it costs more to purchase ranks in the other type of magic. To cast a spell, a Sorcerer or Witcher adds his Magick and his Sorcery or Witchcraft skill to a standard roll, the Target Number being determined by the spell itself. For example, the TN for the Mindtrick spell from Witchcraft’ Charm Discipline, which allows the caster to make a victim believe a simple suggestion for a few rounds, is 3, whereas the TN for the Sleep spell is 5. If the caster wants to increase the range, duration, or number of targets for a spell, then he only has to increase the TN of any spell by two and he can do this as many times as he wants.
For example, the Witcher Elspeth Stephens is attempting to get into a freight holding area. The area outside is being patrolled by a pair of augmented guard dogs and Elspeth wants to put them to sleep. The TN for the Sleep spell is 3, but this is two targets, so the difficulty goes up by two. The spell will last three hours—equal to her Witchcraft (Charm) Discipline—but wants it to last longer. So she also doubles the time and increases the TN by two for a total of 7.
In addition to modifying existing spells, a spellcaster can also create new spells in addition to the few listed for each discipline. Unfortunately this section is somewhat underwritten and could have done with an example or two. There are limitations on a caster using magic. Primarily on the number of spells that he can cast per day—equal to his Magcik attribute—before he has to cast with penalties.  Both types of spellcasters can use wands, made of artificial materials for Sorcerers and natural materials for Witchers. There are various types of wand available—which feels very Harry Potter-ish—and all can do ranged damage equal to the caster’s Magick attribute. This damage ignores armour, but again, the number of times a caster can do this is limited to his Magick.

Our sample Witcher is Elspeth Stephens, a recently divorced mother of two who has moved into a townhouse with her children. Her ex-husband is a corporate suit and continues to pay alimony. She recently re-examined some old books that her mother had left her, but she forgotten about and rediscovered on moving out of her husband’s house. Along with discovering the wand in the trunk with the books, Elspeth found that the books were interesting and teaching her things, magical things…

Elspeth Stephens
Archetype: Witcher
Sign: Cancer
Public Traits: Dependable, Loves Family, Nostalgic
Private Traits: Clinging to a Past Trauma, Formerly Fat
Core Competency: Touched

Strength 1 Deftness 1 Mettle 2
Knowledge 2 Wits 2 Magick 3

Valour: 0

Skills 113
Athletics 0, Business 1, Crime 0, Firearms 0, Fisticuffs 1, Getting Medieval 1, Humanities (Perception) 0, Humanities (Antiques) 2, Humanities (Arts—Painting) 2, Influence 3, Instinct 2, Sciences 0, Witchcraft (Charm) 3, Witchcraft (Perception) 3

Supernatural Assets
Spellcaster (10)

General Assets
Bloodline (Theurgic) (2), Funding ($55.3k) (3), Influential (2), Safehouse (Townhouse) (4)

Augments
EyePhone

The default setting for Corporia is The City, to which a whole chapter is devoted—though it would be easy enough for the Director to set his game somewhere of his choosing. With just under a page devoted to each of its Districts, including a general description, a few places of interest, and its government, The City is described in fairly broad details. Broadly based on Tokyo, The City nevertheless feels North American if it has a feel at all. Nevertheless, the differences between Districts will come into play, especially if the Director is running the default Watchmen campaign. Security and policing is contracted to different corporations in different Districts, which can make matters of jurisdiction an issue if Lance Martin wants the player characters to be discreet. An overview of Corporia’s eighteen corporations adds a bit more flavour that the District descriptions might be seen as lacking.

For the Director, the author includes a good chapter on both running Corporia and presenting some of Corporia’s deeper background. The general advice on running the game is solid, if familiar to anyone who has read an RPG of late, but a nice touch is that the author actually recommends Robin D. Laws’ Robin’s Laws of Good Gamemastering amongst others. To help create adventures, Corporia provides the G.R.A.I.L. (Goal, Recon, Assault, Infiltration, and Liquidation) model as a structure in which the player characters are briefed or informed of the mission, examine the mission’s initial or primary scene, assault or infiltrate their target, and lastly deal with, or liquidate, the threat. Although the name of the model befits the game, it does feel as if the author is trying just a little too hard. Despite this, there is good advice in this chapter, along with a set of scenario outlines , various adventure hooks, write-ups of the most important NPCs, some example Cryptids—some of them quite creepy, and a guide for the Director to create his own.

Physically, Corporia is a small hardback book done in full colour. Overall, it is well written and profusely illustrated, not with artwork though. Rather, the author has used specially posed photographs throughout, with the models using various props. This works for the most part, but in places the art feels a little forced and somewhat generic. This is an extension from the equipment list which itself is also generic. Nevertheless, the writing is light and the RPG is easy to pick up and grasp.

Corporia feels like three things. First it feels like a UniSystem RPG as published by Eden Studios with its various archetypes; second, it feels very much like an elevator pitch developed for television; and third, it feels a little like a computer game. Although there is an interesting elevator pitch at its heart, that of post-cyberpunk Once and Future King meets Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the setting itself does not quite do justice to the concept. The City feels slightly too generic, a little too bland, and this undermines the feel of the game. Nor does it help that the equipment list is also bland, which means that it only adds function when it should also be adding flavour and verisimilitude to the game and setting. 

Although underdeveloped in terms of world building, Corporia is strongest when directly addressing its elevator pitch concept. This it does with a solid set of rules and a set of interesting character options.

Friday, 18 July 2014

Storytelling Dungeons & Dragons

In the absence of an actual Dungeons & Dragons RPG between January 2012 and July 2014, between Dungeons & Dragons Fourth Edition and the recently released Dungeons & Dragons Fifth Edition there leapt into void not one but two contemporary takes upon traditional fantasy roleplaying. Of course, the term ‘void’ is relative, since Paizo Publishing’s Pathfinder Roleplaying Game is still available, as are any number of Old School Renaissance titles, from Labyrinth Lord to Lamentations of the Flame Princess Weird Fantasy Roleplaying. The first of these is 13th Age, Pelgrane Press’ action-orientated RPG that energised the Dungeons & Dragons style of play. The second is the Monsters & Magic Roleplaying Game. Published by Mindjammer Press, unlike the other Dungeons & Dragons style RPG, it is not a d20 System derived RPG, but uses its own Effect Engine mechanics to bring in storytelling mechanics that sit upon the architecture of nearly forty years of roleplaying that is Dungeons & Dragons. It has been described ‘Dungeons & Dragons meets FATE’, in that it employs descriptors—in Evil Hat Productions’ FATE called Aspects, in Monsters & Magic called Traits—that can be invoked to grant a benefit to the players’ adventurers. The result is that each and every adventurer brings more of his character to the play of the game and to the game world—more so than traditional Dungeons & Dragons. Further, it is possible to take characters from your existing Dungeons & Dragons game and slip them into a Monsters & Magic game, and in the process bring the characters alive.

Coming with the tagline, “Old School Fantasy, New School Play”, Monsters & Magic is still a classic Class and Level RPG. The classic races are present—Dwarf, Elf, Gnome, Halfling, Half-Orc, and Human, as are the classic Classes—Cleric, Fighter, Thief, and Wizard. The other classic Classes are treated as sub-Classes, so Druid and Monk are sub-Classes of the Cleric Class. In this way, the Paladin, Ranger, Illusionist and Specialist Wizard, and Assassin and Bard are all present. If there is an edition of Dungeons & Dragons that Monsters & Magic is based upon, it is certainly Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, First Edition. (It should be noted that the Berzerker Class is present as an example of how to create a new sub-Class, but it is not included in core set of Classes). Further, the classic six attributes—Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, Intelligence, Wisdom, and Charisma are rolled on three-six-sided dice and the Classes function as you would expect. So the Cleric Class can Turn Undead, cast Clerical Magic, Wear Light and Medium Armour and use Shields, and so on, whilst the Ranger can Wear Light and Medium Armour and use Shields, use Bows and One-Handed Swords, is an Enemy of Humanoids and Giant-kind, can Follow the Trail, is Solitary, and is skilled in Woodcraft and Scouting and Spying.

Laurenel
High Elf; First Level Magic User
Str 09 (-0) Dex 15 (+1) Con 10 (+0)
Int 16 (+6) Wis 13 (+1) Chr 14 (+1)

Physical Hit Points: 14
Mental Hit Points: 25
Armour Class: 13
Hero Points: 1

Alignment: Neutral
Alignment Focus: Bring the balance to all things
Alignment Drift: People must have the freedom to choose

Background Traits
My family was dishonoured for its dealings with the Dark

Goal
To restore the family honour

Elven Traits
Graceful and Mysterious, Excellent Perception, Speak Elven, Extremely Long-lived, Infravision, Resist Charm, Elf Weapons, The Rising of the Dark, From an Ordered Society

Magic User Traits
Magic, Magical Lore, Read & Write, Use Quarterstaff & Daggers, Perform Rituals, Intimidate the Ignorant, Scribe Scrolls

Spells
Charm Person, Comprehend Languages, Detect Magic, Identify, Light, Magic Missile, Sleep

As can be seen from this sample, a character in Monsters & Magic looks very much like a character from almost any Old School roleplaying game, though there are notable differences. A character has both Physical Hit Points and Mental Hit Points—so he can take both mental and physical damage—and Mental Hit Points means that characters can suffer sanity inducing shock and engage in social conflicts; he has Hero Points to help him get out of bad scrapes; and an Alignment Focus which helps him roleplay his Alignment and an Alignment Drift which represents the temptations that will push him away from his current Alignment towards another. Playing to either his Alignment or his Alignment Drift will gain a character Experience Points for good roleplaying.

One major notable difference between a character in Monsters & Magic and another Old School RPG is that each Class has a primary attribute, the modifier for which is doubled. Thus if a Cleric and a Magic User both had an Intelligence of 16, the modifier for the Cleric would be +3, but doubled to +6 for the Magic User as Intelligence is the Primary Attribute for the Class. What this does is empower each Class through the Primary Attribute.

At the heart of the character and of Magic & Monsters are Traits, each “a single word or short phrase describing something crucial about your character, like an ability, background story detail, or personality aspect”. In play, they enable a character to bring one or more of these into play and have it directly affect the game in play. Most of a character’s Traits will come from his Race or his Class, but they will also come from a come from a character’s Alignment and from his Background Trait—such as Ex-Royal Courtier or Grew up an urchin on Swill Lane. He could also take a special item, perhaps an heirloom. As a character gains a Level, he can gains more Traits. Some of these will come from his Class, others from his Background and his adventuring life, or indeed, he could discover more of the capabilities of his heirloom and give it another Trait.

Both the Attribute Modifiers and the Traits play a major role in Monsters & Magic’s mechanic, known as the ‘Effect Engine’. To undertake an action, a character rolls not a twenty-sided die, but three six-sided dice. To this roll the character adds an attribute modifier, but if the situation warrants it, a character can add not just one, but various Traits up to a certain limit. The first Trait is equal to the character’s Level, but any subsequent ones are worth a simple +1. Rolls can be made against set difficulties—Average is 10, Tough, is 15, Difficult is 20, and so on—or against static values such as Armour Class or the resistance values derived from a character or an NPC’s attributes. All a player has to do is describe how his character uses each Trait and it is allowed by the GM.

The result of a roll in the Effect Engine is where Monsters & Magic gets interesting. If the result of the roll exceeds the difficulty, Effect Points are generated and these can be used in a variety of different ways. At the most basic, if a character targets an NPC or a monster, then the Effect Points can be turned into points of damage, these in addition to the damage rolled for the weapon or the spell. Generate enough Effect Points and they can be used to generate ‘Minor’ Effects (5 Effect Points), ‘Major’ Effects (10 Effect Points), and ‘Extreme’ Effects (15 Effect Points), that are placed on the target. A ‘Minor’ Effect would be to gain a +2 bonus or impose a -2 penalty, move a Range Band, mount or dismount a horse, sheath or draw a weapon, change stance, use up a minor resource such as an arrow or a dropped item, and so on. A ‘Minor’ Effect can be used to negate a ‘Minor’ Consequence that has been imposed on a character. Both ‘Major’ Effects and ‘Extreme’ Effects work in a similar fashion. 
For example, Laurenel is travelling at dusk in the Mountains of the Neck when he is ambushed by an Orc Warrior. Unlike his peers, this Orc likes to hunt his prey using a bow and arrow rather than just his cruel sword. Fortunately for the Elf, the Orc misses, but Laurenel needs to spot where the ambusher is. Spotting the ambusher is a Wisdom check, so that adds +1 to the roll, and his player suggests that both of his Excellent Perception and Infravision Traits will help him. The GM agrees, which adds a further +1 for each Trait. Laurenel’s player rolls 15 and adds the +3 to give a result of 18.
The Orc Warrior has a Dexterity Resistance of 12, so the result of 18 is not only a success, it also gives Laurenel 6 Effect Points to spend.  He spends it on a Minor Effect he calls ‘Obvious’, which he describes as the Orc having camouflaged himself poorly. It grants the Elf a +2 bonus to hit.
Having spotted the Orc Warrior, Laurenel lets fly with a Magic Missile spell.  He will add +6 to this roll for his Intelligence modifier, +1 for his Magic Trait, and of course, +2 for the ‘Obvious’ Minor Effect. In total, he as a +9 modifier to the roll. The Orc Warrior’s Armour Class is 20. Laurenel rolls 14 and adds the 9 to get a total of 22. This generates 2 Effect Points—not enough to buy a Minor Effect, so Laurenel decides to inflict 2 more points damage and rolls 1d4+1 and adds another 2 points to the total to get 6.
If a roll is failed, a character can suffer Consequences. Essentially, these work just like Effects, but with a negative result rather than the positive ones of Effects. Should a character suffer any Consequences, then they can be negated by purchasing counter Effects. 
For example, in a later round, Laurenel decides to push forward to attack the Orc Warrior with his quarterstaff. So he rolls three six-sided dice, adds his Strength modifier (0), his Use Quarterstaff & Daggers Trait (+1), and the ‘Obvious’ Minor Effect (+2). The difficulty for the roll is the Orc Warrior’s Armour Class, which is 20. Unfortunately, Laurenel rolls a total of 15, which is under the target. The GM uses these points under the target to impose a Minor Consequence (-2) on Laurenel, which is ‘Twisted Ankle’ as the Elf gets caught up in the undergrowth.
With its Consequences and Effects, the Effect Engine can be a whole lot deadlier than the standard play of a d20 System fantasy RPG, especially as characters progress in Level and the rules for Scale come into play. At 5th Level, a character gains access to the Heroic Scale, at 10th Level he gains access to the Epic Scale, at 15th Level he gains access to the Legendary Scale, and at 20th Level he gains access to the Mythic Scale. At the Heroic Scale, a character can build himself a Reputation, build a community or gang around him, or put together a ship’s crew; at the Epic Scale a character can build strongholds or domains, and engage in politics, diplomatic, or courtly actions; at Legendary Scale, a character is capable of working at the level of kingdoms; and at Mythic Scale, he can influence the fates of nations, peoples, and even whole worlds! As a campaign grows in Scale, so does the level of Effects, from Heroic (+8) on upwards.

Another area in which the players have input during play is when it comes to determine treasure. A GM can define what loot a monster might have or what exactly is held in a hoard’s horde, but he can award the players Treasure Points. These can be spent to purchase types of coinage, gems and jewellery, and special items. More of the former have to be purchased using these Treasure Points before the latter.

To this point Monsters & Magic is decently supported with some excellent full examples of play that show how the Effect Engine works. These are necessary because the book in places lacks that clarity that it needs to impart the differences between traditional fantasy roleplaying and the narrative demands of Monsters & Magic. The support provided elsewhere in Monsters & Magic is disappointing—only First and Second Level spells are listed and only a handful of monsters are included. This has a number of consequences. First, any spell casting character must have access to the core rules or player’s rule book for another fantasy RPG if he wants spells of a greater level. Second and likewise, the GM will access to the core rules or a bestiary for another fantasy RPG if he wants more monsters. In either case, they will want access to these books, and as a third consequence, in the long term Monsters & Magic is not a wholly standalone RPG.

On the plus side, converting spells and monsters from other fantasy RPGs is not all that challenging. Guidance is included to help a player convert his character from that other fantasy RPG into Monsters & Magic, and the monsters included showcase how they should look after conversion. Just like characters, monsters in Monsters & Magic have their own Traits. This also points to another possibility. That of adapting and running other Old School fantasy RPG settings to run using Monsters & Magic. Want to use these rules to run a Dragonlance campaign or a Dark Sun campaign? Such a conversion could be done because Monsters & Magic would simplify the abilities and backgrounds found in the character types and monsters those settings into Traits.

Rounding out Monsters & Magic is a scenario. ‘Silvermoon’ describes a village wrapped and cowed in the mists known as ‘Moonbreath’ that waft their nightly way down from the craters of Moon Moor. It is a fairly short if detailed affair, and should provide two or three sessions of play.

Physically, Monsters & Magic is decently illustrated in an Old School style. The cartography, what little there is of it, is excellent though. The writing is generally clear, but in places it could be better and the examples of play often do a better job how the rules should work.

Monsters & Magic is not a fantasy RPG designed to introduce new players to the hobby. In places, it is too complex for that, and in others it does not explain the rules quite as well as it should. Rather it is a fantasy RPG in the classic mode of Dungeons & Dragons designed to appeal to more contemporary mores that want a player to have greater narrative input into the play of the game. The Effect Engine and its use of Traits brings in a mechanical and narrative flexibility not present in Old School fantasy RPGs, but builds it around the structure of the Old School fantasy RPGs to make Monsters & Magic accessible and familiar to gamers of all preferences.

Tuesday, 15 July 2014

2014: White Box Fever VIII

Friday, July 4th 2014 was a special day for gamers everywhere. It saw the release of the Dungeons & Dragons Starter Set for the new version of Dungeons & Dragons—that is Dungeons & Dragons Fifth Edition. This is the introduction to the finished version of Dungeons & Dragons Next which has been through several rounds of development and public play-testing by Wizards of the Coast over the last two years. The deep box for this Dungeons & Dragons Starter Set includes a 32-page rulebook, a 64-page adventure book, five pre-generated characters, and a set of polyhedral dice. The Dungeons & Dragons Starter Set is designed to take a group of four or five adventurers from First Level up to Fifth Level using the given pre-generated characters. 

At the same time, Wizards of the Coast also released Basic Dungeons & Dragons, a PDF version of the rules that includes the rules for character creation as well more detailed rules on how the game is played and magic is handled. The fact that Basic Dungeons & Dragons has only been released as a PDF and is labelled as being ‘Version 0.1’ means that it can be updated freely and easily without the need for a new print run. Its release also means that more experienced gamers could take the rules from Basic Dungeons & Dragons and use them to run the material presented the Dungeons & Dragons Starter Set. This includes the creation of their own adventurers as it includes rules for the Dwarf, Elf, Halfling, and Human races as well as the Cleric, Fighter, Rogue, and Wizard Classes. The problem is that in order to get the fullest experience out of the Dungeons & Dragons Starter Set, a group will need to download the Basic Dungeons & Dragons PDF, and that undermines the point of the Dungeons & Dragons Starter Set. Which is to provide a complete playing experience and that includes the creation of characters.

The rules present in the 32-page rulebook will be familiar to anyone who has played Dungeons & Dragons. An adventurer (and each monster, when you get to the adventure book) has six Abilities—Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, Intelligence, Wisdom, and Charisma—each of which can provide an Ability Modifier used throughout the game. The core mechanic is still the roll of a twenty-sided die against a Difficulty Class or an Armour Class. Apart from Constitution, all of the Abilities have associated skills. For example, the Athletics skill is associated with Strength, whilst the Animal Handling, Insight, Medicine, Perception, and Survival skills are associated with Wisdom.

The most notable change to the core rules is that a character can have an Advantage or Disadvantage in 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.

The other change is that each character has a Proficiency bonus, initially equal to +2. Whenever a character uses either a skill or a set of tools with which he has a Proficiency—for example, one of the two pre-generated Human Fighters in the Dungeons & Dragons Starter Set has the Proficiencies of all armour, shields, simple weapons, martial weapons, carpenter’s tools, and vehicles (land). The Proficiency bonus applies to weapons as well as skills and tools—though this is not obvious from the paragraph devoted to the Proficiency bonus in the rulebook, but is explained in the combat rules—and some monsters can have a Proficiency bonus.

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, one of the two pre-generated Human Fighters in the Dungeons & Dragons Starter Set has a Trait called ‘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.There must be others, but they are not given in either the Dungeons & Dragons Starter Set or Basic Dungeons & Dragons.

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 100 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.

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. 

The last part of the rulebook is devoted to spells. The first thing to note is that both Clerics and Wizards get cantrips—spells that can be cast as often as a character likes. Otherwise, spellcasters still have a number of spells and spell slots per day that they can cast. Some spells can be cast Rituals—this takes longer and does not expend a spell slot, but again, none are listed in the Dungeons & Dragons Starter Set. More interesting is the fact that 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.

What this means is that each and every spell will always have a standard effect unless the spellcaster decides to improve it. In other words, a spell does not get better the higher the Level of the caster. Thus the Magic Missile spell will always launch three magical darts that inflict damage unless the caster casts in a higher level slot.

The five pre-generated adventurers in the Dungeons & Dragons Starter Set consist of two Human Fighters, a High Elf Wizard, a Lightfoot Halfling Rogue, and a Hill Dwarf Cleric. Notable additions on each of the five pre-generated characters include not just a Background, but also Personality Traits, Ideals, Bonds, and Flaws. For example, one of the Fighters is a Human with the Background of Folk Hero; the Personality Trait of ‘When I set my mind to something, I follow through. Also, I use long words in an attempt to sound smarter.’; the Ideal of ‘Sincerity. It’s no good pretending to be something I’m not.’; the Bond of ‘One day, Thundertree will be a prosperous town again. A statue of me will stand in the town square.’; and the Flaw, ‘I’m convinced of the significance of my destiny, and blind to my shortcomings and the risk of failure.” All of these are a character’s personality characteristics and when a player roleplays his character according to one of them, the DM can reward him with Inspiration.

There are two things that a player can do with his Inspiration. First, he can expend it to gain an Advantage when his character has to make an attack roll, saving throw, or ability check. Second, he can reward another player for good roleplaying, clever thinking, or doing something fantastic in the game by giving him the Inspiration. Whichever character it ends up with, this Inspiration is all that a character can have until he uses it—that is, he cannot Inspiration stacking up. He must use it before gaining more. Whether this will encourage him to hold on to it or expend it and play well enough to gain some more will depend on the player. What you have here is a mechanic and a rule—in Dungeons & Dragons—that specifically encourages roleplaying for the first time in forty years! This is highly laudable, especially given the singular failure to support roleplaying in the previous edition of Dungeons & Dragons

Annoyingly, the rule for Inspiration is not in the rulebook, but in the adventure book presented for the GM—not the players. This highlights an issue in the Dungeons & Dragons Starter Set, that of not being as good an introduction to roleplaying as it should be. This is only compounded by the other omission in the Dungeons & Dragons Starter Set—the lack of a decent example of play. The rulebook includes a very cursory example of an exchange, but this lack in intentional. As explained here, the idea is that the Dungeons & Dragons Starter Set should provide long-term value and not contain material that would become irrelevant once the full version of the game was released. So notable examples of this intent is the lack of a tutorial explaining what roleplaying is and the lack of a scripted adventure that would teach the rules. The suggestion is that an online video would be a better means of providing that tutorial.

This fundamentally undermines the point of a Dungeons & Dragons Starter Set. It should be complete, it should introduce the game to prospective players, and it should help get them playing. Pointing a prospective player to an online video rather have him play through a tutorial means that he is going away from the Starter Set he just bought not to learn how to play, but to be told how to play. A tutorial with a programmed means of play would get the player immediately involved in the game and rolling dice. Further, it would show him how to play and not just tell him.

Fortunately, the DM is not treated in quite so underwhelming a fashion. Unfortunately, the initial impression is that he is going to be, as it appears that the adventure book is only going to give the basics of how to be a good referee and no more. Once you get into the adventure, advice is present on how to handle different scenes, NPCs, and so on. The adventure itself is ‘Lost Mine of Phandelver’, a lengthy four-part affair set firmly in the Forgotten Realms, south-east of the city of Neverwinter that is designed to take the characters from First Level up to Fifth Level. It begins in somewhat of a clichéd fashion—the characters are escorting a caravan to a town called Phandalin when they are ambushed by goblins. All right, it does get them involved and if the party deals with the goblins they will uncover the first of many clues that will lead to the adventure’s denouement. Of course, the next cliché is that Phandalin is a village under threat, but the adventure obscures the external threat with an internal threat. This internal threat, a gang of ruffians, in the village feels rather forced, even unsubtle, but that is the point, as it focuses everyone’s attention on them rather than on the external threat, whomever it is they are working for. 

Not only do the adventurers need to deal with this internal threat, but they also have the opportunity to adventure elsewhere. Many of the inhabitants have tasks and jobs that they will want done and in doing them, not only will the characters be rewarded, but they will learn more about the external threat to the village. There is no set order in which to run these ‘side quests’, giving this second part of the adventure something of a sandbox format. Some of these small encounters are excellent, not all of them involving combat. Indeed, if the party leaps into the fray every time, they are not likely to get anywhere…

None of the adventure’s major encounters is particular large—most consist of little more than fifteen encounters, though the end dungeon consists of twenty encounters. For the most part, the encounters are well designed and nicely detailed, but the end encounters with the main villains often feel underwritten and lacking somewhat in flavour and detail. There are some great encounters here, but the motivations of these characters are not always obvious. Nevertheless, this is a good adventure that presents a solid mix of combat and roleplaying encounters.

Rounding out the adventure book are two appendices. Appendix B is devoted to the monsters that appear in the adventure, a good mix of the Dungeons & Dragons standards—Orcs, Goblins, Owlbears, and so on—and the slightly more outré—Gricks, Nothics, Twig Blights, and the like. In terms of information and stats, the monsters here lack the density of information that previous versions of Dungeons & Dragons possessed, but they still have the same six Abilities that player characters have in addition to whatever powers and special moves and capabilities they may have. More interesting is Appendix A, which is devoted to magic items. It discusses how to use them and identify them. The latter is easier than before, requiring concentration and a Short Rest, or a taste in the case of potions, so no longer is there the pot luck aspect of testing devices and potions. There is no advice on cursed items, as the magic items listed are all from the ‘Lost Mine of Phandelver’ and no such items appear in it. It takes a character a Short Rest to attune himself to a device and he cannot be attuned to more than three items at any one time.

Of the magical items present in the adventure—and there are a relative few, the rest being potions and scrolls—the most interesting are the staves and wands. Just as in previous editions of Dungeons & Dragons, they have charges that expended for various spell-like effects. They only have a few charges, but they recharge daily! There is a chance that they might stop working if all of the charges are expended, but this empowers the users of these magical items. No longer are they devices to be husbanded carefully because they take so much effort to recharge such that it is easier to purchase or find a new one. Overall, the magic items in ‘Lost Mine of Phandelver’ tend to favour the spell-using characters than the Fighter or the Rogue.

Physically, the Dungeons & Dragons Starter Set is nicely put together. The books are solidly written, barring an issue or two that needed to be checked in the Basic Dungeons & Dragons PDF and the adventure is entertaining. The illustrations are also good and the cartography very nice. Sadly both the rulebook and adventure book are misnamed—neither is a book. They are magazines or even booklets, but not books. For that, both need to have covers. They lack them though and the result is that as glossy as both are, neither stands up to much in the way of punishment.

Two physical omissions from the Dungeons & Dragons Starter Set are a map and a set of counters for the adventure’s monsters. This is either annoying or a good idea—if not both. It is annoying because the map and counters would have helped spur the imagination of the prospective player during the game, but a good idea because it enforces the concept that Dungeons & Dragons is a game of the imagination, one in which maps and figures are not necessary. Further, it divorces Dungeons & Dragons Fifth Edition from the skirmish battle format of the previous edition.

So far, so good. If you have read this far and have played Dungeons & Dragons in the last forty years, then the Dungeons & Dragons Starter Set is easy to pick up, start reading, and then start playing. It may be necessary to refer to the Basic Dungeons & Dragons PDF, but for anyone who has roleplayed, whether they have roleplayed or not, this is a good introduction to Dungeons & Dragons Fifth Edition.

If you have not roleplayed before, then the Dungeons & Dragons Starter Set is not quite what you are looking for. The sad fact is, as an introduction to the hobby, the Dungeons & Dragons Starter Set is not everything that the introduction to the world’s premier roleplaying game should be. The problem is very, very simple. It fails to address the question, “What is roleplaying?” in as an adequate a fashion as it should. The introduction to roleplaying is not detailed enough—and neither is the introduction to being a Dungeon Master, although it is better than that of the introduction to roleplaying. The box fails to include a stepping stone between opening the box and delving into Dungeons & Dragons which a simple programmed adventure and a good example would have provided. The sad fact is, the red box Dungeons & Dragons Essentials Starter Set for Dungeons & Dragons Fourth Edition did that and it did a good job too—just not to a good version of Dungeons & Dragons. Similarly, the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game: Beginner Box does a good job too, but that is to a more involved version of Dungeons & Dragons than Dungeons & Dragons Fifth Edition. The point is this. Just because an item might not be used again, it does not mean that it is a waste of time including it in the box, especially if that item is not just an introduction to the very hobby, but a show and tell for that hobby that your product is intended to be the point entry to the premier game in that hobby.

So the question is, what do I think of Dungeons & Dragons Fifth Edition as presented in the Dungeons & Dragons Starter Set? Its simplicity is impressive, the rules feel cleaner and streamlined in comparison to previous editions, and the addition of Personality Traits, Ideals, Bonds, and Flaws pull the game away from its wargaming roots, especially when combined with the rules for Inspiration. This is not to say that previous editions of Dungeons & Dragons have not been roleplaying games—though if you were being generous, then the jury has yet to come back in Dungeons & Dragons Fourth Edition—but these additions mark Dungeons & Dragons Fifth Edition as so being. In some ways, Dungeons & Dragons Fifth Edition is a streamlining of Dungeons & Dragons Third Edition, one that moves it back towards the Basic Dungeons & Dragons Cyclopedia in terms of ease of play. At the same time—and this is without seeing the full rules yet—those in the Dungeons & Dragons Starter Set suggest that Dungeons & Dragons Fifth Edition will maintain a compatibility with forty years* of Dungeons & Dragons titles, so that it will be possible to use them to play U1 The Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh or Dark Tower or indeed, any of the titles published under the Old School Renaissance movement. 

*Except of course, all Wizards of the Coast Dungeons & Dragons titles published between 2008 and 2012. Well, all right. You could adapt them, but not without considerably more effort involved than with any other title published between 1974 and 2008 or after 2012…

Overall, the Dungeons & Dragons Starter Set is a good introduction to Dungeons & Dragons Fifth Edition, but only if you roleplayed before or are experienced with previous editions. If you have never roleplayed before, then the Dungeons & Dragons Starter Set might not be strong enough an introduction, at least not without the help of a more experienced player or Dungeon Master. It just needed that extra stepping stone and the Dungeons & Dragons Starter Set for the world’s premier roleplaying game would have been the introduction that both Dungeons & Dragons and the hobby needed.