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

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. 

Deng
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.

Torgga
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

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

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

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

Resources: Mail Byrnie, Sword, 
Cash: 246 d

Events
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.

-oOo-

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.

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.