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

Sunday, 26 July 2015

A Fancible Foursome

Firefly Echoes of War: Thrillin' Heroics is a supplement for the Origins Award nominated Firefly Roleplaying Game published by Margaret Weis Productions. It collects the first four scenarios for the game originally released individually as PDFs as well as crewmember write-ups and a stripped down version of the Cortex Plus System. This means that its contents are not only compatible with both the preview, Gaming in the 'Verse and the Origins Award nominated version, but it also means that Firefly Echoes of War: Thrillin' Heroics is a standalone book that can be run using just the rules it contains, or it can be with access to either version of the rulebook.

The rules are succinctly covered, for these are the basic rules, and so do not include the advanced options given in the core rules, but they do include everything needed to play the quartet of scenarios in Echoes of War. Character creation, or rather customisation of the twelve crewmember archetypes is treated in a similarly succinct fashion. These rules are followed by four scenarios, each of which should take several sessions to complete. Thematically, the four scenarios all in some way hark back to the ‘Unification War’, either through an old friend from the war or a contact who fought in the war.

The scenarios open with caper/heist hybrid, ‘The Wedding Planners’ by Margaret Weis. In strange turn of events, Badger hires the crew with nary a fuss for a big jobget the daughter of a cattle baron to her wedding aboard another starship. Which means getting a spoiled, rich, media darling to the space wedding of the year on time and without any complications. This being a Firefly Roleplaying Game scenario, there are of course going to be complications and this time around they involve pirates and the course of true lovenot necessarily to the same ends. It all gets terribly complicated at the end, almost to the point of a farce, which has the potential to turn into a chaotic mess.

The simplest of the scenarios in Echoes of War, Andrew Peregrine’s ‘Shooting Fish’ is the most straightforward and  has the most obvious potential for fun. The crewmembers come to the aid of an old friend who runs an orphanage that is in danger of being closed down due its accumulated debts. Which means that it local landlord can take it over and turn it into a money-spinning brothel! Fortunately there is a way to raise the cashquite literally fast! If the crew can enter and win the local boat race, then they can pay the orphanage’s debts. Unfortunately, the only boat the orphanage has needs more than just maintenance to get it into the water and there is nothing clean and legal about the race itselfguns, grenades, sabotage, drunken good ol’ boys, and more are all acceptable in the race. The rules for handling the boat’s repair and various minor encounters are nicely done, but the race feels again a little chaotic and lacking in advice. Nevertheless, this is a fun adventure.

‘Friends in Low Places’ by Monica Valentinelli takes the crewmembers back to Serenity Valley to help out an old Browncoat friend whose new wife has gone missing. Given that his previous wife was an unscrupulous redhead by the name of Bridget, the crewmembers may just decide that getting involved with wife number two might not be such a good idea, but ‘Good Ole Monty’ is desperate for their help. This is an investigative scenario and a fairly difficult one at that, the likelihood being that the crew will end up having to garner aid from high places into order to find the wife’s whereabouts. The one thing that lets this scenario down is the lack of maps and the poor quality of the maps. Those that are given are functional at best and given that this is a location-based scenario, a map of Serenity Valley itself would have been helpful.

Last is ‘Freedom Flyer’ by Nicole Wakelin. Once again, the crewmembers are asked to come to the aid of a frienda regular motif in this anthology, but the title is Echoes of Warwho wants to get out and make a new life before her old one catches up with her. Again, this scenario has something of the heist to it, but involving more stealth and the need to avoid Alliance entanglements than in previous scenarios. Of course, there is the matter of the friend’s past and the fact that it will catch up with both her and the crew in the form of a pragmatic bounty hunter who should be fun for the GM to play.

Physically, Firefly Echoes of War: Thrillin' Heroics is cleanly and neatly presented. It makes decent use of photographic stills from the television series, though the few pieces of additional line art are perhaps too cartoon-like in places. Where the book does disappoint is in its maps, which are in the main serviceably bland, and in some of the repetition from one scenario to the next. 

There are two obvious problems with Firefly Echoes of War: Thrillin' Heroics. The first is that it collates a number of releases that were first released as PDFs, so if you own any of them already, this collection may not be as useful. The second is that it repeats a lot material that is already available in one form or anotherthe rules, the crew of the Serenity, and the new pre-generated crew. What this means is that again, there is the possibility that the purchaser is paying for material he already has and does not need again. Either reason should be enough for the potential purchaser to carefully consider whether he needs this supplement.

The less obvious problem with Echoes of War is that its four scenarios are written with the crew of the Serenity in mind. Which is fine with a large playing group who are prepared double up on a character or twoafter all, few playing groups are likely to consist of nine players! What this means is that in many cases, the GM will be mapping the personalities of the Serenity crew onto the player character created crewmembers and back again in order to fit the roles that the scenarios require. Which of course will not be a problem for an experienced GM who will know the personalities of his players’ characters, but may present an issue for the less experienced GM.

Yet where Firefly Echoes of War: Thrillin' Heroics truly shines is as an introduction to playing and running the Firefly Roleplaying Game. Like Firefly the series and want to get a taste of what it is like to roleplay in the ‘Verse without getting the core rules, then it is an obvious place to start. That said, it is not an introductory product as far as roleplaying goes as its starting point is not quite basic enough and anyway, the scenarios are too complex for an inexperienced GM to either adapt to a group that is not playing the crew of the Serenity or to run. It is much more suited to a group and a GM who have some roleplaying experience under their collective britches. 

A nice touch is that each of the four scenarios comes with several suggestions as to possible sequels and consequences. Of course there is no advice on creating such sequels present in Echoes of War, but then that falls outside its remit and so they are useful for when the GM has a copy of the Firefly Roleplaying Game. There are of course issues with Firefly Echoes of War: Thrillin' Heroicsthe dull maps, the repetition of material, the underwritten advice, and so on, but the scenarios themselves are excellent, a solid quartet that do a nice job of modelling the Firefly television series and give the chance for the crewmembers to be big shiny heroes.

Saturday, 18 July 2015

Hiding Horrid Horrors

In 2006, Pelgrane Press was best known for the Dying Earth Roleplaying Game, the weird and wondrous RPG based on the works of Jack Vance, but it branched out with an RPG designed to address a problem with investigative games. This problem was that the player characters failed to make a particular skill check or roll, they failed to obtain a clue—and if this was a particularly important clue—then the game or scenario could be stopped in its tracks. Now there was nothing to stop the GM from finding a way around this, but until 2006 no RPG directly addressed this issue. The game that did was Robin D. Laws’ The Esoterrorists.

The Esoterrorists introduced the GUMSHOE System, a set of rules designed to handle mystery and investigative style games as well as giving player characters time in the spotlight. Now in truth, The Esoterrorists has since been eclipsed by Ken Hite’s Trail of Cthulhu; certainly that game of Lovecraftian investigative horror has received much more support from Pelgrane Press than The Esoterrorists. The GUMSHOE System has also explored investigations in other genres and subgenres, including more traditional horror in Fear Itself, in a superhero police procedural with Mutant Blues, in a post-singularity space opera with Ashen Stars, and with spies uncovering a vampire conspiracy with Night’s Black Agents. Nevertheless, The Esoterrorists was the first RPG to use the GUMSHOE System and since 2013 it has been available in a brand new edition.

The setting for The Esoterrorists is the here and now, but a here and now whose reality is threatened by occult terrorists—the ‘esoterrorists’ of the title—that work to rip open the Membrane that separates us from the Outer Dark.The esoterrorists—who can range from villages of backwoods cannibals and lone serial killers to covens of crazed housewives and power hungry moguls—hope to gain power and magic and in order to weaken the Membrane encourage a belief in magic in the general public as well as sow doubt and uncertainty in society in general. Where the Membrane is weak between this reality and the Outer Dark, there will greater incidents of the unexplained, of psionics, of magic, and so on, but worse, ‘Outer Dark Entities’ or ‘Creatures of Unremitting Horror’ can enter our world to further spread malignity and terror…

Fortunately, there is a conspiracy dedicated to thwarting the efforts of the esoterrorists—the Ordo Veritatis. It monitors for signs of esoterrorist activity and when the signs are detected, it sends out teams to investigate, to identify, and if possible, neutralise the threat. A team also has one last task—one that sets The Esoterrorists apart from other conspiracy RPGs—the Veil-Out. This is the creation and execution of a plausible cover story for the paranormal incident. Better cover ups strengthen the Membrane, but ineffective ones can weaken it.

It is agent members of these teams that the players take the roles of, each member of the Ordo Veritatis having a mundane occupation in addition to the tasks that he has to take on behalf of both the conspiracy and humanity. Each cell is self-contained and has relatively little contact with other cells or the Ordo Veritatis in general, what contact it does have with the Ordo Veritatis usually being via a briefing agent, either a Mister or a Ms. Verity. Now the ‘Veil-Out’ is not the only aspect of The Esoterrorists that makes it if not unique, then very different from other horror/conspiracy RPGs. In The Esoterrorists, the player characters are naturally the ‘good guys’, but so is the conspiracy that they work for. In other words, there is no inner conspiracy within the Ordo Veritatis with another agenda. Another difference is that the player characters are mundane—they have no outré powers like magic or psionics. Which makes sense given that possession of such abilities is a sign that the Membrane has been weakened, plus their use will further weaken the Membrane. Of course, this does not mean that the player character cannot know about such outré abilities. After all, they are tasked with thwarting a conspiracy bent on acquiring power both ordinary and outré.

Mechanically, The Esoterrorists uses the GUMSHOE System—no surprise given that it was the first. This system is divided into pools of two types of abilities—Investigative Abilities and General Abilities. Investigative Abilities are divided into three categories—Academic such as Art History, Linguistics, and Trivia; Interpersonal such as Bullshit Detector, Impersonate, and Streetwise; and Technical such as Ballistics, Document Analysis, and Evidence Collection. General Abilities include Athletics, Medic, and Surveillance, as well the combat abilities Scuffling and Shooting. During play, if an agent has a rating in any one Investigative Ability, then he can always gain the base or Core clues related to that Ability, but if the agent expends one or more points, he will get more information—during an investigation this an agent’s moment in the spotlight. Similarly, the points from General Abilities are also spent, but not to gain clues, but to perform physical actions, the points being added to rolls of a six-sided die.

A character’s Health and Stability are also represented by General Abilities. This means that an agent has to expend points from the appropriate pool to withstand the effects of poison for example or to get over a potential mental shock. This reflects both the effort made to withstand mental or physical trauma and the ability to withstand this trauma.

One of the complaints about the first edition of The Esoterrorists was that it was too concise. It did go into enough detail about the setting, specifically the Ordo Veritatis and the Esoterrorists. Further, the rules and their explanation were also said to be similarly succinct. Some of these issues were addressed in two supplements. The first, The Book of Unremitting Horror, provided an incredible array of originally disturbing and horrid monsters and creatures, whilst the second, The Esoterrorist Fact Book provided further information about the operations of both the Esoterrorists and the Ordo Veritatis.

In response, Pelgrane Press published The Esoterrorists, 2nd Edition. It addresses many of the problems complained about the original edition—in particular, the rules system. In truth it has not changed from the original edition to this  one, but with another five RPGs having been written since the original publication of The Esoterrorists that also use the GUMSHOE System, its implementation and interpretation has evolved. Thus there is clearer advice on the types of clues that can be handed out and on how to run create and run better mysteries. In terms of background, The Esoterrorists, 2nd Edition better explains the background to both the Esoterrorists and the Ordo Veritatis, exploring why and how they operate, all the better for both the player and the GM.

One issue that has developed with The Esoterrorists since its release in 2006 is that its scenarios feel the same. There is a validity to the that argument. After all, the RPG presents just the one type of scenario—the investigative type—and even if there is plenty of variation on offer in terms of Esoterrorist and Outer Dark Entity threats to be faced, the investigation/monster of the week format is still present. The Esoterrorists, Second Edition takes a concept first discussed  in The Esoterrorist Factbook—‘Station Duty’—and develops it further. Inspired by television series such as Twin Peaks and stories like The Shadow Over Innsmouth, ‘Station Duty’ is a sandbox style campaign in which an Ordo Veritatis team is assigned to reside in and investigate a town and its inhabitants. The team will  be comprised of newcomers—atypical player characters—and locals. Whilst the former possess a wider range of technical skills and knowledges, whilst the local possess local knowledges about the business community, the local police force, religious community, and so on.

The town should be relatively isolated and can be wholly new or based on somewhere that the GM or the players know, but is created collaboratively in terms of its history, atmosphere, and notables features. To this they add a Station and its facilities, the players even adding assets by spending some of the investigative build points normally used to create characters. To this of course, the GM adds the Esoterrorist threat and the reasons for the Ordo Veritatis investigation, but whilst this together forms the basis for a Station Duty campaign, much of the campaign’s details are not set in stone, the aim being for the GM to work off this groundwork and the player characters’ investigations. This is not to say that some structure cannot be applied to a Station Duty campaign, but much of it is created and run in a freeform fashion without adhering to a strict plotline.

A full example of a Station Duty campaign is given in The Esoterrorists, 2nd Edition. It includes just about everything that a GM will need to run it bar plotlines. Key locations, major NPCs or ‘persons of interest’ (complete with interpretations for their being victims, allies, or Esoterrorists), investigation outlines, potential schemes, and more. Also included is a mini scenario that can be used as introduction to the campaign. On the downside, the given campaign is very American in feel and theme—no surprise given its inspirations—so if the GM wants to adapt to another continent, he will have a little work ahead of him.

Rounding out the RPG is the scenario ‘Operation PROPHET BUNCO’. It is again set in small town America, a Californian coastal town that is home to a radio evangelist who is prophesying the forthcoming Rapture. It is a short, one or two-session affair that neatly introduces the key concepts behind a scenario for The Esoterrorists. It can be used as a precursor to the ‘Station Duty’ campaign given in the book or to a campaign of the GM’s own devising.

Physically, The Esoterrorists, 2nd Edition, is neatly presented. The writing is clear and simple, and the illustrations all suitably dark and ominous. Much like the original version of the game, the writing in this edition could be said to be concise, but where this was issue in the original version, here it is a matter of style rather than a lack of information. A definite concern is the lack of Outer Dark Entities—just fourteen of them—and the need to refer to The Book of Unremitting Horror in some cases, which is a shame since the game relies heavily on the originality of its Outer Dark Entities. Thankfully, The Book of Unremitting Horror is worth picking up.

Fortunately, The Esoterrorists, 2nd Edition is neatly developed in just about every other fashion. The rules and the GUMSHOE System are much better explained, the advice is clearer on creating and running mysteries, and the GM receives better support in the form of both the scenario and the campaign. The Esoterrorists, 2nd Edition is a better edition of an original take upon the classic conspiracy horror RPG, ably supported by some original monsters and a great campaign outline.

Sunday, 12 July 2015

The FATE of Wuxia

Out to the west lies Jiāngzhōu, the ‘border land’ on the edge of the ‘Divine Realm’ that is Shénzhōu. Far from the capital, this province is a place of banditry, gangsters, and corruption that preys not only on the local populace, but also the merchants that travel along the Jade Road and the Silk River. In response, the merchants have formed trade houses and hire security companies to protect their interests—interests that sometimes extend beyond the simply mercantile. Pirates, like the Blue Carp Brotherhood, led by the infamous pirate king, Fish-Eye Cheng, prey upon the boats moving up and down the Silk River; Five Demon Forest is known to be a haven for bandits and thieves, but is reputed to be haunted too; and perhaps the best place to meet famous fighters, soldiers, and wandering warriors in Băo Jiāng, the ‘Jewel of Jiāngzhōu’ that is the province’s biggest trading city, is the Drunken Dragon Inn, Playhouse, and Bath. Such a place has become an important meeting place because Jiāngzhōu is also home to the Wuxia, the ‘Wandering Swordsmen’ and ‘Knight Errants’ who lead lives often independent of society. Many are mercenaries, some follow their own paths, but all seek to become masters of Kung Fu.

This is the setting for Tianxia: Blood, Silk, & Jade, a Wuxia RPG setting in which chivalrous travel the byways and rivers of a province of a China that never was, righting and redressing wrongs, fighting for righteous, thwarting oppression, and seeking retribution for misdeeds. Published by Vigilance Press after a successful Kickstarter, Tianxia combines martial arts and cinematic action to tell stories in the vein of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Hero, and Romance of the Three Kingdoms. It is powered by Evil Hat Games’ FATE Core, a generic system that is light in tone and more than suited to cinematic action that relies upon the narrative input of the players—and Tianxia: Blood, Silk, & Jade gives the means to do that Wuxia style.

As per the FATE Core rules, characters in Tianxia are still defined by their Aspects, Skills, and Stunts. Changes to these—and indeed to the FATE Core rules—are kept to a minimum. They include the addition of a new skill, Chi, used to regain focus and overcome distractions, to create temporary Aspects that complement Kung Fu manoeuvres, to withstand magical attacks, and so on, as well as suggestions as to what to rename the existing skills to better fit the setting.

More than anything in Tianxia though, characters are defined by their martial arts style. Each martial arts style consists two substyles—element and body. With six element substyles—forest, ghost, iron, lightning, stone, and storm, and six body substyles—crane, dragon, monkey, phoenix, serpent, and tiger, Tianxia gives a total of thirty-six martial arts styles. Each sub-style provides three techniques, so every style has six techniques plus a lost technique which can only be learnt once the others have been also been learned. Once all seven techniques have been learned, a practitioner is said to have mastered that style.

Picking a style will go some way to defining a character. Want to turn the whole of the field of the battle—including your opponents—to your advantage? Then select Forest Monkey. The Lightning Tiger style relies on hard strikes at range or up close, but movement for defense, whilst Stone Crane emphasises defensive blocks combined with a solid stance. The range of styles available also means that the average starting group is unlikely to share the same styles, although overlaps in terms of element and body is possible—and will become more likely as a campaign progresses. In addition there are several lost techniques are given that a character might learn, research, or indeed create himself. Some of the styles and the way they interact are nicely illustrated with a full example of play using a set of sample characters.

Our sample character is a Tax Inspector, a recent graduate considered to be too much trouble to have in the capital despite having graduated with top marks in his examinations. He is too attentive, too assiduous when interpreting the law, and as good as he is at his job, he is regarded as a fool. Thus he has been dispatched to Jiāngzhōu, ostensibly to ensure that the taxes are collected from a slightly wayward province. Either he will be successful and learn some judgment, or he will annoy the wrong person and be assassinated, or simply he will fail. Either way, Ning is out of everyone’s hair for the moment and someone else’s problem.

Ning Choi-san
High Concept (Aspect): Incorruptible Tax Inspector
Trouble (Aspect): Every errand needs a fool
Aspects: Numbers never lie, There are always lessons to be learned, Honour the ancestors
Stunts: Time to hit the scrolls, The quill is mightier..., Not sure I should be here!
Skills: Lore (Great +4); Investigate, Will (Good +3); Chi, Fight, Rapport (Fair +2); Athletics, Crafts, Physique, Resources (Average +1)
Physical Stress (Physique): 1 2 3
Mental Stress (Will): 1 2 3 4
Refresh Rate: 3 Fate Points: 3

Jianghu Rank: 1
Kung Fu Style: Iron Crane Form
Crane Hides in Reeds: Add an additional +2 bonus when in Full Defence to defend yourself in combat. If used to defend others, gain 2 Armour instead.

Mechanically, there is nothing to stop a character from learning techniques from more than the one style; story-wise it may be well be another matter. Learning and mastering more techniques and styles will increase a character's Jianghu rank, with  practitioners of a higher rank having advantages in terms of movement and actions when facing those of a lesser rank, particularly when facing mobs. Instead of a mob being a means to inflict damage on an opponent, in Tianxia it more becomes a timing tool, a narrative device to speed up or slow down the players’ progress . 

If there is a limitation to the martial arts rules in Tianxia it is that they focus purely on hand-to-hand combat and styles, so there are no styles for using melee weapons, missile weapons, or indeed firearms. Of course there is nothing to stop a character creating a signature weapon—as per the core FATE Core rules, but nevertheless the martial arts styles in Tianxia are resolutely hand-to-hand based. The lack of firearms is understandable given that in Shénzhōu gunpowder is only used in rockets and fireworks and as explosives. So no firearms, but the lack of styles for melee and missile weapons is at odds with the genre and many of the setting’s inspirations. That said, there are suggestions as to how they might be handled, but that is all that they are, suggestions.

The setting of Jiāngzhōu is rather broadly drawn, with little more than a handful or two of locations and NPCs being detailed. They include plenty of Aspects for the player characters to bounce off and for the GM to use as inspiration. This paucity of locations and NPCs is intentional though, because it leaves space and more for the GM to create and and detail himself. Most notable of these are the number and types of Kung-Fu schools, but again this is intentional, the GM being given room to develop them himself, in part based upon the styles employed by the player characters. That said, an example or two would not have gone amiss.

For the GM there are optional rules allow for faster fights; a guide to applying The Bronze Rule, that is, turning anything and everything into a ‘character’ so that it can be modelled using FATE Core; and a discussion of the game’s core genre elements in play. The Bronze Rule is supported by examples including mysteries, kung fu challenges, epidemics and ailments, corrupt Chi, whilst the genre elements discussed include ‘One person can make the difference, good or bad’, ‘Heroic isn’t always good’, ‘The best rewards do not always glitter’, ‘Equipment is always important’, and ‘It’s okay to lose, and sometimes you will’. Of these ‘Equipment is always important’ looks a little odd in the context of Tianxia because it is a game where equipment is not intrinsically important. Here though equipment is important because it tells so much about a character, whether player character or NPC. How well he dresses, whether he carries a broken sword, or whips out poison darts all tell much about a character.

Broader campaign advice suggests Campaign Aspects for the various Wuxia subgenres—comedy, epic, horror, romance, and so on. These, for example ‘Death isn’t funny… misfortune is’ for comedy and ‘Duty is the enemy of romance’ for romance, can be tagged like any other Aspect in the game, but these help enforce the feel of the game. Similar sections examine relationship triangles in the Wuxia genre and applying ‘Interesting times’ to a campaign. More specifically, the GM is provided with a lists of formidable opponents, dangerous mobs, and fierce creatures, the latter also including an option for the players to choose animals as their player characters. Rounding the section for the GM is a set of decent adventure seeds, each including more NPCs.

The setting of Jiāngzhōu is rather broadly drawn, with little more than a handful or two of locations and NPCs being detailed.This though, is intentional, because it leaves space and more for the GM to create and and detail himself. Most notable of these are the number and types of Kung-Fu schools, but again this is intentional, the GM being given room to develop them himself, in part based upon the styles employed by the player characters. That said, an example or two would not have gone amiss.

Physically, Tianxia: Blood, Silk, & Jade is pleasingly presented full colour hardback with bright artwork and some engaging colour fiction. That said, the book does feel slightly spacious in places, almost as if a slightly smaller book had been spread out to fit a larger book.

Tianxia: Blood, Silk, & Jade is not quite perfect. It is missing a decent treatment of martial arts weaponry and the setting could be said to be too broadly drawn, though to be fair, the former does not fall within the remit of the game and the latter is by design. That aside, what Tianxia: Blood, Silk, & Jade sets out to do, it does very well. It is accessible, it presents a solidly playable set of martial arts rules, and FATE Core supports the type of cinematic action that Wuxia calls for with just about the right amount of detail. In a very many way, Tianxia: Blood, Silk, & Jade is the Wuxia RPG I have always wanted.

Sunday, 5 July 2015

Beyond the sanguinary red mirror

Beyond the mountains to the east of Mitteleuropa on the other side of the Terrible Goblin Woods lies a dream that has fallen into nightmare, a land of wonders that has been twisted into a wilderness of the weird—Voivodja. Also known as the Place of Unreason and the Land the Gods Refuse To See, it is a country of veiled darkness where two monarchs have grown to war with other. One is the Red King, of the Red House, the other is Heart Queen of the House of Hearts, she is cruel and capricious, he is terrible and tall, and both dream, and their dreams warp the land. Both command vampire armies that have all but wiped out the natives of Voivodja, though pockets of them survive in deep sanctuaries here and there.The Red King and Heart Queen have imposed a chessboard-like grid upon the land, but decisive battles between the two armies are rare and instead they feud through intrigues and plans within plans all played out at a stately pace—when such plans have either monarch’s attention that is…

Into this stalemate come neutral interlopers—the Pale King and the Colourless Queen, as well as the player characters. Perhaps they fell down the wrong tunnel or through a mirror—whether deep in some dungeon or down an alley off the streets of London. In Voivodja mirrors are important, for they enable the vampires to cross from the War Side to Quiet Side—a reflection of our world where the vampires go to hunt for sustenance now that there are so few natives of Voivodja still alive. However they arrive, the adventurers are an unknown, one that either side would want to use or to destroy. Thus the likelihood is that they will become involved in the intrigues of one faction or another, but they had best mind their ‘Ps and Qs’—or at least learn how to play croquet—because otherwise it will be off with their heads! Or worse…

This is the set-up for A Red & Pleasant Land, the multi-Ennie award nominated campaign and setting supplement published by Lamentations of the Flame Princess for its Lamentations of the Flame Princess: Weird Fantasy Roleplaying. It is thus compatible with the various Old School Renaissance fantasy RPGs and with a little effort could be used with any number of modern fantasy RPGs. Written by Zak S., author of The Vornheim City Guide and controversial advisor for Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition, it can be used as is, dropped into an isolated spot on the Referee’s campaign map, dipped into for inspiration, or harvested for ideas. Like most of the other releases for Lamentations of the Flame Princess: Weird Fantasy Roleplaying, the campaign is by default humanocentric, so this is not necessarily a land for demihumans. It is though a land to be visited, but should a player character die there, options are given for playing Voivodja natives. Unlike several recent releases for Lamentations of the Flame Princess: Weird Fantasy Roleplaying, this is not a setting that involves firearms.

Much is made of the culture and mores of Voivodja and rightly so, for A Red & Pleasant Land is no simple dungeon, but a complex of intrigues and chicanery that the player characters will need to navigate. Learning the manners of the courts of the Red King and Heart Queen, from croquet and correct trial etiquette to what not to eat at banquets—almost everything and the dangers of attending a wedding in the Land of Unreason. Some of this applies to the animals of Voivodja too as many of them can talk and this being a ‘Wonderland’, the player characters can shrink down to their size and talk to them (and of course grow back up again). An extensive bestiary details the notable inhabitants of Voivodja as well as their cohorts and servants along with the animals and monsters, including the stranger than strange Pseudoturtle and the Jabberwock. In the case of the inhabitants, the Referee will need to develop further their desires and motivations, but A Red & Pleasant Land is not short of the means to do that. Lastly, both the courts of the Heart Queen and the Red King—Cachtice, the Card Castle for the Heart Queen, Poenari, the Looking Glass Palace for the Red king—are mapped out in detail in a very singular style that captures some of the craziness of both locations.

There is just the one new Class given in A Red & Pleasant Land—the Alice (or Alistair if the character is male), which can be best described as a slightly less capable Thief or Rogue, but with a pair of interesting twists. The first is the Exasperation table which an Alice’s player can roll on when he has got frustrated and in return will receive some form of aid, such as someone falling down or a nearby device or object breaking. The second is that whenever an Alice gains a Level, she gains a random benefit each and every time, like ‘She could be very charming when she needed to be’ (+2 Charisma bonus to attempts to lie), ‘It was so lovely, and—according to the book—it was right there’ (a greatly desired object is nearby), and ‘Alice had seen so many unusual things lately, it had become usual’ (nothing phases Alice who receives a +2 save bonus versus confusion or insanity). Although it is possible for an Alice to receive the same benefit multiple times, what this means is that no two Alices are alike.

Rounding out A Red & Pleasant Land are a set of sample locations, some optional rules, and a lengthy set of tables. The locations come in the form of beautifully done maps of sample places around Voivodja—a forest, a garden, and an interior. The optional rules cover characters of rank—either being born to it or appointed, duelling, and battles large and small. They are simple  and straightforward, and are of use outside of A Red & PLeasant Land as well as in. They can also be used with any Old School Renaissance fantasy RPG. Then there are the tables—and what tables they are! They cover everything from Adventure Hooks, Animals, and Anonymities to Relationships Between NPCs, What’s The Thing They Just Encountered Doing?, and Where Have You Been? (the latter to explain a player’s absence in a previous session). Together these tables are fantastic resource, a panoply of ideas and nudges for the Referee’s imagination that ice the rich cake that is A Red & Pleasant Land.

Physically, A Red & Pleasant Land is a handsome clothbound hardback. Not beautiful, for it is slightly off kilter for that, weird and creepy, and definitely not all that is either proper or moral. Its artwork is suitably macabre rather than bloody whilst the interior maps eschew the chessboard style of most Dungeons & Dragons scenarios to give the locations of A Red Pleasant Land a sprawling haphazard feel. The writing though needs an edit in places, but it is never unreadable.

By far the biggest issue with A Red & Pleasant Land is what the Referee does with it. Not that the supplement is short on ideas or the means to create encounters, scenarios, and plots, but as well organised as it is, there is an an underlying chaos to A Red & Pleasant Land that threatens to overwhelm the Referee. In places this needs a careful attention upon the part of the Referee if he is to get the best of this supplement. Of course some players may not like craziness or the weirdness that pervades the pages of A Red & Pleasant Land, but what may be a bane in some campaigns may be a boon in others.

Dungeons & Dragons has of course visited both vampires and Alice’s adventures before. The former most notably in I6, Ravenloft, the latter in Gary Gygax’s EX1 Dungeonland module and its sequel, EX2, The Land Beyond the Magic Mirror, but never ever like this… Imagine if Lewis Carrol had been accompanied by Bram Stoker on that ‘Golden Afternoon’ on the River Thames in 1862 and the two had agreed to collaborate on the greatest fantasy of the nineteenth century…? The result is A Red & Pleasant Land, a riotously surreal assembly of the weird and the whimsical, a bloody melange of murderous imagination,and whether ‘Dracula’s Adventures in Wonderland' by Bram Stoker or ‘The Diaries of Alice Bathory' by Lewis Carroll, A Red & Pleasant Land is an artful act of making the unoriginal original once again.

Saturday, 4 July 2015

Cthulhu!!!

Despite publishing innumerable games and supplements, Twilight Creations, Inc. is still best known for its very first release, Zombies!!! Arguably, the 2001 Origins Award winner for Best Graphic Presentation of a Board Game and semi-co-operative, zombie smashing, tile-laying, running from the cadaver cavalcade board game set the groundwork for almost every zombie-themed game published in the fourteen years since. It saw the players racing for the helicopter to escape the town and encroaching zombie horde, fighting their way through the corpse cortège whilst setting zombies in the paths of their rivals and taking advantage of the Event cards whose gruesomely great artwork was the reason that Zombies!!! won the award.

Now Twilight Creations has revisited Zombies!!! once again. Not for its theme, but its mechanics. The theme is replaced by the Cthulhu Mythos—in particular Hastur—and the game is Cthulhu!!!: Hastur La Vista, Baby! Designed for two to six players, aged fifteen and up, it is set in the 1920s in the Lovecraft Country town of Kingsport where ruthless cultists of Hastur aim to bring the Great Old One to Earth. As doughty private eyes and quick-witted girl Fridays, the heroes must find and sanctify enough ritual sites to prevent the summoning. Not only must they face his cultists, they will be harried by Hastur’s servants—the dreaded Byakhee—as they try make use of the Relics to sanctify each site. This will not only prevent Hastur coming to Earth, it will earn the players Victory Points and whomever has the most at game end wins. If, that is, three Ritual Sites have been sanctified; if not, the last player standing wins.

The game comes well appointed, with lots of miniature figures for the Cultists and the Byakhee; full colour, if somewhat dark and gloomy map tiles; full colour Relic and Event cards—the latter pleasingly gruesome; plus card tokens to represent each player's’ Bullets, Life, and Sanity. At game start, each player selects a Private Eye or Girl Friday pawn and three Event cards. Everyone starts out at the Church.

Each turn a player draws a new Map Tile, adding it to the map and seeding it with either Cultists or a Byakhee. Named building tiles will also have either a Bullet or Life token on them, whilst Ritual Sites are seeded with both Cultists and a Byakhee. Then he rolls the die and moves, fighting through Cultists and Byakhee on the way. Fighting Byakhee risks losing a player Sanity and they are harder to kill, but defeating them earns a player more Relic cards than does defeating Cultists. Bullet tokens can be used to modify combat dice rolls, but should a player lose either all of his Life or Sanity tokens, he must start again, but with less Sanity! Should a player have his Sanity permanently reduced to less than one, he is out of the game. At the end of his turn, a player moves a random number of Byakhee and Cultists.

Ritual Sites are of course heavily protected and difficult to defeat, but once done, a player can discard Relic cards to sanctify it. If a player dies on a Ritual Site, the Cultists are successful and the site is activated. If three are activated, Hastur comes to Earth!

Stopping this is a challenge. Fortunately the players have Events to help them. These can grant more Life or Sanity, permanently increase a player’s Life, automatically defeat a Byakhee, give a player a weapon like a knife or Tommy Gun, and so on. Yet other Event cards directly interfere with other players, for example, forcing them to lose all Sanity or Bullets, stealing their weapon, sending Byakhee at them, and so on.

Given the 'take that' aspect of Cthulhu!!!, the players need to decide how they play the game—fully co-operatively or semi-co-operatively and thus partially against each other. Fully co-operatively and Cthulhu!!! is easier to win; semi-co-operatively and the game is more challenging. As a co-operative game, it is of course easier to win than Zombies!!!, but semi-co-operatively and the game is about as challenging.

Given the fact that mechanically, Cthulhu!!! is based on Zombies!!!, the game is solidly designed and playable. This will make it easy for Zombies!!! fans to pick up and play, whilst the co-operative game play should hopefully make it just different enough for them to play. The actual balance between co-operative or semi-co-operative play is well handled and not biased towards one or the other. Where the game feels underdeveloped is in its theme, but it should be remembered that this is pulpy shoot ‘em up, not a psychological study of the insidious influence of the Yellow Sign. That said, it seems a pity not have taken the ‘Cthulhu!!!’ aspect of the title and done something with that rather the lesser known Hastur Mythos.

Although it may lack the depth that devotees of the Mythos might want, Cthulhu!!!: Hastur La Vista, Baby! is overall a solid, though not spectacular, design.

Saturday, 27 June 2015

Ridiculum bella Rome

From TSR, Inc.’s The Glory of Rome for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, Second Edition to Chaosium, Inc.’s Cthulhu Invictus for Call of Cthulhu, Sixth Edition, the world of Ancient Rome has been regularly visited by the gaming hobby. Some have been simple and straightforward like Pax Gladius, the 1PG from Deep7, whilst others have been sublime, such as Thyrsus Games’ much missed Fvlminata: Armed with Lightning. Two of the more recent entries in the genre have been military based. First 43 AD in 2012 and then Weird Wars Rome, launched on Kickstarter in 2013.

Published by Pinnacle Entertainment Group, Weird Wars Rome is part of the Weird Wars line of horror settings that began with Weird War II and has since visited the Vietnam War with Weird Wars: Tour of Darkness. The set-up for each of these military settings and campaigns initially sees the player characters as simple soldiers fighting on the front lines who are exposed to something strange, unnatural, even horrific. The encounter is enough to suggest that the enemy is using means more than outré to fight its war and the player characters’ survival is enough to bring them to the attention of the Twilight Legion, a secret organisation dedicated to fighting the evil unleashed by the enemy. Once they have its attention, the secret society will test the player characters and then send them to fight its missions in order to thwart the greater evil…

So it is with Weird Wars Rome, a campaign setting that requires the Savage Worlds core rules in order to play it. Unlike in most campaigns and RPGs based in Ancient Rome, this is an entirely military based campaign setting, with the player characters taking the roles of members of one of Rome’s mighty legions, all assigned to the same unit, a Contubernium of eight men. That is if they are legionaries, for they might also be auxiliaries (infantry or cavalry), gladiators, medicii (medics), or speculatores/exploratores (scouts, bodyguards, couriers, and even spies). There are no rules in Weird Wars Rome for creating civilian characters (or indeed guidelines for running civilian-based campaigns), but an enterprising War Master—as the GM is known in the Weird Wars series—could easily create new Occupations if he has access to suitable source material (Cthulhu Invictus would be a good source for such an endeavour). Alternatively, such material would form the basis of Weird Wars Rome Companion, right…?

Name: Aulus Didius Ravilla Nationality: Roman 
Rank: Novice Occupation: Legionary
Attributes: Agility d8, Smarts d6, Spirit d4, Strength d6, Vigor d6 
Skills: Climbing d6, Fighting d6, Lockpicking d6, Notice d6, Throwing d6, Stealth d8, Streetwise d6
Charisma: 0
Pace: 6; Parry: 5; Toughness: 4; Sanity
Hindrances:  Bad Luck (Major), Greed (Minor), Wanted (Minor)
Edges: Shield Wall, Sticky Fingers, Thief

Weird Wars Rome adds various new Edges (advantages) for creating characters, most of them military-related, such as Military Family, Aquilifer (eagle standard bearer for the legion), and Signifier (spear standard bearer for the century). As this is a horror setting, characters also have a Sanity stat to reflect their ability to withstand the shock of seeing the monsters and supernatural threats they will encounter in a Weird Wars campaign. Sanity points are lost for failing Fear checks and if driven to zero or below, a character is likely to acquire a disorder such as Flashbacks or the Shakes. These can be overcome through rest and recuperation at a temple or sanatorium, but this does take time. If a character still has Sanity points, he can gain lost points by expending his ‘Spoils’ of war on charitable deeds.

Other mechanics in Weird Wars Rome  handle rewards and promotions, both naval and siege warfare, for finding and spending ‘Spoils’ of war found after any battle or campaign. In addition to being spent on charitable acts, these can be donated to temples to gain blessings, given as gifts to gain the benefit of a veteran’s wisdom, carousing, bribing a superior to get out of duties, simply to rest, and so on. Where characters have access to ‘magic’, it will be in the form of divine Miracles rather than Arcane sorcery, the latter the province of the enemy such as the Druids of Gaul and Britannia and the mages of Greece, Egyptus, Parthia, and elsewhere. The likelihood of a character learning magic will come later in any campaign once he has proved his duty to the Twilight Legion and devotion to the right deities.

Mechanically, Weird Wars Rome uses the Savage Worlds system. This is a relatively light, pulp action system designed to handle single player action as well as combat between military units. The two included campaigns will involve military skirmishes of varying sizes, the player characters being expected to take command of the Roman forces where possible. Both ‘Rome’s Nightmare’ and ‘Mountains of Blood’ are Plot Point Campaigns, meaning that there are periods of time—both long and short—where the player characters can engage in adventures that are not related to the campaign. In the case of Weird Wars Rome, the War Master is free to slot adventures of his own design in between the Plot Points or create them using the given Adventure Generator.

‘Rome’s Nightmare’ take place during the 2nd Punic War and sees the player characters serving in the legions as the Carthaginian general Hannibal lays waste to the north of Italy. The return of their deceased comrades to the battlefield and their survival brings them to the attention of those who have knowledge of the dark means that Hannibal has brought to the northern hills of Italy. Where ‘Rome’s Nightmare’ is a defensive action, ‘Mountains of Blood’ takes place during an invasion, that of Dacia under the command of the great general Trajan. It is also a much shorter affair, one that also has them facing an indigenous foe rather than one that the enemy brought with them.

Both are presented in a chapter entitled ‘Legatum’ or Legacy. This is because the two campaigns in Weird Wars Rome are linked. Not in terms of plot, campaign, or foe, but in terms of generation. The idea is that whilst one set of characters fight one Plot Point Campaign, it is their descendants that fight the next and their descendants that fight the next, and so on and so on… Each descendant will benefit from a legacy of of his forebear’s campaigns, sometimes a curse, at other times great status and knowledge. Now this can only be done the once with the two Plot Point Campaigns given in Weird Wars Rome, but the supplement also includes descriptions of several other wars that the War Master could develop into campaigns of his own. Some of these, such as the wars to conquer Britannia could be run using the same characters, slipping campaign interludes between the military ventures, but others are far enough apart to run as part of a generational campaign. The description of each war includes a ‘sub rosa’ section detailing the dark means by which the enemies of Rome will turn to drive out the imperial forces. The War Leader will need to take note of both the ordinary and outré aspects of each war in order to develop it into a campaign of his own.

The bulk of Weird Wars Rome is devoted to Rome, its history and empire, and its conduct of war. It includes a gazetteer of the empire, though the latter is understandably broad given the space restriction and the great swathes of territory it has to cover. Rounding out the supplement is bestiary of Rome’s allies and enemies. The range of monsters suffers from the same problem as the gazetteer, having too much territory and too many creatures to cover effectively.   

Physically, Weird Wars Rome is a slim, ninety-six page, full colour book. Some of the artwork is excellent, but much of it is too cartoon-like and at odds with the grim nature of the better pieces. Whilst the book does pack in a great deal of information, it does not need another edit in places. In particular this is one book where you do need to know how to use the term ‘decimate’ in the correct sense. Especially if it is defined correctly at the beginning of the book. 

There are a number of odder problems inherent to Weird Wars Rome. Most of the time the player characters are going to be very similar, more so if all playing legionaries. There is room to play different types of characters once the player characters become involved with the Twilight Legion, but even so, the supplement only offers a limited number of character types and further, by modern standards, the supplement offers little in the way of female characters. Again, this may become possible when the characters become involved in the affairs of the Twilight Legion, but again, the War Master will have to work to make this possible. Further, it offers little in the way of civilian characters or civilian-based campaigns, but this is by design. All of these issues deserve to be addressed in a companion. Another issue is the lack of monsters—not that there none, but rather there are not enough and perhaps more could have been done to associate them with particular territories and wars, in particular they tend towards pulp archetypes rather than the creatures of myth and legend.

One interesting aspect of Weird Wars Rome is the place in it puts the players. ‘Rome’s Nightmare’ is a defensive action, but because ‘Mountains of Blood’ is an offensive action, it places the player characters in the role of the invaders, literally the 'faceless' forces of Imperialism, stamping the authority of Rome on another country. This is a role that they will take again and again, especially if several of the other wars given in the supplement are played through. The characters are in many cases the oppressors. How happy the players are will vary from one group to another...

Perhaps too succinct in places, there is, nevertheless, much to be made of the contents of Weird Wars Rome, though a companion volume would be more than welcome. Despite its limitations—many of them self-imposed—Weird Wars Rome is a solid treatment of its subject matter, supported by two decent campaigns and the means to create more. 

Sunday, 21 June 2015

For Cultured Friends III

If James Maliszewski is no longer the leading—though much missed—proponent of the Old School Renaissance through his blog Grognardia, he is at least upholding the ‘Old School’ banner in an Old School fashion for an Old School RPG. That RPG is TSR Inc.’s Empire of the Petal Throne: The World of Tékumel and that fashion is in the form of a fanzine, The Excellent Travelling Volume. The first and second issues of the fanzine have already sold out, finding favour with ‘Petalheads’ everywhere, providing likeable, accessible support for what is a niche gamer’s niche setting.

As with previous issues, The Excellent Travelling Volume #3 comes as a twenty-eight page, digest-sized booklet, illustrated with greyscale pictures. Its content amounts to just five sections, some of which are new, while others continue support seen in the previous two issues. The issue starts out though with an important statement of intent in its introduction, the groundwork for which was laid in issue #2 with the description of the location and date of the author’s campaign—Sokátis, the City of Roofs in the 2350s before the death of Emperor Hirkáne and Prince Dhich’uné’s subsequent coup. This is in contrast with the many other campaigns that take place during and after the resulting civil war, but what it allows the author to do is to take the campaign in a direction dictated by the actions of his players and thus not always in the direction of the late Professor M.A.R. Barker’s own Thursday night campaign. His point is that the future of Empire of the Petal Throne and thus your campaign does not have to follow that of official Tékumel and this can be seen in some of the non-canonical articles in this issue and likely will be seen in futures issues.

The first two of the articles in this issue have a bearing upon Sokátis, the City of Roofs and the author’s campaign. As in the previous issues, ‘Salarvyáni and Pecháni characters (additions and changes)’ is an article that expands upon the rules for character creation, in this providing details that will help flesh out Salarvyáni and Pecháni characters, including Alignment, gender, skills, Level Titles, gods, and both names and clan names. These work not just for player characters, but also for NPCs, more so for Sokátis, the City of Roofs, the closest Tsolyáni city to Salarvyá and Pecháno. The second article, ‘A Portion of the Underworld of Sokátis’ describes the other half of the ‘Tsuru’úm’ or underworld that lies beneath the city’s Foreigners’ Quarter first described in issue #2. Where the first half felt a little random and unfocused, this second half gives this section of ‘Tsuru’úm’ focus and to some extent, purpose. It has become home to a near heretical cult devoted to an ill thought of aspect of Dlamélish. Nevertheless, the Old School Renaissance mentality does mean that even together the two parts of  ‘A Portion of the Underworld of Sokátis’ come up a little short. A little more motivation in terms of the inhabitants of this Underworld might well have sharpened its the focus and purpose  as would suggestions as to what might bring the player characters into its antiquated tunnels.

The Temple of Ksárul holds no little sway and influence in  Sokátis, so the article on ‘Demons of Ksárul and Grugánu’—Grugánu being the cohort of Ksárul—gives ready support for any player character priest of either god as well as NPCs. Of the three creatures described here, that given for ‘The Dwellers in Shadow’ expands upon their description in Swords & Glory 2 under the Demonology spell, whilst that given for ‘Llyanmákchi, She of the Twisted Visage’ expands upon that given for her in the infamous Book of Ebon Bindings.* The third creature, the ‘Munggái’ appear to be new, but do  feel as if they could have been described in fascinatingly foul tome as they do  have a grotesqueness that nicely verges on the weird. This is the first in a series of articles that author promises will detail further demons and inhabitants of ‘the Planes Beyond’, including those that serve the  Tlomitlányal, the Gods of Stability. In all likelihood these will be of more service to player characters who adhere to those deities and their cohorts.

*I am indebted to the inestimable George S. Hammond for his welcome corrections upon this matter.


As in previous issues of The Excellent Travelling Volume, the best article in issue #3 is a collection of adventure ideas. In both of those issues these were presented as collections of patrons, but here they are presented as encounters. Specifically encounters ‘On the Road’, which all take place on the great three-tiered Sákbe roads that crisscross the Five Empires. There are fifteen here, ranging from Adventurers and Courtesans (Lowest) to Imperial Messengers and Lords (Highest) via Soldiers (Middle). Most of the encounters take place on the lowest and highest tiers, so they may always be of immediate in a campaign where the character only travel along one tier, but they all interesting and colourful and capture some of the flavour and feel of Tsolyánu.

Wrapping up this third issue is a short adventure, ‘The Tower of Wachánu’. It describes a long abandoned vessel of the Ancients which has in more recent times become the ‘resting place’ for a magician, much in the manner described—and here acknowledged as being—in The Tower of the Stargazer, the adventure for Lamentations of the Flame Princess Weird Fantasy Roleplaying. In comparison with that scenario, ‘The Tower of Wachánu’ lacks detail, but within its six pages it packs in detail enough. It is a simple enough affair, though the ramifications of its ‘re-discovery’ will probably bring out more of the cultural aspects of Empire of the Petal Throne than this scenario does. Perhaps worthy of a sequel?

Physically, The Excellent Travelling Volume #3 is clean and tidy with a light sprinkling of art. Its centre pages consist of a character sheet for use with TSR Inc.’s Empire of the Petal Throne: The World of Tékumel. It looks nice and is just fussy enough hint at the baroque nature of the setting. Zhu Baje’s cover is excellent, though it suggests that the issue will cover Sárku, the Five-Headed Lord of Worms, rather than what it actually does cover.

In comparison to the previous issue, The Excellent Travelling Volume #3 is disparate in feel and not quite as focused. Nevertheless, this is an interesting collection of articles and there should be something in its pages for every ‘Petalhead’, whatever rules they are using—even if just using the encounters in ‘On the Road’. Solid support then for  Empire of the Petal Throne: The World of Tékumel.