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

Sunday, 10 December 2017

An Original RPG II

Béthorm: The Plane of Tékumel is the latest roleplaying game to explore the world of Tékumel, the linguistic and cultural setting developed by Professor M.A.R. Barker, which was originally published as Empire of the Petal Throne by TSR, Inc. in 1975, itself recently republished by The Tékumel Foundation. Published by Uni Games following a successful Kickstarter campaign, Béthorm: The Plane of Tékumel is designed and illustrated by Jeff Dee, best known for his classic Advanced Dungeons & Dragons artwork and as the co-designer of the roleplaying game, Villains and Vigilantes, originally published by Fantasy Games Unlimited in 1979. Presented as ‘Rules for Science-Fantasy Role-Play on an Exotic Planet’, Béthorm: The Plane of Tékumel includes new of rules for play on Tékumel, a different campaign framework, and a new setting, but, it nevertheless takes its cue and its template from the 1975 Empire of the Petal Throne—and that has implications for how accessible it is as a roleplaying game and how accessible it makes Tékumel: Empire of the Petal Throne.

Béthorm: The Plane of Tékumel starts with a good introduction to the world of Tékumel, explaining what it is and giving it a solid timeline which runs from our near future into the very far future, explaining how Tékumel was originally discovered in 60,000 AD and subsequently terraformed into a tourist world before it was dragged into a pocket universe. Isolated for millennia, both the human and alien inhabitants regressed technologically and lost much knowledge, but adapted to the hot and resource poor world that is Tékumel, such as learning to harvest, cut, and harden cut the hide of the mighty chlén beast to shape into armour, weapons, ploughs, and more. In time, the peoples of Tékumel made contact with intelligences from the Planes beyond the plane—or ‘béthorm’—of Tékumel, some of whom were adopted by the Priest-Kings of Éngsvan Hlá Gánga as the Tlomitlányal, the Gods of Stability, and the Tlokiriqáluyal, the Gods of Change. Éngsvan Hlá Gánga is only one of many great empires that have arisen and fallen since Tékumel was isolated. Today the area once ruled by Éngsvan Hlá Gánga is occupied by five great empires—Tsolyánu, the Empire of the Throne; the Empire of Mu’ugalavyá; the Land of Sorcery, Livyánu; and Sa’á Allaqí and Salarvyyá. It is the first of these empires, Tsolyánu, that is the primary focus of Tékumel and any roleplaying game devoted to the setting concentrates upon this nation above any other. This is not to say campaigns set on Tékumel cannot be set elsewhere, but that takes a bit more effort and a bit more knowledge than is presented in any roleplaying game devoted to Tékumel, and indeed, is presented in Béthorm: The Plane of Tékumel.

In terms of timeframe, the default setup for Béthorm: The Plane of Tékumel is 2369 AS, after the civil war that has rent Tsolyánu the last five years. Prince Dhich’uné, who usurped the throne from his late father, Emperor Hirkáne, ‘The Stone Upon Which Rests the Universe’, has been dethroned by his brothers and fled, whereabouts unknown. Prince Mirusyía now rules as ‘The Flame Everlasting’ and despite rumblings from Prince Dhich’uné’s allies in the Temple of Sárku, there is relative peace in the empire as the war with Yan Kór has ended on good terms.

Now in Empire of the Petal Throne, the default setup was that of ‘Fresh Off the Boat’, foreigners or ‘country bumpkins’, distant cousins who sail ashore at the great Tsolyáni port city of Jakálla and set out to find a place in civilised society. Initially confined to the Foreigners Quarter, they seek employers, then patrons, and finally sponsors who will support their becoming members of a clan and so become citizens of Tsolyánu, the Empire of the Throne. Not so in Béthorm: The Plane of Tékumel. Instead it offers up several campaign ideas, from being members of the same clan, worshippers of the same deity, and members of the same military legion to working as troubleshooters for the Omnipotent Azure Legion—the equivalent of the secret police in Tsolyánu and becoming the Heroes of the Age. It strongly advises against mixing characters of opposing faiths and widely diverging social levels, the latter because every good Tsolyáni clan members knows his or her place. Béthorm: The Plane of Tékumel also suggests various adventure concepts, from the Underworld and its archaeology, wilderness exploration, and court intrigue to clan conflicts, administrative assignments, and the mysteries and puzzles of Tékumel. 

The default setup in Béthorm: The Plane of Tékumel though, is not that of ‘Fresh Off the Boat’, but instead has the player characters as members of a Tsolyáni clan. Which means that Béthorm: The Plane of Tékumel is much more a culture game than the default setup in Empire of the Petal Throne. Any player characters in Béthorm: The Plane of Tékumel will likely be human and Tsolyáni—the good citizens of Tsolyánu are conservative by nature and distrust foreigners and nonhumans—though the rules presented in Béthorm: The Plane of Tékumel do provide the means to create player characters who are not of the Five Empires or nonhuman should a campaign allow for such a possibility. That said, the Tsolyáni are tolerant of gender and sexual preferences, in particular a woman gains the same rights and responsibilities as a man if she officially declares herself to be of Aridáni status. More specifically though, the player characters are members of a clan which is either based in, or has a clan house in the Western city of Katalál. To that end, the character creation process includes a list of the primary clans found in the city, along with a list of personal and lineage names. 

A character in Béthorm: The Plane of Tékumel is designed using Uni Games’ Pocket Universe system first seen in the Pocket Universe Basic Rules Set and Teenage Demon Slayer, both published in 2003. A character is defined by five attributes—Physique, Deftness, Intellect, Willpower, and Psychic Ability, though the latter is really only important for spellcasters; personal traits—advantages and disadvantages; and skills. It is a point buy system, a player being given three pools of points to spend on each. Elements such as date of birth, gender identity, gender expression, biological sex, and sexual attraction can all be rolled for or chosen as is a player’s wont. As can name and lineage. The character creation process is straightforward, though it does get slightly more complex when creating a spellcaster. It is also flexible, so that it is possible to create a wide array of character types, though the emphasis is on occupation within a clan, a temple, or military legion—which in Tsolyánu is how it should be.

Our sample character is Fssu’úma hiTurushán of the Clan of Black Monolith, native of the city of Katalál. She has declared herself Aridáni and been sponsored by her clan—to its great cost—to train in the secret city of Hmakuyal. Outwardly, she is learning to become an ecclesiastical lawyer in the temple of Ksárul, but secretly is training to become a ‘Maisur Hu’on Gual’, a practitioner of Hu’on, the unarmed martial arts known only to the Ancient Lord of Secrets. She is thus trained as an unarmed bodyguard to serve the priesthood of Lord Ksárul.

Fssu’úma hiTurushán
Clan: Black Monolith
Occupation: Administrative Priest (Maisur Hu'on Gual)
God: Ksárul
Age: 18 Gender: Female

Personal Wealth: 225 kaitars
Contact Points: 10
Clan Influence: 4
Personal Influence: 1
Prestige: 3

Physique 11 (+1)
Deftness 11 (+1)
Intellect 10 (+0)
Willpower 10 (+0)
Psychic Ability 02

Hit Points: 14
Unarmed Damage: 2/4/6
Initiative: 2/4/6
Melee Defence: 2
Missile Defence: 2
Magic Defence: –
Move: 7

Personal Traits
Advantages: Danger Sense (1), Quick Thinking (1), Strong (1), Training (2)
Disadvantages: Enemy (1), Skill Limitation (Performance) (1), Debt (2), Lower Lineage (1)

Administration 10 (1), Danger Sense 10 (1), Dodge 12 (3), Etiquette 10 (1), Insight 09 (1), Kick 12 (3), Language: Classical Tsolyáni 10 (1), Literacy (1), Oratory 09 (1), Punch 11 (1), Ritual 10 (1)

In terms of character design and creation, the Pocket Universe system as used in Béthorm: The Plane of Tékumel feels like a streamlined version of Steve Jackson Games’ GURPS, or rather more like its forebear, The Fantasy Trip, published by Metagaming Concepts in the late 1970s. For example, skills are based directly off a character’s attribute, each initially being purchased at a base value equal to the skill and then improved above the base value in a fashion similar to that of GURPS. The given range of advantages, disadvantages, and skills provides a wide array of options in terms of character design, but any design will be quite tight and probably require a bit of juggling of points if a player is to get what he wants. Overall, once familiar with the rules, a character can be created in about twenty minutes or so.

The action resolution system is simple enough. A player rolls two ten-sided dice and tries to roll equal to, or under the skill or attribute. A result of two is always a success, a result of twenty a failure. Doubles count as a critical result, if under the target number as a critical success, if over the target number, as a critical failure. Difficulty modifiers apply, but the base unmodified target number represents a difficult task, whereas a routine task grants a +2 modifier. Modifiers can come from the situation, from equipment, extra time, and from roleplaying.

Combat adds some complexity, but not a great deal. Both Initiative and damage are handled in a similar fashion. Each is represented by a range of three numbers, every character having a range for their Unarmed Damage and Initiative and then for one each weapon he might wield, for example, 3/5/7, for a sword. They can be modified by Advantages and Disadvantages such as Quick, Slow, Strong, and Weak. A ten-sided die is rolled, a result of one or two indicating that the first number be used, a result of between three and eight indicating that the middle number be used, and a result of nine and ten indicating that the last number in the range be used. A character’s Melee or Missile Defence reduces the likelihood of being struck by an opponent and armour reduces damage inflicted. The combat rules cover most situations, including combat manoeuvres, multiple attacks, called shots, defensive fighting, and desperation.
For example, Fssu’úma hiTurushán is returning from an errand to the Armoury of the Bright Helm in the foreigners’ quarter of Katalál for her clan when she comes upon a fight outside the Residence of Akkéme the Yán Koryáni, Resthouse for Poor and Indigent Foreigners of No Status. A drunken brawl has broken out between two N’lüss warriors inside the building and spilled out onto the street. One of the brawling N’lüss is on the floor, battered and bleeding, having been subdued by the other N’lüss and a detachment of the city guard sent to keep the peace. Unfortunately, so are a number of the city guard, leaving just two to deal with a drunk N’lüss warrior. Worse, the still standing N’lüss warrior is a citizen, a member of the Clan of the Standing Reed.
First initiative must be rolled for both the N’lüss warrior and Fssu’úma hiTurushán. The Game Master decides that the N’lüss warrior is the equivalent of a medium warrior and assigns him an Initiative of 1/2/3. The Game Master rolls a die and with a roll of 5 sets the warrior’s Initiative at 2. Fssu’úma’s player rolls an 8 and gives her an Initiative of 4—she is definitely going first.
Fssu’úma calls out, “Hoi! What good citizen would be disturbing the peace?” The N’lüss looks over his shoulder and dismissively curls his lip at what he sees is just a good Clan girl. She answers this by saying, “Only nakome scum would smash up their home.” She figures that the N’lüss warrior will take this as a deadly insult and she is right, for he turns and lumbers towards her as the standing city guards look on in surprise. She enters a defensive stance, increasing her Melee Defence to 4, her player explaining that she wants to dodge the N’lüss’ attack and so put her in a better position to attack next round. The N’lüss attempts to grapple Fssu’úma. As a medium warrior, the N’lüss warrior has a Deftness of 10, but not the Grapple skill, which unskilled is equal to Deftness -1. So, the Target Number is 9, modified by Fssu’úma’s raised Melee Defence, lowering it to 5. The Game Master rolls 15, meaning that the N’lüss warrior has failed to grab her.
Now it is Fssu’úma’s turn to act. Her player decides that she will make a Hu’on kick attack against the N’lüss’ knee, the aim being to knock the giant warrior to the floor. The Game Master awards her player a +1 bonus for the roleplaying description and another +1 bonus for the N’lüss’ bad roll. Fssu’úma’s Target Number is 12, plus the bonuses awarded by the Game Master, but -2 for the N’lüss’ Melee Defence and -2 for the called shot on the leg. Fssu’úma’s Target Number is 10. Her player not only rolls a 10, but a double 5, meaning that Fssu’úma’s attack not only struck home, it is also a critical strike. Fssu’úma’s player rolls for her Unarmed Damage and with a result of 10, inflicts maximum damage or 6 points.
The N’lüss must make a Physique check to withstand the effects of this kick, equal to his Physique +2, but minus the damage. Armour would protect him,  but who drinks in their armour? The N’lüss has a Physique of 14, so with six damage, the Game Master’s Target Number is 10. A roll of 16 means he fails and he is forced down to one knee as the other leg gives out under him. His Hit Points, already reduced from 14 to 11 in the earlier brawl, are now 5. Then there is the matter of the critical strike. Fssu’úma’s player rolls a ten-sided die and consults the Combat Critical Tables. He rolls 2, which allows Fssu’úma a second attack. Her player says that as the N’lüss goes down, Fssu’úma will punch him in the face, as they are on the same level. The Game Master likes this, and says that whilst the N’lüss does have his helmet on, his Melee Defence will not count because he is on his knees. It is also a called shot with a -3 penalty. Fssu’úma’s Target Number is 8. Her player rolls 8, a hit, and then 9 for damage, for another 6 damage. The N’lüss’ helmet reduces this damage by one and the Game Master would need to roll to see if the remaining damage would be enough to knock him out, but since the N’lüss only has 5 Hit Points left, the point is moot.
At this point, Fssu’úma steps back, straightens the silver mask she wears as a priest of Ksárul, and calms herself a moment before saying to the body of the giant man before her, “I am so sorry for calling you nakome scum. That was rude of me. And sorry about your knee.” Then she pulls out a handful of coins and drops them by the prone figure. “I am sure this will cover the shamtla I owe.” With that, she walks past the two city guards who stand looking on agog.
The bulk of Béthorm: The Plane of Tékumel is divided between three subjects—spells and spellcasting, monsters and NPCs, and treasure. In fact, almost a third of the book is devoted to spells and sorcery. Like the societies of Five Empires in general, spells and spellcasting are highly organised, highly codified, and highly restricted, students being taught at the temples, so that there is a religious aspect to the practice of sorcery. Inside the Five Empires, it is very rare for anyone to be taught spells who has not been a student at one of the temples and having potential as a sorcerer or sorcerer-priest is one way for someone from a low status to receive a high education and so bring prestige and glory to his clan. Both the rules and the setting divide its many spells into three phyla. Universal spells are known to all temples; Generic spells are advanced spells known to some temples, but not others; and Temple spells are unique to each priesthood—they may be known about by other priesthoods, but not enough to be taught, even if the subject matter and effect of the spells are acceptable to those other priesthoods. Which in the case of the spells known to the priesthoods of Sárku, Lord of Worms or Lady Dlamélish, the Green-Eyed Lady of Fleshly Joys, is unlikely. 

Spells are further divided into Psychic and Ritual spell types, the former cast purely through pure mental visualisation only, the latter requiring a mixture of precise movements and incantations to cast. So Minding Reading and Blessing are examples of Psychic and Ritual Universal spells; Beauty is a Generic Ritual spell known to the priesthoods of Avánthe and Dlamélish; and Frostbite is a Ritual Temple spell Unique to the priesthood of Hrü’ü, the Supreme Principle of Change, whilst Combat Mastery I is a Psychic Temple spell unique to the priesthood of Karakán, the Lord of War. 

To create a sorcerer character in Béthorm: The Plane of Tékumel, a player will need to invest points into his character’s Psychic Ability as well as his other attributes. A good Intellect score is probably a good idea too and points will need to be put into the Sorcery skill. Points put into the latter also grant ‘Spell Purchase Points’, used to buy knowledge of certain spells and determine a sorcerer’s ‘Sorcery Level’. The latter also determines what rank of spells a sorcerer is granted access to. To cast a spell, a player must roll his character’s Sorcery skill and have him expend Psychic Energy or ‘NRG’ points. Although the rules for sorcery are slightly more complex than the rules found elsewhere in the book, they only take up a few pages of Béthorm: The Plane of Tékumel, the rest of the section devoted to the subject consisting of spell after spell after spell. Each spell is quite detailed, allowing for a fair degree of flavour, in terms of both mechanics and setting.

Our sample Ritual-Sorcerer is Abáshu hiCháika, a member of the Clan of Eye of Flame, a clan of barbers, soldiers, and bodyguards. Crippled since childhood, he never expected to do more than follow in his father’s footsteps and work in the clan barbershop. His life changed when a priest of Vimúhla noticed the boy’s perspicacity and psychic potential. With his father’s blessing, he took him to the temple to be tested as a result of which he was inducted into the temple of the Lord of Fire. Being of a low status meant that Abáshu began his education late, but he has made up for it, having learned the great classical language, Engsvanyáli, and mastered the basics of ritual sorcery. Although he does not match the status of his fellow students, he is an assiduous and a willing study partner. His fellow students have learned that he is a canny kévuk player—he often supplements his limited funds by winning those of his fellow students. He requires a crutch to walk, but is keen to see the world beyond the walls of Katalál.

Abáshu hiCháika
Clan: Eye of Flame
Occupation: Administrative Priest
God: Vimúhla
Age: 21 Gender: Male

Personal Wealth: 150 kaitars
Contact Points: 13
Clan Influence: 3
Personal Influence: 1
Prestige: 3

Physique 08 (-2)
Deftness 08 (-2)
Intellect 12 (+2)
Willpower 10 (+0)
Psychic Ability 11 (+1)

Hit Points: 5
Unarmed Damage: 0/2/2
Initiative: 0/2/2
Melee Defence: –
Missile Defence: –
Magic Defence: 1
Move: 2

Personal Traits
Advantages: Connected (1), Reference Library (1), Talented (Sorcery) (1), Training (2)
Disadvantages: Hesitant (1), Lower Clan (2), Phobia (Snakes) (1), Slow (1)

Dodge 8 (1), Etiquette 12 (1), Gambling 13 (3), Language & Literacy (Engsvanyáli) 13 (3), Language & Literacy (Tsolyáni) (1), Melee 8 (1), Research 12 (1), Resist Sorcery 11 (3), Rituals 13 (3), Sorcery 14 (3)

Sorcery Level: 12
Spell Purchase Points: 2 (30)
Psychic Points: 55
Spells: Treat Minor Wounds, The Web of Kriyág, Lover of Spiders, The Cutlass of Dejection

The encounters and monsters section covers possible encounters outdoors, in the city, wilderness, on the great Sákbe roads, and in the Underworld. These encounters are supported by a lengthy bestiary of men, creatures, and alien races, each entry accompanied by a decent description as well as the stats. In many cases, several variations are given. So for example, the entry for the Ssú, the ‘Enemies of Man’, includes stats for civilian, light skirmisher, medium soldier, elite/heavy soldier, and Universal, Generic, and Temple spellcaster—for both the Grey and the Black Ssú. The entries are each illustrated nicely by the author. The bestiary is followed by a lengthy section on the treasure to be found on Tékumel. Of course, this focuses on the Eyes, the mechanical devices of ages long past which store the same effects as many of the spells of current day, but lists numerous items that help impart flavour and detail to Tékumel.

Rounding out Béthorm: The Plane of Tékumel are maps of Tsolyánu, of the area around the city of Katalál, and of Katalál itself. The latter is particularly good and is accompanied by a list of the places of note in the city, but no more. Physically, Béthorm: The Plane of Tékumel is a black and white hardback, cleanly laid out, and nicely illustrated. The maps are good and the artwork is very nice. Unfortunately, Béthorm: The Plane of Tékumel, by modern standards, physically disappointing. The artwork is good, but there is not enough of it and what there is, is often too small. The organisation is hampered by its adherence to wargames or technical manual layout, with everything numbered in sequence, rather than in chapters. It is not only outdated, it is a hindrance to the easy use of the book, and this is only exacerbated by a lack of index. All right, so the contents listing is decent, but by modern standards, the lack of an index is frustrating and inexcusable, if not downright silly. 

The contents could also have been better organised. In several places, background information is not placed in a background section for easy reference, but as part of character creation. In particular, the listing and explanations of the gods, the Tlomitlányal and the Tlokiriqáluyal, the clans to be found in the city of Katalál, and so on. Certainly, making choices from these is part of the default character generation process in Béthorm: The Plane of Tékumel, but it makes them difficult to reference. It also highlights the fundamental problem with Béthorm: The Plane of Tékumel—a lack of support for the Game Master. The map of Katalál is useful, the list of clans to be found in Katalál is useful, but there is no virtually background to the city, no adventure seeds, let alone an adventure. What background there is, is very much buried in the text. So what this means is that the Game Master is given all of the tools to run the Béthorm: The Plane of Tékumel in mechanical terms, but not enough in terms of the setting.

The fundamental problem with Béthorm: The Plane of Tékumel is design wise, is that it uses the original Empire of the Petal Throne from 1975 as a template and does not deviate from it. It has some background, it has rules and mechanics, it has a default setup, just like Empire of the Petal Throne, and just like Empire of the Petal Throne it does not go beyond that. The background is good, the rules are good, and the default setup is rife with potential, but Béthorm: The Plane of Tékumel does not take that one good vital step that would aid anyone new to Tékumel into running a game.  

That said, if the Game Master is not new to Tékumel, then there will be a good deal of information in Béthorm: The Plane of Tékumel that will be familiar and when coupled with the solid Pocket Universe system, said Game Master will have no issue running a game. For a Game Master new to Tékumel, Béthorm: The Plane of Tékumel will be much more of challenge to run. Although the background material is decent and the rules light and accessible, the lack of support is likely to be daunting.  As a set of rules for anyone familiar with Tékumel, Béthorm: The Plane of Tékumel is an excellent choice, but as an introduction to Tékumel and certainly gaming on Tékumel, Béthorm: The Plane of Tékumel is a misstep.

Saturday, 9 December 2017

Fear and Loathing in the Fenlands

Fever Swamp is a sandbox adventure published by the Melsonian Arts Council following a successful Kickstarter campaign. Designed for use with Lamentations of the Flame Princess Weird Fantasy Roleplay—but compatible with other retroclones—Fever Swamp is a hexcrawl which takes the player characters into the thousand square miles of a foetid, forsaken, disease ridden swamp, itself known as the ‘Fever Swamp’. Perhaps to gain the reward for the safe return of the imperially sanctioned occult scholar, Gert von Hemmer; possibly to confirm the fate of the lost imperial river galley, the Wasser Koenig; or even go in search of a great evil rumoured to stalk the waterways and mires of the fever swamp. They will face constant moisture, unrelenting heat, droning insects, the danger of disease and wounds that fester rather than heal, strange tribes, and the dregs of society.

The player characters will first come to Clink, the village on the edge of the swamp and the last bastion of civilisation for many, many miles. It is riven by undercurrents of religious tension and potential heresy, rampant alcoholism, and fear of what the swamp hides. Here a party are likely to hire a boat, find a guide, and pick up what few supplies they can before punting and rowing into the mire. Out there, there are ‘The People’ to encounter, the native inhabitants of the swamp with their strange practices—from wearing masks of animal totems or deities dedicated to the plague, sharpening their teeth, and being constantly pregnant (men, women, and children) to hiding their skin, missing all the same limb, and never talking. Each tribe of The People is different. There are the corpse bodies of gods to plumb, mad men and mad women to run afoul of, strange ruins to explore, and something out there in the damp, sweaty, sodden flora that threatens to shamble out of the Fever Swamp…

Unlike the first scenario published by the Melsonian Arts Council via Kickstarter, Crypts of Indormancy, there is no hinterland, no world beyond the limits of Fever Swamp. What Crypts of Indormancy hinted at was a world beyond its island archipelago setting, once a colonial possession of an empire of Elves, now occupied by twelve tribes of Island People. The Elves lost their empire long ago, whilst the folk memory of the Island People leaves them with a cultural dislike of the Elves. In comparison, Fever Swamp suggests the existence of the Nilfenberg empire from where settlers and fugitives have come to the village of Clink, either to stay, or make their way into the swamp. Plus of course, the scholar, Gert von Hemmer, and the lost imperial river galley, the Wasser Koenig. No details of the Nilfenberg empire are given, but it could easily be the Empire of the Old World, so that with some effort upon the part of the Game Master, Fever Swamp could be adapted to run with Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay or the ZWEIHÄNDER Grim & Perilous RPG. Whatever setting a Game Master uses, the Fever Swamp needs to be placed suitably far away from the empire itself.

Fever Swamp is slim, twenty-six page hardback done in full colour—mostly green. It has no given guide for the character Levels required to play the scenario, though most foes they will face are of low levels. That said, push too far, explore too far, and there are some truly monstrous creatures to be encountered in the Fever Swamp. Besides describing the fifteen or so locations, it details the various NPCs, encounter tables, new monsters, and rules necessary to handle boats and disease in the swamp. Boats are the only viable means of getting around the swamp and the chances of catching a disease in the swamp are unfortunately high. In addition, Fever Swamp includes two new Classes. One is the Transfiguration Host, a Specialist-type character who is host to a Transfiguration Worm, a creature which seeks new experiences and which grants the host a new ability each time he acquires a new Level. This might be for example, learning a random arcane spell, acquiring razor sharp canines, growing a toxin gland, which enables the host to spit poison, and reversed knees like a bird giving the bird increased speed. The Transfiguration Host is a random character Class in effect, but hosting the Transfiguration Worm and its desire for new experiences does mean that the character has reason to want to leave the swamp, unlike its other inhabitants. The second Class is a treatment of the Shaman, a Cleric-type Class who binds a randomly determined spirit to his service each Level. Each spirit can perform a service for the Shaman once per day, for example, a Tree Spirit who will read the bark of nearby trees to learn of events in the past or recently passed by animals, or a Rot Spirit capable of decaying wood utterly or warding against decay. These Classes are a source of fresh player characters should any die in their exploration of the Fever Swamp as are possible inhabitants of the village of Clink.

If there is an issue with Fever Swamp, it is the way into the sandbox, what gets the player characters involved, is underwritten. The likelihood is that the Game Master will need to create his own and strengthen the ones suggested in the opening pages of the book as the player characters very much need a reason to visit and explore the Fever Swamp. 

Like any sandbox or hex crawl, Fever Swamp is a player-led mini-campaign, which means that the Game Master will need to put a bit more in effort into adjusting to what the players want their characters to do. The small size of Fever Swamp—both as a book and a geographical area—and the self-contained nature of its foetid, boggy, environment, means that this is not as daunting a task as it might have been. The small size also means that Fever Swamp is easy to drop into almost any campaign and with a little preparation, ready to take the player characters into a heart of darkness. 

Sunday, 3 December 2017

Fantasy LAW

First published in 1980, Rolemaster was designed to plug into and replace other aspects of fantasy roleplaying games, beginning with the supplements, Arms Law, Claw Law, Spell Law, Character Law, and Campaign Law. Over the course of its four editions, it acquired the reputation of a being a relatively complex system, lots of numbers involved, with lots and lots of professions, and lots of charts and tables. In particular, critical hit tables for every type of weapon, spell damage, and almost every other type of damage! Subsequent editions of the game have streamlined and codified the mechanics, but there is an even simpler and more streamlined version of the rules and mechanics, a spiritual successor, if you will. This is High Adventure Role Playing or HARP, first published in 2003 by Iron Crown Enterprises. There are certain parallels here between the streamlining in terms of mechanics between Advanced Dungeons & Dragons and Dungeons & Dragons, Third Edition. So if Rolemaster was written in the mould of the former, then HARP was written in the mould of the latter. All four are designed as a high fantasy set of rules built around a Class and Level system, but where Dungeons & Dragons only got a skills system and unified mechanic with the release of Dungeons & Dragons, Third Edition, there has always been a skills system and a unified mechanic in Rolemaster and so there is with HARP. The current version of HARP, first published in 2011, is called HARP Fantasy.

As much as parallels can be drawn between HARP Fantasy and Dungeons & Dragons, Third Edition, there are notable differences. The first major difference is that characters in HARP Fantasy are primarily designed, players having the freedom to design their characters how they want. Two other major differences are that all characters can use spells—HARP Fantasy includes a ‘Universal’ sphere of spells that anyone can learn and cast—and all characters can use all of the skills, the system including some sixty skills in total. So there is quite a bit of flexibility built into the mechanics. What makes it likely for one character to have one skill over another is cost. So the Mystical Arts category of skills are cheaper to purchase for a Mage than they are for a Fighter. The other difference of course, being that HARP Fantasy is a percentile system. In most roleplaying games, the results of an action—whether that be singing a song, climbing a wall in a hurry, swinging a sword to hit a goblin, or casting a spell—would be rolled on the percentile dice, the aim being to roll under the percentile chance. Not so in HARP Fantasy where the aim is to roll high rather than roll low. A player rolls his percentile dice and adds his character’s skill in singing, climbing, attacking with a sword, or casting a spell to the value rolled, plus or minus any modifiers derived the character’s statistics, the situation, or the difficulty of the task. The aim is to roll over one hundred. If the result is one-hundred-and-one or more, the character succeeds.

Naturally low rolls result in a fumble, whilst an option allows for natural rolls of sixty-six to lead to unusual results, good or bad depending whether or not the action succeeded. A Manoeuvre Table provides various results, including a progress percentage for lengthy tasks, a bonus to be applied to the next manoeuvre in a chain of tasks, and a resistance value. Most importantly though, rolls are open-ended—in modern gaming parlance, they explode. If a player rolls between ninety-six and one hundred on the dice, he not only gets to add his character’s skill and modifiers, he gets to roll again. This enables a character to undertake and succeed at heroic, even desperate actions.

A character in HARP Fantasy is defined by his Statistics, a Profession, Race, Culture, Skills, and Talents. A character has eight statistics—Strength, Constitution, Agility, Quickness, Self-Discipline, Reasoning, Insight, and Presence, which each has a value between one and one-hundred-and-five. There are nine possible professions—Cleric, Fighter, Harper, Mage, Monk, Ranger, Rogue, Thief, and Warrior Mage. Eight of these Profession are obvious in what they are, the ninth, the Harper, actually being a Bard-like Profession. It is possible to have multiple Professions. A Profession consists of Favoured Categories—the categories into which skills are grouped, such as Combat or Influence; Key Stats—those statistics favoured by the Profession; and one or more Professional Abilities unique to the Profession. For example, the Cleric Profession gains access to spells, some of which must come from the Cleric Sphere and can select two Favoured Categories, so one cleric might select Combat and Athletic to build a paladin-type character or Outdoor and Physical to create a druid-like character.

To its traditional fantasy Races of Dwarf, Elf, Gnome, Halfling, and Human, HARP Fantasy adds the Gryx. The Gryx are Orc-like in appearance, but where Orcs are barbarous and warlike, the Gryx are peaceful and dedicate themselves to arts and crafts. This is despite their having racial abilities that will be useful in a fight—Lightning Reflexes, Dense Musculature, and Night Vision. They are designed as a semi-bestial race to replace Half-Orcs, but they do seem an odd addition given how generic a fantasy the rules of HARP Fantasy present. It is also odd given that the Orc is given in the bestiary and available as an optional player character Race should the Game Master allow it. It is obvious why the Gryx have been added though—to avoid the unpalatable origins of the Half-Orc as a racial option.

Now what each Race provides are modifiers to a character’s Statistics, bonuses to his Endurance, Power Points, Resistances, Stamina, Will, and Magic, plus special abilities unique to each Race. Beyond this it is possible to build racial hybrids, enabling a player to modify his character by purchasing Blood Talents. These come in Greater and Lesser Talents, allowing a character to be a true Half-Gnome or Half-Elf, or be of mixed parentage. HARP Fantasy includes several Cultures—Deep Warrens, Shallow Warrens, Sylvan, Underhill, Nomadic, Rural, and Rural—each of which provides a basic language plus Skill Ranks gained as an adolescent. Skills come in nine categories—Artistic, Athletic, Combat, Concentration, General, Influence, Mystic Arts, Outdoor, and Physical—and are purchased in Ranks. Lastly, a character can have Talents, such Agile Defence, Giantism, Master Burglar, or Sense Magic.

To create a character, a player generates the Statistics, either by rolling dice or purchasing them with points, and then selecting a Race and Culture. Each character receives a pool of Development Points, modified by their Statistics, with which to purchase Skills and Talents. A limited number of Development Points can be spent to improve a character’s Statistics. There are oddities in the system which require the player to spend Development Points if he is to improve certain aspects of his character. One is that despite HARP Fantasy being a Class and Level system, a player does not simply roll his character’s Hit Points, but purchases the Endurance skill and its final value is how damage a character can have. A player will also need to put Development Points into Power Point Development if he wants his character to be able to cast spells, but even odder is the fact that the character’s Resistance Rolls—Stamina, Will, and Magic—are also skills and again can be improved by a player spending Development Points on them. Both Endurance and the Resistances have base values derived from a character’s Race, so there is a minimum value built into the mechanics. What this points to though, is how little a character’s Level has on the character—primarily it places a cap on how many Ranks a character has in any one skill and when and how many Development Points a character gains—and the degree of freedom a player has to build and modify his character. 

Each time a character gains a Level—through earning Experience Points—the player acquires further Development Points with which to improve his character. He also gets the bonus Development Points as the character had at First Level and because these are derived from a character’s Statistics, it does mean that characters with better Statistics will develop faster and better in the long term.

Our sample character is Hurik, the son of a jeweller, who has little interest in following in his mother’s footsteps. He prefers to fritter away his allowance on dancing, drinking, and wooing. Unfortunately, he is not particularly good at any of those, but he more than makes up for it with good schooling, if not good learning. He has spent some time in the militia and was bored, very, very quickly. He found though that he could use a sword and a shield, and a sword and a blade—and he is fast. His mother’s money is not going to pay for his lifestyle soon, so perhaps another source of income could be found. To help him along the way, Hurik has learned the spell, Guess, for those moments when he cannot make up his mind.

Race: Human
Gender: Male Age: 18
Height: 6’ 6” Weight: 160 lbs.
Culture: Urban

Level 1 Fighter

Strength 71 (+5)
Constitution 66 (+4)
Agility 85 (+7)
Quickness 98 (+10)
Self-Discipline 50 (+0)
Reasoning 79 (+5)
Insight 84 (+7)
Presence 47 (+0)

Stamina 0 (+18), Will 0 (+10), and Magic 0 (+24), 

Endurance 54
Defence Bonus +69

Artistic: Dancing 1 (+12)
Athletic: Acrobatics 6 (+37), Climbing 6 (+42)
Combat: 1-Handed Edged (Short Blades) 6 (+42), 1-Handed Edged (Thrusting Blades) 6 (+52), Brawling 6 (+42), Combat Styles (Two Weapon Combo) 6 (+42), Polearms 2 (+22), Thrown Weapons (Polearms Thrown) 1 (+17)
General: Appraisal 2 (+22), Crafts (Jeweller) 3 (+27), Healing 1 (+12), Lore (Local Region) 2 (+20), Magic 0 (+24), Perception 3 (+22), Stamina 0 (+18), Will 0 (+10)
Influence: Charm 6 (+37), Trade 2 (+17)
Mystic Arts: Runes 2 (+22), Power Point Development 2 (+47), Spell (Guess) 6 (+35)
Outdoor: Navigation 1 (+12), Stalking & Hiding 1 (+12)
Physical: Armour 6 (+42), Endurance 1 (+54), Jumping 5 (+37), Streetwise 6 (+37), Swimming 2 (+22)

Special Abilities
Bonus Skill Ranks, Skill Specialisation (+10) (1-Handed Edged (Thrusting Blades)), Skill Flexibility (Charm), Swashbuckler (+24 DB)

Professional Abilities
Lightning Reflexes (+5% Initiative), Shield Training, Favoured Combat Skill (Thrusting Blades)

Equipment (9 Gold, 3 Silver)
Dagger (Small Slash), Main Gauche (Small Slash), Rapier (Medium Puncture), Soft Leather Armour (Soft Leather +20 DB), Buckler (Shield +0/+15 DB)

The character creation process is not easy, nor is it fast. In comparison to contemporary roleplaying games, it is actually cumbersome, especially once you figure adding spells, which everyone has access to. Now the process will produce the desired result as that is one of the benefits of HARP Fantasy—plenty of options and no little flexibility in what sort of character a player could create. This is further enhanced with the use of Training Packages, limited groups of skills that represent a profession, guild apprenticeship, and so on. So, it might be Town Militiaman, Ranger of the East, or Blue Tower Mage, for example. Such packages are available at a discount, can be taken only the once per level, and a player is free to design his own, with of course, the Game Master’s consent. Now the Game Master could also design his own and use those to help provide a place and occupation in his world for player characters and NPCs alike.

Combat in HARP Fantasy does not quite continue the degree of complexity found in character generation. It begins with Initiative, rolled on a single ten-sided die plus modifiers from Statistics, encumbrance, and the situation. Plus this is rolled at the beginning of each two-second turn during which a character will perform one action, whether that be draw a weapon, attack, stand up, or move, or a combat action.
For example, Hurik is on his first job—a caravan guard. The caravan has camped for the night and he is on duty. It is midnight. Although he does not have his weapon drawn, he is holding his buckler when a goblin comes running out the darkness and attacks him. Hurik’s player rolls a ten-sided die, then adds the modifiers +10 (Quickness), +7 (Insight), +5 (Lightning Reflexes), -5 (shield), and -10 (Weapon Not Ready). The final result is 15. The Goblin is fast though and rolls a total of 21.
To attack, a player makes a standard percentile roll and adds his character Offensive Bonus to the result. The Offensive Bonus is usually derived from a weapon skill, but it can modified by other skills like combat styles, statistics, and bonuses from special weapons or circumstances. The opponent’s Defensive Bonus, derived from his armour, Quickness statistic, shield, maneuvre, and position, are deducted from this roll. If the result is one or more, the character has hit and the weapon’s size modifier is added to this result and the total looked up on the appropriate Critical Table for that weapon type to determine the damage done.
So back to Hurik versus the Goblin. On Round One, the Goblin has the initiative and the Game Master decides that it is going to charge at Hurik as its action. Hurik has spotted the Goblin, so player decides that the only thing that Hurik can do this time is draw his rapier. Both are attacking each other. The Goblin rushes in, slashing at Hurik with his shortsword. The Game Master rolls 50, adds the Goblin’s Offensive Bonus of 55, 1 for the Goblin charging, and deducts Hurik’s Defensive Bonus of 69. This gives a result of 37, which adjusted by the small size of the Goblin’s shortsword, provides a final result of 27. Looking this up on the Slash Critical table, the effect is that Hurik suffers nine Hits to his Endurance with a “Solid blow to his back, but work on that follow through.” The Goblin has clearly run past Hurik, managing to slash at him as he does.
On Round Two, Hurik’s player rolls a ten-sided die, then adds the modifiers +10 (Quickness), +7 (Insight), +5 (Lightning Reflexes), and -5 (shield) only, as he has his weapon drawn. Hurik’s player rolls 27 versus the Goblin’s 22! Both will attack, but Hurik gets to go first. Hurik’s player rolls 100—a critical hit.! Plus he can roll again, which he does to add another 03 to the total roll. He add’s Rurik’s Offensive Bonus of 52 and deducts the Goblin’s Defensive Bonus of 49 to get 106. This is not modified by the size of Hurik’s rapier as it is a medium weapon. Looking this result up on the Puncture Critical table, the outcome is that Hurik has impaled the Goblin in the lung, which means that he will die in twelve gurgling rounds, plus he takes 29 Hits, is stunned for 12 rounds, bleeds 3 Hits per round, and he has a -20 penalty to his Offensive Bonus.
Combat in HARP Fantasy is dangerous and bloody—and tactical. A player needs to be careful in the fights he picks and the maneuvres he takes. Of course, he can get lucky—as Hurik did in the example—but the system also allows a player some options in terms of being defensive. The Defensive Bonus already figures in attempts to parry, but a player can actually choose to have the character full parry, shifting points from the character’s Offensive Bonus to his Defensive Bonus. The likelihood is that players will want to put Development Points into their characters’ Armour and Endurance skills as well as a weapon skill to improve their survival chances. Another likelihood is that the flavour of the Critical tables will pale in the long term (this in addition to the fact that they are hit tables since they combine damage from standard attacks with damage from critical attacks in the one table).

The complexity of HARP Fantasy continues with its treatment of spells and magic. There are over a hundred spells, divided in six categories, five of which are the domain of five of the roleplaying game’s Professions—Clerical, Harper, Mage, Ranger, and Warrior Mage. Of these, the Cleric has the freedom to select half of his spells from the other categories to reflect the nature of his deity. Perhaps then a Cleric might worship some eldritch lord and so knows the Past Visions spell from the Harper category and the Darkness spell from the Mage category, whilst a blacksmithing deity might grant Fire Wall from the Mage category and the Elemental Weapon from the Warrior Mage category. The sixth category is the Universal category, from which anyone who can select and learn spells. Spells are also categorised as Utility spells (Healing or Tree Skin), Attack spells (Arcane Bolt or Fear), and Elemental Attack Spells (Elemental Ball or Elemental Bolt). In addition, if a character knows the Counterspell spell, he can stop others from casting spells. It sets up a Resistance that the opposing spellcaster must overcome to successfully cast their spell.

In order to learn and cast a spell, a character needs to both have sufficient Power Points—improved by the Power Point Development skill—and have purchased the minimum number of Ranks in the skill, equal to the needed Power Points. Each spell is its own separate skill. Instead of buying ‘higher level’ spells, a character can instead buy other spells or he can instead improve the spells he already has, which requires more Power Points and Skill Ranks. In return, a spellcaster gets to scale the spell to varying effect. So for example, the Arcane Bolt spell can be scaled to increase its damage, range, and number of targets as well as add a stun effect. Spells require the expenditure of Power Points to cast as well as a skill roll, so as long as a character has Power Points, he can cast spells. All of the spells in HARP Fantasy work like this, meaning the magic system is again flexible if complex. 

For the Game Master, HARP Fantasy includes chapters on herbs and poisons, encounters and monsters, treasure, and advice. The chapter on herbs and poisons opts for breadth rather than detail, but provides enough information until the Game Master needs another supplement. Similarly, the chapters on encounters and monsters and on treasure are broader in the treatment of their subject matters. The contents of the encounters and monsters chapter is everything that you would imagine, from Ant, Giant, Ape, Giant, and Battle Demon to Wolf, Wyvern, and Zombie are all included. Classics like the Goblin, Kobold, and Orc are also included. These monsters are what you would expect for a generic collection of foes with which to populate a world and possible encounters. Racial statistics and modifiers are given if a player wants to create and roleplay options outside of the six given in the core rules.  The chapter on Game Master advice includes useful tips; advice on customising the game, cultures, clerics, magic and the magic user, and the setting; as well as awarding Experience Points and setting goals. Much of it will be familiar to experienced Game Masters, but worth reading still.

Physically, HARP Fantasy is a plain, simple, black and white hardback. The writing is clear and easy to read—for the most part. The game’s many examples of the rules are presented using a cursive script and grey rather than black. This makes the examples difficult to read. In addition, the book’s numerous tables are often also too small to read. Another issue is the organisation of those tables. They are not repeated for easy access at the back of the book, so actually running the game will involve flipping back and forth between those tables. Certainly, the Game Master will need to bookmark the tables that get referenced a great deal during play, if not purchase or create his own reference screen. The book could have been slightly better organised in that the need to purchase Endurance, Power Point Development, and the Resistances as skills could been made more obvious, if not explicit. They are essentially buried in the skills section when they needed to be highlighted as part of the character creation process.

At its core, HARP Fantasy does the pseudo-Western European fantasy of J.R.R. Tolkien et al, plus a little orientalism with the inclusion of medieval oriental weapons and Professions like the Warrior Monk. This is no surprise, since its forebear, Rolemaster, was designed to replace and plug into parts of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, but it does mean that HARP Fantasy is by its very nature, generic, even bland. So where the flavour in HARP Fantasy really lies is in the mechanics, the detailed nature of the system, and in the flexibility that a player has to build a character within the parameters of a selected Profession. The spellcasting Professions have even more flexibility in how they cast their spells. Although it does feel underwritten in places and may well be too complex for modern sensibilities, the core mechanics in HARP Fantasy are a solid and long-tested design that provide both detail and options where it counts—characters, combat, and spells.

Friday, 1 December 2017

Steampunk Soldiery Spotter's Guide II

Steampunk Soldiers: The American Frontier is a sequel to Steampunk Soldiers: Uniforms & Weapons from the Age of Steam, which described a nineteenth century wherein the Great Meteor Shower of 1862 scattered deposits of an incredible energy source—Hephaestium—which set off a great age of technological development and innovation as the great powers sought to advantage of the new power source. Over the course of the next three decades, Great Britain radically extended her railway network across her empire and beyond; Prussia fielded new armour and armoured infantry to defeat Denmark and unite all of Germany; whilst France used her Peugeot-built steam-powered exoskeleton-equipped Foreign Legion units to conquer Indochina and invade China. Meanwhile, Russia developed Hephaestium-fuelled chemicals and submarines, the Ottoman Empire developed automata, and Nicolai Tesla developed Hephaestium-powered electro-weapons for the Austro-Hungarian Empire, whilst Italy stole blueprints and prototypes, sabotaged others, and kidnapped scientists and became Europe’s rogue state.

Now the Americas were not ignored in all of this. Steampunk Soldiers: Uniforms & Weapons from the Age of Steam described how General Lee’s land ironclads forced back the Union forces and held them to a stalemate until a ceasefire was agreed between the Union and the Confederacy in 1869, ending the Civil War. It is also how the volume left the situation, with the former United States divided between the Union and the Confederacy. Steampunk Soldiers: The American Frontier picks up where it left off to describe and depict the situations, forces, troops, and equipment of not only the Union and Confederacy, but also the Republic of Mexico, Canada, Alaska, the Disputed Territories, and the frontier.

The Union is technologically advanced, but her attention is divided between the Cold War with the Confederacy, surreptitiously running the blockade to Republic of Mexico, poor relations with both Canada and England, and with pushing back the frontier before the Confederacy does. Consequently, agencies like the postal service have been militarised, the Mailman of the United States Army Postal Service being shown armed and his faithful hound, being armoured and trained to attack mail thieves! The Union also employs numerous spies and agents, including Pinkerton agents to protect both the President and corporate interest; Special Service Agents with advanced monitoring equipment, such as Edison’s Kinetographic camera concealed in a carpet bag, and of course, US Marshals who wander far and wide. In the Confederacy, the Texas Rangers perform the same role as the US Marshals, but are not always welcome beyond the Texas state line. They are an effective force though, being equipped with modular, adaptable devices, such as the New Haven Arms modular Volcanic Pistols and Alamo Fortified Suit. The dominance of Texas in the Confederacy is show in the depiction of a Field Research Team from the Galveston Consortium testing out a new and advanced weapon—a Sonic Discombobulator! The Confederacy’s reliance on less conventional means of warfare is shown in its depiction of a Confederate Privateer, armed with a Winchester Boarding Carbine—which is fitted with an axe; a black-cloaked Night Ranger sharpshooter complete with starlight goggles; and a Bombardier of the Confederate Aeronautics Corps, whose mini-dirigibles are used for reconnaissance and raids, the latter including the famous bombing of the White House in 1864.

When not facing off against each other, the Union and the Confederacy have pushed West in search of new territories and fresh resources, but these lands have not become known as the Disputed Territories for nothing. The Chiricahua Apache are caught between the Mexico and the Confederacy, maintaining a guerrilla campaign against both with surprisingly modern weaponry—perhaps supplied by the Union; similarly caught between the Union and the Confederacy, the Five Tribes Confederation has declared itself neutral, adopted their technology to protect itself, and become a conduit for banned goods in both nations; and perhaps most amazing of all are the Sky Hawks of the Hualpai tribe, scouts who construct winged suits which they use to glide off all trees and the lip of the Grand Canyon. Despite the disputed nature of the territories, there are individuals and organisations who seek their fortune in the West. They include injured soldiers using technology such as ‘Quick Draw’ rigs to turn gunslinger; the members of Norton’s Guards who continue the legacy of the late Joshua Norton, self-proclaimed Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico, by keeping the peace in fractious San Francisco with their non-lethal, electrical Franklin Baton; mining companies and couriers have purchased ex-military Land Ironclads to protect their operations from Indians, bandits, labour agitators, and others; and some have established independent polities, such as the Independent Kingdom of Jefferson.

The other nations of North America are also affected. In the far north-west, extensive Hephaestium strikes in Alaska has enhanced the importance of the territory to the Russian Empire and Canada to the British Empire, leading to a shift in the Great Game from India to the western frontier. Russia uses Alaska as a scientific and industrial laboratory, prototypes being developed with ruthless, often unchecked efficiency by her Imperial Army military commanders in the region, sometimes in secret facilities. There are rumours of deserters or test subjects fleeing from such facilities, leading to tales of wild men or ‘skoocooms’ in the woods and caves, tales often repeated, or at least embellished by dime novels. Canada’s military is stretched thin along her border, facing Russia in the west and both Fenian and Métis native rebels internally. This has led her to raise militia regiments, such as the Royal Regiment of Toronto Volunteers, to protect her borders and the North-West Mounted Police to turn to technology—such as multi-terrain tracked vehicles—to get their man. To the south, the Union aided Mexico in kicking out the French backed Imperial forces and establishing the Mexican Republic, much to the consternation of the Confederacy. Now the republic’s ports are blockaded by Confederacy backed privateers, they raid each other back and forth across the Rio Grande, while Mexico supplies the Banditos—outlaws and brigands—who worry the border regions and disputed territories, with advanced weaponry that it can often ill afford to hand out to anyone other than its underequipped soldiery. The best of Mexico’s armed forces, are the 1st Naval Brigade or ‘Los Tiburones’, trained by German advisors and equipped with the best that the Kaiser can provide. The ‘Los Tiburones’—or ‘The Sharks’ are deployed as naval assault troops, often tasked with capturing with the Confederacy backed privateers.

Of course, this is all a conceit. For Steampunk Soldiers: The American Frontier is, like its forebear, a collection of artwork by the forgotten British artist, Miles Vandercroft, who travelled Europe and North America, sketching and painting the soldiery of the age. It develops the guide to the vivid and striking uniforms worn by the armies and the steam-powered weaponry and equipment fielded by these armies in the years between the fall of the meteors and the Great War of the Worlds previously seen in Steampunk Soldiers: Uniforms & Weapons from the Age of Steam. Of course, it is not this, but a second pictorial guide to a past that never was, beautifully depicted in a series of colour plates having been ‘rediscovered’ and collected in a second handsome book published by Osprey Books under its Osprey Adventures line. There is not so much pomp and pageantry in these images, which have a rougher quality, reflecting roughness of the frontier and beyond.

As with Steampunk Soldiers: Uniforms & Weapons from the Age of Steam, the problem with Steampunk Soldiers: The American Frontier is that leaves the reader either wanting more information or wanting to take its content and develop into a setting of his devising, whether a wargaming or a roleplaying setting. There are no suggestions to end given in Steampunk Soldiers: The American Frontier. Despite this, Steampunk Soldiers: The American Frontier is a beautiful hardback, full of intriguing detail, awaiting the reader to develop into something playable on the table.

Monday, 27 November 2017

Coils Around the World

The Two-Headed Serpent: An Epic Action-Packed and Globe-Spanning Campaign for Pulp Cthulhu is pretty much up front about what it is. With a swagger and a quick swig from the hip flask, it swings into action, punches a Serpent Man firmly on the snout, and smashes its way through the Cthulhu Mythos—and out the other side in a campaign which will take the investigators around the world and back again. Written for use with Pulp Cthulhu: Two-Fisted Action and Adventure Against the Mythos, the supplement for Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition which combines Lovecraftian investigative horror with two-fisted adventure, weird science, dark deeds, and brave heroes, The Two-Headed Serpent takes its cue from classic campaigns of the past—Shadows of Yog-Sothoth and Masks of Nyarlathotep, in particular—in that its globe-spanning trek will see the heroes uncover and confront the forces of the Mythos, culminating on a tiny island. In doing so, they will travel from Bolivia, New York, Borneo, and Oklahoma to the Belgian Congo, Iceland, and Brazil—and beyond!

Published by Chaosium, Inc.The Two-Headed Serpent is upfront about what it is in three ways. The first way is Pinturero’s great front cover which shows you what campaign is about. Yes, it does involve entwined snakes—in more than the one sense; yes, it does involve a volcano—in more than the one sense; and it does involve all of the characters shown on the cover—in more than the one sense. The second way is the title, involving as both it and the campaign does, a lot of snakes. The third way is the set-up. The set-up is that the investigators—or heroes—are employees of Caduceus Foundation, a medical aid organisation with global reach and remit. The organisation employs all sorts of people, not just nurses, doctors, and scientists, but also those with social skills to talk to the people who can help Caduceus, those with the underworld or criminal skills and contacts to get people and supplies where they are needed, and of course, guides, drivers, mechanics, and so on. This allows a wide range of possible heroes (the pre-generated heroes include a Chinese medical doctor who is a quick study and who does not believe in the Mythos; a quick-witted, fast on the draw private investigator; a strong-minded archaeologist with fast reactions; a resourceful Sikh scientist with a knowledge of weird scientist; a strong-willed gun moll with a knack for disguise; and an expert big game hunter and explorer). This all sounds like a not unreasonable set-up for a campaign, but the authors of The Two-Headed Serpent actually state upfront in the player introduction that the Caduceus Foundation is a front for an organisation dedicated to fighting elements of the Cthulhu Mythos.

Such a set-up is not only brave, but also radical in comparison to every other campaign for Call of Cthulhu, wherein the set-up is that the investigators are unaware of the Mythos or the mystery at the start of these campaigns. Nor is this set-up really a spoiler, because the heroes will pretty quickly learn the same facts in-game as the players have just learned them out of game. The set-up to The Two-Headed Serpent also both prepares the players and their player heroes for what is come and establishes the tone for the campaign before throwing the heroes into the action. Fundamentally, The Two-Headed Serpent is not a dour, methodical, investigative procedural, but a fast-paced, action-orientated jaunt to some Mythos hotspots old and new, and this frankly jaw-dropping set-up gets player and hero alike ready for it. 

The campaign opens in 1933 in the midst of the Chaco War between Bolivia and Paraguay with the heroes ostensibly delivering fresh supplies to an aid camp. Then they are ambushed, and so The Two-Headed Serpent is off to the races. Over the course of the campaign, the heroes will find themselves undertaking a wide variety tasks, whether it is uncovering an ancient temple from Earth’s ancient past whilst fending off strangely determined military intervention in Bolivia; investigating the Mafia’s interest the Caduceus Foundation in New York; researching the cause of an outbreak of a deadly disease in North Borneo and coming face to face with some very weird flora and fauna; or investigating a newly arisen snake handling Christian preacher in the Oklahoma dustbowl. There are nine chapters in The Two-Headed Serpent, each named after a location and each actually quite short. In fact, the majority of the chapters are really only going to take a session or two to complete, so the whole campaign can be played through quite quickly.

For the most part, the chapters are straightforward and the campaign fairly open in terms of the order which its chapters can be tackled. Initially, this will see the heroes’ employers revealing just a little more about their actual aims and sending them back out to a hotspot to investigate something strange going on. The New York chapter differs from this in that the Caduceus Foundation having its headquarters in the city means that the heroes will return there again and again, each time having learned something new about their mission and their employer. The likelihood is that events of the New York chapter will play out over several chapters as the heroes get distracted by other missions and lines of investigation. What they learn is that Caduceus Foundation is facing an enemy race from Earth’s long prehistoric past which wants to retake the planet which was once theirs and if it has to be rid of some jumped up, primitive monkey-descendants, then so be it! As the heroes delve deeper into the campaign, they discover that the remnants of this enemy race are not united in their aims and ultimately, they may need to side with one faction or another—if not play the factions off against each other—in order to prevent the end of the world.

Along the way, the heroes will uncover conspiracies, get involved in organised crime, encounter the dark secrets of a benevolent preacher, find themselves dodging dinosaurs deep in the jungle, sneaking into volcano lairs, experimenting with ancient advanced technology, engaging in a MacGuffin hunt in the ‘City of Joy’, possibly undergoing a transformative experience, racing across an old, old continent to save the world, and of course, cheating certain death. The Two-Headed Serpent is after all, a campaign for use with Pulp Cthulhu, and such a campaign should include such mainstays of the Pulp genre.

The campaign itself is well supported. Not only does it come with six ready-to-play, pre-generated heroes for the players, but it comes with decent handouts and appendices detailing the major NPCs, spells, technology, and tomes to be found in 
The Two-Headed Serpent. Alongside the staging and other advice on running the campaign for the Keeper, the campaign includes reports from its three playtests. These are highly entertaining because each playtest group approached the campaign in a different way, whether that is cautiously a la a standard Call of Cthulhu style, in a Pulp style with lots of action and danger, or embracing the weird aspects of the campaign. This is a great touch as it helps prepare the Keeper for how his players with approach the campaign themselves. The Keeper will need to carefully read the campaign for although it is straightforward enough, the aims and objectives of the various NPCs are not always so and the Keeper will need to handle some of them just as carefully as to when and how they interact with heroes. There is also advice for running the campaign using the standard rules for Call of Cthulhu, but that would take some effort upon the part of the Keeper and it would need scaling back a very great deal if the investigators involved are to have a decent chance of survival.

Physically, The Two-Headed Serpent is nicely laid out and done in the now Chaosium house style. This both a good and a bad thing—mostly good. On the plus side, the book is done in full colour, is decently illustrated in both sepia and full colour, and the layout is clean, tidy, and accessible. In fact, some of the artwork is excellent, the image of a sea serpent crunching down on a seaplane is terrific, as are the illustrations of the campaign’s major NPCs. The maps are slightly variable in quality, the maps of countries possessing a little more character than those of the more fantastic locations, which feel slightly bland. On the downside, the book needs another edit in places, especially towards the end where there is an amount of repeated text.

There are unfortunately two issues with the artwork. One is the lack of it in that none of the pieces of the technology presented in The Two-Headed Serpent are illustrated. This is such a shame and such a missed opportunity. The other is an ongoing issue which has been an annoyance and a blight upon previous releases for releases published for Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition. This is with the portmanteau galleries of each chapter’s NPCs’ portraits, which collect them together rather than placing them with their relevant stat write-ups at the end of each chapter. Putting aside the fact that some of the portraits do not fit the description, placing the NPC portraits together only benefits the Keeper, because they cannot be used as handouts. In other words, the Keeper cannot simply show one portrait to his players without their seeing the other portraits.

The absurd lack of utility to this design choice is completely compounded by the decision not to use it elsewhere in the book. It is not used for the campaign’s major antagonists. Neither is it used with the given pre-generated investigators, so the question is, why is it used for the lesser NPCs? It adds nothing to the campaign and is instead, an actual hindrance to the easy running of the campaign. It is such a simple matter to change and one really has to hope that the forthcoming reissue of Masks of Nyarlathotep will not suffer from the same issue.

In concentrating on the action, one thing that is lost in The Two-Headed Serpent is verisimilitude. From Bolivia and Borneo to the Belgian Congo and Calcutta, the campaign visits exotic location after exotic location, but it feels just a bit too fleeting and there is never the chance to add much in the of local colour and detail. This is more of an issue in later chapters, but it does lend the campaign a certain superficiality. It also explains why one of the better chapters is actually Oklahoma because it involves more roleplaying and interaction and investigation than the other chapters sometimes do, and because its emphasis is on that rather than action, it serves as a breather in the campaign, a change of pace. This is not to say that the other chapters are not fun—the volcano scenes in Iceland are certainly that, as are the scenes involving the Mafia in New York. What it does mean is that The Two-Headed Serpent needs to be carefully paced to allow time for the players to take in what their heroes have learned and for their heroes to investigate the various tomes and technological gewgaws they are likely to recover.

The arrival of a new campaign for Call of Cthulhu is always welcome and none more so than The Two-Headed Serpent. Obviously in this case because it is the first campaign for use with Pulp Cthulhu and it sets the standard for future campaigns, but it also showcases the style and mechanics from that supplement. Which includes facing down Mythos threats rather than running away, shrugging off hits and Sanity losses, and spending a whole lot of Luck to escape by the skin of a hero’s proverbial teeth. The Two-Headed Serpent: An Epic Action-Packed and Globe-Spanning Campaign for Pulp Cthulhu is big, is bold, and lets hero and heroine alike stand tall and laugh in the face of the Mythos. Then punch it right on the snout and run away as the volcano explodes behind them.

Sunday, 26 November 2017

Proper Paw & Pack Play

When mankind is long gone, popular wisdom has it that the cockroaches will survive and inherit the Earth. Not so according to the Pugmire Fantasy Tabletop Roleplaying Game. In the far future, long after an apocalypse that led to the disappearance of Man, it is his best friend that inherits the Earth. That is, dogs! Long uplifted to use tools, read, and improve the world around them, dogs have founded the Kingdom of Pugmire and now strive to live up to the ideals of their long-gone masters—the Code of Man. These are Be a Good Dog, Obey the Master, Bite only those who endanger you, Defend your home, Stay loyal to those that are true, Protect all from the Unseen, and Fetch what has been left behind. Currently, the Kingdom of Pugmire is roughly equal to a medieval world, but Mankind also left behind caches and troves of ‘magical’ artefacts which the dogs constantly search for. After all, the fact that dogs can use them is surely a sign of Man’s faith in them. Of course, Dogs are not the only species to have been uplifted by Man or the Old Ones. Only decades ago, the Kingdom of Pugmire fought a war against the Monarchies of Mau—a confederation of Cats, whilst tribes of Badgers, Rats, and Lizards can be found inside and outside of the kingdom’s borders. Indeed, the Monarchies of Mau is the subject of its own roleplaying game. Besides sharing a setting, Monarchies of Mau and Pugmire both have the facts in common that they were funded via Kickstarter and both are published by Onyx Path Publishing.

Now anthropomorphic, post-apocalypse roleplaying games are nothing new. See Mutant: Genlab Alpha and After the Bomb, the supplement for Palladium Books’ Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles & Other Strangeness, as well as Metamorphosis Alpha, originally published by TSR, Inc., but most recently reprinted by Goodman Games. In comparison to the earnestness of the first and the wackiness of the latter two, Pugmire is different in that it is essentially Dungeons & Dragons, but ‘Dungeons & Dragons with Dogs’ because it employs the Open Game Licence for Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition. This makes Pugmire easy to pick up and play, which should be no surprise given the delightful accessibility of Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition. There is more to Pugmire than ‘Dungeons & Dragons with Dogs’ though…

Dogs in Pugmire have a Calling, a Breed, and a Background. A Calling is what a Dog does and is the equivalent of a Class. Six are given—Artisans (Wizards), Guardians (Fighters), Hunters (Rangers), Ratters (Rogues), Shepherds (Clerics), and Strays (Barbarians). Notable of these are the Artisan and Shepherd Callings. The Artisan specialises in the use of artefacts for magical effects, whilst the Shepherd belongs to the Church of Man, both spreads and uses the word of the Code of Man to guide others, and generally espouses being a good dog. A Breed is essentially a Dog’s Race. These are grouped into six types—Companion, Fettle, Herders, Pointers, Runners, and Workers, plus Mutts. The Breeds are more generalised than specific breeds of dog, but within each Breed there are several notable families, such as the Pug for Companions, Corgis for Herders, Greyhounds for Runners, and so on, which more correspond to the specific breeds of today. This neatly avoids Pugmire having to detail each and every contemporary breed and also establishes the various noble families within the kingdom. A Background is what a Dog did before becoming a hero and answering his Calling. Just eight are given, ranging from Acolyte and Common Folk to Sage and Soldier.

A Dog’s Calling will provide him with a view on other Callings, on the Code of Man—each Calling favours a different part of the Code, his Stamina Points, skills and rucksack (equipment), plus his first Tricks. The latter are of course, a Dog’s special abilities and powers and are akin to the proficiencies or feats of Dungeons & Dragons. More skills, rucksack contents, and another Trick will come from a Dog’s Background, whilst his Breed provides another Trick and an Ability (attribute) bonus. Running through the Callings ad the Breeds is the ‘Rule of Six’, lists of six aspects about the Breed or Calling. So there are six families per Breed and six views on the other Callings, six Calling types, and six unusual circumstances by which a Dog acquired something in his rucksack.

Creating a Dog involves selecting a Calling, a Breed, and a Background, plus skills and Tricks. Artisans and Shepherds also have spells. Unlike in other roleplaying games, the core abilities are not rolled for, but assigned from a given set of values. The creation process is generally straightforward and a player is nicely guided through the process, step-by-step.

Our sample character is Rupert Dachshund, an Artisan Pointer who has recently finished his apprenticeship to his uncle who owns and runs the family business, Object d’artefact, which trades in, and auctions, artefacts. He also sends out packs of adventurers to search for and recover artefacts. Now that Rupert Dachshund has completed his training, he wants to see more than just artefacts under glass, being evaluated, or going under the hammer. He wants to see artefacts in the wild! He wants some experience and perhaps he might even join the Royal Pioneers.

Rupert Dachshund
Level 1
Calling: Artisan
Breeding: Pointer
Background: Sage
Proficiency Bonus: +2
Stamina dice: d6
Stamina Points: 7
Defence: 13
Initiative: +2
Speed: 30
Abilities: Strength -1 (08), Dexterity +2 (14), Constitution +1 (12), Intelligence +3 (17), Wisdom +0 (10), Charisma +1 (13)
Skills: Know Arcana, Know History, Perform, Search
Tricks: Simple Weapons Aptitude, Light Armour Aptitude, Focus Magic, Voracious Learner
Spells: Elemental Ray, Feather Fall, Magic Missile, Magic Paw, Smell Magic Rucksack: Spear (1d8), padded light armour, masterwork artisan focus (googlepixle), bottle of ink, ink pen, parchment, books

View on the Code: Fetch what has been left behind
Idea: What is most important to me is finding the secrets of the Old Ones
Bond: I am inspired by my bond to Pugmire
Flaw: No matter what, I just can’t resist my insatiable curiosity

Given its Dungeons & Dragons-derived mechanics, it should be no surprise that Pugmire is Class and Level system. Unlike Dungeons & Dragons, the Levels only go up to Tenth Level, at which point a Dog is considered an Old Dog and cannot advance any further, although he can still go adventuring. Unlike Dungeons & Dragons, a Dog who goes adventuring in Pugmire does not earn Experience Points, but is awarded a new Level after a few good stories and when the Guide—as the Game Master is known in Pugmire—decides is appropriate. When he does go up a Level, a Dog gains both Stamina and Stamina dice, spellcasters—Artisans and Shepherds gain more spells and spell slots, and at every other Level, a Dog’s Proficiency Bonus increases. Every Level, a Dog gains an Improvement, which can be to improve an Ability score; take a new Calling, Breeding, or Aptitude Trick; or refine an existing Calling or Masterwork Trick. The latter is possible because beyond the basic effect of a Trick, it can be refined or upgraded. For example, Focus Magic is a Calling Trick for the Artisan which allows a Dog to cast spells via a focus. One refinement allows the Artisan to select four more spells from the spell levels that he knows, whilst the other enables him to choose spells from the next spell level. The Archery Trick for the Hunter Calling gives a Dog a bonus on ranged attacks, whilst refinements can give him the Advantage on ammunition saving throws, allow him a bonus attack on the same target, and reroll damage rolls if a one is rolled. These tweaks and refinements give Pugmire a sense of the cinematic and heroic action as well as providing some variability in terms of Dog design.

Mechanically, Pugmire looks much like Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition, but on a closer look, there are tweaks and refinements to the rules too. The most notable addition is that of Fortune and the Fortune Bowl. A session begins with the Dogs in an adventuring party having two Fortune in the Fortune Bowl. A player can earn more Fortune for the Bowl by roleplaying to his Dog’s personality traits in a way that makes the game interesting, by being an entertaining player, coming up with a good plan, and by playing a ‘Good Dog’. Much of this is up to the discretion of the Guide, but a player can force the Guide to add Fortune to the Bowl by having his Dog intentionally fail. Fortune in the Bowl can be spent—and this is a permanent spend—to gain a reroll on any dice roll and keep the higher result, to allow a spellcaster to cast a spell if he has run out of spell slots, and to interrupt the initiative order and take their turn now. Further, some Tricks require Fortune to be activated, for example, ‘Nearby Expert’, a Background Trick, allows a player to spend Fortune for his Dog to know someone close by who has the knowledge or expertise that his Dog needs.

Again, magic in Pugmire looks like Dungeons & Dragons, but with a tweak or two. One is a matter of flavour or two, which has a canine cast to it. So, Magic Paw instead of Mage Hand, Smell Magic instead of Detect Magic, and so on. Basic spells like this—there are three each for both the Artisan and the Shepherd, can be cast freely by a Dog of the correct Calling. Spells of Level One and above cost a caster Slots to cast, equal to the Level of the spells. Thus, one Slot for a Level One spell, two Slots for a Level Two spell, all the way up to Level Five. Fitter Artisans and Shepherds—those with a higher Constitution—have more Slots. What this means is that a spellcaster is free to cast what he wants and however many times he wants as long as he has Slots left.

The setting for the roleplaying game is Pugmire, both a kingdom and a small city, the latter built around a castle and on what was once swampland. The kingdom is currently ruled by King Puckington Pug with the support of the Church of Man and dominated by great breeds and families who each own an ancient relic as indication of their nobility. One relic of Man is used as currency in the kingdom—plastic! It is literally dug from the ground and melted into coins. It is also useful in the construction of the plastic hulls needed for any ship wanting to sail the Acid Sea, although the kingdom’s access to the sea is limited. The kingdom maintains a testy relationship with the Monarchies of Mau; dislike the Rats—which include Rats and Mice—as they covet the same relics or ‘shinies’; and hate the Badgers—which include Otters, Polecats, Weasels, Ferrets, and Wolverines, as well as Badgers—for the raids they carry out on the kingdom and relic caches. The nomadic Lizards are tolerated for the stories and goods from foreign lands they trade in. Within the kingdom, the Royal Pioneers of Pugmire is an organisation of adventurers, whose members are Pugmire citizens—so it accepts strays, criminals, and bandits—and who are dedicated to protecting the kingdom, recovering relics, and uncovering knowledge. It is organised into parties who report to and are assigned tasks by a trustee. One of the benefits of being a Pioneer is that a Dog gets to keep and use whatever relics he recovers. Essentially, the Royal Pioneers of Pugmire is the default organisation for the player characters or Dogs to join and serve in, and so go adventuring.

One of the reasons that the Dogs are adventuring is relics. These include items which Dogs call ‘Masterworks’; consumable oils, dusts, and potions they call ‘Fixes’; and bizarre items such as a Bowl of Endless Water or the Ticking Rose, they call ‘Wonders’. From the Amulet of Health and the Bag of Holding to the Ring of Resistance and Robe of Scintillating Colours, these do look standard magical items a la Dungeons & Dragons. Yet Pugmire being a post-apocalyptic world, what they really are, is items of Old World technology. Some of the items are easy to map back onto items of contemporary technology, for example, a Lantern of Revealing could be some kind of scanner, Boots of Silence actually rubber-soled shoes, and a Potion of Heroism, some kind of drug. Others though are less obvious and may take some imagination to determine.

A Dog does not just own a relic. In the case of some Masterworks, a Dog not only has to attune himself to an item, he can also refine it with an improvement when he acquires a new Level. So the Gauntlets of Power raises a wearer’s Strength to 20 instead of 18 if attuned and refined and a Ring of Protection provides a +1 bonus to Defence and saving throws, but can be refined twice to increase the bonus for each to +2. The list of Masterworks, Fixes, and Wonders is limited, but beyond Pugmire, the number of magical items and sourcebooks thereof for the various iterations of Dungeons & Dragons is all but inexhaustible.

Like its treatment of magical items, Pugmire presents its monsters and enemies in a different fashion. There are of course other animals—Dogs, Cats, Rats, Badgers, and Lizards, but these are joined by more traditional monsters like Giant Ants and Zombies as well as some quite odd particular to the world of Pugmire. This includes the Kapatapa, a metallic thing with wheels which drags unaware Dogs into rivers and lakes it hides in; the Two-Headed Giant, which has the head of a Dog and the head of a Cat, which argue with each other, but hate their parent species; and the Mementomorian, a Dog-like creature which constantly harvests the memories of Dogs dead in the graveyard and on the battlefield. The most interesting monsters in Pugmire are the demons. They are also the most terrifying, for they are the demons of the Unseen, the demons that only Dogs can see and the demons that the Dogs warned Man about. Which of course Man took no heed of, for Dogs can only bark. Which is a lovely conceit.

For the Guide there is a well written chapter of advice and suggestions for running Pugmire. This covers everything from hosting the game to running it and more, including helping with character generation, being a storyteller and pacing scenes, handling the rules and creating a Chronicle—a campaign, ideas for Chronicle types other than the Royal Pioneers of Pugmire, and even suggestions for other game systems that the setting of Pugmire could be run under.

Rounding out Pugmire is a short adventure, ‘The Great Cat Conspiracy’. Designed for beginning characters, in which the Dogs are hired by the Doberman family to rid its iron mines the cat bandits which have raiding them. Involving a good mix of social interaction, wilderness adventure, and dungeoneering, the scenario is a fairly straightforward affair. It nicely introduces the players to the setting and its social mores as well as giving them a good taste of the mechanics.

One aspect where Pugmire definitely differs from Dungeons & Dragons is that of Alignment. In Dungeon & Dragons there are various Alignments or ethical and moral outlooks on life, such Lawful Good, Neutral, and Chaotic Evil. Pugmire does not have such varied outlooks or Alignments and it is in fact much more like the Code of Bushido in Legend of the Five Rings. In the setting of that roleplaying game, Rokugan, every samurai believes in the Code of Bushido, but each clan values a different tenet of the code more highly over the others. So it is with the Callings in Pugmire, and thus in effect, what you have is the single Alignment, but with variations. That said, the approach to the Code of Man, although important to just about every Dog is not as earnest as that of a samurai to Bushido—unless of course you are devout worshipper of the Church of Man.

In embracing the Code of Man, Pugmire is positive roleplaying game about bettering the lives of every Dog and safeguarding the kingdom, if not making it better for your pups. It is about doing this together, since Dogs are pack animals and like to work together. What this means is that Pugmire is not really a game about the divisive individual. As written, there is no element in Pugmire of, “I can do anything I want, so my character is going to go off and do this—and screw you!” as was in your early games of Dungeons & Dragons. This is not say that there is  or was this element in Dungeons & Dragons necessarily—but again, remember that game back in the day where the Thief betrayed you, stole all of your loot, and got you all killed?—and it is not to say that this could not happen in Pugmire, but rather that Pugmire makes it implicit that it is game of cooperation and working together. Of course, being a post-apocalyptic fantasy game, Pugmire is also a game of exploration and mystery. Exploration because the kingdom does not know what lies beyond its borders and mystery because who knows what lies out there and who knows what happened to Man?

Physically, Pugmire Fantasy Tabletop Roleplaying Game is a lovely book. The slightly undersized hardback is done in full colour and the artwork is absolutely great. If you want pictures of Dogs in medieval armour and wielding swords and fighting monsters, then this book is perfect for you. A slight edit is needed here and there, but the writing is light and engaging, with the rules being very well explained. One nice touch is the inclusion of advice in separate boxes, both from characters within the setting. One provides further explanation, whilst the other gives advanced options.

As much as it employs the mechanics of Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition, what Pugmire is not, ‘Dungeons & Dragons with Dogs’. One reason is the (fantasy in a) post-apocalyptic setting, but really it is the positive nature of the character or Dog design and their embracing of the Code of Man and the cooperative style of play that it encourages which pulls it away from Dungeons & Dragons.

One thing Pugmire is not, is an introductory roleplaying game. As well written as it is, it is perhaps a bit too dense a book to serve as that. One element that it does lack to that end, is an example of play. On the downside of course, you almost wish that Pugmire had been written as an introductory roleplaying game, perhaps a boxed set. (In fact, it would be nice to see an introductory boxed set written using the same mechanics and in the same tone as Pugmire, but perhaps with three different settings a la Chaosium’s Worlds of Wonder roleplaying game.) Now what Pugmire works better as, is a first roleplaying game, a roleplaying game that the Guide can run for others who are new to roleplaying, whether they are younger players or adults. For either age, both the tone and the setting of the game are positive and inclusive, and the idea of playing anthropomorphic Dogs is fun and engaging, which is refreshing and something that more experienced players are likely to enjoy too.

Inspired by his own dog—the late and much-loved Pug, Murray—the author of Pugmire Fantasy Tabletop Roleplaying Game brings a canine cast to roleplaying fantasy and does so in a well written, beautifully presented, and engaging fashion. Pugmire is the roleplaying game for Good Dogs everywhere.