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

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.

Tuesday, 16 June 2015

Grabbing Headlines

Published by University Games, Man Bites Dog is a card game about creating headlines—sensationalist headlines ripped from the front pages of newspapers such as The Sun and The National Enquirer. Designed for two to six players, aged eight and up, it consists of one-hundred-and-six cards, each with a word like 340 LB., Missing, Lobbyist, and Cruel. Each card is worth a certain number of points, for example, Wall St. (0), Tween (5), Hero (10), Tension (15), Loser (20), Falls For (25), Flirts with (30), and Priest (50). The players try to use these cards to construct creatively entertaining newspaper headlines that will score them points. If these headlines are an Exclusive—that is, the headline is played with an Exclusive card—then the headline is worth double points!

At the start of each round, each player receives a hand of five cards and sees if he can create a headline. If does not think he can, then  he can discard up to three cards and draw back up to five to try again.
For example, Dave has drawn Lost (5), 1st Lady (25), Burns (10), Mystery (25), and TV (15). He could try with “1st Lady Burns TV Mystery”, but decides to discard Lost and draws Beauty (25). So he puts together “Mystery TV Beauty Burns 1st Lady”, which would be worth a total of 100!
On her turn Louise draws Psychic (25), Secret (25), Strikes (10), Judge (25), and an Exclusive card. This is good hand of cards and Louise puts together “Psychic Strikes Secret Judge”, which would be worth 85 points, but because she has an Exclusive card, the total is doubled to 170!
 At the end of the round, the dealer collects up all of the cards—used and unused. The game proceeds like this until one person score five hundred or more points more.

Physically, Man Bites Dog is reasonably presented. The cards show a good mix of words and phrases, and the rules are simple and easy to grasp, being presented on the one card. That said, its subject matter may mean it is not as suitable for younger players and for some families, the suggested minimum age of eight years old may be too low.

Man Bites Dog is not a great game. It a very light and does not offer anything in the way of depth. It does call though, for some inventiveness and creativity upon the part of the players in constructing Headlines. This combination actually means that Man Bites Dog is a reasonable family game for teenage players and older who will probably appreciate the nuances of the genre. For the dedicated gamer, Man Bites Dog is probably too light to bear more than the very occasional play.

Sunday, 14 June 2015

Community & Critters

Once humans walked the world, building cities and creating empires, unlocking the secrets of magic and interfered with the Gods’ designs. For their arrogance and hubris in disrupting the Harmony, the Third Moon fell and humans were destroyed. Not long after this Maelstrom, the Bright Ones lifted up the simple animals of forest and field, giving them the ability to think, build, and stand on their own two feet. In order to keep the newly Favoured or Awakened animals from making the same mistakes the humans did, The Bright Ones gave them the Compact—a book telling them how to live together in Harmony. Yet there is tension between those of the Awakened who want to uphold Harmony and those who would explore the secrets of the Titans—as the humans are known, those who would use too much magic, or those who make too much use of metal alloys. The danger is that should one of the Favoured fall out of Harmony, then he may become a ‘dire’ creature and become a source of Disharmony itself thus threatening the Compact.

This is the background to the Book of Cairn, an anthropomorphic RPG of community, responsibility, and doing the right thing. In Cairn, the players take on the roles of animal residents of the small town of Cairn—mice, otters, squirrels, beavers, even meerkats and duck billed platypi—who as Acrobat/Swashbucklers, Scholar/Wizards, Druid/Scouts, Cleric/Warriors, Barbarian/Minstrels, and other roles, work to protect the village, seek out sources of Disharmony, and uphold the Harmony of not only the village and surrounding lands, but also themselves.

Originally developed by Mike Nystul—best known as the author of the horror game, The Whispering Vault and various titles for FASA—and funded through Kickstarter, Cairn was eventually published by Ross A. Isaacs and Souljar Games. Where the Kickstarter promised “A fuzzy fantasy RPG” and “A Fantasy RPG featuring woodland animals such as mice, badgers and hedgehogs as epic heroes. Tiny critters - Big Adventure!”, the final PDF (and print) version actually delivers something a little deeper than that. In addition, whilst it is possible to see the architecture of Dungeons & Dragons—particularly in the range of professions available, in having the player characters form parties and go off on adventures, and in it being a class and level system—underlying the game, mechanically, the Book of Cairn is a much lighter, more flexible game (and the better for it).

In the Book of Cairn, the players play a range of animals, each of which can stand up right, has fully opposable thumbs, and is capable of speech. Each animal also has its own capabilities. For example, a Mouse is Chosen (meaning that he is more capable of withstanding Disharmony) and Small (reduced Hit Points and limited equipment, but also that he weighs less and takes up less space). Whereas the Armadillo is Big (more Hit Points and a better range of equipment), can Burrow, has Claws, can Curl  (into a ball to increase his Defence), is Plated (natural armour), and has a better sense of Smell, but is Squinty (short-sighted). In addition to the stats, the place of every animal in the community is discussed, for example, Beavers work as architects,  engineers, construction workers, and carpenters—even furniture makers, whilst Platypi tend to be sailors and fishermen. Also included is a useful guide on how to play each creature, with particular attention paid to a typical creature’s ‘Flight or Fight’ response.

In addition to the twenty or so Creature options, a player has another twenty options in terms of Professions—from Acrobat, Alchemist, and Barbarian to Swashbuckler, Warrior, and Wizard. Besides telling what equipment a member of that Profession receives and the skills acquired every other level, each of the Professions has a Virtue/Vice whenever a character rolls a natural twelve for the associated action. When this happens, the character can choose to use it as a Virtue to benefit his friends and gain Harmony, or he can use it as a Vice to benefit himself, but lose Harmony. For example, the Marksman’s Virtue/Vice is Deadeye. As a Virtue, it means he shoots an arrow to distract an enemy who hesitates and so gives an opportunity for his friends to act, but as a Vice, his next arrow will land somewhere niggling and vexing to the enemy.

To create a character in the Book of Cairn, a player selects an animal and decides how it is different to others of his species—faster, cuter, stronger, smarter, and so on. Then he decides on not one, but two Professions. He will gain the base abilities, Hit Points, and Magic Points from both, but will then alternate between each Profession in terms of ability, Hit Point, and Magic Point gain, the player deciding which is his primary Profession and which is his secondary Profession. It is possible to become a Specialist and effectively focus on a single Profession, but he whilst he will gain Hit Points and Magic Points every level, he will only gain abilities every other level.

Name: Nightleaf
Species/Class: Opossum Swashbuckler/Rogue Level 0
Traits: Big (+1 HP/Level), Fainting, Prehensile Tail, Resist Venom, Shadowed
Abilities: Fight +2, Parry 1, Climb, Nimble Fingers
Fight: +1 Shoot:  Defence: 4 Speed: 4 
Virtue/Vice: Panache/Opportunist
Hit Points: 23 Magic Points: 9
Harmony: 09 (18)
Equipment: Dagger, Rapier, Fancy Clothes, Bottle of Dandelion Wine, toolkit bundle

Some Professions—Druids, Enchanters, Healers, Priests, Sorcerers, and Wizards—can cast spells. Every Profession receives Magic Points, primarily because the Magic Points of a character’s non-spellcasting Profession complements those of his spellcasting Profession. Of course, there is nothing to stop a character selecting two spellcasting professions. In most cases, a character with a spellcasting Profession must purchase his spells and do so by permanently expending Magic Points. He must still temporarily expend Magic Points to actually cast the spells, so needs to balance the need to purchase spells and the need to power them. For the most part, spells in the Book of Cairn are anything other than flashy.

The Priest, is of course, slightly different. It cannot be combined with the Sorcerer or Wizard Professions. Instead of purchasing spells, a Priest selects spells from one day to the next, investing Magic Points in them to cast later.

Name: Woodwatch
Species/Class: Squirrel Druid/Shifter Level 0
Traits: Climb, Dash, Leap
Abilities: Companion (Squirrel), Novice Spells, Affinity (Squirrels)
Fight: +1 Shoot:  Defence: 6 Speed: 6 
Virtue/Vice: Nature’s Blessing/Adapt
Hit Points: 18 Magic Points: 7
Harmony: 15 (20)
Spells: Surestride, Sustain, Whispertread
Equipment: Treestaff, Rugged Clothing, Totem, Quarterstaff

Mechanically, the Book of Cairn is fairly simple and straightforward. When a character wants to take an action, he rolls a Test. If he needs to react against something, he rolls a Save. Either way, a character rolls a twelve-sided die and attempts to equal or beat a Difficulty—6 for Routine, 8 for Challenging, 10 for Heroic, and so on. Rolls of a natural twelve count as an overwhelming success, but a character will receive a +1 bonus for each appropriate element—Trait, Ability, Tool, and so forth— on his character sheet. For example, an Armadillo is Big and could use that to add a bonus when intimidating some rats.

At the core of the Book of Cairn is the concept of Harmony. As a Favoured One, every character is—to some degree or other—in Harmony with the Compact and the community at large. Measured between one and twenty, if character’s Harmony is sixteen or more, he is said to be in a state of Grace; if between one and fifteen, he is in a state of Balance; if between zero and minus ten, he is in a state of Disharmony; and below that, he is in a Dire state! There are benefits to being in a state of Grace and penalties for being in a state of Disharmony, but once in a Dire state, a character becomes a source of Disharmony and an NPC!

There are multiple ways in which a character can lose Harmony. For raising the stakes to gain re-rolls of Tests and Saves, for wearing and wielding arms, armour, and equipment made of metal alloys, for encountering sources of Disharmony, for acts of violence—especially when better alternatives are available, and for using magic. It can be gained for acts of heroism, kindness, generosity, and friendship as well as for defeating the Dire and the Unnatural. The biggest source of Harmony is not defeating the Dire or the Unnatural though force of arms, but rather addressing the sources of the Disharmony behind the Dire or Unnatural and thus restoring the natural balance. This is of course, more difficult than simply fighting it. Lastly, the Favoured Ones can engage in celebrations—and often do—and so regain Harmony. This can be anything from doing a small favour or cooking a meal for friends to meditating or participating in a festival.

To return to the parallels with Dungeons & Dragons, Harmony and Disharmony is the equivalent of the Alignment system in the Book of Cairn. It is more mechanical in nature though and consists of two alignments—Harmony and Disharmony—compared to the nine found in Dungeons & Dragons. Naturally, the punishment of being in Disharmony is greater than the reward of being in Harmony, but the Harmony/Disharmony duality of the Book of Cairn is much simpler and easier to understand and it encourages and rewards positive behaviour and action. As does the Virtue/Vice mechanics for each Profession.

Another aspect of the game that encourages positive behaviour and action is its sense of community and home. A community is measured by four statistics—Food, Resources, Morale, and Security—that can be affected by random events and by the actions of the player characters. For example, a bandit raid on a caravan might reduce a community’s Resources and Security by one each. If the heroes decide to track down the bandits and put a stop to their predations, then they might be able to increase either the Community’s Resources or Security by one, but not both. Further, such an adventure can only happen once a season, though not during the winter. This is in addition to the other adventures that the heroes might have, such as ‘Can you stop the Witch before she curses all the berries of the forest?’, ‘ Will you find the source of corruption withering Farmer Cottonstar’s fields?’, or ‘What of the growing threat of otters and moles working outside the town?’. A random event that affects the town happens every season though… 

This is the default set-up, and to be fair, Cain does not readily support others. So the GM will need to work hard if he wants to do something else with Cairn other than have the player characters  working to keep their community safe and strong. The default community for the Book of Cairn is the eponymously named Cairn, a small town located where two rivers merge above an estuary. Named for the mysterious stack of stones piled up by the Titans, it is home to a range of bucolic creatures—Beavers, Otters, Mice, Squirrels, and so on. Of course this does not mean it cannot also be home to the odder Awakened—Duck Billed Platypi, Meerkats, Lorises, and so on. The description of Cairn focuses upon its primary buildings, such as the Town Hall, the Cider Mill Inn, and Professor Puddleleaf’s Observatory. Not only are these described, but they are each given six adventure hooks, each of which has the potential to improve the stats for the community and thus involve the characters in the life of the town.

Physically, the Book of Cairn is nicely presented and the artwork has a certain charm. The same can also be said of the Book of Cairn as a whole. This is charm though—and not cute. For the danger in presenting an anthropomorphic fantasy RPG is that it turns into little more more than a cutesy, fuzzy version of Dungeons & Dragons, yet there is merit in the ‘fuzziness’ if not the ‘cute’, because the ‘fuzziness’ still makes the game accessible to a younger audience. Whilst this is true of Cairn, its emphasis is on community, Harmony, and non-violent solutions, actually makes it suitable for a younger audience as much as its ‘fuzziness’ does. Nevertheless, whilst there are strong parallels between Cairn and Dungeons & Dragons, they are not so strong that they threaten to smother Cairn. Rather, the Book of Cairn takes takes those parallels and develops them into strong motivations for player character action whilst coupling them with light and easy mechanics.

Sunday, 7 June 2015

Dungeons & Dragons by Crom!

When it comes to the Old School Renaissance, we are spoilt for choice. All of them, from OSRIC (Old School Reference and Index Compilation) and Swords & Wizardry to Labyrinth Lord to Lamentations of the Flame Princess Weird Fantasy Roleplay offer the means to create and run games in an older style of the ‘old school’ style of Dungeons & Dragons. In doing so, all draw upon both Dungeons & Dragons and its sources and as diverse as those sources are—from the planetary romances of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Barsoom series and the ‘swords & sorcery’ of Robert E. Howard’s Conan stories to the high fantasy of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth and high weird fantasy of Jack Vance’s Dying Earth stories—and as hard as they try, in many cases, most never really escape that certain veneer of American Tolkienism that Dungeons & Dragons has always had. With its infusion of weird horror, heavy metal, and the early modern age, Lamentations of the Flame Princess Weird Fantasy Roleplay is a very notable exception, but there is also another exception—Crypts & Things.

Published by D101 Games, Crypts & Things is a standalone RPG based upon Mythmere Games’ Swords & Wizardry that makes various changes to old school Dungeons & Dragons in order to reflect its inspirations.Rather than drawing upon fantasy in general, Crypts & Things draws upon Robert E. Howard’s Conan stories, the adventures of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser by Fritz Leiber, and L. Sprague de Camp's Swords and Sorcery anthology for its inspiration. In other words, the ‘Swords & Sorcery’ subgenre. To support this subgenre, Crypts & Things does not adhere solely to the tenents of the Old School Renaissance, but in a radical move employs a number of modern design elements that make this a very different game to standard Dungeons & Dragons

Nevertheless, Crypts & Things is still a Class and Level game, characters have the same set of six attributes, it uses Armour Class, a twenty-sided die for rolling attacks and making saving throws, and so on. It is though, an entirely humanocentric game, with no other Races available to play other than Human, and whilst just like Dungeons & Dragons there are only four Classes, they are very different. They are the Barbarian, the Fighter, the Magician, and the Thief—and all have a certain martial bent. The Barbarian, based on the first version that appeared in White Dwarf #7 in 1977, is enraged rather than scared by Fear spells, makes first strikes with great ferocity, and is generally slightly more resilient to harm. The Fighter has more Hit Points and can select Specialist Combat Styles such as Berserker, Shield Master, Swashbuckler, and Unarmed Combat to gain bonuses in combat. Instead the Magic-User and the Priest, Crypts & Things has the Magician who can cast a wider variety of spells, but they are categorised into White, Grey, and Black, the latter two types being able to break the natural laws, but likely to sap the caster’s Sanity upon said casting. Lastly, the Thief is more of a light, nimble fighter with equally as nimble fingers.

In addition, two of the Classes—the Barbarian and the Thief—have bonuses to certain skills, Climb Walls, Stealth, Sense Danger, and so on for the Barbarian, and the traditional thieves’ skills for the Thief. Now any character can attempt these skills, but these Classes possess their own bonuses for them. The skill system is very simple. Each Class has a single Saving Throw—for everything, including skills—that improves as a character goes up a Level. Successfully roll against this Saving Throw, adding any attribute and Class bonuses, modifiers set by the Crypt Keeper—as the Dungeon Master is known—and a character will succeed at the desired action. Although perhaps a little simplistic, this skill system possesses a pleasing elegance. If there are issues with it, the first is that it is not particularly forgiving as the Saving Throws for all starting characters are fairly high; and second, it would be to ask why two of the Classes—the Barbarian and the Thief—have skills whereas the others do not?

Every character also gets to roll three times on the Life Events table. This generates a little background and it provides further skill bonuses. During play, every character can use every weapon, although not without a small penalty in some cases, every character can fight with two weapons—though the benefits are relatively slight, and every character can Backstab. This reflects the grimmer and grittier nature of the Swords & Sorcery subgenre.

Hecipia
First Level Magician
Strength: 7 (-1) Dexterity 14 (+1) Constitution 10
Intelligence 16 (+2) Wisdom 13 Charisma 17 (Charm 60%)

Experience Point Bonus: +15%
Armour Class: 15 (Leather) Hit Points: 6
Saving Throw: 15

Spells/Day: First Level (1)
Spells Known:
First Level: Cure Light Wounds (White Magic), Divination (Grey Magic), Light (White Magic), Magic Missile (Black Magic)
Second Level: ESP (Grey Magic)

Life Events:
I served a mighty sorcerer (can recognise magic); I was a slave at a royal court (+2 CHA); I was chained to the Pillar of Judgement and had to avoid the pendulum of peril (+2 AC)

Equipment:
Staff (1d6), daggers (1d4), robes, inks, scrolls, pens

When it actually comes to combat, Crypts & Things offers both ascending and descending Armour Classes, though the tables provided for each type do feel somewhat clumsy. The system also offers the characters what is in effect more Hit Points. Actually Hit Points represent the capacity to withstand superficial damage, with a character losing Constitution and suffering serious wounds if he takes damage after all Hit Points have been lost. This damage makes it more difficult for a character to act and is also likely to cause a character to collapse unconscious and further, Potions of Healing and Cure spells only work on Constitution damage! Hit Points are healed through rest and strong drink!!

Crypts & Things also adds a Sanity mechanic. A character’s Sanity Points starts off equal to his Wisdom, but they can be temporarily lost for seeing terrible horrors and sights. They are also lost for casting Black Magic spells. Just like Hit Points, lost Sanity Points can be regained through rest, but critically failed Saving Throws against Sanity or Sanity Points being reduced to zero will also reduce a character’s Wisdom attribute.

Although most the spells presented in Crypts & Things are no different to those given in Swords & Wizardry, it does make a lot of thematic changes to how magic works. The first change is amalgamate the arcane and divine spell lists into one and to replace the Magic-User and the Priest with just the Magician. This is because the gods have abandoned humanity and priests are seen as charlatans. The second is that magic is divided into three types—White, Grey, and Black. White spells promote and protect life, such as Light and Protection from Evil, and are safe to cast; Grey spells involve manipulation and alteration of the natural order, like Entangle and Sleep, and inflict exhaustion or Hit Point loss upon the caster; and Black spells are destructive or contrary to nature, such as Magic Missile and Charm Person, and require either a sacrifice or personal CON loss to learn and casting them will drain the caster’s Sanity Points. Worse their casting may attract the attention the Others, the demonic inhabitants of the Shroud, the invisible energy shield that surrounds us and protects the world, which the Magician draws upon to cast Black spells. This divide between White, Grey, and Black magic nicely presents the Magician with a moral choice every time he casts a spell or goes up a Level and gains more spells. Third, Crypts & Things also removes all spells above Sixth Level and spells such as Raise Dead and Restoration as the ability to transcend permanent death goes against the subgenre.

For the Crypt Keeper there is a complete setting in the form of The Continent of Terror, an island of rudely governed city states, fallen civilisations, ancient ruins filled with horrors and secrets, weird cults and a shining star above a living volcano. Broadly sketched out, it is just one island on world of Zarth, the last refuge of humanity. The Shroud that surrounds it is cracked, allowing Magicians to enter when cast spells like Invisibility and Dimension Door, but also the Others, demonic and alien creatures that wish mankind no end of harm, to slip though... In fact, the majority of the new entries in Crypts & Things’ bestiary consist of Others, though many monsters traditional to Dungeons & Dragons, but appropriate to Crypts & Things are also included. Lastly, there is a short dungeon, ‘The Halls of Nizar-Thun’ as a sample adventure. Its title surely a nod to the highly regarded ‘ The Halls of Tizun Thane’ from White Dwarf #18, this adventure could be expanded to give more of an explanation as to its existence and to give more below the single level given here.

Rounding out Crypts & Things is a set of appendices. These cover everything from an explanation of the RPG’s salient features, crypt creation, and advice for the Crypt Keeper to discussions of the elements of the subgenre—horror, heroism, love, loss, chaos, and the weird, and lists of suggested reading and listening. Some of these sections feel a bit short and underwritten, but they do at least touch upon their subjects.

Physically, Crypts & Things feels somewhat scrappy. It feels as if there is too much white space and whilst the art is decent, it is often used over and over. It definitely needs another edit and a better organisation. Further, it feels unbalanced in places and whilst that is not necessarily a feature of the Old School Renaissance, given the modernisms that Crypts & Things employs, it would be nice to see it slightly more balanced. For example, both the Fighter and the Magician Classes could do with their own skills to balance them against those of the Barbarian and the Thief.

Nevertheless, Crypts & Things is a very likeable entry in the Old School Renaissance family. It does a great deal to effectively model its subgenre—with Classes that nicely reflect Conan, Fafhrd, the Gray Mouser, and other characters, magic that is dangerous to the caster, and sanity rules that reflect the horrors of the implied setting. It is likeable enough that it makes me want to use it to run old style adventures like ‘The Lichway’ from White Dwarf #9 and ‘The Halls of Tizun Thane’ from White Dwarf #18 and add the Houri Class from White Dwarf #13. Similarly, it makes me want to take a supplement like Realms of Crawling Chaos and add the Cthulhu Mythos to Crypts & Things. Overall, Crypts & Things: A Swords & Sorcery Roleplaying Game takes a classic inspiration for Dungeons & Dragons and develops it into an engaging Old School treatment of the Swords & Sorcery subgenre.

-oOo-

The good news is that a new version of Crypts & Things is forthcoming. Funded through Kickstarter,  the Remastered Crypts & Things adds new spells, magic, Classes, monsters, fiends, nemeses, setting material, adventures, and more. This has yet to be released, but will hopefully make the improvements that the first edition of the game requires.