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

Saturday, 24 April 2010

Long Before Liberty

With Northern Crown, Atlas Games returns to the world first portrayed in 2003's well received treatment of African adventures, Nyambe. Published in 2005, the focus of this d20 System setting though is not upon the Dark Continent and how the Europeans or Uropeans interact with, and impact upon her inhabitants, but rather it takes them both across the Great Western Sea to the rich, verdant continent of Northern Crown in the late 17th century. A myriad of cultures have settled on her shores and established colonies and even new nations, some in exile, some to trade, some to spread the good word, and some for the prestige it brings the home nation. And whilst they retain all of the rivalries brought from the East, the Uropeans must also interact with the many nations and tribes of the First Ones, the true natives of Northern Crown.

Consisting of two volumes – Northern Crown Adventures: New World Adventures, the equivalent of its Player's Handbook and the Northern Crown: The Gazetteer, the setting and source book, Northern Crown presents a fantasy version of Colonial era North America, heavily influenced by the period's history, legends, myths, and folk tales, and all given the slight twist of alternate history. Thus Charles I escaped the chopping block to maintain the English crown in Carolingia, his son Charles II still reigns, whilst Gloriana, the half-Fey daughter of Elizabeth I took the throne of Albion following the fall of Richard Cromwell. Vinlanders, descendants of Norsk settlers, still raid along the coast of Northern Crown as Puritans in Boston uphold the Dissenter faith against the Witches enclave of Naumkeag. The Kelts find refuge on the frontiers to the West, as the Cimarron, descendents of slaves bought over from Nyambe campaign to stamp the practice of human servitude. Vampires are said to influence the affairs of the Français colony of Nouvelle Orleans, whilst the state of Sophia under First Lord of the Republic, Philathelias Jefferson, is dedicated to freedom from absolute monarchism, the rights of man, and the pursuit of the sciences of Natural Philosphie. Beyond the frontier in the West exit the great and varied nations of the First Ones, primarily the Cherokee, the Mohawk, the Ojibwa, and the Shawnee, who live in harmony with the land and try to protect it from the expansionist predations of the Uropans, even as they trade with the new comers.

In addition, living legends walk the lands of Northern Crown – Johnny Appleseed is a powerful Sower, planting trees, healing, and preaching; Paul Bunyon is a mighty lumberjack, loathed by the first ones for the forests he has felled; and Chiron Franklyn, Lord Magus of Sophia, is diplomat, natural philosopher, and leading figure in the Solomonic Order. There are opportunities aplenty for the player characters to meet these mighty men and others, but in the long term they might well come to rival them in stature and attainment. The new lands are rife with adventure possibilities: exploration – discover the Northwest Passage, King Arthur’s final rest place, or the Fountain of Youth; go to war for the crown, faith, or frontier; face the supernatural, either to understand it, or to stamp it out; or enter into intrigues, at kingly courts, between rival nations, or between the many cults, orders, or secret societies found in Northern Crown.

Northern Crown is a human centric setting, but with a host of classes and character options. What this means is that instead of races, Northern Crown has Cultures, each one representing one of the peoples living on the Eastern half of the continent. Each Culture is described in detail, including an explanation why someone of that background would become an adventurer, along with which classes are favored. Not only does each Culture give bonuses in terms of skills and feats, additional bonuses come from selecting one of the favored classes, and these are different from one Culture to the next. The range of Cultures available present a wide choice and take in centuries of early American history, from Viking settlers and the Dutch merchants of New Amsterdam, through the Puritans and the Salem Witch Trials, to post-Revolutionary War United States of America. All this and that is before you take into account the presence of the American Natives.

In terms of classes, Northern Crown keeps most of the core classes, though with a few minor changes. The role played by each class in Northern Crown is nicely explained. Gone though, are the Barbarian, the Fighter, the Monk, and the Rogue. They are replaced by the spy-like Agent, the Raider, a warrior at home fighting either in the forests, mountains, or at sea, and the obvious Rake, Scout, and Soldier. Of particular note are two classes, the first being Natural Philosopher, a delver into the laws of nature whose scientific learning and method grants him the ability to build fantastic devices, duplicate the effects of spell casters from the past age, and even counter such effects. A Natural Philosopher studies degrees in Anti-Magic, Life and Death, Magnetism, Matter, and Mentalism to gain these abilities and build the devices. Rules are given for creating inventions with the long list found in the Gazetteer including the flying Aerostatic Ship, Automaton Horses, Servants, and Soldiers, the Dupligraphic Pen for perfect copying, and the Lazarus Box, capable of restoring life to a corpse. The other is the Witch, who though not necessarily evil, is an arcane spell caster who gains her spells through a constant companion, a Lawful Evil Imp. He will do the witch’s bidding much of the time, but will tempt her to commit evil acts, so is an NPC controlled by the GM.

Likewise, many of the core Prestige Classes are retained, with Northern Crown adding more. Several model the setting’s Living Legends, including the Firebrand, the living symbol of a noble cause, the Frontier Legend, the Sower, the Tall Tale Hero, who is of great stature and capable of mighty feats, and the Wild Brawler. Others include the Falstaff, who personifies bad behavior, indulgence, and disrespect to anything honorable, the Fencing Master, the Officer, and the Sea Captain.

The most notable addition for any character will be his Social Rank. Initially determined randomly by culture and class, this is a measure of how NPCs will react to a character and how in turn, he should respond. Although a character will rise by one Social Rank per level gained, in Uropan Culture he will be unable to rise beyond a certain level without gaining a knighthood. A First One character has a greater degree of social mobility, and although he can rise higher, beyond that, he must marry into royalty. The basics of both Uropan and First One daily life are well-explained, also covering attitudes and religions. Besides all this, Northern Crown: New World Adventures lists and explains the setting's arms and equipment, feats, skills, combat, and spells. One curious addition is that of Psionic Knacks, limited to a trio of minor powers – Evil Eye, Firebug, and Second Sight. All three are Feat rather than class based, and allow a character to have abilities in-keeping with the feel of the setting, but without the need for them to take a spell casting class. Perhaps a little too powerful, they might be best kept for NPC use.

The sample character is a Witch of mixed parentage, who grew up amongst the Shawnee people of her mother. When she left to find her Keltic father, his family rejected her and she fled to the witch haven of Naumkeag. They have accepted and trained her as a Witch and now she serves the Coven. She is known for her healing hands and her beguiling looks that begin with her green eyes.

Hesther Argent (Wabethe), 1st Level Witch
Culture: Witchling Social Rank: 17
Str 15 Dex 11 Con 15 Int 12 Wis 17 Chr 16
Armour Class: 10 HP: 6 Alignment: Lawful Neutral
Feats: Second Sight, Two Worlds (Shawnee)
Skills: Concentration +4, Craft (Tailor) +2, Disguise +4, Heal +6, Hide +1, Knowledge (Nature) +2, Move Silently +1, Sense Motive +7, Spellcraft +5, Survival +4
Languages: English, Keltic, Shawnee
Special Abilities: Summon Imp, Black Garb (+1 AC), +2 Saves versus Fear; Low Light Vision (60 feet), Unholy Senses (+1 Sense Motive); Healing Hands (+2 Heal), Pawawka, Wildshield, Wildborn (+1 Survival)
Spells: 0-Level – detect magic, detect poison, read magic; 1st Level – bless, charm person
Favoured Weapons: Dagger (+1), Longbow (+1)

As good as Northern Crown: New World Adventures is, it really needs a companion volume to fully work. Northern Crown: Gazetteer is that volume, primarily a background sourcebook that describes each of the colonies and their notable locations, as well as discussing reasons to adventure, giving a full set of encounter and treasure tables, and monsters to go with the tables. Although plenty of core monsters are appropriate to Northern Crown, the new creatures have either an American flavor, like the Headless Rider or Lanternjack, or a native one, such as the Misig'nwa, a bear-like spirit that ensures the forests are hunted correctly. There is also a guide to magical items and inventions found in Northern Crown, and her most notable figures, but primarily, the Gazetteer is devoted to describing the state of the New World in more detail, and this it does well.

Physically, both books are slim hardbacks written in an engaging fashion, but what really stand out are the illustrations and the cartography. Done wholly by the author, Doug Anderson, both feel a little rough at first, but they grow upon you and only add to the feel of the game. Both books include the same bibliography, which whilst useful, is a little dry.

If there is a downside to Northern Crown, it is the price and format – two not inexpensive books. That though, is the only downside. If you consider its use of the d20 System to be a second downside, then to be blunt, you are wrong. What matters is the setting, which achieves several things. First, it employs the familiarity of both fantasy and history to make the unfamiliar both accessible and playable – the familiarity of Dungeons & Dragons, some Colonial American history, and its myths being used as gateway to explore the worlds and cultures of the Native Americans most obviously, but also the less well known aspects of the many colonies. Second it provides scope for a GM to run no two games alike within its near continental expanse, perhaps one focusing on the First Ones, another on the Uropans, and yet a third of mixed characters, and that is before you get to the actual options it discusses. Third it presents a setting between two ages: at the end of the medievalism represented by classic Dungeons & Dragons, and on the cusp of the age of reason, best represented here by the Natural Philosopher.

The most obvious thing that Northern Crown does is open up (and make accessible to the non-American) a period of history that has for the most part, has been wholly ignored by the hobby. Moreover, as a setting, Northern Crown: New World Adventures is rich, verdant, and full of gaming and roleplaying potential. It just begs to be played.

Look at the Pretty Camels

Originally published in 1998, Reiner Knizia’s Through the Desert: A Game of Caravans and Desert Oases has recently been reprinted by Fantasy Flight Games. This is tile placing, route building, area control game, with the tiles being camels instead of camels. Designed for two to five players aged ten and up, it can be played within about thirty minutes. Its theme has nomadic tribes competing to become the most powerful in the desert by taking control of oases and establishing long caravan routes. In the game this is done by placing not just camels, but pretty camels in pastel colours.

The game consists of a board marked with a hex grid over a desert dotted with water holes and palm trees. Along the edges are several mountain ranges, with an additional impenetrable range in the middle of the board. One side of the board is marked with a bold line which marks the limit of the two to three player game. In a four or five player game, the whole of the board is used. There are also one hundred and seventy five plastic camels, comprised of thirty four camels in each of the five colours (lilac, mint, pale lemon, pastel green, and salmon pink), plus five in grey – though these look more brown than grey. For each player there is a set of six Riders (blue, cerise, green, orange, and red) that sit easily on the camels. In addition, there are five palm tree is dark green plastic. These come in two pieces and are easily assembled.

The other components consist of the Water Hole Markers, worth either one, two, or three points; Oasis Scoring Markers, worth five points and awarded whenever a caravan reaches an oasis; the Area Scoring Markers, awarded for the number of hexes enclosed by a caravan; and the Caravan Scoring Markers, awarded for the longest caravans in each colour, worth either ten points for the longest, or five points if there is a tie.

Game set up is relatively quick and simple. The palm trees are placed on any of the palm tree or oasis hexes – there being more than five palm tree hexes, and the Water Hole Markers are placed randomly on the water hole hexes face down. They are then turned over and their values revealed. Each player receives one camel of each colour, including a grey one, and places a Rider onto each of these to turn them into his Caravan Leaders. The grey Camel Leader is not played in the game, and only serves to remind the player of the colour of his Camel Leaders.  The players then take it in turns to place their Caravan Leaders anywhere on the board so long as they are not placed on a water hole or next to another Caravan Leader or a palm tree. Play then proceeds normally.

On his turn, player places two camels – these can be of any colour, the same or different – on the board. Each camel must be placed adjacent to a camel of the same that is connected to the Caravan Leader of your colour. It cannot be placed next to a caravan of the same colour which connected to a Caravan Leader of a different colour that belongs to another player. For example, Louise could put down a lilac camel next to her lilac caravan that is being led by one of her cerise Caravan Leaders, but not next to Dave’s lilac caravan which is being led by one of his orange Leaders. Keeping caravans separate in this way serves to make scoring easier for each caravan and it adds a tactical element in placing – it is possible to block another caravan of the same colour because it can only come within one hex of it.

When placing camels, a player will score points for most of the time. If he places a camel on a water hole, the player receives its Water Hole Token and adds its value to his score. If he places a camel next to an oasis – indicated by the presence of a palm tree – the player receives five points. This can only be done once per caravan per oasis, so a player will have to send that caravan to another oasis if he wants to score more points with it, or one of his other caravans to the first oasis to score points by reaching that one. In general, a player will try to reach as many oases as possible with each of his caravans, but will find himself blocked by caravans belonging to the other players.

Lastly, a player can score points by enclosing an entire area with a caravan of a single colour, claiming the points for any unclaimed Water Hole Markers and oases inside the enclosed area. He will also be awarded points for the enclosed area at the end of the game, at a rate of a single point per hex enclosed.

Game play continues until the players run out of camels to place of a single colour. Each player adds up his score so far and adds to this the points for any enclosed areas that he has created and if he has managed to create the longest caravan for any of the caravan colours, he receives points for that too. It is possible to tie for the longest caravan in a colour, in which case the points are split. The player with the highest score is of course, the winner.

Through the Desert is a simple game to play. You just put down two camels per turn. Where you put them though, is where the game gets interesting. There are multiple means of scoring of course, so as a player do you try and grab as many Water Hole Markers as possible, reach as many oases as possible, build the longest caravans, or enclose as much territory as you can? Invariably, you will try and do all of these, but there is usually never enough time, enough space, or enough camels. Game play tends to consist of two phases. In the first, players try and connect to as many water holes and oases as possible, preventing in the process other players from doing so. In the second phase, the game becomes more complex as each player builds longer caravans, tries to reach more distant oases, and enclose whole areas. At the same time, he should also be watching his fellow players looking for opportunities to block their caravans, so preventing them from reaching other oases and water holes as well as reducing the area that they can enclose. With so many options available a player has to make choices, sometimes to his benefit, other times to a rival’s detriment, and this really does force a player to think about he is going to put his camels.

Physically, Through the Desert is well presented, but then you would expect nothing less of a game from Fantasy Flight Games. Its rules are very clear and easy to read, being just four pages long. Unlike earlier editions, only the English rules are included. The game is also rather attractive and looks good when being played. That though, is all down to the pretty little camels.

Through the Desert has three main problems. The first is one of cost. This is an expensive game for what it is, and this is only exacerbated in regions where games are subject to tax (which includes the United Kingdom).  The other two problems have to do with the components. The first of these is that with as many components as Through the Desert has, it does not come with any means of storing everything separately. This is a constant issue with products from Fantasy Flight Games and given just how much the customer is being asked to pay for this game, it seems a little rich not to include some decent ziplock bags. The second issue with the components is the choice of colours for the camels. In particular, the mint and pastel green camels are not always the easiest to tell apart and a better choice of colours would have made play just that little easier.

In the past I had read reviews of this game and scratched my head at how exactly it was played, but Dave – whose copy I am reviewing, thank you very much – quickly ran us through the rules. So having played it, I have found myself enjoying it very much. How to play proved easy to grasp and we were busy blocking each other on the second game, with everyone’s score being quite tight at game’s end despite our not knowing how well the other players were doing. We went from draw between myself and Dave in the first game to both myself and Louise beating Dave in the second game which I won, but only just. This is a game that I would appreciate having on the shelf ready to play.

Through the Desert is not quite a gateway game, a game that you use to introduce others to the hobby. In part this is because it is ever so slightly more abstract than other games that are described as being gateway games, such as Carcassonne or Ticket to Ride, but also because perhaps its theme is not quite as strong as it should be and because it is just slightly too easy for one player to block another, making game play ever so frustrating for the neophyte. So perhaps it best to introduce this game after other gateway games have been tried and enjoyed. Probably a little overpriced, Reiner Knizia’s Through the Desert: A Game of Caravans and Desert Oases is nevertheless a game that manages to be both pretty and thoughtful, and not just enjoyable.

Saturday, 17 April 2010

It's a Girly Game

What are the boundaries when it comes to roleplaying? Is there anything that you consider as going too far and just will not play? It is very much a given that the one role that most gamers will not play is that of a Nazi – though John Wick has crossed that line with Curse of the Yellow Sign, Act I: Digging for a Dead God,a one-shot for Call of Cthulhu. Then again, for most gamers who we can safely assume to be male, playing a female character is a step too far. Which is going to be something of an issue for Hellcats and Hockeysticks: A Role-Playing Game of chaos, anarchy, and unladylike behaviour. What the title of this small press release from Corone Design hints at, is that this is an RPG in which the players are not only required to engage in some crossgender roleplay, but in which they are required to play schoolgirls. Which when combined with the fact that the inspiration for this game is the St. Trinian’s cartoons and film series, the result is an RPG that is danger of tripping over into prurience. The good news is that Hellcats and Hockeysticks does not go as far as that, but it does skirt the issue...

The setting for Hellcats and Hockeysticks is not the infamous St. Trinian’s, but at St. Erisian’s, a similar girls only educational establishment with an unorthodox approach to both learning and discipline. As long as the girls impose some semblance of self-discipline and a much stronger sense of self-education with the staff there to guide and inspire rather than to teach and to impose discipline, then each pupil is free to pursue whatever line of study that she wishes, whether that be Explosives: from Chemicals to Demolition, Advanced Statistical Analysis of the Sport of Kings, or Combined English/Ninjitsu Studies (Exchange Students Only). Just do not expect your daughter to receive anything in the way of recognised qualifications when she leaves school, just a strong sense of independence. The result is a school in which the younger girls run wild in tribes almost at the direction of the older girls, and the older girls each alter their uniforms to best, not to say risqué, effect, and get involved in all sorts of schemes, pranks, and capers.

Any school is full of Cliques large and small, and this is the starting point for a character in Hellcats and Hockeysticks. These are Coquette, Emo/Goth, Exchange Student, Fixer, Hockey Girl, Nerd/Geek, Prefect, Scientist, and Sweetheart. Each Clique provides a Special Ability, such as “Butter wouldn’t melt” for the Sweetheart and “Family Jutsu” for the Exchange Student, along with five points to assign to a set of Clique skills. A further fifteen points can be assigned to any skills, including those listed under a character’s Clique skills. Skills are rated between one and five.

Each girl starts with ten points of Willpower, and while a Personality Trait is optional, choosing a Best Friend and a Rival is not. These must be chosen from amongst the player characters – which together form their own sub-clique, and the particular relationship need not be reciprocated. A girl also has to describe why she loathes her Rival and why she likes her Best Friend. This establishment of relationships within the mini-clique comes from another RPG – with acknowledgement – the Panty Explosion RPG from Atarashi Games, which covers the same genre, but with an emphasis upon horror rather than humour. The last thing that a girl needs to do is describe her Secret Fear and decide on her name, though this is has probably already been done. Here is a sample character:

Clique: Goth/Emo Special Ability: Visage of Terror
Trait: Bookish Fear: Arachnophobia
Best Friend: Jess Rival: Emma
Skills: Art 4, Craft, Design and Technology 3, Economics 3, English 2, Games (Track and Field) 1, Home Economics 1, Observation 3, Religious Studies 2, Music 2
Willpower: 10

Hellcats and Hockeysticks only uses six-sided dice. No matter what the task, a schoolgirl always has one base die to roll against a task, with the difficulty for Easy tasks being four, five for Tricky, six for Hard, seven for Absurd, and eight for Impossible. If she has an appropriate skill, a girl can add more dice to the base die, creating a dice pool. For most tasks, a girl will need just a single success, but for opposed tasks, such as those rolled in combat, multiple successes will be required. Of course, success rolls of seven and eight on six-sided dice are unattainable, but if they are needed, a girl can trade in three dice to gain a +1 bonus or six dice for a +2 bonus. If more dice are needed, then Willpower can be traded in to add more dice to the pool, up to a total of three dice.

Combat uses the same mechanics, with Games (Team Sports) and Games (Marksmanship) being the most frequently used skills. One interesting optional rule allows a schoolgirl to increase the size of her dice pool by suggesting or bidding bonuses for her situation or her means of entering the fray and conversely, for the Headmistress to suggest or bid against her, so reducing her dice pool. Either way, combat is resolved as a series of opposed rolls with damage suffered in terms of a schoolgirl being Slapped, Battered, or Trashed. In other words, whatever the cause of the damage – and several types are discussed, it is very difficult for a girl to be killed, though not utterly impossible.

The other form of combat in Hellcats and Hockeysticks is social, and usually revolves around the control or leadership of the little clique that a schoolgirl and her friends – that is, the player characters – are in. The aim of such combat is to either gain control of the sub-clique or to exclude another schoolgirl from the clique and if battle ensues, it comes down to a battle of wills between the two opponents that can also draw in the other members of the clique. The losers of any such battles must not only apologise to the winner, but will often have to perform a forfeit – decided by the winner – if they want to remain in the group. For the winner, there is not only the sweet taste of victory and the aforementioned setting of forfeits to savour, but she also gains a permanent increase in her Willpower! Her supporters gain a point of Willpower rather than a permanent increase in the rating.

It is obvious that the economy underpinning Hellcats and Hockeysticks is fuelled by Willpower, which raises one or two issues. The primary one is that it is easier to lose Willpower – from spending on skills and challenges and from being Battered or Trashed in combat – than it is to gain it. Then again, it needs to be spent if the schoolgirls of St. Erisian’s are to defeat their foes, not necessarily through combat, but by carrying out schemes and plans that will defeat said foes by reducing their Willpower. The given means of gaining Willpower include resting between adventures, but only a single point is gained this way; succeeding, though this requires another dice roll, which seems laborious; by being consoled by your friends; from schadenfreude, or from seeing others fail; and in an emergency, by a girl galvanising herself when she is in the tightest of spots, which requires another die roll, though a more understandable one. A more secondary issue is that while there is a way for a pupil to increase her Willpower permanently, there seems no way in which she can suffer a permanent loss.

Despite the fact that the relationship between the Headmistress and her pupils is meant to be adversarial – whether in the optional rule of bidding against her pupils in combat as described above or in openly questioning how a girl did today when it comes to determining experience  (“Now what have you learned from all this young lady?”) – if I was to run a game of Hellcats and Hockeysticks, then I would be more generous with the handing out of Willpower, rewarding good play and good ideas on the spot. What direct advice there is for the Headmistress on running the game devotes itself to the tone of her game, essentially how bizarre or weird the school, that is, whether or not it includes weird science or magic. Both of these elements are supported with rules for weird science, magic, potions, necromancy, and demonology, enabling the Headmistress to run the sort of girls’ school of magic that Hermione Granger would never have imagined going to.

St. Erisian’s is itself described in some detail, including its staff plus nearby locations and a pair of rival schools, and while the possibility of playing Hellcats and Hockeysticks as a sort of “anti-Hogwarts” is hinted at, it is not one of the alternative settings discussed. They include resetting the game in an all boys’ school, in other countries, and even reformatting it to the fashion or beauty world – perfect for those gamers who want to play out their own version of X’s Next Model or Miss Congeniality. Besides a quick scenario generator and several adventure seeds, Hellcats and Hockeysticks comes with its own scenario, “Annabel’s Gold – A short adventure,” that has various groups rushing to locate some stolen bullion. The scenario nicely captures the frantic nature of the films that are the game’s inspiration, and which are listed in its comprehensive bibliography which covers film, books, manga, and other RPGs.

Physically, Hellcats and Hockeysticks is decently presented with excellent artwork and when not dealing with the rules, the author nicely captures the voice of Alistair Sim as the Headmistress in the original St. Trinian’s films. One amusing touch is the inclusion of inspirational anecdotes from real girls that add just a little touch of verisimilitude to the game. If the game is lacking, it is in terms of advice for the Headmistress beyond that of tone. It could certainly have done with advice on running a longer game since the term structure of a school year lends itself to that.

What Hellcats and Hockeysticks does very well though, is capture the flavour and feel of its genre and inspiration. This shows in the in-game voice of the Headmistress, the different cliques – though these have a more modern sensibility than the schoolgirls of the St. Trinian’s films of the 1950s, and in the emphasis upon the girls pulling off schemes, plans, and capers. That modern sensibility is also evident in the author’s decision to include options beyond the basics of an unruly girls’ school, and while the inclusion of rules for weird science, magic, potions, demonology, and necromancy can be seen as just trappings, they do add flavour, they can spur adventure ideas, and they might serve to attract players who have no interest in playing a game involving schoolgirls without the inclusion of another genre.

Ultimately, attracting players to this game is going to be its biggest problem, as Hellcats and Hockeysticks is a game of playing girls, written with girls in mind, but released into a market that is dominated by men. There is no way around this, but for one exception. Gentlemen, put your preconceptions aside and be prepared to cross this self imposed boundary – cross gender roleplaying in tabletop gaming is no different from playing a Dwarf or a Wookie. The point is, Hellcats and Hockeysticks is a game in which the player characters – all girls – can be as strong as any other, as clever as any other, and as scheming – though the game does emphasis this – as any other.

If you can overcome your preconceptions, then Hellcats and Hockeysticks: A Role-Playing Game of chaos, anarchy, and unladylike behaviour might just prove that playing both its genre and thus a schoolgirl can be fun.

Friday, 9 April 2010

Unlucky Kobold #13

The passing of Dungeon and Dragon magazines as artefacts to buy at your local news agents or from your local gaming store has left a big hole on their shelves. At least as far as us gamers are concerned, for while it has been nearly decade since we have had a general hobby magazine available to the public at large, we can still at least buy a regular magazine devoted to Dungeons & Dragons. It may not be monthly, it may not be available at your local news agents, but it comes out four times a year, it is in full colour, it is available direct in print or PDF format, or at your local games store. Kobold Quarterly is not just devoted to Dungeons & Dragons, describing itself as it does as being “The Switzerland of the Edition Wars” (so why I have to ask, did my latest copy not come with excellent chocolate, a cuckoo clock, and a secretive banking service run by the Gnomes in Zurich?) and being devoted to all of the currently available major variations upon that game. Which in the latest issue includes the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game and Dungeons & Dragons Fourth Edition, but that is not all, oh no... I shall come to that though.

Once past the cover of Kobold Quarterly #13 – said cover not being the most enticing affair, though not necessarily bad – and what strikes you about this latest issue and many other issues is how much the magazine apes the style and layout of Dragon magazine in decades past. This is no bad thing, nor a criticism. Simple black text on white pages makes everything easy to read with the use of colour primarily confined either to the adverts – and you know what is so great about magazine adverts? They force the advertisers to work to sell you their products, to tell you how good their latest book is, to make you want them, and boy do they work. At least enough for this reader to go and check out some of the products advertised herein. Colour is also used in some of the feature articles for particular pieces of artwork and to good effect. A nice touch is the use of small icons to indicate the game system that any one article is intended for. Barring an odd error here and there, the magazine itself is well written, and overall in physical terms, this is a pleasingly unfussy magazine.

For fans of the Cthulhu Mythos, Kobold Quarterly #13 provides two articles. The first is Phillip Larwood’s “Ecology of the Shoggoth” for the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game. It ties the malleable monstrosities – as detailed in the Pathfinder Bestiary – in with the same origins as other Oozes and with the history of the Aboleth and so in with Sunken Empires, a forthcoming supplement for the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game that deals with the aquatic world. Besides describing the Shoggoth’s maddening mentality, plastic physiology, and vast vocal range, it gives variants of the primordial creature, new abilities, discusses cults devoted to them – an excellent basis for a mini campaign there, and suggests what an adventurer might know about them. Which is not very much... This develops a great creature very nicely, laying the groundwork for it to become a suitable threat for campaign set in the dark below.

The second article, “Lovecraftian Gods” is by Aeryn Rudel and complements his Dungeons & Dragons Fourth Edition supplement, Critter Cache 6: Lovecraftian Bestiary from Goodman Games. It details three gods in particular, not in terms of numbers as once was fashionable in Deities & Demigods, but in terms of how each can be used in a game, specifically each god’s role, his basic teachings, how each is worshipped, and various abilities granted to the most ardent and highly favoured of said worshippers. The three entities in question are Azathoth, Nyarlathotep, and Yog-Sothoth, the first and the latter linked via Nyarlathotep. The pleasure of both these articles is not just seeing entities of the Cthulhu Mythos outside of the 1920s – wherein we are so used to encountering them, but also in that they highlight the flexibility of the Cthulhu Mythos and its various entities.

For the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game Dave Mallon offers us “The Arquebusier,” a new twenty level base class. Essentially this a Fighter variant that specialises in the use of early black powder firearms such as the hand-cannon, the musket, and the blunderbuss, all the way up to the rifle. Not only that, but the Arquebusier is also capable of crafting his own firearms and his own ammunition, with the class abilities balanced between being able to make better and better shots and being able to make better and better ammunition. So for example, at second level he gains Called Shot (minus four to hit, but grants an additional six-sided die’s worth of damage) and at twentieth level, Deadly Shot (critical shots kill the target unless a Fortitude save is made), whereas he can create Enhanced Ammunition at third level (ammunition is of Masterwork quality and gains a bonus to hit) and Seeking Ammunition at ninth (it gains the seeking quality – how reminiscent of the Hunter from World of Warcraft!). The class is accompanied with notes on using firearms, a list of firearms, notes on how the class is balanced versus a bow wielding Fighter, and descriptions of how it fits into the worlds of Golarion (the default setting for the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game) and Zobeck (Open Design LLC’s house world). The class looks like it would be fun to play as it manages to provide a fantastic version of a gun wielding Fighter, but without overpowering the use of the gun to the detriment of a Fighter or Ranger using a bow. One thing that the class description fails to do is explain how an Arquebusier is meant to afford his first gun – even the cheapest blunderbuss is 200GP!

Author and head of Green Ronin Publishing Chris Pramas makes two appearances in this issue. The first is as an interviewee, but the second is an author himself, contributing a set of Backgrounds for the publisher’s highly popular Freeport setting using the Age: Adventure Game Engine. This is the same set of mechanics as used in Dragon Age – Dark Fantasy Roleplaying, so opens up the possibility of running a game in Green Ronin’s not only piratical but Lovecraftian setting using those rules. The nine new Backgrounds will be familiar to anyone who knows the Freeport setting or has seen any of the Companion volumes for it, including Dwarf Tradesman, Gnome Artisan, and Orc Raider. Most of them would also find a place in a standard fantasy world if the GM wanted to run that world using the Age: Adventure Game Engine, but some would also find their back into the world described in Dragon Age itself. Here I am thinking of the Dwarf Tradesman, the Human Burgher and the Human Mariner. This I hope will be the first of many articles, because while the magic described in Dragon Age needs a little effort to work in Freeport, the slightly cinematic nature of the game’s mechanics fit easily with Freeport’s swashbuckling feel.

The issue is rounded out with a short scenario, “The Wreck of the Goodwife.” Written by Jonathan McAnulty with Brandon Hodge and designed for sixth level characters, it as much an adventure as it is a piece of advertising for Sunken Empires. In the adventure the heroes are hired to salvage a wreck, but find themselves in competition with the widow of the man who captained the sunken ship. It comes with various magical items of a nautical and sub-nautical nature, plus a new monster. It is more of extended encounter, but fulfils in part, Kobold Quarterly’s need for more scenarios.

All magazines come with their own regular features, and Kobold Quarterly is no exception. It has of course an editorial, a letters page – “From the Mines” (where else would you find a Kobold?), a Book Reviews section, while in “Free City of Zobeck” editor Wolfgang Bauer deals with another aspect of Zobeck (Open Design LLC’s house world), specifically what lies to the East of the Free City. Several other articles look like regular features, but since they vary from issue to issue, I will deal with those on a case by case basis. Matthew Hanson’s Encounter Design is “Alternative Objectives: Capture the Flag,” which turns the “capture the flag” multi-player games seen in first person shooter computer games into an encounter for Dungeons & Dragons Fourth Edition, enforcing the need for the player characters to keep moving, but not make it easy for them to get away. It comes with a sample encounter for eighth level, in which the heroes need to enter a crypt and recover the Shadow Orb. With “The Thrill of the Unknown” for Games Theories, Monte Cook explores how a book or film can leave something unknown, whereas an RPG demands that everything be defined, a subject rather in keeping with the magazine’s earlier exploratory dabbling in the Cthulhu Mythos.

For “Better Gameplay” Mario Podeschi offers the reader “The Heart of a Hero: A Guide to Sex and Romantic Subplots in Fantasy Adventure Gaming.” While many gaming groups ignore this subject, even for those that add elements of romance to their campaigns, it can still be a thorny issue. The article takes the GM through the delicate process of adding a romantic subplot to his game and then how to present it dramatically as part of the game. It is written with most fantasy RPGs in mind unlike “Scions of Shadow” by Maurice de Mare. For the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game it gives us a short description of shadow magic and those that attempt to control it, including the Shadow Bloodline for Sorcerers and the School of Shadow for Wizards. This adds a nice variation to those already available in the core book. One last pleasing article is “Destined Weapons” by Hank Woon. Written for Dungeons & Dragons Fourth Edition, it allows a character – with the selection of the Destined Weapon Feat – to own and wield a weapon that he can infuse his spirit into. In essence, a character has to wield the weapon effectively before he takes this Feat and so gain the Destiny Points with which to design the weapon’s special abilities. For example, Munga the Orc’s axe was given to him by his mother and after inflicting much hacking and hacking, including ten confirmed critical hits, twenty five Cleave attempts, and twenty strikes against foes with attacks of opportunity, the axe, now known as “Mother’s Teeth” gains the powers of Keen, Mighty Cleaving, and Vicious. The rules feel a little clumsy, but they do allow a player to create and own a weapon of his design for his character and in a manner much simpler and infinitely less expensive than going to a Wizard for it.

With roughly thirteen or articles in the pages of Kobold Quarterly #13 that have some direct application to gaming, there has to be at least one of them that will find a use in a DM or GM’s game, whether that be Dungeons & Dragons Fourth Edition or the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game. The likelihood is that more than one of them will do so, and as for the rest, they are at least readable, interesting, and potential nudges for the GM’s own imagination. If I have a grumble about this issue or any issue, it is that (a) it would be nice have a fuller scenario in each issue, and (b) its price is not given in sterling as opposed to the dollar, the Canadian dollar, and the Euro (it cannot be an exchange rate issue, otherwise why include the price in Euros?). Grumbles aside, Kobold Quarterly #13 represents good value for money, primarily for Dungeons & Dragons, but also for this issue, for fans of the Lovecraftian. As ever, Kobold Quarterly #13 maintains it reputation for high quality, high imagination, high application articles for your favourite fantasy RPG.

A Century For Your Family

If you are gamer the likelihood is that you have more than a few gaming books on your shelf. The likelihood is that you will have few books if any about gaming itself on your shelf. There are any number of good reasons for this, but it can be put down to the fact that few such books have been written and to the other fact that most gamers prefer to buy a book about or for their favourite RPG rather than some generic book about various games or gaming in general. I do not fall under the category of “most gamers” in that I have more than a few gaming books on my shelves and elsewhere – in fact I have hundreds. I also have a few books about gaming itself on my shelves – there not being enough to occupy more than the single, quite small shelf – and most of them have been enjoyable reads and some of them have been useful. So I do have copies of Fantasy Roleplaying Games by Doctor J. Eric Holmes and Ian Livingstone’s Dicing with Dragons as well as Heroic Worlds: A History and Guide to Role-Playing Games by Lawrence Schick and Will Hindmarch and Jeff Tidball’s Things We Think About Games. Each in their own way is a product of their times, but still a good book nevertheless. The latest addition to limited selection is Family Games: The 100 Best from Green Ronin Publishing.

As the title suggests, Family Games: The 100 Best is sequel to the Origins Award winning Hobby Games: The 100 Best, a collection of essays in which the hobby’s crème de la crème – designers, authors, and publishers had the chance to write about the games that they liked, the games that they thought to be clever, and the games that inspired them. The games discussed included RPGs, CCGs, miniatures, wargames, and board games, with contributions from luminaries such as Gary Gygax, Ian Livingstone and Steve Jackson, Monte Cook, Greg Costikyan, Marc W. Miller, Alan R. Moon, Sandy Petersen, Greg Stafford, and Martin Wallace amongst many, many others.

Family Games: The 100 Best does exactly the same with many of the authors returning, except that whereas Hobby Games: The 100 Best only delved back fifty years into the history of our hobby – back to the start of our hobby with games such as Gettysburg and Diplomacy, both from Avalon Hill and both dating from the late 1950s – the new volume goes back almost another sixty years to discuss some of the earliest commercially available board games on a widespread basis. Thus we start chronologically with John Wick writing about Pit, released in 1904 by Parker Brothers, before going over many of the great games that have figured in the contributors and readers’ childhoods and beyond to come right up to date with Rob Heinsoo’s contribution about Small World, published by Days of Wonder in 2009. In between appear short essays about a further ninety-eight games, bringing the total to one hundred, though a whole lot more are discussed if you take into account the foreword by Mike Gray (designer of Fortress America and Shogun); the introduction by the book’s editor, James Lowder; Wil Wheaton’s Afterword; and the two appendices. All of the entries though, describe games that can be played and enjoyed by children, by the family, and by non-gamers without the need to memorise lengthy books of rules, without the need to analyse every move in detail, and without too outré a theme.

The same format as Hobby Games: The 100 Best is retained for Family Games: The 100 Best though. Arranged in alphabetical order, each entry is comprised of its name, designer, publisher and year of publication, plus its suggested number of players and age range, followed by the essay itself before ending with a short biography of the essay’s author. Each essay itself includes the background and history for each game, a description of how it is played, suggests some tactics, and gives a chance for each writer to tell you why he thinks his choice of game is worthy of its inclusion here. Rather than tell you in laborious detail what exactly is in Family Games: The 100 Best, I can show you. Or rather Matthew Tarbit can.

What is readily apparent about the selection given in Family Games: The 100 Best is that it is much broader in scope than was Hobby Games: The 100 Best. As its title suggests the majority of its entries are written with the family in mind rather the hobbyist gamer, which means fewer Euro style games and even fewer RPGs. In fact, only three RPGs make an appearance – John Wick’s Cat, Green Ronin Publishing/Firefly Games’ Faery’s Tale Deluxe, and Chaosium, Inc.’s Prince Valiant. All three are very light, and can easily be run with or for older children, hence their inclusion.

The selection is also more American. Titles such as Candy Land, Fortress America, and Game of Life (all three from Milton Bradley), plus the Stat-O-Matic Game Company’s Stat-O-Matic Baseball all point to that. Many children’s classics are included too, such as Battleship (Milton Bradley), the aforementioned Candy Land, Connect Four (Milton Bradley), Mouse Trap (Ideal), Sorry! (Parker Brothers), and Uno (Uno Games/International Games), as are some very traditional classic family games like Clue(do) (Parker Brothers), Monopoly (Parker Brothers), Scrabble (Selchow & Righter), and Yahtzee (E. S. Lowe). These are joined by the adult games Cranium (Cranium, Inc.), Pictionary (Western Publishing Company), Trivial Pursuit (Parker Brothers), and Wits & Wagers (North Star Games LLC). There are of course lots of essays about other games that from the rail game Eurorails (Mayfair Games) and the abstract Blokus (Educational Insights) to the card driven wargame Memoir ‘44 (Days of Wonder) and the modern co-operative Pandemic (Z-man Games).

What is so interesting about Family Games: The 100 Best is that it includes many games that unless I have more children I am unlikely to ever play again, such as Mouse Trap. Similarly, I have no plans to play Trivial Pursuit again either. Yet I read the essays on all of these games, and the others, with interest, because each shed new light on said game such that I might, just might play these games again. Well, maybe not Mouse Trap. Even where I might disagree with the author of essay or with the inclusion of a particular game – and such occurrences were far and few between, the actual essay was itself at least worth reading.

Once all of the essays are out of the way, our dork and everyone’s dork gets to extol the virtues of being a gamer and in particular, a gamer-dad. Wil Wheaton’s afterword sort of dovetails (in the same way that the dovetail you made back in woodwork class at thirteen sort of dovetails) into the first of the appendices, of which Family Games: The 100 Best is rounded out with two. The first, “Games and Education” by David Millians provides an introduction to using games as part of the education process and to that end comes with several pages of useful references. The second appendix is “Family Games in Hobby Games: The 100 Best” and gives short descriptions of the twenty entries in that volume that can be considered to be family games.

Family Games: The 100 Best is about celebrating not just our hobby, but about celebrating what got you into the hobby. It is about the games that you played as children, that almost every gamer played as a child, and in many cases still does, whether that be with his children or because they are still good games. It is also a book of reviews – and as a reviewer, some day I would love to be able to contribute to a future volume – telling you how good the games you like are and how good the games you liked were, and if enjoyed reading about one game, then the opportunity to read about another game is just two or three pages away. It is also a book to dip into or to pick up, read, and then put down again – it does not need to be read a single sitting. All good reasons why someone who read and liked Hobby Games: The 100 Best will equally enjoy Family Games: The 100 Best.

When Hobby Games: The 100 Best came out, I gave it as a gift, and in all likelihood, I will give this new book as a gift too, but in that there is a difference between the two. I would not give Hobby Games: The 100 Best to a non-gamer as a gift, but I would with Family Games: The 100 Best. The reason being that a non-gamer is more likely to recognise the titles of the games being written about and once he has read about the games that he heard of or played, the likelihood is that he will be curious enough to read about the other games described. Whether that curiosity is enough for him to look for or try those other games is another matter, but in its own way, Family Games: The 100 Best is an excellent primer for playing games, and a potential stepping stone into the hobby.

500 Word Review One

Before Dave went on holiday, he lent me a pair of Fantasy Flight Games titles to try out, both of which he had been playing with his family over Easter. One was the classic, Through the Desert, the other was Quicksand: A Game of Jungle Exploration and Danger Underfoot, which had proved be popular with his brother and his wife over the weekend. Designed to played by between and five players, aged twelve and up, it is a race game with bluffing and secrecy elements that can be played in about fifteen minutes.

The language neutral components are all high quality, with a simple sturdy board, bright and easy-to-read cards, and wooden playing pieces. The rules are clear and simple, just two pages long for the four languages included: English, Danish, Norwegian, and Swedish. 

The aim of the game is get your explorer through the jungle to a hidden temple, but only you know which colour or role your explorer is. Movement is achieved by playing cards that match the colour of the explorer being moved, the more cards played, the further an explorer can move. Sometimes you have cards that match your explorer’s colour in your hand, allowing you move him, but other times not, in which case you have to play cards to move another explorer, which might belong to another player. The temptation is to race your explorer ahead, but then the other players will suspect that the rushing explorer is yours and will try to stop him. This can be achieved by moving him onto a Quicksand space or playing a Quicksand card on him. An extra card has to be played to get an explorer out of the Quicksand.

The obvious tactic is not to alert the other players as whom your explorer is, either by moving him too far ahead or having him lag behind. The other is to get as many cards through your hand as possible. First by moving explorers further along (which takes more cards) and second by moving explorers onto spaces that allow a player to discard at the end of his turn. Discarding cards prevents you from playing cards that will move a rival explorer and increases the number of cards (hopefully advantageous ones) you draw to refresh your hand back up to six.

Once an explorer has been moved to the hidden temple, his controlling player reveals himself. If this explorer is the first, his controlling player wins the game. If the explorer is uncontrolled, he returns back to the beginning and starts again, everyone knowing that he is uncontrolled and using him to use and discard useless cards. The game gets a bit clogged near the temple at game’s end, everyone trying not to move a rival’s explorer too close or onto the temple.

Quicksand: A Game of Jungle Exploration and Danger Underfoot is a quick and light filler game that because it can be played by adults and children alike, is also a suitable family game.

Saturday, 3 April 2010

Who Take III

Forget Star Wars, and forget Star Trek. Both might be considered the really big licenses to get when it comes to roleplaying, but here in the United Kingdom, there is only license that matters: Doctor Who. With over seven hundred and fifty episodes to its name; a central role that has been officially portrayed by eleven actors – unofficially it is a lot more, including Joanna Lumley; innumerable novels and audio adventures; and an incredible array of iconic monsters, it is no wonder that the series has been a fan favourite for almost five decades. And that was all before its relaunch in 2005, with Christopher Eccleston as the Ninth Doctor and then David Tennant as the Tenth, which has turned a series previously ill regarded by the BBC into a worldwide phenomenon, let alone almost mandatory Saturday teatime viewing. Given the popularity of the new version of the television series, it is no surprise that it got its own RPG in the form of Doctor Who: Adventures in Time and Space – The Roleplaying Game from Cubicle Seven Entertainment.

Of course, we have been here before, because Doctor Who: Adventures in Time and Space is the third RPG to bring the adventures of the Time Lord and his many Companions to your gaming table. The Doctor Who Roleplaying Game was published by FASA in 1986 and is probably best known for its flexibility with regard to series canon and its decent adventures, while Virgin Publishing’s 1991 Time Lord — Adventures through Time and Space was more faithful, but it lacked rules for character generation and never received the support it deserved. (Unlike the FASA version, Time Lord is available online, but please take a look at this review and then Doctor Who: Adventures in Time and Space first). In comparison to the new and third RPG to be based on Doctor Who, both The Doctor Who Roleplaying Game and Time Lord were fairly atypical traditional RPGs, for while Doctor Who: Adventures in Time and Space is quite traditional and straightforward in terms of its mechanics, its approach marks it as anything but a traditional RPG.

Doctor Who: Adventures in Time and Space is designed to be understood and played by someone who is new to roleplaying – specifically the Doctor Who fan of course – and so can even be more easily understood by the experienced gamer, making it easy to run, at least in terms of the game’s rules. Also, the game specifically covers the adventures of the Ninth and Tenth Doctors only, and even then, more the Tenth than the Ninth Doctor, being designed to appeal to those who enjoyed the most recent television series. Thus anyone wanting information pertaining to Classic Doctor Who and the adventures of the First through Eighth Doctors (oh the poor misbegotten Eighth Doctor!) will have to wait for the appropriate sourcebooks or make up the stuff that he wants. Plus and unlike most contemporary and traditional RPGs, Doctor Who: Adventures in Time and Space comes as a boxed set. And what a boxed set it is!

Inside the box you will find two books: “The Player’s Guide” (eighty-six pages) and “The Gamemaster’s Guide” (one hundred and forty pages); one booklet, the “Adventures Book” (thirty-two pages); a sheaf of character sheets and several gadget sheets; a set of six six-sided dice; and a sheet of Story Tokens. All sitting under a four-page “Quickstart Guide” that explains what is in the box and what a player needs to know to begin playing. Each of the books is profusely illustrated with photographs from the series and laid out using lots of colour, although in places the layout and style pallet does get a bit too busy upon the eye. The character sheets are easy to read and include write-ups for the Tenth Doctor and every one of his Companions – from Rose and Micky to Sarah Jane Smith and K-9 via Captain Jack Harkness and Donna Noble, plus archetype templates such as medical doctor, student, Torchwood Operative, or UNIT soldier that are ready to play bar the personal details. There are blank character sheets as well for the player who wants to create his character from scratch. Even the dice are nice, being clear six-sided dice with pips the same shade of blue as the TARDIS.

So the first question that anyone is going to ask is, “Can I play the Doctor?” Well, yes you can, with the other players taking the roles of his Companions. Essentially, this is the default set up for the game, the one that will appeal to fans of the series who are coming to roleplaying for the first time. Doctor Who: Adventures in Time and Space – The Roleplaying Game does limit its options to just that. It can be played with the Doctor and new Companions, with a new Time Lord and Companions old or new, with just new Time Lords, or with just new Companions. The latter option lends itself to various set ups, such as the players taking the roles of member of a UNIT team or an independent team of alien or monster hunters out to protect the Earth. While these options will probably appeal to experienced roleplayers, they also highlight one area that a Doctor Who fan coming to the game will wonder about: “How can I play a Time Lord when the Doctor is the last of his kind?” The simple answer to that question is that the game is not intended to be played as a exact simulation of the television series, but rather be played in the style of the series with the Game Master and his players creating their stories. Thus it is possible for there to be more than one Time Lord having survived the Time War, more than seven Time Agents at large, and so on.

As expected, the Doctor is a very powerful and very capable character, but a degree of balance is built into the game because most Companions – most of whom will be Humans – will possess more Story Points than a Time Lord, or indeed a Time Agent (a la Captain Jack), an alien, or a robot. Even so, a Time Lord is generally more capable than most Companions, especially if he is an Experienced Time Lord and so to avoid arguments, the easiest options are the all-Companion or the all-Time Lord games, if a GM wants there to be a Time Lord involved, that he remain as an NPC. If using the latter set up, then the Doctor or the Time Lord can easily be best kept busy while his Companions explore the details of the adventure.

The next question is likely to be, “How do I create a character?” Once a player has an idea for his character, the process is relatively simple. Twenty-four Character Points are divided between six attributes (Strength, Coordination, Awareness, Ingenuity, Resolve, and Presence) and any good Traits (or advantages) that a player wants his character to have. The attributes are rated between one and six, with three being the Human average. Attributes can be higher, but not without selecting a Trait such as Alien or Time Lord. In addition to good Traits such as Boffin, Run for your Life, and Screamer!, a character can have bad Traits, like Dark Secret, Impulsive, or Outcast. Another eighteen Skill Points are divided between twelve skills – Athletics, Convince, Craft, Fighting, Knowledge, Marksman, Medicine, Science, Subterfuge, Survival, Technology, and Transport – that are each very broad in scope, although it is possible for a character to have a speciality for any skill. Lastly, a character receives twelve Story Points and needs to have his Tech Level and his Motivation – why he journeys through time and space. A sample character looks like this:

Mrs. “Nanny” Merriweather
Awareness 4 Coordination 2 Ingenuity 3
Presence 4 Resolve 4 Strength 2
Athletics 2 Convince 4 Craft 2 Fighting 0
Knowledge 3 Marksman 0 Medicine 2 Science 2
 Subterfuge 2 Survival 0 Technology 0 Transport 2
Traits: Charming (Good Minor Trait), Empathic (Good Minor Trait), Face in the Crowed (Good Minor Trait), Indomitable (Good Major Trait), Resourceful Pockets (Handbag) (Good Minor Trait), Voice of Authority (Good Minor Trait); By the Book (Bad Minor Trait), Technically Inept (Bad Minor Trait)
Home Tech Level: 4 Story Points: 12
Motivation: To protect her ward

Creating a Time Lord, a Time Agent, an Alien, or a Robot character is slightly more complex. To create any one of these takes not only Character Points but also Story Points to purchase the appropriate Traits, and this cost in Story Points is permanent! These Traits grant powerful advantages though. For example, the Time Lord Trait costs two Character Points and reduces the character’s Story Points by four, but grants him two levels of the Ingenuity Attribute, “Feel the Turn of the Universe” Trait (lets him feel the ebb and flow of time), the Vortex Trait (necessary if he is to “control” the TARDIS), and a free Major Gadget like the Doctor’s sonic screwdriver.  It should be noted that this is all for a young Time Lord, and that the Doctor has the “Experienced” trait several times, representing a greater number of Regenerations used. Anyway, this is what a young Time Lord looks like:

Awareness 3 Coordination 3 Ingenuity 6
Presence 3 Resolve 3 Strength 2
Athletics 1 Convince 2 Craft 2 Fighting 0
Knowledge 3 Marksman 0 Medicine 1 Science 4
 Subterfuge 1 Survival 0 Technology 4 Transport 0
Traits: Feel the Turn of the Universe (Special Good Trait), Psychic (Special Good Trait), Time Lord (Special Good Trait), Vortex (Special Good Trait); Brave (Good Minor Trait), Photographic Memory (Good Major Trait); Amnesia (Bad Minor Trait), Argumentative (Bad Minor Trait), Insatiable Curiosity (Bad Minor Trait), Obsession (Discovering his heritage) (Bad Minor Trait)
Home Tech Level: 10 Story Points: 8
Motivation: To discover his origins
Galifreyan Survival Knife (Major Gadget)
Traits: Open/Close, Scan, Weld; Restriction (Complex controls); Story Points: 2

So once you have your character, how do you do anything? The task resolution system in Doctor Who: Adventures in Time and Space is straightforward enough. Two six-sided dice are rolled and added to an appropriate attribute and an appropriate skill to beat a given difficulty. A normal difficulty is twelve, which means that a character with average values of three in both attribute and skill will be successful on a roll of six or more, but a difficulty can be as low as three or as high as thirty! Sometimes it will be not just a matter of succeeding or failing, but of how well you succeed or how badly you fail. There are three degrees of success: Fantastic (“Yes – and” ...you succeed and something else happens dramatically), Good (“Yes” ...you succeed as planned), and Success (“Yes, but” ...not quite as well as you hoped and something else has gone wrong). Matching these are the degrees of failure: Disastrous (“No – and” ...not only do you fail, but something else goes wrong), Bad (“No” ...you fail, but it could have been worse), and Failure (“No, but” ...it could have been worse, and something happened slightly in your favour). These six degrees do not need to be used every time, but when brought into play they capture the flavour of the series very nicely.

The same set of mechanics is used for combat, but here is where the game veers away from being a traditional RPG. There are any number of RPGs available that possess deadly combat rules, but not only is combat in Doctor Who: Adventures in Time and Space lethal, it is also actively discouraged! This deadliness is represented by having any damage suffered reduce not a character’s Hit Points as it might in other RPGs, but his attributes directly. Which when you consider that three is the average attribute value for a human, you quickly realise just how deadly this game is, and that is before you take into account the fact that you might be facing a fearsome Dalek Ray or the Cyberman Particle Gun which will kill you with a single blast!

Lethality aside, the author’s attempt to persuade the player characters from engaging in fights does not actually start with said lethality, but with the initiative system. Who goes first depends not a die roll, but on your actions. Talkers go first (or Screamers if a Companion possesses both a set of lungs on her and the Screamer Trait), followed by Doers, then Runners, and last of all Fighters. Not only is this elegantly in keeping with the series – how often have you seen the Doctor engage in a brawl as opposed to talking, doing something, or running away? – it also gives the players a chance to run away, or to talk or think their way out of a situation and so avoid getting badly hurt. The point is, if you happen to see a Dalek or a Cyberman, run away until you can come up with a plan to defeat them.

Of course, this being Doctor Who, a character can cheat death, or in the case of the Doctor himself, regenerate. Cheating death requires the expenditure of Story Points, but if a Companion is badly hurt too often he will acquire the Unadventurous Trait and eventually lose the desire to travel with the Doctor or Time Lord, preferring to return home and settle down. This is again, another means of modelling what we have seen throughout the series, especially more recently with the Companions such as Rose Tyler and Martha Jones.

Cheating death though, is not the only way in which to expend Story Points, which in the game come as chunky little hex shaped tokens. Their most basic use is to buy more dice when attempting a task – though only the two highest dice will count towards the task outcome, but only before the dice roll is made. After it has been made, Story Points can only be spent to gain a Success result. Other uses include buying a clue from the GM, temporarily gaining a skill that you do not have, to build or alter devices – usually in conjunction with a device like the Doctor’s Sonic Screwdriver, to do something remarkable or heroic, or to have something amazing happen. They can be gained for being really heroic, for getting captured rather than resist such apprehension with violence, and for playing up your bad Traits at the appropriate time.

The rules encourage the use of Story Points. This is not just because the average Companion is not just as capable as the Doctor with every skill – or at all in the case of someone like Donna Noble, though she actually has extra Story Points, but because the game has no other use for them. Doctor Who: Adventures in Time and Space has no Experience Point system, and the only way to gain or raise attributes, skills, or traits is when the GM considers it be appropriate. That aside, the Story Points are there to both enforce the heroic and often times dramatic nature of the television series and to give the characters – especially the human Companions who begin the game with more Story Points – a chance to shine. Used within the spirit of the game, and there should be a flow of Story Points back and forth between the GM and his players, and sometimes when necessary, between the players too.

As expected, Gadgets play a prominent role in the game, just as they do on screen. They can be bought during the character creation process, with players allowed to design their own or take one of the examples given, which of course, includes the Doctor’s Sonic Screwdriver and Psychic Paper. Interestingly, each Gadget possess its own small pool of Story Points (and added to from a character’s own Story Points) which can spent to pull off small but astounding technical feats. Rather neatly, each Gadget has its own little card upon which its details are noted and its Story Points can be kept. This combination of Story Points and Gadgets is again in keeping with the series because it allows each device to be used at a dramatic moment, for it to play a role without it dominating the story.

Once you raise the question of Gadgets, the next topic of conversation has to be about the TARDIS and time travel. In one sense, the TARDIS is a Gadget all by itself, a very big Gadget, but it is much more than that. It is a means by which the Doctor and his Companions can get to an adventure and sometimes even out of it, playing a much bigger role in both the series and in the game than any other Gadget, so it is actually written up as a character all its very own, complete with attributes, traits, skills, and Story Points. A large part of the chapter amusingly titled – and quoted from the Doctor, “A Big Ball of Time-Wimey Stuff,” is devoted to describing the TARDIS and its abilities. The rest explores the nature of Time Travel and its dangers in the Who universe, including detailing the Reapers and what happens when someone really, really tries to create a paradox. The chapter is well written and keeps everything fairly simple, the aim being to a GM from getting caught up in its potential complexities. The chapter also details how to handle Time Lord Regeneration including not just its dramatic import, but also its accompanying attribute, trait, and appearance changes, suggesting lastly that to reflect a change in character, the newly Regenerated Time Lord should be played by another player.

One disappointing aspect of the game is the lack of monsters for the characters to face. Detailed are iconic classics such as the Cybermen, the Daleks, and the Sontarans, which are joined by the Autons, the Clockwork Robots, the Judoon, the Ood, and the Slitheen amongst others. Inclusion of foes such as the Toclafane and the Krillitane seem less useful, and it would have been nice if the Master had been included. Of course, the lack of space in this boxed set and the wealth of creatures to choose from, and the limited selection listed is more understandable. Then again, the rules for Alien creation enable the GM to create his own just as they allow a player to create a member of an Alien species that he can play.

The Adventures Book contains two full scenarios. The first is “Arrowdown,” is set on Earth, specifically on the Yorkshire coast in a very strange seaside town. It is very English in feel that mixes a heavy dose of the parochial quirkiness that Doctor Who does so well with a shot of pathos that comes in the motivations of the classic monster that is cast as the adventure’s villain. It should provide two or three sessions of play, unlike the second scenario, “Judoom!,” which should only provide just the one session. “Judoom!” is also different in that it is not set on Earth – and so unlike “Arrowdown” cannot be run for a Torchwood game – taking place as it does aboard an out of control Judoon cruiser. Who ever comes to its rescue discovers something strange going on and even though they have come to their rescue, not all of the Judoon crew will be pleased to see the Doctor and his Companions. “Judoom!” contains less of the parochial quirkiness to be found in “Arrowdown,” but the references that it does make are very English, and likely to missed by anyone who is neither English nor of a certain age. The Adventures Booklet is rounded out with almost twenty episode seeds, including a three-part story line. It should be noted that both the scenarios and the scenario seeds are written with the Doctor and his Companions in mind, but references to both can easily be replaced with the player characters. If there is an issue with these story seeds, it is that turning any one of them into a full episode will probably prove to be something of a challenge for the Doctor Who fan who is new to being a GM.

In terms of organisation, Doctor Who: Adventures in Time and Space is well done. With a prepared GM, a game can got running once the players have read the “Quickstart Guide” and chosen one of the readymade characters. If a player wants to create his own character, then the “The Player’s Guide” is all that he will need. As you would expect, it explains the basics of the game, tells you how to create a character, and how the rules and the Story Points work. It also tells how to be both a good player and a good roleplayer, useful advice even if you have plenty of roleplaying under your belt. “The Gamemaster’s Guide” contains similar advice, but for the Gamemaster rather than the player, but while it repeats much of the material from the “The Player’s Guide” it only does so to expand upon and explain each element. “The Gamemaster’s Guide” also contains the chapter on time travel and the monsters. The writing style is light and easy, with lots of references to the Doctor and his Companions and how they get things done, plus little asides as to how this game is anything but Torchwood, particularly in tone.

A GM who is experienced both in terms of roleplaying and the television series will not be limited by the contents of this boxed set though. To begin with, he need not limit himself to Doctor Who, because with just a simple change in tone and emphasis, he could run a game based on Torchwood or The Sarah Jane Adventures. The signature characters from both series are included amongst the given ready-to-play player characters, and creating new characters for a game based on either series is far from difficult. Of the two series, Torchwood will probably be easier to run and will appeal to an older audience, plus creating monsters and other threats will be painless, since they are invariably Earthbound. If a GM is short on ideas, there are any number of sourcebooks available that will provide inspiration. Similarly, even more experienced and doubtless older GMs may well have access to the two RPGs based on Doctor Who that came before this one. Together they include details of the First to Seventh Doctors, the numerous foes that the Doctor faced, more background on Classic Doctor Who, plus scenarios. All of this material can be adapted to Doctor Who: Adventures in Time and Space, and it should be pointed out that some of the scenarios published for FASA’s version are excellent. Of course, there are also plenty of good reference books available for Doctor Who, both for the new series and the Classic series, some of which this game is nice enough to suggest. In way, these books will be necessary given that the game does not come with a huge amount of background about the television series.

Just on its own and given what comes in the box, Doctor Who: Adventures in Time and Space is an impressive, though not a cheap package. Once you get inside the box and the contents of the books, what you will find is a fine meld of simple and easy to understand rules with the successful attempt to model the series in style rather than absolute terms. (If it were absolute terms, then the only thing that you could play would be the Doctor and his Companions.) Traits such as Screamer, Run for your Life, and Last One of Your Kind, the initiative system, the lethality of the combat system, and the use of the Story Points all serve to enforce the feel of the series and encourage the players to get into the style of Doctor Who. For the roleplaying Doctor Who fan, Doctor Who: Adventures in Time and Space is a terrific package; for the Doctor Who fan new to roleplaying, Doctor Who: Adventures in Time and Space is a fine introduction to roleplaying; together making Doctor Who: Adventures in Time and Space – The Roleplaying Game an impressive adaptation and modelling of the Doctor Who licence.