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

Sunday, 31 October 2010

Halloween Horror I.III

Would you? Could you? Play a Nazi?

Back in April I first looked at the boundaries when it comes to roleplaying and gender, specifically that of the atypical male gamer playing not just a woman, but a schoolgirl at a boarding school in Hellcats and Hockeysticks: A Role-Playing Game of chaos, anarchy, and unladylike behaviour, the Corone Design RPG now available from Cubicle Seven Entertainment. Back in that review I mentioned that one other boundary that few if any player would cross be that of being asked to play a Nazi. Which is no surprise given the Nazis should top just about any list of figures you can hate and get away with hating. Except now there is actually a scenario in which you are asked to play a Nazi, and not the nice kind who joined because it was expected, but the kind that embraced all of the prejudices and dogma that went with Nazism. The scenario is Curse of the Yellow Sign – Act 1: Digging for a Dead God, written by John Wick, best known for Play Dirty, his advice book on how to be a “fair” GM, and writing the first edition of Legends of the Five Rings. If that is not enough to peak your interest, it is written for Call of Cthulhu and is Wick’s first Call of Cthulhu adventure.

Digging for a Dead God is a self-published one-shot, written as part of the Curse of the Yellow Sign trilogy, and designed to be played in an evening or so with six players and a Keeper. Available as a twenty-four page PDF, this is far from anything like a traditional scenario. The fact that the player characters take the roles of Nazi officers is itself anything other than traditional, but more radically, this is a scenario almost completely lacking in events. Wick suggests that it has just the three. The Nazis discover a door. The Nazis unlock the door. The Nazis suffer the consequences. In between these events what happens to the characters is entirely up to the players, and I use the term characters rather than investigators as the player characters are far from the traditional investigator of a decade before. Other than these three events, Digging for a Dead God is an entirely player driven scenario, one that only works with the pre-generated characters. After all, what could be worse than playing a Nazi than having to create one first?

The set up is simple. In the summer of 1939, the Nazis have secreted a clandestine team into British sub-Saharan Africa and begun a mining operation for diamonds. It is lead by a captain and four lieutenants in the Schutzstaffel or SS, plus a sergeant in the Wehrmacht and twelve soldiers, and lastly two mean Alsatian dogs. Together they have commandeered the inhabitants of a small village below a nearby mountain and set them to work in the diamond mine. So far the mission has met with relatively little success and many soldiers are ill with disease while many villagers are ill through overwork. A few days into the operation, the natives report that they have uncovered something strange...

With no NPCs and no events to talk of in Digging for a Dead God, there is relatively little to this scenario. There is a region to explore, a small sandbox for the characters to investigate and react against as they make strange discoveries. It is primarily up to the Keeper to make the most of both the strangeness of these discoveries and the reactions of the characters to them. This need, along with the interlocking backgrounds and dark agendas of the characters, makes the role of both the players and the Keeper more pro-active than would be the case in a normal Call of Cthulhu scenario. Indeed, the Keeper even has his own role within the scenario, a prodding, pushing figure whispering ills into the ears of the characters.

Given the confined size of the play area – the camp and the caves under the mountain – the bulk of the PDF is devoted to advice from the author. Wick in turn discusses his approach to Call of Cthulhu, that of pitching it as a horror movie rather than a dark fantasy (the comparison being between Alien and Aliens); staging advice such as visions, suggestions that it be played by torchlight, how to address each character, and so on; and events that occurred when he ran the scenario himself. It is this advice more than the scenario itself which imparts the horrific alien feel to Digging for a Dead God, and that alien feel is not born of another, an Outer or Elder God, but of the self. That mankind, when driven from his humanity – which is essentially what Call of Cthulhu’s Sanity mechanic is doing in this game – will become that horrifically alien being himself. Certainly, the seeds are already there in Digging for a Dead God, the player characters are hardened Nazis after all.

Where the scenario is at its weakest though, is in its slight lack of historical verisimilitude and in its character design. I have gone on record complaining about the lack of historical accuracy in some Call of Cthulhu scenarios, and deservedly so. The issue here is not as much of a problem as with some scenarios from certain publishers, primarily because the confined setting, itself already alien to the players, let alone the characters, but getting small details such as the equipment available historically accurate helps the feel of a scenario. Further, a Keeper should be able to track such details down and quickly assign the characters the right gear. The second issue, that of character design, is more of a problem. In particular, one character is said to be blackmailing another and know everyone else’s secrets, but there is nothing about this in the character’s description. The Keeper really needs to examine each of the provided characters and not only prepare, but re-write both a background and a character sheet anew in order to make the most of the foibles and agendas of the pre-generated investigators.

Even given the issues with the poor character design, Digging for a Dead God is not a scenario suited to the skills of the inexperienced Keeper. It demands more of an active participation upon the part of the Keeper than most scenarios just as it calls for more player interaction and thus roleplaying upon the part of the players than most scenarios. So equally, this is a scenario better suited to experienced players who can cope with its demands, and more mature players who can deal with its mature set up and themes. My advice though, is to warn the players of these demands and of its mature themes and set up before play starts. This is not a scenario to run or play lightly. Given its demands and despite the work that Keeper needs to do to get its character set up right, Curse of the Yellow Sign – Act 1: Digging for a Dead God has everything necessary to run a maliciously memorable single night of horror. The truth of it being that if played to the hilt, then the player characters deserve it.

What then of the question asked at the top of the review? Would I? Could I? Play a Nazi? Under most circumstances, the answer would be a definite, “No.” In this instance – and as a one-off scenario, then certainly.

Halloween Horror I.II

Originally it was meant to be a Purist trilogy, but with the release of Graham Walmsley’s third scenario for Pelgrane Press’ Trail of Cthulhu, we learn that it will be a quartet. The release of The Dance in the Blood follows on from The Dying of St. Margaret’s and The Watchers in the Sky and will itself be followed by The Rending Box. Although this is a series of scenarios, they are not connected in the traditional sense of the average series of scenarios of Lovecraftian investigative horror. They are not designed to be played in order or to be played using the same characters, but to be played separately and using different characters. This is another one shot affair then, but thematically part of a strong series of scenarios each with a dark inevitably nihilistic ending. The forces of the Mythos faced by the investigators in this series are utterly uncaring and alien.

Set in 1935, The Dance in the Blood opens with the characters visiting the Lake District town of Keswick in the north of England. The five pre-generated investigators have their own reasons for being there, from visiting an antiques fair to being stranded there after being thrown off a train! There are guidelines given for the players creating their own characters and for their getting to opening scene at the Blackstone Hotel, the town’s best place to stay. None of the investigators know each other and none of them have met each other before. Yet a singular coincidence first presents a mystery and then questions for all of them as it appears that they all might have something in common.

Investigating this mystery draws the characters deeper into the Lake District and a nearby small village. Manesty is a grim and unwelcoming place, one that hides secrets for all of the investigators. Perhaps its most hideous secret is that once each century it is razed to the ground. This being a scenario for Trail of Cthulhu, it is no surprise that this time is near once again.

As with the previous entries in this series, The Dance in the Blood provides solid support for the GM. The GUMSHOE System is a clue orientated game, and to that end there are at least two suggestions given as what skills can be applied and an explanation as how they are applied along with a result. Similarly, there is advice on how each NPC should be portrayed, both in terms of manner and voice.

Introduced in The Watchers in the Sky, “Drive yourself Crazy” is an alternative rule that suggests the players take control of when their investigators suffer Stability loss rather than the GM. It suggests that the players be encouraged to call for Stability Checks instead of having them imposed upon by the GM and is used again in The Dance in the Blood. There is even a “reward” that encourages the players to participate in the process, the aim being twofold. First, that the process be turned into a race between the players to see which of their investigators go mad first. Second, to have the GM and players alike explore the unwritten point of the Purist game – to drive the investigators mad.

One of the features of the previous two Purist adventures is that they each focused on particular aspects of the Trail of Cthulhu mechanics. In The Dying of St. Margaret’s it was the investigators' Drives that pushed and pulled unto their fate, whereas in The Watchers in the Sky, it was their Sources of Stability and their undermining that the scenario explored. The mechanic in question for The Dance in the Blood is, like that of The Dying of St. Margaret’s, the investigators' Drives, or rather their Drive. The Dance in the Blood explores what happens if the investigators have the same, hidden Drive. Where it is obvious that the Drive mechanic is being explored in The Dying of St. Margaret’s, it is far less so than in The Dance in the Blood. It is never explicitly explained in The Dance in the Blood, although it is present at least in the author's intent, having been subsumed into the narrative.

Another issue that the advice for the GM is heavy handed. There are Drives and skills that the author strongly advises that players do not take for their investigators. This is not all that much of problem and numerous scenarios have suggestions as what works best as far as the player characters are concerned, and it is less of problem if the pre-generated investigators are used. More of an issue is the advice that the GM tell his players, “...not to go there” or “...not do that.” This is to keep the investigators, if not on track, then at least from straying too far, but for some players it might be an issue.

The Dance in the Blood is available as a twenty-nine page, 2.25 Mb PDF. In terms of presentation, it is up to the standards of other Trail of Cthulhu titles. It needs an edit here and there, but such errors are minor. It is lightly illustrated with Jérôme Huguenin’s art, which is excellent as always.

Having played an earlier version of The Dance in the Blood, the GM advice is not as heavy handed as it would first appear. The feel of the scenario is one of creeping realisation of the truth about our investigators, of an inevitable fate that awaits all of the investigators, one that will come to pass at the end of the scenario. Attempting to push at the boundaries written into The Dance in the Blood deflates the mood and ultimately achieves very little.

There is a bleakness to the ending of The Dance in the Blood that echoes that of The Dying of St. Margaret’s, though it is not as grey. It is an inhuman, alien ending that despite some choices at the scenario's climax will eventually be one that the investigators should come to embrace. After all, they are being driven insane by the turn of events, which is exactly as it should be in a Purist adventure such as The Dance in the Blood.

Saturday, 30 October 2010

Halloween Horror I.I

The Inn of Lost Heroes is the second scenario from Small Niche Games after Blood Moon Rising. Written for use with Labyrinth Lord, it is a horror themed adventure designed for three to six characters of third to fifth levels, though it really needs four characters, one each of the basic Class types. It should provide one good night’s worth of horror for the Retroclone of your choice, and can easily be slotted into most campaigns taking place as it does entirely within the confines of an inn, the type of establishment where a party of adventurers would want to put its feet up at the end of a day’s hard rest or dungeon delving. Unfortunately for the characters, the night’s rest that they were expecting will have to wait for another day.

The module comes as a thirty-eight page, 2.38 Mb PDF which is cleanly laid out with the occasional piece of heavy ink artwork and the inn’s various maps. While the layout is clean and tidy, it is not particularly sophisticated and the overall effect is that it lacks character itself. To be fair, this is a minor issue, but I did find that it hindered my reading of the scenario, and anyway, The Inn of Lost Heroes has a bigger problem, borne of its content and structure.

At first the inn seems to cater to adventurers, the owners and staff are welcoming, the food good, entertainment is promised, the innkeeper and his sons willing to hear tales of their exploits, and several other adventurers number amongst the patrons. Yet the rowdy behaviour of some of those patrons pitches the player characters into a strange mystery that leads them from the Living World to the Burning World and lastly the Ash World. All whilst still within the confines of the inn. The rules for each three of these self-contained worlds are slightly different and if they are to escape the inn, the heroes will have to negotiate their way from one world to the next, learning more about their smouldering prison. This is as much as a test of the heroes’ endurance as it is a puzzle as they attempt to work out where they are and what is going on. This other worldly nature echoes that of the Ravenloft setting.

Each of the three worlds is described in some detail. Besides the differing descriptions of the inn and its various rooms and locations – inside and out –between each of the three worlds, there are numerous encounters that take place in each version of the inn. This lies at heart of the problem in The Inn of Lost Heroes – the way its information is structured. The differences in the state of the inn between one world and the next require both a careful read and a careful organisation upon the part of the Labyrinth Lord or GM, and even then, running the adventure will still need some flipping back and forth. Another lesser issue, one that also affected the author’s first adventure, Blood Moon Rising, is that the GM has to read the whole of the scenario to really work out what is going on. In other words, this is not an adventure that can be picked up and run without considerable preparation.

So what is going on? The situation in The Inn of Lost Heroes is a case of vengeance from beyond the grave. A revenant spirit wants revenge on all adventurers who stay at the inn, literally trapping them within where they die or manage to escape. Escaping involves undergoing a series of debilitating tests in order to gain what is essentially a key. It is a pity given that the party has undergone so many physical challenges that the final dénouement comes down to a fight with each other rather an opportunity for roleplaying.

While some of the elements in the scenario might be wholly original – then again, coming up with something wholly original in Dungeons & Dragons is always going to be a challenge after nearly forty years – its plot and structure are original in that they are written against the notion of hero worship of adventurers in Dungeons & Dragons. In essence, the twist to the scenario’s set up is that if the player character adventurers are not responsible for what occurred previously, their kind are and they are themselves at least the catalyst for the events in The Inn of Lost Heroes. The strength of the adventure though, lies in the details. The adventure is rich with these, small elements in each of the encounters that the GM can present to his players to provide not just clues as to the nature of their heroes’ predicament, but also atmosphere and colour.

There is no denying that The Inn of Lost Heroes requires an experienced GM. The wealth of detail in the scenario combined with the shifting nature of its setting, mean that it could be an overwhelming experience for the novice referee. Yet its wealth of detail means that the experienced GM has everything at fingertips to run a moody night of horror. Perfect for Halloween.

Saturday, 23 October 2010

White Box Fever VI

Last month in September, we saw the re-launch of Dungeons & Dragons Fourth Edition from Wizards of the Coast with the publication of the Dungeons & Dragons Red Box Set, the first entry in the Dungeons & Dragons Essentials line. To celebrate that fact, Reviews from R'lyeh is running a series of reviews devoted to RPGs that aim to bring new players into the hobby.

We began with look at Dungeons & Dragons Roleplaying Game Starter Set, the less than successful 2008 attempt from Wizards of the Coast for Dungeons & Dragons Fourth Edition before slipping back in time for an examination of the hobby’s second fantasy RPG in its most recent edition, Tunnels & Trolls v7.5. These were followed with reviews of entries in the contemporary Old School Renaissance movement, in particular, Tower of the Stargazer and New Weird World, the two scenarios that come in Weird Fantasy Roleplaying, the very latest and perhaps the most interesting of the Retroclones. These were followed by a step forward back in time to look at a more traditional Retroclone, the Swords & Wizardry: White Box Edition, almost the very game that inspired the “White Box Fever” series, and then, a look at an introduction to roleplaying and Dungeons & Dragons that was more a Dungeons & Dragons game than a roleplaying game, the Castle Ravenloft Board Game. Last week I examined the introductory fantasy RPG, Ancient Odysseys: Treasure Awaits! An Introductory Roleplaying Game from Precis Intermedia. This week, in what is the penultimate review in the “White Box Fever” miniseries, the game under review is Weird Fantasy Roleplaying.

Weird Fantasy Roleplaying, or to give its full title, Lamentations of the Flame Princess Weird Fantasy Roleplaying published by Lamentations of the Flame Princess, is perhaps the most highly anticipated Retroclone version of Dungeons & Dragons in the Old School movement in many a month. Its sole author, James Raggi IV, is best known for his atmospheric, naturalistic scenarios that evoke a sense of dread and eeriness, of which Death Frost Doom and The Grinding Gear are the best known. It is this sense, inspired by authors such as H.P. Lovecraft, Robert E. Howard, and others that Raggi attempts to infuse into his Retroclone, a sense of the unknowable, the inexplicable, of dread... In this he attempts to draw back from the high fantasy elements that have come to dominate the gaming genre in the last forty years, to make the world that the adventurers inhabit dark and dangerous as a matter of course, rather than in certain spots away from some rural idyll.

The first thing that strikes you about Weird Fantasy Roleplaying is that it comes in a box. Not a “white box” or a “buff box,” but a gloriously full colour depicting a lone swordswoman – who appears to be dressed to deal with the cold as much as she is with other threats, such as the snake demoness that she is, in fact, facing. Done by Cynthia Sheppard, its realistic style is not only eye catching, but it marks this game as being very different from other Retroclones available. The look of the box is quite literally a statement that demands the potential purchaser’s attention.

Open up the box and you will find that it is packed to the gunnels. The first thing that you see is a “Warning and Welcome Sheet,” but below that are a Tutorial Book, the Rules Book, the Magic Book, the Referee Book, and two adventures, New Weird World and Tower of the Stargazer, both of which I have already reviewed. In addition there is a pamphlet of Recommended Reading, character sheets, sheets of squared and hex paper, a pencil, and a set of polyhedral dice. All of the books are roughly fifty pages in length, A5 size, with full colour card covers, and black and white interiors. The artwork throughout the interiors of these books is dark and ominous. Two of the books, the Referee and Rules Books, use the box cover artwork, the latter on the female warrior, the former on the demoness. The two covers sit nicely together allowing the viewer to view to see the artwork in more detail.

Of the extras, the dice are nice, if a little small, and the pencil seems superfluous. Both sets of sheets are useful though, and the booklet of Recommended Reading gives the reader a solid introduction to the authors that inspired the game. In essence, for Weird Fantasy Roleplaying this is equivalent of Gary Gygax’s Appendix N from the Dungeon Master’s Guide, and there is some crossover here, with most of the authors mentioned here also having appeared in Appendix N. In comparison with Appendix N, the authors listed in Recommended Reading are fewer in number, indicative of the particular focus in Weird Fantasy Roleplaying, and are discussed rather than just listed. The Recommended Reading booklet is also the only part of the game to not be authored wholly by Raggi himself. Overall, it serves as a good introduction to the Weird Tales genre, and is more useful than the “Warning and Welcome Sheet.” This serves as the introduction to the contents of the box as whole, and while I probably agree with Raggi’s sentiment, his tone is unnecessarily flippant, even condescending. If this game goes to a second edition – and Raggi already has plans for that, then this sheet needs to be reconsidered.

The first book then, is the Tutorial Book, which the “Warning and Welcome Sheet” advises is not necessary to read if you are an experienced gamer, but it is worth taking the time to read all the same. As its title suggests, it introduces you to the game, and if you have never roleplayed before, then it really does it rather well in four easy steps. The first gives a short, but easily understood explanation of both what roleplaying is and what the dice do, while in the second, Raggi literally takes you by the hand and guides your Fighter through a strange experience in a supposedly haunted house as part of "Your First Adventure." In terms of presentation it is more a narrative with points at which the author steps in and offers the reader choices. Raggi makes it clear that this not how roleplaying works, but as the first step to that end, this “breaking the narrative” approach is highly commendable. “Your Second Adventure” is the third step, and its format will be familiar to most gamers, being the more traditional solo or “choose your path” adventure. In terms of story, it carries on from “Your First Adventure,” but it is already offering a player more choice, and indeed, Raggi packs a lot into ten locations and their exploration.

The Tutorial Book’s fourth step takes the reader onto how the game is played in general and with a proper group. This step discusses the conventions of play more than the actual rules, and while older, more experienced players might need them, they are useful nonetheless. Rather than offering more participation for the reader, this step gives a detailed example of play with the author as the GM. Oddly, it is an entertaining read, yet fails to entertain. It goes on too long and it shows how we roleplay, including warts and all, there being one awkward player in particular, the type that sees hired retainers as cannon fodder rather than as actual help. The GM also needs to read this example, as it is also the only actual example of refereeing in the game. It has to be said that the climax of the example of play is definitely cruel, and will probably make the reader smile, but it is not an unfair result.

The Rules Book begins with character creation and the first of the mechanical changes made to the Open Gaming License. Most obviously and weirdly, character abilities are listed in alphabetical order, but the first real change is the dropping of Prime Requisites being needed for Classes and Experience Point bonuses based on them. Another is that the Intelligence and Wisdom modifiers both affect a character’s spell saves, the first against those cast by Magic Users, the second against Clerical spells. These are not the most obvious of changes, which really start with the RPG’s Character Classes.

Weird Fantasy Roleplaying has seven classes, much like Basic Dungeons & Dragons. The Cleric, the Fighter, the Specialist, and the Magic User are all Human Classes, whilst the Demihuman Classes are the Dwarf, Elf, and Halfing. The changes to these Classes are small, but have striking ramifications. The Cleric does not the innate ability to Turn Undead for example, but must instead take it as one of his spells, and since at first level, he only has the one spell slot, his player has a choice to make. Similarly, the Fighter is the only Class in the game whose ability to fight improves as he goes up in level. None of the other Classes allow this. Whether this has the effect of empowering the Fighter Class like no other version of Dungeons & Dragons or weakening the effectiveness of all of the other Classes depends upon your point of view.

The only Class to remain unchanged is the Magic User, but the Class changed the most is the Thief or Specialist. Weird Fantasy Roleplaying uses a very simple skill resolution system. All characters, whatever their Class, can attempt skills such as Climbing, Searching, Find Traps, and so on. Their chance is simply equal to a result of one rolled on a six-sided die. Where the Specialist differs from this is that he is more capable at these skills receiving points to assign to them at each level. Pleasingly, this makes the Specialist Class a better version of the Thief while using a simpler mechanic and giving a player choice as what his Specialist is good at. There are of course, not enough points for a Specialist to be good at everything. This simple skills system also leaves the other Classes not wholly incapable of attempting many of the same actions.

And then there are the three Demihuman Classes. Of the three, the Elf is probably the most playable, in that being trained as both a Fighter and a Magic User, has advantages of both Classes. Thus the Elf has more Hit Points than the Magic User and gains the same number of spells as the Magic User, but he does not improve in his ability to fight. Of the other two Demihuman Classes, there is absolutely no mechanical advantage to playing either. Neither the Dwarf nor the Halfling improve in any sort of proactive way as they gain levels except for the extra Hit Points and the improved Saving Throws, which are reactive aspects of the character. If the author has empowered the Fighter Class, then he has also weakened the Demihuman Classes to the point where their presence in Weird Fantasy Roleplaying is all but window dressing. On last aspect particular to all Classes is that they all start with the same number of Hit Points, putting everyone on the same footing, though this changes once a character rises to second level.

Our sample character is the fickle and greedy Gederick. He usually makes a living through theft or outright robbery, but would be willing to hire on to aid an adventuring party. Of course, such parties engage in dangerous activities and who is to say that they will return from one such venture?

Gedrick the Weasel, Level 1 Specialist
Chr: 6 (-1) Con: 11 Dex: 17 (+2)
Int: 9 Str: 11 Wis: 11
Hit Points: 4 Armour Class: 16
Skills: Climbing 1, Searching 2, Find Traps 1, Languages 1, Sleight of Hand 2, Stealth 3, Tinkering 1
Leather Armour, Short Sword, Dagger, Garrote; 13gp

Weird Fantasy Roleplaying keeps its Alignment system to the simple three of Lawful, Neutral, and Chaotic. All very much like Dungeons & Dragons, except that it is more Moorcockian in that magic is associated with Chaos. Which means that both the Elf and the Magic User Class are Chaotic in nature. Almost everyone, including the other player characters, is assumed to be Neutral in Alignment.

Except for combat, the rest of the Rules Book has a strong fiscal slant. Not just in the extensive price list, which gives differing prices for rural and urban locations, and covers weapons, miscellaneous items, vehicles, lodging, and more, but also in the rules for property and investment (giving something for high level characters to do with their treasure), maritime adventures, and retainers. The rules for maritime adventures support the campaign adventure provided with this RPG, New Weird World, while the lack of rules for aerial travel are indicative of the game’s less fantastical tone rather than are an omission. The need for retainers is shown in the example of play in the Tutorial Book and highlights further that Weird Fantasy Roleplaying is written to create and support potentially heroic characters rather than ones that are absolutely heroic.

The combat rules in Weird Fantasy Roleplaying provide the players with more options. Fighters, Dwarves, and Elves can now attack, defend, or press their attacks, each option providing small bonuses, while all characters can choose to nothing but parry. The game’s treatment of Armour Class is more modern than most Retroclones, being ascending rather than descending, as the lack of Class limits placed on the wearing of armour and wielding of weapons, while weapon damage has simplified into three groups: minor, small, medium, and great, the damage rising from a four-sided to a ten-sided die. Raggi does not ignore unarmed combat either, his rules being clear and simple.

This simplicity and clarity continues in the Magic Book, which covers both divine and arcane magic. The basics of both are discussed, as is the spell research, the creation of scrolls, potions, holy water, and more. Invariably, spell books are spell books, and not always the riveting of reads, but while the spells work as you would expect in Weird Fantasy Roleplaying, the author has paid a lot of attention in terms of flavour and feel. For example, the spell description for Conjure Elemental begins with, “Spirits from the nether realms despise the natural world and wish to destroy it. This spell tricks one of these spirits through the mystic veil which separates our worlds from theirs, and forces them to inhabit one of the four classical elements...” On the same page, the spell Contact Other Plane has the caster contact stars such as Algol and Fomalhaut to receive wisdom rather the anodyne, if traditional Outer Planes of Dungeons & Dragons. A favourite is the description given the spell, Hold Person with which a Magic User unleashes millions of thread-thin spectral worms... which through every orifice and instantly travel to the subject’s brain, travelling through the synapses and threatening to tear the subject’s mind apart if he moves.” Not every spell is accorded this degree of flavoursome detail, and that is all it is as it adds nothing mechanically, but where such spells are, it brings out the weird elements of the RPG’s title. Any player roleplaying a spellcaster in Weird Fantasy Roleplaying should certainly be embracing this flavour text.

The last of the core books in Weird Fantasy Roleplaying is the Referee Book. This is perhaps the most personal of that quartet, the author’s voice maintaining a heavy presence throughout as he dispenses advice aimed at those completely new to roleplaying and being the referee, and those experienced gamers who are new to the Old School Renaissance. He prepares the new GM by explaining what the task of the referee is, how difficult a task it is, and how it takes time to master the skill. Here Raggi’s conversational tone is reassuring, nicely helping to allay the neophyte’s fears. As is his essay on “The Weird” which also complements the separate pamphlet of Recommended Reading. Given how his reputation has been built on writing inventive and moody scenarios it is no surprise that his advice on creating adventures is also well done, looking in turn at adventures built around events, exploration, locations, and individuals as well as the sandbox adventure.

Unfortunately, once the Referee Book moves on from discussing the various elements that make up an adventure, it is less useful, not as specific. When dealing with campaign creation Raggi cannot bring his customary attention to detail to the subject, the same issue that was a problem in New Weird World, the campaign setting that comes in the box. Rounding out the Referee Book is one guide to getting a gaming group together and another to other Old School Renaissance publishers and how to use their products with Weird Fantasy Roleplaying. All Retroclones have some compatibility, no surprise given that they share the same origin, but it is good to see the author take the time to more than acknowledge it.

One of two major disappointments in Weird Fantasy Roleplaying is the lack of monsters. Where other Retroclones have provided the GM with a readymade bestiary, the Referee Book only discusses the various types and their place in the Weird Game, looking at in turn animals, constructs, humanoids, oozes, and the undead. While Raggi has never been one to write “monster fests,” this is very much a case of the author telling the reader rather than showing. The other disappointment suffers from the same issue, being the lack of examples for magical items. These are meant to be very individual and anything other than generic in Weird Fantasy Roleplaying, but again we are only told about them. It is almost as if the RPG needed another book that covered both of these aspects.

There is, unfortunately, an identity crisis at the heart of Weird Fantasy Roleplaying. One that boils down to, “Who am I aimed at?” The inclusion of the Tutorial Book and much of the Referee Book are primarily aimed at the novice, at those new to roleplaying, yet the novice will find the lack of examples in the Referee Book unhelpful. Most obviously in the lack of actual sample magical items and in the lack of actual monsters. Worse still, this lack is likely to leave the novice wondering where to go next for both. While an experienced GM will have a better idea of how to address both issues, much of both books are likely to be familiar already. Compounding this issue is the fact that while much of the RPG is aimed at the new player or GM, its price and availability (at least physically), is not. Of course, a second printing of the game and wider distribution will address these issues.

If Lamentations of the Flame Princess Weird Fantasy Roleplaying is anything, it is James Raggi IV’s polemic on the Old School Movement. It is his labour of love, a bespoke creation that starts from where all Retroclones draw from before stripping back to make it less like fantastic fiction. The dual effect of that stripping back is first to make the play of the game harder with characters more capable than heroic, the second to leave room for its signifying flavour, the Weird. Again it is a question of scale, because Raggi does not always work this flavour into every aspect of the game, but when focusing on certain elements, such as the spell descriptions, he manages it.

Even without the monsters and the magic items, Weird Fantasy Roleplaying feels like a complete package when you take the two scenarios into account. Although very much a bespoke product – any future version that appears as a book will certainly be not so, it is not perfect. There is so much to like though in the contents of this RPG, that you would be forgiven for overlooking its deficiencies. Above all though, Weird Fantasy Roleplaying provides a fresh look at an old game, giving us a new approach rather than mere replication.

Whither Arkham, Again?

The sad truth is that Pelgrane Press’ Arkham Detective Tales for Trail of Cthulhu was disappointing. Its editing was not up to the publisher’s usual high standards; there was a page missing from one of the scenarios; and worse, not one of the book’s four scenarios was set in Arkham. Which seemed to miss the point of the anthology’s title. Fortunately, the scenarios themselves were all solid affairs, straight forward and unfussy, the book itself looked good – no surprise given that the Trail of Cthulhu line as a whole looks good, and even better, the publisher promised to provide everyone who purchased a copy of the anthology a free copy of the corrected PDF. Not only would the PDF be corrected for its editing errors, but it would include an extra scenario, one actually set in Arkham. I also promised to look at the scenario collection again when the new PDF was made available. Thus we have Arkham Detective Tales: Extended Edition.

It comes as a 110-page, 5.98Mb PDF. Inside you still have the original four New York set scenarios, including two that are sequels to short stories by H.P. Lovecraft and in turn, take the investigators back to the blighted neighbourhood of Red Hook and to a little way off the coast of horrid Innsmouth. The layout is as good as you would expect for a Trail of Cthulhu title, with Jérôme Huguenin’s artwork up to his usual fine standard. If there is an issue, it is that still it needs another edit. It is nowhere near as bad as the original book though.

The most important thing that Arkham Detective Tales: Extended Edition adds is the missing pages from the collection’s first scenario, “The Kidnapping.” In this the investigators – as detectives, either for the NYPD or in a private capacity, are asked to look into the kidnapping of young Adam Cornelisz. The missing pages meant that the GM was on his own if the investigators wanted to do anything about the ransom, but the inclusion of the missing pages means that he can keep the scenario on track and the investigators have a better chance of tracking down the gang responsible.

The other addition is the promised new scenario. “The King’s Men” starts in New York, but takes place mainly in Arkham. It opens with the death of a contact or colleague, Thomas Talby, found dead in a rundown hotel near Pennsylvania Station, with return tickets to Arkham in his pocket. Were this but an ordinary member of the public then the suicide would probably only need to be recorded and the detectives moved on to the next case, but for the NYPD, this is one of their own. His mysterious death needs answers and the questions all point to Arkham. The investigations are hampered by the nature of Arkham itself, its inhabitants being so accepting of the strange goings on in their fair town, and that is before you get to the cultists who will harry the detectives as they follow their leads.

This is another relatively straight forward investigation, except for three elements. The first is the use of the dreams as a means to foreshadow events towards the end of the scenario and to provide clues. These tie the scenario back into Arkham’s early history and include dreams that everyone could participate in. The second is the ending, which is too good to disclose. It is, nevertheless, very fitting. The last is the nicely underplayed use of a Mythos adversary that has appeared again and again in the tales set in Lovecraft Country, though for Call of Cthulhu rather than Trail of Cthulhu.

Ultimately, what “The King’s Men” does is nicely round out the quartet in Arkham Detective Tales and make it a quintet. In doing so, it draws the detectives of New York city away from the metropolis and into New England and its darker, older secrets. It also serves as an easy introduction to Arkham itself, and there is no reason that this introduction could not lead to a sequel. Return to Arkham Detective Tales, anyone?

Saturday, 16 October 2010

White Box Fever V

Last month in September, we saw the re-launch of Dungeons & Dragons Fourth Edition from Wizards of the Coast with the publication of the Dungeons & Dragons Red Box Set, the first entry in the Dungeons & Dragons Essentials line. To celebrate that fact, Reviews from R'lyeh is running a series of reviews devoted to RPGs that aim to bring new players into the hobby.

We began with look at Dungeons & Dragons Roleplaying Game Starter Set, the less than successful 2008 attempt from Wizards of the Coast for Dungeons & Dragons Fourth Edition before slipping back in time for an examination of the hobby’s second fantasy RPG in its most recent edition, Tunnels & Trolls v7.5. These were followed with reviews of entries in the contemporary Old School Renaissance movement, in particular, Tower of the Stargazer and New Weird World, the two scenarios that come in Weird Fantasy Roleplaying, the very latest and perhaps the most interesting of the Retroclones. These were followed by a step forward back in time to look at a more traditional Retroclone, the Swords & Wizardry: White Box Edition, almost the very game that inspired the “White Box Fever” series, and then last week, a look at an introduction to roleplaying and Dungeons & Dragons that was more a Dungeons & Dragons game than a roleplaying game, the Castle Ravenloft Board Game. This week we stick with the fantasy genre, but not Dungeons & Dragons.

Ancient Odysseys: Treasure Awaits! An Introductory Roleplaying Game from Precis Intermedia that is designed to get everyone playing within ten minutes and can be played solo, or as a group with a GM. It is available as a boxed set, a complete softcover book, or as a PDF. Since this series is called “White Box Fever” and Ancient Odysseys: Treasure Awaits! does come in a white box – albeit with a full colour front and back cover stuck onto the box, it is no surprise which version Reviews from R’lyeh is looking at. Open up the box and the first thing that you will see is a familiar “What’s in this Box?” sheet. Already the box is evoking a sense of nostalgia, and that before you notice that sheet is done on parchment. It may be a familiar way to start a game, but the point is, it works. It also explains what Ancient Odysseys is about: dungeon-crawling! Further, it explains that Treasure Awaits! is just the basic version of Ancient Odysseys. The game was published last year, but a fuller, more advanced version of Ancient Odysseys is yet to appear.

Below the sheet can be found several books and booklets, some blank sheets, and two six-sided dice. Book One: Basic Play covers character creation, the game’s rules and how to play, spells, and how monsters work. Book Two: The Dungeon contains the game’s single adventure, which can be played solo or as a group. Book Three: Further Adventure is for the GM or Director, covering how to run the game and how to construct and fill the dungeon with creatures, traps, and treasure. The Reference Booklet is more of a single sheet than a booklet, and the blank sheets include character sheets, creature sheets, and a Conflict Action Map, of which more latter.

The setting for Ancient Odysseys: Treasure Awaits! is any other fantasy setting, one in which Rogues, Warriors, and Wizards venture into the realms below in search of fame and fortune. There are just four civilised races: Humans, Elves, Dwarves, and Hoblings (what Ancient Odysseys: Treasure Awaits!calls its Halflings). Character creation is primarily random, a player rolling or choosing his race, vocation (Rogues, Warriors, or Wizards), rolling on a table to get the array of value of his three Abilities, choosing four Pursuits (or skills) and rolling their value, and then picking weapons, armour, and other gear from the short lists given. Wizards also get to choose spells. For example, a Rogue can choose two knives, a sling and a knife, or a bow and a knife as his starting weapons, whereas a Wizard has a choice between a knife, a staff, or an extra spell. Of course, a Warrior has a lot more choice. The point of keeping these choices short is not to keep player choice limited, but to ease the character creation process by making it quicker.

The three Abilities are Fitness, Awareness, and Reasoning, each being rated between one and five. Each one is also important to a particular Vocation: Fitness for Warriors, Awareness for Rogues, and Reasoning for Wizards. Pursuits are rated between one and three. Rolling a character is an incredibly quick process, each of the following being done in about two minutes each, the result being the minimum three characters necessary to play the game solo.

Name: Ardan
Race: Elf Vocation: Wizard
Fitness: 3 Awareness: 2 Reasoning: 4
Pursuits: Alchemy +1 Archery +1, Literacy +3, Melee +1, Spellcasting +3
Spells: Abate Damage, Armoured Skin, Lock & Seal, Magic Punch, Purify
Armour: None Weapons: None
Gear: Grimoire

Name: Goldfil
Race: Dwarf Vocation: Warrior
Fitness: 5 Awareness: 2 Reasoning: 1
Pursuits: Athletics +3, Axefighting +2, Battlewear +2, Melee +1
Armour: Plate Mail Weapons: Battle Axe
Gear: Rope

Name: Fallon
Race: Hobling Vocation: Rogue
Fitness: 3 Awareness: 3 Reasoning: 2
Pursuits: Foraging +2, Gearworking +2, Lockbreaking +1, Stealth +3
Armour: Brigadine Weapons: Sling & Knife
Gear: Satchel (with second breakfast)

Mechanically, Ancient Odysseys: Treasure Awaits! keeps everything simple with the roll and add method. In this case, Ability plus Pursuit plus a single die roll with the average Difficulty being seven. Rolling more than the Difficulty number is called Overkill, but has no extra effect in the basic game. An optional rule for more experienced Director allows extra damage to be inflicted with a good Overkill result and there is nothing to stop the Director from using Overkill to judge the results of an action.

Combat is a little more complex. Difficulties for ranged attacks vary according to the size of the target, while melee attacks are made against the target’s Fitness plus three, plus an applicable defending Pursuit. For example, Goldfil the Dwarf with his Axefighting +2 attacks an Ogre who has Fitness 4, the Pursuits Brawling +2 and Melee +2, and is armed with a club. Goldfil’s target of 9 is against the Ogre’s Melee Pursuit, so needs to roll 2 or more to hit. Each weapon inflicts a minimum Injury amount equal to its Damage Rating, plus an extra point for each die roll greater than the target’s Armour Rating, the number of dice rolled being equal to the weapon’s Damage Rating. For example, Goldfil rolls 4 and beats the target of 9 to hit the Ogre. His battle axe has a Damage Rating of 2, so he inflicts a minimum of 2 Injury on the Ogre. He also gets to roll two dice for the battle axe to try and penetrate the Ogre’s armour. Normally Ogre have leather armour, but in this case, the Ogre has gone up in the world and found himself some chainmail, which has an Armour Rating of 2. Goldfil’s player rolls two dice with the results one and three, the latter beating the Armour Rating and inflicting an extra point of Injury.

Casting spells in combat works in a similar fashion, but the Difficulty is determined by the target’s Reasoning and Spellcasting Pursuit rather than Fitness and a weapon related Pursuit. Damage inflicted is usually equal to the caster’s Spellcasting Pursuit, though the rules do not make it clear if Penetration is rolled for with a successful attack. Over thirty spells are listed for Grades one through three, their descriptions being kept pleasingly short and simple.

An adventurer can only take five points of Injury before being killed, and Injury points can only be healed by magic during the game. It appears that monsters also possess the same Injury threshold – or at least, I cannot see a rule that says different, but I would suggest modifying the threshold up or down according to the size of the monster in question.

Playing Ancient Odysseys: Treasure Awaits! all revolves around dungeon-crawling! In solo play this means doing certain things in a set order when exploring the underground labyrinth. As soon as the party crosses a location’s Threshold, they have to deal with traps, creatures, and treasure, in that order. In the first phase the adventurers can attempt to discover and disarm any trap present before it goes off, in the second they face the chamber’s inhabitants, while in the last they get to look for any loot present. What is interesting about combat is that it is played on a Conflict Action Map which is used for every chamber. Rather than determining how many squares there are between the adventurers and their foes, the Conflict Action Map determines the adventurers’ position in relation to this enemy. It simplifies these positions down to Closest, Furthest, Sneaking, and Behind, and then it sets both trap effects and some monster actions or Focus according to these positions. For example, the “Barrage at the Door” trap unleashes its darts at the three Closest heroes, while Kobolds always attack the Closest heroes. There are several other Foci spread amongst the monsters besides these positional ones, such as Goblins attacking the Weakest heroes and Jelly Cubes attacking from Ambush.

Experience (points) is not so much gained automatically through play, but by rolling for it! What the heroes gain in play are points in two factors, Performance and Negligence. They gain points in the former for doing well, and the latter for doing badly. At the end of the dungeon, a number of dice equal to the Performance rating are rolled and for each result higher than the Negligence rating earns a hero Experience (points). These are spent on Abilities, Pursuits, Spells and Spell Signatures, and the Injury rating.

All this is covered in “Book One: Basic Play” and is enough to get into “Book Two: The Dungeon”. Its set up is that the Elven village of Dahwelm was recently attacked by Goblins and a young girl abducted. Although Elven hunters went out in search of her, they have not returned and now the village has put the word out that it needs help. The dungeon consists of just twenty-seven locations. Each has a description; a simple map showing its exits and the rooms or entries they lead to; plus references to the separate sections elsewhere in the booklet for Traps, Creatures, Foraging For Loot, and Foraging for (secret) Door. Full statistics are given for these Traps, Creatures, and Loot as necessary in their own sections. These are kept separate to prevent the player straight through and revealing the dungeon’s secrets. A map is also included which is more intended for the Director when he runs this dungeon for a group.

“Book Two: The Dungeon” can be used in two ways. First, it can be played through solo by one player controlling three or four heroes. This is actually a good way of learning how Ancient Odysseys: Treasure Awaits! is played, but it is very mechanical and unlike other more traditional solo adventures, for example, Buffalo Castle for Tunnels & Trolls or the recently reprinted The Warlock of Firetop Mountain, it lacks narrative structure. Oddly this manages to be both add to and detract from the game. Detract because for the first time player it omits an important element of the solo roleplaying experience, that of providing a story. Add because it forces the player to create that experience himself, hopefully in preparation for when he runs the adventure for others. For the experienced GM or Director, this will not be so much of a problem, though running this adventure will be different because each chamber’s elements are placed in separate sections rather than wholly with each location’s description.

“Book 3: Further Adventures” is written for the Director. It provides some optional rules, such critical successes and failures; advice for the Director on running the game; and guidance on constructing a dungeon, including stocking it with traps, monsters, and treasure. The advice is decent enough, and the rules for dungeon creation also include tables for wholly random creation, making possible dungeons to be created as they are explored. This is intended primarily for solo play and again, adds further to the mechanical feel of this process. Rounding out this book are the author’s Designer Notes which make for an interesting read.

Physically, each of the three booklets in Ancient Odysseys: Treasure Awaits! is an easy read. The black and white booklets could have done with more art work and it is a pity that the same image is used as the cover of each. Another issue that despite the game’s simplicity not all of the game’s rules are obvious or easy to find, and perhaps a single sheet index would have been a good idea. As would another dungeon, this one written for the director rather than the solo player, so as to showcase the other aspect of playing the game. Perhaps we will see something like this in future releases, the first of which has yet to appear.

Opening the box and discovering the contents of Ancient Odysseys: Treasure Awaits! does evoke a sense of nostalgia, for the boxed and for that boxed game that came in three little booklets. Yet playing does not. This is not a Dungeons & Dragons Retroclone, its rules being too simple and not as obviously drawn from the miniatures wargame origins as that first RPG was. Rather it has the feel of slightly later fantasy RPGs, in particular Metagaming’s The Fantasy Trip and the Fighting Fantasy System first seen in the aforementioned The Warlock of Firetop Mountain. Its simplicity makes it very easy to teach and relatively easy to learn, such that this RPG is a solid little teaching tool, is very suitable for an experienced gamer parent to take and run for his children.

Ancient Odysseys: Treasure Awaits! manages to combine physical charm – though to a much lesser extent with the one volume and PDF versions – with a sense of nostalgia for a style of play that harks back over thirty years. Yet its rules have none of that Old School complex abstractedness, being more modern, more straight forward, more simple in their elegance.

Screen Shot I

How do you like your GM Screen?

The GM Screen is a essentially a reference sheet, comprised of several card sheets that fold out and can be stood up to serve another purpose, that is, to hide the GM's notes and dice rolls. On the inside, the side facing the GM are listed all of the tables that the GM might want or need at a glance without the need to have to leaf quickly through the core rulebook. On the outside, facing the players, is either more tables for their benefit or representative artwork for the game itself. This is both the basic function and the basic format of the screen, neither of which has changed very little over the years. Beyond the basic format, much has changed though.

To begin with the general format has gone split, between portrait and landscape formats. The result of the landscape format is a lower screen, and if not a sturdier screen, than at least one that is less prone to being knocked over. Another change has been in the weight of card used to construct the screen. Exile Studios pioneered a new sturdier and durable screen when its printers took two covers from the Hollow Earth Expedition core rule book and literally turned them into the game's screen. This marked a change from the earlier and flimsier screens that had been done in too light a cardstock, and several publishers have followed suit.

Once you have decided upon your screen format, the next question is what you have put with it. Do you include a poster or poster map, such as Margaret Weis Productions included in its screens for the Serenity and BattleStar Galactica Roleplaying Games? Or a reference work like that included with Chessex Games' Sholari Reference Pack for SkyRealms of Jorune or the GM Resource Book for Pelgrane Press' Trail of Cthulhu? Or a scenario such as "A Restoration of Evil" for the Keeper's Screen for Call of Cthulhu from 2000 or the more recent “A Bann Too Many” in the Dragon Age Game Master's Kit for Green Ronin Publishing's Dragon Age: Origins RPG, of which more in a future review. In general, the heavier and sturdier the screen, the more likely it is that the screen will be sold unaccompanied, such as those published by Cubicle Seven Entertainment for the Starblazer Adventures: The Rock & Roll Space Opera Adventure Game and Doctor Who: Adventures in Time and Space RPGs.

So how do I like my GM Screen?

I like my Screen to come with something. Not a poster or poster map, but some form of reference material. Which is why I am fond of both the Sholari Reference Pack for SkyRealms of Jorune and the GM Resource Book for Pelgrane Press' Trail of Cthulhu. Nevertheless, I also like GM Screens when they come with a scenario, which is one reason why I like the Game Master’s Screen and Adventure for Legends of the Five Rings Fourth Edition, Alderac Entertainment’s second release for this new version of the game. The other reason that I like it is because I am currently playing in a Legends of the Five Rings campaign, of which more later as it has some bearing upon the scenario, “Descent into Darkness.”

The Game Master’s Screen is a four –panel affair in landscape format. The centre of screen depicts a battle scene at the Kaiu Wall, the giant fortification erected by the Crab Clan to protect Rokugan from the Shadowlands. To the left of this is an image of a Phoenix Clan air shugenja (a spell casting priest), while to the right is a Lion Clan bushi complete with the skin of a plains lion.

On the inside, the screen covers from the left, fear and other conditional effects; combat, actions, manoeuvres, and stances; skills and weapons; and the gain and loss of both Honour and Glory. The inside is done in black, white, and greyscale, and is easily readable. Having played the game a fair amount and refereed the once, this is good choice of tables and is all very functional. If there is an issue, it is that by today’s standards, the cardstock for the screen is a little light. It is still serviceable even so.

The Game Master’s Screen actually comes inserted into the adventure, “Descent into Darkness.” This is a short twenty-page scenario designed for characters of Ranks two or three. It is written to be run using just the core rulebook, though considering some of the foes faced, a GM might like to have a copy of Enemies of the Empire to hand for reference. This supplement is not necessary though, and “Descent into Darkness” can be run entirely without the need to refer to that supplement.

The scenario takes the player characters from their current city location to the remote village of Mushi Mura whose samurai master has sent a request for help to the nearest magistrate. Several suggestions are given as to why the magistrate sends the player characters to answer his request, which include their being of the same clan as the magistrate, being magistrates themselves, and even a simple case of the magistrate hiring ronin to undertake the task for him.

The village lies four days’ travel away and when the samurai arrive, they are greeted cordially rather with any degree of hospitality. The samurai in charge of the village even dismisses the request for help as having been sent by a disgruntled vassal. This is of course, a brush off, but it will take eagle–eyed investigators to spot that anything more is wrong than poor employer/employee relations. Not only that, but they will also have to interact with the heimin of Mushi Mura, not always a pleasant prospect for proud samurai. As they learn more, the mystery points towards the nearby forest and the secrets it harbours.

“Descent into Darkness” combines investigation and interaction with combat against a quite nasty villain. This is not an easy adventure, and it will be all the more difficult if the player characters have too many courtiers amongst their numbers. A shugenja will also be useful, but one type of shugenja might be too useful and give the players too much of an advantage – a Kuni Witch Hunter. It is unlikely that anyone starting a game playing the new edition of Legends of the Five Rings will be playing one of these, though a group that has simply switched their characters from Third Edition to Fourth Edition might number one of these amongst their group. This is the case with our group and my character in particular. The point is, Witch Hunters possess the means to determine the nature of the threat present in "Descent into Darkness," so the presence of one of these will circumvent some of the scenario's mystery. Some advice on dealing with this issue might have been helpful, but the likelihood is that my character, Kuni Hiroji will not be playing this scenario, but rather that I will be running it for our group when our GM wants a break.

Physically, “Descent into Darkness” is laid out in the now familiar style from both the core rule book and Enemies of the Empire. Indeed, some of the artwork from those books appears in the pages of this adventure. If I have an issue with the scenario, it is that it is done as a magazine rather than as a roleplaying booklet. It would have been nice if “Descent into Darkness” had been given a card cover like that of Legacy of Disaster, the Quick Start rules and scenario released for Free RPG Day 2010.

In terms of writing, "Descent into Darkness" comes with some nicely drawn NPCs – especially for peasants! – and some fun moments of roleplaying for the GM. The likelihood is that these moments will be frustrating ones for the players, but they make sense considering what the villains have done. The scenario ends with a vile encounter and leaves a mystery deep in the woods. It also leaves the village all but empty, a secondary aim of the adventure being to provide a base of operations for the player characters. The village is itself fully detailed, along with a map. As a base of operations it might be a little remote for some groups, but a good GM should be able to turn it into the base for his campaign.

So what does the Game Master Screen and Adventure add for Legends of the Five Rings? The Screen itself is a useful accessory, while the adventure will not only provide two good sessions of play, it also provides a base of operations for the player characters, new spells for the GM to give his villains, and a range of sample NPCs and enemies. The adventure is also a good follow on from the adventure in the core rulebook and Legacy of Disaster, though the likelihood is that together both of the adventures will not provide enough Experience Points to achieve the necessary Rank 2 to play this adventure. Nevertheless, "Descent into Darkness" is worth waiting to play and the GM will get plenty of use out of the Screen.

Saturday, 9 October 2010

White Box Fever IV

To gamers of a certain age, the mention of Castle Ravenloft will both strike fear into their hearts and invoke any number of strong memories. Originally published in 1983, the legendary I6: Castle Ravenloft was a gothic horror adventure that pitted the heroes against the feared vampire, Count Strahd von Zarovich. Playing upon Bram Stoker’s Dracula, the heroes had to brave his castle in an attempt save the fate of a young woman that the Count believed to be his long lost love. As they explore the beautifully mapped castle and the crypts below, danger was never far away in the form of numerous undead creatures and the Count constantly toying with them.

I6: Castle Ravenloft not only received its own setting, but three sequels: I10: The House on Gryphon Hill in 1986 and then in 2006, Expedition to Castle Ravenloft, the latter for Wizards of the Coast’s Dungeons & Dragons 3.5. The third sequel is also from Wizards of the Coast, is based on Dungeons & Dragons Fourth Edition, but is not a roleplaying adventure. Rather it is a boardgame. Moreover, it is a co-operative boardgame in which a party of delvers must venture into Castle Ravenloft on a number of missions that will thwart the evil Count’s ambitions. Designed for between one and five players aged twelve and up, the game uses a simplified version of the rules for Dungeons & Dragons Fourth Edition, and with everyone taking turns being the Dungeon Master, the Castle Ravenloft Board Game never lets up!

Open up the box and you will find it crammed full with components. These include the Dungeon “Start” Tile and forty Dungeon Tiles; five Hero, seven Villain, and thirty Monster figures; five Hero, four Villain, sixty Encounter, fifty Power, thirty Monster, and fifty Treasure Cards, plus others; and some two hundred different Tokens. All topped off by the Rulebook and the Adventure Book, each sixteen pages long, and the game’s twenty-sided die.

Apart from the Dungeon “Start” Tile, which is effectively two Tiles together, all of the Dungeon Tiles are four inches square and marked in one inch squares. All have a black or white triangle marked on them to determine their orientation and a square with a pile of bones to indicate where the monsters start. Some Dungeon Tiles are marked with walls while others are “Quest Tiles,” the target locations described in the missions given in the Adventure Book. Together they form the corridors and rooms of the crypts below Castle Ravenloft.

The miniatures are unpainted, but come in a variety of different colours. So the heroes come in a rich blue, wolves and rat swarms (or rat pizzas as we have described them) in brown; the skeleton and the gargoyle in ivory; the villains such as Count von Strahd in grey; and the blazing skeletons in clear ice blue. These are not the only monsters of course, but all of the figures are nicely sculpted, especially the giant Dracolich Gravestorm.

Each monster has its own Monster card. This lists its Armour Class, its Hit Points – most monsters only one Hit Point, while Count von Strahd has twelve! – its Tactics, its Attacks and Damage inflicted, and its Experience, or rather the amount of Experience Points the heroes gain for killing it. So for example, if the Skeleton is adjacent to a Hero, it attacks him with a scimitar (a +7 attack that does one damage); if it is within a tile of a Hero, it charges and does a slice (a +9 attack that does two damage!); otherwise, the Skeleton moves one tile closer towards the nearest Hero. Essentially, these tactics are conditional, and while they vary from Monster to Monster, they are always easy to interpret.

The Hero Cards are slightly different to the Monster Cards. First, they have more details on them, and second, they are double-sided. On the one side are the stats for each Hero at first level and on the other side, for second level. Each Hero has a name, a race and a class, a little background, and then his Armour Class, his Hit Points (ranging between six for the Wizard and ten for the Fighter), his Speed (movement points per turn), his Healing Surge (How many Hit Points he gets back after he dies) and a special ability. For example, Thorgrim, the Dwarf Cleric has the Aid ability, which allows him to heal another Hero for one Hit Point if Thorgrim did not attack that turn. In addition, each Hero has one Utility, two At-Will, and one Daily Power Cards that his player can chose from several available. For quick play, the Adventure Book suggests the starting Power Cards for each Hero. Most Power Cards will be familiar to players of Dungeons & Dragons Fourth Edition, and will provide some form of attack. Utility Power Cards provide another non-combat related advantage, and like the Daily Power Cards are one shot affairs.

It takes a critical roll of twenty and five Experience for a Hero to go up to second level. This increases all of his stats and enables him to inflict extra damage when he rolls a twenty. Besides Thorgrim, the Dwarf Cleric, the other Heroes are a Dragonborn Fighter (provides an Armour Class bonus to Heroes on the same Dungeon Tile), a Human Ranger (can explore or reveal unexplored Dungeon Tiles even if not adjacent to them), a Human Rogue (has a bonus to disarm Traps), and an Eladrin Wizard (knowledge of monsters grants a +1 attack bonus to all Heroes on the same Dungeon Tile). Given that each of these Hero Cards is in a different colour, it would have been nice if the matching Hero figure had been done in the same colour for easier identification.

Both the Rule Book and the Adventure Book are done in full colour and are easy to read and understand. There are a total of thirteen missions in the Adventure Book, of which two are designed to be played solo with just the one Hero. For most of them, the Heroes have to find their way to a certain location, usually a Quest Tile and there defeat all of the Monsters that appear. Nevertheless, the missions provide variety in terms of objective if not necessarily game play.

Game set-up is reasonably quick once a Mission has been decided upon. Play will require a reasonable surface area as the crypts will expand quickly. A player’s turn consists of three phases. During the Hero Phase, a Hero can either move twice, move and attack, or attack and move. Each move is equal to a Hero’s speed, while an attack consists of rolling the die and adding any bonuses listed on the Power Card to beat the Monster’s Armour Class. The most damage that a Hero will inflict is one or two points, usually enough to defeat most Monsters. A defeated Monster goes into the Experience pile, while the victorious Hero can draw a Treasure Card. Some Treasure Cards have an immediate effect such as granting a temporary bonus to attack rolls or forcing the next card drawn from the Monster or Encounter deck to be discarded. Other Treasure Cards have a lasting effect, for example the bonus to Speed that the Boots of Striding grant. Treasure Cards like this can be given to any player upon being drawn.

Following the Hero Phase is the Exploration Phase. If a Hero ends his move adjacent to an unexplored edge, then a new Dungeon Tile is drawn and added to the dungeon. A new Monster Card is drawn by the current player who will control it until it is defeated, its figure being placed on the new Dungeon Tiles’ pile of bones square.

The third and final phase is the Villain Phase, and is perhaps the most interesting. If a Hero did not add a new Dungeon Tile in the Exploration Phase or if the newly added Dungeon Tile was marked with a black triangle, then the player draws and plays an Encounter Card. These take effect immediately and have various effects. These include adding an Environment, such as “Bat Swarm,” which makes attacking adjacent Dungeon Tiles more difficult; an Event, such as “Strahd Attacks,” when the vampire lord appears suddenly, attacks everyone, and disappears; and Traps, such as a the “Crossbow Turret.” Traps remain in play until disarmed and are controlled by the player who drew them affecting only the heroes on that Dungeon Tile.

After the Encounter Card has been drawn and played, any Villains, Monsters, and Traps controlled by a player activate, attacking and moving as dictated on their Cards. Where the Villain Phase gets truly villainous is when there are two or more monsters of single type in play. If a player controls one of these monsters, he not only moves that monster, but also every other monster of that type in play, even if controlled by another player! So if you control a Spider during your Villain Phase, you will not only control its movement and attack, but that of every other Spider in play. Worse, when it gets to the player who controls that other Spider, he not only moves and attacks with his Spider, but also with yours! This multiple monster rule forces the players to try and keep the number of monsters in play down to a minimum of one type.

Once play starts, a rhythm soon develops. The game flows as each Hero advances through the dungeon, revealing more Dungeon Tiles and Monsters, an Encounter occurring, his Monsters moving and attacking, before the next Hero having an opportunity to move and attack, usually to defeat a Monster before it has a chance to attack again. The Encounter Cards add a weird, strange randomness to the game from turn to turn, actually echoing the eeriness of the crypts below Castle Ravenloft that many will recall from I6: Ravenloft.

So how do you win in the Castle Ravenloft Board Game? Well, there are thirteen missions in the Adventure Book, which gives you thirteen ways in which to win by achieving the objectives listed for each mission. Losing is another matter, and there is just the one way in which to lose. When a Hero dies, he is healed a number of Hit Points equal to his Surge value at the start of his next turn. This costs a single Healing Surge. In the standard game, there are only two Healing Surges available, and once both of these are gone, the game is lost.

Yet because new Monsters appear and Encounters occur almost every turn, the game literally never lets up against the Heroes. It confronts them relentlessly with evil and the undead. The only respite from this is Experience. Gained from killing Monsters, a total of five Experience points can be spent to negate the effects of a newly played Encounter Card. This will probably occur more frequently than a Hero going up to second level, which not only takes five Experience points, but also a roll of twenty on the game's die.

The relentless nature of the game's play can also make it a dispiriting experience for younger players. It can be just too hard for them. There are ways to make the game easier for them though. The one listed in the rule book is increasing the number of Healing Surges available to the players, but the Heroes could also start the game with more Treasure Cards and the Experience point cost to negate Encounter Cards and to go up levels could also be lowered. The game could also be made harder by doing the reverse of any of these options and also by having the players randomly choose the Power Cards for their Heroes. Then again, even playing without the Cleric Hero will handicap the players.

So is Castle Ravenloft Board Game a co-operative game? Absolutely. The players have to co-operate in order to defeat the Monsters and get to the objective. Just like any dungeon crawl. As with any co-operative game, the players are free to discuss their actions and should be encouraged to do so to make the best use of each Hero's powers and benefits. It is also co-operative in that the players are up against the game itself, each player's Villain Phase giving him a turn at being the Dungeon Master. In addition, the game can be played solo, a player controlling just the one Hero or many according to the mission. Nor is there anything to stop a fewer number of players controlling more Heroes between them.

The other question is, how reminiscent is Castle Ravenloft Board Game of the original 1983 scenario? Putting aside the big disappointment that the Heroes only get to explore the crypts below the castle – which surely means that there is room for an expansion supplement? – then it evokes memories of part of the castle. The randomness of the Encounter Cards brings to mind the Count's constant toying with the Heroes in the original scenario and the endless supply of Monsters at his beck and call.

Although playing Castle Ravenloft Board Game is hard, it is also fun. Anyone who has played Dungeons & Dragons will find its rules familiar, more so if they have played Dungeons & Dragons Fourth Edition. Indeed, one player described it playing a roleplaying game, but without the roleplaying. Of course this boardgame is unlike playing Dungeons & Dragons Fourth Edition in that the game is never relentless like Castle Ravenloft Board Game. Monsters and Encounters do not keep coming at the player characters as they do here, but are neatly parcelled up in set Encounters.

On its own, Castle Ravenloft Board Game offers hard play against a relentless foe. Yet it also serves as a basic introduction to Dungeons & Dragons. Which leaves me with an interesting thought. For just a little time, before the release of Dungeons & Dragons Essentials Red Box, the fact is that Castle Ravenloft Board Game was the best introduction to Dungeons & Dragons Fourth Edition. Perhaps it still is...?

Friday, 8 October 2010

A Tourney! A Tourney! A Publisher's First Tourney

Blood Moon Rising is the first offering from publisher, Small Niche Games. A scenario written for use with Goblinoid GamesLabyrinth Lord, it can be easily adapted to other Old School Renaissance Retroclones or upgraded for use with the Advanced Edition Companion, the supplement that turns Labyrinth Lord from Basic Dungeons & Dragons in Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, First Edition. It comes as a 34-page 4.39 Mb black and white PDF with a one colour cover and is designed to be played by a party of three to six characters of first to third level.

The scenario takes place in the village of Garanton, best known for the five day religious festival its hold each year to honour a local hero, Tormic Garan or Saint Garan the Mighty, Lord of Battle. The Feast of St. Garan attracts warriors and adventurers from far and wide, hoping to gain his blessing and win fame and fortune fighting in the daily games that are held over the course of the festival. It also attracts local traders who set up a small market, while a troupe of players present various entertainments throughout. It is assumed that the player characters are attending the festival to support a relative or colleague, or if a Fighter or Dwarf numbers among the party, to participate in the games and so gain the Blessing of Saint Garan. Not only that, but the winner of the Honour Games will be crowned the Champion of Saint Garan and be entrusted to keep and wear the Mantle of Saint Garan for a year.

The adventure describes itself as a freeform “sandbox” adventure, meaning that the adventurers are free to roam and explore and encounter persons and locations presented within its pages. This is not really the case, as while the adventurers are free to roam, they will in the main be reacting to events that occur over the five days of the Feast of Saint Garan. These include events both mundane and outré. Typical of the former include a lusty barbarian falling in love with one of the adventurers, a band of pickpockets working the festival, and caged beasts getting loose; while the slaughter of livestock, attacks on local farmsteads, bat-winged demons flitting across moonlit sky, and cruel orcs prowling the nearby forests typify the latter.

The author has worked a lot of detail into Blood Moon Rising. Initially it feels as if he is giving us too much information as he presents the ancient history of Garanton, its current situation, and its inhabitants. It only clicks into place once both the day-to-day events of the festival and the twenty possible random encounters are explained and give the adventure a sense of structure. This is where Blood Moon Rising comes alive presenting the Labyrinth Lord with innumerable means in which to engage his players with both “role” playing and “roll” playing challenges. Some of the events and encounters take the characters out into countryside around the village, while others present opportunities for them to learn the truth about blessed Saint Garan.

What Blood Moon Rising is not, is a dungeon adventure. There are just two underground locations in the adventure, both of which are very short. The first of the adventure’s problems is the actual location of both of these places. It is never made quite clear where they are, a problem that is exacerbated by the adventure’s maps which are underwhelming and unhelpful. Given that the adventure is meant to be a free roaming sandbox affair, the maps are too basic to support this kind of play. The second issue is that the village of Garanton is never really brought to life. This is due to the author’s focus upon the Feast of Saint Garan, and while this is will not be problem during the events of Blood Moon Rising itself, it will be if the Labyrinth Lord wants to use Garanton as the base for further adventures and if the author wants to write the sequel that he hints at. The last issue is a lack of plot hooks aimed at the Cleric and Thief classes. Given that the scenario is built around a festival devoted to Saint Garan the Mighty, Lord of Battle, it is no surprise that there are opportunities aplenty for Fighters and their ilk to get involved. There is also one hook specifically given for the Magic-user, but for the Cleric and Thief classes, there is naught. The author will need to look at all three of these issues if he does write that sequel.

Physically, Blood Moon Rising is a text heavy affair. Under illustrated, it is not always an easy read, but the Labyrinth Lord will find a wealth of detail within its pages, particularly for the festival itself and those attending it.

Despite the author’s claims, Blood Moon Rising is not sandbox adventure. Let alone the fact that its maps do not support that style of play, the scenario is too tied into the events of the Festival of Saint Garan for the adventurers to wander blindly. Instead, it is a strong, event driven adventure that supported by lots of engaging encounters and NPCs, should provide several sessions of thoroughly enticing play. Structuring a scenario around a tournament has always been a good way to present a roleplaying adventure – both the King Arthur: Pendragon and Legends of the Five Rings RPGs have proved that, and Blood Moon Rising proves that it works just as well for Labyrinth Lord and its ilk.

Saturday, 2 October 2010

Bromance & Monsters

While we await the arrival of the Smallville Roleplaying Game from Margaret Weis Productions here in the UK – which when it arrives means that there will be two official RPGs available in which you could play Superman – I will review the publisher’s most recent title to hit our shelves. The Supernatural Rolepaying Game is based on the Supernatural television series in which two brothers, Dean and Sam Winchester, hunt demons and monsters in search of their missing father John, who taught them to hunt the supernatural. The series might be described as Buffy the Vampire Slayer with blokes and demons instead of vampires, but Supernatural is much more of a road trip, the brothers moving across small town America from town to town. The other main difference lies in the horrors that the brothers encounter. There are demons of course, but the others are primarily ghosts, spirits, and other inhuman creatures based on urban legends. The combination of these creatures and the road trip format – the travelling done via Dean’s signature 1976 Chevrolet Impala to a soundtrack of American rock music – lend the series and thus the RPG an episodic structure in which the player characters, or rather Hunters travel America in search of the supernatural.

Since this is a game from Margaret Weis Productions, Supernatural Rolepaying Game uses the publisher’s house mechanics, CORTEX System Role Playing Game, which defines its Attributes, Skills, and Traits – Assets and Complications (or advantages and disadvantages), for characters, monsters, and vehicles by die type: two, four, six, eight, ten, and twelve-sided dice, with a rating of d6 being considered as average. Attributes –Agility, Strength, Vitality, Alertness, Intelligence, and Willpower; and Traits; and Assets and Complications such as “Two-Handed Fighting” and “Superstitious” are rated by a single die type, while others like “Natural Linguist” and “Amnesia” vary in die type according to their effectiveness. Skills work slightly differently in that above a d6 rating a character must specialise and so gets a higher die type.

Character or Hunter creation is relatively straight forward. Players receive points to spend on their characters’ attributes and skills, with tougher starting characters who have had some experience with the supernatural receiving not only more points for attributes and skills, but points to spend on Traits too. The number of points spent on Assets and Complications have to balance, so a Rookie with no points of spend on Traits starts even more penalised if he wants Assets.

The sample character is a Rookie version of a Call of Cthulhu investigator that I have used before – and indeed will appear as one of the pre-generated investigators in the forthcoming Masks of Nyarlathotep Companion. Henry Brinded is an ex-US Army officer who served with the artillery in the First Gulf War. He resigned his commission and left the army suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and partial deafness. In the intervening years he went back to school and studied ancient languages and theology, but the stress meant that he could not progress beyond a Masters Degree. These days he likes to live quietly in the antiquarian bookshop he runs, painting when not reading, and reading when not painting.

Henry Brinded
Agi: d6 Str: d6 Vit: d6
Ale: d6 Int: d10 Wil: d8
Init: d6+d6 LP: 14 End: 14 Resist: d6+d6
Plot Points: 6
Traits: Cool Under Fight d2, Higher Education d4, Natural Linguist (Arabic, Hebrew & Latin) d6; Allergy (Hayfever) d2, Dull Sense (Hearing) d4, Dull Sense (Sight) d2, Straight and Narrow d4
Skills: Artistry d6, Painting d8; Boating d2; Craft d6, Book Restoration d8; Discipline d4; Guns d4; Heavy Weapons d6, Field Artillery d8; Influence d4; Knowledge d6, History d8, Linguistics d10, Religion d8; Lore d2; Perception d4; Unarmed Combat d4

The Cortex System is quite a straight forward set of mechanics. For most occasions a player will just roll and total the results of a skill die and an attribute die to beat a target. For example, Brinded above would roll one ten-sided and one eight-sided dice – the first for his Intelligence attribute and the second for his Knowledge and History speciality. Extra dice can be rolled and added or deducted from the total depending if an Asset or Complication applied. Continuing the example, Brinded could roll and add the Highly Educated die if he was researching something that he learned at university, but roll and deduct the Dull Sense (Shortsighted) die if he had to conduct some research without his spectacles.

Although Complications make achieving an aim in the game more difficult, the advantage of bringing them into and roleplaying them in play is that they award the character with more Plot Points. As you would expect, these can be used by a player to improve a roll as well as to add a story element, for example to create a previous relationship with an NPC. The Supernatural Rolepaying Game adds another wrinkle to Complications though. One of the main foes faced by the hunters will be demons who often appear as columns of smoke. When a demon – and the occasional powerful ghost – attempts to possess a victim, it exploits his greatest weakness represented in game terms by his Complication with the highest die value which is added to the difficulty to resist the possession attempt. Of course, it goes without saying that this is a very bad thing.

Of course the point of the Supernatural Rolepaying Game is hunting evil, and that means monsters. The game only lists seven types of monsters: Demons, Ghosts, Shapeshifters, Shtriga, Vampires, Wendigo and Zombies. Most of these will be familiar, but the Shtriga is a witch-like creature that feeds of life essence and is hard to detect. While just seven types of monster are covered and discussed, they are done so in depth and each type is accompanied by at least one example. The creatures that appear most often in the series receive the most examples. So there are full write-ups of two Demons – the series’ big bad, Achashversosh, and another demon, Meg Masters; and three full write-ups of different ghosts – Timothy Timberlake (Death Echo), Constance Welch (Woman in White), and Dr. H.H. Holmes (Undead Serial Killer). Fans will recognise some of these from the series such as Dr. H.H. Holmes, whose inclusion highlights the series’ use of figures out of urban folklore.

Given how detailed these monsters are, a GM should get plenty of mileage out of these foes. Of course, these seven are never going to be enough, so there is already a supplement available devoted to monsters, Supernatural Guide to the Hunted. In addition, most modern horror RPGs have their own monster books, and of those I can suggest that Pelgrane Press’ Book of Unremitting Horror; White Wolf’s World of Darkness supplements such as Ghost Stories and Mysterious Places; and Eden Studio’s Atlas of the Walking Dead – if you want zombies! – as being worth a Supernatural Rolepaying Game GM’s time.

In addition to running monsters, there is advice aplenty for the GM on running a game. It starts off with what makes the horror in Supernatural different to traditional horror. Simply that its horror is “horror-adventure,” a sub-genre in which the heroes can and do fight back. What this means is that most foes that the hunters will encounter appear on their own and will be enough of a challenge for them. In turn it examines the key elements of the series beyond the horror – hope, family, and humour; looks at how hunts are conducted; and explores campaign and adventure construction. There is also advice on handling and portraying the NPCs as well as tips on refereeing a horror in general. Over all, the GM’s section is very well done.

Beyond the advice and the discussion of the monsters, the GM also receives support in the form of a mundane bestiary, a list of ordinary folk, and a list of ordinary locations which might be found anywhere in small town America. Besides their stats, motivations and descriptions are given for each of the ordinary folk, enough to help a GM portray them. The locations are of more interest, each one being described by day and by night as well as having a sample background. For example, the abandoned coal mine has a “legend” about three miners having been sealed in the mine after a tunnel collapse. Essentially, each of the backgrounds is a hook around which a plot or hunt could be based.

While the GM receives plenty of support and advice, the player will have to take his cue from the television series itself. Beyond the introduction to the series and its accompanying guide to monsters throughout the USA, there is little support for the player. The rules lack an example of character generation, which would have been useful for someone coming to the book after watching the series. There are character sheets for the four main characters from the series, but no example of the generation process. Worse still, the book lacks a scenario. After all, a scenario would have showcased how a hunt could be constructed and run. True, the book provides plenty of hooks with the location backgrounds, but a scenario would have been better. A nice touch is the inclusion of a discography of rock music by which to hunt...

Physically, the Supernatural Rolepaying Game is nice looking, if slim, hardback. Done in full colour, it is illustrated throughout with stills from the series, and its journal style layout echoes the journal kept by the characters in the series. This is most prominent in the use of post-it notes as sidebars, which are usually written in the character of one of the Winchester brothers.

Overall, the CORTEX System Role Playing Game fits the feel of the series, being straight forward and gritty, but still with room for some heroics. The advice for the GM is good and the monsters are nicely described, and at this point, I would say how the book feels complete and ready to roll. It does not, and all for the lack of a scenario. I view the lack of a scenario as a major omission as it showcases how the game is meant to work, especially for anyone new to roleplaying, which might be the case since this is a game based on a popular television series. For anyone coming to the Supernatural Rolepaying Game this, this lack is going to be a problem. For the more experienced gamer, this will be not a problem.

So putting aside the issue of the lack of a scenario, the Supernatural Rolepaying Game is a solid treatment of its source. It does hard, muscular monster hunting, and it does it well.

White Box Fever III

Last month in September, we saw the re-launch of Dungeons & Dragons Fourth Edition from Wizards of the Coast with the publication of the Dungeons & Dragons Red Box Set, the first entry in the Dungeons & Dragons Essentials line. To celebrate that fact, Reviews from R'lyeh is running a series of reviews devoted to RPGs that aim to bring new players into the hobby. So far I have got to date with the Dungeons & Dragons Roleplaying Game Starter Set for Dungeons & Dragons Fourth Edition, slipped back in time to look at the hobby’s second fantasy RPG in its most recent edition, Tunnels & Trolls v7.5, and come up to date with a look at Tower of the Stargazer and New Weird World, the two scenarios that come in Weird Fantasy Roleplaying, the very latest retroclone. This week we step forward to go back in time – or is that the other way around? – to review the original Dungeons & Dragons or an “Edition 0” retroclone of the original Dungeons & Dragons. The game in question is Swords & Wizardry: White Box Edition from by Brave Halfling Publishing and based on Swords & Wizardry published by Mythmere Games.

Swords & Wizardry is essentially available in two forms. The standard core rules are available in print and at your local gaming shop, and present a game similar to the Dungeons & Dragons of the late 1970s and 1980s, Swords & Wizardry: White Box Edition apes the original of 1974. It does so to the extent that it actually does come in an A5 sized white box, the contents of which are a pamphlet, four little white books, a pad of character sheets, a pencil, and a set of good polyhedral dice. Bar the dice, almost everything is in black and white, greyscale being used to mark the tables and the sidebars that the author uses to provide further explanation, suggestions, and so on. The four books are Book I of IV: Characters, Book II of IV: Spells, Book III of IV: Monsters, and Book IV of IV: Treasure. Each is staple bound with a card cover, each has an excellent pen and ink cover, and together the four booklets are a nod to the “Little Buff Books” of the original Dungeons & Dragons.

The starting point for Swords & Wizardry: White Box Edition is the pamphlet, the author’s “A Quick Primer for Old School Gaming.” As much a manifesto as an introduction, this guides the reader through four “Zen Moments.” These stress the game’s lack of rules, the reliance upon the skills of the player versus those of his character, that characters are heroes rather than superheroes, and on the game world being an unbalanced world rather than being a balanced gaming experience. There are tips for both the player and the Referee, and where appropriate, there are examples, these being used to compare and contrast the modern gaming experience with that of old style. This gets the boxed set off to an excellent start, though not in my copy which has the front sheet printed twice... Anyway, the Primer is available to download for free here.

Starting with Book I of IV: Characters, the most obvious difference between Swords & Wizardry and the retroclone of your choice, is the lack of the choice. There are just three classes, the Cleric, the Fighter, and the Magic-user, and there are just the three races, Dwarves, Elves, and Halflings. Both Dwarves and Halflings advance as Fighters, but Elves can choose on a day-to-day basis to alternate between the Fighter or Magic-user classes, or in a variant, advance as a Fighter-Magic-user combination as in Basic Dungeons & Dragons. The variant casts fewer spells than the standard version. As with other retroclones, playing anything other than human means that a Level limit is imposed on the character.

Mechanically, the rules and numbers are kept simple. For example, depending upon how well a player rolls, his character can only gain a +1 bonus or -1 penalty from an attribute. Further, the Hit Dice for all characters is based on the humble-sided die rather the polyhedral dice as is standard. Similarly, all weapons do damage based on the six-sided, with a penalty or bonus added to the roll depending upon the weapon.

For combat, there is one interesting wrinkle. Armour Class can be ascending or descending according to the Referee’s whim. In other words, Armour Class can either get better as it goes down from 9 to -2 for descending, or better as it rises from 10 up to 21 for ascending. Of course the first, descending Armour Class is very in keeping with Dungeons & Dragons right up to the advent of the Third Edition, while ascending Armour Class is thoroughly modern, and while I prefer it, it feels at out of place in a Retroclone. Book I of IV: Characters is rounded out with a short example of play.

So having looked at Book I of IV: Characters, here is a sample character. Tainrach is a sickly, skinny fellow who had neither the brains to be a Magic-user or the calling to be a Cleric. He proved to be good with a bow, and so joined a company of bowman for several years before deciding to strike out on his own. He can hold the line as with any other man-at-arms, but is more effective at range.

Tainrach the Archer, Level 1 Fighter
Str: 10 Int: 13 Wis: 14
Con: 6 (-1) Dex: 15 (+1) Chr: 10
Hit Points: 5 Save: 15 (+1 vs. Death & Poison)
Armour Class: 4 (5) Ascending Armour Class: 15 (14)
Long Sword (1d6), Long Bow & 20 Arrows (1d6); Chainmail, Shield; Quiver; 20gp

My first impression of Book I of IV: Characters was of a lack of choice. The most obvious omission is the absence of a Rogue or Thief type Class. On the one hand this does limit choice, but to be fair this is very much a design choice upon the part of the author. The lack of the Thief Class enforces one of the “Zen Moments” discussed in the game’s “A Quick Primer for Old School Gaming,” as it removes the reliance upon character skills and forces a player to think his way around situations where a Thief and his skill rolls would normally shine. If the book lacks anything it is an example of character generation, and while I might dislike the use of the six-sided die as the basis for all character Hit Points and all weapons, both keep the game simple.

Book II of IV: Spells is the second book for the players and lists all of the spells for both the Cleric and Magic-user Classes. The spells are listed alphabetically, and all have relatively clear and straightforward descriptions. The first book for the Referee is Book III of IV: Monsters, and besides listing all of the game’s monsters, discusses how to be a Referee, designing adventures and campaigns, and handling Experience Points. Again, this advice is kept short and simple, perhaps the most pointed being that Swords & Wizardry: White Box Edition is written for the Referee who is a good storyteller and likes to be creative on the fly. Otherwise, the game is not for you. None of the monsters are illustrated and the descriptions are perhaps a little succinct. Nevertheless, there is a good selection here, enough to keep a game going for some time.

Lastly, Book IV of IV: Treasure lists all of the loot that a party could want. There is everything here from the humble Potion of Healing to the fearsome Deck of Many Things with classic magical items aplenty. The book does not merely contain descriptions of the many items, but also contains a set of tables to help the Referee generate each monster’s loot. Primarily this loot will be in the form of coinage, but an interesting touch is that any magical items reduce the monies in the treasure pile.

If there is one thing that I would have liked to have seen in Swords & Wizardry: White Box Edition is another book, which would have been Book V of V: Adventures. Swords & Wizardry: White Box Edition feels complete, but a book of scenarios would have rounded it and made it a fuller game. Its minimalist approach though is refreshing and the inclusion of “A Quick Primer for Old School Gaming” not only highlights the differences between modern and old style gaming, but is an excellent introduction to roleplaying circa 1974. Which is, after all, what Swords & Wizardry: White Box Edition is. It is not an introduction to roleplaying, but an introduction to the beginning of roleplaying as much as it is an exercise in nostalgia, one that takes the modern gamer into the past.

In essence, Swords & Wizardry: White Box Edition exemplifies the “white box” game. It is utterly nostalgic and there is an air of mystery to it more than any “wow!” factor. This and the lack of colour is likely to be off putting for anyone new to the hobby, but for its intended audience is an fine introduction to, or a reminder of roleplaying when it began.