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

Saturday, 31 March 2012

Your Rokugani Primer

Emerald Empire is the second supplement to be released for Alderac Entertainment Group’s Legends of the Five Rings Fourth Edition Roleplaying Game. It replaces one of the most sought after supplements for the third edition of the RPG, also of the same name. What it sets out to provide is an extensive guide to Rokugan, the setting for Legends of the Five Rings, expanding upon the information given in the core rulebook. Over the course of eleven chapters and two appendices, it explores and details first Rokugan’s physical geography, and second, various aspects of Rokugani culture. These includes its customs and social structure, its politics and arts, how it maintains law and order, its religion, how it educates its people, its attitudes towards money and how it conducts commerce, how it goes to war, and its attitude towards and what it knows about the various Gaijin peoples beyond its borders. It not only goes into depth about these aspects with regard to Rokugan as a whole, but also Clan by Clan, including not only the eight major Clans, but also some of the minor ones too.

Essentially then, what we have in Emerald Empire is a series of lengthy essays. Just as with other supplements for Legends of the Five Rings, each chapter is preceded by a piece of short fiction that illuminates the contents to come. In this case, it follows the education of a student of Clan Scorpion at his dojo as he discusses each of the chapter’s subjects with his sensei. It is very enjoyable flavour text, and although what follows is more informative and much drier in tone, it is rarely less than useful. Alongside the main text, sidebars explore other aspects of a subject being discussed. For example, the section on law in Rokugan that discusses the usual Rokugani reliance upon testimony during criminal investigations is accompanied by a sidebar that examines the method of relying upon evidence employed by the Kitsuki family of the Dragon Clan. Throughout the volume, regular sections illuminate aspects of the Imperial Histories, such as how the first Emperor came to choose his wife, how the minor clan known as the Fox came into existence and who for example, has owned Ryoko Owari, the City of Lies, throughout its long history. Other sidebars provide adventure seeds – though these are few and far between; excerpts from noted works; monastic ranks; and many other elements of the setting.

For all of its background information, Emerald Empire does not ignore the mechanical aspects of Legends of the Five Rings. Rounding out most of the chapters are new mechanics to add to a GM’s game. These include new basic schools such as the Shinjo Bushi school for the family that once ruled the Unicorn Clan and the very practical Ikoma Lion’s Shadow Bushi school; new Advanced Schools like the Bushi Minor Clan Defender and the Courtier Imperial Scion; and Play-Aids such as tables that allow “Random Events at Court” or “Random Dojo Events” to be rolled for. Not all of these are new of course, but rather they are new for the Fourth Edition of Legends of the Five Rings.

Rounding out Emerald Empire is a pair of appendices. The first of these is an expanded glossary, one that replaces that included in the core rulebook. The second appendix provides a set of new rules for player characters taking on important stations such as Governor, Merchant Patron, or Warlord. Once a character has been appointed to one of these positions, he can begin to grow into the role and to call in favours and make improvements to all that comes with the new position. Thus, an Ambassador will gain Iron Will and be able to endure the turbulent arguments that go with court life, whilst a Governor can improve the Accommodations, Defences, Monuments, and other features of the area that he administers. In game terms, these improvements and advantages are known as Features and must be purchased using Duty Points granted by the new advantages, The World of the Daimyo and The Daimyo’s Path.

All six of these higher station roles are accompanied with new optional mechanics of their own. For example, the Court Battle System allows an Ambassador to engage in the battle of wits regularly engaged in at court, much like skirmish rules given the core rulebook. Similarly, a Keeper of the Temple can create new spells and kiho, Master Sensei can create new kata, and with the Army Battle System, a Warlord can command larger and larger units of troops, using them in conjunction with the Mass Combat rules in the core rulebook.

In places, these new rules do feel a little brief and also left undiscussed. There is certainly enough information for a GM to take this game to a new level, and he should be able to extract numerous roleplaying challenges from these rules. Yet, what advice there is, feels all too brief, and there is quite possibly a whole new supplement to be got out of this aspect of the game. As welcome as these new rules are, they do feel disappointingly slight when compared to the rest of the book, but then the rest of the book more than compensates for this relatively slight disappointment.

Physically, Emerald Empire is another stunning looking book, in keeping with the rest of the line. The layout is clean, tidy, and attractive, and the artwork, which is excellent throughout, never feels less than appropriate.

There is so much to be got out of Emerald Empire. Its pages flow with detail and flavour, and it does not matter in what period a GM’s game is set nor what the players prefer in terms of Clan, there will be something in the supplement of use to them. For example, adherents of the Mantis Clan will appreciate the chapter devoted to commerce, the Crane Clan the chapters on court and the arts, and the Crab and Lion Clans the chapter on war. It is also easy to extract details and bring them into a game. For example, in our Lion Clan game, I not only read up on the Clan’s birth customs, but also Crane marriage customs for a scenario I wrote. Each of these selections nicely complements the further content given in the game fourth supplement, Great Clans.

Emerald Empire is superb supplement. Its contents are incredibly useful and can add so much to a campaign. Whether that is in the form of an idea for a scenario or for a whole campaign, or in the form of a small detail that will help bring a game to life, the supplement is a wealth of information. It also helps with another aspect of the game, the fact that Legends of the Five Rings is a culture game, and the details contained in Emerald Empire do support this. This makes Emerald Empire, along with Enemies of the Empire, the two key supplements to purchase after Legends of the Five Rings Roleplaying Game. Above all, Emerald Empire brims with detail and flavour that will help a GM being Rokugan to life and give a player a greater knowledge into which immerse his character.

Saturday, 24 March 2012

Aliens & Infection

In the last five years, the co-operative board game has become a familiar design, one that has regularly made it onto the tables of many gaming groups. Pandemic from Z-Man Games is perhaps the best known design, exemplifying the need for the players to work together in order to prevent the game’s mechanics from defeating them, and titles such as Fantasy Flight’s Red November and the more recent Flash Point: Fire Rescue from Indie Boards & Cards. Another type of the co-operative board game is the semi-co-operative design, one that adds the element of treachery by having player take the role of a traitor trying to undermine the efforts of the other players. It is best typified by Battlestar Galactica: The Board Game and Shadows Over Camelot, both from Fantasy Flight Games, both games that begin with randomly determining which of the players is trying to betray the others. These are now joined by another design, one that goes a step further by having the treacherous player not only working to undermine the efforts of the others, but also attempting to infect them too! The design is Panic Station.

Published by Stronghold Games, Panic Station is set in the year 2220. Contact has been lost with the mining station, Recon-6, and also with the platoon of soldiers that was sent into investigate. Now a special unit of heavily trained Troopers from the Extermination Corps has been assigned to determine what happened, each Trooper being assigned a bio-mechanical Android that only he can control through telepathic means. Despite their training and their equipment, the Troopers were unprepared for what they found – a parasite impervious to their bullets and capable of infecting both themselves and their accompanying Androids. Fortunately, the research staff at Recon-6 had developed ammunition that would the parasite bugs and discovered that the Hive is vulnerable to heat. Now all the Troopers and Androids have to do is scavenge enough bullets to hold off the bugs and enough gasoline to fuel the flamethrowers that will burn out the Hive. Standing against them though, is not only the ever present threat of the bugs, but also the fact that one of their number has already been infected and both he and his Android plans to infect everyone else in order to stop the Hive from being burned!

Designed for between four and six players, Panic Station is a semi-co-operative paranoia-driven board game that can be played through in about an hour. Each player controls one Trooper, armed with a flamethrower, and an Android, armed with a handgun. Both are telepathically linked. Play will see them progressing through the Recon-6 base, its layout randomly determined each time the game is played, scavenging for equipment and swapping equipment, whilst also fighting and avoiding the parasite bugs that scurry around in the darkness. If the Hive can be located and an Android can burn it out with three cans of gasoline, then the players will have won the game.

Unfortunately, one of the players begins the game having been infected by the Hive and as the Host he must keep his status a secret whilst trying to infect or kill the other Troopers and Androids. Infect enough of them and he can prevent the Hive from being burnt out, and so win the game. Only by keeping a careful watch on his fellow players can a player determine which of them of them is the Host or has become infected, although with a heat scan later in the game, it is possible to ascertain the number of players who have been infected.

Coming in sturdy tin, Panic Station consists of two decks of cards – the forty-six card Search Deck and the twenty card Exploration Deck; twelve Character Cards, two for each player, consisting of a Trooper and an Android in matching colours; twelve Check Cards, one positive and one negative, for each player; twelve Wooden Character Discs, two for each player, consisting of a Trooper and an Android in matching colours; ten Wooden Parasite Discs, consisting of five grey Parasites and five black Parasites; eighteen Infect Cards, consisting of six sets of three cards, a set for each player; a Heat-Check Board, a four-sided die, and a full colour rulebook. Of these, the Search Deck contains all of the items that can be found during searches, these include Heavy Guns, Bullets, Armour, Grenades, Fuel Canisters, Keycards (for getting through locked doors), Body Scanners to determine if another player is infected, Energy Boosts to give a player more Action Points, First Aid Kits for healing, Target Scopes that can be fitted to guns to allow attacks into adjacent rooms, and Combat Knives that allow close up attacks. The Exploration Deck forms the locations that the Troopers and Androids will explore. The Check Cards are used during heat scans to detect the presence of infected individuals in conjunction with the Heat-Check Board. All of these components are of a high quality and very attractive.

At game’s start, each player receives the Character Discs and the Character Cards for his Trooper and his Android; two Check Cards, one positive and one negative; and three Infection Cards. All in the same colour. The top of the Search Deck is seeded with a mix of Fuel Canister cards and random Search Cards as well as the Host Card, and each player receives two cards from the Search Deck. Together with his Infect Cards, these two Search Cards make up a player’s hand. It is possible that one of the drawn Search Cards is the Host Card, which would indicate that the player is the treacherous Host and now has the aim of stopping the other players. If the Host Card is not drawn, then it will probably be drawn within a turn or two. The Exploration Deck is also seeded with the Hive card in the bottom three cards of the deck and the Terminal Room in the lower half of the deck. This ensures that one of the last rooms to be found is the players’ objective. Lastly, the Reactor Room card is placed at the centre of the table. It is marked by the numbers one to four to indicate the cardinal directions, these are the directions that the Parasites will randomly move in at the beginning of each round. The Reactor Room is where the Troopers and the Androids will enter Recon-6 to begin their search for the Hive.

Panic Station is played as a series of rounds each consisting of two phases. The first of these is the Parasite Phase in which all of the Parasites on the board attempt to move and then attack any Troopers or Androids in the same room after they have attempted to move. The direction moved is determined by a throw of the die and consulting the numbers on the Reaction Room card. Attacks by the Grey Parasites inflict a point of damage and two points if they are Black Parasites. This damage cannot be prevented unless a character is wearing Armour. At the end of the Parasite Phase, a marker, known as the Parasite Marker, is passed to the next player on the left to indicate when the next Parasite Phase starts.

The Parasite Phase is followed by the Team Phase. Beginning by the player who just passed the Parasite Phase to the left, each player can have his Trooper and his Android act using their combined Action Points. This actually means that the player who just passed the Parasite Phase acts twice before there is another Parasite Phase. The number of Action Points that a player starts with between his Trooper and Android starts at four, but will go down if either is wounded or killed. He can spend these to Explore – add a single location drawn from the Exploration Deck next to his location; Move to an adjacent location if he can – some locations have Security Doors that need to be unlocked, but do have viewports that allow him to look into an adjacent room, whilst others contain two locations instead of one; Fire Guns, either to kill a Parasite or a possibly infected Trooper or Android; Search a location to draw from the Search Deck; Activate Computer Terminal for various effects; Heal in the Sick Bay – up to two Wounds per turn between a player’s Trooper and Android; or to Use Item.

A player can Search, Move, Fire Guns, or Use Item as many times per turn as he has Action Points, but can only Explore, Activate Computer Terminal, or Heal in the Sick Bay once per turn. Of these actions, Fire Guns requires the use of Ammunition and this must be found using a Search action. It takes a single bullet to kill a Grey Parasite and two to kill a Black Parasite. Use Item allows a player to use any of the items he has found with a Search and has in his hand. A Search action allows a player to draw a card from the Search Deck. When a player does an Activate Computer Terminal, he can perform a Perform Heat Scan to see how many of his fellow players are infected; Open All Security Doors until the beginning of the next Parasite Phase; or to Reveal Location, adding a new location anywhere on the map of Recon-6.

Each location card is doubled-sided, and the same on both sides. When first placed, a location card is placed so that the black icon on it is face up. When it is searched or the ability of the room is used, like the Activate Computer Terminal, the location card is flipped so that its red icon is face up. This means that when the room is searched again or its ability used again, a Parasite is attracted by the activity and appears in an adjacent location, ready to move on the next Parasite Phase. There are only five Grey Parasites, and once they are all out on the map, the Black Parasites appear. They take two bullets or two attacks with the Knife to kill, and inflict two Wounds when they attack during the Parasite Phase.

A Heat Scan, performed either with an Activate Computer Terminal action or as soon as the Hive Card is drawn from the Exploration Deck, involves everyone submitting their Check Cards into the correct slot on the Heat-Check Board. One slot is for the players’ true infection statuses, the other is not. This is done with the Check Cards face down and the cards in each slot are then shuffled, all so that it is not clear who played what Check Card into what slot. Then the Check Cards in the actual status slot are revealed, allowing all of the players to know how many of their number is infected, but not who… Afterwards, everyone gets their Check Cards back.

The question is, how does the Host infect another player? It comes down to fact that whenever one player moves either his Trooper or his Android into a location – though not the Reactor Room where everyone starts from – and there is a Trooper or Android already there under the control of another player, he must either attack him or trade with him. The former requires a weapon and ammunition – or the knife, but a trade can be done with any item. Each trade though, is done closed, in that neither participant knows what he is going to receive in return. This means that if the Host or another player who has already been infected can pass another player one of his Infect Cards, then the receiving player is now infected and can attempt to infect others using his Infect Cards. When a Trooper is infected, it also means that the Android he controls is infected, and vice versa. An infected player can only infect others using his Infect Cards, the ones that match the colour of his Trooper and Android. A player cannot use his Infect Cards in a Trade until he is infected, and then only three times because he begins the game with three Infect Cards.

It possible to block an infect attempt in a Trade. This is done by trading away of his Fuel Canisters, which burns away the incoming infection. It also means that the player one less Fuel Canister in the knowledge that he needs three for his Trooper to burn out the Hive. In process though, he finds out who is infected and there is nothing to stop him from denouncing the infected loudly and accusingly.

The humans win if an uninfected Trooper can enter the Hive and use three Fuel Canisters to burn it out. The Parasite wins if all of the Troopers and Androids are infected, as revealed by a Heat Scan, except that is, for the last Trooper and Android infected. They lose… The Parasite also wins if there is only one human player left and there are no Fuel Canisters to use on the Hive, or if all of the Troopers are killed, as the Androids cannot use the flamethrowers on the Hive. Dead players always lose…

Panic Station is a cleverly designed game. It has a great theme, essentially, a combination of John Carpenter’s The Thing with Pandemic. In fact, the theme is effectively implemented, and it does get very tense as the humans try and locate the Hive whilst also searching for enough resources to have sufficient Fuel Canisters to burn it out. All this and the Parasites are coming out of the ducting attracted by the humans’ frantic efforts to find the Fuel Canisters. Of course, the Parasites are the least of the humans’ worries. One of them is a Host and is trying to infect them! And the only way to get infected is through trading, which is also the main means of acquiring Fuel Canisters. The other way, of course, is searching rooms, and that attracts the attention of the Parasite bugs.

Yet Panic Station is game with a few problems. The first one is that the game is hard to teach as the rules in the tin are not as clear as they could be. This has been fixed in part with the free release of a second edition of the rules that anyone can download, but this still does not wholly fix the problem. The Trade rules are particularly awkward to teach, not just in terms of the how, but also the why. This is true of the game in general and there is a lot to explain in order to get the game’s theme across.

The second problem is how the theme has implemented in terms of the rules. It feels counter intuitive to have the Troopers and the Androids use different weapons and not be allowed to use both. Similarly, it feels counter intuitive to have a Trooper be infected by the Host and then have his accompanied Android also be infected at the same time, no matter how far they are apart on the board. It feels counter intuitive to have a Trooper and an Android pairing share the same equipment, no matter how far they are apart on the board. The presence of these limitations seems to be there to enforce the rules and the tension, and not the theme. To some they will get in the way of the play of the game.

Get past these problems though, and it will probably take more than a single play to do so, and then Panic Station sets everything up for an hour’s tense game play. Tense because of the paranoia of not knowing who to trust, but knowing that you have to co-operate in order to defeat a foe that is trying to betray you and eat you! The game’s theme should also encourage plenty of table talk – especially if the players have seen the right movies and can quote from them, Aliens being as good as the aforementioned John Carpenter’s The Thing – and if played right, this should only enhance both the paranoia and the play. If you are in the right mood and enjoy roleplaying the theme, then Panic Station is a welcome addition to the semi-co-operative family of board games.

Wednesday, 21 March 2012

One for All

The roleplaying hobby is divided when it comes to deciding what is, and what is not a legitimate review. One opinion holds that it is perfectly alright to review a roleplaying book after it has been read and its contents been given some considered thought. Another decries this approach totally and claims that for a review to be legitimate, the RPG or supplement in general must be played through to gain a full understanding of how the game or the contents of the supplement work when played through. Both points of view are valid, and both have their problems. With the first point of view, it is true that not every kink in an RPG’s design is going to necessarily come out in a simple read through. The second though, ignores two important practicalities. One is that few people have the time to read and digest every RPG or supplement and then play them, and this practicality is exacerbated by another, the fact that reviewing roleplaying games and supplements is done by amateurs in their own time. Roleplaying is a time consuming hobby and playing a new roleplaying game or supplement takes time, which is something of a problem when the demand for reviews is immediate or as soon after the title in question is released as is possible. It is also ignores that to a certain extent, one roleplaying game plays pretty much like another and in writing a review, much of the task is interpreting how the rules reflect the setting and vice versa. Having read and played a variety of RPGs helps with this process and gives a reviewer an understanding of how they work.

Fortunately, Open Design has something new out that negates the debate all together, because it has to be played through in order to be read. Best known for publishing Kobold Quarterly, the only roleplaying periodical to make it to the shelves at your local, friendly gaming store, recent issues of the magazine, specifically issues #18 and #19 contained solo adventures that could be played with the minimum of rules and dice. These proved popular enough for Open Design to launch the Party of One series, a new line of solo adventures that require nothing more than paper, pencil, and six-, eight-, and twenty-sided dice. Further, each of the adventures is compatible with Paizo Publishing’s Pathfinder Roleplaying Game Beginner Box, so they are good choice for players wanting more experience with the game on their own.

The first entry in the Party of One series is Kalgor Bloodhammer and the Ghouls through the Breach. It comes as an 11.89 Mb, fourteen page PDF that contains a total of seventy-three paragraphs. It is done in full colour throughout, although there are only the two illustrations. One useful use of colour is that the rules pertinent to each entry are marked in red. Rounding out the adventure are two character sheets, one for a first level character, the other for a third level character. Both sheets though, are for the adventure’s character, a Dwarf Fighter, Kalgor Bloodhammer who has ambitions to enlist in the Iron Shields, the elite guards that protect his home city.

The first part of the adventure sees Kalgor Bloodhammer attempt to join the Iron Shields, whilst the second sees him come to the defence of the city against an incursion of Ghouls (this is not a spoiler as they are mentioned in the adventure’s title. It primarily involves our protagonist moving between a limited number of locations, protecting his fellow Dwarves, gaining allies, and even a magical aid or two, and discovering secrets. Yes, discovering secrets… There is much more going on in this adventure than the simple need to defend a Dwarfish city, and depending upon what he discovers, Kalgor will have to make some important decisions at the end of the scenario. The presence of these secrets and the non-linear nature of the adventure – that Kalgor is free to travel between various locations – do add much to the play of the adventure, even a little depth and certainly the requirement to make more interesting decisions than where to go and what to hit.

As enjoyable as Kalgor Bloodhammer and the Ghouls through the Breach is, it does leave a question or two unanswered – not with the adventure itself, but with the support. For example, it provides character sheets for Kalgor at both first and third level. From examining both, it is apparent that it is the third level character that is being played and not the first, but the stats do not quite match up. For example, the Attack Bonus for Kalgor in the adventure is +8, but only +6 on the sheet. Further, nowhere does it explain why either version of the character is included in the PDF. Lastly, it would have been nice if Experience Point awards had been included so that a player could track his success over the course of the adventure and then even take a character onto other adventures.

Kalgor Bloodhammer and the Ghouls through the Breach can be played through in about an hour. Perhaps a little longer if a player wants to explore its entire story. The result is enjoyable and fun, the combat tense, and the choices presented all have ramifications. The mechanics are kept simple and in line with the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game Beginner Box, such that a player could easily create his own character using the rules and play through this adventure to see how it would. Overall, Kalgor Bloodhammer and the Ghouls through the Breach gets the new Party of One series off to a good start.

Friday, 16 March 2012

The Lord of the Rings RPG IV

When it comes to the licensed RPG, the hobby might worship at the release of the latest hot title, such as Evil Hat Games’ Dresden Files RPG and Margaret Weis Productions’ Marvel Heroic Roleplaying, but when their popularity is tempered, the hobby turns to its holy trinity. In over thirty years of the licensed RPG – the first being SPI’s Dallas: The Television Role-Playing Game from 1980 – only three licensed properties have mattered to the hobby: The Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, and Star Trek. Each of these has received the attention of three different RPGs, but in 2011, one of these properties had a fourth RPG based upon it released, and as 2012, it remains the only one of the three to have an RPG based on it in print. That fourth RPG to be based on Tolkien’s Middle Earth is Cubicle Seven Entertainment’s The One Ring: Adventures Over The Edge Of The Wild, a highly focused and contemporary design that in comparison to the previous RPGs – Ice Crown Enterprise’s Middle-Earth Role Playing and Lord of the Rings Adventure Gaming, and Decipher Inc.’s The Lord of the Rings Roleplaying Game, is a very radical RPG. Radical in terms of its focus and its design.

The setting for The One Ring RPG is the first of its foci. It opens in the year 2946 of the Third Age, exactly five years after the Battle of the Five Armies, and from this date, will advance year-by-year through the decades between the events described by Tolkien in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings that will see a darkness reappear once again spread across the region it is played across. This geographical setting is its second focus, an area bound by Rivendell and the Misty Mountains to the West, the Lonely Mountain to the North, the Iron Hills to the East, and the haunt of the Necromancer, Dol Guldur to the South. The region between these points, an area known as the “Wilderland,” is dominated by the deep and dark woods of Mirkwood. This geographical area provides the game’s third focus, the cultures of the Free Folk of the North indigenous to the region or at least adjacent to it in the case of the Hobbit folk. The cultures in question are the Dwarves of the Lonely Mountain, the Elves of Mirkwood, and the Hobbits of the Shire as well as three cultures of men. These are the Bardings from Dale who follow Bard the Bowman who killed the dragon Smaug; the Beornings, the followers of Beorn the skin-changer who stand vigilant over mountain passes and river crossings; and the Woodmen of Wilderland, who have congregated under the protection of the wizard, Radagast the Brown. The fourth focus is the initial campaign drive; that of exploring and opening up a region of Middle Earth that has for centuries been cowed by the presence of the dragon Smaug, in the process maintaining the alliances forged with the Battle of the Five Armies.

In concentrating on this series of foci, what absolutely sets The One Ring RPG apart from all of The Lord of the Rings RPGs that have gone before it is that it is not another The Lord of the Rings RPG. It is still an RPG set in Middle Earth, but the events of The Lord of the Rings are yet to come and none of that tale’s signature characters appear in The One Ring RPG, nor do they receive any write-ups. Nor is it a traditional RPG, as the previous The Lord of the Rings RPGs were, in that it is not a “Class and Level” RPG and in that eschewing all of the traditional Classes particular to other fantasy RPGs, there is no magic using character type in The One Ring RPG. Some limited magic, again all of it culturally based, such as the “Spells of Secrecy” that enable the Dwarves to hide doors and objects, becomes available literally as the blessings of certain cultures later in the game. As described earlier, The One Ring RPG focuses upon certain character types and their cultures, so this also means that unlike the earlier The Lord of the Rings RPGs, it is not possible to play characters who are men of Dúnedain, Gondor, or Rohan. Some of these will be doubtless detailed in further boxed sets, of which there are another two to come.

Actually, The One Ring: Adventures Over The Edge Of The Wild does not come as a boxed set either. Rather it comes as a set of books, dice, and maps in a very sturdy slipcase. The books consist of the hundred-and-ninety-two page Adventurer’s Book, which covers character creation, core mechanics and combat, and the game’s two game phases – Adventuring and Fellowship; and the one-hundred-and-forty-four page Loremaster’s Book, which expands on the game’s mechanics and combat, and gives rules on handling journeys and the effect the Shadow, as well as a Wilderland bestiary, a guide to the Wilderland, and an introductory adventure. The two twenty-two-by-seventeen-inch maps depict the geographical setting for The One Ring RPG, one done in the style of Tolkien’s own maps – this for the players’ use, the other as a game map, marked out in hexes for working out travel times and distances for the Loremaster ’s use. Both books and maps are extensively illustrated, with an array of images that depict the peoples and landscapes of the Wilderland. What is clever about the slipcase for The One Ring RPG is that it is an inch or so taller than the books and maps, leaving a space into which a plastic tray slots. This tray holds the game’s customised The One Ring RPG Dice.

Character creation in The One Ring RPG starts with a player selecting a Heroic Culture and then one of the six Backgrounds for each Culture. Each Heroic Culture gives six Backgrounds, for example, the six for the Bardings of Dale give “By Hammer and Anvil,” “Wordweaver,” “Gifted Senses,” “Healing Hounds,” “Dragon-eyed,” and “A Patient Hunter.” From his Heroic Culture, a character gains a Standard of Living, suggested Callings, opinions of the Free Folk of the of the North, and a Cultural Blessing. For example, all Dwarves are Redoubtable and can withstand a greater encumbrance. A Heroic Cultural also gives a character his base skill levels, a choice of weapon skills, and a choice of Specialities, skill-like Traits like Fire-making or Boating, each a skill that the adventurer is proficient at and ordinarily need not roll any dice to succeed at. Each Background adds detail to the character as well as setting his Basic Attributes – Body, Heart, and Wits, sets a favoured skill, and gives several Distinctive Features to choose from, such as Energetic, Fierce, Hardened, Proud, Stern, Vengeful, Wary, and Wilful listed under the “A Life of Toil” Background for the Dwarves of the Lonely Mountain. Again, each of these Distinctive Features is a Trait, but more a personality trait than a skill.

Traits are powerful factors within the game. They can allow an automatic action, such as the use of the Burglary Speciality to pick a lock, without the need to roll the dice; to deal with an Unforeseen Action, the example given being to interrupt the Loremaster ’s narration to gain a character with the “Cautious” Trait the chance to spot an escaping Goblin; and they will grant a character an Advancement Point if invoked as part of a successful skill use. In all cases, both the Loremaster and the other players have to agree on the Trait use, which hopefully will be enough with most groups to ensure that the use of Traits is not overdone or abused.

Next, a character chooses his Calling. Each of the five of these – Scholar, Slayer, Treasure Hunter, Wanderer, and Warden – explains why he left the comforts of home to explore the Wilderland. They also allow a character to select two Favoured skills, another Trait and a Shadow Weakness. The latter representing the worst aspects of his Calling and what he might fall prey to should the Shadow severely affect him. Lastly, a character determines the Favoured values of his attributes, spends some free points on skills, and sets the starting values for his Valour and his Wisdom. If he favours Valour, he will receive a physical Reward, such a Woodman’s Bearded Axe or another piece of equipment of a Cunning Make, whereas if he favours Wisdom, he gains a Cultural Blessing, such as a Hound of Mirkwood that he can train or Natural Watchfulness, which grants benefits when travelling. As a character gains experience and increases his Valour and Wisdom, he will gain the greater recognition of his peers and receive further Rewards and Cultural Blessings.
The result of creating a character does feel like an inhabitant of the North of Middle Earth. It is not a random process, but rather one of making a series of choices that define a character, through both his Culture and Background, and his Traits and Skills. There are eighteen common skills, plus weapon skills. The common skills include ones that you would expect of an RPG such as Craft, Healing, Lore, and Persuade, but others like Courtesy, Riddle, and Travel are very Tolkienesque. After all, how far would Bilbo Baggins got without the Riddle skill? Skills themselves are rated between one and six, with a value of two being regarded as average, but the skill system is predicated towards a skill of three against a target of fourteen, so with lower skills a character will have to push himself and so make use of his Hope.

Lastly, each has two important derived factors – Endurance and Hope. Endurance works as the equivalent of the character’s Hit Points, but it can also be reduced due to stress and exhaustion as well as engaging in combat. Should a character’s Endurance fall below his Fatigue threshold, then he is counted as being Weary and suffers accordingly for all actions until he rests. Hope works in a similar fashion, but represents his spiritual and mental strength rather than physical. It can be spent should a character want to exert himself with a particular skill. Should a character’s Hope fall below his Shadow rating, then he is deemed to be Miserable and could go temporarily mad! These are such simple mechanisms, but what they do is reflect the dangerous nature of leaving the safety of your home in Middle Earth to go adventuring and they focus on what makes roleplaying in Middle Earth different. Certainly there are moments in Tolkien’s tales when the characters are wearied or lose hope, and these factors nicely model this.

One character creation is done, and since this an RPG based on the works of Tolkien, it should be no surprise that the players create a Company, much as was done at the beginning of both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. This involves their deciding where their characters first met, and their each setting a Fellowship Focus that their character has with another member of the Company. The subject of this Fellowship Focus enables a character to recover Hope without spending Fellowship points, though if the subject is harmed or killed, he can Shadow points instead. The Company also serves as a shared source of Fellowship points that can each be spent to restore a character’s Hope. This neatly sets up a group dynamic and brings in another aspect of Tolkien’s fiction.

Our sample character is one Falco Hornblower, a Witty Gentleman from the Shire whose great-grandfather was thought to have got up to strange things and that was how he came by his treasure! Now he has decided to set out on the same path as Bilbo Baggins to see if the outside world is as strange as the tales say. Note that the underlined skills are Favoured and gain an extra bonus when Hope is spent on them.

Name: Falco Hornblower
Culture: Hobbits of the Shire Standard of Living: Prosperous
Cultural Blessing: Hobbit-sense (Add one to Fellowship rating; roll Feat Die twice and keep best result for Wisdom rolls)
Calling: Wanderer Shadow Weakness: Wanderering-madness
Specialities: Herb-lore, Story-telling
Distinctive Features: Keen-eyed, Folk-lore, True-hearted
Body (Base/Favoured): 2/3
Heart (Base/Favoured): 6/9
Wits (Base/Favoured): 6/8
Personality Skills – Awe 0 Inspire 0 Persuade 2
Movement Skills – Athletics 1 Travel 1 Stealth 3
Perception Skills – Awareness 2 Insight 1 Search 2
Survival Skills – Explore 2 Healing 2 Hunting 0
Custom Skills – Song 2 Courtesy 3 Riddle 2
Vocation Skills – Craft 0 Battle 0 Lore 2
Bow 2, Short Sword 1, Dagger 1
Parry 8 Damage 2
- GEAR -
Travelling gear, Flute, Short Sword, Bow & Arrows, Dagger, Leather Shirt (Armour 1d) & Iron & Leather Cap (+1 Armour)
Fair Shot (For a ranged attack, roll the Feat die twice and keep the best result.)
Experience 0 Valour 1 Wisdom 2
Endurance 25 Fatigue 9
Hope 21 Shadow 0
Weary 0 Miserable 0 Wounded 0

The core mechanic in The One Ring RPG involves a dice pool composed of ordinary six-sided dice and a single twelve-sided luck die rolled against a Target Number. The standard six-sided dice, of which the game comes with a total of six, are marked between one and six. The numbers between four and six are marked in solid ink, whilst those between one and three are done as outlines – these outlined numbers actually count as zero when a character attempts an action whilst he is Weary. The six on each of these dice is marked with a “Tengwar” or “T” rune, which when rolled indicates great or even extraordinary successes. The single twelve-sided die, or Feat Die, is marked with numbers between one and ten, and two runes. The first rune is Gandalf’s “G” rune, which when rolled indicates an automatic success. The other rune is the “Eye of Sauron,” which rolled is equal to a roll of zero on the Feat Die. To undertake an action, a character rolls a number of dice equal to a skill and the Feat Die, and adds the total up in order to beat a Target Number, with a Moderate Target Number being 14, which a character with a skill rating of three is expected to be capable of passing.

If a character cannot achieve this, then he can expend a point of Hope to act a little more heroically and add the value of the attribute to the total. For example, Nain, a vengeful dwarf travelling with Falco Hornblower, a Witty Gentleman from the Shire, come across a band of Orcs camped out near a path through Mirkwood. He attempts to sneak up on the encampment in order to gather their intentions, but fails the action test. He spends a point of Hope, either his own or from the points available from his Fellowship to gain a bonus equal to the associated attribute, which in the case of the Stealth skill, would be Wits. Were Falco in the same situation and he failed the Stealth roll, he gets to add the Favoured value of the associated attribute, because for him, Stealth is a favoured skill.

The One Ring RPG is played over two different phases, the Adventuring Phase and the Fellowship Phase. In the Adventuring Phase, the Loremaster and players engage in the traditional activities of a fantasy roleplaying game in that their characters travel, explore, confront foes, and in general, have adventures. This being an RPG set in Middle Earth, it is no surprise that The One Ring RPG places an emphasis on travel, or rather going on a journey. In fact, the adventurers are expected to keep a map of the places that they travel to, and when they do journey somewhere, it becomes a task in which all of the participants can influence. With a successful Lore skill roll before it begins, a journey’s length can be shortened and its burdens eased, but on a failed roll, then it becomes longer. Whilst on the journey, the Guide rolls his Travel skill, the Scout his Explore to find the best camp sites, the Huntsman his Hunting skill to acquire food, and the Look-out Man his Awareness to spot any potential threats. If any of these rolls, or the Fatigue rolls necessary to complete in order to complete a job, are failed, then an encounter or a hazard can result. The Loremaster ’s Book goes into more detail about journeys and even describes the many of the typical journeys made across the Wilderland. Again these travel rules model another aspect of Tolkien’s Middle Earth and mark The One Ring RPG as being different to other fantasy roleplaying games.

Of course, one type of encounter is combat. Unlike other RPGs, combat in The One Ring RPG does not involve rolling initiative, each character assuming a Stance towards the enemy, which varies in aggression. The four stances are Forward, Open, Defensive, and Rearward, and the characters attack in that order. Also, the more towards the enemy a Stance is, the more aggressive a character is being and the less defensive, so it is easier for him to hit an enemy, just as it is easier for an enemy to hit him. An enemy’s chance to hit a character is modified by his innate Parry value, plus by any shield deployed.

When it comes to attacking in combat, and Rearward characters can only engage the enemy with missile attacks, successful attacks do damage as per the weapon used. This can be improved by rolling Great or Extraordinary successes that enable an attacker to inflict extra damage equal to or twice his Body attribute accordingly. Damage is deducted from a hero’s Endurance, so it is possible to be Wearied in combat. Damage beyond Endurance loss can be inflicted through Piercing Blows that breach a defender’s armour, these either being rolled on the Feat die or being made as the result of a Called Shot with bows and spears. Called Shots with other weapons can result in smashed shields or an opponent being disarmed. Armour can protect against a Piercing Blow, but if it fails, the defender is Wounded. A second Wound will incapacitate a character, but a Wounded character whose Endurance is reduced to zero, he is dying. He can also be killed outright if he receives another Wound.

Combat feels bruising, if not outright brutal, and if it possesses an emphasis, it is on the player characters being on the defensive. This does not mean that it does not allow a Company to attack first, but when such a situation arises, a Loremaster needs to adjust the rules himself to account for this. The combat rules also provides various tactical options depending on a character’s Stance, such as attempting to intimidate a foe in the Forward Stance or protecting a companion in the Defensive Stance.

When the Adventuring Phase ends, the player characters enter the Fellowship Phase, usually at the end of the adventuring year. The Fellowship Phase draws comparison with the “Winter Phase” of the King Arthur Pendragon RPG, in that it can be seen as a period of downtime for the characters, spent either at home or another place of safety in the Wilderland. It affords the characters the opportunity to spend Experience Points on attaining a new Rank in either Valour or Wisdom or improving weapon skills, and Advancement Points on improving skills. In addition, Undertakings allow the characters to meet a patron, such as Beorn the Skinchanger or Radagast the Brown; Heal Corruption gained during the previous Adventuring Phase; improve their Standard of Living or Standard; and even establish a new sanctuary where their Company is always welcome.
The effect of the Fellowship Phase is to further enforce the feel of The One Ring RPG as an RPG based on Tolkien’s stories. How often do we read in The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings of the need for the heroes to rest and recuperate at the end of a long journey or after a dreadful time out in the wilds? For the most part, the Fellowship Phase involves the Loremaster taking directions from the players, interpreting their suggestions as to what happens to their characters over the Winter.

Many of the rules and concepts explained in the Adventurer’s Book are expanded upon and explained in more detail in the shorter Loremaster’s Book. It also introduces elements of the setting that are for the Loremaster’s eyes only. Chief amongst these are the corrupting influence of the Shadow. A character gains Shadow points from Sources of Corruption that include experiencing distressing events, such as a personal tragedy or seeing the senseless destruction of the Orcs; spending too long in Blighted Places, areas area tainted by manifestations of the Shadow; committing despicable or dishonourable Misdeeds; and taking possession of a cursed or tainted item.

Accumulating too many Shadow points and losing too much Hope can lead to a character being Miserable. This makes him susceptible to Madness, and with each onset of Madness, a character degenerates and exhibits certain flaws. How he degenerates is determined by his Calling. For example, a character with the Scholar Calling is prone to the Lure of Secrets, so that when he is driven into Madness by the effects of the Shadow, he is at first Haughty. Subsequent bouts of Madness will make him Scornful, then Scheming, and finally, Treacherous. After this, a mad character will either die at his own hand or that of others, if he does not become a servant of Shadow itself. Elves of course, have the opportunity to sail into the Uttermost West.

For the most part, NPCs or Loremaster Characters in The One Ring RPG are slimmed versions of standard characters that the players create. Dealing with one in a roleplaying encounter is governed by his Tolerance rating, simply the number of times a Company can fail their rolls before their actions or behaviour prevents them from gaining an NPC’s co-operation. The rating will be set by a Company’s highest Wisdom or Valour, depending upon if the NPC values courage, renown, or prowess, or peace and knowledge. Prejudice will also affect an NPC’s Tolerance, Dwarves in particular suffering with this regard. In some ways this is neat roleplaying mechanic, but it has the potential to be frustrating for the players if they exceed an NPC’s Tolerance and cannot seem to progress. Then again, they will just have to find a way around this obstacle.

In terms of foes, The One Ring RPG gives quite a short bestiary, little more than variations Orcs, Spiders, Trolls, and Wolves plus Vampires. This is not as limiting as it might sound, as there are plenty of variations and they are, after all, species indigenous to the Wilderland. As with other Loremaster Characters, they are simplified in terms of statistics, right down to a single Attribute, six skills, weapon skills, and Special Abilities. The latter work with a creature’s Hate, points sometimes spent to activate a Special Ability or are occasionally lost because of a Special Ability. For example, a Goblin Archer only has a single point of Hate, and the Special Abilities “Hate Sunlight,” “Craven,” and “Denizen of the Dark.” With the first, the Goblin will lose his point of Hate if he spends time under the Sun; with second, he will flee soon after losing that point of Hate, and with the third, his Attribute is doubled whilst he is in the dark. Of course, Goblin Archers are the least of the creatures that might be encountered in the Wilderland, and some of them are most fearsome indeed.

As the earlier mentioned King Arthur Pendragon RPG, a campaign in The One Ring RPG is played year-by-year beginning in 2946 of the Third Age. It is in this year, on the fifth anniversary of the Battle of the Five Armies, that a celebratory great feast is held and that the Council of the North first meets. It is at this feast that it is suggested that the player characters form their Company and agree to venture into the Wilderland. Over the course of the next few years, this Company will encounter evidence pointing to the return of the Shadow to Mirkwood, perhaps gain a patron, and even make a reputation for themselves. The One Ring RPG supports with a reasonable amount of background material and advice for the Loremaster on a setting up a campaign. Rounding out the Loremaster’s Book is an introductory adventure, “The Marsh Bell.”
As beautiful as The One Ring RPG is, it is not perfect. It needs another edit here and there, and whilst there is an index in each book, it does take adjusting to in order to get the best use out of it. Often it lists entries question-like, such as “How Hope and Endurance Work” almost as if trying to answer what a reader wants to know. Otherwise, The One Ring RPG is well written and enjoyable to read.

The reputation of The Lord of the Rings and therefore any RPG based upon it, is that it is “High Fantasy,” and by the definition that it is set in another world entirely other than our own, then The One Ring RPG is also High Fantasy. Yet, in tone and feel, it does not have the grand sweep and nature of either The Lord of the Rings or The Hobbit, though perhaps in later stages of the campaign, it will approach something more epic. As presented here, the Middle Earth of The One Ring RPG has an earthy feel and a sense of rising Hope following victory at the Battle of the Five Armies, yet once out in the Wilderland, a game could turn out to be nasty, brutal, and short. All of this is supported by very focused rules and mechanics that enforce so many elements seen in Tolkien’s fiction and give the feel of an RPG that portrays Middle Earth rather than just any other fantasy roleplaying game.

Ultimately, The One Ring: Adventures Over The Edge Of The Wild is, and should be seen as a Middle Earth RPG and not The Hobbit RPG or The Lord of the Rings RPG. In fact, it is all the better for not being either, and although it successfully models so many elements from both – travel and the deleterious effects of the Shadow in particular, by moving the focus of The One Ring RPG to the Wilderland, it makes it its very own RPG. Thus, by not standing in the Shadow of either The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings, Cubicle Seven Entertainment’s The One Ring: Adventures Over The Edge Of The Wild is a superbly done and superbly themed Middle Earth RPG that is still loyal to its source.

Tuesday, 13 March 2012

Revenge Burns...

Many Fires is a one-shot scenario for Trail of Cthulhu, Pelgrane Press’ RPG of Lovecraftian investigative horror designed by Kenneth Hite. It delves into the secret background behind a significant event in American history – the United States military’s Mexico Expedition of 1916 against the paramilitary forces of Mexican insurgent Francisco "Pancho" Villa during the Mexican Revolution. It comes with six pre-generated investigators, but guidelines are included so that the Keeper can run the scenario as part of an on-going campaign or as a shorter, convention scenario. As the first declaimer proudly states, Many Fires is a Pulp adventure, which means that the investigators are more capable of standing up to and even surviving against forces of the Mythos arrayed before them. Indeed, to quote said disclaimer: “If your Investigators playtheir cards right, they may be able to punch an evil god straight back to… [].” The disclaimer does say where the evil god can get punched back to, but to say exactly where at this point would give quite a lot away. Then again, if the title of the scenario is not enough of clue for you, then you are no Nestorian!

Many Fires is written by Jason Morningstar, the award winning designer of the RPGs, The Shab-al-Hiri Roach, Grey Ranks, and Fiasco. It comes as a forty-four page, 41.19 Mb PDF, complete with an extensive background and eleven handouts as well as the pre-generated investigators. Set in 1928, a decade after the Mexican Punitive Expedition and five years after the mysterious assassination of Francisco "Pancho" Villa in 1923, it has the investigators going after Villa’s right hand man, “Major” Marcano Chimones and the last of the Villistas, who leads a gang that was once part of Villa’s, but has since returned to their banditry ways in the Northern Mexico state of Chihuahua. This is at the request of General John J. Pershing, the United States Amy’s highest ever ranking general and the commander of the Mexico Expedition. For some of the pre-generated investigators, this is a very personal request, their number including Warren Pershing, the General’s only surviving offspring; the African-American manservant who managed to save Warren’s life from the fire that killed the General’s wife and daughters in 1905; and an old army comrade of the General from the days when they hunted Apache Indians in the 1880s. The other three pre-generated investigators served with the General on the Mexico Expedition in one capacity or another. For those wanting pecuniary reward, Pershing suggests that Chimones might still retain the last of Villa’s gold, but all of the pre-generated investigators have their own motives for going South of the Border.

The scenario opens with the investigators arriving in Ciudad Chihuahua, the capitol of Chihuahua state. From there, they push West into the Valle de Bustillos, discovering towns and villages beset by Chimones’ bandits and others settled by German speaking Mennonites from Canada. As they get closer to Rancho Bustillos, they find themselves tailed by strangely scarred Mexicans, Indian natives that warn of the dangers to be found further west high in the Sierra Madre del Norte, and bandits that laugh in their faces when they come in search of their Jefe, Major Chimones.

Eventually, the investigators must climb up into the mountains and confront both the last of the Villistas and the secrets that the dread inhabitants of mountains have been harbouring for centuries. If the scenario up to this point has been fairly linear, the final confrontation is anything but, being more player led, which has the potential to get chaotic once the “monsters” are unleashed. Exacerbating this aspect of Many Fires is the fact that all of the pre-generated investigators have their own agendas. Naturally, some of these will conflict with the agendas of other investigators, but some of the investigators possess agendas that conflict with each other. Elements of these agendas will doubtless be revealed earlier in the scenario, but by the time of the final confrontation, they should all be out in the open.

Although an interesting scenario, Many Fires is not a perfect one. It suffers from a lack of a thorough edit and the layout lacks polish. Too often one section of text crashes into another, making reading it a sometimes jarring experience. Another issue is that bar the letters from General Pershing to be given out at the beginning of the scenario, Many Fires does lack an introduction for the Keeper to give to his players. This would be particularly useful if it were being run as a convention scenario.

Despite being a Pulp scenario, Many Fires shares in common with many other scenarios for Trail of Cthulhu the fact that it only fully works with the pre-generated investigators rather than with the players’ own. This is not to say that it will not work when added to an existing campaign, but the conflagration of conflicting agendas will not play a part if played as part of a campaign, and as a result, the scenario will be just too straightforward with the investigators lacking the motivation to follow its tale to its incendiary conclusion. Worse, much of the background regarding General Pershing’s involvement in the scenario will not come to light if the pre-generated investigators and their agendas are not used.

Nevertheless, Many Fires is strong in terms of its atmosphere, the eerie aridity of northern Mexico enhanced with oddity of the encounters, especially with the Aryan formality of the Mennonite immigrants. In keeping with its Pulp sensibilities, there is also room for some fiery encounters and a shootout or two before the final showdown. There is good advice for the Keeper throughout, especially on portraying each of the scenario’s NPCs. The author also does a nice job of creating a variation upon a familiar Mythos entity, but without actually giving the name it is usually known by. Lastly, he also provides an enjoyably feisty, if somewhat bonkers means of resolving the final clash.

Interestingly, it should be noted that Many Fires is not the first scenario to visit Pershing’s Punitive Expedition as the basis for Lovecraftian investigative roleplaying. That was for Brian Appleton’s “Punitive Measures,” a scenario for Call of Cthulhu that appeared in The Unspeakable Oath #16/17. Where Many Fires has the investigators returning to Mexico a decade after the events of the Expedition, “Punitive Measures” puts a United States troop on a rescue mission deep into enemy territory.

Perhaps a little too short, Many Fires is another good scenario for Trail of Cthulhu, which with a very little effort would work equally as well with any RPG of Lovecraftian investigative horror. Many Fires fairly sizzles along before breaking out into a roaring inferno.

Sunday, 4 March 2012

Zombies? None Today.

Since 1999, when it comes to zombies and RPGs, All Flesh Must Be Eaten from Eden Studios has been the holder of the corpse crown. Yes, there have been contenders, such as the unimpressive Dead Reign from Palladium Games and Goblinoid Games’ interesting and charming Rotworld, but All Flesh Must Be Eaten remains the cadaver king. Much of that is due to the Origins Award winning RPG being supported with some excellent sourcebooks that explored variations upon the classic shambling undead and showed how they could easily be inserted into genres beyond the collapse of our society as the dead rise that we know and love from George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead and more recently from The Walking Dead television series. Over the years, the RPG has received supplements that covered Martial Arts (Enter the Zombie), Fantasy (Dungeons & Zombies), and even Wrestling (Zombie Smackdown), amongst others, but never Science Fiction. Well, that latter claim is not really true, because All Flesh Must Be Eaten got its very own “Sci-Fi Sourcebook” with the release of All Tomorrow’s Zombies back in 2007. So I have had this book waiting to be reviewed for no little time, and in the meantime, I have picked up a copy of the next sourcebook, Argh! Thar Be Zombies! which is all about zombies and pirates. In order to review that, it behoves me to review All Tomorrow’s Zombies before I get to either Argh! Thar Be Zombies! or the forthcoming World War II supplement, Band of Zombies.

Anyway, All Tomorrow’s Zombies, the supplement that shoves zombies into outer space and into the future, shows the Zombie Master how to do the genre of Science Fiction in the UniSystem, the mechanics used in all of Eden Studios’ RPGs. It has a lot to deal with, primarily how technology works and how it affects both the player characters or members of the Cast, and members of the carcass carnival. Primarily, these technologies are Bioware, Cyberware, and Nanotech, the purchase of the associated Qualities (or Advantages) enables a Cast member to select Enhancements such as Bio Filter, Dermal Armour, and Infravision. Some Enhancements are also available to Cast members who are Robots – similarly available to select for player characters, and also to zombies, which are not available as player characters. Another option for Cast members is Psionics, the rules in All Tomorrow’s Zombies being a streamlined version of those previously outlined in Pulp Zombies.

As well as augmenting themselves with advanced technology, with All Tomorrow’s Zombies, the Cast members get to play with it. The equipment list is not extensive, but it covers all of the genre’s staples, from Motion Sensors and Teleport Anchors to Energy Swords and Pulse Rifles. If the Cast members want spaceships, then they can buy and design them with the Spacecraft Quality, which in effect works like the Bioware, Cyberware, and Nanotech Qualities, but allows the Cast to design a spaceship that is their personal property, fitting it out with Qualities and Enhancements of its own, including an intelligent ship’s computer and a teleporter. Some the supplement’s settings, or Deadworlds, come with their pre-costed starship designs. To accompany the starship creation rules, the vehicle rules for All Flesh Must Be Eaten are expanded to cover space travel and starship combat, whilst other rules handle cyberspace and hacking as well as the hazards of the various different environments that the Cast members might encounter. Over all these rules should handle most situations, but they are not all that hard in terms of the science in “Science Fiction,” tending towards the fiction rather than the science.

Similarly, the discussion for the Zombie Master about how to game the genre of Science Fiction tends to take a broad overview rather than delve into exacting detail. This is primarily because the type of Science Fiction that the supplement draws from, mostly film and television Science Fiction, should be familiar to most of its readers. One interesting aspect of the genre is that for most part, zombies cannot be created through magic, the supplement instead offering some contemporary alternatives, such as Tetrodotoxin or “Zombie Powder,” Scopolamine, and variant-Creutzfeldt–Jakob Disease. This is in addition to the new zombie Aspects that have a more modern bent like being Solar Powered or needing to feed on Radiation.

As with other genre books for All Flesh Must Be Eaten, this supplement comes with its own share of settings or “Deadworlds” as they are known, that makes use of genre support presented earlier in the supplement. There are seven in All Tomorrow’s Zombies, which take up just over half of the book. The first of these is “The Cybered Dead,” which essentially takes the entirety of the genre elements discussed in the previous pages and dumps them wholesale into a Cyberpunk style future. Naturally, national governments have weakened as the corporations have risen to power and in many cases, sovereignty. As the rights of the individual has dwindled, some have either sought protection as indentured employees of the corporations, or slipped into the shadows to survive as cybered up street samurai and Cyberweb riding cowboys, working for principles if they can, or the highest bid if they cannot. Where the zombies enter the picture is originally as the victims of a biochemical act of terrorism, but these were then co-opted by various corporations as cybered up undead security and shock troops. Since outlawed, these combat zombies still turn up and they are still created, so finding out is just one aim of those that run the shadows like the Cast. The problem with “The Cybered Dead” is its “kitchen sink” approach to the genre. What this means is that it is all too familiar and too obvious. The only really interesting aspect of this Deadworld is the addition the undead and that is just not quite enough to make the Deadworld stand out.

If “The Cybered Dead” is all too familiar, the second Deadworld, “The Cycle of Death” probably suffers from the opposite. It depicts a future in which near barbarism following a radical decline in oil supplies has been avoided by genetic engineering enhanced by nanotechnology. Originally developed by engineers from India, the spread and application of this new technology has also been accompanied by the spread and widespread acceptance of Indian culture and Hinduism as a faith. Where it has not completely broken down, society has settled down into a pattern of city states that due to nanotechnology are mostly self-sufficient. Most people have been modified for the better by this technology, and that includes the Cast, each of whom have the ability to modify themselves to a limited extent. The Cast, whether security for a city state or a nanotech engineer, will face bigger problems than the gangs that roam the wilderness in the form of two types of tough zombies derived from the prevailing technology. Beyond facing these new types of zombie – and they are interesting in themselves – “The Cycle of Death” does leave you Zombie Master wondering what quite else to do with this Deadworld because it is never really discussed.

“Cyber Marines and Death Machines” is an even more obvious Deadworld in terms of its inspiration. The “Cyber Marines” part of the title gives it away. This is a Deadworld of pure Survival Horror inspired primarily by the film Aliens, but also by Predator and Resident Evil. When contact is lost with the remote colony of MR-372, a recon unit of colonial marines, along with the usual corporate advisors, is sent in to investigate. As the world reveals its secrets, the team is forced to confront their worst fears, desperate isolation, a hostile environment, and monsters that are every bit as yucky as those from the Alien series. Plus zombies, of course. There is room in this Deadworld for expansion beyond a simple one-shot, both backwards and forwards. The authors suggest that it could be run as a sequel to the “They Came from Beyond” Deadworld to be found in the All Flesh Must Be Eaten corebook, and then use the supplement, One of the Living, for advice and resources on handling the Cast’s survival in the long term. If “The Cybered Dead” is all too familiar, so is “Cyber Marines and Death Machines.” Yet “Cyber Marines and Death Machines” is a more effective piece because its treatment of its genre is more focused and not as broad.

For its inspiration, the Deadworld “Virtual Armageddon” draws from the Matrix series of films as well as the MMORPGs of today. It depicts a future in which the solution to a society riven by disease is upload everyone’s consciousness into a global virtual world known as Neutopia. There some people continue to live an ordinary existence, whilst others see their new existence to play in virtual worlds of the imagination, able to adventure, but never truly die. This is, of course, the perfect excuse for the Zombie Master to get out his other All Flesh Must Be Eaten genre books and run adventures in these genres within Neutopia. Fistful o’ Zombies (Wild West and zombies), Dungeons and Zombies, and Pulp Zombies will all be useful for that, but Enter the Zombie (zombies and martial arts) will be the most useful if the Zombie Master wants to let the Cast employ Matrix-style moves in his games. The introduction of the zombie into this Deadworld is particularly fitting, drawing from the MMORPG playing experience, and the zombie is introduced not just in the virtual world, but the real one too. Overall, this Deadworld offers the most flexibility because it can draw upon many genres, and the Cast get to play some quite powerful characters.

Although its title is not quite as telling, of all of the Deadworlds in All Tomorrow’s Zombies, “The Death of the Alliance” is actually the most obvious in terms of its inspiration. For millennia, the twin empires of Thaxia and Zothia co-existed peacefully; the Thraxian Empire, governed by its Mystic Knights, providing foodstuffs and spiritual guidance whilst the Zothian Empire provided technology in return. Yet an ambitious advisor to the Zothian Emperor and a fallen Mystic Knight subverted the teachings of the Mystic Knights to usurp the throne and declare war on the Thraxian Empire. The latter managed to hold out until Emperor Krauss and Dark Lord Garth used necromancy to turn the inhabitants of Thraxia into zombies and so raise an unstoppable army of the undead. This then, is a Space Opera setting that should essentially be retitled “Star Wars and Zombies!” This could be huge fun and this shows in the well-executed efforts to work the undead into a familiar setting. It is also perhaps the easiest of the Deadworlds to run in All Tomorrow’s Zombies because it is so familiar and so light in feel. Bar of course, the existence of the zombies.

Rounding out the supplement in “Future Shock,” is a pair of Deadworlds that the Zombie Master will have to develop himself. The first of these, “Dead Contact,” is a variation upon “Cyber Marines and Death Machines,” but has the Cast as the inhabitants of a colony that discovers a secret, whilst “I, Zombie” reveals the dangers of a new form of near instantaneous travel.

Physically, All Tomorrow’s Zombies is well presented and well written. The artwork nicely depicts the grim nature of the various settings, and if the book needs a little editing here and there, it is only minor.

In all honesty, one of the reasons that I did not review this book when I first bought it was because I did not enjoy it. There was something about the supplement that was dissatisfying. On reading it for a second time, All Tomorrow’s Zombies is still dissatisfying, but not to the same degree. The source of the dissatisfaction is twofold. First, there is the breadth of the genre that the supplement has to encompass. In terms of rules and mechanics, All Tomorrow’s Zombies does encompass the genre successfully, but in terms of the Deadworlds, less so. Which leads to the second issue, that of uneven Deadworlds. The least interesting and most dissatisfying Deadworlds are too broad and leave the Zombie Master as to what to do beyond facing the members of recently risen retinue, which in some cases are not themselves all that interesting. The better Deadworlds, specifically “Cyber Marines and Death Machines” and “The Death of the Alliance” are better written, and more effort is made to work the undead into both.

Over all, All Tomorrow’s Zombies is still a good sourcebook for All Flesh Must Be Eaten. It does a good job of handling the Science Fiction genre for both the RPG and the UniSystem in general, such that in using its rules you could run a Science Fiction campaign in the setting of your choice or of your own creation. Plus you do get some really creepy, often nasty Deadworlds that bring zombie horror to the genre.