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

Friday, 30 January 2015

1984: Railway Rivals

1974 is an important year for the gaming hobby. It is the year that Dungeons & Dragons was introduced, the original RPG from which all other RPGs would ultimately be derived and the original RPG from which so many computer games would draw for their inspiration. It is fitting that the current owner of the game, Wizards of the Coast, released the new version, Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition, in the year of the game’s fortieth anniversary. To celebrate this, Reviews from R’lyeh will be running a series of reviews from the hobby’s anniversary years, thus there will be reviews from 1974, from 1984, from 1994, and from 2004—the thirtieth, twentieth, and tenth anniversaries of the titles. These will be retrospectives, in each case an opportunity to re-appraise interesting titles and true classics decades on from the year of their original release.


Back in the early 1990s, TSR held European GenCon at Camber Sands, a windswept holiday camp on England’s south coast, much to the shock and amusement of any visiting American guests. The fact that it was within sight of Dungeness nuclear power station only added to the weirdness—and that became a joke in Shadowrun supplement. It was there that I had my first exposure to Railway Rivals to the sound of designer Jack Jaffe extolling you to come and play Save the President. I joined a game run by David Watts, the designer of Railway Rivals, which was played using a map of Ireland. I certainly did not know that I was playing with the designer and I certainly did not win the game, but I enjoyed playing what was essentially my first exposure to railway games. I thought that the idea of drawing on the map to be novel and clever. This memory was enough a decade later to purchase the Games Workshop version of the game and then two decades on, to purchase the original version that came in the heavy cardboard tube that could hold multiple maps.

Railway Rivals is a very stripped back game. It consists of a single six-sided die, six trains (or simply tokens), and a set of washable felt pens that match the colours of the tokens, but at the heart of the game—its maps. Each depicted a geographical area—Eastern USA, London & Liverpool, Germany, and so on—marked with cities, hills, and rivers on a hex grid. Each map sheet is laminated so that it can be drawn on—and that is the point of the game. Each player was setting out to build or draw his own railway network that connected the cities on the map. Then the players would race their trains over their networks to score money.

At the beginning of a game each player receives a train and a pen in a matching colour before rolling for his starting city. Then on his turn a player rolls the die to determine his income which he spends to build, or draw, new track in his network. Most of the maps consist of open plains which are cheap to lay track over, but hills and rivers cost more to cross, as does having to cross or parallel a rival player’s railway line. Money is earned for connecting your network to the cities on the map.

As soon as all cities have been connected, the game’s second phase begins. Races are set up between random cities and the players compete to get there first. Money is awarded to players arriving in first and second place, but must be paid to any railway rival whose track you used as part of your move. This is likely because it is rare for a player to connect to every city on the map. At the end of the game, the player with the most money wins.Once all cities are joined by railway tracks, the second part of the game starts. Players race their trains along the tracks between randomly chosen pairs of cities; just as in real life, players must pay other players to use elements of their track if they do not have a complete route of their own to the current target city. The choice of routes raced is random; each city is used one or more times. Money is awarded to the trains that arrive first and second, and the player with the most money when all routes have been raced is the winner.

By modern standards, Railway Rivals looks simplistic, but that would be an unfair assessment. The laying of the track across a map offers some tactical choice as each player attempts to make the best advantage of his starting position and map’s terrain. Often, this focuses upon certain choke points, typically to cities only accessible via gaps in the surrounding hills that are expensive to build through or to groups of cities, like those of New England.* In such a situation, when it comes to laying track, a player needs to ask himself if it is cheaper to build through the hills or lay track alongside that of his rivals.

*Note that this is typical of most railway games set in the Eastern USA.

Racing the trains in the second phase of course does involve more than a degree of luck, both in terms of rolling for the starting and finishing cities for each race, and rolling movement each turn. Each race will proceed without any complications when a player is travelling over his own network, but should a player need to switch to a rival network to get to a destination, then he needs to pay for the track use. Which loses him money—and thus a potential victory—to his rivals. He can offset this by spending the money he already has to build new track, but again, the cost and any advantage it gains a player needs to be carefully weighed up.

Once all of the races have finished, the players need to total up their money. The player with most is the winner.

Railway Rivals was self-published for many years, but versions have been published by Games Workshop and Queen Games. Despite having won the Spiel des Jahres in 1984,* Railway Rivals is a forgotten classic, having been out of print for almost two decades now. After all, winning the Spiel des Jahres back then did not have the same prestige as it does now, and barring Settlers of Catan, which won in 1995, few winners are remembered from before the rise in popularity of the hobby board game in last fifteen years. Surprisingly it did find a home as a PBEM, or Play-by-E-Mail, game played via fanzines, its simplicity nicely supporting this type of game play. 

*It is unlikely that a game like Railway Rivals would win the Spiel des Jahres today. Arguably though, Railway Rivals was the Ticket to Ride of its day.

Of course, Railway Rivals lacks the sophistication of the modern game. Indeed it looks very plain, but this plainness  suits the simplicity of the game and the simplicity of its game play. In fact the maps are clean, simple, and elegant. The only real complaint about the game is how messy it is—having to wipe a map clean after a game is over is a chore. Yet this write-on, wipe-off feature lies at the game’s heart—prefiguring the crayon games series begun with Empire Builder from Mayfair Games by several years—and makes the game most replayable. Some thirty-five official maps were released for the game, many of them classics in terms of locations for railway games—Germany, New England, France, and so on.

Railway Rivals is all about the maps and getting the chance to draw on them—again and again. Getting to scribble like this has a little of the childhood pleasure to it, but this is a game and a rather charming one at that. Simple and fun, Railway Rivals is not just about lay tracking, but drawing them!

Sunday, 25 January 2015

A Shared Fate

The truth is that generic RPGs are not exactly interesting to review. They lack flavour, they lack the substance of a background that is usually the reason to buy into a RPG, and mechanics are never the most enticing thing to write or read about. Well, okay, but what you are reviewing when it comes to the generic RPG is its tone, the type of game it supports, and of course, its mechanics. So Steve Jackson Games’ GURPS is a mechanically detailed game with a realistic tone whereas Savage Worlds from Pinnacle Entertainment Group is broader in terms of tone and mechanics that particularly supports pulp action. Both are traditional RPGs in that they require a GM who creates the world and serves as the gatekeeper through which the players act and learn about the world. So what then of FATE Core, a more recent generic RPG?

Published by Evil Hat Games, FATE came to prominence in 2006 with the publication of the pulp action RPG, Spirit of the Century. It is a storytelling style RPG in which the player characters are competent and capable, and above all lead dramatic lives. The default game—other FATE-powered RPGs with their own settings do not necessarily require this—involves shared world building duties between the players and the GM. This is part of character generation, done through the creation of Aspects, the equivalent in FATE of advantages and disadvantages. Play is similarly collaborative, as players and GM alike can invoke and compel everyone’s Aspects to bring drama to the game. Above all, the task of both GM and players alike is to “make everyone around look awesome.”

The latest iteration of the game, the ENNIE Award-winning FATE Core was funded via Kickstarter and comes as a handsome digest-sized hardback. It is well-written, the content is clear and easy to understand, and it is engagingly illustrated. The illustrations primarily consist of kung-fu cyber-gorillas, magic cops, and the trio of characters—Landon (swordsman and ‘Discipline of the Ivory Shroud’), Cynere (‘An honorable thief with a fast blade’), and Zird the Arcane (‘Wizard for Hire’)—that together with their setting form the basis of the examples throughout the book. 

In honour of this artwork, our sample character is a combination of the magic cop and the kung-fu gorilla. Archibald  ‘Mourning Archie’ Maugham is a cop with the New Orleans police department, in a world where there is magic and there are intelligent gorillas and monkeys. 

Archibald  ‘Mourning Archie’ Maugham
High Concept (Aspect): Magic-Monkey on a Mission
Trouble (Aspect): Monkey in a man’s world
Aspects: Manners maketh the monkey, Should a monkey meddle in magic?, An eye for the ladies
Stunts: A good gorilla is hard to keep down, A gorilla’s grip, Just the facts, ma’am
Skills: Physique (Great +4); Investigate, Contacts (Good +3); Fight, Magic, Notice (Fair +2); Athletics, Rapport, Shoot, Will (Average +1)
Physical Stress (Physique): 1 2 3 4
Mental Stress (Will): 1 2 3
Refresh Rate: 3 Fate Points: 3

As can be seen by this example, characters are defined by their Aspects, Skills, and Stunts. Aspects describe elements of a character and to work effectively, they need to be double-edged, that is, each should be both an advantage or a disadvantage. For example, the Aspect ‘An eye for the ladies’ could be used as an Advantage to spot a particular woman in a crowd or a bonus to seduction attempts, but as a Disadvantage, it would mean that the character would be easily distracted in female company. In play, an Aspect is Invoked by the player to gain an advantageous bonus or a reroll, but Compelled to trigger its disadvantageous elements. It costs a player a Fate point to Invoke an Aspect, but he will gain a Fate point if the Aspect is Compelled. (A Compel can be resisted by a player, but this costs him a Fate point).
So for example, Archie is chasing Flyss the dip, a well-known pickpocket who frequents high class joints. With a flash of his badge he gets into the Cat’s Pajamas, a nightspot where Flyss is sometimes seen. He scans the crowd and will use his Notice skill of +2 (Fair) to spot the miscreant, but the GM knows that Flyss knows how to work the crowd and sets the difficulty at +3 (Good). This is not an easy roll, so Archie’s player Invokes one of his Aspects—‘An eye for the ladies’—to gain a +2 on the roll.
Conversely, instead of Archie’s player Invoking ‘An eye for the ladies’, the GM could Compel the Aspect. Were this to happen, Archie would charge into the Cat’s Pajamas and get distracted by the other pretty ladies in the joint so he fails to see Flyss slip out of the back door. In this, ‘An eye for the ladies’ has worked as a disadvantage, so why would Archie’s player let this happen? Well, for two reasons. First, because it earns Archie a Fate point, and second, because it is interesting and it contributes towards the drama.
Stunts provide advantages or bonuses under certain circumstances, usually to skills. Skills simply provide a bonus to skill rolls, there being a limited number of broad skills in the game. Where a character lacks a skill, he simply has it at Mediocre or +0.

Mechanically, whenever a player wants to undertake an action, he selects a skill and rolls four Fudge dice—FATE having originally been derived from the Fudge RPG mechanics—special six-sided dice, each of which has two faces marked with a ‘+’ symbol, two faces marked with a ‘–’ symbol, and two faces left blank. The ‘+’ and ‘–’ symbols cancel each out and the blank faces add nothing, so the results range simply between +4 and –4. The result is added to the player’s skill, aim being to beat a target set by the GM, an Average target being +1, a Fair target being +2, and so on, the targets matching the skill values in terms of progression. Should a player’s result match the target, then he succeeds at a cost; if the result is one or two points or shifts above the target, he simply succeeds; and if the result is three or more  shifts, he succeeds with style. In combat, shifts usually represent damage inflicted upon a target, but should a character succeed with style, then he can place a temporary Aspect in play, that can either be used once and then it is lost, or used once for free with subsequent uses requiring a Fate point to be expended.
For example, Archie has finally tracked down Flyss to her apartment, only to find that it is alight and burning furiously. He charges in to get his quarry out, only to discover that Flyss does not live alone. Now he not only has to rescue her, but also her roommates! As the building collapses around him, Archie’s player makes a Physique check against a difficulty of +2 (Fair) to hold up a support long enough for the girls to get out. He rolls ‘+’, ‘+’, ‘+’, and ‘–’ for a total of +3, which when added to his Physique gives a result of +7, which when compared to the target grants Archer five shifts! Archie’s player gets to set up two advantages at a cost of two shifts each. First, he buys ‘No-one gutsier than a gorilla’, essentially a temporary reputation, but second, he buys ‘I pulled your ass from the fire’, which he plans to Invoke when he interrogates Flyss.
Aspects like this can be set up on locations, objects, on NPCs, and on player characters, and then during play both the players and the GM can interact with them, Invoking and Compelling as necessary. Similarly, the GM can design and create places, people, and things all with the simple use of Aspects that get to the core of anything that he designs and creates, and again these can be Invoked or Compelled as part of FATE Core collaborative play. This collaborative element of the game begins before character creation, indeed it starts with the players sitting down with the GM and working together to create the world in which they want to play. This includes the genre, the campaign name, issues for the characters to face and deal with, and then locations and NPCs. From this the players can get an idea of their characters’ place in the world and what each wants to do before character generation. This in part is also collaborative, the players tying some of their character’s Aspects into previous experiences with each other. Should the players and GM know what they want, then it would be quite possible to create a world, characters, and the basis for a campaign just by sitting round the table and talking.

Further, Aspects are mutable. They can change as a game progresses and its events affect each of the players. Typically they come after a Milestone has been reached in a campaign, perhaps revealing thwarting the plot of a campaign’s villain, the greater the Milestone, the more that a player can change about his character. So for example, over the course of a campaign, Archie’s relationship with Flyss goes from cop and snitch to cop and contact to gorilla and girl, so perhaps the Aspect, ‘An eye for the ladies’ might become something like, ‘A girl for the gorilla’. In general though, FATE Core involves little in the way of character progression, skill improvement in particular, being slow and steady. The focus in FATE Core is the play and the drama, not gaining Experience Points, but a great touch is that alongside discussing player character progression, FATE Core looks at world progression, the idea being that both should go hand-in-hand. When you think about it, this is obvious, but it makes sense in as dramatic an RPG as FATE, that it should be an explicit point.

Mechanically, FATE Core is straightforward and not particularly complex—especially for the players. For the GM it is a slightly more complex game, but again not overly so. There is solid discussion of the mechanics and their nuts and bolts, of creating and running scenarios, and of designing and creating ‘Extras’, the elements that support a game, whether that is magic, cyberware, vehicles, and so on. This discussion of the rules and the mechanics is also supported by a discussion of how to run the game, but what it comes down to is a simple question, “What matters in this scene?” Answering this question should be dramatic and interesting—and it should have scope for equally dramatic and interesting failure.

In addition, it is easy to take FATE Core and use its mechanics to adapt the game, setting, film, book, or television series of your choice. Evil Hate Games has already done this with its The Dresden Files Roleplaying Game, but the simplicity of the game’s skills and the adaptability of its Aspects and stunts make this mechanically easy. 

Now this is all great, and FATE Core is a very readable set of rules, but FATE has a problem. It is not a fault intrinsic to FATE itself, but rather with what FATE is—a storytelling RPG. Arguably, every RPG involves storytelling, but FATE Core focuses on it in particular by shifting narrative control. For a quarter of a century, the RPG has followed the model mentioned at the beginning of the review, that is, a GM or DM serving as the gatekeeper for the world through which the player characters learn about and interact with said world. Coming out of the Indie School movement, FATE Core takes ‘aspects’ of the narrative away from the GM and hands them to the players and their characters. This can be seen at first in the collaborative process of creating the world, but shows most obviously in the use and application of Aspects. It further shows in the move away from the ‘yes/no’ binary mechanics of older non-narrative games, to mechanics where the mechanics not only give the ‘success/failure’ binary results, but also the results ‘succeed, but with consequences’ and ‘fail interestingly’. This is a shift in both play style and thinking. It takes adjustment.

In no way is this problem insurmountable and in no way is it an impediment to playing FATE. It is certainly not the fault of FATE itself, but of decades an ingrained play style, and for the players it is a matter of adjusting to thinking about how their characters interact with the world. It helps that FATE Core is well written and gives plenty of examples. It helps that FATE requires a GM, that it is not a wholly GM-less, narrative storytelling game, the distinction being that someone is still in charge, presenting the world, but that someone is someone the players interact with rather than work through. It helps even further that Evil Hat Games makes available FATE Accelerated, a much condensed, but still very playable version of the rules for the pocket-friendly sum of $5. Arguably worth each player having a copy.

At the beginning of the review, I stated that the generic RPG is all about its tone, the type of of game it supports, and its mechanics. FATE Core is light in tone, though like most generic RPGs the tone can be made much darker, depending upon the genre. Mechanically, FATE Core is definitely light and broad rather than detailed, veering towards the cinematic in style. The detail in FATE Core though is in the drama that comes out of its play with the use of Aspects. Its combination of a GM and narrative play elements, primarily its Aspects,that enable player input, arguably place FATE Core in between the traditional RPG and the GMless, narrative storytelling RPG, making it a highly accessible bridge between the two.

Saturday, 17 January 2015

For Cultured Friends

When you get home and are asked, “Who do you know in Toronto?”, in this household there can only be two answers—Robin D. Laws and James Maliszewski—and it is unlikely that I would be receiving mail from the former. So the question is, what would James Maliszewski—a doyen of Old School Renaissance through his blog, Grognardia and author of Dwimmermount,* an Old School Renaissance mega-dungeon published by Autarch LLC—be sending me in the post? The answer is issue one of The Excellent Travelling Volume, subtitled A fanzine for M.A.R. Barker’s World of Tékumel and James’ first dip into the gaming hobby after a sabbatical for personal reasons.

*In the interests of disclosure I was an editor on Dwimmermount.

With The Excellent Travelling Volume #1 James’ not only dips his toe back into the gaming hobby, he does it in as Old School a fashion as is possible. For this is a fanzine—a format that is in this day and age decidedly old fashioned—and it is devoted to Empire of the Petal Throne: The World of Tékumel, TSR Inc.’s second RPG published, the first RPG to be published with a setting, and the first ‘culture’ RPG that presented a setting based on unfamiliar societies, histories, cultures, and of course, languages. The creation of linguist, M.A.R. Barker, learning some of the languages—or at least some of the phrases—can go some way to immersing yourself in what is a fascinating setting. Compared to the background detail in Empire of the Petal Throne: The World of Tékumel, its rules do feel stripped back and perhaps a little bare—certainly in comparison to the versions of the game that would come later—but are definitely more straightforward and accessible than those presented in the previous year’s Original Dungeons & Dragons and they are certainly a step or three away from the wargaming origins of Original Dungeons & Dragons. So, James Maliszewski is writing supporting material for a forty year old game in a thirty year old* format. The question is, is James Maliszewski wasting his time? Followed by, is The Excellent Travelling Volume #1 any good?

*Yes, fanzines are older than that, but the heyday of roleplaying fanzines was thirty years ago.

The Excellent Travelling Volume #1 comes as a twenty-eight page, digest-sized booklet, illustrated with greyscale pictures. Inside are eight sections, most of which map onto particular sections in Empire of the Petal Throne: The World of Tékumel. To modern eyes this will look somewhat arcane, but it has to be remembered that rules in the first few years of the hobby were organised in the only way which designers knew—like those of a wargame such as Panzer Blitz or Squad Leader. The first three sections in the fanzine quickly address the subjects of Alignment, Professions, and Basic Talents in the author’s campaign before leaping into something meatier in the fourth section with a variant of the magic-user. This is the Shaman, the barbarian equivalent to the magic-user, the latter being a civilised, studious profession, typically found in the ecclesiastical hierarchies of the temples of the Five Empires—the region on Tékumel where most campaigns are set. The Shaman learns not from attending classes or studying books, but directly at the feet of another Shaman. This makes this Profession suitable as an NPC whenever the typically Tsolyani parties—civilised peoples—wander off into the wilderness or as a player character who casts magic and wanders off the boat in the company of his  fellow barbarian tribesmen, or in Tsolyanu parlance, uncultured, uncivilised, nakome scum! ‘Barbarians off the boat’ being one of the default campaign set ups in Tékumel roleplaying. The Profession includes some new professional skills as well as a list of skills. This is a nice addition and it will be interesting to see what other Professions might appear in future issues.

The fifth section is definitely the highlight of The Excellent Travelling Volume #1. In the hierarchical clan-based society of Tsolyanu—the setting’s default campaign location—often the best way to get ahead is to find a patron. Patronage will get both nakome and those of lower clans a certain protection and into places where they might not otherwise get. The five Patrons presented here are done so in the format of Patrons a la Traveller, that is, an NPC and four to five options as what might be really going on. The five NPCs are very different, what they want is very different, and each of these Patrons is essentially the outline of a mini-scenario that the GM needs to develop. They are easily adapted to the Tékumel RPG of the GM’s choice and patrons as good as these definitely need to be a regular feature of the fanzine.

The Bestiary, a collection of a dozen new monsters and creatures, is perhaps less useful. Given the limited space devoted to them, their descriptions are surprisingly flavoursome, but they do feel crammed in and they do suffer for a lack of illustrations. These creatures are followed by descriptions of six ‘magical’ items, which again suffer for a lack of illustrations, but not for a lack of interesting descriptions.

Rounding out this first issue of The Excellent Travelling Volume #1 is ‘The Hidden Shrine’, a short of adventure. Easy to drop into most campaigns, it describes what amounts to a small, eight room dungeon suitable for low level characters. It is no simple dungeon though, there is something more interesting going on here, actually quite mundane, but which can have interesting ramifications for the player characters if the GM decides to develop the plot given in its few short pages. This is a good ‘Old School’ style adventure, but adventures on Tékumel do involve more than just ‘dungeons’, so it will be interesting to see what further adventures will be presented in future issues of the fanzine.

As to the matter of whether or not James Maliszewski is wasting his time with The Excellent Travelling Volume #1, well the answer has to be ‘yes’ and ‘no’. ‘Yes’ because not only is he publishing material for a setting that is arcane, obscure, and impenetrable, he is doing it for a version of the RPG that has been out of print for decades (though it can be downloaded via RPGnow, rather than for the latest, just published version, Béthorm: Tabletop Role-Playing on the Plane of Tékumel, published by UNIgames. Arguably, Tékumalis—those of us in the gaming hobby daft enough to play RPGs set on Tékumel—are ‘niche’ gamers, because it certainly takes some dedication, and those Tékumalis who play Empire of the Petal Throne: The World of Tékumel are a niche within a niche. So the exact audience for The Excellent Travelling Volume #1 is, well, narrow. Yet ‘no’ because there is material in the pages of The Excellent Travelling Volume #1 that is useful and easily adapted to any Tékumel-set RPG, whether that is Different Worlds Publications’ Swords & Glory from 1983, Theater of the Mind Enterprises’ Gardasiyal: Adventures in Tekumel from 1994, Guardians of Order’s Tékumel: Empire of the Petal Throne from 2005, last year’s Béthorm: Tabletop Role-Playing on the Plane of Tékumel, or another ruleset. These are of course ‘Patrons’, ‘Magical Devices’, and ‘The Hidden Shrine’, all relatively easy to adapt. And also ‘no’ because The Excellent Travelling Volume #1 is clearly a labour of love for James Maliszewski.

Physically, The Excellent Travelling Volume #1 is nicely, though imperfectly presented. The artwork is eye catching and captures the weird nature of Tékumel, though it is a pity that none of the new creatures are illustrated. The typeface is a little faint and it could do with an edit, so a second pair of eyes could have been useful.

There have been fanzines devoted to Tékumel before, most notably The Eye of All-Seeing Wonder. This new fanzine, The Excellent Travelling Volume, is not The Eye of All-Seeing Wonder—it lacks both the breadth and depth and the detail—but it is not trying to be. It is a more superficial affair, concerned with the issues that concerned us in the ‘Golden Age of Roleplaying’, that is, character types, monsters, magic, and in a sense, dungeons. Yet just like Empire of the Petal Throne: The World of Tékumel, this fanzine goes beyond such base concerns to give them some of the detail, the flavour, and the feel of M.A.R. Barker’s beautifully alien creation. The ‘Old School’ aspects of The Excellent Travelling Volume #1 may be off-putting for modern gamers and some of the Tékumali may find its Old School approach a little simplistic, but there is a great deal to like in The Excellent Travelling Volume #1 and it showcases how even the earliest of RPGs, Empire of the Petal Throne: The World of Tékumel, pushed the hobby beyond the superficialities of dungeon delving.

If you are a Tékumali, you are going to want to take a look at The Excellent Travelling Volume #1. This is a good first issue that lays the foundations of hopefully many issues to come. Mr. Maliszewski welcome back to the hobby. Now when is issue #2 being released?

Friday, 16 January 2015

Take the Caves Back!

The reputation of B2 Keep on the Borderlands and its influence on fantasy roleplaying is such that publishers keep returning to it. TSR, Inc. of course published the original as well as including it in the Dungeons & Dragons Basic Set, which is where many gamers encountered it. The publisher would also revisit it with Return to the Keep on the Borderlands for its twenty-fifth anniversary, and the module would serve as the basis for Keep on the Borderlands, part of Wizards of the Coast’s ‘Encounters Program’ for Dungeons & Dragons, Fourth Edition. Now the latest version of the game, Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition has not even been available for a year yet and another publisher is revisiting B2 Keep on the Borderlands, but revisiting it from a wholly new direction.

A year before the events of Module SG9: Reclaiming the Caves on the Borderlands bold adventurers made their way beyond the edges of civilisation to strike at an outpost of evil from where the forces of chaos planned to invade the civilised lands. They entered the Caves of Chaos again and again to sow discord between an alliance of evil humanoid races and so save the ‘Keep on the Borderlands’. Cleaned out, the caves have become home to dozens of miners and their families with the discovery of a vein of silver. Of course you cannot keep evil down for long because the previous tenants of the Caves of Chaos want their lease back!

Published by Sacrosanct Games as a twenty-three page, 2.2 MB PDF, Reclaiming the Caves on the Borderlands is designed for a party of between four and six characters of Second to Fourth Level. It is a scenario in which the player characters are evil humanoids out to take back the infamous Caves of Chaos or mercenaries claiming the caves for their employer. Not only are the player characters facing the miners and their families, they also have to contend with rival factions who have also come to reclaim the caves, and perhaps with a counterstrike despatched by the Castellan from the Keep if the player characters prove too successful.

Written for use with Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition, the DM will need access to the Player’s Handbook, the Monster Manual, and the Dungeon Master’s Guide. Ideally the DM will also need access to a copy of B2 The Keep on the Borderlands as this will provide both the background to the region, the motives and details of the previous occupants of the Caves of Chaos, and actual descriptions of the caves under their previous tenants. This is not to say that Reclaiming the Caves on the Borderlands could not be run without access to B2 The Keep on the Borderlands, but fundamentally it underpins this new take upon an old classic as what this new take actually is, is a toolkit. Reclaiming the Caves on the Borderlands is a means to approach the original scenario from a different angle rather than being a full adventure in the classic sense.

So if Reclaiming the Caves on the Borderlands is a toolkit, what does it provide? First, a quick set of stats to enable the players to create and roleplay Bugbears, Gnolls, Goblins, Hobgoblins, and Kobolds—and Lizardmen if the players prefer not to play evil characters. Second, a simple means to measure occupation of each of the caves, the progress of other factions as they try to reclaim the other caves, and reward player success with bonus reinforcements. Third, a means to stock the various caves/encounters—nearly all of the locations in the Caves of Chaos will need to be stocked and described by the DM who will have to fill in such details in the spaces provided. A map of both the Caves of Chaos and the surrounding area is also provided. 

Reclaiming the Caves on the Borderlands is underwritten and requires an edit, but then the standards for a $1 adventure are not required to be all that high. This is not to say that the adventure is terribly written, but what it lacks is any sort of background and motivation for the player characters. Who is driving their characters to act? Where are they from? If they are from a tribe, then what tribe? If they are mercenaries, who is their employer? Who are their rivals? Some other interested and rival parties are suggested as possible story lines, but none of them have much to do with evil humanoids. Nor is there any advice on playing ‘evil’ characters, but then perhaps that is outside the scope of the adventure.

There is undoubtedly a good idea at the heart of this scenario, but Reclaiming the Caves on the Borderlands is underdeveloped and the idea at its heart is not as fully supported as it could have been. Yet for $1, the DM is getting something that he can work with and develop himself, and so as a spur for his creativity, Reclaiming the Caves on the Borderlands is a reasonable purchase.

Sunday, 11 January 2015

The Fourth Doctor

With the publication of The Fourth Doctor Sourcebook, Cubicle Seven Entertainment’s celebration of Doctor Who’s fiftieth anniversary reaches the most consistently popular Doctor of the Classic Era, the Doctor with the most stories, and the Doctor whose era came to define Doctor Who in the minds of the public at large. Thus The Fourth Doctor Sourcebook  for the Ennie-award winning Doctor Who: Adventures in Time and Space roleplaying game has a lot of ground to cover, a lot to live up to, and a challenge to overcome. It is certainly no surprise that this is the biggest in the series to date—at some two-hundred-and-fifty-six pages—as it sets out to detail and explore the adventures of the most whimsical and mercurial of Doctors. Adventures that would see him once again return to being a wanderer in time and space, see him go back in time to confront the origins of the greatest threat to the universe, see him face his old enemy again and again, and return home to rescue his people, not once, but twice.

The era of the Fourth Doctor really begins with The Ark in Space—the story Robot really being a swansong for the Third Doctor and a sign of the Fourth Doctor’s disdain for the constraints placed upon him during his exile. Where the Third Doctor and thus The Third Doctor Sourcebook looked backwards, the Fourth Doctor and thus The Fourth Doctor Sourcebook looks very much forward, travelling into the near and far future again and again right up until the mathematical foundations are threatened by the Master in Logopolis. In doing so it would draw upon classic story after classic story for its inspiration, whether that it is the Ruritanian adventure of The Androids of Tara, the adventures of Sherlock Holmes in The Talons of Weng-Chiang, the writings of Agatha Christie in The Robots of Death, and Mary Shelley's Frankenstein in The Brain of Morbius. In doing so, the series would draw heavily upon the Gothic and take it the height of its popularity. The other themes present in the Fourth Doctor’s adventures include the revelations about the Time Lords and the eccentricities of his bohemian nature, but its is the Gothic that stands out.

In addition to this reliance upon the Gothic in the Doctor’s wanderings, the era of the Fourth Doctor also brought back the competent and the liberated Companion, something that had been missing for much of the Third Doctor’s adventures. Sarah Jane Smith, Leela, Nyassa, and Adric were all competent in their own way, but no companion was more competent than Romana—both incarnations of her! The Fourth Doctor Sourcebook perhaps concentrates upon her more than any of the Doctor’s companions. Indeed, each incarnation is accorded a full-page character sheet, just as the Doctor is himself, whereas each of his other companions is given just a half page each for their character sheets. So what this introduces is the idea that Time Lords can be played as companions and to support this aspect, several new Traits are given, these include Bio-Rhythmic Control, Cloistered, Sesquipedalian, and Tailored Regeneration. Character sheets are also included for K-9 and Harry Smith, but the inclusion of sheets for Nyssa and Tegan feel like an afterthought given the limited number of journeys they took with the Fourth Doctor in comparison with the Fifth Doctor. The second chapter is rounded out with stats for the Fourth Doctor’s TARDIS, this version being less obstreperous and easier to pilot.

Given the number of stories that The Fourth Doctor Sourcebook has to cover, it is no surprise that some nine tenths of the book are devoted to their detailing. Yet where in the previous entries in the series the stories were organised into a number of chapters, in The Fourth Doctor Sourcebook, all of the Fourth Doctor’s stories are collated into a single chapter—a chapter that takes up some nine tenths of the book. One side effect of this is that the first two chapters—the first devoted to the Fourth Doctor era’s themes and new character Traits, the second to character sheets for the Doctor and his companions—feels all too brief, underwritten perhaps. It does not help that there is no section on recurring villains, but then again, the Fourth Doctor had so few, and instead had lots of new villains, including the Movellans, the Rutans, and the Zygons*, which never appeared again.

*At least not in Classic Who.

Yet what this apparent adverse aspect of The Fourth Doctor Sourcebook does is give room for the individual stories and their elements to shine through. Each is given a synopsis—about a page in length, a guide to running the adventure, a discussion of ideas related to the adventure, and then possible further adventures. Also given are the stats for any relevant gadgets and technologies, NPCs, and monsters. So for example, in Doctor Who’s finest adventure—Genesis of the Daleks—it is suggested that the Time Lords’ meddling here could be the first shot in the Time War and that the Doctor could have been their agent before; the mechanics of the Time Lords’ Time Rings are detailed; and of course, stats are given for the Dalek Prototype (Mark III Travel Machine), Davros, Security Commander Nyder, and Mutos. Other gadgets and technologies detailed under their particular stories include Magnus Greel’s Time Cabinet from The Talons of Weng-Chiang, the outlawed Demat Gun from The Invasion of Time, and the Master’s horrid Tissue Compression Eliminator from The Deadly Assassin. Notable additions include a list of real world myths—Set, dragons, vikings, ghosts, and so on—under Pyramids of Mars and maps them onto a matching time period and matching alien horror. So for example, the myth of dragons is matched with the American ‘Bone Wars’ of the 1880s and a Zygon living war machine. It is a simple yet pleasing table that provides a model for the GM to map other myths and alien horrors onto.

The other big event of the Fourth Doctor’s era is The Key to Time, the first story to tell a big story over multiple stories. In modelling this complete season and storyline, in game terms this broadens the scope of Doctor Who: Adventures in Time and Space roleplaying game into full campaigns, rather than being just a series of adventures—as in previous series and incarnations of the Doctor. For an event as big as this, the overview of The Key to Time and how to run it feels underwritten, but again, room is given for the individual stories to shine through.

From The Key to Time, The Fourth Doctor Sourcebook winds down through the E-Space Trilogy to Logopolis and the end of the Fourth Doctor’s era. The sourcebook has one final, interesting inclusion—an appendix that details the lost story, Shada. Of course, filming was never completed on this story and this was never broadcast, but it has been given treatment a number of times since, both in Doctor Who and without. Its inclusion here is a pleasing touch, especially as perhaps this is the least familiar story detailed in the supplement.

Physically, The Fourth Doctor Sourcebook is well presented. The writing feels rushed in places and the use of black and white photographs does jar the eye given that everything else is in full colour.

Addressing every element and every story of the Fourth Doctor’s adventures was always going to be a challenging and daunting task. In attempting to cover everything, some things have had to be omitted. For example, the descriptions of both Sarah Jane Smith and Harry Sullivan are kept short and the GM referred to The Third Doctor Sourcebook and Defending the Earth, The UNIT Sourcebook for more information. Doubtless, the GM will need to refer to The Fifth Doctor Sourcebook for more detailed discussions of the Doctor’s later companions—Adric, Nyssa, and Tegan, as well as the next incarnation of the Master. Sadly the omission of stats for Henry Gordon Jago and George Litefoot from The Talons of Weng-Chiang is disappointing given their later, though noncanonical, adventures. Still, The Fourth Doctor Sourcebook covers a great deal and does it well, overcoming the challenge of presenting a lot of detail and background. In doing so, The Fourth Doctor Sourcebook brims with ideas, presenting for the Doctor Who: Adventures in Time and Space roleplaying game, the period when Classic Who was at its finest.

Friday, 9 January 2015

Thule Squared

Thulian Echoes is a scenario for Lamentations of the Flame Princess Weird Fantasy Roleplaying, the Old School Renaissance RPG that embraces both the weird and unforgiving bloody horror. Like last year’s well-received Scenic Dunnsmouthwhich in the interests of disclosure it should be noted that I edited and developedit draws from the works of H.P. Lovecraft for its inspiration. In Scenic Dunnsmouth that inspiration was the short stories The Dunwich Horror and The Shadow Over Innsmouth; in Thulian Echoes the inspiration is At the Mountains of Madness amongst others, though it could be said that Beyond the Mountains of Madness for Chaosium, Inc.’s Call of Cthulhu is also an inspiration. For just as in Beyond the Mountains of Madness, in Thulian Echoes the player characters are on the trail of a lost expedition. The author though, pushes this idea further into a clever conceitthe players not only roleplay their characters going in search of the lost expedition, they also get to roleplay the lost expedition into the bargain !

For the player characters, the scenario begins with their discovery of an ancient journal, one that describes the events of a forgotten expedition to a previously unknown, fog-shrouded island south of Iceland. In the year 200 AD, a group comprised of Roman ex-Legionary, a Gladiator, a Rabbi, a Sorcerer, a Pict, and an Engineer along with their henchmen sailed to this island in search of a Greek wizard called Xenophon, who is said to have absconded with a hoard of silver in the wake of the Emperor Titus’ sacking of Jerusalem. Once on the island they penetrated Xenophon’s labyrinth to discover strange machinery, a route deep into the bowels of the Earth, and perhaps the fate of the wizard himself. All of these events are described in detail in the journal, but in actuality the players roleplay the members of this expedition and it is their adventures that are described in the journal.

Where Thulian Echoes gets interesting is that the original adventurers are likely to have a permanent effect upon both the island and the dungeon. Actually, that is not the interesting fact about Thulian Echoes because once some adventurers enter a dungeonany dungeonthen they will have an effect upon said dungeon. No, where Thulian Echoes is interesting is the fact that ‘modern’ adventurers come to the island and dungeon and actually see and experience the effect that the original adventurers had upon it. In the scenario, this is represented by TAGs, each essentially a conditional state imposed by the original adventurers’ actions. For example, the original adventurers bring several dogs with them. If they are left on the island when the original adventurers depart, then they breed and give the island the ‘FERAL DOGS’ TAG. This gives the DM some bookkeeping to do between the first and second time that he runs the adventure. It also allows the players to ‘meta-game’ the scenario, that is, to have the original adventurers set up certain events that the player characters can take advantage of when they come to the island a thousand years later. Whilst this may mean that the player characters get their hands on a big pile of loot, the likelihood is that the original adventurers will have left the player characters with plenty of TAGs or the consequences of their actions, to deal with…

As much as the idea behind Thulian Echoes is clever, the overall effect is somewhat flat. Part of it is due to the fact that original adventurers are no more than outlines for which the players will need to generate attributes and Hit Points. Now the fact that they are labelled Legionary, Gladiator, Rabbi, Sorcerer, Pict, and Engineer gives a little colour that a player draw upon for inspiration, but they are not interesting in and of themselves. It does not help that they lack motivation beyond the simplistic desire to steal Xenophon’s treasure. Of course, there is nothing to stop the DM adding details to any of the given pre-generated original adventurers, but some information to that end could have been included. The real issue is that the dungeon itself is not interesting. It is not interesting as a dungeon and it is not interesting as a dungeon compared to the others published by Lamentations of the Flame Princessand Lamentations of the Flame Princess Weird Fantasy Roleplaying is definitely known for the quality of its dungeons (in the interests of disclosure, I should know, I have edited some of them).

Then of course there is the title of the scenario. ‘Thulian’ does not refer to the shade of pink, but to the far off island of Thule, perhaps Iceland, perhaps Greenland if Ultima Thule, certainly beyond the borders of the known world. Yet ‘Thulian’ is also a nod towards the Cthulhu Mythos, though even with the inclusion of the Elder Things in depths below the island, Thulian Echoes is somewhat light in terms of the Mythos. Rather it is a shading of the scenario, not its focus, which is of course, 'Echoes of Thule'.

Physically, Thulian Echoes is a slim booklet. The writing needs an edit here and there, but the artwork has a cartoony, even clunky look that is nicely pleasing on the eye. The cartography is certainly pretty, but the DM will need to pay it careful attend as it is not always easy to read.

There is undoubtedly an interesting idea at the heart of Thulian Echoes. Indeed, the idea at its core would work in number of different settings, whether that is Call of Cthulhu, Numenera, or Leagues of Adventure. Given the brevity of the booklet, the idea is reasonably implemented in Thulian Echoes, but nevertheless, the DM will need to pay very careful attention to the TAGs that are put into effect when the original adventurers play through the scenario. Ultimately and despite its clever idea, Thulian Echoes is perhaps something for the DM to develop further himself.

Sunday, 4 January 2015

The Pen is mightier...

With all of the recent interest in Lovecraftian investigative roleplaying in World War Two, particularly in Cubicle Seven Entertainment’s World War Cthulhu – The Darkest Hour and Modiphius Press’ Achtung! Cthulhu, it is sometimes forgotten that there was a conflict before the global war, one that has often been seen as the ‘dress rehearsal’ for World War Two. This is the Spanish Civil War, fought between the Republicans in support of the democratically elected Spanish Republic and the Nationalists, a fascist rebel group led by General Francisco Franco, between 1936 and 1939. It became the focal point of the radical politics of the Desperate Decade as the fascist nations of Germany and Italy actively supported the Nationalists and the Soviet Union supported the Republicans. It was thus the first clash of two totalitarian ideologies and the active support from both was in addition to the thousands of volunteers who would travel to Spain to fight for each side.

In fact, to date there has been only the one scenario set during the Spanish Civil War for any game of Lovecraftian investigative horror—‘No Pasaran!’ from the Miskatonic University Library Association monograph Shadows of War: Four Scenarios Set In and Around the Second World War published by Chaosium, Inc. for Call of Cthulhu. This is now joined by Soldiers of Pen and Ink, a scenario for Pelgrane Press’ RPG of clue orientated Lovecraftian investigative horror, Trail of Cthulhu. Penned by Adam Gauntlett, the author of Flying Coffins, RMS Titanic: The Millionaire’s Special, and Sisters of Sorrow, this is a one-shot affair that finds the investigators in Madrid, the Spanish capital, tasked with having to shoot a pro-Republican documentary when one of their team goes missing. Has Ramon been arrested by the Soviet representatives for his Trotskyite leanings or been assassinated by Fascist sympathisers?

As the scenario opens, the documentary team finds itself caught up in the opening manoeuvres of the Siege of Madrid with the city threatened by the advancing forces of the Fascists, rumours spreading widely before them about the blood thirsty nature of Franco’s men. Yet even as the Republican government and its Soviet advisors urge its soldiery and volunteers to the barricades, the Republican cause is undermined by differences in ideology and the fear of betrayal by Fifth Columnists, such that belief in the wrong ideology—Communism, Marxism, Trotskyism, or just simple Republicanism, may be enough to get you arrested or even shot! As much the the Republican cause is threatened by this factional rivalry, there is also something else that it fears that lies at the heart of the scenario—defeatism! This being a Trail of Cthulhu scenario, this manifests in an extremely pervasive fashion...

The hunt for Ramon will take the investigators back and forth across Madrid, interacting with famous persons such as Ernest Hemingway, amongst others, discovering signs of a pervading ennui and more, which threatens both the investigators and the city. Countering this ennui lies at the heart of Soldiers of Pen and Ink, which gives numerous opportunities for the investigators to be creative and to do the job that they were hired to do. This pushes the investigators to participate in a greater cause than that of one mere ideology or another, the chance to save Madrid and thus Spain, not from the Fascists, but from despair itself.

Although this is a scenario of Lovecraftian investigative horror, the atmosphere and tone Soldiers of Pen and Ink is perhaps more creepy than horrifying in its manifestation. Its horror comes more from what the two sides in the war are doing to each rather than from the Mythos, the threat of which is covert and insidious than explicit and sincere.

To support the scenario, Soldiers of Pen and Ink includes a good ten pages worth of background. This details the city of Madrid and Spain itself, focusing in particular on recent events; the arms and armour used by both sides; the equipment needed by the documentary team; and several new archetypes—Extremist, Volunteer, Spy, and Black Marketeer—should the players want to create their own investigators for Soldiers of Pen and Ink. Also included is a new Academic Ability, ‘Politics’, which may prove useful in the politically fractious atmosphere of the Siege of Madrid. Now while this is more than useful, it highlights one of the problems with Soldiers of Pen and Ink—our lack of familiarity with the period. This means that the players and their investigators need to assimilate quite a lot of information before they can begin playing Soldiers of Pen and Ink as it is unlikely that they will be aware of Spain and her political situation during this period, what they are doing in Spain, and of course, who Ramon is. This information would really work as a set of handouts so that the players can be ready to play without the need for the Keeper to present them with the need to resort to excessive exposition.

The second issue with Soldiers of Pen and Ink is that physically, it is slightly disappointing and not quite up to Pelgrane Press’ usual standards. The book needs an edit in places and the artwork lacks subtlety. It is also a pity that none of the pre-generated investigators come with their own portraits. That is by the by, for the third, and perhaps the biggest issue is the lack of a map to aid the Keeper. Certainly a map of Madrid would make Soldiers of Pen and Ink much easier to run.

Soldiers of Pen and Ink is primarily a one-shot. The motivations and politics of the period are not necessarily going to be as strong in ordinary investigators such that they would want to become involved in as fractious a conflict as the Spanish Civil War. This is not to say that it could not be run as part of an ongoing campaign, as rather that it would certainly make for a radical shift in tone and feel. One option of course would be to run it as a precursor to the war that is to come, although that does stray away from the time frame for Trail of Cthulhu. On the other hand, it would be very difficult to adapt the scenario to another location or period, the setting and its period being very of their time. Nevertheless, Soldiers of Pen and Ink is an engaging scenario, one that presents an interesting and clever interpretation of a Mythos entity, one that feels surprisingly modern, but it turns out is not, and one that is to an extent reminiscent of Nigel Kneale’s Quatermass and the Pit, all set against an undoubtedly Orwellian backdrop.