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

Sunday, 31 July 2016

Ice Cool School

Launched at UK Games Expo 2016, Ice Cool proved to be one of the hits of the convention. Indeed it won the UK Games Expo Award for Best Children’s Game bringing as it did two major additions to the flicking game. Flicking games, such as Crokinole and the recent Push It, have long been popular, but more recently game designers have been adding theme to the flicking. Rampage or Terror in Meeple City added Kaijū attacking a big city, whilst Flick ‘em Up! takes the flicking game to the wild west. What Ice Cool does is take the flicking game back to school, all the way down to the South Pole, and lets the players—or penguins—run round and jump about it!

Published by Brain Games, whose game the Game of Trains won the UK Games Expo Award for Best Card Game, Ice Cool is designed for two to four players, aged six and above. The story is simple. It is almost lunchtime and the penguin pupils have been promised fish. Greedy to gobble down their lunch, they have decided to race round the school grabbing fish, but the Hall Monitor must adhere to his duty and catch the miscreants before the fish is gone, confiscating  their Hall Passes when he does. Played over multiple lunchtimes, the penguin player who gets the most fish and the most Hall Passes is the winner.

 Two things stand out about Ice Cool. One is the ‘Box-In-A-Box’ set-up. Open up the box and nested inside are several smaller box lids. These together with the box base that Ice Cool comes are laid out and clipped together—using the tan wooden fish—to form the school and its rooms. Between each of the rooms there are doors and over some of these doors are clipped the fish that the penguin pupils are after. 

The stars of Ice Cool are the penguins themselves. Made of plastic, each has a round bottom with a ball bearing weight inside it. A bit like a Weeble. What this means is that when flicked, a penguin will roll. Of course a penguin can roll straight, but flick it from behind on the righthand side and a penguin will curve to the right and flick it from behind on the lefthand side and a penguin will curve to the left. Which means that it can go round corners! Yet if you flick a penguin in the head, you can get him to jump, even jump over the walls of the school!

You can see a quick demonstration here.

Ice Cool is played in rounds, one round per penguin. In each each round one penguin is the Hall Monitor. His job is to catch the other penguins who are trying to get through the doors with the fish and so claim the fish. When a penguin goes through a door with a fish of his colour, he grabs that fish and a Victory Point card. If the Hall Monitor touches another penguin, then he confiscates that penguin’s I.D. Card. Everyone continues flicking their penguins around the school until either one penguin has grabbed all of his fish from over the appropriate doors or the Hall Monitor has confiscated all of the other penguins’ I.D. Cards. At the end of the round, the Hall Monitor receives a Victory Card for each I.D. Card he confiscated. Then the I.D. Cards are handed back and another round begins with play continuing until everyone has been the Hall Monitor and the game ends. The penguin with the most Victory Points wins the game.

The Victory Point cards are worth one, two, or three points. A penguin—but not the Hall Monitor—can use a pair of Victory Cards with a value of one can use them to have another go at the end of his turn. These cards are marked with skates as well as one Victory point. If a penguin uses them like this, he does not lose the Victory Points.

Ice Cool is an attractive game with physical presence. It looks great on the table and it really is simple to play. The rules themselves are easy to grasp, but they are not written for the young audience that the game is aimed at. So an adult will need to read through them and teach them to younger players, but they are simple enough to both teach and play. Having done, what players young and old will find is that Ice Cool is fun. The design of the penguins means that skill and trick shots can be taken to get the rolling fish fiends to curve and jump to grab the fish and avoid the Hall Monitor. This physical element means that young and old can play on a level ice field and younger players have a good chance of beating adults. Both of course can get better and better with practice.

In fact, adults will enjoy Ice Cool as much as children, despite it being a children’s game. At Afternoon Play it proved to be a hit, despite it not being the type of game normally played at the regular meet-ups. Two games were played, one with just four players and another with eight, with two players per penguin. The team game proved to be a lot of fun.

If there is an issue with Ice Cool, it is that there is just the one layout that can be created using its ‘Box-In-A-Box’ set-up. It would have fun if the game allowed for a variety of school layouts to be created. That aside, the design of Ice Cool is clever in its simplicity and the design of the penguins means that tricks can be flicked around and over the walls of the school. Overall, Ice Cool is heaps of fun, a game that can be enjoyed by young and old, making it a terrific family game.

Friday, 29 July 2016

Scant Treatment

For a great many, Dungeons & Dragons was their first RPG, but as popular as the game proved to be, this did not stop publisher, TSR, Inc., from diversifying and looking for potential success with other genres. This resulted in games such as Top Secret, Star Frontiers, Marvel Super Heroes, and GANGBUSTERS, which in the case of the latter three, were designed as much to be introductions to the hobby as much as they were to new genres. The Old School Renaissance has plundered many of these titles, sometimes over and over, so that there are innumerable interpretations of Dungeons & Dragons, as well as versions of Marvel Super Heroes in the form of FASERIP and continued support for Star Frontiers. With continued support for these three RPGs, it would seem that GANGBUSTERS continues to be TSR’s unloved title, but in 2015, after twenty-five years since the last release for it, GANGBUSTERS is getting some love and support again.

Originally published in 1982, GANGBUSTERS: 1920’s Role-Playing Adventure Game is an RPG set during Prohibition Era America in Lakefront City, a setting roughly based on the Chicago of the period. It has the players take the roles of crooks, gangsters, reporters, cops, private eyes, and FBI agents and depending upon the scenario and campaign, fighting crime, taking a piece of the action, getting the big scoop—and earning Experience Points for it. Beyond the core boxed set, the RPG was supported by six releases, five of them scenarios and then the misnamed third edition in 1990. Then in 2015, Mark Hunt revisited the setting and the system with a brand new release, GBM-1 Joe’s Diner and has since led to the release of GangBusters-The Blue Book Detective Agency Beginner Game, a new and introductory edition of the game that focuses on playing private investigators. This, together with a new and expanded edition of GBM-1 Joe’s Diner and Welcome to Rock Junction, formed the basis for the Gangbusters Limited Edition Box BEGINNER GAME. Of course, for professional reasons, Reviews from R’lyeh cannot review any of the aforementioned books or indeed the boxed set, but it can review other releases from Mark Hunt for GANGBUSTERS and his Rock Junction setting, beginning with GBE-2 Man’s Best Friend. He has since followed it up with several supplements, of which GBE-1 Doctors' Orders is the second.

This supplement describes a location, that of The Men’s Doctor, a clinic in Lakefront City run by Doctor Moses Levon. The obvious use of such a location in a game like GANGBUSTERS is somewhere where the player characters can go to get fixed, typically after a fight, and this is a service that Doctor Levon offers. He charges of course$20 per gunshot wound, but he also provides another important and legitimate service. He sells alcohol. For during Prohibition, the U.S. Treasury Department authorised physicians to write prescriptions for medicinal alcohol, typically a pint per prescription. Which meant that you could get alcohol whilst avoiding both having to associate with crooks or the chance that the alcohol you just bought was ‘bathtub gin’, notorious for its ability to poison or even kill you. Prescriptions for alcohol are not cheap, but it was an easy method of acquiring booze if you had ailment that the doctor thought could be treated with it, such as cancer, indigestion and depression. Of course, it was also a regular source of income for any doctor willing to write out the prescriptionsand in the case of GBE-1 Doctors' Orders, Doctor Levon certainly is.

GBE-1 Doctors' Orders details the owner and staff of The Men’s Doctor, although only two of the four receive any real attention. Even so, both feel underwritten and there are implications and questions left unaddressed with both. For example, Doctor Levon is described as being “ a German in his heart and left after the war with one purpose to get rich in America.” With a first name like Moses and you left wondering at the exact meaning here. Neither the clinic’s nurse nor secretary are detailed beyond their mere stats and that is a shame, since there is certainly room for it. In additionand unlike GBM-1 Joe’s DinerGBM-1 Doctors’ Orders is light on ideas. There are a couple of hooks, but no scenario seeds.

Available as a 1.6 MB, six-page PDF, GBE-1 Doctors’ Orders physically feels as rough and unedited as the earlier GBM-1 Joe’s Diner. There is also the matter of the supplement’s title, should it refer to one doctor rather than multiple? The use of period photographs is now more or less a trademark for the line and adds a nice sense of the era. Similarly, the addition of a blank prescription adds a degree of verisimilitude to the affair.

Again, as with GBM-1 Joe’s Diner, it is easy to drop GBE-1 Doctors’ Orders into a GANGBUSTERS campaign or indeed any campaign set within the Prohibition Era. Yet unlike GBM-1 Joe’s Diner, this supplement lacks charm and a sense of engagement, both of which did a great deal to assuage its rough and ready production values. Without either, the production values of GBE-1 Doctors’ Orders are more obvious and thus much more of a distraction. Underdeveloped and underwritten, GBE-1 Doctors’ Orders is a disappointment after the engaging pleasure of GBM-1 Joe’s Diner.

Sunday, 24 July 2016

An Appendix N Short #2

For the most part, books and games released under the Old School Renaissance have been put by the small press, whether that is Labyrinth Lord from Goblinoid Games or Swords & Wizardry from published by Mythmere Games. To date, the only larger publisher to offer an Old School Renaissance RPG is Goodman Games with its Dungeon Crawl Classics Role Playing Game. What set this RPG apart from just about every other RPG and every other fantasy RPG is that every player begins the game playing Zero Level characters—and lots of them! In going through their first adventure, there will perhaps, be survivors who will survive to achieve First Level and acquire an actual Class.

The Dungeon Crawl Classics Role Playing Game, is though, published under the same Open Gaming Licence as other titles for the Old School Renaissance, which means that other publishers can release support for it. One such publisher is Brave Halfling Publishing, a small press outlet best known for its ‘White Box’ iterations of classic Dungeons & Dragons-style RPGs such as X-Plorers and Delving Deeper. Now, after a successful Kickstarter campaign, the publisher has released a small selection of adventures under the Appendix N imprint.

The first of these is Appendix N Adventure Toolkit #1: The Ruins of Ramat, a Zero-Level, ‘Character Creation Funnel’ designed to be played in a single evening or session. The second is Appendix N Adventure Toolkit #2: The Vile Worm. Like The Ruins of Ramat  this second scenario is designed to be played by between eight and twelve characters and like The Ruins of Ramat, this scenario has appeared for previous rule sets, as The Vile Worm of the Eldritch Oak for Swords & Wizardry in Brave Halfling Publishing’s Swords & Wizardry White Box, as The Vile Worm from Arcana Creations—again for Swords & Wizardry, and then again as The Vile Worm of the Eldritch Oak from Lord Zsezse Works for use with Paizo Publishing’s Pathfinder Roleplaying Game. Which means that it has a bit of a publishing history and so must be worth reprinting.

In The Vile Worm, the adventurers are travelling in a forest when they encounter a hermit, a priest of nature, who offers them a chance to rest and partake of a meal. He is of course, nothing of the sort, being a crazed berserker who discovered the sacrificial site of an ancient cult and now sees it as his duty to capture and give up victims to the vile worm that the cult worshipped. Whether or not the adventurers accept his invitation, they will find themselves ambushed and wondering at the truth of this madman. This truth is revealed over the course of three rooms, each quite detailed, and two or three combat encounters. In the process, the adventurers will hopefully rescue the berserker’s current victims and thus save a family. The worm itself is a nasty oozing creature bent on turning the adventurers into hosts for its eggs.

As atmospheric and as detailed as the scenario is, this is all that is—an extended encounter. Unlike The Ruins of Ramat, there is not material here to take it much further into an on-going campaign. Like The Ruins of Ramat, this scenario comes with a pair of hand outs that the Judge can use to illustrate certain locations and these are nicely done. Similarly, the cartography is excellent.

Unfortunately, Appendix N Adventure Toolkit #2: The Vile Worm has a couple of problems. The first is the one that beset Appendix N Adventure Toolkit #1: The Ruins of Ramat. The ‘Appendix N’ element of the scenario’s title—Appendix N Adventure Toolkit #2: The Vile Worm—denotes the fact that it is inspired by ‘Appendix N’, the list of inspirational fiction found at the back of the original Dungeon Master’s Guide that so influenced Dungeons & Dragons and then Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. This designation leads to expectations that these fictional inspirations, whether it is Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings or Jack Vance’s The Dying Earth, will be discussed or at least made clear. Sadly, this is not the case, but perhaps in future releases such a discussion would be a worthy inclusion…?

The second issue that that Appendix N Adventure Toolkit #2: The Vile Worm is short. It is an extended encounter, but little more, and lacking the extra material that can be added to a campaign, The Vile Worm feels all too brief… Nevertheless, Appendix N Adventure Toolkit #2: The Vile Worm is a solid, if short, adventure that works for the Dungeon Crawl Classics Role Playing Game as much as it does for other RPGs for the Old School Renaissance.

Saturday, 23 July 2016

Not Quite Out of the Gate

For a great many, Dungeons & Dragons was their first RPG, but as popular as the game proved to be, this did not stop publisher, TSR, Inc., from diversifying and looking for potential success with other genres. This resulted in games such as Top Secret, Star Frontiers, Marvel Super Heroes, and GANGBUSTERS, which in the case of the latter three, were designed as much to be introductions to the hobby as much as they were to new genres. The Old School Renaissance has plundered many of these titles, sometimes over and over, so that there are innumerable interpretations of Dungeons & Dragons, as well as versions of Marvel Super Heroes in the form of FASERIP and continued support for Star Frontiers. With continued support for these three RPGs, it would seem that GANGBUSTERS and Top Secret continus to be TSR’s unloved title, but in 2015, after twenty-five years since the last release for it, GANGBUSTERS is getting some love and support again.

Originally published in 1982, GANGBUSTERS: 1920’s Role-Playing Adventure Game is an RPG set during Prohibition Era America in Lakefront City, a setting roughly based on the Chicago of the period. It has the players take the roles of crooks, gangsters, reporters, cops, private eyes, and FBI agents and depending upon the scenario and campaign, fighting crime, taking a piece of the action, getting the big scoop—and earning Experience Points for it. Beyond the core boxed set, the RPG was supported by six releases, five of them scenarios and then the misnamed third edition in 1990. Then in 2015, Mark Huntrevisited the setting and the system with a brand new release, GBM-1 Joe’s Diner and has since led to the release of GangBusters: The Blue Book Detective Agency Beginner Game, a new and introductory edition of the game that focuses on playing private investigators. This, together with a new and expanded edition of GBM-1 Joe’s Diner and Welcome to Rock Junction, formed the basis for the Gangbusters Limited Edition Box BEGINNER GAME. Of course, for professional reasons, Reviews from R’lyeh cannot review any of the aforementioned books or indeed the boxed set, but it can review other releases from Mark Hunt for GANGBUSTERS and his Rock Junction setting, beginning with GBE-2 Man’s Best Friend.

Written for use with Second Level characters, GBE-2 Man’s Best Friend describes a location and its staff, that of Vickers’ Race Track, a dog track owned and run by dog enthusiast, Margaret Vickers. Other notable characters include a rich young investor with a penchant for putting money on the dogs, plus his staff; a rich old lady whose dog—and the key to her lockbox on his collar—have gone missing, plus the private eye hired to find the animal; and a vet and his faithful companion. A number of punters that might be found at the Vickers Dog Track are also listed, though they are little more than stats. One NPC, the reporter Kit Baker, reappears from GBM-1 Joe’s Diner.

Unfortunately, neither the dog track or its operation are described beyond cursory details. Nor is there a map of the dog track and its facilities. All of which will be a problem from anyone who is unfamiliar with such places in the here and now, let alone in the Prohibition Era. What this means is that the Judge—as the Game Master in GANGBUSTERS is known—will have to do a fair amount of research of his own if he wants to get the most out of GBE-2 Man’s Best Friend. Further, there is not the wealth of detail and scenario ideas and hooks to be found in GBE-2 Man’s Best Friend as there was in GBM-1 Joe’s Diner—both the original version and the new version, again leaving the Judge with more to do.

What GBE-2 Man’s Best Friend does do is add rules for dogs in GANGBUSTERS. Whatever the size of dog—small, medium, or large—they all share the same stats as humans do in the game, but with Driving being replaced with the new Loyalty stat. This is a measure of a canine’s devotion to its master and how well it will obey his orders, whether that is running away or staying with him, or simply learning tricks. This enables a Judge to create dog companion for his NPCs as much as the players create them for their characters. They can also spend Experience Points to increase a dog’s Loyalty. These rules are supported by the inclusion of the Veterinary Medicine skill.

In terms of presentation, GBE-2 Man’s Best Friend is disappointing. It does not feel as it has been edited at all and this detracts greatly from the supplement as does the inconsistent layout. As with other supplements for GANGBUSTERS from Mark Hunt, GBE-2 Man’s Best Friend does benefit from the use of period photographs, but this cannot wholly address its presentation problems.

There is plenty of potential in GBE-2 Man’s Best Friend. After all, a dog track should be rife with dramatic tension—gambling, fixing races, stick ups and punch ups, money laundering, and much, much more, but none of this is brought out in the supplement. It should tell us what goes on at the track and what should go on at the track, but it never does. Whilst a better, cleaner layout would do much to make this a more professional supplement, it would not be enough to bring out the full potential of the underdeveloped and underwhelming location. Simply, GBE-2 Man’s Best Friend should be brimming with potential and possibilities, but sadly it falters long before it reaches the finishing line.

Friday, 22 July 2016

Devilish Cards & Dice

Imps: Devilish Duels – A Dice & Card Battle Game is the latest game from Triple Ace Games, following on from designs such as Rocket Race: A Steampunk Rocket Building Card Game, Halfling Feast: a card game of competitive eating for 2-4 players, and Cadaver: A Game of Lighthearted Necromancy. Launched at UK Games Expo 2016, it is described as a ‘hybrid dice and card battle game’ for two players in which each player sends a team of four mischievous Imps to fight a number of elemental trials and determine who is top Imp wrangler and thus top wizard!

Now it should be made clear that this review is of a press preview version of Imps: Devilish Duels which like the preview print and play version contains just twelve Imp cards. The full version will come with a total of twenty-six Imp cards. This press preview version also comes with a plastic battle tray, whilst some Kickstarter versions of the game will have a wooden one. Both versions include a six-page rules booklet and sixteen six-sided dice. The colours of the Imp cards and the dice match according to their element: Air (white Imp cards and clear dice), Earth (green), Fire (red), and Water (blue). 

At the beginning of the game each player selects the four Imps that he will send into the trials and receives eight dice, two of each colour. On each round both players select four of their dice of any colour and one or two of their Imps to send into the trial. Then both players take in turn to roll their dice and compared with each other in a set order, so the green dice for the Earth Trial, the red dice for the Fire Trial, the blue dice for the Water Trial, and the clear dice for the Air Trial. Then the players can each roll and add two dice of their choice or reroll dice dice already in play. Then the final totals for each trial are compared, the higher total winning that player the trial and a bonus for the or a double bonus if the winning total is double or more than the other player’s total. So if a player wins the Earth Trial, then he can increase one of his dice by one of the subsequent trials, that is Fire, Water, or Air. If his total is double or more than his opponent, then he gets to increase two of his dice by two each. Note that no die can be increased beyond six. Winning subsequent trials force dice rerolls on an opponent, removal of his dice, and so on until one player wins wins the Air Trial and can banish one of his opponent’s Imps. Play proceeds like this until one player has managed to banish all of his opponent’s Imps and wins the game.

There is a cascade effect to winning trials, so that winning one trial gives an advantage to the next and so on and so on, but this is no guarantee that a player will win the final Air Trial and banish his opponent’s Imp. Good dice rolls will nearly always beat bad but modified dice rolls. Then there are the Imps. Every Imp has an ability that can aid a player with its Mischief. So the Earth Imp Puck allows the players to conduct an extra Earth Trial after the Fire Trial; the Fire Imp Soot deducts one from all of an opponent's Fire dice or forces him to reroll one of his Fire dice; the Water Imp Squirt adds one to each of a player’s Water dice or allows any of them to be rerolled; and the Air Imp Nimbus enables both players to combine their Water and their Air dice in the Air Trial. 

In initial games, it makes sense for both players to bring one dice of each elemental colour to their initial rolls. In later games players can pick and choose which dice they roll as well as which Imps they bring into play. To an extent, the player who goes second does have a very slight advantage over the other since he can react to whatever the first player rolled and can assign his dice to where he might be able to beat his opponent. Choice of Imp plays an important role too as their Mischief can greatly influence the outcome of a trial which if won affects the next trial and so on and so on…

Physically Imps: Devilish Duels – A Dice & Card Battle Game is up to standards of other games from Triple Ace Games. The rules are clearly written and although the game might be slightly easier if the Elemental Trials outcome table might have been on the back page of the rulebook, this is basically picking a nit… The artwork on the cards though is really very nice and each captures the character of each Imp.

Although it initially looks complex, Imps: Devilish Duels turns out to be straightforward to play and easy to teach. It also offers a pleasing tactical experience as each player brings their best Imps and their mischief into play. The twelve cards in the press preview version of Imps: Devilish Duels offer more than enough options to replay the game over and over, but the full game will offer even more. For a two-player game, Imps: Devilish Duels – A Dice & Card Battle Game packs a lot of tactical punch into both its box and its twenty-minute play time.


Imps Devilish Duels: A Dice & Card Battle Game is currently available to fund on Kickstarter.

Saturday, 16 July 2016

Symbaroum's Promise Delivered

As strong as the tone and atmosphere are in the Symbaroum Core Rulebook, it did not explore or deliver on the raison d'être at the heart of this Swedish RPG. That is, having the player characters set out from Thistle Hold in the newly founded kingdom of Ambria to venture into the Davokar Forest where they might hunt for treasures and search for the secrets of the lost empire of Symbaroum that the forest now covers. This was disappointing, but it did mean that future supplements would have to deliver on the hints and mysteries that at the outset, Symbaroum promised. The good news is that The Copper Crown, the first supplement for Symbaroum to see print, delivers on said hints and secrets, and further, fulfills the promises of both the setting and the set-up in Symbaroum.

Published by Järnringen and distributed by Modiphius EntertainmentThe Copper Crown contains not one scenario, but two—‘The Mark of the Beast’ and ‘Tomb of Dying Dreams’. Whilst both scenarios can be run separately, they are really designed to be run in sequence as sequels to ‘The Promised Land’, the scenario in the Symbaroum Core Rulebook, thus together forming the trilogy, ‘The Chronicle of the Copper Crown’. Since they are designed to be run in sequence, what this means if they are run independently is that the GM will need to have one or more other scenarios beforehand as they do grow progressively more challenging. If the GM has run ‘The Promised Land’ prior to running The Copper Crown then they will have some experience, but it may not be quite enough…

‘The Mark of the Beast’, the first and shorter of the two scenarios, is a murder mystery set in Thistle Hold. A serial killer is on the loose in the frontier town—though the authorities would prefer not to acknowledge—but the flurry of flayed and mutilated bodies that have appeared in the town’s alleys is hard to ignore. The player characters will be drawn into this plot when a contact of theirs gets involved. This quickly puts them on the track of some treasure hunters that might be connected with the men who were being hunted by the Elves as they travelled through the Titans. If they brought some bad back from the Davokar Forest, then what of their compatriots in Thistle Hold?

Essentially, if ‘The Promised Land’ prefigures the events of ‘The Mark of the Beast’, then ‘The Mark of the Beast’ is a bloody, gruesome piece of Grand Guignol that sets up everything for ‘Tomb of Dying Dreams’. This takes the player characters into the Davokar Forest, ostensibly to determine the fate of an Ordo Magica expedition sent to excavate an ancient tomb, but in actuality, following up on the consequences of a previous treasure hunting expedition that they encountered in ‘The Promised Land’ and ‘The Mark of the Beast’. The denouement comes in the focal point for any treasure hunting expedition—and as the title suggests—a tomb. It is a nasty little affair, complete with a number of deadly traps, but it is not what is really interesting about ‘Tomb of Dying Dreams’. Instead what is interesting about the scenario are the factions and entities interested in the tomb and its content, the entities in particular. All three are ancient creatures or things, some inimicable to mortal life, some willing to deal with mortals if only to have them as their agents—at least temporarily. One of those entities should be of particular interest to certain of the barbarian tribes in Ambria, though this is not mentioned in the scenario itself.

Besides the two scenarios, The Copper Crown comes with an appendix of new rules and a septet of new artefacts. The new rules mostly consist of new traits, but the new artifacts are quite singular items. Together with the events of ‘The Chronicle of the Copper Crown’, they highlight how nasty some of the artefacts from the past really are. That said, there are objects here that the player characters will appreciate possessing. Rounding out The Copper Crown is a set of handouts for the two scenarios, all done in vibrant colour.

Amongst the artefacts is mention of the Dwarves. This is the first mention of them, at least in the English language version of Symbaroum, though they are detailed in the original Swedish RPG. So technically, discussion about the Dwarves is not a secret, but The Copper Crown does actually begin to explore the secrets of the setting for Symbaroum. So we learn something of the region’s history prior to Symbaroum, its geography, and one of the reasons behind the Iron Pact. Not in any great detail, no more than a sentence or two, but certainly more information than was given in the Symbaroum Core Rulebook and it lays the groundwork for supplements to come.

There are some oddities. Notably in the choice and range of measurements used, which veer between Metric and Imperial and back again whilst also stopping off at the use of ‘fathoms’ as an indication of height. Putting aside the fact that this is actually a nautical measure of depth, surely this inconsistency should have been picked up during proofreading? Now normally, Reviews from R’lyeh would simply mention that a book needs further editing or proofreading, but in this instance, the use of multiple, often inconsistent terms is confusing and warrants the specific highlighting of the problem. Which is essentially, poor localisation.

The other oddity is that The Copper Crown does call for quite a range and depth of Abilities—the Loremaster Ability in particular, and that at Adept and Master on several occasions. For a first campaign and what may be the second and third scenario they are playing, this is quite a high demand for the player characters. Now in ‘The Mark of the Beast’ a solution is offered, that of getting an NPC to step in and help with getting a particular clue or piece of information. If they do that, the player characters automatically get the clue, but in return they owe a favour to the NPC that helped them. So far so good, so standard storytelling and roleplaying interaction between the player characters and the NPCs, but the scenario, and thus Symbaroum, go one step further in cementing this relationship. Whilst the player characters may have gained the clue, they will not benefit from any experience gained in doing had they otherwise learned the information themselves until they fulfill the favour for the NPC. 

This is an interesting storytelling mechanic that will build and cement relationships between the player characters and the NPCs and the setting itself. Unfortunately there are no suggestions as to what the NPCs that give their help in ‘The Mark of the Beast’ might want and that is a missed opportunity.

Physically, The Copper Crown is well presented with the same clean layout as the Symbaroum Core Rulebook. Aside from the oddity of the mixed measurements, the editing is better than in the Symbaroum Core Rulebook. As with the Symbaroum Core Rulebook, the artwork in The Copper Crown is excellent, some of it old, some of it new, and at its best, giving a sense of ominous grandeur.

Although the two scenarios in The Copper Crown could be played separately, doing so would miss the plot, the scope, and the underlying theme of the trilogy formed together by ‘The Promised Land’, ‘The Mark of the Beast’, and ‘Tomb of Dying Dreams’. All three can be summed up in the dangers inherent in exploring the Davokar Forest, in hunting for treasure, and in dealing with beasts and forces beyond the understanding of mankind. When coupled with the brutalism of the setting and the challenges this presents, The Copper Crown is a solid scenario that serves as an effective showcase for both the setting of Symbaroum and and its set-up.

Ideas and Happiness

The first thing that you need to know is that despite its name, CVlizations is not a game in which you take a tribe and guide it through the ages exploring the world, expanding territories, conquering allies, developing technologies, and building wonders, the aim being to develop the greatest civilisation. So it is not a game in the mode of the classic Civilisation, the Civilisation from Fantasy Flight Games, any of the  computer game versions, or indeed, 7 Wonders from Asmodee. So there is no map and there is no conflict. The second thing that you need to know is that CVlizations is a civilisation-themed card game in which you take a tribe and guide it through the ages, collecting resources, and developing ideas that will make the tribe happy. The third thing that you need to know is that CVlizations won the award for Best Family Game at UK Games Expo, which is the United Kingdom’s biggest hobby gaming convention and the second biggest in Europe after Essen in Germany.

Released by Polish publisher, Granna, but available in English through Coiledspring Games, CVlizations is based upon an earlier game, C.V., in which you guide a character through their entire  making many important decisions about their professional career, relationships, interests, and life goals. In CVlizations though, you guide a whole tribe through its history, but where C.V. uses dice to generate and direct your actions, CVlizations uses just a single set of cards per player from which a player selects his actions. What this means is that CVlizations is not as random as C.V. and that each player has more choice in what he can do. This also means that CVlizations is a slightly more complex and more thoughtful game. This means that it is not quite a ‘gateway’ game like Ticket to Ride or Carcassonne, but it is still a family game and so relatively easy to teach and play. Adults will pick up it with ease and anyone who has played a gateway game like Ticket to Ride or Carcassonne will have no problems learning the game.

Designed for two to five players, aged ten plus, CVlizations can be played in roughly forty-five minutes (though longer on the first game and quicker with practice). It consists of five sets of Order cards (eight cards each); thirty-two Idea cards for Ages I and II; sixteen Idea cards for Age III; twenty food, twenty stone, and twenty wood tokens—these are the game’s resources; thirty-six Happiness point tokens; one wooden Leader Helm token to track player order and one wooden Crown token to track the Ages; two player aid cards and an eight-page rulebook; and a board where the resource tokens are stored, the Ages are tracked, and the Idea cards are stored and displayed.

CVlizations is a played over three Ages, each Age consisting of three rounds. During a round, each player selects, plays, and discards two of his Action cards; all Action cards played are resolved; and each player has an opportunity to buy an Idea card. At the end of each round, the Leader Helm token is passed onto the next player and then a new round begins. During an Age each player will play a total of six Action cards, so he will need to be careful in the cards he chooses to play. Once three rounds have been played, a new Age begins and the players receive all of their Action cards back. During Age III, Idea cards are drawn from the Age III deck. At game’s end, the players count up their Happiness Points and the player with the most wins.

The Idea cards are what each player is trying to buy. Each Idea card is unique and comes packed with a lot of information. This includes its name, its type (Building, Tool, Invention, or Ideology), a cost, a special rule or power, and the number of Happiness Points it grants at game’s end. For example, the ‘Gunpowder’ Idea card is a Tool card, costs one Food and two Wood tokens to purchase, and grants one extra Food when the Hunting action is taken and one Happiness Point at the end of the game. Whereas, the ‘Law’ Idea card is an Invention card, costs two Food and two Stone tokens to purchase, limits the number of resources that can be stolen from you to one per turn, and grants two Happiness Points at the end of the game. Most of the Idea cards grant powers, although some of the Ideas from Age III do not, merely granting Happiness Points. In general, Idea cards Ideas from Age III are more expensive than those from Ages I and II, but grant more Happiness Points.

At the core of CVlizations are the Action cards and how they are played. Each player has an identical set of eight Action cards. They consist of—in the order that they are numbered and resolved—Thieving, Logging, Hunting, Quarrying, Cunning, Slacking, and Trading, plus Doubling. Thieving allows you to steal from other tribes; Logging, Hunting, and Quarrying allow you to gather Wood, Food, and Stone respectively; Cunning lets you gather any resources; Slacking allows you to gather Happiness Points; and Trading allows you to swap resources. The Doubling card is not numbered because when played it doubles the effect of the card it is played with.

Action cards are always played in pairs, one face up so that everyone can see it, the other face down so that no one can. This is because the number of players who play an Action card determine its effectiveness. If only one player plays an Action card, it has a minor effect for that player; if two players play an Action card, it has a greater effect for both players; and if three or more players play an Action card, it either has a minor effect or no effect at all. So the Thieving card allows a player to steal one resource if one player plays it, two resources if two players play it, and nothing if more than three players play it. Both the Cunning and Slacking cards work the same way. The Logging, Hunting, and Quarrying cards gain a player two (one player), three (two players), or one (three plus players) resources of the respective types. The Trading card works in reverse, so it lets a player turn one resource into three of another kind (one player), two of another kind (two players), or one of another kind (three plus players). Lastly the Doubling card allows a player to do the action on the other card played again if one or two players play it. The effectiveness of each Action by player number is clearly marked on each card.

Since one Action card is played face up and one face down—though some Idea cards change this—CVlizations involves a certain amount of card counting as the players keep an eye on what each has and has not played. Only a certain amount because only one card of a pair can be seen and because in most cases, as soon two Action cards of one type have been played, there is limited benefit to gain from playing another of that Action card. (Alternatively, a player might play an extra Action card of the same kind to effectively block the other players.) Players higher up the player order of course have more choice in what they can play, but for all players as an Age progresses, the number of Action cards they can play and thus their choices diminishes. Further the card counting becomes easier as an Age progresses because everyone has fewer Action cards to play. Overall, this is a simple, but clever mechanic.

Physically, CVlizations is a lovely game and very well presented. The rules themselves do feel slightly underwritten, but they are easy to understand. In terms of presentation, the artwork on the back of both the Idea and the Action is not bad, being perhaps a bit scraggly and scruffy, but it actually looks bad in comparison to the artwork on the front of both cards. This is because the artwork on the front of card is utterly charming, Piotr Socha’s paintings neatly encapsulating the idea or concept on the card in a style reminiscent of children’s picturebooks. These illustrations are not without a sense of humour and they are worth taking a closer look at.

CVlizations is an easy game to learn and play. I read through the rules twice in ten minutes and brought it to the table at my regular gaming group meetup without any issue. Everyone grasped the rules quickly and enjoyed playing the game, saying that they would happily play it again. We did find that more reference cards—two are included in the game—would have been useful, but this did not greatly hamper play.

CVlizations is a light Civilisation-themed card game that is suitable for family play while still offering thoughtful play for experienced players. Certainly experienced players will appreciate the clever Action selection mechanic and for them CVlizations is a light-to-medium filler. For family play, CVlizations is probably a step up—perhaps two—from a gateway game, but without undue complexity. For either group, CVlizations is an engaging design with delightful artwork.

Friday, 15 July 2016

Consumptively Consumptive

Although there is no scenario in the rulebook for Shadow of the Demon Lord, the first RPG released by Schwalb Entertainment following a successful Kickstarter campaign, one of the excellent decisions upon the part of the designer has been to release support—and release it early—in the form of scenarios for the game. This way a gaming group can get playing quickly, even if they are just using the core rules presented in Victims of the Demon Lord: Starter Guide plus the adventure. In addition, the publisher has also released Tales of the Demon Lord, a complete mini-campaign that takes a party of characters from Zero Level up to Eleventh Level. In the meantime, the twentieth adventure is A Case of Consumption.

A Case of Consumption is written by David Noonan, best known as a co-author of titles such as Urban Arcana for d20 Modern and more recently of the Ultima Thule campaign setting from Sasquatch Game Studio. It is the seventh adventure written for characters who have entered the Expert Path, that is of Third Level or higher, and comes as six page, 12.75 MB PDF and presents a missing persons case that turns into an alimentary dungeon delve. It takes place in the town of Thorpe, just east of Crossings in the Northern Reach and although this location gives the adventure a passing link to the ‘Off the Rails’ adventure to be found in the campaign, Tales of the Demon Lord, the link is minor at best and A Case of Consumption could easily be located elsewhere.

The scenario begins when the player characters are summoned—though this may be at the point of a sword or two—to Castle Garnach, which overlooks the town. Lord Garnach has discovered that his three children are missing and he wants them found, which for the player characters means a job—and if successful—a sizable reward. Worse though, all three are all suffering from Consumption, so not only is time of the essence, there is the possibility that whoever has the children might also have caught it, and worse, in effecting a rescue, the player characters might come down with it themselves! There is some investigation involved in determining where the children have gone and who took them there, but the bulk of the scenario is an exploration of their destination.

Their destination then is a nearby cave complex on the shores of Mirror Lake. It is relatively short complex at just five locations, with each location being of a singular nature, all of it very much concerned with the themes suggested by the scenario’s title. To say more would give way the conceit at the heart of the scenario—and that is all too easy given the brevity of A Case of Consumption. This brevity also means that the success of the scenario will mostly depend upon what the players and their player characters bring to it rather than its plot. Overall, A Case of Consumption feels somewhat thin, even consumptive in the true meaning of the word.

Sunday, 10 July 2016

The 13th Age Starts Here II

The Strangling Sea is for 13th Age, the dramatic Dungeons & Dragons-style RPG published by Pelgrane Publishing. Written by Robin D. Laws—better known for Pelgrane Press’ GUMSHOE System series of RPGs like The Esoterrorists, Ashen Stars, Mutant City Blues et al—it is designed for a party of First Level heroes and takes them to a strange environment on what is essentially a McGuffin hunt. It is about as straightforward an adventure as you would want and is easy to set up and run.

The McGuffin in question is Inigo Sharpe, famed architect, inventor, magician, and seer. He has been missing for several years now after having annoyed one Icon—one of the beings or personalities that drive and direct the events of the world—and then having done a runner, is currently thought dead! Now one of those Icons has heard that Sharpe is still alive and wants him found, whether that is to have him finish one of his fabulous devices, build one of them, or repair one of them. Or indeed destroy one of them. It all depends on the Icon and on the device—and that depends upon the relationships that the player characters have with the Icons.

The Strangling Sea begins with linking the McGuffin to the player characters’ relationships with the Icons to establish both an antagonist and a patron. Nine of these relationships are offered as a potential patron. Each explains what Sharpe was doing for that patron/Icon, gives an alternative, how the fact that Sharpe is now alive was discovered, and what one of the player characters will receive as a reward/incentive from the outset. Each of the magic items is something that a player character would want. Alternatively the Book of Loot is a ready source of substitutes. Now each of these set-ups is good—good enough that it is shame that just the one of the several given will be used in the scenario. Oh and the patron also provides the player characters with the initial lead.

One lead and one battle later and the heroes are on their way to a quite singular location. This is the Stranglesea, a seaweed mat that forms a sargasso in the midst of the ocean that has long imprisoned ships and stranded their crews, the latter falling prey to previous inhabitants, the sea life above and below the seaweed mat, and the strange lassitude that falls upon its inhabitants. As the player characters arrive, the Stranglesea is home to three ships and crews. They include a crew of desperate Dwarves and their blocky steamship, motley sailors with neither ship nor hope, and a tribe of sea goblins trying to make the Stranglesea its home.

Naturally they hate each other—and it is this hatred that drives the main section of the scenario. In addition to navigating the dangerous flora and fauna—on and under the Stranglesea—the player characters will have negotiate back and forth between the three factions if they are to locate Sharpe. Which given that this is 13th Age means a fight—or three. This does not mean of course, that the players cannot negotiate their way out of one fight or another, but everything in The Strangling Sea is set up for a fight… Just in case.

The factions themselves are nicely drawn with clearly defined motives, but the GM is free to change these as he likes. It helps that the exact location for Sharpe is not set in stone, but rather can be decided upon by the GM or defined by the actions of the player characters. Once the player characters have found Inigo Sharpe—and then had to deal with him because he is a ‘character’, one whom the GM will enjoy getting into his teeth into—there is the matter of getting him to the player characters’ patron. This ideally should involve another battle and with any luck, one that should should descend into farce as everyone makes a grab for Sharpe.

And with that, Inigo Sharpe should be out of the characters’ hair, but being an awkward sod, the likelihood is that he will abscond from his next employer and either want the player characters’ help in getting away or said employer will want help in bringing him back to finish whatever job he was hired to do. This though, is for another scenario. In the meantime, The Strangling Sea will be enough of an adventure to raise the player characters from First Level to Second Level.

The Strangling Sea is clearly laid out and well organised to provide the means for the GM to create a decent first adventure for his player characters. It is also a good adventure for a starting adventure for beginning GM as it is very easy to set up and get playing and the adventure itself is very straightforward. In fact it is probably too straightforward an adventure for an experienced playing group. What it does do though is nicely take the GM through the set-up process of linking the plot and events of the scenario to the relationships that the player characters have with Icons. Indeed, this is probably more interesting than the scenario itself and thus of course, such a shame that so much of it will go unused.

Thursday, 7 July 2016

Pushing the Simplicity

Once upon a time you could step into a public house—the pub, if you will—and play a game. From Dominos and Skittles to Shove ha'penny and Nine Men’s Morris, these were games that were enjoyed up and down the country, but with the coming of cable and satellite television and being able to watch sport with a pint in hand, the popularity of such games diminished. Such games though have always had a poor reputation, often seen as a means to encourage the consumption of alcohol and gambling, and in some cases outright banned by kings as distractions for men who should be otherwise engaged in archery practice. Now the tradition of pub games has not gone away, as evidenced in Dave Gorman vs. The Rest Of The World, but in the 21st century times have changed with the playing board games being an acceptable pastime, one that can be played openly in public, whether that is in the pub or elsewhere. 

Which is where Push It: Ultimate Skill, Infinite Locations comes in.

Published by Push It Games following a successful Kickstarter campaign, Push It: Ultimate Skill, Infinite Locations is a very simple game that can be played anywhere that has a flat, smooth surface. A table, a floor, a newspaper laid on the ground—anywhere. Designed for two to four players, it comes with eight Pucks in four colours, a Jack, a cloth carrying bag, and an eight-page rules booklet. To be fair, Push It is so simple that it does not need a rules booklet, but it includes examples, explanations, and variations, so that it can played as a team game, with two players, and so on.

Push It starts with the Jack being placed in the centre of the table. Then everyone takes their Pucks and whilst sat round the table, take it turns to push, chop, or flick one of their Pucks at the Jack. They get to do this once, from the edge of the table, for each Puck. There is no second attempt at getting Pucks closer to the Jack. Once everyone has launched their Pucks at the Jack, scoring takes place. The player with the closest Puck to the Jack scores a point. If he has both Pucks closest to the Jack, he scores two points. Knocking both another player’s Pucks and the Jack is perfectly legal, but knocking the Jack of the table loses a player two points. Then another round starts and play continues until somebody has scored a total of seven points and wins.

And that is it.

To test it out, Reviews from R'lyeh took it along to Afternoon Play where it proved to be popular as both a game for four players and a team game for eight prior to a longer game.

It should also be pointed out that Push It has perhaps the most singular rule in any game in any of the games in the Reviews from R'lyeh ludography. This is the 'Bum Shuffling' rule. Essentially a player can lean and in the process, lift one buttock from his seat in order to push, flick, or chop one of his Pucks. He cannot though move his chair or shuffle said buttocks...

Push It: Ultimate Skill, Infinite Locations is a nice simple game. Even better, it is a nice, simple, and well-produced game. Both the Pucks and the Jack are beautifully polished pieces of wood that feel good in the hand and nicely slide across the playing surface of your choice. Whilst it might be reminiscent of pub games of old, Push It is the pub game that does not need the pub whose simplicity makes it the perfect filler game wherever and whenever.

Sunday, 3 July 2016

Symbaroum's Promise

Ambria is a young kingdom. Barely two decades old, it was founded on the ruins of the ancient and long-lost empire of Symbaroum as the refuge for the survivors fleeing north over the mountains from the Kingdom of Alberetor as it fell to an onslaught from the necromantic Dark Lords. Ruled by its young queen, Korinthia, Ambria sees itself as the last bastion of civilisation and its duty as to drive back the darkness that pervades the Davokar Forest that dominates the land to the north and which has no end. Already, the capital, Yndaros, is a shining beacon of culture and civilisation, but towns have been established closer to the eaves of the forest, such as Thistle Hold. From Thistle Hold and these other towns, treasure hunters, theurgs of the Sun God, Prios, mystics of the Ordo Magica, and others set out to explore the dark under the forest canopy, hoping to learn its secrets, locate long lost ruins of Symbaroum, and perhaps return with treasures of the past that will make them rich.

In conquering the verdant lands that have become Ambria, the kingdom has also subdued barbarian clans and goblin tribes, whilst pushing to explore and exploit the Davokar Forest, it may have done worse. It may have broken the Iron Pact. This is an agreement between mankind and the elves, the ancient and mysterious folk of the forest, that the forest would remain untouched. Now as mankind probes ever deeper under its shadowed canopy, elves strike at the interlopers and more—they besiege villages and they swap human babies for changelings… Many of the barbarian clans and the witches that advise their chieftains still hold to the Iron Pact, but there are worse dangers than barbarians and witches and elves in the forest. There are creatures and plants and places that blight explorers, corrupting their souls, perhaps unto darkness. This is in addition to the dangers that many bring into the forest themselves. In particular, magic. Casting any spell or ritual may also corrupt the soul as much as it aids the caster and his allies. The disciplines of theurgy, witchcraft, and wizardry are means to use both magic and withstand its corruptive influences, but there are Sorcerers who practise magic unheedful of the corruption. There are even others who embrace it... 

This is the set up for Symbaroum, a Swedish RPG published by Järnringen that was released in English following a successful Indiegogo campaign. Now distributed by Modiphius Entertainment, it is surprising how quickly Symbaroum has made it to the English-speaking market. It was originally published in 2014 and then published in 2015 in English; foreign language RPGs usually take much longer—in some cases, decades—to appear in English. What Symbaroum presents is a dark, earthy fantasy RPG, in effect set in a limited region, on the edge of civilisation, with a strong sense of the foreboding. From this set up, certain parallels can be drawn between Symbaroum and other RPGs. The first is Dragon Age RPG Core Rulebook from Green Ronin Publishing, primarily for its tone with the threat of impending demonic invasion, but also for its three character Class (plus options) structure. The second is Monte Cook Games’ Numenera, with which Symbaroum also shares a three character Class (plus options) structure as well as having player facing mechanics. Yet perhaps the RPG that Symbaroum has the most common in with, is the French RPG, Les Ombres d'Esteren or Shadows of Esteren, in particular in its tone and presentation. It also shares the same sense of isolation, but Symbaroum is much more focused RPG with a smaller playing area than Shadows of Esteren and where the horror in Shadows of Esteren verges upon the Lovecraftian sense of a greater unknown, that of Symbaroum is earthier and more primal in its feel.

Essentially the setting for Symbaroum amounts to a pair of regions. The first being Ambria, the newly founded kingdom, the other being Davokar Forest. Both regions are detailed in the opening quarter of the Symbaroum Core Rulebook. In particular, it details the capital of Ambria, Yndaros; Thistle Hold, the northernmost outpost from where a great many expeditions set out into the Davokar Forest just a few hundred yards from its palisades and which has grown rich on the finds that some survivors bring back; and Karvosti, the great cliff that rises from the forest that is home to home to the High Chieftain of all of the barbarian clans and chief witch or Huldra, the site of the twice-a-year market or Thingstead, and which worryingly for both the High Chieftain and the Huldra, has more recently become an important site for the Church of Prios. Although there are many gods—and each barbarian clan has its own as well as respecting nature, in Ambria, Prios has become all but the only faith because it the light of the Sun that guided Queen Korinthia to safety and will bring light beneath Davokar’s canopy. All three locations are described in some detail, including notable places and peoples, but of the three, it is Thistle Hold that is given the most attention, since in the default set-up for Symbaroum, it is from here that the player characters will set out into the forest, having already purchased their Explorer’s Licenses. In comparison though, the description of Davokar Forest feels all too brief, and whilst this is at the front of the book in a section intended to be read by player and GM alike, it does have an effect on the game as a whole—as will be seen in the GM’s section.

Each character in Symbaroum is defined by his Archetype, Attributes, Race, and Abilities. Symbaroum gives three Archetypes—Warrior, Mystic, and Rogue—which can be defined by an Occupation. There are five of these for each Archetype, each one suggesting important Attributes and Abilities as well as an appropriate Race in order to create that Occupation. This means that a Warrior might be a duellist, knight, or sellsword; a Mystic a witch, wizard, or Theurg; and a Rogue a witch hunter, treasure-hunter, or ranger. This gives quite a good mix of character options, but of course, a player is also free to design his character as he wants. Each character has eight attributes—Accurate, Cunning, Discreet, Persuasive, Quick, Resolute, Strong, and Vigilant—that range between one and twenty. There are five choices when it comes to Race—Ambrian (Human), Barbarian (Human), Changeling, Goblin, and Ogre. Changelings are the replacements left behind after the Elves have stolen a Human child. They look Human when babies, but grow more Elf-like as they age and their very strangeness usually means that they are rejected by their human families and forced to fend for themselves. The short-lived Goblins are little tolerated, but used as labour in many towns. They are also short-tempered and have a tendency to survive their knockabout existence. Ogres are also little tolerated, but they are long-lived and tough. They lumber out of the forest with no idea of who they are and goblins or humans typically take them in and teach them. Each of the Races has its own Traits, for example Ambrians have Contacts or Privileged, Ogres tend to have Robust, and Changelings have Shapeshifter. 

Where each Race has its own Traits, all characters have access to Abilities, each of which represents a skill or knowledge. There are over thirty of them listed in the game, ranging from Acrobatics, Alchemy, and Backstab to Witchcraft, Witchsight, and Wizardry via Berserker, Loremaster, Shield Fighter, Strangler, and Twin Attack. Each has three Ranks—Novice, Adept, and Master—as do some Traits. So for example, at Novice Rank, a character with the Men-at-Arms Trait knows how to use his armour for maximum effect and increase its protection value by one die step—for example, from a six-sided to an eight-sided die; at Adept Rank, armour no longer impedes actions based on the Quick Attribute, including Defense; and at Master Rank, he can use his armour to stop the armour-piercing effect of armour-piercing arrows or bolts.

Character creation itself consists of a player selecting an Archetype and an Occupation followed by a Race. Either eighty points are divided amongst the eight attributes or a package of set points assigned to the eight. Whichever method used, a player character can have no Attribute higher than fifteen or lower than five. Then he has five points to spend on Abilities (and some Traits), with no Ability Rank being higher than Adept. This can either be  two abilities at Novice level and one at Adept level or with five abilities at Novice level. Lastly each player should define two further aspects about his character. One is his character’s goal, but the other is his Shadow, an expression of his spiritual essence and alliance. For example, characters allied to nature have a Shadow expressed in natural colours, whilst that of those allied to civilisation, have a Shadow of metallic tones. A corrupted or blighted Shadow may appear aged or chipped, blackened or spotted, and so on. The nature of a character’s Shadow can be discerned by certain magics, such as Witchsight.

Edogai is the son of Ambrian nobility, disowned for his dissolute ways even in the face of the onslaught of the Dark Lords. He fled north over the Titans to the new land of Ambria, hoping to find a place for himself, but he became no more than a sellsword and a drunk one at that. Family ties remain strong though and with each refugee caravan that passes over the Titans he yearns for news of survivors, if not to learn of what happened to them. He does not fight to kill, but to show off his skills and sometimes he is too proud of his sword arm.

Race Human (Ambrian)
Archetype Warrior Occupation Duellist
Traits Privileged
Accurate 13 Cunning 10 Discreet 05 Persuasive 15
Quick 11 Resolute 10 Strong 09 Vigilant 07 
Abilities Acrobatics (Novice), Dominate (Novice), Man-at-Arms (Novice), Quick Draw (Novice), Twin Attack (Novice)
Weapons Fencing Sword (1d8), Parrying Dagger (1d6)
Armour Lacquered Silk Cuirass (1d8)
Defence 11
Toughness 10 Pain Threshold 05 Corruption Threshold 05
Shadow Rippling Quicksilver
Goal To learn of his family’s fate

Symbaroum uses a straightforward set of mechanics. At their core is a roll against an appropriate attribute on a twenty-sided die. All rolls are made by the player—the GM never has to roll the die. So a player character might roll his Vigilance to spot a guard, but the same guard would not roll to spot the player character, but rather the character would roll his Discreet to avoid being spotted. Modifiers tend to be static or opposed. Both type range between -5 and +5, but the former are simple modifiers typically based on the circumstances, for example, how complex a lock might be to pick or the icy conditions under hand and foot when climbing a wall. The latter are determined by the opposing character’s Attributes, whether a player character or an NPC. So if the NPC opposing the character has a low attribute, the character receives a higher bonus, if the NPC has a high attribute, the modifier is low.
For example, Eodogai has fallen out with the landlord of the Lothar’s Lodgings over an unpaid bill and the landlord has kept some of Edogai’s belongings. The young duellist has sneaked into the landlord’s room and is searching for them. The GM calls for Edogai to make a Vigilant [-2] to hear the maid coming down the corridor. With a Vigilant of 7, Edogai needs to roll a 5, but rolls an 11 and is surprised by the maid entering the room. Fortunately, Edogai is quick thinking and when the maid asks him what he is doing in her boss’ room, he turns on the charm and attempts to seduce her. The GM asks for a [Persuasive←Resolute] roll. This means that Edogai’s roll will be modified by the maid’s Resolute Attribute, which is 9 and gives him a +1 modifier. So his target is 16 and Edogai rolls a 7 and succeeds…
Combat uses the same key mechanic. Accurate is rolled to make attacks and Defence is rolled to avoid them, but both Damage and Armour—called effect dice—are rolled. What is interesting is that there is no initiative roll. Instead Initiative is conditional. So a character with a spear or polearm might attack first because his weapon has reach, but only on the opening attack as after the first round his opponent has stepped inside the weapon’s reach. Other Attributes also have an effect on initiative, such as Quick Draw. Once in combat, a character typically receive one movement action and one combat action per round. Any damage suffered by a character is deducted from the character’s Toughness. Notably, should a character suffer damage in one blow equal to his Pain Threshold, he is knocked down and can suffer further attacks. Most monsters and NPCs will die when they lose all of their Toughness, but player characters are merely dying and make a Death Test until they get better, die, or someone stabilises then.
For example, after his tryst in the landlord’s bed of Lothar’s Lodgings with the maid, Edogai has slipped out of the building into the dark streets of Thistle Hold. Making his way to his new lodgings, the duellist hears a sound from a nearby alley—that of fist upon flesh. It is followed by a man saying, “That was for the last Elf attack you Changeling bitch!” Stepping into the alley Edogai can see three burly thugs standing over a slim, female Changeling who is on all fours in the dirt of the alley floor. The young duellist clears his throat and when the two thugs turn towards him he says, “I don’t think that two on one is fair fight, do you?” The thugs look at each other unsure how as to answer, which gives Edogai the chance to taunt them with, “I think that the three of you against me is much fairer fight.” With that the thugs heft their clubs and charge towards the duellist.
As yet, Edogai does not have his weapons drawn, so he uses his Quick Draw Ability to draw his weapons as a Free Action. This requires a Quick Test. Edogai’s Quick is 11 and his rolls a 9—the duellist has both fencing sword and parrying dagger in his hands as the thugs lumber towards him. For his first attack Edogai is not going to use his Accurate Attribute, but instead use his already taunt together with Dominate Ability. This allows him to test his Persuade rather than his Accurate. The thugs each have a Defence of +4, so this is added to Edogai’s Persaude to give him a target of 19! Edogai also gets a +1 to this attack because his fencing sword has the Precise quality, but since a roll of 20 is always a failure, the attack is as high as it can be.
Edogai rolls a 5 to hit with his fencing sword and then 1d8 for a result of 8 for the damage. Now where a player character would roll to determine how much protection his armour would give him, an NPC has a set value for his armour (as well as how damage his weapons do). In this case, the thugs are wearing hardened armour and this gives each thug two points of protection. These two points are deducted from the damage, so the first thug suffers 6 points of damage. Not only is this deducted from the thug’s Toughness of 10, but it beats the thug’s Toughness Threshold and causes him great agony, causing him to fall to the floor with a very nasty slice to his forearm. This also allows Edogai a Free Attack in addition to the second attack he gains with the Twin Attack Ability. The GM rules that the Free Attack is a standard attack rather than one using Edogai’s Dominate Ability. So the attack is equal to his Accurate (13) plus the Precise Quality (+1) of his sword and the modifier for the thug’s Defence (+3). So still 17 and with a roll of 10 to hit and 4 for damage, this enough to leave the thug with a Toughness of 2 and seriously rethinking his decision.
Meanwhile Edogai has a second attack with the parrying dagger. The target is just 16 (Accurate 13 plus thug’s Defence of +3) and with a roll of 9 to hit, followed by 5 on the damage die, Eodgai flicks the short blade to nick a second thug with 3 damage as he moves into flank the duellist. Now Edogai has to roll to avoid the thug’s attacks. These are against his Defence (11), modified by the Balanced Quality of the parrying dagger (+1) and the Twin Attack Ability (+1), for a total of 13. The two thugs remaining crowd in on him, in the process gaining an Advantage by Flanking him. This gives the thugs -2 to Edogai’s Defence rolls and an extra two points of damage in addition to the standard four they would inflict if Edogai cannot defend himself with his re-adjusted Defence of 11. Edogai rolls 7 for the first attack and successfully parries, but with a roll of 12, cannot stop the second attack. For his Lacquered Silk Cuirass armour Edogai only rolls a 2, so he takes a 4 point bash to the shoulder. With a Toughness left of 6, Edogai needs to deal with the thugs fast…
Magic in Symbaroum is divided into four Traditions—Sorcery, Theurgy, Witchcraft, and Wizardry, and each tradition has its own set of spells and rituals as well as there being spells and rituals shared between them. Sorcerers believe that the world is already corrupt and dying and embrace Corruption, and have spells and rituals like Unholy Aura and Enslave. Theurgs are devoted to Prios, the Sun God, and preach their faith as well as having spells and rituals like Holy Aura and Command Confession. Witches embrace nature, their primitive nature consisting of spells and rituals such as Entangling Vines and Turn Weather. Wizards study magic and thus approach it in a more logical fashion. In Ambria they are members of the Ordo Magica and know spells and rituals like Brimstone Cascade and Clairvoyance

Of course anyone can learn magic in Symbaroum, but learning a spell or ritual also gains the practitioner permanent Corruption—and this in addition to the temporary Corruption gained for casting a spell or ritual. Typically, the amatuer practioneer will gain too much Corruption and be blighted, if not burnt up, by it, that is if he is not hunted down and killed by a witch hunter. Yet this is where the benefits of belonging to a tradition come to the fore, since a Mystic will not gain the permanent Corruption that he would if he were not a member of a Tradition. This does not stop a Mystic gaining temporary Corruption and should he gain as much as his Resolute attribute, then he will become a creature of the blight and an NPC, though he will have gained possibly noticeable blight marks in the meantime (this also applies to Corruption gained whilst exploring the Davokar Forest). Essentially this mechanic counters a Mystic’s overuse of his spells and rituals though he can otherwise cast as freely as he wants or needs to.

Mechanically, each Tradition, each spell, and each ritual is treated as an Ability with the same three ranks as other Abilities. With just five points to assign to his Abilities during character creation, a Mystic is going to know just a Tradition and a few spells or rituals at most. Symbaroum does not present a wide diversity of spells or rituals, but then a Mystic is never going to know a huge selection anyway and the limited choice available is matched by the limited number of points with which to purchase them. The individual spells are nicely themed to the Traditions and are in general more grounded in practicality than they are flashy or showy.

Riamata had a happy childhood until at puberty she began to change and express elf-like features. Her family rejected her and she was forced to fend for herself until Adela, a local witch took her in. Riamata has trained with the witch for over a decade until an attack upon their village scattered the inhabitants and Adela disappeared. All that was left was Adela’s familiar which bonded with Riamata and now the Changeling searches for his missing mistress.

Race Changeling
Traits Shapeshifter (Novice)
Archetype Mystic Occupation Witch
Accurate 11 Cunning 10 Discreet 13 Persuasive 07
Quick 09 Resolute 15 Strong 05 Vigilant 10 
Abilities Larvae Boils (Novice), Ritual—Familiar (Novice), Witchcraft (Novice), Witchsight (Novice)
Weapons Stiletto (1d6+1)
Armour Witch Gown (1d4)
Defence 09
Toughness 10 Pain Threshold 05 Corruption Threshold 08
Shadow Leaves on the turn
Goal To find out why the Elves leave Changelings
Meanwhile back in the alley, the Changeling who was attacked by the thugs, Riamata, has roused herself after being assaulted and knocked to the ground. She looks to the end of the alley where she sees two of the thugs that attacked her have turned their attention to someone else, whilst one of them lies on the ground. The two remaining  thugs are in danger of flanking this other person, so to even things up, Riamata decides to cast Larvae Boils. This causes larvae to burrow their way out of the spell’s victim. Casting the spell requires her to make a [Resolute←Resolute] test to overcome the thug’s will. The modifier is +3, but the GM rules that the beating she has taken makes Riamata’s task more difficult and levies a -2 penalty. So with new target of 16 (her Resolute plus the thug’s modified Resolute), she rolls 11 and causes the larvae to grow and feed in the thug. This causes him 1d4 damage for as long as Riamata can maintain the spell… It also gains Riamata 1d4 points’ worth of Temporary Corruption.
For the GM there is decent advice for running the game and some optional rules that cover critical attacks, fumbles, instant kills, and even playing as an Abomination should a player character fall prey to Corruption. Advice though for handling and applying the rules feels underwritten as do the rules for handling social situations. The monsters though are nicely handled, being categorised according to the degree of Resistance they offer—Weak, Ordinary, Challenging, and Powerful—and enable the GM to pitch monsters of the right threat level at his player characters. The monsters themselves are creatures and things—things of horror and primeval nature—that would persuade you from entering the woods. The nature of the creatures, such as the spiders, has the feel of The One Ring and the creatures of Mirkwood, but rather more with the feel of the Dark Ages and something more primal. In particular, Symbaroum’s treatment of Elves stands out, their being creatures utterly alien to mankind, even inimicable, but nevertheless are creatures of nature.

Symbaroum includes a starting scenario that raises its own issues. The problem is that ‘The Promised Land’ does not take place in Ambria, but in the Titans, the mountains between Ambria and Alberetor. The player characters—there are nine sample characters provided—are making their way over the Titans, fleeing Alberetor to Ambria. Given that it takes places in a mountain pass, it will surprise no-one that it is rather linear. Broken down into three acts with a strong narrative across the three, it does a decent job of introducing the system and some of the themes, but what it does not do is introduce Ambria or indeed, Davokar Forest and treasure hunting. This only contributes further to the core problem with Symbaroum.

Mechanically, Symbaroum presents a solid set of rules whose primary focus is the player characters. In places though, they do feel underwritten, especially when dealing with social situations and in terms of advice for applying the player facing rules. Which does undermine their objective of leaving the GM to get on with running the game instead of trying to apply those mechanics. Further, whilst the advice for the GM on running and creating scenarios is good, the overall effect is to make Symbaroum an RPG unsuitable for the beginning GM and a challenge even for a more experienced GM who has no experience with as player facing mechanics as those presented here. A GM who has run Numenera or similar RPGs will have less of an issue with this. 

Physically, Symbaroum is an impressive looking book, clean and tidy with an unfussy layout. The writing in general is also good, but it is clear in places that English is not the designers’ primary language with odd turns of phrase and choice of words. In each instance, it is generally obvious what the authors mean, but another round of English language localisation would not have gone amiss. What really makes the Symbaroum Core Rulebook really stand out is its art which is superb, in turns, dark and brooding, dangerous and foreboding, majestic and mysterious, brutal and bloody… So much of the art captures the sense of what Davokar Forest is like and as good as the artwork is, it only exacerbates the problem at the heart of Symboroum.

Ultimately that problem with Symbaroum is that it does not explore or showcase its primary set-up, that of the player characters going into Davokar Forest in search of secrets. Certainly in terms of the setting it has a good starting point with the description of Thistle Hold, as this is where the player characters will set out from to go into the Davokar Forest, and it gives solid means for a GM to take his players and their characters under its canopy. In particular this means the monsters, which are often nasty, earthy creatures that really feel at home in the forest. The Elves stand out here. Yet for an RPG which is about treasure hunting in a mysterious forest, it does not take the players and their characters treasure hunting, it does not show what treasure hunting is like, and it does not begin to explore the secrets under the eaves of the forest. It is so disappointing—and yet…

The hints and the artwork in Symbaroum are so enticing! Even if the RPG does not explore its raison d'être, it provides more than enough information in pages to get a game going. This is because the small scale of the setting means that more attention can be paid to the three core places—Karvosti, Thistle Hold, and Yndaros—Thistle Hold in particular. So each location contains details aplenty that can be worked up into scenarios and adventures and thus the basis for multiple sessions, but there is still Davokar Forest… 

The Symbaroum Core Rulebook presents an atmospheric, dark and foreboding setting on the edge of a new world—though built on the long lost ruins of the old—and combines them with solid mechanics that match the brutality that the setting hints at. It may be disappointing that the RPG never delivers on the unknown of the Davokar Forest it hints so much at, but hopefully the publishers will reveal more soon with future releases.


Note that more information about the Davokar Forest and treasure hunting is available in supplements Adventure Pack 1 and Tomb of Dying Dreams as well as the forthcoming SYMBAROUM: Thistle Hold - Wrath of the Warden. This is the first part of the campaign, Chronicle of the Throne of Thorns, and is on Kickstarter now.

Reviews from R'lyeh plans to review these in the very near future.