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

Saturday, 26 December 2009

Season's Giving Part Two

Back on December 7th, I posted about the annual Ogrecave.com gift list, its quartet of Christmas Dozens devoted to in turn, little games, RPGs, boardgames, and electronic games. Just to let you know that all four parts are now available, finishing with An Aetheric Guide for Christmas: A dozen downloadable gift ideas for 2009.

Happy reading and hope that you find something worth your time from all four lists.

Friday, 25 December 2009

For the One-Eyed Man...

Despite the number of scenarios set in the United Kingdom, it seems an odd omission that there is no sourcebook for the Heart of the Empire in Call of Cthulhu. Not since the greatly missed Green & Pleasant Land, the supplement from Games Workshop that even now has collectors scouring e-Bay.  Not even the relatively recent London Guidebook surpassed the breadth of material found in Green & Pleasant Land, and no book has yet replaced the sublime guide to speaking “Mummerset” which famously, was to be in that book and ended up in White Dwarf Magazine #89.  If Chaosium has yet to offer us a replacement, at least since 2008, the publisher can offer us something else in its stead, the monograph Kingdom of the Blind.

Through its range of Miskatonic University Library Association monographs, Chaosium offers a range of supplements, scenarios, campaigns, and scenario anthologies, which it deems to be of interest to the game’s devotees.  Each is only available via the Chaosium website, and each is essentially self-published.  Chaosium literally prints the books and leaves each monograph author to handle the writing, the editing, the proofreading, and the layout.  Which has not always lead to the best looking or the best written of supplements for Call of Cthulhu.

Fortunately, Kingdom of the Blind: A Guide to the United Kingdom in the 1920s and 1930s is actually reasonably well done in all these regards. The layout is unfussy, and the illustrations, if sparse, are well chosen. That said, the layout does run on, from one section to the next with no real breaks. Their absence and the lack of an index only exacerbates the book’s poor ease of use. Of course, this is a monograph, and the layout lies in the hands of the author, so it does not have to meet such high professional standards.

It is also far more comprehensive than the aforementioned supplements devoted to the United Kingdom, taking as it does all four of constituent nations – England, Scotland, Wales, and Ireland. Or as it would become during this period, Eire and Northern Ireland, which the previous supplements have tended to ignore. In addition, the supplement covers the recent history and politics of the British Isles, her culture and geography, with over half of its contents devoted to the United Kingdom and the outré.

Beginning with the Great War, the book starts out at a canter, detailing in turn the history, the geography, the politics (both the traditional three parties and the extreme left and right), and the legal system, as well as crime in the United Kingdom.  Before going onto the police and the military, it looks at mental illness and registration of births, deaths, and marriages, and then proceeds onto transport and travel, and then society itself.  Covering everything from alcohol and drugs to fashion and entertainment, it also touches upon the place of women during the 1920s and the effects of the Great War.  It is a lot of information but all necessary and all useful.

Hidden amongst all of this information are some interesting little gems. The section on fads, for example, from the introduction of the pogo-stick from France in 1921 and of crossword puzzles in 1924 to the fascination with Egypt and the Orient, can easily be used to add colour to a British-based game.  Similarly, the details on prices and money will add colour (particularly, the fact that notes larger than £1 might not be accepted and will require being signed on the back), as will the short dictionary of English terms and slang.

The treatment of the Mythos in Kingdom of the Blind is divided between places, people, and entities. The places detailed include the expected – Blue John Gap in Derbyshire, home to Mi-Go mining efforts; the infamously haunted Exham Priory (taken from Lovecraft’s story, “The Rats in the Walls”); and Lambton, County Durham, home to the legend of the famous white worm.  Others are less expected, such as Williamson’s Tunnels under Liverpool, which real and currently close off, but herein described as having been built as a route into the Dreamlands.  Wenley Moor is fictional, and while the caverns deep below it are home to a reptilian race, it has obviously been moved to Yorkshire to avoid clashing with the Mi-Go in Derbyshire and to avoid encountering another reptilian race already dealt with by the most famous doctor in British Science Fiction.

The inclusion of persons both real and drawn from fiction does not sit well with those that have been created for this Monograph.  While it can be argued that the inclusion of both Aleister Crowley and Charles Fort is a necessity given that this is England, but providing stats and write-ups for Sir Dennis Nayland-Smythe (of Sax Rohmer fame), for Thomas Carnacki (of William Hope Hodgson fame), and for Professor Nigel Chilton (of Quatermass fame, by way of Journey into Space), does feel as if the author is gilding the lily.  That said, this is the book’s second nod to British Science Fiction and is described under the workings of the British Experimental Rocket Group, currently exploring a “time bubble” under London known as “The Zone,” itself a pleasing meld of Kneale’s own Science Fiction with the Mythos.

Much like the places and the personalities, the cults and groups given in Kingdom of the Blind work better, the smaller and the more self-contained they are.  Having “The School of Night,” a cult founded by Sir Walter Raleigh that worships Britannia be behind everything that goes on in the country seems a stretch too far, and describing any attempt to fight it as being an all-but impossible task, just tips it over the edge into just colour background the Keeper’s benefit only.  Of more immediate use are descriptions of the Tcho-Tcho families operating in London’s Limehouse, of the strange Russian émigré and his used book shop on the Suffolk coast, and of the strange biomechanical artworks of Tristan Sterne.

The Mythos gazetteer includes an examination of how and where the entities of the Mythos, from the Chthonians and Cthulhu to the Tcho-Tcho and Y’golonac can be found in the United Kingdom.  This is a solidly done section of the book, primarily because it draws heavily on already known aspects about the Mythos, although not every Keeper is going to agree with all of the suggestions made by the author. Yes, it seems logical that Ithaqua’s reach extends only as far South as the Orkneys as does the Shan’s fascination with the initial understandings of nuclear physics, but having the Ghouls as Gypsy-like surface tribes is less so, while the author’s over use of the Tcho-Tcho is wearisome.

The monograph comes with two scenarios. The first is “Heartless Things,” an interesting take upon the sorcerer taking his revenge from beyond the grave. In the second, “The Resurrection Men,” the investigators are invited to the Highlands to attend a wedding that is not going to go according to plan.  Not just because the groom is reluctant to marry his bride-to-be, but because the house comes under attack on the day itself.  The first scenario is a very dark affair when compared with the lighter second, which has an air of Wodehousian silliness to it.  While neither is lacking flavour or atmosphere, both contain issues that the author fails to address fully.  For example, in “Heartless Things” it is actually very difficult for the investigators to deal with the villain of the piece, the primary suggested method being heavy-handed and the alternatives being only sketched out. The end problem is that the villain is nigh on unstoppable otherwise... Whereas in “The Resurrection Men,” the villains suffer from a lack of fleshing out.

The supplement is round out with a set of alternative rules for drug and alcohol use, for providing details of an investigator’s service during the Great War, and a list of new occupations.  All of these are very English, from the Anglican Vicar and Barrister to the Union Steward and the Valet.  Not all of them are suitable full time occupations necessarily.  For example, the Potholer is not and nor is Member of Parliament.  As to what the Spiv is doing being included in the collection is another matter.  Over all, these are useful additions.

As good an overview of its subject as Kingdom of the Blind is, it is far from perfect. It is certainly not as comprehensive as its subtitle suggests, all but ignoring the Irish Republic after 1924 and barely touching upon the 1930s as that subtitle promises. Similarly it does not detail the geography of Ireland and it misses out some areas of the mainland too. Its treatment of the Mythos really only feels right when done on a small scale and when mankind is not as intimately involved, and overall, it does feel as if the author has tried to get too many Mythos elements into the book and into the country.  Lastly, there are no maps given of the United Kingdom, and there is nothing in the way of Keeper advice for running or taking a campaign to Great Britain, something that could certainly be of use for those of us not fortunate enough to have been born on its shores and thus steeped in its history.

The real issue is that Kingdom of the Blind provides yet another take on Great Britain and the Mythos, one that is at odds with Green & Pleasant Land, with the London Guidebook, with anything in Masks of Nyarlathotep or Tatters of the King, and with anything mentioned in the fanzines, The Whisperer or The Black Seal.  If a Keeper has access to all of these sources, he is free to pick and choose as is his wont, but if not, which should he choose? What is the official version of the United Kingdom in Call of Cthulhu?  The obvious answer is whatever the Keeper wants it to be in his game, but surely Chaosium should be answering this question to?

Nevertheless, Kingdom of the Blind is all that we have for the United Kingdom and Call of Cthulhu, and while there is a great deal of information between its covers, which is not only useful, but handy to have in one place, the fact that it is all that we have, is also sad and disappointing.  Sad and disappointing because the absence of a British source book is an omission and a missed opportunity, especially given both the number of scenarios for Call of Cthulhu set in the United Kingdom and the game’s popularity in the United Kingdom.  And let us not forget the need for the book for those of us not fortunate enough to have been born on the shores of Albion and I say again, thus steeped in its history.  So it seems strange that Chaosium is not making more of Kingdom of the Blind and does not seem to be pushing towards turning this Monograph into a full book.  After all, there can be no doubt that a full version of Kingdom of the Blind would be far more useful addition (and quite possibly, a better selling title) for Call of Cthulhu than Secrets of Morocco, the first Monograph to be given the full book treatment.

Kingdom of the Blind might not be one of the best Monographs, but it is definitely not one of the worst, and it is definitely one of the most useful.  While its treatment of the Mythos is somewhat scattershot – and the Keeper should pick and choose what he uses – its treatment of the reality of the United Kingdom is excellent.  Better than some of the “Secrets of...” titles, Kingdom of the Blind should be the basis for one of the best “Secrets of...” titles. 

Friday, 18 December 2009

A Monk's Game

Let us begin with the conceit at the heart of Chronica Feudalis: A Game of Imagined Adventure in Medieval Europe from Cellar Games LLC. It imagines itself to be the translation of a roleplaying game written and played in secret by a group of monks in Medieval Europe as a diversion from their hard work and their prayers. Their inspiration is in turn, the “late luminaries David, son of Arne, and Gary of Geneva” and “Vincent the Baker,” which does stretch the reader’s credulity just a little. Once you get past this anachronism, the book settles down and you do quite quickly accept the voice of the “Imaginer,” the supposed author and player of the game.

What you then find in Chronica Feudalis is a game set in the early medieval period of 11th and 12th century England and Europe. Essentially, the time of the first and second Crusades and of the first English civil war or Anarchy between Empress Maude and King Stephen, which along the difficulties of papal politics and the taking of Iberia from the Moors, provides plenty of scope for adventure. This is not Ars Magica though, and neither magic nor the supernatural appear in this game, although it is possible that a curse might prove very effective. This also means that any protagonists faced by the players will always be of a mundane nature. That said, Chronica Feudalis is published under an Open Gaming License, so someone else could create supplements detailing medieval magic, a medieval bestiary, or even the Cthulhu Mythos for the period. In the meantime, if the GM wants further information on the more fantastic aspects of the early medieval period, especially in England, then Green Ronin Publishing’s Medieval Player’s Manual is a good starter.

Chronica Feudalis is game that wears its influences on its sleeve. The first influence shows in its “Step-Die” system, which like the Earth Dawn or Savage Worlds RPGs, rates each skill, aspect, or tool with a single die and the higher the die type, the better it is. So Perform (d8) is better than Perform (d6) and Riding Horse (d10) is a much better mount than Riding Horse (d8). Anything given a d6 rating represents the average while the maximum possible human rating in anything is d12. Anything with a rating of a d20 is extremely powerful.

The second is the concept of Aspects, which come from the FATE System as seen in Spirit of the Century. For a character, they might describe an ability, his status, or a belief, and in game can be “invoked” by his player to provide a bonus for a character, “endured” to impose a penalty on a current action, or “compelled” to influence his behaviour (for the benefit of the story). The currency when dealing with Aspects is Ardour, essentially the equivalent of FATE points, spent to “invoke,” and earned for “enduring” or being “compelled.” The environment around the characters can also have Aspects and these can be “invoked,” but they are instead called “Conditions.” More interestingly, a character can perform a “Manoeuvre” to impose a “Condition” not only upon his surroundings, but also upon another character or an NPC, in which case it acts as a penalty.

Beyond a name and background, a character in Chronica Feudalis is defined by five elements. The first of these are his Mentors, the learned individuals who taught him all he knows; skills, taught to him by those Mentors; aspects, personal descriptive factors or abilities that can be brought into the game; backgrounds, personal descriptive factors or abilities that while a part of the character, are usually not brought into the game; and tools, the equipment that the character is expected to have after studying with each mentor. To create the character, a player chooses three mentors, each of which will grant three skills. For example, a Courtier mentor provides Command, Deceive, and Entice, while a Hunter gives Aim, Hunt, and Hide. Each of these skills begins with a rating of d6, unless taught by another Mentor, in which case it goes up a step. A character starts with all other skills at a d4 and also receives three Aspects, three Backgrounds, and the tools listed under each Mentor.

So putting the creation process into practice, I shall take as my inspiration a certain Welsh Benedictine monk, known as an excellent herbalist and investigator. To model this I choose a Doctor, a Knight, and a Monk as his Mentors, giving him the skills Command, Heal, Will; Fitness, Ride, Strike; and Fitness, Sense, and Will respectively. All of these are rated at a d6, except for Fitness and Will, which are replicated and so they are rated at d8. I assign him some appropriate Aspects and use his Backgrounds to give him extra languages and a degree of status as a Benedictine Monk. Given this current status and calling, he does not receive all of the equipment appropriate to his Mentors, so no arms, armour, or a horse.

Bledrus of Erdington
Mentors: Knight, Doctor, Monk
Skills: Command d6, Fitness d8, Heal d6, Ride d6, Sense d6, Strike d6, Will d8
Aspects: Curiously Observant (d8), Honourable Reputation (d8), Well-Travelled (d8)
Backgrounds: Speaks and Reads Latin, Speaks and Reads Welsh, Benedictine Monk
Tools: Surgeon’s Kit (d6), Bandages (d4), Habit (d6), Stylus & Ink (d6)

A character also has two other pools of points, Ardour and Vigour, both of which start at three and both of which change as the game is played. Ardour is used with Aspects, while Vigour represents a character’s ability to participate in physical or verbal conflicts and so affect the narrative.

To undertake an action, a character builds a dice pool using one his skills, an appropriate tool, and if he chooses to “invoke” it, an Aspect. The number of dice in the pool is limited by a character’s Vigour, so the dice pool can never be larger than three and will be further limited if Vigour is lost. Penalties against the action will remove a die from the pool. The basic target against which the dice pool is rolled is four, but can vary depending on the situation. If just one of dice comes up four or more, then the action is successful, but double or triple successes will give even better results.

Whether handling a chase, a fight, a parley, or sneaking around, the purpose of any conflict in Chronica Feudalis is to reduce the opponent’s Vigour and so achieve the aim or stakes set out before the conflict begins. It only takes a single success to reduce a character’s Vigour by one, but this can be avoided by attacked character taking an injury. Injuries are also inflicted when a character that has no Vigour left, is successfully attacked. The nature of the injury is set by the attacker, which might be a black eye in a brawl or bruised pride in an argument. Physical injuries are healed using the Heal skill, while the Empathy skill will heal damage inflicted upon a character’s mind or social status.

One issue that could be a problem with the game is the use of the “Manoeuvres” to inflict “Conditions” upon both player characters and NPCs. These can be very powerful in game terms, for example, I can see the “Disarm” Manoeuvre being used quite a lot as essentially without a weapon some characters and NPCs are going to be denied access to associated skills and Aspects. Interestingly, there is a whole thread devoted to problem of the “Disarm” Manoeuvre on RPG.net.

Given that the game falls within the “Indie” category, it is no surprise that players in Chronica Feudalis are expected to be more proactive than in standard RPGs. This is something that the rules actively encourage with the use of Aspects, just as they do with Evil Hat Production’s Spirit of the Century. A character has to use his Aspects to get both the most out of the game and to push the story forward, spending Ardour to “Invoke” them, while suffering their negative effects, either by being “Compelled” or “Endured” to gain more Ardour. One side effect of Chronica Feudalis limiting a character to just three Aspects is to actually make their use easier and less cumbersome than in other FATE powered games where remembering and applying as many as ten per player can get in the way of the game.

Chronica Feudalis is rounded out with a discussion of Europe of the time, focussing in particular upon the issues of the day – Papal politics and various crusades and heresies, and possible settings and adventures. This is followed by a detailed scenario outline set at a banquet held at Warwick Castle which will involve the player characters in the intrigues of the Anarchy. Lastly, the appendices list all of the NPCs for the scenario outline and the game’s Mentors, both with full stats, thus providing the GM with a ready supply of NPCs.

Physically, Chronica Feudalis is a neat little book, slightly illustrated using period style artwork. The writing is clear and the rules come with several extended examples. It is also pleasing to see a book of this size come with something as useful as an index.

What Chronica Feudalis does is straddle the divide between the “Indie” and the standard RPG, drawing the Aspect mechanics from the “Indie” side and the “Step-Die” mechanics from the other. The rules are light and easy, as is character generation, with a setting that has room enough for both GM and players to make Medieval Europe what they want. Whether that be a Medieval Murder Mystery (check out Simon Washbourne’s 1PG: Medieval Mysteries, Sleuthing in the Middle Ages for ideas), an exploration of the Robin Hood legend (Battlefield Press’ Sherwood: The Legend of Robin Hood for Savage Worlds is a good choice there), or going on a pilgrimage (Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, of course). Though it will be interesting to see what support the author (and others) provides in the future, Chronica Feudalis: A Game of Imagined Adventure in Medieval Europe is a pleasingly straight and uncomplicated way to roleplay Medieval Europe.

Friday, 11 December 2009

Behind The Peacock Spray

As much as we are fascinated by the exoticism of the East, our gaze rarely strays from the furthest extent of the Orient. China and Japan are our pre-occupation, which explains the number of RPGs and supplements devoted to both countries, but it also ignores the myriad lands that lie between the occidental and the oriental. When such lands are detailed, then it is invariably Egypt that figures first, because if anything it is as equally exotic. Beyond that lie the lands of Araby, the Middle East, the Caucasus, and the many places along the fabled Silk Road. In gaming, supplements devoted to these regions are far and few between. When Gravity Falls for Cyberpunk 2013 – based on the novel of the same name by George Alec Effinger, The Cairo Sourcebook for Call of Cthulhu, and A Magical Society: Silk Road all spring to mind, still there could be more, and while they could all be written by Ken Hite, that is too much to hope for. Fortunately, the newest supplement to explore the Near East is written by Ken Hite, but he is not taking us to Araby, but rather to Persia.

Tehran: Nest of Spies ($7.95, Atomic Overmind Press) is the first supplement for The Day After Ragnarok, Ken Hite’s post-WW2, post-apocalypse, post-Ragnarok campaign setting for the popular Shane Hensley’s Savage Worlds rules set that is also available for the HERO System. It describes a world devastated after the Serpentfall, an event caused by the detonation of the Trinity Device within the brain of the Midguard Serpent, unleashed by Hitler in an attempt to initiate Götterdämmerung. Best summed up as “Mad Max meets Conan” or “Submachine Guns & Sorcery,” The Day After Ragnarok is a rich, frothy, and exciting pulp setting, and what Tehran: Nest of Spies sets out to do is provide a more focused setting within which to game.

A 34-page, 4.24 Mb PDF, Tehran: Nest of Spies comes with a little history, a description of the city and its major locations, descriptions of the major factions operating in the city, a short bestiary, and a guide to adventures in the city, plus a complete “Savage Tale” starter or adventure. It is written for the Savage Worlds version of the game, but doubtless the HERO System version will follow.

The Tehran of The Day After Ragnarok is a place of some importance, being caught between the recently expanded Azerbaijan Soviet Socialist Republic to the North and the jewel in the crown of the British Empire, India, to the South. The significance of this fact is that the Soviet border is not impenetrable, spies can get in and information can get out (and vice versa), unlike in Europe where East and West are separated by the Serpent Curtain. Thus the city has become a maelstrom of intrigue and espionage, a continuation of the Great Game between the British and Russian Empires, and all that in addition to the city’s own domestic problems. There is the continuing tension between the Western oilmen, its Modern facing ruler, Mohammed Reza Shah Pahlavi, and the city’s cosmopolitan middle classes on the one hand, and the old Qajar aristocracy, the various pro-Communist factions, the fundamentalist Fadayun-e-Islam (assassins, terrorists, or martyrs depending on your allegiance), and the conservative poor on the other. Of course, that forgets other factions in the city such as MAH, the Turkish intelligence service; pro-French refugees from Beirut; the Nazi-backed, pro-nationalist Ba’ath Party; and the staunchly anti-Communist Polish Free Army based in the city. It also simplifies matters a little, because a pro-Communist faction is unlikely to ally itself with the Fadayun-e-Islam, and so on.

After just a little history, Hite gets down to describing what might be found in the city. What he does here is map the various locations that he describes back onto the “City Location Table” found in The Day After Ragnarok. Which is a neat way not to replicate that table in this supplement, but it is about Tehran, so we are also told what makes such places different and particular to this city. This is followed by a description of the many factions and personalities caught up in the politics of the city, including all of those mentioned above. Into that cocktail Hite also throws in one or two historical figures into the mix. The first is Iran’s then head of its gendarmerie, an American called Colonel H. Norman Schwarzkopf – father of the famous general, chief investigator in the Lindbergh baby kidnapping in 1932, and the man who really did re-organise the Iranian police after 1941, while the second is Ruhollah Khomeini, a religious leader and Islamic scholar who would go on to play a significant role in world politics come 1979. Only his stats and basic history are given, and while that might be seen as bad enough in the eyes of some, Hite leaves it up to the GM to court controversy around the gaming table by deciding what Khomeini’s agenda might be. The author does give you options though...

Hite continues the “Top Five” lists begun in The Day After Ragnarock – such as Top Five Places To Stomp Nazis and Top Five Secret Bases, but as is to be expected for a city source book, the focus is much tighter. In Tehran: Nest of Spies the lists amount to just two – “Top Five Tehran Touches” and “Top Five Tehran Sights,” both a little more mundane than those found in The Day After Ragnarock itself. Nevertheless, both are useful with the first, “Top Five Tehran Touches,” doing a nice job of helping the GM add colour to his game.

Although Iran was not directly affected by the Serpentfall, it did suffer from a series of earthquakes and various snake cults and creatures in its wake. Only three are described here, the first being the serpentine Ganj or “jewel serpent,” which hunts down concentrations of gems and jewels, making it a regular threat to Tehran’s banks and jewellers. Both occasionally hire parties to hunt these creatures in the qanats (underground aqueducts) and cellars below the city, which amusingly, means that the player characters have the opportunity to do a “dungeon bash” in 1948! The other two are the Kil-barak, an army of dog-headed men sealed behind a great gate by Alexander the Great and let loose after the Serpentfall broke the seal, and the Symir, an emergent consciousness embodied in the city’s or the country’s birds.

The standard Savage Worlds Adventure Generator is, like the “City Location Table” above, altered and extended for use in Tehran: Nest of Spies, becoming the “Tehran Urban Adventure Generator.” It is a little short and really only gets going when used with the book’s “Encounter Table.” In Tehran, it is not just a case of who you might run into, but also a matter of who they owe their allegiance to, who they really owe their allegiance to, what they are up to, and how and why they might betray you. Again, it is another useful little tool kit that does much of the work for the GM, though to get the fullest out of it, it will probably be best to use advance.

The supplement is rounded out with “A Key for the Peacock,” a Savage Scenario Starter. It is more of a toolkit than a straightforward scenario, providing option upon option for how the ornate “Peakcock Key” comes into the possession of the player characters, who wants it, and what the key is, and what it opens. At its heart is a Mcguffin, which in true Hitchcock style throws the characters in at the deep end and forces them to sink or swim in a rich soup of intrigue and factional rivalries.

What Tehran: Nest of Spies is not, is a history book. Rather it gives a playable snapshot of the city for The Day After Ragnarok in 1948, supported by a ready set of tools that help it be different from the Tehran of our 1948. Nor does it actually add a great deal to the overall setting that is The Day After Ragnarok, almost as if the Tehran after the Serpentfall exists in isolation with little regard for what happens beyond its outskirts. Arguably that is a “Concentrated Isolation,” one that echoes the mindset of the espionage world of our own twentieth century Cold War. This does not mean though, that the information in Tehran: Nest of Spies is not useful. In fact, its contents are all useful, and I can see this supplement being useful (as my friend Dave suggested) for when a GM wants to take his Cold City game on holiday from its natural home in Berlin. Which is no surprise given that Hite describes Tehran in his “Inspirations” as being Berlin’s equivalent in The Day After Ragnarok setting, it being the closest non-Soviet capital with an accessible border to the Soviet Union.

Although Tehran makes perfect sense as the Berlin of the post-Ragnarok, it seems an odd choice given the author’s own leanings in the core setting book for the “Conan meets Mad Max” in the ravaged America of the Mayoralties. Perhaps such a setting will be the subject for the next sourcebook? As to this sourcebook, given its price and format, you are getting quite a lot for your monies with Tehran: Nest of Spies, especially as it comes with the means to use its contents in the form of the location and encounter tools or tables. Yet in terms of background, the book feels underwritten and the likelihood is that the GM is going to need access to the Lonely Planet Iran if he wants more detail. Hite though, makes Tehran: Nest of Spies a terrific little setting in which get involved in the grand intrigues, rivalries, and politics of the post-apocalyptic world of The Day After Ragnarok

Monday, 7 December 2009

Season's Giving

In case you don't know, Ogrecave.com does a gift list each year, a quartet of Christmas Dozens devoted to in turn, little games, RPGs, boardgames, and electronic games. It has been doing it for nine years now, having been brought across from the long defunct site, RPGaction.com, where I first had the idea. So in fact, the concept is now ten years old, but I digress...

Anyway, what the OgreCave Christmas Gift Guide does not do is highlight what we think were the best games of the year, but the best games games of the year to give as gifts. Which is an important distinction, because these are not awards. Rather they are a series of aides to help our fellow gamers. First to help us find a gift for our fellow gamers, and second to help our non-gamer friends and family find something that we want. The interesting thing about these lists is that if you go back over the years -- and the links to the lists from each of the past eight years can be found on the page  -- you can track the changes in our hobby. Thus you see the rise in popularity of the board game, the PDF (as a game in its own right and not just another means of delivering your RPG), and the rise and fall of the d20 System...

The first part went up last Friday, Twelve Stocking Stuffer Games: A dozen games for $25 or Less for 2009, and the next three parts will follow in the days to come.

Hope that you find it useful.

Friday, 4 December 2009

Less is More...

One of the trends over the last few years has been “Edition Zero” gaming. Titles such as Elf Lair Games’ Spellcraft & Swordplay, The First Edition Society’s OSRIC, Goblin Games’ Labyrinth Lord, and RetroRoleplaying’s Microlite 74 are what is known as “Retro Clones,” games that turn back the clock and do back to basics roleplaying like it was 1974 and the only game in town was Dungeons & Dragons. Part of this “old school renaissance” can be seen as a reaction to the pushing forward of Dungeons & Dragons into its third and fourth editions, but the primary reason for them has to be a sense of nostalgia, a yearning for the games and campaigns played in the youth of the “Edition Zero” devotee. With the appearance of these games has come a flurry of supplements and scenarios that pay homage to that early style of the game (and gaming), and one such scenario is Death Frost Doom.

Published by the Finnish based Lamentations of the Flame Princes, Death Frost Doom is a scenario designed for a standard party of characters and suitable for levels one through six. More importantly it can be run using any version of Dungeons & Dragons. So that is First, Second, and Third Editions, Paizo Publishing’s new Pathfinder RPG, Troll Lord’s Castles & Crusades, and even Basic Dungeons & Dragons. It comes as an A5-sized, 28-page black & white booklet with a separate card cover with a map of the dungeon on the inside of this cover. The book is illustrated with heavy greyscale artwork that adds to the atmosphere of the adventure, something that this adventure is all about. If there is a physical problem with the book, there is a lack of a scale for the dungeon – but an erratum is included, although as a tiny separate piece of paper, it is going to get lost. Perhaps the rest of the second printings could come packaged in a ziplock bag? Doubtless, this will be fixed come the third printing.

The other thing that I would suggest the author does for a third printing is give the scenario a back cover blurb. Now it is traditional for “old school” style products to not have such a blurb, but this is 2009 (almost 2010) and Death Frost Doom should sell itself to the casual browser who picks it up at one of the few stores it is available from. Whether that is merely a description of the scenario itself or includes quotes from some of the very good press that Death Frost Doom has been receiving, there should be something that at the very least. In the meantime, it appears that the scenario is doing very well by word of mouth alone.

Death Frost Doom is set on a mountain with a dark, unspoken reputation that the local populace avoids. An ancient evil still slumbers high on its treacherous slopes, awaiting the time when someone is foolish enough to awaken it, while still hiding, according to the rumours, great treasure and wealth. There is no effort to describe what lies around the mountain, it and the dungeon below are designed to be placed in a campaign with almost no effect upon that campaign, except of course, if everything goes wrong and the “Doom” of the title is unleashed. This also makes the scenario suitable for use in “Sand Box” style campaigns, the type wherein the player characters have free reign to wander as is their wont, their travels fuelled by rumour, hearsay, and so on. The author suggests the dungeon be used as part of a quest with a piece of information or an item be placed within its depths.

It begins with the party having scaled the mountain only to encounter the scenario’s very singular NPC. Zeke Duncaster is described as a “nutty old coot” who has been living on the mountain for decades quite literally carving the names of the many thousands who died at the hands of the death cult that made the mountain its shrine. The likelihood is that the players will find their encounter with Zeke to be a frustrating one, given his oblique manner. Make of him what they will though, Zeke is there to provide a warning as much as he is to provide colour.

Further up the mountain lies a mass graveyard and a weirdly petrified cabin, the trip upwards being accompanied by a strange wind that could be music or could be a moan. Below that is the shrine, most of which is made up of thousands and thousands of crypts. Although the map itself only provides the base layout of the shrine, the accompanying text goes into some detail about each location. In the absence of monsters, the description is what the DM has to work with, and what he should be doing with the description is helping to create atmosphere, starting with the wind that is stronger within the shrine than it was outside of it. On the flipside, it does mean that the player characters are going to wandering from one location to the next, eventually putting their noses into something that they shouldn’t – and that is where the adventure gets interesting.

If Death Frost Doom has a theme, it is that it has two themes. The first is that things are best left alone. All of the traps in the adventure are set off by the characters, and not through random circumstance. The second is that curiosity and greed will kill the dungeon delver, because while both will pull the characters further in, it likely that they will find (and set off) more traps and dangers. The primary effect of wandering the empty halls of the shrine should be to help build the eeriness...

...And then BANG!

An apocalypse is unleashed. One that will march down the mountain and remind everyone who lives nearby of the ancient evil that they had forgotten. This is not a genie that can be easily put back into the lamp, and if this happens, it will probably push the campaign in another direction. The central “trap” to Death Frost Doom feels similar to the one at the core of an old and classic Dungeons & Dragons scenario from White Dwarf #9, “The Lichway,” designed by the late Albie Fiore. Given the fact that I suspect that the author of Death Frost Doom, James Edward Raggi IV is barely if at all older than “The Lichway,” this is probably mere coincidence rather than plagiarism.

During his introduction, the author writes how he was inspired by the “Weird Tales” of H.P. Lovecraft, Clark Ashton Smith, Robert E. Howard, and others. This comes over very much in the writing and the staging of the story, which can be summed up in a single word – sparse. Sparse in the sense that this is not a dungeon populated in traditional Dungeons & Dragons style, with room after room filled with creatures, traps, and puzzles, but it is far from sparse in terms of description and atmosphere – musty, funereal, even oppressive and disquieting.

Rounding out is a second dungeon, or rather, “The Tower,” which previously appeared in the magazine, Fight on! #4. It has the feeling of a sketch more than a fully fledged dungeon, but makes for a worthwhile addition to the book.

Death Frost Doom runs against the continuing trend in both dungeon design and in the design of fantasy adventures with its de-emphasis of the dungeon bash and emphasis of atmospheric horror elements. While there will be many a player and many a GM alike who will not appreciate this emphasis, those that do will discover that Death Frost Doom is a poisoned chalice, a work of a stark horror that the player characters are going to remember for a long time.

Friday, 27 November 2009

Space is Big...

...and not just to avoid having to give you the rest of the quote from Douglas Adams’ Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, but also to get to point, so is Starblazer Adventures: The Rock & Roll Space Opera Adventure Game. Seriously, this is a big game. Weighing in at 632 pages long (and 34 chapters long), Starblazer Adventures from Cubicle Seven Entertainment, is one of the bigger RPGs available in a hobby that has seen the size of its books grow and grow. That said, the book is relatively light given its size. On the other hand, in an age when core books are expected to be in colour and possess an element of graphical sophistication, Starblazer Adventures has neither. Do not let either fact put you off though, because instead of the aforementioned graphical sophistication, what you get is very cleanly and tidily laid out, making the book all the more accessible. As to the lack of colour, well that is purely down to the source upon which the game is based, a black and white comic published in Britain the early 1980s. Starblazer presented “spacefiction adventure in pictures,” each issue containing a complete story, and although the comics did not share the same universe as a comic series today might, numerous characters appeared again and again to allow the development of a setting for those characters. Over the course of the 281 issues, stories appeared written by Grant Morrison and John Smith, and drawn by Mike McMahon, John Ridgeway, Colin MacNeil, and others, and you can hardly turn a page in Starblazer Adventures without seeing a sample of the artwork from the comic.

As its subtitle suggests, Starblazer Adventures is a game about the Space Opera subgenre of Science Fiction, so more technically more fiction than science with big spaceships, weird alien worlds, even weirder aliens with alien queens of probably an amorous disposition, and the occasional big space battle. Which not to say that some clever thinking and perhaps a little science is never going to get the hero of the adventure out of a scrape or two (indeed, one of the heroic archetypes in both game and comic is the Scientific Hero), but he really needs to have a good blaster strapped to his side and a stalwart alien companion by his side. In modern terms, the territory for Starblazer Adventures is Star Wars or Star Trek, but the rules sets (and I use the term “sets” because it is appropriate) in the game are comprehensive enough that not only could the Story Teller run a game in either setting, he could also do a Mechwarrior, a Firefly, a Judge Dredd, or a Battlestar Galactica game just was easily. What allows the Story Teller to do this is two factors. The first is the way in which the book is organised, with “Alien Races & Mutations” in one chapter, “Star Monsters & Machines,” and so on, enabling him to create these elements with easy reference. The second factor is that Starblazer Adventures uses the FATE 3 engine for its mechanics.

First seen in Evil Hat Production’s superb pulp action RPG, Spirit of the Century, the Fate system is a Fudge variant, one in which Fate Points play a major role. Just as in many other RPGs they can be spent to gain a bonus to a roll, but here they have a greater versatility. Like many “Indie” style games, a player can spend them to create and bring small elements into the game, what is known as “dramatic editing,” but under the Fate system, Fate Points can do a whole lot more. They can be spent to invoke a character Aspect and bring it into play, to tag another character or location related Aspect to bring it into play, to power a Stunt, or to make a Declaration, adding some small element to the story. The Fate system also ditches traditional attributes, instead defining characters by skills, Aspects, and Stunts. It plays fast and easy – the player rolls two six sided dice, each of a different colour, and deducts one from the other to a number from +5 down to -5 (unlike Spirit of the Century, in which 4dF or four Fudge dice are rolled and added together). This number is added to any bonuses derived from Skills, Aspects, or Stunts to try and beat a target number, or to roll higher than an opponent in a contested roll. In a contested roll, the amount by which one side beats the other determines the amount of damage inflicted.

Characters are defined by their Skills, Stunts, and Aspects. Skills are areas in which a character is trained in, his knowledge and expertise; his Stunts are related to his Skills and grant a character small bonuses or permissions within the game; while Aspects define the character in some way, such as “Muckraking” or “This is Bigger Than I Thought!” and are the more interactive elements within the game. Sample skills might be Weapons – Fair (+1) or Science – Great (+4), while possible typical stunts include abilities like Lip Reading and Impossible Detail (both tied to the Investigation skill) or possessions such as Custom Ride gives you a favoured vehicle that you have added a gadget to (tied to the Drive skill). Most Stunts do not require the expenditure of Fate Points, but those that do are slightly more powerful. A Fate Point can be spent to Invoke one of a character’s Aspects and so gain a bonus, but if Compelled by the Story Teller and brought into play, so developing complications and driving the story along, then the character earns a Fate Point. Lastly, Aspects belonging to another character, or to an object, place, or a scene can be Tagged by another character, again by paying out Fate Points. When choosing Aspects for a character, the designers’ advice is that they should never be boring and it should always be possible to view an Aspect in a positive and a negative light. Otherwise, a character cannot participate in the game’s Fate Point economy – bring negative Aspects into the game and letting it act as a story hook, gets a character more Fate Points to spend in his favour.

At its most basic, character creation is simply a matter of choosing Skills, Stunts, and Aspects. A quick method of creating characters is provided, but of course, the game wants a little more than that from its players, asking them to create a simple background and tying Aspects to their character’s origins, training, career, and so on. There is plenty of advice to aid the players, including a set of tables for randomly creating a character’s liftepath and the discussion of many and varied careers available. As with Spirit of the Century, it is also suggested that the players create their characters together and build a background in common.

The basics of the game – character creation, Skills, Stunts, Aspects, gadgets and gear, the use of Fate Points, and running the game, including combat, are all covered in the book’s first eleven chapters, roughly a third of its contents. It does dwell on Aspects and Fate Points and how they work, almost to the point of repetition, but both lie at the game’s core. One interesting element of combat is that when a character takes damage, or Stress (this can be either Physical or Mental depending upon the type of attack), he can absorb it by taking a Consequence. Depending upon the type of attack, a Consequence can be anything from a bloodied nose, a phobia, or losing the mortgage to your spaceship. It usually takes time for a Consequence to wear off, but in the meantime, it can be Tagged or Compelled exactly like an Aspect.

After this, Starblazer Adventures gets a little more interesting, particularly for the Story Teller. The interesting bit though, starts by setting out some basic assumptions, and these are all a matter of size, or as the book puts it, “Size Matters!” Covering everything from Tiny (smaller than human sized) to Galactic (bigger than a solar system), this scale is used throughout the rest of the book to handle everything, from robots and spaceships to star empires and mandroids (cyborgs). The following chapters deal in turn with “Alien Races and Mutations,” “Star Monsters & War Machines” “Star Empires & Battle Fleets,” and “Hoover Cars, Robots, & Mandroids” before hightailing it for the stars aboard the starship of your Choice. With these it is a matter of choosing the right Aspects and Stunts to create the right package, though the chapter on “Star Empires & Battle Fleets” adds another element in the form of organisations, not just how to create them, but also how to run them (not dissimilar to a standard character is the short answer) and how to get the characters involved with them. If a player wants to play an alien, mutant, robot, or mandroid character, he can either use these rules to create his own package or take one any of the examples given.

Starships receive almost as much attention as characters in Starblazer Adventures, with five chapters devoted to their design and creation; their Skills, Stunts, and Aspects; how to use them in the game; and lots of sample ships. Some of the more entertaining ship Aspects include “Who in God’s Name Painted It Pink?”, “Steers Like A Cow,” and “Scotian Engineer.” As with other elements of the game, ships are treated much like characters, with Skills and Stunts used to handle the usual factors that you would expect a starship to have – Manoeuvre Drive, Cargo Hold, Ships Systems (Communication Systems, Crew Quarters, Life Support, and so on), Ships Marines, and so forth. At first glance, this might look a little odd, but it means that when a ship takes damage, the effects are more easily modelled and they can suffer Consequences in exactly the same way as characters do.

At just two pages, the “Collaborative Campaign Creation” chapter is not the shortest in the book – that honour goes to the one devoted to “Basic Scaling” at a single page. It describes a process much like that of joint character creation discussed earlier in the book, but is more freeform and freethinking, the aim being to create a map of the area where the campaign will be set. In allowing the players to take part in the process, a Story Teller will find what they want to see in his game.

This is followed by a chapter devoted to “Plot Stress,” which works in a fashion similar to the Stress damage taken by both characters and starships. What Plot Stress does is track the effects of plot actions – taken by both the player characters and NPCs, upon a campaign and assign Consequences when certain levels of Stress are taken. In the sample given “Spacestation Theta 9,” several causes of Stress are listed and when enough Stress has been accrued, the station’s Energy Shields fail after a power failure as the result of a Minor Consequence, but will be boarded by pirates as the result of an Extreme Consequence. What the “Plot Stress” rules do is twofold. First it allows a Story Teller to keep track of the plot’s progress, and second, it pushes the plot forward and ups its tension. Complementing the “Plot Stress” chapter is the “Plot Generator & the Adventure Funnel,” the first a set of random idea tables for creating a scenario, while the latter has the Story Teller work backwards form the his plot’s desired goal, adding complications and twists. Which is really rather clever.

Much of the remainder of Starblazer Adventures is devoted to what makes a Starblazer game exactly that and providing a who’s who and a where’s where of the Starblazer comic. There are no stats given for any of the peoples and places, but then the book is already large enough. Advice is given on how they might be used though, and where appropriate, Aspects are given too. Stats are given for “Monsters, Minions, and Mad Scientists” providing the Story Teller with a ready supply of protagonists and threats.

The book is rounded out with six appendices. These in turn discuss and list the 281 issues of the Starblazer comic; give a summary of the rules; provide useful tables, sheets, and maps; ad lastly discuss the game in the Designers’ Notes. The book is rounded out with an excellent – and necessary – index. Over all, the writing is light and easy, often friendly and direct, making the game much easier to read than its size might otherwise suggest.

Fans of Spirit of the Century wanting a Science Fiction game will themselves able to pick up and play Starblazer Adventures with hardly a hiccup, but for anyone new to the Fate system, Starblazer Adventures is well written and well presented, making it relatively easy to learn. For the Story Teller, the various tool sets – “Alien Races and Mutations,” “Star Monsters & War Machines” “Star Empires & Battle Fleets,” and so on, enable to either create his own setting or adapt a favourite, whether taken from a book, a film, or a television series.

As good and as comprehensive Starblazer Adventures actually is, it is not perfect. Its sheer size is a daunting prospect to anyone coming to it afresh, and while it is gloriously comprehensive, it also means that there a lot for the Story Teller to take in. The look of the book is also something of an issue. With all of that black and white line art, and as good as that art is, it does make the book quite grey in places. Nevertheless, that art is good, and it goes some way to give Starblazer Adventures something of a unified look and feel, a necessity given that the game does not come with its own setting. Which in this modern day and age marks this game as being something of an oddity, because it is to be expected of a “genre” supplement, but not a core book like Starblazer Adventures. Instead, the game offers ideas and story hooks aplenty as well as discussing how to get a game started, providing a plot generator, and looking at typical Starblazer settings from “Space Cowboys & Smoking Lasers!” to “Who Elected the Guy with Two Heads?” via “Fortress Earth & The Thermal Wars” – essentially adventures during the trailblazing, the cosmopolitan, and the expansion eras.

Yet seeing the lack of a background as an issue is to miss the point. Starblazer Adventures is a toolkit, a big fat toolkit designed to help the Story Teller create a Space Opera game, one that leans towards a sense of grandeur when it comes to scale. Indeed, it could be argued that the game itself approaches its genre with that same self grandeur, and there has never been a book that approached Space Opera on such a scale as Starblazer Adventures: The Rock & Roll Space Opera Adventures.

Friday, 20 November 2009

Death to the French!

When an RPG takes its characters to war, it is invariably as a group or unit capable of undertaking small unit actions, not of participating in the main battle. It allows the players to maintain some degree of control and independence over their characters and not be constantly subject to orders issued by NPCs (or rather the GM). There are a few exceptions to this rule, but what it usually means is that the player characters are cast as commandos, as members of the Special Forces, or something similar. Pick your war and the same set-up applies, whether it be the Vietnam War, World War II, or the Napoleonic War, which is the subject of Omihedron Games’ “Indie” RPG, Duty and Honour: A Game of Adventure and Romance in Wellington’s Army.

Like its most obvious inspiration, the television series Sharpe – and the Bernard Cornwell books that is based upon, Duty and Honour casts the player characters as soldiers undertaking small and important missions on the edge of Duke of Wellington’s campaign against the French and the Spanish during the Peninsular War of 1810. While the game cannot escape the command structure and the need to give and take orders – it is a military game, after all – the small action nature of its set up allows for player led and directed missions, this being the game’s primary “Indie” element. Nevertheless, it does call for one player to be the officer and the others to be the NCOs and privates in an army that is not only at war, but which renowned for its harsh discipline regime.

Character generation in Duty and Honour is a mixture of the random and player choice, a slightly lengthy and complex process that produces a detailed soldier, complete with a little background, all ready to play. Each character is defined by what the game terms parameters, of which there are seven. These are Measures (Guts, Discipline, Influence, and Charm), more traditionally known as a character’s attributes; Reputations (loyalties and favours owed to Personalities and Institutions, such as the character’s regiment or his agent in London), Skills (which range from the expected Command and Soldiering to the more interesting Romance and Skulduggery), Experiences (events in the character’s life before and after joining the army that provide bonuses to his Measures, Reputations, Skills, and Wealth), Regiment (which all of the player characters have in common), Traits (the equivalent of advantages, including Educated, Is But A Scratch, Sir!, Chosen Man, Duellist, and Thief in the Night), and Wealth.

A player receives points to assign to the character’s Measures and Skills from his Social Class and his military training, plus ten free points to spend on Traits. The rest are determined by his Experiences, each one determined by drawing a card that will not only grant possible bonuses to the character’s Measures, Reputation, and Skills, but sometimes also an aspect of his background. For example, drawing a Heart Face card gives the character a favour, one owed by a senior figure associated with the Experience. In game terms, he gains +2 Personality Reputation: (senior figure), but the player also gets to describe how his character won the favour. In addition, cards are also drawn for the character’s Spoils, which add further benefits. There are two sets of tables, one for life before the army and one during. The GM sets the number of Experiences for his players, with seven or more indicating an iconic character, while four or more represents an experienced character.

The character below has a total of six Experiences, divided equally between civilian and military life. James is the son of a Scots officer, killed in battle, and a French mother. He is not wealthy and had little hope of gaining a commission, but gained the patronage of Colonel Willingham after rescuing her daughter who was astride a runaway horse. During his time in Spain he was part of a relief force sent to aid the siege of a French held town, arriving in time to not only strengthen the besieging forces, but also successfully lead the storming of the breach. Later he uncovered the activities of Spanish guerrillas loyal to Bonaparte and prevented the assassination of a major figure in the Spanish resistance.

Lieutenant James Ogilvie, 71st Highland Light Infantry
(Scottish, Catholic, Son of an Officer, Rifleman)
Guts 4 Discipline 4 Influence 4 Charm 4
Skills: Awareness 2, Command 3, Courtesy 2, Diplomacy 2, Engineering 0, First Aid 0, Gambling 1, Haggle 0, Intimidate 0, Intrigue 2, Maritime 0, Music 1, Quartermaster 1, Riding 3, Scavenge 2, Siege 1, Skulduggery 1, Soldiering 3, The Arts 0
Wealth: 2, fine charger (+1 Riding)
Reputations: Institutional Reputation (Officer’s Mess) 1, Institutional Reputation (71st Highland Light Infantry) 2, Institutional Reputation (Lisbon Black Market) 1, Institutional Reputation (Spanish Resistance) 3
Traits: Born for Battle, Crackshot, Fair of Face, Natural Rider, Second Language (French), Strong Swordarm, Student of War

The last thing that a player does – together with his fellow players – is create the details of their characters’ regiment. Actually the book suggests that this should be the fourth step, but it seems more logical to do it at the end of the process. The regiment in question can be one of the actual regiments that campaigned in the Peninsular War, or a fictitious one, but creating the members of its complement is a collaborative process between the players and the GM, as is creating the regiment’s honours and traditions.

The game itself is card driven, and both the GM and the players will need an ordinary deck of cards each. The game is played as a series of missions and skirmishes, each comprised of several challenges, a challenge being an opposed test between the GM and the characters involved. The intent and potential outcome for all those involved in a test is determined beforehand, and then each side draws cards equal to a pool created from the appropriate Measures, Skills, Reputations, Traits, Wealth, and equipment.

Success is measured by all those involved against the Card of Fate. This is a single card drawn from the GM’s deck, which can be matched in varying ways to achieve different successes. If any of the cards drawn are of the same Suit as the Card of Fate, this counts as a Success; if any are the same number, the card counts as a Critical Success; and if one card is an exact match, it counts as a Perfect Success. Cards that do not match the Card of Fate in terms of either suit or number do not count, but any Joker drawn can count as any type of success. A test’s victor is the player who has drawn, in descending order, the most number of Perfect Successes, the most number of Critical Successes, or the most number of Successes. Of course, because the GM has drawn the Card of Fate from his deck and because his deck has no Jokers, it is impossible for him to score any Perfect Successes, so stacking the game slightly in the players’ favour. After every test, the participant’s deck is reshuffled, except that of the GM, which again slightly favours the players.

While the test is the game’s core mechanic, its core structure is the Challenge, an event or problem that when resolved that will have a dramatic impact upon the game. Essentially, a Challenge packages and explains the reason for a test, but usually, Challenges are collected into Missions, which are primarily military in nature, for example, having to find evidence of a French spy or make contact with the Spanish Resistance. Most players will share this Military Mission, but alongside it, each will often have their own Personal Mission, such as seducing Lady Ellingham or selling some loot on the black market in Lisbon. The players need to complete most of the Challenges within a Mission to successfully complete it.

Interestingly, although the GM can assign a Mission, it is his players who decide how it is resolved, being expected to set each Challenge during a Military Planning session. Personal Missions are determined by the players, who are expected to take the opportunity to add them as and when. This aspect of the game pushes it towards being an “Indie” game, in which the narrative input from the players is as important as the input from the GM. Of course, a Mission Generator would make a solid addition to the game, perhaps in a future supplement?

Personal combat uses the same mechanics, but combat beyond the simple melee is slightly more complex. Rather than having the player characters involved in a mass battle on the scale of Waterloo, Duty and Honour keeps its scale relatively small and in keeping with both the action adventure nature of its genre and the game’s focus upon the characters. Thus skirmishes are limited to just fifty participants, with every player character expected to have a role and the officer character having the responsibility of deciding the aim of, and the tactical orders for, the skirmish. He also gets to assign the men under his command extra cards equal to his Discipline Measure. Of course, getting wounded in a Napoleonic Era battle is dangerous, as is receiving medical treatment, and the game reflects this.

For the player unaware of the Napoleonic Wars or who has neither read the Sharpe novels nor seen the television series, the author provides detail aplenty. Whether that includes small details such as the stereotype for your nationality or faith, the point of view from both a French and an English officer, and a good overview of the British Army and the British abroad during the period, it is enough to get a game going. Beyond that, Duty and Honour provides a short bibliography, with the author’s recommendations discussed. Also included are rules for running a campaign based around a cavalry unit, making possible a game based on the Matthew Hervey novels of Allan Mallinson. Similarly, the mechanics in Duty and Honour are flexible enough to use for games set in earlier period, such as in the campaign in India during the establishment of the Raj or even during the American Revolutionary Wars. All that the GM has to do is provide the history.

For the GM, there is plenty of advice on running a Duty and Honour game, and he is also supported with several examples of play, and numerous NPCs, some of which can be used as player characters or allies, while others will be definitely opposed to the player characters. The background also provides a good overview of the setting, but the GM will probably have to conduct a little research if he wants to add extra detail.

Physically, Duty and Honour is reasonably well laid out with plenty of space that makes it an easy read. It needs another edit true, but the book is an engaging read and the artwork is decent enough. The author also adds a degree of verisimilitude by including several period documents.

One obvious issue with Duty and Honour is that it does not allow for female characters, or rather female player characters, because it categorises women as helpless ladies, deceptive hussies, and spirited lovers, and then, only as NPCs. In the game’s defence, its genre is a mixture of the action adventure and the bodice ripper, and more significantly, there were not a lot of female soldiers serving in Wellington’s army. While the 1809 Miscellany does include rules for creating Spanish female characters, it would be useful to have some guidelines for creating female characters as they do appear in more significant roles in the genre, for example, in the Sharpe books. A more obvious detraction from the game is the lack of negative Traits, essentially something with which to balance the positive ones that every character receives. Again, the publisher plans to address part of this issue with a free supplement that can be downloaded from its website, which will cover Reputations in more detail, including negative ones.

Duty and Honour already has its own supplement in the form of the 1809 Miscellany, which bring together several different articles and three scenarios, and a sequel in the form of Beat to Quarters, which aims to do for Hornblower what Duty and Honour does for Richard Sharpe. Personally, I cannot wait to see Beat to Quarters, as I am very fond of the Age of Sail genre.

One of the genres that I have wanted a good RPG for is the era of the Napoleonic Wars, and while there have been one or two decent attempts, this is the first game to really do the setting justice. While there might not actually be an RPG based on Bernard Cornwell’s Sharpe novels, Duty and Honour: A Game of Adventure and Romance in Wellington’s Army is that RPG in spirit, as it lets the players do everything that Sharpe can, but still very much make their tales of daring do all their own.

Friday, 13 November 2009

Earl Grey. Milk or Lemon?

If you happen to have played any Call of Cthulhu scenarios at conventions in the United Kingdom over the last decade, you might have been lucky enough to have played in one or more run by the Cult of Keepers. Although the six members of this informal group of Call of Cthulhu Keepers have gone their separate ways, they gained a reputation for running highly effective scenarios, and since the group has broken up, there has been a demand not only to bring them back, but for some of their many scenarios to see print. Already one such scenario Gatsby & The Great Race, has appeared as a Miskatonic University Library Association monograph, but it is not freely available (being only available direct from Chaosium), and to get the utmost out of it, you need lots of players, and ideally, a castle in Bavaria.

Fortunately for those demanding to see more scenarios from the collective minds of the Cult of Keepers, growing publisher Cubicle Seven Entertainment has come to your rescue with the anthology, Cthulhu Britannica. This collects five scenarios set across the ages, from the late Victorian period of Cthulhu by Gaslight to the near future prior to the End Times via Call of Cthulhu's classic period of the 1920s (well, 1930s, anyway), and the here and now. One important consideration for the potential Keeper is that the five scenarios are all based on convention scenarios and thus not all are suited for use with an existing campaign. In fact, the terminal nature of one or two of the scenarios makes them suited only for use as one-shots. This is no bad thing though, and even then one or two of the one-shots herein could be used as the starting point for a campaign.

Starting with its very cover – a tentacular and Punk inspired subversion of Jon Constable’s The Hay Wain, Cthulhu Britannica sticks two fingers up with a very British sensibility, and this wafts from every page. All of its scenarios are set in the United Kingdom, have been written by Britons, and the book itself has been released by a British publisher. Some of the scenarios could be set elsewhere, but some of the feel and the tone to those might well suffer in the process. Nevertheless, all five scenarios come with pre-generated investigators and are relatively easy to run.

The collection opens with “Bad Company” by Alan Bligh, a brutally bloody piece for Cthulhu by Gaslight. The investigators are well-to-do gentlemen of the right sort asked by a junior minister and peer to help locate his son, who has gone missing after having been seen in the wrong company. More importantly they need to do this while avoiding any whiff of a scandal. The “wrong company” in a question is a mysterious young woman of Eastern European extraction who has left a foul trail of defiled and ruined lovers and disciples in her wake. Getting to her leads the investigators through the capital’s seamier side and to their encountering numerous nasty ner-do-wells along the way before the final confrontation. This is a strong scenario, which suffers from being underwritten in places, in particular where the villainess of the piece is concerned. This is the easiest of the book’s scenarios to use in or to start an ongoing campaign, although it does no more than suggest that.

The second scenario is Mike Mason’s “Darkness, Descending,” which is set in 1934 (though it can be easily moved back into the 1920s) with the investigators joining an archaeological dig near the village of Middle Harling where evidence of a Roman settlement has been found. The author describes the setting as being quintessentially English, but it would be best to say that the adventure as a whole exemplifies the “things best left undisturbed” scenario to the point that it might be described as being clichéd. Similarly, the scenario’s NPCs can be best described as being archetypes, such that it would be incredibly easy for the Keeper to ham them up. For inspiration for that I would point the Keeper to episodes of The Archers on Radio 4... This would be an easy scenario to run, and rather complain at the clichés, the Keeper should revel in them.

“Wrong Turn” by John French is the collection’s first true one-shot. It is set in the here and now, and casts the investigators as part of a television crew filming test shots at an abandoned radio telescope. Abandoned after a terrible experiment, one that will come back to haunt the team as darkness falls and something comes back to haunt and harry them. This is a short mood piece, strong on atmosphere and isolation that the author supports with solid staging advice.

It is followed by Keary Birch’s “King,” a very near future set scenario that is the first of the two that open with the characters awakening to find themselves in a strange situation. Here they find themselves patients recovering after eye surgery, the author suggesting that the players wear blindfolds during the initial stages of the scenario to simulate this. Once the bandages (or blindfolds) are off, the characters find themselves trapped in the hospital. The initial exploration of the surgery wing is nicely creepy, but then the scenario wants to wind up the tension and threat level with encounter upon encounter with Mythos creatures. Getting past them will be difficult enough, the scenario ending either in a blood bath or a lot of tense creeping about.

The last scenario is the interestingly named “My Little Sister Wants You to Suffer,” written by Paul Fricker, also the author of Gatsby & The Great Race. This is the weirdest adventure in the book and one that will divide Keeper and player alike (though only the latter after he has played it through and been subject to the scenario’s “big reveal.”), that opens with the characters having no memory whatsoever. Their memories will return as the scenario progresses, providing more background about themselves and their fellows. The adventure takes place for most of its course, aboard a damaged spaceship which the characters will have to fix and finally escape from, all the while with limited equipment and with their memories revealing unsettling facts. Like “King” before it, this is a short scenario and also another one-shot.

Physically, Cthulhu Britannica is a book of varying quality. Certainly the artwork is of varying quality, some of it being a little heavy handed in style, and the book does need another editorial pass. That said, the pre-generated investigators are in general nicely done, the maps all look good, and the writing style is all the better for being sparse and to the point, which along with the regular advice given on staging the scenarios, is not only indicative of the origins of the five scenarios (as convention scenarios), but also of the experience that the authors have in running them.

What the release of Cthulhu Britannica does highlight is the lack of a Call of Cthulhu supplement devoted to the United Kingdom. Perhaps Cubicle Seven Entertainment might be the publisher to attend to that omission. Yet while the collection effectively showcases the efforts of the Cult of Keepers, it does not actually serve the needs of Keeper running a campaign set in Great Britain – in any era. Granted that this is not the aim of Cthulhu Britannica, but a book devoted to scenarios (or a campaign) in Albion in the one period would be a very welcome sight. Perhaps the former members of the Cult of Keepers could devise something...?

I am not necessarily a fan of the one-shot (after all, how many books of one-shots do you need?), but I do like this collection more than others. Despite the unevenness in quality, the scenarios do maintain a strong tone, a solidly British sensibility, and a mood that will appeal to those who prefer not to play their Call of Cthulhu in a Pulp style. Each comes with consistently useful staging advice that will help make any one of their number a memorable playing experience, and that is where Cthulhu Britannica really shines.