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

Friday, 31 December 2010

Reviving the Unspeakable

Almost ten years ago I had the pleasure of reviewing the last issue of Pagan Publishing’s The Unspeakable Oath, the fanzine for Chaosium, Inc.’s Call of Cthulhu that for a decade had been bringing a more adult approach to both the game and the Cthulhu Mythos. The fanzine, by then more of a professional magazine than something that a fan might publish, had already been on hiatus for four years when issue #16/17 appeared. Sadly it was to go on hiatus again, this time for even longer. Its absence has been much mourned, so it was with no little joy that the game’s devotees greeted the announcement of its return. Even better, the new issue, #18 is now available as a PDF and physical copies will be wending their way to subscribers and contributors shortly. Mention of those contributors does mean that I need to make a confession as being amongst them, having contributed several reviews to the magazine’s regular reviews column, “The Eye of Light & Darkness.” Given how much I like The Unspeakable Oath and always have, and in particular, always liked its reviews, I do feel ever slightly both humbled and pleased to have so many of my own appear in this issue. Fortunately, Brian M. Sammons provides a pair of frothier film and book reviews to counterpoint my all too dry game reviews.

The subtitle for The Unspeakable Oath #18 is “A Digest of Arcane Lore for Cthulhu Mythos Roleplaying Games,” thus reflecting the changes in the gaming hobby since its last appearance in that there are five games available that do Lovecraftian Investigative Horror as well as a handful of publishers supporting Call of Cthulhu itself with new scenarios and sourcebooks. While this subtitle suggests much, only Call of Cthulhu itself is supported within the pages of the magazine. Perhaps future issues will do more than that, but that it only supports Call of Cthulhu should not be held against The Unspeakable Oath #18 as the ideas and material to be found within its pages are easily adapted to most of the other games of Lovecraftian Investigative Horror.

Physically, The Unspeakable Oath #18 is available as an eighty-two page greyscale magazine or as 13.06 Mb PDF. Its layout is clean, simple, and tidy compared to the most “recent” issues, its look echoing the fanzine styling of early issues. If on the one hand there is perhaps a little too much white page evident, then on the other, at least the text has room to breathe rather than having been crammed into its pages. One issue is with the art which sometimes feels overused – not repeated, but rather given too much space.

As ever the magazine consists of several regular features – Arcane Artefacts, Mysterious Manuscripts, Tales of Terror, and of course, the aforementioned, The Eye of Light and Darkness – slotted around a set of feature articles. Of the Arcane Artefacts I prefer Adam Gauntlett’s “The Chinaman’s Screen” to Dan Harms “The Forgotten” if only for the fact that it is designed to be just and implementing that in game is never going to be easy. The issue’s single Mysterious Manuscript, “The Branchly Numbers Edit” by Pat Harrigan gives such an obvious take on a very modern phenomenon, that of the Numbers Stations [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Numbers_stations], that I am surprised that nobody has thought of it before. Nevertheless, a pleasingly modern manuscript is the result. John Scott Tynes contributes the first of the scenario seeds that are the Tales of Terror with “Mr. Popatov,” a puppet that could be something more, while Pat Harrigan’s second contribution, “Slight Return,” is an intriguing situation perfect for a long running Delta Green campaign. Crossroads are always dangerous places, and nevermore so – or not in “House of Hunger” by Monte Cook. Much the same can be said of art galleries, at least in Call of Cthulhu, as evidenced by Nick Grant’s “The Art Show.” All four Tales of Terror come with multiple explanations, enabling to the Keeper to run them as mysterious or as mundane as is his wont.

The first two of the issue’s features are perfect for anyone wanting to delve back into Call of Cthulhu canon. Curiously, given how he has figured in two classic Call of Cthulhu campaigns – Masks of Nyarlathotep and Day of the Beast (a.k.a. The Fungi From Yuggoth), it is surprising how little we know about the Black Pharoah himself, Nephren-Ka. In “Tales of Nephren-Ka,” James Haughton expands and develops what we do know, suggesting that he might actually be the Monotheist Akhenaten and adding tomes and spells devoted to his legend. Notable amongst these is the Book of Thoth, one tome that only the foolishly curious would ever want to read. There is plenty of background information here for the Mythos and plenty with which to dangle in front of the all too curious investigator.

The second feature addresses an issue so obvious it is a wonder that it has never been answered in the thirty years that we have had Call of Cthulhu, so be thankful that Dan Harms finally has. In those thirty years, the beginning scenario in the core rulebook has always been “The Haunted” (or “The Haunted House” as it was once known, though the scenario remained the same despite the change of name), and the likelihood is that more players have been run through that scenario than any other. Yet beyond the confines of a Keeper’s home grown campaign, no official source for the game has ever asked what came next or explained what the Chapel of Contemplation was. In “The Chapel of Contemplation: A Cult for Three Eras,” Harms expands on what little do know to lay bare the dark fraternity’s secrets and history from the middle of the nineteenth century until just the other week with story hooks in turn for Cthulhu by Gaslight, the classic period of the 1920s, and the here and now. Given that the cult is an offshoot of the Church of Starry Wisdom and has broken such ties with that organisation is all the more interesting were it to learn that a group of investigators was attempting to thwart the plans of the Crawling Chaos. What an interesting ally might The Chapel of Contemplation make in the fight against Nyarlathotep?

Rounding out the features is a slice of dark, all dusty history. In “Black Sunday” C.A. Suleiman and George Holochwost examine one of the worst natural side effects to hit the Dust Bowl – a blizzard of silt that got into every crevice and scoured every surface that it could. The facts about this day in particular and other chilling details about this ghastly natural disaster are kept short and sweet, and so are easy to bring into a game should the investigators come to visit the Oklahoma Pandhandle. Four such reasons are given, complete with story hooks, which either give a Mythos explanation for the Dust Bowl having occurred or a way in which elements of the Mythos have taken advantage of it. There is a nice balance between fact and fiction here, and while its contents might be set too late for most campaigns set in the Classic period of the 1920s, it should definitely be read by any Keeper running a Trail of Cthulhu game, which is indeed, set in the “Dirty Decade.”

This issue’s scenario is a detailed affair set in the Louisiana bayous after the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927. The Keeper might want to consult the recently reprinted Secrets of New Orleans for background detail, but Richard A. Becker’s “Dog Will Hunt” – the title a fitting inversion of the Southern US expression, “that dog won’t hunt” – can be run without. More specifically, it is set in and around the township of Montegut which literally lies on the edge of the bayou. Not long having suffered an influx of Cajun refugees from the flood and anticipating the benefits that an oil rush might bring, the town has recently been beset by the disappearance of three of the refugees. Getting the investigators to Montegut and thus involved in the scenario is always going to be awkward, and the author gives several possibilities, but once there, he gives the curious a reason to stay, a man being harried to death before their very eyes.

Long on field work and short on academic research, “Dog Will Hunt” is, despite its not unwelcome degree of detail, a relatively simple scenario. The bulk of that detail is devoted to describing its various elements and suggestions as to what might occur, the scenario being more of a framework than an actual plot line with most of what might occur being due to investigator action. Identifying and getting to the villain of the piece will not be easy given the recalcitrant nature of the locals, but once found he should prove to be a memorable figure. It is a pity that the author could not have provided samples of his dotty dialogue, so the Keeper will have to be inventive here. There are one or two nice scenes written in though and another side effect of the degree of detail is that the author never strays into character cliché.

It has been both a long time since we have had a new issue of The Unspeakable Oath, and equally, it has been a few years since we have been able to hold in hands, any magazine, with any Call of Cthulhu content. So the return of that most professional of Call of Cthulhu fanzines is doubly welcome. Echoing more its early days in feel and style, The Unspeakable Oath #18 is the perfect forum for the type of shorter work that might not otherwise make into print. Long may the magazine continue its self held high standards, though for all games of Lovecraftian Investigative Horror, rather than just Call of Cthulhu.

Thursday, 30 December 2010

Your Squad's Starting Step

When it comes to wargaming World War II at the squad-based level, Avalon Hill’s Advanced Squad Leader game system is without peer. It allows opponents to control squads, half-squads, individual support weapons, leaders, and vehicles in a clash of arms over a variety of terrain types and across the conflict’s many theaters of operation. Yet the detail of the game system and its steep learning curve can be both a daunting and expensive prospect. Fortunately, the game’s current publisher, Multi-Man Publishing, has countered this with the release of the Advanced Squad Leader Starter Kit #1.

This is designed not only to introduce the prospective player to the core concepts of the game system, but to also act as a taster for the whole of the Advanced Squad Leader line. In that, it is relatively inexpensive compared to the full game ($80 versus $24), and further it concentrates entirely on infantry combat between US, German, and Russian troops using only their support weapons (machine guns, flamethrowers, and demolition charges), with vehicles saved for the full game and further Starter Kits, of which there are now a further two.

Starter Kit #1 is pleasingly appointed. The rules include full color examples and the double-sided counters are clear and easy-to-use. While the full color mapboards, representing a variety of urban, rural, and wooded terrain at a scale of 40 meters per 2cm hex, are not fully mounted, they do come on sturdy card. The box is missing one component, the turner counter, and another Quick-Reference Data Chart for the second player would make the game easier to play.

As opponents maneuver their squads to bring enough firepower to bear on the enemy, the heart of the system is the squad leader. Enough firepower can both inflict casualties and break the enemy’s morale, thus restricting a squad’s ability to fight. Squad leaders are capable of both coordinating the firepower of multiple squads, and more importantly, of rallying broken squads so that they can take up the fight once again. Turns consist of eight phases: Rally, Prep Fire, Movement, Defensive Fire, Advancing Fire, Rout, and Close Combat. The rules for each are well explained and illustrated with clear examples. Though not overly complex, the rules do require the memorizing of a lengthy list of abbreviations.

The longest of the six scenarios is seven turns. Predominately set in post-D-Day Western Europe; the historically based encounters take place in Normandy, the Ardennes, and Germany as well as Stalingrad. None uses a larger area than one mapboard or more than thirty counters, which increases the Starter Kit #1’s suitability for solitaire play. Beyond the six scenarios, the Starter kit is a little limited, and it is a pity that no capacity for designing scenarios was included.

Minor quibbles aside, the Advanced Squad Leader Starter Kit #1, with its good quality components, represents a solid, reasonably priced package. It is also an excellent means of entering what is an engrossing hobby that is already well supported, including further Starter Kits to help ease the learning curve.

Wednesday, 29 December 2010

First Blood!

One of my favourite RPGs of late is Dragon Age: Dark Fantasy Roleplaying. This is Green Ronin Publishing's adaptation of BioWare's highly regarded Dragon Age: Origins computer RPG, the result being a light and fast playing game that focuses on high action and often dangerous situations and dark decisions whose outcomes are more often than not, shades of grey rather than straight black and white. Fortunately Dragon Age’s mechanics play fast and light, so they never get in the way of the players having to make these decisions. In fact, Dragon Age’s mechanics, what it calls the "age" or "adventure game engine" are so good that I wish that Green Ronin would adapt them for use with its hugely entertaining setting, Freeport: City of Adventure.

Coming as a black and white softback book, Dragon Age: Blood in Ferelden contains not just three full length adventures, but three detailed full length adventures. This in addition to the three detailed adventure outlines at the back of the book! The three adventures here are designed in turn for characters of Ranks One and Two, Ranks Three and Four, and Five and Six. They take the adventurers into Ferelden's hinterlands of the Korcari Wilds and Frostback Mountains before coming back to its sophisticated heart, the capital city of Denerim. The last scenario includes guidelines of how it can be used as a framework into which not just the first two adventures in this book, but also those in Dragon Age: Dark Fantasy Roleplaying, Set 1 and Dragon Age: GM's Kit can be inserted to form campaign that will take the heroes from their first through to their sixth Ranks. Just in time for the release of Dragon Age: Dark Fantasy Roleplaying, Set 2.

The first two scenarios send the adventurers off into the countryside on quests. In the opening scenario, “Amber Rage,” they find themselves attending a village fair in the Hinterlands when they and its inhabitants are beset by impossibly enraged Stalkers that have boiled out of the Kocari Wilds across the river. Worse, whatever caused the rage in the Stalkers is contagious and has infected some of the villagers, if not one or more of the player characters. Fortunately, a local wise woman thinks that she knows the cure, but unfortunately, the prime ingredient lies deep in the Kocari Wilds where the inhabitants rarely welcome strangers. Even worse, there is a double deadline. Either the infected succumb to the rage or the authorities move to stop it spreading!

The second, “Where Eagles Lair,” takes the adventurers up into the Frostback Mountains, home to the savage Avvarian hillmen, who much like the peoples of the Kocari Wilds, do not take kindly to strangers. Again they are after something, but this time a person, the missing daughter of a local nobleman, rather than a strange ingredient. Before they can find her, the heroes find themselves in an Avvarian camp just as it comes under siege. This is one of the scenario’s most memorable scenes, a real opportunity for the adventurers to be truly heroic in a scene very reminiscent of the Battle for Helms Deep from the film version of The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers.

Although both scenarios present interesting challenges and moral choices, they are each very different. Primarily in tone, “Amber Rage” being a much more grim affair than “Where Eagles Lair,” but what would you expect with a punning title like that? “Amber Rage” is also more straightforward, and in some ways more obvious than “Where Eagles Lair.” Then again, neither of these scenarios is wholly original, but the spin that their respective authors put on them shakes them up and makes them perfectly playable.

A change of pace comes with the third scenario, "A Fragile Web." Set in Denerim, Ferelden's capital, it opens with the adventurers coming across vile cultists about their work and in thwarting them, the heroes are brought to the attention of a well known noble. In thanks she offers to become their patron, which opens up all sorts of possibilities in terms of future adventures. To say more about this adventure would be to ruin it, but in contract with the previous two, "A Fragile Web" is not only city based, but also emphasised upon more traditional investigative play and roleplaying. There are moments here that players who are more combative in their gaming style are unlikely to enjoy, which is why this scenario would work better as a campaign framework.

Rounding out Blood in Ferelden are three scenario seeds. Their situations include surviving a night time attack on an inn, investigating a series of robberies in Denerim, and escorting a priest on a pilgrimage, but all are quite detailed bar the statistics, meaning that can easily be scaled to whatever Rank the hereos have achieved. All are at least a page long, and some are so good that I might steal them for my Legends of the Five Rings game.

Another aspect of Blood in Fereleden is that it adds more information about the setting. This can be as simple as new monsters or the very occasional magical artefact, but for the longer term there are details about the Kocari Wilds and their peoples, about the Frostback Mountains and the Avvarian Hillsmen, a recurring cult, and the city of Denerim. Of particular interest will be the section on the Avvarian Hillsmen and their religious beliefs as this is a given player option in the Dragon Age: Dark Fantasy Roleplaying, Set 1.

Physically, Dragon Age: Blood in Ferelden is up to the standards set by the line. The layout is easy on the eye; the art is decent – though you wonder if it would look better in full colour; and the maps never lack for character. In fact, the maps would not look out of place in any book for classic Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, a game that both myself and the publishers of this book know well. If there is an issue with Blood in Ferelden as a book, it is that it feels rushed in paces, but is probably an issue with the editing rather the writing.

If a GM is to get the very utmost out of this supplement, then he needs to give it a complete read through. Were he not to do so, then he would come late to the campaign framework suggested by the third and last scenario, “A Fragile Web,” and thus waste some of the opportunities it suggests. Any group will get plenty of play out of the three scenarios in Blood in Ferelden and more out of them if the GM uses all of the contents -- including the adventure seeds -- of this book to create a campaign. All three scenarios are good with "Where Eagle's Lair" being the most entertaining. This then is another good book that any Dragon Age GM should want, and if it happens that a GM does not use them in his Dragon Age game, then its ideas are worth plundering.

Trapped in the Wilds

Kobold Quarterly is a like a box of chocolates. You never know what you gonna get.” Which is about as cheap a way of summing the latest selection box of articles and columns devoted to Dungeons & Dragons and its variants as you could get. After all, the cover does proclaim the magazine to the “The Switzerland of the Edition Wars” and quotes about chocolate are more prevalent than they are about Cuckoo Clocks, so I can get away with paraphrasing Forest Gump at least the once. Which begs the question, what bad quote will I use to open my review of the next issue with? No idea, but I have three months to come up with something and I really do not want to set a precedent...

Anyway, what of the latest issue, Kobold Quarterly #15? As ever it primarily provides support for Paizo Publishing’s Pathfinder Roleplaying Game and Wizards of the Coast’s Dungeons & Dragons Fourth Edition, but both these and other articles have wider application and are suited for Dungeons & Dragons style gaming in general. Of course, you do actually have some idea as to the contents of the issue, as they are highlighted on the cover, and as with previous issues, there is a theme to the latest issue, or rather two separate themes, that of traps and nature.

First up for the nature theme is Ryan Costello, Jr.’s Pathfinder Roleplaying Game article, “Nature’s Orders,” which describes three options or Orders for the Druid Class. Druids of the Bestial Order do not cast spells or use orisons, but has a deeper understanding of the animal world to gain natural attacks such as claws or constriction, better senses, and increased access to the Wild Shape ability. Druids of the Godai Order are not as bestial, but focus on casting spells that draw from the four elements and have access to the matching Clerical Domains. Lastly, Purist Druids are even more like Clerics, actually worshipping nature and able to cast Cure spells rather Summon Nature’s Ally. The article also discusses where the variants might found in the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game default setting of Golarion. Of the three variants, the Purist Order is the least developed and the least interesting.

Also for Pathfinder Roleplaying Game is Jonathan McAnulty’s “Ecology of the Giant Ant.” This not only examines the Giant Ant, but also adds a dozen variants upon the species, from Acrobat and Carpenter Ants to Trap-Jaw and Treecutter Ants. The lighter mechanics in this means that it is easier to adapt to other Dungeons & Dragons variants. Rounding out the nature theme is Stefen Styrsky’s “Children of the Wood,” also for the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game. This is in effect, a companion piece to the publisher’s forest adventure anthology set near the Free City of Zobeck – of which there is a review to come – Tales of the Margreve. This is written for the spellcaster in your game, providing a new Bloodline for the Sorcerer – literally the Blood of the Green, that embodies the natural powers of growth and renewal; Forest and Harvest Domains for Clerics and Druids; and the School of Nature for the Wizard who has studied life and death under the green canopy, represented by the Conjuration and Necromancy schools.

For Dungeons & Dragons Fourth Edition, David Adams corals innumerable options for the rider in “Reasons to Ride.” These include new riding gear, but they primarily consist of new Feats such as Fury of the Horselords, which enables a Barbarian horseman to use a Rage Strike attack when charging. There are also several new mounts described that are more fantastical in nature. Overall, this is an excellent article for the DM that wants to take his campaign onto horseback.

The traps theme is explored in three articles. The first is for Dungeons & Dragons Fourth Edition and explores a logical development for anyone with the Thievery skill. It really works for the Rogue Class, because with “Rig This!” by John Flemming, he not only gets to disarm traps, but set them too! Not ones in situ mind you, but ones prepared earlier and carried on his back. In a concept reminiscent of the alchemical rituals discussed in Adventurers’ Vault, Rogues with the Trapsmith Feat can learn Schematics, each one the instructions for a clockwork, oiled, and alchemically fuelled bigger-than-a-bear trap. The article is supported with numerous examples and begs to fall into the hands of the inventive and wily Rogue. The second article for Dungeons & Dragons Fourth Edition offers an interesting approach to the trap. “Jack in a Trap” by Philippe-Antoine Menard combines monsters with traps and traps with monsters to create hybrids. The examples given have more of a Science Fiction feel than fantasy, despite their stone dressings. The third article devoted to traps is for the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game and is more obvious in its contents. Older gamers will find the nastiness of the traps described in Andrew Hinds’ “Pits of Despair” more than a little reminiscent of Flying Buffalo Games’ Grimtooth’s Traps, and if you are not aware of that venerable series, then Necromancer Games has released The Wurst of Grimtooth’s Traps! Anyway, if you do do dungeons – and if not, why not considering what the magazine is for? – then you can never have enough pits.

Theme aside, Kobold Quarterly #15 includes several articles for both games. For example, Anthony Eichenlaub expands upon the concept of skill powers first seen in the Player’s Handbook 3 to provide thirteen new skill stances in “Masters of Great Skill.” While the concept is welcome given how Dungeons & Dragons Fourth Edition has de-emphasised skills, the author never quite develops it fully. The problem is that the flavour text for each Utility or stance feels at odds with its effect and the effects themselves are often more powerful than the flavour text suggests or warrants. The DM would be wise to consider carefully if he wants these in his campaign. Better developed is Quinn Murphy’s “A Call to Awesome” for Dungeons & Dragons Fourth Edition in which he expands upon the critical roll. Where in the past that would have just given a player greater damage, with Critical Actions and Scene Criticals that natural roll of twenty can be used to trigger more interesting and longer lasting effects such as trying to being able to climb a behemoth and so gain access temporarily to a weak spot. This is an excellent article that nicely develops an idea. It will take a little set up by the GM to set up, but if done right, the heroes get to be more heroic than just hitting an opponent with an axe! Jobe Bittman gives us a nasty dungeon denizen, the Horakh in “King of the Monsters.”

Michael Kortes’ “Collaborative Killers” for the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game keeps things mechanically simple for a discussion of tactical manoeuvres that a group can co-operate in performing. They include the “Eldritch Flank” for spellcasters, the “Lure” for pack animals, and “Pile On” for when the heroes need to overpower an opponent. Of course, there is nothing to stop a GM from turning them on his player characters! This is followed by “Blades from the Past” by Alex Putnam which describes ten historical weapons for the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game and suggests where they are used in Golarion.

Penultimately, in Mario Podeschi’s “Going Vertical” we are given a system-less discussion of side view dungeons exploring the fun, excitement, and danger of adventuring in the vertical rather than the horizontal. It comes with a full sample setting and suggests that the DM look at old fashioned side-scrolling video games for further inspiration. Lastly, Kobold Quarterly #15 returns to the Free City of Zobeck a second time for its more traditional visit, this time to explore the Cartways as its undercity is known.

Of course, there is always more to an issue of Kobold Quarterly than gaming articles and Kobold Quarterly #15 is no exception. Historians of the hobby will enjoy “Those Dark Dungeon Blues,” James Lowder’s look back at the hysteria surrounding Dungeons & Dragons in the 1980s, while anyone with an interest in how we roleplay will enjoy Monte Cook’s opinion on simulation versus game play in “Simulating Game Reality.” Besides the usual fiction reviews, the latest issue includes an interview with the author and publisher, Margaret Weis. The fiction reviews are likely to be of more use than the interview or the issue’s two cartoons, and as good or as humorous as they are, they are just extras and hardly what the reader will come back to in the future.

Available as a seventy-six page magazine or a 33.59 MB PDF, Kobold Quarterly #15 is cleanly laid out and written to the magazine’s usual standard. It feels a little light on colour and technical in style. That said, much of the information it has to impart is technical and has to be technical to get that information across. With that limit in place, Kobold Quarterly #15 is as always, readable.

While not every article in Kobold Quarterly #15 hits its mark – “Masters of Great Skill” sadly letting the side down, there is as ever a plethora of ideas to be found in its pages. All of them are well presented and all of them are worth GM or DM leafing through to see what he can borrow and adapt. Sadly there is no scenario this issue, though my wish for some “Edition 0” material is all but answered in both “Going Vertical” and “Pits of Despair,” both of which have a pleasingly Old School feel. It is a pity that there are only three article devoted to its traps theme, though these articles are well done. As are all of its articles, with options aplenty for both the DM and the player alike. If I have to pick favourites it would be “Rig This!” for its portable traps, “Going Vertical” for forcing the heroes up (or down), “A Call to Awesome” for opening up both the action and the story, and oddly, “Those Dark Dungeon Blues” for its history, but then I like that kind of article.

Kobold Quarterly #15 marks another solid issue for the magazine. Solid though for Kobold Quarterly is still good though and what else would you expect but more ideas and more food for thought from a magazine with standards as high as it has?

Monday, 27 December 2010

Lonesome Fears

How the lone Call of Cthulhu player doth suffer? In the past the fantasy fan has been well served with solo adventures aplenty, from Tunnels & Trolls to the phenomenon that was the Fighting Fantasy series. The horror fan was and always has been less well served, though the Call of Cthulhu devotee has had four titles that he could play on his own. These included two from Chaosium, Alone Against the Wendigo and Alone Against the Dark; one from Pagan Publishing, Alone on Halloween; and lastly, Triad Entertainment’s Grimrock Isle. The combined solo adventures and a small campaign, of the solo adventures, is the only one still in print. With all but one of those books unavailable, there is another option. One that involves a single player and a single Keeper rather than the single player, and one that is free.

Monophobia: A Fear of Solitude, made available for download by Unbound Publishing as a 1.3 Mb sixty-page black and white PDF. Describing itself as “An opuscule of adventures for lone investigators in the world of Chaosium’s Call of Cthulhu,” an “opuscule” being a small or minor work, Monophobia presents a trio of adventures that a Keeper can run for a single player. All three are one shots, best suited to experienced players and should provide a good session’s worth of play. An impressively detailed pre-generated investigator is provided for each scenario. The three all take place during the twenties or thirties, but with a little effort the Keeper could set them else when.

The anthology begins by discussing the nature and issues inherent in the format. That while pitting the lone protagonist against the alien forces of the Mythos perfectly emulates stories by Lovecraft himself, such as The Case of Charles Dexter Ward and The Shadow Over Innsmouth, it places a lot of responsibility upon the shoulders of the player. No longer does he have his colleagues to rely on for his safety and to discuss the threat that they face with. The Keeper has also more to do, no longer can he sit back and listen as the players and their investigators interact, and so he will have to the adventure moving. Potentially, an adventure is more deadly, there being just the one victim, the player character, to suffer the physical and mental depredations that come with facing the Mythos. The authors suggest that some of these issues can be addressed mechanically, with Idea Rolls, with the careful choice of Sanity losses, and by making the “monsters” more circumspect in their actions. On the upside, the single investigator gets to feel the full dangers of the Mythos, and above all, the single player and Keeper set up enables the exploration of situations impossible with more participants. At the very least, one of the scenarios in this collection does that very well.

The first of the trilogy is “Vengeance From Beyond,” which explores a situation familiar to Call of Cthulhu – revenge form beyond the grave. It has an antiquarian investigator hired by a collector to locate a Mythos tome that was stolen from him. Finding both culprit and tome is relatively easy, but it also results in the death of the culprit. When the collector is driven to suicide it seems that the investigator will not be far behind him as visions threaten his sanity. Discovering the cause is again easy, but stopping it involves lots of detective work during which time the Keeper can have lots of fun haunting the investigator. This is perhaps the most traditional of the scenarios in the book and for that the least impressive.

“Of Grave Concern” is the second scenario its highlight. It is also the longest. It opens in media res with the investigator waking up in a corpse, in a coffin, in a mausoleum. Rather than being stuck as a walking corpse for the whole scenario, salvation comes with the investigator awakes once again in his own body, but the question, who was responsible for the transfer between bodies and what has he been up to while in control of the investigator’s body? This scenario sees the investigator bounce back and forth between the bodies, having only limited opportunities for investigation while in each. The scenario calls for an experienced investigator with some knowledge of the Mythos, but it also requires an experienced Keeper to handle both the pacing of scenario and the flow of clues and information to the investigator. This is a pleasingly clever scenario, one that really would only work with a single investigator and makes not just the best of this set up, but the most innovative.

The last scenario takes the investigator – the given one provided being an explorer – to a spot visited in classic Mythos fiction, but rarely in Call of Cthulhu. “Robinson Gruesome” opens with the investigator being stranded on an island near infamous Ponape. Alone, his initial concern will be for his survival, for food, water, and shelter, but soon learns that the island has regular visitors, ones that come to placate an ancient creature only they are aware of. With few resources and none of the benefits of civilisation to rely upon, this is the most combative scenario in the book, as it climaxes in a fight to the death. The antagonist has the advantage in terms of magic, but hopefully the investigator can rely upon his ingenuity.

Not since “Paperchase,” the single player and Keeper scenario that appeared in The Cthulhu Companion, has this set up been as well supported. These are not only interesting scenarios, but professionally written ones too, with one of them being quite exceptional. Although the collection needs one very last edit, by any standards you care to set, Monophobia: A Fear of Solitude is about as ready for publication as you could get. All a publisher has to do is prepare it for its layout style and it is ready to go. Indeed, if it wanted to, a publisher could use what Unbound Publishing has done with the layout, although it is simple. The question is then, why has this collection not seen publication? Compare this to the Call of Cthulhu titles published in the last decade and the question is even more puzzling.

The truth is that Monophobia: A Fear of Solitude has a limited audience as it is a niche product. Yet for that target niche, the Keeper and the single player, the collection is all but perfect – it would be perfect if the collection could be played through using just the one investigator and if it had made as full use of its set up in all three scenarios as it does in “Of Grave Concern.” This is the highlight of the trilogy, one that could grace the pages of any Call of Cthulhu anthology and still stand out. That Monophobia: A Fear of Solitude is free is not its selling point, but its bonus. That Monophobia: A Fear of Solitude is a good collection is the point.

Saturday, 11 December 2010

Reckon 'ee be a grockle

With no sign of an actual sourcebook on the British Isles for Call of Cthulhu on the horizon, what Cubicle Seven Entertainment is instead doing is releasing supplements in its Cthulhu Britannica line that focus on particular regions of this “Green and Pleasant Land.” Shadows Over Scotland is due in early 2011, but the first is already here in the form of Avalon: The County of Somerset – A 1920s’ Reference for Call of Cthulhu. As the title suggests, this supplement takes us to the West Country and the home of King Arthur renowned for the strength of its cider – or as the locals would say, “zider” – and the tall tales of its natives. Yet this oft ignored rural hinterland hides several millennia’s worth of history, superstition, and folklore, below which runs dark bloody strands of truth and horror that few dare to question.

Written by Paul “Wiggy” Wade-Williams, whose numerous credits include All for One: Régime Diabolique and Slipstream for Savage Worlds, this new Call of Cthulhu supplement presents the history and geography of Somerset, its legends and customs, three scenarios set during the 1920s, along with extra adventure seeds, NPCs, and notes for the setting. Parts of it purport to be based upon a manuscript written by Professor Noah Ainley-Chant, a local historian and scholar of the Mythos who disappeared at the end of the nineteenth century, that the author of the supplement has himself seen and here occasionally annotates the Professor’s comments. Said manuscript has of course disappeared since the author saw it...

Avalon: The County of Somerset begins with a steady canter through the region’s history from Prehistory through the Roman Era to the Dark, Saxon, and Middle Ages, and thence to the Modern Period. Quickly we are onto the county’s geography, focusing in particular on the Somerset Levels, the wetlands bound by hills on every side bar the coast of the Bristol Channel to the West. The gazetteer describes Somerset’s notable places, both mundane and mysterious. The former includes the county’s major towns from Axbridge to Yeovil, while the latter include the triangular folly that is Alfred’s Tower, the caves of Cheddar Gorge and Wookey Hole, and of course, Glastonbury. The city of Bath receives particular attention, naturally with a discussion of its healing waters that date back to beyond Roman times, and it is suggested that as the county's social heart, the city could be used as a base of operations for a Somerset set game.

Up until this point, sections of boxed text are used to add further detail and give extra scenario seeds. These are much shorter than those given later in the book in their own section. The rest of the book does not have these boxed sections, beginning with the chapter on “Legends and Customs” that explores and explains some of the myths and truths about places such as Alfred’s Tower, Cadbury Castle, Glastonbury Abbey, and Wookey Hole. More outré happenings are likewise discussed, including Faeries, Ley Lines, Wassailing, and Witchcraft, with as the rest of the supplement, Professor Ainley-Chant giving us the Mythos origins for each.

In a nod back to Games Workshop’s supplement, Green and Pleasant Land: The British 1920s–30s Cthulhu Supplement and its missing article on “Mummerset” that eventually appeared in White Dwarf #90, there are two sections devoted to accents and phrases. The first describes how the Keeper can talk like a local, while the second gives a list of local words and phrases. These are useful and amusing, although in the case of the two derogatory terms given for outsiders and tourists, neither are local, and one dates from several decades after the time that his supplement is set.

The supplement comes with three adventures. Given the prominence placed upon the worship of Mother Hydra and Father Dagon and the influence that comes with the co-mingling of Deep Ones and mankind has had on the county, the danger was that the book’s scenarios would entirely focus upon this aspect. Fortunately, this is not the case, with just the single scenario being devoted to these batrachian horrors, or rather on the all too human cult devoted to them. Set very specifically in 1923 – and it could not be set at any other time, “Blood and Water” could be used as the starting point of a campaign, though there are no notes to that end. The other two scenarios are less constrictive, with the investigators looking into the disappearance of a noted archaeologist in “Strange Little Girl” and undertaking a delve into a cave in “St. Swithun’s Hole.” The latter is more a framework that can be run in an evening, and so would work as a one-shot, but either of two would serve as solid introductions to an ongoing Call of Cthulhu campaign. Both being set in United Kingdom also makes them suitable for use in conjunction with the Tatters of King campaign, especially as Somerset lies all too close to the Severn Valley.

The volume is rounded off with a further six adventure seeds and an appendix that describes several new Mythos tomes and eight NPCs that can be encountered whilst the investigators are in Somerset. What is interesting about these NPCs is that just two of them have any inkling as to the true nature of the Cthulhu Mythos, and this lack of any connection to the Mythos is a refreshing change to the rest of the book.

Another possible danger with a supplement such as Avalon: The County of Somerset is that its focus could have fallen too much upon a certain legendary figure. For example, the danger in Cthulhu by Gaslight supplement is that the focus will be upon the period trio of Sherlock Holmes, John Watson, and Jack the Ripper, here in Avalon: The County of Somerset, there is just the one figure and the one place, King Arthur and Glastonbury. This is always a danger when you have such icons associated with a place or time, but it is one that the author avoids, and rightly so. The two are of course, irrevocably linked, but their place in the collective imagination is not as prominent, and so neither are overused here, although Glastonbury figures in one of the scenarios. There is a Mythos explanation for the legends surrounding King Arthur, but these are pleasingly underplayed.

So the question is, what role has the Mythos played in the history of Somerset? It suggests that the worship of Mother Hydra and Father Dagon and the influence that comes with the co-mingling of Deep Ones spread in from the coast across the Somerset Levels, driving out and up on to the surrounding hills worshippers devoted to Shub-Niggurath and to Eihort. In turn, the Romans stamped out or co-opted these pagan practices; the Normans stamped them out; and then draining of the Levels drove the Deep Ones back into the sea. Beyond this long presence of the Deep Ones, the influence of other Mythos entities on the county is very much left up to the Keeper to decide and develop, whether from the various scenario hooks and seeds, or from his own ideas. Even though Avalon: The County of Somerset is a relatively short book, gaining a grasp of the influence that a Mythos entity or species has over the county is made all the more difficult because it is written into the narrative rather than being broken down case by case. Nor does the all too exhaustive index help. For example, it is mentioned in the text that the county was home to a Celtic tribe that worshipped Cthugua, but since it is not mentioned in the index...

As a gazetteer of Somerset in the early years of the twentieth century, Avalon: The County of Somerset is underwritten. In comparison with earlier ages, the modern period of the 1920s is barely touched upon, which when combined with the lack of period photographs, details such as the local newspapers, and how to get to the county, only serves to isolate the setting. Within the context of the game itself, this is not entirely a bad thing, but as far as the sourcebook is concerned, it isolates the setting from the reader, or rather the Keeper. As does the absence of a map that shows where Somerset lies in England, and that in addition to the lack of a map showing transport routes into and across the county. The likelihood is that this isolation will force the Keeper to rely upon existing what he knows already of the West Country, and that will be cliché ridden. I can count myself fortunate here in that I am, if not from Somerset as is the author, but at least from the West Country and can piece these missing details together, but anyone not native to these isles will only be at a disadvantage.

Physically, Avalon: The County of Somerset is decent looking book. The cover is pleasingly batrachian, the internal layout is clean, and the artwork reasonable. Yet it misses a trick in terms of design. As already mentioned, it is written as a manuscript with commentary from the missing Professor Ainley-Chant and then from the author himself. In effect, this gives three layers to the book. At the base there is basic fact, over which you have Professor Ainley-Chant’s interpretations, and then over that, you have Wade-Williams’ annotations. Yet because the extra comments from both men are never separated from the main body of the book’s text, merely being italicised, the supplement never transforms itself away from being a mundane text book. Had some graphical device such as handwriting in the margin or post-it notes being used to box text, it would have made the book look more interesting and made some use of the idea of commentary upon commentary.

The other issue with Professor Ainley-Chant’s interpretations is that anything odd to be found in the county of Somerset has a Mythos explanation. Now in places the author of the book dismisses some of the Professor’s suggestions, but if a Keeper were to ignore that, then the presence and explanation of the Mythos is the reason behind everything threatens to overwhelm, well, everything! It is as if nothing has a mundane explanation. The solution of course, is for the Keeper to pick and choose the Mythos elements that he wants in his campaign, but more mundane explanations should have been offered as well.

Ultimately, this is a supplement full of detail and brimming with scenario ideas and hooks. The scenarios themselves are playable and would slot easily into most English set campaigns. Yet – Avalon: The County of Somerset – A 1920s’ Reference for Call of Cthulhu is a book with a few problems, mostly stemming from a design and an intent that were not as well executed as they could have been. In places it obscures the setting for the reader with not enough of the mundane, while in others it overwhelms the reader with the overly outré, the effect being to force the Keeper to find his own clarity with the contents, and this will only be exacerbated if the Keeper is not of native stock, but rather an “Emmet” or “Grockle.”

Saturday, 27 November 2010

Flashing Swords & Sorcery

There are few if any roleplaying games that do history and nothing more. For a roleplaying game about history to do well, it has to another ingredient. After all, who would play a game set in the 1920s if it did not have the extra ingredient that is H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos? Such ingredients usually take the form of magic, of horror, of superpowers, of advanced technology, or some other fantastic element. The elements added to All For One: Régime Diabolique, the latest RPG from British publisher, Triple Ace Games, are those of magic and horror. As its title suggests, this is an RPG set in the swashbuckling age of romance, adventure, and daring do that is France during the seventeenth century. Inspired by the novels of Alexandre Dumas, it is specifically set in the year, 1636. Cardinal Richelieu all but governs in the name of Louis VIII, sending the French army to fight against the Spanish the Netherlands while funding the Protestant forces against the Catholic armies of the Holy Roman Emperor in Germany. While the Thirty Years War rages, French Protestants are persecuted at home, the King holds extravagant ball after extravagant ball, the peasants are taxed to within a sous of their lives, and the nobility connive for status or pursue dark agendas of their own. Rumours abound of Witchcraft, demon worship, and monsters abroad, but these are simply the idle chatter of the peasantry. Few appear to truly care about the state, and the fate, of France, but M. de Tréville, commander of The King’s Musketeers does. He personally picks each of the members of this elite regiment, selecting many from those who have had encounters with the outré or with Cardinal Richelieu’s agents. This is the set up for All For One: Régime Diabolique, with player characters as members of The King’s Musketeers, earning their keep through various assignments, missions, and ventures.

Despite the period setting, All For One is a game about pulp action. Not with Tommy Guns, cars with running boards, and advanced machinery and sciences, but with rapiers, muskets, galloping horses, razor wit, and a bow and a sweep of the hat. To fit the pulp action, Triple Ace Games has gone with a set of rules other than its normal choice of Savage Worlds. Instead All For One employs the Ubiquity system, first seen in Exile Studio’s Hollow Earth Expedition (an RPG that is thoroughly pulp and Doug McClure action) and then in the RPG of post-apocalyptic fantasy from Greymalkin Design, Desolation. What marks out the Ubiquity system is its relative simplicity. Dice pools are rolled to gain successes, each even result on the dice being counted as a success. What this means is that any dice can be used, and you could even flip coins, to roll for actions. Of course, Exile Studio does its own dice for the Ubiquity system, but it is possible to get by with a handful of ordinary six-sided dice.

Character creation is matter of choosing one of the provided archetypes – eleven ready-to-play characters are given as examples – or creating your own. This involves dividing fifteen points between six attributes, each rated between one and five; assigning another fifteen points to skills; choosing a Talent such as the “Florentine” fencing style or a Resource like the “L’École de Danse” Fencing School or “Skilled Ally;” and a Flaw such as “Glass Jaw” or “Thrill-Seeker.” Another fifteen points are spent to customise the character. A character also needs a Motivation and he also starts the game with a Style Point, Ubiquity’s equivalent of hero or luck points.

Our first sample character is Gaston, a peasant who made his livelihood by hunting. He planned to marry, but Corinne, his betrothed disappeared shortly after he served as a hunting guide for a visiting nobleman. What clues he gained as to her whereabouts led him to the nobleman’s estate, where he heard rumours of strange celebrations. When he sought to gain entrance to the estate he was harried off by guards, but not before he heard a woman screaming. Gaston was sure that it was Corinne. When he returned in daylight, he was horrified to discover her partially buried body. He swore revenge and planned to assassinate the nobleman. In his rage his shot missed and he was forced to flee finding refuge in the army under another an assumed name. Months later he caught sight of the nobleman and as he raised his musket, a hand stopped him. It was M. de Tréville, who having heard of Gaston’s hunt offered him a position in The King’s Musketeers.

Gaston the Gun
Archetype: Hunter Motivation: Revenge
Style: 2 Health: 5
Primary Attributes
Body: 3 Charisma: 2
Dexterity: 3 Intelligence: 2
Strength: 3 Willpower: 2
Secondary Attributes
Size: 0 Initiative: 5
Move: 6 Defense: 6
Perception: 4 Stun: 3
Animal Handling 2/1/3/1+
Brawl 3/2/5/2+
Firearms 3/4/7/3+
Musket 3/5/8/4
Melee 3/2/5/2+
Performance 2/1/3/1+
Ride 3/2/5/2+
Stealth 3/2/5/2+
Survival 2/2/4/2
Hunting 2/3/5/2+
Long Shot
Direction Sense

When it comes to the Ubiquity system, it is all a matter of the number of successes rolled. A task’s Difficulty determines the minimum number of successes that have to be rolled for someone to achieve it. Any successes rolled above that improve the result. The rules also allow a character to “Take the Average,” meaning that if the average number of successes that he would roll is equal to, or greater than a task’s Difficulty, then the player does not have to roll. In addition, every player character has Style Points, which are spent to add bonus dice, boost the level of some Talents, and reduce damage. They are gained for pursuing a character’s Motivation and playing to his Flaw, for being heroic and being in character, as well as for out of game actions, such as writing gaming reports, hosting the game, and so on.

Of course, the major addition to the setting of France of All For One is magic. Virtually everyone believes in magic, regarding it as either witchcraft or devilry, if not both. More knowledgeable men know that magic is not bound by those dark traditions, but many, and some of them actually benign in nature. Even so, practitioners of all magic have to be careful lest they raise the suspicions of the populace and bring the wrath of the Inquisition down upon their heads. In game terms, magicians have to take the “Magical Aptitude” Talent during character generation, choosing a Tradition from among Ceremonial Magic, Natural Magic, and Theurgy. The choice of Tradition provides no actual benefit, but rather colours how his magic works. In addition, each magical practitioner studies one or more Arts, like Divination or Necromancy. The game has no set spell lists and a player is expected to come up the desired effects during play. It is possible to combine the effects of one art with another. For example, he might combine Homomancy with Hydromancy to enable himself to breath under water. The game though, does give a fourth Tradition, that of Alchemy, which although in that it can replicate many of the effects of the other Traditions, is bound by the Laws of Nature. Thus an Alchemist could concoct a mixture that would cause one of the living to walk as if dead, but could not create a powder that would raise the dead.

Our sample magician, Michel Durand serves in the King’s Musketeers to make up for his past sins. An orphan, he was brought up to be a studious boy, including the study of magick. He will not speak of how he came to be recruited by M. de Tréville.

Michel Durand
Archetype: Occultist Motivation: Justice
Style: 2 Health: 5
Primary Attributes
Body: 2 Charisma: 2
Dexterity: 2 Intelligence: 4
Strength: 2 Willpower: 3
Secondary Attributes
Size: 0 Initiative: 6
Move: 4 Defense: 4
Perception: 7 Stun: 2
Academics (Philosophy) 4/4/8/4+
Firearms 1/2/3/1+
Investigation 2/4/6/3+
Magick (Benignus) 2/4/6/3+
Magick (Divination) 4/4/8/4+
Magick (Necromancy) 2/4/6/3+
Melee 1/2/3/1+
Natural Philosophy (Chymistry) 2/4/6/3+
Ride 1/2/3/1+
Magical Aptitude (Ceremonial Magic)
Magical Sensitivity

At heart, the magic rules in All For One, are very simple. Yet they do call for a certain inventiveness upon the part of the players, almost to create a spell’s desired effect upon the fly. Pleasingly, the chapter on magic includes eight examples, each fully worked that show the system’s cleverness.

In terms of background particular to All For One, various types of adventures are discussed as are various personages and organisations, villainous and otherwise. They include the classic villains of both history and of Alexandre Dumas’ novels, such as Cardinal Richelieu and Milady de Winter. It is possible for player characters to belong to the Rosicrucians and other organisations, but most are included as potential opposition for the characters. The book also includes some classic monsters, such as the Vampire and the Werewolf, along with various mundane NPCs. These are enough to be going with, but the likelihood is that a GM will be wanting for more.

One thing that is missing is a specific fear mechanic of the type usually found in horror games. This is due to dangerous or fearful situations being covered by rolls based on the Willpower attribute, and to add to that some creatures do possess the equivalent of the Fearsome Talent. It should also be pointed that All For One is not a straight horror game. It is rather a game of pulp action with horror elements.

Physically, All For One is neatly laid out with flavoursome artwork and is for the most part an easy read. The choice of fount for the section headers is sometimes a little hard on the eyes which is it is mostly an easy read. It is a pity though that the book could not have been in colour as that would have benefited both the artwork and the map of Paris inside the back cover. If the map of Paris is good, it is a pity that the inside of the front cover has been left fallow when a map of France and its nearest neighbours would have been as equally as useful. Similarly, the book is devoid of a scenario, although not of scenario ideas. It would have been nice to have seen an All For One scenario to get a grasp of how the game works. Similarly, the lack of examples of both character generation and actual play are frustrating, though the book is full situational examples.

Over all, All For One: Régime Diabolique is a solid package. There is everything here that a GM can use to get to work with to create his game, and it should be pointed out that the book does not have any specific advice for the GM beyond talking about the nature of an All For One adventure. If anything the lack of an adventure is the book’s most disappointing feature, though they are available for purchase from the publisher’s website. Put that aside though and All For One: Régime Diabolique is an engaging setting that most gamers will be familiar with and want to play in.

Monday, 22 November 2010

Watch Out For The Post Sunday Drivers

With everyone running around shouting about how good – or not – the new version from Wizards of the Coast of the original Post-Apocalyptic RPG, Gamma World, actually is, let us not forget that not everyone wants their Post-Apocalyptic future to be quite as crazy. With every intention of reviewing the new Gamma World in the near future, I shall instead take a look at a still recent offering, but one that provides a much drier, more accessible, and more familiar approach to the end of civilisation as we know it. Atomic Highway: Post-Apocalyptic Roleplaying! from radioactive ape designs and published by Cubicle Seven Entertainment provides everything necessary to play in what is a familiar setting, that of our own world after it has suffered a disaster that brought about the fall of civilisation as we know it. The nature of the disaster, whether that disaster is manmade or natural in origins and its effects are very much up to the GM to decide, but the familiarity of the setting is due to the game’s most obvious influence, the Mad Max movie trilogy.

What Atomic Highway: Post-Apocalyptic Roleplaying! offers is a fairly straight take upon the genre, though one that still has room for mutants, including both humans and animals, and psychic powers. The main influence though shows in the slightly cinematic rules, in the rules and mechanics for handling vehicles and vehicular combat, and the implied setting’s emphasis upon the need for oil and petroleum products. The book itself is a relatively easy read and comes with a nicely done introduction to roleplaying and the genre, the former primarily done through the means of a well drawn cartoon that illustrates what roleplaying is.

Character generation in Atomic Highways is a matter of making choices and assigning points. A player needs to select his character’s Race – Human or optionally, Mutant; assign Attribute points between seven core stats that range between one and five points and can together be abbreviated as “MUTANT;” choose a Rearing and a Pursuit – how he grew up and what he does now; and lastly customise and personalise the character. A Rearing and a Pursuit determines the character’s base skills with a few more points being allowed for customising these skills. Every Pursuit comes with some beginning gear, but some like the Hauler or the Road Warrior each receive a further pool of points to spend a vehicle and kitting it out. For the most part equipment is kept generic in nature, it being left to both player and GM to add the brand name of their choice. If a player decides that his character is a Mutant or a Psychic, then his mutation or psychic ability is determined randomly. A further mutation or psychic ability can be taken if a mutation or psychic flaw is taken as well.

The process is quick, each of the following examples taking five or so minutes each. The first is Jenni, a Hauler who drives a big truck between settlements. She is accompanied by Rulf, a big, heavy boned man who was once his tribe’s healer. He looks out for her when they get into scrapes and she gives him a home aboard the “Mercy,” her truck. It has been armoured and fitted with a cattle catcher and heavy tracks to make it off-road capable. A scavenged engine and transmission has been fitted to increase Mercy’s speed and agility. The only weapon that she carries is a smoke dispenser to deter tailgaters.

Jenni Driver
Muscle 3, Understanding 3, Tenacity 2, Appeal 3, Nimbleness 3, Toughness 2, Senses 2
Rearing: Nomad Pursuit: Hauler
Skills: Athletics 2, Brawl 1, Drive 4, Intimidate 1, Lore 1, Melee 2, Notice 1, Persuade 3, Scavenge 2, Shoot 3, Stealth 1, Tech 3
Health: 14
Gear: Knife, battered antique coffee maker, lump hammer, .357 revolver, heavy leathers and wax duster coast, toolkit

Muscle 4, Understanding 3, Tenacity 2, Appeal 1, Nimbleness 2, Toughness 4, Senses 2
Rearing: Tribal Pursuit: Healer
Skills: Athletics 2, Brawl 2, Heal 4, Intimidate 2, Lore 1, Melee 4, Notice 2, Persuade 1, Ride 2, Scavenge 1, Shoot 2, Stealth 2, Survive 1
Health: 30
Flaw: Mutie
Mutations: Enduring
Gear: boomerang, necklace of bones, crossbow and bolts, heavy axe, medical tools and herbs

Muscle: 4 Nimbleness: 3 Toughness: 4 Speed: 3
Passengers: Driver + 56 Health: 120 Protection: 14
Customisation: Heavy Armour, Increased Speed and Nimbleness, Off-Road Capable, Ram, Roll Cage, Smoke Dispenser

For its mechanics, Atomic Highway uses the V6 Engine. It is a dice pool system in which for any action an attribute determines the number of six-sided dice to be rolled. Each die that rolls a six counts as a success and call be rolled again to gain more successes. Whenever a skill is involved in the roll, a player can spend points up to the value of the skill itself to turn a failed roll on a die into a success.

For example, whilst on a trip, raiders have attacked Mercy and several have clambered onto her roof, forcing Rulf to climb through a hatch and attempt to knock them off the roof with his axe. To attack one of the raiders, Rulf’s rolls four dice for his axe and gets, two, four, four, and six. He does not get a six on the re-rolled die, but he spends his four Melee skill points to increase the two results of four to six each, for a grand total of three sixes or three successes. The raider attempts to dodge the axe swing, but the GM does not roll enough successes, so Rulf’s heavy axe does lethal damage equal to ten plus the wielder’s Muscle, which is multiplied by the number of successes. So Rulf inflicts a total of forty-two points of damage! The raiders are wearing light armour and only have sixteen Health each, so the GM rules with that amount of damage that Rulf’s axe cleaves through the first raider and knocks a second off the top of Mercy – this perfectly in keeping with the cinematic nature of the game’s intent. As Rulf steadies himself though, he finds himself staring at a loaded crossbow...!

Critical failures occur when all ones are rolled. Every character though, has five Fortune points. As is traditional, these can be spent to gain successes, perform dual actions, alter the plot, reduce an opponent’s successes, reduce damage, and enable the re-roll of a critical failure. Equally, there are just as many ways to regain spent Fortune, most of them revolving around the encouragement of good play.

To support its genre, Atomic Highway includes rules for scavenging and vehicular combat, plus advice aplenty. There is of course, the traditional advice for the GM, but this is joined by a series of questions that help the GM create his setting. This aspect is itself supported by sample settings and NPCs, each of which can be used as is, or as the basis of something of the GM’s own devising. There is also a scenario, “Gas Gouging.” Although quite detailed, this scenario is designed to be easily adapted to a location or to a set-up.

Physically, Atomic Highway is an decent looking book, illustrated with a lot action orientated artwork. It is a fairly light read and is generally clearly written, the index not being quite as immediately useful you would want. Where the writing really works is in the advice, being useful for both players and advice. To be fair, some of this advice might be too obvious for most players and Atomic Highway is not really being pitched at the neophyte, but if someone new to the hobby comes across this RPG, he could not go far wrong with what is written here.

If I have an issue, it might be that the game is light on both strange mutant creatures and strange mutant abilities, but then again, Atomic Highway is not written to encompass all aspects of the genre. Putting that aside, it would have been nice if the author had addressed his obvious inspirations and included a bibliography.

The truth is that Atomic Highway is anything other than a ground breaking. This is a roleplaying game that wears its fuel injected engine on its sleeve and is very obvious in its inspirations. That is no bad thing, though anyone looking for anything more might be disappointed. Yet if you happen to want a light, cinematic RPG with all of the grit and action of the Mad Max movies, then Atomic Highway: Post-Apocalyptic Roleplaying! is a solid design that will suit you down to the ground.

Saturday, 13 November 2010

Beasts of the East I

Monster books as I have opined in the past, are never easy to review. Simple lists of random monsters such as the contents of Monster Manual series for Dungeons & Dragons Fourth Edition are not just difficult to review, but actually boring to review to boot. The better monster books are built around a theme or genre, such as the demons and devils of The Book of Fiends from Green Ronin Publishing and the genre of Pelgrane Press' Book of Unremitting Horror. Or they are written for a particular setting with monsters native to that setting, of which the Monsternomicon, the d20 System supplement for the Iron Kingdoms setting from Privateer Press is a personal favourite. In addition to providing a range of foes to be arrayed against the player characters, a setting's monster book needs to add detail to the world and the background.

The good news is that Qin: Bestiary, the third supplement to be translated by Cubicle Seven Entertainment for Qin: The Warring States, the French RPG from Le 7ème Cercle, is a monster book for the game's setting of Ancient China during the period of the Zhongguo or “The Middle Kingdoms.” Qin: The Warring States is a game of low powered Wuxia action, and can be seen as an alternative choice for the gamer who wants to roleplay in the ancient Orient, but one that is more cinematic and without the constrictions placed upon player actions by the society of Rokugan presented in the better known alternative, Legends of the Five Rings. What Qin: Bestiary presents is another aspect of the setting, one not fully detailed in the core book, that of the supernatural in the Middle Kingdoms. Given within its pages are creatures high and low, celestial and demonic, as well as many things in between.

The even better news is that the supplement is just a bit more. Not only is each of the creatures it presents is woven into the background, primarily through the use of flavour text that places each entry within the setting through in-game reports and tales and describes the attitudes towards it, but the supplement adds new supernatural powers, new exorcism techniques, new spells, magical items, and more. These new items are not numerous, but they either support an aspect of a creature described, such as the new Illusion and Flight supernatural powers for Ghosts; are derived from the creature itself, such as the sacred carapaces of the Celestial Turtles the markings of which aid in divination; or they are items are used by the creature itself, like the Style of the Shadowless Spear martial arts style wielded by the Children of Nü Wa, an organisation led by Yao-snakes.

What the book covers in turn is ghosts, the undead, minor spirits and local gods, demons and damned souls, monsters and minor creatures, and celestial creatures. Some of these – primarily the celestial creatures – are only described, not given stats, but then again, entities such as the Kilin or the Dragon cannot be killed by mere mortals. Interestingly, the Qin: Bestiary actually includes the full write ups and stats for the individuals who either appeared in or wrote the various pieces of in-game flavour text. Thus the GM has yet another set of ready-to-play NPCs to add to his campaign. An adventure seed appears alongside some of the creatures described, and while there might not be enough of them, the monsters and their flavour text are themselves interesting enough to inspire the GM.

Almost a third of the Qin: Bestiary is devoted to the Yao. These creatures were once animals, but through fortune or misfortune, have been raised to a near human state. They lack the souls that man possesses, but most strive to attain the same path to divinity. Yao come in many forms, the most common including buffaloes, cats, foxes, monkeys, pigs, snakes, spiders, and tigers. Each is immortal and capable of shifting between animal and human forms, but even in human form a Yao retains an aspect of its original form and much of its nature. Thus a Yao-monkey will be clever, but mischievous and have either a long tail or limbs, monkey-like features and so on... Given that Yao are almost human, they are really NPCs rather than creatures or beasts to be beaten, and this is supported with a fully written up example of each. Fans of the television series Monkey will no doubt enjoy this chapter.

It is suggested that no player be allowed to play a Yao. Reasonable enough given the powers and abilities of most Yao, but instead he could play a Ban Yao or half-Yao or almost-Yao. One of a Ban Yao’s parents was a full Yao and so he retains one of that parent’s animal features, but can also possess his natural armour, weaponry, and terrifying aspect. A lesser alternative is for a player character to be Yao Xie and descended from a Yao. With this gift, a character has access to one of the abilities of a Ban Yao, but only once per day.

Rounding out the Qin: Bestiary is a trio of scenarios that make use of the creatures it describes. All three stand independent of the Tian Xia campaign that is supported in the Qin: The Warring States corebook and the Qin: Legends supplement and are set in small town or remote places. The first, “The Sins of the Father” finds the heroes investigating a series of deaths in a small town. It suffers from too obvious a title, but is otherwise a decent affair built around an old theme. The GM will have more fun with the roleplaying opportunities present in “The Eternal Lover,” in which the heroes are caught up in the lies of a temptress and the trail of broken hearts she leaves in her wake. The last of the three “Ceramic Guardians,” is little more meandering in structure than the previous two and sees the heroes on the trail of an unstoppable monster. Some of the details in the book’s last section, devoted to Funeral Rites and Tombs, should inform what is the most dangerous of the three scenarios, but with careful play the heroes should survive.

Physically, the Qin: Bestiary is a decent looking book. It is not as liberally illustrated as I believe that a monster book should be, but the artwork is good. The editing is an improvement over Qin: Legends and the book is a decent read. Initially, that read is a disconcerting one. This is due to the book’s mix of fiction and fact; to the lack of entries compared to other RPG monster books; and to the way that the book is organised. It just feels odd to have a section labelled “A Few More Fabulous Creatures.” Anyway, once you realise that this book is not just about the monsters, but about the supernatural this is not an issue.

As an aside, this book can be used in conjunction with Enemies of the Empire, the foe guide for Legends of the Five Rings to add creatures and NPCs to Rokugan. Some conversion work would be needed, but since that game is based upon Chinese, Japanese, and Korean cultures, then the parallels are there for the GM to work with.

The Qin: Bestiary is several things. It is of course, a bestiary, but more than that it is a collection of NPCs that a GM can add to his campaign and an examination of the supernatural in the Zhongguo. The flavour fiction nicely captures the attitudes towards both the creatures and the sample of each creature it describes as much as the stats and write up give the game details. The inclusion of the sample creatures and NPCs makes the supplement both more useful and easier to use, with the three scenarios showcasing how that can be done. The Qin: The Warring States GM is naturally going to want a copy of Qin: Bestiary, any GM looking for a well supported, detailed introduction to creatures of Chinese myth and legend that he can add to his own game, should be looking at this supplement too.

Saturday, 6 November 2010

Red Box Fever

With this review we reach the last in the White Box Fever series and its point. Over the last few weeks I have reviewed various introductory titles that aim to bring new participants into the hobby that is roleplaying. Had I more foresight I would have started this series much earlier, so that I could have had this last review out as soon as it was possible after the game’s release, but alas such organisation is not my forte. The product in question is the Dungeons & Dragons Fantasy Roleplaying Game Starter Set, the very first release in Dungeons & Dragons Essentials line that is Wizards of the Coast’s re-launch of Dungeons & Dragons Fourth Edition. This is product designed to do several things. Most obviously it is designed to introduce players to Dungeons & Dragons Fourth Edition and do so in a fashion that is easier and gentler than terrible product that was the previous Dungeons & Dragons Roleplaying Game Starter Set. It is designed to stand out on the shelf not at the local games store where the clientele is going to be more discerning, but at less specialist retail outlets, whether that is bookshops that sell games or in the toy sections of the large discount department stores. It is designed to stand out and be spotted by the kind of adolescents that we were when we started gaming and it is designed to be spotted by fathers who were that kind of adolescent back in the early 1980s when the only means of entry into the hobby was the Dungeons & Dragons Basic Set. Which is why this new Dungeons & Dragons Fantasy Roleplaying Game Starter Set sports the same distinctive trade dress as the Dungeons & Dragons Basic Set. The same red box and the same artwork by Larry Elmore that graced the Frank Menzter version from 1983. Make no mistake, this is not a product aimed at existing players of Dungeons & Dragons Fourth Edition, but designed to bring younger players into the hobby and older, lapsed players, back into the hobby.

That said, as much as the red box and the Larry Elmore artwork deliver a one-two punch to the nostalgia nerve point, the contents are still Dungeons & Dragons Fourth Edition. Very much a stripped down and streamlined version of Dungeons & Dragons Fourth Edition, but still with its emphasis on combat and skirmish-like play. Further, the back of the Dungeons & Dragons Fantasy Roleplaying Game Starter Set promises to deliver “Your First Step on the Road to Adventure” and this it delivers by providing enough material to take four or more heroes from first to second level through both solo and group play. Beyond that a Dungeon Master and his players will need to progress via further titles in the Essentials line, in particular, the Dungeons & Dragons Essentials Rules Compendium and Dungeons & Dragons Essentials Heroes of the Fallen Lands. In the meantime, the adventure, “Ghost Tower of the Witchlight Fens” is available to download as is “Kill the Messengers,” an extra encounter to run at the end of the scenario included in the box. Together this enough to keep a game going using just the contents of this box for several sessions.

Inside Dungeons & Dragons Fantasy Roleplaying Game Starter Set can be found a thirty-two page Player’s Book, the sixty-four page Dungeon Master’s Book, a large double-sided map, seventy-two Power and Magic Item Cards, fifty-six double-sided hero and monster tokens, four single-sided character sheets, and a set of polyhedral dice. The two books are done more as magazines than actual books, and the likelihood that without card covers, neither is going to withstand too much handling. Similarly, the Power and Magic Item Cards are flimsy and could have been done on better cardstock. Removing them from their sheets requires a little care and a pair of scissors, and once separated, it is probably a good idea to put them into clear card sleeves for protection.

The starting point for the Dungeons & Dragons Fantasy Roleplaying Game Starter Set is the Player’s Book, indicated by the words “READ THIS FIRST!” on its cover. It begins with an introduction to the hobby and an explanation of how to get started before moving the reader onto a solo adventure. Opening with the player’s character travelling with a Dwarf merchant to Fallcrest, the starting point for the core Dungeons & Dragons Fourth Edition campaign as described in Fourth Edition Dungeon Master’s Guide and continued in H1, Keep on the Shadowfell, H2, Thunderspire Labyrinth, and H3, Pyramid of Shadows. Reading through the opening section it asks the player to consider why his character is travelling to Fallcrest, a good starting question in terms of roleplaying. Yet when the caravan is suddenly attacked by Goblins, the questions asked shift to a more mechanic bent. The first one is how the player wants his character to respond to the attack, the answer determining his character’s Class. For example, if he leaps into combat, then he is likely to be a Fighter, but a Cleric if he chooses to tend to the merchant’s wounds. The choice of Class also determines the character’s path through the solo adventure. The story and adventure is the same on each path, but the questions which determine various elements about the character vary according to the chosen Class. At the same, the reader is learning how to play the game.

Class: Fighter Level: 1 Race: Human
Alignment: Unaligned
Strength: 18 Constitution: 14 Dexterity: 13
Intelligence: 12 Wisdom: 11 Charisma: 10
Armour Class: 17 Speed: 5
Hit Points: 29 Surges: 13
Fortitude: 17 Reflex: 13 Will: 11
Abilities: Human Versatitlity
Feats: Durable, Improved Initiative
Powers: Battle Fury, Poised Assault, Bastion of Defense, Power Strike
Skills: Athletics, Endurance, Heal, Intimidate
Languages: Common, Goblin
Equipment: Greatsword, Scale Armour, backpack, adventurer’s kit, trail rations (ten days), 50 ft. of rope, belt pouch, two sunrods, 10 gp

Amaranth Bunce
Class: Wizard Level: 1 Race: Halfling
Alignment: Good
Strength: 1o Constitution: 12 Dexterity: 16
Intelligence: 18 Wisdom: 11 Charisma: 15
Armour Class: 14 Speed: 6
Hit Points: 22 Surges: 7
Fortitude: 11 Reflex: 14 Will: 12
Abilities: Bold, Nimble Reaction, Second Chance
Feats: Defensive Mobility
Powers: Freezing Burst, Magic Missile, Phantasmal Force, (at-will); Burning Hands, Illusory Obstacles (encounter); Fountain of Flame, Sleep (daily); Ghost Sound, Light, Mage Hand (cantrips)
Skills: Arcana, Diplomacy, History, Insight, Nature
Languages: Common, Elven
Equipment: Staff, spellbook, adventurer’s kit, trail rations (ten days), 50 ft. of rope, belt pouch, two sunrods, 25 gp

This is an undeniably clever approach. The step-by-step learning process is gentle and it gets the reader used to how the game is played taking his character right up to their first encounter using the poster map. The reader is also expected to take the particular cards for his Powers and keep them with his character sheet. Throughout, the process of creating the character is one of making choices rather than the traditional rolling of dice and making of choices. The choices it offers, such as between the Classes – Cleric, Fighter, Rogue, or Wizard; between the Races – Dwarf, Elf, Halfling, and Human; or between the right weapon or spell, are limited, but this is not an issue. By limiting choice, decisions can made all the quicker, and anyway, these choices are only designed to take a character to second level.

It should also be pointed out that the choice of Classes in this boxed set – Cleric, Fighter, Rogue, and Wizard – is a nod back to the contents of the Dungeons & Dragons Basic Set. Of course, that game made each of the Demihuman Races – Dwarf, Elf, and Halfling – into Classes by themselves, rather than the more modern option that allows you combine the Class of your choice with the Race of your choice. Of the four Classes available, the Fighter is the one with the fewest number of choices available and is probably the least colourful or flavoursome.

The problem comes when a group wants to create characters. It is that the Player’s Book is just one Player’s Book and not the Players’ Book. It only really works if every player has read and played through its solo scenario which is a time consuming process. What is missing from the Dungeons & Dragons Fantasy Roleplaying Game Starter Set is a means of turning the character creation into one that can be carried out as a group. No means of doing this is discussed, nor is there a reference guide to the Powers, so that process has either got to be done separately with each player, or laboriously as a group.

Another issue is that the Dungeons & Dragons Fantasy Roleplaying Game Starter Set starts at the wrong point. It throws the reader straight into the game without addressing some simple issues, such as what roleplaying really is, how to roll and read the dice, and how to use the contents of this box set. Similarly, there is no example of how the game is played, and that would have been useful for the prospective DM and player alike. All right, so with the solo adventure that is the Player’s Book, the game does a nice job the “show,” but a good example of play would added the “tell” too. Anyway, in omitting the example of play, it commits one of the same errors to be found in the original Dungeons & Dragons Fantasy Roleplaying Game Starter Set for Fourth Edition that made that introductory product so poor.

The Dungeon Master’s Guide is much longer and provides much more detail about the game. It took quickly throws the Dungeon Master into handling his first Encounter, breaking a simple ambush between the adventurers and four opponents down and explaining it in some detail. The rules themselves run to just fourteen pages and are well written and should be easy to understand. That said, these fourteen pages are a lot to take in for the first time reader and it is a big step up from playing to running the game even with the first Encounter along the way.

A third of the Dungeon Master’s Guide is devoted to the adventure, The Twisting Halls. This seven Encounter dungeon makes use of one side of the double-sided map, which nicely folds so that only the particular location for each Encounter shows. The dungeon is not linear, nor is it easy. One of the most interesting of those Encounters is with a Fledgling White Dragon. It might be only a Level One creature, but it is a tough opponent for a party of First Level characters. Yet how the adventure addresses another means of dealing with the creature – talking to it. One of the issues that I have had with Dungeons & Dragons Fourth Edition is its focus away from roleplaying and its parcelling up of roleplaying into Skill Challenges. Yet in The Twisting Halls, the Skill Challenge of “Talking to the Dragon” is well explained, covering both the Dragon’s attitude and what the players might do. To my mind this is the best part of the adventure, getting the player characters to do more than just fight. Overall, the adventure is decent and should provide three or four sessions at a play rate of two Encounters per session. It is also enough to get the player characters to Second Level.

The remainder of the Dungeon Master’s Guide discusses adventure creation, in particular, Quests; building a dungeon, including reusing the Twisted Halls map; and designing Encounters. It is rounded out with a selection of useful monsters. Just seventeen, but with their subtypes, they are enough to create several more Encounters. Rounding out the Dungeon Master’s Guide is a description of the Nentir Vale, home to Fallcrest as described above.

The Dungeons & Dragons Fantasy Roleplaying Game Starter Set feels like a complete package. True, its content might not give as much playing time as original red box Dungeons & Dragons Box Set, which took the players from first to third levels. Yet playing from first to second level is enough to get a flavour and feel of this stripped down version of Dungeons & Dragons Fourth Edition. The design to the Dungeons & Dragons Fantasy Roleplaying Game Starter Set with its step by step learning process, is well intentioned, but not carried out as fully as it should have been. The step into the game, from solo to group play, and from playing to running the game could all have been better handled. These are not problems for the lapsed player coming back to Dungeons & Dragons after time away, but they could be for the novice player.

Despite my issues with the Dungeons & Dragons Fantasy Roleplaying Game Starter Set, it is the introductory box set that Dungeons & Dragons Fourth Edition needs and should have got at the time of the game’s launch. Its contents are engaging and well presented, and they serve as a solid learning tool. That it is eye catching and decently priced means that the Dungeons & Dragons Fantasy Roleplaying Game Starter Set is going to be an excellent Christmas gift.

Screen Shot II

How do you like your GM Screen?

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

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

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

So how do I like my GM Screen?

I like my Screen to come with something. Not a poster or poster map, but some form of reference material. Which is why I am fond of both the Sholari Reference Pack for SkyRealms of Jorune and the GM Resource Book for Pelgrane Press' Trail of Cthulhu. Nevertheless, I also like GM Screens when they come with a scenario, which is one reason why I like “Descent into Darkness” from the Game Master’s Screen and Adventure for Legends of the Five Rings Fourth Edition. For the same reason, I like “A Bann Too Many,” the scenario that comes in the Dragon Age Game Master's Kit for Green Ronin Publishing's Dragon Age – Dark Fantasy Roleplaying Set 1: For Characters Level 1 to 5, which is what I will be reviewing today.

The Game Master’s Screen is a three panel affair in landscape format, on heavy, glossy, heavy cardstock. The outside or players’ side of the Screen shows a small horde ready to attack the player characters. It is a serviceable illustration that hopefully should get the players in the mood. On the reverse side can be found everything that a GM should need including weapons and armour details, Ability Foci and tests, actions, combat, spell casting, and stunts. Perhaps the most interesting addition to the Game Master’s Screen is five pieces of advice for the GM. These are “Focus on the Characters,” “Provoke Tough Moral Choices,” “Paint the World with Five Senses,” “Be Flexible,” and “Be Exciting.” The advice is simple and obvious, but it always bears repeating and having it right in front of the GM’s eye line is as good a place to have it.

The adventure itself, “A Bann Too Many,” can be run as a sequel to “The Dalish Curse,” the scenario to be found in Dragon Age – Dark Fantasy Roleplaying Set 1: For Characters Level 1 to 5, the core boxed set for the RPG. Not a direct sequel, but rather as the characters’ intended destination when they had the adventure on the way as described in “The Dalish Curse,” designed as it is for first and second level characters. The destination in question is the village of Logerswold, located in the central Ferelden on the edge of the Brecilian Forest. Noted for its logging industry, of late the village and nearby forest have been beset by murderous bandits led by Waldric the Gore-Handed, disrupting both village life and village work. Logersworld’s leader, the little liked Bann Krole has driven some of the bandits off, but not to the satisfaction of the village’s Freeholders, who have elected a new Bann. It is the newly elected Bann Trumhall that has put out the call for aid in dealing with the outlaws, not yet possessing the means to hire his own men to put an end to Waldric the Gore-Handed’s reign of terror.

To be honest, “A Bann Too Many” is one more variation upon the theme of a village in peril. This is not to denigrate such a set up, as it is difficult in this day and age of come up with anything in gaming that is wholly new and original. What matters is how the author develops the story from that set up and what he does to make it interesting for both the GM and his players alike. What Jeff Tidball, the author of “A Bann Too Many” is give advice, add depth, and provide options. Aiding this is the way in which the adventure is organised by encounter type – Exploration Encounter, Combat Encounter, Roleplaying Encounter, and so on. None of these encounter types adhere strictly to type, the author also discussing what might also happen in each encounter. Small details matter here, for example, a treasure hoard is discussed in terms of each item’s former owner rather than just monetary value.

Much of the author’s advice will be familiar to the experienced GM, but to be fair it is aimed at the novice GM, the one coming to the Dragon Age: Origins RPG from the computer game. Nevertheless, it is good advice and worth taking the time to read. The depth comes in the background and the staging, such that barely a single page of this thirty-two page booklet is wasted. The options come in the form of extra subplots that the GM can mix and match to add further depth to the scenario. There are three of these, some of which are more complex than others, and in the hands of the novice GM, running all three could overwhelm the scenario. The situation in the village is perhaps a little complex and the GM needs to read the scenario closely to understand what is going on and get this information across to his players. Of course, the situation in Logerswold being what it is, the heroes will have to brave the depths of the woods to face the enemy, and this is quite a hard fight for any group. Before then, there are opportunities for roleplaying and interaction with the inhabitants of the village, which should be used to encourage novice players while being enjoyed by more experienced players.

Overall, “A Bann Too Many” is an enjoyable adventure that deals with a more mundane danger rather than the darkspawn and the Blight that play such a major role in the setting. It presents an interesting take upon a clichéd set up and adds a twist or two, but does need a little careful handling to get some of the complex relationships in the village across, but the level of detail given here is far from unwelcome.

For the GM of the Dragon Age: Origins RPG, the Dragon Age Game Master's Kit is probably going to be a given purchase. The good news is that he will not be disappointed. The adventure is solid and the screen useful.