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

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.