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

Wednesday, 29 June 2011

Would You Appley Play This?

Recently I got the chance to get Apples to Apples out onto the table. I have had a copy for a while after picking it up for a games party that got cancelled; and there is the nub of the issue. Like most of the people that I play boardgames with, I like to have some complexity to a game and I like to have some theme to a game. So it rare that we decide to bring out a party game and I have so few in number that I can count the party games in my collection. For your information, I own copies of Cineplexity, Gambit-7 (the Anglicised version of Wits & Wagers), Who Would Win? , and now, Apples to Apples. Originally published by Out of the Box in 1999, but now published by Mattel, Inc. – and hey, who would have thought I would be buying a Mattel game at my age? – this game of “hilarious comparisons” has sold millions of copies, been translated into numerous languages and different versions, and proven to be very popular.

Designed for four to ten players, aged twelve and up, Apples to Apples comes in a neat square box that contains a single, double-sided rules sheet, and some eight hundred and forty-six cards. The cards are divided into two coloured types. The first are the six hundred and forty-eight Red Apple Cards and the second, two hundred and sixteen Green Apple Cards. The Red Apple Cards are “noun” cards that represent events, organisations, personal aspects, people, places, times, and things. For example, the “Rock Concert,” “Greenpeace,” “My Street,” “King Arthur,” “Blackpool,” “The 1970s,” and “Leeks.” The Green Apple Cards represent characteristics or descriptive attributes that can be applied to the “noun” or Red Apple Cards, such as “Annoying,” “English,” or “Philosophical.” Each version of Apples to Apples is usually tailored along a theme or a particular culture and language. As can be seen from the list of cards so far, my version of the game is the British Apples to Apples.

Apart from an appropriately coloured apple, there are no illustrations on the cards, but is there some supplementary information. Sometimes this can be silly, such “How many Essex Girls does it take to get an Essex Girl joke…?” on the Essex Girls Red Apple Card, but sometimes this is educational. For example, “From the French caboche, meaning “big head.”” on the Cabbage Red Apple Card. On the Green Apple Card the supplementary information that expands upon the descriptive attribute with three synonyms, such as “frantic, headlong, and reckless” for the “Desperate” Green Apple Card.

The aim of the game is to win a certain number of Green Apple Cards, the number depending upon the number of players – more players lowers the required number. A Green Apple Card is won by getting the current Judge to select the Red Apple Card that you played as being the best match or comparison with the current Green Apple Card.

The game starts with every player receiving a hand of seven Red Apple Cards and one person being chosen to be the Judge. The Judge draws one Green Apple Card and reads it aloud before placing face up on the table where everyone can see it. The other players each choose a Red Apple Card from their hands which they think will best match the descriptive attribute of the Green Apple Card on the table. These cards are placed face down on the table and once everyone has played a card, the Judge picks them up and examines them. He then reads aloud the Red Apple Cards played and decides which one of them is best described by the Green Apple Card he drew. The player of the chosen Red Apple Card wins that round and is awarded the Green Apple Card towards his score. All of the Red Apple Cards are discarded and the next player takes the role of Judge, dealing new Red Apple Cards to bring everyone’s hand back up to seven and then drawing a new Green Apple Card.

So for example, Anthony is the Judge and draws the “Innocent” Green Apple Card. From their hands, Dave, Jeremy, Matt, and Michele play the “Climate Change,” “Elephants,” “Michael Jackson,” and “The Ocean” Red Apple Cards. Anthony chooses “Elephants” as the Red Apple Card that compares best with the “Innocent” Green Apple Card and Michele, who played that card receives the “Innocent” Green Apple Card to add to her score.

The Judge is free to select the Red Apple Card of his choice, and can justify it however he wants. Nor does his choice have to be logical or agree with any of the opinion of the other players though they are free to persuade him as to which Red Apple Card to choose. Anthony chose “Elephants” because he believes them to be innocent, but he could have selected “Michael Jackson” because in his opinion, the popstar’s fans believe him to be innocent. One accepted tactic is called “Playing to the Judge” in which a player puts down the Red Apple Card from hand that he thinks the Judge all but regardless of how relevant the Red Apple Card is. So in the above example, Michele could have played the “Michael Jackson” Red Apple Card because she knows that Anthony is a fan of his music.

Besides the basic play of the game, Apples to Apples includes several other options such as Judging Red Apple Cards that are the opposite to, or least like the Green Apple Card played; having to play a Red Apple Card before the Green Apple Card is played; and even having to play a Red Apple Card that is most like two Green Apple Cards, these being drawn at the beginning of the round as normal. That said, given the number of cards in the box as a whole, getting through those using the standard rules before wanting to move on these variants.

Ultimately, the fun of playing a party game like Apples to Apples comes from the players themselves and their reactions to the card combinations. This also means that because the players have to bring much of themselves to the game, they have to be in the right mood to play Apples to Apples. Whilst it is too light to be a gamer’s game, it can nevertheless be fun and provide a diversion from weightier titles, and even though it is over ten years old, it is a good party game.

What it means for me is that I have another party game in my arsenal for when I need something light and undemanding that non-gamers can and are prepared to play. Of the party games that I own, I prefer Gambit-7 and Who Would Win? over Apples to Apples as there is often more of a challenge to playing either. So Apples to Apples is fun. It might not be the best party game available, but it is a venerable design and if you had to have one party game in collection that everyone could play, Apples to Apples would be a good choice.

Sunday, 19 June 2011

Saturday, 11 June 2011

Nazi Hunting. Back for tea!

You can count the number of RPGs from Scandinavia that have made it into the wider, English speaking market on one hand. There are many that have never been translated, and there are some that have been published in English, but have not yet been distributed outside of their home countries. An example of the latter is Operation: Fallen Reich, an RPG from Swedish publisher, Fallen Publishing. Subtitled “CAN EVIL BE STOPPED IN TIME FOR TEA?”, it is set in the shadow of World War II, with small teams of stalwart, if not entirely effective, British men and women challenging the evil behind the Nazis. It presents a very light and slightly pulpy fast playing rule set – with the harshest healing rules you can imagine, a nastier than nasty set of villains, and quite the most cleverly imaginative, yet clunky, means of character creation you can also think of.

Voted the Best Swedish RPG of 2009 by readers of Fenix Games Gazette, Operation: Fallen Reich comes in two parts, one of which is optional, but which you are probably going to want to get anyway. The first is the main rulebook, an attractive cloth bound hardback that inside evokes a pleasingly period style, echoing the publications of His Majesty’s Stationary Office of the time. The second is the Life Board, an almost board game-like device that is used to create characters. Character creation can be carried out without the Life Board, but the results are somewhat bland in comparison with what using the Life Board can inspire. The Life Board and how it works will be detailed below with the example character, so I will instead look at the main rulebook. It should be made clear that whilst the book is not unreadable, it shows in the details that English is not the authors’ first language. That said, I can only wish that I wrote Swedish as well as they do English. The other issue with the rule book is a linear style of order and writing that often means that elements and rules sometimes lack an initial clarity, but patience rewards the reader as the game turns out to be fairly simple and straightforward. One entertaining element is the book’s lavish use of examples that not only serve to show how Operation: Fallen Reich works, but also to deliver an entertaining story of British bumbling derring-do along the way.

The most notable aspect to the mechanics of Operation: Fallen Reich is that characters are not defined by the traditional attributes, skills, and abilities, but purely by skills alone. The skills listed do include what would traditionally be regarded as attributes and other factors – Strength, Endurance, Toughness, and so on. They can be increased just as with any other skill in the game, both during character creation and during play. Skills are rated between one and twenty, but it is possible for skills to be negative numbers – such as Reginald Uckley’s skill of Arson/Fire Fighting -8 below . The mechanics themselves are based around the twenty-sided die, the means of resolution being to roll and add a skill to the result to beat a set difficulty. An easy difficulty would be ten, a hard fifteen, very hard twenty, and an extremely hard twenty-five. A very easy difficulty would be five. A roll of one always fails and the skill checks to be made again. If this fails, the result becomes a critical failure or an “Oh Dear” result. Similarly, a roll of twenty always succeeds and gains the skill check another roll that is added to the current result. For every score of ten above the difficulty, a player gets a critical success or a “Jolly Good” result.

Combat is fast and deadly, with any damage inflicted greater than a character’s Pain Threshold forcing a Toughness check that if failed will leave the character stunned. Gun combat is designed to take account that it is not taking place on the firing range and that other people might be shooting back. Thus it is difficult. It is supported by a small selection of firearms, essentially the signature weapons of the period for the British and the Germans alike. Each weapon is nicely drawn with most supported with a little mechanical effect, such as the Mauser C96’s high recoil that might prevent a user from firing for a turn. Healing takes time though – if resting, blunt damage can be recovered at a rate of one point every fifteen minutes, whilst sharp damage – which includes bullets – is recovered at a rate of one point per twelve hours, and only if under medical care.

The rules in Operation: Fallen Reich are not comprehensive, for example, there are no chase rules. Yet the mechanics are simple enough that a GM should be able handle most situations. This does also mean that Operation: Fallen Reich is not really designed for use by novice GMs.

Character generation in Operation: Fallen Reich is either very simple or very complex. Or both. Or rather, it is simple, but involves lots of dice rolls, cards, a board, and a bit of time. It is best done through the use of the Life Board which is sold separately from the main rulebook as a boxed set that includes a large foldout board done in heavy card, one hundred Start Cards, two hundred Destiny cards, five character sheets, three six-sided Operation: Fallen Reich dice, and a Quick Rules Sheet that summarises the character creation process.

The first step involves drawing four Start Cards. Each has two sets of information, both of which provides information and Experience Points for the character. The top part gives personality traits, while the lower a starting career. A player selects one of the careers given on his four Start Cards and takes the personality traits from the other three to describe his character. So for example, the four Start Cards I drew for Reginald Uckley were Francophile-Cricket Player, Warmonger-Archaeologist, Reckless-Photographer, and Emotional-Prospector/Exploiter, and of these, I selected Cricketer as his occupation and his personality traits as being Reckless, Emotional, and Warmonger. This gives him the following number of Experience Points to be spent on the associated skills:

PHYSICAL SKILLS: Agility +3, Endurance +3, Speed +5, Strength +3
PERCEPTIVE SKILLS: Searching -3, Sixth Sense +3, Tactics +3
INTERACTIVE SKILLS: Charm +8, Etiquette +3
TEXT BASED SKILLS: Reading/Writing +3
LOGICAL SKILLS: Mathematics +3
MENTAL SKILLS: Courage +3, Reaction +1
AIMING SKILLS: Pistols +3, Rifles +3, Throwing +10

A character’s starting career will also determine his starting point on the Life Board. For example, Reginald starts on the square, “Sports as a Lifestyle.” From there, a character will roll a six-sided die and move around the board which consists of a series of sections connected by paths that provide further careers, events, and places, for example, Artist & Struggling, North America for a Visit, or Asylum or Insane by Yourself. Each space on the board is marked and usually provides one more Experience Point in a specific skill. Every time a player rolls a six on the die, he still moves, but he also draws a Destiny Card and applies its effects to his character. Like the Start Cards, each Destiny Card has two sets of information, one a more mundane set for when the character lands on a green square with the roll of a six, and a more exciting and dramatic set for when he lands on a red square – red squares usually provide more Experience Points and can even send a character to another part of the Life Board or change his Personality Traits. An example Destiny Card might give “Marriage as a Career Move” (Rank +3, Aura -1) in green text and “Being on Horseback” (Riding +3) in red. A player continues moving around the Life Board, gaining Experience Points and taking inspiration from results on the board and from his Destiny Cards for his character’s origins and history until he has drawn a total of sixteen Destiny Cards. The player then totals up the Experience Points for each skill gained and spends them on that skill, with any points left over put towards increasing that skill during play. These are marked in parentheses after the skill.

Over all, the process takes about an hour and the results are varied and interesting, if not occasionally, a little quirky. On the downside, finding some of the Starting Squares requires a lengthy hunt, and because the game’s combat rules are resolute and healing takes time, it is recommended that a player create a total of three characters. Which when you consider that this is three characters per player and that using the Life Board takes an hour… It is also by its very nature quite mechanical a process, but an engaging one at that. When telling another player about the Life Board, a friend wondered why it could not have been done as a book instead? Well, it could, but it would have been an all but impossible task. In the meantime, the Life Board is a terrific tool, one that could easily be used to create the background and skill biases of any character in any game between the Victorian and the Inter-War periods.

Anyway, back to our example. Although Reginald Uckley started out as a cricketer, a car accident in which he got badly burned meant that he had to give the sport up and he drifted into crime and con tricks before making a dash for the continent where he got mixed up in smuggling and revolutionary politics. Thinking of King and Country he returned and tried to join the intelligence services, but was turned down. While the powers that be slammed the door in his face, it was suggested that a man like himself might do well for himself and for his country in the Far East. For the past few years, Reggie has been in Shanghai, where he has fought bandits, gained a respect for the locals and their mysticism, got married, divorced, married again, came into an inheritance, and dabbled in politics. He has two children, which has strongly changed his outlook on life, which explains his different Personality Traits.

Reginald Uckley
Age: 36
Starting Career: Cricketer
Current Occupation: Dilettante
Personality Traits: Playful, Tea Drinker Emotional Problems: Pyrophobia
Rank: +4 Fame: 0 Wealth: 8 (£10,000, £22 to hand)
Running Speed: 20 Defence: 16 Pain Limit: 15 Maximum Damage: 75
PHYSICAL SKILLS: Agility 12 (1), Climbing 2, Endurance 12, Speed 10 (1), Stealth 2, Strength 10, Swimming 5
PERCEPTIVE SKILLS: Arson/Fire Fighting -8, Orientation 6, Searching 1, Shadowing 2, Sixth Sense 3, Tactics 3, Tracking 4
LANGUAGE & CULTURAL SKILLS: German 2, Mandarin 5
INTERACTIVE SKILLS: Acting Disguise 2, Animal Training 2, Attractiveness 4, Charm 13 (1), Etiquette 8, Instruct 2, Interrogation 5, Judge of Characters 6, Scare 2
TEXT BASED SKILLS: Archaeology 1, Art 4, Botany 1, Evaluate 2, Geography 1, History 1, Info Searching 1, Law 1, Myths 2, Politics 8, Reading/Writing 4, Religion 1, Zoology 1
LOGICAL SKILLS: Administration 1, Gambling 1, Economics 1, Mathematics 3
VEHICLE SKILLS: Boats 1, Riding 2, Skiing 3
MENTAL SKILLS: Aura 8, Courage 10, Reaction 10, Toughness 11
MELEE SKILLS: Blades 9, Boxing 3, Clubs 11 (1), Dodge 6, Wrestling 3
AIMING SKILLS: Pistols 4, Rifles 7, Throwing 11

As mentioned at the start of the review, the raison d'être behind Operation: Fallen Reich is fighting the evil behind the Nazis. This is evil is hellishly evil in nature, but not devilishly so in the Judeo-Christian sense, which could have been offensive to the religious sensibilities of some. It has plagued mankind for millennia, leading to the rise of both the Roman and Mongol Empires, and of late, the deaths of millions in the Great War enabled their return and growing influence in Germany. For part, these creatures, known as the Fallen, hide behind a human face and work to further the ends of the Nazi Party. They tend to work in subtle and subversive ways, but once their true nature is revealed, they can be very tough to stop.

In addition to being tough and difficult to stop, many Fallen have access to various rituals. For example, one type can bind soldiers to its will, a process that is made easier if the soldiers are marked with a blood group tattoo, which in part explains the fanaticism of the SS. Player characters can also have access to certain Rituals, which include Christian, Spiritualist, and Witchcraft Rituals as well as Dark Rituals, and also Gifts that include Clairvoyance, Remote Viewing, Mind Reading, Animal Whisperer, Fire Starter, and Medium. Access to both Rituals and Gifts is intended to be rare with player characters not expected to possess too deep an understanding of what exactly each can do. Neither Rituals nor Gifts are all that detailed, but this is in keeping with the style of the game, except for the Fallen, which are the most detailed aspect of the game.

Rounding out Operation: Fallen Reich is the scenario, “The Oldest Killer.” It is a short, perhaps two session action orientated affair set in an English village. Designed to introduce the player characters to the strangeness of the setting, it begins with the characters meeting at a pub and ends in a weird old people’s home. It is a decent little adventure, but it suffers from some dreadful puns and some of setting details are not quite right, or rather, not quite truly English. That said, the maps are excellent and it works well as a solid introduction to the setting.

At the beginning of the game, there is a disclaimer which explains that although the authors tried to make Operation: Fallen Reich as British as possible, they are only a pair of Swedes. The disclaimer is not unwarranted, because the RPG manages to both fail and succeed at presenting a very British game. It fails because outside of the details about the Fallen, the game has almost no background about Great Britain or the British Empire, and what there is – a price list – is actually given in the metric format rather than the traditional and period appropriate pounds, shillings, and pence. This leaves the GM and players alike to draw on sources such as old movies and clichés, but some of the attitudes of the time – the patriotism, the jingoism, the distrust of all things foreign, the can do spirit, and so on, come through in the extensive examples that run throughout the book and this is where Operation: Fallen Reich succeeds.

Unfortunately, this is not quite enough for anyone coming to this game who is not already British or who is at least not knowledgeable about the Britain of the 1930s or its clichés. Similarly, another issue left undeveloped is when exactly Operation: Fallen Reich is exactly set. The given time period is within the shadow of World War II, but is that before, during, or after the War? The in-game fiction varies, some of it reads as if it is set before the War, whilst the end fiction definitely comes at the end of the War. So the inference is that it is set during the War, but again, there is no background to support a game set during Second World War. To be fair, the game can be begun at any time during the late 1930s and then run into the outbreak of war.

Given what it is – a rip-roaring RPG of fighting the Nazis – Operation: Fallen Reich is a little too expensive for what you get, and that is before you consider purchasing the Life Board, which is more than the core rulebook. There is no issue with the light and easy mechanics, but by any standards, the background is too light and assumes a lot of knowledge upon the part of the GM and player alike. If both have that knowledge, then Operation: Fallen Reich will be highly entertaining to play, plus once a player has managed to create a character as imaginative and as detailed as is possible using the Life Board, he will want to play the character at the very least and so the game too.

Saturday, 4 June 2011

Is Cthulhu ISO 9001 Compliant?

Imagine if the end of the world was nigh and the only thing standing between the population of the United Kingdom and unspeakable demonic entities from dimensions beyond feasting upon its collective brains, was a top, top secret organisation leftover from World War II whose field operatives know how to combat these horrors using computational sorcery developed by Alan Turing run through iPhones, but which have to bring every mission in under budget, survive interdepartmental turf squabbles, and conduct regular paperclip audits. This is the set up for the “Laundry Files” – The Atrocity Archives, Jennifer Morgue, and most recently, The Fuller Memorandum – a series of novels by Charles Stross that combine Lovecraftian horror with classic espionage shot through with a heavy dose of pop culture geekery, especially computer based, and a wry sense of humour. Think Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy meets Yes, Minister and Dilbert, and then send them off to deal with the Mythos, and you have about the right tone. Those then are the novels, but Cubicle Seven Entertainment happens to have published a roleplaying game based on them, and the thing is, it is a bit odd.

For starters, The Laundry – A roleplaying game based on the “Laundry Files” novels by Charles Stross, is actually a roleplaying game within the setting of the novels themselves. There are notes in the game that have the main character from the novels – Bob Howard – being instructed to field test the RPG (on expenses) to determine how much accurate information it contains and whether it represents a threat to the national security of the United Kingdom. Next, H.P. Lovecraft both existed in the “Laundry Files” setting and also happened to write a series of short stories about an alien god he named Cthulhu as well as various other unholy deities and entities, which have not only entered pop culture, but also happen to be almost not quite right. So it is entirely possible that the classic roleplaying game from Chaosium, Inc. also happens to exist in the setting of the novels. Which when you consider the fact that (a), The Laundry uses the Basic Roleplay system that has the same common ancestor as the mechanics in Call of Cthulhu, but is slightly more complex; and that (b), The Laundry borrows extensively from Call of Cthulhu canon (Brotherhood of the Black Pharaoh, anyone?) and its source, then the authors of this game either know too much, or they are just having a metafictional joke or two at your expense.

Other than that, The Laundry is not actually all that odd and turns out to be a fairly straightforward RPG of Lovecraftian investigative horror that uses a venerable set of mechanics that Call of Cthulhu players will easily adapt to. There are significant differences between the two games though. The Basic Roleplay system mechanics are more detailed and character creation is more focused for example. Plus it is firmly set in the period of the here and now with the impending apocalypse “when the stars come right” that is CASE NIGHTMARE GREEN due in 2013. This is a bit of a sod if the GM wants to set his game in 2014, though the author does have a good stab at providing advice for the GM who wants to run his players through that event. In addition, some characters in the game do get to play with magic, or rather computational sorcery, usually run through their department approved smart phone after the character has passed and been signed off on the right training courses – starting with Introduction to Applied Occult Computing; and more importantly, it actually provides a reason as to why the characters would go face things squamous and otherwise. Namely, for Queen and Country (and Commonwealth and our EU partners), for the healthy pension (though if CASE NIGHTMARE GREEN comes true, the best it will be is unhealthy), for the excitement (because it beats sitting around in a cubicle all day knowing that you know too much and doing a make work role until your pension matures, though either way, you still have to be ISO 9001 compliant), and because you are here for the duration. After all, you either read a bad book, accidentally tried to summon something that nobody should, really did try to summon something that nobody should and have regretted it since, got seconded to the Laundry and have no idea what all this occult twaddle is, or you saw something that nobody should see. Either way, you signed the Official Secrets Act (Section III) in blood, and the only way in which you can talk about this is with your fellow Laundry civil servants – if they are cleared for the same cases that is – upon pain of ending up as a zombie in HR. Really. In the meantime, The Laundry does take account of the events of the third book. The Fuller Memorandum, so spoilers abound…

Character generation in The Laundry is a matter of rolling dice for characteristics and then choosing a series of skill packages. These account for a character’s Personality Type, Profession, and Assignment within the Laundry as well as the skills learned on the Field Training Course. They provide for a lot of skills, many of which have to be assigned a speciality, which means that they can be taken again and again. Whilst the process neatly defines a character’s background and role within the Laundry, what it does not allow for is any kind of personal interest skills as would be found during investigator creation during Call of Cthulhu as there is no room for customisation outside of the packages. So characters cannot begin the game being an excellent swimmer or an amateur painter.

Our sample character is private psychotherapist who was inducted into the Laundry after a patient exposed his occult practices during some therapy sessions. Doctor Garkovich’s move in to Field Duty after it was decided that after action monitoring was insufficient following a stress monitoring and counselling seminar.

NAME: Devon Garkovich
GENDER: Male AGE: 31
OCCUPATION: Doctor (Psychologist)
ASSIGNMENT: Medical & Psychological

STR: 08 DEX: 10 INT: 14 IDEA: 70%
CON: 11 CHA: 14 POW: 14 LUCK: 70%
SIZ: 11 SAN: 70 EDU: 17 KNOW: 85%


SKILLS: Bargain 10%, Bureaucracy 10%, Computer Use (Magic) 10%, Dodge 20%, Fine Manipulation 10%, First Aid 70%, Insight 60%, Knowledge (Accounting) 15%, Knowledge (Espionage) 05%, Knowledge (Law) 10%, Knowledge (Occult) 10%, Knowledge (Politics) 10%, Medicine (Internal Medicine) 45%, Medicine (Neurology) 15%, Medicine (Pathology) 15%, Persuade 45%, Psychotherapy 70%, Research 60%, Science (Pharmacy) 41%, Science (Biology) 11%, Science (Psychology) 51%, Sense 15%, Spot 40%
LANGUAGES: English 85%
COMBAT SKILLS: Fire Arm (Pistol) 25%

Of the skills, only Cthulhu Mythos and Sorcery cannot be improved through experience. Just as in Call of Cthulhu, the Cthulhu Mythos skill can only be increased by going insane or from researching dark tomes. Similarly, Sorcery, the practice of conducting summonings, and creating wards, bindings, and other enchantments, can only be gained through study and training.

Mechanically, The Laundry uses the Basic Roleplay system and differs only slightly from Call of Cthulhu. It is still a percentile system, a success being made whenever the player successfully rolls under the skill, which can be doubled for easy tasks, and halved for difficult ones. Skills can be over 100% and this allows for exceptional successes and a decreased chance of fumbling. Overall, the rules for combat and insanity are in keeping with Call of Cthulhu.

The setting of The Laundry is explored over the course of several chapters that cover everything from its history and labyrinthine organisation to the gear that its officers might be able to requisition (such as one of Erich Zann’s violin designs – unlikely, the trusty old Hand of Glory – more likely, and Personal Wards – Classes One or Two, very likely) and potential allies and adversaries at home and abroad. Particular attention is paid to budgets, requisitions, and training, with the characters being given an allowance for each mission which they can attempt to spend as they see fit (possibly helped along by their Bureaucracy and Status skills) and can best explain in after action reports. Assuming of course that the various departments that the characters report can agree as to whose departmental budget is funding the mission, complicated of course, by the fact that the characters usually report to several departments. That said, if the field agents over spend and fail to get permission for it afterwards, they will be in quite a bit of trouble with Financial Control or even the Auditors. Conversely, if they underspend, the characters can spend anything left over on weekend junkets or proper training courses, the latter leading to potential skill increases.

Sorcery receives similar treatment in what is The Laundry’s densest chapter, which is not helped by a lack of example castings. The concept behind magic in the game is that it requires nothing more than enough thaumic energy and a means of computation. In the past, all that was available was the human mind and either a large sacrifice or a large cult, and sometimes both. Some cultists today still prefer this method, but with the advent of computers, Alan Turing discovered that machines could do magic a whole lot faster and with the right wards, a whole lot safer too. It is the way that the Laundry works magic today, classifying computational sorcery into five grades of summonings, glamours, geases, gates, exorcisms, and bindings. This is a very functional, almost bureaucratic magic system, as befitting the source, completely without any flash, unless that is, something goes wrong. When this happens, the most likely result is an explosive backlash of thaumic energy, but at worst, one of the sorcerers might be possessed by something from beyond or even a gate might be opened to another dimension. Such events are more likely if the casters have resorted to ritual or mental sorcery rather than computational magic.

In comparison with Call of Cthulhu, there are fewer Mythos entities described in The Laundry. Of course those from the novels and stories are included, as are others, but anyone expecting a bulging bestiary will be disappointed. Not unsurprisingly, they are organised by classification; so for example, a Fire Vampire is a Level Two Entity, while Umr at’Tawil is a Level Four Entity. Level Five Entities are akin to gods and weak gods at that, so go un-described. Other threats are also detailed, mostly human in origin and this in addition to the discussion of CASE NIGHTMARE GREEN.

Interspersed throughout The Laundry are a series of in-game documents that nicely provide a sense of verisimilitude. They include an introductory letter to Capital Laundry Services – the Laundry’s public face and Security: Best Practice Guide, whilst others accompany the game details on the various non-human species that the Laundry has had dealings with, and has even signed treaties with. They delightfully bland, yet helpful, and make you wish that The Laundry had come as a boxed set so that they could have been provided separately.

Whilst the GM gets the bulk of the advice and the support, the player is not ignored and is given a whole chapter to himself entitled, “Expectations of Play.” Its advice is excellent, as is that for the referee, who gets to read “Expectations of Game Mastering.” This covers everything from different campaign types and style and tone to handling player input and random generating Laundry missions as to what to emphasis in the game, including the horror, the geekery, the technothriller, the occult, and espionage’s actual history. Write-ups are provided for the major characters from the novels along with new characters that can be used as player characters or NPCs. Three ready-to-play scenarios round out the book and can be used to introduce players to the setting and its various aspects.

Physically, The Laundry RPG is a decent looking if plain book. Its art work is decent, but sparse, and although it looks plain, the layout is used intelligently such that it is never unreadable. It needs an edit here or there, and it does feel as if some of the sections appear much later in the book than they should. For example, the Security: Best Practice Guide and the Expectations of Play feel as if they should have been placed further towards the front of the book. In addition, it would have been nice if there more examples, particularly in the sorcery and the character generation sections.

The Laundry RPG comes with just everything a GM needs to get a game going. Devotees of the “Laundry Files” will appreciate how close it feels to the novels and the advice that it gives to help the GM get close to that feel, though this is probably slightly too complex an RPG for anyone who has not played or run an RPG before. Its tone is also slightly different to any other horror RPGs, there being a deep vein of dark humour that runs through it, one not always easy to maintain alongside the horror and espionage elements. Similarly, it is very different to Call of Cthulhu. It is more constrained and its play more focused than the freewheeling style of Call of Cthulhu, primarily because the player characters are working for someone. The differences are not so much that a GM could not plunder from Call of Cthulhu and its supplements, but he needs to take care in what he imports into his Laundry game, lest it turn into a “monster of the week” campaign.

If you happen to be a fan of Charles Stross’ “Laundry Files” who games, then The Laundry is going to be near perfect for you. If you are a fan of Lovecraftian investigative horror, then The Laundry presents another approach to the genre, one that is more focused, much drier in feel, and with a very much drier wit. Lastly, this is the only RPG of Lovecraftian investigative horror that bothers to discuss a pension plan, so you know The Laundry makes sense.

Friday, 3 June 2011

Swords, Sorcery, & Cthulhu

In publishing The Legacy of Arrius Lurco, the first campaign for Cthulhu Invictus, Miskatonic River Press introduced us to the House of Lurco, one of the major investors in the Reds Chariot Racing team in Ancient Rome. More specifically, it introduced us to the mystery of what had happened to family patrician many years before in Crete and to Arrius Lurco’s strange behaviour now. Delving into this mystery would take the investigators would take them up and down Rome’s social strata, all the whilst being chased by an ancient cult; to Greece to consult with the greatest of Oracles; and lastly to Crete to confront the cause of Arrius Lurco’s legacy. Though the campaign was spurred onwards by contact with the House of Lurco, the family does not figure in the later chapters as the investigators are forced to find other allies. In completing The Legacy of Arrius Lurco, there remains the unanswered question what happens to the family who drew them into the dangers at the heart of the Mare Nostrum?

This is a question answered with “Mystery in Sardinia – The Epilogue to The Legacy of Arrius Lurco,” which like “Naufractus Or Shipwrecked – A Prequel to The Legacy of Arrius Lurco,” was made available as a bonus for pre-orders placed with the publisher for the campaign itself. The adventure takes place a more than a year after the events of the campaign, with the investigators finding that House Lurco has not forgotten their efforts despite not actively supporting them. Invited to the marriage of Appius Arrius Melito, the brother who sought their help at the start of The Legacy of Arrius Lurco, the investigators are asked to help with another problem. As part of his young wife’s dowry, Melito received the gift of a plantation on the island of Sardinia. He and his wife plan to settle there, but the team he sent to survey the site has not returned, perhaps having vanished at the hands of the locals who refuse to work the land. So Melito asks the investigators to lead a second survey whilst also determining what happened to the first team.

Just as with “Nautfractus” and the campaign itself, “Mystery in Sardinia” is not an investigative scenario in Call of Cthulhu’s traditional sense. It lacks the typical paper trail, instead shifting its focus to interpersonal, exploratory, and combative play. In these “Mystery in Sardinia” is actually a very traditional scenario in a roleplaying sense. The location of the plantation is relatively isolated; it is surrounded by wary locals who know more than they are prepared to speak of; and its secrets are born of are magical doings. This makes it sound almost like the archetypal Dungeons & Dragons adventure, but then Cthulhu Invictus is flexible enough to support the “Swords & Sandals” genre, which The Legacy of Arrius Lurco also happens to feature. Plus if “Mystery in Sardinia” is a Dungeons & Dragons-style adventure, it is a much harder one in that the investigators, rather than adventurers, lack magic and magical weaponry. This in a sense is a pity, because in order to defeat the danger at the heart of the plantation, the investigators are going to need magical weaponry. The likelihood is that they lack such items in their arsenal, but fortunately, the scenario goes out of its way to provide some. Two options are presented as means of acquiring enchanted arms, both of which require a degree of negotiation and recompense.

Another difference with “Mystery in Sardinia” when compared to other scenarios for Cthulhu Invictus is that it does not make use of Greco-Roman myth. It owes more to the work of Ray Harryhausen and Dungeons & Dragons than anything else.

As with “Naufractus Or Shipwrecked – A Prequel to The Legacy of Arrius Lurco,” this 1.57 Mb, eleven-page PDF, is well laid out with a good map. It does lack illustrations, but for a free scenario given out for supporting the campaign’s release, this not a problem.

There is a pleasing reward to be had by the investigators if they successfully complete both tasks given to them by Arrius Melito, that in addition to the usual Sanity gains. Yet, the surprise is that “Mystery in Sardinia” is not just a sequel to The Legacy of Arrius Lurco, but a possible bridging scenario to further adventures. It hints at one more to come, though when that will be is a good question given the limited number of books that Miskatonic River Press is able to publish. In the meantime, we can only implore Oscar Rios to revisit Ancient Rome once again.

Whilst “Mystery in Sardinia – The Epilogue to The Legacy of Arrius Lurco” could be played as standalone scenario, to do so would mean that the investigators would miss much of its back story and an opportunity for everyone to enjoy a happy occasion. It also marks a change of pace after The Legacy of Arrius Lurco, one that is not as morally challenging as parts of the campaign, but is rather more straightforward and more physical than most scenarios.