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

Friday, 30 November 2012

Kiss Kiss Fang Fang

Imagine if you were a former spy or intelligence officer or intelligence analyst, and you discovered a fundamental truth about the world. A truth that revealed just who was in charge of the world and might just have been in charge of the world for centuries or more… Not just mere humans of the New World Order or the Prieuré de Sion, but vampires! What if these vampires were really in charge of your former agency? Or the government? Or an international bank? Or all three? What would you do? This is the set up for Night’s Black Agents, the latest RPG to be written by Ken Hite using the GUMSHOE System, an RPG that the author pitches as “The Bourne Identity meets Dracula” or a “Vampire Spy Thriller.”

Published by Pelgrane Press, Night’s Black Agents, brings together the genres of espionage and horror in the post-Cold War period of the here and now, not in a singular blend, but as an assortment of ingredients from which the Game Master or Director, creates two dishes, tempering or sharpening them with certain flavours before intentionally colliding the two together. In other words, Night’s Black Agents is essentially a pair of toolkits, one to create the desired type of espionage, the other the desired type of vampire, backed up with the means to run the two against each other. The default setting is the “vampire spy thriller,” one of horror and shadows combined with bursts of action interspersed with the methodical processes of the espionage story. The toolkit allows the GM to model his campaign so that he can emphasise the psychological impact of being a spy, such as in Alias or Callan; the gritty, almost mundane feel of espionage as in Rubicon or The Sandbaggers; the genre’s “wilderness of mirrors” world of shifting allegiances and hidden agendas as exemplified by the best of John Le Carré’s fiction; and the high stakes patriotism of the novels of both Tom Clancy and Ian Fleming. Each of these models is a Mode, respectively Burn, Dust, Mirror, and (High) Stakes Mode, and there are indicators throughout the pages of Night’s Black Agents that point out where one rule works for one Mode and not for another.

So for example, in a Mirror Mode game, there is the possibility that one Contact per session will be flipped and work for the other side; players can choose to keep their agents’ Drives secret from each other; the Director can implement the mechanics for Trust between the player character agents; and an agent’s funding and equipment is likely to come from clandestine sources. Whereas, for a game in the Dust Mode, the players have fewer General Abilities (these being the more physical aspects and skills of an agent); no Military Occupational Speciality or MOS; cannot miraculously find high-resolution images within blurry video or pictures when using the Data Recovery Interpersonal Skill; when falling, it is not possible for a player to use either his Athletics or Hand-to-Hand ratings (if they are high enough) to ease a fall by bouncing between walls; and of course, gun fights can be lethal. These are not the only options to help a Director run a Night’s Black Agents campaign in either the Mirror or Dust Modes, but for the most part, the options and suggestions given throughout the book are all about “dialling down” the rules from its default of the “vampire spy thriller.”

Character creation adheres to the GUMSHOE System rules, with players assigning two pools of points to two types of Abilities. The smaller number of points is assigned to an agent’s Investigative Abilities, which are used to gather clues; the larger number to his General Abilities, which represent his physical skills. Apart from in Dust Mode, which does not use them, what an agent prior did to going solo or private, is represented by his MOS, his area of expertise. Several are listed, from Analyst and Asset Handler to Wheel Artist and Wire Rat. Primarily each MOS lists the minimum Investigative and General Abilities required to have carried it out as a job, but it also gives the possible positions with various agencies. So for example, an agent with the “Bang-and-Burner” MOS could have been an IRA bomb builder or a Special Branch bomb disposal expert whereas an agent with the Wheel Artist MOS could have been a Union Corse car thief, a DGSE “Action Division” driver, a Deutsche Bank-provided chauffer, and so on.  Besides assigning points to his character’s Abilities and choosing his MOS, a player needs to define more of his character’s Background, his Sources of Stability (these help keep an agent grounded when he is under stress or threatened, but can be undermined or subverted), and how he fits into the team that the player agents will form.

The sample player character agent is an ex-Stasi surveillance officer, an expert watcher turned investigator who has been unable to quite find a place in the world following the collapse of the Iron Curtain and the unification of Germany. Initially he worked as a contractor for governments in the old Eastern Bloc and the Caribbean, and then for corporations in the old Eastern Bloc, but he prefers to work for the government agencies rather than corporations. Conversely, he prefers to work for corporations in the West as their motives are purer. He is a grey haired bespectacled man who has the appearance of a bureaucrat who is perhaps a little worn down. (The agent has been designed for a Mirror Mode game with twenty-two points to be assigned to his Investigative Abilities for a four-player agent team.) 

Anton Wendell
Age: 53
Nationality: German
Agency: Ministry for State Security (Ministerium für Staatssicherheit, MfS); Stasi
MOS: Investigator/Watcher
Sources of Stability: Wife’s confirmation medal (Symbol); his mentor, Hans Urner (Solace); the island of Rügen (Safety)
Drive: Nowhere else to go. 

Investigative Abilities
Academic: Architecture 1, Art History 1, Human Terrain 1, Languages 2, Law 1
Interpersonal: Bullshit Detector 1, Bureaucracy 1, Cop Talk 1, Flattery 1, Interrogation 1, Negotiation 1, Streetwise 1, Tradecraft 2
Technical: Electronic Surveillance 3, Notice 3, Photography 2, Urban Survival 1
General Abilities 
Athletics 3, Cover 10, Digital Intrusion 3, Disguise 4, Driving 4, Hand-to-Hand 6, Health 8, Infiltration 8, Network 15, Piloting 1, Sense Trouble 8, Shooting 2, Shrink 2, Stability 8, Surveillance 12
Languages: German (native); English, Russian, lip reading, ASL, Spanish

Mechanically, Night’s Black Agents uses the GUMSHOE System and therefore deviates little from the previous titles that Pelgrane Press has published – Trail of Cthulhu, Esoterrorists, Fear Itself, and so on. This has the ratings in Investigative Abilities being spent to gain extra clues during the course of an adventure or investigation – if an agent has a rating in any one Investigative Ability, then he can always gain the base clues related to that Ability, whereas the ratings from General Abilities are spent to modify dice rolls. The focus of the rules is of course on espionage and so cover chases, combat, the dangers of the espionage world (plus the dangers of an espionage world in which there are vampires), heat (that is, gaining too much attention), and spytech. Night’s Black Agents being a “Vampire Spy Thriller,” it turns up the chase and combat mechanics with the Thriller Chase and Thriller Combat rules, the former being accompanied lists of locations and potential obstacles to overcome and make the player agents look cool, whilst the latter cover just about every form of cinematic gun-fu short of the modern Wuxia genre.

One new aspect of the GUMSHOE System in Night’s Black Agents is specifically aimed at the Thriller aspect of the game – “Cherries.” If an agent has a General Ability with a rating of eight or more, he is regarded as being skilled enough to gain a special benefit. In the case of Thriller Combat, it allows an agent to conduct extra attacks, sniping attacks, purchase Special Weapons Training, and so on. Every General Ability comes with a Cherry, the benefits varying from an extra skill rating, such as the bonus from Digital Intrusion granting a point in the Cryptography Investigative Ability, to simple cool things that an agent can do, such as the “Open Sesame” aspect of the Infiltration Ability that enables an agent to bypass simple locks. Perhaps one of the coolest Cherries is the “Technothriller Monologue” for the Shooting Ability, which grants an agent a refresh to his Shooting Ability if he can narrate how he uses his guns in true Clancy-esque style. Rounding the espionage-themed first half of Night’s Black Agents is a pair of sections, one on advice for agents and the other on advice for players, covering tactical skill use and essentially how to play the game. Whilst both sections are excellent, the second shorter section is pleasingly upfront in suggesting how to play in order to get the most out of the game.

The remaining half of Night’s Black Agents is for the Director’s eyes only, presenting a set of toolkits with which to build the game’s inhuman threats, their conspiracies, their territories, and the stories that will be told through play. The first of the toolkits is all about building the required type of vampire. Instead of campaign Modes, the Director builds his vampires around one of four Parameters – Alien, Damned, Mutant, or Supernatural. Beginning with their origins and means of spreading, the Director decides everything about his vampires – their numbers, their source of food, the cure to their vampirism, their powers, and their weaknesses. If a Director does not want to design a vampire for his campaign, he can choose any one of the off-the-shelf designs included, such as the “Linea Dracula Vampire,” descended from Vlad the Impaler, or the non-Euclidean silicon-based aliens that have imprinted on human DNA. Besides these, the author draws from various real world mythologies to extend the book’s vampiric menagerie, from the Adzeh, the insect-demon of Ghana to the humble zombie. Suggestions are given so that the Director can customise these threats so that they can be reused or tweaked enough to be unrecognisable to the players. Of course, just as there is nothing to stop a Director from creating his own original vampire threat, there is nothing to stop a Director from adapting a vampire from another source, whether that is from a film (the obvious joke here being, “No sparkles”), a book, or another RPG.

The focus of play in Night’s Black Agents is bringing down the conspiracy that the vampires have constructed around themselves. To help the Director construct this conspiracy, he builds into a pyramid structure called a “Conspyramid,” its base containing the outer edges of the conspiracy with the very heart of it – the vampire leaders of the conspiracy – sitting atop both the structure and the organisation. The resulting “Conspyramid” contains a number of nodes, each a part of the conspiracy and serving as a certain function within it, with the bulk of the nodes at its base or outer limits. Between the nodes the Director builds connections and lays clues, in the process constructing a story map for the campaign. As a structure, this story map remains open enough that the Director can improvise and revise the nodes and their connections as the player agents begin to dismantle the “Conspyramid” and make deductions of their own. (The Director also has a corresponding “Vampyramid,” which details and tracks the possible response of the conspiracy against the agents’ actions.)

Night’s Black Agents’ focus on constructing and bringing down the conspiracy needs a stage and it provides a means to create this with a relative minimum amount of preparation. The game being one of post-Cold War espionage, naturally this setting is Europe and spies invariably having natural home in the urban environment, the setting is actually the cities of Europe. The means to create what will become the backdrop for the Director’s campaign can be as complex or as simple as the Director wants, but the author suggests a quick and dirty method involving a little research combined with determining the aims and activities of the conspiracy within the city before coming up with three hooks to pull the player agents in. The alternative “Low and Slow” method results in a more detailed city better suited to extended play and exploration. Sample cities created by both means are included, and like the sample “Vampyramid,” can easily be used as part of a campaign.

Besides a top secret appendix full of useful forms, the Director receives a scenario with which to kick off a campaign and some excellent advice. The scenario, “(S)entries,” can also be run as part of an on-going campaign, but either way, it requires some preparation upon the Director’s part. The advice for the Director is much more straightforward and concise, helpfully guiding him through the possibilities and perils of running a Night’s Black Agents campaign – the potential for an investigation to become a railroad, be prepared for the players to really use the Preparedness General Ability a lot, constructing the typical Thriller spine for an operation, letting the players contribute to keeping the campaign “cool,” and so on.

Physically, Night’s Black Agents is a well-designed book. The contents are not only well organised, but also colour-coded so as give each section its own identity. Done in full colour throughout, the artwork is never less than atmospheric. The writing is taut and never less than informed with the author’s appreciation of both genres constantly on show. A nice touch is that he even goes so far as to provide his own DVD-style commentary on various aspects of the game and the genres it is emulating and combining, allowing his voice to come to the fore.

There is so much in Night’s Black Agents that can be pulled out and used elsewhere. The Conspyramid structure can be used in any RPG with a conspiracy game, both to map out its conspiracy and thus its story structure; its city preparation guidelines to create interesting locales for any urban set RPG; and of course, the espionage rules with almost any GUMSHOE System RPG. Indeed, Night’s Black Agents already suggests how the latter can be done – presenting alternative ways of using its material. Most obviously as a straight espionage RPG sans the horror, but in gaming terms even more obviously by combining it with the source material from Trail of Cthulhu to do something along the lines of Charles Stross’ Laundry Files novels. Of course, the Laundry Files RPG already does this, but this suggestion continues to use the GUMSHOE System mechanics. The other suggestion pushes Night’s Black Agents in the direction of Brian Lumley’s Necrosope novels. Similarly, the GUMSHOE System has horror source material aplenty if the Director wants his agents to come up against foes other than vampires.

Of course, there is nothing to stop a Director from taking the more off-the-shelf elements of Night’s Black Agents – stick with the default “Vampire Spy Thriller” setting and its high octane rules, pick one of the sample vampires as his campaign’s antagonists, use the sample cities as his campaign backdrop, and start play using the included scenario. He essentially everything necessary to play, and that would be just fine. Yet in doing so, the Director would be ignoring the one thing that would really make Night’s Black Agents his game, and that is its toolkit aspect and the ability to tinker with just about every element of the game, the rules, the setting, and the campaign. Above all, this toolkit aspect means that not only is no Director’s game is going to be the same as that of any other Director, it also means that every Director has the capacity to make Night’s Black Agents the game that both he and his players want…

As good as the toolkits that Night’s Black Agents provides are, the rules and advice deliver on the game and genre that they promise. Whether it is blood pumping action or heart stopping shocks, Night’s Black Agents is probably best shaken, and definitely has the “Vampire Spy Thriller” staked.

Saturday, 24 November 2012

Dungeons & Dragons Minus?

Dungeon! is almost as old as Dungeons & Dragons, and with the publication of Dungeon! Fantasy Board Game by Wizards of the Coast in 2012, it has as many editions as Dungeons & Dragons. Originally published in 1975, it would be reprinted in 1981, redesigned and republished in 1989 as The New Dungeon!, and then again in 1992 as The Classic Dungeon! Now it is back twenty years since the last version, and whilst its arrival on the shelves at your local friendly games store might appear odd, it actually continues two trends with Wizards of the Coast. The first is the wave of nostalgia products that Wizards of the Coast is releasing in addition to continuing support for Dungeons & Dragons, Fourth Edition, which has seen it release new versions of the core rules for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, First Edition and Dungeons & Dragons, Third Edition, and will see it release new versions of the core rules for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, Second Edition as well as hardback collections of Against the Slave Lords: "A" Series Classic Adventure Compilation and Dungeons of Dread: "S" Series Classic Adventure Compilation. The question of just how much nostalgia the hobby can take is a question for another day… The second trend is the move into boardgames, begun with Castle Ravenloft and evolving into the well-received Lords of Waterdeep. The publication of Dungeon! combines the two, but is it a winning combination?

Designed for play by between two and eight players, aged eight and up, Dungeon! has heroes delving deep into a dungeon where they will encounter monsters and traps, and with more than a bit of luck will return with a trove or two of treasure. The amount of treasure needed to win varies according to the hero that a player selects at game start. Halfing Rogues and Dwarf Clerics just need to bring back 10,000 gp, whilst Human Fighters need to bring back 20,000 gp and Elf Wizards a total of 30,000 gp. Play is relatively simple and straightforward and involves mostly dice rolls and plenty of luck.

The game consists of the rulebook, the game board, eight Hero standees, one hundred-and sixty-five cards (sixty-one Monster cards, eighty Treasure cards, and twenty-four Spell cards), one hundred-and thirty-nine tokens (twelve Number tokens, eleven Lose a Turn tokens, Cleared tokens, five Magic Sword tokens), and two six-sided dice. The twenty by twenty-seven inch board shows the corridors, rooms, and chambers that radiate out from the central Great Hall, spread out over six colour-coded levels, from first down to sixth level. The eight Hero standees are colour coded according to Class and are little card board standees rather than sturdy plastic. The Monster and the Treasure cards are divided according to their Level, with tougher monsters and better treasure to be found on the lower level. The Spell cards – Fireball, Lightning, and Teleport spells – can only be used by Wizard heroes. The Number tokens are used to indicate the location of Monsters on the board who have not been yet defeated; the Cleared tokens are used to indicate rooms and chambers that have been wholly cleared of Monsters; and the Magic Sword tokens to indicate possession of weapons that give bonuses in combat. The rulebook folds out to five, double-sided pages. It is easy to read and like the rest of the game is done in full colour.

 The game starts with each player picking a Hero. The primary influence on that choice is the objective for each class; that is how much he has to bring back. The secondary influence on that choice is what the class can do. The Rogue is better at opening Secret Doors, the Fighter is an excellent combatant, and the Wizard can cast spells. The Wizard begins with a handful of spells – Fireball and Lightning spells that he can fling at the Monsters, and Teleport spells to move between chambers across the board. Which leaves the Cleric class, which is a kind of balanced class in that it is a slightly better combatant that needs to garner a lower amount of treasure than the Fighter and Wizard classes. Without any kind of special ability, the Cleric is to be honest, bland. It has no healing ability; it has no ability to deal with the undead. For a game that carries the Dungeons & Dragons branding with its iconic character types, this is disappointing omission.

Once this is decided, play begins. Each turn a player conducts up to four steps in order – Move, Encounter, Combat, and Loot. To move, a Hero can be moved up to five spaces, through any doors or secret doors (if he can open them), but must stop as soon as he enters a room or a chamber that still contains a Monster or has not been cleared yet. An Encounter then ensues that sees the Hero fight the Monster. Monsters are represented by Monster cards that divided according to the level where it is encountered on the board. So level one Monsters are encountered only on level one, and so on, with Monster’s treasure being drawn from the corresponding Treasure deck. Each Monster card comes with its name and illustration, plus a set of numbers that are the target numbers that a player must roll against and equal or exceed if his Hero is to beat the Monster in combat. There are six numbers, one each for the Cleric, Fighter, Rogue, and Wizard classes, plus one each for the Wizard’s Fireball and Lightning Bolt spells. For example, the numbers to beat on the level one Dire Rat are five for the Rogue, four for the Cleric, three for the Fighter, six for the Wizard, and two and seven respectively for the Wizard’s Fireball and Lightning Bolt spells. These targets get higher the lower the level a Hero is adventuring on. There are also some Monsters that a particular class cannot attack, such as a Rogue’s inability to attack a Black Pudding.

If a Hero defeats a Monster in room, he gets to draw a Treasure equal to the level he is on. A Cleared Token is then placed in the room. A Hero does not get to draw a Treasure card for defeating a Monster in a chamber, but he does get to place a Cleared Token. A room is cleared and no more Monsters will be encountered there once a single Cleared Token is placed there, whilst it takes three Cleared Tokens to completely empty a chamber of its Monsters.

Should a Hero fail to defeat a Monster, then the Monster strikes back. This simply involves rolling on the given table (which is pleasingly reprinted on the edge of the board) and checking the results. These start with a simple miss and rise through forcing a Hero to drop a Treasure card to forcing a Hero back to the start in the Great Hall with half of his Treasure cards to his being killed and being forced to start again with a new Hero, the old Hero’s Treasure cards left for others to pick up where he died!

Some Monsters are not creatures, but Traps! Cage Traps force a Hero to lose a turn, whilst Slide Traps send a Hero down to a lower level. Some Treasures possess a use beyond mere money value. Magic Swords give a bonus to attack, while the Secret Door card allows a Hero to move through any secret door without the need to search for them, whilst the ESP Medallion and Crystal Ball Treasure cards let a Hero detect the type of Monster to be found in the room ahead. 
Once a Hero has acquired the necessary value of Treasure cards needed to win the game, he only has to be the first to get back to the Great Hall with that Treasure to win the game.

Essentially that is Dungeon! Whilst an appendix provides some extra rules to allow for solo play, Dungeon! is not a game of any great depth. Despite the redesign of the game’s look to something more in line with the current Dungeons & Dragons trade dress– the board is very nicely done – Dungeon! is several things and not several others. It is an older game and it shows in the design; it is a classic piece of Ameritrash, in that it has a highly developed theme combined with a high level of luck; and it is a game for younger players over older gamers for two reasons. First, because it relies on luck rather than making choices and second, because there is no player interaction. In fact, there is almost no significant decision making involved beyond selecting a player’s Hero at game start, whilst it actually goes so far as to enforce the latter by recommending that the Hero classes explore particular levels rather than dive for level six straight off.

What Dungeon! is not, is a good example of Ameritrash because it does not sufficiently individualise the Hero abilities. Nor is it a good introduction to Dungeons & Dragons because it does not individualise the Hero abilities enough. In many ways the Castle Ravenloft board game is the better introduction to the game for that, even if arguably, it is an introduction to the wrong Dungeons & Dragons. Above all, Dungeon! is not really a dungeon crawl at all. There is no strategy involved, or indeed decision making, co-operation, planning, or any of the type of play that goes into playing a “dungeon crawl” which is what such games, whether board games or RPGs demand. If not a dungeon crawl then, what is Dungeon!?

Dungeon! Fantasy Board Game is a race game with a dungeon theme.

As much as that seems like a conclusion, there are a number of issues that need to be addressed with regard to Dungeon! First it is really a children’s game, the clue being given in its suggested starting age of eight and over, although Wizards of the Coast could have better advertised it as such rather than simply making it part of the Dungeons & Dragons family of games. Second, its production values are perhaps a bit too variable in quality, the Hero pieces and all of the cards are a bit too flimsy, whilst the board itself is nicely done. Third, it has potential, if not for a redesign, then for expansions in terms of rules and play. Besides fixing the Cleric class, it could have rules for player versus player combat; for ways to improve a Hero beyond the random drawing of Treasure cards; for team play; and so on. Fourth, the game is very reasonably priced.

Playing Dungeon! need not be unenjoyable despite its lack of depth. Further, despite its reasonable cost, how much satisfaction it will offer to the gamer who is buying it out of a sense of nostalgia is debatable.  So probably not quite as fun as they might remember, but as a race game with a dungeon theme, Dungeon! Fantasy Board Game is really one for the kids (though older players might like the diversion it offers too).

Saturday, 17 November 2012

Sign For This Please...

As its title suggests, Laundry Files: Agent’s Handbook, the first supplement to be published for the Laundry Files, Cubicle Seven Entertainment’s RPG of esoteric espionage based on the Laundry Files series of novels by Charles Stross, is not just for the GM, but for his players too. As what is essentially a companion volume to the core rule book, it also contains plenty of information that a player will find useful. Within its pages can be found discussions of subjects as mundane as bureaucracy, car chases, and chases, and as outré as Deep Hybrids and Gorgons, along with advice on running Laundry Files campaigns outside of the good offices of Capital Laundry Services and also within, but during other time frames. Like any good companion for an RPG, the Agent’s Handbook brings together a diverse range of articles, in this case all with either a bureaucracy, espionage, or horror theme; or a combination of all three. It begins in purely espionage territory with solid introduction to the arts of Tradecraft and Fieldcraft. It covers everything from sources of information, running agents, and codes to tailing, surveillance, and electronic surveillance. Whilst all of the information presented here could easily be found elsewhere, having it in one place is useful and it does provide enough detail for the Games Master without the need for further research. Of course, this being a companion for an outré espionage RPG, the occult aspects of both arts are also discussed, including occult stenography (hidden writing) and occult tailing. This switching back and forth between the ordinary and the outré continues with the next two chapters, “Bell, Book, and Candle” and “Firearms.” These two chapters come chock full of toys in a manner that is almost as much fun as the old Q Manual for the James Bond 007 RPG, which is somehow fitting that all of the Laundry’s technical knowhow is provided by Q Division. Although the first chapter covers items as ordinary as forensic kits and night vision goggles, it also details devices seen in the novels, such as Display Glasses and the OCCULUS wagon. Rules are also provided for vehicles and chases; for designated premises – essentially rules for creating Laundry agents’ homes; and for handling experimental devices, the type of contraption that the players get to have fun with before its goes “fffizzzt” and the Games Master gets to have fun with all of the side effects. Rounding out the chapter is a couple of sample safehouses created using the given guidelines.

For the most part, the handguns, submachine guns, rifles, and shotguns described in the Agent’s Handbook are all ordinary enough, for the most part intended to arm the opposition rather than the player characters. This expands upon the armoury included in the core rules and helps add verisimilitude to what is both an espionage game and a modern set game. The chapter does not wholly ignore the outré, adding a selection of occult shotgun shells to the specialised ammunition already detailed.

Of course, the player character agents are going to want to get to play with the new toys presented in the previous chapters and “Black Budget, Red Tape” discusses how this is done. Its focus is on the use of the Bureaucracy and Status skills, both of which are necessary if the player character agents are to navigate the sometimes labyrinthine organisation chart that makes up the Laundry’s administration. The need for this can be both skills it to manipulate the budget for its current mission, to search the Laundry’s records, to requisition items from Q Division, or in effect to even besmirch or befuddle enemies and rivals within the Laundry. The Games Master can involve the player characters in an audit, performance reviews, informal manager meetings, and so on. All of this should been done sparingly, but just as it plays a role in the novels, it should play role in the Game Master’s campaign.

If the Laundry has to be ISO 9001 compliant, then so does its agents and thus, so do the player characters. This means not only the filling out of forms and reports, but also training courses, and as part of the civil service of the United Kingdom, the Laundry offers lots of courses, from the mundane Achieving More with Less and Managing Change to the unconventional Exorcism 101 and Briefing the Uninitiated: Rapid Esoteric Induction Workshop. Most obviously courses are a means by which a player character can be improved, but they also work as roleplaying hooks, rewards, and sometimes punishments. There are courses here to suit all aptitudes and ambitions.

Player characters fall under the spotlight with a set of ready-to-play, bar customisation, investigator templates; new professions, including one for an Assassin; and two sets of new rules for character generation. The first of these sets allows a player to create his character in five year blocks, enabling the creation of an agent with a broader skill base, whilst the second set provides a means to veteran Laundry agents. All of these options are joined by perhaps the most outré concept in the supplement – outré that this for the Laundry Files RPG as opposed to any other RPG. This is the idea that the players can take the role of non- or near-humans. This includes Deep One Hybrids, Ghosts, Gorgons, Parallel Reality Refugees, and Residual Human Entities (or zombies), the latter being the eventual status for Laundry agents killed in the Line of Duty whose corpses are not too heavily damaged. Although such creatures are encountered in the fiction, most notably Ramona Random of the novel The Jennifer Morgue, the inclusion of these non- or near-humans as a player option feels at odds with the fiction – more so during character creation, rather than something to transition into, as with the Ghosts and Residual Human Entities. Perhaps the least radical of the near-humans given is Parallel Reality Refugee, but for the most part the inclusion of these “races” works better as a means for the Games Master to create NPCs.

Lastly, the Agent’s Handbook explores campaign concepts within the universe of the Laundry Files, both away from the offices of Capital Laundry Services and inside them, but in different time periods. Campaigns away from the Laundry take the Laundry Files more into traditional Call of Cthulhu territory, though the authorities – or at least some of the authorities – are possibly aware of the Mythos, and in the case of the Laundry, are if not monitoring the investigators’ activities, then watching for something that will trigger their intervention. Most notably, the supplement discusses the possibility of playing cultists and thus allowing the players to take the role of the winners! (After all, the Stars will come Right for someone if not something!). This is of course a daunting prospect as sorcery and thus Mythos knowledge is difficult to acquire and they face the possibility of ending up as sacrifices as much as they face being arrested and incarcerated, if not inducted into the Laundry. Also discussed are the possibilities of playing a campaign based around another agency, such as the USA’s much feared Black Chamber (though this is covered in more detail in the supplement, God GAME Black). Equally as interesting is the possibility of running a historical game of the Laundry Files, perhaps during the 1930s and World War II, during the Cold War, and so on. The first of these of course, lends itself to a crossover with Modiphius Press’ Achtung! Cthulhu line, but to be honest, as good as any of these ideas are, and there is no denying the potential in any one of them, they do all suffer from brevity. They could all do with much more information being devoted to them, indeed, the authors of the Agent’s Handbook could take the contents of the sections to running alternate campaigns and turn it into a whole book. There are campaign ideas here that are worth chapters themselves rather than little more than a mere page each…

Physically, the Agent’s Handbook is well written and tidily presented with the occasional piece of good art. It is somewhat drily written, though the geeky wit of Stross’ novels is allowed to shine through in the footnotes. A nice addition comes in the “form” of “Official Forms” that if used by the Games Master will add verisimilitude to his game.

Laundry Files: Agent’s Handbook continues the high standards for the game line’s supplements set by Black Bag Jobs. Where that anthology provided a sextet of excellent scenarios, the Agent’s Handbook provides exactly what it should, and that is, supplementary useful. All of it is useful, all of it is well written (though in places there could be more of it), and all of it will only add depth and detail to a Laundry Files game.

Kitten Killing Kuriousity

You have a kitten. You leave the room. The kitten follows you because you are not in the same room. You come back into the room and close the door behind you. The kitten miaows because you shut it out and not because it was kurious. You open a kupboard. The kitten climbs in because it can. You shut the kupboard. The kitten miaows to be let out because you shut it in the kupboard and not because it was kurious. You take a bath. The kitten jumps up on the side of the bath and almost falls in. The kitten looks at you because it is your fault and not because it was kurious.

As the saying goes, “Kuriousity Killed the Kitten.”

The Kitten Killing Kuriousity is the subject of the possibly tastelessly titled kard game, Kittens in a Blender. Published by Red Shift Games, it is a light, silly, simple kard game designed for two to four players aged eight and over. Both the title and the theme of the kard game are both its selling point and its downfall. After all, would you play a kard game in which you try to send your rivals’ kittens to the blender whilst trying to save your own from the whirring blades that can only give you a fur-fang feline smoothie. The problem is the kuriousity of kittens – they will klamber onto anything and that includes the kitchen work surfaces where there are innumerable dangerous appliances, one of them a lidless blender into which the kurious kittens will inevitably klimb. All that it takes is one kurious kitten to lay a fluffy paw upon the switch and MIAO-whirr!-SCRUNCH!!

Which sounds like a hideously tasteless theme for a kard game.

Then again, this is just a kard game and Kittens in a Blender is a great title.

The game consists of one-hundred-and-ten full-kolour kards, two large full-kolour kards, the rules sheet and both the lid and tray of the box that Kittens in a Blender comes in. One of the large kards is The Blender and is placed in the lid of the game box, whilst the other large kard is The Box, which is placed in the tray that the game came in. The rest of the kards konsist of four sets of Kitten kards, each set a different kolour. Each set konsists of sixteen kitten kards and each kitten is given a name, and looks ever so, ever so kute. The remaining kards konsist of the following: 
  • “Kitties on the Move,” which allow a player to move between one and three kittens.
  • “Blend,” which turns The Blender on, blending all kittens in The Blender, but saving all kittens in The Box and sending all kittens on The Kounter to The Blender (though not blending them… yet!).
  • “Blend/Pulse” works like “Blend,” but can also be used to stop another player using a “Blend” card.
  • “Dog’s in the Kitchen” forces players to swap hands.
  • “Kittens in the Blender” moves all kittens in The Box and in The Kounter into The Blender.
  • “These Kittens in the Blender” works like “Kittens in the Blender,” but only affects kittens of one kolour.
  • “Kittens on the Kounter” moves all kittens in The Blender and in The Box onto The Kounter.
  • “Kittens in the Box” moves all kittens in The Blender and on The Kounter into The Box.

The game starts with The Blender and The Box being placed on the table with a gap between them known as The Kounter. Each player picks a kolour of kittens, his aim being to get as many of that set into The Box and safety as he can whilst sending his rival’s kittens into The Blender. If there are less than four players, then the sets of kittens not in play are removed from the deck. Every player then receives a hand of six kards.

On a turn, a player plays two of his kards, in any order, follows any instructions on them and then draws back up to six. Any player can play any kard, including kitten kards belong to his rivals – these kittens are destined for The Blender. Play continues until all sixteen of the “Blend” and “Blend/Pulse” kards have been played. Then all of the surviving kittens for each player are counted and skored two points apiece. Similarly all of the kittens that were blended – how exactly you can tell one blended kitten from another is not explained – and a point is deducted from a player’s skore for each of his kittens that got blended. The player with the highest skore is the winner.

Objectives and tactics are twofold. Get your kittens into The Box, either from your hand, The Kounter, or The Blender. Get their kittens into The Blender, either from your hand, The Kounter, or The Box. Once there are enough of your kittens in The Box and their kittens in The Blender, play a “Blend” or “Blend/Pulse” kard – your kittens will be safe and go towards your end game skore, whilst theirs just need ice to be a feline frappé and deduct from their skores at the end of the game.

Physically, Kittens in a Blender is an attractive kard game. The kards are bright, breezy, and every one of the kittens on the sixty-four kitten kards is kute. Really kute. The rules are simple and easy to pick up. It could do with another set of kittens and kards to bring up to a maximum of six players, but then we are still waiting for a six-player full game of Ticket to Ride, so there is the possibility.

All right, so the idea behind Kittens in a Blender is a bit tasteless. Ket over it. Ket over yourself. It is just a game and no kittens are actually hurt during play. There is no “Live Action” version of this game. Seriously.

Konsole yourself with the fact that Kittens in a Blender is a not a kreat game. It is too light, too silly, too throwaway. It is though, a fun and silly well done filler of a game, one that can be fitted in between more serious games with kreater depth. We all need a filler game if not a klowder of them. Kittens in a Blender is a kute addition to your filler game klowder.

Plus Kittens in a Blender is a really kreat title.

Saturday, 10 November 2012

Wicked. Witty. Wrong.

Cards Against Humanity is probably the least politically correct card game I have ever played.

Cards Against Humanity is probably the funniest card game I have ever played.

Cards Against Humanity is probably the vilest card game I have ever played.

Cards Against Humanity: A party game for horrible people is an incredibly simple game of answering innocent questions with horridly hilarious and impishly inappropriate answers. It is easy to learn, plays for anywhere between thirty and ninety minutes, and can be played by between five and twenty players. In playing you will probably either overawe or offend your friends, if not both with the obscene nature of your answers.

Published by Cards Against Humanity, LLC, Cards Against Humanity comes in a chunky little black and white box inside of which can be found a simple rules pamphlet and approximately six hundred cards. Some ninety or so of these are Black Cards, each of which contains a question or statement such as “What did I bring back from Mexico?” or “Alternative medicine is now embracing the curative powers of _____________.” Some Black Cards have two blank spaces, such as “That’s right, I killed _____________. How, you ask? _____________.”. The remaining cards are White Cards, each of which contains a word or phrase, such as “The Chinese gymnastics team,” “Guys who don’t call,” and “Binging and purging.” The White Cards are used to answer the question or fill in the blank, or blanks if the Black Card has more than one, presented on the Black Cards.

Game play is very simple. At game start, each player is dealt a hand of ten White Cards. One person starts the game as “Card Czar” and draws a Black Card and reads out question or phrase on the card aloud. Every other player selects a White Card from his hand which he thinks is the most suitable – the wittiest, funniest, most offensive, or will be appreciated the most by the Card Czar – and passes it to the Card Czar face down. The Card Czar shuffles the White Cards that he has been given and then reads out the question or phrase on his Black Card, each time answering the question or filling in the blank in the phrase with a word or phrase from the White Cards. Once all of the White Cards have been read out, the Card Czar chooses his favourite answer from the White Cards. Whomever played the winning White Card receives the Black Card as an Awesome Point. Then the next player becomes the Card Czar, everyone draws back up to ten White Cards, and a new round begins.
So for example, as Card Czar, Michelle draws a Black Card and reads it aloud: “Life for American Indians was forever changed when the White Man introduced them to _____________.” Going round the table, Dave plays “Unfathomable Stupidity.”, Anthony plays “Cheating in the Special Olympics.”, Hugh plays “A Gypsy curse.”, and I play “Britney at 55.” Michele takes these White Cards and after shuffling them, reads them out as follows:
  • “Life for American Indians was forever changed when the White Man introduced them to ‘Cheating in the Special Olympics.’”
  • “Life for American Indians was forever changed when the White Man introduced them to ‘Unfathomable Stupidity.’”
  • “Life for American Indians was forever changed when the White Man introduced them to ‘Britney at 55.’”
  • “Life for American Indians was forever changed when the White Man introduced them to ‘A Gypsy curse.’”
Michelle looks the White Cards over and after a moment or two’s deliberation chooses “Britney at 55.” as the most appropriate answer. I get to keep the Black Card as an Awesome Point.
Play progresses in this fashion until the game ends. This can either be when all of the Black Cards in the game have been played, in which case the player with the most Awesome Points win; or when a player gains enough Awesome Points to reach a previously agreed upon total and thus win the game.

Physically, Cards Against Humanity is very simply presented. The cards are all two tone, black and white. None of them are illustrated. The text on each one is easy to read and the rules are similarly as easy to read.

Cards Against Humanity is huge fun to play, even if the examples given above do not wholly capture how much fun it is. Part of the issue with that is the fact that were I to include some of the answers given on the White Cards, I would attract undue attention from search engines. They can often be of an adult nature and that does not fall within the remit of Reviews from R’lyeh. That issue though is more to do with this site rather the game itself.

The most obvious fact about Cards Against Humanity is that it plays in a very similar fashion to Apples to Apples in that each turn one player has to match answers from each of the other player's hand to a given question. Which is something of a problem. Apples to Apples includes hundreds of questions and thousands of answers, so it offers plenty of replay value. Even then I tend to find its game play a little too light and unsatisfying if played too often. Cards Against Humanity contains fewer cards so suffers from the same problem, though probably to a greater degree, and playing it too often will spoil its crass charms. That said, in addition to the simple rules provided, the rule pamphlet gives rules for upping the stakes each round as well as eight house rules that can be added for variety.

One obvious problem with Cards Against Humanity is that it is an American game – then again, so was Apples to Apples originally, although it has since received versions in other languages and specifically for other nations. Some of the answers on the White Cards are specifically American such as “Dental dams.”, “Aaron Burr.”, and “Shaquille O’Neal’s acting career.” There is no way around this, bar creating your own cards, which is perfectly possible given that Cards Against Humanity can actually be downloaded from the publisher’s website and printed out for free. In the meantime, we will only have to wait for nation specific cards.

Further, its very American nature is not helped by its lack of availability. The game sells out very quickly it is true, but it is only available in the USA or in Canada. Where it is available internationally, the prices can be exorbitant. Nor is it available internationally via Amazon.com, which would have been the easiest of solutions to the problem. (In case you were wondering, I did buy it via Amazon.com and then had it shipped from the USA by a friend).

The biggest problem though with Cards Against Humanity is its humour. Putting the answers on the White Cards together with the Black Cards can give results that make you wince at their tastelessness and whoop with laughter at the same time. Many of the answers refer to sexual acts – hence the game having a minimum playing age of seventeen years – and other adult references. This is not a game for anyone of a “conservative with a small ‘c’” persuasion as Cards Against Humanity will easily offend them. Nor is it for anyone of a “Conservative with a big ‘C’” persuasion as Cards Against Humanity does have a Left Wing bias. Or at least the designers just have a deep and abiding hatred of Glenn Beck. (In all likelihood, to balance this out in a rare case of political balance, it appears from the rules that the game’s designers have hired Former Vice President Dick Cheney to handle their complaints and legal department).

Once you have a copy of Cards Against Humanity, you will chortle, you will cry, and you will cringe. Not necessarily a game to play with your family, Cards Against Humanity needs likeminded people who share its humour to get the most out of it, but it should not be overplayed or it will lose its appeal. Although slightly heavy to carry around, it works well as a convention game and as a pick-up game, possibly at the bar or just with a drink to hand. Going where almost no card game has gone before, Cards Against Humanity is a sublimely sinful satire.

Friday, 9 November 2012

Cthulhu Chaos

First published 1996, Fluxx is both a card game and a state in which the card game exists. Published by Looney Labs, it is a game about matching conditional states which through the course of the game can flux and change. It is a chaotic game, one in which both the rules and the conditions to win can alter from one card play to the next. The play of Fluxx starts of simple. A player can Draw one card, Play one card. After that, cards can quickly alter the number of cards that a player can Draw, can Play, and even hold in his Hand. Each player’s aim is to get cards called Keepers down onto the table. If these Keepers match those on the Goal on the table, then the player wins. Of course, a player’s Keepers can change as easily as the Goal. Nothing is permanent in a Fluxx game, and that lack of permanency means that sometimes a player can win when it is not his turn because his Keepers meet the condition of the Goal.

 The state of the game is one of constant evolution, the current version of the base game being Fluxx 5.0, with there being another ten themed variants available, from Zombie Fluxx and Pirate Fluxx to Martian Fluxx and Monty Python Fluxx to the very latest variant, Cthulhu Fluxx. Designed by Keith Baker – who designed Atlas Games’ Origins Award winning Gloom and its variant Cthulhu GloomCthulhu Fluxx brings the Mythos of the writings of H.P. Lovecraft to cosmic state of Fluxx and infuses it with a dark chaos. In doing so, it brings the Creeper mechanic – first seen in Zombie Fluxx – to bear as never before and adds new mechanics to the game that simulate the madness and chaos that ensues when the forces of the Mythos grow stronger and threaten the insanities of those that attempt to thwart it. The effect of the Creepers and the new mechanics is that it is entirely possible for there not to be a winner. Purely in keeping with the writings of H.P. Lovecraft, the “forces” of the Mythos can triumph over mankind and doom us all to our inevitable fate… Perhaps though, the human spirit will prevail and stave off these revelations as to the true nature of the universe.

Cthulhu Fluxx is all about change and chaos and adapting to that change and chaos.

Standard Fluxx, is well, Fluxx. It is a game about change and to an extent, chaos. Unlike many of the other variants, Cthulhu Fluxx succeeds in exacerbating that chaos in a pleasingly fitting fashion. It brings a complexity and a theme that fits the game mechanics, and in doing so, brings it a depth and a seriousness – all relative, granted – that other Fluxx games lack. More demanding, more complex, more chaotic, more Cthulhu, Cthulhu Fluxx is not your fluffy Fluxx of old.

Much of the game’s flavour and theme shows in the choice of Keepers that the players are trying to match with the Goals and thus win Cthulhu Fluxx. The designer draws on innumerable Lovecraft tales as inspiration for the game’s cards. For example, Keepers include “The Dreamlands,” “The Poet,” “The Necronomicon,” “The Cat,” “Innsmouth,” and “The Reanimator” and more. Some Keepers have special abilities, like “The Reanimator” being able to steal “The Body” Creeper if it is in play. The Goals include “Pickman’s Model” which requires the “Ghoul” and “Artist” Keepers to win; “Herbert West: Reanimator!” will want “The Body” and “The Reanimator” to win; and “Penguin Therapy” needs the “Sanitorium” and “Penguins” Keepers to win. Already the inspirations for cards – Pickman’s Model, Herbert West: Reanimator!, and At the Mountains of Madness – should be obvious to most devote and part of the pleasure in playing the game lies in identifying the inspiration and to a certain extent playing along to the narrative of the particular inspiration.

 What stands in the way of both Keepers and Goals for each player is not just his rivals, but two other types of cards – the Creeper and the Ungoal. First seen in Zombie Fluxx, Creepers come out of a player’s hand as soon as he draws them to sit on the table and prevent him from winning. In Cthulhu Fluxx, Creepers are can be as much Mythos entities such as Cthulhu and Yog-Sothoth as they can states like Madness and Metamorphosis. Whilst Creepers prevent you from winning, the Creepers that represent a state, actually inflict that state on a Keeper by attaching themselves to it and negating any special ability that the Keeper might have. So for example, “Nightmares” attaches itself to a Keeper that has an Investigator Icon on it like “The Reanimator,” negating its ability to steal “The Body” Creeper if it is in play. Creepers remain on the table until they can be got rid of, which is not easy. When a Creeper is attached to a Keeper, both cards stay together until both are discarded.

 Despite this, Creepers are not wholly negative. Some Goals have to be met by playing Creepers and Keepers. For example, the “Herbert West: Reanimator!” Goal requires the “The Reanimator” Keeper and “The Body” Creeper to be all in play to win for that Goal.

 Ungoals represent the forces of the Mythos – or in this case, Cthulhu Fluxx – beating the players and winning the game. For example, under the terms of “The Call of Cthulhu” Ungoal, Cthulhu Fluxx wins if there are six or more Doom Icons in play and the “Cthulhu” Creeper card is also in play. This of course is bad. It is of course, doubly bad because the “Cthulhu” Creeper card actually adds three Doom Icons all by itself!

 Cthulhu Fluxx also has two other types of card. Surprise cards can be played when it is not a player’s turn or when it is. For example, the “Secret Cultist” can win the game for a player or it can hinder him. When played during his turn, it reveals the player as a secret cultist and forces him to lose his next turn. If played when the conditions of an Ungoal are met and the game is ended and lost by the players, then it reveals the player as a secret cultist, who as a devotee of the Old Ones actually wins the game rather than Cthulhu Fluxx itself. The last card type is the Meta Rule, which is only added with everyone’s consent. There is only one included in Cthulhu Fluxx, “Cult Clash,” which adds a final winning condition if an Ungoal loses everyone the game. The player with the most Doom Icons actually wins, unless another player can play the “Secret Cultist” Surprise card and trump everyone in the “Who is the Most Evil” stakes.

 Like other Fluxx titles, Cthulhu Fluxx is all about meeting a certain condition if a player is to win. Of course, this is never easy, because not only can the conditions change from one turn to the next – and even within a turn, but so can the means of meeting them. As has been hinted at, Cthulhu Fluxx increases the array of conditions beyond the matching of Keeper and Creeper cards with a Goal card by adding Icons. These are the magnifying glass shaped Investigator Icons, the hour-glass shaped Doom Icons, and the hour-glass on its side, Anti-Doom Icons. Investigator Icons are found certain Keeper cards; Doom Icons on Creeper cards and Keeper cards; and Anti-Doom Icons on Keeper cards. Of course Doom and Anti-Doom Icons cancel each other out when determining the total number of Doom Icons are in play for purposes of meeting the conditions of an Ungoal.

 The need to play both Keepers and Creepers in order to meet a Goal card’s conditions has a further negative effect in that both can add Doom Icons to the game and increase the Doom count towards any possible Ungoal. For example, “The Shadow Over Innsmouth” requires the “Innsmouth” Keeper and either the “Federal Agents” Keeper or the “Metamorphosis” Creeper to win. Yet both the “Innsmouth” Keeper and the “Metamorphosis” Creeper cards add Doom Icons to the count.

 Mechanically, the play of Cthulhu Fluxx is simple. Every player receives three cards and when it is his turn he follows the Basic Rule card of drawing one card, playing one card. If he has any Creeper cards at any time, these must be played on the table, invariably increasing the Doom count. If a player draws and plays a Creeper card, he gets to draw a card again to his hand replacing the Creeper just played. New Rule cards will change the number of cards that can be drawn, played, or held, while Action cards give him extra things that a player can do immediately. Action, Keeper, Goal, and Ungoal cards are played in the hope that in doing so a player will get nearer to winning, although often, the current rules on the New Rule cards in play will force a player to play them despite the fact that he might want to save them for a later turn. Or they might force him to discard them.

 Fluxx is all about change and adapting to that change.

 Yet as player moves cards in and out of his hand, he needs to read those cards, more so than most Fluxx games. The number of possible conditions that can win a game in Cthulhu Fluxx is greater than normal Fluxx because of the need to track the Doom and Anti-Doom Icons, making this a more conditionally complex game. Compared to standard Fluxx, this is a much more complex game.

 Physically, as with all of the Fluxx games, Cthulhu Fluxx is well produced, the art is good – in fact it is better than many other Fluxx titles as their art can be cartoon-like – and the rules are solidly explained. Additionally the cards feel good in the hand and do stand up to being handled.

Saturday, 3 November 2012

Star Wars IV

When it comes to licenses, the roleplaying hobby has a holy trinity – The Lord of the Rings, Star Trek, and Star Wars. In almost forty years of the hobby, there have been four RPGs set within Middle Earth, five within the Star Trek universe, and three set in the Star Wars universe. As of 2012, it looked as if only the one of this holy trinity was available on the shelves at your local gaming store, Cubicle Seven Entertainment’s The One Ring RPG, but thanks to Fantasy Flight Games, there is a second member of the holy trinity. It is not Star Trek, as that franchise can be best described as being on hold, but rather Star Wars. And there are three curious facts about the new, fourth Star Wars RPG.

The first is that it is not “technically” available yet. Released at GenCon 2012, Star Wars: Edge of the Empire is in “beta” test; in other words, the version of Star Wars: Edge of the Empire available to purchase is not the version that will eventually be available. It is a playtest version, Fantasy Flight Games soliciting feedback from its purchasers that will affect the final release, the first of which will be Star Wars: Edge of the Empire Beginner Game. The second fact is that Star Wars: Edge of the Empire employs its own dice with their own symbols, both positive and negative, much as the publisher’s earlier Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay did. This might dissuade some people from looking at Star Wars: Edge of the Empire, but the mechanics of the new RPG when compared to its predecessor are less fussy, more streamlined, and have the appearance of a roleplaying game rather than a board game as many detractors of Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay claimed. The third fact concerns the special dice needed to play the Star Wars: Edge of the Empire beta. None are available. The book addresses this in two ways. First it gives a table which breaks down the type of dice needed and the symbols that should be on each die, and second, it gives a sheet of stickers that can be placed on the faces of the dice needed. How adhesive these stickers are and how well they will hold up to regular handling is another matter, especially given that there are not enough stickers for all of the dice that both a GM and his players will need.

In addition, Fantasy Flight Games addresses the lack of dice by making available an App that handles the dice rolling in Star Wars: Edge of the Empire. It is available for sale for both Apple and Android formats. Lastly, the dice needed for the Star Wars: Edge of the Empire beta are similar to those used in the Star Wars: X-Wing Miniatures combat game. The dice used are not exactly the same, but it does point towards, as does the Star Wars: Edge of the Empire, the compatibility of the two.

Star Wars: Edge of the Empire is not just a generic Star Wars RPG in that it has a specific setting, and although it is a standalone core rulebook, it is part of a trilogy. All three titles in the trilogy take place at the height of the Rebel Alliance’s struggle against the Galactic Empire, and each one presents the period from a different perspective. As its title suggests, Star Wars: Edge of the Empire is set on the Outer Rim at the furthest extent of the Galactic Empire’s reach, a region that is home to scum and villainy as well as explorers and colonists, all with concerns beyond the rule of law or the rule of tyranny. Fantasy Flight Games will follow this up with Star Wars: Age of Rebellion and then Star Wars: Force and Destiny. In the former, the players confront the Galactic Empire as the wily spies, brash pilots, and loyal soldiery of the Rebel Alliance; whilst in the latter, the players take on the roles of the last of the Jedi, feared and hunted by the Empire. Which if you are aware of Fantasy Flight Games’ other RPGs, you will realise that this follows the model of the RPGs set in Games Workshop’s Warhammer 40,000 milieu – Dark Heresy, Rogue Trader, and Deathwatch – each entry representing a step up in terms of player character power and capability.

In Star Wars: Edge of the Empire, the players take the roles of Bothans, Droids (Class Four), Gands, Humans, Rodians, Trandoshans, Twi’leks, and Wookies, who can have Careers as  Bounty Hunters, Colonists, Explorers, Hired Guns, Smugglers, and Technicians. A character’s species sets a character’s base Abilities and Characteristics, as well as his starting Experience Points. A character’s Career determines his skills and available Specialisations. A Specialisation further defines a character, granting him not only extra skills and extra career skills, but also access to Talents which give him certain advantages. Each Career has three Specialisations, each with its own tree of Talents. For example, the Smuggler Career has the Pilot, Scoundrel, and Thief Specialisations, whilst the Colonist Career has the Doctor, Politico, and Scholar Specialisations. A character begins the game with just the one Specialisation, but he can buy more up to maximum of three from any Career. Those from his own Career are cheaper than those that are not. Talents can then be purchased from these Specialisations.

Besides starting Credits, every character starts the game with a Motivation and an Obligation. A Motivation is essentially the character’s primary drive, whilst his Obligation is something much more, both in terms of game play and mechanics. An Obligation can be Addiction, Debt, Oath, or Obsession, each player character possessing a different one, but all of them contributing towards a group total that works as the group’s social standing in the Outer Rim (too low and a crime boss might not do them a favour, too high and their criminal reputation precedes them), and the chance that one of the character’s Obligation weighs heavily on the group that session. Of course, both the group Obligation and the individual Obligations can be used to drive a campaign’s narrative. Every character contributes an equal Obligation value to the group total, but he can contribute more in return for more Experience Points or more Credits to spend during character creation. Lastly a character gets to buy equipment.

Character generation is far from difficult, and it can be done fairly quickly. Initially, the choice of species and Careers looks limited, but the choice of Specialisations within each Career provides both flexibility and a wide choice in terms of Career skills and Talents. By combining them in various ways, a player could create a gambler turned administrator (Scoundrel Specialisation from the Smuggler Career with the Politico Specialisation from the Colonist Career); a farmer turned flyboy (Mechanic Specialisation from the Technician Career with the Pilot Specialisation from the Smuggler Career); and a soldier turned bounty hunter (Mercenary Specialisation from The Hired Gun Career with the Assassin Specialisation from the Bounty Hunter Career); and so on. What is curious about the process is what is missing. First off, there are no Protocol or Astromech Droids. What there is in their stead is the Droid (Class Four) “species,” a type of Droid that is programmed to use weapons, much like the infamous bounty hunter, IG-88. The other curious omission is the lack of Force users in the available choice of Careers, but such roles are not the focus of Star Wars: Edge of the Empire.

For the sample character, I set out to create an old Star Wars character that I have played in two different campaigns using West End Games’ original version of the Star Wars RPG. Arkady Quayn is an Honours graduate of both the Imperial Academy and the Tir training school, who after flight school decided that deserting was better than serving. He fled to the Outer Rim rather than join the Rebellion and has been making a living as a thief for hire. Of course, this is not his first choice of career, or even his second, but he likes good wine, dice, and the cards. (Note that skills listed as having a rating of “0” are actually unskilled Career skills).

Arkady Quayn
Gender: Male
Race: Human
Career: Smuggler
Specialisations: Pilot, Thief
Obligation: Bounty (+10)
Motivation: Greed
Brawn 2 Cunning 3
Presence 2 Agility 3
Intellect 2 Willpower 2
Skills: Astrogation 1, Coordination 1, Deceit 2, Gunnery 0, Perception 0, Pilot (Planet) 0, Pilot (Space) 2, Skulduggery 2, Stealth 1, Streetwise 1, Vigilance 1, Knowledge (Underworld) 1
Talents: Bypass Security/1, Galaxy Mapper/1, Indistinguishable, Skilled Jockey/1
Wound Threshold: 12
Strain Threshold: 12
Credits 500

To do anything in Star Wars: Edge of the Empire requires the player to assemble a pool of dice. These are drawn from the RPG’s six dice types. The eight-sided Ability dice, the twelve-sided Proficiency dice, and the six-sided Boost dice are positive dice, whilst the eight-sided Difficulty dice, the twelve-sided Challenge dice, and the six-sided Setback dice are negative dice. The Ability dice represent a character’s base skill or aptitude, the Proficiency dice his innate ability and training, whilst Boost dice are benefits granted from the situation. The Difficulty dice represent the task’s inherent complexity, the Challenge dice more extreme adversity; and Setback dice obstacles that come from the situation. The positive dice are marked with Success, Advantage, and Triumph symbols, all of which a player wants to roll, as opposed to the Failure, Threat, and Despair symbols on the negative dice.

When rolled, the opposing symbols on the dice cancel each other out, but a player only needs to roll a single Success to succeed at a task. At its heart though, the dice mechanic Star Wars: Edge of the Empire is orientated towards a narrative outcome rather than a simple binary yes/no outcome. Thus the symbols rolled will actually tell the story of the outcome. For example, a character might roll a simple number of Successes; no Successes, but an Advantage or two; or a number of Failures and several Triumphs; and so on. How these outcomes are interpreted perhaps represents the most challenging aspect of the game.

Our sample action finds Arkady Quayn attempting to break into an evidence locker as a “favour” to Xyras Chupa-Pau, a local businessman. Breaking the lock is hampered by the fact that it is dark and raining, and by the fact that it needs to be done without alerting the security guards. Fortunately, Arkady has a SysTek Security Breaker electronic lock breaker and is wearing scanner goggles. He also has the Talent of Bypass Security/1, which will help him get past this lock. With this information his player begins to assemble the dice pool. From his Cunning score of 3, he gains three Ability dice, of which two are upgraded to Proficiency dice by his Skulduggery skill of 2, so currently he is rolling one Ability die, and two Proficiency dice. The GM assigns three Difficulty dice for the quality of the lock, and because it has an intrusion alert subroutine, upgrades on of the three Difficulty dice to a Challenge die. He also adds two Setback dice for the darkness and the weather, Arkady’s player counters these with the scanner goggles and the electronic lock breaker, and so receives two Boost dice. Even better, Arkady’s Talent of Bypass Security/1 means that he can remove one Setback die from the roll. So all together, Arkady’s player is rolling one Ability die, two Proficiency dice, two Boost dice, two Difficulty dice, one Challenge die, and lastly, just the one Setback die.

Rolling the dice gives four Success and four Advantage symbols, as well as two Threat symbols, and one Despair symbol. The Despair symbol also counts as a Failure symbol, which gives four Success and four Advantage symbols, one Failure symbol, two Threat symbols, and one Despair symbol. The Failure symbol cancels out one Success, the two Threat symbols cancel out two Advantage symbols, leaving a result of three Success, two Advantage, and one Despair symbol. Arkady has definitely got inside the evidence locker, and with ease; plus the Advantage symbols means that not only was the intrusion alert subroutine not triggered, but when the security patrol comes back around the door will appear to be still locked. Unfortunately, the Despair symbol means that water got into circuits of the lock breaker and temporarily shorted it out. It will need repairing if Arkady wants to use it again.

In addition, both the players and the GM have access to another resource during a session – Destiny Points. These have a light side, useable only by the players; and a dark side, useable by the GM. A player can spend them to upgrade one of his Ability dice to a Proficiency die in a skill check; to upgrade a Difficulty die to a Challenge die in a NPC’s skill check; to activate certain Talents; and to add certain small elements to help the game’s narrative. The clever aspect to Destiny Points is that when a player uses a light side Destiny Point, it becomes a dark side Destiny Point, and vice versa. This adds a certain narrative flow to the game, back and forth, as events go in, and against, the player characters’ favour.

The number of Destiny Points available at the start of each session is determined by a seventh die type, the Force die. This is a twelve-sided die that generates one or two Destiny Points, either dark side or light side. The Force die is also used when a player character uses Force Power. Although in Star Wars: Edge of the Empire, the Force is not the focus of the game or the setting, but rules for them are given, and with the GM’s permission, a player character can become Force sensitive and gain another Characteristic, that of Force. This starts at a value of one, but can be increased later on. This is done by purchasing the Force Exile Specialisation, which counts against a character’s three Specialisation limit and grants access to the Force Exile Talent Tree as well as the Trees for the Force Powers of Sense, Influence, Move, and Control. The rules for these all work fairly simply, and cost more to purchase as they are counted outside of a player character’s chosen Career.

Thus the second sample character is a Force Sensitive. A noted doctor on Ryloth, Kinsa Tualin went on the run after Imperial agents took an interest in her. She fled to the Outer Rim to hide, but has no idea why the Empire would be taking an interest in her. Currently she owes money to those who arranged passage for her, and often provides medical aid to their associates. By day she works as a doctor serving the poor. She has no idea that she is Force sensitive and does not believe in the existence of the Force. Her Force Sensitivity manifests as particularly sharp perception, represented by her Uncanny Senses/1 Talent.

Kinsa Tualin
Race: Twi’lek
Career: Colonist
Specialisations: Doctor, Force Exile, Politico
Obligation: Criminal
Motivation: The Weak/Charity
Brawn 1 Cunning 2
Presence 3 Agility 2
Intellect 3 Willpower 2
Force 1
Skills: Charm 2, Coerce 0, Cool 1, Deceit 0, Knowledge (Core Worlds) 1, Knowledge (Education) 2, Knowledge (Lore) 0, Leadership 1, Medicine 2, Perception 1, Negotiation 1, Streetwise 0
Talents: Grit/1, Kill with Kindness/1, Surgeon/1, Uncanny Senses/1
Wound Threshold: 11
Strain Threshold: 12
Credits 500

Star Wars: Edge of the Empire uses the same mechanics throughout, extending them into its combat system for both personal combat and starship combat. The rules go into more detail how a player can spend rolled Advantage and Triumph symbols, such as performing an extra manoeuvre or aiding an ally by granting him a Boost die on his next action; and a GM spend Threat and Despair symbols, like tripping a character up or having a player character’s weapon run out of ammunition. A character can take damage in two ways. First, he can take Wounds, from being shot with a blaster or being caught in an explosion. Suffer too much and a character will suffer critical wounds. He can also suffer from Strain damage, representing his suffering anxiety, stress, fear, heat stroke, and so on. A character can also suffer from Strain damage by exerting himself, usually to activate certain Talents.

In terms of background support, Star Wars: Edge of the Empire comes with two good sections; the first on arms and equipment, and the other on vehicles, both planetary and interstellar. Both describe an array of devices that the player characters will use and have used against them, along with rules for customisation and modification. This allows a player character to fit an automatic re-cocker to his bowcaster or a reinforced shield generator to his GHTROC 720 Light Freighter. After all, a Technician has to do something in the game other than make repairs to his allies’ equipment. Numerous pieces of equipment and starships are described, with many of them being also named, though not the personal weapons.

The GM advice focuses on the handling of the game’s rules. In particular, the interpreting of the results of the dice pools. It also gives advice on how to use Motivation, Obligation, and Destiny Points. He is also given an array of adversaries, comprised of minions, henchmen, and nemeses. These are drawn from the Galactic Underworld and the forces of Law & Order, as well as spaceport personnel, bounty hunters, patrons, clients, droids, and oddities. Rounding out Star Wars: Edge of the Empire is the scenario, “Crates of Krayts,” in which a startship crew in debt get a chance to work off some of the monies owed by doing a little job and getting involved in underworld shenanigans.

Being a playtest beta, Star Wars: Edge of the Empire is missing one or two elements. It is only very lightly illustrated for example, and there is very little background material about the Outer Rim given to support the GM. This is no surprise, given that the beta is designed to have its rules and mechanics playtested, rather than present a whole, fully-rounded game. Then again, the mechanics give all of the elements that a Star Wars RPG should have – the character species, the Careers and Specialisations, the spaceships, and so on – and beyond that, the Star Wars universe should be familiar enough to most GMs and most players. That said, it is a little rough in places and could do with a closer edit, but this is a beta, and a beta need not be perfect.

So the question is, does Star Wars: Edge of the Empire feel like a Star Wars RPG? Does it feel like it could be used to run a Star Wars game? The answer to both questions is a definite yes. The mechanics feel as if they will support the somewhat cinematic action of the genre, and they also allow room for player input with the narrative output of the dice pool system. If there is an issue around the dice beyond that of their unavailability, it is the learning curve attached to assembling and interpreting the rolls. Especially the latter as the results are not always going to be straightforward and linear.

Some may also complain that Star Wars: Edge of the Empire constrains what characters that can be played and what type of games that can be run. To a point they would be correct, but there are options aplenty in terms of character design – it is all a matter of mixing and matching the Careers and Specialisations – and whilst Star Wars: Edge of the Empire is not necessarily a game in which the player characters will be taking the fight to the Empire or be founding Jedi order again. That leaves the whole of the Outer Rim to explore, more than one Hutt to be played off against another Hutt, and Imperial entanglements to be avoided. Plus there is the matter of what brought the player characters to the Outer Rim to be explored. (Curiously this is also what makes it feel just a little like a “Space Western” or rather a Firefly RPG, though one with aliens and blasters and the Force… But then which came first, Firefly or Star Wars?).

Above all, Star Wars: Edge of the Empire does feel like a Star Wars RPG. It feels like it can handle both the action and the drama whilst letting the players bring elements to the game. At the moment it might be undergoing a playtest process, but the Star Wars: Edge of the Empire beta requires relatively little tweaking before the finalised version makes a welcome return to our gaming shelves.