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

Thursday, 31 October 2013

The Walking Dead Board Game

Given the popularity of The Walking Dead comic book and television series, and of combining zombies with board games, it is no surprise that there are not one, but three games based on The Walking Dead. Z-Man Games publishes The Walking Dead: The Board Game, based on the comic book series, while Cryptozoic Entertainment publishes The Walking Dead Card Game and The Walking Dead Board Game, both based on the television series. It is the latter board game that is being reviewed here.

Designed for between one and four players or Survivors, aged thirteen and up, it is a light, fraught game in which the Survivors must visit four important Locations and get back to Camp, all the while fending off Walkers – as the zombies are called – and scrounging for guns and tools that will aid in their survival. Each Survivor will need to be resourceful, carefully husbanding his guns, his baseball bats, and his Allies if he is to achieve his aims. Loose too many Allies and a survivor may be the next to fall to the bony strength and the flesh-rending teeth of the Walkers. When that happens, the Survivor is not only dead, but rises as a Walker himself and will hunt down the remaining Survivors!

Initially, The Walking Dead: The Board Game is won by the first Survivor to visit all four Locations and return to Camp. When two Survivors get turned into Walkers, the players split into two teams – Team Survivor and Team Zombie (why Team Zombie, ‘zombie’ not being a term known in the setting of The Walking Dead?), and the game becomes a co-operative. If Team Zombie manages to kill the remaining Survivor, then it wins, but if a single Survivor manages to get back to Camp having visited all four Locations, then Team Survivor wins – even if there is just one Survivor remaining!

The game consists of the Game Board, six Character Cards and six Survivor Game Pieces with Bases, two Walker Game Pieces, sixteen Ally Tokens, forty Scrounge Cards and forty Encounter Cards, thirty Walker Cards, sixteen Location Cards, four Badges, and a single six-sided Die. Everything is done in full colour using stills from the television series. The Game Board is done in cloth and is more of a ‘play mat’ than a board, and is marked with a track around the edge, connecting the four Locations – a Police Station, the Center for Disease Control, an Abandoned Car Lot, and a Department Store. Four tracks lead from the Camp to each side of the board. Sewers connect one adjacent sides of the board, though only Walkers can use them. The Scrounge Cards represent items and events that will help a Survivor; the Encounter Cards represent Walkers and Events that will beset Survivors; and the Walker Cards are used by players whose Survivors are killed and rise up again as Walkers. The Location Cards are awarded to Survivors who visit each place and the Badges indicate which side a player is on – Team Survivor or Team Zombie.

At game’s start, each player selects a character card, either Rick, Lori, Shane, Glenn, Andrea, or Dale, and a corresponding playing piece. Each Survivor has a single ability that he can use once per game. For example, Rick can re-roll an attack with a +2 bonus and Shane can steal Scrounge Cards from other players, both once per game. Each Survivor also receives five Scrounge Cards and two Ally tokens. The Scrounge Deck is filled with ten cards per Survivor. If this runs out, the only source of Scrounge Cards is the discard pile and whatever each Survivor has in his hand.

On his turn, a Survivor rolls the die and moves that number of spaces, in any direction, and resolves certain actions on the space he landed, typically by drawing an Encounter Card. Most spaces are blank and will result in a single Encounter Card being drawn. Others give the Survivor a bonus in the subsequent Encounter, give him another turn, a Scrounge Card, or No Encounter. Most Encounter Cards force a Survivor to fight a Walker, but others do things like force a Survivor to discard Scrounge Cards due to personality conflicts.

Whenever an Encounter Card indicates that the Survivor has been attacked by Walkers a fight ensues. This has the Survivor roll the die and expend Scrounge Cards, mostly weapons to add a bonus to this, to beat the Strength of the Encounter Card. Walker Strength on the Encounter Cards varies between five and ten, with Scrounge Cards giving a bonus of between one and six. A roll of a six always wins, but if a Survivor loses, an Ally is lost, or if he has no Allies, then he is bitten and will rise as a Walker on his next turn. Winning an Encounter allows a Survivor to take a Scrounge Card, if there are any left.

As soon as a Survivor reaches a Location, he stops and draws not one, but two Encounter Cards, which he has to deal with in order. If the Survivor deals with both, he receives the appropriate Location Card. This gives him a permanent bonus. The Police Station gives an attack bonus, the Abandoned Car Lot a movement bonus, the Department Store an extra Ally if you visit it first, and the Center for Disease Control more Scrounge Cards, either two new ones, or one from the bottom of the discard pile – the latter is useful if you know what that card is and useful later in the game when the Scrounge Cards have been all taken.

Should a Survivor die and rise as a Walker he receives all new Walker Cards. His task is to chase down the remaining Survivors and kill them if he is to win. The Walker Cards allow a Walker player to increase his movement, cancel an Encounter card drawn by a Survivor and play a Walker Card that the Survivor must fight, cause a Frenzy and increase the Strength of a Walker on an Encounter Card, and worse, cause an Ally to be Bitten! and be discarded. If the Survivor manages to beat a Walker Card played on him, then not only does he beat the Walker Card, but also the Walker player as well! Unfortunately, you cannot keep a good Walker down and he will rise again in the nearby sewers.

Additional rules allow for solo player, but the main alternative is a four-player Team Game. This has the game start with the players divided into two – Team Zombie versus Team Survivor, just as if two Survivors had died in the standard game. The Survivors only need to get to the four Locations between them and only one of them needs to make it back to Camp to win.

Best played with four players, The Walking Dead Board Game is not a great game, but it is better than you think. It is hard for the Survivors to win and everything they do is challenging as they must carefully husband their Scrounge Cards before they all run out. It is not a challenge to learn and play and it involves more luck than skill, making the game suitable for play by fans of the television series who are not seasoned gamers. The latter are unlikely to really enjoy the game because of the lack of challenge for them and the degree of luck. That said it captures the desperation of the television series, more so if the players know the series and play to the characters on their card.

Friday, 25 October 2013

Your Firefly Starter

Every year at Gen Con there is a slew of new releases and every year there are some that are really ‘hot’. One such title was the Firefly Role-Playing Game from Margaret Weis Productions – or rather it was not. For what was released at Gen Con in 2013 was Gaming In The ‘Verse, a preview of what the forthcoming Firefly Role-Playing Game will be like. And even then, it was not really a preview, but more of a ‘quick start’ giving everything that a Gamemaster and his crew needs to play – an explanation of the setting, the rules, the means to create both a ship and her crew, and two whole scenarios! Plus there are the stats and write-ups for the crew of the Serenity that we know and love from Joss Whedon’s television series, Firefly, so that the scenarios can be played with said crew or with a ship and crew of the players’ creation. All of which comes in a thick, full colour, and fully illustrated paperback book.

Then again, I can hear you thinking to yourselves, “Wasn’t there a Firefly Role-Playing Game before?” To which the answer is ‘yes’ – and ‘no’. Back in 2005, Margaret Weis Productions – the same Margaret Weis Productions that is publishing the Firefly Role-Playing Game – published the Serenity Role Playing Game, not based on the Firefly television series, but on Serenity, the motion picture sequel to the television series. Another difference is the use of mechanics and rulesets. The Serenity Role Playing Game employed the slightly cinematic, if gritty CORTEX System, whereas the Firefly Role-Playing Game uses the CORTEX Plus System, first seen in the Leverage: The Roleplaying Game and most recently seen in the Origins Award winning though cancelled Marvel Heroic Roleplaying RPG. Whereas the CORTEX System, now known as CORTEX Classic, focused on gritty action, the CORTEX Plus System is more storytelling orientated, though the storytelling itself is bound to be gritty given the setting. Now both the Serenity Role Playing Game and the Firefly Role-Playing Game are set in the same milieu, a Science Fiction space western that aped the aftermath of the American Civil War. In this ‘space opera’, the crew of the Serenity try to make living, not always legally, on the fringes of both society and a massive star system far from the aegis of the controlling central government, the Alliance. This is not a ‘clean’ space opera – making a living in space can be hard and is often dangerous work; high technology rarely makes it as far as the outer planets and their moons; and the preferred technology is stuff that works, so for example, firearms rather than lasers and on many planets, horses rather than vehicles. 

Gaming In The ‘Verse begins with an explanation of the setting, supporting it with a dissection of the episodes ‘Serenity’ and ‘The Train Job’. Working from the synopsis of each episode it examples of the rules, stats and write-ups for characters or NPCs such as Badger and Patience, describes the technology and places, and gives ideas for further adventures involving the elements of the episode. These are essentially a number of ‘what if’s’ that could complicate the scenario presented in each episode were the GM to run for his players. There is material here enough to inspire an episode or two for a playing group, but it is promised that the full Firefly Role-Playing Game will contain a similar treatment of all thirteen episodes of the series. 

When playing the setting of Firefly through Gaming In The ‘Verse, a group has three options. The first is to play a member of the crew of the Serenity, whilst the second would be to select from one of the twelve pre-generated archetypes included in the book, from Academy Dropout and Alliance Agent to Small-Time Trader and Triad Enforcer. Alternatively, a player can create his character, one that will not be quite as capable as member of the crew of the Serenity, but one that certainly has room to grow and change as his adventures are played out. Each character is defined by three attributes – Mental, Physical, and Social; several broad Skills, each of which can have a speciality; one or more Signature Assets, items intrinsically bound to the character, like Jayne Cobb’s Callahan full-bore auto-lock rifle Vera or Shepherd Book’s Identicard; and three Distinctions. The latter define a character and come in three categories – Roles, Personalities, and Backgrounds. All four – Attributes, Skills, Signature Assets, and Distinctions are rated by die type, from four-sided die up through six, eight, ten, and twelve-side die. Each Distinction provides a bonus die to a character’s actions, but can also act against a character to complicate his life and so provide him with Plot Points that can be spent later on. The list of Distinctions in Gaming In The ‘Verse is not complete though and a full list will appear in the Firefly Role-Playing Game when it is released.

Quote: “Some orders are meant to be disobeyed, more or less, as my old fù qìng never said.”
Character Type: Principled Pilot
Character Description: Theodore Kingsley III had a glittering career ahead of him as an officer in the Union of Allied Planets Navy. After all, his father was an admiral and his grandfather was an admiral, and it was expected that he would follow in their footsteps. That would change for the recently promoted first lieutenant during the Battle of Du-Khang towards the end of the Unification War. Piloting a gunship, Kingsley was ordered to evacuate casualties from a position under heavy attack by Independent forces. He did this several times, often under heavy fire, each time ordering his crew to evacuate the Independent casualties at the same time. Each time he was ordered to ferry away Alliance casualties rather than Independent ones until the point where there were only Independent casualties left. Ordered away to another mission, the pilot not only ignored the order not to go back in, he punched the officer who gave it. This would have got him a court martial, but the combination of the missions he had already flown and his family connection meant that he was instead given an award. Kingsley was decorated and promoted, told to behave, and assigned to what he considered to be parade duties. Disillusioned, when the war ended and his term of service was up, he resigned his commission – the first Kingsley to have done so for generations, and quit the Core Worlds.
For the last decade Kingsley has worked the Border Worlds as a pilot for hire, rarely staying with one crew for long. Too often he finds an order he disagrees with, disobeys it, does what he feels is the right thing, and then quits.
Likes/Dislikes: Theodore loves to fly and hates anyone who gets in the way, especially with what he regards as daft orders. He does not have much time for the Alliance Navy either. He is fond of painting though and never travels without an easel, canvas, and paints.
Flashbacks and Echoes: Theodore does not like to talk about his record or what he did in the Unification War. This has got him into trouble in the past.

Mental 8 Physical 8 Social 8 
Craft d4, Drive d4, Fight d6, Fix d4, Fly d10 (Alliance Gunboats), Focus d6, Influence d8, Know d8 (Navigation), Labour d4, Move d4, Notice d8, Operate d8, Perform  d6 (Painting), Shoot d6, Sneak d4, Survive d8, Throw d4, Treat d4, Trick d4
The list of folk wanting to hire you is longer than your arm. You’re just that good.
Gain 1 Plot Point when you roll a d4 instead of a d8.
Born Behind the Wheel: Spend 1 PP to step up or double your ship’s Engines Attribute for your next roll.
Highlighted Skills: Fly, Notice, Operate
You came back from the War with a medal and a story. You’re not sure if it was worth the cost.
Gain 1 Plot Point when you roll a d4 instead of a d8.
You’re a Gorramn Hero: Spend 1 PP to double your Social when dealing with anyone who served on your side.
Highlighted Skills: Fight, Influence, Shoot
“Oh God, oh God, we’re all gonna die.”
Gain 1 Plot Point when you roll a d4 instead of a d8.

Dress Uniform & Medals d8
It would have to be a dire situation wherein Kingsley had to wear his medals and dress uniform again. Still he keeps them in a kit bag in his quarters – just as his mother would want.
Easel, Paints, & Brushes d6
Kingsley’s preferred method of relaxation. One day he might get to paint a sunset on every planet in the system.

The second character is more like the twelve archetypes that come ready to customise in Gaming In The ‘Verse. These are not quite ready to play, but require some simple customisation by adding skills and an extra skill specialisation. The following example needs the player to raise his skills, add a specialisation to one skill, and select his triggers for his three Distinctions. (In the form of Jian Zhang, the Inquiry Agent will support an example of the rules in play).

Character Type: Inquiry Agent
The Unification War meant that things did not go smooth for folks on both the Border Planets and the Core Worlds. It caused all kinds of problems and both things and people have a tendency to go missing. Which is where you come in – you find things that are missing. For a commission that is. You are not a detective and you do not carry badge. Most folks would never talk to you if did. Badges are not popular out on the Border, especially Alliance badges. So now you rely on your powers of persuasion and maybe some sleight of hand when the need calls for it. If it comes to it, you have a Sanctioned Investigator’s License, but most times that works better with the Law rather than most people.
You don’t like trouble and you would prefer to put your hands up or make a run for it rather lay your hands on someone. After all, you are no bounty hunter. Usually you get people to do most things and answer most questions when you ask them. They open up to you most times.
When work is scarce though you make your money from playing cards and dice – Mahjong is a favourite. Just like your grandma taught you.

Mental 8 Physical 6 Social 10 
Craft d4, Drive d4, Fight d6, Fix d4, Fly d4, Focus d4, Influence d8 (Interrogation), Know d8, Labour d4, Move d6, Notice d6, Operate d4 (Cortex), Perform d4, Shoot d6, Sneak d6, Survive d4, Throw d4, Treat d4, Trick d8 

Just the facts, dǒng ma?
Gain 1 Plot Point when you roll a d4 instead of a d8.
Bloodhound: Step up a Complication involving higher authorities in your jurisdiction to step up your
Notice skill for a scene.
I’ve Got Backup: When you create an Asset based on calling in official resources and support, step it up to a d8.
Highlighted Skills: Influence, Know, Shoot
You can talk your way out of a life sentence or into a locked room. Just don’t make promises you can’t keep.
Gain 1 Plot Point when you roll a d4 instead of a d8.
Gift of Gab: Spend 1 PP to double your Influence die for your next roll.
Start Fresh: Spend 1 PP at the beginning of a scene to step back all of your social or mental-based Complications.
Highlighted Skills: Influence, Know, Trick
You blend into a crowd like a rock blends into a quarry.
Gain 1 Plot Point when you roll a d4 instead of a d8.
Couldn’t Hurt A Fly: Step back your Physical die to step up your Social die when convincing someone you’re not a threat.
Quick Change: Spend 1 PP to create a d8 Asset to help you disappear into a crowd
Highlighted Skills: Move, Sneak, Trick

Sanctioned Investigator’s License d8
Most people out on the Border Planets don’t want others poking about their business. They like it even less when it is the gorramn law doing the poking about. So you are glad that you do not carry a badge, especially an Alliance badge. You carry something that gives you some credibility with the law if they ask and verifies that you are not the law when folks really, really want to know.
Jei Jei Pocket Stunner d8
Not everyone out in the Black wants to carry a gun, but even so, it pays to have a means to protect yourself. Which is why you carry a Jei Jei ‘Electric Induction’ Pocket Stunner, guaranteed to knock out an assailant at twenty paces or on contact, a non-lethal protection that is rare outside of the Core Worlds. You hated guns when you carried an Alliance badge and this is a compromise.

In addition to creating their characters, the players also get to create their ship. The options are limited in Gaming In The ‘Verse to just the choice of three hull types – Alliance Patrol Boat, Firefly Class Transport, or Polaris Class Cargo Liner. Whichever one the players chose, this is their ship’s first Distinction, the other two providing its History and its Customisation. To this the players get to add a Signature Asset or two. A nice suggestion is that this should be done during play with the players spending Plot Points to describe a flashback to when they came aboard for the first time and so discovered another aspect of the ship.

The basic rules to Gaming In The ‘Verse and thus Firefly Role-Playing Game are quite simple. Whenever a character wants to undertake an action, he rolls a skill and an appropriate attribute and adds the total together and compares them against the stakes rolled by the GM. For example, the Inquiry Agent, Jian Zhang is on Persephone looking for a client’s daughter and believes that Harly Polk might have been the last person to see her. Unfortunately, he does not know where Polk is, but he does know that Polk likes to gamble. Therefore, he wants to know where Polk might have gone to gamble, so his player makes a Mental (d8) + Know (d8) against the stakes set by the GM, who rolls Persephone Underworld (d6) + Challenging (d8). Zhang rolls 2+7 for a total of 9 which beats the GM’s roll of 2+5 for a total of 7 and so learns that Polk is probably playing Mahjong at Mama Fang’s. 

Whatever the situation and the task, a player will always roll and keep two dice, but will often roll more and keep the best two. These can come from skill specialities, from Distinctions, and from Assets, either Signature Assets or Assets temporarily created during play. For example, Zhang has arrived at Mama Fang’s to discover that it is a closed game, so he needs to persuade the guard to let him. To do so, Zhang must make a roll of Social (d10) + Influence (d8) and can add his Distinction, Smooth Talker (d8) to the roll as well. The guard just has to roll his Mental (d6) + Focus (d8). Zhang rolls 8, 4, and 1, and selecting the best two gets a result of 12. The guard rolls 2+3, which sets the stakes at 5. This not only a success, but because it is five more than the stakes set by the GM, it means that Zhang has achieved an extraordinary successes and thus gets a Big Damn Hero Die to use later. Given the success of the roll, the GM also rules that the guard not only lets Zhang into the game, but puts in a good word with the game boss who is running the game. Unfortunately, Zhang also rolled a 1 which is a Jinx, and although it did not count towards his total, it is enough to add a Complication to the situation, which in this case the GM describes as Mama Fang is Mad at You (d6). This might come back to trouble Zhang shortly. In return the GM gives Zhang a Plot Point.

Now involved in the game, Zhang wants to play well, but so not so well that Harly Polk will lose. In fact, he wants to Polk to win and thus make him receptive to questions, making sure that Polk thinks that Zhang is nobody special. Harly gets to roll his Mental (d6) + Trickery (d8) for his gambling, but Zhang has a Gambling specialisation and wants to use his Distinction of Harmless Looking to make himself appear ordinary. So he gets to roll Mental (d8) + Trickery (d10) + Gambling (d6) + Harmless Looking (d8). Harly rolls 5+5 for a total of ten, whereas Zhang rolls 2, 2, 4, and 5, which gives him the result of 9. Of course, this is not enough to lull Harly into a receptive mood, but Zhang has a Plot Point or two to spend – every character begins play with a single Plot Point, and Zhang has already earned another in play. He can earn more during play by temporarily reducing a Distinction from a d8 to a d4, from receiving a Complication from the GM when he rolls a Jinx, whenever the GM spends a Plot Point of his own to oppose your character, and from great play. Back in Madame Fang’s gambling den, Zhang could have spent a Plot Point before the roll to activate a Distinction trigger if appropriate, or create an Asset (d6) for the scene that would add another die to the roll. None of these are appropriate, but he has two options after he has made the roll. He could spend a Plot Point and roll and add a Big Damn Hero Die to the roll already made or he could add an extra die from the roll already made. The latter seems the easiest option and so Zhang adds a 2 from what he rolled to bring the total to 11 and so beat Harly’s roll.

In each case, what a player is rolling for is an effect that will advance the action or the story in a ‘beat’ which is defined as a period of time in which a player character could take a single action. How long a beat is depends on the action. It can be as short as the time it takes for a character to throw a punch or dive for cover, or as long as it takes to fly from Persephone to Avalon. This particularly shows most effectively in combat. In most RPGs, if a player character wants to punch an opponent, he makes a roll to hit and if successful, he rolls damage. Not so in Gaming In The ‘Verse where a successful roll may mean that the opponent or even the player character is taken out for the scene. Where in another RPG, a character might employ a bigger or better gun and receive a better damage roll or a bonus to hit, in Gaming In The ‘Verse a character can have a signature Asset like Jayne’s Vera or the Inquiry Agent’s Jei Jei Pocket Stunner. Using the Asset adds another die to the dice pool. 

The other aspect to the CORTEX Plus system as used in Gaming In The ‘Verse is that “things don’t go smooth” – and that is entirely intentional. Having things go wrong from one beat to another provides the players with the opportunity to earn Plot Points. With Plot Points to hand, a player can trigger his Distinctions, add Assets, and so on, essentially allowing a player to add elements to the on-going story, bring his back-story into play, and when it comes to the dénouement of the current story be appropriately heroic. The aim is to model the ebb and flow of the television series and its episodes – after all, the clue is in the use of the term, ‘beat’ – and this it does in fairly light fashion.

Gaming In The ‘Verse comes with two, lengthy ready-to-play scenarios. ‘Wedding Planners’ and ‘Shooting Fish’ comprise the first two parts of the Echoes of War campaign that explore how the Unification War continues to have ramifications ten years on… ‘Wedding Planners’ sees the crew ferrying a princess to her wedding who discovers that she just does not want to go, whilst in ‘Shooting Fish’ the crew come to the aid of an orphanage that a greedy man is about to shut down. A further scenario in the series, ‘Friends in Low Places’, is already available, but a really thoughtful touch is that the publisher has released the first of these scenarios, ‘Wedding Planners’, for use with the CORTEX Classic system, as typified by the original Serenity Role Playing Game. Both scenarios showcase the rules and how the game works as well as adding new rules, like expanded chase rules in ‘Wedding Planners’. Also included with Gaming In The ‘Verse are a set of designer’s notes that discuss both the game in general and the Echoes of War campaign. These provide a nice look behind the scenes of these scenarios and the game itself. There is even a Chinese Translation Guide for when you want to get your degree of Gorramn verisimilitude in your game right.

Physically, Gaming In The ‘Verse is a well presented softback book. It is liberally illustrated with stills from the television series and the buff layout has a certain period charm to it that does not feel out of place with the television series. In terms of content, what is missing from Gaming In The ‘Verse? The most obvious missing element are any rules for experience or character advancement. Deck plans are also missing. The absence of both of these elements is not an impediment to play of a Gaming In The ‘Verse in the short term, and that is intentional. The book after all, is meant to be an introduction to the setting and the forthcoming RPG. For all that, there is an awful lot of play potential in Gaming In The ‘Verse. Both scenarios will provide several sessions of play and that is before you take into account the supplementary material contained in Gaming In The ‘Verse that the Gamemaster could develop into scenarios of his own.

Gaming In The ‘Verse is an excellent introduction to the CORTEX Plus System – in fact it is a better explanation than that given in the Marvel Heroic Roleplaying RPG. It keeps its rules simple and straightforward whilst still allowing the players plenty of input as to what their character does and how they affect the action. As written, the Firefly fan that comes to this never having played an RPG should be able to grasp the CORTEX Plus rules with relative ease, though as with most RPGs, the Gamemaster should have some roleplaying experience under his belt before running Gaming In The ‘Verse. As an introduction to the Firefly Role-Playing Game and quite literally, gaming in the ‘Verse of Firefly, Gaming In The ‘Verse is a pleasingly complete, even shiny – well, it had to be said – quick start with more play than you think.

Saturday, 19 October 2013

Ignorance Imparted

Traditionally, the first supplement published for a role playing game is a ‘companion’. It collects many, if not all, of the content that was written for, but not included in the core Rulebook. Extra background material, advice, scenarios, and more were the typical content of the RPG Companion. Such supplements are rare these days, for where a Companion will address a number of diverse topics, the modern supplement typically focuses upon particular aspects of an RPG's setting or rules. Call of Cthulhu has received two such ‘companions’. The first, the Cthulhu Companion: Ghastly Adventures & Erudite Lore from 1983 is best remembered for its decent scenarios, its Mythos parody of Chattanooga Choo-Choo, and its list of Mythos adverbs and descriptors. The second, Fragments of Fear: The Second Cthulhu Companion from 1985, is best known for its foldout size comparison of various Mythos gods and entities. Of the two, the Cthulhu Companion is the better regarded and the more useful, but now both supplements stand to be compared by a third supplement of a very similar nature. 

Island of Ignorance – The Third Cthulhu Companion is the first release from new publisher, Golden Goblin Press, the newest Chaosium licensee. At its head is perhaps one of the most prolific of Call of Cthulhu authors – Oscar Rios, best known for The Legacy of Arrius Lurco, the campaign for use with Chaosium, Inc.’s Cthulhu Invictus. The company takes its name from the fictitious company in the Robert E. Howard stories ‘The Black Stone’ and ‘The Thing on the Roof’, and it this name that provides the title for the first of the octet of articles in Island of Ignorance. Geoff Gillan’s ‘The Golden Goblin’ examines the significance and history of the Native American figurine that inspired the founder of Golden Goblin Press in Howard’s stories. As eponymously fitting as this article is in the supplement, it does feel slightly trite, almost as if the publisher had to get the joke out of the way.

Daniel Harms offers the reader ‘The Walshes: A Cthulhu Cult’, a description of what happens when certain New England rumrunners come to worship a certain drowned god and use their gained knowledge to run the dangerous waters along the New England coast. The result is a heavily armed gang with a fast boat and a secret hideout that is feared by rival gangs and the Coast Guard alike – not to say factions native to dread Innsmouth! Now that takes some doing – all summed up in this nicely done write-up. This is followed by ‘Massa di Requiem per Shuggay: A History of the Devil’s Opera’, penned by the creator of the Massa di Requiem per Shuggay, Scott David Aniolowski. Intimately tied up with the history of the Shan, the Insects from Shaggai, the complete history of this three act opera is given here for the first time. Most notably includes the most recent appearance of this banned opera in the pages of Call of Cthulhu, in Mikael Hedberg’s scenario ‘A Night at the Opera’, from Miskatonic River Press’ New York set anthology, Tales of from Sleepless City.

‘When Johnny Came Marching Home’ is the first of two articles in Island of Ignorance by its publisher, Oscar Rios. With it he offers the means to create investigators who served in the Great War. Although the rules cover the military training, the combat experiences, and their possible after effects, and the economic hardships that a veteran might all experience, they are not comprehensive. Primarily because its focus is on the American investigator and again on the American investigator who fought on the front lines, rather than served in a support capacity. Nevertheless, this is a quick and dirty method and handles something not covered in Call of Cthulhu itself. Next, in ‘Dweller in Darkness’, Tyler Hudak brings to light the Great Old One known as Bugg-Shash, expanding up the nature of this entity and its rare cultists to provide enough information for the Keeper to use them in his own campaign.

As described by Eckhard Huelshoff, the ‘The Knjiga Mrtva (or Book of the Dead)’ is collection of Serbian observations and writings that initially focuses on the undead and then later on certain creatures of the Mythos. It feels a little scrappy around the edges, but that comes from its varied content more than the writing. This is a useful addition that opens up the possibility of exploring the Mythos in Eastern Europe. This is followed by Tom Lynch’s description of one the secrets of the infamous Abdul Alhazred, ‘The Silks of Irem’. Not unsurprisingly, these are as potentially deadly as they are useful and they would make for a different MacGuffin. Rounding out the articles section of the Island of Ignorance is Oscar Rios’ second article, ‘Raggedy Clothes and Worn Out Shoes: A Look at the American Hobo’. This examines the place of the hobo and his life and how he can be played as a Mythos investigator, covering not only the hobo, but also the tramp and the bum. It is a thoroughly engaging piece that provides enough detail to support the background of any hobo should the reader want to play one of these characters and bring them to life in his next Call of Cthulhu game – and after reading this article, he should. (Although the rules are incompatible, Trail of Cthulhu Keepers and players will find this article of use as the hobo is a given character type in that game, and the background is certainly not incompatible). This is arguably, the highlight of the octet of articles in Island of Ignorance.

Opening up the quintet of scenarios in Island of Ignorance is Brian M. Sammons’ ‘Consumption’, a gruesome sequel to H.P. Lovecraft’s ‘The Picture in the House’. A grizzly encounter on the road between Arkham and Dunwich puts the investigators in the sights of a set of horribly human monsters with a necrophagous predilection. This set will go to almost any lengths to protect their inhuman habits and this is after having firmly made itself part of local society, making the act of investigating the activities of its members more than a little challenging. Despite there being very little Mythos involvement in ‘Consumption’ this scenario does not feel out of place in this supplement with a strong investigative aspect and suitably nasty secrets to reveal.

The second scenario is also set in Lovecraft Country, but in little visited Aylesbury rather than in Arkham, where several the town’s children, all of them poor workers at a local textile mill, have vanished under mysterious circumstances – only to appear a few days later seemingly unperturbed. ‘Let the Children Come to Me’ by Mark Shireman forces the investigators to make a ghastly comparison. Which is worse – the evils perpetrated by mankind on its own kin or the uncaring entities that would take advantage of such crimes? Again, the perpetrators hide behind a façade of respectability, making getting to the truth another challenge. The scenario’s denouement feels a little complex and needs careful handling upon the part of the Keeper as there are several possible outcomes. Equally, in coming to the climax of this scenario, the investigators will find themselves facing a moral dilemma in trying to determine the right outcome for this scenario.

Oscar Rios’ own contribution to the scenarios in Island of Ignorance is ‘The Lonely Point Lighthouse’, which will again present a moral dilemma to the investigators come its climax. They are hired by the city council of the port of New London, Connecticut to determine if the Lonely Point Lighthouse, located some three miles offshore, is haunted. After all, the last two keepers quit after supposedly hearing moans, tapping, and scratching sounds inside the lighthouse, plus when the investigators start asking around town, there are rumours about a sea monster haunting the waters around the lighthouse. Is there really a monster or is this an attempt to drum up the tourist trade? Of course, the investigators have to visit the lighthouse, so the time they have to unearth more facts in town is short. The investigative process adheres to the author’s trademark penchant for legwork rather than poring over books and nicely sets everything up for the isolated investigation at the lighthouse and another good dilemma for the investigators to solve.

The investigators find themselves solving another haunting in ‘With Blue Uncertain Stumbling’ by Jeffrey Moeller, and again, it takes place offshore. Not at a lighthouse, but on the island of Key West in Florida where the ghost of a woman has been seen in the mirrors of a hotel. This is not an easy investigation to get into and once a few facts are known, finding a solution to the mystery is not easy either. It makes much of the folklore of the island to present a twist upon the ‘returned from the grave’ story, but one that is pleasingly original and creepy. 

The last scenario in Island of Ignorance is Jon Hook’s ‘Darkness Illuminated’. Returning the quintet to Arkham, this is the most Pulp of the scenarios in the supplement, combining as it does John Wyndham’s The Midwich Cuckoos with the Mythos. The investigators are hired by the parents of a student at a local school for the blind to find out why their son has become withdrawn and distant from them and if it could be as the result of a new drug administered by Doctor James Herrington. Equally, the school for the blind does not want to talk about its students or indeed its doctor… Despite its pulp leanings, ‘Darkness Illuminated’ is a surprisingly sophisticated affair, but in places it feels rushed and very much in need of another edit. Again, it establishes a satisfying moral dilemma at the end and this more than makes up for the sometimes eyebrow raising Pulp elements.

Rounding out Island of Ignorance is ‘Heroes and Heroines of the Lovecraft Country’, a collection of eighteen pre-generated investigators already to play or drop into a scenario. The collection is decent enough, and despite having been thoroughly playtested at innumerable conventions, they amount to just the numbers. It is a pity that none of them comes with their own background to help ease their use in play or help spark a player’s imagination. Only one investigator comes with any background and that is Walt ‘Mashed Potatoes’ Johnson, a Hobo who is discussed in the earlier ‘Raggedy Clothes and Worn Out Shoes: A Look at the American Hobo’. In some ways, the accompanying checklist of typical investigator equipment is of more use. It rules are simple – an investigator just uses his Credit Rating score as points to spend on the listed equipment, so if he wants camera and film it will cost him four points, whereas a bottle of fine wine or brandy will cost five points. It is a pity that this sheet has been specifically designed for use with the eighteen listed pre-generated investigators as it would work well in general for any game set during the Roaring Twenties or the Desperate Decade of the 1930s.

Physically, Island of Ignorance – The Third Cthulhu Companion is neatly and cleanly presented in a style that feels reminiscent of the original Cthulhu Companion as well as the books published by the late Miskatonic River Press. This is no surprise since Oscar Rios was heavily involved with Miskatonic River Press. The supplement’s illustrations by Reuben Dodd are well done and nicely capture the action within the scenarios and whilst Alyssa Faden’s exterior cartography is excellent, her interior cartography is pedestrian at best. Where Island of Ignorance suffers is in its editing, which feels rushed in places and could have been done one more time.

So the question is, how does Island of Ignorance – The Third Cthulhu Companion compare with the earlier Cthulhu Companion: Ghastly Adventures & Erudite Lore and Fragments of Fear: The Second Cthulhu Companion? It is far superior in every way to Fragments of Fear: The Second Cthulhu Companion, so that is not a fair comparison. A fair comparison would be with the Cthulhu Companion: Ghastly Adventures & Erudite Lore and in doing so, the articles are broadly superior – though some of the content has since been superseded – to those in Island of Ignorance, but the scenarios are better in Island of Ignorance. Indeed, all five scenarios are mature and sophisticated affairs that handle their often adult themes in a suitably restrained fashion. The best of them challenge not only the investigators’ ability to withstand creeps, shocks, and scares, but difficult choices too. Island of Ignorance – The Third Cthulhu Companion is a good first book from a new publisher. All that publisher needs to do with its next books is maintain the quality of the material and match it by giving them the editorial polish that they need and they will be very good books indeed.

Monday, 14 October 2013

Meme Melee Mash Up

Alien Ninja versus Dinosaur Tricksters versus Pirate Wizards versus Robot Zombies or Alien Dinosaurs versus Ninja Pirates versus Robot Wizards versus Trickster Zombies or Alien Wizards versus Zombie Tricksters versus Robot Pirates versus Dinosaur Ninjas or… Take an Internet meme like Pirates versus Ninja versus Robots versus Monkeys and whisk into a stiff froth and what you have is Smash Up: The Shufflebuilding Game of Total Awesomeness!, a card game published by Alderac Entertainment Group. Best known for its Legend of the Five Rings CCG and Legend of the Five Rings RPG, Alderac Entertainment Group has within the last three years expanded rapidly into the design and publication of board and card games. Smash Up, which was the  2013 UK Games Expo Awards Best General Card Game Winner, is a light card game, designed for play by two to four players, aged twelve and up, in which different factions team up and battle for control of the world!

Smash Up consists of eight factions – Aliens, Dinosaurs, Ninjas, Pirates, Robots, Tricksters, Wizards, and Zombies, each represented by a twenty-card deck. A ninth deck, containing sixteen cards, consists of the Bases, such as the ‘Temple of Goju’ or ‘Evans City Cemetery’, which the factions will battle over. To win, each player must take control of a pairing of two of these factions, usually randomly determined, which might be Robot Tricksters or Pirate Zombies, and use it to take control of these Bases. Score enough points from these Bases – fifteen Victory Points is enough – and a player will win.

Each faction consists of Action and Minion cards, the latter valued between one and seven Power, but at the heart of the game are the special abilities particular to each faction. Aliens zap the minions of rival players back into their hands; Dinosaurs, many with lasers for eyes, get to stomp on Bases with their big Power and scare other factions when it is not their turn; Ninjas sneak onto Bases just at the right time when you least expect it; and Pirates can set sail easily from one Base to another. Robots bring out lots of tiny little microbots that quickly stack and power each other up; Tricksters – fae such as gnomes, gremlins, and leprechauns play seemingly random ruses that protect their Minions or have consequences on attacking players; Wizards cast spells that let them play extra Action cards; and Zombies never die, but end up in the player’s discard pile to swarm back out again. Playing one faction might be easy enough, but mastering Smash Up means getting to grips with how one faction interacts with another, because the abilities of one faction will usually affect the other faction in a pairing. 

The game starts with each player taking two faction decks and shuffling these together. This is the ‘shufflebuilding’ of the game’s title and it is how a player forms his deck for the game. Then a number of Bases are laid out, equal to the number of players plus one. Each Base has a Breakpoint, ranging from sixteen to twenty-five. When the total value of Minions on the Base played by everyone equals or succeeds this Breakpoint, the Base is smashed and Victory Points are scored. Each Base awards points to the player with the highest total value in Minions on the Base, and then to the players with the second and third highest totals. As soon as a Base is scored in this fashion, a new one is added to fight over. Each Base has a special ability of its own. For example, ‘The Central Brain’ grants everyone Minion a +1 bonus to its Power when played on the Base, whilst the ‘Rhodes Plaza Mall’ awards one Victory Point to each player for every Minion he has on the Base when it scores.

Each turn a player can play two cards – an Action card and a Minion card, though he does not have to play either. Played onto a Base, a Minion has a set of instructions that trigger as soon as it is played. Usually this means getting to add another Minion to a Base or sending a rival Minion away, but the exact effect varies from one faction to another, and this essentially is Smash Up. Play is very simple, but things get somewhat complex when it comes to working out how the cards interact with each other and how they continue to affect the game from turn to another. This requires keeping track of the text on the card, and that can slow game play down, as can having to add up the total value of the Minions on a Base at the end of almost every turn, though neither really impedes play. Indeed, the text on the cards actually adds a little tactical substance to the game.

Physically, Smash Up is an attractive game. The cards are very nicely illustrated and the rules are clear and simple. The language used in the rules is sometimes annoyingly, if not patronisingly, informal and should never got past the editor. The inclusion of a scoring track would have been a useful addition.

A recent trend in game design has been the ‘deck building’ game, a type of card game in which a player builds and manipulates his own deck of cards in order to create the optimum deck and so win the game. Alderac Entertainment Group has published several of these, including Nightfall and Thunderstone, but Smash Up cuts to the chase – one ‘shufflebuild’ of two twenty-card decks and a player is ready to go and finds himself playing a simple, but strongly themed beat ‘em up card game that adds a little complexity and a surprising tactical substance when working how the cards interact. Smash Up: The Shufflebuilding Game of Total Awesomeness! is light and fun, attractive and varied with innumerable combinations to try out and see who gets to Smash Up the world!

Friday, 11 October 2013

The First Doctor

Both The TimeTraveller’s Companion and Defending the Earth: The UNIT Sourcebook, the last two sourcebooks for Cubicle Seven Entertainment’s Ennie-award winning DoctorWho: Adventures in Time and Space roleplaying game have looked to the television series’ past as much as they have its present. They have acknowledged the history of both the series and its setting whilst also exploring the most recent developments and involvement of the Doctor with UNIT and time travel and the Time Lords respectively. The third and more recent supplement for the RPG all but ignores the most recent incarnations of the Doctor to delve deep back into his past. Which in the year of Doctor Who’s fiftieth anniversary seems more than appropriate, and to celebrate that anniversary, Cubicle Seven Entertainment is going to do it again and again. The supplement in question is The First Doctor Sourcebook, the inaugural entry in the Doctor Sourcebook series, which means that there are another ten entries in the series to come…

As its title suggests, The First Doctor Sourcebook is wholly devoted to the adventures of the Doctor as portrayed by William Hartnell that take us from an encounter with An Unearthly Child in a  junkyard on Totter’s Lane to the Doctor’s first encounter with the Cybermen on The Tenth Planet. It presents an opportunity for the Doctor – or indeed, the player character Time Lord and his Companions to be wanderers in the Fourth Dimension. To visit Skaro for the first time; to visit the past and travel the Silk Road to far Cathay; to foil the machinations of Mavic Chen; to become the reluctant playthings of the Celestial Toymaker; and more.

The book is essentially broken into two parts. The first introduces us to Hartnell’s portrayal and explores his character, his Companions, the difficulties of his travels during this period, and the common themes and ideas. Most notably these include the scope and length of the First Doctor’s adventures, for rather than a quick visit he and his Companions might stay for months at a time, but then his adventures might also span numerous worlds. Nevertheless, the Doctor of this era likes to take his time to interact with different peoples and alien cultures. Aboard the Doctor’s TARDIS – in some ways as cantankerous and faulty as he is, this is an age of exploration and adventure, for as old as the Doctor appears, his adventures represent his first steps out into the unknown of the universe. Thus he is rarely as forewarned and certainly not as self-aware as later incarnations will be…

The second part of The First Doctor Sourcebook is further divided into chapters that travel chronologically in order through each of the First Doctor’s adventures. For each of these there is a synopsis followed by a guide to running the adventure and a listing of any appropriate characters, aliens, and gadgets. The guide to running each adventure is not a straight forward adaptation, but rather a discussion of themes and ideas inherent to the adventure. So for example, with An Unearthly Adventure the authors examine how Barbara and Ian are brought into the TARDIS and then discuss what lies at the heart of the encounter in the prehistoric – the desire for an object, in the case of An Earthly Child, the object is fire. The nature of the object is irrelevant, but how it can be used to tell a story is and that is the point of the examination. In presenting a fully stated up Stone Age Tribesman, they also discuss the possibility of playing a Companion from a primitive time. Rounding the entry for each story is a selection of Further Adventures hooks that could be run as possible sequels.

Advice and extra information like this continues throughout The First Doctor Sourcebook. So for example, there are stats and write ups for the very version of the Daleks from The Daleks; how to handle long journeys and the theft of the TARDIS as in Marco Polo; on using telepathy in The Sensorites; and how to portray non-human or non-humanoid characters as in the Menoptra, Optra, and Zarbi of The Web Planet. In all of these it does not present extensive write ups of every character to appear in each episode – that would take up a great deal of space and anyway, these are easy enough for the GM to create by himself. The pertinent ones are given though, except for one odd omission, that of the Meddling Monk from The Time Meddler. As a renegade Time Lord, his stats and a fuller write up can be found in The Time Traveller’s Companion. Rounding out The First Doctor Sourcebook is a set of characters for every one of the Companions who accompanied the First Doctor on his travels.

Physically, The First Doctor Sourcebook is a slim hard back book, suitably illustrated throughout with black and white photographs – hopefully by the time Cubicle Seven Entertainment gets to The Third Doctor Sourcebook it will be in colour. The volume feels solidly researched and well written, but if there is a downside to the book, it is that not going to appeal or be of use to everyone, and that is going to be an issue with each of the subsequent volumes in the series. After all, almost everyone has their favourite Doctor and also their least favourite Doctor, and that may be reflected in the Doctor Sourcebooks that they purchase. With The First Doctor Sourcebook, the adventures presented here may not be as dynamic or as knowing or as exciting as those of new Who, but there is nothing to stop the GM from bringing those elements to the Hartnell era or treating the era as a change of pace. Or indeed as a starting point for a campaign that revisits each of the eleven eras of the Doctor.

The First Doctor Sourcebook gets the Doctor Sourcebook series for the Doctor Who: Adventures in Time and Space roleplaying game off to a well-done start. It will be a pleasure to see if the authors can carry it on for The Second Doctor Sourcebook, The Third Doctor Sourcebook, and more…

Friday, 4 October 2013

Track or Share II

If you like train games, then the name Winsome Games might be familiar to you. If you are a true devotee then you may have picked up some of the publisher’s games, either direct or at the Internationale Spieltage SPIEL, also known as Essen. Alternatively, you may have purchased one or more of its designs in the international editions published by Queen Games. For example, Winsome Games’ 2007 Wabash Cannonball became Queen Games’ 2008 Chicago Express and Winsome Games’ SNCF from 2010 was republished by Queen Games as Paris Connection in 2011. More recently in a follow up to Chicago Express, in 2011 Queen Games republished the Winsome Games’ 2008 Preußische Ostbahn as German Railways, the first entry in its Iron Horse collection.

Designed for three to five players, aged twelve plus, as its title suggests, German Railways is all about German railways. More specifically, it focuses upon the period between 1832 and 1872 when some two hundred or so railroad companies were founded and helped connect the then innumerable Germanic states, forging economic and cultural ties that would further foster the drive towards unification. Even more specifically, German Railways is about eight railways and their share values. In most games about railways, the game’s focus is on building tracks between one city and another and then transporting either passengers and/or goods between them. In German Railways, the players do not transport either goods or passengers, but rather they invest capital in each railway and then expend that capital to increase both its network and its share value. Whomever makes the most from these shares by game’s end wins the game.

The game consists of three sets of Railroad Shares, a matching Railroad Income marker, and a set of rolling stock for each of the game’s eight railways. The rolling stock consists of ‘Iron Horses’ or Locomotives, similar to those found in Paris Connection. There is also a set of Player Turn Order markers and a Player Income marker for each player; ‘Talers’ or coins in various denominations; plus the board. The latter depicts a map of Germany – its towns and cities, rural, hill, and mountainous regions – overlaid with a hex grid, plus three tracks; the first for the Player Turn Order, the second for the Railroad Income, and the third for the Player Incomes. Each railroad also has a space on the edge of the board to hold its current capital. The game comes with rules in Dutch, English, French, and German.

At game’s start, the share value markers and the player income markers are placed on the appropriate tracks. Then a locomotive of the matching colour is placed on each railway company’s starting city. Each player also receives a certain amount of Talers, the amount depending upon the number of players – more players have less money. Lastly the shares are auctioned off in order – 'Preußische Ostbahn', 'Niederschlesische-Märkische Eisenbahn', 'Königlich-Sächsische Staatseisenbahnen', 'Königlich-Bayerische Staatseisenbahnen', 'Main-Weser-Bahn', 'Großherzoglich Badische Staatseisenbahnen', 'Cöln-Mindener Eisenbahn-Gesellschaft', and 'Berlin-Hamburger Eisenbahn-Gesellschaft'. The shares are also auctioned off in three waves, each wave consisting of one share from each Railroad, and all of the shares in a wave have to be auctioned off before the shares in another wave can be put up for auction. 

Once all of the eight shares in the first wave have been auctioned off, the players determine their current income. This is done by adding up the value of their shares and adjusting their marker on the Player Income track accordingly. Then player order is determined. This is done by drawing five Player Turn Order markers from a provided cloth bag. These five are placed as drawn on the Player Turn Order track. To seed the bag, the player with the highest current Player Income puts a single Player Turn Order marker of his colour into the bag; the player with the second highest current Player Income puts two of his Player Turn Order markers into the bag; the player with the third highest current Player Income puts in three; and so on. What this means is that the player with the highest Player Income has a high chance of not even getting a turn this round because he only has one Player Turn Order marker in the bag, where players with lower Player Incomes will greater chances because their Player Incomes are lower and they will have more markers in the bag. This is a balancing mechanism. 

On his turn a player can do one of three things. He can choose to pass, he can put up a Railroad Share up for auction, or he can build track. To do the latter, a player selects a Railroad in which he owns one or more Shares in and spends the capital invested in it to add Locomotives to that Railroad’s existing network. Usually this is three Locomotives, but may be more or less depending upon the Railroad. Each Railroad has a special feature. For example, the Preußische Ostbahn was efficient and so can build four Locomotives rather than three, whilst the Cöln-Mindener Eisenbahn-Gesellschaft focused on Share Dividends rather than expansion, so can only spend a maximum of five Talers on building track.

Every time track is built into urban and city hexes, it increases the value of the Railroad Share by one and thus the Player Income of any player who owns shares in the Railroad, though some cities increase the value by more than one. If track of one Railroad is built into an urban or city hex where there is the track of another Railroad, then a connection is made and Dividends are paid out on all Shares currently owned. Anyone who own Shares in the railroad that made the connection receives a double Dividend because it made the connection. Only a limited number of connections – one condition for ending the game is if all Railroads have made two connections to two other Railroads.

Initially, because the players are each investing with a set amount, each Railroad will receive a limited amount of investment capital with which to Build Track and increase its value. Thus Dividends will be low, but as the game progresses Railroads expand, the value of their Railroad Shares increase and more connections are made, so leading to greater Dividends. Thus the players gain greater money with which to purchase more shares. Towards the end of the game, the Dividends are even greater, but because the winner of the game is determined by whomever has the most Talers, a player must choose carefully between purchasing shares or keeping his money towards game end. Also during auctions in the later part of the game, there also comes a point where it no longer becomes worthwhile purchasing shares because the potential Dividend of a share is less than the price it can be purchased for. 

Whilst German Railways is for the most part well designed and presented, it is unfortunately beset by some poor colour matches. The problem is that the colours of the shares and their corresponding trains do not always quite match. Plus the colours of some of the share certificates look very similar. In particular, the colour of the brown, orange, and yellow shares are all so washed out that they are difficult to tell apart. This is a real problem in the game and it is even worse if any player has colour issues with his sight.

Another issue concerns the means of determining turn order. The mechanism is clever and innovative and designed as means for the player who is trailing those in the lead to have more turns and thus have a chance to catch up. As I said, it is clever and innovative. Some players though, dislike the fact that they can spend a whole round without taking a turn. That though, is their problem, not that of the game’s as they can still participate in share auctions and they will still benefit from Dividend payouts. Lastly play time is listed as sixty minutes – it is more like ninety minutes.

Ultimately, whether you like German Railways or not depends upon whether you like this Turn Order mechanism. It is the game’s divisive design feature. Some gamers may also have an issue with the fact that the game is a share manipulation game rather than a railway game. That said, so is Paris Connection with which German Railways shares the same publishers. German Railways is more complex than Paris Connection, but not by much and the complexity comes in determining share values. Get that right and you will be the master of the German Railways.

Tuesday, 1 October 2013

A Norse Trilogy

Since 2003, the Miskatonic University Library Association series of monographs has been Chaosium, Inc.’s way of making other works available to players of both Call of Cthulhu and Basic RolePlay. Bar the printing, each monograph’s author is responsible for the writing, the editing, and the layout, so far the quality of entries in the series have varied widely and has led to some dreadful releases. Fortunately, The Ravenar Sagas: Three Viking Adventures for Cthulhu Dark Ages is far from dreadful in terms of both editing and layout, and far from dreadful in terms of storytelling and writing.

The Ravenar Sagas is the second campaign from Oscar Rios, a Call of Cthulhu author best known for The Legacy of Arrius Lurco, the Cthulhu Invictus campaign published by the late lamented Miskatonic River Press. His previous campaign, also a Monograph, was Ripples from Carcosa, a trilogy of connected scenarios set in the periods of Cthulhu Invictus, Cthulhu Dark Ages, and the near future of the End Times, but separated by millennia. The Ravenar Sagas marks his second return to the period of Cthulhu Dark Ages, the setting when the dread Necronomicon was freely distributed and the forces of the Mythos all but ran wild… Where Cthulhu Dark Ages focused primarily on mainland Europe as a setting, The Ravenar Sagas takes its adventurers to the edge of Europe and beyond…

Although the subtitle of the campaign suggests that The Ravenar Sagas consists of “Three Viking Adventures”, the Monograph actually contains three adventures for six Northmen who as friends crew the newly built small knorr, the Ravenar. Together, the six are men of action, well-armed, fearless, and eager to carve out legends for themselves, and over the course of three adventures and thirteen years, their heroic deeds will lend themselves to a great saga, one of love, betrayal, and horrors from beyond. In the course of the adventure the characters will age thirteen years, so versions are provided for each of the three scenarios that in turn will take the investigators to and from Norway to Iceland, Greenland, and Vinland.

The saga begins in 989 AD with ‘The Unsung Saga’, an action orientated scenario originally used as a demonstration adventure for Cthulhu Dark Ages. The six adventurers are tasked by their chieftain to go in search of his son, Svengar who has not returned from a hunting expedition to the Faeroes Islands. What the adventurers learn is that Svengar had other things on his mind than hunting and if they are to mount a rescue, they must strike a curious bargain and venture into the lair of some wholly wild creatures.

If ‘The Unsung Saga’ was a fairly straight forward affair, ‘The Second Saga’ is more complex and detailed, and thus a more interesting scenario. It is set three years later and Svengar has prospered, turning the failing settlement of Neskasyla into a welcoming and friendly place that looks to succeed for years to come. In the process, Svengar has made himself a popular leader as well as a growing family. Invited to spend Yuletide with Svengar and his wife in Neskasyla, the adventurers find themselves, along with the inhabitants of the settlement, besieged by the unnatural, both in terms of the weather and things that no man should have dealings with. 

The adventurers will have much more to do in ‘The Second Saga’. There is work to be done in Neskasyla as well as play, fellow visitors to rescue, and an enveloping storm to pierce if the adventurers are to thwart the ‘real’ danger to the settlement. Long-time devotees of Call of Cthulhu will recognise the entities used in this scenario, but they are appropriately used and challenging foes given the setting and what the player characters must face them with. Overall, this is an engaging and enjoyable affair with much for the player characters to do.

The trilogy comes to a close with ‘The Vinland Saga’, which takes place a decade after those of ‘The Second Saga’ in 1002 AD. The adventurers are ten years older and experienced ship captains who are called to war following the news that Svengar is dead! He had gone to the aid of his steward, Ozgar, who had established a colony of his own in Vinland that was attacked by an alliance of dark native tribes and rival Northmen. In their defence of the colony Svengar was struck down and killed and now his wife wants revenge!

Whilst ‘The Vinland Saga’ brings The Ravenar Sagas to a rousing climax, it suffers from being too combat-orientated. It consists of one combat encounter after another and the problem is that Call of Cthulhu is not very forgiving when it comes to combat. Nevertheless, some of them are nicely staged and are unlike any the players will encounter in a normal game of Call of Cthulhu.

The Ravenar Sagas is rounded out with the ‘actual’ history of the Sagas and how they came to be uncovered from a burial mound in Iceland in 1884. Here they are also presented as a Mythos Tome so that a group of investigators could read them in the Gaslight, Jazz, or Modern Age and actually learn from them by playing out the events they are said to portray…

Physically, The Ravenar Sagas is decently presented for a Monograph. It needs another edit, but the layout is light enough to counter the lack of illustrations. If there is an issue with the book it is that the maps are indistinct. In hindsight, it probably would have been better had they been done by hand.

As a trilogy, The Ravenar Sagas does a good job of presenting a ‘Viking’ Saga. As a set of scenarios, it is an uneven affair in terms of investigation over combat, and of the three, the middle one, ‘The Second Saga’ is the most balanced and the best written. In fact, it would actually make a reasonable addition to any collection. It consisting of three scenarios, each several years apart, means that a Keeper could easily slot other scenarios in between the three included here. The Ravenar Sagas continues Oscar Rios’ penchant for untraditional Call of Cthulhu scenarios in terms of the investigative process and the action.