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

Saturday, 31 May 2014

The Unlikely Next England Captain

If you know me at all, you will know how passionate I am about football. I loathe it. I am bored by it. I take a particularly perverse pleasure in every single loss that the England football team suffers. As you can see, I am singularly passionate about football.

So what the hell am I doing reviewing a football-themed game when I am still trying to work out why my parents gave me Super Striker for Christmas when I was five? Which was in 1972.

So here is what happened. I was at Curry & Games, a local games meet that takes each month here in Birmingham. J-P Treen approached Chris and myself and asked if we would like to play a game of his. It was, he explained, a game about football titled Next England Captain. Given this theme, both Chris and I agreed with a certain reluctance. We played through it and much to our surprise, found that we had enjoyed ourselves and we had enjoyed the humour of the game. We did break the game though. Sort of.

Leap forward eighteen months and another game design or two and Next England Captain is not only being showcased at UK Games Expo this weekend, but it also being launched on Kickstarter. My name may or may not be in the credits because I helped J-P Treen with the game’s blurb, but the game itself is all his and this review is all mine. So read on and be surprised as I am to find myself reviewing a football-themed game.

The game in question is Next England Captain: The Anti-Football Game, published by Too Much Games. This is a meticulously researched card game for two to four players aged ten and up that can be played in twenty minutes. Each player controls the fate and dreams of a football player—he can make career moves, but sometimes his career is out of his control—who one day hopes to become the Next England Captain. The game is a satire, but a gentle one at that…
It consists of four Playing Mats—one per player; twenty Career Tokens—five per player, each representing a Career Move; and seventy-two cards. The cards are divided into six colour-coded types. Club (black) cards represent the football team that a player plays for—such as Flower Show F.C. or Leyton Occidental; Squad (blue) cards represent his position on the team from ‘Catastrophic Loss of Form’ to ‘He Scores When He Wants’; and England (red) cards are his position on the England national squad, usually ‘England Regular’, but if he is fortunate, ‘England Captain’. If he is unfortunate, it will be ‘Scotland Regular?’ and thus make him ineligible to play for the England team. Status (orange) cards represent a range of things, whether he has a ‘Girlfriend’, ‘Wife’, ‘Children’, or a ‘Car Crash Personality’; Money (yellow) cards are deals that the football player can make, such as ‘Coaching Ambassador’ or ‘Trademark Celebration’; and Final (black) cards represent what a player does after his career, perhaps ‘Foreign Move’ or ‘The Pundit’. Final cards can only be played on a player’s final turn.

Every card has a points value. At the end of the game, each player totals the values of his visible cards—some cards will add to, or modify the total—and the player with highest score will win the game.

Each Playing Mat has spaces for each card type when they played, one on top of each other—only the top card counts. The Playing Mat also has spaces in the middle for placing a player’s Career Tokens when played.

The first problem with the game—all right the second problem with the game, because the first is that it is after all, a football-themed game—is determining who goes first. According to the rules this is the person who last kicked a football. Which is a problem in some gaming groups as they collectively try and work out exactly how many years go any one of them actually kicked a real life football… Once that has been decided, each player receives a hand of four cards and the game can begin.

On his turn, a player can do one of two moves. The first is a Career Move. This allows him to play as many cards as he can, but only one of each type. Essentially, this is the football player doing his best to further his career. It also uses up one of the player’s five Career Moves. The second is to discard cards and refresh his hand. A player can discard as many as he likes, but he must take a ‘Penalty!’, drawing a single card and playing it if he can—this representing the fickle hand of fortune—before he refreshes his hand back up to four.

For example, Dave has the following hand: Woolwich Rovers (8) Club card, Chairman’s Toy (6) Squad card, Trademark Celebration (5) Money card, and Sponsored Boots (2) Money card. As a Career Move, he plays the Woolwich Rovers, the Chairman’s Toy, and Trademark Celebration cards, but not the Sponsored Boots card as it is not worth as much. The other advantage is that the combination of Woolwich Rovers Club and the Chairman’s Toy Squad cards make him eligible to play for the England.

On his next turn, Dave still has the Sponsored Boots card in his hand as well as the Aston Park F.C. (6) Club card, the Scotland Regular? (5) England card, and The Pundit (9) Final card. Of these, he decides to save The Pundit until the final turn because it is worth points and opt for a Penalty! in order to get a better hand. The card he draws is the Leyton Oriental (3) Club, which he has to play. Unfortunately, not only is the card worth fewer points, it also makes him ineligible to play for England! Oh well, Dave had better hope that his new hand of cards gives him a Club card that will make him eligible.

Two Career Moves grant a player certain benefits. ‘Write your own History’ allows a player to take a card from the discard pile before having a normal Career Move, while ‘This is your Year’ enables him to play two cards of the same colour instead of the usual one allowed. Both are useful because certain cards have requirements that need to be met before they can be played. The most basic is the need to have a strong combination of Club and Squad cards so that the football player is eligible to play for England and the player can play an England Regular card. These requirements grow the nearer a player gets to becoming Captain of the England Football team. To become that, he needs to be an England Regular and have the Children Status card, the latter also needing Wife or Celebrity Wife Status cards, and they each have their own requirements.

Why all of these requirements? Well, as the game designer has explained to me, no Captain of the England Football Team of the past seventy years has held the position and not been married or had children. As he has also explained, Next England Captain is meticulously researched, and who am I to say otherwise? (Anyway, saying otherwise would probably mean having to look up a bunch of tedious facts about a very tedious game—and no, I do not mean the one that I am reviewing).*

*(It should actually made clear that not all of the facts given in the previous paragraph is true. This was also relayed to me by the game's designer, which might not lend much credibility as to his reliability as an expert on the position of Captain of the England Football team. Neither does the fact he himself has never held the position of  Captain of the England Football team, but then again this may also prove to be untrue—how would I know? In the meantime, the designer discusses the subject of the position of Captain of the England Football team and marriage in a post here).

Once a player has conducted his last Career Move, everyone else has one more turn. This is the only turn in which Final cards can be played. Then everyone totals up the value of the top cards on their stacks and the highest wins the game. 

Next England Captain combines card drafting and hand management elements with press your luck and storytelling game play. Each player needs to discard cards and take a Penalty! several times in order to get the cards into his hand to make a Career Move a worthwhile move, but will often be forced to play Career Moves in order to keep up with his rival players. As a player puts his cards down, he is also playing out the career of his player and all its highs and lows. What makes this entertaining are the cards, which whilst all drawn from the lives of football players in the Premier League, are all absurd in one way or another, if they do not out and out poke fun at football players and the Premier League. For example, the Sports Drink Promo Deal Money card has the slogan, “Looks like wee. Tastes like sweat. Makes you awesome.”; the Car Crash Personality Status card has words “Why Always Him?” on it as well as the symbol of a sports car; and the ‘Super-Injunction’ Status card has no effect at all, not even a score value at game’s end! (It has been suggested that the latter prevent the other players from talking about the player).

So what do I think of Next England Captain: The Anti-Football Game? Well, first we need to deal with the Rooney in the room. So here goes… I HATE FOOTBALL. Nothing short of a lobotomy is going to change this. So what do I think of Next England Captain: The Anti-Football Game in light of the Rooney in the room?

I actually enjoy playing Next England Captain: The Anti-Football Game.

I actually like Next England Captain: The Anti-Football Game.

It is not quite a perfect design in some ways. Some cards are more important than others—the Status cards in particular. This though, is by design. The role of England Captain is primarily a public relations role and thus whatever football player has the role needs to project the right image—married, children, and so on. So it reflects the Premier League just as it should. 

Next England Captain: The Anti-Football Game can of course be played straight and its satirical elements ignored, but the ‘Anti’ of the game’s subtitle is very much part of the game’s enjoyment. Surprisingly, it is an enjoyable kick up the pomposity of the Premier League and a footballers’ life that in twenty minutes shatters what dreams you might have of being the Next England Captain.

Thursday, 29 May 2014

Wondrously More Than Magic

In the far future mankind will have done wonderful things. Travelled to other universes. Controlled the energies of stars. Constructed cities and structures that float in the sky. Harnessed the smallest of machines to undertake great tasks and more. Modified the appearance and genetics of not just the beasts around them, but of themselves to give endless form and function. All this and more over the course of eight aeons and eight great civilisations, but now, following the fall of the last civilisation, what is left of such great achievements are orbiting satellites that beam constant streams of inaccessible information, engines deep within the Earth whose thrumming can at times be felt on the surface, structures that hang in the sky without the means to access them, portals that occasionally open to other worlds that might lead to greater wonders or imminent death, clouds of swarming nanites, terraformed and modified landscapes that defy purpose, and of course, the 'numenera'. In this the Ninth World, people look upon the wonders of the past, knowing that it was achieved through technological means—not magic, but knowing that they have lost the means to create it or in many cases, to use it as it was originally intended.

The people of the Ninth World are humans, though some are abhumans—mutants, crossbreeds, the genetically engineered, and their descendants, or they are visitants, who have come to Earth, but are not native to it. They reside in the Steadfast, a collection of kingdoms and principalities that exist under the watchful benevolence of the Amber Pope, whose Aeon Priests of the Order of Truth revere the peoples of the past and their knowledge and technology. The Order of Truth not only studies the past and its technologies, it tries to find a use for them to the betterment of the peoples of the Steadfast. The peoples of the Ninth World make use of the technology that they can scavenge—and which the Aeon Priests tell them is safe to use, turning it into armour, weapons, and everyday devices and tools to enhance the medieval technology they currently possess. In particular they employ Numenera—artifacts, cyphers, and oddities— bits of technology leftover from past civilizations, that may have an obvious function; may have once had an obvious function, but what that was has been lost and the device is put to another use; or may have once had an obvious function, but what that was has been lost and can no longer be discerned.

This is the setting for Numenera, a Science-Fantasy RPG set a billion years into the future, designed and written by Monte Cook whose credits include Dungeons & Dragons, Third Edition, numerous d20 System titles, and of course, his own campaign setting, Ptolus. Originally and very successfully launched on Kickstarter, Numenera is also a post-apocalyptic setting that embraces the weird, though not in the wacky sense of say Wizards of the Coast’s Gamma World or the arch-baroque decadence of Pelgrane Press’ Dying Earth role-playing game or the oppressively rich Tékumel: Empire of the Petal Throne. It does though, embrace a sense of wonder and the wondrous, but in its underlying play, it certainly draws parallels with Gamma World in that the player characters go out into the world and explore the ruins and devices of the past in the hope that they can use them to improve the society of today. In a sense, Numenera is a dungeon bash game, the characters delving across, down, up, and beyond into the wonders of the past to plunder its relics, but the technological and the fantastical elements of the setting push it away from that as does the fact that the characters are not delving necessarily for riches. As a game, Numenera is a contemporary design in that it embraces both rules light mechanics and light storytelling mechanics.

Characters in Numenera are primarily humans in one form or another—visitants are an advanced option and one of three Types—Glaives, Nanos, or Jacks. Glaives are warriors, either wearing heavy armour and wielding heavy weaponry or relying light arms and armour to give them movement and agility. Nanos are sorcerers, capable of tapping into the Numenera to alter reality or learn more about it, wielding ‘Esoteries’ to command nano-spirits. Jacks are somewhere in between, being flexible in what they can do, capable of learning to fight, using ‘Esoteries’, and more. At their core, each character is defined by three stats—Might, Speed, and Intellect, and a descriptive sentence. This sentence has the structure of “I am a [adjective] [noun] who [verbs]”, where the noun is the character’s Type; the adjective a descriptor, such as Clever or Swift, that defines the character and how he does things; and the verb is the Focus or what the character does that makes him unique. For example, “I am a Charming Jack who Murders”. A player will also need to assign some points to the three Stats and choose some options in terms of Background—how the character became a Glaive, Nano, or Jack—and select some skills from the Type. The choice of descriptor and the verb further defines and modifies the character, whilst the Background and the Connection help hook the character into the setting. Characters begin at Tier One and can advance as far as Tier Six, gaining skills and abilities along the way.

The three sample characters attempt to showcase what the system can do. The Glaive is intentionally basic, almost bland, primarily a fighting man in a strange world, so that the Nano and Jack have something to compare with. The Nano is capable of talking to machines and has an innate understanding of numenera, but the downside is that the people around think him odd. The Jack has implants from the past that enable him to manipulate gravity, but does not know where they are from and how they work. The answers might lie with his father, but he has gone missing.

“I am a Strong Glaive who Rages”
Tier One Glaive
Might 17 (Edge 1)
Speed 12 (Edge 1)
Intellect 9 (Edge 0)
Effort 1

Cyphers (2): (Two Cyphers selected by the GM)
Physical Skills: Breaking inanimate objects, Climbing, Jumping, Practiced with all armour, Practiced with all weapons
Fighting Moves: Bash (1 Might), Thrust (1 Might), Frenzy (1 Intellect)
Equipment: Great hammer, broadsword, shield, medium armour, explorer’s pack, 5 shins
Connection: Bouncer in a local bar for a while, the patrons recall me
Origin: Inborn Abilities

“I am a Mechanical Nano who Talks to Machines”
Tier One Nano
Might 08 (Edge 0)
Speed 12 (Edge 0)
Intellect 17 (Edge 1)
Effort 1

Cyphers (3): (Three Cyphers selected by the GM)
Esoteries: Distant Activation (1 Intellect), Hedge Magic (1 Intellect), Scan (2 Intellect), Sense Numenera, Ward
Skills: Identifying & understanding numenera, Machine Affinity, Practiced with light weapons
Equipment: Dagger, book about numenera, bag of tools, 4 shins
Connection: An experiment went wrong and the locals remember you 
Origin: Ports & Plugs
Notes: Unnerving aura

“I am a Graceful Jack who Controls Gravity”
Tier One Jack
Might 11 (Edge 0)
Speed 16 (Edge 1)
Intellect 11 (Edge 0)
Effort 1

Cyphers (2): (Two Cyphers selected by the GM)
Tricks of the Trade: Hedge Magic (1 Intellect), Hover (1 Intellect), Pierce (1 Speed)
Skills: Balance & Careful Movement, (Flexible) Skill, Perception, Physical Performing Arts, Practiced with light & medium weapons, Speed Defence
Equipment: Clothing, bow & arrows, explorer’s pack, pack of light tools, device for determining mass, 8 shins
Connection: Worked alongside his father who has since disappeared 
Origin: A Cobbled Jumble

Mechanically, Numenera uses a single mechanic—the roll of a single twenty-sided die against a Difficulty, ranging from zero up to ten. The actual Target Number is the value of the Difficulty multiplied by three, thus giving a range between three and thirty—any action with a Difficulty of zero is automatic. Modifiers, whether from favourable circumstances, skills, or good equipment, can decrease the Difficulty, whilst skills give bonuses to the roll. A character can also spend points from his Stat pools—on a one-to-one basis—to reduce the Difficulty, though a player should bear in mind that the Stat pools reflect his ability to act and take damage when attacked. The cost of spending points from a Stat pool is reduced by its associated Edge, as are the use of a Glaive’s Fighting Moves, a Nano’s Esoteries, and a Jack’s Tricks of the Trade. In some cases, this will reduce the cost to zero, thus reducing it to an innate action. For example, Huongsem has an Intellect Edge of 1, which reduces the cost of his Distant Activation and Hedge Magic Esoteries—both of which cost one point from his Intellect pool to use—to zero and so he can do them instinctively, whereas with his Scan estorie, he must still expend a point from his Intellect pool to use it, though its cost is reduced from 2 to 1. Results of nineteen indicate a success and a Minor Effect, which might be extra damage in combat or something listed for a character, such as ‘Hitting a Muscle’ for the ‘Carries a Quiver’, which inflicts Speed damage as well as ordinary damage. A roll of a natural twenty also inflicts extra damage as well as a Major Effect. 

While the system is simple enough—even if the GM adds any of the given options—the radical, even elegant aspect to the mechanics is that the GM never, ever rolls a die. So whilst a character rolls to attack as normal, when an opponent attacks him, the character rolls to avoid the attack. Essentially the mechanic focus of the game is always on the player characters and they are always the focus of the action and the story. At the same, the shift for the GM is on running and presenting the story, not the dice rolls, and as a development of this idea, player characters receive Experience Points in again, another radical fashion when compared to other RPGs. First and foremost, they are not earned for defeating opponents, overcoming challenges, and so on, but for finding interesting numenera and making discoveries. Secondly, a player character gains them when the GM ‘intrudes’ on the game in storytelling terms to present the character with a challenge or difficulty, such as his crossbow string snapping whilst in combat or the rope slipping whilst climbing. Accept this ‘Intrusion’ and the character earns two Experience Points, one of which he must give to another character. A player could reject this ‘Intrusion’, but that would cost him an Experience Point. If a character rolled a natural one at any time, the GM can give an ‘Intrusion’ that cannot be bought off. However it comes, a GM ‘Intrusion’ replaces the need for him to roll dice and encourages him to participate in the telling of the story.

Over a third of Numernera is devoted to the setting of the Steadfast, its environs and beyond, literally, The Beyond. This is anything that lies outside of the nine kingdoms of the Steadfast and the Beyond the Beyond is also detailed. One such location Beyond the Beyond is The University of Doors, a place of learning found in an alternate universe that can only be reached via one or more hidden doors—getting to the door could be an adventure in itself. These sections are full of interesting details and places—such as the ‘mud’ city of Nihliesh, built atop an ancient, but immobile city-vehicle; that the lady Anatrea of Castle Aventur hosts salons for scholars and nanos, such is her fascination with numenera; and that a sphere of an unknown black material is rumoured to constantly roll across the Plain of Kataru.  Several organisations besides the Order of Truth, including the Convergence, whose members value Numenera as much as the Order of Truth, but for themselves rather than for society itself; the Angulan Knights, who are dedicated to humanity’s advancement and have the blessings of Order of Truth and ride the great xi-drakes as mounts; and the Jagged Dream, a secret anarchist cult dedicated to engineering conflict on a massive scale, are also detailed. The chapter of critters continues the weirdness of the setting with some odd creatures indeed, like the Sarrak, an eight-foot long cat-like predator that has a three-foot diameter ball of energy as a head. A lovely touch is that for each of the creatures, the GM is given an ‘Intrusion’ which he can use to make the encounter more challenging. So for the Sarak, it can suddenly seize control of character’s device to switch it off or turn it against him as an ‘Intrusion’.

Of course at the heart of Numenera are the numenera themselves, the devices of the past that have been put to uses old and new. They come in three types—Cyphers, Artifacts, and Discoveries and Oddities. Cyphers are one-time use devices, such as a Density Nodule that attaches to a weapon and increases its density and damage capacity for a day or Stim, which decreases the Difficulty of a character’s next action by three steps. Common Cyphers are drugs, medicines, or grenades. More desirable are the Artifacts, as they have greater endurance and more obvious application. It might be an Automated Cook or a suit of Battle Armour, a Hoop Staff that projects images into the bronze hoop at its top that warn of danger, or a Telltale Glass that turns red if poison is ever poured into it. Artifacts are not always perfect and may have quirks that the GM can use as ‘Intrusions’. Lastly, Oddities and Discoveries are interesting finds that do not have in game terms any actual mechanical effects, such as crystal that reforms after being smashed or a ring that when warn, gives the feeling of being caressed by warm hands. They can of course, be sold, but they also add verisimilitude to the Ninth World, being essentially the ephemeral gewgaws and knickknacks of a past age.

Interestingly, the player characters are limited in the number of Cyphers that they can each possess by their Type (Glaive, Nano, or Jack). Possess too many and a character’s Cyphers begin to have side effects, sometimes dangerous ones. The people of the Ninth World know this and distrust those with too many. This limit is both a game mechanic and a setting mechanic. It both enforces the fleeting nature of Cyphers and the need to use—because using them is fundamentally cool—whilst at the same preventing any player from just hoarding them.

The GM is supported with his own section of advice that covers using the rules, creating stories, and bringing the Ninth World to life. All three chapters are well written as befitting the author of the highly-regarded Dungeon Master’s Guide for Dungeons & Dragons, Third Edition. Rounding out the volume is a quartet of adventures that do a decent job of showcasing and helping the GM to showcase the mechanics and setting of Numenera. Physically, Numenera is a beautiful book. The artwork works very hard to bring the look and feel of the Ninth World to vibrant life. The writing is assured and the layout tidy. The book is also a pleasure to read and organised well—particularly in the early chapters where the author explains the basics of the setting, the basics of the rules, and so on. A nice touch is the author takes the time to explain to the reader the differences between the world of the twenty-first century and that of the Ninth World.

Despite its size and scope, there is a lightness of touch to Numenera that is not to be found in other post-apocalypse set roleplaying games. It shows most obviously in the ‘player facing’ mechanics, but it is the Ninth World itself that comes to dominate with its weird and its wondrous future displayed both in the art and the description. Numenera is a beautiful book and a beautifully realised and accessible, if alien setting that begs us to explore and discover its fantastical science to build a bright new future.

Tuesday, 27 May 2014

An Esteren Primer

Shadows of Esteren 0-Prologue provided us with an introduction to the French RPG, Les Ombres d'Esteren or Shadows of Esteren, published by Agate RPG. In its few pages we first learned about the setting of this low, dark fantasy RPG—the Tri-Kazel peninsula, populated by the descendants of the same tribes that have long since coalesced into three countries and begun to follow their own paths. Tol-Kaer adheres to the old tribal ways and the Demorthèn spiritual cults; missionaries from the Great Theocracy from the rest of the continent to the north have converted Gwidre to the Temple of the One God and adopted feudalism; whilst Reizh, fascinated by the machines and ‘toys’ of the Confederation, has taken up the science of Magience, developing and creating devices powered by ‘Flux’, an energy derived from matter itself, though not without its cost to the environment and land itself.

Although the peoples of this an isolated and hilly, heavily-forested spit of land are divided by nation and by ideologies and traditions, what binds them together is a fear of the Feondas, an enemy that the Demorthèn consider to be the expression of death and destruction unleashed by chaotic nature spirits; the Temple see as demons; and the Magientists regard as a natural predators to be neutralised. The exact nature of Feondas remains undetermined, but all fear their predations and what their corrupting influence might turn human nature to… It is this, combined with the facts that the rules for Shadows of Esteren do not quantify or necessarily stats for the Feondas, that the rules include a solid Sanity mechanic, and that the rules possess a certain brutalism have led some to describe the RPG as at least being Lovecraftian, if not actually Cthulhu Dark Ages done right.

In addition to introducing the setting of Esteren and the Tri-Kazel peninsula in particular, Shadows of Esteren 0-Prologue also provided the Game Leader and his players with everything necessary to start playing Shadows of Esteren. That included an explanation of the RPG’s mechanics as well as a sextet of pre-generated player characters and ‘Omens’, three complete, ready-to-play adventures. The trilogy is essentially the prologue to the game’s overarching campaign as well as an introduction to its themes of tradition versus progress, of fear of the unknown, and having to come to face to face with your own fears and faults.

What Shadows of Esteren 0-Prologue did not include was an expanded exploration of the setting, rules for character creation, rules for any of the setting’s magics and sciences, or indeed, an explanation of what exactly the Feondas are. Indeed, we will still have to wait for the latter, for there is no such explanation in the next book in the line, Shadows of Esteren 1-Universe. It does though, give hints as to what they may be and it does include the rest—an expanded exploration of the setting, rules for character creation, rules for the setting’s magics and sciences—plus advice on running and playing Shadows of Esteren.

Shadows of Esteren 1-Universe introduces us fully to the setting of Esteren, devoting almost two thirds of its content to this description over the course of three chapters. These cover the Tri-Kazel peninsula—its geography, history, peoples and their attitudes, its would-be capital city, Osta-Baille, the three nations that dominate it, Gwidre, Reizh, and Taol-Kaer; the lifestyles of its peoples—habits and customs, crafts and foods, architecture, societies, mercantile practices, and its arts; and its factions—the Demorthèn, the Temple, the Magientists, the Varigals, and the Hilderin Knights. The last of these three chapters is rounded out with a page or two of rumours. All of this information is presented in a series of letters, journals, and reports, as well as sections of fiction, and is full of detail and colour. For example, on Tri-Kazel’s south-east coast, the beaches are flat and wide enough that it is common enough to travel their length by sail wagon; that the Bent Tree, an inn in Reizh built inside the trunk of a slumped, giant sequoia tree, serves alcohol sparsely lest its clientele suffer a terrible fall over its raised floors; and that the tenets of the Temple revere austerity to the extent that its worshippers value snow and the cold as signs of purity!

For players and their characters, the sections on the factions of Tri-Kazel will be of particular interest as they provide patrons, enemies, rivals, and inspiration. The Demorthèn, the Temple, and the Magientists receive the most pages each, while the Varigals and the Hilderin Knights receive fewer. Of these, the Demorthèn embrace nature and value balance, learning and guarding the secrets of the deep woods of the peninsula, and are capable of mastering the ancestral art of Sigil Rann and thus command the powers of nature through the Ogham Stones—Air, Water, Vegetal, Life, Animal, Fire, and Earth. Together with the Varigals, travellers and messengers who spread news and stories via the secret ways each apprentice learns, the Demorthèn impart much of Shadows of Esteren’s Celtic feel. The Temple worships and proselytizes the One, organised into six orders, adhering to six ordinances and six daily prayers, and worshiping in and building hexagonal buildings. Through prayer and chanting, the devout of the Temple may learn to invoke miracles that can castigate, protect, bring down divine wrath, induce faith with stanzas, and even miraculously heal. Magientists build and operate devices and artefacts, searching for and extracting Flux from mineral, flora, and fauna. This takes time and effort, but they think it worth it in the name of progress. Lastly, the Hilderin Knights is an independent order dedicated to destroying Feondas. They and the Temple invoke parallels of the Crusades, just as the Magientists lend the setting the feel of the Age of Enlightenment, although one with a steampunk-like sensibility.

Like Shadows of Esteren 0-Prologue, six pre-generated characters are given in Shadows of Esteren 1-Universe. The six, which include a male Varigal, a male warrior, a female Demorthèn, a male Theologian of the Temple, a male Magientist, and a female Bard, are different to those given in Shadows of Esteren 0-Prologue. They are written as a group and are included as samples, as inspiration, and as ready-to-play characters. Indeed, it would be possible to play through the ‘Omens’ trilogy from Shadows of Esteren 0-Prologue using these characters, or those created using the rules in Shadows of Esteren 1-Universe.

Character generation in Shadows of Esteren involves selecting the character’s ethnicity, profession, birthplace, and social class before assigning to various factors. First to the core traits of a character’s personality or the five Ways—the Way of Combativeness, the Way of Creativity, the Way of Empathy, the Way of Reason, and the Way of Conviction. They are not attributes as such, but ‘ways’ of thinking and acting to which ratings of one, two, three, four, and five are assigned. Each Way possesses Qualities and Flaws—positive and negative Traits, so for example, possible Qualities and Flaws for the Way of Combativeness include assertive, optimistic, brash, and stubborn if high a high value, but calm, level-headed, pessimistic, and sad if a low value. A character needs to choose two Traits—one Quality, one Flaw—attached to his Ways.

Choice of Profession grants a character a primary Domain and a secondary Domain. Each represents a broad skill, such as Craft, Close Combat, Erudition, Magience, Prayer, or Science, and is valued between 1 and 5. For example, the primary Domain for a Knight is Close Combat, the secondary Domain either Relation or Travel. Beyond a Domain value of five, a character must specialise in one or more Disciplines, each of which is valued between six and fifteen. Thus a character might have a Domain of Close Combat 5 and a Discipline of Axe 9, meaning that his rating with a knife would be 5 and 14 with his Axe. A character also receives levels in other Domains, these based on other pursuits as well as birthplace and social class.

All characters start between the ages of sixteen and twenty, but can be older. This grants them bonus Domain levels, but will also give them Setbacks, randomly rolled events that have a negative effect on the character. Every character receives one hundred Experience Points to further develop his Ways, Domains, and Disciplines. He can also select Advantages and Disadvantages, though there are relatively few of these in the game. There is also a wide range of derived statistics to work out before play begins.

Our sample character is Alane, the younger son of a wealthy Reizh merchant who was enrolled at university to study Magience. Traumatised as a child by the fire that killed his mother, Alane grew from an introverted and bookish boy to a studious man who relished every chance to learn and works hard to be personable. His father wanted Alane to enter the family business, but his tutor persuaded his father of his son’s scholastic brilliance and suggested that he take the examinations to enter university. These he passed with ease and for the next few years he engrossed himself in his studies, progressing at a prodigious rate, often finding himself distracted because he was outpacing his fellow students. Becoming bored he began to read other books and scrolls on a variety of other subjects—this eventually would be his downfall.

Since he found the study of Magience relatively unchallenging and he found other subjects to fill his time and intellect. Thus he discovered Occultism and became obsessed with it to the point that although he passed his final examinations, it was not with the distinctions expected of him. Without these, Alane found himself posted to more mundane tasks that he found unchallenging and eventually boring until he drifted off into studying Occultism. The Council of Baldh-Ruoch has no idea where to send him and so he went back to his family, but there he found no welcome. Instead, he was thrown out, his father refusing to fund his studies further. 

Currently Alane tries to find work in the university libraries, but this is not quite enough to support him or the life of reading and study that he wants. He has begun doing small tasks and helping others find things, answer their questions, and solve their problems. This brings himself some funds and on occasion he can be challenged.

Alane is a sparse looking youth, slightly unkempt, with a penetrating look. His clothes have been patched again and again, but he tries his best, if only for his mother’s sake. He will undertake many tasks, each one being given his undivided attention. Physically he is less capable, even cowardly, and barely knows how to handle the dagger he carries in his belt.

Alane, Scholar & Investigator
Age: 25 Ethnicity: People of Tri-Kazel (Reizh) Social Class: Middle Class
Profession: Investigator

Ways: Combativeness: 1. Creativity: 4. Empathy: 3. Reason: 5. Conviction: 2.
Skills: Close Combat: 2. Erudition: 4. Magience: 5. Occultism: 3. Perception: 5. Relation: 2. Science: 2. Travel: 1.
Advantages: Brilliant (+2 with Magience, Occultism, & Science)
Disadvantages: Pyrophobia 
Sanity: Mental Resistance: 7. Trauma: 0.
Consciousness: 7. Instinct: 5.
Orientation: Rational. 
Combat: Attack: 3 (Dagger Damage: 3), Defense: 13 (Protection: 4). 
Speed: 4. Potential: 2.
Stamina: 10.
Survival Points: 3.

Character Traits: Ingenious/Eccentric
Latent Disorder: Obsession

Mechanically, Shadows of Esteren is simple and straightforward. Whenever a character wants to undertake an action, he rolls a ten-sided die and adds it to the total of a Way, a Domain, and a Discipline. Typically, a character will be rolling against a Threshold of 11 (Standard), 14 (Complicated), and 17 (Difficult), with characters not needing to roll if their total is higher than the Threshold. The same mechanic is used throughout Shadows of Esteren—it is simple and it is direct, working well with the combat mechanics that have the potential to be short and brutal, the Sanity system, and Shadows of Esteren’s magics. The Sanity system has the characters making rolls against a Threshold set and kept hidden by the Game Leader as is each character’s mental state in game terms. The mechanics for the Sanity system are perhaps the more complex of those found in Shadows of Esteren 1-Universe, as are those for the Demorthèn Art and the Miracles of the Temple. The systems for both present a similar and flexible means of handling the ‘magics’ of the setting, that start off with quite small effects and build up with an accompanying rise in Threshold difficulties. For example, using a Vegetal Oghamic Stone, a Demorthèn might camouflage himself in the surrounding undergrowth with a Difficult (17) Threshold for a minute, but if he succeeds at a Heroic (30) Threshold, he might even cause plants to bloom, trees to grow, and thickets to spread for miles around. Essentially the mechanic requires to the player and Game Leader to agree upon a Threshold for the desired effect rather than presenting a set of ‘spells’.

In contract, the section on Magience is something of a disappointment, primarily because of its limited focus. This is essentially on the extraction and refinement of Flux, the substance that fuels the artefacts and devices built by the Magientists. A list of common devices is included in the book, but there are no rules that allow the player character Magientist to devise and build items of his design. To be fair, there is enough here to get a campaign started involving the Magientists. Advice is given on allowing player characters to start with the Demorthèn Art and the Miracles of the Temple.

The advice for players and Game Leader alike is excellent. At the heart of said advice is that they ‘role’ with the system rather than roll it. The good news is that the system is light enough and unobtrusive enough that it supports this advice, though it does very much means that Shadows of Esteren 1-Universe is not a book for anyone new to roleplaying. Elsewhere, the advice covers character creation and play, types of player character group set-ups, and so on. The advice presented here is always straight forward and it is always useful. 

As with Shadows of Esteren 0-Prologue, the look of Shadows of Esteren 1-Universe is incredibly well done. The artwork is rich and detailed, and adds a great to the look and feel for the setting. The book is also well-written—to an extent. The problem is one of translation, Shadows of Esteren originally having been Les Ombres d'Esteren, so occasionally some oddities in terms of phrasing do slip through. More of a problem is the density of the text and its presentation. With the setting presented through in-game means through letters, reports, and so on, it becomes quite difficult to assimilate it—let alone finding any particular fact or aspect of the setting in the book. This impedes both the imparting of the setting of Esteren to his players by the Game Leader and his making use of it to write material of his own for a game or a campaign. In this it does not help that the book is very much organised to keep its setting material and its mechanics very much apart from each other, so often there is not the immediate correlation between the two.

If you have seen Shadows of Esteren 0-Prologue and liked it—and why not when it is available to download for free?—then Shadows of Esteren 1-Universe is your next step. Beautifully presented, it pulls you further into the rich and detailed world of Esteren and the Tri-Kazel peninsula, immersing you with detail after detail. It presents a low fantasy and grim fantasy world with just a hint of horror and the unknown—details of both will have to wait for later books—that offers quite a lot of options in terms of what can be played. There is still yet plenty of information about the setting that has not yet been given and will have to wait for later books, but Shadows of Esteren 1-Universe is an excellent introduction to its setting and mechanics that do require more attention than most fantasy RPGs.

Friday, 16 May 2014

Disastrous Entertainment

If the Coen brothers were to design a roleplaying game, then it might be an awful lot like Fiasco. Then again, Fiasco: A Game of Powerful Ambition & Poor Impulse Control is inspired by two of the Coen brothers’ movies—Blood Simple and Fargo. It is an ‘indie’-style RPG published by Bully Pulpit Games that focusses on establishing and resolving the opposing greeds, fears, and lusts of its protagonists in a narrative that is set up and completed in just three hours. It is designed for three to five players, does not need a GM, and requires no preparation—set-up is part of its play.

Fiasco is played as a three-act structure. In Acts One and Two, each player has two scenes in which to play out his protagonist’s plans and ambitions. Between the two occurs the ‘Tilt’, an event that upsets everyone’s plans, forcing them to desperate acts in Act Two. Following which, everyone’s fate is resolved in the Aftermath.

Beyond the rulebook itself, Fiasco requires two black and two white dice per player, pencils and index cards, and a Playset. The dice are used to randomly determine the elements of a Playset and its aftermath for each of the protagonists, as well as a timing mechanism. The Playset provides the elements and theme for the Fiasco—the relationships between each of the pairs of characters in the game, the needs that they share, plus objects and locations of note. Four such Playsets are included in Fiasco—‘Main Street’ (small town America), ‘Boomtown’ (The Wild West), ‘Tales from Suburbia’, and ‘The Ice’ (McMurdo Station, Antarctica)—more are available from the publisher’s website. The game works better if printouts are available of the playset and the rulebook’s Tilt table.

Before play begins, the players roll the dice and then use them to match the numbers to the categories and their elements in the Playset. This sets up their protagonists’ relationships, their needs, and places and items. Initially the set-up focuses on establishing relationships between each pair of players, but by the end, there should also be one Need, one Object, and one Location as well—though there may be more.
For example, Debbie, James, John-Paul, and Peter sit down with the ‘Pyramid Scheme: The Death of Brandon Madeley’ and roll the dice. Going round the table, Debbie uses a die to open up the ‘Romance’ category from the Relationships table between herself and James; James then opens the ‘Crime’ category between himself and John-Paul; Jon-Paul selects the Friendship between himself and Peter; and Peter chooses the Family category between himself and Debbie. Going round the table again, James defines the ‘Romance’ Relationship between himself and John-Paul with the ‘lovers behind the boss’ back’ element; John-Paul selects the ‘mole and federal investigator’ element for the ‘Crime’ Relationship he has with James; Peter moves and determines that the ‘Family’ Relationship he has with Debbie is that of ‘parent/child or stepchild’; and lastly, Debbie is left to define the Friendship Relationship between John-Paul and Peter. She opts for ‘drug friends’.
Using the rest, the players add an object—an attaché case stuff full of bearer bonds, and a location—the boss’ yacht. Two needs are also added. Peter selects ‘…about his mother’s death’ from the ‘To Get The Truth’ category from the Needs tables, whilst James opts to ‘Get Rich’ by ‘…taking the boss for everything he’s worth’.

Once this is done, the dice are collected up for use during the game’s play and then the players define who their protagonists are. This is broadly done. For example, Debbie defines her character as Angeline Madely, the boss’ second wife, ex-secretary made good, big blonde dressed in the most expensive faux-leopard skin possible, whilst James decides that his character is Boyd Wooten, assistant to Angelina’s husband who might know some of his dirty secrets. As their Relationship suggests, Boyd and Angeline have been having an affair, he behind his boss’ back, she behind her husband’s.

Play proper then begins. In both Acts, each player has two scenes, each scene a chance to put his character in the spotlight and further explore both his needs and relationships. Typically a scene will involve one or more of the characters he has relationships with NPCs handled by those not involved otherwise. There are two possible types of scene—Establish and Resolve. To Establish a scene, the player chooses how it is framed, but the other players will determine its outcome, whereas if he chooses to Resolve, the other players choose how it is framed, but the player determine its outcome. At the end of each scene, the player is given a die, a black die if the outcome is negative, white if it is positive. During Act One, this die is not kept by the player, but given away, whereas during Act Two, the player will keep the die.

With the Establish and Resolve rules, a player can either set the scene up or he can decide its outcome, but he cannot do both. The rules also enforce Fiasco’s collaborative style of play because the other players must have input into the current player’s scene, either to help end it if he chose to Establish, or to set it up if he wanted to Resolve.  Thus they work together throughout to build and create the story of their Fiasco.
For example, on James’ turn, he decides that he wants to Establish a scene between his character, Boyd, and Debbie’s Angeline in which he will find out if she knows where the attaché case stuff full of bearer bonds is. They rendezvous aboard the boss’ yacht and he attempts to woo the information out of her. As they play the scene out, Angeline resists, Boyd gets desperate, and then he threatens to reveal secrets of Angeline’s. At this point, the other players—John-Paul, Peter, and Debbie—determine that this is not going well for Boyd, and hand James a black die…
Between the First and Second Acts, there is the Tilt, which adds the two elements that will have a negative impact on everyone’s plans during the Second Act. The Tilt Table is found in the core book and the elements are determined by the players who rolled the highest result on the black and the white dice.
In our example, James as Boyd and Peter as Johnnie have rolled the highest numbers. Their choices are the ‘death, after an unpleasant struggle’ element from the Tragedy category and the ‘a showdown’ element from the Guilt category. These two elements will somehow figure in the outcome of Act Two.
At game’s end, the players roll the dice they have accumulated over the course of their four scenes subtracting the lower colour total from the higher colour total. The result for each player determines the ultimate outcome for his character—lower totals give worse outcomes than higher ones. During the Aftermath, each player has the chance to narrate what exactly happens to his character after everything that has gone on. From set-up through to the Aftermath, including both Acts should only take about three hours at most.

Fiasco is clearly and simply written, its style of play amply showcased with a lengthy example. If there is an issue with the game, it is that it represents a radical style of play in comparison to that of traditional RPGs. Most RPGs are driven by one narrative and work by having the players influence the game through an impartial player—the Referee—their only job being to concentrate on what their characters do in the world presented by the Referee, who in turn directs the narrative of the game. Storytelling RPGs shift this control to the players, who as the game progresses, create the narrative and the story collaboratively as well as they tell the stories of their characters—typically in short, concentrated sessions. Essentially, they shift their role from just the ‘I’ of their characters to being both the ‘I’ and the world normally narrated by the Referee. It should be pointed out that this is a radical switch to make for many inured in standard roleplaying where the players often have little or no say in the world that their characters are in or in the outcome of what their characters do.

With a framework rather than a set of rules, Fiasco, like many storytelling RPGs, relies heavily upon the input of its players. They have to engage not in a setting that is pre-written for them, but in a setting that they themselves create as they play. In particular, the players need to engage in not just the RPG’s genre—but also the setting, themes, and elements of the Playset selected for the forthcoming game. A good Playset should underpin a good session spent playing Fiasco and a good Playset should provide inspirational elements enough to make it worth using it again and again. A side effect of the choice of genre also makes Fiasco accessible to those new to roleplaying; indeed they have the advantage of having not so preconceived notions about roleplaying garnered from playing more narrative RPGs.

A good storytelling RPG encourages good gaming and good storytelling, and Fiasco epitomises this. It comes as pleasing complete package, its keeps a tight structure around the game, and it forces—in a good way—the players not just to play well, but it forces them to create well too. Playing your desperate plans gone disastrously awry has never been so much fun—Fiasco: A Game of Powerful Ambition & Poor Impulse Control enables you to emulate its genre in exemplary style.

Friday, 9 May 2014

Charming Chemistry

Compounded: Better Gaming Through Chemistry is a game about chemical research. It is a beautifully appointed, heavily themed game that sees the scientists undertake the roles of scientists competing to complete as many Compounds as possible whilst avoiding the possibility of lab explosions! Originally published through Kickstarter.com by Dice Hate Me Games, it is a set collecting and trading game that can be played through in roughly ninety minutes and is designed to be played by two to five scientists aged thirteen and up.

The theme to Compounded starts with its components. The first is the Scoring Board, which is done as a Periodic Table. It is perhaps a bit fiddly in use once everyone’s scoring counter is on the scoring track, but thematically, it is perfect. Second is its decently written Rulebook, which looks a little like a scuffed and battered chemistry school textbook.

The third are the scientists’ Work Benches. These have spaces for each scientist’s Element Storage Area, Lab Tools gained, and to track the progress of his Discovery, Study, Research, and Lab experiments. Each Experiment can be improved by completing certain Compounds.

Fourth are the game’s Compounds, such as Calcium Oxide, Acetylene, Nitric Acid, and Methanol. Each Compound is a square card marked with a name, its chemical formula, spaces for each of the elements it is comprised of, a spot to place a Claim token, and a scoring value—the latter ranging between three and eight Atomic Points. Others also have icons that grant Lab Tools and improvements to one of a scientist’s Discovery, Study, Research, or Lab experiments when the Compound is completed. Some also have icons indicating that they are flammable and could explode.

Fifth are Compounded’s Lab Key—a wooden key used to determine scientist order and various Lab Tool tokens—Bunsen Burners, Graduated Cylinders, Lab Keys, Pipettes, Safety Goggles, and Journals. Sixth, and lastly, there are the game’s Elements—in ascending order of rarity—Hydrogen, Carbon, Oxygen, Nitrogen, Calcium, and Sulfur (sic). These are represented by coloured chips of plastic. Again, pleasing on the eye and nicely tactile.

At the start of the game, each scientist receives a Work Bench and the wooden tokens to indicate his progress on the Bench. He also receives a Fire Extinguisher card. If this is filled, it can be used to stop the effects of a Lab Fire or saved until the end of the game for more Atomic Points. Likewise, he also receives a Wild Element that can be used or turned in for Atomic Points. He also receives his initial allotment of Elements. Then, sixteen Compound cards are laid out in a four-by-four grid Research Grid. Initially, these will include the yellow-bordered starting Compounds. The Compound deck is seeded with Lab Fire cards.

Compounded is played in four phases—Discovery, Study, Research, and Lab. In the Discovery phases draws Elements from the black cloth bag included in the game. Initially, each scientist can only draw two Elements and can only store four Elements in his Element Storage Area, but both can be increased by three. Once Elements have been drawn, scientists are free to trade Elements—as well as Lab Tools, promises, and so on.

In the Study phase, each scientist can use his Action tokens to claim Compounds. Once a scientist has claimed a Compound, no other scientist can score from it. Initially a scientist has only the one Action token, but by completing Compounds can increase this number to four. 

During the Research phase, the scientists take turns placing Elements on their claimed and unclaimed Compounds. This involves placing an Element of the right type on the spaces marked on the Compound cards. Initially this is just two, but can be increased to six. If a scientist does not have the Elements he wants, he can now trade in three of one type for one he wants.

Lastly, during the Lab phase, the scientists score Atomic Points for completed Compounds on the Periodic Table and adjust their Experiments if the completed Compounds help improve them. Completed Compounds are replaced from the Compound deck. If a Lab Fire is drawn, Flame Tokens are added to any flammable Compounds that have empty Flame icons on them—typically no more than two on any Compound. Should a flammable Compound gain enough Flame Tokens, the Compound explodes and is removed from the game. Any Elements on the exploding Compound ricochet around the Research Grid and will reappear in empty slots on adjacent Compounds—if they have space for that type of Element. 

A game of Compounded ends with one final round once a scientist has either scored fifty Atomic Points or completed three out of four of his Experiments. The game ends immediately if the Compounds in the Research Grid cannot be refreshed to a maximum of sixteen. The scientist with the most Atomic Points is the winner.

This is for the three to four player standard version of Compounded. Included in the game, is a two-player variant that adds a third ‘dummy’ player named Nobel, his actions being controlled by the lead scientist. Another variant, this for three and more scientists, adds ‘Lab Partners’ Compounds, double-sized Compounds intended to be completed by two scientists, who each receive the Atomic Points and its benefits for completing the Compound. They are much more complex Compounds and require many more Elements.

Although Compounded has very nice and thematically fitting production values, it is not quite perfect. The text on the Lab Benches and elsewhere is too small to read with ease, and the wooden tokens to track each scientist’s Experiments and their Action Tokens are a bit small and difficult to use—as are the Flame Tokens. Nor are the phases—Discovery, Study, Research, and Lab—as obviously named as they could be. In game terms, they are ‘draw Elements’ (Discovery), ‘claim Compounds’ (Study), ‘place Elements’ (Research), and ‘score Compounds and effects’ (Lab), but this is not all that clear on the Lab Benches.

Compounded is not a complex game—in fact anyone who has played Ticket to Ride or Pandemic will have no difficulty in understanding its rules and play, its complexity being light-medium rather than medium. The game is also informative, educating players as to both the nature of the research process and the atomical content of each of Compounded’s compounds. Beyond drawing Elements and new Compound cards, there is very little randomness to the game, though Lab Fires can upset many a scientist’s aim of completing particular Compounds. Compounded’s chemical theme is quite gentle, which when combined with its mechanics, makes the game unthreatening in terms of play. Although Compounded’s theme might be said to be rather dry, it is not ‘pasted on’; rather Compounded fully engages in its chemical theme to create a relatively light and appealing reaction.

Friday, 2 May 2014

Good Georgians Aghast II

Typically, roleplaying games and their supplements set during the Early Modern period like Dark Streets focus on the Elizabethan era or the Golden Age of Piracy or America’s Colonial Era or the American War of Independence. Dark Streets breaks from this tradition, for it is that rare roleplaying supplement—a campaign setting that takes place during the Great Britain’s Georgian period. A supplement for Walton & Cakebread’s Renaissance Deluxe, it is actually quite specific in its setting, for it casts the player characters as members of the Bow Street Runners or their consultants. Each is a Thief Taker, a former outlaw, thief, or watchman, or a clerk, an entertainer, merchant, or preacher, all in service to the magistrate and satirist, Henry Fielding, and his blind brother, John. They investigate the crime, the corruption, and the vice that runs rife through London life. Worse, the Fieldings have begun to suspect that there are malign agents behind the city’s heinous iniquity. For Dark Streets is even more specific in its setting—not only is it about investigating crime and immorality, it is also is also a game of Lovecraftian investigative horror.

Dark Streets specifically begins in 1749 or 1750, not long after Henry Fielding has founded the Bow Street Runners. It is thirty years since the collapse of South Seas Bubble; George II, the second Hanoverian King of England has been on the throne for over twenty years; the Whigs, supporters of the Hanoverians and the aristocracy and tolerant of the religious non-conformists, have been in power for decades; while his younger brother is First Lord of the Treasury and governs the country in the king’s name, the Duke of Newcastle holds the purse strings and routinely buys the loyalty of Members of Parliament; Frederick, the Prince of Wales, actively opposes the Whigs and his father, primarily because the King refuses to support his dissolute lifestyle; and it is only four years since Prince William, the Duke of Cumberland, put down the Jacobite Rising and earned himself the nickname, ‘Butcher Cumberland’. Meanwhile on the streets of London, the rural poor pour into the city in search of work, but find little beyond destitution and disease, even if they do find work. Women find work in the burgeoning sex trade, prostitution being very common, whether in bawdy houses, high class brothels, or for the lucky few, kept as courtesans to the nobility. Other income can be made through crime, the fact that many crimes carry the death penalty or a sentence of transportation to the Americas, an indication that times are hard and the poor are desperate. The worst of the criminals hold court in rookeries like St. Giles, dense dark dank places where even the Bow Street Runners fear to tread. The wealthy and the aristocracy are above such concerns and also the law, though many have their vices, whether gambling, prostitution, the gin that seems to flow from every building, or the Hellfire Clubs where they can indulge in titillation or blasphemy away from prying eyes. Of course, the Society for the Reformation of Manners would do away with all of this, its members actively bringing prosecutions and testimony before London’s magistrates.

In Dark Streets the players take the roles of Bow Street Runners or those serving as Consultants to the Fielding brothers. Either choice restricts the Social Class and Professions that a player can select. In addition to skill points gained from his Social Class, Profession, and Free Skill points, a Bow Street Runner investigator receives extra skill points to spend on physical and combat skills as well as a badge of office, a small club with a gilt crown on it.

Our sample character is Tobias Perdue, the son of Sir Thomas Perdue, a wealthy landowner who purchased a place at university for his son to read the law. It was there that Tobias first got caught up in the wrong crowd, gambling and whoring for the first time. Although he graduated and was accepted to the bar, his profligacy would soon land him in trouble—he ran up debts that would lead his father to disown him and almost land him in debtor’s gaol, and saw him fight duels to protect his ‘good’ name. These days he rarely practices the law and is more circumspect about his habits—there are better card players in the capital than himself. He is a Bow Street Runner at Henry Fielding’s suggestion as the magistrate believes he will bring some manners to the rough men that he has in his employ.

Adventurer: Tobias Perdue
Nationality: English Age: 28
Homeland: England Gender: Male
Social Class: Gentry Profession: Rook
Connections: Political Affiliation: Whig

Righteousness Points: 54
Faction: Bow Street Runners Faction Zeal: 25

STR: 11 CON: 14 SIZ: 15 INT: 17
POW: 15 DEX: 16 CHA: 14
Damage Modifier: +1D4 Combat Order: 14
Movement: 15 metres

Type: Buff Coat AP: 2/1

Hit Points
Maximum: 15 Current: 15
Major Wound Level: 8

Sanity Points
Maximum: 15 Current: 15
Major Insanity Level: 8

Basic Skills:
Athletics  37%, Close Combat  58%, Culture (Own) 64%, Dance  40%, Dodge  62%, Drive  33%, Evaluate  61%, First Aid  33%, Gun Combat  33%, Influence  73%, Insight  77%, Lore (England) 64%, Perception  62%, Persistence  40%, Ranged Combat  33%, Resilience  28%, Ride  41%, Sing  29%, Sleight  55%, Stealth  33%, Unarmed Combat 37%

Advanced Skills:
Art (Prose Writing) 29%, Beliefs (Bow Street Runners) 59%, Disguise 31%, Commerce 31%, Courtesy 61%, Gambling 62%, Language (English) 81%, Language (French) 41%, Language (Latin) 41%, Language (Thieves’ Cant) 31%, Oratory 51%, Lore (Law) 54%, Lore (Law) 64%, Seduction 61%, Streetwise 50%

An extensive overview is provided of London as well as period maps. The overview covers the current social and political situation, religion, science, medicine, entertainment, and newspapers, but its primary focus is the law, crime and punishment, and vice and morality. The period maps support a gazetteer that details inner London and its most notable personages, from George II and the Duke of Newcastle down… A whole gang is described as is a Thieves’ Cant glossary, the latter nicely adding verisimilitude.

One of the interesting mechanics in Renaissance Deluxe is that of ‘Factions’, which handles a player character’s or an NPC’s allegiance to either himself or an organisation and its strength. Dark Streets adds gangs, the Bow Street Runners, the Jacobites, New Puritans, Tories, and Whigs as well as malignant Factions from aristocratic dinning clubs and murder clubs up to Mythos cults.

Dark Streets’ treatment of the Cthulhu Mythos is simple, unfussy, and straightforward. Magic is treated like witchcraft and cultists much like witches, the spells of the Mythos being kept generic. A few Mythos tomes are detailed, but unlike later periods of Lovecraftian investigative horror, books of the Mythos are not really a major element in Dark Streets. It keeps its Mythos ‘bestiary’ relatively short—just nine creatures and four gods, though some of the entries do feel a little exotic considering Dark Streets’ earthier feel. Of course, this being the Mythos and both Dark Streets and Renaissance Deluxe being Basic Roleplaying compatible, it is easy for the GM to find material to add to his campaign.

In terms of scenarios, Dark Streets is well supported, in fact it is better supported than Renaissance Deluxe itself in this regard. Nearly twenty scenario hooks are given, each relatively detailed and pleasingly, not all of them involving the Mythos. The supplement’s main scenario, ‘Gin & St. Giles’ is a detailed affair that draws the investigators deep into London’s worst Rookery on the trail of the worst gin the city—and that in London, is no mean feat. It is a solid adventure that should provide a session or two’s worth of play.

Physically, Dark Streets can be described as dour. Done in black and grey, it is perhaps a little oppressive in its look. The layout is for the most part workmanlike, but it grows wayward in places. In terms of content, the supplement is in places succinct. For example, although the book comes with a detailed overview of London and its life, vices, and personalities, its timeline ends in 1749 with the founding of the Bow Street Runners. This leaves the GM not knowing what will happen next unless he conducts some research himself, which seems odd given that Dark Streets is a historical game bar the influences of the Mythos. Also, as much background detail as there is in the book, it does lack advice in terms of setting up and running a campaign involving the Bow Street Runners. One hand-out that would be useful is a sheet detailing pertinent facts about London and what exactly the duties and powers of a Bow Street Runner are. After all, they are nothing like the police of later centuries.

The Dark Streets setting has the advantage of familiarity—at least from film and television, such as The Madness of King George (though this is set forty years later) or the television series Garrow’s Law and City of Vice. The latter in particular is useful watching since it is about the Fieldings and their establishing of the Bow Street Runners. Indeed, after watching City of Vice, it would be hard for the GM not to portray Henry Fielding as Ian McDiarmid and John Fielding as Iain Glen. Similarly, the Cthulhu Mythos will be familiar to many players, as will the processes of Lovecraftian investigative horror. Here though, as with many settings before Cthulhu by Gaslight and classic Call of Cthulhu, those processes involve less of a paper trail and more detective legwork, although that is beginning to change…

Dark Streets lacks the polish of other RPG settings of Lovecraftian investigative horror. It is a little rough around the edges, perhaps not as developed as it could be. Nevertheless, it is solid and accessible, presenting a fairly pulpy take upon investigating the Mythos whilst possessing an earthier tone that matches the vice, venality, and corruption of the setting.